Wake of Kerberos - Chapter 8

Ever since the beginning of the Burning Era, countless people had taken to wandering the world as a way to avoid Kerberos' wrath. The method offered almost no real protection in and of itself, but it did keep Kerberos and the Prints from being explicitly attracted to a location. By cutting their ties to the land and carrying everything they needed (including a wide variety of weapons), people managed to stay alive by wandering.

Of course, there were a number of serious problems with the nomadic lifestyle. Aside from the ever-present danger of running afoul of a Print, food was hard to come by- most wanderers had to live off of compressed food that was purchased with relics and treasures that the wanderers found half-buried across the land. Some managed to build up reliable reputations and lived by selling information to civilization. Oftentimes the nomads would have to live off donations from the shrines when they had a run of bad luck.

The other serious issue was the weather that Kerberos wrought. Rain was rare, but when it did come it was usually poundingly heavy and mixed with soot. Heavy cloud cover was common though, as was strong winds. The real danager from the weather, however, was when it got hot. Kerberos was itself a source of hellfire, which meant that he was a walking inferno of heat. Unless protected by strong magic or holy water, anything alive would usually be half-disintegrated by the time Kerberos was even close enough to touch it.

Naturally, a shrine was a perfect shelf from this kind of unnatural weather. The production of holy water created a protective field that the shrine attendants then extended to cover the entire building. It was a bit tricky to maintain around the clock, and it had taken years to iron out the needed architectural oddities and convoluted rune diagrams, but the shrines were perfectly safe, so it was not uncommon for nomads to seek shelter there, especially when they felt the dreaded waves of heat start rippling across the landscape. To help them get to the shrines safely, certain features had become common.

Most shrines were built in the center of the largest, most centralized valley or mesa they could be. Extending out from that central location would be a handful of long cables that nomads could throw a rope over and then zip towards the shrine. And most importantly, shrines had a handful of towers that would extend upwards to different heights, and glow a radiant blue when Kerberos was approaching. The staggered heights helped nomads identify where the shrine was, and also that the shrine was a real one- some Prints had developed a nasty tendency to perch on top of crags and radiate blue light, trying to lead nomads astray. It was very rare for such mimics to be able to work together any length of time.

"Blue killick in two minutes." Yaga's voice echoed out from Alex's amulet, bouncing off the walls of the hangar. "Vertical landing, brace for rocky soil."

Alex stashed his waistbook and stood up so that he could grab a nearby support beam. Yaga was good, but like he had noticed before, she was also quite new as a pilot. Vertical landings could be quite tricky if the pilot wasn't familiar with their craft. Especially if their craft was as large as The Pale: Alex hadn't realized initially just how long The Pale was, extending a couple hundred feet in total.

There was a single rough shake as the ship set down on the ground, supported by two of the cargo legs near the hangar entrance and also the still-running nasal engine at the front of the ship. Alex paused to wonder for a bit how that particular engine managed to keep in working condition, despite its near-constant use, and then decided that it was not worth the effort to try and wring an answer out of Sternum.

Because there were no repairs, restocking, or papers to fill out, the crew of The Pale finished the landing procedure in seconds. By the time that Alex had walked to the back of te ship Sternum already had the hangar door open and extended in such a way that it provided a ramp onto and off the ship. Following behind Alex came Mallory and then Yaga, both of whom were apparently unfamiliar with this type of shrine.

As Alex stepped out from under The Pale, he had to admit that it was a pretty impressive structure. Most shrines were pretty small, housing only a dozen people, and the blue lights had to be kept in spindly towers barely big enough to put a spiral staircase in. This particular shrine was big enough to house a legion, with five uneven towers reaching up like massive fingers. Each tower was larger than The Pale, with peaked tops that somehow seemed dangerous and protective at the same time. The entire building seemed to be built to withstand an invasion.

As he approached the entrance of the shrine, Alex began to think that it was intended to withstand an invasion. A lot of shrines had been built off of abandoned buildings, and this one was probably a fortress back before it was a shrine. Alex laughed a little bit to himself, looking at the long-abandoned weapon systems sitting on the battlements: the very idea of men slaughtering men was such a ridiculous idea. It had taken him years of higher education to really wrap his mind around the concept of war. It was just so... absurd. Who could afford such loss of life?

[Scary lookin'.] commented Ani as she walked up beside Alex. [And this is where monks come to focus on their spiritual selves?]

"It's not quite that simple." replied Alex as they approached the shrine entrance. "Shrines need to be places that can promise silence and solitude, as well as a refuge for nomads and people like us. What better place than a structure such as this?"

[If it offers solitude, it's because people are too terrified to approach the building. Just look at the spikes on the corners of the towers... not exactly welcoming.] Alex couldn't see Ani's eyes because of her goggles, but he could tell that she was casting them at him accusingly.

"Being safe and being welcoming are two different things. A lot of nomads feel more safe in a place that has some grit to it: a humble little shrine might seem nice to you right now, but if you've got a pack of Prints chasing you down, you're going to be looking for the place with some steel."

[Fair enough. Hey, see if that guy over there knows if your friend is still here.] Ani nodded at a monk who was trying to keep up with the flow of questions coming from Yaga and Mallory.

"Yeah, yeah. Excuse me, sir?" The monk turned to face Alex with a tired expression. Alex paused a second, feeling a bit sorry for him. "Do you know if Brother Oak is here?"

"Oak? Yeah, he's at the northern field with the other two. Shouldn't be hard to spot." The monk made a visible effort to relax his face, and turned to face Mallory and Yaga again, to answer their continuing questions.

Alex and Ani paused as they walked back out of the shrine entrance, so that Alex could perform a small ritual. Being a magic user of some competence, it was expected that Alex would make a small contribution to the warding on the door as he walked out. Being a Librarian, this meant that he was simply taking a look at the spells on the hinges and making sure that they were still slowing the wear of time. Finding a slight weakness in one of them, he quickly intoned a support spell that would refresh the main spell somewhat and bring it back to the proper power level.

The two turned onto a small path that meandered around the shrine and worked its way over a small hill to the north. As they were walking, Ani turned to Alex. [Other two? What other two?]

"I have no idea." Alex scratched his head, equally puzzled. "Maybe some other Cold Iron missionaries or..."

Alex and Ani crested the hill and stopped in amazement. The field in front of them was a raging hurricane of flying rock, with two small figures standing in the calm spot in the middle. Alex and Ani stood dumbstruck for a minute, trying to figure what was going on, until Ani spotted a small sphere that the storm seemed to be chasing.

[A training exercise!] shouted Ani excitedly. [Your friend Oak must be training an Orator! I had no idea that the Cold Iron missionaries still did that!]

"Neither did I, but Oak always did have a historical bent!" shouted Alex back. "But where's the other person, I thought that monk said two!"

Ani paused and then shot Alex an indecipherable look. [You don't... could the ball be the other person?]

Alex paused in turn. There was a group of young people, second-generation Burning Era kids, who had developed a sort of severe paranoia that led them to augment themselves with extremely durable armor. Or, as some would say, replace half of themselves with extremely durable armor. They lived in metal spheres that had self-contained life support systems and sophisticated defense arrays that made it so that nothing short of direct contact with Kerberos could hurt them. The obvious drawback was that the "Bubble Kids" were barely recognizable as human, and the sphere armor had to be compromised in order for the users to do even basic tasks, like picking stuff up. Even rolling around quickly required some compromises, so a Bubble Kid moving as quick as the one on the field below would actually have comparatively little protection at the moment.

The pair stood at the top of the hill for a bit, watching the little ball zip around the field, neatly dodging everything that came at it with a dance-like elegance. As the storm raged on, increasingly large chunks of earth began flying around, eventually dwarfing the ball itself by several orders of magnitude. At one point a rocky slab overshot the ball and landed crookedly in ahead of its path- rather than changing course entirely, the ball just changed its spin so that it ramped off the slab into the air, gaining several seconds of air time.

"What kinda Bubble Kid would take part in an Orator's training session?" asked Alex wonderingly.

[I guess we'll find out when they notice us and we can get close enough to talk.] Ani picked up three small rocks and began juggling them. [Not much we can do until then.]

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This chapter and the next one were originally planned to be a single chapter, but I have discovered that people don't like reading long chapters online, for various reasons. For example, a friend pointed out that lots of small chapters helped establish the same kind of base rhythm as turning pages does. Another friend made the argument that small chapters were easier to bookmark when reading a story through, and then easier to hunt down specific passages later.

What do you guys think? Send your thoughts to me and I'll try and fit the chapters to your preferences.