Wake of Kerberos - Chapter 9

When the Burning Era began, many people feared that their cultures would be driven extinct. And many were, simply because there were too few people left that remembered them and keep them alive. This led many people to cling desperately to peculiar fragments of their waning cultures, such as their old languages and styles of dress, even though just about everyone could speak the standardized language (out of necessity, mostly) and many professions already had uniforms in place. Many uniforms were simply compromised to allow for cultural references (for example, Ani, Ixion, and Sternum all had complex patterns embossed into the leather of their uniforms, which was a throwback to their homeland), while other uniforms were streamlined so that they could be applied on top of existing styles of dress.

The uniform of Orator had been simplified down to a very wide belt (more of a sash really) that had five tall tubes on the right side. The tubes were usually a neutral color, with a vividly bright symbol painted onto them, indicating the contents: a green leaf indicating the wood tube, a red flame indicating the oil tube, a brown mountain indicating the earth tube, a jagged gray line indicating metal shavings or rods, and a blue raindrop indicating the water tube. Many Orators wore a second set of tubes on the left side of their belt that held more specialized substances: grave dirt or tears, for example. (Tears were not nearly as expensive as they used to be. The market had actually grown so much that there was an entire type of attendants that would discreetly collect tears from people and transport to a centralized shop that would resell them to Orators and other mages).

The only other consistent part of the Orator uniform was the tattoos. All Orators had tattoos that ran from their right ear to the corner of their mouth: a single line of complex square runes. Generally speaking, the tattoos were a dark blue color, though some people ended up with black tattoos: it depended on what the Orator used their skills for. If left unused, an Orator's tattoos would eventually fade into what would appear to be old scars.

As the storm in front of them slowly subsided, Alex and Ani sized up the Orator striding towards them. She was young, tall, and slender: in a gentler time she could have been a great actress. But the uniform around her waist and the tattoos glowing fiercely on her face spoke instead of a dangerous time where even young women had to learn powerful and risky magics. In addition to the uniform, she wore a black yukata and sandals that matched her black hair, which was swirling behind her in a way that made it seem alive. The most distinctive thing about her, however, was the color of her eyes. Or, more correctly, the absolute lack of color.

"A stoneeyes victim..." murmured Alex, forcing himself to keep his hand away from his mouth. "It would take great courage to continue being an Orator with that condition."

Ani grunted her agreement beside Alex. Stoneeyes was a rare disease, non-contagious and nonlethal, but it resulted in utter blindness, and was not operable in any way. The tissue of the eyes was infected with a virus that would digest the refuse of another virus living in the nervous system. The refuse of the virus in the eyes would change them to a stony substance and eventually begin leaking gray pigment into the skin below the eyes, where it would dissipate naturally, albeit leaving gray tear-line marks. If the eyes were removed then the virus in the nervous system would quickly poison the host. If left alone, the host would be mostly normal, but blind and unusually sensitive to pain.

Once the girl was within twenty feet of Alex and Ani, she stopped, and Alex felt something strange. The wind, which was slowly fading from the storm it had been earlier, seemed to thicken for a second, and felt like molasses on Alex's skin. Ani grunted again beside Alex, this time louder. "She's using the wind to feel our faces. Clever girl."

"Thank you," replied the girl in a quiet but commanding voice. "Who, may I ask, are you, to be observing our practice?"

"The man is an old friend of mine." Came a voice from the dust behind the girl. "And as for the woman, I can venture some guesses as to her name, seeing that she comes wearing the garb of a Droner in the presence of the illustrious librarian Alex."

"Hello Brother Oak, good to hear your voice again." Alex smiled widely. "Though I'm not to sure how to take the term 'illustrious'."

Oak walked past the girl to stand in front of Alex. "How have you been? It's been quite some time since I last heard from you." Oak held up his right hand, flat, palm facing to his left.

Alex placed his right hand on Oak's for a second, completing the scholarly greeting. "That's probably because you had to go on some pilgrimage and never seemed to return. How'd you end up here?"

Oak flicked his eyes almost imperceptibly to the girl behind him. "A story for a different day, perhaps. First I need to introduce you. Alex, this is Stheno. Stheno, this is Alex and probably Ani." Oak gestured broadly with his staff.

Stheno bowed politely at Alex and then Ani. "Tell me, are you in fact Ani?"

Ani coughed, somewhat unnerved. "Yes, I ahm. Brother Ohk, how did youh knowh my name?"

"Alex mentioned you a number of times in our past correspondents. Cited you as an authority on Drone technology." Oak chuckled a little to himself. "He instilled a great respect for your field into me."

"Reahlly." Ani cocked her head at Alex in a way that made him somewhat nervous. "Youh will hahve to detailh what else he has saidh sometime. Buht first, I have business with the three of youh."

"Just out of curiosity, how did you know I was in earshot?" Came a metallic voice from behind Alex. A dusty metal ball rolled forwards, with a pair of floating metal hands and a triangular sensor amulet floating beside and above it. "Your intonation made it clear that you knew I was here, but I tried to approach from outside your field of vision."

"Youh're hands ahre out of cahlibrahtion, I cahn heahr dropped signahls coming frohm them." Ani paused and put one hand to her throat. [Damn, I was hoping my voice would hold out longer. Alex, can you translate and listen at the same time?]

"Just tell me and I'll repeat it back to them. Don't stain that gear." Alex looked over at Oak. "But first, could you introduce us to your other companion?"

"Ah, sorry. Alex, this is Guy."

"Guy? That's an unusual name." Alex raised one brow.

"Short for Gyrate... he's not a fan of the irony." Oak had to raise his voice over the protests coming from Guy. "Now, you said you had business to discuss? We happen to be open for a change in direction."

"We are?" asked Stheno.

"Yes, I think we've accomplished all that we can here. Alex, if you could translate for us."

"Yeah, ok." Alex looked at Ani and let her get ahead a bit before he started repeating. "Basically, we have a job that all three of you can join in. ... We're doing field testing for some new equipment that our ship, The Pale, has been rigged for, specifically a crew reclamation array. ... The more thorough our tests, the more we get paid later- hence our unusually large crew."

"In addition, we have a secondary mission, from a separate employer. ... There is a research lab that was hit by Prints some time ago, and our employer is very interested in us recovering what was left of the research. ... Seems like the resources involved in the research garnered the attention of the Prints, so it won't be a cakewalk, but with a team this large we should be ok."

Ani stopped and watched Oak expectantly. He stood motionless, his face unreadable. After a moment, he asked her, "Where is this lab?"

"The Rifts, to the southeast." injected Alex, remembering the maps that Yaga and Ixion were looking at earlier.

"Hmm. Give us a few hours to decide. If we're coming with you I'll contact Alex." Oak tapped his staff on the ground, softly. "First we need to clean this area up. Stheno, if you would."

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At last we meet the last of the party (or crew, as it is referred to in the setting).