The bold font of the FDX logo shrunk in size as the freight-carrier FDX Carolina churned the bean-green Pacific a milky blue.
Not content with leaving Waikiki without so much as a dip in the water, Gwen stood by the rails in her halter top, watching the golden beach retreat into the distance.
"Kālua Pork! I'll be back!" Her crushing cry of defeat was accompanied by a spray of brine, not unlike a certain red-headed mermaid on the rocks.
Not far, Petra and Lulan paused to wonder what the hell Kālua pork signified before continuing their practice on the rear deck. Picking from the team's options for locomotion, Petra had settled on Gwen's offensive Dimension Door and Lulan's Misty Step. By alternating between the two, she possessed ample options for hopping about the battlefield.
The students were stuck on deck because the Carolina was a freight ship with limited space for passengers. The sixteen or so Magisters and Maguses, including Walken, had taken up the lion's share of the limited board. Fudan, therefore, had been given the rear castle and a generous cargo bay as living space for seven days, with a crew canteen and unisex bathrooms to share.
After a day of fruitless lounging, the team decided to get creative.
Richard and Bai took turns defending a fort of spare containers while Rene and Jiro worked on finesse. Petra meanwhile, siphoned Enuae's healing invocations for her cube collection while also helping Anita refine her element. In the make-shift cabin, Mayuree performed an elaborate Augury.
"Weal and woe in equal measure, danger, but also reward." She shuffled the bones back into her ring. "I suppose that's fair?"
In the morning, from the poop deck, Gwen watched from the rails, still thinking about the beach, the sand, the sun and the golden pork. Feeling cheated and yet determined to exercise her expectations, she materialised a deck chair from her ring. To Petra and Lulan's shock, she then set up an anchored umbrella, a wicker coffee table, and a jug of coconut juice. Gwen then patiently put down a beach towel before she casually proceeded to read Ma's volumes by the "seaside".
The sun glare from her porcelain skin was like a Flashbang, almost running a blinded Lulan into the bull.
Gwen grimaced. Ever since arriving in Shanghai, she had hardly had time to sun herself. Now, she had seven days to pick up some colour, and she was determined to do so.
Positioned to attain an even tan, she opened Ma's volume. It was entitled "The Empire Returns: A Case Study of Tawantinsuyu."
The collected journal was a combination of three history papers, a political dissertation, and a generous appendix, edited by Magister Joan M. Milford.
In the first entry, "An Oral History of the Spanish Usurpation", the author annotated that Spain penetrated South America around 1532. From Lima, they met great success by striking directly at Cuzco, capturing the Sapa Inca of the time, Atahualpa. In the power vacuum, the Inca's previously conquered provinces and allies reverted to their original tribal allegiances, preventing the Empire from repelling the Spanish. The tragedy was further compounded by the mass slaughter of temple maidens and the Inca's reliance on message-runners who became vectors for smallpox.
In 1534, the conquistadors beheaded the Sapa to show that the Sun King was a mortal man. To make ingots, they melted down the golden wards and idols that protected the city. Consequently, through ruin and rapine, the Castillian Crown cemented their rule from Lima to Cuzco for almost two centuries.
The second paper was centred on the emergence of an immensely powerful Radiant Mage by the name of Manco Cápac, the founder of Neo Tawantinsuyu.
In "The Return of the Sapa" the article detailed how the long-oppressed indigenous people of the Andes turned against their Spanish masters, throwing down churches and revolting in the boroughs. When the conquistadors responded with forced conscription, the natives chose to flee into the mountains rather than serve as fodder for the Spaniard's defence.
The "Peruvian Civil War" then quickly escalated until the Spanish conquistador-General, Sebastián Pizãrro, confronted the self-proclaimed Sapa Inca in the ruins of the once golden temple. If Gwen were to believe in the legend, Pizarro was first crucified, then made into a human candle. In the Plaza de Armas, he blazed from sunrise to sundown, halfway dying until the sooty end.
In the appendix, the paper noted that recent anthropology carried out on the Cult of Inti revealed traces of 17th-century spellcraft utilised by the Vatican. Indeed, it was far more reasonable that Cápac had learned how to tap into faith-based magic, as opposed to inventing his own. Though the Mage remained a mystery, it was speculated that he might have been a convert selected for Inquisitorial duty before awakening to his alter-ego.
"Aaah-" Gwen yawned, then turned her body like a side of fish, blinding Petra.
The death of Pizarro in 1718 was the first in a series of disasters that struck the Spanish colonies. With the Cult of Inti restored, it was no longer possible to sustain minority rule. It took only a decade for the Christian missions to fall into ruin and the colonists' government to fall into disarray. Haplessly, the Spanish were pushed back into the ocean. Archaeologically, half the fleeing fleet was set aflame, becoming the subject of many a treasure hunt off Lima's coast.
Of course, the Spanish did wish to return, but by then the emerging Mageocracy had exhausted the Castillian Crown's economic and political capital.
Conversely, in the Andes, Manco Cápac set about reestablishing the old kingdom and bringing allies into the fold. He rescued slaves from surviving outposts, punished local warlords, and reconstructed Cuzco, all in five decades. Most importantly, he cemented the worship of Inti as the state religion, using the power brought by the faith of the people to keep the monsters in the Amazon at bay.
By 1782, the new Sapa Inca had established an egalitarian dominion divorced from the Western notion of Monarchy. European Anthropologists invited into the Empire's domain recorded a chimeric form of theocratic-socialism. At the head of the state was the Sapa Inca, the monarch, whose family ruled by virtue. The Sapa was supplemented by four leaders holding equal political sway, each governing a corner of Tawantinsuyu, the corners of the "world". Under each leader's Suyu was a system of administrative officials called the Kuraka, learned men selected by merit. Each tier of the Kuraka oversaw a district, diminishing in size from city to county, to community.
Overall, the stratum of society began with the Sapa, then the royal household, the lord's houses, the bureaucrats of the Kuraka, then equally, the commoner-classes of the labourer, farmer, craftsman and warrior. According to service and merit, each caste furthermore possessed internal ranks.
What interested Gwen most of all was the Inca's disinterest in economics. As a group traumatised by Spain's boundless greed during their conquest, the new Empire heavily emphasised on agrarian self-sustainability. In place of currency, Coca, crystals and maize served as means of exchange for other tangible goods, supplemented by an abstract system of bartered labour. Precious metals and luxury goods held only abstract value.
According to the third dissertation, in place of taxes, the Inca revived a system called Mita, meaning 'taking turns'. In a western calendar year, a citizen was expected to provide one hundred days of labour. For the citizens, most of whom had spent two centuries being worked to death in gold mines, they embraced the new system with grace. The Mita system thus engendered enormous civil works on a scale the conquistadors could only dream of.
In unambitious prosperity, the Incas retreated into the mountains for another hundred years.
When in 1888 the British arrived at Lima, the seventh Sapa Inca, Huayna Cápac, whole-heartedly welcomed the Mageocracy's scholars into his city of gold. He embraced the spellcraft revolution, going so far as to build for the scholars a university in the heart of Cuzco.
Fortunately for the Incans, before the Mageocracy could bring its imperialist engine to bear, Necromancy erupted from Eastern Europe like a burst pustule. Cuzco lost all contact with London while the Undead hordes ravaged Europe. By the time the Commonwealth Mageocracy stumbled back into Lima in the mid-1920s, the Inca had already incorporated the Imperial Schools of Magic into their education system.
As the 40s rolled around, Cuzco was once again ready to join the globe; only they had one problem. The Europeans disappeared again! This time, the Mageocracy became embroiled in the Pan-European conflict. The Inca were left shaking their heads. Just how war-like were these Europeans?
When in the 1950s Cuzco welcomed their American neighbours into the fold, it came with a dire warning from their Aztec Theocracy neighbours. "These are wolves in sheep's clothing," their brothers in Meso America told them. Do not trust the men whose eyes glitter at the sight of gold, and whose prophets came bearing promises of profit.
The Sapa Inca took caution but was full of curiosity for the world beyond. The Americans were careful as well, tentatively maintaining neutrality as they warred with the Aztecan Theocracy.
Then, a dragon happened.
This time, the Inca did not escape unscathed.
Like the Mermen of the sea, the denizens of Amazonia had awoken.
Amazonia! The very name invoked a vision of bronze-skinned, supermodel women wielding bows, shields and swords, lead by "Diana".
She turned to the accompanying volume of South American Bestiary.
She found trolls.
"The Amazonian Troll is a subspecies of sapient elementals. Due to Amazon's flora, this subspecies ranges from one to three meters. An apex predator, trolls are naturally predisposed to violence. These tusked individuals possess a vaguely humanoid profile while occupying a corporeal form of fungi-flesh, capable of rapid regeneration. All trolls are known to imbibe human tissue, which in Trollic society is considered a delicacy."
Furthermore, the Bestiary noted, certain Trolls possessed magic derived from non-human shamanism. Though their society was primitive compared to the Inca, the race as a whole was enormously overwhelming in the martial sense. An adult troll warrior could readily match a low-tier CQB Transmutater, while Troll Shamans were no worse than mid-tier Elementalists. An average human pitted against a troll was akin to a guinea pig pitted against a cat.
"Amazonian trolls are ruled by a matriarch, with many females serving as shamans. The principle female, a brood-matron, can spawn up to a hundred individuals a year."
Ouch, Gwen squirmed. A hundred? Viva la Regeneration.
"Local legend has it that male Trolls when in heat will copulate with humans. Though the victim usually perishes, females who survive the term will spawn a Hag. Should the victim be magically inclined, a Black Hag is born."
"What the fuck?" Gwen mouthed, shivering all over. Black Hags? Trollic sorcerers wielding hexes? She had read about them in the European Beastiary. According to those, Hags were intelligent-variants who had developed a knack for magic. They also cook children.
"Researcher's note: there is no credibility to the assertion that Hags are born from human females. It is safe to assume this is an old wive's tale to prevent young women from entering the jungle."
Thank god, Gwen breathed out. Half-trolls were bullshit for sure. How would the physiology work? Trolls are elementals. They're moving rocks, or fungi, or whatever.
Prior to the Beast Tide, Amazonia was a region so vast as to have never been mapped by human endeavours. During the Tide, Troll tribes emerged in force. After eating the Eastern garrison, they made a buffet out of the sheltered townships in the Antis region.
In the end, it was only after Sayri Inca Cápac sundered the eastern cliffs, collapsing a portion of the basin and sacrificing a dozen townships that the horde halted. Unfortunately, in the retaliation that followed, Sayri lost his life to a virulent, incurable curse.
When finally the Tide ceased, a slow reclamation revived the tribal home of the Antis. The new Sapa, Achiq, rebuilt the lost town and highways, eventually returning the region to a semblance of its past glory.
The last page noted the revision date as 1985.
Gwen replaced the book in her ring, then lied back as to digest the information. By now, she could feel the tan baking nicely.
"Cousin." Richard came upon her sunbathing on the deck. Warily, he regarded the plump spectacle with a critical eye. "You like lobsters?"
"Why?" She perked up. "Are we having lobsters for dinner? I could eat."
"No, but…" Richard pointed to her red and tingling protrusions. "You look like you're about to Polymorph into one."
"Restoration!" Eunae rubbed ointment onto her vice-captain while waiting for the spell to run its course. Luyi helped by spreading the salve with its tongue.
"I don't get it," their vice-captain groaned underneath her healer's appendages. For someone who had spent her twenties in enviable bronze, she was no stranger to tanning. "I took every precaution."
"What possible precaution can a half-vampire take against the sun?" Richard commented as Lea cooled his cousin's irradiated dermis. "There's wanting to look like hot stuff, and then there's medium-rare."
Gwen groaned. "Very funny. Is the ozone here depleted?"
"The what?" Richard pulled up his sleeves, showing a healthy tan. He also pointed to Lulan, who now appeared at least a shade darker after two days on the equatorial belt. Even Petra, who was a lab room beauty, had taken on a tinge of colour that played wonderfully against her vivid eyes.
"My beach!" Gwen bawled at the sight of her bronzing buddies. "Do I have to go in a burkini?"
Richard snorted at her Gwenism.
"Ooo, that smarts!" She drew in a breath of humid air as her skin began to moult. Beneath the shedding cells, the new surface emerged paled and translucent. Gwen cringed as Eunae picked at her peeling skin with sadistic pleasure.
"So, anything we should know?" Richard changed the topic to her books.
"We'll talk over dinner." Gwen regarded her healer apologetically before turning to her other companions. "Maybe then, Eric can advise the bloody team he's leading instead of dining with his fellow snobs…"
According to scripture, the world had three layers.
Amaru was the serpent, Apu of the "Ukhu Pacha", the land below the land. Puma was the Apu of the "Kay Pacha", the mountains upon which the Inca resided. Cuntur was the Apu of the "Hanan Pacha" in the sky, filled with magnificent condors.
To attain enlightenment, the citizens of Tawantinsuyu must strive toward the seven virtues- Courage, Restraint, Charity, Joy, Truthfulness, Pride, and Justice. Likewise, they must renounce the ill-humours of Avarice, Sloth, Vengefulness, Carnality and Jealousy. Each of the virtue and vices was indoctrined from childhood, first through limericks, then fables, then finally, chronicle of the conquistadors' boundless cruelty. According to the Mamaconas of the Temple, should a citizen exercise more virtue than vice, then all would be well. Those who were good went to Hanan Pachu when they died, while sinners fell into Ukhu Pacha to be punished by the demons, monsters kept at bay by the great serpent.
"Amaru" was also the given name of Amaru Paullu-Yupanqui, cousin to the Sapa Inca, uncle twice-removed to the young Inti, and brother to Manco, the overseer of the Suyu of Antis.
Amaru was aware that to outsiders, the state religion was called the Cult of Inti, and that the Cult had plagiarised Christian motifs where the original was lost. Amaru also knew that the Apu was in reality, Magical Beasts. Some were mindless predators, like the Titan Boas of the low-land, slinking up the cliffs in summer to eat the llama and the occasional misbehaving child. Others, like the Phuyupuma, the Cloud Puma, were wise and intelligent, but not a god.
Amaru had possessed many titles of renown in his forty-five years of service.
Chief of the Kuraka, Amaru.
Magus, then Magister Amaru.
Amaru, however, saw his life differently.
He was Amaru the fool.
Amaru the gullible.
Amaru the miserable.
For this, he blamed the Sapa Inca.
In the beginning, growing up in the cloud forests of the Antis; he, Manco and Uchu were instrumental in the Sapa's rise to power. Of Amaru's three companions, Achiq was a friend; Manco his brother; and Uchu was his everything.
Amaru and Uchu had been inseparable since they were apprentices. She had always favoured him more than Manco. That came as no surprise; whether in politics or magic, he had always outshone his good-natured brother.
After the Tide, Uchu's father chose Manco as a successor. This, Amaru did not care. But when Manco became the leader of his people, he picked Uchu for his wife. To Amaru's chagrin, before he could protest, the newly crowned Achiq gave his blessing to Manco, carving the union in stone. Heartbroken, Amaru begged Uchu to protest. Alas, Uchu could not refute the will of a god.
A GOD! Amaru felt sick. No, Achiq was just a man.
In Amaru's eyes, the Sapa was no Allah or Christ. He was an honest, kind-natured herder, the sort who could be lead by the lip like a llama.
Jaded and full of hidden venom, Amaru asked for a leave of absence from Cuzco to travel the Andes and beyond. When he returned, Uchu was gone.
"She died defending her child," his Sapa had said. "There was a skirmish, and they were caught by surprise." It was a story as common as maize, but Amaru felt on the verge of murderous madness.
"Uncle Amaru." Before the darkness could descend, a little girl tugged at his tunic. "Mama said I should look to you."
"Tica," Manco introduced his daughter. Her name meant the beautiful one.
Caught within the twin pools of Tica's grieving eyes, Amaru rediscovered his reason for being. He became Tica's teacher, keeping nothing from her: spellcraft, politics, arts, literature, history, the mythologies; he gave his all. Under his care, her talent blossomed. Amaru had no doubt she would shine brighter than the sun.
Then, on her sixteenth summer, Achiq bequeathed the girl to Inti.
The city rejoiced. All of Antis rejoiced. Tawantinsuyu rejoiced.
But for Amaru, when the blessing left Achiq's lips, something revolted.
A flower he had so tenderly raised, plucked, just like that? A sapling he had watered and weeded and kept sheltered from sleet and snow and now bearing fruit, was to be plundered by a meritless prince?
Amaru cautioned himself.
Did he desire Tica? He quashed the thought. What he felt for the girl wasn't lust, but love. His rage came not from envy, but injustice. Had he not made a promise to himself that none may take the daughter of his beloved Uchu? He had groomed Tica for the role of the Coya Pasca, the High Priestess, the most powerful woman in the Empire, unbeholden even to the Sapa Inca.
If he was to lose her now, why had Amaru remained alive? He could have joined Uchu in the underworld two decades ago.
"Lord Amaru?" came a gruff voice beside him.
Amaru's pale-yellow irises re-focused. Whenever he recalled that his jewel was wandering the city with her princeling, his mind wandered.
"Pray, continue." Amaru waved a hand to his companion. "I am listening."
Unlike the androgynous Amaru, his conversation partner was a picture of masculinity. Square-jawed, hawk-eyed and with a nose like a condor's beak, the man possessed three times the bulk of the light-framed Amaru.
The two men were meeting in Cuzco's Tower, a contrivance Amaru had necessarily introduced as a countermeasure against Amazonia. From the exterior, the Cuzco Tower was a modest administrative building crafted from reinforced glass and concrete. Conversely, its interior was deceptively large and furnished in the aesthetic of the colonists.
"Very well. The remuneration is 24,000 HDMs, assuming our agents can recover the Sun and Moon idols."
The man tapped on the data slate.
"Sans the idols, the total is 57,000 HDMs."
"I shall collect the collateral now." The mercenary grinned like a wolf, splitting his cracked lips from ear to ear. "Rest assured, our contractors are the definition of discretion."
"I trust you because I doubt you have the gall to double-cross me." Amaru tapped on his Message device. "Like you, I have friends in high places. Both in the Factions, and elsewhere..."
A door opened, followed by a laden trolley pushed by a girl-servant. The attendant bowed, then un-locked a compartment to reveal two-dozen golden statues, each an amalgamation of the snake, the condor and the puma.
"Your collector seems to know us well," Amaru remarked, running a finger over the two-dozen or so statues of the sacred trinity. "Very few of these pre-colonial icons have survived."
"May I?" the middle-aged Magus reached for the avatars.
Amaru watched as the man ran a score of diagnostic magics on his tablet device tied to a monocle. In regards to Magitech, he sorely envied the Americans. If Tawantinsuyu could possess the same tier of programmable spell-components, the nation's bureaucratic affairs could reach new heights of efficiency.
"Excellent." The Mercenary captain replaced the statue. "It's a pleasure doing business with you, Magister Yupanqui."
"I await your success." Amaru smiled at the grinning captain. "We will not meet again."
"No." The wolfish man moved his hand over the statues, stowing the lot with a glance. "We won't."