The first Keni of Hileko brought with it the dawning of the 50th anniversary of the construction of the wall which surrounded Steel Haven. Its residents were largely making preparations for the Pharaoh’s widely-promoted address, to bear witness . Across the city, safety protocols were being double and triple-checked, heavily armored and armed Warforged guarding the wall. Inside the city, five unique individuals were going about the business of the day – unaware, for the most part, of what one another was up to.
At the center of the city, a small funeral for a child – another victim of the Mesmer poisoning that was rapidly becoming more lethal to the children of Steel Haven. The child was not merely an example, but one of several that week who had received the Pharaoh’s blessing for a full funeral procession. He had also closed off the Investigator’s District to all children, in the hope of keeping them away from the higher concentration of Mesmer in the laboratories there – but the restriction didn’t protect them from the Mesmer smog which coated the entire city and powered automatons in their own homes. No one could understand why the poisonings were starting to happen in lethal doses so suddenly.
The priest leading the funeral motioned to two Warforged assistants, and as she led the way into the city towards the cemetery, the Warforged carried the casket between them. The family gathered together behind them and after allowing a certain distance between them and the casket, followed in continued mourning. Behind the family, a pair of Nightingales began to sing sweet dirges to honor the child’s passing.
Eloia of House Akemi, a high-society noblewoman despite only being sixteen, held her ambitions above all other pursuits. Throughout her life, she had appeared to have a distinct advantage whenever she encountered an obstacle. This was the case because Eloia, who hated being called ‘Elly,’ was a Clairvoyant. In the distant future, a collection of chronomancers found it necessary to empower certain individuals throughout Umatvan history with the ability to return to their younger selves’ lives and guide them – which, of course, was the experience they had already experienced. Eloia had first received ‘nudges,’ here and there while growing up, but became a Clairvoyant almost a year ago when she at last received a pocketwatch that looked to be made of diamond-inlaid gold for her fifteenth birthday. Her future self happily went by Elly and insisted that there was no point in fighting it.
Together, they had prepared for the new millennium. Elly kept a tight hold on knowledge of the future, lest Eloia deviate too extremely from the sequence of events necessary to make it to the future in the first place. Tomorrow was an important event, but whenever Elly mentioned it, she had difficulty hiding the grim reality of it. Any final preparations had to be made on the first Keni. Eloia made her way to the Bauble Boutique, which was like a rainbow of light refracting across walls of hanging colored glass, noisily ticking off-key with several asynchronous clocks and a sharp perfume smell which stung the nose. She entered with her usual sense of purpose, waiting for further instructions. She’d seen the Bauble Boutique hundreds of times over the years, and whatever the following day was supposed to be bringing, it hadn’t changed the shop. When she was a child, Eloia had to resist the urge to retune the clocks – and it was still a struggle. Something about the asynchronicity irritated her on a deeper level. ‘Alright, Elly.’ She thought, ‘What do we do here?’ She started to wander the shop, being careful per usual not to draw too much attention to the fact that she was having a conversation with herself. Eloia had worked out that the portents surrounded the Pharoah’s upcoming speech, but not much else – and anything the Pharaoh did really only impacted the commoners, and possibly the Warforged.
The widow Mrs. Morrisey came out from the back room, a scrawny older woman with thick glasses that made her eyes appear large and bug-like. She smiled at the sight of Eloia, shuffling forward, taking her hand and patting the back of it. “Ah! Eloia, child! How are you today, dear?” Eloia just barely managed to hold back a wince at the physical contact.
“As well as ever, Madame Morrisey. We won’t be setting out for a while longer.” The widow didn’t notice Eloia’s discomfort, instead leading her by the hand over to the front counter.
“I got something in today that I think you should have. I remember you saying that you were going away for a while, so as soon as it came in, I set it aside for you. I said to myself, I said, ‘Next time I see that Child Eloia, I need to give it to her.’” She let Eloia’s hand go and rummaged behind the counter, mumbling to herself until she came up holding what appeared to be a bronze pocket watch. “Now, I know you must be thinking, ‘Madame Morrisey, I already have a dozen watches!’ But this one is different.” She popped it open and revealed that it was in fact, a compass. Eloia smirked, hoping against hope that this wasn’t another crazy magical artifact. ‘Alright, Elly. What’s the story? This one told me where I was supposed to go next?’ She smiled up at the old woman, “Madame, I hardly know how to thank you well enough for such a fitting going-away present. You know how my parents are always accusing me of getting lost.”
The old woman chuckled knowingly. “Consider it a belated birthday present.” Eloia couldn’t focus on correcting the old woman – that her next birthday was sooner rather than later, because Elly spoke up very clearly. ‘I never got this present the first time.’ Her voice in Eloia’s mind was sad, nostalgic. ‘It’s not magical. It’s just a simple compass – a simple gift. But you’ll find it useful in the days to come.’
‘The first time? Or just last time?’ “I will, Madame. Thank you so much.” At the very least, it would be useful to know which way Blackgarde was. ‘You know… for later…?’ Eloia fished for more information, but Elly wasn’t having it.
“Of course, Child.” The old woman patted Eloia’s hand again, and then seemed content to put some distance between the two of them, re-tuning her clocks. “Was there anything you were looking for today, dear? Or just came by to say hello?”
“I am leaving soon, Madame, so this is actually something of a goodbye-for now. I’ve…”
‘Oh, right. Now or never, Eloia.’
“I’ve still been wondering why you you insist on keeping these clocks off-kilter. I figured I’d ask one last time before I left — why not sync them up?”
Madame Morrisey nodded. “Perhaps it is difficult for someone so young, but this city has a rhythm. It keeps us marching forward, ever progressing at the same pace, ever onwards. And sometimes, it can be difficult to break away from that rhythm. These clocks drown out the pounding calls to action – allow me to do as I please, when I please.” She glanced towards Eloia, “Perhaps that sounds like elderly gibberish. But remember, Child, wherever your journeys take you, you will not be able to move far if you stay within the lines.”
“I’m an Akemi, Madame. Those lines are there for a reason.” ‘Or, you know, the asshole in my head won’t tell me — oh, shut up Elly, I’m going.’ “Farewell, Madame. Thanks again for the lovely new watch. It shall join my collection.” She turned to leave, “All of which are precisely tuned to tick in unison, I will have you know! This one will be no exception.” Eloia gave it a spin in her hand, watching the needle continue to point towards Blackgarde no matter what. ‘Look, Elly – even if I spin it – I can’t divert it even for a moment.’
‘It’ll be a long time yet until you reach Blackgarde, but without the compass, we get lost for weeks. And we’re not really well-versed in surviving beyond the Sanctum Wall.’
‘I’m sure you’ll see to painstakingly describing every detail for… Kara, myself, the Warforged — and the other noble, right? …I’m forgetting someone. That’s odd. I never forget anything – thanks to you. Ah, well.’
Fia of House Rossini didn’t particularly care for being so close to nobility and aristocracy, as it increased the chance that she would be recognized not as the artisan, but for who and what she really was. As a Flameborn Child of Tatva, she’d long been a propaganda piece for the Pharaoh, a young noblewoman against her will, and she’d been forced to grow up too quickly to effectively hide herself from the public eye – which she’d have much preferred. There was to be an elegant ceremony planned for the following day, after the Pharaoh’s speech, hosted in the Ebony Ballroom. The glass blowers in the Trade District were tasked with crafting brand new chandeliers for decoration. The entire Guild Square was buzzing with preparations. When it came to what else the Pharaoh might demand, no one ever knew, but it was safer to simply prepare for anything. Knowing the address was only a day away, Fia had to finish anything that remained on the first Keni.
Her first stop was the Ebony Ballroom itself to oversee the proper installation of the Mesmeric chandeliers. She lowered her cap over her face. It was mostly tradespeople around at the moment, so she allowed herself a moment to take in the scenery. When she entered, the glamour was dazzling. She had to make a detour around a heavy table dressed in fresh linen tablecloths, while in the center of the room delicately sat the chandelier waiting to be hoisted up by Ruben, a long-time colleague.
It had been roughly a year since she had traded away this glamorous life for her more humble one, and while she missed some of the finery, she wouldn’t ever want to trade her freedom for the luxury of some shiny baubles and fine clothes. As she looked around, she saw Ruben calling to her and rushed over. She greeted him cheerfully, “Hey, Ruben, this sure is something, huh?”
“Sure is, Child,” he mumbled, look around at the ballroom, clearly not all that impressed. “Y’know, with honest clocks so hard to come by, it seems a little frivolous. All this, I mean. I dunno. Maybe I just don’t get it.” He sighed and clapped his hands together. “Well, nevermind that! We got a job to do, don’t we? We gotta get this thing lifted high enough to tie it off. But first, we gotta light it.” Ruben pulled out a lighter.
As she watched the fire spring to life in his hand, Fia’s eyes sparkled. She knew she could light every chandelier in this room in a second, but it was too risky with so many unfamiliar eyes, so unfortunately she’d have to do it the old-fashioned way. She pulled her own lighter out, flicked it open and let it spin in her hands for a moment. She enjoyed the heat as the flame licked at her fingers. She let her lighter pass over each of the small lights, using her magic just a little to help it catch quickly. She chattered away with Ruben, partially to distract him from noticing how well she was controlling the fire, but more because she could rarely stop herself from talking. “I think these chandeliers might be our finest work yet! I sure hope that they appreciate how much work we put into them. Do you think they’ll even look up to notice, or is everyone going to be focused on the address? I wonder what it will about about? It could be anything…”
“Hard to know what these high-class types will want. Their whims cost more than our year’s pay.” He grimaced. “Ah, sorry, Child. I don’t mean to be a grump. Here, do me a favor and stand back a ways. I’m gonna start cranking it up. Let me know when it’s high enough and I’ll knot it.” He tucked his lighter in his vest pocket and took up position by the pulley system on the wall. As Fia watched the heavy sculpture be hoisted into the air, she thought a lot about how her position had changed over the last year.
It felt like a lifetime ago that she would have been on the other side of an event like this, likely standing behind the Pharaoh as he made whatever announcement, used as a prop to demonstrate his connection to the gods, as she so often had been. From her place in his procession she had always seen the common people as gullible for believing so earnestly in his powers, but she’d realized through conversations much like this one that much as she had been, they were also putting on a performance. Everything to do with the Pharaoh was an act. She called out to Ruben, “Looks good from there!”
Ruben clamped the chain in place, holding it secure. Wouldn’t want it falling onto the congregation tomorrow, after all! He stepped away, brushing dirt off his hands as he inspected the work. “That’s as good as it’s gonna get. We’re out of time for last minute touches.” He clapped Fia’s shoulder jovially, “You did a great job on this, Fia! I’ve never seen someone so gifted at such a young age. You handle that glass like it’s an extension of yourself.” He smiled at her with an almost paternal fondness. “I was wondering if you’d do one last thing for me before tomorrow?” He reached for a photographic camera sitting on a nearby dining table. “Would you give me the honor of photographing you with your accomplishment?”
She was a little hesitant to allow herself to be photographed. Evidence of her being here or even her connection to Ruben may lead to trouble down the line for both of them, but the way he looked at her so warmly, she wanted to grant him his request. “Of course, Ruben. But we should be quick about it! Don’t want to get in anyone’s way.” She walked slightly away from him to stand closer to the chandelier before turning back and giving him a big smile. A bright grin of encouragement was all she could see as the camera blocked his eyes. He knelt down to angle it up to catch her in the frame along with the chandelier.
“Here we go! 3… 2… 1… “ There was a flash, and he examined the camera to make sure it had functioned properly. “All set. Here, take this home with you and develop the photo for me, will ya?” Handling hot glass over so many years had left Ruben with enough scars on his hands to make him struggle with more delicate procedures. “Bring it with you to the Pharaoh’s address tomorrow. You can give it to me then.”
“I’d be happy to.” She gladly took the camera from him and placed it in her pack. She wasn’t an expert at developing photos, but figured she could do a passable job of it. She’d almost forgotten she would also be required to attend the address tomorrow and might be recognized by the Pharaoh himself. Perhaps she could try dying her hair with grease again, although it never seemed to stick. Maybe she could fake an illness and give the photo to him the next day, but being caught skipping the address would likely be worse than being recognized. She smiled up at him, trying not to let her hesitation show on her face.
“Alright, now. Off with ya.” He smiled and waved her off playfullly. “Enjoy the rest of the night off! Tomorrow, it’s back to work. You never know what the Pharaoh’s gonna request.” Fia waved cheerfully and bounded off at high speed, anxious to get away from any nobility who may be in the area, and back to her home in the trade district where she could breathe a little easier. She made her way back, but on the way heard the clattering of the funeral procession coming down the street. She pressed herself against the wall, trying her best not to disturb the procession and to go unnoticed, although it appeared that all involved had more pressing matters on their mind.
Her heart broke for the poor family. She hated to see innocents lost. It was in moments like these that she noticed how dingy the city looked, the use of Mesmer taking its toll on not only the buildings and streets but on the citizens themselves. It was difficult for her to understand how Mesmer was used in machines. Her own affinity had come so naturally that its manipulation by industry felt almost like a perversion of something beautiful and pure. Of course, such thoughts were blasphemous, and not to be spoken out loud.
Fia spent the remainder of the afternoon developing the photo. It wasn’t great, but she was clearly visible in the Ebony Ballroom with the grand glass chandelier behind her. She didn’t care for how she looked in the rare photos that were taken of her, with her hat pulled down over her face, and this particular one made her clothes look all the shabbier against the luxurious background. Her elegant frame, however, seemed like it was destined for the finer things in life. She spent the rest of the evening playing with her lighter and trying to lose herself in her thoughts.
The vigorous inspections of the Sanctum Wall might’ve made for good work for a woman like Sunshine – Kara of House Andrews.. Despite her nobility, she’d chosen the path of a ‘Watchmaker’ – a talented expert at gunplay for reasons known only to a select few. She was the only female Watchmaker in all of Steel Haven, indeed the only woman who knew her way around a pistol. Rather than express her femininity to stand out, she covered it up with a snarky attitude in order to be taken seriously by the men around her. The Pharaoh might have need of a proper sharpshooter to stand atop the wall if repairs needed to get done. Nothing against the Warforged who usually manned the posts, but Sunshine was one of the most accurate shots in the whole city; her nobility and her family’s relationship would open doors that Warforged simply didn’t get access to.
The Pharaoh’s address was tomorrow, so she expected to have a full day ahead of her. She started by heading to a usual haunt, the training grounds in the Military District. It wasn’t a place known for women, but it was a place known for Sunshine. She drew her pistols at the shooting range, making clear to the familiar faces that she intended to get some shots off today. An Inquisitor she often encountered at the training grounds offered her a quirk of his eyebrow and an “Afternoon, Kara.”
“Hello there, Mr. Edison. How are you today?” The lazy drawl of her voice contrasted with the lightness of it as Kara placed a couple of cogs on a nearby barrel and smiled up at him. He was a powerful force, she had known that for years, but she could tell where age had begun to make him soft. She fixed her grip and looked down range to a couple of bottles – too easy. Softly, gently, she pulled back on her triggers and fired. She immediately let her eyes go back to the man before her and she gave him a smile.
“Now, now, Child. No need to get sassy on me,” he chided her, his gruff voice contrasting with his smile. He easily summoned a magic pistol from thin air, and shot the next bottle without taking his eyes off of her. “I don’t mind a lil’ showin’ off now and again either.”
“Showing off is for the proud, I merely share the grace of Aika with all of the children of the world.” She knew all the right words, and paired them with a slight bowing of the head. She chuckled, a light, flighty noise almost like wind chimes in a summer breeze. She holstered one of her pistols, grabbed a tomato, and tossed it into the air – time blinked and she had both weapons pointed at the tomato, firing, juice and fruit exploding in tandem with her pistols.
Edison grumbled loudly, shielding himself from the splatter of tomato remnants raining down on him. “Ugh, Child, must yeh go making a mess? Besides, yeh know as well as I that there is no such thing as Aika. Just a pleasant notion to give them a sense of control.” He shook his arm to throw off pieces of the fruit, smiling at her nonetheless. “Come on now, I have a gift for yeh. Something to really catch the Pharaoh’s eye for tomorrow.” He motioned for her to follow him into the armory.
Kara holstered her weapons and followed him. This interested her, and very little in her life did. Once one found oneself capable of manipulating time, there was little left of excitement in regular life. She pulled off her calash and let her curls breathe for a moment. The sun protection was ideal, but sometimes she swore she was baking. She looked around the space and breathed in the familiar scents of molten steel and sweat. She would someday miss this scent, she could feel it in her bones, but for now – she had all she could possibly want.
Edison went to a drawer where he kept small accessories and started digging through it. “Now, I know, you think you’re the hottest shit since tempered steel, but I still thought that maybe you would find these useful. And even match that froufrou hat o’ yours.” He turned back to her with a shiny pair of goggles in-hand. “Made o’ bronze, these. The glass is magnifying. Better to hit those long-range targets. Besides, you noble girls like things that sparkle, don’t yeh?”
Her mouth stood agape for a moment as she forgot herself in the beauty of the small token before her. “Oh, Mr. Edison, they are so pretty. I could kiss you, but I don’t think the missus would be too happy about that. You must let me pay you, these couldn’t have come easy.” She started to fumble with the strings of her purse. A radiant smile filled her small face with brightness.
Edison held out his hand to stop her. “Give me the satisfaction o’ doing something nice for a young lady, will yeh? You just promise you’ll keep practicin’. I want to be able to brag later when I say I know the right hand o’ the Pharaoh.” His smile was affectionate, not a trait usually found in the burly law enforcement – but she’d grown accustomed to finding it with Edison. “Who knows? “Maybe you’ll make a fine Inquisitor some day.”
“You flatter me, thank you so much. I’ll have Daddy order an extra barrel of that apple brandy you like, as a token.” She took the goggles in her hands gingerly, afraid of damaging them, and clasped them behind her head. She looked up at her friend and quickly pressed her tiny frame against his far larger one. “How do they look? Are they as perfect as I imagine?”
“You look absolutely radiant. You shine brighter than that bronze ever could.” He waved her away, looking a bit fatigued and showing his age. “Of you go now. Save your bullets for tomorrow in case the Pharaoh needs a display. You never know what he might request during these kinds of events.”
“It’s all in your honor, Mr. Edison.” She curtsied and removed the goggles. She placed them gently in her purse, wrapped in her hankie. After leaving the armory she decided to head towards home, to see if her father needed any assistance in preparing for the following day. He was starting to lose focus in his older age, retreating into his memories of training and brotherhood, to the point of forgetting which Kara she was. She thought about sending for the doctor the next time it happened, as she walked down the dusty road, keeping close to the grassy edge.
Kara moved aside when the funeral procession came to pass her by. She said a silent prayer to Aika, wishing moments of forgotten peace to revisit this family, of healing dreams and soothing memories to calm fractured minds. Something had to be done about these children — maybe if they wore a facial cover? But she was sure someone, somewhere, had thought of that and tried. She was not an inventor or a healer by any means, and for now she just watched their pain. She wondered what it felt like, if she would ever experience anything like that, or if bringing a child into this world at any time would be a responsible thing to do. She was experiencing the impact of age on a mind in her father – would she ever want to expose a child to it?
She went home to clean her pistols and look after her father. As she lay in bed that night, she reflected on her late aunt. She had been coming into her thoughts more and more, recently. A part of her thirsted to find out more — to learn the truth. Her father just preferred not to speak of it. But with more children dying in Steel Haven again, she wondered if there was a connection somewhere between the two events.
There had been whispers from Madilim that it was going to be an important day in Cambria’s life. As a Warforged Mockingbird, Cambria was a harsh critic of the establishment, writing moving performance pieces that cut with wit and sliced with symbolism. She held herself to a standard of elegance, going as far as to have her face painted as many Warforged did — in pursuit of personal expression of her identity — but then to cover it up with the masks typical of Madilim’s Mockingbirds.
Madilim did not elaborate, but She never did. As Cambria entered the Songbird Odeum, she could hear a symphony of choirs. The theater was outdoors, so the grey-green sky misted down upon visitors, and the harsh breeze was likely to sting one’s nose. This was a sanctuary for Madilim’s children. This was home, or the closest thing to it.
Emilia, a Nightingale, met her in the stands. “Cambria! Nice of you to stop by. Are you planning a special performance for the Pharaoh’s speech tomorrow?” Cambria removed her Faceless mask and stashed it away into her pack, to be polite. She lacked the physical capability to smile for Emilia, but she did give a theatrical bow. “Of all days to perform,” she said, “I would not dare to miss this one. Tell me, what have you heard of the circumstances of this speech?” Madilim’s whispers had driven Cambria to search for answers in what little time remained, but she needed something to work with.
“Madilim has whispered little. But the city folks gossip much. I heard that there are pirates and bandits descending upon Steel Haven, and that is why the the Sanctum Wall is being inspected. To be sure it is strong enough to hold.” A nearby Mockingbird scoffed, a man by the name of Coy.
“An entire wall for bandits? Doubtful. I heard it was some constructs that’ve gone rogue. That’s why they manned the wall with those Warforged.” He glanced back at Cambria, frowning a little. “No offense.”
A tilt of Cambria’s head said more than an expression would’ve. “None taken, of course. But I believe you may both be wrong.” Her first memories were around the time of the wall’s construction, and she remembered them well. The titanic structure rising up into the air in a mere month, an urgency that belied a great danger — one that never arrived, it had seemed. “Whatever is coming, if something is coming, it will be beyond such mundane things. Would that not excite you, Coy?”
"Excite?" He shrugged. "If it comes, it comes. If it doesn't, it doesn't. Madilim would tell us if She wanted us to care." Emilia waved Coy away. "Never you mind him, Cambria! I have a special gift for you." She led Cambria to the costume room. Colorful fabrics hung over privacy walls and a haze of powder from countless applications of stage make up seemed to be perpetually in the air. Emilia dug through a trunk while talking, her voice muffled.
"This is the first time you are getting to perform for the Pharaoh, right? I know the Warforged — oof — weren't allowed in the theatre for so long!" She popped up with a fanciful hat in-hand. "Here it is! A prop I thought you might like to use. It is sturdier than most, made of leather instead. I know your gears tend to snag on fabrics."
As Emilia fished the hat from her trunk, Cambria glanced about to catch the mood of the day. The other Mockingbirds may have not received such an urgent whisper, or they may have. It didn't matter, of course, Her whispers told her all she needed to know. "Oh…oh how perfectly delightful, Emilia." Taking the hat in her hands, almost snatching it away, her eyes poured over its every detail. It was just what she needed for her performance, to complement the Demon's Mask, to cast evil on the light of the upper class. She gave it a deft flip, donning it without need of watching its trajectory through the air. "Tell me, dear Emilia, does it look fetching enough for such a portentous audience?"
Emilia giggled. "It was practically made for you, Child." She stood atop a stool and pretended to be a high society patron, voice shrill and rolling too many of her words. "Good h-heavens, dear! Such a dark, debonair charm! It clouds the light of the one Mother on such a momentous day!" She held the back of her hand to her forehead in a mocking faint.
Cambria would play along of course, as she doffed her cap into her hands, sweeping into a deep bow, followed by an exaggerated whip of the neck up, her inhuman mechanical anatomy showing a bit. "My lovely madam, none could dare cloud the Mother's light, for it shines upon us all in equal measure, such is Her grace." Quickly, she moved to follow the cue, stepping behind her to catch her in the feigning fainting as her hat returned to her head.
Emilia broke into a grand display of laughter. "Okay, okay! Enough of that! You should be off practicing! Take the hat with you. I won't tell anyone that you’re using it." She smiled again at Cambria as she waved and went about her own business. Cambria returned a curt nod, slipping the hat into a closed compartment of her pack, replacing it once again with the mask of the Faceless. She undid a series of leather straps that held her accordian secure, before beginning to play a wistful and playful tune to the enjoyment – or perhaps annoyance – of those around her as she once again left the Odeum. So many questions burned in her mind, but the music extinguished them in her concentration, letting those doubts and theories play out into the humid air of Steel Haven’s streets in the form of her instrumentation.
As the funeral procession came to pass the Odeum, Cambria changed her song to match that of the Nightingales. The dark, sweet tones of the Nightingales joined with her own as she continued her own performance, the notes fading into their compositions and giving them the space to express their side of Madilim's love. Truly, Madilim’s own understood better than anyone that the souls of these children now lay in Her hands, held in Her embrace, and such was life in Steel Haven, where death sat in the wings, waiting for its time to enter the stage. Such deaths did not concern Cambria, even as its unknown cause began to turn at the gears in her head. What tidings could this portend, sweet Madilim? If She knew, She would tell her — if she needed to know.
Cambria made her way south to the Warforged District. Compared to the rest of Steel Haven, some might have called it the slums. For many of the last fifty years, Cambria had been here, with other Warforged, where they do not regularly receive strange looks. Many Warforged in Steel Haven are employed by the Pharaoh to guard atop the Sanctum Wall – a position deemed too dangerous for human Inquisitors. The House of Body Art operated in the northern edge of the district. As Cambria entered, she saw a human man painting a Warforged soldier with an airbrush. The man glanced back at her but did not stop his work. He grumbled around the ink needle in his mouth, “Yes, Child? What can I do for you?”
She gave a small curtsy to the man, as she spoke in the monotone that accompanied the Faceless role in her interpretation. "I am preparing for a performance. I would request some small ornamentation done, if you would." From her pack, she removed one of her last two clocks, holding it between her fingers and flipping it between them in a show of dexterity. Truly, she had no need of it that was greater than that of a performance spurred by Her whispers.
The man nodded at the clock appreciatively. "The name's Gabe," he said, putting the finishing touches on his current client and then signalling them to get out of the way so that Cambria could take their place. "And I don't care what yours is. What kind of 'ornamentation' do you want?"
In her own way, she appreciated the anonymity, as she had no name at this very moment, in this very role. Moving over to the man, she indicated to her arms. "Red and black, in the style of a pair of long silk gloves, if you would." This could be the performance of her life, and no detail would go unheeded, but this was a task better suited for a man who did such things as an everyday occurrence.
He grunted and had her sit. He switched the paints in his airbrush, cleaned the nozzle deftly, and went to work. For one clock, the detail would be hand-crafted and quite a luxury for any common Warforged, but a far cry from the fancy silk and lace gloves that human women could purchase in the Noble Districts. It took half an hour. Gabe wasn't much of a talker, grumbling and cursing at his tools when they acted up. When he was finished, he took her clock and tucked it into his jacket pocket. "Don't go messing it up! I don't do free touch ups."
Standing up as she looked at the gloves that now adorned her arms, she almost wished she could break character and express just how lovely they were, but merely replied with a nod, and a “Thank you.” She walked back out of the shop and headed off to rest for the night. As she lay in bed, that night, Madilim whispered once again. “You have been lost and alone for too long, my little songbird. Tomorrow, it will be time for you to fly away from this tiny city and soar, across the skies, to Blackgarde. When the Pharaoh speaks at high noon, your fate will come to pass.” Tomorrow portended to be tremendous, and if she could smile, she would be positively beaming.
The haggard P.J. McGillicutty was not a fan of the Pharaoh by far, but an official address to the people of Steel Haven meant an honest source of clocks. Despite his ramshackle appearance, the man was a natural genius, in possession of an incredible intellect that rarely got to see the light of day as a result of his dispossession of tact as he grew older. He was often called nothing but a cranky old man, with radical and outspoken views. He found himself walking into MechaMending, a tinker shop at the outer edge of the Mecha District. As he entered, the familiar rhythm of machinery banging through the shop snapped him out of a daze. The Mesmeric smoke was thicker in this part of the city, but they were also the best source of supplies and repairs around. He still hadn’t intended to come into the shop. He said aloud, “Why the heck did I even come here? Huh. Must be gettin’ old.” He walked out, grimacing at the taint of the Mesmeric smoke all around him.
As he exited the shop, he saw the funeral procession making its way towards the cemetery, having almost completed its half-lap around the city. His face scrunched up in an expression of distaste and he watched it go by, sickened, and making no effort to hide it whatsoever. “See? This is what I’m talking about. This Mesmer is POISON! There has to be a better way!”
The grieving family blinked through their tears, appalled that he would use their child’s death to shout political propaganda without an audience otherwise. The procession moved a little faster past him, the Nightingales whispering reassurances of Madilim until they passed out of sight. He headed home in a huff, having decided to spend the day tinkering with his tools, to make certain that they were in perfect working condition before the following day’s work.
‘I’m sure you’ll see to painstakingly describing every detail for… Kara, myself, the Warforged — and the other noble, right? …I’m forgetting someone. That’s odd. I never forget anything – thanks to you. Ah, well.’
‘And the doctor.’ Elly reminded Eloia. As some clattering came down the street, she glanced and discovered it was a funeral procession. She moved aside to the wall of the Boutique to let them pass as they began their half-lap around the city.
‘Thanks again for keeping me out of the Investigator’s District when I was little. I try to question you, and you’re right, and then the next thing comes up and — yes, yes, I know, I know, I’m going.’ Eloia headed home for the remainder of the evening. As Elly walked Eloia through practicing her spells again – connecting with one another to bind reality in the future with Eloia’s present so that Eloia became more powerful. When the practice was complete, Eloia found herself breathing harder than usual as she made her way to bed.
‘Alright,’ Elly said, ‘tomorrow was the first day we die.’
‘You, Kara. And everyone else.’
‘How do I stop that from happening?’
‘Stay near the train. It’s the only way to escape.’
Cambria awakened with a new purpose and a new guiding song. She made her way to the Trade District, waiting for any possible signs of portents towards what exactly would be happening that day. P.J. found his way over eventually, unable to resist the urge to see the farce. Kara Andrews found herself inspecting the crowd, looking for Eloia — Eloia was already darting her eyes across the crowd, looking for visual confirmation of everyone she’d been told to expect. The train Elly had mentioned was at the edge of the square. A bellow of green smoke plumed from the stack of the engine. Its arrival the previous week was the first time the people of Steel Haven had ever seen it run — when the holy men arrived. The engine was already being heated up to prepare for their departure following the ceremony. Fia Rossini decided to arrive at the back of the square, hoping not to be noticed, tucking herself as far back in the crowd as possible. The whole city appeared to be in attendance. People were crowded into the square, children sat atop rooftops and machinery to get a better view of the Pharaoh. Beyond the Pharaoh's pulpit, the Sanctum Wall at the edge of the city was manned with armed Warforged — prepared for any possible attack on the city or on the Pharaoh or the holy men.
As Cambria inspected the square and the crowd, she felt something bump against her leg. Pester, according to Cambria, was an annoying, persistent, smog emitting little piece of mechanical garbage, who has nevertheless been the most loyal and consistent entity in her life. Pester scurried about her ankles, clearly trying to get her attention.
The very energy of the crowd thrumming only seemed to draw Cambria's interest, as she reached into her bag for two items: her Demon mask, and her new hat. Donning both, she began to notice Pester's annoying attempts to garner her attention, and knowing she needed no distractions to perform such an important role, knelt down to look at the piteous mechanical creature and glare upon it with eyes painted yellow. "Little pest, do not try my patience this day." She intended to stride into the crowd in her faux-regal glory, to find the perfect place to perform. She set out into the crowd in her faux-regal glory, to find the perfect place to perform, but Pester persisted, almost causing her to trip a few times.
P.J. noticed Cambria, and chuckling, he moved into position – scowling at the Mesmeric train. He started to push his way through the crowd, following Cambria and noticing the small construct running around her feet, trying to get her attention.
No matter how she looked, Kara couldn’t find her partner. Eloia would never miss such a momentous event. She watched the people buzz, almost like when the locusts came and the trees seemed to quake from a distance. She took a deep breath and walked toward the train, trying to breathe as little of the smoke as possible and watching it curl, wondering what kind of darkness it held, before heading toward the middle of the square and looking around for a familiar face to watch with.
Eloia pulled herself up onto a crate, instantly noticed her partner – Kara Andrews – in the thick of the mass, clearly visible thanks to her fine calash. Clever girl. She needed to see if she could find the others and figure the best path to getting the whole group to the train — though maybe she was only supposed to get Kara there. The Warforged was moving away from the train, the doctor seemed to be following her, and when she finally caught sight of her, she realized Fia was way on the other end of the crowd. How in the world was Fia going to make it in time? ‘Just knowing Cambria’s name will get her to listen to me, right? But I don’t know. Can I really get everybody?’
Fia Rossini couldn’t seem to find Ruben anywhere. She resigned herself to waiting to give him back the photo and camera until after the Pharoah’s address. Not wanting to be seen in the outskirts, she slinked into the crowd. She was rather short and slim, and could’ve easily disappeared inside a crowd, particularly large tradesmen who so often tower over her. Through a small gap in the crowd she saw the pulpit and would presumably be able to see the Pharaoh when he arrived, but she was confident that among the large group in attendance she would be able to slip by unnoticed. Her anxiety lessened slightly, although she was still deeply uncertain what this announcement would end up being about and what it would mean — not just for her, but the rest of the people in the city.
At that moment, the Pharaoh stepped out onto the dais and the crowd erupted into cheers and applause. The Pharaoh clad himself in heavy mechanical armor, something even the high nobility couldn’t get close to affording. It was seen as a symbol of his strength and position as a religious leader. He waved at the citizens below him as viziers and priests filed in behind him.
Such regal self-importance failed to impress a servant of Madilim, and Cambria continued to move deeper into the crowd. As his speech continued, she planned for her performance to begin. She would have trouble doing so if this impetuous creature continued to trip her up, however. Picking it off the ground and lifting it by one of its spindly legs, she let it hang and squirm before her. "What is it that demands my attention, on such a portentous day?!" She had half a temptation to toss it as far as she could, as she had on numerous occasions, but knew from such experiences that it would somehow always return, even more annoying. The construct used its three unhindered appendages to point towards the direction from which Cambria came, towards the end of the square and the train, as the Pharaoh began to speak, "People of Steel Haven! Fifty years ago, on this very day, I was visited by the Divine. It was the will of Loa and Lali that I erect a Sanctum Wall around our fair city to protect their Children. We built the Wall, as was their Word, and safe we have been!"
P.J. watched Cambria appear to scold the little construct, and in fascination he considered catching it and figuring out its inner workings. Kara found an angled place to watch, as the middle was far too full and she was rather small. She stood atop a crate to the far left of the crowd, not only to better watch the Pharaoh but to watch for danger nearing him. She needed this, the chance to be more than another noblewoman to marry off and have babies for the advancement of her family.. She wanted adventure — the great, wide, somewhere. This address might just end up being her chance. Elly tried to calm Eloia down and get her to focus, ‘All of the others will manage themselves. Get Sunshine.’
“Got it." Eloia hopped off the crate and ducked and dove through the crowd to find Sunshine. She shouted at her from deep inside the crowd, "Andrews!" Eloia figured shouting her family name would make clear the circumstances were serious. "Come with me if you want to live." Kara caught sight of Eloia waving at her and looking a bit frantic. She didn’t know what was going on, but she knew Aika had demonstrated an intent to work through Eloia in Her own unique way, and she’d learned not to question Eloia’s ‘predictions’ too much. She hopped off the crate and into the crowd, and started making her way towards Eloia. She felt a moment’s disappointment at being denied the rare occasion of hearing the Pharaoh speak, but after almost a year together, she knew better than to argue with Eloia. They met in the middle and took one another’s hand.
Kara looked at her with great concern and asked, "What's going on? What do you mean 'live'?"
Eloia made solid eye contact and told Kara exactly what she expected would need to be heard. “This is about to be the first time I die. We need to go, now.” Kara didn’t argue and allowed herself to be led through the back of the crowd.
The Pharaoh continued to make his speech. "Now, these holy men have come from Blackgarde and are questioning the Word of the Mother and Father!" The Pharaoh's voice grew angry, and the people started to stir. "They question why it was built! They question why it still stands! They question why it is manned with firearms and Warforged and fear if no harm has yet to befall us! To them I say… Heresy!" A great roar came from the crowd as they threw their hands up in righteous support of their Pharaoh and their gods.
Cambria looked at Pester with pointed annoyance. It never usually offered such direct advice, always acting as an impassive and constant observer to her life, except when it portended something terrible. The last time Pester had been this insistent, she had almost lost her head off her shoulders when it had warned her of the approach of an overzealous Crusader, and she had ignored it. Frustrated, she figured that, at the very least, she could perhaps catch the attention of some of the holy men in her utterly scathing critique of the upper crust of society, and more subtly — a reproach of the religious order that it helped maintain. She turned her back to the Pharaoh and moved back through the crowd. Between Madilim's whispers and Pester's oddly specific direction, she could sense a greater Truth at play and chose obey. P.J. continued to push through the crowd trying to reach Cambria, especially as her pace quickened and she moved away from the Pharaoh. Something was up.
Fia cheered along with the crowd so as to not arouse suspicion. She had been with the Pharaoh many times, stood behind him in these moments, but she had to admit from this angle, if she knew nothing else, he would make an imposing figuring. She understood a little better why the people feared him and found herself shrinking slightly. Lost in her own thoughts she almost didn't see the movement around her. The crowd seemed to be shifting away from the Pharaoh. Instinctively she followed this movement, although not as rapidly as people seemed to be going, afraid of drawing attention. Something was happening here and she didn't like it. She took a few steps back instinctively, looking around for the people she saw moving in the other direction. Only about four of them, but they were pushing through the crowd hard. As if they were afraid. As if they knew something the rest of the crowd did not. The crowd was wrong and these four were right. Fia started to run.
"What are you going on about, Elly? You're not making any sense." Kara didn't pull back, and ran to keep pace with her partner. She wasn't much of a long-distance runner and could already feel the sting from the sharp intakes of breath. "Where are we going?" Eloia didn’t seem to hear her. She practically dragged Kara through the crowd towards the train.
Cambria didn't like the developing situation one bit. The angry crowds made an outsider like her nervous, and she began to recognize the need to make her way through the crowd with greater haste. She looked for assistance in making her way through. Quickly, she noticed she was being followed by a larger man. She motioned him over and whispered to him, implanting a Suggestion into his mind to aid her. “Would you kindly make a path for me through this dreadful crowd? I have need of your help, and a place to be.”
P.J. instantly moved into the task and began shouldering people out of the way, with Cambria following close behind. “Heresy!” The Pharaoh continued to cry out. “To doubt the Mother and Father is blasphemous! So long as this nation-city remains safe under the grace of Loa and Lali. I’ll be damned if I see a reason to explain why the Sanctum Wall still stands!”
‘If this crowd gets any fucking wilder— right!’ Eloia swerved her way through the crowd, all the while practically dragging Kara towards Cambria and the train and safety. There was still so much distance to cover — and this was starting to feel more and more familiar with every passing moment. An uproar made its way through the crowd, as they condemned the holy men for their lack of conviction and their attempt to tear down the Pharaoh of Steel Haven. P.J. and Cambria broke through the back of the crowd just as Eloia and Kara broke through just a bit to the right of them – with Fia not far behind. Cambria heard the whisper, even over the din that seemed to rise endlessly. “Fly, little bird.”
A spire tore through the ground at the center of the crowd and shot upwards into the sky. The citizens that had been standing anywhere near the center were thrown aside like ragdolls. Hulking fragments of concrete went flying, hitting several people in the crowd, including a blow to Eloia’s calf. She stumbled with the blow but with Kara alongside her, they pushed forward through sheer will. Kara looked back in shock and watched as the spire emerged. A deafening, cacophonous scream rose up from the gathered congregation. The spire continued to grow, the base widening exponentially. Tiles cracked, people tried to run, machines groaned and clanged together – until the spire uprooted them.
Pester wriggled free and fell to the ground, continuing to scuttle towards the train. Madness reigned over Steel Haven, and for the briefest moment, Cambria hoped this was the beginning of something great, something terrible — but in the very next moment, self-preservation kicked in and she resumed her mad dash towards the train, trailing behind Pester as she pushed her mechanical limbs to their limit. There would be no other escape in this place, and surely this was not the only terror to visit Steel Haven today. In all the panic of the ongoing disaster, she hoped to bypass any security surrounding the vessel, and find a place upon it for herself.
Near the back of the crowd where Fia had been standing just minutes before, there was a mechanic’s shop, and it was closest to the epicenter. The train the five of them raced towards breathed Mesmer dust into the air, and jolted — the conductor clearly having given up on waiting any longer. As Fia glanced back at the mechanic’s shop, the spire tore through the corner of the building – it collapsed in on itself as the load-bearing beam was knocked out. It was difficult to discern how many people were even left inside, let alone who they were.
They made for the train at a breakneck pace, the spire nipping at their heels and throwing debris in every direction. P.J grabbed hold of the last car and pulled himself up onto the dreadful machine, and began rambling to himself. Cambria grabbed hold second and snatched Pester alongside her. The spire continued to claim lives and railroad track behind them.
Kara blinked to get to the last car and just-in-time grabbed Eloia’s hand, allowing her to pull up her partner and push her into the actual car, watching the other potential survivors. She longed to help get them aboard, but as the spire continued to grow, it seemed more and more hopeless. She grabbed hold of one hand – just barely – and pulled Fia Rossini up into the car. The five of them watched as the edge of the spire continued to chase them while the train picked up speed. It tore at the track, and got dangerously close to the last car. The bright green sheen on the spire was the all-too-familiar tint of Mesmer. “Well, shit.” P.J. rambled on, “I mean, on the one hand. My home is destroyed, and hundreds – if not thousands – of innocent people just lost their lives. But on the other hand, that absolutely destroys that Mesmer-ridden shithole of a blighted city. Mixed blessing, I suppose." He thanked his lucky stars he’d remembered to bring his tools and weapons to the address. He took a seat in the car and set about cleaning them and taking inventory of his supplies.
The train burst through the Sanctum Wall south gate as if it had never been there. The wall crumbled and ripped from its foundation, hanging limply off one side of the spire. The distance began to grow between the survivors and the wall, and they realized that at last the spire has stopped! As the train raced further away, they looked up. At its full size, the spire was an enormous monstrosity – towering over Steel Haven into the cloud cover. The base seemed to take up the entire area within the Sanctum Wall, debris falling off the spire and tumbling into the rubble below. The echoes of cries seemed to rise up from the wreckage, even after the survivors should not have been able to hear them anymore. Then began a mighty crumbling, and they watched as the spire began to descend back into the ground. In mere moments, all that was left of Steel Haven was a crater surrounded by a ring of wreckage. Even the once mighty Sanctum Wall slipped into the vast pit.
Eloia collapsed, having spent all of her energy on dashing towards the train. ‘Make certain they’re aboard.’ She opened her eyes, and whispered to herself, holding Kara’s hand tightly. “I grabbed Kara, Cambria… the Rossini girl had made it somehow.” ‘Thank goodness.’
Fia spent a few moments staring at the destruction that the survivors had only narrowly escaped. Once again, she would have to start over – once again, she had lost everything. She couldn’t help but think of the camera and photograph still in her bag and to Ruben’s kind face as he had waved goodbye. As she entered the car and closed the door behind her, she took a moment to look at the assembled company: two women who were obviously from the upper echelons of society and intimate with one another, one wearing a pair of pistols and the other looking exhausted and… Fia couldn’t quite tell how old she was in the flickering lighting of that single moment; a Warforged Mockingbird who’d made her way to the car first and then allowed the gruff, much older man who looked to be a Scavenger sitting against the wall next to her to clear a path towards the train — and herself, a Flameborn Child of Tatva, in her usual disguise.
Eloia double-checked, and then spotted McGillicutty in the car’s far back. She found herself quite suddenly breaking down into tears. She crawled backwards to rest against the wall of the car. Kara took her hands in her own, took a few deep breaths and nodded to her partner. A silent ‘thank you’ would have to suffice when nothing close could dare to be uttered. Her eyes shone with unshed tears and burned, but she would endeavor to be the strong one between the two of them – this time. She rationalized that she could always skip back and wipe away any tears that managed to drop before being noticed. The tears dropped from Eloia’s eyes like sand in an hourglass, but she managed to get control of herself as Kara did her best to comfort her. She cleared her throat and said, this time loud enough to be heard, “…Doctor.” P.J. McGillicutty laughed aloud, looking around the train car for anyone else that the young girl could have possible meant. “Hardly,” he coolly replied.