Wake of Kerberos - Chapter 12

Long before the Burning Era had begun, there had been a remarkable time known as the Bleeding Era, which had only lasted a few centuries, but the effects were still evident across the face ofthe earth. The Bleeding Era was a time of ceaseless minor wars, never blowing up into a worldwide war, but still viciously bloody. Strong warrior traditions emerged during that period, and weapon technology advanced greatly, particularly inherent weapon tech.

Inherent weapon tech focused mostly on augmenting the skills of the user, without the need for extensive practice. By making the weapon highly usable from the get-go, it was possible for small countries to keep a competitive army on hand, without spending years training them. Furthermore, it allowed farmers and other non-combatants to defend themselves. The drawback was that such weapons were much more costly, and had limited personalities and wills of their own: in particular, the weapons were known for "choosing" their weilders, by somehow making themselves less noticable to potential owners they didn't like.

Because the Bleeding Era had been worldwide, and because most warrior traditions dictated that warriors should be either buried with their weapons or have their graves marked by them, there became a worldwide abundance of powerful weapons lying around after the end of the Era. A great deal of the weapons were picked up since then by adventurers, some collected by treasure hunters, but most weapons managed to hide themselves until an agreeable warrior wandered into their resting areas. This ultimately gave birth to the joke that truly good warriors always had less than ten toes, because some weapons would get their attention by flipping themselves edge-up.

"Glad I use staves when I'm in a place like this," muttered Oak as the team advanced carefully. "This place is probably saturated with hidden edges."

Alex looked up from the pile of rubble he was scrambling over. "Yeah, probably. Doubt anyone will find anything good though."

"Can you imagine if someone lost a toe in here? Getting them out would be awful," commented Mal as she directed an attendant to check a support that looked like it was ablout to collapse. "I guess Chase would have to carry them most of the way."

"I can reattach a toe without much trouble." Oak said. "Though there are definitely limits. The cleaner the cut the easier it is, if it's a straight slice I can even reattach an arm."

"Wow, impressive." Said Mal as they entered a large but very empty stone room. "Is that a normal skill for a Missionary?"

"It could be, if my peers were a bit more dedicated." Oak frowned as he and Alex examined the writing on the wall, without any enlightenment. "As Alex can attest to, I've a very studious person. Most Missionaries have the power needed to perform field surgery, and also the magical means, but it requires a fair bit of knowledge that isn't required."

"Basically, the human body wants to be whole, and has a significant amount of power invested in that simple desire- even sick people have a potent reserve of healing energy in their bodies. So a Missionary can use their skills and power to bring those reserves into use." Alex scribbled some notes down in his waistbook before they continued working their way through. "It comes down to just knowing what parts of the body need attention, and what you should be encouraging them to do. Academic."

"I see. I'll try to keep that in mind." Mal watched the forward team work its way up the next room, using Chase's ropes to get past a stairway that had collapsed. "Does it work from a distance?"

"No, I have to be physically touching both parts. I know people who can do it without touching, but they have significantly more practice than I do." Oak started walking again once the forward group left the room. "Let's hope that I don't end up gaining such experience. ... Hey Alex, what is this?"

Alex turned around and walked over to where Oak was. Oak was leaning low on his staff, examining a metal circle on the floor. "Dunno. Here, stand back a bit."

Oak and Mal took a few steps backwards and Alex outstretched his sword arm. He muttered a few incantations and his clock hand began to glow a dusty yellow. Alex said a few more words and then yanked his hand off the clock hand, leaving it hanging in the air, glowing yellow fog spilling off it down to the floor. Alex drew a few circles in the air with his fingers and said a command word, and then stepped back to where Oak and Mal were. The yellow fog flexed around a little, and then took the shape of the floor beneath it, displaced by a few inches. The shape seemed to get gradually less worn, and then suddenly footprints began to appear in reverse order, working their way backwards across the floor rapidly. Alex waited a few moments and then barked a new command word, freezing the fog in place.

"What. Was. That." Mal demanded, looking deeply perturbed. "Did you just rewind time?"

"Eugh... no. I invoked the memory of what has happened in the past, and projected it through my clock hand." Alex and Oak walked up for a closer look of the complete circle. "Chase can do the same thing, though I doubt he can project it for others to see."

"I... didn't know that." Mal shook her head a bit, clearing her confusion. "Wouldn't that be a tracker spell? Why do you have it, as a Librarian?"

"It technically is a tracking spell, but we Librarians use it all the time to figure out what stuff was. With the exception of a few extremely specific counterspells, this is a very safe and reliable method of figuring out what an object was. It's limited, particularly by the memory of the earth, which is very different than how we 'remember' things, but it can be a huge asset in situations like this."

"It's a binding ring, isn't it?" Concluded Oak. "An etherical anchor used to confine the movements of a massless creature."

"Yeah." Alex scratched his chin, worriedly. "Which can only mean..."

"This facility was experimenting on spirits... or Prints." Oak looked up, now quite worried. "We're not equipped to handle the kind of malevolence this kind of place indubitably houses."

"Yeah." Alex pulled out his waistbook and began sketching rapidly. "Oak, get on your echo amulet and fill Ixion in. Mal, I want you to get your best mirror illusions ready. If this place used to experiment on Prints, we're probably going to need all the distractions we can get."

Alex snapped his waistbook closed and grabbed his clock hand. "We need to be ready for a fight. C'mon, the advance group is out of sight, but not out of earshot. If we hear them yell we need to be able to get within sight, quickly." He ran over to the rope Chase left for them and started climbing, not waiting for Mal to finish her preparations or for Oak to finish talking into his amulet.

They caught up with the forward group quickly, and stayed substantially closer from then on, relaying messages through the echo amulets often. As they got deeper into the man-made complex, evidence of Prints became more common: burn marks on the walls, impossibly angled damage to the walls. The further they got, the more Alex began to suspect that the place had not only contained Prints, but it had been invaded and ransacked by them.

<Hey Alex, Stheno and Guy are trying to figure out what happened here and I'm not sure how to explain to them. Could you fill them in?> Chase asked over the amulets after both teams had passed a particularly gruesome bloodsplatter. <We've established basic communications, but nothing sophisticated enough to explain this.>

"Ok." Alex sighed and rubbed his forehead. "Actually, Oak, you want to field this?"

"Yeah, no problem." Oak held his amulet with his left hand carefully, his staff firmly gripped in his right hand. "This place was apparently experimenting on Prints, right?"

"Yeah, Ixion told us." Came Stheno's voice, sounding very distant.

"They were probably testing alternative weapons, or refining existing tech. Either way, they were dealing a lot of damage to the Prints they had managed to capture, which means that once the Prints died, the afterimages would be extremely powerful. In some cases, powerful enough to reincarnate after a period of time. It's unusual, but it has been recorded as happening. Human beings can do it too, leading to ghosts."

Oak paused for a moment as Alex opened a massive stone door with a touch. It was moderately surprising that the sliding mechanism still worked, but given that it was a security door, it kind of made sense that it would have been built durably. "Reincarnated afterimages, powerful afterimages, and large numbers of afterimages all attract the attention of other Prints. There's what is called a 'grace period' immediately after the afterimage, which can be calculated based on the strength of the afterimage. There's a formula and everything... the point is that the Prints will hesitate to attack , but then come at you in force."

"So vhat happened here vas a massive invasion avter a prolonged grace perviod." Injected Ani. "The incomving Prints viped out the researchvers and probably released the captive Prints in the process."

"Enough of them hung around for this area to be too dangerous to try and reclaim, so the old project was abandoned until now, with us coming to collect their findings." Oak sighed, closing his eyes. "Secrecy like this costs too many lives."

<Our target is just the research, right?> asked Chase over the amulets.

"Yes, everything else can vait until ve're better equipped." replied Ani.

<Good. I think I found the records room. Backup team, you guys want to get in here while we watch the door.>

"On our way." Said Alex, nodding to Oak and Mal. The three moved forwards quickly, jumping over the remnants of what must have been a tremendous door at one point. The forward team, which had been scoping out the room, moved back to stand on the rubble, watching the gloomy corridor leading to and from the room.

The room was huge. Twelve massive shelves arranged in a circle, pointed out in a sun pattern. In the middle of them, illuminated by glowing orange runes written on the edges of the shelves, was a large crescent desk that had a slew of crystal spheres spilled across it, along with countless loose sheets of paper in hopeless disarray. In the middle of the desk was a tall wooden chair that had a massive bite taken out of the top right: judging from the blood splatters, there had been a person sitting in the chair when the damage had taken place.

Alex sat down in the chair without a second thought and began scanning the contents of the desk. "What are you looking for?" asked Mal, putting a small eagle-headed attendant on the edge of the desk.

"An index of the research. These crystals are a good start, it's likely that the former owner of this desk kept one close that kept track of everything in this room." Alex held a crystal up for examination for a second, and then returned it to the precise location it had been.

"Any distinguishing traits we can look for?"

"Think small, but brilliantly colored, and likely extremely heavy to anyone unauthorized, so that no one would just walk away with it." Alex began opening drawers, glancing through their contents hastily. "Sometimes they're chained down, but in a place like this I doubt it. Someone working in this room would want something shiny they could pull out."

"Alex, how about this?" Oak prodded a small red ball that had rolled up beside one of the shelves. "It feels quite heavy when I push it with my staff."

"Excellent, let me see that." Alex leaped over the desk and activated the runes on the sphere quickly. "Good, it still works, no encryption either. Let's see, let's see... ha ha, found it."

"Found what?" asked Oak, trying to see the tiny runes flickering across the surface of the sphere. "What are we looking for."

"These shelves hold the paper versions of the research- the full, written out reports and records. Countless words, penned in ink." Alex waved his hand grandly at the massive room as he walked to the outer edge of the room. "Trying to rescue the research in this form would take weeks. However, any good archive room will have a magical backup of the records, in case of fire or accident. Most facilities will have multiple copies, scattered about the premises and maybe a few copies off-site."

Alex stopped at the wall and knelt beside a simple pattern engraved into the stone paneling. Pulling out his clock hand, he shattered the panel in one quick hit. "A magical archive is small. All the paper in this room can be compressed down to... this." Alex reached into the opening behind the panel and gingerly pulled out a vial containing a silvery liquid. The vial glowed brightly at his touch.

"That's what we came for?" asked Mal. "Seems a bit underwhelming."

"Well, this is the most important part." Alex stowed the vial in his jacket carefully. "Though from looking at the index, we do need to get one other thing if this trip is going to be worth it. Hey Chase, can you find Lab C?"

<Yeah, probably, I think I understand how this place is laid out... > There was an ominous pause. <But first we have company.>

Alex gritted his teeth as he heard a soft scraping noise come from above his head. "Aw, dammit."

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And now for boss fighto! (Ok, I'll stop.)