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Iomedae in the Eastern Empire!
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And as the imperial armies marsh uphill, Samien would like to know how they feel about sheer, white-hot fear.

His voice cannot carry over a battlefield, and the drums that amplify it do do not sound over the sheer hammering of metal on metal, yells of dying men and dying horses, but he can throw fear into imperial ranks and fill the hearts of his men with courage, and that does a great deal, even here on a battlefield where receptive empathy is useless, as he rides with useless sword in its sheath behind his troops' rear, heedless of crossbow bolts, because he is, after all, expendable.


And at the same time, Jean is - coordinating the battle, issuing orders, ordering his enemies to RUN AWAY in an overwhelming voice that appears in their minds - flashing from thought to thought updates faster than any runner could make it -

Together they're a pretty good team.


And while the imperial mages are fighting the marsh - and while the rebel mages have free play - the battle is firmly in the rebel favor, as they beat back attack after attack, driving them down the hill to regroup, advancing slowly themselves in an inexorable push, . The lancers and sabreurs, soberly waiting behind their own pikes (for they cannot charge for risk of impaling themselves), must suffer the galling fire or swim the river in the face of the enemy, and for one long moment the battle looks like a clear, simple victory for Oris... until the imperial mages are free, and the working is complete.

Then the calculus of the artillery changes as all the heat drawn up from the frozen marsh is unleashed in a tempest of flames, the flickering wheat of the hills already ablaze raging uphill to sear the army of Oris as the imperial Adepts switch to throwing fire and lightning of their own.

And under this fire, the soldiers of Oris are driven back.


The dice must roll in his favor for victory, but it is the gods rolling them.

He commands an Imperial mage, using the best imitation of their top commanding officer's voice he can, to FINAL STRIKE IMMEDIATELY. Then the next. Then the next. This policy will usually not succeed, even though Jean is spectacularly good at lying to people and knows what an imperial order ought to sound like, but it is another die for the gods to roll.

When it becomes clear that won't work he gives his own order, the one he hoped he wouldn't have to. Saved imperial prisoners are executed and low-strength mages who do not, actually, know how to use blood magic safely are Gated above the imperial mages with orders to final strike; some take it, when they fall.

It is spectacularly bloody and spectacularly destructive and it does not seem to be quite enough.

Probably he killed someone very important, but that does not actually matter because there is too much imperial firepower to pull this off. He orders a bloody tactical withdrawal, his troops are being forced back, they should give ground step-by-step until they're above the peak of the slope and so out of direct line of fire for the imperial mages, he thinks he can do this with reserve troops taking the place of fresher ones while the fresher troops regroup -


- The empire, sensing victory, ups the pressure; they know that crossing the marsh will make any retreat harder, but it's now clear inside their heads that the rebels are beaten; the cavalry behind the pikes strains to be unleashed -


Sam is speaking, strong words and the right words shouted above the din of battle and he's throwing calmness and confidence (feeling them enough to throw them is hard, but not that hard) - three arrows have been deflected by his armor and his talisman so far, he's here and he's not going down, the dragon banner of Oris is high in the sky and Old Emerald-Eyes is here -


An imperial adept hits him with a levinbolt and he goes down.


And his Mindspeech voice doesn't halt and his banner is caught before it falls and Jean pulls the spare helm from his saddlebags and rides to the fight, but that doesn't matter, does it, and all that remains is to make sure they don't disintegrate.


They manage not to rout.



And the Imperial flag flies, the walls that guard the tower of Civilization so that this time, at least, it will not fall, over another battlefield.


Altarrin has been watching through scrying the whole time, though not continuously because even he would be drained after candlemarks of that. 


It went...about how he expected. The rebels had some surprise advantages to pull out, but it's the specifics that were a surprise, at least to him, not the fact that they had something. They must have, to get this far, to have been worth investing in by Aroden and Aroden's temple. 

He spent most of the time watching trying to figure out if there was anything more than convenient Gifts and charismatic leadership. He doesn't think so. At the point when it was clear they were losing the battle, he doubts they would have chosen to keep any of their tricks in reserve. 


They didn't pull out any godmiracles, and - it's not over, this war isn't won, but the battle is. Despite the casualties and the mess, the mood of the Imperial army is jubilant.

Altarrin's mood is not. Altarrin is - quietly hating what they're doing, here, taking that unlikely hope that grew in the darkest of corners and sprouted into something powerful and alive, and brutally destroying it to secure the borders of an Empire that cannot really offer that much of a better deal to the citizens Oris than remaining free - and maybe not even that, one rebellion is predictive of future rebellions, he doesn't know yet whether their future will look more like the safe and prosperous Lastan Province, or the troubled Isk. 


He does, at this point, actually pass an order of his own to General Salan: to the extent possible, he wants the rebels' wounded left behind in the retreat to be taken alive. Officers and mages especially, but really anyone who's in good enough shape to survive with only a reasonable amount of Healing. (The Healers are already going to be pressed quite hard dealing with the wounded on their own side.) Maybe some of them are worshippers of Aroden, if not miraculously-empowered priests, and they need information


General Salan will of course obey strategic directives and recognizes that information is important!

It looks like they might have the enemy general? He's probably not dead yet. Heal him, once they have the standard compulsions up?


That is an unexpected piece of good luck. They should definitely do that! ...And have a mage check him for Gifts before he regains consciousness, there was clearly some sort of Mind-Gift use happening in the battle and people who use Mind-Gifts very instinctively can sometimes wriggle around the usual compulsions against using magic


Right, understood. Will do.


Healers say they're not sure when he'll be conscious and lucid, maybe tomorrow?




There's a lot to be done in the meantime. He'll have plenty to keep him busy, and it's unproductive to speculate when he doesn't yet have the relevant information.  

( on some level vaguely aware that he's not thinking about questions he really should be answering, that he's running away inside his own head from the pit of confusion, falling toward the concrete straightforward tactical problems that he at least knows how to approach. It doesn't feel like there's space in his mind to do a different better thing instead.) 


With the good news from the front in Oris comes, possibly also good, from the north.

The magic artifacts captured in Iomedae's assassination are all, to mage-sight, of extraordinary make, many of them made of previously unheard of metals, totally unharmed by multiple direct Final Strikes (any that were in fact not immune to fire were totally gone by the time they got there). It's impossible to tell by initial examination what they do. They're unpowered; they should function continuously, for...their best guess is 'forever'.


They are very, very cautious. They keep everything in the far north, each item distanced as much as is feasible from every other item (that's difficult, as there are dozens of them and they all need to be kept under guard and under good shields, lest Aroden's people attempt to steal them back). The Work Rooms where the testing happens have every kind of shielding known to the Empire. They have teams of people at a different base whose job is just to check the compulsions on, and do deep Thoughtsensing reads of, people at the base engaged in testing. They have long-range Thoughtsensers supervising from behind miles of solid rock, anf unGifted and heavily compulsioned test subjects who seem sincere in their hostility to Aroden and fervent desire not to be possessed by him and die of it, and they have them set up with trap-spells that will kill them if not specifically disabled by the team at the secondary base. 

Daily reports are read and approved by people at yet a third site, who have orders to escalate to Altarrin if any signs of Aroden's influence seem to be emerging from anywhere.

The researchers are slow and meticulous and first check whether there are any effects from being in the same room as the items, then from touching them, then from briefly wearing them, then from sustainedly wearing them, then from active efforts to activate the abilities that are plainly latent in some of them. 


This still only helps them discern the use of about half of the items. Many of them do different kinds of highly specific shielding. A few of them do highly general shielding that seems inexhaustible; they will block hundreds of attacks, if the attacks are low-powered enough the shield is adequate, and if an attack punches through that doesn't make the shield any weaker for the next one.

The dagger returns to the hand of the person who threw it, as with Fetching.

The helmet gives the wearer Thoughtsensing at a short range and broad-sending Mindspeech at a slightly better range.

The shirt suppresses the effects of old age and makes the bearer physically young and healthy again. (This one was hard to notice, because the test subjects are mostly young; they are indebted to a particular Healer who had a guess about what the magic seemed to be doing.)

The four gemstones that seemed to have been embedded in her rib cage have caused a lot of consternation. Nothing happens when they're picked up, but after they're set back down they persistently orbit the head of the person who picked them up. They can be removed with a force-net. No one is sure how to embed them in a test subject's ribcage like they were in the priestess's and it seems like a high stakes experiment. The tests they've done while the things are orbiting are profoundly inconclusive.

The captured gauntlets have an interior compartment that opens presumably to some secret command or to sufficient days of effort to brute-force it. Inside, there are rings, medallions, pearls, a strand of polished ivory beads. One of the medallions has a powerful latent spell that, when activated, turns it into a wicked eagle's talon that hangs in midair and can support a thousand pounds of weight. This seems irreversible. The talon is still hanging there in midair. Another creates a messenger-construct that looked (except to mage-sight) like an ordinary bird, which flew around until the door was opened and then flew out the door at which point they panicked and destroyed it; they don't know where it would've gone.

The rings do different kinds of shielding, except three that seem to do nothing. They'll keep testing, of course.

Her belt makes the person who wears it tougher, stronger, and faster, very nearly to the limits of human ability; after some careful preliminary testing they got a Healer in to look and the Healer thought it more or less just took an average person and made them into a soldier in peak physical condition. They haven't tested what it does if you're already a soldier in peak physical condition but 'make you a little like the priestess' is the obvious guess.

The boots make the wearer move faster and jump and dodge more easily. They have an activatable ability that takes this from 'startling speed' to 'blindingly superhuman speed' for a short period of time before being exhausted for the day; the activatable ability recharges itself over time, somehow. 


The headband makes you smarter. This was hard to notice at first, with the test subjects as heavily compulsioned as they were, but in later rounds of testing it became clear it made you think more clearly, solve puzzles faster, answer questions more rapidly and more persuasively, and in the case of a few test subjects have a nervous breakdown about the compulsions and their general situation.  They strongly suspect this one is crucial for Aroden's possession-abilities, somehow; the spell could easily make the mind not just better-functioning but functioning in a way that inclines the wearer towards their god. 



Altarrin is so confused and he doesn't like it. 


His investigators are of course operating at something of a handicap. Some very good magic researchers were involved in writing up the final report, but no one is as good as Altarrin, and overall their personnel situation is being affected both by the ongoing existence of THREE other wars plus a few people still being assigned to investigating the sabotage operation, and the fact that the artifacts are presumed extremely dangerous as a potential vector of Aroden-influence and so no one who isn't replaceable is being allowed anywhere near them. 

The researchers are carefully highlighting all of their uncertainties and unsolved mysteries, and are pretty clearly assuming that Altarrin will take one look at the report, draw on his superior knowledge of obscure magical techniques, and answer half of those questions. 


...This is not the case. Altarrin is mostly finding himself underlining more elements that he's pretty sure ought to be physically impossible. 

Power supply is the main one. A number of the effects described, especially the shielding, ought to be possible in theory to replicate with mage-artifacts, but in several cases the power requirement ought to be nearly insurmountable, and in all cases the power supply ought to be visible. If it's not, then...where is it coming from? Another plane? Can you stick reservoirs of mage-energy in other planes and hook them up to artifacts in the material plane?? ...If it were a very high-energy plane like the Elemental Plane of Fire, or maybe a three-way link with a channel from a high to low energy plane and a connection to siphon off some of the power gradient, then - well, that ought to be nearly impossible to control. Maybe a god could do it, maybe all of these are divinely created artifacts - there are a few historical stories of things like that - but that's now proposing multiple different kinds of unheard-of intervention. 

The dagger and the various kinds of shielding mostly make sense, apart from the mystery of power supply. The helmet...kind of makes sense, he could probably figure out the projective-Mindspeech side of it in a few months if he took a comms-spell artifact and somehow repurposed it to work fine even when neither the wearer nor their targets were Gifted. The Thoughtsensing element is...he's not going to confidently claim that's impossible, but the Empire has probably at this point poured tens of thousands of candlemarks of research time into developing a mage-technique that would replicate Thoughtsensing - it would be so useful - and they've never come close. 


The belt...could maybe theoretically be done by Healing, if it were possible to make Healing set-spells, which Altarrin hasn't even tried researching. The shirt that makes you younger feels - less possible than that - the Empire has also invested very very very heavily in mage-techniques and Healing-techniques to extend life, and as a general rule you can delay the damage of aging but not reverse it. Let alone temporarily as long as someone is wearing an artifact, that isn't how bodies work. 


The boots are a case where his researchers were less confused than Altarrin thinks they ought to be. They were hypothesizing a variant of Fetching, or just carefully calibrated force-spells, but Fetching doesn't do that. Sure, a combat Fetcher with a lot of native athletic talent and a decade of highly specialized training might be able to use their Gift to move and dodge faster, but it's not inbuilt - it's not like Healing, where the Gift itself seems to encode, in an opaque way, the 'intelligence' necessary to parse a huge number of complex inputs and respond instinctively to them. 


The headband seems straight-up impossible. You cannot, as far as Altarrin is aware - and his understanding here is extensive - do that even with Mindhealing


He can posit that gods are just capable of impossible things. No divine artifacts known of in legend are quite like this, but - maybe formerly-human gods who were, in human form, very good magic researchers - which you'd have to be, to solve the problem of becoming a god at all - can retain some of that finesse in god form, and make their interventions more cheaply scalable by crafting divine artifacts for their worshippers. 



....that does not feel like a real answer. Knowing what Aroden is capable of is not very useful unless he also knows what Aroden isn't capable of, and - this doesn't really let him narrow it down at all. 


He could easily spend weeks gnawing on this problem. Weeks that he doesn't have, because there are still three simultaneous wars, and speculating on this is not in fact going to help the Empire win any of them. 


(It might be different if he expected to be able to conclude, soon enough for it to make a difference, that some of the artifacts were safe to use on the battlefield. But the fact that Aroden hasn't used that conduit to possess anyone or intervene in other ways yet, when those interventions would be carefully quarantined from anything else in the Empire, does not speak very reassuringly to what Aroden might try if He were in a position where intervening could sabotage the Empire's war efforts.) 


Back to waiting for more information, then. He wants a preliminary interrogation done with a Thoughtsenser present as soon as the enemy general is conscious, and based on the results of that, he'll decide whether it's worth the risk to speak to the man himself. 


Thoughtsensers are rare, in the Empire, and to send them with armies is to risk losing them (they're also a defection risk, as there's little chance the other side of an imperial war would kill one they could instead re-compulsion and re-use.) Salan has only two with more than a whisper of the Gift, and as soon as the decisive battle is over the one with long range is going to be re-requisitioned for one of the other two wars. That leaves the other, Casiet, a woman of perhaps forty from Taymyrr, already an adult when it was conquered, and captured/recruited from the staff of its previous leadership; her uncompulsioned loyalties in the present set of wars are practically unknowable, so they've had her under fairly strict compulsions since those started. She doesn't have more than a mile of range, but does have good precision, and is good at relaying to non-Mindspeakers; the safest way to use her, given the plausibly-complicated loyalties, is to have her drag things out of peoples' heads and pass them along.


She's had an exhausting few weeks building their intelligence as they've travelled south. She is available as Salan commands, of course. 


Samien wakens to confusion.

It may, perhaps, be a moment of complete chaos in his thoughts before he recognizes that he was captured, but no more than that, and you'd need to be very, very good to realize that there's any conscious thought in there - 


(nothing in words at all)


And, with a polite smile towards whoever he notices interrogating him,

You are not cleared for this.


- she'll pass that along directly to Salan, just in case, though it's almost certainly a bluff. 

It's over. Your forces were decisively defeated. Your god sent no miracles. - and what does he think about that, was it a surprise?


He seems to be under the extremely confident belief that she is seriously making things worse for herself by reading his mind, and is thinking about that instead of actually usable things! If you continue to do this, you will be exposing yourself and your commanding officer to serious risk! He appears (unless she is really, really, really good at this) to be completely honest! My information is directly for the Emperor.

(He isn't thinking about what she's saying. At all.)

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