"Jaydin, Alistair," Katherine was saying. "How strong is your telekinesis? Can either of you lift the platform I was flying on?"
I tried first. With my eyes closed for focus and both arms outstreched, I tried for several seconds, then opened my eyes to check progress. It was a few inches in the air, and stopped ascending. I could just barely keep it up.
"Better than I expected," Katherine said. "Do you know which energy is your strongest?"
I dropped the platform. "Darkness."
"Mine's light," Alistair said. He began to try his hand at lifting the platform.
"Makes sense," Katherine said. "It must have taken a lot of courage to start that revolution."
"Does light have something to do with courage?" I said. Then I realized that that would make a lot of sense indeed. It was Mitilda's strongest.
"Yes. Each energy has two virtues that power it. Your power with the energy depends on how much you've been exhibiting its virtues recently."
Alistair was doing far better than I had at the platform; he had it moving around quite fluidly. "Wait a second," he said. "If magic is powered by virtue, how are the Voren so strong?"
"We're not sure. Yildirim has a theory that virtue and vice both power it, but only one at a time for the same person: a good person's magic is exclusively powered by virtue, and a bad person's magic is exclusively powered by vice."
"What powers telekinesis?" I asked.
"Emotion. Any kind. Good job, Alistair. You seem almost ready to start flying."
"I don't know about flying," Alistair said. "What I did was a long way off from lifting my entire body weight. Speaking of which, why do you need that platform? Can't you just telekinet yourself?"
"You can never telekinet a living person's body, not even your own. Even the Voren need wood platforms to fly around on. Beatrice, you should be practicing your magic."
"I don't know how."
"There is no how." Katherine conjured a tiny pebble and tossed it to her. "Try to telekinet this. Jaydin, Alistair: we should get you connected to the Sentinel telepathy channel."
"Telepathy?" I said. "That's a thing?!?"
"Yep. You don't just decide to make a channel though - to make one, you have to designate a secret that's sufficiently important to you, and you have to have everyone in the world who knows it aware and consenting. That's why nobody on the pillars ever figures it out. After that you can talk to everyone else who knows it. Channels are technically one-way, so if you want two-way communication you can just have everyone make a channel with the same secret."
"So what's the Sentinels' secret?"
"It's that we exist. Simple enough. I'll notify the other Sentinels that you're joining us so they can consent to the creation of your channels. And... done. Now try making the channel and then sending me a message. It's not super high-level magic, so I'm sure both of you can do it, although it does take a lot of mana."
I tried to make the telepathy channel and then send her "test message". I didn't feel any indication that anything had happened, other than a huge hit to my mana reserve, but she responded. "Good. Both of you got it."
"I forgot to ask you earlier," I said. "If courage powers light, what powers darkness?"
"Ambition and reverence. Of course, a lot of these virtues are broad things that aren't easily encompassed by a single word, but those are the two words that seem to come the closest."
"What do they encompass then?" I said.
"Ambition encompasses the will to live a meaningful life and do great things. Reverence encompasses showing respect to solemn circumstances by willfully conducting appropriate negative emotions, avoiding humor, and maitaining a dignified posture; even if it's comfortable to slouch, it gives off an air of irreverence that affects everyone in the room."
"And the other virtues?" Alistair said.
"For light, the other one is endurance of suffering. For heat, justice and zeal. For cold, kindness and rationality."
Everything about the inconsistency of our past experiences was starting to make sense now... Mitilda and Gabriel's light and heat magic was super strong because they were the two rebels, Nayomi's cold magic was always strong because she was kind and stolid, my darkness magic was strong because I was generally the most reverent, or at least better at that than I was at other virtues...
"This is mind-blowing," I said. "So how does conjuration fit into everything?"
"There are sixteen elements that can be conjured. For each energy, a gas, a liquid, a solid, and a special substance we call a 'plasma'. For light, the substances are air, sap, sand, and lightning. For cold, cloud, water, stone, and sky."
"Sky?" I said. "You mean the sky is made of cold plasma?"
"Yes. That's why it gets cold if you fly far enough upward. For heat, the substances are smoke, blood, metal ore, and fire. For darkness, a gas you've probably never seen called veil, earth, a liquid you've probably never seen called chlorophyll, and a plasma you've definitely never seen called neon."
"Can you show us the substances we haven't seen?"
"Sure. Here's some sky." She conjured some blue wispy stuff. I put my hand near it and could tell that it was very cold. It also seemed to be darkening the room (which was still only visible because of the light in Katherine's other hand). "You'll notice it emanates darkness as a secondary energy. That's because fire emanates light as a secondary energy, and everything is symmetrical."
She conjured what I assumed was veil next. It was also wispy, and was kind of hard to see. It just looked like a slip of darkness in the air. "Not much to veil. Now let's see chlorophyll." She conjured some dark green liquid, keeping it in the air. I touched it.
It was slightly cool, and none of it stayed on my hand when I withdrew it. "Ready to see neon?" she said.
"Neon is a dangerous substance," she said first. "You know how fire eats organic stuff? Neon eats gases, including air, so it's very difficult to contain it. It's snuffed by solids, just like fire is snuffed by liquids, but don't ever touch it - it's as volatile as lightning. Here goes." She conjured a black substance that darkened the room significantly and began to expand immediately. It was so dark that it actually hurt to look directly at the neon, like it hurt to look directly at a bright light. I didn't know darkness could ever be like that.
In a few seconds it had grown about half in diameter, and even without looking at it the darkness was hurting my eyes. "Don't touch it," Katherine said. "Highly injurious."
I stepped away from it as it continued to grow, and after a few more seconds Katherine flared her light and managed to put out the neon's darkness, like water putting out fire.
"So would it ever have stopped?" I asked. "Surely a tiny bit of neon wouldn't just consume the entire world if nobody stopped it."
"It fizzles out after about four times its starting diameter." She looked over her shoulder. "Beatrice? How's it going?"
"Stay on it. It takes a lot of persistence at first."
Another Sentinel emerged from the entrance, a very old man. "I am back. These are the new recruits?"
"Yep," Katherine said, and pointed to us in sequence. "He's the surviving liberator, he's a rebel who escaped the pillar the reinforcements are from, and she's a guard he converted."
"Excellent. It is a shame we were unable to save more of the heroes, but we must appreciate what we have gained. I should like to know your names. I am Yildirim."
We told him our names, and then Alistair continued. "So Yildirim, are you really going to let the Voren re-enslave everyone I just liberated?"
"Yes. I am sorry, but if we abduct anyone else, everyone who knew them will notice they are gone, and the Voren will hear of it. It is only safe to keep you here because the Voren think you are dead."
"Well then at least let me tell my loved ones what happened to me. They don't have to come here, but there's no harm in telling them the truth. They won't tell anyone else, I promise."
"Is there a physical household where every member is someone you are certain we can trust?"
Alistair thought for a minute. "... No. Why do you ask?"
"Because if not then there is no safe way to deliver a message. The way I originally contacted the other Sentinels was by tunneling underground and coming up inside their houses. Of course, that was only safe after my spy birds had caught each member of the household practicing magic. If there isn't a safe household to tunnel into, I cannot contact your family."
"Can we deliver a written message somehow? Maybe we could use one of those birds?"
"If a guard saw the bird, they would know something was up. Word word probably spread to the Voren."
"There's gotta be a way," Alistair said. "We can't just leave my family in the dark forever."
"It may be a possibility to wait for a stormy night and then have someone other than you (so they won't be recognized) sneak in using dark magic for cover and enter the house to deliver a written message personally. But if whoever goes to deliver the message is caught by a guard and can't outrun them, they can't fly away or the Voren will know, which means they would be risking capture, so I think it is only worth the risk if we send our least valuable member to deliver it."
"That'd be Beatrice, right?" I said before anyone's eyes could fall on me. "She doesn't even have any magic yet."
"That means I can't cover myself with darkness," Beatrice said immediately. "I'd be less effective than you."
"Drat..." I said. "Does it have to be me then?"
"Fear not," Yildirim said. "No one is forcing you to do this. This is only if you wish to risk yourself to inform Alistair's loved ones."
Phew. "Okay... I'm sorry Alistair, but I have to pass."
"They're valuable to the cause," Alistair said. "Some of them are magic practicioners. If we could teach them everything we know about magic, they could grow much faster and aid our eventual revolution more effectively."
I could feel my conscience pressuring me again. Drat... "That's a good point... but... look, courage was never my strongsuit. I just can't do this."
"Well It's not time-sensitive, is it?" Katherine said. "It's okay if he's not brave enough to do it now."
"My loved ones do have a household to themselves," I said. "We can tunnel underneath safely."
"Excellent," Yildirim said. "We will do that tonight."
"And one of them is much braver than I am," I added. "No doubt she'll agree to go inform Alistair's loved ones."
"If you want us to bring her here then we have to have her get caught while successfully escaping from the city without our help," Yildirim said. "That is how I got the other Sentinels. Otherwise the guards will notice when a citizen disappears."
He was right. Being gone for one day or so on Hobart's mission was okay, but if someone disappeared permanently the guards would no doubt take notice. "That might be an obstacle..." I said. "I lost the chain I used to climb the wall when I did it. Wait, I've just thought of a question. Those spy birds you have. Was my bird one of them?"
"I don't know what bird you mean."
"The mean one. It guarded my favorite tree and bit me every time I went in it. A couple days ago I killed it. Wait, no, it had a nest..."
Yildirim laughed. "Sometimes they malfunction a bit. I wasn't very good at programming when I made them. It had a nest because I didn't make them from scratch, I just added some functionality to existing birds. Do not feel bad about killing either. Contrary to what the Voren likely taught you, they are not conscious at all."
"No. The Voren invented that when they took over because they knew it raised a question of whether they have rights like us, but they could force people to live in a way that ignored the question, thus forcing people to violate their consciences. It was part of their plan to rule the virtue out of this world so there would never be a rebellion. Did you never think it questionable to kill animals for food and clothing if they could feel?"
"Uh... no. I had been taught from birth not to think anything of it, so I guess I just... didn't. Well, there was one time I did. I felt bad when I killed the bird."
"That is more than most can say. The Voren want people to never question the absurd morality they teach them, and they are skilled at this game. Anyway, you had something to say?"
"Yeah. If that was one of your spies, then you must know about Mitilda being a practicioner. She did magic outside all the time."
"My birds don't keep track of anyone's name, but yes, there was one bird that found a practicioner on your pillar. I couldn't contact her safely because I was unsure about the rest of the family."
"So there must be dozens of practicioners your birds have caught throughout the pillars, and only a tiny fraction of them are safe to contact. That's such a shame."
"Indeed. But we cannot afford to take risks in our current position."
"I have another question," I said. "On my pillar there's a ditch in the ground full of water just flowing toward and off the edge. Where is it all coming from?"
"It is called a river. There is a large pipe in the center of the pillar where water is pushed up from the ocean below to the surface of the pillar, where it flows back off. We call that a spring. This was common knowledge in the days of the Sentinels, but even we never fully understood how it works. So Katherine, what have you yet to teach them?"
"They're just missing destruction and scanning."
"Does destruction just mean un-conjuring things?" I asked.
"Yes. Things that are harder to conjure are harder to destroy, although things that are not possible to directly conjure - that is, things other than the sixteen elements in basic form - can still be destroyed. Destruction is especially useful for cutting things apart. Also, I think I forgot to mention that conjuration is powered partly by acts of extraversion the same way energy magic is powered by acts of virtue, and partly by the same virtues as the energy of the element. Destruction is just powered by introversion."
"Neat," Alistair said. "So what's this about scanning? Is that remote perception?"
"Sort of. You can detect nearby power. Magic power, that is. And it works even if the target's not using their magic at the moment." She gave us a minute to think about that. "That's why it's so important for us to stay secret and not just hidden - if the Voren knew we existed, they could find us easily no matter where we hide. It's powered by curiosity as a general trait."
"How long-ranged is it?" I asked.
"Depends on how powerful you are as well as the person you're looking for. You and Alistair would probably need to be within a few feet, but you could detect me from about twenty meters away. The Voren could detect us from hundreds of meters away."
"The pillars aren't even hundreds of meters tall, are they?" I said.
"No," Yildirim said, "and that means the Voren master - who rules this pillar - could literally detect us from where we are if she only had a reason to look."
"Man, how am I supposed to sleep now?"
"You get used to it after a few years," Katherine said.
"To hell with this," Beatrice said. "You took me here against my will and refuse to let me leave and now I find out that the only thing keeping any of us alive is her not having a reason to check? You have no right to keep me here under conditions like this!"
"I've told you," Katherine said, "we can't risk it. We don't fully trust you yet. If we let you go back you could get us all killed easily and probably get a huge reward."
"Katherine is right," Yildirim said. "The cause is too important. Find a way to prove that we can trust you, and then you can go."
Beatrice fumed, but said nothing, turning back to her telekinesis. I was really worried about the tension. It seemed like she was just getting angrier, and it wasn't helping that Yildirim and Katherine were as unable to see her side as she was to see theirs. I wanted to help Beatrice think of a way to prove herself, but nothing came to mind.
A minute later, the rest of the Sentinels got back. There were three of them. "We're home," one of the men said. "Hey new recruits! Having fun practicing?"
"No," Beatrice said. "They won't let me go even though every second I spend here is risking my life."
Katherine turned to Yildirim. "We shouldn't have told her about scanning. It just turned her more against us."
"You're wrong," the new woman said. "Lying is wrong." She turned to Beatrice. "I'm sorry about the situation, but you have to understand. We can either add you to the group of lives we're risking or increase the risk on the rest of us. And the rest of us are this world's only hope for eventual freedom."
"Your anger should be directed at the Voren," said the man who had initially spoken. "It's their fault. Everything is." Their words seemed to help, although Beatrice said nothing.
"So one more question," I said. "The Voren invasion must have been some seventy years ago or something. Haven't they started dying of age?"
"They seem to be immortal," Yildirim said. "Most of them were extremely old when the invasion started. As far as I am aware, none of them have died. I have no idea how it works, but it is likely that they know something about magic we do not."
After that we introduced ourselves. Of the new Sentinels, the man who had spoken was called David, the woman who had tried to comfort Beatrice was called Rebeka, and the man who had yet to speak was called Elijah. David and Elijah were brothers.
After Hobart had been arrested, the village lacked a blacksmith, so the government had an extra one from another town transferred to Hobart's house. Later that day, Mitilda paid him a visit, knocking on the door.
He opened it. "Hello! I don't think I've met you yet. What is it?"
"I have a deal to offer you. But it's highly confidential. You'd have to keep it a secret even from the government."
"Keep a secret from the government? Are you crazy?"
"Ssh. Let's take this inside." Mitilda went inside where it was safer. "Yes, I'm crazy. I want you to make a chain with an anchor long enough to use to climb up the wall."
"You mean like that boy that tried to escape town recently? I heard that story..."
"Yes. I'm going to follow in his footsteps."
The man paused. "Oh wow. You really are crazy."
"I don't have a problem with that. Now can you do it?"
"Actually I have the chain. They donated it to me so I could reforge it into whatever the village needs."
"Excellent. I'll be using it tonight."
"Not for free you won't. There'd have to be something in it for me to be worth the risk. Something really big."
"I'm willing to pay you with food, which I'll deduct from my own rations. But how about eventual freedom from the government's oppression? Shouldn't that be enough?"
"Sheesh, every time you speak I find out you're even crazier than I thought. Are you serious? You think you can overthrow the government?"
"Yes. Not soon, but eventually. I need to coordinate with other potential rebels in the other cities."
"Freedom is hopeless. What stops me from just turning you in to get a reward?"
"I have friends that will kill you if you do that. You'd deserve it if you got an innocent person arrested for personal gain. In fact I'm taking the chain one way or another tonight, and if you get me caught my friends will kill you."
"Whoa... how do I know you're not just making this up? I find it hard to believe there are other people in this town crazy enough to do something like that."
"Ask the guards about Jaydin's compatriots. There's part of that story they may not have told you."
"Okay... but golly. Look, I'll think about it."
"Alright. I'm sure you'll choose the right thing." Mitilda left. She heard him muttering to himself, "This has to be a dream..." after she walked outside.
"Oh, you idiot Mitilda..." Nayomi said when she told her and Gabriel about the plan. "You're going to join Jaydin and Hobart!"
"I have to do this. I won't ask you two to join me this time. But Hobart was right - we can't do this without the help of every like-minded person in all of the five cities. The sooner we get them practicing with us, the sooner we can have a revolution."
"She's right," Gabriel said. "This needs to be done. If she wants to risk her life for the cause of freedom, that's her right."
"Okay..." Nayomi said, "but make a note of everything we know about magic and take it with you. We should make sure to spread as much knowledge as we can."
"Good idea. I'll get started on that now."
That night, Mitilda snuck out and went to the smithy. The blacksmith was awake.
"Hey," she said. "I'm here for the chain. It's time."
The blacksmith sighed. "Okay. Here you go." He gave her the chain.
"Thanks. Someday we'll be free." Mitilda took her leave, and went to the wall.
Gabriel was waiting there for her. "Hey," she said. "What are you doing here?"
"I came to see you off. I wish I was brave enough to go with you."
"It's okay. This is a dangerous job, and it only needs one of us to work. Might as well not risk both of us."
"Thanks. And... good luck. I'm so worried that we'll lose you too..." His voice began to falter. "I don't know how I can go on living if we do..."
"I don't know if I could either if I lost one more friend. I'd probably just go attack a guard in rage and throw my own freedom away as well."
"Me too. Part of me thinks I should come with you just because everything's lost anyway if we lose you, so I might as well put myself on the line too."
"There's still time to change your mind."
"... Yes... I must come with you. Let's do this together."
Mitilda smiled. "I'll be glad to have your company... in triumph or tragedy."
They telekineted the anchor and scaled the wall the same way as Jaydin had, only this time they weren't seen. They made it down the other side without being caught.