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Empire of Lynn-Naraksh

Strakhte Cathedral, the Imperial Demesne

Lurid, misshapen shadows and shreds of mangled light danced from torches affixed behind casings of cunningly wrought stained glass. Inhuman effigies and fragmented emblems were brought to flickering life, manifold eyes flaring up with a forgotten cruel intent for brief moments before being left once more to shadow. Their gaze, as hasty as their life was transient, ran over tremendously old, yet unblemished stone walls, adorned with exquisitely etched yet grotesque and repellent reliefs. Eikons of monstrous divines of times past leapt through the luminous tatters, and behind them a blur of scenes of grim worship by faceless congregations and armoured figures standing in triumph amid desolate vistas, interrupted by the recurrence of the eyes upon the columns in the room’s walls. Having the fires lit at that time would have seemed strange even in lands as blighted as Naraksh, but it was not so in the pale rays that filtered through the tall, narrow windows, grey and dusky despite it being high noon.

Between the contrasting lights, around a long wooden table strewn with thick volumes, scrolls and other, more curious items, sat and crouched a circle of hooded shades not unlike those depicted in the carvings. The colours of their robes were those of the Order of the Divines, and the clerical heraldry upon them showed that none was lower in rank than an Episcope. Indeed, almost all of the priests gathered there bore the mark of the Eyes enclosed in a triangle of spiralling threads on their vestments, with the exception of five, whose ample and intricate patterns of symbology surpassed even the ornaments of their fellows. Of those there could not have been more, for they were the mark of the Exarchs themselves. Though these were the only variations in their insignias, the cut of their raiment was not identical – the group of bog-folk squatting at one end of the table, whose bodies were unfit to wear clothing woven for men, were covered in hanging drapes and strips of fabric, and had no masks to conceal their bestial countenances.

Behind them, in the unlighted far end of the chamber, shadow reigned, broken only by the glimmer of a pair of burning red eyes.

One of the high clerics was speaking, his body bent forward as though he were about to rise from his seat. With one hand he leaned on the table, while the other pressed upon one of the larger, older tomes. Alone among his fellows, sanguine lights akin to those that observed from the darkness shimmered under his hood.

“…that it is the mark of the One interred in ash, and a sign of wrath. Those blades point against the rot in our midst, and its hunger for death is that of a living host. The power of the Great Ones stirs, and they sent the heralds of their displeasure to warn us. Heed them! or their anger shall turn against you when they rise!”

“Their testament has no words on inner rot, and you know this all too well.” Another of the adorned priests, seated opposite the one who had spoken first, replied. “Do I need to repeat how tired we are of this?” “No.” Someone interjected. “Or how insistence does you no good, Raziemir? You lost a cause to it once, and your words will not align with the Ones’ will any better because you repeat them. How is an army a sign of wrath when it does not march to raze the enemy? Had we angered the Divines, I would not be speaking now.”

He seemed to be about to continue, but the second decorated shape on Raziemir’s side of the table interrupted him with a sharp gesture. “Unlike you, the Divines have a breadth of wisdom. Would they smite the loyal, though inept, when they could warn them instead? Sow death instead of fear? You have good memory for your admonishments, it seems, but not for the Dictates. Second book…” The speaker seized upon one of the tomes and began to hastily leaf through it. Before he could find whatever citation he was seeking, however, the second Exarch spoke up again.

“I remember the Dictates without reading, and this is what they say. ‘Those who are as worms or writhe as worms, and struggle and sting against the reaching hand, are taken and unmade in cinder’. Had we been this verminous rot you gibber of, and had the Divines arisen, this would have happened, but has it then? No!”

“And in cinder you will be unmade if you persevere!” Raziemir seethed. “What do you think is the reaching hand? The stone-host is its shadow, and it stretches over heretics like you and your fellow the butcher! Struggle on, then, and-“

“The butcher our fellow! The Great Ones never made invective their weapon.” The third Exarch seemed to have a taste for cutting into the speech of his peers. “Save for in your warped mythos, they struck fast and true, and what they willed was open and manifest. To condemn with an omen as oblique as that host in not their mark. Their displeasure with us-“

“Second book, first proclamation!” The fourth speaker had finally – and abruptly – emerged from the worn pages of his tome. “’The screecher that culls the herd without need will needs raven and waste, for it withers the spring of blood it drinks’. By your words, the Divines would have acted as this animal, or as the gutterblooded yard-kings of the east. Or the north.” He added in a venomous tone.

The eyes in shadow seemed to flinch with a touch of irritation.

“You take up the knife by the blade, and cut your hand with it.” The third Exarch raised a hand in a triumphant gesture. “If the herd is not culled without need, then, since we are not culled, there would not be any need to, would it? That is, if your legless creed were true at all.”

“The fumes of your alembics have eaten your wit, clearly, for this is the truth of the matter: there is need to cull you, and I know what it is, though you have forgotten everything that is not written in your profane signs. Will I tell you?”

“Tell us!” Raziemir’s ally rejoindered.

“Tell us.” Came a dripping echo from the further end of the table. The Kuraxxi Exarch had remained silent until then, but the Southerner’s provocation, obvious as it was to anyone with the least eye for politic, had drawn the curiosity of the bog-dweller.

The other two prelates did not answer, but rustled their defiant wordless assent.

“This it is, then. That prime relic of their magnificence, something that depraved necrophages like you should revere above all by your own gnarled doctrine, that is the highest blood coursing on this forsaken soil these days, you have instigated to be tainted with foreign grime! Look here at this.” One of the Episcopes seated next to Raziemir proffered him a bundle of small embroidered banners. “Nor even with what could have been masked, weakly, as worthy ichor, no! With the sludge of some grime-dwelling slattern, home of bog fleas and all other pox and filth! Your blasphemy could not have been more grievous if you tried to make it! Look here.”

He unfolded one of the banners, holding it by the upper end. It could be seen that an entire scene was woven upon it, with a skilful, if somewhat rigid hand. Two figures were depicted on what seemed to be the bank of a body of water. One, with a distinctive head of dark red hair and apparently disrobed below the waist, crouched near the edge, while a larger, oddly grey-hued shape loomed over it.

“This is her!” Raziemir spat. “A maggot grovelling in the dirt, before this… ape, this animal that they have up there! A harlot to beasts and a laughing-stock to slaves! This all comes from the north, you know.”

A chorus of amused scraping rose from the group of bog-folk clerics. The Exarch was already lifting a second banner.

“Weak and a coward!”

This scene portrayed the same red-headed figure as in the first one precipitously fleeing before an imposing warrior clad in black armour, wielding a spear tipped with some colourful stain. The former’s expression was such that some of the Episcopes on the side of Raziemir’s opponents could not restrain subdued chuckles, upon which their superiors shook their heads, growling something under their breath.

“A vessel of godlike potential, this? Turning heel before a raving wreck armed with a dishrag dug out of some gravepit? This box of wurm food,” he pointed at the knight, “terrorised the wretches who would now conquer the land from shore to shore, led by one who runs fastest. When she can run at all…”

Another cloth was unfurled, and again at least one of the rival prelates could barely stifle a chortle. This time, the protagonist of the portrait was limping out of a shadowed doorway, her form smattered with red and her features seemingly more entertaining yet to the Narakshi than the previous rendition. One of the bog-folk, who had been craning their entire frightfully flexible torsos to better see the embroideries from their position, abruptly pulled back and quietly sibilated something to its compatriots, who shuddered in silent spasms of hilarity.

“The introduction of blood trials in Matathran.” The Exarch proclaimed with mock solemnity. “You see how well their taskmasters fare. And one who crawls out of a desiccated kennel as a pile of rubble on two legs would be an equal for steel molded by the Ashen Crypt and the path of ascension?”

A voice like grinding stone issued from the darkness behind the Kuraxxi party, and even the high priest’s jeering abated for a moment in its wake.

“This already has my blessing, Exarch Raziemir. Tread carefully.”

Raziemir muttered something unintelligible under his mask and did away with the banner. The next one he produced, however, caused more commotion than the other three together. Several Episcopes exhaled loudly through their noses, others ground their teeth in an effort to keep their mouths closed, and even one of the Exarchs could not contain an audible “Ghrm!” One of the Kuraxxi went so far as to point at the cloth with a claw and scrape out something doubtless not very flattering.

“You have quite the collection.” The more restrained of the two adversaries remarked in a forcedly even tone.

“Crumbs from your table.” Raziemir deflected off-handedly. “And a shadow of what you can find across the border. Would a worthy claimant to the least sliver of ancestral might allow this? A worthy bearer of what you have the arrogance to prophesy as a living god? Where in this do you see a semblance of anything worthwhile – I do not say for sacred aims, but even for your heretical enchantments? Tell me. Do you not see all of it here?” A vicious smile could virtually be heard creeping into his words. “And you wonder that the Great Ones should have raised an army of damnation against your blunders? The wonder is that it does not already stand at your gates! It is well for you that they are above your twisting of their words, or your impudence would already have its reward!”

Impudence aside…” the second Exarch demonstratively waved away the still upheld banner from before himself, “…if the Great Ones have indeed arisen, and are wroth with us as you recklessly claim, would they not have bared it before us, rather than hiding it away in the south?”

“An Exarch should know better than to question the wisdom of his greaters – and such greaters.” The prelate to Raziemir’s left interposed sardonically.

His opponent was undeterred. “And you who cling to their ways better than to demean it. The Divines have never spoken in obscure warnings, and their only word against those who displeased them was the call of execution. Do you say that deathly sleep has changed them so? Where is their voice that shatters the earth, where the shadow of their breath?” He half-rose himself, bending towards the Southerner’s head and meeting his burning eyes with a narrowed gaze of his own. “Is this their work at all?

Neither did Raziemir relent. “And who else?” he scoffed. “The mark of ash and iron is clear upon its ranks, and no other force could have wrought such a marvel in so little time. Do you now think that your ‘new gods’ can appear without you even conjuring them?”

“I ask you again, since your mind is buried away in a sarcophagus of the Crypts. Is this the work of the Divines alive?”

“Not dead, certainly! Unto gods is godly death, and no abyss can be deeper than that. Either they rise from it in force, or not at all.”

“And this is their force?! A veiled oracle worthy of that mound of putrid coals? No. But do you put it beyond them to have preordained this portent to happen now? Now that our machinations call for a token of the old power? An army is a sign of strength, and as strength we must receive it. Did you not say yourself that even the most stray filth are rallying around the ancient words?”

“Laughable subterfuge!” Raziemir threw his head back as if to burst into cachinnations. His hood did not even threaten to slide off. “They rally, yes, to the true teachings of rebirth, not your blasphemous delusions. This thought is as inane as your hollow promises of divine successors. Do you compare the Great Ones to a waft of mortal smoke? You who spoke against roundabout signs!”

“What that scum claimed she could do, a true divine could have done thousandfold. What is roundabout about the shadow of a legion at the very time and place it would be found? You could not yourself name a clearer sign that our endeavour will bear a mighty fruit.”

Derisive snorts came from the red-eyed Exarch’s entourage.

“I could not name a clearer sign that your wretched sect is built on lunacy. If I had heard this from a parochian, I would-”

Raziemir’s tirade was interrupted by the entry of a procession of masked attendants bearing fresh ammunition for the doctrinal feud in the guise of several other ponderous, ancient leather-bound texts. The clerics fell upon them with little short of hunger, some almost snatching the manuscripts out of each other’s hands while others began to shout out half-remembered quotes as they fumbled for the conclusions. The Kuraxxi observed the scene silently – whether in amusement or tedium, it was difficult to say.

Behind them, twin thoughtfully narrowed red sparks were briefly blotted out by a wide, wavering outline.

Collaboration with @Terminal

Empire of Matathran

The Township of Ffanos

The township of Ffanos was a thriving if modest society built atop a mesa amidst the Southwestern Savanna of Matathran. To the West, the town was viewed atop a sheer cliff face, which then sloped gently downwards to the East, the walls of the town sliding down the way like a snake until it reached the level Eastern plain. There, three gatehouses stood. Two of the gatehouses were hives of activity, evidence of soldiery, wagons, and carriages constantly bustling through both of the entryways in both directions. A long chain of interpersed baggage trains could be seen heading out from the town and through the Savanna, to the East where the Emerald Empire lay. For the moment.

The envoy of Lynn-Naraksh had been stoutly refused entry at the Southernmost gate, and had been directed to make use of the center gate instead. The Invigilators that had rebuffed them had not cared one whit for their diplomatic status - and had apparently been forewarned of their arrival.

"We know exactly who you are, but this gate is fully in use. You would break up the line and set everything back. Use the center gate with the rest of the common traffic."

And thus, the envoy of Lynn-Naraksh had been consigned to the central gatehouse. They had not been pleased to wait in line like the common peasantry, and had simply cut ahead and through the line directly to the front. They received little in the way of complaint; their terrorbeasts did not broker much in the way of opposition from the traffic of caste peasantry and travel merchants. The Invigilators at the gate had made no comment of it either.

"Ah, yes. We have been expecting you. Go right on ahead, no need for a search. Head directly to the Imperial Demesne, we will provide a street-guide. Be advised, you are being watched. Do not deviate."

The township itself revealed its own meagerness as the envoy proceeded up along the inclined plane leading towards the top of the mesa. The streets themselves were paved, but the alleyways between each of the buildings was filled with Savvanah grasses and shrublife. The envoy passed through two larger plazas that had apparently been cleared for them in advanced; therein the flagstone streets had diverged in circles, leaving a large patch of seemingly untamed wilderness between them, complete with massive Savanna trees larger than the terrorbeasts themselves in the middle. Such outgrowths could be readily seen throughout the town, even in the smaller streets between dwellings in the buroughs the procession passed by. Clearly, Ffanos was a township that had yet to outgrow its connection with the land itself. Nonetheless, the town itself was bustling with soldiers and wagons of supplies, obviously fully preoccupied with the task of ensuring the resupply of the invasion forces to the West.

The Imperial Demesne was located just below the top of the mesa itself, perched near the center of the town. It looked as though it had originally been a church or cathedral of some kind, evidence of an ornate original structure which had been repurposed and refurbished was still present in the form of flying butresses and arched windows now blocked-off by iron bars rather than by stained glass, and a needless third story that was likely nothing but empty air on the interior. There was a modest secondary wall surrounding the Demesne, complete with its own gatehouse. The Envoy was ushered through this in turn, into an open courtyard where they were awaited by a formal assembly of soldiery - including a number of the massive, overgrown hominids that were reported to be in use along Matathran's frontlines, each of them bearing oversized bardiches and tower shields of wood. At the head of the assembly stood a single figure wearing sculpted armor with brass and pewter filigree along with a billowing crimson cape. He stood with some measure of expectation before the Envoy as the terrorbeasts were herded into the center of the courtyard, the list the Episcope had provided the border guards prominently clutched in one hand.

"The formal emergency delegation from Lynn-Naraksh will now present itself to me." He called out to the carriage mounted between the two massive creatures.

The last of the utterance had barely left his mouth when the canvas covering the curious vehicle was cast aside with a rustling sound, even as the broad wooden plank affixed to its side swung down to form a passageway from the upraised platform. Two shapes that had once already trodden upon Matathran soil appeared from behind the folds of the coarse grey fabric - the dark-robed, richly clothed Episcope and his towering fellow, distinctly more imposing despite being encased in no more than unadorned steel. Behind them, a head enshrouded by a black ash-mask surmounted by a flat helmet briefly peered out from the opening and withdrew just as suddenly as it had appeared upon the cleric's seemingly blind dismissive gesture.

As the two figures stepped upon the ground, there was a motion atop the crested back of the foremost gargantuan beast. Its driver, who had until then been scrutinising the towering brutes among the officer's guard with its single enormous eye, scrambled down over its side-plates in spider-like fashion and brought itself to the soil in a single agile leap. It was not very remarkable by the measures of the Kuraxxi, but for one who had never laid eyes upon the bog-folk of West Naraksh the scaly, hunched creature, with its abnormally long, clawed limbs and restless fleshy tendril extending from the back of its head, was certainly an uncommon and more than slightly repugnant sight.

The Episcope advanced towards the gathered soldiers, followed at a certain distance by the loping beast-handler and the armoured Lord, whose very heavy, measured steps appeared to ooze disdain for the earth and all who stood on it.

"The speakers for His Imperial Sanctity of Lynn-Naraksh stand before you. Ask, and we shall answer." Either the priest's repertoire of tones had grown limited as it was worn away by the habits of his calling, or he had merely decided to address any official figure he met in one fashion.

"I am High Invigilator Kardaron, Imperial Inspector for the Demesne of the township of Ffanos, and this is perhaps the fourth most egregiously brazen caravel of illicit and hazardous substances I have seen in my entire career." He said, holding out the familiar list in a single clenched fist as he leveled a hard stare at the Episcope. "The border inspector did well in deciding that your judgment lay beyond his own purview, but rest assured that no caterwauling of your status will protect you from me. You claim you wish for a personal and immediate audience with the Empress while carrying an assortment of some of the most dangerous substances and tools in all of Askor, so give me a single reason as to why I should not seize them, apply them unto your wretched forms, and then have the lot of you drawn and quartered?"

"We trust we will not disappoint, High Invigilator," in spite of the Episcope's face-obscuring drapes, one could readily perceive a caustic smile creeping behind his mask as his voice dripped with feebly suppressed good humour, "if we provide you with not one, but three reasons, one for each of us. The first is that His Sanctity personally chose all the fine gifts you so praised to please the august Empress as greatly as his means allow. It would be a pity if they never fulfilled their goal, wouldn't it? The second reason, as-"

"The second reason," the strident, metallic voice of the Blood Lord interrupted, "is that in Naraksh we reach and keep our status through one virtue alone, and one you Matathran should know well. How would you like to be fed the flayed skin of each and every of your halberdiers?"

"Third reason." It was a wonder that the Kuraxxi could speak intelligibly at all, and the scraping, hissing and slobbering that accompanied its broken words could be forgiven for this merit. "You kill us, more us kill you. Even trade, neither wins."

"If I decide to have you all killed and strung up on the walls as a warning to others, the only consequence of it will be the Sea of Slate being hued red by the entrails of your piteous and wretched kin." The High Invigilator said dismissively. "Do not mistake me for some petty bureaucrat you can walk over with mere threats. It is entirely within my authority to risk war by taking your heads. And as for you..." He turned his gaze to the Blood Lord, striding forward to leer up into the taller figure's face, clearly unafraid. "I would actually like to see that very much. Go on then! You alone versus my dozen Warbreeds! Feed me their flayed skin, you tripe!"

Something akin to a derisive snort, albeit far closer to the sound of iron spines being scraped over a stone, rose from under the Lord's helm. "Let it not be said that I declined a fair challenge. I will humour you and your rabble. Me against them. Any who interfere will join your meal, gutterblood. Bring me a weapon!"

These last words rang out louder than the rest, evidently addressed to someone other than Kardaron or the others standing in the courtyard. This proved to be true when, a few moments later, four more figures exited the waggon. Their black clothing, interspersed with light chainmail and marked with the Eyes of Lynn-Naraksh, marked them as adjuncts of the Order of the Divines, following as the Episcope's escort. Faceless as they were, the head that had looked out in the envoys' wake some minutes prior could have belonged to any of them.

Between them, the warriors bore a long, if unassuming wooden case, whose disproportionate weight was manifest in their curved backs and the faint quivering of their tense arms. Upon drawing near to the Blood Lord, they deposited it on the ground with evident relief, and one of them unfastened the lid and drew it open. Inside there lay a great flanged mace of black steel, its head jagged and spined in the fashion favoured by Narakshi nobility. A spiral of glinting yellow gems ran along its haft, and as they shone in the sunlight it could be seen that on each of them was carved an obscure angular symbol, under which rested an encased dark droplet.

The Lord waved for its companions to stand aside, and they promptly complied, the Episcope with a slight shrug and the Kuraxxi without as much as a glance over its shoulder. The mace was then hefted up from its receptacle, which was rapidly carried away by the adjuncts, and brought up in a demonstratively high guard by sharp-pointed fingers.

The armoured being cast a narrow-eyed look over the soldiers before it, and spoke.

"If any ask who left your filthy den a ruin, know that it was Khvoral of Yazvogne. I will not pay for a brick of it. Come then!"

"If any ask who left your body battered and broken on the flagstones, know that it was nameless, dimwitted mongrels that smote you upon the ground." Kardaron said nonchalantly before turning around and starting to walk away. He raised his hand and gestured, and the lesser soldiery circled around and began to usher the remainder of the Lynn-Naraksh envoy and their terrorbeasts back towards the gatehouse, in order to leave the courtyard clear. The High Invigilator barked a command to the Warbreeds, who hefted their armaments with plain looks of glee crossing their grotesque faces.

"Mangle him until he stops moving." He pointed squarely at Khvoral. "Do not kill unless he struggles." He then hastily retreated to the steps of the Demesne before turning back to watch with keen interest as the the twelve Warbreeds circled out, their monstrous footfalls readily audible as thunderous thuds throughout the courtyard as they surrounded the Blood Lord.

One of them opened their massive jaw and bellowed at the Blood Lord with a ferocious roar - one that was immediately taken up by the other Warbreeds, creating a cacophony of howling in the air that could be heard throughout the town. All throughout, people turned their heads in surprise and shock at the disturbance, every activity momentarily coming to a complete halt at the sudden sound of impeding violence, horses and beasts of burden panicking at the sound and attempting to flee on the spot as their handlers struggled to control them.

Three of the Warbreeds charged the Blood Lord simultaneously as the roar carried on, from ahead and from either side behind them in a triangle. All three raised their oversized bardiches and brought them down with tremendous force on the spot where Khvoral stood.

The echoes of the Warbreeds' battlecry had not yet begun to fade when they were overtaken by a new sound. The name of a roar did not seem to befit it, for it was nothing akin to what had preceded it; yet, in the realms of things that lived still after the ages of myth had gone by, there was no word more fit to describe it than that. It was a groan of torn iron, the rumble of an avalanche and the howl of a raging furnace melded into a single surging wave, and it was surprising that even the broad chest of Khvoral's armour could be mighty enough to draw forth such a scream.

As one with its opponents, the Lord rushed forward. It was fast, far faster than anything entombed in plate as it was had any natural right to be. The large mace which four men had struggled to carry was swung as lightly as a stick over the warrior's helm, and, either by a trick or the light or other, less wholesome ways, a blur of fiery air seemed to trail in its wake as it came bearing down into the frontal Warbreed's chest midway through its charge. Either by intention or reflex, the Warbreed raised its massive foot and kicked the Blood Lord squarely in the chest even as their mace tore down, slamming into the appendage even as it lashed out at the mace-wielding warrior.

Whether Khvoral had been able to notice its foe's movement in time or not, its charge did not slow. The powerful blow met the steel breastplate, and its bulky frame was staggered - not nearly as strongly as it ought to have been. Less than an instant later, the mace's vicious teeth bit into the Warbreed's limb, and a nauseous sizzling sound rose from where it had fallen as the smell of burned flesh spread through the air.

Though its weapon was embedded in its mark, the Blood Lord still did not slow. Distorted as the view was by the moving bodies, something odd was clearly happening with its armour. The metal trembled like a dense fluid moved by some force, rising up from head, chest and shoulders in sharp, cutting wrinkles as Khvoral continued its charge directly into the Warbreed. The massive creature had fallen to its knees from the vicious strike to its leg, but had only been stunned by the attack momentarily - and with a snarl, it dropped its weapon and reached out with its hand to seize the Blood Lord's head in its oversized grip. The warrior only lowered its helm as more bladed protrusions welled up from it, tapering into cruel spikes. Its mace was jerked up and forth, as though to tear through the Warbreed's entire form - but the warbreed, having missed with its swipe, yelled viciously at the Blood Lord and batted at the figure with its forearm instead with enough strength to have sent a man flying through the air - at the same time as the bardiche of another Warbreed slammed down atop the armored figured from above.

Despite its weight and momentum, Khvoral was almost tossed backwards by the strike, even as the arm that had dealt it was shredded by the strange metallic growths. Yet the Warbreed's force twisted against itself as the strength of the blow suddenly added itself to the Blood Lord's own effort to tear the mace out of the mangled leg. Drawn in a rising arc, the weapon tore through the giant's body, leaving a vast, gruesome smoking laceration from its abdomen up to the midst of its ribcage. Nor was this enough to exhaust the accidental swing. The mace rose up over Khvoral's head, sweeping beside the descending bardiche. Though an attempt to parry would have been useless, the motion did allow for a shoulder - whose plating had grown reinforced by the retracting spikes to be raised to meet the blow, all while the Blood Lord's entire body began to turn, preparing to deliver a lateral swing to the Warbreed behind it - just in time to face head-on the Warbreed's massive wooden tower shield as it slammed across the Blood Lord's entire body. Khvoral now staggered back by a step, creaking sounds rising from its joints, as its blow was deviated. But not stopped.

With a snarl, the Blood Lord redressed its body, crashing into and through the wooden shield as though it had been of glass. Its mace bore down past the Warbreed and to the soil, in which it stood lightly embedded, having cracked through the stone with apparent ease. As suddenly as the weapon had struck down, a wave of tremendous, painful heat ran through the ground several metres around where the mace had landed. The flagstone within this circle began to glow and liquefy, the air over it becoming choking as the heat grew intolerable within instants. Khvoral itself seemed unaffected, the molten slag parting around its armoured feet as the mace rose to deliver another blow - only to find the Warbreed whose shield had been sundered had backpedaled rapidly. Even as the Blood Lord looked up and observed this, the Warbreed thrust its bardiche forward, the weapon's immense reach allowing it to strike through the superheated air undeterred to lance at the Blood Lord - even as another Warbreed struck at the Blood Lord in a similar fashion from behind.

While the rising motion Khvoral had begun allowed it to shift, as rapidly as it could - which was obviously more than anyone should have done in a similar position - its weapon sideways to try and deflect the Warbreed's thrust, it was still too slow. The blade glanced on coalesced steel, and the Blood Lord recoiled into the second blow. It seemed that whatever defenses it conjured were not as strong against strikes it did not expect, for the impact almost threw it down into the searing pool it had itself created. Perilously bent as its body was, however, Khvoral was able to bring its mace down before it, smiting the ground once again with the even greater force of its weight. Heat coursed through the stone anew, reaching far beyond the molten circle, and the very surface the Warbreeds stood upon began to churn and bloat with unnatural incandescence. The massive brutes all seethed and snarled with pain, hopping and backpedaling with tremendous earth-rumbling strides away from the enlargened circle of molten heat. Even the Warbreed the Blood Lord had striken across the leg and chest, a massive pool of blood greater in volume already than anything a normal being could have produced, managed to feebly drag itself away from the pool of molten stone even as the trail of blood behind it smoldered, then burst into flames. The remaining Warbreeds howled in rage from beyond the boundary of the circle, unable to reach the Blood Lord even with the tremendous reach of their bardiches.

The High Invigilator, still standing upon the steps of the Demesne, called out to Khvoral. "Need to use magic to catch your breath, profligate dreck? Think you've bitten off more than you can chew yet? Surrender! Living in mockery is better than dying in ignominy!"

The Blood Lord turned its gaze towards Kardaron with an almost idle movement. "What virtue did you think I spoke of? All you show is that your skull is full of kennel-waste and your mouth blows more hot air than a forge's bellows. I rule through power, and this is its weight."

"All I see is the privilege of your benighted, profligate blood-caste. And it does not take a veteran of battle to see your power..." Kardaron's words oozed contemptuous mockery as he repeated the word back to Khvoral. " waning. But by all means, carry on. I'll use your armor to repave the yard."

"Remember your bargain." The Blood Lord turned away, sweeping its weapon in a semicircle as it surveyed the Warbreeds still surrounding it. "Even if their skin is ash, I will make you lick it off the earth."

The mace's toothed head rose as it pointed towards a number of the brutes, and the molten rock before it swelled up in a wave, like cloth pulled up by an unseen hand. A thrust, and it reared up in a pillar before bearing down upon the giant warriors, spewing fumes and sprays of scalding droplets as it fell. Two of the wars simply backed away from the plume of molten rock as it fell, while the third raised its massive tower shield and shoved it forward. The massive hulk of wood immediately sprang ablaze, but its sheer mass proved effective at flinging most of the magma right back at Khvoral through the air, more of the magma falling back behind the Warbreed harmlessly. Only a small amount dropped down past its shield, falling across its hand and causing the massive beast to drop its rapidly deteriorating shield and its bardiche with a cry of anguish as it stumbled to the side, clutching its blackening and flaming hand with the other.

As the fiery wave was hurled towards it, the Blood Lord could be heard to snarl as it tore one of its hands away from its mace and swept it before the molten stone. Clouds of black smoke welled forth from between the joints of its gauntlets with frightening speed, engulfing the magma as it fell and shrouding it from sight. The choking veil dispersed after but a few moments, disclosing a jarring sight - contrary to all laws of weight and motion, the slag had collapsed straight to the ground where it had risen, the force of the Warbreed's shoving gesture apparently nullified.

As the Blood Lord began to survey the Warbreeds surrounding it once more as the last of the billowing smoke dispersed, a massive shadow blotted out the light of the sun - and then, the massive tower shield of the fallen Warbreed slammed down over him, the hulk having been chucked at them by the infuriated giants behind him, enraged by their inability to reach them across their molten barrier.

Khvoral barely had the time to begin to lift its mace, though the metallic spines and smoke that rose from its shape were somewhat faster, before the enormous shield fell upon it with a thunderous crash and a rain of splinters. Wood broke and snapped, and metal screeched and ground upon itself, as fragments of the great bulwark were tossed aside by the force of the impact. When the smoke cleared, the Blood Lord was still standing, albeit its form sagged noticeably upon its left knee and its helm bore some rather visible cracks.

Growling in anger, Khvoral swept about to face the Warbreeds that had flung the improvised projectile, and raised its free hand towards them. They were then immediately pummeled in the back by another thrown shield, as the Warbreeds began to take their fellows' successful attack as a suggestion. The animated slag was barely rapid enough to part before its feet as it stumbled forward, seemingly near to losing its balance altogether - and then, having staggered just barely into range, one of the Warbreeds slammed its Bardiche down atop the Blood Lord from the very edge of the molten circle, weathering the brunt of the near-caustic and torrid air, using both of its hands to give the attack as much brunt as it could muster as it yelled in fury.

The armoured figure fell upon one knee. With a snapping sound audible to almost all in the courtyard, its already damaged helm fragmented, even its preternatural durability overcome by the strength of the blow. Smoke burst from the beheaded chestpiece, covering whatever had been beneath it, but it was soon dispersed, and what it revealed was ghastly.

Although any details of what the thing was were difficult, if not impossible, to discern from beyond the distance and the distortion of the sweltering air, it was clearly not human, or at least not enough to merit that name. Little was visible beyond a black-greyish, completely hairless outline, with twin red lights glaring from where eyes ought to have been. Springing to its feet in a motion of dream-like impossibility, the creature let out a hideous roar. It was not as deep or metallic as the first one had been, but its wrath was immeasurably brighter, and bloodlust sang in its grating tones.

All of a sudden, the molten rock rose up all along the edges of the pool, towering even over the hulking Warbreeds as all its extension was gathered into the simulacrum of a sheer wall - a wall that did not stand for a single second, but burst outwards with fearsome force, coiling upon itself as if to ensure it engulfed all of them without endangering too much of what was beyond. The Fallen Warbreed, as well as the one whose shield Khvoral had sundered earlier, and the two that had thrown their shields, were all consumed by the coiling torrents of magma, unable to offer any resistance. The remainder, however, were able to batter the surging coils away with their shields, repeated shoves of their shields managing to throw most of the molten fluid back down to the ground before they were forced to discard their burning and twisted bastions for fear of catching aflame themselves. From behind the surge, a horridly distorted, yet still recognisable voice could be heard.

"You have seen the face of a Blood Lord. You will die."

"Remember where you are you lunatic! This city is full of soldiers, you will never leave here alive if you dare strike at anyone outside of your brawl!" The High Invigilator called out. Their face was pale despite the heat, but their countenance was firm and unshaken despite the display of power. Most of the soldiery apart from the remaining Warbreeds, however, had fled the Courtyard, either retreating inside the Demesne or else out through the gatehouse. From the way Kardaron was shuffling his feet on the staircase, he was moments away from bolting himself - and with the now-opened doorways behind him, Khvoral would be hard-pressed to stop him.

As the wave of slag fell, it was superseded by a nimbus of smoke, whose size was such as to render the idea that it had materialised within the brief spell of the magma reaching its highest point dizzying. A new roar resounded within it, this time more similar to the first one, and even surpassing it in some aspects. The reverberation of metal was deafening, perhaps louder than the voice itself. In its wake, a mass of steel and screeching, incandescent ashes burst out of the black fog. Somehow, the Blood Lord had acquired a new headguard; yet this one was nowhere near as elaborate as the first, resembling more a shapeless lump of plates that had been crudely shoved together and welded into a minimally serviceable form. The red eyes behind it seemed to burn brighter, and a halo of cinders circled it, extending around the armoured body.

The molten stone was almost sliced in a clear line by invisible force as Khvoral hurled itself against one of the still standing Warbreeds, its mace bearing down to tear into the brute. Sparks of flame now clearly surrounded it, and the smoke clung viscously to the charging figure. The magma at its sides rose up in flanking waves, as if to prevent any other from intervening - or its target from eluding it. The Warbreed however, hefting its oversized weapon in both hands now, was either braver than any other the Blood Lord had fought or was simply too dimwitted and angry to be capable of fear. It shoved the haft of its massive weapon forward in a bashing strike, and steel rang as it collided with the breastplate - followed by the crack of snapping wood. The fiery ashes circling the Blood Lord's form like a swarm of angry wasps had caught it before the warrior itself, and, while the moment had been too brief for the haft to be fully burned through, it had been diminished enough to afford little resistance to Khvoral's rush despite the force behind the blow. The mace's swing caught upon one of the Warbreed's arms as it descended from its arc, but even this did little to slow it, with skin and flesh gouged away in a charred line drawn towards the giant's chest.

Apparently the attack had been a bit much, even for a Warbreed, and it unceremoniously collapsed on top of the Blood Lord, its mass immediately smothering him. Scraping and sizzling rose from under the bulk, which heaved and welled between its death-throes and whatever fury was tearing at it from below, until they abruptly ceased with a squelching, liquid tearing noise. The skin on the corpse's back was hewn open from what could only be within, and a grey shape encrusted with mottled clumps of ash and gore rose from the crack. Its back, shoulders and head were lined with misshapen blades and spines like those of some fantastic monster, and what might have been either rasping breathing or animalistic growling rose from its unseen throat. No sooner had it emerged from its fallen victim's smoldering corpse, than a massive hand wrapped itself around one of Khvoral's arms. The resulting blur of motion as the Warbreed grasping at them moved and as their armor changed to react to the beast's grip was ultimately brief - it only managed to slam them against the Courtyard's wall twice before it was forced to let go with its shredded and burnt hand, growling in pain as it backed away from the cracked and crumbling crater of stone in the otherwise resolute surface. Already, the battered Blood Lord was clambering to its feet. Its armour had been dented and lined with small fissures, but they seemed to be filling and receding under one's eyes. The gauntlets still firmly held the mace with a deadly grip, and shimmering, spark-torn ash was gathering around their form once more. For a brief moment as they raised their gaze, they thought they saw the High Invigilator briskly running across the opposite end of the courtyard, heading for the Gatehouse and the terrorbests...

...but, even as they clambered to their feet, they were distracted from that distant sight as another Warbreed swung its giant bardiche horizontally, catching the Blood Lord fully across their body and slamming them back against the wall again, even as yet a third Warbreed approached and raised its own bardiche for a vicious, overhead strike.

Even in being struck, it seemed that Khvoral had not been as unprepared for retaliation as when they had been first seized. The mace rose to meet the swinging bardiche, partly propelled upwards by the very blow that had crushed its wielder. At the same time, as if following an enchanting command that could not have been entirely coincidental with the parrying movement, the assembled cloud of ash darted forth, bifurcating in mid-air to surround and scorch the twisted faces of the two Warbreeds. Behind their backs, the smoke was unfolding into a bloated, stretched barrier to block the nearest brutes from the sight of their fellows - though the nearest, the Warbreed who had slammed Khvoral into the wall repeatedly, simply brushed through the dark, hideous clouds as it attacked the Blood Lord in turn with a vicious diagonal strike, while its two fellows roared in pain and staggered out of sight behind the wall of ashes.

With their mace already upheld, the Blood Lord brought down the weapon's haft to deflect the oncoming strike with its end. The movement was only partly successful, as, while the main mordant of the blow was diverted from their body, the oversized blade nonetheless managed to slash across a greave, leaving a deep jagged mark in it. Although Khvoral seemed near to collapsing a second time, again they managed to funnel the staggering of their weight into vigor for a downward blow, and again they struck the ground. The weapon had apparently not yet exhausted its might, for a third burst of heat coursed through the flagstones. It did not extend behind the Blood Lord and into the wall, but merely spread outwards in front of them, albeit its reach was undiminished - though, without smiting the ground a second time as before, its boundary was too short to prevent the oversized warriors from striking at him. Just as the flagstones began to melt around the Blood Lord once more, the two Warbreeds that had stumbled out of the smokescreen returned, hideous wrath on their faces, accompanied by a fourth of their kind. Worse still, the Warbreed that had struck at Khvoral last, the blade of its bardiche still grinding against one of their greaves, twisted the length of their blade and with a small jerk, slammed it against the Blood Lord's arms, pinning them against their chestplate as the other three Warbreeds all lashed out at once with their weapons simultaneously.

Trapped as they were, Khvoral did not even attempt to struggle against the hold of the first Warbreed's weapon. Instead, what followed was perhaps more surreal yet than the swelling of slag that had claimed the lives of two of the brutes. The Blood Lord's armour seemed to give way under the bardiche's pressure, allowing it to sink ever so slightly deeper - and then, the long blade writhed like a thing alive, drippinging off fluidly and detaching itself from the haft and flattening itself as a hastily fashioned shield before the lunges of the remainder of the Warbreeds. As the bardiches collided, the chunk of metal was virtually one piece with the brassard it was seemingly embedded in. Khvoral was almost lifted off their feet and hurled into the wall a fourth time, and from there the Warbreeds mercilessly raised their blades for a series of successive strikes, hammering in upon the Blood Lord again and again as even more of their fellows stormed through the upraised cloud of smoke. The barrier fashioned from the foremost Warbreed's weapon, not appearing to possess the same resilience as Khvoral's armour, was soon bent and twisted under their blows as the Blood Lord held it up in an effort to stave off the brunt of the assault. The mace swung in a high, narrow arc, batting away an oncoming swipe, and then abruptly sank, leaving its wielder at momentary risk of retaliation. Yet the reason of this movement became apparent as the molten rock at the Warbreeds' feet burst upwards, spewing over its surroundings. At once, Khvoral bellowed out in a metal-warped voice. It was a single, unrecognisable word, so loud that for a moment it drowned out the resounding echoes and rang out over the entire courtyard.

The Warbreeds immediately crowding Khvoral were forced back with shouts of pain and hatred, spewing vile curses amongst unintelligible shouts as they were pelted with molten rocks. However, no sooner had those four surrounding the Blood Lord stumbled away than the other three finally managed to shove their way forward, each of them stabbing at the Blood Lord in turn as their fellows retreated to recover. Having gained time to regain their stance, Khvoral was able to meet their lunges with broad sweeps, keeping the attackers at bay for a spell - and it seemed that this was all that was needed. Thunderous blows far louder than the Warbreeds' steps shook the courtyard, and the fading smoke behind the giants parted to reveal a towering mass approaching slowly, but with implacable intent. The second terrorbeast, free from the restraints of the vehicle, was making its way towards the group, swinging its outsplayed mandibles in arcs of slicing chitin. Clinging to its foremost plates were three Kuraxxi wielding long spears whose tips were dripping with venom. A number of the warbreeds turned, their yells turning from anger to shock and surprise as they braced themselves for the surprise attack-

A cry loud enough to be heard among the commotion, but somehow still managing to appear fairly subdued, came from behind the colossus. It repeated a sibilant word not unlike the one roared out by Khvoral, but distinctly different in pattern and intonation. Hearing it, the leader of the bog-folk prodded a narrow open slit amidst the beast's upper plating with the butt of its spear, and the rumbling steps gradually ground to a sluggish halt.

The robed figure of the Episcope emerged from the remaining wisps of smoke, carefully circling widely around the molten pool. He raised his hands in a placating gesture as his ever so pleasant voice sounded again. "Here now, I think our hosts have had enough of their tussle. Is that not right, Invigilator?"

"Indeed." Kardaron remarked wrily as he approached as close as he dared to the pool of magma surrounding the Blood Lord, winding between the Warbreeds' legs in order to do so. "A magnificent showing, Blood Lord Khvoral. It is unfortunate that I must accept your forfeiture for calling to your attendants for aid, but let it nonetheless be known that your strength and wit are the likes of which this town has not seen in centuries. We are all in awe of your clear power." His looked suggested anything but, though the cordial - if obviously tempered - voice suggested he was serious enough.

"I broke no words of mine in doing so." Khvoral rumbled as they made their way out of the slag. While traces of anger discernibly persisted in their voice, they were clearly mollified enough by the semblance, if not else, of flattery. "My cohort would have feasted on skin as eagerly as any other. But it is a false rumour that Narakshi cannot be merciful." They tore the remainder of the embedded blade from their plating and tossed it aside, nodding in acknowledgement at the Warbreeds as they passed them by. "You... rear your men well, I will admit."

"And most fine men those are, we have seen." The Episcope seemed almost gleeful despite the carnage surrounding him and the weathered appearance of his companion. "Now then, Invigilator, with all pleasantries done, what else would you ask of us?"

"I believe, previously, I was asking for you to give me one good reason I should not have you all killed." Kardaron said blithely. "I have yet to receive a satisfactory answer, this small incident aside."

"I see a good one standing here." Notes of irritation seemed to be returning into the Blood Lord's voice as they motioned at the terrorbeast, which, bereft of guidance from the now idling Kuraxxi, was leisurely shuffling away from the heat of the molten pools. "There is another waiting within earshot."

The Episcope twitched his hands in a reverent, yet rather dismissive gesture. "You did not consider mine. These gifts, I repeat, were chosen by none other than His Sanctity for the benefit of the Empress Andromache. Would you make yourself a judge of whether she will appreciate them or not?"

"I've already made that judgment. Do you seriously expect me to believe that Abyssal Vitriol from the Underworld is intended as a gift? There have been many preempted assassination attempts against the Empress featuring many of the items of your list." The High Invigilator said balefully.

"A gift of the finest order," the Episcope corrected. "No foreign ruler or dignitary in the history of Lynn-Naraksh has ever been bestowed such honours, but I can assure you that all these goods are exchanged by Blood Lords only as a sign of utmost respect. My fellow speaker can confirm this, as can any chronicle from our lands you will care to consult. The same chronicles will also tell you that assassination is not the Narakshi way of removing someone, and I believe our little demonstration does a good job of illustrating that."

"All it demonstrates is the presence of a potential, competent assassin amongst your company, who incidentally happens to be in possession of an untold number of items conveniently applicable in a myriad of useful fashions for the purpose of assassination. Your chronicles and cooperation be damned. Your case is not helped by refusing to explain to me your purpose in seeking a personal audience with the Empress." The High Invigilator turned and gestured for the Episcope to follow him while the Warbreeds dispersed, and the soldiery began to slowly and anxiously filter back into the courtyard from the gatehouse and demesne.

One of the bog-folk called out with a spluttering screech to the Episcope as the latter fell into step beside Kardaron, to which the cleric only spread out his hands in a mock disoriented gesture. Khvoral, apparently uninterested in any further exchange with the High Invigilator, began to make their way towards the waggon.

"Didn't the border official send you word of that? We have been sent to negotiate a bid of..." the Episcope waved a hand vaguely, "...alliance with the Empress, and Matathran, of course, on His Sanctity's behalf."

"Yes yes, so I presume. Currying favor with the Empress." Kardaron said darkly as he walked up the steps of the Demesne before stopping and turning to face the Episcope with a sour expression on his face. "Just like a thousand other supplicants who did not have the termerity to demand an instant and immediate personal audience with her. The border inspector described to me that you were most insistent in that aspect. So you will instruct me as to the true extent of your purpose in seeking audience with the Empress."

"It is neither more nor less than what I said, word for word." The cleric's voice was more jovial than ever. "His Imperial Sanctity, strong be his blood, desires, for the good of both our nations, to seek a union between Askor's two mightiest Empires. A union to be empowered by - wit of force, is how you say it?"

"Are you threatening Matathran with the implication of coercive force, profligate?" Kardaron asked the Episcope, anger and shock tinging the underpinnings of their steely tone as they gaze wrathfully at the priest.

The cleric's broad gesturing became one that signed annoyance. "Good man, I pride myself of being more patient than my friend back in the carriage, but let me finish, will you? Empowered, I was saying, and sealed in person by their most reverend rectors. Which means, as it does in these cases, marriage. I trust that is not a conspiracy vile enough for you to object. Now, you agree that a matter so capital and, if you will, intimate is not something that can be arranged through just about anybody, don't you? That is why we have been commanded to relay the offer in person. Ceremony, duty of office."

The High Invigilator stared at the Episcope for several long moments, their withering gaze completely unchanged, as though they might order the other man's death at any moment. Finally, they deigned to respond in kind.

"I beg your pardon, I took complete leave of my senses for a moment while you were speaking. What is it that you just said?" He said finally.

"Godsblood, when I was an acolyte at a village temple I had peasants more attentive than that under me." Though the Episcope's tone was one of jest, it was unclear just how mordant he had intended for the remark to be. "We are carrying a proposal of alliance both imperial and personal to the Empress. That our lands be joined in pact along with their rulers. Those gifts that seem so terrible to you are in a way tokens of courtship - mere formality, of course, you understand. But, even in that, Lynn-Naraksh knows to be generous. Have I been clear now?"

"You claim your profli-" Kardaron paused, cleared his throat, and resumed speaking. "You are saying his Imperial Sanctity seeks covenant and marriage to the Empress Andromache?" His voice was one of utter disbelief. "Just to be perfectly clear." He added hastily.

"Precisely, my friend, precisely." The Episcope visibly nodded under his hood. "Just as I said. Every word with the Throne's stamp of authority."

The High Invigilator raised a finger as if to proclaim a point, and stood still for a moment with his mouth open, saying nothing, before lowering his hand and appearing to hesitate for a few moments. Finally, after several dumbstruck moments, he appeared to decide on something. "...A likely story." He said, with only the barest hint of incredulity.

"Isn't it?" The cleric chuckled. "Not many of your thousands of supplicants come up with something like this, do they? But no," he waved aside with his gesturing hand, "If you want proof, we have some documents in our load. Formal proposals, just enough to spare a few. I can have an adjunct fetch them right now."

"...That would be helpful, yes, but documentation aside it is easy to say one thing and mean another. Yet, you say all of these...items are essentially intended as bethrothal gifts?" Kardaron queried.

"You could say they are. We don't have a tradition of noble engagements, and His Sanctity thought well to be cautious and send the best he could. If you will allow me..." The Episcope turned towards the waggon and, taking a few steps away from the staircase, shouted something in North-Narakshi towards it. Some moments later, one of the black adjuncts hurried out of the vehicle with half a dozen parchment rolls under his arm, crossing the courtyard to hand them over to the priest, who in turn proffered them to the High Invigilator. "If you are more interested in the marriage, these are the important ones." He held up two of the scrolls. "But you will want to look at all of them."

Kardaron took both of the scrolls absent-mindedly, examining the carriage still tied behind one of the terrorbeasts. "If all of this is true, then you would have no issue with the items in question being secured inside a separate carriage, locked and guarded by Matathran sentinels who will accompany you to your audience with the Empress." He posed to the Episcope.

"Of course not." The cleric extended the remaining parchments back to the adjunct. "All you need to be concerned about is finding something large enough. If you want all gifts to be watched, then..." He pointed at the monstrosity which had been summoned by Khvoral during the struggle. "...there's that one to consider, as well. Good like a - dog, yes?, even without its handlers. Only, do leave us something to ride in." The jocular tones in his voice seemed near to surfacing again.

"Very well. Here is how this is going to work." Kardaron said, a hint of exasperation in his voice. "Every item on the original list you provided will be inspected, then double-sealed inside new containers, which will be placed under lock and key in a new series of carriages. I will have your company escorted by members of the Questor Order Secular as you accompany the next mass baggage train from Ffanos to the frontlines where the Empress is presently located."

"All very satisfactory, as you say it." The Episcope nodded in agreement. "Arrange it as you need, and I doubt I have to warn you to be cautious with our burden. In this, we remit ourselves to your judgment. It is your task to deal with such things, isn't it? As this was not even the worst you have seen..." He turned to adjunct once more, and gave a series of what were distinctly commands, yet whose import was indecipherable to the High Invigilator. "Our escort will ensure that your people's work be eased." He briefly glanced back at his retreating subordinate, then presumably returned his invisible eyes upon Kardaron. "What else can His Sanctity's envoys answer for you?"

"Well...what prompted this...peculiar offer? Now is a rather serendipitious time. His Imperial Sanctity had twelve years of peace with which to make the offer, but he sends you on the eve of our first victory in the Emerald Empire." The High Invigilator looked skeptically at the Episcope.

"Serendipity it was, in a way. The very matter has long been entertained, I will tell you, but many rather prominent figures opposed it for reasons of their own." Again, the vague gesture. "News of Matathran's continued successess, however, have now put the most obstinate of them to silence. This is, at least, as much as I have been allowed to know as a messenger. I have also heard of some kind of diplomatic leverage with the treefolk being connected, but I would give my word there is little merit behind such voices."

"Diplomatic leverage with the Emerald Empire." Kardaron said flatly in response. "Well, if there really is nothing to that particular sentinment, then surely you would not also mind me appropriating a few of your attendants to guide our own diplomatic envoy to inquire with his Imperial Sanctity himself?" He asked with a raised eyebrow.

"If you need to. It wouldn't be necessary, since I am certain your speakers would be allowed into the Throne without much trouble even on their own, but I can spare an adjunct or two." The Episcope's tone had grown even, if not quite listless. "You could also seek audience with the Exarchs if you wished to investigate some further, though I am unsure how much they will be ready to tell you. Such different people." he added, pensively and almost as an afterthought.

"I suppose I had better write and make the appropriate arrangements." Kardaron said, turning partway back towards the entrance to the Demesne. "I do not suppose you would care to join me in the capacity of an adviser in the meanwhile? I imagine Khvoral has the matter of supervising our inspection well in hand."

"Anything I can do to assist." For good or ill, the traces of flatness were gone as the cleric replied again. "It is, after all, part of my mandate here. I have a suspicion it will do me well to familiarize myself a little with the workings of your Administration. Who knows when such knowledge could become useful, don't you think?"

The High Invigilator did not respond, merely gesturing for the Episcope to follow him inside.
@Arawak Understandable. When you have time, we could write out the Domain delegation's arrival to Iural.
Sorry for the (potentially lethal) inactivity on my part, but various poorly timed obstacles ave delayed me until now. If any of you who are about are still up for keeping this going, I can provide a collaborative effort here or there (@Arawak or @Raylah in particular).
...since Jvan had wrecked the home of Osveril.

What goes around comes around.
All things considered, Ulor was not quite surprised that the gnome's theory about the functioning of the altars had not occurred to him before. He did feel there was a link or a throat between them, and, now that he thought of it, the juvenile wyrm had been crouching over the second one when the party surprised it. Nevertheless, it seemed amazing that not all rituals should, after all, have been directed towards something outside the material planes, nor the energy of sacrifices consumed only by gods and their likes. Were these dragon-worshippers, even advised by a devil as they had been, truly so mad as to have spilled hard-gained blood not for their divine or infernal patrons, but for a terrestrial creature, of all things?

Can you believe this? With all these people, they could have summoned much more than a dragon!

Perhaps, but they might have not known how. Or not dared risk conjuring something they did not know as well as their dragon.

If their goal was to wreak havoc on the city, that would not have mattered, would it? But I cannot see how that would further their plan, unless that was to be the true sacrifice...

However, either Ulor could not voice his thoughts out loud as clearly as that, or he did not think anyone would find them as useful as the octopus did, because his answer to the gnome was merely "It would have been bad, yes. But why would it have been good for them?", followed by a pensive grunt.

Being done with both altar and trove, he finally became aware of the rest of "all these people". Although his eyes soon wandered away from the cell's direction at first, he seemed to be struck with some sort of idea after a few moments. Stowing away the scrolls and flasks lest they be forgotten due to not being shiny enough, he made his way towards the newly freed group, passing over the boat with a clumsy display of acrobatics that prematurely called a sphinx's riddle to mind. Once he was close enough to them to be within earshot without need to shout - something he was not certain his throat could have taken - he pointed a finger at none of them in particular and, still slightly out of breath, wheezed broadly in their direction on the heels of his companions' more amicable questions.

"More importantly, what have you seen and heard down here?"
Empire of Lynn-Naraksh

South of Nergerad, Demesne of Urvetschin

“Oer this ridge there, you’ll see it now.”

The small column wound its way between the jagged crests of a line of squat hills that protruded from the waste like pustulent growths on the black, scarred hide of some tremendous beast. While this was not the path Valdik had followed the first two times, he had discovered that it was much faster to reach the place from the closest town this way than by the detour through the mountain pass, and going through Nergerad was unavoidable once people higher up than the bäkhte had become involved. They certainly wouldn’t stop at Valdik’s own village, if only because there was not nearly enough room for them there, even in what passed for an inn and the church put together. He was indeed a little surprised that they had been able to fit in Nergerad itself. An Episcope, he could understand. Under their masks, they could not have been very different from anyone else. But this was the Exarch of the South. Someone who surely lived like a lord, and under whose hood he was sure he had seen a small red glimmer.

Yet the Exarch had obviously spent the night in the town’s finest attic, and still did not look any less imposing for it. The robed figure could not have been much taller than himself, nor was there much that distinguished it from the cenobites following it, aside from the slightly more numerous and visible ornaments on its trappings. It was certainly far less impressive a sight than the Knights marching at its sides. However decorated with eyes and other mystical symbols, its vestment was no glimmering suit of armour, and its mask no bone-fanged helm. Even the black adjuncts behind them might have seemed to surpass it in menace with their swords and spiked maces, or the three brown-cloaked strangers who came last of all in their mystery – Valdik did not know what they could be, or why they would have been travelling in the prelate’s train. But they all paled near the Exarch, for the sole reason that it was the Exarch. He had never truly thought he would see one from up close, let alone be a guide to one, but his discovery was proving more and more miraculous by the day. Maybe he would someday be called for by – Well, it was always too early to think of that.

“There is, Eminence. You can see it from ere.”

The procession had by this time climbed over the spine of the last hill, and nothing more stood between them and the black plain. Like everywhere in Naraksh, be it south or west, the sky was dim despite it being high noon, but the view from the hilltop was clear. The whole of the wasteland, from there to the mountains that stood far over the horizon, was open to their sight. Or it would have been, were it not for the sea of dark shapes that stretched over it, vanishing into the distance.

“Godsblood” Valdik heard one of the adjuncts swear under his breath. Several others inhaled sharply through their masks. He had grown to expect these reactions by now. Even the Episcope had drawn a Triangle in the air when seeing the things for the first time.

It was just as well there were people with the Exarch, or he would have been even more unnerved. The high cleric had not said anything, nor even raised a hand. Despite this being his fourth time before the carven ranks, Valdik himself was still struck with the same awe and fright as he had been when he had first discovered the titanic work. These things, whatever they were, could not have been something of this world or age. They belonged in the tales and legends of times gone by, when the gods broke the earth with one hand and breathed rivers of fire into its depths. Never mind what people said about that Prophetess. Her words about some “darkness” – as though that was something a proper Narakshi needed to be warned about! – were worth less than the pebble that had found its way into his boot if they shied away from a true miracle like this. The faith of the Eyes had something to stand on, here on those stone shoulders. This was what the bäkhte spoke about in church, and what the Exarch must have read about hundreds of times from those tablets they had in the cathedral. Signing, praying, even simply rejoicing, he could have understood anything. But not this silence.

He caught himself wondering if what was under that mask was really a man like him, and how much it could have known about the gods that it should not be astonished. How it could have known that much. The thought almost made him shudder.

They were now close to the first row of sculpted warriors. The Exarch stopped some steps away from it, and the entire procession ground to a halt behind, spreading out in a semicircle around them. Mutterings coursed among the party as its members admired the inhumanly fine design of the figures’ carven armaments, rivalling, as Valdik had heard the Episcope say, even the old monuments in the Throne. The contrast between them and the blank features was a rough and unpleasantly familiar one, all too reminiscent of the faceless lords of the land.

“You said they change when you touch them?” Valdik still could not say whether the hissing, rasping voice from under the prelate’s hood was that of a man or a woman.

“Yes, Eminence. Like this, see…” Stiffening his hand to stop it from trembling, he raised it to the nearest statue’s head. They were, he had discovered, safe to the touch, warm yet not scalding. That did not make the sight of the transformation that came over them every time any less eerie. He had never been fond of mirrors – his face was more distinct in them than even he remembered it, which always bothered him – and this was the most unsettling one he had ever seen.

His fingers found a shoulder of black stone, and the whispers behind him rose in intensity as the sculpture radiated a sanguine glow, lines and bulges forming on the previously smooth surface under its helmet. There he was, immortalised better than anyone short of the Emperor himself could hope for. Every scar, every stray hair on his chin, every single pock-mark under his eyes, each of what he knew to be the exact length and depth. He wanted to withdraw his hand, but the looming dark form of the Exarch in the corner of his eye was more threatening than the dead rock was sinister. Thus, it was only after a few more moments that he lifted his hand, passing it slowly before the statue’s head, which briefly reawakened it. Not without some relief, he stepped back, looking expectantly at the robed figure beside him.

The high cleric motioned for him to back further away, which he was glad to obey, and advanced towards the figure. Cloth rustled in the silence of the wasteland as a draped arm swept up, repeating Valdik’s movements. Once again, a dark red streamed from the statue, though its face was covered from where he stood by the Exarch’s head. Nevertheless, he knew the shifting stone had not failed when subdued exclamations rose from the closest acolytes. This time, even the Exarch nodded briefly in what might have been surprise. It drew back, and the glow died down; however, it was soon replaced by a new, harsher light. The prelate was holding a palm outstretched towards the stone warrior, and bright fiery sparks were gathering at the tips of its fingers. There was no smoke or crackling, nor was the black glove burned by the dancing shards of radiance. The priests and Knights standing around them seemed far less astonished by this display than by the changes in the sculpture’s face, but Valdik could not help but bite down. He had been right about the red glimmers under that hood after all.

The sparks surged up in a stronger flare, and, detaching themselves from the Exarch’s hand, flowed at the statue like a stream of fiery arrows. They struck the stone, crawling over it like a swarm of wasps, then disappeared into it, sinking as though it had been quicksand. Evidently, this was not what the Exarch expected. The masked head swayed a second time, and the sparks turned and twisted into each other, coalescing into something Valdik could only think of as a bolt of flowing amber lightning that arced through the air at the very centre of the carven chest. He had to squint not to be dazzled by the flash; when he blinked off the reverb in his eyes, he saw the statue stood unchanged and the Exarch had lowered its hand, which was now pensively intertwined with the other. A few moments passed in silence. It was clear even to those less adept in the magical arts that, whatever the high priest had tried, it had been to no effect, and it was just as clear that this was not what had been expected.

Despite the failure, however, the Exarch did not seem entirely lost. Turning and moving towards the semicircle, it gestured at the three brown-cloaked strangers, who had until then remained standing some distance away from the rest. They now came forward, two of them casting off their mantles as they did to reveal worn grey wurm-hide leather clothing and masks of the cheaper sort. At their belts they had short, straight-bladed swords, which their hands reached for even before they had fully come to face each other. At first, Valdik could make little sense of their movements, until it dawned on him upon seeing the number of roughly patched slashes and suspicious dark stains on the figures’ clothes. These were bloodbrothers. Followers of the deceiver Prophet. How were they here, with the Exarch?! Why had they not been seized and imprisoned? The bäkhte said that bloodbrothers were crazed murderers and animals, everyone knew this. And yet the Exarch had allowed them to come here. Maybe they were prisoners? But then, why?

While he was still wondering, the answer had already begun to unfold before him. The two bloodbrothers had drawn their blades and were now swinging at each other with savage abandon. From what he knew of swordfighting, he could see they were good, though reckless as nobody he had ever known before. They seemed to ignore any defensive motions with the weapon, only making slight attempts to dodge before plunging into flurries of brutal lunges and slashes. Fresh blood was already welling out from new gashes. Valdik found himself enthralled by the weave of their swords and the sheer fury that exuded from their skilful yet beastly movements. There was little doubt they would not stop until one or both would be on the ground. Was this why the Exarch had brought them along, to circumvent the law against blood sacrifice if sorcery failed? It would have been callous, but Valdik had to admit no one could have said anything against the prelate if this were indeed the case. As far as anyone was concerned, the bloodbrothers would kill each other, and that was all. No one was even forcing them to.

Whatever the reason, beyond the more immediate one of their bloodlust, that pushed the supposed captives against each other, their duel seemed to be coming to an end. The one to Valdik’s right clearly had the upper hand; while its opponent was growing more and more sluggish, seeping red from several wounds over the body, its own thrusts were only slightly slower than at the beginning. A sidestep and a lunge, and its blade was in the other’s flank. The adversary answered with a backhanded blow, more by reflex than consciously, followed by a swing that sliced across its back, but by then it had already moved around the sagging body and struck it again between the ribs. The other slumped to its knees, dropping its sword as a gurgling sound rose from its chest, red-tinged foam dripping from the sides of its mask. Crying out something harsh and guttural that Valdik did not understand, the victor pulled up the victim’s head and slashed across the exposed throat, sending an almost black gout spraying on the nearest statue’s feet.

Instinctively, Valdik raised his eyes to the head of the sculpture, which had once again begun to pulse with light, as though bleeding itself. Its blank surface was warping as new features rose from it like bones from the descending tide. The third brother bent down to tear off the fallen one’s mask, threw a glance at the transforming visage, then nodded to the assembled group. The Exarch stepped closer as if to satisfy itself, and Valdik, safe enough behind its sight, did the same. The corpse’s sharp, narrow Eastern face was twisted in the stomach-churning cross of a grimace of pain and a maddened snarl. An identical deathly mask now marred the once-pristine stone; the only difference was that this one would never rot. Nor, it seemed, would it ever be replaced. The Exarch swept a hand before the unnatural likeness, then touched its helm. There was neither light nor change.

Valdik tentatively held his own palm to a second sculpture. The stone flared up in red, and his own eyes looked back at him.

When he turned back towards the bloodied scene, the Exarch was looking at him, or, more likely, at the statue. There was a red shimmer behind the mask, he was now certain.

“That place, Nergerad. Is it the closest to here?”

“…Yes, Eminence.” His throat felt dry. The words did not come nearly as fast as he would have wanted, and for a moment he was afraid the Exarch would do the same to him as to that Easterner. But that did not happen.

“Clear it.” The high priest had turned towards its followers. “Remove everyone from Nergerad, and anywhere from which this can be reached in less than a day. Let none approach without our blessing.”

Somehow, Valdik felt this was the best outcome there could have been for those people. He took a step to leave the sculptures' side in the wake of the Exarch, when a call from one of the adjuncts drew his attention. His gaze strayed to where the masked warrior was pointing - and he bit down painfully on his tongue, as his throat felt as dry as the soil under his feet.

Where the corpse of the fallen bloodbrother had lain, nothing remained but a mound of dust, already half-lost in the ash of the wasteland.
Empire of Lynn-Naraksh

Torkhane, Demesne of Kostraal

That evening, the wind was blowing from the east. Zenre, the locals called it, the black wind, for it was the ash that flew and lay down to smother the snow. It was unusual for the season, and usually a sign that the weather would be good the day after. As good as it could be in Koresta, that was. Even in the milder months, these lands, nested in an ungainly corner between the ever icy fangs of northern Naraksh and the dark plains at the heart of the Empire, were torn between the white shroud that crept down from the nearby hills, refusing to melt even when it grew to cover the edges of the ever-scalding wastes, and the choking plumes of cinder that rose in gusts from luridly lit crevices. The malice of the elder horrors that lurked in dread myths remembered when night fell seemed to live still in what they were fabled to have wrought, animating the wretched elements themselves to mock and torment those who would brave their domain. It would take, it appeared, incredibly stubborn or just as incredibly desperate folk to make their home here.

Yet those who dwelt in Torkhane and the few other villages scattered throughout the Demesne were no more desperate than any who walked the earth, and no more stubborn than any of their compatriots. Whatever cruel will might once have driven their forebears to settle that ravaged soil, they had chosen well in laying its foundations. It stood near the all-too-clear boundary between the two realms, yet not quite upon it, where it would have been torn even as the land itself. Rather, it crouched by the edge of the black expanse, at the mouth of a descending ravine, split just near the divide and running further up into the hills beyond it. The gulch's ridges loomed darkly over the huts in their midst, steeping them into a gloom deeper even than what was usual for Naraksh, but they were as good as walls to hold out frigid winds and swirling ashes alike.

At the very edge of the village was a wooden building larger, and, for an eye who had known only the coarsely sturdy shacks that were its ilk, comelier than most. Before its door there stood a bench just as rough and unpolished, and on the bench there sat an old man with a weather-beaten, leathery face and a crude smoking pipe between his parched lips. Now and then, he took it out of his mouth, blew out small clouds of foul-smelling smoke, eerily similar to the ash plumes that could even then be seen rising over the plains in the distance, and took a swig from one of the two tankards that stood near him. With a smoothly practised motion, perfected over years of sitting before the tavern with a pipe in one hand and ale in another, he swung his fingers to blow the smoke over the second keg. It didn't help the ale's taste, of course, but it kept the waste gnats away. Awful things, those. You let one touch your drink, and next thing you knew 'uns maggots were eating you from the inside. That's the way it was.

But it seemed the old man would not have to keep the gnats at bay for much longer. A loose troop of dark figures was approaching from eastwards, where the ash fields lay. Some carried tools over their shoulders, while a few others led along sickly mottled donkeys with sagging sides. Behind them hurried children with empty sacks, at times stumbling in their oversized bast shoes or over the rags wrapped around their feet. Most did not so much as look up as they passed by. A few nodded or raised a hand, and the elder nodded back.

One of the men turned from the path into the village and came towards the bench. As he approached, sideways to the setting sun, more and more details about him became visible. His grimy, patched clothes, woven for a larger frame, hung somewhat loosely over his body, though it was not thinner than was healthy. His hands were dirty with soot, and his face was covered up to the eyes with a cloth held in place by his hat. These rags could become furnaces on hot days, especially if the fabric was not loose enough, but most people could not afford a proper mask, and no one wanted to keel over at twenty years with blackened lungs.

The newcomer reached the tavern's doorstep, flexed his right arm, waving the gnats away as he did, and sank onto the bench with a grunt. He took the tankard the old man held up to him in his left hand, and raised the right to sweep hat and rag away from his head. The face beneath the cloth was only slightly younger than that of the old man, and even more wrinkled around the eyes. His grey-streaked beard was, despite the protection, stained with ash, and he wiped it with the hat before laying it down to his side. While those signs could, in the eyes of some, have marked him as no longer fit for the fields in the eyes of some, they had far less meaning in Naraksh than in most other place. It was a common jest that the hair of people here was grey as soon as it grew, and there was just enough truth in that for it to sometimes still raise a chuckle despite being older than the Blood Lords.

The younger man raised the keg to his mouth and drank. The dark liquor was bitter, as most things were around there, and tasted of burned cheap smoking herbs more than it did of mead, but this was the one best moment of the entire day. His friend stared pensively into the distance, mulling over the last dregs of his own beverage and absently rapping his pipe against the bench to dislodge the ash from it. Ash, more ash. It was everywhere, here.

He set down the keg, spat out a lump he had caught in the brew, and reached under his coat, producing his own gnarled pipe, a fire striker and something wrapped in a dirty cloth. Holding up a corner of the rag, he deftly gathered up some of its contents with two fingers, rolled them together and stuffed them into the pipe's mouth. He then held up the wrap and half-turned towards the elder. The latter took a pinch, smelled it and looked up curiously. "What's this one?"

"New. Trader came round while we were working." The other replied. "Looked like an easterner. 'en said this comes from Ultevrer. Also said it's pure, but ya know how's that."

The old man picked some more of the dried herb and filled his pipe. His companion, who was already puffing at his share, struck a spark into it, and for a while both sat smoking in silence.

"'s't good." The elder was the first to speak up. "Bit sweet, and has this strange taste tha' lingers, but good."

"Uhurm." A nod. "Nezhden also got few other things off him. Some of 'erm dried spiny fruit, nukre, pot of barkback for next month. An' a skin of nukre root brew." He winked, though that could have been just some smoke from the pipe going into his eye. "We'll have some this evening if ya come over."

"Always for it, ya know." The old man briefly flashed a smile of sparse yellow teeth. Suddenly, he sat up from his slouching posture and frowned, turning his squinted eyes to the horizon.

"What's that? Wurm?" There almost never were any about at that time of year, even in zenre weather, but one could never be sure with the wretched beasts.

"Don't look like it. But..."

Both men stood up and moved a few steps towards the mouth of the ravine. There was something moving over the plains, not too far away - no, several things. Some could not have been much larger than a human, but others were clearly imposing despite the distance, and their forms were something out of the savage wilderness. They moved ahead slowly, yet steadily. One could almost swear the creaking of fleshless limbs could be heard from the tavern.

"Woodkin." The younger of the two bit on his pipe, mild bewilderment written over his face. "What're 'urn doing here? Now?"

"I'en'no. Never see 'erm here, that's for sure." His fellow blew out smoke, blinking when the wind carried it back into his eyes. "Weren't they goin' to war with them of Mat'thran?"

"Heard so. If they's goin' to war, this's wrong way. This way, ya go..." In spite of himself, he felt his heart sink as his words trailed away. He could barely bring himself to finish the sentence. "...ya go to the Throne."

"Mrm." The old man was about to add something, but stopped. It was clear what the other's lapse meant. If they had gone to war, and now were going to the Throne, it wouldn't be to share the spoils. They would ask the Emperor for help. And the Emperor would not refuse. The Blood Lords always wanted more of everything. "We don't know erm's goin' that way yet."

"Na, we don't." The other did not seem convinced. "But I can't think of no other. If we get called to go... We're behind on'na tillin', and us old folk inn' enough. And..." He wiped the ash that had gathered around his mouth with his sleeve. "Dragna's expectin' her third, and Nezhden's as fit as ya can have 'erm. 'en gets taken, and it'll be the four o' us left. 'un'd be easier to just sell ourselves to the master." He forced a smile, not very convincingly.

"Me and Zlaibna i'll help, ya know that." The amicable blow to the shoulder that followed must have betrayed just what that help could possibly amount to, because he added, in a laughingly apologetic tone, "Not like we used to."

"'sa never gets worse." A spell of silence, as the last of the pipe-herbs smouldered in the quickly falling darkness. It was already impossible to distinguish ash from sky. The distant figures had faded into the dusk. "But ya'rs right, we don't know that yet. And it's night already. Let's, or they won't warm the nukre brew."

The two, themselves little more than gaunt, spectral shapes between the ridges, turned back and vanished into the shadows of the gulch. Ahead of them, the village was already opening its many narrow, glimmering eyes of fire. Yet not as many as there would have been had the snow lain over the ash. Tomorrow would be a good day.
Omonoi, Generator District Tha-1

"Now, careful with the lever there. Like on a murena hunt. Try to push it, lightly, very. Only try."

A low, smooth whirring, like that of an escalator band.

"It can go down. Do I push more?"

"Push, slowly. Like you're trying, to halfway. How far is halfway?"

"Twenty centimetres, maybe. A bit less."

"Push it to twenty. Steadily."

The whirring again. This time it lasted longer, with some brief interruptions, until it was cut off by a loud, metallic click. There was a thudding sound, as though something heavy had fallen on a soft surface not far away, then all was quiet again.

"Did anything happen?"

"It sounds like we have access. You can come up."

A bright-blue, shapeless limb slid over the edge of the well and clung to it with its rows of suckers. Its tip flattened itself against the metallic floor and pulled; several more tentacles emerged from under the rim and followed suit, until a wobbly, almost gelatinous sphere rose up behind them - a sphere with round yellow eyes protruding from its sides. E-33-B almost flowed over the corner for the last bit of the way, before slumping to the ground and blossoming into relieved rusty brown stains over its body. Its partner, F-FB-35, was already standing upright in the form most Blurs took when on dry, even soil: four of its lower tentacles, extended at right angles from each other around the beak, were broadened and twisted into thick, sturdy legs resting on semi-circular footpads. Two thinner limbs sprouted from just below its right eye, waving and intertwining idly as they held a scorcher rifle. The local maintenance automata were usually innocuous, but it was always better to be safe than sorry. One never knew when a security drone might appear after the accident at the control central last week.

Or, even worse, an emergency response unit. At least that should now have been taken care of.

Signing for E-33-B to follow, the larger Blur slithered back down the corridor they had come from, around the bend and into the small hallway beyond. Its limbs did not seem to rise from the ground as it moved, but undulated in short waves, pushing themselves forward with a strength impressive for such small motions. It was not very comfortable, truth be told - had F-FB-35 been in a position to choose, it would have used much longer and ampler waves - but it was the quietest and least abrupt way of going about places with such smooth floors, and being quiet was preferable when venturing into the further districts of the massive toroidal habitat. Everything here had been designed with comfort in mind, but this comfort was clearly intended for beings very different from those that made up the Concord. There was little water, and in fact none of the control panels, access terminals or even flow switches were submerged, the air ventilation blew in unpleasant drafts from the most unlikely of angles, and grids emitting wafts of warm, dry air were in every place where one's leg or tentacle could become stuck in them, something Scalders found particularly annoying.

But the worst were the security checks. Whoever had built this place had valued its inhabitants' safety, or else had taken some obscure instinctive phobia to an extreme: almost every major passage, be it between districts, from a conveyor hub to a forum, into a medical bay or even a holo-recreation center, was fitted with more or less obvious scanners; this was doubly true for maintenance facilities. These devices were programmed to monitor the passing of visitors, raising an alarm when unauthorised intruders tried to slip past them. Unfortunately, anyone the Concord could send here apparently looked like a sort of figure the sensors had been installed to deter. Some of the more daring and flexible Blurs had attempted to find out, by trial and error, what shapes would not trigger a reaction, but all they had succeeded at was putting the habitat custodians into a heightened danger regime. A joke popular among the reclamation crews had it that the people who built Omonoi must have had had non-Euclidean bodies, and sometimes F-FB-35, who had seen E-33-B try all sorts of contortionisms to get past a detector safely, came close to seriously believing it.

However, the mechanism they had now finally managed to dislodge seemed to be working, and the electronic eye that had previously blocked the pair's access to the chambers beyond the hall was now covered by an old hazard protective sheen. Why someone would have cared so much about a simple detector as to install a failsafe so elaborate was beyond them, but, as long as they could make it work, they weren't going to twist their heads about it. What they might still find in the maintenance vaults was more than enough of a worrying matter.

F-FB-35 was the first to slip through the doorway, holding the scorcher at the ready. There had already been at least three cases of malfunctioning alarms going off quietly, leading to unsuspecting reclaimers stumbling into squads of the heavy arachnoid drones. There was no sign of the mechanical sentries here, but for at least ten more minutes they could not be fully sure they were safe. It briefly sprouted a small arm from near its rear eye to gesture for E-33-B to follow, but the smaller Blur was already there, having slid next to it by flattening itself against the doorframe. It wouldn't have helped if the sensor was still active, but many of those who had experimented with disguising their form to the machines had been left with quirks like this for their troubles. This wasn't even the worst of it: F-FB-35 had heard of much more extravagant acrobatics among its colleagues.

The maintenance chambers were vast, quiet and mostly empty. The walls were lined with screens, displays and occasional projector, and the bulky steel boxes of assorted machinery stood along them here and there, silent but still blinking with red and yellow lights. There was no waste or debris cluttering the floor, no disjoined cables hanging loosely from the ceiling, no condensed brine dripping over the monitors on the walls. Everything was so clean and pristine that, had it been not for the dry air and the alien shapes of the equipment around them, they could have believed they were back home on Twenty Eight. The differences from the semi-submerged habitat's own generator centers, however small, were everywhere to remind them this place was much more dangerous than anything in the depths of their more organic environment; and still, everything was familiar and calm enough they were at a bit of a loss for what to do while they slithered through the many almost identical vaults of the district.

So, of course, they turned to the small talk of the day.

"C8-FF3 and the others kept insisting that we are doing it wrong, yesterday." E-33-B signed on its right flank, spinning ochre spirals into pulsing faded green fractal shapes. "This is not the segment's main generator control hub, they say. We can't redirect the main current flow to the docking bays from here."

"And you?" asked F-FB-35.

"I pointed them through the blueprints again. They were still sceptical. Said the loose conduits near Tha-1-34 show there's a whole secondary circuit layer down there. They're probably not wrong."

"But that doesn't mean this won't work." F-FB-35 seemed to already know where its partner was headed for.

"Right. Secondary circuits can't just divert power like that. And there aren't any other facilities around 34 that we know of."

"We still don't know nearly enough about this place."

"No. But that's not our fault."

For a moment, both reverted to a neutral dark blue. Then F-FB-35 signed again.

"There are voices spreading. I don't know if you've heard. It's the Domain."

"What about the Domain?"

"Some say we're doing all this for nothing. That, when we're finished with Omonoi, the Domain will just come in and take it. It's no secret we couldn't stop them if they wanted to."

"That's Drifter talk, isn't it?" E-33-B's reply began tinted with surprise, then quickly shifted to disbelief. "It doesn't make sense. Omonoi would be much better suited for the Domain's people as it is now. If they had wanted to, they would already have been here before us."

"Whoever is saying these things knows this." Now F-FB-35's own colours were doubtful, but not as much as those of its companion. "But that is their point. They say the Domain will annex the place with everyone who is inside. Expand their base, so they say."

"Nonsense. They are too civilised to do something like this."

"They did it on Lurs, though."

"Lurs wasn't a sovereign territory."

"Technically, neither are we. Nothing in the system is nowadays, you know this."

"Omonoi isn't anything like Lurs. We are no danger to the Domain, like those Splinters. Besides, if they occupy us for no reason, everyone in the inner system will know they are a danger. They wouldn't risk it even if they wanted to."

"I don't agree with them any more than you do. But Drifters will be Drifters."

E-33-B was about to sign a joke about the inhabitants of Iural, but F-FB-35 gestured at a doorway in the wall to their right side, and the Blurs swerved together, diving into the passage. Beyond was a small room like many others in the habitat, crammed with machinery if compared to the expansive halls they had come from, but still offering a surprising amount of space to turn about in. Experienced reclaimers could not be mistaken here: this was Tha-1 distribution manual control station. No wonder it should be so small - everything here was automated, and this place had likely been used in special cases no more than once every few decades. But it was just what the Blurs needed.

As E-33-B set to work with what should have been the central panel and F-FB-35 remained watching by the door, there was no more time for idle talk. Handling devices meant for limbs utterly unlike theirs was hard enough as it was, without the added threat of drone patrols happening by at the worst of times. But, as both of the Blurs believed, it would all be worth it in the end. Some switches flicked here, and the main docking bays could be repurposed for the distribution of water, enough for everyone and everything. Then Omonoi would flourish.
I can never tell how to interpret that word when it comes to you Jvanensian sorts.

You didn't think it was accidental, did you?

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