OOC: Jam with the other members of the Blessed Order of the Acolytes of Ahk'Rei-Ahan, @Goose @Constructelf @Smudge8 'officially' bringing the Order into the game. Thank you all for your input!
Such blinding fury was visited on the enemy that they trembled before the faithful
For they knew then in their black hearts that on that day
The LORD OF MANY VOICES had brought doom on their fetid kingdoms.
The faithful rejoiced, for they knew the SAVIOUR was here as promised.
And the ARCHON said, "Behold
For now LIGHTBRINGER is come to you to topple the enemy.
The time of judgement arrives all the same
If faith holds true," Book of Salvation, Book 7, Chapter 30, Lines 85-91
- - - - -
The Barrowfort - The Deep Caverns
The First Speaker emerged from the Red Hall, hurriedly making his way towards the access tunnels, passing Initiates and Acolytes alike as they rushed about the complex. The dead fort was particularly alive today, and as much as Ankrahl wished to see if the reports were true, something slowed his pace.
Cold iron. Dead face. Speech without soul.
His dreams - the gift of frustratingly vague visions granted to Masters of the Order - had become confusing and erratic recently. Vistas of the ocean, of unfamiliar places. Of an island he had never seen in any maps. But in the past week, another set of images had flashed into his mind.
Hellfire for hands. Power unchained. Eyes of light.
And a name.
A name from the Book. A title, really, but far too obscure of a reference for the Speaker to remember anything about it.
Ankrahl knew that the report this morning had to be related to this. In recent weeks many of the old weapons had been reactivated or discovered, and Ankrahl knew that the recently rediscovered, buried Fort Buarkh, accessible now only by tunnels, held another gift. The Archivist department had handily dug up some records by a Nakihl chronicler centuries ago, and Buarkh was cryptically mentioned as containing some novel… something. The records were frustratingly incomplete, but with what the Knight in charge of the operation reported… this might be a new chapter of the Order.
- - - - -
“Please, take a seat.”
The towering Lesterin stood behind his desk, with his back to Akhna. The Skakdi hesitated, then awkwardly folded himself into the too-small chair. The Inquisitor did not sit down.
It was a rare dishonour to be invited into the Inquisitor’s office, a sure sign of wrongdoing or impending interrogation. Akhna allowed himself to hope that this was the rare exception, in which the Inquisitor brought someone in just to remind them that they were always under his scrutiny, lest anyone forget their place.
“Your dedication never fails to impress me, Akhna.” Akhna felt the Inquisitor’s voice reverberate in his chest - the soft-spoken voice that cut through all who heard it like the bitter cold, as deep and as dark as the waters below the dungeons. To be in the Inquisitor’s presence was to be returned to that place, the cage where Akhna had spent so many nights, with nothing but steel bars and gravity between him and the suffocating death he’d seen cellmates suffer.
“Thank you, Lord Inquisitor.”
“It hardly seems all that long ago that you were a mere prisoner, volunteering to join us, and now look at you. A model Novitiate, well on your way to becoming an Acolyte. No small feat, for one of your… background.” He had begun to pace, meandering closer and closer to Akhna.
Akhna resisted the urge to wince, out of embarrassment at his Skakdi heritage as much as at the Inquisitor’s thinly-veiled insult. “Thank you, Lord Inquisitor.”
“I do wonder, though…” Akhna’s blood froze. The Inquisitor was behind him, now; he could feel the Lesterin’s shadow upon him. “It seems to me that you are unsatisfied with your current position.”
Akhna cursed himself, and whatever rat had found its way to the Inquisitor’s ear. He should have known that venting his frustration upon the slaves would come back to bite him. “Lord Inquisitor, I only seek to serve the Order to the best of my ability-”
“Don’t patronise me, you feckless worm.” The Inquisitor grabbed Akhna’s chair and roughly spun it around to face him, his face scowling behind his Rode. “Lie to me again and you will be serving the Order in a very different capacity.”
“...I’ve proven myself capable, Lord Inquisitor. I’ve shown my dedication time and time again. I deserve the Revelation.” Akhna spat the words, finally allowing his indignation to boil over. He had been overlooked and underestimated too many times, forever treated as second-class, as unworthy. He could tolerate it no longer. “Should I be punished for ambition? For simply seeking to be more? Surely you once aspired to your rank?”
“No,” the Inquisitor said softly. “You should not.”
That was… unexpected. Akhna blinked in confusion, his frustration faltering in the absence of a clear target.
“But there is a difference, between ambition… and insubordination. My concern is that you do not defer to our authority; you do not trust us to know when you are ready. You think yourself unappreciated, and think your betters blind. Arrogance.”
Akhna now noticed the two Companions standing behind the Inquisitor, and felt acrid fear rise in his throat.
“You show potential, Akhna, that I will grant you. But you have forgotten your place.” The Inquisitor turned to his Companions. “Brothers? Remind him.”
The dungeon will do him good, Nessen thought, and smiled contentedly as the Skakdi Novitiate was dragged away in petrified silence. Best not to let the fear of death become too abstract.
- - - - -
Nessen exited his office from the front, leaving the Companions to their task. He made his way to the Red Hall, still mentally considering his next remonstrance when a voice from behind stopped him.
“Inquisitor, it is time.”
Surprised that he did not hear the man approach, Nessen turned. The First Speaker stood like a statue, appearing seemingly from nowhere, garbed in his robes of office, Idolscourge in hand and flanked by members of the Chorus. Nessen had not expected to see the other Lesterin so soon today. Nessen kept his surprise from his face as he answered.
“Yes, my lord. The ruin has been secured?”
The Speaker nodded.
“Do not tarry. We leave soon,” the Speaker finished, before sweeping from the hall.
The Inquisitor frowned as he backtracked to his office to fetch his bodyguards. It was unusual to see the Speaker so early in the day outside the Hall.
He’s in a hurry. What did they find?
- - - - -
“I don’t think that will work, Lord Vizier.”
Daegui was in one of the operating rooms used by Vizier Nahaki, the pair crouched over a corpse like carrion birds. The latter had enlisted his help to assist in the examination of a corpse, now lying on the table. Normally one of the Morturians would handle this, but this corpse belonged to an intruder, one who was caught and slain by Daegui while on patrol, but who took much more than the usual dose of poison to kill. He’d agreed to ‘test’ the vizier’s new poison as a favour, but at this juncture, he was beginning to reconsider is poking around a poisoned, bloating corpse was worth it.
“When I tell you, stab.”
“Trauma injuries do not release-”
“Listen, the spine slug cares not for the song of the necrofinch. I have my specialty, and so do you. Now I’m telling you, stab down before the poison dissipates!” Nahaki huffed.
Daegui ignored the pointed comment about slugs. Nahaki likely did not consider the species-specific nature of spine slugs, and Daegui was in general, unfortunately, becoming used to anti-Skakdi sentiment in general.
He’s not even using the idiom correctly.
“Three... two… one-”
The pair froze and looked up from the corpse to see the First Speaker in the entrance of the operating room, Daegui mid-stab and Nahaki’s hands ready to dig into the corpse, outstretched and curled like claws. Their surprise disappeared in an instance and they scrambled to bow when the Speaker stopped them with a raised palm.
“We are leaving soon for the ruin, if you would like to join us,” and with that, he left.
As soon as he left, the sounds of accelerated decomposition began to hiss from the corpse.
“The poison has reacted with the decaying offal…” Nahaki sighed. If only Daegui had listened…
The curse of genius amongst rabble.
“Well, that’s a bust.”
Nahaki removed his operating claws while Daegui shrugged and returned the knife to its place.
“Well, if you’d like to make up for that, you should accompany me. I can take my own notes while you… do whatever it is you do best.”
“Fight?” Nahaki did not fail to pick up the acid in the Skakdi’s comment. Vizier of poisons, after all.
“Sure, if we need to fight crumbling ruins.”
- - - - -
Ankrahl had left as early as he was able. Let the others catch up.
He and his guards carefully navigated the winding tunnels and makeshift supports. As they exited the stable tunnel into the ‘branch’ that was recently uncovered, Ankrahl said a prayer to the Archon before stepping down the path.
This path was much narrower, though better-lit, as the lightstones embedded in the walls by the excavation team splayed their light in a tighter volume. After some time, Ankrahl began to worry they had taken the wrong branch when he saw the passageway open up ahead.
As they exited to a much broader tunnel, he saw the Knight in charge of the excavation up ahead, silhouetted against the lights installed in the excavated “entrance chamber” of the ruin. They had reached their destination. It was Sir Nukar, a Skakdi Knight of the Order and one of the few Ankrahl would trust with this task.
The Skakdi straightened when he saw Ankrahl emerge into the lit chamber.
The Knight saluted him. “Master, we finally breached the gate several hours ago. Took a lot of elemental heaving and careful firepower, but we did it.”
“You’ve been at this for… a week, yes?”
“Yes, milord. It’s been a lot easier clearing the passageways."
“Any threats so far?” Ankrahl queried, observing the large entrance. How much of its damage was from the collapse and how much was from the excavation was hard to differentiate. A shame.
“None that we have seen, not worms or wild Arachnoleis,” the Acolyte said, a hint of bafflement in his voice.
Ankrahl did find it strange. He believed the report, but standing here in a ruined, submerged fort swallowed by the earth, the strange feeling began to tug at his mind.
“That said, there have been strange… noises. They fit with the sounds of slowly-breaking stone and metal, but nonetheless-”
“You are right to bring it up. Thank you,” Ankrahl watched out of the corner of his eye as Nukar seemed to straighten with pride. Thanks were always a cheap price for loyalty.
He brushed aside the thought and examined what remained of the sunken gate. Very clearly a Skakdi design, although he could not properly place its age. Somewhen after Nektann, maybe before the Dissolution-
The sounds of footsteps and quiet conversation from behind caught Ankrahl’s attention. He turned and peered into the dimly lit passageway from whence he and his bodyguards came.
Now comes the flock.
The crowd- for that was what a dozen persons were in the tunnels of the underworld- consisted of various personages of the Order that had decided they needed to see Fort Buarkh and the rumours for themselves.
Heading the group was High Inquisitor Nessen, dressed in simple clothing, the few pieces of his armour reflecting the light of the lightstones. His bodyguards were much more intimidating, prepared for war, which, given the possible hidden dangers of the sunken fort, was still a distinct possibility.
Among the crowd was Nahaki, the esteemed Vizier of Poisons. The mysterious serpent man was mumbling to himself and scribbling something down in his notebook. Doubtless a scholar like himself was excited to see the mysteries of the ruin.
Bringing up the rear was Daegui, a recently-elevated Knight who kept a low profile. Not to Ankrahl’s eyes. He had paid special attention to that Skakdi. There was something to his quiet ambition and too-dead eyes.
The group fell silent when they finally reached Ankrahl. He angled his head in thanks.
“I am pleased you could join us,” the First Speaker intoned, his voice barely above his usual volume. “It is time we discovered what waits for us in the dark.”
“This way, Masters,” Nukar spoke up. “We’ve scouted a path into the heart of the ruin and marked it, but it’s not easy going. Though, I dare say it’s well worth the journey.”
The group followed Nukar into the yawning wound in the earth.
- - - - -
The entourage, almost a dozen strong, slowly wound their way through the sunken Fort Buarkh. Even for necromantic occultists, it was unnerving. The fort’s usual markers and features like walls, rooms, ceilings, passageways et al. were ripped, crushed, and squeezed into unusual forms by whatever catastrophe cast it into the bowels of the earth. The cleared passageway was closer to a tunnel in the earth than a hallway. Portions of walls seemed to grow out the earth on the sides, ceiling and floor ornaments were reversed, and occasionally the tunnel seemed to rotate on its side, with wall fixtures jutting from above and stick up from the ground. And yet, the phantom of a layout persisted. What now appeared to be a slope in the tunnel hinted at a grand spiral staircase, and here and there entire sideroom hallways grew out from the sides of the tunnel, almost intact.
The Inquisitor slowed his step, marvelling at the seemingly frozen ruin, letting the procession go ahead. He resumed his pace near the end of the line.
Daegui kept a straight face as the Inquisitor kept abreast.
“Sir Knight, this place is breathtaking, is it not?”
“It is, my Lord.”
“Look at their idols,” he smirked, as the group passed a set of toppled statues, almost unrecognisable. “Monuments to eternal glory, reduced to a legacy of rot and decay. A reminder of the weakness at the heart of their ‘ancestors’,” Nessen continued in an eerily whimsical voice.
Daegui stiffened. He clearly picked up on the Inquisitor’s meaning. He had heard rumours of increased surveillance and attention paid to the Skakdi of the Order. Was this a test?
“Imperfect and vile. While their strongholds die when they sink into the earth, the Order remains strong and pure. This ruin is a reminder and a gift,” Daegui replied evenly.
Nessen raised an eyebrow, despite himself. The Skakdi had parried the insinuation well.
“Tell me, what have you heard about the gifts of this place?” Nessen probed.
Daegui cursed himself in his heart. The rumours were only just that, rumours. Was he even allowed to know of them? Was he even allowed here?
“Only what the Vizier told me when he requested my presence here,” Daegui said, carefully. If the Inquisitor wished to probe further, Nahaki would be a dead-end, with a legitimate and foolproof excuse for how Daegui heard of these things.
Nessen smiled warmly. It was a deeply unnerving sight, somehow far worse than his legendary temper.
“Nahaki might be disappointed. Weapons and lore abound, as we can see, but hardly any… reagents, so to speak.”
This one knows his place. Both as Knight and Skakdi.
“Speaking of the Vizier, I would like to know his thoughts on… well, I really should go ask him myself. Thank you for your time, Sir Knight.”
Daegui allowed himself a single gulp as the Inquisitor headed towards the Vizier. The only thing he felt was a certain indignation. The Inquisitor might fancy himself a dangerous man, but the Skakdi had worked for similar shade-whisperers for years. He had not been made Knight without stepping safely around these vipers.
- - - - -
Ankrahl heard chatter from the rest of the group but ignored it. He was focussed on the few legible carvings on the remaining stone walls. The dim light of Purple Lightstones was enough for him to read it.
We are in some sort of armoury wing. A shrine to The Brown King to the left, and what seems to be one for the Grasscutter on the right…
“Milord, watch your step,” Nukar said, his voice echoing through the tunnel. The Knight lit a Glowtorch and held it up. Ankrahl saw that the group were now at the threshold of a large chamber. The entrance stretched high up and wide, its frame reinforced with metal, still not corroded after all these years. Along its edge was marked in “proper” Skakdi lettering: Vault 23. It seemed to be out of alignment with the rest of the tunnel, and the entourage had to step over the frame that jutted up from the already uneven ground.
As they stepped in, the light of the Glowtorch, seemingly blinding earlier in the tunnel, was swallowed up by the dark, leaving only a strange… glow?- seemingly emanating from somewhere in the void. Ankrahl realised how massive this cavern -no, a veritable vault- truly was.
“You won’t believe it, but the lighting system still works.”
Nukar moved off to the side and felt along the wall. Ankrahl’s low-light vision allowed him to see that Nukar was searching for a recess in the wall, framed by some sort of unusual material.
“Here,” Nukar muttered, pushing the Glowtorch into the recess. The material surrounding the space in the hole, which Ankrahl now saw was some sort of crystal, lit up, absorbing, reflecting and seemingly intensifying the light of the Glowtorch, and he watched as the light seemed to travel along a network of veins along the walls, lighting up the entire vault with a soft glow, illuminating the contents in the vault.
Nessen stared, his tight jaw gone slack. It was not often he was taken aback, but this was… this was something else.
This truly was a gift… by the Archon!
“By the Archon!”
This finally got Nahaki to look up from his notes. “Amazing.” His scribbling grew more furious.
Daegui’s heart raced. This thing… he knew, deep in his bones. This ruin was more than a reminder. The dagger at its heart was a call from the past.
Ankrahl heard gasps and exclamation from the others, and he swivelled his head back towards what was now obviously the centre of the vault. His eyes widened, and for the first time in a long while, he felt his skin prickle.
In the centre of the vault, among rows of rubble, ruined machinery, and equipment so old it was unrecognisable, stood a machine that none here had ever seen, yet all instinctively understood.
It stood at thrice the height of a Skakdi, armoured in metal that drank light. Across its front was a crystalline coffin, catching light and twisting the view of its innards. In its appendages were cannons mounted with condensed hellfire, and all along its body were long, snaking vines of protosteel and unnatural alloys, which Ankhrahl knew to hold the strength of a demon.
It was an Exo-Skakdi.
The group began to chatter amongst themselves. Nahaki moved forward first, immediately sketching it out and making notes on its weaponry. The Inquisitor followed him, and Nahaki turned to the Lesterin.
“Nessen, you don’t think that’s a functioning Fire Arrow, do you? I’m not much of a weaponsmith these days, I’m afraid.”
“And there I thought poison was a weapon,” Nessen absent-mindedly replied. He was much more intrigued by its internals - its transparent front made it easy to examine from outside, and the more he looked the more his amazement turned to worry.
Only a Skakdi can pilot this. It was clear from the spine-connections along the rear of the cockpit and the elemental conducting shells that lined its walls and fed into its arms.
A tapping sound drew his attention. Nahaki was tapping on it with his stylus.
The Vizier ignored the Inquisitor’s annoyed look. More than examining its armour (which the Iwikara knew was obviously about as thick as similar Exo-Skakdi models), he was carefully looking for rust or micro-particle flakes. To his surprise, there were none. Only dust flew off the surface.
Daegui approached too, making sure not to intrude on the examinations of one of the Lords. He could easily read the markings, and recognised it as belonging to a well-known Skakdi clan from the days of Nektann. He cracked a cold smile, as he remembered that its last known claimed descendant had died by Daegui’s hands in his days under the employ of the Nakihl.
His flesh would not have frozen so easily if he was in this.
Ankrahl slowly walked towards it. The armour seemed to shine with darkness. Its polished surface was unmarred, its mechanical gears seemingly untouched by age. Decorative markings along its side invoked the protection of the Skakdi’s Spawners, and named its builder in a coarse tongue. But one section stood out. In stylised font, in the script of what Ankrahl realised was the liturgical language gifted by Ahk’Rei-Ahan himself, he could make out an engraving along the flank of the machine:
Blessed Mount of the Archon’s Gauntlet: Lightbringer
The First Speaker almost fell back from the shock of revelation. How could this be? Why would a Skakdi of the warlords, centuries before the Archon’s return, name an Exo thus? And in this tongue? His mind raced, trying to recall if at least the title, an obscure reference in the Canon of the Archon, held any meaning to the Spine-Lords. He realised he could not recall anything off-hand, only the dreams.
This was the gift. The dreams were more literal than he thought. Here was proof of the Archon’s guidance, through space and time… but how?
“This weapon… it is a tool of the unbelievers. I do not doubt the Archon has given it to our possession - but I wonder if our purpose is not to use it, but to destroy it. Lest it fall into the wrong hands.” Nessen spoke quietly, now standing beside the First Speaker. It was clear he had not seen the engraving.
Ankrahl shook his head, his mind now enraptured by the import of this moment.
“No, Nessen. Every hand on this island is the wrong hands, and yet we work with what we have all the same. This… this will make those hands tremble before us."
Before Nessen could reply, a sharp noise like a metallic shriek pierced the chamber. Instinctively, all in the room raised their weapons.
Nukar cleared his throat.
“The noise has been occurring for some time, esteemed ones. It might be merely the stresses of a failing ceiling, but…”
The shriek echoed out again from the void. This time, something in Ankrahl’s soul recoiled. Nessen’s doubts took on a different edge now. The gift might not need to be destroyed, but this place…
Ankrahl gave the order.
“Bring in the rest of the excavation team. Priority goes to the Exo-Skakdi, followed by any other still-functioning weaponry. Set charges and bring down this armoury and the entire ruin within the hour, whichever comes later.”
Nahaki spoke up.
“But we could salvage much-”
“This fort might lead elsewhere, to the fortresses of the unbelievers. This Exo is the only remaining gift the Archon has bestowed on us here. It would be wise not to try His patience.”
Without waiting for a response, Ankrahl left the armoury.
- - - - -
An hour later
“Collapse imminent!” The voice of the excavation team leader wafted down the tunnel. Everyone was now far from the ruin of Fort Buarkh, back in the stable tunnel section leading back to the Barrowfort, the Exo-Skakdi, its equipment, and reams of parchment cataloguing the inscriptions and engravings having long since been carted off. The Acolytes had even found a few more usable weapons and small quantities of Najin, but nothing on the scale of the Exo-Skakdi.
Ankrahl waited as he heard the heavy footfalls of the excavation leader, the last to leave, as he ran back down the tunnel, putting as much distance from the ruin as he could before the fused explosives in the ruin detonated.
A dull thump reverberated through the rock, and the characteristic wooshing noise of dust blowing into the tunnel rushed out from the mouth of the tunnel, followed by the dust itself, blasting Ankrahl with a cloud of soot and gravel. As the wind died, the excavator’s footsteps could not be heard.
A minute passed. Without a word, the entourage turned and returned to the Barrowfort, their minds already focussed on the prize they had gained and little on the loss incurred.