Finders / Keepers
The sound of the campus alarm system woke Skip from his sleep. A flashing red floodlight drenched his room crimson in periodic bursts. It was a critical alert. A full-scale attack. It meant that all upperclassmen were to arm themselves and fight. All first-years would go into designated hiding facilities. Skip leapt out of bed and shrugged into the first pair of pants he could find and took a padded shirt out of his laundry; it wouldn't stop a sword or an arrow directly but it could save him from a glancing blow. Any further armor would slow him down and his mobility was crucial if this was a serious attack.
He grabbed his longbow and quiver and headed out into the hall. There was already a few people standing out there, clearly woken by the alarm. Skip commanded a girl he knew, a blades-woman to go back into her room and arm herself while ordering a magus who was sobbing quietly to work on defensive sigils to secure the perimeter. They needed something to do and without a clear leader, they were already falling apart. As they rushed to follow his bidding, Skip went for the stairwell. He needed to get up to higher ground, see if he could spot anything, get a sense of the threat. He came to the roof access door and kicked it open.
The night air was cool and made Skip realize that he was already sweating. He drew his bow and nocked an arrow as he approached the edge of the roof. The dormitory was only two stories, but it looked out over the main quad of the campus and he could see students and professors scrambling to get organized.
He couldn't see them clearly from a distance, but there were long, thin, flat spikes jutting out the the earth at several points around the campus. Skip saw about five of them, but there could have been more outside his view. Everyone was giving them a wide berth. Skip sighted them and strained in the darkness to see them as clearly as possible. On further speculation the spikes didn't seem like spikes at all, they seemed like cloth than had been drawn erect. Of course that didn't make any sense -- how could cloth be stabbed several inches into the ground?
Then the cloths softened. All at once they lost their rigidity and fell to the ground. The nearest bolt of cloth to Skip, probably twelve feet long stretched out, began changing shape on the ground. It twisted and writhed as if in pain and began making noises. Everyone nearby moved even further away as the thing snapped itself into shape. The cloth wolf was lean and dangerous when it was finished contorting. The breeze passed through its unfinished body.
A nearby magus rose a hand to send a spell at the wolf and it snapped into action. In just a few minutes it bolted toward him and leapt. It came away with the magus's arm between it's cloth jaws. The magus went into shock before anyone could react. Before the first person could scream it was already on someone else. Skip felt like he was going to be sick.
After Drago had sounded the alarm he contacted Kyla to let her know what had happened. By the time he could make his way out of his atelier things had already gone to shit. Cadict, Selim's partner, was standing by the door with two swords in hand: Spring and Winter. His usually passive face was agitated.
"Invasion. Cloth monsters in various forms. Several points of engagement. Unit cohesion non-existent." The young swordsman said quickly.
Drago had a photographic memory. He rarely forget anything he'd read, but he didn't remember anything about enchanted cloth. He would have doubted the word of almost anyone beside Cadict, he was an unflappable warrior.
"Cadict, protect this door. Selim is in no shape to fight and Dean Tazarak is trying to keep the campus fighting in order. It's imperative that he continues to weave his empathy net, do you understand?"
Cadict nodded and stood taller, if possible. His Winter frosted over and Spring became entirely wooden. Both weapons were capable of devastating distance attacks. If anyone could hold the door at the moment it would be him. Drago nodded and left him standing there.
He had to find Kyla. She would probably have gone to protect the headmaster. She was a fearsome fighter in her own rite, but Drago didn't like the sound of these cloth monsters. Taza had almost fainted under the strain of keeping order once they had begun killing.
Drago hurried toward the Headmaster's tower. The quickest route was to cut behind the old opera theater right on the small lake. Drago headed down toward it. It was away from the main campus and the closer he got the water, the further he went from the sounds of screaming and fighting. It sounded like a few of the professors were rallying their students into formation. He hoped it would be enough.
The sounds of battle had disappeared all together by the time he came to the lake. It was just a few more minutes to the tower. He broke into a run as he passed the lake and picked up speed when he saw Kyla crouching on the ground. As he drew closer he saw her opponent, a giant cloth crab.
Kyla was rubbing a gash on her panther claw. The appendage was the result of a chimerical magic mishap from an adventure in her youth, but she had grown adept with it over time. To see her nursing a wound on it was immediately sobering. She smiled when she saw him approaching from the opposite side of the creature.
"Nice of you to join us. We were just dancing," she joked, "who knew you'd save me from a crab? I thought you'd be more likely to give me some."
The crab didn't turn around as Drago approached. He would have to show that he was a worthy target.
Fixing his hands in a diamond shape, Drago looked through it with his Salamander eye. Once he framed the crab within it, he removed his hands and within the diamond remained a shimmering field. He drew the fire sigil and opened himself to aether. The crab burst into flames.
Drago kept his hands ready at his sides, prepared to draw another sigil, though the flames should have burned entirely through the cloth. Both his and Kyla's eyes grew wide when the cloth began to rapidly contract. It settled into a tight ball, lapping cloth over the flames and tightening. The smoldering cloth slowly stretched itself back out again. When it was over, the smoking cloth reformed into a bull shape and turned its sights on Drago.
Two of them came sometime after the Dean ran off. Two cloth monsters covered in blood and damaged in various places. One held the form of a buffalo with sharp horns ready to gore anything in its way and the other was a hyena. They were both silent as they spied him.
Two? So be it. Cadict thought and crossed his blades: Winter and Spring.
The buffalo was first to move. It pawed at the ground and charged. It moved quickly, clearing the space between them easily as Cadict waited. He used Spring: slamming it point first into the ground caused a reaction from the grass lining both sides of the cobblestone path leading to the door of the atelier. From the cloth buffalo's right and left blades of grass extended violently outward in an attempt to spear the phantom animal. First dozens then hundreds of grass-spikes flew through and around the buffalo, but the mutable nature of the cloth allowed the animal's shape to change by the split-second. The buffalo slowed its charge to deform and reform parts of itself but it was still coming.
I need more.
Cadict pushed harder. It was difficult to explain how he pushed exactly. He just refocused and increased his intention. He opened himself to the elements.
The grass spikes tripled at once. Hundreds more impaled the cloth buffalo from every angle, skewering the cloth in various places and keeping it pulled taut. Cadict twisted the sword in the ground and the grass softened, curled around the cloth in tendrils and pulled it down. The cloth struggled to retain its buffalo form. It pulled and bucked as the grass dragged it down to the ground. In moments it was buried.
One down. But...
The cloth hyena had disappeared while he was dealing with the buffalo. He looked around and he didn't see it anywhere in the vicinity. He holstered the Spring blade which was already shifting out of its wood form as he loosened his concentration. It was difficult to fully engage multiple seasons at once and he would need his full faculties to confront another one of these monsters if it came to that.
He felt the frost still playing over Winter's surface and the cold sifting up from the below the grip. There is much at stake, he thought, but until the creatures come again I will wait. He hoped that the others would defeat the rest. He had to have faith that they would.
Exhaustion set in as the night wore on and Skip felt himself becoming inured to the sight of death. But sometime before dawn he was proven wrong.
Skip watched as a first-year magus was picked up by a giant cloth hawk and dropped from fifty feet up. The girl screamed, panicked and flinging spells wildly without the temperance to control her power under such extreme stress. Her half cocked levitation spell changed the angle of her fall, but did little to slow it. She died on impact while another magus trying to save her was gored by the tusk of a charging rhino.
Skip had quickly discerned the pattern. The magi were dying left and right and despite his best effort, there was little he could do to save them. As soon as he understood what was happening, Skip left the rooftop of his dorm for the chaos on the ground. People recognizing him on sight as one of the more battle-hardened students rallied around him, from younger students without much field experience to shell shocked professors who had seen too many of their charges die in one night. The brutal irony was that he was powerless against the creatures.
His arrows passed through them as they moved their cloth bodies around the projectiles. Even when the arrows struck, they created only superficial tears that neither slowed nor felled the things. Still, he could not let anyone see him lose hope.
The hawk began wheeling in the sky for another pass and the rhino stamped its tremendous legs. Skip took a count: a bloodied swordsman, another archer close to pissing herself, a stammering magus and an alchemy professor whose eyes were wide in fear as he cowered against the nearest wall. Skip snapped at the professor.
"What can we do? How do we destroy them?" he yelled.
The professor just shook his head slowly. If Skip was nearer he would have slapped him, but he couldn't spare the time. The rhino charged first.
"Slow it down. Quicksand or water. Anything. Fast!" he shouted at the magus.
The bald magic user nodded and outlined a sigil in the air. Clear, thick lines dripped down in his fingers' path like molasses in thin air. As he completed it the ground beneath the rhino faltered and then the cobblestones and grass beneath its feet began floating in a murky substance. The rhino struggled, but could not extract its cloth extremities from the sticky, viscous fluid. Skip didn't have time to take pleasure from the creature's struggles. The hawk was swooping down again and with one look at his magus Skip knew he wasn't ready to cast again. He seemed at his limit.
Skip wished he had oil or something to light his arrows with. Not that it much mattered, he was almost out. What was he to do with four arrows, another useless archer and a swordsman? The hawk drew closer, its shadow growing long over the ground as the creature blocked out the moon.
Am I going to fucking die? Skip asked himself as he drew back his bowstring and launched a futile arrow.
The arrow shot true, but as expected began to pass through the cloth as the hawk continued on undeterred. Then there was a white-blinding line of clean lightning through the clear sky. An instant later, when the flash cleared, only the echo of the lightning's direct path remained etched through the sky to the tip of Skip's arrow. The hawk was gone. Bits of charred cloth rained down like dark confetti.
Did I...? Skip wondered. How...
"Skip. Report." Skip circled to face the commanding voice.
The Dean of Magicraft looked flustered, but not as out of sorts as most others. In fact a good deal of the others were already dead. His presence was comforting nonetheless. A master magus was good to have on your side as was evident in the lightning which Skip wisely attributed to Dean Drago.
"A lot of casualties that I've seen. About eight magi lost. Six swordsmen. Two professors: Adelaide and Visu. More people that I couldn't place. They seem to be going for magic users."
"Adelaide and Visu," Drago rolled the names around on his tongue, "Good professors both. Their deaths are a hard blow."
"Dean, what are these things?" the other archer asked in a shrill, uncontrolled voice.
"Hostiles. That's all the information we have until the headmaster can consult with what's left of his council. Whatever they are, they aren't invincible," he turned to the magus, who had begun vomiting out of exhaustion. "You've pushed yourself too far, magus. It's been a long night, but have a care for your own safety. It isn't over until the last creature is slain."
"Skip," the dean continued, "where is Zophir?"
"At his atelier, I assume," he lowered his voice, "we haven't been close."
The dean didn't skip a beat. "That no longer matters. We need as many magic-users as we can rally. If he lives, procure him. I'll escort this group to the survivors enclave at Bowden Hall. The remaining weather witches have secured it against attack. Report if and when you retrieve Zophir."
The sweat pasted on Skip's body flushed cold. He hadn't considered Zophir's safety since the attack began. He assumed that the magus would be safe, but could he fend off these things? Could he fight more than one? The last time he saw Zophir he seemed a hair's breadth from falling apart - he couldn't imagine the Zophir he encountered a few days ago battling for his life against these things.
Skip didn't need to be told twice. He ran off in the direction of the ateliers without a second glance back.
Cliff wasn't sure if he could stop the bleeding. He'd bound the arm, but without a proper medical kit he couldn't do much more than that. He had to continue regardless of the pain. His orders were specific: retrieve the grimoire. Even if he couldn't do it in his present state, he had to try. He assumed that the extraction team that was supposed to get him was not coming. The sky had changed colors and he didn't need a watch to tell him that the day was dawning.
Nearly an hour ago now he had come face to face with one of the cloth monsters. A viper with impressive fangs. He had come upon it attacking a defenseless boy. He couldn't have been older than fourteen. He was pined under rubble fallen from a nearby building and the viper slithered toward him. Cliff was armed with a spear he'd wrested from a dead man's hands, it was the closest thing he could find to his obityr. He had advanced on the viper from behind, hoping to catch it unawares and it worked to a degree. He leapt and knocked the viper away from the boy. Without forewarning it could not change shape to anticipate the wide, sweeping blow with the spear and he managed the leverage it away with a jerk. The cloth quickly regained its viper form though and sprung at him with surprising speed. The hissing mouth closed around his left tricep while Cliff rammed the spear down the creature's throat. The spear managed to catch the cloth and pin it without tearing it in two and freeing the beast.
Cliff staggered away and pushed away the rubble trapping the boy as the creature struggled to free itself. They had both come away with their lives, but Cliff's injury made him somewhat circumspect about his future odds. He was in no shape to fight another one. Not when he survived his first encounter by a lion's share of luck. He wasn't sure if he had any left to spare in the gray dawn.
Still he hobbled along, avoiding any obvious paths and navigating by memory and adrenaline. He was glad he'd taken time to explore the Signatori or surely he would have died searching. Before long he came to Zophir's atelier. It looked intact. That was a good sign.
He approached the door and touched it. What happened next was difficult to put into words. It was like he'd touched the element of rejection itself. Everything in his body and his mind screamed NO simultaneously and he was flung away with no small amount of force. He managed to stay on his feet, but the repulsion jostled him violently and he could feel the bound wound reopening.
He fell to his knees cradling the arm. What was there left to do? How could he get into when such a vicious ward was placed on the building. He didn't want to imagine what would happen if he tried to force his way in. Already the pain was bad enough to make him woozy. Would he even survive another attempt? Cliff took a glance at his arm. Blood was soaking the left arm of his brown standard issue Machina officer's jacket. It would be ruined.
A shame. It was a good jacket. He thought bitterly. Deliriously.
He tried to stand again and nausea forced him back down to one knee. He had ignored the wound too long. It was more serious that he thought.
Then a dark thing occurred to him.
Could a cloth viper carry venom? The question seemed ridiculous. But before this night the notion of a long, violent cloth snake would have been ridiculous as well. He nearly cried out as he forced himself to his feet. The world swam and his stomach lurched. He was in a bad state. He need aid soon, but had no idea where to get it.
"Zophir!" he said as loud as he could toward the door.
He could taste bile as well as something both cloying and bitter at the back of his throat. He tried to take a step and fell straight down. He didn't have the energy to call again.
Is this it? He wondered. How stupid.
Everything whirled. Forward and backward the world spun. The clean, white atelier rotated merrily in his vision as Cliff struggled to keep his stomach still. He was afraid to close his eyes lest they stay closed permanently, so he bit down hard on his tongue until the metallic tang of blood flooded his mouth. It helped keep him focus and slow the spin. He didn't know how much it would help in the long term, but he had to keep his thoughts close to the present. He was doing well until he saw the cloth viper slide into view.
Animal fear prompted him to try to scramble to his feet, but his body was clumsy and past its limits. He collapsed onto his back. At last he saw the sun beginning to turn the sky a pale orange and then it was gone.
Junun was in a foul mood. They had torn apart very many of his creations. He could still feel only two: his viper shape and hyena shape. All the others had gone silent during the night. But then he was cheered. His creations had made a symphony for him. They had clawed, bitten, stabbed, gored, strangled, poisoned, dropped, mangled, bashed, trampled, ripped, and eviscerated. It had been a long time since he was able to let them run free. He had spent the night travelling from one form to the next, watching the carnage with glee and shrieking in rage when they felled one of his beasts. Either way he was exhilarated. He never conducted such horrors anymore. He was usually asleep. But sometimes even when he was awake Majnun stopped him. He would have to kill Majnun one of these days. Perhaps he would invent a new creation to kill his brother. The idea made him giddy. Majnun would be hard to kill. He wondered if he could do it? His cloth rippled with excitement. Then he remembered.
He had something to do. He located his viper and reached out to it. At once his flesh and the flesh of his creation were one. He stepped into the viper's cloth and reformed his body (such as it was) out of the viper's abandoned husk. He could reform the viper later as long as it resided within his mind. Unlike the creations that had been lost to him. He began to get angry all over again, but the voice of Majnun in his head reminded him to focus. Only he could do this task. He would have to kill Majnun. Soon. He wondered if Majnun could hear that too. The idea made him shiver in grim excitement. Maybe Majnun would try to kill him! That would be something.
He looked around.
There was a man on the ground. A sniff told him that the man was poisoned. He was unfortunate enough to get bitten by the viper. He would die soon if he wasn't already dead. Junun didn't like poison so much, but the viper was a good creation. It was crafty, which Junun liked.
Junun had to focus to remember what he was supposed to do. He turned around and saw the building. A single sniff told him that he was in the right place. He almost reached for the door then realized it was covered in wards. A human had been busy. The building was guarded from pillar to post with extremely vigorous barriers. They bored him, so he tried to move through them.
Something curious happened just then: he was repelled.
The barriers actually pushed him away. It was bizarre to imagine a human barring him entrance, but he tried again and again was pushed away.
You underestimate the humans, brother-creature. Perhaps this will be your downfall.
Junun turned to the source of the voice reverberating against his being. He saw the creature responsible. It was not his brother, it did not come from his place, yet it was more than others. Perhaps from a similar place. Junun did not know.
This one was hardly in the human world at all. It fizzled and shimmered against the growing light. It flickered almost entirely out of visible range, but Junun had other means with which to perceive the thing.
I am Ru, and I am sworn to protect this place.
Junun cocked a head.
"They have made you their dog, creature-close-to-my-place?" he said in words, not deigning to join in the extra-planar conversation. It made his cloth itch.
I am here by choice.
"Then you are a fool. Have you come to die?" Junun asked patiently.
You cannot kill me. I cannot kill you. But perhaps you might be delayed.
It began clear to Junun what would soon occur. He remembered that he had once encountered a creature like this. It had locked him a dark place for over twenty years. He had been quite irritated when he found his way out. Junun sighed. At least he had managed to kill a great deal of people.
"I will not be easy to trap, creature-close-to-my-place. We are the same. And furthermore, I have been to your place. I know how to escape. And if you take me, I will drag you into the dark with me." Junun said.
He knew it would not dissuade the creature. It would be stubborn, like all creatures born of the dark. The Ru creature reached out and closed a big, dark fist over Junun. The cloth creature struggled against it briefly and then reached out its own cloth hand. A moment later they were both gone.
Zophir felt the last of his magic leave him. It was a feeling like finally letting go of a burden that aches horribly to carry. He was simply no longer capable. All of the wards, barriers and leashes failed. His hands were just hands and his will was lodged firmly within his body. It was jarring, horrifying and strangely liberating to be without a reflexive command of mystical assistance. After days of strain the snap seemed to take the edge off.
Grim stood from the workbench and stretched Alistair's body. Zophir had noticed that the grimoire had somehow changed Alistair's hair color. It bled the bright red into a kind of a rust color. Grim's posture was straighter than Alistair's, so standing it towered over Zophir who was slumped over on a wooden stool.
"You have lost, little magus. Your body is empty. I've siphoned all of your strength away and pocketed what I could. It's not much, but it's enough."
Grim flexed his fingers and conjured a little blue flame from the aether. He closed a fist and extinguished it.
"I figured it out too late. How you were changing the enchantment. You were sucking it away, weakening it from within. Clever, ingenious," Zophir narrowed his eyes, "impossible."
"Impossible is a human conceit I have no time for."
Grim began heading toward the door. Zophir knew he could not stop him. He didn't bother following. He wasn't even sure he could stand. He'd been fueling his wakefulness with magic for days and now that it was gone he anticipated that days of deprivation were going to whiplash back and knock him unconscious. He wouldn't wait for that. So Zophir just put his head back against the wall and let himself drift to sleep.
Skip had nearly arrived at Zophir's atelier when something stopped him in his tracks.
A copper skinned young man sitting on a downed pillar in the middle of his path. He was wearing a flowing, but close-cut white toga which fit him seemingly as well as naked flesh. His hair, which had been cropped only a day ago, now sat in dark curls about his ears. Skip approached him cautiously.
"What are you doing here?" he asked. "This place is dangerous."
"As am I, archer."
"Do you know something about this attack? Are you responsible?"
The young man shook his head and gestured to a fallen building.
"My whims are more delicate. My footprint is smaller. And my interests are not so very violent," he smiled sadly, "no, friend, I'm not responsible, but I do come bearing a warning. If you'll listen."
Skip thought of Zophir.
"I have to attend my friend. I have to see if he's alright."
"This is not the first battleground and it isn't the last," the young man continued, "you grieve and lick your wounds while things grow worse. The people I represent have the means to stop this from happening again. You can help. Of all the adventurers, you were chosen to help set things right."
"This is my home. These are my people. I can't leave them. Everything has gone to hell. I can't leave them."
The young man stood.
"Here you're just another body. If you come with me, you will have a chance to save everything you love. Here and everywhere else." he said, stepping closer. "Please."
"But I have to --"
"The magus Zophir is alive and safe. And he doesn't need you. He hasn't needed you for a long time. But other people need you, Skip. Others will die without you."
Skip thought of the magus dropped by the hawk to her death. He thought of watching men gored to death by a force he couldn't touch. Finally he thought of Zophir casting him away. He was quiet for a long time.
"Do you know how to kill these things?" he asked at last.
"Can I be taught?"
"You can. You will."
"Then I will go with you."
Episode Two Epilogue.
Three students crouched on their knees with a fist on the ground and eyes lowered in proper deference. The fourth, sadly, had perished.
The wooden hall, built and rebuilt a staggering amount of times, was already moldy and cracked at the sides where the jungle was attempting to grow inward. The trees had their own intentions so close to the heart of the Tipari - they grew where they intended to grow and the wise simply made their plans around them. Such was life in the Tipari. There was force and deference. There was no room for anything else.
The students stayed there, crouched like quiet, well-trained monkeys for nearly two hours before their provost spoke.
"The Obsidian Signatori has been decimated by an outside attack. We mourn the loss of our colleagues," she began, "but we understand that allies are also rivals. We understand that power, like water, is contained only within the surest vessel."
She paused, but none of the students said anything. She allowed another stretch of time to pass.
"As of today you are the most elite that the Scoria Signatori has ever produced. You are the surest vessels. As such you have received a commission from the headmaster herself. You will go Obsidian. You will offer yourselves under the clause of protection. You will foster within the walls of the fallen Signatori and you will learn the truth of the rumors: discover the nature of the so-called grimoire they possess, report on the nature of the attack, discover what you can about the activity of the Templars in the region, and if possible, report back on the doings of the Salamander magus. This task seems herculean, but we have faith you will excel as you always have. Now go."
The three stood in rank order, bowed and left one at a time. The provost remained seated as they left and idly traced with her finger the trajectory of her spinning emerald earring.