Author Topic: Chapter 3  (Read 14541 times)

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Offline Daen

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Chapter 3
« on: April 08, 2022, 02:04:17 AM »
Chapter 3

The ritual was over. A navigator from the city had arrived to take care of Hallo’s body, according to stra’tchi precepts. The assembled crowd had watched as he carried Hallo away and they both vanished into the threads. Endu had then invited them to a late meal where they could share memories of him. Arico wasn’t sure he should attend at first, but decided to anyway. Durhu could probably use him, both for moral support and as a translator.

They had just reached the edge of the village when the ground heaved underneath them, as if a great beast deep underground was trying to shake them off its back!

There had been no warning. Arico crouched down on the ground, stretching trembling arms out to both sides to steady himself. He was dimly aware of others doing the same in the darkness, some screaming in fear as they reached for the nearest walls or posts to hold onto.

Mercifully, the tremors stopped after only a few seconds, but they were echoed by continued cries of dismay from all around him. The wooden frames of nearby windows and doors were still rattling, even after it ended.

What in the Multitude had that been? He’d heard of… what was the word? Earthquakes? Yes, earthquakes, happening in the distant past, but that had been before the Threading! The ground had never shaken like that before, not in his lifetime.

-.-

In the dim alleys and hard streets, Sabra reached out to the walls as if to steady them. A few bricks fell on his back and he grunted as he shook them off.

In her bed at the manor, Hazra sat bolt upright, her dreams instantly forgotten. The crashes of glass breaking in the dining room below echoed up to her, and she ran to the window to look outside.

The quake was felt all over the city, from hovels sheltering the very poorest to the tapestried halls of the Councilors themselves. The penets in their temple felt it, as did the soldiers in their barracks. Deathwatchers, dwarves, stra’tchi, Sustained, or otherwise, a universal fear swept the city as the earth shivered beneath them.

-.-

Pain shot through her shoulder, and her lungs burned. Kicking frantically, Jaas forced her way to the surface and took a ragged breath. Cold metal was digging into her left shoulder and arm, and she twisted away from it, coughing as she did so.

She blinked away the last of the water as she held onto the metal bars and took a look around. Inelem was nowhere to be seen. The river was grated off—that was the metal she was pressed up against—and both sides of the river were bordered by stone walkways. She’d made it inside!

She laughed aloud and looked around excitedly. She couldn’t see anyone, but that meant very little. She paused for a moment in shock, realizing that she could actually see! Starlight filtered down on her from above, apparently unimpeded by the barrier itself!

First things first: she had to get out of the water before she caught her death. The grate looked old but sturdy, and she used it to climb up out of the water and pull herself onto one of the walkways.

With a surge of panic Jaas realized her pack was missing, but then spotted it lodged in the grate and retrieved it. Carefully, she opened it and examined the contents. Her scrollcases were supposed to be waterproof, and she’d tested them before, but she just wanted to make sure. Of course her clothes were thoroughly soaked.

Despite those distractions, Jaas kept her focus on the goal. She retrieved a small metal sphere from her pack and slipped it into the specially sewn holder on her tunic, right next to her collarbone. She carefully pressed both ends of it.

“Field notes, the 15th of Martus, 1571. I did it! I made it through the barrier!”

She tried to keep excitement out of her voice for the recording, but knew she was only partially successful. Part of her actually had expected the barrier to kill her, so she still felt the rush of relief even just being here.

“My theory about breaching the barrier appears to have been proven correct,” she continued more calmly, looking up past the city wall at the sky. “However, the interior of the barrier is not what I expected. Starlight is shining right through it, which suggests that the opacity is one-way only.”

Belatedly, Jaas remembered a flaw in her own note-taking, one which had been pointed out to her several times over the years. “There’s no sign of the inhabitants of the city, not that I can see very far here.” She slapped a hand to her head. She’d forgotten to prepare an illumination spell! “Regretfully, I’ll have to work with starlight for now. Still, it’s a good sign. That means sunlight will get through as well, which is more than I expected.”

The grate was only a few spans from the edge of the city wall. There was a stone walkway carved into the inside of the wall, so she took off her wet shoes and used it to climb up to the top. From her research, she knew that the barrier was just outside the wall, but no further.

“From the inside, the barrier appears to be invisible.” She looked up suddenly. “However, before I entered the barrier, the sky was mostly overcast. Now there’s plenty of starlight, and the moon is just rising. I can also see no sign of Ine—of… my companion,” she amended quickly.

Jaas had decided to take this risk a long time ago, and to accept the results, good and bad alike. Lem had needed some convincing though. She didn’t want to implicate him through her recordings, in case he chose to… feign ignorance of what she was doing. She couldn’t blame him if he did.

Taking a deep breath, Jaas continued recording. “Either I was underwater for a lot longer than I planned, or I’m looking at some kind of illusion. In addition,” she leaned forward, “I can feel a slight breeze coming from the inside of the barrier. The exterior had no such effect.”

It wasn’t hard to find loose rocks lying around. She snagged one and then carefully and slowly pushed it into the barrier’s edge. It vanished as she did so, and when she pulled it back, it was partly gone.

That made sense. “Functionally, the inside of the barrier seems the same as the outside. Whatever I push into it is disintegrated, leaving a perfectly straight edge behind.”

She stopped as something else occurred to her. “This is strange, though. From what I’ve read, Vasiriah’s structures were made invulnerable by special rituals. The city walls in particular would have been reinforced with this magic. But I can see signs of disrepair here. The walls aren’t supposed to fall apart, ever, but they appear to be suffering from age and the elements.”

She peered back into the city, faintly making out collapsed roofs and shingles spilling into apparently empty houses. “As do the nearby buildings. Clearly, whatever rituals the Vasiri used to protect this place have failed over the last few hundred years. I’m continuing to look around.” She pressed both sides of the sphere again to stop the recording as she made her way back to the stairs.

This side of the river was covered with buildings, but the opposite had a few dozen spans between the water and the nearest structure. The buildings all matched what she’d seen of early Vasiri architecture. The stonework looked old, but still mostly functional.

There was a strange kind of wooden tower built right next to the wall on the other side of the river. It was tall, rising higher than the city wall. Jaas studied it more from where she stood. It looked like this tower had been designed to hold water or some other kind of liquid, and a lot of it. She couldn’t tell if it was empty or not, but it looked old. Perhaps a hundred years or so?

Jaas could see a line of red paint marking the walls and doors of several houses in a line, parallel to the river. After spreading the clothes from her pack out to dry, she took a closer look and found that the spaces between those buildings had been bricked off. A wall between every house that had been marked in red paint. Clearly, it was a warning of some kind not to pass.

Ignoring the still-wet clothes sticking to her back and arms, Jaas tried to focus on casting a spell. A simple divination should be able to illuminate any magic effects, dangerous or otherwise, beyond the red line on the door.

Nothing showed up, so Jaas proceeded carefully into the nearest house with an open roof—it would be too dark to see inside one that was still intact. In the middle of the living room was another line running through the floor and walls. It was more of a crack, actually, where the ground just stopped and started up again on the other side.

By reflex, she activated the sphere again. “I’ve come across something I can’t identify. A warning line of red paint has been drawn on some of the buildings. It appears to extend out of sight to the south. My divination spell didn’t reveal anything dangerous, so I’m taking a closer look.” She grabbed another stone from outside and slowly extended it forward across the crack in the ground. As she pushed it forward, the end vanished just like the one on the city wall.

“This is amazing. It appears there is a second barrier inside the city!” She removed the stone and studied the end. Just as before, it was shorn in half with a perfectly straight edge.

“I… think I can explain why my divination didn’t pick anything up,” she said more to herself than to the sphere. “If my theory is right, and the barrier was put in place by the Blessed, then no magic I know, or have ever heard of even, will be able to affect it. This is further proof that the Blessed are responsible, though of course this is just a preliminary search.”

Jaas felt short of breath. Not only had she made it into the city, there was another barrier inside, and this one was invisible. If it hadn’t been for the red paint, she might have walked into it and died! Neither she nor Lem had predicted anything like this.

“This barrier seems to function just as the other one does,” she described it as professionally as she could manage. “I can feel a slight breeze coming from this one as well. It seems to be projecting an image of the other side, just like the barrier outside the wall. Obviously there were survivors inside the city, and they painted the red line as a warning for people not to get too close.”

Feeling a fresh surge of excitement, she left the building and looked around. “I’m investigating the dimensions of this second barrier.”

It didn’t take her long to find one of the river’s many bridges and cross it, looking for more red paint. Something downstream caught her eye, and she paused.

According to her map, this entire city district was supposed to be filled with structures, on both sides of the river. Yet from here, she could definitely see the glint of sand next to the river. Sand which shouldn’t be there. Jaas made her way south to investigate, keeping an eye out for more red paint on the way.

Sure enough, the buildings had been removed. Probably brick by brick over a long period of time. In place of the flat paving stones was a length of sand at the edge of the water. But why? What had been the point of removing those buildings?

It was a mystery. Clearly no one was living here now, but the flat space suggested that people visited here from time to time. There were regular holes in the sand, too. Spaced just far enough apart to be tent peg holes. A seasonal dwelling? Had the survivors become nomadic after all this time? Jaas made a note of it into her recorder before continuing her search for the red paint.

Walking further east she found another warning line. This one seemed to be exactly the same, marking another barrier. She pulled out the map and tried to get her bearings. The two barriers seemed to run parallel to each other. On a hunch, Jaas headed south, and soon found another one.

“If I’m right,” she recorded as she flattened the map on the ground and began drawing a line on it, “there are multiple barriers inside the city. They seem to form a square, about one league on a side. That would cover…” She did some quick calculations in her head, “about two hundred acres.” She paused for a moment, thinking about the gravity of that as she knelt next to the map.

“The barrier outside covers the city’s dimensions exactly. It’s not a straight line. These internal barriers are different, though. From what I can tell they’re perfectly parallel and perfectly straight, going north-south and east-west.” She sat back on her heels and looked up. “The precise geographical shape suggests that the barriers extend the length of the city. I’m in one small square. If these dimensions hold true, there could be hundreds of squares in the city, each identical in shape to this one!”

For the first time she noticed that there didn’t seem to be any wind inside the city. Aside from the faint breeze coming from the barriers themselves, the air was completely dead. And she still hadn’t seen any animals aside from fish in the river. As she made a note of that into her sphere, she realized something else. “I used the flow of the river to find a way through the outer barrier, but I only brought two polymorphic scrolls with me. Each time I pass through a barrier, the spell will be removed. If I’m right and there are dozens of barriers between me and the river’s mouth… I’m stuck in here.”

Jaas realized she was short of breath again, though for a different reason this time. Unless she could find another way out, she would die, probably of starvation, and no one would hear this recording. No one would know what she’d discovered!

She shook her head. No, that was defeatist thinking. At the very least she could fish up a meal from the river, though she’d always found cleaning fish to be disgusting.

She’d barely even begun to explore this place, and she had supplies for a few days at least. It was much too soon to be concerned about basic sustenance. Besides, someone had cleared out those buildings and painted those lines, and they might still be around.

“Historians always assumed that the barrier went up as a defense against some kind of attack,” she continued recording, feeling her heartbeat slow down a bit. “The fact that there are subsections within the city, that there are even more barriers inside it, suggests that the city itself has been incapacitated by them. These barriers may actually be the attack on Vasiriah. Although… why the Blessed would want to attack the Vasiri is a much bigger mystery.”

Jaas gave a smile as she started up the street again. Her curiosity and apprehension had overcome her giddiness for a while, but now the euphoria was surging back again.

She’d done it! For three hundred years the mages and scholars had studied, bickered over, or just plain ignored this magic phenomenon, and she’d beaten them all! She’d done what none of them could do. She’d solved the puzzle, or at least part of it.

Still riding on that feeling, Jaas returned to her search, tracing the path of the barrier south.

She didn’t notice the two figures emerge from the river behind her.
« Last Edit: April 11, 2022, 10:28:33 AM by Daen »