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With the skeletons having finally collapsed back into their coffins, Ulor's attention turned away from them and back to the room itself. The presence of these necromantic creatures went to refute what he thought to have observed before; they could not have been lying there by sheer chance, for they had remained in their tombs in the wake of whoever had placed the latest newly released prisoner in the disappointingly harmless saltwater tank. No, they had lain there to serve a purpose; and whatever purpose could have required the presence of battle-ready undead - somehow, Ulor thought first of holding sacrificial victims in place, and only then of guarding something - it was certain to be an interesting one. Unfortunately, neither he nor the octopus could see much past the others as the chamber was searched, and had to resort to craning necks and flattening heads to even e certain that it was being searched at all.

The blooming of the enchanted boat was, however, visible enough from the corridor, and he was satisfied enough with it that he thought little of clambering into the vessel when it was lowered onto the murky water. After all, it had been there for the use of those very acolytes who now were chanting more and more audibly somewhere not too far. Ulor caught himself thinking that the fact that the boat was here and the acolytes here might have been strange, but by this point they had already set sail, so it did not matter much.

The chant grew more and more in volume, and Ulor was irked that he could not understand what something with such a curious cadence meant. That is, until the gnome, about whom, along with most of the party, he had all but forgotten, helpfully translated the sinister words. The mage frowned, alternating a few squinting glances between Eilina and the shadows ahead. "Now? Impossible. No single ritual could be sufficient for this," he rasped in what was ostensibly his usual hollow voice. But he did not sound too confident. In truth, not even he could properly guess at what a sufficient force could accomplish in so little time. What he did know was that an event of that sort was certain to have repercussions through worlds known and uncharted alike, ones that he, for one, had no intention of experiencing firsthand.

Holding up a hand, Ulor whispered something inarticulate, and the octopus, which had been clinging to the side of the boat, slid almost noiselessly into the stream below. The filthiness of the water worked to its advantage as its pale body grew dark to match its surroundings, so that only a suspicion of a bulging eye could be occasionally glimpsed cautiously peering out before vanishing again. And that eye was enough for Ulor's mind, stretched and twisted into otherworldly forms of spirit, to see through. Some moments passed as he sat with his own eyes closed, after which he shook himself and turned towards the group. "There are but five adherents of the cult there, intent on their captive's sacrifice. Yet a fiend of malice and the dark spawn of the Queen preside over their rite. We must keep them at bay as we dispatch their followers, for facing all at once would spell our doom."
<Snipped quote by Oraculum>

They are specified as 'Forest Creatures'. While, yes, originally this meant around the Deepwoods, they were created before sentient life, so would have had plenty of time to travel. And since the early days Galbar has been covered in trees (in most places on Earth that aren't deserts, if there aren't lots of trees it's because Civilisation has cut them all down), these forest creatures would have probably spread quite far.

Makes sense. Believe it or not, Violet Slug population growth is now responsible for the reworking of some character arc plans, though this is certainly not an unwelcome development.
On that note, how widespread are the Slugs? They seem to have started out as Deepwoods creatures, but must have propagated a fair bit to be a common sight as far south as Tallgrass.
Notes on the centre of the continent: geographically, a significant zone is covered by a dry, hostile wasteland, which, despite the local climate not being extreme, is inhospitable to surface life and thus largely barren. This does not in itself preclude these lands from being settled, albeit the harsh conditions, combined with frequent Riglir attacks from below, ensure that none but the hardiest and most determined may thrive there. Across the barren soil there lie, widely scattered and mostly damaged beyond recognition, bones and parts of skeletons of colossal size (to the extent that a mostly complete ribcage could contain a sizeable settlement), akin to those found in the Kralhk boneyards, if in significantly worse conditions.

The wasteland area is here marked with grey shading:

<Snipped quote by Oraculum>

Osveril hasn't really interacted with hain in a memorable way yet. He'll get a time point when that happens.

EDIT: Damn it, I made a new page in the thread! See the bottom of the previous page to see the updated timeline!

Ay, that's for reference for future, more productive posts. Better to make sure I don't make a temporal mess in advance.
Placing Osveril's goings-about on this timeline might need some guesswork. In terms of major world events, the best points of reference I have are the Sculptors starting to gain knowledge of alchemy, which follows Teknall and Toun's visit to Jvan and presumably precedes his birth, and the Pronobii resurrection, which follows it by a moderate(?) spell (Termite doubtless knows better than me where it would go). Overall, though, I'd say the birth wouldn't have happened later than 5 PR, if only because it was still the last turn. This should currently put Osveril in late 5 to early 6 PR at most.

In short, Osveril and time still have a tense relationship. Do correct any blunders I may have made there.
((Collab with @Ozerath))

MSV Friedrich Lochland
ICX-979 System
Restricted Space

MSV Friedrich Lochland stood still in space, vigilantly watching over the swarms of mining drones swirling about the asteroid field nearby. MSV was perhaps a misleading prefix for the Friedrich Lochland. It was indeed registered with the Commonwealth Ministry of Commerce as a “Merchant Space Vessel”, but it was considerably faster and better armed than most ships of the same designation. Friedrich Lochland was in fact a decommissioned Resiliant class battlecruiser, purchased and refurbished from the scrapyards above Bravia. Formerly named RCNS Impatient, the vessel’s original hull was over a hundred years old, and it had been mothballed for 50 before being refurbished and renamed. The Resiliant class predated Commonwealth positron beams, so its turrets were less potent grasers. Combined with the removal of its axial weapons, it was cleared for civilian ownership and operations, but it was still very much a warship. Just a very, very old one.

The expense of purchasing and maintaining such a vessel exceeded the costs of a more traditional freighter, but the Friedrich Lochland’s captain had come to possess it under some interesting circumstances-namely with assistance from the Office of Naval Intelligence. The captain himself was an interesting man, engaged in all sorts of interesting business. His name...was also Friedrich Lochland. Lochland was a bit of everything; innocent cargo hauler when it suited him, smuggler and gun for hire most of the time. He occasionally took passengers as well; there wasn’t much of a market for high security high discretion personal transport, but those few who needed the service tended to pay well.

Lochland prowled around the bridge, deep within his ship’s armoured bulk. He was a male Vit’azny, a touch over 70. He was a little on the tall side and a little on the thin side. His frame was lithe, but well muscled, and he twisted a stylus between his fingers with tremendous dexterity.
"Status?" he called out, continuing to fidget with the stylus.
"All clear. Wild Rose and Rusty Razor report holds are at 80%." Vana replied with a touch of exasperation. Vana was a yanissan woman who served as Lochland’s pilot and first officer. On most ships, the two roles were filled by separate people, but Lochland insisted that he was the only one allowed to walk around the bridge looking ‘captain-y’, so his first officer had to be firmly seated to avoid clashing with his image.
“Well I’m sorry that my concern is bothering you Vana,” Lochland replied sarcastically. “We’re just a little exposed here, and starships are very expensive. I think about these things Vana, that’s why I’m Captain and you’re...well, definitely not Captain.”

Lochland’s sarcasm blew over his XO like so much hot air, the woman having long since gotten used to his eccentricities. Something on the display gave her pause though. Vana frowned. “Hold on, I think we just detected a bunch of FTL transits...Confirmed. Nine signatures, one of them outmasses us by a good chunk too."

Lochland stopped fiddling with his stylus, his face grim. This had been a possibility from the beginning; the system was in restricted space for a reason. But its fabulous mineral wealth had made it too tempting to pass up for a particular mining consortium, and they were paying Lochland a staggering sum of money to escort two of their ships.

"Signal the miners. Tell them to flush the holds and abandon the drones, we're leaving right now."

Thankfully, the mining captains didn't argue. They were evidently frightened enough to listen to their escort without question. The three ships set off on a vector that would clear them of a nearby gas giant's gravity well while keeping them away from the unknown ships. But the problem was speed. Friedrich Lochland could have outrun their pursuers on its own, but the mining vessels were proving to be too slow, even with empty holds. Lochland watched the plot as the unknown ships drew closer.

"Captain...we'll have to leave the miners behind." Vana said quietly. That was certainly an option. It would mean forfeiting pay, but money wasn't much good if you weren't around to spend it. Lochland was seriously thinking about it when a particular memory struck him, a young boy saluting a uniformed father he'd never see again. A memory that had troubled him for years, and gotten him into trouble many times.

"No. Turn us around and prep for combat. Tell the miners to keep running for the well limit." Lochland said firmly.

Vana sunk her head. "Captain, I know what you're thinking but you're going to get us all killed."

"You're welcome to take a shuttle and leave, if you're feeling cowardly. The ship is staying to fight, and I'm staying with my ship. You're all welcome to run actually..." he cast an eye around the bridge, but no one moved from their post. "Good. Now prep for combat."

The 'Merchant Space Vessel' did exactly that. Armoured shutters slid down to protect vulnerable areas, the space around her flickered as her shields came up, and missile hatches and railgun batteries popped up into battle configuration.

Meanwhile, the unknown vessels, having fully emerged from the spatial ruptures they had opened, had approached dangerously close. Though the distance was still too great to distinguish most of their shapes' finer details, their overall appearance was dishearteningly clear. The distinctively sleek and smooth black hulls, scattered with green markings, betrayed their origin, yet this was apparently not a concern for whomever had sent them. While it was not yet entirely recognisable, their sides bore the criss-crossed golden circle of the Yrrkeltharl Coalition. Whether by chance or machination, a small fleet of its battle drones had found its way to that perilous out-of-the-way system; and anyone who had ever had dealings with the Coalition knew that, however horrid and strange its acts, it rarely ever did anything by chance.

The nature of this force showed that whoever had sent it not only knew what they were doing, but likewise did not want to take any chances. Over half of it was made up of small, oblong and predatory Thorns, which now were speeding further and further ahead of the other ships as their infamously fast sublight drives accrued strength. Behind them came a couple of Nhuul Parasites, their mechanical mandibles already poised to sink into the enemy's hull. Some way to the side, a single Tlaelon Scavenger, not as minuscule in comparison to the Friedrich Lochland as the others, flew in a way that would have been cautious had it not been a machine, occasionally swerving evasively to one side or the other.

But it was the last of the drone ships that truly laid the Coalition's intentions bare. Advancing much slower than its escorts, yet not the less threatening for it, a Nfaal Devastator was making its way towards the old Resiliant and its charges. The vast, gleaming bulk was partly obscured by the crackling of its shields, stronger by orders of magnitude than those on the Parasites, but what could be glimpsed of it, from the vicious spike of its spinal projector, flanked by what seemed to be purely ornamental steel jaws, to the grates running along its armoured back, eerily similar to some gigantic monster's ribcage, seemed to be there solely to flaunt the construct's deadly purpose.

As the Lochland began to turn about, three of the Thorns abruptly accelerated and shot forward so suddenly they became for a moment a blur on the sensors. However, they were not headed towards the battlecruiser itself. Turning aside by a slight angle, they moved to intercept the mining ships, cutting off the shortest route out of the gravity well. At the same time, the other two, followed by the Parasites, charged the larger craft head-on in a bid to distract it from the threat to the miners. Beams of pale-green light flashed from their prows, and the Nhuul began to pulse with ominous light-blue luminescence as they charged up their unmakers.

Lochland watched the various ships manevuering about intently. His own vessel had barely completed its turn, and there was plenty of time to intercept the group heading for the miners. But that would expose him to the second group...ah well, he'd already committed to protecting the miners, might as well go all out. "Match vectors with Bogey 2, I don't want them reaching the miners. Railgun batteries to full offensive fire, smaller vessels are the priority targets. I want all missile launchers on rapid fire mode, double broadsides on Bogey 2, a mix of standoff warheads and proximity nukes. Main graser batteries, target Bogey 2. Disable engines if you can, but whatever you do don't let them reach the miners."

"What about Bogey 1?" Vana asked, referring to the group of ships targetting Friedrich Lochland itself.
"We'll just have to worry about them later." Lochland said, trying to project calm. They had to be Coalition ships, he thought to himself. The system was near enough to where their territory apparently lay, and the designs of the ships didn't match anything in the databanks, so they had to belong to that mysterious faction. He'd heard stories of the Coalition, but only stories, and had hoped never to encounter them. Too late now.

Friedrich Lochland turned about again, maneuvering to intercept the Thorns pursuing the miners. Her missiles were the first to fire, all of her tubes from both broadsides throwing their weight towards the still distant targets. A second salvo of missiles was away scant seconds after the first, then her dorsal and ventral graser turrets lashed out with their invisible fire. Finally, her broadside railguns opened up, barraging both groups of enemies with relentless fire.

The grasers and the first salvo of missiles reached their targets almost simultaneously: without access to military munitions, the Friedrich Lochland made do with weaker bomb pumped lasers and good old fashioned nukes, which furiously erupted among the Thorns, even as the graser turrets swept across them, with the first waves of railgun rounds coming in close behind.

Struck so suddenly in their progress, just as their speed had reached such heights as to make manoeuvering impossible, the drones found themselves in the very middle of the barrage. In an instant they were engulfed by the explosions bursting out around them, tossing them off-course and causing them to careen dangerously close to each other. One of them attempted to redress itself, firing its thrusters forward to stabilise its mass, only to find itself shredded by the oncoming railgun projectiles. Its armour, already weakened by the grasers, gave way, and the metallic shell caved inwards as though something inside it had begun to drag and fold the hull. In an instant, a misshapen husk surrounded by minute debris was all that was left of it.

Another of the Thorns tried to spin sideways without slowing down to elude the Friedrich Lochland's fire, but its excessive momentum, combined with the debilitating effect of the explosions and a lucky graser shot having hamstrung its lateral propulsion drive, caused it to spiral uncontrollably and crash into the remains of the first one. Beaten, but still functioning, it began to retreat in order to resume its trajectory, but some well-placed rounds struck it in the fractured point, penetrating into its engines. With an inaudible groan, the ship seemed to literally implode, an invisible anomaly at its core drawing in both what was left of it and the carcass it had slammed into, reducing both to an unrecognisable bundled lump.

The third drone, however, was more fortunate. Flying at the head of the group, it had already been rather forward when the barrage struck, leaving only a section of it exposed. While that part did include the vital rear thrusters, it had nonetheless escaped serious damage. Graser burns pitted its flank, and stray railgun slugs tore off pieces of its armour, but, though battered, it flew on, without even losing much of its impetus. In a blink, it was near the scrambling mining ships. With an abruptness that would have left a living pilot smeared over the walls of the cockpit, the craft decelerated and swung around, facing its defenceless targets. Yet its goals must have been less evident than they seemed, for, instead of firing at them directly, it began to weave over them, blasting their engines with surgical accuracy. It shot to cripple, but not to destroy.

All the while, the four vessels that had hurled themselves against the Friedrich Lochland had drawn so close as to be visible to the naked eye. And they showed no sign of stopping. One of the Thorns swerved towards the main drive at its rear; the other dodged upwards, aiming for the heaviest weapon emplacements. They were within metres from the battlecruiser, and still they did not stop. If anything, they were going faster, their great speed letting them punch through the old battlecruiser's shields with minimal effort.

The battlecruiser's batteries were barely fast enough to respond. Mere seconds before the drone struck the larger ship's flank, it was torn to scraps by intensely focused fire from directly before it. The greatest part of the Thorn fractured into several pieces before and inward force akin to the one that had claimed another from its ranks sucked it in, compressing the loose plates and machinery with tremendous strength. Only a few stray shards of debris clattered harmlessly against the Friedrich Lochland's armor.

But the other drone met no such resistance. Avoiding the sparse belated blasts from the fore, it sped along the ship's side, now distinctly locked onto its rear. Another moment, and it struck. Its spiked head tore into plating, scattering parts of itself around as it did. The whole carapace began to crack open as it was still moving, the anomaly within it seeming to grow by being fed with tatters of both hulls. There was a silent creaking, and a section of Friedrich Lochland's drive aft collapsed on itself, sending shudders through its whole bulk, before exploding into a series of bright flashes.

The ship bucked and heaved as the smaller vessel tore into it and explosions ripped down the aft section of the hull. Emergency bulkheads slammed into place, the shields flashed and failed, and on the bridge, Lochland himself was thrown off his feet as the lights and displays flickered. But the ship was built to last, and it kept fighting, railgun batteries lashing out with massed fire.

"We've lost the GDC. We're not going anywhere now," Vana reported grimly. Lochland clambered back to his feet. Technically they were still travelling at a great speed, but they could no longer accelerate or decelerate, except with tiny amounts of thrust provided by maneuvering thrusters. Lochland glanced over at the tactical display, noting the 1 remaining hostile surgically carving up the mining vessels. He couldn't risk another full barrage, not with the miners so close, but he still had grasers...

"Wait for a shot, then blast that last guy from Bogey 2 with all the grasers. Throw all our missiles at that farthest ship from Bogey 1, keep railguns at maximum offensive fire!"

The remaining Thorn finished crippling the first mining ship, then moved to begin it's surgical attack on the second. As it moved between them, Friedrich Lochland's grasers fired, reaching out at the speed of light and neatly catching the Thorn in its center of mass.

The missiles flew off towards the more distant Scavenger, their number reduced and their targetting compromised, but still deadly. The railguns kept right on pounding away at the approaching Parasites. The Devastator remained untouched, its vast bulk too much for the crippled battlecruiser to contend with.

While the last Thorn imploded upon itself as it was struck directly in its battered midsection, the Scavenger continued to weave at the edges of the battlefield. Until that point, it had not yet fired a single blast, though it had had ample opportunity to do so. Now, abruptly finding itself the target of enemy fire, it seemed to gain speed as it began to twist and dodge in even more intricate patterns than before. A few of the missiles were thrown off their trajectory before they reached it, swinging wide past the ship. As another cluster approached, the Tlaelon hurled a brightly-pulsing sphere of plasma at it. Some of the warheads fired off moments before it reached them, scattering the others; yet that did not prevent them from being drawn in by the unmaker bolt's second wave and incinerated as the sphere collapsed upon them. The last few missiles crashed against the drone's shields, which momentarily dimmed before starting to rapidly recondense.

At the same time, the Parasites, which were already dangerously close to the Friedrich Lochland, responded to the railgun shots with their own scorching flares of green light. A good part of the first shots to reach them was deflected by their shields, which, however, seemed to give way soon afterwards, albeit vague halo of sparks still surrounded them. One of them brought itself to the front with a short burst of speed, drawing the brunt of the continuous fire upon itself. Yet, as its beaten hull seemed to be about to give way, it dove under the Friedrich Lochland, bringing itself outside its broadside radius.

The focus of the batteries turned upon the second Nhuul, but found itself once again repelled by its shields, which had strangely coalesced in the brief interlude. They did not last longer than the first time, but that was enough for the drone. It blasted forward, the large spines on its prow digging into the armour between weapon emplacements. Its entire fore suddenly blazed with searing plasma light as it fired its unmaker directly into the surface, incinerating it and sending superheated gusts into the battlecruiser's interior even as its own form, the batteries and the plating around it were fused into a single liquid wave, rapidly cooling into a fantastically distorted shape stuck to the ship's side like an unnatural tumour.

Alarms blared on the bridge and the ship heaved again. The lights flickered again, this time going dark, to be replaced only by dim orange emergency lighting. Lochland checked the tac display again. One of the miners was hopelessly crippled, but the other was just now making it to the edge of the gravity well. An instant later, it disappeared into the relative safety of slipspace. Lochland breathed a long sigh of relief. He'd saved at least one of them. He wasn't expecting it to summon help; the Royal Commonwealth Navy had made its stance on venturing into Restricted Space very clear. But they were safe.

"What've we got left Vana?" he asked with a calm that surprised even him.
"We just lost 60% of the port broadside railguns, 80% of the missile tubes, and control runs to turrets 3 and 4 are fried, though they still have local control capability."
"Can we do something about the ship below us?"
Vana shook her head. "He's out of the ventral turret's firing arcs, and we can't roll or maneuver fast enough to change that without the GDC. Missiles could still get him, but he's really close; we wouldn't survive our own barrage. We don't have enough left to do much to the other two hostiles. We've done all we can Lochland."

Lochland nodded. "That we have. Stand us down, but have everyone ready to abandon ship, in case our 'friends' out there hold a grudge."

Just like that, it was over. Trailing vapour and debris as it drifted through space, the Friedrich Lochland's guns finally fell silent.

As the surviving Parasite swept further down below the damaged battlecruiser, the last ship finally approached. The vast silhouette of the Devastator hung menacingly over the Friedrich Lochland, drifting, almost idly, to cover the remaining mining ship from its sight. It had lowered most of its shields, and the long curves of its dark, glistening armour were clearly visible in all their facets. The force driving the great vessel seemed indifferent to the possibility of its quarry still having some hidden trick to bring to bear against it despite the destruction of their weapons. Still, the immense focus projector between the horns on its prow remained aimed at the smaller ship's midsection, sparks of yellow light coursing around it.

Once it found itself directly above the Friedrich Lochland, the giant drone slowed its progress to an imperceptible speed, strangely coloured blazes pulsing from its exhaust vents. Then, a circle of evenly spaced beams of pale green light erupted from the tips of its frontal spikes, encompassing the battlecruiser from all sides as they blasted past it. Not one of them had struck or even glanced it, but the message was all too clear. None was to leave the ship or otherwise attempt to escape.

Some minutes passed before the Scavenger emerged into view. As fast as it had been during the battle, it circled around its prey once, then a second time, pelting its sides with what seemed to be missiles. Or, rather, what would have seemed to be missiles, had they not been so large and slow. The foresides of the cylindrical steel capsules were lined with large, thick triangular blades, whose purpose became apparent when the Friedrich Lochland shuddered under several impacts from both boards, and a quake of continuous vibrations, accompanied in some spots by the odious screech of plating being torn open, coursed through it. Soon, they faded, only to be replaced by a thundering of steps through the ship's corridors. Heavy, metallic, mechanically rhythmical. They were approaching.

A dozen figures marched onto the deck. They were shorter than most of those on board, but in the silence and fading light of the dying ship they seemed enormous. The blows of the thick, crude digits of their fourfold limbs remained brutally cadenced even as they dispersed around the chamber, their ovoidal carapaces more than vaguely resembling the bodies of monstrous mechanical insects. The spots of golden electric eyes, empty of thought or emotion, sought their living quarry, quickly, accurately. Yet, of all their parts, it was perhaps the unassuming tubules of the particle stream-blasters that were most menacing. Not, perhaps, for their shape, or even that they were there at all, but rather for how many there were on each of the machines.

Once the steel invaders had ascertained the number and position of the crew on deck, they began to rather unceremoniously push them into the corridor whence they had appeared. The drones’ strength was even greater than what their armoured exterior led to believe, and no amount of resistance could make them budge. Slowly at first, then faster and faster as the struggling was crushed by implacable unfeeling motion, the metallic herders and their captives made their way through the battered ship, past closed emergency bulkheads and failing engines. The sound of more such processions could now and then be faintly heard from other parts of the Friedrich Lochland, converging then trailing away into the distance.

At last, the machines roughly ushered their convoy into an empty, dark lateral chamber that had quite clearly not been there before. In fact, even though its entrance was itself in heavy shade, it could be seen that the wall around its circular doorway had been molten and torn. Inside, there was nowhere to sit, nor even anything to properly stand on but the treacherously concave floor. The space did not seem to be designed with humanoid occupants in mind. Or, for that matter, living ones.

Heavy panels slid down with a clang, swallowing the last glimmers of light, and all was silence and darkness. The maw of the Coalition had closed around its prey.

Attention All Players

You hereby have three days from now to ensure your might statistics are up to date in the might calculation spreadsheets.

After the three days, barring any objection or further delay, we'll post the beginning of turn 12 with updated might values.

Osveril seems to be missing from the demigods tab. Should I edit him in with might values and all?
At long last, the rest of the party had decided to put an end to its untimely vigil, and, much to Ulor's satisfaction, move on to the further end of the corridor. He briefly nodded as Lex trampled by upstairs, then hobbled eastwards. On the bridge, he paused to cast a glance at the water flowing below. The octopus eyed it inquiringly, but he shook his head, both inwardly and outwardly. There was no telling what might have been lurking down there, and to stir it while standing on that bridge - and swimming under it - without anyone more robust that could have been put in the way was more than even he was willing to risk. One of the comparatively few things he had learnt over the years that were actually useful in practice was that it was better to leave the parts of a cavern, dungeon or suchlike that seemed the least safe last. If he was correct in his guess, there was a good chance to lose something he would have needed elsewhere. If not, well, it was a relief.

Someone's unfamiliar voice loudly called from the east, and Ulor continued on his shuffling way through the tunnel until he reached the chamber at its end. It was small and already rather tightly packed, leaving him to stand outside and try to peer over everyone's shoulders. Or, well, face the matter more creatively. He motioned for the octopus to float over head and under ceiling, extending and contracting its way above the group. All the while, he projected his sight through its eyes, conveyed by the aether of thought. From overhead, he could see two more of the seawater-filled (it seemed to be seawater this time as well, and besides, why would it be anything else?) tanks, one of which had just been relieved of its less liquid contents. A human, this time. Loud, but not large. There seemed to be a pattern of the people having been put to marinate being shorter than the human norm. Curious indeed.

Besides the tanks, there were two oddly placed coffins in the chamber. Now, while it was by no means uncommon to find tombs and sepulchres under a church or cathedral, the uses this one had been put to suggested that the coffins, as well, could very well have served some ulterior purpose besides honourable interment. Hovering over the one, then the other, the octopus turned its body downwards, it dull and rather short-sighted - like master, like familiar, after all - eyes sweeping over the stone lids. Thus seen, there did not appear to be anything odd about them. They must have been leftovers from the time some major religious order had occupied the building. With this having been seen to, there was not much else worth a glance, but Ulor let the octopus remain hanging where it was, in case something transpired that needed seeing. Or, which would have been better, hearing.

Yrrkeltharl Coalition Space
Unknown Region
Mlan’entel E’thuur

The dark oblong shape of the ship, covered in swarms of blinking green lights that crawled like unnatural star-born gnats over its smooth, uneven surface, sped through the stygian gulfs of empty space. A mere glimpse of them could not have revealed whether the vessel was traversing the pulsing Core of Yrrkelthar, overflowing with life and activity, or the dread vollnetlle, silent and haunted by deadly terrors. The stillness and shadow of the cosmos, indifferent to such irregularities within its folds, were identical countless light-years across. Out of the sight of planets and metallic simulacra, be they covered by the blight of alien life or corpses at the mercy of unthinking machines, the blackness was as cryptic as it had been at its dawn, and would yet be when even the hardiest of the parasites burrowing their way through it were gone.

Yet the ship pressed on, unconcerned by the mystery of its surroundings, as though it knew full well where it should go. And, indeed, it, or rather the ones driving it on, did know. The waves of strange, ethereal signals coursed through the void from the twisted prow into the unseen distance, words in a voiceless tongue being exchanged by synthetic mouths glimmering with electronic lights. The further the craft advanced, the stronger and more numerous the whispering impulses became. First they came only from the front; then more of them appeared to hammer at its sides, until the greatest part of it was engulfed in a sea of them. Eyes of astral steel opened to gaze at it from afar, and immaterial tendrils sounded its hull. Along with this prying, though so far aside from it that spatial metaphors failed, another influence began to gradually permeate the space. It was blind and had no face, not even an artificial one, and it was all the more sinister and oppressive. The breathing of ancient, immensely strong minds of metal and unnatural flesh.

Aboard the vessel, Fh’thnal Two felt it, and was uneasy. It had memories of having entered this presence before, and likewise knew that memory could not compare to its actual sensation. Now, especially, there was something in it that it, as one endowed with such powers itself, perceived and recognised all too keenly. The great sentiences were displeased. Whether at it personally, the entire situation or those who had brought it about, it could not tell; but the umbrage lying over the coursing echoes of thoughts was distinct and heavy. There were shades and fluctuating depths in it. In places, it was black, viscous and bitterly venomous, almost as strong as the Hand of Wrath itself; in others, it was but a fleeting gust of choking smoke over the depths of something too immense to be filled by feeling. But it was almost everywhere.

The presence continued to grow closer and stronger. Outside, their source was already visible. A cluster of green and golden lights, too dense and bright for stars, had appeared before the vessel. As it drew nigh, it spread out, expanding to fill more and more space, and at length their true nature could be discerned. Akin to the swarm running over the one ship, they burned in recurve metallic walls. But, where the former was a handful of gnats in the dark immensity, they shone like the malignant eyes of a pack of ravenous otherworldly beasts. The sides of the ships they were set in were colossal, as imposing as the walls of a great Nodule, and their own size was such as to rival in places the approaching ship itself. Slumbering amid the swirling of nebulae and the monotonous cycles of the stars, yet ever restless and awake, the Fleet Lastborn waited.

Not a moment sooner than Fh’thnal had expected, the door of its cylindrical, metal-walled chamber quietly slid open, the evenly burning lights on the panels parting to reveal the N’vall acolyte who had escorted it onto the ship after receiving it into consign from Ahl-115’s coordinators. The lesser one, only one of its kind it had seen since awakening in the Circuit’s hold, had been in all as deferential as befitted one of its stature towards an I’nler’attul, but it could sense that, instead of the dread and veneration it was due, the acolyte regarded it with nothing more than wariness and disgust. It so longed to wrack that firstborn wretch with all the torment it deserved, much as it had with that vile dirt-dweller of the Coalition, but again it was restrained, and by something greater than an Amaranthine envoy’s instructions. Not even the strange compulsions it had been ridden with could match the fear before the ire of the I’mthal’atl, Them Who Rule.

The acolyte beckoned with a nod, and it followed through the unaal’s dim, smooth, irregularly arched corridors, past more doorways, by the sides of which stood pairs of motionless Fham’nhl guards, through the series of small chambers that led to the exit. The main door was already unsealed, and beyond its semi-circular opening the shadowed interior of a vessel immensely more vast could be seen. They had arrived to their destination. Here, beyond the gates of a void-home that had seen much, but never something so grand, lay the halls of the legendary flagship of Mlan’entel E’thuur, last among all the N’vall fleets. The seat of the utmost dominators, whence emanated the designs that shaped the destiny of the seekers of the lightless day. Unloth A’lthn, the Final Throne.

In solemn silence, its head bowed both by the solemnity of the occasion and the crushing vicinity of the Rulers of Substance, Fh’thnal hovered through the portal and into the bowels of the great ship. The chamber was sparsely decorated, with only a few stains of glow piercing the penumbra, and empty save for some Terror honour guards on their silent vigil. A door directly before the gateway led into a further corridor, this one brighter than those on the unaal, but otherwise quite similar. After only three recurve, broad bends it ended in the white, circular space of a small elevator, sufficient for but one passenger. It was expecting its guest, and readily swallowed it before speeding upwards without need for commands. The ascent lasted but a few moments; then the enclosed platform smoothly came to a halt, and an opening appeared in the wall before Fh’thnal. It passed into the short, but high gallery beyond, swept through the tall doorway surmounted by a pointed arch and past the sentries at its sides, and came into the darkness of the great room, acrawl with eyeless thoughts and stagnant rancour.

It rose into the heights as an enormous inverted cone, growing wider and ampler as the rows of balconies lining its walls spiralled upwards. Even the lowest of them loomed meters above, the sheer steel wall only giving way to the circular terraces a few times over its height from the floor. Up there, in order of greatness, sat the I’nler’attul of the Fleet; the first ones were lowest, whereas the last were so far above that, had the chamber even been lit, one could not have seen them from below. The I’mthal’atl themselves, it was said, were not even on the balconies at all, but on a platform suspended from the ceiling, so that not even the best of the lesser could glimpse them. None knew whether this was true, for the great ones had never been beheld. Yet they were clearly there.

When Fh’thnal Two reached at last the centre of the room, where it knew it was to endure judgement, the hovering thoughts writhed and diverted their course from their unseen evolutions up in the air to converge upon it. They felt, they sounded, reaching into its thoughts with hands of cold bone. It did not try to hold them away, for what good would it have been at that point?

From somewhere high above came the resonating mind-voice of a greater I’nler’attul. It was rumbling with ancestral strength, and vibrating with the raw power of a greater shaper. Between it words, the susurrations of the gathering could be heard in slithering fragments of instinctive reaction.

”One akin to Fh’thnal, wrought by means false and heretical. You were brought to life (Defilement of the shape! Blasphemy!) by ones who came from beyond this void-realm, who name themselves as a circuit of amaranth (Vermin of the stars! The vile ones will be expunged!) and can imitate the form. The ones from beyond compelled you to serve them, although they have no strength themselves (False claimants to the throne of being! Broken puppeteers! Feeble to be bound by their snares!), and challenged the ascent of the N’vall body by bringing you upon the soil.”

At this point, the whispers grew so thick as to be indistinguishable and untraceable for a moment, the dark wrath swelling and towering over their umbral weave.

”That you did not smite them where they stood would have warranted grave penance had you been N’vall. (But – But – But) But you are not of ours, even though you are in all things alike. You are first, unknown and unsounded upon your path. For this, the mandates (Portentous though they may be) of the seekers alone are not sufficient. The I’mthal’atl, who guide the threads of flesh and void (Fist and bone of us all! They will know), will descry and speak their wisdom. Great is their reach (None more than them). May it descend.”

In spite of knowing it was not meet for it to do so, Fh’thnal Two pulled together its thoughts in a tense web. The one who had spoken wielded such force that, under the impacts of its echoes, it had not been quite able to rear even the hastiest spectre of indignation or – absurd – defiance in its defence. For all its life, it had been among the highest dominators of its fleet, and now it found itself paling before a mere mouthpiece of the great ones. Nor would it have been of any use to voice that most crucial fact – that the transgressions for which it had been summoned hither were as much as an affront to itself, if not more, as to all the N’vall, and certainly no will of its own. If Those Who Rule intended to sound it, they would inevitably feel it themselves. Their sight was all-reaching.

It came. From the shadows high above, the invisible pillar of scouring flame that was the will of the bearers of the end. Maybe only one of them. Fh’thnal remembered having put its powers to the test in its early days, and having felt the searing lashes of other I’nler’attul as they struck at each other in seeming battle. This was nothing alike it. It did not demand access, or force its way in; it swept by with the speed of a distortion lance, unconcerned about anything before it. It was impetuous and indifferent, a force of the cosmos, that to which all the seekers should aspire, and at the same time thorough, for so vast was it that its tongues crackled in every recess, be it even so recondite.

It was power, pure and simple. Painful was not a word in its light.

In its wake, more presences crept down, clawing their way more cautiously. The assembled masters of the void-homes dripped down to ascertain for themselves what had led to this point. The echoes of their motions were many, and laden with hundreds of shades; yet, even in the searing grasp of the supernal entity, even among all their faceless numbers, Fh’thnal Two’s attention was spontaneously drawn to one of them. Its resonations, the paths it left, so much easier and more confidently than the others, as it slid through memory, the speed with which it surpassed all but the fiery column were captivating in a fiendish manner. The answer to whom it could be was made obvious by this and more, yet it did not have to ask itself the question at all. Immediately, it knew.

Fh’thnal turned upwards, arduously tearing itself from the chains the weight of the great one’s mind had inadvertently laid upon it, and looked at itself.

The other did not block its sight. It could smell its smouldering anger, more potent yet than those of most who were assembled there, fade to a surprise it could not quite suppress itself. It had, obviously, expected this, but manifestly had not known what exactly it would find. Little more than an extension of itself. How little was indeed why it was taken aback: instead of the crude, superficial and, beyond any doubt, distinct replica one could have expected from heretics of the form, here was one of itself which had ramified into another corridor of progress. Almost disappointing in its identity, like an extraordinary sight ground into dullness by routine before being beheld at all, but less surprising than that would have been.

It was thus all the less surprising that, upon seeing that the one whom the outsiders had constrained in mind – by then, all could clearly see, if not the fetters themselves, their effects – and degraded from its high station was itself, Fh’thnal’s wrath against them should have surged higher than before. Hunger for the torment of the beings it now could itself remember gnashed upon itself with cold spines. Not even a likeness, but it had been made subservient to incomplete beings, and it had become a symbol of hindrance to serve their insignificant ends. They probably did not even think of what they had done, and upon this the thrashings of violence grew higher yet. Fh’thnal Two found it natural, almost reflexive, to lift up the anger as its own – for its own it was – and hold it at the very core of the inquisitorial pillar.

If the I’mthal’atl did feel something, its grip did not betray it. Perhaps it already knew, or its thirst for violence was already absolute. But the others, who not were struck by the arising emotion in the full light of its presence, reached for it curiously, and it spread among them like a plague. The black tendrils of their probing thoughts bristled with slashing edges and tormentous claws, grasping, flailing, invoking censure. Fh’thnal, duality notwithstanding, was no longer the sole possessor of the seed; all of the I’nler’attul had partaken of it, and from them, it would doubtless spread to all N’vall between void and stars. The fleets would blaze forth as they had centuries ago, bearing waste and ruin upon the blindly arrogant dustlings.

Abruptly, the pillar split into a multitude of narrow, spear-like rays, which dispersed, sweeping to all sides in a circle mirroring the shape of the room. They cut through the groping feelers, dissipating them and sending the charred stumps wavering back. Fh’thnal Two could no longer feel most of them, though the presence still pierced it with the innermost ones, which had remained motionless. Then, the great one spoke.


The last rays faded, and for what seemed to be minutes all was plunged into silence and darkness. No thought stirred where others could hear it, though it likely was because they, as well, were clustered together, almost not daring reach out. At length, the I’nler’attul who had been first to speak broke the stillness, either by the daring conferred by its vicinity to the ones above or by their command. No other echoes joined it.

”As it was seen, so it will pass. We are to honour our accord with the earth-dwellers, and not move against the blasphemers from without ere great motive is given. You who were wrought in imitation of Fh’thnal have trespassed in negligence and shown the face of weakness, but the I’mthal’atl find no further fault with you. You shall do a penance, and if you return absolution will be dispensed.

It has been decreed, and it will be.”

Yrrkeltharl Coalition Space
Core Region
A’thaur I’entil Kotsal, Orbit of Iurthelath

The silence in the chamber would have appeared eerie and unnatural to any not accustomed to its dusky atmosphere. That neither the curvilinear, almost fluid, yet bulky mass of the monitoring and input apparatuses, nor the large cylindrical vats, strange dark shapes writhing and beating about in their obscured depths, nor even the metallic tubes, which appeared to fuse with the walls and floor and now and then pulsed irregularly, should emit even the slightest of sounds despite their evident activity was strange, almost unsettling. The impression was strengthened by the fact that not even from without the room did anything resound, near or far. The entire ship seemed to be dead, a husk fit only for the haunting of warped wraiths. And, after a fashion, it was. But to Xalthil this mattered little.

The Skirol presently stood before one of the vats, its proboscis occasionally darting to the nearby control panel and withdrawing without having touched it. In the recipient, a dense bright-blue liquid stirred uneasily, bubbles of irregular size sporadically rising from the centre of its mass. At brief intervals, glimpses of an indistinct tubular form emerged into view. Its appearances followed a curious pattern: almost regular sequences interrupted themselves just as one’s eye was about to begin expecting them, matching the moment with uncanny precision. At times, even this custom seemed to be broken by a flash clearly out of any rhythm.

Having finally laid its appendage upon the panel and snapped something on it, Xalthil swung it in a negative gesture and turned sideways towards the further corner of the room, where a cloaked N’vall was hovering before a concentric holo-display.

“If these two hundred and three simulation estimates will run their course as probability dictates, the result for this subject will be the same” it clicked, before crawling to reach another panel set in the wall.

“We now know with all certainty this approach to be sterile.” The other did not divert any of its limbs from their manipulations at the display as it voiced its reply.

“And nothing else.” Xalthil’s proboscis remained suspended over the device for a few moments, wavering from side to side as a snake ready to strike, then drew back as the Skirol paced towards another of the vats.

Just as it was midway to its goal, the ghost of a muffled grinding sound, as of jagged metal upon stone, blinked through the air from the display, immediately vanishing in the oppressive ocean of stillness. One of the N’vall’s hands paused in its motions before resolutely snapping through a three-dimensional spiral of light.

“Belay the next scheduled experiment” the being spoke, and Xalthil stopped in its tracks. “We will soon have something unprecedented to work with.”
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