"Very well. Do what you must", Kane said as the familiar approached the cradle.
Ata's message to Master Rongoteus received a reply in less than five seconds, "Yes, Master Ata? Where are you? Have you found something interesting?"
The Arctic Wastes
Myrdem did as she was told. She sat down, closed her eyes and entered a meditative state herself. She placed her hands on the dolphin's head but did nothing at first. For a couple of minutes, she simply went through the life energy manipulation lessons in her mind. Eventually she started to carefully calm down both the dolphin's mind and its life functions. She kept talking to the creature in a soft, barely audible voice, although it was more for her own benefit than the dolphin's. "It's alright", she said. "You're going to survive, and I'll be here for you. Why don't you take a nap and let me fix things? When you wake up, everything will be fine again and it won't hurt anymore..."
Heart rate. That was the crucial part. She'd have to slow it down; every heartbeat meant more blood lost. But first she'd have to put the dolphin to deep sleep in order to avoid brain damage from a lack of oxygen. It was much harder to manipulate a mind that was orders of magnitude more complex than a mouse's - almost as complex as a human's mind, in fact. To complicate things, Myrdem realized that full sleep wasn't something dolphins normally did: they always kept one half of their brain awake in order to regulate their breathing. Breathing - she'd have to take care of that as well when the dolphin was in hibernation, or it would die. Perhaps she could create an expection in its mind, a command to keep breathing just enough to stay alive? The complexity of the task felt almost overwhelming, but when she felt her resolve falter, Lin's guidance helped her: the Veradacian lich was like a subconscious whisper at the back of her mind, never intruding on her work but nudging her in the right direction when she was unsure what to do next. Slowly, carefully, Myrdem was able to make the dolphin drift into deep sleep - for the first time in its life. Then she started to slow down its other body functions, starting from the most non-essential ones and eventually proceeding to heart rate.
It took a good while, but eventually the dolphin was in full hibernation, the bleeding from its wounds having been reduced to almost nothing. Myrdem opened her eyes, surprised at how little need for them she had had - there had been an entire world of non-visual sensation she had barely touched while woking with the dolphin's life energies. No wonder some of the most powerful mages like Master Raynil had no eyes!
"I... I think it's done", she said and turned to look at Lin, waiting for her reaction.
The familiar began the scan rather slowly, taking it's time. While that was being done, Ata sent a rather complicated request for confirmation of identity based off the video he had showed Rongoteus earlier, if answered correctly, the lich would continue.
"I have some leads indicating that the artifact in question could be the entity known as 'The Black Sun'. Which, from what I have so far, appears to be a sentient magical entity. It may have been one of the entities responsible for the Dragonspire Incident. Currently I am in Lookitthat, I've gathered that a Mr. Eder Kane has what appears to be a memory device. As I understand that the Necrotechnomancers Union has had contact with him in the past, I contacted you for information on Mr. Kane and his past contacts with the Union." Ata purposefully left out the bit about Kane's request, it was not necessary information.
The Arctic Wastes
Lin looked at the initiate, although Myrdem couldn't see it, she was smiling. "Very good Myrdem." she stated, standing up. She turned her attention to Dulruni momentarily. "Dress its wounds and prepare it for transport." Dulruni nodded and set to work. Lin turned back to Myrdem. "Indeed there is a world that eyes cannot see." she said, indicating that she sensed the initiate's amazement. "It is what convinced me to go the route I went. It's an entire ocean of sensations that can be altered at a moment's notice. You will learn it's properties and how far it truly goes, since I assume that is what your study time will be filled with now." Dulruni had finished in record time and was hauling the dolphin - which was now covered in protective blankets with a breathing apparatus attached to the top - to the Ice Bear. Dulruni was carrying the creatures instead of dragging it, though its shear size lent some difficulty to the task. After thee Dolphin was secured on top of the bear, Lin spoke to the initiates. "We will leave for the monastery now, make sure your animals are secure, we don't want to accidentally abandon them in the tundra."
Rongoteus confirmed its identity and listened to what Ata had to say. "Interesting", it replied once he was finished. "We've always assumed that the Dragonspire Incident was somehow tied to the fall of the Kingdom of Blacklight. While the exact year of the Incident has never been confirmed, we know the events occurred close to each other - too close for it be a coincidence. Some old Eldian tales also mention a mysterious force or presence that was either the protector or guide of Blacklight. It would be a major historical - not to mention arcane - discovery if you uncovered precise information about an entity capable of causing a localized class 5 reality fracture that persists even after thousands of years..."
"As for Mr. Kane, he is indeed known to us. He approached Master Raynil and a few other independent master wizards in the late 19th century and tried to hire them as his personal instructors in magic. Even back then, he was a very wealthy man, used to getting everything he wanted. It was quite a shock for him when he realized that we weren't interested in money or material wealth. Raynil told him, in no uncertain terms, that the only way for him to learn magic from any of us was to become an apprentice. Kane refused and tried a few other prominent mages but got the same answer... Frustrated, he left us and went on to build his business empire. The next time we heard of him was almost a century later, when he contacted the Necrotechnomancers' Union and tried to buy the secrets of lichdom - or any other form of immortality - from us. We refused him, even after he offered to pay us 100 billion Despollars. A few years later Kane sent a couple of spies to Towen in a pathetic attempt to steal our secrets. We captured them, of course, and used their souls to create a pair of second-rate Forge Knights which we - or rather, Master Anolianth - dispatched after Kane. It was apparently Anolianth's idea of a hilarious joke, although I considered it a waste of two perfectly good souls... Anyway, considering that Kane is still alive, he must have survived the encounter and found some other way to extend his life. He must be well over 160 years old by now. Not bad for a mortal, but he will die eventually. They all do."
The Arctic Wastes
And so they began their long journey back. It had taken them most of the day to get from Towen to the vicinity of Wail, and that had been with Fawthali opening the way through the snow. And while the darkness of the night and the decreased temperature likely didn't bother the Veradacian liches at all, they further slowed down the initiates. After a couple of hours, it was becoming clear that they wouldn't make it back to Towen before the next midday.
"It's getting hard to stay awake", Kilander said eventually, voicing the feelings of both himself and Myrdem (who, exhausted by her mental effort with the dolphin, looked like she was about to fall asleep any moment). "Maybe we should consider setting up a camp for the rest of the night?"
"That's pretty lame, Kilander", Madyra said. "I have implants that reduce the need for sleep and allow me to push back the exhaustion. I could stay awake for three days without any ill effects. I thought everyone had those these days."
"Not everyone, kid", Kilander replied. "The tech is new enough to have potential side effects, and I've never seen much reason for eliminating the need for sleep anyway. I quite enjoy dreams."
"Mr. Kane is playing a dangerous game." Ata responded. "He managed to deactivate the Forge Knights that Master Anolianth sent after him, and harvested them for materials. If it weren't for his disdain for cybernetic transference, he'd already be a walking tank. The body he's made for himself is an amalgamation of sorts, bone, hyper diamond plating, and living metal. I would not call it a work of experts. I have half the mind to grant him what he wants, imprisonment in that thing would be almost as bad as living a life attached to machines."
By now the familiar was around half way done. After all the data had been collected, it would be analyzed by the lich in order to see if Kane was a suitable subject for what he had in mind. Since Kane refused to accept an apprenticeship to learn about the power he possessed and how to harness it correctly, the Lich had to do something about it. And since Kane's soul would be in his hands for a period of time if he went through with it, Ata could lock Kane's potential behind a series of seals during the process of stuffing said soul into that body. This would keep Kane from inadvertently harming himself or others, but allow for him to still harness his full power if he chose to accept an apprenticeship. Mr. Kane was an above average individual in mystic potential, but he was untrained. Ata was drastically more powerful, and had centuries of practice with this sort of magic. If necessary, brute force could win the day.
The Arctic Wastes
"Then we stop." the bear said, bringing the entire party to a halt in the tundra. Lin exited her constructed, the bear started to walk around in circles while Lin spoke to the initiates. "Madyra, you will find that rest of any kind is always important. Even liches and full body cyborgs with all the magic and technology at their disposal still benefit from it, you may even to come to miss being able to sleep one day." she paused. "We will make camp here for the night, the bear is compacting the snow in the area so you may set up your shelters. Dulruni and I will stand guard overnight. Myrdem, you should check on your dolphin once the bear settles down." After a minute or so the bear had compacted a good sized circle, enough for the shelters. It played down on the edge after it was done, clearly so that Myrdem could be close to the dolphin. Lin herself sat down in meditation in the middle of the circle. At first it did not seem as if she was doing anything, then the rune rings on her armor made themselves known, glowing faintly in the night. They rose off the armor slightly, most of them concentrated around her arms. Their purpose was starting to become clear, they were there to help the Master cast spells, and made it easier to use far reaching or large spells. As the rings began to rotate in seemingly random directions and speeds, the snow about three meters from the circle began to act strangely. It started to form into icy spikes, twenty in total. These menacing looking spires grew exponentially, soon they were taller than a man. Only then did they began to take shape. The crack of breaking ice filled the area momentarily as the spires rearranged themselves rather violently. The alien looking process resulted in twenty Ice Golems, each about the size of an average eldian. Runes etched themselves into the constructs before several small crystals flew from one of Lin's armor pouches, each looked like a miniature version of the one the bear had. The stones set themselves in the middle of the 'face' of the constructs, after which, the cycloptic golems did a perfect about face and marched off into the night. The crystal soldiers could be seen under the light of the aurora borealis about fifty meters from the campsite. Dulruni patrolled the space between the camp and them.
Lin spoke once the frozen sentinels were in place. "Get some rest, we will leave before dawn." She did not like the thought of staying overnight, but she had no choice. Her guards would protect the campsite from any mutants or hostile wildlife, and Dulruni would gun down anything that got past them, but the were of little use against what she knew would return. There was no time like the present for the Whispering Void to make it's reappearance.
"Do what you think is necessary, Master ata", Rongoteus said. "Every indication is that you're into something big; if helping Mr. Kane will bring you closer to your goal, then it is a price worth paying... And if you decide to grant his request, please do both him and us a favor and tell him that our 120-year-old offer of apprenticeship is still valid. We are prepared to teach him how to master his ability and use it for something useful instead of wasting it away as a mere curiosity. And keep me updated, please. Your search is getting quite interesting."
The familiar finished the scan. Kane had an exceptionally strong soul - probably as a result of his long life, his magical ability and his extremely strong determination to stay alive no matter what - that was likely to survive the transition to cyberlich form. His psychological profile was somewhat more alarming. There were traces of megalomania and an inflated sense of self-worth, as well as an all-pervasive ruthless pragmatism and a tendency to regard others as mere tools to achieve his own goals. These traits were kept partially in check by Kane's high intelligence and a nearly superhuman degree of self-control that was extremely rare among mortal lifeforms. In many ways, Kane probably had much in common with Towen's cyberlich Masters, even if he had until now chosen a different path. Perhaps traits like these were more or less universal among old and powerful people who clung to life with tooth and nail...
All in all, a skilled and powerful enough mage like Ata could almost certainly perform the transition, especially since Mr. Kane had already constructed a crude but suitable cyberlich body for himself.
"Well, Master Ata", Kane said telepathically, having apparently sensed that the scan was over. "Do we have a deal? Immortality in return for access to my collection? I'd call it a fair transaction." Somehow his shriveled neck had the strength to turn his eyeless head until he was looking staight at the lich master, his mummy-like face wrinkling into something resembling a smile.
The Arctic Wastes
Despite Lin's expectations, the Whispering Void did not return that night.
Yet there was a feeling, very subtle and almost subconscious, that something was wrong. The night was too calm, almost unnaturally so. The wind had completely died down and it was eerily quiet. No mutants or any other animals made an appearance, nor could the Veradacian liches detect any with their sixth sense or enhanced mundane senses. It was as if the entire tundra existed in some separate plane of reality where the liches, their constructs, the three initiates and their familiar-animals were the only beings in existence. Only the slow passage of stars in the sky and the soundless dance of the aurora gave any indication that time was still passing towards the dawn. Every now and then, a shooting star streaked across the night sky.
The initiates - even Madyra - fell asleep in minutes after they had made camp. They had apparently been truly exhausted by their journey and their mental contact with the animals. After a while Lin realized that Myrdem's dolphin was also sleeping, which was not something dolphins normally did since they were able to rest one hemisphere of their brain at a time. But now the large sea mammal was completely asleep, and there seemed to be a subconscious telepathic connection between it and Myrdem: they were essentially sharing a dream. Myrdem was smiling in her sleep.
After several hours of exceptionally uneventful night, illuminated only by the natural lights of the sky and the glowing rune rings around Lin's arms, the eastern horizon started to slowly turn red from the pre-sunrise glow.
The shadowy figure of the ancient mage stood still and quiet for three minutes. "You're suitable enough for transference." he remarked blandly. "You certainly have good tastes in professionals, there is no one more skilled in this field in the order." A number of arcane instruments and familiars materialized out of nowhere, the fact that they were extensions of the lich himself and not just tools stood as a testament to both his level of mastery and frequency of these operations. "Jeeves, move the body alongside Mr. Kane, make any preparations you feel necessary." he shifted his attention back to Kane "There's no returning from this, your body will perish once you are removed. If you have any concerns, it's best to voice them now."
The Arctic Wastes
Lin broke the rings and recalled the gems. The Ice Golems remained motionless in their circular formation, runes gradually icing over. The teacher sat in a meditative trance, trying to determine what was happening. For someone as attuned to the natural flow of magic as herself, it was extremely concerning for everything to be so dead. She didn't wake the initiates, they could sleep in for a change, she needed to figure out if any progress would be in vain. Dulruni trudged over, confused by the lack of progress. He was a simple, bullish man, so he got to the point. "Why aren't we making preparations to leave? We're behind schedule." He said telepathically. "Check our location and try to contact the outside world. I want to know exactly where we stand in relation to our starting point at the coast." Dulruni looked a bit confused, he had little experience with dimensional phenomenon despite his age. "What would that be good for? We have our maps." Lin knew of her colleagues...aversion towards some phenomenon, and it certainly wasn't helping. Immortals could be incredibly stubborn in their ways. "Just do it Dulruni, I'm rather shocked that you didn't feel how dead our surroundings are." Dulruni made a sweeping motion with his arm. "We're in a tundra, inland no less, there's not much that can live here, and we know that Hume levels in Despoticania are screwed up." Lin sighed "I swear Dulruni, I'm going to cram neural augments into your thick skull when we get back. As well as make a formal request to the Archlich that you receive training unrelated to killing things. Get me the information before I lose my temper." Dulruni obeyed, though he didn't expect to find anything awry. Lin knew that no matter the outcome, it was better for the initiates to keep moving. Leaving them here to stir on the strange happenings would only serve to worry them. So she moved to wake them.
"I've been trapped in this decaying husk of a body for decades", Kane replied. "I'm ready."
Jeeves grabbed the body with three of his mechanical arms and carefully removed it from its alcove. He then carried it across the room and placed it next to Kane's life support cradle. It stood there without support like a statue, joints locked in place. On a wordless command, a dormant floating drone was activated in the laboratory/arcane workshop. It hovered next to the body and attached a metal tentacle to a small optoelectronic port at the base of its metal skull. A holographic display winked into existence in the air next to it, showing the status of the body's internal technological and arcane systems. All readings were in the green.
"All subsystems working at optimal capacity", Jeeves reported. "Kane 2.0 is ready to receive Kane 1.2's soul."
"Wish me luck, Jeeves", said Kane's voice, coming from the speaker implanted in his chest.
The Arctic Wastes
Connection with the outside world worked just fine. Or so it seemed, at least.
Dulruni could reach both Datasphere and Towen and get their own location - they were some thirty kilometers inland, while the monasterly was located about 110 kilometers to the south-southwest. "The hunting party has yet to return, but according to Master Fawthali's latest report, they have eliminated the Alpha and have the Snow Runners on the run. It was your Death Knight Enu who made the kill. If you hurry, you might still return before them", a Towen apprentice mage who replied to Dulruni's call told him. Then, after a brief pause, she added, "There is something odd about your signal, though. I can get your general location, but there is some kind of interference that prevents me from pinpointing exactly where you are... Hold on... Master Raynil says you should get back here as soon as possible."
The initiates woke a bit reluctantly, but they looked refreshed and ready to continue the journey. However, Kilander seemed to notice something was amiss. Or perhaps it was his hawk, which was sitting on his shoulder and preening itself nervously. Kilander gave Lin a worried look. "Is something wrong?" he asked quietly.
In the east, a very pale and anemic-looking sun started to rise above the horizon. Its light was flat and sharp - it didn't really look like real sunlight at all. Somehow it made the tundra feel even more empty and dead.
The morning was also very, very quiet.
Kane's words would be the last he got in his mortal shell, for Ata began the instant he was done speaking. His first action was to render Kane unconscious, not the most difficult of feats given that his subject was willing. The second was to surround Jeeves and any monitoring devices in a localized inky black fog, he would not tolerate the recording and attempted imitation of his work. Ata's movements from then on were mechanical and automatic, instincts developed from centuries of procedure. The weakening of the soul's hold on the body, the establishment of the connection between the two vessels, everything came forth easily. Machines and runes moved and placed themselves as automatically as their maestro, the runes almost dancing in the air as they formed patterns that normally would be inscribed on a surface. Ata's attention could instead be used for monitoring the status of Kane's soul and looking out for any complications in the process. Mystically powerful souls were usually difficult to move around on account of the sheer size of their souls, but it was nothing a well trained lich couldn't handle. Everything was in order, so began the migration and tethering faze. Kane's detached soul was lifted from his body, Ata blocked out the sounds of medical equipment beeping angrily as he moved the billionaire's soul and mind. Once nestled within the automaton, the soul was anchored by the rune formations. After that, the most intensive parts were over, and Ata resumed his automatic procedure, adjusting the soul and mind to their new home so that Kane would not feel detached from his own body and his mind would be able to control it intuitively. Once he was satisfied with the adjustments, he finalized the transfer and removed the obstruction spell from the room.
Ata brought Kane back into consciousness, the first things that he experienced in his new form consisted of the squeal of his life support cradle and the devices and familiars blinking out of existence as Ata finished reverting to his more socially acceptable passive form. "How do you feel, Mr. Kane?" The lich asked, his voice easily heard in the room.
The Arctic Wastes
"Will comply" Dulruni responded. His attention then turned towards the party leader, who was busy with both the act of speculation and the preparations for their continued journey. "They're having trouble pinpointing our exact location, and Master Raynil says we should return immediately." Lin took a few moments to process what was heard. "It's as I feared then, we'll leave at once, though I don't expect everything to go according to plan. What's happening should be obvious to even you at this point." She directed Dulruni's attention towards the sun in a discrete manner. "That does not belong to us, we've both seen the Sun since they day we first crawled into it's light, but never have I seen something that looks even remotely like that. Something's wrong, and whatever's causing it is not far behind us, we must move now." She knew very well what was responsible, and she held no illusions of escape from it, but she preferred not to waste time telling Dulruni about it.
Lin was forced to deal with matters other than preparations by Kilander's question. She saw no need to worry him excessively, no the need to have any of the other initiates worried, for they needed to focus on travel. "The night was a bit too quiet for my tastes, that's all." Half-truths were the weapons of teachers and politicians, and they were wielded quite frequently at times. She addressed the rest of the initiates directly after. "Saddle up, we're leaving for the monastery." Her ice bear lumbered over with the dolphin tied cozily to it's side, the lich was absorbed into it as it walked right over her. Dulruni was on his horse, positioned off in the direction which they would be traveling. Once everyone was ready, they set off, Lin avoided any further questioning from Kilander.
"Mr. Kane?" Jeeves said, and for the first time, the cyborg butler actually had genuine emotion in its artificial voice: it sounded worried. "Master, are you alright? Answer me, please!"
"It is done? I feel... strange", the undead construct - Eder Kane - said in a deep voice that was very similar to his artificial human voice but softer and more natural. More than anything else, he sounded confused.
"Master! It is you!" Jeeves said. "Oh, for a moment I thought I had lost you!"
"This isn't quite how I thought it would feel..." Kane said. Then, very carefully, he brought his left hand in front of his metal face and moved its fingers. Next, he took a few experimental steps forward, then backward. "I can... move again", he said, voice full of wonder. "I had almost forgotten what it was like..."
It was only then that he seemed to notice the beeping of half a dozen different alarms and turned his head until he could look at the limbless, now-dead husk of his former self, still huddled in the life support cradle. All the lights in the monitoring equipment surrounding the cradle were red. The corpse looked more shrunken and pathetic than ever before. "Override code Fermion-756-Alpha", Kane said and the beeping stopped immediately. "You served me well for almost 164 years, my old shell, but now it is time for us to part ways. I don't think I'll miss you..." Then he turned his attention to the Eldian lich. "You've kept your end of the bargain, Master Ata. More than that, you've done a great service for the entire world by ensuring the continued existence of a great mind that still has much to give... Ahhh, how I've longed for this day! I can feel power surging inside me! It is truly my own soul inhabiting this body and not a mere copy! And with this body, I should be more powerful than I ever was in my previous life! I wonder if I can now cast actual spells..." Kane extended his arms, hands forming a cup, and tried to cast a simple but powerful spell to conjure an orb of mystical flame in the air. He was drawing power both from his own soul and his new body, which contained more than one magically active component and a rudimentary mana generator.
The Arctic Wastes
At first it seemed like they were moving in the right direction, the initiates on their snowmobiles and the liches with their construct steeds. The dead light of the unnatural sun bathed the surrounding tundra and made it look flat and sketchy, almost like a badly-drawn cartoon. The effect grew more pronounced with each passing minute, and soon the initiates noticed it too.
"Something is definitely wrong", Kilander said. He stroked his nervous hawk's feathers in an attempt to calm it down, but it was obvious that the motion was as much for his own benefit as the animal's
"You don't say?" Madyra said sarcastically. "What made you notice?" He pressed the throttle, trying to make his snowmobile go faster, but they were already moving at top speed.
After the first hour of travel, there was an urgent call from Towen. It was the same apprentice mage who had answered Dulruni earlier. What she said was enough to remove any potential doubts from Lin's mind and likely gave even Dulruni a final, conclusive proof that they were being affected - stalked? - by some unnatural and very powerful phenomenon. "Is something wrong?" the apprentice asked. "It seems you're not making any progress. I thought you were on your way back here?"
The air was too still - there was no wind of any kind, but at some point tiny dancing snowflakes had started to surround the travellers. Madyra - perhaps on account of his greatest natural talent - was the first of the initiates to notice something peculiar. He was also the first to say it out loud: "They're not moved by the wind. They're... levitating?!"
"Maybe we should..." Myrdem began, but then she let out a surprised yelp as there was a sudden and dramatic increase in the local Hume values - at least eight points on the Kant/Ideal Scale, from the Despoticanian average of 25.14 to over 33.2; in a matter of seconds, the local reality became more concrete, more [ASSERTIVE]. Even most mundane humans would have noticed the change, the sudden sharpening of the world, but for magically attuned souls the effect was much more pronounced - even painful. Their ability to manifest their powers was affected adversely: the liches found their movement speed slowed down considerably, while the nascent telepathic link between the initiates and their familiars was weakened. Kilander's hawk let out a frightened screech and took off from his shoulder. Madyra's fox woke up from its forced slumber and started to shake in its cage. Myrdem's dolphin was trashing violently against Lin's snow-bear form, which was starting to look less like a bear and more like a snow statue...
The peak lasted only for a few seconds - the next moment, they were hit by a wave of unusually low Hume values, dropping below 20. A moment after that, the Humes began to rise again: they were in a field of fluctuating reality. It all happened in complete silence, under the mocking glow of the dead sun.
Then Myrdem spoke again. "I... I can hear it again", she said. "Singing."
Ata threw up a protective barrier around Kane, he didn't want to incur unnecessary damage. "I would advise against that, Mr. Kane. You might damage yourself or your house. I will remind you that the Necrotechnomancer Union's offer to train you remains open, should you decide to receive formal training. I personally advise that you do so sooner rather than later." The lich had a hint of warning in his voice, magic was an unwieldy beast in the hands of the untrained. Though, if push came to shove, he could prevent Kane from doing any harm to himself. He stood their patiently, he knew the feeling of having a new body, and would let Kane revel in the experience so long as he wasn't being a threat to himself.
The Arctic Wastes
Lin fell behind with the initial wave, she was forced to exit with haste in order to prevent anymore damage to the bear. The lich tumbled in the snow as Dulruni brought the entire party to a halt. He was in pain, but he was also a soldier who was used to pain and was holding up remarkable well. Lin, on the other hand, was effectively crippled. For someone as sensitive to the environment as her, sudden and severe shifts in Hume values would cause both immense pain and inability to use sensory magics with interference applied to all others in accordance with the severity of the swing. Unfortunately it was a feeling she had felt before, Ata had altered the local Hume Values during one of their duels back before the incident. There was nothing much she could do right now other than endure the pain and calm the dolphin, for if it broke free, it would quickly die. So that's what she did, as Dulruni brought the group back around to her position, where the snow bear had deactivated in the face of the reality warping.
Lin was left to wonder in between the waves of pain, she had no idea that the whispering void was this powerful. Probably a defensive measure to keep the two most powerful mages incapacitated, it had only shown up because there were none amongst them that could properly defend against it. Ata was the only lich Lin knew of that could've resisted the effects of the reality shifting, but he was halfway across the country now.
"Keep close to me and don't listen to it whatever you do." Dulruni commanded, though his voice was pained. Despite the effects messing with magic and enchantments, he held his gun ready, possibly as a comfort when facing the unknown. Still, he dutifully lead the initiates back to Lin's position, despite his own pains.
Kane did something unexpected: after staring at the flickering blue flame between his cupped hands for a couple of minutes, he actually heeded Ata's advice and let the flame slowly disappear. "Ha ha ha!" His telepathic laughter was like strange, oscillating music. The metal plates of his face shifted into a small smile. "You are right, Master Ata. Time is no longer my enemy - I can afford to carefully master my Gift instead of rushing things. Maybe I'll make the trip to Towen and see if they can teach me something useful there." He then switched to audible voice to instruct his cyborg butler. "Jeeves, my old body no longer serves any purpose. But one should never let good proteins go to waste. Take it to the basement and toss it into one of the recycling vats, please."
"At once, Mr. Kane", Jeeves said in an adoring voice. "And may I add, sir, that is truly a pleasure to see you up and about and so full of energy."
"I know, Jeeves, but let's not get all sentimental. This was bound to happen sooner or later. I always knew that with enough patience and persistence, I'd achieve my dream one day, one way or another. Took a bit longer than I expected, perhaps, but it is finally done. Now get to work." As Jeeves started removing the desiccated corpse from the life support cradle, Kane switched back to telepathic communication. "Now, Master Ata - I'm a man of my word. You have given me lichdom, now I'll give you what I promised: access to my collection of artifacts. Follow me."
Kane led Ata out of the life support chamber which had been his entire world - at least in the physical sense - for decades. At first, the now-undead billionaire moved with the careful deliberation of someone who was unsure of his ability to walk, but soon his stride gained more confidence and speed. Perhaps it was because of old procedural memories resurfacing or because of balance-correction mechanisms built into his new body, but by the time they reached the foyer, Kane was moving almost completely naturally. Despite its somewhat bulky appearance, his new body seemed to be surprisingly light, as his footsteps were barely audible. In the dim lighting of the foyer, he looked a bit like an art-deco statue that had somehow become animate. "You know, Master Ata, I've never actually walked these halls", he said as he began walking up a large central staircase. "By the time I moved in this cave dwelling, I was already mostly paralyzed. Oh, I know its every nook and cranny - I was heavily involved in designing my home, and my virtual avatars have visited its every room and corridor countless times - but I've never truly been here. Not like this. It is quite the strange feeling, but definitely not unpleasant... And we're here."
They had reached a large reinforced door with a keypad. Kane entered a combination into the pad, and with a small hiss the door slid open, revealing a large room filled with hundreds of glass cases. It was the same room he had earlier shown Ata as a holographic projection. In every case was an artifact: some were ancient, others quite new; some were enchanted, others mundane; some were of eldian origin, others human, and some looked like they had been made by neither culture. There were weapons - daggers, swords, spears, maces and bows - bowls, vases and cutlery; stone tablets inscribed with Ancient Eldian writing; pieces or armor and clothing; jewels and decorative items; ritual implements - thuribles, incense boxes, ceremonial statues - and the primitive memory device Ata had spotted earlier.
"I no longer have much need for my collection", Kane said, "but some of these items are very valuable; I intend to sell most of them. But for now, you can study them freely, and I'll let you keep the first five items you deem most useful in your... studies. That is the least I can do in exchange for your service. I still want a final say on which items you take, however. Some of them hold a bit of sentimental value."
The Arctic Wastes
The Whispering Void emerged from the ground below their feet - it was the ground below their feet. Chilling white fog, made up of billions of levitating snowflakes, swallowed them in seconds and covered every visible thing around them: the tundra, the sky, even obscene mockery of the sun. Chaotic, telepathic whispering - most of it just beyond the reach of conscious thought like persistent flickering at the corner of the eye - filled the minds of the liches and the initiates. Laughter, crying, giggling, babbling, singing, humming, shouting, screaming - it was a cacophony of silent voices.
"No! Go away! Go away!" Madyra screamed. The youth's usual confidence was completely gone, and he sounded like a scared little kid. The fog absorbed his voice, muffled and smothered it and made it sound even more pathetic and weak.
"Out of my mind. Out of my mind. Out of my mind", Myrdem repeated over and over. She had stopped her snowmobile and was pressing her temples with both hands. Her eyes were tightly shut.
Madyra let out another scream, wordless this time. Unstable magical energy formed around his right hand as he was preparing to cast a crude offensive spell at the fog, but just then they were hit by another sudden rise in Humes. The spell flickered and died without being released.
"It's no use, Madyra", Kilander said through clenched teeth. "Do what Dulruni said! We need to stay together!" somehow he was able to retain some of his calm as he turned his snowmobile around and practically herded the younger initiates to Dulruni and Lin.
The Void had been waiting for them. It had been waiting for them since the beginning of time.
[THE VOID WAS H-A-P-P-Y]
The telepathic presence became stronger, more invasive. It was a multitude flowing through itself, a labyrinthine tangle of desire and desperation. It was probing the five sapient and three animalistic minds it had trapped within its presence - a presence that transcended space and time. Here, it was the only reality there was.
Maybe it was the only reality that had ever been?
[THE VOID WAS ALONE. SO VERY VERY ALONE.]
The Void never made a sound, but its psychic presence was almost overwhelming now. In the maelstrom of shifting reality and dancing snowflakes it was the only constant. It was making an offer. Countless offers, in fact - it just wanted to help. Power, knowledge, wealth, fame, pleasure... It would do anything to help anyone willing to open their mind even for a moment. It desperately wanted to help, and its help would be---
It could make Lin the most powerful summoner and construct builder in existence. It could make Dulruni the strongest magical warrior in the world or give him endless battles full of glory. It could reveal the deepest secrets of the arcane or grant power beyond even immortal imagination.
Was that so bad, if you really thought about it?
[THE VOID WAS ANGRY]
[THE VOID WAS LOVE]
[THE VOID WAS]
The eldian lich was silent as Kane conversed with Jeeves, he saw no reason to talk at the moment. Though, he did speak once in the foyer. "I will of course need to inspect the memory device in your care." he had dropped telepathic communication for some reason or another. "It would be a shame if I didn't." As he said this, two observation familiars appeared out of thin air, seamlessly slipping into this reality from another dimension. Occasionally it was possible to see the minute structures just under the lich's skin in the dim light, revealing just a little about the complex nature of Ata's own construct.
Once in the artifact room, he listened to Kane closely. "Indeed a fair offer." he remarked, as the familiars drifted into the room, surveying the artifacts with iconography or arcane properties. The Lich himself walked slowly, but rather purposefully towards the memory device. It was likely the most prized part of the collection, and one that Kane could never appreciate the full value of. Had it not been for this device, the decision to help Kane would've been substantially more difficult to make. "I assume that I am allowed to handle the artifacts?" he inquired once at the case that held what he sought. The lich was investigating it through the glass already, to determine the state and number of the memory crystals.
The Arctic Wastes
Linn heard the cries of the initiates, but there was little she could do, she felt like screaming herself. She heard it, it was simultaneously elusive and salient, the voice skirting the edges of consciousness. The dolphin cried out from its nest of thermal blankets as it continued to thrash and Lin kept trying in vain to calm it down.
Dulruni heard it as well, but it was much less pronounced. He couldn't shake the deep sense of violation at the anomaly invading his mind, it was the one place where no entity was ever supposed to enter. The battle master was somewhat disturbed by Maydra's reaction to the Void. "You can't fight this one, initiate, just ignore it." He boomed over the mental sound of the voices. The warrior felt like a crippled elephant defending calves against a hurricane, it was a miserable feeling, but he would need to push through it. There was more than one way to be a warrior. Along with Kilander's help, he was able to get the initiates huddled by the snow bear next to Lin and the dolphin, at least it would provide some protection against the snow portion of this anomaly. He stood on the outside edge, the furthest from the bear, using his body as a shield of sorts.
Lin was on her knees clutching her head by the time she felt the presence strengthen. The outside world seemed to fall away from her as the Void increased it's presence. Then, she heard the offer. She immediately rejected, taking the advice of Fawthali and the hunters. Ata was a mighty summoner, and even he lost control when his experiments started getting too big. Nothing good could come of this. The lich also knew that Ata, being the crafty b*stard he was, would kill her if she had accepted.
Dulruni was standing to face the unseen enemy when the presence strengthen itself, further asserting itself in his mind, increasing his own sense of violation. He became increasingly aware of the initiates behind him as the Void continued. Though he didn't quite understand why, he pulled the bolt of his rifle back and let it slam shut. Retroactively, he guessed it was because the familiar sound lent him some comfort and sense of reality in this hour of weird, as did the cold metal of the weapon. When the offer came, his mind went calm for a few moments. His response came in the form of an inhuman scream, accompanied by the lich kicking snow in the direction of the Void. He had declined the offer. There was no honor in what was not earned, there was no glory in artificial battles. This offer was an insult to any great warrior, how dare any being degrade him in this fashion. He readied his weapon and pointed it at the Void, he knew it wasn't any good, but perhaps it would give the initiates some confidence. "Hold strong, reject it's false promises!" Dulruni commanded, his voice seething with rage towards this entity that had imprisoned him.
"The memory device?" Kane asked, and the telepathic link was filled with a momentary impression of puzzlement, then a sudden realization. "Ah, you mean the helmet with the crystal? One of my hired experts did say it contained magically-stored patterns somewhat similar to the synaptic connections in a living brain that form the basis of memories... The helmet was a very hard piece to acquire, let me tell you - and, unfortunately, one of my greatest disappointments. The Necrotechnomancers supposedly have means to read these devices, but not even the best and most overpaid experts I could find could give me anything but educated guesses about its contents. In the end, I had a COLOSSUS-class AI core and two self-taught excuses for mages crunching through the patterns for a full year, but ultimately, the only thing they could tell me was that the helmet 'probably' contained the memories of a prisoner of some sort, just before his or her death. So much wasted effort and money, and nothing useful at all! Anyway, feel free to handle the artifacts. The cases can be opened by pressing the black button on their right side."
Kane's memory device was much more primitive than the one Ata had seen at the monastery. It had only a single crystal, perhaps indicating that it had been used to record short experiences instead of long epochs of someone's life. The helmet was also made of lower-quality material: instead of the shiny copper-like metal of Rongoteus' memory device, this one was mostly made of clay, with a few thin metal bands circling around it for reinforcement. Ata's familiars confirmed Kane's story: the memory device only held a single individual's final memories and experiences.
However, they also revealed something curious: the memories had probably belonged to a human instead of an eldian. And despite its primitive appearance and cheap construction, the memory device had complex enchantments that made it possible for an eldian to experience the memories with relative ease. It was as if it had been specifically made to allow eldians to experience the world from a human point of view.
The Arctic Wastes
When the liches rejected the Whispering Void's offer, there was a brief but nonetheless noticeable reduction in the strength of the anomaly. For an instant, the icy fog receded and a hint of sky - real, blue sky - was visible above.
"...peat, this is Towen. Master Raynil and Master Anolianth are on their way to your location; they're carrying Kharnabar Reality Anchors. Just hold on - they'll be there in twenty minutes. I repeat, this is Towen. Master Ray..."
The gap disappeared and the white fog was once again the only reality there was. There was no further psychic contact with the liches, but the shifting Hume values kept them incapacitated while the Void turned its full attention to the initiates.
[THE VOID WAS SAD]
Why would anyone reject its offer? Now THAT was madness!
[THE VOID WAS JUST TRYING TO HELP]
Of course it was.
[THE VOID'S ONLY THOUGHT WAS TO ENTERTAIN YOU]
"No", Kilander said. His voice was trembling, but he was staring defiantly at the featureless white fog. "I will not listen to you. There's nothing I want from you."
[THE VOID WAS OFFERING SO MUCH]
Just do the right thing.
[THE VOID WAS CONFUSED]
THE VOID WAS FRIENDLY]
[THE VOID WAS INSANE]
[THE VOID KNEW HOW THIS WAS GOING TO END]
"I'm afraid that your efforts were doomed to fail from the start, these kinds of devices are built to interact with Eldian souls. My cousins were not too concerned with cross compatibility." he redirected his familiars to the other artifacts with iconography or magical properties while he opened the case and took out the helmet. The lich took great care not to damage the ancient artifact as he examined it in his hands for a few moments. "The data you have is correct, though I have yet to see any memory helms like this one, It should be an interesting experience to say the least." With that he turned it around carefully, and put it on.
The Arctic Wastes
Dulruni was able to properly process the call from the outside. "Masters Anolianth and Raynil are on their way, we must hold out a little bit longer! Reject the Void, don't let it win!" He yelled over the preternatural snowstorm. Dulruni's horse knelt to the ground by the rear of the snow bear, creating a corner that contained, Lin, the initiates, and the dolphin.
Lin struggled to her feet, standing besides the dolphin, which had calmed down enough that it was no longer in danger of breaking free. The snow bear was looking a bit worse for wear, but it was nothing that couldn't be fixed. Lin knew she could create another if need be once this was over.
Ata's immersion in the ancient memories was just as intensive as before. The vision was remarkably well-preserved as well, and didn't contain much corrupted or incomprehensible sections. It was possible that the relative simplicity of the enchantment had protected it from the gradual deterioration that often plagued extremely old magically-stored memories.
You have been taken by the Western Devils. Their haughty faces look down on you as you and your fellow humans are extracted from the slave pens by guards in shining armor and marched deeper into the underground tunnels. There are Devils everywhere. You see the hate and contempt in their pale eyes - but also something else, something that makes the thought of your impending death slightly more bearable.
The Devils are afraid, afraid of you. Perhaps more afraid than you are of them. Your grandfathers might have been nothing but slaves and vermin to the Devils, but you represent something else; you are a threat. You are not some superstitious peasant, easily captured to work the Devils' mines and fields, or for their twisted amusements. You are different. You are a warrior. You've seen with your own eyes that the Devils can bleed and die just like humans. Now, you are a prisoner, one of the unlucky ones who survived the battle fought at the Field of Oldorando, but both you and the Devils know that the war is only just beginning. Now there are even more humans like you out there, answering the war-horn of Agraven. Many more. Long after oblivion has claimed your soul, your comrades will keep fighting on... and one day, one day they will come into this proud city and avenge you and all the other humans the Devils have taken. They will bring forth the fury of humanity and raze the city to the ground until not even its memory remains. The Devils know this, and no matter how much they mock you now, no matter how much they hurt you and spit on you, they can't shake that thought from their minds. They know their time is coming to an end.
You arrive into a large hall, its walls covered in elaborate murals. The hall is full of silent Devils in extravagant robes. "Hear me, you Devils!" you shout, head held defiantly high despite the weight of the ugly clay helmet they have made you wear. Your fellow humans - prisoners like you - have similar helmets, but they too maintain their dignity and defiance. "You may take our lives, but you will never take our freedom. One day, our kind will walk on your streets as your city burns around them!"
None of the robed Devils answers, but one of the guards hits you in the back with the flat of his spear. You stumble and almost fall on your face on the cold, hard stone floor, but one of the other prisoners - a middle-aged woman with a large scar running across her face - grabs your arm and helps you stay on your feet.
"Ugly human behave", the guard says in broken human language, his harsh Devil-voice profaning the tongue of your fathers. "Ugly human not die soon. Worse. Heh. Worse."
You cross a large stone corridor and enter a small antechamber, blood-red curtains covering an entrance to what you feel is a much larger chamber. You can't see past the curtains, but as the guards usher you closer, you suddenly have a feeling that whatever is behind them is something bad. Very bad. You try to suppress the feeling, but the defiant courage that has sustained you until now starts to drain very quickly.
In the middle of the antechamber stands another robed Devil. She looks like an important religious figure. She is very tall and her robes are even more elaborate than the ones you saw before. Her face is calm, but her eyes look tired and lifeless, much older than the rest of her face. When all the prisoners - eight in total - are in the antechamber, she turns to face the curtains and starts to chant in the strange language of the Devils. You can understand only some of it, but what you can make out sends chills down your spine: "...gift... forcibly taken, freely given... us from Old Eldia... eternal souls... gratitude... Dawn Times... Thrice-Blessed... through their final memories within You... grant us Your understanding..."
As she speaks, she covers her eyes with a red velvet cloth. All the guards in the room do the same. Under normal circumstances, now would be your chance to attack your captors and attempt to escape, but the heavy shackles on your arms and legs make it almost impossible to run or fight. And the guards have clearly been trained to fight even when blind. Behind you, they inch closer as a tight semicircle. The robed Devil steps aside, and you feel the guards' spears on your back, forcing you and the other prisoners towards the curtains.
And as you get closer and closer, the feeling of dread increases with every step. With each passing moment you are more convinced that whatever is behind those curtains is the worst thing in the world. It's something worse than death - it's worse than anything you can even imagine.
"No", you whisper in vain. "No. No! Stop this. I can't..."
Then you are past the curtains, in a huge spherical chamber, and in the middle of that chamber you you see a shape... you see... a... you see...
You are unable to understand what you are seeing. Your mind rejects what you are seeing.
You scream, but there is no-one or nothing to hear your scream.
[TOO MUCH HURT ANGRY WRONG WRONG LITTLE LINEAR TIME ENTITIES MANY MINDS/SEPARATE/CUT OFF NOT ONE BUT SEPARATE/CUT OFF BOUND BY FORMS CAN'T SEE PAST LINEAR TIME??? PROGRESSION WRONG HURT THIS REALITY NOT NATIVE TRAPPED CAN'T GET OUT HERE WAITING FOR END SEEN FURTHER ENEMY ARRIVES WAITING MOUNTAIN NORTH UNTIL THEN USEFUL SPEARATE/CUT OFF FOOLS BRING SUSTENANCE BELIVE IN THIS WISDOM MANIPULATE/CHANGE MATTER/ENERGY LINEAR TIME GIVE WISDOM!!!? WAITING ENEMY NORTH SEEN IN PROGRESSIVE TIME]
Ata's consciousness was violently thrown back into Kane's artifact chamber only to find out that no time had passed at all. Kane seemed completely oblivious to what the eldian lich had just experienced.
"Like I said, it's probably useless", the billionaire said dismissively. "I'd wager it was used as some kind of masochistic entertainment device that allowed the Blacklight eldians to experience death without actually dying themselves. Kind of like the 'suicide game' some Despoticanian youngsters are so fond of these days... Heh, it's no secret that Despoticanians have some eldian blood flowing in their veins... I wonder if we've inherited our obsession with death and dying from your kind..."
The Arctic Wastes
With the psychic assault against them over, the Veradacian liches were able to think and perceive their surroundings a bit more coherently. They were still greatly weakened but no longer under constant pressure, and some of their strength was slowly beginning to return. Every now and then, a new wave of shifting Hume values hit them head on, making casting coherent spells all but impossible. And while the Whispering Void's hold on the liches was weakening, the anomaly was now attacking the younger, weaker minds of the initiates, probing them for a weakness, a conscious or subconscious desire it could fulfill.
Madyra had fallen on his knees in the snow and was sobbing quietly. Myrdem, who was leaning against the snow bear, looked nearly catatonic, but her mouth was forming words in rapid succession. Kilander was still standing tall against the silent supernatural snowstorm, but even he was faltering. Slowly and painstakingly, he turned to look at Lin and Dulruni. "It's... too strong..." he managed to say. "I don't know if... if we can resist it for much longer... What do we do? Help us!"
"Somehow I doubt it was used for entertainment, Mr. Kane." Ata said in a steely calm voice, talking off the helmet. He took a few moments to comprehend what he had just exprienced. There was a reason for this device, the entity he had experienced was foreign to this reality and probably had a degrading effect on the sanity of all but the most resolute. The religious attire only made sense in the context of the Black Sun, in that case, this device would've been one of many used to experience the presence of the Black Sun without the negative effects it had. Of course this was only a hypothesis, he needed more data concerning the Black Sun and it's properties. Though the demeanor of his cousins from old had put him off a bit, all races had dark spots in their histories, the Despoticanians just got the privilege of covering theirs up because they won.
"I assume that you will have no issues with me liberating this artifact from your collection?" Ata inquired suddenly, turning over the helmet in his hands. He didn't tell Kane of its true worth, because to the billionaire it had none, and he wasn't interesting in haggling over it. After waiting for a response he the asked. "Do you have any artifacts in your collection with eldian religious iconography or anything referencing a 'Black Sun'." Perhaps this was a bit too direct, but he didn't feel that he had the time to personally inspect every artifact in Kane's collection.
The Arctic Wastes
Dulruni had an idea, and insane one, but it might work. He motioned for Lin to find a workable short term solution while he rifled through one of his pouches. He was a warrior and a hunter, and hunting familiars required certain mundane instruments sometimes. While generally not meant for use on humans, tranquilizers in the right amount would render humans effectively comatose. It wouldn't leave the Void much to work with.
Lin, meanwhile thought she could get away with something. The fluctuating Hume values made casting spells nearingly impossible, but ultra simple arcane transfers might work. It wouldn't be any good for her, but the initiates would suffer less. "Kilander, get over here." She rasped, before realizing that she wouldn't be heard. She stood and dragged Kilander over to the other initiates. The, she scooped her poor falcon out of the snow by the bear and gave it to Kilander to hold. "Do not let go of it." She instructed, before placing a hand on each of the other two initiates. She would then try to take their pain as her own, redirect the psychic assault onto herself. A move to allow the initiates to more easily resist the Void, but one that would most likely cripple her. It could last until the Cyberlich Masters arrived, or it could last until Dulruni could put his clandestine plan into motion. She just hoped it would work, since it was more of an interaction between souls than a spell.
"Hm. I spent a fortune just to acquire, let alone analyze, that helmet..." Kane contemplated. "...But ultimately, it didn't help me in any way. And I did make a promise to let you take the items you deemed most important for your research. So very well, Master Ata. You may have it." He then switched from telepathy to his actual voice and called for Jeeves. The cyborg butler arrived in less than a minute, moving deceptively fast with his spider-like metal legs.
"How can I be of assistance, sir?"
"Do we have any artifacts with eldian religious iconography or references to a 'Black Sun'?" Kane asked. "Master Ata wishes to take a closer look at them. I'm almost certain that I've seen a black sun-like symbol in at least some of the artifacts I purchased over the years."
"Sir's memory is as sharp as always", Jeeves said. He then moved around the room, showing Ata the relevant cases. "This flask was recovered from one of the oldest settled caves of Despoticania Prime but is clearly of eldian make, suggesting it was among the spoils of war taken from Blacklight after its destruction." Jeeves pointed at a large flask made of dark gray stone. On its side was a stylized engraving depicting a black sun, and under that old eldian symbols which translated roughly as "sound of the shadow of the sun". The next relevant item was a tattered piece of cloth which had probably been part of a robe or a chasuble. "This piece of cloth was originally in a chest found in 1967 in the countryside surrounding one of the smaller Blacklight Eldian settlements. Clay tablets found in the chest suggested that it was part of the ceremonial vestments of an individual known as the 'Cleaner of Memories'. Mr. Kane's hired specialists believed that the vestments had originally been enchanted, but the enchantment seems to have worn almost completely away over the millennia. Maybe you can still detect some traces of it."
There was also a ceremonial dagger with a Black Sun symbol in its pommel, a religious idol of some forgotten god or saint (a tall, androgynous figure with four arms, each wielding a spear), a chalice meant to hold holy water or some similar substance, a thurible with traces of highly hallucinogenic incense (Jeeves noted that the incense only affected eldians and was capable of inducing a detached dreamlike state with muted emotional reactions) and a series of stone tablets which told another ancient incomplete tale (according to Jeeves, it was about a powerful eldian sorceress who betrayed her people by allying with their enemies and was cursed with immortality without youth as a result; apparently, Kane had found the curse similar enough to his own condition that he had purchased the tablets at an extravagant price.)
The Arctic Wastes
As soon as Lin made contact with the initiates
[SHE WAS WORTHLESS]
Why would she have to fear what someone like Ata had to say about her choices? Was she not the master of her own fate? Just because Ata had failed to achieve true mastery of the arcane arts, did it mean that she'd have to fail as well? Wasn't knowledge always something precious, somethig to be guarded, cultivated and used, no matter its source...?
[BUT SHE HAD ALREADY MADE HER CHOICE]
But was she really so selfish as to drag three young minds, full of potential, with her down the dark path of ignorance and doom them to...
"S-s-so you t-tink you're some big bad... r-r-reality-breaking anomaly, do you? Y-you know what you... are?" it was Madyra, speakig through muffled sobs. "You are... N-nothing! That's what you are! I'm the real b-b-badass here, and when I've learned to master my powers, I'll come back for you! I'll put you in a bottle and take you to my laboratory where I'll..."
And as before, in response to open defiance and rejection, the anomaly receded. For an instant, it was possible to see and sense beyond the dancing snowflakes and the silent psychic roar of the Whispering Void. It was a beautiful, perfectly ordinary morning outside the bubble of warped reality where the Void had trapped the five travellers: the sun was shining from a clear blue sky and---
[IT HAD ALL BEEN JUST A DREAM]
This was the only reality there ever was. This was the only reality there was ever going to be.
The Void was once again all over them, but something was different. Was it getting weaker? Instead of using concentrated psychic attacks, it was now probing its victims incoherently, almost like a novice mage trying telepathy for the first time. It was still offering them their heart's desire - it was trying to make its offers feel like they had been its victims' ideas in the first place - but it felt more and more like something desperate that simply wanted to be let in...
With a puff of fluffy black particles, the helmet vanished into thin air, the particles fading away into nothing. Then the lich followed Jeeves, investigating each artifact and 'feeling' their mystical signatures. He paid special attention to the fabric, the chalice, the thurible, and the ceremonial dagger, as they were religious artifacts and the most likely to lend clues about the Black Sun. He took a few moments to read the tale himself before posing a question to Jeeves. "May I ask where the clay tablets found with the robe fragment is? I mean no insult to Mr. Kane, but I do not completely trust Despoticanian Experts on some matters."
The Arctic Wastes
Lin was paralyzed from the extra assaults on her mind, she had to focus entirely on keeping it from overwhelming her. She didn't even really hear Maydra, or anything, as she was preoccupied. The Void had no idea what ti was talking about, there were things in other dimensions, horrible beasts that had no business in this plane of reality. The Void was a fool, the Void was a trickster, the Void was a liar.
Dulruni, on the other hand, sensed the shift. "The anchors." he thought. "They draw closer. Perhaps they are lethal to the void." He understood that perhaps his method wouldn't be needed after all. It was also easy to concentrate now that the void was weakening. "This is not an acceptable reality." he thought to himself.
Next to the stone tablets with the ancient story was a notebook full of annotations and notes by the linguist who had translated the story for Mr. Kane. The story had been tentatively dated to less than a decade before the fall of Blacklight, which presented a number of interesting anomalies and discrepancies.
The tablets told the story of a powerful Eldian sorceress named Lendra (or Lein Dra, according to an alternate translation; the runic language used by the Blacklight Eldians was known for its ambiguity). For many decades, she served as a priestess of an entity known as the "Shattering Sphere of Unlight" (widely believed to be just another name for the "Black Sun" mentioned in some other ancient sources). When the tide of the war against the human forces started to turn against the eldians, Lendra abandoned her people and defected to the humans' side. She pledged her allegiance to the human king, Anganol the Bloody, and brought him a gift of many enchanted artifacts and weapons. (The next part of the text had been lost, but the linguist had believed that the wording of the rest of the story suggested that Lendra might even have become Anganol's lover.) When the Blacklight Eldians learned of Lendra's betrayal, they were enraged. Her former priestly colleagues performed a complex ritual, channeling the power of the Shattering Sphere of Unlight, which was still bound to its former priestess. Lendra was cursed with Truly Eternal Life.
And so it came to be that Lendra found herself unable to die. Neither age nor poison, blade or spell could end her existence. As a skilled eldian magic user, she was naturally long-lived but not immortal. As decades and centuries passed, she became an old hag, then a living mummy and finally a pile of bones and dust, yet her tortured spirit remained bound to her remains. Her senses decayed and disappeared one by one, and she gradually lost all ability to move and communicate. Desperate and vengeful, she taught the first known human mages (who were possibly part-eldian, perhaps even her own children or grandchildren) everything she knew in the hopes that they would hunt down the priests who had cursed her and discover a way to end her curse. But it was all for naught.
In the end, it was said, Lendra was doomed to suffer eternally in total darkness as nothing but a disembodied consciousness as even her dust was scattered by the four winds. Some claim she eventually became a force of nature, pure pain and insanity without form, wandering the land eternally and seeking - in vain - the sweet release of death. (The translator's final notes pointed out that since the story almost certainly preceded the fall of Blacklight by a few years, the ending was most likely just vengeful fantasy by Lendra's former colleagues - the alternative, almost but not quite too fanciful to even seriously consider, was that the Blacklight Eldians could somehow have foreseen Lendra's ultimate fate.)
"The tablets are right here", Jeeves replied to Ata's question and pointed him to an adjacent display case, "But you may be in for a disappointment, Master Ata. There isn't much to see." True enough, the tablets were just two small pieces of clay, with fragments of ancient eldian writing barely discernible. The writing translated roughly as, "...vestments of the Cleaner of Memories, allowing her to make sense of the final..." and "...here to safety until our people can again..."
What remained of the vestments now was a sad testament to a once mighty fallen civilization: just a torn piece of faded red cloth, with a few metal threads visible here and there. To Ata's attuned sixth sense, there were hints of former pathways that had once carried acrane power - but the power itself was long gone. It was impossible to tell anything about the nature of the enchantment. A closer inspection revealed something curious, however: the metal threads woven into the fabric resembled the Living Metal Towen's cyberliches extracted from the subterranean lake under their fortress and used to construct their bodies... and what the Blacklight Eldians had apparently used in at least some of their own enchantments. This was the second time Ata had seen Living Metal - or at least something very similar to it - outside Towen; the first time had been in the mural chamber under the ruined Wizard's Tower in Blacklight. As before, the metal appeared to be "dead", sucked or bled dry of any arcane energies that had once given it its unique nature.
Closer investigation of the chalice, the statue and the thurible revealed nothing new beyond what Jeeves had already told about them: they seemed to be exactly what they appeared to be - instruments used in religious ceremonies. None of them carried any enchantments, but the traces of hallucinogenic incense found in the thurible were composed of a substance unknown to even Ata. Cursory examination suggested that complex alchemy had been used in its creation. The dagger had a relatively primitive enchantment, apparently meant to seal wounds inflicted with it - rather a counterintuitive enchantment to put into a weapon, unless one considered the possibility that it had been used to cut the flesh and organs of live sacrifices...
Surprisingly, the most complex and interesting enchantment was in the stone flask meant to hold the "sound of the shadow of the sun". Every molecule of the flask was phase-shifted in a way that they existed partially in the astral world. This made the stone more brittle but also more resistant against the ravages of time and, most importantly, made it more reliable at storing certain extremely unusual substances that didn't properly follow the rules of this reality.
The Arctic Wastes
The Whispering Void was getting weaker, or at least less coherent and organized in its attempts to break the travellers. Its offers felt more hollow and constrained, its psychic attacks beaded and rolled off its victims' minds like water off a duck's back. Very cold water, perhaps, but nothing more.
[THERE IS STILL TIME]
The End was coming. The only way to survive was to let It in. The world was about to end. Soon, they'd all wake to a false reality, a neverending nightmare from which they could not wake up. If only---
Lin and Dulruni could sense the anchors now. They were outside the bubble of warped spacetime of the Void, forcibly tearing it and its contents back into reality.
---they'd see what this moment truly was, where they truly were, then they might---
[A NUMEROLOGICAL COLLAPSE IN PROGRESS]
[TIMEWAVE ZERO ABOUT TO REACH MAXIMUM NOVELTY]
Suddenly, there was a feeling of immense relief and excitement, of promise and great things to come. The Void disappeared almost too fast for the laws of the universe: in just a couple of Planck times the two liches and the three initiates transitioned from a bubble of false reality back to the Despoticanian tundra - real tundra - with a bright morning sun shining in the east and a weak wind blowing away the perfectly ordinary snowflakes and ice particles that had surrounded them.
Master Anolianth and Master Raynil, accompanied by a dozen Forge Knights, could be seen on a small hill to the southwest. They had placed tall metal pillars on the ground around the area formerly occupied by the void. Reality around the pillars felt more stable and resistant to sudden fluctuations.
But despite the fact that they were now free from the Whispering Void, both Lin and Dulruni knew something very bad had just happend.
Someone had made a wish.
"Each sect of Eldian mages had their own secrets, ours was reality manipulation, it is't too far a stretch to say theirs was divination." Ata mused quietly, this would need more data before anything serious could be taken from the information on the tablet.
The cloth was of particular interest to Ata now, Living Metal seemed to serve a very important role in Blacklight society, so far its use had been confined solely to matters relating to the Black Sun. The first instance of it had even set him on this path. "You said this cloth was found in a chest? I would like to see it." Ata requested. "If it is no longer in your possession, I will take the cloth and the accompanying tablets without it."
Ata sent a familiar to analyze the composition of the incense residue while he investigated the stone flask. The Black Sun was not of this plane, so this had the potential to be one of the many items surrounding the rituals his superstitious cousins undertook. He was most interested in what it contained, or had contained. It was of great interest as if it related directly to the Black Sun, it could help him determine where it was from and what he was looking for. Though he held non illusions that the Black Sun was still in the plane, or alive for that matter, it might have left something behind that the properly attentive eldian mage could detect.
The Arctic Wastes
The first noticeable change was the snow bear regaining its form, it became animate once more, dragging Lin's quivering form off to the side. She'd need a few moments to recover. The next was an inhuman roar that came from Dulruni, it had some magic in it as it was accompanied by a cold unlike the tundra, the cold of fear that crept around the edges of the minds of the initiates. "WHAT DID YOU DO?!" the Battlemaster boomed at the initiates. Even the initiates could tell that Dulruni was preparing a defensive spell, a big one. The lich had heard the tales of what Whispering Voids did when they got their way, and he knew that whatever was coming was not pleasant. He had an injured lich and two initiates to care for, problem was, he didn't know who made the wish. He had his suspicions though, and if he was right, they'd be coming back with at least one less party member.
"Sadly, the chest is not part of Mr. Kane's collection", Jeeves said regretfully. "We don't know its location, either. Most likely it can be found in a museum or in another private collection. Mr. Kane purchased the cloth and the clay tablets found with it at an auction in 1997, but the chest went to another bidder."
"It wasn't much to look at, anyway", Kane said. He was walking from one display case to another in no particular order, giving the contents a quick glance before moving on to the next. He seemed to simply enjoy the ability to finally inspect his collection in person. "It was so rotten and decayed that it could barely be called a 'chest'. The expert I employed at the auction was likewise positive that only the contents were interesting." Then, before neither Ata nor Jeeves could say anything else, he added, "And since I paid for them separately, it is only fair to consider the cloth and the tablets as two separate items when your payment is considered, Master Ata."
The familiar analyzing the incense residue started to transmit results. The residue was composed of long-chained organic molecules with high flammability. The molecules were very large - at the upper bound of naturally-occurring molecules, and almost certainly too large for a bronze age society like the Blacklight Eldians to produce naturally. This all but confirmed that advanced alchemy had been involved in the incense's production. The analysis suggested that its effect on an eldian mind was essentially a near-total elimination of the conscious self: someone under the effects of the incense would have existed in a state similar to sleepwalking.
As expected, the stone flask was almost empty - but there were minuscule traces of non-baryonic matter that was clearly not native to this universe. The matter had mass and resistance to pressure, but almost no resistance to acceleration. It was not composed of any known particles. The matter seemed fundamentally unstable under the normal laws of physics, but somehow these traces had survived for thousands of years. A closer analysis revealed something fascinating: the matter was, in fact, still in the process of decaying, but everything was happening extremely slowly, almost slow enough to allow for the observation of quantized time. Ata could detect hints of a spell - an extremely, mind-bogglingly powerful spell, since it had lasted for this long - of temporal manipulation. Somehow, an entity of godlike power had slowed down this matter, forcing it to exist in a state of suspended animation.
The Arctic Wastes
"Oh no. No. I didn't mean to... I'm so sorry." It was Kilander. The oldest and - seemingly, until now - most stable of the initiates gave Dulruni a thousand-year stare full of despair and regret. "I think it was me. I... I wished it would leave me alone. I didn't know it would interpret that as a wish. I... I'm sorry. I don't know what's going to happen now. Maybe... maybe it would be best if you..."
"That was easily the strongest manifestation of the Whispering Void we've ever recorded since the Nectrotechnomancers' Union was founded in 1912", Master Raynil's telepathic voice said. The cyberlich resembling an abstract human statue was floating towards the group, two Forge Knights following it through the ankle-deep snow. "Simply fascinating. Usually, they only last for a few minutes at most and will instantly dissipate if denied with sufficient mental strength. The only known instance of a Void this intense and persistent is from 1397, when Lord Ihlendam encountered one while trying to reach Archmagister Menelag's fortress to ask for a cure for his wife's wasting illness. He gave in to the temptation, and while the exact details are unknown, his entire fiefdom was later overtaken by some kind of hyper-aggressive fleshy growth that made the people..."
"Forget about your lectures, Raynil", Master Anolianth said. "You heard what the initiate said. We have more immediate problems that must be dealt with right now." The giant horned skull was talking out loud, its harsh metallic voice ringing clearly across the cool morning air. An angry red glow was burning deep in its eye sockets. "The initiates know about the dangers of the tundra, and they all have received very clear instructions on how to deal with them. This waste of magical potential has just admitted to doing exactly what one should not do upon encountering a Whispering Void!"
Kilander looked devastated but also accepting of his fate. He took a few steps towards Master Anolianth and kneeled before the cyberlich. "I... understand", he said quietly. "I will accept whatever punishment you deem necessary. I only ask that... you make it quick."
The Forge Knights that had accompanied Master Raynil left his side and headed towards Lin. When they reached her, they transferred some of their power to her and helped her in stabilizing the snow bear.
"It is true that Initiate Kilander Bansity has become a potential danger to both himself and everyone around him", Master Raynil said. "However, this could also be a unique opportunity to study the nature of the curse the Void places on its victims. We might even find a cure."
"Oh, please! Don't kill him!" Myrdem pleaded. She was making her way through the snow as fast as she could. She had been almost comatose while within the Void, but now she had recovered enough to regain her voice. "It's not his fault! He couldn't have known... You can't just kill him!" He looked at Dulruni with pleading eyes full of tears. "Tell them they can't just kill him!"
The cloth disappeared into thin air with the same particle effect as the helmet. "I will think about the tablets, I will of course be taking this flask, unless you have any objections. It warrants further study." He returned to his analysis of the flask, seeing if any hint of the identity of the caster remained. H knew there was only one being he knew of that could be responsible, but he needed something for location that didn't rely on massively powerful spel......... He had an idea, a very important one. He'd need to investigate the significance of living metal to the Blacklight Eldians, he knew it held a religious value, but what if it was made by the Black Sun or entities like it? If Dragonspire truly was the site of the Black Sun's downfall, then he should be able to find traces of living metal there if the Black Sun was indeed responsible for its creation. He also knew the signature of the living metal, he had been to the source of the material after all.
"Tell me, Mr. Kane, do you have anything containing or related to living metal in your collection?" His thoughts turned to the incense. He could definitely recreate the molecules, but he'd likely need additional equipment for the synthesis of a substantial amount of the substance. Of course there was the question on whether or not it would even work on him, there wasn't much left other than his soul that was uniquely eldian. His mind functioned much the same as it had when he was flesh and blood, he could conceivably adjust himself to be effected by the incense. or just use Enu as a test subject. He clearly had some thinking to do.
The Arctic Wastes
Dulruni looked down at Myrdem, rifle still ready. He took out the magazine and ejected the chambered round before stowing the rifle again, he didn't see how the Void could interpret the wish in a way that made anything that could be shot appear. He stood there for a few moments, thinking about how to handle the situation. "It is not within my authority to take such actions. But Kilander was our charge, we warned him as well and did everything we could to help them resist and he disobeyed. We will handle the punishment, more specifically, Master Ata will decide upon his return. I'm not overly fond of executing the initiate though, and will make my thoughts clear to Master Ata." He was speaking more to the Cyberlich Masters than the Myrdem. "How do you normally handle these situations Master Anolianth? I'm afraid this is Master Ata's area of expertise, not mine."
Lin stood up, her strength returning to her. Her familiars were active and drawing in arcane energies. "Master Raynil, I suggest we get moving. I suspect that with the absence of the Void the tundra will be heading our way." she shifted her gaze to Kilander. "I am very disappointed, Kilander. I will maintain Dulruni's judgement as to your fate." she shifted her gaze back to Master Raynil. "One of the possible curses is that Kilander could be relocated to a random spot if a manifestation of the Void is within a certain distance. I would certainly prefer that to what Dulruni has in mind, I would not like to fight Void summoned creatures. I'm also fairly certain that Ata will like to hear your lectures on the voids." The snow bear was pacing now, ready to go. The dolphin was still attached to its side, the creatures condition was stable and it was calm once more.
"The flask? Sure, take it", Kane said absentmindedly. Presently, he seemed more interested in a large gold vase on the opposite side of the room. Most likely he was trying to evaluate its market value. When Ata asked about materials related to Living Metal, the billionaire paused for a moment, then nodded slowly. "Yes... I think I do. Not much, though. The Blackligt Eldians seemed to possess Living Metal in very limited quantities, and we still don't have a clue how they managed to produce what little they had. The Necrotechnomancers seem to have a source at their disposal, but they won't give anyone access to it, not at any price. Imagine, just how selfish can one be...? Anyway, Jeeves can no doubt show you the relevant case."
"Of course, sir. This way please, Master Ata." Jeeves took Ata to a small display case at the very back of the room. Inside were two items. The first was a small box, made of carved bone (whale bone, according to Jeeves). It contained a few grams' worth of dead crumbs of Living Metal, preserved like religious relics. There was no text or any other symbols on the box, but it was likely that the contents had held deep religious significance to the denizens of Blacklight. The other item was a scroll, made of paper-thin gold/platinum alloy and housed in a cylindrical gold casing encrusted with precious stones and full of intricate abstract carvings. "The box you can take", Kane said, "but the scroll is too valuable for me to give away. However, you are free to make a personal copy of its contents."
The upper half of the scroll was filled with Eldian runes. The text translated roughly as,
Those who have Wisdom, learn secret of the Metal With Spirit, the most sacred of the Four Gifts given to us by our Benefactor and the [UNTRANSLATABLE #1] of our people. The Deep Covenant, never recorded, ensures a drop of Metal With Spirit for every seven [UNTRANSLATABLE #2] given to our Benefactor. Only Those Who Understand Nothing may learn the process. They hide their ugliness in the Halls of Unlight and give up their minds in exchange for true knowledge that must never see the light of awareness.
The rest of the scroll was filled with arcane symbols Ata was not familiar with. The scroll itself was not enchanted, but something in the symbols themselves was deeply unnerving and disturbing on a fundamental, almost subconscious level. The symbols might have been pure gibberish, an encrypted message... or a very long and complex spell.
"The symbols are not part of any known alphabet used in the Kingdom of Blacklight or by any known historical culture", Jeeves explained. "Mr. Kane's hired experts tried to decrypt the text, but nothing came of it."
The Arctic Wastes
"The standard punishment for initiates failing at a crucial point in their training - or for endangering their fellow mages through inexcusable carelessness or weakness of mind - is to be turned into a Forge Knight", Master Anoliant replied, its red eyes still fixed on Kilander. "However, Initiate Bansity's very soul may now be marked by the Void. I'm in charge of Forge Knight construction, and I'm not going to risk myself or my apprentices by working on a corrupted soul." The hateful glow of Anolianth's eyes intensified and Dulruni and Lin could sense a buildup of unstable energy inside the cyberlich. It was preparing a crude but effective spell of pure destruction.
"Don't do it, man", Madyra said weakly. He too was back on his feet and was walking unsteadily towards Kilander and Anolianth. "It's the twenty-first century. You can't just kill people for failing to live up to your expectations... W-with all due respect, Master", the lad added when Anolianth's burning gaze turned from Kilander to him.
"Yes, I can", Anolianth said in a very quiet, very threatening voice that was somehow perfectly audible to everyone present. "You, Initiate, may not realize it yet, but each of you is already a potential weapon of mass destruction. A being with the Gift of magic, cursed by an entity like the Whispering Void - which even we don't fully understand - could very well be global threat. When you three began your studies in Towen, you placed your lives into our hands. And while we do everything in our power to help you master your Gift, we also have a duty - not to mention a legal obligation - to weed out those who lack the mental strength to control it."
"He was the strongest of us", Myrdem said in a small voice. She wasn't looking at anyone in particular, she was simply staring at the horizon with unfocused eyes. "When the Void came, Kilander was the only initiate who retained his sanity. He helped Lin and Dulruni to keep us together and ward off the Void. Even his 'wish' was just an attempt to reject the Void. If anyone here deserves a punishment, it... it would be me and Madyra."
"Maybe no one needs to be punished, at least not yet", Master Raynil's telepathic voice said. It had a soothing effect that seemed to ease even Master Anolianth's anger. "We still have the Kharnabar reality anchors. I suggest we do as Greater Necromancer Lin says and leave this place immediately. The Forge Knights can keep Initiate Bansity surrounded by the anchors to minimize the risk of the Void affecting him. When we get back to Towen, we can isolate him and consult with the Archmagister. With proper equipment, we may be able study his condition and see if we can find a way to reverse the Void's curse before it manifests."
"Yes! Please, do that!" Myrdem pleaded.
The spell that had been building up inside Anolianth slowly died down. "You make a good point, Master Raynil", it said. "There are risks in your proposal, but... this may further our understanding of the Whispering Void phenomenon. It has always bothered me that we know next to nothing about them, but this does present a unique opportunity to study their effects... And imagine if we could learn to control one..."
"Very good", Master Raynil said. "Let's get going." Kilander offered no resistance as the Forge Knights removed the reality anchors from the ground and gathered around him into a circular formation. None of the initiates spoke a word as they mounted their snowmobiles and began their journey back to Towen.
The flask disappeared as the other two relics before it had. "I tend to find that institutions such as the Necrotechnomancers Union have very good reasons for their decisions." The lich remarked to the billionaire. "I'm rather impressed that their resolve held firm, knowing your ambition, connections, and resources."
Ata inspected the scroll with great interest, he now knew the name of the religious sect that had been showed to him by the helmet, and what their function was. The scroll strongly suggested that the Black Sun was indeed responsible for the existence of the Living Metal, at least the metal the Blacklight Eldians used. It was becoming clear to him that he would need to return to Towen in order to conduct a more in depth analysis of the artifacts he had and compile all data so he could determine the next course of action. The bottom half of the scroll was particularly intriquing, it's nature suggested that it was a runic system used by the Deep Covenant - possibly the Black Sun itself - in order to safeguard their secrets and protect their spells from abuse by those deemed unworthy. He made a digital copy of the scroll. "You won't part with it for any price?" he inquired, curious as to Kane's reasons behind forbidding him from taking it - though he had a good idea already. He sent a familiar to investigate the box further, to see if it was even worth taking for analysis.
The Arctic Wastes
"In my experience, Master Anolianth, entities like the Void are not the kind you want to control." Lin remarked, being absorbed by her bear again. Dulruni mounted his house and the falcon familiar dug itself out of the snow, taking to the sky after a few moments. Lin spoke telepathically to Master Raynil. " will summon Master Ata back to Towen, he his our premier expert on spacial and temporal effects, his expertise will be very helpful in determining what can be done about the void curse."
The group continued on, Dulruni rode a bit ahead of the main group, keeping an eye out for trouble, Lin stayed towards the rear, leaving the initiates in the middle, and the Cyberliches on each side.