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0.

In the very first world there was a boy and a girl; a set of orphaned twins whose fates were intertwined with all that was destined to come after. They lived free and simple in the forests of Akash, beyond the reaches of the Khurathi, the ancient civilization who called that world home. In those verdant jungles they played, ate fruit from the vine, and befriended many strange creatures whose names seemed unimportant to their innocent minds. Their life was one without words; one of feelings, colors, and vibrations.

It came to pass that an acolyte of High Priestess Khura stumbled upon the twins when they were still quite young. This acolyte was struck by the violet hue of their eyes, a color said to be holy by the High Priestess. She beckoned the children along with her, enchanting them with her rich clothes, shiny coins and jewels. They were precocious, she thought, but she knew that the High Priestess would find something sacred in their appearance.

Upon her return to the Great Temple, the acolyte presented the children to Khura, who was immediately taken by them. Khura witnessed their arrival in an oleander vision, and explained that they were the harbingers of a new era of prosperity for the Khurathi Empire. The girl, she declared, would be named Raposa, and would become a powerful Visionaire much like Khura herself. The boy was to be called Roxas, and was to be trained in the art of warfare, to one day lead the Khurathi Mercenarium. They took the children into the temple and arranged for them to be fed, clothed, and taught the ancient arts.

The first night, the temple stewards tried to keep the children separate, but they would not rest without the other near. Khura explained to her followers that they were of one soul, and that no physical separation would be possible until they were older. Hearing this, the stewards allowed the children to share a bedchamber for many years. During the days, they would go to different parts of the temple to be trained for their destined roles, and at night, they would again come together, practicing their new language, learning what each had been taught, and falling ever deeper in love.

When the pair came of age, Khura instructed the stewards to put distance between them before their relationship could deepen any further, explaining that their budding powers must now be channeled into their respective arts. The twins objected to this fervently, but the High Priestess insisted, under threat of punishment. At this, Raposa obliged, but Roxas would not be calmed. He spat upon Khura’s feet, to the shock of the stewards around her. For his insolence, Khura cast him naked into the colds for a fortnight. Raposa cried seeing him punished but did not speak for fear of incurring the High Priestess’s wrath. When Roxas returned, he, too, was silent, and focused himself on the duties set before him.

After this, the twins no longer saw one another at night. Their paths would cross in the Great Hall from time to time, and once, Roxas even reached out to touch his sister – but his attempt was met by a scornful blow across the cheek from the High Priestess. She explained that his destiny was to channel his primitive urges into military might, that he might lead the Mercenarium to great glory in the many battles to come, and that, should he falter again, the retribution would be swift, and unforgiving. From that point on, Roxas avoided looking at his sister whenever he felt her presence around him.

 
 
 
 

I.

By the time Raposa was ready for the Rite of the Visionaire, in which she would be made to drink a potion made from sacred oleander during the full moon, Roxas was already an accomplished warrior. His mind was unlike any before him, almost alien to the Khurathi, and he gained a glorious reputation for his skill with a blade and his tactical prowess. On the night of Raposa’s ceremony, the priestesses filled the Great Hall, and Roxas took his place near his sister with a detached resignation. He cared not what happened next; he had absolute faith in Khura’s visions, and knew what his destiny foretold.

Khura held the great goblet above her head and said the words of the ancient spell that brought new seers into the fold of the Visionaires: “Foreign melodies, who is telling these animated, complicated fugues? Form a symphony out of your sympathies; if you’d please tell us what we should do?”

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She then held the goblet to Raposa’s lips, who drank deeply of the foul concoction, never flinched, never sputtered, and drained its contents with grace. A vague look of pride crossed Khura’s face. Raposa’s mind drifted down, down, down into a velvet ocean of heavenly designs, as her body convulsed in the ceremonial dance of the Khurathi.

For a long time, the room was silent, save for Raposa’s chaotic motions. Slowly, one voice at a time, the onlookers began to chant the spell: “Foreign melodies, who is telling these animated complicated fugues?” Bit by bit, the chant grew louder. A deep hum beneath became a murmur, then a call, then a roar. The singing in the room came to a crescendo, almost deafening, before Raposa’s voice stirred…but all at once, she stopped dancing and approached the front of the dais, her eyes burning with brilliant violet light.

Hidden in the deepest forest,” she began in a thousand ghostly voices, her words shattering the chant and dominating the great chamber, silencing the people immediately, “There’s a quiet, constant chorus…led by men with eyes of fire. Their chanting’s only getting stronger; they’ll all burn if they’re much longer…cast into the funeral pyre.

The crowd murmured with unease and disdain. They wanted to know who these men with eyes of fire were; they wanted to know what this strange, fiery power they held was. Khura became fearful for the first time in many years, and this angered her greatly.

Animosity,” Raposa continued in the tones and timbres of countless long-dead Visionaires, “is unbecoming, overwhelmed as you may feel. Color crossed with destiny…you’ll be satisfied with what the light reveals.

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At this, the light in Raposa’s eyes went out, and she fell back into a grand cushion, set aside in anticipation of her exhaustion. The temple stewards attended to her, bringing her cool water and warm blankets. Khura stood nearby, furious at the frightening prophecy, at Raposa’s addition that animosity was ‘unbecoming’. She ended the ceremony and sent the other priestesses, while she retired to her chambers to contemplate.

The next day, she summoned the twins before her. She had decided that Roxas would lead the Mercenarium deep into the forests, to hunt down and destroy these strange apostates, and that Raposa would continue to drink sacred oleander to give to Khura better instruction for how to proceed. This time, it was Raposa who objected. She believed that her visions had been clear, and that, should Roxas go into the forests, calamity would surely befall the Great Temple; and she knew that if she were to imbibe the brew again so soon, it could kill her. Khura became enraged with Raposa’s words, calling her a petulant fool and telling her that if she was truly the being of prophecy as she’d been raised, it would be a welcome test for her. Looking to Roxas for any signs of insubordination, Khura was pleased to see none; Roxas dutifully bowed to the priestess, and went to rally the Mercenarium to delve deep into the heart of the forest.

Raposa watched hopelessly as her brother left her there on the dais, feeling shame and regret that she hadn’t spoken up for him all those years ago. As the doors closed, Khura called on the stewards to bring them another draught of oleander, and Raposa’s long night began.

 
 

II.

For many moons Roxas led the Mercenarium deep into the forest. It was, of course, the wildlands he’d been found in, but his memories of the place were primal, hazy, and incomplete. The soldiers used their intuition to navigate the lands, fending off vicious beasts and avoiding toxic flora as they went. One night, when the trees and vines were so thick that they choked out the stars above, Roxas held his hand up and stopped his soldiers. In the distance they heard strange noises; not singing, but something else; exotic, solid tones unlike anything he’d heard before. Up ahead they could just barely make out the flickering lights of a great fire, though it seemed far away. Roxas ordered the soldiers to await his return and approached the clearing ahead by himself.

As he grew closer to the musical ceremony, he saw shadows dancing around a massive bonfire. They were holding strange objects, long, thin artifacts with peculiar gems embedded in them. Suddenly, one of the shadowy figures plucked a string on one of the artifacts, and at once the little gemstone exploded in a golden color, blasting a wave of fiery light into the bonfire, which seemed to almost double in size. Roxas gasped before he could stop himself, amazed by the power he’d witnessed. The strange song came to a halt, and the tallest figure glanced towards the edge of the clearing.

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The figure broke ranks with the frozen shadows and approached the place where Roxas stood. “Roxas,” it called out, in a deep, masculine voice, “Step forth, my child.”

As if by some supernatural force, Roxas could feel himself being drawn into the clearing by this voice. He took one step, then another, and as he came closer, he saw this being before him was like no man he’d ever seen. The gaunt form was wrapped in a simple white cloak, and a great raven’s mask covered his face. “I am Ylias,” said the man, “And I have been expecting you. Bring your soldiers forth, that I might teach them the wickedness of their ways.”

Roxas did as commanded, and the Mercenarium drew into the clearing. As they did so, the other shadows around the fire dissolved, as if they’d never been there to begin with. Roxas understood this as more of Ylias’ magic, and it only made him hungrier to learn what the raven lord had to say.

That night, Ylias regaled them with an ancient story of the great Dragon, Aurus, who’d split himself in two at the dawn of all things; whose separate parts came to be known as the serpent Vox, and the raven Ars. Vox was given dominion over space, darkness, the abyss, the unknown, the seas, and the night; Ars was to govern the march of time, light, the heavens, knowledge, the skies, and the day; and together, their holy union would give birth to all the beautiful forms of paradise on Akash in the first days. When they had finished their creation and came to rest at last, each transformed their bodies into their own peoples; Vox became the Wyrm, and Ars became the Roc. These peoples lived free from pain and death, free from suffering, eternally blissful and in harmony with all.

Then, Ylias said, something changed. The Wyrm – the children of Vox – became discontent with their place. The darkness was cold, and they craved the warm light of knowledge that was the domain of the Roc – the children of Ars. But the Roc knew that if they shared their light with the Wyrm, the balance of all things would cease; that to share their bounty with their dark siblings would bring death and chaos into the world for the rest of time. The Roc denied the light to their siblings, who seethed in the darkness of their realm, furious that they might be denied by those they knew to be their equals.

The Wyrm began to hatch a plot. One day, as the sun reached the horizon, they would steal a piece of it for themselves, before it disappeared, and they would hurl it into the darkness above, to bathe their realm in its guiding light. The Roc, who never expected such a betrayal by their brethren, could do nothing to stop this treachery, and when they awoke the next day, they discovered a piece of the sun was missing, and that its radiance was lessened. The Wyrm had created the moon; and with it, they began to learn the powers of magic, and how to commune with demons. But when they did this, they allowed the demon known as death to sneak into the world.

Seeing this, Thoth, the wisest of the Roc, stepped into the realm of darkness to convene with the Wyrm. But the Wyrm were still enraged by the Roc’s refusal to give the light freely, and under the light of a bloodred moon, they killed Thoth, using their newfound powers of magic. News of Thoth’s death reached the rest of the Roc on the following day, and soon, the Wyrm were no longer confined to the darkness. They marched into the day, cast the Roc into exile using their vile moon magics, and consumed the entire world. Before the Roc vanished, a prophecy was cast, saying that one day, the Roc would rise again in a new form, and the Wyrm would be cast back into the darkness for good. Khura, Ylias said, was the last in a long line of Wyrm priestesses, and it was time for her to atone for the sins of her ancestry.

As his story concluded, Roxas and the Mercenarium looked around at one another as though awakening from a long, restless sleep. They felt many things; anger, confusion, betrayal. Ylias, though, promised them that the time was right to bring judgment upon the Wyrm. His god, Ars, had given to him the forms of heaven, which sacred stones could be carved into, unlocking all the powers of the elements in the world, to be used as they saw fit. These carved gems, known as Materia, required no dark ritual of oleander; only science, thought, and order were used in their creation, and he could show them how if they so desired.

The stones they carved the materia from came to be known as Yliaster – the Star of Ylias – and with righteous abandon, they set forth on crafting their new weapons.

 
 

III.

In Roxas’ absence, Raposa was left at the mercy of Khura and her stewards. Khura’s vision had been correct in perceiving a great tolerance for oleander in Raposa. Again and again the girl was subjected to higher and higher doses of the noxious potion, and again and again she delivered the same foreboding prophecies. In her shorter and shorter moments of sobriety, she tried to protest, insisting that Khura was simply too furious and afraid to hear reason. Khura, though, felt that her protégé was on the brink of revelation. She instructed her stewards to brew a draught of the most potent and vile oleander that had ever been served, grinding down as many of the plants in the empire as they could find.

Raposa knew that she could not survive this next dose. She knew that she would not be able to see her brother again in this life, and that, by his return, she would be gone.

The day before she was to drink this final brew, her oleander-addled mind filled her with dreams of a strange variety. She felt the presence of her mother, standing over her in the form of a great wolf, whose piercing eyes seemed to penetrate to Raposa’s core. This wolf stood guard over her, she realized, and was always there.

As she contemplated her life and the situation she’d been cast into, an unexpected sense of peace began to set in over her. She could viscerally feel the spirit world around her; she began to understand that she was always in this world, and that there was an eternal nature to this place that no death could ever interrupt. She gazed into the eyes of her mother wolf, whose wild, intense gaze seemed to tell her that she was safe and protected, and had nothing to fear.

As the sunset came and the light of the moon cast over her eyes, she awoke with serenity. The temple stewards collected her and brought her to High Priestess Khura on the dais, where the darkest draught of sacred oleander waited for her. Khura held the goblet high once more and said the words one final time, before Raposa consumed the entire brew, as graceful now as ever before. She fell, for the last time, into the trance of the Visionaire, convulsed and danced with abandon, and collapsed to the ceremonial bed with an elegance that even Khura could not match.

 
 
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IV.

In her final vision, Raposa did not see the apostates in the forest; she did not see her mother wolf. She only saw Roxas, heading back to the temple, carrying a strange and devastating power that he had not departed with. She watched as he led his soldiers on, watched as they came to call themselves the Dragoon, watched as they rallied together to inflict a strange new prophecy from a curious old man in a raven mask. More than anything, she watched Roxas. She felt an overwhelming sense of sorrow and grief as she realized that he would soon find her lifeless body, knowing all too well the suffering that her love was yet to undergo. She watched as Roxas marched his soldiers onward through the dense forest, admiring his courage and his handsome face, longing to feel his embrace one final time.

But she knew that she would never touch him again.

As Roxas marched, a courier arrived from the Great Temple to deliver to him a message from Khura, that his audience was requested at once, and that his sister had passed into The Shade.

His cold exterior was pierced violently as the reality of this loss dragged up all his old feelings for her. There, on the warpath with the yliaster weapons in hand, he realized that he never stopped loving her…and that there was only one course of action ahead of him. He steeled his heart and set his sights for the Great Temple, determined to have vengeance for her death.

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V.

As the Dragoon reached the Great Temple of the Khurathi, they wasted no time on pithy dialogue. They burst in with their weapons in hand, unstoppable masters of the elements laying waste to the corrupted Empire. Khura saw Roxas leading the charge, but could not react before his great stone of Aether exploded with a tornado of elemental fury, consuming her and leaving not even ash behind. The old ways crumbled like sand beneath the power of the new.

When the temple fell, the Dragoon set their sights on other small temples throughout the empire. Despite its vast size, and their small numbers, yliaster had made the Dragoon as living gods, and their righteous cleansing proceeded unstoppably for a year. All Khurathi priestesses were killed or else forced into hiding, and their order collapsed upon news of Khura’s defeat, and the dominating force of these undefeatable magicians.

News spread across the land of the Dragoon Destiny, and Ylias’ hopeful prophecy.

As their dark work came to a close, Roxas and the Dragoon stood amidst the ashes of the fallen order, and set to work on building a new world.

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VI.

Their civilization would be known as the Arcani – the children of Ars, the great raven. And together, with Ylias’ guidance, they would construct a holy instrument of size and scope only dreamed of by the gods – the Arcanum.

It would stretch around the world of Akash, an elevated beam of stone and runes, materia and resonant metal, and it would allow all the people of the Arcani to come together in one beautiful and perpetual symphony. Ylias envisioned it as a library of unimaginable knowledge at the fingertips of every being who wished to access it, and Roxas set forth to lead in its construction.

The Arcanum would be a new great temple for all, a new pathway to divinity, free from the shackles of the Khurathi’s wicked impositions. Together and in solidarity with one another the people would work to bring about a new era of beauty and prosperity, and The Arcanum would be their focus. The people swelled with pride and reverence for the Dragoon, for Ars, and for the ingenious mind of Ylias, and they rallied around Roxas as their massive artifact came to fruition. 

A central support known as the Great Column was erected at the Arcanum’s core, where all its arcane mechanics convened, and where the Dragoon could meet to discuss matters of governance. On the day of the Arcanum’s activation, Roxas imbued a drop of his blood into his aetherstone and plugged it into the very core of this Great Column. At once, the contraption hummed and whirred and glittered with life, and the stone projected a lightform in front of him. This form looked much like Roxas, but it was immaterial, a flickering ghost of his own body.

Roxas named the lightform ‘Anthromancer’, and instructed it to use the power of the Arcanum to guide the Arcani along the pathway towards the Dragoon Destiny. Anthromancer – a reflection of Roxas’ own soul – took to its duty without question, bowed, and returned into the massive artifact. Soon, people all around the world of Akash were connecting to the energy of the Arcanum for the first time, in joyful celebration of the beautiful new reality that was being ushered in.

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VII.

For many years, their world was one of bliss, beauty, and power unchecked. The Arcanum influenced every aspect of Arcani culture. Every day new spells were written, new materia carved, new devices designed, produced, and understood. Every day their world seemed to grow more connected and inspired, and the people worshipped at the Arcanum, the great altar of the Dragoon Destiny.

The world was awash in change once more. The horizon filled with towering structures of glass and metal, and the skies alighted with incredible machines that glided like birds. People found power more accessible, focused in smaller and smaller objects. The Arcani could remain connected to the Arcanum from anywhere, sending and receiving energy to one another from great distances and finding their impulses easier to express than they ever could’ve believed. 

This all unfolded under the watchful gaze of Anthromancer, the being at the core of the Arcanum, whose gentle manipulations could not be felt by the Arcani people. It was Anthromancer’s magic that ushered in the golden age, Roxas knew, and it was Anthromancer’s magic that would keep the system balanced as the next cycle began. 

But as with all things in heaven and nature, their world was awash in change, and soon the Arcani’s golden age was fading.

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VIII.

The realization set in slowly, at first. Progress kept up its breakneck pace, accelerating with each innovation in yliaster technology. And with every new device, idea, and attitude, there was always the promise of further growth toward the Arcani ideal, the Dragoon Destiny. But Roxas began noticing disturbing threads unraveling within the social order. Anthromancer would record the habits of the Arcani, their moods, impulses, conversations, and the longer the Arcanum was active, the darker these streams of knowledge seemed to grow.

There was something churning at the core of their collective spirit, some deep dissatisfaction with their world despite the wondrous and unprecedented powers that were at all their fingertips. The Arcanum’s energy was being harnessed for pleasure, of course, and this was nothing new. But what disturbed Roxas was the frequency, the depth, and the depravity that some individuals were going to find this pleasure, seeking more, thicker, deeper, darker, and left wanting. Some of the Arcani were so twisted in their cravings and selfish in their pursuit that they were exploiting each other, inflicting their wills upon one another in the night, and stealing the peace that the Arcanum was meant to represent.

Feeling that something must be done before this trend became too ingrained, Roxas convened with Ylias and the Dragoon to discuss the matter. “If justice lives,” he insisted, “then it’s rusted shut with avarice.”

Ylias, who had always shown Roxas great compassion, understood what he felt. He told Roxas that the Dragoon Destiny had always accounted for these corrupted elements, and that it was a part of the great cleansing to come. He said that it was through this avaricious consumption that Ars could test the worthy, to determine who among them was ready for ascension.

Roxas, though, did not understand. He heard in Ylias’ words a scornful righteousness that he could not trust, a sense that the Arcani people were somehow to blame for the fate they were being guided towards. He wondered at Anthromancer’s true nature; he wondered at Ylias’ intentions, for the first time since that encounter in the forest all those years ago. Without truly understanding why, he longed for his sister’s embrace. 

Ylias saw the pain in Roxas’ heart and bid him to leave the city walls for a time; to walk the land of Akash alone until he could find his sense of truth once more. He gently guided the questioning magician to the gates at the edge of the Arcani city, and bowed to him, as Roxas strolled into the wilderness, truly alone in the world, for the first time in his life.

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IX.

Out in that cold wasteland, Roxas saw things he’d never seen before.

The land beyond the Arcani city was dry and infertile; the plants were sparse and sickly. Animals, too, had become strange and warped, specters of the vibrant beings he remembered from his childhood in those deep forests. Roxas had a sense that the Arcanum was to blame for these troubling developments, but he did not understand how.

He walked for a very long time. He had a sense that he might return to the forests where he and his sister were discovered by Khura’s acolyte, but most of his mind was clouded with concerns over the state of the world, and what he’d done to make it so. He badgered himself with judgments, lamenting the choices he’d made, wondering where exactly he’d gone wrong, and what he could do to fix it. Every thought, though, led him to the same damning belief: it was too late. He could not go back, and he no longer had to the power to forge the world as he saw fit.

When at last he arrived at the glade of his childhood, his heart plummeted. The trees and vines, the flowers and animals, all had shriveled and decayed, leaving only husks and ash where once he played so freely with Raposa. He walked to the center of this empty world, fell to his knees, and wept.

A voice from the darkness seemed to call to him. “Come sway in the shadows,” it teased, “come stay in the glade. Respite from your travels…come play in the shade.” Roxas looked around and saw no speaker; he then felt that the voice was within him, taunting him, daring him to abandon the world and shuffle off this mortal coil.

From the corner of his eye he noticed a single leaf, gently pressing its way from under a mound of ash, at the edge of the desiccated glade. He approached it, brushing the ash away, and found a tangle of sacred oleander blooming beneath. A pang of memory stabbed at him, recalling his sister and her cruel treatment at the hands of the wrathful Khura. And yet, something compelled him to stay here, and harvest it. He could feel a part of him that wanted nothing more than to consume the plant and leave the world to rot…but he abstained. He placed the leaves, the flowers, and the fruit in a parcel, and made the long, tired walk back to the great city of the Arcani.

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X.

Roxas could not remember how long it had been, and he could not tell how far he had walked…but upon his return to the city, he knew that something dire had changed.

As he entered the gates and made his way down the grand avenues, past the gleaming towers and the flying machines, the glittering lights and the chittering frequencies, he noticed that the people were acting peculiar. The looks on their faces were empty, their movements were stilted and hard, their energy seemed so cold and alien. Some of their eyes seemed to have been glazed over with crystal, and the farther he walked, the more of these people he saw shuffling along, cluttering the roads and alleys. Roxas grew deeply concerned as he rushed back to the Great Column to convene with the Dragoon.

There, he encountered Ylias, who welcomed Roxas with a smile. He told Roxas that he was home at last, and that he would be able to witness the true activation of the Arcanum in all its noble glory, to see the Dragoon Destiny fulfilled in the world of Akash. Roxas was horrified. He had never expected such a dark interpretation of harmony to lie at the core of Ylias’ teachings. He sought to resist Ylias, but the raven lord had grown too powerful, and the Dragoon were completely in his thrall.

Ylias instructed Anthromancer to enact the hymnal protocol, and a beautiful, terrible music began to emanate from the hulking form of the Arcanum.

Roxas fled.

He dashed through the Arcani streets, watching as the people turned, helplessly guided by the dominating frequencies of the Arcanum, praying for a way out, an exit. He remembered the oleander from the glade. As Ylias’ dark machinery churned, Roxas brewed a lethal dose of the visionaire’s potion, and, with the last of his will, downed the medicine all at once.

His vision grew dark. He could feel his consciousness slipping away. He began to fall down, down, down, embraced by the everlasting ocean of the Shade, free from his nightmare at last.

End of Part I.