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The stack of decrepit, dusty, leather-bound books sat unassumingly on the ornate wooden table. The table was a gift from the Cyrenian Lumeni, who had some craftsmen among their ranks. While it couldn’t hold a candle to Phaestean handiwork, it wasn’t half bad, and at any rate, it was the thought that counted. Any gift that solidified the Citadel’s relationship with its Vashnari cousins was valued, though this one was relatively simple. The books were more interesting; they held the power to destroy the world.
Though it was a cool autumnal day and the waning sun was bathing Sol’s city in a beautiful glow, the air in the council chamber felt stale and the atmosphere stifling. Halos tugged at his high collar, cursing his priest’s robes. He sat in silence for a few minutes, staring at an empty space on the table.
Sighing, he finally reached for the nearest tome, pulling close and flipping it open. His physical discomfort was matched by a profound spiritual disquiet. There, in plain sight, among the countless pages documenting seemingly innocuous tales from El’Jaziran history and folklore, were the telltale eldritch markings and scribbled notes describing the steps of forbidden rituals. He had examined the books dozens of times now, half-expecting, half-hoping to open them and find everything gone. He fervently wished this whole ordeal was just an unpleasant nightmare, the fruits of a failure to offer proper thanks to Valnurana. But the notes persisted, same as every other time he had examined the book. As he flipped through, the pages faintly glowed with the mesmerizing colors of the rainbow…the hallmark of karma.
Karma. Lifeblood of a people once diverse, wild, and free-spirited, dancing in the orbit of the rainbow-eyed deceiver, now a people as serious and mindless as clockwork automatons. Wound up and released to march and titter, they were united in lockstep and forced to walk over the edge of the abyss. There was no group that Halos hated and pitied more than occultists.
But their shepherds were a strange and fascinating lot. One could not call them mindless, for they displayed the cunning tactics of wolves when fighting, spoke with tongues like serpents while preaching, wove complex rituals to call forth magicks the lesser users of the occult arts could only parody. The Nihilists were incredibly dangerous, and dangerously capable. Any blow struck against them was a cherished victory...and the Shallamese were about to strike a grave one.
The books were acquired after a Dawnstrider tip led to a Templar raid on a residence in El’Jazira rumored to be privy to occult activity. The owners had obviously left in a hurry shortly before the Templars arrived. Ashes in a fire pit spoke to the destruction of correspondence, and overturned furniture created the impression of a hasty flight.
One young human girl had not fled in time, and this was the dilemma. The books would be burned; that was simple and certain enough. The girl was young, perhaps only sixteen or seventeen…but she bore the profane Mark of the Twin, II - the sign of the Chosen of Babel Himself. And she had obviously studied of the enormous stockpile of books, and was well initiated in the chaotic arts. Would she burn as well? This was the question that weighed heavy on the mind of Caliph Halos Vorondil.
He had narrowly won an election to replace the frail and aging dwarven lorekeeper Bahtell Del’Strata, whose energy and vituperance had been sapped by an unproductive quarter-century on the throne. He had eeked out an exceedingly narrow electoral mandate, but the Te’Serra had expressed their confidence in him, and their desire for a stronger response to Nihilist activity. Already progress was being made, as with the recent conversion and return of Sothantos de l’Evanoir to the Jewel. Progress, yes, but with a terrible foreboding attached. Halos feared the man. He had always been a quiet being, but after his time in the service of the Mad God, his silence was disturbing and even horrific. Coupled with his repulsive appearance, a curse born of Babel’s wrath, that gloomy demeanor served to engender a deep and potent mistrust. But the girl, that was what was important now, Sothantos could wait.
Or could he? What if he was in fact sent by Babel, as Beatrice had forcefully argued during the last meeting of Viziers? What if it was all an elaborate ruse? He had served among Shallamese before, and would be a natural spy for the Nihilists if they needed an insider before the execution of an important plan…and so many great ones had already fallen. Halos remembered Ellodin’s gauntlet, and wondered what form his own ruin would take. Perhaps the girl was a trap? Or perhaps she was a trap in other ways. During interrogation, the only thing she had said was that the Babelonians left their Mark by force. The Sentaari reading her mind determined the statement was not entirely true…but who knew what dark magics Mordanyconus wove in the black Caverns. Could the high priest of Ruin twist mortal minds as Chaos twisted Creation, such that even memories could be distorted?