A note from Wutosama

And a shout out to

Mosquito man - Stalker 's Dark Tower
Wizard's Tower 
by  Allanther

After daybreak, the party set out. Gwen could only marvel at the stamina of a fifty-year-old Diviner who must be either taking "vitality" pills or happen to be a Vessel like herself. She was ambivalent that the handy dandy with a radio host's voice had outed himself. Knowing her inclination for suave father figures, she really wouldn't have minded sharing a few drinks and a story or two with the cad.

Her disdain was immature, she knew, but now that Doctor Monroe was dimensions away, there was no wrangling her aversions.

On the one hand, as a modern woman, she understood that just as pigeons mucked in the fountain and rabbits bucked in the mountain, consenting adults bumped unmentionables. Likewise, had her Negative Energy not diminished particular appetites or the Void victualed her voracious cravings, she was sure that either sweet Evee or some square-jawed lad between her two universities would have become a local legend.

On the other hand, her brain refused to unmount from her high horse, not when Magus Hughes had galloped Magister Taylor across half the Steppes. Yet, she couldn't rationalise why she felt personally insulted. In neither of her lifetimes, it wasn't as though her father or mother had an ounce of respect for the institution of marriage.

In the end, she commanded her busybody-brain to swallow her sadness, rationalising that she needed Taylor for what was to come and that their affair was none of her business.

And so— like all good girls with Hai as their fatherly role model, she zoned out, then focused on the middle distance.

Now that it was mid-morning and the party was a hundred kilometres inland, the endless horizon turned from an amber seascape into a flat prairie with an unending sameness that inspired madness. Unlike Gwen's British compatriots, who marvelled at the vast expanse and remarked dourly on the rolling badlands, Gwen grew sentimental for the waterless vistas of Australia.

"Which way is her Orb going now?" Bekker requested an update from below.

"Excuse me." Magister Taylor drifted closer, handsome and amicable as ever. Gwen responded by smiling serenely while the man uttered his report. "— South-South East. It looks like the Pavilion might be encamped somewhere between Kaplankyr and Urgench. The Great Herd requires a fresh source of water, so we're aiming at either the Sarygamysh basin six hundred kilometres away or the Amu River that runs from the Dushanbe Highlands."

"So, between eight hours and…?"

"Eleven," the Magister apologised. "Even with Gwen pointing us the right way, the distance isn't going to shrink. At best, we'll find the Pavilion set up near the northern edge of the lake."

Gwen had no idea what these places Magister Taylor mentioned were and so resigned herself to be held by the gentle hand of Ruxin's Omni-Orb for the foreseeable future. Now reminded of her platinum-haired corporate partner, she couldn't help but wonder if a distance of half-a-continent was an issue if she required aid from Russo's big Draconic guns. Arguably, if Golos could be conjured via her Mandala to South America, surely, Ruxin could send his CFO a helping hand in the name of mutual profit.

"That's fine." Bekker motioned for silence. "Children, ready yourselves for deployment. We're now officially in a Black Zone. Your skills are not going practice themselves."

Gwen's lips twitched. She felt Bekker's euphemistic allusion to child soldiers was not a product of endearment but habit.

Moving away from Taylor, she distracted herself by thinking of the Elven seed satchel burning a hole in her pocket, not to mention she was still in possession of a trans-dimensional Message device in the form of the Llais leaf. If shit hit the Elemental fan, she wondered, could she ask Eldrin to drop in and show her how Vessels from pre-history dealt with threats to the Prime Material?

As for the supply in her Storage Rings, she was ready to deliver some significant infrastructural change to the region or contribute significantly to stabilising the status quo. According to Bekker and Taylor's conversion, the Mageocracy's official stance is for the Centaurs and the Elementals to butt heads for as long as possible. Even in its diminished, post-Tide era, the Golden Pavilion remained a formidable power bloc in the region, securing the Steppe's planar thresholds in the manner of a marauding, militant lodestone. Ergo, a macro aspect of the Mageocracy's objectives was to ease the path of the Khitani Khanate— so that the Centaurs and the Elementals may expend their excess energies in a mutually exhausting war.

Taylor's Divination halo rapidly pulsed.

"Heads up, eyes down," the Magister informed the party after an hour. "There's a large assemblage of Centaurs congregated in between those plateaus, probably sheltering from Wyrms."

The "plateaus" mentioned by Taylor were stunted sandstone formations worn down by wind and water. From the altitude preferred by the party, they appeared minuscule from a distance but then rapidly grew in size and scale, ranging from hills of twenty to thirty meters to monolithic ranges some half a kilometre high. In between the water-worn gorges, bursts of greenery added much-needed splashes of colour to the sun-washed Steppes.

Half a kilometre out, the Mage Flights drifted into a meandering holding pattern. Landing would allow the Mages to regain mana, but as Taylor forewarned, God knew what lurked underneath the shifting sands of these badlands. Even as unchallenged rulers of the plains, the Centaurs had to contend with moisture-sucking Strangle Vines buried underground, while on a bad day, their hoof-falls would attract the apex predator of these parts, the world-famous "Mongolian Death Worm", or "Afaa al-Halak", as the Elementals called them.

To Gwen's knowledge, these once-worshipped "Land Gods" of antiquity were local variants of the Earthen Wyrm she had the pleasure of encountering in the Murk. Like their cousins in the Elemental Plane of Earth, these semi-terrestrial creatures grew anywhere from tens of meters to a kilometre long. In the eastern reaches of the Sawahi Desert, one regularly found "larval" variants in conic pits attempting to trap unsuspecting travellers in the manner of sand-based Bobbit Worms, dragging prey into their transmuted burrows. Conversely, adults "swam" through the Sand Sea, spinning their bodies like a titanic, self-propelled drill, breaching the surface only when their tremor-senses picked up herds of prey, at which time they would scoop up acres of sand, like giant whales sieving for krill.

"They've become a menace, those Sand Wyrms…" Taylor's lecture continued. "With the Fire Sea polluting the surrounding region with increased planar instability, they've become far more active. Where an Afaa Al-Halak ventures, destruction of the underground aquifer turns even oases into rolling dunes."

"Weren't the Wyrms always a part of the landscape here?" Jean-Paul was a man who liked his worms. "What's the problem?"

"They're terrific terraformers, and there are now too many of them," Bekker clarified for her favourite. "If we get an opportunity, we should Purge one to gain the respect and favour of the Khan. That's what the locals do as a part of their honour trials. A Mingat has to survive an Afaa Al-Halak's visitation, while Orkoks' must have at least one Wyrm-kill notched on their pelt."

Gwen tried to imagine such a thing. How could a Horse Lord stab a Sand Wyrm four storeys tall? What would such an attack do? Tickle it?

Once in range, Taylor and their Translocation Magister, Eli Hill, ventured atop the ridge to meet with the indigenous inhabitants, who had also sent out a representative.

Gwen quickly circulated mana and Essence into her eyes; this was her first Centaur encounter, and she would not miss any details.

Sure enough, bounding through the desolate plateau, the Horse Lord emerged, effortlessly leaping from precarious crag to impossible cliff. Once her eyes adjusted, Gwen noticed that the Centaur wasn't a "horse" at all, but an enormous ibex.

Her passion cooled, but that didn't make the Ibex-kin any less impressive. Atop the sandstone plinths, the Goat-taur stood well over three meters, discounting the most macho pair of horns Gwen had ever seen. Earthen was the leather-wrapt warrior's muscular frame, composed of an offensive lineman's barrel-like torso atop the lower body of a long-limbed ibex. The Goat-taur's fur, a two-toned burst of black and brown, was the same tone as his lower body's colouring, making for a pleasing aesthetic. A dozen pilums sat on prominent display in the goat's saddlebags, their dark-iron heads fanning out behind the goat-man like a pair of wings. Simultaneously, her eyes became drawn to the leather shield etched with indecipherable rune scripts on the man's left arm, which made an impressive pairing with the stunted glaive the ibex wielded as a balancing aid.

With a frame like that and those outrageous horns, Gwen conceded the "Ibex Lord" was very cool indeed.

"Human Lords," the Goat-taur conversed through the dialect of the Beast-kin. "What marks your passage through our lands?"

Gwen was glad their Diviner shared both sight and sound with their lesser members.

"We are en route to grace the court of the peerless Thunderblood Khan." Taylor dipped his chin to demonstrate respect from a superior position. "May I ask if the Golden Pavilion lies this way?"

"Your path lies true." The Beast-kin relaxed. "The Pavilion passed here the last moon cycle."

"Be they resting at the vast expanse of Sarygamysh?"

"Nay." The warrior pointed in a direction Gwen could not discern. "Venture northward toward the ever-flowing Amu. There, you will find the Khan of Khans, inuring his troops in preparation for the reclamation of our south lands."

"Be they at Nukus?" Taylor summoned a topographic illusion with a wave of his hand.

"Between Nukus and Turtkul, where the snowmelt is fiercest," the Goat Lord affirmed Taylor's projections, impressed by the visualised landscape.

"Thank you." Taylor nodded a Hill. "As a sign of our support and friendship, please take this. Have you experienced any incursions of late?"

Hill materialised a bound crate of what Gwen recognised as self-expanding, self-heating food rations with a theatrical wave. These were the dessert variants, absurdly rich in calories and amazingly fortifying when the weather's cold. Choco-banana was her favourite.

"Only the unimportant loss of a few far-ranging Tasmüyiz hosts." The goat warrior licked his lips at their gift of sugar and spice. "The Sons of Аkk thank you for these gifts, may the Afaa Al-Halak spare your steps, outlanders."

"May we meet again in the south-ward crusade," Taylor offered the Centaur a hand, simultaneously positioning himself to levitate at the right height to receive the Ibex-kin.

The two shook, then parted without further sentimentality. Returning to the party, Bekker nodded in satisfaction at her colleagues from the Shard.

"If that Ibex's words hold, then we should be clear of Elementals from here," Bekker affirmed Taylor's return. "The weather's warmed, the wind's down— let us make haste."

The Heavenly Steppes.

Beside the sacred waters of the roaring Amu, Temir Khitan Tengri, Khan of Khans, mustered his Thunderblooded riders to repel the latest visitation from the worshipful "worms" of the Sand Sea of Sawahi.

Khudu, Cherbi of the Khan's elite Khesig Honour Guard, sat naked to his waist, his muscles oiled and gleaming, so defined as to be the envy of the Khanate. Upon a silver-adorned chaise, his well-honed lower body sat, flanked by his horn-headed Şöpter servants.

"Honoured Cherbi." The Şöpters' bleating voice irked Khudu. "Is the fitting of your barding to your liking?"

"Leave it," Khudu grunted, his long mane bristling with undisguised impatience. "Where is Lady Saran? We must soon be away. Does the Shaman not know that a Cherbi must always ride in front of his Khan at all times?"

His Şöpters lowered their heads, too fearful of either party to comment.

Khudu's complaint was met by the sound of soft laughter from outside his yurt. A white hand pushed apart the leather veil, revealing an ageless and exquisite face alive with taunting mirth. Khudu's brows furrowed further when the intruder soundlessly entered without his permission, parting the entrance so that her priestesses also entered, each bearing the ingredients of the Sanguine Rite.

"You must forgive this lowly Saran, worshipful Khudu, champion of champions," the Faun who spoke had a voice like lifting silk, inspiring un-warrior-like instincts in the Cherbi that no respectful Centaur would wish to entertain. As she moved, the curve of her hips teetering forward, her jewel-laden horns refracted the light from the Daylight Globes. Around the Şöpter Shaman's neck, a string of Afaa Al-Halak teeth, each the size of a thumb, were dipped in Mithril then made ornate with Sanguine Scripture of the Thunderblooded Clan. In the uncertain light, the woman shone with a sheen of perspiration made refractive by the jasmine oil massaged into her skin and fur.

The scent from the woman quickened Khudu's heart. He felt an unbidden longing for the woman's touch, a desire that even the lowest Nukud understood to be a shameful weakness.

Cracking his neck, the Cherbi forced his mind to focus. This woman, the Lady Saran, had ceased being a Şöpter slave long ago. To his knowledge, she was old enough to be his grandmother. Within the Golden Pavilion, few could afford to truly irk the Dinï of the Shamans, for she had single-handedly raised the Khan from a colt. Even Khudu himself, brood-kin to Temir Tengri, had once drunk milk from the Şöpter's heavy bosoms. That was why the Great Khan treated his troop of Khesig Marauders as his brothers— for all of them had passed by Saran's hands in their youth. All of them were made siblings by their shared wet nurse. As for why the ancient Şöpter would appear so youthful— Khudu could only discern that the woman's mastery over the Sanguine Rites must be unimaginable.

"Is milord unwell?" Şöpter asked.

Khudu's obsidian eyes averted the Shaman Woman's sunlit-irises that pierced past his thoughts and stared into his soul. "Make it quick. This yurt is stifling. A warrior should always have one hoof on the grass, bow-in-hand and spear in the other, filling his mane with the wind."

The woman laughed. "You're forever the rash one, Khudu. You should learn from your brother, the Great Khan."

"I am Temir's Spear." Khudu deflated, unable to speak harshly to the Shaman. "And his Shield. Shame me not with tardiness, Dinï Saran."

"Altani, Alaqa." The Şöpter appeared satisfied with his capitulation. With a wave of her jewelled hand, she commanded her handmaidens, who took up positions beside the Cherbi. "You may begin."

"Yes, Matron." The girls obliged. From their sacred receptacles, the girls produced obsidian-bladed scalpels brimming with necrotic mana. "Lord Cherbi…"

"Spare the milk of paradise." Khudu paid no heed to the women. "Anoint me. Take as much as you need."

One woman packed away the milk skin while the other made quick incisions across Khudu's chest, waited for his massive pectorals to relax, then collected the ruby-like drops of blood. In their mystic vessels of rare earth minerals, herbs and sacred alchemy, they then expertly formed the admixture into Sanguine Ink.

"Leave me the smaller of the vessels," Saran commanded her Thunderblooded neophytes, then approached Khudu with the sacred container. Dipping a finger into the rusty ink, she began to reform the familiar Sanguine Scripts upon the Cherbi's massive body, tracing the same patterns that had adorned his skin hundreds of times before.

Khudu's jaw clenched as the blood script kissed his dermis like glacial ice, then burned like True Fire plucked from the Fire Sea.

"You'll ruin your teeth like that." The Şöpter woman paused so that Khudu could breathe. "Must you bear on so heavy a burden? The other Orkoks do not give half as you do to the Khan. And my Milk of Paradise leaves little to no side effects."

"Temir is my brother and my kin," Khudu said as the script-writing continued. "As the heavens are wide and the plains without limits, so a Khan's Cherbi shall perish before his Khan may falter. Besides, I need to set an example for the Khesig."

"Sigh— you're all such giant fawns." The Şöpter worked with a swiftness that was second to none. "But that's a good thing. Temir's father lacked that kind of camaraderie."

"You will not speak ill of Grandsire Tengri," Khudu said. Saran was a unique existence, but she was still a Şöpter.

"Don't waste your ire on me," the woman concluded by using her claws to frame the final script, that of entwined life— known to Khudu as the Mark of Ulzii, on Khudu's forehead. She then gingerly touched his lips, leaving a finishing dash of Sanguine Ink on his chin to mark the final touch. "There."

In an act that would have sent the Cherbi into a rage like no other, the Şöpter slapped Khudu on the buttocks, something only a mother-mare could affect on their colt or filly.

Khudu rose, strongly desiring to be beside his brothers and be away from this female.

“Take care of Temir, Khudu.” The Şöpter gathered her tools and ingredients.

"I shall." The Cherbi's mind turned from this woman for whom he felt an inexplicable and confusing longing and toward the outside world. "I am his brother, unto death and beyond."

Saran turned and left.
After several more minutes of meditation to absorb the agony, Khudu parted the leather threshold and entered into the world of light and sound. Already, an Ordu of the Thunderblooded Clan had mustered outside the camp and was awaiting their Orkok. Where the inside of his tent was a silent world of meditation, the clamour of iron-shod hooves, grinding mail, jingling pilums and rattling quivers of heartwood arrows adorned with Eagle-Harpy feathers became a solid wall of sound.

In neighs and whinnies, Mingats Captains with their gold-braided manes kept order as Tumens in True Silver barked orders for the men to remain in their hundred-horse formations. Among these robust bodies of martial perfection chomping at the bit were the scuttling shadows of the Tasmüyiz, doing their best to avoid being trampled as they dressed their Horse Lords, polished armour, sharpened the glaives and waxed the feather-shafts.

Upstream, where the Great Khan's Pleasure Dome touched the heavens, herds of young mares bid their budding Nokuds farewell with wreaths of wildflowers gathered at daybreak. These, Khudu's daughters among them, were tended to by Şöpter servants of the saraī, a veritable silk-clad army waiting on the fillies as they twisted their braids in excitement. The hunt for an Afaa Al-Halak of the Sea of Sawahi was no small feat of strength. At least some would not return— but for those who would prove triumphant, the most beautiful, long-limbed girls with the most generous dowries would be theirs for the picking. Just as well, the most noble-blooded filly would have her pick of the next Mingat, Tumen or if they dared dream— a future Orkok.

"Hail!" A screech from the sky heralded the arrival of Cirina, Khudu's chief scout. Folding her wings, the Eagle-Harpy skidded to a halt. "The Sand God is close. There are wyrm signs in the eastern reaches of the Sawahi. My eagles have reported seeing the drovers driving their fear-maddened herds back toward Nukus."

"Has it breached the Sand Sea's surface?"

"Nothing that could be verified, though the wildlife has scattered as far as they're able."

"Good." Khudu made up his mind. "It must be formidable, then. Warn the Ordu! Inform the Great Khan! Tasmüyizs— bring me my armaments!"

A dozen bipedal Tasmüyiz, Rat-kin, Deer-kin, dog-faced Kobolds and few Rabbits among them appeared from around his yurt as though materialising from thin air. In a second, The Khesig Captain's quiver bags grew gravid with the stoutest arrows crafted by Cirina's Harpy-daughters. In pieces, the stronger Tasmüyiz held his heavy mail in place while clambering, swift-fingered Rat-kin threaded the straps with buckles, locking Khudu into his Marauder's plates. These would tap into the Sanguine sorcery tattooed into his skin, making the armour light as feathers and yet near-impenetrable.

"Khesig—!" He howled, his throat-song rising above the clamouring war camp. "Your Cherbi calls!"

"HWAA—OOOH—!" Came the collective cry of his hundred-strong Marauders. Of his Khesig, most of the free riders were Jagun, while even the weakest were elite Arabanu whose blood sorcery drew from ten or more Nukud.

"THE HUNT IS ON!" Khudu reared, shaking off the Tasmüyiz that fell from him like snow off a stout oak. "WE ART THE GREAT KHAN'S SPEAR!"

"WE ART THE GREAT KHAN'S SHIELD!" His men answered.

Beside him, Mungke shot into the air with a screech and a single flap of his steel-plumed wings.

"HWAA—OOH!" Khudu hooted, turning to face the Pleasure Dome, where even now Temir Khan was being clad by Saran in his Golden Mail. "RIDE! WE WHO ART THE GREAT KHAN'S BLOOD!"

"My God, it's breathtaking…" Not even Jean-Paul was immune to the majesty of distance and scale when applied to a landscape so vast as to show the curvature of Terra in every direction.

Conversely, Gwen was pleasantly surprised that the desolate tundra could possess such mutability in landscape and flora.

After only two hours of maximum velocity Flight from the Goat Lord's stone grot, the plinth-strewn badlands gave way to pools of snowmelt, then transformed as if by sorcery into endless acres of virginal wildflowers.

"That's good eating for the Centaurs and their army," Taylor remarked when his team audibly announced their appreciation. "After the grazers pass, there'll only be roots left."

"But it'll all grow out again," Gwen said. "Renewable fodder, right?"

"In better years perhaps—" Taylor pointed to the endless rows of small bodies bent over a field of flowers nearer the horizon. "The roots can be very nutritious, and when dried, they keep well. In a bad year, between conserving their resources and preserving the lives of the Great Herd, the Khanate will always choose the latter."

"But what will they do for food next year? Or the next?" Jean-Paul appeared confused. "Centaurs don't engage in agriculture, right? And the rivers here are too unpredictable."

"They raid. That's the Horse Lords' ancestral employment, after all," Bekker explained with patience to her Apprentice. "And also, the Rat-kin will always find ways to sow the fields— else what use would they be to the Centaurs? The Khanate doesn't exactly keep useless extra-mouths around. Resources, materials, and infrastructure are one thing, but there is nothing more pivotal than food security when maintaining a kingdom. In our diplomatic negotiations, we'll be touting our ability to supply grain from central Europe. If you want to be of help, pay close attention to how the Khanate is dealing with food and water scarcity."

"Food security is the first step to stabilising the region," Taylor said. "We should be glad the Centaurs lack it. Without it, there would be no leverage to our negotiations."

Gwen agreed wholeheartedly with the serial adulterer. No matter the human endeavour, no matter the better intent of the First World, the struggle to maintain food security remained a sore point for all negotiations with the developing world. As much as the west touted tourism and sustainability, no foreign demands mattered when the locals struggled to eat— conserving White Rhinos when malnutrition ran rampant in the local village? A first-world saviour could dream.

In her alter-Earth, farmers in Belize did not have to worry about Shark-men raiding their fishing sheds, nor did the Caspian fishermen have to contend with fire-flinging Titans capable of melting a factory-freight ship to molten slag.

In this world, before the arrivals of the Elementals, the Centaurs had thrived on the Steppes since before the dawn of human history. Humans empires rose and fell, as did Khanates, but both had endured. Now, Human habitation in what some had romantically dubbed the "Cradle of Empires" was all but extinguished by the Elemental Sultanate, and it seemed that the surviving neighbours of the Humans were next.

Presently, the lynchpin of the Human-Centaur alliance was the changing climate in the immediate region north of the Fire Sea. Whether this was a stratagem laid out by the Elementals or if it was mere coincidence, the Mageocracy did not know. Either way, the spread of the Sand Sea of Sawahi in the Eastern Steppes summoned the Afaa Al-Halak, whose presence increased the rate of desertification— which invited more Elemental imbalance and thus, perpetuated the life cycle of the Sand Wyrms. Therefore, the promise of food sustainability was the Sword of Damocles that the Mageocracy held over the Horse Lords of the Steppes.

In the sombre silence that followed, the party continued their flight until the green vista met an abrupt end at the stark white edge of a blue-green lake.

"Beautiful—" Gwen breathed in the salty air. She had seen Lake Eyre, but this was a whole other kind of other-worldly beauty.

"That's a dead lake." Taylor shot down her worshipful tone in the next minute. "Portions of it can be transmuted with sorcery to produce freshwater, but on its own, its four thousand kilometre squares of liquid death."

"How come?" Gwen squinted against the glare from the water. "… Ah— Salt?"

"Yes," the Magister affirmed her observation. "After the Tide, the region's weakened fabric collapsed. The lake had the unfortunate fate of playing host to several portals into the Quasi-Elemental Plane of Salt. The streams that feed the lake still contain untainted water, but the closer one ventures toward its centre…"

"So nothing lives in it? What a waste."

"I am sure there are adapted life-forms from the Quasi-Elemental Plane thriving out of sight, where the salt is densest— but don't anticipate anything from our world to live there."

As the party approached, Gwen saw that there were roving herds of livestock. These were the mundane kind— scattered cattle, horses, and copious, meandering flocks of Edilbay sheep, all non-magical fauna bred for food. These drank from the various estuaries flowing from the highlands or grazed on surviving patches of grass. Yet, impressive as the herds seemed, they were white specks against the monochromatic grey salt plains and the ochre badlands that hinted at the beginnings of the grasslands' transformation into fine silica.

She wondered if the folks here knew about topsoil erosion, or bio-diversity, or the need to maintain plant life even to begin to preserve the fertility of their tablelands. But then again, every endeavour in her old world, a place without portals into the Quasi-Elemental Planes of Salt or giant Sand Wyrms, had failed at reclaiming even the most meagre of habitats.

Her hand unconsciously wandered to her waist.

Once more, the Druidic Bag of Holding pulsed against her hand, its seeds throbbing with borrowed vitality from Tryfan.

Had Solana foreseen all of this? She wondered. Or was this as well, merely ploys that stemmed from the Accord?


A note from Wutosama

Chapter Ref :: Its puntastic! 

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