“How familiar are you with history, General?” Lord Aurctur asked. He sat back on his haunches, his tail curling under him for increased balance as his lifted his hands from the ground. Aurctur’s ears and eyes turned toward General Zamrou in a way that tempted him to bear his teeth.
“Not very,” General Zamrou admitted. It displeased him to admit it, but he wasn’t one to try to preserve his pride by lying. He felt his ears lay flat against his head. He consciously forced them to relax. “I know more about war than anything.”
“Ah,” Lord Aurctur said. His lower eyelids lifted in a gloating smile. “I suspected as much. But surely, you know of the event of which I speak.”
Aurctur straightened his back and reached forward, bringing his hands to the terminal controls. The large screen connected to changed. It had been covered by a shifting display of pleasing patterns. Now, it showed a blank box in its center, ready for Aurctur’s inquiry.
“Of course I do,” Zamrou said. He watched Aurctur with a mix of curiosity and disdain. It was odd for a mau to work with his hands, when the orb provided so much more sensitivity and control in most circumstances. Aurctur was an odd fellow. “Though perhaps I am not as familiar with its nuances as you.”
This gave Auctur another chance to gloat silently. Zamrou accepted it. This man was central to the Emperor’s operation, and, the Emperor claimed, the sole ticket to the mau’s salvation.
“Then you know about the grand undertaking implemented centuries ago by our ancestors,” Aurctur said. “You know that it was this that granted us the orbs.” As if to demonstrate, he extended a set of lines from the orb that hovered above his back between his shoulders. Aurctur’s was black, like a hole made of shadow punched into the world.
“Yes,” Zamrou said, his ears twitching. “Every child is taught about it. The ancient mau Magisters cast a spell so great they changed our entire race. They made us stronger and tougher, and granted us the orbs besides.”
“That’s correct, insofar as that is what children are taught in school,” Aurctur said. “That is the version of history that has been intentionally propagated.”
Zamrou’s eyes narrowed. The scales of his head, cream-colored in sharp contrast to Aurctr’s deep blue, stood up. Aurctur’s words sounded dangerously like heresy. “Don’t speak in circles. Say what you mean, or don’t say it at all.”
Aurctur laughed. He entered something into the field on the display. He typed so fast and submitted the query so quickly that Zamrou had not time to parse it. An image expanded to take up the screen. “Do you know what this is?” Aurctur asked.
Zamrou studied it briefly, allowing Aurctur to think he had difficulty assessing what he saw. Already he could tell that Aurctur was the sort of man who needed to feel superior. He saw that the conversation would be far easier if he pretended to know less and see less than he did.
“It is a soul,” Zamrou said. “Or at least, a visual representation of one.”
“Yes!” Aurctur said. “Very good. It is a soul. What do you know about souls?”
Zamrou’s lips crept upward, revealing his teeth. “They are central to every being. Their shape determines a great deal of what a being’s soul and body will be like. Through analyzing them, we can determine the effects of conferring additional vital or mental energy to a being.”
“That’s exactly correct,” Aurctur said. “As I’m sure you also know, because of the ancient Magisters, all mau have a specific region of their soul in common. There, our souls are the same shape.”
“Yes,” Zamrou said. His tail swished. He wanted to take his leave of this frustrating man. He hadn’t come here today to hear a list of things he already knew.
“Did you know that, among beings on our planet, this similarity is unprecedented?” Aurctur asked. “That region of our souls does have some variation. That’s why my orb is black, and yours red, for example. But the variation is not often so high that the capabilities of our orbs are any more different than the capabilities of our bodies.”
“Okay,” Zamrou said. He could see the conversation finally approaching areas of talk with which he was more unfamiliar, yet it still seemed unrelated to the reason for his visit.
“There are some things about what the Magisters did that are not taught in schools,” Aurctur said. “However, I suspect one of such stature as yourself may be familiar with them regardless.”
“Enlighten me anyway,” Zamrou said.
“Well,” Aurctur said. He turned away from the terminal, seemingly content with the image he had displayed, though he hadn’t explained much about it. “The effects of their spell — if we can refer to it by such simplistic terms — are obvious, in some ways. We are only taught one of them in school. They made all mau into Exemplars.”
Zamrou nodded. He quoted what he remembered from school. “All mau have slightly more vital energy than our bodies need to exist. This overflows into our soul, giving us capabilities beyond what our ancestors naturally possessed: strength and endurance beyond what should be physically capable, and our orbs. As we’ve already discussed.”
Aurctur nodded. “What we are not taught in school is that, because of the Magister’s undertaking, there are now very few natural Exemplars born on our world, if any.”
“Did Exemplars once occur naturally?” Zamrou asked. “Official doctrine is that they did not.”
“They did,” Aurctur said. “It is likely that one or more of the Magisters were among them, or they wouldn’t have been able to even cast the spell that resulted in our Exemplary nature.”
“The Magisters were masters of spellcraft,” Zamrou said. “Surely nothing was beyond their capabilities.”
“Obviously, this wasn’t,” Aurctur said. “I’m not claiming that. But from what we’ve begun to rediscover about spellcraft, something of this magnitude shouldn’t have been possible.”
“We’re attempting to rediscover spellcraft?” Zamrou said. “Doctrine says that the Magisters took spellcraft away from the world for a reason. They believed it to be too dangerous.”
Lord Aurctur laughed. “It does say that, doesn’t it? But that’s not the real reason.”
“Does Emperor Ouran know that you commit heresy by your words?” Zamrou growled. “You should take more care when contradicting doctrine.”
“He knows, I assure you,” Aurctur said. “That’s why I’m here. That’s why he respects me. I seek the truth as it should be known, not as a set of rules tells us to know it.”
Zamrou had no response. The scales on his back stood on end, as they did when he felt he was in danger. This scholar brought more fear to him, somehow, than any three warriors.
“The Magisters didn’t take spellcraft away. It became impossible to work, after what they did,” Aurctur explained. “They, basically, broke the entire system.”
“They… what?” Zamrou asked.
“Spellcraft, as the Magisters knew it, became nonfunctional after their spell was cast,” Aurctur said. “Spellcraft relies on a specific, ah, we’ll call it a language, though it’s more complex and involved than that. When the Magisters finished their spell, that language was no longer the right one.”
“Why?” Zamrou demanded. “How do you even know this?”
“We know because we found some of the Magisters’ journals and other writings,” Aurctur said. “They have long been hidden by the church, but with Emperor Ouran backing me, I, and my scholars, were finally able to gain access to them. There are records of the means by which the Magisters manipulated magic. There is an entire series of books meant to be a basic education on the foundation of spellcraft, in fact. None of it is functional.”
“What are we using now?” Zamrou asked. “If spellcraft no longer works…”
“Technology!” Aurctur said with a laugh. “That’s the whole reason our technological development progressed as it did.”
“You know that’s not what I meant,” Zamrou snapped. “You said we were rediscovering spellcraft.”
“Oh, we are,” Aurctur said. “But the language is different. It’s related, that’s easy enough to see. There are some similarities. But that’s the real reason that spellcraft was forgotten. What they knew about it no longer applied. Their entire society collapsed.”
Zamrou turned away from Auctur. He stared at the screen, because there was nothing else in the room which he could pretend held his interest. He found himself at a loss for what sort of question to ask next. Nothing Aurctur said made sense to him. None of it fit with what he already knew.
“Do you wish to know why?” Aurctur asked. “Why the language changed?”
“Yes,” Zamrou said. The tension in his jaw strained the word.
“It is because their spell did not change us,” Aurctur said, “but something far grander and more profound.”
“What is there that is so much greater than changing the souls of an entire species?” Zamrou asked. He scoffed. “Changing the universe?”
Aurctur raised his eyebrows. “You don’t even realize how close your suggestion is to being correct.”
Zamrou snapped his head around to regard Aurctur more fully. “What?”
“We have known for quite some time that our planet is the center of the universe,” Aurctur said. “The sun rotates around it. The stars hang in the void that surrounds our world. That void has a limit: the end of our universe. Recent inquiry has revealed even more about the structure of that universe.” With his hand, Aurctur gestured at the screen. “Do you know what that is?”
“It’s a soul, as I said,” Zamrou said, though this time, he felt a chill at the question.
“Yes, but what sort of soul is it?” Aurctur asked. “It’s not a mau soul.”
“It’s not?” Zamrou regarded the image once more. He was no expert on the analysis of souls. He had been shown the region about which Aurctur had spoken before, that small portion that all mau held in common. He could not identify it here. The image may as well have been an obscure work of art, full of points of light and whorls and a great, branching chasm that worked is way throughout.
“No,” Aurctur said. “That is the soul of our planet.”
Zamrou could only laugh. What else could he do? Everything Lord Aurctur spoke as fact came off as more and more ridiculous.
“Scholars of only fifteen years ago may have laughed as you are now,” Aurctur said. His superior demeanor had vanished. He seemed, now, almost reserved. “This is an image of the planet’s soul, taken using specialized satellites. We have long known that the planet has its own vital energy. This is what powers the sun. This is what is instilled in us when we are born. The planet’s own energies coalesce, giving us our vital, mental, and magical energies. We now know that the planet has both soul and body.”
“The planet is a being?” Zamrou whispered. His mind vibrated at the implications. “Does it… does it have a spirit, as well?”
“Not that we’ve been able to discover,” Aurctur said. “Though perhaps. That may be where ancient myths about deities come from. We believe that if it did, the Magisters may have destroyed it.”
“They destroyed the planet’s spirit?” Zamrou asked. “What makes you think that? Were the Magisters even aware of… this?” He gestured at the screen.
“They were,” Aurctur said. “You were very close when you asked if they had changed the universe, because in a way, they did. They changed that which lies at its very center: the soul of the planet itself.”
Zamrou shook his head. Then he shook it again. Once again, he found himself with no coherent answer.
“According to the Magisters, it is the shape of a planet’s soul which, at least in part, determines the shapes of the souls of the beings born within its influence,” Aurctur said. “The Magisters knew that changing a being’s soul is dangerous and unstable. For some reason, they thought that changing the soul of the planet would be safer than changing their own souls, or those of other mau, directly. So they edited the planet’s soul itself, so that all newborn mau are born as Exemplars.”
“This is ridiculous,” Zamrou said.
“It is,” Aurctur agreed. “Ridiculous and irresponsible. The Magisters are not the heroes that history portrays.”
“Is that why they lost their spellcraft?” Zamrou asked, beginning to connect the dots.
“Yes,” Aurctur said. “When they changed the planet’s soul, they drastically altered the language of spellcraft. As their writings indicate, this was wholly unintentional.” He pointed at the screen, this time with a line drawn from his orb. “As you can see, even if you are untrained, there is a great rift in the planet’s soul. It is growing more unstable with time.”
A great many things suddenly made sense to Zamrou: the increasing number of stillborn children, who had no souls at all the hold their being together; the unexpected vibrations, so like earthquakes, that geologists had been unable to explain; the time the sun itself had flickered, and all the world feared it might die.
“I can see why the Emperor chose you,” Zamrou said. His tail flicked the air behind him. “Do you have a plan? A way to repair the soul, perhaps?”
“There are two main options set in motion,” Aurctur said, “though the general belief is that only one of them is viable. The first is the redevelopment of spellcraft.”
“And?” Zamrou pressed. “Is that the viable option?”
“No,” Aurctur said. “No, it’s unrealistic. I’ve abandoned it entirely, though there are those that pursue it still. It will take far more years to get it to a helpful level our estimates predict we have left.”
“What is our other option?” Zamrou asked.
“We must leave.”