Commissar Tarkus stood on the bow of the CS Empyrian, and inhaled a deep lungful of the sea air. He missed this. These days, most of his time was spent in the Bifold Keep, in meetings and heated discussions over tables full of maps. The wind on his face was a reminder of older times. He gripped the guard rail and closed his eyes, letting it wash over him. Tarkus knew he wasn't made for the life of a politician. These hands were soldiers' hands.

It was for the best, he had decided. People who were born to be politicians are often the least deserving of their power. The Twin Kings had been born for their positions, and had been prepared from birth to rule. That hadn't stopped corruption from worming its way into the city. Tarkus had watched intrigue and deceit strangle Stormgate until it was stuck fast, stagnating in a mire of its own self importance. No more.

The moment of peace didn't last long. Tarkus sensed Gutter tense up at his side, followed by the sound of approaching footsteps. He wondered momentarily which of his officers had come to report.

"They're ready for you Hector."

That answered his question. Tarkus turned and met Ironstaff Erasmus' eyes. There was no salute, no ceremony. They had seen too much of the same wars for that. It was refreshing, in a way.

"You're one of the only people on Azra who call me that anymore."

"I know," Erasmus said chuckling, "I do it to remind you. I'm not just a soldier to be ordered around."

Tarkus fixed him with steely gaze. "Careful Erasmus."

Erasmus shook his head, putting up a hand in mock surrender. "Relax. I prefer our arrangement just the way it is."

Tarkus wasn't sure he liked the tone of that. This is not a man whose loyalties you want to lose, he told himself. Gutter leapt to his feet and paced next to Tarkus as he walked across the wooden deck of the airship. "The dissident raid?"

"Ah." Erasmus coughed slightly, averting his eyes.

"That poorly?"

"The term 'unmitigated disaster' comes to mind." Erasmus stroked his long, white streaked beard with one hand as he spoke. "Over a dozen guards killed, Overseer Tirella butchered, and nothing to show for it. I was letting her run things and observing, but it got out of hand. I tried to step in at the end, but one of them proved surprisingly… capable. The noble counterspelled me."


"Ninth level spell, too." Erasmus smiled ruefully. "Honestly I respect the balls on him, uppity little shit though he may be. Shame he refused when Crand tried to recruit him."

Tarkus shook his head slightly. "A man like that isn't going to forgive the things I did to his family. It's a shame, but he'll have to die. They all will."

* * *

The Commissar and the Ironstaff arrived at the bridge of the airship. From here they had a clear view of the massive construction that was stretching up from the surface of the water. It was an enormous arc of glittering metal, a semicircle of steel and gold that jutted out of the waves. Tarkus could see enormous turbines ringing the Arc that turned slowly in the ocean wind. This had been a behemoth to construct, but after Harrod had come upon that sea dragon's hoard they'd had a healthy influx of funding and materials.

"I can imagine the Hegemon's expression now," Erasmus mused, "When our fleet simply appears in the Vrintish bay."

"It seems… optimistic," Tarkus grunted, "To assume that Coil knows nothing of the Arc. Vrint does love its informants."

The stone of far speech mounted on the Ship's dashboard glowed faintly. "Hail Commissar," a voice emanated from the magic apparatus. There was a faint echo to the voice, due to its distance from its partner. "This is Manifestor Darrow reporting."

"I hear you Manifestor. Status."

"Construction is nearly complete," the voice continued. "All vital systems are functional. We're commencing with the short range ignition test now."

Tarkus watched as bright forks of lightning began to leap across the diameter of the Arc. They grew more and more dense, until there was a flash of light and a shockwave that rippled across the ocean's surface. The light within the semicircle slowly faded until all that was left was a shimmering field of turquoise energy. Wasting no time, a small boat began to push its way through the water toward the gate. When its tip met the energy field, there was a pulse of arcane luminescence. Moments later the boat was gone. 

Tarkus pulled a spyglass from a pocket in his uniform, and extended it toward the horizon. Several nautical miles away, the boat had reappeared in its target destination.

"Approaching the vessel now," Manifestor Darrow's voice reverberated from the stone. "Boarding…"

The faintly audible sound of screams issued from the stone of far speech, along with the sound of several impacts, and a tearing noise.

"It's the crew sir! They've changed somehow, they're attacking!"

Tarkus could hear the sounds of violence from the stone of far speech. He could make out an unearthly roar.

"Teleport away for now, Manifestor," Tarkus said calmly. "Additional calibrations will be required."  He collapsed his spyglass and stepped away from the window.

"A promising start," said Erasmus. "Certainly some fine tuning left to do, but nothing our Manifestors can't handle."

"I certainly hope so," Tarkus said. "We have a war to win."


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