Base Camp: Aryos Point
On a small bluff, two people looked to the glittering bay as the sun’s gold turned to molten red. The man wore thin, horn-rimmed spectacles, their tint shielding his squinting eyes from the evening glare. The woman held a half-filled earthen cup, absentmindedly turning it in her hand. Both were watching the moon rise, the brilliant hues of Pyre’s light glancing off towering clouds of sand. Across the satellite’s surface, a tempest raged in silent fury, staccato slashes of light flickering across its muted face. The day had been a long one, filled with good work.
The man took a canteen from his side, unlatched a tin cup from his hip, and poured. The thick smell of coffee filled the air, a gift from a distant land. The man raised the tin in appreciation to the woman, who smiled and tilted her cup in reply.
“Hell of a moon-storm, Prof. That sucker might be larger than your continent,” the man said.
The woman nodded in appreciation of the scale, the smile of a younger woman flashing across her face. “Indeed, Doctor. Pyre’s activity has been elevated lately. It is one thing to know this with measurements; it is another to see the moon react to all that energy. We are so small before the might of Heaven.”
The man shifted, his face weighing the risk of a question he had long wanted to ask. “Your angel friends, did they ever visit Kal? I always wondered what lived on that moon.”
The reliquarian smiled; her son had asked her the same questions. She swirled her wine and sniffed it appreciatively. “The angels have spoken of many peoples, living and dead, that dwell or once dwelled in the realm of our sun. It is said that the angels deliberated on which world to save first. They decided the humble shepherds of Shael had the most eager minds and the gladdest hearts, and so they came.”
“And why not the other worlds?” The main pointed to a bright point to the moon’s left. “Our telescopes tell us Nuath is overflowing with life. Darn thing is practically one big monsoon.”
“Our lenses tell us the same. The angels saw the beginnings of civilization when they first came, but the great storms and many beasts of that world made such things difficult. Nuath is a cradle of life, but it is savage and difficult to tame. There is less opportunity to do great evil on that world, for Nuath seeks to devour its own children.”
The archeologist nodded. “That makes good sense I suppose. If your masters are so keen on reining evil in, why not start out on Xur? We have more records from the Elders saying that moon has more trouble than tankards at a brewery.” He paused for a moment, frustration creeping into his voice. “I struggle to understand why a bunch of iron age kingdoms needed to be given the boot when the real threats are out there in the dark.”
The woman nodded patiently, and her smile faded. “Yes, Javier, you are right to wonder such things. When Holy Aros ventured forth into the black space between stars, It had intended to invade Xur, to purge the ancient evils that once ruled there. But when Aros saw the struggle of us mortals, wayward children scratching out a bleak existence in the shadow of the Dead World, the Godhead felt great sorrow, for we bore the punishment for a folly that was not our own. Aros saw the good in our hearts and moved to save us from mortal temptation.”
Javier’s face soured. “Saving us, huh? Incinerating civilians and burning cities to glass is a strange way of saving people.” He looked pointedly at the woman. “Salmai, I can tell you are a kind person with a good head on your shoulders, but damn it all, you serve monsters. My grandfather barely made it out of Jora alive. He worked at a boat shop fixing up rune engines. He lost his sister, his eldest son. Did your angels save them? Did they really deserve that kind of end?” Angrily, he tossed out the grinds of his coffee before producing a hipflask and pouring its contents into the tin. He poured a splash of the spirits out on the dirt before downing the rest. He glared at the empty tin in silence as if daring the cup to refill itself.
The woman bowed her head, her eyes fixed on the quenched soil. Sorrow crept into her face. “The razing of your ancestor’s city was a terrible thing, and one that many in the Empire regret. Even the archangels were loath to consider it. If you know our history, the many wars our people fought against the wayward kingdoms of your ancestors, you will know how rare such an action is. Every mortal slain is a soul lost. Jora’s Crossing was not a triumph for our people. We consider it among our greatest failures.”
The man grimaced. “Are you saying your masters had to kill all those people? That there was no other choice?”
The woman’s face darkened, her answer no louder than a whisper on the evening wind. “What sort of thing fills an archangel with fear? What kind of relic did your kin dig up from the forbidden lands? What threat forced Q’rath to sacrifice so much to act so quickly?”
The man looked back to the great moon Kal, etched with stitches of lightning, and sighed. “I have seen things in our Outer States that I wouldn’t wish upon our worst folks. If there really was something awful at the Crossing, Q’rath should have told us. We know how to handle those kinds of things out here. We wouldn’t be around if we couldn’t.”
The woman paused, choosing her next words carefully. “We know now. This is why I am here. All around me, I see the skill and determination of your people. I see your virtue, Javier, your care for others… I see the beginnings of temperance and responsibility in your young nation. I am here to help.”
The man sighed, he refilled his empty tin and took another swig of coffee, hiding his face behind the tin and muttering “Thanks. You ain’t so bad yourself, Salmai.”
“So stoic,” Salmai laughed. “It’s almost dinner. I am sure the children are hungry.”
Javier smiled. “Mav’s been giddy these past two weeks. Haven’t seen her this juiced in years, not since her mom took her to High Hawk.” The man paused, his face nostalgic and pained. “How’s your kid doing?”
The reliquarian’s smile grew rueful. “It’s been an adjustment. He was just getting settled in Tir’Ati when we were called here. He prefers to read and watch the happening of things, just like his father, Aros keeps his soul. But I think your Mav has helped him be more comfortable around all of this dirt and noise.”
A content silence settled between the two single parents. There was little to do but savor the end of the day and wait for the Dinner Bell’s ring.
Suddenly, a young man came running to the two on the ridge, his face thick with barely contained panic. “Javs! Reliquarian Zalar! The children aren’t in camp!”
Both parents stood up as the reliquarian turned to the young man, surprise giving to focused concern. “How long have you known?” she asked, her voice tight.
“They were playing hide and seek all afternoon; I didn’t think to check until an hour ago. Been looking ever since.”
“Black tar and hell, this is Mav’s doing,” Javier muttered, handing his tin to the young man. “Angus, run and get me my gun. I know where they went.”