"Five in a Hand."
A Nerve appeared in the doorway, waking me from my dark reverie. Constant interruptions, that's all this job is. "What is it this time?"
The messenger in white and gold stopped at arm's length in front of my desk, then produced a dossier. Wisely, he kept his eyes lowered as he spoke. He knew his floor in the tower. "New assignees, sir."
"Stronger than the last, I hope. Sixty-Three was a waste."
The Nerve remained quiet.
"Well?" I gestured at the dossier, and he placed it on my desk, covering up the last patch of darkwood left beneath the clutter. With the flick of a finger, a mote of Archefire appeared. The flame zipped into my unlit lantern and sparked light within the glass. The better to see them by.
Flipping through the pages revealed an unimpressive group. Five recruits, plus one mage for the boilers.
A bounty hunter. They're still around? I thought we rid ourselves of that problem.
Two Paceeqi siblings reported to be outlaws. Half the city are outlaws. They couldn't be worse than a Blightdweller.
An Ekoan Ranger. Again, probably an outlaw. This one at least stands a chance at surviving field testing.
And the second Skardwarf. Darkfather knows why they're here, but if Prost trusts them...
Good enough. We'd need all the help we can get if that man's promises didn't come to fruition soon. The balance I maintained in the city was tenuous. If I didn't get control of it soon, Liwokin would soon be beset by—
The Nerve coughed, choking on the incense flowing from the lantern like black smoke.
Constant interruptions. "You're still here?"
"I await my next command, sir."
"Send them to Kella. She'll have a job for them. After that, they'll report up to me. Let's see what they know."
After that, we would see what they're made of.
Really, bounty hunting’s no way to make a living. Too many bodies; Liwokin’s already got enough dead.
Born in the Artisans District and raised in an orphanage in the Burg, Grim's adolescence was typical of street rats in the city of Liwokin. Poverty and hunger. Enough to drive a boy to picking pockets, which sooner than later was bound to become killing for his coin. In his youth, he could tell himself it was self-defense, paying no mind to the inconvenient fact of his brigandry.
They say justice in Liwokin is always swift and cruel. Worn stockades and gallows filled the Council Square, stinking of old blood and rotting fruit. The threat of the rope made sure only those who knew Liwokin inside and out, who knew all the happenings from dawn 'til dusk (and from dusk 'til dawn), who knew every district's culture and taboos—only those survived long enough to escape a life of petty theft.
With enough stars taken from the slashed purses of Gilders, Grim paid the Council's fee to be sanctioned as an official bounty hunter. Better to be the ones filling the stockades than rotting in them. The coin was little better than thieving, but at least bounty hunters weren't likely to turn a knife on him after helping nab the goods.
It was a living. Or, at least, it was surviving.
Everything changed when the Great Riot struck. A failed political figure called Ulken built a tower of stone, named himself Head of the Agency, and renewed order to the city after the unexplained disaster. Ulken's power seemed limitless, but he never put it to use in one particular fashion. Over six thousand Liwo died before the noon bell tolled, and no one had ever been held responsible. Why hadn't he used his influence to discover what happened to the city?
Grim found purpose in seeking an answer to the question: What started the Great Riot? But his search has proved fruitless, frustratingly so. Worse, the profession of bounty hunting is dying, contracts drying up because of the newfound Agency's Fingers, who'll take a job for no commission.
As the last bounty hunter in Liwokin, Grim's resources dwindle, and he finds himself wondering if he needs to make a change in order to survive.
The Empire teaches to all the world Archemagic, or so they believe. They do not know of Archemagic its true nature. They upset the balance, use like a crude tool the Fire.
Far to the east in the Stinbine Isles, a small island called Sea Pot Lake stands out as the most unusual in the archipelago. There, Stinbiners raise their houses on bamboo stilts, for their village rests atop a lake that drains and refills on the whims of the rains and ocean tides. Unpredictable natural cycles dictate their way of life, so life is simple. Manage the rain collected for freshwater. Maintain the crops and mangroves. Don't stray beyond the mountain rim, for beyond it lies the unknown, and the unknown can bring only Dark.
Follow the patterns of nature. Easy.
Unless your nature leads you to discover hidden truths about Archemagic. If such a thing were to happen, one might no longer be welcome to live on the lake. No matter if one were raised from birth to become the island's next Sage. The omens have been misread before, and the boy lacked promise at any rate. Couldn't even channel the sacred Fire without scorching his own hair.
Inac isn't bitter about his past, not at all. He simply...found a new path. One he never intended to walk but which brought him to a world of technological wonder. An empire where Archefire is no sacred symbol but a mere tool for making steam and hardening metals, fueling the fires of change and innovation. Where towers of Archemetal reach into the heavens, promising a future of prosperity for all.
Despite his initial wonder, Inac couldn't help but feel something of importance was missing. What would his brother think of this place, if he were still around? Only...he wasn't.
And the more he thinks about it, the more Inac finds himself drawn to the seediest taverns in Liwokin, where he can drink away the memories of how he ended up in such a place.
People are bored of the Church’s dreadful, droning dirges. Even if no one will admit it. They want to hear something new. Music they can drink and dance to without feeling the Lightmother’s prying eyes. So I give the people what they want, and they love it. Of course, not everyone does...
Lorelay was five years old when she strung her first lyre. It wasn't like she had any choice in the matter. Singing the Twelve Songs from the Book of Light is a woman's highest calling, and her mother suffered no less than perfection in her tone and timbre.
Calls to prayer five times a day. Church at dawn and dusk. Between those rituals, listening to her mother's endlessly repeating readings from the Book and practice, practice, practice.
By the time she was ten, she was sick of it. At fifteen, well...her rebellious streak had just begun. It wouldn't come to an end until...ever, if she had her say of things. Of course, in the Bright Empire, the only woman who has her say of things is the Empress, and she and Lorelay wouldn't see eye to eye, to put it mildly.
Ending up in Liwokin was the best thing that could have happened to Lorelay and her brother. Far from the eyes of the Church. No one prayed during the Rhythm of Time. Not a Paladin in sight.
After a year of hardship, their situation iss finally looking up. If only Dunnax could see things the way she does.
Sacrificing everything for the royal family, patrolling the gardens beneath those golden spires. It’s the highest honor a Paladin can earn. It would have been mine…
A life blessed by the Lightmother, full of hard work and sacrifice. Not just reading but living the Book of Light. His father expected perfection, and Dunnax never disappointed. He couldn't remember when he first took up his glaive, nor did he remember the endless spans of practice to wield it right, the countless repetitions of exercise to sculp his body. All that mattered was the goal, his highest calling.
All his efforts paid off when he was inducted by Empress Elzia herself to the royal Order of Paladins. His childhood dream, to serve in the Radiant Palace, had finally come true. And as quickly as the Brightdaughter sets on a short day, his life crumbled into ash.
Ending up in Liwokin was the worst thing that could have happened to Dunnax and his sister. Far from the eyes of the Church. No one praying during the Rhythm of Time. Not a Paladin in sight.
After a year of hardship, their situation has never looked so grim. If only Lorelay could see things the way he does.
I face into the wind.
A Skardwarf is an unusual sight in the Bright Empire. Most Liwo believe them a myth, monsters of the Dark dreamt up for children's tales. Stone fists bigger than your head, the better to crush you with. Eyes like the Darkfather's gaze, the better to see your deepest fears. Creatures with implacable wills, impervious to reason, and unbreakable skin, impervious to weapons and Archemagic alike. Purely a fabrication. No such beast could exist.
Children of the Book of Light, however, worshipers of the Lightmother, know for a certainty they're real. Of course they are. They're demons sent by the Darkfather to scour their land and snuff out the Fire of life.
What's incontrovertible is no one living had ever seen a Skardwarf.
Not until two of them arrive at the Agency.
Ugly and gray. This whole city is unnatural, but this tower...humans weren't meant to build this high. And Ulken at the top? Like he's looking down on us all.
The stormjungles of Eko are filled with monsters. Beasts with claws like daggers, sharp enough to tear a man in half. Raptors with beaks perfect for plucking out their prey's innards. Scaly lizards that blend into shadows beneath the canopies, waiting to strike. But the worst monster of them all? Humankind. Bandits led by the worst men in the Bright Empire.
The worst men, or so Garret thought. Until he was forced to flee Eko's capital and wound up in Liwokin. Turns out, the pits of humanity were even deeper than he suspected. He shouldn't have been surprised.
All men have an inborn desire to destroy. To tear down the beauty of nature and deface it with iron and stone. Somehow, Garret finds himself working in such a stone monstrosity. A tower with a man atop who might be worse than any bandit Garret hunted as a Ranger.
But something strange is going on, and his curiosity got the better of him. He has to learn what's going on in this horrid city. Understanding is the only way to survive, and he'll be abyss-damned if he's dying for this Agency. True, he'd hoped a new life would mean more than just survival, but reality rarely fails to disappoint.