- "Um… One more death. A rockslide, once again."
Sitting comfortably in his rendor leather chair, elbows resting on his gorgeous solid wood desk, Tiralion Nebius was reading the latest report sent by one of his foremen. As the guild was gaining in productivity year after year, the workers' working conditions had greatly degraded. Of course, it was more profitable to continue this way, even if it meant compensating the families of the victims. But if he wanted to continue recruiting young, spirited Fyros, he had to assure them that death was not necessarily at the end of the tunnel. For Tiralion Nebius, like his father before him, was the head of the mining guild of the Pickheads, one of the largest and wealthiest guilds in the Fyros Empire.
It all began in 2432, during the reign of sharükos Abylus, Emperor of the Fyros, when miners accidentally discovered mysterious ruins in the Prime Roots. Encouraged by this discovery, the Fyros began archaeological digs throughout the Desert, and deeper and deeper. Unfortunately, two years later, a huge fire broke out in the Coriolis Amber Mines and set the surrounding dry lands ablaze. The fire quickly spread to the homin territories, ravaging the city of Coriolis, and forming a burning trail to the great forests of the Matis. The fire raged for weeks, cutting off the huge wind-powered aqueduct that connected the Desert to the Lakes. The Aqueduct, which had been under construction since 2289, symbolized the commercial and military alliance between the two peoples: the Empire pledged to protect the Trykoth Federation, which in turn provided abundant water to the Fyros people via the Water Route. The rise of the Fyros Empire owed much to the Aqueduct and its trade route. Blaming the Fyros miners for the disaster, the Emperor took the opportunity to place the mining guilds under imperial jurisdiction and to draw up the Mining Code, which was supposed to strengthen the rights of miners and the duties of guild leaders. Unfortunately, many guilds were forced to close down as too much impacted by the implacable new laws. Most of them complied, however, even though it was no longer possible to finance ambitious digs because they were considered too risky. The crisis reached its climax when Pyto succeeded his father Abylus, who had died of illness. During this sad period, the tyrannical sharükos Pyto squandered the Empire's savings, which had already been damaged by the enforcement of the Mining Code. Aware of the risks Pyto was putting his people at, his younger brother Thesop tried to talk some sense into him, and guide him back to the right path. Unfortunately, the proud Emperor Pyto would not listen. Thus passed two difficult years, when many saw the end of the Empire approaching. But just when it was thought hope was lost forever, Thesop challenged to a duel his brother, who accepted and there lost his life. And so, in keeping with imperial tradition, Thesop took power in 2440. In the years that followed, the new sharükos strove to replenish the imperial coffers and to repeal the liberticidal laws enacted by his late father. Thus began the reign of Thesop the Builder. And so it was at this time that Tiralion Nebius' father founded the guild of the Pickheads, taking advantage of the abolition of the Mining Code to launch a gigantic mining project and to respond to the desire for Truth buried in the heart of every Fyros, and which his predecessors had not managed to quell.
Indeed, the Fyros people had always been obsessed with the depths of the Bark. Digging without ceasing despite the prohibitions of the Karavan, the Fyros were in search of Fyrak the Great Dragon, the evil entity who, according to the myth, would have brought the homins on Atys, a dark, icy desert world, in order to enslave them. According to the same myth, Jena, the Goddess of the Day Star, heard of Fyrak's treachery and provoked the Green Thrust, in order to transform Atys into a lush and luminous world, and to trap the Great Dragon in its entrails, thus freeing the homins from its yoke. Defeated by the goddess Jena, Fyrak nevertheless succeeded in leaving its imprint on Atys, and the ashes from its fiery breath became embedded everywhere, from the lines of the primordial bark to the air and the cells of every living being. Draconic ashes that contained within them the remnants of Fyrak's wrath, and that allowed the homins to manipulate the Sap and thus to perform magical feats. The agents of the Karavan only, protected by their armor blessed by Jena, were not contaminated.
However, despite the powers granted by the draconic ashes, which the Zoraï people also called spiritual particles, the greatest ambition of the Fyros people remained to find and exterminate the Great Dragon, which they knew to be the source of the great fires that ravaged the Desert, the premise of its apocalyptic return. Of course, Tiralion did not believe in the Dragon Myth. He simply knew how to sniff out lucrative investments and play the patriotic game. After all, he had also become a clever politician over the years, advised and taught by his wife.
Deep in thought, and busy playing with his long, braided mahogany beard, Tiralion was finishing the second reading of the report. One more death, one less… After all, such were the risks of the job! Satisfied with his conclusion, he grabbed his igara quill, a blank parchment, and wrote a succinct reply to his foreman: the victim's family would be generously compensated. The Fyros leaned on his desk to get up and stretched. Thus ended his long and difficult working day. Caressing his belly, already well rounded for his age, he wondered what the cook had planned for dinner. At the same time, the door opened and his wife entered the room. About thirty years old, she was dressed in the red linen robe traditionally worn by senators, and her blond hair was tied back in a bun.
- "Good evening Tiralion." she said as she came to kiss her husband's swarthy skull.
- "Good evening Eutis. How did your day at the Senate go?"
- "Quiet, as it often is these days. But I was able to speak with an imperial controller, and I've come to an agreement. They won't send anyone to inspect your mines."
- "Ah, that's good news!" the Fyros gloated. "Thank you, my wife!"
Eutis Nebius smiled and grabbed his hand.
- "Come on, let's have dinner. I smelled good smells coming from the kitchens. But first, I'd like to go and kiss Belenor. Do you know if Penala has put him to bed?"
- "Yes, maybe fifteen minutes before you arrived. She came to tell me that he had fallen asleep. Can I wait for you downstairs?"
- "Of course." said Eutis, before letting go of her husband's hand to go down another corridor.
Tiralion went down a few steps and sat down at the living room table. The table was already set. The Nebius family home, which Tiralion had also inherited from his father, was one of the largest dwellings in Fyre, the capital of the Fyros Empire. Carved out of the bark of the Desert, like most of the city's dwellings, it had been built more than a century earlier, a few blocks from the Imperial Palace.The house, which spanned several floors, was organized around a central fireplace, which provided both oxygen and firewood for the rooms. Tiralion rang his servants and asked for a glass of shooki liquor, a fermented drink popular with the Fyros. And just as he was about to enjoy the delicious beverage, he heard someone running down the stairs. Eutis appeared in the living room. She seemed particularly cheerful.
- "Tiralion, quickly, come and see!"
The Fyros frowned. He didn't like to be disturbed when he was drinking his shookie.
- "What? What is it?"
- "Come, I say! It's Belenor!""
Tiralion reluctantly put down his glass and stood up. He sighed. He really didn't understand the attraction some people had for newborns. Belenor was only a few months old, and his life consisted of sleeping, eating and defecating. Until he learned to calculate, his father didn't see how the child could have interested him. Unable to contain her impatience, his wife grabbed him by the hand and pulled him towards upper floors. An investment. He had to consider it an investment… A few stairs later, the corpulent Fyros arrived near his son's room, out of breath. Eutis grabbed him by the shoulders and gave him a stern look.
- "Look discreetly through the door, and above all, don't make a sound!"
Tiralion rolled his eyes and approached the door of the room left ajar. What could have put Eutis in such a state? Perhaps Belenor had managed to climb over the railings of his crib, which was indeed a feat considering his young age? Yes, that was surely it. Wanting nothing more than to return to his glass of shookie, the Fyros put his head through the doorway. And as he looked at his son's cradle, he screamed.
A Black Kami, undoubtedly from the jungle, floated over the crib. Taking several steps back, the Fyros hit the wall and fell backwards. Eutis rushed to the doorway, but the damage was done: the Kami was gone.
- "Tiralion! I told you not to make any noise!"
- "If you had warned me that one of these terrifying creatures had infiltrated the home of my ancestors, I might have reacted otherwise!" the Fyros railed as he painfully stood up.
- "This creature is a Kami, Tiralion! Have some respect for the Kamis. At least they, unlike the Karavan agents, don't stop your miners from working."
Tiralion stood up and grabbed his wife's arm. All of a sudden reconciled, the couple entered their son's room. A room that was far too large and empty. A room without furniture. No floor or ceiling. Showing no concern, the parents stepped onto the root bridge that led to the crib, now suspended above the dark void. A dark and shifting void. With every step they took, the crib seemed to move away. With each step they took, the darkness became more intense.
- "Eutis, do you think it is a good sign that a Kami is interested in Belenor?"
- "Of course! Kamis have great powers. Perhaps they can make him the best student at the Academy?"
- "If they can give him business sense, then let them come to see him all they want."
Gaze staring at the cradle, and walking without pause, the two Fyros laughed out loud. Distorted by the dark mass that had now become tangible, the laughter turned into long, painful sobs. Gradually, the darkness became denser. Gradually, the shadows began to whisper. And finally, at the end of the root bridge, while the little bed still seemed out of reach, the darkness carried them to their son's crib. When they reached their destination, Eutis leaned over her son's bed. She looked tender and put her head against her husband's shoulder.
- "He's so handsome. Don't you think so?"
Tiralion looked at his child for a few seconds, then smiled. Then an eerie liturgical chant emerged from the abyss of darkness over which they were flying. And in rhythm, the shadows began to dance.
- "I have to admit, he's pretty cute. That black mask goes well with his blue skin."-–—o§O§o—–-
Belenor woke up with a start. His face was tense and his jaw clenched. His thoughts were completely clouded by the strange dream he had just had, and it took him a few seconds to understand where he was. Looking at his hands, then passing them over his forehead, he checked the color of his skin and the texture of his face. Facing him, flat on the writing table of the previous row and legs wagging, Brandille stared at him with her big mauve eyes.
- "Hey my Bele nice ! You beledoze ?"
Belenor sat up, slightly nauseous. He had fallen asleep during the history lesson. The amphitheater was now empty, so he assumed the class had already ended a while ago. The Fyros sighed.
- "Have you been watching me sleep for long?"
- "I don't remember. You know very well that the flow of time dilates when I stare at you too long."
Belenor closed his eyes and massaged his temples. Talking with Brandille was not going to make his headache go away. Brandille, like all Tryker people, was a small, light-skinned being with particularly childlike features. Of course, at nine years old, it was not uncommon to still have a baby face. But Trykers, unlike the Fyros, retained a childlike appearance once they became adults. Only the secondary sexual characteristics, such as hair, voice, hips or chest, were evidence of maturity. Belenor opened his eyes and looked at the youthful face still facing him, which had not lost its amused look. He couldn't help but smile in turn to Brandille. She was his only friend. Or he was, for that matter. For Brandille had no defined gender. As she often said it hemself, her gender identity changed with the wind. If Belenor had taken the habit, with her agreement, of gendering her in the feminine, the Trykera accepted completely that one genders him in the masculine. Brandille straightened up in turn and sat cross-legged on the writing desk. Her body swayed from right to left.
- "Enor, did you dream? Your sleep seemed particularly restless."
Now standing, Belenor tried to comb his mahogany hair, disheveled by her unexpected nap, and put back her beautiful beige linen tunic. Her vertigo was passing.
- "I had a strange dream, yes. It was blending our last history class and my parents as young people. They were using 'vous' with each other like Matis do, it was very strange. Ah, there was also the Kami who came to visit me in my infant bed and the Black Mask!"
Brandille abruptly jumped up on the table and raised her arms to the sky. For a few moments, her loose pied clothes and multicolored braids seemed to float.
- "Enor! Is today the day you and I have been waiting for? The day that will mark the return of your inspiration?!"
The Fyros smiled and gathered his belongings scattered on his writing table. The parchment he had been dozing on was moist with saliva.
- "Maybe… If the Kamis want it. And again, I haven't told you the strangest: in my dream, the infant in my bed was the Black Mask."
- "Oh, Enor! Your flow is so clear! Now you are one with your character, that is sure! Praise the Winds! Goodbye hesitation, hello imagination!"
- "I hope you are right. I'm very much eager to get back to our story."
Brandille did a salto and landed with both feet on a rough step of the amphitheater. The child waved to an absent audience and climbed the stairs in a hurry.
- "Anyway, don't worry, you didn't miss anything at the end of the propaganda… er, History class. Nothing, except the endless praises to the sharükos!"
The acrobat placed his hands behind his back, took a superior air and a serious voice.
- "Don't forget that Thesop the Builder reconstructed with his own hands the Empire, which had fallen into decadence under the reign of his brother Pyto!"
Belenor, who had finished putting his belongings away, took the stairs in turn. Brandille put an arm around his waist and the two children left the amphitheater.
- "And you know what I think of all this tom-tom, right, Enor? Pytoful and Thesopilating."
The Fyros raised his eyes to the sky.
- "One day, some ill-intentioned person will hear your remarks, and word will get out that you are outraging the sharükos. Then an imperial patrol will catch you, and you will be sent back to Trykoth. You are well aware of this, aren't you? I know as well as you do what is told about Emperor Thesop. However, I remain discreet and careful."
- "Let them try to catch me! Nobody is faster than Brandille. Not even the rumors that go around… Oh, by the way, I'm almost done weaving my next melody! I can't wait to let you hear my inner wind."
- "Great news, Brandille. And with great pleasure", replied Belenor, smiling.
For the friendship between the two children, both nine years old, was based above all on their common taste for art and their overflowing creativity. Belenor drew and wrote fiction. Brandille drew, composed songs, wrote poetry, staged plays, and knew how to juggle and dance. And like two muses, both supported and inspired each other.
Finally, after a few minutes of walking through the hollowed-out and nicely decorated corridors of the Academy, the two comrades passed through the great archway and found daylight again. Going down the imposing staircase, they reached the streets of Fyre, the incredible capital of the Fyros Empire. The foundations of what would later become the flagship city of the Desert had been laid two centuries earlier, when the previously nomadic Fyros began to settle down. And the location was not chosen at random. The cave city was built in a broken section of the Dragon's Backbone, the gigantic continental shelf that separated the southern part of the Desert, administered by the Fyros Empire, from the hostile and infinite ocean of dunes to the north. The crack in which the Fyros set up their city, covering several dozen square kilometers, was the probable remnant of a prehistoric catastrophe. In this place, the network of crevasses of the plateau offered multiple advantages: protection against predators, a slight but appreciable coolness, and even a little water, produced by condensation in its deepest caves. If the majority of the city's dwellings were dug directly into the high bark walls, some of which could reach a hundred meters, many buildings had been built in a more traditional way, and were bathed with light every day. For despite its semi-underground construction, the city was never short of light, as the daystar never left the zenith, but simply lost of its radiance once night came. Combined with the relative coolness of the streets of Fyre, the sunshine also allowed for the practice of a rudimentary agriculture of drought-resistant vegetables. Finally, a large wall and guard towers had been built further down the plateau, where the crevices overlooked the desert of dunes. But in truth, few were Fyros tribes not subject to the Fyros Empire daring to approach Fyre, and never before had the armies of the Matis Kingdom penetrated so deeply into the desert west.
- "I must take flight, Belenice! I can hear ideas germinating in my little head, I have to go quickly to water them!! If you move forward by tomorrow, will you tell me the rest of our hero's adventures?"
Belenor smiled again.
- "I'll do that. I indeed think that inspiration is coming back to me."
Brandille kissed her friend on the cheek, winked at him, and gambolled gracefully toward the residential areas. Belenor stared at his boots for a moment. As he had already noticed, his muse sometimes seemed to float. In fact, he would have sworn that, once airborne, it took Brandille longer to hit the ground than other Trykers or Fyros. But more than his apparent lightness, it was his constant agitation that fascinated Belenor. For Brandille was never inert, physically or intellectually. Belenor had no memory of an immobile Brandille. No memory of a gloomy Brandille. Brandille was the very definition of Movement. Of Vitality. And even when his friend slept, she wriggled and hummed. Belenor took advantage of the moment and waited to see her colorful clothes disappear into the crowd. Then he went to the opposite side, to the beautiful districts.-–—o§O§o—–-
Plunged in his thoughts, Belenor mechanically moved towards the imperial palace. After several months of battling against this damn blank page, he was perhaps finally going to be able to resume writing his story. He felt happy and excited. Totally elsewhere, the child did not realize that he was being followed when he turned the corner of Dyros avenue to take the small alley that would allow him to reach the family home more quickly. It was only when he looked up that he understood he had fallen into a trap. At the end of the alley, two Fyros were walking in his direction: a young girl with with blond hair tending to white and and a pronounced musculature, and a gigantic boy with a shaved head, both wearing an outfit made from strips of poor quality leather. This outfit, very popular among the city's inhabitants, was crafted at low cost from scrap leather and offered great durability. Belenor turned around, thinking he could quickly get back to the crowded avenue, but in doing so, he bumped into the torso of another boy, identical in every way to the one now at his back. He didn't know the girl, but he recognized the two boys: the Decos twins, Varran and Garius, with whom he had shared many classes at the Academy. He knew what they had to reproach him with, and he could imagine how their "discussion" would end. For, unfortunately, Belenor was used to this kind of situation. Varran placed his large, dusty hands on the amber spaulders of Belenor's beautiful tunic.
- "So Belenut, did you think you were going to get away with this?"
The child, already very frail for a Fyros, looked tiny in front of the colossus that faced him. True, Varran was five years his senior. However, he was still very strong for his age. Belenor held his gaze.
- "Leave me alone, Varran. If any soldiers find out that…"
- "Oh my! You stop right there, Belenor. Do you think I give a shit about the imperial guard? What's it gonna do to me? Put me in the hole because I pushed a toff's son? It's obvious that you've never set foot in the slums, you. We're already living in a hole there."
Belenor lowered his head and stared at his sandals in silence. At his back, the other two teenagers had reached level with them.
- "So Belenor, you've lost your tongue? You were quite talkative this morning at the Academy though. Remember what you said?"
- "Varran, listen…."
- "You've been shitting me. Because I couldn't read this text in Matéis."
Caught in a fit of rage, Belenor finally raised his head. Varran was looking at him with a bad look. On his chin, he saw some brown hairs. He wondered what the already massive Decos twins would look like after puberty. And though he knew he would regret his words again, he retorted.
- "I didn't make fun of you, Varran. I simply said that it was appalling that you can't read a minimum of Matéis at fourteen. It is the written and spoken language of international relations. Without it, you will never get out of your hole. Speaking Fyrk is not enough."
For all answer, the imprudent man felt his ribs explode: behind him, Garius had just struck a violent punch to his right side. Breathless, unable to scream, Belenor collapsed to the ground. His satchel fell over and many leaves spilled into the sawdust. Half conscious, his vision obscured by pain, he guessed the girl's voice.
- "Don't you think you were a little harsh, Garius? I heard her rib cage crack.
- "Oh, that's okay! He's good at healing magic, he won't even keep a mark from it. And he deserved a good lesson, it wasn't the first time he'd made shit of us. You don't know that, Xynala. He's not in your section at the Academy. He looks down on everyone, I swear you! And all the time! All because his father is the boss of some of our parents, and because we entered the Academy a few years after him. You know, he hardly has any friends. At least now he'll understand not to mess with us!"
Varran supported his brother's plea and then the three of them eventually walked away. When Belenor opened her eyes again, her attackers had reached the end of the alley. As she turned the corner, the named Xynala swiveled slightly and met his gaze. She looked saddened. And as the three teenagers disappeared down the avenue, Belenor instantly felt the tension drop. He was in extreme pain. But as Garius had pointed out, it would take him less than ten minutes to heal his ribs. The child struggled to his feet and put his hands on his side. His nice outfit was all messed up, which would certainly worry his nanny Penala when he got home in a few minutes. Infusing Sap into his wound, he grumbled at the sight of his precious manuscripts spread out in the sawdust. Belenor was angry. As much at the twins as at himself. When would he learn to keep his mouth shut? At the Academy or outside, for that matter. For he spent his time making remarks to others, and every time, it backfired to him. But worst of all, the contempt he was accused of expressing was the very one he blamed on his parents. At that moment, the young Fyros was hating himself.
Minutes passed, and finally repaired, the child knelt down to gather his pages. It didn't take him long to pick them all up. All but one: the first of his manuscript. And as he turned to see where it was, he jumped against the wall of the alley. Another teenager, also dressed in a leather bandage suit, was standing in front of him. He was carefully examining the missing page. How long had he been there?
- "Um… The Sacred War. Interesting. Are you the author of this fiction?"
The Fyros turned the sheet over. It contained a text written in Matéis. Belenor stared at the teenager's black hair and eyes for a few moments and, without understanding the reason, turned scarlet. Taken by a strange panic, he threw himself on him.
- "G… Give me that back!"
The stranger, particularly agile, had no trouble dodging him.
- "Oh dear! Calm down, I'm not going to damage it."
Still scarlet, Belenor did not succeed in supporting his glance. He stammered.
- "T… This text is mine! And it's written in Matéis. You won't be able to read it.
- "Oh yes? And why is that?" guffawed the teenager.
- "I know guys like you. The ones who can't string two words together in Matéis."
- "Guys like me? Then it's true: you are a know-all, Belenor Nebius."
Upon hearing his name, Belenor looked up. The teenager was smiling mischievously at him. The child blushed a second time and looked at the ground.
- "Yes, I know you. Varran and Garius told me about you. If we don't take into account the physical disciplines, you're the best student in your section, at the Academy. But it's mostly your arrogance that gets you noticed, isn't it? To tell the truth, I don't even know if you hear yourself speak… You know, at this rate, you might lose the few friends you have left."
Instantly, Belenor thought of his only friend. He wondered if he had already offended Brandille, before wondering if it was possible to offend Brandille… The stranger put his eyes on the sheet he held in hand.
- "Anyway. This start makes you want to. Did you invent this character? The Zorai hero with the black mask?"
Belenor nodded shyly. The teenager exuded a rare confidence at his age.
- "And where do you get all these ideas?"
- "From… From my dreams," Belenor managed to answer.
- "Frankly, bravo. Beyond being very well written, tht's also particularly inventive. You know, I totally lack imagination. So people like you fascinate me."
At these words, the stranger handed him the sheet. Belenor recovered his property, still silent, and dared this time to look at him. The teenager winked at him and then walked quietly towards the main avenue. Belenor followed him with his eyes, as if hypnotized, when, halfway along, he stopped and turned around. On his face, the mischievous look had given way to a powerful determination.
- "When I grow up, I plan to bring all the tribes to the west of the Desert, where I was born. Life there is much harder than here. No regular army, no aqueduct… I would like to found a great city there, equal to Fyre. Of course, waging war on the rebellious tribes to force their cooperation might be enough. But that's does'nt fit my values. I promise myself to do it my way: to prove my bravery, to perform feats, to gain their trust. But to do that, someone will have to tell my story. Someone will have to make me the hero they need. I like to surround myself with talent, Belenor Nebius. And one day, I'll need someone like you."
Belenor tucked his paper away while shaking. His heart was pounding. Why was he so disturbed by this Fyros? He who usually never lost face?
- "… You're not very talkative, are you? That's not what Varran and Garius told me. Anyway, I leave you. I'll ask the other three to stop heckling you. As for you, stop looking down on your classmates, and get your head out of your classes. Open up to the world, open up to people who are not like you. Otherwise, you risk getting bogged down in loneliness. Otherwise, you risk losing your creativity."
As the teenager reached the corner of the alley, Belenor, who had been mute until then, stammered a few words.
- "W… What's your name?"
A mischievous smile appeared again on the stranger's face.
- "I am Melkiar, of the tribe of the Dragon Tears. Remember that name well, Belenor Nebius, and sharpen your pen. For in a few years, you and I will have things to talk about. I am certain of it."
Belenor Nebius, narrator