The Actium was an old ship. One of the oldest in the Empire, even, if you looked outside of the higher vessels held within the Royal fleet. Sister-ship to the Geralta (the likes of which was famously brought down in flames during its maiden voyage during the second Expansion, and never returned to service) the Actium’s career was far from the spotlight. In place of conquest, being drafted up for the Empire’s noble subjugation of the new lands all those generations ago, the Actium was instead stationed on the Eastern Lines in defense of the general populace. There, it remained, as one of the few vessels dedicated solely to the Dwarven front, where the battles had already been won and borders had already been established.
And it very well did remain.
Remained until the Actium was a proud veteran of two hundred and fifty-seven campaigns.
Yes, for longer than anyone but the ledgers could remember, the Actium had patrolled along the Bloodridge Mountains. Sometimes a scout, sometimes a rescue, but other times: as a presence. No, to some, maybe it could even be called a beacon. Something that held meaning to those many troops below. Soldiers, waiting in their camps, or outposts, looking up towards the deep blue sky. For, truly, the ship had been present for so long, it was more than just a ship. It was proof that the Empire did not falter. That the reason mankind stood strong along the front, was because did not forget the threat, no matter how much time had passed.
On the Actium’s ceremonial two-hundred and fiftieth campaign, the vessel was inspected by a Royal Shipkeeper and thereby marked as the only ship known within the Empire, to have capable been flying with not one, not two, but seven, separate, catastrophic, structural failures in desperate need of replacement. Each one, as it is noted upon the official documentation- in plain text: “patched and rigged more haphazardly than the previous.”
By practical decision, the Actium was immediately set to be retired.
Yet, then, by a far less practical outcry, as a result of wide-spread protest by the Eastern Legions, a Royal decree was drafted. One which proclaimed, a single exception. Thus, instead of being settled down to a slow dismantling, the ship was repaired and placed back into service, once more.
Repaired, though, would perhaps be an understatement.
For, as most already know: the Actium is an old ship. An ancient vessel, in many ways, and during its routine service, the vessel had been damaged, patched, damaged, and patched, so many times, many might even be argued the ship to be entirely different from how it began. In fact, to the untrained eye, it almost looked young. What, with a fresh coat of paint, and a new deck to replace the countless years of damage. Red painted wood used in place of composite or stone-strand for the purposes of weight and balance- expensive as this happened to be in the present times. The ports were new, the mast was new, as were the winged sails: but these are simply cosmetics. Even equipped with new sails, the Actium was not a thing of beauty. A proud, ram-style bow, stands out in a brutal fashion. The wide base, awkward, to the sleeker fashion of the younger generation of ships. New paint can’t cover up the lurking purpose held there. Of a ship, meant for an age where war was not just against the enemies of mankind, but of mankind itself.
As such, the Actium had no new weapons, either. In fact, aside from the small additions to its core over the years, the ship was utter spartan. No rune-worked ballista, or new technology tinkered together by clever Mages at the academy. No pivoting cannons, or mana-stone fed tubes. Far from these, the Actium was not given shortcuts to greatness, for it had never needed them. It had but one weapon: the single cannon, set directly into the bow. Powered not by crystals, but by a Mage’s own mana reservoir. Despite the exception made to keep it in service, other models of Actium’s variety had all but been completely set aside, as the generations began to pass. Growing less and less feasible, as magic began to cool. A term coined some centuries past by Imperial Scribes. Much as their egos might boast otherwise, the average Mage of present day can no longer control the elements like one channeling the raging tempest of a violent storm. No, clearly, those powers are only for the rightful few. Of the royal, or noble blood. So, while the Actium’s, itself, stood the test of ages past, those who might use it were harder to come by. Still though, none of this changed the fact. That, set into the bow, pointed as one might steer: straight ahead, and nothing but, was a weapon of great power. Housed within a framework of wood, metal, and some combination of the two. Twisted and impossible abominations of smithing, which came from a different era. Back when the mana coursing through the minds of men was still a raging fire. When the greatest minds alive bent the knee and put their powers to serve one purpose: the Empire’s survival. There was an undeniable power in this. In a material whose nature could not be replicated. Not even by all the Archmages, sitting up in their ivory towers, or all the Mages studying beneath them.
Yet still, it flew.
Winged fins to either side, cutting across the trailing vapor of barely formed clouds, set beside the jagged peaks of the Blood Ridge Mountains. The Actium tracked along the definitive border. Soaring, high above the lands below, beside the threshold which set the realm of men apart from the lost lands of their long silent Eastern neighbors. Where steep cliffs stood, like broken fangs or shattered daggers, and dangers lurked. Horrors, truly, just waiting for the chance to bring ruin. Mountains and peaks of sharpened stone, continuing without end, until the coasts of the continent sunk into the oceans. And, perhaps, even then.
Sailing beside these, the difference in terrain could be striking, even to those familiar with the lands. How the mountains abruptly began, with barely a plateau of highlands, before simply striking out against the clouds. To see that difference, where farm land and villages sat, hugging the ever-drying river that was fed from the steep valleys between these peaks. To watch the current pool southward, towards the ocean beyond the Southern horizon. Dying farmlands, now barely capable of sustaining their once beautiful estates, waiting in the dark shadows of looming giants. Ever bordered by blackened peaks, where monsters were known to roam, if not worse.
A harsh beauty, to be sure.
It was said the Dwarves brought this all to be. That they did so, as their people’s one, final, act of hatred and spite. One horrific act of violence, upon themselves, in the face of a war soon to be lost. For, the most ancient legends, back from before the Empire, tell of the East as lands of a different sort. Though, these might now be filled with nothing but desolate mountains and danger, it’s said they were home to a vast civilization. Where cities rose to rival any of mankind, lifted up upon a grand plateau. With roads of gold, and buildings of glass,filled with treasures and altars to unnamed Gods. Where Palaces of precious metals, armor, and jewels, were worshiped for the glory contained within them. For secrets, bestowed only to the most faithful.
Southward bound, following the river as it meandered with the small current still in its possession, winds gripped the winds with a steady elevation, the Actium and its crew paid little concern to the history beneath them. Barely a turbulent patch to be had, as their travel carried on. Every so often, far below, another fortification might be spotted. Just far enough from the mountains, themselves, to avoid falling debris, but close enough to respond at a moment’s notice. The Eastern lines of the Empire’s legions, spread thin in light of the recent proclamation. The fires lit within those encampments seemed far too few to meet the standards what was once the most honored defense known to man.
Looking down at them from his perch beside the open-air port hole, Mage Finel breathed in deep. The faint scent of fires was still on the wind, mixing the fresh flow of mana. Strong enough to set his beard on ends. Near the mountains, on a day like today, he could almost imagine he was standing before the Dungeon. Or a training room, carved out beneath the Academy.
“How far off are we?” Setting his hand on a long-running metal pipe, bracketed to the ship’s hull, Mage Finel shouted. “Ander, you hear me? I was told this location would be marked by [Eclipse] spells, on our approach.”
“I hear you.” The end cap of a hollow piece buzzed, quietly at first, but quickly growing louder. “Legions had a lot of people pulled, not long ago. They probably couldn’t send a full patrol like they’d originally planned.
“How are we supposed to know where this place is, then?” Finel continued his search on the ground below. “I’ve got better things to do with my time than wander around aimlessly.”
“Patience, Finel.” The bar hummed, as the other Mage’s voice reverberated through the rune-worked metal. The clarity shifted, as mana brought several of the markings to a soft, pale, glow. “South East of the Cutter’s Corpse Mountain was also what I was told. We’ve still got time.”
“Sure we do. But, we’ve still got to make it halfway down the continent for our second assignment, after.” Finel replied. “Can’t you tell the pilot to hurry up?”
“You mean, Captain?”
“They’re still green.”
“Well, it wouldn’t do us much good to put any more pressure on them, then. Certainly, not with all the more experienced folks gone.” Over the bar, Ander’s voice dropped in volume a bit more, coming through clearly as the final clarity check of the runes tuned. “Besides, this is important. Inquisitor seal was present on the order, so they’re probably just nervous.”
“It was?” Finel paused.
“You didn’t know?” Over the metal, Ander’s snort cut off with a hollow thump.
“Well… I suspected-”
“Light, Finel. Did you even look up from your tomes long enough to read what we’re scouting? It’s ancient ruins! Of course the Inquisitors are involved.”
“My personal research is hardly a distraction from my service, Ander. I just must have overlooked… I just assumed the Inquisitors were too busy, these days.” Finel muttered.
“How so?” Ander pressed, tone humorous.
“All the talk has been about the Emperor flying everyone over the sea to put out some bloody fires, and before that it was about some monster breaking the Northern Continent’s Sanctuaries.” Finel defended. “The Royal Seers have been sending out orders, I hear.”
“I’ve heard, on good authority, it has been confirmed as just one Sanctuary. Not multiple.”
“Oh, same thing. Unheard of, either way.” Finel replied. “Besides, ruins turn up all the bloody time. I don’t see why this is going to be any different.”
“And, it’s not like we’re going to be able to get any substantial force out into the ranges to deal with it.” Finel continued. “Why, I’d bet my favorite staff that nothing will come of this, whatsoever.”
“The Inquisitors are in the business of knowing what we’re up against.” Ander replied. “Even if they’re just going to order us to come back in a few weeks and set the cannon to it.”
“Light, I hope not.”
“Oh, it’s not so bad.”
“You don’t think they would, do you?”
“It’s really not so bad.”
“Well, that’s easy for you to say, you noble bastard.”
“If it were anyone else, Finel, I’d take offense.”
“Truth is truth, Ander. You’ve got reserves to spare, unlike the rest of us.” Finel shook his head, as he looked down as the approaching cliffs. They were turning East now, rounding the large, blade-like, mountain, cutting out a bit farther than those around it. “Last time I shot that bloody thing, I felt sick for days. Swear, the Mana potion didn’t make a lick of difference.”
“Well, if I were you, I’d just be grateful not to be selected to head overseas, then.” Ander replied. “I’ve heard they shipped out with entire cargoholds full of those.”
“Full of what?” Finel paused. “Potions?”
“Any and every. It was quite the fuss, just a few weeks ago.”
“Who’d you heard this from?”
“I’ve got some friends in the markets.”
“You?” It was Finel’s turn to chuckle. “What’s this now? A Mage, like yourself, fancying to be a merchant?”
“I prefer the term investor, Finel.” Anders answered.
“The service not good enough for you?”
“Oh, enough. We’re starting to descend more. Keep your eyes open, I’ve got cliffs in front of me, now.”
“Fine, fine. Understood.”
As the Actium turned further, Finel leaned with the motion. The momentum carried on, he knew. Sailors had all sorts of strange explanations for how this worked, each more ridiculous and outlandish than the last, but Finel had studied in the Academy, so he knew better. That his body would have, were it not for the wood beneath his feet, continued to soar out in the same direction the ship had been travelling previously. That, would he not have plummeted (and thus changed his trajectory by doing so) he might have shot out like an arrow, on the apex of the turn.
Somewhere South, he imagined.
Behind him, the crew worked- what little crew were aboard this particular day. Two soldiers with war hammers held on their posts. They wore light armor, chest plated with a v-neck rising out for deflection, but leather and chain for the rest. There was really, unless they possessed a very specific skill, little point in wearing more. Just enough to avoid cuts from indirect attacks. Any real blow from the enemies in these parts, and the armor wouldn’t matter much.
Finel knew they were intended purely for reassurance. Two soldiers, alone, wouldn’t be able to do much of anything, should the Actium happen to go down. If they had any true purpose in being on the ship it was more for the rare chance they needed to assist the stationed Mages in repelling anything that managed to board while in flight.
As the ship shuddered, catching some unseen updraft along the cliffs, Finel frowned. On days like this, it really made him wonder if he made the right choice, enlisting. It had seemed a best option, at the time. His family had been from a village somewhat north, but still close to the Eastern Fronts, and he’d grown up with great respect for the forces stationed nearby. But, things had been different then. As a boy, the farms were still growing crops without much trouble, the rains still came, on occasion, and more than that-
He grimaced, as the ship shuddered again.
More than that, many years ago, Finel would never have imagined his life would be at the mercy of some newer Captain.
Mages, even from less-than-noble stock like himself, were far too important to be risked dying due to a piloting error. Dying in battle, defending the Empire was one thing (however Finel would much prefer to avoid it) but being smashed up against a cliff and reduced to pulp because some wet-behind the ears, good-for-nothing, pilot decided to fly them into a mountainside, was another subject entirely.
“See anything?” From the far side of the ship, Ander's voice buzzed along the rune-worked metal. “I’ve got a few Constructs visible on the cliffs. Southern side is distant, though. Not worried about incursion.”
“I’ve got… nothing, oddly enough.” Finel replied, peering out from the ship. They were several hundred paces from the ground now, and still dropping ever so slightly, but he couldn’t see much of the local “inhabitants” as it were. Steep cliffs, what looked to be the sight of a recent avalanche, perhaps, but nothing moved or responded to their presence. “Wait, there’s one.” Finel corrected.
“What type?” Ander asked. “Some sort of animal-imitation?”
“No, this one’s a bipedal. Looks human-enough. Bit strange, though.”
“What’s strange about it?”
“Well…” Finel frowned. “One of the arms is twice as long as the other.” He answered, squinting at it, just to be sure.
“Intentionally longer, or just misshapen?” Ander asked. “I’ve heard that can happen, sometimes. Some sort of issue with how they’re produced, is the theory.”
“I’m not sure.” Finel had a clear look at it now. The creature was hanging off the edge of a cliff, head turning to track them as they moved past. The ship was getting closer, but they were still several hundred paces away. “It’s noticed us, though. Seems to be watching the ship.”
“Close enough to try and jump?”
“I’d just leave it be, then.” Ander replied. “Any others?”
“No, that seems to be the only one.” Finel replied, squinting. “It’s bizarre looking. Some sort of climbing adaptation, maybe? Been awhile since I’ve been assigned anywhere down this way, so I don’t know if that’s worth recording.”
“A little outside my normal territory as well, so… I suppose it could be important. Or, it might just be some sort of error.” Ander replied. “I’ve read some reports from the South, by the ocean. Seems as though they’ve been dealing with models based on insects the past few years. Easier for the Constructs to come up from the beaches, apparently.”
“Maybe… some sort of regional variation, then?”
“Well, if you don’t sound convinced, it’s worth recording.” Ander chuckled. “Ah, I’ve got sight on a flare. Get ready for another turn. South a bit further, but I think we’ve almost reached the ruin.” Ander’s voice distorted, as the ship jostled with another side wind. “We’ll have to descend a bit more to see anything.”
“Understood.” Finel responded.
The ship continued on, as the cliff fell away, soon replaced by smaller, sharper peaks below. Still, the Construct watched in the distance. Orienting itself to follow the Actium as it carried past. Joints and limbs (ignoring the long arm on its right side) seemed almost human, but bent so much farther. As it reached a distance that was almost completely out of Finel’s line of sight, it moved suddenly. Much like a contortionist, it skittered up to a gap in the cliff, and slipped away. Gone, as if it had never been.
Had it been a scout, perhaps? Finel wondered about that. Off to report its findings to some central location? The Empire forces had never found proof of such a thing, but the Constructs clearly had to be coming from somewhere. Deep underground, was the theory, but likely separate from the Dungeon, from what little exploration had been charted out that way. Many believed they were being formed within the mountains, themselves.
“Anyone ever manage to explain how those things communicate?” Finel asked.
“I was reading something one of the Archmages published, a year or two back. It was…” Ander hummed for a moment. “Silus, I believe? He did some study on the Soul element. Seemed to draw a hypothesis that they used their cores to pass messages.”
“Their cores? Really?”
“It referenced a study he had completed, related to crystals put under an active current of mana. The technical notes were beyond me, but apparently they can emit something like sound, or light.”
“And they respond to this?”
“Presumably, others can interpret this. Or at least, the other cores they had could react to it.”
“I see your time in the markets hasn’t completely ruined you, then.”
“Wouldn’t say that.” Ander replied. “I’ll admit, the notes were a little too much for me to make sense of. I’d need to reread.” He chuckled. “Even then, I probably still won’t understand, but I suppose that’s what sets the geniuses apart from the rest of us.”
“If you were a genius, they’d have you working in an ivory tower, you know.” Finel let out a short, laugh. “What a tragedy that would be, to miss out on all of this. God-awful mountains, filled with murderous horrors.”
“Is that sarcasm I hear? I’ll have you know- hold on.” Ander stopped short, voice cutting out. “Finel, you said the one you spotted had one arm longer than the others, correct?”
“Correct, right arm. Twice as long as the left.”
“I’ve got three… four of them, up on the cliff on the upcoming pass. Safe to say this is a regional trend.” The tube rattled. “And, I’ve got another flair. Light, the patrol is pinned down there. Something must have gone wrong.”
“They’re on the ruins?” Finel asked. “I’m still facing peaks over here. Damn pilot has me looking at nothing.”
“Yes! We’ve got a whole patrol down on the ruins, looks like they’re stuck. Two more flairs, now.”
"We’re descending… to much.” Finel noted aloud, as one of the closer peaks began to rise up. “Ander, why are we going so low? We’re close enough, as it is.”
“Hold on, word from the bridge…” The voice rang hollow for a moment, as muffled noises came down the tube. “Confirmed. Finel, the Captain has ordered a rescue. We’ll be head into a pickup.”
“You can’t be serious.” Finel turned, all but yelling at the metal. “Who does he think he is? Some bloody hero? That’s not what we’re here for. That’s not what we’re equipped for.”
“It’s the Captain’s call.”
“Captain?” Finel sputtered. “That boy can’t even grow a bloody beard yet-” His blood grew cold, as he glanced up at the rising cliff-side, just in time to see another humanoid form skitter into the cracks. That one wasn’t even fifty paces away. “Ander, tell the Captain to get us the fuck away from the cliffs, we’re too close.”
“It’s a tight fit through the pass, Finel. There’s no give on my side either.”
“Then, have him take us back up, we’ll circle back, approach from the other direction.”
“No go, we’re already too low for that. Besides, I got at look on the way in, they’re right up against the base of another peak. We’d have to do a full turn about and risk the ship.”
“Risk the ship? Ship’s survived plenty worst than that, what about us?” Finel felt his temper creeping, tempered only by fear. “This is foolish.”
They were too low. He could look out over the edge and see the ground was only twenty-five or so paces off, but what worried him more was the cliff-sides of the valley they’d flown into.
Much too steep to be natural, even for the territory they were in. Almost as if they’d been carved away, chipped and broken, to a degree that was almost reversing the traditional angle. Indeed, there were gutted places, that pushed out, further away from the mountains, and closer to whatever might be stupid enough to fly near them.
“Ander, report to the Captain that I highly advise we reconsider this course.”
“The Captain notes your concern.”
With almost lazy speed, Finel felt the ship begin to decelerate. Eyes watching the cliff-sides, he leaned out further from the port, to confirm. They were all but engulfed by this pass. It was too tight, and narrowing further with a gradual turn. It barely seemed noticeable at first, but now that they were deep within it, Finel could see the walls were closing in.
Walls, that were filled with jagged splits, and recesses of inky black stone.
“Keep an eye out, Finel. I’ve got more movement on my side.” Ander’s voice echoed through the tube. “Five… six. If they try and jump, I’ll hit them with a buffer spell. We’re still far enough away.”
“What kind are they?”
“Same as we saw before. Must be for climbing, or-” Abruptly, Ander’s voice cut off.
“Ander?” Finel asked, eyeing the tube. It was still active… somewhat. “Ander?” He asked again.
The runeworked metal did not answer.
Keeping his eyes on the cliff-side, Finel felt decidedly uneasy. There were Constructs in the cliff-side. He could see them now, standing in the shadows of those cracks and splits of stone. From thirty paces, they couldn’t possibly make the jump, but they were so close. Much too close. If they didn’t get out of this bloody valley soon.
Something moved, and Finel reacted. As he was trained, as he’d done a hundred times before, the staff in his free hand let loose with a rush of Air, casting a [Buffer] to slow whatever had just come at them. But, instead of being rewarded with a flailing body plummeting to the ground below, Finel got a gash on his cheek.
A deep one.
Embedded in the wooden beam behind him, was a long, polished, spike.
“What in all the Light?” Finel stared at it. Then, to the soldiers, who were still seated, deeper in. They looked at it as well, clearly startled. One of them began to rise.
It was a javelin.
A javelin of stone, that had been thrown off course, however barely, from its target.
It was difficult to process, truly. Absurd, even, as they all stared at it, mental gears turning about in their heads, as a shared feeling of horror passed between all involved.
“TAKE US UP.” Finel shouted at the metal pipe, throwing off his astonishment with another spell, just in time to intercept a second incoming projectile. It whistled past, greeted by a shout of pain somewhere behind him, but Finel didn’t have time to care. Looking out at the cliff-side, he felt the pit of his stomach drop in a way that had nothing to do with altitude. Closer and closer, the cliffs were closing in, and crawling out from every crack, every crevice, were hundreds of Constructs. Each moving with inhuman speed as they burst free of their hiding, long arms already reeling back.
Reeling back, to throw.
“TAKE US UP!” Finel shouted, hurling every spell he could think of. Fire, Air: it didn’t matter. He unleashed hell itself, as his staff burned away all the mana he had to give. In seconds, he spent it all. Casting, even his arm found itself pinned. “TAKE US UP!” Finel shouted one last time.
But, it was already much too late for that.