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From the east, the city was a black, twinkling darkness against the great wheel of stars.

A figure hunched down in the dust, waiting. His head and body were swathed in the robes of his house, his wiry arms braced with jagged lengths of chitin, and his eyes were invisible behind uneven glass lenses, clustered together like a horse spider’s. His garments fluttered in the empty night breeze, and he did not move, as he had not moved for more than an hour now.

His name was Eket-Ba, and he was a remover of men.

Time passed.

And passed.

The stars had moved another hand’s span before the tip of his blade snapped out, pinning the deathrattle scorpion through its back and dragging it from the sands. He lifted the weapon in a practiced, ritual gesture, dragging the twitching creature down the length of its blade, bisecting the stinger precisely and leaving a thick, drying trail along its edge.

He watched it slowly disappear, thinking.



Your fates, our fates, are now one.

The words turned themselves over and over in the Envenomer’s mind, and she was made restless with the repetition of it. She paced atop the stair of the amphitheater like a plague lynx in a gladiator’s cage, stepping distractedly over the unmoving body of one of Ordrosyn’s serving girls, turning a glass knife in her hands. Blood painted the stone steps and pooled down into the tiles, reflecting the moonlight with sickening clarity. The Lord’s remaining men watched her with surreptitious glances, holding their tongues.

“Trap,” she murmured to herself, pensively, “This is a trap.”

Tied to this city.

She was tied to nothing. Especially not this gilded tomb stuffed with the witless, the lost and the mad. But oh, the reaver had known just what to say, had he not? Known far, far too well.

“Who are you, truly... Finally.

Malkut stopped pacing as the Ichor-Mage’s daughters hurried to the base of the stair, Eket-Ba’s hand firmly on her shoulder. She flinched backward with a muffled squeal as her foot spattered into the spreading puddle of gore. The girls’ bodies were bound in the stiff corsets which helped her stay upright, her inner hands clasped behind her backs, each supporting the other. One head turned to watch the Drathans over her shoulder, the other grimacing as she met the Envenomer’s gaze.

Malkut’s voice was unsettlingly kind.

“Children, I suggest you make the explanation you are about to give me especially creative.”

“I can explain everything,” lied Thriss. “...I think I’m going to be sick.” added Thressa, covering her mouth and scuffing blood from her boot.

“Where is he?” the lash-mother asked, still turning the glittering blade in her hands, “The Ichor-Mage. Where is he, instead of here?

“-Father is…” one voice faltered, the other rallying “...Father is meditating.”

“Meditating,” repeated Malkut, her voice cracking, sharpening by degrees like breaking flint. She turned to the Drathan men, tossing up her hands. “Of course. Of course he’s meditating. This is the man who supposedly defeated the Goat-Kings by dropping mount Dagoth on top of them, but I’m afraid getting off his fat backside for something as trivial as your lives is too much for him. We do apologize. I suppose we should ask the Shashul to call off the war. What do you think?”

"Um."

“Did he not believe this was important, little one?” the Envenomer stepped forward, descending the stair toward her, “Did he not think that the presence of one of the most powerful sorcerers ever to walk the face of the desert MIGHT be of some use in preparing for the most vicious battle the Houses have ever seen?”

“I don’t know! Why do you think I know? He...” Thressa threw out her hands in protest, her sister-self comforting her as she protested. She shuffled back another step as the dark pool of blood continued to spread, speaking up, “Oh! He said there was something I should tell you...”

“Then tell me, you piping little slut, and you'd best hope I like what I hear, because I promise you, nobody’s going to notice another dead whore by tomorrow.

They told her.




Malkut-Ba stood outside, at the foot of the Vaatru-El’s insectile caravan as the wind sighed like a hollow, wounded thing over the lantern-lit sands, a numb, distant look in her eyes. She had no idea how long she had been there before she became aware of the assassin's presence at her back. She didn't turn around.

“Get into position and do as I’ve said," she told him, voice dry. "We’re leaving the moment they breach the walls.”

Eket-Ba spread his hands and bowed, sidelong, stepping back and receding into the darkness. But he paused at the edge of the lanternlight, turning his head slightly.

“...What did the wizard say?” he croaked.

The matriarch drew in a slow breath through her nostrils. Her eyes turned to the night sky, and its glittering canopy of stars.

“He said: ‘All roads lead to Zar Vorgul’



Eket-Ba lifted his head sharply as two of the greatflutes sang their melancholy dirge across the hissing, ethereal midnight sands, the third bringing a high, sharp note of intent, weaving a strange, alien harmony with the others. The insect-mounts of the Viitru-Ba reacted at once, hunching over and burrowing rapidly downward, kicking up sand over their bodies until they were buried completely.

The Vitruvian assassins checked their weapons one last time and followed suit, submerging themselves until there was nothing left of their presence, and the pitiless night wind blew over an empty ocean of dull, dark sand.

And the great wheel turned.

Olmo Da'at.
I also have a little scene setting coming out. (Olm Abshu.)
I actually like the idea of the Firebrands sacking Zar Endal while the Master is away. It's good conflict, there's a lot of room for threads to just be thrown together, it sets the general up as a wildcard and it puts them on a plausible intercept course for direct interaction with the incoming chaos of the invasion.

I can't guess whether Alkhazar's reaction would be raging, homicidal fury and the spontaneous combustion of several messengers, or "Zar Endal? Please, I don't need that any more. I have other plans..."
"Olm" is a Vitruvian invocation of respect to a particular spirit or deity, perhaps best loosely translated as "I see what is laid before me." It is a simultaneously an acknowledgement of a god's hand in a matter, recognition of the trial or lesson they present, a statement of understanding that they could probably crush you like a bug if they so wished and, dependent on the situation, a certain fatalistic tinge of "oh, this shit again." The Viitru have had to make this invocation so often in the course of their migration that it has gradually condensed to a three-letter word.

The notable exception to the phrase is any invocation to Da'at, in which case "Olmo" is preferred, or "I do not see what is laid before me." Scholars of the culture agree that veneration of Da'at is just plain weird and probably more trouble than it was worth.

"Hate is a vengeful steed. One that will tear the reins from your hands and trample all you love if it can.

Yet ever faithful. Always there when all else have abandoned you."


--Asphyxiations, Canticle 39





The greatflutes sounded over the wide red expanse as the Vitruvian walkers lumbered into view, the notes piercing the horizon even before the heavy drumbeat of their footsteps, the procession dragging itself across the sand step by inevitable step. They marched under long canopies of colored silk, seeming to glow from beneath as the blinding sun cast colored shadows through the fabric, painted with glyphs and heraldry, draped in lanterns and baskets and walls of ragged tapestry. Clan banners flapped noisily in the burning breeze, robed, armored figures moving to and fro across the hot metal of their bodies. Many with weapons at the ready, helms scanning the horizon to the east. A few children scampered from rope ladders, shouting at one another, oblivious to the growing unease.

And ahead lay the monolith-city of Zar Vorgul, the heat-shimmer veil rippling over the sands beneath the city, its dark spires glinting in the light like obsidian teeth. Fate, knew the sorcerer, weighed the city in its many hands. Coveting. Calculating. Its shadow fell like a physical weight across the sands. Everyone knew it was so, in some dark and dreaded place in their hearts.

But only Sothis-Sa, deep in his meditative sleep, truly understood what it meant.




“Are you szo czertain the czity will fall?”

Ysod-El sat nestled in his cushions, in his antechamber at the rear of his clan’s husk; unarmored but still swathed in the concealing brown rags he had come to favor. His voice was deep and heavy, thickly accented with the old speech of his blood, and his eyes were serpentine above the scarves that concealed his features, deep amber jewels that glittered against cracked sinew and burned, scarred flesh.

“Many dezire to retain the Union,” he continued, “They will bargain for itz defenze.”

The Envenomer, sat opposite him, was a study in contrast. She was impeccable, her face painted expertly, dark leather tight against her cheeks and throat. Her distorted helm sat taking up most of her lap, a delicate glass cup clinking in one hand where it met the glass claws at the tips of her gloves. A painted iron teapot sat on a low, elaborate wooden table between them, spice-scented steam curling gently from its spout.

Though each had their cup, neither had taken so much as a sip.

“The Shashul wouldn’t dare move on Zar Vorgul so openly if he wasn’t sure he could take it.” said Malkut, flatly, “And you can be well assured the Saliszi aren’t bickering like children like the Drathan’s sellsword rabble undoubtedly are. We need to stay one step ahead of them, and we need to be ready to bleed them, Ysod.” The matriarch’s voice fell to a crooning whisper. “We need to bleed them when they come.”

The Collector spread his hands, evenly, noncommittal. “The Szalish will rezpect our neutrality,” he rumbled, “They have no cauze to do otherwize. If the Immanent takez the czity from the Dratha, then when the sztarz come round again, we will trade with him inztead. They know thisz.”

Malkut-Ba narrowed her eyes. “You’re thinking like a merchant,” she hissed, softly, “This is war, Ysod. Not one of your pitiful marketplace assasinations. War.”

“War iz tranzaction.” He shrugged, unnerving eyes not leaving hers. ”Cities. Livez. One iz bartered for another. It iz no different.”

“Then you don’t know them like I do.” The woman leaned forward over the table, thickening the air with perfume and the fever-thick smell of hate. “Whatever you may think of Salished pragmatism, trader, once an army like that begins moving, it takes on a life of its own. It stops thinking and becomes a swarm of locusts with the taste of blood in its mouth, and I tell you now that once they have battered down the walls of that city and torn it to pieces it will not be enough. They will loot anything that isn’t nailed down and burn anything that is, and when they are done they will turn here, and they will butcher your sons and rape your daughters and they will salt the f***ing earth--"

There was a musical jingle of crystal and brass from behind her. The Collector lifted his hand, gently, turning his head to the opened curtain where his daughter now hung silhouetted from one arm. Malkut ground her teeth, forcing down a sip of tea as the cup shook in her hands, glass tinkling dangerously. Binah glanced between them.

“Is this a bad time?” she asked, hoarsely.

Ysod-El beckoned her on, two-fingered. The girl lifted her helm, oiled braids and sand spilling from beneath the shell, and drew a breath.

“It all looks normal so far,” she cleared her throat, unsuccessfully, “business as usual, yes? But the boys have been asking if we’re setting up or moving on. Yes?”

The trader paused, unreadable under the eyes of the dancer and the murderess. At length, he nodded, once -- but lifted his hand again abruptly as the girl moved to withdraw. She paused, hanging back.

“...Szmall.” He said. He steepled his fingers, thoughtfully, eyes flicking from Malkut to his daughter. “Nothing we cannot pack quickly, Binah.”

“Yes, father. Weapons?”

“Weaponz. Yesz. And food.” He settled back down into his meditative position. “For thisz, I think, the Dratha will pay much.”




The great instruments sounded again as the hulks slowed, dragging themselves to a halt a distance outside the gates. Already people were running to them, shouting offers, the brewing war hanging over their heads like a thundercloud, like an hourglass running dry. Binah leant over the rim of her rusting palanquin, shouting back, a score of armored figures unfurling banners and carpetry, lighting colored lanters and tossing down bundles of staves. A trio of war-insects trampled past, their riders clearing a perimeter for the marketplace as the sun sank lower in the sky.

And the Ichor-Mage slept.

Olm Sadha.

Coolio. I hadn't decided on which direction the caravan circles around from yet, but seeing as Vorgul is the hotspot, heading there clockwise down past the foot of the Godfangs would seem to make the most inclusive sense. When the war arrives they can have a literal fire sale.

The houses would be a well-known phenomenon in general in the red desert, so people can take more or less whatever liberties they like in terms of having encountered the caravans before, or hit me up for more specific backgrounds or future schemes. It'll probably be a few days yet before I make an intro post in any case.






I have walked the nine times ninefold paths of Abshu and attained Da’at. Spill my blood upon the sand and read the virtue of what was lost in the words it leaves. Lo, I am dead, but what is not made is immortal. Olm Sahda.






Present, if not correct.

Coincidences are funny things.

For example, if Cullen Smith hadn’t stopped to take a drag on his rollup and contemplate the cruel joke of human existence as he loitered in the dusty, sun-baked street outside the store, things may have turned out differently. He might have gotten that daytime nap he so badly wanted. He might have forgotten about the church social that night.

And he absolutely wouldn’t have seen the Whithers kid and her creepy damn cat stroll out the back entrance and vanish behind the neighboring fence.

Smith frowned, watching, cigarette dangling from his mouth. Pretty sure she didn’t have Uncle Hank’s permission to be lighting out like that. Damn careless of the Jacksons to say the least. Not that it was any of his nevermind, of course. Wasn’t his damn kid. She was, what, ten? Or something? Old enough to make her own decisions about wandering around without supervision. None of his business, really.

None of his business.

Still...

He took another long drag and tossed the crumpled paper cylinder aside, pacing around to the other side of the building in the direction they’d been heading, into the short, looming shadow of the Jackson’s store. Hell with it. Morbid curiosity was the only kind he still knew.

--------------------

A half hour later the gravedigger shoved his way through the squeaking wooden doors of the Silver Strike, more determined to have a drink than ever. The heat was thickening outside, and even in the merciful shade of the saloon, he could feel the sweat beading on his neck. He’d lost them? How had he lost them? There was nowhere else they could have gone. Job wasn’t exactly London Fair; he should have made the corner with time to spare, more than enough to have seen which direction the kid and her miserable bloody fleabag had headed. But no. Nothing. Even the tracks seemed to turn back on themselves.

Mysteries. He paused, hefting the heavy boxes under his arm. Waste of bloody--

“Hey, mister Sith!

Cullen let out a breath as a bunch of rough-round-the-edges town ne’er-do-wells started thumping on their table and hollering in his direction. He set his sights on the bar and kept walking.

“Well if it ain’t the hound of Job, all done buryin’ bones in the backyard--”

“Look like yer about ready for a pine box yerself pardn’r--”

“--Mmhm.”

“Why so gloomy pardn’r, ain’t you done dug youself up a ladyfriend yet?”

“HAW!”

“--Funny. Nice. That’s good,” he muttered, adding a highly specific expletive under his breath.

He slouched across the floorboards and the establishment’s single threadbare rug, morose and half lost in thought, so determined to ignore everything and everyone around him that he nearly collided with some fop in a bowler carrying a pitcher of marked-up booze in the process. Middle of the bloody day and the dregs were already here. Stupid cow. Sodding Whithers kid. Not worth wondering about. Best not to get involved in other people’s troubles, or their secrets. He had enough of his own of both.

He nodded, grimly as he made his way up, thumping the jingling boxes onto the bar. Fitzroy greeted him with a grunt and a tolerant glower.

“What’s your poison, son?”

“Black Dog.” Smith replied, folding his arms on the countertop, not bothering to sit down, “And make it a double so I won’t have to ask for another, yeh?”

“Mighta known,” lamented the barkeep, “Ain’t no one else around here drinks that slop.”

“Enh. A little taste of home. You know how it is”

“Mhmm.” Fitzroy pushed the glass across the counter. “Tastes awful.”

Smith took it carelessly in one hand, pausing.

“...Yep,” he said, and knocked it back, making a gruesome face as it went down like midnight on the moor.

He swallowed with difficulty, trying to hold back a coughing fit and casting a weary, furtive glance around the bar. Mercifully there were only two other paying customers at the bar, sat to either side of him at a polite, safe distance. A buttoned-up governess or something, sketching in a notebook and casting occasional dark looks at the card table, and some drifter in a red poncho, hunched over a glass and rapping on the bartop with some sort of armored gauntlet.

Smith didn’t know him. He didn’t need to. He knew bad news when he saw it, and that was bad news painted in forty-foot high lettering. You could have put a rattlesnake on the other seat and he wouldn’t have known which was safer.

He didn’t know the woman either. Schoolteacher, maybe. Looked like someone who liked rules. Smith glanced back over his shoulder, following her intermittent gaze. The fop was back at his seat at the card table without a care in the world, and the regulars were well on their way to skinning him alive. Maybe literally in Jimmy’s case. Was never quite sure about that one.

He took another mouthful of the Scotch, feeling it scour in his throat and blossom like hot tar in his stomach. Yeah. This was just what he needed. In. Out. And then a few hours of sleep before...

“Trust we’ll be seein’ you at the church social tonight, Mister Smith?”

...He’d forgotten.

“...Bloody church bloody social…” He buried the words in the bottom of his glass and tipped it back all the way. Another raucous cheer went up from the table behind him as someone lost another fat pile of money. There was no rest for the wretched.

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