The summer sun beat down on the small Sepher farmstead with an unforgiving heat. The winds in the valley helped often blew that heat away, and it was quite welcome, but Vestria had come to realize that there were certain days, far and few between, when the winds were absent and the sun’s rays were unrelenting.
Today, she was busy digging rows for the crops that would be planted on the northern side of the fields. She used a pair of mules, or at least she assumed they were mules, to pull the heavy equipment through the dirt, while she walked along behind and spread the seeds as Sinos had instructed.
The Flamecaller had stepped inside to prepare lunch. It was some kind of soup dumpling that he claimed had to be prepared in a very specific manner if he hoped to cook it correctly. Vestria hadn’t objected. So far, almost every meal to come out of his small kitchen was a delight. It was rather comical to watch the man, a supposed Flamecaller of great renown, carefully chopping vegetables and curing cookware for that perfect taste. Since arriving here on Azirin, she had interviewed dozens, if not hundreds, of citizens. None of them had been like this one. He was different. She hoped that meant he’d be the key to finally understanding how this world finally defeated the Yunai.
Of course, she wasn’t making much headway in that regard. The conversation of Sionis’ past had stalled out after he reached the conclusion of his last chapter, when he boarded an airship and returned to Stonehaven after stopping one of the many Yunai invasions. The infusion of the aether and technology had created a weapon that could bring down even the most powerful of the mechanical creations, and the Yunai had been undone for the time being, but she knew there was more that this world had faced.
As to the nature of the magical wand, shattered in some unyet discussed fight, she still had no clues. She knew the Flamecaller had left it with a woman in Vers. He had returned to Stonehaven, helped take in refugees from another World Ship, and even boarded a Traveler to go and save more refugees while attempting to strike against the Yunai, rather than waiting for them to return to Azirin. From time to time he would give her a fun story about how uncle Maron had been so excited to see him return, or how he had made new friends when he had gone to Remnants, the dead World Ship, but none of that advanced the story to the point she wanted to understand.
She needed to understand.
That was another strange thing about this man. He had seen the Grid. He had traveled the stars beyond the World Ship, and yet here he was farming the land like it was the only thing that mattered. Where Vestria had come from, finding out about the Travelers had been a life-changing experience for her people.
So how had Azirin accomplished what so many others had not?
Sionis knew. She believed it with absolute certainty.
She just had to get him to tell her.
When lunch was finally ready, Vestria made her way inside to have a bite. The wind was finally picking up, and the air felt humid. It would probably rain soon, which would be good for the crops. It would also allow her to sit inside with the Flamecaller for several hours. She could get information from him then.
By the time she got inside, washed up, and sat down for lunch, the sky had turned an ominous shade of gray, and thunder was already rumbling in the distance. Sionis looked outside as he sat down with his meal and groaned. “No more work today, I guess.”
“Good,” Vestria said. “It’s been weeks since we’ve had a chance to talk. I understand what happened when you traveled to the Remnants. The Stonehaven military overloaded the World Ship’s reactor using the Grid there. You wiped out a Yunai stronghold. You came back a hero.”
“I didn’t come back a hero,” Sionis grumbled. “I came back broken.”
“Your notes, Collector, don’t paint the right picture. Marjan and I were much closer than we let people think. No one was to know. It was our secret. We were deeply in love.”
Vestria was shocked. “You were?!”
The Flamecaller nodded slowly. “When the Traveler arrived, we expected the Yunai to come marching out. Instead, we found sick and wounded refugees. We took them in, we fed them, clothed them, and they told us of their home, the Remnants. The Besherman were the ones that understood the severity of the situation. Another World Ship was out there, one that had completely fallen to the Yunai. The refugees begged us to aid them, and I met Valiera during that time. She wanted to return to fight the enemy, and we were emboldened by our recent success against the Yunai. So we went. We traveled to the Remnants and we fought the enemy. We pushed them back and saved countless other refugees. The connection to the aether was stronger at the Remnants than back on Azirin, and I grew in power, exponentially. Valiera was looking for her family, taken captive years prior. Her sister was named Iliera, and obviously this made me wonder what else Lady Sonea had known. Near the end of the campaign, Valiera learned the truth… her family, including Iliera, had been slain years ago.”
“I imagine that was hard to take,” Vestria said quietly.
“It broke her resolve,” Sionis said with a nod. “Her mind turned to vengeance. Her assaults became more aggressive, and the Yunai were surprised by our power. We pushed all the way to the Grid, countless enemies fell to us as we marched on our campaign. Along the way…” Sionis paused for a moment. “Marjam, and the Besherman, you see they didn’t like magic users. She had revealed to me that her people had long ago used the aether to accomplish great feats, but that their considerable drawing of power had caught the eyes of the Yunai. They believed that it was their use of magic that had led to the Yunai invading Azirin.”
“So Marjan felt like you using magic was… bad.”
“She started to despise magic. The more we learned about the refugees, the Musfurin, the more we realized the same was true of their civilization. They too had tapped into the aether, and their use of magic had been followed by the Yunai’s invasions.”
“So she wanted you to stop being a Flamecaller?”
“That’s right. At the time, I couldn’t believe she’d even ask of it. I needed my power to fight the enemy. I told her it wasn’t possible for me to stop, but I did try to dial it back for her. That worked, for a while, but I could tell she had started to accept I would never change.”
“I’m sorry,” Vestria said. “It can be hard when you grow apart from someone.”
“We had reached a fallen Musfurin city, named Shunbrium in its glory days. We fortified our position there, as the Grid was a day or two away by foot. The Yunai were defending it, just as we had done on our own World Ship. They were losing ground each day, and many of us believed we might be able to reclaim the Remnants. The war would end soon, or so we believed. By now, when we weren’t fighting the enemy, Marjan and I were fighting one another. It always started with good intention, but it always devolved into a major disagreement. She would storm off after a fight, always, and once she cooled down we’d apologize and try to make it work for the next day.”
Sionis’ voice grew shaky. “I remember that night so clearly. I yelled at her as she skulked off. I said that if she decided to never come back, I wouldn’t miss her one bit. She yelled back that it was a mutual feeling, and then she was gone. I felt guilty immediately after, and I promised myself once she had cooled off I would apologize and we’d figure out a way to make this work.”
Vestria frowned. “She didn’t come back?”
Sionis wiped a tear from his eye. “They found her body in the woods the next day. She’d been killed by one of the creatures that lived in the woods, a kind of predator that had been known to strike our soldiers when they traveled alone. She likely hadn’t known it was hunting her until it was too late.”
“I am so sorry,” Vestria said, feeling overwhelmed. “I didn’t realize you two… and her death was marked as killed in action… I assumed it was a loss for you, but not something this personal.”
“I was the reason she died,” Sionis said, clearing his throat. “She had gone without me, into the woods, because of the fight we’d had that night. I couldn’t even remember what we’d started arguing about, but there was nothing to be done. She was gone. It was my fault.”
“Valiera and I finished the fight. We discovered the Remnants were nearly dead. The World Ship wasn’t sustainable, and once it was a lifeless husk, only the Yunai machines would be able to use it. We couldn’t have them using this place as a staging ground. With the Besherman engineers at our side, we overloaded the World Ship’s engines and set off a chain reaction that destroyed it entirely.”
“So you returned from the Remnants,” she said. “Your army brought back a valuable relic they had discovered there. They called it the Crystal of Kazaria. The Besherman thought it might help them unlock new powerful uses for crystals, but it was tainted with Yunai energy. Once you returned to Azirin with it, you awoke a sleeping monster in the forgotten realms.”
“So you went to fight once more?” Vestria asked.
“No,” Sionis answered. “I stayed in Stonehaven. I began researching ancient aethereal magic. The Besherman taught me that the twisting aether wasn’t bound to time like our physical realm. I learned from the Musfurin, that the proper manipulation of the aethereal energy would allow someone to potentially alter time itself. It was powerful and deeply forbidden, but I learned that the Udirian magic users had indeed began to unlock the secrets of time magic.”
“Udiria?” Vestria asked. “It survived the Yunai invasion?”
“No,” Sionis said, chuckling. “It was sacked, quite thoroughly. After the war, and during our time fighting aboard the Remnants, magic users collected together and rebuilt a new version of Udiria. One of the most impressive cities you’ll find in all of Azirin. It was started from the ground up with Besherman engineering in mind. The city was built using a new technology, one that could repel gravity itself! The city of Udiria became a city nestled in the skies above.”
“Impressive,” Vestria said.
“When the Crystal of Kazaria empowered the Yunai in the forgotten realm, they reclaimed Ailyn’s broken mind, and the Yunai virus began to spread once more. Our considerable armies understood the threat that was growing, and we traveled to the forgotten realms to stop it before it reached innocent lives. Udiria, a flying city now, moved to the forgotten realm to serve as a staging ground for our forces. I realized, if I wanted to learn this time magic, I would need to gain access to Udiria.”
“So you wanted to master time magic… so that you could go back and save Marjan?”
“That’s right. I told Valiera what I planned to do. She asked if she too could learn this power. She wanted to go back too. She wanted to save her family from their inevitable fate. I told her I couldn’t make any promises, but that I would learn the secrets, and we would try.”
“So, you didn’t to to the forgotten realm to stop the Yunai. You went to steal magic?”
The Flamecaller smiled ever so slightly. “I did.”
“So… did you?” she asked.
He looked at her for a moment. “We can’t skip to the end of the story, Vestria.”
She sighed. “Fine, but if we’re going to go over the whole thing, we’re starting now.”
Sionis glanced to the window where sheets of rain were pouring over the freshly planted field. He offered a brief shrug, then nodded. “Alright. Let’s begin…”
Vestria eagerly pulled her mechanical quill and a few spare scrolls from a large sack she get at Sionis’ home, just in case of this exact scenario. She’d been waiting for this moment, and while the introduction hadn’t been what she expected, she was glad to finally be moving along with Sionis’ tale. She looked up at him when everything was ready, and he took a deep breath to start.
“The first thing you should know, is that we had stopped calling it the forgotten realm. It wasn’t forgotten any longer. Some folks had given it various names, but in order to have some consistency, it was simply changed to the Frozen Realm. That allowed the abbreviations on maps to remain the same. Regardless, you can probably guess what that meant.”