Pain seared through Elena’s narrow frame as muscles were electrically stimulated back into motion. Neglected lungs expanded and a dry gasp echoed through the claustrophobic, stuffy pod the small woman resided in. Elena began to cough as her body struggled to acclimate to living once again. Her consciousness felt so narrow in this form. Disjointed and muddled. Her elfish brain was simply too primitive when compared to life within the machine.
Soft, glowing blue eyes fluttered open in a space that was void of any other light. Panels began to light up around her, bathing Elena in a dull green light, slowly growing brighter to permit her eyes to adjust. A voice rang in her head.
Interface disengaged. Stasis disengaged. Vital signs normal. Good morning Consort.
“Good morning Arcadia,” Elena said, her voice a tight rasp. “Is the King awake?”
His Majesty King Bezerenbam is awake but he is not well, Arcadia replied. He asks for you, Consort.
“He’s waited seven days, he can wait a bit longer,” Elena said, pulling a hand up to her chest. She pulled up a glowing green interface and hovered it a few inches above her head, examining a statistical graph. “My neural pathways have been copied to perfection. How many more sessions do we need to conduct until I can interface on a permanent basis?”
Three more sessions and another round of direct tests are advisable before discarding your organic form. His Majesty will pass before the system has prepared the next cycle, so you may remain at his side until then.
Elena paused in her reading and sat quietly for a few moments. Arcadia was a decent program, but it was too blunt for its own good.
My apologies Consort. I did not intend to cause emotional distress.
Elena did not respond, instead hitting the interface to open up her pod. There was a hiss of machinery coming to life, and the air cooled significantly when the door to her pod slid open. She felt under dressed in the thin, flowing white dress she had chosen to wear for the warm pod she’d been residing in. Especially when she saw what awaited her.
Elena’s pod and the room itself were entirely composed of dark green metal plating that hummed with energy. The room was cool, illuminated by artificial lighting along the ceiling, and pipes that ran along the wall. The pipes were channeling a bright green substance that shone like starlight. Behind her was a massive circular structure, shaped almost like a gateway despite having no visible door. It was at least fifty feet in circumference and dominated the room. From front to back, however, the structure was no thicker than five feet.
A pair of Aratare Sentry Mechanisms stood at either side of the gate, their triangular, cyclopean heads trained on her position. Their green eyes glared at her with an unspoken malevolence inherent in their jagged design. Their seven foot tall, green metal plated bodies bore s-shaped spinal columns with long arms and legs. They stood at attention with halberds, the heads of which were burning with blazing green starlight, the same light that channeled through the walls of the chamber.
The presence of the Aratare was explained by the carnage spread across the floor of the chamber. Cracked, blackened corpses, smoldering with an incandescent, rainbow-tinted energy were scattered about in various states of dismemberment. There were elves and dwarves. Elena was disturbed to see Athelyon among them. They were her Masters, the beings that the Aratare were modeled after, and now they’d been laid low, their curved spines and fishlike faces twisted in unending agony.
“Diminished have entered the palace?” Elena asked with concern as she exited the pod. Arcadia’s voice responded through audio speakers in the room. "Why didn't you wake me sooner?"
I killed them. The attack coincided with your coming out of stasis, so waking you was secondary to defending the conduit.
“How far did they get?” Elena asked, pushing her long black hair behind her pointed ear.
They did not bother with attacking the palace common. They were drawn to the conduit, and swarmed down the elevator shaft. It was destroyed in the defense. You will need to take the stairs.
Elena huffed and turned to look behind her, gazing upon the circular structure. “How is the conduit?”
The conduit functions at optimal performance. It is ready to produce more stele on your command.
“It will remain off,” Elena said. “Why did the palace shield fail?”
It didn’t, Consort.
Elena blinked. “What do you mean by ‘it didn’t’? When did this happen?”
All systems have been functioning normally for the last seven days. The shield was disrupted by an outside force thirty minutes ago. I detected the problem, cycled the field patterns when the proximity alarm went off, and restored the shield. I have detected no intruders beyond the Diminished.
“Stay with the conduit,” Elena commanded the Aratare as she bolted towards the double doors at the end of the chamber.
Arcadia opened the doors automatically, and Elena made her way into the hallway beyond. The floor, walls, and adjoining laboratories were mangled by the weapons of the Aratare as they’d fended off the assault. More Diminished corpses lined the floor. The machines were cruel, but effective.
Still, a chill ran up her spine at the destruction wrought because of her. Elena’s youthful features bore a grim countenance as a storm cloud of self-contempt followed her down the hallway and up the equally damaged stairway, to the palace of her King. The conduit, the Aratare, Arcadia and this subterranean complex were all of her design. And she hated them.
Elena despised all that she had created for him. What had begun as a labor of her love had been twisted into a demented project of malice, and those that had remained in the aftermath had looked to her for salvation. She had failed them all. King Bezerenbam, with the weight of the world crashing down upon him, could no longer bear the responsibility of a ruler. She did not resent him for this. In fact, she still loved him, and she knew that she always would. They had laid the foundation of this doom together, and together they would remain.
After a climb that left her already weakened body wracked in pain and shaking with exhaustion, she welcomed the sight of a level hallway. This one was still torn to shreds and lined with dead, but it she never wanted to see stairs again. An Aratare was waiting for her, holding out a glass cup filled with water in its claw like digits, which she took gratefully.
“Thank you Arcadia,” she said, taking a long pull from the glass.
She closed her eyes and rested for a moment before proceeding on, the glass of water clutched between her hands. The hallway at the top of the stairs diverted to the passage containing the elevator. The elevator doors where smoldering still, and shredded. The battle had indeed been recent, occurring entirely as she had been coming out of stasis. The scores upon scores of dead Diminished seemed unending.
The hallway let out into her personal office in the Southern wing of the palace. In stark contrast to the cold, green, industrial menace of her complex, her work space was tasteful, with a white marble desk that had a muted blue interface laid into the surface. The room was simply adorned, with tasteful paintings and tapestries lining the walls, and shelves stacked with mechanical devices she had been fiddling with.
The fine wooden door she’d had installed had been shredded to splinters. An Aratare that had been overwhelmed in the melee lay on the ground, its limbs torn away, its single eye dark. Elena stepped over it carefully, escorted by her automaton companion. The machine, despite its size, stepped lightly, with quiet movements that belied its true weight and power. Elena was thankful for the quiet, but its presence only served as a reminder of her failure.
She stepped onto the interior balcony that framed the second floor of the castle, offering an overhead view of the great hall.
Arcadia had not been lying when it said that the Diminished were unconcerned with the palace itself. They had broken through the entrance to the great hall and swarmed up the stairs as an uncontrollable horde. More demolished Aratare lay scattered about in here, but the amount of dead Diminished was insurmountable in comparison.
“Arcadia,” Elena said, her voice clearer now that she’d begun to rehydrate. “How many Aratare sentries are left?”
Seven remain active on the Premises, Arcadia’s voice emanated from the Aratare. Four are scouting outside for more Diminished activity. I currently have more on standby--
“Do you know who could have disrupted the shield?” Elena interrupted, stepping away from the remains of battle and towards the entrance to the Western Wing, where the King resided. The doors were untouched.
The disruptive force was consistent with recorded spells weaved with the assistance of stele. A maximum level diagnostic indicates that the shield was hit with a large scale energy spell that was specifically crafted to match the harmonic resonance of the shield itself. This rendered inert the repelling force of the shield. While the systems themselves didn’t fail, the integrity of the field was compromised, and a number of Diminished were able to pass through. The disruption lasted for no longer than thirty seconds.
“So someone was trying to get in, and the Diminished came in behind them?”
That or someone wanted the palace overrun. There are many possibilities as to why such action was taken, Consort. The Diminished cared only for the lapte de stele in the conduit.
"Could someone have known that I was planning to come out of stasis today?"
This is unlikely to be an attempt on your life, Consort. All of your lab technicians are dead. Everyone who knew of your intent to interface permanently are dead.
The doors to the West Wing opened before Elena, and she proceeded onward. The West Wing halls were lined with suits of Athelyon armor, dating back millennia. The suits all had the same signature curved spines and tapered heads as the Aratare. Most were adorned with decorative halberds or swords, standing at attention, ready for their command. The Athelyon had not fought their own wars for as long as dwarves had existed, so these were merely artifacts of a bygone age.
Massive paintings of past kings, generals and despots hung on the walls, all Athelyon, some with elfish companions. The most recent in the line was a painting of her king, Bezerenbam, in the years of his prime.
The Athelyon monarch was proud, in opulent robes and standing with his halberd “Starpiercer” held aloft in one hand, and a ovular green stone, a stele, in the other. At his side, sitting in a chair was Elena. She looked exactly the same now as she had in the painting, so many, many years ago, though she was dressed far more modestly. In front of them was a small elfish boy with black hair, and blue eyes, in a military style uniform. Elena smiled at the boy’s grim expression.
After passing through the veritable museum that was the King’s abode, she finally reached his bedchamber, and quietly ushered the Aratare to stand guard. The machine stood dutifully at attention as she opened the door. Within the darkened chamber stood a massive four poster bed lined with shimmering silken sheets. The curtains were shut, and a soft green glow emitted from within. It was hot in the room, and it stank of age and disease. Across from the main door was a closed balcony, and Elena made her way to it.
Setting her now empty glass on a side table, she walked to the balcony doors and opened them, pulling them wide as a gust of cool air flowed into the room. She could faintly hear the screams of the living Diminished that threw themselves at the outer shield. Someone was sitting on the balustrade of the balcony, staring out and the pillars of smoke that dotted the capital, and at the translucent green bubble that surrounded the palace. The sky was dark with churning storm clouds.
The visitor was taller than Elena by a head, with the same long black hair as her, and the same pointed ears. When he turned to face her, he bore the same glowing blue eyes. The man had firmer features than she did, and a proud posture. His clothing was a form fitting, flexible black armor under a cloak of red. Clutched in his right hand was a tall staff of straight, dark metal, and caged in the top was a stele that shone with the light of her conduit technology.
A hand moved to Elena’s chest as she recognized the boy from the painting, and tears bit at the corners of her eyes.
“It was you,” she said, her voice a quiver. “You let the Diminished into the castle?”
“I couldn’t get in any other way,” he said, letting go of the staff. It stood in place, perfectly still. They looked to be about the same age, but her eyes shone with centuries of experience that had not yet begun to rise in his.
“You could have killed me Cristian,” she said indignantly, rubbing tears away with her sleeve. “Or the King. I was in stasis in the lab when the Diminished attacked.”
"You were in the lab?" Cristian narrowed his eyes and peered at her. "What in the Gods' names were you still doing down there?"
"I was continuing my latest project." she said dismissively. "Preparing for the inevitable, so sure I would be safe under the defenses I'd perfected over the years. The defenses that you so rudely disrupted. How did you bring down the shield anyway?"
“Unlike you,” Cristian said with a wry smile. “I don’t make the mistake of building something without a fail-safe in mind. I helped design these defenses, not that you ever thought to credit me for it.”
“So you had a counter spell stored away just in case you needed to scare your mother on the eve of our unmaking?”
“Just in case,” Cristian said. “His Majesty did something regrettable to the mother I cherish so dearly.”
“You’re lucky I woke up from stasis in a good mood today,” she replied with a no short supply of snark. She walked around him to lean against the balustrade. “Or I might not have believed you.”
He shook his head and regarded her coolly.
“I’ve come for my inheritance,” he said with a clipped tone. “Where is the necklace, Mother? I want to make it the sigil of our family, and I think it best if I carried it as an heirloom to House Cerulcad.”
“All that destruction for a wooden trinket?” Elena asked with a deadpan expression. “Of course you don’t call for a visit with your ailing mother. And what’s this about family? You know we can’t create a House.”
“Because we are property,” Cristian replied, holding out his hand. Elena scoffed and reached behind her neck, unclasping a black cord that rested against her pale skin. From the front of her dress, she produced a carving of a small wooden bear. She handed it to Cristian.
“So long as the Athelyon rule this kingdom,” she said. “We will remain property. I don’t see that changing anytime soon.”
“The Athelyon are dying,” Cristian rebutted, taking the bear in hand. He looked upon its small wooden face, and its beady black eyes, and he ran his thumb gently over it. He stared at the bear as he began to pace along the balustrade.
“The Diminished are tearing through cities,” He continued, his words becoming excited. “Even if their conduits remain intact. Uprisings have begun along the border and an exodus is preparing to move to the East. I’m going to lead our people to your complex in the badlands. We will build a city there, to be the capital of a new Elven Homeland. I intend to call it Cerurile.”
“Naming a city after your made up surname?” She asked with a half-smile. “Did you develop a complex because His Majesty refused to acknowledge you as his Prince? Do you seek to take his place as King of these lands once the Diminished have died off?”
“You and I both know the Diminished will not die unless killed,” he said. “And we both know I will make a far better King than he did.”
“Maybe you will,” she replied, raising a hand in question. “But tell me how you intend to build a city on land that I chose for the simple fact that it is unlivable?”
“You already know,” he shot at her. “You know what the stele can do, and the conduit there will produce the few I need to make the land fertile, and produce the proper materials. The lake under your towers will sustain us for centuries, perhaps millennia.”
“And when that conduit fails like the rest?”
“I intend to seal the conduit after making a few more stele,” Cristian said, resuming his pacing. “Once the city is self-sustaining and the proper trade routes have been established, I intend to wage a campaign to dismantle everything we have made. I will erase this stain from history and create a world where my children can be happy, and go to bed without fear of the Diminished ever rising again! House Cerulcad will be the thing of legend, the elves that saved the world from Bezerenbam’s Folly! The conduits will be forgotten and peace will reign!”
Elena watched her son pace as he spoke so emphatically about his plans for the future. This ambition was so like him. She couldn’t help but smile.
“If you allow the world to forget,” Elena said, stepping up to Cristian. She placed a hand on his arm, and he halted in his pacing. “Then the same mistakes will arise again and again. History repeats Cristian, I thought I taught you that.”
Cristian looked at her hand, and then to her face, and he carried the same grim countenance that had marred her expression on her way up the stairs. He resembled her so.
“I taught myself more you than you ever taught me,” he said with a hint of resentment. “You know the threat the remaining conduits represent. If we leave them, we will be complicit when people abuse them. It’s like keeping a sword on a shelf where a child can see it. Once he is tall enough he will take it in hand and he will cut himself with it.”
“You cannot solve your problems by hiding the things you fear, Cristian,” Elena intoned, looking down upon the once vibrant courtyards, now withered and dead with no one left to maintain them. “Eventually the child will become older and stronger, and he will have need of that sword. It is his father who must teach him to wield it properly, and responsibly. Especially when his Cerulcad King comes demanding soldiers to protect his border.”
“You think the time will come when I have need of those damned machines?” He asked, peering at her from the corner of his eye.
“You or your descendants,” Elena said. She took his hand that held the bear totem and wrapped her fingers around it. “And when they do, it will be the responsibility of their king to show them how to use them properly. His Majesty Bezerenbam abused them to assert his will over the Athelyon, and I allowed it because I was blinded by my faith in him. He was not the ruler I thought he was.”
“I’ve been telling you that for almost four hundred years,” Cristian said, rolling his eyes that were so much like her own.
“And I didn’t listen to you,” she said, looking up at him with a smile. “But then, you never listened to me as you grew up, which is proof enough that you will be a good, wise king. I am happy that despite all I have done, my only son has stood up to clean up the mess I’ve made.”
“This isn’t just your mess,” he replied, looking towards the open door to the King’s bedchamber. “It is his. He twisted your inventions to his design. He is a warmonger, and he never deserved your brilliance.”
“And yet,” she said, waving her hand dismissively. “I could not bear to say no to him.”
“And that is why I left. That is why I forsook Bezerenbam and his mad campaign. Not that you ever shed a tear over me leaving.”
“I cried many times,” Elena said, raising a finger. “I almost cried at the mere sight of you a few minutes ago.”
“Should I be impressed?” he asked, raising an eyebrow.
“Frankly, I’m impressed that I was hydrated enough to produce a single tear.”
Cristian scoffed and looked away from her. “You always have something smart to say when I bring up our estrangement.”
“I am very smart,” she said. “It’s to be expected.”
“Stop it,” he snapped, shooting a glare, which she met with a passive stare.
“Why are you here, Cristian?” she asked, her voice mild.
“I want you to help me destroy the conduit,” he said. “And then I want you to come home with me.”
“I can’t destroy them,” she replied with a sad smile and a shake of her head. “They’re too ingrained in who I am. They are too important to me.”
“More important than me?” he responded, his expression dark.
“I didn’t say that.”
There was a pause before he spoke again.
“I know that I haven’t been the easiest son to deal with,” he said, looking out over the ruins of a once proud city. “I’m tired of resenting you. My wife misses you, your grandchildren miss you. Come home and be with your family. Be with your son.”
“My work isn’t finished,” she said with a tone of finality. “I must complete what I have started.”
“Then continue it in Cerurile!” Cristian said, his voice rising with anger. “Come with me. Start anew with me; build a better world without the Athelyon choking us back at every step! Their age is ended, and the Age of Elves is just beginning! Your people need you. I need you!”
“It isn’t that simple,” she said, she turned and began to walk away from him, intertwining her fingers together. “Cristian, what you don’t understand is that my work must finish here, in the capital. It cannot be replicated at any other conduit than the primary unit. You see… I’ve begun the process of uploading my mind into the mainframe of the conduit network.”
“You’ve what?” he blinked, his face lighting up with shock.
“You are familiar with Arcadia?” She asked him, turning to watch his response, and in return he slowly nodded. “She is a prototype based on my own neural pathways. She is a lesser copy of me, intended to run independently of my body. If the conduits are to survive the fall of the Empire then I must watch over them. When the upload is complete, I will die, and exist solely within the network. My consciousness will spread to every surviving conduit.”
“But why?” Cristian asked. His voice cracked. “I-I don’t understand.”
“Because,” Elena said, stepping back up to her son. “Someone has to wait and see who will become worthy of my creation. I wasn’t. Bezerenbam wasn’t. And I need you to teach the coming generations of our mistakes, so that they won’t be repeated.”
“But they will be!” he shouted, slamming his fist on the railing. “Elves, dwarves, athelyon, hebetites, the Hou and all mortal beings are too weak to be trusted with this kind of power! The temptation is too great! We have to destroy them!”
“Not if we take the steps necessary to enlighten them!” she insisted.
“You can’t enlighten a starving dog once it’s tasted blood,” Cristian said, and Elena was taken aback. Shaken. She closed her eyes and sighed.
“It has to be this way Cristian,” she stated firmly. “I won’t fail again, I promise you.”
“So that’s it?” Cristian scoffed. “You want me to let you kill yourself so you can atone for your sins? And pray that the apocalypse we’ve created won’t happen again?”
“Go to Hell,” he spat, throwing the bear carving at her. It hit Elena in the chest, but she merely knelt down to pick it up. He seemed to be near frenzy, and began to shout at her. “I don’t want this! I don’t want to clean up after you! I came here because I wanted my mother! Not some half-baked scheme of immortality! I will take my family, build my kingdom and I will destroy every single--”
Elena silenced him by placing two hands at either side of his face, and she pulled him down to her level. She placed her lips gently against his forehead. He did not stand straight, instead resting his forehead against hers, rendered silent by the gesture. His grim expression had become one of regret and sadness.
“I love you so much,” Elena said quietly, the tears returning. “And I want you to take your sigil and wear it proudly. Tell your children that I love them, and that their grandmother remains where she belongs. Tell them she is happy.”
“I don’t want to leave you again,” Cristian whispered. “I don’t want you to die. I can’t do this without you.”
“You will never be without me again,” she said. “Because there is something I can do that will prevent anyone from ever using the conduits to their full extent, not until you or your successors deem them worthy.”
Cristian finally pulled away from Elena and he gave her a look of confusion. “What is it?”
“When you reach my complex,” she said, pushing the bear carving into his hand. “Go down to the conduit chamber. There is a pod there that you can use to speak to me within the network. I will have a gift for you, which you will be able to pass on to your descendants to safeguard the conduits for all time. In a way, I suppose I am coming with you after all.”
Cristian stood straight and nodded. “You will be… waiting for me?”
“I will be waiting, my son. Now go, before I start to cry for real.”
He smiled, and took his staff in hand.
“I love you,” he said.
“I love you too. And I’m sorry. For everything.”
Cristian paused for a moment, his mouth opening as he searched for the right words. He found them.
“I forgive you.”
He turned and stepped onto the balustrade, and jumped off of it, falling to the courtyard below.
Elena turned to enter the king’s bedchamber, and she entered to quiet mumbling behind the bed curtains. She walked up to the four poster and pulled the curtain back to reveal the King. A wizened Athelyon man, with wrinkled gray skin, a wide mouth and small eyes, he resembled a fish more than he resembled any other race. He a long, curved neck that ended in a tapered head, and a scraggly beard on his chin. His eyes were gray with cataracts, and in lieu of wrists his arms widened towards hands that resembled pachydermal hooves. Along the perimeter of each disk like “palm” were ten long, spider like fingers that clutched at a dimly glowing green stele, like the one in Cristian’s staff. It was slowly fading to a dull blue.
“I’m sorry I took so long Your Majesty,” Elena said, sitting on the edge of the bed. “Cristian came to visit.”
“The bastard came asking for a handout then?” the ancient Athelyon wheezed. “On-only ever comes around when he needs something…”
“Don’t speak of my son that way Bezerenbam,” she said, as she had said to him many many times before. “He will be a great king soon, you’ll see.”
“Yes, yes,” Bezerenbam replied, nodding slowly. “Only hard on the boy… to toughen him up… he will be king… the court can kiss my ass I say. Civil war again then, is it?”
“Is it that time again?” she asked him, tilting her head with a smile. “To defend your adopted son against the vile opposition?”
“Yes,” Bezerenbam said, nodding emphatically. The light in his stone began to die faster. “Just as I intended. He will be a good king.”
There was a shudder through the entire castle, and she looked through the door to the balcony. Cristian’s spell work had always been powerful, even without the aid of a stele, and she watched as her shield was disrupted again. It shimmered in such a beautiful way.
I have found the source of the disturbance, Consort, Arcadia’s voice rang through the Aratare in the hall. It would appear that your son has come to visit.
“Are more Diminished trying to come through the shield?” Elena asked.
Fewer made it through this time, and the Aratare are eliminating them as we speak. The Prince made it through the field before any significant harm could be done, and I cycled the shield harmonics immediately after he left.
“Thank you Arcadia.”
You are welcome, Consort.
“Those automatons,” Bezerenbam said, his eyes trained in the direction of Arcadia’s voice. “Some of your best work, my Starlight Queen.”
Elena smiled and placed a palm on top of Bezerenbam’s flat head. “I must say that I agree, my King of Eternity. But my magnum opus will lie with Cristian soon. We must rely on him to preserve the future.”
“He will be a good king,” Bezerenbam said.
“Of course,” she replied. “He is my son.” End of Prologue