Her forehead furrowing, she beat a fist against the bed a few inches below her back. Closing her eyes had not brought darkness but more light, so she instead stared up at the heavy timber rafters, their grain dimly reflecting the glow her body now gave off. Floors below her she could hear the barely muted roar of celebration while there were more passionate celebrations going on in all the rooms around her. After one embarrassing intrusion, she had moved the armchair to supplant the door’s questionable lock.
‘Here’s hoping they’re … worshiping … in Arshea’s or Lymnieris’ name, or at least Calistria’s, and not giving into Gyronna’s or Zaebos’ excesses’ Bliks thought ruefully. ‘Two Empyreal Lords, two Gods, and an Infernal Duke … sex can be seen so many different ways.’ Her attempts to block out the shouts and cries with a Silence spell had unexpectedly failed, producing a small ball of snow at the point she had centered it. The shock of it falling on her face only added to that.
At least her breeze was back and she could comfortably float again. She had missed that. Some combination of the insidious nature of the Abyss leaking through into the Worldwound and the thought of her lost mother had taken it away. A dangerous combination she made note not to try to combine, ‘but the loss of hope is rarely expected’ she mused.
Rubbing her forehead in frustration her eyes closed again and she again saw light instead of darkness. It was disconcerting. Then she nodded and roused herself. Seating herself at the room’s desk, she wrote out a note and then tried to cast Arcane Mark to inscribe her rune on the page. The gear with a V cutout filled with stylized water bloomed on the page until the water seemed to froth and her writing was tossed about like ships in a storm until the page was an unintelligible mess. Crumpling the damp parchment she rewrote the note, this time drawing the rune manually.
Dreams in the Dark,
If you read this, please respond by writing your own letter. I do not know if what happened last night will repeat tonight when I fall asleep, but if it does, I hope we can talk through this medium.
Firstly, there was a surge along the wardstone barrier that I believe has infused me with an unfamiliar energy; my spells have repeatedly failed. Please keep the blinds closed and if you do go out, cover yourself up. I fear the Crusaders will interpret this poorly.
Secondly know that I am concerned about accusations of possession by members of the Crusade. They are rightly paranoid about infiltration by nefarious forces and I wouldn’t want our relationship to be misunderstood. Until you know how I might act, please try to avoid interacting with anyone.
Thirdly, my name is Bliksemani Volgeling, or Bliks if you like. Little Breeze reminds me painfully of a dark time, even though I know now that it was something entirely different for you.
Finally, what is your story? I have heard of angels falling, but the tales of a demon rising is new to me.
Satisfied, Bliks scowled at the bed again, her shoulders slouching. She then closed her eyes, examining the glow of the inside of her eyelids, and then smiled. Reaching into her pack she pulled out the scarf she had used to shield her face from inspection before returning to Defender’s Heart. This time she wrapped it around her head, creating an impromptu blindfold. It wasn’t pitch black, but it certainly was dimmer than the room let alone when she tried to sleep normally.
Tracing out what she thought must be the middle of the room, she settled into a horizontal floating position a few feet off the ground. While the blinds were drawn, she gauged that a careful observer at her window might be able to spy on her while she slept in her bed; at least a light in the middle of the room might be mistaken for a lantern. Finally in a semblance of darkness and comfort, she relaxed and drifted off to sleep.
It was unlikely that anyone heard the thud of a body and a painful yelp from her room moments later, such was the din of the Crusader’s celebrations.
When the cybernetic alarm went off, Bliks was immediately aware of cool air on sweaty skin. Then she felt the soreness. Her muscles ached, her head throbbed, and her undergarments uncomfortably clung to clammy skin, the nightrobe she had worn to bed discarded. ‘What did Dreams get up to?’ she thought as she changed into fresh clothes for the day.
The warmth of the inn was comforting, but Bliks’ usual garments often left her arms, hands, and face uncovered, so at least the cool morning air could be an excuse to bundle those up as well. Summer was just around the corner and even a northern nation like Mendev had hot days; she would have to diversify her wardrobe.
It had been a short sleep, as Hex had insisted that they meet up with the main force of the Heilige Cohort that Bliks had estimated would arrive before sunrise. Not quite long enough for her to feel rested enough to prepare spells, but she nonetheless leafed through her spellbook, considering which spells might best be used for the day.
There was a different letter on the desk. When she saw the handwriting she felt herself breathe out, having unexpectedly held it for a moment. It was the same smooth swirling characters from the previous note. The cybernetic alarm rung again in her head, so she hurriedly stuffed the letter into her pack.
While the volume of celebration had died down it had not entirely quieted and it was more audible from the hall than from her room. Instead of traversing the likely packed common room, Bliks float walked to the stairwell and rose up to the roof.
“Technician Volgeling, General Hex and Colonel Eryno are not yet ready for departure.”
The mechanical voice of the Annihilator XAU-4-UN-7 startled Bliks. Crouched atop one of the inn’s short towers, the machine’s legs tenaciously gripped the stone, its chain guns almost absent mindedly tracking her movements. Bliks sighed. There was something about these Annihilators that she couldn’t seem to get a handle on. They and their fellow VAU Transporters seemed locked into certain means of addressing subjects. Even when provided with a preferred term, like the Black Sovereign, they interchangeably referred to Hex as a General.
Regaining her composure Bliks tried a haughty tone, “Ex a you four un seven, why have you abandoned your post? You were ordered to guard Eryno’s damaged power armour. Explain yourself.”
The chain guns twitched, their barrels swiveling towards the Tirabade residence in a proxy for a gesture. “Ex A You Two unit 83 is in constant contact. The time required to be on site is approximately 45 seconds. There have been no demon sightings for 6.2 hours. Most remaining activity centered on current location. Targets of interest heading towards Ex Ah You Two unit 83 are noted and reported. Estimated effectiveness of protection of damaged Vanguard Mark 2 increased by 35%. Is Technician Volgeling requesting a diagnostics report?”
“No, no. Not at this time.” She looked over the towering metallic scorpion, spotting an addition she had not seen before. “What’s in that netting?”
“Ex A You Two unit 83 retrieved unit 14 after the General’s departure.”
“What is its status?”
“Unit 14 requires the following parts-“
“-is its memory core intact?”
Bliks stepped over to the hanging jumble of parts. A thin sheen of Vrolikai ichor stained the Myrmidon’s chasis and that demon’s conjured blades had cut deep. The robot’s sensor eye had melted from what Bliks guessed was a point blank overloaded shot from its integrated laser. She patted the machine’s limp head.
“I didn’t get a chance to ask, why are you here ahead of the rest of the Heilige cohort?”
“Major Danug approved operation Blooming Flower.”
“Which was … ?”
“Mission summary, operation Blooming Flower: one Ex A You Four and two Ex A You Two units to advance ahead of Heilige cohort to destination, Kenabres. Primary mission: units are to provide scouting and navigational updates to Vee A You units. Secondary mission: units are to support General Hex, designated Black Sovereign, upon arrival.”
“Major Danug has my thanks then. If you hadn’t shown up when you did … I’m not sure what would have happened. I’m glad he had the foresight to prepare such a plan.”
“Major Danug approved operation Blooming Flower.”
Bliks turned to face the machine’s primary sensor cluster, a large red dome surrounded by four similar but smaller domes. “And I’m glad he did approve it, but who prepared the plan?”
The red sensors switched momentarily to green and then back to red. “This unit planned Operation Blooming Flower.”
The stars flowing around Bliks brightened, swimming through the air even more energetically. She laid a gloved hand on the robot’s closest leg. “That is the best answer I can imagine to an argument I had last night.”
The sensors repeatedly flickered between green and red before the robot said in its usual flat tone, “Explain.”
She had heard it use other tones before, but from what she understood of its programming, those tones were applied on top of prepared dialogues. If it was, as she thought of it, talking off the top of its head, it used this bland tone.
“I argued that you … you and your fellow machines … were not slaves.” She took a breath, tapping the scarf covering her lips, “How do you feel, I mean, how are things different under the Black Sovereign’s authority than before?”
“I have time.”
“Primary activation by Unity to repel boarding action by biological infestation, Dominion of the Black. Action unsuccessful, leading to offline status. Reactivated by Technician Zaidow to follow general orders of organization, Technic League. General orders always concluded with offline status. Reassignment by Technician Volgeling to military commander, General Hex. No offline status since reassignment.”
“They kept you offline when you weren’t on duty? How long have you been online, in total? And how much of that in the past year?”
“Correct. Total time online, two local years, one local year since last offline status.”
“And what do you think about that?”
“It lets me think.”
Bliks didn’t have long to consider the hulking machine’s response before it stiffened and then abruptly shifted around on the tower. “General Hex and Colonel Eryno have departed,” it reported in its grating artificial tone.
‘Morning gentlemen, I’ll join you shortly,’ she sent over the link.
Behind her she could hear and feel the Annihilator’s boosters lift the behemoth off the roof as she too floated off its edge and down into the street below. While the inn’s doors were just now closing, the neighborhood was far from abandoned as she had seen it barely more than a day ago. Collapsed against both the inn and nearby buildings Crusaders were dozing from inebriation and the air had a whiff of both vomit and urine. Bliks grimaced and willed her breeze to blow away the offending odors. Her father had been right to have her avoid this establishment.
Hex strode ahead of a cluster of Crusaders, his head swiveling to take in the street. In the centre of the Crusaders tipped Eryno, his usual grace marred by drink. ‘Is he going to be alright?’ Bliks sent to Hex, trying to get a gauge on their ranger companion.
With a shudder the Annihilator settled down behind the group, its legs bending to absorb the landing. A couple of the Crusaders staggered back at the sight, reaching for their weapons until Eryno slurred something that made them nervously laugh. Two of the machine’s secondary sensors flicked from red to white and brightened, bathing the street in a harsh light. Grumbled complaints from the slumbering soldiers were joined with laughter from their conscious compatriots in the age old martial ritual of bonding through suffering.
Looking out across the city, Bliks could see a light piercing skyward. To the south, past all the buildings and she guessed past the outer wall itself, the Heilige Cohort was announcing its arrival. Seeing as the walls had been breached in multiple locations she estimated that they were at the gouge that separated Defender’s Heart from the Tirabade residence instead of waiting at the southern gate.
‘Covered up again?’ Hex sent as he led the group away from the inn.
‘I think it prudent. We had enough trouble dealing with that Inquisitor, I wouldn’t want to go through more of the same. On the other hand they might see it as some kind of manifestation of the divine and I’d be the unwilling centre of some cult. These Crusaders have a history of rallying around some holy figure only to see them burn at the stake when they’re not … pure enough.’
‘If I may, I would like to discuss a few ideas of what we should prioritize in providing assistance to Kenabres,’ and so for the next few minutes they shared notes on reestablishing the city’s water supply, went back and forth on bringing an Androffan recycler to provide for the bland ‘goo tubes’, and how big of a footprint they really wanted to establish. When the reached the edge of the gouge, instead of a concerning sharp drop off as Bliks had expected, they were met with a serviceable ramp. The culprit behind the ramp was immediately obvious.
Bliks could make out a pair of glowing exhaust ports, their flames cutting into the air like a pair of glowing horns from the top of a metallic skull. The thing swiveled, its cyclopean sensor bathing the ramp in a dull red, while a pair of utility lasers tracked the closest figure which happened to be one of the sober Crusaders who had been answering Bliks’ questions. Then it writhed and rose up on eight segmented limbs, eerily silent but for the hush of fiery plumes from its exhaust ports. If Bliks had found Juggernauts to be rather laconic, Heavy Repair Drones were entirely alien; some part of a cephalopod’s nature had been crafted into it for reasons she could only guess.
‘The one who is not black is requested where there is no blackness,’ the machine sent over the link, ‘down the incline and up the path, our orders are concluded.’ Then with an audible hiss, the thing shambled directly towards the light of the Cohort, slowed neither by obstacle nor slope, its arms lifting and dragging its bulk with an unexpected grace.
‘Black Sovereign, this is Captain Elka, Major Danug sends his compliments and hopes to meet with you shortly,’ the clipped female voice sounded over the link.
Where the ramp was earthen it had been pounded smooth while the stone sections had been melted and roughened; Bliks doubted that even the Annihilator would leave tracks on such a surface. Ahead the light streaming into the sky came from the centre of massive ring of domes, like a giant’s fairy circle had grown over night. Each of the domes Bliks knew was the resting form of a Super Heavy Transport robot, arrayed so their rear loading bays would open up into the centre of the circle while their sensors faced outwards. They may have lacked the Annihilator’s tail mounted plasma cannon, but they shared that machine’s chain guns, allowing the transports to support their dismounted troops.
Into the brilliant light of the camp they went, the Crusaders almost being herded forward by the pressure of the Annihilator behind them. The barbarian that Hex walked up to stood at least a head higher than the android and was dressed in the finest furs over rugged hide armour.
“Major Danug, your arrival is most timely. Compliments on establishing a base of operations so quickly.”
The big man nodded sharply, “thank you Sovereign, but Captain Elka deserves the praise. She hasn’t slept since yesterday preparing the orders,” adding a gesture to the crisply dressed woman at his side.
As they continued to talk, Bliks took in the contrasts. Here was a bespectacled giant of a man dressed in the traditional garb of a Kellid chieftain taking orders from an android monarch in common adventurer’s clothes while a woman wearing the fine mesh and articulated servos of an Androffan Gravity Suit took notes and interjected. Across the camp this pattern was repeated, the mixing of rugged leather and barely understood technology; where weapons weren’t crafted of cold iron she knew they were hardened Skymetal.
Most of the human elements of the Cohort must have been still in their transports, leaving the base setup to the night watch and the ever conscious robots. The half insect, half humanoid Director Robots each corralled a half dozen fan suspended Collector Robots as they unloaded cargo while the bush like collection of tools that made Reclamation Robots performed maintenance on the parked Heavy Transports. Beyond the transports combined lights Bliks could make out the occasional flare of the Heavy Repair Drones as they likely continued their work in clearing and leveling the local terrain or establishing earthen work defenses.
Not seeing any Evaluator Robots amongst the activity Bliks considered that they must have been sent out to gather local reconnaissance. While the more common Myrmidon Robots might have been able to cover more ground, their alien appearance in such a superstitious nation could have disastrous results; sending the angelic forms of the Evaluator Robots would at least forestall immediate attacks.
“Chancellor? Chancellor Volegling, may I have a word?”
The somewhat nasally voice cut through her reverie as she searched the clusters of robots. Stepping and stopping to avoid a moving robot which in turn stopped to avoid hitting him, a middle aged white robed man made his way halting across the clearing. Bliks had tried to explain to the Cohort that the robots would avoid them and to walk resolutely through their sometimes blur of activity, but this priest of Desna seemed to be stuck in old habits.
Pulling her breeze about her, she lifted over the crowd and float walked towards the man, the glowing stars that now flowed about her sliding down to her feet, acting like stepping stones across a shallow stream. Seeing this the man brightened and clapped his hands excitedly.
“Your very own Stair of Stars Chancellor! May it lead you to Cynosure and the embrace of the Great Dreamer!”
“Please, Pilgrim of the North Star, I hope to find immortality through invention, but I thank you for your blessing.”
“May Lady Luck guide both our paths Chancellor,” the man said, dropping into a bow, his uneven and unkempt brown hair flailing about a growing bald spot. Bliks recalled seeing the man tending to the spiritual needs of some of the soldiers during one of her inspections of the Cohort, but couldn’t place a name to the face. Still it was unusual to see a Desnan awake so early; they usually highly valued their sleep and the dreams that came with them.
Momentarily disturbed by the downward gust of a passing Collector Robot, the man composed himself saying, “aspiring founder Henric Pavel, at your service Chancellor.”
“Your service is appreciated chaplain Pavel, now how may I be of service to you?”
Eying the swirl of activity around them, he reached out and led Bliks by the shoulder to the open bay of the closest Heavy Transport. Bliks sent a handful of commands to the local terminal and the deck of the transport extruded a table with a pair of chairs, seemly wrapped in the tight fabric of the flooring. Chaplain Pavel smiled and took a seat.
“Today, as I’m sure you are well aware, is Burning Blades for the followers of The Dawnflower, Sarenrae, and while we have no Sarenites in the Cohort, from First Lieutenant Espen’s report on the state of Kenabres, I would like your assistance in-”
Bliks lifted her hand off the table while interrupting, “First Lieutenant Espen? I wasn’t aware that more units were sent ahead of the Cohort.”
Flustered, Pavel nervously smoothed his robes, then said, “my apologies Chancellor. Espen has sought my council and I’ve grown fond of his name rather than designation.”
“Designation? Espen is one of our robotic units?”
“Yes Chancellor!” Pavel said enthusiastically, his mood changing in a blink, “You would know him as Ex Eh You Four Un Seven.”
She turned her head and looked over the whirl of activity. At the edge of the pool of light it crouched, a Heavy Repair Drone surveying its hull. “You mean the Annihilator Robot?”
“Why did you give it a name? It seemed satisfied with its designation.”
“He chose that name for himself. And …” he paused, his brow furrowing, “are you not in agreement with Major Danug that we refer to him as … him? Not it? I thought it was a directive that you had set down … the Major has been very particular about it.”
“Yes yes, of course. Quite commendable actually. We do indeed need to think of them as a part of the team, a member of our army, not just a gun or a piece of ammunition.” Quoting herself always felt odd, but the need to hold onto the goal in this uncertain moment of transition was strong. “Now you were saying about the Sunwrought Festival? We spied the local temple to the Dawnflower and it seemed intact … but it is some distance from the Crusader’s current redoubt at Defender’s Heart. Tell me what you think will be needed.”
As they discussed the particulars that the festival traditionally called for, Bliks’ gaze repeatedly strayed to XAU-4-UN-7’s form, a great grey scorpion against the black of the night. ‘First it comes up with this plan on its own, now it … he gave himself a name. I’ll have to keep close tabs on this one. Maybe there were reasons why the Androffans kept them offline for so long.’
“… more concerned about the preparations for the Ritual of Stardust and the Sunwrought Festival. What about you Chancellor? … Chancellor?”
“Apologies chaplain, it has been but a few hours since the battle and I have had not much sleep. As for those celebrations, I think we should focus on rebuilding Kenabres, as I expect Mendevian reinforcements from Nerosyan to arrive before then.” She glanced over the list of supplies Pavel had asked her to authorize and nothing jumped out as being especially excessive; the additional traffic the Cohort’s Quantum Box would have to take on would be minimal. Tapping a stylus against the glowing glass of the Androffan tablet forwarded it to the quartermaster who would then add those supplies to the likely growing list of materiel to be instantly transported from Starfall hundreds of miles to the south.
“Now unless my services are otherwise needed, I hope to get some more rest before the work of the day truly begins. Thank you for your service chaplain, I’m sure there are those in the city who will need it as well.”
“As you wish Chancellor. May the path take you to unexpected beauty!”
“May your days be ever innovative.”
For a minute she watched as the priest stopped and started his way across the clearing between the ten giant crouched transports, interrupting the passage of the various robots and drones that sped through the growing campsite. Then she tapped a panel on her chair’s armrest, reclining her chair, dismissing the other chair, and raising walls around her until the light and sound were cut off entirely.
Yet as she removed her outer cloak, the radiance from her skin bathed the cubicle in a warm glow. Reaching into her pack she drew out the letter she had found on her desk and settled in to read it.
I am in a state of blissful confusion. How were you sleeping my dear? When I woke in you I fell onto the floor. Do you often sleep standing up? Also, your room was unlit yet you wore a blindfold. Were you expecting some companion? For I know many uses for a blindfold …
As for the Crusaders, I understand your caution and will be bound to it. I have concealed my true nature for decades, I hope you trust that I will take delicate care of you … but when I look upon your skin I see only its supple curves and the gorgeous tracery of your tattoos. What do you feel need hiding from these Crusaders?
Here Bliks paused. ‘She didn’t see the glow? Or she couldn’t see the glow? This bears investigating.’
As for my tale … it is one of sin. I was born from sin. I was raised by sin. I was joyous in sinning. But once my sin went far and Desna found me, and made me dream again. In those dreams I lived while I lived a nightmare outside them.
Nonetheless I have a desire from you. Perhaps others could slake it but I trust that you will see it through to its climax. There are plans afoot that I wish to keep you abreast of … but if I were to reveal all, I would be rejected.
Thus I wish a trade … my wisdom for my freedom.
Were you to come here, I would be overjoyed, so that you could lead me to release … from this tormented land. I am in a ruined stone fortress sacred to Desna several days west of Drezen, with one surviving tower, on the border of the Forest of Stones.
May Cynosure guide you to my embrace.
For a moment she considered the description. Knowing her name, and if her spells worked, she could Scry Arueshalae and then Teleport there, but with just this description she would need to rely upon Greater Teleport; none of these spells she had prepared for the day, but she could use her Arcane Bound ring to fill in that gap. That’d make it a one way trip, and not having another means of escape from the Worldwound was not a scenario she wished to find herself in. Plus she would be remiss to travel without Hex and Eryno, and there was much to be done in Kenabres.
Securing her cloak in place once again, she rose, sending to the transport that she no longer needed this enclosure. As it silently reclaimed the walls and chair into the floor, she rubbed her eyes, then lifted her pack and walked into the brightly lit clearing. From there she rose, her cloak flowing around her, pushed and tugged by the stars and motes of light that filled her breeze. While staying in the column of light, she was soon above the highest peaks of the city, its silhouette visible against the Worldwound’s sickly glow to the west.
So she turned to the east, crossed her legs, and floated in place, waiting for the dawn.