Story 1: Tears of a Witch
Chapter 1: Awakening
September 15th, 1187 (Wednesday)
Leo rolled out of bed to silence his alarm clock. The alarm clock sounded at the same time as the bell from the nearby clock tower as he awoke at precisely 8 AM. There was no need for him to awaken so early, but he liked having the choice to get an early start to the day or go back to sleep.
In order to help him get up in the morning, he had placed the alarm far enough from his bed that he couldn’t reach it easily without actually getting up. He pressed the large button on top to silence it and turned to look at the sunlight coming in through the window. He was feeling energetic today, so he did a quick stretch and decided to get dressed.
It didn’t really matter what time he woke up as he was neither employed nor in school. His parents had moved to the empire’s first colony on Luciola Island and had left him behind on his own with plenty of money. Whenever they sent him letters, he would feel slightly guilty about having nothing to tell them about education or work. He simply wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with his life.
While he was unemployed, he had been tasked with an important responsibility. Just after his parents had left three years ago, while he was in his last year of high school, he had ended up becoming something like a hunter.
At night, Leo patrolled the streets looking for paranormal disturbances. Typically, he hunted those that had escaped the spirit realm, but he wasn’t always limited to those kinds of missions. Paranormal, supernatural, preternatural; anything strange and dangerous needed to be taken care of. His task was to locate all things that had come to the mortal world to cause trouble. Naturally, such a job didn’t pay anything at all.
As long as the disturbances weren’t too powerful, the power given to him by his master would be enough to resolve them. Furthermore, the power wouldn’t activate unless he was in a situation where he needed it. There were a great many magic users and strange things in Cronus to begin with, but they served the development of civilization and didn’t need to be needlessly investigated.
Despite this power, Leo was just an ordinary person. He wasn’t anything like a soldier. The job that he carried out at night wasn’t really necessary at all considering the city was well protected even without him. Perhaps it was only right that it didn’t pay any money.
So why did he hunt ghosts from the spirit realm? He didn’t do it because he was passionate about it, but rather because it was the right thing to do. His days were filled with aimless wandering and so when the offer was made to him he accepted with little hesitation.
Generally, Leo felt inferior to those around him. Everyone else had real lives while he led no life worth anything at all. His master thought it was peculiar that he saved lives but didn’t consider that to be something to be proud of.
Leo didn’t think that was strange at all. The Empire of Zekkyn was protected by Illuminated Knights and Existence Scholars. There were plenty of powerful people to protect the city. He was just an unknown person going around doing a few good deeds under the cover of night. That wasn’t something to be proud of in his mind. He acknowledged that he was doing good, but if he didn’t exist someone could easily replace him so there was no reason to feel special.
After changing into some new clothes, Leo gathered all of his old clothes into a bag and grabbed the key to his apartment to lock the door and leave for the laundromat. Electricity was installed in less than 1% of the houses in Cronus, but there were many businesses with access to the latest technology and washing machines were a new convenience that couldn’t be ignored. Most technology ran using the power of magic batteries, including the appliances in Leo’s apartment like his alarm clock, but no one had designed a washing machine for home use yet.
As he had plenty of money, Leo had no trouble paying for the expensive service of having his clothes cleaned for him. He walked down the road, several blocks, and then dropped off his clothes to have them cleaned professionally. The cleaners recognized him and he paid his usual bill and received a handwritten receipt in exchange. The receipt designated 4 PM as the time he should return to pick up his laundry.
The streets were crowded with people leaving for their jobs. A few carriages passed by, but most people walked wherever they needed to go. Leo could easily afford to hire a carriage, but he needed to stay in shape for hunting strange things at night and he knew that walking was good exercise. Thanks to the money left by his parents, there was nothing he couldn’t afford so he always tried to avoid spending too much on unnecessary luxuries. They didn’t mind him spending their money, but Leo didn’t want to get too accustomed to never having to worry about price.
The Empire of Zekkyn had begun an industrial revolution almost a century ago, but due to the size of Cronus new technologies were still spreading slowly. The city was an impressive 2,700 square kilometres and had existed for 1,887 years so it was a unique blend of ancient civilization and modern technology. The city represented every era that the Empire had been through since its creation.
Outside of the city there were vast farmlands and small towns, but the massive city of Cronus was undeniably the heart of the Empire of Zekkyn.
Leo appreciated living in the heart of civilization. His parents wanted to be part of the expansion of the Empire and so they left for the southern islands that were quickly being developed and outfitted with the latest technology. Leo had no desire to live on the edge of civilization. Cronus was his home and so he was glad he had the opportunity to stay behind.
He visited infrequently, but Leo thought that today would be a good day to go see his master who lived just outside the city’s northern wall. His master’s mansion was approximately 12km from his house, so it would take over an hour to walk there. He had plenty of time, so he didn’t mind the long walk at all.
Outside of the city, there was a mansion that had been abandoned for a while, perhaps a decade or more. It had become known as a haunted house so no one approached it, but the outside wasn’t yet deteriorated. The gardens out front were unkempt and weeds had grown and replaced most of the beautiful flowers that had once been there. Everyone knew the rumors that ghosts lived there now and three years ago Leo had, on a whim, decided to investigate all on his own. That was the day he became a servant of the Ghost King.
Leo opened the unlocked front door and made his way to a room in the back of the house where his master waited. The house was dark as always, but Leo was familiar with navigating to the interior of the first floor.
“Leo, I was intending to summon you tonight,” the Ghost King said. In the darkness, one might have mistaken this powerful and supernatural person for an ordinary human. In the daylight, it would become obvious that his bright white suit, hair, and skin were unnatural colors. His light blue eyes were also far too pale. In the dark, none of these things could be seen well and so Leo had never really noticed.
“That means you have bad news, doesn’t it?” Leo asked.
“It’s not necessarily bad. There have been some new disturbances lately. It’s something I’d like you to be wary of. If you notice anything especially strange or unusual, let me know.”
“I usually look out for unusual things anyway. I always worry when I talk to you that you’ll tell me there’s some imminent disaster.”
“No, of course not. Only the smaller spirits are able to escape my realm undetected. The more powerful monsters make their presence known rather easily. You know you can escape with the power I gave you any time that you’d like, so you’ll never be in true danger anyway. There are very few spirits that escape into this world that can cause physical harm.”
Leo had been granted two major powers from the Ghost King. The first was to detect and banish lesser spirits with a bow and arrow. The second was the ability to teleport back to the lair of the Ghost King in case of an emergency. Because Leo was merely being loaned this power from the Ghost King, he couldn’t freely teleport around the city. It was a power that would send him on a one way trip to this mansion.
“I haven’t ever needed to use it because you’ve never put me in a dangerous situation. Tell me more about what’s going on that you want me to look out for.”
“There’s a new force in the city. It’s not a magic or power that I’m familiar with so I’d like you to see if it manifests in any meaningful shape. It’s subtle and seemingly harmless, but it must be coming from somewhere. Perhaps you’ll be able to locate the source or find out what it is.”
The Ghost King would be far more qualified to investigate this matter on his own, but there was a reason why he had asked Leo to do it for him. Simply put, the Ghost King lacked the power to manifest directly in the world. Even wandering around the mansion would be a tiresome task, so he mostly sat around in one room or another or even retreated to his own realm for a time.
With the aid of magic he could likely manifest further, but being confined to the mansion meant he had no way of contacting anyone and he also had no human allies other than Leo. It was by coincidence that Leo had investigated the mansion and come across the Ghost King and accepted his offer to become his servant.
While Leo was used to visiting the haunted mansion, there was a time when it didn’t belong to the Ghost King. The owners of the mansion had been scared away by his minions, who hadn’t meant any harm, and had fled to the southern islands years ago. Leo wondered if his parents had met the previous owners of the mansion, but the rumors said they had both gone crazy so he also hoped they hadn’t.
Despite Leo and the Ghost King working together for three years, the two of them still didn’t know each other very well because they rarely talked. Still, they had a friendly relationship and Leo was grateful to have a distraction in his life. Hunting down small spirits that were easily dealt with gave him some sense of responsibility. Most nights he spent patrolling the streets he found nothing at all, but there were plenty of nights that he had something to banish.
“I’ll let you know if there’s anything I can figure out,” Leo replied. “I should get going soon so I get back in time for lunch.”
“Very well. Until next time, Leo. Remember that you can teleport here anytime you need to. There’s no need to travel so far and exhaust yourself.”
“I’ll be fine. See you later.”
Agness sat on the grass in the graveyard and looked at Arthur’s tombstone. One year ago, during the Zoth Incident, he had gone missing. There was no proof that he had been killed, but he had been proclaimed dead and now being in front of this tombstone was the closest she was ever going to get to him.
Arthur was someone who was exceptionally extraordinary. He was the man that Agness loved, but she had never been brave enough to confess that to him. They remained friends and so she had never received anything from him and regrettably had nothing to remember him by except for this tombstone. That regret further magnified her grief.
She was miserable these days and her only brief happiness came from being completely alone in the graveyard. Her life since Arthur’s disappearance had been difficult and she couldn’t stop herself from visiting the graveyard on any day when it wasn’t raining or storming outside. She needed to feel at peace as often as she could and trying to keep herself busy wasn’t working.
The sun shone brightly on Cronus that day. The sky was a healthy blue and pure white clouds drifted above. Agness sat on the cleanly cut grass and looked at the immaculate granite tombstone that had been made for Arthur. The other tombstones were old and worn and only his stood out among the others and she felt that was what he deserved.
He was, unquestionably, a hero.
Being alone like this, she felt free to cry and say whatever she needed to although she rarely did either of those things. Generally, she was alone in all aspects of her life. Not that she wasn’t surrounded by people, but moreso that she wasn’t particularly close to any of them. It was only being in the graveyard that somehow made her more comfortable and helped her to feel closer to her lost love.
“Why does a false grave comfort me?”
She herself didn’t understand it. His corpse was certainly not beneath her and she wasn’t pretending that it was, but it felt as if some remnant of him was there. Maybe it was the fact there was no body that made her more comfortable.
After an hour of reflection, she stood up and used a spell to clear the grass stains from her skirt. Despite being a witch with a harsh name like Agness, she was quite beautiful. She was tall and slender with long black hair and gentle green eyes. Her smile was kind and comforting, but it hadn’t been seen in a long time.
She turned away from the grave and headed back toward her office in the Colleges of Azoth where she taught a few classes and assisted students as a tutor. The magical arts came naturally to her and she preferred to tutor than to research new magical techniques. The fall semester had just begun so she was going over basic elemental magic with her pupils and she enjoyed the simplicity and the raw power of working with those elements.
Fire, water, earth, and air. Their true names were plasma, liquid, solid, and gas. Anything that is liquid, be it pure water or oil, falls under the domain of water. Similarly, trees and metal and gems fall under the domain of earth.
Agness enjoyed seeing her students come to realize and understand that fact. Most people didn’t know that stories of the four classical elements were not meant to be taken so literally. While some stories utilized the four elements as pure entertainment, in the world of magic and alchemy understanding their true forms was of critical importance. An understanding of the basic magics would allow students to succeed in whatever specific field they wishes to pursue and that made her happy.
Agness once felt that she had a wonderful life. She had met many different students and encountered diverse creatures and lived in the great capital city of Cronus. The center of civilization was where she spent her days. She never had to worry about her life being dull or uninspired. Creativity and knowledge and beauty writhed and flourished around her.
She couldn’t think of that happiness anymore because it only reminded her that she had no one to share it with. The worst part of it all was that she knew her life was going to go on without him. Her period of grieving would never come to an end because the last thing she wanted to do was move on from him and yet she had no choice but to go forward. To find someone else that she loved was not a comforting thought at all. It pained her greatly and brought tears to her eyes.
“He’s the only one for me, but what if I’m meant for someone else? If that’s true, then why did I feel so strongly for him?”
Agness felt great conflict within her. She tried to distract herself, but these core ideas continued to assault her. She knew it would be wrong to grieve forever, but her heart wouldn’t let her let go. She didn’t know what the proper response was, so she let herself be tormented by questions about how she should feel and what might happen in the future.
In that way, she was condemning herself to a life of sadness.
“I remember you.”
The voice of Zekkyn’s most mysterious ally. It had an inhuman quality to it that it made it distinct to Agness. The owner of that voice possessed the shape of a man, but it was not a man. For convenience, they had given him a human name and identified him as male.
“Percival,” Agness said to the silver shade. “You’re still in this city?”
“There is something of interest to me here. Something significant is occurring.”
The silver shade was one of the few outsiders that had appeared to fight the great beast Zoth a year ago. Agness had assumed he was some kind of warrior and that he had already left long ago. While he wasn’t a soldier by trade, the silver shade himself knew that some people viewed him that way and he accepted it. His appearance in this form was that of a man no different from anyone else, but his true form lacked concrete shape hence the name silver shade. Even that formless mercury was not his true form; it was merely his default form.
For now, formed into the shape of a human, he was indistinguishable from anyone else in Cronus.
“I don’t believe there is a danger,” he replied. “I’m waiting to see if it is one of the kin of my mistress.”
Agness and the others knew Percival served someone, but he rarely spoke of her and said she was nowhere close to Cronus and that they would never meet her. Even so, she couldn’t help but be a little curious as to why she had sent him to Cronus and what exactly the two of them were. In the same way they Existence Scholars studied the world around them, perhaps Percival was studying the world as well.
Percival then swiftly changed the topic to Agness herself.
“This graveyard isn’t a place that you should be,” he said.
“It’s difficult when you lose someone close to you,” she said. She knew he wasn’t quite human so she gave him an explanation. He likely didn’t understand that a graveyard was a place of mourning and remembrance. “The pain won’t go away anywhere except for here.”
“How does this place remove your pain?”
Agness smiled. “It’s not something I can explain. I used to think the living shouldn’t surround themselves with reminders of death, but now I’m not sure. Escaping here is helpful to me. That’s the only thing that I understand.”
“Your input is appreciated,” the strange being said. “I know that Arthur Maxwell was intended to be the hero to destroy Zoth.”
Agness had almost forgotten that she hadn’t moved very far from his grave. The two of them were still talking in front of it and the silver shade had been staring at Arthur’s tombstone while they talked.
“Would you like me to make a simulacra for you?” he asked.
That was the silver shade’s power. From his body, he was capable of creating infinite puppets and servants. The silver liquid of his body severed and split into crude creatures that could be assigned various functions. To Agness, they looked like suffering souls trying to escape Percival and crawl into the world. That was merely her interpretation of what she had seen though.
Agness didn’t want to be around one of those things even if it was able to deceive her and take Arthur’s shape. She couldn’t imagine being around one of those creatures would be comforting in any way.
“You’re kind to offer, but I can’t be around an imitation.”
“You remember him clearly. With the strength of your memories, I can mold him into existence permanently. Wouldn’t that take away your pain better than this graveyard?”
She didn’t quite believe him. To create a perfect copy of Arthur would be wrong anyway. It would be a disgrace to his memory to have some new form of life imitating him. Even if Percival could do something so extraordinary, Arthur’s soul wouldn’t be found within a copy.
“I’m sorry, I must be going. Thank you again for trying to comfort me.”
“This city will be my home until I understand what is happening here. Seek me out if you change your mind. I have some business to attend to before returning to the colleges.”
Agness parted ways with the silver shade and teleported back to her office in the College of the Elements. The Colleges of Azoth were guarded by magical wards so that only those attuned to certain areas were able to teleport to them. Only she and the President would be able to teleport to her office, for example, so she didn’t need to worry about intruders.
She checked outside her door to see if any students were waiting for her. There were none, so she returned to her desk and began looking over documents for the few classes that she was teaching. She had created her own lesson plan for teaching students how to understand basic magical principles, but she always wanted to continue fine-tuning her teaching to make it as easy as possible for her students to understand.
Despite this passion for teaching others, she didn’t seek to advance her place within the Existence Scholars. She was happy where she was even though that went against the Existence Scholars’ central tenant of always bettering oneself. Naturally, she kept this opinion a secret from the others.
The College of the Elements existed primarily for teaching new students and didn’t have many advanced or prestigious courses, so it was fitting that her position was within the entry-level college. The other six colleges governed more rigorous subjects: Philosophy, Mathematics, Science, Medicine, Eschatology, and History.
Agness didn’t feel suited to anywhere other than where she currently was. It was true that the few advanced courses her college offered were some of the most demanding, but she had nothing to do with the professors who taught them or the students interested in them. She taught only the basics and the fundamentals and left everything else to the other departments.
While many people viewed science and magic as two different forces, the College of Science was actually home to the study of the majority of spells, techniques, and research regarding magic. While different from biology and chemistry, magic was in the end just another field of study seeking to learn more about the world.
Unlike a typical university or college, the Existence Scholars didn’t award degrees. Students were truly lifelong learners and their classes were merely aids for advancing within the organization rather than prerequisites. A first year would be strongly encouraged to take a course in all seven of the colleges, but as time went on typically one would narrow their focus and decide the structure of their own education.
Agness had studied primarily in Elements, Philosophy, and History. By her fourth year, she was exclusively taking classes in Elements much to the dismay of her advisors and colleagues. In the end, everything had worked out and so she had forgotten just how much people had disapproved of her in those days. Had she done well in the “final” course of the College of Elements, Advanced Abstract Elemental Theory, perhaps others would’ve changed their opinion of her.
As she worked on reading and grading papers, she began to recall the foolish words of the silver shade. His offer to help her was something she shouldn’t consider at all. The existence of the soul was an unproven concept, but Agness knew there was more to humans than just biological systems. The Arthur that Percival could create would truly be a simulacra. It would never match up to the real Arthur Maxwell who had a unique soul that could not be recreated.
However, if she was wrong and humans were purely biological-
She stopped herself from thinking such disrespectful things.
Chapter 2: Repose
By the time Leo had returned to Cronus, his stomach felt completely empty. He hadn’t eaten breakfast or lunch, and had walked all the way to the Ghost King’s mansion and back, so it was only to be expected.
Back in his apartment he had an expensive refrigerator with water and fruit inside, but he felt like eating something more substantial so he looked around for a restaurant that might interest him. He was a little sweaty from all the walking, so he slowed his pace took some deep breaths to try to cool down and look less flustered. Fall was approaching, but the summer heat was still intense.
Most citizens of the city had ice boxes and didn’t have the luxury of keeping food fresh in their own homes. Daily ice deliveries were made to apartments for the convenience of their tenants, but Leo only had to worry about replacing his refrigerator’s magic battery annually. The magic batteries made by mage smiths were easily mass produced, but the technologies that utilized those batteries was more complex and that resulted in most machines being too expensive for the average consumer. Alarm clocks were common enough, but personal refrigerators were still reserved for the wealthy.
Leo appreciated the money that he had and all of his conveniences. While he only owned a few devices, there were other luxuries that he could afford as well. Even something as expensive as a personal car was within his budget. If he took advantage of all the money his parents had left behind, he could be living in a mansion in the beautiful south-eastern districts of the city. Yet he chose not to because he felt he didn’t need anything like that.
As a child, he had grown up in one of those beautiful mansions. After his parents had sold it and prepared to move south, Leo had ventured north to find a reasonably priced apartment. His parents didn’t disapprove, but they had asked him many times if he’d be comfortable living in a smaller space. Three years later, he could easily say that he was perfectly content.
After passing several nice restaurants, he came across a smaller eatery that he had forgotten about. He spoke to the waiter and took a table under an umbrella on a balcony on the second floor. The restaurant spanned two floors, but it was really quite small and it didn’t have a particularly nice view. All Leo could see was the usual hustle and bustle of carriages and sidewalks overflowing with people.
The waiter poured a glass of ice-cold water which quenched Leo’s thirst as he took several large gulps. Since there was no one else around, he didn’t need to worry about his appearance very much. He was certain that after all the walking he had done he didn’t look as presentable as he should.
“I’ll give you some time to look at the menu,” the waiter said before hurrying down the stairs to greet some new customers.
As was usual for a smaller establishment, the menu was hand-written instead of being mass produced on a printing press. The items on the menu were perfectly legible and written in a lovely blue ink.
After browsing for a few moments, Leo decided on a small salad and an affordable cut of steak. As was customary, he paid for his meal in advance with a large coin. The currency of Cronus was formally called the denarius. The denarius was a coin minted from electrum and featured several official engravings. The two larger and more valuable coins were called silvers and golds, despite being made of electrum as well, and were valued at 50 and 500 denarii respectively.
Leo was in the habit of paying generously, so he only carried silvers and golds within his wallet. Crime wasn’t a big problem in the city so he wasn’t worried about anyone trying to steal from him. He gave the waiter a silver as a tip and a gold to cover the cost of the meal. The waiter thanked him profusely for his generosity and went to give his order to the chef.
Leo enjoyed his meal in peace and quiet. The steak was almost as juicy and well-seasoned as one that a fine dining establishment might produce and that was a pleasant surprise. Leo finished two glasses of water and enjoyed his salad last before being given a complimentary set of cookies for his dessert.
“Isn’t this just fine?” he wondered to himself.
His life was ideal. It was simple. It was enjoyable and worry free.
Yet Leo felt something was off every now and then. It wasn’t necessarily guilt that his life was so easy and others had a much more difficult time working and struggling to afford basic necessities. It was more of a feeling that he was simply too far removed from the world.
Even that wasn’t a good explanation because it didn’t accurately summarize what he felt. He himself couldn’t describe it well, but meditating on it for a moment always caused the feeling to pass. It was like he had some kind of small dissatisfaction at the far reaches of his mind that he could never identify.
“I know that I’m happy,” he stated to himself with absolute confidence. “There’s just something else I can’t quite understand.”
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