Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Project Sky-Shell 022

Chapter 10 (continued and finally finished!)

  In the end the plan worked. No one dared to attack the realm of Prince Nirza again. A considerable number of soldiers that had come as aggressors stayed behind. Some to start a new existence for themselves burnt out on war and the miserable existence of their previous life, to them the young prince with his unheard of show of mercy was a symbol of hope. A startling number stayed in the realm to make amends for their transgressions. They went out of their way to help rebuild what had been destroyed by the invading army. Nashrin could not help but notice that the people most fervent in their quest to make amends had been close to the war machine as it died. The most fanatical came to call themselves 'The Burnt' who after the reconstruction was finished had sought audience before the prince to swear eternal fealty to the Prince, swearing that they would not rest until their debt to his realm was repaid in full no matter how long it would take. Nashrin felt very uncomfortable in their presence for they all were tainted by the shadow of his father's soul. He accepted their oaths and gifted them a stretch of land in an isolated valley to do with it as they saw fit. It was near enough to be seen as a generous gift, especially as it was a valley surrounded by mountains rich in various ores, but at the same time it was hard to reach and isolated so that the prince did not have to suffer the presence of the Burnt.
   The Burnt thrived in their secret village around which soon many wild myths and legends grew, most of them wild exaggerations. The valley of the Burnt produced the most fiercely loyal warriors of the realm as well a constant source of some of the best refined raw materials in the entire region. Burnt steel became the synonym for steel of the highest grade and the younger generation began to use the verb to describe something of highest quality or merit.
   Prince Nashrin slowly retreated from the world preferring to act through intermediaries. He had various reasons to disappear from the public eye. Since his transformation in the war he could never shake the gnawing lust for blood, so he preferred his own company to that of other people. He also rather dedicate himself to his research which now was focused on blood magic most of the time leaving the statesmanship to people more suited for the task. With his secretaries who he carefully chose for their abilities to get results he worked on a grand reform to turn the realm into a place of prosperity. The first thing he did was to screen the realm for people who were exceptional leaders recruiting them into newly created positions of responsibility. They were made masters of mines, mills, forestries and what ever else needed some higher level of supervision. They all were paid the same generous stipend never more never less. Given free rein over what ever they had control over all they had to do is make it work. Those who did best were awarded high honours by the Prince himself and their methods made public to all.
   Soon the realm was an economic powerhouse, the income of all the state owned mines, smelting facilities and manufacturings all in a constant friendly competition to see who was the best at doing their job led to a decrease in taxes. Prince Nirza soon had enough income to pay for his research expenses while keeping the realm going at a comfortable pace. Soon after he discovered to his great surprise that after he had forcibly reduced the amount of hours the people were actually allowed to work every day and every week, the amount of money they were making increased even more. The living conditions soon became famous far beyond the realm's borders attracting all kinds of immigrants. While Prince Nirza did welcome strangers it was made very clear from the get go that all who wanted full citizen ship had to show excellent skills, else they were relegated to guest status which included much higher taxes. But even that proved to be beneficial in the long run. Many of the rich traders moved into the realm gladly paying the taxes which were still lower than in some other kingdoms to be able to buy 'burnt' level goods for export.
   As the years passed Nashrin learned the hard way why blood magic had never stepped out of the shadow of traditional magic. His research was frustrating, always leading him to dead ends. For all its power blood only brought problems with it. Some of them were practical, only fresh blood was full of power, losing its precious life force seconds after being spilt. He had experimented with ice, with adding substances to keep the blood flowing, to distil the power within it but to no avail. Even if he kept the blood fresh the power was gone. He did find out a lot about blood compatibility as a side effect. After a decade of work he had invented small crystal needles that when pricked into a finger drew a minuscule amount of blood changing their colour showing what flavour the blood had. This led to transfusions and a fortune made selling the blood colour crystals. He also discovered that blood that had lost its powers but was passed through a living human soaked up a new portion of life force only to lose it again once spilled.
   And there was the hunger.
     It never went away. It always stayed in the back of his mind. At first he tried to deny it which only made it worse. One day he had planned an experiment with the blood of a prisoner. The man was a rapist and a murderer according to the law of the realm he had to be put to death to mild a sentence as Nashrin secretly thought as the criminal would never know the anguish of his victims, but at least they could help with the advancement of magic. He went to the big powerful man who now lay strapped down on a metal operating table without any of the menace he had still exuded when he was still standing upright and unrepentant before the judges. His mouth was gagged but he was looking at Nashrin with pleading eyes. The prince had long since learned not to look at the human body in front of him but to look at its crimes. He recited them inside his head to keep his weak heart to give in to mercy, instead filling it with righteous anger. That day had not been different. Nashrin had placed a large glass bottle filled with a criss cross of metal rods not unlike those used to capture souls at the end of the blood drain. He had approached the man with a short squat bleeding knife in hand. A thick blade with a sharp little hook at the end custom made to cut the carotid arteries. The hunger that had been festering in the dark corners of his soul invading his dreams and most shameful fantasies was now looming large behind him waiting with increasing anticipation. As the hunger licked its lips so did Nashrin. He did not hear the choked whimpers of the prisoner nor did he see the tears welling up from his eyes, instead he only saw the throat.
     He made the incision realizing to late that he had forgotten to place the splash guard over the neck of the writhing body. So the blood squirted out in high jets from the wound in his neck. Nashrin watched the blood fly thinking that this was one of the most beautiful things he had seen in his life. After that he did not think anything anything for the next half hour. With a wail he fell over the man first drinking his delicious  blood, then braking open his body to consume his heart and liver. He had only returned back to consciousness after breaking open his skull nearly choking on his vile brain that was saturated by the banality of the criminals petty evil. A pedestrian lust for power, combined with an utter lack of imagination. His mind was plain and repugnant. As Nashrin saw what he had done he screamed in terror, took his executioners knife and cut his own throat. Repeatedly. But his wounds simply healed almost as quickly as he inflicted them. The animal part of him mildly amused by his childish behaviour.
     From then on he started to learn to live with the hunger. He now drank a dose of blood every night and every morning. Getting used to the rush of power followed by the enormous relief he felt once is unnatural appetites subsided for a while. His experiments had provided him with enough techniques to provide him with fresh blood without the need to kill anyone and in time he became comfortable with his new way of life. He realized that his new hunger was very much like that of a regular human being, if starved he is driven towards madness and acts of desperation, but if kept fed he will be docile and reasonable. It also had the beneficial effect that he now had more power at his finger tips for to fuel his magic than ever before. He mostly use it to invoke spectacular effects of little practical use by the use of half-seals gestures of power performed with one hand. It was a good talent to have when dealing with the superstitious and the easily impressed.
     Nashrin remained an isolated individual. He had left the proper path of enlightenment as taught by the Order of Reason, to often had he invoked the 'supernatural' to gain advantages and secure the position of his realm among its credulous peers. He also did nothing to discourage the tales told about him among the populace of his principality which grew ever more fanciful as the years passed. For the Order he was the worst kind of scholar one who possessed true knowledge but decided to keep it for himself while distracting everyone around him with falsehoods. He felt guilty about this but his research had not yet reached the stage where he could go out and share it with his former colleagues. So far blood magic was a danger to all involved with it, especially the user himself. If the Order ever caught wind of what he was doing and how his work was developing they would send knight to kill him, followed by a radical purge of the realm of all false believe systems. He could not allow that. Furthermore in time he would master the ways of the blood, then he could step forward to share his results leading towards a new bold step forward for all of humanity.
     There was no one left he could confide in. His family was either gone or to far remote to trust, while all his really good friends where either part of the Order or at least educated by them. It was hard enough to distract visitors enough so that they did not notice the strange rumours making the rounds in the capital about the prince.
     Over the following years more problems arose. The strangest thing that he discovered was that most people simply could not handle blood magic. He had started a new series on experiments with prisoners facing capital punishment, empowering them with blood turning them into beasts not unlike the one he had turned himself into so many years ago. These creations of his where of course not nearly as powerful as he had been but powerful enough to move far beyond the limits of the normal human body. The shocking result was that they all went mad. Not one of them did not become insane with rage and hunger and blood-lust. What ever kind of people they had been before they had completely vanished, leaving a deformed body with an equally twisted vestige of a mind behind them. These monsters were invariably incredibly aggressive. They could never be calmed in any way and they could not be kept alive for long. They needed human flesh to live. If that was not given to them they would invariably die. Nashrin had tried feeding them with a large variety of life animals after he had discovered that creatures fed with food that was not alive did not survive significantly longer than those not fed at all. When the hunger was great enough the creatures would start consuming their own flesh eventually dying from their self inflicted disembowelment.
     But even a whole cow would not sustain a beast for long. He did find a curious correlation between how highly developed the mind of the animal was to how long the creature would survive. Nashrin entertained for a moment the idea of trying to establish a ranking of sapience among the animal world but quickly decided against it as it seemed to inhumane an endeavour for an experiment which result would be of no real benefit for anyone. He was thinking of giving up this branch of research altogether for the time being when an unexpected event brought an interesting breakthrough.
     On a cold winter day the Crying Executioner appeared in the capital. A serial murder who would strike at random performing a ritualistic execution on his victim only to leave a tear soaked letter on the scene of crime in which he expressed his deep, deep regret for having killed an innocent victim, but that he was hunting an evil force that had to be stopped to avert a greater cataclysm. He killed the old and the young, the rich and the poor, men and women with no rhyme or reason, which made it exceptionally hard to catch him. But he did not stop killing neither did he leave the city. During his active days he killed twenty-three people until he was caught by a local militia officer who became a local hero for catching him.
     Nashrin was present during his trial. The man confessed to all the murders, crying all the time apparently shaken with guilt, he admitted that he did not deserve anything less than death for his crimes but that he was doing so for the good of all mankind. There was an evil presence haunting the capital a monster of untold proportions that possessed the minds of men which only he could sense. He had to track it down and kill it before it was to late. Always when he thought he had found it it turned out that he had killed an innocent. The monster had tricked him again, laughing at his misery, but he had to go on. He begged the judges to postpone his well deserved execution until he had fulfilled his mission.
     He was deemed dangerously insane and sentenced to death so that his immortal soul was freed from the taint of his diseased body that it may find a new healthy host.
     Nashrin did not know why he chose this poor creature to experiment on. He felt truly sorry for the wretch, believing that he deserved a quick death to be delivered from his pain. But he was different to the other murderers he had used so far. All the men and the women he had worked on had one thing in common, they all felt that they were right in what they had been doing. Only the most cold-blooded murderers were sentenced to simple body death in the realm of Nashrin. This insane man was different. So he placed the Crying Executioner on a stone slab, surrounding him by ever more complex circles of invocation, carefully placing gem needles into the cardinal points of his body as conduits of power for when the blood started to flow. He then hung up three other prisoners by the feet tied up by a long strip of leather tightly wound around their twisting bodies. He nicked the insane man with his executioner's knife drawing just enough blood from him to paint the paths of transmission from him to the three donors. He then cut open the donors throats, fed a spark of power into the invocation circle to start the reaction. Once he had made sure that the flow of energy was as it should be he quickly left the cell for he did not want to be in the same room with one of the beasts once it awoke.
     Usually the beasts awoke with a start instantly in a fury. But this one was different. It awoke in silence. It got up walked around the room sniffing at the three hanging corpses, which one by one it took of the hooks they where hanging from. Then the creature proceed to place every body on the slab it had woken up upon meticulously cutting them open from pelvis to throat with a wicked claw. It then took out the heart and the liver in silence and consumed it with slow deliberation. The heads it did not touch. Nashrin tried to talk to it but to no avail. The strange new creature would just look at him without any visible reaction.
     When fed it was always very gentle, never savage like the others. It always killed following the same ritual, the ritual the madman had already used on his victims during his unfortunate life.
     Nashrin tried to drink some of its blood once, it was a chilling experience. When the blood entered his body it tainted his mind with dark whispers. Suddenly he was surrounded by shadows moving in and out of the corner of his eyes, whispering to him about his darkest secrets, asking him to trust them, warning him from an evil dark force. He felt the shadow of this horrible thing hanging all over the place like an invasive intelligence laying its mental eggs into the souls of unsuspecting minds. The effect dissipated after a few agonizing hours of doubt and terror. He almost delivered the creature form its torment after he had regained is senses but he decided with a heavy heart not to do it yet for he did not know this creatures secret.
     Again it was a lucky coincidence that helped illuminating this phenomenon. Feeling pity for the creature Nashrin had started to provide it with more and more elaborate comforts in his cage among them was a large mirror of polished steel. Once the creature saw itself in the mirror and realized that what it beheld there was not an hostile creature, for at first it had shied away from its reflection, it had started to talk. This was the first time Nashrin had heard any of this creatures say anything at all. To his surprise the voice of the thing was still perfectly human. It said only one thing: 'It was me all along.' and cried.     
     Nashrin had tried to teach the creature to talk but to no avail, all what it would ever say was 'It was me all along.' Shortly there after it stopped eating and soon wasted away.
     *                                     *                                *                                      *
   More years passed by with Nashrin's slowly advancing his science. He noticed that his blood drinking habit had one interesting side effect, even without the use of advanced shell art he retained his youth no matter how many decades passed. This of course did also become part of his legend. The prince that did never age, which after a few years turned into the prince that would not age or die as long as the realm prospered, from which it was only a short step to as long as the prince remains healthy the realm will prosper. It was then that Nashrin could not stand this barbarism in his own nation any longer. He went through great lengths to educate his own people. Once he started doing so he was shocked how deep into superstition they had sunk. Now that he was in control of his hunger and not the other way around, he became more and more comfortable with returning into the public again rediscovering his main motivation for doing all his research in the first place. He had wanted to educate the common people making them masters of their own lives instead of being at the beck and mercy of their lords and ladies who were so often so far removed from them that they might as well live somewhere in the deep jungles of the Inner World.
   It was during this time that he found his love for disguises which led him into the farthest reaches of his principalities, letting him visit the hovels of the lowliest of his subjects to listen to them telling him about their lives without reservation and fear. His visits were often followed by changes in policy or direct royal intervention for the benefit for the people. After a surprisingly short time people began to notice that the visit by unassuming strangers from far away sometimes brought great changes for the better with them, which led to a change in culture in which hospitality became one of the greatest pillars of politeness. A custom which would still be held up long after most had forgotten its origin.
   These days which Nashrin considered the most pleasant of his very long life brought another breakthrough. It came in the form of the humble leech. He discovered that while inside the leech the blood retained considerable quantities of its life force. It was not as good as fresh blood but a massive step forward to harnessing the power of blood. It was then that the Blood Tithe was introduced. The general taxes were cut even further for all who were willing to donate a bit of blood to the realm. The propaganda going with it was that money was necessary to keep the principality running but what could be a nobler sacrifice than to give some of ones own blood to once nation. Only the most petty would imply that it also meant being exempt from taxes for that month thus trading a greater pain for a considerably lesser one. Some people where so keen in their zeal to donate blood for the nation or in their greed to retain all of their money, that a new law had to be passed limiting the donation of blood to twice a year per household.
   Finally Nashrin had enough life force at his hands to conduct more advanced experiments on it trying to find new ways to conserve the energy. In time he found ways to capture the life force, first in a thick resin saturated with life blood that captured some of the life energy within its structure, later in blood crystals which could hold considerably more power. The process for making them was enormously wasteful but Nashrin had so much blood at his hands by now that he hardly knew what to do with all of it. Both the bright blue resin syrup as well as the pale golden energy crystals had interesting properties. The resin could be drunk conferring its power to the user without causing the hunger nor turning the user into a monstrosity. Excess levels of energy were vented as usual through the aura of the mage and only serious abuse over prolonged times led to reversible changes in body coloration, usually opalescent eyes and hair. While the crystals could be slotted into automatons to provide them with a power-source that was independent of a living donor.
   The realm when through a new wave of prosperity as Nashrin could produce a sufficient number of crystals to power a couple of factories in the valley of the Burnt, there he also recruited an small unit of soldiers who volunteered to try out the new resin syrup, trying to become experts in advanced magical combat. To Nashrin's mild annoyance the soldiers started to call the blue liquid 'trigger juice' because it allowed them to trigger magical effects with wild abandon only to watch in silent dismay how that expression slowly crossed over into common parlance.
   Then things took a turn for the worse. Nashrin had decided that by now he had made enough progress with his research to share it with the Order of Reason integrating himself back into the world of advanced magical research. With the power of the greatest living minds on the planet building on the foundations he had established blood magic was destined to become the next great step towards universal enlightenment for all mankind. However the Order of Reason did not react to his letters. In the end he went personally to the Pinnacle of Cognition to talk to the High Savants about his project and to bitterly complain how he was being treated only to be met by uncomprehending clerks followed by the dismissal of his research by the bureau for applicants to the position of external fellow of the order. Nashrin was furious, he insisted that he was not some external half civilized shaman but a researcher who had been educated and trained at an academy of the Order. The clerks were not impressed telling him that he never actually finished his curriculum and thus was considered no better than someone without any formal education. One of the higher ups he managed to see aster making enough of a scandal just added that he as a failed candidate of the order was actually even worse, for he had tried and failed. After all was said and done Nashrin was banned from the Pinnacle of Cognition until one of the High Savants personally wrote a letter of pardon and was escorted from the premises by armed guards.
   His fury soon turned into impotent rage when he realized how many doors his little outburst had closed. All the great researches in the part of the world where he lived were trained by the Order. The news about his spectacular performance at the Pinnacle of Cognition spread fast and soon enough only the crackpots and crazies would still talk to him. Once home he lost himself in his work again. But this time he had not the drive nor the fire he had before. What exactly was he working towards now anyway. Yes he was still having the occasional breakthrough but no matter how hard he worked, at the end of the day he was just one man and magic could not advance by his deeds alone, for that he would need the backing of the mage community. The only time he felt a bit of hope was when he was approached by the Free Agency who were very interested in his work as well as willing to invest considerable amounts of money and man power into advancing it. It sounded to good to be true, because it was. When it was time to formulate the conditions for the covenant of cooperation  it became very clear that the Free Agency did not intend in the least to share any of knowledge they gained about blood magic with anyone else. They also had the audacity to demand of Nashrin that he should never divulge any of his secrets to anyone but his official contacts at the Agency. Nashrin laughed them out of his castle.
   His little nation had turned into a little well oiled machine producing enormous amounts of base resources, refined goods and companies and guilds of all types when Nashrin seriously started to consider to call it a life. He had achieved what he wanted to, his subjects lived in peace, they were all highly educated, even the poor of his realm lived relatively comfortable sheltered lives. His research could still go on for a while. But soon there would be nothing left for him to do but watch it stagnate. He'd be an increasingly bitter old man in an eternally young body. He could hardly imagine a fate worse than that. So why not choose death, get his heavy soul entrapped until it had lost all its memories and start a fresh life. Hopefully one that would lead to something more satisfying than a dead end to a promising path.
   Tyrzo appeared pretty much out of nowhere. One day he was in Nashrin's palace walking through its many corridors looking for the prince. Nashrin was shocked to see that a perfect stranger one wearing an Order of Reason amulet no less had walked right passed his guards, his personal bodyguard and the magical wards into his personal quarters. Tyrzo was now walking towards him swords jingling happily at his side with a bright grin shining in his face. The prince thought that maybe his research was finally taken seriously, so seriously that it was deemed an abomination against nature so that the Order had sent out a squad of specially trained knights to perform a cleansing. This hardly made any sense though. The people at the Order hardly knew what he was doing at all and the usual modus operandi for all but the most heinous perpetrator of crimes against ethics were first approached by the Order to try and find a solution without bloodshed. Furthermore the amulet around Tyrzo's neck was very much like those worn by the knights but it did not show the symbol of the order but instead showed a snake coiled to form an 'S'.
   Tyrzo explained that he represented a very small group of very talented mages who had become divorced from the general research community, either by their own choice or by the choice of those to small minded to realize the scope of their vision. He apologized for his dramatic intrusion explaining that it was necessary to prove to Nashrin the he Tyrzo Galevion was not some kind of pathetic poser that was all words an not trousers. He had come to ask whether he Prince Nashrin Nirza master of the ways of blood would not want to join him and his cause. Nashrin asked him what that cause may be. Tyrzo answered that he represented the Society for the Advancement of General Enlightenment or S.A.G.E. for short whose goal it was to push humanity forward towards greatness.
   Despite initial reservations Nashrin soon began to like Tyrzo, he even got used to his ridiculous tendency towards melodrama and his bizarre sense of humour. Together they spend many nights discussing various theories about the nature of magic and how to best advance its cause. They exchanged pet theories, helping each other out in developing them further. Tyrzo showed a great interest in Nashrin's work in blood magic and for a few years turned into his apprentice. It was Tyrzo's idea to try to grow new alternate bodies that they may infuse with bits of their souls to animate them and use them as secondary bodies. Maybe with enough training they would be able to be at two or more places at once. Their experiments led to a series of disastrous results which Tyrzo found invariably hilarious and culminated in a ridiculous cloak-and-dagger operation that led them to Khirlon where they stole a sapling of one of the elder trees out of which the natives cut their brain implants. Which also ended in a failure which Tyrzo still giggled about many years later. The idea was that by using an implant that was not connected to the network of the trees of Khirlon they might be able to establish a connection between the master-mind in the original body and the slave mind in the secondary body, thereby stabilizing the soul fragment inside it. It turned out that the stupid tree could influence people on its own. The prisoners with whom they experimented invariably became very protective of the young tree and started tending to it becoming suspicious of everyone who did not pay it proper respect and whose emotions they could not sense. At least they concluded they had learnt a fair bit about the mechanisms behind the shared subconscious of the people of Khirlon and had produced proof that they were not using a form of local magic but had much rather become hosts to parasitic trees. They then argued the whole night whether it was not more correct to say that they were living in a symbiosis.
   Nashrin also got to meet Sree who was back then the only other member of S.A.G.E. all of them being outcasts from the Order of Reason gave the enough common ground to become fast friends rather quickly. There is nothing that connects people as effectively as someone else to loudly complain about. It took a while for Nashrin to take S.A.G.E. really seriously though. He did not doubt the genius of Tyrzo nor that of Sree but in the end they were just three individuals who gifted as they might be still lacked the resources to contribute in any significant way to the advancement of humanity.
   That was until the day when Tyrzo told him about his plan. At first Nashrin had laughed and called him crazy, thinking that this was another of his friends peculiar jokes but Tyrzo had been absolutely serious. After Nashrin had been shown the plans that Tyrzo had worked on so far and realized that Tyrzo's ridiculous endeavour could succeed he be became a believer.

Project Sky-Shell 021

Chapter 10 (continued and still not done)

   The drive to kill and eat was still there, strong and intense. But his mind was no longer watching helpless but had taken the reins again. He collected his thoughts. Even as he went out of control his consciousness had always been there. Watching. The power of his mind would not be denied. Not by hunger, not by thirst. He was better than that. He bared his teeth and growled in defiance, feeling his anger rise again. No! He mustn't. He calmed his feelings still snarling. The blood of the fallen still streaming into him bloating him with power. He realized that this was important. All the power he had at his finger tips it was corrupting him. He was paying the price for breaking natural laws. Usually when a mage channelled more energy than he could handle the overflow would go into his aura. The aura would start to grow around the magic user starting to shine in a bright light as it got saturated. Once the aura was full all excess power was vented into the environment in an way unique to the user. In Nashrin's case it was warm light and wind.
   Blood worked differently. The energy flowing into him was still coloured by the living bodies it came from. It was more animal than pure force, so instead of going into the aura it went into the body. The shape it took as it increased was dictated by its nature. It was animal, but did not carry a mind, it was powerful but knew no limits, it was infused into bone, muscle, claw and here it grew. The body was a hard limit with no mechanism to vent its growing power. The aura was fed through the mind but the mind only got access to the bloods power after it had saturated the body. with the summoning circle in the kings' camp every man that Nashrin killed would become part of his increasing pool of power. The only chance he had to retain his humanity was to flee. But he could not do that yet. The enemy army was still to organized. The remaining officers could still bring the army to order or worse turn it into smaller fractions fighting for supremacy devastating Nashrin's realm.
   There was still work to be done. But he could not rush it, while every cell in his body screamed at him to go out and feast on his enemies. They were so hungry. So thirsty. Nashrin invoked his shell-art bending every rule he knew about the limits of body shaping burning through enormous amounts of energy as he increased tripled his size grew an unnatural amount of muscle, thickening his bones to sustain the abomination he was turning into. While he retained some fine control over his hands he began etching transmutation circles into the metal plates of the war machine and into the rocky ground. With this he would save himself and his nation or seal its fate.
   His body was still trying to catch up with Nashrin's unnatural wishes to overwhelm his mind. Growing bone spikes from joints, sprouting extra eyes all over his body desperately trying to wire them to a newly budding secondary brain to coordinate all the additional information they provided. Nashrin used this moments of clarity to cast a complex series of hand-seals activating the summoning circles around him, dissolving mineral and steel around him absorbing it into his deformed frame. The metal covered the bone spikes, his teeth and grew into countless wires enhancing his muscles and tendons. The minerals he had extracted from the rock reinforced his bones and formed armour plates under his skin. The power of the blood was reaching its limit. His monstrous frame constantly breaking apart knitting itself reinforcing limbs where needed, dissolving tissue that was not vital to its function caused him immense pain. Most of it drove the animal part of him nearly insane with desperation, but it also worked as a beacon for his mind. It was time for him to act.

    He climbed the dead war machine, stood on top of it in his bubbling shifting body surveying the camps below him. He scanned as wide as his many eyes could see for the tell tale signs of officers. Once his main eyes had identified the patterns that would likely lead him to them he instructed his secondary brain to use the other eyes to look out for these patterns and make a map. As he stood there listening to his own terrifying howling breath he felt how the camp became known to him in increasing detail on the most instinctual level. He knew the camp now, like he knew his own body.
    His attack was so fast that most witnesses had not enough time to process what had happened. One moment the soldiers where getting ready for one of many boring nights during a siege. Then all of a sudden a fire broke out in the Kings' camp. While everyone was still trying to find out what had happened there a horrible shrieking noise had come from the war-machine. It had screamed an inhuman scream before the captured soul within it seemed to explode. Everyone within a few hundred meters of it became overwhelmed by the presence of another human inside their very souls. Infected by another man's memories, hopes, regrets and worst of all the unimaginable pain that was caused to a soul when it was burned. Many of the people who stood within the radius of the explosion became tainted by the strange presence for the rest of their lives. They banded together driven by a strange impulse to stay in the realm of Nirza and protect it establishing their own village far away from all the others.

    Once the explosion was over a horrible creature appeared on top of the war machine. While every description of the monster differed from every other they all had in common that the monster was the most vile thing that had ever walked the earth. It was said that those who stood close enough to see it clearly went mad from the sight. The thing paused for a moment before descending into the camp screaming. It burst through the camp killing the officers. All the colonels, all the majors, nearly all captains and more then half of the lieutenants where shred into pieces. All the attacks where so fast that who ever was witness to them only saw the people explode into bloodied chunks of flesh before their eyes, glimpsing for a brief moment the screaming fury that did it. A picture that would etch itself into their nightmares haunting them even after they had been reborn to a new body.
    The mercenary camp was last. As it was the custom in those parts the soldiers for hire did not camp out with the rest of the army, instead they had their tents in their own little encampment enclosed by palisades. The monster rushed inside stopping as some people swear to turn around and close the doors to the camp first before continuing on its rampage. After that it was only the noise of battle, the chaos of combat magic and then finally only screams and fire. About fifteen minutes later most of the noises died down. Only the crackling of fire could be heard as well as the thin, shrill shriek that could not possibly be human. The soldiers outside waited watching in horror. Nothing happened for a while apart from the wail slowly dying away, which encouraged the most courageous veterans to move forward to investigate what was happening. When they had broken open the front gate the wail had become a whimper. Inside there was no sign of the monster only what carnage it had left. Not one body was left in one piece. Everyone had been ripped apart, many had been partially been eaten. Only when the search party had reached the back of the camp did they find the source of the inhuman voice. Behind the last tent was the only survivor of the attack. The bones in his lower arms and legs had been broken so that they jutted out of his skin like splinters, these splinters had then been driven into the palisade fixing him on the wall.
   Nashrin was done. He had killed all the officers he could find. He had abused his power to the point where he had almost killed himself as his magic started eating away on his own soul as the blood ran out. His consciousness had remained on top of the animal directing it where it was needed, letting it do the dirty work. What happened in the mercenary camp was too much for him though. They had put up proper resistance. When he had arrived most of them were ready for combat alarmed by the chaos outside of their camp. The creature body was fast though so he still arrived fast enough to surprise and overwhelm them. He told the animal that it was important that they all died. That a horrible example had to be made. The animal had rejoiced, driven into a frenzy by the attacks of the mercenaries, elated by the sudden challenge posed to its significant powers. Only a couple of minutes later Nashrin could not watch what was happening any more. He closed his eyes to the things the beast was doing, leaving it with one last command. 'Leave someone alive to bear witness to what you have done.' The creature driven by its unquenchable lusts and its burning pride was delighted to comply.
   While his eyes remained averted his ears continued to hear, even that was almost for Nashrin to bear, especially with the feeling of triumph burning through his body. It was only after the sound of battle had died down that he chose to see the world again. He stood in the middle of the camp dyed red in blood, decorated with the remains of his enemies chuckling softly. Now it was time to shed the beast, the last hardest step. He ran, vaulting over the palisades into the woods outside the enemies camp. The sights and smells of the forest woke old memories of peaceful times where nothing like this seemed even remotely possible. The scents around him and the memories soothed the beast within him, for now filled with his enemies blood, awash with more power than it could consume it calmed. While his body kept blossoming into ever larger more unnatural forms, Nashrin envisioned his old body. He remembered how he once had been an ordinary man. All the meditations at the Order of Reason where they were taught how to map out their bodies in their minds building an inner map of their flesh so that when they were wounded in battle they could use their magic to mend it with speed and precision came back to him guiding him to his original form.
   The animal in him was still exploring the many possibilities it could grow that it did not notice Nashrin Nirza as he once was appearing inside its bulbous core. It only knew that something was amiss when it felt a pair of hands that it did not control moving within its very flesh. For a short moment the animal knew fear. Then it burst apart as Prince Nirza shed his animal self emerging blood soaked as a new man. Careful not to fall for the trap of the flesh again he used the blood of his still writhing former body to paint sigils of power on his skin giving him enough power to speed back to his own fortress, scaling its walls in three powerful bounds, collapsing at the feet of his most trusted general. Before he lost consciousness he whispered to him 'They blasphemed against nature and the realm rose against them. . ."
   A day passed before Nashrin regained consciousness. He woke up in his bed warm comfortable bed, the sun shining through the open windows, the curtains bobbing lazily bobbing in the fresh crisp air. For a moment Nashrin believed that had had just had a nightmare. The siege, the battle, all that was just a bad dream He was back home, in his bed. There were only the every day noises coming in from the out side while the sky-shell was bright blue over a a little herd of tiny fluffy clouds slowly passing by. Yet if there was no war, why should he be at home and not in the academy of the Order. Nashrin lifted his hand and watched it for a while. He turned it around, moved its fingers. he could not help but feel that this hand was not quite right, there was something foreign about it. Then there was the hunger. At first he just thought that he had just woken up with a big appetite. As he moved he felt that his body was exhausted like after days of physical exhaustion way past the point of abuse. A treatment that the Order imposed on its students regularly to harden them, to get them to know their limits. His hunger ran deeper than that though, he was not being hungry, he was hunger. Every fibre in his body, every bone was starving for nourishment it was craving the blood with a fierce intensity. Filled with a sudden terror, he threw back his sheets springing up to his feet.
   He nearly stumbled over his own feet his body was wrong in many subtle ways. It looked like his body but when he moved around he knew that it wasn't. Its size was wrong, the skin was a bit to taut, the colours of the world around him slightly to vivid, the organs inside of him, he felt them, he felt them being slightly out of place. With fear turning his alien insides into knots he slowly walked towards a window staggering slightly as if drunk. Despite resting his hands on the window sill he almost collapsed onto the ground when he looked outside. There before the city walls was the camp of an invading army, in its midst stood the ruin a an unspeakable war machine surrounded by large pyres in which bodies were burned, the merciful wind blowing the smell of charred human flesh away from his capital. He remembered all that had happened, all that he had done. At this moment he knew that this new strange hunger would now haunt him forever, reminding him of his bestial nature, tempting him where ever he went. He steadied himself what ever he had done was done. There was no time for regrets, not yet. He still had a nation to save he would have enough time to contemplate his fate afterwards.
   He had to use his shell-art on his body to make it comply. He had not enough time to learn to use this strange copy of himself, so he forced it along with magic and willpower. Once dressed he called in his generals, surrounded himself with his personal bodyguard in all their splendour and they rode out of the castle proud and unbroken into the pathetic mess that was left of his would be conquerors' armies. He rode in silence through the camp, circling his capital city once attracting the attention of the enemy soldiers, many who out of a lack of direction simply followed him, while others simply went with the crowed. So when he had closed the circle he was followed by a giant herd of confused soldiers. Before turning towards them he cast a series of hand seals which drew power out of the earth sending it along the circle he had trodden out with his retinue. As he spoke to the army his words resonated through the ground so that his words appeared to swell up from the very earth on which they all stood.
   "I am Prince Nashrin Nirza, lord of the Principality of Nirza. I have come here before you so that you may know the mercy of this land. You came here as aggressors, you invaded a peaceful country to steal its resources, to eat its food and worst of all to kill its innocent citizens. On your way here towards our proud capital you killed, you pillaged, you raped and then you had the audacity to burn my fathers soul, the soul of a just and noble man to power that monstrosity over there." he paused for a moment pointing towards the dead war machine. Most soldiers in front of him simply watched their feet, only a few actually glanced at the horrid machine quickly averting their gaze. "You came here. You insulted me and my people and you promised us nothing but death. Think you, you deserve anything but death yourselves?" again he paused he let his gaze wander over the crowd. No one dared to look him in the eye.
   "You may think that you deserve to die. Some of you without the shadow of a doubt deserve a swift death hoping that you will do better in your next life. But the time of death has passed. You have paid the price for your transgression. Two nights ago the realm itself rose in rebellion against your inhuman ways. In its wisdom nature decided to punish those most guilty." Nashrin felt ashamed for his hubris but he had to do it, it was part of his greater plan which would hopefully bring lasting piece, he would pay his dues later. "Most of you did not want to be here in the first place. You have homes to return to, in which your families wait for you. You have your trade trade that you should follow. Instead of living in peace you were forced by your lords to come here. Many of you did not want to kill, yet once on the field of battle what choice do you have, other may have given in the the frenzied blood-lust of war and given in to unnatural appetites." again he felt a pang of guilt. "But this is over now. Your kings lay dead, your generals lay dead, your officers lay dead, all the mercenaries who made death into their trade lay dead but one who was chosen by the realm to bear witness to the price you have to pay if you assault the Principality of Nirza. For this realm is peaceful by choice. Not because for a lack of power. Today I have come to help you bury your dead, to pay my respects to them for now they are enemies no more but simply lost souls in search of a new body and I have come to offer you peace. Lay down your weapons, help us repair the damage you have wrought and then you may go home. Not as a beaten army but as guests coming home from a visit at a friends place. We will shall feed you, we shall tend to your wounded."
   "It is my hope that instead with blood on your hands you will leave with peace in your hearts. You will know that the Principality of Nirza can be as great a friend as it can be a scourge to its enemies. Those who still wish for the glory of the battlefield, you can of course continue your campaign if you are willing to pay the price. To everyone else I extend my hand in friendship." he made a grand gesture towards the enemy army which served a both as a symbol of peace as well as to dispel the magic that was amplifying his voice. Before the last echoes of his speech had died down he had dismounted and was now walking towards the burnt out camp of the invader kings to pretend that he was paying his respects to these monsters.

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Project Sky-Shell 020

Chapter 10 (continued)

A wave of motion went through the camp as machine parts jerked into sudden motion leaving their resting places to automatically assemble into a towering siege engine. The machine had the look of a strange beast with the body of a large cat lying down and with the upper body of a man. The thing rested on huge threads, its eyes glowing bright like miniature suns blinding all who looked at it. The fingers of the thing ended in large claws that the war machine could use to tear down walls or grab hold of the top of them. It was pockmarked by hundreds of tiny slits and portholes which could be used to shoot out of.
   Nashrin was sick with horror as the presence of his father washed over him. As the siege automaton came to life everything around it was awash with the tormented presence of the former ruler of the country. The emissary tried to laugh but he had not anticipated the effect it had when one felt the silent screams of a soul that was being burned away. The soldiers on the enemy camp were becoming restless, their confused commanders trying their best to keep them in line without giving in to the panic. While the defenders were gripped by pure terror.
   Prince Nashrin Nirza sank to his knees. He was overwhelmed by his fathers suffering having to use all his willpower to remain in enough control of himself so as not to run away screaming from the terrifying presence that had just appeared. While he struggled to get back up to his feet the war machine opened its mouth and wailed in the late Prince's voice: "Abandon all hope!" "You will face a fate worse than death!" "Kill yourselves before it is to late!" "Kill your children!" "Kill your old and sick!" "Spear them from this suffering." "Death is the only escape!" repeating, this and similar sentences the engine moved slowly forward. The emissary looked only slightly more pleased than terrified. While the armies commanders had to practically force the soldiers to give a feeble cheer to the advancing abomination.
   Nashrin's mind collapsed, washing away his thoughts, his wishes, his principles. It collapsed until it reached the hard, unmovable core of his personality. The bit that kept him going in times of need. It was at this day that the Prince learned that this core inside of him had become hardened by his life, by his convictions, by his believes to an extent that it withstood this assault and as it endured it, it became stronger. Nashrin remembered his training at the Order of Reason, the endless hours of study mastering all the basic arts as well as delving in those deemed unsuitable for civilized men and women. He remembered who he had worked hard to become a progressive, benevolent Prince who had tempered his might with wisdom and above all knowledge.
   He realized that he would not give in to fear nor to pressure. He also knew that his people, his realm needed him now more than they had ever before needed their noble lords. Nashrin knew that now it was time to act. He stood up, standing tall and proud again on top of the wall of his castle, looking down on the invaders. His eyes narrowed in fury and he leapt from the city walls, down to where the emissary and his bodyguard stood, now watching the advance of the war machine.
   The emissary never knew what hit him. His brain had not quite registered the shadow that had appeared over him when he had already been parted into two halves by the princes' two handed sword. His face was still twitching as he feel apart one half of his body falling to one side, the other to the opposite. While he was still coming apart the hand of Prince Nirza darted forward grabbing his still beating heart ripping it out of his body.
   There was enormous power in the life force of all thinking beings. Blood carried much of that power circulating it around the body. Nashrin now held the centre of the blood stream firmly between his hand and with it a large part of its power. He concentrated for a short moment activating the tattoos he had had inscribed into his arms and over his chest. They were made in a special crystalline ink that was usually invisible but was now flowing over with the power of the dying emissaries life force. The light this produced shone so bright that the sigils could be seen as they lit up beneath the armour the prince wore. It raced up both his arms, both sides meeting in his chest closing the summoning circle that the blood had awakened.
   Nashrin did not know what would happen next. So far he had only ever experimented with his own blood only to test the feasibility of using blood as a power source for magic. Up until now he only had used small amounts. But now he drew through the heart all of the remaining life energy that had once animated the emissary into his own body. The aura of the prince almost instantly exploded in a giant blaze of energy.
   The bodyguard of the emissary still turning around to see what was happened recoiled from the flaming light of Nashrin's combat aura. The prince made a quick hand-seal to give himself a boost of speed and dashed forward. The bodyguard fell. Nashrin had weaved around them in the blink of in eye his sword passing through the soldiers a hundred times with a whirring noise. As they moved the impulse of their motion tore their bodies apart and they fell to the ground in large gory chunks of flesh and metal.
   This was not the time to engage an entire army al alone. No matter how powerful Nashrin felt right now. He could feel the rush of power fade away already as the life force of the dead emissary dissipated into the world at large alongside his soul. He had to hurry and he had to be smart about what to do next. The survival of his people depended on it.
   First he decided he needed some space to move. So he summoned a great shock-wave of air to extinguish all the fires around him in the camp. As the light all around him flickered and died leaving only the unnatural shine of the war machine to illuminate the darkened part of the camp the soldiers started to panic. Even the ones who were professional soldiers where overcome by fear.
   Nashrin sped right past all the rank and file. Most if not all of them had been pressed into service by their sovereign so that they may die for his ambitions. The prince felt no inclination to kill any of them except in self defence. What he wanted to do right now is to destroy the head of the attack. This meant killing the two kings who had banded together and getting rid of their generals.

    He had an idea where he was likely to find those he sought to kill. Indeed he found the tents of the high ranking officers in exactly the spot where he had expected them. On top of a small artificial elevation at the farthest point away from the fortress. The place even had a small wooden palisade around it so that the Kings and generals did not have to see the lowly soldiers. "All the better." thought Nashrin considering how much easier his plan would be to accomplish when hidden from side. Still so fat that it was hard to follow him with the naked eye he passed inside the leaders camp leaving the guards at its gates dead before they touched the ground. He also disposed of the honour guard that stood in front of the tent where the two Kings would sit with their staff to eat as well as discuss the general strategy.
    After the guards were taken care of Nashrin inscribed a circle into the very centre of encampment. Once he was done with the he cut and pried open the chests of the four soldiers, extracting their hears, one of them still quivering slightly in his hand, to pull out all the blood rife with energy that had yet to dissipate. Instead of consuming the blood bloating his aura even more, he directed it towards the summoning circle he had just made. The blood formed long tendrils extending from the bodies of the slain into the hearts and from there into the force field defined by the circle building up an slowly expanding cylinder of blood. Nashrin pricked his finger with the point of his sword, inhaling sharply when he accidentally cut in to deep. He ignored the pain, clasping his hands together once more activating the sigils inscribed on his body. He concentrated on the pulsating cylinder of blooded in front of him extending his aura towards it caring a thing filament of his blood with it. One it made contact with the cylinder he made a hand seal to stabilize the connection thus providing him with a steady stream of fresh energy.
    He closed the wound in his finger readying his sword to assault the large central tent in which the generals of the army were feasting with their two kings. Nashrin considered to expand his consciousness into the tent so gauge the situation, but decided against it as he did not want to risk early discovery by one of the attendants. He did not know how powerful any of them were and at least the leader of the mercenaries was bound to be a capable warrior who would notice Nashrin's attempts of peeking.
    Instead he depended on his inhuman speed and the element of surprise. Snarling he stormed into the tent sword at the ready. Enhanced by magic it took in the scene in front of him in a quarter of the time it took to blink once. There stood a long broad table in the middle of the tent. At one end sat the two kings side by side with five generals sitting to the right and six to the left. The sixth being the leader of the mercenaries. Sitting to the right of the kings the mercenary was given the highest honour achievable for a soldier for hire, the left hand side being reserved only for the most favoured of subjects. Around the table stood a number of servants attending to the men around the table as weel as a highly decorative dozen of terminally bored honour guards of unknown skill.
    Nashrin decided to attack the left first. The greatest threat came from the mercenary leader. With the sword stretched out he shot towards him cutting of the heads of the five generals sitting between him and his target. By the time he severed the fifth head and the first started had past the peak of its arc on the way to the ground, the mercenary had pulled out his own sword blocking the advance of Prince Nirza.
    Nashrin decided to continue more with more caution. The generals were all incompetent fighters with the honour guard obviously chosen primarily for their looks as they were still staring wide eyed at the carnage unfolding in front of them. He could disregard them. But the mercenary was already up on his feat his blade in the space Nashrin had occupied only one heart beat ago. No matter how much power he had gained through the blood being run through by a sword would still kill him like any other man. Nashrin cast a quick seal send the fountains of blood gushing out of the necks of the five dead generals into the holding field he had created.
    He feinted an attack, only to be almost hit by a swarm of flying daggers cast out by the mercenary. By the time Nashrin had side stepped they the had turned into a cloud of daggers by the mercenary using his own form of combat summonings. The other five generals had now stood up, drawing their swords turning towards their attackers while the honour guard was now also rushing towards him. He had not given the guard enough credits as the ones closest to him were using summoning circles tattooed into their skin to activate their protective shell-arts while those who stood further behind where furiously casting hand seals to summon magical attacks.
    But they were to slow. The guards to Nashrin's left were killed by the dagger cloud summoned by the mercenary, while those to his right could not keep up with his speed. He had moved past their defensive line before it was completely set up and had proceeded to cut of the hands of the two summoners in the back with a few quick motions. One of them ignited as the magic he was waving broke down causing a strong energy back-lash, while the other stared in disbelieve at the stumps at the end of his arms, watching his blood forming long tentacles flowing out of the tent as they were drawn into the summoning circle outside that was now itself gaining in power as it was gorged with the life force of several humans.
    The mercenary did not wait for the daggers to do their work, instead him somersaulted on top of the table positioning himself between Nashrin and the two kings. Using his sword to wave a defensive pattern in front of him he started to cast strange seals using only one hand, tapping on pressure points on his upper body and head. Nashrin took advantage of the short break in the attack to kill the remaining five generals, creating a protective barrier between him and the mercenary. He boosted his speed again, speeding up his body to a point where the heat created by his movements built up to life threatening levels. If he was not careful now he would end up cooking himself. The power of the blood was such that he was quickly reaching the limits of his mortal body.

   He would have to think of something. But not now.
First he had to protect himself. His sword streaked through the five remaining generals, cutting them into large chunks of meat and bone. With quick flicks of his wrist he turned them into a wall of flesh obscuring him from the sight of the mercenary. Nashrin cast a quick seal of repulsion sending the meat in front of him forward like a surging wave. He followed right behind it using it to mask his advance. The wave splashed passed the mercenary decorating him with carnage while Nashrin's sword met the mercenaries left eye and unexpected resistance.

    By the time his attacker had reached him the skin of the mercenary had turned to stone. A regular blade would not cut it. Sooner would a blade break than pass through it. While Nashrin's blade came to a quivering halt a millimetre before the still vulnerable eye ball almost nicking it with the tip of the blade, the mercenary charged his weapon with power. The braziers behind him and the burning man to his left were extinguished as he drew out their power replacing fire with blossoming frost lighting up his sword with unnatural light. Now this was a weapon that could have cut even through his rock skin hardened through decades of practice and combat experience. He mercenary angled his sword towards the screaming Nashrin who was screaming in fury, his bright aura flickering like a bonfire in a storm. When he was about to silence him the mercenary felt a sudden sharp pain in his eye.
    Nashrin was now drawing on the blood more and more. He used its power to withstand the heat building up in his body. His feet now leaving smouldering footprints on the table on which he stood. He used the blood to make his sense ever faster seeing the weapon of his opponent ignite and move slowly towards him. He used the blood to increase his strength further and further. He started screaming as the muscles began to rip out parts of the bone to witch his tendons were attached. He screamed as his forced his body back into health. He screamed as he consumed more and more and more blood for ever more strength, for more resilience as the other's weapon came now so close as to melt a hole into his armour. He screamed now in triumph as the metal began to peel away on the edges of his sword as he forced it past the impenetrable skin into the eye of the mercenary. Like metal shavings the erstwhile edges of his weapon began to peel away s he forced it onto the brain of the mercenary who dropped his sword moving his hands towards his face, but he died before they reached their goal.
    The sword of the mercenary fell into the table, the wicked blade dissolving the wood in seconds. It feel further into the ground were it started to boil the earth around it slowly sinking away, leaving a quickly cooling scorch mark behind.
    The rest was easy. Nashrin killed the surviving guards with his bare hands, leaving his ruined sword quivering in the still twitching body of the mercenary general. After he had finished the guards he stood, blazing in front of the two kings.
    "You dared attack my realm, you killed my father," as he was saying this the two kings stumbled backwards from him in terror, "you DARED to put his soul in a furnace!" his voice was turning into a roar. He wanted to say more, wanted to break them, but not kill them. Wanted to take them back and make them suffer. But his thoughts were becoming overcome by his rage and hatred. He felt the blood pulsing through his body. He felt his shell-art going out of control. His teeth elongated into fangs, his nails turning into talons, while his muscles started to bulge straining against his armour. He sprang forward dismembering the two screaming men with his claws and teeth. He ripped out their hearts and ate them. He tore open their bellies and took their livers. And ate them.
    Driven by his insane fury he rushed outside, taking the palisade with one leap running towards the moaning siege engine. He had to stop it. He had to silence it. The sounds it made drove him even more towards raging insanity. The few soldiers who dared oppose him were ripped apart so fast that they left blood red clouds where they had been standing foolishly standing their ground.
    When the thing that had been Prince Nashrin Nirza had arrived at the siege engine and killed all of the people inside it and around it and ripped out wires and cables and broken mechanisms. It noticed that the engine was still moving. It was still crying. Still screaming in that horrible voice. The creature was furious. It killed more people in its rage but it noticed that this did nothing to stop the machine nor to sooth his fury. So it thought, while it kept raging. It had an idea. The kings. They had to know.
    So it went back to the tent were it had started its rampage took the mangled bodies of the fallen kings, broke open their skulls to eat their brains. He savoured them, tasting their knowledge, the infuriating evil thoughts and at last! The way the machine worked. The way it got its power. They way it could be destroyed. Now it knew.
    He felt an urge to consume more brains. But it resisted. It had to stop the machine. It had to save what it now remembered again to be his father. He rushed back into the horrible automaton. The carnage he witnessed making him feel a strange revulsion he could not quite fully grasp. With his taloned hands he ripped open armoured plates until he had uncovered the core that was powering the machine. A large metal ball containing a thick, round glass flask that held within the golden glow of a human soul. With a scream he shattered it on the floor. For a short moment he was immersed in the presence of his father. His being was all around him. He felt a wave of relieve permeating his being. Both from within himself and from what he knew was his dead fathers soul.
    He also felt the surge of hunger. This was so much more powerful, so much more pure than the blood he had tasted. He lost control again and started feasting on the quickly dissipating aura around him. As he consumed the presence around him he felt how the war relief that had surrounded him was turning into cold terror. Never mind, that was just a minor distraction. As he continued gorging himself he suddenly saw his fathers face twisted in agony before his eyes. It was then that Nashrin realized what he had been doing. He instantly stopped, dropping to his knees becoming fully human again feeling dread enveloping him at the thought of what he had almost become.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Project Sky-Shell 019

Chapter 10 Prince Nashrin Nirza

Prince Nashrin Nirza loved to travel incognito. A long time ago when he was still a boy he had fallen of his horse while out on a ride. The stupid animal had left him battered and unconscious in a ditch while it returned home in a panic. He had been found by a charcoal burner who had no idea who it was he had found there lying in his forest. He carried the kid into his little hovel treating the wounds of the young prince and feeding him. The prince had wanted to tell the man who he had just saved, but he noticed how differently he was treated by this humble man. In the castle everyone lived in constant terror from the wrath of his tempestuous father with no one willing to risk his ire. But here was this man who could not have been further in station than young Nashrin, who treated him in a strange but pleasant way. It took the prince some time to discover that he was treated with true kindness. An event that would shape his personality for ever.

    The charcoal burner only discovered who his guest was on the next day when soldiers sent out by Nashrin's father had arrived at his hut to ask him whether he had seen the lost prince. The poor man nearly a heart attack. While he had seen that the child he had found was from a nobler stock than him he had assumed that it was the son of a merchant or something like that. Not the heir apparent. That very moment the kindness was gone replaced by the same form of subdued fear that people of power so often confused for respect.
    The prince saw this as a challenge. For one he tried his best to befriend the charcoal maker who could hardly refuse the presence of the prince whose life he had saved. Especially as he had been awarded the exclusive right to use the bounties of the forest in which he ranged as he saw fit. It took years until the man started to relax again around the prince, but it was good practice. Nashrin learned that the common people lived lives that he could not have imagined before. There were so many things that he had taken for granted. There were amounts of poverty that were simply beyond his understanding until he was confronted with them and even them he found hard to grasp.
    He knew he had to do something. One day when his father was no more, he would become the next ruler of this modest realm and when that time came it was his responsibility no his duty to improve the lot of his subjects. He also knew now that no one would ever tell him the truth about anything important because they'd be to afraid of his or his fathers wrath, later he also learned that those closest to him would often try to twist the truth to their own advantage. So one of the things he put an enormous amount of effort in was the development-of his shell-art so that in time he could shift his appearance.
    The main problem with that was the Shifters Tell. Everyone who changed his form to hide his true identity would always have eyes of two different colours. No one knew why this was so but it was an irreversible truth of nature. For a while he experimented with coloured glasses that would hide the colour of his eyes in subtle ways. But the Shifters Tell would bleed through, changing the colour of his hair on one side of his head or make him speak with two voices at once. No matter what he tried the Tell always knew. He never stopped working on the shell-art mastering it to a impressive degree while still relatively young but he never found a solution to this particular problem.
    When it was time for him to seek a proper education he fought with tooth and nail to be sent to the academy of the Order of Reason. A plan his father was opposed against at first, seeing the Order as a bunch of meddling zealots who did not respect other countries borders nor their cultures. But in the end Nashrin succeeded in convincing his father, telling him that as his son he would hardly fall for their rather obvious propaganda but would instead return with a handful of their secrets which in turn would make the realm stronger. His father saw the wisdom in that as he was easily motivated by greed.
    Of course the main factor which allowed young Nashrin to withstand the propaganda of the Order of Reason was that he had been a long time convert. There was nothing stronger than fact to back up an opinion. He also had witnessed first hand how the general populace that had hardly an education to speak off was kept entangled in a network of dangerous superstitions. However what he had told his father was not wrong either. With the techniques of the Order, their vast libraries and their practical knowledge Nashrin would return to reform his nation for the better. He would free his people from the shackles of ignorance turning the realm into a nation exemplifying the virtues of progress.
    He was well into the third year of his four years of studies at the academy of the Order, having distinguished himself as one of the best students to have ever passed its doors, surpassing even the reborn members of the Order themselves when disaster struck. Two neighbouring kingdoms had banded together, pooled their resources to bolster their military with mercenary troops as well as wizards for hire and had attacked his home. When the messenger arrived he told Nashrin that his father had fallen in battle and that the enemy forces had taken his body with them.
    As he rushed back to his home as fast as he could he knew that what ever happened he would not be able to finish his education at the Order for he would either die in battle like his father or he'd be needed to reconstruct his realm from the ruins of war.
    When he arrived at his castle the enemy forces were only a few days away from the capital. So far they had crashed their way through the unprepared nation and now that they had taken its regent they would not stop until their flags were flying from the ancestral Nirza castle. Nashrin commanded all the troops to retreat concentrating all his power in the capital. They would need every bit of what little military power was left.
    They watched in terror as a tide of enemy soldier sloshed over the horizon soon flowing around the city walls of the capital in an angry tide. Nashrin did not know what to do. They were hopelessly outnumbered. While the attackers had to many people to feed for any prolonged time, there were to many of them. The walls would not hold for ever. The elite mercenaries were not stopped by the walls and their protective runes and neither were the war mages. He did not even have to worry about his people dying of hunger. The assault would not last a week and they would all be dead.
    The situation changed the next day. A little group of people road towards the the main gate and demanded to talk to the Prince. Nashrin expected that they would dictate to him his terms of surrender. Something he did not plan to accept until he had walked all the way from his palace to the main city gate. On his way there he had seen the faces of the citizens. Their mortal fear, their sorrow. When he had climbed the wall to talk to the emissary through the shimmering curtain of the protective field protecting them from arrows and invaders running up the wall he had changed his mind. He would have mocked the emissary and fought until the bitter end, but he knew by now that he would have done so out of his own pride and in doing so he would doom his people.
    But the emissary did not come to offer peace. He came to gloat. "Nashrin Nirza." he said "Your days are numbered and so are those of all men, women and children in this pitiful realm of yours. Well apart from those that are found suitable to become slaves, although having seen your women and children here I do not think that there will many who might qualify for that honour. Prepare yourselves to find your painful way into your next incarnation for tomorrow when the sun sets your city walls will be breached as if they were nothing but a cobweb in the path of a giant and all of you will be slaughtered. The sewers would overflow with your blood and everyone within the city will know utter despair because all this ruin will be brought about by your own Prince."
    The Prince was raging internally but he kept himself under control. "Never in this life or any other will I willingly allow for anyone of my subjects to come to harm." he spat. He wanted to continue but he was interrupted by the emissaries laughter.
    "Not by you, you silly boy. But by the prince himself. By your father." he said with a smile in his voice.
    How was Nashrin supposed to answer to such a preposterous claim. While he was still thinking about a proper response a tremor shook the earth, the air was filled by a deafening thunder.
    The emissary made cast a hand-seal to amplify his voice over the noise. "What you witness now is the birth of a new war-machine made possible through the use of forbidden scrolls found in a forgotten sanctuary of Shar Nizlaal. It is an unstoppable juggernaut powered by nothing else but your fathers burning soul."

Project Sky-Shell 018

   Chapter 9 (continued and finished)

When Lex regained consciousness he was looking up into the blue sky, his head on Julin's lap her face shielding him from the glare of the Sun. "Crap." he thought. This was not quite how it was supposed to happen. While he was counting on Sired in Vain draining him he did not intend to faint. That had been very unsmooth. While it did have certain advantages lying in the grass with Julin stroking his hair it still represented an embarrassing mishap.
    "I have no idea why you insist on using that sword." Julin said "There is no way you could ever use it in battle without getting yourself killed. Except that you enemies might think you just died of a sudden stroke." she looked Lex in the eye with eyebrows arched.
"I am testing a hypothesis." Lex replied.

    "Really? What is it this time? Last time you were trying to test your personal limits of power. Surely by now you should know how far you can go before you faint like a fragile damsel in distress."
"Obviously not as I did faint again. That. Was not supposed to happen." Lex said while his mind began to analyse what had happened. Julin was right in a way, by now he could tell very well how much of his life-force he could use before passing out with great precision. While he had not set out to find this out it had proven to be of advantage. He could push himself further anyone else of his generation and age because of this. He knew how much more he could squeeze out of himself without risking his ability to keep on fighting while everyone else was working on very rough estimates. He looked Julin in the eyes. "Nevertheless, while not exactly what I wanted I am at the point that I needed to be. See our main problem in combat is our personal energy limit. While we are able to use the energy around us to fuel or powers this is not always easy. Making hand-seals with swords in our hands is pretty nigh impossible and our artefacts do not always sport the summoning inscriptions we need for the situation at hand."

    "Yes Lex I know." Julin made a hand-seal consisting of most of her fingers covering her mouth and her index the side of her nose, she used that to summon her patience. "As you may remember I too have lived an entire life time, like you and like you I am well aware of the basic principles of our fighting style. Surprising, I know!" Lex wanted to speak up but Julin pushed a finger against his lips to shut him up. "Be very careful what you say now, if you start lecturing I will go have a bath and an early dinner after which I may return to you to see if you are finished. Is that clear?"
    Lex nodded. "It's not quite done yet." he said weighing his words carefully. "I wanted to show you my invention only after it was done. But it needs serious field testing and I need your help." after a short pause to make sure that Julin was still listening instead of trying to flee he continued. "We waste a lot of energy in every fight. While it looks rather splendid to vent surplus force as light or wind or heat, it is also a horrible waste of power. So I worked on a way to preserve as much of it as possible." He was now getting more animated. "Our Armour is bulky enough, most of it is just there to intimidate our enemies, filled with a lot of air, I was actually contemplating installing little drawers into mine so as to use that space in a more efficient manner and . . ." he caught Julin's impatient gaze which informed him of the importance to get to the point. "I installed mechanisms to store the power in my armour." he blurted out to stop her from leaving.
    It worked. Julin look at him blinking.
    "Watch!" he said as he started to manipulate small levers that he had discreetly worked into his armour's design. A clicking and whirring sound came out of the inside of it while Lex raised from the ground in slightly unnatural motions. "See? I just give subtle commands with my body while the armour does the rest." He changed into a combat stance and followed through the motions of one of the basic flows of assault. "Works perfectly well with all of the basic level types of movements. Feeds directly from the muscle memory." He changed his stance changing mid movement into a flow of repulsion, the transition was jerky which gave it a strange unnatural aspect.

    "At first I had problems of retaining the energy when shifting the armour away. When it returned all energy stored in crystal was gone. But the I had an idea. High magic did not work so I used lowly mechanics." he finished his flow now near the combat dummies carved out of rock where he started another flow of assault "Springs and coils, things like that. They can't hold much energy but they retain it through shifting. You can then use the energy stored in them to either recharge the storage crystals or into direct motion" he finished his flow with a strong open palm strike crashing into the stone dummy in front of him sending cracks crawling all over it.

    Julin was rather impressed by now. She looked at Lex's unmoving figure for a while considering what she had just seen. "Do our instructors now about this?"
    "Yes." Lex said still remaining in his impressive striking position. "They told me to stop wasting my time with building childish toys. Instead I should focus on cultivating my inner force."
    "How very progressive of them." Julin smirked.
    "Well did not stop me from working on it. Even if it is a waste of time it is an interesting challenge."
    "Lex." Julin asked.


    "Why are you still in that ridiculous pose?"
"er... well... this is one of the problems. When the armour runs out of power and the user is drained. Then... er... I am stuck."

    "Oh for progress sake." Julin rolled her eyes. "And here I was almost impressed by what you had achieved."
"I am getting there!"

    "I am going to have to wade in and save you, am I not?"
"It, is not that hard you just have to work my crank a bit until there is enough energy build up to set me in motion again. That'll release the clogged up mechanism."

    Julin stifled a laugh. "Did you really just say that?"

"That came out wrong, didn't it?"

    "Very much so. Now let me see if I can't help you with that crank of yours. . ." Julin said as he approached the reddening Lex.
                 *           *              *            *

Julin and Lex did spend the entire night talking about the possibilities of an armour that would store energy for at least short periods of time. The advantages to such equipment were numerous. Their discussion was only interrupted once when they drifted to far from reasonable thought into increasingly blatant innuendo, which they go rid of by a short intermezzo of passionate sex. After they got lost again in their theories.

    Neither of them had to get up early the next day. Yet they both failed to appear on time to their respective classes. Lex got away lightly this time around as the professor teaching the class on advanced heterogeneous transmutations did not expect anything less than utter failure from him, so he simply got away with look of expected disappointment.
    Julin on the other hand got into serious trouble for a change. She had to attend sparring practice with professor Nayto, who was known for his tempestuous temperament. While he did treat Julin with more respect than anyone else, he also expected her to set a proper example to all other students. To make matters worse High Savant Thelian herself had come to the class asking for Julin. So when she arrived she was not only late but had also shamed professor Nayto before the High Savants of the Order. Later it was said that his screams could be heard to the deepest flowstone pits inside the Pinnacle of Cognition.
    Julin hurried away from the irate professor only partially under the pretence of not wishing to let the High Savant wait any longer. She had to fight back her tears that were welling up in her eyes because of the utter shock of being so thoroughly thrashed by a professor, especially because it was Julin's fault. She had seen other people get similar verbal beating but this time was the first time she was on the receiving end. It was even more worse than it looked like.

    Lex did not see Julin until much later that night. He had been more and more worried as the day wore on, with the rumours of what had happened and what the consequences of that were likely to be kept getting worse by the hour. When she finally did appear she was very quiet. Lex wanted to comfort her but she dismissed him telling him that she needed some time for her self. When he did not move she told him that she was OK. The High Savant had, she had hesitated for a moment before she continued, High Savant Thelian had asked her to go out on a mission which would start her three decades as a wayfarer knight early. Before Lex could ask any further questions she had left him.
    Lex did not quite understand what was going on. He had no idea why the would send Julin on the wayfarer journey before she had finished her training. That was highly irregular even if she was Kana Ganris reborn. That privilege only carried her so far and never beyond the bounds of the rules of the Order. The rules where there for a reason. The rules where there for everyone. With no exceptions. So this meant that she had probably been appointed with some kind of mission that went above and beyond the normal duties of a prospective knight. But then would that not be a high honour?
    If Julin was thinking of refusing the mission because she had promised him that they would set out into the world together, he would have to tell her, as much as that hurt him, she had to go ahead. There were things that were more important that personal feelings. They both new that. Despite their young bodies with their rebellious impulses they knew from a life-time of experience how important it was not to do what felt right but what actually was right. Was that not in the end what the Quest for Reason amounted to? Not giving into the the gut feelings that so often led one astray but instead to base ones thoughts and actions on fact?
    Lex was determined to tell Julin not to hesitate but follow through with whatever mission the High Savants had entrusted her. He would do that first thing in the morning.
    When he arrived at her room the next day he found that she had gone, leaving only a letter addressed to him. It told Lex that she had a lot on her mind that she had to sort out on her own. She would have to go away for a day or two in order to see clearly what she had to do. Lex relaxed a bit. Now this was much more like the Julin he knew. When ever strange moods struck her she walked away from the Pinnacle to wander her favourite mountains and valleys alone. Lex wondered why she could not have told him that in person the night before, that way he need not have worried. They could have also have spent the night together before she left. He left Julin's room sulking.
                                   *         *           *          *

    The following days Lex got lost in work. Even more so than usual. Without Julin he was still very much an outcast. The two of them becoming a couple had made matters worse. If that was even possible. The professors where now even more worried about him dragging her down, while his classmates now could add jealousy and envy to their hate list. Fuelled with the new found vigour of youth the hostilities had become more open again.
    So here he was in the workshops late at night when no one was there any more so that he could work on his pet project without being disturbed. During the days he was on the training field working on his techniques. There had been a few challenges when he was sill in his new body was still sixteen and well below par. But no matter what body you out in he had a hundred years of combat-training. Soon the challenges stopped. Lex remembered that he felt secretly disappointed by this. It was the only way he could vent his frustrations and show his worth to everyone else. Julin would have probably smacked him for thinking that. He regarded his four regular swords as he was trying to think of a way of channelling mechanical power from or to them. But he could not think of anything. He sighed and gave up on them for now. He had enough trouble with the armour as it was, before that was not done he needed to ignore the sword problem no matter how much it irked him.
    The next day he worked his armour hard until it was creaking with pent up tension, the glowing gem-wire trimmings pulsating with power sparking ever so often as they could not contain all the potential energy Lex had stuffed into the crystals. He slowly pulled out Sired-in-Vain routing the power stored in the armour into the sword, carefully powering it. The plates creaked, the mechanisms inside started whirring and ticking away pumping energy into the blade slowly making it solid. But it was not nearly enough. The last click had died away and Sired was not filled even to a fourth of its nominal capacity. The blade, if you could even call it that, barely held together hanging flaccid from the grip in a way that made Lex feel extremely self conscious. Luckily no one was paying him any attention.
    To make matters worse the armour's mechanisms had locked into place again leaving him immobile. This time with no Julin in sight to help him out of it. At least this time Lex had still great amounts of life-energy left to burn. Of course it was very hard to use that as he wasn't able to form any helpful hand-seals or touch any of the summoning structures etched into the armour plates. So he had to carefully manipulate strands of energy out of his fingertips into the conductor wires. Which turned out to be as easy as threading a needle with one hand out of the corner of the eye.
    Ten sweaty minutes later he could finally move again. He gave up on Sired-in-Vain for the day and decided to work on his one and a half sword style. Another reason why he was generally mocked by everyone. The knights of the Order used either one two-handed greatsword of sorts or two heavy long swords. While Lex had forged a one and a half hander which could be used with either one or two hands, that he had called Farward's Razor. He liked the flexibility it gave to him. In most situations Farward was enough. Big and have to cause serious damage even against armoured opponents, while at the same time being light enough to be wielded in one hand. Lex liked to switch hand's in mid combat. It confused his opponents and again added flexibility.
    He had started using both hands because to add to the shame of his low birth he happened to be right handed. Which of course was the feeble hand of the small minded. Everyone knew that it was the left-hand path that led to power. Will those who followed the 'right' way got lost in details, losing contact to the world and never being able to truly understand the big picture.
    So Lex had worked long, very long and hard to become proficient with fighting with his right hand. His tendency to switch hands back again had exasperated him to no end but in time he learned to control the reflex as well as noticing that he could use that to his great advantage. He was never caught of hand and could adapt to what ever obstacle the terrain present him with.
    Of course that had been wrong too. He was told off for his sloppy style. Some of the more orthodox teachers had told him that he was cheating or at least fighting without honour. In the end he stuck to it. He was going to be treated like an idiot anyway. So he might as well be an idiot that did the things the way he felt most comfortable with. An attitude that helped him a lot later in his first life. As everything he did was pretty much wrong by default he could as well do what ever he liked. He was sure that had he been treated like everyone else most of his later research would not have happened. Like the one and a half sword style for example.
    The problem arose when Lex was expected to use two swords. In most cases he was more effective with using the reinforced arms of his armour for protection while just using Farward's Razor. A second sword of comparable size did not help at all. It actually made fighting for Lex much harder as the other weapon was constantly getting in the way. Much to the grim nods of his trainers which showed that they had known that his strange little style had been doomed from the very beginning.
    He took the challenge. At first he was thinking of just working on it until the got the knack for the two sword style. But the scorn heaped on him pretty much forced his hand, just like with the great sword he would find a solution. Niva style.
    He did that by examining the weaknesses his sword style had. Where were openings on his part, where were holes in his foes defence that he could not take advantage off. In the end he concluded what he had been told on the first day of sword training. There was no sword that was perfectly suited for every situation. That was the reason why the Order used either the greatsword or two longswords, both were very versatile blades which worked best in scenarios where the other left something to be desired.
    Farward's Razor was pretty good in both longsword as well as broadsword scenarios, yet excelled at none. So he decided that what he needed were a variety of short light swords that excelled at one or two things. That way they were easy to wield, easy to draw and sheath in the heat of battle, while allowing Lex to react with the highest flexibility to each situation. And flexibility was one of the highest virtues of the Order of Reason.
    This led to three new swords. The first one was Elias which Lex nicknamed 'The Messenger' a blade excelling at speed above all other things. Perfect for quick stabs and deflecting all manners of attack. Short and light it was very fast to enter combat and leaving it again. Lex worked its sheath into the back plate of his armour. Training for days drawing and sheathing it before he even used it in combat training at all.
    While the added sword did help enormously in duels it became clear quite quickly that it was not good enough. So Lex forged a companion to Elias which he called Renna, he nicknamed it 'The Furious' a blade made primarily for offence. The top of the blade was thin and flexible able to sneak past armour plates, with one sharp and one serrated edge. Towards the hand guards Renna's became increasingly thicker giving it the stability to convert most of the power behind the thrust into raw power.
    This combo worked for a long while leaving no real openings which Lex could not exploit. But there were a couple things that he was still not quite happy with so in the end he added a third sword to his personal collection. Decades after the other three. This one he called Cadred which he nicknamed 'The Bloody', partially because it was bloody hard to use properly and because it would make a horrible mess in real combat. One thick heavy iron lump with two blades forged into one in the form of a cross, with little edge but a fierce point. It could penetrate most types of armour with exception of heavy plates and boasted folding hooks that opened when the blade was pulled out of the victim.
    Cadred caused Lex enormous amounts of grief. It was deemed a horrible weapon of inhumane savagery. A blemish on the honour of the knights of the Order. He almost gave up on it until Julin told him that if he added a chain to the back he could use it as a grappling hook and call it a tool. Maybe one day when a wayfarer knight the day would come when he was fighting barbarians who did not care about honour, then Cadred may save his life. Until then it would make a help full gadget.
    And that was what happened. He attacked a chain to the pommel, connected it to an inside reel and so was his internal grappling hook born. He later added a coil to the reel making it a very early prototype of his newest additions. To his shock and confused delight his combat instructor had been actually pleased with Lex's newest invention say that he had turned an evil divide into an useful tool, showing that he was actually capable of grasping the basic tenets of the Order. It looked like he would make a good knight. Eventually. In a couple of lives.
    Lex had forgotten the passage of time as he worked through his combat routines. He became aware of his laboured breathing and the stitches in his side. He was now all alone on the training field. The others had left for dinner. Even the day had become bored of his exercises and had left the realm of the Order to go and watch a place where something actually exciting was happening. Lex sheathed his weapons and limped back to his rooms.
    After a quick dinner he went back to his workshop to implement an idea he had during the time he stud locked like an idiot on the field. He inserted a small wind-up clockwork mechanism to the armour which could be wound by hand or failing that would do so on its own during normal movement and would only ever engage when the rest of the armour ran out of tension and locked up, that way it released the jammed mechanisms allowing Lex to keep moving.

    The next day Julin had still not returned from her excursion which started to seriously worry Lex. He always felt a slight apprehension when she left on her own, but he knew that he could handle herself at the very least as good as him. The land which the Order of Reason called its home was a sparse mountain region that was close to being a wasteland, but it had little in ways of danger for those used to its harsh environments. No one their age knew the mountains better than Julin did.
    And yet.
    And yet he worried. It had been four days now that Julin had gone. She never left for more than a day during their main training blocks and even then only under the most extreme circumstances. While she was forgiven her absence because of her status, she was to much of a professional to actually skip classes. Yet here she was absent during course days with nothing but a hasty note left behind. Something was not right.

    At first Lex tried to talk to his tutors and the professors. But no one took him seriously. They informed her that a High Savant had personally asked for Julin, apparently giving her a special mission. The was obviously a high honour as well as an enormous responsibility even for Julin Ganris. So she had prudently decided to get out of the Pinnacle of Cognition to meditate on her new responsibilities. Lex should stop worrying and wait for her return.
    Lex did not stop worrying. He new Julin to well, he had to find out what had happened. He pretty much knew all the paths Julin took on her outings by heart, having accompanied her countless times in this life and their last. So as the last lights of day were fading he left the Pinnacle to go and look for her.
    He had walked through the night, knowing that Julin would hardly get into any trouble that near to home. The roads where broad illuminated at night and always kept in perfect condition. Another point of pride of the Order. Within its borders the infrastructure was kept in perfect condition at all times. This was for practical reasons as well as to show the contempt the Order of Reason felt towards the 'lesser' nations surrounding it. The first rays of light were lighting the sky-shell above when Lex reached the trail Julin usually took to get into the deeper wilderness.
    Focusing his power he powered his armour to move in short bursts of speed. Stopping every kilometre or so to have a good look around for any signs of her friend.
    It was not quite midday when he finally found her. Julin was lying on the flat slope of a little hill, overseeing a little brook tumbling its rocky path down a valley to fill up a large mountain lake. She had obviously fallen asleep looking at the sea. Lex exhaled in relief. Julin always said she was going to meditate a bit always falling asleep after a short time. Especially when there was flowing water near her. She said the sounds that water made relaxed her. Back in the fortress she had the tendency to open her window at night when it was raining. She said that she slept better listening to the rain.
    "Julin. What were you thinking!" Lex call out as he approached her. He was now feeling his anger rising. It was not like Julin to behave in such an irresponsible way. Especially if there was something troubling her. She could at least have the decency to tell him about it. "Julin! Wake up. You've been hiding from your duties" and your friend he added silently, "for long enough."

    He was now almost at her side, wondering if he should kick her, very gently, back into the waking realm. It was then that he noticed that her clothes had holes in several places. He rushed towards her and knelt beside her. Her skin was cold to the touch and she was no breathing.

    Julin was dead.
    All emotions drained from Lex. For a moment he did not know what to do. He sat down beside Julin and looked at the lake for a while, his mind flat out refusing to take in the situation. The sun had moved passed its Zenith shining directly into his face before he started moving again. He turned to Julin examining her corpse. Her body was riddled in stab wounds, but there was no blood to be seen anywhere. She was also not wearing her armour. Which was strange. Now the most important part was to take her amulet. Thank Reason for her unearned privileges that had afforded one of the few soul saviour stones!

    He would rush right back to the Pinnacle of Cognition. They would take one of the bodies they kept on reserve for situations exactly like these and they would bring Julin back. That way they could find out who killed her and why. And they could be together again.
    He picked up the amulet. "Don't worry Julin. I'll get you back home." he said. As it twisted in his hand he saw that the stone on the back side of the amulet had been cracked.