Geneforge 1Martin 14

Chapter 1- A New Path

Chapter 1- A New Path

"Shaper school?" Andras stormed in, paying no attention to the guards posted at the door that told him to wait until he was called. He planted himself in front of the heavy wooden desk, panting and trembling from anger. The shock of his assignment was fresh in his mind. He had stood on the platform before the Council of Education expecting to be sent to finish his training as an Agent. He was finally twenty-two, the youngest anyone was allowed to begin their real training. He had been looking forward to this day for the last ten years, and in a single word and nod of a head the only life he knew was taken away from him. Shaper school?

"Tell me this is a mistake. I'm the best Agent prospect in my class and you know that! The only way this could have happened is if you ordered it."

Kristoff sat on the other side of his desk and didn't acknowledge the entrance with any more than a casual glance over the top of the large leather volume held in his hands. Being a high ranking official on the Shaper High Council he was accustomed to others showing him far more respect, but he expected no less a reaction from his hot-tempered son.

"Indeed," came the indifferent answer. He slipped an aged arm out from under his heavy wine-colored robes and waved off the guards who came to rescue him from the tirade.

"Why?" Andras demanded. He didn't care that he was seconds away from being dragged out of the office with his arms twisted behind his back. In fact, he was daring the guards to try it. It would be a fine time to test out what little combat training he actually had, even though he would be doomed to lose in the end. He didn't care right now.

"A path was set for you by your family. You are being called to follow it now."

"Path? What path? Of being a Shaper? Let Margus follow that path. He wants to be a Shap-"

"Your brother is dead," Kristoff cut in. Andras was held quiet by shock. He examined the old man's face for signs that what he said was not true. He could not find any.

"How?"

"An experiment gone awry." That normally meant a creation bigger, faster, or stronger than its maker hatched from the incubation chamber with little intention of following orders. Many Shapers died that way, but Andras never thought Margus would be one of them.

"How is that possible? Margus… he was too…"

"Smart? Yes. Fast? No. An apprentice Shaper is no match for a rogue Battle Alpha." Andras had heard murmurings of a Battle Alpha that turned rogue in the Shaping hall on the eastern side of the school earlier that day, but he still couldn't imagine his brother falling victim to such a dumb creature.

"The weight of your family's legacy now rests on your shoulders, Andras. This is what you must do… for your family's honor. You would not deny us that, would you?"

"Deny you that!" Andras corrected, the volume of his voice rising even more. "This isn't about anyone else but you. That's all it's ever been about."

"Careful…" Kristoff growled his warning. Andras ignored him.

"Why should I be denied what I want because you think it would be a failure to have anything less than a Shaper for a son? Margus followed that path. You had a Shaper for a son. Why is that not enough?"

"You are forgetting your place."

"I haven't forgotten my place," Andras retorted. "You spent years reminding me where that was… in the shadow of my perfect brother! He hasn't been dead for a day yet and you're already trying to turn me into him. Until today you never even had a second son!" He knew the moment it slipped from his mouth he shouldn't have said it, but if he chanced to forget it even for a second, his father's hand as it pelted his cheek and sent him stumbling back served as a solid reminder.

Kristoff rose to his feet, his face more red with anger than his son's and his slender frame shook beneath the heavy robes as he fought to contain his own fury. "Son or not, if you ever show me that kind of disrespect again you will spend a month in the Cell. Do you understand?"

Andras refused to answer. He had nothing but hateful or spiteful remarks running through his mind and he couldn't have conjured up a respectful reply, even a "yes, if he wanted to. He hated this man. Hated everything about him and hated being forced into becoming a Shaper like him. He hated the Council delegates for declaring him a Shaper, and he hated his professors, especially Tanor, for not saying otherwise. He hated all his friends who would become Agents when he couldn't.

At the moment, he even hated Margus.

"Now I am going to ask you one more time, and I suggest you think your answer through very carefully. Will you honor your family and accept your duty to become a Shaper?"

For the first time since he stormed in Andras made eye contact with his father, and the moment he did the seething hate he felt started to build. There was a glint of victory in the other man's eyes. Kristoff had Andras cornered with no choice other than to accept. If he didn't he knew his father would see to it that he was sorry, and his hopes for becoming an Agent were already dead hours ago. The delegates didn't change their mind, and Andras couldn't afford to alter their decision. His father bribed well.

"No," came the defiant reply. That was the breaking point. Kristoff ordered the guards to "escort" his son out of the office and out of his sight to the Cell where Andras could think his behavior over in silence and solitude. He had the luxury of spending a night there once before and he was none too eager to repeat such a stay, but there was nothing he could (or more appropriately would) say to change his father's mind.

He fought against the hands that held him, but it was a half-hearted effort at best. It was more for show than anything else because he knew he was doomed to a night in that awful prison and a struggle would only make it worse. Nothing shy of begging for forgiveness could reverse that decision and Andras was not about to lower himself to that level.

Down several flights of stairs and narrow halls they went until they reached the heavy wooden door that locked the Cell away. The Thinking Cell, the Cell of Solitude, whatever someone wished to call it, it was all the same; a small, dark room with no windows other than a small barred opening in the door. It stank of urine, mold, and other unpleasanties. There was no bed other than a pile of hay tainted with mildew and drinking water was left in a rusty pitcher where it had likely been sitting for days. There would be no food to fill his empty stomach, just the putrid smells of those who had been disciplined there before him.

He stumbled to the ground as they tossed him inside, then he turned and charged the door only to have it slam in his face as they walked away, leaving him alone in the dark. Even though he knew it would do nothing for his benefit he kicked the door, the thunderous sound resonated in the stone halls, but nobody was coming back for him. Not until dawn. He soon gave up his angry antics and resigned himself to a seat on the hard ground, knees drawn up and face staring upwards into the black abyss. He was glad Margus wasn't around to see this.

With nothing but darkness, and the occasional sound of dripping water to occupy his senses, Andras let his mind wander. He began thinking about the trials that occupied his time for almost a week. They had been a thrill, the Agent trials in particular. He soared through them, most of the challenges were far too easy, almost insulting, for him with the exception of the last (which was largely due to his professor's loud boasting). He flew through the Guardian trials, reigning as one of the top students in the sparring, but to be certain they didn't pick him for that rank he missed his targets when throwing the javelins. That wasn't his strong suit anyway, but he doubted even the book-obsessed Shaper hopefuls could have missed those. But at trials he had to show the Council of Education delegates that he was best suited for Agent work, or he could be picked for something else.

The Shaper trials were boring in comparison to the rest. He had to demonstrate capabilities in chemistry, alchemy, shade or ghost detection, and most of all control over creations which was a necessary skill for when one would start shaping his own. Three of the four creations they gave him to dominate submitted to his will. They were easy, but the last had given him troubles. At best they parted with a mutual respect to leave one another alone, but to his credit it was rare for any student to be able to dominate a Drayk. Those scaly-hide fire-breathing creations had a long reputation of being difficult to control even by the most experienced Shapers which was why they had been deemed forbidden to shape anymore. Thinking on it later Andras decided it probably would have been wiser to ask the Drayk for cooperation being as it wasn't going to be forced, but it didn't matter now. If he had been one of the first and few students to succeed in that trial he would have increased his chances of becoming a Shaper. All he wanted was to show he was proficient in the tasks that were required of an Agent, a little chemistry, some control over creations, but nothing more.

Agent was the one rank that required a little knowledge of everything. The Shaper hopefuls dedicated themselves to books, and took joy in experimentations and writing notes, observing and following. All those things Andras found dull, but as an Agent he had to know a little about Shaper skills. Just enough to be able to mix a truth serum, sleeping draught, or even better yet, a potent and undetectable poison. His skills in chemistry were modest at best, but some of those things would come to him yet.

His mind kept drifting back to where he had felt the most alive, the Agent trials. Tanor, had boasted about his prize student to the delegates, so much so that it seemed they had gone to great lengths to make this last one a particularly challenging trial. But the harder it was, the more Andras enjoyed it. Tanor had taught him how to become a ghost, move through the wooded areas without detection, hide his scent from patrolling roamers. The enemy shouldn't know you're coming, Tanor would tell him, until he's dead on the floor. That was what a good Agent could do. That was what Andras vowed he would do.

It was night. Five of them stood ready for the command to begin. He saw Mila, a friend, standing just yards away. She looked over at him, her face fierce. Tonight their friendship didn't matter, tonight they were competitors racing for the same prize. He didn't let it bother him, he felt the same way. His eyes fixed on the dark woods ahead of him and he waited. Finally, the command was given. "Go!"

He darted into the trees the moment he heard the word, then proceeded to strip himself of excess weight. Anything he didn't need came off. His sword, his gloves, one of his belts, his tunic. All of it was shed in the interest of moving fast and quiet. What he kept with him, besides the few clothes he still wore, was his Agent's knife, a short broad-bladed dagger that had been given to him by his professor a couple years ago. Next came the mud. The black clayish muck was cold as he smeared it all over himself and it made his skin itch as it dried, but it masked his scent from the roamers that were certain to be nearby and the coldness helped hide him from the heat-sensing artillas that would be waiting in ambush. It was a little archaic, he admitted, but it worked.

His little stop would cost him some ground as he doubted his competitors would make for the same amendments, but what he lost he would easily make up. He pushed forward, not knowing any more than the rest in which direction the banner he had to retrieve was in, but there were clues. The closer he got, the more fierce the creations that guarded it would become. On the outskirts there were a handful of thahds, big dumb brutes that had poor eye sight and poor hearing. They were easy to avoid. Then came the fyoras- small fire breathing lizards whose sense of smell was just a bit better than a thahd. They were easy, too.

The first real challenge came when he stumbled across a pack of swamp roamers. They were enormous, muscle-bound beasts that kept their muzzles to the ground as they patrolled for the invaders they knew to be expecting. He hadn't noticed them until he was nearly on top of them, their hides blended in with the surrounding dark underbrush. He froze as one walked by him, holding his breath for fear of letting any hint of a scent escape. If it weren't for the mud he would have been caught for certain. Then it picked something up, a growl rumbled from its chest, and the pack darted in another direction. They found one of his peers. He heard the shouts of protests as the unfortunate student was bombarded by the angry beasts.

One down.

There was no time to feel pity, he still raced against three others that wanted that banner just as badly as he did. He continued on, more cautious now, certain he was heading in the right direction. Two more packs of patrolling roamers passed him by, both coming close but never aware he was there. Next there would be artillas. He knew to expect them, and the moment he heard the movement of bodies sliding over the earth he stopped. There was a pack of them, probably three or four, just around the corner. They had no sense of smell, but they could detect heat which made their aim as they spit mouthfuls of acid quite deadly at short range. Andras had no desire to test his luck walking across the path of those creatures. He scaled a tree, from which he could see the five giant worms huddled together waiting for an unsuspecting student to walk by them. He was safe up there. They couldn't reach him that high.

There would be more packs of artillas waiting for him so Andras used the trees as long as he could. He hopped from one to the next, pausing each time to be sure the rustling of the branches had not caught the attention of any creatures he couldn't see. So far, nothing. He found several more packs of worms, the last pack boasted eight. Nobody was meant to get past that one, but he did.

Then something more frightful caught his eyes, a patrol of Battle Alphas. The banner had to be close. He climbed down from the last tree quiet as he could, then huddled close to the trunk while one of the humanoid giants walked by. They were intimidating. Battle Alphas weren't very smart, but they were fast and quite strong. They had a sense of smell that rivaled a roamer's, and their eyesight was keen. Their giant frames stood half again as tall as Andras with more muscle on their arms than he had in his legs. Their mahogany colored skin helped them blend in to the night, and for as large as they were they moved with surprising agility and silence. There were variations of these creatures that were even worse, such as the Battle Betas and Battle Gammas, but the delegates would only use those if they wished to lose a few students along the way. For the sake of his friends, Andras was glad they hadn't.

He darted from one tree to another, hiding behind the trunk as one of the patrol passed him by. They were still oblivious to him. He would know the moment they detected them by the loud bellows they emitted and then all the patrol would come to greet him. They wouldn't kill him, but he would limp for weeks if he met with them and his chances for Agent school would be just as injured. He kept his mind focused on finding the banner and avoiding detection. Soon, he found himself facing a clearing where a stake protruded from the ground with a flap of material hanging from it. There it was!

He was tempted to make a run for it, but the Battle Alphas were watching this area, too, and there was something else. He didn't notice it at first, but upon a second look he spied the form of a large blocky plant sitting not more than two yards away. It was as tall as the giants that guarded the area, and its large tendrils swayed back and forth lazily as it scanned for movement that didn't belong. Andras had seen turrets before, but rarely when they were set to target him as this one was now. What worried him more was the realization of what kind of turret it was. He could handle the submission turrets, the burning turrets, and the small thorn turrets. He had been hit by all of them at one time or another and they were survivable, but miserable experiences. The one that he stared at now was a Reaper, the deadliest turret Shapers made. There was no stunning a student with that thing. A single hit could kill.

Curse that Tanor for boasting so loudly!

The only piece of knowledge he held about a turret that would help him now was that turrets could only see movement. So long as he didn't move it couldn't see him, but the banner was in the middle of a clearing that would require him to move at some point to retrieve it.

He dropped to his stomach and crawled across the ground as slow and steady as he could. A Battle Alpha walked by and he held his breath, but the big brute stepped right over him and continued on unawares. Andras pushed on with the painful pace, his eyes fixed on that banner ahead. So far the turret hadn't seen him, he moved too slow, but the closer he got the more certain a thorn from that monstrosity would strike him dead if it did see him. At last he reached the stake with the banner on it. His heart pounded, he barely breathed as he reached a hand up to grab it as slow as he could manage. Soon he felt the fabric in his fingertips, he pulled it down.

Too fast. He heard the crackling noise of thorns being loaded to fire and froze.

It took a moment to realize it wasn't him that the turret had spotted. Several yards away he saw the blonde hair of his friend, Mila, crouched in some bushes. She was watching the Battle Alphas, not the turret that should have been occupying her attention, but Andras didn't know how to tell her without giving himself away. She started forward, the turret tracked her movement, it was aiming. He pushed up and bolted to her, dropping the both of them to the ground. A thorn was fired. It grazed his leg, burning, but the majority of the poison was in the thorn that went sailing past them. He would live.

Mila didn't understand why he grabbed her at first, but her head turned and her eyes spied the big plant at last. She gasped, and he covered her mouth. They were both stuck, and it was only a matter of time before they were found. He was bleeding now, and the scent of blood, if nothing else, would lead the Battle Alphas right to them.

It didn't take long. The next Battle Alpha that walked nearby stopped and caught a scent that interested it. It walked into the clearing and the turret locked on, having difficulty determining friend from foe as the creature got closer. Andras could only hope that it would make a mistake, fire upon its own guard, and create a distraction long enough that he and Mila could away.

The Alpha stopped when it saw the two students lying on the ground, cocking its head for a moment as it tried to determine if it what it saw merited alarm. Then it lumbered towards them again, faster this time, and the turret took no chances. A thorn flew threw the air above the heads of Andras and Mila and tagged its target in the meat of its abdomen.

The beast bellowed out in pain and anger, and its giant fists swung at the assailing plant as it charged. More thorns fired, they were battling each other now. Andras grabbed Mila and yanked her to her feet, then ran for the first cover they could find. He wasn't going to stick around and see who won that fight, but it didn't matter. More Alphas were coming to aid their comrade. Everything near by knew they were there now. He just had to do his best to avoid them.

If he had been by himself Andras would have taken back to the trees to avoid those artillas he knew were waiting outside of the patrol zone, but Mila couldn't follow him. In fact, he wondered how she got through without such a trick in her repertoire, but it didn't matter now. They just ran.

Artillas spotted them and came out of hiding, hurling mouthfuls of potent acid but Andras and Mila were gone too fast to be hit. More came, and they missed as well, but not by much. The worms would follow them so Andras took to zigzagging to keep their aim off. Then came the packs of roamers. Andras and Mila ran from them, too. Those beasts had more speed, but didn't pursue as far. Then he passed fyoras, then the thahds. Finally they ran into the clearing they had started in.

The delegates and professors watched them return, looking impressed when Andras produced the banner. A couple other students were standing nearby, holding packs of herbs on wounded parts of their bodies. Their endeavor had not gone so well. The last returned a short time later, chased out by the same angry artillas that Andras and Mila had narrowly escaped. He would need some elixirs to help neutralize the acid and reverse the damage it left behind.

Tanor had been displeased that Andras made such a commotion on his return, but overall the mission had been a success and he received a nod of approval from each of the delegates. From there he was certain that he had proven himself Agent material. He couldn't imagine them choosing him for anything else. He had put so much effort into choreographing his performance at the trials to make himself look perfect for Agent work, but they had chosen him for Shaper. When he heard them say it as they called him up he knew there had been a mistake. How could he have been chosen for Shaper?

"Andras?" A voice brought him out of his daydream.

He wasn't sure if he had heard it at first, a faint female's voice from the other side of the heavy door. He opened his eyes and looked around, expecting to find that it was a figment of his imagination, and nothing more; but the lock on the door creaked back and it swung open with a painful groan. The light on the other side hurt his eyes, and he had to hold a hand up, but as he adjusted he could see a silhouette in the doorway. "Andras!" she exclaimed, rushing over to him, disregarding the foul odor of the cell. He couldn't see her face, or much else about her, but the sound of her voice and the hint of a sweet perfume let him know it was Lanira, his mother.

"You shouldn't be here," he told her.

"Nor should you," she replied. She coaxed him to his feet and led him out the door with her hand. He stopped just past the doorway, looking over at the guards to see if they would try to stop him. They looked ready to do so at any time, but they kept their distance. No doubt they had spent a little time with the one person who could bribe better than his father.

Lanira lead him to a room that would normally serve as quarters for the guards that watched the cell, but it was vacant at the moment. The room was lit with lamps on either side of the room. Two large cabinets stood on the back wall, full of supplies that a guard might need while on duty and kept tightly locked. There was a table with three chairs, and a half-finished mug of ale still sitting where its drinker had left it.

She gestured for him to take a seat, but he declined. He preferred to stand. Her face looked tired, as though she had been fighting back the tears all day and was beginning to wear from the effort. That was like her. She would take it upon herself to be the strong one for the rest of her family, forsaking her own sadness until she was alone when it would finally break through. She was trying to maintain her composure now, but Andras could see in her eyes that every moment she looked at him she was reminded of the son she didn't have anymore.

"I want to talk to you about your father," she began. "I know he has asked you to become a Shaper. He hopes that you will one day take his place…"

"I don't want to take his place," he cut in. "I don't want to be anything like him."

She raised a hand to quiet him, nodding that she understood. "With your… your brother… being gone…" Her voice was beginning to break up with the mention of Margus. She tried to recompose herself. "The burden of the family's legacy and honor now rests with you. You understand that, don't you?"

Andras shook his head. He thought he would find a more sympathetic ear with his mother, but it didn't sound that she had come to rescue him from his assignment as he had hoped. She was trying to talk him into accepting it, playing on the fact she knew that he could not refuse her.

"Andras?"

"I don't want to be a Shaper!" he roared. She shrank back, a little intimidated by his sudden show of anger. He turned away so he couldn't see her and regret what he just said.

"You know what he will do if you refuse."

"I don't care." Prison didn't intimidate him anymore.

"Andras! Now is not the time for your foolish stubbornness. Just accept… you must." She sounded desperate. It was not something he was used to hearing from her. She was strong, and defiant. He was so much like her. "I have already lost one son today," she whispered. "I cannot lose both."

"If I accept, I'm already lost." He was already lost. Everything he was and strived to be would be forsaken so he could become the Shaper his father wanted him to be. He could fight it for awhile, but he was fighting the inevitable. He would be forced, Kristoff had his ways, and he would become what he hated most.

Lanira tried to offer him comfort by putting her arms around him, but he shied away. He kept his back to her, knowing if he saw the hurt that was sure to be on her face he would give in right then.

She set something on the table and slid it over to him. At first he didn't acknowledge the gift.

"It was your brother's. He would have wanted you to have it."

He turned and looked down and saw a book, but for a long time didn't dare touch it. Then his hand moved to it, slow and unsure, until his fingers touched the leather binding. He opened it, staring at the page before focusing on the words written there. It was Margus' journal from his years at Shaper school. As he flipped through it he could hear his brother's voice speaking in the back of his mind.

"Stop being so selfish," he would say. "Think of the family, think of our mother. Do what you know must be done."

That was Margus, the practical one. He would try to reason with his brother who didn't always understand reason. While it was often a futile effort, Andras had come to respect his brother's unending patience for him. That calm persistence, among other things, was why Margus was a good Shaper, and why Andras would not be.

"Do what you know must be done." Those words echoed in his head.

He closed the book with a quick flip of his hand. After a couple deep breaths that failed to relieve the tension in his gut he conceded. "Alright, Margus. You win."

He turned around to see his mother was standing a few paces behind him, waiting for his nod of acceptance. There was nothing he needed to say to her, it was molded on his face. She held her arms out for him, her expression relieved but still saddened. He accepted the invitation, finding that he was in much need of a warm and comforting embrace as she was. The façade of strength she had pasted on crumbled and she buried her face in his tunic and wept.

There he held her for a long while until she was able to calm herself once again. She pulled away from him, thanking him silently with a forced smile.

"The funeral will be in three days," she managed in a shaky voice as she wiped her eyes dry.

"They won't let me stay, will they?" Andras asked.

"I'll try," she promised. That was the best she could offer. The schedule they were bound to was a strict one, and weather often didn't forgive a day or two of delay, but if it could be done she would do it. "Now go, pack your things. Sleep if you can. There is much to be done tomorrow."

He stood for a moment longer, trying to gauge if she still needed him. It wasn't right for her to be left to grieve alone, and Kristoff was not going to offer her any comfort; he didn't know how. But she urged him on with her hands. "Go," she whispered. Still reluctant to leave, he gave her a quick nod, snatched up the tainted gift she had given him, then turned on his heel and departed.

The halls that lead to the room he shared with two other students were filled with classmates, and a few of their parents who had come to congratulate their sons or daughters. He ignored them all and plowed his way through the artificial greetings and congratulations, even the questions of where he had disappeared to, until he found the sanctuary of his empty room. Luke and Janner were still out. Good.

The plain bed on the opposite wall beckoned to him, and he was in no state to argue. He dropped himself on the end, tossing the journal down next to him, and burying his face in his hands.

Margus was dead.

He still had a hard time accepting the fact his brother wasn't going to be around anymore. Margus wouldn't be popping in every so often to see what Andras was up to. He wouldn't be giving his well-intended, but often ill-gotten, words of advice.

Andras picked up the journal and began thumbing through it, taking more time to look at the words and hand-drawn diagrams. There were maps of the Shaper territories, hand copied from other volumes. One map showed the route the ship that would take him to his new home. It was a long trip, for Andras' limited experience. Over two weeks at sea seemed long, but it was nothing in comparison to the month that his parents had spent when Kristoff brought Lanira back with him.

"Good evening, fellow Shaper!" Luke strutted in, startling Andras. He tossed the journal back on the bed, knowing it would draw attention and then he would have to answer questions he would rather not hear right now. He acknowledged his room-mate with a quick glance up, but was in no mood to share in his joy of being destined to the same school.

"Just think of it, Andras, how lucky we are to be following in our fathers' footsteps…"

"I'd rather not talk about it, Luke," Andras interjected. The last thing he wanted to hear was how "lucky" he was to be following in his father's footsteps. He wanted to be anything but like him. No, he wanted to be an Agent.

"Too overjoyed?" Luke asked, puzzled.

"Yes, that's it," Andras responded in an irritable tone, trying to say anything that would make Luke stop talking. He dropped to the ground, pulling a wooden trunk out from beneath his bed. He gathered the few belongings he had to take with him; a few pieces of clothes, student robes, a few toiletries, and his Agent's knife. Anything that he could find to busy himself and avoid Luke he did, but there wasn't much to do and soon he was left standing, hands on his hips, as he tried to think of anything else. The bed had been made, again. The furniture was dusted, and the cabinet was checked, and rechecked for anything that was his to take. Now what?

As he feared, Luke took his idleness as the cue to speak again.

"You know I'm the third generation of my family to become a Shaper." Andras could hear the sounds of Luke packing his gear on the opposite side of the room, but he kept his back turned. "And your family… well, Kristoff must be proud. Two sons to become Shapers. Simply unheard of!"

Andras couldn't keep his mouth shut. He spun around, feeling hot with anger again. "Do you really think this is what I wanted, Luke?"

"Isn't it what everyone wants?"

The notion was almost laughable. "No, it's not what everyone wants. Do you think I've spent every available moment for the last five years training with Tanor so I could spend the rest of my life bent over a book?"

Luke was quiet, for once. He could only blink, his face molded with confusion. Against his better judgment, Andras continued.

"I never wanted to be a Shaper. It's a curse, I don't want it. I'd give it up if I could." Just as he spoke those words he saw Janner appear through the doorway. He stopped, staring at Andras in disbelief. It was the wrong thing to say with him nearby. Janner's dream was to become a Shaper like his parents, but he performed terribly in the Shaper trials and ended up being placed as a Guardian where all able-bodied men went if they were suited for nothing else. Tanor often said so long as they could wield a sword and stand at attention they were good candidates for Guardians. For Andras to speak of his placement as Shaper in such a way would only add insult to the injury Janner now felt.

Luke shook his head, and his thin mouth turned to a frown. "I can't imagine what Margus would say if he heard you talk like that, Andras."

"He won't be saying anything. My brother's dead."

"Dead?" Luke and Janner exclaimed, almost in unison. Andras didn't mean to let that slip, but now that he had there would be explanations needed.

"The Battle Alpha?" Janner said, thinking aloud to himself more than anyone else around him. "I heard about a rogue Battle Alpha. This morning. It mauled a Shaper… that was your brother?" Andras nodded.

Janner dropped his stocky frame onto the middle bed, his bed, still keeping his eyes fixed on Andras. Both were quiet as though they couldn't come up with a word that was appropriate just then. "Sorry" just didn't say it.

Luke sighed, ran his hand through his sandy colored hair, and looked around uncomfortably. "Andras... I…"

"I just want to be left alone right now." Andras felt a little twinge of regret for sounding so abrupt, but Luke nodded in understanding. He exchanged a couple meaningless words with Janner and departed to find a livelier crowd where his enthusiasm would be shared. Amongst the thirty-six students that had come of age there were four others celebrating their impending trip to Shaper school. He would find one of them and Andras was glad to see him go.

"I can't believe that was your brother," Janner thought out loud again. Andras wished he would stop doing that.

"Yes, Janner. We both suffered losses today."

There was silence that followed, and it was welcomed. Andras resigned himself to bed, extinguishing the oil lamp that sat on the small night table next to him. The room was still bathed in a faint orange glow from the lamp between Luke and Janner's beds and Andras found himself staring at the faint lines of the stone ceiling above him. They reminded him of the maps in his brother's book that had been traced in his own wobbly hand; hands that would never draw another map or write another note again.

His eyes drifted back to the journal on the night table near the oil lamp. It was dark, still, and lifeless like the stone of the ceiling above him. The meaningless words written inside would serve as a constant reminder of the life full of promise that would never be realized. It was then, looking at the leather-bound book, that his loss became real.