The Heart of the Land

The Heart of the Land

Chapter 1. Dealings obscured

“We are agreed then, Yesss?” After a moment’s contemplation Daegra looked the contact straight in the eye, suppressing her natural desire to have nothing to do with such vermin in human form. “As long as you and that mysterious liege of yours agree to abide by the terms of our contract, to the letter, then we are in agreement yes.” The look she received in return was one a hair’s breadth away from open contempt, as if she insulted the man by doubting his word. “I have given you my word on that, but we do expect results. If you do not find anything worthwhile, the penalty will be severe. Yesss, very severe indeed.” Daegra snorted in equal contempt. “We agreed to investigate the rumours, if we disprove them, then that is still worthwhile. It will stop you from wasting more money on a futile pursuit. Speaking of which, as agreed you will provide a third in advance for the expenses.” A deliberate nod preceded a sack being tossed at Daegra.

“That is all you shall receive, until you provide the answers.” The suntanned, hook-nosed man rose and gave her a obligatory bow before gathering his cape closely around himself and leaving the tavern. Daegra sighed as she opened the bag. Most of the contents were common enough coins, of themselves enough to get the show on the road, but among them were three platinum trade bars stamped with a heraldic device she did not know. “They probably paid the artist less than properly… Or he must have been a hack. The winged crossguard on the sword looks rotten.”

“Well, what did you expect then Daegra?” The voice came from underneath the table’s top and before long Daegra pulled its owner from there with a sigh. “Sheesh, you’d expect a tavern in this part of the Heartlands to clean the tables a bit better, yech.” Gynnaefi grimaced as Daegra set her head down on the table, her hair snagging on the edge. “Careful! Its not easy to regrow my hair.” Daegra shrugged. “Sorry Gynnaefi, I just hoped we would not have to deal with… that kind of person again. Damn flunkey for some upstart noble.” The Revenant giggled in response. “Well, they are the most likely to throw money our way at the moment. Ah, hey! Over here!”

Gynnaefi’s body waved as it was carried over by Ulurin and Lorua, the latter gracefully landing next to Daegra’s mug as the former reunited body and head in a practiced manner. Moments later the four women were seated at the table, though the contact’s chair was swapped for a fresh one and his glass of wine removed. “So…” Ulurin leaned a muscular arm onto the wooden top, her soft and gentle voice contrasting with her intimidating gaze. “Gynnaefi signed us about yet another contract for a mysterious lordling working by proxy, but she fumbled the details.”

Gynnaefi scowled. “Hey! You try sign language when your head and body are that far apart.” The Minotauride shrugged an apology. “Still needs to be asked Gynnaefi. So, what is it Daegra?” | “You know something?” Lorua piped up, her body shimmering a gentle green as the Zvezda waxed a little taller. “I’m thinking its another trip down to the new cemetery to prove our employer is related to one of the poor sots buried there. Or it’s a trek to one hunting lodge or another to dig grandpappy’s sword out of a well.” Daegra grinned as she shook her head. “No, no more of that. The contact’s proxy is an asshat to be sure, but our commission is a little more in line with what we’ve been talking about doing: proper research of the past. I’ve not figured out why exactly yet, but our client wants us to investigate Karpathia’s alleged founder.”

Gynnaefi nodded, spectral ligaments holding her head and body together now. “I’m thinking maybe blackmail towards the monarch, but it could be something else.” Ulurin frowned. “Probably something else then. Emperor Viy is entered into the history books as a hard man, but fair. Yet these rumours of his artefacts remain sketchy and the current line of monarchs does not claim to be his descendants. No use speculating though, we have a job to do.” She emptied her glass of honeysuckle mead. “Lets talk shop. What will we bring and whom will we hire along?” Daegra bit her wrist as she pondered, then replied. “We’ll need an Ureonggaksi to haul any and all findings. Beyond that, history books and anti-trap measures.” Lorua nodded, then tapped her head. “Uhm, how about an additional caster? Gelde is in town and her Magical Girl powers could come in handy.”

Daegra shook her head firmly. “Not her. We lost money the last time because she made off with the pirate treasure, turning it into her personal gholem.” Daegra sighed. “Perhaps a Sorceress or another spellcaster, but Gelde is dead to me after that bit of treachery.” Lorua fidgeted. “But~!” Daegra huffed. “No buts Lorua, she cares more for coin than for fairness.” Lorua’s reply edged on frantic. “But what about that one?” The Zvezda pointed at a booth where a pitcher filled a pair of glasses unaided. Daegra looked her crew in the eyes and nodded. She left the table and stepped briskly to the booth which contained a woman and a girl, the latter sitting in easy view, huddled to her glass and the small candle in a blue glass vase.

The former reclined slightly on the padded cushions of the booth, a hint of crimson hair and flashing emerald eyes narrowing at Daegra were the only discernible features at present. “Good day to you two, pardon my interruption, but may I share your table for a moment?” Without further ado, Daegra snagged the closest free chair and sat it down just so she could talk to the occupants of the booth. The elder of whom replied. “It seems you do not care to wait for a reply. But I had a mind to have a word with you myself later.” A dainty yet strong hand snapped her fingers and another glass appeared before Daegra, soon filled by the pitcher. “It looks fancier than it is, but this is lemonade basically. Lescaiy isn’t of legal age to drink hereabouts and I for one don’t care for the hard swill most patrons drink.” A sigh sounded out of the shadows. “I shouldn’t say such, it is a good tavern. I just really do not like wines and liquor.”

Shoulders shrugged in the gloom. “Enough about that, now let me ask you something: are you a mercenary group? If so, I do hope that you know whom you were talking with there?” Daegra smiled shrewdly. “An asshat flunky for some noble. Yet we are not mercenaries as such. We do not go off to fight someone for coin, though sometimes we have to draw weapons in self-defense. I am called Daegra, of the Shroudstar group. We’re ruins chasers chiefly. Now, may I ask your names?” The woman in the shadows did the introductions briefly. “But back to the matter at hand, that flunky as you term him is a dangerous criminal. He was banished from the Sulleimaan empire a few months ago and for good reason. Though I suspect he used a pseudonym.”

Daegra nodded. “I suspected as much. Yet he has found employment locally it seems. And local nobles really do not want to gain a reputation for reneging on a deal with ruins chasers. It gets in the way of them being proven as relatives of this or that deceased prior noble or hero.” She drank the lemonade, a little too sweet for her liking, but good in and of itself. “Now, I noticed that you are a spellcaster, maybe a Sorceress even and young Lescaiy is definitely a Magical Girl. The thing is, we’ve been asked to do some investigation by your ex-criminal’s new liege. Not a difficult job, if things go well. Just an effort to get more information about emperor Viy, the founder of Karpathia.”

Daegra let magical energy trail from her fingertip as she moved it in a circle. “I’m no stranger to magic myself, but given where we’re headed I’m in the market for another spellcaster or two on the team. So, do either of you feel up for a trip to the allegedly cursed tomb of the first emperor? Equal shares all around.” The woman opposite her laughed in a kindly fashion. “I doubt it’ll be as easy as that.” Daegra shrugged. “We’re experienced enough, we haven’t lost a life since Ginnaefi fell for a guillotine trap once and she’s still kicking.” Emerald eyes glanced at Gynnaefi. “Hmm… I see what you mean. Still, I would not trust anyone that that spume works for.”

The woman’s fingers drummed on the edge of the booth’s table. “Here’s my deal for you then: Lescaiy will tag along with you. I’ll see to it that you both get a bag of magical goodies just in case.” Lescaiy started to protest, but her mentrix silenced her. “No, you need to get some confidence in yourself. You won’t find it in lemonade or by hiding in a tavern. I known you can do this, so please try it, okay?” The girl nodded. “I’m putting one big but on the deal though. Depending on what you find I want you to refuse handing it over to that twerp. I’ll see to it that his offer to you is matched as best as we can manage, but given what might be in such a tomb I’d prefer to be on the safe side. Better that than letting him near say an artifact of mass destruction.”

Daegra sighed. “We have our own reputation to uphold, but I’m willing to agree to your condition if you’ll refund him at need. Though… You are sure that you yourself cannot come along?” A deep sigh preceded the answer the woman gave. “If only I could, but I’m buried in work. There’s been some… reports on another Magical Girl going bonkers, that requires some attention and the rest of the list is long enough for use in the privy. Lescaiy is more skilled than she thinks though, aside from mundane spells her unique powers will be more than enough to handle almost anything.” Lescaiy looked about as confident as an adorable puppy sitting next to a spreading wet patch on the carpet. Daegra nodded though. “Okay then Lescaiy, you come along and I’ll introduce you. And as for you…”

She turned to look the girl’s mentrix straight in the eye. “I cannot guarantee her safety fully, but I give you my word that we’ll not abandon her. Now, I’d really love to stay a bit longer, but I’ll have to get her settled in, then see about getting an Ureonggaksi to tag along.” Crimson eyebrows arched in surprise. “Ehh? I guess that’s for hauling anything worthwhile out of there?” Daegra nodded. “Well then, ask for Lysl over at the Snailstop. She’s both looking for adventure and not as easily intimidated as most Ureonggaksi. Just mention my name if she’s stubborn, but deal her in fairly, okay?” A different Magical Girl entered and took Lescaiy’s place, after a nodded farewell Daegra took her back to the table and made the introductions.

Ten minutes later she went to the Snailstop and was surprised. Lysl was indeed an adventurous Ureonggaksi, having equipped her shell with shuttered lanterns and permanent spiky protrusions in the same colour as her hair, a deep purple. Moreover, it contained a small infirmary and stocked adventure gear. She was extra stubborn at first though, but the mentioned name worked wonders. She claimed her cousin wouldn’t give just anyone a thumbs up. Daegra tried to pump her for some info, but all she said was that Ureonggaksi families had more than a few bipedal members adopted in. Especially with another cousin of hers on the job. Daegra found that she liked both additions to their party, even if they had a big instruction manual each. Tomorrow they would leave for the mountain pass where Emperor Viy was said to have been buried.

Chapter 2. On the road

Lysl exclaimed: “Oh would you look at that Lescaiy, I think that was a wild Mozur on the cliff just now.” Lescaiy shrugged. “It could have been a Moundat though Lysl.” | “Nonsense, besides that, seeing a mozur is good luck on an adventure. How’s your leg holding up?” | “Still itching, but not burning so much. How was I supposed to know emberleaves are green in this season?” Lysl chuckled. “Live and learn. If we get to the tomb tomorrow you should be good as new. Just keep pouring on a little milk now and then. Gee-maree, I do wonder what’s keeping them?” Lescaiy laughed nervously. “Perhaps Ginnaefi lost her head again?” The Revenant had proven fond of disconnecting her head as a joke, but doing so while moving made her slightly disoriented and it tended to fall out of her hands then.

Over the last few days they had made good progress through the mountainous terrain surrounding Karpathia, a study in geographical contrasts where little pockets of nature’s beauty competed with nature’s toughest survivors. Both Ureonggaksi and Magical Girl had been welcomed into the group with genuine cheer, but they still ‘needed a bit more time’ to fit in as well as the others did. No hard feelings, but the other four had been working together for years and did so with almost uncanny precision. Lysl’s four eyes scanned the brushes looming over the ditch that stood between them and the pocket of forest hugging the gray stone of the pass. Birdcalls and occasional rustling of leaves meant that most smaller wildlife was not frightened by the women on hunt. “Aha~! There’s Ulurin and… Oh dear…”

The Minotauride dragged something along, the caught prey being too large to sling over her shoulders. Lorua carried water while Daegra and Gynnaefi carried smaller game. “Hey-oh the shell. We’ve got some good food, but it needs to be prepped and stored.” Lysl shook her head. “That one’s not edible Ulurin, I’m sorry, but traggles are poisonous to humans and mamonme.” Ulurin laughed. “I’m familiar with that misconception Lysl. It is mostly poisonous, we can drain some of its oils and sell them back in the city to dyers and tanners to get you a dress to match your hair. However, if we don’t touch the fat and just harvest the meat and bones they can be made edible with this.” So saying she pulled a small sack from her belt that had several thorns sticking out. “Skrarnuts? They are equally inedible. Even with rice they give you the runs.” The Minotauride laughed loudly. “Ah yes, but here’s the thing: traggles get hunted by a particular omnivore, the only natural predator that can stomach them.“

“Gerbears will eat these nuts almost exclusively in terms of plants, guess why?” Lysl sighed. “Because they taste better with the meat coming back up while you vomit?” Daegra snorted and Ulurin shook her head. “Nope, the poison in these nuts and the poison in the meat don’t get along. Mix them and you basically get discoloured water, rendering the meat safe to eat. The thorns have to be stuck in the marrow, something similar happens there and you end up with a paste of sorts that will do for iron rations. Its not tasty mind, but it’ll keep you alive.” An hour later, with the harvested meat and bones stuck in jars to let the chemical process turn hazardous muck into food, they continued.

“So how are you two holding up?” Daegra talked as she circled the shell, Lorua zoomed way overhead while Ulurin brought up the rear, ears perked to catch all sounds. “Just fine, aside from the rash. I’m more worried about Lysl though, she’s carrying this shell, our supplies and me to boot.” Lysl tittered. “I can lift more, easily. Though we don’t look it, Ureonggaksi are very strong indeed. I just need to be careful about balancing it or I might get saddled.” Daegra looked curious and for some reason hopeful. “I’ve heard that term used before, but what does it mean? None of the Ureonggaksi we’ve worked with before was willing to enlighten me and not knowing is a bit… irritating.”

Lysl huffed. “Its impolite to ask, okay?” Then she sighed. “But I’ve no such qualms if it’ll help sate your curiosity. Do you know how mamonme can have… little ailments? Like how Ulurin may have heard of hoofzits?” Ulurin grunted, an annoyed edge to the sound and Lysl leaned into her view to wave apologetically. “Sorry, I’m not implying personal experience. But the thing is we Ureonggaksi can get a saddle as such. Quite.. embarrassing to be honest.” She grabbed Lescaiy by the foot and removed her shoe. “Basically, my foot is not that different from Lescaiy’s, any human or your own.” She tickled the Magical Girl, her eye-stalks winking in mirth at her victim before continuing.

“But since I carry a heavy shell, calluses tend to form if I’m not careful, right on the top where there’s less slime to protect one’s foot. Carry too much and forego careful balancing and you might as well pop a bridle into your mouth.” She blushed. “I have an aunt, well actually my mother’s aunt, who suffered from it and that was super icky to look at. She claimed it pinched her too.” Daegra nodded, filing away the information. “Thank you for sharing that.” They got into a discussion about recent advances in shell design that lasted into the evening.

The next day they were on alert, the field in front of the tomb was littered unnaturally with bones, not Revenants or other undead mamonme, but old bones wrapped in powerful magic. The outside of the tomb had a sort of stylish tastelessness. Coal grey stone framed a gate shaped from flying skulls trailing a wake of stone. The black metal doors in the gate glinted dully in the light of Lorua’s shining form. “O-kay, call me impressed.” The Zvezda hummed as she flitted from pillar to pillar, reading the inscriptions that decorated them. “I’ve never read any curses this politely framed. Essentially, each pillar serves as a memorial for an event emperor Viy was involved in. Presumably, though that’s conjecture, events that did not bode well for others. Tragedies in fact if you read between the lines.”

She flitted to the one set around ten strides from the gate. “This one summarizes it a bit though.” She rose and fell to take in the text, cleared her throat and read the words aloud: “Here we laid to rest the founder of Karpathia. Scourge of Palachia, Sorrow of the tribes. We acknowledge his might and all he did for us, and pray to the gods to forgive us. As long as Karpathia thrives let him and his retainers sleep in the peace … denied the living.” Lorua tapped a chipped spot. “There’s a word missing there. I speculate though that it is ‘he’ in this case. Now, the odd thing is, they do not use his name on any of them, almost as if his name is taboo.”

Gynnaefi tsk’d. “The ground is impenetrable as well, Lescaiy thinks it is frozen by magic and it seems to tie off to this one.” Lescaiy nodded. “My orbs show the lines, pretty to look at, but deadly if disturbed. And beyond my ability to defuse.” She sighed sadly. “Not much use yet, eh?” Daegra shook her head, coming from the other end. “Are you kidding me? This way we can avoid the traps, even if we can’t disable them. Useful indeed, though… Leascaiy, you’ve constantly been belittling yourself, why is that? You are a competent Magical Girl whenever your skills are needed and you seem knowledgeable.” Lescaiy sighed. “I’m a klutz who so far has managed to fall onto every offensive bit of nature on this trip. And what little I know has only been marginally useful.” Now Lysl sighed in exasperation. “Stop selling yourself short, my cousin thinks you’re good enough and she’s an expert on that matter. Yes, you have shown a talent for finding just about every stone or stinging plant to trip over but you’ve not turned back nor have you sat gibbering in terror when that nasty thing invaded our camp.”

The Ureonggaksi huffed and grumbled. “Damn my instincts. But enough of that, stop whining and just accept that you are good. Good enough for us all, right?” That got nods all around. Ulurin clapped them both on the shoulder. “Well said Lysl, but you two both lack some experience in adventuring. I’ll share a bit of a secret, we weren’t hardy adventurers when we started out either. I know I needed a change of undies when I first stumbled into a trap.” Lorua and Gynnaefi giggled. “And I lost my life when I got a little too overconfident. Can’t get that back, but undeath is not so bad thanks to the Great Changing. I still have my good looks and some softness where and when I need it.” She stuck out her arm and sighed. “Shame its translucent in most places.”

Daegra hummed a tuneless snatch of song. “And since when has that stopped guys and gals from chasing your tail? No matter, but they are right. I squeaked right strangely when I first had to use magic in battle against a construct thrice my size. The first adventure is always the most scary.” Lescaiy shrugged. “I suppose… But that doesn’t change my feelings. Lessee, I’d rather not have this shared in every tavern, but…” She merged the crystal orbs that were her foci as a Magical Girl into a large crystal ball. “Have you ever had a sister?” Most of the others nodded. “I did not and yet did. She was born and died before I drew my first breath. A model student, a capable soldier and a fanatical lantern-lighter.”

This got her a few gasps. “I’m serious here. So when miss perfect died my parents wanted her back basically. They had me for that particular purpose alone and what a disappointment I was to them. Less pretty, unskilled with weapons, timid and uninterested in theology. For all of my youth I had to hear how I did not measure up.” She shook her head. “I left when I could and tried to live as best I could off the land. I’m bad at survival too as it turned out and was brought back half-starved. I couldn’t even manage to get myself killed and was doomed to work as a serf. But then my mentrix came along and offered me a new chance.”

Lescaiy breathed deeply before she spoke anew.“What chance that she would happen to be in the new colonies when I was just about to look for some rope and a handy tree. Wham presto and suddenly I can use these at the meager cost of losing my nominal humanity. Still doesn’t change that I’m a huge klutz who screws up at the worst times.” She showed images in the ball as she spoke and when her speech wound down they manifested as images of her goofing up.

“Well, that’s a harsh start to life. I can get why you feel that way a little. But~!” Gynnaefi raised a skeletal finger and waggled it. “You’ve not yet plumbed the breadth of your abilities or sampled all that the world has to offer. Give yourself another go and save the final judgement for when you are dead.” Lescaiy eventually agreed to try that as such. They tried to open the gate, but it resisted most attempts through mundane and magical means until Lescaiy stumbled over a stone and found the key that unlocked the gate, hidden in a carefully concealed compartment behind the central pillar. Having been bandaged, she accompanied the others inside.

Chapter 3. Cavete ab omni imperatore

“Okay, it looks like this is as far as I go.” Lysl grumbled and her eyestalks writhed around each other. “I can’t fit the shell through there.” Gynnaefi shrugged in reply. “I’m afraid so. There’s no hidden gate in this room that I could find. Unless you want to tag along without it?” Lysl was sorely tempted. “I want to, Goddess and Matrika know I want to, but this environment is frightening enough even with the shell to put me on edge. I doubt I’d be useful as a paralyzed Ureonggaksi clinging to everyone in a panic.” Daegra and Ulurin shared a look before the former spoke. “I would have preferred bringing you along further, but I guess this room will do as a fall-back base. We’ll secure it so you’ll feel a bit more comfy, then rest before going below. You’ve a book or two to read?”

Lysl nodded. “If things go smoothly and we don’t see any scary things beyond those warnings on the murals I might try to remodel the shell a bit, slim it down to fit through there. But that will take a couple of days and might not be worth the effort. Unless you come back to tell me.” They nodded, Ulurin used her prodigious strength to carry a few fragments of pillar from a few rooms back and set up a barricade of sorts that doubled as walls for the lean-to’s they would sleep under. Daegra thought it a good time to check the goodie-bags Lescaiy’s mentrix had provided and was deeply surprised. “WHAT! How in the world did this get in here? Magic rope, first aid kit with healing potion and wound-sealing wand, three one time use skeleton keys and a letter?”

She unfolded the latter which showed not words, but emitted an illusory image of the tomb’s areas they had explored so far. Her surprise showed in her speech. “Fuck! This stuff alone is worth more than what the asshat gave us and then some. Who in their right mind would just give away such things?” Lescaiy and Lysl started an explanation at the same time, then Lescaiy conceded to Lysl. “Well, long story short, my cousins have good connections. My adoptive cousin is the granddaughter of a somewhat famous healer and my blood-cousin has shares in a big company. It looks pricey, but I’ll bet there are no marks on most of them. That is because they were made by apprentices and journeyfolk.”

Lescaiy nodded and spoke. “Ehehehe, I did hear her gripe about another relative who’d scold her if she just handed them over to random people for free.” She gave an estimate to the for-sale-price and the seasoned party-members nearly bit their tongues. “That is… affordable to say the least.” Lorua then sat down on Lysl’s head and swore inventively enough to cause two nearby ears to turn crimson. “We had to pay double that for one measly potion during the war and it turned me orange for two weeks.” The Zvezda grumbled. Lysl shrugged apologetically before replying. “These won’t and I’m guessing that they are powerful enough that they need not be drunk all at once.”

The following morning Lysl waved them goodbye and retreated to her shell where her personal library would keep her company. Gynnaefi and Lorua scouted ahead while Ulurin took up the rear guard position. Daegra and Lescaiy used their magic to probe gently at the tunnel and commented to each other what they found. Lescaiy mused aloud: “I’d say the whole thing was dug by magic.” Daegra shook her head. “Hmm, nope, it was compressed by magic. Feel the shape of the surrounding rock? Magical residue permeates it and you don’t get that with tunneling magic. Also, they did smooth the tunnel, but not just with magic.”

Gynnaefi and Lorua scooted back. “Heads up everyone. There’s a maze beyond the tunnel. We did find a few traps before the entrance though, but easily disarmed ones.” The Revenant sighed. “Too easily disarmed ones. Every book I perused on the subject suggests that the nasty variety will be set on us before the end.” Ulurin nodded as she came to the fore and added her two cents. “I hear you. But let’s have a look at the maze. The usual floor to ceiling walls?” Lorua shook her head. “Its odd, but the corridors sometimes extend vertically, suggesting a second, maybe third level.” Ulurin snorted, grasping the brass ball at the end of her axe. It started to glow as she focused her innate energies on it. With a few quick strides she reached the entrance to the maze and placed her hand on an otherwise indistinguishable tile. The ball in her hand turned glossy and smooth as she knelt there until finally small lines started to form anew on its surface.

Ulurin shook herself visibly as she stood up and exhaled nervously. “Huge! Huge and ancient. Daegra, when was Karpathia founded again?” Daegra scratched her head, giving due consideration to the question before replying. “It is probably with a margin of error a mile wide, but say a thousand or twelve hundred years ago?” Lescaiy and Ulurin shook their heads in unintended unison as the latter spoke. “It feels a lot older, maybe they used an old ruin for his tomb? Or we are completely in the wrong.” Lorua bristled. “I did not mis-translate those pillars Ulurin!” The Minotauride waggled a finger. “I’m not saying that. But it might be a trap of sorts, a public tomb of the emperor to lure thieves and ruins chasers in while the real one remains undetected.”

They all conceded that this was a good point. However, they wanted to confirm such before giving up and looking elsewhere. Aside from having three floors, the maze held little challenge with Ulurin in the lead. Small pockets of life persisted within its corridors, occasionally quite lethal to the unwary, such as flesh-eating fungus. Whole segments showed small murals depicting scenes from the lives of humans in other era’s. Beyond the maze the designers had gotten creative with traps, such as a wide corridor with beveled slots that had corresponding shutters aimed at them. Step on the wrong tile and you’d be stuck at best, bludgeoned apart more likely. Gynnaefi hummed as she disabled the trap. Lescaiy tripped over the last slot and was smothered by Ulurin’s breasts as the Minotauride caught her.

Magical girl or not, Lescaiy was blushing when they managed to get untangled.She glanced nervously back before speaking. “I don’t think Lysl would have gotten past all of that. But maybe we should check in on her.” Daegra was quick to pose the question her nimble mind provided. “How? We’re more than half a day away from that room now and I’ve not found a shortcut.” Lescaiy hummed and her orbs lit up. “Just let me check…” She concentrated and an image formed between the orbs, showing a flushed and naked Lysl doing more than just washing herself in the shell. “EEEEEPP!” Lescaiy exclaimed as the orbs stopped projecting the image.

“Hahaha~! Well, a gal’s got needs.” Gynnaefi grinned widely. “Lets try again a little later, when she’s done. Still, damn useful. Can you spy on anyone like that?” Lescaiy shook her head vehemently. “Only people I know personally and have an idea of where they might be. I can also talk to them, but.. but.. but, not if they spook me.” Gynnaefi pinched her cheek with a mischievous look on her face. “Aww gee, and here I thought self-fornicating snailgirls were your thing.”

Daegra sighed. “Gynnaefi… Come on, enough is enough. I recall a human thief who let the heist of her life pass her by because it was basically a golden dong.” Gynnaefi stuck out her tongue. “An ugly dong attached to an uglier statue. I do have standards. They tried to pay me to take it away later.” Daegra giggled. “True. But let us make the most of it and continue on. Lorua, anything new on that engraved tile?” The Zvezda hovered upside-down near the ceiling and traced ald-praxian runes engraved there. “Just the umpteenth strange message. Let what is sealed remain sealed.” She flitted down and suggested they move on. Daegra estimated that it was early in the evening on the next day when they hit the proverbial jackpot.

After a long trek through the corridors they came upon a gigantic door with murals surrounding it. If those were anything to go by, then emperor Viy had been a worse person than they had anticipated. One showed a lake of blood with bodies bobbing in it, another a throne on top of piled bones and a third displayed impaled bodies ravaged by crows. The fourth mural held only words, but a small pedestal in front of it held an intricate device. “Let me see for a bit…” Lorua hovered before the fourth mural and read it over several times in a row. “Seekers, ye who come here, be it known that the one sealed here sought ultimate power. With his might he carved a nation from untamed lands, with his magic he ruled for generations, with his malice he waged war on any and all.

Yet he formed the heart of the Heartlands and when death came he stated it to be but a door, time but a window, passages to his return. We prayed to the Gods and sealed him away lest death grant him more power.” She pouted. “Then why leave the means to unseal him dolts?” Lorua inhaled sharply and grew human-sized. “Gynnaefi, give me a hand in checking this for traps and such. Daegra, Lescaiy, you two do a magical check. Ulurin, keep an ear to the ground for guardians.”

“Uhm, should we open it?” Lescaiy looked less than enthusiastic even as she and Daegra scanned for magic, but Daegra’s smile was warm and confident as she replied. “Well, we need to be thorough. But don’t you worry, we’ll cast some protections on ourselves before going in. As it happens, I’ve studied sealing spells and not just the ‘prentice level ones. If worse comes to worst then we can handle things I’m sure.” Daegra’s confidence was inspiring. Finding neither traps nor guardians they turned the mechanism and the doors creaked open. Inside the room, spartan in design, stood a bier and a throne, but it was dominated by a life-sized portrait of a hard-featured, handsome man. Daegra met his eyes and immediately felt a panic as another’s will pushed into her mind. “Gg-guahg!” More out of instinct than conscious thought she discorporated.

Lescaiy squeaked, but Ulurin grabbed the pearly mote that drifted down to the floor, she spoke swiftly. “Girls, don’t look at the painting’s eyes. It is trapped!” The Magical Girl blurted: “What happened to Daegra?!” Lescaiy’s panicked gaze was drawn to the mote. Gynnaefi shrugged and spoke. “My guess, she got attacked mentally and did her trick of discorporating. Erhm, I think we ought to have mentioned it sooner, but Daegra’s a Tulpa.” Lecaiy’s look shifted to one of puzzled perplexity. “What’s that? An Aluraune subspecies? But where are her roots then??” Lorua shook her head as she flew over the portrait and dropped a cloth over it. “Nah, more like a mamonme made up of a psychic entity and formerly demonic energy that can manifest a physical form.” Gynnaefi tapped her bluish lips.

“That trick has saved her more than once, but she’ll be a bit disoriented unless we get her back quickly. Girls, hold hands and think about Daegra as you know her. Lescaiy, think of nothing but Daegra, no arguing, just do it.” Together they concentrated and from the mote Daegra reformed. Lescaiy felt… something tug at her mind and to her surprise Daegra now had a different dress on. “Fuck, fuck, fuck! What did I lose this time?” Daegra patted herself down vigorously. “Easy Daegra, we got you back straight away.” Ulurin steadied her. “But where did that dress come from?”

Lescaiy ventured that it had been pulled from her mind for some reason. “It looks like the dress I saw a priestess wear once. Why did that happen though?” Daegra shrugged wearily. “I’ll explain later. But be careful of that portrait everyone, it is some sort of trap and it ignored my magical defenses.” Sonorous handclaps echoed from behind and in turning they saw that the portrait now stood empty. “Bravo!” The door to the chamber closed with a bang and a man sprawled on the throne, his voice deep and rich. “It has been ages since a seeker withstood me. Consider it a heroic accomplishment, woman, that you did. I shall grant you an audience in return.” Glowing grey eyes gazed proudly at them as fingers played with a skull carving on the armrest. “For what purpose did you come to my sanctum? Karpathia still stands, does it not? Perhaps you seek the honour of hosting my rebirth? But then you would not have resisted me.”

He vanished from the throne, his footsteps coming from the other end of the chamber as he faded into view once more. “Curious… A female undead, a demonic seducer of sorts, a wisp and two spellcasters. And… What on Praxis is that creature you left up there? A snail-woman?” He vanished anew and reappeared in the portrait. “Such a strange group… But speak.” Daegra swallowed audibly before she spoke. “Sir, we are the Shroudstar group, a team of ruins chasers commissioned to investigate the tomb of the first emperor of Karpathia. Are you by chance emperor Viy?” The man in the portrait nodded in a bored fashion and gesticulated as he spoke. “Emperor Vygo. Conqueror of the Heartlands. Conqueror of Praxis in truth, though that is in the past. It has been an age since I last walked the world of the living, thus I am not too surprised or offended that my name has faded a little.”

He disappeared and Daegra knew where he’d gone when Lescaiy whimpered. “Hmmm… It would seem that none of you are human.” Lescaiy shook her head. “N-not any more.” Vygo grinned. “Ahh, so you can do more than squeak little mouse. Tell me then what you are.” A strong hand grasped Daegra’s shoulder and spun her around. Ulurin bit her lip and Lorua hid behind her. “We are mamonme.” Said Daegra. “Curious, and what is a mamonme?” Asked Vygo. Ulurin tried to grab him, but instead received a small slap on her back that sent her sprawling. “Ahem, do not try that again girl. Now answer the question little miss leader girl.” Daegra sighed. “Mamonme are mamonme, but many of our species descended from monsters. Some, like Lescaiy’s, came about through tempering by the then Demon Lord Seretique vi Alloriel or her daughters. But essentially, we are sentients not unlike humans… Just a bit different. We rely on species like humans and alva for men. At times human women are turned into mamonme”

Vygo held his chin and paced up and down the room. “Interesting. Did your kind get involved in any battles of note?” Lorua cleared her throat. “It depends on what you consider of note, sir. But generally speaking, mamonme fought in the armies of Lady Eiraiha, Demon Lord Seretique and of Karpathia. Most prominently during the nameless war.” He gazed at the Zvezda. “Nameless war?” Lorua nodded. “Yes. It was a conflict so horrifying that none wanted to name it. Countless lives lost and Old Heaven destroyed. A dark new continent wrested from the ocean floor and many more changes occurred. Praxis survived but it is a changed world.” Vygo barked a laugh. “And none thought to wake me? Ingrates! What use is it to have the greatest military genius lay wasting in a tomb when the conflict of an age occurs?” He vanished and reappeared several times. Gynnaefi sighed with a shrug. “Well, we had no idea. We did see some things then… Even I’d rather forget them.” He reappeared right in front of her. “Tell me…” She nodded. “Well… Did you know a Malus Lockedheart? God of War, sort of thing?” Vygo snorted, but gave a curt nod for her to continue. “Looooong story short, he died trying to conquer Praxis and become Principal God at the same time.”

Vygo’s eyes popped wide open and he plunked down in his throne. “How? Which God stopped him?” Gynnaefi tilted her head sideways. “Ehhh… A group of mortals did him in. Mainly Antimony, who ascended to become husband of Principal Goddess Eiraiha and Renburn Fennich, the Deathknight.” Vygo blinked. “Which one became the God of War then?” The women shrugged together, then Daegra spoke. “Neither. Lord Antimony holds the post of Lord Protector of Praxis, while Fennich is warden of Hell if you can trust that information. Additionally-” He interrupted triumphantly. “Then there is no God of War on Praxis.” Vygo laughed. “I am freed from my oath and can etch my name anew into the memory of Praxis.” In the space of a heartbeat he appeared near the bier and gazed down at the crumbling skeleton lying there. “All, or nothing.” The skeleton dissolved into motes of light as Vygo declaimed a spell so potent it caused a tremor.

When Daegra picked herself up from the floor afterward, she saw a naked Vygo rising in the light of a burning portrait. “Women, I am leaving. This tomb shall not survive long after, if you wish to live then follow me.” Ulurin swore. “Naga’s breath in a gourd! What about Lysl?” Vygo turned to Ulurin. “She is fortunate that our path goes through her room.” Meanwhile Lysl had cautiously done a bit of exploration beyond her shell. She missed the girls, but having a little time for herself had been good. Ureonggaksi might be spared the worst of bodily odours, but a good wash and some fun on the side helped her smell of lilacs and berries again. She was still in the market for a husband, but… sometimes she wondered if her profession of assistant ruins chaser didn’t stand in the way of that. It wasn’t as if she’d run into any guys in a random ruin or something, definitely not a handsomely naked one offering himself up as she secretly dreamed of. She was on her way back when the wall on one side fell down and a naked man strode towards her. Lysl blinked and jumped to the wrong conclusion. “I knew it, traggles are pure poison no matter what you do.” Then she spotted the rest of her group trudging behind.

“Hey everyone, what happened? And who’s mister nekkid over there?” Lescaiy and Lorua grabbed her by the arms and frogmarched her to her shell. “We have not enough time to explain Lysl, grab your shell and come along, I’ll try to fill you in as soon as we escape this deathtrap.” Few things are faster than a frightened Ureonggaksi wanting to escape, Ulurin had to restrain Lysl to prevent her stampeding down the wrong path. Corridors trembled as Vygo led them through passages unused and out to the surface. A few minutes later they watched with some awe as the tomb collapsed entirely. “I’ll miss the place I think. But enough sentimentality, lets review the troops.” Vygo did not notice, or chose not to, the incredulous stares of the Shroudstar group as he wove his hands through mystic passes and clothing materialized on his naked form. “What troops? And how are you alive again?” Daegra’s thirst for knowledge had oft gotten the better of her before.

Vygo chose to reply in an off-hand manner. “Simple, leader girl, during each of the lifetimes when I walked Praxis in a ‘donated’ body, I purposefully stored some of the life-energy in my portrait phylactery for just such an occasion. A pity that it is gone, but such is the price to pay for a poor man’s resurrection. As for my troops, behold~!” Magical currents outlined his form as he raised his arms dramatically and then slammed his fists into the ground. Lescaiy gasped as the lines of power she had spotted in the area before the tomb drank deeply of the unleashed arcane might. Before long the earth burst open as bones cascaded upwards and aligned themselves into skeletons. Pulses of power ran over bleached bones and slowly but surely they started moving, a sepulchral glow in each eye-socket. “That will have to do for now. Commander Limark?” A skeleton with strange metallic hooks in the place of its little fingers strode up and saluted. “We are free to do as we please it seems. We will march on Karpathia, claim the reservoir I left there and liberate weapons from the armory. Then we can plan our next move.” A faint voice, almost beyond hearing responded. “As the emperor commands.” Before long they and the Shroudstars were moving out.

Chapter 4. What time has wrought

“Cousin, what should we do? I don’t think Lescaiy and I or the others can stop him on our own.” Lysl felt close to tears as she whispered into the ARE at the back of her shell. The reply was a little calming. “Look, he’s so far not been particularly aggressive, right? Just occupied the library at the old palace and reconstituted some of his troops. I’ve got a team researching what records remain of this old codger, as do my sisters respectively.” A whispering came from the other end of the conversation. “Ahh, there’s the other shoe. The proxy that hired your adventuring group has shown his allegiance now, blast him! Lysl, I’m sending over a small bag with insta-gates, give one each to the girls and keep one on yourself at all times. If worse comes to worst then use them to vamoose. Don’t fret about the shell, your lives are more important.”

A small bag dropped out of a mini-gate. “I’ve got them. But what can we do to stop him from doing something harmful?” A deep sigh sounded from the other end. “Honestly, I’m not sure on this, but tell Daegra to inform him of the Darklands, its one of very few lands he hasn’t conquered before that I can be sure of. I’m counting on you all to chip in a little to containing whatever he’s planning by suggesting that there’s only one military challenge for him if he does want to pick up conquest again. Fennich’s Hellspawn should keep him busy there.” When Lysl exited the shell a few minutes later Lorua, Lescaiy and Ulurin had an almost uniform expression of hope on their faces. “What did she say Lysl?” She explained as best she could and Lorua went to inform Daegra who had been ‘granted an audience’ by emperor Vygo. Skeletons and reconstituted troops walked stiffly along the roads of the city, the latter seeming a little offended at the less than fearful response by the natives. Gynnaefi walked along with them to prevent little mishaps. She barely caught Daegra before the Tulpa reached the palace. “Thanks Lorua, now go back to the others and keep everyone safe. Let me deal with matters within… You know what to do if I don’t come back.”

Daegra almost ran into the castle, had she not kept a firm hold on her emotions which seemed to scream that she should avoid meeting him again. Tulpa had few fears, but losing their sense of self was among the greatest and Vygo for all his apparent civility had tried to take over her body at the first time they crossed eyes. Inside the palace, which had served as a museum since king Oskhar the thirtieth had taken up the crown, undead troops tramped in tight circuits but ignored her. In the library she found her quarry sitting across from the incumbent monarch whom had been tied to his chair, a pacifier between his lips held in place by more rope. “Ahh, leader girl Daegra, I present to you king Oskhar. He was a little disagreeable and didn’t want to act maturely, so I’ve ahem, pacified him otherwise.” The king growled through the obstruction in his mouth. “Do be quiet, I have some matters to discuss with the young lady and yourself.”

He then turned to Daegra, smiling mysteriously. “So let me guess, Lysl contacted her mysterious cousin and she’s asked you to stop me? Or that not so mysterious other contact? Fat chance. It took four of the greatest magi of the age to stop me when I first sought to take a new body.” Vygo patted Oskhar heavily on the head. “His ancestor Oskhar the first was the intended recipient, but afterwards the peasants thought him blessed by me.” A partially embarrassed chuckle escaped thin lips. “People have been crowned for worse reasons. But he and his descendants have done me a disservice since the last time I walked the world at their behest. No truthful records remain here, though Limark’s tearing through possible repositories around the capital.” Oskhar moaned and shook his head. “Not to worry, despite his gruesome appearance Limark’s the very hallmark of care when it comes to books. Mirrors though… ” Vygo shrugged. “Enlighten us then. Who are you really? Not just some emperor. And what do you want to do now that you’ve seized Karpathia?” Daegra for once did not know if she really wanted to know the answers.

“Very well. I am Vygo the Eternal. Karpathia and I are one and the same as my essence is part of the Heartlands. Aeons ago I ruled and wrought an empire from the scattered tribes of men. Yet I could never rest, never put down my crown. Magic extended my life, but centuries onward I had to renew my soul. The only way to do so, or so my research showed, was to take over a newborn’s body and soul. Bad idea, the Gods sent magi to destroy me and so they did… And woe was I, as my soul was locked in Lower Heaven. At least until the God of War needed a champion to liberate the Heartlands again. Redemption and an anchor to the physical world were promised and delivered.”

Vygo shook his head slightly. “Thus began a cycle of many centuries where I was given a body in sacrifice for my services, a portion of their life-energy stored in my portrait for my triumphant return now. I fulfilled my vows to the spirit and the letter, though over a thousand years have passed since my last summons.” He sighed. “In short, I am Praxis’ first emperor. As for what I intend to do? Beyond the personal matter of rectifying the history books here…” He glanced at Oskhar. “I do not know. Not yet. Even for one as I there is a lot of history yet to absorb. And you shall aid me.” For the next few hours Daegra was probed for information, especially concerning the events of the nameless war. Oskhar was allowed to chip in, but at the first sign of foul language the pacifier was replaced with glee. Finally though…

“I think that I know enough for now. What an interesting world we live in that the greatest conqueror missed out on the greatest war.” Daegra snorted. “There was nothing ‘great’ about it, it was a pointless conflict.” Vygo grinned, or at least showed all his teeth in a rigor approximation. “It ended the stalemate, it allowed the current Principal God to regain her lost standing with mortals and usher in an age of relative peace. I would call that great.” Daegra shook her head vehemently. “All those lives lost, and years of hardship following. Only aid from that other world prevented many from dying and more conflict from arising over the puny stores we had left of our own harvests. It is a war unnamed for that very reason. The very fact that it happened at all disgusts all who have lived through it enough that none want to name it.” She cut her hand through the air for emphasis.

Vygo sighed. “Spoken like one who does not value war. The war was hard, yes. Every account I’ve read here and that my troops have uncovered points to such. Yet I reiterate, the gains such as this era of calm are great. Hence a great war. But I agree that at this moment there is little to be gained from starting a new war on this continent. Those Darklands… maybe a suggestion from your Lysl’s mysterious cousin, hmmm? It would be a pleasant distraction perchance, but only that. The ruling body there, ahem, seems incompetent enough that I would not be challenged sufficiently.” He stood up and paced in front of the windows, not bothering to note the onset of dusk. “The only worthwhile part there is that gate to Lower Heaven, or Hell as you call it. Why was that part of Heaven not destroyed in the war as well?”

Daegra thought it over for a few moments. “Lore states that Hell was severed from Old Heaven long ago, because of corruptive energies emanating from it. Malus Lockedheart was its warden… It was speculated that his insanity was caused by said energies. Thus when Old Heaven was destroyed, Hell remained, but was shunted sideways into a different dimension still connected to Praxis.” She tapped her temples and sucked in a breath through pursed lips. “I do not know if it is possible to conquer Hell, but given that the Deathknight who rules the Darklands is forced to send out Hellspawn to keep them defeatable I do think you might find sufficient challenge there.” Vygo roared with laughter. “And never leave again? Girl, I existed there before I was called back. There is no conquering those pits, or stopping the spawn. They form from the hatred, malice and unrepented sins of those condemned to be there. Those who merely offended one Godling or another do not last there long enough to contribute.” He stomped over to her. “I think I shall leave Praxis for the time being, I advise you not to follow me on a whim, Daegra.” Minutes later Daegra found herself being escorted outside, with the still pacified king carried along.

The citizens of Karpathia would talk of the following night for quite a while longer. As the enraged king led the army through the capital and into the old palace they found neither hide nor hair of Vygo and his troops. Before long a week had passed without incident. The Shroudstars found themselves on the road again before long and their trail led them to a small town not far from the capital by name of Gazpescht where a successful eatery known as Crumbs and Platters afforded them some solace. Lysl burped, cutely but surprisingly loudly after her third helping of cheese. “Whoops, sorry girls. Cheese is nice for a change, its a pity it doesn’t blend well with rice.” She burped again. “Or settle easily. Sheesh, I don’t know where to put my face.” Gynnaefi chuckled, then put on an air of inquisitiveness. “Say Lysl, call it morbid curiosity or what’cha like, but just how much food can you snarf down? I’d bet you would make a bundle if you entered an eating contest. It doesn’t seem to affect your shape either, I’m jealous a bit.”

Lysl waved a hand as she stifled another burp. “Nhmh… Sorry, but I’m actually not as much of an eater as some of my cousins. But I do eat more than you do, or the others for a simple reason…” She scraped a small glob of gel from her foot. “It goes straight to our muscles and glands. To prevent foot damage, we need gel and therefore Ureonggaksi can eat a lot and digest it quickly.” Ulurin pulled on a jack of cider, then handed it to Lysl, looking thoughtful. “A useful trait. But as we’re not going anywhere fast I’ll ask you something too. Its a bit embarrassing to ask, but while I’ve known Ureonggaksi to tinkle, I’ve never seen one use the can for the other thing.” Lysl coughed up part of her sip of cider. “Oooooh!” Eyestalks dancing a jig, she went red. Daegra came to the rescue. “Ulurin, its fairly simple. Ureonggaksi can digest almost everything that isn’t toxic. What little they cannot is… excreted through two slime ducts on the rear of their foot.”

Lysl nodded, still red as a beet. “I..Its actually a bit… silly perhaps, but because of that we cannot… you know…” They nodded at once. Lescaiy however looked puzzled and had to be told, leaving her as red as Lysl. Not long after the first quake hit the Heartlands. Crumbs and Platters shook as cheeses bounced off of shelves and crockery shattered. The owners, a human-C’try Mouse couple and their three daughters took it in stride, laughing about these small tremors of late. Until the town’s ARE started playing music and the lady of the house answered it. “H-hello? Yes, its Freesia… Oh my, hello milady, sorry my ears are still a bit jittery after this little quake we had just now. No, nobody got injured. Ehhh? Yes, they are here, do you want miss Lysl, she’s your cousin right?” Freesia listened carefully for a moment, the only indication of her mood being the nervous swishing of her tail and the movement of her ears.

“Okay, just give me a moment.” The C’try Mouse turned around and marched over to the Shroudstar group who had just reseated. “Sorry, miss Daegra, but you are wanted on the ARE.” Daegra sighed. “I hope it isn’t the king looking to vent his spleen at me again.” Freesia laughed aloud and shook her head, then took Daegra’s place and started talking to Lysl and the others. With some trepidation the Tulpa walked over to the alcove that housed the ARE. Since the onset of the age known as The Renaissance these magical devices had begun to change from the utilitarian old design to a more elaborately decorated format. Though not as expensive or intricate as some nobles had them this ARE had been decorated with skill by a painter of obvious talent. Since the device was already running Daegra was immediately enveloped by its magical field, the sensations from which were to her not exactly pleasant. An Articulatory Relay Engine allowed people to communicate over vast distances, but it also relayed their emotions and movements to a degree and for a Tulpa this impinged on feeling mentally attacked.

Daegra had to fight off a borrowed sensation of worry before speaking. “Hello, this is Daegra of the Shroudstar group. Who’s calling?” The device also relayed sounds from around it and it seemed that the mysterious caller had some small children near. “Hello Daegra, I’m sorry to call on you out of the blue. I am-” A prodigious noise came from the ARE. “Oh dear, girls can you handle this while auntie’s on the ARE? Sorry, my big little guy filled his nappy. But enough of that. You just had a quake there, right?” Daegra affirmed this. “Well, I am fairly certain it won’t be the last. My sisters and I have been trying to find out everything we could about this Vygo and there’s a BIG problem brewing. From what we can tell he literally tied his essence to the lands there. As a result, when he left Praxis he also left a kind of… call it a hole in the mystical essences of the land. Long story short, unless we get him back or manage to disconnect him remotely all of the Heartlands may very well be destroyed.”

The woman on the other end of the ARE continued. “Now, we do have a fair few people capable of doing so, but at this moment they are indisposed. We’re shoring up the essences so that the destruction is kept at bay while others are helping to evacuate the populace just in case. But I would like to ask you, in continuation of the commission you undertook for my little sister, to go after him and get him back. Or at least get him to end the bond.” A little while later Daegra agreed on behalf of their group and closed the connection. Her face had a slightly stunned expression as she waddled back to the table and grasped Lysl’s shoulders. “Lysl I need to ask you a few things about your family…” A few hours later they left Praxis through a portal. Lescaiy had been lent a veritable battery of magical implements and as a result fairly bristled with wands and charms.

Vygo had gone to a world that the Shroudstar group would have dubbed inhospitable. What little civilization they found were abandoned primitive villages in tightly packed woods. Well, the clumps of growth resembled woods, but lacked leaves and each branch between two vertical shafts pulsed like a heart. Beyond the woods were grasslands, though the grasses and small plants there had feathery edges. It soon became apparent why there were no large cities on the plains. Two human-sized graves rested next to the carcass of a gigantic predator on six legs and enormous footprints showed what had been gnawing at it. Eventually, Ulurin and Gynnaefi had to pull Lysl’s shell along as the adventurous Ureonggaksi had been unsettled quite a bit by their find and was cowering inside. “Damn, she’s… this much.. stronger than I am? Lysl, get out please!” They set the shell down in a small depression in the landscape. Ulurin sat down on the ground and tried to catch her breath while Gynnaefi flopped onto her back.

“Whew, what a trip.” A Revenant could get by without breathing, if Gynnaefi did not want to talk, but exhaustion still marked her face. “I’ll say. Now just let me cast a spell here and we’ll rest for the remainder of the night.” Lescaiy then walked around the shell in a wide circle and the wand in her hand trailed a faint line of magical energies. “So, do you think we’ll find them?” Lorua glanced at Daegra who shrugged. “We have to try. I’m just hoping Lysl will come out again, we can’t leave her here and dragging this shell is dangerous… Not to mention exhausting. Still… I can’t believe we are no longer on Praxis.” She sobbed, burying her face in her hands. “Sorry, its just… overwhelming. I see stars in the sky, but none that I know. I see these weird plants and creatures and I don’t know them either.” She felt gentle hands comfort her as Lescaiy completed her circuit. The door to the shell opened cautiously at that moment and two yellow eyes swiveled around on the ends of their stalks. “Is-is it safe?” Ulurin grunted. “Yes, its been safe for hours. Damn it Lysl, I’m sore all over hauling that blasted shell and Gynnaefi’s not doing any better.” Lysl exited the shell then and set about relieving those sore muscles with a bit of gel and a massage.

Not long after they had eaten a generous meal encrusted with rice they slept. In the morning they awoke to see an incredibly large snail peering in from the other side of the protective barrier. Gynnaefi couldn’t resist teasing Lysl. “Hey, why don’t you introduce us to your loveable cousin.” They shared a laugh, but Lysl did spend some time with the snail and its companions, leaving Ulurin to chase one out of Lysl’s shell with some unexpected results. “I’m sorry Lysl, but the one that went inside made a bit of a mess in the cabinet with the jamjars. It zapped me somehow too.” The Minotauride’s auburn hair did look a little frazzled as they left their campsite. Many hours later they came across evidence of the missing villagers and Vygo’s reconstituted army and not long after they spotted some of the latter taking measurements along a path of sorts. Hominids in bark suits trailed after them in the manner of local people not believing what they saw these strangers do, yet being curious all the same.

Daegra curtly asked the troopers where Vygo was and they directed her to an enormous bowl in the landscape. More of the local bark-wearers were bemusedly going about their daily lives while troops patrolled around or tried to get them to help in the work that had started there. They goggled, in the centre of the bowl a primitive version of Karpathia was taking shape around a lump of rock that they guessed Vygo might be at, if considering the flashes of magic thrown about. Commander Limark had not improved his looks by getting his flesh reconstituted, the gruesome hooks protruded from greenish puckered flesh and his eyes were flat as those of a fish. Yet he received them courteously.

“The emperor wished to start anew, yet I conclude that he misses Karpathia as much as we do. The locals think we are Gods of a sort and do not mind his efforts, even applaud them at times.” He spat a nasty gob into the dirt. “Strewth it if they aren’t the dumbest human-like creatures I’ve met though.” He asked them in short their mission before leading them to Vygo. Daegra did not know how the man would react, but evidently neither Limark nor she herself had expected this glower. “Ahh.. Daegra I did mention that it would be a bad idea to follow me. And yet you did, bringing your gang along. Oskhar must want my head badly?” He shook his head. “No, evidently not or he would have sent the army. Your snailgirl’s mysterious cousin then?” Daegra shrugged. “Not the one you meant, but yes. Lets just say that Lysl’s family extends quite a ways and that as a result we’ve been asked to bring to your attention that, metaphorically, you left the fire raging in the hearth and its trying to eat the rest of the house now.”

She extended a pristine cream coloured scroll with an Aranaei-silk binding and placed it in a graciously dismissive hand. “In short though, because you are somehow tied to the Heartlands, they suffer in your absence. If you don’t undo the binding, or pass it, Karpathia and everything around it will be torn to shreds.” Vygo shrugged, then undid the binding on the scroll. Affecting an air of boredom he started reading, but it soon melted into a look of minute respect and surprise. “Well, she did her homework, I’ll say that much.” He then casually tossed the scroll over his shoulder and started walking away. Daegra had foreseen this somewhat, so the scroll never landed, but returned to her hand. “You seem unwilling to ponder the contents, or give me an answer. Care to explain why?” Vygo did not even look at her. “It should suffice as an answer. I care not. Those vermin now living in my Karpathia had all but erased me from history. Karpathia is done with me, and I with it.”

Daegra shook her head. “No. Obviously not. Or else you would not be making this poor copy of it on a different world.” She stopped as he did, but continued in her lecturing voice. “I agree that more than a bit of your rule was covered up in the history books, but given what has been uncovered since you left I can’t entirely blame them. Vygo the scourge, who whipped into a nation by force a diverse people. Dissidents were staked, or drained of life to prolong that of your personal troops. Their cultural identities were stripped from them and their bodies were owned by the state, to be used to breed better soldiers.” She tapped the ground with a staff borrowed from Lescaiy. “Vygo, harbinger of sorrows who waged war unending on those parts of Praxis that he could reach. Eventually stopped from consuming yet another soul by four legendary wizards, though before then they were considered hedgewizards. Poor ones at that.”

“Oyarijm the Decrepit called your soul back from Hell years later and Malus Lockedheart, as then warden of the place was so embarrassed that he covered up your escape and sent you to liberate the realm under the necromancer’s rule for his own purposes. Huyin of the Winds, a famous Celestial painter made your portrait and bound your soul to it at Malus’ behest. After that you had several reigns in borrowed bodies. Each time a little less cruel, but still harsh enough against those that did not share your way of thinking.” Vygo snorted dismissively. “So what? Before I gathered them, those people were incessantly at war with one another. Raiders from outside were better at it then they, so I had to give my people some advantage.”

He held up a finger. “Selective breeding, for a time at least, helped to end those raids by making the populace more hardy. And bringing the former raiders under my rule ended the conflicts with them. Though that also opened fresh ones with neighbouring nations who wanted revenge on my new subjects for prior raids.” He spat thrice. “Hypocrites the lot of them. They raided right back themselves. Humans are not the nicest species to grace the universe, leader girl. Despite what you and other mamonme might think they all too readily resort to violence when their lives are upset. I do not know this new Principal God, who seems to prefer the milk-and-cookies approach, at least not personally… But I want no part of her plans for the future of Praxis.”

He glared at a protruding rock and it exploded. “I stood at the cradle of Praxis’ post Age of Marvels human civilization. I gave it the stability needed to grow and I still end up as less than a childhood terror for being as strict as was needed. Without me there would not be a Karpathia. As they do not wish to acknowledge even that, let them be damned.” Daegra shook her head vehemently and reformed the rock through telekinesys, a mental discipline that Tulpa had acquired long before physical bodies. It would lose its form again if she wavered, but she did not intend to. “Really now? Did you compose High Meadow then?” Vygo’s annoyed look deepened. “What has that got to do with anything?” Daegra looked him square in the eye as she replied.

“Did you sculpt Caressing the Harvest? Or did you write Dance of Midnight?” He slowly shook his head, so Daegre pressed on. “All those and more besides were created in the Heartlands. Most of them are considered essential pillars of modern human and mamonme culture. Neither were you the one to sign the Treaty of Grazing, which ceded control of the Grazelands to the Bovitauride Queen Muntispeer while ensuring that such would not lead to an invasion by the Demon Lord. You did not fund or go on the expedition that brought a new way of medication from Zipangu.” She breathed deeply. “The Heartlands are more than just you Vygo. All who lived there, all who still do and those that still might helped to shape Karpathian culture. You see the capital and the land as one thing…” The rock floated into his line of sight and separated into shapes reminiscent of a puzzle. “But the truth is that they are made up of many smaller parts. Each contributing to the whole. Your palace, the Royal Museum of Karpathia was not decorated by your own hands. Look at the thing you are making, it is almost an exact copy of it.”

“You do pine for Karpathia, or else you would just have asked a local artisan to design a new palace. But Karpathia and the Heartlands are alive in more hearts than your own. If you let all of that be destroyed simply because you were not remembered in the way that you wanted then you are not worthy of trying to copy them.” She let the rock dissipate again, mentally scolding herself for basically inviting death by her words. “Even if you succeed in making a perfect physical copy, then it will not be Karpathia. The people living here are different for one and forcing them to live as you want will lead to a repeat of your first defeat.” She brought the scroll into view again. “So, please do not scoff at the milk-and-cookies approach. Help save the Heartlands by either returning, or by removing the bond and she will see to it that your name is remembered objectively without flowering things up or hiding the truth. I love the Heartlands, as do my friends. As much as any physical place can be home to a Tulpa, that is mine.”

She grabbed his leather armour. “I do not care if I have to physically slug you, or the Principal Goddess, or even the Matrika Beluaine in order to save my home. But I will not sit idly by and watch it be destroyed because you want to throw a tantrum.” Vygo laughed, a truly deep and rich laugh that surprised Daegra and Limark both. “So the timid one has found her fangs. Ahem~! I do appreciate your candor Daegra, but I still do not care to return.” He put a hand to the palatial rock. “No matter what changed before, it was still my home. Not so this time. I do yearn for what is lost, I suppose, and having it all destroyed would be even less of a legacy than I have gained through sweat and blood in retrospect.”

He ordered Limark to move the rest of the Shroudstar group to the mess tent for some food before turning to Daegra again. “Do you not wonder why I tied my essence to the land?” Daegra admitted that she had pondered this. “The reason was not vaingloriousness. My Heartlands were once attacked by Nephyrum. Though we fought them off, they placed a cursed spell on it. One whose effects I could only postpone indefinitely by patching the resultant gap with my own essence as a bridge. I cannot undo the binding, but I can transfer it perhaps. And you are handily available.” Magic spat from his hands and Daegra found her very soul being opened like a trunk. After an eternity of phantom pain she woke to see Vygo standing over her, a hand extended to lift her up again.

“You now have the binding. Transfer it to another when you die or let your soul become part of the land. Either way will work out for the best.” He sighed and Daegra asked the first thing that came to her mind. “What will you do now? Continue building this city?” He shrugged. “I will occupy my time with something worthwhile.” Daegra nodded. “Then I wish you good fortune, emperor Vygo.” And with that, the Heartlands were saved. They spent the night in Neo-Karpathia, hearing all sorts of stories from the reconstituted troops and writing them down faithfully.

Chapter 5. The legacy of Vygo

It had been a couple of months since Daegra had returned to Praxis at the lead of the Shroudstar group and life had been unexpectedly good for them. Her newfound connection with the Heartlands had been a little unsettling at first, seemingly imbuing her with a presence that hovered over her shoulder, but she was comfortable again. Lysl had invited her and the others to the next gathering of her family, an honour that implied adoption into it sooner or later. Yet the Ureonggaksi had become a bit preoccupied. The giant snail that had invaded her shell had left a clutch of eggs in the storage and its subsequent tussle with Ulurin had caused what she called the purple special to drip onto the eggs. As a result of which, small Ureonggaksi-like forms could be discerned within now, though they looked different from other developing babies.

She and Lescaiy had been offered permanent membership in the Shroudstar group and had accepted joyfully. Gynnaefi, Lorua and Ulurin had insisted on a party and Daegra had been more than happy to share in the fun as well. Yet today she needed a clear head as there was something that needed to be dealt with. Her initial quarry sat nursing a single glass of wine, looking for all the world as if it were swill rather than the best vintage this inn had to offer. “Ahh, lady Daegra. You wish to apologize for not completing the commission, yesss?” She replied tersely. “No, Pahdan Effein. I am here to inform you that you and your master the Deathknight are henceforth banned from using any ruins chasers belonging to the Heartlands collective.” Daegra infused her arm with mental strength and threw the bag the man in front of her had given her those months ago back at him. His face showed a mixture of surprise, pain and rage as the force of the throw threw him and his chair onto their backs, skidding a ways.

“King Oskhar has put a bounty on your head as well, for unleashing a menace, being party to said menace assaulting the king and the country… The list goes on for a while. But I shall not claim the bounty, I’ve no desire to touch any part of your filthy form, not least of which that lice-ridden head. Get out!” When the affronted man drew his knife, he found more than a few other patrons had drawn their own weapons, Daegra merely smiled in a nasty way and he fled. After she had said goodbye to the people at the inn she left, hunting for big game as Ushi-Oni would put it. The truth was, she felt more like she was being stalked by her second quarry and felt unsure what she should do. On the one hand, once he had stopped acting like a bee-stung bear he had proven an… interesting man to say the least.

Tulpa were considered picky when it came to marriage, seeking husbands with the right mind more than any other aspect and this one rang her bells so to speak. Together they might do a lot of good to boot. On the other hand, it would most likely put an end to her days as a ruins chaser, probably forcing her into a role she felt no connection with. But nothing was definite yet and all the others had advised her to at least accept his invitation. Gynnaefi had joked about trying before dying, yet had then spoken in an unusually subdued voice about her missed chance to fall in love with someone while alive. So Daegra swallowed her reservations and made her way to a manse set against a ridge at the outskirts of the inner city of Karpathia. A well-tended hedge-maze caressed the mountain and an orchard rose from within.

“Ah, lady Daegra, here to see my boy eh?” Danthra was an old Minotauride, known to have been king Oskhar’s nursemaid, confidante and gardener since his birth. The people of the Heartlands loved her by all accounts, but they had a healthy fear of her axe-honed temper. “Yes lady Danthra, with your permission?” She received a curt nod. “I do hope you did not skip underwear, as those hopes are best tempered for now. Unless you want to spend the night in the maze, and many other nights as well.” Danthra had been smouldering after reconstituted troops had stuffed her down a slick well and only iron-tight self control had kept her from lashing out. Daegra nodded and was rewarded by a flashing smile. “I’m actually counting on you to keep his passions on the cooler side.”

A snorting laugh was the eloquent reply Danthra treated her to. Inside the manse, king Oskhar welcomed Daegra and gently reproached Danthra. Dinner was a quiet affair, and after Danthra retired Daegra found herself in an overlarge, but comfortable chair facing Oskhar. “My apologies for any harsh words Danthra may have uttered, Daegra. She means well, but is a bit overprotective.” The king frowned. “Seeing those gray hairs in her coiffe worries me though. I’m by no means ignorant of mamonme physiology and I’m keeping a close eye on her health therefore. But I do not intend to bore you with my concerns over my second mother. I once again have to thank you for all that you have done, yet I must ask some things of you.” He sighed. “You carry the heart of the land in yourself now, but you have no idea yet how to transfer it?”

“No, my king. I’ve been poked, prodded and targeted by more spells than I care to recount, but the only hypothesis that came of that is one of waiting and seeing.” He nodded. “And this… ancient old coot is going to try and repair what Vygo patched? And that this will take years at least?” Daegra nodded. “Then why are you intending, and don’t deny it please, to go again to that other world before the repairs are done?” Daegra shrugged. “Call it a promise I have to keep. But you have been spying on me?” Oskhar grinned apologetically. “My spymaster yes, though not out of malice. We simply can’t afford to lose you.” He stood up and approached Daegra carefully. “And honestly, I do not want to lose you. You are a competent, beautiful woman Daegra. I’m pretty sure you don’t care for the whole royalness of it, but as a man I would like to formally ask for your hand in marriage.” He smiled disarmingly.

“I’ve had a word with the collective and your group… Aside from all the advice given on how to woo you, I was able to get them to listen to my little plan. The whole situation showed me all too clearly that Karpathia has too many holes, flowery coverings and total fabrications in its historical records. Strewth it, the whole of Praxis does. So I’ve decided to nationalize the collective of ruins chasers and give them a royal charter with both permission and duty to discover the true history of the world.” He grasped her shoulder. “They would need to be supervised though, so if you say yes to my proposal then you will spend quite a bit of time chasing ruins still.” Daegra knew then that she would accept. Though first she learned what astonishing amounts of hollering a king might produce if doused with icy water by a Minotauride in a nightdress.

Not long after she brought the Shroudstars back to the world they knew not the name of. Lysl sporting a much smaller shell while one of her cousins babysat the eggs. The grasslands were much the same, though they had to fend off more than one gigantic predator. There was no sign of the snails, nor did they pass the tangled ‘woods’ they had seen on their first visit. Worryingly, when they found the trail where they had last seen locals and troopers taking measurements for a new road, they discovered scorched lands. The city that had been taking shape lay in ruins, a crater eclipsed most of it now and corpses lay in pieces all around. Lysl had to be carried in her shell at the sight, though Ulurin appreciated the wheel at the back and the lighter weight.

Daegra deduced swiftly what had happened. A meteor storm had decimated Neo-Karpathia several days ago. They recognized Limark by the single metallic hook sticking out from under a smoldering rock and spent a moment in prayer for his soul. An hour later they found Vygo, or what was left of him, trapped under another rock. Daegra’s hand shook as she touched his face. Vygo’s eyes fluttered open. “Leader…girl…”, “Don’t talk, we’ll get you out from under there.” Vygo shook his head. “Too.. late… almost… done… dying. Get home. She.. kept.. promise?” Daegra nodded. “That’s why we came here. I’d hoped to bring you this new history book, that is being spread across Praxis. You will be remembered, for who you are and for what you have done.” He smiled in response and breathed his last breath under an alien sky.

The Shroudstar group spent a week burying all the bodies they could find before returning home. When in a later age a different ruins chaser group sought to explore the world where Vygo had died, they witnessed the end of that world and brought vital information about the death of a star that would in turn save Praxis. But that is another story. In the meantime, Karpathia celebrated a royal marriage, blessed by the Gods. Or so it is said. Speculation ran wild as the new queen spent a large part of her days chasing ruins with her friends, writing books on her finds and fast gaining popularity. In a shell close by the palace, alien eggs hatched snaily girls with two eyes, four facial tentacles and a tendency to zap those they disliked. They soon showed a mischievous outlook on life and were named Ruanggaksi as a new species of mamonme.

THE END

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