Arcanum – Of Steamwork and Magic Ch. 23-1

May 23rd, 1886

I had seen many things in my times on Arcanum — but few struck me as uniquely beautiful and melancholy as the sight of dawn over Tulla, the city of mages. The entire edifice felt isolate and venerable, with an ancient sense seeping from every humble sandstone and brick building. The palm trees that grew around several magickally sustained oasis waved in the morning breeze, and the distant, eerie sound of song echoed from tall minarets that were situated at each corner of the perfectly rectangular wall that surrounded the city. Robes men and women of all races went to pray at their alters, to commune with the universe, to meditate. The scent of magic was so strong in the air that I could practically feel it, and my pocket watch had seized up and almost immediately upon our arrival and I had given up even trying to wind it.

I watched all of this from the patio on the roof of the humble home that Simeon Tor had graciously given over to me and my companions. From the kitchen, I could hear Beatrice instructing Gillian on how to cook without servants, while Sally stolidly listened to Maggie grumble about how the magick was giving her a headache. I felt a twinge of guilt for keeping Maggie from her promised homeland — the Iron Clan of the dwarves — for so very long. But with Beatrice once more among the living, we could easily dart around Arcanum, teleporting from place to place as many times as Beatrice’s endurance could allow.

And considering last night, her endurance had not suffered any degradation for her time in the strange river that she described as the afterlife. The faintly wistful tones she had used filled me with a sense of disquiet. I had not fought my entire life to choose my own way to want to have my agency stripped from me so effortlessly. I stood, stretching my arms behind my back as the sun finally escaped from behind the curve of the cliff, spilling across the city directly. It swiftly banished the night chill that swept across deserts, and brought with it my desire to see through the clues of Pelojian. And I knew exactly where to start, after all.

Bee and I came to the Mural of Enlightenment after a simple but sumptuous breakfast. We cut an odd pairing in Tulla as we walked through the groves and gardens, past the homes and libraries. Me, a half-orc in a fine three piece suit that I had only just now gotten a chance to launder and iron properly, with Beatrice in her chainmail armor and gambeson, which she had spent some time deying to have the symbol of the Panarii faith — an unbroken golden ring. It was like modernity and the early middle ages had decided to stride through antiquity, while thumbing its nose at mores towards race and relationships. To the credit of the mages of Tulla, they took no mind of our holding hands, nor the times that Beatrice stopped me, claiming an incredibly important thing required my attention, only to instead kiss me upon the lips, then laugh.

The Mural itself looked exactly as I had described it previously: The robed man (Pelojian) standing between the desert and the city of Tulla, and the entire scene was banded about by five symbols — corresponding to the five symbols that ringed around Pelojian’s pool out by the front. And four of those five symbols — in order from left to right: a star, a crossed circle, the glaive symbol, a sticklike figure, and finally a spiral — was themselves ringed by four more symbols. The only symbol that lacked four minor symbols was the glaive symbol, which sat at the apex of the banding’s central arc.

I rubbed my chin as I observed this — and started when I heard a footstep beside me. I turned and saw Simeon Tor. He smiled, politely, at me while I nodded to him. “Mr. Tor,” I said, bowing my head.

“Dr. Cog,” he returned. “I see you have come to examine the Mural of Enlightenment.” He shook his head. “We have used this for centuries.”

“How?” I asked — supposing that might itself be a clue.

“Well,” he said. “A mage looks at the world rather differently than a scientist. We take in the totality of the image — the color, the light, the sensation it evokes.” He gestured to the image. “We reflect on how all the parts work in synthesis. So too, does magick work. One does not picture each individual step upon the route of casting a spell. One simply wills…” His brow furrowed and a green glow shrouded his palm. A moment later, it had faded, revealing a rose. “…and it is so.”

I tapped my chin. “Well, Mr. Tor,” I said. “As you say, scientists do look at the world differently. We believe you can only understand something by knowing how each component functions. And so, we begin by taking apart a thing to the basic, most fundamental parts of its construction.” I grinned. “This is how we’ve finally learned the reason behind cancers and how they spread, via the vivisection of chimney sweeps in Tarant who dropped dead of cancer in the lung.” I turned back to face the mural. I noticed Beatrice leaning close to the star symbol, as it was the most easily observed from her perspective, being so near to the ground.

“What is it, Bee?” I asked.

“Oh, it’s just I know these symbols,” she said, nodded. If one could picture the star as a compass rose, then know that she pointed first to the northern most symbol, then to the eastern, southern and western — her finger moving in a clockwise circle. “This is the symbol for magickal college of Divination, Metaphysical, Mental and Temporal.”

My brow furrowed, while Mr. Tor shook his head — and I saw a wry look of amusement flit across his face. For a moment, I felt a sense irritation flare within me. I could see Mr. Tor thought we were going about this meditation business in a backwards way. I could imagine him telling a student becoming overly fascinated by the individual symbols and their placement that they were missing the point of the Mural. Well. Let him do as he would — I would do as I would. And I was putting some pieces together. My fingers caressed my mustache. “There seems to be a relationship in those colleges, no?”

Bee shrugged as she stood, her armor clinking softly. “I suppose…the four schools are all somewhat introspective and inward looking, handling concepts that are a bit, you know…” She wiggled her fingers and giggled. “Airy?”

I chuckled. “Though, what is exactly the school of the metaphysical? I’ve never heard of it.”

“Well, mages hate to talk about it,” Bee said. “Meta handles spells that prevent spells from functioning. With so many technologists about, I can see why.”

I nodded, then pointed to the crossed circle. “And those symbols?”

Bee counted them off on her fingers: “Starting from the top? Earth, Air, Water…Fire…” She trailed off.

“Again, quite the correlation,” I said, nodding. “And that?”

Looking upon the stick-like figure, Bee frowned. “Good heavens, those are the symbols for White Necromancy, Black Necromancy, Summoning and Nature.”

I nodded. “That figure could be taken as a crude symbol of a humanoid. Or, maybe, a symbol for all kinds of life. Can Summoning…well, summon a humanoid?”

“Several of the spells do involve the summoning of sentient beings, yes,” Beatrice said, nodding. “And for the last, the spiral? Those deal with space-“

“That one is the symbol of Conveyance is it not?” I asked, pointing at the top of the star symbol.

Beatrice punched my shoulder lightly. “Resh! Knowing this is my job! How did you know the symbol for Conveyance anyway?”

“It was on that strange…” I paused. “That strange…tile…near our home!”

Beatrice gasped as I got out one of my many pieces of paper, scribbling down the exact notes of which colleges were dedicated to which symbol. Then we both hurried to one of the minarets — they clearly had the best view of Tulla. Once there, we were allowed up by a bemused looking man whose job it was to sound the call for the monastic orders of Tulla. Once there, we had a view of the entire city from on high, and there, we could see that there were symbols scattered about it. The bemused man, upon seeing our reaction, chuckled. “Ah, the symbols of the colleges?” he asked. “Sometimes, when they are touched, they light up, but no one has ever made them light up twice in a row.”

I nodded, slowly. “A pattern…” I rubbed my chin. “And the symbols of Pelojian’s pool, do they repeat elsewhere?”

“There are four doors,” the man said. “In the temple’s crypts. But they are sealed by the most powerful magicks that we’ve ever seen — and each has one of those symbols. Not the bladed one, though.”

“Clockwise, I’m thinking, starting from the north,” I said, softly.

Beatrice chuckled. “Why from there?”

“Well, we’ll have to try every order if that doesn’t work,” I said. “But fortunately, there are only twenty four permutations. It shouldn’t take us more than a day to try each one — and I bet once we find the permutation that works for one, it’ll work for all. But even if each has a unique permutation of symbols, it’s only ninety six different permutations — twenty four for each.” I grinned. “If we didn’t know which symbol went with which door, we’d be looking at…” I paused, then started to scribble down some back of the calculations. “Roughly? …twenty trillion possible combinations.”

“Good heavens!” Beatrice exclaimed.

I grinned. “The wonders of patterned mathematics,” I said, showing her the equation I had used. Beatrice looked like she was trying very hard to be impressed — but utter incomprehension showed on her face.

The first set of symbols we attempted was the elemental set. The two of us came upon the symbol for the college of Earth. I knelt down to examine the plate, and saw that it did not recess, nor show any sign that it could be moved. However, simply stepping upon it caused the symbol to flare with a brown, earthy light. I nodded and together we set off for the far end of the city, hustling under the balmy desert sun. Coming upon the symbol for the college of Air, I stepped on it and it shone with a brilliant blue light. Beatrice, being a dear, immediately teleported herself to the roof of the nearest building. By shading her eyes and leaning forward, she was able to catch a glimpse of the Earth symbol — and called to me: “It’s still lit up! I think that means this is working!”

Maggie found us as we had just found and pressed the symbol for Fire, looking quite grouchy at being forced to stay in Tulla — it seemed the magick did not agree with her dwarven sensibilities one iota. However, seeing our progress, she came with us to witness the opening of the first door of Pelojian’s vault. I laughed when we came into the crypt itself — a vast warren of narrow tunnels dug into deep rock, with covered niches for the generations of mages who had been interred here for their final repose. The actual door itself was open before we even arrived, unlocked by the final button in the elemental cycle. Stepping in with Beatrice’s cantrip glowing over our heads, we three saw what no one but Pelojian had seen for nearly a thousand years: A sparse, empty room containing a single plith that itself had a small scroll situated upon it and a glittering amulet that itself had a single gemstone set in a golden ring. I lifted the amulet, then placed it about my neck, reasoning aloud: “Surely, it’ll have some such to do with a future clue!”

The rest of the day was spent darting about the city of Tulla, finding the symbols and depressing them in the right order while collecting my companions as they wandered from their contemplation of Tulla to find what exactly it was that I and Beatrice were doing. As evening fell, the whole lot of us returned to the home to peruse what we had found: Four scrolls, each one as untouched by time as St. Mannox’s journal. However, unlike the ancient saint, these journals were written in crisp, clear, Tarantian quality common, as easily read as the morning paper.

“Quite unsettling, if I do say so myself,” Gillian remarked, even as I read, in their collected form, the Cantos of Pelojian.

All that comes before

Is rooted in this earth

In this water

In this fireworks

In the air that surrounds us

Not thought of

As last

But what came first

And the final step

Before you come to Me

There is only one step

Which begins a journey.

Wise, are they

Who wear the cloak of Truth

Clear is their way

Clear is their vision

And clear will be

That which they seek

Power

Stands strong

Not first above

but just underneath

As all that is raised

Needs the Power

To raise it.

The tie that binds

The first to the last

The first to its child

Is the Spirit of all

The Spirit that calls

And the way

Much brighter

Before you.

Upon finishing the first read through, my companions looked to me. Sally was the first to speak: “What the bloody –hic– does all tha’ mean?”

I sighed, slowly and pinched the bridge of my nose. “I haven’t the foggiest,” I said, then set the scrolls down — making a note of which ones I had found in which doors. The first verse had been found behind the Elemental door. The second had been found behind the Star door. The third had been behind the Humanoid Manipulation door (as I termed the collection of colleges comprised of summoning, nature, and the two necromantic arts.) And, lastly, the fourth verse had been behind the Mind door — the spiral symbol.

“Come on!” I said. “Let us go to the pool.”

“But it’s dark out,” Gillian, frowning.

“Yes, yes, but Pelojian’s ghost comes at midnight. I want to see this done before too long — for Maggie’s sake if nothing else,” I said, flashing a grin at our beautiful dwarfess. The lot of us trooped to the pool, arriving a good time before midnight. The stars slowly wheeled overhead — utterly visible in the near pitch blackness of the deep deserts. I had no time for stargazing though: I looked down at the moonlit tiles surrounding the shimmering reflecting pool, and pursed my lips. First, I experimented by stepping upon the elemental circle symbol — it depressed and glowed with a mixed light of red, blue, white and brown.

“Ah!” I exclaimed. “So, there must be some clue as to which buttons to press in that Cantos.” I rubbed my chin. “Not thought of as last but what came first — and the final step before you come to me. If the you in this case refers to me…then that means the circle comes last before I come to him…” My finger stroked my mustache. “The only symbol that is not on any of the doors is this one…” I stepped upon the glaive shape that served as the apex to the Mural of Enlightenment. Depressing it caused both it and the elemental circle to flash, then shut down with a sizzling crackling noise — a clear sign that that was not the right pattern. But I had reset the symbols — none glowed now. “There is only one step which begins a journey…” I said, recalling the cantos. “Second verse. The star!”

I sprang onto the star, which glowed purple. “The next verse, how did it go…” I muttered.

A cantrip flared, brilliant in the darkness of the night, and Gillian’s clear diction rang out: “Power. Stands strong, not first above, but just underneath-“

“Aha!” I exclaimed. “Just underneath, eh?” I stepped onto the spiral symbol, which glowed white. Neither it nor the star symbol faded. “And I don’t need to remember the verse for the stick figure, because I know the elemental circle goes last.” I stepped on them as I spoke, causing more lights to flare, leaving the glaive symbol as last. I chuckled, then stepped upon it — and nothing happened. I felt a moment of disappointment explode inside of me. Then I snapped my fingers.

“Ah!” I said. “it’s not midnight, is it?”

“No, sir,” Beatrice said.

I shrugged, slowly. “Well, then. I suppose we must wait.”

I sat down upon the symbol and waited. The time passed in slow contemplation — though I was sure that the Tulla mages would not be very happy had they known I was mentally designing such technological devices. I had nearly lapsed into sleep when the pool rippled. I started fully awake and watched as a humanoid, robed figure slid from the silvery reflecting pool to hover before me, glowing in the pale moonlight. I could not see their face, but I did not need to see them to know they were Pelojian. I stood, my throat quite dry in the excitement of the moment.

“Pelojian?” I asked, quietly.

“The signs were left,” Pelojian said, his voice sounding as if he was speaking from a deep, deep well — echoing and rebounding off distant walls. “They were left for you and for me — so that you would know to find me, and so that I would know to come to you…” His arms spread, slowly and he bowed his head. “My visions foretold that the Living One would need me. And so, I am here. What questions do you have of me, oh Living One?”

I wet my lips. “What is my role in all of this?” I asked, the question springing unbidden to my lips. I knew I needed to find the Vendigroth device, but…if this master prophet could speak more plainly to me than the Silver Lady…

Pelojian chuckled. “You can be one of two things, Living One,” he said, his voice kind. “You can either be one directed and puppeteered by fate, with no choice at all, simply playing a role selected for you by the Gods. Or you can be the only one free to make any choice at all — and the rest of us are merely dancing to your tune. It really is merely a matter of perspective.”

I frowned. “I like neither of them,” I said. “I suppose, then, I must get to the brass tacks. I need to find the location of Vendigroth, to find the Vendigroth Device.”

Pelojian nodded, his voice growing somber as a map of the Vendigroth wastes appeared in the air beside him, a glowing dot transfixing a single location. I drew out my atlas and sketched down the location immediately, even as Pelojian spoke. “The lands of Vendigroth are now drenched in the blood of a million innocents and the land is twisted by their sorrow, their hate, their fear. The innocent can do terrible harm, given centuries to fester in anger. But there is worse, there. The Vendigroth Device…it is, in so far as any tool can be, evil. Its use harms not only the target, but those who wield it.”

I shook my head. “I fear I have little choice, Pelojian.”

“You always have a choice, Living One,” he said, quietly. “Or…none at all…”

His body began to fade and I pursed my lips — a grim mood settling about my shoulders like a heavy weight. It only lifted when Beatrice stepped to my side, pressing her palm to my shoulder, while Raven slid against my back to hug me from behind. I smiled at them, and allowed them to draw me away, for another tiring session of attempting to please five increasingly voracious women.

The next day at the break of dawn, we set out for the ruins of Vendigroth.

***

May 24th, 1886

We arrived at the site of Vendigroth in a crackle of purple energies and were struck dumb by the sight that stretched out before us. We stood not in a wasteland, as I had expected — but in a ruin more vast and terrible than I could easily comprehend. Vendigroth had been a city on the scale of Tarant, and in some ways, it had been preserved like a fly in amber. Buildings that easily had been double the height of Tarant’s tallest apartment buildings stretched outwards in an even grid of broad streets. However, the buildings and the streets had been cracked, shattered, and then struck down by what must have been a heat to rival the most furious blast furnace or smith’s forge. That heat had twisted lamp posts like putty, and clearly, it had flashed brightly enough to scorch every building’s face.

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