Arcturus stared at the notifications in front of him with a mix of curiosity and confusion. Curiosity because of the nature of what he was reading, and confusion because it was the first time such notifications had not simply popped into his mind using the voice of his subconscious. The only logical conclusion was that setting up his HUD had changed how the System sent him alerts. Given the ease of management that offered, he was more than happy to accept the change. After a moment of perusal, and a promise to better investigate all three later, he minimized the notifications to better focus on his surroundings.
He was seated on a spacious sofa-lounge in Maurice’s lavishly decorated living room above the tailoring shop, having accepted the clothier’s offer of a place to speak in private.
The reasons behind that need were seated near and around him: Adam, Andy, Danica, and their Terran companion whose name Arcturus had learned was Caeara (pronounced Kay-are-ah). His friends from Earth appearing at the one clothing store in Luxanium he would patronage, at the exact right time to encounter him? Arcturus darted a knowing look at the ceiling and away from the notification.
Order was playing games. He was almost certain of it.
You really believe the ostensible Creator of All is choosing to spend time solely on you?
It wasn’t like there were any real coincidences in Terra, after all. Fate was real.
And you think I’m conceited.
Arcturus rolled his eyes and tuned into the on-going conversation again, listening as Adam spoke.
“I can understand your immediate trepidation, Lady Archon, but I can assure you that we are by no means going to be an impediment to you or to Arcturus.”
“Nephilim are trouble. It is well-known that the few among your kind gifted with an Archon’s might have been the source of several of the most contentious events in the Empire’s history.”
“With all due respect my lady, that’s an unfairly broad brush to paint us all with. We are no more collectively responsible for the actions of a highly visible few than you are for the actions of distant, recalcitrant relatives.”
“I have no recalcitrant relatives.” Tylariel responded dismissively.
“But you nonetheless understand my point.” Adam asserted. “It also merits mentioning that unlike you and your sister — a woman I firmly believe stopped my friend from accidentally getting himself killed — we have known Arcturus for most of his life.”
“Then what are you proposing, Nephilim? To put yourself into my service?”
Danica snorted at Tylariel’s assumption, and Adam shot her look as Tylariel’s expression hardened.
Arcturus tried, and failed, not to smile: That was Danica to a tee.
“When Arcturus claimed us as his ‘allies’ and mentioned adding us to his ‘Court’, we received a kind of… divine insight.”
“Divine insight?” Tylariel asked skeptically.
“It would be more sensible to call it a quest prompt, but whenever we try to explain the System to people on Terra—”
“Yes, yes, we are familiar with your abnormal ability to guide your aetheric growth. Skip to the point, Nephilim.”
“—they don’t want to hear it.” Adam said with resignation, glancing at Arcturus with a wry look.
“The point Adam is trying to make, your hotness—”
“Excuse me?” Tylariel sputtered.
“—is that we were given a prompt, very likely from The Highest, to accept or decline an official allegiance as part of Arcturus’ Court.” Andy finished unapologetically, smiling confidently at the glaring redhead.
“W-while I cannot say I received the same guidance, my lady, I can attest to something happening!” Caeara interjected hurriedly. “I know not what kind of divine machinations the Nephilim are privy to, and personally I find their attempted explanations somewhat bewildering. However, I can attest that I was somehow included in His Highness’—”
Andy and Danica groaned.
“—proclamation, and I felt a suffusion of Aether that I knew instinctively would create a bond between myself and the Prince if I accepted its presence.”
Tylariel was still glaring at Andy’s grinning face when Caeara finished, but to Arcturus’ relief the redhead didn’t attempt to obliterate his friend on the spot and instead seemed to lend far more weight to the native Terran’s words than anything Adam had said up to that point.
“An aether-forged oath of loyalty? I’ve heard of them. Supposedly the original Houses in the Dominions gave them to the Kings that ruled them at the founding of the Empire, but this is the first I’m hearing of one between Nephilim.”
“I know you are still displeased with me given what happened earlier, Mentor.” Arcturus said as Tylariel sat back thoughtfully. “But I would be lying if I said I am willing to part with my friends, even if it costs me your tutelage. I already lost them once. I won’t lose them again.”
Arcturus attempted to ignore the flush of embarrassment his words roused in him, especially when he peripherally noticed Adam, Andy, and Danica grinning at him with both gratitude and a promise of relentless teasing to come.
Charisma Check successful!
“Not even a day as my apprentice, and you throw more complications at me than anyone I’ve met in my life.” Tylariel muttered irritably, though Arcturus could detect her heart wasn’t in it. “Very well. If these Nephilim and their companion wish to give their loyalty to you… As the true heir to the Valarian Throne, you are entitled to have their oaths. I have no true power to interfere with that, Mentor or not.”
“How delightful.” Maurice said from nearby, having remained silent throughout the exchange. “We may very well be watching history being made. The prodigal prince and his loyal companions’ first steps on the path to glory.”
“I never took you for a playwright, Maurice.” Tylariel sniffed.
“Who doesn’t love some dramatic fare, my lady? Especially when it’s so very uplifting.”
I like how he thinks. Why can't you be more like him?
Arcturus ignored them as they spoke and focused on his friends, watching as their eyes darted in the way that told him they were reading a prompt. They seemed to be scanning through something he could only guess at, and he wasn’t sure what would happen until Adam — presumably the first to finish — spoke.
“I, Adam Warman, do hereby pledge my fealty and loyalty to Arcturus Regis Valoura. I shall be his blade, his shield, and his faithful companion. From now until the Ending, unless he should release me of this Oath, I shall agree to be bound to him and adhere to his will. I make this pledge in full awareness of its immensity, and with the glad acceptance of the weight of such a duty upon my shoulders. In the name of Order, let my pledge be sealed.”
Arcturus looked at Adam in surprise for a short time after he spoke, and was about to speak when something hit his core like a hammer to the gut. He gasped out in pain as something burned within him, vaguely noticing Adam constricting in a similar fashion as a connection flared between them with inexorable progress. It felt like he was being branded. No, being branded would be pleasant by comparison. His existence felt like it was being boiled, frozen, and then boiled again. His blood grew hot in his veins, and he tasted blood as he bit down on his lip to distract from the pain.
Until suddenly it was over.
Arcturus found himself on the floor on all fours, and looked up to see Tylariel on her feet with a sword of what appeared to be elegantly braided and extremely condensed vines pointed at Adam, who was panting and half-hanging off of his chair. Andy and Danica were also on their feet; the former holding a blue-bladed shortsword in his right hand and a wicked looking red-bladed dagger in his left; the latter gripping a ludicrously large white staff topped with a disconnected golden halo floating where the top of it should have been.
Caeara was checking Adam, while Sumeko and Jess were flanking Tylariel with guns in their hands.
As for Maurice? The Tailor was simply sipping his tea, as if absolutely nothing was wrong.
“Stop!” Arcturus wheezed, freezing everyone in place as every eye turned to him.
Tylariel’s eyes darted from Arcturus to Adam and back again, her lips pursed in anger.
“What happened, Apprentice?”
“I have no idea, Mentor.” Arcturus responded honestly, realising he’d started sweating. He rose to his feet unsteadily, frowning at the tingling in his body. It felt like he’d been put through a scalding hot shower, except on his insides. “Something happened between Adam and I. I… can’t really explain it, but it wasn’t an attack or anything. It’s hard to properly put it into words, but I can feel him.”
Ah the jokes one could make...
In his mind’s eye it was like a tether of light between himself and his friend. When he focused on it, he could tell exactly whom the tether belonged to and how strong it was. In fact, a prompt opened in front of his eyes when he thought about seeing more information.
“Woah.” Arcturus said as he looked over the information panel and read the details carefully. “That’s awesome.”
“Apprentice?” Tylariel prompted.
“Sorry.” Arcturus said as he dismissed the notification. “I just gained a new ability, I guess. Adam and I now have a tether I can use to find him. It also has the potential to grow and give us new benefits as it evolves. It’s surreal, but if I focus I can feel him right there. I could be blindfolded and point to exactly where he is, and whether or not he’s alive or dead.”
Tylariel pursed her lips as she looked between the two of them, until her posture relaxed marginally and her vine-blade vanished as she clipped her intricate hilt back to her belt. “I suppose what’s done is done, then. It’s lucky you roused yourself, though the conduct of your Nephilim companions was unacceptable.”
“You’re the one who pulled out the aetherblade, lady!” Danica said angrily while shaking her staff at Tylariel.
Ooh, this is going to be juicy!
“That will be quite enough of that, I think.” Maurice said placidly as he sipped his tea. “I believe the Nephilim were in the middle of something before emotions started running rampant?”
Tylariel looked at the calm clothier for a moment before abruptly settling herself back onto the chaise she’d claimed and gesturing with a manicured hand towards Arcturus. “Proceed with your oaths, Apprentice. We have more stops to make today, and we’ve no time to dither unnecessarily.”
Arcturus blinked in surprise at the jarring shift of atmosphere and looked curiously at Maurice. For all that he could see, his grand-uncle was little more than a regular shopkeeper — yet a single statement had been enough to dissuade his Mentor from even responding to Danica’s provocation. Until that moment he had seen only deference towards Tylariel, yet something about that interaction tickled him. There was far more to Maurice, he suspected, than what was visible to the naked eye.
Spoilsport is what he is.
“I don’t know if it’s going to be the same process with you guys.” Arcturus said as he shuffled the thought away and turned to Danica and Andy. “So let’s go one at a time, if you guys are still interested.”
“Yeah…” Andy said as he slowly sat back down, his weapons somehow gone as fast as they’d appeared. “Not going to lie, definitely rethinking the whole ‘horrible agony’ part of the de—Ow!”
He shot Danica an annoyed look as she smacked the back of his head, her staff firmly planted and held in her right hand while she poked his temple with her left. “We made a promise, Andy. Don’t even think of chickening out!”
“A promise?” Arcturus asked automatically.
This is going to be so sweet I'm going to feel sick, and I'm disembodied!
“When we learned you were supposedly forever dead.” Adam said as he readjusted in his seat and clenched his hands over and over, an action Arcturus assumed was to handle the left-over adrenaline from the oathbinding. “We swore that if we ever found a way to get you back, no matter how far-fetched or insane it was, we’d take it. You died trying to keep us safe. Even though you technically failed, you paid for it with your life dude.” He shook his head. “Even on Earth, you don’t just forget that sort of debt. We’ve been grinding hard trying to get strong enough to try something — anything, really — for a chance to get you back. Finding you like this? I can’t even tell you how surreal it is, but—”
“We’re not letting you get away from us again.” Danica finished fiercely. “No way in hell. We’ve had to deal with not having you around for nearly two years. It was awful, Arcturus. Especially after we learned about the Houses and I started connecting the dots. We didn’t tell anyone about it, of course. That would’ve put a target on our backs.”
“Dots that Andy, Caeara, and I were admittedly skeptical of.” Adam admitted with an apologetic shrug. “It just seemed way too convenient.”
“It was… challenging to believe that my Nephilim companions had grown up with the scion of House Valoura.” Caeara admitted nervously. “Very challenging. To a Terran, your family is…”
“It’s like being told someone grew up with the Windsors.” Andy supplied. “Seems like complete bullshit unless you have solid proof. Especially when the Windsors in this scenario use magical fucking lightsabers.”
Tylariel hissed in annoyance at Andy’s lack of decorum, but his only acknowledgement was a very provocative wink in her direction.
“We ended up just researching the Valouran bloodline and recognised the patterns.” Adam said matter-of-factly, distracting Tylariel from glaring at Andy. “The naming conventions, the sketches, even the records of each personality. When we realised that your Dad matched the description of the presumed-dead Prince pretty much exactly…”
“Why didn’t you try to come forward even then?” Sumeko piped up curiously. “Nephilim are divine-touched. The Church would not let you be harmed for simple conjecture.”
“They were wise not to.” Tylariel interjected with grudging respect in her tone, as if the words were being dragged out of her. “Leon Fortunis has the Church eating from his palm. No one would ever think to break Valaria’s laws with Arcturus Titus alive, but with the Iron Prince gone…”
“I’m sorry, ‘Iron Prince’?” Arcturus asked incredulously. “You never told me that!”
“He had a reputably rigid code.” Tylariel said as if that explained it all.
“Plus almost the entire Gilded Aegis was lost when he was.” Maurice said sadly. “A true loss for the Dominion, that.”
“The Gilded Aegis?” Arcturus’ stared at Maurice. “Hold on, they were real? I thought those were just stories he made up!”
“Understandable, given your previous frame of reference.” Maurice said benignly. “No doubt the tales would have seemed fantastical and implausible to a youth from such an Aether-starved source-shard.”
“They were your Dad’s bodyguards or companions or whatever.” Andy said with a nonchalant wave of his hand. “Sort of like Achilles and the Myrmidons. Real badasses, and all with the same kind of crazy devotion to the traditions and laws of your family.”
“The Aegis were often a sore spot for the Imperial Crown-Prince.” Maurice commented idly. “He never liked that people in Valaria saw them as superior to the Praetorian Guard.”
“Egotistical bourgeois. ‘How surprising!’ said nobody ever.” Danica commented sardonically.
“So wait. You guys mentioned researching, but… What about Amélie? Or Alanna for that matter?”
His friends exchanged glances, and Arcturus’ heart clenched for reasons he couldn’t quite articulate.
“They both made it to Terra, but…” Andy trailed off and glanced at Danica for help, who promptly shook her head and jutted her chin at Adam.
A flat look was given to both of them before Adam turned back to Arcturus.
“I’ll admit I was trying to avoid this discussion a little longer.” He clasped his hands together and leaned forward as he spoke, looking Arcturus in the eyes. “Amélie took your death a lot harder than the rest of us, Arc, and it… changed her. When we came to Terra, we were all given a kind of ‘tutorial’ at the Shrine of Order where we emerged. Every Nephilim gets the same, though I guess you’d be the exception. We were all given ‘paths’ and ‘classes’ to choose from, based on our personalities and aptitudes.”
“I got the Path of Secrets and Classes ‘Rogue’ and ‘Arcanist’. When I hit level 10, I got the option to advance my Rogue class to Assassin, or to wait and level my Arcanist to 5 and then take the Mageslayer Class. As you can probably guess—!”
“He was too edgy to refuse it.” Danica finished derisively.
“Rude.” Andy groused.
“Danica was given the Cleric and Arcanist classes and Path of Serenity, and she eventually also chose a combination class: Battle Cleric. It’s an off-healer and DPS role.”
“And it’s awesome.”
“It’s definitely useful.” Adam agreed as Danica stared lovingly at her halo-topped staff.
“What about you, Adam?” Arcturus asked with an amused glance for Danica.
“Path of Knowledge. Got Arcanist and Warrior, chose Battlemage.” Adam said without preamble. “Mix of magical and martial skills, primarily focusing on the former. Spellblade is the other option I had, but that inverts the focus from magical to martial, and I’ve always liked the idea of going full Gandalf on someone — so I went with Battlemage.”
“That’s another thing. Terrans don’t get Classes.”
“What?” Arcturus asked. “But Tylariel—?”
“Archon is as much a rank or position as it is a ‘Class’.” Adam interjected with a wave of the hand. “It’s the closest thing we can see to a tangible Class, but it’s still not really classified as one. Something goes… weird… when you try to apply System logic to Terrans. It’s like it doesn’t know how to quantify them, or can’t quantify them. Kind of weird, really, when you think about everything else. You’d assume it’d be as accessible to them as it is to us, since you need Terran blood somewhere in your lineage to qualify for reincarnation as a Nephilim… but nope.”
“How does that make any sense?” Arcturus questioned. “I get Charisma, Perception, and Intellect Checks all the time.”
Intellect Check unsuccessful!
“Yeah, but I think it’s less of a value-based system and more of a… guiding point. Your stats don’t actually control anything, they just inform on your growth and how people perceive you, I reckon. It’s just like working out back on Earth and building muscle. The difference is that here we can use ‘experience’ to nudge our development where we want it to go, and in a way more manageable timeframe. With Aether, it also means we can achieve feats of strength or acquire longevity that would normally be impossible.”
“Are you two quite done with your nonsensical talk?” Tylariel asked with mild irritation. “As much as I enjoy being the subject of Nephilim gibberish and pseudo-scientific postulation, we have objectives to achieve. Answer his question about your other companions, swear your oaths if you intend to, and let us leave poor Maurice to reopen his store. My apprentice is still in need of an Aetherblade.”
Danica rolled her eyes with slow and deliberate emphasis, and Arcturus struggled not to wince as Sumeko and Jess glared daggers at her.
“The Lady Archon is correct, I guess. We should cut to the case.” Adam sighed. “I’m sorry, I keep finding excuses to veer away from the topic. The point is, we all had our induction and Amélie… Well, Amélie got the Path of Justice and the Classes ‘Warrior’ and ‘Cleric’.”
“She chose to take an Advanced Hybrid instead of a Base Advanced Class.”
Perception Check unsuccessful!
“What aren’t you telling me, Adam?”
His friend closed his eyes for a moment, as if looking for strength, before returning his focus to Arcturus.
“Amélie really didn’t handle your death well, like I said. It made her depressed, angry, volatile… She started looking for something to fill the void. For a… purpose. We tried to help, but she wouldn’t have any of it. Her and Alanna became close. Really close. When Alanna got her Oracle class, she had a vision about something she wouldn’t tell us, and she and Amélie just… shut us out.”
Arcturus’ heart started beating faster as he listened.
“A few weeks later Amélie went to the Inner City Cathedral and… Well, we don’t know what happened, but she went in and next thing we know we’re being told to leave the Cathedral grounds immediately.”
Perception Check unsuccessful!
“What? Did something happen?” Arcturus asked.
“Something happened alright.” Andy said bitterly.
Adam’s voice was tight with emotion. “She joined the Inquisition, Arcturus. Amélie became a Valkyrie, and if what we heard yesterday is true... she’s been assigned as a bodyguard.”
Perception Check unsuccessful!
“So what?” Arcturus asked in confusion. “Who cares if she’s guarding some rand—?”
“Leon Valoris Honorum. She’s given her loyalty to the guy about to inherit your throne.”
Cue dramatic music.
“What are you—?”
“She’s not the same girl you remember. You need to be ready for that. To accept it.”
Adam fixed him with a determined stare, and emphasized his words.
“Amélie is our enemy, Arcturus.”
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- Chief Failure at Writing
Hannibal is an extroverted nerd from the greater British Commonwealth.
He fell in love with books and writing from a young age, and has been failing his way towards some level of literary competence since his pre-school years.
The Wheel of Time is his all-time favourite book series, and he's a big fan of LitRPG, High Fantasy, and Hard Sci-Fi.