Hidden 2 yrs ago 2 yrs ago Post by Lovejoy
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Prologue


Tale's End Slums, Native Varya, City of Magnagrad


[written by Lovejoy, The Angry Goat & Sisyphus]


The three inquisitors walked down the crimson-lit streets, the city around them pulsing with life, death, and something altogether in-between. The slums were a grey eternity of choking steam, tired desperate people and the gaunt remains of the forgotten sectors, wards, and towns that lay entombed within Magnagrad and its monolith walls and divisions. No matter the direction you looked, there was no end to it-- be it to the horizon, where the city stretched on endlessly in a grey spectrum of tireless infrastructure and steam-- or beneath your feet, where through the grates you could glimpse the oily darkness, pin-pricked with its million myriad embers of blue and gold light, that mechanical underworld where no one could survive-- or above, where stood the ceiling-sky of the above ground sectors, the ether runoff from their military factories and estates coalescing into sickly yellow clouds that hung over the packed-in streets and buildings below. Everything was foundation and framework for something else. It was both fever dream and nightmare-- a place of clockwork, spinning listlessly forever, with its people living their lives trying not to be caught within the churning.

Even now, the slums held an arresting view for the three inquisitors. A decade and change spent within the walls of the Red Seminary had dulled their memories of the city, but its strange decaying majesty, now unfolding before their eyes, brought them back. Yes, this is how it was. How could we forget? Here they stood, deep within the westernmost province known as Native Varya, and the enormity of it all was almost too much. They had all recently been ordained as Inquisitors and had thus been riding the high of surviving the Red Seminary, but here, within the labyrinths of Magnagrad, they felt like ants.

The three companions tried to ignore the strange disquiet within themselves as they made their way through the slum known as Tale's End, a place of ill-repute where people came to live and to die. They had heard many legends of this place from SA soldiers within the Seminary, and Stina and Hassan often talked about visiting it. Ragnar believed the two of them wanted to experience, well.. he didn't know. But he had an idea. Disruption, danger, some spontaneous excitement before being stuck in a steam ark for the next couple of months-- this is what they wanted, he thought. Ragnar had convinced them to bring him along. After all, who would look out for his brothers? Secretly, he also wanted to be included in whatever they did. Ragnar hated being left out.

As they ventured through the crowded streets, lit by neon and ether, they saw groups of men huddled together in half-lit alleyways around primitive ether lamps, trying desperately to keep warm. On pathways choked with muddy grey ice, teenagers with runny noses, shivering under patchwork coats, tried to sell them "real Omestrian ether" from filthy metal trays, their breaths misting in the cold. They glimpsed the still-shining golden eyes of Omestrian children caged in the back of a truck as it sped toward one of the richer districts. They passed by a crumbling old church and within it saw a group of older Varyans praying to the Ravenous Lord, pleading with Him to allow their sons and daughters to return home from El.

Finally, upon reaching their destination, a pub known as the Shadow & Storm, they were stopped by a young Muraadan girl dragging along three malnourished-looking pups on leashes. Her eyes, beaming with opportunity, quickly appraised the three inquisitors.

"You three are soldiers, right?! Well, soldiers need friends, don't they? If you buy one of my wolf pups, (they're straight from the Fatherland you know!) you'll never want for a hunting partner again! I raised them myself! Only fifty gia for each!"

The girl waited with baited breath, the three inquisitors eyeing each other.

"I guess if you don't have a need for a fightin' friend, you can teach it tricks to impress your girlfriends! Or uh... you can drain them if you're ever in a pinch and need the ether! I'm telling you, at 50 gia each, they're a steal!"

Ragnar rubbed his lip uncertainly.

"Uh..."

***


Hassan furrowed his brow at the disruption. He could tell Ragnar was taken off-guard by the girl - some days, it seemed like the poor kid could be spooked by his own shadow. It wouldn't do to have the trip derailed so early. Though this whole thing had initially been Hassan's idea, the truth was he felt just as uncertain and out of place in these frigid streets as any of them; it wouldn't do to show that, though.

Did he want a dog? Not really. Hassan had never had much affection for the little animals, and the sight of the mangy, skin-and-bones little creatures the girl was offering didn't exactly stir any newfound feelings of warmth inside him. Still, this was a night they were supposed to have it all, and who knew? Maybe Tatiana or Ragnar would like a dog.

"Give them to me," he said, a smile spreading across his face as the familiar warmth of the Word spilled from his lips. Blank-eyed, the girl handed him the leashes and stepped back. She glanced down at her empty hand, a dazed look on her face. Hassan reached into his pocket and handed the girl sixty gia - somewhat short of her asking price, but that was her problem, and at least this way might save him a lecture from Stina.

The girl took the money and stood, shivering slightly in the cold, and deep down Hassan knew that he should feel bad for stealing from her. Outwardly, he shrugged. "Come along then," he said to his companions, "We have much to do! Food, drink, merrymaking, maybe we find a woman for Ragnar here?" He chuckled and tugged on the leashes. "This is a great night, and Hassan will make sure we get the best. Anyone want a dog?"

***


As much as Yerohkin wanted to love animals, he never saw the utility in it. Especially in a world where the cold was all-coming and only temporarily staved off by the grace of Varya, animals taken into their folds needed to have some sort of use, some way to satisfy Varya's hunger - and he had not the time or desire to make that the case. So of course Hassan didn't think of any of that. And scammed the poor woman. He sighed, and pulled out 100 of his own Gia, handing it to the woman. "I am sorry about my friend. Inquisitors are not without honor, a-a-and some of us need to work harder to get there."

Turning back to his cohorts as they wandered onwards, he smacked Hassan on the side of the head - not harshly, but by no means attempting to be gentle. "We represent the government of Holy Varya. Rememmmmmber this when you try to scam the poor." Stina still wasn't quite sure how he had ended up getting roped into this, though in the end, whatever happened tonight was going to be more interesting than spending another stuffy night at home, his father mildly disinterested, his mother somewhere else, drifting into her book to avoid interaction. He shook his head to stifle these thoughts. This night would give him enough stress without going there mentally.

Speaking of stress... he looked to one of the puppies, and sighed again. Now that they had them, may as well try and give them a good life of proper service to the Ravenous Lord.
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Hidden 2 yrs ago 2 yrs ago Post by Lovejoy
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The Marian Gate Station, outskirts of the Ruins of Iddin-Mar, Old Omestris


[written by Lovejoy, shylarah & CollectorOfMyst]


Outside the cramped military transport the ice and snow was all-encompassing. The Corpseland of Omestris, they called it. It didn't look much like a corpse, for it was beautiful in its own way. Empty and silent, the snows pure and white, ungreyed.

Three days ago they had finally left behind the fringes of the machine city. They watched as those frontier ghost sectors, with the steam stacks of their ancient factories still billowing pale ethereal mist into the colorless sky, gave way to endless white. And if they stared out the rear windows, they could glimpse Magnagarad, rising like a dark mountain of iron against the white, encrouching everything. They were miles from its end, and still it seemed near.

Even after the invasion, all that existed in the no man's land between Varya and Omestris was a nigh endless snowfield. On their journey they would glimpse the odd SA garrison standing derelict upon the ice every now and again, and one time, they even saw the ruins of what looked like an ancient Omestrian temple, but for the most part, the journey had been long, grim and boring.

Father Oren and Mother Ziotea sat in the train car, completely alone save for the young SA soldier sitting on the seat opposite them. Private Andrei Semenov had joined them at the lone station at the edge of Magnagrad, where they had taken the only train bound for Omestris. Semenov had known of their coming, and informed them that he had been sent to serve as their guide. When Oren told him that they didn't require a guide, the young man had become nervous and didn't have an answer prepared, only that it was his duty and he couldn't disobey his orders. It didn't take Oren and Ziotea long to figure out what Semenov was really there for. Two Omestrian inquisitors, returning to their homeland-- the Church had taken note of this, and had sent this poor, young SA grunt to watch over them.

When the train made its final stop at the station known as the Marian Gate, they found themselves at the precipice of a massive ice shelf which stretched miles beyond miles into the distance and then curved around again on itself. It was as if there was a massive wound in the ice, and far below them, cutting deeper into the ancient icebed than Oren or Ziotea had ever seen, lay the ruins.

Iddin-Mar.

***


The short Inquisitor did not fear the snowy wastelands of the world. She might not be able to craft an aegis with the skill of some of her fellows -- especially Ragnar -- but she had enough skill that a few hours out beyond the reach of the machines that kept city-dwellers warm was merely difficult, not deadly. The traincar was heated, of course, but while fending off the frigid cold that sought to sap warmth and life did chill her, Ziotea didn't seem to have the trouble with simple cold the way most did. Sure, it was cold, but even as a child on the streets huddled in a nook with Rodion to preserve heat, she was always warmer than he.

Ziotea wondered how her friend was doing. He'd matched her perpetual restlessness, in the days between the news of their orders and when Father Oren had suggested she join him on a trip to the lands of ancient Omestris. She understood why. They were rarely apart -- not for more than a day since...she couldn't even remember. Had they ever been separated, since they met? Perhaps not. Odd that it should feel so natural. Even when they were fighting, the only time she'd ever leave the room instead of just not talking was if she needed to beat something up. Breaking furniture was frowned upon; practice dummies less so.

All the same she was glad of this opportunity, Rodion or no. There would have been little for her to do in Cero even if she was allowed near the Karmzina before its launch. She would be spending plenty of time cooped up in the ark on their trip across the sea, and she really didn't care to start it early. Nor had she ever been to Omestris -- as far as she could remember, she'd spent the entirety of her life in Magnagrad. She felt no connection to the place -- she wasn't really Omestrian, after all -- but she did wonder what it was like. All she knew of the world beyond Magnagrad, particularly beyond Varya proper, was stories and legends. Omestris was spoken of as a land of heresy, where forbidden fire was kept alive. She didn't even know what fire would look like aside from its colors, the colors she'd been cursed with at birth. Maybe seeing the ruins would help her understand why, what it was that she was supposed to be. Why the Omestrians' god had abandoned them to Lord Varya and his followers, and the miserable slavery she'd seen just enough of that she would never forget it. Lord Omestris must have been able to do something to help them -- he was a god, after all. But if he was anything like Lady Lanostre, he probably didn't care. Even Lord Varya didn't care, not really. What she'd seen at Culmination....

She sighed, her breath fogging the glass of the window and quickly forming frosty patterns on it. Father Oren was quiet, and for that she was grateful. Yes, she should be getting to know the man better while she had the chance -- they'd had a few teambuilding exercises with the three Leviathan members ordered to join them, but they were nowhere near as familiar as the members of her own warband, even the ones she avoided as much as she could. If she did decide to talk with him, she'd rather do it without their watchdog present, but there would only be a couple hours after the young soldier's probable departure once they were back in Magnagrad. She felt a little sorry for him, really. If for some reason she and Father Oren really did mean to go apostate, what could he possibly do against two Inquisitors? He'd need incredible skill or amazing luck to beat even one of them, much less both, and he seemed uncomfortable around them to start with.

"I don't think I've ever seen anything quite so white," she said at last. "Everything in Magnagrad is gray, or beige, or the color of rust. I didn't know a white like this existed."

***


Oren was watching their recent acquaintance through half-lidded eyes. It was a curious decision, to send this young man with them. Seminov didn't seem to be the best of spies. Especially when he was pitted against two Omestrians... even if one wasn't full-blooded, she still possessed an incredible ether pool, from what Oren had heard.

Speaking of Ziotea, she had seemed restless the last few days. They had made only a little conversation, mostly out of necessity or pleasantries. Their alliance was felt, not spoken, he believed. Still, she was on edge. Perhaps it was her separation from the smith? Oren had often glimpsed the two side-by-side throughout the years. And, if the gossipers were to be believed, they were more than just childhood friends.

The private shifted, and Oren's attention turned back to him. Really, the entire situation with Seminov was perplexing. Unless there was some other motive for his being there, there really was no sense to it. Inquisitors were well reputed for being elite fighters, so neither he nor Ziotea would really be intimidated by his presence. Unless they more expected only one of them to turn apostate, and the soldier was there just to give them an edge. As far as Oren could tell, he was almost evenly matched with his companion, though if it came to it, Oren was pretty certain she'd overcome him. In either case, a more seasoned soldier, some grizzled veteran, would have been better to send with them.

Oren felt the corners of his mouth twitch as he entertained the thought. Not many of those around at the moment. So perhaps it was just their only option, and he was thinking too much into it.

The train jolted a little, which meant they were slowing down. He opened his eyes and stood.

"I don't think I've ever seen anything quite so white," he heard Ziotea say. "Everything in Magnagrad is gray, or beige, or the color of rust. I didn't know a white like this existed."

Glancing outside, his eyebrows rose at the sight. Oren... hadn't quite expected this. Well, Iddin-Mar wasn't exactly the same ruin he'd been to before, but still...

"And yet you travel with one whose hair is white," he said, a hint of humour in his voice. "But I suppose it is a brilliant view."

Sighing internally, he looked to their escort. "Well... shall we go see what else we might find?"

***


She turned to look at him thoughtfully, but needed no more than a glance before shaking her head. "No. It's white, but it's not the same color." A frown creased her brow. "Everything in Magnagrad is stained. Even us."

Ziotea didn't elaborate, feeling the change in the motion of the car and standing to grab her spear and spiked shield. The latter was slung over her shoulder, the spear resting comfortably in the crook of her arm for the moment. It wasn't so much longer before the train clacked to a stop, the steamworks sighing heavily as if grateful for the reprieve. She stepped off the moment the chime sounded to say the doors could be open, not bothering to wait for the other two. Her sturdy boots made muffled thumps on the platform, little more than a cleared area and a small building. Beyond, the icy ground abruptly fell away, leaving a gaping hole in the earth. Below she could see the broken forms of crumbling buildings, crouched in the snow like the shapes of the homeless who died during the night and were found frozen the following morning. The empty snowfields weren't the Corpseland. This was -- this relic of what must have been a proud race once a long time ago, before the Varyans and their Ravenous Lord came calling.

This place would hold no answers, she realized. What had she even hoped to find? But perhaps she could still take something away from it. Some clue as to what once was, and maybe a hint of what she was missing. Maybe it would teach her the right question.

Father Oren's question got him a grunt of a reply, and the small woman walked toward the edge. Aye, the place was a corpse, gutted and left without even a proper grave. And here they were to pay a visit to a legacy of bones.

***


"Wait for me!" the young soldier yelled, his voice trembling under his warming mask. Whether he was cold or terrified, or both, was unclear. Private Semenov was short for a Varyan, barely taller than Ziotea, and with the layers upon layers of fur he wore over his uniform, the SA soldier looked like a fat little bear standing there in the confines of the train. It was obvious that the lad was absolutely freezing, as he began to shiver like a rumbling engine as soon as he stepped out of the train car.The icy wind was galing lightly, its power not strong enough to stir the two inquisitor's coats in its grasp, but for a "regular" soldier like Semenov, it must have been bitingly cold.

"Welcome to the Marian Ga--"

His words were cut short when he saw Mother Ziotea standing by the edge of the ice shelf, gazing at the ruined majesty beneath them. Her hair was, hm. He couldn't quite describe it, but he found himself transfixed by it for what seemed like minutes, admiring how it contrasted against the white expanse around her. He turned suddenly, and found Father Oren staring at him.

"R-right! This way."

He readjusted the strap of his rifle and allowed it to fall casually at his side before hastily walking off the platform and towards what looked like a large circular hatch embedded within the snow. Strangely, its metal diameter seemed completely untouched by snowfall. Semenov labored through the knee-deep snow drifts before finally reaching the handle of the metal hatch, signaling the two inquisitors to follow behind. As soon as they stepped on the ceiling of what appeared to be a large bunker, the crunching of their boots against the snow turned to metallic thuds.

Semenov took one last look at the ruins of Iddin-Mar and sighed wistfully. "It's a... beautiful view, it really is, but we need to head underground to actually reach it," he told them before grabbing at the handle with both hands and turning. It took some effort for the young soldier to turn it completely, but when the handle finally gave way, a cloud of steam erupted forth from the thin gaps between the hatchdoor and bunker. The sudden change in temperature made the young soldier step back clumsily.

"Urgh... Yeah, ether lamps. They keep the entire bunker warm," he said, gritting his teeth as he struggled to lift the heavy hatchdoor. He grunted loudly, and finally, the hatch door swung open beneath them. Semenov climbed down a short ladder leading into the darkened half-lit bunker below, waving at his two charges to follow him into the ground.

Before they reached the bottom, the two inquisitors heard the echo of a gruff voice beneath them.

"It's Semenov! Oi, boychik, who've you brought along with you this ti--" The bearded soldier's words were cut short when he caught sight of Ziotea and Oren.

"I-Inquisitors?" a blonde-haired woman stammered to no one in particular, her voice astonished and filled with fear at the same time. A half-smoked cigarette hung limply from her lips, the currents of white ether within its filter fading out. She was sat at a plain-looking table, a deck of lazily-shuffled playing cards as well as a near-empty bottle of cheap virrika lay scattered on its surface.

The bearded man, seeming to remember his training, suddenly stood at attention. He wore a grimy tanktop and a pair of even grimier military trousers. There was no weapon at his side and even from where they stood, the inquisitors could smell the virrika on him. "Sergeant Mikhail, Sergeant Veena, this is Father Oren and Mother Ziotea. They're here to see the ruins," Semenov told them while ripping off his layers. He then removed a warming suit hanging from a rack and hastily put it on. Free of the furs and heating mask and now wearing the less bulky warming suit, the inquisitors could see just how young he was. Private Andrei Semenov couldn't have been older than fifteen.

The woman hastily put out her cigarette. "Your Reverences, please forgive the er... state of our garrison, we.. had no word of your coming," she said, her eyes burning a hole through Semenov. "We, uh, we don't get a lot of visitors," she added.

"That's right, if we had known--"

"Oh come on. At least we didn't catch you two fucking," Semenov answered, chuckling to himself. He stole a glance at the two inquisitors, hoping he'd see at least a smile from one of them. When they didn't seem to laugh at his joke, he cleared his throat.

"A-Anyway, it'll be night soon, so we should get moving. Next we'll ride the lift, which'll take us down to the ruins proper."
Hidden 2 yrs ago Post by shylarah
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Ziotea heard the soldier start to welcome them before suddenly falling silent. The prickle between her shoulderblades made her think he was looking at her, but she wasn't even doing anything. He'd had plenty of time to stare at her on the train. Maybe he just had enough sense not to be impolite to an Inquisitor where she'd notice? Except he'd failed at that. Her frown deepened for a moment before she gave a mental shrug. Whatever. Let him stare if it made him happy. It was hardly worth bothering about. But damned if she would turn around and acknowledge it. If he wanted to stay out in the cold then he was the only one suffering for it.

Eventually Semenov remembered himself, and kept moving. She stayed put a few moments more, tempted to just leap off the edge instead of worrying about finding a better way down. It would be easy enough to catch herself at the bottom, and she gave the idea serious consideration. Only briefly, however. Father Oren would have difficulty following, and no doubt he or Semenov would complain. And then Stina will find some reason to lecture for "straying" when he hears about it, as if taking the stairs was somehow our holy duty. The Inquisitor snorted under her breath and turned to follow the others.

She'd caught up by the time Semenov had managed to get the hatch open, condensation pluming out as the warm air inside hit the wind's cold. She let Father Oren precede her down the ladder and waited until he reached the bottom to follow. Instead of climbing she tucked her spear under her arm, put her gauntleted hands around the sides of the ladder, and half-jumped, half-slid the handful of steps to the bottom. Her landing came with a brief flicker of ether, though her heavy boots still rang against the uncarpeted floor. She was just in time to hear the bearded man below cut himself off.

She took in the little outpost as she turned around, shifting her spear back to her hand. Poorly cleaned, poorly groomed -- she couldn't even tell if the pair of sergents were supposed to be off duty, and the sharp stench of alcohol made her wrinkle her nose.

Semenov himself was a surprise. He seemed too young to have a posting, almost too young to be enlisting. Though not too young to have mastered the soldierly art of crude humor, Ziotea noted. She didn't respond to his joke at all, and he tried to dispell the awkwardness by moving them along. She turned to follow but paused in the doorway. "Don't make excuses," she told them over her shoulder. "If you truly regret being caught in such a state, skip the excuses and fix the problem yourselves. If you're not...well, not my problem, I suppose. But inspectors general don't always send advanced notice. Something to consider."

There was no warmth in her tone. She half-hoped the unfortunate pair would be caught with their pants down -- perhaps literally -- at the next inspection. She doubted she'd hear about it, but if she did she would shed no tears.
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Hidden 2 yrs ago Post by CollectorOfMyst
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"Everything in Magnagrad is stained. Even us."

Oren blinked at her words. He looked down at his hand, past the glove, as though contemplating dirt he hadn't known was there, wondering about its origin. He... had never truly thought about it like that. An opinion to keep in mind, perhaps. But only your mind - speak it in the presence of your superiors, colleagues, even subordinates... well, let's just say that a few more eyes would watch you after that. Eyes that could lock you away with just a blink.

But again, it could all be his paranoia. It was no secret that the city was not the best at keeping its streets clean.

Turning, he approached and watched as Seminov struggled to lift the hatch, but didn't offer his assistance. The soldier would probably just be scandalised by his attempt. He descended quickly, unwilling to spend time looking from afar when their purpose was to walk among them. However, the sight that met him... and the pungent mix of odours that assailed him when he entered the base... well, at least he tried to stop his nose from wrinkling.

Taking in their escort's youth, however, was a reminder, that most of the skilled soldiers had been sent to the Eastern Continent, leaving behind the untrained conscripts, the weakened old men, and the incompetent. That, combined with how remote the outpost was, meant that it was of little concern to the high officials, and subsequently, less maintenance would be performed. Oren found himself frowning at the thought. It was Seminov's crude comment that snapped him out of his thoughts. It was distasteful, to say the least. But at least he seemed less afraid of them.

Oren looked at the pair of sergeants. As Ziotea called out to them over her shoulder, he found himself agreeing with her. He looked back to the pair, before adding, "Since, strictly, we're not here to evaluate your upkeep of the outpost, I think we can all agree this encounter can be - forgotten, shall I say? But as Mother Ziotea says, you'd best reconsider how you'll spend your days out here. Not all are so forgiving."

He gave them a small smile, though empty, before following after Seminov and Ziotea.
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Hidden 2 yrs ago 2 yrs ago Post by Lovejoy
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The First City of Cero, capital of T'sarae


[written by Lovejoy & Drakey]


The sky was gold, he saw.

Not just the burning gold of Omestrian ether, or the strange elemental gold of Ziotea's eyes, but a crystalline gold that never ceased to end its gleaming. To look upon it was to gaze upon a sea of jewels. Perhaps the gleaming came from the rays of the unknown sun that shined down upon the world. Rodion could picture its rays rippling through the dome's surface as it cast its dreamlike radiance on the city below.

Cero was unlike anything he had ever seen. It was a an artfully crafted city-- its buildings, plazas and highroads built with grace and fluidity, unlike Magnagrad's endless and brutal urban sprawl. This seemed to reflect the two Remnants perfectly. Lord Varya hungered eternally, and always wanted more. Magnagrad, with its countless foundations and levels-- that ever-growing black mountain of blood and clockwork, seemed to exist solely as a representation of His unabating hunger. T'sarae, on the other hand, was a God of craft and creation, and the First City of Cero, encased within its impossible crystalline aegis, was testamount to that.

Since Rodion had arrived, the cavalcade of T'saraen freethinkers, scientists and engineers who shared his transport vehicle had been pointing out the countless marvels of creation that existed within the city. Head Engineer Amir T'sukasa, who had been Rodion's main guide and charged with bringing him to the imperial drydocks, pointed to the north. There in the northernmost sector of the city stood MUSE, the grand scientific academy which, according to scripture, Lord T'sarae himself had founded many centuries ago. And as they weaved through one of the congested highroads that stood over the city, another scientist pointed down at the plaza below, where stood the only church in the entire city. "We don't allow religious fervor to fester out of control here. It tends to get in the way of our work," she told him.

Finally, upon reaching the edge of Cero, where the skyscrapers that dotted the urban expanse were replaced with the low naval yards and drydocks and ringed its outskirts, Rodion could finally gaze upon it without having to crane his neck or squint his eyes-- The monolithic construct that covered the city like a pair of cupped palms...

The Aegisdome.

The enormity of it was unlike anything he had ever seen. The dome's surface was a perfectly cut collective of what appeared to be thousands of interlocking crystalline panels, which each panel easily being the size of a full city block. The dome acted as an actual aegis, thus, not only was it a marvel of scientific creation, but was also a construct of boundless magical power.

"Magnificent, isn't it? This is Lord T'sarae's greatest creation. Ancient build-records say He spent six days and seven nights constructing it," Head Engineer Amir told him with pride.

It certainly was impressive, but one thing about it in particular gnawed at Rodion. Why was it gold? Gold was the color of Omestrian ether. And as far as he knew, T'saraen blood was imbued with blue ether, just like everyone else's. The color immediately jumped out at him as being out of place.

"Are you wondering about the gold? Well, we... actually don't know the answer to that. Perhaps... Lord T'sarae made it this color because... He thought it was pretty?" the engineer answered with a laugh.

With that, he was led down to the Imperial drydocks.

When he stepped foot on the shipyard, he was immediately brushed aside by a group of workers steadily making their way to a military vessel floating in the half-melted ice. The docks were chaotic with activity, restless-looking science corps officers barked orders as squadrons of laborers and builders carried supplies up and down the docks. There were dozens of military ships being outfitted for... what exactly? As far as Rodion knew, none of these ships could survive a journey to El. They were old warships from the Lanostran war, not true steam arks.

"We can't send these old beasts out to the Eastern Lands quite yet, but the Secular High Command wants them prepared for war all the same. Between you and me, there's talk of MUSE being on the cusp of an advancement in ether heating systems that's got every one of us excited. I wager within the year we'll be able to mass produce the stuff we have in the steam arks and outfit these old clunkers with them. Soon we'll have an invasion force the likes of which has never been seen," Amir told him, barely able to hide the grin on his face.

"Of course, what I told you is still classified," the engineer added with a smile.

***


Rodion listened to the researcher as he stood on the docks. Madrys, as a wolf, silently pawed the ground next to him. Her steal fur rippled with the movement of the plates that made up her 'skin'. Taking a deep breath, Rodion reflected a little bit on his trip through the T'sarean capital. Cero, it was truly a magnificent place for the young inquisitor. However, there was something that whispered in the back of the tinkerer's mind. It was the same whisper that he felt while in Magnagrad. He didn't belong here. While Rodion felt at ease in Cero, he knew that it was not the place for him. The man had gained both those traits which his blood bestowed upon him. The ravenous hunger of Varya and the curious mind of T'sarae. It was gift, but it also kept him from finding his home.

Watching the shipbuilders, Rodion caught sight of certain, covered, items being transferred to the old ships. Turning back to Amir, Rodion spoke, his voice coming out flat and emotionless. "Well, T'sukasa, I trust that since you have told me about this research, that you will keep me up to date on it whenever you can." Pulling the fingerless gloves that he wore even further down his hands, Rodion sighed ever so slightly. He had watched as they passed MUSE, oh what an establishment it was. However, the grand Aegis that T'sarae himself built loomed over them.

"It was not because T'sarae thought gold was pretty." Rodion abruptly changed the subject. It was his terrible habit of doing this that made him so hard to understand. At least, that was what Tatiana had taken to telling him over the years. "While the entire city of Cero is truly beautiful, all of it serves a function. So we can surmise that the gold of the Aegis truly has some sort of purpose." Thinking for a moment, Rodion continued, "Perhaps he and Omestris had worked together to build it. Or maybe T'sarae had found another fragment of the Old One, a fragment that held part of the power of the Old Evil." The thoughts threatened to continue as Rodion forcibly put a tap on them. Instead, he changed the subject once more.

"Tell me, T'sukasa, what does it take to get accepted into MUSE?" Rodion had heard tales of the school, and how he wanted to see its jeweled halls. Bending down, Rodion's hair fell across his shoulders. Reaching out, he scratched the top of Madrys' head, "Get up Madrys, we will be going to the Karamzina soon."

The wolf responded slowly. Getting up on all four paws, Madrys stretched out her front two legs. Yawning, her ether coated fangs shone in the early morning. Streams of golden ether flowed underneath her steel skin as she shook her head, steel fur moving fluidly with it. Standing the three and a half foot tall wolf looked up at her owner, creator, and master.
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Hidden 2 yrs ago 1 yr ago Post by Lovejoy
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Sapharan, High City, capital of Lanostre



It was true what was often uttered from the lips of Lanostrans. To stand upon the walls of Sapharan was to gaze upon the entire world.

It had been more than a decade, yet for the three inquisitors who stood at the edge of the High City's walls the view had not lost its awe, nor the grasp it had held upon their hearts when they were young. You could, quite literally, glimpse thousands of feet into the clouded abyss of the world below, into the white void of the eastern horizon, where the storms never ceased, and west, where far in the distance, an unnatural darkness tinted the snow, ever resonating. For Tatiana, Astraea and Galahad, these heart-stopping sights were all memories from childhood made manifest again. These twin mountains, where the sun shone above the clouds and reflected off their ancient crystalline rock, making it shimmer like starlight, where the trees still grew strong and tall and evergreen, were home, and yet-- it was not the same home they had left.

In those days before the Red Seminary, they remembered the streets of the High City teeming with life, warriors returning from the Glacier, dragging the corpses of their prey on sleighs, children mustering in the gardens and the screetching of their high-pitched warcries resonating in the air, the percussion of steel against steel as blacksmith forges opened for the morning hunts-- this was Sapharan.

Not this.

The streets on which they walked on the way to their homes were silent and almost bereft of life. It seemed most of the High City was empty, save for congregations of Varyan soldiers marching down the avenues, their faces shivering from the cold and grim with fear. What were they so afraid of?

The wind was raging, they could always hear it after all, and in this elevation the cold was biting enough to freeze you dead on some nights, but the emerald aegis of Lanostre still protected the city from the cruelty of the elements. In comparison to the Varyan garrison, the three inquisitors felt almost warm within the aegis' light. Whether this was because of their training, or because they were Lanostrans under the protection of their goddess' aegis, was unclear. Still, one thing was for certain, despite the Lady's supposed death, even now, the twin mountains of Lanostre still gleamed emerald with the glow of her aegis.

Leaving the plaza of the High City, the trio proceeded down The Deadway, the massive earthen stairwell cut from the face of the rock which led further down to Bridgetown. True to its namesake, Bridgetown acted as an aerial bridge connecting the Elder Mountain to the Younger Mountain. These twin peaks where the dual cities of Sapharan stood were the highest points of land in all the known world, taller than even Magnagrad. Through the eons they had endured, surviving the cataclysmic flood that had swallowed the earth after the Ice Titan and His Great Enemy's divine battle sent the world into ruin, and thus, along with Iddin-Mar in Omestris, these two peaks were the only known remnants of the Old World.

Bridgetown itself was a marvel of engineering, a district of craftsmen and freethinkers built decades ago by T'saraen engineers to connect the twin mountains and make travel between the two cities standing at their peaks safer. Its construction was said to have been a debt of gratitude to the land that had adopted them, and these days, it was a conclave where a small but thriving population of half and full-blooded T'saraens made their home. It was a place of wonder and amazement, where silver clockwork churned gracefully amidst the azure mountain rock, and in the night, schools of tiny clockwork ethermoths were let out to light up all of Lanostre. This beautiful and wondrous sight was still rooted in many a Lanostran's memory.

By the time the three inquisitors had reached Bridgetown, the pale sun was creeping down beneath the western horizon, its rays reflecting off the glossy surface of the monstrous Black Glacier a distance away. Even from this height, the red pulsing of the Glacier's ethereal veins could be seen in the twilight. Saying their goodbyes, they each left to visit their homes. Tomorrow morning, they planned to meet back there in Bridgetown to prepare for the journey back.
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Hidden 2 yrs ago 2 yrs ago Post by Lovejoy
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Tale's End Slums, Native Varya, City of Magnagrad



"Anyone want a dog?"

Upon hearing these words, Ragnar's heart leaped from his chest. The Muraadan girl's pups would probably never make for ideal hunting companions. They were too small and would never grow to the size of their counterparts in the wild. She had oversold their worth, but, she was truthful about one thing though...

"Hassan, they're wolves, not dogs. And yes. I would very much like one. In fact, I'll take all three!" His joy and excitement getting the better of him, the young inquisitor snatched the three leashes from Hassan's hand.

"You two go in without me. I'll be out here, getting to know our new friends."

Ragnar turned to Stina and met the giant inquisitor's eyes before tilting his head towards Hassan, who was now making his way to the pub's entrance. The unspoken message was clear. "I won't be in there, so look after him. I know it's going to annoying but, please?"

Ragnar walked the pups across the wet steam-covered road towards an abandoned church. He sat on the short stairwell leading up to the entrance, his white fur cloak staining itself on the filthy wet steps. The pups jumped up to warm themselves inside its folds.

"There, there. Warm enough for you?"

They had not been allowed pets in the seminary, which had tormented Ragnar to no end for his first few years there. Muraadans were a wild, hearty people, and so were the animals they were bloodbound to keep and protect. His mother had kept a wolf of her own.

He remembered how it tried to protect them from those Lanostran brigands... The sound of its cry as the apostate drove his spear into--

Ragnar gazed at the pups, concentrating hard on their appearances. His mouth was dry, and he could feel his heart begin to calm itself. Sure, they were naught but skin and bones, and even now they were shivering in the cold, but to him, each one was beautiful in its own way. The largest of the pups, a female, was black as night, with dark indigo markings lining her shadowy fur. Her dark glossy eyes met his own without fear. The next pup was the color of Lanostran ice-- cyan blue, with golden eyes that would not meet him. A true half-breed if Ragnar ever saw one, but maybe a bit of a coward. The littlest of the pups was grey, brown and white, a smear of earth and snow. Not all that handsome, save for his eyes-- which were curious and attentive. They were a vibrant red, like an open wound.

With a sad smile, he began to pet them. "I'll find someone who will take care of you. Someone who will treat you well."

Across the street, Ragnar watched as Hassan opened the door to the pub and stepped inside. The sound of raucous laughter and music could be heard coming from within. Ragnar was silent as his brothers disappeared into the dark interior of the Shadow & Storm. He had wanted so badly to spend the night with them, to drink in a place that wasn't the seminary cantina, to laugh and be free for one single evening, but one thing that Hassan mentioned earlier had filled him with trepidation.

"We have much to do! Food, drink, merrymaking, maybe we find a woman for Ragnar here?"

The young Muraadan inquisitor sighed, his breath misting in the Varyan winter air. With the wolf pups competing for warmth inside his cloak, Ragnar continued to watch the pub.

***


Within the Shadow & Storm, the two inquisitors sat drinking at a far table, away from the floor where a crowd of soldiers, civilians, and what looked like a congregation of nuns were dancing up a storm. The pub itself was darkly lit-- with colored ether lamps casting a warm golden glow over everything. The place seemed to have been converted from an old Secular military bunker, as one could glimpse the telltale signs of ether burn and bullet holes on the metal walls and of course, there was no mistaking the drab industrial grey that was emblematic of Varya's military. The decor of the pub was plain, pictographs of old soldiers and warpriests lined the walls while the company flags from retired regiments and warbands hung in tribute behind the bar. The only decoration that seemed out of the ordinary for a place like this was the massive weapon, some kind of broadsword, that hung on the far wall of the pub. It lay atop a fancy-looking plaque. Etched in the gilded stone of that plaque were the words "Arrakin's Zweihander".

The band on stage was energetic, and the traditional Varyan volska they played was rhythmic and loud, the way Varyans liked it. There was hardly any melody, beauty or storytelling in the music of the empire, it only served to get one to yell, to drink and to dance. And that's exactly what the crowd was doing. The nuns were especially getting into it.

Hassan and Stina sat at their table, drinking and conversing. After tonight, their orders called for them to travel to the city of Cero in T'sarae, which would be a long and aggravating trip. This night would be their last in Magnagrad for who knew how long, and Hassan at least, was eager to make it one to remember fondly.
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Imperial Drydocks, Cero, capital of T'sarae


[written by Lovejoy & Drakey]


"Tell me, T'sukasa, what does it take to get accepted into MUSE?"

The inquisitor's query caught the Head Engineer off-guard. Did the the young warpriest wish to attend the academy? MUSE was traditionally only open to those of T'saraen blood, which according to the reports he had read on the inquisitor, was the same blood that flowed within Father Rodion. Having such a talented and brilliant mind in the academy would be quite the get for MUSE, and the city of Cero as a whole. It really was a shame the Varyan church had gotten to him first.

"Well, Your Reverence, a mind of your caliber would certainly thrive there! I imagine you would easily be able to secure all the funding and support you would ever need for your projects. Unfortunately, your uh, superiors in the Faith would never allow--"

Head Engineer Amir's words were cut short when a young woman clad in a grease-streaked workman's uniform nonchalantly walked up to him and practically yelled in his face.

"She's ready for you, pops!"

Amir immediately went white. His face contorted in both anger and nervousness, and he mouthed a silent apology to Father Rodion before turning to the young mechanic. The woman seemed to be about Rodion's age, and her eyes were the same pale blue as Amir's.

"Deva. Do you not see that I'm in the middle of something?" the engineer scolded the mechanic. He turned to Rodion and, forcing a smile, attempted to smooth over the interruption.

"Please forgive my daughter, Father Rodion. She is a talented engineer but still has much to learn when it comes to showing respect to her betters."

The young mechanic narrowed her eyes, scrutinizing her father-- before seeming to finally notice Rodion standing there. She stared at him in silence for an uncomfortable amount of time, seemingly not sure of what make of him. Amir looked back and forth between the two, hoping, desperately that his daughter would say something. When she noticed the mechanical wolf sitting by Rodion's side, her eyes immediately lit up.

"Wow! Cool wolf, dude," she exclaimed, immediately kneeling down to examine the creature more closely.

"Deva! That is not how you address an inquisitor of the--"

"This is incredible! What does it run on? Ether? Is it Omestrian ether? But, how is it possible... How does it have sentience? Is there an etherdrive in there? Nah. Can't be. Those things are theoretical. Then how... How are you alive?" she asked the wolf itself in a hushed, almost reverent tone.

***


Rodion's eyes snapped to the T'sarean as he spoke of the Academy. Hmmm, apparently the man was of the mind that the Church would not allow Rodion access to the Academy. Well, that would have to change. Cataloging the goal within his mind, Rodion's attention snapped forward to a newcomer.

She was pretty, However, unlike other hot-blooded men of his age, Rodion's observation was just that, an observation. Rodion listened as the girl and her father conversed. When it finally ended, Rodion spoke to T'sukasa. "She was not rude. The girl, Deva, merely stated an accomplishment of pre-ordained task. It is rather counter intuitive to scold her for that, is it not?" Posing the question to the clearly flustered man, Rodion turned his attention back to the girl as she crouched down next to Madrys. Her questions coming out like a rapid-fire gatling gun.

"Madrys is alive, theoretically, in the same manner that you are." Dropping down to sit on his heels, keeping balance with his toes, Rodion tapped the middle of Madrys' back. "Release," the command came out as a whisper. Only Deva, Madrys, and Rodion could hear it. Almost immediately a hiss and a blast of vapor escaped as Madrys' back opened up. The steel fur rippled as her core, spinning and shining in place, became visible. The core floated in a sea of golden ether. Pulling a steel gauntlet out of one of his bags, Rodion donned the glove. Reaching out, he pulled Madrys' core out.

"Sadly, I cannot answer if it is an Etherdrive or not as my studies have been mostly self-conducted. So, I ask that you, who is apparently somewhat versed in the topic, judge whether or not Madrys does in fact use an Etherdrive." Holding Madrys' core up, Rodion began pointing out certain traits of the core. "If you look into the middle you will see a dot of blue ether. That is my own, and what imbues Madrys with her personality. If you move your attention to the actual construct of the core, you will see about fifty steel rings. However, there are hundreds of rings within her core. They are constantly spinning, constantly circulating the ether. THis keeps it in motion and stops the ether from dissipating."

Letting the girl study Madrys' for a bit longer, Rodion turned his attention to T'sukasa. "T'sukasa, If I remember correctly your daughter was speaking of something being completed. WOuld this be the Karamzina by chance?" Thinking for a second, Rodion responded to the earlier topic. "Also, T'sukasa, do not worry about the Church. As you know, I will be on a journey for a while and I do not know when I will return. As such, I ask that you will work within Cero to get my papers and acceptance into Muse while I am gone. Of course, I will not force you to do this. It is only if you wish to take up the task." Letting his comments translate within T'sukasa's mind, Rodion turned back to Deva.

"Any more questions, Deva?"
Hidden 2 yrs ago 2 yrs ago Post by deathbringer
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Home.

The word felt foreign to her... even worse the world did.

Streets she had played on, walked on, even fought on seemed hollow and empty; her footsteps blazing through the silence like staccato gunshots. The air was still warm and the leaves on the trees still rippled in the tepid gale, yet no living creature stirred, no burst of laughter or song, no clang of spear on shield, no slap of arms clasped in friendship.

Lanostre felt dead, worse it felt violated, patrolled by invaders with hooked noses and chilled bones. The goddess riled at having such men in her city and her aegis waned around them. She smiled at the thought... even in defeat, Lanostre's very ether fought back.

How it would break her Lady's heart to see her city so! Her people fought on the other side of the world under banners they did not believe in. She too bore a Varyan crest on her chest and soon would follow them into the abyss. It sat ill with her. To loose contact with so many great warriors only to send comparative children in their wake. Nevertheless duty called and she would follow.

Even the view had changed.

It was still breath taking, the majesty of the twin peaks bursting defiantly from the ice stealing any words from her throat. She stared hungrily open mouthed, drinking it all in with a rabid hunger. If she stared enough she could sear this image into her retinas and gaze upon it for ever more; but try as might she could not ignore the stain.

A deep blackness seemed to ooze from the distant shadow of Mangagrad, gnawing at the pure ice around it, devouring it and defiling it, unfeeling and uncaring. Sapharan may tower above it, majestic and proud but the cancer was already eating it from within. She looked at her companions and barely suppressed her sneer as she gazed upon Mother Tatiana, hat tilted at a jaunty angle... a slight slouch to her stance. T'saeran's calling themselves Lanostran. Unwittingly she ran her hand across her armour tracing the scar that ran across her back from the time her father had decided his point about her poor performance had necessitated the emphasis of a horse whip.

She had no idea!

Her other companion had the bearing of noble Lanostran stock and the pedigree to match. His father's name was a whispered legend, a general and a successful one, and she would be the last to confess (but could not help but admit) she had been in awe of his son upon their first meeting. His skill was prodigious and his talents seemingly endless yet as the son of a general he had wanted for nothing. She suspected a softness in Galahad, that came with the luxuries of wealth and talent, which Astraea had long since lost; beaten out of her at the hands of a bitter father in his wrathful indignation that he had no son.

Now would be her moment, she had followed in her father's footsteps and become an inquisitor. She had passed, she had found her gift and fought her trials and was returning home. Surely that would thaw the ice of his heart, surely finally she would sense some pride in her father.

She remembered how it had been when she had killed her daemon, thrown its head at her feet. she had opened up her mind expecting love and pride and felt a hollow empty nothingness. She almost wished she had felt hatred, anything but nothing... he looked upon his only child and felt nothing. It had broken her heart, cleaved it in two, her own thoughts a stabbing pain in her mind... perhaps she would never make him proud.

Her feet followed her own path and it was a little while before she realised she had left her companions behind. This time surely would be different.

The door was up ahead and every ringing footstep sounded like her own funeral march. She was Lanostran and she did not fear death but by the Lady she feared the raw pain of her own broken heart. She feared that empty void in her fathers heart more than every daemon in the black glacier.

Reaching the door she swallowed and knocked 3 times on the wood

"Who comes to our door?" her father's voice was a whip crack through her mind. It had been too long, how she hated him but how she wanted to love him.

"One that requests your hospitality." her voice quivered but she knew the reply.

"You are not welcome" his words were a slap across the face and she stepped back in shock. Her world was collapsing around her and she grabbed at the nearest branch

"Father... pl" she stammered.

"You are not welcome here, Astraea. Go back to the shit stain of a city you call home"

"This is my home!"

"It cannot be, you are not welcome in it" he was ice cold again, pure martial discipline and she felt like she was drowning in it's icy depths. She couldn't breathe, to be turned away like this. It was too much... to hard. Then she stopped. What would she do if an invader took her home. She felt clarity

"Then I must retake my home, as honour requires" her voice was sad but defiant, she would not be ignored... not today... not now

The door exploded outwards and her father was framed in the doorway. Even so many years later, power and strength radiated from him and fury seemed to burn in his eyes yet her eyes could not help but notice the limp in his left leg and the way his spear was now more cane than weapon.

"You threaten my door. After spending your nights spread-eagled on your back like some back alley slut and for a T'saeran no less and you dare show your face here."

She reeled bemused

"What?"

"Father Thorus told us came to our door. Lady how we wept. Our child spending her nights in the company of some T'saeran. Your mother fled to the east for the shame. Ahhh but for this blasted leg of mine I'd avenge our honour and kill the pair of you. You and this"

He spat

"Antonin"

She shook her head bewildered

"He's my teacher father."

Her father spat again

"A T'Saeran teaching fucking. Well I suppose they teach every fucker el..."

She reacted in anger, indignant at his lack of faith... furious that he thought so little of her. With a flick of her foot she whipped his spear from under him and even as he toppled to the ground sank her elbow into his nose hearing the bones crunch, feeling his warm blood on her sleeve.

His hands were at her throat but she didn't care, didn't care that in his rage he'd kill her, that even if she showed him, he may not stop.

She reached for his nose her other hand reaching into her pocket to grab her talisman, fingers clenching around the hilt of a small figure of a woman hands outstretched.

Ether seemed to burn inside her, warmth spreading up one arm across her chest and out the other. She gave a small shudder of bliss... that warmth. She was in a far away place where she could not even feel the breath was crushed from her lungs by a vicious blow to her diaphragm. The power built in her chest and she reached out weaving to connect bone with bone, working to turn back the tides of blood flowing freely over her fingers.

It was sudden... the bone fused back with a loud crack and her father gave a cry of shock and anguish and released her his hands clutching at his healed nose and she used his momentary surprise to stand.

She looked down into his wide eyes, indignation coursing through her

"That's what he teaches me, you stupid old git"

Even as she whirled round scooping up her fallen spear and shield and began to run back towards Bridgetown she felt his emotions. Maybe she was wrong... but she thought he might just be proud of her.
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"I'm bored." Normally, those two words didn't mean much - a petulant cry, a droning inflection. People were always bored; it was a fact of life. Those words should not have been a cause for concern, though of course to anyone who knew Hassan, to hear him say them on what was supposed to be The Greatest Night of his and Stina's life would doubtless have been worrisome.

The young inquisitor stood up abruptly and shouted into the crowd, waving his cup above his head. "This is piss. Would someone please bring us something better?" As he spoke, the melodic Word rippled through the room, causing the dancers to pause and the band on stage to skip a beat. "Actually, you know what? Bring everyone something better."

The entire room cheered as the bartender immediately began pouring mug after mug of the finest ale the pub had in stock, the waitstaff doling them out to every nun, soldier and street urchin that raised up their hands. Hassan laughed loudly as he accepted a mug from a comely Varyan girl, winking at Stina as he took a long pull. "Don't worry, I'll pay for it," he chuckled, cutting off what he felt was an inevitable scolding. "Now, I was thinking we dance for a bit, then I find some people willing to beat each other up on the tables for money, and we turn this into a real party. Maybe you can get loaded and crack some heads of your own, yeah? Ragnar does not know what he's missing!"
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Imperial Drydocks, Cero, capital of T'sarae



Amir studied the young mechanist as he spoke and felt his heart drop. Father Rodion wanted a place within MUSE and didn't seem to care that such a thing would involve moving heaven and earth to make happen. Though T'sarae had maintained some measure of independence after the fall of their Lord some two hundred years ago, it still lived under the yoke of the Varyan Faith. It had prospered within those two centuries, its people were free to build and to advance the world, as was their destiny. They were even granted the honor of being the first architects of the Varyan machine city. Yes, though T'sarae had long perished from this world, His people still thrived. But only as long as they worshiped at the Feet of the Ravenous Lord. Thus, the realm of the church was off-limits to them. Unfortunately, this included the young Father Rodion.

Amir steeled himself.

"Unfortunately, granting you entrance into MUSE wouldn't be left to my discretion, Your Reverence. If it were, you would've been a student there long ago," the Head Engineer told him.

"For a man of the cloth like yourself to join our academy, you would require a decree from one of the High Cardinals granting you leave from your inquisitorial duties to study within our halls. You would then need to devote everything to MUSE, which, I foresee as a problem.

Amir gestured to the dozens of warships lined up across the half-frozen bay.

"As you can see, war is coming. You are a war priest. They will want you to help subjugate that wild land across the sea, and unfortunately for us, and dare I say the world itself, I don't see them granting you a stay of absence from the slaughter," Amir spoke. There was a glint of sorrow in his eyes then, the deep blue within them seeming to turn grey. "After all, your Lord hungers. And He won't stop until all the world has been--"

"Dad. Let's show him to the ark."

Deva's words seemed to bring Amir out of whatever strange mood he was in, as the smile returned to the middle-aged engineer's face.

"Of course. Please, this way Father."

The imperial drydocks of T'sarae were a huge coastal installation of different construction docks and service ports. It was the largest naval yard in all the continent and served as the home for the empire's vast armada of warships. Head Engineer Amir T'sukasa and his daughter, Deva, led Father Rodrion through the massive seaside complex, making sure to stay out of the way of the throng of workers and serviceman currently outfitting the armada for deployment to the east.

The trio made their way to a sophisticated-looking construction yard at the far end of the drydocks. "This is where we built her." Amir informed Rodrion as they approached its entrance. The Forge, as Deva called it, was the premier ship atelier in all the continent. It was where the future was being built, one steam ark at a time. At the massive gate leading into the port Rodrion spotted two Lanostran knights standing guard, their chrome spears and shields shimmering in the golden light of the aegisdome above. They were clad in the black and emerald armour of the Divine Lancers, a force of secular Lanostran soldiers said to be among the greatest in all the empire.

"Sir Lucan, Sir Arsen."

Amir nodded his head to the two knights as he greeted them. Arsen and Lucan did not respond. They continued their watch without uttering a word as the trio passed by them.

When the three made their way into the Forge, they found it considerably less busy than the rest of the drydocks. Important-looking T'saraen engineers and scientists with pristine uniforms milled about the yard, which appeared newer and more advanced than the grease-stained wharves they had passed before. There seemed to be an air of quiet austerity within this place, it seemed more showroom than workshop. Deva, with her oil-stained uniform and the ether-burn scars on her arms, looked out of place.

There was only one ship moored to the dock. Rodrion studied it and saw an old beat-up vessel of grey steel and iron. The ship was positively ancient by modern standards, at least fifty years old. Painted on its front hull was a fading white circle inlaid with sword and rifle, the crest of the Varyan Secular Army. The ship was an ugly old thing, a big shoebox of hulking metal, lacking in the graceful design principles of the T'saraen-built vessels they had seen earlier.

"This is the VSS Grace. She'll accompany the Karamzina across the sea. I know, she may not look like much, but Gracey here is legendary. She's survived more battles than any other warship and managed to sink her fair share of Lanostran ships during the war, so she's got fangs. We've gutted her and replaced everything with new steam ark technology, modern ordnance and a few other surprises."

Deva smiled at Rodion, walking up beside him. "I've been working on her ever since I was little. She's not a looker but, she's my pride and joy. You'll find no better support vessel in all the imperial fleet."

The VSS Grace was indeed not a looker. Her outer hull was pockmarked and scarred by cannon fire and etherburn, but the vessel itself seemed intact and ready for deployment. Structurally, the Grace appeared short and squat, like a particularly fat turtle. The two massive ethertorches placed on each broadside made it appear as if it had wings. Thus, it looked like a particularly fat flying turtle. Aesthetically, it appeared as if a blacksmith had taken an iron ingot from his forge, banged on it with a hammer a few times, and gave up halfway, but there was something distinctive about her design that the two engineers seemed to quietly appreciate. Rodion took a cursory glance at it. It could float and it could burn through ice, which was basically all that was needed for a support vessel, thus, it would do.

"Let's move on."

Amir gestured for Rodrion and Deva to follow him to the far end of the Forge, where beyond the dock, the open icefield stretched on. A wide section of the ice around the Forge seemed to have been melted and was now a vast swath of dark frigid water. About two hundred feet away from the dock, a lone silver spire poked out from beneath the icy depths.

"Meet the Karamzina. Let's go down and see the rest of her," Amir said. There was a proud smile on his face. He nodded to Deva, who rolled down her work glove half-way to reveal a silver band around her wrist inlaid with an array of small buttons and keys. She entered a command into the silver band and suddenly, a section of metal floor beneath them began to sink into the earth.

"We're testing the Hearth Systems right now. She can keep about two-hundred people warm at once, and with enough oxygen to survive underwater for about a week before having to resurface, which is a new record for us. Deva thinks we can punch it up to two-hundred and thirty-nine people and two weeks underwater, thus, I'm indulging her and testing the waters," Amir said as the elevator continued its descent.

"We can do it, dad. Now's the time to try and overclock her capabilities. We won't be able to this once we depart."

When the elevator stopped, Rodrion stepped out and found himself in a large underwater chamber. At the far end of the chamber, a transparent barrier allowed them a view of the etherlit water on the other side, and floating there like some great sleeping beast, was the Karamzina.

Rodrion had never seen anything like it. The VSS Karamzina was smaller than most of the warships he had seen up above, but possessed a sense of grandeur and artistry that was all its own. Its sleek yet sharp form immediately called to mind the mythical leviathans that were said to prowl the deep sea beds beneath the lowest ice shelves of the world. Rodrion had seen such creatures depicted in ancient texts, and the steam ark's form factor seemed to have been created with those mythical beasts in mind.Its hull was colored pure white, the color of the Varyan sky, and painted on it Rodrion immediately recognized the red wings of Phoenix Warband's class insignia. The Karamzina didn't look much like a warship, but instead like some sculptor's masterwork. Its crafstmanship called to mind the statues he had seen in pictographs of Omestrian ruins.

"Shall we head inside? There's much I need to show you," Amir said, not bothering to hide the excitement in his voice.
Hidden 2 yrs ago Post by The Angry Goat
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Stina sighed and cupped his head in his hands as Hassan did his usual magic thing. One day he was going to run into someone he couldn't control, and was going to pay for it dearly. I am not drunk enough for this, he thought, downing the rest of his drink before the next round was brought out. It does have pretty sub-par tast though...

The second drink went down a lot better, and he finished that one off more quickly than he expected as well. "I'm almost drunk enough now to consider dancing," he replied to Hassan, mulling over if he really wanted to just go along with his antics for the night. He was just going to get worse the more inebriated he got... but at the same time, trying to babysit him all evening wasn't gonna be a good time either. Besides, if he did get beat up, at least he'd deserve it. He turned back to his empty mug and found it already replaced. Looking around the bar, he couldn't seem to find who had done it. Damn they're quick. he thought as he started in on his third mug.

Stina re-considered the second half of Hassan's statement. "I wo-wo-wonder if anyone would even be willing to fight me," he chuckled. "Ziotea, now she's able to surprise people. No one expects her to be able to take them on. Would havvvvvvve been fun to drag her along." Stina took another long drink, finally starting to feel relaxed. Standing up, he motioned to Hassan. "To the... the dance floor?"
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Hidden 2 yrs ago 2 yrs ago Post by Lovejoy
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The Archives, Red Seminary catacombs, Magnagrad


[written by Lovejoy & Scout]


Viveca's gloved hand gently caressed each spine as she read each title of the books she was surverying. Now that she was an Inquisitor, she could actually explore the vast network of archives, absolutely forbidden to pupils, beneath the Red Seminary. Nobody knew she was here, but so long as she was on time for the Steam Ark, there would be no problems. If only she had more time before her first mission, she could live down here for years. Maybe the church still had books on the older civilizations, before the Ravenous Lord swallowed them. But tonight was not the night to sate her curiosity for a history she might never get to see again. No, tonight she had questions that needed answering and she dare not go asking her fellow Inquisitors.

Viveca closed her eyes. She could still see it. Feel it.

The vision.

When the aspect spirit of Varya known as X-XIX touched her, it was as if her soul had been taken somewhere far away.

She was floating on a boundless blue ocean. The waves carried her gently as radiant white birds soared through the endless blue expanse above her. White clouds slowly trailed across it, casting soft shadows on the gentle waves below. She felt... something. A pleasant warmness touching her skin. She saw a halo of light shining down at her from high above but had to turn away when its radiance began to blind her. She marveled at it with squinting eyes, for she had never seen the sun as it wa. All her life she could only glimpse its vague presence shrouded behind the white Varyan sky. But in this place it had revealed itself, shining down proudly upon the world in all its splendor.

There, in that impossible ocean, where the frost that had imprisoned her world was nonexistent, she felt at peace. There was nothing but her, the sea and the birds.

It was then that she noticed it. An ornate blue circle on her chest. It seemed to be branded directly onto her skin, and when she traced her fingertips across it she could feel the strange brand growing frigid within her chest. It was as if someone had suddenly filled her heart with ice. Viveca began to cough. Frigid air escaped her lungs. There was something in her, something cold that was spreading to every inch of her body.

She was still shivering when she opened her eyes. She still felt it. The cold unlike any other.

Viveca had been three days into her expedition into the archives and still couldn't find a sign of a single book that could tell her what this vision was about. She had packed few supplies and was growing hungry, but it was hardly anything like her trials as a pupil in the Seminary, where during the milestones they had gone weeks with little food, water, or sleep. She could get plenty of sleep here in the library, but her eyes were a little over-adjusted to the darkness by now. Thanks to her power, however, she had a more or less natural light under her control. In the last three days, she realized, she spent a lot of time in her own head. Both because she was in comfort, rather than distress, and because she was relieved having finished her studies. As her mind drifted, Viveca thought of her last conversation with her most respected mentor, Mother Indira.

Grand Ballroom, the Great Basilika, Magnagrad


[written by Lovejoy & Scout]


It was the night of The Rising, the celebratory gala where all of the graduating Inquisitors were given their first real, liberating experience. It wasn't exactly debaucherous, considering all of the attendees were new servants of the cloth with little in the way of social skills, but at least they could try to cut loose. Viveca held a glass of water in one hand while the other arm crossed over her chest. Her eyes scanned the crowd almost lazily from the side of the room. Several of the new Inquisitors were dancing, or at least attempting to, and she had no desire to make a fool of herself like that.

"Why aren't you dancing, love?"

It always puzzled Viveca how such a harsh, stern woman managed to sound so sweet outside of class. She had a voice of satin, and her skin was surprisingly soft when it wasn't wielding a cane to strike your spine. The girl snapped from her reverie and looked up; she had, as the rest of the attendees, dressed quite formally for the event. Viveca was garbed in a glimmering silver dress which only partially hid her shoulders and gold bangles on her wrists. Her hair still held the familiar royal blue bow: she was never caught without it. It was hardly her style, but she figured it would be the only night like this she would attend for a while. Phoenix Warband had a much larger turnout than Leviathan, partly because they had more survivors in their class and partly because the rest of the Leviathan Warband were more anti-social than usual. Few Warbands put stock in how many survivors there are in a class - it could just mean their classes were easier, and it could mean that they just genetically had a lucky group of fighters. But the teachers for the Leviathan band were renown for their harshness and high mortality rate. Finally, she found the words she was looking for.

"Oh, Mother Indira, my apologies. I didn't see you there, I was too busy watching the rest of the... erm... festivities." She gave her mentor a half-hearted smile and rubbed her shoulder gently, "To be honest, dancing isn't really my thing. It's like fighting without a clear winner. I think I'll stick to my falchion and bracer and leave the heels to the common Varyan or Lanostran women, if it's all the same to you?" The woman asked, offering a respectful bow and salute. It still hadn't sunk in that in less than a matter of days they would be peers instead of apprentice and master.

***


The Omestrian summoner narrowed her eyes, then stared at Viveca's water glass. With a sigh she removed it from Viveca's hand and placed it on the table beside them. Indira, with the grace and fluidity of a dancer, snatched a glass of wine from the tray of a passing servant. She handed it to Viveca.

"Don't give me that, Viveca. You will drink and enjoy yourself tonight. That is my last command. Now come, I need to show you off to my famous friends."

Indira snaked her arm around Viveca's and led the girl from her secluded spot near the drinks table. The two walked arm-in-arm through the fringes of the ballroom, exchanging pleasantries with the visiting officers, priests and socialites. Indira had taken to introducing Viveca as "her azure rose, an Omestrian sorceress with mastery over light," which seemed to impress them well enough. Mostly, it was Indira doing all the talking, with her pupil standing there quietly, smiling when it was necessary, laughing when it was convenient.

When the two finally had a moment to themselves, Indira abruptly stopped the show.

"Very well, I thought you were just nervous about the party, but something's wrong. Speak to me."

***


As the weight of the water glass left her hand, Viveca almost protested. However, the replacement wine wasn't something she was planning on turning down; It was more than refreshing, right down to the dry aftertaste left in her mouth after she took a sip. The newly ordained warpriestess swirled her glass tentatively before giving a nod and following her mentor. Mother Indira wanted to show her off? The Omestrian woman hardly understood why, but followed after anyway. Politely introducing herself to each of them, now and then giving a small demonstration of her unique, though arguably unnecessary, talent. The first introduction caused her to blush, but she finally got used to it; the flattery was so strange coming from her, it was the last thing she expected after the way she was trained for the last several years.

When Mother Indira abruptly switched topics, Viveca rubbed her shoulder and had another replaced her now-empty wine glass with a fresh one. "No, ma'am, I'm perfectly fine... I guess it's just mission jitters," She suggested half-heartedly. Culmination was days prior, and even now Viveca couldn't make heads or tails of I-XIX's vision. And beyond Mother Indira, the only person who had ever known or been able to teach Viveca about her heritage was the inquisitor who took her in as a child. Even he didn't teach her a whole lot, both of her teachers were tight lipped about it. But Mother Indira, to her credit, always said that thing... And it was always in the back of Viveca's mind.

Deep within you, you have a flame. Never allow it to go out.

"Actually, Mother Indira, that... that thing you always said, to Oren and to me... Why do you say it? What does it even actually mean?"

***


Indira took a quick intake of breath when the question left Viveca's lips-- it was a controlled, disciplined reaction, almost seeming rehearsed in a way.

"My dear..." Indira began before trailing off. The rest of her words seemed stuck in the back of her throat. The summoner scanned the room, her golden pupils quickly taking in everything around them. When she was satisfied that no one around them was listening, she looked upon her former student and offered her a sad, almost embarrassed smile.

"It was... something I used to hear when I was a girl. My ashe-rahn would always say it to us. It was a mantra to grant us strength-- To keep us from falling into despair and darkness. And so, I passed it on to you two." Indira stopped then. She rubbed her arms, as if a sudden chill had come over her. Her eyes were cast downward, the gold in them seeming to lose some of their brilliance.

"Of course, because of the nature of that word, we cannot use it. But, it is our word. And I've always felt as if we've a right to say it without fear of the consequences. To perhaps even... reclaim it some day."

She then took Viveca's hands in her own.

"Just forget about my silly old saying," she said, grinning. "When I first started as an instructor, I was young and naive, barely older than you are now. Quite frankly, I had no idea what I was doing. I looked at Antonin and Creid, and wanted so desperately to be like them, to be to trainees what those two were to me when I was in the Seminary. Creid had his own little creed he would say to us, and so, I believed I also needed one. That's when I remembered my darling ashe-rahn."

At that moment, a trio of Varyan officers sauntered past, the youngest of them flashing them a pearly white smile. Indira watched the soldiers as they headed toward a table of young beautiful women. Their blonde hair shone gold in the etherlight.

Indira tore her eyes away from them and met Viveca's gaze. There was something in the summoner's expression that seemed... off to the young inquisitor, a look of worry but, something more. It took a moment for Viveca to realize what it was. It was guilt, an expression that appeared entirely foreign on the summoner's face.

"I need to tell you something about the invasion," Indira said in a voice barely above a whisper.
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Hidden 2 yrs ago Post by Opposition
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Opposition Technological Singularity

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Sapharan, High City, capital of Lanostre


Tatiana ambled along the bridge between the twin alps. The young inquisitor’s gaze was momentarily entranced with the stonework of the ground beneath her. Her step was odd— one foot in front of the other and hands clandestinely outstretching to either side just enough to barely be noticed by the watchful eye. It was as if she followed some mad balancing act. One might have thought her impaired in some way, but in truth, the only thing that plagued her were her thoughts. That much was evident due to her thousand-yard stare, but there was more to it than that simple blank expression. Was it perhaps the ever so slightest hints of her lips curling into a barely noticeable smile. Almost… Childlike…

Those damned days long past… Warrior wandered the streets, clad in a thousand layers of steel, bearing innumerous arms. Each warrior moved so speedily past, like every second of their lives were filled with purpose. One little girl was different. A father walked at her side, gripping at her hand when her dainty stepping charades led her too off-balance. The little girl no longer wandered the roads with her father. No, the poor girl wasn’t allowed to anymore— shipped off to grow into an old proud woman. That was her fate. That was what happened to her, but still, even after so many years— even when Bridgetown was an echo of those days long past— the little girl still existed. Somewhere, she lived on, unfettered by the fate of growing to bear steel like all those old grizzly warriors, and even still, she reminisced on those days long past…

The inquisitor caught herself, dropping her arms to either side with a certain air of awkwardness that came alongside trying to hide her foolish recollections. Foolish… For what inquisitor acted like a child? Yet, of all the places, it was here that brought it out of her. It was home. Tatiana didn’t expect herself to be so ecstatic to be back. Sure, she wished to see her father once more, but beyond that, she’d grown too accustomed to the monotony of the halls in the Red Seminary. It was as if the little girl was beaten back to hide behind the facade of a soldier, but there was no pressure for that here. At least, not yet.

Coming back into her senses made her accept the reality that surrounded her. Tatiana was finally home. Not for long, and she might not be back for… Well… Who knows how long? She was hesitant to accept any work assigned to her. While she dared not defy, a certain dissonance resonated in the young inquisitor. She missed the little girl strolling with her father. She missed the days when the iron-clad warriors were men of legend she never really understood.

Tatiana was almost too distracted to carry a usual conversation with her companions. Perhaps she just felt awkward being herself in Astraea’s presence. She didn’t feel the same as the rest of the inquisitors… The rest of the family. Tatiana could almost go as far as saying she feared Astraea, but it was more complex than that. No matter the reason, finally her trance-esque gaze shattered and her eyes tentatively shifted to Galahad every once in a while as she spoke. “Does your family await you as well? Well— I never actually got around to telling my father we were returning, but the surprise will be just as good as the whole staged formal reunion.” As the pair continued on, Tatiana finally set herself into a typical amble. There was a subtle squint to her eyes as the sun sank closer towards the horizon. “I imagine we live rather close to each other— with you being some fancy prince or whatever.” There was a joking tone to her voice, but there was certainly no harm meant. That much was evident by the girl’s soft tone.

Tatiana’s step slowed and she almost skipped a beat in pause as the quelling rays of light reflected off of the distant mass in their final moments. The gloss of the monstrous ice structure brought back a slew of old memories, perhaps more powerful than any of her walks alongside her father. “To go back… That would certainly be an interesting privilege… Mother Indira always assumed one friend would be enough. I can see my friend anytime, though… It’s time mother and father get to see their daughter again.” Tatiana finally halted her step, peering around at her surroundings. “As much as I’d like to say I remember the streets like the back of the hand— or that I could take you down all the routes I used to walk— I can’t say the halcyon memories take me that far. I think it’s time I scurry off. I’ll meet you back real soon, though! Enjoy your time with your family as well, Galahad!” There was a final upbeat tone to her voice before she abruptly cut down a different street.

A smile existed on Tatiana’s face before she left Galahad, but she seemed to smile even more as she turned away. The array of roads left her confused. Time passed and Tatiana found herself just ambling along her path. Why the hurry? There was something surreal about just being here. As much as she didn’t want to wait to see her father, it was as if she was entranced once more. Who would taking the long way hurt? The imminence of finally seeing her father once more left her beyond exhilarated. Of course, this came with the fact that Tatiana would have to face her mother again. She loved her mother— she really did, but things were complicated. She was R’heon… Tatiana was a summoner. While Tatiana’s father left her at the Red Seminary with complete acceptance of her talents, her mother was not so similar. Tatiana’s mother had a tendency to avoid her child if she ever returned. As a proud Lanostran warrior, Tatiana’s successful career as inquisitor was all based upon her failure to undertake the same rites that would allow her to follow in her mother’s stead.

No. No sense in allowing such thoughts to plague her mind and bring her down on a good day. Tatiana surged on, finally arriving at the manor of the Leviatan family. Regal? Most definitely, but also much smaller than she remembered. It appeared a bit more dilapidated than memory served to recall as well… Perhaps her father was finally giving in to age. Neverthematter. Tatiana strolled up to the door anyways, not bothering to knock or anything of the sort. It was her home after all. Upon entry, the first thing the inquisitor noticed was the enshrouding darkness broken only by the final slivers of sunlight pushing through windows. Father certainly wasn’t expecting visitors.

“Father?” Tatiana’s voice chimed out around the largely open foyer. She waited not at all for a reply, instead choosing to start her way up the steps further into the maze of a mansion. Another call echoed through the shrouded halls. Still no answer… It didn’t take long for Tatiana to traverse the way towards the master bedroom. Still dark… She entered.

“Tatiana…” The man lied hunched over against a wall. His hair disheveled and face gaunt and pale. Even in his shambled appearance, though, as Tatiana shifted swiftly to his side, something in his expression fell soft— even if just by a bit. The inquisitor’s mouth went loosely agape.

“What happened? Where is mother?"

With a quick glance, one might have imagined the master bedroom was all in order— a bit messy yet, but that was commonplace in every home on occasion. It was the poor isolated man slumped against the reddened wall that stood out, seeming to almost radiate a fading cold aura. He evoked a weak cough from his lungs, a prelude to choking forth his daughter’s name.

“I finally tried to recognize my dream at the Glacier… Your mother wasn’t…” His gaze dropped, eyes weakly flicking towards the firearm dropped hastily in the man’s pooling blood. Tatiana wanted to do something. She wanted to throw a hand on his shoulder and say everything was okay. She wanted to say that he didn’t have to explain— that all was well, but instead, her body was frozen. She watched horrified as he fell silent, eyes starting to take on a telltale glazing. The fresh sanguine stains leaked even to her pristine inquisitor’s uniform. Tatiana didn’t notice.

“Father…”

He sighed. “If anything, I am glad you went on to fulfill all that I’ve worked towards. Don’t give up on your demons…”

She couldn’t respond.

Tatiana couldn’t stay. The streets would be better. Anywhere would be better. Tatiana’s father was like her. The two were inseparable, and it seems in his final moments he finally revealed that also alike were their dreams to harness the power of the Glacier. On the other hand, it seemed her mother was R’heon through and through… Perhaps even something beyond it. Tatiana didn’t know how to feel. Hours passed before the inquisitor found herself back at Bridgetown. She knew she couldn’t miss the deadline for meeting back up with Galahad and Astraea, but that didn’t prevent her from being a bit late. As Tatiana found herself coming back, all of her thoughts were plagued with one thing. Not death, no. Not revenge, either. Tatiana wiped her eyes, her concentration entirely directed towards one thought. What would have happened if she’d just remembered her way back to the manor and hadn’t wasted time getting lost?

She was a facade.... For the first time in so long, Tatiana felt that she might not be able to hold up the joyful attitude she was so known for. Nonetheless, she tried. Tatiana came with clear eyes, with a smile on her face, and with a livened step. If anything, she had to put on the facade for her comrades. No sense bringing them down with her, not with important work ahead of them. She was pretty good at it too— hiding the truth— but you can’t hide from the watchful eye, and the watchful eye would see the emptiness behind her front of joy.
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Hidden 2 yrs ago 2 yrs ago Post by vietmyke
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Sapharan, High City, Capital of Lanostre



Galahad stood at the edge of the bridge, waiting for the others to catch up. At the precipice, a hair's breadth from the empty sky that fell inbetween the two mountains. His brows were furrowed slightly as the cold breeze pulled at his golden hair and chapped his lips. He hadn't been home in over a decade, but this wasn't quite what he expected. He couldn't quite place a finger on why that was. The city felt quiet, peaceful, even the Varyan soldiers marching through the streets seemed quiet. The only noises Galahad heard was the howl of wind moving through the valley, and the sound of the girls' boots clattering off the stonework bridge. The city of warriors was peaceful.

Galahad had stood at this very spot before, the day before he left for the Red Seminary, taking in the city one last time. He remembered the clockwork ethermoths swirling around his face. Their light illuminated grime covered blacksmiths at their etherforges hammers slamming against steel long into the night, warriors proud and tall in their glistening armor sharing boisterous stories about their exploits- exploits that Galahad had dreamed of completing one day. The city was nothing like he remembered. The etherforges were silent, and the warriors whom Galahad could now best with little more than a flick of his wrist were nowhere to be found. Even the Ethermoths seemed to lack their lustre.

Galahad's fist clenched. His city wasn't his city anymore, and it upset him. Much like his childhood, the city felt lost to him. Uncharacteristic rage took him. Part of Galahad wanted to lash out at anything and everything around him, to cast sigils of destruction and to tear asunder stone with his mind. Will his city to come back to life and return to how it used to be. But the footsteps of his companions catching up to him reeled him back. He breathed out deeply and turned as they passed him, effortlessly falling in step with the two female Inquisitors.

Tatiana asked him about his family as they walked. He felt her eyes turn to him every so often, but he couldn't meet her gaze. While she wasn't an empath like Astraea, Tatiana could always tell when Galahad was troubled. Something about the way his eyes hardened giving it away she had once said. "I couldn't know for sure." Galahad replied with a shrug. "I had sent a letter giving word to my family before we left for Sapharan, so I wouldn't have been able to receive a reply. I don't imagine my father is home, he left with the First Armada."

Galahad didn't respond as Tatiana joked about him being a prince, rolling his eyes in exasperation. Their conversation continued aimlessly until they reached a crossroads of sort. Tatiana bid him farewell with a smile and scurried off down the street, leaving Galahad alone with his thoughts. It felt strange to him, though he didn't know why. Galahad was used to being alone, going off on his own to concentrate, research spells, or further his ether conditioning. Being alone was something he was used to- but this feeling, feeling truly alone- was an odd, cold feeling indeed. No Ragnar to compete with, no Tatiana to calm them down when their arguments got heated, nothing. Just the cold empty city around him.

Still watching Tatiana as she scampered off, Galahad realized he hadn't moved from that spot in a few minutes, and that Tatiana was long gone from his field of view. Pulling his cloak closer around his body, Galahad reluctantly made his way towards his own home, stopping a few times along the way to reorient himself and remember old landmarks.


The Quaid Manor was a large home of classic Lanostran architecture, built from slabs of white marble and gilded with the Quaid family crest. For all of its grandeur, for all of Galahad's growth since he left, the home felt as cold and imposing as it always did as Galahad made his way up the steps of the building. At the front door, a servant silently welcomed him, holding the door open for him as he entered. The interior of the manor was just as opulent as the outside. Fine carpeting stretched across the cold marble floor, its high walls and ceilings adorned with gold and jewel encrusted weapons and artwork. The ceiling itself was a tapestry of the Quaid family line, and its accomplishments, starting generations back, endless depictions of gallant Quaid men bearing pristine white plate, until finally reaching the end- a blonde figure covered in a black robe.

Galahad made his way to his parent's chambers, where the dim glow of the hearth warmed the room with its orange glow. His mother was waiting for him as he entered. An aging, but elegant woman dressed in fine cloths and silks. She regarded him with a regal, formal nod. "Galahad." she said plainly, her greeting distant and formal, almost cold.

Galahad dipped his head forward in a bow. "Mother." He replied cordially.

"You've returned."

"I have."

"Will you be staying long?"

"No."

"You will be joining us for dinner?"

"Of course."

Dinner was a grand, if quiet affair. The massive dining table had been set for a mere two, Galahad and his mother. Servants passed trays of delectable food between the mother and son, while a minstrel quietly played a lute in the corner. The Quaids ate in silence, almost as though the other wasn't there. Not even the servants spoke, wordlessly offering food to their silent masters as the sound of silverware clinking against china accented the soft minstrel.

As the dinner ended, the Lady Quaid motioned for a servant to attend to her. She whispered something into his ear and the servant nodded, walking off with some measure of urgency. Moments later he returned with a bundle of deep red silks. Gingerly, the servant offered the bundle to Galahad. Glancing to his mother for the first time in hours, Galahad reached out and unfurled the silk that covered the contents of the servant's offering. Dark leather inlayed with subtle veins of gold concealed the blade of a long, red and gold hilted saber. For Lanostrans, the truest work of art was a finely crafted weapon- and this was arguably among the finest.

Taking the weapon in his hands, Galahad drew the weapon partially out of its scabbard, revealing the gun mechanism attached to the sword and the blade itself, a shimmering mithril-steel so brilliant that Galahad would've suspected it to be actual silver if it weren't a Lanostran weapon.

"Your Father had that sword commissioned when you went off to the Red Seminary." His mother said, speaking to him for the first time since dinner had started. "He believes it will serve you well, in your days to come."

"I am grateful." Galahad replied as he resheathed the blade. "It is a shame he is not home for me to thank him personally."

"It is."


Returning to his comrades, Galahad felt acutely aware of the weight that hung to his hip as he waited for them to show up. They were to meet back in Bridgetown. Galahad was the first one back. Again he stood at the edge of the skybridge, his hand gingerly thumbing at the grip of his new blade. He made no real movement as Astraea returned, only turning to look when Tatiana returned to complete their group. She bound up as happily as ever, smiling and wide eyed. Something about her softened the chunk of ice that was Galahad's heart. Though he normally found himself jealous of how upbeat she was, something was different about her this time.

Galahad was no empath like Astraea, but he was close enough to Tatiana to know when something was wrong. Her smile was as broad as ever-almost too broad, and her beautiful eyes, while wide and glistening, hid with something more somber behind them. Still, he never deigned to pry into her problems. If she wanted to tell him about it she would. Instead, Galahad waited for her to reach his side before he reached out and placed a hand on her shoulder. He squeezed it knowingly, despite not knowing what troubles she went through. An subtle pang of warmth laced his otherwise even voice.

"Welcome back, Little One."
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Hidden 2 yrs ago 2 yrs ago Post by Drakey
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Drakey The Best Dragon

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Hidden 2 yrs ago 2 yrs ago Post by Lovejoy
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Lovejoy turn on the stove

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The Shadow & Storm Pub, Tale's End Slums, Magnagrad



The night marched onward, the virrika overflowed, and the band played so loud and fast that the air seemed to be pulsing with electricity. The haze of cigarette smoke and etherlamp exhaust fogged the darkly-lit interior of the Shadow & Storm, but the atmosphere within the converted military bunker seemed more alive than it had ever been. It had been hours, and still the crowd in the pub had not lost any of its vigor. The band blazed through the usual repertoire of classic volska and the crowd was responding in kind. Indeed, this was the best show they had ever played. Through the rousing retelling of Omestris' fall in the classic war tune "Benighted" they danced and yelled along with its tale of Varyan heroes and evil Omestrian warlocks being put to the sword, they then slow danced to "The Lady's Favor", an old folk song that reframed the Lanostran War as a love story between Varya and Lanostre. There was no lull in the festivities, and the mostly Varyan-crowd seemed entranced.

Four hours had passed since Hassan's suggestion turned the night's festivities from a raucous night out into a a full-on event that none of the people in the pub would probably ever forget. The two inquisitors sat at their table, four young women dressed in nun's finery keeping them company. All were drinking and laughing, telling each other stories of their time within the Church. The nuns-- Sisters Ylenna, Olga, Mel and Krista, were part of a congregation transferred to this sector to reclaim and rebuild the ruined churches that stood forgotten and abandoned within Tale's End. Sister Ylenna, in between swigs of virrika, explained that decades ago, this slum had been the site of a massive slave uprising and that many of the Varyan churches here had destroyed in the riots.

"Let's not darken the mood, Ylenna. Another round, everyone?" Sister Mel asked the table, her cheeks flushed red.

Across the floor, on the opposite alcove from where Stina and Hassan sat, two Varyan officers sat alone, their relatively relaxed demeanor in complete contrast to the tables of rowdy soldiers and civilians surrounding them.

Lieutenant Lev Dragonov leaned back in his chair, staring coldly at the throng of people as they writhed and pulsed against each other. The music was boring its way into his brain, and the migraine he had been nursing since that morning seemed to twist and contort more and more with each passing moment. This terrible music, and the yelling, wasn't helping any.

Even though he appeared tired and in poor-health, Dragonov still cut an impressive figure. He seemed to be cut from ice, with high cheekbones and a hawk-like countenance to his features. His slicked-back blonde hair and ice-blue eyes gave him a look which was known colloquially throughout the empire as "Varyan asshole". His was the face that provincials saw when they pictured the people of Varya. Cold, emotionless, and blonde.

"They're enjoying themselves, lieutenant. Is that a crime?" the other officer asked.

The man sitting opposite Dragonov was in fact, his opposite in every sense of the word. Lieutenant Rexus Lycaon was stout and broad, with dark-skin and a closely shaved head. Above all, he had an easy going smile adorning his chiseled, masculine face, whereas Dragonov looked completely miserable. Lycaon's pine-green Lanostran eyes observed his companion behind a pair of sleek spectacles. That easy-going smile was genuine, but tinged with worry.

"You call whatever this is fun?" Dragonov answered, his glower still focused on the crowd. "The idiots don't even know they're being manipulated," the Varyan officer said, glancing at where Hassan and Stina sat on the other side of the pub.

"It's always dark and cold down here in Tale's End. Let them know some joy and respite from this hellhole," Lycaon answered with a grin.

Dragonov closed his eyes, trying to will the thorns in his brain into submission. "For a Lanostran, you're fucking soft."

Lycaon smiled. Through all their years fighting together he had grown accustomed to Dragonov's barbs. If it were anyone else calling his blood into question, they would be on the floor before the words left their mouth.

"How is it looking outside?" Lycaon said, speaking into the small radio in his collar.

A woman's voice answered back, her words crackling with static.

"Quiet, sir. No sign of the target."

A look of pure annoyance flashed across Lev's face.

"What of Hjálmgrímr?" the Varyan officer asked, speaking into his own communicator.

There was a slight pause on the other end. "He is, uh... sleeping, sir."

"Sleeping?"

"That's right, sir. Father Hjálmgrímr was sitting on the steps watching the pub and he... fell asleep. He's been like this for hours."

Lev and Rex stared at each other in disbelief.

"-- Wait, there's activity here. It's the target, sir. Kadenza has just exited a large steam-mobile and is heading into the pub. There's five of his gang with him. They are all heavily armed. I see scytheblades, rifles and handcannons."

Lieutenant Lev Dragonov, for the first time that night, smiled.

"We're in business. Let's get to work."

***


"Father Stina, I know it's very late to even be asking about this, but do you think there's still enough time to request a transfer aboard the Grace? I've... always dreamed of seeing El with my own eyes, and I'm sure the soldiers will need some spiritual guidance while on the long journey," Sister Krista asked, her voice slurred. She was a tiny, slim thing, strawberry-blonde hair spilled out from beneath her custom.

At that moment, before Stina could answer, the crowd within the pub went silent, the band following suit. Only the sound of the cold wind rushing in from outside could be heard.

A group of six men stood at the bar's entrance. Most of them wore grimy coats covered in pieces of mismatched armor so old and damaged by etherburn that the metal couldn't reflect the light from the lamps hanging throughout the pub. Several of the men's faces were half-hidden behind heavy leather mufflers, but with a look one could see the telltale effects of exposure. The cold had ravaged their faces in such a way that many of them wore shoddy-looking prosthetics to try and mitigate the damage- the artificial tips of noses and eyelids reflecting the light differently than the rest of their faces. Whoever these men were, they had spent time outside the aegis in less than ideal conditions, and they had paid for it.

"Pirates," Sister Mel said casually, not showing a shred of fear at the fearsome looking group of men standing at the bar's entrance. She was a few years younger than Hassan and Stina in age. Her dark-grey eyes wouldn't stray from where the men stood.

The pirates didn't bother to hide their weaponry. Pre-LW rifles lay strapped across their backs, while handcannons from as far back as the Muraad invasions hung by their belts. Blades sharpened so many times that one could see the whetstone markings on them gleamed within their coats.

At the head of the group, a skinny young man wearing an unbearably colorful three piece suit stood with hands at his hips, smiling defiantly as he scanned across the pub. "Don't stop on our account! Please, keep shakin' those asses!" he yelled, laughing to himself. Seeming to find what he was looking for, the gang began to make their way through the pub, the crowd parting to let the vicious-looking pack through.

"That's Kadenza," Sister Mel said matter-of-factly. She removed her nun's custom and placed it on the table, not caring if it got dirty. Her medium-length hair was dark like shadow, wild and unruly. She lit a cigarette as the band began to play again.

"Sister Mel! How do you know him?" Sister Ylenna cried out.

"What? I grew up here. Everyone in Tale's End knows who he is. If you've got the money, he can get you whatever you want... or so I've heard," Mel said. Beneath the table the nun began lightly stroking an old silver ring on her pinky finger.

As Kadenza walked by the alcove where they sat, Hassan and Stina took a good look at him. He appeared in stark contrast to the damaged and dangerous-looking men behind him. Skinny as a rail, smooth-skinned and pale, he looked every bit his eighteen-years. A pencil-thin mustache was stenciled above his lip while his glossy black hair was parted to one side. He had a pair of cruel deep blue T'saraen eyes that seemed to search through the pub like a shark's. The suit he wore was a kaleidoscope of vibrant purple, neon green, and electric magenta. The colors were so strange and out of place in the grey and grime of Magnagrad that they seemed to almost exist separately from the rest of the world.

Kadenza made his way to the bar, where the bartender immediately rushed to attend to him. The garishly-dressed smuggler leaned across the bartop and whispered something to the bartender before slipping something into his breast pocket. Kadenza and his gang then left through a lone door at the far end of the pub.

"He's up to something big. Those men he's with, they're from the icefields... Godless, that lot," Mel said, turning her attention to Hassan and Stina. "I understand you two aren't on duty but--"

"You're right, Sister. They aren't on duty, and let's try to keep it that way," a voice spoke up from behind them.

Stina and Hassan turned to find two officers clad in the dark crimson uniforms of the Secular Army walking up to their table.

"Father Qureshi and Father Stamenkovikj. We would salute the two of you but, it's best to keep a low profile in this place," the dark-skinned Lanostran said to them with a friendly smile.

"I am Lieutenant Lev Dragonov and this is Lieutenant Rexus Lycaon. Could we have a word with you two in private?" the tall blonde Varyan officer asked them, motioning towards a darkened corner of the pub.

Hidden 2 yrs ago Post by Lovejoy
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The Marian Gate, Ruins of Iddin-Mar, Old Omestris


[written by Lovejoy, shylarah & CollectorOfMyst]


"O-Of course, Your Reverence! We will have this place spick and span by the time you return!" Mikhail said, a bit too loudly. To cap off his proclamation, the hairy man offered a hearty salute, Veena joining him, but by the time the two soldiers had lifted their hands to their heads the two inquisitors were already making their way down the corridor leading to the lift.

"You two are hopeless," Semenov said with a smirk, before stepping into a light jog to catch up with Ziotea and Oren.

As the three of them walked through the large tunnel that connected the bunker to the lift, Semenov eyed Oren curiously. "S-so, this isn't your first time in Omestris, is it?" he asked, his voice cracking a bit. "Did you visit Sydon-Mar then? That's the only other habitable ruin besides this one. It's on the northern side of the Scar."

He rubbed his hands together vigorously, breathing into them. Despite the warming suit, he appeared to be freezing.

"I've always wanted to visit it. But my orders place me here, in the former capital. Don't get me wrong, Iddin-Mar is a wonder, but..."

The young soldier's gabbering grew quiet as they entered the lift. He seemed to be growing more and more nervous. Taking a deep breath, Semenov punched a button into the lift's control panel and the elevator's engines and machinery laboriously came to life. It certainly wasn't the smooth whirring of ether and machinery that accompanied the activation of Rodion's creations, but a disconcerting clanking. The two inquisitors stared at the lift mechanism with a dubious look, when something crackled and sparks flew from it. The lift then began to descend.

Semenov gave them an apologetic look before falling silent yet again.

As the lift descended, the grating on the door allowed them to see the cavern walls. The lift only had a small ether lamp in it, thus it was difficult to make out what was on them, but from time to time, they could glimpse what appeared to be Omestrian runes carved into the rock.

"Mother Ziotea. Father Oren," Semenov called out suddenly.

"I... I know you're probably aware of this but, I'm not here as a guide. The Church sent me to uh, keep an eye on you-- you two being Omestrian and all."

Semenov stopped there, his nervous eyes darting between the two inquisitors. "They do this for every Omestrian inquisitor who chooses to return here. They always send someone with them, usually it's... someone like me. Someone... inconsequential. They figure, if you kill me and flee, they wouldn't be losing anyone special. The only thing that would tip them off is me not reporting in."

The lift touched the ground. The doors opened, and beyond, all they could see was an eminence of white light. Iddin-Mar, and all of its majesty, lay beyond this tunnel.

"I know this place is hollowed. And it's my duty to follow you and make sure you aren't doing anything... weird," the soldier said before offering them a nervous grin. "But... I figured this place doesn't need another Varyan walking around and desecrating its halls. What if you two go one way? And I... got lost somewhere?"

***


And the snow outside will melt to water, Ziotea retorted in the privacy of her own mind. She briefly amused herself by trying to guess how much they might actually clean before either losing interest or running out of time.

It was odd that the child -- she really couldn't think of him as anything but a child; even Ragnar seemed older -- should have any interest in the Omestrian ruins at all. And he was increasingly uneasy, to the point where he was bothering her. She wondered what it was he wasn't saying, if it was something about the frozen carcass below them that bothered him, or increasing concern for his own safety.

The lift was a old and poorly maintained machine. After spending so much time with Rodion she could tell as much at a glance. It seemed to be working, but just in case she adjusted her grip on her spear and reached for the glow of her ether, bringing it to the tingling hum that meant she would be able to cast with the slightest thought. If the cables supporting them should break, or something malfunction, she would keep them from dying in the fall.

Abruptly Semenov spoke, explaining in a rush why he was there. "We had gathered as much, private," she informed him, her tone flat. She didn't look at him, instead glancing over at Oren. "Though it would seem they're lumping me in with you. Not that I don't understand why." Ziotea lifted her hand to tug gently at a lock of her hair. The lift reached the bottom with a rattle and shuddered to a stop, and she stepped out into the tunnel behind.

The boy's next words were not what she expected at all. She considered just walking off and letting him do as he pleased, but instead she stopped. "Hallowed? Private Semenov...even if it wasn't strange to show such respect to a gutted corpse, I'd hardly call being here desecration." She turned enough to look from him to Oren and back again. "I have never set foot in Omestris before. Nor would I be here now, had I not been invited. You were not so scared on the train here." Her amber eyes narrowed at the private. "What exactly is it you're not telling me? What makes Iddin-Mar different from Sydon-Mar -- or are you really so frightened that we intend to kill you and go rogue?" Her delivery came close to an insult, and reading a little into her words yielded the implication that if Semenov's fear was of them, he was as good as saying the pair were apostates. It was a dangerous accusation to make, and not one most Inquisitors would take lightly. Ziotea used that to her advantage -- if it was simply the location, it would be far easier to admit as much and explain so as to assure her no insult was intended.

***


Private Semenov seemed caught off-guard by Ziotea's reaction. He took a step back, and raised his hands in surrender.

"I'm not hiding anything! The truth is, I grew up in the slums. I was alone for most of my childhood. The only people who ever offered me help were Omestrians. Most of them didn't make it. Before they were taken, they used to tell me about this place, about how they longed to return here to find... something. They didn't know what. So, when I was conscripted a year ago I fought hard to make sure the Church put me here, where I can help your people without arousing too much suspicion. You two are actually the first Omestrians who've come to these ruins since I've been stationed here."

He then turned to Oren, who was watching them silently.

"Father Oren. I... It's better if I just show you."

Semenov dug into the folds of his warming suit and fished out the necklace he wore around his neck. Attached to the chain was a small pendant, a tiny carving of two stars eclipsing one another, one gold, one black.

"This is Mother Indira Al Sayed's divine emblem. For those who secretly fight for the freedom and restoration of the Omestrian people, she is our great hope. I know you're one of her pupils and that you must be here for a reason, maybe some... great quest or something? Whatever it is, I just want you to know that I'm here to help in any way I can! Whether it be assisting you in exploring the ruins or just-- I don't know, turning a blind eye to your activities."

The boy was now shaking, whether from the conviction of his words or from the cold, even he didn't know. One thing was for certain though, the lad was putting himself in great danger in order to stand for his beliefs. In the back of his mind, Semenov knew that these two Inquisitors, whether they were Omestrian or not, could easily report him for his dereliction of duty, but he didn't care. If there was a small chance that they were in fact in these ruins to uncover some secret Omestrian mystery, he needed to help them. He had to repay his debt...

***


Oren remained silent for most of Seminov's first revelation. But when the boy pulled out the chain, he physically had to fight the urge to hit him upside the head.

"Put. That. Away." he said quietly. Despite the softness of his voice, there was a danger behind it. Truly, you would never know who was watching. And while he had no strong feelings in either direction to the boy's cause, and they appeared isolated, even here, all but an idiot should know that his revealing it here was no guarantee.

"I am not here for any 'quest'. Like you said yourself, I'm a student of Mother Indira. But I am nothing more. We're here just to see the ruins before we leave for the eastern continent - that is all."

Oren paused for just a moment, before making up his mind. Speaking less forcefully, now, he told Seminov, "Perhaps you should remain here, in any case. I doubt we need your assistance for this."

***


She couldn't keep her lip from curling when she saw Mother Indara's emblem around the boy's neck, and her eyes glittered in anger. The instructor was not someone Ziotea liked at all. It was a good thing Father Oren spoke before she could, or she would have said something truly cutting. She turned away, again, leaning on her spear at the other Inquisitor rebuked Semenov. Then the two visitors started off down the tunnel, leaving the private behind.

"He is an idiot. He and the rest of the idiots in that stupid cult are going to get themselves killed -- and their 'great hope' won't even care," she ground out past a clenched jaw, her footfalls striking harder than strictly necessary. "I know she's your instructor, but that woman is nobody's hero. Expecting her to lead a revolution is sheer folly."

***


Oren cast a glance towards Ziotea, the anger ebbing out of him as soon as it had come. "I don't believe that that is their purpose in choosing Mother Indira as their idol. Despite not wanting to do so, she represents what many Omestrians have lost - hope. Expecting people to recognise her as anything less is equal folly." He sighed.

He glanced around, and already he could see the countless pieces of Varyan influence on this land - marring what once was. He could feel that hollow melancholy beginning to form, knowing he should mourn for this desecration of this beauty and yet... nothing.

"Have you any thoughts to say before we move further in, Ziotea?" Oren asked.

***


Iddin-Mar Ruins, Old Omestris


All they heard from Private Semenov was a quiet "As you command," behind them. They left the boy alone in the cavern before continuing through the tunnel.

When the two inquisitors reached the other side, they found themselves at the edge of a massive earthen valley, with strange red and orange-leafed trees dotting the landscape. There was a strange, almost serene starkness to it all-- as if the earth beneath their feet, the clarity of the land around them, had been born of some other world. Unlike Varya, where there existed a sense of unlife and stillness over everything, this heartland of Omestris felt alive. The wind seemed a breath of fresh air as it rustled the trees, the smell of pine filled their nostrils, and the rushing of water could be heard coming from up ahead.

Strangely, there was no snow falling on Iddin-Mar, thus rich, grainy soil crunched beneath their boots. when they stared up at the sky, they could glimpse the snow falling, but much to their befuddlement, the snow didn't seem reach the earth. Still, despite the strange, unnatural ceasing of winter in this place, they were still cold. That lone fact was the only constant this dreamlike place shared with the rest of the world.

Up ahead, there roared a massive river, coursing strong through the valley. A vast stone bridge stood over the water. From where they stood, they saw that it connected them further inland, where the ruins themselves were located. The bridge was a beautiful work of art, its stonework inlaid with runes and what Oren could read as verses of poetry. Underneath it, the water flowed blue and vibrant. On the grand arch of the bridge, they spotted two statues-- one representing Omestris, who had been depicted in his traditional visage, that of a beautiful androgynous-looking individual, smiling merrily. The other statue had been destroyed, leaving only a part of its base visible. Ziotea and Oren could see that the statue was different from Omestris however. Was it another depiction of the Tainted Lord, they wondered? Or some other Remnant? It would be odd, considering there has been no evidence throughout history of Remnants co-existing.

When they made their way past the bridge, the two inquisitors found themselves walking through a cityscape of ruined buildings, temples, and crumbling plazas. To their surprise, they came across a patch of the rare plant known as gantleaf covering the feet of a giant statue of what appeared to be a naked woman.

***


Well, of course Mother Indira was seen as hope -- because people were idiots, and because they hadn't actually met her. Ziotea didn't bother discussing it further. There was no point, even as there was no point in hope.

The ruins were subtly different from Magnagrad, even different from the snowy landscape they'd travelled through on the way here. The snowfields of Varya were bare, frozen bones scraped clean by the cut of the icy wind. Here things grew -- trees, even a few hardy flowers. She could smell something, a warm, rough odor she didn't recognize, and the unfamiliar churn of a fast-moving river filled her ears as it echoed off the stone. Ziotea found that she felt uneasy here, as if she walked on ground that might give way beneath her at any moment. It was beautiful, but in an eerie, almost frightening way. The snow did not fall far past the lip of the sunken valley, leaving the ground gritty and dark. There was nothing she could see that would account for the phenomenon, and the sight of clear ground was disturbing. The wide, swift river was a rarity. She'd never heard of one that didn't have a crust of ice thick enough to walk on across the top, and she initially wondered how people crossed such a thing.

The solution was obvious once she saw it. The bridge seemed to fly from one shore to the other, as if it had no need of the supports holding it up. The part of her mind that looked at things with an eye for their form and how to put them onto canvas stirred hungrily, noting the sweeping arches, the detail of the carvings, the contrast between the blue of the river and the fire-tones of the trees.

The statues -- statue, really, as only one still stood -- were interesting. It was a classical representation of the dead god, smooth-faced and smiling. The other seemed like it had been something else, though what Ziotea could not begin to guess. It was all lovely, but it was like looking at a painting of a stranger. She did not know this place, did not know these lands nor the people who had inhabited them, and she found that she understood a little of what the young private had said. Outsiders did not belong.

"...And I too am an outsider here."

She didn't mean to say it aloud, the words addressed to whatever spectre of the Omestrian people might still linger centuries after. It was a soft observation but distinct, and if Oren was near he'd hear it. Whatever had once been it was long gone, and she could not find enough of a connection even to feel the loss. She had been correct: despite her appearance, she was not Omestrian. Not in the ways that mattered for something like this.

***


Oren drew ahead of his companion, took a shaky breath and closed his eyes. His ears strained for the slightest sound. He made a few shaky, unseeing, steps forwards. He was trying to will himself into feeling something, anything. But all he heard was the rushing water, and the biting wind. He felt nothing. Why did he feel nothing?

His thoughts changed… what would his ancestors say if they knew he was serving the very Lord who had brought them down? Would they hate him? Or would they praise his luck, thanking Omestris for what little hope they had? He… he didn’t know. He had been raised by the Seminary. The few memories he had of his birth family were misted over, to the point where he only saw basic shapes. The only clear memory he had before his time at the Red Seminary was the great, imposing dome of Sydon-Mar. A colossal stone, half-buried in the earth and snow, and enigma to all but those ancient Omestrians…

He opened his eyes, and found himself looking to the image of Omestris. He didn’t recall facing it… perhaps he had turned himself around and not realised it. He met the false stone eyes of the Tainted God.

‘Why do you look at me with that friendly face?’ he questioned in his mind. ‘Am I not your enemy, Omestris? Am I not indentured in servitude to the very god that killed you?’

No longer able to stand Their gaze, Oren turned his face aside. He saw the trees, and the river, and his mind wondered at how they were here… but his heart fell short. And as his eyes met the sight of the nude statue – and once again, he quickly looked away - they fell to the ground. A familiar-looking plant was growing around her feet. Was that…?

His stomach dropped the moment he recognised it. Gantleaf… his gantleaf. He had made sure to take a hit earlier this morning, and felt sharper for it, but… well, he couldn’t help but yearn for it. It had medicinal properties after all. He could take some – tell Mother Ziotea it was for the healer, Mother Astraea. She wouldn't question it, wouldn't need to ask after it. He could just give the healer a small amount, too. He looked around, towards her, mouth opening to speak, and-

"...And I too am an outsider here."

His moment of madness faded away. The thought was clearly a private one, so he shouldn’t comment on it. …Yet, she was correct. She was an outsider - as was he. Both of them, here in Iddin-Mar, at the window, looking in at what could never be had. He would never know what it meant to be Omestrian. Not properly. Mother Indira had done what she could, but…

Oren’s eyes stopped wandering, and he felt that one mantra rise up inside him. He had said it to himself countless times, to keep him staggering towards whatever fate awaited him. And that message was one of the things he had wanted to say to Ziotea since he had met her, and discovered her thoughts on Varya and the gods, and of the world itself. So he said it, just quietly enough that it would carry clearly to his companion’s ears.

"Deep within you, there is a flame. Never allow it to go out."

The Mother made a sharp motion, turning towards him slightly before her off-hand balled up into a fist. He met her eyes, unflinching, but once again, his gaze drifted away, to nowhere in particular. That was enough of that.

***


The words of the man she travelled with jolted Ziotea out of her thoughts. It took a moment longer for her to register them properly.

Deep within you, there is a flame. Never allow it to go out.

As if she needed reminding.

Her free hand curled into a fist, the metal of her gauntlet clinking softly. She turned to look at Father Oren, her bright eyes hard, her lip curling in a sneer. "I was born painted with flames," she snarled. "Maybe you see this idea of a fire inside as a gift, but let me correct you on this matter. Fire is dangerous -- a curse." She remembered the forbidden information Rodion had turned up in the depths of the library, writings that confirmed what she'd always known. "It is as hungry as Lord Varya and as dangerous as the demons in the Lanostran Black Glacier, and it would destroy everything that Lord Varya would merely subjugate."

The small woman laughed, but the sound was far from joyous. She was angry, and she didn't entirely understand why. "As if mine would ever go out. As if I could put it out if I tried. No, whatever Omestrian heritage my father gave me left far too great a mark for that. Not just a brand, but a warning: this one brings destruction." She remembered the sight of countless people, all chanting the same word. Fire was heresy, but she could never rid herself of it. She couldn't find it in herself to wish to. "And yet, despite having that forbidden power, the Omestrians fell just like all the rest." She stretched out a hand to land a flat-palmed strike on the base of the statue, a deceptively gentle blow but with the force of her ether and her rage behind it. Cracks spidered out from her hand and the woman's statue tilted slowly to the side, until gravity's insistence sent it toppling to the ground. It landed on its side with a dull THUD that vibrated through the soles of their boots and stirred the gravel around them. Despite falling, the statue itself remained in one piece. Angry as she was, Ziotea lacked the heart to deliberately destroy a work of art.

"This land is dead, and its history is dead, and in the end, that's what fire is. Death."
Hidden 2 yrs ago 2 yrs ago Post by The Angry Goat
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For the fifth time in an hour, Stina remembered how happy he was that Hassan had forgotten about his proposal to pay people to fight. He had gone a bit overboard on the drinks, and would not have had the wherewithal to stop him from doing something that idiotic. Speaking of idiotic, he was probably hitting on Sister Krista a bit harder than he should be, considering he was about to go on a trip to a foreign land full of danger and possibility, possibly never to return. He lost himself in thought again over this...

...Grace? I've... always dreamed of seeing El with my own eyes, and I'm sure the soldiers will need some spiritual guidance while on the long journey," he only caught the second half of Krista's remark as his thoughts came back into focus, and was still thinking about the question, and how to respond, when the pirates entered the bar.

Having lived his life above the slums, poor, and hives of villainy, he had never been able to fully comprehend why people did things like piracy, theft, and the like - his adventures with Hassan were the starting point, and sympathy was a long time coming. So when Mel disrespected her custom and implied she knew of him, his temper took a downwards turn. Now glaring more at her than paying attention to what his surroundings, he was surprised a second time by the garishness of the man's dress when he looked back over at him talking to the barman. Stina was already moving to get up when he was surprised again by Dragonov and Lyacon.

"Of course!" he replied, loudly, to their query. "Com-m-m-me Hassan! Duty calls!
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the High Reaches of Magnagrad, Capital and Home of Lord Varya



Father Ilya walked steadily along the steel walkways of Magnagrad's highest roads. He wore the full official uniform that his new title of Inquisitor had earned him. Not a single accessory was out of place, and not a single stain could be found in the cloth. He was doing his best to once more be the picture of High Society: his head was held high even though his stomach sunk low. His shoulders held back while he was reluctant to move forward. His steps steady despite his heart attempting to race.

It had, indeed, been years since Ilya last walked these pristine roads, where the lamps burned pure Omestrian Ether and not a single road corner lacked a work of public art. However, he was at no point lost. His destination was impossible to miss from the city's top - the sixth tallest building piercing the sky's thin, frigid air: the Bjornlie Tower of Glass.

Though not entirely composed of the uncommon material, every outer wall of every floor above Magnagrad's cold surface was thoroughly composed of glass. In addition, the stairs leading to the tower's front door were lined with trees of steel, hand worked to elegantly twist into branches which, in turn, clasped stained-glass orbs delicately engraved to resemble ancient fruits such as Oranges and Plums. The door itself was twelve feet tall and inlaid with silver and gold, depicting the Titans with their swords locked in combat. It was before this grand image upon that grand door that Ilya finally paused. He took his time to mentally brace himself and muse over the image: it was uncommon to depict the Titans instead of Lord Varya, and less common still to depict them in even combat, instead of Ice's victory. It implied a sort of equality that ran slightly counter to what Lord Varya's priests taught, and had made the Bjornlie Family the talk of High Society for a solid week. Father Ilya Bjornlie took a strong breath and finally acknowledged the two guards at either side of the large door.

"Please let Mr. and Mrs. Bjornlie know that their son has arrived. I'll be in the Front Hall."




It was with a hug apiece and warm congratulations that Father Ilya Bjornlie was welcomed home by his parents. It was not long before they had settled in to lunch and Ilya needed consciously remind himself that various things would be taken care of by the servant staff. He kept his rifle with himself, the only affect he had brought aside from outfit paraphernalia, which were left by the front door as appropriate. His posture was fine and manners polite. They all drank water and ate expensive food - small sandwiches, composed of bread, lettuce, and ham, sliced perfectly into four triangles. Each cost as much as a factory steel worker could earn in a month. Father Ilya took three triangles to sate him, while his mother selected two and his father chose four. His parents were beaming, yet their eyes seemed somewhat sad.

His mother, now fifty-one, had proud grey hair in a large, long braid down her back. Her eyes were as blue as Ilya's, and the wrinkles on her face seemed somehow clean and dainty. Her lavender dress matched the stained glass in her spindle earring, which swayed a bit as she began to speak at last.

"Dearest Ilya. I know we've said it already, but welcome home. You have made us very proud."

"Indeed!" Mr. Bjornlie chipped in. "We both know you are made of stern stuff, but I must admit we were relieved when you finally graduated unharmed. Even some of my military friends shy away from the exercises in the Red Seminary, but you have surpassed it all! Both the physical, which anybody who knows me would not be surprised by, and the magical!"

While it was true that Mr. Bjornlie was quite capable in his youth, and it was true he was not now unhealthy, it could not be denied that Mr. Bjornlie would no longer be able to complete a standard military training routine, let alone a day at the Red Seminary, for the amount of excess weight on him. If the grey on his mustache and slowly receding hair were any indication, he would never be able to reach that level of fitness again. This was, of course, nothing Ilya Bjornlie had planned to bring up. Instead, he said his thanks and began to move the conversation forward.

"Thank you, Mother, Father." Ilya said, with utmost calm and a smiling nod to each of them. "It was by no means easy, but I have learned a great many things. In combat, in magic, and in life." He paused, taking a sip of water to help keep his words deliberate. "For instance, it had not occurred to me there would be many non-Varyan students as well. I suppose I expected a few Lanostran students, and a T'saraen or two, but it was my Omestrian colleagues who truly surprised me." He took his time to take a solid bite out of his first sandwich wedge. Savoring the texture of the bread, the bitterness of the lettuce, and the rich flavors and feeling of ham. Ilya chewed slowly and kept his eyes on his food while his ears awaited the reply.

It came with a distinct lack of a glance and the fractional hesitation he expected. “The idea is to gather the best of the best, loyal or not. Public documents tend to leave out that last part due to how receptive students are to the words of Varya when surrounded by its fullest glory.” Mrs. Bjornlie assured her son. “So other peoples are accepted quite readily. After are, it would hardly service Lord Varya if people with the talent and need to ascend were turned down.”

“Myes, but please, let us speak of each other and not of businesses and practices. I’m afraid your mother and I have enough of those in our daily life,” Mr. Bjornlie chipped in. “Now I understand that you kept at using a rifle in the Seminary. I simply must know how that has gone, since I do not believe I can recall seeing any Inquisitors with more than a token sidearm. Must’ve thrown them for a bit of a loop, eh?”

There was the deflection Father Ilya had anticipated. It was for the best if he let off the pressure here. It would be a poor thing to damage his relationship with his parents now, especially with how thin they seem to have worn after all these years. So, if it was a story his father wanted, it was a story he would receive. Ilya deftly snatched one from his pre-approved list, and launched after a short preamble.

“Well I wouldn’t say I caused them much trouble, but I’m almost certain none of the other students had so much as touched a gun before our first day of practice with them! I was told off on day one for flipping the safety to start practicing while the others were still fiddling with their first bullet! I wish you could have both seen looks I got when…”




A good hour later all three Bjornlies had lightened up somewhat, and the sun’s slow descent had begun to cast its muted glow upon the table where the servants at the door had brought in hot water to replace the pricey sandwiches of before. Sticking closer to the family tradition of eating their own meals like common men and women, this was accompanied bits of sweetened tack meant to be an economical treat for venturing soldiers and some of the poorer folk deep within Magnagrad, where food may need to keep long, and snow had no chance of accidentally ruining it. Better could be afforded easily up here, but luxury dampens ambition and resolve, so the rules were made when Ilya’s mother inherited her family’s slowly crumbling business and married the military man who now ran it beside her.

Mr. Bjornlie was affably rambling through a story about how he had anticipated (and definitely not been privy to the cause of) a short-term ether crisis three year ago, and how a quarter of the city’s elites had been scrambling to buy his cleverly built stockpile, so they could keep running their countless luxuries and distractions. When he began to finish off, declaring how, as a loyal and intelligent man he had sold the Omestrian ether only to the Church and ISA, Father Ilya knew it was time to step forward with his request. But first, he needed to beat around the final bush.

“That reminds me. As circumstance would have it, I wound up paired with two Omestrian students for a regular part of my training” he said, narrowly avoiding a lie. “I was quite astounded at first, as in some areas they were not keeping up with me, but I was keeping up with them. Consistently, too. Their talents were as extraordinary as any I’ve seen before or since, and it got me thinking a bit about how they got there.” Father Ilya paused for a beat before continuing, continuing to a point he had weaved in after hearing his mother talk about merit before Lord Varya. “Omestrian ether is incredibly powerful, but although those partners held great reserves, I could not agree with anybody who would say they could best serve Varya under a pump. Their talents would be utterly wasted. As such, I would like to propose an idea.”

This was the penultimate moment of truth. His trajectory was clear to them now, and they were caught in a loose, social catch 22. Though Ilya had not outright said his plan, he clearly intended to release some number of Omestrian slaves to the Red Seminary, or potentially more locations. However, they could not simply turn down a proposition without hearing the details, especially not from someone as esteemed as their own son. Even though this was “private,” the Bjornlies had not risen so far in High Society by ignoring the servants so many considered invisible. Those mouths could talk, and Ilya now possessed a small handful of trivial secrets he could scatter if he so wished. Once they agreed to listen, his request would be too reasonable, too small a cut into their massive profit margins. Refusing, though, would be a significant drop in reputation, leaving them only the option to agree.

“Oh, don’t worry son. We invite some folk from the Red Seminary to check up on the slaves every three years. I believe we have someone visiting in two weeks, don’t we love?” Mr. Bjornlie replied smoothly.
Father Ilya’s face was pleasantly surprised, but his mind balked. He had arduously mapped well over a hundred ways this conversation could go, and accounted for countless complications and contingencies when visiting the facilities – which would have all needed to happen tonight, and calculated exactly how many shaken students the Red Seminary could handle him delivering out of the blue before leaving for El, as well as what qualities would best serve those he chose. But he had completely failed to anticipate that his actions may be redundant. This was to be his statement. His declaration that any could be recognized before Lord Varya, and implicitly that any could be recognized before himself. Aside from earnestly believing so himself, Ilya wanted a positive thing to be the public’s last memory of himself should he never return from El, and had long needed to somehow make clear to his peers where he now thoroughly stood on the societal issue of the Omestrian people.

He did some quick mental math. He had spent twelve years in the Red Seminary, and these checks were done every three years. That left the last inspection before he left either right before he departed at the age of nine, or when he was six. That explained how he had not known – Father Ilya’s parents had not judged right to whisk him away on a trip to the pumpworks until he was seven.

His attention snapped back to the conversation just in time to miss Mrs. Bjornlie mentioning the name of the Father who usually came to peruse the slaves, but quick enough to hear her mention that she was fairly certain one of his fellow graduates this year had been taken away around fifteen years ago. She naturally could not recall their name, and sincerely hoped they had made it through the training process.

It was not too long before Father Ilya excused himself, thanked his parents profusely, and gave each an affectionate hug. Well wishes were distributed, and he was on his way, suddenly without a plan for the next twelve hours. By the time he had reached his quarters, he resolved to not dwell on the issue, leave the question of who once was his family’s property aside for now due to irrelevancy, and instead return to musing and planning about the vision he had received at his Culmination. Indeed, it seemed not nearly so much a message as a prophecy, and both necessity and novelty in their own right were able to make Father Ilya plan and project endlessly around that one scene until it came true.
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