A Duty Most Sacred
The Dawn Fortress – The Sun Keep
Approaching the Tacribian side of Heaven’s Bridge, Eidos sees the shattered stump of a structure that at one time must have cast a great shadow. In bygone eras, it was surely the Moon Tower’s mirror image, but now all that remains is but a miserable vestige of a broken twin. While the blackened and melted form is at present but a lowly ruin, gleaming flecks sparkling in the midday sunlight reveal the golden luster it once bore.
This must be the foot of the broken tower I saw down in the canyon.
Her footsteps bring her closer to the singed remains, and she notices that a sandstone keep has been constructed around it. However, beyond this humble keep is a defensive fortification dwarfing the walls of the other Kaban settlements by several orders of magnitude. The fortress structure beyond the bridge is so vast, so incredibly expansive that its northern and southern edges seem to only begin where infinity ends.
How many Tacribians are there, anyway? With a place like this, there must be at least five to every Daziran… no wonder Khaa is worried.
Finally entering the keep proper, Eidos notices the Tacribian warriors eyeing her with dispassionate gazes, most seeming somewhat dismissive of her presence. They make no attempt to bar her entry.
The stonework all around is competently cut and mortared, albeit rough and worn. The passage through the keep here is narrow—a final choking point before stepping out onto the bridge. It looks as though there is but one way forward, yet the curving path prevents her from viewing its destination.
Eidos sees that human hands have bedecked the tower’s charred corpse with bizarre ornamentation. Spear points, arrow heads and knives have been driven into cracks in its blackened surface. Small alcoves have been hollowed out and filled with inelegantly carved objects, cups and plates.
Walking around the base, Eidos sees that there is an obscure shrine of some sort: a stone effigy of a vaguely feminine form clasping a jade sword. Standing in front of the shrine is an elderly woman, her gaze expectantly locked on Eidos.
It’s basically a bigger version of the small altar out in the canyon… The canyon.
“Come here, foreigner!” the lady calls out. “This is where you can make an offering to Ark, Archmage of the victorious dead, and savior of the Valvorthr!”
Eidos stares blankly.
“Come,” the woman entreats. “Come and share communion with those that saved Kabu from the greedy maw of the Wasteland in the dark of yesteryear.”
“No thanks,” comes Eidos’ reply as she continues down the curving path.
With inhuman speed, the old lady grabs Eidos’ arm with a grip as crushing as it is insistent, “But you must! Life in Kabu would be impossible without her sacrifice! You who would stay here, drink our water and rest in our shade, would you curse the hand that made it possible?”
“From what I hear, all you have is shade now.” Though said without malice, some truths may be best left unsaid.
Wow, body. If these people are as savage as the other towns say they are, I’m guessing you’re in for another death. Enjoy.
Indignant rage boils the patience from the elder’s tone.
She grips tighter.
When she finally speaks, out come the words more bestial growl than human speech, “Ark fell to protect Daziran ingrates and truth-blind foreigners alike. Your death here would dishonor her memory.” She spits a dry discharge and then licks her cracked lips. “Jinns take you!”
The woman releases Eidos and turns to renew her worship.
Rubbing out the pain, Eidos moves forward along the path, quickly forgetting the encounter.
The Dawn Fortress – The Proving Grounds
The path widens, emptying out into an area dominated by a large pit of cordoned-off sand. The Tacribian warriors here are seen thrusting blunt-ended spears at each other, dodging with practiced grace. The midday sun would broil their flesh were the pit not in the penumbra of the broken, yet nonetheless imposing, tower. The soldiers seems to keep their exertions brief. Training for but a few minutes before stopping to rest as they begin to perspire. A child walks among them dispensing small measures of water.
They sure don’t look like they’re just sitting idly by…
The sounds of bodies striking the sand and grunts of exertion ring loudly from the pit itself. But from the sidelines, the eyes of many exhausted warriors lock upon her with glowers of suspicion. Yet these are quickly distracted when the water bearers finally reach them—not even their battle-hardened faces are capable of masking their dire thirst.
Annoyed by the heat, and disappointed by the bustle, Eidos continues forward, in search of the lazy paradise the Tambulan guards had promised.
The Proving Grounds naturally lead into what seems to be the central space of the Fortress complex, this a large courtyard through which soldiers come and go. At the edge of the courtyard is a tremendous, black iron gate, which is in turn dwarfed by the unfathomably large bulwark in which it is embedded.
However, looking away from the courtyard reveals an area that looks to be an amphitheater of some kind. Beside it, a massive dome sits beneath the end of the Tacribian aqueduct, drier than the desert sand surrounding it.
Seeking shade and solitude—or more likely, just a seat—Eidos moves toward the dome.
The Dawn Fortress – The Temple of Biracul
Walking within the stone structure, Eidos is met with a vision that defies all expectations. While the exterior was a rough brown stone, the interior is lined with white limestone and brilliant marble. Several paths lead from as many doors toward a central hub, like spokes on a cart wheel. The voids between them expose the sloping floors beneath and reveals a recession into an infinitely deep spiral consumed by shadows at its depths. The dome in which she stands seems to be but the uppermost part of this inexplicable structure.
All is lit by a large aperture in the top of the dome. The rays of sunlight showering down upon the room are refracted and scattered through numerous prisms, lighting the interior with a gentle glow. A bit of sun, however, is discourteously obstructed by the terminus of the Tacribian aqueduct—dry now, but Eidos can nearly envision water cascading down from it.
Memories from when I was carried on a liquid chariot to receive my ‘reward’?
Grandiose though the temple may be, it looks to be unfinished and unused. There are no decorations to speak of and seemingly no paraphernalia of worship, save one. Sitting upon a large raised platform in the middle of the room is a solitary stone chair, serving as the room’s sole furnishing. But furniture is not the only scarce resource in the room; likewise, as far as Eidos can tell, not even a single human shadow haunts the temple.
Of course, there’s no water, so why would there be people?
Walking around the perimeter of the central hub, Eidos notices there is a simple, but lengthy font of exceptional depth and a lone cleric lying prostrate before it in the utter silence of stillness. The font appears to have once been full of water, but is now so dry it would make the Wastes jealous.
So this guy is here praying the water returns? Well, if it did return, you’d be praying it never came.
At the clicking of Eidos feet upon the marble floor, the cleric slowly rises.
“Greetings, stranger, and welcome to Biracul’s house. Have you come to prepare for your death?” comes his rather morbid inquiry in an equally somber tone.
“Nope, just wandered in here looking for a quiet place to rest…”
“Well, you’ve found one such a place. Few visit the Shining One’s temple now. Too afraid to face their own faults.” He looks wistfully at the empty font to his right. “But you’re here, by divine guidance; Biracul’s light illuminated your path. It’s not too late to begin preparing for your end, child.”
“Does it involve sitting? I’ve been walking for days now.”
The cleric motions for her to sit at the font’s edge, and sit she does, but the cleric remains standing himself.
Now towering over her, he continues his sermon, “Many are those content to live on as though their life were an inexhaustible well. But, they can only hope death comes quietly and without warning; for they know in their heart they have not prepared themselves by gaining Awareness.”
Eidos now lies down and stretches out her tired limbs. She breathes in deeply, completely relaxing upon the subsequent exhalation.
Pretending not to notice her bizarre level of comfort in such a public location, the cleric renews his speech, “For no one foresees their own death, child; our eyes are so naturally dim that we cannot see what so clearly lies before us.”
Why are you so worried about death? I thought… “Tacribians were supposed to be bloodthirsty savages. Aren’t they fond of it?”
The cleric regards her, incredulity prying his jaw apart. “Fond of it? Fond of death! You’ve been stung the Daziran’s poisoned tongue! Or perhaps infected by the Tambulan’s ignorant speculations!” He breathes, trying to rein in his emotions.
Did my body just complete my thought? No, it must have been a coincidence…
Composure regained, the man continues. “No man, Tacribian or otherwise, can outrun death’s terror! Even if we find inexhaustible water, even if we defeat all our enemies, even if we outwit the very Jinns themselves, even then death is patiently waiting at the end of it all to rip our Trueflesh from the False!”
“And? What’s so bad about eternal sleep? I love sleep,” she says on the brink of consummating her professed love.
He frowns, the deep creases etched into his furrowed brow from a lifetime of worry now seeming to etch themselves into his very skull. “Pulling a mask of frivolity over the face of death does not unmake it, child!”
He receives no response other than a faint prelude to a snore.
“Run from truth if you wish. You’ll find your course is always an unending circle.” He begins to walk toward a set of descending stairs. “I leave you with the words of Biracul, may they guide your preparation for what’s to come:
“‘The Many are but a part of the One,’ he says. ‘Our experience but a shadow of the truth. Though the ant bears a lone grain of sand, the nest is a mighty creature.’ And now I leave in His light having done my part.”
You have no idea how right you are about the unending circle.
His piece spoken, the cleric descends the stairs into the spiraling structure and into its hidden depths.
When she awakens, the sky has dimmed.
It’s morning dum-dum. You slept through the night.
She lightly scratches her belly and regains a seated posture. Then, rubbing the sleep from her eyes, she yawns the yawn of awakening, finally having slept her fill.
Time to go. Anywhere. I don’t care where, just anywhere but here.
As of instinct, she rises and begins to walk. Where? She could not really care any less. Though she may not like it, she knows she has to keep moving.
The Dawn Fortress – The Amphitheater
Eidos finds herself in an austere amphitheater nestled against the inner wall. Though perhaps the exact antithesis of ostentatious, it is no less remarkable for its impeccable architecture. A smooth, alabaster quarter-dome acts as the stage, a subtly translucent half-dome acting as the roof.
Her footfalls echo from the stone surfaces all about, revealing the reasoning behind the placement of this structure. Surely a voice performing at the center of this stage would clearly reach all ears. Scanning the vacant stone benches, she can almost see a dim afterimage of an enthralled audience, cheering in raucous ecstasy.
Though she knows Tacribians only for a bellicose nature, this area hints at a gentler side—the sheath to their sword.
The brutish grunts of exertion from the nearby Proving Ground call her back to the stark reality of an empty theater. While this place is well-maintained, it is utterly forsaken, but for a solitary man of middle age, dutifully sweeping the area free of dust. Him, and a dozing Akkeber stretched out along one of the benches.
He actually came?! Just keep sleeping!
The middle age man has eyes of the kindest sort and a smile to match.
“Nothin’ to see here, outlander,” he offers with a remorseful nod. “Wish we could be better hosts, but hasn’t been any entertainment here for quite some time; doubt it'll change anytime soon either…”
“Not really looking for anything in particular. Just kinda wandering for now.”
“Is that so, well then may Ark watch over you and may Biracul lead you to where you need to be, outlander.”
And with that, the man continues sweeping.
Let’s get out of here, before Akkeber wakes up. Try as she may, she cannot convince herself that all things are meaningless. And as such, she desperately searches for her escape. A flight of stairs. Ascending. Good enough. Her feet thus come to her aid and carry her up and away.
The Dawn Fortress – The Walls
Ascending the stairway, Eidos alights atop the high walls of the Dawn Fortress. Looking out from the ramparts, the deathly visage of the Wasteland sears itself into her mind. The immediate area is unrelentingly bleak, with drifting dunes and blowing sand the dominant sights. However, the distant horizon makes no promises of what lies at its edge; it even seems to be fading from view, from memory, and even from the very fabric of reality.
A haze of shimmering light ripples upon the air. Barely revealed vistas swirl in and out of perception. Whether the ever-shifting shapes be structures, mountains or some other bizarre and twisted feature is impossible to determine, as fixing her gaze on a single point fails to coax the distant dancing visions to coalesce into a definitive form.
Maybe I’ll go that way next time I get exiled…
With a subtle shiver and a shake of her head, Eidos breaks the enthralling influence of the Wastes. Looking about, she notices that she is not alone here. An armed woman stands a short way off, her gaze spellbound to that uninviting expanse of land stretched out before them. However, her eyes are brimming with tragic purpose; they refuse to alter their course and will only ever be directed toward the northeast.
It’s her… the girl from the Wasteland.
Eidos turns her gaze to where this warrior’s eyes fall. There, pearly pillars jut from the sands like a thousand skeletal fingers clawing through their burial mounds.
She hasn’t gone to the Salt Forest yet to kill Shen, then.
But Eidos soon brings her attention back to the woman herself. Hardened by sights unmentionable, tested by trials unbearable, yet retaining an unmistakable grace in spite of it all.
I’d like to speak with her.
She approaches the solitary Tacribian. The woman speaks without shifting her gaze from the northeast.
“I am Valvorthr Fwayya, bound by honor to Shariken Shen,” she says. “Ark willing, I offer you my ear, that I may somehow aid you as a final service in Her name.”
“Not really interested in talking.” Not what I hoped you’d say, body.
“As you please, outlander. My circuit draws near and the Wastes demand my presence, but if need should arise before I depart, I’ll do whatever I can to assist you. For the good of the League and the future of Kabu.”
Eidos smiles at Fwayya and then the two stare off into the distance in mirrored silences. The irreverent winds, however, loudly howl at the fortress gates, while the sun roasts the horizon, and in between them, the sands shift peacefully from dune to wretched dune in the grip of lifelessness. The Tacribian warrior seems to be attracted and bound to the inimical Wastes by some unseen and irresistible force, surely more so than sanity would ever permit.
Shen must have meant a lot to her. Don’t worry; death isn’t permanent.
Eidos scans the horizon one last time, sweeping across with her gaze as a temporary focusing of the vapors and stilling of the winds reveal a clearer picture. Far off to the southeast a shining black crater belches mephitic fumes. To the east is a structure leading down into a valley of some sort. And back toward the northeast she sees the forest of symmetrically arranged salt pillars.
Fwayya at last turns around, nods sullenly and begins her descent toward the Amphitheater. Though her facade may be strong and independent, the innocent honesty of her eyes betrays immeasurable sadness.
I wish I could help her… She pauses. Yeah, me, the cold-blooded, nihilistic murderer wants to help someone. How pathetic.
Fwayya’s path, however, Eidos has deemed unsuitable for herself and thus she explores an alternate course. Not too far from her current locus, a passage of stairs toward the southern end of the wall leads down into the fortress wall itself.
But wait… if nothing matters? Then I’m free to care, despite my mistakes… right?
Feet shuffle, taking both person and thoughts now deep into the belly of the fortress walls.