The Ruins of Iddin-Mar, Old Omestris
The remaining stumps of her fingers prickled with a phantom burning as Rose ducked outside of the aquarium. An empty leather bag was slung over her shoulder, and as she looked back at the dimly lit interior of Lyessa's hideout, her sunset gold eyes pulsed faintly like mirrors catching stray light. The generator that basked the underground complex with etherlight had been rigged to shut off during the evenings and thus it was pitch black outside the aquarium.
She had waited late into the night, and as Fie and Vahn snored next to her, Rose had listened as the two inquisitors finally ended their talk and retired for the evening. The arrival of the two Varyan hounds would complicate her journey. The trek to the clocktower wouldn't be without danger in the dead of night, but Rose had become familiar with every twist and turn on the path. She could navigate the ruins in complete darkness and find her way home as well.
The woman, Mother Alpis, would be able to sense the ethereal flare of Rose's spellblade, and the young girl wasn't confident that the inquisitor couldn't sense her power while she was asleep either. Thus, she brought along her old spear as a replacement for her spellblade. Not that there would be much in these ruins to pose a danger to her. All life in Iddin Mar had been snuffed out centuries ago and only ghosts prowled its streets. What worried her the most were the three Varyan soldiers from the garrison. Regardless of them being servants to some strange unknowable conspiracy or just regular Varyan conscripts, they were still dangerous.
Rose crept through the ruins slowly, feeling the biting cold clawing at her finger stumps. All around her the plants were blackened and dried, the lichen clinging to the blasted structures appearing like sickly veins spreading along the city. She had never seen the ruins like this, or worse, felt them in this manner. With Lyessa recovering from her vision, the false aegis that she continuously maintained around the ruins of her homeland was weakening, and the nascent life it restored to this dead place had been extinguished. With Lyessa's aegis fading, it was becoming colder by the minute. Rose shivered as she continued along her path, the remains of her fingers searing with imagined fire.
It was early morning by the time she reached her destination. The clocktower stood high above the ruins; its glass face, half-melted by the cataclysm that befell the capital centuries ago, still reflected the light from the blanket of stars that canvassed the night sky. Rose was freezing and exhausted, but she couldn't help but smile when she saw the scorched tower sticking out like a half-forged sword from the ruins.
The girl approached the tower, but stopped her advance a hundred feet from its entrance. She breathed in deeply, hopes ballooning within her chest, and raised her right hand in the frigid air, trying to keep it from shaking. She began to rotate it from side to side, slowly wagging her prosthetic fingers as she ignored the strange burning sensation clinging to her stumps. She closed her eyes, the world becoming a void around her, but then, she glimpsed it through her eyelids..
The light from the stars ran through the black mirrored texture of her prosthetic fingers, and the tiny veins of azure crystal within them began to pulse with a cold glow.
Moments passed before Rose glimpsed movement coming from within the blasted walls of the tower. The girl waved enthusiastically, almost bouncing on her toes, and after a few moments a massive silhouette stepped out from behind the blackened mortar. She couldn't quite see the person in the shadows, but the giant black crystal-like blade at the end of their lance emanated the same sapphire light that bloomed from her fingers. As the figure slowly turned the weapon in their grip, the light pulsed, becoming stronger and then weakening.
Rose stood there motionless, turning her head, looking across the shadowed expanse. Her heart was beginning to beat rapidly. Moments seemed to stretch to infinity, and a dark despair began to nestle itself within her stomach. That was when she saw it, a second pulse of light shining from somewhere in the east, and then a third from the west. Rose almost screamed with joy. The girl smiled from ear to ear as she began to make her way to the tower.
A woman clad in dark Lanostran plate waited on bent knees for the girl at the threshold of the tower, and as Rose jumped into the knight's arms, the armored woman hugged her tightly.
"You're here... You're really here, " Rose spoke, tears beginning to stream down her eyes.
"I promised you, didn't I?" the woman answered as she rose. The knight was taller than most men and more broad of shoulder than them as well, but despite her monstrous stature, she stood with the air and grace of a noblewoman. Her long black hair fell in thick curls across her shoulders, and her emerald eyes scanned the horizon even as she spoke.
"Princess Fionna?" the knight asked.
"She's doing well. We.. We're all doing fine."
"Has Prince Vahn recovered from his illness?"
"He has. Lady Lyessa treated him herself."
At the mention of the former high inquisitor's name, the knight furrowed her brow. Her gauntlet-clad hands clasped her lance tightly.
"This place is a graveyard that will soon become a battlefield, and yet it is the safest place for you. I loathe having to keep you here, but..."
Rose remained silent.
"What is it?"
"Lady Essa has done her best to protect us, just as you said she would. But..."
At that moment, two other knights stepped foot within the tower. Strangely, Rose could not hear them enter, even though they wore heavy plate.
"Princess! Damn is it good to see you!" a younger knight exclaimed with a wide smile. He was silver-haired, with eyes the color of pine. As he spoke, Rose made note of his several missing teeth. Beside him, an older man wearing the same dark armor greeted her with a quiet politeness.
"You've grown," the old man said with a placid if note pleasant voice. He had an aquiline cast to his features, with a sharp slanted nose and slicked black hair that was flecked with grey. His skin was a darker tone, his eyes a deep cerulean.
"Sir Symeon. Sir Ahmad. It is... It's so good to see the two of you. I... I didn't think--"
"That we'd survive Varya's hounds? Come now, little brier... Surely we deserve more credit than that," Symeon answered, flashing his toothless grin.
Ahmad gave his companion a distasteful look. "It hasn't been easy on our end, princess. There are enemies on every horizon, in every shadow."
The woman looked down on Rose, regarding her with a strange, appraising look. "And so few of us left to fight them. To Xandros, Wen, and Niobe," she spoke, nodding her head in silence. Symeon and Ahmad did the same.
The woman stepped towards a blasted part of wall and gazed out across the ruins.
"Iddin Mar is different. The weeds are black, and the cold cuts deeper than it did before. How is Lady Lyessa?"
Rose looked down at her feet. Her prosthetic fingers cut deep into her palms, settling into the scars that had long calloused into place. She remembered the inquisitor, her words, and how weak she felt.
"Two inquisitors found us. They are Omestrian. And... Lyessa received them."
"What?" Symeon responded, his voice incredulous. "How could she--"
The woman raised her hand and Symeon immediately backed down.
"The Church are not fools. They know you three are here in the corpseland under Lady Lyessa's protection. The only reason they don't hunt you down is because of that monster, Aleksandre."Aleksandre
. That name sent chills down her spine. He was the one... The one who hunted her grandparents and slew them when they tried to surrender. Her mother... He was the one who brought her to that place
"-- But he is losing influence, and a day will soon come when the Ravenous Lord will be compelled to name a new bishop, and then nothing will keep Lyessa safe."
Lyessa. She had protected them. Taught them how to control ether. Rose had grown to love the woman in the months they had spent with her. She would die to protect her, just as she would give her life to protect her siblings, but...
"The two inquisitors... Lyessa showed them the water. Just like she did to us."
The woman raised an eyebrow.
"She... told them of the Shield?"
"Then Lady Lyessa sees something special in them," Ahmad answered without hesitation, turning to face the south. "She wouldn't warn them otherwise."
Somewhere in that distance, the two inquisitors... her enemies... slept within her family's sanctuary. The thought poisoned her.
"I have faith in Lady Lyessa, but... she is helping the enemy. She's given them the same knowledge she gave to us. I don't know what she's supposed to "see" in them, but the two of them are Omestrian and yet they fight for the empire. I... I don't know what to feel. I am angry and... I feel betrayed."
The woman placed a hand on Rose's shoulder. Though it was clad in the heavy dark plate of her warrior's sect, it somehow felt light.
"Our Gods are dead, princess. There are precious few things left to believe in. Lyessa isn't perfect by any means. She still clings to that place
, even though it took everything from her. But still, she is an ember in this darkness, and if we are to endure through the long night and cast ourselves in the glory of a new dawn, we me must hold close what light we can. Believe in her, Rose, as she believed in us."
Rose looked to the woman's emerald eyes. The woman and the inquisitor were right. The Gods were dead. Omestris was dead. She wanted to keep believing, but it was proving more and more difficult. From the darkest corner of her mind, an azure circle blossomed from shadow. With little effort, she banished the thought.
Essa... She had to believe in her, and through her, she must also believe in these two inquisitors.
"Lady Lyessa... She believes that the two inquisitors, Mother Elpis and Father Kanus, were brought to her by their Aspect, or different Aspects. It's all very confusing. Anyway, they spoke of three conscripts at the Marian Gate who aren't supposed to be there. Lyessa thinks that they might be... I don't know, phantoms."
"Phantoms?" Symeon repeated, with a chuckle.
"Either that or, they're being controlled. Lyessa thinks these conscripts brought them to her so that she could warn them of... of the Shield. I don't know what they're going to do with this knowledge. One of them, Alpis, I'm worried she might try to hurt Lady Lyessa."
"Would you like us to kill them?" the woman asked, her eyes still scanning the ruined city.
"... N-No. If Lady Lyessa thinks there is something
... about these inquisitors, then... they should be left alone."
The woman gave Rose another appraising look. She couldn't figure out what the woman was thinking. Her eyes were expressionless yet cold, but not cruel.
"Make certain this reaches Lady Lyessa," the woman said, reaching into a pouch at her belt and taking out a small silver cylinder, which she then carefully placed into Rose's palm and wrapped her fingers tight over it.
"This is all of the knowledge we've managed to acquire regarding the empire's movements for the past four months. Soon, we will be ready to begin our striving in earnest."
"I'll make sure she receives your message. When... When will I see you again?" Rose asked.
"I am not certain. The Lady's Anger have moved in the shadows until now, but soon all of Varya will know our vengeance. Until we meet again, continue your training, and stay strong for your siblings," the woman said before offering the Lanostran salute to Rose and turning to leave the clocktower.
As she and her two knights walked out of the threshold, Rose called out one last time.
The knight turned to face the princess.
"Veshi'maru, vashi'mara," Rose said as the first rays of the sun began their ascent from beyond the ruins.
"Are you certain you don't want any food for the return trip?" Lady Lyessa asked the two inquisitors. Mother Ziotea and Father Oren were just finishing their preparations.
"We have cookies," Fionna said, coming out of the small kitchen. There was a small basket of stale-looking cookies clutched to her chest. She approached Father Oren and lifted the basket up to him.
"Leave them alone, Fie" Rose said in a tired voice as she stepped foot into the aquarium. The girl was shivering, though she tried to hide it, and her breath misted in the heat of the etherlamps. An old leather bag filled with what looked like herbs and vegetables was slung over her shoulder.
"Where were you, Rose?" Vahn asked as began to make the table in the dining area behind them.
"Getting breakfast," she answered.
"Yes. Now hurry up and get these in the soup," Rose said, throwing the bag at Vahn, who then proceeded to drop it. The boy scurried as the vegetables almost spilled out of the bag, but managed to recover with some measure of grace. He then ran off into the kitchen.
Rose eyed Mother Ziotea for a brief moment, too exhausted to regard the inquisitor with any emotion, and so she just stared, before turning to Oren.
"I wish you both a safe journey," she said before retreating to her room.
Lyessa watched the girl run off with a bemused expression.
"One day you will have the fight you want," she told Ziotea. "Hopefully she will be a bit stronger by then," she said with a chuckle.
She then turned to Oren and offered him a mischievous grin.
"You were meant to keep this, you silly boy," she said, reaching into her cloak to retrieve her catalyst. The small glossy black diamond rolled around in the center of her palm. Oren could see his face in its reflection.
"When an enemy loses their weapon, you don't just go right up and hand it to them again," she added with a disapproving look.
"Seems like Old Antonin and the lad without a face aren't teaching you what's truly important. If you two ever wish to learn from a true inquisitor, my door is always open."
As Mother Ziotea and Father Oren left the underground complex, they found the morning colder than it had been the previous day. A fresh blanket of snow had fallen over the ruins. Whatever force had kept the snow from reaching the ground seemed to have been extinguished. The snow had built up over the night, covering the dark buildings and ruined streets in a way that, if one urged their imagination just so, made the city look as though it hadn't been brought low by catastrophe, but instead like an ordinary city in the nobler provinces of Magnagrad. As they made their way through plazas and empty boulevards, they passed by statues covered in frost. The ruined statues appeared like pale figures in the morning sunlight, their blackened and twisted forms hidden under the snow.
When they reached the bridge with the statues of Omestris and who they now knew to be Her hated twin, Asherahn, the two of them could see the sunlight ripple over the coursing river below. The sound of the rushing water still seemed alien to their ears. Huge swaths of ice had formed over the water, and in the reflection of the icy river they could see the reflection of the two statues. Just for a fleeting second, the statue of Asherahn seemed to shine blue in the churning of the river.
The city of Iddin Mar...They had glimpsed its beginnings within the vision Lyessa had shown them. If Iddin Mar had been built before Omestris' betrayal of Her twin, had he been worshiped in this place as well?
Lyessa had spoken of a civil war fought between the worshipers of the twin deities. Its conclusion saw all memory of Asherahn erased from the annals of history. But the night prior the two of them had heard his name spoken from the lips of a living Omestrian. The Shield was alive and well, or at least, his memory was. If Lyessa was right, He was influencing Aspects to grant visions of his power to young Omestrian inquisitors. And if the old woman could be believed, the three conscripts, Seminov, Veena and Mikhail, were involved somehow.
The elevator leading up to the Marian Gate lay ahead of them. This is where all of this had began, where they had ordered Seminov to leave them before setting off into the ruins.
He was nowhere to be found.