The golden face of Tyranny gleams in Faith’s light. His face is a cover plate, partially concealing the shifting golden clockwork of the God’s merciless, calculating mind. He is a construction of cold metal, a clockwork statue. Beautiful reflections are cast by Faith’s light shining on the gold plating of Tyranny’s form creating an illusion of warmth where none arises naturally. Golden spikes of random lengths rise perfectly vertical from his crown, shifting occasionally at the bidding of his internal mechanisms, causing the lights and shadows to shift on the walls.
Faith, beside him, is formed of light and warmth. She is a silhouette of brightness perched upon her throne in the long cold hall of stone. The granite of the hall is flawlessly carved, but unadorned and brutally cubic. She is the only source of warmth. She sits motionless, so much so, and for so long, that her sudden movement would surely have spooked an unwary human observer. Her head flows to point to the side as if to track some flash of movement on the wall, and her glow brightens momentarily. But there is nothing to see on the wall.
The hum of Tyranny’s ticking and whirring rises and a metallic sliding can be heard as he stands. “We see it. Such power.” Tyranny’s voice is glorious resonance with a tone of awe. “The Old Hunger rises.” Faith flows up to his side.
“We will fight it, we will protect the Kingdom we have built.” Tyranny’s cold, golden mask turns to face Faith’s silent light. “We will gather strength. The strength that our daughter, Justice, and her magisters have sealed away and preserved for us. We will release it onto our enemies.” A hand of light stretches out from Faith to rest upon his chest, and her light dims briefly. A wordless argument. “It is spoken.” Tyranny concludes with finality, his mechanical sounds rising as he walks through Faith’s bright but insubstantial form to the great doors of the hall.
Faith is still for a moment, and she brings up her hands and cups them before her. A brighter light flashes where her hands meet and she opens them to reveal the form of a bird. The dove of light takes wing and flies through the wall, passing without a sound or trace. The heads of twelve statues of stone and steel standing against the walls swivel to face the Goddess. Then one steps forward, its mass causing the floor to vibrate with each step, and its body turns mechanically to follow in the direction that Tyranny has gone, while the rigid carved face remains locked on Faith.
I close and latch the door behind me, taking my time in order to help to catch my breath after the long climb up the tower. Another tree’s height of stairs await me before I can reach the panoptic. Here, the will-formed tower walls balloon out to form a great sphere centered on the panoptic. The top and bottom of the sphere are of the regular dark slate which makes up the bulk of the watchtower’s structure, but that material transitions to translucent glass all around the central band, providing unobstructed views of the air and lands surrounding the God Prison. As I climb the final stairs I reach out my will to the glass shell and clean it. The glass disappears as I will away any dust and condensation. The wills of years of bored magister wardens had so perfectly adjusted all of the glass structure that it became invisible when kept clean.
I probe the mechanism of the panoptic as I near the top. The oil in the reservoir is in good condition, and I will out the impurities. The chair is in order, as is the track mechanism that bears it. The screw mechanisms which raise and lower the chair and the toothed rail and gears that allow a warden to rotate the chair around the reservoir are all free and lubricated. Everything is in working order. I reach the top and mount the chair, already starting to will the oil in the reservoir to rise and form the lens before me. I use the hand cranks to raise and rotate the chair so that the view ahead looks down upon the Temple of Justice.
I shift the view through the panoptic lens to see the magisters’ efforts to mobilize for war. Newly formed war units drill on the plains below the walls of the temple, and in the air above. They need to train to organize their wills together to maximize their combat effect. Maelstroms of organic dust suddenly collapse into huge fireballs which crash into the ground, water clouds form and emit great arcs of lighting, the earth rises and takes the form of great beasts, and occasionally a more creative effort wreaks some special destruction. Nearer the God Prison, Endeavor and his crew have set up a workshop, where they work with some of the more technically minded magisters to construct more of his airships. The new designs are sleeker, armored, and covered in weapons ports.
I had gone down to the temple to hear Endeavor address the Order after his arrival. His tales are grim. The creatures, plants, water, and even the land of the wastelands are corrupted with this new and powerful type of Hunger. A single person, heavily infected with this Hunger, had boarded and corrupted The Brazen, Endeavor’s personal great ocean ship. Only with skill and speed had the God and his surviving crew escaped in an airship. They came to the Order of Magisters to give warning and to send word to Endeavor’s scattered ships and missions to rally here for war.
The Goddess Justice and her Order of Magisters had allied with Endeavor many times in the past, and they had maintained a friendly relationship for centuries. As Endeavor had put it, “Our missions are not always justice itself, but to be just always helps our missions. That is why it has been so easy for us to be friends.”
The prospect of war had various effects among the magisters. Many were enervated, inspired by the awakening of Justice and excited to fight. Others were wary, knowing that this threat is something unprecedented in the history of the Order. Of course, in the Order’s wars with Gods and demigods that have the ability to reshape the world around them, the unprecedented is somewhat expected. But what makes this new threat stand out is that it isn’t apparently coming from Gods or demigods but from the Hunger itself.
The Hunger has been extensively studied by magisters, and libraries of the Order are full of volumes on the subject. I’ve studied many of these myself. Two things stand out to me from my research. First, the Hunger has always been the same. There is no record of it ever acting in this new agressive and intelligent way. There are legends about the creation of the world, that say that the old world had been entirely consumed by the Hunger, but it had always been presumed by scholars and theorists that the Hunger had acted in the same ways back then that it did when the authors had performed their own studies. Second, there is no record of the Gods ever using the Hunger as weapon. The Hunger had always been nasty stuff. So it stands to reason that some cruel God or demigod would have weaponized it at some point in their many wars, but there is no record of that. Recently, I’ve investigated this mysterious lack of record and it seems that whenever the Gods and The Hunger meet, the Gods destroy it. This evidence has led me and others to wonder if we had always been wrong, and that the Hunger had had the speed and the malignant will that it now seems to have gained when it had consumed the old world. This is very troubling because it suggests that this new threat is far more dire than any the Order has faced before. Could this be a world ending threat?
I lift the view of the panoptic from the war preparations and I begin my sweep of the distant approaches to the Temple of Justice and its God Prison. We magisters can reach our senses far beyond our bodies, but those senses are limited both in range and in effectiveness. Hence, the panoptic. Housed in its high will-formed tower above the God Prison, it permits clear observation of the lands for miles around, and allows a vigilant warden to warn of incoming danger days before it arrives. The forrested low hills surrounding us does not make the job easy, but we’ve taken measures to improve our luck. In a great loop around our territory, we’ve cleared a wide swath of trees and set up signal traps there to help notify us if something abnormal has passed through. One such signal was a device to release a bright red powder that forms a little red cloud at the site of the trespass, and later settles to leave a scarlet spot on the treeless band. It is one of these red plumes that attracts my attention.
Without thinking, I reach out my will to a mechanism on the side of the tower below the glass and I release a weighted red flag that unfurls against the side of the tower in the same direction of the red plume. I adjust the oil to improve my view and examine the source of the signal. Five small figures in magister robes are gathered around it, most of them trying to suppress the erupting powder or remove it from their robes. One stands slightly apart, facing the tower, doing something with its hands. Three flashes appear from the figure, spaced at three second intervals, indicating all clear. They are a border patrol group, tasked with keeping the outer approach band clear, and with maintaining the signal traps. This one appears to be having some sort of trouble with one such. After a minute, the same three flashes come again. I see nothing suspicious going on, so I lower the panoptic oil back into its pool, rotate the chair to home position, and dismount from the panoptic. The tower’s signal flags are easy to trigger, but require quite a bit of effort to crank back up. It can be done by will alone, but I prefer to save my will for the panoptic. It’s no help to anyone if I exhaust myself and fall asleep in the chair.
I reach out my senses and examine the flag mechanism. There are eight identical assemblies distributed evenly around the circumference of the chamber. The visible portion of the mechanisms consist of stands with single axles each supporting a torso sized cog and a folding handcrank. The cogs are linked by a heavy chain-hoop woven rope to larger cogs affixed to external axles which bear the racheting mechanism and the clamps that hold the top ends of the flags. I run my senses along the rope of the flag I had released, through the tubes by which it transitions to the tower exterior and I note the minor age and fatigue of the rope. I check the axles for bend and the axle bearings for tightness. Then I inspect the supports which affix the assembly to the tower. Everything is in good order. Now at the crank stand, I unfold the crank and will the latch of the rachet mechanism to fall back into place. I begin the cranking. The mechanism turns quietly, with the clicking of the bouncing rachet latch muffled by the stone and glass walls. I continue until I feel the weight bar at the bottom of the flag hitting its stop and the fabric of the flag pulling back against my cranking.
This chore complete, I ascend to the panoptic again and mount the chair. I rotate back to the direction of the signal and I will the oil to reform the lens. The red plume has begun to settle now, leaving red stain over a wide area. Two of the patrol magisters are walking along the edges of the stain, using their wills to gather up the red powder into little clouds in front of them. The others are crouched together examining the signal mechanism. As I watch, another five magisters arrive by flight. They’d been dispatched as soon as spotters below saw my flag unfurl. They greet the magisters on the scene and began to talk with them.
That situation looks to be under control, and I start to feel that watching them is keeping me from being vigilant. I alter the lens to a wider view and begin a watch revolution. I figured it would be easy to write the required report on the alert later. With the exception of the actual cause of the perimeter signal, which would be reported on by others, everything is going according to procedure. Halfway through this watch revolution, in nearly the opposite direction of the earlier signal, I spot an odd light flying across the perimeter zone. I adjust the lens to follow its progress. It’s headed straight for the temple. I can’t make out what it is, but I see that it flys pretty low, just above the tops of trees. Birdlike. I reach my will out to the flag mechanism for this direction, but I hesitate to trigger the release. I don’t know that this is, and I don’t want to end up looking like a fool, but on the other hand, we are at war with a mysterious new threat, and I don’t know what this is. I trigger the flag release.
The light had progressed a little over half of the distance to the temple before the five magisters of the response unit reach it. I see the magisters approach and fly alongside the incoming light. It appears to ignore them. One of the magisters makes a flinging motion at the light. The light continues on as if nothing had happened. The same magister makes an odd motion and I spot a glint of bared metal. This magister swoops in at the thing and past it. The light divides into two distinct parts and then those fade away. The magisters slow and lower themselves among the trees below them, no doubt to investigate further. I watch the area for a quarter hour, and then I inspect the perimeter around where the thing had crossed. Nothing else seems amiss.
I perform another watch revolution and I thoroughly inspect both the area around the earlier apparently false signal, and the area where the unknown light had approached. When I’m satisfied that things are under control again, I crank the second flag of the day back up. There would be two reports to file tonight.
There is no activity for the rest of my shift. I’d had some busy watches after the Order had sent out notices of the awakening of Justice and the coming war to magisters that had been out in the field. Magisters and diplomatic visitors had streamed in like pilgrims for a few months, eager to see the Goddesss. That activity had redoubled when Endeavor had arrived and sent a call out to his people. More recently there had been a lull, with the exception of increased supply deliveries and the occassional returning magister or visitor.
My shift ends when it becomes too dark for effective use of the panoptic, and between the darkness and the long exertion of my will required to form the lens, I feel very tired when I dismount from the mechanism, and I can’t suppress a yawn. Looking at the floor, I realize that I’d forgotten to bring up a lantern with me. I pat my robe and feel the hard shape of a piece of wood that I keep for incidental magic use. I pull it out and grasp one end. I will the other end to heat up and produce a precise yellow flame. It’s better than a candle, as I don’t need to worry about dripping wax, but it takes more effort and is consumed faster. Knowing this I hurry down the long winding stairs of the panoptic tower.
The base of the tower forms the center of the warden dormitory of the God Prison, and its stairs widen and serve as the central means for climbing between the levels of the dorm. The dormitory is constructed with three identically sized wings which extend radially out from the tower base. These wings are situated at equal angles from eachother, giving the God Prison the look of a enormous oil lamp post with a tripod base. The whole structure is will-formed from the exposed dark slate bedrock on which it sits. The source of the stone for these structures is the will-carved prison proper that lies beneath. The tower stairs don’t stop at the ground level. Instead, they narrow and continue down for thirty feet before the first prison level. With the exception of those stairs, no part of the prison has less than thirty feet of solid bedrock between it and free air. This aspect of the design means that the whole prison can be sealed by blocking off the stairway, and this sealing can be accomplished, in theory, by collapsing the tower. According to the histories, there was a process for doing exactly that that was developed and passed in secret to the high wardens.
I reach the heavy door built on a flat spot on the stairs that marks the transition between the tower and the top floor of the dormitory. The door is unlocked. Access is not allowed to the panoptic except for people working a watch shift like myself, but it had been decided that the resources needed to restrict an unauthorized magister from entering were better used elsewhere. The stone of the door frame has a mortise formed within it to catch a dead-bolt that the door no longer had. Long ago, some group of high wardens had decided to install locks and deadbolts made from antimagic materials in many of the important doors of the dormitory. But these were reclaimed and repurposed the very next year when many doors were discovered with the entire lock mechanism pulled out and laying on the floor nearby. The design simply couldn’t stop a determined magister. It was a good thing that the cells of the God Prison below were designed long before that particular group of high wardens had reigned.
I will my now shortened piece of wood to extinguish and cool and I slip it back into my robe, then I push out into the dormitory. The stairwell here is lit by oil lamps. I continue down to the first floor of the dormitory and head over to the offices of the administrative wing. I get some paper and sit at an unused desk to record my reports. I don’t bother with pen and ink. I’d learned to write with a pen long ago, but I’d so seldom utilized it since then that I doubt I can rely on my hands to faithfully execute the task. Instead, I form the words in my mind and will them to be burned into the paper. I proof-read the completed reports, find some disturbing oddities that I attribute to fatigue, and reburn them all. After proofing these, I fold them thrice, burn on instructions for routing and seal them with a bit of wax from the candle on the desk. I deposit the completed packet in the page’s box for delivery to the Temple and the war commanders working there.
With my watch obligations now complete, I return to the central stairs and proceed to the second floor of the scholarly wing, where I normally live and work. These watch duties are relatively new for me. I and many other scholars had volunteered to take up the watch shifts which would normally be handled by magister wardens of the security and capture wing of the prison. I decided to take on the work at first to study the system of the panoptic and to get the view of the area from above. After exhausting those novelties, I still like the work as a means to exercise my will and focus. As a scholar, I don’t find myself flying for long distances or throwing fireballs around so I don’t get a lot of that sort of exercise, but maintaining an enduring will is occasionally very useful when I engage in long sessions of delicate will-forming to produce some new mechanism or to run a long term test.
The walls of all of the shared spaces of the scholarly wing are completely occupied with book shelves, and these are all completely filled. Almost all of the personal rooms are the same. When the problem began centuries ago, this meant that producing any sort of new work must come at the sacrifice of some existing work. This lasted until some enterprising magister scholar had decided that all of the books and records needed to be recreated in a new standardized and somewhat smaller font. This was quite contraversal because it would mean that scholars would not only need to give up their personally stylized writing, but also it would mean that all record of those styles would be erased. These misgivings were overcome when the process was shown to free up half of the space on the shelves. That had been the birth of standardized text among magisters, and most magisters adhere to it outside of stylized personal signatures. However, among the scholars, the space that was reclaimed by the change was filled as years of new writings were stored. When this occurred, it was agreed among the scholars to abandon the use of easily human readable text (we can read by will sense, after all), and the whole library was reproduced with text at half size to free up more space. This text size halving had to be repeated twice more. This is a great space saver, but it was discovered that there were significant yearly losses of writings due to spilled beverages, smudges, or fires. A friend of mine, Goddard, is working on developing new types of paper to address these issues. Something about weaving together threads of stone. In some idle time, I’ve personally experimented with just how small we can make our texts and extrapolated new text production rates to predict that our current system of halving the text size can only be carried out successfully for another 25,123 years, at which point, accidentally tearing a page could destroy an entire book, and each individually bound tome would contain a whole library worth of books.
My room is located on the north wall near the middle of the length of the scholarly dorm, and I hurry there, eager to get to bed. I’m greeted a few times on the way, but I make polite excuses and carry on to my door and peace. My room is dark so I will a few candles alight as I realize that I don’t have any food left in the room. I could head down to the kitchens and stores, but I decide that I can solve that problem at breakfast, and proceed with my sleep preparation rituals before finally crawling into bed to end the day.
I awaken disoriented, from one of those deep portions of sleep that, when interrupted, leave the mind temporarily lessened. There’s some kind of sound from outside the room. It does not stop. I try to sit up and pull my legs to the edge of the bed at the same time. My legs get caught in the sheets, but my arms and legs aren’t paying any attention to that and attempt to complete the motion anyway, causing me to flop onto the floor painfully. I push up on my arms and angrily wriggle my legs out of the tangle of sheets. The pain and annoyance help to bring focus and I realize what the sounds outside are. Shouts, crashes, and screams. It doesn’t make sense. I extend my senses to locate my robe in the dark. Finding it, I will away all of the dust, dirt, and grime that the robes a cummulated yesterday, as I do in the morning. Then I pull them on and adjust until I feel I’ve attained some level of respectability. Belatedly, I will-clean myself as well, having to route the dirt around the freshly donned robes. Unable to determine what I’ll be dealing with, I also trim my hairs. Whatever it is, I might have to look my best. I pull on my shoes.
There is a rustling by my door, and some hushed voices, then my door is pulled open just wide enough to allow two figures to slip in.
“What are you…” I begin, annoyed.
I’m interrupted by shushing and a hushed, “Quiet, friend. There’s an attack of some sort.”
“What fool would attack…” I half-whisper but trail off as I reach out my senses to get to the truth of it. The scholars in the room with me are Beryl and Ostus. Further out, I sense fellow scholars getting up, rushing around, and forming into groups. There are two larger gatherings, one near the central stair and one as far from it as possible. The scholars near the central stair are dispersing, shifting away, sticking to walls as they go, and there is something else there. Another magister, approaching purposefully from the stairwell. I feel that one drawing matter from the books to prepare a fireball whirl, directed at the fleeing scholars. “Someone’s coming.” I note.
There are more protestations and shushings, but I say, “No, we have to go now.” I will all my candles to light. I stand and survey the wall of my room opposite the door, which is also the exterior wall of the dormitory. “Do either of you know about splitting stone?” The wall is four feet thick, because the stone that was excavated for the prison all had to go somewhere. It had taken the concerted efforts of hundreds of magisters for many months to form this building. I had myself and two others, and maybe five minutes.
Ostus growled, “Be quiet!” I anticipate his attempt to quench the candles and divert the little pinches of air that he tries to make on the flames. “You’ll bring it down on us you fool.” He isn’t referring to the stone that is my focus.
“We can’t hide.” I explain. “It’s a magister, like us.”
“That’s right.” Beryl agreed.
I will a few candles to float in the air near the wall. “It looks like a chiseling force won’t be of much use with stone supported on all sides as this is.” I decide, “We’ll need to make three cuts of good precision, all the way through, removing a knife blades thickness of the stone.” I use my will to score the stone wall with a triangle, large enough to fit each of us through it. The top line of the triangle is parallel with the floor. “These two bottom lines can’t be straight through or we’ll never move the stone, they need to be angled down so that the stone will want to slide away.” I climb onto my bed and place a hand on lower left line, and start to make the cut. “I’ll take this part.”
Beryl joins me and places a hand on the top line. Ostus stands conflicted for a moment before exclaiming “Fine!” and attacking the lower right line. The bed groans under our weight, but the cutting goes smoothly. When Ostus finishes the last of his line, the stone shifts, but does not fall. I sense that it has rotated slightly in its tiny space and I cut away at the edges that are in contact. Still the stone doesn’t budge, until Beryl starts heaving on it with her open hand. Seeing it shift, Ostus and I join her and we start the slate wedge sliding down the ramp we’d cut for it.
As soon as the hole opens, Ostus is levitating in the air and flying through. Beryl follows. I rise in the air and hear a crash as the door bangs open. A magister enters and I see that his face is veined with silvery Hunger infection. I spot a glint of metal in his hand and fling the two candles that I have floating above the bed at him as he draws his hand back as if to throw. I fling myself through our hole. It’s not my best flying, and I’m not particularly proficient to begin with, so I clip my shoulder sharply and painfully as I pass through. The shock causes me to lose concentration and start to fall. I’m nearly at the ground before I remember to slow myself and get my feet underneath me. The landing is rough.
I sense Ostus and Beryl in flight to the temple, and many other magisters flying in the air headed towards the prison. Our enemy does not pursue us, choosing to attempt to go after other magisters trapped within. Thinking of the Hunger infected magister, I turn my senses upon myself, searching for any trace of the silvery substance. I sense no infection.
Next I think of our defensive procedures. How could this have happenned? Even at night, there were always magisters on watch, reaching as far as they can with their senses to detect incoming enemies. They should have seen the attackers coming. They should have engaged them. How then did they assault the God Prison? Had the magisters on watch been overwhelmed? It was difficult to imagine that possibility. Some kind of subterfuge then. Could they make themselves look like normal magisters? Then they could approach without being attacked. If that were the case, then why would they attack the scholar dormitory so brazenly? I extend my senses to examine the overall area. Chaos within the dormitories. Magisters flying away and magisters flying in. Several of Endeavor’s airships on approach, shining great lights down on the dorm. I could see no objective for the attack. The fighting did not even extend down into the prison itself, at least not as far as I could tell from the outside of the antimagic shielding.
Was it just an error by the attacker? Perhaps someone discovered him and forced the enemy to expose himself. Unless it is not an error. Unless it is a tactical move. An intentional ruse. A distraction. But to what end? Although the night is too dark for it to be of use, I yearn for the God’s Eye view from the panoptic. This attack would cause the God Prison to be reinforced, but the Temple and the war preparation camp wouldn’t be greatly weakened. If anything, those areas would be put into a higher state of readiness. I just can’t see what the enemy could be trying to achieve.
I will the dust off my clothes from my unfortunate landing. I sense a mustering of magisters near the entrance of the God Prison, and I fly in that direction. As I approach, I sense a magister warden standing above the others, on the entrace stairs, addressing the gathered magisters. She is a security warden of the prison, and she is urging the newcomers to wait at the ready as the magister wardens already within handle the attacker. It is a reasonable request. The wardens and God hunters of the prison are all trained for extreme magical combat, and they ought to be able to tackle this threat. Most of the gathered magisters watch her blankly. A newcomer lands near the crowd and starts to shout questions, but the crowd pulls him in and the questions cease. That seems odd. I pause in the air on my approach to look more closely.
I scan the crowd of magisters. They seem normal, except for their eerie calm. Generally, it is very bad manners among magisters to attempt to probe within the flesh of another. Unless they are exhausted, sick, or very injured, any magister can resist this type of violation, even from the coordinated efforts of a large group of magic users, even from a God, most of the time. So I know that my efforts to probe the magisters of the crowd would be easily repelled, and I know that they would know what I was attempting to do. But I do it anyway. Selecting first one, then another, then another. At first I don’t notice anything odd. But there is something about the wills that resist my efforts. They are far too similar.
The crowd, as one, turns to look towards the exact portion of the dark sky that conceals me. They aren’t just similar. They all have the same will. They are infected, though they don’t look like it.
I send a message to every magister within range, warning them of this additional threat. Three of the infected magisters at the edge of the crowd of infected take steps toward me and then take flight. The rest of the crowd surges toward the entrance. The warden there looks shocked for a moment as she reconciles my message with these events, and then she floats up off of the ground, trying to get some distance from the crowd. But she is too close, and five magisters fly up from the crowd to intercept her. They grab onto her. Almost hugging her. And then she stops struggling, and the six of them rejoin the infected mob, now flowing into the central stairwell of the God Prison.
I watch all of this with my senses in the dark, and I realize that this has taken me too much time. I fly away from the three infected magisters coming towards me, but I can tell that I won’t be able to build speed fast enough to prevent them from overtaking me. So, I broadcast another message, this time showing any recipient what had happened to the warden. When they grab onto me, I can sense that my message has worked, that some of the incoming magisters have turned in their flights to head back to the Temple or to the war camp to spread the word. This strange new Hunger is very painful as it spreads through my body. It is like a wave of fire that leaves nothing but absence behind it as it moves. I am consumed.