imbus stood in the center of the courtyard. Marble walls rose up all around him, gleaming in the sun. The grass of the courtyard was thick and healthy, broken only by strong trees and winding cobblestone paths. One path, wider than the rest, ran straight through the yard, and it was on this path that Nimbus, along with a several other individuals, stood in a line opposite a group of cloaked figures wearing helmets with the visors down.
This is a dream.
The knowledge came spontaneously. Nimbus knelt, but it wasn’t his decision. He was merely watching his own actions with the detached apathy of a dreamer. He was here to observe, nothing more. One of the visorred men stepped forward to speak. Nimbus couldn’t make out the words, but the voice was solemn.
This is a ceremony.
The voice did not waver as it droned on, a speech that had been made a hundred times. Eventually, the man stepped back and the others stepped forward, each carrying a large bundle wrapped in a fine fabric. One by one, the men in visors presented the bundles to the people standing beside Nimbus, proceeding down the line. Nimbus turned to watch as the person to his right, a fellow about Nimbus’ age with red hair, received his bundle. As the bundle shifted, a flash of orange was visible beneath the outer wrapping. A smile spread across the man’s face.
It was Nimbus’ turn. The bundle was heavy and felt as though it contained many separate pieces. Nimbus watched as his hand moved to open it. The wrapping was partially pulled back to reveal pitch-black metal, metal detailed with sparks and traces of gold woven through it in an elaborate design.
Nimbus felt something tap his shoulder.
The world began to fade as a jarring force struck his shoulder, shaking him.
“Wake up, Shellfish!”
“OK, OK… I’m awake.” Nimbus tried to blink the gritty feeling out of his eyes and sat up. “Do you wake up a lot of people this way, or am I a special case?”
Gilgamesh stood over him, tapping his foot impatiently. “Most people wake up before noon.”
“First, I haven’t had a good night’s sleep in as long as I can remember. Second, how on earth do you know what time it is?”
“Just put your boots on. We’re sparring in fifteen minutes.”
“Stinger was going to spar with me today.”
“He called in a favor. Get a move on.” Gilgamesh began to walk away.
Nimbus let out a long sigh. “I’m starving.”
“So grab a vine. I don’t care!”
As Gilgamesh disappeared through the doorway of the sleeping quarters, Nimbus resisted the temptation to flop down and go back to sleep. The Vinefront’s sleeping quarters were considerably more comfortable than the Sanctuary’s. The long hut, made of vines woven over a wooden frame, was dimly lit only by a few small, bioluminescent fungi, creating a lethargic twilight at all hours. The chief difference, however, was the bedding. Here at the Vinefront, vines were so abundant that there were woven mats for everyone. While these might have seemed knotted and uncomfortable for some, next to the the cold, hard stone floor it was the pinnacle of luxury.
Within a few minutes, Nimbus hauled himself out of bed, donned his boots, and went in search of food. He didn’t have to look long; the Vinefront was, as its name suggested, crawling with vines. Approaching one of the giant stalagmites, Nimbus, with a fair amount of effort, wrenched a vine off its rocky surface. Even after exclusively eating vines for the past few days, he still wasn’t accustomed to the rough texture and bitter taste. Reluctantly, he gnawed at the vegetation.
Man, this stuff is not any tastier when it’s fresh.
“What’s up, Nimbus?”
Nimbus turned to face to face the voice, but no-one was present.
“That would be me. I’m up.”
Nimbus tilted his head back and saw that, sure enough, Hermes was perched atop the nearby stalagmite. “That joke was awful.”
Hermes shrugged. “You can’t please everybody.”
“I don’t think you pleased anybody. How did you get up there?”
“What can I say? I have unrivaled agility. And wind magic. Mostly wind magic.” Hermes slid down the rock formation, alighting on the ground. “Speaking of magic, did you talk to Witte yet?”
“Briefly. She had to stop and help Talos though… I hope she can.”
There was an uncomfortable pause before Hermes spoke again: “Hey, uh, did you see Stinger last night?”
“Not after we spoke to Witte, no. Why?”
“He never showed up at the sleeping quarters. I hope he hasn’t left already.”
“Hmm, it seems like you’re always looking for him.”
Hermes shrugged. “He’s a cool guy, but he never sticks around for long… And, you know, he did save my life.”
“Yeah, back when I first arrived.” said Hermes. “There I was, lost in the tunnels with no memory. I did remember some of my magic, and that kept me safe for a while, but without a secure location to fall back to, I was doomed. I had just given up on finding the way out when Stinger came along and took me to the Sanctuary.”
“Yeah, he saved me as well, twice now. That guy is not as cold as seems.”
“Yeah, that milksop’s a real softy.” said Gilgamesh, approaching from behind. “That’s why I’m sparring with you instead. Now, let me beat the snot out of you quick, so we can all get on with our more important duties.”
Nimbus and Gilgamesh stood in a large, flat area of the cavern. The ground was clear of vines and encircled by a band of mushrooms in a naturally occurring fungal formation known as a fairy ring. A few of the vine harvesters took a break from their labors to watch; Hermes was there as well.
“Here’s your weapon.” Gilgamesh tossed Nimbus a narrow wooden shaft. “Or you could just use your sword. It won’t matter; you can’t touch me.”
Nimbus caught the stick. “Where does this wood come from?”
“Abandoned digging equipment, tunnel supports. Just try and focus, will you?” Gilgamesh lashed out with his own stick, and Nimbus barely jumped out of reach.
He never said we were starting!
The next blow came too quickly for Nimbus to evade, striking him hard on the shoulder. Nimbus attempted a counterattack, but Gilgamesh swatted his stick aside with so much force, he almost lost his grip. Before Nimbus could regain his composure, he got another rap on the other shoulder, quickly followed by one on the shin, and a smack to the ribs. Gilgamesh took the opening to step in and shoulder Nimbus in the chest, knocking him to the ground.
“That was terrible.” said Gilgamesh.
“You caught me off guard…”
“Yeah, yeah, and bloodwolves always ask nicely before they leap. Get up.”
Nimbus crawled to his feet. This time I’ll get it. I’ve just got to be more alert.
The first swipe came from the left, but Nimbus firmly deflected it with a swift motion and took a step back. The second swipe came from the right, and once again Nimbus intercepted Gilgamesh’s attack. This is more like it. Nimbus watched Gilgamesh carefully for his next move. The hostile stick descended towards him in an overhead swing, and Nimbus hastily repositioned his weapon to absorb the blow. The blow never came: suddenly, Gilgamesh aborted his initial attack and swung his stick in an arc around Nimbus’s weapon, smacking Nimbus in the right elbow and causing him to drop his stick in shock. Within seconds, Nimbus was on the floor again.
“No good. Try again.”
Nimbus and Gilgamesh ran through a number of similar confrontations. Never could Nimbus touch Gilgamesh, nor could he avoid finding himself, at the end of every clash, lying on the cave floor.
Gilgamesh let out a long sigh of frustration. “How did you make it this far?”
“Well,” Nimbus said crossly, “normally I wear armor and—”
“This has nothing to do with armor. You’re a horrible fighter.”
“Well, I thought the point of this sparring was to learn!”
“You can’t learn! You have no fighting spirit! I’m fighting to win; you’re fighting to not lose!”
“OK, I’m done.” Nimbus crawled to his feet.
“You’d better believe you’re done.” Gilgamesh threw his stick away, dislodging a puff of spores from a mushroom. “It’s time to learn to harvest vines, Shellfish. At least that way you’ll be useful!”
Nimbus was in the doing his best to formulate a biting retort when his thoughts were interrupted.
“Well, Gentlemen…” said Witte, stepping into view. “If you’ll excuse my encroachment on this most vehement altercation, I’d like to borrow Nimbus for a moment. It’s time to discuss magic.”