ONE Centre, First City of Cero, T'sarae
[written by Lovejoy, shylarah, Collector of Myst & The Angry Goat]
It was a beautiful and terrifying thing, the Aegisdome.
All around him, the city of silver spires gleamed in the grey radiance of the impossible barrier that hung over it. Earlier that morning a hard snow had begun to assail them just as their train reached the domed city. Since then, the sky had erupted in a vicious icestorm that was now pummeling the aegisdome. Ragnar had spent the entire afternoon gazing up at it. Boulder-sized hail crystals assaulted the monolithic crystalline barrier, sending faint pulses of light dancing across its surface. It was of course impossible to hear the sound of the hail smashing against the dome, but Ragnar winced all the same, imagining the shearing chorus of millions of remnants of ice shattering all at once. He wondered how many storms the barrier had withstood in the centuries since its construction, and how many it would take to turn it into cracked glass.
He finally tore his eyes from the terrifying sight above him and eyed the crowds of T'saraen civilians walking the city streets. He observed the native people with a jealous and somewhat scornful expression as they traversed through ONE Centre, the city's largest plaza. It was a vast open space surrounded by tall gleaming buildings and elevated highways, while strange metal trees covered in silvery crystal leaves had been erected on manicured pits of hard earth all around the plaza, giving it a natural yet strangely manufactured atmosphere. Ragnar and Stina had converged on a platform overlooking Xegatris Station, the great train terminal where the remaining members of Warband Phoenix would be arriving.
This was the young Muraadan's first time in the Land of the Skull Remnant, and to his surprise, the people here weren't what he was expecting. He remembered the T'saraens who had crowded around Tatiana when she returned to Lanostre all those years ago on her summoner's expedition. Even now he recalled the warmth in their smiles as they welcomed her home, how they danced around her and stared in awe at the enchanted shadowcloth of her inquisitor’s coat. The T'saraens who had found a home in Lanostre's Bridgetown were a loud and gregarious lot, a people not unlike his own Muraadan clansmen, but the men and women who walked through the beautiful pathways of the First city were silent and stone-faced and didn't so much as spare one look at each other. Not even the icestorm raging just outside the barrier elicited any response from them. They seemed to be solely focused on getting where they needed to be and little else. And thus, despite being surrounded by crowds of people, there was a strange lack of noise in the plaza. It filled Ragnar with a strange unease.
He remembered the Tale's End slums in Magnagrad with its dark steaming alleys choked with dirty people crowding over barely-working etherlamps and its children hawking stolen blood in exchange for food. Cero wasn't open to folk like them, of course. The slumrats of Magnagrad were destined to live and die in the mechanical abyss that sprawled within the city of blood and steam. The native T’saraens on the other hand would never have to worry about freezing on a street corner. These people lived safe and measured lives, free of the cold that clung to every inch of the world. The Aegisdome kept them warm and safe while their beautiful city offered them enough freedom and infrastructure to allow them to work on their miracles and machines...
Why couldn't Magnagrad be turned into such a place, Ragnar mused, not for the first time.
"It's nice here, isn't it?" Ragnar said to Stina, trying his hardest to fake a smile. They had been stuck on a cramped train for the past two days and so it was a welcome relief to be able to stand out in an open plaza, despite the circumstances. Stina nodded in agreement. “Too….. too many people on that train.”
Ragnar turned to smile at this warbrother. Stina had chosen to stay with Ragnar as he waited for the other members of the warband to arrive. Hassan and Vivica didn’t seem to share in Stina's desire to keep Ragnar company and both left soon after their arrival. The young Muraadan had greatly appreciated his brother's company. Despite them being stuck on that train for so long, Ragnar didn't want to be alone. He never wanted to be alone.
Allowing the pent up air to escape his lungs, his eyes fell on a pair of T'saraen teenagers waiting to cross an intersection.
"So much death and yet it never seems to reach this place," he thought aloud, desperately hoping that Hassan and Viveca weren’t getting into any trouble.
Across from them a small group of Varyan soldiers marched through the plaza in lazy, ill-formed ranks. The soldiers were whispering among themselves, not paying much attention to their surroundings, when they finally noticed Ragnar and Stina in their inquisitor's coats. The soldiers saluted them and hastily turned to walk in the opposite direction. Ragnar couldn't help but notice the look on their faces. It was the same look on everyone else's faces, T'saraen native and Varyan soldier alike. There was a disquieting rumor that something had occured in Lanostre, but the Church had been blocking all information from escaping the Queendom.
At that moment an old train covered in steaming ice pulled into the station. Ragnar's worried expression suddenly melted away, a giant smile forming across his face as he turned around to face the train platform.
The train was an ancient beaten down machine, its faded steel exterior covered in giant hunks of ice. It had come from Magnagrad, Ragnar understood. No other journey would cause the train to accumulate so much ice build-up. As the train slowed to a stop the ice covering every inch of it began to crumble and fall apart. Ragnar gripped the railings of the platform in anticipation as the train doors slid open with a mechanical hiss.
Mother Ziotea and Father Oren stepped out of the train.
In truth, it had only been about two weeks since he had last seen the two Omestrian inquisitors, but it had felt like an eternity to him all the same. He began to hop in place, disturbing the three wolfpups who had been cuddling near his feet, and then proceeded to wave his arms like a crazy person. He shouted at the top of his lungs, not caring if all the world heard him.
"Oi, you two!" he shouted, his voice seeming to cause the entire plaza to stop and stare at him with a confused expression..
The two Omestrian inquisitors turned to face him, their eyes still squinting at the sudden influx of light given off by the massive aegisdome looming in the sky above them. Ragnar looked back at his giant companion and waved him over. "Come on Stina, let's go welcome them!"
Not bothering to wait for Stina, Ragnar jogged down the steps of the plaza to the train platform.
Ziotea stood alone, while Oren was conversing behind her with the small crew of the train that had brought them here. The pale inquisitor bowed his head, presumably as a gesture of thanks, though his lips moved so little and his voice was so low that it was difficult to discern what he actually said. Seeing Ragnar approaching, Oren turned and made his way to where Ziotea stood at the edge of the platform.
There was something off about Oren's gait. Ragnar had only been in close proximity to the Leviathan spellranger for a few weeks since Oren and his Leviathan warsiblings were transferred to the warband, but in that short time Ragnar had taken note of each of their physical quirks. He had to make certain that if something was off about any of them, if they were wounded or needed help in any way, he'd notice -- and thus, Oren's slight limp immediately raised an alarm.
Ragnar's violet eyes narrowed, and he cast an accusatory glare at Ziotea. Hearing Stina's loud footsteps behind him, Ragnar's courage flared. Good, I won't be alone in this.
"What did you do to him, Zee?"
“To him? Nothing.” She didn’t exactly look pleased to see them, but then the small woman rarely did. She was though, that much was obvious, at least to Ragnar. “Saved his ass, probably. I’ll have to tell you about it later.”
“Why is he limping? You two visited those ruins right? Those quiet, safe
“The ruins were fine. It was after we came out...look, it was weird as hell, and we’ll tell you about it, but not right now.”
“I knew I couldn’t leave you alone with him. I tried to warn you, Oren.”
The Leviathan’s gaze shifted to beyond Ragnar. “Unfortunately, she has the truth of it.”
Ragnar turned and, seeing Stina standing behind him with the wolf pups trailing him, the Muraadan protector took one of them and lifted it proudly in front of Ziotea.
“Wolves! From my homeland! Aren’t they precious? We bought them in the slums!”
Ziotea eyed the animal warily, but when all it did was squirm and stick out its tongue she shrugged. “I guess.” She was trying hard not to be dismissive of her friend but she was clearly distracted. “Did you go on a trip after all, then?”
“We went to that pub and I saved a bunch of civilians from a rocket. But I’m sure you will hear about it soon enough. The soldiers can’t stop talking about how much of a hero I am.”
“Already? I’m jealous. Here, let me rub your head for good luck~”
Ragnar happily allowed her this gesture, and she gave him a smile.
Stina, somewhat suspicious of Ziotia’s unwillingness to share information, looked downwards at her, as she rubbed Ragnar’s head, with a small measure of hostility. “I hope tha-tha-that you will not forget to tell us. Someth… ...ing that harms an Inquisitor is something we should all be aware of.”
“Look, I said I’ll tell you all, and I will
tell you all, just...when I can tell all of you. I’m still processing. Besides, if people start turning into weird blue giants, I’m sure you’ll notice.” Ziotea paused long enough to deliver a playful but solid punch to Stina’s arm. “Bigger than even you. Kind of hard to miss.”
Stina grunted and shrugged his shoulders. “Do not let your emotions distract you frrrrrrom protecting us as well with information as you do on the battlefield.” It felt like he had more to say, and he paused despite still holding the attention of the conversation. Perhaps it was something about respecting her need to understand a trauma before being able to verbalize it, but he didn’t have the vocabulary to even fully comprehend the thoughts he was trying to convey. He instead settled for softening his facial features, and resting his hands in the pockets sewn onto the inside of his cloak.
“Blue giants, Zee?” Ragnar shook his head. “Really?”
the young inquisitor asked with an incredulous expression. He threw a quick glance at Oren for any hint of confirmation to this ludicrous lie. When the Leviathan inquisitor gave him only an impatient glance in return, Ragnar frowned.
Oren folded his hands together behind his back, his eyes trained on Ziotea, his mouth pressed into a thin line. “Is the open really the best place to discuss recent events, Warband Phoenix? We can talk about our encounters later; at present, we need to make sure we’re ready to leave.”
Ragnar breathed a heavy sigh. He was very much looking forward to hearing Ziotea and Oren’s account of their visit to the Corpseland, but the pale-haired inquisitor was right. Now was probably not the right time to speak of their visit to that place. Still, their reticence to speak on the matter picked at him. Hm. Whatever had happened to them in those ruins, it has to be important
, Ragnar thought to himself. Ziotea wouldn’t be drawing it out so much if it wasn’t. Still, the events at the Shadow and Storm pub were too monumental for Ragnar to keep quiet about. Ziotea and Oren had traveled to Cero on an empty train and thus they had no way of knowing about the “Butcher of Tale’s End” and the justice he had dispensed at the legendary tavern.
“I suppose we do have places to be right now, Father Oren, but you must at least listen to Stina’s story,” he said, slapping Stina on the forearm playfully.
“Go on. Tell them about the ice pirates!”
“What, that louuuuuusy lot of heretics?” He laughed,. “After training aagainst you lot for so lo-o-ong, cutting through them was like a…. a walk in the park. Honestly the best part of th-th-th-the whole thing was right at the beginning when Hassan just w-w-waltzed in and cleared out all the civilians with a single sentence.” He thought back to the night again. It really had been wonderful: no repetitive training, no teacher yelling at you for holding the sword slightly too low on the handle, none of the politics involved in talking to people. Instead there was just battle - and the hunger he had just now discovered, but that still sat, eagerly, deep in his soul, crying to get out. He grinned as he continued, though the smile seemed to hold a little bit of the bloodlust within him.
“After that, a-a-a-a--- sssssshort shootout, before a Secular Armyman encouraged me to charge the pirates. It wennnnt poorly for them.” He stood there, collecting his thoughts for a moment before continuing. “This one,” he said, nudging Ragnar, encouraging him to tell his own part of the story, “stopped a huge explosion, aaand Hassan caught up to- t’their leader. Got some important information about the apostate Dara.” He finished with a scowl, as if the man’s name had a bitter taste to it.
The mention of the lost apostate seemed to bring Ragnar back down to earth.
“Father Dara... He was last sighted in Lanostre, wasn’t he?”
His thoughts returned to Tatiana and the others. All the crazy rumors going around about an attack on the Varyan flotilla blockading the Lanostran capital and about a young inquisitor being involved had filled him with trepidation.
“I know you and Oren have been secluded up there in Omestris but, have you heard anything about Lanostre?” Ragnar asked Ziotea. “I haven’t met with Galahad, Astraea, or Tatiana yet but, there are rumors. Weird ones.”
“Nothing,” Ziotea answered. “We just got in, only had most of a day at the Seminary before heading out again, and I wasn’t listening to the gossip.”
“There’s been all kinds of talk about some kind of attack. The lord clerics are keeping a lid on everything, of course.”
“Of course. Bastards.” Ziotea spit in the snow at the mention of the clerical branch, causing Stina to break into a smile.
Ragnar recoiled instinctively, immediately scoping the area for anyone who might have caught sight of the blasphemous act. He leaned close to the Omestrian warrior. “There is something strange happening. I can feel it.”
“I hate being toyed with,” she growled, feeling the skin on her arms prickle under her vambraces. “There’s definitely
something going on, I can tell you that much. I just don’t get how it fits together.” She frowned for a moment, then made herself relax. She was back with her warband, and together they could face anything. “We’ll discuss the details when we’re all together, yeah?”
He nodded, cuddling the wolf in his arms.
“I met with Rodion earlier. Tried to bring him food but he shooed me out of the room. Some new ethereal toy has him ensnared, I bet. I’m certain he’ll make time for you though.”
“You did?” Her face lit up at the mention of the engineer. “I suppose I’ll have to track him down, then.”
“He is aboard the Karamzina, our wonderful new state-of-the-art steam ark. It’s a beauty, Zee. Sharp as a blade and and sleek as a spear. It’s docked at the Forge, the special drydocks at the southeastern edge of the city.”
Ziotea nodded, and split off at once. She’d not seen Rodion in far too long.
For a few moments, Oren watched after her. Whether or not she saw it, Ziotea’s eagerness was all too plain. Well, so long as the watcher knew what to look for. He turned to look at the other two, and with a small grimace, he said to them, “Well. As nice as it has been to talk to you, Father Ragnar, Father Stina… I need a bath.” - and then started to walk.