At four in the morning, it is cold and it is snowy. Outside the stone barracks of the 23rd garrison, a great howling wind was carving up the tundra. Without any forest of pine to break the storm, it only gained speed as it blew through the flat land, freezing everything in its wake and leaving a sheen of ice wherever it touched. From the wells to the training posts, to the stone piles, everything was glassed under a thick layer of the stuff. Worst still, at four in the morning, the day started.
No light filtered through the windows of the 23rd, and no light itched Peral’s eyes open. It was the dark season, a strange arctic time when the sun refused to rise and as such Peral hadn’t seen it in months. Instead, the gentle clap of a wooden rod against a hollowed wooden ball with a hole woke him up. It was one of the few compassionate sensations he was allowed as an Artack Elite in training, but it served a military purpose like everything else.
Now, his eyes snapped open, the energy in his body not matching the slow alarm. He jumped to his feet and drew his sword (which had been placed in his sheets). Spinning, he pointed it towards the center of the long room — his bunkmates doing the same. There at the end of every blade was a tall man with a long blue cape. He stood with his arms behind his back and an unimpressed look in his eye.
“Too slow,” Drillmaster Calvin announced without a speck of thought or surprise. “Three strikes of the rod is much too slow. And you!” He pointed at one of Peral’s bunkmates, the woman in question, Lana, furrowing her brow. “You didn’t sleep nearly as deep as you should have, you must make the most out of resting time.”
Lana let out a puff of frustration but before she could defend herself, Calvin tapped a training rod against the floor. “Two hours of deep meditation.” Everyone started to scramble to the floor, but then the training rod tapped again. “Outside.”
Artack training isn’t all about martial skill, but bodily skill and endurance. That’s why Lana and Peral will have things such as old vegetables, snowballs and even stones pelted at them while they attempt to meditate in a battle stance. If they can keep a stable mind under fire, they will be one step closer to being an elite.
Fluff about the Artack and how strict they are. The Trivia hider pretty much says anything important
The Gringam market was an open square in the center of the city of Tringam. Why it was called Gringam and not Tringam was a testament to the city's first mayor, who was more of a warlord than anything else and no one wanted to tell him he misspelled the sign when he announced the building of the market. Despite his academic failures, the market itself was a success. It was a large open area with a glorious fountain modeled after a Benean courtyard (fitted with an arguably fox-like version of Benea at the top). Surrounding this was open flagstones for people to ponder around while browsing the mishmash of stalls and blankets or to run across from store to store — the buildings marking the perimeter of the area.
Renault was standing in front of the statue, staring at the likeness of Benea and pinching his chin. This was the first time he saw another culture’s depiction of her, and from what he heard, the warchief had a bit of a crush and it was apparent in the stonework… very apparent. Lifting a brow, Renault soaked in the artistry, trying to figure out why they picked a fox of all animals when an elbow rammed into his rib and he jumped.
He turned to Fora and blinked. “Did you spot the merchant yet?”
To still be visible and yet to avoid having too much to wear, Fora was at the moment a long fur cloak with a wooden mask and a hood. “Yes. The path is not the easiest though, you have to go up a catwalk of wood planks and ropes, and walk over the market, you can see it from here, where the squirrel kids are playing in. Surprisingly easy when you are a lithe invisible woman, but I fear you might struggle.”
“Hey, I can be lithe!” Renault frowned and looked up at the suspended walkways that a completely different warchief had installed after declaring “This square is a bit flat.” Once again, no one felt the need to disagree. The paladin cracked his knuckles and craned his neck.
Fora smirked, since nobody could see it. “Hmm~ Well then, go for it, champ. Make sure to keep a swing to your walk as you go up there, helps to keep your balance.”
“Whatever,” Renault waved a hand. “I’m a paladin, it’s just a mess of planks.” With little else he made his way to the catwalk and marched right up it to the mangled mess of suspended planks, ropes and platforms. Here and there a stall was nailed to a platform and the more desperate merchant was hawking in front of it.
Taking his first step off the catwalk and onto one of the planks, the wood immediately began to swing forward underfoot. “Woah!” Renault hissed as his front foot was sent outward and his backfoot remained on the catwalk until he came to a full split. His voice squeaked. “Weedss.”
Although hilarious, the situation wasn’t exactly helping Fora’s objectives. It didn’t take long until an invisible hand held him. “Sigh.” Fora said, aloud, not even sighing. “Come here, hold my hand, I will help ya with this, before you fall down on that poor pottery stall down there.”
Renault grabbed Fora’s hand and yanked himself up. Making sure his voice was back to normal and standing up tall, the proud man shook his head. “Nah, I can do it — just caught me off guard is all.” Clearing his throat, Renault scanned the upper level until he spotted a dingo-man over by a booth of fish. The paladin clicked his tongue. “Fishy.”
A pause and Renault looked back down at the planks. This time aware of how far they swing, he started to walk across them nimbly and with precision expected of his footwork. He danced around a family of possum-people and skirted around the squirrel kids until ultimately he landed on the platform with the fish stall.
Drengant Bartago immediately slapped a massive fish down on a cutting board and bared a cleaver fit for a horse. “How much you want?”
“Depends on what you're selling.” Renault crossed his arms and the dingo-man squinted.
Fora had been at the stall already a bit before Reunault, and had been poking around as well as she could. While the dingo was distracted, she swiped a few goods that were definitely not fish, and put the ambrosian tech right in the stall’s display, not too far from the lobsters and shrimps.
“Well what about those?” Renault pointed a finger at… an ambrosian finger. Drengant twisted a scowl.
“Those aren’t for sale, they aren’t even mine.” He started to swipe them from the display but Renault pressed.
“Then whose are they?”
“My sister’s.” Drengant slammed his cleaver into the cutting block. “You ask a lot of questions.”
“Well maybe I should ask them of your sister!” Renault leaned over the counter, matching Drengant’s tone.
“Maybe you should!” Drengant barked back.
“That’s it!” Renault hissed. “I’m kicking your ass!”
“Bring it on, flower-forehead!” The dingo man rolled up his sleeves and started to march around the stall. Renault cracked his neck and shook his arms free of his cloak.
“I’m gonna muzzle you, you dog-faced piece of shit!”
“Shit!” A squirrel child mimicked as it ran by giggling. Renault angrily shook his head and jabbed a finger forward at Drengant
“Look at what you’ve done!”
The dingo-man scoffed. “Me!?”
While this sad display was unfolding, Fora continued her work, taking advantage of the new dingo-less status of the stall to check for as many clues and tech as she could, eating some shrimp too, the little treats native to Daman were far tastier than any swamp prawn from the Dusklands.
A sharp knife pricked Fora’s back and a silky voice fell over her shoulder. “Something doesn’t smell like fish, did I find it?”
Eeping with surprise and pain, Fora did the best she could to slip down the ground and quickly turn to meet her attacker, doing her best to stay quiet despite the desire to ask questions or yell. Above her was a fit woman who didn’t look too different from Drengant; sharing his dingo-like qualities. The biggest difference was this woman had two ambrosian arms of the highest quality that Fora had ever seen and a mean look in her eyes.
“Drengant!” She barked, causing the fish hawker to flinch. “I think one of those Chameleon brats is trying to rob us again.”
Renault peeked over and curled a smile. “Are you this sister I keep hearing so much about?”
“Quiet you!” Drengant turned back the paladin.
“I am no chameleon. How rude!” Fora yelled, but only after she had already seized, and thrown, a bucket full of fish entrails, at the general direction of the dingo lady. The splash of red and purple painted the woman and her immense scowl.
She visibly shook with anger. “Who…. Whoooooo…. Whooooooo!!!”
“Are you sure you’re not owls?” Renault quipped before getting a punch to the gut from Drengant.
Fora was not gonna wait and see for what happened next, she was no paladin, and one stab was enough for the day, so with her agile reflexes she jumped backwards, one time to get off the stall, two times more to fall in range of a dangling plank-and-rope bit from an upper walkway, the plan would have been flawless if not for a detail.
Magistrates were naturally invisible, and drank pigment potions to become visible. The most common one was black, which is what gave then the paper white and oily black gradient features most commonly seen in the Dusklands. In Badja Kiri, newer magistrate compatible pigments were invented, which is why down there it was not uncommon to see magistrates in white and blue, or white and purple. New compatible pigments were discovered from time to time, a newly found one, it turned out, had been shrimp pink.
With the tension and adrenaline pumping, the once fully invisible Fora was slowly, but notably, gaining a hint of pink, looking still very see through, but notably visible even for an entrail covered dingo woman. Everyone stopped and stared. Drengant’s fist fell from Renault’s stomach, his sister looked on with wide eyes, and Renault looked on with an arched eyebrow that only meant trouble.
With the scene frozen, and with as much willpower as he could muster, Renault forced his eyes away and took advantage of the pause. His fist was a blur, slamming into Drengant’s side so hard the man let out a squeak before collapsing to the platform. In half a moment, Renault had leapt over the stall, snagging a fish on his way. The sister stabbed forward with her blade, but Renault held up a cod, the knife stabbing into the scaly beast. He let go of his fishy weapon and spun, grabbing another fish as he did and sent it in an arc.
“Oof!” The heavy fish smacked the sister right in the nose and stunned her backwards. Renault’s hands disappeared under his cloak only to reappear, sending out a wire weighted with metal balls. His elbow shot out at the captured target and smacked her right at the base of the neck — her eyes dimming.
The sister’s deadweight fell into one of the paladin’s arms. He turned back to his partner, victorious.
Fora took the chance to swing and jump back, looking at them both up and down and smirking, for once that act being visible to everyone else, “Good job, but…” looking sharply to the side, she could see some sort of commotion starting, and the market would soon erupt in a chaotic rumble. “I think it's time to bail. I got an escape route, just follow my voice and be ready to jump from rooftop to rooftop.”
Renault gave a serious nod. “I’ll be right behind you.”
Fora nodded too. “Alright. Come with me.” she jumped again past the stall and the boxes, quickly making way to a nearby makeshift bridge. “Over here. Quick, and kick it off the edge soon as you are past it.”
Although the fallen bridge would delay others for a little while, it would not stop them for long, and with so many eyes in the rooftop market it would be a long walk before they had fully eluded any pursuer. Fora showcased her agility around the maze of ropes, taking more dangerous paths to scout ahead for Renault, and now half-visible, giving him full view of just what she meant by ‘lithe’. Once past the shanty of stalls and wooden structures, she stopped for a moment, observing the structure.
“Renault, kick that wooden pillar to your left, and then run, run as fast as you can.” she ordered, because as the already half-rotten from the humidity of the last snow melt structure was hit, it started to crumble, causing a chain reaction all over, ultimately causing the collapse of a whole poorly kept stone building onto the street. Renault would be able to spy Fora with a smirk and shaking fists as the world crumbled and a large cloud of dust rose, covering them all and making it impossible to see past one’s armsreach.
A hand soon touched Renault’s arm. “Over here, I got the whole path ahead memorized.” Fora added, smiling, her face increasingly visible and showcasing an excitement at the whole planned chaos unfolding. The two would continue their rooftop path but not for long, Fora pointed at a shanty house with a half-collapse roof and then both would slide in.
“Shh” Fora signaled, pointing at an old mole woman, the house owner, staring at the ruckus and cloud of dust rising from the market. With light steps they would move from her living room to her kitchen, and take the back door to a stairway, now it was time to run, if not slide, downhill, as the snowmelt from the heat of all houses provided a small stream down straight to the edges of the town. A bit foul smelling, and with many close calls as they had to move past iron grills and under makeshift stone and wood bridges, but ultimately, they were fully out, the noise and smell of the town left behind as they entered a nearby forest, stopping at a grove where Fora had already hid a basic cache of supplies, including enough ropes to bind a dingo woman.
“Hah! Now that was quite something, wasn’t it?” she almost glowed in the quality of her work. Truth be told, most of it was unnecessary, but it was better to be safe than sorry. She also continued to be fully unaware of just how vibile she was, which made the fact she had a proud victorious pose as she looked back at Renault notably dorkish, as no one was supposed to see it, so why even bother? “Now, can I trust you to finish it and bind her? I would help but I need to rest, my legs and arms turned into gelatin.”
The paladin was already tightening the final knot on the unconscious dingo-gal when he shook his head at his pinkish companion. “Did anyone ever tell you that you’re a little scary?” He cracked a grin. “Pink might be your color, though.”
“Yes, quite a few times actually.” she nodded to herself. “Had quite a name for myself back in the academy.” she added walking around as she talked.
“You are getting quite good at hearing me out too, you barely could notice me back when I first went invisible, now you can pretty much follow me around. Guess I gotta murder ya later to make sure we can spy on Benea’s garden and baths.” she stretched. “That is a joke though, I am not even one of the agile ones as far as active magistrates go.”
Renault blinked and stood up straight from his stooped position. He slapped a hand on Fora’s shoulder to pin her midwalk and laughed. “You idiot, I can see you.”
“Huh?” she blinked. “What do you mean, I haven’t taken the ink in so long… What the…” she looked down, and saw her form, still a bit see through, but increasingly visible, to confirm, she picked up the nearest metal object and gazed upon herself, from the braided hair to, well, everything, it was all visible.
“Oh!” she gasped and stepped back, eyes wide. “Renault… This is…”
“YES! Oh Renault! (the paladin choked on his breath) You wouldn’t know for how BLOODY long I have been seeking something like this! Nyoriko that bitch will have her chin upon the ground when I show up with a fully natural, renewable, pink dye. This will be talk of the boutiques, THE dye for all chic magistrates in the next festival. If I was a Xaviorard merchant, I’d be rich!”
It took her a long moment for her to cool down, the woman slapping at Renaults’ shoulder with a wide, wide smirk, almost making her look like one of those half-foxes of the Daman. “Man, what a day, got to break stuff up and make scientific breakthroughs. Phew!” she took a deep breath. “Anyway, uh. Do you have like, spare clothes? I guess walking about naked isn’t that viable when I am visible, no?”
“Hmm..” Renault fell into a deep thought, eyes sizing Fora up as he did. He looked down at his cloak and then back up at Fora and repeated. “Hmm…” Another second went by and he shook his head. “Nope.”
“Okay then. Guess I will just walk around with you like this then. All day. Until I die of hypothermia or something.
“Ugh.” Renault shimmied his cloak free and tossed it over Fora’s shoulders (a veritable clank sounding as hidden weapons jangled inside the folds). He crossed his arms, now bare and revealing the multitude of needles and knives strapped to his biceps and forearms. “I’m not that much of an asshole. Close, but not quite.”
Fora was quick to adjust the cape into a tunic, keeping a few daggers in the fold. “Much warmer. You are a good guy Renault. Remind me to give you back your wallet when we get back to your main camp. I needed a bit of collateral for when we had our mark.” it was impressive how much more annoying she became when she was humanized in form, fancy clothes and invisibility really did lots to make her more imposing. “Wanna make bets on what we will have to do for her to spit out all we want? Oh! Maybe set up a good kidnapper bad kidnapper routine!?”
Hefting the sister over his shoulder, Renault regarded Fora with a raised brow before letting loose a sigh. “Add a little bit of pink and suddenly your bubbles come out, huh? We can go with that plan, and if it doesn’t work I can wind you up on another rant until her head explodes. Deal?”
“Ah. Do you know what we call doing that in the Badja Kiri Psychological Department? Benean tactics~”
Using his free hand, Renault flicked her forehead. “And don’t you forget it.”
Renault and Fora are back at it again. We open up with Renault sizing up a particularly generous sculpture of Benea and an invisible, naked Fora doing surveillance for the merchant Drengant Bartago. They find him in the upper floating platforms of the Gringam market and decide to squeeze some information out of him. It doesn’t work and Renault and Drengant get into a fight (well if you can call it that) before Fora is found out by Drengant’s sister, the assistant to Jole. Her and Fora have a spat and in the end Fora (unbeknownst to her) becomes visible by eating a shrimp. The nudey ghost routine does wonders at distracting the siblings and Renault manages to use all his will to take his eyes off Fora and use it to get the upper hand. He goes all paladin on their asses and kidnaps the sister, and then escapes with Fora.
Later Fora showcases a bubbly side to her on account of the shrimp chemicals and Renault is amused. They decide to interrogate the sister when they get back to camp, but not before Renault reluctantly lends the naked Fora a cloak to wear.
“There!” Benea chimed with a wide grin. She stood on a little stool with her hands now placed victoriously on her hips. All around Xavior’s throne room hung chains of daisies. They hung from everything. The banners, the shelves, the rafters, the chandeliers, the braziers, the frowning guards, everything. Where there wasn't a chain of flowers, Benea had placed a potted plant or replaced old red fabric with a fresh creme one stitched with floral patterns.
Not even the central dias or throne was spared, with the old impressive furniture replaced with something more modern and chic. The wooden frame was hand carved and given gentle artistic curves and a bright stain finish. Stretched across the frame was creamy silks squeezing plump cushions. Content with her victory, the goddess plopped herself into the chair, releasing the perfume that was imbued into the cotton and let out a long sigh.
“It smells wonderful in here, don’t you agree darling?”
A nervous guard nodded vigorously, the daisies that covered him nodding in return.
“Do you think Xavior will like it?”
Another furious nod.
“Oh! I also got him this!”
She swiped a booklet from seemingly nowhere. “It’s a daily log, I signed it myself and even pre-filled it with a daily schedule for the next three years.”
The guard flinch instinctively but then quickly smiled and nodded. It was too late, Benea saw the initial flinch and her smile drooped.
“Oh foo, you don’t think that’s too little do you?”
Somewhere in the frozen part of the Daman lands, Renault found himself in a squat building crowded by plenty of other buildings. This particular abode was filled with smoke from both a roaring hearth and the haze of some smokables the patrons of the establishment bought from a strange plant woman behind the bar. She was a unique thing, Renault having never seen such a person before, with a pale green skin, glossy black eyes and protrusions of leaves and grassy stalks here and there, giving her not only a full head of ‘hair’ but grassy tassels on her joints. The paladin didn’t mean to stare, but he did, hidden behind the lip of his clay cup and hunched on a low seated table — turns out posture isn’t too important to hunchbacked wolf people and mutated hippos.
A voice lilted over the sounds of the other patrons.
Renault turned from his cup and looked up at a tall woman staring down at him. She was plain but pretty, with little mutation other than a stray scale or four on her left cheek and blazing yellow eyes. The paladin gave her a sly smile in return. Without returning it, she continued. “And who might you be?”
Pumping an eyebrow, Renault answered, “Who’s asking?”
“Him.” The lady jabbed a thumb behind her, pointing out a large man with an angry misshapen face, playing with a sharp dagger.
“EUGH!” Renault flinched. The response wasn’t taken well and the large man bumbled out of his chair. As he approached, he was winged by two other Damans, each with a sharp blade.
The paladin stood up, finding himself the same height as the woman. He folded his arms under his cloak, fingers reaching for the metal ends of his armaments. “You too?” He asked with a serious inflection.
“Not my fight,” the woman replied and stepped out of the way.
“I know who you are,” The big man said, his voice shutting down all the chatter of the building. He pointed with his chin at Renault’s forehead, or more specifically, the chamomile tattoo that was kissed upon it. “You’re one of the Beneans.”
“Astute observation my obtuse friend,” Renault grit his teeth. “I don’t suppose this is a welcome party?”
“I put a lot of money on MASTEKEN in that first round,” the big man growled.
“What in the hell is a MASTEKEN?” Renault balked.
“That’s it!” The big man looked at his wingmen. “Get me my reimbursement.”
Both of the bodyguards took menacing steps forward. Renault fell into a low stance and shrugged his cloak behind him, to reveal his martial form. He stood crouched, as if about to strike, one hand on the long scabbard of a sheathed blade, the other on it’s hilt, as if he was about to draw it. He stared down the closest of the wingment, enough to make them stop in their tracks.
“Do you know the secret way of the blade?” Renault asked. “It’s said a true master can kill a foe by simply unsheathing their blade.” He shook his sheathed blade to bring attention to it. “The trick is that I can only swipe outwards in one predictable direction, so it is pure skill and speed that drives the sword into the neck of the enemy. Will you be ready for it?”
A bead of sweat began to form on the Daman’s forehead as he stared at Renault’s stone cold visage. He took a step forward. Renault tugged on the end of his blade, but instead of unsheathing it with a swipe, he let go — the blade flying pommel first in a straight line and smashing into the Daman’s nose with a bloody pop. The enemy howled but Renault already had pulled a different blade from the other side of his hip, the steel edge gutting the man.
The other bodyguard swung, but Renault blurred under it and came up with a headbutt — crashing against the strongman’s chin and knocking him backwards. With the enemy reeling, Renault tossed two needles from seemingly nowhere, the spines shooting into the man’s exposed neck. With a fluid movement, he spun back to the big man, the tip of his blade on the back of his neck.
Sweating, the big man had his hands held up and a scared looked stamped into his face. Then with a blast of air, the door to the establishment opened and in walked a strange figure, clad in a thick red cloak, her face remained unseen, almost as if it was only an expressionless dark void, her clothes, from what could be seen from the small peeks as the cloak moved, was something that was trying really hard to be Daman in style, but not quite there, the leather was seamlessly cut, the fabric was stainless and the boot, made of albino crocodile leather, while Daman-ish in pride and excess, seemed to have been crafted by careful hands, rather than just cutting the thing in two halves and forcing one’s feet in what was left . Renault recognized the red cloak as the sign he was waiting for and grinned. “Excuse me gentlemen, my date is here.”
Folding his sword back under his cloak, Renault walked from the fight scene and bumped his shoulder against hers before whispering. “You’re late.”
“I am not. This is the exact moment in which I said I would be here, as seen from the height of the moon and star positions.” she replied in genuine annoyance at the implication, as if Renault had started the conversation by declaring she was a failure, a broken clock. In truth, she had been waiting outside for quite a while just to make sure she was exactly punctual, not a moment too early or too late. “Nevertheless, shall we start our date? If you have more friends to play with I can wait for as long as you need.”
“I think I’ve played plenty,” Renault answered before shoving a hand behind him and waving at the mess he caused. “Au revoir!” His voice turned low as he looked back at the contact. “Let’s get the fuck outta here.”
The pair walked away from the smoky building and into the maze that was the unplanned town. Snow was starting to fall, dusting the air and the ground alike as they walked in silence. Due to the nature of the weather, not even a winter bird peeped, leaving the two in an echo with only the sound of the snow brushing against each other, that was until Renault broke the trance.
“So, where is master Jole?”
“Ah. Sun’s shine upon this land!” the figure blurted in clear frustration, she had been suspicious the whole time, the data was not adding up, but she had hopeful theories of perhaps the man being an envoy or a dummy, she herself had paid a Daman vulpine woman to be her stand-in for the meeting at first, but she had run off with her silver instead. “I expected you to know that.”
She pulled back the cloak to reveal her full face, or rather, a second mask hiding beneath the first, as the face was fully covered by black fabric. She wore a tiara of platinum adorning her black hair. “I am a magistrate. Under Dzallitsunya. I take you are a paladin, under Benea?”
Renault stopped, the pair coming to a halt. He stared long and hard at her covered face, pinching his chin and squinting. “Son of a bitch, this isn’t a joke is it?” He sighed and hung his head.
Defeated, he added. “Renault, Blade of Benea.”
“Fora, expedition leader of the Halle Kemiha.” she added, shaking her head too. “Seems like our lines of Daman contacts found themselves tangled up. Unfortunate.” she added, once again calmer, like a proper magistrate. “But the knowledge you too found Jole is at least reassuring, lest he too turns out to be a Xaviorard council agent or even an Anak’Thas zealot.”
“If it’s the latter, then we can take turns venting our stress,” Renault looked up at the snowy sky and blinked as the flakes started to kiss his face. He let out a puff of frozen air and hummed a thought. “I have another lead, Fora.” He tried the name out. “If you aren’t opposed to working with a paladin.” Given her experience with the Daman so far, it would be a massive step up. “I see no issue in that, our masters are allies and friends, so helping each other seems logical.” she nodded, but Renault would feel, despite the covered face, that she held an inquisitive glare, actively measuring how much she actually believed what she had just said.
Peeking from the corner of his eye, Renault gave her a sideways glance. “I was thinking the same thing. Are you squeamish?”
“I became leader of the expedition branch by showing extreme prowess in anatomical research of unusual beasts. I could handle poking at a bowl of Maelite bug entrails, so I believe it's statistically unlikely I will meet something more nauseating than that?” She spoke the words like someone delivering a résumé. “Unless you mean bodily harm? Provided it's fruitful I would not mind it.”
Renault slowly turned to her and cocked a brow. He opened his mouth but then thought for a second before changing his tone and saying. “There is a business nearby, a shady one, where in a surgeon is known to ‘fix’ recently captured slaves to increase their market value. He makes his money via royalties on the sale and is quite popular since a majority of his fixes use ambrosian limbs. Do you see where I’m going with this?” Before she could answer, Renault added.
“I have reason to believe the higher craftsmanship is of Jole, meaning the surgeon has a link to his workshop, but we would need to go undercover to confirm their quality — and since you’re clearly the smarter of us.” He paused, “well, how would you like to be a newly christened slave-driver?”
“My goddess does have a very, uhm, firm stance towards slavery. My orders were, if given the chance, to poison and torment slavers at will. It was optional though, extra curricular activity, so I may hold off on that for our mission, but overall, let’s try to keep my time as your mistress to a minimum, okay? Having a slave wouldn’t be good for my reputation.” she smirked, no mask could hide that. “Now, do you have your own cuffs or should I bring my own?”
“Benea save me, I can already see this is going to your head.” Renault pinched the bridge of his nose. A long pause. Through the snow, one could practically hear Renault’s gears turning until he finally snapped a finger. “Ah! No need for cuffs, my dear Fora. I’d pretend I have a missing arm, hence our reason for the visit, and we can find a fake soul-biter to put around my neck. Just make sure you get the information out of him we need before he finds out I have all my digits.”
“Huh~” she seemed in a much better mood than a moment before already, the stage was being set again in her mind. “I will bring enough wine and dream honey, by the end of it the man wouldn’t be able to tell how many necks you have, much less arms.”
“It’s a date then!” Renault clapped his hands together. “Just, uhm, save some of that dream honey, would you?”
Deep in the arctic of the Damans we are reintroduced to our hero, Renault, the Blade of Benea. He is sulking in a bar room staring at a shrubby lady when a tall woman approaches him only to ruin the party by then inviting a big jackass of a man to Renault’s table. The man has a grudge against Paladins and a fight ensues. Renault wins the scrap just in time for a red-cloaked woman to enter the bar — his mark. He excuses himself and pulls the lady out of the building only to find out that it’s not his mark but Fora, the expedition leader of the Halle Kemiha, from the dusklands.
Turns out they are looking for the same Master Jole to get the best secrets of the best quality soul tech so they agree to join forces. Renault then shares a second lead he had — a sinister surgeon known for ‘fixing’ newly captures slaves with amborsian tech for a portion of the sale money. They suspect he has a connection with Jole’s workshop and devise a plan to infiltrate, in which Fora will act as a slaver and Renault the slave … thought Renault has some reservations with how quickly Fora picked up the role.
The paladins matched through a barren land. Where once prosperous piatouse farms and rich forests had stood, now there was only ash and ruins, which were interspersed with earthworks and stone structures built by Xavior’s forces as they prepared the land to hold it against the offspring of Grym’s cradle. Yet it was neither of these forces that had ruined the land, but instead it was the moon goddess who had demanded the people enact this devastation upon their own homes and to then flee to the north. Ironically into what was about to become another warzone, if the whispers coming from the far north were to be believed.
Eventually the marching soldiers found their destination at the end of the dirt road worming its way through the dead land. The camp they had sought out was a sea of tents which, while the greater structure of the camp had been organized with enough high level planning to have a central path through it, at the local level lacked any kind of cohesion, which very much matched the nature of the force presently calling it home.
As the paladins matched up the central avenue towards the command tent they got a good look at some of the parts that made up the aeclectic force. Horse archers from the nomadic tribes that had begun life in the 12th realm but had long since wandered beyond that. Small companies of demons, specialized to specific forms and strategies, from hulking armored burisers to swift winged skirmishers or athletic javelin throwers. They saw a pack of beastmen from the far north east, several of which had additional limbs grafted to them.
There were humans in flashy garb decorated with wolf pelts and velociraptor feathers and armed with hunting gear, burly mean and woman with large axes, dusklanders spending the day under wide tarps and umbrellas and, a standout among the camp, a pair of spinosaurus with reins and bridles on their long snouts, and large steel blades attached to their claws being looked after by a beastmaster’s helpers.
The bulk of the forces however, were common men and women armed and armored by the state. Many were young people from or immigrants to the 12th realm who had been looking for their first occupation when the call to arms came out. However alongside them where an almost equal number from people from the 13th realm, many the same people who the dusk goddess had ordered to abandon their homes in the south and, left purposeless by the lost of their land, had been an eager source of recruits who had personal investment in striking down (one of) the sources of their woes. The tension between them and the dusklanders was a constant source of quarreling and discipline infractions.
There had, to an extent, been too many people from the 12th willing to sign up, more than the army had expected anyway, so their gear was drawn from whatever they had lying around. As the paladins watched them practicing he saw the bronze, copper or even cloth armored soldiers planting rows of spears from all ages in the ground before they raised the only thing on which the state had not slouched its spending: hundreds upon hundreds of repeating crossbows.
While weaker than the nomads bows or the steel crossbows being presented to the paladins, the lever operated crossbows were incredibly easy to use, and could spit out volley after volley of cheap obsidian tipped bolts. Though the tips of the bolts were brittle, the naturally wickedly sharp stones worked well enough against the exposed flesh they were expecting to face when fighting the hive.
Past all of these troops, the center of the camp, was the paladin's final goal, a large commanding tent that towered over its lesser kin, and had a fair bit of flash too. Stylised goat’s head logos had been stitched into the milky white canvas in blood red thread at semi regular intervals, while the top of the central post had had a brass hydra figurehead wrapped around the black painted wood. The bigger show of wealth however was not the tent, but its guards. Steel clad superior demons who stood head and shoulders above even the tallest humans, and who’s great billowing wings would be able to keep them aloft despite that intense bulk.
Two of these stood in front of the entrance and crossed a pair of heavy axes across it when they saw the paladins approaching.
“Hold it right there,” one of the towering brutes barked, before the other began to apologize more politely “We just need to make sure the boss is ready to meet yo-” before the answer presented itself when the tent flap opened, a horned priest poked his head out of the tent, took one look at the paladins and then called back “yes it’s them,” before listening for a moment and then ordering the guards to let them inside.
A few moments later they were escorted into the tent and escorted by the priest past a set of personal quarters and a bulging treasury presumably used to pay the troops, and into the command room where a small assortment of humans and demons were clustered around a table hosting a map of node 13 and another of node 18. The node 13 map had various simple playing pieces for fortifications and troops spread out across a line each side of the central camp, while 18 had ones for the enemy’s locations on it. Or rather location.
There was also a group of pieces in the midst of being moved from one map to the other, to which a pale, bald, heavy set man in thick robes and a bit more jewelry than would be tasteful added a piece with Benean symbology too before he upright and greeted the paladins.
“Ah, welcome lads and lasses, I’m General Damio” he introduced himself as he strode around the table before reaching out a hand to shake the leader of the group “Pleasure to meet you all, I hope your journey was uneventful and your all fit and raring to go?”
A paladin dressed in steel stepped forward and removed a blue plumed helmet to reveal the stone stoic face of a woman who had seen plenty of violence. Her voice matched her seriousness. “The Artack Elites are always ready. Sixty from the second region of the Queendom and three-hundred regulars, all kissed, are happy to report our safe arrival. The Commander of the Pristine Palace also sends his apologies that more couldn’t be sent, with a new wave of recruits being sent to reinforce the quarantine. Though I understand General Frederick of the 12th Recruitment managed to send over one-hundred fresh greens before us?”
“Right you are” the general agreed with a toothy smile “I’ll direct your people to where they’re camped right away. Or Tom will, there’s a good lad”
The priest looked a little put upon by this, but nodded and hurried back outside to act as a guide through the unintuitively laid out camp.
“Despite being green I’m told they’re sharpening up real quick, some of the other companies could learn a thing or two from your lot when it comes to training. Or have, actually” the man said conversationally as he tramped his way back to the war table “I know some of the priests sent along have been furiously taking notes at the very least”
“Anyway” Damio took a seat in a comfy armchair at one end of the war room table, before inviting her to join him and his staff at it “Can I get you anything? Water? Tea? Juice Wine? The man paused and then corrected himself ”Actually it's probably too early for wine. Especially since, now that you're here, we should start spurring preparations for the attack up to a galop”
The Artack Captain took a seat before jabbing a finger at one of the staff. “Bring me a mug of boiled water, still warm, and a cup of broth.”
Turning her attention back to Damio, she added. “I’m Captain Pricilla. I feel like we skipped introductions.”
“Ah, my apologies for rushing ahead. Pleasure to meet you Captain” the big man replied as one of his servants rushed off to fulfill the Paladin’s moderate request which ironically ended up being harder to fulfill than Damio’s suggestions. It took a bit of time, and an excursion into the camp to find (and pay) someone with a broth already on the go, to fulfill that half of her request.
At least with how much the 12th realmers liked tea, boiled water was immediately on hand, and so that half of the request arrived a few moments after it was asked for via a recently boiled kettle.
Pricilla held her hand out, collecting a hot mug of water from the staff, her eyes still on Damio. “And you are General Damio. Good. So what’s your plan?”
“It’s quite simple really. You were the last group of reinforcements we are expecting, or significant ones anyway” Damio explained “Up until now, we’ve been focusing on arraying a defensive line across the flatlands between the sea and the mountains” as the general spoke one of his staff pointed out what he was talking about on the map using a wand.
“Now that’s all well and good. We’re keeping people safe, but the thing is, the taint hasn't shown much interest in moving out, so we’ve basically got a load of troops sitting about twiddling their thumbs not doing much of anything while that rotten mass does creator knows what. It's just sitting there, menacingly, and I don’t like it.” He shook his head at the thought of whatever doom was brewing down there, but spared her the speculation that had been going on since the current standoff had begun.
“Pus, I don't need to tell you how expensive that can be” he added with a ringing of his hands miserly “Especially with the state of the land behind us. Only good land for forage is ahead of us, and, well, while that’s contested ground it's not exactly safe to use. So we need to ship everything in, except some seafood from the coast that is, and that costs a whole load of godheads, let me tell you.” Indeed he could, right down to the last coin.
“So, with that in mind, as soon as you are settled and integrated into the army structure, we’re going to be taking the fight to hive. Root out that blight now, rather than sitting here and letting it fester,” as he said that, the group of troops on the border were pushed deep into the 18th realm by Damio’s assistant “and end this whole mess with one swift stroke”
There was a deliberate cough from one of the other members of the table, a scared woman with an Ambroisen arm, which reminded the general to tone it back a bit to “or at least get a solid first punch in.”
Pricilla sipped at her hot water silently and then looked off to her side. A plainly clothed staff member was standing there with a steaming cup of broth. She gingerly took it from him and then with a hand on each cup, started taking slow sips of each at irregular intervals as she thought. Finally, she piped up. “How does the enemy act in a fight?”
“We’ve got files on all the different forms of ugly mugs this hive produces. I can furnish you with copies” Damio replied, before gesturing to a servant who quickly brought over a set of sheets detailing observations of the creatures, complete with diagrams. They were, notably, light on details when it came to anything other than what could be gleaned by sight or shooting them.
“However when it comes to fighting, all we have on record is skirmishes. So the other half of the point of advancing is to be able to fight a battle that isn't entirely based on horse archery” the scarred woman who had couged stepped in to explain “and get proper iead of what fighting the hive is like”
“We shouldn’t commit to a pitched battle then,” Pricilla frowned. “We need to screen the forces and their capabilities before we put the lives of our soldiers on the line. In the Artack, rushing in means death.”
“And yet how can we learn how they fight without going blade to claw with them?” the woman, Angela, asked, before adding “In smaller battles if possible, of course.”
“Let me interrupt you,” Pricilla — did just that — “When subduring an enemy you have to cut it off from its resources to ensure it won’t spring back. The enemy must first be screened to make sure that a victory on the battlefield is indeed just that. Some enemies can hypothetically sustain greater losses than we ever could and even a decisive victory in a battle for us would be a defeat in the war, with us feeling loss heavier and our resources being burned quicker. We have to figure out what propagates the enemy, how to cut it off from its resources, and understand how to weaken it before we engage in an offensive battle. In the meantime, I suggest we stick to skirmishing it and pushing it south and then steadily claiming territory gained with fortifications.”
“Problem is, we haven't been able to identify any kind of infrastructure or logistics other than the one around the node here” Damio informed her “there's no farms, sub hives or anything of the sort that we have been able to spot. It seems to just sustain itself from nothing” he added with a frustrated tone.
“Now if we can find resources it feeds off of as we push in and get a chance to investigate the area more deeply, I agree, we should weaken it if we do find something we can threaten beyond the hive. The worry, and at this point the expectation, is that there will be none.” Angela noted, gesturing a hand at the map that indeed did cluster everything the enemy owned (that they knew of) around the node. “And that it will either come at us for a single pitched battle once threatened, or stay around the node till we siege it.”
Pricilla frowned, looking at the map. “Everyone needs to eat something.”
“Well, except the gods, and we worry, maybe some of the things they make” Angela said, supplying their current hypothesis “that said, our scouting is by no means perfect. Maybe there's farms tucked away underground somehow, or they use hunting parties that are too small to spot from a distance. Only way to find out is to move in with significant forces and then to occupy territory inorder to see what we can find/prompt by doing so.”
“We could attempt to capture one of them,” Pricilla suggested, “and study how it functions.”
Both cringed at the prospect, their experiences with the wolves of the 12th souring them to any interaction with this foe that was not exterminated.
“You're welcome to try, but it sounds like an unnecessary risk. Besides, It’s a monster, what are you going to do once you capture one, interrogate it?” Angela scoffed dismissively, but Damio had been having second thoughts.
“While I‘m not sure how much we can learn from one, as a propaganda tool It could be invaluable. Let people back home and in the north see the face of the enemy, yeah?” He suggested “Drum up more financial support as a result?”
“Hmmm. Could it be good for morale as well? Harder to be scared of something you’ve seen bound and caged” Angela admitted, before saying that “I still don't see what you think you can learn from a captured beast however” with admittedly far less disdain for the idea than she had had in her initial dismissal now that her gut reaction to it had passed.
“I was thinking more along the lines of splitting one open and figuring out how it lives and procreates,” Pricilla admitted. “I’m no scholar, but it would be helpful knowing the best way to kill them and prevent more of them.”
“Can’t we just use a corpse?” Damio asked, but Angela understood perfectly now, a cruel grin on her lips as she explained “Not if we want to learn how best to make it bleed, one cut at a time.”
“We can kill it after,” Pricilla agreed, “but we need information.”
“If this information gathering doesn't kill it first” Damio noted dryly, before drumming his fingers on his chair for a few moments and then saying “Alright, you’ve convinced me as well, we’ll add this to our list of objectives,” before nodding to an assistant who added to a literal list, and then continuing “We can work out the details of how we’ll do this later, but we have a beastmaster on the payroll who may come in handy when it comes to this capture attempt”
“Filler. Excellent… speaking of your payroll, tell me about the rest of your army.”
“Very well,-” Damio said, and then began to fill her in first on the state of the army, and then on all other military matters because the veteran paladin had quickly proved herself to be an invaluable source of real world expertise for the freshly formed army. Changes were enacted upon her recommendation over the next few days and then, less than a week after it was assembled, the south western coalition army decamped, leaving their lightly crew defensive line, and began to pick its way south.
And the war for node 18 truly began.
We follow a group of paladins as they trek through the fortified wasteland that is south of node 13, and then through the main camp of the defensive line that has been dug between nodes 13 and 18 (getting a bit of an overview of the forces there as they go).
The leaders of this group enter the central command tent, and there one of them, Captain Pricilla (an experienced paladin with real world war experience), engages in a conversation with General Damio and his right hand woman Angela (a pair who are implicitly suggested to be the merchant and caravan guard briefly featured in the post where Xavior met Frederik).
Pricilla gets an understanding of the situation, which is that:
They intend to move out and try to cleanse node 18 rather than sit (expensively) idle on their defensive line. The army hasn’t fought much except skirmishes with flier offspring, and is lacking in much detailed scouting information. They haven't seen any kind of resource gathering or logistics operations, and they assume that the offspring are sustained by the cradle somehow, or dont need food. All of this means that they expect to have to square off on one big battle to destroy the hive
Pricilla is not a fan of this, and there is a bit of back and forth until the understanding is reached that they will try to not bet it all on that one battle if they can. They also agree to try and capture some of the ospring so that they can be live dissected in order to learn their weaknesses.
Then we fade away form that scene as they start to talk logistics, troop numbers, army structure and such, and instead skip forwards to them setting out, Pricilla now firmly a part of the army’s upper brass. Under Master Roshi, Pricilla learns the Kamehameha.
“Woah! Well now wait!” Tael squawked. The crow was flapping haphazardly against the cold cobble of one of Eunomia’s alleyways. They didn’t choose to be here, and his broken wing kept him from escaping. Tael could feel his divine might frazzle, with most of it already expended in the fight. Now all the crow god could do was scramble against the cold stone in the shadows of Eunomia’s buildings, looking up at their assailant.
Two eyes as blue as ice stared back down at Tael. Black boots came to a scuffing stop, effectively blocking the only way out, a stone and iron privacy wall wedged behind the crow. Behind the wall, Tael could hear the bustle of the city, the steps of the everyday man or woman and the bleating of goats. On the other side, they could hear everything but on Tael’s side, there was silence. Only the thump of their heart filled Tael’s ears as they stared up at their killer.
Garravar was silent, his spear pointing down at the bird. Hate was in Garravar’s eyes, hate that snagged and entranced Tael. What could Tale have possibly ever done to this man to hate him so much. As if dumbfounded, through the pain, Tael asked. “Why?”
Tolbog came stabbing down and with a nearly silent thrust, Tael couldn’t hear anything anymore.
Above Monica, the azure sky suddenly clapped a crimson red, if only for a moment. It felt as if lightning had struck and bled the sky. The people of Eunomia froze when it happened, only to shake their heads in wonder as it disappeared as quickly as it came. In minutes, people weren’t sure it even happened at all, some laughing about it while others bit their knuckles in thought.
Monica tilted her head with curiosity, staring upwards at the sky briefly before resuming her journey throughout the streets of the bustling city. She studied the reactions of its people, and the many details of her surroundings, from an unobtrusive position upon the rooftops where few would even notice her presence. She silently flew from building to building, exploring more and more Eunomia while she observed its inhabitants performing their daily activities. It was the scent of death that distracted her from her spectating, when she flew over an alleyway and her senses warned of the ominous odor.
She stood at the edge of one building, peering down into the alley where she saw a strange sight. “Oa.” She softly called out to the lone figure by the corpse of a familiar crow, before she stepped off the edge and descended downwards. She alighted beside Tael, and kneeled beside the slain god as black tears began to trickle out from her eyes. “May you find peace and joy, wherever you have gone…” She said, then turned her gaze to stare into the eyes of Garravar.
“I would move away from the body,” Garravar said, his spear crackling into frozen dust as he freed his hand from it. Looking away he added. “It’s corrupted with the despondency.”
“It is beautiful and grotesque. An enigma.” She murmured as she stood and proceeded to introduce herself. “My name is Monica. It is a pleasure to meet you.”
“You own 33 and 11,” Garravar recounted before taking a step closer as if to inspect the goddess. “I’m Garravar.”
“You own 33 and 11.” Monica repeated, and her voice echoed quietly in the alleyway. “Own? Possess? Numbers? I possess nothing as the embodiment of zero and an aspect of infinity.” She slowly flew closer by conjuring a wind that carried her, reducing the distance between them as well with an inquisitive glitter in her silver eyes stained with stygian tears that continued to trail down her cheeks as she stared at him.
Holding out a hand as if to say stop, the Winter god said, “on the contrary, you have stained two nodes with your will. As far as they are concerned, you possess them.” The god cocked his head to the side, giving Monica a long stare.
“You don’t know what you’re doing here, do you?”
She held up a hand, pulling the sleeve back to reveal it, then extending it outwards. “May I?” She asked, as she gestured towards him. Garravar shook his head.
“Where is here?” Monica inquired, turning her attention to her hand, stretching her fingers and peering at her palm with an impassive look. She brought her hand upwards to her face, close enough to brush her lips with two fingers, and then hummed to herself.
“Did Peninal forget to complete you?” Garravar waved a hand, whipping up a cloud of ice around it. It expanded and with the crack of winter freeze, Tolbog appeared back in his hand. He let the but hit the ground and started to turn away.
“I fear I am unholy. As an enemy, I ask you, would you help me with my wish? Will you help me make a peaceful world?” Monica asked as she kept close to him.
“You remind me of someone I once knew.” Garravar’s voice came. “Speak your mind… plainly.”
“I am seeking paradise. Will you accompany me on my journey?” She replied, a surge of insistence resonating in her voice. “I am alone, and yet I am lost in an ocean of life. I am seeking a utopia, I think. It is a theory. A Ume theory.” She added, the lack of emotion and inflexion returning to her tone.
Garravar lifted a brow. “Why don’t you just make paradise. The nodes are right there for you, they can create a utopia. Or is there something else on your mind, as scrambled as it seems?”
“That which I seek cannot be created unless it is destroyed as well. A terrible cycle of rebirth and death that has imprisoned me. It has imprisoned you as well. You don’t know what you’re doing here, do you?” Monica intoned as she crossed her arms and shook her head back and forth. “You…” she whispered, lost in her thoughts.
“I do,” Garravar answered simply. He turned fully to Monica and stood straight, towering over her. “There is no cycle, there is no imprisonment, just your own existentialism. I’ve heard it before, trust me. In your case I’d say Peninal had some final thoughts of Auriel before he died, so I suppose I should apologize on his behalf.” A smile formed on Garravar’s face and he let out a single laugh.
“Perhaps there is a cycle for some.”
“Yet there is no cycle. Closer and closer. Hmm… Trust you? Do you trust me? There is love and hatred in my heart; a love and hatred for you. The one who is beautiful and grotesque all at once. Shall we betray each other then?” Monica replied.
Squinting his eyes Garravar leveled his spear so it stood between them, its serrated point aimed at Monica’s gut. “Would you step forward and impale yourself on Tolbog?”
“I cannot. How does one impale that which is impaled? How does one impale itself? Would you stab me with your spear? I am curious where Tolbog and Garravar and Monica go… I see the darkness that awaits ahead, and the light that follows from behind. Pierce me with one and see if I remain zero, is that the question?” Monica moved forward, pressing herself against the tip of the weapon, letting it touch the fabric of attire as it peel back and opened, exposing her belly.
“The choice is yours,” Garravar answered, holding the spear still.
“Cease the lying. You wield the weapon. The triggering event, the calamity, all of that which came before and all of that which has yet to come. Do you purposely avoid the truth? There is no choice now. Will you help or hinder me in making a peaceful world?” Monica’s wings extended outwards and curved, the pinions reaching towards Garravar.
“You don’t even know what peace is.” Tolbog fell from Monica’s stomach. Garravar brought it back to his side. “Ask me again when you have a plan, if you’re still living. The despondency often eats the confused ones, see to it that you aren’t one of them.”
Monica mended her robe and sighed. “You are also amusing. Plans. Numbers. Trust. I am confused by the crucible, and the promise of paradise beyond this prison. The paradox poisons my mind, yet I am content. What am I to do with you?” She asked as her head lulled to the side and she faintly smiled.
Taking a few steps back, Garravar answered, “I’m sure there are plenty of others asking the same question.” He turned away and continued his walk. “Or maybe not, people are forgetful.”
“People… I am not people. Do you wish to be forgotten for eternity? Is that why you flee from me?” Monica asked from above as she soared to the top of the building beside them.
“I know when I’m outmatched,” Garravar answered as he stepped out of the alley and onto the streets. Tolbog was gone again and Garravar was walking through the streets with ease, the people giving him a wide berth without even paying much attention to him. He walked with a certain confidence, only pausing a thoughtful look to stare up at Monica and then back down again, shaking his head.
“Shall I console myself by believing we flee from each other. The promise of paradise insinuates that we will reach our wishes. An enemy must engage their foe to find conflict and create a peaceful world, yet neither of us… received a key. How frustrating.” Monica muttered, before she flew somewhere else to resume her spectating of Eunomia and its denizens. It was later when she discovered a small cut on her stomach and whispered to herself that perhaps she had enjoyed their conversation more than she had thought.
Tael, starting to be eaten by the despondency, is put out of his misery by Garravar in the city of Eunomia. Monica spots the murder and comes to investigate. Garravar learns first hand how silly Monica is. It’s a strange conversation and at one point Garravar offers Monica the chance to stab herself on Tolbog. She declines and Garravar shrugs then eventually they part ways, only for Monica to learn that Tolbog did indeed cut her.
Some key points of their conversation:
Monica asks Garravar to help her build a paradise, its inconclusive
Garravar relates Monica to an unfinished Auriel
Monica declares Garravar her enemy and tells him he isn’t being her enemy correctly
Garravar tells Monica to look out for the despondency, the confused ones tend to fall into it.
ALSO! When Tael was killed, the sky flashed a crimson red. Everyone looking at the sky anywhere would have seen it
The pair stood outside Benea’s room. The hallway was well lit and well adorned yet even so a shadow seemed to cling to the stark wooden door that separated them from the goddess on the other side. The guards were still there of course, but wore a worried look on their face as if they somehow had failed in their duties. Jermane waved Xavior to stand next to him and the pair approached the door.
Giving it a sturdy knock, Jermane called out. “My Queen?”
Another knock. “My Queen, Xavior is here to speak with you.”
The bodyguard looked at Xavior before stepping out of the way and motioning for him to give it a try.
The god frowned even though he had been told this was what had been occurring, and then made his own opening attempt “Benea, this.. Shutting yourself away entirely is quite concerning. I am aware that the… appearance of this snow god is quite disheartening, but surely this isolation is not the answer? I do not know if you are planning, working or despairing in there, but we need to stand together in this dark hour if we are to survive it”
He paused as a dark thought crept across his mind, prompting him to ask “Could you, at the very least, give us a sign that you are alive in there?”
A small shuffle could be heard behind the door, beckoning for Xavior to lean in. With her ear almost to the wood, the hinges suddenly creaked and Benea’s arm came bursting through the opening. Her fingers grabbed Xaviors collar and in one swift motion, pulled him into the room and slammed the door shut behind him.
Inside the room Xavior stood. Benea was behind him, already slumped back against the door, her back keeping it closed. She had her hands between her knees and her eyes were puffy with stress and perhaps sadness. Her usual dress was an icy blue and the veil that Tsunya had gifted her was lost in the mess that was the bed in the corner. The bow window was closed, and her dresser had been moved to block it.
The god whirled around to face her, his expression panicked till he saw her, at which point he was instead stunned and then, finally, once he had a moment to collect his thoughts he released a breath and with a mix of pity and concern asked: “Benea… what has happened to you?”
Before she could answer however he said “No, wait. We’ll sit first, and then we can talk this through” and then offered her a hand to help her rise, adding “If that is alright with you?”.
Letting loose a sharp sigh, Benea snagged Xavior’s hand and tugged on his arm until she was standing straight. “Very well, dear.”
Xavior waved his hand and pulled the table and chairs that the room had been furnished over so that they wouldn’t have to go far, let her take a seat and then took one himself, before asking “oh and would you care for some tea?”
Benea looked up from her seat for a moment before letting her forehead slam onto the table, her arms outstretched. “We are all doomed, darling.” She mumbled from her new position. A loud inhale. “So sure, tea.”
Xavior raised an eyebrow at her comment and. while internally it worried him a great deal, nothing would stop him from trying to be an impeccable host. As such cups and a teapot floated over and some water and tea leaves vanished from the temple kitchens and found themselves in the pot and cups respectively (something the chefs where more than used to at this point) after which the pot was quickly raised to the boil in Xavior's hand.
A few moments later, the god poured them both a cup of tea, then the pot was set down and after steeping for a bit the leaves were banished from the room. Xavior lifted his cup, gently blew on it and took a sip, the warmth and taste setting his own nerves as much as it was meant to help Benea, before he set it down and finally asked “So… how doomed are we exactly?”
Peeking up, Benea eyed her tea and sat up straight. She quickly hooked a finger on the arm of her cup and sipped at it. At the touch of the warm drink, Benea sank into her seat — some stress falling off her shoulders.
“I don’t know what is going to happen anymore,” She finally admitted. “First Anak’thas goes and does who knows what for whatever reason and now Garravar is somehow back. I can only imagine the rest of the crucible is imploding at this point.” She shook her head. “I just don’t know what to do, dear, I thought I did.”
Xavior wanted to put down her believing she knew what was going to happen to arrogance, but that felt unkind. “It is an unexpected event, that is for certain. That there is a godkiller on the loose, and one with more age and experience than us at that, is concerning” Xavior said somewhat academically, having only a second hand account of the vision of the ice god’s proven lethality “but if the path is no longer clear, then all we can do is improve, adapt and together overcome this new threat.” he suggested as a new path, before trying to be optimistic when he added “We at the very least have the numbers and, presumably, something of a headstart when it comes to amassing supporters, resources and artifacts to combat him.”
“He’s killed more gods than you have fingers, and he did it without any help, nodes, or frie-” Benea paused and frowned. She sipped her tea. “Garravar is a smart man, and worse still he already has a plan and we’ve already played into it.”
Xavior, teacup half raised to his lips and now halted there, paled at that information “That… is bad” he managed, shocked enough at the revelation as to not yet question where it had come from.
Benea retreated further into her chair and finished her tea in silence before adding, “I’m sorry, sweet Xavior.”
“For what?” a slumped in his chair Xavior replied, having set his cup down, stomach churning far too great to allow him to drink another drop, and then managed to at least try and regain some cordial demeanor while saying “This, this is dreadful news, but it is better to know it than to live in ignorance. I cannot blame the messenger…” then he paused, his brows furrowed as the back of his mind that had not been drowning in doom pointed out an inconsistent too him, which caused him to sit up a little and then finally ask that fateful question “but how do you know all this?”
Benea gaped for a moment before answering. “Which part?”
“The… all of it? Monica told me she saw the creator’s last moments in the old world, and the death of his leader at this ice gods hand … but this goes so far beyond that. How do you know so much about this Garravar?” He asked, his tone only slightly accusatory. Mostly he was just confused.
Letting out a long breath, Benea furrowed her brow. “I lived it. I was there when it all happened.”
“I…? What…” Xavior was stunned, and then, head held in his hands, his mind went into overdrive over several seconds before he thought he put it together “The creator... No... Peninal… his will wasn't too weak. He wanted his queen to win the crucible, so it gave him the closest it could. It gave her a second chance.” he looked up at her “You a second chance.”
“It was planned,” Benea affirmed. “It was the only way to get rid of Garravar, or so we thought. We also didn’t expect… the others.” She tucked a frown in her cheek. “We didn’t expect you, Anak’thas, Monica, any of you.”
“Why would running this again be needed to get rid of him…” he began to ask, and then stopped himself and then simply asked her to “just… explain it all from the beginning please.”
“Oh dear,” Benea furrowed her brow. “The beginning was a long time ago now, even I don’t know where it started…”
“Before this crucible I was Queen Olipha and I commanded every god and every node.”
Xavier was, at this point, numb to revelation, so he just leaned back in his chair, picked up his unfinished tea and let her tell her story without interruption.
“Well anyway,” Benea continued, “there were 14 other gods under my command, including Peninal, his brother Faringdal and of course Garravar. By all means the world was in complete peace under my reign, as it was supposed to be. I am not exaggerating when I say that thousands of years went by without conflict, pain or suffering. Everything was in accordance with my will and we knew that if the triggering event were to happen, nothing would change under that will — we all knew except Garravar.”
A long pause as Benea collected her thoughts. “He was always different from the others, you see? He was clever and sharp, with a discerning eye and contagious voice. Something always bothered him about the nodes, and in a similar sickness to Anak’thas he eventually found himself obsessed with them — except obsessed in their study. I told him it was best if he let them be and let the peace reign but he was upset with the idea, he called it blissful ignorance and continued with his experiments.”
“Is this all making sense so far, dear?”
“Given what I know of our lot I’m both surprised and impressed you managed to wrangle 14 gods I’ll be honest,” Xavior admitted “but go on”
“The gods then were different than the gods now…” A sad look found Benea’s face. “But Garravar, as I was saying, was different even to them. He was our champion before he was our enemy. Now and again near the end of the peaceful reign we would get a chaos beast or two and every time we would call upon Garravar. He wielded a spear he named Tolbog and so long as he held it, he was unstoppable. His first victim was Auriel, the kindest goddess you could ever meet. Monica reminds me a little of her, and perhaps that was Peninal’s inspiration. She was helping him study the nodes, at my behest. I was foolish but optimistic in thinking that having her nearby would guide him gently away from the path he was taking, but no — she was murdered.”
Benea — Queen Olipha — looked into Xavior’s eyes. “She didn’t expect it, how could she? She was stabbed in the back by Tolbog.”
“And then… Everyone else. One by one,” Xavior said, already seeing how the story went, voice hollow as he asked, redundantly “and no one could stop him?”
“We killed him several times,” Benea answered almost chillingly, “but each time, he would simply be reborn. Anyone who had been bit by his spear but not killed became a vessel for him upon his death and he would burst from them. At some point all of us had been bitten and so the only way to get rid of him was to… let everything restart. Somehow he returned, and I’m not sure how. I’m scared, I have no idea how he broke through into a new crucible, especially after all we did to ensure he couldn’t.”
“Forgive my ignorance, but surely it would be Peninal?” Xavier pointed out, “It may have been a delayed return, but it was a return in the same manner nonetheless, if we consider the erasment experienced during the reshaping of the world under a god’s will as simply a death? Unless the reset you performed is more… intense than I am thinking it is?” aware that he was likely missing something.
"It shouldn't have, Peninal destroyed himself. Tolbog has never worked on the dead before." Benea ran a hand through her hair.
“Ahhhhhh piz” Xavior swore uncharacteristically after giving it a few moments of thought and realizing who was likely to blame “Grym did this. He reanimated Peninal‘s body and, presumably, allowed it to count as alive enough for Tolbog to return”
Staring at Xavior with wide eyes, Benea slouched back into her chair. "Well at least it wasn't a new trick."
“If I wasn't already going make that monster suffer before…” Xavior began to swear, before sighing, slumping into his chair like Benea and saying defeatedly that “I take it your box trick won't work either?”
“It didn’t really work well the first time,” Benea admitted. “Besides, he's a bit bigger than a lantern. Though we do have one advantage right now.”
Xavior’s sat up just a little at this hint of hope and asked “And that is?”
Sitting up to match Xavior, she continued, “Not every node is taken. He won’t execute his plans until every node is calmed. Granted we can’t just let the nodes stay unclaimed, but if we are smart about it — well I don’t know yet, but it’s a starting point. The only concern is those such as Anak’thas or the southern people who aren’t exactly amicable to plans and cooperation.”
“Perhaps the existence of a tangible and universale threat will be enough to bring us together, at least temporarily” he said, not entirely confident, but the fact that they had time did hearten him somewhat “You righend for thousands of years” he said, the magnitude of that sinking in a bit more “do we have that kind of time, or does something start to go wrong if a node remains unclaimed for too long? Speaking of, if he is not going to take nodes and attempt to win for himself, which I assume is Anak’thas’ plan” he phrased that partially as a question before specifically asking “what is Tolbogs?”
“Talbog is a spear, darling,” Benea corrected (cursing Xavior to turn slightly redder than he was naturally in embarrassment) “Garravar is the one we are talking about. But to answer your questions in order, I doubt we have thousands of years — the triggering event is rather random.” She hesitated. “Garravar… wants every node to be claimed, and then every god that has a node to be killed.”
Xavior scratched his head, trying to understand why “To what end? Also how do you… No we’ll get back to that,” he stopped himself from going on a tangent no matter how much he wanted to follow that thread and focused on “Garravar first. What could he possibly achieve from this other than guaranteed annihilation?”
It was Benea’s turn to look uncomfortable. She shifted in her seat for a bit. “I don’t suppose just saying he is a madman with crazy delusions would be enough for you?”
“I’d prefer there to be no more secrets between us” Xavior replied matter of factly, before adding “but if it helps, I swear on my life I will not be taken in by this murderous agenda, whatever it may be” quite seriously.
“I trust you,” the queen added. “Garravar was once my…” She paused and made a face. “Well you know.” Quickly she shook her head. “Either way, that’s how it all started. He wanted to find a way to bypass the triggering events or to trick the crucible into stagnating so that the existing reality could continue in perpetuity. I didn’t take well to his original idea, and so we were at odds ever since.”
Xavior caught himself as he did indeed start to be taken in by that very agenda, and discard any thought on the prospect. Besides, even if it were one life traded for that of the world, he did not approve of that sacrifice being forced by this killer’s hand. Also there was also the key problem with this plan, which was “Why did he even think this would work? It sounds like it would just guarantee the end of the world” he said, before theorizing that “besides, now that we have seen that both you and he have survived a transition, this immoral gamble seems wholly unnecessary. If what you care about is the survival of the people, and I certainly do, then you could create some kind of, say, soul ark to carry them along with the will of the node owner.”
Olipha just seemed to purse her lips at this. “I won’t pretend to understand everything that goes through his mind or how his experiments brought him to these conclusions, but there you have it. Hopefully you won’t ever have to hear about it from him himself.”
The god shrugged, though he did file his own idea away for later, and then went back to the other line of questioning he wanted to ask about, saying “So do you know the trigger event is random? Because I would think you would need to know about more than the last one to make that assessment, yes?”
“Xavior, dear,” Benea slowly went to stand up. “I think that’s enough questions for now. It’s already been heavy on my psyche and as much as I want to answer everything for you, it’s too much for me all at once.”
Xavior frowned, and then shrugged and said, simply, “later then”
“Just, one more thing,” Benea looked down at the god. “If something were to happen to me, I want you to take my nodes and those who follow me. I want you to take all the nodes and I want you to see the next crucible is a paradise like how mine was. Even if nothing happens to me, you still may be our best bet.”
The god suspected he was being told to fill a walking corpse's boots, and did not know how to feel about that. “We’ll bind this little alliance of ours tightly enough that it can survive your fall” he agreed, somewhat, to her desire, before insisting “and make it strong enough that won’t come to that in the first place” while promising himself that he’d learn from his creators mistakes. If nothing else, he’d insist they burn his body.
“Someday one of you gods is going to need to make a commitment,” Olipha mused with a furrowed brow. “Only one can spearhead the triggering event but I guess that can be a conversation for a different time.”
“And thank you, sweet Xavior.”
“Any time. This has been elightnenting” Xavior replied, before getting all the way back to the original point of all this “so… does this mean you will be leaving your room anytime soon?”
Benea was already pushing Xavior through the door. “I think that’s enough for now, dear. I’ll come get you when it’s time to make our plans and name our successor, because we are going to need to do that… Tsunya should be there too, and our darling little Monica.”
Jermane was standing on the other side, wide eyed as Benea glanced over him and then back at Xavior. The goddess took Xavior’s hand and squeezed it. “Thank you once again.”
“It was my pleasure,” Xavior replied, before the door was closed before him.
A few moments passed with Xavior grinning thoughtfully until he saw Jermane in his peripheral vision and he remembered what the whole point of this had been in the first place.
Benea… no Olipha, still hasnt left her room.
Xavior and Jermane attempt to enter Benea’s room and while Jermane is unsuccessful Xavior proves luckier — kinda. He gets dragged in and the door slams behind him. Cue a very stressed Benea. Xavior conjures tea and they have a talk. Benea reveals that she is Olipha and that Garravar is nigh unkillable and here to kill us all. Xavior reacts accordingly.
Garravar is revealed to want every node captured and every god who has a node killed, to create a world where every node is stable but has no owner. He thinks this will bypass the triggering event. Xavior gets suspicious of the logic here and then realizes Benea herself knows an awful lot about triggering events but Benea declines answering how she knows a few things and claims she is tired.
She also asks him to be her backup god, to which Xavior hesitant to agree to given how that went for pappa Peninal
The trip from the Northern Queendom to the Daman lands is a long one, or at least usually. Renault, being a paladin, had access to a few resources that sped up the process, ost notably the kiss of chamomile. The blessing had been such a hit that the Queen herself set up a monument in the Alpine Duchy that anyone could pilgrimage to and receive the kiss. Since then, it had become a tradition for paladins to journey to after completing their training and then again after five or so years (when the blessing started to fade).
Renault, however, had the original blessing and so found himself in the Daman lands faster than a Goatlander with an Ambrosian-powered horse. The journey itself was uneventful, with the Blade of Benea (or so he was known) having a few tricks to keep himself hidden and discrete as he made his way through the northern path.
His boots skidded to a halt in the deep snow. A shaggy fur cloak covered his iron banded armor and hid his various weapons. The cloak itself was speckled with snowflakes, giving him a peppered appearance as he journeyed through the colder region of Node 10. But for now, he had stopped, abruptly.
Frowning, Renault looked directly in front of him. A little old lady was walking in the exact same direction as him, at a fraction of the pace. He had no idea who she was or when she crossed his path but there she was, directly in front of him, ignorant of his existence as she waddled down the slope to the small town at the bottom of the hill. Tucking a slant into his cheek, Renault fell to a painfully slow walk and stayed behind her, not wanting to be rude.
Together, even if blissfully unaware, the old lady and one of the most dangerous mortals in the north walked together into town. The snow turned shallow as the duo found the simple road that webbed between the haphazardly built homes and businesses of the Daman town. Renault couldn’t help but look around, taking in all the differences between the culture of the Damans and the Queendom. Slowly, whispers of the townsfolk found his ears.
“Who is that?”
“I don’t know, but she must be someone pretty important, look at her retainer.”
Renault blinked in surprise.
“I think that’s a pure human!”
“She must be rich.”
“Maybe one of the slaver barons from the south?”
“Hey lady!” A gruff bark cut through the whispers.
Now Renault was standing behind the old lady while the largest Daman he had ever seen stood in front of her, a crude bronze blade pointed at her little surprised face. The Daman was a man twisted with the features of a dog, giving him a drool where mismatched teeth protruded from his mutilated face.
“Oh my,” The little ferret-faced old lady dropped her wicker bag in shock, onions rolling onto the road. The robber-to-be stared at the vegetables as they bumped against his shoe.
“I don’t care if you are one of the slaver barons, you made a huge mistake coming here with only one of your beasts of war — stand and deliver.” The bandit reasserted his blade between him and the old lady, who was now shaking with confusion and fear.
Renault’s hand slowly moved the little old lady behind him as he looked to the bandit and said, “drop your blade and beg you dog-faced jackass or feel the full might of my impatience.”
“What?” The bandit growled, only to freeze as he caught Renault’s gaze. The dark brown eyes of the paladin were swimming with a certain aggression that made the bandit shake with a sudden burst of doubt. He pointed his blade at Renault, albeit with less confidence.
“Behold!” Renault whipped a hand from his cloak and the bandit flinched, expecting an attack only to open his eyes to Renault holding a closed fist between the two. “The limits of my patience.”
The hand threw something at the ground and a sudden plume of dust enclosed the fighters. The sound of flesh hitting flesh erupted rapid-fire only for it to end with the shriek of a blade freeing itself and then the gurgled scream of a dead man. With a poof of air, Renault walked free of the cloud, his cloak hugging him and hiding any hint of what might have happened.
From that point on, everyone gave the little old lady a wide berth.
Renault is on a secret mission in the Daman lands, he helps a little old lady.
3 might spent on the monument of Chamomile, a shrine hidden in the alpine slopes of Node 1 that paladins pilgrimage to to receive the kiss of chamomile. Since it is not the original blessing, those who receive it this way must renew it every five or so years.
Due to the intense and violent nature of the Crucible — particularly how it ends — some players might find themselves in a situation where their god will die. Because of this becoming more common as the rp goes on, I decided to make a system that not only softens the blow but might even be seen as a reward for losing their god. The point of this is so people who lost their god are not only still relevant but plot important even without their god.
This system is called the Badassery system and upon losing your god, you unlock this feature. Any mortal you control or write for or create before or after your god dies is eligible to use this catalog. While your god may be dead, their will can live on! Note that you only get 5 Badassery Points (BAP) per cycle, the same as might, but can still earn extra in our quizzes and prompts same as always.
The BAP catalog can be split into two major sections: mortal power, and channeled power. Mortal power is just the raw fuck you that mortals build up in a world controlled by warring gods while channeled power is a little help from the will of a dead god. In essence you can see channeled power as the remnants of your dead god still somehow existing in our living realm and aiding these mortals in their fight between the nodes.
Say a badass one liner
Push your body to the limit and perform a physical feat that would make Eleanna blush (Temporary)
Surge with power and push your magical abilities to the extreme, enhancing your normal magical power two fold (1 might equivalency) (Temporary)
Create an artifact of 1 might equivalence (using mortal technology or magic)
Mortal rage: attack with the power of a 2 might blessed individual for a short time
Mortal Indomitability: Survive a killing blow
Create an artifact of 2 might equivalence (using mortal technology or magic)
Create an artifact of 3 might equivalence (using mortal technology or magic)
Use mortal technology or magic to revive another mortal
Prophet: let your body be taken over by the will of a dead god so that they may speak from beyond the grave
Use the power of a dead god to change the weather temporarily
Use the power of a dead god to enhance a spell to two might
Use the power of a dead god to invent a new magic system
Use the power of a dead god to bless yourself with a simple blessing or curse
Use the power of a dead god to bless a fellow mortal with a simple blessing or curse
I'm not really a bird.
Where did I play,
A land of twisted branches,
A kingdom of clay,
A swamp of memories,
A never-ending day,
Where did I run,
Across the dawn,
Through the sun,
Across the sky,
Through laughs and fun,
Where did I walk,
Pristine grass green,
White cliffs of chalk,
Pools of sky so blue,
Orchard stones that talk,
Where did I sit,
By the gates of silver,
Near endless pit,
By forever horizon,
You may remember it.[/center]
<div style="white-space:pre-wrap;">I'm not really a bird.<br><br><div class="bb-center">-0-<br><br>Where did I play,<br>A land of twisted branches,<br>A kingdom of clay,<br>A swamp of memories,<br>A never-ending day,<br><br>Where did I run,<br>Across the dawn,<br>Through the sun,<br>Across the sky,<br>Through laughs and fun,<br><br>Where did I walk,<br>Pristine grass green,<br>White cliffs of chalk,<br>Pools of sky so blue,<br>Orchard stones that talk,<br><br>Where did I sit,<br>By the gates of silver,<br>Near endless pit,<br>By forever horizon,<br>You may remember it.</div></div>