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hardest choices; strongest wills [artifact]

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Well, that was depressing. From behind the Stormwatcher, Celestine glanced at Anatase, a pinched expression on her face. If they were wrong about the location of the reality stone...

“What can you tell us about the magestorm right now?” Anatase asked, pointing at the stained-glass window.

Parvian brought up a view of the current magestorm on her scroll. “Unlike the Ragnarok, this one is in its weakening nature. No notable features as of yet, thankfully—we still haven’t recovered from what horrors that last one threw at us. There’s just less magic availability, which makes most lines of work, including mine, a bit harder,” she chuckled. Celestine subtly rolled her shoulders before turning away again to look at some other trinkets in the corner.

Anatase studied the diagram before them. Magestorms grew weaker the longer they went on, he knew. By the time they reached Crystallo Stella, they were barely strong enough to affect C’zirqonia’s technology, whether by weakening or strengthening it.

“The magestorm’s in the midlands right now, yeah?” he asked.

Parvian nodded.

Edited by Csl

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“Theoretically,” Anatase said slowly, “if a certain group of people, wanted to enter the eye of a highstorm, would it be safer to do it for a weakening?”

The woman was silent for a moment. “If… a certain group of people... wished to do so, I would highly discourage them and tell them they were being exceedingly reckless.”

She looked up. Anatase remained silent, his gaze fixed on hers, waiting.

Finally, Parvian sighed. “If a certain group of people wished to enter the eye of a highstorm, yes, one in its weakening nature would be a safer option. Still, the risks would be innumerable! Entering it in the Arcane East during its squall would be unquestionably lethal, since the storm alone would be violent enough to batter anyone to death. Entering it in the West, in its weeping, would make it too weak; whatever magical effect this certain group of people would be after would be gone.”

“So, the Midlands are the best place?” Anatase asked, the beginnings of a grin on his face.

Parvian looked flustered. “Well, perhaps, but it would still be deadly! Airships would malfunction in a weeping since exalta is fundamentally an arcane material. Even one of those creaky old oil-powered air transports would have trouble achieving lift. Magical defenses and protections would be stripped away the closer one got to the eye. Its winds would still be strong enough to whip up debris, and—”

“So the Midlands, then,” Celestine spoke, the first time since their arrival. “Good to know. Any prior evidence of certain groups of people trying this before?”

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Parvian adjusted her glasses, took a deep breath, and gave the pair a look that bordered on disbelief “Why—as far as I’m aware, nobody’s tried it. It’s dangerous to go out during a regular thunderstorm; more so with highstorms. The raindrops feels like bullets, some say.”

Celestine shrugged nonchalantly, her expression carefully blank. “Sounds fun,” she deadpanned.

“Where’s the storm’s vortex going to pass by?” Anatase asked. He had gotten out of his seat and was now leaning over the scroll, head propped up on his elbows.

Seemingly piqued by this particular question, Celestine finally moved closer to observe as the Stormwatcher leaned over the map, pinpointing the location with a finger.

“The Bloodstone Marsh. I-in two weeks.”

ONYX quietly took note of the coordinates shown.

Anatase stood. “Well, Parvian, it’s time for us to take our leave.” He slid a few coins across the table - far more than would have been needed for a Stormwatcher’s services. “Thank you for your insights. You’ve been very helpful.”

Parvian stared at the coins. She looked up at the pair, already at the door. “Hey—uh, sir!”

Anatase turned, raised an eyebrow.

“Tell that... certain group of people... good luck,” Parvian said weakly.

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Celestine pushed forward first through the door and back out into the open humid air of the city. Her mind was racing a mile a minute, taking the new knowledge they had been granted and connecting possible implications to the facts at hand. It wasn’t impossible, the task that had been laid out before them, but it wasn’t going to be all that easy either.

“So,” she began, turning to Anatase, “The Weakening passes over Bloodstone Marsh in two weeks. As I understood it, we’ll have to take a journey into the eye of the highstorm.”

“Yup.” Anatase said, still staring at the door.

Her gaze was steady, measured, even as her tone slowly approached incredulity. “Where it seems no one who has ever ventured within has ever come back alive to tell about it.”

“Yup.”

Celestine sighed, a deep breath of air rattling down her throat. ONYX was no stranger to the foreboding sense of peril in the toughest of circumstances, the dark exhilarating thrill of danger that accompanied them into the darkest places of Genesaris at the behest of the house they serve.

She just wished it were—well, it didn’t matter what she wished. “I believe we need to regroup,” Celestine murmured, “and report back before anything else.”

“Yes.” Anatase said, finally turning away from the door. “And tell any loved ones we love them, if we have any. For you, anyway. I sure as hell don’t.”

And to that, Celestine had no idea what to say, unsure if it was a joke or something more serious. Maybe she didn’t know him that well after all.

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Twelve hours later, Anatase sat on his bed, twirling a lodepoint between his fingers.

Their report had been well received, of course. There had been a short celebration—as much of a celebration the Order of the Magnetic had, anyway. The most pragmatic, efficient Order of artifact-hunters never did have much use for parties. He couldn’t quite remember, but there had been much back-slapping, many short bows of respect, more than a few invites to… their housing units? Training sessions? Weapons testings?

Didn’t matter. He and Celestine were to leave the next morning for Mezthaluen. They’d scout out the area, formulate or finalize a plan, and get that stupid cornerstone—at all cost.

It hadn’t taken long to get his affairs in order. The strange sphere had been deposited in a secure storage containment. Someone had given him an update on the weapons they’d brought from the ship. He’d packed all he needed for a two-week trip to Mezthaluen. Then… there was nothing else to do. No one else to call.

Anatase gazed longingly at his bed. This time, the urge to sleep wasn’t present.

Groaning, Anatase pulled himself to his feet. For the third time that night, he sauntered to his travel pack and went through his things.

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“You know what you need to do, Felsic,” came the reply from the other end of the comms. Celestine’s mentor was unbearably strict, but he at least gave her own personal opinions the time of day, should she come forward and lay them down at his feet. “I understand you may have your doubts, but the Matriarch wishes it, and you would do well to remember that you were trained to do whatever she wishes.”

She was silent for a moment, unable to scrounge up a suitable reply. The response from her handler wasn’t surprising, per se, but, to reiterate what the man had said: she had her doubts on the mission at hand. After a few quiet seconds, Celestine cleared her throat and pressed a finger to the comms pearl. “Duly noted. Will be ready to arrange provisions in an hour.”

The call disconnected without any further comment from the other end, and so she stretched out over the covers of her bed and stared up aimlessly at the ceiling.

Once more into the fray, Celestine thought, and closed her eyes for a few more precious seconds before rolling to her feet and preparing for the journey to Mezthaluen.

They wouldn’t be getting much sleep later on for the next two weeks, she reckoned.

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It was always dark in the Apeirogon. Still, the semi-translucent sunstone panels that made up every surface, the brightest at the peak of the underground complex, simulated daylight well enough to put him at ease.

It didn’t feel right to completely set his unit’s lighting to sunrise, though. Not now. He’d keep things dark. Maybe it would help guilt him to sleep, convincing his wired-up brain that it was night, and night time was a time for shutting up and letting the poor, worn-out body of yours get at least six hours of rest without subjecting it to existential dread.

Anatase settled for a small moonstone lamp. The light display of the landing page of C’zirqonia database activated as soon as he sat in front of his desk.

Exalta. The Planes of Existence. Radiant refraction. Time dilation. Arcrystology.

The results of his search flickered in the space above his desk.

Anatase fought off a yawn, brought up a drafting application, and started working.

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Truth be told, Celestine always took pleasure in donning ONYX’s combat suit. It made her feel invincible when she very rarely felt so, in their line of business, and when she wore it, she seemed untouchable even in the most dire of circumstances.

The fact that it was so stylish didn’t hurt one bit.

“Stop admiring yourself in the mirror and come down,” Anatase grumbled through the comms.

Actually standing in front of the mirror in her own quarters, Celestine rolled her eyes even when her partner couldn’t see. It wasn’t too far from the truth, really, but so what? She was the other half of the infamous ONYX; she was allowed to admire herself in the mirror whenever the hell she wanted to.

“Funny you should say that,” Celestine deadpanned, moving away from the reflective surface and towards her travel pack, “but when you’re as amazing as I am, you’d find even yourself in constant admiration too.”

She could hear Anatase’s snort through the comm. “Whatever you say, Felsic.”

She shook her head, hauling up the pack over her shoulder as she turned towards the door. “I’ll meet you in a few, Mafic.”

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Celestine wasn’t wrong. Their combat suits were impressive.

Designed by no other than Lazuri C’zirqonia, the carbon nanotube fabric bodysuits were sleek and form-fitting, enforced armor panels forming raised geometric designs on their chests and joints. A compact pack utilizing spatial-warping moldavites at the backs allowed them to store any amount of weapons or other equipment and pull them out as needed.

Anatase’s suit had the properties of his gravi-mag boots built into every limb. Celestine’s sported a powerful microexalta pack that connected directly to her energy gauntlets. His was a matte black and was equipped with a minor cloaking function. Hers was a light grey and could launch spent microexalta outwards like explosive shrapnel.

The helmets were the best part. When deactivated, they were headpieces that contained the usual technology - communication pearls, tiger’s-eye quartz lenses, and IVRY laser targeting systems. When activated, they projected triangular hardlight shields around the user’s head, interconnecting to form the facets of a cut gem

ONYX looked particularly imposing as they strode down the hallway. Many stopped to stare; most got out of their way, and quickly.

“So, here we are again,” Celestine murmured, glancing towards the diaschismic portal. “You ready?”

Anatase sighed. “Let’s go find that Cornerstone.”

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Union Capital’s sister city was a sprawling urban expanse of four main districts, nestled between the wide plains, the low-sloping mountains, and of course, the lake that separated Mezthaluen from the Bloodstone Marsh.

“Would you consider taking a vacation here?” Celestine asked her partner almost absently, gaze trained on the small moving dots of ships ferrying to and from the city’s port and the winding rivers that lead out into other pockets of civilization beyond.

“Too big.” Anatase muttered, viewing C’zriqonia’s information on the city in his helmet. “And too hard to pronounce.”

It didn’t take long before the two were standing in the midst of the city, and really, the debrief on Mezthaluen hadn’t prepared Celestine enough for the expansive breadth of the actual place.

“We better take a look around and scout out where best to spend the night and prepare our gear,” she muttered lowly, glancing around their immediate surroundings. “Could be more efficient to split up for now and then reconvene to discuss what we can find.” She looked over to Anatase and smirked. “Guess I’ll be seeing you later, Mafic.”

“Bye.” Anatase’s expression was unreadable under the helmet.

Without turning back, Celestine strolled away and waved her hand at him before she disappeared out of sight into the crowd.

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It was really a shame he couldn’t get blackout drunk.

Lightly buzzed was easy to achieve. Slightly tipsy? Took some effort. Actually overloading his system on alcohol and falling into a stupor? Impossible. The citrine implants somewhere near his kidneys extracted all poisons and toxins from his system, which unfortunately included alcohol.

Anatase gave up the task after half an hour, tossed some coins to the barkeep, and left the tavern.

It wasn’t as if he’d be irresponsible enough to get loose-tongued, blabbing about their mission or the true power House C’zirqonia held. Anatase harbored a reluctant awareness to the fact that despite his normally nonchalant attitude and penchant for childish antics, he was as pragmatic as any of the Magnetic.

The rain crashed onto him the moment he stepped outside, soaking his clothes to the bone.

Anatase cursed—after all his packing and repacking and rechecking, he had failed to bring an umbrella.

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Anatase wrapped his arms around his travel pack, shielding it the best he could from the rain while he hurried down the street. He’d changed into his regular outfit as soon as he had the chance—no use in walking around in full battle gear. This had proven to be a mistake.

“Excuse me, sir.”

Anatase looked around and saw nobody. Then, he looked down and saw a dwarf.

“Would you like an umbrella, sir?” the dwarf said. He gestured to a rack nearby, placed against the wall that held a collection of plain, yet sturdy umbrellas.

“That’s perfect, actually,” said a very drenched Anatase. The transaction was made, the umbrella quickly put to use.

Anatase lingered for a moment, exchanging small talk with the small man. In a much more personal way, he learned about the four districts of Mezthaluen, the best places to get a meal or entertainment, the places to avoid, and their recent problem with cats.

Of course, he made a beeline towards the cat-infested district.

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Despite usually being the more stoic of the ONYX pair, Celestine did in fact manage to scrounge up some information pertaining to the accommodations and places of interest within the city. They needed to stay clear of the walled-up South District lest they be asked to pay the imposed tax, and the wealthiest district to the West was where the residence of the Chancellor of Mezthaluen was located, just in case they needed his help in some way or another.

She also acquired some information on some shops that could probably pique Anatase’s interest, should she share them with him. She wasn’t completely oblivious to the way her partner had seemed to have lost his spark almost overnight; maybe a few distractions in the way of interesting sights around the city could cheer him up from whatever stump he was in.

Suddenly, her comm pearl activated with a soft pulse of warmth. “I’m lost,” Anatase’s voice said.

Celestine stopped short in the middle of the busiest street in Mezthaluen, uncaring of whoever was in front of her or behind her in the moving current of the crowd. “I’m sorry—what did you just say?”

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“I’m lost. Also, so is the pack that contains my suit.” Anatase said matter-of-factly. “We are both lost, the suit and I. Or perhaps, we are simply not yet at our destination, finding our way in life”

Celestine was quite understandably confused. “This isn’t a joke, right?”

“I still have the umbrella I bought from the dwarf, but I think someone took my bag when I put it down to put out a flaming cat.”

“What—nevermind, explain later,” she replied, rubbing her forehead as a brewing headache made its sudden appearance. “Where are you?”

“East District, I think. I was near a hospital, but then I tried to chase away the cats, and I don’t know where I am now, but the street food is really good. Much better than Stormward’s steaks.”

Celestine sighed inaudibly; no reason why she’d let her partner find out her personal consternation towards the matter at hand. “Don’t give yourself any more trouble, please.” She tilted her head, looked down the street where the lively hustle and bustle of merchants was juxtaposed by the gentle caress of rain from the somber mass of grey clouds in the sky.

“I’m near the Emporium in the North District. Don’t move an inch—I’m coming to you.”

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“Use your tiger’s eye lens.” Anatase said, holding a cone of ice cream, a box of strange dried fruit, and two skewers of barbequed seafood. “Our suits have tracking devices. Mine was in the bag too.”

“I could’ve told you that,” grumbled Celestine through the comms. “At least you didn’t lose your pearl, now, did you?”

“I also have my sickles.” Anatase said, chewing audibly.

The other end was silent for a moment. “Close your damn mouth,” Celestine scolded him. “Don’t make me any more hungry than I already am, dangling the existence of your foodstuff in my ear.” The sound of scuffling resonated through the comms link. “Buy me something nice, will you? You know what I like.”

“Oh, sure!” Anatase looked down the street, tapping a finger to his chin. “Hm. There’s this thing they have that’s fruit wrapped in a crunchy wafer pastry thing with brown sugar.” He wandered over to the nearest stall selling the treats. The fruit roll joined the rest of his collection.

“Tell me what this pack-stealing thief looks like?”

”Didn’t see them, whoever they were. Young, though, I think? Probably used a transportation spell - no sign of their escape.”

Celestine hummed. “Fine—meet me in Fete; that’s in the West District. Don’t lose anything else.”

“I’ll do my best.”

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