For a millennium the Volari people have hid under The Mountain plotting their revenge.
Part One: Shadows on the ground.
Kolya strode down the stone halls of Last Light with all the confidence and bearing of a god. He was, after all, as close to actually being a god as any mortal could be. Who else but a god could bend the very stone of The Mountain to his will? In his rational mind, Kolya knew very well that he was just a man. He knew he wasn't even the most powerful Shaper in the subterranean realm of Volarov. At that particular moment however, contemplation of his own mortality was thrust firmly out of his mind. Just two weeks ago he had completed his trial and been recognized as a fully fledged War-Shaper and transferred to the fortress of Last Light. At the age of twenty-three, Kolya was the youngest man to ever achieve the rank. Now, just two weeks later, the word had gone out. The word the Volari people had been waiting one thousand years to hear. The time for retribution had come.
At breakfast that morning whispers had begun to build, starting with the rumor that several spies had returned over the last week and the high council had spent all night deliberating on what information the scouts had brought back. Come mid-morning, when Kolya was at the sparing grounds, the whispers grew to open speculation. It seemed the council had reached some sort of decision and called a meeting with the generals. By the time Kolya and his squad sat down for lunch, the entire fortress was practically ablaze with anticipation. General Sukov, the man in command of the garrison at Last Light, had called a general assembly for that afternoon.
After lunch, Kolya had gone along with everyone else to the parade grounds and formed up in ranks to hear the general speak. There had been such wild jubilation following Sukov's words, men had run through the tunnels yelling and crying out that the waiting was over. Wives and children of soldiers danced in the streets, and the entire fortress celebrated under the multi-hued glow from the luminescent fungus growing on the cavern ceiling. The city was lit in vibrant blues, greens, and reds from above, and lit from below by street corner bonfires as the entire population took to the streets with reckless abandon. Men and women drank and danced well into the night. The War-Shapers however, had work to do. News of the coming retribution meant that their job was just beginning.
With a cocky swagger, Kolya walked in step behind Squad Captain Ivan on their way to the armory. The twenty men of the Last Light War-Shaper's Squad all looked remarkably alike with their tall well muscled frames, purest white hair and piercing blue eyes over wide noses and strong jawlines. Not that that was unexpected since they all shared the same father. The ability to use Shaping was not necessarily hereditary, but strength in the Shaping often was. The Volari government had been breeding Shapers for ten generations. It was said that the white hair had been a side effect of the breeding program, a trait passed down from the original five patriarchs who rediscovered the lost art of Shaping. Now, thanks to the breeding program, the Last Light squad was one of ten such units stationed throughout Volarov.
Last Light was the name given to the fortifications inside the main entrance to the subterranean nation. It was the path the first Volari had taken when they were driven from their homes by the treacherous Aelirans a millennium ago. As they had passed into the jaws of the caverns, the fading light of the sunset had chased them for a time but inevitably failed. It was the last sunlight many of the Volari people would ever see. It was not the only entrance to the caverns, but it was the only one large enough to march an army through. Because of this it was heavily fortified and guarded. No army had attempted the fortress since they had turned back the Aeliran force sent to exterminate the last Volari shortly after the exile, but the lessons learned from the Aeliran betrayal taught the Volari to never again let down their guard.
Ivan led his squad through the streets to the armory. All the buildings at Last Light were shaped from the stone of the mountain. Structures were carved into the walls of the original cavern and grown from the cavern floor in neat rows leaving room for streets and alleys between buildings with larger open spaces for training grounds. All the buildings centered around the wide highway that ran from Last Light in the west to the Cathedral, the massive cavern housing the Volari government buildings, and on to the ancient ruins of Celes in the east. There was a similar highway that ran north and south. Both roads were shaped smooth and straight allowing a squad of War-Shapers in their war-harness to travel the breadth of the nation in four days. It would take normal soldiers a week to make the march.
The inside of the armory was lined with racks and shelves filled with enough arms and armor to equip a thousand men. Kolya and his half-brothers were not interested in such mundane armaments however, and they strode proudly past them to the far end of the long building. There against the far wall of the armory were twenty arming dummies, each with an odd looking breastplate shining in the blue glow of the ceiling fungus. The breastplates looked much like any other steel breastplate a soldier might wear, except that at the waist and shoulders the metal was rolled extremely thick. The armor had no straps to hold it in place, it was simply open at the sides. The entire surface of the armor was covered in flowing runes, the art of which had been long forgotten. The runes whirled and danced around each other with such graceful curves that they almost seemed to move, all the runes pointing to the prime rune in just to the left of center above where the wearers heart would be.
These were relics of an age long forgotten. They had been found in the deepest depths of the Volarov Caverns, in the ruined city of Celes. No one could explain how the city had gotten there. It was clearly a surfacer's city, with its high peaked roofs and large windows to let in the sun. Yet there it was at the very bottom of the world. In this city the Volari explorers had found some two hundred sets of armor, among various other artifacts. It had not be difficult for the Shapers who studied the armor to learn to use it, but no one had yet been able to unlock the secrets of the runes. It wasn't that they did not understand the runes. There had also been a great library in the ruined city and the over the centuries Scholars had learned what they could about the theory behind what runes meant, and how they worked together with the Shaping. However, whenever a Shaper tried to draw and empower the runes he would pass out and slowly waste away until they body simply gave up.
Kolya cared little for such academic pursuits, all he needed to know was that the ancient runes on the war-harness still worked. His was the first generation allowed to use the relic armor, a great honor and a sign that retribution was near. With practiced motions, Kolya stripped out of his formal uniform and pulled on the snug black pants and long sleeved shirt that would go under the harness. He then lifted the breastplate off the stand and pulled it down over his head noting, not for the first time, how surprisingly light it was. He then picked up a dagger and pressed the tip to the back of his left hand, just enough to draw a drop of blood. After setting down the dagger he touched the small cut with the index finger of his right hand, then touched the bloody finger to the prime rune on the armor. The rune glowed a deep red like the last embers in a cooling forge, then it began to pulse in time with his own heartbeat. A second later and the runes surrounding the prime seemed to catch fire. With each successive rune ignited, the forge fires regained strength and grew in intensity until the entire breastplate seemed to burn brightly. There was some heat, not so much as to be dangerous, but Kolya quickly pulled his hand away and stood straight with his feet set in a wide stance and his arms stretched out to either side.
When the magical fires reached their peak, the steel itself began to writhe and move. The open sides seemed to melt closed as metal flowed in to fill the gap. The thick rolls of metal at the shoulders and waist spun themselves out into thin strands of steel that arranged themselves into a fine lattice down his arms and legs then pressing in tight to his limbs. On his hands metal strands took their places over the top of his fingers sending out rings between each knuckle. Each strand coincided with a muscle and they were all bound together at the wrist, elbow, knees, and ankles. When the metal stopped flowing, Kolya's limbs were covered in a spiderweb lattice of steel. The breastplate, while still there, was now quite thin. If it were normal metal it would not offer much in the way of protection, but the runes seemed to give it unnatural strength.
Once the transformation was complete, the glow began to fade from the runes one at a time until only the prime rune remained illuminated, pulsing faintly in time with his heartbeat. Kolya moved his arms easily, and the harness moved with him. He flexed his right bicep and watched the strands over the muscle bulge with it. He took a step and felt lighter, like he was no longer carrying his own weight. He grinned at the sensation and looked around noticing that his fellow War-Shapers had all donned their harnesses and were wearing similar expressions.
“It's about damn time we get to use these for something besides training.” said the middle aged man on Kolya's right.
“I hear that, Petr. Hope its for real, I'd hate to be all dressed up with nowhere to go.” Replied the shorter man on Kolya's left.
“Isn't that the story of your life, Lev? With all that time you spend in front of the mirror.” Barked Ivan from down the line. All the men laughed at that, then went back to dressing. Kolya had just pulled on the loose fitting mottled dark gray trousers they all wore over the harness when he felt a small tremor in the earth beneath his feet.
“Did you feel that?” He asked the other men.
“Just a trem...” Petr began to respond when the ground lurched with a loud rumbling cracking sound like the mountain itself was being broken in half. Some of the men lost their footing and fell to the floor. Kolya was the first to regain his balance and he looked to Ivan for direction.
“Lets get out of here. That was a big quake, people may need help” Ivan shouted as the
rumbling subsided. As they exited the armory and moved out into the street the ground bucked again, harder this time. The earsplitting sound of stone grinding on stone nearly brought Kolya to his knees. The entire world seemed to shake and move on the verge of shattering. Behind them the armory building collapsed, its roof and walls folding under the rapidly shifting pressures of the earthquake.
Kolya knelt quickly and covered his head with his arms as the armory wall toppled outward onto the men in the street. The runes on his breastplate ignited when the stone met his defensively upraised arms. Bright red flames seemed to roll off Kolya's body as he pushed back against the wall. With all his considerable strength, he pushed back against the wall to stop its descent. With one arm holding up the foot thick stone wall, he willed it to weaken. The strength of stone that had held the building up for centuries leached out of the wall, retreating into the foundation below. He then pulled back his arm and clenched his fist. The metal strands of the harness thickened and flattened forming a protective shell around his otherwise soft flesh. Kolya punched upward, his fist sinking several inches into the wall and creating a large crack that soon spider-webbed outward. Kolya focused his will on expanding the cracks, on further weakening the stone. Within seconds the wall crumbled around him.
Kolya stood out of the ruin. The slowly cooling flames on his torso dancing in the dust rising from the rubble. He looked around taking a quick count and was relieved to see that all his half-brothers had escaped being crushed. Earthquakes were not uncommon in the depths. They were a fact of life that the Volari people had learned to deal with. There had always been smaller tremors a couple times a year, with larger quakes every few years. All their buildings were Shaped with that in mind, and designed to withstand all but the strongest quakes. For this one to have brought down the armory, it must have been very strong indeed.
“Every one alright?” Asked the captain. After a moment of silence he continued “Good. Lets get moving, I doubt the armory was the only building to collapse, follow me.” With that, Ivan broke into a run down the highway.
Last Light was surprisingly resilient, most of the structures were Shaped directly into the cavern walls. Only the buildings lining the highway, like the armory, were free standing. By virtue of engineering, or by miracle, only one other building had sustained any real damage. The west wall of one of the barracks had collapsed along with a good portion of the roof. No one had been inside and people were already hard at work rebuilding the structure. Teams of soldiers had cleared away the foundation and were stacking blocks of stone over it. As they stacked, Shapers moved along the wall molding the stones together into a cohesive whole. It was not a fast process. A skilled team with brick and mortar could likely work faster, but the finished product could not match the Shaper's work. The Shapers knelt before the wall with the hands on the stone, blocks of stone slowly melted into each other. Once the wall was complete the shapers would strengthen the stone and add whatever structural reinforcements they deemed necessary. That step would take far less time since it was much easier to change a materials properties than it was to change its shape.
Kolya and the other War-Shapers were part of the crew clearing rubble. Thanks to their war-harness they were able to carry away the larger hunks of stone with ease. When one of them lifted a particularly heavy stone, their armor flared to light, illuminating the dim wreckage. Out of the corner of his eye, Kolya spotted a young woman standing outside the ruined building observing the work through thick black-rimmed spectacles. She wrote in a notebook while she watched them, apparently finding the whole business incredibly fascinating.
“Why don't you lend a hand, Alik?” Kolya asked over his shoulder with a grin. “Or are you too busy enjoying the view?”
“View? Oh yes! Its fascinating. Like fireflies. All of you moving about, lighting up like that.” Alik replied obliviously. “Do you have a minute? I need to ask you some more questions about the armor.”
“I suppose I could take a quick break.” Kolya set down the stone he'd been carrying and walked over to Alik. She was a small, slight woman, barely as tall as Kolya's chest. She wore he hair pulled back in a pony-tail and her face was smudged with dirt and dust from the quake and graphite from the pencil she always kept tucked behind her right ear. “Now what do you want to know? Moving this rubble is no problem, we've lifted heavier burdens than this in training.”
“You've been at it for awhile, are you noticing any weakening in the armor's strength?”
“Nope. This thing just keeps going, I'll wear out long before it does. Hell, I came straight here from having a wall dropped on me.”
“Interesting. I wonder where it draws its energy from.” She said to herself in a low voice, momentarily forgetting Kolya. Then her head shot up as if she had just heard his last sentence.”Wait, what? A wall? Dropped on you? And your here working?”
“Yeah, the armory collapsed and the wall came down right on top of us. With the armor I was able to keep it from crushing me and weaken it enough to break it down.” Kolya said with no small amount of pride in his voice.
“Fascinating!” Alik stared wide eyed at the whirling runes on Kolya's chest. “We never tested anything like that, would have been bad if the armor hadn't been strong enough. Don't have enough War-shapers to go around squishing them in the name of science. Pity, that.” She paused for just a moment, ordering her thoughts, then snatched up her pencil and launched into a barrage of questions. “Was the light brighter than normal? Was there more Heat? Were you carrying any of the load? Or did the armor form some kind of structure to hold up the wall? Hold long did you have to hold it? Could you do it again? This wall here looks unstable still... we could get someone to push it over...” She trailed off at Kolya's exacerbated look.
“I would thank you not to drop any more walls on me.” He stated matter-of-factly.
“But it would be in the name of science!” Alik pleaded, big brown eyes and pouting lips attempting to weave their spell on him.
“Science be damned! I've no desire to be squished.” Kolya laughed. “Besides, we need to finish up here and get on the move. We were suiting up for the run to The Cathedral when the quake hit. We need to be at the commissioning ceremony tomorrow before we leave.”
Alik looked sad to hear that, She had been studying the relic armor for the last three years, and had bonded with Kolya over the last two weeks since he arrived. Truth be told, he would miss her. “You will be careful out there, won't you?” She said, suddenly hesitant and uncharacteristically serious. “We don't know whats out there, no one besides the spies has left the caverns in a thousand years. A lot can change in that time.”
“Relax, in the briefing they said the Empire is a weak and frail thing, they only control a few outposts and let the rest of the countryside fend for itself. We will crush them, just like the patriarchs promised.” Kolya said reassuringly “Just you watch, I'll be back here letting you run insane tests on me again by this time next year.”
“You better be, we still have to find the limits to what the armor can handle!” Alik smiled with renewed cheerfulness.
“I need to get back to work, you take care of yourself while we're gone, don't get too bored without any relics to study.”
She stepped up and gave him a quick hug then said “Be careful. That's a priceless artifact your wearing, you'd better bring it back in one piece!”
“Goodbye Alik.” He said with a forced chuckle.
“Goodbye Kolya” She replied, then turned and walked off leaving him to finish his work.