Arcanum – Of Steamwork and Magic Ch. 22-2

With a name such as ‘the Wastes’ I had pictured something akin to a desert. But deserts contained some measure of life and a sense of the natural. There were cacti and scorpions, hawks and vultures. But the Wastes that stretched beyond us were utterly wrong. Greenish cracks spread along the ground, still glowing faintly with an eldrich light, while the ground itself was a mixture of black and gray and dull red. Wisps of white light danced on the air like dust devils, and the water that flowed along the boarder was silty and thick with gray. The air felt wrong.

“Good gods,” I whispered.

“Indeed,” Raven said, her voice solemn.

“Arronax did this?” Maggie asked, slowly.

“By himself?” Gillian whispered.

“Well,” I said. “It was during the Age of Legends…” Then my back tightened – a shape was emerging from the mists. I drew my pistol reflexively – and only relaxed once the shape resolved into the image of a donkey dragging a cart and a halfling seated upon the cart’s front. He clicked the reigns and the donkey continued to clip and clop forward. If it was aware that it was striding through a blasted, unnatural wasteland, it gave no sign of it. The halfling himself was dressed with a cloth gas mask and goggles on his face, and he lifted a gloved hand to wave at us.

“What ho!” he said, his voice muffled. “Heading in for salvage?”

I called back. “No – well, of a sorts. We’re seeking the city of Vendigroth.”

“Oh.” The mule came to a stop beside our wagon and the halfling tugged his gas mask off, allowing himself to breathe more easily. “No. No. I pick out of the ruin fields nearer to the river – mostly scrap and twisted wire. But I did find a rifle stock once.” He chuckled. “The City itself is a mother-load, but no one knows where it is, friend.”

I nodded, slightly. “Then…have you seen the city of Tulla?”

“Tulla? No,” he said – dashing my hopes that this might be easy. “I have seen this strange walled place – built into the only part of the Wastes that look halfway close to a real land, not this blasted place.” He gestured out to the cracked, black landscape. “From a hill, I could see it was full of robed types and magick critters.”

“That’s Tulla!” I exclaimed.

“Is it?” the halfling asked. “Well, hand your map over here, I can mark it, I marked it dow in my journal!”

“My thanks!” I tossed him my atlas. After marking it, the halfling tossed it back, then clicked his teeth. “And mind the spiders, out there.”

“Are they big?” I asked, my voice growing concerned as the cart rattled away.

“No, they’re armed.”

And with that, he began to whistle a bawdy ditty – leaving me feeling deeply concerned.

***

May, 26th, 1886

In the end, we were not troubled by the beasts of the Wastes. Our stagecoach made its careful way across the blasted landscape, guided by careful observation and my own sense of caution, and while we did see strange shapes in the mists when we set a watch, it seemed that having a group of hardy adventurers, armed with bow, magic weapon, and pistols was more than enough to convince those shapes to keep their distance. In fact, it was quite vexing to see hints of strange phenotypes and to see tracks that were clearly left by massive, eight legged entities…and yet to never get more than the vaguest image of what it was that sometimes stalked us.

The closest that we came to any idea of what it was that watched our camps in the night came as we emerged from the harsh, blackened landscapes of the Wastes proper and into a more classic scrub-land that seemed to hug to the northern coast of the Vendigroth Wastes: Once, during a glance back over my shoulder, I saw a figure upon a distant rocky outcropping. It looked low slung to the ground, with a wide set of legs – like a spider of immense size – but I could see a hint of a humanoid torso, thrusting from the spiderish body.

But such things did not follow us as we came closer and closer to Tulla proper. The City of Mages was quite a sight from a distance: A massive, sandstone wall ringing around an outcropping of cliffs. The actual buildings of the city were concealed entirely by the wall, save for a single massive temple complex that looked carved into the side of the cliff itself – ornate pillars keeping a huge roof open, promising an even deeper sprawl of tunnels and corridors within the cliff itself.

The wall, though, lacked a gate entirely. Instead, where there would logically be a gate, there was instead two huge pillars, ornately carved and covered with runic inscriptions. Standing before them in pale blue robes, was an elven man who watched our stagecoach approach with a solemn expression. I waved to him, then scrambled down into the cargo of the coach proper. I dragged Virginia’s container out and began to detach the machines, the pumps, and remove the electric ring from her finger. I knew that technological fields would persist around her body for some time – but I hoped that by the time we came to a mage who could restore her to life, they would fade utterly. The chemicals would take longer to fully seep away – meaning that she would begin to rot in a week. But if we had not found a mage in the city of Tulla within the day to raise Virginia from the dead…well…

I shook my head as Sally, effortlessly, picked the entire container up and held it on her shoulder. Then, together, we walked towards the gate, Dogmeat padding along at my side – he had never put a single paw off the stagecoach for the entire trip, and was practically prancing for joy to be out of the coach and on natural ground. Coming to the elf, I bowed my head.

“Greetings, Dr. Cog,” the elf said. “Jorian told me to expect you. You may enter the gates and go to the temple.”

I drew myself up, my brow furrowing. “Jorian? Who is this Jorian?”

The elf looked at me placidly. “You may enter the gate and go to the temple,” he said, his voice cool. Modulated. I glanced at Raven, who pursed her lips, then leaned in close and whispered to me.

“The city of Tulla trains their mages to be controlled – but not dishonest.”

I sighed. My pocket-watch, without even me needing to draw it out, had already seized up. I shuddered to imagine what it would be like in the city itself for any technological devices. But…I did take heart in the fact that my electrical rings were still working properly. Maybe their proximity to my body kept them functioning, as I was extremely versed in the technological arts? Which only added to my trepidation at stepping through the portal – but step through I did. And to my alarm, a purple light flared around my body, before fading, and I found myself standing within Tulla herself.

Tulla, the city, was far from Tarant or Caladon in terms of size. In fact, I would barely say that there were more than fifty buildings in it, and a scant few people on the streets. They were of every race, and every one wore robes of varying colors. They spoke to one another in soft tones, though some sat underneath palm trees, drinking from simple earthenware cups while they gestured and spoke. Many of them cast spells and cantrips, shrouding the air with shimmering illusions to illustrate one point or another in the field of the magick arts. But the city was not merely populated by the civilized races. Two massive, dragon-like beasts sat curled up on pedestals, their scaled hides heaving as they breathed slowly, warming themselves under the fierce sun that hung in the cloudless sky. Their slitted eyes opened with a languid movement as we walked by them, and while they watched us, they made no move to attack.

The center of the city was the temple – and before the temple rested a large, circular, reflective pool of water. It shimmered and rippled in the sunlight, but what drew my eye was the collection of five symbols surrounding it: A crossed circle, a spiral shape, a humanoid figure drawn with as few lines as possible, a single star, and a strange three bladed, curved device that reminded me somewhat of the exotic throwing weapons of the ancient Kree – the glaive. Each symbol was carved into a stone plate which I swore looked as if it was designed to be depressed. I skirted them just to be safe and we came into the blessed coolness of the temple itself – the day was blistering hot outside.

The interior of the temple complex fanned outwards in a circular pattern – corridors leading deeper within, each one seeming to go off in its own winding pattern. But the central corridor that we entered by continued past the circular atrium, leading towards a set of stairs that clearly ascended deeper into the temple itself. I started that way, my footsteps and the footsteps of my companions echoing loudly in the large, empty space. More of those dragon-like creatures were perched here and there, and their cold reptilian eyes kept following us as we walked down the corridor. I paused only to note that the left wall of the corridor was dominated by a massive and beautiful mural.

The mural depicted a bearded human man, gesturing to the heavens as if to illustrate some great point. He stood between a wild desert to the left and what was clearly the city of Tulla on the right. Ringing around the mural, though, were the five symbols we had seen around the mirror pool. But here, each symbol had four more symbols about them save for the glaive-like symbol. There were too many to count and, honestly, it was all of secondary importance.

I continued forward.

The stairs led to a massive doorway. Leaning against the wall beside the door, bouncing a small, leather ball against the wall, was a tall, gaunt looking human. His smile was wry and his hair exploded around his head in a frizzy wave. He bounced the ball once more, catching it and concealing the ball in the sleeves of his robes before he looked at us. “You,” he said, pointing a bony finger at me. “Are here to see Simeon Tor.”

“I…” I blinked. “I beg your pardon?”

“But first,” he said. “You must do one thing for old Jorian.”

My brow furrowed. “Ah. You are the mysterious Jorian.”

“No I’m not,” he said, looking right at me.

“You’re not Jorian?” I asked, frowning.

“No,” he said. “I’m Jorian. I’m just not the mysterious Jorian. Now. Before you can speak to Simeon Tor-“

“I don’t even know who that is!” I snapped. “I’m here to speak to your leader.”

“Simeon Tor!” Jorian laughed. “Yes. But first, you must do something for me.”

“What?!” I asked, flinging out my arms.

“You must look at the mural that you passed on the way here,” Jorian said, cheerfully.

“I already did,” I said.

“You have to to it…again.” Jorian said, leaning forward.

The urge to brain this man had reached nearly overpowering. Instead, I turned, stalked down the stairs, glared at the mural for five seconds, then stalked back up the stairs. Jorian bowed to me, grabbing onto the huge door. He pushed it inwards and it swung with an ease that belied its size and Jorian’s age. Then he walked past the lot of us, leaving Raven shaking her head bemusedly, while Gillian gave her most aristocratic sniff. “Mages.” She said. Normally, I did not go in for the Tarantian view of magick as nothing but silliness – but I could see that Jorian would test this every time I spoke to him. I tried to calm myself as I walked through the doors. And once more, Tulla provided a vista that exceeded anything I had imagined.

The room beyond was large and nearly circular and was dominated by six archways, each one the height of a small building, and wide enough that our entire party could walk through shoulder to shoulder. Each one looked down upon a different city. I could clearly see the statute of the Stillwater Giant in the town of Stillwater, the factories of Mr. Bates in Tarant, the bustling port of Black Root, the castle of Caladon, the crumbling echo of that castle in Durnholm, and the terraces of Ashbury. Standing in the center of the half-circle of doorways was an older man who positively radiated raw, crackling power. Being near him felt like I was being repulsed by an exceptionally powerful magnet.

“Simeon Tor?” I asked, quietly – and even using my soft voice, it still echoed in this room. “I am here to speak of two things: The resurrection of the priestess Virginia and the location of Vendigroth City to find the Vendigroth Device to stop Arronax from returning to Arcanum and destroying the world.”

He smiled, simply. “You must first, of course, speak to Bilko Gavin.”

“Does…he now about Vendigroth?” I asked.

Simeon Tor shook his head. “No. Bilko Gavin is our finest white necromancer. It is of the upmost importance to return your companion to the world of the living.”

My heart hammered. I tried to control my breathing. “S-Sir, I…yes, that would be nice, but Arronax-” But before I had even finished the word, Simeon Tor turned back to the windows. He seemed intent on ignoring me. I felt a wave of emotions sweep through me. It was hard to breathe proper. I had been so focused upon this moment – to have it suddenly become the now was akin to being cast off the side of a hot air balloon and learning you could suddenly fly. I smiled weakly as Simeon Tor spoke once more.

“You will find him in the center. To the left.”

Bilko Gavin, as it transpired, was a gnome with a jovial, cheerful, and disarmingly open disposition, who was delighted to see me. “Oh, it is always good to see a challenge,” he said as Sally grunted and set down Virginia’s casket. “People so rarely die against their will here in Tulla, meaning that I rarely have call to do this, you see.” He rubbed his palms together. “And you are fortunate indeed that we are so far off the beaten path – why, did you know, I once was hired at great expense to heal a noble youth, and we were but two hundred miles closer to Tarant, and merely trying to cast nearly killed me.” He chuckled. “Now! …oh my!” he said, looking at Virginia. “She died today? Quite a bit of luck, no?”

“No,” I said, my voice horse. I could hardly believe this. “I preserved her body via some technological means.”

“Remarkable!” He exclaimed. “This may be a first in Arcanum’s history – technology and magick working together to save the life of this…Virginia, you said?”

I nodded, mutely.

From there, Gavin got to work and I was cheered to see his industry. His acolytes and assistants worked to clear out a ritual space, purifying it with magick and candles of incense, while Gavin himself cast spells upon Virginia, proclaiming that her body was not overly suffused with technological fields, nor black necromantic energies. The only painful moment was when he placed me a good ten yards away from the ritual before declaring himself satisfied – though after some preliminary casts, he then directed Raven to stand before me. It seemed her sanding there shielded my technological nature even more. Raven stood solemnly, her hands clasped before her, while Gavin, having completed his preparation, clapped his hands and called out: “Lets do this, why not?”

Not what one expected to hear before the casting of legendary magicks, but I could barely comprehend words at this moment. My heart hammered as Gavin began to incant. His hands moved – forming pass after pass, leaving behind pale blue-white symbols in the air. Energies filled the room – a wreathing mass of white energy growing into a shell that began to reach down from the ceiling to the floor, shrouding the view. Lightning seemed to spider in from the edges of the shell, striking Virginia’s body. And then, at the ultimate moment, Gavin cried out her name: “Virginia!”

And the sphere snapped apart and a glowing portal appeared in the air above her.

“Her soul will return through that,” Raven said, her voice very soft.

The moment held – an eternity of agonized waiting. And then the moment snapped. The portal shut – and the magick faded immediately from the room. The acolytes murmured softly – while Gavin shook his head, slowly. “Bugger…” His voice was soft. “Bugger bugger, I was afraid of this…” He shook his head.

“What happened?” I asked. “Was it me? I can go further!”

“No, no…” He said, his hands brushing along his sleeves. “The portal would never have opened if it had not worked. Her soul does not wish to return. Only those that do can.” He said.

A deep, quiet silence fell upon the room. Slowly, the priests walked away. Gavin left, patting my hand gently – a gesture of cold comfort. Raven looked to me – but I had eyes only for Virginia’s body. I walked towards her, slowly, my feet almost dragging on the ground, before kneeling beside her. I took her hand, ducking my head forward. I spoke, softly. “Virginia…wherever it is that your spirit has gone, I want you to know…” I paused. “I do not care if it takes me the rest of my life. I do not care if I must contract every scientist in the entirety of Arcanum to work on this singular task…I will learn how to tear open a hole between our world and the next. And I will find you. And I will drag you back here…because I love you more than life itself.”

I kissed her forehead.

And Virginia’s eyes flashed open. Her back arched and she gasped in a massive, dragging breath. Her back fell back to the table and I heard a similar gasp from every priest in the room and Gavin himself cried out, his voice echoing off the walls: “Good gods!”

Virginia blinked, slowly, then grinned weakly at me. “I just needed to find my way home, sir,” she said, cupping my cheek. Then she dragged me forward and kissed me. Fiercely. Her tongue filled my mouth and swirled against my own and I crawled upon the plinth she had been laid on. Raven made a tiny clicking noise – and then I heard the soft sound of shooing in the air, the rasp of feet, and then all thoughts of the others was lost as Virginia’s hand caressed along my chest, squeezing my shoulders. She pushed my shirt off with a wild eagerness, while I tugged open the robes that she had been dressed in, feeling her skin – it was cold, at first, but growing more and more warm with very moment as blood flowed in her veins. Then she was drawing back, to breathe softly.

“Resh,” she whispered, looking into my eyes as I felt my throbbing, achingly eager erection press against her thigh as she lay beneath me. Looking into Virginia’s eyes, I could see a subtle difference – one that made a chill run down my spine. For just a moment, I could see a…curious detachment. A calmness that was deeper and more profound than anything a mortal woman should show. But then her eyes shifted a fraction and that calmness became serenity, and I could see Virginia’s warmth filling whatever hollow had been left behind by her time in death. I opened my mouth to say her name – to speak it without the pang of sorrow. But before my lips could form the word, her finger pressed to mine. “Resh…” Her voice was soft – and fear gnawed at my gut.

But what she said cut that knot of fear, as swiftly as her sword. “No more fake names. No more falsehoods.” Her eyes were gentle. “I ran from you. From this. Because I didn’t believe I deserved it.” She shook her head. “But I realize now…we…have this one life, Resh. All I can do is work to deserve it…” She smiled, wryly. “But I have to do it as myself. Not as someone else.”

Her voice was soft. “My name…is Beatrice Brummund. But most people call me Bee.” She grinned at me.

And realization struck me – like a bell tolling. And I found myself laughing, rearing backwards and clapping my hand to my forehead. “That bitch! That elven bitch!” I cried out, in deep amusement. “She said…she said I would never…with Virginia!” He laughed. “Because I would be with you, Bee!” I beamed at her. “Because I’d be with you.”

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