Ms0 1

THE CANYON OVERLOOKING THE ARCOLITH "AGAAP",

The distant cry of a condor cuts through the low roar of the wind across the dusty steppe.
The scent of brush smoke clings to the ground. Far, far below, tremendous plumes of debris rise up.
Silently, maddeningly silently, the earth is shifting. The canyon floor has sundered itself into stony pillars, revealed that it was matrix-like all along, and these pillars are rising and falling in impossible silence—
Like the strokes of an Imperial engine, watched in slow-motion.
Here, Shen.
Here, his master.
Between them, twenty-one Alloci arms, heinous in their disrepair, in varied styles and forms, embedded into the earth.
Ragged ribbons flap in the wind.
"You are to go," says the Master.
He pauses.
"West."

Shen regards the churning earth below with a worried frown. "Master, this is… Should I not remain here? If this is what we have feared for so long?"

"Shouldn't you?" He shrugs. He paces along the array of weapons, plucks a pitted straight-edged sword up from it. The wrinkles of his skin are so inset with dust that you could swear you hear each one cracking as he reaches down, stoops on his knees for the gesture.
"But yet."
"West."

Shen frowns deeper. Regards the old man. "Mm. Why, then? If our enemy stirs, and you send away a soldier, it only follows you have a different mission for me. And 'go west' seems a nebulous task." He takes one step, the sun winking from the points of damascus studs set along the backs of his hands and in his forearms. "Behold, I have gone west. I suspect my mission remains incomplete."

"Ah," says the Master. "There's your honed instincts."

Shen bows slightly. "I could take another step, if that would help."

"In the south-west, near the cape, there is another Arcolith, named Filios. Unlike," he levels his sneer down at the canyon.
"The one we have here, it is well and abandoned. One of… one of the cities near it, Ecafa, I think, has kept a taboo against its looting for some time."
"Whatever is there, it falls to the Empire, now."
"Whose red-and-black banners I have spied on this ridge as of late, whose agents have been accosting our scholars,"
He waves his arm, in irritation.

Shen hisses, a faint exhale of worry and anger. "They seek the knowledge and power of the Architects. Certainly, I could throw another few disciples down into the gap. I told Itako to go west first. She refused. Into the gap with her. Perhaps she'll come back some day, with stories of wonder?"
He throws the sword into the canyon.
It rattles down shifting stone until it is caught between two pillars and crushed to smithereens.
"Agaap isn't a good basket to put all your eggs in, disciple Shen."

"Mm. Perhaps I balk at fear of leaving the nest," says Shen. The faint frown becomes an equally faint smile. "But I suppose it is better to walk than be thrown."

"There's that humility I didn't model," says the master. "Good thing someone learned it. I don't want the Empire waking up an Arcolith, even an empty Arcolith. And I sure as hell don't want them coming here afterwards, all strapped with relics and false confidence."

"Indeed not," says Shen. He rubs his chin. "A newly opened Arcolith. There will be more than just the Empire there." He plucks a halberd from where it rests in the dirt, and scrapes an iron stud over the metal. Rust flakes away, revealing good steel beneath. "Possibilities."

"Possibilities," says the master.

The sun is rising.

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