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hardest choices; strongest wills [artifact]

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… One hundred twenty... One hundred nineteen...

“So nice of the ship-makers to warn us of our impending deaths,” Anatase quipped.

“Well, we better leave,” Celestine growled.

The self-defense systems were still active. Huddled under the console, Anatase pulled a lodepoint - a diamond-shaped block of dark metal - from inside his cloak. He listened to the gunfire for a moment, pinpointing the source of the projectiles.

He threw the lodepoint up. There was a crash as the object collided with a bullet, embedding itself in one of the turrets.

“That’s going to mess with their aim for a bit.” Anatase whispered. He quickly produced a few more lodepoints, lobbing them at the other turrets. The lodepoints exerted a strong magnetic pull, skewing the trajectory of the weapon systems’ bullets.

… One hundred fifteen… One hundred fourteen...

Anatase rolled out from under the console, a lodepoint clutched in each hand.

… One hundred thirteen… One hundred twelve… One hundr—

The announcement system suddenly fell silent.

“Did the ship run out of battery?” Anatase asked hopefully. He glanced towards the screens. They were still active.

“Can we just get the hell out of here,” Celestine hissed back at him.

“OH DEAR. WE CAN’T HAVE THAT YET, CAN WE? NOT WHEN I’VE JUST WOKEN UP.”

The screens went dark.

A moment later, it flickered on. In the center, the image a composite of all the screens, was a single, stylized eye.

Anatase let loose a string of very colorful curses, and bolted.

Edited by Csl

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It was—terrifying, to say the very least.

“HOW LONG HAS IT BEEN? I HAVEN’T HAD ANY VISITORS IN A WHILE. THANK YOU FOR REPLACING MY POWER SOURCE, I WAS BECOMING AWFULLY TIRED OF BEING DEAD.”

The disembodied voice was warm and friendly. It would be comforting, perhaps, if not for the fact that the doors to the exit had suddenly slid closed. Celestine eyed the barred entrance with no small amount of trepidation.

“LET’S START WITH INTRODUCTIONS, SHALL WE? I’M THE INTELLIGENCE WHO’S GOING TO RIP YOUR WORLD INTO SHREDS. WHO ARE YOU?”

Celestine raised her gauntlets towards the ceiling wherever the voice was coming from the loudest. “I am Cel—”

“I’M JOKING. HA HA. YOUR EXISTENCE IS UTTERLY IRRELEVANT. I SEE YOU HAVE MORE EXALTA ON YOUR BODY. LET ME PUT IT TO BETTER USE.”

A mechanical claw dropped down from the ceiling. It focused on Celestine, pincers opened wide, and—

—dropped down, limp as a corpse on a noose. The eye on the console screens disappeared.

“I found it! I found the computer!” Anatase yelled. He ran towards Celestine, a sphere tucked under his arm.

… One hundred ten… One hundred nine.

The countdown had resumed.

Now, can we get the hell out of here?”
Edited by vielle

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It couldn't have gone any better, Celestine considered, racing back into the sunlight with a fume of dust and debris trailing their heels. Her nose itched furiously, and she raised an arm to her face to subtly cough into her skin; there wasn’t any reason to showcase weakness, not in front of anyone else but her partner.

The mining specialists were gaping widely at them, like the pair were corpses that had climbed out of an ancient shadowy grave. She took great pleasure in the older foreman’s astonished face, veering just on the edge of faint terror. Serves him right, Celestine thought.  

“Sorry we broke half the mine,” she monotoned, unrepentant and petty. The two men shared a look of unease before the boy turned towards them. “Uh, what now, miss?”

Anatase, who had fallen face-down on the ground the moment he had stepped outside the portal, lifted his head an inch. “‘Nother team’s gonna be sent this way to check if any of the spaceship we found is still intact.” He let his head drop again. As an afterthought, he added, “We also found a spaceship. It was huge.”

Celestine shook her head, dusted off the remaining dirt on her suit before tapping her comm pearl. “This is ONYX, requesting a two point four-one-seven on Mount Fulgur.” She dropped the connection, tilted her head and just breathed for a moment. That was too close, whatever that was. Her gaze flickered towards her partner.

“Where now?” Anatase mumbled into the ground.

Celestine shoved the wayward strands of hair off her forehead and raised an eyebrow at him. “We find ourselves a Stormwatcher.”

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After a few more minutes of lying on the ground, savoring the experience of Not-Being-Dead and Being-In-The-Sunlight, Anatase dragged himself to his feet.

First things first: he considered the metal sphere he’d stolen from the spaceship. Without the microexalta power source they’d accidentally connected it to, it looked dormant. He fished out a chrysalis—a small, portable diaschismic arrangement strung on a wire cord, leading to a pocket dimension for storing things—and sealed the sphere away.

The blast had broken the diaschismic portal leading into the mountain. The one they had used to travel to Mount Fulgur was still intact, but that arrangement would only lead back to the long-distance diaschismic nexus.

“A Stormwatcher, huh?”

Anatase looked northwest. In the distance, a swirl in the sky gleamed a violent silver.

He pressed a finger against his comm pearl, dialing an airship transport.  “City of the lightning lunatics seems like the best place for that.”

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A few minutes later, the airship arrived. The pair bid goodbye to the mining specialists (Anatase obliged to the boy’s request for a photo). Upon entering, Anatase found a comfortable seat, curled up, and started messing with his tiger’s-eye lens.

Celestine perched against the wall of the airship, gaze faintly curious as she looked at Anatase. “So, what do you think of this whole Cornerstone business so far?”

He was silent for a moment. “Once word gets out—if it hasn’t already—every power-hungry sentient with half a brain’s going to be searching for them. If they’re as powerful as the legends say… well, the safest hands are still ours. Fitting that the Lapidaries would be the ones to keep them from being used to, oh, I don’t know, wipe out half the universe?”

Celestine's face shifted into something unreadable for a brief moment, before the edge of her mouth ticked up in an amused smile. "I am terrified of your imagination."

Anatase rolled his eyes. “That being said… this isn’t like our other missions. We have to act fast, avoid getting into fights with all the scarier and more powerful things that are after them.”

He pocketed the lens, leaning back in his seat. “Sucks to be just human, sometimes, y’know?” Despite all their gadgets, their skill, the abilities, the hunters of House C’zirqonia were mere mortals. C’zirqonia itself was a noble house of humans in a kingdom full of elves, psions, minotaurs, and gods knew what else.

Celestine hummed, looking out the window as she replied. "Perhaps. But for all their fantastical grandeur, they do not have our ingenuity, our propensity for survival." Her gaze flickered back towards him. "That is the edge we've always had."

A comfortable silence fell over the pair.

Edited by Csl

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“Lightning lunatics,” Anatase said grimly.

The pair stood at the airship port of Stormward, staring up at the bolt-streaked sky. Celestine grimaced at the sudden lightning flashes across the expanse of the cityscape, glowing a vibrant electric blue visible even from this distance.

"Stormward is a viable option," she remarked, though not without begrudging reluctance. "Magestorms frequent the vicinity of the city; there has to be at least one knowledgeable Stormwatcher living there."

Once the airship touched down, the pair made quick progress, tracking down the central hub of the city where the priests of the Storm God Zare served in their deity's temple.

"Good day, where may we find a Stormwatcher around here?" Celestine questioned a young acolyte wandering around, just one of the great sea of worshippers within the temple courtyard.

"We're all Stormwatchers," the man cackled, his fingers sparking with white bolts. "You must join us in our worship, foreigners! Only Lord Zare can provide what you seek. You must embrace the power of the electric sky!" The acolyte sunk into what seemed to be a ritual dance, lightning flashing in the clouds above as if in answer to his divine praise, before he was swept away by the rolling current of the crowd.

For a moment, both were speechless. “I think,” Celestine said carefully, breaking the silence, “Union Capital is a far more viable option for a city to track down a suitable Stormwatcher."

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Down the street, a pair of women were alternating between screaming at each other and shooting lightning balls of lightning out of their hands.

“Union Capital it is.” Anatase said. “The Weakening’s there at this time too. Maybe getting closer to it is going to help us find out how in the name of Zare’s toasty beard are we going to get to the middle of a magestorm.”

He thought for a moment. “Let’s get some food first, though. Wonder what lightning-cooked steak tastes like.”

"Wonder what a lightning-induced stomachache feels like," Celestine snorted, shaking her head.

After locating the marketplace, buying lunch, and making the grave mistake of inquiring about lightning-cooking (which resulted in a ten-minute speech from the shopkeeper about the bright, smoky flavor this method of cooking gave to meat), Anatase and Celestine located C’zirqonia’s portal to the long-distance nexus.

“It tastes exactly the same as being cooked on a sunstone grill linked to the fire plane of existence,” Anatase told the owner of the portal, a C’zirqonian merchant who specialized in creating piezoelectric jewelry.

“The what?” the merchant asked.

“Your lightning steaks suck.” Anatase said, stepping through the portal.

The pair found themselves back in the nexus. A hardlight construct directed its gem at them in a motion oddly similar to a person turning their head. “Your destination?”

“Union Capital.”

Edited by Csl

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Union Capital was a study in mixed cultures: a melting pot of all sorts of tourists from the far reaches of Genesaris and beyond. She recalled that the Datsuzoku Empire had made a move on the city, had renamed it the New Union Frontier, but had not found out any further knowledge on the matter since then. Either way, her mentor had not cared about it one way or another, when he had briefed her on the various Genesarian cities far beyond House C'zirqonia's borders.

"Well, this is far more pleasant than Stormward," Celestine quipped, leading the way as they strolled through the golden streets of sandstone, gazed upon the impressive architecture built with sun-warmed brick. The scenery was a far cry from the other cities, battered more often by the violent magestorms raging outside Union Capital's reinforced magic barriers.

“Their hotels here are nice.” Anatase said, suddenly. “I think I’ll have my next vacation here. Lots of nice food places, great views, and magestorms don’t mess things up as much as they’d do everywhere else.”

“Tempting,” Celestine murmured, eyes still affixed on the sprawling cityscape beyond them, “but maybe think about it after we get through this alive, yeah?”

It was a somber thought, but that didn't make it any less true.

Edited by vielle

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C’zirqonia already had a few merchants in Union City with established businesses. Most were in charge of overseeing exalta business transactions between airship companies and C’zirqonia, while a few others sold cosmetic products, charmed jewelry, or medicinal and recreational drugs.

Anatase quickly located the nearest one, a cosmetics producer named Esmerelda Rhines.

“Stormwatcher?” Esmerelda asked, carefully painting her nails a brilliant aquamarine. Her lustrous blue hair, luminescent cyan irises, and luscious blue lips were a sharp contrast from the monochrome attire of the other two C’zirqonians. “You can try Parvian. She’s one of my customers. Sharp girl, though a bit superstitious. Probably knows more about magestorms than anyone else.”

She plucked a beautifully-crafted quill from her desk, grabbed a scrap of paper, and scribbled down the address. After a moment, she wrote down a number, smiling shyly as she handed it to Anatase. “In case you need any more help getting around the city.”

Anatase took the paper, throwing her a wink as they left the store.

"For crystal's sake," Celestine mutters, only audible through the comm pearls.

“Like I said,” Anatase said, smirking, “great vacation place.”

Edited by Csl

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Celestine glared at the flower stalls in front of them, their vibrant colors stark against the grey, hazy windowpane of the florist shop.

The winding stone alleyways of the city started to meld into each other after a while; they all looked the same now after a few hours of running around without much information to go about. So much for Esmeralda's information, she thought, a touch embittered due to the humid heavy air bearing down upon their skin, the slight promise of rain on the horizon.

“You'd think we'd find her by now,” Celestine grimaced, eyebrows digging a deep furrow into her forehead. She glanced down the street; they already went that way twice before, she could recall that much. “Any ideas on how to find this Parvian?”

“There it is,” Anatase said, pointing to a wooden doorway. “Parvian’s Astrometeorology.”

“Huh,” Celestine said, after a few moments of aggravated silence, “we passed by that three times now.”

“I was waiting for you to figure it out.”

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Anatase pulled the door open. Above the doorway, a bell clanged, signalling their arrival.

The Astrometeorology shop was quaint, homey, and utterly empty.

The first thing that caught his eye was the map. On the left, a stained glass window depicted a map of Genesaris. Anatase blinked, moving closer. The moving spiral of neon colors were part of the image, representing a real-time display of the current magestorm.

In the center of the room, a table and a pair of plush chair sat atop a woven rug with an intricate design. A wooden countertop occupied at one end of the shop, a doorway covered by a beaded curtain behind it. Shelves, hooks, and drawers stretched across every wall, holding a seemingly-endless number of trinkets. A row of jars contained weather phenomena: rainbows, thunderstorms, rolling mists, tiny puffy clouds. A scrying bowl laid on the floor, empty. Several small statues of gods - Glizer, Zare, Altus Arcantium - were poised on top of a cabinet, facing outward, as if guarding its contents. On one rack hung strange feathers sparkling with static electricity. On another was a display of rocks with a marker below: Cold Mountains.

To the right, a spiral staircase led to a platform on the second floor. Anatase craned his neck, glimpsing the tip of a brass telescope leaning against the railing.

There was the sound of clicking as the beaded curtain parted.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” a soft voice said. “I didn’t know I had visitors.”

A woman appeared behind the counter, silver eyes gleaming behind round-rimmed glasses.

Anatase beamed a smile that was a touch brighter than usual. “Hello. You’re Parvian, I assume? It’s a lovely name.”

Celestine subtly jabbed him with a sharp elbow to his side. "Stay focused," she whispered through the comms.

Edited by Csl

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Something was off about the entire scenario before her, and the niggling feeling at the back of her mind was annoying incessant.

Celestine glanced at the woman again, a closer study this time, and that beady, shrewd gaze was definitely peculiar.

She wasn't quite very fond of possibly-bogus mystical arts, and considering the superstitious shop the woman was managing at the heart of a magic-driven cityscape, Celestine wasn't particularly inclined to trust the Stormwatcher. She turned a pointed glance towards Anatase, subtly wary but otherwise tinged with resignation. What other choice did they have? Tread carefully with the information you give away was the only thing she could throw his way at this point.

If just anyone caught wind of their plans, their origins, the true reach of House C'zirqonia—well. A fate worse than death awaited them at the hands of their Matriarch, probably.

Anatase seemed to be ignoring her. “We’re looking for information on magestorms,” he said.

Parvian laughed, a light, airy sound. “Oh really?” She beckoned at the table. “Please, have a seat. Make yourself comfortable. Why the interest, if I may ask?”

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“An academic interest, actually,” Anatase said, sitting down. He folded his hands on the table. “We’re archaeologists, in a sense. Recently, we’ve come across an ancient prophecy in some ruins that spoke of a powerful object being hidden in a magestorm.”

“Ooh!” Parvian’s eyes sparkled with interest. “Do you have a copy of it?”

“Unfortunately, no,” Anatase said somberly. “The ruins collapsed as we were trying to copy it, and we barely made it out.” The dust on their clothes would give weight to the half-truth.

“The prophecy did speak of… hmm… what was it—ah, arcane forces in the atmosphere? Something about a vortex in the center of the magestorm. We deal more with what’s beneath the ground than what’s above it, so we’d greatly appreciate a refresher on magestorms.”

“Hmm. This will be a long one. Let me get some tea before I start.”

Parvian rose, disappearing once again behind the counter. After a minute, she returned with a pot and three cups. Anatase gratefully took one. Celestine shifted forward to take the other offered teacup with a reluctantly appreciative nod.

Edited by Csl

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While her partner busied himself with the actual talking, Celestine wandered around the eclectic shop, studying the intricate wooden carvings of nameless gods, the amulets inscribed with ancient runes, the vases and jars filled with questionable liquids of all colors.

Throughout her perusal of the various trinkets scattered about the small space, Celestine kept one ear open to the conversation unraveling between Anatase and the Stormwatcher, pretending to be absorbed in her aimless wandering and the contents of her teacup.

“As you probably already know, magestorms form in the East, above the skies of the Cold Mountains—the edge of the world, as some call it,” Parvian said. Celestine watched her partner nod; so far, this information was common knowledge, even in the bowels of the earth where C’zirqonia had made its home.

“This may be one of the reasons why magestorms are extremely strong arcane forces. Many say the Cold Mountains are the seat of the gods, the High Lords, and other strange, powerful beings. Those may have a hand in creating them. Or perhaps, the source of Genesaris’ magic is the Cold Mountains themselves, similar to Shawnee Glacier in Terrenus. Some even say that a portal atop Mount Tyrin is the source of Genesaris’ arcana, and magestorms are particularly powerful bursts that come through.”

“However, magestorms aren’t always magical. They have two natures usually occuring one after another- the strengthening, and the weakening. A magestorm with a strengthening nature is saturated with arcana, strengthening magic across the continent. A weakening one has the opposite effect, reducing magical availability.”

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Parvian walked to a nearby shelf, pulling out a scroll. She unrolled it on the table—it was a list of names and dates. Parvian pressed a finger against one of the names: Ragnarok. A moment later, a three-dimensional diagram of a magestorm faded into view above the surface, clouds, rain and hail swirling around a center, fog wreathing the ground below it.

“This was Ragnarok,” Parvian said. “It created a supernatural fog over every area it passed, manifesting ghouls, vampires, and other, far more vile creatures out of nowhere, destroying entire cities.” Her voice grew somber. “I believe the storm created tears in the veil between this material plane and the abyss, the dark, or the inferno. Or perhaps another material plane, one full of these nightmarish horrors.”

Celestine tilted her head; the mechanics were similar to how their arcrystology technology worked, channeling energies between the planes, if she were to squint at it.

Parvian pressed her finger to another name. The diagram of Ragnarok faded, replaced by a much smaller storm. The stormwatcher tapped a few other words on the scroll, and the model turned greyscale - bright curving streaks of white against dark grey.

“Whatever effects magestorms have grow strongest the nearer it is to the eye of the storm,” she put her hands around the display and pulled them apart, increasing the magnification of the view. She traced the white lines that swirled from the storm’s center.

“As for the vortex… there’s calm in the eye of natural storms, supposedly, and there should be no arcane effects in that area if we assume the same goes for magestorms.” She adjusted her glasses, looking concerned, “Of course, one would have to stay in the center of a highstorm for its whole duration to test this theory, which no one has done yet. However, all attempts Stormwatchers have made at measuring the level of arcana at a magestorm’s eye…” Parvian shrugged. “The arcana’s almost ten times as strong there as it is across the whole storm. Possibly why nobody who’s been swept up in the vortex has ever lived to tell the tale.”

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