Hidden 5 yrs ago Post by HeySeuss
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HeySeuss DJ Hot Carl

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A Vision, Shared by All

The ancient chamber where they fought Pykas and Cyrabassis was, in actuality, a dangerous catacomb where the thing that took Pykas' body at the behest of Cyrabassis and turned him into a thing of furious lightning that flung arrows of something not mortal at them, that glowed dully from a light source in the center of the room. In the fight that was, in the nightmares of the group, they could still hear the shrill war-cries and low growls of the things that Pykas' Companions, his personal guard, had been changed into, misshapen and leering, possessed of a strength that even the strongest of the group were hard pressed to match in a furious fight to the death. The place was cobwebs and dust among the columns, the smell of musty time flooding their nostrils, along with the fresher coppery scent of blood, cooking meat and the stink of their own sweat.

All that was gone; the chamber was there, the altar was there, and the light source...well, that gave a clearer view of the murals on the chamber walls, things he'd never seen before, because he'd been busy fighting the guards of Cyrabassis and Pykas at the time and had no moment to admire the artwork of ancients. There was writing, but it was indecipherable to him. Those that created it, however, left artistic renderings behind as well. All of them were mosaics showing scenes of destruction and chaos, all emanating from a shapeless and riotous swirl of color and shape, no symmetry, no balance. At the center, a sphere of rippling darkness sitting in a large floor-standing device wrought like a lamp of intricately filigreed metal that wrapped delicately in a cage around a sphere of dull gray stonelike material; the metal and the sphere were wrought from substances unidentifiable. The dull, uniform darkness of the ball in that filigreed was marred with but one thing – the impossibly bright, riotously pulsating light that the artists tried to depict on the wall murals.

No one paid attention to the sphere at the time, so busy were fighting the thing that Pykas and his Companions became, and they hauled the gibbering mad Cyrabassis from Malezus, already sinking with shudders and groans into the ground, to stand for his crimes in Dara. Later, of course, the man would disappear – the Guardians had the men holding him executed for corruption, but the ones who fought Cyrabassis thought, well, it was entirely possible that Cyrabassis used some other method. They'd never been able to come back and explore Melazus, or at least, had no wish to do so. What was dead was buried, or so they hoped. The great wealth afterward came of Pykas' tents and baggage train, arrayed nearby, claimed as victory's spoils.

But now the sphere inside Melazus commanded attention, as a voice spoke in the silence of the vision: “Unlocked.” The sphere started to disintegrate and the light consumed the dull darkness.

Then the vision was awash in the searing flood of color and ended abruptly

Earlier

The Great House of Silence was a place of dusty, faded glory; it was perched upon the great hill at the center of the city, with a bright golden dome shining in the light, a thing that remained in place despite centuries of Dara's decline, guarded by the priests devoted to Udrau the Omni, whose temple it was. Once an order solely devoted to contemplation, they became warlike and vigilant as the centuries wore on and Dara's citizenry sometimes came upon the idea of looting some part of the great, rich temple for their own benefit.

Some succeeded, but not in many, many years – the priests had grown fierce, even if they remained silent. There was not as much to plunder as in centuries past, for the outer walls were crumbling and many of the treasures were long since taken, but what remained was guarded most ferociously. It was a cavernous labyrinth of columns and low-burning candles and hooded brass lanterns, redolent with the scent of incense. Here, the inner temple, was reserved for Udrau's own priests, those warlike men with their sickle-swords, heavily weighted blades curved forward and designed to chop – they were weapons of ritual sacrifice, but could cleave through mail easily enough in the right hands. 

Kanros always felt like an interloper in Dara's oldest and most hallowed hall. Dara welcomed all, tolerated all faiths, but this was a uniquely Daran place. Udrau, though, was considered to be the deity of all peoples, but that not all people recognized Udrau and called him by different names. It was a conceit of religion that put some teeth on edge, and yet the thousands of years passed and the city's uniquely universalist faith remained. It was a weathered thing of faded, half-remembered glory, like the temple itself, but was nonetheless a link to a time when Dara was great, rather than a crumbling city in the middle of a dust basin.

This part of the temple was off-limits to most except for the sanctioned few; priests of varying faiths that might come in supplication to Udrau, the priests of Udrau themselves and those receiving a ceremonial blessing of the priests, including the Guardians, when one was made.

Kanros was being made a Guardian. 

The blue-eyed, a hue uncommon in Dara, barbarian wasn't sure who came before him or who came after, and it really didn't matter – in a his decades here, he'd never heard of so many Guardians being made at once. But then, as far as he was aware, the Guardians had never been all killed off all at once the way they'd just been. A fearful city turned to its heroes, such as they were, and thus was Kanros the Raven keeling before old Anu the High Priest of Udrau, a wizened figure in blue and white robes that called out his incantations in ancient Daran as he waved a censer of smoke above him. Meanwhile, an ox was strapped down above the altar, bellowing in confusion. The priest took no notice of the cloying smoke, the ruddy half-light of the lanterns or the animal's fear as he continued his ritual, no doubt practiced many a time in his near-century of life.

That was the part of the ritual that applied for all Guardians – Kanros had no idea what the old priest was saying, just that he was to stay still until pulled up from his knees. He wasn't a native of Dara, but even very few natives spoke Ancient Daran. They spoke a mongrelized descendent of the language, even the Purebloods with their airs of ancient superiority reaching back into the mists of time.

A Guardian could come from anywhere, but Dara was the All-Home, a city where any could become a resident and a native. Kanros, for better or worse, might have come from a mist-shrouded northern fishing village called Brynsvar, but he was a Daran by his own hand; Malezus sealed him to this city.

Guardians could come from anywhere. There had been times of Dara's weakness when a Guardian was made of a would-be conqueror or one of their captains, in order to subvert that person and weaken their loyalties. There had been times in Dara's strength when the Guardians were made from natives who feared no interloper. Dara had many chapters in her history, but the ritual was largely the same, even if the rules of who would be made a Guardian, as chosen by the whims of their people, guided by the wishes of their patrons, changed. The Guardians were chosen to benefit the city, but it was an oligarchy – once in, they were in for life. Only death defrocked a Guardian.

The other part of the ritual was usually very different for each Guardian, because part of the ritual was Udrau's priests granting a blessing but, in keeping with the Daran belief system, the Guardian to be then chose his own priest to put them through a ritual in keeping with the practices of their faith. 

Many came to Dara, but Dara changed them more than they changed Dara. And Kanros was another that came to Dara and was changed in some ways, but not in the essentials; he still had the fire in his eye, the barbaric temperament that made him a natural warrior, an adventure seeker, a man of restlessness and little complacency. He was self-sufficient, because that was his upbringing – he was given little and had to make what he could for himself. The lessons he learned in Brynsvar and in other cities, as a pirate and then a captured slave-gladiator, merely reinforced that notion. 

But Dara did not change his heart, and in the hour of his ascension to the mantle of a Guardian, he could have chosen a number of local priests of more familiar deities to oversee the blessings. It would have been a politically sound notion to do so. Instead, he sought out something else; a priest of Thran the Forger.

The second part of the blessing was dependent on the faith – many of them were similar to old Anu's chanting and blessing, though they didn't necessarily involve being drenched in the blood of an ox that was being sacrificed. 

Thran's faith was of different stuff – Thran did not answer prayers, he did not give blessings. The Forger once made a race that he loved so dearly that he gave them much easily, and this race grew spoiled and degenerate from such gifts earned easily. As coddled children, they were brought down by a fiercer, more resourceful people. Mourning and desolate, Thran forged the Second People, from whom the likes of Kanros descended. Their lot was not made easy – Thran witheld help, except perhaps to issue cryptic challenges, so the tales claimed, that the supplicant then had to figure out. Nothing of value came easily – the strongest sword had to be forged with more effort, sharpened with a harder stone. The harder stone required a stronger chisel to work it. And the greater adversity forged the greater man. 

And so Sig, the priest of Thran that Kanros' messengers found, when asked to preside, gave his assent to test Kanros, not simply to annoint him. When asked by Anu what he would require to give Kanros the blessing of his deity, Sig replied, “Thran does not dispense blessings. He does not hear prayers. A man must be able to carry his own burden.” They were taciturn words from a grim-jawed old man of long gray hair and a seamed mask of windburnt old leather and bright, hard blue eyes.

Sig led him from the temple down into the streets of Dara itself, dark and dusty in the night, with but a torch for light, the flame rippling in the gentle breeze off the river banks; the river emptied nearby into the Sea of Sunil, and the Khammis Quarter, the ancient district of docks was silent this night – the rumors of what killed the Guardians muted the raucous proceedings of Dara's lower city for almost a month now. 

“Where are we going?” Kanros asked Sig, as they stepped through the Khammis Quarter, toward the River Dara, the city's cemetaries built atop the city's catacombs, a bewildering array of stone markers of varying types, from obelisks to statues to gateways leading down into a family's burial ground of many centuries. There were always superstitious legends that clung to this place of death, and the danger of being attacked by footpads that lay in wait here, but the priest was secure in his faith and the sellsword secure in his swordarm; he was starting to feel age, mostly in the form of the odd occasional ache and pain that didn't exist before, but he was still a fit and trim man. He got up early to stretch his muscles and warm them up before he practiced in his courtyard with those men that guarded the Skaltun, the native argot for the Shield Hall.

Sig paused and looked sideways at the younger man, considering him for a moment before deigning to reply; he was not a man used to questioning, but Kanros was a long time out of Brynsvar, and had lost the part of his upbringing that obeyed priests without question.

“To face the things men dread most.” They were atop a hill with a flat stone laying there, perhaps the roof of a mausoleum sunken into the ground; it briefly reminded Kanros of the way Melazus sank when they flooded the tunnels, sealing the secrets of the place for at least a lifetime.

He didn't see the priest come up behind him and circle a brawny arm around his throat, cutting off his air. He struggled as he might against the old man's surprising strength, but to little avail – the whoreson was squeezing the air out of him. 

Kanros' last thought before it went black was that he couldn't believe he let his guard down like that.

After the Vision

He came awake somewhere in the Khammis quarter, his wrists bloodied and his naked torso's flesh painted in the runes of his people's priests. Sig was nowhere to be found, but his sword was belted around his waist. 

What had he faced? Death? Himself? His fears? His past? The future? Why had he faced that?

The question made him more confused than before, which meant that it probably was a good question. 

It was a long, surreal walk back to Skaltun in the pre-dawn, and he found himself crawling into bed as soon as he arrived, though only staying up long enough to scrape the damned priest's runes off him. His chambers were comfortable, if perhaps a bit overly rich with the wealth he'd not known as a young man – baubles for the barbarian, the haughty Daran Pureblood aristocracy would quip behind their hands with a smirk, but he could take it or leave it. Even so, he had servants and the like to see to his needs, and one of those woke him with the summons; one of the others called the Guardians to their hall to meet for the first time.

Guardianship's burdens were already showing – he no longer walked through the city on his own, but with a small group of Daran youths serving as lictors; guards, couriers, body servants to a Guardian, for they were not unattended in public. They would call out the approach of the Guardian to an establishment or home and knock upon the doors with their staves to demand entry. It was all ceremonial, but Kanros didn't think these young scions of Pureblood families were likely to be worth much as bodyguards...and so he didn't get into the mindset of thinking of them as such. They were terribly serious, wearing the short tunics, bright green in hue, of their station, left bare legged so they could run and fetch or carry whatever was commanded of them, and in that sense they were a useful service to have. They were also terribly scared – some of their own died when the last Guardians were massacred. These clearly knew that – the pallor of their faces said much for their own apprehension.

His attire, however, was out of tradition – he wore a breastplate of lamellar, with its engraved ravens, for luck, upon the shoulder pauldrons and carried Vindurfang, as worn and old as the blade was, in a sheath that was newer than the blade, and decorated with gold and gems. Riffraff tended to carry much wealth on them, and the barbarian had always been disreputable enough to carry on doing so. He wore his hair, pride, joy and namesake that it was in staying jet black through the years, though his eyes had wrinkles around them now, unbound to his shoulders, held back only by a braided leather headband that he'd brought with him from all those years ago -- adorn himself he might (and some might whisper out of his hearing, like a slattern) he never did see the need to change that. He did wear the emerald green of a guardian, though as the scarf around his neck, to prevent chafing by his breastplate. Green was fertility, food and prosperity. It was the ancient color symbolic of the Guardians, a reminder of their duty of stewardship.

There was still a pall on the street that Kanros could discern, less people out and about even in the daylight. Crossing the Guardian's Circle, the center of town, toward the Hall of Guardians, an edifice that stood directly opposite the temple of Udrau on its hill, he saw little commerce. In most days, there'd be a throng here conducting business agreements in the sight of Udrau and the Guardians, along with the hired witnesses to make ratification of contracts legal, but today the place was silent and the commerce hushed. 

Trade was the lifeblood of Dara, the source of its revival. If people were too scared to make money, they had a crisis indeed...

The hall itself was simple to enter; two stout doors thrown open to signify that the Guardians were indeed actually in session in their Hall, petition-able by those that got past the lictors at the door. It was a bad security arrangement, for determined enough assassins could come through and kill the Guardians by overpowering the lictors, youths like the ones surrounding him, easily. Tradition forbade private guards, to keep the Guardians from becoming insulated by too much security as they conducted the business of the City – the warning was apparent; to occupy power in this place, you had to conduct your business behind one set of doors, guarded by youths who were not likely to fight off a determined mob very well, though they could sound an alarm and call for help. But if one was unpopular, who would come? That kept the system healthy, in a sense. A Guardian ruled for life, but law forbade them from being able to surround themselves with guards of their choosing, like a king, in the places where the Guardians made their decisions and carried out their duties. It left the public servant at the mercy of his public.

It was a system that prevailed for centuries, if not millennia. It was why many nobles declined the honor of being a Guardian. Something came through and killed the last bunch of Guardians, but it was a mystery – no one took credit and stood for election, as tyrant-killers had in the past, and no one was sure who did it. The rumors were fell, of some beast of shadow and flame, and there were scorch marks to prove it around the frame of the doors.

Kanros strode through as his lictors announced to the hall his presence. Inside, more scorches along the wall, though there were servants scrubbing it. The place was pleasantly shaded in the dark, built of stout marble with cracks here and there. It was a simple chamber, round in shape with a dome overhead, pierced with only a little light and lit by torch. It was simple and elegant, with simple chairs for the Guardians, rather than thrones of any sort. There were rows of benches for advisors and others that they would speak to, if they cared to summon such an audience or allow one, but it was, at the essence, a system very like a village's council of elders, but with more money at stake and certainly more danger. 

Anu was there again, along with the others, his one-time comrades. A few of them were still friends, others were like strangers to him. It was Anu who kept the laws, who saw to the rituals, minor in nature, of opening and closing a session. But he did not offer opinions on how to govern. He merely recorded the proceedings. When he saw Kanros, he thought he detected a cocked eyebrow for a moment -- apparently word of what old Sig had done to Kanros, what passed for a blessing among his people's gods, was on the tongues of others in the city. But the moment was gone, and Kanros was glad enough of that.

“Guardians," the old priest intoned, with a rapping of his staff upon the floor of the chamber, "the session opens now. May Udrau watch and favor. May you rule well.” Darans; they were suckers for ceremonial observations. Spending so much day dancing and gesturing for the Gods seemed like a luxury to Kanros, who grew up in a simpler place with simpler traditions. And, remembering the arm of Sig around his neck, rather more painful ones.

Kanros, once the short prayer was over, settled on the chair he picked for himself, mindful of his sword belt, and perched forward a bit; the lictors had arrayed their chairs in a circle so they could speak to each other and there were no summons or petitions for the day, not for a first and not with the city so scared to set foot inside the Hall of the Guardians – a glance at the Lictors, Pureblood youth for the most part, showed that they too were fearful. Alas, they were stuck until the Guardians were done and there was much to discuss. Kanros stood first, daring to be so bold as to speak first and break the awkward silence. 

“Well, fellow Guardians,” Kanros articulated carefully, wary of the people here now, though he smiled with that crooked, inappropriate smile he oft-times cracked, to the dismay of more staid sorts, “Our first order of business is obviously the city. It is drowning in this fear. No business is being done. Those that aren't hiding are scurrying. When they speak, they are whispering.” He pointed to the blood that wasn't quite washed out of the stones in places, where their predecessors had been slain, “And undoubtedly, there are some outside of Dara, not to mention within, who will take advantage of that.”

The vision flashed through his mind, but he avoided speaking of it. Kanros was a brave man, but that was something else.
Hidden 5 yrs ago Post by Polyphemus
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Polyphemus Bad Enough Dude

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"Not quite yet. One more day, perhaps two."

Her professional judgement handed down, Skorrin Halvar flicked the long braid of blond hair back over her sinewy shoulder, then removed the tap from the barrel full of pale, fragrant ale. Carefully, she shoved the wad of cork into the hole made when they bored the tap, used her long fingers to smear beeswax all around the aperture to prevent seepage. Without so much as a grunt, she casually lifted the entire keg, one-handed, and placed it back on the shelf. It had taken two beefy men to gently lower it to the ground.

Her workers had long ceased to wonder at these displays, instead accepting them as commonplace, expected. Her manager, Lund, nodded. He was a thin, acerbic man, destined from birth for a life of clerking. Numbers and facts were what he understood- that which made him so valuable to Skorrin was also what made him frustrating to be around. "Madam," he said delicately, his voice little more than an extended cough. "I seem to recall you saying it would take thirty days for this batch to ferment. It has been thirty days exactly, and now you feel it is not ready?"

"Lund, my dear, this is an art, not a science," she said, then laughed. Skorrin Halvar's laugh was not the ladylike titter preferred by the other women of her age, the rich landed countesses she met at balls and other gatherings. Her laugh was ill-suited for high society. It was a horse-like guffaw, starting deep in the pit of the stomach and then radiating throughout the shaking limbs until every inch of her body seemed to be sharing in the laugh. She slapped the thin man on the shoulder, not seeming to notice the pained look or sudden jerk forwards he made. "You're one of the cleverest men I've ever met, but some things can't be found in a book or ledger, old friend."

"Very well, madam," Lund said, the small note of displeasure in his raspy voice cheerfully ignored by Skorrin. "Does madam wish to inspect the other batches?"

"May as well. With everything going on in this city, half our laborers are afraid to unbar their doors long enough to come to the brewery."

"And yet madam continues to pay them half wages."

Skorrin frowned at the sour note in Lund's voice. "Lund, dear friend, those men have families to support. I very much doubt they are simply at home sitting on their asses, they are busy protecting their children and fearing for their wives. I have no intention of compounding their miseries by withholding their bread as well. Really, Lund, it's quite simple. . ."

Her words drifted off as her head began to feel light, as droplets of sweat forced their way up from under her skin. "It's really quite. . ." she tried again before her eyes rolled back into her head and her tongue failed her.

And then she was there again.

This time it was bereft of the blood and violence and fear that had marked her last visit, and was instead empty- which, somehow, made it worse. She had only physically been in this room once, but had visited it many more times on nights when she couldn't sleep. There were some things that could not be forgotten.

The light, and the sphere. That horrible, horrible sphere. She was transfixed, looking at nothing else. And then a voice, a voice he had never heard but somehow knew belonged to oldest Halvar, the one who had marched on the towers.

Unlocked.

And then, just as suddenly, she was once more in the comfortable, cool cellar of her brewery, Lund looking at her intently, the two apprentices apprehensively. She looked at the handprint she had left on the stone wall, perfectly formed by the sweat on her palms. "I'm alright, men," she said quietly, struggling to get the words out between pained gasps, greedily sucking in far more air than she needed. "I'm alright. For now."

"I can fetch a physician," one of the apprentices offered, before being silenced by a dismissive wave from Skorrin.

"Thank you, that won't be necessary. Lund, I'm afraid I will have to leave the brewery in your care for a few days. There is something I must do."

The thin man made no comment, only a curt nod. "Understood, madam."

"Continue on as normal. And make sure to seal the barrels of coriander, I have no wish to find mice living in our spices again. There. . . there is something I must do," she said, her words faltering. "I think my friends might have need of me."

"Madam?" Lund asked her quietly.

"I had been offered a certain position. I turned it down, I wished to focus solely on my business, but now I think that may have been unwise," she said dreamily, wiping at her damp forehead with a sleeve. "Most unwise indeed. Yes, yes, something is happening and they will need my help." She thought of her armor, still carefully oiled and polished, sitting in a closet at home, waiting to be used. Her gigantic iron truncheon- they had called it an oslop back home, far away to the north- sitting beside her bed. Perhaps there would once again be need of these things, quite soon. But at the moment she could offer her counsel. Without further comment, she started for the stairs leading out of the storeroom.

"Madam," Lund's grating voice called after her. "If we should have need of you, where shall we look?"

Skorrin turned back, a broad smile on her face, and that spark that had defined her life was once again dancing in her big green eyes. "You may ask for me at the Hall of Guardians."
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