This story contains graphic sexuality and in this very chapter includes scenes of (non-sexual) violence. If such things offend you, feel free to direct your browser elsewhere.
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Adventure School, Episode Three:
It is physically impossible to traipse through foot deep snow.
Cliff cleared his throat. Again. He wasn't sure what else to do. It seemed like they were expecting him to speak, but the notion of trying to speak felt ridiculous. Half of the people standing before him were his elders and until a day ago they were his superiors as well.
All was not well within the ranks of Machina, Steam, and Metallurgy. Cliff had spent weeks dreaming of returning to his home in the First Machine City, of being among those who welcomed progress and scorned the redundancies of a life without the accepted conventions of forward-thinking. Yet now he felt as though he had woken up in the middle of a strange shadow version of Machina, one in which the crisp, clear voice of reason had risen to a shrill cry.
His promotion ceremony had gone wonderfully. They lauded his wise decision to use the situation with the grimoire to infiltrate the Obsidian Signatori -- a long time Machina goal -- but he had never intended his episode at the Signatori as an infiltration. He was complimented for his clever dismantling of his obityr and re-purposing of its components to fashion a radio to contact his superiors. But he was under the impression that doing so was standard operating procedure within enemy ranks. Overall it had seemed as though there was a willful effort of top Machina leadership to interpret his behavior as heroic, regardless of the true nature of what he'd done.
"Gentlemen and ladies," he began at last.
The simultaneous response of every body before him was, "Lieutenant Winchester. Sir."
Lieutenant? Cliff had to school himself not to check if there was someone standing behind him. He was the lieutenant. He was a lieutenant of field operations and in charge of the lives of ten men. The idea made him feel light-headed and queasy.
"Right, well. I suppose I should tell you about the assignment we've been given."
Cliff explained that his newly minted ISA Protections Unit was to be dispatched to the eastern reaches, well into an area heavily scouted by numerous interests, and check on several ISA lead sites with which contact had lapsed over the course of six weeks. A total of three sites had gone silent, which was enough for Machina to discern a pattern and become quite concerned. Cliff's team would be carried via an airborne steam-transport to the most recently affected site and from there begin the investigation.
His superiors had made it sound simple, so Cliff did his best to echo that sentiment. He didn't mention the threat of wild beasts in the area, or the increasing likelihood that the ISA sites had been targeted by a coordinated attack by unknown elements, or that Cliff had never led soldiers before, or the fact that he couldn't remember when he had last taken his pills and was terrified that someone was going to find out. No. He made it sound simple and he hoped, with all of his soul, that it would be.
"You understand your orders?" he asked.
The orderly shout of their unified answer was bold as a stamp:
"Then prepare yourselves, we leave within the hour."
Drago was sitting in his office staring at a time-lapsed three-dimensional representation of the school grounds. It represented all of the repairs that had been done to the campus in the weeks since the attack. He rotated the model with a thought and frowned at what he thought was painfully slow progress. He rotated it again and noted the gaps in the eastern and southern walls; it was uncomfortable to have the campus sitting open to the desert, even with student and faculty patrolling the perimeter at all times. It was Drago's experience that wherever there was a gap in the desert, the desert tended to flood in. He was beginning to consider asking the weather-witches to artificially lengthen the daylight in order to allow more time each day for construction --
Drago noticed that the doors to his office were open. He hadn't opened them and they were, like everything else in the room, bound quite specifically to his will, so when they slid open he experienced it as a tug on his consciousness. He looked up instinctively.
The smokey eyed young woman strolled into his office as if she'd been invited, as if the two of them were old friends. Her luscious, sleek black hair feel in soft curls over the left side of her face and the shape of her dress was like dark oil running down her body. A merciless slit in the side of her long dress showed the length of her legs and their immaculate form. Her steps were silent even to Drago's enhanced hearing. His tongue flicked his bottom lip unconsciously.
"Prana," he said dryly, "do you make it a habit of appearing unannounced?"
She dipped her head respectfully and shook the hair out of her face.
"Dean Drago. I apologize for the intrusion, I was under the impression you would want to hear the news I bring."
"Oh? It must be important for you to have come in the middle of the night. Tell me, what dragged you out of bed and into my office?"
"Trell Varick has disappeared."
Drago raised an eyebrow.
"So you're having trouble keeping tabs on your companions then? Aside from the fact that he's been charged with a rather significant portion of the reconstruction and that I'll have the gleeful task of finding his replacement, I'll admit that I can't see how this is my concern."
"When it came to my attention that he was no longer on the campus grounds I had Ix use his navigational prowess to locate him. He failed," she paused for impact, "which means he's being warded by a skilled magus."
Drago began to respond, but Prana continued. "I took the liberty of compiling a list of remaining magi at the Obsidian Signatori who could accomplish such a feat. The list is very short, Dean, and with the inclusion of yourself all possibilities have been investigated. The magus Zophir has also disappeared. It would follow that they've absconded together, or that one of them compelled the other."
Drago allowed himself a moment of contemplation before he responded. If he had expected Prana to chafe under his ponderous, penetrating gaze, he would have been disappointed.
"And what makes you think that there's no other explanation?"
"Outside forces have been considered, but ultimately dismissed. The level of scrutiny, magical and physical, that this campus is under precludes external interference. They were not abducted, Dean Drago. I think we can both agree on that."
"So our star magus has disappeared with your sworn hammer. A curious turn of events."
"I have devised a number of retrieval strategies that I think you will find --"
"No. I don't think that will be necessary."
Drago thought for a moment that Prana looked surprised. Perhaps her right eyebrow had arched delicately and her lips pursed ever so slightly, but in a moment the expression vanished. Maybe it had never been.
Drago continued. "I can scarce afford to expend valuable manpower searching for a few errant students. The campus is in a state of emergency, as you know. Until we have discovered the nature of the attack we have recently suffered I cannot authorize any searches. We need every student here to do their duty," he gave her a stark look, "including you."
"I understand your position, Dean. But I can't say that I agree with your assessment."
"Perhaps one day, Prana, when you are under the kind of pressure that results from trying to keep a gaggle of hormonal adventurers under thumb, I will give full weight to your assessment. Until then you cannot know the difference between the crisp lines of theory and the madness that results from practice."
He turned his attention back to the floating model of the campus. "You can show yourself out."
The journey back to the Templar camp was brutal. There were several points at which Skip wondered whether Celad was purposely choosing the most arduous routes. They traversed rocky, jagged ground encased in clear blue ice at a pace that was showing in the rapidly decreasing quality of Skip's boots and the pronouncement of his limp. He was used to following his own pace and setting his own goals. To that end he found Celad insufferable. His grinning over-zealousness carried them through the eye of a frigid icestorm which the Templar welcomed as a chance to obscure their trail. Skip grudgingly accepted the logic of making themselves hard to trace. He could imagine that Machina wouldn't be far behind once they realized that their men had been brutally slaughtered, but Celad only dismissed his worries and explained instead that he was concerned only about white wolves stalking their tracks.
The memory of Celad disemboweling a man before him made Skip's gorge rise. He had killed, yes, but never like that. Never an enemy already committed to their loss and cut off from their allies. Death was supposed to sharp and unexpected and clean; preferably from a distance with one eye shut and an arrow in the right place. Or desperate and quick, gory but necessary. Celad's murder of Officer Pinnell had shown him something altogether different and he disliked the taste of it.
"How much further do we have to go?" Skip asked out of frustration after hours on foot.
Celad turned. He looked a proper beast with his hood up, the animal fur frosted over with ice and snow while his golden eyes glimmered in the dark. It was impossible to know what time of day it was. The mornings and the nights blended together in the miserable storm. The darkness seemed to sharpen the Templar's feral features.
"Are you weary, archer? Should we stop?"
"Don't patronize me, Templar. Answer the question." Skip shouted back over the howl of the wind.
Celad pointed over his shoulder at a valley below them. They had been travelling alongside it for several hours from the relative height of a series of craggy hills.
"That valley disappears into an ice floe soon, uncrossable so early in the season, but we can continue from up here. There's a narrow crossing up ahead which will take us through to the rally point. We'll meet the main body of the Templars," he patted the pack at his side with the Machina device, "and then we'll begin the campaign properly."
Skip nodded and continued walking, but Celad stopped and stared at him.
"What?" he asked.
"The killing troubles you?"
"Let us continue, Templar."
Instead Celad put out an arm to bar his way. "I don't need to empathic abilities to see in a man's heart what's written on his face."
"You're lying." Celad retorted over the wind.
"And if I am? Will you flog me for it? Maybe you'll carve my insides out right here in the snow?"
Celad was quiet. The wind was picking up and the snow was creating near whiteout conditions. Skip wanted to walk away, to move forward, but without Celad's expertise navigating in the extreme conditions he couldn't tell what was forward and what was back. Even more dangerously, he couldn't tell whether his next step would be on solid ground or open air. So he stood sulking like a child and swallowed bitter spit.
"You are blessed, Skip. You are blessed and you don't even know it."
"This is divine favor?" Skip gestured around, "trapped with you in the frozen reaches of hell? I've graduated from fighting for shoes to being manipulated into murder."
"When events beyond your ken unfold before your eyes you have two options, archer. The path of ignorance or of struggle. You either wish it away, pretend you have not seen, and continue your life as if nothing has happened. Or you recognize that the essential nature of the world has shifted beneath you and devote everything you have to facing it. Both paths end in reckoning."
"Enough with the riddles!" Skip growled.
"The Templars know what what is to come and we have done what we must. We have acted while the sheep slept calm in their beds with blankets drawn up over their eyes. So it falls to us to save the ignorant, but we do not suffer their ignorance lightly. Many more will die before this threat has passed," he said, then added, "I pray you have the stomach to see this through."
Zophir wasn't exactly an expert on traversing the desert. Usually Skip lead their excursions outside of campus grounds and he knew the desert intimately. But Skip was gone and there was nothing to be done about it, so Zophir squinted at the map in the harsh sunlight and eventually handed it over to Trell who studied it quietly. After a while Zophir asked:
"Well, the good news is we're not lost. The bad news is that we're not exactly close either," he pointed in a direction and Zophir followed his trajectory across the sand to more sand, "we go that way until we hit it. Assuming it's where this map says it is."
"I can't see why not. The book I drafted the map from is recent and I cross-checked it with several other sources."
"How recent is recent," Trell asked, "because I'm fairly certain that the Templars aren't known for sticking around in one place for a long time. It's possible that we're chasing ghosts across the sand."
Zophir didn't respond. He didn't like the idea of defying direct orders and striking out for the middle of nowhere only to find an empty, abandoned outpost.
They were both quiet for some time after that. It was easier not to speak anyway, the sun was hot and the air was painfully dry. Speaking meant moving a dry tongue through a dry mouth and trying to choke out sound. Silence was only barely more tolerable.
The two of them had packed quickly and though they had each brought a significant amount of water, they had to be mindful of the possibility that they would have to make both their trip and return without refilling their canteens. They drank sparingly and conserved their energy, moving only as fast as they needed to in order to stay ahead of potential pursuers and reach their destination before running too low on water.
They moved east through the desert's most textured areas. Dunes lapped each other in a dizzying seasaw of heights and volumes. Zophir wheezed quietly to himself as they journeyed up and down the dunes in the staggering heat. Only occasionally did his physical exhaustion exert itself on the link between himself and Trell. Every few miles he would feel a snag on the connection and shore it up mentally. The link he'd established was keeping them both invisible to any scrying magic intended to locate them. If the Signatori was going to track them, it would first be through scrying magic. The second option would be to enchant birds or some equivalent and use the creatures' sight to physically locate them, but that would be labor intensive and difficult without a tangible direction to search in.
In effect they could stay remain strategically invisible for as long as Zophir could consistently keep up the connection -- under casual circumstances it wouldn't be much of a task, but the circumstances were less than casual; his grasp on his abilities was twitchy and uncertain, the heat was oppressive, and the tug of Trell's consciousness was an added distraction.
Carrion birds wheeled through the sky in sparse numbers and Zophir eyed them warily. It was too easy to imagine them feasting on the dehydrated corpses of the impulsive magus and his unlucky companion. He opted not to consider that outcome further as they walked.
The day wore on and the sun lowered, Zophir's expectations that the heat would wane with it were dashed. He was amazed at how his sweat soaked garments could retain yet more sweat and marvelled at his body's ability to produce such a surplus of moisture.
It was early evening when they took their first break to water themselves, drink and eat the meager rations they could afford themselves.
"There is a lot of desert," Trell mused as he chewed on hard bread, "a fucking lot of desert."
"Maybe the Templars ought to set up their next outpost on a beach."
"Fighting on the side of righteousness from a gorgeous seaside villa?" Trell grinned. "Blasphemy."
Zophir shrugged. "Couldn't hurt."
"Speaking of seaside, have you ever been to the Basalt Signatori? Talk about beautiful seaside --"
Trell froze mid-sentence.
"What is it?"
The hammerman mouthed the words without speaking: Ran'Aka.
Zophir's stomach tightened at the thought. The Ran'Aka were quintessentially nomadic, given to roaming wherever they pleased, but they were most attracted to places with high concentrations of magic. No one knew why. It was said that they preferred to feed on those whose blood was enriched by long practice of magic, like a wine aged just so. It was only through the use of complex wards that they were kept away from magical centers like the Signatories. Creating a portable ward would have taken days. Zophir cursed his impatience now.
"How many?" Zophir mouthed.
Trell shook his head. He had already drawn his hammer and was crouched low. Zophir followed suit, making himself smaller in the shadow of a particularly stout dune. To either side of the two adventurers stood dunes, but there was nothing but open desert beyond them and a growing sense of dread. Zophir had never fought one before, but he thought this a poor moment to admit that.
The first of them appeared around the side of the dune. The human side showed itself first, an eye scanning the sand for what its nose had discovered. Then it turned its head and the other side came into view.
Ran'Aka roughly translated to skin-plague. The Ran'Aka were each of them afflicted by something between a parasite and a curse. The method of transmission was uncomfirmed, but once affected, the sentient creature: animal or man, was slowly corroded. It began with sharp, hard growths sprouting across the body in strange angles with bizarre textures; here a set of scales with the texture of stone, there a malformed wing like broken glass. Then the 'plague' began asserting itself more directly. The mind of the host creature was eaten away along with its features.
The plague-side of the creature's face was a mess of bone protrusions and a slavering, snapping jaw like a feral dog. It was hideous, dangerous looking thing, but soon other, worse creatures emerged. One seemed to be half-boar, standing on two hooves and holding a club in one massive, cancerous arm. One was a bird of some sort before it began converting, now it was man sized and riddled with sharp beak-like appendages.
When it was said and done there were five of them. Five nightmare creatures armed with a variety of dangerous limbs and weapons. All of them looked ready to kill.
Trell twirled his massive steel hammer in his hands like it weighed nothing at all. The weapon gave Zophir some modicum of reassurance. He couldn't imagine anything struck seriously with that rising up to fight again.
"Can you take two of them, Zophir? Do you think?" Trell asked, his voice was as taut as his body.
"You want to fight three of them alone?"
"I didn't ask for your opinion. Can you --"
The human Ran'Aka screeched something unintelligible and they all began to charge. The black-skinned bird came the fastest and Trell met it head on. Both its wings were curved like scythes and it brought them down at the hammerman in quick, violent swipes. With both hands on the shaft of his hammer, he blocked the strikes and a metal shriek issued from the points where the steel met the bird's bladed-wings.
The human Ran'Aka hung back and watched while a small, fast monkey creature barrelled toward Trell. A long, white spiral horn at the top of its head caught the sunlight and for a moment had a kind of mad beauty. Zophir focused his will into the sand, it was easier to animate a pre-existing element than to conjure one from thin air, and sand had the same flow of water. It didn't take much to shift the sand under the creature's feet and send it skittering into the legs of the charging boar. The two of them tumbled over each other in a comical display. As they tried to extricate themselves from each other's limbs, Zophir lifted a dome of sand around them both and with a great flare of heat hardened it into a solid mass. The feat sent a thrill of exhaustion through him, but he ignored it.
Trell wasn't faring quite so well. The bird was still pressing him and it was accompanied by long-limbed frog creature with a short spear that was worrying at Trell's side. Zophir began rushing through the visualization of a spell to deal with the frog when he caught something out of the corner of his eye and flinched out of the way. Zophir tumbled into the sand and a short blade swiped across the space he'd been standing a moment before -- had he not moved, it would have neatly sliced through his throat. The human Ran'Aka had circled around while he was defeating the other two.
Zophir raised a hand and expelled a blast of pure force right at the creature. It raised its free hand and the force dissipated easily. Zophir blinked in surprise. It had used magic to counter his spell. Were the Ran'Aka capable of magic?
"...the fuck are you?" Zophir muttered.
The Ran'Aka made a clicking sound in the back of its throat. A brute imitation of laughter. It was that laugh that pushed Zophir from confusion to self-righteous anger.
"Smug fuck," he cursed and drew a sigil with his fingers beside him in the sand. When the Ran'Aka noticed, it raised its blade and thrust it down into the prone spellcaster's stomach. Zophir's eyes opened wide as the blade penetrated him. The creature cackled, opening its mouth wide to reveal a tongueless mouth. Its laughter petered out as Zophir's body began to disintegrate on an errant wind, his cheeks caved in and blew away. He was little more than sand and water.
The confused monster kicked at the sand copy of his prey and turned around -- too slowly -- to see the magus crouched behind him, enchanting two handfuls of sand. The Ran'Aka moved, but could not stop the spell's completion: Zophir smashed both hands together.
Two huge fists of wrought sand raised from either side of the creature and crushed together with a dull, hard pound. When the enchantment left the sand it fell around the mangled body of the Ran'Aka. Zophir spared time for one immodest gesture before turning to aid Trell.
The hammerman had managed to crush the skull of the frog creature, but the bird was still coming hard at him. He needed room to swing his hammer and the creature seemed to know it. Trell could do little beside maneuver around the things many bladed plumage and try to stay away from its beak; it had already opened a wicked gash along his left wrist and up his forearm after a sloppy parry.
Zophir wanted to intercede, but the bird was fast, Trell was in the way, and his sand transposition spell had left very little left in his coffers for finesse.
"Get some distance and I can kill it." Zophir offered.
"Do you think I'm ballroom dancing with this thing?" Trell yelled as he narrowly avoided a bladed feather through the thigh.
"Ok. I'm going to try something."
"Before or after this thing kills me?" Trell's voice wavered at the end, exhaustion tempering his tone.
Zophir would have preferred not to have to -- but didn't feel like he had a choice except to -- fuck with time. It was messy, always messy to tweak (even a little) the natural flow of time. But he figured if he could slow the battle just a little, like a second or two, he could get an opening and kill the Ran'Aka. As he made the formula in his mind, he could almost hear Dean Drago's disapproval, but what was a magus without a little carelessness?
He isolated a small area around the two combatants and initiated the spell. It was as if he had let the air out of the desert for a moment. Within the bubble Zophir created, Trell and the bird creature moved slowly in sync with each other. The mad, vicious attacks and desperate defenses seemed little a kind of...
"Well look at that, they are ballroom dancing." Zophir said with a cocked head.
Zophir was preparing to reach into himself for one last spell when he heard a voice.
Allow me. It said and the suddenly the bird creature was headless and time had resumed its normal flow. Zophir looked down at his hands and then around at the empty desert, he hadn't killed the bird, neither had Trell who looked equally confused.
Dean Ru stepped out of nowhere into the space near Zophir. The magus almost rose the sand in defense, well he almost tried anyway, his reserves were precariously low and he was coming to appreciate how close to his limits he had brought himself. The space where Ru had stepped out of had become a cold spot in the blistering desert. Zophir shivered.
Trell raised his hammer and was preparing to charge at the strange, shimmering interloper when Zophir stopped him and explained quickly that Ru was a friend, more than that, a superior even. The hammerman lowered his weapon suspiciously.
"Dean? What are you doing out here?" Zophir asked.
The creature spoke, as always, directly into the minds of the two adventurers.
I was drawn to this place. I was grasping for a way back, for a signpost in the aether. I felt a great expenditure of magic. A wanton, careless expenditure of magic.
Zophir scratched at the dusting of dark hair that had began growing on his face.
"I wouldn't say wanton, exactly."
I would. the Dean intoned with otherwordly patience. What news of the Signatori? I removed the principle threat, but -- at significant cost. How fares the reconstruction?
Zophir explained what had transpired in the months following the Dean's disappearance. He told him of the death toll, of the Scorian students, and of his covert journey east. Zophir knew it was within Ru's power to pull them both back to Obsidian so he tried to explain why their mission was more important.
Ru was silent for a long time after Zophir stopped speaking.
You are right to search for answers. I took the creature inside myself and banished it for a time, but it was stronger than I thought, wiser, older than I am. I remained lost for far longer than it did. I will not be much help if it strikes again.
Ru turned a cold eye on the magus and his companion. I know where you might find what you seek. I can try to send you there if you wish. I warn you, however, that I am -- less than myself and there will be little precision in my sending.
Zophir didn't have to think about it long. He didn't even have the power left to shield himself and Trell from anyone scrying for them. He looked at Trell who was quietly bandaging his wounds.
"Can you continue on --" He gestured to Trell's forearm. "-- or do you need to see someone about that arm?"
Trell scoffed. "I'm a Scorian hammerman. I've trekked through the heart of the Tipari while poisoned with a caved in chest. This is less than a scratch."
Zophir turned to Ru.
Zophir blinked and then vomitted. He felt a sense of vertigo unlike anything he'd ever experienced. He wasn't sure if he was standing or lying on the ground. It took minutes before he began shivering and realized that his knees were wet. Had he pissed himself in transit? It was freezing...
Zophir looked up at near a dozen men dressed in furs pointing various weapons at him. It was snowing, he vomitted again.
Ru had sent him north. Very very far north. He was covered in snow and he was surrounded by Templars. He heard Ru's voice -- faint and growing fainter.
Cliff found that if he didn't think about the fact that he was hundreds of miles in the air it didn't bother him as much. It was weird how much he could ignore it. How easy it was to simply stop thinking about the fact that he was on a vessel whose mechanics he couldn't hope to understand, heading toward a veritable wilderness, at the head of a group of people he was woefully unprepared to lead.
Yet, if he didn't think about it, it took the edge off and he didn't feel nearly so queasy and sick and anxious and rabbit-skittish. He just felt fucked.
"Field-Lieutenant Winchester? Are you feeling alright?" asked his assistant.
His assistant, first-officer Vitto Glass, was a capable, attentive man with striking features and a body that managed to sexualize even the relatively sedate Machina uniform. Vitto's hair was a bold silver, despite the fact that he was only a few years older than his commanding officer. His steel-blue eyes were all the more intense against his cropped gray locks.
Since the company boarded the SS Isidore, Vitto had veritably taken up residence in Cliff's quarters. Their strategy sessions tended to last into the short hours of the night and the officer had spent more than one night sleeping on a battered couch in the corner of the room. They were flying to the very end of Machina's influence, where intelligence was a patchwork of rumors and old information. Even the maps that Cliff had been given contained blessed little specificity about what Cliff and his men would encounter once the steam-ship touched down. It was up to Cliff and Vitto to patch together the rumors, exaggerations, and guesswork that plagued the Machina reports of the Eastern Reaches and come up with a flexible plan of action.
Five days into the trip, the plan was rougher and looser than anything Cliff would call sound but it was beginning to make some measure of sense. From the order of the ISA lead sites that had lost communication with the Machine Cities, it was seemed as though the trouble had started from the north and worked its way south, with the exception of the final site that had gone silent. This site was the furthest north and one of the smallest operations. It didn't fit the pattern and it didn't make sense. Naturally their investigation would begin there.
Vitto had stripped off his jacket at some point early that morning and rolled up the sleeves of his standard issue shirt. Cliff's captain's quarters were close to the massive boiler system that provided the propulsion of the ship, it was perpetually warm despite the plummeting temperatures of their surroundings. Cliff, for his part, had made up his mind not to look at the fine blond hair on the officer's forearms. He was becoming an expert at not thinking about things.
"I'm fine, just making some considerations for the ground operations." Cliff responded after some time.
"May I speak freely, sir?"
"Of course. Go ahead."
Vitto looked, for a moment, like he wasn't sure how to proceed. "Sir. I understand that this is your first campaign leading men. I would just like you to know that you have my full support."
"And I appreciate it. Without your insights into this ordeal, I wouldn't know my ass from my elbows." Cliff joked.
Vitto grinned at the bawdy humor and the smile lingered on his lips as he continued. "I just want you to know that you can count on me, sir. This expedition is a chance for all of us to prove ourselves, myself included, and I think I can safely speak for all of the others when I say that."
The moment, given Vitto's earnest gaze and sober enthusiasm, was too much for Cliff to take. He broke the officer's gaze and muttered something non-commitally 'inspirational'.
He didn't want to be reminded of his responsibilities. He didn't know how to look into the eyes of someone whose life he was directly responsible for. Cliff was fucked.
The Templar camp, the real camp, was embedded in a valley crusted over with snow and ice. A cold, foreboding place, on the edge of a frozen sea. The camp was alive with thousands of bodies mulling around a central nucleus, a wide circular building that Celad explained was the command center of the entire northern expedition. The two travelers came upon the camp from a high vantage and Skip thought that it looked like an anthill: a swarm of people buzzing around this central location, a vagrant army among makeshift tents and cookfires. They descended the steep approach carefully as the base smells of a long encamped populace rose to greet them.
A watchman guarding the pass came to them when they drew nearer. He was a red-faced adolescent with a hard grip on his spear through heavily gloved hands. A boy sent to fight in a war against dread creatures. Skip's mouth soured.
Celad gestured to the boy and his grip on the spear relaxed. It was the latest Templar greeting, it changed often as to make their ranks that much more difficult to infiltrate. Celad patted the boy on the shoulder and said something in a guttural, sputtering language. It wasn't Cimini -- where Celad was from -- and Skip didn't recognize it. He wasn't much a linguist himself, but there were few languages one wasn't exposed to as an adventurer. Whatever was said made the boy snap straight and smile a little, Celad patted him again and gave him that wolfish grin before stepping past. Skip ambled along beside the Templar and they entered the camp proper.
It was slightly more organized on the ground than it seemed from above. Different orders of the Templar Brotherhood gathered among themselves and declared their presence with pennants flying from eight foot stakes plunged hard into the icy ground. As they walked, Celad pointed some of them out: the Order of the Flaming Choice, a group that offered confessed blasphemers redemption through battle or the cleansing of immolation, the Order of the Silk Brocade, a group of female intelligencers who infiltrated positions of power to sow pro-Templar sentiments, or the Order of Cammon Rais, named after a mad zealot who executed even children who spoke against the Templar cause -- his followers, Celad explained, were assigned and truly relished the most unsavory tasks that the organization could engineer.
As they walked, Skip was beginning to understand the depth of Templar loyalty. What he had seen in Celad in the mountains, the casualness with which he murdered a defenseless man, was only the least of their absolute conviction. He was surrounded by people who would do anything for their cause. Celad continued the Orders and their grim, oft monstrous duties with as little empathy as reading a market list would require.
Celad and Skip came at last to the building at the heart of the camp. It was a smooth, near featureless structure whose four apparent entrances were guarded a four-man honor guard at all times. One of the guards of the east gate hailed Celad and handed him a rolled piece of parchment. Celad took it reverently.
"Parchment is precious up here, most messages are delivered with words. Only the most private are written and even then, the codes are fabulously elaborate." He explained as he unrolled and perused the message.
When he was done he scanned the message again to make sure he hadn't missed anything and whispered something under his breath. The paper lit aflame in his fingers and he left the smoldering remains fall to the ground.
"It looks like I have an interrogation to perform."
The archer nodded. "Alright. I was thinking of going to find Tamateh anyway."
"Actually, you have an appointment as well. The masters want a word with you."
"The masters? As in, the Templar Masters? Why did... how do they know who I am?"
"I told you they were impressed with you, Golden Archer. I was sent personally to obtain a report of your skills and I wasn't the only one tasked with watching you."
Skip didn't need to be reminded of the copper skinned liar who had slipped him into this mess. Once he had been recruited, Skip assumed that everything about being special and uniquely qualified was nonsense. In the weeks and months since he'd been dragged into the Templars' company, he hadn't learned one thing about the monsters except that stealing from Machina was supposedly going to help kill them. Now he was to appear before the puppeteers behind this whole campaign.
Celad impressed upon him to be on his best behavior before the masters and then disappeared into the building. Once Skip entered the building himself he realized just how large it really was. The large vaulted ceilings were made of a kind of one-way glass, looking up Skip could see the skies above, but it was impossible to see into the building from outside. The muted sunlight of the day filtered through the dark glass and cast a sedate light on the building's interior. The entryway was a long, circular corridor that Skip assumed wound around the circumference of the structure. There were a multitude of doors and Skip didn't know which to enter. From some rooms he could hear hushed conversations, from others wild, animal screams, and others, somewhat more ominously, he heard nothing at all.
After a few moments an older woman appeared carrying a heavy ledger wearing a pair of thick spectacles. She approached him without delay and looked him up and down in one circumspect motion.
"You're Skip." It wasn't a question.
Before he could answer she wrote something quickly into the ledger with a pen that materialized from behind an ear. He didn't know if it was by magic or dexterity.
"Follow me." He did.
They walked the circular corridor, entered a door into another corridor and walked in the opposite direction. The building was a maze of doors and corridors that all looked exactly the same. Even the glass ceiling added to the unsettling sameness; the relentless gray sky offered no sun to help with navigating the place. Time itself seemed to bend, when the woman finally ushered him through the final door he couldn't say if five minutes had passed or twenty.
The room was an assault on the senses. It retained the same high ceilings, the blank walls, but everything else was different. There were hundreds of candles lining the walls and dozens of braziers burning sweet smelling chunks of resin over hot coals. The floor was covered, every inch of it, with layers and layers of animal skins, silks and soft cottons. The pennants of each of the orders of the Templars were weaved into an immense tapestry which circled the upper walls of the large chamber.
In the middle of the room there were several men, three of which immediately caught Skip's attention. The first was bald and covered with tattoos all over his broad, powerful body. He reclined shirtless in an alcove of pillows, his airy three-quarter length pants pulled down to mid-thigh so that a slighter man, attached to a large rivet in the wall by a long chain, could fellate him patiently.
The other man of note was portly and covered from neck to toenail in layers of silk as thin as gauze. The cavalcade of colors on the thin material only just obscured his naked form, but did little to detract from the immense erection bobbing urgently beneath his silks as he watched the tattooed man receiving his loving blowjob.
The third man was the very same young man who had appeared in Skip's bed and then reappeared later only to draw him into the ranks of these madmen. He was the first to notice Skip and he rose a glass in Skip's direction before downing its contents and throwing the glass into a nearby fire. The sound snapped the attention of the others with the exception of the chained man who didn't look up from his careful work.
The man in silks spoke first.
"Skip Dashe. A prodigious talent come into the fold. I do adore a man whose arrow always hits the mark."
The tattooed man rolled his eyes, though it was unclear whether he did so out of pleasure or as a response to the besilked man's innuendo.
"Ignore, Gavric. Archer. His lechery is..." The tattooed man paused for a moment in order to grab the man's hair and force him down on his cock. He growled as he unloaded into the other man's throat and when finished he used a foot to forcefully shove the man away while wriggling into his pants. The chained man quickly crawled away into a corner. "Sorry, what was I saying?"
"I believe you were speaking about my lechery, Jus." Gavric said sweetly.
Jus waved a hand. Even his fingers bore elaborate tattoos. "Forget about that. Welcome to the Last Stand, Archer. You've come a long way to be here and I understand you want to learn to kill the Djinni."
Skip hesitated. He didn't want to reveal his ignorance, but he didn't know what these men were playing at. Their behavior threw him. He hadn't expected such...people, to be the leaders of the Templars. Ultimately he decided that more than anything else, he needed their information.
"Djinni?" He asked.
Gavric cut in. "The Djinni. The creatures borne of smokeless fire. The realm-walkers," he used his hands as theatrical punctuation, "the dark-minds. The Ca'pa Soon-Da -- or, in the common tongue: Proliferators of Skin Sickness."
"The Skin Sickness? You mean..."
Gavric clapped three times.
"Yes, yes, clever boy. The Djinni, in addition to so many unfortunate things, are the creators of the Ran'Aka."