Chapter One: Brave New Whorled
A few hours past sunset, a patch of shadowy plain near the city of Lunpa lit up. It was a massive blaze, and even from a great height, an individual could probably see the suddenly-illuminated figures around it, leaping away before they got scorched.
"I never expected to say this while fully conscious, but next time, Garet lights the fire," said Ivan from behind a rock. Sheba, crouching beside him, nodded fervently, her blue eyes very wide.
Jenna was the only one still standing by the fire, untouched. "It was only Dragon Fume. Not like I launched a Searing Beam at it or something."
"Jenna," said Felix, "it was kindling, not a Druj. It wasn't going anywhere."
"Are you implying something?" asked Jenna.
"Definitely not," said Garet, walking past Felix and cutting him off.
"I do not think I have ever met a completely stable Mars Adept," Picard commented. Isaac watched his friends contentedly, giving Mia's hand a squeeze as they approached the now-safe fire. It was good to be on the road again. It did count as the road, even though, with Coal and Zephyr's help, the Adepts could have reached Vale again long before sunrise. This territory was at least as hostile as anywhere else they had been, with the possible exception of facing down the Fusion and Doom Dragons.
"I can't believe you actually want to set up camp near a city filled with people who are going to want us dead very soon," muttered Ivan, flapping open his bedroll near the warmth of the flames.
"We've been travelling all day," Sheba pointed out. "It's no good to just rush in there now."
"Besides, we're too far out for the Lunpans to know we're coming," Isaac added. "And we'd better know what we're going to do next before the night's over."
"Tell me sleep is going to factor into this at some point," pleaded Garet.
"Of course," said Isaac. Garet relaxed slightly, leaning back against a rock. "Probably, what, an hour or two, around dawn." The Mars Adept sat up for a moment, but quickly realised Isaac wasn't serious. Jenna swatted him lightly for falling for it to begin with.
"And I suppose you thought you could leave us out of it?" asked Bane, walking into the light. He preferred to materialise out of sight and make a different sort of dramatic entrance than the other Djinn. Torch, Luff, and Dew sparked into being around him.
"What do you want, old man?" asked Isaac, weary but cheerful.
"To know exactly what it is you're planning in the morning. I don't even think you have a plan, since I don't know about it," Bane replied.
"Why do those four always get to represent the Djinn?" asked Felix.
"They are oldest," Picard pointed out.
"Do we really want any more of them out here?" asked Jenna, grinning.
"If you were my Adept I'd have a word with you on that one," said Torch, but when she realised she sounded more than a little like a stern grandmother, she shut up swiftly.
"Not to dredge up ancient history or anything," said Ivan, "but we do recall that Lunpa's been sending out raiding parties, right? That's the whole reason we're out here."
"Raiding parties attacking caravans and cities," Felix said, completing Ivan's sentence. "Who would attack simple travellers?"
"Beats me, so if we meet any, then we'll know they're safe, but we complicated travellers might want to be a little more cautious," Ivan countered. "I mean, we are planning to break in."
"Ought to be fun," said Garet, stretching out further, if such a thing was possible. "Climbing Lighthouses and slaying dragons, crossing deserts, going through forests-"
"-And one swamp-" Jenna interjected, shuddering at the memory of Taopo.
"-And over oceans," Garet went on, and both the Mars Adepts shared another shudder. "Those are all good, but I don't think we've ever actually tried to break into a fortress and wreak havoc."
"What about the last time we broke into Lunpa?" asked Mia. She shook her head. "Same city, even. This place is just trouble."
"It's a lot more reinforced now, if the people from Vault are right. They said it was getting to be like a castle, but better defended," Felix pointed out.
"I would be surprised to see any defences that could do more than slow the eight of us," Picard pointed out. "The Lunpans likely do not expect such an attack."
"If it needs to be an attack," said Dew. "Do remember that last time, the villagers were as much against Dodonpa as we were. Simple show of force could be enough to make them negotiate."
"Can the show of force be the part where we blow the gates past Imil?" asked Garet, hopefully.
"More likely we should avoid a direct confrontation," said Picard.
"Getting inside and finding whoever's in charge without any of the guards knowing could be even more impressive than a Pyroclasm on their doorstep," Sheba agreed.
"Be reasonable, Sheba," said Garet. "Nothing's more impressive than a Pyroclasm on your doorstep."
"Whatever we do, the fact is that the Lunpans have become a lot more dangerous recently, and we're going to stop them. Barricading and reinforcing the city, all these raiders making half of Angara a dangerous place to be- I think they're preparing for something big, and we're not going to let them get that far," said Isaac. He looked around at his friends- not many people could claim to having seven friends with whom they would trust their life without reservation. They could handle anything.
As he watched the sparks from the fire float up into the night sky until he couldn't tell the difference between the sparks and the stars, completely unaware of the threat awaiting them within the walls of Lunpa, Isaac of Vale feared nothing.
The sky on the following morning was a little cloudy as the universe once again totally failed to be filled with omens of what was about to happen. Lunpa at least had the courtesy to be a looming and foreboding presence, especially the massive cluster of towers and walls that formed what could best be called the Lunpa Fortress. It was dark stone and armor-plated in most places, with the general feel of a place that would simply need repainting after Armageddon.
The village, however, still covered more ground than the fortress. There were very few built houses in Lunpa, since it had begun as a thieves' headquarters. Most homes and stores were built into the uneven land; no doubt they were very inconspicuous as caves to hide in.
The Adepts stayed in the forests, slipping around the side of the walled city, looking for any place where they might slip inside Lunpa without being noticed. The tunnel was long closed off, meaning that a new method of entrance was needed. And eventually the clouds and spikes topping the wall clicked in Sheba's mind.
"I've got it," she said, and the others stopped. "Ivan, help me out here." The two Sorcerers stood facing each other, eyes closed, and glowed with the faint purple light of Jupiter Adepts reaching into their element. A bit slowly, but much faster than nature tended to act, the clouds grew and thickened. Lunpa and a large area of the surrounding mountains were cast into deep shadow.
"Do you really think this is dark enough?" asked Ivan.
"I don't think it's going to get any darker," Sheba replied.
"Looks like it could get wetter, though. Or possibly very lightning-filled," said Felix, warily.
"Those aren't storm clouds, just very dark… um…" Ivan trailed off.
"Looks like cumulostratus," said Garet. The others looked at him. He looked back.
"What, exactly, are the clouds for, then?" asked Isaac, breaking the spell.
"Give me a rope and I'll show you," Sheba replied. Felix handed a length over wordlessly, wondering what she was doing. Sheba looked carefully at the top edge of the wall, lined with innumerable prongs and generally unpleasant metal shapes. She raised the rope. "Lash!" The end of the rope flew up to the wall and tied around one of the many spikes. "Cloak!" Drawing on the power of the Cloak Ball that Mia carried, Sheba twisted the shadows around her until all that was visible was a faint Psynergetic outline of light. To non-Adepts, Sheba had vanished completely. Cloak only worked in deep shadows, but apparently the thick cloud cover was good enough.
Sheba scaled the wall quickly, pulling herself to the top of the rope and level with the many obstacles meant to give any casual intruder a severe difficulty finding gloves with the right number of fingers in the future. She drew the Tungsten Mace from her pack and, after a few moments of almost-quiet battering, those same sharp prongs began to rain down near the Adepts, who took an intelligent dozen steps back.
Once a small gap was cleared, Ivan picked up a thought from Sheba and relayed it to the others. "Sheba says the ground's close on the other side. Cloak yourself and just climb right over."
"I just hope we're not going to get any high, cloud-sweeping winds soon," said Jenna.
"Don't you ever stop complaining?" asked Ivan as he faded from normal view.
"Not in my lifetime, and I'm older than her," Felix responded, already little more than a Psynergy outline. One at a time, not wanting to test the rope more than necessary, they climbed to the top and dropped down the short distance to the ground on the other side.
Isaac checked to make sure everyone was there, then took a careful step away from the wall. He stopped. Something had just tingled. Severely. His head was feeling… a little foggy… and the world seemed… a little duller than usual…
His hand flickered white and reappeared. After a moment, so did the rest of him. Isaac's legs buckled beneath him, and he collapsed to the grass. "Isaac!" hissed Jenna, darting forward to make sure he wasn't badly hurt or afflicted by something. Then the same feeling struck her, and the Cloak faded.
While the fortress was certainly the more impressive part of Lunpa, there was still the village, and it was like any other such settlement. So the presence of two unconscious strangers caused a bit of comment among those who noticed them.
No, Mia realised, not like any other settlement. Because even though the villagers noticed Isaac and Jenna, they made no moves toward them, nor did they stop even to gawk a little. There was something controlling them all. Not Psynergy or anything so grandiose. They were all afraid. Terrified of… of being out of… out of…
Thinking was getting harder. So was focusing her eyes… and things were getting dark… Out of line. That was it. They were afraid of being singled out by someone…
Out of Psynergy. That was it. Another it. Something was very wrong. The six remaining Adepts flashed white and their Cloak Psynergy broke, revealing them all to the Lunpans. The Adepts staggered, finding it difficult even to stay balanced, and while they were so incapacitated, a voice shouted orders.
"Go, you amateurs, go, go, go! Don't let them back on their feet!" And from the under-hill houses poured a battalion of Lunpan soldiers, all armoured and armed for serious combat. Picard managed one act of defiance against the strange weakness that had attacked the Adepts, stirred into motion by the sudden and very pointy danger. He pulled a Mist Potion from his pack and hurled it at the ground, where it burst and unleashed its minor alchemy.
The soldiers stopped, suddenly facing a small, concentrated area of green fog where they had just seen targets who couldn't fight back (the best kind) a moment before. When it did clear, even Isaac and Jenna were standing again, and the others looked shaken, but ready to fight.
"He didn't mention this," said one of the soldiers to his commanding officer. "What do we do?"
"Exactly what we were told," the leader replied, grimly. He looked back at all of the men under his command, and gave them a glare that gave a very clear message: no matter how easy it would be, don't kill any of them, or you'll be buried in more than one grave. That done, he gave a signal with one gauntleted hand and ran at the Adepts, halberd ready.
Even still disoriented from whatever force had beaten their Cloak, Isaac was ready for combat, though he was worried when he noticed that the Sol Blade's customary golden glow was missing when he drew the weapon.
There was time to find out what had happened later. Right now, Isaac's problems were in the form of a charging infantryman with a pike and the sort of attitude that said the likelihood the talking him out of it was slightly less than Bane relinquishing his self-declared rank as King of Djinn. No matter, Isaac had seen worse, often with wings or way more heads than necessary.
He spun to the side while stepping closer to his attacker, slashing downward with the sort of force that would, ordinarily, have chopped the halberd in half, an act that often gave the wielder pause, to say the least. Ordinarily. But something dragged behind, and Isaac's footing twisted on itself. He was on his back before the slash ever connected.
He had tripped.
Shocked at the unexpected fall, and worse, his failure moments into combat, Isaac deflected the downward strike and rolled to his feet on autopilot. How could he trip? Worse, Isaac noticed that the Sol Blade felt unusually heavy in his hands, and his motions were much slower than usual. Another soldier, carrying a broadsword rather than a polearm, struck a hit against Isaac's backplate before he even realised the opponent's presence, and the pain shot through his torso like he had been hit with a boat.
"Shine Plasma!" shouted Ivan as the soldiers were upon him. Its sense of theatre still totally missing, the universe ignored him, and didn't even bother to make the lack of lightning explosions dramatic. Instead, the nearest soldier smacked him with the shaft of his pike and kept moving. Ivan went down and stayed there, out cold. Sheba thought clearly enough that she didn't bother casting anything herself, but strong attacks from too many enemies quickly disarmed her and left her lying unconscious beside Ivan.
Next to be caught in the tide of soldiers was Felix, who was battered to the ground by a flurry of attacks dealt with democratic fervor – one soldier, one injury. But the Lunpans, having been lucky and caught three of the eight Adepts before they were ready, were overconfident. That changed quickly when they reached Garet and Jenna, fighting back to back. The soldiers were like a great serpent, swallowing everything in their path. They had just swallowed an ember.
Garet noted with some concern that his Stellar Axe lacked its usual explosive glow of Psynergy, but it was still, as Felix liked to put it, 'bloody efficient at cutting things', which was his highest praise for any weapon. More than a few shields were split through in the fury of battle, and a fair share of weapons were reduced to kindling and forge materials, too.
None of the Adepts liked killing people, but wouldn't sacrifice one of their friends for the sake of any enemy. Fortunately, it seemed that neither situation was coming up – none of the soldiers stayed in individual combat long enough to need to be cut down, and they didn't do anything more than knock out any of the Adepts.
That wasn't to say that the Lunpans weren't losing fighters- a fair ring of them now surrounded Jenna and Garet's feet after being bashed and thrown down with customary Mars wrath. The two fought well together, often ducking and dodging in ways that left the attacking soldier vulnerable to their ally. Once Jenna actually leapt and rolled across Garet's bent back; when they came back up, each Lunpan was now facing a different opponent with a very different fighting style, and they couldn't compensate.
Picard, Isaac, and Mia were each carving their own little pockets of chaos among the soldiers. Picard in particular found himself fencing with the commander of the group, who now wielded a flanged mace, his halberd having proved too soft to hold against a Mythril Blade. The Lemurian's style was disturbing at least to any opponent- no openings were left, even after an attack. Every strike became a guard at the last moment, and every motion led into another.
They were techniques that had halted many opponents in their tracks, making his sword a whirling hazard that hurtling unsettlingly in front of the attacker. Anyone duelling with Picard soon found themselves believing that he only bothered to make contact with the enemy's weapon because he liked the sound it made. Such a thought had plenty of evidence, too, considering that the blade clashed against the mace at least twice a second.
At last, Picard made a swift, strong blow at the right point on his enemy's weapon, and the mace flew from the commander's hand, landing with a dull thud and denting the ground. The Lunpan stiffened as Picard's sword came up to point at his throat.
"Kill me, then!" he shouted defiantly.
"I would rather not. Stop the attack," Picard ordered him.
"I would rather die!" the commander repeated, and something stung Picard in the chest, near his shoulder.
A short length of wood with small feathers protruded from his tunic. He looked up in time to see an archer give him a mocking salute from the top of a hill and mutter 'Oh, you blasted-' before collapsing as the sleeping poison took effect.
"A bit faster next time," the commander muttered, though the archer couldn't possibly have heard him. "What if he had agreed?"
Garet was next, still not quite understanding what had happened to them upon entering the village. His speed, usually unusual for his mass, was back down to where it ought to be according to normal laws, and he was set upon by a pair of Lunpans, one with dual short swords and the other a warhammer. He was caught after only a few moves, the Stellar Axe locked by the thrusting attacks from the swords, and suffered a glancing blow to the head from the hammer that was enough to drop him from the fight.
Mia found her usual, acrobatic style of combat difficult to maintain, for reasons that none of the Adepts understood yet. Clotho's Distaff was still a fair weapon, though, and had clocked a number of Lunpans into the land of dreams when someone came barrelling up behind her. The lieutenant, a large man with better understanding of the situation than most of the soldiers, drew a dagger and held it against her neck. "Isaac of Vale! Surrender or she dies!"
Isaac, who had been the greatest source of agony on the field so far, paused in mid swing. The Lunpan dropped anyway, having already been struck repeatedly by the Sol Blade's unyielding side.
"And you wouldn't kill her if I did?" he asked, skeptically. Mia grinned, if grimly.
"Of course not. We have no wish to kill any of you. Your other friends, those already felled, are still alive, if you need proof."
Isaac was silent for a long time, and Mia looked more interested in his answer than the lieutenant. Eventually, he dropped the Sol Blade. "All right," he said, struck again by the strange weakness in all of them. Mia looked shocked. The lieutenant grinned.
"Isaac, what are you doing?!" demanded Jenna, staring at him. He looked up in time to see the attacker coming at her from behind. Even as Isaac called out a warning, a gauntleted fist has crashed down against her head, and she collapsed on top of several beaten Lunpans.
The lieutenant's hand moved quickly, sheathing his dagger and drawing instead a small leather object, which he smacked against Mia's temple before she could reached up to wrench his arm out of its socket, something he had no doubt she could do. Again, Isaac barely started to cry out when someone near him did something very similar, and then all was dark.
The Lunpan soldiers gathered up the Adepts, as well as their fallen comrades, and returned to the fortress. Aside from everyone avoiding that region of the village while the battle took place, it would have looked to any outside observer like a normal day in Lunpa. And once the soldiers were gone, they walked freely there, too. No sign was left the Adepts had even tried to enter the village, or had been caught by a Psynergy-nullifying field just inside the walls.
But, fortunately, there was an outside observer. A great many of them. Coincidentally, they were also the only sign that the Adepts had tried to enter the village, though they had found themselves outside the city wall when they finally came back together.
Bane looked around at the rest of the seventy-two Djinn with a confused and angered (for Bane, the first always led to the second) expression on his face. "What in the name of Sol and all the Spirits just happened?!"
[Author's Notes] That's right. The Adepts are in serious trouble, and it shall fall to their seventy-two assistants to save the day, with a good quantity of chaos, insanity, and blowing things up thrown into the mix. To expedite future chapters (to convince me to update) press the button.