Prologue: Morningveil

 
Prologue: Morningveil

Morningveil, home of the sun, shrouded in rain.

The sky, its stars obscured by the light from below, is clear tonight, letting the cool autumn air descend from where one might ordinarily see clouds, a gentle wind blowing through the cotton stalks. The chirping of insects and flapping of bat wings is all that interrupts the night's silence, save for the occasional crackle.

Morningveil, city of lights, never darkened even by night.

Tonight, too, even while its inhabitants sleep, the city's illumination does not dim for a moment, only growing brighter as the night continues, as if to shun the very notion of night. At the heart of it all, a great bonfire blazes away through day and night, held within a glass cage that spreads its brilliance throughout the streets while reflecting the light around it.

Morningveil, ever-verdant, ever-prosperous.

The harvest has been in full swing for the past two weeks, with the accompanying festival - two full days and nights of celebration - beginning at sunset tomorrow, on the heels of the harvest's peak, the moment some time presents itself. The shamans of the city, meanwhile - as well as one visiting golem, by the name of Malcharion - sleep in their quarters, a barracks of sorts maintained purely for the resident shamans, situated between the two temples. After a full day of work and no end of preparatory ceremonies, even a golem requires some rest, however brief. The spirits are, for the most part, absent; as they can be recalled at a moment's notice, barring a few exceptions, there is no reason for them to linger.

Morningveil, unassailable, unbreakable.

The walls of the city are lit at all times, casting their brilliance over the surrounding countryside. The gates are tightly sealed, an archer keeping a sharp eye out on every battlement, ready to alert the remainder of the garrison at a moment's notice. And even without them, the combined power of the spirits of light, death, water and time would crush most enemies where they stand. In over a century since its founding - quite an age for most nations, in these times - not once has Morningveil faltered, weathering the trials of war without the slightest crack in its defenses. Here is a city where its inhabitants, as they well know, can truly sleep soundly, night after night, without the slightest trace of fear.



Morningveil, burning, crumbling.

The first sound to wake those in the barracks from their deep, exhausted sleep is the cracking of wood, followed by a loud snap, as parts of the roof comes apart, dropping to the wooden floor and splintering into pieces, covered in flames, scattering embers and shards of wood everywhere with a series of deafening crashes. The holes in the roof serve to highlight what the windows, covered over with soot and smoke, cannot: the sky is filled with sparks and pitch-black smoke, the night echoing, now, with the sounds of heavy masses of earth, stone, mud and plant matter slamming into cobblestones time and again.

In each of the rooms - no more than a few seconds from each other - and doubtless the rest of the building, fire quickly spreads across the walls and floor, reaching up as if to make its escape towards the holes in the ceiling. Tonight, Morningveil is brighter than it has ever been before, and soon, there will be nothing left of it but ash.

Still not used to this bed. Tobias sighed softly. He had been awake most of the night, laying awake. The bed he rested in brought no comfort, even though he had been in the shaman's barracks for a few months now. He knew it was extremely late - he always knew exactly what time it was.

Many concerns rested on his mind - aside from his inability to honestly perform rituals correctly, there were the coming celebrations, his first as a shaman and which no doubt they would all be a part of, and the fact that he had not been the most socially 'vibrant' of the current lot of Morningveil's shamans. Even living in the barracks with them hadn't brought him much closer to the others - ever since his contracting, he had more important things on his mind.

Finally, after much wearying thought, the young smithy closed his eyes, and he began to drift off to sleep.

It wasn't the crackling or the splintering of wood that roused Tobias from his brief sleep - he roused a few moments before the wood began to crack. No, it was the smell. The whiff of the sparked rooftop caught him first, shaking him from his slumber. As he finally rose and gazed toward the ceiling, his eyes went wide.

"FIRE!" He bellowed, as he leapt from the bed. Oddly, as he threw his blanket aside, his heavy iron-plated boots clanked to the floor. He was already dressed, wearing all of his clothing, even his banded mail, to bed. Perhaps there were more legitimate reasons than concerns for his inability to sleep, perhaps not.

"WAKE UP, FIRE!" He roared again toward the doors to the other rooms. Rising, fully armoured and dressed, Tobias sprinted for the door, taking a single clean lungful of air before the room filled with smoke. He raised a foot to put a boot into the door, but in a split second, decided better of it - the other shamans were still here.

Turning on his heel quickly, Tobias dashed into the nearest room. The instant he stepped into the room, he knew he may have made a mistake. He was fairly sure this was... What was her name... Lucretia? He knew it definitely wasn't decent to burst into a lady's room in the middle of the night, and that she was known for being... Holier-than-thou, but circumstances demanded otherwise.

"Priestess, wake up! The barracks are on fire!" Tobias roared as he threw Lucretia's door open. Dressed in his leather trousers, heavy iron-plated boots and banded mail chest plate, he might even be mistaken for a solder, if he hadn't been in the barracks for a while now.

For the most part, the shamans of Morningveil were not what one would call 'sleepers', Vivian had quickly come to realize. It wasn't too odd to see the Hearthfire boy - man, she supposed - awake and listless as she prowled the barracks at night, and she wasn't entirely sure if Malcharion slept at all. She herself, while not impervious to the need, found sleep both evasive and rather unsettling; it tended to be far deeper than she'd like as of late

Tonight this was roughly as unfortunate as she'd suspected it was; the scent of smoke failed to rouse her, and neither the heat of the flames nor the crackling of materials woke her up until a bit of ceiling crashed down uncomfortably close to her head. While uncomfortably on fire. And even Vivian wasn't so jaded as to be able to roll over and go back to sleep after something like that.

The soldier sprang from her bed to the extent she could spring from anything (clad in armor, preferring the comforts of safety and familiarity to the comforts of soft bedding, having a rather dulled sense of touch anyway) and nearly tripped over herself hurrying out the door. Tobias's calls reached her ears easily in the hall and, confident that he was retrieving the others - those of them that had anything to fear from fire, anyway - she made a beeline for the door, primarily to ascertain whether this was some kind of siege (unlikely; Willow Glen didn't have the manpower, and she'd scarcely ever seen a turtle outside one of their shells) or, more likely, someone being entirely careless.

She wouldn't accuse Vulkan; that would be entirely disrespectful. But she might think it.

Lucia herself was sleeping soundly until her door was slammed open, jolting the young priestess awake.

"W-what," she stuttered, pulling the edge of her blanket closer to herself. As she began to recognize the figure standing by her door, her surprise slowly gave way to anger and embarrassment. That shaman, the irreverent one. She forgot his name, but that needn't matter - what is he doing in her bedroom?

Not that she had a chance to voice out any protest, since What's-his-name immediately announced his reason for barging in. He was telling the truth, apparently, as she could see the fire's glow from here. Lucia nodded. Truthfully, she was about to go into panic, but seeing that shaman being all excited like this, she conversely felt a strange sense of calm instead.

"...Get the others out," she said, climbing out of her bed. She had just begun to make her way toward her drawers before she turned toward him again. "Get the others out, and I'll follow. I promise to be quick."

"You don't expect me to run outside in a nightdress, do you?" She quickly added, just in case it wasn't clear enough.

Malcharion did not really 'sleep'. Not as such. The golem was tireless, indefatigable, and could go on for quite a long time without needing to stop - but he had always chosen to spend one hour of every day to himself, plodding off to a quiet, shady corner to stand and simply allow the gigantic suit of brutally-spiked armor to rest. To settle. The crimson light burning from the two eye slits of his tusked elephantine helm winking out, as if to further signify that your friendly neighborhood walking tank of destruction was OUT.

But Malcharion himself did not slumber. Golems are not known to sleep, nor do they dream of automaton sheep. He simply stopped moving, stopped working, simply because he chose to. That was one of the things Vulkan had taught him - he was not a mindless slave to be ordered around, or a machine simply made to work. Freedom, she had said, is the right of all sentient creatures. Malcharion had heard the same words parroted by a much older, much wiser, and much bigger golem that he'd met on his journey.

The ancient one had also lectured Malcharion on the matter of the skulls impaled on his armor, but by then the spiked golem had already stopped listening. Chose to stop listening, because the venerable one was beginning to bore him, and the subject at hand was a sensitive issue he had no wish to discuss.

But choice. That was the most important. Malcharion was a golem, and he is capable of making choices.

Just like how he made a choice to rise from his slumber - the massive plates of his armor whirring and clanking as he rose from his natural hunch, the eye slits of his monstrous helm flaring with the fire that burned behind them. Two massive hands, charred black with decades of soot and wrought into brutal fingers each the size of a man's arm, flexed open and close as he turned to examine his current surroundings. A plain, utilitarian room, most of its already bare furnishings having been removed by his request, to facilitate his ease of movement for being quite the impressively-proportioned entity. A small relief, considering that the entire place was on fire.

...Fire is not something of a concern to Malcharion. Vulkan was all about fire. The heat and the light of the forge, the sparks that fly from the hammering of white-hot iron - anything burning, really, was considered an act of praise for the Spirit, just as the act of creating something with your own hands was. Malcharion could have simply chose to stand motionless, allowing the blessed warmth to purify his armor, washing through him and leaving a nice layer of soot over the already midnight-black plates. The only things that would not be besmirched are the skulls on his shoulders, a small boon that Vulkan had afforded him.

Yes, Malcharion could have decided to not care at all.

But he chose to. Because he could.

It was such, then that he began to move. The floor shaking with every step as the nine-foot tall amalgamation of steel, brimstone and skull comes to life, bowing slightly so as to duck underneath the already generous doorframe of his room (although this was due to ostentation rather than consideration for the golem). It's with a deliberate slowness that he reaches out with one gauntleted hand, his arm the size of a grown man's torso, and it's then that he all but REMOVES a section of the burning wall in front of him. Giving himself an entrance into another shaman's room, which he had deduced as the one belonging to the shaman blessed with the spirit of the rain.

To the unfortunate shaman, this little scene would have looked like a monstrous, shadowy being reaching for him in the darkness, wreathed in flames, the fires of damnation burning in its narrowed eyes.

[FIRE. DANGER.] Comes the low, snarled roar echoing inside the dark suit of armor, twisted into something vaguely sounding like the death bellow of some ancient beast. [RAIN.]

A burning section of the ceiling caves in on Malcharion, as if to provide a helpful emphasis.

The wall crumbles away without any difficulty, shattering under Malcharion's hand as if it were nothing more than paper or dry earth. The quarters beyond are, surprisingly, similarly spartan, save for a bush growing inside a pot in one corner, now burning with the rest of the building. A few muddy footprints mark the polished wooden floor - the room was, before the intervention of soot and ash, clearly cleaned meticulously - and beyond that, the room's only contents are a bed, its occupant, and a small bowl of dried fruit.

As Malcharion tears through the room's left wall, opposite the bed - further adding to the building's rapidly increasing devastation - the sleeping shaman does not seem to notice in the slightest. The entire world appears to have done nothing to wake him, curiously enough. Closer inspection reveals that the room's only window is shattered, lumps of earth stuck to the broken glass, with further shards scattered across the floor, reflecting the flames. None of this, of course, poses the slightest obstacle to a golem.

Even Malcharion's bellowing remains completely ignored, failing to rouse the sleeper in spite of the cacophony. Another piece of the wall collapses, scattering fire across the floor and into the air, and still Anshar's shaman remains undisturbed. The reason for this soon becomes clear as the golem approaches - tiny pieces of earth, stone dust and strands of grass dot his face and neck, the latter of which has, it seems, been twisted out of place - very nearly a full circle, apparently without any struggle. He was, most likely, attacked in his sleep by whatever entered through the window. Though the attack was quite clearly recent, saving him is now quite out of the question; death was, most likely, instant.

---

Upon exiting the building, Vivian comes face to face with the full results of the attack. The city is only burning in part, mercifully; the barracks and armoury are all but consumed in fire, but the temples and houses alike remain untouched. A great deal of the ground is covered in a light sheen that, if the smell is anything to go by, comes from a generous coating of lamp oil. How one might acquire that much oil is another matter, though curiously, the trails keep some distance away from the two blazing buildings, as if to stop the fire from spreading. Instead, they lead from most of the houses to the boxed fire at its heart - should the cage be broken, it will no doubt quickly engulf a large part of the city.

The source of the noise, too, is quickly identified. Swarms of golems run through the streets, malformed humanoid figures of earth, stone and plants, as if thrown together in a hurry by a careless artisan. Round, winged blobs of mud fill the air, featureless save for hand-like protrusions, gripping the handles of buckets filled to overflowing with burning tallow and boiling tar.

The automatons continue their charge through their night, never even noticing Vivian, going about their business without paying her the slightest attention. A quick look reveals their entrance: A gaping hole in the city walls, not broken by any siege weapon, but looking for all the world as if the wall had willingly folded itself away to make way. Despite the chaos, and a number of golems crowding around the central flame, none of them seem to be doing anything to contribute further to the destruction of the city, as if they are waiting for some sort of signal, or perhaps under orders to avoid escalating the situation any further for the moment.

Slapping a hand to his face, Tobias stepped away from the door frame, with a harsh sigh and a shaking head. As he did, he took a curious sidestep, only to have a part of the roof collapse directly where he was standing.

"You're kidding, right?" He growled, quickening his pace.

"Formalities can wait - you'll burn to death otherwise!" Reaching out, Tobias grabbed Lucretia by the wrist, and put his face within an inch of hers - he was intent not to be mistaken over the ruckus. Crashing and shattering wood and stone could be heard a few rooms away, and Tobias' ears pricked worriedly.

"We move. Now." He added, over the towering inferno that was slowly absorbing the barracks. Despite resistance, Tobias' grip was vice-like, yet soft - he knew he wasn't wielding a hammer, but he held on for deal life in any case.

With a flick of his hand and a bend of his knee, Tobias stepped forward, and scooped the frankly hoity woman up over his shoulder, resting her gingerly on his flat pauldron. Ready to now move, he hotfooted it over to the cupboard, ripped it open with his free hand, and grabbed the first handful of clothing he could see.

"Here." He called, reaching his arm behind his back to hand Lucretia the bundle of fabric. He wasn't sure what it was, but it would have to do.

Turning, Tobias finally made a dash back through the burning rooms, and toward the door. As he passed his room, with a expert scoop, he swept up his father's backpack over his free shoulder, and dashed to the exit.

As he stepped outside, he found Vivian, another of the shamans. Setting Lucia down next to her, the lad paid her no mind as he turned his attention to Vivian. Tobias felt more at ease with the pale-looking shaman, she seemed to be a soldier, like him, and he felt he could at least speak more level-headedly to her.

"What's going-" Tobias barely slipped a few words out as he stared intently out at the scene. Immediately, his eyes caught the oil trail, and all of its forking tangents leading back to the city's heart, the central flame. His eyes widened, heart sinking as he realised their plan.

"They're going to burn the whole city!" He growled, following the waves of golems, tracing them back to the hole in the city's wall, so neatly folded away. "But... Why are they waiting?... Agh.." Hissing, he turned to Vivian, speaking directly, still paying no mind to Lucia.

"Bastards. There's no time to deal with that, we need to deal with these fires, and protect the heart. Where are the other two?" The young man turned back to the barracks - he wasn't so concerned for Malcharion, nor the other resident shaman - after all, he was a shaman of Anshar, and water was its domain.

As Vivian looked out into the besieged city, not a word rose to her lips. There was an immense sadness and a quiet fear, and already, a sense of anger and shame, mixed. Something had gone horribly wrong, and she ought to have been there from the start. Reflecting on that, she did find a number of words came to mind in short order, but none of them were the sort a lady ought to utter.

She did not start as she heard Tobias emerge, and her eyes flicked over momentarily, then widened ever so slightly. Then, an eyebrow quirked.

"Bit of an odd time for a honeymoon, isn't it, children?" For a moment she flashed a half-smile, the awkward grin of someone who knows that this is absolutely no time to be joking and insists on it anyway. "We need to get as many people safely out of the area as we can. Unless you have a swift way of dealing with these damned mudbeasts without lighting the whole city ablaze, I'll leave that to you, Hearthfire." She didn't feel she needed to remind him to keep an eye on the girl; indeed, maybe he was doing that a bit too much already? Ah, it was so lovely to be Lucia's age...

Oh, yes. Citywide fire.

With a short stretch, something also oddly at-ease given the situation (and not so easy to do in fairly heavy armor), she began to move. it was not swift at first, but it grew swifter quickly as she called Madrich to her, into her (or, perhaps, he drew her into him; it wasn't something that happened often enough for her to think hard about it). Her body, one moment darting around the constructs invading the city, jerked vicously up into the air, her head snapping back in an unhealthy-looking way before being swallowed by darkness and wreathed in spirits.

The plan wasn't one Vivian liked. It wasn't a pretty plan. She didn't know if it would work, and even if it did, there was the ever-present fear that it would work far too well. It would be dramatic but not incorrect to say she could feel Madrich's hand gently guiding hers, easing her fears in his cool way, as the ominous shadow that was their shared form glided toward the central flame.

A small apology was delivered into the darkness that she and Madrich occupied, as it always had when they nee - it was not to Madrich, of course, but to the people she might hurt as she tapped into his power. This time, she feared it would be a great many - she was forcing his cold influence out into a very wide scope. With any luck, she wouldn't need to do much to drain what life these mudmen had, and the people would walk out of it with a sneeze, or maybe just a little wobble in their gait as they ran from all-consuming flames.

An invisible wave pulsed out from her location over the streets of the city, a certain feeling of dread and weariness, and Vivian felt, on some level, that she had done something Terrible. That was often the feeling that accompanied the pride of defending Morningveil, and moreso, one that accompanied her duties as a shaman.

There was still, of course, the task of dealing with the fliers, but with some care...Well. Certainly Anshar's lad would be able to handle the worst of it, as far as they were concerned.

Lucia was about to turn back to her cupboard, but she was prevented to do so by a sudden grip on her wrist. How dare he touched her like that! She was about to launch into a string of complaints, but she could only manage a gasp when What's-his-name brought his face a little too close to hers.

"W-w-wha--"

That momentary distraction was enough. The next thing Lucia realized was her being hoisted over his shoulders, and her face was now beet red for an entirely different reason. "...W-what do you think you're doing?!" She tried to struggle, legs waving in the air and fists pounding against her carrier's back, but it was all in vain. "Put me down this instant! You brute! Peasant!" She ceased protesting only after he handed her some of her clothes, but it didn't take too long before she began again. "If you do not stop..."

He did stop, though, and placed her right beside Vivian. The only response Lucia could manage to the commander's zinger was a blushing grunt, but even she quickly realized that something bigger was afoot.

"By the spirits..." Gripping her clothes tightly, she watched as the army of constructs went about while a fire raged in the center of the city. Thank goodness for What's-his-name, she rolled her eyes as he delivered a report on what's happening before them.

When Vivian transformed and unleashed her spirit's power, Lucia drew a quiet breath. She had an idea on what was about to happen, but it would perhaps be better not to contemplate on it too much. Rather, she should perhaps invoke Lady Eos and help to fight this invasion as well...

...But before that, the fire and the oil seemed to be quite troublesome. She glanced toward the barracks as well, waiting to see if they - the shamans - could gather their full force first.

Death was truly in the air this evening, and while no stranger to it - the golem had, after all, survived his own share of wars, each one much more dreadful than the last - the sight of the broken shaman, peaceful in repose except for the unnatural angle of his neck, was still enough to give Malcharion pause. Even with the burning barracks all but collapsing around them in crackling, smoldering flinders, the giant walking machine of destruction wrought for murder and war seemed to hesitate at the sight of another life so pointlessly lost.

No words of peace, then. Nothing from something like him. Only a reverent, careful silence, deafening even in the loud crackling of burning wood and timber, even over the slowly-crumbling foundations. Malcharion moves with infinite care, brutish armor-clad hands carefully wrapping the body in the blanket covering it; the face covered to preserve what dignity is left in such a brutal death.

This small bundle is then carefully lifted up by one gauntleted hand, cradled to a massive black breastplate adorned with bronze reliefs of demons screaming in their frozen torment. The other hand unlatches a massive, long-handled hammer from its holding rack on the golem's back. It is not so much a hammer as it is a giant maul, with its business end a hard-edged block of granite encased in steel. Demonic faces captured in their absolute worst are carved into the block; eliminating all sense of confusion as to what its purpose is - to take life, to destroy life, to reduce it into a pulpy smear.

Only a shame, then, that the hammer had been recently used for the completely opposite reasons. Like now.

It's with an impact akin to an explosion that Malcharion smashes his way out of the barracks - a single, purposeful swing destroying the outer wall blocking his path. Another swing clears the rubble, and it's with ground-shaking footsteps that the tusked golem lumbers out of the inferno. The eye slits of his helm burning with the same crimson light as the rest of the barracks.

With dust and soot and dirt powdering off his armor like ungodly dandruff, the golem immediately makes his way towards the rest of the shamans. A low growl issuing from his helm as he sees the Commander do her work; she would not need his assistance in dealing with his brethren, simple puppets were they. Still, it seems that his hammer would finally be used for its intended purpose tonight.

Malcharion grinds to a halt in front of Tobias and Lucia - the Smith and the Priest, as they were known to him. A creak of his joints, and he places the corpse of Anshar's Shaman in Tobias' arms. The pitiful bundle of lifeless flesh feeling so fragile in his unworthy hands.

[RAIN SHAMAN. MURDERED.] The soot-black golem growls, resting its massive warhammer on its pauldron-encased shoulder - the crimson eyeslits focusing on Tobias, and then at Lucia. Towering over them like a monster of the night.

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