Chapter I: Above
By all the ancient reckonings, Nexus is the center of the world. Amid a ring of dusty and broken mountains there lies a shallow basin of sun scorched savannah. When the first people came to this land they discovered a sinkhole that opened into a great cavern and at the bottom they discovered the Ether Well.
A font of unimaginable magic power, news of the Ether Well soon drew the curious and ambitious from all over the known world. The people who came to Nexus dug down into the earth and built towers into the sky as they sought to understand and control the well. With the aid of limitless Ether the study of magic advanced by astronomical bounds. Culture thrived in the city as the cosmopolitan elite of many nations flocked to the new center of trade and commerce. Goods, gold, and throngs of people streamed into Nexus and wonders poured out. Nexus was the jewel of the ancient world.
Then, calamity struck. Something vast and ancient stirred within the Ether Well. A being from the world beyond reached through the portal and the Ether Well boiled over with magic so potent that it physically corrupted anything that it touched. A tide of swirling damnation surged up through the streets of the great city, twisting beggar and noble, mage and mercenary alike. The survivors scattered as the great towers of the city crashed down around them. To their own lands they returned and they carried with them the tales of a thousand rampaging nightmares.
For millennia the Bonded Lands, where the ruins of Nexus resided, defied the curious roamers who came seeking the birthplace of legends. Those that stumbled upon the remains of the ancient city were consumed by the shadowy remnants of the calamity which claimed it so long ago. Above ground, the remains of the city became little more than a jumble of stones and dust. Beneath the dust the endless crypts and vaults and catacombs wound their way to the Ether Well which still pulsed and roiled with unfathomable power.
Now people have rediscovered the remains of Nexus and returned to build a new city upon the long buried bones of the old. The promise of knowledge and power once more draws adventurers and scholars from far off lands. The warnings of the past have faded and no longer command enough terror to keep humanity away from attempting to reclaim the Ether Well.
See the city rising from the endless plains of dried grasses. See the colorful awnings stretched from ancient stone. See the throngs of lords and merchants, servants and beggars. See the swirling eddies of humanity who have made the trek to this place of ancient legend in hopes of bringing riches long consigned to the shadows into the light of the sun.
In a coffee house a large man in an orange Dastaar barters with a one-eyed tracker for the clockwork key to one of the city’s ancient treasure rooms. Vairin has come far with little more than the coins woven into his sash and the broad-bladed talwar by his side. His faith is hot as a brand and firm as a rod. He can barely abide this city of fools and heretics but his faith has carried him here. He knows that it will carry him much further into darkness and doubt before he can reach his goal. He carries the flame of miracles in his heart and prays that it will be enough.
Amid the smell of coffee and the spice of a dozen lands, coins hit the wooden table with heavy purpose. A key of delicate brass passes from nimble fingers to a calloused palm. Vairin nods to the tracker but offers no words of thanks. The crowds of the market district swallow him and none notice his passing.
In a caravan that sits in the shade of an orange and blue awning, a weathered woman leans low over a child. The child sweats and gasps and turns in the grip of terrors that have not ceased for two days. Though it is stifling in the caravan the woman shows no sign of discomfort. Dried paint flakes from Lunja’s face as her mouth works in a rapid litany of unceasing incantations.
Slowly, carefully, Lunja prises the nightmare from the child’s mind. Each black tendril must be carefully unwound from the child’s psyche lest it lash out and destroy her. Finally, Lunja’s fingers convulse in a grasping motion, and the child grows still. The girl takes in a deep, quaking breath and exhales a fine mist of writhing blackness. Luna bites off a final terse incantation and snaps her wizened fingers above the child’s mouth. The nightmare is trapped in a teardrop shard of glass, and Lunja finally allows herself a sigh of relief.
The child is saved, but she is not the child that Lunja has come to Nexus to seek. She takes her payment from the child’s sobbing parents and goes on her way.
A shout of terror echoes from a winding alley. A man in dishevelled priest's garb scrambles backwards from the menacing claws and beak of her great eagle. The massive bird flares its wings and lets loose a piercing shriek into the petrified man’s face before returning to the leather clad arm of a stern looking woman with a few heavy flaps of its massive wings.
Baatar has come to Nexus seeking a long lost relic of her tribe. Instead she has found a conman fleecing pilgrims who have come to Nexus hoping to pray in the newly unearthed ancient temples of their faiths. While the conman pleads and soils himself she strings a bow nearly as tall as she with deliberate care. Her face is stony as the wind-swept mountains of her homeland as she draws the bow taut.
The eagle screams again and echoes the conman’s own wordless terror as Baatar looses her arrow. The conman throws his hands before his face in a vain attempt to protect himself as the arrow finds its mark. The bulging leather of his purse splits and his stolen gold spills across the worn stone of the alley way. The conman flees.
A heavily scarred mercenary captain in half plate sits beneath the silk canopy of a herbal cafe and tries not to fidget beneath the inscrutable gaze of his client. Sweat drips down his neck and has just as much to do with his company as the sweltering heat and heavy spiced smoke emanating from the censor on the table between them. Few can hide their fear when faced with Witch Hunters of the Sua.
Korema wears a flowing red robe that leaves her arms bare, proudly showing the the crisscrossing scars, old and new, that braid up and down her forearms. Like all her tribe, she had cut her history into her flesh in intricate patterns. The pattern of her scars looks almost like armored scales in the dim light. They are sign of the bond she shares with her Order and a warning to the creatures she hunts. Heavy gold bracelets rest upon her wrists and a twisted, demonic visage of clay and feathers covers her face. She has come to Nexus chasing a scourge of blood and shadow that has sought sanctuary with all the other nightmares that lurk in the endless winding crypts beneath the city.
The mercenary has scouted as far as he and his men can into the catacombs but now he says he can go no further. Korema removes a gold and aquamarine choker from her neck and slides it towards the mercenary without a word. It seems she will need to find a guide with more fortitude to continue her hunt.
In a cramped study lined with shelves of scrolls and smelling of sandalwood, a scholar is arguing with a sailor. The sailor is tall and broad with bronzed skin marked with beautiful swirling tattoos. The ink seems to glitter in the light, sometimes seeming to shimmer with iridescence, sometimes seeming to glow purple or blue with a strange inner light. Toa has sailed too far to be lectured about magic by a scholar who has never known any power but the accounts in his many scrolls.
Toa rolls his eyes and opens a small vial of Ether. As the scholar looks on in disbelief, Toa takes the smallest sip from the vial. His tattoos pulse and seem to writhe across his skin. With a placid smile Toa reaches out to crush a brass lamp in one hand and place the crumpled vessel on the scholar’s desk. The argument settled, Toa takes the scroll he needs from the now gregarious scholar and goes on his way.
As the day wanes a lone figure pushes their way into a crowded tavern. The sailor and the mystic have just introduced themselves as the door swings wide. The witch hunter and the bow woman from the mountains cautiously eye up the newcomer. The priest allows himself a small smile of anticipation. The patrons within grow silent as realization of the new arrival’s identity spreads amid ripples of awe and unease through the crowd. Laoch ignores them and strides up to a noticeboard that is covered with notices of sale, recruitment posters, and edicts from the newly formed City Watch.
Laoch is a man with wild red hair and blue paint across his face. Two finely made swords cross on his back beneath a weathered boarskin cloak. Every soul in Nexus has heard of Laoch the Feldog. He was once a great pit fighter. When the Blight came he was corrupted with all the rest and spent thousands of years roaming and killing in darkness. When the city was rediscovered, the holy man Vairin struck the curse from Laoch and returned him to himself. Laoch is the only survivor of the original calamity that claimed Nexus.
In the heavy silence, he unrolls a fresh piece of parchment and nails it to the notice board. His voice is low and terse as he turns to address the breathless crowd. “The Priest Vairin and I are going down to the old city to take the Well. I need fighters, strong fighters, to go with me.” His eyes sweep across the gathered mercenaries and guards, “I don’t care where you’re from or what you’re here for. If there’s something you want down there, now’s the time to claim it.”
Vairin stands and the crowd murmurs to see him and Laoch together. Baatar pushes away from the bar and shoulders her way defiantly towards the board. Toa offers a polite hand to Lunja and the two of them approach the pit fighter. The shadows at the rear of the bar open to reveal Korema and she saunters to join the group. Laoch looks across the strange assembly of warriors and his mouth splits into a wolfish grin.
Nexus is so much more than a city. It is more than the patchwork of new construction and ancient ruins that stretch above the savannah. It is more than the swirling ambitions of the adventurers and mercenaries who crowd its streets. It is the source of a millennia of legends. It is the promise of half-remembered power. It is the cradle of a thousand nightmares. Beneath Nexus, the Ether Well takes a shuddering breath, and the magics that suffuse the caverns convulse in anticipation.