Rykas, the Grey Sun-Dragon, soared through the space between stars. Its leather wings propelled it hundreds of thousands of miles with each flap, sending waves of cosmic dust towards the planets in its wake. Once, it and its brood-mates had ruled these cosmos, descending on planets in storms of fire and fang, leaving naught but scorched ground and bones. It had gorged itself on the magma center of worlds, slept on the surface of suns, done battle against entire species and emerged with not a scale chipped.
Now, it was a slave to the creatures that called themselves Man. 600 years ago they had come, riding the backs of birds and drakes, protected from the crushing nothing of space by their magic. At first they burned like every other beast that tried to challenge it. They fell before it by the thousands, wave after wave incinerated in its wake, reduced to ash and melted steel. But no matter how many perished, they always came back. And no matter how far the dragon flew, they always followed.
They had laid a trap. Behind the Bleeding Nebula they had hid. When it passed they spilled forth, tens of thousands of them, descending upon the beast with steel and magic, giving it no path to escape. They bound it with spells, paralyzing its wings and jaws. They cracked its scale and swarmed across its skin. A group of seven emerged from the others, racing up the dragon’s skull (oh, it could still remember the feel of those feet beating against its forehead), piercing it with a steel bolt. From that point on, it was theirs, forced to obey any command, its body torn from its will.
But that had not been enough. They set to work, using spells to keep it alive as they hollowed out its body. Veins, organs, bones, all were removed, until only the framework of the dragon remained, sustained by their foul process. And in their place, they erected a city. It could feel it now. Millions of feet trampling within it, the water and waste that carpeted its insides, the weight of their enormous brick buildings, their industry churning within like a parasite.
It was in the inner spine of this beast, a ridged path 3 miles wide and almost 100 long from neck to tail, that the Caster’s Yard was located. It was where Daeus Flynn had lived and learned for the past 20 years, and where he was about to leave forever.
Compared to the housing when he’d first begun his instruction, the “outgoing” rooms were luxury suites. They had kitchens, lounges, furniture, plumbing/water/lights you didn’t have to produce for yourself and most importantly, privacy. He’d spent nineteen years under constant eye, every move tracked, reported, and recorded. It took him months of living alone to stop checking over his shoulder, stop throwing a veil over every spell and rite. Still, the room was not entirely his own. There were still inspections, still rules he had to obey, contraband he was denied access to. No matter how secluded it might feel there was the whispering knowledge that he belonged to the Yard.
Today that changed. Today, he would leave this place to become his own wizard. Twenty years had taken him to this point. Every spell cast, every report written and test taken had been to prepare for the moment before him. Success would mean his own Drake-Ship, and the title of Caster that came with it. Failure would mean… but no, he could not fail. That was not how this would end.
A rapping on the door brought him from his thoughts. Mikhail stood on the other side, gorgeous as ever, wearing the customary Yard Blue outfit of the senior class. His curly brown hair had recently been trimmed, and the blue-ink lines branching from his eyes glowed more brilliantly than Daeus had seen before. The only blemish on that perfect face was the scowl etched across it.
“What the fuck?” he said.
“Wow, it’s so good to see you too,” said Daeus, trying to suppress a grin.
“Don’t give me that shit,” said Mikhail. He shouldered his way past Daeus and turned back to face him, arms crossed. “You didn’t tell me you were doing this.”
“I’m sure you’re about to show me what a bad idea that was.” He wasn’t surprised at how quickly word had gotten around. Among the Yard, gossip-mongering stood somewhere between pointless duels and exotic new intoxicants in terms of favored activities. “Look, I’ve heard the same thing from three people today. Don’t bother.”
“What the hell is wrong with you?” Mikhail paced back and forth, running his fingers through his locks, fingers raking at the scalp. It wasn’t a bad look. “Why could you possibly think this is a good idea?”
There it was. Daeus sighed. He’d thought maybe Mikhail would have something different to say. It was a stupid thing to think. “You don’t think I could do it.”
“I don’t think you should try.” He stopped pacing and stepped so close that Daeus could feel the breath coming from his lips. “Nobody else is doing this. Nobody ever does this. Just do your Path with me. Nobody is going to think less of you if you change your mind.” He was trying to sound forceful, but there were cracks at the edges of his voice.
“I don’t care what they’re doing,” Daeus said through gritted teeth. “If I was them, I wouldn’t be doing this, and if I was you I wouldn’t be doing this because I’d be too scared to try. Now do you have anything actually worthwhile to yell, or are you going to keep wasting both of our time?”
“Dammit, Daeus!” Mikhail yelled. He stepped back throwing his arms up. “What the fuck did you expect me to do? Did you think I was just going to stand back and watch you fucking kill yourself? I have supported you every. Step. Of. The. Way.” He punctuated each word by pounding the side of his fist against his open palm. “I’m scared? At least I’m letting myself give a shit!”
Daeus was trying very, very hard not to yell. “If you’re giving a shit about anything, Mikhail, it’s not me. I am doing this, tonight. I would like,” he said the word like spitting arsenic, “for you to be there when I do. And if you’re not, well… at least I’ll know how much you really cared.”
Mikhail glared at him, eyes wide, nostrils flared, lips together so thin they almost disappeared. The silence seemed to become a solid thing between them, filling the room like smoke. Finally, he opened his mouth. “You’re going to regret this. If you survive, you’re going to regret this.” He flung the door open and stalked out.
Daeus stood motionless before returning to his bed and opening his book of rites.
He’d been twelve the first time he left the Sun-Dragon. He, Mikhail, and fifty others had been selected to visit Payminn’s Spear for “educational purposes”. In Yard-speak, that usually meant “we’re nearing a prime opportunity to fuck with these children and it would a damn shame to pass it up”.
Stepping out of the Drake-Ship and onto the planet’s surface was like being dunked into a pail of ice-water. None of them were dressed for the cold- giving them any sort of warning would go against strict Yard policy- and fifty children began going through the components they had on hand, muttering strings of Aetherspeak and trying to spark a heating rite. A few of them even succeeded. The rest were left to huddle as close as possible, shivering as they struggled for every degree of warmth.
“Now,” said Professor Selkin. She was a tall, broad woman with short black hair that couldn’t have been natural and skin that hung from her body like willow leaves. A circle of warmth extended from her five meters in every direction; any child who touched it would be banned from the dining halls for a week. “Who here has heard of Payminn’s Spear before?”
Ten children raised their hands, including Mikhail. Professor Selking made a tsking noise. Daeus knew she would be making note of any child who didn’t, or who lied in doing so, and gulped.
“It’s shameful,” she said, “that so little of you would-be casters even know the most basic history of our clan.” Jabbing a finger at one child whose hand was up, a mousy blonde girl named Ishna, she continued, “You. What is the importance of the Spear?”
Ishna stared at the ground as she spoke. “It- it was where the second major battle of the Caster-Artificer war was fought, ma’am. A lot of really great casters died here.”
Professor Selkin nodded. “I’m glad not all of you are completely worthless.” She turned, sweeping her hand in arc across the vast landscape in front of them. “100,000 men, women, and others fought and died on these plains. The battle lasted almost two months.” She spat. “How many of you could even go two weeks without the luxuries we afford you? Do you see this dust in the air? The battle was almost 400 years ago, but still the residue of their rites remains. Who here could claim such ability?” Beginning to pace, she skewered the air with a finger as she spoke.
“I look before me, and what do I see? The future casters who will carry on our legacy? Names who will be carved into the legends of the universe? No. I see scared children, incapable of surviving in the mildest environments. We as instructors have given every effort to try to prepare you to inherent legacies such as the Spear. You have tried even harder to ignore them. Today, we will remedy this.”
Daeus stared past her. The plain where they stood stretched in miles for every direction, but on the edge of the horizon ran hundreds of ridges that must have been mountains. He had never seen mountains before. They looked shattered, as if they had been cracked by some great rite in the middle of battle. Plumes of black smoke rose from many, dissipating into the sky. What power, to be able to warp the landscape in such a way. To tear the very fabric of a planet- he doubted even the professors were capable of that. He looked up, at the dust swirling in the wind currents around them. Dozens of colors danced in the air, the remains of aether forever locked into the material realm. It carpeted the land around them like paints poured across the rock.
He shivered, this time not from the cold. The Caster-Artificer war was a legend among the school. Everything they practiced came from it in one way or another. Students told stories of the people who fought. Ariss, who resurrected an extinct race to fight against the mechanical hordes. Poln using the core of a star as fuel for the war’s final spell. Kyrvyx making his last stand at the edge of the Frozen Woods, calling rites that would completely reshape the planet he was on. At the time, it all seemed like myths. Stories exaggerated to boast of the Casters’ prowess. But here, standing in the center of it, it felt real. He could feel the energy thrumming in the air. Here, such skill seemed almost attainable.
Professor Selkin splayed a hand at the horizon. “Those mountains are 60 miles away, and don’t think the path will be free of obstacles. The Drake-Ship waiting there will leave in exactly two days. I expect to see all of you on it.” She raised her hand, said a word, and vanished, transforming into brilliant blue streaking towards the mountain range. The students scrambled to work, pooling their components, organizing into groups, appointing leaders as they had trained a hundred times. Only Daeus lingered, still staring at the sky and dust.
The walk to the Pathways was the unofficial pre-test. The mile-long journey from the dormitories to the testing hall was the final gut-check, one last chance to turn around and wait to test another day. Many times Daeus had seen his peers depart for their Path only to return within the hour, heads low, unable to even begin.
The hall ran through the vertebrae itself. It had been carved out of the bone soon after the foundation of the Yard. In those beginning days, the hall and the Path were the same- it was inlaid with rites and traps that would butcher any fledgling caster who misstepped through it. Eventually, as the Yard grew, they decided a more nuanced testing process was needed and moved the testing grounds. The halls remained as a reminder of the past.
At some point, hundreds of years ago, an especially proud (or frightened) caster-to-be had carved her name into the wall. Another coming through had seen the mark, and accompanied it with his name. Soon, the hall was filled with scrawls of a dozen hands, a chiseled maze of names, drawings, boasts, sayings and filthy rhymes growing with each student who passed through.
Daeus had found a small empty space in the middle on which to carve his name, near the top of the rounded hall. Many students spent days beforehand agonizing over what to write. It had become something of a competition to try to one-up your fellow graduates in some way, from elaborateness of the drawing to cleverness of the phrase. He didn’t see much point to the matter. Small games played by small casters who would never amount to much in the universe. He stepped through the hall’s exit and into the testing ways.
The doors creaked shut behind him as he gaped at the room. No non-testing caster was allowed into the ways under any circumstances, and rumors abounded about what they might contain. Every student had their own theory, and Daeus had always pictured it as a massive, solemn room, dedicated to the history of the Yard as it prepared its future.
He had never imagined it as a featureless stone room so small the three people inside had to step aside when he opened the door. The only light was a student-cast rite hanging in the air. A puddle of water had formed in the corner of the floor. Where was water even coming from? They were in the middle of a dragon’s spine. At the other end of the room was a small stone door.
“You all look comfortable,” he said to the assembled group. Two of them he recognized- Lelouch had been one of the leaders during the Paymin’s Spear trek, a tall, stocky man with short black hair. Krissa was a plump, tan woman with ashen hair and a tendency away from speaking. The last was a short blonde woman he had never seen before.
“Daeus,” said Lelouch, nodding, “I’d heard you would be testing today.”
“Well, I’m glad I could meet expectations,” he said. “Is this everyone?”
Lelouch shrugged. “No idea. No one’s told us anything since we got here. I’m starting to think the test is just figuring out what the hell we’re supposed to do.”
“Maybe they want to see how long we’ll wait here,” said Daeus.
“Don’t be inane,” said the blonde woman. “This is supposed to be the final test of our casting abilities. What could locking us in a dungeon have anything to do with that?”
Daues stared at the woman. She looked a bit older than the others. Probably from a class a few years ahead who had decided to wait rather than risk failure on her first opportunity for testing. “Maybe they’re expecting us to think that.”
She rolled her eyes and didn’t respond.
“Come on,” said Lelouch, stepping forward. “We haven’t even been here an hour, let’s try to stay off each other’s throats.” He waved a hand at the woman. “Daues, this is Reyna. Reyna, meet Daues. I’m sure you’ll get along great once you pull your heads out of your asses.”
The woman scowled. Daeus joined her. “Whatever. I’m assuming you guys have all cast detection rites?”
Lelouch nodded. He stood in the center of the room with his arms crossed. “There’s nothing. No rites, no passages leading out, unless they put something in way beyond any of us, which seems… unlikely.”
“Well,” said Daeus, “have you tried that door?”
Reyna sighed and rolled her eyes. Lelouch motioned towards it. “You’re welcome to give it a shot.”
Daeus stepped towards the door, examining the stonework. It was a bit shorter than him, carved from white rock that was nothing like the surrounding room. Elaborate etchings covered the surface, showing casters and inhuman beasts doing battle in a field of stars. There was no handle. He pressed against it with a hand. It didn’t budge. He threw his shoulder against it, grunting as he forced it forward. His feet skidded on the wet rock. He threw a hand out, stabilizing his fall. “Okay, so probably not a great idea.”
“You really thought we wouldn’t have tried that?” said Reyna.
Before Daeus could rebut, a grinding sound cut him off. Turning, he saw the door sliding open. A short caster who on first glance could have been mistaken for a corpse stood in the entrance. “Excellent,” he said with a voice like chains dragging across granite, “everyone has arrived. This way, please.” Without waiting for a reply, he turned and began to skulk away. The four looked at each other and rushed after.
It was his sixteenth birthday. To mark this most stupendous occasion, the Yard had given him three days of leave to travel the dragon as he pleased. Mikhail had found a way to sneak out and the two of them spent the first 48 hours in awe of the surrounding city. They had rented a small hotel room using the money they had been saving for years, where they now slept. At least, Mikhail did. Daeus lay next to him, thinking. After several hours with no results he got up, slipped on his clothes, and ventured into the city night.
He wandered through the streets, unsure of where he was going, knowing in the back of his mind that he would be completely lost on his way back but not caring. The city was a beautiful place, nothing like the claustrophobia of the Yard (something he hadn’t even realized was there until he ventured out). It was a roaring blend of things, sights and noise and smells coming together in a way that threatened to overwhelm, but also felt safer than he had ever been before. One noise drifted up from all the rest- a chiming coming from the left. Intrigued, he followed it between two buildings, and saw a silver glow at the end of the alley.
Pushing his way through, he emerged into a clearing among the buildings. In the center was a lake, still and dark. Kneeling a the edge, staring in the shrouded waters, was a god.
It had the shape of the human in the same way that a lion had the shape of a house cat. Taller than him even while kneeling, its skin glowed with silver light. Golden vines sprouted from its back, pouring over its feet and the surrounding ground. The toes on its feet were long and webbed. A thin tail grew out from it, flicking back and forth. He blinked. When his eyes opened, the god and the lake were gone.
“can I help you?” said a voice like bells behind him.
He turned. The god was standing in the alley, staring at him with green, featureless eyes.
“I- I-,” he said. Gods were fickle beings, and not prone to sympathy. “I’m sorry! I didn’t know you were here! I’ll leave right now, I promise!”
The god tilted its head to the side. “why would i care if you left or not?”
“Why?” Daeus repeated. It was getting hard to breath. His heart felt like a drum inside of his chest.
“do not be afraid. be calm.” The god reached out and laid a hand against his forehead. As soon as it touched him, he felt the panic begin to dissolve. Then disbelief set in. A god? How could he have stumbled upon a god, just randomly walking the city? That was the kind of thing that only happened in stories. Maybe it was a trick of some kind. Maybe it was a dream. But he could feel it. It wasn’t a dream. It wasn’t a trick.
He swallowed. “Where… where are you from?”
The god seemed to stare through him, beyond him. “where? no from. i am.” Its hand, raised in front of it, twisted, growing and splitting into dozens of crystalline, translucent branches. “pretty?”
“Uh… yes. Yes, it’s very pretty?” What else could he say?
The god smiled. Something seemed to be moving in the shadows of its mouth. It reached up and plucked the tip off one of the crystals. Drawing a loop in the air, a metal chain appeared in a puff of aether, hooked to the crystal. It handed the necklace to Daeus. “you wear?”
There’s no way this could actually be happening. “You bet I’ll wear it. I can just have it?”
The god nodded. “its pretty.”
He stared at the necklace. It felt heavier than it should be, and icy cold except for the crystal, which radiated heat. “I can’t believe this is-” he looked up, but the diety was gone.
The hallway they entered was completely different than the original. It was shorter, carved out of the same smooth stone as the room they had just left, the sides lined with torches. Halfway up each wall a thin, horizontal groove was carved, glowing slightly.
“Quite an interesting group we have today,” said the man as he shambled along. The other four had to make an effort not to pass him. “Quite interesting indeed. The other instructors are extremely curious to see the Paths you're given.” The comment didn’t seem directed to anyone in particular. The group walked on, unsure of how to reply.
As they walked, Daeus became aware that Krissa was keeping pace next to him. “Feeling nervous?” he asked. She shook her head. “That’s good. You always were one of the best in our class.”
They continued to walk in silence before, several minutes later, she spoke. “I heard about what you’re doing.”
“Oh. Yeah.” He hooked his thumbs in the pockets of his trousers, glancing up at the ceiling. “You gonna tell me not to do it?”
“No,” she said. Her gaze remained firmly on the ground as she spoke. “I just would like to know why.”
Daeus hesitated. The question had been asked before, of course, but always in the context of trying to dissuade him from it, as if the asker could prove his reasons weren’t good enough. “It’s hard to explain,” he said.
“Hm,” she said.
“You haven’t thought at all about doing it?” he asked. “Someone as good as you?”
She brushed aside a loose stone with her foot. “Not all too seriously. What would you do if you succeed?”
A question he’d been asked a few times, but not often. “Well, I think it’d be cool to join a scouting expedition, explore the edges of the galaxy and all that. A Yard Seal would help a lot to get approved to join one.”
“True,” she said, “but it’s not the only way.”
He scowled. “You are trying to convince me not to do it.”
“I assure you I’m not.” She cocked her head to the side, looking up at him for the first time since he’d entered the room. “What do you think would happen if you didn’t do it?”
“Then I’d be a pretty piss poor excuse for a caster,” he said. “Look, can we not talk about this?”
She shrugged. “If you’d prefer.”
“Now now, young hopefuls,” said the corpse-man from ahead. “No time for chit chatting. We’re almost there, see?” He splayed his hands in front of him, and light raced from his fingertips. It swirled in front of him, suffusing the room with light. Lelouch gasped. Daeus felt his body stiffen.
The room they were in was a massive dome, stretching hundreds of meters in every direction. The ceiling was red and wet. It grew and shrunk as they watched, sending wisps of wind throughout the room. The light the man had cast continued to spiral upward into a column that hit that ceiling and diffused down across the walls. The floor was made of porous rock, and in the center was a tiered amphitheater. There stood the three Head Professors.
The figures seemed to loom taller than any person Daues had ever seen, and even in the casted light a glow could be seen coming from each. Their faces and features were impossible to distinguish, shrouded by casted shadow. They stood silently, watching as the man led the group across the room and down onto the platform. Daues could feel the magic coming off of them, like standing next to a massive bonfire, like lightning running across his bones.
“So,” said one, “all of you have come far. You have proven yourselves time and again as casters worthy of the Yard title. And now, you have arrived here, for your final tests. Today, one way or another, your time with the Caster’s Yard comes to an end.”
“Three of you,” began another, “have chosen the Path of Self. A noble Path, one that has tested many a great wizard. The other has chosen the Path of Fire. Are you sure of your choices?” The others nodded. The Professor turned to Daeus.
Suddenly, his throat like it was filled with dirt. His knees trembled. A layer of sweat sprouted from his palms. Say it. Come on, say it!
“Very well. The three will come with me.” He turned.
Lelouch looked at Daeus. “I can’t believe you’re really doing it.”
“Yeah,” said Daeus. “Well… you’re about to see.” He contorted his face into something that looked like a grin.
Lelouch offered his hand. Daeus shook it. “You were a good classmate, Daues, and a great caster. I hope I can see you again after this is all over.” He released his grip and turned away.
Krissa watched the exchange, then stepped over to the others. Only Reyna lingered, staring at him with an unreadable expression. “You’re fucking mental,” she finally said.
“Funny you’re the one saying that.”
She shook her hand and joined the rest of the group. Daeus watched as the professor led them up the amphitheater and into another hall.
“And here,” said one of the remaining two professors, “you start anew. Let us begin.”
They two professors bowed their head, whispering words of ritual Daues couldn’t understand. As they did they back up, until they were across from each other on either side of the amphitheater, with Daeus still in the center. Tendrils of aether reached up from the floor, grasping for any living thing they could feel. A few clawed at Daeus, but he brushed them aside. As they rose higher into the material world, they began to dissipate, covering the area in pale blue mist. The professor’s words grew louder.
Cracks began to spread on the ground beneath him. The aether swirled, rising in speed until he was standing in the eye of a miniature cyclone, being sprayed with solidified drops of liquid aether. He heard something like thunder in the distance. The cracks beneath him grew wider. The professor’s voices continued to swell.
Now the thunder crackled all around him. Lightning flashed in the aether. He could feel the magic tearing through his muscles, his bones, squirming under his skin like a trapped insect. A scream tried to escape his lips. He forced it down. The voices no longer seemed to be coming from either side, they were surrounding him, blending with the thunder and sound of cracking rock, a single noise breaking against his body like a beach wave. This was it. It was almost over. He could feel his bones cracking. He could feel his ligaments tearing. There was nothing to do it was-
The noise ceased. The pain faded. He opened his eyes, and saw the aether had faded. The two professors stood on the steps, watching him. “You may begin at any time,” said one.
Begin? Of course. That was just the opening. He gulped and looked down. Most of the amphitheater’s stage had crumbled away. Daeus stood on the on the only remaining rock, hovering in the air, staring at the surface of a red sun.
He shivered in the darkness, trying to pull the scrap of blanket closer. How could any place be so cold? It smothered him, consumed him. His fingers felt like heavy stumps. His legs had gone numb long ago. Each breath was like pushing spines against his lungs. Far in the distance, he could hear a stream of water, but even if he’d had the strength to move he wouldn’t have known how to find it. He wanted to cry. He wouldn’t cry. Casters didn’t cry.
But he wasn’t fit to be a caster was he? How could he have ever thought he was capable, when this was the best he could do? Trapped in a cave for days, unable to conjure even an illumination rite. This was one of the simplest tests, one of the first every child caster went through. Reach the bottom of the cave, find one of the crystals placed there, and come back. Simple. But he’d stumbled into the wrong crevice on the way back up and now he was going to die here. Stupid fucking idiot.
And no one would ever care. The professors would mark him down as the failure he was. The students were too numb to mourn when one of their ranks fell. He was nothing. Just another mediocre failure, one of the thousands who had already come through the school. Irrelevant. Meaningless. Stupid enough to believe he had some sort of talent. He curled up tighter. A groan escaped his lips.
What was that?
Just over the sound of water he heard another noise. Rocks sliding against each other. Metal clinking together. And even softer than that, tapping against the rocks, footsteps. His heart somehow found the energy to flutter. It couldn’t be real could it? He listened, and the noises grew louder. Someone was coming for him. Someone was coming for him!
“Hey!” he said. The words, barely louder than a whisper, scraped against his throat. “Hey, I’m over here! Can you hear me?”
The footsteps quickened, grew louder. He kept yelling, his voice growing louder with each sentence, until a glimmer of light appeared. It bobbed in the darkness, moving towards him. He could just make out a silhouette behind it. A child, another student. His stomach sank, as he realized they were probably just as lost as he was. But at least this other one had to have supplies, if they were sustaining a rite. Perhaps they could find a way out together?
The light stopped just in front of him. Daeus stared up at a small, brown-haired face. The kid looked familiar. He’d seen him a few times before in class. What was his name? Micah? Miryl? Something like that?
“Are you alright?” said his savior.
Daeus rolled onto his side, fighting back tears. No, he wouldn’t cry. He couldn’t. “I- I-“
“Hey, it’s alright.” The boy knelt. “I saw something on my dousing.” He looked up, over Daeus. “You know the exit’s pretty much just up the way?”
Daeus tried to push himself up. The boy offered a hand. He took it. “You’re not lost?”
“I hope I’m not,” said the boy. Mikhail. Right, that was his name. “Let’s get out of here, I’m starting to catch something.”
Daues nodded. Maybe things wouldn’t be so bad after all.
He stared into oblivion.
Boiling plasma roiled beneath him. Every hair on his body was standing on end. Even through the wormhole, he could feel the heat. That shouldn’t have been possible. Portals operated under strict parameters, a one-way flow of energy. And yet, he could feel it.
What the hell was he doing here? This… thing, this monster, it dwarfed him a million times. It had brought worlds into existence. It fueled life from nothing. A hundred empires had lived and died under its light. It was the engine from which all things in the system came. What was he to challenge that? His knees shook, his mouth was dry. He’d been an idiot. This was impossible. He wanted to collapse, to repent, to give up. To touch this thing… it was unimaginable.
“You may begin at any time,” repeated the Professor.
Begin. Begin meant to abandon himself. Begin meant step into the inferno. He couldn’t. But he had to. There was no giving up a Path once started. Like all tests in the Yard, the only failure was death. He gazed at the professors, trying to read any hint of their thoughts, but seeing nothing.
From the back of his mind, words came to him. Something Mikhail had said the first time they had met, limping out of the caves. You can’t succeed if you don’t try. You can’t fail either, was his response at the time. But here, failure was the only other option. The Professors wouldn’t intervene no matter how much he called for help. And if he didn’t jump, they would let him tremble on the platform until he fell or starved. Move or die. Move and die.
He’d been insane to want this. But the decision had been made.
Taking a deep breath, he drew aether to him. There was still plenty from the Professor’s ritual, and it came to him like an eager puppy. What would he need for this? How do you counteract the power of a sun? He’d spent so long thinking of it, practicing, calculating each rite, and now his mind was blank. Cold, obviously. As much cold as possible. He began to speak the words. What else? Stability, to counteract the fission and fusion. Some sort of oxygen supply. A planetary base. Every bit of push against the sun’s nature would be essential. Yes, it was beginning to come together…
For ten minutes he stood, gathering energy, muttering the words. He felt the aether swell around him, more than he had ever gathered in one place before, more than he had ever imagined. It threatened to split it open, but not. It was his. He controlled it. The last word left his lips and he pushed, his arms thrust wide, forcing the aether into a its final shape. He grit his teeth at it crackled against his skin and then… It was done. The shield shimmered just above his skin.
The professors still stood impassive. Well, they would see, wouldn’t they? One way or another. Squeezing his eyes shut, Daeus leaped.
And landed on the surface of a sun.
Even through the shield he could feel the heat roasting him. That was fine. He didn’t need to endure it for very long, just enough to… yes, there. A hundred meters to his left, the portal leading back into the testing halls. He took a step towards it.
The shield around his leg began to waver, and he cursed. Idiot, he’d forgotten to accommodate for the necessary changes as he moved. He focused, and the aether stilled. That could have been bad. He took another step, this time adjusting the shield beforehand. Right, this wasn’t going so bad. He kept moving forward. Maybe 80 meters left. He pushed on. 60 meters. Don’t stop. 40 meters.
His heart skipped a beat. He was almost out of aether. There had been astonishing amounts to draw upon from the gate opening, but he was draining it at even more astonishing rates. And here, he was cut off from the source. How much more time did he have? He did some quick calculations and confirmed what he had suspected: not enough. He was fucked.
Unless he ran for it. Could he? The idea was stupid. But he was standing on the surface of a red giant, so it seemed like he’d already bottomed out on that. Maintaining the shields even when he was just walking was tremendous effort. Each step meant he had to retune the energy to the precise trembling of his muscles, recalibrate the forces keeping him stable on the solar surface, and to do that while running… stupid. But he wouldn’t make it just by walking either. There was only one option. He lunged forward.
He sprinted with all the energy he could spare, muttering words to himself, reshaping the spells keeping him alive with milliseconds to spare for each step. Aether poured from him like an open faucet. Almost there. 30 meters left. His lungs were screaming. His heart was going to burst. 20 meters left. The spells were barely holding together. Each step was loosening them a little bit more. 10 meters. 5. 3. He leaped, arm outstretched. This was it. He’d done it!
Just before he connected with the gate, the realization dawned on him. Going through the portal would cause a massive shift in energy. He’d need to adjust his rites to accommodate it. This wasn’t going to work. He had to change it. He had to-
And the fire took him.