The Midnight Men

Character Prologue: Athena

Chapter I: A Gifted Child

Thena opened her eyes and frantically turned to the timepiece that hung on the wall. It was very early still, but her mind was far too staggered by what was to occur on this day that she could have scarcely closed her eyes for another moment. On this day, she would stand before the Queen of the Order of Swords to undergo her final examination. Should the Royals deem her worthy, she would begin her training to become the successor of the Queen. As she had heard her mother say many times to her father, the neighbors, the grocer, and anyone else who would listen, this honor hadn't been offered to one so young, ten years, in millennia.  

She walked to the window and peered out at the sky. The stars shone brightly as they always did. When she was younger, Thena enjoyed pressing her ear to the floor and listening for the whirring and clanking of the enormous mechanisms that worked below. She learned in classes that Talia was so close to the sun that life was only sustainable on the dark side of the planet, and thus civilization was sustained by the mechanical wonder beneath them all. Its function was to move all life away from the sun's searing rays, and into the cool of perpetual night. It wasn't unlike the timepiece that hung on her very wall. It was a comforting sound to her.

A knock at her bedroom door interrupted Thena's thoughts. It opened but a crack, and her mother's voice softly filled the air.

"I wanted to make sure you were awake," Thena's mother whispered "Your father wanted us to have breakfast together before we saw you off."

"I'll be out momentarily." Thena spoke at normal volume, startling her mother slightly. With a nod and a warm smile, her mother left the doorway, clicking it shut as she left.

Thena pulled on her robes before descending the spiral staircase into the dining room where her father had already prepared a lavish meal for the family. Her father was a stern and stalwart sort of man, owed to his many years serving in the Talic Air & Spaceforce, but he always enjoyed cooking for his girls when he was able to be home. That is, when her mother was home as well. Thena's mother was a Magitechnition, a vital and precise position in Talic society, as a small miscalculation could spell hours to days of lockdown and possible casualties to swaths of the countryside closest to the ever-encroaching sun.

As she entered the room, her father stood and saluted with a knowing smirk.

"Father, please. Nothing is certain yet. You know this," Thena remarked while trying desperately to hide the smile creeping across her face. He raised an eyebrow, but said nothing. He then reached for the chair next to him, suspiciously located at the head of the table, pulled it out, and gestured for Thena to sit. She stuck her nose in the air, feigning pompousness, and sat as her father pushed in her chair. At that moment, her mother's crimson head bobbed in from the study and sat herself down across from her husband.

"They can't seem to make due without me," she puffed. "I may have to go in today anyway." Thena's father frowned and furrowed his eyebrows as if to say, "Not today," or "You work too hard."

"Don't worry. We can at least have a nice meal before Thena goes off to impress the Royals and become the youngest Queen in millennia."

"Successor in training. I won't be Queen yet. IF I'm accepted that is." Thena's mother waved her hand as if to swat away her daughter's pessimism. Her father interrupted. "Let's not worry about that now. I want to remember this morning fondly." He was right. It was possible that, if accepted, her training would begin immediately, and this would be the last home cooked meal shared for a long time. Training for Queenship was intensive and time-consuming, and would require her to study at the Order Headquarters, which was located at the capital, hours away by train. Her father held out his hands. Thena clasped her father's hand on her right and her mother's on her left. They bowed their heads in reverent silence for what would be the final time.

The morning passed quickly to Thena's dismay. Her parents had walked her to the train station, given a tearful goodbye and sent her off. Everything seemed to be happening so suddenly. It was mere weeks ago that her instructors had asked her for permission to send her transcripts out to the Royals for examination. She always knew she was smart, and she was particularly gifted in the art of Blade Bending which was what she would be tested on today. The train began to slow as it came upon Order Station. Thena gathered her things and made her way off the platform and towards the lobby. She barely remembered signing in at the front desk and being led towards the lift in the Black Quadrant. She was being sent directly to the Queen's quarters.

Suddenly she stood at the entrance. The attendant who had been leading her gave Thena a reassuring gesture and left her staring at the large, stone doors. She took a deep breath, and pressed in the small, square button on the right side of the doorway. A voice suddenly rang out from the speakers on the walls.

"You're expected. Please enter." It was a deep voice. Thena thought it strange but reached for the handles of the doors, which sprang to life at her touch, sliding away from each other to create the opening to a large, wide room. She entered and began to cross it. At the far end was a large throne, currently facing the far wall which was composed entirely of a large, tinted windowpane. It was likely that it appeared as a flat wall from the other side. "Please don't be alarmed." The same deep voice came from the throne. Thena stopped a good few feet away before the throne turned to reveal an armored figure. His face was covered by a jagged helm with spires that stood at least a foot over his head. He pushed aside his cloak and stood. He was certainly imposing, standing close to nine feet tall, not including the helm.

"The Queen is… indisposed. I will be evaluating your ability." Suddenly realizing who she was confronted with, Thena bowed deeply.

"Th-thank you for considering me for this position." Acting as if he hadn't heard her, the King began to speak again. "Put your things down and join me in the arena." The King strode toward a doorway to the right which opened automatically at his approach, and closed after him. Thena placed her bags at her sides on the floor and turned slowly toward the door to the arena. She exhaled sharply. She must have been holding her breath since she spoke. She could feel her heart pounding within her chest. Was it nerves? She wasn't this nervous before she realized the King would be testing her instead of the Queen. What happened? Something seemed very wrong, but she had no time to ponder these things now. She strode toward the door; it opened just as it had for the king, and she entered the arena.

It was ungodly bright. Thena raised her hand to block the light from the ceiling. It was an artificial sky; they were designed to mimic a pleasantly warm afternoon if the sun weren't so lethal. They had indoor parks and gardens in some cities that used the same magitechnology. As her eyes adjusted she could see the King standing on the far side of the field with his hands behind his back.

"Take up your weapons." His voice echoed across the room. On either side of him stood ornate racks with equally ornate swords; seven on each rack. The blades themselves were blindingly white, with detailed carvings of vines with heart-shaped leaves twisting down the length of the fullers. At the top of each of the fullers, a face stared out with pupil-less eyes; they were almost mask-like in appearance, like porcelain dolls, and the ebony cross guards were forged into the foreheads of the faces. The terminals curved slightly toward the blades with small rolls at the ends, and they also had similar engravings to the fullers. Then, a pommel of set, polished white crystal crowned each weapon. Thena suspected they must have been enchanted in some way, as they gleamed with an otherworldly sheen.

"You will use these." She kept her composure but couldn't stop her eyes from widening slightly.

"You must bid them come." Thena hesitated for a moment. Surely he did not mean to spar with real weapons? As if to answer, the King stepped backward a few paces until he was flush with the far wall.

"Bid them come." She did not want to be told again. Thena took her stance and extended her hands, reaching for the right half with her mind. The King's voice suddenly interrupted her.

"You must take up all, or none at all." Thena was confused. What sort of trial only had one combatant? Nonetheless, she reached for the other half as well. She had managed to consistently control up to twelve blades during bending classes, so what was just two more? The blades were easy for her mind to find, strangely easier than the training blades at the academy. They lifted off the racks and fluidly drifted toward her. Thena surprised herself. They felt natural to her, like they belonged to her. As they flew closer they began to rotate around her, lifting her feet off the ground. It was amazing, but Thena wasn't doing this. She shot a pleading look to the King, but he remained motionless where he stood. The swords spun faster and faster, closer and closer until she couldn't bear to watch any longer. Thena shut her eyes tightly and waited for the swords to cut her to ribbons.

But the pain never came. She felt her feet meet the grass and expected to fall unceremoniously to the ground, but something soft caught her and brushed the hair out of her face. Thena blinked a few times trying to comprehend what she was looking at. Peering down at her was a man no older than half a century; he had medium length, slightly disheveled hair and some slight stubble on his chin. The familiar voice told her that this was the King.

"Your name?" The word he used in Talic implied that he wanted her full name, her legacy name. In Talic culture, each Tali had a personal name and a legacy name. Legacy names contained all personal names of prior generations, males taking the names of their father, and females taking the names of their mother.

"Th-thenaSevnaMidaKariDemiPolaShanaRenbiGemmaThalaUmaBettiFujinEdnaPharaZolaOzriAmaSemiJemmaPauli-CelaYokaPeah." The King smiled.

"Athena." Traditionally, personal names of common folk consisted of two syllables. A third would be added if royal status was bestowed. Her eyes widened.

"Welcome to The Order, your majesty."

The King helped Athena to her feet, staying kneeling so that he was at eye level with her. "But what about the trial? And the Queen?" The King's face turned serious. "The Queen has passed." Tali were a sturdy and long-lived race. The oldest Tali on record was close to 500 years old, but the average lifespan was closer to 400 years. It was difficult to gauge when any given Tali was close to death since after reaching full maturity, a Tali wouldn't slow down as many other races did. They could be fully functional one day, and dead the next, barring any life-threatening illness, which were scarce due to the hardiness of the Tali. It was likely that the Queen selected her for testing, knowing she was getting on in years only to die suddenly in the days leading up to the trial. "The Orders saw no reason to delay your coming because of this tragedy; it was all the more important you come. And The Swords of the Queen accepted you readily." Athena furrowed her brow. "What would have happened had they not accepted me?" The King laughed at this notion. "They would have been far too heavy for your mind to even lift. They are powerful and warded artifacts after all. I thank the stars you were accepted. The world needs her Queen of Swords. That is…" he turned serious again, "…if you think you are up to the task?" Athena stared into his eyes and looked down at her palms. She had always been a protector as long as she could remember; she could never stand to see injustice unhindered. She clenched her fists. This was her chance to do something important. To be a protector of many. She looked back into the dark eyes of the King. "I am." The King smirked and raised an eyebrow at her. "Good." He stood. "These will be your quarters. The entire floor is yours. Do take time to familiarize yourself with it. If you need assistance, you may call on me. The seat in the main entrance has a com unit in the arm. I should be listed." He made his way to the main room and Athena followed. He strode toward the exit. "Do make sure you get some rest. Your training will begin in the morning." Athena nodded as he disappeared behind the door.

That was it. She was Queen just as her mother said she would be. The youngest Queen in millennia. She shook her head, trying not to fall into homesickness, crossed the room and sat down on the throne. A panel on the right arm lit up with the Magitech logo for a moment before populating a list of names with titles. She scrolled through until she found the listing for The King of Swords. "Aristair." She said it out loud. It was pleasing to her ears. She remembered falling safely into his arms. "Aristair." She thought of his face. He was much more handsome than she expected.

She stopped herself and exhaled sharply. "Highly inappropriate." She puffed, hitting her temples with her palms. Highly inappropriate indeed.

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