The bowels of the Previous castle were perpetually lit by an eerie glow from the walls and ceilings. No one knew how the old technology worked, but it proved highly suitable for its current occupiers. The workshops and meeting rooms we constantly inhabited by a range of experts from across the lands, puzzling at the ancient Previous riddles. This activity never ceased, shift after shift, hour after hour, day after day.
Deeper down were the cells, here the constant light served more as an instrument of torture than an aid to constant work as in the workshops above. Sleep was next to impossible, body clock soon out of rhythm. It made prisoners confused, more prone to cooperation, confession.
Aesara shivered as the memories came rushing back. They were being marched through the labyrinthine by a phalanx of Drakhan soldiers, some with the Elder weapons, others with wicked looking swords or axes. Resistance would be futile, but perhaps a desperate last stand would be preferable to their next meeting. She looked at Pyrrho, the cruel light highlighting the bags under his eyes and worry on his face.
They came to a halt against a matt black wall, one of the Drakhan banging on it with the hilt of her axe. There was a small fizzing noise, then a low whine as the wall, door, slid to one side. This was something neither sibling had seen before, the Previous building obviously yielding new secrets.
There was no time to linger at the doorway, rough hands pushed them forwards. The room beyond was not large, but its round shape and bare dark grey walls made it unsettling. On the opposite side to the door stood an elegantly carved desk. Dark woods inlaid with various gems and shiny metals. Much like Aesara's leg, but on a grander scale.
Behind the desk sat an elderly man, cloak hood now pushed back to reveal a bald head save for a wisp or two of white hair. Grey, close set, eyes peered at them from above a large pudgy nose and pinched mouth. He nodded the guards to stop their captives in the middle of the room, the Drakhan then spreading out to the curved walls, two with the Elder weapons stood either side of the desk, pointing them threateningly at the siblings.
“So this is how we are to meet again. My own children seek to poison me?” the old man did not sound angry, but nor was he amused.
“We seek to stop your wicked plans” Aesara spoke up, although the wavering tone of her voice hinted at her nerves.
“And what plans are those?” their father rested his elbows on the table, knitting fingers together and resting his chin on them.
“Unleashing yet more dark technology, it is a dangerous game you play” Aesara replied
“It is no game. I bring a return of the modern world”
“You bring the curse of The Previous back upon us”
The old man chuckled to himself “Foolish girl. I thought we schooled you better than to indulge in that superstitious twaddle”
“Watching a thousand men and women die in an instant in front of my very eyes is a curse whether driven by technology or sprites”
“My technology saved your life not that long ago in the grand scheme of things” he nodded at her leg
“Kept me alive for your experiments”
“Those were difficult times for us all. I lacked for as many test subjects as I would have desired. Thankfully you and your brother bring me a fresh new crop” another chuckle.
Aesara shuddered, fell back into silence.
“Who betrayed us?” Pyrrho spoke for the first time
“Ah-ha, there's my boy, looking for an angle. All will be revealed dear Pyrrho. I have a question or two for you myself first”
“And I will keep being questioned till you have the answer you want. This will be like old times. A proper family reunion”
“The reunion is not entirely complete yet” their father smiled
“A shame mother could not be here then, what with being murdered on your orders” Pyrrho was angry, wanted to find a way to hurt his estranged father.
“Your mother was a drunk, you were better off with me”
Pyrrho couldn't help but laugh “Driven to drink by your madness more like. And if we were better off with you, I dread the alternative”
“You have been privileged to stand at the dawn of a new age, but instead chose to throw it back in my face”
“You play with technology you don’t understand” Aesara jumped back in, “You care not for the cost. Or for the fact it destroyed the Elders, then The Previous”
“Nothing destroyed them, my silly little Sara”
That use of her name, the original person to call her that, the memories associated. Aesara scowled, fists clenched tight, muscles taught. The Drakhan became nervous, both of the Elder weapons were now pointed at her.
“What do you mean?” Pyrrho interjected, aiming to give his sister time to calm, time to lessen the urge to do something stupid.
“If you had stuck around, then you would now understand” his father chided “The Elders. The Previous. Ourselves. We are one and the same”
“What…?” Pyrrho scrunched his face up in confusion, but he was also intrigued
His father smiled, recognising the curiosity of his son in himself. “You have a nasty habit of turning from questionee to questioner” he snigger once more “But I will indulge you. Never got much opportunity to read you bed time stories before” Aesara growled, but their father ignored her and continued. “The Elders were not a single group, or a single period of time. They existed from the dawn of mankind, they were mankind, for thousands of years. They made rapid progress, developing the written word, then the technologies that would be recorded on paper to be hunted down eons later by the simple folk at the university” a casual glance at Aesara. “They progressed fast across the fields of human endeavour. Gunpowder, medicine, construction, farming. They had ambition, unlike the feeble excuse of today’s mankind” a frown “They learnt to control lightening, light, fire. Giant machines did their bidding, producing automated carriages or little trinkets. They left this planet to visit the moon”
Aesara laughed. “This is indeed a bedtime fairytale” she said. The laugh made the Drakhan even more nervous than when she was angry.
Her father continued, unperturbed. “They moved beyond simple paper. Their knowledge committed first to box like machines, then the very air we breathe. Communication was instant, global. The Elders became The Previous. With no need for paper, the Previous abandoned such an outdated form of recording knowledge. Elder archives were abandoned, or destroyed to make room for more advanced pursuits. Not out of malice, but out of a lack of need for such anachronisms of a previous age. At the height of their powers, the Previous carried the sum total of their entire knowledge with them in a tiny personal device. Try doing that with your stuffy archives” he nodded at Aesara, who just shook her head in reply; her father had finally succumb to a madness long promised by his previous conduct .
“And you seek this technology?” Pyrrho spoke
“Not seek it, for we have now found it” their father smiled, reached into a draw on his side of the table and produced a small grey rectangular box. It was smooth, like a pebble, but straight edged. “Finding these was easy” he stared at the device “for they litter the Previous cities”
“You enter the cities?” Aesara
“Of course, so would you if it represented a short cut home, you are not superstitious like most Aesara”
“But I would not linger to play in the ruins”
“As I have already said, it is not a game. These machines” he held up the device “are the key to my, our, next great step forward”
“So if you already have the machines, what have the university been doing?” Pyrrho’s curiosity well and truly had the best of him by now.
“Having the machine is one thing, making it work another. From what we can understand, the demise of the Previous coincided with an event that rendered their technology non-functional. But now, with the university’s help, we can turn them back on”
“An event” Aesara mocked “So you admit you know not what you deal with. The event the Previous stumbled into despite all their advances”
“That is for the historians or philosophers of your collective to puzzle over. Maybe it was a war, or a natural disaster. What is more important is that I, we, can open up the Previous’ entire knowledge at once. No more scrabbling round in the dirt for a torn half a page of outdated Elder ramblings. I will change the seven counties forever. I will rule them. A society based on research and progress. Can you not see what you sought to destroy will benefit us all?” eyes wide, eyebrows arched.
“A society based around one man and his insatiable desire for progress, no matter the cost in human suffering, is not a society I want to be part of” Aesara’s retort was said with venom.
He father put the device on the desk and rubbed his eyes. “Then you won’t be part of it” he said, exasperated. “You will spend your days back where you started them. I will not have you get in the way of my, our, glorious future. How about you, boy?” he looked at Pyrrho “I had hoped to convince you both of your prior follies, to join me as I unlock the untold secrets of the Previous. But it seems you sister is a lost cause. Too damaged by past misfortune to see the way ahead. But you were always more aware of the bigger picture”
“Misfortune?! Is that what you what I suffered on your orders, at your hands?” Aesara’s anger was flaring again, the Drakhan around the room shifted uncomfortably.
Pyrrho put a hand on her shoulder, she almost through it off in rage, but there was something about his touch. Reassuring. They were in this together.
“I do see the big picture, father” Pyrrho said “Tell me this, the Previous, did just one person have all of this knowledge you talk of? Or was it shared among them?”
“Some had more than others”
“But all had at least some?” it was Pyrrho’s eyebrow that was raised now “No one had a monopoly, no one person, especially not one person as, as twisted as yourself” the eyebrow was now accompanied by a snarl. “I shall have no part of this dangerous power trip father, it will not be a family affair”
Their father chuckled. “Not quite true. Not all of my blood are as closed minded as yourselves” he nodded at the Drakhan near to the entrance way, one of them proceeded to press something in the wall and the door swished open. “Please allow me to formally introduce your half brother” he said to Aesara and Pyrrho with an ominous smile.
Onatas entered the room.
“What the…?” Aesara anger was subsumed by surprise, confusion, alarm.
Onatas carefully made his way round the circumference of the room, careful to stay out of reach of his two older siblings, also careful not to make eye contact. He stood behind the desk, to the right of his father.
“You see my daughter, I did care for your wellbeing despite what you may think. Wanted to keep you safe”
“This little pipsqueak was to keep Aesara safe?” Pyrrho spoke, Aesara still too stunned to make sense of the situation. “More likely you wanted to keep an eye on her, make sure she didn’t get in the way of you plans”
Their father held his hands up “I admit, there was an element of self preservation. But our interests aligned; I used my growing influence to stop her being taken in by any of those undesirable warlords, keep her safe from their bloodspill. But then that idiot Steed accepted her into his retinue” he frowned at the memory “that mess was a little harder to resolve. She progressed in his ranks as we all knew she would be capable of. Maybe she would even have succeeded the Steed himself one day?”
“So you engaged the Drakhan?” Aesara still could not rationalise all that she was seeing and hearing, but her tactical instinct, the warrior of her mind, was still thinking straight as it always did in the turmoil of battle. “You bogged the Steed down in combat. You oversaw atrocities carried out, the perpetual cycle of violence. When I had left the battlefield for good, you moved to destroy the Steed for good”
Her father gave a gentle clap “I already had contact with the Drakhan, providing gradual improvements in armour and weaponry. They shared my desire to unify the lands”
“To dominate the lands” corrected Aesara
The old man continued “So it became easier to influence their tactical advances, to push the Steed, to free you from his grasp. Can’t you see I wanted to protect you?”
“Protect yourself. The Steed was set in his ways, I had fresh ideas that could have turned the tide”
“And I exploited that difference of opinion. You were kept safe and, yes, so was I”
“I don’t mean to sound self centred, but where do I fit into this? You had no fear that I would return to extract revenge?” Pyrrho still had many questions
His father chuckled in response. “In the early years after your, hmmm, sudden exit, you were a long way away, with your lady in Fortunestone. More preoccupied with petty town intrigues and affairs of the heart than threatening my goals. When you left to enter the periodic service of the Steed I had my concerns, but you always seemed to be more about the thrill of the chase than any wider goal.”
“Any wider megalomania you mean” Pyrrho interjected
“However you put it, you were of only minor concern to me. Now your woman, you former woman, she was of more interest to me. I look forward to meeting her later, find out if she enjoyed snooping around my preparations for the Steed. You know I have little tolerance for people breaking into my territory” he gave Pyrrho an ominous look. The younger man now looked more like the one to crack with rage, Drakhan weapons moved to point in his direction.
“So where does he come into this” it was Aesara’s turn to rest a hand on Pyrrho’s shoulder while she nodded towards Onatas, the apprentice still stood silently by the desk.
“That was where things began to come together quite nicely for me” replied their father “There was only so much progress I could make myself, the Previous secrets required more manpower. Onatas was making good progress with me, but was capable of more. At your university he could both learn, influence, and keep an eye on you”
“And take me out of the way when you needed the university to accept your proposition to move here”
They were interrupted by Pyrrho, now a little calmer at his sister’s touch, slapping his forehead. “I should have known! Idiot” he chided himself
“Known what?” asked Aesara, their father sharing her questioning look.
“That that tubby little brat knew more than he was letting on”
“Let me guess father” Pyrrho ignored her question to ask his own “The Previous, as they developed, as they committed their knowledge to the air, did their language change? Did their writings?”
“Their society progressed universally, writings included”
“And that was why Onatas was able to read the Drakhan surrender deman at the Steed’s redoubt when no one else could. You had communicated in Previous writing rather than Elder. He was the only one there that understood it. That was also why it took Marcia’s code-breakers so long to translate the note sent to Fortunestone” a riddle solved, but Pyrrho was far from satisfied.
“Always an eye for the intrigue” his father slowly nodded “I had worried that Onatas would be unmasked, that perhaps one of you would recognise him, even”
“How would we recognise him?” Aesara frowned “We’ve never met him before”
“We have” Onatas spoke for the first time, a low resentment in his voice “Many years ago admittedly, but it was a time that I would suggest stuck in the memory for both of us” he continued
“I don’t understand” Aesara shook her head
“You were not the only one to suffer misfortune in your childhood, sister. I suffered mine when we first met…
“…at the old well”