As they trod toward the top of the hill where stood the entrance of that glistening, adamantine citadel, Thraygin unconsciously tightened his grip on the precious cargo he carried. Perhaps the sense of impending danger that plagued the Brotherhood was contagious? Even with an escort of four elite Gargoyles, he couldn’t shake his anxiety even as they ascended the stairs into the Temple’s entryway. The doors closed behind them with a heavy thud that echoed throughout the stark metal chamber. They were greeted by a friendly female voice that seemed to emanate from nowhere in particular.
“Most honored Lorekeepers, guests of the Temple, welcome. You are expected.” The source of the voice floated quickly down through a small opening in the left wall, a metallic configuration lit by a crystal at its center. The object fluttered before each of the five, pausing for a brief moment as if to examine each before it continued.
The assembled Lorekeepers were unperturbed at their host’s appearance. Templar Servitors were not dissimilar in construction to the Library’s own Recognizer constructs; though as one might expect, the Brotherhood had implemented their own brand of improvements.
“Master Thraygin,” the Servitor chirped, “the High Excelcian will see you immediately.”
“Of course,” Thraygin responded and began to step toward the corridors he knew led to the High Excelcian’s chambers.
“My apologies–” said the Servitor, now hovering before him as if to bar his way, “–but he will receive you in the Armory. He’s in the midst of some other business, but explicitly stated that you be escorted directly to him upon your arrival.”
Thraygin paused. This was highly irregular, but he supposed that in this time of crisis that he was lucky that the Scarlet Crusader had time to grant him an audience at all. He turned and began to follow the Servitor down toward the Armory.
The Gargoyles formed up to follow on his heels before the Servitor announced, “I am terribly sorry, but I’m afraid that only the Laoshi was summoned for an audience.”
“With respect, Master!” The voice belonged to Haldrik, the Gorebeard
among the company of Gargoyles.
“This location was not on the given itinerary. I feel it is unwise to–”
“Peace, Haldrik” Thraygin raised a hand to silence his red-bearded guardsman. An even-mannered Eversent, Thraygin carried himself as a man of easy bearing, but one uncomfortable with commanding others. “The Templars are known for many things. Treachery is not among them. Lest we all forget, they are sworn to speak only truth.”
Haldrik’s face contorted in an effort to stifle his forthcoming protest. He managed only to murmur, “Awfully selective with the truth they choose to disclose.” Thraygin shot him a pleading look and Haldrik stepped back to join the others.
The Servitor fluttered briefly in the now silent air between them. Its tiny inner workings were audible as they clicked and whined as if it were grasping for an appropriate response.
“I assure you, most honored Gargoyle, that when you crossed this hallowed threshold you entered the safest bastion in all Memora. Within these walls you and your charge are well protected. Now then… there is food and drink prepared in the Great Hall. Avail yourselves of the Temple’s hospitality as you like for the duration of your visit.” The floating orb hovered over to an opposite archway as if to gesture toward the Hall. “If the Laoshi would please accompany me?”
Thraygin lingered for a moment as he watched his escorts file out of the vaulted chamber before himself turning and following close behind the Servitor. Its soft glow mingled with the blue of the crystalline arcmanum torches that lined the corridors. As they turned a corner and began to descend the spiraling staircase toward the Armory, Thraygin caught himself marveling at the architecture of this historic place. The Templars had certainly been selective in their choice of headquarters, having chosen one of the most awe-inspiring pieces left by the legacy of Old Nionia. His hand slid along the smooth metal of the banister to brace his quick descent, and he began to imagine what technological marvels had been at work in the creation of such a structure. One could be forgiven for believing that some great titanic being had spun and shaped the adamantine like a potter at his wheel. This most indestructible of metals seemed to be fashioned with the utmost delicacy, showing no seam or bolt or fastener. It was a single, solid fabrication, and a testament to the unity its current inhabitants wished to bring to the fragmented world. The Al-Xaran order had succumbed to the inconvenience of mortality millennia ago, but they had built their legacy to last.
As he neared his destination, the Laoshi’s contemplation was interrupted by the unmistakable sound of ringing metal. It danced down the corridor and passed behind him in rhythmic succession. A few paces from the doorway, hammer falls were replaced by a rushing hiss of steam and the rattle of chains and gears. As he entered the room, Thraygin strained his eyes against the red-orange glow which reflected around the armory’s metallic walls. He peered through clouds of vapor. Several feet up, on a high outcropping, he could make out a figure silhouetted against the firelight. His vision cleared, and he noticed the Servitor had left his side and flown up to meet the figure above. Thraygin watched as the two seemed to exchange a few barely audible words before a tiny blue light floated away through a small opening in the upper wall and out of sight.
“Hold there a moment, Thraygin,” a voice called down as the figure turned in his direction. Through the clouds of steam emanated a piercing red glow. Thraygin knew at once that this was the man he had journeyed so far to see.
The High Excelcian reached out for a length of chain that stretched from floor to ceiling in the great chamber. The attached wheels and pulleys creaked and clattered as he leapt from his high perch toward the floor, allowing the chain to guide his descent. When he reached the ground, Thraygin thought to speak, but his host interrupted with a slight chuckle.
“My apologies, Laoshi. You seem to have found me a bit–underdressed for the occasion.” Thraygin’s eyes darted away involuntarily. Had he been staring? Indeed, he had never before seen the Arodor the Crusader in such a state, and likely there were few that had. As the Emberheart unwound the chain that was looped around his right arm and wrist, Thraygin could not help but notice the obvious asymmetry of an absent left arm. Only an empty metal socket remained at the shoulder. When he resumed eye contact, the Crusader gave him a reassuring grin. He stepped toward the large circular basin in the center of the room. Taking hold of another chain, he gave it a great pull and a large metal object rose with a hiss from underneath the water. The steam dissipated from the room and Thraygin beheld the object, which shimmered in the firelight as the sheen of the water evaporated. It was an arm, all golds and reds, more slender and elegant than the Crusader had worn in their previous encounters.
Arodor turned and walked toward the basin, his footfalls produced a metallic clang with each step against the stone floor. He fastened chains on a mooring at the edge of the basin, causing the arm to remain suspended above the pool before he began to wade into the waist-deep water. Taking hold of the creation with his right arm, the asymmetrical shape of the Crusader turned and aligned his empty shoulder with the suspended left arm. There was a sound of whirring and the creaking of metal against metal, a noise like two blades locked in contest. This was shortly followed by a loud snap, like the breaking of an iron bone. His face was only half visible but Thraygin could swear he saw his host ever so slightly wince in pain. He had heard the rumors, and had suspected himself, that the Templar commander was made physically able by means of arcanism, but this creature of equal parts flesh and metal, his torso marred with all manner of scars, some portions grafted together with rivets and plates, was certainly not what he had envisioned.
Thraygin’s focus was thrown back to the meeting at hand when the Crusader spoke.
“Sorry you had to see that,” he said over his shoulder, taking an ornate red tunic from a nearby chair and fastening it over the metal plates on his chest with a black silk sash. Even when clothed, the red Corona gem still shone brightly in the darkened chamber. It cast a reddish halo beneath the Emberheart’s face.
“I’m afraid I’m not quite the man I once was,” Arodor laughed, “Though I strive to be a bit more put together in the company of my friends.” This jest was out of courtesy, and Thraygin knew it. Doubtless the High Excelcian had spent many years perfecting such turns of phrase; lifelines to aid those floundering to remain polite when startled by his appearance. Thraygin was grateful for the consideration, and he smiled in response as he took a seat opposite the Templar.
“So–” the Crusader began as he eased back into his chair. He reached for a nearby flask of wine and filled two crystalline goblets. “I’m glad to see your journey here was uneventful. I must apologize if the changes in admittance protocol read as paranoia. I know that such measures can make guests feel–less than welcome to say the least.” He lifted one of the goblets to Thraygin, who took it with a nod. Arodor gently swirled the red liquid inside the crystal vessel as he turned his eyes back to Thraygin, “I’m sure you and your men understand, given the impact of recent events.”
“Think nothing of it, my friend,” Thraygin made an attempt at casual reassurance and raised his goblet gently. “Honor the sacrificed?” The unease in the Lorekeeper’s voice was palpable. His words nearly caught in his throat as he desperately scanned his host’s face, sure that in evoking these Templar watchwords he had presumed too much.
To his great relief, Arodor’s narrowed, piercing stare gave way to a long suffering half-smile. The metallic implants on the Emberheart’s face shifted and glinted in the fire’s light as he raised his goblet in return, “And mark well the Fallen.” With that, tension began to dissipate as the two men downed their drinks.
“I cannot stress enough,” Thraygin began as he poured himself more wine, “My deepest condolences on behalf of all Lorekeepers at Lady Amatara’s passing. The Resonant have always been an especially invaluable ally to us, and the impacts of her teachings cannot be understated. I know her loss was painful for you personally, and for your brethren. Know that we mourn with you.”
Arodor gazed into his empty glass, “I am grateful, Thraygin–” his voice trailed off as he began to pour another glass.
“But– I–” Thraygin struggled to fill the void in the conversation, “–I am certain that your faith sustains you even in these uncertain times.”
Arodor took a sip of his wine before replying, “I am flattered that you would think so, my friend. You are an intelligent man, Laoshi. But, do not expect me to believe the barred gates and the guards atop our ramparts did not lead you to question the strength of my faith.”
Thraygin leaned back in his chair, “Well, I had to take in to account the morale of the Temple,” he said before gesturing around the room, “–and of the city. Your position is rather unique in that your enclave must also defend and support a place that thousands call home. People expect a show of strength in the wake of a crisis; it puts them at ease. It reminds them that the situation is under control, does it not?”
Arodor let out a defeated sigh, “Perhaps it does. If so, then I envy the people. My sleep would be far more restful had someone told me that the situation is under control. Alas, I’m still waiting for that notice.”
Shifting in his chair, Thraygin adopted a more deliberate tone. “Despair is an ill-fitting vestment for the Excelcian of Fervor.”
“Is it? When the old ways are dying and the new ones are untested? Since this Brotherhood was founded it has been my mission to make the world safe for heroes again. So far my successes have been few and my detractors many.” There was a far away look in the Emberheart’s eyes as he spoke; it was the look of a man who has just been informed that he is to face the gallows.
“You have allies, Arodor. Why else would I be here?” Thraygin leaned forward, in an attempt to snap the Templar out of this melancholy spiral.
There was a long pause. The Lorekeeper was about to continue before his host spoke up. “An excellent question,” all trace of wistfulness had suddenly vanished from his voice, leaving only a businesslike intonation, “I take it you come bearing gifts?”
Thraygin had nearly forgotten his purpose in coming. He fumbled briefly for the item in question and produced a bundle of layered cloth, which he placed on the nearby table and began to gently unravel. Beneath the folds and wrappings lay an ornately transcribed scroll sealed with a Lorekeeper insignia. Both men stood over the table as the Laoshi raised his left hand and pressed his signet ring to the seal. Doing so produced a brief flash of green and caused the scroll to gently roll out, nearly covering the surface of the table. Arodor stepped closer to examine the lines of text that covered the scroll from top to bottom of the parchment. Thraygin beamed, “It’s all there, as promised.”
Arodor glanced over his shoulder without turning and rested both hands flat on the table as he hovered over the scroll, “The translation?” He raised a questioning eyebrow.
“One of the best we’ve ever done, if I do say so myself. The efforts of our representatives in the Concordant Expedition have proved invaluable, especially since their journey to Nionia. What used to take us months to translate can now be done in a tenth of the time,” Thraygin said as he watched the Templar scan the text. “When it was discovered that we were translating an Al-Xaran manuscript, I sent word as quickly as I could. It seems fitting that the words of the Templars’ forebearers should find a home in their Temple, no? So, don’t be too quick to mourn the loss of the old ways, my friend. History still has many gifts left to grant us.”
Arodor half nodded, still engrossed in the scroll, “And quite a gift indeed. Thraygin–this is remarkable! I don’t know how we can repay you.”
The Laoshi shook his head as he placed a hand on the Excelcian’s metal shoulder, “You may repay me by staying the course, my friend. Take this gift as a sign! The Al-Xaran Masters speak to you across the ages. You carry on their work. They would have wanted you to have this, and they would have wanted you not to lose faith.”
Arodor turned to face his guest, his eyes narrowed pointedly. “I take it you’ve already read the entire document, then?” he asked knowingly. Thraygin took the hint. The abrupt change in topic was clear evidence that the Crusader did not wish to revisit the topic of his faith.
Thraygin smiled and offered a half-bow of facetious humility. “Many times over, naturally. I would be a poor fit for my office if I hadn’t. Fascinating accounts, I must say. The Al-Xaran were so unlike their Nionian fellows. Their strength in the Light, in ‘Arete’ as they called it, led them in their search for the transcendent life, an existence devoted to contemplation and good works.”
“But the Light also granted them exceeding martial prowess when the need arose,” the Excelcian interjected, “Which it seems was increasingly more often as the decades passed and the Empire became unstable.”
“True warrior monks,” Thraygin observed, “Perhaps their teachings can serve as an example to you who carry on their legacy.”
Arodor turned his attention again to the scroll, “One can only hope.” Glancing further down the page, he extended a finger to a paragraph marked by many notes and annotations scribbled in the margin, “This passage here, it seems to have given your translators a bit of trouble. What is it?”
Thraygin’s eyes followed to the spot that the Templar had indicated, “Ah–yes,” he began uneasily. “I was actually hoping that you could help illuminate this further. You see, that passage had initially seemed out of place with the rest of the manuscript. At first, we took it for a copying error, but upon closer examination we learned that in fact it contained certain idioms surrounding a word that was not found in any records we possessed of Nionian vocabulary.”
Thraygin indicated a word repeated serval times across the parchment, underlined in places, circled in others.
“What does it mean?” Arodor asked expectantly.
“Therein lies the difficulty,” sighed the Lorekeeeper in response. “All of the passages in which the word appears are written in a high-Nionian dialect, an academic one at that. The dialect is nuanced and variable enough that direct translation is somewhat tricky, and the author was no doubt aware of his audience’s high level of understanding. Thus, he did not take steps to explain concepts with which they were already familiar. The best we can approximate is that ‘Tyranox’ can be read as simply ‘The Dictate’ or ‘The Word’.”
Arodor drummed his fingers ponderously. He motioned to several annotations and markings connecting the mentions of the word to other words and margin notes.
“Someone among your ranks seemed to be on to something here.”
Thraygin chuckled, “A keen observation! You may well have missed your calling, my friend. Those notes are mine.”
Arodor gave him a contented glance, “You forget, before I spent my days training disciples and meditating on the Light, I wore the green badge of Alizarin. The divining of things long forgotten is not a new pursuit for me.” He paused a moment to glance back at the page, “You seem to have drawn an association with Tyranox and mentions of Arete.”
“A discerning examination of the text makes it nearly impossible not to,” Thraygin replied. “Note the association with a specific name which is repeated in this and other sections of the text…” Thraygin noted another word, underlined and circled as before.
Arodor took a moment to scan the handful of mentions of the name in other sections of the document, “One of the Al-Xaran Masters it seems?”
“One of great distinction,” said Thraygin, thinking out loud. “I should inform you that the name of Nihilus is not unknown to us in records from this age. One of our number, a Saurian named Primus, noted his research on a prominent Nionion by the same name. Interestingly, this Nionion was of the Engineer bloodline. Sadly, Primus was–”
The Crusader abruptly cut him off,
“Murdered at the hands of the Phantoms, when they besieged Woten’s Well under the pretense of his association with Svelbrek Mossheart. That’s a Turning I will not soon forget.”
Thraygin was momentarily thrown by the Excelcian’s words, “You say ‘under the pretense’. Was not the acquisition of Svelbrek’s essence their goal?”
The fire in Arodor’s eyes was evident.
“One of their goals, and yet the Phantoms have never made good on their threats nor made use of their prize.” The Excelcian locked eyes with the Laoshi, “Primus was onto something, and it seems all too convenient now that he was so suddenly silenced after his discoveries about Nihilus….”
Thraygin raised a hand to halt the Templar’s excited diatribe, “Not
to compound the mystery, but there is more. The associations between Tyranox and Arete, the Dictate and the Light, mentioned in the text, seem to be of a converse relationship to one another. Master Nihilus is mentioned as following down a certain path in an effort to more fully understand the Light and its workings. When he stumbled upon something else, another source of power, the Al-Xaran seem to have distrusted and feared him. There is much more here than I can summarize for you, but if the conclusions you draw from this manuscript are in any way similar to mine, you will find them disturbing to say the least. Tread cautiously.”
At this last comment the High Excelcian fell silent, and Thraygin thought he saw a slight twitch of irritation cross the Emberheart’s face. The Laoshi quickly realized his misstep, and awkwardly cleared his throat, glancing down at his feet. In his excitement he had, in spite of himself, forgotten that he was conversing with a man not fond of being given a direct order, especially under his own roof.
Arodor moved a few paces from the table, making sure that Thraygin caught the look of displeasure on his face. The queasiness in the Lorekeeper’s stomach was not at all alleviated when his host gave his curt reply.
“Noted,” he said, pressing a small button on the underside of his left wrist. The button began to glow softly and emit a barely-audible hum. “That being the case, I will have this document archived, we wouldn’t want this to be the only copy in existence. I’ll be sure to immediately direct the Illuminati to search the Archives for any records related to what we’ve found here.” As he spoke, Thraygin heard the whirring of the Servitor’s arcmanum core and saw the little lighted construct come flitting into the room.
“You summoned me, Master Arodor?” It chirped gleefully.
“Laoshi Thraygin has brought us a gift. See that its contents are copied to the Archives,” Arodor ordered, pointing to the scroll.
“It will be done, Master,” replied the tiny orb as is floated above the table and came to a halt directly above the scroll. Thraygin watched as flat, translucent beams of light crossed up and down the parchment in all directions, noting every stroke and marking, every ink stain and smudge.
Thraygin was still reeling from his latest faux pas. He dreaded what he had to say next and wished that he could have picked a better moment. Nonetheless he choked back his anxiety, and reminded himself that he had pledged to his fellows that he would make another attempt, albeit the kind of pledge one makes when emboldened by the confidence that only comes when one is distant from the moment at which one must make good on one’s word.
“You know…” the Lorekeeper began cautiously. A shock of nausea shot through his throat as he heard his own voice crack. He was certain the Crusader could hear his trepidation echo off the Armory walls. “…If you would concede to allowing your Archives to be linked with the greater Library, we could accomplish great things together!”
“Thraygin, this is a matter we have put to rest a dozen times. My answer hasn’t changed. No.” Arodor rubbed his temples in frustration.
“I have completed my observation of the document, Master.” The high pitched voice of the Servitor chimed, “With your leave I will deposit it to the Archives.”
“Granted,” the Excelcian replied. With that, the Servitor was gone back the way it had come. “Thraygin, you know why I can’t do that. The knowledge in our Archives is too potentially dangerous. I will not have it placed in the Library in the state it is now, not while “She” still roams its halls.”
Thraygin stifled the urge to scoff at the uncompromising manner of his host. He forced himself out of his normal slouch in an attempt to appear resolute. “A fine thanks for what I’ve done for you today! I know you have knowledge that could aid us in the fight against our enemies, Arodor. Yet you refuse to share it because you don’t trust the rest of us to wield it as responsibly as you deem necessary!”
“I don’t trust anyone to wield it responsibly. As I’ve told you a dozen times, Thraygin!” Arodor’s metal index finger was pointed threateningly in the Eversent’s direction. The Templar’s voice raised to match volume with Thraygin.
“That’s exactly my point! And you wonder why so many distrust you! All of you Templars! I’ve been your advocate so many times in the past but if you insist on holding to the belief that it’s you and your Templars against the world for too long, the day will soon come where that delusion becomes reality!” The Laoshi’s voice had risen to a shout, but stopped suddenly when the Crusader shot back.
“Make whatever threats you wish! But when that day comes I’ll be secure in the knowledge that I was right!” There was a long pause as the echoes faded and two men stared across the table at one another.
“That you were right–You really should read the manuscript,” Thraygin finally said in a tone of defeat, his voice barely above a murmur. The silence that followed was soon broken by clattering footsteps on the stairs leading to the Armory and a loud banging on its great, metal door.
“Enter.” Arodor called and the heavy door swung open to reveal a disheveled-looking young disciple, trying in vain to look presentable despite being clearly out of breath.
“Master Arodor, pardon the interruption, Master,” the young woman attempted not to trip over her words.
“Speak freely, Disciple–” the Crusader paused to allow the breathless youth to continue.
“Skarn, Master. Disciple of Illumination. I bring a message from Master Piotr, my Lord.” Skarn took a few breaths, leaning against the doorframe to steady herself.
Thraygin remarked, “Do Excelcians often send runners within the walls of their own Temple? Too much trouble to come all the way down from his workshop?”
Arodor shot the Lorekeeper a withering look before turning back to the Disciple, who now seemed to be more sure of herself. “Continue, my Disciple.”
“Well my Lord, Master Piotr wishes to inform you that though he has been spending his time sequestered in his workshop, he has just received a dispatch from one of his Disciples traveling with the Concordant Expedition.” Skarn explained.
“And Piotr wishes me to grant him leave to go and meet with them is that it? He knows full-well I have ordered him to remain on the Temple grounds for the time being.” Arodor said, looking at the girl expectantly.
“Well… um…” Disciple Skarn stammered, glancing at the ground. “That’s just it, Master. He–well, he didn’t send me to ask for your permission to go. Master Piotr wanted me to ask for your forgiveness and understanding and to inform you that he has already departed.”
Thraygin and Skarn both braced themselves and stared at the High Excelcian, eagerly awaiting his response. When the response came, it was accompanied not by anger, but by an exasperated sigh.
“Damn it all.”