Well, freaking FIN-ally! Thought I was gone, didn't you? I'm happy I'm making progress in something Juvenile Orion related. (It's been distracting now that I'm involved in other fandoms) But I apologise most profusely for being MIA for such a long time. It took some time for me to get this right since this gets into the meat of the history and I had to figure out what exactly I wanted to do.
I kind of wrote a whole bunch of different things and smashed them together, so do tell me if something doesn't fit.
For people who don't know about this, we don't know Gabriel's last name/if he has one. So in all my out-there AU fiction where he actually requires a last name, I just go by Merethi. Long story, you'd be bored. I think I explain it more in Muse (which needs SO much work, oh my GODS)
Disclaimer: I don't own this stuff, really
Gabriel didn't bother with a guide. As Dunbrey had grown, its population had spilled over into Whittling territory and bled into the woods. Gabriel had its noise at his back, ready to pull him back into town if he wanted. It was better than a tether.
The forest was quieter and gentle. Gabriel felt reverence swell within him as he wheeled by the huge ancient lime trees, the last living remnants of an older abandoned time. There was always a particular eerie stillness about Whittling forest, as if its glory days still echoed within it and the outside world only served as a wall to keep them in. Gabriel always felt a little sad whenever he came here, though he could never explain why. It was always sad to trespass on the naked ruins of something that had once been so unbearably beautiful.
The path became uneven and riddled with stones as he went further, so he hopped off his bicycle and wheeled it the rest of the way, his bags still hanging from its handle bars. Even the boldest little houses tucked deep into the woods had disappeared a few miles back. He had stared at them a little as he'd gone past- wondering if they were all that was left living of the Morgham kingdom now, their parents holding vague memories of ancestors that had somehow escaped the castle in time. The people had a strange wiry build with dark hair and eyes, a much larger concentration of old blood than Gabriel had seen in other towns. He wondered if they made different food or whether their traditions were older. But these last surviving outposts of Morgham were secretive and distrustful of strangers. A woman had seen him looking and shut the window quickly. He had not taken offence; the woodlanders kept to themselves, he respected that.
Gabriel had planned on staying with a friend in town and coming out to Whittling tomorrow- he had already sent over his luggage a week ago- but he couldn't resist going for a quick look now. All he had ever seen of the Whittling ruins were its photographs, but the black and white grainy stills did not do it justice. He saw towers of broken white rock rising over the trees in the distance and quickened his pace.
He was keeping a watch on the bags, so he didn't notice when the path became more stone than dirt and his bicycle stopped tipping over. Some instinct made him look up, and then he gasped because gods, it was just as impressive now with all its missing timbres and broken stone as it had ever been a hundred years ago.
He was standing in what he supposed was the courtyard, all huge flat stones and rampant weeds. The ruins were too wide to see from end to end and as tall in some parts as the capital buildings in Degne City. The pale white support towers, the ones he'd seen above the treeline from far away, were worn down to bare broken rock. The high walls were standing in fragments, and he could see the foundations inside the castle through the large open gaps; some of the stone walls were still up, while other rooms only had the barest trace of bricks to define them.
It was all piecemeal and blurred in with the trees; the forest had been waiting a long time to exact its slow encroaching revenge upon those who'd dared destroy it. There were long threadlike tree roots wrapped around the pillars in a crushing hold and layers of loam and plant moulds burying the floors. It all seemed like an optical illusion; in the beginning he'd just seen a huge cluster of forest crowding into the ruins, but then something shifted, and suddenly he saw the shapes of arches and brickwork there in the shadows, stolen away into the woods. It was all much more extensive than he'd realised.
It had been called Mabering-Mok, and it was still beautiful. And terrifying.
He realised he had stopped breathing, and took a deep gulp of air.
He left his bicycle leaning up against one of the outer walls and dug out his notes and papers from the back of his bag, where they had been shoved under the sandwich wheel.
At first he had mistaken the large gap in the outer wall as damage, but it was too neat and symmetrical with the rest of the castle, and he realized it was the main entrance. There would have been a weight and pin system in place to open and lock the doors, and ingenious piece of engineering that had been lost like so many other arts with the fall of the Morgham kingdom. He felt sometimes that they were all like refugees scattered from their homes, trying to come back together and build up to the glory of what they had been before. The world would have been far more advanced now if it had not been for the destruction of Morgham. Science and mathematics especially had been set back a few decades, though they were trying their damnest to come back. He had been hearing of their latest development in the newspapers: a private car, an individually owned and repaired vehicle smaller than a bus that was meant to seat only a few people. Gabriel didn't really see the point and thought there were some pieces of Morgham technology that were better left alone.
He paused as he stepped through the entrance and listened to the sound of his foot hitting the fragmented marble. It should have resounded softly, the sound springing off the marble floor and up into the high rafters. Gabriel looked at the tall bare pillars and open sky and sighed. It had all been so lovely once, before the fall of Morgham. Before this entire hallway had been covered with bodies. His fingers clenched around his notebooks, and he took his first cautious steps inside.
He took his eyes off his feet to look around. There must have been a large stabling house somewhere off to the side of the courtyard for visitors. He touched a bare wall and mourned the frescoes that had been here late in the Fortham reign. The Borches ruling line before them had been steeped in the older feudal times when the only security had been war. The Borches tapestries were bright gory things, each one of them telling a story of a bloody battle the Morgham Kingdom had won. It was Admarian Fortham who had finally disposed of the barbaric tapestries and commissioned a series of murals for the castle from famous artists of the time, men such as Chorca and Finton and the woman Byde.
A pity. For artists so famous, most of their best art was now lost, especially those of Byde, whose work had been grossly undervalued despite generally feminist standards during the period. All they had of those frescoes now were cheap replicas from other artists. Ironically, they had many more of the Borches tapestries, which had been smuggled out and sold by some of the less honourable staff at the castle. Queen Admarien Fortham Trigesima had made no secret about hating the tapestries, so Gabriel would not have been surprised if she'd chosen to overlook the black market dealings deliberately. He would not have been surprised if she had sanctioned them. That woman had been a firecracker under her sober respectability.
He went deeper and followed the huge hallway down even when it petered out into nothing but scraps of shattered marble that crinkled softly under his shoes. There was no point really in preserving most of it since the pieces of artefact were sometimes so small that they crumbled into grit the moment they were touched. The state archaeology department had taken some of the bigger pieces for study but had left the majority of it alone.
Gabriel pulled out a map he had folded into the back of his journal; he had painstakingly hand-copied it from one of Carnelian's old friends, who had grumbled and berated him about breathing on the pages but had also brought him a hot cup of tea when he found Gabriel still hunched over the pages past midnight. Carnelian's friend was an odd man.
His name was Davinger, and though he'd been cold and abrupt with Gabriel for most of the evening, he'd softened a bit after he'd seen the tiny papercuts on Gabriel's fingers and the old spots of ink on his sleeves that wouldn't come out even after five washings. Gabriel didn't understand that but found he was welcome to stay in his little private library for as long as he liked.
Davinger had one of the only perfectly preserved Fortham period architecture books in the region; the state had tried to persuade him to part with it for the sake of research, but most of them were afraid of him, and the old man had kept his book. Most of the buildings during that time had modelled themselves after Mabering-Mok, and Gabriel had known his best chance at recreating a little of what the ruins had been like was to copy the blueprints of a neighbouring structure from the book.
He had spent the entire night trying to get the map just right and thought it only fair to make breakfast for the two of them before he left. Davinger had suffered him a pot of strong black tea at any rate.
He'd been nervously cooking something over the stove and hoping it wouldn't seem offensive, when Davinger had banged into the kitchen and startled him. Gabriel had dropped the pan in shock and involuntarily cursed in Mynic as he waved around his burned thumb. Ravinger had stared at him and then laughed and laughed.
"You're all right, boy," he'd said and clapped him on the back painfully. Gabriel had been half-pleased and still half-terrified of him, and he hunched his shoulders and meekly offered him the slice of eggs and toast in the pan. To this day, Ravinger remained one of the only people Gabriel admired wholeheartedly, though the fact that Ravinger disapproved of Itsuki and found him 'flighty' didn't hurt either. Gabriel wondered again whether Itsuki was even aware of the war going on between them and who was winning. Itsuki probably thought Gabriel liked him, probably because everyone liked Itsuki.
Gabriel stopped, consulted the map, and took a turn off the main hallway. It looked just like an open field, but according to the blueprints, this had been the common drawing room, a huge grand hall partitioned by movable walls into smaller roofless parlours where visitors all congregated to chat and nibble on refreshments while they waited for a palace attendant to greet them and see to whatever business they had with the government.
This place would have been hit first on the day Mabering-Mok fell, the day that had almost single-handedly crippled the Morgham kingdom and wiped it from history. It would have been chaos here with people screaming and rushing to get out. Gabriel had read the reports from the ones who'd finally come up to the castle wondering why no one was coming and going and why the servants hadn't come down to the market to buy produce that morning.
The castle had been absolutely silent as the merchants had forced open the doors. They would have come across the ones in the hallway first, the visitors from the drawing roomthat had been struck down as they'd attempted to flee. They had all been frozen in whatever pose they'd been in when the strike happened. Some of them had their hands in front of them with their mouths open in mid-scream. There had been a woman- Gabriel remembered this especially- there had been a woman suspended in the air, in the act of tripping over someone's body. Somewhat funny if it hadn't been so utterly chilling. It was a high magick, a high dark magick whose like had never been seen before or since. Something so powerful and deeply malevolent that it had sucked up the surrounding magicks for decades upon decades to come till there was almost nothing left for practitioners to harness.
It had been the same wherever the merchants had gone- people petrified like statues with their eyes wide and frightened. They'd all had their tongues cut out, a causal unnecessary brutality that still sent shivers up historians' spines to this day. There was a reason no historian or professor specialised in the end of the Fortham period; there was only so much you could bear until you started seeing it in your dreams and spent the evening hours edging around every shadow.
Gabriel flinched involuntarily and backed quickly backed out of the common drawing room. There was no residual tingle of magick left, and anyone able to wield the stronger magicks like wizards and sorcerers were almost nonexistent now, but his skin still prickled. He had forgotten that for all that Mabering-Mok was beautiful, it had died swiftly and violently. It fate was still one of the greatest historical mysteries to this day.
Morgham had been thriving in a relatively peaceful prosperous time under the guidance of Admarien Fortham Trigesima. The kingdom'd had no enemies or disagreements, certainly not with anyone able to wield that kind of power. The castle was simply bustling and alive one day and utterly still the next morning. No one had ever stepped forward to claim responsibility, though historians had theories. Some thought it was the Thruvians, others thought it was an internal plot involving the Grey Starlings, one of Admarien's strongest and most vocal political dissidents. But few of them ever explained away the dark magick.
There was no one here now. The townspeople's common decency had won against their deep ingrained superstition, and they had carried everyone out of Mabering-Mok in a quiet eerie procession down to the town hall to wait for help. They were not all of them accounted for. The townspeople had gone as far as they dared into the castle to look for the queen's three daughters, but they had never been found.
Of course the practitioners had immediately leapt into action to try and decipher the magicks responsible. The demise of Mabering-Mok spawned somewhat of a renaissance in the field; hundreds of writings and new discoveries in rune casting and incantation followed the efforts of those who tried to break whatever was holding the people of Mabering captive. But it wasn't just that the magick was tricky and intricate and was liable to kill anyone that tried to tamper with it; the magicks themselves felt like they had been sucked out, and practitioners all reported having the feeling of reaching into a vacuum. Many of the new discoveries the practitioners made could not even be tested without the power to execute them. Even now, all that was left were the earth magicks, hidden away in the remote pockets of the world. Even the younger and weaker forces, called magic by those still able to work them, were scarce.
Doctors and healers had been consulted, but they'd had no more idea or success than the practitioners. They could only conclude that the victims could not die though they had no pulse or way to take sustenance, which sounded like madness but had been proven true. There were hospices established, sanatoriums with hundreds and hundreds of silent charges that seemed if anything like they were sleeping softly with their eyes open and dreaming . Shut away to be watched by rotations of nurses and historians and practitioners. They were still there, but only the nurses had remained.
Gabriel shut his book with a snap and turned back towards the main hall. It was all too much at once. He could come back here tomorrow. There were other places he could go, places with prickly sunlight and the mellow comfortable smell of uncut grass. But this was too much.
He visited the vineyards, which were further past the stabling house on the face of a long sloping hill that descended into a soft little valley of stone sheds where Mabering's harvesters must have stored their equipment and tools. And then there was another hill, then another, each dotted with a small set of sheds.
There was almost nothing left of the vineyard now; all of its vines had withered forty years after Mabering-Mok and the wooden trellises had fallen apart and rotted, but there was still the faint watermark impression of many uniform rows teaming up and down the grass. Gabriel knelt and broke apart a clump of dirt. It was greyish and hard and crumbled between his fingers. He put it to his nose and inhaled. His friend Tsukasa would have approved of this soil, good for growing grapes.
Tsukasa was doing quite well as an acolyte in the monastery down south near the Bay of Bernal. He had been put to work in the library helping shelve and carry books initially but at Brother Nakaura's request, he'd been allowed to work outside in the garden and vineyard during the afternoon.
Gabriel smiled. Nakaura really understood more than he gave him credit for.
Tsukasa still wrote to him sometimes, cheerfully detailing the tomatoes he had picked, the barrels of grapes he had been allowed to stomp in, and the pudding Brother Nakaura was teaching him to bake. He'd sent Gabriel a piece once in the mail, and it had arrived tied up in a solemn little box with a note that said happy birthday and a caution that the pudding contained walnuts. Nakaura had sent him a small stoppered glass bottle with some of the best wine Gabriel had ever tasted. A bit too sweet for him, but it and the pudding had tasted like rich exotic places he could only ever dream of visiting.
Gabriel got a correspondence of an entirely different kind from Nakaura, pieces of manuscripts he was translating and news of Tsukasa's condition and general well being. Tsukasa's memory of Degne was still spotty, something Gabriel considered a blessing, but fragments came sometimes in stops and bursts. It didn't affect his everyday life too much and the other brothers at least knew something had happened and kept an eye on him. Gabriel supposed Nakaura had never told them what exactly happened, and they both hoped Tsukasa would never remember either. He was happy now. It was enough.
Gabriel hummed and remembered that he still had half of Nakaura's bottle sitting in his cupboards at home, stashed away for some indefinable special occasion he was still waiting for. He sat down in the crumbly dirt to get out his notes and selected a few pencils from his bag. There were some lovely stone irrigation systems two hills over, and then he could visit the large boxy gardens on the other side of the castle. He rolled up his cuffs, bent over the pad, and began to sketch.
He broke for sandwiches and tea in the bare empty gardens while pouring over his old dog-eared copy of expert level Mynic with the high afternoon sun beating down overhead. He'd grown interested in the dead language back when he was in town-school, painstakingly copying down the characters and writing out words during his maths class. Perhaps it was the reason he'd never been very good at arithmetic apart from doing the accounts and toting up the registers at the end of the day. It wasn't that he was horrible at maths, he just found it boring and was accordingly careless with it.
He'd continued minored in Mynic in college at Throughway, though he had earned his degree from home instead of going off and living at a university. It was very unusual for someone from such a small town to work towards a degree from such a distant prestigious college, but his scores were good and he was prompt about mailing in his work, so they tolerated him. It was jokingly called a postman's degree because of all the back and forth that happened with assignment submissions and class registrars; some people didn't feel it was equal to a full degree, the kind students earned when they stayed on college grounds for all three years. But he'd done the same work, if not more, and had felt impossibly happy the day they had mailed him a large flat envelope with his degree tucked inside the cardboard sheathing. Three weeks before he had squashed his final cumulative paper into the mailbox and run off to pray at the small town tabernacle that his work made it to the university safely.
He had enjoyed college as a whole and had toyed with going another six years for his secondary degree. But really, what the hell would he do with a Master of Pre and Post Modern History in a place like Acheree? And then he'd have to move to a bigger city, join the guild, and take on an apprentice to help with the ongoing projects. It was really too much trouble for such a small scrap of paper.
But he still kept up with his Mynic even though the others in the bookshop complained he was wasting his time with a dead language. At least it had helped him in his own research when he'd scoured through all the books preserved from the Fortham period. Mynic had been the middle to upper class language then. He still couldn't make anything out of the rustic languages. Apparently someone up in Horace was making some headway into it; Gabriel had been following it as best he could, for all that Horace and Throughway were bitter rivals.
He'd even joined the Hobby Linguistics local chapter, which met at a pub over in Maquerton every other Thursday and worked on conversational Mynic. Gabriel had found out about them through his Mynic college professor and had soon been absorbed into the chapter, much to his astonishment. Hira Geram, the chapter president, always found that amusing. "Not like they're lining up for us, Merethi," he always told him. Gabriel had always been interested in conversational Mynic before, but there had never been an opportunity to learn the correct accents and practice with other people. He wasn't like Geram, who must have climbed out of the Morgham period or something, but he was proud to find he could hold his own well enough. Well, he was leaving next week on Thursday morning, so he supposed he could make the meeting if he wasn't too tired.
He wrapped up the rest of the wheel sandwich, collected his papers, and jammed everything back into his bag. It had been a good day, but he would be here for two weeks and Kuga was probably expecting him. Kuga had been a part of Nakaura's monastery for many years but he was still young for a monk and had become restless as the years went by. Nakaura had thought something more active would suit him better- Tsukasa reminded them both of Kuga in that respect- and sent him up north to help with the rebuilding efforts in Hester, probably knowing Gabriel lived close-by and wouldn't mind the company.
Granted Kuga was gone most of the time in Hester, but Gabriel always came over to share whatever manuscript Nakaura sent over in the post. The monastery still had hundreds and hundreds of books shut away in the libraries, and Nakaura had been perhaps the first to start translating them back from Mynic so the younger acolytes could read them. Tsukasa had given him the idea of making it publically available; there were still so many books the world had not seen for a hundred years, not since the fall of Morgham and the chaos that followed. Many of the books from that time had been burned or stolen by the invading Thruvians until the kingdom's surviving knights had regrouped and driven them out.
Gabriel couldn't help with Nakaura's translating- the manuscripts were too valuable to be sent through the post- but he usually proofread or checked the translations for sentences to make sure they made sense. And then Carnelian helped them get into the hands of publishers. Gabriel was happy he could have at least a small part in all of it.
Some of the things Nakaura unearthed were trivial things- ledgers and diaries from monks observing the weather or documenting the days ("Trivial?" Tokiko had written to Gabriel. "I'll be the judge of that. Have him send them to me.") but he'd also found other marvellous things- lost books and histories. Nakaura'd almost single-handedly restored the complete set of Herod Gosling's 683 R.B Mabering-Mok letters, which were part of the reason they knew so much about palace life today. Gabriel had found out that Geram had apparently contributed the rest; it seemed a lot of the chapter were collectors themselves, but they'd been perfectly willing to lend their materials when Gabriel had told them their manuscripts would be going to mass print. It had been a giddy feeling, knowing just a little bit more of Morgham would be going back where it belonged.
If only Davinger would let them reprint his. Gabriel felt around absently in his notebook for the map. And then more frantically, because it wasn't there. It wasn't there.
The ruins. It must be in the ruins. It was the only time that particular notebook had been out and open. "Well, damn it," Gabriel said aloud. He got up, dusted himself off, and shouldered his bag.
He didn't go through the main doors this time- it was still too eerie. He found it was actually shorter to pass through one of the breaks in the outer walls and cut through rooms. He went further back near the kitchens where he'd been before. The kitchen had been sturdily constructed and because of the impracticality of moving it around, the other rooms had just been built around it, so many of these structures were still whole even though they were older.
Gabriel saw something familiar flash at the corner of his eye and wheeled around- there, his map! A sudden gust and he was chasing it across the grass and over some of the fallen walls before it disappeared into the set of kitchens lining the end of the hall.
"Well, at least you can't blow out of here," Gabriel muttered and stepped into the kitchens.
Then he gasped and clapped a hand over his mouth to stifle the noise, because there was a man sitting there amidst the rubble.
He turned away out the door and leaned against the wall, putting a hand over his heart. Cutler Eye, it was beating out rapidly. Cutler Eye. A chill went up and down his arms.
"D-don't be stupid," Gabriel whispered to himself. "That's just a story. And no one's disappeared around here for ages."
It wasn't comforting. He took a deep breath. There are no more magicks here. It was probably someone else here to visit the ruins. He squared his shoulders and looked back inside. T-there are no more magicks here. "H-h..." He swallowed convulsively. "Hello?"
The old man said nothing. He was sitting motionless in some kind of chair and Gabriel could see something moving in his beard. There was light pouring in from the back windows and cracks in the ceiling.
Emboldened, he took a step inside. His foot sounded loud against the stone. "Hello? Sir?"
A fat bottle green beetle crawled up from the man's chin and over his lips. Gabriel made a face as it went along his withered cheek. "S-sir," he said louder. "Are you alright?"
The beetle startled at the noise and crawled up into the man's hairline and disappeared. The man suddenly jolted forward with a start and a sheet of dust rose from him in a cloud.
"By the gods!" he shouted in Mynic, his voice weak and croaky.
"By the gods!" Gabriel shouted back, peddled backwards, and fell down, hard. He heard the jar of tea in his bag crack.
The old man snapped his head towards Gabriel. The green beetle crawled down over one of his eyebrows. "Who are you?"
"G-Gabriel." And then in a rush in awkward Mynic. "I work for Carnelian, for Acheree Purveyors, we're- I'm doing a project on Whittling because Madam Tokiko's new book is coming out and I thought I would come up to the ruins I was just about to leave my map," Gabriel cast around. His hands were shaking. "I was looking for my map in here. I'm sorry , I didn't know you were- why...w-who are you?"
The old man looked at him strangely. "I am the steward of Mabering-Mok castle."
Well well, the plot thickens, I suppose.
Feedback is appreciated.