Shadowsbane, Part 1:
“A fine little circus you've got down here.” A voice remarked casually.
I turned slowly at the sound of those words, suppressing the overwhelming desire I felt to sock whoever was making fun of Team Firewander right in the teeth. When I did see the arrogant jerk, my temper cooled somewhat.
A hothead and a fighter I may be... but I am not an idiot.
The voice I'd heard belonged to a youngish Immaculate monk, probably an Air Aspect Dragonblood judging by the frosty color of his skin and the absolutely nauseating aura of pretentiousness that surrounded him. Of course, being the rightful Enlightened Princes of the Earth, Dragonbloods can get a little nasty around ordinary mortals like myself. Namely, they're liable to kill you if you make yourself too much of a nuisance.
o be fair, Team Firewander wasn't really at its best. Bruja, our “Purveyor of Brute Force” was picking her teeth with a knife clearly “made for killin' folk” while Little Fox, our resident Djala had just let loose a belch that absolutely boggled the mind and was scratching himself obscenely. Since it was insufferably cold on site, our Southerner Mehmed and consummate pretty boy Kasashi were crouched together over a kerosene lamp warming their hands. They were both dressed in more layers of clothing than I had in my entire wardrobe and looked supremely pathetic. Kasashi in particular hated Nexus's winter weather... which consisted of rain, more rain, and grey slush the consistency of old porridge sloughing off rooftops.
That being said, we all probably smelled like a pack of wet dogs.
Though he scoffed at the lot of us archaeologists, I could tell that the Dragonblood was a little intimidated by the sheer scale of the ruins he'd just entered into. The ceiling was a full twenty feet above our heads and both it and the floor were inlaid with steel tracks etched with arcane patterns in different kinds of jade and orichalcum. Of course, the tracks themselves paled in comparison to the enormous construct that hung still partially suspended from the upper track, glowering at all of us as we worked. It was made to look like a dragon and when we succeeded in clearing the rubble from around it, we expected that the craft would be more than fifty feet long, a perfectly preserved piece of engineering more than 1,500 years old.
“You, noble monk, have just set foot upon the legendary Whispering Serpent. We call that ugly bugger 'Fluffy”.” Little Fox jerked his thumb at the construct, though no one had asked for his input. The Dragonblood gave him a very condescending look, which didn't particularly surprise me. Fox wasn't known for his manners and didn't give a rat's ass what most Immaculates thought of him, particularly since they were generally complacent with the idea of his people remaining enslaved.
Mehmed gestured to the marks on the wall. “The Whispering Serpent is... well, it is like a tunnel for transportation. There are these great machines which fix themselves to the tracks you see on the floor and the ceiling over there and they...”
Of course, that was when the ground started shaking. Fox glanced at me, obviously concerned.
“I'm sure it's quite fascinating, but I am here on much more important matters.” The Dragonblood snorted, dismissing him. “What was that just now? A tremor?”
“A small earthquake.” I replied casually, as if it was nothing to be worried about. “People say that they're caused by all of the explosives we use excavating.”
“And you don't believe that?” The Dragonblood pressed, reading me effortlessly.
“Nothing we've ever used is strong enough to rock the city's foundation. We'd have no permits if it was. Personally, I think it's fae. We are halfway under Firewander after all.” I watched for the Dragonblood's response.
He didn't try to lecture me about meddling in fae business or trying to put myself in a position higher than the one I was born into. The Dragonblood looked honestly concerned, and that worried me.
“Do all of these ruins date from the Shogunate Era?” He wondered, pausing for a moment. It sounded a bit like he thought he was asking a legitimate question. The fact that he'd mistaken ruins from the High First Age for Shogunate Era ones surprised me.
I laughed despite myself. “If you think they were building stuff like Fluffy here during The Shogunate you are sadly mistaken! Nexus is thousands of years old, but built predominantly on a foundation of Gray River sediment. The original city has sunk hundreds of feet below what's now street level. There are Shogunate and Contagion Era ruins under every building in the Market District but down here is where the real fun is. Palaces of great golden demon-gods, doors you can't open with any amount of explosives, traps everywhere and all kinds of toy boxes full of ancient goodies.” I gestured to The Whispering Serpent.
“Of course, the tremors are worse in this part of the undercity than they are anywhere else. You can scarcely feel them above ground, that's how far down we are/ I'm sure you saw the Tomb of Night before you came in here. What you probably don't realise is that tomb was built on top of a building that was once taller than The Guild Hall. One of the first entrances to The Whispering Serpent was uncovered by an idiot kid poking around The Tomb of Singing Blades. A couple of monks found the way in when they came to clean up his body.” I paused, noticing two more Immaculates clumsily working their way down the narrow ladder which lead down from the Shogunate Era dig two stories above us.
“Just who are you anyway?” I demanded, turning to the Dragonblood with my hands on my hips.
He didn't yell at me, though he definitely narrowed his eyes. My crew stared in shock, unable to believe that I'd just addressed a Dragonblood like I would any other intruder on our site. Of course, if our visitor had been any ordinary Immaculate monk, he would have certainly beaten me within an inch of my life for insulting him. As it was, his reaction... or lack thereof, told me everything I'd wanted to know about his identity.
I started feeling a little sick to my stomach, knowing that I was about to begin what would have to be the cleverest misdirection I'd ever organised.
We'd been caught.
“My name is Summer Storm and I've been sent by Dean Peleps of your University.” The Dragonblood replied coolly, not even raising his voice. “Take me to your supervisor at once.”
“Well, Summer.” I smirked. From the looks of him, he surely went by “Storm”... but I wasn't in the mood to be cooperative, considering that I was about to lose my career and probably wind up back in jail. “I am the supervisor.”
“You are?” He frowned, surveying all of my tools hanging off of my belt and bandoleer. His eyes stopped for a moment on the pair of fine old firewands I wore holstered on my hips.
“Yup. Name's Sapphire.” I nodded, gesturing to my crew. “And these fine folks you see here are the red-headed stepchildren of The University of Nexus's Archaeological Department – colloquially known as “Team Firewander”. Bruja, Fox, Mehmed and Kasashi.” Each of them looked up at the sound of their names. If they were wondering why I hadn't mentioned Val, who was technically my supervisor, they didn't say anything.
“Oh.” The Dragonblood smiled slightly. “Dean Peleps warned me about you. Where's Professor Valen Basileca?”
“Val is working in the next section up ahead. I'll take you to him.” I offered, not at all surprised that Dean Peleps Nyubo had warned the Immaculates to steer clear of me. I was well aware that my “controversial” opinions and casual disregard of authority would have gotten me expelled from The University long ago if the Department's most brilliant researcher did not stubbornly plead my case every time I came up for review. Val was a Fellow himself and a favorite of the University's most generous benefactor, the eclectic Master Adamant Quill who was one of the most powerful men in The Guild and also owned a substantial portion of Nexus's Market District.
I led Summer Storm and his lackeys through the series of finely-crafted doors that it had taken us months to blast open and then down the stairs into the main temple. Two more quakes followed, each a little stronger than the last. The Whispering Serpent track came to a stop before a glass atrium with patterns of the night sky etched in silver and gold above our heads. Before us was a massive marble white structure, easily eighty feet tall with a set of monstrous green brass doors. Like the doors of The Whispering Serpent's access corridor, they had been opened with the repeated and liberal use of powerful explosives.
“Neat, isn't it?” I smirked, noticing that Little Fox was following just behind the two silent Immaculates who had finally caught up with Summer Storm and myself. He had a wicked look in his beady little eyes and I motioned for him to get lost. The Djala caused almost as much trouble for Val as I did and I loved him for that, but I figured it wouldn't be wise to further test the patience of the Dragonblood I'd already been mocking, particularly since I wasn't going to lead him in to see our real treasure.
I could only hope that he already found me abrasive enough that he would not insist upon following me. “Wait here. I'll be right back.” I gestured to a pair of makeshift benches near the Whispering Serpent's track. “I'd take you in further, but it's a little hazardous. Especially with the tremors.”
That was a lie, but the Immaculates bought it... and their supervisor did seem to hate me as much as I hoped he might. I knew he'd be launching a formal complaint but I'd deal with that when I actually had to and not one moment before. The three monks stared up at the mesmerising star patterns that formed the ceiling of The Whispering Serpent's way-station and one of them gasped as the patterns suddenly began to move. As the Dragonblood examined the station's controls in bewilderment, I slipped through the brass doors into a very dark chamber, illuminated only by thirty-two panels of ever-shifting golden glyphs inscribed on pristine white marble. I smiled in satisfaction as I saw Val gnawing on his pencil, sitting on the foot of forty foot tall statue of solid orichalcum, a magical metal rarer and more valuable than gold.
The statue was of ancient God that had once reigned over even the Immaculate Dragons, a god called The Unconquered Sun. Excavating First Age sites all over Nexus, Val and I had run across him many times before. Usually he was depicted as a well-muscled, armoured man with four arms, stern and serious in a manner that commanded respect. The massive idol we had discovered in this underground temple was singularly unique, and not only because it was the largest we had ever seen.
As opposed to looking down upon his worshippers with a haughty, fatherly demeanour, the God had a very silly, endearing sort of smile on his face. Put simply, it was impossible not to like him, and all of the bits of his prayers which were inscribed on the surrounding walls only made him seem even more wonderfully benevolent. Thought the worship of the Unconquered Sun during the High First Age had been omnipresent, whoever had built the temple that Val and I had been working diligently in had captured something very rare in monumental architecture, a sense of pure, genuine faith.
“The Big Guy” as we called him was Team Firewander's secret. We'd known about it him almost six months and it was getting more and more difficult not to reveal our spectacular find to The University. Fox and Kasashi were getting particularly impatient, hoping for better pay... but Val and I had other priorities. There were thousands of ever-changing inscriptions on the walls surrounding the ancient God, and once his existence was revealed, it would only be a matter of time before The Guild swooped in and arranged to have him melted him down for the exorbitant price his orichalcum body would fetch.
The ground shook beneath my feet.
The sooner we were out of our current dig site, the better too... because if the Immaculate Order knew that Val and I had actually translated ancient historical and religious texts that they hadn't had the opportunity to "edit", they would certainly seize all of our notes and probably execute the both of us. Providing, of course... that neither the earthquakes nor the fae happened to kill us first.
Of course, I'd known that I was dancing with death from the moment that Summer Storm and his companions had first arrived. There'd been rumors around The University for months about a trio of emotionless Immaculates grilling certain Fellows to find evidence of religious “backsliding” within the teaching and research staff. I had expected an inquiry myself, given my reputation as a troublemaker, but I hadn't expected Summer Storm to come all the way down to our dig site, the heart of our heretical knowledge-gathering machine.
Naturally, trying to dismiss the Immaculates outright would only have caused trouble for us. Though I was sure that my crew and I could have taken out the two junior monks on our own turf, we definitely couldn't fight a Dragonblood... and if we gave any sign of resistance, that would have given The University reason to launch a full-scale investigation, which could only end badly for Team Firewander.
Pretending that nothing was amiss and behaving as my usual sarcastic self was the only option. Raised by a god-blooded prostitute who ran a teahouse full of black-market dealings and did a brisk trade in thamaturgy on the side, I'd learned from an early age how to lie flawlessly under pressure. The only thing that really made me nervous was knowing that Fox would never be able to keep his mouth shut if he was brought before Dean Peleps.
I'd been standing over Val for more than a minute when he finally noticed me. He pushed his glasses back up on his crooked nose and grinned.
See, I've known Val all my life. When we were children, our parents forbade us from playing together, which was perhaps why we became the best of friends. Val's father was an extremely wealthy member of The Guild who sold my mother the teas that she brewed only for her very best customers. Val and I were told that we were from different worlds, but I'd never been one to accept limitations and Val never lorded over anyone. He had a sort of insufferable sweetness to him, which sometimes makes me jealous of his adorable little wife. Although we are almost exactly the same age, he looks older than I do. A lifetime spent in libraries and fussing around in ancient ruins has given him a sort of stooping posture and a pale cast to his skin. His silvery hair is always a mess, coming loose from the ribbon he uses to tie it and his eyes have such thick, permanent dark circles that some of his students at The University have taken to calling him “Professor Badger”. Personally, I've always considered him more of a ferret. One minute he's stern and serious, the next he's bounding around gibbering and clapping like a child in a room full of toys.
“Sapphire!” Val exclaimed, in fine "ferret" form. “Finally! I could use your help!” His eyes drifted towards the ledge that surrounded the entire main chamber about twenty feet above the floor. There were sets of inscriptions far above ground level that had once been accessible via a set of moving marble steps, but since neither of us possessed the Essence to activate the ancient machine, our preferred method of recording them was for me to climb up the wall and recite aloud to Val so he could write down the information. We were both fluent in Old Realm so the process went fairly quickly... but as we had learned over our tenure at the site, the inscriptions were subject to change without warning. Although I spoke Old Realm with less effort than Val did, since my mother had been a God-blood, his penmanship was beautiful and mine looked like a dozen bent nails driven into paper. “The inscriptions have all changed again! Could you climb up to the first panel on the west wall and start for me there?”
“I could.” I replied, speaking in Old Realm just in case one of the monks happened to be listening. Although it was possible that one or more of them knew the ancient tongue, it wasn't terribly likely. The Immaculate Order had little use for the small, insignificant Gods that were everywhere in the world, insisting that they be given their due feast days and no attention at any other time. Naturally, most people continued to provide for the Gods who looked after them, citing that it made more sense to thank your local cattle goddess who'd show up in person to bless your herds rather than the distant Dragons who'd put their “Enlightened” offspring in position to oppress the rest of us eternally.
“Except that you know, with three Immaculates waiting outside... it might not be a good idea for me to start reciting prayers to our lovely demon-god here. They'll think we're Anathema.” I finished, using the Immaculate Order's more-popular name for the Exalted of The Unconquered Sun, incredibly powerful beings suffused with divine sparks that had once ruled all of Creation. They, not the Dragonblooded of the Shogunate, were the builders of all the treasures that we unearthed.
What exactly “Anathema” ought to be called was a subject of much contention amongst the Team Firewander. Mehmed was a dyed-in-the wool Hundred Gods Heretic but he'd been an soldier once and virtually every curse word he had in his repertoire was "bloody, explicative, demon something". Bruja, heavily entrenched in her own particular tribal superstitions referred to the Anathema with an Icewalker word that I could barely pronounce while Fox, who actively hated Dragonbloods referred to anyone that gave them trouble as “the good guys”. Of course, Kasashi paid lip service to the Dragons like Val and I did... as everyone officially employed by The University was required to... but as the three of us were true students of history, we were likewise disinclined to let religious propaganda get in the way of solid research.
“Anathema? As opposed to run-of-the-mill heretics?” Val laughed slightly, though I could tell that the news I had just delivered did not sit well with him. Either that, or he was observed with the tremors which had started up yet again.
“You and I are far too spectacular to be ordinary heretics!” I retorted. Val picked up his notes and quickly put them back inside his satchel.
“Well, let's not keep our fine company waiting!” He proclaimed, his voice absolutely dripping with sarcasm. The two of us linked arms and marched out to meet Summer Storm and his companions.
“Professor Valen Basileca, I presume?” The Dragonblooded observed. He did not seem impressed by Val's permanently-flustered, disorganized appearance or the gratuitous amount of cheap sepia ink that stained his fingertips and clothing.
“I'm afraid you have me at a disadvantage.” Val admitted.
“My name is Summer Storm. I have been sent to evaluate the integrity of your Team Firewander. As you've doubtless heard, there have been whispers of anarchic behaviour and heresy amongst certain members of the Department of Archaeology. My companions and I have been tasked by your Dean Peleps to root out such... undesirables.” He explained.
“Well, my team may be a bit “rough around the edges” but they're good folk. We dig mostly under Firewander, you understand, so sometimes we run into patches of Wyld or beasts of one kind or another. Not to mention the tremors. They've been getting worse lately and there's no telling when a big one will tear out the very ground beneath our feet ” Val explained. “Hence the deportment of my crew. In the past ten years, a dozen researchers have been killed on this portion of The Whispering Serpent alone. Sapphire and I currently have only one graduate student and that's Kasashi. The other three you met are all mercenaries. They're here to kill fae if we run into any and do most of the heavy lifting. Well, except for Fox. To be honest, I don't know why we hired him.”
“Entertainment value.” I replied with a smirk. Fox had been my personal pick and I lost no opportunity to remind Val of that fact. He was smarter than the other three combined and reminded me a bit of myself. “And you know, if we are attacked maybe he'll hold off the fair folk with one of those roundabout stories of his, like he did last time?”
Val laughed at the memory. The Immaculates looked confused.
“That's something else which confuses me. If there are fae and earthquakes, not to mention Anathema traps... why are you mortals down here?” The Dragonblood pressed.
“We're cheaper to hire than you Enlightened folks.” I replied without thinking.
“Sapphire, that's enough!” Val scolded me. “For the most part, sir, we're salvaging magical materials. The oldest ruins have the greatest quantities of them.”
“Surely some of these things are better left alone?” It was the first that one of the other monks had spoken, and the look that Summer Storm gave him was absolutely paralysing. His murderous gaze was broken only barely by yet another earthquake. I'd lost count of how many there had been. A lot, probably. More than there ever had been on days or months previous. They were getting worse. Building up to... something, I didn't know what.
“The University doesn't think so. And might I add, The Heptagram is in agreement with The University on that account. They purchase most of our salvage.” Val informed the Dragonblood, who looked somewhat subdued upon hearing that we were at least marginally employed by The Realm's most exclusive school of sorcery to supply their students with a good quantity of magical materials necessary for crafting artifacts and weapons, like the white jade staff that he carried himself.
“All the same.” The Dragonblood replied. “It is necessary that we speak with the members of your crew.”
“Well, then let's go speak with them! I'm sure that you very busy gentlemen have much more important things to do than waste your time fussing around down here with the likes of us!” Val began to head back in the direction of Fluffy, obviously eager to get Summer Storm a solid distance away from the temple and The Big Guy.
“Oh no, not so fast!” Summer Storm interrupted him. He stopped just inside the first door. “We want to talk to each of them individually. In a civilised environment.”
“What do you mean by civilised environment?” I frowned.
“At the University. Where we may open and close doors instead of blowing them from their frames with explosives? Where we may sit in chairs instead of on piles of rubble? Where we may breathe air which does not reek of mold and urine?” The Dragonblood paused, waiting for Val to respond.
“Well, Mehmed and Kasashi are probably freezing to death anyway.” Val sighed in defeat. “I was hoping to work until sunset, but I suppose we could call it a day.”
“Yourself and your extraordinarily rude assistant are not needed, Professor Basileca. Dean Peleps has personally vouched for your character. It is the integrity of your... hirelings that is of concern to us.” Summer Storm finished. “We'll take them all with us.”
“And bring them back?” Val hazarded a guess. “I've paid them partially in advance, you understand? Due to the hazardous nature of the job.”
“Everything will be settled by tomorrow.” The Dragonblood said. But the way he spoke that word made it sound more like a well-rehearsed lie.
“Very well. Though I will warn you, if you think Sapphire is bad, Little Fox is worse. The both of them were raised in the very worst part of this city and they've no respect for anyone or anything. Fox doesn't mean what he says... well, honestly I suspect that he does, but he was denied a proper education and well... you must have some sympathy for the poor and ignorant?” Val rambled.
“You are a Professor, are you not?" Summer Storm turned to Val with a scowl. "Master Basileca, it would be advisable for you to stop excusing the behavior of your charges and begin educating them. You will find that not all of my peers are as... forgiving as I am."
Without another word, the Dragonblood swooped past the both of us, followed closely by his men.
“So, are we really calling it a night?” I suggested.
“Of course not.” Val replied, his eyes fixed on the darkness that the three Immaculates had vanished into. “We're working until they throw us out of here. Besides, I've got to show you the door that I found!” He whispered.
“Door?” I immediately covered my mouth, hoping no one had heard my expression of shock. Every door we'd encountered so far had required a pile of explosives to get through and probably more time than we had left, but it was hard not to be enthusiastic about another new room, another glimpse 1,500 years into a world that was almost too beautiful to imagine.
Once we could hear the sounds of everyone climbing up the later, Val and I dove back into the temple. While he scribbled in his notes and murmured about where he'd left off, I snuck into his bag and found the two peaches that his wife usually stowed with his research... one for each of us to eat as we worked. As kind as Lily was, it wasn't difficult to see why Val was so loyal to her.
Not that he hadn't had... other “offers”.
Resolving to be somewhat less of a bastard in my future lives, I set the two peaches in front of The Unconquered Sun and quickly mumbled one of his prayers that I'd memorised from reading the walls of his temple over and over again.
“What are you doing?” Val demanded.
“Nothing.” I lied, moving to the left just a little so that I was standing in front of the peaches I'd taken out of his pack.
“Talking to "The Big Guy" again?” Val laughed slightly. “I thought you didn't have any use for Gods?”
“Well, we both know that Immaculate Philosophy is basically bunk. Any archaeologist can tell you that, and most Gods aren't worth the incense you've got to burn to get their attention.” I replied.
“Most Gods?” Val laughed again.
“Burning Feather is easy enough to find, at least around Harlotry.” I remarked, naming my own grandmother... better known as “The Goddess of Intoxicants” who had often nursed her own ferocious hangovers at my mother's tea house. “This is different.” I finished, knowing I probably sounded as defensive as I felt.
“Oh yes, this is serious heresy! Because you mean it, don't you, Sapphire? You've grown attached to this place.” Val rolled his eyes. “Is that why you're leaving this great golden demon our lunch?”
“I don't know.” I muttered. “It seems like the right thing to do. You said so yourself. The tremors are becoming more frequent, there's still the fae and now we've got no crew and those Immaculates breathing down our necks. We're finished here. We can only pray we're not also finished at The University. I don't want to go look for a real job.”
“And you think old Sol Invictus will protect us from those over-zealous Immaculates, Dean Peleps and all of the pretentious fellows of the University?” Val sighed.
Together, he and I both stared up at the God.
“I dunno.” I paused. “A God like that might protect you from anything.”