IC: Kalzok - The coast of The Strip, Near the Fortress of the Nakihl
Kalzok awoke to the sound of chattering bones.
The Skakdi pushed himself off his cot, taking a moment to steady himself in the bowels of the ship he was travelling on. The cabin was largely empty save for a few crew members off-duty, but these too were awaken by the rattling and clacking of bones on metal. The more experienced crew seemed more annoyed than anything, returning to their dice game, while the younger ones looked apprehensive.
Mercy for the unlearned, Kalzok reflected sardonically. He had no such worries and made his way to the upper deck. As he emerged from the hold, the stench of seawater hit his nostrils. Overhead, the sun beat down furiously, without a cloud in sight. The deck was reasonably crowded and busy with crew and even some passengers preparing for disembarkation, and Kalzok knew why from the sound of rattling: they were close to their destination.
Kalzok looked out towards Zakaz. They were close to the shore of the Strip, the land between the Burning Steppes and the Crown. He knew the sound for what it was: The sound of abandoned rattle-totems clicking and clacking, sounds that drifted on the wind, their asynchronous beats meant to ward off, variously, the spirits of the Criebe:Dii or placate the spirit of Nektann. These were placed in the ground on the edge of the Steppe, and the fact that they could hear them now while still at sea meant that the ship was turning towards the coast, and their destination.
Here in the open sea, the rattling sounds came and went with the wind, as if the spirits themselves were circling over the ship. Kalzok again noted some deckhands, especially the Lesteri, looked unnerved and a little shaken. Clearly, they had not passed so close to this part of the coast before. Kalzok smiled grimly, however, for the sound was the sound of home.
The ship docked on the crumbling wharf, the ship’s crew struggling to tie the ship up to the wharf as the dockside ‘attendants’ seemed woefully undereducated in such matters. Kalzok sighed impatiently as the ship’s crew tried to communicate with the ragged dockhands, who seemed lost. Some of the other passengers, who were not disembarking here and were instead riding the ship to Zavarra, had to assist, though none of the crew came to ask Kalzok to help as he was putting on his “ominous Nakihl” look to maximum use.
With the ship finally secured and a crooked gangplank lowered, Kalzok tested the stability of the gangplank with his staff. Satisfied, he stepped carefully off the ship, making his way from the wharf towards the village that hosted it. As he stepped off the dock, he carefully set his feet into the ruined sand. Even here, near the sea and away from the Steppes proper, the earth was tortured and sick, loamy with some sort of sticky material, yet sharp and prickly, like there were a thousand blade shards in the sand.
Kalzok looked around at the huts that made up this hamlet. Here and there were denizens of this place, going about their lives, hauling a catch of fish (half of which would have imbibed too many toxins from the runoff of the Fortress), collecting fruits from the sickly trees (which grew images of faces in their bark) or stripping arms and armour from the fresh pile of corpses.
They’ll be wary today, Kalzok knew from the time he spent in such places. The pile meant there was a recent raid from another settlement, and the simultaneous harvest of fish and fruits meant that it was a rare confluence of two rare occurrences. While the loot and harvest were of abysmal quality, even by the standards of the rest of Zakaz, the communities here jealously guarded what little they hoarded. Every little scrap elevated this hovel over the others clamouring for Nakihl protection and aid.
Indeed, the crew seemed oblivious to the tense situation. After the passengers disembarked came some of the crew, heading towards the ramshackle storehouse to purchase provisions for the next leg of their journey towards Zarrava.
Kalzok turned his attention away from the ship, and looked toward eastward, to the mountains and the Fortress far away. Even at this distance, he could see part of its battlements protruding from the mountainsides. There at the feet of the mountains was a larger settlement, the Squal, a sprawling nest of hovels, shrines, miniature forts that housed the largest population in the Strip. That was where his contact would be waiting. The Skakdi began his journey.
Kalzok trudged through the desolate plain, passing by ruined landmarks and other mysterious travellers headed to the Fortress. ‘Desolate’ did not begin to describe the devastation of the land. While Nektann’s war was most well-known for bringing about the Burning Steppes, the salting and destruction in The Strip between the Steppes and the Crown were just as ruthless, not least because it could still support some life, clinging on almost defiantly in an anemic form. Perhaps Nektann wished to spite the Nakihl, and in return they stubbornly remained, returning again and again after each destruction of the Fortress.
Thoughts of the Fortress drew Kalzok’s attention to the present. He was unhappy that he had to make this journey, not least because of the Dregs he had to part with in order to make the trip. He was, if not officially a target for other Nakihl, then unofficially a target with little retributive deterrence. He had broke with his Coven long ago, and news of the powers he had gained likely filtered back to the Nakihl as a whole. He was already a prickly colleague, but now, Kalzok knew that every Coven would love to get a hold of him to study his new powers, invasively, and with or without his consent.
He sighed aloud. He would not have returned here if he had a choice. But he still had some… contacts in the viscinity of the Fortress, and one of them had rediscovered something he needed, and was willing to pass it to him for free. The fact that she was now and agent of the Broker was just an additional morsel to entice him to return, as he had something to sell to the Lord Who Listens. Of course, she’s unwilling to leave ‘her station’, so I have to make my way back here. Not that I have an option in this case. I would not let her entrust my items to any sort of courier. Or anyone who was not her, in any case.
So here he was, trekking along the Strip back towards the Fortress.
Here and there lay heaps of ‘scrap’, as the natives of this region called it, that dotted the landscape, the only thing taller than a chest-high plant or boulder in this region. Piles of discarded material that no longer served a purpose. Kalzok absent-mindedly prodded a few of them with the walking-end of his staff. As was the way of things, eventually the heaps would accumulate enough material that scavengers would dig through them for valuable material. As Kalzok continued his journey, he crossed paths with some of these scavengers, but their rags and haunted eyes marked them as ‘normal’ Unseeing Skakdi, and they wisely fled when they saw Kalzok, in his unusual black and blue robe and pointed, almost unnaturally natural yellow hat, approach.
Kalzok looked into the sky and noticed that the sun was definitely beginning to set. In the distance were the dim lights of another hamlet. He knew he could not delay, but perhaps he could stay there for the night.
Not that night in this land holds much danger for myself. For the Unseeing inhabitants this land was dangerous in the dark, with unknown dangers and monsters. For Kalzok, it would be no more dangerous than a stroll. Like most Nakihl, he understood the truth of the island, much more frightening than the stories of packs of demons and berserkers waiting in the mountains and swamps and caves: the island was mostly Dead.
Almost imperceptibly, a strange sound filtered across the plain. Kalzok picked it up and halted. It was a low hum that began to grow in intensity and complexity, the sound seeming to split and spill over itself, eventually warbling like an unholy cry.
A procession. Kalzok knew the dissonant sounds for what they were. It signalled a procession of aspirants, who had been “discovered” by a Seeker as apprentices for some Nakihl Coven or another. He had not heard the chords in a long time. He looked around and spotted the procession in the distance, cresting a slope and heading towards the Fortress from another direction.
He cursed his luck. When one Coven went hunting for recruits, another was sure to follow suit, or had already done so. This meant that the Fortress would be in a flurry of activity as the putrid sludge of Nakihl politics bubbled over, not to mention the growing crowds of the Unseeing that would accompany these processions and the knock-on, almost spontaneous pilgrimages that others would take. If he was going to easily find his contact at the foots of the Fortress’ mountain, it would be now or weeks later. No wonder she had insisted he arrive as soon as possible.
Waiting here for weeks is almost a guarantee that I’ll join the failed harvest of aspirants as living test subjects, he reflected sourly. Rest would have to wait. He urged his aching bones to continue onward through the night.
It was not easy to miss it.
Frow far away, Kalzok could already tell that the place was much busier than before. As he drew closer, he spotted one, then another, then a dozen more processions of Seekers and unaffiliated pilgrims in the distance. Before he realise it, he was already at the edge of the crowds attempting to push through into the Squal.
The Squal, due to its nature, had no defensive walls. Dotted about where the wasteland ended and the slum began were some defensive turrets and battlements, but these were as ramshackle as the dwellings that spilled past them. Closer to this place, Kalzok realised just how active the Covens were today, the crowd filled with Seekers, servants and Nakihl bearing the marks of almost every Coven he knew of, and several he did not. His earlier hypothesis was right, and even from this corner of the slum he could tell the entire place was crawling with activity. Drifting above the general din of the crowds were the warbling calls of the processions, the clanging of divination tools by the many ‘shrines’ and the occasional firearm. Above it all rose chanting of prayer rituals all across the Squal as pilgrims went about their own idiosyncratic practices.
The entrances into the Squal were almost totally congested with processions and pilgrims, the Seekers’ horn calls doing little to part the sea of bodies. As Kalzok pushed deeper into the crowd, he saw innumerable cart-stalls congesting the path. They were set up all over the place, each one haphazardly set up by its owners to sell trinkets, amulets, incense, charms, anything to the quasi pilgrims now shuffling through what passed for the religious centre of the region.
She should have warned me. Any jumped-up soft-spike could shank me in these crowds. Speaking of soft-spikes…
Kalzok looked up beyond the skyline of the manufactories and shrines, and saw the silhouette of the Nakihl Fortress. Its exterior battlements and scrying towers stood out against the unnatural green-grey of the rock, almost growing out of it. At least his contact did not ask to meet in the shadow of that thing.
He was beginning to seriously consider using his staff to shove people out of the way when a hand grabbed his right arm. He whirled around towards the person, his other hand drawing a blade.
“Thought I’d lose you in this crowd.”
He gave a start when he saw who it was, and sheathed his weapon. He knew who it was his contact from her voice, but seeing her after so many years was still a surprise. It was not everyday that a Skakdi meets his ex-wife.
“Vekus. Change of plans?” He tried to speak above the noise of the crowd.
The dark purple-hued Ba-Skakdi, covered in her signature chequered amethyst cloak, shrugged her shoulders, her armour plates jangling.
“Miscalculated how many people would be coming. I’ve got your stuff here,” she motioned to the sack over her shoulders.
“Let’s sort this out away from all these eyes,” she continued, turning and heading away from the city before he could reply.
They walked for a few hundred yards in silence, away from the Squal and towards some ruined encampment outside the sprawl proper. They stopped by a dying fire surrounded by a few craggy rocks.
Kalzok took a moment to study Vekus. Her face was more weathered than when he last saw her, with a few new scars. Her arms were still lean, the tattoo of her clan on her triceps fading away with time. Her weapons hung by her belt, polished and sharp, reflecting the glow of the embers. As she shrugged off the bag, he noticed she wore garments very similar to the average inhabitant of the Squal, with a bit less fraying. It was very unlike the old days where she proudly wore southshore clothing. Her new job seemed to be paying her well.
She looked up from the embers and looked into Kalzok’s eyes, glowing orbs in the shadow of his hood.
“Long time no see, huh?” she finally managed.
Kalzok wordlessly pulled back his hood, exposing his head to the dread wind coming off the Crown. It sent a strange chill down his back. Her eyes widened, no doubt noting his lack of a Skakdi spine. She was not there when he removed it to gain his new powers.
“It has. I am glad to see you are in one piece.” This being Zakaz, that was no small feat, and no trifling praise.
Kalzok usually prided himself in being able to read the intentions or thoughts of others by their face, but Vekus was completely closed off today, her eyes betraying nothing as she pulled the bag open.
“So is much of your old stuff. First things first of course,” she said, pulling out a tome. It was square, bound in Tahtorak hide and inscribed with ancient runes. Its spine was falling apart after years of neglect. It was his old grimoire. She handed it to him. Kalzok eagerly accepted and ran his hands over its surface, feeling its strange chill.
“It’s still in one piece.”
“Not for lack of trying,” Vekus commented, likely referring to the broken spine of the tome. Its old wards had failed by now but it had clearly caused some damage to itself and interlopers back when Kalzok last left the Fortress. He felt a thought in his mind, something he wanted to say.
“It’s not the only one of your tools that survived,” she continued, pulling out several trinkets. Kalzok recgonised them as idols and divination tools. Not as personally unique as his old grimoire, but they still held some sentimental value. She lay them on the ground (the way he used to lay them out on his worktable) and reached deep into the bag.
“And of course…” Vekus pulled the last big item out of the bag. In her hands was a double-barrelled break-action shotgun, carved of Deathwood and Steelgrain, its mechanisms clicking softly as she hefted it. Its coal-black metal seemed to drink in the light of the setting sun. Despite himself, Kalzok’s mouth dropped. He had long given up hope of seeing his gun again.
“I am… astonished. I must admit, I am surprised you actually managed to retrieve these items,” he managed, trying to find the words.
“I don’t break my promises.” Kalzok looked up and could hear and see the ice in her voice.
Several seconds passed. Finally, Vekus looked away and continued.
“Well, to keep a long story short, I came across the old, quarantined wing of the fortress. The one that contained, among other things, your old chambers. They didn’t care much about securing low-level #### like that, even for personae non grata like yourself who have not shown up here in years, and especially with all this going on recently,” Vekus motioned to the Squal with her head, its din still echoing across to them.
“Can you believe they haven’t vacated it yet?” she continued, bafflement on her face.
“Well, ostensibly, I’m still one of them. It would set a bad precedent if they seized my property,” Kalzok replied, his gaze still fixed on the gun in his hands. Grim Resolve was the name given by the warrior that once wielded it. Kalzok had decided to keep the name in his mind, even if it would never come up in conversation. Names hold power, and it was the least the sorcerer could do after using the shotgun to blow the head off that warrior.
“Oh yeah, one other thing. Ammunition. Should still be dry,” Vekus said, handing Kalzok a small bag, weighed down with shells.
“Quality desiccation,” Kalzok dryly commented.
A silence fell between the two again. The silence was really beginning to eat into him, and he felt the thought that formed earlier pressing into his face.
“Thank you, Vekus.”
Her face was unreadable, but it definitely softened, and he saw the briefest flash of… smug relief?
“Well, you know, it was just a small favour. Might as well get something out of being stuck in this dump.”
Kalzok nodded and took a seat on one of the boulders, Vekus following suit.
“Well, let’s ‘sort out’ the other business I returned for: my offer to the Broker.”
Vekus nodded, and he recognised her putting on her ‘business face’. Any of their old baggage would be dealt with later.
“I know of the location of a buried Lesterin archive, belonging to one of the Great House merchant-princes, dating back to at least a century before the Fall. Unlike many tombs on Zakaz, this one has never been breached,” Kalzok said, letting the implication hang in the air.
Vekus’ eyes widened.
“Never? That, plus the fact that I’ve never heard of this place, makes me a bit… skeptical, if you don’t mind me saying,” she said.
“I have the proof,” Kalzok said, and reached into his robes, pulling out an unusual crystal. It caught the ambient light of the moon and other light sources and seemed to weave it into a spray of colour along a central plane centred on the crystal’s longest edge. Only Nakihl, Lesterin archivists, and other people with access to forgotten knowledge (such as an agent of the Broker) would recognise it as more than unusual interior decoration: it was craftmanship of Old Lesterin magicians, occasionally used as status symbols but usually to store information in the crystal through light, by some arcane manner. No one knew how to access the information anymore, and most had deteriorated in the centuries since the fall of Oshan, but the vibrancy of this crystal marked it as freshly preserved, which meant-
“I hope you didn’t steal this from the Seprilli heritage Halls,” Vekus quipped, her sarcastic remark unable to hide the awe in her voice.
“And if that isn’t enough-” Kalzok walked over to the nearby fire. He fetched a simple lens from the divination tools Vekus had returned to him and held it between the fire and the memory crystal. He adjusted the distances for a bit, letting the lens focus the light from the fire into the crystal. The beam of light from the lens hit the crystal and splayed forth onto the side of a nearby boulder, displaying, in old Lesterin runes, the name of the place it was from:
Why the Lesteri sages of the past built such a simple interaction into the crystal was still a point of debate amongst antiquarians. Whether it was a natural result of other processes, or a purposeful failsafe, it was one of the few ways people still knew to interact with such crystals, and proof of their authenticity.
“Well. Never heard of this place before. I assume it’s a mage-city from the name? Unusual that it has not been plundered yet, then.”
“Yes, rather unusual,” Kalzok agreed, stowing away the lens and crystal.
“My hypothesis is that it was an unlikely combination of factors, such as geography, lack of awareness of the place, it’s unlikely manner of seclusion, and so on, none of which on their own were-”
Kalzok stopped when he realised none of this was relevant.
“In any case, I would like to inform your employer of this opportunity, and to know if he is willing to come to some agreement about this place. If he sends me the required aid, I will excavate the place for him, defusing whatever dangers may lie within, and he can keep whatever information we dig up from this archive, which will be intact only if one like myself defuses the wards. All I ask in return is that I too get to make copies and keep as much of the information as I can.”
Kalzok watched Vekus think it through, staring at the ground with her hand on her chin. He could almost see the gears turning in her mind. He waited for her response.
IC: Klidarg - Campsite, Outside Irnakk's Tooth
Klidarg was finishing dessert by the fire, a strange misshapen fruit he'd bought from the market. The money from that day's catch certainly afforded him this bare comfort. The blade-wife was quietly seated outside her tent, while the sturdy warrior, his armour reflecting the light of the fire, looked intently into the fire.
Klidarg looked up from the fruit to Tarrok as he bit into it. The Skakdi seemed... uncomfortable with that positive statement.
"Mmh, greatness. Your words put a drive to my step. At the least, your skills should guarantee us some measure of success," Klidarg idly commented, hoping to assuage Tarrok's... apprehension? No, it was something else.
He bit down into the fruit again. It was a welcome change from the wild figs in this area, but in all honesty, he has not decided if it was fully to his taste.
"If nothing else, I am sure this path at least provides direction. Not that the N'ashka is lacking that."
Klidarg turned to Tarrok. "I believe it would serve us well if we came up with some plan? Should we gather more associates from the Tooth, or some other group of ill-repute? Surely we will not assault Garsi's fort without an army."
OOC: @Visaru @Palm