[FV] Seed and Stone
Morix Virsmere, a scribe from Sarens, has been sent to Iah-Yah on an important mission directed personally by the highest-ranked members of the Clerisy. It, of course, has a number of challenges and difficulties.
“Twelve recovered, Morix, in total.” papers shuffled and a neat stack was carefully separated from the clipboard, dropped on his desk.
Morix’s frown widened as he thumbed through the first handful. Most were charts and paragraphs describing the current state of the excavation, but several contained magink photographs of the bones themselves.
And what a sight they were - scattered helplessly among the undergrowth, dirt and grass stuck like fur, worn by time and the jungle. But, of course, like all the rest the guild had uncovered, they were immaculately preserved; not a single broken or missing bone existed among their number.
Their positions, however, were grotesque; bodies clearly bent far beyond normal motion, limbs stretched past limits, jaws gaping. He slammed the papers shut, quickly, before the reality of what he was seeing sunk in.
Instead, Morix sighed and pushed his chair back from his desk. Grandmaster Nicor stared back, their expression calm and expectant.
Expectant. They wanted him to call off the expedition. Clearly. This was some form of threat - of warning. Look at the horrors we’re finding.
Dreadful. How many times, already, had they had this conversation?
“Well,” he said, after another moment. “I should amend my report to the Serene City.”
“You should, Morix,” Nicor stated, a hint of venom.
He pawed through the statistic papers again, fruitlessly, as if they’d save him from Nicor’s gaze. He let out another long sigh. “There’s something else, isn’t there?”
“One of the corridors overgrew again. Activity in the region is growing.”
Ah. This again, too.
“You know it’s not so easy to cancel something funded by the Clerisy themselves,” Morix said, letting the papers flutter into their stack. “And the Luxe’s vision foresaw no harm would come to any individual participating.”
Nicor’s expression melted into a displeasured scowl. “You and your Clerisy,” he near-spat, “disregarding years of experience and intuition for hallucinations.”
“Visions,” he corrected, weakly, “though-”
Nicor stood, their chair scraping against the hardwood.
“Do your workers really want to give up their paycheck?” Morix countered, though his voice cracked slightly. “Think of how generous the Clerisy’s coffers have been to your guild. And with the unrest in Iah-Yah?”
“Enough of that,” Nicor hissed, slamming their hand on the edge of his desk. “I tolerate enough from you. Keep my country’s name and politics out of your mouth, Morix.”
“Perhaps you should do the same, then,” he huffed.
Neither spoke for several long seconds, Nicor’s eyes narrowed, Morix swallowing back the lump in his throat.
Perhaps he had gone too far. Not that he didn’t turn his nose up at the... political disruptions in Iah-Yah, or find their silly religion a waste of time. But, well - when dealing with foreign bodies, paying lip service to them and their social structures was good.
Which was half of why he still wondered at the Clerisy’s decision to send him to Iah-Yah, to the edge of the sun-damned Tangle, and manage this whole excavation affair.
He was a scribe. A scribe! One who wrote transcripts of the Clerisy’s holy visions! One who felt the radiance of the shards against his cheek as he scribbled furious letterings to parchment!
By the sun, he’d never even been out of Sarens until now. So why him? Why did the Lunar Luxe have to level her moon-guided eyes onto his brow, and bid him to follow her will? He was, by leagues, one of the most ill-suited of the-
-Painstakingly, Nicor’s arm dropped to their side. “Fine. We’ll continue for another week. But once that week’s done, we’re pulling out of the Tangle. Find some other guild to work through junglestorm season.”
A week? Surely that would be enough. That... no. It would be enough. His careful research of what guild to hire had returned only the highest praise for the Flameshear Wyrms.
And they’d already uncovered so much of the ancient city in a mere month. How much deeper could the sealed chamber be? The Luxe spoke of a swift retrieval. And her visions were never wrong, so tied to the moons as they were.
Despite himself, Morix smiled. “Excellent. I look forwards to the recovery of our artifact.”
Nicor spun on a heel, and left without another word. Morix waited for the sound of their footsteps to fade, and then the hotel’s front door being slammed.
He let out a long breath, and stumbled on shaky legs to the hotel room’s window. Cracking it open, a rush of warm air filled the room - but it was better than the suffocating pressure Nicor had left in his chest.
It wasn’t his fault that the jungle was fighting back to their incursions. Was that not what it did to every invasion? Why regard him with such frustrations? It wasn’t like he wanted to be here, either.
He glanced down, blearily, at the street. The town the Clerisy had selected for his stay was a quiet, but busy place - the markets swelled with people and coin at noon, but during dawn and dusk, it was reserved and quiet, with only a few passerby hurrying to shops or work.
A bright yellow snake flicked its tongue at him, perched rather close to his window, coiled around an overhanging tree branch.
He tensed, frowning at it. Venomous? He had no idea of the local fauna.
Though he reached to close the window, it merely flicked its tongue again and dropped to the earth below. Seemingly satisfied with unsettling him, it slithered away into the dry bush.
He stared after it, an inexplicable pit in his stomach.
The noon sun was unbearable, inflamed by the humidity, rendering the Quarantine Line a hotbed of irritable insects and sticky clothing.
Morix frowned, pulling at the shoulders of his robes. The thick canvas, usually a welcome protection from the brimming magic within the Serene City, hindered more than helped here. Another reason to eagerly await his return to Sarens.
As the carriage rumbled down the uneven road, he turned his gaze to the jungle-edge. They were plenty far from the line itself - but he could still see the vague shapings of trees, hazy against the horizon.
Even from dozens of miles away, the smell of water, soil, wood, blood, and rot permeated the air, filling it with a sickly-sweet smog that rolled over the landscape. It warded away even the bravest of settlers: there was only one settlement this close to the cursed jungle.
An involuntary shudder ran down his spine; he straightened his collar again.
There. It was within that hellpit that the Clerisy’s lost artifact lay, decaying away in some forgotten crypt. The sun-damned thing they’d sent him on a goose chase for.
The dragonids pulled the carriage to a stop. Morix stood, slipping down onto solid ground. The driver looked to him expectantly; he carefully counted out coin and dropped it into their waiting palm.
Humoring him with an incredulous shake of the head, they nudged the reins and turned back towards the border-city of Ieene.
Of course. No sane taxi would take him so close to the tangle.
He kept his pace steady, robes drawn tightly around him. The taste of blood had grown strong - from the afterwash of the millions of magic circles, pulsing down the Quarantine Line, keeping the latent jungle magic at bay. Though he couldn’t see a single one, their distant presence filled the air with a soft hum and tang in the mouth.
The road was dirty and unkept, but well-trodden. Great beasts of burden had long since stomped it down into a fine, if dusty, path, marked by hanging lanterns and several signs.
As he rounded a bend, he paused. Down the road a ways was a caravan, pulled along by a sizeable steer. He waited, patiently, as it drew up beside him and the driver quirked their head.
Morix responded with a smile. “Good afternoon. I did call ahead with your Magister Director....”
“Oh!” the Ant perked up, antennae twitching. “Morix Virsmere, right? You can hop in the back.”
He gave a nod and darted around. Another Ant had already pulled the curtain open; he clambered up and perched somewhat uncomfortably on a plush seat.
The other two occupants’ eyes bored into him in curiosity and interest both. He gave polite nods, but their stares remained. Thankfully, neither spoke.
With the sound of brief magic, the caravan lurched into motion again - taking a long u-turn and heading back down the path, towards the Ant colony of Saibaz.
The colony bustled.
No, that was an understatement.
The swarm of people moving through the courtyard forced his hackles to raise. Most paid him no mind; assuming he was being handled already, or that his presence was expected.
A few of the taller ones, with shorter antennae, levelled intense, scrutinizing glares onto his shoulders. His ears pinned back involuntarily, even as he helplessly lingered near the front gates.
Perhaps he should venture into one of the buildings? He could see several in the near vicinity, standing tall and proud against the dreary sky. None had any signage or symbols, however. But surely they would put administrative buildings near to the entrance? Ants didn’t like foreigners wandering deep into the colony, surely?
After another second, one of the taller individuals began to stalk towards him, glare deepened into an outright scowl. Morix almost pressed himself against the front gates - almost - silently cursing that he’d lost sight of the driver and their two friends almost as soon as they’d entered the compound. Surely they could’ve explained to-
-The first glowering individual was stopped by another, who chattered something rapidfire, the smile on their face sympathetic. The first stopped, regarded the other for a second, and then stomped off in the other direction. Morix watched, cautiously, as the second turned that sharp smile on him instead.
“Morix Virsmere, correct?” they said, gliding to his side with the swiftness of a diplomat.
At their arrival, the others who had been watching Morix’s every move seemed to dissipate into the crowd. He glanced after where they’d been, only to find nothing. Left with no other choice, he peeled away from the gate and gave a small nod.
“Ah, good, you’ve been expected. Apologies for the wait!” they chuckled, and waved a hand. “Right this way, we’ll sort you into a meeting room right away. I’m sure you don’t want to be here any longer than Warden Vyspeil wants you to be.”
Presumably, that was the Ant who almost cornered him with the intent to rearrange his limbs. “Yes. I would in fact agree.”
They sharply turned towards one of the buildings he’d been eyeing, and he followed them through the weave of Ants to it. They entered and climbed a set of stairs, then another, the low thrum of countless conversations filling the air like a blanket.
He supposed such an environment was only natural for them. What he wouldn’t give to be back in the Serene City, a thick roll of parchment between his hands, the smell of ink in the air.
“Terribly sorry, friend. Our leader is very busy at the moment, but I am happy to fill in for them.” the Ant offered a hand, draped in a thick robe.
Morix shook. The hem of the other’s sleeve brimmed with enchantments. A mage, then, or high-ranking enough to access enchanters. “That’s quite alright. From what I understand of Ant colonies, anyways, this isn’t entirely unexpected.”
“Excellent!” they beamed. “Pleasure to make your acquaintance, Morix, my friend. My name is Iclio and this-” he gestured to a smaller Ant who had materialized at his hip, “-is just a simple ergate clerk. They’ll be keeping a record of our conversation.”
Iclio gave another pleased nod, and gestured him into the meeting room.
It was a quiet, unassuming place. A few chairs sat around a round table, upon which was a vase of fresh, seasonal flowers. Several paintings of various Iah-Yah landmarks were hung on the nondescript walls.
“Would you like anything to drink, eat?” Iclio offered as another smaller Ant glided into the room, carrying a tray of various drinks on an arm.
“Water would be appreciated,” he said.
They placed a glass of iced water in front of him. Iclio’s antennae twitched, and they placed something vibrantly pink - complete with straw - for him. To the clerk, they handed a water and a grin.
Without a word, they exited - as quick as they’d come. Morix blinked, staring after them in quasi-uncomfortable silence. He knew little of Ants - enough to understand the expectations of he, an outsider - but near nothing else.
He turned back to Iclio, who smiled back - full of teeth - as he sipped his drink. Morix quickly averted his eyes. Not that it was Iclio’s fault - Ants were a predatorial race. Their violence and carnage was a key reason for the Quarantine Line’s stability.
It just... unnerved him, in the same way Nicor’s long glare had.
“I suppose we should get right down to business, then,” Iclio said, polishing off his drink and setting it aside.
He spread his hands, sparking with magic, and spawned several stacks of papers, pens, and an enormous map of the near-Tangle. They clattered to the table.
“Yes,” Morix said, perking up. “I think this could be a fruitful venture for your colony and Sarens.”
“I agree. And our expertise in handling the Tangle is exactly what you’d need for how intensive this excavation is.”
“Yes,” he said, struggling to keep the hint of desperation out of his tone. “I cannot overstate my gratitude for your colony’s willingness to negotiate.”
Iclio’s smile grew. “Yes, yes. In preparation for this, I did receive maps, diagrams, and reports regarding what you’ve already uncovered and the extent of the Tangle cleared.”
Morix swallowed. “Yes... the Flameshear Wyrms were very efficient, even if... they’ve lost interest in the project.”
“Oh, yes, the Wyrms,” Iclio said, lacing his upper hands together. “Really, Nicor is a Valiete - you can’t expect them to care about anything except easy, simple profits. Absolutely honorless people.”
“The Clerisy finds this matter to be of utmost import. They have attributed a sizeable budget - money is not a concern.” Morix said, shoulders tense. He watched the shorter Ant scratch something out.
“Money is not a concern for a colony, either,” Iclio said, now laying his chin on his hands. “Though we are grateful for the offer.”
Ah. Here came the catch. Of course this was too good to be true. He bit his lip. “You agreed to negotiate a possible contract with me. What do you seek, then?”
Iclio’s mouth quirked up at the corners. “Ah, actually, the colony has been in contact with a regional Vetenne. They’ve had some interest in your excavation and have arranged for us to help you.”
Instantly, he bristled - a Vetenne? The highest caste of Iah-Yah, the wealthiest patrons? How had they uncovered his expedition? And why were they interested?
“I’m sure we can work at a satisfactory pace, especially since the Wyrms have already cleared a path through to the site,” Iclio said, attention now directed to the map. He uncapped a red marker and drew a line through uncharted territory. “This will make it easy for a crew to arrive and finish excavating the various tunnels.”
“Surely this Vetenne wants something in return,” Morix said, hands twitching.
“Of course, but nothing unreasonable. They have no interest in this ‘artifact’ that Sarens seeks. They merely desire access to any other items recovered from the site.” Iclio smiled.
“Access? Clarify, please.”
“Of course, as Sarens is funding this operation, it retains rights to everything collected.” Iclio leaned back in his chair, fingers steepled, “That’s simple Iah-Yah law. But our benefactor would like to select a handful of items recovered for a... personal collection of theirs, and would like right of first refusal for offering on any other items.”
“And they are offering something I cannot offer to your colony to guarantee your participation,” Morix finished, voice cracking.
“Yes, exactly.” another smile.
The smaller Ant finally lifted their head, antennae twitching. Iclio rolled his eyes, responding in kind silently. Morix’s stomach flipped.
“I... will have to speak to the Clerisy about this,” he said, after a long pause.
“Completely understandable. But do keep in mind the local Vetennes will be beginning their contracts with our colony soon - junglestorm season will be in full swing within the month.” Iclio’s teeth were sharp. “That’s all I wanted to discuss - unless you had further questions?”
“No, that was all,” Morix near whispered. “I’ll be sure to contact your Magister again when I have answers.”
“Oh, I’m the Magister Director, actually,” Iclio said, with a slight chuckle. “So I look forwards to hearing from you!”
“Lovely,” was all he mumbled.
“Do you have a choice in the matter?” Mergen asked.
Morix wrung the towel tighter, letting out a sigh. He draped it over the clothesline in the back of his hotel. “No. But I - I just couldn’t stand being in that colony for another second. I haven’t the faintest idea what the Vetenne could want.”
The buzz of the telepathy filled the silence. Mergen’s voice was subdued. “They found out quickly. How many guilds did you contact, again?”
“When the Wyrms dropped the contract, or before?”
“Tch. After the contract.”
Tch indeed. It still felt surreal - Nicor in his office a day later, shouting, slamming things into his desk. He’d reimbursed the injuries. He’d done his duty. Let them break the contract early, even!
“Only about a half dozen. All certified Tangle explorers, scavengers, or clearers.” he scooped up a shirt from the washbasin. “And I only spoke to their Grandmasters. I mean, I suspected at least a few of the Wyrms talked, but to reach a Vetenne... and a regional one, not local?”
“Yes, it’s interesting that the Ant specified regional.” Mergen hummed. “I went out a complied a list of Vetenne, but I don’t know how ‘regional’ they mean. Around the Tangle? In all directions? The northern half of Iah-Yah?”
“I find their caste system a pain to navigate.”
“Yeah. It’s needlessly complex.”
Morix squeezed the shirt, watching the water cascade back down into the tub. After another moment, he unfurled it and draped it over the line. The heavy sensation in the back of his head told him that Mergen was still upholding the telepathy.
“How’s home?” he asked, finally.
Mergen gave a half-laugh. “Uh, busy. With junglestorm season, the Clerisy’s visions are - well, you know. More intense. So we’ve been having to have all hands on deck, so to speak.”
“I wish I was there,” he muttered, wistfully, flopping to the ground next to the washbasin. “I’m sure you could use another scribe.”
“Couldn’t say no to having you. But at least you got out of the Serene City for a while, eh?”
“Sent to a backwater country, to a rural badlands right on the edge of the sun-damned jungle,” he whined. “The place reeks. Figuratively and literally. And it rains constantly. Yet the land’s cracked and dusty. I don’t understand it.”
“You miss the boats?”
“I miss the boats. I miss going up to the lighthouse at night, and sitting on the edge of the balcony overlooking the shores.” Morix’s voice was soft. “I miss the temple when the Luxe awoke, in its quiet glory. The tapestries, the libraries, the noise of people in robes. In robes! Mergen, I can’t wear my robes.”
“Yeah, I’ve heard Iah-Yah’s pretty hot.”
“Hot is an understatement! The humidity is - it’s just absurd.” he waved a hand, despite Mergen being unable to see it. “I wake up six times a night, drenched in sweat. It’s a terrible place.”
“Well, with any luck, you won’t be there much longer. That colony should be able to get the artifact for you.”
Morix gave a long sigh. “Hopefully. Has the Luxe spoken of it? Had any more visions?”
Mergen was silent for several seconds. Then, “No, sorry. Not that I can think of, at least. I mean, of course there’s a few the interpreters are struggling with. But nothing comes to mind.”
“Moons curse it.” he sighed again. “At the least, I wish she’d told me a little more about it. More than just its appearance, at least.”
“They do work in obscure ways. The Clerisy, I mean.”
“I just hope it was all worth something meaningful.”
Morix burst from the carriage, legs burning, breathless. For a brief, squeezing second, he wondered if he should morph wings - but dispelled the thought as quickly as it came at the sight of dozens of individuals, crowded around the outpost.
They turned in rough unison as he lurched to a stop just short of them, nearly bowled over. No one spoke as he gasped for air.
After a second of catching his breath, he straightened, barely squeaking out - “Terribly sorry for my tardiness!”
Iclio elbowed his way to the front of the group. “Morix, my friend! Please, no worries. If we’d known we were so close, I would have sent better word ahead! No one could expect you to arrive any sooner than this!”
Iclio gestured, and a smaller Ant appeared carrying a sampling plate of water and some sort of snack. Morix accepted a glass, giving Iclio a nervous smile.
His eyes flicked over the group. Though Ants of all sizes made up the majority, there were several non-Ants among them. No one whose face he recognized, however - so possibly not locals? His stomach knotted.
“I commend how quickly you’ve come, rather,” Iclio continued, gesturing openly. “It certainly makes it easier for all of us gathered here.”
“You have the artifact?”
“Of course!” with a smile, Iclio produced a large case. It was sealed, clearly, with a hefty enchantment and physical padlock. “As soon as we found it, we sent a dozen mages to ensure its safety and retrieval. Would you like to see-?”
“-Yes!” he blurted out.
One of the non-Ants gave a slight chuckle, eyeing him from the corners of their eyes. He bristled slightly, eyes flicking back to them - and to the bright yellow snake curled around their shoulders.
Bile rose in his throat.
It dissipated, however, at the sound of Iclio unlocking the box. The lid swung open, and he proudly presented its contents to Morix.
There it was.
The knife sat on a plush, silk cushion. It was pristine, beautiful, untouched by the Tangle - wickedly sharp, metal glistening in the sun. The handle was of a gorgeous carved dark wood, with green bindings wrapped tight as a constrictor.
Exactly as the Luxe had said.
“You’ve found it,” he whispered, then cleared his throat. “Thank you, Iclio, and all of your colony. Sarens is immeasurably grateful for your cooperation.”
“I’m sure,” the dark non-Ant said. Their snake flicked its tongue. “It is quite an interesting find. Care to elaborate on it?”
Morix tensed. They weren’t looking at him, but instead were staring unfocused at the Tangle, in the distance.
“I’m afraid I can’t elaborate much,” he said, stiffly. “This matter largely regards the Clerisy, and much of that information is at their discretion.”
“Ah, so you haven’t the faintest idea what it is or what it does,” they concluded.
Well. It wasn’t as if he was a good liar.
Iclio closed the case, unbothered by the non-Ant’s rudeness. “It’s a delight to see a Tangle excursion concluded with such a good start. We’re really looking forwards to further reclamation of the area - it’ll be a great inner base to clearing that northern strip. The Wyrms really did an excellent job.”
“Yes, they did,” Morix said. Half of him begged to strain for the crate. “Though, I should really return to Sarens.”
“Yes, you should.” finally, the non-Ant turned to him. Their eyes, half-lidded, were unreadable.
He held out both arms expectantly to Iclio.
No one moved.
His heart sunk.
“You misunderstand,” they said, again. “You are to leave to Sarens.”
“I... I require the artifact,” he said, weakly. “It’s the purpose of my trip. The Clerisy has invested-”
“-I am well aware of the Clerisy’s financial interest in this,” they tapped the case. “Unfortunately my interest supersedes theirs.”
Did this stranger know of the knife and its properties? Were they more well-informed than he? Then why wait for the Clerisy to find an interest in it?
Unless - he looked to the yellow snake - he’d discovered of the expedition early, and pulled his own strings to find information? Or, simply, was he lying?
“I don’t believe you two have met,” Iclio said, smile unfaltering. “Morix, my friend, this is Cinveindath Eveshard - a Vetenne of the city Medirmah. Please do treat him with the according respect.”
“It’s a pleasure,” Cin said, idly stroking the snake’s chin. “I’m sure I don’t need to repeat myself, do I, Mister Virsmere? I would hope you understand your position clearly.”
This did explain the Ant colony’s eagerness and interest. Bastards had been in on the scheme the whole time. Iclio’s smile looked like poison, now.
But what other choice had he had?
“I...” he couldn’t return to the Clerisy empty-handed, could he? But, as his eyes flicked over the crowd, they caught glimpses of concealed knives, of sheathed swords, of hands clutching gemstones.
Well, he was a Beaut. Traditional weapons would surely fail against him. But did he want to risk that information becoming public? Did the people of Iah-Yah understand what a Beaut was? Did he want to draw that attention to himself?
Then, of course, the Luxe’s vision rose in his head. No harm would come to any involved.
Ah. It clicked. Why him? Of course she knew he was a Beaut. And she knew that this Vetenne, professional criminals as they were, would find interest in the artifact.
He would surrender, here. He would give up the knife. And when they turned their backs to him, he would assume a new identity - and stalk them until he could steal it away.
Adrenaline filled his system, from the tip of his tail to the flicks of his ears. Adrenaline and excitement both. This was why he was chosen. And he would fulfill the Luxe’s vision with vigor!
“I understand, Vetenne.” he stepped back, cautiously, carefully. “It does seem that my circumstances have changed. Surely a posthaste return to Sarens is in order.”
“Your cooperation is appreciated,” Cin said, but none of his men loosed grip on their weapons. They were, of course, waiting for him to actually leave.
Leave he did, ears pinned back, tail hanging low in mock sadness as he trudged up the dust-caked hillside. It would be a while yet before he could hail a carriage back to Ieene, but that was alright - he just needed to be far from their sight, and then could follow the case to its next stop.
And the sight of that blasted little snake. If only he’d been more observant - how many meetings of his had it listened in on? It must’ve been a familiar of some sort, connected to Cinveindath. Oh, and he had to inquire after that Vetenne. Perhaps Mergen knew something of him?
Thoughts spinning, plans plotting, he paused. The sound of the outpost had faded, and when he turned back, he couldn’t see them over the hill’s crest.
He couldn’t help the smirk on his features. They think they’d pulled one over the Clerisy? What a joke. The prideful, underhanded peoples of Iah-Yah held no candle to the wisdom of Sarens.
They would never dream of his thievery.