Stanza II: The Contest

Central Metrodrome
City of Eladya
Planet Asar, Lyrali System
64 standard cycles before the Crescendo

Isolated Recollection

I was very young then, maybe seventeen or eighteen cycles, but even at that age I saw my mother’s true intentions for what they were. I would be surprised if anyone sitting in the Metrodrome that day wasn’t aware of what she was hoping to accomplish with this contest.

She called it a chance to finally show the long-hidden marvels of Asar to the rest of the worlds of the Pillar.

It would be a friendly exhibition; like those of old. The most skilled catalysts of the Citadel would pit their abilities against the greatest technological advances of the Asarian Empire.

“Eladya’s great past, and the Asarian Empire’s greater future, side by side, for all to see.” That’s what mother answered when I asked why she would break with thousands of cycles of tradition and expose the well-kept arts of the Citadel to the amusement of the Pillar systems.

I knew I should try to view my mother and the Archon of Asar as two separate entities, but it was impossible to do. My mother was the archon. She would not abandon her service to the empire, not even for her own family. It was expected.

It was also expected that my mother would follow in Yirala the Sufficient’s footsteps when she chose the name Yiraludan during her Investiture ceremony. Yiraludan, the outline of Yirala. It was the first time an Archon had chosen such a naming convention. That alone should have been an early warning that the Archon Yiraludan was not afraid to break with tradition.

The Council of Wills protested, of course. They had conceded to the breaking of many traditions at her request. Most importantly when she had succeeded in her campaign to open the borders of Asar to the rest of the Pillar. This was something the Council had battled against for cycles.

This was different. Exposing the secrets of the Citadel in such an awful way was unthinkable. Unthinkable. I had no other word for it.

It was unthinkable, and the Council of Wills could never allow it to happen, and everyone knew that. Anybody with even the slightest interest in Asarian politics would know this much.

When the Council of Wills did not issue a public rejection of the Archon’s contest, it sent a ripple of surprise through the empire. The ongoing preparations made it clear that the contest would happen. The truth was laid bare: the council could do nothing to stop my mother’s challenge.

Not only could they not prevent it, but they remained silent on the issue. The Council of Wills, the ultimate challenge to an archon’s power, must have known there was a possibility they could fail in their opposition. So, they chose the possibility of failing in secret, rather than publicly. It was the most logical choice to preserve their legitimacy, but it took me a while to realize that this silence did more to strip power from them than a public rebuke would have.

I know now that their silence was exactly what my mother had hoped for. What she planned for.

And the council remained silent now. They sat in their balcony behind the great stage, hands as still as their layered robes, eyes scanning the sea of strange faces and bodies that filled every seat of the ancient stadium. My mother sat in the archon’s throne, an elevated platform behind the curved row of seats where the council sat. The original architect’s intentions were explained in a series of texts on the construction of the palace.

The archon’s seat reflected their position. The throne is set behind the council seats because the Council of Wills would always hold the bulk of power of the empire. But the archon’s throne is also elevated above the Council to show the public nature of the archon’s role. The archon is an embodiment of the empire’s people, selected by its predecessor, but in danger of being deposed at any time by public vote.

This is why the throne’s base is so thin and delicate. Yes, the archon sits high above the council, however, unlike the sturdy council seats formed from the balcony stone, mother appeared to be balanced on a needle. This was by design. It should have given the impression that it was easy to topple, a manifestation of the precariousness of that title. Somehow, mother appeared as if nothing could move her. There was no sign of fragility in how she sat and observed the crowd that day.

For all her fortitude, she still smiled any time she looked at me as I sat there in the honor seats closest to the stage. Not quite part of the crowd in the hundreds of rows behind, but also not part of the officials and ranking members of the empire’s ministries who sat in the balconies stacked behind the stage. They were as much a part of the performance as anything else.

When the Metrodrome rose soundlessly on its pneumatic supports, I could hear the awe of the crowd. It was a short trip to the top of the palace complex where it locked into the twisting supports. From this vantage point over the city, only the Ankarudan loomed high above. Above, the stadium, above the council, and above mother, endlessly providing water to the once parched basin.

The contest, in keeping with tradition, was divided into three parts, each grander than the last.

After some fanfare, a presenter for the Ministry of the Language Arts took the stage. It was important for mother to appear impartial, removed. Although her desired outcome was almost plainly evident, Asarian decorum demanded this.

She silenced the crowd with a raised hand, fingers spread apart, palm out as if absorbing the sound. The crowd hushed. Those who did not, had their voices suppressed by the sound dampening field in the seats that activated when the presenter began.

“We have been apart,” she began in a powerfully trained voice, “and in our isolation, we have done wonderful things. But the greatest eras of Eladyan history, now Asarian history, were not those of isolation, but those of coalition and exploration.

“We now welcome all, in the spirit of unity, to witness our past and our future, together. This exhibition is a collaboration between the Citadel of Eladya and the Ministry of Applied Sciences. Since the challenge was issued by the Ministry, they shall go first, and the order will switch in each of the three rounds. There will be no official judging as this is a friendly exhibition and not an adjudicated contest. Are there any objections or requests from either of the represented competitors at this time?”

Two lights shone on the balconies of the heads of the Ministry of Applied Sciences and of the Citadel. I could see Uludryn there, my teacher, slowly shaking his head and smiling. How could he be so calm? My mother was about to destroy thousands of years of the Citadel’s efforts in a matter of minutes. I remember how my hands were shaking then, so I sat on them and waited, regulating my breath as best as I could.

There were also no objections from the Ministry of Applied Sciences.

“Then let us begin,” the event’s speaker said emerging from the rear of the stage, “The first order of catalysts defined three primordial forces as sacred tenants of their art. The first of these is creation.”

The stage lights faded from the speaker and reappeared on a team from the Ministry of Applied Sciences. They wore neat white tunics accentuated with a blue-grey trim and wheeled out a large machine from behind the stage. The device was elegant in its design: a series of rippling planes that converged in the center around a spherical glass enclosure. They reached the center of the stage and began to connect components from the device to connections that rose from a platform under the stage as the speaker continued.

“Creation is a myth, as we all know. Nothing can be truly created or destroyed, only transformed. This was something even the first catalysts understood. But creation was defined by the old masters of the Citadel as the summoning of a larger force through the manipulation of weaker ones. This is the basic tenant of catalysis. You may have heard stories of catalysts with the ability to summon water as moisture from the air or create a devastating explosion of force with a simple gesture. These are some examples of this tenant.”

The scientists stepped back from the machine and clasped their hands behind their back.

“The Ministry of Science had been asked to display this power, not with catalysis, but with technology. If the ministers are ready, they may commence their exhibition.”

One of the ministers operated with the panel at the back of the machine and it activated, the glass dome began to glow. Holo-screens flicked on around the Metrodrome allowing everyone to see the contents of the tiny glass enclosure more clearly. Something was beginning to appear at the bottom: eight dark points, suspended in the air.

Soon, the dark points began to grow upwards, becoming knobby rods of a copperish color. The crowd gasped as the thing took shape. It was a scuttleshell, a mountain-dwelling crustacean, being assembled from the bottom up. The topmost part of the creature was fuzzy, but this layer of distortion crawled upwards, fixing the lower parts in clear definition as it tracked upwards. Within moments, a completed scuttleshell hovered in the middle of the tank, entirely motionless. There was no reaction from the crowd at first. The creature dropped to the bottom of the glass enclosure and began to scuttle up the sides.

At this, the crowd erupted.

“It appears as though a scuttleshell is created from nothing” the speaker announced over the crowd’s cheering, “But as I said before, nothing can truly be created. I welcome to the exhibition, the Chairman of the Pillar, as recorded only moments ago.”

The holo-screens changed to show an image of the Chairman and a team of Pillar scientists standing around an identical device. The dome was open, and they dropped in a scuttleshell, scanned it, and shut the lid. The Chairman showed the camera the results of the scan which showed a unique identifier. The device was activated, and the scuttleshell was locked in place, its antenna, normally constantly twitching, became impossibly still. The layer of distortion appeared, but this time, at the bottom of the animal. The distortion climbed up the creature’s legs and appeared to erase it from the bottom up.

A second video feed appeared next to this one, the timestamps were identical. It was a recording of what I’d seen just a moment before. The left screen showed the scuttleshell appearing from the bottom up, and the image on the right showed the scuttle shell disappearing in the same direction. The distortion was identical as it moved up the creature, the only difference being that half of the creature was below it in Asar, and the other half was above it wherever the Chairman was. In the recording, the Chairman covered his mouth in disbelief, as did the Pillar scientists who stood around the device.

The recordings cut to a live feed of the Chairman and the scientists of the Pillar, standing around an empty glass enclosure. They applauded politely to the camera.

“Creation. The use of a stasis field and manipulation of weak forces to transmit matter nearly instantaneously from the Pillar’s Haskiid station, two million standard light-cycles away.”

One of the ministers retrieved the creature from the dome and scanned it. Showing the screens the same identifier that the Chairman had provided on Haskiid. 

The crowd continued their cheering as the Ministry silently retreated with the device and the scuttleshell. The speaker silenced them as a single person approached the center of the stage. I could recognize her from her walk alone. Atama Anura, the youngest of the Citadel’s masters and the first instructor that students would train under after their initiation. Her face was covered by a mask of black glass, entirely smooth and featureless. She wore a simple robe made of layers of thin, sheer, cloth that trailed behind her.

“At the Citadel’s request, their exhibitions will be without commentary or explanation. You will all be witness to the first public demonstration of catalysis outside of closed Eladyan ceremonies.”

Even with the dampener on, I could feel the electric surge of the crowds behind me. The anticipation. Like a pack of scavengers circling a corpse.

Atama, my first master, walked to the middle of the stage and raised a jeweled hand. Even though I couldn’t see it through the mask, I could imagine her expression: calm, eyes shut, twitching behind her eyelids as she adjusted her consciousness to brush against the bound-field, a slight dropping of the jaw and a sharp intake of breath.

A spark appeared between her outstretched fingers.

She pulled the subtle eddies of energy through the space around her fingers to cause a flame to quiver into existence. It wove around her hand before she turned her palm up and held the pooling flame there. The fire rose in a tall pillar of light, like an enormous candle flame. To keep an energy field stacked in such a way required nearly a lifetime of practice. It was like trying to stack a dozen needles, tip to tip, and hold them there by blowing on them at the right time to prevent them from falling. Incredible.

The flame collapsed back into a familiar chaotic flow. She tossed it into the air, and caught it with her other hand, the flame molding around her hand and traveling up her arm in pulsing ripples. She used pulses of energy to send the flames through her body in different patterns. The flames never seemed to burn her or her clothing.

Finally, she lifted a single finger and the flame collected there. It burned on the tip of her finger where it pooled into a bright ball of light before it extinguished leaving no sign or smoke behind it.

Scattered applause and a sea of murmurs came from the crowd, but nothing like the reaction from the Ministry’s exhibition. Atama bowed and retreated soundlessly. Mother was wearing a sly smile, but she applauded politely. I felt my face flush with hot blood. A miracle of catalysis like this was not something to applaud at; it was something to revere.

“Transformation,” the straight-backed announcer continued from the side of the stage. A large, rough slab of stone was brought out into the middle of the stage, and four catalyst masters followed. This round, the Citadel would present before the ministry.

I watched as these stoneweavers, as they were originally called for their primary work with stone, took their positions around the slab and held hands. They stayed there for a long moment, contemplating the materials in front of them, each envisioning its transformation, and then went to work. It was a dance, each one moving around the surface, running hands over the slab causing it to shed in layers. The stone was whittled down in sheets and cascades of fine dust as the catalysts worked it with their hands, shaping the stone with vibration and exploiting its natural faults to give it shape. Soon, a familiar shape appeared through the rising cloud of dust. A man in flowing robes, arms outstretched. I glanced up at the monumental Ankarudan, then down at its replica on the stage. Even at that small scale, the speed and accuracy at which the stoneweavers worked was absurd.

 After the Stoneweavers hewed the Ankarudan’s rough shape out of the slab, each began their individual task. One ran his hands over the sculpture’s surfaces, creating veins of ore and crystal beneath the translucent marble skin. Another swept her hand across it in dramatic flourishes, each time, the stone appeared to splash away like water before instantly hardening into different materials. Some of the flowing stone settled into bright flashes of colored metals, dotted with impurities, other sections hardened into crystalline structures which glittered at the edges. The other two molded the stone like clay, allowing them to work in fine details and shape the Ankarudan’s face and fingers with tools.

At this, the crowd exploded with astonishment. And how could they not? This was something that defied explanation. It was a confirmation of something most of them had believed to be a myth. Yes, the founding stoneweavers of Eladya had shaped this city from the very mountains and the ground. But more incredibly, the Citadel had managed to keep that and other dying arts of catalysis alive in the shadows. Gone was the age of catalysts, but few of their descendants could still hold that fragile flame in their hearts. I could still try and keep that flame alive.

I turned to see mother’s reaction. She was actually smiling and applauding. She seemed to be pleased with the public’s praise of the Citadel. For all her many talents, hiding her true emotions was not one of them. I wondered then whether I had misread the depths of her intentions or whether she was anticipating something I had not seen yet. The catalysts bowed and touched the sculpture. The magnificent recreation of the Ankarudan collapsed a pile of debris to the dismay of the crowd. The stoneweavers left with their heads bowed.

The Ministry of Applied Sciences waited for the noise of the crowd to die down before they brought out the cradle bomb.

They explained that it was inert, but this did not stop the wave of panic which spread through the gathered audience.

Fear transformed into awe as the scientists on stage, with a series of devices, caused the bomb to evaporate in a burst of light that harmlessly disappeared almost as quickly as it had appeared. The city-vaporizing weapon had been converted into light, its photons harmlessly passing through the bodies and walls of the stadium. This prompted a similarly enthusiastic cheer as the one for the stoneweavers, although I suspect that many in the audience still had not recovered from the initial shock of seeing the deadly device and fearing the worst.

“Transformation,” the speaker said, “a planet wounding machine, converted to pure light.” The Ministry scientists did not leave, instead, they rearranged the devices on the stage and in what seemed to be an act of the impossible, turned the starlight that freely entered the open Metrodrome into another startlingly beautiful replica of the Ankarudan. It happened so quickly, a bright flash of light, an afterimage burned into my eyes, then the replica standing there, next to the debris of the stonewoven one. The feat was incredible, but the product was inferior in every way to the stonewoven one. Even in its striking resemblance to the monument, it looked dead; assembled instead of crafted.

The crowd did not seem to care about the quality. They rose from their seats in disbelief.

“The Citadel’s stonewoven replica was destroyed to preserve the secrets of its construction,” she paused, letting anticipation build as she held her hand out to the new one, “but this replica, created by our Ministry of Applied Sciences from pure light, will be donated to the Pillar’s sciences division for study as an act of cooperation. They may do with it what they wish.”

At these words, a team in airtight suits with Pillar emblems came to the stage and sealed the replica in a large compression bag before carrying it away on a levitating lift.

I understood then why mother had smiled before—she had no illusion that the crowd would vindicate the Citadel at the end of this.

“Preservation,” the speaker continued, announcing the final bout with a smile. “In a universe ruled by entropy, preservation is the only force that allows for the miracle of progress to continue. We have witnessed great leaps in technology built for destruction.”

The crowd gasped as a Raze class warship deactivated its cloaking field as it approached the Metrodrome from the rear. They turned in their seats as the colossal warship hovered there, beneath the clouds and charged its neutron cannon, the muzzle of its planetary assault cannon glowing bright blue. It was aimed not at the Metrodrome, but would fire above it, past them. I turned, as we all did, to see the Ankarudan monument towering above us—directly in the weapon’s line of fire.

“In the face of such destruction, the Ministry of Applied Sciences is proud to declare that there is no destruction from which we cannot preserve ourselves.”

The particle beam fired, instantly connecting with the torso of the monument. The neutron beam broke into a million streams of color and light, dissipating harmlessly behind the monument and fading into the orange sky. Several in the crowd had fainted from the shock, but after the blast ended and the Ankarudan stood there as before, the tension was broken with a rapturous celebration. The warship re-activated its shields and parted the clouds as it climbed back into orbit.

For the final bout, and to close the exhibit, my master Uludryn appeared on the stage. He took small shuffling steps and sat cross-legged on the floor of the arena. He then removed a small amulet in the shape of a many-pointed star from the inside of his robes. He held the amulet out for the crowd to see, held it close to his chest, and closed his eyes. He remained like that, in complete silence, and the crowd began to mutter uncertainly. Many of them were still discussing the previous demonstration.

After a long stretch of time, he opened his eyes and lifted the amulet back up to the crowd. The screens zoomed into it, but it looked unchanged. “It is finished,” he said. “Whoever wears this amulet will always be protected against the most malicious of intrusions.”

The crowd muttered, but a sharp voice cut through the silence.

“Will it protect the wearer from a fully charged neutron beam?” the Minister of Applied Sciences asked from his balcony. The amplified voice echoed through the stadium.

“No,” Uludryn said with a wry smile, his voice sounded subdued even with the amplification of the speakers.

“Will it protect against kinetic rounds?” the minister asked again.

Uludryn simply shook his head, still proffering the star-shaped amulet.

“Then what exactly does it protect against?”

“Esgrama. The ability to possess the will of another.”

Scattered laughter erupted from the crowd. Uludryn was still smiling.

“And is there anyone with the ability to do this?” the minister asked.

“Only me, as far as I know. And only in a very limited capacity,” Uludryn replied.

“If you really have this ability, then don’t you try it on me?”

Laughter. I don’t think anyone intended for this exchange to be comical, but that is what this display was turning into for the overstimulated crowd.

“I would not do such a thing to anyone. Not unless they were wearing this amulet.”

The minister sneered, the holo-screens showing his face in magnified detail. “But if everything you were saying were true, then wouldn’t wearing it protect me from this, attack?”


“So we have no way of demonstrating your little charm then?”

“Not without hurting you, which I refuse to do.”

The minister lay back in his chair and smiled. The crowd laughed.

“I am overjoyed,” Uludryn said, “for this is the finest thing I have ever created. It is okay if you do not want to share in this joy with me, but you are welcome to,” he finished with a slight bow of his head.

I felt a well of emotion build up in me, and I began to cry. I wept uncontrollably. Then I stood and covered my mouth with both of my hands, the tips of my fingers against my lips, and bowed. It was an old gesture in the citadel used to show indescribable love and respect. It was a way to say, “I have no words that can communicate the greatness of what I feel for you.”

I heard others stand near me, other students from the citadel, and they also performed this gesture towards Uludryn.

I looked up at my mother, tears brimming my eyes and I could see her knowing smirk replaced by something that resembled pain. She began to applaud, and the other officials followed. Soon, the applause spread through the stadium, though it seemed more a sign of respect for the archon than anything else.

But she had succeeded.

The argument, though unspoken, was loud and convincing. The technology available to Asar could outperform even the most skilled masters of catalysis in every way. But even more importantly, it required no training. It could be bought, sold, improved upon, mass-produced, shipped to every world, and used to shape the universe like the early children of Asar once shaped Eladya. Why would anyone devote their life to grueling study in the Citadel to be able to awaken fire in their palm when a simple spark and fuel lighter could do the same?

Low cost, high reward. This was the calculus that defined the breakneck pace of commerce between worlds linked by the Pillar.

I wept then, for the love I felt for Uludryn, for his creation, for the citadel, and for its fall.

I wept because I knew that nothing that fragile and difficult to maintain could ever survive this coming era. An age when light itself could finally be imprisoned as all other things so far have been.