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@Rhiven Knight@AtomicNut
Rose had oftened imagined this moment to be filled with sunshine and rainbows, with gentle harps strumming somewhere in the distance as Prince Darvus Dragan walked into her life.

Instead, it was rather...quiet, dusty, and smelled of old books. Much like the library.

Rhayven hardly broke a sweat. "Ah, hello Prince Darvus! We werent expecting anyone to join us in our research." With that brief greeting, he resumed his conversation with Rose, as if she were more important to him than the Prince of Drakengard.

It felt nice.

"As to your question, Rose," he continued, "that is a treatise I wrote, and recently, on a ruin I explored, and the nature of the magical secrets I discovered within and its relation to our known history. That is what I do: I explore, mostly as a way to study magic, to deepen my understanding- our understanding- of the magic we use. It also helps further my research into the development of new forms of magic."

She touched her chin and nodded. His methods, while uncommon, were not wholly outlandish. After all, whether one studies magic from a book or from a ruin, they're still learning it from dead people, are they not? And, to learn the magical technology of a superior civilization from ages long past surely could not be inferior to learning from a book written only a few decades ago.

Rhayven attempted to loop Darvus into their conversation. "Still, it is a pleasure to have you join our research inquiry, Your Highness. What Rose and I have been researching is a confluence of historical detail and fictional writing. Which is to say, some of the presented fairy tales bare a striking resemblance to places of historical fact, and that appear to connect to the artifacts of legend. It is far from a settled matter, but our current theory is that the truth of the weapons lies somewhere between the truth of established history and the supposition of folk lore, and it should mean we have deciphered candidates for probable places to look for specific weapons. Further, I think (though Rose will need to look over that treatise I wrote), that I have been to a site linked to one of these sites and might be in possession of an artifact to facilitate gaining entry into the dungeon, in which is stored one of the so-called keys."

Rose paged through the treatise. His meticulous style made it easy to read, despite its dense content, which earned him some kudos in her view. Rhayven had visited numerous ruins in his time, some fruitful, some sparse, all of them interesting. Most ruins, he'd found, were found in desert regions, and grew less and less ruinous as they drew closer to the Haven towers- with the notable exception of Midhaven. Despite having no access to the immediate area around Midhaven Tower, thanks to the odd wall that cropped up around it in recent years, Rhayven found pieces of man-made materials all around the area, and in fairly dense scattering, which strongly suggested a previously inhabited area. He'd speculated, as other historians did, that the region was Ground Zero of the Apocalypse War.

Though the ruins of Ancient cities were endlessly interesting for a variety of reasons, of peculiar interest were the golems. Throughout his journeys, he kept finding them in all shapes and sizes- small golems, large golems, epic golems, battle golems, frail golems- humanoid constructs made by the Ancients for all kinds of functions. A few were in sufficiently good condition that he was able to confirm that they were, in essence, machines, and as an inventor, he knew full well that all machines need maintenance. And the biggest, baddest golems would need the biggest, baddest maintenance.

Which meant, of course, that they needed the biggest, baddest infrastructure to maintain them. That was how, over a year ago, Rhayven became the first man on Aion to discover an Ancint Stronghold. The place was a veritable treasure trove of Ancient engineering, with partially intact war golems, damaged magitech equipment, advanced materials and architecture, and even electronic systems resembling those created in modern sages' laboratories (albeit advanced to incomprehensibility).

The main problem was getting inside. While the advent of teleporting magic theoretically meant one could go inside whenever they wanted, there was no telling whether there was sufficient space to teleport into, since the vast majority of the structure had collapsed. The government whose territory it was in, Drakengard, was curiously reluctant to help clear it, so the stronghold's contents had yet to be explored.

Rose piped up. "The stronghold Sir Rhayven discovered is mostly obscured by debris, which the Crown has been unwilling to deal with. If I may be so bold, Your Highness, do you have any...pull? Can you...you know...get help with that?"
@Rhiven Knight
Could the story be true?

The idea nearly had her dancing. As a young girl, she'd always thought the tale was just that: a tale, albeit one she enjoyed father reading to her some nights. But Rhayven had given that little girl hope that her childhood fantasies weren't so fantastical after all. The scholar in her, though, wondered how much of the fantasy was true. More than a kernel? Likely. Much more than a kernel? Preposterous - yet, given that the Queen herself supported the idea that epic artifacts were just lying around, Rose couldn't help but wonder if the author had wrapped a true eyewitness story in fantasy clothes.

If so, could all of it be true, in a sense?

Rose followed him to the front desk, deep in thought.

The librarian George returned with Rhayven's treatise in hand. "Hard to find. Someone misplaced it. Enjoy." He handed it over and stomped off again.

Rose peered around his shoulder to look at it. "What's that?"
@Darkwatck01

John Dersmitt steadied his breath as his wife, brother, and children gathered around his bed. The time was close now; he could almost count how many more breaths he had left to draw.

"Ann..." he whispered in a labored breath, "my dearest love, watch over the family for me."
His wife nodded, her own wrinkled hand clasped in his. As the family began their solemn prayer, he drew his final breath. Over the next several seconds, memories of his life flooded back to him. Then, at last, darkness.

His soul, now immersed in the endless void of the astral plane, began its final journey to the light of paradise that lay at the End of all things. He did not get far, however, before something else took hold of him.

Terror- pure, mortal terror filled him as a dark fiend bared its gaping maw and dug its teeth into his soul.

"Mmm...delicious." Pain unlike anything he'd ever felt before burned into his mind, and precious memories began to trickle away - replaced by horrors he could never unsee.

John screamed. He saw visions of his children melting to blood, his wife and siblings skinned alive, his home and all his possessions burned with fire. He listened to their agonized screams, their desperate pleas for relief, and the tormented writhing of their innocent souls.

This...surely this could not be the afterlife!

He could not remember the happy days anymore, those blissful moments of peace that every father yearns for. He could not remember the last time he got to embrace his wife- what was her name?

He had forgotten her name. He forgot his siblings' names. He forgot his mother's name. His daughter's name was slipping away.

"Please..." he begged, "don't take them away from me!"

The fiend merely laughed and devoured more of his memories. Now their faces slipped away from him- or what was left of them from his horrific visions of them.

As the last dregs of hope trickled away, he heard a still, small voice whisper to him:

"Rest now, I've found thee."

A warm, gentle soul embraced him to shield him from the gluttonous fiend. Enraged, the creature turned its maw to the Voice and fought to rip her off him, shredding her mind and memories instead. Though she cried out in agony, she did not waver, and even fought back, chipping away at the fiend for every memory gouged from her mind.

Little by little, everything started to come back to him as the Voice battled to piece him back together. His wife's name was Ann! He remembered her eyes, how they changed so many colors in the light. He remembered his daughter and her infectious laugh. He remembered the joyous family meals and precious moments with his siblings. He remembered everything. The Voice had given it back to him.

Finally, the fiend had enough, annoyed as it was from the numerous wounds the Voice has inflicted. Only when it fled into the void did the Voice release John from her embrace.

Her spirit reached out to touch him.

"Fly, and be free."

Before resuming his journey upwards, he asked, "Tell me, are you an angel?"

The Voice replied, "I am human."

The light of the afterlife grew brighter and brighter, until at last John awoke on a field of green.
___

The Voice, however, had not been so lucky. Beaten, battered, and shredded of countless memories, she limped back to her home base, barely clinging to life. She reached out to merge with the Tome of Memories, a magical place she'd created to restore her mind, before emerging from the astral plane.

From the portal emerged a vaguely humanoid creature, armored with scales and bone plates and wrapped in shadows. When all coverings were shed from her body, they left behind a human woman, whose dark complexion and gentle features were covered by a simple black robe. She knelt down, picked up a rock, and etched another tallymark on a large nearby stone bearing nearly a thousand such marks.

While she fought to rescue that soul from the clutches of the Voidspawn, she'd sensed two familiar souls nearby- a friend and a lover.

Could it be true? she mused, the two people in the world whom I love the most, together in one place? There could be no better time to visit them. The woman portalled back through the astral plane toward where she last felt them, and emerged in front of the Brewer's Guild in Southaven.

The bouncer guarding the entrance nearly jumped out of his skin. The individual standing before him, robed all in black and bearing a battle-scythe on her back, was the very image of Death itself. The man turned pale and dropped to his knees.

"Spare me!" he croaked.

The woman chuckled and lifted him to his feet. "Fear not, I have not come for thy soul. Be at peace, friend. Pray tell, hast thou seen a Marked Knight pass this way?"

The bouncer scratched his head, then frowned. "You mean that- you mean that Isparan bounty hunter? Sir Mesanychta?"

The woman smiled. "Yes, the very one. Is he here?"

"If you've come to take his soul, yeah."

She chuckled again and flipped back her hood before entering the guildhall. All manner of wonderful sights, sounds, and smells greeted her, things she'd dearly missed during her many long days in the void. Nebel, she sensed, was not in the main hall, but behind the door to a side room.

The woman took a moment to calm her rapidly beating heart and laid a hand on the door handle.
@Rhiven Knight
Surely the whole library could hear the alacritous pace of her heart! Had Rhayven not provided his steadying hand, her impending tumble would have been disastrous and not a little embarrassing. Profuse thanks tumbled from her lips unheeded as Rhayven identified three books of interest.

“Rose, I have just had a stunning realization, and there is something I need to retrieve as a result. Would you be a dear and synthesize the information from these three books on a ruin they reference? Try to ascertain all pertinent details on its location. It occurs to me that when I was working in one of the ruins of the Ancients recently, I came across something I believe refers to a location described in these three books- only, the descriptions are wildly different, and only the connection to the item I found made me wonder if, without the key, different people experienced the ruins differently.”

He selected The Knight and the Fairy, Records from Midhaven, and The Lost War: A Retrospective from her stack. "When you are finished," he continued, "we need to find the others, but we will have to do so separately. We can try to find the prince, or go looking for the two foreigners. I am inclined to say we go after the foreigners in town, as if my suspicion is correct, the site described will be tied to their once-illustrious homeland. I’ll meet up with you after I find the treatise I wrote on the object and the ruin I found it in.”

Would you be a dear? he'd said. Rose lifted an eyebrow and tried (unsuccessfully) to stifle back a smirk. "If synthesizing information for you makes me a dear, heaven help me if you take an interest in my research papers." She made eyes at him for a moment before delving into the content.

The Knight and the Fairy was a popular children's book in which a Fairy, discarded by a cruel adventurer on account of her clipped wings, was rescued by a Knight in Shining Armor. Because she could not fly, he swore to escort her back home to "where the good things lie." Her home, it turned out, lay across the "Sea of Despair" and was only reachable by ship. When they came to the last ship in the harbor, the captain said it was too full, but he would send another later. So the Knight and the Fairy had to survive until the next ship arrived.

That was easier said than done. A vast army of hideous "Shadows" emerged from the Sea of Despair and ravaged the whole country, and the Knight barely survived an encounter with one of them on his way to the harbor. To improve their chances of survival, Fairy agreed to accompany Knight as he searched for the Four Sacred Keys, the Four Dungeons they unlocked, and the Sacred Gears they guarded. Each key was hidden by the Four Kings, who ruled nations along the four cardinal directions of the land.

The first was the Jade Key, held by the Dwarf Lord of the West. It unlocked the dungeon for Aegis, a sturdy shield that even the Shadows could not break. The second was the Skull Key, held by the Beast Lord of the North. It unlocked the Aurum Fists, a pair of magical gauntlets that allowed Knight to cast Fairy spells. The third was the Leaf Key, held by the Elf Lord of the East. It unlocked Luna, a legendary bow whose arrows flew straight and true, never ran out, and could pierce any armor. Last, there was the Dragon Key, held by the High Lady of the South. It unlocked Titan, powerful armor that gave godlike strength.

Alas, Knight could not find all the Sacred Gears in time for the next ship to arrive. Together, Knight and Fairy fled to the harbor, and Knight stood guard against all the armies of Shadow while the captain prepared to set sail with Fairy. As the ship floated away, Fairy watched the Shadows slay the Knight in Shining Armor, so she swore that she would remember him for the rest of her days.

Rose put the book down and wiped her eyes. "Welp, that's one book down. Good lord, I'd forgotten how sad that story is! Anyway, if we assume that there is some truth to this fantasy tale, it indicates that your 'ruins' are actually 'dungeons,' which are basically dangerous vaults that drive off the unworthy from taking their contents. There are four dungeons, one in each cardinal direction, and to access them, you need the 'key' for each one. Each key is guarded by a 'king.' Unlock them, and you get a super-shield, super-bow, super-gloves, and super-armor."
@Lumiere@Darkwatck01
"Genau. Halte deine Augen weit offen, damit der Siebente dich nicht täuscht."

A woman in a gray cloak and hood leaned against the doorpost with her arms folded. "I identified the author of the letters," she continued, "and they are not from the Crown. I believe the Seventh wrote them. Follow their instructions for now, but do not trust them."

She pulled up a chair to sit across from them and pushed back the hood, letting her midnight hair fall over her shoulder. For the first time, Vali beheld the faces of the two knights, and a small gasp escaped her lips.

Princess Kaitra?

Her heart melted. This was none other than the innocent 4-year-old girl she'd met in the palace at Gran Norte that day 20 years ago, the only one of millions in whom there was no Shadow of the Tainted. And Nebel...how could she forget him? To see his masked persona was one thing, but beholding his true face brought back memories of One to whom his allegiance truly belonged - the One she wished never to offend.

The queen bowed her head to the table and clasped her hands. "Please, Princess Kaitra and Sir Nebel, forgive us our slight. We should have been honest with you from the start. In truth, your assistance was an unexpected boon for us, and we- no, I- should have treated you with respect. Please forgive me."
*Salutes*
Vali clutched at her chest as he spoke. She should have chided him for his self-deprecation - always did when he was younger. But like the fool she was, it still moved her. Like a fool, she wanted nothing more than to reassure him that he was smart, capable, and good.

"You're not hopeless..." she whispered.

She listened to his speculation about the wrongness of the world. A shadow of dread filled her too - not because of the darkness threatening the world, but because her child was becoming aware of it.

Vali seated herself on a nearby bench. "No, you have the right of it. Oh dear God...you have no idea."

She groaned and dragged her hands down her face, lingering a few moments as if rethinking all her life choices.

"Ask the King of Riftgard about the Emerald Key," she said at length. "That is all I should say on the matter. Darvus...come back, you hear me? You come back home with your sister. If you die, so help me, I will drag your sorry butt back from the afterlife so I can kick it to hell and back. Promise me, Darvus!"
Vali chuckled into her shoulder. "I think the jury is still out regarding my sanity. You're right though - a true king leads from the front."

It wasn't every day someone could read her like an open book. But it wasn't particularly surprising that her own son did so. He was spot on; she didn't want him to go, and the thought that the future king would so brazenly risk his life angered her at first. But then again, his sister's life was on the line. Why shouldn't her brother personally seek her rescue? Who else could be so reliably trusted with her life as one who loved her as family?

His speech back at the council should have moved her. She should have rejoiced that her reclusive son came out of his shell to do something heroic with his life. And she felt ashamed at having been angry that he would risk something to achieve it.

It was, in truth, only proper for kin to care for kin.

"I must apologize for earlier," she said at length. "You deserved my support, not my wrath, for your decision. Your sister needs you, and far be it from me to restrain that."

She spotted a mana gauge the size of a pocketwatch on a shelf. After tuning it a little, she handed it to him.

"So...truce?"
The details he observed were thus:

Judging from the regimental tattoos on his arms, the Ispari man was a soldier, though not a knight. Mid-thirties, tall like most of his kind, and vast scars indicating emergency healing of mortal wounds, he was a fairly average individual.

His breathing had grown harsh, but he was still alive, if barely.
@Rhiven Knight
The Imperial Library was one of the largest in the world, though you couldn't tell by looking at it. The place was a veritable maze of bookshelves and corridors, and you only ever saw a small fraction of the whole place at any given time. Allegedly, a remodel was ordered to make navigating the library simpler, but until then, the employees continued to find part-time work as tour guides.

Rose approached the front desk. Behind it sat a woman in conservative attire with an unflattering set of glasses. The name plate on the desk said George.

"Can I help you?" said the woman.

"Yes, I'd like to speak with the librarian, please."

The woman leaned forward and folded her hands. "What sorts of books are you looking for?"

Rose smirked. "Ones with pages in them, preferably. Do you know any?"

"In this library?"

"Good point. What about records of the Anciet Artifacts?"

The woman pushed up her glasses and whistled low. "I'd better find the librarian. Wait here."

Rose glanced back at Rhayven and grinned. "I used to come here often for medical research, and at the time, most of the research journals I found had pages missing from them. They weren't missing them when they got here, so...you can fill in the blanks."

The woman came back with this vast, burly man in tow, whose arms were nearly as big as the assistant's whole body and whose towering height would even give ogres pause. He braced his hands on the desk, earning a serious warning shriek from the offended furniture, and rumbled:

"What do you want?"

Rose brushed a hair back as she fumbled through her notes. "We're looking for records about the Ancient Artifacts and their locations, like any ancient documents, transaction records....anything you have."

George dipped his head in thought. At length, he stood up and motioned for them to follow. "Come." He led them down the twisted corridors of bookshelves until he gestured to a certain section. He said, "This is just about everything around that war period. It's not much, but it's all we have. Enjoy."

With that, he stomped off to leave Rose and Rhayven to fend for themselves. Rose scanned the titles.


The Lost War: A Retrospective
Magic Corpses? The Horrifying Secret of Mana!
The Knight and the Fairy
War & Peace & A Thousand Years of Dirt
Records from Midhaven Please handle with care!
The Septra Papers

and a handful of others.

Rose pulled out The Lost War. "You start from that end, and I'll start from this end. Actually, since there's not very much here, and there's a table over behind us, why don't we just take everything?"

She pulled out the whole section, stacked it atop her existing pile of stuff, and balanced it in her arms. It started to tilt...
__________________

@Lumiere
Queen Vali inclined her head. "I owe you that much. We shall commune later, then." She watched everyone leave the room.

Once the room was empty, she turned to King Alexander and clutched at her heart. "I feel wretched," she confided, "not only because our daughter is gone, but because we made those two knights feel mocked. What should we do?"

Alexander pulled out a chair and sank into it. "Talk to them, at the very least. They'll be valuable assets on this mission; I almost think we should have pretended we invited them.

"No. I believe honesty is more important, whatever the cost. Perhaps we could invite them for real?"

"After the fact? It would feel more like a pity invitation."

Vali ran a hand through her hair and sighed. "Maybe I could pay them a visit on the down-low and hear them out first. They'd be more inclined to believe our invitation if they first knew we understood why they felt hurt."

Alexander nodded. "Do it."

@AtomicNut
The queen went back to her room to change into her traveling clothes. She stopped by the armory to fetch a sword for defense, where she found Darvus picking out equipment for the journey. She leaned against the doorway to watch him.

I wish he wouldn't go, but...gosh, he's so responsible when he's not playing the delinquent.

Vali sighed and folded her arms, a subtle smirk forming on her lips. "I guess you're pretty dead set on going, eh?"
__________________

@Lumiere@Darkwatck01
The nearest pub was "The Mangy Mug," but the cleanest was the Brewer's Guild Hall, or just "Brewer's" as it was more commonly known. The birchwood floors were waxed and mopped daily, and the wait staff kept the tables tolerably clean all day long. Considering the quantity of alchohol served at the establishment, a suprisingly high number of its patrons were sober. Perhaps it shouldn't be so surprising - this guild hall served as the de-facto hub for adventuring knights. Here, the imperial Mission Bulletin Board System (BBS) here got updated regularly.

Today was listed a routine batch of missions, such as:




At the bar, a drunk foreigner was retelling a tall tale to his unbelieving friends. "...zere was zis huge quake, ze earth split, and vast pillars of liquid fire shot from ze earth! It vas terrible! Ze whole city vas levelled. I saw a dragon! A dragon, I tell you! And, vould you believe, a goddess! She shone like the sun, and I could not look at her directly. Ve really should have listened zat day in court vhen Qu-"

The man choked.
"-the Qu-"
He choked again, mysteriously unable to get the word out. He pointed to a pretty platinum blonde cleaning a nearby table.
"-looked like her! With sil-"
With a sickening gag, he collapsed on the table.
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