Chapter 1 – The First Steps

Retahgahmtahv votahnaht tso kerahth gloen terthlenah treriltahgahmineth.

The true understanding of courage begins with a journey into the unknown. ”

– translated by Korov’ev from Signs and Portents

 

Blue.

All he could see at that moment was the clear blue sky above him, a deep azure that, while unremarkable, had the desired calming effect for which he’d been looking.  Occasionally, a small cloud or two would slowly drift by to break the endless canvas above him, but otherwise, it was a clear, warm day on Teshafee.

At eight years of age, Lothias favored these moments the most.  With the bustle of activity in the village and the outpost nearby, these quiet times spent in the picturesque fields of lush green grass and sparse trees were cherished.  Sometimes, he would bring a book to read as well, one of the many great works of D’ni literature his father brought back on occasion.  For now, however, he was content to simply stare and be lost in his thoughts.

The grass beneath him served as a comfortable spot to lay while the soft wind nearly lulled him to sleep, his head cradled upon his intertwined fingers while he gazed upward.  While they normally wandered, his thoughts today were on one thing only: he would soon be called to come back home, as today was an important day: it had been delayed for what seemed like forever, but for the first time in his life, his father would be taking him to D’ni – to the home Age of his people.

All he had heard of the great cavern was from his parents, the other villagers, and through the stories he had read.  The mystery of D’ni was slowly unraveling to him via secondhand knowledge, but to actually see it in all its splendor?  He could not put into words the excitement that coursed through his body just by the mere thought of it!

And this was no ordinary trip to see the home of his people.  Today would be the day he would choose which of the famed Guilds to join.  While normally in D’ni society a child would start Guild studies at half his age in a Guild chosen for him, his parents, as well as most of the D’ni who called Teshafee home, felt separating a child from their parents at such a young age was detrimental to the child, and that they had a right to choose themselves.  It was a view not shared by the five Lords of D’ni or most of the cavern’s inhabitants.

Still, since all eighteen major Guilds and many minor ones constantly required all the help they could get, they reluctantly accepted any latecomers into the fold.  As a requirement for this, those that chose to hold their children back until a later age were asked to teach to their young the basics of the Guild system to prepare them; the children would then be tested for admittance.  Lothias had received such instruction from his mother, who had worked closely with many Guilds years ago, and he now felt he was ready to join their ranks and serve his people.

Now the question was obvious, yet difficult: which Guild to join?  The Guild of Writers seemed to be the most exciting, as they Wrote the fantastic Ages to which the D’ni traveled and explored.  It required the most discipline and dedication, however, and while Lothias did not shy away from such responsibilities, it was something that needed to factor into his decision.  The Guild of Surveyors was also an idea, as it would allow him to be present to help build new construction, not only in the cavern, but in other Ages as well.

One thing was certain: he wanted to travel.  See all that he could and explore the mighty D’ni empire, both in the cavern and beyond.  Any Guild that allowed him to do that would be welcome as a choice – and whatever the choice, he would work to make his family proud.

As midday approached and Lothias began to doze off, he heard his brother Tomus call out to him from further down the field, in the direction of the village.

“Lothias!” Tomus cried, his voice deep and authoritative.  As the older brother at sixteen, Tomus took it upon himself to keep young Lothias in line in their father’s absence, much to Lothias’ mild annoyance.  He never acted out or defied his mother or brother whether their father was away or not, but the older boy still looked down on him and kept him under strict supervision.  It’s what older brothers do, as his mother had told him.  Even so, it was a nuisance he reluctantly obeyed.  Despite his feelings about his brother being a bit overbearing, Lothias still respected and loved Tomus greatly.

Lothias sat up and stood quickly, brushing himself off a bit.  He turned to look at Tomus, whose face was expressionless.

“Father is here,” the older boy stated.

Lothias nodded, unable to hold back a smile.  Something told him Tomus was just as excited at seeing the great cavern again.  He’d already been there a few times, the last time being just after Lothias was born.  Tomus had been given the chance to join a Guild as well, just as Lothias was about to, but chose not to join one.  He preferred to prepare to work with his father in Sahru instead, not as part of the Guild of Ink Makers, but more freelance.  While Geran had encouraged Tomus to be sure and follow his own path, the boy had insisted that that is what he wanted to do.  Their father was proud and looked forward to the day his son would join him.

The two brothers wordlessly made their way back to the village.  The field that Lothias had been daydreaming in was only a short distance from there, but far above on top of the protective rock wall, near the river that flowed down via waterfall into the lake the village surrounded.  Further back were the fields that grew the various crops, plants and livestock that made up the settlement’s food supply, an excellent alternative to having supplies Linked in.  The Teshens prided themselves on their autonomy from their native cavern.

Tomus and Lothias reached the ledge and carefully made their way down winding steps carved directly into the stone near the waterfall, which provided a cooling mist to accompany the spectacular view of the structures below.  Many would come up these very steps to the top to see the sight of it all at sunset, sunrise, and all points in-between, so the steps had been well-worn by that time, but well-maintained too.

The village, Guild outpost and surrounding rock “wall” sat nestled in a large valley, the surrounding mountain range offering even more protection.  A narrow opening in the wall opposite the waterfall allowed the lake to slowly drain further into the valley, a cycle that provided constant fresh water to the people.  On the other side of the waterfall from where the steps were was a very large and sturdy platform that could raise and lower the large amount of crops and supplies from the top “shelf” to the village below.
At the base of the waterfall were two mills; one processed some of these crops, the other provided power to the various buildings along the shore using the strong current.  This made the water treacherous, and so children could swim around the shore of the lake, but swimming too far out into the center was forbidden, as the water there was too strong to swim back.  It would push even the strongest swimmer over the edge and to their death at the jagged rocks below.

The centerpiece of the area was the outpost that belonged to the Guild of Messengers, its massive golden dome a stark contrast to the modest houses near the base of the structure.  It was one of their out-of-cavern “hubs” that received and sent messages to citizens across the Ages and in the cavern.  With millions of D’ni sending countless messages and cargo, minor and urgent, offloading some of them to a site like this was greatly needed, as space within the cavern was needed for other things.  Occasionally, it would also host dignitaries and other guests, who utilized the main hall for meetings and the living quarters if they chose to stay longer.

Lothias followed behind his brother as they finished descending the stairs and walked along the path near the shore towards home.  Each step to Lothias felt like a step closer to his future.  He would soon be a telrov, a Guildsman, something that was very distinguished in D’ni and Teshafee alike!  Most important of all, however –

“Father!” the younger boy yelled out in joy.  There stood the man he’d not seen in quite awhile, who smiled broadly at the sight of both of his sons.  The importance of the ink made in Sahru and the constant need to supervise and inspect the fields kept Geran away from his family for long periods of time, something they all knew was necessary but saddened them nonetheless.

“Lothias!  Shorah b’shehm.  It is good to see you, my son.”

Shorah b’shem, father,” the boy replied as they embraced.  Tomus walked over slowly, Geran laying a firm hand on his shoulder instead.  The older boy had grown out of being hugged at around age 13, preferring more to be treated as an adult as the years went on.  Geran respected that and acted accordingly, but still did what he could get away with to show affection and admiration for his oldest son.

“How is Sahru fairing?” Tomus asked.  The elder son had apparently gone directly to the fields to retrieve Lothias when Geran arrived and had not gotten caught up on the latest news from the other Age.

“It is busy as ever,” their father replied, an amused grin on his face.  “The paperwork continues to flow just as readily as the ink and wine.”

Both boys laughed at this, although Tomus’ was more subdued.  The amount of forms for ink production in particular was notoriously laughable, but apparently needed, as the special ink made there and elsewhere was the life’s blood for the Guild of Writers and Linking to new Ages – and thus, new avenues of supplies and commerce for the always-expanding D’ni empire.  Even so, it had long been a running joke within the Guild of Ink Makers that one was more liable to be buried alive under piles of paper than the large quantities of stone in the cavern.

After spending several minutes catching up just outside the house, Veora appeared in the doorway to tell them that the midday meal was ready.  Assuming Lothias chose a Guild, this would be the last meal with all of them together for awhile.  After joining, a telrov was first sent to dormitories in one of the many halls of their chosen Guild, away from family and under the tutelage of Guild Masters.  While Teshafee had many books for learning in the outpost’s library, it was a mere fraction of the precious materials the great cavern contained.

As such, Lothias did what he could to thoroughly enjoy this time with his family.  He could tell that, while his mother was excited for him to possibly join a Guild, it would break her heart to see him go.  She too was doing what she could to make this time last and to remember every detail.

There was much conversation interspersed with jovial laughter while they ate at the dining table, and it notably avoided what would come later, until Geran finally asked, “So Lothias, have you narrowed your decision at all since we last spoke?”

“A little,” Lothias replied, his face with a look of concentration.  “I really want to travel and see many Ages.”

Geran grinned.  “A worthy endeavor, my son.  If you join the Writers, you may even create Ages of your own.”

“You mean establish Links, my dear,” Veora corrected him.

“Yes, of course, of course.”  There was always debate within D’ni society about whether The Art actually created a new world or merely opened a gateway to a world existing somewhere in time and space.  It sometimes caused heated discussion with some members of the society, but while Geran and Veora differed on that belief, they merely took the other’s opinion in stride and agreed that the question did not have a definitive answer.

“That would be wonderful,” Lothias agreed.  “Some of the other Guilds also have such opportunities.  I will need to talk to members of each.”

Geran patted his son’s hand.  “You shall have that chance.”

Tomus had been listening quietly up until then.  “You could always work for father, brother,” he said, his voice monotone and his glare slightly insinuating.  “He works far too hard to provide for us…and we are his sons.”

Geran waved his hand dismissively.  “I am still fully capable of handling the workload Tomus, although I do still welcome the day you will join me in Sahru.  Lothias is free to choose what he wants and we all shall support him in his endeavors just as we support you.”  He gave Tomus a look that meant that would be the final word on the matter.

Tomus continued to stare at Lothias a moment longer before looking down at the table.  “Yes, father.”

Geran’s stern look morphed to one of concern until there was a knock at the door.

“Ah, that must be Reh’sal,” Geran stated.  “He’s here to escort us through the outpost.”

With wide eyes, Lothias looked around at his family with a mix of excitement and anxiety.  This was it.  He would be going to D’ni, and he was unsure when he’d return.  All four got up from the table, and Veora quickly walked over to Lothias and embraced him tightly.

“Good fortune to you, my son,” she whispered, her voice choked with emotion and her eyes watering. “Choose the path you feel is right.  I will wait here patiently for you, no matter how long it takes.”

Lothias also began to get emotional, a stray tear rolling down his cheek.  Even so, he shook it off and smiled bravely for his mother as he reluctantly pulled away.

“I will make you proud.”

Veora smiled as well. “You already have, Lothias.  Many times over.”

******

Reh’sal had exchanged greetings with Geran, Tomus and Lothias at the door and quickly began to lead the way to the outpost, Veora watching them as they walked away.  Lothias kept looking back to her, stealing one last glance to keep with him.

Since the three were not Messengers like Reh’sal, access within the outpost was restricted.  Items, some of them very sensitive, were so carefully organized, and the books in the library were so highly valued.  As such, non-Messengers were required to have a Guild escort with them.

As the group walked along the path single file, Geran asked, “How are you, Reh’sal?  I did not see you upon my arrival.”

The Guildsman smiled.  “I have been well, Geran.  I have been waist-deep in the constant pile of messages and parcels, sorting and filing as those that are not yet Masters often do.  A young Messenger’s work is never done!”

“The same can be said of the Ink Makers.  You have my sympathies, my friend.”  He then grinned.  “And while I’m glad you are so dedicated to Guild code and procedure, I am still relieved you call me by my name instead of ‘Master’.”

Reh’sal laughed.  “Yes, I am no longer that anxious telrov you met so long ago, and I have you to thank for that.”

Lothias walked up beside his father as they skirted the end of the village, and Geran put an arm around him.  “Can you believe young Lothias is now on his way to also joining a Guild?  You’ve known our family since he was born, after all.”

“Yes!  It seems only yesterday the entire village was enthralled by baby Lothias.  By the Maker, how time flies!” Reh’sal replied loudly and theatrically, causing Lothias to blush as nearby villagers looked on and laughed to themselves.

While Geran and Reh’sal didn’t seem to hear it, Lothias distinctly heard Tomus scoff at the Messenger’s words as the older boy trailed behind the rest of them.

Moments later, they arrived in front of the large, wooden double doors of the Guild of Messengers outpost, their symbol of Book and wings adorning the wall just above.  The front of the building extended upward three floors, but aside from the front side of the structure and the golden dome, the majority of the outpost was built within the rock wall itself.  Lothias had only ever been inside the foyer to see his father off when he left for Sahru, but as the doors slowly creaked open, it still excited him to enter such hallowed halls teeming with such history and splendor.  This was truly the gateway to the rest of the D’ni empire.

Geran and Reh’sal continued to make small talk, with the Messenger occasionally prodding Lothias with a question or two about his decision, and Lothias in turn asking basic questions about the Guild of Messengers.  The outpost was large and the marble hallways were a labyrinth of confusion to those who had never navigated them before.  Dozens of Messengers crowded the way, some working, some talking to others, some rushing by to get somewhere else.

There was so much commotion in here, Lothias wondered if Messengers also escorted visitors because one could become lost without a knowledgable guide.

Eventually, they made their way down the winding pathways into the library.  The chamber was circular, with open hallways leading down to the main floor on either side, a small observation balcony between them at the top.  Below, inset into the balcony was a small, caged room, which was kept locked and secured.  It contained the most important Linking Books, including several that went to various locations in D’ni.

Looking all around the library, Lothias had never seen so many books!  All available wall space was used as shelving to house the massive amount of literature and Linking Books in the outpost.  Encircling the bottom floor were standalone shelves packed tightly with more Books.  Several pedestals held a few select tomes as well.  Only the large support pillars were solid and devoid of any storage space, although Lothias suspected there might be hiding places in them for even more security.

Down on the main floor, off to each side were entryways to oval rooms with even more great works.  An entryway to another Book room was at the bottom where both paths down met.  Even a single D’ni with hundreds of years to spare would never be able to read all that was contained in just this relatively small space.  Even so, many Messengers and a few visitors were partaking of the bevy of reading materials, while a couple of people were using Linking Books to Link out of Teshafee entirely.  Despite the amount of activity, it was respectfully quiet as well.

“This is amazing!” Lothias whispered to Geran.  His father and Reh’sal smiled at the look of wonder on the boy’s face.  Despite seeing it previously, even Tomus was still a bit in awe of the great library, although he did his best to mask it.  While the boys looked around, an attendant was unlocking the cage, sliding the heavy metal door open.  He quickly scanned the shelves and selected a book at about eye level, bringing it over to an empty pedestal.

Lothias swallowed his nervousness as the Book was brought over and they made their way to the pedestal.  In moments, he’d place his hand on the page and be whisked away from the only home he had known.  He looked to his father, who merely nodded.

“There is nothing to it, Lothias,” he said in a calming voice.  “Don’t worry.”

Lothias nodded slowly, then turned back to the pedestal.  The attendant carefully laid the Book down and opened it to the first page.  A rectangular image of crisp detail sat before him.  It showed a stone courtyard, surrounded by ancient, intricately-designed buildings. It looked rather dark there, but still bathed in a soft, amber light.  The picture centered on a large stalagmite in the middle of the courtyard, hollowed out to allow passage through its center.

“Well then,” Geran said, shaking Lothias from his trance, “onward to Ae’gura.”  He placed a hand on Lothias’ shoulder.  “I will see you in D’ni, my son.”

With that, he placed his hand on the image…and vanished.

Lothias breathed deeply, once again gathering his courage…and placed his hand onto the page.  His hand began to tingle, and the library, outpost, and all of Teshafee slowly faded from his view.

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