Chapter 1:


Gray Skies Below

A void of nothingness encapsulates the world. Light and darkness bear no meaning in the abyss, with the only certainty being a thin line horizontally dividing the space.

Meeting this abyss once again, a boy opened his eyes and welcomed in the view of his bedroom ceiling, merely trading the gray sea of the back of his eyelids for the equally gray bedroom. He threw off his bedsheets and dressed himself quickly, running through his morning routine and waiting for the chiming of the family clock.

"... Four chimes... It's only 4 o'clock??"

Huffing in frustration, the boy cursed his defiant body that refused to sleep for more than four hours a night. Already acquainted with the futility of trying to return to sleep by staring into the void of his eyelids, he accepted his early rising and resolved to practicing his handwriting for the time being.

Sitting at his desk and diligently practicing his letters, he noticed footsteps coming to his door and peered at it's widening crack. He made eye contact with his mother, pushing it open slowly and squinting into the room. Expecting her to acknowledge his presence as well, the boy continued to glare at his mother who failed to even knock. But she paid no heed to his look and continued to squint, scanning the room.

Wondering why his mother wouldn't even acknowledge his stare, he realized his mistake when she finally spoke up.

"Erebos, how many times have I told you? If you don't turn the light on, I can't tell if you're awake."

Much too far from his bed to feign sleep, the boy resigned himself to his fate and watched his mother walk to the wall switch and flick it. While nothing changed for him, his mother finally acknowledges his presence at his desk and walks over to inspect his work.

"I think your writing has really improved as of late, honey. I think you'll have a good chance at the exam this year. Even though first timers rarely pass, you're doing much better than your father and I at your age."

Erebos shook his gray hair and closed his eyes when his mother addressed his handwriting.

Erebos: "I hope it's good, this is all I've been riding on for years. If I don't pass this go around, I might just drop dead before next."

Mother: "Don't say that, honey. You're only 16 after all, you'll have plenty more chances and time to be the best in town. Not saying that you aren't already, I just don't want you to give up if you don't make it this time."

Sliding off his chair and stealing away from his mother's gaze, Erebos retreated to the kitchen and tried to change the subject from his writing.

Erebos: "It's only 4 o'clock anyway, I want to relax a little before 6. If I go in too stressed, I might drop dead before I get a chance to take it."

Mother: "I don't know what your fixation on death is about, but it's better to be optimistic about the test than to dread such unforeseen consequences. How about you help me finish breakfast and then you can do some relaxing?"

Shutting the kitchen door behind her, his mother returned to the stove she was cooking at before waking Erebos and resumed breakfast. Piling the eggs and meat from the pans onto nearby dishes, he carried the plates through the other door leading to the dining room. While arranging them in the middle of the table and taking his seat, his mother finished setting the silverware and called his father for breakfast.

Father: "I'm coming, dear. Do be kind on the ears, there's only so much I can take in the morning."

Brushing off this sarcastic comment, his mother seated herself as his father took his place at the head of the table.

Content with the silence while eating, Erebos has the vain hope that neither his mother nor father would bring up the looming exams. This hope was squandered, however, and his father takes up his usual facetious demeanor.

Father: "You seem quieter than usual, shouldn't you at least be worrying about later today?" 

Having this comment at him, Erebos tried to look away from his father's eyes but ends up meeting them anyway. Sensing the anxiety in the gray orbs of his son's eyes, his father dropped his usual attitude and put on a serious expression.

Caught off guard by the sudden change, Erebos faltered and failed to defend himself for his father's next words.

"I know I might not seem like the most serious sometimes, but you should know that I do seriously believe in you when the time comes. I've seen how hard you've been working for this, and no matter how many tries it takes for you, I'll support you as long as you keep yourself dedicated."

At a loss for words and turning red in the face, Erebos replied with a stiff nod acknowledging his father's words. Such serious words were rare from his father, and although embarrassed he internalized and appreciated them.

Finishing off his breakfast, he stood up, put away his dishes, and moved to leave the room.

Erebos: "I'm probably going to go out for a while and meet up with Jiron before the exam, so I won't be back until after."

Accepting his parents hugs and encouragement, they gave their farewells as Erebos grabbed his pack and departed. Waving to his mother and father on the front porch, he set out along the town road.

Despite his composed appearance before his parents, he was truly wracked with anxiety for the coming exam. He still had an hour before it started, but he had lied about going to his friend's house before.

Erebos: "Jiron probably isn't even up yet, so I'll just walk my stress off and wait it out."

Looking up at the sky while he walked, Erebos situated himself around the 16 constellations. He couldn't, well, actually see them, but he still had an idea of where they were situated. While everyone told him that the sky was actually a black darkness with points of light making up the constellations, such distinctions of light and dark didn't have much significance to his view of a homogenous gray sky. While he could usually tell the edges of what others say were different colors and shades, the stars in the sky had no such distinctions and simply melded in.

For all he knew, the entire world could be playing an elaborate prank on him and be making this whole star business up, but he wasn't so self-centered to believe such a notion. All that was important was that by knowing the month of the year and north, he could pretty accurately tell where each constellation was. Erebos had to learn such skills to keep up with his fellow aspiring artificers, who all bore the privilege of being able to see light and color. While ostensibly a crippling disability for someone who relies on the power of light, Erebos could still see most transitions between colors and shades, so he considered himself qualified enough in the vision department.

While lost in such thoughts, Erebos felt the queer sensation of being watched by countless eyes. Falling out of his concentration, he realized his grave mistake on his walk towards town.

"Erebos! Erebos! Wait up, where are you going?!"

Hearing the screams of young children, he noticed far too late the field that the young children of the town frequent. While he was usually mindful enough to avoid the place, he had completely forgotten and simply made a straight trip towards the town along the main road.

Regretting his mixed concentration and anxiety and cursing the children's excessive affinity towards him, he tried to ignore them but they surround him too quickly.

A young boy, probably around 10 years old, directly confronted Erebos and asked,

Young Boy: "Erebos, where are you going? Did you come to play with us for once?"

Erebos: "No, sorry, I wasn't mindful enough to avoid you guys today. Sorry about that."

A young girl next to the boy chimed in,

Young Girl: "You always say that, but if you really thought that you'd try harder to."

Thinking about his countless means of dismissal, he settled on,

Erebos: "You'd think that, but I wouldn't want to waste my brain power on thinking about you guys."

Meeting a collective whine, Erebos trudges ahead and tries to escape the children. Following behind, they continue to pester him about where he's headed to.

Young Boy: "C'mon Erebos, at least tell us where you're going. We'll leave if you do."

Knowing that they would continue to excessively question him if he mentioned the exam, he decided upon a lie that would be sure to scare off any young minds.

Erebos: "Fine, if it'll get you off my back. I'm heading to the post office to send my grandparents a message."

Young Boy: "You should've told us that from the beginning..."

Anticipating bored sighs from his purported destination and receiving them, the children peeled off and headed back to their field. Relieved at their departure, Erebos quickened his pace to try to avoid any more unnecessary encounters.

Thinking back on the children, despite his words and tone he certainly didn't dislike them as much as he was disconcerted by them. He always had the impression that younger kids had short attention spans and wouldn't want to bother themselves with a boring person like Erebos. Regardless of how boring and disinteresting he regarded himself, others seemed to think otherwise and he made rather quick work of befriending children and adults alike.

Lost in such thoughts, Erebos eventually glanced up and saw the first few buildings of the town peeking over the hills. Making his way towards the outskirts, he thought back onto his actual destination in the town.

Erebos: "Even though that was supposed to be a lie, I guess I should actually get around to sending that message."

Considering he still had about an hour till the exams, he considered the fact that his parents had told him to send such a message a few days ago. Putting it off since then, he figured he might as well take care of it since the post office was right next to the town hall, where the exam was being administered.

Thinking about the contents of his message while on his way, Erebos found himself at a loss as to how to address his grandparents' situation. On his mother's side, his grandparents were accomplished artificers and often traveled the four nations to conduct their archaeological research. Even into their old age, they currently traveled the northeastern Edithino Empire studying ancient inscriptions dug up by their fellow researchers.

At least, they had been traveling the country until the newly elected ruler restricted the movement of foreign artificers. Ever since his election, the Despot of Editha postured against the Capital, and claimed that since he saw a war between the nations inevitable, Capital artificers present in the Empire would be taken as prisoners of war. Taking this outrageous situation as a declaration of war, the Capital and Editha would have already begun fighting if not for the Capital’s headmaster ceaselessly pursuing negotiations.

Caught up as prisoners in the country, his grandparents had relayed to his family the situation. They could still send and receive messages under purview of their captors, so his parents had told Erebos to send them a message and tell them about his upcoming exam.

Deciding upon the words of his message, Erebos arrives at the post office and takes a seat in the corner. Despite being a rural town far away from the southwestern Rafdino Confederacy's capital, they had recently been connected to the national light messaging system under the new infrastructure programs of the country. The system was as fast as light and much more convenient than letters, but the price to send a message was determined by character count, so he had to make it concise.

Writing the contents of his message, it's delivery address, and it's recipients on a notepaper from his pack, he made his way towards one of the messaging clerks. While one would normally just recite such information to them, Erebos figured he could practice his writing a bit more before the exam. Satisfied with this precise and sharp penmanship, he hands the note to the clerk along with eight bronze coins.

Erebos: "Everything is on the note, thank you."

The clerk nodded towards him and typed away on his messaging device, sending a series of quick pulses of beamed light into the director on the ceiling. Watching the device operate, Erebos couldn’t see the beams firing off, but he didn’t doubt that it was functioning as intended. Hearing the clacks of a switch ring out rapidly, he mouthed out his words to follow along.

"E-R-E-B-O-S, H-O-W A-R-E Y-O-U? E-X-A-M T-O-D-A-Y, H-E-N-D-R-I-C F-E-L-K-R-A-N"

Considering the succinct message to be sufficient, Erebos returned the clerk's nod and turned towards the exit. Though including the name of the recipient would normally be used by the receiving office to deliver a transcribed letter to the recipient's address, Erebos wasn't sure if this situation was the same. His parents had told him to send a message so he was confident there was a way to get it to them, but he wasn't sure if there were any specifics he needed to include considering a hostage in another country might not have a discernible address.

He felt slightly guilty about dismissing the issue, but he figured that his parents should have told him beforehand if anything extra was necessary. Besides, it's not like he had a particular need to see a message from family he had practically no interaction with. The exam was much more worthy of his attention, so he left the office with a new uncertainty and eight fewer Dromina.

Making the short walk to the town hall from the post office, Erebos mounted the stairs to the large, wooden double doors pushed on one side. Slowly swinging open, Erebos was keenly aware of the lack of guiding signage along the staircase leading up to the entranceway. Considering that the exam occurred only once a year and was always administered in the town hall, he assumed that they simply hadn't put the signs up leading to the examination room yet.

Deciding to affirm this notion to prevent any confusion on his part, he approached the secretary sitting at the main desk.

Secretary: "Hellooo, how may I help you on this fiiine morning?"

Slightly unsettled by the secretary's meandering and carefree tone, Erebos lightly blushed and stammered,

Erebos: "Umm... I-I suppose I'm a little early, but I was just wondering which room I should wait in for the 6 o'clock exam."

Secretary: "Ohhh, you're here for that? They haven't set up the signs yet, but I'm preeetty sure it's going to be in the conference room at the right end of that hallway."

Bowing his head to the young woman and starting towards the hallway she pointed out, he turned his back to her and slouched past the various formally dressed occupants bustling about in the lobby. Reaching the end of the hallway, he opened the door and entered the room with a long table stretching to both ends. Since the room looked very capable of holding a conference, he figured that he found the right room and took a seat.

Erebos unpacked his writing supplies and decided to keep practicing until others started arriving in the room. He continued to do so until he heard the town hall's clock tower's chimes indicating it was 5:75, 15 minutes until the exam. Figuring that he was waiting in the wrong room, Erebos started collecting his supplies and got ready to look for the proper location. As he was leaning to move forward, the door behind him creaked open.

Glancing behind him, Erebos received a sudden, intense feeling of déjà vu. Looking around in confusion, a young man darted his eyes around the room as if not noticing him. Realizing that he was probably sitting in an unlit room and the person, probably a town hall clerk, could sense the presence of someone, Erebos watched in silence as the clerk reached out to the wall switch.

As soon as he flicked it upwards, he locked eyes with Erebos and made a startled expression. Racking his brain for something to say, Erebos cursed his lack of articulation. Compounded with the embarrassment of the situation, his thoughts came to a complete halt.

He was always a poor conversationalist, and he had a rather dull personality that didn't let him shrug off and make a quick-witted excuse to make light of the situation. Almost as if corresponding to his gray visage, he had a dreary personality to match and tried to hide it as well as he could. While reasonably comfortable with talking to and making somewhat interesting conversation with close family and friends, Erebos tended to falter and lose whatever meager fluency he had. Despite his shortcomings, he could say with some certainty that he had friends who wouldn't consider him entirely boring.

However, this occasion proved to be one where he lost his composure. Both facing a complete stranger and embarrassed, he was at a complete loss for words. Luckily the clerk had half a brain more and questioned him reasonably.

Clerk: "Hah... You startled me, were you trying to cool off your nerves before the exam?"

Erebos jumped a bit at the question, figuring that it was a plausible explanation offered to him and decided to just go with it. Assuming that the clerk already noticed his strange appearance, Erebos decided not to convolute things further with how he wasn't actually just relaxing in a dark room like the clerk thought.

Erebos: "Y-yeah, my bad. I didn't think anyone would come in here so I thought I'd settle down a bit."

Thinking ahead to why the clerk was coming in here right before the exam started, Erebos made a guess at his intentions.

Erebos: "I suppose I should head back now, but if you're here to bring some extra chairs or something I can help carry some back."

Clerk: "I don't mean to trouble you, but it would be appreciated. We have a few extra observers than we thought, so if you bring two that should be enough."

Correctly guessing the clerk's intent, Erebos regained his composure and followed after the clerk with a chair in each hand.

Heading back towards the entrance of the hallway, the clerk made light conversation as he approached a door on the right immediately before the main lobby.

Clerk: "The exams are usually held in the room we were just in, but this year we had so many applicants we had to move it into the main meeting hall. Good luck with the extra competition."

Somewhat dismayed at the clerk's affirmation of extra competition, he squinted his eyes as the clerk set a chair down and opened the door.

Seeing at the sheer number of people in the room, Erebos decided that extra competition was a gross understatement. From a glance alone, it appeared that half the town children and kids from the countryside he had never seen before showed up, clustered around the long tables dividing the hall. He knew that plenty of his acquaintances would be present, but he didn't think that so many would be trying out for the exam. Considering that the exam also handled the recruitment of the national schools, he should really be too surprised at the number, but it was still far more than he expected.

Clerk: "I guess with all the excitement about war, a bunch of kids are wanting to get in the action as artificers or something. I don't really get it, but I guess there's no helping it."

Setting the chairs down in a line near the door, the clerk turned to Erebos and said his farewells.

Clerk: "Thanks for the help, but I've got to finish some preparations before you guys get started here. Well, best of luck."

Giving him a slight wave, the clerk turned and exited through the door as Erebos surveyed the hall. Noticing many town children he knew to be taking the exam and countless foreign faces, he searched for one in particular.

???: "Erebroooooos!!"

Turning towards the call of his minced name, he saw the face of his friend who obviously noticed him first.

Erebos: "I'm surprised you made it on time Jiron, you're never up this early."

Jiron: "You could have a liiittle faith in me you know. I mean, you'd be right if this was anything else, but we both know how important this is."

Running through the usual frivolities, Erebos chatted while his heart raced faster and faster waiting for the clock chimes signaling the start of the exam. As the tolling bell was heard overhead, the chatter of the room quieted in anticipation. When excitement of the room abated, the collective anxiety exploded, so much so that Erebos couldn't help but jump when the door behind him flew open.

Marching through the crowd towards the front of the hall, a long line of uniformly dressed artificers parted the crowd. Erebos had heard that most examiners were volunteer students from the Capital, so he understood why most of them appeared only two or three years older than him. As they gathered at the front of the hall, an older man stepped forward from the group and cleared his throat.

Man: "If I may have your attention, the entrance examinations for the Capital shall begin shortly. These volunteers will be serving as your examiners today, and you will be assigned to one of three groups according to your last names. One group at a time will proceed to the examiners, who will identify you and administer the first phase of the exam. After the last group finishes, we will cycle through the groups once more for the second phase. The groups will be as follows."

Announcing the procedure for the exam and the groupings, the administrator assigned the examinees to three groups based on last name. Erebos fell into the second group, while Jiron was to be examined first.

Jiron: "Well, I guess this is it. I'll see you at the top, pal."

Grumbling at his frivolous attitude, Erebos waved Jiron off as he made his way with the rest of the first group towards the examiners. Seeing them draw out some kind of testing equipment, Erebos figured that the first phase involved a physical examination. Considering that one's ability to absorb, store, and expel light was essential to being an artificer, he imagined that the physical phase was as, if not more, essential than any phase based on knowledge or skill. Luckily, Erebos had heard that it was nearly impossible to completely fail the physical, with anyone having enough control of light to be able to make up for deficiencies with skill.

While pondering such thoughts, the examiners quickly cleared through the first group and filled out corresponding examinee profiles as the first group returned. Slapping Erebos on the back, Jiron swaggered back and cracked a large grin.

Jiron: "Wellll, you have a pretty high bar if you want to beat me at this phase. The examiner even said I was above average. She was totally into me, dude."

Erebos: "The examiner was probably just trying to make you feel better. Everyone has different ways of pitying."

Jiron: "All right big shot, let's see you do better. They're waiting for you."

Sticking his tongue out at Jiron, Erebos joined the rest of the second group heading towards the front. As the group faced the examiners, the administrator read a list of names, and when each examinee stepped forward he picked out an examiner, who sat them down at a nearby table. When Erebos' name was called, he stepped forward and gazed at the examiners.

Administrator: "Afkoran, your examiner will be Kalthira."

Erebos scanned the gathering of examiners for one who stepped forward, and his eyes stopped on one particular individual emerging from the congregation.