July 21, 2023 10 min read
Nightingale braced one hand against the wall, feeling for a rough patch in the stone. She'd used the same spot every night, returning when she was certain the single night guard would be elsewhere. His heavy footfalls echoed from across the grounds, moving away from her with every step. This was her chance; she couldn't waste it.
Nightingale faced the rough stone wall of the Academy, eyeing the uneven handholds and widening cracks in the old stone. For most students, this barrier was insurmountable—but she’d spent half her life on earth climbing. Zeke would chide her for ascending without equipment, but he didn’t have to know.
With one final grunt, Nightingale heaved herself up onto the wall, and caught herself on the flat surface of stone. A drop of three stories waited for her on the other side, with only rocky ground to break her fall. The Academy of Elenia stood alone on its hilltop, as much a prison as it was a school. For their own protection. Middara was too dangerous until they understood it. Or so its professors always said.
The guard was getting closer, his boots joined with the happy whispers of other students from their dorms. It was time for her to go.
She rolled onto her belly, turning over the wall’s opposite side. Her tail whipped out behind her, counterbalancing the motion. At least the Advancement did its part.
Even so, she let out a gasp as she started sliding down the wall, guiding her feet down towards the first possible foothold. She missed it, scraping along her leg and accelerating, before finally catching it with both fingers.
Nightingale bit down, fighting back a gasp of pain. Her arms strained and nearly gave out, but held. She remained frozen there against the wall, holding perfectly still. Until the guard continued past her. No shout of alarm meant she’d gone undetected. No search party would be chasing her tonight.
She landed on the rough ground a few minutes later, dirty and aching, but intact. Nightingale adjusted her skirt, brushed the dirt from her hands, then broke into a sprint down the hill away from her prison.
Elenia City had no enforced curfew like the Academy. Here the glowstone streetlights were uncovered, and the streets packed with thousands of residents and visitors.
A Middaran city was both alike and alien to her experience living in Seattle. Much of the energy was the same, crowded with young people pursuing whatever dreams drove them to settle in this place when there were easier paths elsewhere. But there wasn't a single child or young family to be seen, nor were there many elders. It was a city entirely in the present.
Once she started running, it was hard to stop. Had that constable noticed her academy blazer? Had that couple reading together pointed at her Arsen horns as she ran? Nightingale couldn’t stop to find out, or else invite a shameful return to the Academy, and an embarrassing talking-to the next day.
The city was far more like the images she’d seen of old European settlements—buildings close together, without large streets and not a single parking lot. Everyone walked, except for the wealthiest in their carriages. But none of those were out tonight—these were normal people. Like she’d been, before they stuck a crown on her head. Before she knew she was a princess.
Nightingale's momentum finally started to run out around the Riverfront district. Here instead of stone buildings, the shops and stalls were thrown together using whatever scraps happened to wash up. Sometimes that meant bits of old airships, or ruined scrap metal too low quality to use for any practical purpose.
But if Nightingale wanted to spend more time in perfect stone castles filled with perfect people, she would've just stayed in the Academy with the other students. Here on the riverfront were the scraps and rejects, the ones without powerful families waiting to take them in and hold their hand through life in Elenia. They had to face the difficulties of survival alone, not always with much success.
The kind of people she’d grown up with in Seattle. Not polished, not wearing a second face. Even Zeke put on an act when his mother Ida came to visit. These people never did.
It was the sound that kept her running along the river.
Elenia's uptown was always filled with the harmonic echoes of strings and the whistles of familiar woodwinds, where cafes and concert halls played slow classical that could put her straight to sleep.
On the riverfront, the sound was unpolished and raw. Discordant drums, shrill whistles and pops from artifact synth, the occasional twang of a guitar. All joined by rowdy vocals in English or Chinese.
Without meaning to, she found herself drawn to the water. She jogged recklessly, scampering between alleys and crowds and around crates piled high in front of waiting storefronts. That left her with little visibility, dumping her awkwardly out from confined streets and onto the pier.
She slowed, tripping and stumbling along damp wood. People gasped and stared, dodging her as best they could. But there were so many here—at least two dozen, all facing the same direction. The same way she heedlessly ran, reaching for something to stop herself.
A makeshift steel drum beat a steady rhythm, joined by a strangely harmonic calling from a man holding a glowing sphere in both hands. A simple acoustic guitar joined them, along with a vocalist. Was it pop? Blues? R&B? The artists didn't seem to know either. One moment all but the humming sphere fell silent, the next the vocalist practically shouted at the crowd, drowned out by the instruments behind her.
She tripped right up onto the stage, directly into the musician with his sphere. They went down together, all screams and gasps and awkward limbs.
Finally, she stopped tumbling and came to an awkward stop on the makeshift stage. His sphere landed with a thump just in front of her head, then started rolling slowly away. "The hell were you thinking? What are you doing outside the academy?”
The stranger showed no signs of visible damage—but with shimmering silver skin, maybe he was more resistant to damage. There was even a heavy metallic sound when he pulled free of her, his joints shifting and creaking like a machine.
He still sounded perfectly human, though. His sharp blue eyes met hers, as furious as his bandmates, returning to the stage. "Well?"
Nightingale scrambled away from him, sliding backward along the stage. "Sorry! I should've been more careful... just a little caught up in the music."
The vocalist flipped Nightingale an unfriendly gesture with her hand, then gestured off towards a trailer cart parked on the road. "I'm getting a drink. Anyone else want anything?"
The drummer showed less of the Advancement, though he did have a pair of goatlike hooves to bring down hard onto the pier beside Nightingale's head. "Could’ve gone into the river instead of hitting us. At least it would’ve been funny.”
Nightingale nodded apologetically, pulling her legs a little closer to her chest. Not for the first time in recent memory, she wished she'd learned some invisibly discipline. Then she could just disappear forever.
The crowd was already scattering. A few still lingered near the stage, watching this unexpected conclusion to the evening show.
"Sorry," she said again. "I'll get out of your way." The sphere rolled slowly past her, threatening to slide right off the stage, Nightingale caught it reflexively, scooping it up into one hand.
The result was instantaneous. A gentle hum reverberated from it, like three separate voices all screaming in discordant noise. As though the instrument was in physical pain from her touch. She gasped, settling her other hand firmly around its opposite side.
Instead of muffling the sound, that only made it reverberate through her whole body, raising in pitch. At first it was many different sounds, like ten people all screaming together into the wind.
The musician beside her laughed, holding out one expectant hand. "Come on. Before you wake up the whole city.
Nightingale nodded, holding it towards him in both hands. As she did, the chaos stilled, many sounds uniting into harmony and stilling their shouts.
Gone was the screaming, replaced with a mournful ballad. Piano echoed from the orb, joined by several almost-human voices whispering together in mourning. The sphere's surface changed from simple stone to swirling blues and purples, condensing in clouds beneath the surface and lingering near her fingers.
The musician pulled back his hand. His companions all fell silent to listen.
Nightingale wasn't sure where the music came from. She never thought consciously of any individual sound. Instead, the sphere seemed drawn to her feelings. Homesickness for a life on Earth she could never have again, for the people she had left behind. Pain for her relationship with Kufu, taken from her because of her stupid title. The sphere projected those feelings, crying out in a way that Nightingale herself never could.
She wasn't sure how long it took. Long enough that the band were all surrounding her. The audience was gone, but the band didn’t seem to care. Nightingale certainly didn't.
Without removing it from her fingers, the sound finally faded. The metallic musician accepted the orb into a black velvet bag, all anger gone from his face. She was standing again, though Nightingale didn't remember getting up. She wasn't sure if it had been a few minutes, or a few hours.
"You're welcome to jam with us," said the drummer, finally breaking the silence. "Bring something a little less downer next time. And maybe take the road."
"Yeah," she stretched both wings to full size. "Next time I'll walk."
Maybe there were some reasons to stay in Elenia after all.
Almost as long as there have been humans, we've had music. Historians tell us that much of the early history of humanity was passed down through music and poetry, often combined together. Drums and other simple instruments are among the earliest tools we created, once our food needs were spoken for and starvation was no longer a concern. It should be no surprise to any who arrive in Middara that the people around them care no less for music than they would hear music playing almost as soon as they arrive.
You can't take it with you--that's what the Harbingers say when you walk up to the portal. But just this once, they're wrong. You can bring your music with you, at least if there's a way to translate it into the mediums that Middara provides. If you can hold the melody in your mind, if you can sing the lyrics, then you don't have to give up what you love.
Of course we don't have all the same tools to make it with. There's no synth here, electric guitar, no laser light shows--but if you take a walk down the street of any city in Elenia, there's a good chance you'll hear something you remember, echoing from a pub or concert hall.
Not everything comes secondhand from earth, of course. Many of the seeds of our genres were planted there, but they've had centuries to germinate and grow in Middara's strange soil. No earthly bard would ever have the benefit of summoning the Elysian Echoes to enhance their performance, or ever fill the wild places with the impossible sounds of the runic lyre.
So the music of Middara takes every musical innovation of the world we came from, throws it together with whatever we can come up with, and waits to see what pops out the other side. More often than not, it's pretty awesome.
One technology that's apparently nearly forgotten on earth has emerged on the bleeding edge of Elenian music: Vinyl. Though there are artifacts and magical disciplines that record sound, they're either exceptionally rare, or too difficult to learn to be worth the effort for most. Can't exactly be too focused on getting the song right when a blighted guardian might be knocking on your door tomorrow!
But Vinyl lives right on the intersection between worlds. Creating and duplicating the disks really just comes down to the mechanical process, something that advanced cities like Elenia's capital can do with ease. Expect to pay a hell of a lot more for them, and probably to invest months wages into a decent record player. But in the end, they're still a way to make music portable and accessible.
If you're fresh through the portal, you'll never be able to afford your own set--but you don't have to. One of the best parts about migrating to Middara is unplugging all those connections. Back on Earth, if you wanted to play, you had to compete with the best talents from all over the world. Not here--here there's no internet, and every recording is something rare and precious.
It means every common room across Elenia needs an act to keep people entertained through the night. If you've got a guitar, or something more interesting, you might be able to pay for your meal with a little performance. Many recent arrivals are eager to hear new songs from their favorite acts--and if they haven't been back to check, how could they call you on it?
Of course, every nation is different. The Brahamian empire favors the Gugin and Dizi, both traditional instruments tracing back to their portal and the date of their original founding. Elenia's small population and contemporary origin mean that its population has far less inertia. If you're looking to find sounds unlike anything you'll hear in Middara, Elenia is a great place to start.
Consider just one new genre, one you won't hear in any other nation or in any realm: Arcane Fusion.
The stage is awash with a rainbow of lights, each hue dancing to the rhythm of music. A lute strums an electrifying riff, a sound that seems to imitate a rock guitar. A flute responds with a delicate melody that sends serenity through the audience. The blend of music is strange, yet familiar. It's hard to believe that the enchanting sounds are all from traditional instruments, augmented by the magic of Elenian musicians. This is Arcane Fusion, the genre that has taken Elenia by storm.
Arcane Fusion's uniqueness lies in its use of magic to emulate the sounds of electronic and synthetic instruments. A single instrument, in the hands of a skilled Elenian musician, can mimic an entire orchestra or band.
This magical manipulation of acoustic properties is what creates Arcane Fusion's distinct sound--an enthralling blend of earthly rock, classical, and pop. Its lyrics often come from traditional Middaran folk songs, modernized with an edge of profanity and contemporary subjects.
Thanks to the combination of enchanted instruments and Assemblage used to create the sound, recordings are particularly shallow compared to the real thing. If you want to experience the fusion for yourself, find a Bellicose Arena on a night there's no fight scheduled. If you're lucky, you can get seats.
Many new immigrants take for granted the simple luxury of listening to your own music in comfort. For this, no native Elenian construction can yet serve. However, many have taken to plumbing the depths of the ancient places, hunting for rare crystals made of a strange form of treated Itlum.
They're the same crystals that might be made into a set of Elysian Echoes--but take two of the proper size, find an enclosure, and they can be made to resonate to vibrations, just like those from a phonograph.
Like each Middaran firearm, a set of headphones is a rare and precious thing. Given their lack of practical utility, those few who desire to have one often craft them themselves, using instructions exchanged during musical performances, or purchased from summoned Espers. No two sound alike. Sometimes, they don't need a source of sound at all, but play on their own, as though tuned to ethereal melody.
No one knows where that music comes from. It's probably better that way.
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