by Max Barry

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by The Technocratic Empire of Veradax. . 1 reads.

Visit to the Necrotechnomancer's Union, Volume 3.

The High Zealot's mind was a labyrinth of bitter memories, barely contained rage and countless old grudges - some over suspected slights that had occurred generations ago. Ata could sense the priest's hatred for the nameless "gods" and his unwavering faith in the Church of Transcendental Hatred and its ultimate victory. And there, involuntarily brought to surface by Ata's earlier questions, memories of the ancient Eldians and their relics - secret, hidden memories not meant to be shared with nonbelievers...


Impressions of a large structure - the Grand Cathedral of Primal Hatred - with black impossibly tall towers piercing the clouds like swords, challenging the gods by wounding their domain... Inside, the smell of incense and machine oil. In the distance, a chorus of voices singing the Chants of Hate to a group of flagellants dancing before the altar, whipping their flesh to show their contempt for the mortal prisons the gods trapped them in at birth. Effigies meant to symbolize the gods in alcoves, on fire, hungry flames licking their bodies, writhing as if in agony.

Everything is as it should be.

"You are a High Zealot now, Thaos. Congratulations", a large figure clad in black and red robes says - the revered figure of High Priest Zeke Norkevendacious, the leader of the Church. You bow your head in awe. He continues, "It is time for you to learn the Deep Meaning of the Sixth Truth. Follow me."


A flight of stairs, descending. Deep underground, below the Cathedral. You follow the High Priest, not sure what to expect.


---Ata's spell had lost most of its effect now; Thaos' implants had almost restored the chemical balance of his body. It had taken only a few seconds, but he was already becoming aware of what was going on. His rage was resurfacing, and Ata could sense that the High Zealot was preparing a devastating psionic counter-invasion of HIS mind---


A large chamber. Pedestals with things on them. Old things, important things. Not of all of them of human origin. Some clearly Eldian.


---The memory was fading, and Ata could feel the High Zealot's presence in his own thoughts, frantically searching for the spell to deactivate the cell's wards---


And there, on a large pedestal, between a set of Eldian stone tablets with unknown writing on them and a glowing metal rod, a copper-colored half-helmet, covered in runes and crystals. A memory device. Fully intact. "The Eldians of Blacklight are gone, but their memories are not", the High Priest says. "To fully understand the Sixth Truth, you must experience their memories, know what they knew. Only then will you learn the Deep Meaning of the Sixth Truth..."


High Zealot Thaos pushed Ata out of his mind with incredible force, fueled by his fully resurfaced hatred. "Infidel! Unbeliever!" he screamed. "You will not have the chance to benefit from the secrets you stole from my mind! You will die!" Using the link between them, he invaded Ata's thoughts like a psionic hurricane, attacking everything in sight with the obvious intent to do as much damage as possible.

Ata had gotten what he had come to this cell for, and more. It struck the lich that the zealot was an incredibly petty man, probably a side effect of the religion he followed blindly. The spell for deactivating the wards was hidden deep in Ata's mind, it was only ever possible for the Zealot to find pieces of pieces of the spell, if that. When the psionic attack was inbound, Ata utilized a mental technique learned in the Union of Necrotic Sciences as a mundane defense against this sort of attack, which in the worst case scenario can destroy the person's identity. He offered up 'sacrificial thoughts' to the hater priest while his mundane defenses were working to end the connection. If this didn't work, he would be forced to end the Zealot's life, which he could accomplish in a multitude of ways given his current position.

The lich began by working to sever the direct connection. First carving a healing rune into the back of the zealots head, then he allowed his body to initiate defense protocol 52, defense against mental attacks of this magnitude. Meant to completely destroy the concentration of the attacker by inducing a stroke, it was utilized only against human targets via administration of a small nitrogen bubble as directly as possible into the brain's circulatory system, inducing a brain hemorrhage which in turn, caused a stroke. Typically the target area was the ocular lobe, as such a. stroke would severely impair sensory abilities while leaving the valuable temporal lobe relatively unharmed. Various patterns existed for various circumstances, but none of them targeted the Temporal Lobe, as it was to most valuable in nearly all circumstances.

And so the stroke was induced, dooming the priest to impair vision and motor skills as well as introducing him to blind spots in vision, specifically blind spots on the right side. If it worked, the Lich would be able to successfully disengaged and activate the rune, which would stabilize the priest's condition and prevent him from dying from protocol 52 for use in later sessions. Ata would leave the cell to converse with Rongoteus about his findings. If it failed, Ata would take more drastic measures to ensure his survival.

During his venture into Ata's mind, the Zealot picked up some information as well, a collection of memories with no sense of continuity.


Fear, regret, despair. Laws of physics breaking down, reality torn asunder. Horrible monster swarming out of spacial rift. Lone warrior battling the creatures not of this world, not of this universe. Lightning zips through their ranks as golems and reanimated corpses shield form walls around the lich.


Helicopters present, chain guns roaring, corpses piling. Government troops, more liches, chanting, runes, rift slamming shut, smell of burning bodies. Discipline, more regret, restriction.


An armored mage in black wearing a horrifying helmet and wielding a mace was fighting winged creatures seemingly by itself. Batting the powerful mages of the enemy aside with the power of an entity that could slay lesser gods. Corpses flying, living bodies decaying, all occurring in a subtropical region.


Army of black marching on, lead by a figure addressed as the 'Witch-King'. Demiliches and wraiths in the ranks with mages, liches, and necromancers of all areas, united. Itching to fight, itching to destroy something. Feelings of pain, loss, suffering, hints of crusade, vengeance.


Word from Blacklight, good harvest, bountiful trade. Crate of relatively large memory crystals on boat, set to be traded. Necromancer present, making final adjustments and preparations on his creation before it departed. Much to trade, much to gain. Runes in place, crystal loaded with other precious cargo, ship sailing. Necromancer leaving dock, back to laboratory with more crystals. Make more, always more, demand increasing.

[End memory sequence]

When the stroke started to cause damage in his brain, the High Zealot's enraged curses became slurred and his physical struggles - which he had resumed - less effective... but only for a moment. After a few seconds he fell quiet, but his fighting became somehow more coordinated and effective. The psionic connection between Ata and Thaos remained as strong as ever, and through the link Ata could partially sense what the High Zealot was experiencing: his vision was nearly gone, but somehow he instinctively knew where and when to strike. A single-minded, inhuman determination directed his every action, both mental and physical. In the mental battlefield, he kept attacking the sacrificial thoughts thrown in his path with great precision and fury, trying to dig in deeper. In the real world, his enhanced muscles bulged until they looked like they were about to tear through his rough skin. With great effort, he got back up on his feet, the psionic fire reigniting around his fists. He started to tear at Ata's octopus-like manifestations that remained wrapped around his body.

Through the link came also a realization of what had just happened: Thaos had activated the most advanced combat implants integrated into his brain and body - all of them at once. With each passing second, more and more of his body was being taken over by combat programs that used every sensory input still available to them to make their host the most efficient killing machine possible. Where vision failed, the implants used touch, hearing and smell to determine the enemy's position and the otimal angle and moment to strike. Thaos had also overridden all safety protocols - he was now damaging his own body and mind, but he seemed determined to take Ata with him.

It seemed like Ata's only remaining option was to kill Thaos.

Then Ata sensed another presence - a friendly presence. Master Rongoteus had entered the cell and was assisting him in the psychic battle. While Thaos had been fully focused on Ata, Rongoteus had used the opportunity to breach into the High Zealot's mind. Now it was pulling him out of Ata's thoughts, assisting the Veradacian lich. Thaos's presence was starting to recede, but he kept resisting with the last of his strength.

"It looked like you might need a little help keeping this self-destructive madman alive", Rongoteus' telepathic voice said. "He probably doesn't deserve it, but he might still be of some use. Let's flush him out together. When he's gone from your mind, activate the healing rune and exit the cell immediately. I'll be right behind you. Ready... NOW!"

Ata had zero intentions of Killing Thaos, but was about to neutralize the Zealot's hearing when Rongoteus entered. He focused completely on getting the Zealot out of his mind and when signaled, activated the healing rune and fled. Seems the octopus form had more similarities with the actual creature than anticipated, as it left a patch of bioluminescent slime on the floor to prevent the Zealot murder machine from following him out. Once out, Ata stayed an octopus, either not wanting to, or too unfocused to shift back to his 'passive' form. He just lay on the floor, a bit more than tired. "I hate mental attacks. Might order a few of my protective devices from home." he stated wearily.

Before Thaos could turn his attention to Master Rongoteus, the cyberlich wrapped its six Living Metal arms around his body and threw him against the far wall. It then followed Ata out of the cell and immediately reactivated the ward spells, sealing the raving High Zealot inside. Mouth foaming and unfocused eyes burning with hatred, Thaos slammed his fists against the cell's translucent wall, again and again and again, until his knuckles fractured. He backed away as if to gather momentum, but slipped on Ata's residue and fell on his back with a loud thud, screaming in rage and disappointment. He seemed unable to get back up. Drool was dripping from his mouth.

"That got uglier than I thought it would", Master Rongoteus said. "But an interesting fight, nonetheless. I hope he doesn't damage himself too much - there may still be something we can learn from him. If nothing else, he'll be an interesting study in the power of pure insanity." He turned to Ata. "Did you get the information you wanted from him?"

"I retrieved some useful information from his deranged mind. I would recommend that you increase survailence on this area, though. While I effectively blocked his attempts to pry the spell to unlock his cell from me, you can never be too certain." he paused. "I will have to return to my quarters now, both to rest and research. We can make arrangements concerning the memory helmet at a later time. I need to prepare for my journey to Blacklight."

"Very good", Master Rongoteus said. "And don't worry about the Zealot escaping. It will be a trivial matter to change the deactivation spell of the cell's wards... Although I doubt he'd be capable of doing much damage in his current state anyway." In the cell, Thaos lay on his back, chest rising and falling rapidly. Sweat mixed with traces of blood from his wounds pooled around him and soaked his burlap robe. He didn't scream or rage any more; the only sounds he made were panting and the occasional grunt.


Back in the animancy laboratory, the initiates had already returned from their lunch break.

"That's still not very comforting." Ata replied. He got up, assuming the spider stance. "Good luck to you in your endeavors, until we meet again." The lich said before scuttling off to his quarters. Once there, he gathered a few items and then began accessing the data sphere. The objective was to gather all relevant information, this included online articles, museum records, articles on surviving structures, information on private collections, acquisition records, anything available. This included where he could find records if he wasn't able to find them in the Datasphere.


Back at the animancy laboratory, Lin continued with the lessons on soul manipulation. It was a lesson on defensive techniques, particularly focused on keeping the soul in the body when someone is trying to force it out. It followed a similar format, but when it came time for the initiates to try, Dulruni made a hard light wall in between Maydra and the other initiates.

The Despoticanian intranet turned out to have an abundance of information on domestic archaeology, especially concerning Blacklight and the ancient Eldians. The modern city of Blacklight had a population of approximately 1.5 million and was a popular tourist destination, mostly thanks to its famous ruins. Several old structures still survived in some form, despite all this time. The most famous were a large building dubbed as the "Royal Palace" (the articles pointed out that despite being popularly called the "Kingdom of Blacklight", the ancient Eldian nation's actual form of government was uncertain) and the protective great wall that had once surrounded the old city, still bearing the two breach sites made by the human invaders. There was also the "Wizard's Tower", a collapsed structure believed by most archaeologists to have been some kind of nexus of magical experiments. Several chambers had been discovered under the Wizard's Tower, but they were closed to public because of structural instability. The Datasphere article describing the Wizard's Tower included several photographs of the chambers, however. There were what looked like crumbling sacrificial altars and underground slave pens, and the walls of the largest chamber were covered in faded, stylized murals depicting the city during its heyday: tall, elegant towers and flowing architecture, with many gardens and forums full of robed figures. The most curious aspect of the murals was the "Black Sun", a dark orb that always hovered in the sky, despite most scenes being clearly set during either day or night and also depicting Sun or Moon.

The largest museums containing Eldian artifacts were in Despoticania Prime and Blacklight. Most of the items were mundane and uninteresting: a helmet or a spearhead, a ring or an amulet (tested negatively for enchantments) and so on. Among the more interesting nonmagical artifacts were two incomplete sets of stone tablets, both held in the Museum of Nonhuman Relics in Blacklight.

The first set of tablets had been translated and told the story of someone called "The Fearless Fearsome Fearful Brother of His Only Beloved Twin Sister". In the story, the otherwise nameless hero tried to resurrect his sister, who had apparently been killed (the literal translation was "silenced") by evil east-dwelling beings called the "Sightless" (most historians believed that the Sightless were actually the early human settlers of Despoticania). The hero journeyed far to the north to ask for the guidance of a mysterious, powerful being who dwelled there. His journey was bizarre and nonsensical, sometimes to the point of comedic, but there was always an undercurrent of dread and hopelessness, and a certainty that the hero would eventually fail or die. The story ended just as the hero reached a lonely mountain in the north and discovered some kind of mostrous creature blocking his way. No other tablets had been found, and the rest of the story was believed to be lost forever.

The other set of tablets was written in an unknown writing system that didn't seem to be of Eldian origin (although the style of the tablets certainly was). Despite the best efforts of countless cryptographers, codebreakers and even linguistic quantical AIs, the text remained undeciphered. Most studies suggested that the tablets had been created over a century after the fall of Blacklight, and according to a popular theory, might have been an attempt of Eldian slaves or resistance fighters to mislead their human oppressors.

Finally, it was relatively easy to find the names of private collectors of Eldian artifacts. Two of the largest collections belonged to Eder Kane, CEO of a state-owned mining corporation based in the city of Lookitthat, and Mirabelle Askolein, a reclusive billionaire investor with holdings in several augmentation companies.

The Lich memorized everything he saw, he would be able to recall it all later with perfect clarity. The Zealots may have been fanatic trans humanists, but they had yet to reach his level of augmentation. Blacklight was the first place on his list, then he'd travel to these collectors. Ata left his quarters, he'd check in from time to time on mobile devices to keep an eye out for updates when he was in the field. The strange looking spider/octopus left Towen, venturing along the edge of the unforgiving cliff sides for what seemed to be an arbitrary amount of time. Once he reached the spot he desired, he kept off the cliff, forming into a sphere. With the help of some magic, he was able to redirect the kinetic energy of his impact on the rocks and sail off into the open ocean, his body impacted the water with tremendous force. Sinking to the sea floor, he reassumed spider/octopus form. A large shadow loomed over everything in the surrounding area, it was right were he left it, many would classify him as insane for making such a thing, but he thought of it as a natural extension of the Union's tendencies. Boarding the strange craft, he was greeted yet again with the biomechanical interior of the ship, he liked the design astetic.

Returning to passive form, Ata went over to his personal storage locker and retrieved a few enchanted items and some extra material for his body. Once this was over he sat down in the ship's interface. It was a fusion of magic and technology that allowed him to directly interface with the ship, so far he had only been able to make it work for liches of his type. The Lich set in a course and set off to Blacklight. At first the thrust was very inconsistent, coming in pulses, but when it got up to speed the the thrust smoothed out and became regular.

The trip was not too long, a few hours at most. Xier arrived at Blacklight by walking out of the ocean in his 'passive' form. His ship would create much more attention than he wanted if the Despoticanians saw it. He knew his first destination, he would visit the museum. Those tablets intrigued him, wondering if he could find out more, he pressed on. The lich still paid attention to his surroundings, looking to see where ruins were, were the tourist hotspots were, and anything that could be relevant to his search. There was also the issue of people, they would certainly get in his way at some point or another, they would be a tricky problem to deal with.

Ata emerged to an empty beach. Blacklight was far enough south that during the warmest summer months, temperatures could rise above 25 degrees Celsius. Even during the summer, no place in Despoticania was exactly ideal for a beach vacation, but the natives enjoyed swimming in the ocean waters warmed by southern currents enough to justify the existence of a few dedicated tourist beaches. Blacklight, already one of the most popular vacation destinations in the entire country, had one of those beaches. But this far into the autumn it was cold and empty, waiting for the inevitable onslaught of winter and the distant spring. A thin layer of frost already covered the sands.

Like most large Despoticanian settlements, Blacklight itself was a walled city with a few immense pseudoarcology blocks that formed its center. Most other buildings were massive and sturdy, built to withstand the harsh climate and large temperature variations over the seasons. Actual skyscrapers were relatively rare - few buildings outside the city center had more than ten stories. The dominant architectural style was somewhere between Art Deco and Neo-Gothicism - glass walls and open terraces were rare, probably because of the cold temperatures and freezing winter gales that plagued the city for more than six months every year. The protective walls surrounding Blacklight did not extend to the coastal parts of the city. Their main purpose was to keep the infamous Despoticanian mutants away, and those always approached from the inland. Ata could see a numer of heavy gun emplacements atop a nearby section of the wall.

Public transport was easily the most common form of traffic. Large buses and tube trains were everywhere, although Ata could also spot a number of massive mopads, automated mobile homes that drove endlessly around the city's road system. Civilian cars were large and fit for long-distance travel, both in the above-ground highways and in the subterranean tunnels that connected the most important settlements. Most vehicles were electric - fossil fuels had been long since banned from civilian use in Despoticania.

Despite the teeming nature of modern-day Blacklight, the ancient Eldians ruins and archaeological sites were well-maintained and separated from the more modern sections of the city by walls. The Museum of Nonhuman Relics was located near one of the walled sections (which contained the Royal Palace and the Wizard's Tower), not too far from the beach. As Ata walked the streets of Blacklight, his appearance raised more than a few eyebrows, but no one approached him or tried to stop him - Despoticanians were used to extreme forms of body modification, and even highly unusual beings were a relatively common sight.

He continued on towards the museum along the shortest path available. Noting where the Royal Palace and Wizard's Tower was, he would visit them after the museum trip. The composition of the city was far different than what he was used to though. In nearly all Veradacian Cities, spires colored with white and hues of green dominated the cityscape, with smaller structures fanning out around them. It was common for spires to be several hundred stories tall and contain many different things. This was a more decentralized city that - without proper planning - could be a nightmare to navigate for foreigners. Some symmetry was apparent, but not to the level that Eldian city planners took it to. The pseudo-arcologies in the center reminded the lich on why Veradax was behind in some areas, they had spent a large sum of money making actual arcologies following the passage of new environmental laws and subsidies for companies like Green Hills Construction. This also brought up the fact that Veradax was delving into Sea Steading, whereas Despoticania was not, as it had no need for the extra space. Chandelier Aquaculture Farms were also becoming increasingly common, it seemed that Veradax just dumped way too much money into city development. Probably explained a great many things.

The Museum was housed in a large Art Deco building. A broad flight of stairs led to the main entrance, flanked by massive stone columns. Hanging banners between the columns advertised the current main exhibition: "HUMAN-ELDIAN COEXISTENCE AND RELATIONS IN POSTWAR CENTURIES".

Despoticanians were a cultured people. The ticket counter behind the entrance saw a steady stream of visitors. Hushed conversations ceased and people turned to look as Ata entered the Museum. Even by Despoticanian standards, the lich was an unsual sight. Most people assumed he was a full-body cyborg with a penchant for creepiness, but quite a few recognized him as a genuine undead being and assumed he was from the Necrotechnomancers Union. The latter generally gave him a wide berth when he walked past.

But not even the Archmanipulator could escape the rules and regulations of the Despoticanian educational system. "The tickets are 15 Despollars for adults and 10 Despollars for students and children", said the clerk behind the counter.

"Interesting Exhibit, I'd like to see where the bias is." he muttered to himself approaching the ticket both. He did not pay much attention to the civilians, there wasn't many ways he could be more inconspicuous. Enu, on the other hand, would've blended right in. When he got to the ticket counter, he produced fifteen despoilers and set them on the counter. "No discount for senior citizens?" he asked rhetorically as he obtained a ticket. The lich would then enter the museum, looking for the tablets and anything else that might be useful. He'd visit the Human Eldian Relations exhibit on the way out.

The tablets were easy to find - they were among the legendary relics permanently on display regardless of any other exhibitions going on in the museum. There were twenty-one tablets in total, housed in two bulletproof glass cases. The epic of The Fearless Fearsome Fearful Brother of His Only Beloved Twin Sister consisted of fifteen tablets, carved in a runic script Ata could probably recognize as Eldian in origin, although the language was incredibly archaic and very different from any Eldian languages that had survived into the modern age. Translations for each tablet had been provided next to the display case.

The untranslatable script consisted of six tablets, with the last tablet being a fragment with more tha half of its text missing. The writing system was completely unfamiliar, and while some recurring words had been recognized as verbs or nouns, the actual meaning of the words was unknown - and without any frame of reference, impossible to decipher. The writing system had significantly more individual runes than any classic Eldian languages, and almost all of them were unfamiliar. Two had been recognized, however - they were used in some very old summoning spells involving dangerous outer dimensions.

The tablets themselves were not exactly enchanted, but Ata could sense something curious: the tablets seemed to be actively resistant to magic, and they existed in decelerated time, probably explaining how they had survived in readable condition for nearly 9,000 years. The info text next to the display cases noted these characteristics and also mentioned that no satisfactory explanation had been discovered for them - although the Necrotechnomancers were supposedly capable of creating building materials supernaturally resistant to the effects of time.

The other Eldian artifacts on display in the Museum were mainly mundane utensils, weapons and armor. Most enchanted items had long ago been hogged by various research organizations and private collectors. Despite this, there were a few enchanted items as well - the most famous was the "Mace of the Black Dawn", a weapon that sapped the life force of its target. The enchantment had once been fairly powerful, but it was weakened by the millennia, and it was not particularly impressive when compared to what the Necrotechnomancers Union or even the Dragonspire Institute of today could create.

Ata stood there, inspecting the tablets. He found the untranslated one to be especially intriguing, given that he recognized some symbols as being used in summoning magic. While inspecting the tablet series for more familiar looking symbols, he took note of the age of the tablets, both the epic and the mystery tablets could be old enough to correspond with the memories he saw. That triggered something, perhaps if the mystery tablet was only supposed to be viewed by Eldians, then it might disclose something to him that it had not to others. He began using his soul in an attempt to investigate, being careful not to damage the tablets. In a technique similar to what Lin had been teaching the initiates, he would look for more.

Failing that, he would take note of the various symbols that he recognized and see if they made anything coherent or aided in translating parts of it. He also took note of the location the epic was found in, as many epics were based on events in the world. This place to the north might exist. With enough time, he would check the Mace of the Black Dawn for writing of any kind or subtle magical effects.

A museum guide approached Ata but turned quickly away after taking a closer look at the lich. As Ata reached out with his soul, he quickly found to his disappointment that the tablets contained no hidden enchantments or triggers. Or if there ever was one, it didn't work without the full set of tablets. One notable thing he could deduce was that the "lonely mountain" in the north, where some kind of monstrous creature had dwelt according to the epic of the Fearless Fearsome Fearful Brother, was in the rough location of the modern-day Mt. Dragonspire. Mt. Dragonspire, often called the "Inverted Mountain", was the site of an ancient magical catastrophe, and even today, thousands of years later, the mountain and its surrounding lands were an area of wild magic with extremely low Hume values.

The Mace of the Black Dawn was held nearby. Archaeological findings and some historical texts suggested that the weapon had belonged to a great hero and warlord who had led the final preemptive attack against the human armies, only to die in battle. According to ancient reports, the mace had been "blessed" by something called the "Black Sun". There were ancient runes in the shaft of the weapon, spelling what was thought to be the name of the hero: Er-Galanth

Ata was interested in whatever this 'Black Sun' was as well, perhaps he could find something in the ruins? The Lich would visit the Eldian-Human relations exhibit out of interest, thinking on what he had learned and plotting his trip further inland. Using the interface familiar to access the intranet, he looked for the schedule of tube trains heading out of Blacklight to Lookitthat.

The new exhibition focused on Human-Eldian relations after the fall of Blacklight. The centuries following the victory of human armies under the command of King Anganol the Bloody were among the most vague periods in the history of Despoticania. Various rulers had written and rewritten chronicles detailing the events of that period numerous times, often trying to hunt down and destroy all alternative sources. But not even they had been able to remove archaeological evidence, the memory of geological layers and forgotten things buried deep in the frozen soil.

The few surviving written sources suggested that the remaining Eldians of Blacklight had been enslaved and moved to the East Coast following the destruction of their capital. It had taken another two or three centuries before Despoticanians, now the sole inhabitants of their northern island, had established their first settlements on the West Coast, starting from the ruins of Blacklight. Archaeological evidence suggested otherwise, however. Apparently, some humans had settled around Blacklight in the immediate aftermath of the war, and there was substantial evidence of peaceful coexistence between humans and Eldians in the fishing and farming villages surrounding the former Eldian capital. A recent theory proposed that at least some of the legendary, extremely long-lived advisors of Despoticanian rulers during the First Kingdom era had been pureblooded Eldian mages who had switched allegiance. All mentions of these advisors disappeared after the reign of Queen Hestra the Insane, however.

The information was certainly interesting, and could explain how the Church got their hands on an intact memory device, something they would certainly cover up. Now it was time for the ruins, he knew some rule breaking may have to occur. Hopefully he could find something of interest or importance there.

The closer of the two major ruins was the Royal Palace, located roughly in the city center. It was open to public and, like the museum, saw a steady stream of visitors (at similar prices).

The palace was an impressive stone structure with three intact towers (and two collapsed ones), called the "Ruler's Tower", the "Guard Tower" and the "Children's Tower". It was by far the largest remaining example of Blacklight Eldian architecture, having over two hundred rooms, including a huge chamber commonly thought of as the "Throne Room". The Palace had been scoured of all major artifacts millennia ago, but all remaining rooms had been painstakingly restored and preserved by later generations of archaeologists. The most interesting aspect of the Palace were countless detailed mosaic murals that depicted life in the court, grand battles and varius gods and spirits worshipped by the ancient Eldians. The Throne Room contained an enormous stone throne, seemingly part of the floor itself rather than a separate piece of furniture - in fact, several archaeologists had noted that the throne had a flowing, orcanic shape that made it look like it was grown rather than built. The back rest of the throne was cracked and partially missing. Most archaeologists believed that it had been broken in a violent confrontation, possibly during the last stand of the last Eldian ruler of Blacklight. Strangely, the invaders had left the Royal Palace mostly intact, despite many surviving reports suggesting that King Anganol the Bloody had ordered the complete destruction of the city.

Ata could detect no enchantments anywhere in the Palace, but he did notice a small Black Sun symbol carved on the throne. It was relatively small and not very obvious, definitely not on display like a proud ruler might have shown his or her coat of arms or some other personal symbol. A label next to the throne mentioned that similar symbols had been found elsewhere in the city, but never in public places - the "Black Sun" was obviously somehow connected to the name of the ancient kingdom, "Blacklight", and the concept had held some esoteric importance to the Eldians who had lived here.

The Black Sun, from what he had gathered, was a magical artifact that may have had a will of it's own. The destruction of such a thing certainly would destroy a mountain. Perhaps that is what the intact memory device held, the last days of this Black Sun. If it was still around it would be very visible, such powerful magical devices are nigh impossible to conceal totally. The Lich moved on to the wizard's tower. The Black Sun Symbol seemed to be related to the ruling class of Blacklight Society, thus independent collectors may have several items that could help him in his search. But he would need to visit the Wizard's Tower first.

Calling the eroded mound of collapsed stones a "tower" was definitely an insult to the very concept of tower. However, archaeological evidence and several historical sources suggested that it had once been a magnificent structure, over 150 meters tall and home to the best Eldian arcanists and thaumaturgists in Blacklight. Here, they had worked day and night to guide and protect their people and uncovered many hidden wonders of the universe and the natural world. Time had not been kind to this nexus of magical research, however. Perhaps the structure had been intentionally destroyed by the human invaders, or perhaps its integrity had depended on some ancient enchantments that had faded over time and caused it to erode. Whatever the case, today the above-ground portion of the tower was an unimpressive heap of stone and little else.

However, archaeologists had unearthed several large underground chambers, and it appeared that most of the magical research had actually been conducted in them rather than in the tower itself. The exact nature of that research was lost to time - perhaps mercifully, since more than one chamber housed what appeared to be sacrificial altars and slave pens, and several torture implements had been discovered in and around the Wizard's Tower.

Most of the chambers were closed to public due to concerns over structural instability. Only the two most stable and secure ones, accessible from the mostly intact ground floor of the Tower, were open to visitors. The large chamber with the murals Ata had read about was deeper inside, and only sanctioned researchers would be granted access to it and the other closed-off sections. Permissions to enter them were granted by the University of Blacklight on a case-by-case basis, and while they were reasonably efficient in reviewing requests, it could still be weeks before they made their decision.

Approaching the Wizard's Tower, the Archmanipulator could spot a small Black Sun symbol near the entrance, carved into the stone. Barely perceptible wisps of magic lingered in the air around the Tower - there was something down here.

Ata began by looking at whatever information was displayed to the public. He then looked around for the security measures in place around the area where access to the underground section was. Nothing short of a hermetically sealed blast door could keep him out, but he decided to be more subtle. Even if the locked door was just a gate, hed send something in while he remained above in order to avoid suspicion from museum security.

The security measures were relatively minimal. Just a a few security cameras and a simple wooden door barring entry deeper into the underground portion of the Tower, flanked by large signs with the text "WARNING! STRUCTURAL INSTABILITY IN THIS SECTION - DO NOT ENTER!" printed on them. There was also a guard booth nearby, occupied by a large, bald security guard with strangely childlike features and some obvious biological and cybernetic enhancements - in fact, "he" (assuming sex was an applicable thing in this case) was likely a failed Hammer-branch clone soldier. Ata could detect no arcane security measures at all.

The lich used one of his familiars in tandem with a concealment spell. The invisible little drone like extension of the lich slipped by the guard and cameras, wriggling under the wooden door. The lich pretended to read the information plaques while using the observation familiar to investigate what was off limits to the public, if he was interrupted the familiar would automatically fall under the control of a subroutine, either way it recorded what it saw. Ata wouldn't be took broken up if he lost the familiar, compared to his others, it was a simple thing for one purpose only.

Behind the wooden door was a dusty stone corridor that led to the first restricted chamber. Illumination was provided by a single pale lamp in one corner, revealing a large, elongated room in rather bad condition. The ceiling bulged ominously inward and several of the intricately carved stone slabs that had covered it had fallen off. Past archaeologists had done their best to stabilize the chamber with super-concrete beams, but one wall had collapsed almost entirely, ending the room in a pile of rubble. The chamber looked like it had been a holding area for cattle... or slaves. Most of the floor area consisted of elongated pits approximately three meters deep, sectioned by stone walls into tiny pens just large enough for a single human-sized creature. Rusted remnants of chains and shackles could still be seen in some pens and mounted on the opposite wall of the chamber itself. Ata's familiar could detect no signs of magic in this particular room, but the tingling feeling of ancient enchantments was definitely stronger now.

A door on the far side of the chamber led to another corridor, longer and more spacious than the first one. The corridor ended in a cave-in, but two large doors - directly opposite each other - were accessible about forty meters in.

The door on the left led to an immense round chamber lined with mostly collapsed stone pillars. In the center was an empty half-spherical pit, about twenty meters in diameter. In front of the pit was what looked like an altar of some sort. This room was magically dead - in fact, the feeling was eerily similar to the spiritual vacuum felt around Towen; it was as if something had consumed every last sliver of magical and spiritual energy in the area so thoroughly that nothing remained even now, thousands of years later.

The door on the right led to the large room with mural-covered walls Ata had seen in several Datasphere articles. The familiar could instantly detect a number of very long-lasting enchantments here. Sensing the presence of a magical object, some of the enchantments activated and briefly probed the familiar, directing wordless inquiries at it. Ata could sense that the enchantments were searching for something - a particular type of soul, perhaps.

After a few seconds, the familiar was rejected and the enchantments went back into dormant state.

Ata withdrew the familiar to the entrance point, scanning for structural integrity along the way. He needed to get inside, the cameras and the guard wouldn't be a problem, and his body behaved in much the same way as the familiars he had. Slipping under the door would be possible, but he'd need to burn a bit of time on cloaking so that he could get into the tower without the guard noticing. He walked out of the main area, finding an unobserved spot, he set to work. Larger items were always more difficult to cloak, so he used runes to help. The lich pulled in the energy he needed, then the runes appeared. Formed of hard light, they floated around him for a few seconds before the runes, and the lich inside them, disappeared from sight. Creeping back to the main tower area cautiously, as he was only cloaked from sight and still made sound and had physical presence. Shadows weren't an issue either, so he focused on being quiet.

It took some time, but he made to the door. Slipping under almost as easily as the familiar had, he took the form of a serpent in order to distribute his weight more evenly. A cave in won't kill him, but it would be very inconvenient. After banishing the familiar back to where ever it had appeared from, he slithered over to the room with the mural covered room. He made sure that his soul was the only one present.

The corridors and chambers in the restricted section were reasonably stable, although they definitely weren't safe enough for a constant stream of tourists. Ata reached the mural chamber in no time, and instantly he could sense the activation of several old enchantments. They carefully probed his very soul, searching for familiar patterns. At first, nothing happened. But after a few seconds there was a slow, dawning feeling of recognition.

The murals themselves came alive.

As Ata waited and watched, one of the robed figures depicted in the central mural slowly turned its head. Hundreds of tiny mosaic pieces rearranged themselves like ants running on the wall, resulting in a crude animation. Behind the main figure, smaller mosaic figures moved in looped patterns, creating an illusion of a busy day in what looked like a large temple courtyard. Above the scene, next to a stylized sun, a large black orb sat in the sky, unmoving. The soul-shard upholding the enchantment was very weak; it had bled out over the millennia, damaged and diminished along with the physical decay of the chamber. But there was still enough of it left to recognize another Eldian.

A telepathic voice spoke to Ata, "You are one of the People. It has been such a long time." To be honest, it was more like an impression of a voice, using the words already present in Ata's mind rather than speaking on its own power; even for someone with no magical gift at all, it would be extremely easy to block out the voice.

The lich observed carefully, doubtful that he'd be able to do so again. He pondered on the nature of the Black Sun a bit more when he heard the voice impression. As he had not been guarding against intrusions, it was able to slip in. Ata new that the only ones in here since the fall of Blacklight had been humans, even those with eldian ancestory shouldn't have activated the enchantments. He would stay around a bit longer, to see if anything else happened.

"How long has it been, exactly?" the mosaic figure asked, its voice growing momentarily weaker. A few mosaic pieces fell off the wall and clattered on the chamber's stone floor. "Has the Empire or one of our sister colonies finally sent help? Has the Enemy been driven out of the holy city? They must be gone, otherwise you would not be here... Know then, that I am the soul-shard of Ritual Master Oano Sen. I was chosen to guard this place until the People once more walked its halls. Now that you are here, my task is nearly complete and soon I can join my Brothers and Sisters in the Beyond. But before I do that, I must tell you things you need to know in order to restore Blacklight. I must tell you of the Broken Promise and our betrayal by..."

--- At this point, there was an unfamiliar, confused sensation as the soul shard was unable to find the correct term in Ata's surface level thoughts it was accessing in order to speak with him. However, the lich could see a vague vision of a large spherical hole in spacetime, a black sun of unlight that felt somehow alive and inspired both terror and awe ---

"...a betrayal that led to our defeat. Have you... have you found it yet? It left us before the Enemy knocked down our walls and invaded these sacred halls we built in its name. It must be found before it can do more harm."

It was becoming increasingly apparent to Ata that the artifact spoke of in the memory helmet was the Black Sun, or related closely. He also suspected that the Black Sun was a sentient magical artifact or anomaly. Such things were not uncommon in Eldisis, sentient weapons and tomes were a right of passage for enchanters or enchantresses. Enu's sword was one such artifact, a powerful one meant to use the energy of an enemy against them. Ata had several sentient tomes, as well as a sentient pseudo-familiar that only obeyed the commands of the Archmanipulator of the Union of Necrotic Sciences. It was created by the first Archmanipulator, and was passed down almost as a symbol of the office, gaining many new traits as time went on. It was a valuable assistant, not too good in combat though. Rumors had it that the pseudo-familiar controlled those in the position of Archmanipulator, and that it had been made with the soul of a powerful enchantress. Ata and Saylrou knew that only one was true, and the other was fabricated.

"I am from the land of Eldisis, your partner in trade until the Red Death hit us. I am here to find out what happened to it, the Black Sun. I am following the trail left by you and other great mages of Blacklight. I must ask though, who was sent after it?" The repetition was intentional. The lich made more words, phrases, and ideas available to the soul-shard.

"The Black Sun?" The soul-shard sounded confused for a moment, but then there was a realization of some sort, and it seemed content again. "Yes. The Black Sun. Our beloved Black Sun. The Thrice-Blessed Black Light of our city, the Varliance-infused Reality Fractal of Dawn Times. The Mystery from Below. We thought It would protect us. It made us believe It would protect us. But when the Enemy was at our gates and our last great army had fallen, It left us. When the Ritual Masters went to Its chamber with a sacrifice of thirty humans, they found it empty. We were abandoned in our greatest hour of need... The Far-Watcher said It went north to bring about The End, but then she tore out her own eyes, saying the Dream was now Broken and could never again be fixed..." More mosaic pieces fell off. The movement of the figures in the mural became increasingly spasmodic and unnatural by the second. The enchantment and the soul-shard were fading fast. The Ritual Master kept speaking, but his telepathic voice was becoming weaker and less coherent. "Our last great heroes went after the Black Sun to bring It back. They snuck past the enemy in the night and went north, following the trail of **BROKEN-PROMISES**... Their **WIND-SONG-THOUGHTS** carried... the **IMPRESSION-IDEA** that It was heading for the great lonely mountain... to the northeast of our city. But by then the walls had been breached and the Enemy was here, burning everything we had built and loved. **LEAPING-KNIGHT** Seian Vior was the last who communicated with us. He said the Black Sun was waiting for something or someone. But by then it... was... too... late..."

The mural froze. Ata could sense the soul-shard fading away to nothingness. Suddenly, all the thousands of mosaic pieces came off at once, raining on the floor like colorful hailstones. They left behind a pile utterly drained of all magical energy.

And something else.

It was a tiny shard of black crystal, embedded in the wall behind the now-destroyed mural. Ata had seen a similar crystal before, in the underground cavern below Towen, growing from the lake of Living Metal Master Raynil had shown the Veradacian visitors.

Ata morphed back into his passive humanoid form, approaching the the black crystal in order to inspect it closer, he wondered if it could be removed. The lich was starting to narrow down his suspicions, it was heavily hinted that the Black Sun was one of the entities responsible for the Dragonspire Incident. What ever was up there, it had ended the lives of eldian warriors before him. It would be dangerous, and there would certainly be spots relying on the nature of his soul. Perhaps the Black Sun had been destroyed in that area, if it was as powerful as this investigation hinted at, its destruction would bring about a massive catastrophe. He would need to uncover more on the fate of the black sun, and any links to the living metal pool, but first he had to investigate this one crystal.

Unlike the crystals in the lake, this one appeared dead and inert. It seemed that the ancient Eldians of Blacklight had used the crystal to draw in soul energy - just as Master Raynil had said always happened in the vicinity of Towen because of the presence of the large crystal formations - and then redistributed it to the mural enchantment. The crystal was set in a small recess, which in turn was surrounded by seven runic circles of increasing size and complexity. Ata could recognize most of the runes as common enchantment runes; what was particularly interesting was that after the runes had been carved into the stone wall, they had been filled with a thin layer of silvery metal-like substance very similar in appearance to the Living Metal used by Towen's cyberliches. Apparently, the Blacklight Eldians had had access to a source of Living Metal of their own, although no historial sources mentioned one. Perhaps their source had been much more limited, or they had treated it with greater reverence. The crystal was set rather firmly in its recess. It could probably be removed, but likely not instantly and not without further damaging the wall.

Suddenly, there was the sound of approaching footsteps coming from the corridor outside the mural chamber. It sounded like the security guard Ata had passed while invisible. The chamber was far enough in the restricted section of the ruin that a baseline human could not have heard the collapse of the mural, but the guard had looked heavily enhanced - probably a rejected Hammer-branch soldier or some other failed military experiment. His enhanced hearing had apparently been keen enough to detect the commotion.

Ata had a plan to remove the crystal, wouldn't be fitting to have the soul shard of an eldian mage fall into Despoticanian hands. Besides, such a thing could prove a liability and lead to others following him. But it would have to wait. The guard was proving to be a bit of a pest, one that Ata couldn't kill, and one who couldn't see the contents of this chamber and live to tell others. While he was by no means the master of illusion, Ata was still a Greater Lich, an illusion spell with the visual data from his familiar would be enough to make a realistic illusion of what the room had looked like. As long as the guard didn't explore much farther past the entrance, it should be enough. It would have to work, as he didn't hav time for much else. The illusion was cast, Ata remained next to the crystal in a form that resembled a wraith or other hostile spirit. If the illusion failed then there was no doubt that he would have to use invasive mental tampering spells to take from him what he had seen, the form would provide a certain shock value he could take advantage of to quickly subdue the guard. If all else failed, well, the Wizard Tower was supposed to be structurally unstable.

The guard appeared on the chamber door, carrying a small flashlight. His childlike, androgynous face remained blank and expressionless as he let his large, unblinking eyes take in everything in the chamber, every detail and every surface. He stood there for a few seconds, apparently comparing what he saw to some internal database - possibly a memory cell containing a perfect image of what the room should look like. Then, he stepped inside and raised his left hand, palm stretched outwards. He had removed his glove and was apparently trying to feel possible changes in temperature and air currents.

"Intruder. Come out. Now", he said in a cold, high-pitched voice. He didn't sound uncertain or fearful in the slightest, but he clearly wasn't looking in Ata's direction.

Ata opted for a simple solution to the issue for now, tranquilizer. He knew it wouldn't remain in his system for long, but it would allow him to render the guard unconscious through other means. Then he could set to work on the crystal and runes. He had one of his familiars flying to the other end of the room, remaining in the illusion.

The guards perspective was less exciting, after his demand there was silence for a few seconds. Then a silvery dart shot out of nothingness and stuck in the neck of the guard. Almost immediately after, he was blindsided by a spectral figure, nothing more than a black blur that seemed to have materialized next to him. Suddenly finding himself immobile, his body had no choice but to fall to the ground. Strangely, the sound was muffled. Unable to move much, see, or speak, the tranquilizer started to kick in.

Xier stood over the bag of flesh that was the guard, now bound by black contructs. Poor soul never stood a chance against the lich. The flashlight had hit the ground and rolled off to the side, illuminating part of the outer rune circle. Ata had done away with the illusion at this time, it had served it's purpose. Now the spectral-looking lich was working on an incapacitation spell so that he could get back to the crystal and rune circles and deal with this annoyance afterwards. But now there was a time limit, other security personnel would get suspicious if their friend was down here for too long. Perhaps it was best to deal with the guard now? Deprive him of some memories, plant a few ones, and send him on his way thinking that he'd found nothing? Ata had one of his familiars monitor and jam outgoing communications within a few meters of its position, as a way to prevent the guard from alerting everyone of Ata's presence while he worked. Despoticanian law enforcement wouldn't take Kindly to a foreign lich trespassing on state property, even if that property had once belonged to his cousins.

The guard had a very efficient but surprisingly simple mind: "he" - or "she" or "it"; on closer inspection, the guard looked even more genderless, and Ata could detect no hints of any kind of sexual drive when he made telepathic contact - had massive amounts of processing power devoted to instinctive and automatic behaviors, most of them related to combat tactics and weapons. None of the skills had ever been used in a real cobat situation. His actual consciousness was very limited; even when awake, he probably existed in a state similar to sleepwalking.

Removing or planting new memories in his mind would be easy, but there was one major problem: integrated into the guard's mind were a hundreds of optoelectronic memory cells and tiny cellular computers that remained unaffected by the tranquilizer. They were unable to access any of the guard's sensory modalities for now, but they remained otherwise active and kept analyzing the situation based on the last received stimuli. At least some of them were actively trying to send out alarm signal, but it was being blocked by Ata's familiar. Without a central consciousness to guide the cellular computers, they were also attempting to assume control of the guard's body under some kind of emergency combat protocol; similar incidents had been observed during the Church of Transcendental Hatred's attempted conquest of Veradax, when many Hammer-branch clone soldiers had kept fighting even after seemingly fatal injuries, including losing large chunks of their skull. Thanks to Ata's familiars and paralyzing spell, though, the implants were unable to control the guard's body.

The implants had to be dealt with, frying them would most likely result in death, so he needed another way. Corrupting the data from the past few minutes would be the easiest, but would be highly suspicious and easy to detect. The best option would be to overwrite the data with falsified experiences, but such an undertaking would consume time, and the other guards may become suspicious. He brought out the interface and observation familiars to help him generate the necessary simulation, it just had to be good enough to prevent further investigation and mitigate suspicion concerning this event.

The control files of all implants were heavily encrypted, but because Ata had access to the guard's mind, he could retrieve the encryption keys from the guard's own brain patterns. Once he had full access to the implants, overwriting the memories became possible, but the process still took time - the implants, it appeared, stored and analyzed extremely detailed information from the user's environment using all of his or her senses. The implants were so deeply integrated into the guard's mind that Ata's guess about the frying of the implants probably killing the guard was almost certainly correct. In fact, merely corrupting the implants too much would probably have serious detrimental effects on the guard's sanity, given how much of his thinking was outsourced to them.

With Ata's own advanced technology and magic, overwriting the memory files in a single cellular computer was over in an instant, but there were hundreds of such computers, and each of them had stored slightly different memory files or sensory information. Ata had to ensure that the information was coherent and matched perfectly across each and every implant. Precious seconds were ticking away...

At last the last memory file had been overwritten. Examining his work, Ata could find no inconsistences between any of the fabricated memories: the guard would believe that he had found nothing suspicious. However, even from Ata, it had taken 36.285 seconds to overwrite all memory cells. There was no telling if the guard was already being missed and if someone was on their way to look for him.

Ata ran a few calculations and determined threat level to be moderate. So he cast a few basic spells on the guard and moved his body to the exact spot in the hallway his 'memories' said he was. Ata had managed to fit in a few contingencies as well, in case something sprung up. But the most important thing was that the guard had found nothing and was on his way back to his post. Of course he placed in some filler incase the guard noticed the time that had past, as well as all the small details. Once he had the guard in position, the lich slinked away to the mural room, raising the illusion once more, with a few adjustments due to past experiences. The guard was awakened instantly as all spells were dropped in order to prevent suspicion. Ata couldn't let the guard see him again, or know he was here. If the guard came too close, he'd need to collapse the passageway. As such, Ata surveyed the roof of the passage right outside the doorway in order to find the most favorable spot to strike at the minimize damage to the structure. He sent his observation familiar over to the soul sharp/rune circle in order to further analyze it, and find the optimum method to remove it.

Xier had a few spells at the ready, incase they were needed. If the guard did as expected, then he could focus on the crystal. If the guard did not act as expected and the passageway had to be collapsed, then he could focus on the crystal. As the veradacian lich did not need an overly large gap in order to escape, it was an option. All he could do now was hold his breath, the next few seconds would determine how much suspicion was drawn to this place.

As soon as the guard was awakened, he turned and started walking back to his post near the entrance to the closed-off section of the ruins. It turned out that Ata's timing couldn't have been better, either: at the end of the hallway, three other distinct footsteps joined the guard's. With his enhanced senses, Ata could pick up their conversation, held in low voices:

"What took you so long, D-762? Did you find something?" asked a human voice, most likely belonging to the chief of the guards.

"Thought I heard something, sir. Went to investigate. Checked all the chambers but could find nothing", the guard replied.

The first voice sounded concerned. "Hrmmh. It could have come from the ruins themselves", it said. "Maybe this area is in even worse condition than the archaeologists believed. First thing tomorrow, we'll have a team inspect the entire area. Now, let's get back to our posts for the rest of the day."

The guards left the hallway, and Ata and his familiars were alone once more.

The observation familiar had finished analyzing the crystal shard embedded in the runic circle. The crystal still held some small fragments of an Eldian soul, but it was clear that there wasn't a full person in there - and never had been: just the barest minimum required to act as a semi-sentient guide in the off-chance that another Eldian entered the chamber. The crystal itself was approximately fifteen centimeters across, slightly irregular and organic-looking. There were no special enchantments holding it in place; if Ata could cut through the porous stone of the chamber wall, he could easily remove the crystal. The runic circle surrounding the crystal was less interesting. Ata could tell just by looking at the runes that the enchantment had been a very complex one, but also single-use. There was no magic remaining in the circle, although the traces of Living Metal applied to the runes were intriguing. Strangely, the familiar could not determine the components of the metal, as if it wasn't made of baryonic matter at all.

After the illusion fell once more, the Eldian Lich took a few moments to analyze the layout thoroughly, he had a few ideas, but he would need exact specifications. He then used some of his magic to cut out a nearly perfectly circular section of the wall that contained the crystal, it fell out of the wall into his waiting hand, feeling quite nice in his hand. After placing a protective spell on it, it simply disappeared in a puff of black particles. Ata may be constrained on when he could use his prowess in summoning magics, it certainly had other applications. He then set to work removing the living metal from the wall of the chamber, doing so in a similar fashion as he had with the soul stone. Once all the segments of stone containing living metal were gone, he took a minute to look at what he had done. Where an elaborate piece of ancient eldian magical technology had once been was now the smooth outline of a circle with lines darting around inside. This looked way too suspicious for his likings. Using the philosophy of to take something you must leave something, the lich used one of his fingers to carve a series of eldian runes into the center of the circle where the soul stone had been. It was a timed decay enchantment, something that couldn't be done in battle due to its intricacies, but a useful one. He finished with the indicator for around forty minutes of time before the runes activated and destroyed the section of the wall containing the suspicious activity. Ata used his own scans on the integrity of the room to judge how much could be. It was set up to create a more natural looking recess, and would also contribute to the rubble pile already on the floor from the mural's collapse. It was all structured to look as much like natural degradation of the room as possible. Yet it still had a good chance of just flat out destroying the room.

After he finished plotting the destruction of national landmarks, The lich cloaked himself once more and slipped out the way he had come, giving the guard a wide berth this time. Once out, he morphed into a ball and rolled off to a different secluded spot in order to morph back to his passive form and lift the cloaking spell. It was then a relatively brief hike through the city before he reached the beach once more. He paid any beach goers there were little mind, giving the seals that lounged lazily about more attention as he marched back into the sea.

His ship was waiting for him, although it was getting a bit impatient by now. With a puff of black particles, the soul stone materialized in his hand. The lich placed it in a protective case, he would need to see if there was any way to re-activate it later. The segments with living metal were hidden away in a locked and sealed container for later study, the properties of the living metal intrigued him. After that Ata sat down in his command chair, but didn't link with the ship. Displays flickered to life around him, most no more than hard light suspended in the air. The runes had surely gone off by now, and he was looking around the Despoticanian Intraweb in order to find out what was being reported on it. He would need to spread some mis-information if they were too close to the truth, it would also be interesting to see the extent of the damage caused, be useful in calibration his familiars. While this was happening, Ata was booking passage on a Vac Train to the nearest stop to Mount Dragonspire. It would pass through Lookitthat as well, so if he felt any connections to that location, he could get off and investigate. But his objective remained Mount Dragonspire, he had suspicions that certain things would reveal themselves to him once there. If not, well, there were always the scientists that lived there. And his past experience with that type of person told him that they were always eager for new knowledge, hell, even he qualified as one of those people.

Several news sites in the Datasphere were already reporting the partial collapse in the structurally unstable section of the Wizard's Tower. Nearly half of the famous mural room depicting daily life in the ancient Eldian city-state had collapsed in on itself, completely destroying the priceless mural. The damages were estimated to be at hundreds of millions of Despollars. While no one was hurt in the collapse, the Wizard's Tower had been evacuated as a precaution and would remain closed to public for the rest of the month. None of the official news sites reported anything suspicious, and the collapse was being investigated as a simple accident. However, a few forums dedicated to independent research into the Eldian history and ruins in Despoticania mentioned the possibility of sabotage. In one popular archaeology site frequented by professionals, ds.AncientMyteries.des, a prominent username, ScaraBKing, made bold accusations, claiming that the collapse was "An act of cowardly revenge, perpetrated by the dying Eldian people as a toothless retribution for the Church of Transcendental Hatred's heroic campaign to integrate them".

Sure enough, the posting history of ScaraBKing revealed several posts endorsing the Church and its policies. The topic started by ScaraBKing called for a complete Kant counter scan of the collapsed section and a thorough investigation of surveillance records for the presence of any Eldian individuals or their known acquaintances in the Wizard's tower around the time of the collapse. Most users of ds.AncientMysteries.des dismissed the demands, and a few even called ScaraBKing a hate-mongering racist, but a couple of like-minded individuals agreed with him and kept the topic hot.

Back at the animancy laboratory, Lin continued with the lessons on soul manipulation. It was a lesson on defensive techniques, particularly focused on keeping the soul in the body when someone is trying to force it out. It followed a similar format, but when it came time for the initiates to try, Dulruni made a hard light wall in between Maydra and the other initiates.

After a couple of days of intense mentoring by the Veradacian liches, the initiates were getting better at soul manipulation. Madyra in particular had made great progress after his counterproductive competitiveness had been alleviated a bit. With a bit of instruction, combined with his natural talent and great magical power, he could easily ward off even intense spiritual attacks. Of the three initiates, Kilander seemed to have the best overall control of his abilities, while Myrdem excelled in spiritual projection. By now she could send her astral form to several rooms away while maintaining a good awareness of the surroundings of her physical body. Master Raynil seemed very pleased with their progress. While it would be several more years before any of the initiates could even begin the process of becoming a cyberlich, the skills they had acquired would no doubt help them in their future studies and the mastery of more advanced magic.

It was early in the morning on the fourth day of the Veradacians' visit, and as Enu had been told by Master of the Hunt Fawthali, the hunting party was about to depart Towen to intercept the Snow Runner herd that was expected to threaten the town of Wail. Satellite images suggested that the herd was even larger than expected, a gathering of several Snow Runner "tribes" led by a particularly intelligent and bloodthirsty alpha. The hunting party consisted of Fawthali itself as well as four lower-ranked hunters, each of them unique in form: Spellwrights Tharstan, Thoke and Cosgatt were first stage cyberliches with undead bodies enhanced by Living Metal, while Oathman Robayday was still mortal, though heavily enhanced with both cybernetics and enchantments. In addition, the hunting party included five Forge Knights.

Fawthali and the hunting party were waiting for Enu and the initiates outside their lodge. The sun would not rise in several more hours, but the intense aurora of northern Despoticania made the sky glow in shades of red and orange. The endless snow fields and icy mountains surrounding the monastery reflected the colors of the sky, making everything seem unreal and dreamlike. The metallic forms of the cyberliches and the Forge Knights in particular looked almost surreal, standing like abstract statues in the ethereal light. Three futuristic-looking snow mobiles had been prepared for the initiates so that they could keep up with the hunting party.

Ata began to multitask, he was simultaneously working on finishing the booking for his small trip, setting up a profile on the Datasphere that made it look like he was a Despoticanian on the younger side - around high school age - with an interest in Despoticanian History, and creating a digital copy of the images depicted on the mural with his own visual data, and what he had stolen from the guard. When done, it would be an animation of how the mural moved as it was speaking to him, but it would never go on the Despoticanian Datasphere.

Eventually the mural project demanded more of his processing capacity, so he put the sh!tposting project on a subroutine in order to direct more of his attention at the mural project.

BearKnight23: "Why would Eldians destroy bits of their own history as retribution? If this was retribution, they would've gone for something important to the church, like the Caves in Starfall where Hater prophet St. Marukh died."

Ata would proceed to continue on the forums under the name BearKnight23 for several hours as he worked.

Back at Towen
Enu arrived as promised, dressed in a form of light armor with what looked like biological components. His footfalls were light and he didn't sink into the snow much either. What was the most striking though, was his weapon. Attached to his back by means of specialized scabbard was a longsword of ancient eldian origins, minimalist design meant for function over form. It's handle was made of smooth stone with leather wrapping, the pommel was a hunk of metal that looked like a miniature flange mace, and the cross guard was essentially just a slightly stylized bar of metal. Looking at it in the scabbard would hint that the blade was rather thick for a sword, meant for someone stronger than a human. If one felt the arcane presence of the sword, they would know that it was far from ordinary. The heavy enchantments it held were based around necrotic magics, apparently able to toggle between enchantments based on the situation. It also had characteristics disturbingly similar with sentient magical artifacts.

Klec followed up behind the younger lich, clad in heavier armor adorned with various runes and other such enchantments. With the battle rifle he carried, he looked a bit like an edgy hammer branch soldier. Beside him was a biomechanical monstrosity roughly shaped like a horse. Strangely, it looked like it had been folded, as if it came to Towen in a really big suitcase. It clearly wasn't his regular mount. The initiates were behind Klec, in snow gear with their chosen weapons.

Enu glanced over his shoulder before speaking to the leader of the hunt. "Apologies for the hold up, our Greater Necromancer - Lin Wuro - needed a few moments more to prepare." he said. A few moments later, Lin appeared, beside her was what looked like a large bear. Upon closer inspection, one could tell that it was made out of the compacted blueish-white ice of the surrounding lands with a collar of runes around the neck region. A small stone was inlaid in the back of its head, allowing it to be independent from Wuro's magic supply. Lin herself was garbed in a suit of mostly biological composition. The black fibers of artificial muscles were wrapped around her augmented body in a natural looking way. Dark green plates were present in vital areas as well as on the shoulders, thighs, and shins. Small runes were barely visible on the plates. Her weapons were quite simple, just two reinforced collapsible baton, denoting her specialization in construct and support based magic. The biomechanical falcon was perched on her shoulder while familiars in various geometric shapes floated around her. "Sorry for the hold up, needed time to prepare a mount." she apologized telepathically. The necromancer then looked over to Klec and his portable horse, "I'm surprised that Ata let you bring that."

Lin then jumped up on top of the ice bear. "Klec and I will stay with the initiates, Enu, you may go stay with the hunting party." Enu only nodded, it was clear that Wuro was in charge whenever Ata wasn't around. She then addressed the initiates "Do you all know which animal is to be your familiar?" Before the class sessions had ended last time, she had told them to do research on the native animals of Despoticania, one would stick out more than others as a compatible candidate. For Ata it had been an octopus, for Klec it had been a pangolin, for Enu it had been a Cassowary. Lin's first familiar was actually an owl, but an accident in the Laboratories of the Monastery had destroyed it. Hopefully the initiates knew what animal suited them, even though it depended more on what was felt in the field, it was a very helpful guideline.

Booking for a vac-train trip was extremely easy. There were departures every 20 minutes, and the travel time from Blacklight to Lookitthat was merly 5 minutes, with 11 more minutes from there to Mt. Dragonspire (one additional stop along the way). The vac-trains had a top speed of nearly 6 times the speed of sound, so one could get from one end of Despoticania to the other in less than 40 minutes. Only major cities and other important locations were connected with vac-train tubes, but very few locations in Despoticania were ever more than a few hours of travel time away.

ScaraBKing and his most fervent supporters were quick to react to Ata's - or rather, his familiar's - posts. They started explaining their theories on how the Veradacian Eldians were extremely proud, bitter and intensely jealous of their culture and relics and would not want mongrel half-breeds like Despoticanians to have them. "Besides", ScaraBKing finished a lengthy, rambling post, "They could never hope to damage any locations under the Church's protection. Those are too well-guarded for even their best agents. So, like cowards, they strike at easier targets." Many other posters agreed with "BearKnight23", however, and interest in the topic began to dwindle.

Suddenly, Ata was alerted to sphere crawlers investigating BearKnight23's posts and profile. They were apparently security subroutines of the AncientMysteries site, and something in the newly-created profile or its posting patterns had caught their attention. The Datasphere was an immensely complex web of private and public servers, databases, nodes and zettabytes of traffic; attempted scams were very common, and there were even rumors of spontaneous AI formation in the dark reaches of the Despoticanian intranet. With this in mind, most larger sites had very sophisticated security programs - sometimes near-sapient themselves - monitoring their content. It was impossible to tell what exactly had caught their attention this time, but something in Ata's fake profile had flagged it as a potential anomaly. No action or deep-tracking attempts had been initiated so far.

The security crawlers had BearKnight23 under their scrutiny for a few more microseconds, but eventually they seemed to decide that it was not a threat and left the familiar-controlled profile alone.

Back at Towen
"I want a pet bear!" Myrdem said happily, eyeing Lin's snow construct with apparent fascination. "Or a pet familiar, in this case. Something big and strong yet soft and fluffy."

"A bird", Kilander said. "Something relatively small and nimble. A sea hawk, perhaps, or an owl."

"Hah, you're all thinking too small!" Madyra said. "When I've killed the alpha Snow Runner, I'll use its soul to create my first familiar!"

"Is the lad always like that?" Fawthali asked telepathically, directing its words to the Veradacians alone. "I don't usually deal with initiates this young... I had almost forgotten how delusional baseline humans can be of their own abilities... although I do sense great power in him." The giant wolf made of Living Metal paced back and forth as the initiates mounted the snow mobiles and Enu joined the other Hunters. When the hunting party was ready to depart, Fawthali spoke out loud in a soft feminine voice, "First, we'll head north, following the coastline. Watch out for Snow Bears and do not disturb them if you see them... When we see the vac-train tube connecting Wail to Koriantura, we'll turn northeast and start looking for the Snow Runner herd. The latest satellite images suggest there are over four thousand of them by now. While we could probably kill them all without too much trouble, we're not going to do that; we're only going to thin the herd a bit and kill the Alpha. Trapping its soul is optional... Be on your guard when we reach the polar deserts outside Wail - we have reports of unusually strong winds coming from the direction of Mt. Dragonspire. Chances are that the local Hume values are exceptionally low for the next couple of days. Strange things may occur."

Fawthali raised its great head to the sky. Beyond the ethereal curtains of Aurora Borealis, countless silent explosions erupted between the stars like celestial fireworks: a space battle being fought in the outer system. "Strange things may occur indeed", Fawthali repeated quietly and turned to face the snow-covered road leading north from Towen.

The Lich Master would rest for an hour or so, with the mural project 50% complete or so. He let the subroutines ensure that the topic on AncientMysteries was kept in the bucket of irrelevancy, not directly instigating anything, but attempting to counter any resurgence in the topic. He also made sure that the subroutines were wary of the website's security algorithms, he didn't need any trouble from them. The trip that was booked would have a twelve hour layover in Lookitthat before heading to dragon spire on a different train, giving him time to investigate if anything peaked his interest.

After the short rest was over, Ata departed for the Blacklight Vac-Train Station. The trip back in was not an issue, placating his agitated craft was a bit more difficult. He would allow it to roam the ocean around blacklight, but it would have to return in two days. The lich had no concerns that it would be discovered, it was an intelligent vessel and knew how to avoid military vessels and trawlers. Of course in the city he garnered a bit more attention than he was comfortable with, but he managed to get to the station a few minutes early without much trouble.

Back at Towen
"Unfortunately Madyra is usually like this, with some training, he has gotten better about it though. But I still fear that his arrogance will cause him great grief in the future." Lin told Fawthali telepathically. She directed her gaze to Madyra as she addressed the initiates. "We will bee departing from the rest of the hunting group later in on the trek, it is sounding like a coastal plain is what we are looking for. We will not be engaging the snow runner pack, as your training in combative magic is still quite limited. Rest assured though, one day you will be able to do such things. For now our objective remains to discover and learn, not to cull. Do not harm or disturb endangered or protected species, we don't need to bring any additional hardships to their communities." She then turned to face Klec, who was mounted and was looking trough some mapping software on a interface familiar. "Have you found a suitable location, Master Dulruni?" She asked. He responded quickly "Yeah, it's southwest of Wail, so we'll be breaking off near the end of the trek in the polar wastes." Lin didn't seem to like that much, but she would do what she must. She said a command in the eldian tongue and her falcon took to the skies, to those that could understand, it roughly translated to "Watch from above." She addressed the hunting party with everyone ready to go. "Lead the way, Master of the Hunt." The lich then sank into her construct, which became slightly bigger as a result. "We are ready." said the snow bear, now apparently directly controlled by Lin.