As Ata had already found out during his earlier tour of the city and its museums, the people of Despoticania were used to unusual and strange sights. An undead cybernetic mage was certainly exceptionally strange and unusual, but aside from garnering some curious - and sometimes worried - looks from the people and the crowds keeping their distance, he encountered no further problems.
The vac-train station was one of the largest buildings in the city, a nexus of constant traffic as the massive trains, docked in their airless bays and connected with the rest of the station through airlocks, loaded and unloaded passengers and cargo between arrivals and departures. The process was largely automatic, but there were human conductors to sell and check the tickets (or the identity of the passengers in cases where the trip had been reserved through the Datasphere as Ata had done). "Welcome, Mr. Ata... ahhh, everything seems to be in order. Welcome aboard and enjoy the trip," the young man who confirmed Ata's identity said, managing to keep his composure despite his skin turning pale when he saw the lich. Once all passengers were aboard, the airlocks were sealed and the train lurched forward. After diving into the darkened tunnel filled with an almost perfect vacuum, it reached its top speed in less than a minute. Every second put over two kilometers between Ata and Blacklight.
The jagged slopes and snow-covered peak of Mt. Lookitthat were an impressive sight that greeted Ata when he stepped outside from the Lookitthat vac-train station less than seven minutes after his departure from Blacklight. Over ten kilometers tall, Mt. Lookitthat was the highest point in Despoticania and one of the tallest mountains in the world. The city of Lookitthat had grown around - and partially inside - the mountain, which was riddled with countless mining tunnels and cave dwellings, some of them small cities in their own right. According to the latest census, nearly 11 million people lived in Lookitthat, making it the second largest city in Despoticania, right behind the capital, Despoticania Prime. Despite having the history and reputation of an industrial and mining city, Ata could see that Lookitthat had many tall skyscrapers and office buildings as well. In many ways, Lookitthat was one of the most normal-looking cities in Despoticania, although in the distance, circling the city and the mountain, Ata could see a fortified wall with its heavy gun emplacements, similar to the wall of Blacklight. Even here, in the densely-populated heart of the country, monster and mutant attacks were apparently a serious threat.
Either that, or the Despoticanians were a truly paranoid people.
The official Datasphere entry on Lookitthat had several books' worth of information on the history, culture and government of the city as well as its most popular attractions and historical sites. There were no known Eldian ruins in Lookitthat. During the ancient war between Despoticania and the Kingdom of Blacklight, Lookitthat had been in the middle of no man's land, and both sides had lacked the ability to bore into the solid rock to mine to mountain's resources anyway. The first known settlers had been Despoticanians who had arrived nearly a millennium after the fall of Blacklight and lived in the many natural caves in the lower slopes of the mountain. The first person who had actually climbed the mountain was Alia Paravel, a famous explorer from Port Hestra, who had finally conquered the mountain in 1669 (and was also responsible for giving it its modern name; prior to her, the mountain had been known by its ancient name, Orikalturo). The mines inside the mountain were the most important source of metal in Despoticania, primarily iron and copper, though there were also a few gold and diamond mines as well.
The most recent event of any major importance in Lookitthat had occurred in 2017. Early that year, miners had found the remnants of a long-extinct pseudosapient "civilization" that had lived deep under the mountain thousands of years ago. The blind, albino primates had never advanced beyond sone age and had apparently died from a combination of inbreeding and some minor but ultimately fatal tectonic shifts that had made their caves less capable of supporting life. There was little additional information on them available to public: the caves had been promptly quarantined and were currently being excavated by archaeologists from Despoticania Prime.
In the Arctic Wastes
Fawthali led the hunting party north from Towen, tunneling through the snow with fearsome force.
The Master of the Hunt was followed by Enu and the three undead Spellwrights, Tharstan, Thoke and Cosgatt. The Spellwrights all had nonhuman form which allowed them to keep up with Fawthali, although unlike the oversized but otherwise recognizable metal wolf of their leader, they didn't closely resemble any real animal. Tharstan and Thoke had bodies that looked like six-legged reptiles, with long triple-jointed arms folded against their sides, ending in meter-long Living Metal claws. Cosgatt resembled a four-meter long centipede with hundreds of bladed legs. The most disturbing thing about the three was that they all had human heads and faces. Their skin was withered and leathery like that of a mummy, but their original features could still be seen: Tharstan and Thoke had apparently been brothers, probably identical twins in their thirties, while Cosgatt looked like a middle-aged woman. Oathman Robayday, the only living member of the Towen hunting party, was a cybernetically enhanced man of indeterminate age, clad in light runed armor. He came after Enu and the Spellwrights, sitting in lotus position on a hovering board of pure force. He carried a huge custom-built rifle with a large glowing crystal replacing the clip.
Klec, Lin and the initiates followed a good deal behind the main party. Fawthali was fast; despite the cyberlich seemingly moving through the snow with brute force alone, the initiates' advanced snow mobiles could barely keep up.
Spellwright Cosgatt spoke telepathically to Enu. "So. I understand that you have quite a bit of experience in hunting vermin", it said. "We do not expect any real trouble from the Snow Runners themselves; ultimately, this is just pest control. But this is your first time in the wilds of Despoticania. Do not underestimate the other dangers you may encounter."
"I'm sure Death Knight Enu doesn't need to hear that, Cos", Thoke interjected. "I think he can handle himself. Can you, Eldian? I look forward to seeing your kind in battle. I sadly missed the duel between Master Anolianth and your Ata, but apparently it was quite the confrontation. They only reopened the arena yesterday."
Ata watched the people of Blacklight react to his presence, especially the Conductor. It brought him back about two hundred years or so, when his own kin were still uncomfortable with the level of modifications employed by the liches. But, as he remembered, the public had never quite got over the unease caused by the union members. There was a good reason why the liches were reclusive beings, the government might be willing to work closely with them, but Ata doubted that the populace would ever be willing. He was very polite to the conductor, not that it would make a difference, and continued on his way. The ride was uneventful in part because of the short duration, in part due to his intention not to draw too much attention to himself.
He exited the station in lookitthat, stopping to take in everything before proceeding. It was a chance to see a Despoticanian city that wasn't built one the corpse of his cousin's Imperial Capital for the sole purpose of separating tourists from their wallets. While this was most likely not going to help him on his journey, it was a welcome distraction. He had quite a bit of time to spend here, might as well enjoy himself some. The Lich began to slowly walk around thee city, taking in everything around him. "Perhaps I will go bother that collector, won't be difficult to get them to let me take a look. Collectors always drool over the mint condition trinkets I have." he continued down the street, the hybrid city reminded him of some of the Veradacian cities he rarely visited. Yhuodraso came to mind, the architects there were insane and the real estate agents were slicker than a greased seal. The architects managed to make beautiful houses in the remains of an open pit mine and the agents made it look like the hottest new thing in the country. Convenient way for conducting business, let the mining companies deal with the red tape, and send the construction companies in after the clean up was over to stabilize everything and build the houses in thee suburban fashion. Ata had been to one of these developments, Copper Crater Estates, nice enough neighborhood with nightmarish road systems, but the residents seemed to think that the dwellings were worth it.
He let his thoughts wander some more, seeing some of the more augmented Despoticanias he was reminded about a strange subculture in Veradax. Modders or 'punks' as they were known by the rest of society, they chased after augments like they were the latest smart phone. They were the closest thing there was to augmentation addicts and their relentless pursuit of the next best one fostered a recklessness that was the bane of medical professionals everywhere. Drifting back to the task at hand, he knew that his use of his actual name would draw unwanted attention from the church. He also knew that they would not make a move against him while he was in public as more bad PR was the last thing they needed, the most they would do was watch him. This just meant he would need to be on the lookout for church enforcers while he was roaming about Mount Dragonspire. The lich master continued down the street, enjoying thee little things about the city.
The Arctic Wastes
Enu answered Spellwright Cosgatt as he barreled through the arctic wastes, the snow actively helping inn his rapid advance, leaving a trail of disturbed powder behind him. "Our Union also engages in mutant hunting, but the veradacian government is more interested in their extermination than preservation, and the populations have been declining steadily after the past few years. There were also those that disobeyed the Archlich and participated in the Battle of Xoysa, one such lich was one of Ata's apprentices. Digressions aside, I have no intentions of underestimating what the wild can do. I embarrassed myself once before through such an action, and got to watch my fellow students laugh at me after a white shark had finished dragon me across the ocean and back."
The Lich then answers Spellwright Thoke. "I am capable of fending for myself, the my title was awarded to me following the old laws, it is no easy feat." he paused "I look forward to doing battle alongside you, I have never fought beside someone not of the Union." the silence persisted for a short while until Enu spoke again. "Master Ata will be back from his task in the near future, there will be an opportunity for you to talk to him, perhaps even train with him a little."
Lin was bringing up the back with Klec riding in front of the initiates, they were communicating telepathically, planning how to proceed from the operation point and keep the initiates safe. They had both read the stories about the arctic wastes of Despoticania and they were caused for worry between the two masters.
Eder Kane, the owner of the largest private collection of Blacklight Eldian artifacts, was also one of the richest men in Despoticania. The reclusive billionaire lived in a high-tech cave dwelling in the lower slopes of Mt. Lookitthat. He hadn't shown himself in public for nearly two decades. He had to very old by now - his exact date of birth was unclear, but he had been active in the business world since the early years of the 20th century. He was the CEO of the Lookitthat Deep Mining Company, a state-owned for-profit corporation that controlled the largest and deepest metal mines in the mountain. A quick Datasphere search revealed several comparisons between Kane and The Despot, both being mysterious, unseen authority figures who only communicated with their underlings via written messages.
The vac-train station had been in the outskirts of the city. Ata's slow walk towards the central mountain took him through densely populated residential districts full of massive super concrete buildings that fell stylistically somewhere between Art Deco and Elkiran Classicism, then to the business center - or rather, business ring - of the city. Here, most buildings were newer and represented more modern architectural styles. Aside from the prevalence of body modders and augment addicts, one notable quirk of the city was the large number of robots of various shapes and sizes. In fact, they made up nearly one third of all pedestrian traffic. Very few of them resembled humans in any way; most were wheeled or tracked machines with compact, dome-shaped bodies and retractable limbs and cameras for eyes. The locals didn't seem to mind the robots at all, and their movements blended naturally into the flow of traffic.
For a city of this size, Lookitthat was strangely quiet: almost all vehicles were electric, and most pedestrians seemed to only exist in their own bubbles of reality, rarely greeting or talking to each other or even acknowledging the presence of the other people around them. Those rare conversations that were going on were all held in quiet, lowered voices. The phenomenon was at least partially cultural - in Despoticania, small talk was considered largely useless, while speaking only in need was considered a virtue - but Ata soon realized that another reason for the silence, especially among the more obviously enhanced businesspeople, was that they preferred their implants for communication. There were articles on popular Datasphere sites dedicated to social sciences that predicted the gradual disappearance of spoken communications and language from the Despoticanian society. According to the most radical predictions, advanced datavising - a type of techno-telepathy - would be the only method of communication by 2040.
At one point, Ata passed a Church of Transcendental Hatred cathedral. The building was abandoned - in fact, it looked badly damaged, and some of its spires were burned. Police holograms surrounded the building and denied entry to civilians. A quick news search in the Datasphere revealed that infighting had erupted in the West Lookitthat Congregation over ideological differences between zealots loyal to High Priest Norkevendacious and revisionists calling for more moderate policies and cooperation with the Acolytes of Pathosis. Someone had eventually used Molotov cocktails to start a fire, and the building had to be evacuated and abandoned. The Church was losing members at a record pace, and in several cities, smaller Hater groups had broken off from the main Church.
"That's some rad modding, man", a voice called from a nearby alley. A small group of modders - four in total - emerged from the shadows and approached Ata with a mixture of curiosity and awe. The speaker was apparently their leader, a young woman in her late teens or early twenties - it was hard to guess her exact age, because almost half of her face was covered in metal plates and her both eyes had been replaced with bionic implants. Even her teeth were sharp metal spikes, which gave her speech a slight but noticeable lisp. "Don't you have communication implants? I tried datavising you several times. Or are you one of those 'hanzers who fear their mind might be hacked if they leave their datavise access open? With your level of modding, I bet you have the best firewalls available, so you probably shouldn't worry..."
"Ask him where he got his stuff, Liz", one of the other modders said. This one sounded like a young man behind the respirator implant which covered most of his face.
The modder called Liz extended her shiny metal hand to Ata. "Yeah, yeah. Was just about to... So, we're quite impressed by your cybernetics, man. Would you mind telling us where you got 'em? They're clearly not MindWorm stuff, nor from the Korianturan Augmentics. Gotta get ourselves some of those."
The Arctic Wastes
"Oh, I apologize", Spellwright Cosgatt said. "I didn't mean to question your skills as a fighter - rather, you should be wary of the other type of danger sometimes found here in the northern ice wastes... The type of danger you can't beat by fighting skills. The northern third of Despoticania is a strange and dangerous place, even for those of us with the Gift. The reality around here seems thinner than usual. Almost broken. The scientists in the Dragonspire Institute would talk about 'low Hume values', but I don't think any them understands what's really going on here. We certainly don't."
"Now you're just being needlessly cryptic, Cos", Thoke said before communicating with Enu again. "Don't mind it. It always likes to tease outsiders with cryptic and unsettling statements like that. Towen has been here for over a century and nothing has harmed us yet. And long before Towen and the Necrotechnomancers' Union, northern Masters like Raynil, Anolianth and Fawthali lived here, doing their experiments and warring with each other, and they never encountered anything they couldn't handle."
They were making a good progress. After passing between two snow-covered fells, Towen could no longer be seen and there was nothing ahead of them but endless ice fields punctuated by fells and small mountain ranges. There were no signs of habitation, but every now and then they could see artificial spires - mostly meteorological instruments and sensor stations - atop prominences.
After a while, Spellwright Tharstan spoke for the first time, "That raises an interesting question, however - does Veradax have similar areas of increased or unstable magical activity as our northern ice wastes or the wild magic zone around Mt. Dragonspire? You have a long history and a significant percentage of your people have the Gift. Surely there have been many opportunities for... accidents."
Ata silenced his own comm devices, not wanting to listen in on the electronic chatter all around him. It was sad to find out that many thought that the Despoticanians would forsake verbal language though, it felt like they were limiting themselves too much. Ata could only guess that this was because the Despoticanians lacked the caution that Veradacians had, maybe they hadn't nearly wiped themselves out enough times? The lich shuffled the thought away into the furthest most recesses of his expansive mind as he continued, he guessed that he could snoop around the area that Eder Kane's lair was to see if he felt any connections, but he still had a lot of ground to cover, so he had plenty of time to decide.
Ata paid little attention to the robots, flying drones were becoming more common in Veradax, drones of all shapes and sizes were not uncommon anymore. If he remembered correctly, the Lunar Nomads used mostly automated harvesters to gather minerals for refining at Xytheras. Some of the mining companies were also using drones in their operations, with oversight from living beings of course. Indeed, even androids were emerging, albeit mostly in government service because they were ridiculously expensive. He was technically an android as well, if an unorthodox one. The lich master actually expected more androids like him to emerge now that the nation was teetering on a major breakthrough in neuroscience, the only ones he knew of where the Praetorian Type Androids that the Union helped the government make. Philosophical debates and whole ideologies would spring forth from the advancement, new laws would need to bee passed to accommodate it. There was virtually no chance of it being suppressed, its marketability and military applications were too large for that. Besides, the research institutes - especially Imari Institute - were very influential and important.
The lich stopped in front of the Hater Cathedral, gazing upon the burnt out structure. "Serves them right." he thought. "Perhaps they will think twice before dragging their countrymen with them to their deaths in a pointless war with an allied nation." He had little respect for the Haters, they had always been a pain for his people, both then and now. He had thought that they had gotten past this over one hundred and twenty seven years ago, he had underestimated their idiotic vindictiveness. The journey would continue, the ruined temple held nothing for him.
The modders were certainly an interesting bunch, he regarded them after he turned to face them. It appeared that this group had not started chasing after black market goods yet, if they were representative of the majority of that subculture, then that was good news for the Despoticanian Healthcare system. Ata stood there, hands resting behind his back with a straight spine. He listened to them carefully, he knew what they wanted was impossible, his body was made using classified technology after all. "I do have communication implants." he said, inn his normal metallically tinted voice that betrayed a certain degree of wisdom. He knew that statement was not technically correct, but it would do. "But I don't leave them on, I like to think in peace while I walk, but I use them when needed." he paused on the comment about hacking, that was something he did to others not the other way around. Ata continued on to the question of where the implants came from. "Hmm...." he said, thinking of what the closest equivalent to his augments were that these people could get. "I'm a bit of a custom design, not something available for purchase. The closest you could get would probably be the augments from Kakuso Integrated Systems, they have a lot of biological augments too, if you're interested in those." he shook the modder's hand, if she could feel with it, Ata's hand felt very strange. It was not metallic at all and was very cold. "You might want to wait for a little while though, I'd be pretty expensive to purchase Kakuso augments until they can get a few things sorted out." He waited for the modders to respond, the lich did not have to worry about his safety right now, they did not seem very hostile and posed zero risk to him.
The Arctic Wastes
Ennu reminded himself that he was not a master, not by a long shot, he'd have to be a bit cautious. He answered Tharstan "We have indeed had accidents." he said. "Quite a few in fact. One of the largest ones in near the center of the south western peninsula has created a rather large and highly unstable area. It is known amongst the order as The Rift, because reality in that particular area has a habit of tearing asunder at the site of the old accident, connecting our universe to others that we were never meant to contact for short periods of time. It is a secured area that is difficult to reach, people know it exists but they don't know what goes on there. I fear what the lab rats will try, they've been studying the area intently for several decades now. Of course, we have less dangerous areas as well, there are a set of ancient eldian ruins that are magically dead. Legend has it that the mages that lived there sacrificed themselves to hold off the crusaders during the Magic Wars to allow the townspeople to escape. Whatever mystic weapon they used died with them, there is of known documentation of how it was preformed. I could go on, but the others aren't so interesting."
"Not available for purchase? Aww, that sucks, man." Liz looked disappointed. "Money's usually not a problem for me n' my pals... You some kind of government agent with access to secret tech?"
"Kakuso is a Veradacian company", the young man said. "My brother has some of their 'mods."
Liz studied Ata more carefully. "Oh, you're from Veradax? That's cool, man. I hope you know that not all of us supported the war? Hell, we made some pretty fun Datasphere memes ridiculing old Zeke and his 'crusade'. Are you... are you permitted to tell what brings you to Despoticania? Somehow I don't think you're exactly a tourist..."
The Arctic Wastes
"Hmmm. In my experience, the most dangerous knowledge is often also the most useful type of knowledge", Spellwright Thoke said. "But magically-created dimensional rifts and the like should never be studied by mundane scientist without the Gift, at least not them alone. That's just begging for a disaster. I hope the Union of Necrotic Sciences has made that clear."
The journey northwards continued. In a couple of hours a pale winter sun finally began tor rise above the horizon, slowly, lethargically. The blazing aurorae gradually faded away as the sky took on a chilly silvery blue color. They were well into the ice wastes now, with no signs of artificial structures anywhere. The world looked strange and unreal, a monochrome painting below a dome of faded blue. After a few more kilometers, a cold, sharp wind started to blow directly from the north, carrying billions of microscopic ice particles that slammed against the Hunting Party like a sandstorm. The gale didn't seem to bother Fawthali or the Spellwrights in the slightest, but Oathman Robayday clearly had some trouble steering his board of pure magical energy and keeping up with his fellows. He tried a few spells, apparently meant to direct the worst of the wind around himself, and eventually seemed to regain control of his board. The initiates seemed to suffer even more and started to fall behind.
Robayday spoke for the first time, "Quite a nasty Wail's Breath. The initiates seem to have trouble, and I don't think any of them knows spells to protect themselves against a gale this strong and cold. Wail's Breaths rarely last for long. Maybe we should wait it out or at least slow down a bit?"
Fawthali slowed down and switched its relentless tunneling to a canter. "Very well. We've made good progress so far, so we can take it easy for the next couple of hours. And maybe I can do a little something to help against these ice particles." The Master of the Hunt raised its great head against the wind. Its metal eyes flashed yellow and orange, and some kind of hemispherical shield of invisible but impenetrable energy - or perhaps just superheated air - rose against the wind. The ice particles striking at the field hissed and sizzled as they were vaporized.
"Thanks," Kilander said. "It was getting a bit hard to keep up with you guys. My grandfather, who is from the north, always said that when a Wail's Breath strikes, you stay inside and wait until it's over."
"Pffft. It didn't bother me much!" Madyra said, but he was clearly thankful for the respite. The parts of his face that were visible behind his hood and goggles were very red.
Myrdem didn't say anything. As soon as Fawthali had cast its protective spell, she had remove her goggles, and now her eyes were closed. She had a serene expression on her face. She appeared to be listening to something. After several minutes of silence, she finally spoke in a quiet, distant voice that didn't sound at all like her normal cheerful and lively self. "There's... someone here. Can you feel their presence? They're... they're singing to me..."
Ata laughed a bit at the comment on the government agent. "No I do not have an agent, I built this myself with governmental permission." of course this was stretching the truth, he had worked with several brilliant scientists to make his body. He continued on from there. "No I am not a tourist, I'm one of the diplomats sent over to help mend relations with Despoticania, I am not currently needed by the rest of my company so I decided to explore the nation a bit." He was starting to get suspicious of the group, they were asking a lot of questions and were hanging out by a hater cathedral. "As for the invasion, I am aware of the public opinion, especially after it turned into a war of attrition. Unfortunately extremists do not require public opinion to function."
The Arctic Wastes
"Yes we have. Enu responded. "One of our Masters and his apprentice are always on site to supervise the state of affairs, we have a staff of spellwrights that is rotated on a monthly basis. Unfortunately we can not cut the government out entirely as they where the ones that secured the area after the disaster, cleaned up the stragglers, and paid for everything. Besides, our relationship with our government is quite beneficial and we do not wish it damaged."
The storm slowed Enu a bit, but did not seem to faze Wuro or Dulruni. The two masters slowed to keep pace with the initiates, Lin cast a spell to help them fight the winds. A dark figure was blown down from the sky and managed to land on top of Lin's construct, only barely holding on, it was the Biomechanical falcon that had been watching the group. The onset of the Wail's Breath was so rapid that it did not have time to warn them, and unfortunately, it was not equipped with doppler radar. As the party came to a stop, Lin emerged from her construct and dropped down into the snow, Dulruni dismounted.
Lin was probably the most sensitive to live energies of all the party members, she felt it as well. She was suddenly more alert. "Yes, I do." she said, he voice cold and full of warning. "Don't listen to it, whatever you do." She had a good idea of what it was. There was a loud slamming of metal as Dulruni charged his ridiculously high calibre rifle. Lin looked over to him. "Not everything can be defeated by a wall of lead." she said. "Doesn't hurt to be prepared." he grumbled. Enu was alert as well, he sped most of his data sphere time researching the snow runners and missed the entry he needed to read, but he knew things that appeared from the middle of snowstorms were not likely to be beneficial.
Lin stood behind the initiates, and Dulruni stood ahead of them. If anything happened, they would be ready to guard them. Lin looked to Fawthali "Is it what I think it is?" she asked it telepathically.
"It's good to see there are still attempts to mend the relations between two previously hostile nations, man", Liz said. "Sometimes it feels like we're all spiralling towards the apocalypse. Maybe there's some hope for the world yet." She nodded to her friends. "Well, I guess we gotta go. Was nice talking to you, mister. Hope you enjoy your stay." The modders started down the street, leaving Ata alone once more.
The Arctic Wastes
Fawthali's ears were standing up alertly, and the cyberlich appeared to be sniffing the air. "I'm afraid it is", it replied.
It was hard to see properly because of the Wail's Breath, but somehere to their right, perhaps two or three kilometers away, the world seemed to simply... end. The ice fields ended in an unmoving wall of white that had appeared out of nowhere, like a cloud of fog consisting of ice particles that were somehow unaffected by the wind. Everyone in the hunting party could feel it now: An unmistakable presence, not just in the physical sense, but at the back of their minds. Barely noticeable for now, the presence was lurking at the edges of conscious thought, distant and reclusive yet all but unblockable. It consisted of unspoken almost-words, singing or humming without words, something that was like distant laughter, shifting impressions of curiosity and confusion. It was a whole made of recursive multitudes, not fully separate but not quite unified either.
"A Whispering Void", Fawthali said out loud so that the initiates could hear it as well. The Master of the Hunt's voice wasn't loud, yet it was somehow raised above the howling of the wind. "Do not listen to it. It can't harm us unless we let it in."
The wall of icy fog remained in place and gave no signs of either dispersing, leaving or approaching the hunting party. The Wail's Breath was getting stronger, but Fawthali's barrier held. Oathman Robayday was the next to speak, "I've never seen a Whispering Void before, but I've heard of them. They offer to grant a single wish or desire of their victim, but the wish will always end up corrupted in a way that brings more harm than good to the victim... and probably others as well. Master Rongoteus says the Voids aren't really magical in nature. It called them 'probabilistic impossipoint detonations'."
Ata continued on his walk through the city, following no specific path, but generally headed in the direction of the lower city. He checked the time, he did not want to be late for his train to Dragonspire.
The Arctic Wastes
Lin went through the risks in her mind rapidly. The Despoticanian Hunters would probably not be a liability, the Master of the Hunt would have prepared them for this sort of situation. Dulruni and herself had read about this beforehand and had the strength of will to resist. Enu knew better than to trust telepathic snowstorms. Kilander and Myrdem knew when their teachers were telling them something for their own good and would likely obey Fawthali. That left Madyra, and he might do something stupid. The Eldian Master turned her attention to her problematic student, there was a degree of foresight in her gaze and voice. "Do not try anything, Madyra." she said aloud. She briefly entertained some ideas on how she could prevent him from causing harm, but cast them aside as they were far too extreme for the situation, she would give her student the benefit of the doubt.
Dulruni kept his weapon down, he couldn't shoot ice and all forms of magic were virtually useless in this situation. He had a sense of helplessness, be understood that if anything happened, he'd be needed. Enu just stood in the snow, waiting for it to pass. The falcon trudged around the snow in an aimless fashion, looking rather forlorn at the fact that it was grounded for the foreseeable future. Lin's ice bear construct shifted uneasily and Dulruni's suitcase horse nervously pawed the ground, they could tell something was amiss, even though they were not being effected by it.
He still had plenty of time, easily enough to visit the downtown area and get back to the vac-train station. At the base of the mountain, the buildings got bigger and more futuristic than in the outer parts of the city. Some of the skyscrapers here were over one kilometer tall - impressive, but still dwarfed by the mountain itself. Above the street level, avanced skyways and monorails connected the monoliths of steel and hyperdiamond like the web of some giant cybernetic spider. There were noticeable changes in the people as well: the augments in the downtown area looked more advanced and sophisticated, and the people used even more advanced forms of datavising, apparently based on the direct exchange of mind-states with no words involved at all. There was an aura of strangeness and detached inhumanity hanging over the downtown area - the people here belonged to the elite of the Despoticanian society, those hyper-augmented individuals who ran the nation and were ready to sacrifice more and more of their humanity in order to keep up with the increasingly advanced machines and AIs.
Directly ahead, some skyways and monorails dived inside Mt. Lookitthat through large reinforced tunnels. Exhausted mining shafts and natural caverns filled the mountain, and over the years they had been turned into additional living space. Eder Kane's mansion wasn't too far away, now.
The Arctic Wastes
"I won't", Madyra said quietly. For once he sounded sincere - in fact, he looked genuinely scared.
The Wail's Breath continued to roar past the hunting party. The Whispering Void stayed at the back of their minds, filling them with its nearly subconscious babble of almost-voices, never quite there but never properly leaving, either. Strangely, it made no discernible offers to anyone. It almost felt like the presence was searching for something, or perhaps simply observing. After what felt like hours - but what could not have been more than fifteen or twenty minutes - the presence suddenly receded and the gale dispersed the white cloud of icy particles in seconds, revealing the endless snow fields behind it. It was like the physics-defying telepathic apparition had never been there in the first place.
The Wail's Breath kept blowing for nearly an hour after that, but the Whispering Void didn't reappear. Eventually the icy wind weakened and became nothing but a mild northern breeze that blew particles of fine frost over the denser snow fields underneath. Pale winter sunlight fell on the hunting party once again.
"That was unusual, but not completely unheard of. An offer is not always made", Fawthali said out loud and turned to face the rest of the hunting party. The cyberlich sat in the snow like a statue, head tilted to the side. "I take it you were all smart enough not to talk to it?"
"I didn't say anything. Honest!" Madyra said and gave Lin a nervous glance.
"Me neither", Myrdem said. "It didn't feel threatening, though. I think it was just curious."
"It didn't even talk properly", Kilander said. "I couldn't have asked anything even if I had wanted to."
"I'm not your mentor", Fawthali said, "but one of the first rules of dealing with otherwordly supernatural phenomena is to never take anything for granted or trust the initial impressions. There are things out there that know you better than you know yourselves, and they will exploit any opportunity you give them to use you as a bridge from their... state of being into something that can affect our world. Never forget that."
Downtown Lookitthat reminded Ata of the agricultural city of Qiem, one of the oldest cities in Veradax. Technically Qiem was an underground city, but not because it had been placed underground like Despoticania Prime, the city was the least organized one of all, it grew up and around itself, swallowing older segments beneath the towering vertical farms. The lower levels had an air of decay and death, despite the sterile environment. Rumors had it that there were levels below the lower levels that housed all sorts of criminals and mutants, it would certainly line up with the high crime rate of the lower levels of Qiem. The upper levels of the city were occupied mostly by the massive industrial vertical farms, with housing for their staff and the upper class citizens. Plenty of tourist destinations too. In that city, sunlight was a luxury and there was a very clear disconnect between the upper and lower levels. Ironic that the source of life for millions was sitting on top of the nation's biggest patch of decay.
The major thing that was different where the creatures that roamed about the structures. The Despoticanians truly had no concept of caution, while their reckless pursuit of technology had brought them ahead of his people, the gap was closing thanks to the war. Inn their haste they were bound to have made several missteps. Never the less, their society seemed to be trending towards a hive mind of sorts, it wouldn't be far fetched to see a single computerized entity roping together the minds of the populace for the complete or partial loss of individuality. The Union was of course not privy to information held by the Veradacian government on the thing that ran the country, nor did they know that the government had such information, but the Eldian Master had his suspicions about the leader of this digital landscape. Ata couldn't help but wonder if the Praetorian Type androids he helped create would eventually end up like this, they had a coded language they used for communication, but it was at least a language of some form. The electronic traffic here was quite unorthodox and highly revealing about the sender. He guessed that it used similar neural circuits to those used by the emotions of individuals, would be fitting, human were dreadfully emotional creatures. He sent out a little dodecahedron shaped familiar to monitor the electronic traffic and feed it into one of his subroutines, it would prove valuable in future collaborations with the Veradacian Government, there were no beings in the galaxy more hungry for knowledge than Eldian Scientists, fortunately their wives ran the country and could keep them from accidentally killing themselves and others.
The lich did not think the familiar would garner much attention considering that aerial drones were more populace in this city than flying insects, but perhaps the despoticanians would break free from their own private worlds and actually notice an ancient eldian mage walking amongst them. For once Ata's body was making him less conspicuous. The lich continued to Eder Kane's mansion, if there was a Despoticanian with the gift around, they could probably sense the occasional wave of cold that passed over the area like the arms of a hurricane as Ata was actively feeling for magical artifacts of significance at this point. His efforts would not disturb the non-gifted, nor would they likely to even notice.
The Arctic Wastes
"It will return." Lin said, her voice dripping with certainty. "I know of no phenomena that would give up as easily as the Whispering Void just did. I fear this was a scouting run of sorts, in order to locate the most vulnerable member of our hunting party. It will strike once more when the groups are smaller."
"That sounds a bit far fetched." Master Dulruni said. His area of expertise was never in the magical phenomena known to occur in strange areas, he had always been a combat oriented Master, he could slay many corporeal and non corporeal creatures, but something like the Whispering Void eluded him due to it's nature as an unkillable entity.
"You put too much faith in the unknown Dulruni. You forget that your dominion was the furthest from these sorts of phenomena, Ata and mine were at the heart of these sorts of things, and they are not to be trifled with." She visibly winced, revealing a bit too much about their actual ages. Lin turned her attention to Madyra, her voice softening a bit. "You did well, Initiate, all things considered."
Dulruni mounted his steed, "Either way, we need to move, the initiates don't have access to the benefits of artificiality. And every second wasted is one in which the runners get closer to their goal."
"Agreed." Lin stated. She motioned for the initiates to get ready. Her falcon tried to take off, but fell clumsily to the ground. After shaking off the frost, it took off. The snow bear construct ran towards it's master, impacting her at a remarkable speed, producing a cloud of powdered snow. Once the snow settled, it revealed an undamaged bear, though slightly larger. Lin had obvious went back inside her creation. "Ready to move when you are." the bear said to the Master of the Hunt.
Ata's familiar quickly found out that all but the most general surface level datavises between individuals were encrypted with personal quantum keys - similar to the ones Ata had seen on the Blacklight security guard, but more advanced. Cracking them would require violent domination of each individual mind using them, and in some instances, even that might not be enough: some of the people here didn't even have a proper mind, just an extremely complex collection of advanced subroutines that could emulate seemingly human behavior, built around some tiny remnant of humanity that had been all but snuffed out by its own augmentations. These beings were like incredibly smart Chinese Rooms: on the surface, they could act like humans and perform superhuman intellectual tasks, but they didn't really understand any of their actions. Based on Ata's observations, individuals like this were most often found at the top of the social hierarchy...
The familiar also confirmed his suspicions that the Despoticanian elite were trending towards technologically-enabled hive minds. Individual identities became blurred as mind states were being shared in a constant stream of high-bandwidth datavises. It seemed that many prominent business and political leaders spent most of their lives immersed in various levels of hive mind. This had a strange effect on how the people here reacted to Ata: he didn't go unnoticed, but unlike before, little attention was paid to him. Every now and then, a heavily augmented business leader, politician or tycoon glanced in his direction, took in the sight of the ancient Eldian lich... and then went on about his or her business without any noticeable emotional reaction. However, after a while Ata noticed that pedestrian traffic was being smoothly directed around him, as if he were a stone or log in a river around which water flowed. He detected virtually no fear or uncertainty in the nearby people; the various budding hive minds simply recognized him as something that didn't benefit them in any way and was best avoided.
There were signs of magically gifted individuals here and there, but their power signatures were all weak and lethargic, untrained and unused. Most likely they were people who had been born with the Gift but had never truly used it or even knew that they had it. Either their powers had never been noticed, or they had been deemed too weak to be worth of cultivation and training by both the Necrotechnomancers' Union and the Wand Branch of the Despoticanian Army. There were no signs of magical artifacts in any of the buildings, but Mt. Lookitthat seemed to block all attempts at remote feeling.
Eder Kane's mansion was nearly half a kilometer inside the mountain. The entrance was on the side of a depleted mining tunnel which had been turned into a bustling, brightly-lit underground boulevard. There were several other high-tech cave dwellings along the boulevard, but Kane's mansion - or at least its entrance - stood out as particularly advanced and well-secured. The main door, found at the back of a small natural cave which formed Kane's "front yard", was a heavy blast door, and the cave floor was full of reinforced metal hatches which probably hid automated turrets. The cave was full of cameras, motion sensors and electromagnetic scanners, and two large robotic bodyguards - resembling multi-armed domes set atop all-terrain tracked bases - stood guard on either side of the door.
The door was closed, but there was a door phone just inside the cave.
The Arctic Wastes
"Let's go, then." With that, Fawthali resumed its tunneling through the snow.
For the next few hours, there were no interruptions to their journey, and they soon made up for the time lost during the Wail's Breath. The only event of any notability was when Spellwright Cosgatt called their attention to a family of Snow Bears far to their left, near the shore. The massive white creatures were busy eating a fresh kill, a walrus. "Majestic creatures, but all too rare these days", Cosgatt lamented. "Ancient Despoticanians could tame them and used them as mounts during their wars. During the Middle and Late Crusader periods, when the Church of Transcendental Hatred controlled practically the entire nation and periodically launched Crusades of Hate to the southern lands, its war fleets always included Snow Bear Riders as an intimidation tactic. The practice was eventually discontinued by High King Zakkaturwhalin, who enacted the first environmental protection laws in Despoticania. He realized that, because of all the trapping of their young, the Snow Bears were at risk of becoming extinct in the wild. Too bad that by then it was almost too late. The ecological niche the Snow Bears had occupied had been largely overtaken by early mutants, and despite centuries of preservation, the Snow Bears are still endangered. We've noticed a small increase in their numbers over the last two decades, so maybe the species is finally recovering. It's still too early to say for certain."
"Barbaric", Kilander muttered. "Animals should not be made to fight wars. Wars are always started by us so-called 'sapient' beings. Animals have nothing to gain from wars, nor can they even understand the reasons behind them. War animals are always exploited animals. Animals should only be killed in true need."
"Speaking of which", Madyra said and looked at the Veradacian liches, "when are we going to hunt our first familiars?"
Ata copied stored some of the lengthier datavises, it wasn't a secret that the Technocracy maintained a massive quantum computer on the moon, the copies would give them something to do other than run orbital trajectories and probabilities. "We have the drones, now all we need is the hive." he thought to himself, "The lower classes probably won't admit what's happening to their own society, even to themselves. Especially the modders, they're too independent, yet are slowly being drawn into the pit too." The lich was reminded how utterly pathetic humans were when it came to magic, it could've been magically dead here and it wouldn't make a difference. Nearly every modern eldian had some sense of the mystic realm, but the number who could make use of it was lower, and the number that were useful was even lower, but it was huge compared to this.
The lich continued, the sea of cyborgs broke before him. Once in the exhausted mineshaft, he started inspecting the homes as he made his way down to Eder Kane's Mansion. "Soon these will be irrelevant." he thought to himself. The lich pulled a bag out of thin air once he was out of sight of most people, he didn't want Mr. Kane to be asking questions about his abilities to warp reality. Fashioned like a computer bag with a shoulder strap, he wore it like any normal businessman would. It contained an old eldian dagger in nearly perfect condition, one he had received from a trader a long time ago. It was virtually useless as a weapon now, and he could make a replica off memory alone, so it held value only as a trinket to be traded. Should be enough to gain entry, depending in the nature of the collector being dealt with. The lich approached the keypad and indicated his presence using whatever counted as a doorbell in this strange setup.
The Arctic Wastes
The snow bear froze for a few seconds, feeling around the surrounding environment for a suitable location to begin, with the initiates requests in mind. "Soon." she said. "It is a little out of the way for our hunter companions, they will continue without us if they are to intercept the snow runner pack. There may be a good bit of roaming. We will find the familiars one at a time for safety, time has already been allotted for each of you to locate and start tracking your chosen animals."
There was no reply from the intercom, but almost immediately the armored main door of the cave dwelling unsealed with a faint hiss and separated into two halves that slid smoothly aside, revealing a foyer lit only by dim white light strips near the floor. The robotic guards standing by the door didn't move or even indicate in any way that they were aware of Ata's presence.
The Arctic Wastes
Madyra didn't seem too happy about having to wait for more, but he knew better than to complain out loud.
The hunting party continued to travel north for another half an hour. The sun was beginning to set. Wail was abot fifty kilometers to the northwest from their current position. Suddenly, Fawthali slowed down to a trot. "There are Snow Runners nearby", the Master of the Hunt said quietly. "Not the main herd yet, but stragglers looking to join it. Let's make sure they'll never get the chance. Get ready."
Oathman Robayday loaded his large mystically-powered rifle. Spellwrights Thoke, Tharstan and Cosgatt morphed into slightly slower but more aggressive forms, growing sharp combat tentacles made of Living Metal and releasing a number of familiar-cubes that began to orbit them, ready to spring into action. The hunting party climbed a large snow dune before Fawthali froze entirely in a pointing position, muzzle aimed directly ahead. Perhaps a kilometer and a half away, four gangly humanoids were moving over the ice and snow fields at a fast running speed. Despite the fine knee-deep snow they were running in, the humanoids' movements were inhumanly fluind and fast, almost as if they had no weight at all. They were entirely naked in the biting cold, and their general body shape practically screamed wrongness. Their limbs and torso were too long and thin for humans - or eldians - and their heads too small in proportion to the rest of their body. They either hadn't noticed the hunting party yet or simply didn't pay it any attenton, continuing to move in the general direction of Wail.
"You are our guest, Death Knight Enu", Fawthali said. "Do you want the honor of the first kills? Please show us what you are capable of."
A bit on edge about the unorthodox greeting strategy, he set up a contingency for escape, as the blast door would certainly close behind him. If need be, the lich could teleport out rather than fight his way out should things turn strange. He was more than capable of doing so if Mr. Kane had somehow figured out a way to keep people from hopping in and out of pocket dimensions. Regardless, he sent a coded status update to his vehicle just in case something happened to him. Thee squid sub would automatically contact Master Wuro if it did not hear from him in two hours time. The lich cautiously entered and waited in the foyer, waiting for the door to close, or for the owner to show up, whichever came first.
The Arctic Wastes
"I can take care of them." he responded simply, rapidly closing the distance between himself and the snow runners. He used a basic illusion to keep the hunting party hidden from the snow runners view. The lich came to a dead stop about a hundred meters from the group, by know the twisted creatures had noticed him and were closing fast on the seemingly lone traveler. When they were about thirty meters away from Enu, they suddenly stopped, looking around as if confused. One reached out cautiously, prodding the air. Enu took this time to make two illusionary copies of himself. The snow runners realized that the box they were contained in was fake and continued closing, fanning out to surround the three Enus on the front and sides. Their screeches could be heard as they closed in, the illusions took flight and ran in opposite directions while the real Enu stood still. One of the runners was distracted as one illusion ran right in front of it, and gave chase for a little while. The other three continued towards their presumed easy target. Enu dispensed with the illusions and the light in front of him solidified, the runners where not deterred, but received a nasty surprise when they tried to go around. The wall of light shattered outward like a claymore anti personnel mine, causing severe - likely fatal trauma - to two of the runners. The two who took the bulk of the blast fell to the snow, bleeding profusely. Two bolts of necrotic magic cut their suffering short. The fastest of the three, that had managed to avoid most of the blast, grabbed onto the lich. It looked like it was going to try to kill him before it suddenly backed off, gazing at its hands with a dumbstruck look plastered on its face. Its hands were rapidly decaying from touching the lich's enchanted armor. Enu noticed the last runner was upon him and, with the wave of his hand, bound the runner in hard light. The beast fell to the snow, Enu checked to make sure that its companion was trying to make a run for it before continuing. He twisted the hard light so that it brought the runner into a kneeling position with its head and neck exposed. The lich drew his bulky sword for the first time and liberated there runner's head from its shoulders in a clean blow. He then slung what looked like an atmospheric distortion from the blade at the fleeing runner. When it impacted the runner, it created a small shockwave that flattened the poor creature against the snow and kicked up a flurry of white. It quickly recovered and continued its attempt to flee. Enu sheathed the blade once more and crafted a hard light javelin, hurling it at the runner that was now almost one hundred meters away. The last moment the creature knew was the soft golden glow of the unnaturally regular spike protruding from its chest.
Enu reached the hunting party not long after. "I could've done it with less theatrics, but you requested that I show off." he stated to the Master of the Hunt. "I specialize primarily in light based magic, hard light and illusions are common tools for me. I get a decent amount of assistance from my armor and sword as well. I will be smarter about my use of spells once we are in combat with the main tribe, as such displays are not efficient."
Sure enough, the blast door closed immediately after Ata had stepped into the foyer and was electronically sealed with a very final-sounding click. For a couple of minutes, he was left alone in the the soft dim glow of the light strips. The foyer was extremely modern and sterile, its cool air reeking of antiseptic purity. Distant beeps and hums of unseen machines made it sound like someone's private hospital. After a couple of minutes, something emerged from a shadowy corridor on the right side of the foyer. It consisted of a multi-armed robotic body mounted on a circular base with six spider-like mechanical legs. A glass dome filled with glowing gel sat atop the main body. Inside the dome was what looked like a heavily modified human brain, attached to a life support system and punctured by dozens of wires and cables. Several independently moving cameras were attached to the main body, giving the construct a 360 degree vision.
"Good evening, Master Ata", it said in a genderless, electronically distorted voice. "Mr. Kane has been watching you ever since you entered the downtown area. He is most pleased that you decided to grace us with your visit. He is currently being prepared; I will take you to see him shortly. Is there anything I can do for you in the meantime?"
The Arctic Wastes
"Very impressive", Spellwright Thoke said. "I can see why they hold your combat skills in high regard."
"I know that they are dangerous monsters and all and must be occasionally culled", said Kilander who had just reached the top of the dune with his snow mobile, "but even they deserve a quick and painless death without undue theatrics. At least that's what I think..."
"The Snow Runners woul do much worse to you if they got their hands on you, Kilander", Madyra said. He sounded very impressed and excited. "I think they got exactly what they deserved." He turned to Enu. "That was pretty cool, I admit. Would you mind giving me lessons sometime?"
Fawthali telepathically shared the latest satellite images with the other hunters and the Veradacians. The images had been taken only a few minutes ago and showed a huge, pale gray... mass approaching Wail from the east-northeast. "The main herd is not far away, now. The Wail-Koriantura vac-train tube is about twenty kilometers to the north, and the Snow Runners have been following it towards Wail; when we reach the tube, the forward scouts of the herd will be only a few kilometers to the northeast. These images suggest that herd has grown to nearly five thousand Snow Runners, which makes it one of the largest herds we've ever seen. We should not tarry." The Master of the Hunt leapt from the dune and began tunneling directly north from their current position. In the dying light of the short winter day, something unnaturally straight glittered near the horizon: the vac-train tube, just visible beyond the mostly flat ice wastes.
The first thing that struck him about the room was that it seemed more like a facility than someone's home. Perhaps Mr. Kane was one of the Virtually ascended? Keeping one's body in isolation from the surroundings environment in a nutrient vat would certainly lead to a weaker immune system and require all of this sterility and machinery. Alternatively, Mr. Kane could lack a body entirely and was an uploaded mind that needed an android body to interact with the physical realm. The lich ceased his speculation as he heard something approaching.
The cyborg butler did not particularly phase him in any manner as he regarded the cyborg in front of him, it was certainly a bit unorthodox. Perhaps its tastes were old fashioned, seeing as it looked like it had just crawled out of the pages of a science fiction novel. He wasn't really surprised that they had been tracking him, with all the drones scuttling too and fro in this city, it wouldn't be hard to monitor someone due to the glut of cameras avalible. "No, not really." Ata told the cyborg. "Other than what your name is."
The Arctic Wastes
"That would not be a good idea at your current stage of development." Enu told Madyra dispassionatly.
Lin spoke to Kilander. "You should consider studying life energies more, you certainly have the attitude for it." She paused, reviewing the satellite data. "We'll head out now, and return to the Monastery when we are done." she told Fawthali. "I'm afraid there's no telling how long we may be out here. Good luck on your hunt, and stay safe." With that, the mighty ice-bear turned and headed off towards the predetermined location. Enu stayed with the hunting party.
"Let's go initiates, no time to waste." Dulruni instructed, now taking up the rear. The smaller group would travel for a few hours before arriving, it was a area near the coast of the island, clearly frequented by reindeer, snow bears, and something that was likely a mutant. Dulruni stayed mounted, Lin, however, did not. The lich rose out of her construct once more, stand-in on the back of the ice-bear she looked particularly commanding. "We will locate the potential familiars one at a time." she began. "It may seem slow, but these are dangerous lands, and I would very much prefer it if no one got hurt. I have already determined the order in which we will track the animals, but it is open to change if you are having trouble locating what you seek." she paused, shifting her gaze to Kilander. "First will be Kilander." she shifted to Madyra "Then your turn will come, Madyra." finally she stared directly at Myrdem "We will track yours before we return, Myrdem." The lich then addressed the entire group. "Do not worry about transporting the creature, your task is to track it and subdue it in the manner you deem appropriate. It must remain alive though, I will not stand for waste in an environment that has so little already." the last part seemed to be for Madyra more than the other initiates. The lich sat down in the full lotus position. "I would like you all to meditate, keep the animal you seek in your mind as you do so. Search the whiteness around you for life, what you seek will stand out amongst the others." She instructed, waiting for the initiates to comply.
"My birth name was lost in the memory wipe I went through before I came to serve Mr. Kane", the butler said, "but he insists on calling me 'Jeeves'. I believe it amuses him greatly."
A light lit up in the chest of Jeeves' main body. "Ah. He is ready. Please, follow me." The butler led Ata through the corridor it had emerged from, down a short staircase and eventually into a dark room filled with advanced medical instruments. The antiseptic hospital-smell was everywhere. At the back of the room was a massive life support cradle connected to dozens of monitoring devices, ventilators, waste disposal units and tanks filled with milky white blood substitute. Attached to the cradle was a living mummy - and the "living" aspect was only apparent from a number of green lights on a monitor indicating life functions. That, and something Ata could instantly detect: the Gift. Eder Kane had magical ability. It was untrained but relatively strong, significantly stronger than even the Eldian average.
It wasn't apparent from the man's physical state, though. Kane was not, and had never been, a powerful mage with the ability to extend his life. He was a withered husk, kept alive only by the most advanced medical technology money could buy in Despoticania. His skin was deathly pale and so thin as to be almost translucent, with a patchwork of blue veins clearly visible underneath. His eye sockets were empty holes that provided easy entry for two optoelectronic cables. His arms and legs had been amputated, and the stumps were covered with metal caps with dozens of wires connecting them to the cradle. Most of his body looked like it was being kept from falling apart only by strips of white fabric wrapped around it. An implanted speaker was prominent where his wrinkled neck connected to his skeletally thin torso; his withered throat and lipless mouth didn't look like they could produce intelligible speech.
But when Kane spoke, the words didn't come from the speaker. In fact, they weren't really words at all, as Kane used telepathy. "Welcome to my Humble home, Master Ata. I hope you don't find my appearance too unseemly. I haven't made public appearances in decades for a good reason... But do tell me, what brings you here?"
The Arctic Wastes
Enu and the hunting party continued north. The cyberliches were now in full combat mode: Tharstan, Thoke and Cosgatt were surrounded by their familiar-cubes and had extended their bladed combat tentacles, ready to tear into the first unlucky Snow Runner that got in their way. Robayday came last, standing on his hovering board in a way that seemed to defy gravity. He had only two familiar-cubes, but the crystal powering his rifle was glowing brightly and gave off frighteningly strong readings to anyone with the ability to sense them. The most dramatic changes, however, were occurring in the Master of the Hunt itself: Fawthali's Living Metal body was releasing familiar-cube after familiar-cube, becoming smaller in the process. Instead of orbiting the cyberlich, they morphed into smaller versions of it, metal wolves nearly identical with their progenitor. In less than a minute, Fawthali had become a pack of nearly one hundred metal wolves, and it was almost impossible to tell which one was the original. The pack spread out until it covered several hundred meters, running on the surface of the snow as if weightless.
In a few minutes, the hunting party was no longer visible in the horizon.
The initiates did as they were instructed. They dismounted their snowmobiles, sat in the snow in a rough circle - their enchanted cloaks keeping them warm - and closed their eyes. It didn't take long before Kilander had detected something. "I can feel it", he said without opening his eyes. "There's a sea hawk circling nearby. It doesn't belong to an endangered species, either... I've established connection with its mind. I think I could call it right here to me..." He concentrated and was silent for several minutes. Just as it seemed that nothing would happen, a flying figure appeared on the western horizon, clearly visible against the last rays of the setting sun. A magnificent Arctic Sea Hawk was approaching the group, its white and gray wings colored in shades of red by the dying sunlight. It circled the group once and eventually landed on Kilander's shoulder. It was only then that he opened his eyes. When he first opened his mouth, only a poor attempt at a bird-like screech came out. He cleared his throat and tried again. "Huh. That was easier than I thought it would be. For a moment, it almost felt like I was the hawk", he said.
Ata gazed down at the husk in the cradle, feeling not much more than pity for this man. It was times like these where the philosophers debated the ethics of various decisions and what it meant to live for months on end. The lich found it to be just sad, in a nation of advanced tech one of the richest individuals passes up cybernetic transference in order to like as a husk held together by wires and tape. The man looked like a failed experiment from his lab at the monastery, or an initiates that had failed to properly transition. Perhaps the reason he had not transferred the remnants of his brain to a new mechanical form was because he was afraid of losing the Gift. What a waste for the sake of power that would never be fully realized. But perhaps this ancient man was waiting for something to happen.
"Your appearance does not bother my, Mr. Kane, I've seen far worse than a man on life support." the lich replied telepathically. "I am here because I've been off duty from the diplomatic mission and have been trying to learn more about Despoticania. I happened to see that you have the finest collection of eldian artifacts, and I thought you'd be interested." Ata produced the dagger, still in its ornate scabbard. He held it out for Jeeves - or whatever sensors Eder Kane was hooked up to - to see. "I have managed to create an impressive collection of my own over my exceedingly long life, this is one I received from a merchant, it has its origins in the great Eldian Empire that collapsed so long ago. It holds mild enchantments, nothing too noteworthy though."
The Arctic Wastes
Enu rode on a slab of light near Thoke, looking like some demented surfer. The young lich was alert, waiting for an opportunity to eliminate the mutants.
"Very good." Lin remarked at Kilander's feat. "A strong connection means that turning it into a familiar will be easy for both of you." The bear walked over to Kilander and vomited up some falconry equipment. It made little noise as it hit the ground and was clean aside from a few ice particles. "With your skill in life energy manipulation, I doubt anything more will be needed for the transport of the Hawk. I'm assuming this is more to your liking as well." Lin remarked.
She turn her attention to Madyra. "It is time for you to find your first familiar, Madyra. The methods of capture is up to you, and you don't have to bring it to us if you do not wish too. I only ask that you refrain from attempting to show off, it could lead to a bad choice, and make your job at the monastery more difficult." The lich warned.
An impression of amused laughter filled the telepathic link between Ata and Kane. "I appreciate the gesture", the living mummy replied, "but collecting Eldian artifacts was never truly my passion. It was always a means to an end... An end which I was sadly not able to reach despite all my power, wealth and connections. I am old, Master Ata. Not quite as old as you, of course, but I've lived well beyond the years of a non-undead, non-practicing mage human. I've been around since long before the birth of such ancient, legendary figures as Dr. Ignatio Chandra and Jessi Teneran. I may look like a living corpse, but my current condition is stable - in theory, I can survive in this state for several more decades, perhaps indefinitely, as medical technology continues to advance. It's really not that bad, either: I have little need for this husk you see before you, for my senses are spread out all over my mansion. In some ways, it is my true body. And I have additional eyes and ears all over the city and in the Datasphere as well. Indeed, on most days I barely notice the sorry state of my biological body."
Jeeves approached Ata and examined the dagger. One of his dextrous mechanical manipulators carefully retrieved the dagger from its scabbard and brought it closer to three of his camera-eyes. "A ceremonial weapon from the late Final Revival Period, if I'm not mistaken", he said. "That would make it older than Despoticania. Very impressive indeed. Mr. Kane owns two similar weapons and has consistently refused to sell them because he finds the primitive yet elegant enchantments woven into them fascinating."
"You may be wondering why I haven't transferred my mind to a digital state", Kane continued. Jeeves carefully returned the dagger to its scabbard. "After all, the technology has been around for several years. I have, in fact, done that already - sixteen times, to be precise. Invasive deep level scans with ultra-fine accuracy. Each scan took its toll on my mind and body. None of the copies are currently active, but I have them stored away in case something happens to me. With the latest hardware, even the earliest of the copies could imitate me more or less perfectly... But that's the problem. Their 'lives' would be just that - imitation." A blinking red light appeared in one of the monitors surrounding Kane's life support cradle. Jeeves hurried to adjust certain parameters in a holographic interface that popped into existence next to the monitor. The red light stopped blinking and turned green again. Kane ignored the butler completely as he kept talking, "As you've no doubt noticed, I have the Gift of magic. I was born with it, and in my youth I was quite powerful indeed. The Necrotechnomancers' Union didn't exist back then, but several of its now-prominent members, including Master Raynil and Master Divayth, expressed interest in taking me as their apprentice. I chose another path and went into the business world instead. I do regret that decision, now. You see, Master Ata, none of my copies has the Gift. How could they, being just digitally stored brain patterns? Both the Necrotechnomancers and the Dragonspire Institute believe that magical ability is a soul-based power. If so, then my copies are either soulless, or whatever digital equivalent of a soul they possess is not mine. If I allowed myself to die, my soul would leave this world, and, despite having my memories, the digital copies I left behind would be just copies. Their lives wouldn't be true continuation of my existence. They wouldn't benefit me in any way. Would you agree, Master Ata?"
The Arctic Wastes
Kilander took his time, but eventually he managed to put the hood on the falcon and the heavy leather glove on his hand. At no point did the bird try to peck him or escape. Despite being a wild animal, it sat calmly on his arm and let him handle it in his somewhat clumsy manner. Kilander kept talking to the falcon the whole time, maintaining a weak telepathic link with the bird. They were bonding already.
It took significantly longer for Madyra to locate an animal - at least partly because he still enternained thoughts of capturing the Alpha Snow Runner and using it as the basis for his familiar. When it became clear that such an event would never come to pass, he had trouble thinking of a suitable replacement. Eventually he managed to locate an arctic fox some half a kilometer away. He got up and slowly walked closer to the animal. At first, he tried to establish a gentle connection with the fox, similar to the nearly subconscious bond between Kilander and his hawk, but after failing a few times, he got frustrated, closed his eyes and took control of the fox's movements. The animal let out a frightened yell and tried to resist, but Madyra was able to forcibly make it walk with him back to the others.
"You're hurting it. Stop it immediately!" Kilander said in an angry and surprisingly authoritative voice. His status as the oldest of the initiates likely gave his words additional weight. Madyra looked both annoyed and embarrassed, but he extended his mental powers once more and put the fox to sleep with the same ease he had forced a mouse to sleep a few days earlier.
Ata chuckled a bit "It is amusing to think that Chandra would just be an old man if he were Eldian, I guess it was why our races had a hard time getting along, Eldians live too long for our civilization to forget the past." The master paused before continuing on the matter of Mr. Kane's situation. "Your predicament is quite unique." Ata began. "I have never known anyone who has existed in such a state, even some of the old liches of the Union could not continue living even with their able forms and committed honorable suicide. My master was a powerful Eldian mage many centuries old from the Eldian Empire, even he sought death when he went to the Rift and fought the creatures there until they overpowered him. You are one of the most stubborn men I've met in this regard, you refuse to die either out of fear or principle. It is not for me to decide what is or is not acceptable for you, each Immortal must do that for themselves or they are bound to be miserable for the rest of their existence. I assume you have a very good reason to persist, given that the measures you have taken are quite extreme."
Ata switch gears suddenly, shifting thee topic of the entire conversation. "You are unwilling to use digital copies as replacements, and are either unwilling or unable to transfer your brain into a mechanical body, but you lack the ability to achieve a suitable end other than existence as a living corpse." the Lich thought for a few moments. "That's why you have it, it's it? Your collection supposedly contains a great deal of the magical artifacts available. You were trying to learn Eldian Magic through our relics and ruins." The lich paused again, stepping a bit closer to the bed. "And since you are not willing to sell your collection, and Despoticanian Culture appears to not include the pleasantries of small talk, you must have been hoping I'd come for a reason. I assume you let me in to make a bargain with me? If that is indeed the case, then I would like to hear it, even if I may already know what you want." He waited for a response.
The Arctic Wastes
"Calm down, Kilander." Lin stated in her typical soft tone, but the statement was still unmistakable as a direct order. "Madyra's decisions regarding familiar collection are his own, he has to make them, and he has to live with the consequences his actions bring upon him." The bear approached Madyra and vomited up a steel cage. "I assumed that this would be fitting." Linn said dispassionately. "I do hope you consider refining your skill in life energy manipulation, your actions will make it more difficult to make that fox your familiar, and it may even give you trouble after the transition." Lin told the young initiate from atop the bear. As if to bash the point into Madyra's skull a bit more, Lin's falcon familiar dove down from the sky. It landed in the snow near Madyra and seemed to glare at him.
Lin turned to Myrdem, a few more of her familiars appearing as she did so. "It is time for you to select your first familiar, since I know you are interested in a large animal, I suggest you try to form a bond with it. I'm afraid it will be exceedingly difficult for you to handle any creature bent on defying you." she paused. "Do not limit yourself based on distance either, we have traveled far, we can travel a bit more."
"Don't flatter your race too much, Eldian", Kane replied. "In the grand scheme of things, your people are just as mortal as humans. With the passage of centuries and millennia, it matters relatively little whether you live 80, 90 or 120 years on average. In the end, all mortals die and are forgotten, their deeds and actions fading from the collective memory. Life is strength; as long as there is life, there is the ability to affect and influence the world... I will not relinquish that strength willingly! I will persevere for as long as possible just to spite the universe itself, even if it is a joke only I can understand..." A dry, rasping sound that might have been laughter escaped from the lipless, toothless cavern that was Kane's mouth. It ended in a bout of hacking cough. It was the first actual sound the living mummy had made. "The younger generations have it easy", Kane lamented. "Thanks to all the recent advances in medical technology, most of them can likely choose to live indefinitely in young, healthy bodies. But not first-generation immortals like me or even Doctor Chandra. We had to improvise when our bodies started to decay before the end of our first century and rejuvenation treatments did not yet exist. Some chose to become little more than brains in a vat - or in an exoskeleton - but I deemed such process dehumanizing. I wanted to persevere as my true self. And so, I've been an old man for most of my life, although it's only in the past few decades that I've been forced to withdraw from public. But I do not regret this choice. I am an infinitely patient man, Master Ata. I knew that sooner or later, I'd meet someone who could help me."
A holographic projection appeared in the air between Ata and Kane's life support cradle. It showed a large room filled with hundreds of sealed glass cases. In each case was an artifact, most of them Blacklight Eldian in origin, although there were some early enchanted items from historical Despoticanian cultures as well. What caught Ata's attention was a memory device, very similar to the one he had seen in Towen, although this one looked more primitive.
"This is my collection, Master Ata", Kane said. "And you're an astute man. When I realized that my mortality was catching up to me, I started to spend my vast wealth on paranormal artifacts and devices. Despite my lack of arcane training, my inborn magical ability allowed me to understand and handle many of these items in ways mundanes could never hope to. I didn't work alone, of course; I hired many independent practitioners of the arcane arts, both from Despoticania and abroad. I hoped that by studying these artifacts, I could master the process of lichdom or something similar - I wanted to transfer my soul into a new body that could house it and remain strong and capable forever. As you can see, I failed. The Necrotechomancers could have helped me, but the process of becoming a lich is among their most closely-guarded secrets. They refuse to reveal it to non-members or even convert outsiders to liches, no matter how much one could pay them... Now, I assume you are here because you wanted to study my collection. I am willing to let you do that and even take some items you deem important, but I do indeed want something in return. And as you may have guessed, my request is neither small nor insignificant: I want you to make me a lich."
The Arctic Wastes
Madyra simply lifted the now-sleeping fox into the cage and closed it before sitting back down, a look of mild frustration on his face. Meanwhile, Myrdem relaxed and extended her own soul, using the astral projection techniques she had learned and practiced for the past few days. She let her mind wander, extending her senses to cover the vast snow and ice fields that surrounded her. While she could not directly observe events quite that far, she even sensed emanations of pain and violence from the direction the hunting party had disappeared to; apparently, they had finally encountered the Snow Runner herd were now in the process of "thinning" it. She quickly pulled back and did her best to close her mind to that direction.
Her meditative trance lasted for nearly an hour. As the sun disappeared below the horizon, Kilander took a small nap, while Madyra started playing games with his smartphone. Eventually, Myrdem opened her eyes. "There's an injured dolphin near the shore a few kilometers to the west", she said. "It's dying and and alone and scared, but maybe it could be healed... I'm trying to calm it down now. Can a dolphin become a familiar?"
Ata immediately summoned his interface familiar. The polyhedron flattened out in front of him and activated a headlight interface with eldian symbols on it. The Lich master lacked the need to manually interface with the familiar, but adding the feature had given him something to do for an hour or so when he had made it. This was to contact the Archlich, as despite his high rank, Ata did not have the power to make a decision on this matter. And so began a conversation that only the two liches would understand, with the meaning roughly translating into speech.
The Archlich was the first to speak. "How goes your little side mission, Master Ata?"
"I have a lead that seems to indicate that this artifact was both sentient and possibly to blame for the Dragonspire Incident."
"Then why aren't you there now?"
"I decided to investigate Lookitthat for any other leads, especially since Mr. Eder Kane - a resident of the city - has the largest private collection of Eldian artifacts, especially magical ones. It is likely that he possesses an Eldian Memory Device, like the one I informed you about earlier."
"Secure it if possible, it is likely that Mr. Kane does not know it's full value, and the research teams could benefit greatly from something like this."
"Mr. Kane has already made an offer, I should inform you that he has above average magical potential."
"Why is this information relevant?"
"He has offered to allow me to inspect his collection and bring back 'some' objects deemed important in exchange for being turned into a lich."
"I see, normally this would be out of the question. Report on his mental status."
"Relatively stable individual, he has a fiery devotion to survival by any means necessary, not much more than a living corpse at the moment."
"If he dies, the state would likely fully nationalize his business, fail to see how his survival affects us."
"This is a diplomatic mission, if we did this for him, it would bring us closer to repairing relations. And his collection should prove useful to both the Union and my investigation."
"Run a full analysis on his mental state and report back. If he get's his way, it'll be in technicality alone. Praetor Type soul shift, you know the parameters required."
The familiar deactivated, folded back up, and disappeared in a puff of grey particles. "Your offer will be considered, Mr. Kane." the lich began. "But first I will need to see the body you intend on using, and I need to run a full analysis on your mental condition. If this is authorized, it will be functionally identical to cybernetic transference in the sense that I will be moving you to different body. If you had any hopes of saving your current body, I'm afraid that is not possible."
The Arctic Wastes
Lin blocked that direction for the Initiate, no need for the slaughter to interfere with the search. Enu was probably enjoying himself out there with the other liches, he liked combat more than Lin though he should. Lin watched as the sun went down, she knew there was the possibility that they would have to spend the night in the tundra, the initiates were still human after all. Dulruni was still on guard duty and didn't seem the least bit bored. While Lin was arranging headlight symbols in the air to create some fairly basic and pointless effects, by the time Myrdem had located the dolphin, a miniature cloud was hanging over the bear's head with snow falling from it. "Any creature that has a soul can become a familiar, even the strangest of creatures. We will find the dolphin, lead the way, Myrdem." Lin stated, motioning for the other initiates to mount up. The Veradacian liches were already on their mounts and Dulruni was circling the area, apparently looking for something in the darkness.
"Jeeves, show Master Ata my new body", Kane said. This time, the voice was real and came from the speaker implanted in his chest. The voice was deep and full of authority, but also but soft and pleasant, likely an imitation of Kane's real voice from his younger days. Based on the voice, it was easy to imagine that he had been a very charismatic individual, once.
Jeeves scuttled to the right side of the room and entered a combination on a wall-mounted keypad. There was a small hissing sound as part of the wall moved aside, revealing a hidden laboratory/arcane workshop with a large metal alcove at the center. Mounted on the alcove was an incredibly sophisticated mechanical body. It was roughly shaped like a bulky human, though somewhat larger. It had a nanotube-reinforced endoskeleton made of real, possibly vat-grown bone tissue, protected by hyperdiamond plating. The body also had fully functional joints and a stylized human face made of hundreds of fine metal plates that overlapped and could move independently in a way that gave the face a wide range of human-like expressions. Parts of the body looked like they had been salvaged from a Forge Knight or at least something very similar. Embedded in the construct's chest was a large soul gem. Closer examination would reveal that the soul gem was connected to the rest of the body with thousands of tiny "veins" made of Living Metal.
"That body is the single most expensive thing I own", Kane said. He was once again speaking telepathically. "Don't ask where some of its components came from. I've put it together over the decades, using materials from various sources. I had to use all my connections and cunning to get some of its parts. Quite an effort to assemble something that is essentially a very sophisticated statue... But it could be something much more."
The Arctic Wastes
Myrdem and the other initiates mounted their snowmobiles and headed towards the shore with the Veradacian Liches. The sun was completely gone by now, but it wasn't really dark as the sky was once again ablaze with Aurora Borealis. When they got closer to the shore, Myrdem slowed down and started searching with her mind again. Eventually she dismounted the snowmobile and started walking towards the sea, eyes partially closed. She led the group to a small bay surrounded by rock formations jutting out from the snow. There, partially beached, was a large black and white Arrowhead Dolphin, member of a species found primarily in Despoticanian waters. Arrowhead Dolphins were longer and slimmer than the vat-grown cyberdolphins used by the Despoticanian Navy and were known for their curious, friendly nature, often approaching humans and trying to play with them. They weren't protected as an endangered species, but the Despoticanian law had prohibited all whaling decades ago.
On the Arrowhead Dolphin's side was a set of deep, bleeding wounds that looked like bite wounds, likely made by some kind of shark. "It's alright", Myrdem said as she approached the dolphin. "You're safe now. You're going to be just fine." The animal turned its head so that one black eye could see the human walking towards it. Myrdem crouched just short of the water and petted the dolphin's head. It relaxed a little, but it was clearly badly wounded and had lost a lot of blood. Myrdem turned to look at the Veradacians. "I... I don't know how to help it. Can you heal it?"
Ata inspected the body carefully. It would work, but it was a tad bit obvious what it was from the outside. Nothing that couldn't be fixed though. What Ata was most worried about were arcane devices, items to aid Mr. Kane in using the Gift. Such devices, in the hands of a novice, would prove disastrous. He was quite thorough, using a multitude of familiars and his own powers to scan the entire body for anything suspicious. A subroutine also sent a command to the squid ship to rise to communications depth, Ata had every intention of attempting to contact Master Rongoteus, there were always more than one side to a story. When he finished, the lich retracted his familiars once more, all but one.
The last familiar was a tetrahedron, split down the middle to form two identical halves. Mr. Kane could sense that this was not a combat familiar, but rather one very similar to the ones Ata had used to scan the body. "A full psychological scan is in order, it will help me fine tune the process, make it more smooth for you." Ata said in his typical, metallically tinted voice as he walked back into the room with Eder Kane's life support cradle.
At the same time, a subroutine sent a coded message to the squid ship, which in turn relayed it to the Necrotechnomancer's Monastery. It translated to "Priority message, Master Ata request private communications with Master Rongoteus, please acknowledge." While there was the possibility that Kane would intercept the message, he would have very little in the way of a reference point in order to translate it. The language beneath the encryption was an artificial one, used by high ranking union members. And the lich master seriously doubted that Kane could listen in on the message after it went through the squid ship's computers.
The Arctic Wastes
The bear stopped short of the surf and the lich riding it dismounted. Lin sat down in the freezing surf next to the dying creature and placed a hand on its side. "I could." She stated simply, pulling out a small black crystal. "But you would miss a learning opportunity." she gestured for Myrdem to sit down by the injured creature's head. "Sit, initiate." she said, again her tone was masking a command. "Remember your practice in life energy manipulation. When you put the animals to sleep. Now, with my guidance, you will put this dolphin even further under." she removed her hand, leaving a series of runes on the side of the creature, they looked like they had been tattooed on. "Slow the dolphin's vital functions, the runes will prevent you from killing it. I will guide, but you must preform the deed if this creature is to be your familiar." Her voice was rather encouraging. The lich settled down into meditation in order to assist the initiate. She wouldn't let the dolphin die, in case Myrdem was not successful. It was clear that the Veradacians were very adamant about their rules of familiar catching. One was that if you were not the one responsible for subduing the animal, then you could not have the familiar. But they did allow for more experienced liches to guide others in the event that difficult situations arose.