The excavation site was on the smaller side. A team of a dozen archaeologists and scholars working under the sun scraping sand and being excited to see a chip of pottery or a piece of indistinguishable cloth. It was the fourth agricultural village this year. The fourth millenniums old boring community of people barely scraping by.
If Jourac wanted to do nothing his whole life he would have been an accountant. He chose archaeology to explore the ancient civilizations of the past. Grand cities made of stone and monuments carved from a single rock, dragged for thousands of kilometers to specific locations aligned with the stars. The childhood stories of explorers discovering lost treasures and documents revealing the secrets of people long gone captivating even his adult imagination.
But no, it had to be asinine, primitive villages whose greatest work was blue painted clay bowls.
This year they had excavated three of these identical villages, last year it was five. Before that it was four. The year before that it was two. The first year it was four again. They were all the same.
The storage hut for extra grain would be located in the north end of the village, a pathetic excuse for a building made of dried mud and wood. Towards the center would be the well and to the east of that would be the primary farm, always consisting of a single crop. South end of town was where the livestock was kept. Cattle usually. To the west would be half a dozen shoddy houses. And that was just about it.
Jourac had the entire blueprint of the village memorized at this point. They marked each building with a crudely engraved stone set in the ground at the entrance. Half circle with a closed lid was the storage stone. Villager huts had a horizontal line and two vertical lines on either side. The farm, and why anyone would feel the need to mark a farm which is so obviously a farm eluded Jourac, had a short line with a circle at the end. The well had multiple small lines in a row.
The villagers had no writing system unless the pictographs count, which personally Jourac did not, and also made pottery by baking clay in the sun. That was it, that was their lives.
To Jourac, it seemed these villagers had lived miserable lives for the sole purpose of tormenting archaeologists tens of thousands of years in the future. The fact that only living as these people did would be worse than spending countless months studying them did not escape Jourac’s scrutiny.
Jourac wiped sweat from his brow and set his tools down. He stood from the excavation area and left for the team campsite, a series of trailers and trucks. He found the beer cooler and relaxed with the sound of the can spritzing open.
“Bet they didn’t have these.” Jourac bragged to the over-ten-thousand-year-old villagers who benignly haunted his career.
“What are you doing?” Demanded a coworker still on site.
“Taking a break.” Jourac said before sipping. He reclined in a chair.
“You just had your break.” The man argued.
“Then I’m taking yours!”
“It’s not for sale.”
“Who’s buying? I’m taking it!”
The man shrugged and kept working. Jourac knew what they were thinking. Too many breaches of policy and he’d be fired from the team and his salary would be split between the rest of the team. A little extra work for a little extra pay.
But the job was not worth it.
The head archaeologist approached Jourac. A plain, balding man who was all too excited for this project. He was a kind person, just predictable and scholarly. The kind of person who writes in the boring parts of history books, the parts everyone skims through anyways.
“Hey Jourac, I know you want to be in the jungles searching for lost cities of gold or digging up a king’s tomb but what we are doing here is important.” He spoke passionately and genuinely. For the life of Jourac, he could not hate the man. However, his workaround was hating the project, something one could argue was inseparable from the short headmaster.
“Doctor Gillud, we know everything about these farming communities. They are all the same. In a few minutes Tanya or Phinner is going to find the remnants of the storage hut and then from there we can find the well, the farm and the dwellings. Our work here was done four years ago when we dug up the first site.”
“Ah, but that is the mystery, dear Jourac! Why are there so many identical sites hundreds of kilometers apart in a time before any large, organized and settled civilizations existed?”
Jourac shrugged. “Someone had the idea to plan his settlement in such a way that other people thought it looked good and so they travelled to their own spots and copied him. Story’s over.”
“But who, my friend, is that man? Was he revered a king or a god? A great chief who inspired the later civilizations? The whole continent is riddled with these tiny villages. What we are discovering is a history never told before.” Gillud was gazing over the land at this point, as if some ghost of the past would appear to reveal the secrets of history.
“He was just a man, like me or you. He wanted a good life for his family so he learned how to be efficient. Mystery solved, we can go home now.”
Gillud chuckled like Jourac had just said the funniest thing in the world. An existential and ignorant laugh, one of a simple man with simple interests.
There was an awkward silence while Jourac continued to sip beer as Gillud mustered the courage to tell his employee to stop sipping beer.
He was saved when someone at the excavation exclaimed ecstatically. “It’s the storage hut! This flat stone was shaped by a tool!” The whole team rushed to get a look and examine it. A big find for the day. It meant they definitely had the right area and the next month would be filled with exciting speculation as to whether a random oddly shaped rock is indeed really a fossilized piece of grain from their farms.
Jourac envied the technicians who had the privilege of testing these artifacts and seeing the crestfallen faces of the finders when the results came back as junk.
Doctor Gillud was standing over the excavation site in marvel that yet another confirmed identical village was found.
“This is the nineteenth village, Jourac! Can you believe that?” Gillud turned to Jourac who sat staring in the distance. Gillud looked away from the unresponsive man and joined his team to discuss the significance of the find. Debating theories and planning the next step.
Jourac was preoccupied with a curious object sailing in the air. It was too far to properly make out, but the pattern the object flew in gave him the impression of a leaf or something else light enough to be at the mercy of a breeze.
Squinting his eyes he could almost make out the shape of a feather. He’d seen falling feathers before and this one seemed to ride the wind as much as cut it. It soared with a purpose, that was the only explanation he could describe based on his observation.
He checked to make sure he wasn’t drunk. No extra cans and the one in his hand still a quarter full. He downed the rest of the contents and practically leapt from the chair.
The feather was moving fast so Jourac raced after it.
Gillud noticed the man running and shouted after him. “Jourac! Where are you going?”
But Jourac was already almost out of hearing distance and didn’t turn to respond.
After cresting a hill he thought he’d lost it. Looking around, the feather had changed directions drastically. Jourac sprinted down the hill and covered ground fast.
His instincts told him this was important, huge even. He couldn’t lose it.
His legs burned and his breathing was frantic. He was never a runner and the beer didn’t help.
Finally he was under the feather, and up close he could confirm that it was, in fact, a feather. The feather soared in the air too high for him to reach so he followed under it, only needing to jog to keep up.
It was a long and slender feather, grey and white in color. From a mighty bird no doubt.
He spotted a small tree along the path the feather was headed for and dashed ahead to swiftly climb it. He waited for the feather to pass it. The unpredictable pattern would make grabbing it difficult.
He leaned from a branch and snatched at it.
The feather slid through his hand, leaving a deep and serrated gash in its place. He had barely even closed his fist around it. It would have easily severed his finger off he realized.
Cursing from the pain and trying to wrap his gushing hand while climbing down the tree to continue the chase left him trying to do too many things at once. He stumbled down the last meter of the tree and hit the ground hard.
He forced himself up and stripped off his shirt to wrap around his hand. It would work for now.
He ran on, this time more cautious of the feather as it slowly lost height.
Jourac’s mind was racing at twice the speed his legs were. A feather of this size and color, that can cut through anything, that appeared from nowhere, could only be from one source.
A feather of Talis Ranis, the legendary Fable Specter… who hasn’t been seen in decades.
The last trace of him was at a cliffside that had been engraved with strange markings, which scholars later translated into the famous book The Dream and the Dreamer.
Of course Talis Ranis himself had not been seen, but the story goes that a mysterious feather had been spotted by a travelling family, and from tracing its flight had led the group to the cliff.
That book changed the world. Teachings from the world’s living treasure.
And Jourac was about to make a new discovery. New writings from Talis Ranis.
This was groundbreaking!
It wasn’t until hours later that the feather finally stuck itself in the ground peacefully. No sign of its deadly, bladelike frills.
In the moonlight the feather looked silver. Jourac searched for an angle to pull the feather out. Only the bottom of the quill looked safe. The barbs of the feather maintained the consistency of a normal feather, soft if a little prickly, but at the same time razor sharp and durable as the hardest of steels. A paradox in and of itself.
Jourac dug around the feather but everytime he removed enough dirt the feather would fall on its side and cut through the ground. One wrong slip and he could lose a finger or a hand. Considering his other hand was bandaged this made the whole situation much more precarious.
He could only dig with one hand and he had none of his excavating tools. Jourac decided to grab all the dirt from under the feather and hold it like that.
His fingers sunk underground, slowly, and came up with a clump and the feather resting half buried.
His fingers found the stem and he gently shook the dirt off until only the feather remained in his hand.
As much as he expected, and defying logic, the feather was absolutely weightless.
Retrieving the feather was only half the battle. Now Jourac had to travel with it.
He had two options. Go back to the site and get a ride to the nearest city, or walk alone to the nearest city.
Jourac loathed even one more minute with his team so he chose the walking option.
He knew his general location and placed the nearest city as Garghent only a couple days to the west.
The trek was long, boring and dangerous. Holding a volatile weapon made the journey… interesting to say the least. Taking a piss, eating, sleeping, everyday activities that could go so wrong if he made the slightest fumble. Finding a place to stick it in the ground proved more complex than he initially thought. One night he planted it in a boulder, tip first, as he slept. By the next morning the feather had severed a hole into the rock and fell inside completely. His solution for that was to roll the boulder until the feather cut its way free and then the process of prying it from the ground began again. He had lost several hours with that event alone.
The whole time he still had a single usable appendage, his wounded hand starting to fester. If he took too long he’d end up losing the arm once gangrene settled in.
Still, Jourac was mostly bored, the excitement of his find dulled by the arduous adventure.
Once he was within view of Garghent’s city walls, a few kilometers out, he noticed the huge military presence.
So now Jourac had to figure a way inside a city which likely had its gates closed. The smoke pluming from multiple directions indicated that most, if not all, of the nearby towns had been looted and destroyed. No chance of resting and resupplying before attempting to enter a city on lockdown, all of his previous issues of holding a deadly weapon and nursing an infection still standing.
He was shambling at this point. His best bet being a patrol squad finding him and escorting him inside. The worst case obviously being shot on sight.
He lacked the luxury of doing anything aside from approaching the walls.
Oddly enough he made it to the west gate without confrontation. That came when he stepped on the road in front.
He didn’t have to look to see the multitude of guns trained on him.
“State your name and reason for trying to enter the city.” An officer was speaking through an intercom system from somewhere on the gate walls. The normal ground level booths were all abandoned.
Jourac cleared his throat. “My name is Jourac Tac. I’m a member of the Archaeology Guild with an important find to report.”
There was some discussion in the pause before a response was made.
“The Archaeology Guild is based in the northern cities is it not?” The officer replied at last.
“Aye, it is!” Jourac thanked his good luck that the guard recognized the name.
“We’re at war with the northern cities.”
“Oh crap.” Jourac muttered under his breath. “I’m a citizen of Tholi.” He was banking on the fact that no such alliance of northern cities existed. Jourac cared little for politics but the formation of any alliance is universally accepted as impossible. Too much quarrelling between businesses and aristocrats. Besides, any alliance would cause a chain reaction of wars leading to a potential continent-wide war.
The balance of power is fine the way it is.
Jourac overheard further discussion through the intercom that was left on. Among the discombobulated conversation he made out the word ‘spy’ and ‘shoot’.
“We suspect you are a spy,” the officer informed.
“If I was a spy trying to gain entry to this city, why the hell would I tell you I’m from Tholi?”
Another paused discussion. This time Jourac heard ‘good point’.
“So maybe you’re not a spy, but the city is closed to all non-Garghent citizens.”
“If this wasn’t urgent, I could agree. But I am also bleeding to death.” Jourac unwrapped his hand by spinning his arm around in tight circles.
“Yeesh, you should get that checked out.”
“Yeah.” Jourac agreed. “So can I come in?”
“Orders won’t let me.”
“Damn the orders, all the nearest towns are razed!”
“Sorry sir, you’d have to be a citizen of Garghent to be allowed access.”
“Well how can I become a citizen?” Jourac at this point could laugh at the stupidity of his situation. World changing news and not a chance to deliver it.
“You’d have to own property in the city.”
“How do I buy property?”
The officer talked briefly with another guard. “There’s a number of landlords in each district you can purchase from. My partner suggests Mr. Hehka in Sentinel District, he’s got pretty fair prices!”
“I can’t buy property if I’m not allowed in the city!” Jourac hated bureaucracy almost as much as he hated dying from infection.
“That’s the law sir, I’m not paid enough to question it.”
“Look, trust me, whoever your superiors are will reward you if you let me in the city. The news I’ve got will make you paid enough to question whatever you damn well please.”
There was some heated discussion.
“What news?” The officer finally asked.
“This!” Jourac proudly held the feather out.
One of the guards coughed.
Jourac continued when there was no response. “This is a feather from Talis Ranis!”
“As if we’d believe that!”
Jourac walked over to the nearest traffic sign and casually swiped the feather at the metal pole. It toppled from a clean cut.
“This feather is extremely deadly. I almost lost my hand picking it up!”
Jourac could feel the mood of the guard change. “Let me get the gate Sergeant.”
He waited three quarters of an hour, half debating whether or not to just carve a hole in the wall and walk through.
The gate opened at last and an entire squad of guards stood at the ready.
The Sergeant, Jourac assumed, stepped forward. Dressed in an expensive looking combat suit and holding an intimidating sized shotgun.
“That feather, is it really from Talis Ranis?” His voice was harsh and typical of someone who barks orders his whole career. Jourac couldn’t for the life of him understand why anyone would want a career like that. It did beat getting yelled out, Jourac admitted.
“Yes sir. The last feather led us to the greatest discovery that changed the world and we may have an opportunity to uncover more writings from the Fable.”
“You realize Garghent is going to keep any discovery for itself. You could be damning your own city.”
Of course I know that, thought Jourac. The barrels pointing at me offer few other options.
“I’m a man of science and history. I leave the politics to the gunmen.”
The Sergeant nodded. “Take him to the Research division and get him some medical help!” He ordered. The Sergeant turned to the officer who had talked with Jourac, “Good judgement privateer, it would have been tragic had you shot him on sight.”
Jourac was led through the city in an armored car. A medic tended to his hand on the way to their destination. Fortunately the driver kept the ride smooth as one wrong bump could have resulted in someone’s decapitation.
Entering the Research division building, Jourac was met with the hungriest eyes he’d ever seen. Everyone was staring at him, or more specifically at the long, grey feather he held in his hand.
Rumor spreads fast here, Jourac noted.
The guards led him to the front desk where they handed him off to a group of scientists in lab suits.
Jourac found himself impressed by the sheer amount of Specters in different laboratories and training rooms. Most of them were in their teens or early twenties. Jourac had serious second thoughts about this Talis Ranis feather. If he really did write another book about Aspects… well, does the world really need more? Especially keeping the knowledge limited to a city that practically breeds Specters.
And so Jourac’s life could be reduced to a series of bad luck streaks and good luck streaks. Sometimes the good luck streaks are really bad luck streaks in disguise.
“You must be Jourac!” Welcomed a bearded man dressed in casual clothes.
Jourac nodded. “And you are?”
“Vant Gordiyn. Head of history and science here at the Research division. I apologize for my apparel, you caught me on a day off.”
Jourac just forced a smile.
“Would you like someone to take the feather off your hands, you must be dreadfully sore from carrying it for… how long?”
“Yes, someone please take it to the archive. And be careful.” A couple of assistants stepped up for the task and Jourac gratefully relieved it. Let someone else get maimed by the damned thing.
Vant suddenly asked, “Have you had lunch? Perhaps you could regale us your discovery over a meal?”
Jourac barely ate in the last few days. “Sure, if you’re paying.”
“Of course,” The bearded man smiled.
They went to a regular bar near the Research division building and Jourac ordered enough food and beer to make up for the previous days as well as days he was getting himself into.
Vant addressed Jourac once everyone settled in their seats. “I’d like you to meet the team.”
Jourac one by one was introduced by the six colleagues. Some names he had heard before. These were powerful people in the science and archaeology fields.
One of them was even the grandson of the linguist who helped decode the Dream and the Dreamer from its original carvings on the cliffside.
“So tell us, Jourac, how did you find the feather?” One man asked. Everyone was eager to hear his tale and it would act as a natural segway for where the search of Talis Ranis would begin.
Jourac started with the archaeology project, giving the location and the work they were doing.
“Ah, how is Doctor Gillud? I have been following his theory of a collective pre-history culture for quite some time now.” Vant asked after a huge chug of beer. Jourac finished his second beer and responded.
“I think he’s in over his head on this. A few shanty villages with identical structures across the continent suggests an extended tribe who learned from a single idea. Not an interconnected civilization thousands of years before any congruent empire existed.” Jourac hadn’t realized how much he needed to vent out the last years of his career.
“We have a skeptic! It is good to ask questions, truly. Eighteen sites is rather too many for coincidences. And to say that each village learned from a single person or family is underplaying the difficulty of copying exactly the layout of a site thousands of kilometers apart.”
“Bah! They had good memories. Nothing more complicated than that! And it’s nineteen now!” Jourac and the rest of the renowned scientists drifted toward belligerency as heated debate erupted.
“I know how many damn sites there are, I’ve dug up each one!” Jourac stormed in response to the coincidence argument again. “And you know what? I’ve memorized every detail down to the species of grain they farmed! See? Easy as that to remember the layout?”
There was hardly any talk of the feather, the cause for celebration. Their analytical minds decompressing before the wave of work they were surely about to face. They talked for hours, through the day and long into the night, debating every field from archaeology to mathematics and biology.
Throughout all this, despite the drunkenness Jourac found himself in, despite the reluctant camaraderie he was forming, despite the fact that he was working in tandem with scientists who were enemies of his city, despite his glory seeking propensity of mystery and archaeology, and despite the potential discovery with the all too real possibility of triggering another Aspect revolution he was not only the genesis of but an active participant in, he kept swearing to himself over and over again.
“Talis Ranis, by the great tidal wall you better know what the fuck you are doing…”