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The Pen is Mightier than the Sword

Zadown

Bard
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Everything posted by Zadown

  1. Zadown

    500

    He was finally at the gate. Something to feel sad about, for sure. Goals always had that chasm behind them, the finality of a journey done, the dark void ready to be filled with a new ambition. He spat on the cracked and shattered piece of old bones that was the excuse of a ground here. Not a good idea, but it was a deeply rooted bad habit. The water flask was almost empty, the wind dry and wailing, dust riding it like claws on a dead cat's paw. Angel Gate, a dry hell, a place where tears came down to die. Great place for pilgrims. It wasn't just the thirst. That he could manage – it was something that would never kill him, though the idea of going back as a desiccated mummy made his withered soul shiver, sent a downward ripple through the muscles surrounding his mouth. Thirst was bad, but it wasn't what kept his gaze lowered, his ears desperate to tune out everything except the wailing wind. His hat sliced the world in half, the bottom dusty broken bones and angel feet, the top a shadow blocking his view. He didn't really want to see them, not yet and perhaps not ever. Their keening lament weaving in and out of the all-enveloping sound of the dusty wind was bad enough. He would never die and this place showed why that could easily be turned into a curse, a hell on Earth. Angel Gate, going nowhere, a peek upwards a journey into torment, the whole depth of it revealed in a blink of an eye. You wouldn't be able to unsee that. He breathed out, let his thin exhalation join the whistling wind. Folding himself down, he sat on the remains of his more mortal predecessors, turned his gaze down and blocking the Gate itself from his view. He sniffed and sneezed once. There was dust everywhere already. He lifted his hands, studied their pale, dust-covered features against the morbid background. It would be easy to stay here forever, with the wailing angels. He was the proper color for it. This place had a weight, a pressure it exerted on his thoughts – a gravity that crushed instead of pulled, molded his mind so it would fit the desolate, grim surroundings. Death in his mind, the death he would never be able to attain. He had thought there'd be serenity here, a lagoon of dead calm to anchor his drifting soul to for a moment, but now he realized the place was a pit instead of a mountain top. A trap. ”Death and taxes.” It was a muttered growl so mundane it pried open the jaws of the snare, a desperate splash of color on the desert of bone white. He would, of course, never pay either. Taking a deep breath he turned his gaze upwards to see the full reality of the sufferers, to hear the actual words of their endless lament. He would need the jolt.
  2. Zadown

    500

    It vexed him that the moon refused to be in the proper phase for this. Ah, well - showing annoyance would not do, not during an encounter with somebody who could actually be counted his peer. He made the last nervous gesture he allowed for himself before the meeting, flicking long since dried blood of the newborn from his thick leather gloves, then muttered the top-most stanzas of the recitals for calm. A light trance, a state of unruffled and dispassionate air as was befitting to one of his stature - a necromancer king, lord of the dead, shackle-keeper of the passed. Going through his self-claimed titles made his thin-lipped mouth curve in slight smile above his greased black beard. Sun sank lower, its rays of light turning the appropriate shade of red. His dark robes whispered in an unseen wind. They had been still during the painful hours before dusk when he usually did not move around, but now that light was failing they were stirring again. Like going home, it was - old lovers and older masters caressing his flesh, their essences entwined into the soulcloth. They woke up fully and the robes started to wail and moan. A sound that would drive a lesser creature insane. He smiled. A spark of white fire directly opposite to the embers of falling sun wiped that smile off. It was far away but coming closer fast, reaffirming his logic that they would not let him wait, not with darkness approaching closer every moment. Sun was irritating but the white fire would be worse. He adjusted his impressive hat, the bones and talismans attached to it clattering softly against each other as he did so. They needed him and as much as he loathed it, he needed them. To claim any different would be emotional and worse yet, conventional. No matter how irksome the rapidly closing confrontation would end up being, the mere fact they were trying to work together made him want to cackle in delight. He could see their white hoods now, the fabric glowing with inner light in the rising gloom, and the creamy coats of their blessed mounts shedding sparkles against the darker background. Without a sideway glance at the ranks arrayed around him he made a curt gestures with two fingers. There was a satisfying wailing clatter as his majordomo's bones whirled together into an indistinct form to tower next to him. The forces of light were almost here, painful to stare at with his forever dark-adapted eyes. Forms he had used to seeing only on the far side of vast battlefields or twisted upon his torturing racks, great names the foolish peasants whispered with awe. He could already see the pureness of their inner light waver in this place, in his presence. He gritted his teeth against the piercing glow and raised his hand in the age-old gesture of parlay, locking his eyes with the leader of the other party. Oh, what magnificient shadows they would work together!
  3. A green world. You'd never guess anything is wrong just by gazing towards the horizont. Then again, if you weren't wearing a heavy protective suit engraved full of esoteric, complex runes made of intricate shapes that extend beyond the three dimensions we stupid apes can understand you wouldn't be there, not for long. You'd be found and killed so swiftly that the last thoughts of your vaporized brains would be as tranquil as the green, empty world. I sighed and flexed my fingers in the thick stream of flowing mana, careful not to weave any marks into it. I wasn't there to actually do anything, not this time. It was simply my turn to relax, my turn for a short break out here on the topside. It took a while in the creaking, thick suit, but I managed to sit down in the grass. Couldn't smell or touch it through the protective layers but I leaned backwards and extended my arms, flopped down to a completely helpless position. A moment of ephemeral peace. I might have fallen asleep or maybe I just was unlucky and it happened very soon after I laid down, doesn't matter much. Either way I came to to the trembling of the ground, to a burning, greasy smell I could sense even through the filters in the mask. The suit was glowing in all the colors of the rainbow and some not found in the nature like some veil made out of unicorn manes or a human-shaped oil puddle, the colors so garish yet pretty it almost distracted me from the danger I was in. I started breathing more heavily, knew there was nothing I could actually do. Running to the bunker door would be the worst possible action I could take, running anywhere else pointless. The hunter beam caressed the suit a moment longer, heatless flames blazing all around me. The grass around me was unharmed, still gently swaying in the wind, and then the flames flickered and died, leaving only my heavy breathing and thundering heartbeat as the only reminders that something had happened. So much for imagining they weren't out there any more. I sat up and held my knees, but it was a tricky position to hold in the cubersome suit and after a while I gave up and let go, fell back to the still ground. Small insects buzzed all around me and the grass whispered in the breeze but there were no other sounds, no living beings larger than a butterfly or an earthworm around. My fingers grabbed a handful of brown and black earth, tore it off the ground and crumbled it to small pieces between them. The smell was there somewhere, even with the filters, even with the rank terror sweat now cooling inside my suit. Living soil, something we hadn't managed to kill during our latest folly. I shook with some emtion, grief or hysterical laughter, but I did not let it grip me further. I let the hand, now empty of dirt, fall down. This time I certainly fell asleep. Very unprofessional of me, but it was harder and harder to castigate yourself with such thoughts these days. There were only professionals left, unless the enemy had hid away a few non-combatants. Unlikely, but possible. My confused thoughts slowly merging from the sea of sleep focused when I realized it was dark and that I had slept a long time. Not only that, but something large was moving in the grass, clumsy and near. Logic dictated it would be a comrade of mine in the other suit. That did not stop echoes of the earlier terror from reappearing as I carefully stood up, fingers locked in the safe position - nobody wearing a suit like this could really work magic or harm anybody through the wards and sigils with whatever feeble forces they might be able to conjure, but maybe whoever it was was as terrified as I was and armed with something obsolete, like a sword or an arquebus. "I'm here." I had been right on every count - it was Cosette with a thin rapier or some such blade, and even if I couldn't see her face and her voice was muffled, I think she was afraid. "Is that you, Rogan? What's the password!?" "Yeah, I'm sorry I fell asleep. Password is 'arrogance begets misery'." She waded through the grass closer and I could see in the way she moved how her terror transmuted into raw anger, step by step until she was furious right next to me, the thick glove pointed at me like her sword had been earlier. "That password's a bit too appropriate right now, don't you think? What on Earth were you thinking, Rogan? That the break is for ten hours, not one!?" "I wasn't thinking." It was hard to convey any emotions properly through the masks but I tried to distill every ounce of calm regret into the tone of my reply I could muster. I lowered my head slightly, a gesture that came naturally to me since I was ashamed of my mistake. "Let's go in. The others must be anxious by now." "You bet they are." She hesistated as if willing to continue the scene out here, then lead the way. Having a fight wearing these suits would've been just the right sort of surreal, I thought, the sort of thing people did at the end of the world. Here's the survivors of the Gamarkatcha University of Applied Magic, having something akin to a domestic dispute in the last two high-energy suits they own, waist-deep in grass so green under deep, endless blue sky that is rapidly turning black. Silly, surreal, stupid, and all my fault. I owed to the rest to do better than this, I knew. Even so, my voice was almost inaudible mutter when I spoke. "I'm sorry. Didn't want to come in during a hunter beam sweep." "Ten hour sweep?" "Of course not." "Hmph!" That was the last we spoke of it outside. I hadn't gone all that far out and it didn't take long for us to reach the door, both of us making the necessary gestures that marked the mana flow with the key, defusing the deadly traps set on the thick metal. Home sweet home.
  4. His thoughts felt like they wanted to scatter, bucking under his metal mind like a herd of steel beasts. He embraced them like a friend, opened his eyes wide in the shadows of his helmet and stretched his ephemeral wings to catch the warm air rising from below. Too fast, it felt like, but he was in the care of miracles now, held within the caress of another esteemed professional. Always easier to trust to another. The roar of the wind in his ears, the gibbering of the deep folk rising as he got closer, as a wave of agitation rippled through the vast cavern. Other noises as well: grinding metal and omnious hum from golems, shrill sounds of tormented reality from the depths of the blasterbows, first barks of command. It was still a chaos and he had the time he had expected to have, suddenly thankful of the pace he was falling. First nimble-minded archer got a bolt of shocking bright light off with fingers less nimble than the mind that ordered them around, the crackling bolt of energy vanishing into somewhere behind him. Fleeting worry about the petite woman sitting all alone up there, then the big hands of his mind caught the errant thought and hugged it close, dragged it into the calm and chilly embrace of Sons of Steel. World was shrinking and turning easier to understand, all excessive details vanishing. He touched ground. Floor cracked under his weight and his impact sent a slight shockwave to every direction, shaking the footing of the increased number of archers trying to get a clear shot at him. Qimir's sword flickered out like a frog's tongue and first blood was spilt just as the wings that had safely brought him down faded out, a memory of a dream. His shield-hand held an axe - this was not how he was supposed to die, alone and without a shield, but a terrible joy was rising from his iron core and he did not care. Axe swung out, eviscerating a deep one as he ran past, fury simmering in his eyes. The world turned bright, into a mixture of bolts of sunlight and moving silhouettes. His strength was impressive even normally. Now his second skin amplified his every motion, pent-up anger focused into one terrible point giving his dance an explosive quality that would've been impossible to fake. Sword cut through a blasterbow and its owner, axe cracked against an unarmored opponent with bone-crushing force. A jump as the ground beneath his feet was torn apart by return fire, always a bit too slow. Screams somewhere - friendly fire, most likely. He landed near a golem, was almost fatally surprised by its burst of speed as it rushed towards him. Qimir shifted his location slightly to keep the hulking thing between him and its creators, dodged a blow so fast it made the air hum and took a step backwards. A dance, yes, but not with the ugly golem. Far above and behind them both he could feel a power manifesting itself - the hairs on his neck stood up as if he'd been shocked by a will-o-the-wisp. Air blurred, his ears popped and the golem crumpled, its torso imploding just as it was about to throw a punch he wouldn't have had room to dodge. Qimir feinted right, then leaped past the falling golem from the left side. Shards of metal and stone rained on his armor as more and more blasterbow bolts struck either the dying golem or the generic area of the room. The archers shooting at him he wasn't too worried about. It was the few beams of light striking upward that made him grit his teeth inside his re-made helmet. Qimir grabbed that worry by the throat, threw it down into the icy depths of his inner core and danced forward, wielding death in both hands. To his surprise, the deep folk scattered before him. The barrage of crackling bolts slowed down and then ceased, leaving behind an empty, taunt space he could not help but honor. The proper way of doing things was in his blood and would remain so as long as that blood still flowed through his intact body. So, he slowed down and saluted the muttering, gibbering, alien army, saluted their superior numbers with weapons drenched in deep folk fluids. A small part of him felt joy at the fact they had ceased to fire upwards as well, made his face twist into a grin nobody saw. From the faceless army a larger silhouette detached itself, something that looked a lot like a rinth crawler, a shape that would pass casual inspection up top where nobody would expect you to be anything else than a man. But here, next to its real kin, he could see the subtle signs, the ways it had been put together wrong. It held a massive sword in one hand, a beautiful oval shield in the other and there was a glint in its eyes, a sharpness in its curved smile. "Yerr no crawlerr, Brotherr." "Yourn't 'neither, burrower." He had forgotten how the quickening slurred his speech, had trouble compensating. The mockery in front of him did not speak too well either, though he could see how it would pass in the rough parts of the top-side town, how it could be almost like a camouflage in some smoky taverns and grimy brothels near the entrance. "Two of yar, iee? Yar kinda accept duels, orr two an' two given th' help?" Qimir nodded and rolled his shoulders, making his kit jingle softly in the uncanny silence. This time he made a real effort to speak with glacial slowness. "The winner keeps the Machine." "The winnerr keeps it." Another powerful un-crawler stepped out of the crowd, this one built and clothed in a way that had surely distracted any male they had talked with at the top. He wasn't interested, however, and could see past the outter shape to the muscles coiled underneat, remembered what had been done to those wild guardians even the deep folk knew not how to bypass. Two against two, then - not the usual duel, but it felt right. Everything felt right and he leaned forward, felt the two skins around him slide smoothly against each other, felt the warmth course through his muscles. The coin was in the air, the bones were rattling on the table. This was what he had been born for.
  5. I did go see "Inglorious Basterds" after all, and I must say I was entertained. I've slowly grown to dislike QT's excessive violence and pointless, meandering dialogue that makes every character sound like him and this movie wasn't too bad on either respect. There was violence but mostly not as the focus of any scene and the characters sounded more natural, more like themselves. It's still a QT movie for sure with all the pros and cons that entails. I'm not really seeing the depth or superb brilliance Wyvern's talking about, merely an experienced director doing what he does best. *shrug* Three nazi scalps out of five, I'd say.
  6. The vast space gave her a sense of vertigo, of falling into every direction like a drunken bird thrown about by heavy winds. They had spent ages in narrow tunnels and small rooms, some areas slightly larger so their titanic guardians would fit and have enough leeway to fight properly. This was something completely different, a majestetic fall into the darkness of the distant next level. Except it wasn't dark. She could see a dozen of blazing fires far below, glanced upwards into the impenetrable shadows to see where the smoke would go with no luck. Wherever it did go, there had to be a chimney of sorts - their vantage point only received a faint smell of smoke along with drifting sounds from below. It was like an undisciplined army speaking in voices she could not quite discern, the language foreign and the speakers most likely not quite human. She crept back from the sheer drop, a deep frown on her face that Qimir could not see in the gloom. Their hoverlamp was safely tucked away, their own voices soft whispers - neither of them were experts of stealth but neither of them were stupid, either. "It is some sort of deep-folk army. We've punched right through the most dangerous levels, it seems." "They did most of the work, I'd say." "I'm not disputing that, Qimir. We had our fair share of excitement, even so." He nodded, then realize she might not see the minute gesture in the low light and muttered an acquiescence. "Mhmm." "They might be in there." She could sense his relaxed posture tauntening, could guess the hungry look that would appear on his hairy face. "You sensed residue from the machine?" "It's around." "That's not very precise, worker." "There's all sorts of things down there, maybe deep-folk golems or blasterbows, titan trophies ... it's not an exact science, right now." "If you say so, then." He sat down, his back against the wall, both the man and the wall almost invisible in the reddish fire-hued darkness. Qimir breathed out in an exaggarated way, relaxed his heavy muscles again. "Now, I'd like to jump down there and end this charade once and all, having had my share of chasing these thieves - but there was a thing Brother Ferrian always hammered into our thick skulls: know thy enemy. And we both know I am completely ignorant of these deep-folk. So ..." She let out a sigh of relief she hadn't realized she had been holding. "So you are actually ready to listen to what the degenerate Sophist boy-loving scribes of the Digger Era say about the subject?" "Yes. Work your miracles, sage. Tell me what we are about to kill." She grinned, but there was little mirth in it.
  7. The rinthwind had a different quality down here. Untouched, feral, ancient - it carried dust and the scent of forgotten metal, faint hints of old perfumes hiding under the heavier smells that hinted at the bygone builders of this mad maze. Qimir flexed slightly, a nervous habit he had acquired after Amal fixed his armor. No matter how good she was at what she did some subtle flaws remained, a number of faults where the sacred skin was too maneuverable, too light, too vulnerable. It was like a ghost itch on his second skin. A blast of rinthwind made dust swirl across the worn corridor, gave him an excuse to stop. She gave him a sharp glance, as clear as any uttered "what?". "You know I'm not easily swayed, but this is all wrong." "We've both known that for a while, now. They lied to us at the top." "I should've realized you reach any conclusion sooner than I do." His reworked helmet let her see his slight grin. Her lips turned upwards in response and she nodded, tapped his heavy armor with frank familiarity, light fingers barely brushing the engraved metal. "You still have your uses, second son. What worries me is what do they have? Chaos! I have worries enough for each finger, and some left for my toes." "We both saw that hammerer titan they had taken down. No sign of any of them being wounded in that fight." She nodded again, looked at the wall for any signs of rot before leaning into it. They hadn't seen any for several levels now, but neither of them was the type to take pointless risks. "It wasn't a miracle that made those marks on it. Our art tends to ... be quite a bit more concentrated." "Yes. Obviously not any sort of warrior, either, unless quickened or otherwise altered. They did not teach us to crush and rend metal constructs." Their talk about the titan had been almost the same as last time and the time before that. It was like a mantra or a ritual, two people reading woodenly from the same book. Something did pass between them every time they had this conversation, or any of the other codified ones. The meaning had left the words but it had entered the gestures, the tones and the looks on their faces. Last time she had just nodded at his remark about what they taught to the adherents of the Gods of Metal, left it at that. Now her eyes narrowed as if seeing something unpleasant. "You think we can take them." Not a question. She was always ahead of his mind, often at least one step, sometimes so far ahead he could not even see the mental terrain she was rushing through like a wind. "It's my holy duty to try. We worship those moments where the blade turns, the coin is in the air and the bones still rattle on the table. Unless something is ruled inevitable, that is." That was a question, a frown on his face, uncertainity in his stance that was mirrored with her absolute, solid seriousness, a gravity of soul visible on her brown, petite face. "It'd be a lie if I called it a foregone conclusion, no matter what I think of it. And any lies between us two would be deadly, down here." He nodded gravely in full agreement, sealing the exchange of words forever. This, this conversation had been too perfect, too far above the mundane to be ever debased with a repetition. They both would remember it all, know that the other would as well. She pushed herself off the wall and he turned to face their direction of travel again. Off they went: two brave souls, a hoverlamp as their only source of light in the deep, ancient dark.
  8. "This stone ..." He fell silent. She thought for a moment, idly, if he had died and those were his last words, the first half of something profound yet never finished. Then she brushed aside such useless speculations: his wounds hadn't been that bad and the second sons that actually finished their training did not die of shock. Her wobbling lamp steadied itself. Eventually he spoke again, like there had been no pause at all. "... it is like my brothers. Unyielding." "Comforted by the fact you can't back down, are you?" "Yes. You see right through me, miracle worker." "They've taught us both well." Amal sighed out a long cloud of tiredness, dragged herself to an almost upright position. A look at Qimir she had been dreading to make made the lamp wobble again - through her veil of dispassionate philosophy it still twisted her heart to see what the creature had done to her travelling companion. Blood on his abraded plate mail, his stern face hidden in the shadows of a torn helmet, the hard stone he had been slammed against cracked from the force of the blow. "Ach, woman, it's not as bad as it looks. I only rue the fact it broke my dagger." Now that she was listening to it, she could easily hear the tone of raw pain flowing underneath every word, knew if she would look at him right now the lamp would fall, that she would cry for the first time in years. Amal swallowed empty air instead. She could still hold on to the ten principal abstract mantras, felt their poisonous, frigid calm keeping her afloat. He coughed, then she realized it was an abortive attempt to laugh. "Heh. You sure showed it ... a thing or two about miracles." "It would have crushed me in a second, had you let it." "Mmm." So much weariness in that one wordless sound. "I'll keep guard, Qim. There won't be another like it around, not nearby." "It's Qim now, eh ..." His voice faded into exhausted blackness. She rubbed her face to keep weariness away, glanced once at the dark room and the ruined titan kneeling to them both, feeling detached wonder at the sight before setting her face into a resolute mien. Amal opened her rucksack and took out her conjuven and her set of focus tools. The mere sight of the mundane items made it easier to ride the wave of unemotion, to wash her mind of unnecessary clutter. The light grew brighter as her hoverlamp channeled the steadier thoughtwaves into visible wavelengths, really showing the enormous size of the room they were in. She ignored the view, whistling a hymn to order off-tune while going through the familiar motions of focusing her mind to craft bread and conjure water. Time diffused, lost its slow, river-like flow as she worked, pushing her insistent emotions to the barren edges of her mindscape with every abstract mantra she created in her thoughts. Her frayed focus returned keeping her tiredness at bay, her attachment to her travelling companion, her fear, her despair, her anxiety. The world was a white canvas and her mind a wet, thick brush inscribing its properties anew in a way that suited her. At the end she had to tug herself back, was faintly alarmed in some human part of herself how far she had travelled. It wasn't safe without somebody looking after your body and Amal knew it - a basic truth told early in the training, repeated every year, history books filled with examples of what would happen. Her fingers were cold and pale. It wasn't good. Amal dragged the lamp back to her and projected his dispassionate will into it, changed its reality. Its light dimmed but turned warmer, gained a flickering reddish hue resembling a living flame. She smiled faintly as the warmth seeped into her neglected bones, made blood flow again in her shockingly colorless skin. The smell of conjubread hit her next. She was ravenous, suddenly. It didn't take much to wake Qimir up. A careful touch on the cold platemail, maybe as little as her moving into his sphere of control, the area inside which his blade ruled. He rose from the dark as slowly as he had fallen into it, ready to move if necessary but cautious of his wounds. "Did you dream, second son?" "... yes. A white flame between me and my death, up there under the blazing summer sky. Such brightness ..." It did not sound like him, for a moment. Then the tendrils of the dream faded in the stark reality and she could sense him shaking his head gently inside of what was left of his helmet. He swallowed, then shifted his body enough to cause the tormented, broken platemail around him to groan in protest. "You've made ... water and food?" "Of course." She smiled, careful not to turn her face towards him before the smile was gone again.
  9. Every time they had found a new stairway down the silence had grown longer, heavier. This doorway was shaped to be a dragon's maw, its eyes plundered ages ago, most of its jade teeth missing. It still had a sense of dangerous majesty granted to it by what it marked, the wounds it had suffered in the hands of endless looters soothed by the darkness of these depths. No stone in view had seen sunlight in thousands of years. "The dragon." Short comment, but behind the lone word crowded whole pages of meaning. Qimir touched her shoulder gently, the gesture so unexpected and the steel so cold Amal shivered. "Yes. The fifty-fifty, the deeper depths, the looter's gambit. But ... they aren't our equals." "Nor do we have their experience, no matter how long we did spend studying the dangers." She took a few steps to be able to better stare at his face with narrowed eyes, quick disdain shaping her own face, altering her tone. "You'd turn aside, now? After all we've already been through." Amal had been envisioned a few different responses, was not sure if she actually wanted an excuse to start climbing back up towards the surface. She had not expected the deep rumbling laughter of the second son of Hamarr Gothian, the loud mixture of it and the clanking of his shaking platemail. "Haha! This! This is where we start! You should know better than accuse one of us of cowardice. They do not give the sacred skin to those who hesistate. If anything, I'll need you to tell me when to back off, finally, should there be such a moment in those depths beyond this portal." She sighed, maybe out of relief, maybe in resignation, drawing strength from the hoverlamp's unwavering flight around them. If she was succumbing to fear, to the crawler's shock or to the pressure of fourteen levels of labyrinthine stone above them, the lamp would shake first before her hands, fall and fade before she would. Knowing it to be futile, she grabbed another handful of dirt before letting it fall slowly from between her fingers. "There's no mistaking it. I can feel their flaw in this." He nodded, already satisfied with her judgement the first time. They were both professionals, more inclined to criticize their own work than that of the other. "Nothing to it then. It's no good to tarry at these places." Qimir slammed his helmet down and marched down the stone stairs into the dragon's gaping maw. She dusted her hands off and hurried after him, her lamp dipping lower for one dizzying moment when a vision of staying up here alone in the deepening dark intruded into her mind. The next level looked much like the previous one, the remains of the guardian of the portal lying on the floor of the antechamber as the books had described. Amal studied the floor with critical eye looking for signs of residue or other tracks of the fugitives, relaxing into her usual work trance with the familiarity of the work. After a while when no terror construct lunged at them from the gaping doorways, no shambling rot-creatures appeared, she started speaking while examining the tracks. "They should be afraid by now." Qimir nodded first, then thought better of it and removed his helmet and spoke. "You can get this deep only with either pure rationality or with a healthy dose of fear." "Mhmm. They must have hired good crawlers, though. Or lucky ones." Another nod, more visible without his helmet but still lost to the woman, busy with the minutiae of the floor. "No corpses." "Ye-ees. No ... corpses. Hmmm." She closed her eyes, certain of his protective presence. After a minute or two she opened them and smiled with the tranquil grace of the miracle workers, a shadow of the inhuman calm of her trance lingering in her gaze. "They are heading towards the star-walker gate." "A-ha." Something leaden had crept into Qimir's tone of bright steel - the leaden shadow of the star-walker gate, the portal to the sixteenth's level, the fool's doom, the crawler's tomb. He placed his helmet on his head again to keep the nervous thrum of his heart enceased in steel. "I had been hoping to confront them here, at the lowest." Humanity rippled through her, forced an involuntary gasp out of her that was almost sexual in nature. She regained her poise quickly, could not see Qimir's wide grin through his helmet. Amal looked towards the direction their prey had escaped, glanced at the man over her shoulder. "Yes, me too. Fears and the lack of them aside, odds of anybody walking the sixteenth for any greater length of time and returning to boast of it aren't good." "We are still going." It wasn't a question.
  10. "So, if I hadn't born a second son, destined to the Gods of Metal ..." "You are still thinking about what I said back there?" She looked incredulous, then started laughing - a sound very out of place in their grimy, gloomy surroundings. "There's nothing wrong in observing ideas from every direction." Amal wiped a few tears out of her eyes, still shaking gently. Her hoverlamp shuddered and descended a few thumbs before she calmed down enough to make a gesture of keeping. "You are too funny, Qimir. I need my solemnity to keep my tools in order, you know that. Dying by starvation in the dark is not my preferred way to go, even if I'd do it laughing." "Right. I'll try to be silent, then." He sounded sullen and turned away, chewing on the conjubread like it was just another task to be done. Amal reached towards his shoulder but checked her fingers before they touched his heavy armor, rubbed her pale fingers together like she was trying out the texture of the air. "Don't get too mad. Cold anger, remember?" "That was never one of my problems." "Mmhm. I suppose not." "Steel alone would not save me here, either ... what is it?" He had finally turned back towards the renegade miracle worker. Despite the slowness of his thoughts, Qimir wasted no time in recognizing the look of intense concentration on Amal's petite, dark brown face. Her body stayed rigid, her lips still, but her thin fingers wove a complex pattern in the empty air in military sign speech. The big man barely moved but a tension settled over him like a wound spring, an explosion of steel waiting to happen. They could both hear it, then - a shuffling, liquid sound, nauseating even with the rinthwind blowing towards the approaching aberration. Amal sighed her breath out in one long go before settling down in a lotus position, touching the massive armor enceasing Qimir as if by accident. He had been quickened before, but the experience remained throughly unsettling: steel waking up all around him, its heavy thoughts hastened to a level where the mournful dirges almost turned into shrill gibbering, a weight lifting from his shoulders. Qimir grabbed an ancient block of stone with his free hand, a vain hope of not getting any rot on his own weapons or armor flickering feebly somewere deep in his cold, solid mind. The hoverlamp zoomed forward past a corner, leaving Amal in the dark. Qimir hastened his step to keep up. They had taught them how to fight without the weight of the sacred skin, just in case, but he had almost forgotten how to be agile, how to be fast. He hadn't expected it to be so close, either. Or so damn big, rotted to the core, the madness of the defilers burning in its rheumy eyes somewhere where its head had used to be. Even with quickened armor that did not feel like steel Qimir's thoughts were still the slow, placid and chilly things floating at the depths of a lake, held close to avoid fatal fears, to ignore useless distractions. The ghastly form, only half as terrifying as he'd be if rot would catch him, could not shake him. He threw the stone. Not long after, he returned, the lamp circling him like an affectionate pet. "Not dull, worker. Unfazeable, anchored." She opened her eyes, a fear that she had been keeping at bay swirling in them. The lamp shuddered, its flame flickering. "You didn't get any of it on you, did you? You know what the rot does!" "I saw what it does, Amal. It makes soft enemies." "Your weapons and armor are clean?" "I threw a rock at it. You know what sort of strength quickened hands can hold. As long as I didn't strain you too much, we are fine ... althought, I wouldn't walk through that corridor if we can avoid it." She nodded but moved closer, eyes narrowed to catch any sign of infection on the bright steel Qimir wore from head to toes. He drew his sword, showed how its oiled blade gleamed in the light of the hoverlamp, sheathed it. Amal finished one more circuit around the big man. When she spoke her voice was akin to a whisper. "They might've met their fate against those, they might be lost and gone and damned by the rot." He shrugged, his heavy-again armor clattering. "Then the justice is already done. Rot or living, dry bones or flesh, we'll find them." "We'll find them, yes." But she did not sound so certain.
  11. She rubbed the dirt between her pale fingers, looking thoughtful. The grains fell down to the grimy floor. Amal stood up and wiped her hands clean. "They didn't go this way. No residue, none whatsoever." He nodded, his armor rattling softly as it always did when he moved only slightly. His helmet was hanging from his wide, heavy belt, next to some of his weapons. Seated between the massive shoulderpads of his plate mail and protected by a loose gorget, Qimir's large head looked too small, out of place. He brushed moisture off from his beard and moustache, the vacant look in his dark eyes showing how tired he was. "We didn't really think it'd be that easy, did we. It's a huge maze." "Mmhm." Amal looked around while Qimir hunched down while standing in one place. She briefly wondered if he could sleep standing up like that, enceased in his blanket of metal, then turned her attention to what she was looking at. She wasn't tired, not yet - even though she was small, her tools and clothes weighted merely a fraction of the immense weight Qimir hauled around. "All that metal makes you dull, Qimir. It drags your thoughts down." "You really believe that Sophist propaganda? I thought you had left their illusions behind." "Hah. Everything you disagree with is an illusion, but when you actually need something I can do ..." She took a dirty rag from inside her cloak and used it to clean out a part of a wall, kneeling down to reach the area. The parts she polished were green stone unlike most of the dungeon and she grinned in delight, digged with her rag-covered fingers to clear the grooves of the text engraved on the surface. "Think your techniques would have revealed you this?" He took a few jingling steps closer, peered over her shoulder. "This place is full of engravings. What of it?" "Tch tch. Ah! Don't touch it." Qimir pulled his hand back and said nothing. "The green stone's infested with the rot, you don't want it even on your armor." She pushed at the stone, her grin appearing again with a force that transformed her face when it made a clicking sound, then she tossed the rag away. For a moment nothing happened. Then with a irritating grinding screech a secret door swung open. Qimir, still mute, grabbed his helmet with a practiced air and slammed it down, the visor clanging loudly against the rest of the armor. Amal retreated from the dark doorway like a dancer, now there, now behind the wall of steel her companion formed. A hastily snatched buckler in one, a well-cared for sword in the other hand Qimir stepped through, once again some spring in his step.
  12. If ye want to God-mode in non-canon Parallel universe, there's few characters better suited than the Dreamer. Feel free to use him. We did something like this some years back by the way, it was Valdar's idea back then. I wrote about Quincunx and Gyr wrote about me as far as I recall.
  13. Macaroni & Meat Casserole 4 eggs 5 dl milk 300g of macaroni 400g of minced meat 1 onion salt pepper 150g crumbled blue cheese 100-200g of bacon cooking oil or butter 1. Cook the macaroni. 2. Chop the onion into lil bits. 3. Put some oil and the onion on a pan, cook until they are a bit translucent. 4. Add the minced meat, add a lot of black pepper and some salt, cook until the meat is well done. 5. Put the meat & onion mix, the cooked macaroni and the crumbled blue cheese into a casserole pan, mix carefully. 6. Mix the eggs and the milk completely together with a whisk. 7. Pour the egg-milk into the casserole pan. 8. Make a crust out of uncooked bacon. 9. Put the casserole into 200 C oven for 40-60 min. 10. Enjoy! You can leave out the bacon and/or the blue cheese if you want, but then you might need to spice the food up with some other way. Also if you want your bacon crust a bit less crispy, you can make the crust after the casserole has been in the oven for 20 min, then put it back afterwards for 20-40 min more. Other changes you can do is adding another onion, making the crust out of grated cheese instead of bacon etc.
  14. Zadown

    500

    I'm a modern, urban man. Untainted by superstition, used to walking the night, not chained to the rhythm of any celestial body. Jogging at 1am does not feel odd to me and it is only through great imagination I can try to grasp what it was like for my forefathers to brave the sleeping forests past sundown. Five hundred years ago they had their saints as a shield against the limitless wilderness that started a few steps from their wooden houses huddling together for some communal warmth. A thousand years ago they didn't have even that. Christianity was a muttered foregin legend, a foolishness of the ignorant, far-away southerners. No GPS, no maps, no streetlights, no asphalt roads - their existence was not defined against a fixed, explained background but beset from every direction by the feral nature, the gods and goddesses dwelling there holding tenuous, hard bread in one hand, a sword of ice, thorns and claws in the other. No communication, no news, no clocks - lives following organic patterns, not grids and graphs made of math. The abstract world lacking a framework to exist, there being only THIS and the spirits, the weather and the seasons present in every chore in a way it is hard for me to grasp in my house of stone, water and heat pulsing through its walls, at my disposal more things than anybody needs. I am absurdly rich and yet poor by relative measures, a god-like potential at my fingertips to anybody able to gaze me from those bygone years: dry and papery knowledge, manufactured goods, the ability to travel across the known world. Any one aspect of the life they had, those long-gone people narrowing their eyes against the brilliant glare of future when they watch me, me frowning back at the indistinct shapes fumbling around in the Dark Ages, any one aspect can be comprehended, easily. But trying to capture the essence, the all-encompassing mental state of such life, is bordering on the impossible. They lived in a different world in the shadow of different gods, life so hard and unforgiving it did not leave room for existential nonsense, no room for philosophers or atheists, not here in the frozen North beyond any drawn edge of civilization. How much could they love their children, knowing that maybe half would live to adulthood, if lucky? No painkillers, no understanding how human body works, no insight into diseases - loved ones being felled by the invisible influences of the greater powers, sometimes surviving their brush with death, sometimes their breath stilling and body growing cold, their soul receding away into the black lands of Tuonela. What terrors struck their mind when they saw two red embers burning in the black forest, flickering and moving, when they saw what I do on my lonely jog at the darkest hour? I pause there with a fraction of that true awe-inspiring fear whispering through me and watch the black cat walk past me, unconcerned. What terrors, indeed.
  15. Epilogue The sky was overcast but not brooding, the wind brisk but not dangerous. Normal weather for this part of the coastal sea, the marching clouds above majestic if you paused to contemplate their massive, regal forms, utterly mundane if you did not. Jankiize was leaning on the railing of the small caravel 'The Blessed Mollusc' soaking the intermittent rays of sunlight, not minding the occassional spray that rose high enough to touch her. She was wearing brown traveller's clothes cut for a man, her armor glinting underneath. From her wide leather belt hang a black iron crown looking slightly out of place against her more mundane pieces of attire, her sword hanging on the other side of the belt. A few sailors were about, doing their tasks that were incomprehensible to any trader used to land caravans. Jugatt was far enough from any larger body of water most trader families based on the city did no or very little seafaring during their extensive travels, and despite how many weird worlds Jankiize had seen, the Dreamer had never taken her on a sea trip. She felt a moment of unease when she thought about the sheer depth of the salty water beneath them, then cast that thought away. That's half the point of the whole trip, isn't it. With no magic here only outsiders can reach the crown once I fling it away, outsiders I couldn't have defended the stupid piece of junk against in the first place. Marchello appeared from below and made way towards her. Jankiize turned her gaze from the sky and sea and looked at the occultist as he slowly made way past the ropes and other impediments strewn on the deck in apparent disarray. He was utilizing his masking charm, looking a lot more like a native of this plane of existence than she did with her exotic slant of her eyes, with her slightly wrong skin tone. He was wearing clothes similiar to hers, brown and unassuming traveller's garb, except of course he had no armor beneath it. "Feeling sick yet, Marc?" "Not quite." He grimaced, then gestured a dismissal of the subject, looked at the view for a moment. "No sign of the land any more." "We passed out of sight of Foess just a moment ago, and at this speed it'll take a few days to reach the Spice Isles." "An expert already?" "Nah, I asked a sailor." They were both smiling slightly, both relieved to be here, out of the oppressive gloom of Thakelmia. He nodded, turned to look towards where they were heading while leaning on the rail next to her. "I see you still have the crown." "Yes, for now. I'll throw it overboard tomorrow. I'd claim nobody will ever find it, but these things are in the habit of being found ... one of these days." "Could be a few thousand years." "I hope so." A silence, punctuated by the creak of the ship and of the voices of the sailors - their language comprehensible through their enchantments, the actual words so deep seafaring jargon they were meaningless to the two. Sun was getting redder as it sank towards the horizont. He broke the silence first, again. "It all worked out in the end, didn't it?" "Yes, by luck or the Tri-Fates, but it was far from pleasant." "At least you were out a part of it. I had to defend you ..." "I'm sorry about that, Marchello. I owe you my life, I know." He shrugged, uncomfortable. She gazed deeper into the spectacle of sinking sun, looking so calm he felt a sudden certainity she wouldn't be tempted by the power infused in the crown again. "So ... there's been a thing I've meant to ask." "Hmm?" "How are we going to affoard these spices you claimed you'd buy?" "Oh, I did one last thing with the crown. Easy to transmute things, with the power of Chaos." She grinned and a dawn of understanding appeared on Marchello's face. "So that's why our luggage was so heavy!" "Quite. They say money can't buy you happiness, but if it is the last thing the Dreamer will ever give me, I'll be happy to take it." Far above the two a seabird with Astral blue eyes circled one last time around the ship, then vanished into the marching clouds. The End
  16. "There's something I need to show you, Marchello." Using his full first name got his attention, just as she knew it would. He had been 'Marc' for her for months and months now. Jankiize's face was serious as she pointed towards her own bedroom. Marchello started, then put down the pile of papers he had been carrying and followed her. He was wearing his red robes of a Chamanian demonologist again, looking like a mousy scribe to anybody not familiar with what the robes signified. The effect was magnified by the contrast to Jankiize's armored form - while she wasn't any taller than he was, she looked a lot more dangerous and capable to any ignorant observer. He didn't know what to expect when entering the bedroom but seeing Jankiize point at an unadorned iron crown resting on top of a pile of unfinished paperwork seemed anticlimatic. At least until he recognized the aura of swirling Chaos roiling all around it, like the black crown had been so hot it was making the air waver. "What is that? Some artifact of the Dreamer's?" "Yes. By the time you first saw him, he had already relinquished it along with Chaos. He wore it at the front line of the endless conflicts of the Grail Wars: at the Battle of Golden Fire, at the Defense of Bhalbet, at the Iron Raid ..." Her voice faded a bit and she stared at the crown, lost in thoughts, then she spoke louder again. "You should know how infused artifacts work." Marc nodded and moved as if to lift the crown for closer examination, but Jankiize slapped his hand aside. The small man, usually radiating the air of scholastic harmlessness, seemed more surprised than hurt, a reflected gleam in his eyes that made her uneasy. "Hey! Didn't they teach you any caution, back in Chaman?" "Oh. Ah, yes, yes they did. You think it is infectious or even cursed?" "With how powerful it might be, how it could be anything but. Not to mention it is of the Chaos." Marchello rubbed his hands absently together while staring at the simple iron crown. "But why would the Dreamer send something so potentially hazardous to you? And does this invalidate our theory he is gone?" "Your questions might answer each other. Who knows what is set to motion when somebody like him passes away. We'd be better off thinking what to do with it instead of wasting time wondering why it is here. You know I can't leave it alone or carry it around." "You'd end up using it." Jankiize glanced at the crown, then sighed. "Yes, yes I would. Sooner or later. You almost grabbed it the moment you understood what it was, or might be." "And if you'd leave it here ..." She nodded at Marc. "Anybody entering might put it on. Even a layman would be touched by whatever it contains." "Maybe ... maybe you are selling yourself short, Janki. Maybe the Dreamer was sure you'd be able to handle that crown, saw the required willpower in you." There was not much joy in her smile. She glanced at the crown again, like having trouble keeping her eyes away - a gap in the teeth that had to be explored with the tongue every few minutes, just to be sure. "You just want to see what happens when I wear it. Mad, you and your people, all mad. I'm surprised there's any of you left." He grinned, then turned to look towards the window. Some noise they had been ignoring so far was getting louder and more violent, and both of them realized at the same time any noise like that was not normal around the headquarters. The locals usually never came even nearbt except as prisoners, and left as soon as they could if let go. Marchello sounded anxious. "A riot?" "That bolt of lightning might've been the last spark into a dry haystack." Right then the door to the corridor was knocked loudly several times and the familiar voice of corporal Wemner could be heard: "Captain! You are needed at the walls, ma'am!" "Coming!" Without thinking, she grabbed the crown, and the two of them hurried towards the growing roar of the crowd. * She had had nightmares like this. A vengeful crowd shouting at her, torches and improvised weapons held high, screaming like maddened animals that she was an abomination. A freak, not human like they were. Somehow the bolt of lightning, striking down two too-young heirs of two different Houses still fairly high on the social ladder of the city, or what was left of it, had been the last straw. The history could be debated, could be forgotten or ignored, the deeds of the Dreamer passed aside as those of a crazed mercenary, a conjured power that she had been unable to contain. But wielding naked lightning inside the city, at the forefront of a military patrol - that meant the subjugating power was not of men, but of demons and sorcery out of dark fairy tales. And against a power like that, there was nothing else to do but riot, even if it would mean one last futile clash with superior forces. That was not the worst part. Worst part was trying to decipher the sidelong glances his own soldiers were giving her when they looked away from the boiling mass of enraged humanity seething below them. So far only a few stones had been flung, all aimed at the Witch of Jalar, Captain Vangaijuua, all missing of course. Jankiize knew the riot would soon escalate from that, perhaps in quarter of a bell, perhaps in a blink of an eye. The locals still had crossbows and slings and her soldiers weren't protected. Marchello wasn't protected in any way either, but at least he was behind her, ready to duck completely out of sight if necessary. Time seemed to stretch, the movements of the crowd and her own soldiers slow, their speech low and barely understandable. Even through her gauntlets of adamantine, she could feel the sharp spikes of the crown, the warmth of Chaos magic pulsing and swirling inside its narrow band. It was the third unknown - she had no idea what she would do if she'd put it on. At one extreme end it would push out her personality, make her frothing body leap down with a unsheathed Winter's Kiss to kill and kill and kill until she'd be wading through blood. At the other end she'd Ascend into demi-godhood the moment the crown would land on her brow. The crowd seemed to be shouting for her to put it on. A wicked grin split her face in two with bared teeth at the same time a tiny part of her mind growled in anger, yelling that the crown's subversive spirit was seeping through already. Briefly she wondered if the whole riot was a hallucination, not really letting it stop her from lifting the crown up. Marchello's face, seen in the very edge of her field of vision, had a weird look to it, halfway between hunger and terror. Weird enough to make her realize this was all real, not weird enough to make her stop her from placing the crown down on her head. The world plunged into blood red liquid. What little she had been able to understand from the bellowing of the crowd and from the angry shouts of her own soldiers was gone, the sounds replaced with distorted moans. People were mere black specks in the sea of vibrant Chaos, the only ones coruscating with any sort of visible power being Marchello and her. And even the demonologist's aura was barely visible so close to her own roaring blaze of power. She had never felt so happy in her life, never so in control, and Jankiize spread her arms to hug the world one last time before she would have to chastise the unruly monkeys clamoring at her footsteps. "BWHAHAHAHA!" "Jankiize!" "Die, witch!" "Captain, what ..." "Ye have to focus, m'lady Jankiize Towikae Vangaijuua. Unite yer body an' mind, stop driftin' like that. We've done what we can ... so th' rest is up to ye." The words, dredged from some deep part of her memory or spoken by the crown, disturbing that moment of sheer unrestrained bliss struck her with an impact belied by their soft tone. It was shame that dragged her back, that allowed her to wrestle control back from the crown, as abruptly as she had lost it. It would not have been enough if the crown had been sentient in any way, but it was merely a part of a planewalker's attire, a mindless soak of magical energies. Jankiize landed back on top of the wall, barely conscious that she had been afloat, that she had been shining with unshackled energies. Chaotic lightning crackled around her armor, straining against its immutable form. Gasping air, she stared at her hands burning with brilliant mana, confused and feeling growing pain breaking through her earlier euphoria, the pain of a body trying to channel too much magic. Even in the mounting agony she knew she would have to do something with it all. What would the Dreamer do? Hah! Tears fell from her open eyes as she strained to give shape to the contained power. Jankiize hissed in pain, not trusting herself to speak. Where she had a moment earlier been wreathed in an aura of crimson, darkness blacker than any mortal night poured now out of her outstretched hands. The crowd tried to back out of its way, but it was way too fast, the riot packed too tightly against the walls. The sea of ink engulfed them all, flowing to all directions as an ethereal tsunami. She fell first to her knees, then to the side, fading to a darkness of her own.
  17. The House Galdir was their main camp in this city of ghosts, biggest and most central of the abandoned trader houses. Sometimes she felt like it was their prison, the only safe place for her soldiers and Marchello, a besieged tower in the middle of a sea of hostility. Jankiize could not blame the locals either. Only the mental image of assassins sneaking into the bedroom of her own little girls kept her hard enough for this work, sometimes. Their patrol arrived to the courtyard through the heavily guarded gates and she relinquished her horse to one of the soldiers in charge of the stables. Jankiize left the details of after-patrol chores to the sergeants - that was what they did best, and while they would have followed any orders she would've given, they would have resented that sort of meddling into their work. In any case, the young ambushers and the weird disruption in the laylines had left her submerged in her own thoughts, her gaze focused somewhere beyond this world, a frown on her brow. She nodded informal acknowledgements to the salutes her soldiers gave her as she walked towards her own quarters. Soldiers had taken over the areas nearer to the courtyard where servants, caravan guards and other hirelings had lived, leaving the upper floors of the trader nobles to the officers. Jankiize had the master bedroom, of course. The adjoining sitting room was converted to a meeting and planning room with maps of the city spread on every available table. Nearest to her own room was Marchello's, then Lieutenant Parem's, with the other lieutenants in clear order of their closeness to the bright sun of her affection. Irro had not even ranked a place along the same corridor. One soldier was guarding the long corridor to which most of the bedroom doors lead to, snapping into attention as she finished climbing the stairs to this floor. "Anything out of ordinary, corporal Wemner?" "No ma'am." She wasn't sure why she had asked in the first place, but the slight note of hesistation in the corporal's voice told her whatever hunch it had been, it had been right. "No little details whatsoever?" "Um .. ma'am, does a cold wind blowing through here count? There's no windows so ..." Jankiize's frown deepened. Cold as the Void, maybe. "When was that?" "Hard to tell in here, ma'am. Half a bell ago if I am permitted to guess." Same time as I felt the disturbance, then. "Very good, corporal. Next time I ask I'd prefer to be answered the first time around, however. Still, tell the quartermaster to give you a dose of aqmaranth tonight by my order. Wouldn't want you to catch a chill." She smiled, nodded to the relieved-looking soldier and walked to the door of her room, hesistating just before she was about to open it. Ah, Abyss! If it is somebody hostile that can walk the Lost Paths, it'll find me anywhere and asking for soldiers to accompany me to my own room would be at best like holding a shield of paper between me and a bolt from ballista, at worst making me seem paranoid and silly if there's nobody there. And if it is friendly, I do not need any witnesses. Steeling herself she tugged the door open but there was nothing alarming in sight. The room was gloomy in the afternoon light with the thinner curtains closed, her bed was the usual mess and the writing table even worse one with parchments and sheets of paper spilling over its edges ... and there, on top of that pile of half-done work, a seemingly innocent iron crown. Jankiize froze. It had been roughly ten years since she had last seen the simple, spiked thing of black iron but there was no uncertainity, no way for it to be mistake - it was the Crown of War the Dreamer had worn in lieu of a helmet during his time as a commander of Chaos armies, infused with rage and change, burned with the fires of the eternal meta-planar conflict. A poisonous snake poised there, ready to strike, would've been less hypnotizing. What little part of her still remained fully functional and not tempted and horrified by the artefact by equal measures made Jankiize to slowly shut down the door, leaving her alone in the gloomy room with the crown. What is it doing here? My ... inheritance? Now that she could see it, she could also notice the little ripples it made on the local laylines, the glow of warm Chaos magic it radiated, signs of its raw power. She managed to tear her gaze away from it to look around again, to see if whatever had left the item here was still here or had at least left some marks, but nothing else in the room seemed to be out of the ordinary. Even the crown itself looked fairly innocent just laying there: a piece of metal with no ominous runes, no wicked stains of blood, no uneven arrows of Chaos triumphant. Jankiize opened her mouth to shout for Marchello, then shut it. Her pulse was racing. He seems so even, so calm in the face of temptations of power. But he is still an Adept of the Art. He could think that thing is a tool that would get him home. "A fraction of his power ..." She cut her muttered sentence short and curled her hand that had almost by itself been reaching towards the crown into a fist. Jankiize snarled in mounting frustration. Now what? I can't throw it away, can't leave it here unguarded or carry it around with me ...
  18. The Dreamer had taught her well. He and his world - the Eternal War of Chaos and Law, of Good and Evil, Balance struggling to keep the vast planar forces in some sort of equilibrum. She had never been one to seek conflict, yet war had followed her everywhere, shown its bloody death's head grin over and over again, both in her nightmares and in her reality. Even so, whenever she could see a problem ahead and had time to get ready, she did not have to follow the brutal and cold ways of her teacher. But when Jankiize Towikae Vangaijuua was surprised ... A flicker of movement through a tiny window too small to see properly through, barely big enough for the crossbow bolt that had probed against her thick wards and was found wanting, the projectile swerving aside like a stunned bird. Shock and anger coursed through her without time to temper those emotions. She pointed and snarled a word that was lost in the crackle and boom of the lightning it conjured, a word that was lightning, the True Name of it. Another shock of what she had conjured: the blinding flash, the deafening boom, the spray of broken masonry and burnt bricks. And of the death at the wrong end of that bolt, invisible through the explosion but nevertheless almost a physical blow to her. Jankiize's horse shied and backed away from the damaged Thakelmian building. Their grim column had already stopped, the cracking noise blowing a wind of alarm and suspicion through the already tense ranks of Jugatt militia. A smoking, blackened corpse fell out of the wound she had struck into the building, holding a ruined crossbow. Too small to be an adult man. Jankiize cringed, then quickly took control of her facial expression as her men surged forward, towards the corpse and the building, swords in hand. "Secure the building!" She could barely recognize her own voice, felt her body almost shaking from the force of the shock. Her men rushed on, leaving her time to get control of her trembling fingers. "You alright?" It was Marchello, never far away from her. He would've been the last figure she could think as a rescuing knight on a white steed, but he had an air of quiet reassurance that made it easier for her to surface out of the slightly unreal state the sudden ambush had pushed her in. Jankiize took a deep breath and focused her gaze on her friend, nodded at first. "More or less. I should know better than to ... be so startled." "When somebody tries to kill you? Only people who can remain calm through that are hardly people any more." "I was taught better." She tried to smile, to make a joke out of it, but whatever her facial muscles managed was far from a smile. Marchello gave her a disapproving look. "He did not think that highly of his own distance from humanity, and you should not try to emulate him either. If I ever see his reckless smile on your face when we are in mortal peril ... I'll be afraid for you, for us both." "Hah. Yes, you are right. That would be scary. I don't want his pink eyes either." Now she managed a smile, and he smiled briefly in response. The wave of militia that had surged into the broken building washed back, reported that there was one another corpse inside but nobody alive. Another teen that had been too young to die in the slaughter the Dreamer had brought here, the bitter fury visible on the face of all of them, on all of the boys. The girls, the few rare ones who dared to come outside at all, looked wary or scared, already given up. Older people wore unreadable trader's faces but she could imagine the anger swirling behind those facades. Not a happy place, Thakelmia. Not at all. She hadn't suffered even a scratch, of course. But her soldiers weren't walking around twice-warded, and there had been incidents not long after the short and pointless skirmish they had had to suffer through before they were able to enter the city. Crossbow bolts from hiding, excrement-smeared blades stuck into soldiers by seemingly harmless civilians, urchins throwing stones and rotten things, an air of insufferable tension over the whole miserable affair. Jankiize had some tricks to reduce the worst of it, to blunt the sharpness of both what the locals wanted to do to the soldiers and vice versa, but she could not be everywhere, could not attend to every little detail. New rumours will spread, now. The Witch of Jalar, commanding the forces of lightning itself to kill young boys ... will that make them fear me more? Respect me? Or just add more fuel to the fires of hate? Their patrol kept on walking the streets of the sullen city. There were marks of the Dreamer's displeasure still everywhere, worse marks than what her tiny bolt of lightning could do. Some entire old houses were destroyed, the house itself crushed to rubble with the family lines reduced or gone. Some still stood without a mark on them, great houses with storage rooms, inner courtyards with attached stables, workshops and forges, houses the size of small villages now standing cold and empty. Or even worse, a few cold pairs of eyes watching their patrol from upper store windows, the curtains swishing shut if she tried to see who the observers were. What would the Dreamer do? She lifted one gauntleted fist to hide her twisted smile at her own thought. He would rule with such a spiked iron fist even these grim Thakelmians, those that might survive, would be shocked into trembling obedience. Of course, I do not have even a fraction of his power ... She blinked, feeling an odd disruption in the laylines of power like a shadow had just walked through them, a ghost. Jankiize glanced at Marchello who seemed to be in his own thoughts, more than likely thinking what to do now that he and Fionella and their son were all stranded here. Her heart started accelerating, a fear far greater than the shock she just had had coursing through her. The fear of a unexplainable mystery, an unexpected noise in a locked house, or at least a shade of such terror. Then it was gone, leaving as suddenly as it had struck, and if she had not been taught better, she would have dismissed it as a trick of her own mind. Perhaps it was a ghost ... his ghost, here to see I do as I was taught. She swallowed empty air and kept her eyes open for more mundane threats.
  19. Their soldiers trundled ahead next to her horse, a thin column of men wearing the lightest armor she had ever seen any invading army have, so far. Leather armor, the trademark of caravan guards, narrow swords hanging from their belts, their spears coming along in a cart. Some with crossbows, a small number of skirmishers with longbows or hunting bows. Militia indeed, and even if their morale was high enough those of them that had seen real war were far and few between. Jankiize knew her face had a frown on it to answer any of her cheerful soldiers who turned to look at her but she could not help herself. Not much of an army, but at least they have nearly indestructible captain if it helps them any. Come to think of it, as long as I have my magic gifts from the Dreamer I might well be the most powerful mortal in this world ... ha! Marchello guided his horse towards hers, as well as he could with his poor riding skills. You could see on his face he was afraid he'd fall or make a fool of himself. He was wearing local clothes now, but he still looked out of place with his foreign features, his civilian garb and bearing. "You look almost manly in those pants, Marc. You should try riding more often!" "Hah! I'd leave this and swordplay to you, captain, if I could. Speaking of which, you were brilliant this morning." Now they were next to each other, speaking softly in a language nobody else around here could understand, the noise of a marching army obscuring it in any case. Her frown that had begun to ease came back, twisted her face. "I hated it, hated every second of it. I'm not sure if there had been another way, but this seemed to work at least." She sighed, turned to watch the marching men. "They seem cheerful." "It is easy to follow somebody of perceived power. I've read that there's nothing quite so frightening for a foot soldier than a weak, cowardly leader." Jankiize laughed in disbelief. "They expect me to do their ugly work for them? This whole world is mad - I should've taken Galle Jalar's offer, as bad as it was. At least I wouldn't be killing men for money." "Hasn't been much of that, yet." "You think it'll stay this easy, Marc? Armies have tried to fight the Dreamer, far past a sane point to quit and run. A short woman in shiny armor with a rag-tag army? You really think they'll just kneel and give us their metal?" Marchello blinked once at the unfamiliar expression, then shrugged. "From what I heard they were crushed pretty bad by your uncle. Might be they have the fight beaten out of them at last." "In my daydreams, maybe." She watched one of her lieutenants approaching on a horse and stopped talking. Marchello did not trust his riding skill enough to turn his horse and turned himself to look instead. "Lieutenant Parem." "Captain." He grinned, looking like a young boy when he did that. Of course, that's what he really was - Jankiize and Marchello were a lot older than anybody else in the whole army, leading this young men's crusade by the orders of men far older than even them. "Irro got his rousing match, eh Captain? Even if not quite the sort he was expecting." "Sorry to disappoint him, then." "To be honest ... ah. We weren't really sure, with all the stories ..." "You thought the council would put a woman to lead the militia as some sort of joke, that my skill at the dojo was some sort of fluke? That all the stories my own guards have spread were false advertisement?" "There's some wild tales afoot, captain. Believing them all would be as bad as ... not believing any." "Huh. I'll have to find somebody to tell me a few of them, one of these days. Would be nice to know if I'm rumoured to be a half-dragon in disguise, or perhaps I bathe in the blood of virgins, or ... you tell me, soldier. What evil secrets am I supposed to keep in my odd tower?" She smiled then, softening her words. A dazzling smile that left poor Parem almost blushing and Marchello grinning at the other man's discomfort. "Pack of lies, captain, that's what any of the evil rumours are. We'll follow you, me and the men." "Of course you will." She dismissed the embarassed lieutenant with a gesture, turned back to regard the column of passing men with thoughtful air. Parem rode away. "I'm not sure if my followers or my enemies in this army worry me more. Like herding a pack of cats, this is." "Don't sell yourself short, Janki. Like it or not, you are becoming rather good at this. Captain Jankiize Towikae Vangaijuua, hero of the hour, saviour of the weak .. oof!" Jankiize elbowed Marchello so hard he almost fell off, grinning viciously as she did so. "Cut it! Don't give me any nightmares of having to do this for the rest of my long life!" He laughed and rode on, towards the head of the column.
  20. Sometimes her enhanced senses could be a curse. Marchello was in a tent, asleep, as was most of their makeshift army. The last light of dusk was just fading from the sky leaving only the stars, their light distant and insufficient for any normal mortal. Jankiize could see well enough not to carry a torch or a lamp, could hear what her lieutenants were talking about her around a camp fire. She cursed in her mind and hastened her step, made some noise to announce her arrival. The men fell silent. "Gentlemen." "Captain." Their reply was murmured, hesistant, most of them remaining staring into the dancing flames. She felt tired and lonely under her softly glinting armor, but did not show it. "Don't let me interrupt your campfire stories, men. Do carry on." She sat down near the fire, her scalemail tinkling, and tried to see the faces of her officers without staring at them. Tried to judge whether their talk had just been idle words or whether she should be more afraid of her own than any possible enemy. Jankiize was not surprised when it was Irro who spoke first. "We think you've taken this charade far enough, witch-captain." Oh Seventh Abyss, this is the last thing I need right now. "'We', eh? Would this 'we' be all of you, gentlemen?" Her eyes narrowed into a sneering glare as she now openly judged the men one by one. There was still hesistation there, and one or two of the seven might have been on her side as long as she showed her strength, but overall what she saw made her feel chilled to the core. Some of them stared back, open hostility in their eyes now. She had felt some of this resistance to her rule earlier, but now that it was staring back at her she realized she hadn't paid enough attention to these young officers. For a brief moment she wondered what they had heard of her, what they believed and what they didn't, then she abandoned the line of thought as a luxury best saved for later. "Yes it would, 'captain'." Irro's sneering voice matched hers. Nobody had stood up yet, though. She forced something akin to a smile on her rigid face, knew she did not succeed too well. He continued. "Nobody would blame you if a ... womanly ailment would prevent you from continuing tomorrow. As the most senior of those officers who are left, I would complete the expedition as an acting captain. You should take your scribe with you - we do not need anybody in a dress for this." A hundred images whirled through her head, from the defense of Arkstâd, from her sparring with the Dreamer and from bloody battles of the Grail War, from the skirmishes of her work as a caravan guard. She was a hero in those images, or at least a winner, a survivor, and she drew strength from them to be a hero for a while, even if she felt a pool of gloomy, chilly darkness spreading inside her guts. Her fingers trembled inside her gauntlets. Her voice did not. "Got it all figured out, have you? How about this, Most Senior Lieutenant Irro - we'll have a little sparring duel come this morning, to the first blood like is only proper for us manly officers, and should I lose, my wound would ... prevent me from continuing. You can hardly lose to a mere woman, m'lord." "If that sort of theater is what it takes, sure. We'll assemble the soldiers to see this rousing match, then, a full bell after dawn." The atmosphere felt relieved. They might not like her, but their dislike was not hatred, not yet. Except perhaps lieutenant Irro's, but she could see in his face that he looked forward to humiliate her openly and was thus all for her suggestion. That made grinning easier. "Until morning then, gentlemen. Sharp steel and real armor, Irro." "Captain." Less of a murmur now, even if they wished her defeat. When she walked back to her tent she felt the old ghost ache pulsing inside her leg, had to resist the urge to limp again. * Butterflies in her stomach. None of her body enhancements helped there. Sword in her hand, the curved, short blade as alien to this world as her face, as her Art. The hilt was cool even through her sturdy gauntlets. She could see the blade itself smoking gently, colder than any winter she had ever witnessed. Jankiize drew a long breath, focused on the runes and words of power dancing inside her trained mind. Getting them wrong in the heat of the battle would not be an option. She could barely understand the words spoken by somebody else outside her head, the world contracting. The army of spectators dropped out of the area she was focusing in, vanished from her world. Only a few things remained: the uneven field of grass, the already triumphant face of Irro, her Winter's Kiss, his ordinary sword. He lunged, anxious not to show any cowardice at the face of a mere woman. Despite her nervousness it was easy to parry the hasty attack. The swords clashed and now both of them smoked with freezing cold. It would've been too easy, too minimal, if he had dropped his blade then. She moved forward, remembered what had happened to Galle's blade and tried the same trick. Another metallic clang, a transparent cloud of ice expanding from the point of impact. Irro's sword did not break, however. Only his triumphant grin vanished. Irro attacked again, but when she tried to parry he pulled his attack short to avoid her blade striking his. It made him look clumsy - the spectators could not see the intense cold slowly seeping out of his sword, the icy pain in his fingers. They jeered at him and cheered her on. Among the soliders she was more liked, it seemed. When the distance opened up between them, Jankiize took the opportunity to whisper a sibiliant series of true words, pointed with her open left palm a spell of clouding directed at Irro. The others saw him hesistate, then look around like a drunken fool, his sword wavering in his frost-bitten fingers. Jankiize walked forward with a leisured pace while Irro's eyes darted this way and that, a panic growing on his face. She did not stop at a sword blow's distance but walked closer, just to show she could - and then, lightning-fast, her sword snaked out to nick at Irro's ear. "First blood, lieutenant Irro. I win."
  21. "I was right. It was nothing good." Still partly obscured by the shadows of the dark hallway, Jankiize looked like the very archetype of a soldier, if a little short: the light spilling from the brightly lit room glinted on her magnificient armor and showed her gauntleted hand resting on the hilt of Winter's Kiss. Her medium-lenght hair was on a military ponytail and her posture was more rigid than normal, the martial attire bringing out a part of some other Jankiize. She had always had a slightly boyish body and the armor had no blatant curves to show it was made for a woman. For a fleeting moment she seemed a stranger, somebody they hardly knew, and if she hadn't spoken in her normal everyday voice, a bit tired but not otherwise strained, Marchello felt like he would have been startled. He glanced at his wife but saw Fionella's thoughts were on their son, knew she wouldn't be very talkative when she was like that. "Some sort of military expedition?" "You could say that." Jankiize tugged her gauntlets loose and removed them, sighed. "They want to occupy Thakelmia." She sat down on her favourite chair, exhausted by more than just the weight of her armor. Even Fionella turned to look at her, concerned. "They want you to lead troops into the city proper? What did you tell them?" "I asked for a higher pay, of course." Jankiize closed her eyes, a figure of defeat now, sighed again and opened them. "Mind if I loan your husband? I know it is not a good time, but ... I don't want to do this alone." "As long as our guardian angel stays here, I'll manage here, at least a while. It's not a permanent post, surely?" "No, no ..." She frowned and dragged herself upright. "Now there might be a problem." "Ah! If he is really gone ..." "Yes." Jankiize walked to the children's room's door, knocked it softly and opened it. Mendra looked up from her book and smiled brightly at her mother while Jannal was already asleep in her small bed with Óellaeh-Ân sitting next her, a look of guarded concentration on her angelic face. "Laeh?" "Yes, mistress?" She stood up, towering over Jankiize. Her wings weren't visible except as faint shadows to the sixth sense, but the dim celestial glow she eminated was easy to see when you were looking for it, a part of her unearthly beauty. Despite her looks, anybody with any skills at reading body language could have seen an edge to her, an odd contrast to her apparent form. Óellaeh-Ân was their public secret, never venturing out of the tower but seen by numerous employed guards and a few visitors, enhancing the reputation of the Witch of Jalar insomuch as it needed any. "Do you know if something has happened to the Dreamer?" "No. I haven't received any new orders from the Master." "What ... would happen if he would die?" Óellaeh-Ân smiled like the sun, adding to the brightness of the room. When she spoke it was in one of the heavenly languages she almost never used, intelligible to the three mortals only through their translation enchantments. "I would not know, not for any mortal lifespans at least. His last order to me was to respect your wishes, m'lady, and to protect the occupants of this tower. Dead or alive, his words will continue to bind me until the leash is broken by a stronger force, he returns to alter his command or there's nothing and nobody left to protect." Fionella shook her head slightly. "It doesn't sound like much of a life, being leashed like that, no matter how long." "There are far worse places for angels both before and after a capture, fates lonely or torturous or both. Just how free you end up being, m'ladies and m'lord, in the end? Do you relish the work you have accepted out of your free will, mistress?" Maybe the first sign of his passing is a lessening of restraint for his old servants. Jankiize shrugged, felt curious discomfort at how outspoken the usually silent angel was being tonight, even if there was only mild curiosity and no rebellion in the questions. "We'll see. Maybe I can do some good in there, soften the blows of whatever happens. You may return to attend to the children, Leah." "Yes, mistress." The angel curtsied perfectly and tiptoed away, moving with silent grace. After the door closed, the three friends shared a communicative look with each other but none of them said anything. A faint frown remained on Jankiize's face when she broke the silence. "Well. That's one worry less, then." "We'll manage here just fine, Janki. Just look after Marc for me, will you?" She nodded and left to remove her armor in private, thinking of Fionella's last words. One widow is all we need, here. I'll keep him alive for you, Fion.
  22. This is absurd. Surreal. Even with all my training, I never wanted to be ... this. Face set to a grim mask, she twirled her practice sword just so, sending her opponent's wooden blade flying away. When Jankiize took a few steps backwards to give the hapless soldier room to retrieve his blade, she saw her grimness relfected as nervousness on the young soldier and made an effort to twist her mouth into something resembling a smile. "You made a valiant effort, sergeant. Just remember the blade is your life - you'd better grasp it more firmly from now on." "Yes ma'am!" "Think about these losses. You made at least one mistake every time, each one unforgivable in a real fight. Next time I don't want to see any of the same mistakes, Nater. Dismissed." "Yes ma'am." He bowed and she nodded back with distracted air, thoughts already in the hot bath she was heading to next after she could get rid of her leather training armor. Jankiize waved a dismissal to the few other pupils who had been watching the training, smiled briefly as she watched them go. Her hearing was far better than the young men could have expected, allowing her to catch their crude if flattering mutterings about her. A ten years younger version of her might have even blushed, but then again ten years ago she had not honed her body-enhancing enchantments to their current state yet and so would not have heard the faint words at all. Now ... now, she even had some errant daydreams about some of the leaving muscular soldiers, not that she would've never let anybody know it. Hearing was not her only enchanted sense. She could feel a disturbance in the local layline network, turned around with lazy, relaxed motions, now with a genuine smile on her sweaty face. "Hey Marc, what brings you here? Nothing but us brutes here at the barracks." "Brutes and cheaters, m'lady. Have you told them you aren't really as strong as you seem?" She looked around, saw nobody was within hearing range any more, shrugged. "Do you think I'd make a better captain of the militia if my own soldiers could beat me effortlessly? I know it might be amusing to you, but I do need all the respect I can get to do this." Her voice had been serious, the smile faded away. Marchello spread his hands in a gesture of apology or surrender. "I'll not speak of it, then. Fion sent me, she ..." Jankiize lifted one finger in a gesture of silence, frowned as if listening to a far-away voice. Marchello looked puzzled but knew better than to interrupt. Jankiize's face changed slowly from the questioning frown to disbelief, then something close to anger. She whispered, so silently Marchello could barely hear the words even in the still air of empty dojo. "No ... never." "What is it, Jankiize? Is it ... the Dreamer?" She was startled and focused her gaze back to the present. "No, it's not him. He is ... gone." "Gone?" "The link is gone, the connection from the Grail to him, severed from his side, first time ever in over fifteen years. Maybe ... no, it does us no good to second-guess him. I hope you two did not expect to go home soon." She was angry, now, and still distracted as if not sure what to make of it. Marchello sighed. "It would have been nice if we'd been able to hold the naming ceremony of my son home, yes. But there are worse worlds to be stranded in, and not many better." He managed an uncertain smile. "I doubt it is anything permanent, m'lady. Links like that could be vulnerable to any number of things, or perhaps the Grail found a new champion. Fionella wanted to see you, if you have time. We'd both better go - she'll want to hear this with both of us present, I'm sure." Jankiize shook off some of the uncertainity she was showing, once again visibly pulling herself back to the present. "You are right. Let's go, Marc." The two of them exited the dojo, not wasting any words. Jankiize's face was set in a rigid mask of anger, Marchello looking slightly worried as was his habit, but the silence between them was the comfortable quiet of two friends. "Captain!" They turned and saw two city councilmen walk towards them with purposeful stride: Regher Akalmas who had been the commander of the milita before Jankiize and Petrus Chevor, the president of the council. Regher still looked like half soldier, half merchant, a sword hanging from his belt. Petrus was an older man with hair gone silver before its time, heavy and ungainly body a mark of his wealth, sweating in the warming spring day. Petrus smiled at Jankiize with the full force of his diplomatic charm, all but ignoring Marchello. "My lady!" "Just captain will do, president." "How fortunate we could find you here. The closed session of the council has been debating some issues that require your expertise. May we request your presence at the next meeting, tomorrow at the second bell?" "You pay me, Chevor. I'll be there." Petrus looked slightly taken aback with the brusque tone of her words but rallied quickly, Marchello almost wincing and Regher merely looking impassive. "Ah ha. Splendid. I hope we'll see you in an attire more fitting to our hallowed halls, however." His friendly grin showed he didn't mean it as an insult, and Jankiize managed a faint smile in response, a look of indulging somebody else's tepid joke on her face that was uncannily akin to the Dreamer's usual humorless grin. "My scale mail of precious metal, then - it should be perfect uniform for a mercenary of this city, don't you think?" "If you wish, yes. Until tomorrow, then." Petrus turned to leave, but Reghar stayed there, waiting for the stocky man to pass beyond hearing range. "Well?" "You know, I never wanted them to give this job to you, m'lady. I don't think it is a woman's job." "It isn't, really. But it is my job, never the less." "And maybe you have what it takes, m'lady. Still, I'm not sure if you will like where it will lead you. Good day." He nodded, polite and a little sad, then hurried away with long strides to catch Petrus. Marchello frowned after the two receding councilmen. "What was that all about?" "I don't know ... but I have a feeling it will nothing good. They've kept the militia in higher alert than usual, despite the end of our ... usual threat." She sighed at the direction the two men had vanished to and turned to go.
  23. The Watchmen, yeah ... I didn't really get hit by any of the hype and I only noticed a few weeks beforehand that the movie was coming to here, which is how I prefer it - hype can only disappoint you, or at best make you expect awesomeness the few rare times the movie is equal to it. I did check the reviews and based on them hoped the movie would not disappoint. And for me, it totally did not disappoint. It was not perfect, but for me it is perhaps the best comic book movie so far, or maybe #2 after X-Men II which had the advantage of having a plot I did not know. There were a great number of "damn, this is done well" moments, including most of the songs used, the starting credits, the end of the prison scene, Rosarch in general. There were also a few "hmm, this was a bit excessive" moments - I didn't really care for the added sex and violence, even if I have nothing against either and even if they did not manage to spoil the movie for me. I just didn't see the point. Oh well. I had read the book (obviously, if I knew the plot), my friend who went with me had not (and had actually quit after a few pages in because it was so "boring and badly drawn"). We both enjoyed it, so you don't have to necessarily read the book first to like the movie. 4.5 Full Frontal Very Naked Blue Men out of 5, IMO.
  24. Zadown

    500

    I call them the stone people, for the lack of a better term. They aren't, of course. We see ourselves in everything, our pain and hate and love and anxiety, the way we would feel if that would happen to us, and so if somebody says "hey, there's sentience here" we think "oh, they are like us, then". All bullshit, of course. The way they think is utterly alien to us, closer to math or physics than biology. I've brought friends with me, back when I still thought I could share this. They look at the way sun shines over the fields of stone and rock, find faces in the formations as if that was what we are looking for. The shadows obliged them a few times and they were happy like little kids. Faces, for christsake. Faces are sentience to your average guy. It's easier to skirt around the subject, to scribble and scratch at the immaculate white surface until the words show a shadow, an absence where you suppose the thing you cannot describe will live. Not faces, not like us, not the play of shadows on a rocky patch of ground. But no matter how you do that, the unspoken space is amorphous, even more elusive than the utterly alien stone people all around us, here. Of course, easiest way to solve this would be to call me mad. That's the easy way out, though, and I've never gone for that route, never let others either if I have been able to help it. And it would have to be a highly specific madness, one note wrong in the vast chorus of my thoughts. I am excellent in what I do, have passed all the psych-tests, every year. Still I hear their whale song, the undeniable wisdom and intelligence in them. I am long past the need to take field assingments, but that's where I can hear it the loudest, out there in the unclaimed airless wild. They talk behind my back about my trips. Tolerable, so far - people in my position have bought the right to be slightly eccentric provided we do no mistakes. It does create a wall between me and the crew. Sometimes, when I'm alone listening to the low rumbling whispering of them below me, the incomprehensible susurrations of alien minds brushing mine, a melancholy grips me inside my suit, pushes me downward, reminds me of the gravity of the original home. Bittersweet moments, those, and a price I'm willing to pay. I'm not really sure if they've even noticed us. Maybe they call us rolling stones or a sandstorm, our tiny flickering presences dancing on the surface like a swarm of fireflies in the night would be for us. That's antropomorphism again, yes. The gulf between us and them is vast and wide, and there's only so much you can do with this language and this brain. That's why I call them the stone people, for the lack of a better term.
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