The Dijat of Heka
The misty, grey-skied hours just before dawn were a solemn, almost sacred time in Photep. The chill of night hung in the air, and fog rolled off the ocean to fill the spaces around the tallest buildings like potting soil in a garden. A city of this size was never truly still, with many going about nightly business even at these small hours, but the streets were as empty as they ever were, and there were few windows still lit. The most common sights on the wide, long boulevards that fed into the Dijat at the city's heart were the red-uniformed officers of the Order Khenetai, patrolling in pairs with their bronze blades hung at their hips. Youths barely old enough to take up professions may have spurred them to stop and question where they had to be at such a time, but the sight of Sorcerer's cloaks over their shoulders prompted only short, polite greetings.
The Dijat itself was alive at this hour, although only marginally. Sorcerers milled about, talking quietly in small groups or setting out on various errands. At a distance they seemed like formless shadows in the morning fog, but up close they seemed as normal as anyone else. The majority weren't wearing their cloaks, which were primarily ceremonial in purpose, instead opting for unobtrusive sashes, lanyards, or other accessories in Acolyte yellow or Practicus green to denote their rank. Most still wore their Cult's signifying brooch at their shoulder or neck. Unlike at the reception following the commencement yesterday, these Sorcerers cavorted with their Tutelaries openly, which took on a variety of forms ranging from the mundane to the fantastic. Almost none of the Sorcerers paid any mind to the arriving Novitiates, who moved together in obvious packs of nervous, white-cloaked youths, but some offered short greetings or asked if they needed directions.
By the time most of the Novitiates had found their Cult's pyramid and milled outside of its entrance, the sun began to rise over Photep. Desert sunrises were always a glorious spectacle of amber skies and a sun that hung huge and hazy over the horizon like an overripe fruit, but in the Dijat it seemed almost surreal. The crystalline exteriors of the Cult pyramids caught the sunlight like huge prisms, refracting the light into millions of sunbeams that wove through the plaza like a tapestry of pure radiance. The pattern intertwined with that of the paving stones of the Dijat, creating an enormous mosaic of light and stone that was too intricate and precise to have possibly been accidental. The enormous glass reliefs molded on the inward faces of the pyramids, each denoting the Cult that resided within, seemed to come to life as though each one had its own sun shining directly behind it. Perhaps every Novitiate had heard Photep called "the city of light" at least once before, but after seeing this there could be none that did not understand from where that appellation came.
The Cult of the Crow
A loose throng of Novitiates congregated outside the entrance to their Cult's pyramid. The true entry to the monument was down a ways through the tunnel that led deeper into the pyramid's center, but none of them stepped any further than just within the shade of the tunnel's entrance. They each recognized each other at least nominally from yesterday's ceremony, but those that were appointed to the same Magus tended to stand more closely together. As dawn rose over the Dijat, some did not notice as other figures emerged from the pyramid to greet them. Some were the Magi that had accepted Novitiates, and were greeting their students personally. Others had sent their assistants to escort the Novitiates to their chambers, leading to a few awkward interactions between them and Novitiates that did not recognize fellow Sorcerers if they weren't wearing cloaks.
One such assistant greeted the Novitiates assigned to Magus Dagon. He was tall, somewhat handsome, a fair few years older than them, and his black hair was cut to hang just over his ears. He wore conservative dark-blue robes, which contrasted with the sea-green sash he wore over them, designating his rank of Practicus. His expression was serious, but not unkindly, merely businesslike and focused. His Tutelary perched on his shoulder, an iridescent hummingbird the size of a pigeon, its strange appearance making it seem almost insect-like.
"You are Esi, Thumotep, and Maryatum, yes? I am Sorcerer-Practicus Menes, retainer to Magus Dagon. If you'll follow me, I will take you to his chambers." His voice, similar to his appearance, was firm, to the point, but not unpleasant.
He led them along through the passageway to the pyramid entrance, and stopped before the door flanked by two Acolytes. They were still blinking the sleep from their eyes, and seemed annoyed by having to open and close the door so many times for the arriving Novitiates. Wordlessly, Menes selected a sequence of runes on the door's surface, each changing color as he touched them, until the final two were chosen by the Acolytes standing watch. The runes all shifted from green to black at once, and the doors slid open before them.
"This is the Hall of Prophecy," Menes explained as they stepped into the pyramid, sounding not unlike a guide in one of Photep's many historical museums or art galleries. "Its purpose is primarily ceremonial, and commemorates the prophecies and omens divined by our Cult that have contributed the most to Photep's prosperity."
The Hall was quite dark, almost foreboding, lit only by scores of candles that lined the walls, old wax cascading down their rows like frozen waterfalls. The hall was practically choking with incense smoke, which poured from hanging censers, filling the room with the cloying scents of cinquefoil and cinnamon. The majority of the room was dominated by hanging displays, mostly tapestries, ostensibly meant to signify important prophecies that the Cult of the Crow had some hand in divining. If it had not been for Menes' explanation, that fact may very well have been missed by the Novitiates, as the displays were quite esoteric. Tapestries woven to display strange runes and arcane symbols hung from thick silk ropes, lining the walls above the candles and filling the space of the high vaulted ceiling. Most were smoke-stained by the candles and incense, and many had strange fetishes accompanying them or woven into their structure. Crystal shards, stone fragments, and yellowed fortune cards hung as part of these displays, most likely the tools by which these prophecies came to be known. Some more barbaric displays featured old cracked bones, or the hides of animals. More strange than the symbolic representations themselves were those that were clearly missing; there were numerous gaps in the long rows of tapestries, the difference in the color of the stone wall revealed by these spaces clearly indicating that something had been removed relatively recently.
"There are many texts within the pyramid library explaining the significance of these effigies, if you care to inquire about them. I recommend doing so when you are not busy with your studies; the work of the old masters can be quite inspiring." Menes explained dutifully, making no mention of the removed displays.
Menes continued to usher the Novitiates through the Hall and into an adjoining passageway, which was thankfully better lit and less ominous. He didn't have as much to say about the rest of the pyramid as he led them through it, but there was frankly less to talk about. Just a few hallways and stairwells that led to other parts of the pyramid, such as Novitiates' chambers and various rooms for quiet study or meditation. He recommended finding an older Novitiate or Acolyte to give them a proper tour at some point, pointedly not offering to do so himself. After ascending some ways into the higher levels, they arrived at their destination: the personal chambers of Magus Dagon.
Pushing open a heavy but well-maintained wooden door, Menes invited the Novitiates through, stepping in behind them once the last of them had entered, and shut the door behind them. The space was clean, well-organized, and smelled pleasant, though the lanterns in the room were somewhat scarce, leaving some of it still cloaked in darkness. Many shelves lined the walls, stacked neatly with books and scrolls, and magical apparatuses of brass and crystal and other, less recognizable materials were distributed throughout the room. Dagon himself sat on the floor at a low table, scratching some notes into a book set before him with a tawny quill. He looked markedly different than he had the day prior, his skin seemed less sickly pale, and some of the lines on his face had vanished, making him seem younger and more approachable. He still wore thick, sand-colored robes, but his cloak was elsewhere and his hands were uncovered this time, although there was nothing unusual about them. He glanced up at the arriving Novitiates, and it was clear that the bright blue fire in his eyes had not changed, and was just as unsettling as it had been yesterday.
"Ah, welcome." He said, not rising from his seat. Like his complexion, his voice sounded more hale today, without the overtone of suffering he carried during the commencement. He looked to the Practicus and said simply, "Thank you Menes, I won't have any further need of you today." Menes nodded courteously and left as Dagon returned his attention to his Novitiates. "Come, sit, make yourselves comfortable. You may leave your sandals at the door, and hang your cloaks just beside them if you like. We have much to talk about. Would any of you like tea, or water?"
The Cult of the Phoenix
A similar scene unfolded at the entrance to the pyramid of the Cult of the Phoenix, as Novitiates awaited their first full day as Sorcerers with a mix of eagerness and nervous anticipation. The throng of white cloaks looked about as similar in diversity as that in front of any other pyramid; no more among them looked like pyromancers than those belonging to any other cult, though it was difficult to say what precisely a pyromancer looked like. The small crowd gradually thinned, and as Khotanabre wondered whether he would be greeted by his Magus or if Xavier would delegate the task, a heavy hand landing on his shoulder broke him from his thoughts.
"You're on time, Khotanabre." Said Xavier, his deep voice rumbling like a rockslide. "As good a start as any. Come, let's have a walk. The day is young and I have not yet eaten breakfast." He punctuated his statement by patting his prominent belly. He smiled at Kho, but the affection of the gesture was still undone by his unearthly gaze.
Xavier was not dressed as flamboyantly as he had the day prior, merely covering himself with an undyed pullover robe that hung from his generous middle, and he walked on modest sandals. If it had not been for the black cloak over his shoulder and his burning eyes, he might have looked like anyone's grandfather out for a morning stroll. He set off at a gentle pace, hands clasped behind his back, and set out eastward, down an avenue aimed almost directly toward the rising sun. Shopkeepers lining the sides of the street were just preparing for their day, setting out produce and erecting temporary stalls and banners.
"What is your pleasure, son? Fruit? Bread? A bit of fish? I think today I'll just have flatbread. Maybe with some bean paste." He chuckled to himself, before saying, "I made something of a fool of myself overeating yesterday. I can't digest spices like I did when I was a young man. My wife would give me quite the earful if I didn't eat more modestly today."
The Cult of the Serpent
An unfamiliar ceiling greeted the bleary eyes of the Novitiates of the Cult of the Serpent as they awoke. It was unpainted stone, but well-maintained and seemed to be lit by daylight. They quickly found that the three of them were all laying close enough to reach one another, and had been deposited onto an old woven rug that seemed to have been originally dyed green and blue. A scratchy woolen blanket had been thrown over the three of them, their heads felt dull and stuffy, and their stomachs churned uneasily, but beside all of that they were alive and healthy. They were still in the clothes they had been wearing when they entered the chamber with the mushroom, and some of the sandy clay from the room's floor still clung to their skin and hair.
Sitting up and taking in the rest of the room, they seemed to be in some kind of peculiar study. The sun shone in from a generously proportioned window on the room's east-facing wall, and much of that side of the room was arrayed with potted plants and glass cases that seemed to hold more plants. A heavy curtain divided the room in half, drowning everything behind it in darkness that the Novitiates were too foggy-headed to quite see through. That aside, this seemed to be someone's living quarters. A table and some cooking implements took up the middle of the room, where they saw a pot of water boiling over a small brazier. The wall closest to them was taken up by a bookshelf crammed with reading materials, as well some latched wooden cases, their contents unknown. A few decorative pieces hung on the walls, mostly animal skins and other tribal fetishes.
Their observations of the room were broken by the emergence of Nevrakis from behind the shadow of the curtain. She was holding what looked like an embalmer's tool, which she set down atop a nearby terrarium when the noticed the Novitates awake and looking at her. Her hair was tied up in yet another messy bun, and she wore only a very simple woolen robe, looking much like she had just woken up, herself. Her gem-adorned bangles still hung from her wrists and ankles; the only thing marking her out as something other than a normal woman that had just rolled out of bed.
"Oh good, you're still alive." She said, not completely sounding like she was joking. "I imagine you've got quite a lot you need to unpack from that experience. Have some coffee, it helps."
She knelt down at the table in the room's center and set out three ugly ceramic cups in front of her Novitiates. She then took the water she had boiling and strained it through a sieve full of coffee grounds into an equally-ugly clay hes. The rich aroma of hot, fresh coffee filled the small chamber, and she poured out three cups for the Novitiates and one for herself, paying no mind to any objections. She set her implements down and seated herself at the table properly, took a long, luxurious sip of her coffee with her eyes closed, and opened them again to look at the Novitiates.
"Go on, drink. Then we'll talk." Seeing their hesitation, she rolled her eyes and added, "It's only coffee, I promise you."