Trying as he might to find the Fox village, Torqariyan dropped himself in more than a few vaguely familiar spots that he couldn’t remember for the life of him when he had visited. It was hard to land in the right place sometimes, but to find a location he had only seen for what could have only been a dozen of minutes was next to impossible. Even were his memory sharper, the diminutive Fox village would still be a vague smudge on his recollection. As it was, he found his feet setting down of a thin rug in the hue of forest, facing out a window onto lands he was sure he had never been. It was a first for him, to gaze upon a village covered in a dense layer of absolute white. He stared dumbfounded, the stuff did not merely cover the ground but sat so layered atop thatch-roofed homes he could hardly see a trace of the buildings’ tops. The folks milling around outside were gradually being painting in white, falling lethargically from the skies as though it had all the time in the world. So awestruck was the Jackal at his first sight of snow that he hadn’t realized behind him was someone speaking in harsh tones.
For all of a moment, the world spun into a black haze, Torqariyan thought he had overexerted himself, overusing Erkinan but was wrong. The agonizingly sharp pain in the back of his skull as he awoke in a near pitch dark cell was explanation enough. Rolling himself off his tail, Torqariyan crawled towards the closest thing to him to help pull himself off the cold ground. As Torqariyan poked his muzzle up, he jerked at the bars of the cell until he had righted himself fully, even if he still needed to hold onto the bars for support. Groggily he looked up and down the corridor, as much of it as he could see from the cell, hoping to find a guard, but there were none. In fact, most of the cells looked rather empty, but any inmates within could be hidden in the thick shadow that filled the dungeon. There were too few lanterns hung intermittently throughout to get a good read on the place.
Trying to get the attention of any he could, prisoner or guard it did not matter, Torqariyan made to shout only to spit out a dry rasping rattle. His throat was utterly dehydrated; he couldn’t even quite manage a whisper, let alone a shout. The prospect of jumping away seemed the best option, seeing as he hadn’t found Seras. He was somewhere in the territory of Deer; he could tell by those he had seen in the snow. Perhaps waiting to be discovered awake, he could get a word in with someone who might know where Maxinimus was if he was near at all. Of course, if he isn’t here, I’ve wasted a lot more time than I should have and got nothing to show of it. The look on the face of whoever questions me when I up and leave through a portal will be worthwhile, I suppose. I wonder why they clubbed me and threw my tail in here, though. I’m not horribly suspicious, am I?
“You’re an odd one to see down in here, not really anything I’d expect to be tossed down here, that’s for sure. So what’s a Jackal doing hanging about in Taliann?” asked a youthful voice from the other side of the hall.
Looking to the source, Torqariyan was greeted by the sight of a young Deer, his antlers just beginning to fork. He couldn’t recall how old that typically made them, Maxinimus had probably explained once upon a time, but he couldn’t bring it to his mind at the moment. It wouldn’t matter anyway, he just wanted someone to talk to. Struggling to clear his throat, Torqariyan struggled out the word he couldn’t achieve with gestures, “Water.”
“You’re in rough shape, aren’t you? They don’t have much lenience on any around here less you’re part of the nobility or a current house of promise. Don’t worry, I’ve got you. Oh, by the Great Lord! There’s blood everywhere! Help!” he was fighting back a snicker by the end of his little charade.
With panicked and furied steps, a portly guard rushed from one end of the corridor, keys jingling about his waste and a cudgel in paw. Stopping only briefly at one other cell, the guard swiveled before calling out, “Where?! Where is the trouble?! Don’t just stand there, boy, out with it!”
“The trouble is right there, before your own blood-marked eyes, you fat mound. You brought in your guest and didn’t even ask if you could pour him a drink. That’s some poor manners by my count, but I’m not your mother, I can’t worry that you weren’t raised right,” the young whitetail smirked, an expression that grew all the bolder as the guard’s face grew tauter with rage.
He approached the boy’s cell, his weapon held high until Torqariyan croaked again, “Water… please water.”
“I’ll deal with you in a moment, you worthless fake, you got no honor and hardly are worth the time, less it’s for a beating. And you! I don’t know who you think you are or what you think you were doing in the sacred halls of our king, but we’ll be finding out soon. And don’t think we don’t have ways to make you talk; tell us how you managed to get here in the first place. Not a single gate in the city has records of a Jackal, so that makes you a spy at the least and at the worst, a blood-marked assassin. So don’t mistake the water for a kindness, we just want you alive enough to talk when the inquisitor is ready,” the pudgy man stormed off in a fit. He returned a short time later; his actions belied his figure as in a flash, the guard was entering the corridor and was then throwing a bucket of freezing water onto Torqariyan. The cell door clicked twice in rapid succession, and as the Jackal realized it, the guard was gone, the bucket now beside the cell. Crawling over to it from the straw mat on the far side of the floor, Torqariyan was relieved, to say the least, that water still sat in the bottom of the pail.
Longingly he drank of the clear if frigid water, he tumbled to his side in doing so feeling such waves of relief as he conquered dehydration. As his body began to feel well once more, the Erkinan seemed to rouse again within him. He couldn’t stick around much longer, even if it meant losing a chance to get word to Maxinimus, Torqariyan couldn’t risk what this inquisitor would do to him. With a flow of invigoration, he tossed the bucket to the far wall and popped up to his feet. His mind conjured the image of what he thought had to be Seras, and he was ready to create the portal when he stopped. “So, are you going to tell me what you were looking for here? Something important? Maybe someone important to you?” the boy called from across the way, no humor in his tone this time.
Wetting his lips, Torqariyan figured he had a bit of time and that, if nothing else, the boy could be of use as far as collection information went, “Yes, someone very important, but I’m afraid you might think I suffer some mania for looking for him.”
“Try me. You can’t very well say something like that and not tell me who it is,” the Deer shot back a little anxiously, almost desperate for the answer.
Pushing down the swell of nervousness that had gone unnoticed as it built in him before Torqariyan uttered simply, “Maxinimus.”
“Oh, you mean the last of the true blood of the Taliann line? The boy who was born to be the next progenitor of the royal house only to instead come out as an illness ridden weakling? And you would think it mad to go asking for him?” the words were clearly all a jab at the Jackal, it would sound foolish to anyone, Maxinimus had been dead for half a lifetime.
A bit confused by the Deer’s manner, Torqariyan hazard to ask, “I’d expected you to laugh, call me out of my head for saying so, but who are you to mock me and my mission?”
“Tor, really? You think anyone in the whole world but a madman would give you the time of day as you going asking for a long-dead prince? I thought you had guessed what was going on already while I was giving the guard a hard time,” a big dumb grin brought up the edges of the man’s lips.
For a second, Torqariyan stood, dumbfounded at the thought the Deer knew him, but quickly he was over it and sprung to action. Splitting open a gateway, he expended a small burst of energy to drop himself in the other cell. The move was rash and poorly thought-out; after all, it could very well be the Goredrinker before him, and he had just handed himself over without regard to safety. Instead, the man proved to be no source of hostile threats, rather he was delighted to see that Torqariyan hadn’t fled. Just as the Deer’s mouth worked to form words, Torqariyan spoke up, “How do you know who I am?”
“Tor? Did they bang your head around too much when they dragged you in? What other Deer would know you in this age or suspect even if they knew of the Voidwalker?” what looked like borderline laughter had turned to confusion in a short time. The Deer stuck his elbows between the bars, letting his chin fall to his paws as he stared out. Somehow or other Torqariyan had upset him, he couldn’t see how but he could very well tell that it had transpired.
Undeterred, he continued with the man, “It’s really you, is it, Maxin?”
“Who else could it be Tor? I really thought you knew me better than to not see me for who I am in truth. I thought we were friends of a sort,” Maxinimus said with a shrug, not ready to meet the Jackal’s gaze.
Furrowing his brow, Torqariyan responded, “Well, Maxin, you’re hardly acting yourself, you can’t quite blame me. You struck me as a more sincere person rather than some joker, and to be honest, you’re not the type to end in a dungeon. So what happened, why are you so changed?”
“Verillia wants me on another task, I’m not to help with wrangling Razi anymore; instead, there are more pressing matters regarding Metrux. I’m not supposed to tell others until everything has been set in order. Something about it all, being told I’d be pulled away from helping in this with this new life, I just felt… free. I wanted to live like I never could as a sickly prince, wanted the joy of life, and the real love these mortals feel. You see, that’s why I ended up here,” he turned and slumped down onto his tail, a pitiful look on his muzzle.
Reaching out a paw, Torqariyan assured him what little he could, “Casseda trusts you with whatever task this is you must undertake. You have to trust she knows what needs to be done, but I’m sure whatever that entails can’t be done from a cell. I’ll drop you wherever you must be, but I’m leaving now before it’s too late.”
Maxinimus was true to his word, he wouldn’t tell a bit of what Casseda had instructed him to do, not even hinting at what it was other than it regarded Metrux. With a flash through the starlit void, Torqariyan removed them from the cell and far from the Deer city they had been in. Now the two stood in even deeper snow, under a sky of black but not the usual black of night. Hanging heavy over the lands of the far north where the Darkstalker once ruled, was a permanent scar on the sky. When Amirot, the Darkstalker himself, was young and full of Erkinan, he managed to carve that piece of the heavens out to keep himself protected against the sun’s might. As he gazed at the horrendous mark, having only glimpsed it last he was here, Torqariyan was left to wonder if that was the sort of thing that would be eternal, well and truly. One day the world would end, and Casseda would be forced to reforge it as she had before, but would the Darkstalker’s wound be cleansed on that day, or would it stand true and forever as so many of the Erkinan structures? It stood to reason, in the Jackal’s mind, that being made by the power, the wretched scar would live on until the world stopped forming, once the Rh’euleen had finally fallen.
Ravaging winter winds whistled and hissed their way through the vacant city of Nelun’s Way, it was one of the many empty villages in the wasted land. If Amirot had been right, or honest to be more concise, about his description of the Caribou territories and their people, almost all of the land would be barren and vacant. Perhaps he had meant it when he had done it, or the Darkstalker was telling the truth when he said it was an accidental outburst of his power, but one way or the other, the Caribou was responsible for these conditions. The lifeblood of his race stained his paws as he, willingly or unwillingly, forced onto them the shackles of servitude, but not in the way of labor slaves. Rather, he infected them with his taint, converted them into creatures of the dark no different than he. By his last estimate, only a few hundred living in the easternmost front had eluded the crushing grasp of the act. Torqariyan wondered why he had been made to bring the Deer here but knew his question would garner no answers. They parted ways then, Torqariyan needing to reach Sirius as soon as possible and Maxinimus to his own duties for the Rh’euleen.
Stepping out of the cold and into the somewhat warm cathedral, Maxinimus shook off a shiver that was quickly followed by the chattering of teeth. He was severely undressed for the expedition into the increasingly more frigid northlands. Still, he hadn’t thought to ask Torqariyan to drop him someplace where he could acquire more appropriate attire. No, he was far too late already for his rendezvous and wouldn’t be all too surprised if his partner in this undertaking was long gone by now. Creeping further inside, under the elaborately decorated domed roof with its bizarre painted reliefs lining the high ceiling, Maxinimus saw him. Far from what he had been in his previous life, the Caribou was something of an aged man well past his middle years. Amirot was looking ragged and gray, but Maxinimus had to be jealous of how warm the man looked wrapped in that coat of northern shren. Sprawled out upon a central dais, raided high enough to be at shoulder level for the Deer, the Caribou seemed to be snoozing, it was hard to tell with his arm laid across his face. Stopping mid-stride, Maxinimus decided not to get too close to the Caribou, he could be mistaken as to who he was in truth.
“What kept ya?” the creaky old voice echoed, like a chamber door opening in the dead of night, it pierced the air of tension that had formed from Maxinimus’ not knowing.
He seated himself on the ground, despite layers upon layers of dust and dirt on the tile, “A hold-up, a mistake, I’d rather not talk about. Are you ready?”
“I’ve been ready all this while waiting here. No, in truth had you come when you were intended I’d have slowed us here for a time,” Amirot’s motions were slow, that of one encumbered by age. Perking an eyebrow, the Deer had to express at least a slight interest into whatever it was Amirot meant. As his gaze finally fell on the youthful stout boy, he continued, “You see this mural, it has stood for time beyond or own history. It’s easy to see if you have the eye for it, in the technique and style, but the overall contents as well. Do you know what it is?”
“It looks like a bunch of birds, all sorts of colors and plenty I don’t know,” Maxinimus returned, not rudely, but his words spoke to his lack of culture in the arts.
Certain he was only being patronized because of who he was, Amirot spoke with less detail than he thought in, “They are a race that had long ago called this world home, one Casseda likely had seen and had to rebuild into something new, perhaps this world.”
“Interesting… are you ready to go, though? And perhaps do you have something warmer I could wear out of here?” the Deer asked, minding his tone as not to seem disrespectful despite his impatience.
Amirot hopped off the dais, took from the side of it a tattered burlap sack and tossed it to the Deer, it fell with a clatter and Amirot had to be grateful he hadn’t put anything breakable inside. As the boy busied with clearing the contents, removing what he could use and returning anything less than necessary, the Caribou set eyes on the mural one last time. Long before, he had been a man who understood art even if he were unable to reproduce the styles and techniques, vivid shapes, and brilliant colors, that he knew so well. Everything about the work was beyond what he would deem possible, and what was seemed so alien to his mind that to duplicate it would be equally impossible. The strokes were worked in the way of a master whose brush seemed to ebb and flow as free and wild as the Camora river. Some of the colors must have been sourced from plants that did not grow in the current age, Amirot was certain of it. And the subjects; well, he knew the blue jays, the robins, swallows, and orioles, but among them were forms and feathers that seemed fantastical. One was as a sunburst, a great thing with radically edged wings that looked nearly as sharp as knives. Another in seafoam had trailing tendrils like that of a deep-sea critter. And still a final had its long, taloned legs, barring barbs in the manner of a rose. All were as he, that much he felt less concerned for, having proper arms and legs with the look of walking and standing upright, all but one were made in this way. The final, and centermost, avian rose with wings spread wide, the blacks and silver so eye-catching none could deny its presence. This was one more elusive, not quite fact nor fiction, as stories insisted the Quetz’kari was more than a thing of legend while the lack of genuine sightings would suggest it nothing but a myth. Tapping the Caribou on the shoulder, breaking him from his fixation, Maxinimus handed back the bag and motioned to leave. Amirot did so reluctantly; there was so much more to know about this cathedral, but such knowledge was not to be his. The study of long-dormant structures and dead races were interests of the mortals but not his own course.
Maxinimus may have led the two out of the cathedral, out onto streets slowly being eaten by the oncoming fall of white flakes, but Amirot quickly took point. He had time to explore the city, both on foot and with Erkinan, so naturally, he knew where to find the portal. The walk to it was a bit longer than perhaps the Deer expected; from the cathedral, it was nearly at the other end of the city. When asked why two such prominent locals would be set so horribly far apart, Amirot was without much of an answer; however, he acknowledged in any city that boasted a portal was in a similar state. Any Erkinan built structures from ages past were always seemingly located as far away as possible from gateways as though by design. Maxinimus didn’t breathe another word of question about it but was left to wondering if the portals were somehow dangerous. If therein lied some sort of trouble, invasions from the other side, or perhaps side effects from being placed too close together. Worse still, he had to acknowledge that, on occasion, the portals were evidently subject to malfunctions, meaning both could enter and come out the other end, hurt or worse, with no assurance the wounds would be treatable. And to die in such a way, or place more specifically, meant permanent death for a Lord. To fade almost entirely from the world without hopes of return to Karhan’ Dharian was the fate of such an unfortunate soul.
The thought of it, eternal death, finally brought Maxinimus to the objective at hand and all the risks it would entail. Stepping through the arch baring the vivid, flashing wall of water-like silver fluid meant even if he did survive, the chances of death there were higher and the result the same as if he passed midway through. He didn’t like that he, of all the Lords, he had been chosen to go through with it. And Maxin was no more content with having the Caribou as his partner in the task. Were he to have chosen; however, there were very few he’d have willingly subjected to the dangers to come. But, of course, he had to admit Casseda knew what she was doing when she hand-picked the two of them for this duty. To force through the message, to truly get those they must intervene on to understand, they would need undeniable shows of proof. Raising a tree from a seed to the growth of a century in only moments would be quite a thing, and with the darkness looming, lurking about as some form of killer without substance, they’d undoubtedly feel the threat their opposition posed.
It struck him odd, Maxinimus understood why the Metruxians needed to be repressed in their forward technological strides. He thoroughly reasoned out where and why they would falter as they pushed ever further, but that wasn’t what had his mind in knots. The Metruxians Lords were already on Metrux, and should their attempts to force their children to cease their action go wrong, they would not risk true death. So why, why at all would Verillia insist that Lords of her world should go beyond to bring this message and demand these changes? Just as they were about to enter the portal, Amirot looked back to the Deer, his muzzle not showing a single emotion. Quietly, as though afraid of eavesdroppers, he asked, “Do you think this is right, what we’re doing, is it a sound action? This doesn’t seem like we should be sticking our noses in it, as Verillians and Lords. They’re mortals they’re bound to explore the depths of knowledge so long as they can, so why fight them?”
“Casseda wouldn’t steer us wrong, we have to trust that this is the right course of action at this time. After all, how many worlds do you think she has seen rise and fall? Certainly, if anyone should know the best course for us, at any time, it would be someone like her or Narothepp,” Maxinimus reminded the Caribou, though he wasn’t confident in what he said himself.
Shrugging it off as though it hadn’t really mattered, Amirot muttered, “Then maybe Narothepp should be handling her own problems.”