“This here is a giant. He’s bigger than you. Stronger than you. Not quite as ugly as you, but you get the point.”
A grizzled gnome limped across the training field of Black Road Keep, headquarters of the N’Jasti Army. The gnome motioned to the chained fire giant, who snarled and fought against his enchanted chains, but could do nothing to escape.
“Today you will learn how to fell something bigger and stronger than you. By acting as a unit. A team.”
Lamb made his way through the main gate, yawning into his hand. He jolted as he heard the gnomes voice call out.
“If you fail, you may end up like Watchkeeper Lamb here. A useless layabout. Isn’t that right, Lamb?”
“What? I mean… uh… Watch Master!” Lamb put his fist on his chest and stood up straight.
“Watch Master. Now he finds his dutiful spirit. It’s too late, Lamb, a little birdie told me about your tardiness… again.”
Limping over to him, the grizzled Watch Master, who oversaw the defenses of the city and doubled as an instructor, scratched his balding and graying head. He motioned over to a group of tables, specifically to one with a smattering of letters and parchments, in between a huge selection of weapons.
“Your mission, if you choose to accept it… and you will choose to accept it, Lamb.”
Opening one of them up, Lamb sighed.
“This is courier work, Chief.”
“And today you are the Hierophant’s finest courier.” Giving Lamb a firm pat on the back of the leg, the gnome smirked. “Unless you want to be a training dummy.”
“Fine fine… I mean… yes sir.”
Lamb sighed and walked towards the stables, stopping when the Watch Master whistled.
“Where do you think you’re going, Watchkeeper?”
“To the stables, sir?”
“A horse, I’d imagine… uh sir.”
“Oh no, Lamb. With your tardiness lately I’m wondering if its a stamina thing. Too slow. Too doughy. You’ll be taking the route on foot.”
“Lamb do you like N’Jast?”
“Of course I do, sir.”
“Do you like the smell of the battlefield? The iron of blood, that of your enemies, and the sound of metal on metal?”
“Do you like fighting for a greater cause, Lamb?”
“Do you believe that were all in this together, Lamb?”
“Of course, sir.”
“That every part matters, from the smallest cog, to the biggest, in this great war machine?”
“Yes, sir!” Lamb pumped his fists a little.
“Then you know that everyone has their part to play. And even this is serious work. It’s important. So you’ll take it seriously, right?”
“Of course Watch Master!”
SLAM. The gates slammed behind Lamb as he left, feeling hype. However as he took a moment to stand still and squint, he couldn’t help but wondered if he’d just been played somehow.
The first stop on his list was the Order of Jassa, the only academy of magic in N’Jast. Due to the strict control on magic within N’Jast’s territory, the Order of Jassa was the only place one could legally practice the craft… without running afoul of the law and facing some serious punishment, of course. The tower of Jassa was quite tall, surrounded by a thick gate, which Lamb knocked on. A little viewing port opened.
“State your name.” A blue cloaked figure smirked.
“I don’t know an It’s me.”
“… It’s me, Mal.”
“I don’t know that either.”
“Que’qo… it’s Watchkeeper Lamb.”
“… It’s Temple Lamb.” Lamb sighed. “Are you happy, Mal?”
The blue figure opened the port more, sitting on a magically hovering seat. The symbol of the order, Jassa’s Dagger, draped around his neck. Mal scratched his stubble.
“What is it? Someone die? Or another for the order?”
“No. Just the Watch Masters instructions for placements.” Lamb passed one of the parchments through.
“They got you doing courier work? Get fucked, Lamb.”
“I mean how unfortunate, Watchkeeper.”
“I don’t suppose I could borrow one of your floating chairs to make this easier?”
“Let me ask.”
Mal shut the viewing port and did an exaggerated two sided conversation by himself, full of wacky voices and all, before he opened it about 35 seconds later.
“Sorry pal, shit out of luck.”
“… Right. Well… guess I’ll be seeing you, Mal.”
With a bitter wave, Lamb turned away to hoof it back across the city. The shining tower of mages looming over him, with the occasional sound of magical activity echoing quietly.
Next was the the Shadow Hold, or the Office of Inquisitors. Inquisitors were, in Lamb’s view, Watchkeepers on magic juice. They were often clerics or highly devout folk, mixed in with mages, who often aided in the capture of criminals. However their primary purpose was to deal with heretics and rogue mages, especially those who dealt in demon summoning. The Inquisitors served a vital purpose, even still, they were looked upon with fear.
But hey, they always made a spectacle out of public executions, and few tears were shed over traitors, so Lamb never quite held much negativity towards them. The Shadow Hold was a simplistic two story building with a courtyard. The two glowing eyes on the gates looked down to Lamb as he passed, examining him closely. He waved to them. As he entered, he saw figures in black cloaks moving about, covering their light armor and numerous weapons. On occasion one would stop and nod, and Lamb would nod back, but they were rarely talkative.
As Lamb reached the doors to the main building, a figure appeared from the doors. He pushed down his hood, looking at Lamb with hostility. He was a buff man, tanned skin, about 6’5 with short blonde hair, and had two swords of odd make on both sides of his belt. One made of red glass, one made of blue glass. He approached Lamb, almost as if about to strike him, and then picked him up and spun him around with a hug so violent it caused Lamb’s bones to creak.
“What’s up, pup?”
The hulking man dropped Lamb, who almost fell over, feeling dizzy. The hulking figure was High Inquisitor Kay, but of course, Lamb preferred to call him by his first name, Hector.
“I think you snapped my spine, Hec.”
“Good. Broken bones make for a strong man.” He replied, softly punching Lamb in the back and making a pop noise with his mouth. “What brings the Watch Masters finest to my doors?”
Lamb wheezed as he handed over the parchment. Flipping it open, Hector nodded.
“Tag and bag. Tag and bag. Burning. Simple stuff. Consider it done and dusted.”
Hector looked from the note to Lamb and smirked, shadow boxing him.
“So when are you coming around to our side, Lambie? When are you going to trade the coat for a cloak?”
“Come on Hector, we both know I’d set myself on fire the first burning I attended.”
“Burned skin makes for a strong man.”
“That doesn’t sound right.”
Snorting, Hector pretended to give him an uppercut, and Lamb flung himself back as if hit. The two shared a laugh.
“Seriously, we’ll go shoot darts this week. You and me, it’s been too long little pup.”
“Sounds good. I have to go to the House of Sparks so I’ll get going.”
“Oh yeah? Going to see the Chemists?”
“Hah! Be seeing you, pup.”
Rubbing his sore back, Lamb went to his final destination.
The House of Sparks was a factory located within the heart of what was more or less N’Jast’s industrial district. It was not so much one factory as it was a bunch of buildings that eventually coalesced into one single organism. While on the outside it still kept a lot of its original look, on the inside walls had been torn down and paths made to make it more easy to walk about. It was not a place that Lamb liked to visit often, not because the technology they tinkered with wasn’t cool, but because it always made his lungs burn.
Lamb pushed his way through the main factory floor. It was a huge open space, where war machines and imperial armaments were worked on by gaggles of gnomes and humans who called themselves the artificers. A walkway loomed overhead, where access to the taller constructs was granted. The smell of fumes wafted from a nearby hallway, causing Lamb to tear up a bit.
Down the hall would lead to the labs of the Chemists, who were a branch of the House of Sparks who dealt in… chemicals and mixtures. Alchemy. They were an odd bunch, and were in charge of a lot of odd projects Lamb didn’t understand, but knew to stay away from, as it was too dangerous to idle around. Well, so was all this stuff… wouldn’t stop him from bothering the artificers.
At a table at the back of the factory floor loomed a figure, hunched over and working with delicate tools. Lamb approached, coughing again as he approached. It smelt of burning metal and all sorts of stuff Lamb would rather not be smelling.
“I am busy, Lamb.”
“It’ll only take a second.”
Zahn turned to face Lamb, the goggles he was wearing made his eyes appear super huge, causing Lamb to recoil in shock. Lifting them, Zahn frowned. He was never a pleasant fellow to speak with, always grumpy, always sneering. And quite frankly the stories about him made it clear that a bad attitude was the least of his crimes. Zahn didn’t see people, they say, he saw parts. That was the Master of the House of Sparks, for you. None the less, Lamb was rarely phased, and found Zahn to be more of a curiosity than a demon.
“What is it?”
“A list of repairs needed on the Watch Golems.”
“And you are bringing this to me and not an assistant because…?”
“Because.” Lamb smirked. “I love talking with you?”
Zahn went to turn away, and Lamb grabbed his shoulder to bring him back.
“Because two of them are old empire models and the Watch Master was very insistent that only you touch them.”
“… hmn. Reasonable.”
“I am glad you think so.”
Zahn snatched the folded parchment that Lamb raised out of his hand. He unfolded it, squinting his gray eyes and scratching his short brown hair.
“Fine. It will be done. Now if you’ll excuse me-“
“Did you see the parade?”
“I have work to do-“
“Belmont is back too.”
“Que’qo…” Zahn looked back, goggles lowered and tools now in his hands. “Don’t you have something better to do than bother me?”
“Not until tomorrow.”
Zahn growled, then turned back to his table. After a second of being able to work, Lamb spoke again.
“You’ve met Belmont right?”
“Ugh… yes, Lamb, I have met him. He funds the Guild. Of course I have met him.”
“What is he like?”
“He is less annoying than you.” Zahn sighed. “He understands the value of hard work. Uninterrupted hard work.”
“And he likes machines, right?”
“I would assume so or he would not have funded us.”
Zahn continued to work. Lamb loomed over him, hands behind his back, letting out little hoohs and haahs. Zahn was working on what appeared to be a complex series of… tubes and switches and sparky things that Lamb could not fathom. Zahn ground his teeth a bit, and looked back, big goggly eyes narrowing.
“I guess I’m just curious.”
“Que’qo… what is going to take to be rid of you, Lamb?”
“I want to borrow a rifle.”
“Take it and begone.”
Lamb lent over to the rifle shelf and snatched up a thick and heavy long barreled weapon. He walked off waving.
“Always a pleasure Zahn.”
“I will invest in locks, Watchkeeper.”
That night the celebrations continued. Taverns rang out with the sounds of music. The streets were full of revelry. Luckily for Lamb, his duty was only until the afternoon, and as such he could indulge in the revelry instead of have to police it. He sat in the largest tavern in N’Jast, the Garden of Gold, drinking with the other Troopers.
“I swear to fuck their leader was huge. Eight feet tall. His horse just as big.”
“And Belmont KABOOM nails this guy right in the head hahaha!”
The Troopers who had returned from their recent victory were in high spirits. That their victory had lined up with the celebration of the War of Unification seemed like a good sign. Lamb was too young to truly remember the War of Unification, but he had listened to the history classes all the same. After their crushing defeat at the hands of the Profane Ones, N’jast rose up under the guidance of a healer and teacher, crushing those who sought to control the city, and driving outside forces away.
In four days, N’Jast was unified from a broken mess of politics and greedy factions, into one fit fighting force. And in two weeks it had begun to take back holdings it used to own. All under the careful guidance of the Hierophant, the Emperor of N’Jast, though he never used the latter title himself. And since then they had only grown larger and larger, engulfing clans, tribes and holdings all across the eastern way.
“Que’qo’s don’t know what’s going to hit them come next harvest.”
Lamb looked down to the firearm he had secured from Zahn. It was a thick rifle, heavy and unwieldy, used by the N’Jast Riflemen, Belmont’s personal unit. Lamb stood up, stretching.
“Going already, Lambie?”
“He must be tired.”
“Drink too much?”
“First Jorren and now Lamb. Watchkeepers gotta learn to pace themselves.”
“Ah well it’s just hearing all these cool war stories. How am I to compete? I need to leave in shame.”
Lamb gave a dramatic flourish with a forearm over his eyes, causing the lively troopers to chuckle. He left the tavern with his weapon, feeling a buzz from his drinks.
Lamb made his way to the Edge, the last streets before one reached the Rookery. The Rookery was a place Lamb did not like, it reminded him too much of the past. The slums of N’Jast, where all that which did not belong (but was not outright destroyed) was pushed. He had grown up there, and was one of the few to escape it. He climbed a ladder up top of a downtrodden building, and sat staring up at one of N’Jast’s mighty statues. The stars shined brightly down upon the city, almost as if blessing the glorious nation.
Lamb spun around to the makeshift shooting gallery he had designed. Bottles were already set up on crates. A few jugs and ceramic vases. He took out a pouch of little round bullets. Firearms were pretty hard to get even in N’Jast, and using them for fun was out of the question. Still, the Watchkeeper had some pull it seemed. He loaded it up, and aimed it at the largest vase, pulling the trigger. With a loud boom… he missed entirely.
Lamb loaded up another shot as he pondered the war. He had fought in battles, all Troopers had, even Watchkeepers and Inquisitors. Everyone served the war effort in some way. Lamb wondered if he would ever take to the fields again. Battling some fierce barbarian foes, or maybe the Tugians and their horde. Maybe he’d fight the Thayans… or Peltarch. The Profane Ones. Lamb lined up the shot, and fired, blowing apart the vase.
Lamb was loyal. He always would be. Few in N’Jast weren’t. Why wouldn’t they be? N’Jast was everything. The Hierophant was everything. As Lamb loaded up another shot, he heard arguing. Crawling over to the other side of the roof, he looked down.
“That sounded like a shot.”
“We’re near the Rookery. Calm down. It’s usually a crook with a stolen smokepowder pistol. The riflemen don’t fire idly.”
Jorren’s voice caused Lamb to raise an eyebrow. His fellow Watchkeeper stood down in the alley with a person he didn’t recognize in a thick black cloak.
“Here, take it and go.”
“And you didn’t get it from me.”
The cloaked figure left, and Jorren sighed, tipping his head back. He saw Lamb, blinking. Lamb blinked back, rifle still in his hands.
“Uh. What’re you doing, Lamb?”
“… Target practice. You?”
“… Personal issues.”
“…” Jorren sighed. “I won’t tell if you won’t.”
Pointing to Lamb’s gun, Lamb smiled sheepishly.
Lamb moved away from the roof as Jorren left. It was a suspicious sight, but he trusted Jorren. After all, N’Jast gave them everything. Why would he ever seek to betray it?
The cloaked figure sat by his campfire. He had hiked for a few hours, and it would only be a few more before the sun came up. He sighed, clutching the envelopes he had been given tightly. Rustling in the bushes caused him to draw his weapon, a hand crossbow. Ready to fire the moment anything emerged, he felt his finger twitch on the trigger. As a figure emerged, he held his fire, though it took all of his power not to pull it immediately.
“You… you should have announced yourself.”
“No. I shouldn’t have.”
The far scout known as Jackal sat across from him. He took out a heavy pouch of gold and tossed it to the cloaked figure, who in turn tossed the envelopes.
“It’s all here.”
“And it’s real?”
“From a malcontent.”
“And he can be trusted?”
“I guess… look the more people we bring in to this, the more dangerous it gets. Are you sure this is wise?”
“No.” Jackal answered bluntly, going through the envelopes. “But orders are orders.”
“I want more gold next time.”
Jackal’s eyes moved to him. He didn’t answer, but just the look caused the figure to swallow. Jackal packed up the letters, preparing to leave. He turned back towards the bushes surrounding the camp.
“They still talk about you and what you did, you know? If they caught me with you, it wouldn’t be a pretty execution.”
“So… yeah I want more gold.”
Jackal turned back, still emotionless, still blank, but he didn’t need venom in his words to get it across.
“You were always very talkative, Que’qo. I suggest… you not be.”
Jackal kept his gaze on the figure, before leaving. The figure exhaled.
“Damn it… scary bastard.”
In the Court of Stars, a meeting was underway. The throne room was beyond majestic. A huge marble room decorated with banners and red carpet, with long rectangle fountains built into the floor acting as a sort of artificial barrier or inside moat that led you towards the huge throne.
“I know there are traitors in N’Jast, Chaya.” The largest of the figures sneered, an absolute behemoth of a man, the half giant Metzger. “I don’t need you to tell me that.”
“And you haven’t dealt with them?” Chaya asked, another of the lords of war, a lithe pale skinned elf who was busy polishing her shiny rapier. “I thought brutality was your specialty.”
“I would have strewn their guts about the streets as a parade opener. But mustache here told me not to.”
Chaya’s eyes fell to Belmont, who stood before the throne staring at the Hierophant. He broke his gaze to meet Chaya’s, and gave a soft nod.
“I received a report while I was battling for N’Jast about one of my fake caches being accessed. I figured we’d keep the threads in the wind and see where they go.”
“Accessed by who?” Chaya raised a brow.
“Who fucking cares?” Metzger snarled.
“I understand you don’t, bloodhound, but it is rather important.”
“Peltarch.” Belmont mused.
“Peltarch?” Chaya raised her brow once more. “Unusual.”
“It is… isn’t it, Metzger?”
“Grrrrn. I don’t know what you’re implying, Que’qo. But I don’t like it.”
Metzger loomed at full size over Belmont, who did not so much as flinch. Chaya, with swift and efficient movements, holstered her rapier on her belt and sighed.
“Are you done playing mysterious? And you, are you done playing rabid dog?”
“Metzger tried to make some moves… they didn’t work out for him.”
“Did the Hierophant approve?”
“It’s none of your business, Chaya.”
The Hierophant lent his head on is fist, watching his generals squabble in silence. Shrouded in shadows.
“Who business is it of yours, brat?”
A figure appeared from the shadows of the throne room, as pale as the moon, and with a noticeable set of fangs. He moved behind Belmont, who raised a hand, accepting the rolled up parchment without looking.
“Greetings, Majordomo.” Chaya acknowledged the pale man, who ran a long pointed finger hand through his pure white hair.
“Greetings, General Chaya. I hope that the southlands were gentle to you.”
“It was a dull campaign.”
The Majordomo, Valbrek, silently took his place beside the throne. He did not move so much as he glided, his long black and white robes masking his movements so much that it made him feel ghostly and ethereal. As Metzger and Chaya once again began to bicker, the Hierophant raised his hand. With a single snap of his fingers, which felt as if it echoed across the room, silence fell.
The Hierophant adjusted himself, his bright golden eyes moving to Belmont as he unrolled the scroll. Reading through it, he looked to the Hierophant and gave a small nod.
“We found it.”
The Hierophant lent forward, no longer shrouded in shadows. The tall figure wore bright white and gold armor, finely made and with intricate patterns and details all across it. He wore a face mask that covered the upper parts of his face, and golden leaves and fey branches had been woven into a sort of crown in his shining, wavy golden hair, that almost seemed to float on occasion as if he was in water.
“Good.” He spoke a single word, and the warmth spread across his generals.
“You… found it?” Metzger licked his lips, hungrily.
“Where is it?”
“Not where we were expecting.”
“Does it work?”
“I suppose we’ll soon see.”
The three generals looked to the Hierophant.
“You know what to do… obtain it at any cost.”
“It will be done, my Hierophant.”
The three generals bowed deeply and took their leave. The Hierophant slouched back on his throne, staring up at the tall void above his throne. Sparkling stars shined about, like the night sky, as if there was no roof.
“Metzger’s plans seemed to have been fruitful, though not in a way he intended.” The Majordomo spoke.
“Things are progressing as they should.”
“We shall see.”
The Majordomo bowed his head, as the Hierophant watched him leave, sinking into the shadows. He then looked back to the stars, leaning his head on his fist once again.
“We shall see.” He repeated to no one but the stars.