Sister Rose, v.2: Expecting the Unexpected

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Re: Sister Rose, v.2: Expecting the Unexpected

Postby Graybeard » April 13th, 2018, 2:37 pm

Chapter Nineteen: Side effects

At about this time, side effects of the summoning of Luminosita began to be felt around the Errant World.

-*-*-

The first “effect,” of course, wasn’t a “side” effect at all; it was what Luminosita had been summoned to do. The huge, magical apparition that, only about two or three years later, would loom over Emerylon (with disastrous results both for Emerylon and for itself), now raised its sword against the castle-fort at Provatiel – considerably more effectively. The first sword-stroke severed one of the towers that rose above the river, hurling its massive blocks into the water and against the walls as though they were confetti. The second took out two more towers, dropping them into the courtyard where they pulverized the forces that were starting to gather after the construct’s mighty bellow; the third, the main keep. Finally, and most importantly, a mighty, magical foot stomped down through the wreckage of the keep, and collapsed the underground chambers where the clandestine artillery, and even more importantly, the subverted elven travel platform were concealed; Brother Miguel’s sketches had been remarkably accurate. Then, the magical apparatus triggered by the Artifact of Absonial could take no more, and it ground to a halt – but it had served its purpose.

The whole attack was over in no more than a minute, probably less. The dying – including the deaths of Elgin Bindiel’s first two wives and children (Sister Carleen, his third wife, escaped by a stroke of luck, having been sent to the fields on an errand) – was not.

-*-*-*
Next, for a brief, sickening moment, the airship carrying Miguel and his fiancée back to Saus lost the magical component of its lift, as did the few other airships aloft over northern Veracia.

The interruption didn’t last long, only long enough for the airship to sag gradually by two or three feet. However, three feet of free fall in a large ship seems like an eternity. It is also enough to do surprisingly serious structural damage. The airship was combat-ready and hardened against magical attack (the Veracians had learned something, after all, in the aftermath of the Mage/Priest War), so redundant systems kicked into action and stabilized the vessel quickly … but not too quickly for Miguel and Sister Marilyn to notice.

Marilyn’s upbringing had left her as tough as nails, and certainly not inclined to scream in terror, but she did produce a gasp and a curse. “Luminosita’s Nuts! What was that?”

Miguel produced his own quiet “Damn” and held his lover tightly for a minute or two … and then he swore again. “Damn. I … I think I know. And I don’t like it. Great gods of the elves, I’m going to have nightmares for the next three years … because … if I’m right, I …” His voice trailed off as alarm bells started to sound in the airship’s cabin, quite unnecessarily as the critical moment had passed.

“You what?” Marilyn probed; she was getting her own balance back, and that Ensigerum-like preparation for combat was rising with it.

Miguel’s mouth worked for a moment, then he put a finger on his fiancee’s lips. “Don’t ask. You’re better off not knowing, at least until … later.” And he would say no more until the couple were safely through the warp gate in Kiyoka.

*-*-*

Remarkably, neither the Kiyoka gate nor the corresponding one in Saus through which they boarded felt the slightest measurable effect from the Luminositan magical pulse. A few other gates spread around the Tsuirakuan system, including one all the way up in the Northern Confederacy, did flicker briefly, drawing looks of surprise, and indeed fear, from the normally imperturbable portalmages. Fortunately, no gates were opening during the magical pulse; and so no lives were lost.

There were, however, repercussions. Recent events had left the Tsuiraku Transit Authority sufficiently skittish about warp-gate operation that those few flickers were enough to produce a hasty but full-fledged inquiry into what had caused them. It didn’t take long to point an accusing thaumatic finger at Veracia, although not one with enough spatial detail to pin the source down to Provatiel. When an official demarche drew a curt “none of your business” response from the offices of the Patriarch, the Tsuirakuan government knew something was up; they just didn’t know what. Time would tell. Maybe.

-*-*-

A curiosity about magical effects, it was known in most of the world’s magical cultures, was that magical influence did not necessarily fall off with distance from the place where magic was being wielded. The Tsuirakuans had put more effort into understanding this curiosity than most, and Sashi Mu’s experts on Gu theory had developed sophisticated models that explained it in terms of “constructive interference,” “phase cancellation” and assorted other bits of thaumatic jargon. Most of these served mainly to hide the fact that they didn’t understand the behavior of magical influence much better than the Tsuirakuan on the street.

Whatever Gu theory may or may not have had to say about the phenomenon, there were certainly some locations quite remote from Provatiel where unexpectedly strong side effects of Luminosita’s summoning occurred. Most of these were underwater, reasonably enough given that water covered more than half of the world’s surface. There were some fish kills that would give sea-going scavengers a few days of good dining, and in a place or two, human fisherfolk would puzzle over the numbers of dead fish on the water’s surface, without ever making a connection to Provatiel. On dry land as well, most effects were transient and nearly unobserved – a troll Chieftess found her ritual sharing of the meat of a recently deceased tribe member to be incredibly energetic, and a magical Healing somewhere in the Northern Confederacy had unexpected side effects – but generally, nothing too dramatic happened.

It would have surprised no one who knew the natural history of the Anuban archipelago (not that there were any such sages left after the Errant War, of course) that that island group was an exception. Sister Rose and Argus were hacking their way through some dense undergrowth when their attention was diverted, first by a frisson of magical energy that they felt at some visceral level, and then by a loud rumble from the north. (By this time, Paukii had struggled ashore, and after casting vigorous Hygiene magic to rid herself of the seaweed and other gunk she’d accumulated, had fallen into a deep sleep that mere noise was not going to dispel.) Argus and Rose looked at each other with muttered, simultaneous “what was that?” on their tongues … and then they looked off in the direction of the noise.

Beyond the nearest island, perhaps two or three islands up the chain, a volcanic eruption was in progress, not unlike the one that had happened some weeks earlier near the Mountains of Madness in its force … and its unnatural origins. The two explorers both knew enough of the geography of the archipelago to know that it wasn’t a volcanic landform. At least, it hadn’t been.

“Blue and orange Weave,” Argus said, using a version of the standard Tsuirakuan expletive that Rose had never heard before. “If that happens here …” He didn’t need to finish the sentence.

“You have no earth magic to stop anything like that?” Rose asked, almost certain of the answer, which indeed Argus gave. “Not within a factor of ten, probably not a hundred. If that happens …” He didn’t finish it this time either.

“Well, if it happens, we’re screwed,” Rose pointed out realistically. “Therefore we assume it isn’t going to happen, and take whatever precautions we can.” She resumed hacking at the vegetation with her dagger.

“But what precautions are those?” Argus asked, reasonably enough.

“Damned if I know.” There wasn’t much more to say after that, as volcanic thunder from the north rolled over them again.
----
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Re: Sister Rose, v.2: Expecting the Unexpected

Postby Graybeard » April 20th, 2018, 10:54 am

Chapter Twenty: Requiescat

Possibly the most spectacular example of an unexpected magical confluence (other than the volcano seen by Rose and Argus, but essentially no one else), following Luminosita’s assault on the castle at Provatiel, happened only a few short miles from Elgin Bindiel’s inn, where basically nothing had happened at all. That was the way the confluences and interferences worked, for no reason anyone had ever figured out.

Carson Jeromiel had arisen far earlier than he’d expected to, following the late-night session with Bindiel. He’d slept well enough for the first half of the night (what was left of it, anyway), but when he rose early in the morning to heed the call of nature, he couldn’t get back to sleep. There was something about dealing with that Veracian finger-waggler that was creepy, and Carson Jeromiel, like most assassins, was both immune to most kinds of creepiness and inclined to trust his instincts when he did detect some.

He’d slipped out of Isabel well before the sun came up. That, at least, was consistent with his normal routine: move when no one is watching. Even in a city as large as Farrel’s capital, the pre-dawn hours were a quiet time when he could move, and escape, without being observed. He covered the first mile of his journey on foot, to where he’d left carefully concealed transportation to get him the rest of the way. A horse wouldn’t go far enough or fast enough, and the contraptions used to power trains and airships weren’t available to him; the magical ones were, well, magical, and non-magical steam power (the Errant World would never have internal-combustion engines, lacking oil) was much too heavy for personal transportation, let alone the racket it made.

A bicycle, however, worked just fine, even lacking the magical enhancements of the “thaumatocycles” that two Tsuirakuans had used just days earlier to travel in southern Veracia. Jeromiel was fit, and he made a good fifteen miles on his machine before the sun was up. Another hour, and still unnoticed, he was approaching his goal: the valley where he’d left “Fred” hidden.

Wasting no time, he removed the brush he’d used to cover the immense golem’s face and other more recognizable features; not much of a disguise, but not much need for it, either. The narrow valley where the golem had come ashore wasn’t useful for agriculture, and fisherfolk had better anchorages down the coast. Besides, long before this particular use for it came up, the Schwarzhammer had carefully cultivated the idea that the valley might be haunted, unsafe for normal human beings, and particularly unsafe for anyone of rival guilds; in other words, anyone but Schwarzhammer. The destruction of another, minor guild’s safe house, just across the ridge line inland from this valley, had emphasized that point in a way the guilds could understand absolutely clearly. Jeromiel smiled at the memory …

“Well, ol’ buddy, time to rise and shine,” he said cheerfully and conversationally to Fred, even though the golem had never shown any signs of recognizing speech (or any other sound, for that matter). It did recognize the controls he held, however, and under his hands, remarkably skillful given that he’d only had the box for a few weeks, the golem awoke, started to rise to its 300-foot-tall upright position, and almost gently, lowered a hand to where Jeromiel stood. He stepped aboard, and soon he was sitting comfortably in his makeshift saddle-seat on Fred’s shoulder.

Let’s see, he thought, what were we going to do today? Right, aquatic tests. He patted the folded life preserver he’d remembered to bring, after pinching it yesterday from a shop in Isabel. (If they only knew… he thought with some satisfaction.) He wanted to see how far out to sea he could safely take Fred while still under control of the Tsuiraku-manufactured box. That was reasonable; the man from Veracia had insisted on it. As in most coastal areas, the sea bottom dropped away from the rocky beach quickly at first, but then more slowly on the continental shelf underlying Farrel itself. He figured he could get at least half a mile out to sea before the water rose to anywhere near Fred’s shoulder, maybe more. If things started getting problematic, he’d just turn around, and he had the life preserver in case things went completely to pot. He was as safe as he could make this test.

In the water, anyway. But he had not reckoned on what was about to happen on dry land.

Man and golem were still half a mile from the water when the convergence of Luminositan magical energy reached the valley.

Its timing was particularly unfortunate for this pair – terminally unfortunate. Fred’s immense foot was in the air, preparing for a step, when the magical shock wave hit. The control box exploded, literally exploded in Jeromiel’s hands, and the golem paused in mid-stride … temporarily.

“What the hell, Fred?” Jeromiel snorted, as if addressing a friend who’d just done something stupid. His perch was starting to waver in a most uncharacteristic way. The explosion of the control box had done him little physical damage, but he no longer had any way to control the golem. And he was two hundred fifty feet in the air, on his precarious perch.

Swearing under his breath, he started to look for a route to climb down the immense torso. After the first twenty feet or so, where the shoulders ended and the vertical, overhanging body began, there wasn’t one. “Damn,” he swore again. “Just going to have to wait this one out…”

But he had already run out of time.

The one-footed position would have been unstable in the best of conditions … and now an earthquake, also triggered by Luminosita’s attack, rumbled ashore. It wasn’t much of a quake, barely enough even to be felt in Isabel less than thirty miles away, let alone do any damage. But it was enough to start the now-inert golem tipping forward to the ground … rapidly.

In that moment of clarity which precedes death, Jeromiel had time for one thought. Damn … wish I’d learned a Slow Fall spell.

And then the ground rose up to smite him and the golem. They lay where they fell, and neither ever moved again.
----
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Re: Sister Rose, v.2: Expecting the Unexpected

Postby Graybeard » May 3rd, 2018, 4:19 pm

Chapter Twenty-one: Security detail

Sister Rose, now struggling through the swampy jungle with Argus and about half way up the hill on Shield Island, hadn’t maintained many contacts with her old Special Forces colleagues after she left the military for the Church. This was probably for the best, at this particular moment, as she certainly wouldn’t have approved of what several of them had been ordered to do in the aftermath of Luminosita’s attack. As Brother Miguel and Sister Marilyn (both of whom would have been similarly displeased with events of the moment) were nearing Saus in their airship, another airship was rising from the Special Forces base near the Sleeping Sexton. Their mission, it would be fair to say, was not expected to be entirely peaceful.

Few of the men – not a woman aboard – knew where that mission was to take place. Most of them knew only that Luminosita’s Wrath had been released against a nest of heretics, and they were supposed to secure that nest and prevent the nearby townspeople from interfering while a “battle damage assessment” was done. They did not know who the heretics were, and had been told, very explicitly, not to speculate – not that that order would stop them, of course. They knew they’d been authorized to use “lethal force” to prevent that interference from happening. A very few among them, specially selected hard men, knew that that prevention would extend to slaying whatever heretics remained in the ruins of the nest. They did not know who the heretics were, nor what resources they had.

One of the few troops aboard who did know most of the story was a Special Forces officer, a Major Curiel, who was known to Rose and had worked well with her in Albigenish, not that it mattered at this stage of proceedings. He was nominally the commanding officer of the 100 or so troops aboard who would hit the ground when they reached their destination. Accordingly, he was one of the few who knew where they were going, and in broad outline, why. He did not, however, know exactly against whom Luminosita's Wrath had been released ... yet.

He actually knew, or had deduced, more about the “why” than his top-secret orders had revealed, for a simple reason: like a good commanding officer, he took care of his people. Furthermore, he knew some things about them. Most of those people, as in any branch of the Veracian military, were at least nominally Orthodox. Special Forces often had an overrepresentation of the Reformed sect, and so did his company, his executive officer among them. He’d never had any problems with that arrangement, and the priests could haggle over the doctrinal differences between denominations, as long as they did it far away from him.

Corporal Mobiel, however … his situation was interesting, or so Curiel thought.

Mobiel, Curiel knew, was the one Millenarian among his troops, a generally undistinguished man of a tall, blond physique and nondescript personality. He had an unusual deformity: there was a slight webbing between his middle and ring fingers on both hands. This did not affect the performance of his duties in any noticeable way. Unknown to either of them, however, it did make him unsuitable as breeding stock (might as well put it bluntly) for the clandestine army the Millenarians were growing, and of course, unsuitable for that army itself.

The Millenarian had never had any problems getting along with the rest of the company, Orthodox or Reformed, nor should he have been expected to, at least by the Major. Curiel was hardly inclined toward abstract theology, but from what he’d understood, the Millenarians were doctrinally closer to Orthodoxy than the Reformed people were. Religion rarely came up as a topic for discussion, or disputes, among the troops, and when it did, Curiel always put the kibosh on it as quickly as possible. There were minor scrapes, though, and on a few occasions the Major had to intervene. He’d noticed on those occasions that Mobiel kept himself aloof from the fray, but to Curiel’s surprise, in the shake-hands-and-make-up moments afterward, Mobiel aligned himself with the Reformed people more than the Orthodox ones. That was odd … but it wasn’t as odd as what happened just before the troops boarded the airship.

The cargo had all been loaded and the airmen busied with inspecting the ship by the time the soldiers arrived. As usual, they lined up to board by squads. Mobiel’s squad happened to be one of the last to board … and just before they did, an Army officer with insignia on his shoulder implying a startlingly high rank came over to the line, laid a hand on Mobiel’s shoulder, pulled him out of line, and directed him back to the terminal.

Curiel cared about his men, and something didn’t seem right about this encounter. He was watching proceedings carefully – he’d planned to be the last man on board – and broke ranks to go talk to the brigadier. “Sir, is there something wrong with Corporal Mobiel? Anything that I should –“

“Don’t ask, soldier,” was the emphatic reply. “Go board your airship.” The high-ranking officer turned away without bothering to receive Curiel’s salute or mumbled “yessir.”

Curiel was still thinking about that encounter a few hours later, when the ship reached Provatiel … but when he saw the smoke billowing from the ruin where the castle had stood only yesterday, the last pieces started to fall into place.
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Re: Sister Rose, v.2: Expecting the Unexpected

Postby Graybeard » May 17th, 2018, 5:11 pm

Chapter Twenty-two: People-Leader’s-Son, Genius


People-Leader’s-Son felt proud of his people; it was amazing, he thought, what things they could accomplish when they all worked together and circumstances demanded it. That this pride included a solid dose of self-congratulation never entered his mind, and if it had, he would have immediately disavowed it; that was the way of a good leader, and he was that, even if one still in training.

The tribe had worked through the night under his direction, felling not one but two big blann trees and several smaller ones. The menfolk did this, while the women found and harvested liana vines just as Lore-Keeper had directed, or made sure torches were lit and carried safely so that the tree-hewing could go on. Even some of the children of the tribe had played a role, braiding smaller vines to make ropes that would lash the boat pieces together. Lore-Keeper hadn’t thought about that part.

He had himself to thank, rather, for what would prove the most innovative part of the construction; himself and a small child whose name he didn’t know, but to whom he would have lasting gratitude.

This child had been one of the first rope-makers, working the lianas (she could barely get her arms, let alone her hands, around them, but she tried) rather than the smaller vines, and she was up well past her bedtime when she asked a question of the young leader; two questions, actually, one with an easy answer, but the other … not at first.

The first blann had just been felled, with a crash that could be heard half a mile away in the village. “What’s that noise, Wise One?” she asked People-Leader’s-Son, who happened to be passing by at the time.

“That is a tree, child,” he answered tolerantly. “Strong men of the village cut it down. We will hollow out the trunk and make it into a boat, and some strong men and I will ride it across the ocean to save Haddak-Carer.” He smiled at this answer, feeling rather proud of himself … but the girl wasn’t smiling.

“But Wise One, a tree is round,” she pointed out. “If the Sea God gets mad and makes waves, won’t it roll over? And you will fall into the water, and you will drown.” The concern on her face deepened, accompanied by a few tears. “I don’t want you to drown,” she added.

The young man smiled tolerantly again. “Don’t worry, child, I won’t let…” But then his voice trailed off. The girl had a point. Outlanders had been making canoes to ply the streams atop the plateau for centuries, just as they were preparing to do now. But the riffles on streams were one thing, and the ocean’s wrath quite another. He’d ridden in enough canoes as a boy, and then a young leader-to-be, to know how unstable they could be in even calm waters. And on the ocean … He fell into thought.

In the next minute, even as the girl threw her small arms around him and sobbed “Please don’t die, your people don’t want you to die,” he proved himself a genius on a level that a professor at Sashi Mu would have been proud of, for sheer creativity if not high technology.

What if, he thought, what if we hook another, smaller boat to this canoe, sticking out into the water to keep it from tipping? Yes … that might work … one on each side, on poles and lashes that flex so the waves won’t break them …

And in only a few minutes more, the design for the first outrigger canoe made by the People in tens if not hundreds of years, long enough that even Lore-Keeper didn’t remember it, was born.

He threw his own long arms around the startled girl. “Thank you, child,” he beamed. “You are wise.” No higher compliment was possible among the Outlanders. “You have shown me that I must resist the Sea God’s wrath … and I know just how to do it. Now go to bed, and know that you have served your people.” The second highest compliment for an Outlander. He rushed off into the forest, leaving a puzzled but absolutely delighted (and suddenly very sleepy) child in his wake.

There was no Thomas Edison among the Outlanders, of course, no one to utter the famous line that genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration. None was needed; sweating over their work came naturally to the people of the Eastern Wastes. Some of the sawyers were already walking back toward the village after felling the large blann, but they stopped when they saw the young man running toward them, yelling “Wait, wait! We need another tree!” They didn’t even question him; the wise men of the village, they knew, thought about things that they themselves didn’t understand, and one simply obeyed them. As soon as they heard his plan, back into the forest they went, for the second, smaller blann, as People-Leader’s-Son turned around and ran back to the village for rope weavers.

They worked through the night, uncomplaining. In the light of morning, that first outrigger canoe lay on the ground at the top of the sea cliff, waiting to be lowered down to the water on the strong ropes made from the vines. And the first Outlanders to ply the sea in many, many years would follow, climbing down those same vines … and People-Leader’s-Son, exhausted but beaming in pride at what his people had done, would, of course, be one of them.
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Re: Sister Rose, v.2: Expecting the Unexpected

Postby Graybeard » June 6th, 2018, 11:38 pm

[Note that there is a major spoiler in this pertaining to the Errant Road role-playing game, although a fairly obvious one...]


Chapter Twenty-three: What must be done

The airship bearing the security detail wasn’t the only Veracian military vessel in the skies near Provatiel that night. There was another, smaller one, heading rapidly in the opposite direction, bearing only two passengers (plus Father/Colonel Roderick, who was piloting the craft and studiously avoiding the other two). One was dressed in the uniform of a general in Lord Luminosita’s Temporal Army, to give it its formal title, and he was beaming in satisfaction at a mission accomplished. The other wore the raiments of the titular head of the Mechanist sect in the Veracian Church, and to go with the outfit’s muted colors, his own face was gray with horror and despair.

“Snap out of it, Your Eminence,” the general said, the tone of his voice leaving no doubt that the “Eminence” title didn’t count for much in his own, Orthodox view. “You did what you had to do. Our mission was a success. You served Luminosita well.” That was about the most encouragement he could muster under the circumstances.

Bishop Carlo didn’t answer directly; he merely shuddered. “I never knew …” he muttered as he shook his head. “I never knew …” He repeated it over and over again.

The general kept his composure. He didn’t like what he’d just seen, either, but that was what things were like in the military: you didn’t have to like the things you did, but you had to do them, that was what they paid you for. He was by no means devoid of compassion and human feelings; after all, he had a wife, two daughters, three grandchildren – one of whom looked a great deal like the child who was causing Carlo such pain. But you did what had to be done.

“You must put it behind you,” he counseled the man from the odd sect. “And you must never speak of it to anyone again. The secret of what happened here must follow you to the grave.”

That brought Cosmo out of his funk, at least for a moment, as he stared at the military man, despair now replaced in his face by fear. “To … the … grave … I …”

“Oh, get that damn look off your face,” the general said, anticipating a similar exchange between a Gewehr capo and an assassin a few years later. “We’re not going to have you killed. But you have to keep this mission to yourself – completely to yourself. Understand?”

Cosmo nodded, but the misery was back. “Yes … I will, of course, but that girl … The way she looked at me …”

The general could only shake his head at that; she’d been looking at him too, when she died …

-*-*-*

Some hours earlier:

As far as anyone knew, nobody had ever tried Summoning Luminosita from an airship before. Cosmo, it would be fair to say, was not looking forward to being the first Summoner to put this operational concept to the test. “I don’t know about this,” he muttered several times as he prepared the Artifact of Absonial to be loaded into the Summoning apparatus.

The general was unimpressed. “You people do this all the time for the festivals and such, don’t you?”

Carlo looked up. “It’s not the same thing. There, we have ground truth on where Luminosita will appear, and there are backup systems. Here, we get one shot at invoking his Presence in a place we don’t know well.” He resumed fiddling with the apparatus.

A snort from the general. “Just how hard is it to target something that size?” he said, indicating the castle that rose out on the horizon.

It was Cosmo’s turn to snort. “Hard enough that I’m glad we have these.” He indicated the spotting scopes through which the two of them were observing activities on the castle grounds. “Now excuse me for a minute.” He spoke into the apparatus the carefully rehearsed words that Luminosita would bellow a few minutes later when he was Summoned. Following this, a bit of magic flared from his hands, not to activate the apparatus – that was all automatic, via some mechanism lost in Mechanist history – but to extend their vision through the spotting scopes; if Luminosita didn’t appear in exactly the right place, they’d have to move closer and repeat the Summoning, something they most definitely didn’t want.

The aiming appeared satisfactory; Luminosita was going to materialize directly above the castle and collapse it into a ruin. He made the last adjustment and turned the thing on … and only then did he notice that on the grounds outside the castle, a girl was pointing right at the airship with a delighted grin on her face. How could that be? They’d put on every cloaking spell they could muster, and were still at least three miles from ground zero … but the girl knew they were there, and was excited to see them, little suspecting what was about to happen to her.

It happened soon enough. Only a few seconds later, the amplified voice roared above the castle (although it would take several seconds to reach the airship), and Luminosita’s sword descended on the great structure. They didn’t take their eyes away from the spyglasses in time …

… And so they first saw the joy on the child’s face turn to shock and then to horror, and then, saw the first of the great blocks dislodged by the sword land right where she had been … and forever would be.

-*-*-

“We do what has to be done,” the general repeated. “We must continue to do that. We owe it to the country, and the Church, and Luminosita.”

What has to be done, thought Cosmo. I must do what has to be done … And he was silent for the rest of the flight to Emerylon.

-*-*-

Some hours later:

He was still thinking about those words, and that sight, when he slipped into the Mechanist temple in the middle of the night … to do what must be done.

So that the secrets of what happened would go to the grave with him.

He began to pray.
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Re: Sister Rose, v.2: Expecting the Unexpected

Postby Graybeard » July 2nd, 2018, 6:37 pm

[Not the best writing I've ever done with this one, but it's been a long time, and the writer's block needed to be broken, so ...]

Chapter Twenty-four: Exploration

“What next?” Argus groaned as the rumbles of the volcanic eruption died away. “An encounter with a feral sea elf crawling out of the muck on the shore line?”

Sister Rose had to chuckle at that. “There aren’t any feral sea elves, silly,” she chided her mate. She was technically right; there was nothing “feral” about Peregin Paukii, after all.

“But what made that first bang that we heard before the eruption?” Argus insisted.

“The volcano waking up?”

Argus wasn’t convinced. “I don’t think it came from the right direction. And I don’t think volcanoes make sudden, sharp noises.” As if to reinforce his point, another sustained rumble came from the direction of the distant island.

Rose could see this was an argument she wasn’t going to win. “Well, we’ll just have to be careful, then.” She picked up the dagger she’d been using to hack at the undergrowth, then set it down again, just as Harker piped up with the same thought that she’d had. “Hey, Toots!” he called from the treetops. “Why’n’cha just follow the path that overgrown lizard was on?”

She cast a wry smile in the direction of the branch Harker was occupying – how had he ever got his sketch pad up there? And why? She decided she didn’t want to know. “Good idea, Harker,” she called up. “Can you see anything coming on it?”

“Like maybe a feral sea elf?” the beaver snickered. “Nah. All clear as far as the eye can see, course, that isn’t very far. Hey, can ya hold that pose while I draw –“

Rose decided she didn’t want to know what Harker was drawing. “Better not. We need to get moving.” As if to punctuate her decision, there was another low rumble from the direction of the volcano, but not as loud this time; the eruption was apparently dying out.

“Whatever,” Harker shrugged without any obvious hard feelings, and went back to drawing something. (Rose never would find out what.) The two humans exchanged a rolling of eyes and backtracked to where they’d left the swamp beast’s path.

Shield Island was relatively flat except for the sea cliffs and the bump in the middle of the “shield,” and accordingly, Rose and Argus did not realize they’d returned to near the coast on the winding path until they were almost there. Well, no matter; the sort-of-briefing they’d received back in the port said there were reasons to believe a magical anomaly existed in the interior of the island, but really, nobody knew where it was for sure. If something looked out of place on this desolate dot of land, they were to investigate it … and what they saw as they emerged from the trees looked very out of place indeed.

“A village?” Argus said, scratching his head. “I thought this place was supposed to be uninhabited.”

“A deserted one, apparently,” Rose corrected him, pointing to the caved-in roofs of the few otherwise intact shacks. “And we know it isn’t completely uninhabited; somebody put the collar on that thing, after all.”

“Point,” Argus conceded, noting that they’d both dropped their voices a few decibels at the thought; if the place wasn’t completely empty, they didn’t want the occupants to know they were there yet. “Do you have any way of telling whether there’s anybody – oh, wait, of course you do.” He knew his sort-of-wife’s magical repertory well.

Rose nodded. “Range is a little long, but I think it’ll work. Here goes.” She frowned for a moment as she put up her Empathy spell … and again as she dropped it just a minute or two later. “It’s deserted, all right,” she announced, then chuckled faintly. “Or if there’s anything down there, it doesn’t have emotions. Do swamp beasts? Wait, don’t answer that.”

Argus didn’t rise to the bait. “So nothing that you can feel? No anger, no sorrow, no joy – not that we would expect any in this damned hole.” The gloom of the Anuban Archipelago was starting to register on him.

“None that I can detect. Not even alien feelings coming from some race that we don’t understand.” (She did not say “trolls,” knowing that Argus had a thing about them, nor “dwarves,” which nobody understood.) Another attempt at humor to break the mood: “I’m not going to rule out blue golems, though.”

“Not funny,” Argus grumbled. Then he had an inspiration. “I think we need some feet on the ground there.” Rose’s green eyes said she wasn’t wild about that idea, but she realized Argus had said “feet” rather than “boots,” and she got what he was thinking. “Harker?” she ventured.

“At your service, Rosie,” the familiar’s usual voice piped up from startlingly close to her knee; how had he done that? “I’ll have a look, but boss, can you renew my Obfuscation first? Can’t be too careful, you know.” It was done, and a bipedal beaver went scuttling off to the ruins of the village, invisible to anyone but Argus and Rose – probably.
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Re: Sister Rose, v.2: Expecting the Unexpected

Postby Graybeard » July 14th, 2018, 11:15 am

Chapter Twenty-five: Revenge

It took several days for Lieutenant Bindiel, or Brother Elgin of the suddenly-heretical Millenarian Church, to make his way back to Provatiel. That was enough time for his state of mind to undergo distinct changes: from shocked horror, to deep grief, to … raging, ravenous, roaring thirst for revenge.

It hadn’t taken him long to figure out what had happened in the town (specifically, town’s castle) of his birth. The terrible background noise in the final conversation with his second, now deceased wife had made the general shape of it clear. It was only minutes after that, while his head was still spinning and recoiling from what he’d heard, for a call to come through on his secure, rarely-used crystal-ball-like gadget, from Sister Lela, one of the several sleeper agents he’d installed in Emerylon. Lela had been functioning (not just posing, she did the work) as housekeeper for one of the most senior Millenarian priests in the huge bureaucracy of the Veracian Church in its capital city. Breathlessly, Lela reported that Father Zephaniah had just been taken into custody without warning, and a notice nailed to his house’s door that the Millenarians had been pronounced heretical by the senior council of the Church “and the Wisdom of Our Lord Luminosita.” Even though very careful steps had been taken to disguise her past, Lela was now in hiding; Bindiel himself didn’t know where. Of his other sleeper agents in Emerylon … silence. That itself spoke volumes.

Other word would filter in over the next several hours, as Bindiel worked feverishly to arrange alternative transportation back to Veracia. The airship he’d planned to use obviously wasn’t going to be an option. If it was flying at all, it would almost certainly be watched by the Veracian army, as indeed it was. Fortunately, tramp steamers, like the one that would later carry a certain Gewehr Wraith and his scary little devil-girl companion from Saus to Farrel, were a dime a dozen on the east coast of Farrel, and Bindiel had made sure he was well (and inconspicuously) funded before setting out on this mission. Finding one that could carry him discreetly and (relatively) quickly east did take time, however, time during which other elements of the Millenarian sect tried to figure out what had hit them.

Those elements were few and far between. Purely by luck (although Bindiel would never believe it so), the unleashing of Luminosita’s Wrath had caught much of the senior leadership of the Millenarian Church in the castle, where they died. Brother Reginald was an exception, running his cover inn on the road from Stone Man Pass, and he was also a trained observer; that was what he was there for, after all. However, he was far enough away from Provatiel that Luminosita’s judgment came only as distant thunder, and not until a minute or two after the attack started. Suspecting the worst, he’d climbed painfully to the roof of the inn for a better view that wasn’t obstructed by trees; but by the time he got there, Luminosita was nowhere to be seen. He did see enough to file a dutiful report with the Lieutenant … and over the next hours, to file two more reports that would have disturbed the Orthodox Church greatly if they’d known about them. One was of the small airship bearing Bishop Cosmo and his military minder – not to mention the Artifact of Absonial – back north. The other was of the airship bearing the euphemistically named “battle damage assessment” unit south; and this one he recognized as a regular military vessel, not a medical ship. His report to Bindiel removed any lurking uncertainty about the planning for Luminosita’s assault, if there had been any to begin with.

Confirmation came from an unexpected source. The main Veracian temple in Isabel, small though it might be compared to what was in Emerylon or even Saus, was still large enough to have a few very young priests and nuns, barely out of the novice category. Bindiel was eating dinner in a nondescript tavern – it might be a while before he got decent food again, ships being what they were, he reasoned – when two of the young nuns wandered in, their garb leaving no doubt who they were or where they’d come from. Not having much else to do, Bindiel eavesdropped discreetly on their conversation … and was rewarded. The two young women spent a few minutes on banalities, and then:

“So did you hear?” the younger-looking (and more attractive, he noticed; almost conforming to the Millenarian standard, in fact) nun was saying. “The Church has declared all of the Millenarians heretical!”

Her companion delivered a not-very-feminine snort. “Hmph. Serves ‘em right for letting their priests marry.” She didn’t say anything about nuns marrying; she didn’t need to. “And to more than one girl at a time! Why, I heard that some of their priests are married to ten women at once!” (It was all Bindiel could do to stifle a guffaw at this; four was the limit.) “Can you imagine, Ronda?”

Actually, Ronda could imagine very well; she’d caught herself, more than once, mooning over that dreamy Brother Brett who’d just arrived from Veracia two or three weeks earlier, and she even fancied that he might be doing the same over her – no, better not think that way. “Well, we’re married to Luminosita,” she averred as piously as she could with the standard indoctrination for nuns. “But I thought the Holy Father had given them some kind of dispensation? I don’t know the theo—theo—“

“Theology,” her friend helped.

“Theology,” Ronda nodded with a slight blush. “Anyway, I heard that all the Milllenarians in Emerylon got taken away, in the middle of the night! Just like in –“ She decided against naming the cheap novel she’d been reading surreptitiously after lights out.

“And where did you hear that?”

“From a reliable source.” She couldn’t say that she’d been on duty in the telegraphy room when the message came through; that was secret. The possibility that the message was also classified apparently didn’t enter her mind. Well, no one would ever know … except the eavesdropper.

Bindiel was fighting the urge to leave his dinner at the table, sprint for the docks, and force that steamer to sail at gunpoint (the magical equivalent, anyway). But he had to hear more of the story, if there was any; he literally gritted his teeth and continued listening. The girls’ chatter veered away from the Millenarians, however, and he learned no more … but he’d learned enough.

It was a shattered, grieving Elgin Bindiel who boarded the tramp steamer bound for Getsemiel, but a coldly calculating, enraged one who landed there a few days later. He’d had plenty of time to think on the voyage. He’d also had plenty of time to put the first element of his plan into action: change his physical appearance so that no one would think he was one of the few fit for Luminosita’s Redemption Army. He was a skilled spellcaster by Veracian standards and knew a bit of Polymorph magic; nothing on the level of that meddling Reformed nun who had visited the castle (he still had some fact finding to do about her, and a gut feeling that she was going to require … intervention), but enough to shock any lay Millenarians who found out about it (so they wouldn’t, of course). The changes wouldn’t have to be great, just enough: some coloration changes, reducing his height outside the tight tolerances allowed by the Redemption Army, and hardest to do but most effective for cover, twiddling with a leg to give himself a slight but genuine limp. For anyone whose flesh did not have the thaumatic pliability of a Sister Rose, even that little bit of polymorphy would be exhausting enough to require bed rest … but he wasn’t leaving his cabin while the boat was at sea anyway.

There were still some parts of the plan that weren’t complete yet when he made landfall. It was close enough to completion, however, that he could make contact with the sleeper agent he’d carefully installed in the Calfornican-dominated culture of Getsemiel and start getting ready for the trip home. And it was certainly close enough to ready that he had no doubt what the final step was going to be:

The Patriarch had to die.
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Re: Sister Rose, v.2: Expecting the Unexpected

Postby Graybeard » July 28th, 2018, 10:00 pm

Chapter Twenty-six: Nikolai

Brother Elgin wasn’t the only one with revenge on his mind.

Major Portiel hadn’t been exactly accurate in his assessment of the ships in the harbor at Anuba City, but he’d been close enough: rather than half of them having ties to smugglers, the proportion was more like a quarter or a third. One of those ships had come in from the Veracian mainland the day before Lucy Kankaniel’s vessel landed, her crew (and herself) exhausted but glad to be rid of their elven passenger, the vessel itself in need of repairs that this harbor could not make. No matter, that; Peregin Paukii’s magical improvisations had been enough to make it seaworthy, and the more permanent repairs could wait until she had been collected from Shield Island and taken back to Lorenzel, or a place where she could teleport directly back to the Elven Territories, or whatever. A discreet little shipyard on the coast of the Southern Continent, which Lucy had carefully cultivated for years, would be the place for those repairs.

If the ship ever got there.

The ship that had arrived before the Kankaniel outfit’s was connected to the Gilsoniel clan, as most of the ones in the harbor were, and mainly engaged in exactly the kind of commerce one would expect of smugglers on that route – swamp-beast tusks and meat, exotic beverages made from spices indigenous to the Anuban Archipelago that just happened to be addictive, and so on. However, one cabin was occupied not by a Gilsoniel crewman, but by a small man with a pince-nez who had paid extravagantly for discreet, private passage from Nautkia to Anuba City and back. He’d warned the crew not, under any circumstances, to enter his cabin; he’d be self-contained on food, drink and creature comforts. While out at sea, one foolish crewman became curious what lay within the cabin, and tried the door in the middle of the night, when the small man would be asleep … and triggered a Ward spell so powerful that no trace of the man was ever found other than his leather belt and a few scraps of scalp. Needless to say, there were no further attempts to get into that cabin.

The man who erected this magical defense of his privacy had not used his true name for years, and was known simply as “Nikolai.” He was well known in the smuggler’s nest that was Nautkia, as a member of the Chouzhu gang that ran not-entirely-legal goods between that town and a similarly out-of-the-way port in the minor islands of Tsuiraku, meaning that he spent much of his existence on one ship or another. Much, much less well known was the fact that he was a deep-cover agent of the Tsuirakuan Department of Homeland Security, so deep that he reported directly to Captain Kitaura himself. (If this fact ever became known to the Chouzhu, his life expectancy would have been measured in minutes.) It was in this latter capacity that he had traveled to the Anuban Colonies, to check out an odd rumor that Kitaura’s all-seeing spy network had trawled from somewhere; a rumor that the notorious Oshima gang, a power in the Tsuirakuan underworld that had set up a base in the Farrelian city of Rinkaiel, had gone to ground in Anuba City after Kitaura chased them out of Rinkaiel. He didn’t know why the Gilsoniels had agreed to take him in a no-questions-asked deal; for all he knew, maybe Kitaura had a mole in their organization too. (He was correct in this guess.)

His first day in Anuba City had been uninformative, with one significant exception. There was no sign of an Oshima presence in town, and he was pretty sure that he would have recognized it if there had been one. Time spent in a few of the town’s several seedy bars, with sensory enhancements to go along with Illusions to blend in, detected no conversations relevant to the gang … but he overheard one about a different subject that he cared about every bit as much.

Lucy Kankaniel is coming to town … how interesting.

It hadn’t taken him too long to figure out that he’d been scammed by Argus, and probably others, in Nautkia. His first reaction was to arrange to kill the dishonest(!) Tsuirakuan, but the man was under Kitaura’s protection, the Weave alone knew why, and that was protection enough. Next, he considered how to show Cleiviein that the Chouzhu (in other words, he, Nikolai) were not people to be cheated, by killing the daughter he hadn’t known he had. However, that daughter had simply disappeared. Most likely she had escaped from Nautkia on the Kankaniel vessel that Cleiviein was supposed to have sunk, but did not. (Of course, he was wrong this time, but it was a reasonable guess.) But the most direct revenge possible, against Lucy Kankaniel and her outfit, was still in play, without getting at odds with either his boss in Tsuiraku, who wouldn’t care about the hit, or the Chouzhu, who obviously would be much in favor of it. He had been planning for this possibility for weeks, never traveling without a Pocket Dimension that included certain thaumatic tools … and now he had the opportunity to use them, if the rumors were right.

He wouldn’t have much time. Smugglers tended not to stay in foreign ports any longer than absolutely necessary. The vessel that had carried him to this Weave-forsaken outpost would be leaving port no more than three days after it got there, and he had to be on it or face spending much more time in the Anuban Colonies than any sane mainlander would want to, or maybe even survive. They might even leave after two … but that was time enough.

The Kankaniel ship would be docking under cover of darkness, hiding it from prying Veracian eyes in Anuba City, but darkness was no more than a minor inconvenience to a magically skilled and well-equipped Tsuirakuan who wasn’t supposed to be there. As soon as twilight turned into dusk, he stole quietly into the harbor and found a good viewpoint … and sure enough, only an hour or two later, his magical sensory enhancements picked up the outline of a familiar vessel entering the port.

The next step in his revenge would be the riskiest.

Like most people from Tsuirakushiti, Nikolai was uncomfortable on the water. This was one of the reasons why he’d insisted on privacy on the ship, although more of it was the assorted magical gadgetry he was bringing with him. Included among that gadgetry was a small device that would create a temporary, air-filled magical tunnel beneath the ocean’s surface. Two lovers and three mean individuals had seen such magic at work in the recent past, the first two from the surface, the latter three from within – just as Nikolai was going to see it presently. Only one of the five, a member of the unpleasant trio named Haniko Goto who was a colleague of Captain Kitaura, knew the magic behind this capability. Nikolai himself did not know the spellcraft, but that was why there were thaumatic gadgets, after all. He took a careful look around, swallowed hard, stepped into the murky water calf-deep, and triggered the device.

There was the faintest gurgle, and the water parted in front of him, pointing the path to Lucy Kankaniel’s ship.

Now he would have to move fast. He took a deep breath and moved into the tunnel at a trot, finding, as Goto, Arsoro Kurou and Peregin Bauti had earlier, that it was easy going because of the shallow seabed near shore. It was at the end of the tunnel, where it met the ship, that there would be risk. Well, nothing to do about it but hope that the Weave would be favorable this night. He continued trotting toward the ship.

The Weave was indeed on his side; in fact, things couldn’t have worked better if he’d planned it. The air tunnel ended not at the side of the ship, but right where the keel met the hull. That was perfect; not only would the device he was about to deploy be all but invisible there even to an underwater inspection, it would most surely cause mortal damage when it functioned.

He reached into the loose parka that he’d worn for this mission (it would function as an emergency life preserver if needed, though it wouldn’t be) and extracted a small, glowing sphere about the size of a softball. It was powerfully redolent of magic; indeed, precisely the same kind of magic that, in much greater quantity, had rendered Sister Rose a widow almost six years earlier. No such magical might would be needed here; the mine of Rose’s past was designed for use against full-sized, armored warships, while a civilian vessel like this one would surely succumb to a much more modest magical explosion. Besides, the Tsuirakuans had made a great deal of progress since the Mage/Priest War when it came to getting powerful magic into small weapons…

Nikolai took another deep breath and held it, just in case the tunnel collapsed due to some magical interaction with the mine. (Part of his psyche screamed at him that a single breath wouldn’t do any good, but one had to try.) Magic flared from his fingertips and he activated the mine. There was a distinct change in its colors, and he fancied he could hear a strange, squishing noise as it adhered to the hull. Wonderful; the Weave was on his side again. The tunnel was holding. He checked the mine for security, found it well attached. He exhaled noisily, and rapidly retreated whence he had come.

It was a very happy, if still somewhat nervous, Nikolai who reached the shore and collapsed the magical air tunnel. Everything had gone perfectly. Now, when Lucy Kankaniel’s ship left the harbor, a timer would start on the mine as soon as it sensed that the ocean floor had receded into the depths. That timer would cause the thing to detonate while the ship was far away from land, in deep water where it would sink without a trace. As far as anyone would know, the ship would simply be lost at sea, for no known reason … none known to anyone but Nikolai, at least.

Satisfied with the night’s work, he went back to his hidey-hole and slept like a baby.
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Re: Sister Rose, v.2: Expecting the Unexpected

Postby Graybeard » August 14th, 2018, 11:04 pm

Chapter Twenty-Seven: Getting oriented

About the time Nikolai was fastening his thaumatic limpet mine to Lucy Kankaniel’s ship, another explosive, magical force was awakening on the west coast of Shield Island.

Peregin Paukii had slept most of the afternoon. Elves didn’t require as much sleep as humans, but sleep was still a necessity for them, and she’d had precious little of it on the ship en route, and a great deal of magical energy expended to keep said ship from sinking. Add to that the magical effort she’d expended against the “threats” on her approach to the island, and she was exhausted enough to have slept through the burst of Luminositan energy and the ensuing volcanic eruption.

Deep sleep, however, didn’t keep her from having dreams – bad dreams. In the first, she was being pursued through the swamp by an amorphous blob of darkness, of pure hate, that she was sure was Exitialis. Just as she got to a particularly menacing stand of trees at the edge of the swamp, the blackness reached out to engulf her – and she woke up screaming. The second, after she’d calmed down enough to get back to sleep, was almost identical, except that it was Praenubilus Astu, not the swamp, that was the scene. This time, she threw herself at the feet of the great statue of Anilis, but no matter: the deadly darkness still reached out to her. She woke up screaming again, and this time it took her longer to get back to sleep, although she at least managed not to have another nightmare.

The extended nap, interrupted though it was, did recharge her magical batteries, and after a quick Hygiene spell – was everything in this Anilis-damned place made of slime? – she was ready to resume her mission. Of course, she could not see in the dark. She’d slept long enough for the murky sun to have set into the miasma that arose from the swamp like an evil spirit. Well, there were spells to deal with problems like that; no need to carry a light globe in her personal effects when she could just create one magically on any everyday object. She fired up a Light spell and started to move slowly inland.

She hadn’t gone very far, not even half a mile, when a menacing, whickering sound from somewhere ahead brought her up short. She’d spent enough time in human space to know the noises that horses made, and this had an equine quality to it – but there weren’t supposed to be any horses (or much of anything else) on Shield Island. No horse she’d ever heard had gasped out anything quite this frightening, either … and the noise was getting closer, coming from a vaporous cloud rising from the earth. She couldn’t see the source of the sound, but it had to be a horse. Didn’t it? And not just any horse, but a literal nightmare come to life, to carry her into the grasp of the elven god of the dead.

Her frayed nerves and a Peregin’s capacity for destructive magic met, conferred, formed a partnership. A rallying of energy, and she loosed a Force Bolt into the vapor, which of course immediately dissipated … and in its wake, in the middle of the scorched path through the jungle, lay a bird, or a bat, or a bug, no larger than her hand. It was too thoroughly incinerated for her to be sure what it was. Not another being, living or dead, was in sight, other than the trees.

(Which was not to say that none were aware of the Force Bolt or its effects. On the other side of the island, Sister Rose, who was a light sleeper unless magically … or otherwise … exhausted, sat up bolt upright in the tent that Argus had thoughtfully picked up for the trip, a smaller version of the remarkable device that Maduin Lochlear had supplied for their journeys through southern Veracia a few months earlier. But no other sounds reached across the island, and she soon fell back into a light, watchful sleep, without knowing exactly how she’d been awakened in the first place.)

The island became quiet; apparently its other small denizens, if any, got the message. Paukii moved cautiously inland, taking advantage of the path her Force Bolt had created. She regained her self-confidence – arrogance, one might say – as she advanced. Surely there couldn’t be anything here that posed a threat to an elf, could there? Her people avoided the place like the plague, but that was because of the Exitialis connection, not because it was truly dangerous. The tentacle monster had been no threat. Neither had the lizard that she silently cursed herself for expending magical energy to annihilate. With nothing any larger than the bat (she’d decided that was what the formerly noisy, now charred corpse was) in evidence, she’d be able to move to the center of the island and get this accursed mission done “AAAIIIIGGHH!”

She hadn’t noticed that her trajectory and that of the Force Bolt diverged slightly. She certainly hadn’t noticed that her own path took her right into a huge spider web that was all but transparent to her Light. And she definitely didn’t notice that the huge web bore a huge spider … until the web met her face in a particularly unsettling caress, and the scuttling of arachnid legs up her scalp and onto her hood elicited her fifth scream of the day.

On the opposite side of the island, Rose stirred in her sleep, but did not wake.

The terror passed quickly; she’d run into spider webs before, just not one this large, nor one as tenacious. Well, a Hygiene spell should work for that, and indeed it did. She didn’t think about what had become of the spider, not yet.

She’d finally made it perhaps half way to the center of the island, getting to where the persistent miasma was at least thinning out, when the third and final insult of the night made itself known.

There was no eerie call this time, no sense of violation from contact with an unholy creature. All there was was a grove of trees in her path toward the center of Shield Island …

A grove of trees that looked exactly like the one in her first nightmare.

She could stand it no more. Another loud scream (same reaction from Rose), and she went tearing back down the path she’d created, to await the coming of the light of day from the safety of the shore … “safety” in a relative sense, anyway.
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Re: Sister Rose, v.2: Expecting the Unexpected

Postby Graybeard » August 21st, 2018, 2:42 pm

Chapter Twenty-eight: Village ruins

Paukii’s histrionics notwithstanding, Sister Rose and Argus actually managed to get a reasonably comfortable night’s sleep.

It hadn’t taken them long to figure out that what they saw on the coast, and sent Harker to explore, were the ruins of a small, old, defunct village. Little of value remained; the jungle had largely reclaimed its own. Harker did manage to find a few artifacts among the collapsed buildings: a number of buttons and clasps (presumably the garments they’d been attached to had long since decayed away), some shattered pottery that might have been used once to store food and drink, what appeared to be a fishhook made of bone, one old and badly corroded knife, a few other odds and ends. None appeared magical, either in origin or in the present.

Most of these had little value in sorting out the history of the place, at least to Rose and Argus. Thaumatic forensics weren’t a magical strength for either of them, and the airship captain had refused to let a Tsuirakuan thaumato-forensic kit onto the ship (not unreasonably, Rose had to concede). About all that they could learn was that none of the artifacts appeared to have been used in a long time.

The fishhook was interesting, though. “Fishing isn’t exactly – my kind of recreation,” Argus observed, somewhat unnecessarily. “But I thought pretty much every country in the world uses metal fishhooks for it. Even the primitive fishing villages of Tsuiraku do.”

Rose nodded. “So do the ones in Veracia, and I’m pretty certain, in Farrel and the Northern Confederacy too. I don’t know about the Southern Continent. There are still some primitive tribes down there, to hear Miguel tell it. But what would any of those tribes be doing in a village here?” Even Harker didn’t have a (snide) response to that one.

“So you’re saying the people who were here were, well, primitive,” Argus summed up. Rose nodded again. “That means –“

The pieces were falling into place for Rose now. “People from what we call the Eastern Wastes,” she said. She blushed slightly. “I’m not sure I’m supposed to say that. Details about the existence of a continent east of Veracia are treated as – sensitive.” Which is to say, classified, and I may be in trouble for saying that – but screw classified. We’re here, and I’m authorized to reveal things to Argus on a need-to-know basis. He needs to know, if we’re to do our jobs.

Need or not, Argus already knew. “We call it the Wild Lands,” he replied. “Also a bit sensitive, although maybe less so.” He wasn’t going to get into the Coastwatcher program; that remained “sensitive” even in its reduced state. Besides, all he knew about it, from a throwaway briefing back during his days as part of the Tsuirakuan battlemages, was that it existed. “We learned it was out there a long time ago, when the long-range airships started going out. All we learned was that it was cold and inhospitable and unpleasant, so it’s been avoided ever since.”

“But not uninhabited,” Rose countered.

That drew a quick, startled look from Argus; had Rose heard about the Coastwatchers? But it passed quickly – he’d learned long ago that his wife(? – he was thinking of her as that now, sort of) was world-class skilled at putting two and two together. “Apparently,” he replied guardedly.

Rose patted his bearded cheek playfully. “No ‘apparently’ about it, silly. They’re here, they used to be anyway, and enough of ‘em still are around somewhere, don't know where, that the smugglers from Anuba City have worked out ways to do business with them. That major back in town all but said so.”

“And yet your people insist on treating the continent they come from as classified.”

“My people are idiots.”

That elicited an Argus grin. “So are mine. That’s why we’re here. But I’m not an idiot, since I came here with you.”

That seemed a good note to get ready for bed on, and they did.

=*=*=*=

Between fatigue and the dampening magic of the tent, they slept right through Paukii’s histrionics, apart from the momentary arousals that didn’t even keep Rose awake for thirty seconds. (Harker was not included in this observation.) Morning, of course, did not dawn bright and rosy; the mists saw to that, and even if they hadn’t been there, the rising sun would have been concealed at the horizon by the murky cliffs of the Eastern Wastes. Still, it was enough.

Some things had dawned on Rose during her sleep, too. “It all fits,” she said as breakfast was being made. (She’d never seen a tent make breakfast before. Wish we had one of these back in Special Forces days, on those bivouacs…) “That collar on the swamp beast showed that somebody, or something, was taking care of it. Damn, I wish we had the Forensics magic to look at that. Anyway, nobody lives here now, but somebody used to, somebody who took care of swamp beasts. Wonder who? Or maybe there’s still a nomadic swamp-beast-herder out there somewhere? What a concept!”

“You’d be right about that, Rosie,” Harker piped up, having somehow just materialized from somewhere and startling the humans as usual. “Campfire ring over on th’ far side o’ this place. Ashes fresh but not hot. Trail leadin’ off toward the middle of the island.”

Argus facepalmed. “And why didn’t you tell us this earlier?” he groaned, being fairly sure about the answer he was going to get, as indeed he did.

“You didn’t ask.”

Argus looked like he was going to kill the familiar or worse, but Harker raised a paw. “Whoa, boss! Truth be told, I didn’t see it until late last night, after you and th’ lady were sacked out. I heard this big scream and a big bang, went out to check things out, found it then. Whatever made the noise wasn’t there, hadn’t been. Sounded like it came from the far side of the island.”

Rose frowned. So something had caused her to awaken, even though she didn’t remember hearing it. What could it have been? She mentally ran through the possibilities she could think of. An Outlander party? She’d never heard of them having powerful magic, and why would they be on the western side of the island, away from the Wastes, when the village (which she was convinced now, correctly, was an Outlander outpost) was on this one? It didn’t make sense. An elf? Maybe; they would have an interest in this place and could function at night. But why wouldn’t an elf have just gated in, done whatever they needed to, and left? That didn’t make sense either. A party from some other magic-using nation? Unlikely, and it would require too much of a coincidence. A Millenarian paramilitary squad? Hmmm, that one needed some thought. The Millenarians had an obvious interest in the place, and more magical firepower than the Orthodox Church was comfortable with them having. Still, the same comment applied as with the elves: if the Millenarians had business here, they’d just come, do it, and leave.

An incarnation of Exitialis? Now that would be scary … stop that, girl, you’re getting carried away by this place.

She became aware that her scrambled eggs, or whatever they were, were getting cold, and Argus and Harker were staring at her. “Sorry,” she mumbled, “just thinking about things. We need to get a move on, though. Dess Marson will be back for us in only eight or nine hours.”

Argus had nothing more articulate than a sigh in response to this, but Harker chipped in. “Hey, Rosie, you two go do what has t’be done. I’ll stay back here, do the dishes, catch up with ya in a few. Trail starts on th’ other side of that big ruin to the west.” The humans nodded at the beaver, and only a few minutes later, they were on their way toward the interior.
----
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