The afternoon sun shines on Meria, fifteen thousand inhabitants, and crowning jewel of the Izla by virtue of being its only city. The walls around it are made of actual stone thanks to the twin mountains in the middle of the island, few cities in the Empire have such direct access to a source of stone.
The fortifications are six meters tall by four meters wide, there are very few soldiers patrolling the parapet walk. The Izla is at peace, the gap of power between the Duke and the rest of the nobles is so large that over half of them would need to unite just to stand a chance.
The symbol of the Duke’s power is visible from any point within the city, a castle built tall on the most elevated terrain. There are dozens upon dozens of banners hung all around its walls. Half of them are displaying the Duke’s emblem, a stag’s head on a white and light blue background, while the other half exhibit the Kingdom’s flag, a white crown sitting under a golden lion on a light blue background.
Within the city itself, there are innumerable buildings, from manors to simple houses, artisan guilds to merchant associations. There are five ships anchored in the docks, not far from those, there is a large open plaza filled on the side of the docks with crates of all sizes while the other side is covered with large merchant tents.
In the middle of the city, there is a smaller plaza, this one is filled almost entirely by small merchant stalls. On the other side of the main street passing by that plaza stands the symbol of the other power present on the Izla.
A large stone building with buttresses placed around it at regular intervals. They serve to not only support the tall stone walls, but also to give the structure weight, presence, and magnitude. Above the large reinforced double doors of the main entrance, there is a four-meter large silver lion head. It is the emblem of the Emperor’s Templar Order, placed there to inform all that this is their headquarters on Izla Meria.
Inside the building, at its very center, there is a circular hole of three meters in diameter that seems to have been cut straight out of the stone floor. Two water reservoirs made of marble and decorated with golden filigree are located on either side of that gap in the ground.
Occupying the inside of that opening is a large spiraling staircase, it leads downward for what seems to be forever, at the very least it keeps going deeper than even an enhanced eye can see in the dark.
Where a handrail should be to protect from falls, there is a small aqueduct of barely a meter in height and twenty centimeters in width. It serves as a conduit made to guide holy water, it leads all the way down to a circular room located far underground, to the Izla’s central node.
There are ten silver lion swords hung above ten of the eleven overtures in the circular wall of that room. Ten tunnels of those come from nodes in all directions across the Izla. Every direction except that of the sea. A single tunnel is headed towards the sea, a single departing tunnel that has no sword hung above it. The only one in the room that is inclined downwards when all the other tunnels in the room arrive from nodes located above this one.
Each of the tunnels is linked to the large pool in the center of the room by a small aqueduct. There is a twelfth small aqueduct connected to the pool, this one is coming from Meria’s surface, it passes through a hallway located between this node room and the temple’s main ceremonial room to reach the pool.
The hallway is guarded by two temple guards standing with their backs against the wall on either side of the entrance. Both Templars are wearing complete hard leather armors with long shirts of mail that reach all the way down to their knees on top.
— — —
— — —
The taller figure of the two pushes on its iron helmet to make it slide back on top of its head, taking it off with one hand and revealing the hard face of a veteran, framed by very short black hair. Her eyes are of such a light blue tint that they touch on white, their clarity of color underlines the intensity of her gaze.
“Did you hear something, Emffrey?” The hard woman asks. “No, don’t answer. I know what it was.” She sticks her helmet under her arm. “Come along, Emffrey, we’ll dump this glorious task on the first sisters we cross paths with.”
“What’s going on, Viki?” Emffrey asks, taking off his helmet in turn and sticking it under his arm. His traits are also those of a veteran, hard but his expression is more relaxed. “As much as I would love to dump this chore on a brother, I still need to complete two shifts this month.”
“Don’t call me that, walk, climb and talk.” She points towards the large spiraling staircase in the vestibule, starting to make her way forward before she even finishes talking, forcing Emffrey to start forward with a jog to catch up.
“Fine, Vikiana. What’s this about all of a sudden?”
“My beacon was just damaged.” She answers shortly, her gloved hand tapping nervously against the helmet stuck under her arm.
Emffrey throws a look down at her hip, finding the golden lion pommel sword intact.
“It looks fine to me.” He says.
“Not this one, my old beacon. The one I used back when I was still a puny little temple guard like you.” Vikiana replies sharply.
“Oh.” Emffrey says.
They start climbing up the spiraling staircase in silence as Emffrey awaits for his sister to give him more details, understanding the source of her suddenly sour mood.
“She should be patrolling on the other side of the mountain twins … What the fuck could she have run into there?”
“It could have been an accident. Swords do break you know.” Emffrey suggests.
“If that was the case, the next thing she would have done is destroy it completely. I can still feel the beacon emitting irregularly.”
“Don’t you think it’s too early to panic? She may not have had the time to dismantle the construct.”
“If she’s in trouble, I’m not wasting any time. If she isn’t, I get to see my daughter.” Vikiana lets a smile reach her lips, letting it last for only a second before she hardens her expression over it. “I’ll go talk to Master Amand while you find our replacements. Also, try to find Edward and Joan, tell them to meet us in arms at the stables.”
“Should we bring our armor?” Emffrey asks
“No, she is too far away to ride in full armor and I don’t want to be slowed down if we have to move on foot. Leather, mail, and shields. Bring mine.”
“Will Master Amand even agree to let us go? Your daughter is under the Duke’s purview, not the Order’s.”
“You’re going either way, huh? Please do your best to convince him.”
“You’re afraid he’ll make you guard the temple for a whole month, huh?” She replies in kind.
“Last time, you took us out to hunt that rebel … Count what’s his name … Master Amand made us scrub the whole platoon’s armors, twice.” Emffrey says with a shake in his voice and a shiver in his shoulders.
“It was Count Widgur.”
“Whatever the name, just get the Master’s permission this time. It isn’t fair that we get assigned chores while you never get punished.”
“He made me drill the cadets fresh out of training.” She counters flatly.
“You stood around yelling at them while they ran laps in armor, such a chore.” Emffrey drawls. “How long until we reach the surface?” He asks, looking up.
“Don’t know, not quick enough. Double step.” Vikiana answers as she accelerates her climbing pace.
Emffrey groans but doesn’t fall behind as they both begin jogging up the spiraling stairs. The two veteran Templar’s rushing pace makes their chain-mails shake, each individual metal ring clicking against those linked with it to create a cacophony of noise in the staircase.
— — —
Once she separates with Emffrey, Vikiana traverses the central room where most people give their Due and takes a staircase up to the second level of the headquarters, leaving the area open to the general public.
She takes the hallway that leads towards Master Amand’s office, but instead of continuing all the way to knock on his door, she takes a left turn and finds a reinforced door with a single Templar standing guard right in front of it.
The Templar is wearing full armor, something so heavy that only veterans among them would have the experience and muscle mass to fight on foot while wearing it.
The armor plates protecting each and every body-part are all made of heavy expensive steel. But the worst part is that the armor cannot be worn on its own.
There needs to be an under-layer of padded clothes to both lessen the shock of blows absorbed by the armor while also protecting the wearer’s flesh from the metal joints rubbing against it when they are bent.
A middle layer composed of a full body hard leather armor and a bodysuit of chain-mail, both with hoods. Added to all that is a heavy helmet made with the same thickness of steel as the breastplate, heavy combat boots covered with steel plates and spiked steel soles.
Vikiana walks up to the armored guard without marking any hesitation despite knowing that only the Master is allowed to access this room without explicit orders or permission.
“Move aside.” She orders the guard confidently in a tone that brooks no question.
The Templar starts shifting on his feet, no doubt considering whether or not he should question her breach of protocol. Her hand lingers to rest on the golden lion pommel of her sword and that simple movement seems to end the temple guard’s doubts as he stands aside with a small bow of his head.
She takes the key off of the nail in the wall it is suspended on, unlocking the door of the armory and walking in. Inside, there are about a hundred swords laid on racks against the two of the walls, all of them with a silver lion pommel.
Every Templar has two swords, two beacons. One that they always carry while the other is left either within a node, if they are responsible for the creation of a leyline, or left with their commanding Master or Grand-Master.
When Vikiana obtained her title of Exemplar, she gave both of her old beacons to her family. One to her late husband who was lost at sea while holding onto it, and one to her daughter who just broke the beacon’s blade.
“Not again.” She grits her teeth as she makes her way to one side of the room with shelves filled with steel gourds.
She picks up eight of those gourds by their leather bands, unfastening each of their caps, in turn, to take a look inside and verify that the water contained within has a golden glow to it. She slips the gourds’ eight leather bands around her shoulder before making her way towards a strongbox in the corner of the room.
Vikiana puts her helmet back on her head and unsheathes her sword to places its point right on top of the seam’s lid, in-between two of the metal bands reinforcing every single one of the strongbox’s edges. She pauses with a thoughtful expression.
“My daughter isn’t so clumsy that she would break my sword and forget to dismantle the construct like I showed her. Having Yvonne to guard her back along with Clement and Gerald to advise her, no group that I know of on this Izla should be able to corner her to the point that she would choose to break the beacon’s blade off.” Vikiana tightens her grip on her sword’s handle in anger. “That’s precisely why I even let her do this!”
She puts her other hand on the strongbox and forcefully jams her blade all the way to the guard into the seam. A loud grating noise of metal sliding against metal resonates into the room, no doubt alerting the armored Templar outside. But before he can rush inside to stop her, she lets go of her sword to lift her foot and brings it down violently on the handle.
The strongbox’s lid is blown wide open, accompanied by the loud sound of a metal lock breaking. The armory’s door is blasted open by the guard, he rushes in just as Vikiana picks up her weapon and turns to face him.
“Back off or I’ll bury you in the wall.” She seethes towards the towering armored Templar.
“Viki, I can’t let you do this.” A deep voice comes out of the helmet.
“Why does everyone keep calling me Viki!” She grumbles. “Back off Alex, I’m not joking. Leomi needs me.” Vikiana repeats her threat, recognizing the voice.
“I … I.” Alex hesitates, taken aback either by Vikiana’s vehemence or the reason behind her actions. “I need to inform Master Amand.”
“Give me five minutes.” She pleads, seeing that he doesn’t intend to fight her.
“No.” Alex refuses, shaking his head. He then turns around and leaves the room to start walking heavily down the hallway.
“Well, fuck.” She swears, turning to face the open strongbox. “It’ll cost me my title but there are no native groups capable of threatening my daughter and her squad. The only external power that I can think of with any motivation to come here is related to the mission four years ago. It is unlikely but not impossible. If they linked the kingdom to the mission, then the Izla is the best place to start an invasion from. Weak in strength, isolated by sea, plenty of food. If they’re the ones attacking and if Leomi ran into them … It isn’t hard to imagine her squad being caught while scouting. The beacon is moving so she has to be alive, who would pick up a sword’s broken pommel for no reason.”
Having reinforced her confidence in her reasoning, she resolves to finally commit to taking a small wooden case out of the strongbox without permission. As long as she hadn’t done that, she could have gotten out of it with a simple rebuke for breaking the lock.
She flips a small metal hook to open the small wooden case and check its contents. As she expected, there are three rectangular sticks of wood and two vials inside. She closes it and locks the metal hook, sliding the case in a pouch on her belt.
Vikiana sheathes her sword and walks out of the armory. She hears the two voices of Master Amand and Alex talking, approaching the armory. She swears, launching into a run towards the hallway crossing and taking a right turn without even looking towards the Master on the left.
“Exemplar Vikiana!” She ignores the Templar Master’s commanding tone as she keeps up her running pace towards the stairs that will take her back down to the headquarters’ central room.
“Master Amand, I’m busy. We should talk later.” She yells over her shoulder.
“What did you take?” Alex yells questioningly at her.
“The same kit as four years ago.” Vikiana answers in a loud voice while skipping several steps to quickly rush down the stairs.
“As unlikely as it is, you better fucking run into them, otherwise, don’t bother coming back.” Master Amand yells from up the stairs behind her, obviously not bothering to run after her.
“Shit, that’s a bit harsher than I thought he would be.” Vikiana groans just loud enough for herself as she leaves through the double doors, stepping into the large street passing between the Templar headquarters and the market plaza.
— — —
Vikiana walks into the Order’s stables a single street away from the city gates that face the far away twin mountains. She finds Emffrey, Edward, and Joan, swords at the side, armored with their hard leather armors and long chain-mails on top.
“Did you get permission?” Emffrey asks nervously.
“What do you think?” Joan returns the question back to him, sarcastically.
“Viki never intended to ask.” Edward explains for Emffrey who turned to look at Joan with confusion on his face.
“Is that true?” Emffrey turns to ask Vikiana with a betrayed frown.
“I had every intention to mention my departure to the Master.” She tells him noncommittally.
“Remind me how you got your Exemplar title again?” Joan asks curiously.
“By taking every mission that lazy temple guards like you refused.” She answers.
“That can’t be right, you dragged us along with you for most of them and our names never ended up on the list.” Edward directly pokes at the hole in the explanation.
“Dragged is the operative word of that sentence.” Vikiana explains. “Also, I can beat all of you with my dominant right hand tied behind my back.”
“It’s the beating thing.” Emffrey says, nodding in understanding.
“Has to be, Master Amand had to force her to take at least half of those assignments.” Joan nods along.
“Did you spar with Master Amand until he agreed to put you on the list?” Edward voices his suspicion.
“Correction, I beat Master Amand while sparring until he agreed to put me on the list.” Vikiana tells the other three over her shoulder while she opens her horse’s stall. “Let’s go, we’ll need to ride around the twins to reach the other side of the Izla.”