– Beginning of Arc 4, Savage Hope –
– Era of the Wastes, Cycle 216, Season of the Rising Moon, Day 20 –
Kipkoi approached the Assembly’s Hall with his head held up high and a proud smile on his lips.
“Minister!” One of his aides excitedly walked up to him.
“I’m on my way to the meeting, what is it?” asked Kipkoi.
“I…” The assistant cleared his throat. “I was just wondering if you want us to inform that new country in the northwest about the change with Arcana? Our district is the one closest to Syn City.”
Kipkoi took a deep breath before answering. “Do I want you to share intel with Tiv’s strategic enemies?” He shook his head mockingly. “No, I do not. Thanks for asking.”
The assistant shrunk visibly under the Minister’s reprimanding tone.
Kipkoi looked up from the man and then he spotted the face of Ava, who was beaming at him proudly. The sight lifted his mood again.
Raised voices and angry shouting reverberated from the Assembly’s Hall. Both Ava and Kipkoi looked at the closed entrance door with some confusion.
“They’ve been at it since morning already,” said the minister’s assistant.
“At what?” asked Kipkoi and returned his eyes to his assistant. “Today is a day for celebration, what is there to shout about?”
The assistant furrowed his brow and his mouth opened without a sound. Only after some time, did he muster a response. “It is better if you go in.”
“Very well.” Kipkoi narrowed his eyes and walked up to meet Ava.
“How is the atmosphere in Tiv Palace?” asked Kipkoi.
“Strange,” replied Ava. “My mother and the Mage Supreme are in closed discussion with the royal family. From what I can tell, they seem very distraught for some reason.”
“Hm.” Kipkoi frowned. They both entered the Assembly Hall together.
“I have waited years for the vote today and I won’t have this motion simply be ignored for current affairs!” shouted a younger woman from the restoration faction. “The vote was scheduled for today!”
“We need to figure out what happened!” shouted an old man from the noble faction. “Screw any motions. None of that matters anymore!”
“““Hear hear!””” Shouts resounded from nearly all the older ministers independent of their faction.
“Why?!” demanded a younger man from the noble faction. “I get that Arcana suffered a tragedy, but why is that any of our business?”
“““Hear hear!””” Several younger ministers from the originalist and restoration factions made their voices heard.
“Arcana never helped us against the Wastes, why should we help them look for the culprit in their problems?!”
“Damn right!” shouted a younger man from the restoration faction. “If anything, this is a blessing for us! Finally, Arcana is forced to do their part, as they damn well should.”
“As is their duty!”
“Mana use is a privilege!”
“Finally, they can’t shirk their duty any longer!”
“This is cause for celebration!”
Kipkoi and Ava smiled at each other without joining in the commotion.
“FOOLISH!” roared an ancient looking man from the royal faction and all other chatter stopped.
“Hall Master?” The minister from the restoration faction was flabbergasted. “It is not your—”
“IT IS NOW!” interrupted the hall master. “I hereby invoke the third.”
“The third? You can’t overrule the Assembly’s schedule on your own. The third is for—”
“Existential emergencies and martial law,” interrupted the hall master. “Like now.”
“““Agreed!””” “Damn right!”
“You can’t do this!” “What are you aiming at?!” “But I waited years to vote on this motion!”
“SILENCE!” roared the hall master. “You young ones should listen and listen carefully. Someone is responsible for what happened with Arcana’s barrier. The magic sovereigns and the Council are likely to prioritize protecting their citizens over finding those responsible. They can be expected to look into it eventually, but they are not the problem we need to worry about now.”
Kipkoi moved his gaze over the different factions and for the first time, he recognized dread and outright terror in the eyes of many – all of these ministers were advanced in age. He spotted old Castellan, who was nodding along with the gravest expression Kipkoi had ever seen on his aged face.
“Not everyone in Arcana is as high-minded as the Arcana government.” The hall master spoke hoarsely. “Most of you are too young to remember an enraged Arcana. You are too young to remember that there is more to fear in Arcana than its government and its standing army.” The hall master inhaled deeply before speaking firmly: “You have never seen the wrath of Arcana’s citizens. Some of the old monsters can rival the Council members in power and they show none of the Council’s noble restraint.”
Kipkoi and Ava glanced at each other with creased brows and uneasy expressions.
“Surely, they can’t be that stupid,” muttered Ava. “That's irrational. We all need to unite against the Wastes!”
“We must figure out who is responsible before everything else,” insisted the hall master loudly. “We must, so that we can prove that it had nothing to do with Tiv.” His expression darkened. “And if there was anyone from Tiv involved, then we can only hope that it is enough to hand them over as soon as possible.”
Terry’s group approached the dimensional gate and they were greeted by several nervous-looking Guardians.
“Might I know who you are?” A burly looking dwarf whose face was covered in scars seemed to be their spokesperson. His eyes wandered over the whole group but they kept shifting back to Matteo and, less frequently, to Terry.
Matteo replied with the same explanation he had given the Arcanian soldiers they had met immediately after crossing into Arcana’s territory.
The burly dwarf checked their identification. “You picked an unfortunate time.”
“Any news?” asked Matteo.
“Are the dimensional gates still open?” asked Terry.
“Can they even be closed?” asked Emaldine, who was examining the dimensional gate while biting her lip.
The burly dwarf handed back the identification cards. His gaze rested on Emaldine. “You look somewhat familiar. Have you been to these parts before?”
“No…” Emaldine shook her head. “You may— You may have met my ma before.” She lowered her head and spoke softly. “Sigille.”
The eyes of the gate guards opened wide. However, before any of them could speak, the burly dwarf raised his hand to stop them. He had noticed the tone and the pained expressions on the faces of Thena, Terry, and the others. It was enough for the dwarf to connect the dots to their earlier mention of a death in the family.
“I have met the Divine Hammer before, yes,” said the burly dwarf. “Back when I traveled outside the barrier. In fact, I would not be here today if it wasn’t for her.” He looked at Emaldine. “My condolences.” He spoke with a sincere and heartfelt tone. “It seems it is the season for tragedies.”
The dwarf took a deep breath. “To answer your questions: The gates can be closed, but that is beyond our capabilities. Someone with proper authorization and ability from the Council or army needs to come out here if they want to close the gate. If you take the direct route to Arcana, you should not encounter any obstructed gate.”
He looked at Terry. “This area borders on Tiv and unless Tiv tries anything, there is no reason to close these gates. Some of the Union’s factions in the southeast might try something, but the real problem is the north. Without the barrier, they are facing the Wastes.”
He looked at Matteo. “The only news we received is that everyone is mobilizing. A large part of the Council has immediately departed for the north. The rest are preparing everything for the full mobilization of the army. Guildheads have been hired. The Guardians have called in the reserves. The reaction is quick, but there is a lot of area to cover.”
“Any word of the magic sovereigns?” asked Matteo.
“Not yet,” replied the burly dwarf. “But we barely ever hear about what they are doing anyway. Does not mean that they are not doing anything.”
Afterwards, Terry’s group departed for the next hop towards Arcana City.
Terry’s group traveled for a week before they reached a primary dimensional gate. Even that timespan was only made possible by the fact that they were all mana users and could get by with little sleep.
From other Guardians on the way, they had learned that two magic sovereigns had hurried to the north and northeast to assist in the battle against the incoming creatures of the Wastes. Another was rumored to be investigating the possibility of repairing the barrier.
They had also learned that despite everyone’s quick reactions, tens of thousands had already lost their lives. Most of the deaths were among manaless that had lived near the barrier. The stationed Guardians had done their best to evacuate them and to prevent the arriving monsters from reaching the dimensional gates, but in some locations, the numbers and power of invading monsters were overwhelming.
Fortunately, the determined self-sacrifice of the stationed Guardians and the quick overall reaction time prevented the creatures from the Wastes from reaching a primary gate until now. Otherwise, the number of casualties would have been an order of magnitude higher.
Nevertheless, all these lost lives weighed heavily on everyone they met. With gloomy spirits, they spent the days traveling from primary gate to primary gate.
A few weeks earlier, Terry had believed he would jump for joy at the first location he recognized in Arcana, but things were different now. When they arrived in Cannington, Terry merely glanced at the noticeboard where his group had once learned of the bloody frogmouth and icicle echidnas.
Terry felt completely numb even when they entered Arcana City. He barely acknowledged the figures of the city guards.
Huh, that guard kind of resembles Nassim. A lot actually… A man in the armor of the city guard was walking side by side with a manaless woman that was carrying a child. Light-aspected, too. But weaker than… Can’t be… Terry tilted his head.
“Where to?” asked Matteo.
“Huh?” Terry turned around. Oh right, I’m the only one from here.
Suddenly, Terry sensed two weaker mana signatures dashing towards him from his back. Instinctively, Terry dodged. He saw two short figures stumble and tumble across the ground.
“Damn, that’s cold, Terry,” exclaimed a deep voice from the direction of the city.
Huh? Terry looked towards the voice and saw a dwarf with a bushy, brown beard and his hair held back in a ponytail. The dwarf stood next to an elven woman with dark hair.
Coldfire? Terry blinked. Miguel?
Before Terry could digest his thoughts, the two earlier mana signatures were dashing towards him again. This time, Terry did not dodge.
For the first time in what felt like ages, Terry smiled from the bottom of his heart. He hugged his two siblings tightly.
From a corner of Terry’s mind, an incredulous voice spoke out. Have their mana signatures always been like this? Terry did not remember their mana signatures like this. Lori’s aspect-limitation seemed way clearer than he remembered. Jorg’s mana even seemed to faintly fizzle out at his skin, which might be the manifestation of his external mana control difficulties.
Terry blinked. While surprising in their own ways, these points were not what confused Terry the most. Weren’t their mana signatures stronger? More intense? Did anything happen?
Terry confusedly looked up from Lori and Jorg. He looked at Miguel. Same thing with Miguel. I thought their mana signatures were stronger…
Terry moved his gaze to the last person. Such a clear and strongly pronounced spirit aspect. Was the aspect-gift always this obvious? Overall unaspected, but not as intense as I…
Terry blinked and finally internalized that he was looking at Siling. Terry blinked again to realize that Siling was staring at him with mouth agape and her whole face contorted in shock.
“SHENANIGANS!” Siling pointed at Terry. Her expression melted into a smile. “I’m glad you’re back with us…” She pointed again. “...but SHENANIGANS!”
“What have they been feeding you in Tiv?” Miguel shook his head with a snicker.
“Mana babies?” Siling gestured wildly with exasperation. Her gaze moved over the others in Terry’s group and stopped at Matteo. “And who is…?” Her eyes moved back to Terry before muttering: “Double shenanigans.”
“The chipmunks are all grown up,” exclaimed Emaldine nostalgically from the side. She was watching Lori and Jorg with wistful eyes.
Lori looked up. “You are?”
“What? Already forgotten your cousin, Little Florine?” Emaldine grinned. “Do I need to throw you into the air again?
“Cousin Aldi?” Jorg stared at her.
“‘Aldi’?” Matteo raised an eyebrow.
Emaldine coughed and shook her head intently. “No. No, you did not hear that.”
“Are these your…?” asked Lori while looking at Thena and Clayson.
Emaldine choked on her breath and coughed loudly once again.
“No, they’re my friends and fellow Guardians from Tiv,” interjected Terry. “Thena and Clayson were students of Aunt Sigille.”
“Is Aunt Sigille…?” Lori noticed the shift in expressions and her voice trailed off.
“Ma Sigille is dead,” said Matteo. “It is a long story. Thena and Clayson are seeking refuge in Arcana. I would like to get them settled as soon as possible.”
“Ma and Pa are out, but Auntie Brynn should be able to help,” said Lori. She noticed Terry’s disappointed expression when he heard that his parents were not in the city. “The majority of the stronger Guardians have moved out because of the barrier. The Academy mages have been tasked with keeping a protective eye on the capital.”
“Calam and Gellath are currently in one of their habitualization sessions,” said Miguel. “They were quite miffed with your timing. They would have liked to welcome you as well, but they’ll come by later.”
“Elena also said to greet you,” said Lori. “She is currently taking care of her sick father.”
That leaves… Terry’s eyes moved to Siling.
“Tiana was out on a longer instruction mission from the team leader course when the barrier shattered,” said Siling worriedly. “Her card is still signaling that everything is fine, but we haven’t heard from her yet…” She bit her lip.
Wastes… Terry clenched his fists.
“She’ll be fine.” Siling sounded as if she was trying to convince herself too. “You know Tiana. She is probably pummeling some poor mana-corrupted creature as we speak.”
“How did you even know I arrived?” asked Terry.
“Your signal,” replied Jorg.
“When the barrier shattered, we thought that maybe your signal would be picked up again,” elaborated Lori. “At first, we did not get a reaction and figured it may be due to the card’s signal strength.”
“We kept checking the cube and eventually the signal was there,” said Jorg. “The signal got stronger and at some point, the Guardian card also finally picked it up.”
“Come,” said Lori. “We’ll contact Aunt Brynn and everyone can make themselves comfortable at our home until we find a proper residence.”
Lori approached Thena and Clayson. “I’m Lori…”
“I’ll check in with the local Guild first,” said Matteo. “I’ll catch your signal and come knocking at your door afterwards.”
“So, what exactly happened?” Siling walked up to Terry. “Stinker treatment is still pending depending on your answer. You really scared us there.”
“From the looks of his armor…” Miguel eyed Terry from top to bottom. “I’d say something chewed on him. Thoroughly masticated.”
In the back, Jorg wiped his eyes and exhaled a long breath.
Lori moved her eyes away from Thena and Clayson. She examined the signs of battle on Terry’s armor again. She bit her lip and clenched her fists.
Terry paused and looked over at everyone. “I really missed you all.”
“General Eli!” a woman in a crimson uniform was approaching the command tent.
A man in a similar crimson uniform was sitting at a table and looking over a map. While his pair of brown eyes were glued to the map, his third eye that carried a crimson iris and was located at his forehead focused on the woman. “Speak, soldier.”
“Our informants have successfully captured a few of the involved parties,” said the woman. “Unfortunately, a lot of the cultists and sect members have committed suicide the moment they were caught. Nevertheless, we were still able to confirm a tentative list of those responsible.” She handed over a stack of papers.
Eli motioned for an officer at his side to receive the documents.
“Has the involved dimensional mage been identified yet?” asked Eli.
“Not yet, General,” replied the soldier.
Eli nodded in acknowledgement. “You can leave now, soldier”
“What is with that list?” asked the officer. Her brow furrowed deeply.
For the first time, Eli looked up from the map with all of his eyes. “What is it, Yana?”
“Aside from our initial guess, there are at least a dozen different cults with confirmed involvement,” replied Yana. She handed the documents to Eli.
Eli looked over the list and then snorted derisively. “‘The Vigilant and the Virtuous’? Give me a break. The whacko realm traitors are getting really full of themselves.”
“Two confirmed factions from the Union with a third suspected,” muttered Eli. “The Soaring Mountain Sect makes sense. They probably feel pressured by the Lich Kingdoms and are hoping that if Arcana properly mobilizes once more, the Lich Kingdoms will reign themselves in.”
Eli scoffed in derision. “The Sky River Sect is probably more concerned about our march. They have lost their allies in the Union and the barrier stands in their way of retreat. Not much of a surprise so far.”
“The involved parties from Tiv are higher up than we expected.” Eli shrugged. “But what can you expect when their minds are rotting away under their own distortions of history. It appears that their men of words have finally bred a fanatic to take action. They may not even realize the stupidity of their actions yet. Suicidal, but not surprising.”
Eli turned towards Yana. “So what exactly has raised your eyebrow?”
“The cults,” replied Yana.
Eli looked over the list again. “The Vigilant and the Virtuous, The Bright Lady, The Bodhi Tree, The Shapeless Pond…”
“See?” prompted Yana. “Isn’t the Bright Lady supposed to be among the ‘benevolent’ cults? By contrast, some of the others are considered borderline evil, even if law-abiding on the surface. As far as I know, those of the Bright Lady hate those of the Shapeless Pond with a passion. Or was that just exaggerated?”
Eli nodded in understanding and then shook his head at the question. “No, I think that’s accurate. However, I don’t see that as much of a surprise either. No matter how much the cults may loathe each other, deep down, they will always hate the faithless more.
“Sure, the folks from another cult may have picked another benefactor, but at least they, too, see nothing wrong in betraying the realm for personal benefit.” Eli spoke with intense contempt.
“Bah!” exclaimed Eli. “That weakness masked as piety is a pillar of their identity. That goes for all cults. The faithless, however, question that pillar. The more powerful the faithless, the more likely they are to inspire feelings of shame in the cultists.”
“Arcana is the symbol of the faithless and that is why they have been targeted?” asked Yana with creased brows. “What about Thanatos?”
“What about us?” retorted Eli. “We are a faithless empire, true. But we are not the Empire of Magic, nor are we the spiritual successor of the Faithless Saints. Besides…” Eli clicked his tongue. “I suspect there is more than one motivation at work. Look at those involved from Tiv. The cults may simply be trading for political benefits in the Tiv Empire.”
“Wouldn’t it be more beneficial for them to have Arcana stay out of the Wastes?” asked Yana. “After all, that is how they regained power until now, is it not? To fill in the numbers that Tiv is lacking due to their lack of proper mana users.”
“Fair…” Eli muttered in thought. “Their room for steering their path depends on whom they are working with though. The fanatic may not have left them a choice. Or perhaps there were some individual ambitions involved.” Eli shrugged. “Or perhaps there was yet another motivation I can’t see. Maybe some of the cults were simply looking for a way to infiltrate Arcana’s borders. Getting rid of the barrier is an obvious albeit difficult first step.”
“What are we going to do?” asked Yana. “Does not make much sense for Thanatos to fight for a location at a barrier after said barrier has been destroyed.”
“A border with Arcana is still the safest border one can wish for,” said Eli. “I doubt the Bloody Hall will change course. While I believe that sufficient strength makes such safety meaningless, I can appreciate the strategic position. Therefore, I have no objections with that course either.
“A pity though,” mumbled Eli. “Damian’s squad has sent excellent geographic intel on Tiv’s northwest regions, but with the current situation, I doubt we will get a chance to use it.
“I am surprised that Tiv has given us such a good opportunity, but who am I to decline such a generous gift.” Eli grinned fiercely. “And even though the overall course has not changed, they still need to pay for spoiling Thanatos’s plans.”
“What are your orders?” asked Yana.
“Have all our troops pull out of Tiv’s north,” said Eli. “Have them repositioned at the current line in the south. You can also reallocate a third of our death whisperers there to reinforce our own Wasteborder.
“Take our intel on the cults and Tiv involvement,” said Eli. “Do not include the Union’s sects for now. Bundle everything up with sufficient detail so that others can verify it on their own. Wrap a bow around it and make sure it reaches the Guild in Arcana. From what I remember, there should be plenty of interested parties.” Eli smirked. “If Tiv is so intent to commit suicide by Arcana, let’s hope they’ll get their wish fulfilled as soon as possible.”