[Ongoing Discord PbP Game] The Songs of the Lamplighter: Edited Gameplay Transcripts

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Warden, Cold, and Scales Depart from their Meeting with Tramezia the Rhizome

Cold looked up at his fellow exalts as the god dismissed them. "There were mineral rights mentioned." He started. "Maybe there is an elemental or two that knows something about that and if it's valuable?" he offered.

Warden nodded at Cold's suggestion. "A good idea. I'm sure we can find a few earth elementals that know more."

"Maybe our guides could weigh in on that?" Cold prompted, unable to ask them himself since he wasn't able to speak their tongue.

The Zenith nodded again and approached their guides. "It seems we will be in your care." Warden greeted them, slightly inclining his head. "Do you know anyone that might know the earth and minerals around this freehold?"

Cold looks over towards Rock. Seeing that Warden was dealing with the guides, he spoke to the young Dragon-Blooded monk guarding the ancestor ghost. "Rock, It might be a good idea for you to take Lo-Biven back to his Crypt? I would offer to do it in your stead, but we've been down here for quite a while already and people might be starting to notice their Vice-Archimandrite isn't around. They might be getting suspicious as to what is going on. Not to mention that you surely have other duties you have to attend to? We'll make sure to inform you about our findings, of course."

Rock nodded. "Good idea - I know just what to do with this one." He jerked the mystical essence-infused chains connected to Lo-Biven's shackles and started dragging him down the ramp and back in the direction of the tunnel they had came through, laying bare the Immaculate Exorcist's prejudice against the undead. "You're going back to your prison, but I'm not going to be soft on you like your old pal Honto. If you thought your cozy cell was unfair, you'll be begging me to dispatch your soul to the underworld after a week of what I have in store for you."

Bryoph - the hulking moss-covered stone creature, and Pinales, the knee-high sapling elemental perched on his shoulder, both glanced at each other in response to the question Warden had asked the moment doors of Tramezia's throne room were closed behind them. Bryoph and Pinales chattered between themselves in a language none of the Exalts could comprehend. Finally, Bryoph turned back to Warden and spoke slowly and deliberately in Old Realm: "We take you to Rhomb. He is the Lodestool. He answers your questions."

Bryoph began trudging down the ramps that criss-crossed the periphery of the cavern, leading the three remaining exalts on a winding route from the top of Tramezia's monumental root-wood edifice all the way down to its base, which extended multiple stories into the ground below the level of the bazaar in the center of the grotto, deep into the earth. "We cross through to the other side," said the earth elemental, as Pinales jumped to a small window to speak to a dimwitted-looking elemental manning a guard-room next to a long, smooth horizontal section of the hardwood wall, who threw a heavy switch with a loud thudding sound. The stone chips and dirt littering the ground began to skitter and rumble as a crack opened in the wall.  A huge section began to retract, with the motive power behind the motion of the massive ligneous gate remaining a mystery. After a few moments, a section that would fit five fully laden wagons side by side had opened up. Unlike the grotto, which was moderately well-lit by the fluorescent lichen that grew across most surfaces, the far side was dark and ominous.

Pinales re-emerged from inside the guard-room carrying what looked four bindles the length of his body, and with some exertion dumped them on the ground. The sack that dangled from the end of each carved hardwood rod appeared to be some sort of red veiny fungus. Bryoph picked up one, and delivered a solid punch to the bulbous mass, which slowly began to emit a deep red glow at the site of his blow, passing in slow waves across its surface that radiated a soft carmine on the walls around them, and waited for the three Exalts to follow suit.

Compared to the relatively tranquil grotto, the atmosphere of the cavern on the other side of Tramezia's hardwood monolith was buzzing with activity. Work-gangs of elementals of all sizes and shapes, outfitted in utility garments and wearing oil-wick lamps strapped to their heads, marched in single file along the tunnels, singing work songs while pushing wheelbarrows loaded with pickaxes and shovels. Their voices were strangely sonorous and carried down the length of the main artery of the tunnel. It was approximately 25 feet wide, but contained a narrow branch that lead to who-knows-where every fifty or so feet. The walls was not the moss-covered stone of the broad, relatively airy grotto, but appeared to be the same heavy root-wood that Tramezia used to form the huge barricade that shielded the main freehold from the subterranean depths beyond - Scales and Cold also recognized it as the same type of wood that they had run into when they had dug into the field in the middle of the night. The walls seemed to thrum with strange energy.

After they had walked perhaps a half-mile, the tunnel opened up into some sort of work-camp which contained permanent lighting similar to the freehold. Hundreds of elementals could be seen milling around: lunching at a canteen, recreating at various leisure games, or sleeping against piles of gravel. A few foreman-types were conferring in front of what looked to be some sort of office, going over a massive map. "This way" say Bryoph, leading them towards a desolate area of the work camp, where there was a large, lone thatched hut off the side of a massive triangular mound of crushed rock that looked like it had been piled by a large conveyor system. Strange pools of liquid were contained in pools beyond the hut, and fumes rose from them. "That the Lodestool's lair. He is the one you speak to about minerals."

Neither Bryoph nor Pinales made any move get nearer to the hut themselves, and from their body language, they seemed to have some sort of distaste - or fear - that disinclined them from approaching any nearer. They expected the Exalts to proceed on their own.

Cold couldn't understand a word of what the elementals were saying and simply followed along, unable to keep the wonder and awe off his face as he was led through the city of elementals. magic was simply everywhere, making the design of this city an absolute marvel for somebody as unfamiliar with the occult as Cold was. The Lunar gave a curious look towards their guides as they kept a distance away from the hut that housed the elemental they needed to speak to, and tried his best to figure out why they wouldn't want to approach more. Were those shivers of fear on their rocky or leafy exteriors? Was that even a thing for them? He thought back to the reaction the elementals had welcomed them with when they first entered their city, trying to figure out the body language of their two guides.

The Lodestool's personal corner of the work-camp seemed to be shunned by the rest of elemental society - and perhaps for good reason. Looking closer at the large hut and the strange pools and apparatuses nearby, it strongly reminded Cold of the old stories about solitary witches living in the woods, kidnapping livestock and children and conducting strange experiments on them. Sniffing the air, Cold detected a concoction of strange, caustic smells emanating from the direction of the hut - and he was certain that none of them were to be found in nature. Earlier, Scales had translated for him that they were going to see something or someone called the Lodestool - and whoever they were, they were clearly shunned by mainstream elemental society, yet important or influential enough to warrant their own special accommodations. From the attitudes of the two elementals escorting them, it was evident that whatever went on in the Lodestool's corner of the underground world, they found it to be extremely distasteful, even possibly taboo.

Cold grimaced as he realized the situation he was in. of course it had to be one of those types. The ones that couldn't leave well enough alone and dabbled in things one shouldn't be dabbling. Inviting all sorts of calamity and causing all sorts of trouble in their mad rushes for power. In his short time as a king he had made a few examples out off some of them. Or sacrifices to appease the local gods after those meddlers inevitably messed things up.

"The Lodestool is a witch," Cold hissed under his breath at Warden and Scales. "Best be on your guard lest it tries something."

Warden let out a quick hum as he considered Cold's words. "Hmm, I doubt we're in any danger, especially since we're their ruler's guests. But of course, it never hurts to be wary." With a shrug, he stepped towards the Lodestool's lair. "Not like we will turn around after coming all this way, now will we?"

Scales' eyes noticeably gleamed with the reveal of another sorcerer. An elemental sorcerer? Very interesting...but why did Cold say it in that way? Bad experience with magic in the past, maybe...

"No, but like you said, we better be wary - there must be a reason why all the elementals are avoiding this Lodestool like the plague." Cold answered, waiting for Warden or Scales to go first. They knew the language after all.

Scales nodded and walks over to the hut.

The three Exalts pushed aside the creaky door into the Lodestool's laboratory. The atmosphere was dimly lit by lantern-like devices suspended from the ceiling, where small candles underneath glass jars heated their contents and caused the strangely shifting fluids within to glow orange. Looking around, they saw the walls were ringed with shelves containing all sorts of specimens: bins full of chunks of glittering rocks, lumps of wood with fungal growths sprouting out of them, and liquid vats containing all sorts of objects in various states of dissolution or preservation, and it was difficult to tell if whatever contained within was dead or was never alive to begin.

Rhomb the Lodestool turned at the sound of the creaking door. He/She/It? was tall and lanky, and formed in shape mimicking that of the human body, and was covered in what looked to be light brown vines tightly wound around an mineral core, with various crystals protruding in odd spikes out from underneath. The elemental's face was flat and nearly featureless except for two small, solid-white eyes. The top of Rhomb's head expanded outwards into the cap of a massive, red-spotted mushroom. It looked almost like a caricature of the ever-present wide-brimmed circular hats worn by farmers across creation and known by dozens of names. It would have almost seemed comical, except for the tangle of clear tubes hanging from a swivel on the ceiling, each one plugged into a different part of the Lodestool's mushroom head with needles, which siphoned off strange thick substances to parts uncertain.

"Visitors..." said the Lodestool in Old Realm, in a strangely clear and optimistic disembodied voice that seemed to come from the Elemental's face, though no mouth moved to produce it. "From the upworld.... It's been so long.... Have you come to seek my wisdom?"

Scales stops and blinks, eyeing the tubing extending from the Lodestool's head. Unexpected. "We were told that you are the person to talk to about minerals around the freehold. You are a sorcerer of some type, are you not?"

"I am an alchemist," replied the Lodestool, in the same oddly unpitched voice that seemed to completely lack any emotion or inflection. "I study all things in creation to distill; purify; isolate; identify the base elements that form them, so that they may be recombined in more perfect ways." Rhomb leaned towards Scales slowly. "You have an unusual composition for a human. You smell like bone salt." The tone of voice was pure curiosity.

"My work often deals with the physical remains of living creatures," Scales responded. "I have not encountered many alchemists before, though your work sounds fascinating." If Scales had a tail at this moment, it would be lashing back and forth at the thought of the secrets and methodologies that the Lodestool knows.

"I have been unable to detect an alchemical difference between the bodies of bony animals while they are alive and after they are dead," the Lodestool stated in the same characteristic ethereal tone of voice. "Once I experimented to determine the properties of the soul by weighing in the moments before and after expiration. The results were inconclusive." Rhomb walked over to tap on a particular jar on a shelf, and repositioned a needle in his mushroom scalp. "I found the topic to be less exciting than anticipated, and did not progress any further."

Cold couldn't keep the shock off his face when they entered the room. The many distilling apparatuses, he could deal with. The strange and odd specimens littering the things suspended in liquid for.. preservation? Digestion? That was disgusting, but he'd seen worse on the battlefield, so he could keep himself calm.

But the tangle of tubes and needles shoved into the mushroom elemental's head, with the strange ichors siphoned out and whisked off to the gods only knew where? Now that was disturbing. The hell were they for? Cold thought. He hoped it might be some kind of sickness being treated, perhaps having to drain fluids that would otherwise destabilize their body.  He had seen a shaman do that one of his tribe-mates when he was young. But knowing that this was a witch who didn't like they were on death's doorstep, that probably was an idle hope.

Had the witch somehow found out how to siphon off it's own thoughts or something? Cold couldn't stop his gaze from following the tubing, trying to see where the fluids would end up.

Warden looked around in the alchemist elemental's laboratory with some interest, though he lacked the knowledge to make much sense of it all. Still, he saw nothing wrong with the idea of alchemy and nodded politely in greeting at the elemental. "An interesting goal, to study creation and all things within it. I take it you don't get many visitors then? Or just not many from the surface?"

"Oh no, not in the least," replied the Lodestool in its gossamer-tinged voice. "This is the first time I've had visitors from the surface in a hundred and seventy-three years. Or at least ones who came voluntarily. Ha Ha. That was a joke. Tell me, though, what you want to know about minerals? I have found them to be far more amenable to my methods of testing than biological subjects. "

Warden couldn't help but take a liking to this eccentric elemental and it's sense of humour, letting out a quick chuckle at its joke. "We are trying to broker a deal between this 'freehold' and Lushfield up above. So we were wondering what valuable or rare minerals can be found here? Or failing that anything that makes for good fertilizer?"

"Oh..." said the Lodestool, a tinge of disappointment in its previously unemotional ethereal voice. "Yes, of course, that's what you surface-humans want. It's what you always want." Rhomb's tone was turning to the irate. "Value. Wealth. Silver. Gold. Jade. Efficient Transmutation. Fuel for your industries. You refuse to see the beauty inherent in knowledge of schist and basalt and porphyry because it cannot be readily converted to your jingling metal coins. No, everything must have an immediate material purpose, or it is declared useless. It is despicable. I will not again let my life's work be turned to other's greed."

Sensing Rhomb's disposition darkening, Scales tries to reason with them based upon his own experiences. "As one scholar to another, I know your plight; too few people appreciate knowledge for its own sake, obsessed with bending it for their own gain. Alas, it is often that they are the ones with the means to fund quests for knowledge. Perhaps...if we could help you with your research in some capacity, would you be willing to consider our questions?"

Nearly instantly, the Lodestool's disposition changed from its prior righteous indignation back to the serenity it has earlier displayed, this time even with a hint of excitement. "Yes, yes, I see - you are a knowledge seeker too. There is... something you can do to help me with my research, yes, yes." Rhomb began seeking something stashed away in one of the multitude of a chest of drawers, rummaging through an assortment of glassware, notebooks, and discarded samples. "This system of tunnels, there is nothing like it in creation. The access to different geomantic interfaces present opportunities to study geologic deposits in ways our forbearers would only dream about. Tramezia... suffers my presence, because certain of my methodologies have resulted in useful applied techniques, alchemical agents to strengthen and invigorate the flow of energies through his xylematic plexal manifold. But the common elemental is simple and bound by tradition. They fear what they do not understand, and they do not realize that sometimes... sacrifices are necessary for the advancement of knowledge."

Rhomb seemed to find what they were looking for, and pulled out what looked to be an dust-covered folded sheet of parchment. Sweeping aside various specimens on a nearby rickety workbench, they unfolded the thin paper, which expanded to cover the entire table. It seemed to be some sort of diagram or map of the massive tunnel network they were in, except that every square inch of blank space seemed to be covered in various miniscule symbols, equations, or arrows. "More than a century ago, I began taking extensive measurements of the geomantic energy pressures within the bedrock - thousands of core samples painstakingly drilled out over the years, in an effort to find the correlations necessary to justify my underlying theory of igneous metamorphological development. The Rhizome provided me with the necessary labor force to perform the work, from among his subjects."

"Here," the Lodestool indicated, at a particular inscrutable section - "The seam running across this strata, there was an unexplainable incongruity, a discordance for which further investigation was needed to rectify the predictions and perfect the model. I critically needed a core sample of the deposit, so it was agreed to mount an excursion. They breached into the condensation hollow, as expected, but there was some calamity which even to this day they cannot adequately elucidate. None of the expeditionaries returned, and their comrades and brood-companions blamed me for the outcome. Superstition prevailed over reason, they bricked up the shaft, and they demanded Tramezia expel me from his domain, directing all sorts of slanders at me. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed, but creatures of wood and stone are by their nature incurious, and they tend to hold grudges far beyond the point where it is of any use, and ever since then, I have been forced to conduct my work without any assistance. I regret to say that my output has suffered for it, considerably."

"Here, take this" said the Lodestool, reaching under the workbench and shoving aside a pile of broken glass jars to pull out out a bulky metal contraption with a handle and a crank and various flexible tubes at one end, and an assortment of rotary drill bits at the other, lifting it with substantial effort and plopping it down on the table in the center of the room with a thud. Rhomb reached above to the tangled nest of wires that was plugged into its mushroom scalp, and located and unscrewed a gasketed flask of an ominous-looking substance, tapping once or twice on the glass to ensure it's suitability before plugging it into a port on the drill contraption. The Lodestool firmly rotating the vial around with an audible click, which caused whatever was inside to dramatically flow into the gadget. Slowly, the invention began to faintly glow a pale blue around what looked like exhaust vents. "Good, my surveyor still works. Take this to the seam, and get me my core sample." Rhomb circled the location on the map with a piece of dark chalk, and folded it up and handed it to Scales. Return successfully, and I will consider the bargain complete, and you will receive the knowledge you seek.

Cold had no idea what was being said, but when the elemental pulled out a map, some kind of metal contraption whose function eluded him and then circled a spot on the map and handed it over towards Scales. He knew they had been drafted to do something for the elemental before it would give up it's secrets. "So, what is it asking us to do?" There was a bit of uncertainty in the young Exalt's voice. The idea of doing something for a witch didn't sit quite right with him.

"They want us to go investigate a section of the root tunnels and collect a rock sample with this machine; once we return, they'll help us with our questions. None of their previous assistants came back, but I am sure we will be able to handle any trouble." Scales pauses to look closer at the map Rhomb gave to him. "Hmm, based on the scale of this map, it's quite a long journey; at least a few days on foot. Although, it does seem that there's some sort of transportation throughout the tunnels."

"A few days?," said Warden.That would be quite troublesome, at least unless we give the others some advanced notice. Let's hope this transportation is fast."

"Not to mention that if we're gone for a few day's people no doubt will be starting to wonder what we are getting up to," added Cold. "Also, transportation? Is there a waterway or something? I don't think I've seen any animals down here."

"I'm...not sure," pondered Scales. Walking back to the entrance of the hut, the Lunar looks out, finding what they all missed the first time. On the far side of the camp, the cavern came to an end, with multiple tunnels branching out. Heading over to take a closer look, Scales sees the carts. Carved into the flat floor of the tunnels were what seemed like recessed guide lines; long trains of metal carts were attached to each other, with wheels on their bottom surfaces fitting into the depressions. The lead and rear carts had some sort of pole attached to them. The vast trains came and went, controlled by elementals manipulating the poles.

I haven't seen that before. Perhaps one of the workers can tell me how they work?

Scales sought out an elemental who didn't appear to be too busy. Finding one who looked like a stack of boulders, he approaches. He asked about the cart trains, and the elemental responded in a voice like grinding stone; "Carts? Poles have water. Roots want water. Roots push cart. Simple." With that said, they returned to their work.

Is that really all it takes?

Returning to the group, Scales watched a few of the trains arrive and leave. They're right. The roots animate and respond to stimulus, presumably due to the massive amount of essence flowing through them. So by lowering an open container of water, the walls of the depressions contract, attracted to the water, pushing the carts forward. Fascinating engineering; fast as well, from the look of it.

Warden, now carrying both his massive sword and the drill, raised an eyebrow at the explanation. "Fascinating what these elementals have done down here. And I bet nobody on the surface has the slightest clue. I doubt even Honto knows or cares much about the civilization under his feet."

Cold was following along Warden and Scales. Eyes wide as he looked at the cart system in motion. "I wonder if I could entice a few of them to leave this place after I retake my throne." He absentmindedly said. The harsh winds and blizzards had always been a massive problem for any long term settlement, concentrate to many people in one place and food issues cropped up due to lack of agriculture. Not to mention that the best way to protect oneself against a blizzard or harsh weather was simply to not be there in the first place. But if one went underground and lived in vast open caves like these. That would solve so many issues at once. It would introduce some others, but they could adapt, he could make sure of that. "It's impressive indeed."

"Shall we gather the others before we head out, or do you suppose we are enough?," proposed Scales. I do not imagine much we are likely to find could stand against the three of us." Leaving Cold and Warden to decide, he starts plotting their route on the map the Lodestool had given him, and pulling out his navigation tools from his pack.

"I don't think Cub or Khi would bring much to the table for navigating the tunnels." Cold stated. And like you said, I doubt there is anything the three of us can't handle living. Maybe Na-mai could be of use though...."

"Let's see," muttered Scales. It seems that we can follow this tunnel for a few miles before it splits, then we want to take the left turning, which corkscrews back around to the southeast...." His voice trailed off as he marks the path on a different sheet. "Huh, it looks a bit like you, Cold. Not as you are now, but...." The path the Full-Moon Caste traced out indeed looked the silhouette of a man with a muzzled face.

"Anyways, we'll still have to make the last mile or two of the journey on foot, since none of the cart lines go directly to the location." Scales looked for their escorts. "Bryoph, is there a way for us to take command of one of those trains? Or are there any not in use that we could use? The Lodestool has tasked us with getting a sample from deeper in, in exchange for their help."

The two elementals tasked to escort the outsiders look nervously at each other - performing a service that involved the dreaded Lodestool certainly wasn't was they signed up for, and from what Scales had heard from the alchemist about his earlier experiments, he couldn't exactly blame the elementals for their hesitance to participate in any of Rhomb's schemes. Nevertheless though, they had been tasked by Tramezia to see that no harm came to them and that they be permitted to travel freely within the extent of his realm - including the tunnels. The God's word was law in this domain, and he commanded respect and fear in equal measure. In the moments of hesitance, a blast of a steam-whistle sounded, and the hundreds of off-duty elementals at the work camp started moving to don their hardhats and collect their pickaxes and shovels.

It was Pinales, the small sapling elemental who was clearly more chatty of the two, who finally spoke up: "Listen, I'm not saying my brother-in-law's a foreman on the next shift, but I'm not saying he ain't. I don't know what you're planning, and I'm not sure I want to know, but I'll see what I can do, 'cause you seems like important folks who won't forget a favor." He hopped off of Bryoph's shoulder and scurried off in the distance, his slender figure almost instantly lost in the scrum of burly rock and wood elementals preparing for their labor. A few minutes later, he returned carrying an jagged quartz crystal. "I told you I'm connected," he bragged. "Train 41 is ours for the day."

Such an ingenious people, these elementals. Warden couldn't help but admire them and how well-run their little society seemed to be. No matter how much their ruler's arrogance had irked him, he had to admit the god was doing well for them. He lightly bowed his head at their elemental guide. "Thank you very much. We will hopefully not need it for that long, but we'll see."

Cold assumed this meant they were going to be going into a cart, but he was unable to parse what the elementals were saying in their language - Old Realm, according to the others. But progress was seemingly made. He simply gave the elementals a friendly smile and mimicked Warden's bow.

"Thank you," said Scales. "Would you mind leading us to 41, and are either of you trained in operating these?"

"Hey, hey, Keep your mouth shut about that sort of thing!" Pinales looked around frantically to see if any elementals nearby had overheard. "I'll steal a train for you, no sweat, but if either of us so much as get spotted with a dowsing rod in our hands, we're finished. No way, that's too hot, even for a resourceful shrub like me. I heard the last elemental that got caught scabbing on the Dowser's Union got fed into a rock-crusher face first." A wicked grin came across his face. "Their contract don't say nothing about no Humans sculling the trains though."

"That's number 41," added Bryoph in his ponderous voice, pointing off in the distance to the furthest carriage in the yard. It was noticeably grimier and more rust-covered than the others that were departing one by one, loaded full of elementals departing into the depths of the tunnels at the start of their shifts. The final elemental to board every loaded root-train retrieved one of the long dowsing rods that Scales had seen earlier from what looked like a water-filled barrel near the tunnel entrance, and was wearing a noticeably gaudy hat that presumably signified their status as a card-carrying member of the Dowser's Union. Not before too long, the final train departed, leaving only Number 41 remaining in the noticeably quieter and emptier work camp. A few of the dowsing rods still remained in the barrel. "If we leave now, we can sneak out before the next shift returns," Bryoph noted.

"Right, let's get going." Scales turns to Cold and Warden. "We're going to be taking that cart to the place. You get on, and I'll grab the control pole."

While the idea of working for a witch didn't really sit right with him. Cold couldn't help but feel excited at the idea of racing down the tunnels in that strange machine, no matter how rusty or grimy it looked. So as soon as Scales told them to get in the cart he eagerly got on. The thought that Cub could disapprove of getting her loaned clothes back covered in grime from sitting in the cart or digging in tunnels not even crossing his mind. "Lets see how fast this thing can go, and what kinda trouble we can get ourselves in" Cold said in High Realm. His words might be incomprehensible to the two elementals, but from his excited tone of voice and eager body language, it would have been pretty easy for them to figure out he was eager for adventure.

Warden let out a chuckle at Cold's eagerness and climbed in behind him, setting the big drill down on the floor where it shouldn't slide around too much. "Well then, let's be off."

Casually walking as to not draw attention, Scales grabbed one of the poles and examined it on his way to the train. Now that he was looking closer at both pieces, he saw that the pole was hinged at the bottom and had a few notches spaced around the midpoint of the length. Presumably the hinge was to keep the water contained within upright, even if the pole was at an angle, and the notches were where it attached to the cart. "Everyone in? Let's see how this works." Positioning the pole as he saw earlier, Scales slowly lowered the tip down.

Scales felt surprisingly at-ease when he positioned the dowsing rod atop the cradle in the console at the head of Train 41 while the others all boarded, including Bryoph and Pinales. In a way, it strongly reminded him of wielding the tiller of a sailboat, except in the reverse direction. He tested by swinging it from side to side. From a distance, the dowsing rod just seemed like an odd wooden pole with strange bulges and bends, but up close, the lunar was able to discern a number of small ingenious-seeming carved wooden features at the position where his hands embraced, whose exact purpose in controlling the vehicles he could only guess at. The most prominent of them looked, if anything, like the valves of a musical instrument, and there were three of them.

Putting his mind to the task, he experimented with the controls. Holding down one of the valves, he observed a drop of water accumulate at the bottom of the device with agonizing slowness, before it eventually fell to the tunnel floor with no perceptible result. Interesting - the valves must affect the internal fluidics of the water reservoir that made up the bottom half of the device. He depressed the next of the valves, which resulted in the formation of another drop, but this time about twice as fast as the previous time. He then held down both the first and second valve together, and the water drops fell at an even faster rater - three times as fast as the first. Very interesting - the rate at which the water was fed to the roots must serve to control the speed of the vessel, and by using different combinations of valves, fine control of the time between the drops of water could be achieved. The third valve must increase the speed even more than the first two.

After a few more drops had fallen to the ground, suddenly the train lightly bucked forward, only to shudder with a metallic grinding sound. "Hey Bozo, if you want to go anywhere, you gotta unlock the brakes!" said Pinales with a devilish smile as he waggled the small jagged quartz crystal attached to a metal base he had retrieved earlier. He knew this would happen, but apparently wanted to let Scales figure out how to use the control system without risking him plowing the vehicle into a wall. The small sapling elemental jammed the crystal into a slot near the bottom of the console - shoulder height for him, but barely at Scales' knee. He twisted it and then pulled on the ring attached to its base, causing a section to disengage, revealing a bar that looked like it was meant to be pressed by the pilot's foot. "Step on that, and it'll help stop the thing once you've got it going."

Cold looked into the tunnels and frowned at the looming darkness. Even with his enhanced vision, he was having a little difficulty seeing the smaller nooks and crannies. And if they were going to drive at a high speed, which he really really really hoped they would. They probably should get some kind of light. The glowing fungus bulbs worked somewhat. but their light was a bit to diffuse for his liking. He looked down at the cart, frowning as there was no torch of any type provided. That would have been fairly unsafe in his opinion. Maybe that was why this cart wasn't being used? For safety? 

"If we go too fast in the darkness we might crash, so lemme see if I can scrounge something together." Cold said, his eagerness at going fast dripping into his words. His idea was simple - the fungus gave off light, but mostly in directions they didn't really need the light. So if they could just focus it in some way. The Chosen of Luna grinned as he saw a metallic glint.

While Scales was experimenting with the dowsing rod, Cold (presumably following his animal nature) had managed to hone in on the shiniest metal object he could see - which just so happened to be the large silver-plated reflective emblem on the roof of the guildhall of the Dowser's Union, polished daily to a sheen. Deftly climbing to the roof, he managed to covertly lift it out of the frame that held it in place, before leaping down just as silently.

In just a few moments, he had managed to bend the sign into a crude funnel with his prodigious strength. Then, collecting together the fungal glow-rods that their elemental guides had procured for them into a bundle, he placed the sticks through the narrow end of the funnel, and violently crushed the thin metal end around them, tightly compacting the crumpled silvered alloy around the wood. The end result was that the collection of glowing bulbs were suspended in the middle of the lens he had created, casting a moderately focused glow of red light wherever he pointed the crude spotlight.

Cold was completely unaware of whose sign he had vandalized at the moment, and was certainly unaware that they were an influential guild who didn't mind shoving those who crossed them face first into a rock chipper. Honestly if he had known, he probably would've still done it anyway. A chosen of Luna herself wasn't going to let union regulations going to get in his way if he wanted something done. "Not the best work, but it should be something at least," the Casteless Lunar said as he clambered back in the train and shined down the tunnel with his newly made spotlight.

"Casual vandalism; now it's an adventure," remarked Scales slyly. With that, he started dripping the water down. Slowly at first, then faster and faster as they leave the cavern behind. Soon enough, they were hurtling through the tunnels at a fast clip, wind rushing past them and the path ahead a black void save for the cone of Cold's light. "Nice work with the light! So, Bryoph, Pinales, what do you two do when you're not watching over foreigners?"

Each drop of water that splashed on the root-wood floor was accompanied by a thirsty pulse as the surface of the essence-hungry roots rippled like a wave, converging at the location where the droplet struck the ground. The effect was to pull Train 41 the direction in which Scales maneuvered the tip of the dowsing rod, like a clipper ship being pulled along by a strong current, each individual thrum of the root-wood beneath them adding momentum to the carriage. The front axle of the cart was even hinged, to assist in the exotic vessel's maneuverability along one of the many well-worn grooves in the surface of the wide tunnel they traveled along. The surface below them was fairly smooth, but the passengers still felt every bump on the ground as they passed over it. For Scales, who was used to the roiling tides, this was a welcome reminder of his time spent on the waves, but for Warden and Cold, who had never been seafarers, this was a quite unsettling experience. Meanwhile, Bryoph and Pinales were holding on for dear life as Scales continued to cause the carriage to gather speed. "Root-Oiler, second class" gulped Pinales in response to Scales' question. "Claytender," stated Bryoph simply.

After they exited the work-camp and entered the main branch of the tunnel, the light dimmed substantially. The tunnel was wide enough to accompany at least four of the carts side by side. Cold did his best to keep the spotlight he had fashioned shining forward, in the direction Scales was traveling, but every bump caused the light to bounce unpredictably, and the Casteless Lunar was beginning to feel unsettled in his stomach, like he had eaten something funny. He had never traveled in anything that moved so fast on land.

Warden did not, for the most part, have much experience with traveling this fast. Oh sure, he had chartered passage on some merchant cogs to leave the influence of Prasad behind, but there was very little on the open sea to give one an impression of speed. It was very different now, with the tunnel's walls whizzing past them at a breakneck pace, his beard and hair fluttering in the wind. His grip tightened on the railing in front of him, the Solar evidently not at ease with this method of traveling.

Cold hung on as best as he could, one hand on the cart while the other one kept the light aimed forward as steady as he could. Which wasn't very - with how bumpy the ride was. His teeth rattled together. His hair fluttered in the wind, sometimes flapping across his face when Scales took a turn. His stomach was turning, a feeling he hadn't felt in ages. Not even White-as-Snow's horrible rotgut had been able to manage that! And yet he couldn't help but loudly laugh. The feeling of exhilaration drowning all those discomforts with ease. A wide grin on his face as he saw the other cart on their set of tracks. He was sure Scales would be able to keep this thing from crashing. "Anything you need help with?" He called out at Scales.

So long as Scales managed to keep the wheels of Train 41 within one of the parallel sets of grooves, navigation remained fairly straightforward. Every thirty seconds or so, they would see another cart whiz by, heading in the opposite direction, illuminated by the bioluminescent glow of the headlamps on the helmets of its occupants. Evidently, the pilots of the Dowser's Union didn't need a forward-projecting light; they had been trained to navigate by feel and dead reckoning, like navigators on the open sea or river pilots who knew their waterway better than the backs of their own hand. For a brief moment, Scales wished he had something like a ship's log he could drag behind them, so he could know their speed in knots - but the logistics of something like that would have to be figured out later. He needed to focus all his attention on keeping the carriage moving at speed without crashing into anything. After a few more minutes of gathering velocity, he began coming up the glow of another train in front of them, moving at a leisurely pace within the same set of grooves as they were traveling in. He could either slow down, or figure out a way to shift one of the carts to another set of grooves, so he could go around. If they didn't, a collision was assured!

"I think we're good!" Despite saying this, Scales wasn't sure what to do about the opposing train rapidly approaching them. I'm sure one of the controls on the staff could shift us to an adjacent line, but I don't know which...If the roots act like an animate organism to water, perhaps they'll respond to other stimuli...

Deciding to test this, Scales shifts his position, unslinging his longbow. As he does so, his form changes, soft flesh giving way to hardened, dark green scales, their edges limned with a soft silver light; pre-torn slits along his shirt fill with small, bone-like plates growing outward from his back, his face changes, a small snout forming, his pupils reptilian, while a long tail extends from his spine. Scales prepares an arrow, his tail keeping the staff steady. Vision enhanced by the mutations, he picks a spot on the cavern wall and fires. The arrow thunks into the wood with a satisfying sound; barely a second later, there's a ripple from the surroundings as the wood pulls back, away from the impact site, before another second passes and the wood stills, returned to its normal position.

Yes! That'll work!

Returning his attention to the train, Scales wraps his tail against the staff controls, accelerating the vehicle as fast as possible. Timing the moment of collision, he waits, and waits, and waits, - his plan was to let off a flurry of arrows concentrated in the middle of the track - just as the ripples combined together to form a makeshift ramp, the train would hits it, launching them into the air.

The common missiles of poachers and sentries were wooden shafts stabilized with goose-feathers and tipped with iron. But the projectiles that Scales shot from his bow held a secret: In the hybrid form he had transformed into, halfway between a human and a profane cross-breed of a River Dragon and Siege Lizard, the spikes that emerged between the bony scale-like plates running down his spine could be drawn forth and shaped to his intended purpose. He formed them into doppelgangers of arrows, and they flew more perfectly than the work of any master fletcher: shafts formed of rigid white bone, fletching devised of flexible cartilage, and tipped with a variety of wicked-looked calcified points to achieve all sorts of violent ends. He made sure to top up his supply whenever he could securely metamorphize into his hybrid form, and he kept them hidden away in the pouch on his back, ready for when he'd need them.

The living wood recoiled and flexed where the arrows struck. Smiling Rat had formalized Scales' education, and taught him many of the underlying principals behind the things he instinctually knew about the behavior of the seas, like why the swells at the intersection of great currents sometimes met in absolute stillness, and sometimes gave rise to dreadful tides. In the back of his mind, Scaled had hypothesized that this was the cause of the feared blackguard waves that swept crewmen to their doom and wrecked vessels. It had everything to do with timing, and so when he shot his arrows, he did so with perfect timing to ensure the recoils produced by the the root-wood floor combined and reinforced each other. This would require flawless execution.

Train 41 hurtled forward with violent speed towards the roil Scales had generated. The passengers held on for dear life as the floor retreated under the wheels and the carriage pitched down into the trough, and for a brief instant all aboard had the sickening feeling of falling weightless, deep within the pits of their stomachs. And then they hit the other side of the wave, and were airborne. Nobody could say exactly what happened next, or how much time passed in that moment, because all had involuntarily shut their eyes in dread, as those that weren't already curled up in terror were thrown off their feet to the floorboards of the train. But it ended with the metal frame of Train 41 shuddering and screeching and skidding, and they were pretty sure they had spun around at least once as well. But the wheels seemed to have found secure purchase somehow in one of the sets of tracks, and when they all opened their eyes, they were still hurdling along through the tunnel, as if it had all never happened.

"Like I said, nothing to worry about," quipped Scales. Even his voice had changed, morphed by the snout into more of a guttural hiss from the usual. Keeping the staff steady with his tail, he refilled his stock of arrows, rapidly growing and losing his spines, storing them for later shaping.

Cold couldn't help the confusion on his face when Scales shot the wall with his bow. Absentmindedly, he noted that the spirit shape of his fellow lunar seemed to be some kind of lizard. And then Scales shot the wood in front of the cart. "What are you shooo-" He was cut off as the cart lurched and the ramp took shape. Cold was thrown to the floorboards of the train as they were suddenly airborne, gripping the spotlight tightly so he didn't drop it. He let out a litany of curses in his native Skytongue. His stomach flipped and the feeling of weightlessness seemingly dragged on. And when the cart slammed back down on the tracks, it made him slide a bit across the floor. He clambered back up on his feet. His clothes were covered in the grime of the train and horribly disheveled and a wide wolfish grin nearly split his face in two as he looked back to Scales. "Do that one again!"

"We still have everyone? Good, good. Maybe later Cold, I think we've arrived." Scales looked ahead, slit pupils black against a glowing backdrop of silver and amber. In front of them, the tunnel ended suddenly in a large pile of rubble. At least, at first glance. Closer inspection revealed openings amidst the boulders and debris, braced with the magical wood that was omnipresent in Tramezia's domain. Each of the worn guide rails ended a short distance away from the labyrinth, but the wooden floor continued, snaking into each opening. Slowly bringing the train to a halt, Scales speaks. "I believe this would be the 'Great Interchange' that's on the map."

Scales pondered the map he had been given. According to it, they had passed by nearly two hundred different small branches that snaked out from the sides of the main passage, which formed a dense warren under the entire state of Lushfield. On the way, he had counted more that had evidently been excavated after the map had been drawn. This must be how the stolen essence was distributed through the soil. The bulk of the work of the elementals seemed to be responsible for the maintenance of the coiling roots that sent their tendrils up to the surface. The actual collection of geomantic energies seemed to occur beyond the Great Interchange and past Lushfield's borders, in a place called the far trunkline, where Tramezia's sponge-wood extended out for hundreds of miles to the south like a giant straw, sucking in vital power. According to Bryoph, decent elementals rarely ventured there. There were rumors of dangerous things living in the unpoliced tunnels. But to retrieve the Lodestool's core sample, they would have to go there, and to do that, first they must navigate the tangled knot that was the Great Interchange.

The Lunar deftly picked out each entrance into the labyrinth, and counted them to be sure. His practiced mariner's eyes had an attention for detail - the smallest smudge on a map could be a simple error, or it could be a vital clue as to the difference between stretches of shoreline that would be friendly or hostile. The map indicated there were nine entrances, and that matched his observation. The seventh would be theirs. Train 41 felt unsettled under him as they left the guide-rails and began rolling on smooth, bare wood. If anything, it was even more like piloting a vessel on the seas. Below him, it felt as if the ground was slippery. and he would have to adjust his technique to this difficulty. Just like a boat in a harbor, if he turned too sharply, his momentum would continue for some time, and the wheels would skip sideways for tens or hundreds of feet until they had regained their purchase. He guided the train into the seventh tunnel, and noticed how the curious way the roots around him had carved their way through the blockage. The floors weren't flat - rather, the walls ceiling smoothly blended into each other to form an approximate circle, and and as they rounded a corner, Train 41's speed caused it to lean as it climbed up on the outer banked wall. When the tunnel straightened again, it pitched back and forth, slithering side to side between both walls like a coral reef snake. Each time the side-to-side swaying had almost dissipated, they hit the next banked turn and the process started again.

Cold couldn't do much else other then point the spotlight forward and just wait till Scales got them all safely to their destination. But that was alright, he was enjoying the ride immensely. Whooping with joy as the cart rode the side of the walls with every corner.

Where Cold was simply enjoying the ride, Warden was the exact opposite. Though he had settled into stoic silence and his stomach no longer lurched at every movement, he was still hoping the ride would end soon.

Scales and the four helpless passengers on Train 41 twisted and turned and held on for dear life as they navigated through the serpentine passageways. Every few moments, Scales had to make a choice between two or more diverting branches - this was the part of the map that he had traced out in an awkward shape that they had joked to resemble the outline of Cold's wolfish head. The reality was far more complicated - not only did they have to choose the right pathway, but they also had to contend with rapid changes in elevation. At times their path pitched upward at sharp angles, nearly spending all of their built-up momentum climbing uphill, before reaching the peak and suddenly reversing, picking up astounding speed.

Scales didn't have the luxury of consulting the map - he had to perform the delicate dance of making sure he had enough speed to climb the next incline, while also preventing the whole train from flipping over if he took a banking corner too hard. It took a feat of concentration, and all he had was his memory of the correct way through. Warden was horribly confused and disoriented - it seemed like it all would never end. Cold seemed to generally maintain his sense of direction and balance, holding the lamp steady ahead of them, but the immensity of the labyrinth was overwhelming. Pinales and Bryoph merely clung to their handholds and prayed.

Left-Right-Left-Left-Right-Second-from-Left-Right-Left-Right-Center-Left-Right-Left-Center-Right-Right. The seafaring lunar had memorized the winding path, all in a few seconds of studying - Luna had seen fit to bless him with the navigational skills of the albatross. Almost all the way there - just a few more twists and turns, and they could finally relax. They hit the next ascent with plenty of speed to spare, catching a few feet of air as they crested the hill, and then rode vertically up the side of the wall on a sharp right bank, before reaching a long straight where they gathered speed.

Something suddenly seemed strange they approached the left turn ahead of them at velocity. The sound of the metal wheels clacking on the hard root-wood below, with every minute imperfection and knick in the forging audibly resonating, was at times close to deafening. But Cold's sensitive ears started to pick up an odd, high-pitched whirling sound he couldn't place. It was speeding up faster and faster, coming from just around the next corner.

Scales' enhanced eyes also picked up the faintest glow of light coming from around the bend. Was he seeing things after too long in darkness? Was this the end of the Great Interchange? According to the map, there were still a few more junctions to go.

Too late to react or say anything! Scales had to focus on driving the train successfully through the next turn, and when Cold tried to open his mouth to speak up, he was silenced by the lateral g-forces. Either way, the sound had vanished. Maybe it was nothing. The light Scales saw around the bend flickered suddenly as they took the turn.

And then it all happened at once!
Last edited by Plutonium on Sat Jul 09, 2022 11:40 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Nameless goes to the Doctor

The procession of the two Exalts, Rael, and Pickle the horse, with Nameless unconscious atop him, headed down a narrow street, crossing a few deserted alleyways before finally arriving at an enclosed residence in the middle of a commercial district, ringed by high walls with an open gate displaying atop it the Old Realm pictogram of the bandaged-open-palm-with-curled-fingers, a universal sign for the treatment of illness across creation. Inside the villa, there was a well-manicured lawn with a path through it, leading to open-air atrium with benches and unlit incense burners hanging from the rafters. A middle-aged man with salt and pepper hair and a light violet hanfu over a white linen drawstring shirt came out to meet them as they arrived, and watched as Rael carefully slid Nameless's insensate form off the horse and held her across both arms with some exertion. "Our favorite delivery boy's brought us another recruit!" he called out to someone inside. "What happened this time?" the man asked - apparently recognizing the Scalelord. He wheeled over a wooden gurney with a straw-stuffed mattress atop it, and assisted in laying the Sword Maiden atop it. "Training accident," Rael mumbled.

Pickle began munching on the grass as Cub and Khi examined their surroundings. The traditional architecture of the residency at the center of the courtyard presumably served as both the doctor's home and place of business. Behind that, the back third of the villa was taken up by a structure that encompassed a massive, semicircular curved bamboo frame anchored against tall rear wall, the spaces between the bamboo poles occupied by a checkerboard of huge panels, some formed of which what looked like thick, translucent sheets of waxed-paper, others of optically clear sand-glass. Inside the structure, there looked to be any number of exotic plants and trees growing, and from the condensation built up on some of the windows and the trickle of steam that flowed into the cool late winter/early spring air, they could tell that it was far warmer inside.

The doctor emerged - she was a bone-skinny, bespectacled woman with her grey hair in a ponytail under a tall boxy hat, and was wearing a similar colored violet hanfu as her assistant, but hers had a ornately embroidered square scholar's badge sewn into the front of two ducks in flight. She peered over Nameless's unconscious form, and pulled back one of her closed eyelids to examine a pupil. "An auspicious occasion." The doctor remarked to Rael. "This is the first one you've brought me that I didn't bring into creation myself."

"You know we're not in Kirighast - " she teased the Scalelord - "you can't just knock out the first pretty foreign girl you see and kidnap her as your bride." The Sword Maiden was heard to make a moaning noise. "She should be awake soon" the doctor said, her voice becoming more stern - "Bring her inside." Her assistant started wheeling the gurney and Nameless with it inside one of the examination rooms adjacent the atrium. The doctor curtly slid the door closed in Rael's face as he attempted to follow, leaving him standing in the atrium with Cub and Khi.

Rael sat down on one of the benches, clearly disappointed that he was going to be excluded from whatever was going on inside the doctor's examination room - it was obvious that he had become a bit possessive of the attractive outsider who he been tasked to escort that morning: A mysterious gorgeous woman armed with an artifact blade and skilled at esoteric martial arts showing up out of the blue certainly wasn't an everyday occurrence. And the day after his prayers about his younger sister's now-cancelled engagement were answered. His mind was reeling at the eternal conflict between destiny and happenstance. Was this destiny calling him? Was this the powers of Creation and Yu-Shan coming together, deciding that Everything's Coming Up Rael?

It most certainly was not, but Cub and Khi could at least make use of the dope while he was convinced the fates were aligned in his favor. "So, uh, M'am," Rael said, turning to Cub, trying to clear the awkward silence and ingratiate himself. "I, uh, met your niece last night. She was very nice." He coughed awkwardly. "If there's anything I could do for you, you have but to ask."

"That is most kind of you, Rael," Cub answers with a smile that seems crafted just for him (although it is merely a slight variation on an all time favorite from her time on the Isle). "I will be sure to pass that on to Hidden-Reed, she thoroughly enjoyed her foray into Lushfield's night life. More immediately," she continues, her expression taking on a more serious air, "I am worried that the impression we have left on the Talonlord might not be the best possible. As her fellow officer, I would be interested in hearing your impression of her thoughts and what I might do to forestall any lingering anger she might have."

"Well..." started the junior officer, mulling over the words he would use to try his best to curry favor with the dynastic visitor: It was clear that he would say whatever it took to continue basking in the presence of the beautiful Nameless Sword Maiden, at whose side he had heroically been first to arrive after the unfortunate conclusion of the fight.

"I'm sure she doesn't think you're to blame, but I suspect the Talonlord was planning for that business to have gone a little differently than it did, so her temper might have gotten up, that's all. She's got a very orderly way of thinking... doesn't like surprises, likes thing done the way she wants even if it's not the best, I mean... well, let's just say one time she got real cross at me for starting to go through and organize all those dusty files locked up in the old constabulary sub-annex that nobody had even touched for all those decades after the Special Internal Security Constables were finally disbanded way before I was born, 'cause she said to organize 'the constabulary files' and I thought she meant all of them and not just the current ones..."

Rael stopped, realizing he was rambling. "What I mean to say is that she's... a bit touchy and has a chip on her shoulder about ordering people around, cause y'know... how things were in the old days. So sometimes instead of just telling you exactly what she wants done, and how you're supposed to do it, she'll make it difficult and try and be your friend, and that can lead to misunderstandings. So I think that's maybe what happened here - just a misunderstanding about what was supposed to happen with Nameless...." He trailed off.

"I'm sorry for asking," Rael boldly said, "but that's what she told me she wants to be called, but is there a chance she has another name that her friends call her? Maybe if I got to know her better, you know, became her friend too, I could help smooth things out with the Talonlord on her behalf?..."

Khī replied flatly: “I call her Aka Ysyr. She does not, I think, enjoy the name, but it is what would be proper to call her in my homeland.” Beneath her mask, Khī raised an eyebrow at the mention of special internal security constables. Ysyr had what she assumed to be a similar organization, the Honorable Ministers of Graciousness. If they were anything like the Ministers…well, Khī understood why some people might be a bit touchy about them. Rael’s analysis made sense. If Anguilla’s upbringing was as trying as she suspected that it was, it wasn’t surprising the woman had a need for control. She filed the information away, adding it to her mental profile of the woman.

"Aka Ysyr..." Rael badly butchered the Ysyr dialect of Flametongue used by Khi. "I don't know about that either."

“It is also not a name, so this is appropriate,” Khī said flatly, “equally, it is an inaccurate descriptor.” She did not elaborate.

"Hidden-Reed calls her Na-Mai," Cub offers, "but I don't believe she particularly prefers one or the other."

Rael nods silently at the two women's suggestions, craning his head to try and get a better idea of what was going on inside the villa. The faint sounds of ripping cloth and what seemed like Nameless moaning in pain as the Doctor treated her were clearly distracting him.

Khī glanced over at Cub, smiling underneath her mask, assuming the other woman was able to read her well enough to know she was smiling. She didn’t need to be a talented investigator to see what was going on, and, in that moment, decided to have a little fun. “Never heard someone treated by a doctor before, officer?” Her voice was flat, but there was an edge of slightly sadistic mirth moving her to act.

"Actually," Cub says, circling back to a previous point, "I do not know what things were like in the old days of Lushfield. I have, as you know, only been here briefly. Perhaps you could enlighten me?"

"Oh, I guess I forgot that you weren't from here." Rael sheepishly replied, running a hand through his brown hair while trying to put his thoughts into words. "This is ancient history, way before I was born. Back in my grandparents' time, when the Old Seneschal was in charge. People don't like to talk about it too much. It's complicated and painful. Times weren't as good, and people had a lot less choice in what they wanted to do in their life. Like, I wouldn't have ever been allowed to be an officer, because my parents are just farmers, so I would have to be a farmer too. They didn't allow any guilds or let people use real money back then either - they had, uh, these paper tickets you got - and you couldn't marry who you wanted to marry sometimes, and there were always rumors about what happened to young women, so I heard. People that raised a stink sometimes just disappeared."

Rael continued: "But also some people say times were better then, 'cause everyone knew their proper place, and it made them feel - I don't know - stronger I guess, by reflection? Like they were a part of something, and that Honto changed too much. Armun - a guy I know who was engaged to my sister, used to say things like that all the time. A few years ago he said Honto was a, uh, coward, or something like that, because when the millers said they would stop working unless they got better wages, he made a deal with them. The Old Seneschal would have had a finger cut off each of them to keep them in line. A lot of those people think the Archimandrite should be listened to. They say that they feel powerful, in a way, when they listen to her speak."

"And the Special Internal Security Constables were the Old Seneschal's invention too?" Cub asks with a look of pleasant interest, probing the young man to go into further detail.

"That they were," replied Rael to Cub. "They say back then, you couldn't know who was in the Secret Constables, or who was reporting to them, so you always had to hold your tongue in case something slipped out that could be taken the wrong way."

"But you know," Cub says, half-teasingly, "since you organized their files."

"Well, maybe I looked at a few of the personnel files," he responded sheepishly, a hint of bragging in his voice. "It's not like it means much anymore. From what I saw, most of them were eliminated in the aftermath of the changeover, and the few that remain are old men and women by now. It's probably better that way, really, that it's left in the past. There'd be too much bad blood if it came to light. Some of what I saw... the type of things people would inform on about each other, and for the pettiest of reasons sometimes... nobody can really claim their ancestors were totally innocent of wrongdoing."

Cub leans closer to Rael, it's almost enough to make one think they are co-conspirators, "indeed?" She asks, ever urging him onwards, "did you find anything interesting in the files you looked at?"

There was something exceptionally persuasive in Cub's tone of voice that made Rael feel like to divulge secrets was nothing at all, and that he was entirely safe in her presence. He lowered his voice to a whisper. "The leader of the Secret Constables... was the Seneschal and the Archimandrite's grandmother - the two are cousins by blood. And Honto's father, and both of Celcine's parents were high-ranking members too. They were in the thick of it the whole time, imagine that! They all vanished during the changeover, along with the Old Senechal. Honto.... he's got a secret cold ruthlessness to him that you don't see. His own family..."

---

"Good, you're awake," said the doctor to the Nameless Sword Maiden, as her eyes fluttered open. The Dawn realized that she was lying down on her stomach on top of a springy bamboo strip table covered with a large white cloth. She felt the sensation of not wearing her usual clothes or the flexible banded leather armor she normally wore underneath. Looking down for a panicked moment, she saw that her stomach was padded with a thick poultice taped in place and affixed with a number of small strips of gauze, and her bosom was tightly constricted by a wrap of undyed linen. "It's to prevent you from breathing too deeply." explained the Doctor. "You have three cracked ribs." She held out handful of small green leaves and a ceramic cup with some water. "Here, chew these. You vomited some. It will help with the taste and stinging in your throat."

Hmm, the foreign girl was still a bit confused - she's obviously not from around her - maybe she can't speak proper High Realm? The Doctor switched languages, speaking to Nameless in Riverspeak: "Girl, can you understand me?" The Sword Maiden seemed to instinctively understood the words. After so many weeks of speaking nothing but High Realm, hearing the less precise, more musical language, for some reason, felt like a welcome relief.

"Yeah yeah I understand you, stop talking, my head hur-nnngh" moaned the Sword Maiden, mirroring the Doctor in her use of Riverspeak. The injured woman's flowed much more naturally though, making use of the melodic timbre of her voice. Expecting little harm in trying this remedy, she took the leaves from the doctor's hand, shoved them into her mouth and started chewing, before adding a hesitant sip of water. "Really, everything hurts. How much did I drink?" Despite the warnings, she propped herself up on her elbows, and looked around, trying to see if anyone else was with them, and where she'd been taken. She was pretty sure she heard other voices intermingling with her dreams that were already fading from memory.

"Very funny" replied the doctor dryly in her passable Riverspeak, taking the Sword Maiden's statement as a joke. She picked up Nameless's hand and started examining the backs of the woman's fingertips, before removing her glasses and pulling a loupe out of her pocket to get an even closer look. "I'd like to give you something for the pain, but I really can't do that until you tell me about this major procedure that you had done - it looks fairly recent too. There could be... uh," she struggled for a moment, searching for the right word before switching back to High Realm. "side effects."

"Side effects?" Nameless repeated. She repeated the same words in Riverspeak. "In case you wanted to know." She emptied the water, and rolled her eyes as another wave of headache rolled through her head meat, from temple to temple. "Wait, what procedure?" she asked. In her passable High Realm.

"Ahh, so you can speak High Realm" replied the doctor in her native tongue. "Well, in that case, I'm Doctor Larissa." She momentarily switched back to Riverspeak and delivered the traditional greeting in that language, which literally translated to "may the calm waters be with you." She started to draw a line with her finger along the underside of Nameless's arm, all the way to her torso, starting from the tip of her little finger, taking special care to examine the area around her wrist. Continuing in High Realm, she noted: "you had a Hand's Minor Yin Heart Meridian procedure. Yes, all nine points, and a terminal trephanation under the fingernail. Heavens..." The doctor let her patient's hand drop limply and started tracing an arc along the Sword Maiden's back, before running her hand down the length of the other limb. "On both arms. And the full Sinew Channel too was dissected, the whole lateral Wei Qi conduit. What mastery... almost no scarring, barely any signs at all... I've never heard of anything like it before."

"Nice to meet you" Nameless replied, not quite indicating whether her politeness was ironic, considering the circumstances of their meeting. She certainly felt the finger run across her arms, and a set of goosebumps followed the doctor's touch. "I don't mind pain" she absent-mindedly replied while parsing the words. "Let's just pretend I had this all done after celebrating Calibration in Nexus and... Have no idea what that procedure would do, or why I would have it done? Can you enlighten me?"

Doctor Larissa smiled in a matronly way as she began an explanation. "The heart is a Zàng, a Yin organ. Aside from its bodily function of pumping blood through your veins, the heart lies along the spiritual alignment of five of the eight extraordinary meridians, which together store the collective Shén. It's an Old Realm word. Literally, it means the gifts of Heaven. The Shén is divided into a complex of the the five attitudes of a human being that collectively form the individual self: the Xin-Shen, the Hun, the Yi, the Zhi, and the Po, and each one resides along a meridian. The Hand's Minor Yin Heart Meridian holds the Xin-Shen specifically, though it's aligned at places with the meridians for the Zhi and the Yi as well."

"It's possible for these meridians to be clouded or obstructed, causing illness. If someone is too prone to fits of rage or sadness, or other emotional imbalances, it is likely their Po that is afflicted by poor circulation, or is overactive. If someone's active mind is unable to focus or concentrate, it is the Yi that must be corrected. The Hun is responsible for dreaming, creativity, inspiration, and desires. The Zhi regulates one's moral character, reflexes and muscle memory - like knowing how to ride a horse. And the Xin-Shen is our memory of past events and relationships."

"I've read about techniques for relieving Xin-Shen blockages in some cases - helping those whose painful memories prevent them from getting restful sleep, or treating the aged and forgetful who are unable to recognize their husbands or children's faces. The details are beyond me, and it's only done in places like the Imperial City, nearly always for high fees. But those only require influencing a few points, certainly nothing close to the full meridian. I can't tell you much more, I've just never seen this before. But if you can't remember why you got the procedure, then it must have been effective, for better or for worse."

"I cannot indeed" Nameless sighed, producing an annoyed grimace, wrinkles above the nose and everything. "In fact I'm having quite some trouble piecing together certain past episodes. Who would know where to acquire such treatment? Maybe I could ask around, even if it's just to confirm that I really should not, or would not, know?" She closed her eyes, breathing calmly for a moment. "I know I was out for a bit, but do I gather correctly that I got knocked out in the mock fight, and dragged here by a squirrely sounding young fellow? Or am I missing pieces? Did my dreams fill in too many blanks?" The Sword Maiden again shook her head. "My everything hurts, doctor. But I've been worse."

The Doc shook her head in sympathy at Nameless's barrage of questions and statements - a few of them she might have been able to take a shot at answering, but it seemed like the strange woman lying on the examination table had directed most of them at herself, or maybe at the Gods. Patients say a lot of incomprehensible things in the aftermath of injuries, and sometimes it's better to be a comfort than to try and provide answers.

"I've been to a lot of places in this world and seen a lot of misery that didn't make much sense, and I've mostly stopped trying to puzzle it out because it doesn't really help anyone or make me any happier. I can't tell you about any mock fight or what you should or shouldn't know or the meaning of your dreams. All I know is you have all your squishy bits still inside of you working fine, and your ribs should be knitted together in two or three months, so try not to get into any fights until then. You should probably keep that wrap on your chest for the next week or so because it will help you sleep soundly."

"Now that you think about it, he does sound kind of like a squirrel," the Doc giggled. "Young men just get like that sometimes. You should have seen my husband before we started dating. So nervous he stammered like a fool for months."

"And yet you married him, maybe there's hope for that one as well" Nameless' words were almost drowned out by her own sighs, as she carefully stretched herself, testing how much movement range she might have at the moment. A lot of stuff hurt. But her injuries seemed to be internal, and in her mind, if blood didn't leak out, you were probably going to be fine. She slowly shook her head. "So, would you know who to ask about treatment like this?" She took up the earlier topic, seemingly unwilling to let it go. "I'm still very curious as to how I ended up here. Not here specifically, you know what I mean. The memories. Chakra stuff. What you just said. I want to know more."

The doctor looked at Nameless - the woman didn't sound like she would let it go. She sighed. "There might be someone I knew, many decades ago. A Sijanese surgeon by the name of Kruikshank. Ido Kruikshank - he was supposedly some scion of something called the Mortwright's Observance. Whoever his family was, they were tremendously wealthy - they'd send him these outrageous gifts, and he always had his two hounds by his side. They must have been albinos - no doubt ludicrously expensive. We apprenticed together for nearly two years in Thorns, at the Great Hoshonen Hospital. "He was the best I'd ever seen with a scalpel." She shook her head sadly, trying to shake off what were clearly painful memories of a city that no longer was. "There was a scandal of some sort, I don't know any of the details. It was all kept very hush hush, but it sounded serious, and he had to leave the city and return home. I have no idea if he's even still alive. But if anyone could tell you more about Shén surgeries, it would be him.

"Thank you, if I ever make it to Sijan, I'd try to find him, I think" Nameless murmured, obviously planning to go to Sijan very soon, and not really bothering to hide that fact, either due to tiredness or inability. She swung her legs off the side, and carefully placed her feet on the ground, without placing any weight on them just yet. She felt a disapproving look piercing the back of her head, before she turned. "I'm not getting into any fights if I can help it, promise" she groaned.

The Sword Maiden then stood up, keeping a hand on the edge of the bedding, just in case. "Well, this fucking hurts a lot" she exclaimed, with a crooked smile. She didn't really mind pain all that much, reminded her of being alive and conscious.

"Ai-ya!" Doctor Larissa verbally chastised the Sword Maiden for her swearing as she helped her down to her feet. "Were you taught your High Realm by a River Pirate? My mother, bless her soul, would have gotten out the switch if she caught me speaking like that." She switched her calm voice to a high-strung parody of an overbearing parent: "Don't curse - it's unattractive. You'll never find a man who will want to kiss such a filthy mouth! Now put those silly books down and fix your lipstick - you have your whole life to get smart after you've gotten a husband and given your own mother a grandchild!"

"Now, take five drops of this in a glass of water before you go to bed." said the Doctor, handing Nameless a small paper-wrapped corked glass vial with a thin milky liquid within. "It will help you sleep soundly." She held up five fingers to emphasize - "Only five, no more. And make sure you sleep in a real bed tonight, none of those straw-stuffed cots that they have in the recruit dormitories. Kick the Scalelord out of his if you have to - heaven knows you'd be the first besides him to ever use it." A distant cry from a woman was heard from upstairs in the building, followed by the sound of her assistant calling out: "Doctor, it's nearly time! She's almost fully dilated!" Doc Larissa turned back to the Sword Maiden a final time. "My husband calls, dearie, so an obedient wife I must be."

Yet the Doctor lingered for a moment, a final parting thought on her mind: "Be careful when looking for the missing parts of yourself," she said. "We've all done things in our lives - or had things done to us - that we wished had never happened and we could leave behind. You're still young and beautiful. A fresh start, free from the burdens of your past, can be a gift, not a curse."

The Sword Maiden looked down at herself, a puzzled look on her face. Was she young and beautiful? By some measures, perhaps. She was mostly concerned with her mastership of the sword. So far at least. Perhaps the looming onset of age was even more reason to make the most of her time, and master her craft while she was still at her peak. "Apologies" she whispered, lips pursed. "I've been around caravansaries a bit long, I guess." Gathering her things together, now that the doctor's time seemed to run out, she considered the advice.

"I have a feeling in my gut it wasn't entirely my choice, though." said Nameless. "And I don't think I can let it go." She shrugged. "Of course now mostly my guts feel like they got scrambled." She took the little flask, and with a firm look nodded at the physician. "Got it. Chug the entire vial and sleep it off in a muddy puddle, will do. Promise."

"Ai-Ya! All the kids are comedians these days," said the Doctor as she slid open and slipped through a screen door, leaving the Sword Maiden alone with her thoughts in the examination room. The clopping of her wooden sandals ascending the staircase echoed through the villa as she raced towards the next emergency.

"Everyone's a critic" mumbled Nameless as she limped outside, hopefully to get some rest. At least this was all probably worth it. Considering all the pain in her ribs, Anguilla better be grateful for the win.

---

Nameless was still pretty pale as she emerged into the garden making up the waiting area, blinking into the pale light as it hit her eyes.
She had flung the top part of her lacquered leather armor over her shoulder, and hadn't closed her silken shirt, so the bandages around her torso were clearly visible. A smile appeared on her face as she saw Cub and Khi, and she gave the two a wave with her free hand, before she hobbled over.

"Hey, what did I miss?" She looked Rael up and down. "Who's your friend?"

Khi scanned Rael's closely, looking for the slightest insecurity, waiting for an opportunity to pounce, an opening where a careless word would stick and hurt and bleed. Besides, perhaps he's go crying to the Nameless Maiden, and maybe she'd take advantage of a gift. And if she was upset by Khi's methods, (and could tell Khi had done anything) Khi was certain she could explain how it had all been for her. Yes, there was no harm in having a little fun, Rael would probably even thank her for it if he understood. It Sadrica would have been proud, she had enjoyed playing these little games for Khi before her...incapacitation. Killing the Archimandrite was just another aspect of consolidating Honto's power, it seemed, and not just a move to keep his people from being swept up in dynastic struggles in the east. It was, nevertheless, interesting to note, as she toyed with what to do with Rael.

It was easy for Khi to visualize the levers that she could pull to control the naive Scalelord, and to deeply cut his ego to the bone and leave him a nervous shambling wreck if she so desired. Paradoxically, it was more difficult with proud idiots full of unearned confidence and bluster - they had to be broken down in steps, ruined over time until they were forced at last to confront their own human worthlessness. Rael would be easy, she saw, precisely because he was just a man just trying his best to play by the rules in a world where cruelty and force held sway. This one was well aware of his own insecurity and failures. The pressure points and angles of attack were laid bare.

Physically: the man nothing special, and maybe even a bit on the short side for an officer; he would never be afforded the sort of respect demanded by an imposing military commander, the type whose chiseled face appeared on propaganda posters.

Professionally: His entire career was a joke. Lushfield hadn't fought a war in seven hundred years, and he was nothing more than a manservant for his Dragon-Blooded mistress, fetching her horse and doing her paperwork. There would never be any opportunity to prove his worth and earn glory - he would simply get older and older, advancement would come only when a superior officer retired or fell over dead, and eventually that would be his ultimate fate as well. Completely irrelevant, buried in a crypt, forgotten about in two weeks, replaced by another young man eager to please.

Sexually: The man was getting a bit old to still be a bachelor. What was he, 28 or 30? Was it because that he spent long hours each day fetching tea and saddling horses and running errands for his Exalted mistress? Not a real man - nothing but a servant. Married to the job - men snickering behind his back, and no woman would ever respect him. He probably wouldn't even know what to do in bed even if he got the chance.

Khi tilted her head, her body a picture of innocent confusion. "Wait I thought you knew him? I just followed along because I thought the two of you knew each other?" She blurted out, a servant clearly just slightly out of place.

It wasn't an insult, not properly. But the way words were emphasized, or even just ordered, said more than the words themselves, if they were targeted just right. Every insecurity of Rael's rested on the fact that he was... nothing, nobody. And calling attention to it, in front of a woman he was clearly bestotted with...well...she didn't really need to say anything. Rael would say it to himself, in the quiet moments of the day, in the dark before sleeping, without a word leaving his mouth. And it was all just...kind of funny. Khi didn't spare herself a chuckle, but she certainly felt it.

It is the right and obligations of the Solars to lay judgment upon all things in creation - to see them as they are to mold them into what they should be; This is why they are the Lawgivers. Khi's stinging verdict as to Rael's utter worthlessness was disguised behind a shield of deniability, but was as authoritative as if she had proclaimed it from a balcony of the most solemn palace.

A few beats of uncomfortable silence passed. For the Scalelord, it must have felt like an eternity, as Khi crushed his ego under the weight of a symbolic boulder. Finally, he simply stood up and started wordlessly walking away, out of the garden and towards the street. Pickle the grey colt dutifully moved to intercept him, as it had many times before. But it was as the man didn't even notice the animal was there, and seeing that he made no motion to gather the reins as he departed, the horse just confusingly watched as he departed the garden, before returning to its quest of seeking out dandelions to munch.

"Did I...uh...say something wrong?" Khi said, every inch seemingly baffled.

"What's his problem?" asked Nameless, scratching the back of her head, and watching after Rael, before eyeing Khi. "So what's new, did anythi- wait I know that guy, he was one of the officers, right? Gave me the horse, sort of nice fellow. Wonder where he's off to..." She lost her train of thought a bit, though. She was still shaky from the pummeling she received.

"It appears that he was unprepared to face the truth Khi so expertly exposed him to," Cub says, her attention on the other Solars. "Are you saying you did not intend that to happen?" she adds, now turning to Khi, "I am surprised, I have not seen a barb so expertly delivered since leaving the Spiral Academy, though perhaps you meant it to be a slower-working poison?" There is no judgment in Cub's words, for now she is rather more interested in what this says about Khi than what the poor mortal might feel.

Khī froze, “Me? A barb? What do you mean?” She said, injecting a kind of anxious terror into her voice, carefully angling her words and inflection to indicate she was completely sincere in her worry to any casual observer. Into her body language, she created a subtle fault, a giveaway to Cub and only Cub that she was lying. The other woman…well she’d seen Khī without any artifice to speak of a few nights ago. It wasn’t exactly nonverbal communication, just an indication that Khī wanted Cub to know she was lying. With work, she knew, she could eventually communicate more, but she’d need a kind of easy comfort with the other woman she wasn’t entirely comfortable developing, and practice besides. So, intimation would have to do.

"Ha!" made Nameless, looking from Cub to Khi, and Khi to Cub. "Everyone speaks before they think once in a while, Cub, not everything has to be a conspiracy!" - After all, the Sword Maiden had watched Khi closely, and she prided herself on being a good judge of character, quite difficult to fool!

And the Ysiri woman had very clearly displayed the body language of someone dismayed by the effect their words had - maybe Khi was just a bit too much out of her comfort zone, this far removed from... Wherever here home lay. Though maybe that was the case for the Sword Maiden herself? Maybe she was from far away originally, and that's why instinctively, all of this seemed so overwhelming? She might've delved into the philosophy of it all, but her ribs hurt too much if she thought too hard. "Also, why make more enemies?" she asked, seemingly oblivious to the irony.

Khi giggled, the sound at odds with her impassive face mask and the twinge of disgust with herself in her gut. “Why would I need to make enemies? You’ve been more than hard at work upsetting the locals.” Khī paused for a moment, “I’m sorry, that came out wrong.”

---

Now that Nameless had been patched up, the three Solars decided that it would be as good a time as any to check in on the progress of the Metody that Khi had bound and tasked to dissolve a hole through the strange root structure out in the fields that they had discovered on their first night in Lushfield. Khi and Nameless had already met the unsettling demon Skæletheia, but Cub had not yet had the pleasure.

"Now that we're away from any curious locals," Cub says to Khi once they truly are well away from any curious locals, "perhaps you can tell me a little more about this... associate of yours we will be meeting."

“Little to say, truly," answered Khi. Skæletheia is a creature of base desires. It desires to wipe away the works of the gods in whatever way it can. It’s words are honeyed, and it longs to break virtues as easily as it breaks stone and steel. That all is to say- beware its words, as they have hooks,” Khī shrugged, and looked pointedly at the still damaged swordmistress.

"Yeah, her demon friend was spewing vitriol in all possible ways, no matter your level of metaphor" agreed Nameless, walking next to the other women, absent-mindedly rubbing over her bruised ribs under the bandages. The cold air felt pretty good on her bare skin, with her silken blouse still open. Made the bruising feel less... Pounding. Still, she couldn't quite stop herself from poking at the bruises. The flashes of pain made her feel pleasantly present and alive for some reason. "But I guess we shouldn't be judged by the company we keep. At least not all the time."

“It is expedient.” Khī said simply, ignoring what may have been an implied jibe. The poor woman had no idea of the depths of her malfean associates. “There is little in this world or those beneath that dissolves things as swiftly as a Metody.”

"It didn't seem all that swift when you put it to work on those roots, though" murmured Nameless. "But I guess we all find our odd tough challenge" she put on a crooked smile.

The trek out to their covert dig-site was far easier illuminated by the light of the mid-afternoon, rather than in the darkness of night. Still though, it took the three Exalts nearly two hours of walking before they finally arrived, as they wanted to be careful that Nameless didn't overexert herself. Khi had thoughtfully brought along a collection of snacks - she had learned long ago when she had accompanied her mistress on the long journeys up and down the Chalcedons to and from the great mountain city of Ysyr, and between the various coastal villas, plantations, and factories scattered all over the Isle which formed her enterprises, that having food at the ready at all times tended to improve people's mood remarkably, no matter their social station.

Thankfully, the landscape was blissfully empty when they arrived - farmers tended by their nature to rise early in the morning to tend to their fields and flocks. This early in the season, most of the labor performed at this time of day was done indoors: mending and sharpening tools, sorting seeds, and filling out the prodigious amounts of paperwork that needed to be done to navigate Lushfield's labyrinthine agricultural bureaucracy. With a practiced eye, the Nameless Sword Maiden was able to recognize the slight discoloration that marked the hasty camouflaged they had prepared to hide their excavation efforts. The stench of rotten eggs as they got nearer became more and more pronounced, along with the thin yellow wisp of acrid smoke that diffused from the shroud they had built on top of the borehole - apparently, Skæletheia was hard at work.

Approaching the excavation, Khi and the Nameless Sword Maiden kneeled to pull aside the dirt-covered tarp atop the spindly framework of branches, before being forced to back up and fan the air to avoid the thick billow of toxic fumes that emerged, accompanied by a demonic shriek as the vitreolic eyes of the demon below were finally exposed to the light of the late afternoon sun after five days of traveling in a fugue through the twilight sands of the endless Malfean desert under the perpetually unmoving cold green sun, before being involuntarily yanked across the barrier into Creation's midnight hours, followed by nearly two days of underground toil. "Your repulsive hot yellow sun!" the Metody was heard to scream. "It's as freakish and deformed and useless as you are - do you hear me, Sorceress! I know it's you up there!"

Nameless had let out a quite unladylike grunt, as she moved the dirt-covered twigs and branches atop the Metody's hidey-hole, having been reminded yet again that the blue, purple and somewhat greenish bruises were not going away through force of will alone. She was a bit surprised by Skæletheia's reaction to the sun, and was about to make a quip about the sun, general thoughts on uselessness, and maybe the demon's nature - but she was still sore, kind of tired, and didn't want to stir up conflict. In fact, she pitied the demon a bit. Plucked from it's home, thrust into an alien environment, and toiling in some other's plans and designs for reason that were never explained to it. To him.

"Calm down. One second." The Sword Maiden replied, and moved one of the still leafy branches a bit to the side, making sure at least its shadow fell on the Metody, getting it out of the direct sunlight, if nothing else.

"That certainly a novel perspective," Cub quips in response to the demon's harsh words. Though this is not the first demon she has seen, it's the first time she's been near one and not accompanied by a dragon-blooded who clearly thought themself her superior. Still, this is Khi's area of expertise and she's happy to let the sorceress take the lead.

Khī simply ignored the creatures taunts, “Your progress, Metody?” She asked, flatly, briefly toying with the notion that she might have done better to bind the creature under the plate of the sufferer, as it seemed to be so intent on wailing in pain.

“There is little need to show it humanity.” She said to the other solar, “but go ahead if you insist.”

"There are endless rumor swirling in the copper streets of the Demon City," replied Skæletheia to Khi in his slithery-toned High Realm, deflecting her question, "of what they are calling the war before the war." His voice resonated with self-satisfaction. "The Demon Princes are gathering armies, forming secret alliances that shift daily, and recruiting supporters and champions to their causes. The Quarter Prince and the Ninefold General are said to have brokered a treaty with each other and are ready to throw in with the Dominion of the Seven Sorrows to oppose the Ebon Dragon. My mistress Stanewald, she is the most perfect beauty - my loins yearn to pleasure her - is said to have joined their cause as well."

"I collect rumors," the Demon said, by way of explanation. "And I learned long ago that there is no difference between truth or lies - there is only the power of a story to affect those who hear it. And now that I've had time to remember, I think I heard a rumor some time ago that the Shadow Lover had retreated away from the public eye for some time, after she had been spotted in the company of a strange woman wearing in a wooden mask. It's curious, don't you think? They say that whatever side the Quarter Prince will fall on, the Shadow Lover will be sure to oppose him." Skæletheia was testing Khi, seeing if any of his comments would provoke a stray reaction in her, to reveal a deeper intimacy he could turn his attacks to.

“Metody, if I had wanted political news, I would taken it by more reliable methods. Your progress, before I decide your work would move faster under Sol Invictus’ eye.” Khī, truthfully, did find the demons news interesting, if any part of the gossip could be considered true. The Metody was certainly not lying that it had indeed heard such rumors. It was not, however, reasonable to construe from them any reality. Skæletheia was a lowly creature, in the pecking order of hell. Accurate knowledge is beyond him, most likely.

In any case, demons made war constantly, and this latest news hardly worried her too much. If Octavian and Tegus rid her of a poor decision, so much the better. She wouldn’t shed a tear. No, if anything she’d be relieved, when she heard the news, doubtless seasons after it had happened. Khī was, after all, a creature singular in service and in affections, and that was the way it stayed. Mistakes occurred, and once she had rescued Sadrica surely her master would understand that she had done everything for her, and never once wavered in her duty or heart.

The Sword Maiden tried not to stare too obviously, but the Metody's comment on the Shadow Lover, Mara, as she recalled for some reason, was seen with someone who might well fit Khí's description clearly rattled the Dawn a bit. She wasn't quick to judge, but consorting with the elite of Hell hardly seemed like a great idea to her. Despite being an open book to someone like the the two women accompanying her, Nameless was also actually interested in making some progress. "So did you actually get any further, Skæletheia? Or do you need help? Because I'm not helping."

"You girlies arrived just in time," Skæletheia answered, rebuffed in his efforts at instigation by Khi's dictatorial bearing. The soft hiss of the root-wood burning away under the Metody's Devouring Acid Form continued unabated - his lower half was currently a thick, corrosive liquid. "I've nearly cut all the way through - should be any minute now before the final stratum yields. It's taken some experimentation, but under the right conditions and pressures, the integrity of the material's structure crumbles into mayhem."

Just like people, Skæletheia thought, though wisely did not say. The sorceress seemed to be made of tough stuff, but the two women with her might be more susceptible to his incitements, so he tried a different tact:

"What do you expect to find on the other side? Treasure, I'd imagine. Whoever built this vault or tomb you've got me cutting into must have wanted to hide something... very... valuable." The demon took his time, smacking his his lips with the final few words of his statement. It was one of his tried-and-true tactics: There was nothing quite like the prospect of imminent newfound riches that turned family and lifelong friends at each other's throats. "I'd imagine the lion's share will be going to your masked boss over there" - he was referring to Khi. "Given that the two of us did all the hard work, as you've pointed out," he replied to Nameless in particular, "the rest of you certainly didn't seem to help, so I don't see why she would share anything at all. Maybe it will be your corpses she'll have me dissolving next."

"I think we would all be served by you keeping silent regarding matters you know even less about than the actual politics of Hell," Cub answers with finality as well as amusement. It rankled somewhat (which is no doubt the creature's plan) to be referred to as Khi's inferior, but it is hardly a great matter, and while Cub did not fully trust the Sorceress, no mere riches will cause blood to be shed between them.

Skæletheia grumbled inaudibly as he turned his attention back to the task of cutting through the final thin sheet of laminate that separated him from whatever the Sorceress had adjudged was worth all the trouble of summoning a demon from hell. This part was fine detail work, and he had resolidified his body so that he could lie down next to the borehole with his head looking down over the edge, and reach down with a unnaturally long arm to focus all of his disintegrating power into thin jet of high-test vitreol projected from the tip of one of his fingers. He slowly guided the cutting jet around the bottom of the shaft to slice away at the last quarter of an inch remaining. The Exalts above him peered down to watch, moving aside the coverings to allow a little more light so they could see more clearly. As his finger slowly circled the perimeter at the bottom of the hole, they could see that it was working: a thin ray of light was shining through through the scalpel-thin cut into the hollow below. After a few minutes, he was halfway around, and still progressing smoothly.

Even for a creature like him who yearned to dissolve, this had been an especially frustrating nut to crack. By now he was nearly three quarters of the way through.

"I hope whatever is down here is worth the effort, sorceress," he remarked. "What is it on the other side, I wonder? Something your mistress down in Malfeas sent you to fetch?" He clearly believed he had struck a nerve earlier, and continued to press on Khi's rumored connection to Mara. "The Shadow Lover has her fair share of loyal Metody, but you decided to go with an... independent contractor. Curious, very curious. Perhaps she doesn't know what you're about what you're doing up here, and you're trying to keep it that way. Hypothetically speaking," he mused, "what would happen if she were to find out about this little adventure of yours. Do you think she would approve?"

“You know, Metody, I will condescend to engage with you here. I have made a mistake,” Khī paused, “I should have bound you under the plate of the sufferer. I suppose each day brings new lessons.”

What a thoroughly obnoxious creature, Khī thought. To engage with it much further would be improper, and, more over, play into the creature’s desires. She never had these sorts of problems with Aghāid, or simple minded creatures like blood apes.

Mara doubtless had some idea of her position, the Shadow Lover’s little stunt the other night had seen to that. But there was no agreement of service between the two of them. Mara could keep her opinions, and this creature wasn’t worth being used to so much as shine her hooves. Because it was so lowly - Khī’s brain reminded her - and not because Mara necessary deserved respect and servitude from greater things. As ever, Khī’s body was stilled by years of practice, her face unmoving and wooden. The creature would get nothing out of her today.

Rebuffed again in his attempt to get a reaction out of the masked Sorceress, Skæletheia returned to the task before him. Inch by inch, the concentrated black vitriol blade sawed through the final remaining section on the perfectly smooth ablated edge of the thin circular root-wood plate.

And then the job was done. Everyone held their breath as the nigh-impenetrable disk dropped free into the darkness underneath. A second later, it was heard to clatter below, the sound resonating and amplifying far louder than it had any right to be - the wood inside must have unique acoustic properties, like inside the cavity of one of the legendary Dragon Jing Moon Guitars. The sound got progressively higher pitched as its circumference rotated on the hard surface below, going faster and faster and faster, until it finally reached a crescendo the instant before it finally stilled and came to a halt, and once again there was silence.

"Time to see for myself what's down there that's got you girlies all hot and bothered," said Skæletheia, a devilish grin on his face as he swung his body around, positioning his legs over the edge of the hole and making sure his imposing manhood was fully exposed to the Solars watching above. Before any of them could react, and with a predatory wink directed at the Nameless Sword Maiden in particular, the demon dropped down into the void below.
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An Unexpected Reunion

Train 41 exited the banked corner at high speed! For the briefest instant, the spotlight held by Cold had illuminated... something dark and horrible looking standing directly in the path ahead of them. Even with the reflexive speed of the Celestial Exalted, it was far too late for any of them to react with anything but pure shock and dread. And then everything exploded into madness as the train plowed into and through whatever was in front of them. A blast of blackness seemed to detonate, sending horrible viscous fluid flying all directions.

Cold's eyes widened as he saw the shady creature in front of the cart. While his brain was still stunned into silence. his body was already moving. This was strange, this was weird, this was unknown, this was a danger. He moved in front of the rest of the group as best as he could, wielding the giant spotlight like a very clumsy umbrella as he got in between them, hoping to take the brunt of it all. The viscous fluid splashed over him and it burned. It soaked in his clothes, eating away at the fabric, spilling over his bare skin. The acid bit into the spotlight and the art alike, dissolving the wood and metal, Cold's clothes were similarly quickly eaten away. The discarded shreds simply dissolving into nothingness as the acid did its work. Nothing able to withstand its touch.

He tore of his clothes. Trying to get as much of the burning liquid off him as he could. They were already dissolving anyway. "That shit burns!" Cold howled out, before his speech devolved into skytongue. Nobody really needed to know the language to know it was foul. His essence flushed through his body as his rage started to boil dangerously close to the surface. The acid simply slid off Cold's flesh, unable to get a grasp on it and dissolve it. The Lunar's caste mark blazed into existence on his brow, and his form began to shift, fur growing back, his mouth stretching out in a muzzle. Fury boiled over as his form warped into something far more monstrous. He let out a loud roar, letting it echo down the tunnels. A challenge and promise that whoever did this had awoken the fury of one of Luna's chosen.

Taken by surprise, Scales had no time for anything but instinctive reactions. In a split second, he turned, facing his scaly hide against the becoming collision. As the vicious acid splattered across him, thin wisps of smoke appeared where the corrosive substance pitted his scales, whole chunks of spine plate simply melted away into an off white goop.

After what felt like hours of the rather nerve-wracking ride, Warden was rather unprepared for suddenly having to find cover. He had just enough time to let out the beginning of a shout, whether of warning or of shock, and to try and let himself fall down behind the cover of the train's railing. It was enough. Throwing himself down, most of the acidic liquid landed on the side of the massive blade on his back, sizzling harmlessly against the ageless jade.

---

Khī nodded to Cub and Nameless, and followed behind the demon, skidding down the slope upright in what she really hoped was a dignified and controlled way.

As Khi slid down into the hollow above the edge of the borehole to gaze within, suddenly there was an incredible clamor below. For the briefest instant, an oddly colored light illuminated Skæletheia from the side. And then the demon below exploded as something seemed to engulf and plow through him. Vitreol sprayed upward out of the hole, and Khi threw herself backwards in an effort to avoid the blast of Theon-to that came from below.

Khī’s body reacted before her mind recognized the danger, kicking up with her toes into a full acrobatic backflip wholly and completely outside the province of mortal ability, balancing, for a moment, the whole of her weight on two fingers, set on a small rock outcropping. Vitriol, the body of her former slave, flew all around her, a large, bright green globule flowing, steaming, seemingly slowed to a crawl in her gaze as it drifted just in front of her mask.

With the initial acidic blast passed, Khī let the force of her flip carry her gently back to the top of the hole in a neat cartwheel. “Bracing, I suppose,” a smile creeping onto her face behind her mask as her bound servant’s steaming gelatinous entrails coated the surroundings of the hole.

She could hear voices coming from the hole, now that the rumbling noise had stopped- voices she recognized. Khī put a cupped hand around the mouth part of her mask, and did her best to project her voice into the hole. “Protects-from-Cold? Is that you I hear?” Khī turned back to the other two- “it’s the men. Looks like something happened. I’m going to go down.” Without much ceremony, she dropped into the tunnel.

---

Hide scorched and corroded, Scales stomps on the emergency brake with a clawed foot, jerking the train to a stop a few dozen feet beyond the circle of light shining down, throwing him against the front wall. “Everyone still alive?!”

Bryoph seemed to have gotten to his senses, and had propped himself up after the cart had spun around a few times and finally settled to a halt a few dozen feet away from the small circle of light on the ground of the tunnel that marked the spot below the borehole. He managed to push himself up to a seated position on the edge of the train, and was stoically bearing the affliction he had received, wincing in pain. His whole left side was pockmarked with small black pebbles of crystallized vitriol that were searing into his rocky flesh, each with a thin wisp of smoke rising off it as the stone was sublimated under the power of the Theon-to.

Pinales - ever the dramatist - was quite the opposite - he seemed to have passed out from either the impact or the shock of it all, and after he woke up, he started flopping around like a fish taken out of water and screaming for dear life in his high-pitched voice in Old Realm - "It hurts, it hurts, it hurts, Ahhhhhh, get it off!" He had somehow managed to roll off the train car and onto the ground. A single stripe of the vitriol had splattered across his skinny sapling chest, which had searing away the thin bark and was currently eating at the lighter colored wood underneath.

"I'm alive," Cold answered. Looking around with suspicious eyes, trying to find the source of who-or-whatever had thrown the acid at them. "But whoever did this won't be for longer." his eyes fell on the two elementals, who hadn't been lucky or tough enough to shrug off the acid. "Warden, Scales, can either of you do something for them?"

“I don’t know much about elemental anatomy.” Scales moves closer to examine them. “Can you use your light to scrape the acid off?”

"Better then what I know." I don't even know anything about human anatomy, so maybe?" answered Cold. He held up the makeshift spotlight. It had taken the brunt of the acid blast, which was slowly eating through the glowing fungus and metal. Its light was already dimming. He looked over at the two elementals. "One of them is small. We could shake it off him?" He did not sound very confident as he said that.

Distantly, from the light at the top of the tunnel, a woman’s voice can be heard. “Protects-from-Cold? Is that you I hear?” It was Khī.

Cold blinks as he hears a very familiar voice. Khi? "Khi? Is that you? Why are you-" everything suddenly clicked together. The roots they were riding in were exactly like the root they found a few days back - the one that Khi was going to use her sorcerous powers to cut a hole into. "Did you just accidentally douse us in magic acid?" He called out. He relaxed slightly - at least it wasn't an enemy. "Can you throw down something we can use to wipe it off? We've got two guides here, and they're looking pretty bad! I would use my clothes but they melted off already."

Khī dropped down silently into an acrobat’s crouch before standing. In the darkness of the tunnel, her eyes seemed to almost glow, like a predatory fish under torchlight, or a deer in the night. “How on earth did you manage to kill my Metody? And, moreover, who’s been splashed? Malfean vitriol is capable of boring a hole in almost anything,” Khī’s monotone almost seemed to have an edge of concern in it, as she walked quickly toward the…wagon? Cart? Khī had no idea what she was looking at.

Train 41 seemed to have taken the worst of it all - a whole section of the wooden prow in front of the the axle was caved in like a jagged smoking maw, dissolved away under the acidic remains of the unfortunate Skæletheia, who had been liquified into pulp by the immense impact. Nevertheless, the damage seemed mostly cosmetic - everything that was required for it to function seemed mostly intact.

Cold's spotlight, however, which he had used to shield himself from the blast, was worse for wear. It was noticeably dimmer than it had used to be - most of the silver reflective surface was blackened and tarnished, with a few holes burnt through the metal, and the glowing bundles of fungus inside were either faintly flickering or had gone out entirely. Their major source of illumination now was Cold's glowing anima.

"It was just suddenly there in the middle of the tunnel. We rammed straight through it." Cold answered. A bit of disgust creeping in his voice. "I'm covered in demon entrails, just great" He tried to wipe off some more of the leftovers off him. "I think all of us been splashed. Though I only think our guides are really hurting." He pointed over at the two elementals. "Do you know how to fix it? Do you have more cloth we can use to kinda wipe it off them or something? Or some water to wash it off. Or better yet, some kind of weird arcane demon gut neutralizing magic?"

"Your Metody?" Warden echoed slightly, still getting his bearings as he processed it all, before hurrying over to their two elemental guides. There was a time to ponder the company your companions kept, but it wasn't when two helpful people were writhing in immediate pain. "Can we wash it off with water, maybe?" He volunteered instead.

“Well, it was my Metody. I fear you’ve rather smeared him over the walls,” Khī hardly seemed perturbed by her bound demons sudden and extremely specious demise. “Good to see you’re doing well, Warden."

Khī walked over to the moaning elementals. She’d seen their ilk before, typically bound by the sorcerer lord, and only from a distance. She knelt beside the screaming elemental, gingerly examining it. Her demon was gone- there was no getting rid of this vitriol by banishing the creature. “Water is a good idea,” she said, quietly, “and quickly. Theion-to will dissolve much, and works quickly. I know the secret name of the Devil-Maw, a creature imprisoned in tourmaline at-“ Khī caught herself. To hit precisely her companions, the odds were astronomical. Was it wise to risk the clear wrath of Plentimon and the maidens themselves any further? “Maybe mundane means are better. Do you have water? To wash their wounds?”

"We were using water to steer the cart." Cold looks at Scales who was holding the pole.

“Oh thank the gods,” Khī said, then looked down and the moaning figure beneath her, “present company presumably excluded. You’re looking...” Khī examined the mostly shirtless, much much larger wolf creature before her. Cold was... almost monstrous now, a hulking form that exuded primal power and violence. Khi knew she'd read him as a dangerous creature well, “especially well, Cold.” She was a bit lost for words.

Her eyes ran over to Scales Glisten, who had taken on a decidedly far less human, reptilian look. The westerner reminded her of…one of her uncles? She thought. It could have been a villager, it could have even been an older brother. She remembered vividly seeing a man with gills and an iguanalike face dive from a boat into the turquoise-green waters of Ysyr, but context was lost to her completely. In any case, the change was…dramatic.

"If this acid is...parts of its body, then I can incinerate it along with everything else," said Warden. But of course, that might set our friend on fire, so please have that water bucket at hand." Was this what the Unconquered Sun had in mind when he granted me the gift of incinerating corpses?, he mused to himself. On the other hand, it is not so different from preventing a corpse from spreading diseases.

The tall Solar knelt down next to the little wood elemental, carefully reaching out a hand, though holding off for now until someone is ready with a bucket.

“The acid is the whole of its body - it was an elemental of vitriol, which was proposed as a sixth element in the dawn time of the world,” Khī said, stepping away.

“I can see why it was rejected." said Scales, who grabbed the stave, finding a latch close to the bottom that opened the reservoir chamber, revealing a rotatable cylinder with six removable smaller tanks. That’ll work. He slides one of the tanks out of the casing, fumbling with the valve before opening it. “Ready.”

Once Scales is ready, Warden reached out towards the sizzling acid, ignoring the pain in his fingertips as he touched the liquid. "Be at peace." He said, his voice calm and reassuring, though he knew not if a demon could even feel such a thing. A spark of golden light jumping from his fingertip towards the acid, swiftly spreading, racing along the puddle, then jumping to other splatters.

A Zenith caste mark on Warden's forehead began to glow as he dipped a finger into a smear of the demon's acidic entrails on the floor and muttered a prayer. The bright golden spark that leapt from his fingers to the single spot he had touched filled it with the divine cleansing power of the Unconquered Sun, causing the vitriol to transform into a glowing golden hued substance as the spark traveled across its surface, before rapidly bouncing to another nearby splotch and repeating the process, then another, then another. At some point it doubled into two sparks, and then doubled and redoubled again, speeding up faster and faster, as more and more of the thousands of caustic speckles were transformed. The affected potions of the floor and the walls and ceilings of the tunnel at the impact site, and sides of the borehole, and the whole front of Train 41, and even the debris that had been ejected up through the borehole and now rested on the surface above, were set aglow in a manner of seconds. A spark bounced from the train and then zipped between the pockmarks on Bryoph's stone skin, illuminating the searing crevices in his stone body. Another leapt to the smear across Pilanes's thin sapling frame as he writhed on the ground, leaping away just as fast.

Just as fast as it has began, the sparks were suddenly all gone, and the demon's acrid flesh had been transformed into the warm glowing ambrosia reflecting the silent holy might of the Unconquered Sun. For the briefest instant, the tunnel radiated in the golden light of the priesthood of Sol Invictus. Pinales had stopped screeching, his pain soothed.

And then, all in a single instant, each and every small golden patch ignited into blue and white flames.

Even though the Exalts were at the center of the blaze, the air remained cool around them - such was the intense heat of the cremating flames that the burning was directed inward, rapidly and cleanly consuming the fuel, leaving the root-woot surfaces clean and purified. Bryoph, aided by his rocky skin, bore the heat with his typical stolidness until the flames had finally been reduced to the barest embers. Pinales, though, was not so lucky - the gash on his flesh was set alight, his wooden frame quickly started to smolder and smoke, as he again started screaming in pain and terror, even louder than before - wood elementals naturally feared flames.

“The water! Quickly!” Khī shouted, fully aware the others would be already on their way, and her own contribution was mostly pointless.

Growing up with the ocean scant feet away, Scales knew the dangers of fire on ships. One had to be efficient in their water usage; too little and the fire would spread, too much and you run the risk of flooding the ship. The latter did not apply here, but his water supply was limited. As such, Scales pours the water from the chamber over Pinales' chest in a steady stream, methodically quenching sections and and ensuring they wouldn't catch again.

The water seemed to do the trick as Scales doused the thrashing diminutive wood elemental - after an initial flash of white steam, the flames retreated, and a few minutes later, only a few embers remained while Pinales laid there breathing heavily with his eyes shut, the Lunar systematically pouring thimble-fulls of water over each one by one.

Curiously, the water that splashed to the root-wood floor below them didn't seem to elicit a reaction from the living tunnel walls, where moments before the single drops had provoked the water-hungry waves that had propelled the train forward. Apparently, the massive sensory overload caused by the ichor combined with the flames had deadened the reflexes of the plexus in this section of the Great Interchange, at least temporarily.

"What in the nine-fold depths just happened?" slowly asked Bryoph in his deep voiced Old Realm - all in all, the events that had just taken place, from the crash to the final dousing of the flames, had together in the span of less than forty-five seconds. The stone elemental was clearly rattled.

Truly, fate laughs today though Scales "I think we ran over a demon. Khi, are Nameless and Cub up there too?"

“You did and they are,” Khī said quietly, “How are you here? I thought you were investigating the cathedral”

Cold let out an audible sigh of relief as the two elementals seemed to be recovering at least. "There are tunnels all over the place." Cold started. "One goes from the cathedral to the palace of the god. We're trying to find a way to renegotiate the thing between Lushfield and the god. How we ended up there was a very strange and complicated chain of events."

Khī laughed a bit. It comes out hollow, slightly awkward, made stranger by her unchanging mask, “A strange and complicated chain of events. Of course.”

Cold laughed along, his loud animalistic voice echoing off the walls. "Yeah, but right now we're trying to get a sampl-" His eyes went wide. "The sample, is the drill still okay after that?" Cold scrambled to look inside the cart to see if the drill was damaged.

While Persistent Cub would like to think of herself as a graceful person, she knows that to do so would be an act of self-delusion. She is no oaf, and she has some natural talent, but outside of the halls of power, she is at best something of a bumbling amateur, and as such she falls flat on her rear when the demon explodes from the root-tunnel. Though she would also like to think herself above such things, she cannot help feeling a little embarrassed about this when comparing herself to Khi's fantastical act of acrobatics. Seeing the other jump into the hole where the demon met its untimely end comes as enough of a surprise that she is rather delayed in making her own way down. "Hello?" She calls out while standing on the edge and hearing her companions talk, "is there anyone who can help me get down?"

Cold lets out a sigh of relief as the drill looks fine. Scales and Warden were still busying themselves with checking on the elementals, and did feel like he was simply standing around doing nothing. "Yeah, sure," Cold responded to Cub as he walked over to the hole and stepped into the light. "I can catch you if you jump down."

"Cold?" Persistent Cub asks mostly automatically. The voice is mostly the same, and there's really no reason to expect two gigantic wolf-men to be roaming Lushfield, even if this one is significantly larger than Cold was when last she saw him as himself. "Alright," she answered, and once he is in place, she took a steadying breath and jumps lightly down into the tunnel.

Cold caught the other exalt with ease and gently put her on the ground. "Also uh, sorry about the clothes you loaned me. They kinda got dissolved when we rammed Khi's demon thing," He said with an embarrassed tone.

"Think nothing of it," Cub says lightly and a little windedly once she has ground - or at least roots - under her feet once more. "They were a gift from my husband."

From Cub's tone of voice, it seemed like there was no love lost between those two. "Okay good," answered Cold. "I was already slightly panicking on how to replace that fabric. Felt expensive." He joked. "At least I've still got fur to cover myself up." He looked back up to the hole. "You need any help going down Na-mai?"

Cub walks towards the other assembled Exalts, "it does not appear as if there is any pressing danger, but I feel it bears asking: Is there anything we should be doing right now?"

"Before...this - " Scales waves his arms at the chaos: the sideways train, Pinales drying himself off, the currently shirtless Cold - "we were tasked with collecting a rock sample from a dangerous location in these tunnels."

"But in regards to your own adventures, how did questioning Rightness go?" asked the No-Moon Lunar.

"Quite well, I would say," Cub answers and throws a questioning look at the two elementals.

Since the others were busy dealing with the girls, and since he was one of those that could understand Old Realm, Warden addressed the stone elemental's lingering question: "It seems there was a monster in the tunnel. And we hit it. Some kind of demon composed entirely of acid." He eyed the elemental to see if he was alright as well. "And I had to think fast to get the acid off your friend."

Khī looked over at Cub, tracking her gaze, then looking over at Warden’s brow, where the mark of the sun was still blazing.

The Sword Maiden was still hurting, and still was a bit short on breath. She had considered helping Cub lower herself down into the tunnel, but was quite happy with Cold taking over on that front. She had semi-unconsciously begun fading into the background after she dodged the acid-splosion, which she mostly managed to do because she heard the collision and felt the vibration of the vehicle on the ground. Had she been uninjured, she might even have had the presence of mind to warn the other two on the surface.

Now she stood with the rest of the group, having climbed down the shaft, looking from Warden's caste mark to the muscular wolf-man that was Cold, and shrugged. "This is very far from subtle now, I hope nobody sees us." Nameless's voice was monotone, and she was still a bit paler around the nose than she usually was. If someone twitched when she suddenly spoke, it only served to remind her that she tended to... be forgotten.

Cold gave Na-mai a friendly wave when she looked over at him. "Are you alright?"

"Feel like my guts were wrapped around my ribs a couple of times" Nameless said with a crooked grin. "Give me a day or two and I'm fine." She gestured at everything. "So you guys have been... Busy?"

"Fairly busy. We had one hell of a fun cart ride that I hope that can continue. Barreling down the tunnels at high speeds." There was a wide smile on Cold's face as he answered, noticing the bandages wrapped around her chest and stomach. "What happened? Did you get run over by a cart as well, or something?"

Nameless raised an eyebrow as she looked at Cold. "Ah, I assumed Khi and Cub told everyone. I let Anguilla win a duel thing. She overdid it a bit. I'll be fine, though."

Warden frowned slightly at Cold's suggestion that they would get back into the cart: "Well, how close are we to our destination? I didn't pay much attention to this 'train' as we crashed. Is it undamaged?"

Warden walked around to get a look at the damage to the front of the train. While the wooden prow had quite a dent in it from the combination of the impact and the acidic corpse of the Metody, the Zenith's quick thinking in banishing the caustic substance using the tools of his Solar birthright had managed to save it from further damage. Surprisingly the incinerating flames had done little more than blacken the hull before petering out. It must have been made of sterner stuff than the common carriage - maybe it even incorporated (or was grown from?) some of the legendarily tough root-wood that seemed to be everywhere down here.

The sapling elemental Pinales managed to stagger over next to his hulking friend Bryoph who was seated on the edge of the train, and leaned against the stone elemental's leg. "You okay, buddy?" He asked in Old Realm. "I thought we might have been goners, but it'll take more than that to take us out." He poked at one of the scorched craters on Bryoph's side, pulling back his finger and shaking it like he had touched a hot stove. The short creature finally looked around to take in his surroundings, the oddity of Cold's new glowing form and Warden's glimmering caste mark finally catching his attention, along with the newcomers. "These folks are friends of yours?" He asked, his question directed mostly at Warden, but a little at Scales too, who he had also noticed seemed to look a little different than before. "Where's the girl-human that was with us?"

Cold looks at Cub and Khi, who seemed like they were still trying to get a read on the situation. "The elementals don't speak High Realm, so you can say whatever you want." He left the actual explanation of their situation to Warden and Scales, since they did the actual talking with the god and the Lodestool. He also didn't look very happy at the thought of Anguilla beating up Na-mai in dual. "At least that means I should the one to deal with the redheaded bitch. Silver linings, right?" He gave the Nameless Sword Maiden a friendly and careful pat on the shoulder, before he walked over towards the circle of nearly indestructible root-wood that had been cut out, and still lay on the floor.

The Casteless Lunar liked making things, and one day, perhaps he would be able to be up there with the legendary crafters whose creations endured the ages. And for that you needed strange and rare materials. The root-wood sounded like it fit the bill. He grabbed the piece of wood, and tucked it under his arm before walked back to the group. His mind whirled with ideas, even though he still lacked the knowledge and skill to bring those ideas into reality.

Scales spoke up: “Now that no one is in immediate danger, I can explain. To make a long story short, we met Rock at the cathedral, then went down into some catacombs where we found the ghost of the Old Seneschal. We struck a bargain with him to introduce us to the god; negotiations did not go fantastically, so we set out to find more information. Apropos to that, we consulted with an alchemist, who tasked us with collecting a rock sample from a dangerous area. I believe that covers it?” Scales looks towards Cold and Warden to confirm if he had missed anything of note.

"The Old Seneschal also was a creep. I wish I could've put him into the ground a second time." Cold helpfully adds that little tidbit as a scowl crossed the wolfman's face.

"At least I reckon Anguilla will be happy she got her win handed to her, so that's one successful think we've done," Nameless explained, her upbeat smile turned crooked by another upwelling of pain. She nodded along to Scales' explanation. "That sounds a lot more productive than me getting my ass kicked, so I guess I'll help you out?" She shrugged.  The Sword Maiden then turned towards the elementals. "We're friendly, yes" she confirmed, speaking fluent Old Realm, albeit with a hard to pinpoint accent to it.

“You found Lo-Biven’s ghost, then?” Khī said, sagely aware of the Old Seneschal's name already. “Interesting. Just…about? Haunting? Engaging in spectral philandering?”

"He was locked in the basement to be used as a source of ghostly advice," Cold said with a shake of his head. "Why you would want advice from that thing, I don't know."

“Oh? Honto, then? I don’t think anyone else here would have the guts,” Khī shrugged, “I can see the wisdom in that. He was a competent ruler, if not well liked. Good advisors are hard to come by,” Khī herself wouldn’t know, but she’d heard the sentiment from some of the perfect, and had no reason to disagree. It seemed a reasonable thing to be in limited supply.

"Yes, Honto." Cold agreed with Khi. He made a face and spit on the ground in disgust at the implication that good advice could be received from the ghost. "Lo-Biven is a paranoid, sociopathic asshole who thinks Honto is being soft because Honto hasn't forced himself on Lo-BIven's daughter Anguilla yet. He might have useful skills, but when the spirit giving it to you is that warped, can you really trust any of his advice? You'll spend more time figuring out what's useful and whats warped by the mans own insanity."

Warden nodded to confirm Scales' version of the events, his expression souring at the mention of Lo-Biven, who he found to be an utterly despicable person. "Yes, that shade is...a bad influence, to say the least. I doubt Honto keeping him around for advice is good for the people of Lushfield."

“Lo-Biven knew more about what happened before Honto took over than anyone," explained Khī in her flat tone. "Lo-Biven kept a secret ministry, and I doubt they practiced exceptional note taking habits, despite the paperwork they kept. Honto's family were all members, and he was clearly being groomed to take over. A lot of knowledge died with the Old Seneschal. Wise of Honto to use it."

"All knowledge is worth having," Cub opined, "even if you sometimes have to consider the source very carefully before you act on it. Having an advisor who hates you is the mark of someone desperate or very confident of their own ability to see every trap in every word. I'm not sure I quite trust Honto's abilities as much as he himself does."

Cub continued.  "To answer your question more fully, Scales, Rightness told of us his long-lost love - another of Lo-Biven's daughters - who left Lushfield for the North centuries ago when they noticed the Wellspring failing. He was also willing to part with a book that contains a lock of hair that once belonged to her in, the hope that we might use that to find her. I am unsure if that is possible, but I am hardly the most sorcerously inclined among us."

“Exactly" said Khi - "Rightness gave us one of her hairs, on the off-chance we may be able to do anything with it." My tracker demons aren’t well suited to hunting ghosts, though. Scales? We spoke of your necromancy a few days ago. I’d be curious to see you work.”

Noticing that they were left in a somewhat exposed position, especially with the flames from the chunks of the demon's incinerated corpse still smouldering on the surface, the six reunified exalts temporarily set aside their conversations on the progress of their investigations, and turned to the matter of what their next step would be. The Old Realm-speakers managed to reassure the pair of two elemental guides that the situation was under control. Elementals were simpler, more innocent creatures than humans, and there seemed to be something deep and instinctual to Bryoph and Pinales' willingness to accept the statements of their strange new friends without question or protest, especially once they had witnessed the glittering caste marks on Warden's forehead and Cold's glowing anima banner. It was almost like a strange wave of obedience had washed over them, rendering them more eager to please.

After a few more minutes of conversation, it was decided that Cub, Khi, and Nameless would, at least for now, tag along on the Lodestool's quest to retrieve the core sample. They could use the time to continue catching up on each other's progress and to exchange information. If they encountered any more danger along the way, it was better to have strength in numbers.

While Cold, Warden, and Bryoph, at Scales' direction, worked to lift and turn around the cart that had gotten spun around in all of the excitement, Nameless leapt up to the surface to ensure that no errant farmers had taken notice of their handiwork. With her keen vision, she spotted a farmer's wife in the distance, looking in their direction, seemingly trying to puzzle out what was going on. There was something about the swordswoman that made the observer's eyes just seem to sort of slip around her slim figure, and after a few moments of stomping with her sandals and kicking dirt around, she had managed to extinguish the remaining cinders and re-conceal their hidden entryway into the root-ways. Poking her head up out of the hole, she watched for a moment, until the observer seemed to shrug her shoulders and lose interest in investigating further. Satisfied, the Nameless Sword Maiden hopped back down to join the others, who had already managed to climb aboard Train 41, ready to depart.

Without the light from the hole in the ceiling, and with the spotlight destroyed, only Cold's glowing anima provided light see see. According to Scales' map, though, they were near the exit of the Great Interchange already. Once they started moving, it would only take a few more minutes until they would manage to reach the Far Artery. With a thoughtful scribble, Scales managed to mark the location of the hidden borehole to the surface on his map of the underground passages, in case they would need to use it in the future.
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The Journey to the Anomaly

Warden nodded slowly at the elemental's question. "Yes, these newcomers are with us, though I didn't expect them to show up here. I am sorry the two of you got hurt when we rammed that thing." The other question - the absence of Hidden-Reed and the origins of the large wolf-creature, was a bit harder to answer. He had to fear that whatever information he gave them would find its way to their godly master, but a blatant lie didn't come to him easily either. "As for the girl...frankly, it would be best for you if you don't know too much. I am sorry, but it is for the best."

After a few moments, once it became clear to Cold that there wasn't anything horrible that was going to happen, he allowed his war form to visibly shrink - it certainly would have been difficult to fit in the train cart otherwise. He helped reorient the cart and hopped in, making sure to taking the fairly big circle of root-wood with him. There was a wide grin on the Lunar''s face as the others joined them in the train. "This train thing is awesome, especially the way Scales drives it," he said. Cold grabbed the side of the train. "You might wanna hold on, though," He added, "and maybe stay away from Warden, he looked a bit queasy last time."

With everyone piled into the train, Scales once again takes up his position at the front, giving the staff's chamber a spin and swapping the empty reservoir slot for a fresh one. "Hopefully there won't be any other creatures to smash into." He eyes Khi for a moment, before turning back to the front and disengaging the break, gripping the staff to drive them forward back to their original speed. For a brief time they passed through the dark tunnels, running onto the walls and ceiling when taking sharp corners. Eventually, the glowing light of Cold's anima fell away from the walls, leaving the cart and it's occupants in an island of light with only the sound of rushing air to indicate they were moving. Scales saw that they had broke from the confines of the narrow roots, emerging into a wide tunnel that stretched in front of him as far as he could see.

The Exalts exited the Great Interchange and soon entered the Far Artery - the portion of the great tunnels dug more than a millennia ago that extended unimpeded all the way to the Yellow River nearly two hundred miles to the south. Initially, the Far Artery seemed nearly indistinguishable from the earlier vast tunnels they had traveled down, with dozens of branching capillaries to the left and right where the root-wood flowed to feed the soils of Lushfield, and they were able to make good headway.

But after a few miles, the environment seemed to shift. "We're no longer under Lushfield," noted Scales to the others. The floors, walls, and ceiling were no longer uniformly covered by the smooth, unbroken paths of the magical hardwood that had marked the expedition up to this point. They began encounter vast voids in the roots with exposed bedrock showing through with more and more frequency, places where the wood hadn't grown yet, or never bothered to grow at all. Large, whirlpool-like hollows criss-crossed the ground at times, where the Rhizome Plexus had decided to greedily plunge down according to some incomprehensible form of intelligence, or perhaps just total randomness. Scales had to maneuver their vessel with great vigilance to skirt their edges to avoid disaster, dipping down and riding across their embankments with the alacrity of a master mariner negotiating the rapids. At times, there even seemed to be more bare bedrock than woodways, and they had to carefully guide the cart atop thin lattices, where a shift of less than a foot to either direction would result in calamity. The looming shadows that outlined the knots in the gnarled wood all around them only added to the sense of foreboding.

Eventually, Scales had managed to pick their way to their destination, at times tacking back and forth to cross tangled webways. "Over there, that's where we're headed" he pointed out, indicating to a round side passage around five meters wide that, for all appearances, was indistinguishable from the hundreds they had seen before. If he had not studied the map with the intent of a practiced navigator, it would have been impossible to pinpoint. He guided Train 41 in a smooth arc into the mouth of the corridor, the acid-gnawed prow of the vessel pushing aside a set of thick vines that drooped down and guarded the entryway into the twisted pathway.

All of a sudden, they began gathering speed as the root-wood surface begun to descend, plunging downwards along a perceptible gradient. Faster and faster they went through high-banking turns along the circuitous alley. And then, before them, their meager light source illuminated some sort of ramshackle, decaying barricade that blocked the passage entirely. It was cobbled together from all sorts of junk - broken tools, remains of shattered carts, mud bricks. This must have been where the Elementals had sealed off what lay beyond, and from what it looked like, they had done so with great haste. It was too late to stop now - All they could do with go through it. "All hands, brace for impact and prepare to repel boarders!" called out Scales almost reflexively as Train 41's prow sliced through the stockade, the solid vessel scattering the massive blockage of stacked-up detritus in all directions as they careened across the obstacle, barely losing any speed.

A few hundred more yards beyond the barricade, after a few more twists and turns, suddenly everything seemed to open up before them. They had entered into a large, open hollow - nearly the size of the grotto that had housed the Elemental's entire freehold. A Nexus city block could fit comfortably inside. The root-wood that grew on the ground beneath them here was calm - more than calm - the surface below them seemed pristine, like it was being nourished by a food source that was far more plentiful and nutritious than anywhere within the scraggly Far Artery tunnel they had spent the past hour traversing. Light was far more plentiful - the bioluminescent fungus that they had seen earlier in the work camp and in the freehold grew high up on the walls and ceiling here as well, and it reflected off the broad, burnished surface beneath them. After so long in the pitiful darkness, the Exalts had to shield their eyes momentarily.

"This has to be the condensation hollow," said Scales, "where the Lodestool's vein is located." Now to find the peculiar deposit, the cause of the anomaly according to the the Lodestool's curious predictions of alchemy. Scales peered into the distant cavern with his reptilian eyes. There - on the far wall deep into the cavern, it seemed like there was a broad swath of terrain where even the abundant wood didn't or couldn't take purchase, where the light was less plentiful, and where the ground became rocky. That must be where they needed to go to find what they were looking for.

Cold was having the time of his life as Scales guided the cart through the rough terrain with the skill only an exalt could bring to bear. Sure maybe he should've been afraid since one misstep would cause them to crash at a high speed. But Cold wasn't just young and filled with the folly of youth and the feeling of personal invulnerability that came with it. He was one of the chosen of Luna and blessed with a fortitude that stood out even amongst his fellow exalts. Whatever happened, he could probably heal from it, though he wasn't the others were so lucky. "Everybody still have all their bits?" Cold asked as he looked at his companions to see how they had fared. Cold looked fairly windswept, fur sticking out in whatever direction after the high speed spectacle they had gone through.

Khī had slid into the back of the cart, seemingly relaxed throughout the voyage, a hand casually resting on the railing, blank mask entirely unruffled by the speed of their harrowing journey. At that moment, she resolved then and there to acquire a better polish for her mask. The thing had served her well so far, certainly in hiding how pale her southeastern features had become. She had stood stock still throughout the journey not out of nonchalance, but out of white-knuckled terror, frozen perfectly in place. That hand, so casually resting on the railing, was formed in one of the seven grips of the black claw style, intended to look light and weak while holding the strength of a dying man. She was a child of a slave of a fishing village, and had, in her opinion, never been made for any speed greater than her body could take her.

Scales stepped down, out of the cart. He gives the staff's cylinder another spin, slotting in a new water reserve, before resting it in its groove on the train. You never know when you're going to have to make a high speed exit. "You still have that drill, Cold?"

"Yep!" Cold hoisted the heavy drill without breaking a sweat and got out of the cart. He looked it over. "No clue how it works though, did the Lodestool tell us?"

Khī slowly stepped out of the cart behind Cold, the picture of restraint. A bead of sweat dripped down her face behind her mask, as she willed her legs, already feeling like custard, not to shake. She said nothing, distrusting her voice

"That was awesome," Nameless resumed excitedly, after the vehicle had barreled down the tunnels, her slender frame barely supported by a clenched fist around an outstretched piece of scaffolding.

Warden found the second rapid trip at least slightly less terrifying than the first one, and thankfully it was much shorter as well. He could still do without it, of course. A hand resting on the hilt of Gorgon, he exited the cart, glad to have solid ground that wasn't moving under his feet. "Last time, something seemed to have attacked the elementals when they tried to drill here, so be on your guard, everyone." Then he looked at their two guides and added in Old Realm: "Stay behind us, please. I wouldn't want you two to be in any more danger on our behalf."

Khi nodded to Warden, curtly, so as to say 'I see you hated that. I also hated that'.

The two elementals remained huddled aboard the train car - it was clear that even without Warden's warning, they had no intention of letting curiosity get the better of them.

It is a great comfort, Cub has always found, in times of great peril or anguish to distract oneself by observing those who are worse off than oneself, and thus Cub spends the better part of their journey observing Khi in between looking at the wonder of the scenery passing ever so swiftly by. Once they arrive at their destination, she allowed herself a few calming breaths before trusting her voice to ask: "Could you expand upon exactly what it is we've agreed to do here, and why?" As she speaks, she looks around. Nothing short of Yu-Shan itself can, to her mind, compare with the Imperial City, but this cavern is captivating in a way that Lushfield very much isn't.

"Well, we're getting a rock sample for some kind of mushroom witch," Cold said. "Whatever they are, a he or a she or a they, Khi looked approachable and normal compared to how much they creeped me out. If we gave them their sample, they would explain to us what else the elementals can offer of value to Lushfield. It's so that the deal between Lushfield and can be more easily renegotiated, without them having to continue sucking the surrounding lands clean of essence. Warden or Scales probably knows more though. All that talk was in Old-Realm."

"Scales, where exactly do I need to drill?" Cold asked.

"I believe it's that conspicuously bare area over there. As for how it works?" Scales shrugs. "Pointy end forward, rotate the handle? I don't imagine it's too different to a normal hand drill."

Cold looked at the drill and scratched his head. It didn't look like any hand drill he had ever seen. But it had only a few buttons and the pointy end was extremely obvious. So how hard could it really be? He pressed a button and immediately got a facefull of ash and sooth for his efforts, as the thing cleaned out some of it's attached hoses. He wiped his eyes with a grumble and pressed the other button. The drill starting to whir for as long as he kept it pushed down. "Just had to be my luck." Cold said with a shake of his head.

When Cold had pressed the first button, the invention seemed to momentarily jump in his hands, and a plume of black smoke and burnt dust particles began pouring out of the various slots of the device, only to dissipate and fade away as the contraption cleared out its internals of all the gunk and build-ups that had accumulated during its long period of non-use. The contraption started to purr and vibrate and grow warm, like it was living animal he held. It seemed whatever he had done, he had managed to turn it on. When the Lodestool had injected the strange fluid into the port on the underside of the drill, the Lunar had remembered how the long slots on its sides had began to glow a pale blue color, and while that seemed to have faded away on their ride through the tunnels, now the blue glow seemed to have returned.

The large, center drill bit at the business end of the tool continued to remain perfectly stationary and unmoving.

So Cold tested the other button, which caused the hum of the device to grow slightly louder and the vibrations to become slightly more intense, and most of the hoses on the rear of the invention jerked around perceptibly, like a high-viscosity fluid was being being pumped through them. But as soon as Cold removed his finger, the new sounds and rumblings faded away almost immediately. Whatever had happened only seemed to work as long as he kept the button held down. So that's what he did.

After two or three seconds of holding down the button, and with the apparatus's purring growing in its ferocity, the group of small peripheral appendages slowly began to rotate like a pinwheel around the central drill bit, speeding up faster and faster. Three of them were jagged-looking metal cutting wheels with incredibly sharp, glinting edges that started to spin with incredible velocity with a constant whine. Two were chisel-like objects that began to violently hammer in and out, each time accompanied by a muffled CA-CHUNK sound. And the last one - Cold couldn't even begin to guess at what that one was, but the tip started to glow red with what looked like heat, and the whole machine started to whine at a high-pitched hum that started out faint, only to get louder and louder. The blue glow from the slotted vents at the sides increased in intensity as the sound grew higher and higher pitched.

After a few more seconds, the high-pitched wail reached its crescendo, and the energy that was being accumulated within discharged all at once, accompanied by a loud crackling, buzzing sound.

An impossibly bright lance of violet-colored light blasted out from the the red-hot glinting tip of the strange rotating appendage. Shutting their eyes didn't seem to matter. For a full second in the condensation hollow, all the colors seemed to have been drained from creation except for black and purple. The blazing shaft of light seared itself into the corneas of all present, and persisted to float in their vision, like they had looked too long at the sun. It made it seem like the entire circle made by the path of the beam had stopped in time. The ray of light was angled slightly inward, and the rapid circular rotation of the emitter caused the beam to trace a path in the air that converged at a focal point about two feet beyond the tip of the drill. The effect was like drawing a violet hourglass shape across their vision, which slowly faded away as the Exalts blinked and let their eyes readjust and recover. The air was tinged with a metallic smell, and for a few moments, the hairs on the back of their hands and necks stood on end from the static.

They were all lucky that Cold had managed to keep the invention pointed in a safe direction - a large blackened, smoldering oval outline had been carved into the root-wood floor around fifteen feet away from them as a result of his experimentation. The device then powered down with a perceptible click sound, with steam venting from every orifice. Now, only three of the four slots on the sides of the Lodestool's drill were glowing with the faint blue light - the top one had become dim.

Cold simply stared at the 'drill' for now. Blinking rapidly to try and get his eyes to readjust. Giddyness and concern were wrestling in his brain in equal measure. He was torn between wanting to keep this thing on him for as long as he could, or if he should get the giant vaporizing witchcraft insanity as far away from him as physically possible. Giddyness won out.

"Not too different from a normal hand drill you said Scales?" Cold numbly said. "Haven't seen a hand drill do that, or are they made differently where you're from. "How are we supposed to collect a sample with this if it just kinda vaporizes things?" His ears were perked up, a smile was crawling on his muzzle and his tail was wagging.

Nameless eyed the front of the train as Cold engaged the drill, and the noise of displaced stone filled the caverns. When the violet beam of light suddenly erupted out of it, she could do nothing but stare blankly for a bit, before her eyes rolled back in her skull, and she threw up again over the side of the cart, coughing for a bit after, nose pale and eyes watery. She had changed her mind. "This sucks."

With his eyes still blinded by the intense violet light due to his enhanced vision, Scales rubbed them and tried to look in Cold’s vague direction. “Remind me never to anger the mushroom person.” Either those other alchemists were hiding things similar to this, or the Lodestool is so far beyond them it’s laughable. I have to know how it works; not right now though, we have work to do.

Khi blinked a few times, trying to clear the spots dancing in her vision, her face underneath the mask a rictus of quiet horror. Dear gods, he was excited. Something horrifically irresponsible was about to happen. Again, most likely.

"Ah" Khi said, "Should we perhaps take a little more care with the next one?"

They call that a drill? Warden wondered silently to himself, only able to stare at the strange contraption before Khi spoke up. He blinked a few more times to clear his eyes before he agreed: "There's only three glowing lights now. I'd wager we only have three more tries before it won't work anymore. So we'd best make sure we get it right." He was not looking forward to having to ride back to get a new drill if they did it wrong, that was for sure.

Cub was momentarily stunned by the display brought on by this so-called 'drill', but rather quickly recovers. "You are claiming this is done by alchemy?" She asks the three who actually interacted with the Lodestool - "that this is the product of little more than what mortals could do rather than the application of Essence, Magical Materials, bound spirits, and an Hearthstone powering the whole thing? I may not be an expert in such matters, but that seems to beggar belief. To say nothing of what the applications of such alchemy spreading beyond these tunnels might imply. The sorcerer-engineers of Lookshy would kill for that thing."

Cold looks over at Cub with a shrug. "I mean, that's what the mushroom person said." He gave the drill another look over, trying to find anything that would suggest one of those 'hearthstones' might be part of it. "I'm not really seeing a reason to doubt them. Do elementals really count as mortals? It was powered by the mushroom-man's brain-juice, I saw it start glowing when it put it in. Does that counts as a magical material?" Cold shook his head and just left it at that. The only thing he knew was that he knew nothing about stuff like this.

"It's that wall where we need to take a sample from right?" Despite Cold trying to sound calm and collected, his tail is obviously betraying the excitement of firing that drill off again.

Cold lead the way on the walk over to the odd area of the grotto that Scales had indicated, where the light was more faint and the root-wood seemed unable to find purchase for some reason. Looking down at the Lodestool's drill, the Lunar tested the crank on the back. The gear-works inside were a little crunchy, but after a few jerky turns, it started to move more smoothly. Rotating the crank seemed to do nothing more than cause the large drill bit on the front to spin as well, just like any simple hand drill.

Putting the pieces together, Cold perceived how the device that the Lodestool had called their "sampler" was supposed to function. The bearer was supposed to use the large drill bit to bore into whatever was being "sampled," and to establish a good grip in order to anchor the invention in place. Once that was accomplished, the baneful violet lance produced by witch-alchemy could be activated, slicing away an entire cone-shaped section of the material, which would remain attached to the drill bit.

Before Cold activated the drill a second time, Khī quietly stepped behind the trolley, making an effort to unobtrusively put something solid between herself and the wolfman with the arcane device.

At first glance, the bare rock of the massive wall didn't seem any different from any of the hundreds of other places on the walls of the tunnels where Tramezia's Rhizome Plexus didn't or couldn't find purchase. But after they got closer and their eyes adjusted better to the dark, they were able to perceive small sparkles mixed in with bedrock. Once they had trained themselves to see them, they were nearly everywhere where the Root-Wood couldn't grow - a whole vein of pink-colored glistening crystals. The ground at the base of the wall was littered with rocky geodes that had fallen away over the passage of time, some cracked open to expose the gems within, while others were the size of cantaloupe melons and were yet to be opened.

Khī’s eyes narrowed behind her mask, every instinct telling her something was off. “No-one. Move.” She said, quietly and extremely firmly. Her eyes scanned the room, looking for any irregularity, anything skulking about.

The disguise was... flawless. No mortal or poor elemental could have hoped to to have seen through it. But Khi's power to intuitively unlock the secrets around her were far in excess of of any mere mortal; she was blessed with the power of the Unconquered Sun to see the truth around her. It couldn't be explained, but she knew.

The whole wall - not just a wall, but a nest, a warren. Some of the crystals were alive in there. The large melon-sized geodes were examples of but a few unlucky individuals in the pack who were lowest in the pecking order, living on the ground, while the older specimens - maybe even dominated by a mother who hatched them - lived in the stone and lined their roosts with the gemstones they saw.

Khī’s brain processed information far faster than she could explain, much less have performed a scant few seasons ago. She didn’t know how or what she saw, but she knew better than to distrust her insights. (Unless Sadrica, who probably knew better, said otherwise).

“Don’t. Touch. Anything.” Khī said, in the same measured tone. “Some of those crystals are alive. And there are more inside. Like a hive of hornets.”

Cold had frozen in place the moment Khi had spoken up. When she mentioned some of the crystals were alive, that probably explained the reason why the previous mining attempt here went awry. Now know what he was supposed to look for, the young Lunar looked over the wall, trying to figure out what those things were. They were disguised well. But a disguise didn't do much as soon as the person you were hiding from knew what they were looking for. He wracked his brain, trying to figure out if he had ever been told about living crystals in the many stories of his tribe.

"A hive of crystal hornets?" Warden slowly repeated, wracking his brain for anything that sounded familiar. He had traveled far and exchanged stories with many explorers, and crystalline wasps pretending to be stone were the kind of thing anyone that met them and survived would eagerly spread word of.

“Not hornets specifically." Khī said. "Just…there are a lot of them. Disturb one and you’ll set the nest on you.” High realm wasn’t her native language, and sometimes things didn’t translate quite the way she’d wanted.

Warden cursed under his breath as he recalled a rather vivid memory. He had once met the remains of a prospector caravan, decimated by the beasts while their picks and knives bounced off their rocky hides. "Be very wary, I have heard of these things. They are called Tiger's Eyes in the Scavenger Lands, I believe. Ambush Predators, prey a lot on miners."

"These are tiger's eyes" Cold said with awe. He looked across the wall, trying to see how many of them there were. half a dozen? A pack? More? "Very territorial, come too close and they'll definitely try and tear your head off," Cold said with a casualness that probably shouldn't be coming from a man who was the closest to the nest. He carefully took a few steps back, until he reached the cart again. "Keep a watch over this will you," Cold said to their two Elemental guides as he put the drill back in the cart.

Nameless had already stood still behind Khi when the warning came. Her eyes scanned the wall, her lips silently moving, as she counted the individuals she could make out. She maneuvered herself a few silent steps to the side, so she would have it easier to defend herself. She wasn't into heroics today, with her ribs still sore and pain throbbing through her entire side. She met Khi's eyes, and nodded in the direction of the lurking Tiger's Eyes, to make sure the Night Caste had registered all of them as well, or at least that the two between them had noticed all of them.

"So, we need our sample," said Cold. But these things are in the way. Anybody have another idea other then smash them hard enough till they run away or they aren't around anymore?"

Warden slowly reached for Gorgon's hilt, squaring his stance. "I think we should be able to deal with them. Besides, someone has to, or they might wander into more tunnels the elementals use eventually."

"Alright then," the Sword Maiden nodded at the other's readiness, taking a less wide stance next to Warden, hand on the Forgotten Blade's hilt, the sign of the Dawn appearing on her brow, emitting a golden light that added to the glow that already permeated the tunnel.

Cold let out a chuckle as he let the essence flow into his body and it again shifted to grow in size and ferocity. "Lets break some tiger's eyes then."

"Some sort of crystalline creature then?" Scales looks at his quiver of sharpened arrows, made from his own flesh and bone. "A pity I did not have time to prepare." A rantai or ghostfisher would have been useful here. He unhooks the longbow from his back, settling the clawed feet of his hybrid form on the rocky ground in an archer's position.

Khi finally nodded back to the swordswoman, to acknowledge she'd also noticed all of the creatures. It didn't escape Khi's attention that the other woman was the only other one to notice the ambush. She mentally filed that away for later. Khi wasn't sure how helpful she could be here. These creatures may not be complex enough for black claw style to be truly effective, and likely they lacked the water content for the devil maw to drink them (and her companions might be difficult to miss besides). She did, however, have one final trick, if she needed to play it. Perhaps she would summon Aghaid if the situation became dangerous enough, but she had a feeling little on this world could stand against her new traveling companions.

Scales drew back on the arrow knocked in his driftwood longbow. Its bowstring, spun from the silk of the Western Wave-Skimmer Spider that was hunted for the prized contents of its spinneret, thrummed under the tension as the animas of his companions were set alight. With a final nod to each of those around him, confirming their readiness, he let the wickedly sharp bone-white arrow fly.

For a moment, there was nothing but the sound of the cartilage fletching whistling through the air. And then broadhead impacted into the crystalline warren. Indigo crystals blasted outward in a display of twinkling light, accompanied by a sound like a hundred wine glasses being dropped to the floor at once.

The chittering Tiger's Eyes poured out of the massive wall to react and confront the threat to their hive, some rolling like a tightly packed melon-sized ball, others climbing deftly down the sheer stone and crystal precipice with their three-inch long, razor sharp claws and prehensile rocky tails, as they spread out according to their instinctual pack tactics. Individually, they were perhaps the size of large dogs, but they had long snouts with wicked fangs, a hide made of dense stone, and long tails. By the time they stopped emerging, there must have been at least least forty of them, and they reared back on their hind legs to make themselves look larger, exposing their jagged crystalline bellies in a show of intimidation and force.

The final Tiger's Eye emerged from the warren - this one was larger and meaner-looking than the others, with a few wicked scars in down her rocky hide showing off her combat experience. She must be the Tiger's Eye Queen. She surveyed the aggressors, and chittered out loud in incomprehensible instructions to her dozens of loyal children and grandchildren, and then all at once they swarmed forward!

Warden drew Gorgon from his back, the massive blade glinting in the indigo light. Being drawn with killing intent, the beast within started to rouse from its deep slumber at the hint of violence, its lidded eye starting to crack open slightly, fixing its prospective prey. In a strange mirroring of his cursed blade, Warden himself couldn't help but take some pleasure in the thought of the coming fight either, a straightforward chance to slay some monsters and protect a community, his experienced warrior's eyes judging his opponents and the threat they might pose.

There was a wide grin on Cold's face as the Tiger eyes came out of their ambush, chittering and snarling as they reared up and tried to make themselves look bigger and even more menacing. They really had no idea they were facing right now. He responded to their intimidation with a roar of his own, his finely honed instincts already starting to pick out the ones that looked like they were the weak link in the pack. His eyes were drawn to small cracks in the stony armor, or the stench of fear and hesitation in the air. The essence in his body humming with barely restrained excitement at the ability to cut loose and do what he was best at.

Scales drew another arrow from his quiver, the white bone stained pink in the light reflected off the crystalline beasts. His eyes focused on their underbellies, searching for fracture lines and cleavage points where his arrows would split the stone.

Cold moved first, off like a loosed ballista bolt, crossing the distance in only a few steps. One moment, they were the ones charging their prey, and the next Cold had smashed into one of their number. sending it flying into it's siblings, bowling over most of them and grinding their charge to a standstill. A moment of hesitation rippling through the pack as their tiny brains tried to figure out what happened.

He mercilessly took advantage of that. Stone they may be, but some weak points continued to exist. He proved that as he rammed the tips of his claws into an unfortunate victim's stone eyeballs, making it squeal in pain and panic. Cold curled his entire paw around it's skull and slamming the entire creature into another Tiger's Eye. And then he darted away, always making sure he stayed at the edges of the pack, denying them the ability to encircle him.

With a loud screeching sound, both the unfortunate Tiger's Eye that the Lunar Beastman had sunk his claws into and turned into an improvised weapon, and the victim of the bludgeoning attack simultaneously shattered into thousands of stone and crystal fragments as Cold smashed one into the other!

Warden was surprised when Cold charged past him like a loosened arrow, ripping into the enemy before anyone else can even take a step. His surprise didn't last long, his feet carrying him into the horde of monsters behind the Lunar, sweeping the heavy blade in a half-arc through the crowd. Razor-sharp jade met crystal and proved itself superior, Gorgon draining the very life's essence from the crystalline beasts.

The hulking Solar's massive Daiklave sweeps in a wide arc, the blade crashing through four more of the Tiger's Eyes, who shatter into stone and crystal shards. Gorgon's thirst drains the pink color out of the crystals even as they fly through the air, leaving nothing but jagged fragments of clear quartz remaining among the rubble!

Taking measure and holding her breath, the Sword Maiden eyes her quarry as the army of Tiger's Eyes oozed from the wall like a crystalline hail storm. From the corners of her eyes, she took notes of her comrade's positions, of the path towards the creatures, as she darted forward.

Barely perceptible, the Forgotten Blade licked forward, emerging from it's sheathe for but a split second, as Nameless zig-zagged in between the Tiger's Eyes, delivering measured blows, cutting a leg from underneath a crystalline carapace here, slicing through hardened shell there. In her mind, this was more about measured strikes than anything else, and an approach eschewing brute force was perfectly suited to her muscle memory, even as she lacked other forms of memory. As she advanced, a pale white light engulfed her form, growing outward to a silvery sheen, developing violet and gold specks as the Dawn darted forward, casting the tunnels into a strange kaleidoscope of color and light.

The Nameless Sword Maiden's control of her body is unparalleled as she slips in-between the frothing Tiger's Eyes who leap at the invaders with sharp claws and long fangs, slipping through them like water carving a channel through a valley. With perfect jabbing strokes of her thin blade, she systematically punched through the tough rock hides and crystalline bellies of a quartet of the elemental pangolins who get too close to her, each one crumbling to debris the moment her blade is removed.

Khī had hesitatingly moved forward to study the nest, but after the Tiger's eyes had emerged, she stumbled backwards, ending up backed against the trolley, in what might generously be called a combat stance. The overall affect was closer to endearing than it was threatening, like a child trying to fight a grown man, or a peasant making an extremely fruitless stand against a marauder. Despite her mask, she seemed weak, any experienced warrior could see a dozen easily exploitable ways to break through her guard. A dozen, carefully manufactured ways. Such was the nature of Meru-at-Calibration-opens-her-gates, an ancient form for an ancient martial art, used in the case of the practitioner confronted by many. With only imperfect understanding of the first kata, the form of the black claw, it’s effectiveness was somewhat neutered, but it would serve. Black Claw was a technically demanding form, in part because of its focus on grappling and pressure points, but mainly because it required a studied knowledge in losing, a far more complex subject than victory.

The Night Caste scanned the attacking elementals, preparing to defend herself, but not yet committing to any aggressive moves. She was, after all, better equipped defensively. She couldn’t help but notice Warden unsheathe possibly the most sinister looking weapon she had seen in or outside of Malfeas. One wonders where someone of his standing might come into something of that nature. Khī resolved to put a pin in that thought, saving a thorough reexamination of what she had previously considered a rather measured man for the moments following the battle.

Even with ten or more of the Tigers Eyes reduced to crystals scattered among stone ruins, the dozens that remained filled their place, tearing and rending at the Exalts with fangs and claws and their heavy bulk! One leapt up on Cold's back and tried to sink its teeth into his thick furry exterior! A few more slashed at Warden and Nameless with their claws! One of them, sensing Khi's feigned weakness, charged at her, intending to crush the slight woman between its own weight and the cart behind her! And still another managed to reach Scales with a leap to a height far higher than one could imagine the creatures being capable of, intending to come down on top of him!

Not unaware of the perils of charging right into the thick of a swarm of enemies, Warden expected to get swarmed, and knew how to get out of it as well, warding off the boldest enemies with the threat of his artifact blade, before interposing it between himself and some of the more determined attackers.

Cold snarled at the feeling of cold rocky claws on his back. He reached back, hoping to grab the thing by the neck before it managed to take a bite so he could drag the thing off him and use it to bludgeon another one of his fellows to death.

Realizing that a crystalline meteor was about to rain down upon him, Scales launched himself backward into a roll, trying to dodge the elemental missile.

Though Scales narrowly avoided being crushed by the Tiger's Eye returning to the ground, the close quarters made his preferred fighting style a liability. Scales quickly draws and fires a spread of arrows at the beast; aimed primarily to the eyes - not to damage it, but to distract it from his measured retreat.

Oh what a catastrophe for the Tiger’s Eye! One took a leap for the petite masked woman by the trolley, only to have miscalculated - the woman must have been almost-cowering just somewhere else. It had just missed, sending the woman, squeaking, straight onto its back. Another Tiger’s Eye attempted to pounce on her, only to accidentally run into a leg stretching out to kick up. That one bounced away, not seriously hurt, but nevertheless chastened, remembering, somehow, play fighting as a hatchling. Another made an attempt, finding purchase- in the back of one of its hatchmates, backing away with a hiss. Khī had no idea if the Torn Lotus Defense would work on such creatures. She, however, was disinclined to not try. She couldn’t dodge like this forever.

For a person who hadn’t yet been hit, and wasn’t even taking the brunt of the attacks, Khī certainty seemed to be having the worst time. Near misses seemed so send her careening across the floor, and hits seemed to hurt more- although on closer inspection they never seemed to quite connect. The tone of the attacks began to shift- no longer the actions of a creature defending its territory, as the tiger eyes found themselves crashing more into each other than they were into her. Frustration mounted in the beasts, and, with it, an odd kind of fondness that they could not explain even if they had the facility blossomed in their hearts.

An empty circle blossomed into being on Khī’s brow, white-gold, gentler than that of her companions, glowing faintly in the blues and purples and greys and pale-orange of the sun at dusk. It peeked out from behind her mask, glow escaping like whispy clouds before the face of the sun at sunset.

Khī launched a kick into the thick of the creatures, a high, leaping axe kick that, for a moment, seemed wildly at odds with her seeming ability to fight. But surely that was just a trick of the light. Even the Tiger’s eyes found themselves doubting what they saw - surely this creature, who elicited as close to pity and fondness as the creatures could manage, hadn’t done that. It must have been another one of them, a trick of the eye, in the rush of prey-eat-defendnest-kill-fight. Even the one that Khī’s foot came down on weakly snarled at a peer- surely what remained of its back had been shredded by a pack mate’s errant tail.

Black Claw, the esoteric martial art perfected by Mara and imparted to her select few, works in strange ways to twists the minds and feelings of those the dared to engage its practitioners in hand to hand combat. In some victims, the Black Claw stylist might inspire love or lust, or would work to project an intense aura of pitifulness that preyed upon the merciful instincts of the righteous, only for them to realize too late that to kill without hesitation requires the hardest of hearts.

A Tiger's Eye doesn't operate on the same set of emotions as a living being of flesh and blood, but it does have wants and desires, and feels pain and jealousy and greed. They are normally solitary creatures, and it is only in the rarest of circumstances, when abundance reigns and a strong willed leader can keep them in line, that they can be preventing from committing acts of territorial violence against one another. The intense vulnerability displayed by Khi in that moment seemed to trigger a primal sense of greedy hunger in the two beasts of crystal and rock that snapped at her.

As one reared back and prepared to swipe its claws across the feigned exposed throat of the Solar, suddenly the other whirled and lunged, sinking its fangs into the neck its own brood-companion, who aimed a deadly kick at the turncoat's vulnerable underbelly in return. Shattered pieces of cerise crystals were thrown across the ground like drops of blood as the two elemental beasts became locked in a rapid dogfight, of such ferocity that Khi could be sure that the winner's only reward would be to survive slightly longer than the loser.

It is the nature of the Black Claw stylist to be the object of desire. Hunger was a new one to Khī, but she could work with it, as she drifted through the sea of snapping crystalline mouths, completely in control of her surroundings while appearing entirely the opposite. She could work with this.

Managing to put some distance between himself and the pack, partly due to Warden's cursed blade slowing them, Scales pauses to glance over the combat. There, he thought. He spied one of the beasts with its forearms up, ready to attack Nameless, but exposing its underbelly. Nocking an arrow, he lets fly, aiming at a crack in the gemstone flesh.

Even as the Dawn's blade struck out again and again in a whirlwind of destruction, Scales smiled to see his arrow find its mark, burying itself in the crystalline gut of one of the pesky beasts with a blast of pink translucent shards, knocking the Tiger's Eye down and taking it out of action. It may not make a massive difference in the course of the battle, but every one of the pesky creatures he could take out of the fight helped to turn the tide.

As the resolve of the swarm starts to waver in the face of the Celestials' brutal onslaught, the Tiger's Eye Queen hisses and chitters her sharp fangs, which stiffens their resolve of the survivors, who redouble their efforts and continue to launch themselves at the trespassers into her domain!

Cold managed to get a firm grip on the Tiger's eye that had clambered on his back before the creature could take a bite out of him and pulled it off him. throwing it on the ground and crushing it's throat beneath his foot with disturbing ease. He glared at the Queen as she 'directed' her brood. Usually he would advice cutting of the head to drain the will to fight out of the troops. But why would he need to cow them into giving up when he could simply break them over his knee without effort?

So Cold instead focusing on her brood in front of him. Tearing into them with tooth and claw, looking and sounding like a nightmare made flesh as his claws sundered their flesh with a casual ease, every Tiger's Eye that was daring enough to step close had it's impudence swiftly punished as he tore them to shreds.

Tiger's Eyes had the reputation of being terrifying monsters, deadly ambush predators with a nearly impenetrable hide that were the nightmare of miners everywhere as when they found you all the miners could do was run and hope the immovable monsters didn't find them and cut them down. But Cold in his war-form was a monster in a class of his own. The pale light of his Casteless mark both proclaimed his divinity and served as a stark warning to whoever would dare cross him, for the wrath of Luna's chosen was unavoidable. By the time they saw their nestmates' broken bodies hit the floor, it was way too late to flee. Cold growled and snarled as he tore into them their eager growls of a predator who found their next lunch quickly turning into shrill shrieks of pure panic as the beastman tore through them like they were barely there.

The ground was littered with the dying and corpses of her children, leaving the Queen exposed. Aside from being covered in leftovers from his rampage, Cold looked unharmed and not even looking like he broke a sweat tearing through the entirety of her pack that remained.

The Sword Maiden had weaved between the crystalline bodies throwing themselves at her and her Circle, parrying cute little gemstone claws trying to adoringly rend the flesh off her bones with a collected calmness. She re-oriented herself. With a lightning-quick movement, she once again unsheathed her slender blade, cutting in half one more of the creatures that had somehow made it past the whirlwind of death that was Protects-from-Cold.

Just as the Lunar had just stomped the last Tiger's Eye between Nameless and their Queen into the rocky ground, the Dawn saw an opening. Picking up speed as her steps lengthened, she raced towards the final moving target, ignoring the pain radiating from her bruised ribs. As Cold stopped, and postured himself to goad the Queen into attacking, Nameless raced past him, exclaiming a melodic "Excuse me!" as she used the hulking Beastman as a stepping stone to leap into the air, the light of her anima glowing yet brighter to illuminate the whole of the cavern around her in all directions, as she became a golden lightning bolt coming down from the sky.

Nameless landed right next to the Tiger's Eye Queen. Her blade only flickering from it's sheathe for a split second - or did it even do that? She slid past her target, before turning half-around to have a look over her own shoulder to see if she had executed her attack properly.

The Tiger's Eye Queen, who was beating her chest only a moment ago as she called for the death of the intruders into her domain, stumbled momentarily backwards, past the stationary Sword Maiden in a seemingly dazed state, collapsing against the crystal-infused rocky wall that was the warren of the horrible predators that were the terror of spelunkers and miners across Creation.

Then, slowly, the upper half of the oversized creature of rock and gemstones seemed to slide away from the lower along the barest of inclines, the slice so flawless and clean that the creature itself had not even registered that it was mortally wounded. The finest diamond-setters of the Imperial City could not have produced a smoother cut. The beast had been wholly cloven in twain by the blindingly fast sword stroke!

Both halves of the Queen finally toppled down to the ground, and the tension on the internal stresses of the corpse's crystalline structure was suddenly released, shattering in a chain reaction not just the body of the strange creature, but the whole nest of secreted crystal and stone that it laid against. Empty of the creatures nesting within, the whole wall of the grotto where the Tigers Eyes had made their burrow seemed to collapse in on itself, disintegrating into a pile of rubble intermixed with glistening rose-colored gemstones that was strewn across the bedrock

What was even more confounding was the identity of the strange material that the Tiger's Eyes seemed to have constructed their nest against. This must be what the Lodestool had meant when it mentioned the "anomaly" it had spoke of, the strangeness that was throwing off is calculations. It was some sort of massive surface formed of a metallic alloy of indeterminable provenance, smooth across most of its surfaces, but overlapping at places where strange lines and rivets seemed to delineate different segments.
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The Circle Investigates the Strange Construction

And so, before Cub even has a chance to adopt a stance more suited for combat than 'scared rich girl,' the celestial warriors have torn through elemental creatures that would have slaughtered a mortal expedition. "An impressive performance, friends," she offers with a smile as she approaches the strange metal wall.

When Nameless looked back, she saw the terrifying divine monster that was Protects-from-Cold, a lethal creature that just tore through a pack of Tiger's Eyes without breaking a sweat. And he was pouting. "Did you really have to use me as a stepping stool so you could show off?" He moped. Using him as a stepping stool? That went a little too far for his ego. And then he looked over at the strange wall that the Tiger's Eyes had been nesting against. "Is it me, or does that look constructed?" He stepped closer and put a paw on the wall, giving it a knock. "Do you think this is that skyship that was repurposed as an underground drill?"

"No, I definitely didn't have to" replied the Sword Maiden, sporting a broad, smug, grin. She then flicked her head to the side, catapulting an errant strand of hair out of her face. "I don't know what in Malfeas that thing is" replied the Dawn with a shrug, almost blinded by the metallic alloy reflecting the shine of her anima, which was swirling around Nameless like a speedy little river running around a well-placed pebble, white-gold light with specks of violet, watery blue and a darker, warm orange-gold. For some reason fresh air smelling of fresh water and spring grass seemed to fill up the cavern, as eddies of wind emanating from nowhere flowed out from the Sword Maiden, who walked over to the anomaly, and placed the palm of her hand on the smooth surface, feeling the material, and trying to get a sense of the whole.

Cold stuck his tongue out at Nameless at her comment. Then tilted his head in confusion as he leaned his fuzzy ears closer to the metal. "Do you hear that?," he asked Nameless.

The Nameless Sword Maiden smirked as she banged her hand on the metal while Cold's sensitive ears were pressed against it, causing it to ring out like a tinny gong. Whatever it was that the were looking at, it wasn't any type of alloy she was able to recognize. It had a strangely dull, non-reflective sheen, and certainly wasn't any type iron or steel she was familiar with. Strangely, the metal felt lukewarm to the touch, like it had been laying out in the sun. But this deep in the earth, anything they encountered should be as cold as a corpse. She looked down at the fragments of the Tiger's Eyes at her feet. Whatever form of life those creatures of rock and gemstones one had, it wasn't a warm-blooded one, so they weren't the cause of the warmth.

"Pretty odd that the metal is warm," Cold said as he pulled away, rubbing his ear. "You think that whatever used to power that repurposed skyship is still active making it hum?" His tail began wagging again - the beastman lunar was clearly not perturbed by the casual slaughter he had caused. "Should I get the drill and make us a hole so we can find out?" He didn't even wait for an answer; the idea of exploring a derelict skyship sounded too exciting. "You know what, I'm gonna get the drill!" He turned on his heel and made his way back to the cart, wiping some of the Tiger's Eye crystalline gore off himself on the way there.

Khī brushed herself off, looking in surprisingly excellent shape for a woman who was just in the middle of a feeding frenzy. She padded over to the strange wall, a gloved hand running over the rivets, carefully examining it. Her mind was clear, the clarity of purpose that so often eluded her when not working on a case.

Watching the carnage from a safe distance away, Scales made a mental note to leave most of the fighting to those three from now on, as he also approached the metallic wall.

Warden had watched Nameless jump and cut with perfect form, and the Solar had lowered Gorgon before she even finished her cut, confident in her victory. The cursed blade seemed to share his opinion, its eye already closing, the monster back asleep, sated for now by its meal of colours and strength. "Anyone hurt?" He asked, throwing a look back over his shoulders just in case some Tiger's Eyes slipped past in the fight, before he turned his attention to what the crumbling nest revealed. "Hmm, this is quite the find."

Meanwhile, as Cub strode forward confidently past the train car to examine the results of her companion's unleashed propensity for violence, Cold returned to the cart to retrieve the Lodestool's drill he had left there. They spared a quick glance at their two elemental guides - Bryoph was seated with his arms around his knees, rocking back and forth, while Pinales was perched on Bryoph's shoulders and hugging his forehead from behind in terror, covering the large elemental's eyes and burying his own head in the thin layer of moss that covered the scalp of of the large stone elemental.

"I'm alright, they barely managed to tickle," said Cold. "I thought they would be tougher. But they broke so easily." The Lunar smiled widely, holding the drill he had just retrieved. "How about the rest of you?" The beastman''s expression softened a bit as he saw the two elementals, both of them terrified for their lives. He gently knocked the side of the cart to catch their attention. "Hey, things are over. You're gonna be fine now." He say's in the calmest voice he can muster.

Khī hrmmmed, as if to acknowledge she was uninjured, continuing to closely examine the find, taking a glove off to carefully examine the texture of the metal.

Khi ran her fingers over the texture of the curious metal. Whatever it was that they had uncovered, it had been down here a long, long time: long enough for a whole nest of Tiger's Eyes, which she had no doubt were a long-lived creature, to establish itself across its entire broad surface. The unparalleled investigator turned around to examine the entirety of the massive hollow they were in.

They were deep now - by Khi's estimation the bottom of the main artery of the tunnel was a good hundred feet underneath the surface of creation, and Scales had navigated them down half that distance further to reach this strange cavern. It was odd - compared to the tunnel network they had travelled through so far, the wooden surfaces that they had driven the odd carriage upon seemed to absolutely thrive in this place, curling up against the walls and reaching to the high ceilings like a massive bowl. Yet, in the portion of the hollow alone where the strange metal surface was exposed - no doubt it was something manmade by her initial examination - the mystical wood seemed to avoid approaching any closer.

Khi created a model of the the exposed surface she saw in her minds eye, and extrapolated its mass across various permutations. What exactly was she looking at here? This was so divorced from any of her experiences prior to her second breath that her usual techniques seemed to fail her. Her logical mind both categorized the dilemma, and was repelled by its implications. This was something beyond the realm of logical deduction. How could she come to any sort of meaningful conclusion with so many unknown unknowns? She would have to reach beyond the realm of pure logic and into... what? Guesswork? No. Something else. She had once told herself that there were no such thing as hunches or gut feelings - they were just products of a mind unable to fully articulate itself. But now she felt otherwise.

She took two slow breaths, and returned to her visualization, but this time she let her mind drift beyond the dimension of logic and rationality. What did she see? Coils, like an anaconda tightly wrapped around a branch. But vaster than that. Something inside the strange, dark metal was drawing power from the earth in this area, lying dormant and perfectly still, as it has for centuries - no - millennia. This thing, whatever it was, was old, maybe even older that the tunnels above them. The hollow here was naturally formed, not dug out by man.

Khī turned back to the group. “To state the obvious- this is old. Wear patterns and what I estimate to be degradation place it at least 700 years prior, but I am more inclined to say millennia, certainly predating our surroundings. The hollow here is natural, but this is not. This is broadly beyond my experience, which is to say it is the dominion of some occult field in which I am presently unread. What I can say is that it has power, and that it draws more power- essence- around it. Like a sponge, or a magnet…perhaps a drain.” Khī hated high realm in moments. It lacked the poetic metaphor of flametongue. Or perhaps she was just less familiar with it. “In any case, make of that conjecture what you will, but I suspect you’ve done the same mental arithmetic I have and arrived at similar conclusions,”

While Nameless was very good at thinking quickly, she was less good at thinking thoroughly. She listened carefully to Khī while running her hand yet again across the metallic surface, trying to imagine the scope of the object. She nodded along to the Night Caste's words but was unsure if she could bring herself to untie all those separate thoughts, and knit them into some kind of explanation. "So, might this be what the Lamplighter is after?" she looked around. "It certainly seems important." The Sword Maiden leaned against the metal, pressing her ear to the surface, and started tapping it with her finger, moving a few inches to either side each time she tapped it, trying to hear for a hollow space, a hidden opening, anything more elegant than a drill.

“I wouldn’t hasten to a decision, but that does seem to be the most likely option” Khī said, quietly, “The Riverlands are full of such things, so it’s possible this is something else.”

Cold looks at Warden and Scales, or any of the old realm speakers. "Can you calm down our two guides? They look pretty bad." After that he walks over to the mysterious object. "I thought this was just the skyship the documents talked about. You know, the one that was turned into a drill?"

Khī nodded. “The Sunbathed Wind, yes.”

Finally noticing that the two elementals looked terrified, Scales moved over to them. "There's nothing to be scared of. I doubt there's anything else down here, and not much could stand against those three when they let loose." The power of a martially inclined celestial is a terrifying sight to behold.

Nameless tapped against the vast metal surface with her ear placed against it, listening intensely for anything she could learn about whatever it was they had encountered. Somehow, she was intuitively familiar with the acoustic properties of metal, and knew how to evaluate a blade to locate the sweet spot at a glance, where the shock waves from a successful strike or parry would be perfectly absorbed, and wouldn't cause your hand to sting.

The alloy was thick- some sort of armor plating, if she had to guess, but it wasn't solid all the way through. The reverberations were strange, and she tried to make sense of them. It took them some time to travel down the length of the buried object and back, telling her that whatever it was, it was more long and thin than broad. But between the time she would rap against the metal and the time the she would feel the reflection of the vibration return, she would hear the reverberation pass in front of her three or four times, like phantom echoes.

Whatever this was, it may have been long and thin, but it wasn't stretched out straight like a sword - it was coiled around itself, like a bullwhip or a snake in a basket.

Cold looked from Khi to Nameless, "Sooo... are we going to try and take a look inside of the thing?" He held up the drill. "I'm sure this thing goes through whatever it is. And we did need a sample." He doesn't even bother hiding the wagging tail.

Warden stroked his beard thoughtfully. "Well, will the Lodestool still care about a sample if it's a clearly artificial object that might be salvaged and moved soon?"

"Shhhh!" shushed Nameless, raising a slender index finger to her pale lips, big brown eyes narrowing, as she looked on the others disapprovingly. "This thing" she tapped a knuckle against the metal plating, "is big. And pretty long. It's coiled up, like a nautilus shell" she explained. "I heard it in the echo. It must extend for quite a bit, and it's coiled up here, I'm not sure how much damage you might do if you just drill into it, Cold. I think this thing could potentially uncoil. You know. Move."

If and that is an if, this is the Sunbathed Wind, then there should be a socket for a hearthstone somewhere in here. A hearthstone which, if it had not disintegrated by now, would be the reason we were here. I’m not familiar with this type of magic, but, if damaged, it could be well beyond Scales and my, and by proxy all of our, ability to salvage what we seek from it.” Able to uncoil, she thought. Curious.

Cold slightly deflated, ears flopping down at three people telling him not to use the very cool lightning drill. "I mean, I dunno, would the Lodestool take our word for it?" "Also... why is this thing warm? I mean.. it's miles underneath the ground. it should be cold."

“If it is the airship that was turned into the drill," Scales answered, "there should be some sort of hatch or entryway, correct? Perhaps we should return to the Lodestool, to update them and possibly retrieve further excavation equipment.”

"Maybe the Hearthstone is still active? Keeping it warm? Or maybe there's a geyser somewhere under it that we can't see?" Nameless shrugged. "Wouldn't excavating be better than drilling into it?"

"We've only got 3 more shots with this thing," Cold said with a shrug. "I don't think we can get much excavated. Unless you want all of us to go out and get more mushroom-brain-juice."

"None of what you just said makes sense to me, and I'm pretty sure I'm the concussed one, but I gather it's not as easy as I thought?" Nameless shook her head. "I mean honestly, I'm just trying to appear smart and measured, so maybe we should drill into it?"

Khī hrmmed, turning back to the, device, feeling it with her ungloved hand. It was, indeed, still warm, despite the depths and the chill in the air. She motioned to Nameless, to come closer, as she pressed her headwrap against the alloy. “It’s warm. It may still have power.”

"Which is why I didn't really want to drill into it, if we don't have to. Maybe whatever it is still works?" Nameless commented in Khi's direction.

“Or perhaps a rapid introduction of essence will reactivate it,” Khī said, her typical monotone somewhat more dire than usual.

"What do you propose?," asked Nameless. "Mushroom juice? A way to channel our own essence into it? This is... Puzzling."

“I was proposing that applying an essence-based drill may have unforeseen consequences,” answered Khi.

"Ah," said Nameless, "in the 'we don't want that to happen' sense. Got it." She wrinkled her nose. Khi's caution was wise, and understandable. But the Sword Maiden was really itching to do something.

“I ah” Khī paused “am not ashamed to admit I could be wrong. This is, as I said, beyond my knowledge.” She was many things. Sorcerer, magistrate’s assistant, bureaucrat and slave. Engineer was never a purpose to which she had been set.

"I mean, how bad could it really be, right?" Cold says with a shrug. "At least we'll be doing something right?"

“Action for action’s sake is an excellent way to meet your ancestors, Protects-from-Cold, although I confess I didn’t expect you to have such haste to see them again,” Khī said evenly.

"Maybe, but we're just staring at something we just fought an entire nest of tiger's eyes for and not even trying to figure out what to do. I don't think the sun or the moon chose any of us just to sit on our ass." Cold starts to look around the place, trying to see if there is some other kind of way he can see to enter into the construct.

Cold is unable to see any obvious methods of entry through the thick, dark alloy plates. In fact, it looks like on the periphery of its exposed portions, Tramezia's root-wood has grown as near as possible to the metal surface without actually touching it, leaving essentially no stone or other material that can be more easily excavated.

Seeing as how the group had hit a dead end, Scales returns to what had brought the underground to his attention before. Sinking deep into his internal essence, Scales closes his eyes and sees with the gifts given unto him by the darkened moon.

The No-Moon Lunar tuned out the bickering of his companions as he let the flows of the local essence fields wash over him. Khi had mentioned something about the strange metal behemoth drawing power from around it like a sponge or a magnet. Nameless also mentioned something about it being coiled up, like a snake.

Eyes closed, Scales extended his senses into and through the riveted metal. Just what was this artifact coiled around? His animalistic spirit probed the matter, and discovered... an upwelling, a pillar. The thing was wrapped around the highest tip of something solid that went far below, extending vertically down far beyond the range of his perception. It reminded him of the icebergs he had seen floating in the waters surrounding Smiling Rat's domain, with nearly all of it below the surface, and only the barest spike floating above. But this was also the opposite of an iceberg.

It was fire.

"The metal is wrapped around something. It's like...a pillar of solid fire, extending down farther than I can sense," said Scales to the group.

Suddenly cutting a hole into it didn't seem like the best of ideas anymore. "Is there a way for us to figure out if that pillar of fire isn't going to pour out of this thing if we cut it open?" asked Cold.

“It is not necessarily physical, merely an extreme concentration of fire-aspected essence.” answered Scales.

"What if we just...went back to the Lodestool and showed them this, now it's safe?" said Warden. They might have a good guess on what this is."

“Or perhaps one of the demons Khi has summoned could phase through and report what they see?," proposed Scales.

"Can you tell if the pillar is naturally formed or the result of geomancy?" Cub asked Scales, looking thoughtfully at the exposed metal wall. "Being even less of an export on these matters than either your or Khi, I can of course only speculate, but a pillar of fire sounds like the kind of thing that could only form at the center of a demesne - and it would be very interesting to know if it had been harnessed into a manse proper. If it is a Manse, perhaps what we're looking at is just that rather than the airship. If what we're looking at is the Sunbathed Wind, it sounds to me like it has curled itself up around this pillar of fire, which is not exactly the kind of behavior I expect from either airships or drills."

Moving closer to see where the metal meets the wood with her own eyes, she muses aloud: "Is there a way we can expose more of it? Either using brute force or the drill?"

Scales scratches his chin. "That...does seem possible. To add to that, we're rather far off from the main excavation tunnel, so the drill would have had to go far off course to be here. Either way, it seems to predate the wood, which suggests that it was here before Tramezia moved in. But who would have built it, and why? Creating a manse is no small undertaking..." Scales trails off. "Perhaps we could try to find an alternate access point? Another of these offshoot tunnels might intersect it in another location."

Cold thought over his fellow Lunar's proposal. "True, but just blindly going through the tunnels in the hopes of finding a way inside sounds like it would take ages of searching and blind luck. I don't know if we have that much time before people start to wonder where the fancy outsiders are. Honto did have some of his people keep an eye on us. And as bad at their jobs as they are, eventually they'll figure out something is up." He scratches his chin. "Is there anything about manses that is.. standard in their construction? Or can we do an educated guess on where an entrance might be?" Cold can't keep the curiosity about what's inside the manse out of his voice though.

"I guess we always could try and see if we can't get the elementals to excavate this place, now that the danger is gone. Though that would mean the god and possibly the dragonbloods above finding out." He looks over at Scales and Warden. "I didn't understand anything the mushroom witch said. But do you think they would not inform Tramezia about this? From what you told me, they were more a... science over politics kinda mushroom. Of course, I guess we still have the last resort of doing some architectural changes and making another entrance. Do manses explode easily?"

Scales mused on the nature of manses: "Just like Warden's sword, each manse is a unique construction, but I would hazard to guess that removing metal from this plating would probably not destabilize it. Though, we do not know what is on the other side. As for the Lodestool, they seemed more concerned with their alchemy over most other matters, in addition to being somewhat of an exile."

Khi closed her eyes and returned her hand to the warm metal surface, considering Scales' discovery in light of what Great Uncle Rightness had said earlier than morning about the function of desmenses and manses to generate hearthstones. Continual reevaluation of one's conclusions was necessary when new information become available.

First, was this a manse, as Cub suggested? Possible, but unlikely. It it was, it certainly wasn't built for the purpose. According to Rightness, a manse was supposed to collect and entrap geomantic energies, storing it in a hearthstone or perhaps redirecting it to another purpose. The fact that the roots in the cavern seemed to be feeding off the residual heat that was radiating from the dark alloy into the bedrock around it spoke the the inefficiency of the design, if collection was the goal. There was too much waste, too much leakage of heat here.

Khi took another look at the riveted segments, examining the fine scrapes where rivets overlapped metal below. Yes, she saw it now. Scales had said the metal object was "wrapped" around the pillar, which was presumably some sort of desmense. She only saw evidence of two distinct segments, but logic dictated that there were more: the large plates were were designed to slide past each other, which allowed the behemoth to flex and move, like a serpent. It reminded her of the carapace of the massive black tiger prawns, the size of a man's hand, which were the prize of the the waters of the Dreaming Sea. It was the destiny of her father and her brothers to go out in search of them, and that of her mother and sisters to mend the seine nets that were cast out to catch them. They were far too valuable to feed to a mere slave. Sadrica frequently had three for brunch, served in a silver dish with lemon juice and melted duck fat.

And if this was the airship Sunbathed Wind? Why would an airship be coiled around a desmense? She thought through a few possible reasons, ranging from the ludicrous to the dubious to the possible, discarding each in turn, until only the most probable answer remained: Assuming (1) that the Wellspring was the hearthstone that had once powered the airship Sunbathed Wind, and (2) that the Wellspring was removed from the airship along with at least the focusing lens of the main essence cannon to manufacture the drill that had dug these tunnels, then the airship was without it's primary source of power. Could it be that that someone or something had decided to use use this hidden geomantic energy source as an imperfect substitute, to sustain whatever arcane systems were within? It evoked in Khi the image of a hibernating animal, curled up in its cave to preserve warmth for the long, cold winter.

Khī turned to the group. “Whatever it is, it is intended to move, these plates flexing like a prawn’s or a-” what would these people, who dwelled inland, outside the maritime empires of her homeland. She drew a blank, “like a shrimp. It was designed to move. It hasn’t always been curled like this. If this is the airship, it’s without its primary power, and it…sleeps? I have heard of animals in the north that sleep for seasons at a time. Like that. This is a place of geomantic power. It is feeding on it, subsisting on it. The wellspring isn’t here, but something else is, and that is what powers this.”

"So if this is the airship..." Cold mused to himself, "it was designed to be able to coil and uncoil and it's keeping itself from shutting down completely by drinking in the heat of this fire demesne. Hibernating because it doesn't have enough power." There was a pause as he considered this. "If it coiled around this demesne... wouldn't that mean it somehow dug its way there? Shouldn't we be able to see a tunnel or something else about a giant metal creature digging down and grasping the demesne? Or do you think it's been here for so long any record of that has been wiped away by time?"

Cold was getting curious now. and it was hard to keep that curiosity contained, especially since with the drill.. they could absolutely take a look inside and see what exactly this thing was. A creature? A complete construct? "Given that it's low on power, would it really hurt that much to try and get a hole in it so we can look inside and find out what exactly we're dealing with? We might be able to figure out more about who made that thing or why it's been put here."

"I would say that at the moment, our choices are between that and returning to the Lodestool for more information, and I have a burning curiosity," stated Scales.

Faced with the prospect of two more rides on the 'train', and naturally inclined towards action over inaction, Warden slowly nodded. "I guess let's go for it, then."

"The prospect of drilling a hole in the side of a modified First Age skyship fills me with trepidation, I must admit," Cub offers thoughtfully as she takes another look at the wooden walls surrounding the metal panels. "Is there truly no way to cut it free and find the entrance it must surely have?"

"Not without equipment," Cold says. "The drill doesn't count, it only has 3 more shots and we aren't going to be able to get much done with that if we want to cut it all out. And even if we did have more juice. I don't think it's really made for big digging work."

“For the sake of argument, I could bind a team of dejmen, the oresingers, the miners of hell. That would, however. Take more time than we really have,” Khī sighed, and stepped back, “Get to it then, I suppose. I will be over there, a safe distance away and behind something solid,” she said, indicating a place nearby one of the entry tunnels.

Having been given the permission of the rest of the circle, however reluctant it may have been in some cases, Cold stepped up to the metal wall and readied the drill. He had 3 more shots, and each would cut out about one foot of material. He glanced over at the non-shapeshifters in the group, estimating how much room each of them would need to squeeze through a gap. And then he got to work.

Nameless smiled a crooked smile, nodded encouragingly in Cold's direction, and took several steps back, making herself ready to jump to safety, eyeing any nearby solid-looking stone formations in case of a very expected explosion.

Khi wisely decided to crouch behind the so-called train carriage that had borne the lot of them across the strange root-wood seas that seemingly covered the whole tunnel network, peering over the side to observe the outcome of the Lunar's experimentation. She was joined at her side by the two strange elemental creatures, who also decided that whatever was going to happen after the surface-humans had been chattering away in their incomprehensible language. If the authoritative-seeming woman who had thoroughly examined the curious metal thought it wise taking cover, they should probably do so as well, along with anyone else who decided to join them.

The powerful Lunar hefted the Lodestool's Surveyor up to chest height, the stout, helical drill bit clanking against the mysterious hardened alloy surface with a sound like a percussion instrument. Khi had seen some evidence of wear on the carapace plates, from where it looked like they slid over one another, so whatever the thing was made of, she took comfort in the fact that at least it wasn't entirely impenetrable. Slowly, Cold started to rotate the crank at the back of the invention, engaging the hidden internal gears and pinions within and instantly causing the cutting tip to gyrate faster than the eye could see. For a few second, there was no effect - the spinning auger simply skidded across the bare surface of the slab with an irritating screeching sound that caused everyone to wince. But as Cold leaned into the drill, anchoring it in place with the muscular brawn of his transformed beastman shape, the hardened tip of the drill bit caught hold on some minute divot, and a thin stream of fine metal shavings began to trickle down, accompanied by occasional sparks. After two or three minutes of vigorous exertion, the job was complete: the entire shank of the drill bit was firmly jammed deep into the alloy up to the hilt, and progress would continue no further.

With a nod towards the rest of the group to make sure they were ready, the Lunar beastman repeated the same sequence he had initiated before. This time, purged of the built-up dust and detritus that had clogged its internals, the ominous device roared to life with a satisfying rumble. The grinding wheels and pistoning chisels began rotating, beating away at the metal with a sound that resonated across the whole of the hollow like a kettledrum, increasing the suspense. And then the same high-pitched whine from before returned, the sound of the internal energy banks charging themselves up, converting whatever dark chemical energies stored were within the Lodestool's sinister fluid into raw power. The onlookers turned away in dread anticipation, using their bodies to shield their eyes from the anticipated blast of sizzling violet light that would lance out any second now....

CRACK went the blast of incising energy. The shockwave was immediately accompanied by a violent lurching of the what fell like whole cavern shifting under them, like they were in a ship at sea that had struck aground on a reef. It seemed like the whole of the metal wall suddenly belched forth a massive plume of rock dust that continued to hang in the air, clouding everyone's vision momentarily. Cold had stumbled down the hill leading up to the wall that was formed of debris from the collapsed Tiger's Eye nest, still clutching the drill in his furry arms. A thick, vaguely circular block of the alloy was attached to the end of it, smoking prodigiously with its outline glowing red hot, the heat coming off it causing the air to shimmer around it. Only two of the blue lines remained illuminated on the side of the drill.

When the dust finally settled and the jolt and its aftershocks had subsided, they viewed their handiwork. The entirety of the metal wall, it seems, looked like it had jumped sideways a good twenty feet or more. The glowing dark red metal hole where the Lodestool's invention had bored through one of the plated segments was plainly visible, but instead being at the center of the exposed wall, it was now far off towards one side. Whatever the behemoth was, it seemed to have reflexively reacted to the assault by the drill, causing it to lurch forward in its slumber. A whole new length of the body of the first age construction was now exposed to the Celestials, and this portion was far more interesting than the bare armor plates they had been looking at before.

The newly exposed portion seemed to differ from the flexible carapace places that had jumped forward - this part looked like it wasn't designed to flex. Rather, it seemed more structurally solid. There was some sort of man-sized circular shape on the side, formed of a number of intricate interlocking curved blades extending from the outer edge to the center, each of which looked like it had been inscribed across its entire surface with decorative linework, though the engravings were too packed with finely crushed rock to make out any details. They reminded the onlookers like the petals of a strange flower, looked down on from above. Above the man-sized circle, there was a a curved placard riveted in place, seemingly finely engraved as well, but too packed with debris to make out any details. A warm golden color shined through at places from under the dross. And to the side of the man-sized circle, there was some sort of odd, exceedingly scratched-up square pane of what looked like some type of dark glass.

When the ash and shocks cleared, Cold lowered the paw he had been using to shield his eyes and looked upon the newly revealed part. "Well, seems like we have some kind of entrance over there." He pointed at it. Before he was going to take a look over at the newly revealed part, he walked along and took a look inside of the hole he had just made, wondering if the cut had punched through the outer layer of the artifact.

Blinking rock dust out of his eyes, Scales speaks. "Not so dormant, evidently." Seeing Cold move to investigate the hole, he follows his fellow Lunar.

Having turned away from the drill when it wound up to shield his eyes and face, Warden took a few careful steps forward when the dust cleared, studying the newly made hole, as well as the revealed circular...thing. He extended a hand towards the dust-covered placard and tried to brush some of it off to see what was written on it.

Reaching up, the Solar spent half a minute removing the encrusted stone chunks from the large decorative golden placard, eventually revealing the engraved text carried on it. The writing on it was written in thick-lined, blocky Old Realm glyphs. Warden ran his fingers across them, mentally translating the glyphs to to High Realm as he read:
 
DELIBERATIVE VESSEL
SUNBATHED WIND

HULL NO. 011
OPAL SPIRE AIRSHIP YARDS

BUILT BY: ELEGANT INTEREST LIMITED PARTNERSHIP CORP.
ENGINEERING: FIREBIRD GLORIFYING THE FIRST LIGHT

MEDAL OF THE THE WINGED LEOPARD WITH **FOUR STARS**
OPERATION WYLDHAND
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The Celestials Investigate the Sunbathed Wind

"It's the airship all right," Warden announced once he translated the words. "The Sunbathed Wind. Now the question is how to get inside."

Meanwhile, Scales and Cold crowded around the circular hole that looked like it was punched cleanly through the center of the armor plate, trying to glimpse inside. It was about a foot in diameter, and the edges were still glowing red. Waves of heat were rising off of the metal edges that seem to have been cleanly ablated away by the blast of cutting light, making it difficult to see within the dark interior. But the thin slits of Scales' eyes in his hybrid form were adept at picking up the faintest traces of light in all but the most pitch-black environments.

Whatever was on the other side of the hole that had been blasted, it certainly didn't seem like it was made for people. There was dozens of shadowy struts connected to large gear-bearing mechanisms, odd metal protuberances with valves and tanks, and scores of hanging wires of unknown purpose - it looked like two or three were swinging back and forth and occasionally sparking. Scales recalled back to his youth, when he would go aboard the large sailing ships that would ply the longest trade routs in the west. If this was a large ocean vessel, he would guess that they were looking at some sort of interior hull engineering space. Those were the places on the ship between the thick timbers on the outer hull and the planks that formed the interior walls and floors. The lattice of ribs that ran between them would gave the ship the strength it needed to withstand furious storms, and the empty spaces between always needed to be pumped clear of bilge water. Most ships also used spaces between the ribs for ballast and storage tanks. The long, sturdy cords that ran down from the wheel at the helm also passed through these spaces, traversing a series of pulleys to eventually reach the rear of the ship, where it controlled the motion of the rudder.

"Give it a while to cool off and I can get in through this hole." Cold piped up, leaning away from the hole he had made. "It's glowing red hot, so that'll take a while. Maybe we can dump water on it, if we don't need that much to get back through the tunnels, so it will cool down faster?" Leaving the hole to cool, the Lunar dumped the drill and their sample back in the cart before joining Warden at the door, or whatever it was. With the way it interlocked, it looked like it could open at least. "Maybe that could be helpful?" Cold pointed at the scratched glass beside the door.

Staring into the darkness of the ship's guts, the dark red of heated metal at the edges of his vision, and with Warden's words ringing in his ears, Scales feels faint. This is a relic from a past that only a dozen alive today remember, and even fewer speak of. What secrets lie within? What lost knowledge awaits, ancient scholars and engineers building this craft with their long forgotten expertise. What power lies within, waiting to be unleashed on a world where we are hunted for the mere crime of our existence?

The Sword Maiden almost giggled cheerfully. Now this was an interesting development! And most of all, they were unearthing an artifact so ancient, none alive today possessed first-hand knowledge of such a thing! Finally a level playing field for an enthusiastic amnesiac. She moseyed closer to the iris-shaped doorway and stood on her toes to look over Scales' and Wardens shoulders, trying to catch a glimpse herself.

Eyeing the placard, she unconsciously moved her lips, as she read the Old Realm hieroglyphs herself. She had to to remind herself that she could decipher such scripture, and she confirmed Warden of the Onyx Eye had translated it correctly. "So this is the airship. They used to be able to fly, right? That's quite different from boring through stone and earth. I wonder what else about it's purpose has been warped..." she mused out loud.

Khī poked her head out from behind the cart, then brushed some dust off of her clothing. “No one dead? Good.” Khī knew very little about the technology at play, but she also suspected she’d been right to have been cautious.

Fascinated by the airship and eager to learn more, Scales clambered over the pile of rubble that used to be the Tiger's Eye nest, and peered down to inspect the strange, scratched-up glass panel by the oddly designed circular closed porthole. There seemed to be faint, old realm glyphs written on the back of the surface of the glass. It wasn't like anything he had seen before: the glyphs didn't seem to be inked or engraved onto the glass, but instead seemed to be made of a green light, like the reverse of a shadow cast from a paper lantern. Some of the glyphs were flickering or partially distorted, making them hard to read. Others were flashing on and off. Some were changing to other glyphs. He remembered the Old Realm lessons he received from Smiling Rat months ago, and tried to translate the text to the best of his abilities, reading each block of six to twelve glyphs aloud to his companions:
 
CRITICAL ERROR DETECTED (1 of 2): PRIMARY WEAPON OFFLINE

CRITICAL ERROR DETECTED (2 of 2): PRIMARY POWER SOURCE OFFLINE
BACKUP POWER MODE INITIATED
EMERGENCY BANKS AT 99.7%
14 HOURS FLIGHT TIME ESTIMATED REMAINING
SEEK REPAIR FACILITIES IMMEDIATELY

NONCRITICAL ERROR DETECTED (1 of 53): INTERNAL CLOCK ARITHMETIC OVERFLOW
REMOTE SYNCHRONIZATION: ATTEMPTING RETRY NO. 662513... FAILED
RESET DATE AND TIME MANUALLY
NONCRITICAL ERRORS 2-53 NOT DISPLAYED

ALERT: UNAUTHORIZED INTRUSION ATTEMPT DETECTED
HULL BREACH AT PORT COLLAR PLATE 9
DISENGAGING HIBERNATION MODE
ENGAGING AUTOMATED COUNTERMEASURES IN 4:23... 4:22.... 4:21....

INPUT COMMAND CODE TO OVERRIDE

“Hm.” Khī said, returning to cover, “I think I spoke too soon.” She had no idea what she was looking at, but she knew a bad sign when she saw one.

The Nameless Sword Maiden, with her enhanced senses, began to feel a very faint rumbling in the ground of the hollow all around her.

Cold looked over his shoulder back to the drill he had deposited in the cart, as well as to the block of alloy still attached to the drill. It was evidence as to their intrusion. "Ah.. oops." Cold said as he scratches the back of his head. Oh well, they couldn't turn back time. Some of the things Scales had read out loud didn't make much sense to him. Like backup power.. or whatever an arithmetic overflow was. "Maybe somebody should tell the elementals that they might need to take cover..."

But a countdown and countermeasures? He knew what those were. "Well, we're stuck with it now. How do we get inside this thing so we can try and turn it off? I can get in through the hole, and see if there is anything on the other side that could help with that?"

"Do we have reason to think the inside will be any safer than the outside if it begins these 'countermeasures'?" Warden asked before his gaze fell back on the elementals probably still cowering near the cart. "It's waking up." He shouted for their benefit. "Get to a safe distance, I feel like this will be a big fight."

At Warden's warning, the Rock elemental Bryoph tosses the spindly sapling elemental Pinales over his shoulder and starts pounding the wooden floor with his heavy footsteps as he sprints towards the dark, upward-sloping tunnel that represented the only entrance and exit into the large condensation hollow. Without the train cart, it was unlikely they would be able to get very far, but at least they would be out of immediate danger.

Reading the text flashing across the glassy screen, Scales realized that they stood at a precipice. On one side, the secrets and power of a functional First Age weapon in their hands; on the other, that same First Age weapon could lay waste to everything around it if it tried to kill them. "I'll go with Cold inside to try to stop it from there; perhaps we'll find the command code, or a way to remove it from the demesne."

As Scales speaks, he moves over to the still glowing hole, dark green scales melting away to reveal white fur, shrinking in size to a foot, bones shifting as their structure changes, ending as a small white fox, ready to plunge into the unknown.

Cold is already moving when Scales is halfway through his sentence. Feathers sprouted out of his fur as the giant wolf-man quickly shrunk down and shifted. In just a few heartbeats, Cold had shifted into a small songbird. He soared up, waiting for a few moments to let Scales jump through at first, gauging the distance and width of the hole. He folded his wings and dove through it as well.

In fluid motions, Scales and Cold both rapidly transformed their shapes while moving towards the hole, were second nature to them - Scales taking on the form of a fox and Cold a songbird. The two deftly plunged through the smoking hole left by the drill, one after another, carefully avoiding touching the burning-hot edges. The two Lunars in their small animal forms were inside the guts of the airship, and they could feel the low reverberations of the of the energy flowing through the arcane networks around them, punctuated by various clicks and whirs of the mechanical sub-systems coming to life, running diagnostic checks. They could both feel their little animal hearts thumping. It was dark inside, but every few seconds another frayed wire would brightly spark, temporarily illuminating the area they were inside.

Four minutes remaining.

To their left, the passageway seemed to extend much further, though they couldn't see very deeply because of the passage's sharp curvature blocking their line of sight. Dozens of piston-like structures criss-crossed the passage like a spider's web, and every half second another of them would abruptly start a jerking series of movements: in and out, left and right, and up and down. Perhaps the airship was testing its functionality after all these centuries of dormancy.

To their right, in the direction of the iris-shaped door, it looked like the passageway abruptly ended with a number of myriad, inconceivably complex devices mounted on the flat metal wall, with various small lights flashing one some of them. Their best guess was that the cockpit was behind it, where the people could comfortably control the airship without fear of having a limb crushed by a wayward machine component.

Cold turned his songbird head to the left to gaze at the giant metal rods crisscrossing the passage.  They were like a demented demonic spider's web, which didn't fill him with a lot of confidence. Sure, he might be able to get through it, and probably Scales too. But Cub and Khi and the rest of them? Probably not. He looked over at the other side and his face fell at the sight of all the strange artifice. His curiosity and desire to know and tinker was slightly dampened by the fact they only had a short time before the thing started to attack. He glanced over at Scales and let out a questioning twitter from his bird's beak. What now?

Scales bounds over to the right in his form as an arctic fox, digging his nose through the various components to search for any sign that something amidst the jumble of arcane engines connected to the iris door. If we can get that door open, the others might find the code inside. At the very least, it's probably safer in there than out there.

Before serving as Smiling Rat's apprentice in his shadowy polar domain, the western-born Lunar had never laid eyes upon an arctic fox, or any creature born of the chill northern lands. His shahan-ya's first test for him was to provide the newly tattooed initiate into the Silver Pact with a cage containing a fuzzy white fox pup, and to observe how Scales would claim the creature's form as his own.

A brilliant silver disk burst into being on the forehead of the snow white fox, and complicated patterns of moonsilver-colored streaks glowed from the animal's fur as Scales scurried across and burrowed through the thorny labyrinth of tangled wires and cables and gauges and hoses and crystals and sealed metal boxes, trying to look for something that he could possibly make sense of, that would accomplish anything in the limited time they had remaining. The complexity was overwhelming. The Lunar had heard whispers of first age artifice like this before, but he had never seen anything like this with his own eyes. Some of the components had small, old realm glyphs marked on them, but most were cryptic or pure mathematical designations.

Four minutes of study wouldn't be enough time to expand his mind to understand the implications of every bit, module, component, unit, and element in front of him, to develop even the faintest working theory of their interrelated nature. It was like if he had never seen a tortoise before, and was trying to figure out what it looked by examining at a cross-sectioned slice of its brain preserved in a formaldehyde jar. He doubted it could be done in four years. The best he could do was find something, anything that seemed like it might help, and act.

He had already spent a full precious minute desperately trying to find anything that might be useful. The rumblings were getting louder. Too much time wasted - he had to go with his gut. Nuzzling aside a thick bundle of wires, he returned to his best guess at something he might be able to do something with: It was some sort of manifold with two dozen hoses clamped to every side of it going every which way and feeding into the walls and floors. This he might be able to understand, just barely. He didn't know much about first age artifice yet, but he knew about anatomy. He didn't know what the hell an "Auxiliary Systems Hydrostatic Laminar Flow Regulator" was, but he could tell: this was a heart of some sort, meant for pumping blood or whatever served for blood in an airship.

I really wish we didn’t have to do this, but the artifact will be of no use to us if we’re dead, thought Scales. Barking to catch Cold’s attention, he jumped up and down, indicating to the manifold.

Cold, still in his songbird form, simply cocked his head in confusion as Scales barked and jumped up and down next to the giant thing with big cables coming out of it. He shifted back to his hulking wolf-man war form, ready for battle as he grabbed at the indicated piece of machinery. "Just to be sure, you want me to break this, right?"

Scales nodded his own furry head in affirmation.

"We can't study it if we're dead, I suppose," Cold grumbled under his breath, as he grabbed hold of the thing with both of his massive paws, claws skittering over the alloy before they found purchase in it and puncturing some of the softer hoses. The metal groaned and grinding as he braced himself and started to pull. Putting his weight to good use to help with it. Essence flowed into his muscles.

---

Warden had watched as two Lunars darted into the hole they had sliced into the airship, then glanced at his remaining companions. "Let's hope they can stop it waking up. Even without its 'primary weapon', I would be very wary of this thing trying to kill us." Everyone in the Riverlands had heard of a guy that knew a guy that saw a Scavenger Lord get obliterated by some ancient artifact or ruin he unwisely unearthed.

Khī couldn’t hear a word of what Warden had said, much less Scales or any of her other companions. She hadn’t survived as a highly placed member of the legal system in Ysyr by not knowing when to run, and every finely tuned survival instinct was telling her to run. In the moments after the artifact’s reactivating, she had done some quick mental math, evaluating her chances of stopping the machine against her chances of survival. She had no experience with such things. It had little to do with classical occultism, and she couldn’t deduce something from absolutely nothing. On the other hand, the consequences of misusing such a powerful artifact were infamous and often extremely lethal. Valor was all well and good, but Khī considered survival to be a significantly higher directive.

So she ran, following the elementals.

Warden blinked when Khi turned and run, but given she didn't seem like a combatant, he couldn't blame her for it entirely. While the others were here, he planned to stay as well. With nothing more useful to do, he contented himself with brushing some of the dirt off the engravings in the door, while keeping an eye on the countdown in the glass pane.

---

Cold had fretted as the seconds ticked by while Fox-Scales scurried through the intimidating mess of wires and cables that formed this occult first age technology. While hoping that the brainy Full-Moon Caste would come up with an idea, he began mentally preparing a backup plan. As luck had it, it was the same backup plan he always had: Smash the problem!

Luckily, just before his patience ran out, Scales seemed to come through, and in a fashion that also managed to incorporate the backup plan as well! The Casteless Lunar had effortlessly shifted out of the songbird form and back into his hulking wolfish war form, his muscles swelling as had to hunker down to avoid hitting his head on the roof of the enclosed space, and he leaned over grasp hold of the strange component that the moonsilver-tattooed arctic fox had indicated. The muscles in his back rippled as he pulled with all of his strength, his silver anima flare doubling in intensity as he infused essence through them.

Bolts sheared off with a grinding sound as Protects-From-Cold ripped the Auxiliary Systems Hydrostatic Laminar Flow Regulator out of its fixings, violently wrenching it backwards. Snap-Snap-Snap-Snap-Snap-Snap-Snap-Snap went the dozens of hoses that were attached to it as they were stretched to their breaking point and severed. Viscous brown oil sprayed everywhere as the flexible tubes immediately depressurized and flailed around like a dying, hundred-armed animal. The airship jerked forcefully once again, just like how it did when they had activated the light lance of the drill.

The light that had shined in through the hole from outside suddenly vanished. The hole was covered up by solid rock.

---

There was little Warden could do but wait as the Lunars plunged inside the hole they had cut in the side of the airship. As the seconds ticked by, he busied himself by studying the peculiar iris shape on the side of the vessel, which they had guessed was a door of some sort, using his hand to brush away the accumulated hardened mud. After about a minute, he had managed to remove enough to make sense of the engraving that ran across all of the blades when they were in the closed position.

The engraving that the Zenith Caste had cleared away was an illustration of a massive, ornately decorated mechanical dragon in flight, its wings spread, breathing a javelin of fire down upon its helpless minuscule victims below. The onlooking Solars' eyes widened.

Suddenly, the whole cavern again rumbled forcefully, knocking Warden and the rest of them back down the hill to catch his balance and forcing him to close their eyes to avoid the plume of rock dust that burst out from the seam between the airship and the rock around it. When they were able to open their eyes again, the scene seemed to again have shifted. The iris-shaped door had shifted to the left a good ten or fifteen feet further, and its blades seemed to be in total disarray, rendering the mural they had uncovered completely indecipherable. Some of the door blades were completely retracted, most were partially retracted, and a few even seemed to have extended too far in the opposite direction, jamming themselves in front of or behind neighboring blades. It looked like a jagged circular toothy maw.

Two objects that looked like the bottom half of dark panes of glass - observation ports, if they had to guess, were now exposed to the right of the door, where formerly they were hidden behind the rock and wood walls. Both were partially covered by metal blast shades that seemed to slide up and down, but which had partially retracted upwards.

Worst of all though, the red-tinged hole in the metal through which the Lunars has entered the guts of the machine was now nowhere to be seen, now hidden behind the rock wall entirely!

---

With a loud roar after Cold tore the piece of machinery off the wall, he held it up as if he had just torn out the still-beating heart of an enemy. The brown liquid sloshed around him like spraying arterial blood. But his moment of triumphant violence was cut short as the entire structure shook, causing him to nearly lose his footing. But more importantly, the faint light that had been filtering in through the small hole had vanished. The only light was now coming being the sparking of broken wires and the two Lunar's animas.

"Crap!" Cold looked at Scales. "Seems like the only way we can go now is through the machines?"

When the metal cylinder they were in started to rumble, Scales dropped to the floor to keep steady, ears flattened. I was afraid something like that would happen, he thought. Nodding in affirmation at Cold's question, he moved closer to the entrance to the piston-lined corridor, gazing intently at the mashing jaws to try to determine a pattern that would allow them safe passage. If behind us is a control room, then perhaps this way connects to the main body of the ship? Though this certainly resembles no ship I've been on.

Looking at the tangle of shifting pistons, Cold made the quick decision he wasn't going to try and squeeze through that mess in his current shape either. He again shapeshifted, shrinking down until he was in the familiar shape of an off-white cat. He knew that he was beginning to run low on the divine essence that let him perform feats of lunar glory, but this would be better than trying to squeeze himself through the tangle when he had to duck to avoid striking his head on the roof. Just like Scales, he also waited for a bit, trying to determine a pattern among the tangle of activating pistons.

Trapped in the re-activating machine, there was only one way to go, and that was forward. The two Lunars in their small but agile forms began deftly navigating through the dense tangle of re-activating machinery. They carefully tied their jumps through the spokes of large rotating gears and flywheels, and their dashes through chain reactions of whirring pneumatic pistons actuating in sequence. More than once, a puff of superheated steam vented in their path, forcing them to reverse their momentum in mid-air to avoid being burnt. They each took their own independent route through the snarl of metal, guided by their own skill and the blessing of Luna.

Just as they seemed like they were reaching the end of the madness, Scales lost his footing for the briefest moment on a slick metal surface, no doubt caused by the presence of the brown spots of hydraulic fluid that was still matted to the fur of his arctic fox form as a result of their earlier act of destructive engineering. Skidding forward, he took a hard whack from the jerk of a medium-sized piston, bashing his lightweight form sideways through the air and bouncing him off a thick exterior armor plate. Recovering his wits quickly, the No-Moon Caste managed to regain his footing and continue forward, joining Cold a few seconds after the cat-shaped Lunar had successfully navigated his way through.

Two minutes left. The rumbling was getting more louder and more severe.

---

Throughout their adventures in Lushfield, Cub has never felt truly comfortable in her role. Even though she naturally excelled at these games of small-town politics, manipulating these bit players with their delusions of grandeur, it wasn't her true calling. However, that was nothing compared to how out of her depth she felt when face-to-face with an ancient war machine threatening to rain death and destruction upon them. She saw Khi and the elementals run, and her first inclination was to follow. If all else fails, she was certain that the two of them could get quite far in Creation, even if they had to abandon their colleagues and the Lamplighter's protection. But somehow, to her own surprise, her gaze returned to Warden's massive form, and carefully, but quickly, she walked towards him.

"Are there any instructions?" She asked him. "Any sign that some command-word or display of authority might stop this?" Smiling a mirthless smile, she added: "Is there really nothing we can do but pray?"

Khī spared a glance behind her as she ran, fully expecting to see at least some of the others' sense for self-preservation winning out. Unfortunately, and somewhat surprisingly, she was alone, aside from the two lumbering elementals. For a moment, two thoughts went to war inside of her. On the one hand, she certainly couldn’t do her duty if she were dead, and, in any case, she certainly had a strong personal preference against throwing her life away. On the other hand, the others were useful tools, and she had the feeling that she wasn’t exactly going to run into 5 other anathema reasonably well disposed to her again. At the very least, she and Cub seemed to work well together, and it would be a shame to lose out on the opportunity.

So she stopped running, cursing herself. “You two get so safety, I’ll go back for the others,” the masked woman called out in her best attempt at broken Old Realm, gesticulating further into the passage to the elementals, before turning back the way she came. She had turned around just in time to see when the machine activated again, trapping Scales and Cold inside. Her other companions still stood before it. “Are you dense?,” she called out as she started to return, hoping to break the spell of whatever it was that seemed to transfix them. “Why aren't you running?!" 

Ignoring Khi's yelling, Warden lifted his massive daiklave, finishing his study of the engravings to answer Cub's questions. "It's asking for a command code to stop it, but there's no indication what it might be. I suppose I could start listing off random Old Realm words, or flash my caste mark some more, but the odds of that working seem slim." Eying the malfunctioning iris-door instead, he broadened his stance. "I'll try and smash this down instead. Maybe I can help Cold and Scales stop it from the inside."

Hearing no protests from his remaining companions, he set about using Gorgon once more as a tool for smashing through an obstacle. There was little technique at work here. The movement of a swordfighter were ill-suited to this task, but he hoped sheer strength and the mass of his weapon would compensate for this shortcoming. Gorgon fell like an executioner's blade, one ancient artifact meeting another.

The massive weight of the White Jade Reaver Daiklave wedged itself halfway through the side of the one of the exposed blades of the door, gouging an impact crater into the hardened alloy and causing the metal to peel back and curl. The Solar grunted as he wedged the sword downward with all of his strength, until finally there was a loud metal crashing sound, and the bottom half of a door blade snapped free. One down, many to go.

Again and again the Warden of the Onyx Eye leveled mighty strokes at the hatch with the cursed brand he bore, his anima banner setting itself aglow as he desperately worked at hewing away enough of it to get inside before the ancient machine activated.

Less than two minutes remained before the countermeasures were activated, and the easy work was done. Most of the jagged teeth of the circular maw had been pulled. Now only the a few of the most jammed and overextended door blades remained, their overlapping points wedged around each other and forming a burl of twisted metal at the center of the portal.

Warden straightened up for a moment, wiping some stray droplets of sweat from his forehead where his caste mark burned. He studied the point in the middle where the overextended blades overlapped, and decided that he was going to break them all at once with one last, decisive blow at their meeting point. Raising his artifact high, his muscles bulging under the strain he brought it down for hopefully the last time.

The Zenith Caste swung Gorgon, aiming to shatter the final portions of the barrier standing in their way. With a mighty blow, he leveled the heavy blade at the center of the mass of twisted metal!  The remaining framework formed by the curved metal barbs of the doorway crumpled and tore under his strength, the engraved ancient alloys being bent inward into the cockpit of the airship at sharp angles.

They were finally through, and there was barely more than a minute left before the countermeasures would fully activate. The rumbling and activation noises had grown steadily louder, and steam began to rise out through the top of the crack between the machine and wall into which it was wedged.

The light from the Solar's glowing anima banner flooded into the cockpit, banishing a thousand or more years of darkness. Looking inside, he could see that the interior still seemed still in decent enough condition, but everything was covered in a thick layer of dust. All around the sides of the room, there were the decayed remnants of what once were leather chairs, fixed in front of mysterious consoles and strange machines. There were pedestals with telescopes mounted atop swivels in front of the windows they had seen, and the far side of the cockpit from them also had an identical iris-shaped door to the one Warden had bashed through, which was equally disturbed from the Lunar's disruption of the hydrostatic systems. In the front of the cockpit there was an ornate, golden ship's wheel mounted into a frame, with a number of five-foot tall golden levers to both sides of it. Mounted on the wall behind the wheel and levers were a multitude of odd panels, which displayed all sorts of lights and readouts. Some of them seemed similar to the panel on the outside of the ship, with its strange dark glass that was capable of generating malleable old realm figures.

In the center of the cockpit, there was an elevated platform containing an equally decayed, more impressive looking chair. In front of the chair were two strange pillar-like devices, one coming down from the ceiling and the other coming up from the floor. And seated in and below the base of the chair, there were what looked like bones. Human bones - entangled with the spindly remnants of what looked to be some sort of deteriorated uniform.

“Oh, okay, I guess we’re just going to use brute force instead,” Khī sighed - she had returned to the others just in time to crane her head into the cockpit, entering behind Warden and Cub."

"I never used to think of myself as courageous," Cub said to Khi, noticing that she had decided to turn back from her temporary flight, "but I guess we're all learning new things about ourselves from this trip." And with time being such a precious commodity, rather than elaborate further, she walked resolutely into the cockpit and her eyes locked on the uniformed bones. Without the ability to read Old Realm, this seems like the most likely place for her to be able to help.

Cognizant of the ticking clock, Persistent Cub rushed forward to the podium in the center of the room, where presumably the captain of the vessel would issue commands from. She quickly spared a glance at the odd pillar-like devices, which seemed to have handles attached to their sides and a triangular block of dusty crystalline glass embedded into them - viewing ports of some sort, if she had to guess. No time for that though: the Solar began examining the human remains.

Most of the bones crumbled like wet chalk in her hands as she rifled through the decayed threads that once were some sort of uniform. Her fingers finally caught on something solid, and she pulled it loose - it was a silvery metal chain the size of a necklace, with fine links and a few trinkets attached to it. A small ring connected it to a golden locket around an inch in diameter. The chain was also looped through a slot in a thin rectangular rusty steel plate the size of a playing card. It looked to be engraved with various Old Realm glyphs on both sides, which were difficult to make out under the rust. The steel had an odd mixture of small square, circular, and triangular holes punched through it at various locations. And there was a tiny golden bauble in the shape of a bumblebee with its spindly legs wrapped around a few of the links, its eyes formed of jewels and its wings made of iridescent mother-of-pearl.

Her hands moving swiftly and deftly, Cub opened the locket.

Warden also took a few precious seconds too long to take in the strange room within the artifact, before followed Cub to examine what she had found, hoping to perhaps put his peculiar knowledge of Old Realm to good use in translating it.

Seeing Warden approach, Cub holds out the steel plate to him, hoping he'll be able to read the glyphs, despite the rust.

Puzzled by the whole situation herself, Nameless had sort of allowed herself to fade into the background, as she had a habit of doing. She had wanted to help Warden, but the large man's giant sword seemed a far more effective instrument for the job, compared to her long, thin blade - made more for precision work. However, she had little trouble following the other inside the cockpit of the ship after Warden had done the job of hacking through the door. Slinking out of the shadows, the Sword Maiden stood on her toes, peaking over the Zenith's shoulder. I think I can also make out some words through the dirt," she offered. The woman who couldn't remember her own name also had a mysterious talent for the ancient language.

The spring on the remarkably well-preserved locket snapped open when Cub activated the clasp, revealing within an extremely lifelike, glossy color portrait within of a middle-aged bearded man with a boy who looked in his late teens standing next to him. The resemblance between the two was strong - perhaps father and son? Both were dressed is extremely strange, elaborate blue uniforms unlike any Cub had seen before, festooned with a number of braided gold cords and ornate golden shoulderboards fitted with gold tassels, and both wore sabers at their side and peaked hats with a blurry emblem that couldn't be made out. There was some fine writing in old realm glyphs engraved on the inside of the locket's cover.

However, Warden and Nameless's attention was focused on examining the rusty thin steel card. The glyphs printed on it were hard to make out, and it would require some type of effort at a later time to remove the rust to make out the whole thing, but between the two of them, they managed to puzzle out and translate the most notable sentences to the others:
 
WARNING: NAVY RESTRICTED PROPERTY. LOSS, PERSONAL USE, OR POSSESSION BY UNAUTHORIZED INDIVIDUALS WILL RESULT IN FINES AND/OR COURT-MARTIAL. IF FOUND, RETURN TO NEAREST NAVAL REPRESENTATIVE.

DO NOT FOLD, SPINDLE, OR MUTILATE.


NEVER ATTEMPT TO ENTER A DISENTANGLING GATE. BY CONTINUING TO POSSESS AND/OR USING THIS TRANSIT PASS, YOU ACKNOWLEDGE THAT YOU HAVE READ, UNDERSTOOD, AND AGREE TO ALL TERMS OF USE OF THE TRANSIT GATE SYSTEM. YOU AGREE THAT THE DELIBERATIVE AND ANY OF ITS MEMBERS, AND THEIR AGENTS, EMPLOYEES, AFFILIATES, AND LICENCEES SHALL NOT BE LIABLE FOR ANY DAMAGE, LOSS, INJURY, OR EXPENSE OF ANY KIND ARISING FROM YOUR USE OF THIS TRANSIT PASS IN ANY FASHION.
---

The two Lunars emerged from the long passage into an long, vacant area that was a good thirty or forty feet long. For the first twenty or so feet, there were hundreds of wires and cables harnesses protruding from the roof and floor and walls that seemed to all point towards the middle of the room, but they had all been sheared off and were lying there limply. Some of them were the thickness of a man's thigh. In the center of the room, there seemed to be all the telltale signs that something large was once there. Whatever it was, it was now missing. The remnants of huge bolts with broken-off heads littered the floor, showing that whatever it was had been ripped out.

Beyond that, the far section of the room narrowed - the roof sloped down, the walls tapered to a curve, and the end was closed off. On the left and right sides, there were two massive circular geared hinges accompanied by two monolithic metal struts, and peering carefully, they could see dozens of interleaved reinforced blocks of serrated metal, which seemed to create a sort of horizontal zig-zagging seam between an upper and a lower section. From the look of the gears and struts, It looked like the lower section could be lowered down, like some sort of ramp, perhaps.

Cold quickly surveyed the room, giving a quick worried glance towards Scales, trying to determine how badly battered he was. But it seemed to be nothing more then a bruise. On a mortal, he might have been slightly worried, but as far as he knew, all Lunars were as supernaturally sturdy as himself. If he could take a wound that cripple a mortal and heal it in a blink of an eye, Scales should be able to do that, right?

His feline eyes passed over the space were something really big used to be, noticing how the giant cables that had once connecting it to the rest of the structure all seemed to be hanging limply. Was this the place where the essence cannon was supposed to be? It certainly didn't have anything to do with the controls. He looked around more, trying to find anything useful, even just something written down in Old Realm that he could point to and ask Scales to read, so they had more of a clue of what was going on, where they were at.

The Casteless Lunar certainly didn't relish the thought of being trapped at a dead end when this thing activated. Though he'd never show it, inwardly, he began to panic. Even after he had gotten bashed around, Scales seemed like he couldn't get enough of this sorcery business, but Cold's prejudice against it still lingered. He looked around frantically for anything that could represent a way out. Perhaps he could try and again rely on brute strength, but he certainly didn't relish the idea of trying to pry apart and climb in-between the set of large metal teeth - each one attached to the hull with massive bolts - when they could reactivate at any moment and turn him into Lunar paste.

And they he saw it: on the ceiling: it wasn't obvious at first glance, but between all the thick shorn-off cables and dangling dead wires, there was what looked like a man-sized access hatch with a handle on it, which looked like it might lead upwards.

"Found something!" Cold pointed out the access hatch. Changing from his cat form back into his wolfish War Form, he reached up and grabbed the hatch, eager to see where this one lead towards.

With a strong tug at the metal handle, the square hatch swung downward, causing a telescoping metal ladder built into its top side to slide free and lock into place a few feet above the floor.

Skidding into the open space on paws more suited for snowy environs and with a nasty bruise, Scales has only just enough time to take a quick glance at their surroundings before the ladder clanged down to the floor next to him.

"'l'll go up first," Cold said, "in case there is something dangerous at the top of it." He grabbed the ladder and quickly started to climb up. This felt... strange? Inside him there was both a sense of excitement at the mystery on display, as well as an odd tingle of prejudice: this all did seem to smell like sorcerous business.

Climbing into the unknown depths of an ancient death trap without me? I will not miss any of this. With that thought and a snarl of effort, Scales, still in his arctic fox form, jumped onto Cold’s furry back, clinging to it as the larger Lunar climbed the ladder. Onwards and upwards!

"You're lucky we're in a hurry." Cold said as he started to climb up. I'm not a steed or stepping stool, he annoyingly thought to himself, still stinging inwardly at how the Sword Maiden had recently used his shoulders as a springboard for her attack on the Tiger's Eye Queen.

The two Lunars quickly ascended the ladder into the low-ceilinged gangway that ran above the room they had entered, requiring Cold to crouch. On both left and the right, there were identical areas that bulged out, in what looked like hemispherical bubbles of glass and metal. The glass seemed to be covered by rock dust caked on the outside, preventing them from seeing out to whatever was on the other side.

On the floor at the center of each hemispherical bubble, there was a low, reclining seat outfitted with a tangle of decayed leather straps. In front of each seat was a bulky apparatus with a pair of hand grips on the back, circular wheels on the sides that looked like they caused them to move, and a large, circular rusted metal spiderweb-like crosshair projecting from atop it. The two devices were connected by a metal mechanical linkage that looked like it caused them to move in unison. A number of cables and wire bundles that connected the two ran down through holes in the floor panels into the room below, as well as up to the roof.

Cold looked at the two devices. "Right... sooo." he started. "You're the sorcerer. What are we looking at? You should have an idea here, right?" There was a bit of hope in Cold's voice - perhaps maybe Scales would be able to stop this thing from waking up, before everything went down in flames.

Dropping from his place on Cold's shoulder and transforming in mid-air, Scales' now-human feet hit the deck with a thump. There had to be something here, something that can quiet the ship. Moving quickly, he started poking around the devices in front of the chairs and and examining the glass domes. No, no, no. Nothing. Stymied by a lack of leads, he stepped back, thinking about the odd shape of the ship and its features.

Those glass bubbles looked somewhat like eyes... and if the area below looked like the inside of a mouth... then behind us would be... but how to get access?... Eyes use nerves to connect to the brain on a real creature; hopefully this is a detailed enough recreation to include that too. Scales, relying on his experience at vivisection, scanned the various bundles of wires, closely following them on their snaky path, looking for one that would best resemble an optic nerve.

The No-Moon Lunar's eyes honed in on the thickest, heaviest cable that came upwards from the floor in front of him. It went all the way to the roof of the room they were in, and snaked backwards to an area behind the Lunars. He rapidly traced its pathway backwards, over the hatch they had emerged from, and through the low hallway behind it, where it seemed to pass through a gasket at the top of a plain bulkhead. If he was right about the the area they were in being analogous to a skull, behind the bulkhead just might be the place where the brain would be. At a quick glance, the bulkhead didn't seem to be reinforced, and it certainly wasn't made of the dark alloy that the exterior armor plates were made of. Strange - it didn't even have the same sheen that a common iron plate would have - this one was a dull, unassuming grey. He had seen the material before, and wracked his memory trying to remember.

After a moment, he recognized it for what it was: the bulkhead was made of lead, like the ballast blocks sometimes used in the keels of sailing vessels to keep them upright in a storm. Far softer than any good metal, but twice as heavy. It could be cut with a sharp knife.

Preoccupied with the mystery, Scales muttered to himself. "This should lead to where the brain would be, but why is the metal different..."

Cold followed Scales' gaze. This was witchy bullshit. Everybody knew a guy that knew a guy that heard of somebody that poked at old sorcery things the wrong way, and ended up growing four new heads, before they started to breathe fire and then exploded. Scales was far more of an expert in all this sorcerous crap than he was though. "You want me to tear off that metal plate?" He looked closer at the strange material.

Snapping out of his thoughts at Cold's question, Scaled answered him. "Yes, I think something important is behind here." He backed off to give the beastly Lunar some space.

Much to Cold's surprise, as his claws slammed home, he found that he easily cut into the soft metal. After the momentary confusion, he started to put his back into it. Sinking his claws deeper to get a better grip, he started to pull them through the metal.

The Casteless Lunar's razor-sharp, inch-and-a-half long claws drove into the soft metal, easily penetrating through to the other side of the bulkhead. With a motion like a swimmer plunging through the waves, he wrenched down, dragging his natural weapons through the lead plate again and again at every angle, carving long parallel gouges through the bulkhead. After a dozen swipes in a few seconds of time, the wall had been mostly reduced to deformed ribbons that barely held on. Throwing his shoulder forward, the exalted beast crashed through it, opening up a Lunar-sized hole in his wake, and Scales followed behind.

"What the?..." both of them thought to themselves at the same time. The chamber beyond the bulkhead was strange. The walls seemed to be made of the same soft metal bulkheads as the one they had just cut through, with most also having heavy cable bundles running through gaskets in them. Inside the room, all the heavy cables were severed away. Mangled iron struts were all around them, likewise shaven off. Sensing something odd, they looked upwards: The roof was gone as well, replaced by a huge hole in the dark alloy plating above him, the edges torn and bent. If this was the creature's 'brain,' as Cold had heard Scales mutter under his breath, then it seemed like it had been scooped out, as if with a giant spoon. Whatever had been in here, it was no longer.

Cold blankly stares at the destroyed 'brain' and then steps aside to let Scales look at the ruined space. "Well, whatever was in here. It isn't here anymore. Do you know of anything else we can try? Should I just start bashing stuff?"

Staring at the hollow space, Scales lets out a sigh. Of course this would be gone too. "I don't have any other ideas, and I think we only have a few seconds left before time runs out. I would hold on to something, we don't know what's going to happen!" Doing just that, Scales anchors himself with one of the sheared cables.

Seeing no reason to doubt Scales' comment, Cold quickly braces himself against the nearest strut that looks still structurally sound, and simply hangs on.

---

Suddenly, every portion of the vessel became bathed in red light, and a loud alarm starting blaring. From the way their stomachs dropped, it felt like the Exalts had all suddenly been lifted a few feet upward - the vessel seems to have gotten to its feet. A disembodied woman's voice crackled to life in Old Realm, and could be heard throughout the entire vessel, seemingly coming from many direction at once. The voice was strangely flat, and didn't sound like it came from any living throat.

 
"Captain, I have detected boarders on the bridge and near the reactor. Releasing automated airborne countermeasures in fifteen second. All crew, don your respirators immediately."

"Captain, I cannot locate signs of life from registered crew. Assessment: Mass Casualty Event. Captain, I will be assuming emergency control and initiating Protocol: Phoenix."


The whole cavern started rumbling and shaking as the massive vessel came to life. Those within who did not grab tight hold of something fixed in place were thrown to the floor.

Anyone outside would have observed how, with a smooth motion cloaked in a massive cloud of rock dust, the Thousand-Forged Dragon slithered loose from its hibernation warren, whipping around in its den until its head was exposed and free, before the massive automaton exited into the large, wood-covered condensation hollow, taking a few tentative steps as it freed its body and unfurled its wings. The clicking sounds of its armored claws tapping against the wooden roots bounced throughout the hollow. It seemed to be going through further protocols and self-tests, spreading all the joints in its wings and legs and claws and tail, and opening and closing its jaw in degrees, and shaking off the tons of gravel that remained packed into all of its nooks and crevices.

It was truly massive, at least rivaling the size of the river ship that had taken the Exalts upriver from Nexus less than a week ago. It had a set of glass and metal eyes on its head, and below those, there were two more sets of glowing eye-slits in the metal surfaces below. It had a long tail that still had mostly not emerged from within its hibernation den. From its head to its back foot, it was about a tenth of the length of the hollow itself.

Cold and Scales heard the same message as chunks of rock rained down upon them through the hole above them.  The voice was being broadcast through the entire vessel - not just within the cockpit. As they held on for dear life, suddenly they were flooded with the bioluminescent light from the cavern.  It was coming from above them, through the hole in the Automaton's skull, a sign that the Thousand-Forged Dragon emerged out from its hiding place and into the large hollow.

"Crap, shit, fuck!" Cold cursed as the ship began moving, throwing the two of them about. "What's it saying?" Cold yelled over the noise at Scales.

Slamming into walls as the ship jerked, Scales shouted back, “It’s waking up! I think it’s going to release poison into the air!” Scales’ heart was hammering with fear… and excitement. Trapped inside this awakening artifact and threatened with death, he realized that there was no other place he would want to be.

Warden spent some time turning his head to look for the source of the voice, for a face he could address, before giving it up and just yelling loudly into the air in Old Realm, matching the thing's language: "Please stop, we're not boarders. We mean you no harm!" He tried to show none of the nervousness he felt as he stood there, attempting to project an aura of serene peacefulness to accompany his words, his solar anima that surrounded him pulsated in waves of gentle, golden glowing light as his caste mark brightly shone.

A quick whirring sound followed by a few clicks was heard in the cockpit as the entire vessel became totally still for a half a second. Then another message in Old Realm:
 
"Alert: Unidentified boarders, this Vessel is property of the Deliberative Navy. Parlay Protocols enabled. You now have an additional 30 seconds to depart the vessel before anti-intrusion countermeasures will activate."
 
The feminine voice continued, speaking more rapidly this time. There was a hint of emotion in the mechanical voice. It seemed.... frantic, angry.
"Query: What have you done with Captain Vanilo? Return Captain Vanilo to me unharmed, or you will be destroyed."

"We didn't do anything to your captain!" shouted Warden. "You've been here for hundreds of years, maybe thousands. He is likely long-dead." He answered the frantic voice as he slowly made his way towards the exit, attempting not to make any too-sudden movements. For the benefits of his companions who didn't speak Old Realm, he translated to a language they could understand: "It says it's a Deliberative Navy vessel and it's asking what we did to its captain. And uh, it's giving us 30 seconds to leave the ship."

Cub mentally cursed at herself for slacking in her Old Realm studies when they had electives in her second year at the Spiral Academy, and focusing on Low Realm instead. Admittedly, her faculties with Low Realm had had been useful to be able to understand the dregs of the Imperial City speaking amongst themselves on occasion in her previous vocation, but the importance of that rather paled in relation to her current circumstances. Following Warden towards the door, she added in the only language they all shared: "It seems prudent to follow its instructions."

Deliberative Navy seemed to Cub like a particularly strange way to describe the ownership of this... vessel. Navy could perhaps be broadened to also cover flying ships, even if those would have quite different uses than ocean-going vessels. And of course the Deliberative had no navy, be it blue-water, brown-water, or indeed air. And neither had the Shoguns' Deliberative in the First Age. Which meant.... what?

The Vessel's voice replied again to Warden's protestations:
 
"Clock Error. Testimony unverifiable. Repeat: Exit the Vessel and produce Captain Vanilo. You have 20 seconds to comply."

Warden stepped out through the bashed-open hatch and jumped down to the ground, hoping to satisfy at least the first half of the Vessel's demands. "Do you have eyes in there?" He called out, pleading with the voice of the vessel. "Can't you see what the passage of time did to the remains of your captain?!"

"It must be talking about an Anathema Deliberative," Cub said aloud, her mind wheeling at the revelation. "The organization must have been quite different from both the Realm and the Shogunate if the Deliberative itself was in command of armed forces, particularly armed forces with something like this at their disposal. If they had a navy, they probably also had an army. Could this mean that the Anathema were not led by a sovereign like the Empress and the Shoguns before her?"

Cub and the others followed Warden out the door, also jumping down to the wood-covered floor of the cavern. Examining the metal necklace in her hands, she looked at the others, and lifted it up. "Do you think me holding this is why it thinks we have taken the captain?"

Meanwhile, Cold stared at Scales as the ship began talking, with Warden's muffled shows in response also being quickly translated by his knowledgeable Lunar companion. His stomach dropped slightly at the mention of poison gas. The whole situation was only made worse by the fact that Scales sounded a bit too excited and eager to be in this near-death situation. As far as Cold knew, he couldn't exactly punch poison gas. So when the ship once again piped up, and Scales told him that they only had 20 seconds remaining, he made the decision on his own to bail. Grabbing the smaller Lunar and tucked him under his arm, he jumped upwards, using the hanging cables like vines to haul himself and Scales upward, out of the metal contraption's open skull. "You can take a look at this thing from a safe distance!" He said as he slid down the side of the vessel, before leaping off and landing safely on the ground below, heading over to join Warden and the others before releasing the protesting Scales.
 
The Automaton's frantic-sounding feminine voice sounded again, as the Exalts dropped to the wooden floor below and backed off.
 
"Repeat:" Return Captain Vanilo to me unharmed, or you will be destroyed. You have ten seconds to comply."
 
It seemed that without the force of solar essence giving weight to Warden's words, as he had done earlier, the vessel would not give any consideration to what he had to say.
 
"Look, Sunbathed Wind-" Warden began, drawing upon all of his power to persuade, as his anima flared into a blazing aura of golden shimmering heat. He hoped very hard that this things thoughts and emotions were similar enough to people - he knew how to console a grieving comrade or spouse.
"I can imagine how you feel, how it feels to fear for a loved one, when they are suddenly gone. And it is normal to feel like that. It takes time to process such a thing, where it hurts so bad you might think it will never get better-" His voice stumbled for a moment, perhaps a memory of his own losses brought to the forefront before he continued. "But it does get better with time. Lashing out at us will do nothing to return Captain Vanilo to you, and it won't make you feel better. So please, don't do this."

The Thousand Forged Dragon turned its head to get a look at the Solar with the burning anima flare that was addressing it. Clicks and whirs were heard again, as the same voice as they heard before was projected from the head of the metal behemoth.
 
"Assessment: Lie."

"Assessment: Boarders do not have Captain Vanilo. Captain Vanilo misidentified as male 23 seconds ago. Captain Vanilo is female."

"Conclusion: Captain Vanilo has evaded capture and requires assistance. Lethal prosecution of boarders is insignificant at this time. Delay in rescue efforts is unacceptable. Signatures of boarders recorded for later prosecution."
 
The entire cavern began rumbling violently as the Sunbathed Wind folded its wings and began bounding at extreme speed towards the tunnel in and out of the huge condensation hollow. The beast managed to barely fit within its confines, its numerous spiky appendages scraping against the wooden exterior lining the cave walls. The moments ticked by as the rumbles continued in the distance, until they were replaced by a strange sound that evoked hundreds of high-speed whirring blades cutting through the air, and suddenly the rumbles stopped. The Thousand-Forged Dragon must have taken flight in the Far Artery. A few seconds later, a wave of pressure washed over the exalts, as a blast of hot wind wormed its way down back through the tunnel and into the cavern.

And with that, the Sunbathed Wind was gone.
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The Circle Collects Themselves after their Encounter with the Malfunctioning Thousand-Forged Dragon

“Uh” Khī said, momentarily lost for words, her headwrap slightly askew from the wind. “Okay sound off, who’s not dead”

"I'm not!" Cold called back as he dusted himself off. "And I dragged out Scales as well, so he's fine, physically at least."

The Sword Maiden had evaded falling debris with some grace, danced over falling rubble, and gazed after the Thousand-Forged Dragon as it bounded off. Much like anyone else, she was somewhat unprepared for a situation like that.

Warden watched the dragon race off without a single word. On one hand, that wasn't exactly what he had in mind, but on the other, it wasn't attacking so he'd count his blessings. "I'm unharmed as well."

Bryoph stumbled out of the tunnel mouth where he was sheltering, coughing up rock dust as he moved towards the cart. He was clutching Pinales to his chest. Apparently, the rock elemental had been crushed against the wooden wall by the the force of the Thousand-Forged Dragon's passage, but he had managed to shelter his less sturdy friend from the brunt of the assault. His back looked pretty badly scraped up though.

Meanwhile, a dim red glow became evident from the hibernation chamber where the Sunbathed Wind had been sheltering for all those years. In the center of the chamber, there was a pillar of dark, igneous rock protruding up from the ground, a good eight feet high and four feet across. It was interlaced with thin red lines just under its surface that faintly pulsed with nearly imperceptible motion.

Cub reaches out for Khi - who happened to be nearest - for support. "Physically I'm fine, but that was rather more dramatic than I'm entirely comfortable with." She takes a deep breath and continues. "I'm happy everyone seems to be well," she says, looking over the assembled Exalts and elementals to reassure herself that her statement is in fact true. "It's a pity the vessel departed, but with such a hostile spirit in charge of it, that is probably for the best."

Khī stiffens immediately at the contact, clearly slightly uncomfortable, but moves to help the other woman keep on her feet. She certainly wasn’t alone- Khī was feeling distinctly weak at the knees, and uncomfortably aware how close they had all just come to dying

Cold sauntered over, still half dragging Scales behind him with a smile on his face. He didn't look to be bothered about nearly dying. "So, any of you know what that thing was? It didn't really look like a ship." He gave a worried glance at the slightly bashed-up earth elemental. "Is he alright?," He asks the people who can actually speak Old Realm.

Cub gave Khi an apologetic smile and withdrew her hand once she has found her feet, after noticing the other woman's discomfort. "Not in any great detail," Cub half-answered Cold. "Some kind of terribly powerful Anathema-built vessel from before the Great Uprising."

"Ahh," Cold say's with a nod, pretending that he understood anything that was just said. The smile on his face morphed into a look of curiosity. "I wonder if I'll ever be able to make something like that..."

"It seemed very confused, being utterly convinced we kidnapped its Captain," observed Warden. "Maybe the age damaged its mind."

"And the centuries of loneliness," added Cub. "To say nothing of the fact that it had its parts torn out to construct a drill. I expect that a sentient warship would find that a disturbing experience."

Khī shrugged, imperceptibly, sort of sheepish, but shuffles over to stand beside Cub. She wasn’t entirely sure what it was that had made her uncomfortable. Surely she would have had the same reaction for anyone else in their little circle. “The passage of millennia and changes of the flow of essence in the world can warp such things to dangerous effect. Frankly, it’s impressive that the construct still worked.” She thought back to her own Ysirian heritage. Restoring Pinnacle to its modern day power was a feat of engineering that took several hundred years, and was still ongoing. The redirection of dragon lines, as Khī understood, was a formidable project that had required an incredible amount of labor and skills that only the perfects could aspire to.

"It got it's skull torn open, and had was where its brains is supposed to be got scooped out," noted Cold a bit crudely. "It's how I managed to get out with Scales," he happily added.

“Oh.” Khī said, “A lobotomized war machine. What a thing to have unleashed."

I will find you again, Sunbathed Wind; this isn't over until there are no secrets left to find, thought Scales. "On the bright side, I think we found what the Lodestool sent us to find." Finally standing up after being dragged by Cold, Scales indicated to the glowing rock pillar, then paused. "Unless it was talking about the metal dragon. Or perhaps both."

Cold looked over towards the giant pillar of rock that seems to pulse with an inner fire. "Well, we already got a sample from the dragon, so the mushroom witch can figure it out on their own time." He took few steps closer to the giant rock spire, intent on getting a closer look. "This looks like it has some power of its own. Do you think the god could tap into this to keep its fertility thing running, instead of stealing it from other places?"

"Perhaps," Cub answers Cold's query, "Tramezia has show a remarkable ability to extract resources from the land itself. Perhaps those will also lend themselves to extracting Essence from a demesne without having to go through the rather laborious process of building a manse proper." She turned to Scales. "What exactly did this Lodestool tell you to find? Do you think there's a chance they knew about the vessel?"

"They told us to come to this location and retrieve a core sample," answered Scales. "There was an unexpected amount of geomantic energy in this location."

"Does that mean we should take a sample of the giant glowing rock?" asked Cold. It was clear that he was eager to use the Lodestool's light-drill again, clearly intoxicated with its power.

"Since the threats here have been dealt with, the Lodestool can come inspect the place itself," noted Warden cautiously. "The Lodstool won't need us to bring a sample back anymore - they can get it themselves."

"Now that it's is in the open, we should offer this place of power up in trade as soon as possible," suggested Nameless. "It will eventually be located, so we should get value while we can."

"We are kind of here already," sulked Cold, he went over towards the cart and retrieved the Lodestool's drill - he undeterred by Warden's caution, and clearly nothing was going to stop his curiosity. "Hey Scales, do you think we still have enough water to wet me down? This thing looks hot." Cold waited for Scales to check if they had enough water to spare.

Scales rubbed his bruised side and checked on the status of the train - they were lucky that it hasn't been crushed to splinters under the claws of the massive battle airship. The No-Moon Caste shook his head after he examined the dowsing rod - the water levels were too low to be that wasteful.

Testing that it was cool enough to handle, Cold carefully unscrewed the block of dark alloy that they had cut from the vessel's hull from the end of the drill and laid it down with a heavy thud onto the cart. At least they had a memento of the Sunbathed Wind to remember it by, and who knows - this block of strange metal might come in handy.

Walking over to the fiery pillar, Cold's eyes began to water and the fur on his face began to singe from the heat. There was some sort of slowly circulated flow of gelatinous lava underneath the large pores of the rocky exterior, glowing through and feverishly radiating geomantic energy. Another of creation's mysteries to be pondered by savants - but this Lunar had a job to do. Raising the Lodestool's device up to a solid-looking portion of the column that didn't seem likely to blast him with a stream of pressurized fire, he slowly begin to drill away with the corkscrew tip, cutting into the black igneous rock. Thankfully, it was made of far more softer stuff than the nigh-impenetrable hull of the Sunbathed Wind, and the bit immediately went to work carving its way through the porous stone. It only took a few seconds of cranking for the device to be firmly anchored into place. Cold was sweating profusely at the intense heat, the tips of his hairs beginning to smolder and turn to ash.

CRACKIZZLE went the Lodestool's invention as it ablated its way through a foot of rock in a heartbeat, the blast of blinding violet energy cutting loose a cone-shaped block from the pillar. The Lunar couldn't back away fast enough with his prize to escape the heat. A slow ooze of lava began to seep out of through the newly revealed pores in the stone, almost like blood, steadily filling in the gap that Cold had blasted away and drizzling down the outside of the column like scar tissue healing a wound. The lava hardened rapidly as it was exposed to the cooler air outside, leaving dark red vertical streaks of tacky molten rock that would eventually turn to black stone and last thousands of years.

Cold walked back to the rest of the group - he had been dry when he walked off, and now the lunar was soaked head to toe in his own sweat. A shimmer of residual heat radiated off the young lunar, and the fur on part of his front side had visibly blackened, horribly clashing with the snow white portions of the coat that remained. It was clear that for most people, exalted or not, this little jaunt would've ended with heavy burns or worse. "Well, I got it now, so there's no use arguing about it."

Carefully maneuvering the cart back to face the way they came, Scales spoke up. “Tiger’s eye gems, part of a metal dragon, and a chunk of solidified fire essence. I’m sure at least one of these is what they are looking for. If we’re all done here, shall we go see what the Sunbathed Wind has been up to out in the main tunnel?”

The Exalts and their elemental guides clambered aboard Train 41, giving a generous berth to the smoldering hunk of rock dangling from the end of the Lodestool's drill. Aided by the ample light from the glowing animas of the Celestials, Scales began retracing their path out of the Condensation Hollow and back to the Far Artery.

Upon reaching the wide passage, it wasn't difficult to figure out what had happened to cause the huge wave of pressure they had experienced earlier: There were two massive, long parallel blast marks seared into the root-wood floor, each extending around 300 feet down the tunnel towards the south, further away from the direction of Lushfield. The Lunar's keen direction senses informed them that they were around ten miles to the south of the town. If Khi were to speculate, she would guess that the enormous machines embedded within each of the Sunbathed Wing wings were responsible for the burn marks. The machines bore a striking resemblance to the vanes of a windmill.

"Well, the dragon's gone." Cold sounded a bit let down. It had been a majestic, if slightly homicidal construct. "Should we head back to the Lodestool to show them what has been doing on in this place?"

"Can't wait to meet that character, he sounds interesting!" the Sword Maiden chirped enthusiastically, disembarking Train 41 and playfully jumping over a boulder that lay in her path to catch up to Cold and investigate the burn marks on the ground herself.  The second Nameless' feet touched the ground after her little skip, she grimaced and grabbed her bruised ribs. "Ow. Forgot about that." She made a face, wrinkling her nose as she thought for a second. "Is he a he? The Lodestool? Sounded like one for some reason. But better to make sure."

"The Lodestool is a walking talking mushroom," Cold says with the surety of a person who has no idea what the actual answer is. "I don't know if those have genders... I never really thought about mushrooms other than figuring out which ones were edible." He looks over at Scales and Khi, the two people that in his experience knew the most about the weird and esoteric. "Do mushrooms have he's and she's? How about mushroom elementals?"

Khi shrugged, "Why would I know anything about mushrooms?"

"You seem the kind to lurk in places where there might be mushrooms, Khi, isn't that obvious?" Nameless tried to help, missing the mark on politeness.

“I-“ Khī stumbled a bit, “I am not sure how I should take that”

"Oh I'm sorry, I didn't want to offend you. It's just, with the mask, and..." Nameless gestured in the general direction of Khi, seemingly including everything about her. "Thought you'd take pride in the lurky aspect of your persona."

“The…lurky…aspect of my persona,” Khī said slowly, “You do realize the mask is common to most everyone where I am from, right?”

"I... Did... Not" the Sword Maiden responded, slowly, unconsciously mirroring Khi's speech pattern. "I thought it was just your thing. I guess there's a lot I don't know about you. We should talk more."

"Yes," Khi said, flatly, intending to prolong the awkward moment as long as she could.

"You're right that we should all talk more," said Cold in response to Nameless's comment, trying to break the tension. "I've talked to Warden a bit. And Scales and even with Cub. But never really with you. I mean, you only really seem to talk with Cub." He tilted his head. "More than talking, unless my nose was lying."

Nameless made a snorting sound as she tried not to laugh at Cold's revelation. Cub and Khi, fooling around with each other? That sure sounded like what Cold was suggesting. "Oh?" she said innocently, giving Cold a very curious tell-me-more look.

For what seemed like the hundredth time, Khi was deeply glad for the mask preventing the others from seeing exactly how red she was underneath it. She, of course, said nothing, nor moved. "I...I've spoken with other people," Khi protested flatly, "The Maiden and I had a productive conversation the other night regarding her memories."

Scales ignored the train wreck of a conversation in front of him, and begin the process of herding the Celestials back into the cart so they could return to their task. Chasing after the airship was obviously a fool's errand - having taken flight, it may very well be a hundred miles away by now, halfway to the end of the ancient tunnel that was supposed to run all the way down to the Yellow River. So carefully, Scales began to retrace the journey that had taken them there, deftly guiding the team back to the spot where they had their unfortunate fatal run-in with the Khi's enslaved Metody over the course of an hour. By now, it was getting to the early evening - Scales, Warden, and Cold hadn't seen the sun for nearly six hours, while Cub, Khi, and Nameless had been underground for almost half that time. They agreed to all proceed together to Tramezia's freehold to speak with the Lodestool and the God himself, and then exit the underground up through the cathedral, speaking with the Ancestor-Ghost Lo-Biven on the way.

The No-Moon had mostly managed to ignore the conversation, but Scales' curiosity about the original question was still piqued. “With regards to Cold’s original question about the Lodestool's gender, perhaps we should look to our companions. Stone does not have sexual characteristics, so what would you say, Bryoph?”

Bryoph looked at Scales in utter confusion. The Elemental didn't speak High Realm, so he had no idea of the substance of the Exalt's conversation until Scales dropped that question on him. "Broph is man and married to beautiful lady. Four children."

"Single and ready to mingle," added Pinales, completely unprompted.

“And the Lodestool?” asked Scales. I did not expect Bryoph to have kids, he thought. Wait, how does elemental reproduction even work?....

Bryoph and Pinales looked at each other and simultaneously shrugged - on that topic, they were completely ignorant.

"So how does that work?" Nameless involved herself in Bryoph and Pinales' attempt to clear up the confusion, speaking up in her oddly perfect dialect of Old Realm. "Do Elementals do it like humans?" she asked, "you know, marriage, and..." She put on a conspiratorial face and a broad smile, as she formed a circle with her left index finger and thumb, and poked her right index finger through the hole repeatedly, while making eye contact with anybody that wasn't aware enough to look away.

Khī silently thanked any gods that were listening that The Nameless Maiden had gotten distracted by making crass innuendos to local minor divinities

Warden silently cursed himself for not remaining lost in his thoughts for longer. When he resolved to learn more about Creation, the details of elemental procreation were not a part of that. Luckily he was still sitting, so he just closed his eyes and pretended to be back in deep thought again.

Cold looked over at Warden, who he knew could speak Old Realm. He was annoyed that he was cut out of the conversation. "Warden," he said as he tried to get the man's attention. "What are they saying?"

Warden cracked his eyes open again, his cover blown. "They are asking the elementals about their genders and how they reproduce. And...apparently Pinales is single and 'ready to mingle'." He summarized after a quick sigh, carefully standing up on the moving train cart to regain some blood flow in his legs.

"Ah..." Cold looked over at Pinales and Bryoph, the question now stuck in his head as well. He could have acted respectfully and disengaged from the conversation, and let Nameless figure it all out. But he started it, and couldn't deny he had questions himself. "Hey Nameless," he called out in High Realm. "Ask them if it only works with elementals of the same type, or if they can mix and match. And how it works with size differences." He doubted the spirit could be put back in the bottle, So why not join in?

"Oh and my friend with the snout wants to know" Nameless relayed, again utilizing her strangely flawless Old Realm, with a weird-to-pinpoint inflection, "Can Elementals of different kinds, you know, procreate with each other? Like differently colored humans, for example?" She thought for a second, mulling over Cold's question in her head, before shrugging. "And while you're sharing...," she relayed the rest of Cold's questions, adding a few of her own for good measure. "Oh, and Khi, if you don't want to talk about the thing with Cub, so if I overstepped, if it's not an enjoyable memory, I won't force you to relive it." She was slyly poking at the uptight masked Night Caste.

“Maiden.” Khī said, extremely flatly and sternly, “I am going to give you some unsolicited advice now. You are talking. Sometimes it is wise not to.” She turned to Cold, “Advice we all need from time to time, I think.” Amazing, really, how the masked woman was able to make her punctuation audible like that. You could practically hear the full stops.

Bryoph shut his eyes in disgust at the whole affair, the chatter from the Exalts in a mix of Old Realm and High Realm flying past his still-ringing ears. He spoke something in some elemental language to Pinales, who decided to speak for him: "He says his Old Realm's not so good so he doesn't know how to answer. Luckily though, you got Pinales here! Baby, the P-Man's a fuck machine. I got all the juicy details for you!"

Pinales immediately launched into a detailed, extremely lengthy explanation of his various sexual escapades and conquests. Everyone who could understand quickly got the impression that ninety percent of it consists of bold exaggeration or outright lies. The shrub sure can talk though - sometimes it seemed like he doesn't know how to shut up.

Pinales' explanation was in a language Cold couldn't understand a word of. But combined with Nameless' live translation, and the small shrub's vigorous gestures, it was more than enough for him to get the gist. His ears were burning after only 5 minutes into the brush's bragging.

“Men,” Khī muttered emphatically under her breath. She couldn’t speak Old Realm, but the elemental's body language left little to be imagined. She should have gotten out at the hole, when she had the chance.

"I think he's mostly lying anyway, Khi," was the Sword Maiden's attempt to smooth things over. She had been relaying everything Pinales had been saying to Cold - and whoever was listening, for that matter, a grin on her face.

“If you would like, I could tell you exactly which of his statements are true, to what extent, and the truth behind each," Khī muttered back to Nameless, as Khi was also the beneficiary of her translations. "Whatever information you got out of that, I assure you, I received far far more. And I wish I had not.” Her blessings had…downsides.

The Sapling Elemental's endless babbling occupied nearly the entire ride back through the Great Interchange and to the Elemental work camp that contained the Lodestool's hut. After a while, the sound of the unbroken gossip became almost soothing - he wouldn't be distracted even to answer questions, so it all faded into background noise.

As they pulled into the camp, it appeared that there was some sort of ongoing altercation. Two groups of elementals were arguing with each other in a subterranean language. One of the groups consisted of the elementals who wore the tall shiny headpieces of the Dowser's Guild, and the other wore the hardhats of the miners. The Dowsers seemed very angry, and the one in front was shouting and pointing demonstratively towards the roof of their union hall, which was conspicuously missing its ostentatious silver emblem. "Uh oh," said Pinales, who hopped out of the train cart. "This is elemental business, so you would be wise to stay out of it. We'll smooth it over for you, so you can deal with the Lodestool."

Nameless looked on the conflict between the Elementals, and took in location - after all, she hadn't been here before. The fact that the Elementals had such a sophisticated work environment was news to her. "Will the Lodestool care whether there's three women he doesn't know arriving, and will it be worse if it's three women and one wolf man?"

Cold ducked down into the cart, realizing a glaring issue - he had departed in the form of Hidden-Reed. He was not in the shape of Hidden-Reed anymore. He was now in his shape of a wolfish beastman. The clothes he had been wearing in the form of Hidden-Reed met a rather disastrous end, dissolved by the toxins of a dead acid demon, and were completely and utterly gone. "It can't be worse then 4 woman, one of them naked, or near so."

“I don’t think the Lodestool would mind, but Tramezia might have some questions," said Scales.

Bidding goodbye to Train 41 (and hoping the damage done to it wouldn't be too noticeable) and their Elemental Guides for now, the Celestials used the convenient escalation of the feud between the Dowsers and the Miners Guilds to sneak unnoticed to the Lodestool's quiet corner of the work camp. Entering the Lodestool's laboratory, they discovered the Mushroom Elemental hard at work slaving over a glass beaker of a dark, viscous substance being heated by a burner, the fumes rising through a hole in the roof.

"You've returned," stated the Lodestool flatly in Old Realm, a hint of surprise in its ethereal tone. Clearly, it was fully prepared for them to have disappeared into the depths without a trace, never to be heard from again. "Have you brought me what I asked for?"

"We found a pillar of geomantic fire. Does that sound right?" Scales indicates the still smoking chunk of rock still attached to the end of the drill.

Rhomb the Lodestool swooped forward uncomfortably close to the group of Celestials to examine the hunk of black igneous stone attached to the end of the drill that Cold held, the heat at its core still sending a red tinge throughout the block. The wires that connected the Lodestool's bulbous scalp up to the roof like the strings of a marionette bounced up and down in its wake. The Mushroom Elemental had not even spared a sidelong glance questioning the presence of the four newcomers that stood alongside Scales and Warden, and did not spare a single thought as to the fate of woman who was alongside them earlier, but was no longer there. After all, advances in knowledge require sacrifice above all else.

"A pillar of geomantic fire, you say? Yes, yes, that would explain things. Set it down here so I can examine it." The Lodestool indicated a spot on the stone-topped workbench, and Cold complied, laying down the drill with a thud. "It's mostly congealed, but I can still get a suitable sample." The elemental pulled out a long glass syringe, and jammed it through the pores of the igneous stone, sucking out a small vial's worth of the lava from within the chunk. The mushroom elemental sagely tapped the side of the hot glass syringe to expel any bubbles of air within. "Yes, yes, if this is what I think it is...." Swinging over to a strange glass plate under a large magnifying glass on a swivel, Rhomb let a single drop fall and harden, watching it through the magnifier.

"It's a magmatic upwelling - the pillar - from the essence pool formed at the intersection between the... let's see...." The Lodestool started pulling out charts and paging through manuals littering the laboratory. "Most likely the Ember Volcano two-degree north dragon line of elemental fire and.... the Mount Meru eighty-seven degree east dragon line of elemental earth."

As the Lodestool is engaged in his scholarly work, Cold looked over at the members of the circle who spoke Old Realm. "After he's done, do you think any of you can ask how this works?" He held up the circle of root-wood that the metody had cut out of the ceiling of the tunnel.

"I speak -" the Lodestool reacts scornfully to Cold - "High Realm. Let me see that. How did you manage to incise a perfectly round burl slab of the Rhizome Plexus," It wondered. "Not with my core sampler, I see."

"I dunno exactly?," answered Cold. "Something to do with an acid demon?" the Lunar looked annoyed as he remembered back to the acid bath he was subjected to. "A stupid one." he muttered spitefully under his breath.

“A metody,” Khi stated simply.

"A metody?" The Lodestool's beady eyes peered at Khi through the slits in her mask, pondering the sorceress. "The sixth element is a contentious subject among alchemists like myself," Rhomb stated, probing the masked woman. "Most learned treatises hold it to be anti-natural, or to deny its existence entirely."

“Anatural, is I feel more accurate,” Khī said smoothly, stepping up to examine the slice of plexus alongside the creature, “It exists only in Malfeas, where it is naturally occurring. It is held there to have been a proposed and scrapped element of the world. Anti-natural is, I think a stretch, although I can see how the unlearned can come to that conclusion. I have not had the opportunity to read much of the body surrounding it. Perhaps,” she continued, “You should secure a copy of Analects of the Yozi, the abridged version, unabridged is both unholy and typically unavailable. They usually cut out the last part of analects, anyway, as it is an extremely imperfect copy of The Broken Winged Crane. Both dangerous and useless for the relevant study. Consider also My Travels With Cytherea, although it has not been reprinted since the late shogunate.”

Khī continued, several months of occult training and years surrounded by erudition on show, but all kept strictly academic, “Frankly, there’s little a practitioner should need with The Crane anyway, especially if you aren’t a sorcerer. It is just too dangerous for what it is. You can find most of the important stuff in the White Treatise anyway, which, I assume, you have at least some familiarity with.”

The Lodestool nods slowly along with Khi's explanation. Impressive, a fellow scholar - this one's specialty seemed to be demonology, and a sorcerer to boot. Taking Khi's implicit challenge in stride, it was time for the learned alchemist to demonstrate its own knowledge:

"Tramezia metastasizes the Rhizome Plexus out from his sanctum as a culmination of his divinity, but he has never demonstrated the least interest in investigating its underlying nature beyond its most base functionality. He tolerates my presence because I have studied its characteristics, and I have developed certain compounds that alter and improve its properties. The most important one is a Lev-Wangu colloid to which I have added certain amendments to better enable it to penetrate the substructure of the Plexus. I manufacture seventy-five gallons a month of it in the distillery pools you must have seen outside. The elementals call it the oil, and they have established a whole oiler's guild that applies it fastidiously to the main transmission line. It reduces the essence loss from waste heat dissipation by more than five sixths. Without it, it's unlikely Tramezia's arrangement with the topsiders could be sustained."

“Interesting. That explains the vitriol’s efficiency. It is, of course, a creation of Malfeas’ spite against heaven and all gods,” Khī said, pulling a battered pair of spectacles from a pocket, opening them with a shake of her hand, and jamming them over her mask. They don’t quite fit, but it seems the frames have been bent over many years of doing exactly this. “Lev-Wangu as in the Third Yellow Jade Postulate Lev Wangu? You’ll have to forgive me, alchemy isn’t my specialty. I suppose waste heat dissipation gets to be a significant issue on this scale. Can you give me and my colleague Scales Glisten an overview? He is likewise a specialist, although I suspect he’ll have different insights than either of us,”

"No, no, Lev Wangu is the daughter," clarified the Lodestool. "The colloid is named jointly after its discoverers Lev and Wangu - who were her parents. A common mistake, however."

“I had no idea. I just remember reading the postulate- of course it worked, but just the once!” Khī said, chuckling at her own joke, fully ignoring how inaccessible a joke about yellow jade replicability would be. She’d read the thing to Sadrica years prior, and remembered fondly laughing about the futility of the process.

Cold looked at Khi in surprise as she took out the pair of glasses and jammed them over her mask. He had tried to keep up with the conversation. The gist was that the Lodestood made something that made essence flow through the wood better and create less heat. The rest went over his head entirely. "Euhm.. are do any of those compound thingies make it easy to shape or mold the wood?" Cold tries to gently ask in between the rapid fire academics. He had his own ideas of what he wanted to do with the wooden plate he had scrounged up.

“Likely depends on the stability of the colloidal as it relates to the essence construct meridians. And probably on how much you’d want to get out of it,” Khī said, quickly, before looking to the Lodestool, “I’m assuming you’ve made an examination into this?”

"Yes, of course," calmly stated the Lodestood, before moving aside to let Scales join in the conversation, ignoring the substance of Cold's question for now. "Now, as to your earlier question, the Rhizome Plexus in fact has two distinct components - the Harvest Multiplex and the Distribution Manifold. Both nucleate from Tramezia's Sanctum, where the critical interface between the two resides, but they very perform different roles. The Harvest Multiplex is formed of the hardwood roots, and as the name implies, it harvests essence from the soil and earth around it. The Distribution Manifold is a network of branching capillaries that penetrate into the soil above and all around, providing the everlasting fertility."

The Lodestool pondered for a moment. "The fertility requirements for the surface humans have not changed, but I have still not worked out how Tramezia successfully harvested enough essence before I arrived and developed the oil. It would be geomantically impossible, given the distances involved."

“He had access to a hearthstone, until recently," responded Khī. The location we discovered is, I suspect, an uncapped demesne, which would probably solve a lot of the issues. I imagine you’d need to do some significant restructuring of the multiplex to make the geomantic harmonies line up right, but it’s not out of the question.” She frowned beneath the mask, “In fact, speaking of, do you have a map of the network?”

"A hearthstone - that would explain quite a lot," noted the Lodestool. "If it was powerful enough, and Tramezia kept it in his Sanctum housed in a suitable flux detainer that was connected to the nucleus of the Distribution Manifold, it could provide more than enough essence to make up the geomantic difference, or perhaps even obviate the requirement for the Harvest Multiplex entirely." The Lodestool returned to peering at the hardened drop of lava that it had squirted out from the glass syringe onto his investigation plate. "I agree that the magamatic upwelling is likely a desmense which could be tapped into by the Multiplex. In fact, the wood of the Multiplex would likely seek it out instinctually as a component of its intrinsic thirst. I wonder what prevented it from naturally doing so already."

Rhomb reached into a pile of papers, eventually producing a folded parchment covered in dust. Shaking it off, it unfurled a large map of the Multiplex. It seemed to extend nearly a hundred-fifty miles to the south, branching out from the central trunk that was the Far Artery like a skinny spruce tree. "It may be a decade or three out of date, but you can have this."

Khī seemed to be momentarily lost for words, an indignant eep escaping her mouth. “A decade or three?!” She said, her voice notably higher, with great intensity, “Is no one accurately documenting changes? No wonder you’re dealing with heat bleed, it’s a miracle the thing works at all!” A geomantic working on this scale, and no one, apparently, checking the work?

"It is as I told you," said the Lodestool. "Tramezia has no love for the majesty of intellectual pursuits nor for the savants who practice it. He is a consummate politician, and goes where the winds of popular opinion take him. Once he allocated substantially support to my efforts to systematically study and document the wonders within his domain. But after the incident involving the expedition to what we now know to be this desmense, the Elementals turned against me en masse in a coordinated strike action across every one of their unions. Tramezia consequently revoked his grants and cut my resources to the bone to placate their unenlightened rage. It was a truly despicable show of cowardice and cowtowing to the vulgar rabble. All he cares is that his Rhizome Plexus functions sufficiently to meet his obligations to his landlords up above, so that he can spend the maximum amount of his time bathing in adulation from his elemental followers."

“This is,” Khī said, actual rage breaking into her voice, “displeasurable to me. I once ordered a man stoned to death for building his home too close to an important geomantic zone. This is an order of magnitude greater,” Khī turned toward the spirit, practically vibrating in her intensity.

The sign of the Unconquered Sun, mostly without any conscious input from Khī, driven by the righteous rage of a lawgiver doing precisely what they had been made to, flared to life, burning on the brow of her mask. Too many injustices were carried out here, and she would bring them all into line. It was Right. It was Necessary. And most importantly it was The Law, the construct which ensured a safe and orderly and correct society. 

She declared, in her most authoritative voice:
 
“By my right as Perfected Magistrate of Ysyr, First Class, under the license of Sadrica Ap Pinnacle, granted in absentia extremis, you are hereafter deputized, spirit, by license of the perfected council of Ysyr, equally in absentia, to aid and abet me in the course of necessary investigations, so long as they should not exceed or impede your regular duties. My license to compel you thus is derived from personal mandate of The Unconquered Sun, delivered by revalation to myself, Khī aka Sadrica Ar White Hook, as well as more generally granted by the Mandate of Heaven, sometimes called the celestial mandate. You are legally allowed to refuse, however doing so may be in contempt of court, as declared by Khī Aka Sadrica Ar White Hook, Magistate First Class, in absentia extremis, under the oversight of the most beneficent and wise perfect council, all honors intended, et cetera, et cetera. Do you so accept, spirit? If so, than you will, without delay, assist me in procuring up to date and accurate plans, diagrams or other such helpful devices or sundry relating to the unauthorized geomantic construct known as the Rhizome Plexus”

The Lodestool was forcefully dropped down to one knee in the blink of an eye, bowing its fungal head in subservience, as if a massive weight had been thrust upon its skinny shoulders. The Creation-Governing Celestial Mandate asserted itself over Rhomb, who was all too willing to obey. Obedience to Khi's will, through her inheritance of the Solar creation-ruling birthright, was compelled in that moment through every fiber of the mushroom elemental's being.

“You can stand up,” Khī said a few seconds later, back to her much drier, more monotonous self. “Let’s get these charts,”

The Lodestool stands up and immediately begins rifling through assorted cabinets, drawers, piles of books, and even under a false floorboard in a feverish effort to collect pertinent documents - it was as it the elemental alchemist was possessed by the lunatic soul of Lev Wangu herself, in the throes of jade transmutation madness. After a few moments, it had collected a pile of myriad notebooks and papers, held in a long spindly arm against its body, which was promptly dumped on a table in the space formerly occupied by a collection of books and laboratory glassware, swept to the floor with complete disregard. "This is everything I have about the Pleuxus, more than a century's worth of study," the Lodestool eagerly announced. What do we need to know first!?"

Taken aback by the surprising sight of Khi's glasses and utterly mystified by the rapid discussion of geomancy and treatises, Scales keeps quiet, listening and committing their words to memory to go over later. No better way to learn about a subject than to have two experts in it.

"To begin with, we'll need a complete map of the tunnels, as up to date as possible. Which one of the guilds would have it?" Khi said, beginning to pore over the documents, "Scales?" She says, not looking up from the sheafs she appears to be speed-reading, "Do you have any familiarity with geomancy?"

"That's easy enough - your colleague here -" the Lodestool indicated to Scales - "already has a copy of the most detailed map available, at least when it comes to the surrounding twenty miles, which I've characterized in extreme detail. I gave it to him about four hours ago. For the larger picture though, I'm afraid the map I just handed to you is the best I've got. The Miner's guild might have something slightly better, to reflect new growths of the Multiplex at its terminus over the past fifteen or twenty years, but I'm not sure if it will be necessary for your purposes."

"I'm afraid that is an area I'm somewhat lacking in. I do have some knowledge, but clearly not as much as you two." Scales brings out the map, sliding it over to Khi.

"It will be," she said, holding a hand out to Scales to grab the map, not looking at the lunar, "Any disruption of essence allows for blockages and inefficiencies, which can lead to essence pooling, which can lead to," Khī sucked her teeth, "Unintended essence venting. Looks like we have there are vents located here and here," She says, pointing at two points on a couple of the charts, "but without doing the calculations, I can't be sure if they're properly placed. I'm no expert, I just know where things should be to prevent catastrophe. Scales, to catch you up, the flow of essence through a geomantic construction, or really any arrangement is not actually all that dissimilar to a body's natural essence flows. I suspect your facility with the black art may produce some useful insights. Does anyone have tea?"

Cold looks completely and utterly lost now, but there is still one little question bouncing around in his head. "What about Tramezia himself?" he pipes up. "He might not give a crap about any of this, but he still relies on the system to keep himself in power. And as far as I'm aware, the thing doesn't work without him either, since he's the source of the root wood. So maybe you might have to think about getting him to agree as well."

“Ah, yes, the delinquent god. Well, he will have his time, I suppose." said Khī. "As far as I am aware, reckless endangerment of the public, extortion of undue prayer and divine malfeasance are all serious crimes. Ah, do be a dear, Cold, and schedule a court date,” She paused, realizing what she was saying, “I think I may have overstepped. Warden? I understand you spoke with the accused? Finnicky script Cub’s people have,” Khī muttered in reference to the written High Realm of the Lodestool's notes, flipping through ream after ream. These were alchemy- not much intelligible to her here. Silently, she handed them over to Scales. Maybe the necromancer might be able to make something of them

Warden thought that it was quite the scene, Khi suddenly claiming that much authority. He had tried to follow along with her conversation with the elemental but found himself left far behind, until the topic came back to more practical things. "Well, first off, is it really extortion if he entered into an accord with the government and the local immaculate authority, who by my understanding are the ones setting the prayer calendar in the first place? It was an underhand and secret deal, but that is an offense committed by Honto against the people of Lushfield, not of the god." It was a strange situation to come to the god's defense all of a sudden, but on this at least now he knew more about the situation. "Besides, we are in the process of trying to broker a new deal between him and Lushfield that eliminates the prayer fraud. More generally, I'm not sure trying to put him on trial is going to end well, here. These elementals and their society depend on him, and the people of Lushfield will face great famines as well. Do you have the means to compel or bind him to such tasks? I would be surprised. We, like all with power, have a duty to stop wrongdoing where we see it. But that doesn't mean we can plunge not one but two thriving societies into chaos in the process. As was said before, Tramezia is a politician. Give him a solution where he stays in power and he will take it."

“Well, of course, a stay of execution is probably in order. Perhaps community service can be arranged…” Khī muttered, “Honto’s culpability doesn’t actually excuse the god’s transgressions. If I could, I’d drag every one of them to answer for their crimes. Underhanded deals have no place in a well-ordered society." Khī paused for a moment, consumed by a rare moment of reasonable self-reflection, “I am, ah, not a diplomat. But a more efficient and safer rhizome network would benefit everyone. And neatly solve much of the problem. If we draw up a plan, can you convince him it’s in his best interest to accept it? It’s not quite justice, but I suppose it could do.”

"If you can list the benefits in concrete and simple to grasp terms, I think that could be doable," replied Warden. "Especially if a second source he knows-" His eyes fell on the Lodestool. "Can confirm your conclusions."

The Sword Maiden had quietly listened to the exchanged between Khi and the others. The Night Caste seemed to have firmly taken point, and Nameless was happy staying in the background, fading out of mind when she wasn't needed. She could always translate for the others, but the Lodestool spoke good High Realm, and there seemed to be a working relationship blossoming. On the question of Celestial law and politics, she was utterly unable to contribute, so she instead scoped out the surroundings, taking note of the number of Elementals working, protesting, doing their thing. If the situation went bad, she'd at least not be surprised, but until then she was content with at least not being perceived while being useless.

The Lodestool raised its head towards Warden. "What the magistrate proposes can be done, especially if action is taken quickly to guide the growth of the Harvest Multiplex in a geomantically harmonious fashion to maximize flux capture from the magmatic upwelling - the desmense we have discovered - while minimizing risk of overstimulation and internal imbalances. If we merely allowed it to grow naturally according to instinctual temperament, there probably will be significant gain in intake, but it would be extremely inefficient, and it would run a non-zero risk of the network becoming overloaded, causing localized... adverse events. However, I do not have anywhere close to the resources to do this myself. It would likely require a team of hundreds of elementals trained to work with the Plexus, working around the clock to accomplish.

Furthermore, I am... conflicted regarding this proposal. If this proposed tapping of the desmense works according to our calculations, it will likely provide enough intake to eliminate the requirement for the entire downstream multiplex, which will naturally wither and die away. Likewise, the continued production and use of the oil that permits the long-distance transmission of essence along the main trunk-line will become unnecessary, because the distances involved will not necessitate it. My position here will thus become... insecure. Without a need for my continued presence here to distill the oil, the Elementals may renew their efforts to seek my ejection, or, for some... my execution, and Tramezia will no longer have any reason to resist their petitions. Despite the fractious disposition of their different guilds, they can be quite... organized at times, and persistent in their grudges."

Khī turned back to the mushroom spirit, “We can reduce that labor considerably, I think. The plexus is a divine construct, and inherently,” she leafed through a set of papers, coming up to one, then showed it to the creature. “You see? Xileng’s Harmony. It’s in accordance on a small scale with established divine harmonies. If we establish small breaks on that harmony in the finished geomantic plan, that should weaken the resulting plexus, making it easier to work, I think. I’m no artificer, but it’s actually a similar principal to Yozi venom. If we keep in below 2 parts per meru unit, it shouldn’t actually effect the essence flow. Incidentally, Cold, perhaps this is a way you could work the plexus? It’s what I would do, but I don’t know how it would work outside of the thaumomedical principals,”

The Night Caste took a breath, and then continued, “You think this could yield enough to eliminate the downstream multiplex? Let’s check,” she pulled a small, beat up looking quillpen from the inside of her headwrap, which had clearly been snapped in half at some point for ease of storage. “Now let’s see here. I knew I had these formulas memorized once… Does anyone remember Oendenol’s Transform? I should know this…urg, perfects, I am smarter than this…well, this is a coefficient for something, I remember that much. Spirit, if you would be so kind as to focus, we can deal with worries of your execution later, you are protected both by Ysyri law as well as my own authority as a Lawgiver,” such as that authority is, she supposed.

When Cold's name is called he snaps to attention. Only for outright bewilderment to crawl on his face as he tries to decipher what Khi is talking about. 2 parts per meru? the Yozi venom? Thaumomedical? He looked very reminiscent of a student who forgot to study for class and was called on by the teacher.

Widely ignored by the workers shuffling around them, Nameless had swung herself up on a beam that was supporting the cavernous ceiling of the work shop, her feet dangling in the air below. She was absent-mindedly half listening to Khi, half counting the strands of her hair that were brushing up against the strange mask she was always wearing. The Sword Maiden wondered how Khi might look behind it, imagining the grimaces she'd make. The words themselves meant little. Oendenol? Xileng? Half of those were probably made up, an intellectual in-joke between people such as Khi and the Lodestool to seem smarter. Surely those ridiculous words couldn't describe a thing in Creation. The Dawn tilted her head and looked down at Cold with empathy. The Lunar seemed as lost as she was. Good, she wasn't the lone idiot in this little patchwork family.
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The Celestials Return to Tramezia and Lo-Biven

The encounter with the Sunbathed Wind has shaken Cub more than she would have expected it to and more than she liked to admit, even to herself. Thus, when the circle departed the demesne it had abandoned, she spent the time thinking and observing. Particularly the two elementals, how exactly did they fit into this strange, underground society, and what did their place in it say about the larger world down here that Tramezia had built?

When they arrived at the Lodestool's home, she was hesitant to join in the discussion. Though she liked to think that she was fairly intelligent and had a broad understanding of Creation, it quickly became clear that the focus was on technical matters that left her lost. Thus it was a great relief that when the strange elemental produced a stack of documents that beside the (to her) nonsense alchemical and geomatic writings, they contained ledgers, manifests, and guild charters. She falls upon them with focused will, determined to prove both to herself and the other Exalts that she can contribute to their understanding of the situation beneath Lushfield.

Cub's systematic study of the people and documents available to her over the last two hours let her conceptualize the structure of the elemental society of Tramezia's Freehold below Lushfield. The principal way in which the elemental's labor was organized and managed was via the Guild system, whereby each elemental in the Freehold was permanently assigned to one. Ideally it was based on their particular capabilities and skills, but more often it seemed arbitrary and almost random, according to Tramezia's whims. The leadership of the guilds negotiated with other guilds over the various duties and jurisdictions for their members in carrying out the functions that kept the freehold running. The elementals seemed to have a strong natural affinity for this method of organizing, deriving pride from the status and practices of their guild, as well as humor from mocking the rituals of the others. There were at least two dozen guilds, but four were by far the largest and most prominent:

The Dowsers: The snootiest and most status-obsessed guild, the Dowsers Union managed all transportation along the Rhizome Plexus, navigating the traincarts via the dowsing rods that tapped into the essence running through the rootwood.

The Miners: The largest guild by number, the Miners dug out new passages for the Harvest Manifold to expand to, maintained the integrity of the existing structures and passages of the freehold, and performed other bulk labor that required muscle.

The Oilers: The Oilers maintained the Harvest Manifold by applying the Lodestool's oil to its surface, which permitted the essence it carried to be transported a hundred miles or more without significant loss. Pinales was a member of the Oiler's Guild. From looking at the roster, it seemed like Tramezia was using it as the "dumping ground" for misfit elementals that other guilds didn't want - for any number of reasons. Sure, some were just idiots, but beyond that, some of them seemed like they didn't fit in the culture of the other guilds, precisely because their untapped potential wasn't challenged.

The Claytenders: The Claytenders managed the Distribution Manifold, the spiderweb of arteries and capillaries that ran through the tunnels under Lushfield and delivered the essence up through the ground to the topsoil. Bryoph was a member of the Claytenders.

Cub detected no less than twelve different axes of inefficiency that could be corrected. Too much internal politics, time-wasting vestigial rituals, and unnecessary competition. Tramezia had clearly given up decades ago on providing the institutional leadership that would allow for the necessary self-evaluation to optimize performance.

---

An hour later, the Exalts were gathered in Tramezia's throne room at the top of the monolithic wooden edifice that overlooked the elemental freehold. Beside them was the Lodestool, its mushroom head now completely unplugged from the skinny flexible tubes that snaked through its laboratory and had connected it to the various apparatuses around its home. The esoteric reactions that occurred within its own body surely formed an equal part of its alchemical art as the experiments carried out with its vast collections of beakers and vats.

"As I was saying, your Rootship, this newly discovered upwelling of the essence pool formed by the junction of the two aforementioned dragon lines could completely eliminate the requirement for the vast majority of the Downstream Multiplex, but time is of the essence, we must move quickly." The Lodestool had been trying to convince the God of the merits of plan it had jointly developed with the Celestials, but discussions seemed to had reached a standstill.
Tramezia was cradling his head in one hand in frustration, and used the other to pound the armrest of his throne a few times with staccato, gavel-like sounds.

"Dammit, Rhomb," replied Tramezia. You've been throwing out words like 'Oendenol’s Transform' and talking about whatever a Xileng or a Meru is for the last twenty minutes, but you still won't give me a straight answer: Will the blasted thing work?!"

"You philosophers never change! Head stuck so far in the dirt that you can't see the effects of your ideas on real folks. Remember what happened last time you asked me for a big favor? When that went wrong, they wanted your bulbous head on a pike, and I was the one who saved your spongy ass. This is a hundred times that! Even it the damned thing works, it will require a massive reordering of the entire system. Whole guilds downsized, some eliminated entirely! The unemployment problems alone.... Dammit, what do you think the Oiler's Guild is for? It's where I put the idiots and sex degenerates so they can't get into trouble! Any illiterate lumber-brain can wipe a rag on a piece of wood! Now you propose creating a new guild of 'geomancers' to take and monitor energy readings? Most of them can't read three glyphs in a row!"

Cold bristled slightly at the idea of it not working. Sure, Rhombus had some very shaky history. But Khi had worked on it as well, and so had Scales! Both extremely accomplished and learned individuals. They were both crazier then a weasel who got into the shaman's 'vision' herbs. But with sorcerers that probably was part of the reason why they were so accomplished at their craft. He hadn't seen a witch before that was normal. Scales was odd and morbid, The Lodestool powered their inventions with their own juices and Khi was... well... khi. You couldn't really get weirder than her. He wondered where that put Cub though. Sleeping with the weird and crazy was usually a bad idea. When Rhomb and Tramazoia fell silent once again after their last attempt of negotiation and completely talking besides each other. Cold spoke up. He might not have been the best social speaker, but the negotiation table wasn't that different to the war council. Both places involved lots of bloated ego's to squash or maneuver around.

"Your Rootship," the Casteless Lunar's voice rumbled through the air, the beastman speaking with an authority that most people wouldn't expect to come from a man as young as him. "You're right that the Lodestool has their... issues. But that was back then. They did not have even a single sorcerer to help their plans. Now they two - Khi and Scales. Both of them are beyond skilled at their craft. They are convinced that this not only will work, but that it will prevent disaster in the long term. I might not quite know what an unintended essence vent is, but when the sorcerer using the term advises to be several day's travel away from such an event, that say's enough."

"Yes, we've been over their qualifications already," Tramezia replies to Cold, before returning his attention to the Lodestool. "I'm sure all of those academic ranks and publications you've always been so fond of prattling on about sounds impressive up on the surface when it comes to far-off realms, but this is my domain we're talking about! "

The God rubbed his forehead, which had a visible throbbing vein. "Listen, Rhomb, I will acknowledge that you've been a valuable asset to me. I'm not ungrateful for the essential work you do, which has kept our whole society thriving. I may have been brusque with you in the past, but that's because you don't understand the nuances of running a community! Elementals have feelings - they're not just tools on your workbench you can play with and run experiments on to satisfy your curiosity. I respect your insight, so when you say that these sorcerers know what they're doing, and your words are so passionately corroborated, I'm inclined to believe you. But there's more at stake here to consider! Right now, what we've been doing works - not just alchemically, but culturally and politically. We've had a good thing going for more than a century, and a change like this threatens to throw that all into upheaval."

“Everyone dying is also a cultural and political issue,” Khī said dryly, a sotto voce intended only for Cub and perhaps the Lodestool. Rhomb, apparently he, or she, or whatever it's name was.

Warden had mostly stayed in the background while the Lodestool and Khi explained their plan, observing Tramezia while they spoke, then trying to read his tone and posture as he voiced his issues with the proposed course of action. Was he speaking out of worry for his elemental subjects, or out of a hidebound love of tradition and stability? Did the issues he voiced come first and lead to his skepticism, or was he skeptic from the start to any change and looked for reasons to justify his decision afterwards?

Reading Tramezia's emotions with a practiced eye, the broad-shoulders Solar realized that the frustrations accompanying the God's words were based upon a complicated mixture of different concerns and preconceived notions. It would take more pressure to figure them all out and to unlock the puzzle of how Tramezia ticked, but his concerns seemed to be legitimately based on worry. It seemed the God had an unshakable belief that his elementals are simple creatures that were incapable of taking care of themselves, and needed a firm hand to give their lives structure and meaning.

Cub had never really believed that even if Tramezia agreed with the feasibility and virtue of the plan to tap the demesne rather than the surrounding countryside, that this would be enough to convince the god to implement it. Something being 'good' or 'correct' is never enough to motivate anyone, much less an entrenched ruler like him, to do anything of significance. The question here was: What did Tramezia really want? Was it merely to rule over these Elementals forever? Did he have ambitions of growing his fiefdom? Did he have more specific dreams for the future? For him to change the way his society functions, those were the questions to answer, and so for the moment, Cub merely observed him, paying attention as much to what wasn't said as to what was.

Despite her best efforts to indirectly discern the God's motivations, Tramezia's shrewdness managed to elude Cub's finely-tuned sense for figuring out what made rulers tick. She would have to try a more direct route.

"Your Rootness," Cub says as she steps forward from the assembled Exalts. It is a peculiar honorific to her ears, but hardly the strangest thing she has said to placate a person with power and an inflated sense of self-importance. "I hate to bear bad news, but I fear that the system that has worked well for you and your court for so long may already be in a state of upheaval, whether you follow this plan or not. The demesne is there and its essence flows will impact the Rhizome Plexus. Your elemental subjects will need you to guide them through this new change, and if I may be so bold: The question you should be asking is not 'how can we keep things the way they are?' Rather, you should think 'to what purpose can we put the labor freed by this plan?' Surely you have ambitions beyond the status quo," she says with a smile and a tone of understanding, "you are the god of outward-growing roots, surely your plans grow with those roots."

Tramezia pondered Cub's statement for a moment before answering. "Ambition, yes, but not for myself - for my Elementals! On and underneath the surface, all over Creation, there are elementals that are beaten down and abused by vicious human masters who enslave them for their labor and potencies, binding them to the land as their servants. Their rapacious greed profanes the proper way these things should be done. Yes, Elementals long to labor at their calling, but they need gods to protect them from their own naivety. Worse - some gods are delinquent or incompetent in their duties. For too long, Heaven has turned a blind eye to this injustice, so I took matters into my own hands. I had a vision: to establish a haven for mistreated Elementals, a place to go when their own gods would do nothing. So I negotiated with Lo-Biven for this freehold, and ever since then, any Elemental who arrives can have a home, where they can labor in a dignified fashion, free from abuse. We feed the surface dwellers with our labor as the price of our independence, but we keep our dignity. Do I wish we could do more to ministrate to the countless victims still out there, to help them to throw off their shackles and join us? Yes, but the price of our invisibility and independence is steep, and requires daily labor from all of us just to keep us afloat."

Cub certainly detected that the "daily labor" mentioned didn't likely extend to the God himself, and that while Tramezia certainty believed in this vision of his, the intensity of that belief had become dulled by two centuries of idleness and luxurious living. He could still talk with passion about this revolution of his, but he had lost his edge, imagination, and will to take bold action. He was prioritizing the stability of the current residents, and of course, his own position.

"That very problem is at the heart of this plan," Cub says and injects a bit of fervor into her voice, "by taking advantage of the demesne, you may pay that price in full not just for now, but for years to come. As you have doubtlessly realized," she continues, "this will initially leave the elementals in your domain with different tasks and in some cases without a task at all. The next step is therefore to turn their talents to other, even more worthy causes."

"As you say," she continued, "it would be a great thing of more of the countless elementals living under unjust rule by mortals and dragon-blooded could be brought to your domain here or form communities across Creation under your guidance."

"Perhaps you're right," replied Tramezia, nodding to himself. "For too long, I've been content in my accomplishments. You should have seen me two hundred years ago, the way I played Lo-Biven like a cheap Guzheng!" Tramezia looked down at himself. "I was hungry back then, but now I've gotten fat off of the sweet taste of victory. I could - no - should be doing more, thinking bigger!"

"But still, it is easier to say than to do," dejectedly noted the God. "The matter of creating this geomancer's guild you propose, as well as the problem of actually finding work for all of these elementals - and if we start expanding the haven again, there will be more. You don't understand elementals like I do. They're not like you or I - they instinctually seek a purpose to toil at - it is what gives them meaning, clarity. I need answers, dammit!"

"So put them to work," Cub says, as if it is the easiest thing in Creation. "The only change this brings to the Rhizome Plexus is that Essence need no longer be drained from the surrounding countryside, it must still be channeled into the ground above. The oiler's guild will be out of a job, it is true, but those elementals can be given new gainful employment, either in the other guilds, or by spreading the word to Elementals across Creation about this haven you have created. While the Dowser's guild no longer needs to transport oilers around, the new ambassadors will need transportation, and who better to do so? The miners may be put to work doing actual mining - finding valuable materials in the ground to trade with mortals. With the sheer size of the Rhizome plexus there is a good chance that you might even find jade if they were to look for it. And that is to say nothing of the fact that the geomancers will need builders to complete the plans we have outlined. With the increased Essence generation from a well-maintained cap on the demesne, the claytenders may well be given the task of spreading Essence back to the ground that were hitherto the source of the Plexus's redistribution, that way it will be harder to find your haven by looking at the land above."

"A reorganization like this is of course no mean feat," Cub continues, "but between your divine insight and our expertise, I have no doubt that it will be managed far quicker than one might think. With free access to all documents, dossiers, and files you have on the guilds and their members, I can identify those who might be well-suited to other tasks and new training regimens."

Tramezia nods solemnly, but behind his eyes, the spark of interest was clearly aflame. "Very well then. I can't pretend that I understand all of this Xileng Essence Transference mumbo jumbo, but if you're convinced that the guilds can and will accept this reorganization and the... Oilers.... can be trained up into ambassadors and geomancers, then it's worth a shot.  Lodestool - you say we have three days to shape the manifold around the desmense? I'll gather all the leadership of the guilds together tonight, and inform them of the new direction we'll be taking. It will take twelve hours to recall all the crews, so tomorrow morning, I'll give a speech to the entire freehold. I expect you and your team to be there, with your plans ready, so we can start immediately."

Perhaps this is the opportune time to ask about the Wellspring, thought Scales. Warden seemed convinced that Tramezia was lying earlier, but now... Scales spoke up. "Ah, related to that. Rhomb has theorized that you have an item called a, 'flux detainer', used to harvest essence from a more condensed source, such as a hearthstone, which could perhaps be re-utilized as part of the effort to tap the demesne."

Tramezia looked at the Lodestool with a sense of puzzlement and scratched his head. "The flux de-what... wait, are you talking about the Booster? Heaven, I forgot all about that. The damned thing never worked right to begin with, from the day Lo-Biven's girl put it together. She was always down here tinkering with it, trying to make it run better. I never figured out why she stopped coming down here to visit, but the thing went near-dead not long after that - totally useless. You got any idea what happened to her?" He raised his hand up: "Green hair, yea tall? That was so long ago - it must be more than a century and a half now." He shook his head. "I threw it into my junk pit ages ago. I could look for it if you want, see if I can dig it out of there. Might take some time to find though."

"From what I understand," Cub says looking thoughtful, "whether or not we have the Flux Detainer may influence how we would proceed to take advantage of the demesne, so it would be good to know if we can use it as soon as possible. As to the girl, I might be able to answer that, but it's something of a story and not exactly urgent. I'd be happy to tell you what I know later."

"I'll start looking for it then," nodded the God. "Is there anything else? I'm about to have a very long night pummeling the importance of this whole plan through the thick skulls of the Triarchy of the Dowser's Union. From what I hear, they're already irate about some nonsense having to do with a stolen sign of theirs that they were fond of."

Cold keeps a straight face, though if any his fellow exalts were paying any attention they would have seen Cold's tail suddenly become very stiff with the fur slightly flared out when Tramezia mentions a stolen sign. He was suddenly very glad he wasn't in Hidden-Reed's shape at the moment. Even if somebody had seen him nick the sign, it would've been her they saw. And with the sigh being melted into sludge. At least all the evidence was disposed off. Nobody would be any the wiser.

---

Satisfied with their progress in the underground, the Celestials exited Tramezia's throne room. There was already a long queue of various elementals forming outside the doors - the leadership of the myriad guilds, no doubt, summoned by the God's pheremonal machinations that let him alter the fungal bioluminescence of the haven. While an inscrutably complex occult discussion was occurring between Khi, Scales, and the Lodestool, Cub sized up the different elemental delegates, putting faces to names on dossiers. After a few moments, the mushroom elemental scurried off back in the direction of its laboratory, undoubtedly to begin gathering supplies and making further preparations for the commencement of the project the next morning.

Leaving the Freehold via the concealed passage through which Warden, Scales, and Cold had travelled with Rock and Lo-Biven, the six Exalts retraced their steps on the uphill journey back to the Heaven's Most Illustrious Wing - the locked private crypt deep beneath the cathedral where the ancestor ghost of the Old Seneschal had been confined all their years. Aware of the darkness, they had taken a few of the fungal torches like the ones Cold used to make the spotlight. Scales had warned the newcomers of what they were about to encounter, but nothing could adequately prepare one for their first time entering a Shadowland.

Rock had said that he knew just what to do with the malignant spirit, and he was true to his word. Lo-Biven was lying on his back on top of the stone bench, tied up with the ghostly fetters like a trussed-up hog. The long chains attached to his wrists and ankles were tightly wound around him and the benchtop, and a rag was stuffed in his mouth. The final links of the two broken ends of the chain were bent around each other - apparently, Rock was capable of greater feats of strength than he let on.

On the floor, there was a lit wax candle stuck to the stone tile that was nearly completely melted through, its wick barely casting enough light to illuminate a piece of paper laying next to it. Weighing down the paper was Scales' necklace that he had given to Lo-Biven as insurance for the ghost's cooperation, with the moonsilver-inlaid rat skull pendant still attached. How thoughtful - Rock went out of his way to ensure that the pernicious ancestor ghost kept his promise to the Immaculate Monk's new friends.

The Sword Maiden, absent-mindedly stroking the bandages around her rib cage, entered the crypt wide-eyed, taking in the sights. Now this was something different. Her thin neck hairs were standing straight up, as goosebumps covered her back. Scales did elaborate on what to expect from a Shadowland, but it was nonetheless an otherworldly experience, which, now that she thought about it, was wholly appropriate.

"So I take it this is the ghost with the... Issues?" Nameless inquired, while rounding Lo-Biven and giving the chains a second glance, just to make sure this wasn't a table-reversing surprise in the making. She'd fought once with a cracked rib today and didn't want to do it a second time.

On the one hand, thought Scales, the dead should be respected. On the other, he is an exceedingly terrible person. And Rock did get my necklace back, so it would be a shame to undo his hard work by loosening the ghost's shackles. Scales moved over to the paper and his necklace. “Yes, this is Lo-Biven, the old Seneschal of Lushfield."

Taking back his necklace with the moonsilver-inlaid rat skull pendant given to him by his shahan-ya, Scales took a second to read the note, written in charcoal pencil with a messy scrawl:
 
I made sure he kept his word to you. He tried to get me to crack, but my faith kept me strong. Yet more evidence of the hidden rot eating at the soul of this place. Att. Rock.

Cold tried to not laugh, he honestly did, But as soon as he saw what Rock had done to Lo-Biven. He couldn't help but break out in loud howling laughter. "Rock," He said in between bursts of laughter. "You sure did know how to treat that filthy pig." The wolf man had to lean against one of the walls as it seemed he was mere moments away from literally rolling on the floor with laughter. Dignity be damned. If the ghost still had a few shreds of pride left, well, this probably wouldn't help with keeping those. "All trussed up like Pinales, in that story he told us." Cold couldn't help but giggle. "And left hanging just the same." He wiped his eyes, still having a wide mocking grin on his face. "Rock just became one of my favorite people."

Khī hmmed. “So this is Lo-Biven. I’ve heard a lot about you, spirit,” she looked over at Scales, “would it upset you if I were to ungag it?”

“By all means, go ahead. I must warn you though, he is…unpleasant, to say the least," replied Scales. The No-Moon Caste put his necklace back on, clutching the rat skull that connected him to his mentor thousands of miles away. Lo-Biven is an vile old man, clinging to Creation because he can’t stand the idea of not being in control, influencing the world with his dark thoughts decades past when he should have moved on. I would hesitate to desecrate the sanctity of the dead, but there is no peace here. Scales looked down at the skull in his hand. Perhaps he can still do some good in the world, if indirectly

“Scales, I am a demonologist by specialization. I am rather accustomed to the unpleasant and unwholesome,” answered Khī. She gently removed the gag from Lo-Biven’s mouth. “Your daughter, Ivy. Her fate?”

Lo-Biven hacks and coughs as Khi removes the wadded-up rag. From the look in his eye, it was clear he wasn't expecting to hear question asked by the slender masked woman who loomed over him. The ancestor ghost fell back into his trademark style of snide abuse: "No idea what you're talking about, girl. You're obviously confused and got me mixed up with someone else."

“I do not.” Khī said, her voice completely absent of emotion.

"Do you want me to punch him whenever he tries to be smart?" Cold offers Khi."He was solid-ish last time we were here. So I think I can punch him even though he's a ghost."

“This is an interesting idea, Cold. If necessary we can escalate, but I suspect he will cooperate before I lose my patience.” Khī looked down at the ghost, silver eyes reflecting what little light there was, her mask taking on a sinister aspect in the light.

Lo-Biven stops, craning his head to look at Cold in his wolf-headed natural form. "Last time we were here? I don't remember y-" Lo-Biven stops suddenly. The Celestials can see the gears spinning in the ghost's mind.

Khī looked over at Cold. A very wolf-like Cold. And then back to the ghost. And then back to Cold. Why hadn’t she caught this? And, more importantly, where was the Lunar’s common sense? “You may think this constitutes a bargaining piece, spirit. That you have somehow gained the upper hand,” Khī said, unemotionally, “You have not.”

Cold would've slapped himself at his slip of the tongue. How could one person make him so angry and eager to beat him down? Then again, this was Lo-Biven. The man was irritation and frustration incarnate. Instead of punishing himself, Cold simply walked over so he was standing at the legs of the ghost and then in a swift movement attempted to break the ghost's train of thought - by punching him right in the balls with his claws out.

The Lunar's expertly-delivered nut-shot found purchase on the mostly-solid ghost, delivering a wincing blow that made Lo-Biven writhe in pain under the tightly wrapped chains. Nevertheless, the spirit knew by the wolf-man's reaction he had gotten under the skin of both the shapeshifting anathema and the woman who spoke for the group. Nobody ever denies the utility of information as a bargaining chip unless it could be used as one.

There was a silent stand-off for a few seconds after the enraged beast-man withdrew his clawed hand from within the ghost's still partly-ethereal body. He knew. They knew he knew. He knew they knew he knew. A shapeshifter could only mean one thing: Anathema. They couldn't leave him alive - or undead, whatever he was now. Unless... he had once more card to play.

"My daughter Ivy, yes, now I remember. I know where she is," said the silver-tongued Lo-Biven. She's far, far away from here, left long ago to escape the advances of that lovestruck idiot Holdfast. She still sends me messages though, keeps in touch with her dear old daddy. Free me and I promise I'll lead you to her."

“A lie,” Khī said, not breaking her even tone, “I am going to tell you what is going to happen. You are going to answer my questions. You will not lie. Again. What was the fate of Ivy.”

The wide grin on Cold's muzzle as Khī detected Lo-Biven's lie was a lie was outright feral. He pulled his fist back again, ready to deliver another punch to Lo-Biven to underline why he shouldn't lie.

“Do not.” Khī said, her eyes flicking to Cold. “He may collect himself. Hit him when I indicate you to." Khī had interrogated many. Sometimes she had a burly slave to do cold’s job. Sometimes, she just had thumbscrews. She found the threat of either was better than deploying them, and in both cases it was best if they weren’t predictable.

Lo-Biven flashed a toothy grin. He had carried out his own share of 'interrogations' in his day, in much the same manner as Khi was doing right now. His body attuned itself to the shadowland, its solidity fading considerably, although the magical chains still restrained him equally tightly. The Shapeshifting Anathama punch may have caught him unaware, but he would find it extremely difficult to beat a forced confession out of a ghost in their own shadowland.

"Let's dispense with the unpleasantries," said Lo-Biven. "If you're going to finish me, then do it, you ridiculous bitch. I've done enough of these myself to know how this ends. So unless you make a bargain with me, you're getting nothing. The trail goes ice cold."

“You know that may be true.” Khī pretended to ponder for a moment, “As a ghost, you may think yourself untouchable. What fear do you have of death, anymore, what fear of bodily harm, when you can retreat into the next world. And this would be, I think, the case, in many circumstances. Not, however, in this one. Your silence can be assured in other ways than your death, as can your cooperation. My associate here -" she indicated to Scales - "certainly can inflict pain in ways that keep your deathless existence intact.”

“Allow me to explain," the Night Caste continued. "You will answer my questions, and then you will be magically sworn to secrecy. You resist, and my associates will drag you kicking and screaming back into this world, and you will answer my questions. They will bind the tatters of your ghost, and rip the answers from your lips, and you will spend eternity as my associate’s own paperweight, conscious forever, unable to move, to speak, but still able to perceive and think. Or perhaps I will get creative. You seem to be under the impression that the worst thing we can do is end your feeble existence. You are wrong. If you do not cooperate you will give me what you want and then spend eternity wishing I had enough mercy to kill you.” Khī’s voice never changed, still a monotone. “I am not in the habit of making threats. I’m rather bad at it. These are not threats. These are your bargains.”

The Ancestor Ghost's wrinkled his translucent forehead in anguish. He was in a no-win situation, and it was obvious on his face that this hurt. Not the pain from the blow he had received. The idea of losing, that he was admitting weakness to this woman, who he could break in two without a second thought if he still had his body. His ego was crumbling - Khi saw it. With stubborn ones like these, you had to break them down bit by bit, until nothing remains. Towards the end, right when they were about to break, sometimes their pathological need to retain their self-conceit, to salvage a win, made their minds play tricks on them. Those like Li-Biven didn't break - they twisted themselves into so many knots that they convinced themselves they made a deal, no matter how meaningless it was.

"Take off that cowardly mask you're hiding behind, girl. Show me what you're hiding, and I'll tell you what you want to know." He was finally telling the truth.

“In my country, we wear this so that others do not need to see our hideousness. You are dead. You do not matter,” Khī removed the mask, emotionless grey eyes nictating, reflecting the light, rows of sharp, fishlike teeth visible in her mouth, “Again. Your daughter. Her fate.”

Satisfied, Lo-Biven finally spoke the undeniable truth, ringing with complete honestly to Khi's ears. A sneering grin formed on his lips as he spit out his words: "Ivy left, long long ago, and she never came back. And until you uttered her name just now, I didn't think about her even once. I don't know what happened to her, and I don't care."

Khī’s face did not move. “Holdfast Rightness. His memories were altered. By whom?”

"He did that to himself," the Old Seneschal laughed. "Smoking on his dullard-weed." It was clear that Lo-Biven had no idea what Khi was actually talking about.

Khī made no reaction, “The wellspring. Tell me all that you know,”

"It's a rock," Lo-Biven spit out. "It made the plants grow, until it didn't."

Khi: “Where did you find it?”

Lo-Biven: "I don't know. Underground. They found it before I was born."

Khi: “And you know nothing further of its operation or nature?”

Lo-Biven: "Ivy tinkered with it for a few years, but she couldn't get it to do anything. As your 'associates' are aware, I fixed the problem myself."

Khī’s face remained placid. “The Sunbathed Wind. Tell me what you know.”

Lo-Biven shook his head slowly. He didn't know anything.

“Linpu. She acquired 19 shards of Orichalcum Glass in what is presumed to be Lushfield. Elaborate,”

Lo-Biven shakes his head again, this time an even deeper expression of puzzlement on his face. "Are you making this stuff up to test me?"

Khī was indeed testing the spirit. She wanted to impress upon the creature that it’s secrets meant nothing to her, that the work of its life and undeath was beneath interrogation. Beneath notice. “Hit the ghost.”

Cold once again lashes out, but this time the wolfman's strike mostly phases through the ghost, much to his chagrin. He pulled back and let out an annoyed growl, the only evidence of his strike being the groves the tips of his claws had dug into the stone slab.

Khī gave the wolfman a flat look. “Someone else, if you would please.”

"I'm not lying, you witless whore," Lo-Biven protested.

“I know,” Khī said, in the same monotone.

Nameless had watched the whole ordeal passionless from the sidelines. She hadn't wished to participate in the torture of a defenseless... Asshole. The whole thing irked her. Even though Lo-Biven had been introduced her as an absolute bastard of astonishing dimensions, her sense of morality rested on the noble warrior persona she'd built for herself over the past few months of her new life.  She did, however, trust and respect Khi, and if Khi thought the ghost needed persuading, who was the Sword Maiden to object?

the Dawn Caste slithered off the wayward stone block she'd been sitting on, and stepped up to Lo-Biven, taking in the whole scenery of his predicament. Peering into the shadowland using her special talent for discerning between the real and unreal portions of of spirits, it was almost as if there were two Lo-Bivens squirming in front of her, the corporeal ectoplasm of his form, and the spiritual residue that confined what was left of his soul to this realm. She'd just need to squint her eyes a bit and she could see where ghost-flesh and spirit intersected. If she struck there...

Nameless wasn't overly strong, but she was wiry, and aimed well. In a spat of mischief, or maybe summoning some buried vitriol, a bit of malfeasance she'd stored in some mostly ignored reservoir of her self, she mirrored her own injury, and jabbed her elbow deep into the ghostly ribs of Lo-Biven, conjuring a satisfying cracking sound.

"Don't insult my friend", the Sword Maiden hissed.

Khī smiled, thinly. “Why, thank you.“ Returning to the Ancestor Ghost, she continued. "Now, Honto. I am given to understand he consults with you. Describe your interactions with him over the past week.”

"Honto? Consulting? My advice is the last thing he wants," said Lo-Biven. That love tap your lassie gave me is nothing compared to what he does when I open my mouth. No, he comes down here when he's lonely, and wants to talk at someone. He was down here a few days ago, raving about all sorts of women making his life difficult or something.

Khī made a hand motion, as if to say, “please go on.”

The Sword Maiden, meanwhile, made a point to make a step forward into Lo-Biven's peripheral vision. The next step might well be another blow to the defenseless ghost, and she wanted to be ready to make it good. No, that'd be wrong. She shook her head at the dissonance, and decided that she had stepped forward instead to get a good look at Khi. She'd seen her face before, sort of. It was in the dark, while she was summoning a demon. But those teeth... Nameless had never seen a person quite like Khi.

Cold also tilted his head as he saw's Khi take of her mask. When she mentioned that it was to hide her hideousness. he had thought that maybe it was because of a scar, or that she had been a leper and half her face had fallen of before exaltation had touched her. Instead.. she just had weird fish eye, gills on her neck and needle sharp teeth. True, not something he personally would've gone for. But hideous? He looked worse then her most of the time.

Lo-Biven laughed. "Two eligible bachelorettes, and only one bachelor. You do the math."

Elaborating, the Old Seneschal continued: "Honto's grandmother negotiated an arranged marriage between him and his cousin Celcine, what, sixty or seventy years back, when they were teenagers. He spent six years on the Isle, and after he returned and did me in with that sorcery he learned, the first thing he did was break off the engagement for good. She didn't take it well. He can't stand the airheaded bitch, but she's still in love with him - or at least, in love with the idea of being the Seneschal's wife. She's never given up, and still thinks that he'll come around one day. Hell - she became an Immaculate out of spite rather than move on, so she'll always be unmarried and ready for him."

"Meanwhile, he juggles my girl Anguilla with the other hand. They've been skulking around for years hiding their trysts, and she wants him to make it official. But if Celcine found out, it will be the last straw, and she just might burn the whole fucking town down. I don't understand the problem myself - he should just take them both for himself, as is his right."

“Hmm," pondered Khi, taking in the information. "Well, I suppose that’s everything.” Khī turned back to the group, holding her mask up to cover her face, “Anyone else have any questions?”

Scales stood to the side, watching the interrogation out of the corner of his eye, gazing down at the conduit between him and Smiling Rat, before looking up as the silence draws on. "If I may, I have a suggestion such that Lo-Biven will keep our secrets and help us on our journey. I was studying a certain ritual when I received the invitation from our mutual friend. I was unable to finish my study of it, but I believe that with some assistance from my mentor, I will be able to successfully perform it here and now. It is rather... final in nature, so if we wish to question him later, it might prove...troublesome."

Dropping his eyes back down to the bone focus attached to his necklace, Scales started to feed essence into it, the skull slowly limning in a dark light. Traditionally, it is only the creator of the connection who can activate it, but as with many other aspects, magic from those blessed by the moon tends to be more malleable.

The inlaid moonsilver on the bone-white rat skull started to glow a soft white light as Scales kindled the essence within. After a few moments, a faint disembodied voice was heard to be muttering in grizzled Old Realm:

"Wretched raitons, keep falling apart on me... what the..." A cawing noise is heard. "Get out of here!" demanded the voice, followed by the sound of feathers beating. The voice became much more clear: "My scaled student, is that you? The connection, it's strong - very strong now, much more robust than last time. What did you do? Tell me, is there any chance you might be in a shadowland?"

Warden didn't have much to say to the old ghost, and let his companions with more experience with such spirits take the lead. Still, the methods used against it did not sit easy with him. Despite everything, Lo-Biven did keep up his end of the bargain, even if out of selfish motivation. He watched Scales as he drew out the skull, pondering this strange sorcery. Or was it perhaps a Lunar trick?

Khī stepped back, fitting her mask back on her face. “In that case, I believe my questioning is done. I assume you can take care of swearing the spirit to secrecy about our nature." She silently padded out, slipping past the others, hurrying to a safe distance where the others couldn’t hear her.

The Sword Maiden also tilted her head, watching Scales' pendant spring to live, the otherworldly voice talking from - somewhere? She heard the words. Old Realm made a certain musical sense to her, hitting just the right notes in the lingual part of her brain, but what was said didn't really mean anything. The curiosity of the item quickly wore off, as Khi presented the more pressing challenge. "Oh, you're worried the ghost is going to snitch on us? I can fix that" she offered, putting a hand of the hilt of her daiklaive.

“I’m sure Scales has something up his sleeve.” Khī called as she made her exit into the hallway outside the crypt. "That, or Cub can swear it to secrecy.”

Cub had chosen to stand silently by as Khi conducted her interrogation, and directed first one and then the other of their more martial companions to act as torturer. She had no love for Lo-Biven, nor any particular principled opposition to torturing your enemies to gain information, but she had met those who acted like that before, and she did not like what she had seen in them. Thus, it was with rather more concern than most would have expected of her, that she regarded the former slave departing the underground chamber. It didn't take long for Cub to make up her mind and follow Khi out of the room with just a quick smile at the other Exalts, and a faintly curious expression as to what was going on with Scales' amulet.

Meanwhile, the voice from Scales' moonsilver-inlaid rat skull spoke again: "Hang on uf-ya, I'm going to try something," went the unsteady voice of Smiling Rat - Scales Shahan-ya, or teacher. The old Lunar had spent too much time walking the shadowlands and studying its secrets. For more than a century, hushed rumors swirled among members of the Silver Pact that he had gone too far in his wasteland dominion, that his obsession with the unliving was too extreme and blasphemed against Luna, that he was slowly replacing his animate flesh with the unliving. Five years ago, he was expelled from the emergency counsel of the Northern Shahan-yas, at the Mountain of the Spider King following an incident not spoke of. Some say now that he's gone totally insane, that his methods were... unsound.

Slowly, a miniscule silver spot floating in the air formed within the shadowland, progressively glowing brighter and brighter. Translucent waves of energy pulsed outward from the spot, and the light from it cast shadows away from it across the room. The waves of energy gradually stiffened, coalesced, until they finally settled into the shape of a man's upper body, his astral form defined by beams projected from the bright silver spot that temporarily illuminated dust motes floating through the air. He was near totally bald, and his scalp was lined with moonsilver tattoos. Smiling Rat had projected himself through the Underworld across creation.

"Good, it worked."

Scales was unfazed by the sudden appearance of his shahan-ya, familiar with the man behind the ghostly form in front of him. He turned to Cold and speaks to him in High Realm: "This is Smiling Rat, the greatest Lunar necromancer in the North. He taught me most of what I know, which is still but a fraction of what he knows." Scales turns back, smiling, and returned to conversing in Old Realm. "It is good to see you again, but I'm afraid that a full catch up will have to wait until later. I found a few companions in Nexus, before the trail led me north to a shadowland, where we encountered an ancestor spirit that we now need to silence. I was hoping that you could guide me through the Stones Worn Smooth ritual, as I have not had the time to finish my study of it."

Cold's fur stood slightly on end at the mention of Smiling Rat being another sorcerer. Well, that was what he thought a necromancer was. since he didn't really know what that word meant? Something to do with spirits? "Nice to meet you?" Cold hesitantly said.

Unable to understand Old Realm, Lo-Biven craned his neck to try and see what's going on. "Hey, what's going on? Where did the girl go? What are you doing? We're in Lushfield, speak High Realm, damn it!"

Since Nameless doesn't have much of a frame of reference to appreciate just how unusual this mode of communication was, she just craned her neck. Of course there was also time for a pitiful look towards Lo-Biven, who'd seemed like he would be having his existence snuffed out, or whatever was going to occur her, without having the opportunity to learn the most beautiful of languages. But so be it. "Any friend of Scales is a friend of mine" the Sword Maiden offered up to the projection of Smiling Rat, mirroring Smiling Rat's inflection of Old Realm unconsciously.

It seemed that whatever conversation was going to happen would be in Old Realm, and it would lead towards a ritual of some sort, so Cold decided that he would rather not be around anything to do with sorcery, and departed the crypt in the same direction as Khi and Cub.

"Stones Worn Smooth..." Smiling Rat's astral projection frowns as he turns to the side, half of his face shrouding itself in darkness. He was speaking with a melancholic tone. "I realize now that I've been deeply cruel to you, Scales. For over two years now, I never asked you if this is what you wanted. You know the others in the Pact don't approve of my... methods. Some think I've gone insane. They say I've turned my back on Luna's love. Do you think I've turned my back on Luna's love?"

Slightly unsettled by Smiling Rat's words, Scales tries to console him. Being exiled from the only living friends and allies you know leaves a wound not easily healed. "It was I who sought you out, I who asked for you to teach me the ways of the Void; if you feel regret, do not lay it on yourself. As for Luna, she is both the blazing light of the full moon and the suffocating dark of the new, and all that is in between. I cannot imagine that they would reject one of their chosen for the way they use their gifts, not when they speak to us all."

"This war...," said Smiling Rat - referring to the endless conflict between the Realm and the Lunars on the periphery of Creation. "It seems like I am the only one who can see the... impotence. And as long as these... arbitrary limits the Pact imposes remain the expected norm, our conduct of the war will only gain impotence. We've been fighting - seems like for a thousand centuries now. They are stronger than us, because they have the will to do what is necessary.

That's when I realized the genius..." Smiling Rat continued. "It was like I was shot through my forehead with a moonsilver arrow. I realized... it's judgement that defeats us. And that's why I decided to make the Boneyard my own. Stones worn Smooth.... You know the theory, but do actually you what it does? It is a way to distill strength from the darkness, the places where the other shahan-yas won't allow their uf-yas to go. A gem of underworld power, condensed from the dark heart of a ghost. They train young Lunars to rip the still-beating hearts out of men in a hundred different ways, but they won't allow them to socket their daiklaves with an hearthstone carrying the powers of the abyss, and why? They call it profane!

"So I ask - are you really ready? I will guide you if you wish, but have you considered what it will require? Freedom from the opinion of others... even the opinions of yourself."

"I am," replied Scales. "If we hold ourselves back from our full potential due to judgement, even from ourselves, we do a disservice to all we stand for and care about." Carefully turning the rat skull over in his hand, Scales opens the jaw, revealing a dark, metallic ball secreted within. He plucks the ball out, revealing it to be not quite spherical; engraved on it are silver lines depicting a human iris and pupil. "What must I do?"

Seeing the his resolve, Smiling Rat begins. "Just as a stone within a river is worn by the water to reveal its inner beauty, the waters of the Lethe strip away the attachments of the soul, cleansing it to begin again. To capture the soul into a physical form, however, requires it to crystallize, similar to the Fair Folk. To do this, you must align the soul with abyssal earth, and then heat it with ghostfire; akin to a gem forming in the depths of the ground. If all has gone correctly, the spirit will be bound within a hearthstone, giving aid to those who choose to wield it, whether they wish to or not."

The waters of the Lethe; a cornerstone of the cycle of life and death, flowing in that dark reflection of the waking world wherever there is life on the other side, and even where there isn't. Here, where the boundary between them gets thinner second by second, one can almost hear the quiet sigh of the somber stream. Scales nods, moving over to Lo-Biven; "You spent your days in this world lusting for power and prestige, uncaring of what you had to do to take it. All things end, every legacy and memory will die, turned to dust and blown by the grave wind. When all is said and done, you will be nevermore." As Scales speaks he channels essence through the eye, causing the engraved silver to burn with a brilliant purple flame; leaving trails of flickering light, he draws sigils and signs in the air, symbols that resonate with the almost undetectable sound of running water. The sound grows louder, and louder; all present start to feel the air in the crypt grow colder and moister, trickles of water collecting on the walls and running to the floor. With a final pass that finishes the Old Realm glyph for transience, Scales stops. At that moment, the chamber floods with a whirlpool of water, stretching to the ceiling and descending down, down, down, far past where the floor is. And yet, Scales and Nameless are unaffected by the churning flow, feeling it as only the faint prickling of cold spots moving over them. Lo-Biven is dragged towards the center of the whirlpool, restrained by the warded chains imprisoning him, ghostly flesh sloughing off, revealing a shimmering sphere within, spectral jaws open in a silent scream as the remnants of his earthly life are washed away.

The burning symbols fade as the dark water slowly drains away, falling back into the realm from whence it came, leaving only a glowing, irregular sphere, still bound by chains. Gathering crypt dust from the centuries of decomposition, Scales pours it in patterns of stability and invariability upon the soul orb, stoking the burning eye in his other hand to a raging bonfire that gives off no heat. Sensing that the soul is ready, he holds the eye underneath the orb, baking the patterns black in sharp contrast. He hold it there but a brief time before drawing his free hand back; he moves it forward at a blinding speed, punching it deep within the orb, whereupon it starts to shrink and darken. The shadow of his hand cast by his anima is monstrous, becoming larger and clawed, crushing the soul into its palm, slowly opening it to reveal a darkly glittering jewel, shining with a black iridescence.

The Lunar's necromantic sorcery fades away as the now-calm moonlit water dissipates back into the void. The astral projection of Smiling Rat nods in satisfaction at his student's abilities, and slowly dissipates, the white rays of light winking out one by one, until nothing but the silver spot in space remained, before that too vanished. In the center of the room, the pale indistinct ghostly form of Lo-Biven slowly reconstituted itself in place, still strapped under the magical chains, but he was fuzzy, faded. It was like the animating ghostly essence that kept his accursed soul bound to Creation had been ripped out of him, and nothing remained but a empty shell. He was staring straight upward, unblinking, and his lower lip was quivering. Everything about him seemed diminished, and even the shadowland that sustained him, and which he sustained, was weakened. The still-burning candle that Rock had laid on the floor was already burning brighter.

Scales looked down at the black iridescent gemstone, pondering just what malignancy he had ripped out of the Old Senechal. If he had to guess, the hollow husk of the vile spirit would eventually wither and die away in a few weeks time, and the shadowland with it. Soon, all that would remain of the Old Senechal would be the stygian stone.

The chill of the Shadowland quickly dampened Scale's flaring anima as as he stepped out of the crypt to join Cold, Khi, and Cub. Nameless and Warden followed behind him. The frigid still air of the underworld had taken its toll, and they needed a few minutes to huddle together to warm up. For all of them, the ordeals of the past twelve hours had not completely sunk in yet. In the depths under Lushfield, they each had discovered things about their surroundings as well as about themselves.

The Sword Maiden had wrapped her arms around herself, shivering, rubbing her own shoulders for warmth, as she looked left and right nervously. The whole display hadn't quite filled her with confidence they were doing the right thing, but Scales seemed competent enough to put her mind - at least superficially - at ease. And as such, the shiver soon subsided, as Nameless regained her bearings.

"Well I guess that was one way to do it," Nameless mumbled to nobody in particular, as she looked around again, this time more determined. And even if she didn't spot the others right away, the voices of the three who'd left the chamber first were now clearly audible to her, so she nodded to Warden and Scales to come along, and hurried to get to the others, who promised familiar warmth, like the living should.
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The Conversation in the Hallway During Scales' Ritual

Khī hurriedly turned a corner, glancing behind her to ensure she wasn’t followed, before ducking into an adjoining hallway, removing the jaw of her mask and voiding most of the contents of her stomach onto the floor. It wasn’t really the interrogation that had her in a pit of nausea, it was how much she’d enjoyed it. She’d liked breaking the ghost, hurting it, making it squirm. Khī understood she was someone who could do what needed to be done for law and order, but the visceral enjoyment was…new. Unpleasant. That officer the other day. Even the metody. There was a brutality that had crept into her, a numbness to others that was new and disturbing and she had just accepted without noticing.

Everyone knew anathema were monsters, and she’d come to disregard this on personal experience. She might have been wrong. Was there something horrible lurking inside her, only now creating its fins above the water? Was there something in all of them? If she enjoyed hurting people, then her objectivity was damaged. If she could not be objective, she could not deliver justice. One of the few things she was good at, the purpose she had been given… well, this was fixable. This had all been fixable.

She retched again. Mara. The demon had affected her. Somehow. She knew it, she’d thought herself beyond it, but she’d clearly been wrong.

Persistent Cub had learned the art of walking without being heard long before she took a new name for herself. It is a useful skill to have when following people who are unaware, or those from whom you wish to learn what they would rather not share. This time, she chooses not to employ it. That is not to say she makes noise on purpose, but she walks swiftly and gracefully, such that she expects Khi will not have trouble hearing her once she is close to catching up.

For all that she thinks of Khi as being the person in their strange little circle who is most like her, she knows that the other woman is in many ways alien to her, and what she saw in the Lo-Biven's room has only highlighted it. She is here to help her friend, but to do so, she must first understand.

Khī looked up at the sound of footsteps, only to see Cub, approaching her. What a sight she must make, bent over, most of her lunch on the stone. “Oh,” she said simply, pulling a napkin out of a hidden pocket and dabbing at her mouth.

Just before Khi can withdraw the napkin from her pocket, one seems to grow from the arm of Cub's robes into her hand as she holds it out towards her.

“Uh” Khī said, the eloquence of the unconquered sun truly possessing her. She was still for a moment, then took the handkerchief. “Thank you.”

"You're welcome," Cub says hesitatingly, as if uncertain what to say next.

The moment hung awkwardly in the air for a moment. “Surely you didn’t come out of here just to hand me a handkerchief," Khī said, fitting the mouth of her mask back on.

"No," Cub answers, "I came out here because I thought you could use a reminder that you do not have to face the demons in your mind alone."

“Demons?” Khī coughed “No, I keep those broadly outside my body.” The stab at humor was a bit clumsy, sort of at best.

"Most of them, yes, but those I don't think you need assistance with," Cub responds, offering the barest hint of a smile at the joke.

“Metody said a little too much, I think,” Khī said, “I ah…” she trails off, unsure of what to say, “Look, it really is not my place to burden others with my problems. I…” she paused again, “I ah…I appreciate it. But it’s not really worth your time.”

Cub closes the distances between them and takes Khi's hands in hers, "it is worth my time, Khi. It's worth any of ours' time, but I'm the one who's here now. So tell me. Please," she adds earnestly.

Khī scanned the other woman’s face carefully, distrustful, looking for any sign of what was going on behind her eyes. Her eyes widened behind her mask. The other woman actually cared. Well, she recognized Khī’s utility to her, in the same way Khī recognized Cub's, but she also genuinely cared about her. They were… she considered her a friend. The two joked, they understood each other more than Khī could really understand the others. Oh gods, they were friends. How do you do that? More importantly, Cub had refined taste in so many things. How had she chosen here to completely lose her senses. Surely she’d have better things than some sort of…whatever it was Khī was.

“I thought I told you not to trust me,” is what ends up coming out of her mouth.

"I don't need to trust you to want to help you," Cub counters.

Khī is a brilliant woman, a once in a generation investigative genius, possibly the most observant, incisive intellect most of their little circle would ever see. The unconquered sun had blessed her with the ability to break through to the heart of the matter in one word. Khī said, “Oh,” using exactly none of her powers.

"So why don't you tell me a little bit about what's going on in your head?" Cub asks, her eyes finding Khi's. "Please."

“I…” Khī’s instincts warned against everything she was asked to do. Her instincts did not win, “I enjoyed that. Breaking Lo-Biven. I enjoyed it in a way I would not have months ago. This is, for reasons that I think are obvious, concerning to me,”

Cub nods in understanding, "I am glad to hear that you are concerned. Do you know where this sense of enjoyment comes from?"

Khī sits down, against the wall. “I made a mistake,” She starts, “and I am paying for it in ways I did not think I was.”

Cub sits down next to her and takes her hand again. "Tell me about it."

“When I was…” Khī stopped, “This is harder to talk about than I thought. When I exalted, I suppose, I had to run from Ysyr. I hadn’t done anything wrong, I just…it looked bad. I’m sure when I get back I can clear it all up. But I had to run, which is, I will note, a crime, I…” Khī stopped again.

“It was calibration. So the walls between worlds were thin. It was the whole reason we- oh that hardly matters- it’s a good time for summoning demons. They can slip between worlds easier. I, well, uh, I… a maiden’s” Khī stopped again, “stop giving me that look, for magical purposes, I’m a maiden.”

"I'm not giving you any looks," Cub answers while clearly giving Khi a look.

“That,” Khī said, a slightly strangled giggle escaping her lips, “is a look. I-,” Khī laughed again, the nervousness and discomfort of the situation making the whole scene more absurd, “I’ll have you know I was in a relationship for years before this!” She tries to sound indignant, but it comes out equal parts choked up and laughing.

“I had…” she laughed again, tears beginning to well in her eyes, “I had duties! Some might call them wifely!”

"So did I," Cub answers, "though I don't think I quite fulfilled them in the end."

“Oh gods, were you married?” Khī says, idly noting that she’s pretty sure adultery is a crime in most places, “Have I…” Khi giggled again, still crying, “Have I eaten forbidden peaches?”

Cub is unable to restrain herself from joining Khi in giggling, "I will have you know that I alone determine whether or not these particular peaches are forbidden. "And that no laws of the Realm were broken."

The absurdity of the situation had gotten to her, and Khī takes off her mask, crying and laughing in equal measure. She’d never really cried. There hadn’t been time to cry. She’d been too busy running, or learning, or focusing on the next problem, she hadn’t even paid the slightest attention. “Your husband wouldn’t mind?,” she snorted, half a laugh, half to deal with the phlegm. “I’ve been plundering his orchards?”

"Oh I'm sure he would," said Cub, "but he has no legal or moral rights. And they are my orchards."

Cold had out a sigh of relief as the door fell shut behind him. He was very glad that he didn't have to witness whatever sorcerers rite Scales was going to do to the spirit. And then he overheard Khi's and Cubs conversation, blessed by an exalted sense of hearing. The words her heard made him wonder if the sorcery would be less dangerous then being caught eavesdropping. At the last comment, Cold's ears went a blazing red and he let out an involuntary squeeck.

“Gods,” Khī said, removing the mask to wipe her eyes. “Was that Cold?”

"I believe so," Cub answers calmly. "There's no need to lurk, Cold, that particular body of yours is quite unsuited to it."

"I wasn't lurking," Cold sheepishly said as he walked up towards the two women, ears a bright red. I just... well... didn't want to intrude, but I couldn't go back since I don't want to be there when Scales is doing whatever he's doing to the spirit. He nervously scratched the back of his head.

Khī looked up at Cold and his obvious embarrassment, and found another laugh escaping her. What a sight they must be: her a wreck, a puddle of mostly digested rice across the hallway, crying, laughing, grasping Cub’s hand with- oh she should loosen her grip a bit, her mask off.

"Don't worry about it, Cold," said Khi. "I hope our conversation was at least less uncomfortable to bear witness to than Scales' rites."

"I'm sorry for intruding."  Cold glanced over at Khi and the puddle of sick on the floor next to her. "Are you alright?" He could smell the vomit. "I'm was worried about why you puked."

“I actually did want to see the ritual," Khi admits. "I’m curious about the black art, and, er, in the interest of full and honest disclosure, I have been better.”

"But you have also been worse," Cub says and gives Khi's hand a quick squeeze.

"Should I... leave you two alone?," asked Cold.

“It is,” Khī stands, “it is fine. I am fine. I…something did not agree with my constitution,”

Cold can tell she was through her teeth, but he didn't press the issue. He didn't know Khi that well, and couldn't expect her to bear her heart to him. "We'll get you something lighter to eat soon then."

Khī smiled. “Thank you Cold.” She was, momentarily, thankful that the sometimes-inelegant wolfman had chosen not to say anything. “Ah, I suppose we should wait for the others, then?”

"That's probably the right way to go about it," Cold agrees. "I'll need some clothes after they finish. I'm sorry earlier - for my mistake. I was in this form because I had nothing to wear in Hidden Reed's. The clothes Cub lent me were destroyed by your demon."

“Have you been… have you been naked this whole time?," asked Khī. “Oh masters, you’ve been naked,” she said, somewhere between frantic and exasperated. "I just…with the fur… even among the imperfect of Ysyr, none of us really had much fur, you understand,” the Night Caste said, tripping over her words, “it’s warm there,” she finished, lamely.

Now that Khi was starting to freak out, she was setting off Cold as well. "Well what was I supposed to do about it?" He nervously said. "There weren't really any places to get new clothes, and all of you were just ignoring it, so I thought bringing it up would make everything even more awkward."

“I suppose there wasn’t, really,” Khī hmmed, “Well, not much for it I guess,”

"At least now you know why I haven't shifted back yet," added Cold. "Besides, in the Shadowland, things would've gotten unbearably chilly if I hadn't."

“Ah, yes, please do not do that,” Khī said, smoothly, pulling herself back to her typical levels of control.

"Yeah, I'm not planning to show off my... uh.... peaches," Cold replied.

Khī gave Cold an extremely flat look, before returning her mask to her face, unamused by the joke at her expense.

Cub, however, laughed at the absurdity of the whole affair. "You should be comfortable wearing whatever you like to, or like not to, around us. It's fine, I promise you," she says, still laughing.

“I think I missed what Scales was planning, with my unfortunate exit,” Khī said, her regular monotone reasserting itself, changing the subject. “Cold, you were the last one in there. What did you see?”

"Well, uh.. he started speaking with his shahan-ya, Smiling Rat," Cold explained, grasping the opportunity to get his mind off the fact of his earlier error. "Scales said he was the greatest Necromancer in the North. I think he was asking for guidance on some kind of sorcery thing. Probably to shut that spirit up forever. I don't know more then that, they were talking in that Old Realm language, and I didn't want to stick around for a ritual when the guy doing it doesn't really know it that well."

“Wise. Sorcery is best conducted by those who understand it.” Khī nodded, “I assume he used some sort of necromantic messenger?” She paused for a moment. “I take it a Shahan-ya is somewhat analogous to a Sifu, for Lunars?”

Cold was puzzled by Khi's terminology. "It was the rat skull around his neck that he used. And yes, a Shahan-ya is a teacher, and more. They're not only mentors and guides of other chosen of Luna, they also are the closest thing to leaders the Silver Pact has. I uh, can't really say much more about the Silver Pact than that, I'm afraid. I didn't join it when Yi-Han, uh, that's another Lunar who is part of the Silver Pact, tried to explain things to me." Cold sighs and shakes his head, as he thought back to his arrogance. He was like a young fish that acted like they he was a legendary kraken.

Khī put a hand on the bottom of her mask, “Interesting. I speak to my sifu in dreams, I suppose that’s analogous. I may be betraying my ignorance here, but what is the Silver Pact?”

"The silver pact is," Cold scratched his chin as he put some thought into that. "A group of Luna's chosen, allied for mutual aid against the Realm. A place to find mentors, a place to get to know your peers. But it's also a bunch of people pulling at the same rug from all ends. There's no pecking order. Each Shahan-Ya tries to get their philosophy out there, and find support for whatever thing they are doing."

“The Realm," pondered Khi. "It’s easy to underestimate its reach, I suppose. They have almost no power in the Dreaming Sea, where the Warden and I come from. Your kind must hate them a great deal." It seemed unlikely that the Chosen of the Sun had any similar such union, she thought. The others had made no mention of it, or any overture of joining to her. The Silver Pact sounded like madness to her.  Dozens of Shahan-yas, each pulling the organization in different places, without anyone in charge, or a clear law or hierarchy. It seemed… wasteful. The power of the Chosen, squandered without a single will to bind them, without a clear order of seniority. It sounded chaotic, and chaos was dangerous to everyone.

---

Wordlessly, the Celestials finally decided among themselves that the time had come to move on, and they trudged forward again, up through the long spiraling catacombs under the Lushfield Cathedral, back towards the surface, and to the light of Luna and the Unconquered Sun. Khi had insisted that to prevent any more misunderstandings, Cold should return to the form of Hidden Reed, and Nameless had loaned him her shawl to wear. It was both sunset and moonrise right now, and privately in their hearts, each of them yearned to be back under the eyes of their patron.
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The Exalts Are Confronted!

Their spirits lifted at the prospect of returning to the surface world, the Exalts rounded the final bend where the narrow catacomb corridor opened up, and they piled into the original high-arched mausoleum just under the cathedral, where Lushfield's first settlers were buried. There was a red light at the end of the mausoleum, and two shadowly figures, and the Celestials with a supernatural sense of smell and taste experienced an odd sensation, like the air itself was sharper, more pungent. The old man Marwin - Honto's mortal brother and lieutenant, emerged from around the corner, holding a lit torch in each hand.

The light cast by the torches revealed who was waiting for them: It was the Seneschal Honto and the Talonlord Anguilla. Honto was on one knee with a palm on the stone floor, his eyes closed, performing a ritual of some sort. In his other hand he had an ornately carved wooden longbow, strung for battle, and there was a wooden staff vertically sticking up from the ground next to him, slowly rotating in place. There was a large chalk circle with various old realm glyphs written in various places on its periphery on the ground underneath the three of them. Anguilla was fully armed and ready for battle - in her blue jade lamellar and helmet, with her Guandao held in both hands and pointed across the room, towards the Celestials.

Khī sucked her teeth behind her mask. While likely inevitable, this was…less than ideal. Her brain ran through options: the maw would perform effectively here, and her demateralized demon Aghaid was an advantage none of the Lushfielders knew they had. And, for that matter… two exalts and a mob would probably not be enough force to stop any three of their little circle. She stilled, saying or doing nothing to break the moment.

The chalk circle began to glow a faint, pale green as Honto opened his eyes and stood up. He spoke in a voice that was sterner, more amplified than the demure conciliatory tone he had used before. "So now you've learned all our secrets. Not only that, but you've been corrupting the youth too." He sucked at his teeth. "No, it wasn't Rock that ratted you out. Tramezia told me everything."  The tree in the God's throne room, thought Scales. They had done nothing to prevent its use, so of course Tramezia spoke through it to Honto.

Anguilla suddenly spoke up, interrupting Honto. Her voice was full of righteous anger. "You sick twisted bitch!" she yelled, seemingly directed at the Nameless Sword Maiden. "We found your miserable handiwork an hour ago! If you wanted your revenge, you should have come at me, not my people! He had nothing to do with any of this - he even tried to help you! Trying to make it look like he killed himself - it's even more unforgivable!"

Honto raised his hand, silencing the furious Talonlord. "You have one chance to come clean and tell us everything. No more lies, no more innocents need to die. What are you doing here in Lushfield?"

“A moment. Who was killed?” Khī raised her hand, somewhat awkwardly, the whiff of a murder temporarily putting the immediate danger on hold.

"My Scalelord!" Anguilla spit out. "Rael!"

Cold, in she shape of Hidden-Reed, was clutching Nameless' shawl around her body. He paled when he saw the people waiting for them at the door, and was confused about what was happening. Then there was accusation of murder, which only confused him more. Were they still going to go ahead with the plan of murdering Celcine, leaving them as the scapegoats? And then the name 'Rael' was mentioned, and Hidden-Reed visibly froze.

"Rael... is dead?" Cold whispered out, wracking his brain as to find a reason why. He didn't think Nameless would kill him. And if she did, he doubted she would be able to frame it as suicide. At least.. that's what he thought.

Khī turned to Nameless, quietly whispering “Who is that?”

Nameless' face went through an obvious array of emotion: surprise, shock, more surprise, then utter confusion mixed with some surprise. "No idea, I'll find out" she whispered to Khi, before straightening up, and facing Anguilla, utterly confused why the Dragonblood was angry at her - after all, it wasn't that long ago that the Sword Maiden had gifted her a much-needed win in front of her assembled troops.

"Revenge for what?" she asked, seemingly stumped, letting her look wander over to Honto, who obviously didn't offer any help. Her thoughts raced. Anguilla was clearly upset, but revenge? Had the Talonlord done something that the Sword Maiden was not yet aware of? Clearly she couldn't mean the duel, after all, Nameless had given the opening for that strike voluntarily. Even if Anguilla had maybe overdone it a bit, surely she didn't think of her as such a bad sport?

Warden slowly stroked his beard, even as inwardly he cursed at the accusations. At least Honto did not suspect their true nature yet, but there was a lot of explaining to do. And Rael's death was truly unfortunate, a man in the prime of his youth - taking his own life? "Why do you think she killed Rael?," he asked. "And when did he die? She's been with us for the past few hours."

Honto raised his hand in a show of authority and narrowed his eyes at the Celestials as they immediately started speaking over each other, none answering his question. His hand tightening on the grip of his longbow. He wasn't going to be answering any questions here - they were. "Last. Chance. Who are you, and why are you here?"

Warden whispered swiftly to his companions: "We could admit we're here for the Wellspring. Since it's of no real use to them anymore, they shouldn't mind too much and it's rather close to the full truth."

The first thing went through Cub's mind as they emerged into the cathedral was a stab of panic. This was not the first time she had been on the wrong side of angry Princes of the Earth, and only one of the other times has ended as anything even resembling a victory for her and hers. Her compure never waver, of course, and soon her mind is calm again. These two are only so much of a threat to the circle, and their behavior does not indicate that they have the other Terrestrials on hand, nor that the common people of Lushfield are assembled as a lynch mob outside. Honto believed he knows everything, but this was not the behavior of a man who knows he is facing six Anathema. The questions thus became what did he actually know, and how much of what he believes he knows has he told Anguilla? Cub's every sense was drawn to Honto. What did the intonation of his voice say, the way he held himself and his weapon, the lines drawn on his face?

A subtle battle of essence raged under the surface as Persistant Cub's drew on the potency of Sol Invictus to gaze through Honto's intentions, while the Dragon Blooded sorcerer defended with the might that runs through his veins.

Honto is deadly serious right now, one mistep away from unleashing a wave of sorcery. And seriously angry too - he feels his trust has been violated. He's allowed them to sleep in his own home, and they've repaid his generosity by delving into his buried secrets and meddling with Lushfield's affairs. He's not testing them or playing a trick.

He doesn't know they're Anathema, Cub realized. Those two guides down below who saw their caste marks probably don't know what Anathema is, other than instinctually, so Tramezia likely doesn't either, or he would have told Honto.

But Honto is certainly aware that they've agreed to carry out a large project for the god, and that Rock and the ghost of Lo-Biven are involved. He also has have no reason to hide anything from Anguilla at this point, given that both she and Marwin have come along ready to fight.


Scales stood quietly to the side, knowing that his attempts at diplomacy could never hope to match those of Cub, though perhaps there is another way he could aid the circle. He eyes Honto’s accoutrements; the glowing chalk circle, the levitating staff, and the ornate longbow. The situation now calls for subtle power, not brilliant displays of light. He searches their contours, interrogating them for the telltale signs of sorcery, trying to find what Honto has wrought against them.

But try as he might, the No-Moon Lunar had spent too much time on the periphery engrossed in the study of necromancy. He was unable to recognize the nature of the sorcery wielded by Honto, learned during his time on the Blessed Isle.

"I am Cynis Bellara," the woman who went by Persistent Cub says as she steps forward to stand between the sorcerer and the circle. "And I came to Lushfield to find an object of power known as the Wellspring." Her words are measured and precise, her countenance is open and honest, and her pale lilac eyes meet Honto's fury with calmness and an offer of peace and understanding.

The Celestials notice as both Honto's steely-eyed expression and the tight grip on his longbow softens ever so slightly, at least smoothing over the agitation that was caused by Nameless and Warden's defensive verbal outbursts. "What is the Wellspring?" asked Honto. He was demanding an answer, really, rather than asking. "Why do you think it's here?"

"When I came here, I did not know," Bellara answers, her tone still calm, her voice soothing to the ear. "Now, I can tell you that it is a Hearthstone and that centuries ago it was the source of Lushfield's rich and fertile lands. A role now taken over by Tramezia." With an unhappy smile, she continues. "As to why I came so far to find a thing I didn't know what was - when your House's spymaster tells you to go somewhere and do something, it does not behoove you to ask too many questions."

Honto studied the woman who now called herself Cynis Bellara, the essence within his blood coursed through his veins as he attempted to detect if the admitted liar's words now were again nothing but more falsehoods.

Persistent Cub tried to remain as inscrutable as possible to Honto's essence-drenched gaze. As with many conflicts between people, the trick to hiding the truth is not to completely cover it - that is most often impossible - rather, it is to make the one looking look somewhere else. If Honto was thinking of Lushfield, of the implications stemming from an arcane power source having been taken over by a divine one at Lo-Biven's behest, he might not pay attention to the fact that Bellara had not in fact answered his question.

At least somewhat satisfied that the woman who now identified as Cynis Bellera's words seemed credible enough, Honto pressed: "And how did you discover that? Will we stumble upon any more inconvenient bodies?"

"None of us killed Scalelord Rael," Bellara says with polite firmness, while she puts great stock in having a civil conversation, this is not an issue where there is room for doubt. "He left the doctor's shortly before the Sword Maiden, Khi and I did, and I have been with both of them since. The rest of my company went into the Cathedral with Rock before the duel and have not been anywhere near the stables since. I do not know if he took his own life or someone else did him in, but if you will allow it, I will happily put all of our expertise at your disposal in discovering the truth behind his untimely death."

Once again when Cub reiterates that Rael is dead, Cold visibly becomes confused and a bit downtrodden. He had liked the man, with the few conversations he had with him. And he just couldn't grasp what or why it had happened. Even if nobody had killed him, why would he have killed himself?

"Our investigations into the nature of the Wellspring and Lushfield's unique situation is a rather longer story than is suitable for telling during a stand-off like this one," Cub continued, arching a single brow at the show the two Dragon-Blooded put on of being threatening. Really, looking at herself, it should have seemed clear that such measures were entirely unnecessary. "The very short version is that we learned of it from speaking with Great Uncle Rightness and Tramezia. The Wellspring ran out some two hundred years ago when Rightness was young and your predecessor's daughter Ivy spent considerable time first trying to keep it running, and later looking for the Manse from which it drew its power."

"Have your gang put your weapons on the ground and slide them over here nice and slowly, and maybe we can think about that." Honto wasn't taking any chances. "You didn't say anything about Lo-Biven. Tramezia says he was there with you, and you must have passed through his prison on the way up here. Is he still down there? You didn't free him, for heaven's sake?" At the mention of Lo-Biven, Anguilla's nose scrunches.

Cub answers: "Lo-Biven departed our presence together with Rock several hours ago, and Rock left him quite thoroughly chained to his tomb. We have most definitely not freed him." She considered the two Terrestrials thoughtfully before continuing, "while Lo-Biven did seem overly fond of the sound of his own voice and had much to say, little of it related to our purpose here and even less seemed trustworthy."

Honto pressed: "And this task you've agreed to do for Tramezia, what is it? He says two of your gaggle claim to be sorcerers." Honto's eyes scan the group arrayed in front of him, lingering for a moment upon the quiet, skinny westerner and the strange masked woman who always was at Cub's side as the most likely, without necessarily dismissing the chance that Cub's purported niece could be a graduate of the Heptagram as well. "Which two - identify them."

"We are assisting him with restructuring the system that provides for Lushfield, but only on the supply end," Cub replies. "Nothing will change in how rich your fields are, nor in how tall your sons and daughters grow up to be. On the contrary, these changes will make the surrounding lands richer as well, allowing you to expand beyond your current borders should that be your ambition."

In any negotiation, there is value in selective memory. Honto didn't miss the fact that Cynis Bellara, the woman who called herself Persistent Cub, didn't instruct her allies to disarm themselves, nor did she identify the ones who claimed to be sorcerers. A more single-minded inquisitor might insist upon each of their demands individually before moving on to the next, and hit a brick wall. By asking all of his questions first, Honto could ascertain the entire texture of the parley, and determine where Cub was drawing lines in the metaphorical sand, so that he could pick the battles that were most important.

"Nothing is done for free," Honto said, referring to the assistance to Tramezia they claimed they were going to be rendering. "What are you getting in return?"

"Some paraphernalia related to the Wellspring that are still in Tramezia's possession," Bellara answered with a casual shrug. She noted that Honto seemed rather more forgiving of her evasiveness now than he did earlier, which of course begged the question, why? The answer to this question could likely be found in the countless little cues offered by his eyes, hands, and choice of words.

Honto's not pushing as hard as he could be because we are still useful to him, and he wants our willing cooperation, realized Bellara. Otherwise, he would not have confronted us like this so directly, when there are so many more indirect options. He still intends to hold us to the deal we made earlier to eliminate Celcine for him.

The Seneschal's eyes narrowed again. He had honed in on the leverage he needed. "You need items contaminated with the residues of this long-decayed Wellspring to prove to your spymistress that you actually conducted your search and didn't fail, but rather, that there was nothing more to be found."

"You will complete your task for Tramezia, and take your negotiated reward from him." Honto said sterny. "But it is not his property to give, it is mine. And the cost for taking it with you when you leave here - and you will leave here - is completing my task you agreed to. Everything else is off the table."

"That is acceptable," Bellara agrees with a small nod.

Anguilla suddenly spoke up demandingly - Honto might have been inclined to treat the issue as an issue of leverage, and not to press, but she wasn't going to be deterred: "Why is my adjutant hanging from a rope in my stable? You were seen last with him. His horse - my horse - was found wandering alone."

"Death comes to all mortals who walk Creation," Bellara answers, once more attempting to maintain herself as the very picture of calm reason. "Rael was a good man, and his death is a greater tragedy than most, but it has happened and we must contend with that. His soul will move on to enter the great wheel and perhaps it will bring him back to you in a way we cannot yet foresee."

Honto looked at Anguilla for a moment, studying her expression, before returning his gaze to the Celestials. "From here on out, your privileges on the surface of Lushfield are revoked. You will take your meals and sleep here, in this crypt, when you are not assisting the God with his repairs. He told me work will start tomorrow morning. Any equipment you need from your wagon will be sent to you, and we will keep an careful eye on your supposed guildswoman as insurance. Marwin will stay here to watch over you and ensure you don't cause any more trouble. If anything happens to him, you will regret it."

The Senechal looked again at Anguilla. He needed to be sensitive to her emotions as well, and even if Bellara's words were effective in soothing her over the actual death of Rael as an individual, they did not sooth the blow to her pride and sense of authority caused by a subordinate's death on her watch.

"Now, which one of your troupe has this 'expertise' in the matters of discovering the truth in matters of death. I intend to to get to the bottom of this matter. They will go with the Talonlord, alone, to see the body for themselves. They will answer any questions she asks of them."

"No," is the simple answer Cynis Bellara gives. "I offered our expertise when I believed you would treat us with respect, not lock us in your basement and isolate us."

Honto's eyes flare green. "Now you talk about respect!," he shouts. "I invite you into my own house, show you every courtesy and kindness, and you repay me by plotting and scheming behind my back!" He scan across the the assembled group alongside Bellara, making sure they all can hear his words. "Now a decent man is dead, and if you are not the ones responsible, then his killer might still be on the loose! And you refuse to assist because staying here offends your vanity? Is there no bottom to your arrogance?"  His words, augmented by the force of dragonblooded power, were directed against the whole group, with the intention to divide them.

Khī froze, her mind finally connecting the dots. Rael was that sad little man from earlier, and she had either wildly misjudged the situation, or placed her words in precisely the wrong spot. All for, what, the joy of pointlessly hurting a man? All her caution, all her reproach of the others, and whose intemperance was constantly sabotaging all of their efforts? Hers. Accidental or not, she had killed a man for fun, and some disgusting little part of her had enjoyed it. And now she was leaving Cub to pick up her mess, abrogating any responsibility for it at all. Khī tried to speak, but found her mouth ill-equipped to respond to her. She had frozen, stock still.

Cold nervously shuffled his feet as Honto lifted his gaze off Cub and lets it fall on the rest of their circle. He pulled the shawl closer around him as if to ward it off. Honto did have a point. If somebody had gone behind his back when he had offered them food and shelter. Well... they probably would've been chained up and thrown into a lake for the frost to claim them. But on the other hand, Honto was a sorcerer, and besides, it didn't seem like anything they did actively went against his interests. Didn't they deserve at least a little bit of respect for that? And the nerve of them to blame Rael's death on one of them. What possible point would there be to that murder?

Scales withered under Honto's judgmental gaze as well. Leaving the nature of Rael's death unresolved, damning his spirit to linger in search of his killer would leave a sour taste in the mouth, even if I have never spoken to him. Letting spirits of innocent victims resolve their anger at their tormentors was not questioned in Skullstone.

The Sword Maiden had calmly listened, striking a deliberately relaxing pose, trying to not be the reason this standoff escalates into a skirmish. Honto's pride seemed to be on full display, the way Nameless saw it, they mostly did the man favors so far. Yes, they'd been underhanded about it, something she wasn't exactly proud of, but to her, he seemed not to be driven by a sense of righteousness, but rather using his wrath on display to strongarm the Circle into doing his bidding. For what it was worth, Nameless was still opposed to unnecessary murders. Sure, Celcine was a humongous bitch, yes, and she'd gladly strike her down if she gave her a reason - but as far as the Dawn was considered, the Archimandrite hadn't done that. That's not to say she wasn't above murdering someone for her friends, but a political assassination for someone trying to high road himself out of the responsibility for a murderous plot? This left a bad taste in her mouth.

From the context, Nameless had pieced together who Rael was - apparently the nice young man who'd handed the horse Pickle over to her, and who had carried her to the doctor after. That was sad news. He'd seemed upset earlier, and now she felt guilty she hadn't recognized him. Anguilla's foaming at the mouth still puzzled her though, she'd not displayed any hostility towards the Dragonblood, and the favor she did her seemed already forgotten. She must've had misjudged the woman. "I hope Pickle's okay," she mumbled to nobody in particular, while showing absolutely no signs of willingness to disarm herself. If Honto had actually been genuinely hurt by the abuse of his hospitality, that'd been one thing, but the reality was, he was still trying to get them to commit his murder for him, and now that the carrot was forgotten, he was offering the stick. She did not like this one bit, but at least she could take solace in that whatever had tormented poor Rael no longer had any power over him. It might not be what everyone desires, but a quick death can always be mercy.

There was genuine anger in Honto's voice, and Warden had to admit that he could see where it was coming from. But the Dragonblooded hadn't invited them in out of the kindness of his heart, but rather only cared when he thought they were envoys of the Realm. No, Honto had made a political play, and now he was angry he had been outplayed, or at least that's what Warden told himself.

At the sudden shift in Honto's attitude, Cynis Bellara stood taller than she ever did as a mortal. Resolve is in her gestures and steel is in her spine. "We have neither schemed nor plotted against you, rather we have schemed with you at your own request," she countered, attempting to stand as a pillar of shining calm against Honto's flaring rage. "And you are not asking for our assistance, you are demanding our obedience! That is the respect that is the due of my companions and myself."

Cub did not need to look at her companions to know that Honto's words had gotten through to some of them. Khi would feel responsible, regardless of the Dragon-Blooded's admonitions, and while she did not quite understand Scales's mind, there was no doubt that he cared for the proper treatment of the dead. With that weighing on her mind, she thought it best to offer Honto a compromise. "However, I do agree that Rael's fate deserves to be investigated and that his spirit should be properly ushered on to reincarnation. If you will allow it, I suggest that Khi, Scales Glisten, and Warden go with Talonlord Anguilla," she says, pointing out each of her companions in turn. "Khi is a highly skilled investigator, Scales Glisten a student of ghosts, and Warden a priest who may also offer protection should there be a murderer on the loose."

Honto smugly glanced at Anguilla, obtaining her tacit consent to the proposal, before nodding his head. He was well aware that he crossed swords in a battle of egos with the haughty dynast Bellara over a petty matter for Anguilla's benefit, and that him pushing any harder now would be counterproductive, given that the woman who called herself Persistent Cub had already reluctantly swallowed her pride. Having subtly established the hierarchy, the conventions of polite society now demanded that he make amends and pretend that the altercation was a trivial thing that had never truly occurred. What a strange thing manners were.

"I am not... unsympathetic to your concerns, now that I have thought about them more," said Honto diplomatically. "I will have furnishings and amenities appropriate to your station brought down here for your comfort. A suitable cover story will be concocted - you are conducting research on the final resting place of a long-departed ancestor, and need uninterrupted and private access to our crypts for the purpose."

The Talonlord gestured to the three volunteers, indicating that they were to come with her. "I will return with your people soon," she spoke up. "After the investigation is complete, we will need to have a funeral."

Cynis Bellara offered Honto a slightly deeper bow in response than he frankly deserved. "That is most generous of you. I am grateful and hope for a speedy resolution of this tragic affair."

Cold looked utterly confused at the chain of events. The threat of violence? That he understood. Tense negotiations? Those made sense. But after all that... Honto and Cub seemingly went back to being polite, acting like they all didn't have swords, bows and sorcery pointed at them, blackmailed into doing Honto's dirty work. And after Cub made a big ruckus about not wanting to do something.... she nearly immediately gave a counter-offer that essetnially was the exact same thing that Honto had asked for. Cold just pulled the shawl closer around himself as he shivered slightly, lack his fur in this form. This whole situation just plain sucked. He couldn't wait until he was able to shut himself in and keep his hands busy, so he could ignore the insanity around him.

With 'Bellara' taking the lead, Warden had stayed quiet, after his initial outburst. He doubted Honto would appreciate or listen to an impassioned discourse rather than the subtle back and forth that Cub was an expert in. Luckily, things seemed to have found an agreeable conclusion where Rael's death could be investigated fully. After he was mentioned, he took a small step forward, sheathing his sword in the process. "Though I only met Rael once, I am saddened by his death and hope we can all do our part. If there was foul play involved in his death, we owe it to him and his family to get to the bottom of it." He said solemnly.

Honto watched curiously as Warden and Scales stepped over to join Anguilla, while Khi lingered for a moment, still dazed by her internalized self-doubt. "I will make the necessary arrangements, and return later tonight to ensure your accommodations are satisfactory," said the Senechal. "I also understand the task you will be performing for Tramezia is of some urgency, and will consume nearly all of your time starting tomorrow. I suggest that you and your..." - he looked with some skepticism at the injured Sword Maiden and Cold in the form of Hidden Reed - "team remaining here take the next couple of hours to finalize the details of the task you will be performing for me, so that I will know what to expect and what preparations will need to be made." He pondered for a moment. "Make sure it is suitably... dramatic."

With the stand-off over with for now, Bellara turned back to the circle and gave both Scales and Warden grateful smiles as they passed by her, before taking the few steps that separate her from Khi. She puts two fingers against the other woman's chin, just beneath the edge of the mask and raises her head to look her in the eyes. The revelation about Rael has clearly shaken Khi, and the tormented woman will need some amount of comfort. Bellara's other hand took hold of Khi's and gave a comforting squeeze as she leans close to whispers: "I know that you blame yourself, and nothing I could say could convince you otherwise. Regardless of what really happened, you can choose how to act in the future, and I know you have great capacity for being better. There is both goodness and greatness in you, take that and share it with the world. Cutting words and cruel gestures are the most fleeting of joys. I know."

Khī smiled slightly behind her mask, and squeezes the other woman’s hand back, before walking quietly away with the the Scalelord. She could be better. Khi didn’t, rightly, know what better would be. That might be something to revisit, later. Without Sadrica to tell her, it was hard to know what better was supposed to be. But without that, she had a purpose, and that, at least, she could discharge better. There was always a way to be a more efficient instrument of her masters, and this was, doubtless, something she could work to hone.

After watching Khi, Warden, and Scales depart with Anguilla, Honto gave a final discerning glance at the group of three remaining in the sepulcher, before standing up and walking out of the room himself, leaving them under the watchful eye of his brother Marwin, who had managed to find a chair and was flipping through a small booklet. The glowing chalk circle remained, though dimmed perceptibly as the sorcerer departed. His levitating staff traveled at his side, like it was tethered to him.
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Khi, Warden, and Scales Investigate the Death of Scalelord Rael
Trigger Warning: Depression, Suicide

Spoiler
Khi, Warden, and Scales trudged out of the basement of the cathedral and up the backroom staircase, prodding on by the Talonlord Anguilla behind them. The long journey underground, especially the stress of their last hour, first dealing with Lo-Biven, and then the shock of being discovered by Honto, had taken its toll. Their legs were starting to ache with fatigue. Looking out the stained glass windows of the Immaculate Temple, they could see that it was already sunset.

There were armed and mounted riders waiting in the street outside the cathedral - Anguilla's cavalrymen, along with a few curious onlookers, and some riderless, expensive-looking horses. Rumors had already gotten around that something had happened, but nobody seemed to know anything. Presumably, if their encounter below had turned to violent ends, the plan was to have Marwin flee the danger and command the riders to raise the town and countryside, while the Terrestrials held off the plotters.

Half of the mounted riders escorted the three Celestial along with Anguilla through the main street of the city to the north, in the direction of the stables next to the military and police headquarters. When they arrived, the place was ringed with uniformed officers bearing torches, who had established a cordon around the area. Khi noticed a pair of familiar figures standing outside - it the doctor's husband that they met earlier that day, holding the horse Pickle by its bridle and soothing the animal. They grey colt was clearly in a state of some distress. Anguilla dismounted and strode up to the man, giving him a nod and sparing a moment to rub Pickle's mane. "Is she inside with the body?," the Talonlord asked. He nodded solemnly: "She just went in a minute ago," he answered. Anguilla proceeded to march into the stable, beckoning Khi, Warden, and Scales to follow along with a tilt of her head.

Khī broke her silence for the first time since the confrontation at the tombs. “The body has been moved?” She said, quiet, her voice even and empty of any inflection.

"They found him in Pickles's stall," said Anguilla, leading the way through the stables. "The recruit who found him cut him down, trying to save him."

Warden gave Khi a sideways glance at the sound of her voice. Her mask and generally quiet demeanor had made it difficult to gauge her emotional state, but by now the signs that something was amiss were adding up. But that was probably a talk best saved for later.

Scales is quiet on the walk over, troubled by his thoughts. Would the others truly have done nothing? I know the dead are not as revered in the wider world as in Skullstone, but utterly refusing to resolve a murder that our companion was accused of, due just to personal disrespect?...

“If it should please you, my lady, I should wish to see the stall. Is the man who found him still about?” Khī said, her voice still completely blank.

"It's this way," said the Talonlord, rounding a corner to unveil the scene of the incident. Laying down, like a man asleep on the straw bedding of the generously-sized horse stall, was Rael, still in his Scalelord's uniform, with his scabbard strapped to his hip. His face was waxy and pale, and around his neck, over a red mark, was a noose tied from thin rope, with a end that seemed to have been hacked away. The other end was still hitched around a rafter above the body, the frayed end dangling loosely below. Kneeling over him was the Doctor who had treated the Nameless Sword Maiden earlier that day. She was undoing the buttons on his uniform to commence her examination of the body.

Outside the stall, sitting on a pail with his head in his hands, was a young skinny man in an unkempt, legionnaire's uniform that he didn't really fill out - he wasn't much more than a boy. He seemed grievously afflicted. On the ground in the sawdust below his feet was an officer's sword - Rael's. presumably. "This is the one who found him," said Anguilla.

“Good. I am glad he has not been moved significantly," said Khī. "Ma’am, I kindly ask that you do not further touch the body, as it will make my job more difficult." Khī stood stock still, analyzing the space, taking in every aspect, a practiced eye looking over it all, “Good Talonlord, I ask that you understand what I am about to do. My lady has instructed me in the past to be clear, as the things which are common in my homeland are not in other places. I am called Khī, owned by Cynis Bellara, of White Hook. It is my purpose to solve such things. I was selected for my purpose at the age of 6. I know little else, although I confess to being a competent maid. Do not think my abilities strange, it is what I was made to be.”

The doctor, a woman with grey hair tied in a bun who was old enough to be a grandmother, turned to look at the voice that brusquely commanded her to step aside. Khi saw the recognition flash in the woman's eyes - this was the same masked woman who had been with the Nameless Sword Maiden earlier today, the last time Rael had been seen alive. Khi keenly felt the judgment and anger radiating from her in that moment.

"No," said the Doctor, standing up to Khi. "I welcomed him into this world, and I'll send him into the next. Haven't you people done enough already?"

Anguilla let the Doctor finish before interceding, holding up an open hand and speaking softly. "Give the foreigner a moment - tend to Bilo," the Talonlord half-asked, half-commanded the doctor. Anguilla listened to Khi's explanation of her prowess, nodding along.

Khī sighed, deeply. “This is understandable. I do not command, and if you should wish you may continue. It will make things harder for me, but this is acceptable,” Khī said, still in much the same monotone.

Khi may not command, but Anguilla certainly did, and after a moment of glaring in silence, the doctor stepped out of the stall for a moment to address the poor distraught Bilo.

Khī's penetrating gaze reconstructed the scene of the crime. She looked for the six signs of strangulation, Tala's long-drop indicator, the five kinesics indicating repositioning of the corpse during or following rigor mortis, and a hundred other visible and invisible indications. Estimating the height of the body to the floor and adding the length of the two pieces of rope, adjusting for the estimated measure of tensile elongation in the current humidity, and checking every other measure to be sure. The sandal-prints on the sawdust and the fresh straw - still untrampled by shod hooves, but the subtle breaks indicating only two sets of men's footprints.

The peerless investigator's logical mind desperately searched for a piece of contradictory evidence. Wanted to find it. Anything that would indicate some sign of foul play. She had never wanted to fail to solve a crime before in her life. For the briefest moment, she let herself briefly rejoice: The missing piece of puzzle: How could he have climbed up? But then she deflated again - out of the corner of her eye - she saw the bucket that Bilo was sitting on, and the dusty mark on its side, where Rael's sandaled foot had kicked it out from under him. Khi knew - incontrovertibly, unwaveringly. She despaired as she searched for a mystery, but her peerless skills didn't fail her - there was simply none to be had. Suicide. Case closed.

“It is a suicide," Khī declared. "Note the knot- hastily tied, biased to the right. The deceased, like most, was right handed. A telltale sign, he tied the knot one-handed. There are footprints in the straw, you can see where the cloth of the deceased’s pants have disturbed the straw. There are two men’s footprints, and a woman’s- the doctor’s. The other two- one terminates here, and then becomes a run. The witness. The other, to the bucket. Note the dust in the side, and how it is inverted- he climbed, and the horse, if you see the tracks, knocked it over. That is where those tracks end- Rael’s. The rope is frayed at the end, where an attempt was made to cut him down. It was desperate- see how the cut begins in six places? The way the rope has frayed? A man had hung here, just too long, you can see how the rope breaks just so from the knife.” She pauses for a moment, her voice long having retreated to the clinical, and kneels by Rael, turning his wrist over to view it.

“No skin or blood beneath his nails, his sword undrawn, but jarred open by the impact. Facial contortions. The knot was not well tied. If the good doctor concurs, I would say that the cause of death was asphyxiation, and not the fall. The rope itself is from the barn, see the straw, caught in the length above? It should typically hang there, in that horn. See how it is askew? That us not new, the paint is off beneath it, where it sways. The rope would catch. Removing it would take time, less for someone familiar with it. There is no subcutaneous bruising, at the neck or wrist, beyond that consistent with death by hanging. He was not strangled, and, as we have established, he tied the knot himself, one handed. It was a decision made of impulse, without pre-planning. He is not finished tying the knot- pickle kicks it, distressed. He falls, the knot- see here? It is improperly, or, more rather, not completely, tied, and there is a rope burn on the right hand at the juncture of the thumb. He falls, the bucket out from underneath his feet. I wish it were quick. He is still alive when he is found, but it is, perhaps only moments, too late. Knife cuts there and there, false starts before they find purchase. The deceased is cut down, but based on the tensility of the wrist I would estimate that there was no saving him. I await the results of the autopsy, but I believe they will find the same conclusions. I-“ Khī falters, genuine emotion creeping into her voice, “I am sorry. For your loss, and for the detail.”

Anguilla eyes Khī with skepticism as she goes over her explanation. This masked woman certainly could be right, but she could just as easily be an accomplice spinning a web of lies to cover up for her confederate - the dishonorable swordswoman that Anguilla remained deeply suspicious of. The Talonlord was certainly no expert in these matters, so at Khi's invitation, she turned to the Doctor to see what the elderly woman made of the foreign woman's conclusions.

"There's no need," said the Doctor, who returned to Rael's side and kneeled down to finished unbuttoning the dead man's uniform, carefully removing one of Rael's arms from inside his coat sleeve. She rolled up the layers of undergarments below, revealing a series of scars on the inside of his upper arm, previously hidden from view. Khi may have been a peerless criminal investigator, but a doctor she was not - she dealt with things, not people.

"He did this to himself four months ago. His sister found him, and brought him to me in the middle of the night." The doctor looked at the Talonlord. "After I stitched him up and he awoke, he pleaded with me to keep it a secret, not to tell you. I promised to as long as he kept coming to see me, to just... talk about stuff, to work through his problems. It helps, sometimes. The doctor looked down at the dirty straw under her knee. "This is my fault. I thought he was... getting better."

“I am a stranger to the laws of your land, But there is no legal system I know of which would consider anyone else at fault,” Khī looked to Anguilla. It was difficult for her not to feel responsible for this, although by Ysyrian law, Rael was culpable, and only of theft in the first degree. “It would be best to ensure the deceased is blessed, well mourned, and that one of your dragon-blooded conduct the funeral. Heaven looks ill upon a poorly performed funeral for a suicide, and it is known that their hungry ghosts may rise.”

Anguilla nodded slowly. Whatever was going on in her head, it was unknowable, but it was clear that she no longer believed that the Nameless Sword Maiden was responsible for a murder. "I'll do it myself - he was my man, it's my responsibility. We'll do it tonight, under the cathedral." She bent over to pick up Rael's discarded sword and returned it to the scabbard at Rael's side - Bilo must had grabbed it and clumsily flailed with it in a desperate attempt to chop through the rope, before the hapless youth tossed it aside and switched to his serrated utility knife to cut the Scalelord down. The Talonlord rolled Rael's sleeve back down and slipped his coat back around his arm, and began refastening the buttons of his uniform.

The Doctor nodded. "I'll tell the boy's family. The sister probably already heard by now. I" - the Doctor started. "I should be there too."

Khī said nothing, the mask keeping her features unmoving and impassive. Behind them, she struggled to keep them the same way. The funeral was not a place she should be. A murderer, even if no law could or would punish her, should not attend her victim's funeral. "I should attend to my mistress," Khi said, curtly, "As the good doctor pointed out, I will not be welcome, and my presence will serve no purpose. Talonlord, I ask that you release me to my duty."

The Talonlord nodded slowly, turning to the distraught teenager sitting on the bucket. "Bilo, I need you to do something very important for me." The undersized conscript boy looked up at his Exalted commander with red eyes. Anguilla unbuckled a short, jade-inlaid baton from her belt and put it in his hand, making sure that the Warden, Scales, and Khi were watching and could hear her words. "Look at me - listen carefully Bilo - You must be strong now. I am temporarily promoting you to the rank of Fanglord. You must bring these three guests with you outside the stables, and take command of the fang of cavalrymen waiting there. Show them this rod, and they will know the order came from me. You will escort them to the Immaculate Cathedral in the center of town, and this is important - you must not lose them or let them out of your sight. They are visitors here and may easily get lost, and it would reflect very poorly on me if that were to happen. You can leave the cavalarymen outside, and bring them with you down, into the basement. There will be an old man named Marwin waiting for you - he is the Senechal's brother, and I'm sure you have seen him before, and will recognize him. You will discharge these guests into his care, and then return to me at headquarters to report back. If anyone gives you trouble, show them the rod. You must guard it with your life."

Warden wished he had more time before this, to get to know Khi. He wished he could know better how to give her comfort for this death that seemed to hit her this hard. Either way, it was probably something saved until there were less people overhearing them. To Anguilla and the doctor, he added "At least we have ruled out the possibility of any foul play, though the alternative is not much better. We will leave you all to your grieving, then." before allowing Bilo to lead them back.

Khī stood by, passively letting Bilo guide them back to the cathedral. “I would have preferred foul play, I think,” Khī muttered quietly, entirely to herself.
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The Circle Gets to Work

Khi, Warden, and Scales sidestepped a pair of porters lugging an iron brazier down a staircase as they returned to the crypts under the Cathedral, led by the deputized boy. There was a small army of workers unloading a cart full of chattels and hauling it with them. With an acknowledging nod from the Marwin as they re-entered the large underground chamber, they found Cub, Nameless, and Cold huddled around a desk equipped with a stack of paper and ink and quills, working away at various plans to accomplish the requested dramatic finale for Celcine. Every minute or two, Cub would poke her head up to direct the most recent wave of goons on where to place yet another piece of furniture - the latest was a large brass bathtub - she could multitask like that.

Cold nodded along as Cub was laying out the broad strokes of the assassination plan for Celcine. Spread fake rumors of a monster on the loose. Get Honto to drum up excitement, and use the confusion of the entire situation to isolate Celcine alone with the 'monster' who would be played by Cold in his beastly war form. He nodded along for most of it. The Lunar was eager to get some frustration out of his body, and finally put that leech Celcine out of her misery. "Just one question," he pointed out. "What sort of monster can we disguise my war shape as?"

Nameless added her own concern: "And even if you're successful, how do we keep Honto and Anguilla from turning you into a kebab afterwards? Because they'll probably try." She had concocted a flimsy construction from three stools that allowed her to lounge rather comfortably, half sitting, half lying down, with her feet on the third stool. Her eyes were half shut, and she was on the verge of dozing off, now that her ribs had began healing. "And what's our backup plan in case she's too tough? I fought Anguilla, and a Dragon prepared for a fight is no joke. If Honto starts spreading rumors, Celcine will likely come armed and armored. I'm sure you can take her, but do we know how much time we'll have before Lushfield's entire army joins the skirmish? That one isn't in our little scheme." The doubt in Nameless' voice made it clear that she was concerned for Cold's safety, but she didn't want to insult the war-like Lunar.

"I've lived through a lot worse things then being skewered," Cold says in response. "Getting run through by a sharp little bit of metal doesn't exactly bother me for that long." He wanted to roll his eyes at the idea of Celcine being tough. "Anguilla might be strong, but she's a trained soldier. I'm pretty sure the most strenuous thing Celcine has done in the last few decades was take credit for somebody else's work."

Under the withering gaze of the other two Solars, the Lunar remembered the last time he underestimated the Dragon Blooded. "Well, I guess she could be tougher then I expect, so I'll try to take her by surprise and get my teeth in her throat before she knows whats going on. If it comes down to an army chasing me, from what I was told, some Elementals can just sort of vanish when they're in trouble. So all I need to do is to hide for an instant, and shift into a mouse or something else small, and they'll never know."

As the remaining half of their circle arrives, Cub rises to greet them, and looks at each of them in turn. It is clear that they were returning in sorrow rather than anger or righteous satisfaction. It was as they feared, then - Khi's word had pushed the man to kill himself. Cub knew it, Khi knew it, Nameless might know it too, and the others could suspect it. "Welcome back," she greets them with a sad smile.

“Is there tea?” Khī asked wearily.

Cold had greatly sympathized with Rael, so he already feared the answer, but he still had to ask. He poured her a cup of tea and handed it over. "It's been brewed a while ago so it's not piping hot anymore though." The Lunar tried to get a bearing on Khi's feelings. Was she saddened? Was this just another day? The masked woman often was an enigma, and she worried him. But he couldn't help her without knowing what was going on. "Was it...?" Cold asked.

Khī took the tea, with a small, grateful nod. “It was. There is also certain legal precedents for prosecuting the horse Pickle as an accomplice, but it would be absurd to do so."

Cold didn't need to see Khi's face to figure out how she was feeling. The way she held herself was more than enough - guilt and responsibility - though he couldn't fathom why she would think that way. Cold wanted to reach out, to at least try and ease her a bit. When she mentioned Pickle, his entire train of thought got derailed. That had to be a joke right? Some strange Khi joke to try and lighten the mood. "To get back to the matter at hand, we have some ideas for how to get rid of our annoying problem." He gave Warden, Khi and Scales the outlines of the plan, allowing any of the others to jump in to elaborate as needed. "I guess the only thing we still need to figure out is what sort of creature I should be disguised as." At that he looked at Khi and Scales. They were the most savvy about such things.

Scales is quiet, contemplating Khi, when he is jolted out of his musings. “A huraka? I do believe they can be found all over Creation, but their coloration differs.” Scales starts muttering, trying to jog his memory. “Was it blue in the North and black in the East? No, no…”

Nameless had perked up in her seat as Khi spoke. "Wait, wait - they're going to put Pickle on trial?" she gasped. "That's idiotic. And cruel. We should probably liberate that horse during the chaos." She nodded along to her own words.

“They’re not going to put the horse on trial,” Khī said with a sigh, “I was merely remarking that they could, but no one in their right mind would.”

All of a sudden, Honto barged into the larged, vaulted ceremonial undercroft that was to serve as the Celestial's home for the next three days. The faded chalk circle at the entrance, which he had energized with his sorcery a few hours ago, perceptibly began to glow again in reaction to his proximity as he stepped over it. With a single abbreviated word from the Seneschal, the laborers who were busy installing a privacy screen around bathtub scurried out of the room. The Seneschal strode over to the gathered celestial, peering down at the notes and diagrams they were poring over. "Let's see what you've come up with," he said, inviting the group to began their explanation.

"I think I understand," nodded Honto a few minutes later. He had mostly remained silent, and his facial expression unreadable during the explanation. However, his reaction was not to reject the proposed plan, but to inquire into certain specifics. "So I have some questions about this Huraka your sorcerer will be calling upon. I have encountered their kind twice before, and each time their plumage and overall appearance was remarkably different. If you did not know any better, you would believe them to be entirely distinct creatures. If I am to whip the people into a frenzy about a local Huraka sighting, I should know what yours will look like."

Khī took the opportunity to examine Honto, while she sat back, sipping on her tea, carefully watching the proceedings as she picked the man apart.

"We shall summon one who is local to the direction; based on my understanding of such creatures, it would stand roughly as tall as three of my companion," here Scales motions to Khi, "standing one atop the other. The basic shape is similar to its kin; bearish in nature, with thorned, bird-like talons in place of paws. The fur would be shades of green; darker upon the back and lighter on the underbelly and snout."

Khī dutifully, if rather disinterestedly, stands, to offer a better demonstration. She is not a tall woman.

"Good." replied Honto. "Now for my second question: how do you propose to embolden Celcine into entering the fray with a Huraka by herself? She is a silly and foolish woman, but she is not suicidal. As you have no doubt realized by now, her habitual style is to maneuver others into fighting her battles for her, rather than doing so herself."

"I spoke with her during Anguilla's duel with our swordswoman here," Cub says pleasantly, sipping from the hot cup of tea that was ready just as Honto arrived. "And I believe I can build on the rapport I had with her at that occasion regarding the relative competency of Lushfield's administrative and spiritual leadership to make her want to prove herself superior in all things. That is of course assuming that I have a chance to speak with her," Cub adds with a faint smile, "so we shall have to hope that she decides to stop by this basement, I suppose." She is still slightly bitter about Honto's punishment.

"A furlough from your accommodations will be permitted for that purpose." said Honto. "Speak to my second, and he will make the necessary arrangements." The Seneschal pondered for another moment. "And my final question: How can we ensure that your Huraka will sufficiently overmatch the Archimandrite to accomplish the deed. More than one dynast has underestimated a Prince of the Periphery, with fatal results. We may not be island-bred, but the blood of the same dragons courses through our veins. It would be rather embarrassing if your spirit was torn to shreds. No, it must be sudden - if she manages to resist for any length of time, there will be questions if we are seen to be doing any less than our utmost to assist."

"I'm afraid," Cub says with an obviously fake sad smile, "that she will happen to drink something that doesn't agree with her."

Honto arches an eyebrow. "The rumors about House Cynis are becoming more and more believable. I shouldn't think I'll be sharing a drink with you any time soon. If you need any special components, the town's doctor artificially grows an array of exotic medicinal substances in her arboretum, and can be prevailed upon without any questions being asked. Give Marwin a list of what you need."

Cub merely smiles and nods, glad at least that he has grasp this elementary level of operational security.

The sound of heavy pounding footsteps coming closer interrupts their conversation. A few moments later, Anguilla arrives at the head of a procession, still in her blue jade lamellar, though she had left her Guandao behind this time. Behind her are four of her cavalrymen in uniform, lugging a pine coffin between them. Following them are the Doctor, her husband, and Rael's sister, along with a pair of middle aged folks - presumably the deceased's parents. The doctor is holding the girl's hand, trying to comfort her in her grief. Somewhere down the long, winding passage of the catacombs below was the family crypt, where Rael would be laid to rest for eternity.

"Well, I guess I'm already here," whispered Honto. "It would be quite rude of me to excuse myself from attending now."

At the arrival of the funaral procession, Khī simply allowed herself, forgettable, to slip into the background. The others could handle this. She had business below, anyway, and had no desire to be present for the funeral.

Cub rises and bows respectfully towards the mourners, but makes no comment. This is not the place for her to insert herself in their grief.

Cold winces as the casket bearing Rael is brought in. He rises and gives a respectful bow before quickly turning away. They were grieving, they should be left alone to process their grief and they didn't need a bunch of outsiders gawking at something that should be private. Even them being here for this very short moment felt like intruding already.

---

"And so that's why we all have to toil together in this crystalline struggle into the future!" proclaimed Tramezia in Old Realm to the thousands of gathered Elementals who all packed in to the Freehold to hear his speech, nearly every open space occupied by another being born of vegetable or mineral essence, and everything in between. "I know change is scary, but you all have the strength and courage to do what is right, for all elemental-kind!" Elementals were fond of ponderous speeches, and Tramezia had gone on for nearly an hour from the balcony outside his throne room, using his divinely magnified voice that resonated across the freehold.

Despite their weariness the night before, none of the Celestials had slept easily after the mourners had departed. Perhaps it was the crypt there were practically imprisoned in, or the myriad thoughts that rattled in their brains after all the excitement of the day, or the weight of their actions or responsibilities. Either way, when they awoke, they were greeted by Marwin's ever-present steadfast countenance - the old man seemed to be eternally on the border between alertness and unconsciousness in his chair as he had kept watch over them for the entire night, until they finally departed on the hike down to the Elemental domain below to discharge their obligations.

"This had better fuckin' work, or I'm going to look like the biggest idiot this side of the Heavenly gate," Tramezia remarked in his exasperated High Realm to the gathered Celestials and the Lodestool, after the God re-entered his throne room. Below, the leaders of the various guilds were organizing the elementals into the different cohorts that would be required to complete the monumental task that would occupy them all over the next few days, in accordance with the design that had been hashed out the night before. "What are you all waiting for?" the God said. "Get moving!"

Thankfully, their night of quiet sleep in the cathedral's sepulcher was restful, because they weren't going to be getting much sleep over the next few days: There was just so much work to be done.

As much as Cold prided himself on being a craftsman. He knew that building this... geomantic thing was way above his head. Reorganizing the guilds and training the geomancers was equally outside of his skillset. He didn't even have a clue what geomancy was. But there had been tiger's eyes right next to the demesne. And only the gods knew what else could be lurking in the dark tunnels around the worksite. He pondered asking Tramezia if there were any elementals around that could speak high realm and weren't useless in a fight, so he could do a thorough search of the place. He left an open offer to any of the circle to join him in the task if they so pleased.

Knowing nothing of geomancy limited which parts of the project Persistent Cub could contribute to, but her role was still crucial. This project must not only gain the elementals' acceptance, but also must motivate them to work together as an efficient, cohesive whole - something that Tramezia has been exceedingly neglectful in over the fat, lazy decades behind him. Her central task is thus to reorganize the guilds to this new end. She also offers input on how best to train the new cohort of geomancers.

Warden resolved to help by assisting in translation using his knowledge of Old Realm and his people skills. The fact that this gave him another chance to learn more about the elemental civilization was of course a welcome side benefit. Not that he was all talk, of course. When there was no upset guild leader to soothe or concept to translate, he lent some of his physical strength to the cause, hopefully inspiring the others by example.

What a perfect opportunity to learn more in Khi's area of expertise, thought Scales. Given his knowledge of essence, though limited by his relative lack of geomantic lore, Scales acted as an assistant for Khi and the Lodestool in their work of manipulating the properties of the harvesting roots towards their new alignment, getting a crash course in geomancy in the process. Following this, he helped Warden translate for Khi, helping the circle understand the elementals' concerns as well as simplifying concepts for elementals who had a harder time understanding their new duties.

The Sword Maiden flitted through the ranks of the Elementals and the streams of building materials, mapping the tunnel system to the best of her ability in the process. Mostly, she popped up where one of her Circle Mates needed a translator, and Warden was busy otherwise. So, she didn't have that much to do other than rest her busted ribs. But her keen senses were certainly of service, when she could tell a bunch of elementals that their measurements were off by a hundredth of an inch just with a quick glance, or could tell which stones they moved were porous by just tapping them with a knuckle. She was also confident that she would be able to sneak past Marwin without the old man noticing.

Khī had barely been seen since the night before, having sequestered herself in the Lodestool’s hut, poring over page after page of geomancy, an abacus propped up against a teapot in varying varieties of full. Occasionally, she might ask for clarification on some particular piece of old realm terminology, but, it was rare for her circlemates to see much of her, outside of her ‘office’, which she seldom left, even to sleep. Privately, the former slave was rather glad her role left little to interact with Cub and Cold. It wasn’t that she was avoiding them, it was just that the two had seen her somewhat compromised, and she didn’t currently want that distraction from her work. Masters save her, they might want to talk about feelings.

---

Khi, Scales, and Cold spent the morning hard at work, in and out of the Lostestool's laboratory designing and manufacturing the massive metal latticework structure that would form the frame of the flux detainer that would surround the burning hot geomantic upwelling, providing an anchor for the wood of the Harvest Multiplex to grow upon in an orderly fashion, so that the essence intake could be controlled and moderated by all the various gears, vents, ports, and other gizmos they planned to build into it, which would be monitored and controlled by the members of the new Geomancer's Guild to prevent any dangerous essence overloads. It certainly wasn't anything close to the stories about the glorious works of artifice that were the manses that the ancients built, but by capping the desmense with the structure of their own devising, they could draw enough energy from it to serve their needs.

Scales and Cold had already traveled that morning to the site of their encounter with the Tiger's Eyes and the Sunbathed Wind alongside a large crew of burly elementals - six carts full. While Scales used his navigational tools to take extremely detailed measurements of the site, Cold had led the crew in hauling away the massive amount of debris, a task they were still engaged in. Scales was astonished at how quickly the root-wood of the Rhizome Plexus grown when drawn by the tantalizing whiff of essence - by his measurements, it was growing towards the desmense at nearly six inches an hour.

A half-day into the job, the Lodestool spoke up, interrupting Cold as he was bending a massive metal bar under Khi's supervision. "There's a problem I've discovered, and I don't know how to solve it," the mushroom elemental said. "I've done the calculations three times now, and I'm sure they're correct. It's the heat along the transmission lines. When the geomantic essence was sent over hundreds of miles, it had plenty of time to cool, but now the full intake is being compressed into less than a tenth of the distance. The Plexus will be able to take the heat, but in the narrow tunnels through which the geomancers will need to travel though... it will be like an oven, and they will be cooked alive. An alternate access tunnel needs to be dug, but that will take a year or more to finish. In the meantime, without some way to shield them from the heat, all our efforts will amount to naught."

Cold finished bending the metal bar as Khi instructed while he thought over the problem the Lodestool had brought to them. The Lunar knew how to construct clothes to protect oneself against the blistering cold. Could he apply the same idea to keeping the heat out? "I could theoretically create plans for sets of clothes that keep out the heat. But if it's hot enough to boil somebody alive, the clothes will catch on fire eventually."

“Are there…” Khī said, flicking beads on the abacus beside her as she worlds through calculations, “are there not elementals of stone? I’m sure I saw a granite gentleman somewhere around here. Stone is fireproof, is it not?”

The Lodestool replied: "Even elementals formed nearly entirely of minerals, such as the Jokun, have bones formed of porous firestone through which mercury flows, like sap through a tree or blood through your human veins. They will, of course, tolerate the heat far better than their wooden colleagues. But at these temperatures, eventually the mercury will begin to boil, and they will expire." It is not explained how exactly the Lodestool knows this.

Cold wasn't going to think to much about how the Lodestool knew that grim fact, but he had been shunned for a reason. "Lets avoid that. Do any of you know of any materials that can absorb immense amounts of heat?" He glanced at Khi and Scales

“Ah. Well, that would do it.” Khī replied mildly at the idea of the mercury within an elemental boiling them alive. “Hell-silk has remarkable properties, and I happen to have an Anhule bound as my servant. It may be worth investigating further,” She put her hand on the bottom of her mask. “It can withstand dragon-blooded anima flux. I would imagine it’s a start.”

"I know of certain fibrous minerals which have been known to be spun into cloth that is quite fireproof, though they are rare and expensive," added the Lodestool. "Supposedly, a cloth spun from certain minerals can be thrown into fires to cleanse them. There is a great misconception that the material is salamander fur. I have a few bulk samples of the mineral in my collection, but the process for weaving it is shrouded in mystery. I do not know of anyone with the necessary expertise."

Cold didn't quite know what an Anhule was. But this hell-silk sounded quite promising. "How much can this Anhule make?" Cold asked. "And how many suits do we need? From what I've seen, the sizes of elementals are quite varied." The Lunar also thought of another possibility. "The wood the plexus is made out of can take a lot of heat. It's the material that's channeling al the essence through it without bursting into flame, so it can probably withstand temperatures much higher then the ones in the tunnels. Could we use that in some way in the construction of the suit?"

"No," replied the Lodestool, dismissing Cold's suggestion. "The Plexal Rootstock is optimized to transfer geomantic energy across its substructure, not to keep heat out. Maybe if it was build as a massive sealed-off shielded vehicle paired with some sort of heat sink...." They could swear they could visibly see the calculations being performed in the Mushroom's brain, before it shook its head. "No, it would be far too heavy."

"Could Tramezia alter the properties of the roots he produces so that it could be used for this purpose?" Cold knew it was a long shot. But better to keep asking and to make sure he didn't overlook something. "Please bring all of those minerals you have." he said to the Lodestool. "Even if we cannot weave it, we could still use it as filler to help keep the heat away."

Khī raised a hand, and snapped, once. “Aghāid. Aghāid. Aghāid. Attend me.” From the empty air next to Khī unfolded a tangle of black, spindly limbs - a spider’s arms, unfolding like an origami sculpture back into a single sheet of black paper. The tangle resolved itself, almost instantly, into an enormous black spider, perching on the wall and ceiling behind Khī.

The demon spider was a matte black, covered in fine, thin hairs, which were beginning to silver, and had clearly been combed and coaxed into a variety of whorling, mind-numbing shapes. Two of its legs, it’s front legs, extended further, like those of a hunting spider, and gave the creature the appearance of something capable of jumping tremendous distances at little provocation. Each of its spindly limbs terminated in a hand, tiny and meaty, like that of an infant, it’s nails painted and enameled black. The creature raised its head to peer at its surroundings, casting its eyes over the Lodestool’s shed. It- she had the face of an old woman, framed by lank, thinning black hair that it used one of its odd, baby-handed limbs to brush away as it looked up. From the nose up, it had the face of an ancient woman, heavy with wrinkles and crow’s feet, and six, pale green, disturbingly human eyes. It’s mouth, however, was a mess of mandibles, each coveted, almost haphazardly, in human teeth, all of them worn down to nubs, like an old woman’s, set in furry, black gums. Behind them, from some unseen mouth, dripped a viscous black fluid onto the floor, where, when a drop occasionally hit, it would sizzle, briefly, before vanishing into silver sand.

Hanging from its chest, between pendulous, wrinkled black breasts, was a net of silver thread, which seemed to be filled with ears. Mostly human, some decidedly not. “Good day, mistress,” the creature said. “Have you called me to hunt? I remind you that, by the terms of our pact, you have a month and two score days remaining to call me for such purpose,” the creature’s voice was grandmotherly, almost kind. “Which of these is it? The whelp? The elemental? I do hope for the whelp - he has good legs on him, and I like the look of his ear.”

“Aghāid,” Khī said, smoothly, “These are friends, and you’ll have your day. Now I had need of your knowledge, as well as your webs.”

“Oh, deary, why you should have said so,” the spider woman said, her voice taking on a disturbingly kindly tone as she scuttled down, “I apologize for my rudeness, then!" She bowed to to Cold and the Lodestool. "I am called Aghāid, 15537th to serve Our Lady of the Stone. I am also called The Ear Collector, for I have such fondness for the things. I tend to the libraries of my mistress, but for now, I am contracted to Khī aka Sadrica Ar White Hook, who is in Hell called the Lady Khī ap Hrotsvitha. How do you do?”

“Aghāid, the paperwork for my citizenship is not yet finalized. I understand the Cerulean Court is yet pontificating on it,” Khī said, tiredly.

Cold's ears twitched. Few beings were allowed to think they could hunt a Chosen of Luna, and a wrinkled demonic spider was not one of them. "Hunting me would be a quick way to die, if not a clean one." Cold said, eying the demonic spider with suspicion. "Only a very bad hunter goes after things without knowing what they are." Cold didn't know anything about demonology, but they already accidentally squashed one of Khi's demons, and he would hate to break another one. They couldn't be easy to replace.

“I would never go hunting without say so, deary," said Aghāid. "But I wouldn’t jump to conclusions about my abilities, little creature. I have taken the ears of those who think to shelter overdue books since before your Scarlet Empress ruled.” The demon was…disconcertingly grandmotherly. It was hard to tell if she would eat you or offer you baked goods.

“Don’t kill her, Cold," intervened Khī. "Anhules of good temperament are a chore to find.” She turned to the spider demon. “Do play nice with the wolf, Aghāid. He will need help weaving, and you are to supply him with silk.”

The Lodestool had vanished before the appearance of the Anuhle, and only now re-emerged pushing a wheelbarrow full of large, odd-looking chunks of dark-blue to grey stone, each around the size of a coconut. They seemed to be fuzzy. "My crocidolite," said the mushroom elemental.

“Yes, naturally,” Khī said, nodding. “Please do explain,”

"The mineral I mentioned, which can be woven into articles capable of resisting flames," explained the Lodestool.

The demon spider scuttled up to peer over the wheelbarrow, putting a little hand on Cold's shoulder. “She’s no weaver, boy. Tell me, what are we seeking to do?” Aghāid's interest was piqued - even though the idea of a wolfish morsel did sound quite appetizing, as she gazed upon the minerals. "My kind who serve the Answer to the Earth are fond of consuming of a similar substance which is mined in the Ravine of Whispers." Aghāid picked up a chunk of the rock, examining it. Suddenly her lower jaw seemed to detach, allowing her to fit the entire nugget into the mouth. The cause of her nub-like teeth seemed to now be evident, as a loud crunching sound was heard as she chewed and swallowed. The Anhule coughed, clearing her threat. "Not bad," she remarked. "The fibers accumulates in our spinnerets, and fortifies our silk in ways that many find useful. When spun and woven, it is called hell-silk."

"That's where hell-silk comes from?" pondered the Lodestool. "That's why none of the treatises can explain its genesis. A unique product of Malfeas then, formed within the body of a demon. Quite interesting - I too have relied upon my unique bodily functions to produce unique substances that cannot be generated in other ways. Only a very limited amount must be exported into Creation every year."

“Anhules are unsuited for being bound purely to produce silk," explained Khī. Like all demons, they have needs, in the same way a mortal may need food and water, an Anhule needs to hunt and kill. They are rather inconvenient to bind in numbers for their silk. The conventional wisdom is to purchase slaves for them to hunt, but that does become rather expensive. She spoke as though she was reciting something learned by rote.

Aghāid concentrated intensely, reaching behind herself to her spinneret mounted at the rear of her thorax, and drew a long shiny strand of glistening translucent milky silk forward, holding it delicately between the fingers of one of her creepy infant hands. With a pulling motion, she began to wrap it in a long coil around one the joints of one of her arms. Other arms joined in, assisting in pulling and coiling, moving faster and faster. Soon, the milky color of the silk that emerged from her body darkened, and eventually became tinted with the bluish-grey color of the mineral chunk she had snacked on. After only a minute of spinning, she had accumulated a large, heavy coil of extremely thin silk, thousands of loops worth. Then, faster than the eye could see, six of her eight arms became a complete blur. A small triangle of a blue-grey cloth began to emerge from below her working, that began to expand faster and faster, as the Exalts and the Elemental watched. After two minutes of focused work, she had produced a cloth that was a square foot in size, and handed it to Khi. "Hell-Silk."

The material was remarkably soft in Khi's hand (and still warm too). It was as soft as any silkworm-made cloth she had touched, but it glistened differently, and upon close inspection, the color wasn't uniform. Every square inch contained hundreds of miniscule mineral fibers embedded within the white spider-silk matrix. She experimentally twisted and tugged at it. It seemed extraordinary resilient - it didn't stretch at all. It was far stronger than any mundane fiber she had held, and yet it was supremely flexible.

Khī nodded. “Very good, Grandmother Aghāid. Cold, will this do?"

Cold looked slightly perturbed as the weird childlike hands of the spider demon. But he focused on the task at hand. He started to test out what the cloth could handle, trying to pull it apart, tearing it to shreds with his claws. The more tests he put it through, the more fascinated the look on his face became. He even asked the Lodestool for one of their burners to see if he could set it on fire. He was pleasantly surprised when it didn't even smoke, and barely grew warm. "Yes.. this is exactly what we need. Strong, lightweight, can't be set on fire. The weave is tight enough that it could trap air. That's how my fur works to keep me warm or cool. Comfortable too. I can see why this hell-silk material is so sought after. Now all we need are some measurements for the people who need to wear it."

“Ah! The boy knows his fabrics!” The spider demon cackles. “I like the pup,” Aghāid says, pulling out a length of thin silk, and taking some experimental measurements. “It breathes too, like delzhan cotton. Do you have a pattern, boy?”

"Not yet, I have never made anything for elementals before," Cold explained.

“You two do have fun. Aghāid, you’re not to kill without permission,” Khī said, waving them off and returning to her abacus.

Cold immediately got to work. Some confused and unnerved elementals who had been slacking off suddenly got voluntold by Cold and Aghāid to be their mannequins, which had the fortunate side effect that the elemental on site stopped slacking off. The Lunar was exacting and unrelentingly thorough as he worked with the assistance of the Anhule. They only had a few days to design and produce the suits. The elementals were dependent on this, and any fault in the design could lead to the death of the wearer. So Cold rigorously tested every design idea, carefully noting down the places where the design broke down and going back to the drawing table.

The first prototype suit wouldn't be beautiful by any definition of the term, but the most important thing would be that it worked. To replicate the heat they would encounter in the tunnels, Cold needed to relocate his work to the site of the burning-hot Demesne, taking Aghāid with him, along with the Lodestool's entire supply of the mineral she consumed to create the wonder-cloth. The grandmotherly spider spent the entire ride cheerfully weaving, while Cold tested the small patch of Hell-Silk. The material was fascinating, and the Lunar's imagination was sparked. After a full two days working, iterating upon each failed experiment, disassembling and reassembling the prototype, Cold had finally stumbled upon a design that worked to keep the intense heat out without suffocating the wearer.

The first problem he had to solve was that the traditional bone needles in his sewing kit just weren't up to the task of stitching together the Anhule's miracle fiber - they dulled far too quickly, leaving large holes that couldn't tightly seal. Asking Aghāid for help, she carefully plucked off a few of her black, razor-sharp spines, squeezing out the poison within before handing them to the Lunar. They worked perfectly, and he made sure to hold on to them for the future.

The next problem was how to keep out the heat. A single layer of hell-silk wouldn't do it - it was good for short periods of even intense exposure, but in the long term, the fiery conditions would find ways through. But by carefully stitching together two layers of the Hell-Silk in a diamond-pattern, almost like a large quilt, Cold found that the in-between spaces could be inflated full of air, and the tight weave would provide sufficient insulation to keep out nearly all heat almost indefinitely. The only part not protected by the Hell-Silk weave were at the eyes, where Cold had sewn in Tiger's Eyes crystals the size of berries that could be seen through, giving the whole world a rose-pink tint.

Aghāid was cheerfully weaving away, and when Cold finally came to her, ready to commence mass-production of the finalized design. The Lodestool had said they would need around 12 suits of different sizes and shapes, which could be shared among the geomancers, who would only need to use them when travelling through the tunnels or doing maintenance near to the Desmense.

All in all, in the two days Cold spent prototyping, the Spider Demon had managed to stockpile around thirty-six square yards of the Hell-Silk in the two days, before she finally ran out of the Lodestool's mineral. Three square yards per suit - it would be tight, but it would probably be good enough. They took measurements of the different sized elementals and got to work. Luckily, most of the elementals were a bit more wiry than a human and so required less cloth, and while they would need two or three extra-large suits that would fit an elemental of Bryoph's size, each requiring five square yards, that would be offset by the extra-small suits that would fit a tiny elemental the size of Pinales that needed only a square-yard a piece.

Together, they got to work fabricating the final suits. Cold was proficient at sewing, but the Demon was an absolute machine - perfect stitches every time, and the razor-sharp hooks on her elbow-joints could cut through fabric better than any scissors, and her eight arms allowed her to do create seams in four locations at once. When they finally finished, they had twelve perfect shiny dark grey suits laid out on the ground, each of which made Cold's beat-up prototype look like a lesser copy. Still though, the Lunar was fond of the original: it was made by him alone, and in his heart, he trusted it more than any of the nicer-looking ones. He decided he would keep it for himself. Aside from a few assorted scraps, there was barely a square yard of the Hell-Silk left over.

---

Cub had commandeered the guildhall of the Union of Oilers for her temporary center of operations, along with most of the oilers themselves. The place was filthy and stank of odd chemicals - it reminded her of the aftermath of one of those three-day drug-fueled galas her notorious uncle used to throw. After a firm motivational talking-to, where she attempted to instill within the assembly of misfits (241 of them, according to the most recent roster), she broke them up into various gangs, tasking fifty of them - lead by the chatterbox Pinales himself - with converting the squalid and run-down guildhall into a state where a decent woman could get some work done, while sending the rest to scour the Freehold for every document and record she could get her hands on, under the explicit divine authority granted to her by Tramezia the Rhizome, God of the Court Under Lushfield, and the unspoken puissance of the Unconquered Sun that flowed through her every action.

Tramezia had given her access to his own private immigration records dating back nearly two hundred years, and collating those with the internal records of each of the guilds, with the assistance of Warden, Scales, and Nameless to translate, in a few hours she had managed to put together a collection of tabbed binders housing a half-decent census of every elemental living there, cross-tabbed according to seventeen separate criteria she had intuited would be useful. They would need fifty elite geomancers out of the bunch, elementals who could be trained in the rigors of thaumaurgical measurements.

Inefficiency. Fat. Waste. Looking through the records, Cub was amazed that any work was even being done at all down here. The whole network of guilds was simultaneously too beurocratic where it didn't matter, and not beurocratic enough where it did. Chronic lateness and absences, persistent inter-guild feuds, elementals reassigned or transferred to new assignments or new guilds entirely for the pettiest of reasons, having little to do with ability or even seniority. What really needed to happen was for the whole system to be torn down, with all the guilds disbanded, replaced by a series of standardized examinations administered by an elite class of civil servant functionaries (naturally, made up of the highest-scoring). But none of them had the time for that, so they had to work within the framework they had been given.

With a stroke of her quill, Cub completed the list in triplicate of the fifty elementals who would serve as the core cadre of the new Geomancer's guild, selected based on a combination of the assessed qualities of their capability and willingless to learn and follow instructions, a borderline neurotic level of concentration and attention to detail, and ability to work as a member of a team. Twenty-one Oilers, six Miners, eight Claytenders - including their friend Bryoph - six from various smaller guilds, and - Cub mentally prepared herself - nine Dowsers. She needed those nine specifically for this to work - they were irreplaceable. For all their snobbery and pretention, the Dowser's Guild was preeminent for a reason, and many of their journeymen were uniquely skilled.

---

The head of the Dowser's Union - the one with the tallest hat who was flanked by a gaggle of subordinates - wagged her long wooden finger at Warden, with Nameless at his side. "The Dowsers have a proud history of nearly two hundred years, and for this.... pillaging of our heritage and genius to occur! We will not permit it!"

Nameless, for the day not graced with the patience to wait on the ponderous Warden, squinted her eyes at the assembled Dowsers, looking them up and down, top of their tall hats to the soles of their polished shoes. She then remembered that this was Wardens expertise, not hers. After all, the guy had just talked down a dragon automaton that was about to incinerate all of them, so maybe she could summon up her patience once more, and let Warden handle this, and not make things worse. So while Warden moved his tall frame within view of the Dowsers, shielding Cub from any unwanted interruptions, she leaned against the stone wall, not saying a word. Silently, she pulled out her ebony flute, and started playing a somber melody, that somehow managed to drown out gossiping whispers, while simultaneously bringing a certain sense of calm, and serenity to the assembly. Maybe that would make it easier for Warden's words to cut through the now ceasing chatter.

To the Maiden he might have seemed ponderous, but Warden had taken a moment to think about the elemental's culture, recalling what he had seen during his brief stay here, putting the Dowser's and their approach in the right context. He stepped forward to greet the head Dowser and, as the person with the smaller hat (by sheer virtue of lacking a hat), knew it was his turn to offer greetings first. So he lightly bowed his head and tapped two fingers against his temple to symbolically lift his non-existent head covering first at the head Dowser, then at his subordinates in descending order of hat size. "I'm sure there's been a misunderstanding somewhere. It was never our or Tramezia's intention to slight the Dowser's in the slightest. Please, what seems to be the problem?" He hoped that their answer would let him gauge exactly how they saw the Dowser's guild.

Warden was able to successfully ingratiate himself with the Dowsers, with a few of the less-important ones nodding to each other in approval at his gesture of seniority-acknowledgement that was so crucial in their internal power structure. Certainly none in the delegation would be among those selected for conscription by Cub - all present here were far too rigid and set in their ways to learn anything new. A few of them, however, seemed to start tapping their toes unconsciously at the catchy tune that the Nameless Sword Maiden started faintly piping. But when it came to unlocking the mystery of what would motivate its leader - a female dryad elemental whose silvery-grey leaves and aged face gave her a grandmotherly appearance, her overbearing demeanor and sense of entitlement held firm, preventing the Solar from learning anything about her.

The Sword Maiden stared calmly at the elementals, down the barrel of her flute, while continuing to play. Even though Warden still seemed ponderous, unsure what to expect, his demeaner was visibly impeccable, and she had no reason to assume he'd fail in his endeavor. And so Nameless kept playing, the somber notes carrying hints of sorrow, but also maybe longing, the promise of happiness, even? It was a complicated tune full of little flourishes, and yet it repeated a pattern that was easy to hum along to. It was a bit of a crowd pleaser, despite it's dark origins, which she was sure the Elementals would be unaware of. Gently swaying her body side to side with the music, as if she was charming a snake, the Sword Maiden did her best to fill the caverns with the most surreal sense of 'better listen to my mate' that she could conjure. At the very least it conveyed to the Dowsers that they were not dealing with orthodox folk.

"The PROBLEM???" shouted the imperious dryad with the ridiculous hat at the head of the delegation. "Stop that!" she shouted at her subordinate, whose toe-tapping on the wooden floor immediately ceased. "The Dowsers Union is the longest continuously-operating guild in all of the Under-Court! Our leadership and heritage is unbroken, not like the miners or claytenders or..." she crinkles her face in disgust and sneers - "oilers, who can barely go six decades without rewriting their whole constitutions. And you want to destroy it all, to rip out our hearts, steal our FUTURE from us!" The rest of the delegation nods in solidarity and makes various noises of affirmation.

Warden nodded along in sympathy with her words, trying to make sense of her complaints and what he knew of the Dowser's union. How much of what she was saying was hyperbole and how much came from genuine grievances? What even was the issue?

The Righteous Zenith studied the face of the grandmotherly dryad, parsing her words and trying to figure out just why she was so angry. Cub had anticipated that this sort of pushback might occur, but with only nine dowsers levied out of 150 or so active members of the guild, and none in senior roles, she had thought it was be limited to minor grumbling - not this sort of passionate opposition. He glanced down at the folder that Cub had prepared him with for this meeting - her personalized breakdown of the nine dowsers they needed to recruit, and he recalled the initial notes of the 50 geomancers-to-be that Cub had prepared - the one ranking them in order of importance, not the alphabetized version that had been circulated. Then he looked up at the dryad in front of him.

It all suddenly made sense now. The first name on the list - the one Cub had double-underlined with a star next to it - the young elemental who was the perfect choice to lead the Geomancer's guild. Endicott was his name - a junior Dowser, but extremely talented, by her estimation. Cub had appended a chalk portrait of him to the dossier that she had taken from the Dowser's consummate internal records. Also a dryad. There was no doubt about it - the resemblance was unmistakable. Endicott wasn't just another young up-and-coming member. He was the son of the leader of the Dowser's union, and presumably she was grooming him to one day take her place. This wasn't just about the future of the Dowser's union, it was personal to its leader - her own legacy that was being ripped away.

Nameless continued calmly playing the flute, by now more to make the Elementals assume she wasn't involved in the negotiation than anything else. She followed Warden's eyes, noticing how he had seemed to come to some sort of sudden realization while looking at his folder. In fact, she understood the same point, once Warden had turned the folder subtly in her direction, letting the Sword Maiden have a glimpse of the relevant page from across the catacombs. She narrowed her eyes, trying to intuit from the Dryad's body language whether she was actually about to put her foot down and die on this hill, or was just hoping to have her pride placated, jockeying for favors and maybe position?

It was difficult for the flute-playing solar to get a grasp on the Dryad's end-goal, but this definitely wasn't just the woman causing a stir in an attempt to extract favors or concessions or prestige for herself. She was aggrieved and personally attacked.

Warden slowly nodded as he put things together. "This is about Endicott especially, I assume?" He began, making sure all parties involved are on the same page. "From the looks of it he's brilliant, which is why we hoped to make him guild leader of the new Geomancers. I can see why you're reluctant to give him up." He hoped the deserved flattery for her son would mollify her a bit while he continued to gauge her stance, how exactly she felt towards the young Dryad. Was she worried about him for his own sake, or was it more about her family's legacy and tradition? Or perhaps something else entirely meant she wanted him as a successor for sure?

The wood-faced dryad deflected Warden's obvious attempt at flattery. She had ran the Dowser's guild for too long to swayed so easily by kind words, but she had clearly been put on the defensive by Warden's suggestion that her concern was for her son alone. "Endicott, yes, but not just him! This about all nine of the promising young elementals that you intend to rip away from the only life they have ever known, and condemn to linger among a... lesser guild."

"A lesser guild?," Warden asked with some real surprise in his voice. "Madam, the Geomancer's are the heart of Tramezine's grand plan for the future of the freehold. They will be essential for the very survival of the Under-Court." He lowered his voice for the next part a bit to give it a conspiratorial air: "And between you and me, your nine prodigies will be the heart and brain of the Geomancers, the lynchpin upon which the guild, and with it the entire Freehold rests. They will have a unique chance to shape this new guild from the ground-up, their actions could lay down foundations and traditions that could influence this place for centuries to come. It is a task we couldn't entrust to the prodigies of any other guild besides yours."

"Yes, a lesser guild!" exclaimed the dryad, even as Warden could detect her resistance start to waver. "It may very well be that these Geomancers could, in good time, achieve a level of precedence above our esteemed colleagues in the Miners and Claytenders Guilds and uh, the Oilers too, but they certainly could never match the centuries-long legacy built through the proud Dowser's Union heroic history of solidarity! Imagine the humiliation of having that glorious history stolen away from you, being relegating to a second-class citizen after years of loyal service!"

"Solidarity is a good word, Madam. All must give something for the good of the Freehold, but you are right. It would not do to rob the Dowser's Union permanently of its young talent," Warden said, projecting the air of one earnestly offering a compromise. "But what about a...temporary reassignment? Your nine young apprentices are temporarily helping the Geomancer's guild form. Then, in a decade or two, they should have established it enough that a former Miner or Claytender can take over. And when they return, they will have experience in leadership that someone so young could never dream of. I mean, Endicott is-" He glanced down at the file. "Barely twenty years old, I doubt there's ever been a guildmaster that young. Not to mention making their names known to Tramezia."

"Wait, Guildmaster? Endicott? Nobody said anything about that...." The dryadic elemental's demeanor's shifted rapidly as she processed this new information. The requisition list that Cub had circulated didn't contain this nugget. "At such a young age...," she mused to herself. The gears were visibly spinning in her head as she processed the ramifications of her own son at the helm one of the most important guilds in the Elemental Court, while she led another. "I think this has cleared things up, yes, I think I can see that now," she announced loudly, for the benefit of her subordinates flanking her. "Of course, for this new guild to be a success, which we all are absolutely in favor of, it certainly must be strongly patterned on the auspicious and time-tested practices of the Dowsers. I understand the necessity of that, and the wisdom of temporarily seconding our journeymen in support of the prosperity of the Under-Court, as long as it will be acknowledged that this is entirely a temporary solution, with their active membership in the Dowser's Union merely suspended, and of course they will continue to accrue seniority therein...." The rest of the yes-elementals surrounding her vigorously nodded along and voiced their approval. "And we insist, in the strongest terms, that they be permitted to continue wearing their Dowser's Shakos at all times on duty, as is their right!" She was referring to the ridiculous hats.

Warden tried his best to give a serious nod at that last demand. "Of course it would fall to said Guildmaster to set wardrobe rules for the Geomancer's guild, and he would hardly strip himself and his fellow journeymen of such a privilege...."

Having observed the whole exchange through watchful eyes, maybe occasionally flashing an ill-advised smirk at how Warden was handling the situation, the Nameless Sword Maiden dropped off her improvised perch, and moseyed over to the Warden, playing the last few notes of her song as it trailed off into echoes in the shadowy edges of the catacombs. She gave the no-longer-difficult Elemental a friendly nod, before closing the distance to Warden, giving him a pat on the shoulder. "Well done, big guy, crisis averted" she commented, satisfied that the solution, to her, sounded like an easy one. Guilds, titles and all that other stuff were made up anyway, making something nicer up to please someone seemed only a little side step to her. "I would've had your back, by the way, it it came to it." she presented a crooked smile.

Warden let out a sigh after the elementals departed. "Thank you." He replied at Nameless' words. "And who knows, maybe you have a past as a diplomat you've forgotten, just waiting manifest itself."

Nameless' smile disappears for a split-second as she's reminded of her loss, that she doesn't actually know Warden's joke isn't factual. But then she chuckles. She knows enough about herself, and that's a comforting thought, to dismiss that suggestion, at least. "I aim to be full of surprises" she nods. "So what next? Cub seemed so busy we better not bother her with this since there's no problems. Could see how the constructions are going, see if the measures are correct. Or... You think we can get a drink down here?"

"Hmm," replied Warden. "I've been meaning to learn more about the Elementals and how their culture works. In light of that, some drinks might not go amiss. I'm sure we can convince a local to point us the right way." He started to look around for any conveniently mingling elementals to approach.

Finished with the representatives of the Dower's Guild, Warden and Nameless meandered through the hallway outside the large hall in the center of the Oiler's House that Cub and Scales had converted into a classroom. Aside from the holdout Dowsers who now were even beginning to arrive, the rest of the trainee Geomancers had already spent all morning on their intensive crash course on the principals of geomantic essence flows, put on by Cub and Scales. When Scales wasn't present, it was going to be one of their jobs to translate Cub's academic lessons into Old Realm, but at the moment, they had some free time. They had managed to locate the large catering spread for the fifty dowser-trainees inside. Ever the industrious type, Cub had ensured that lunch breaks between lessons would be limited to no more than twelve minutes. Most of the food looked distinctly unappetizing or wasn't even edible to begin with. But the beverage in the large punchbowl had a distinctly alcoholic look to it. The Lodestool had called it a special learning enhancer. It didn't smell too bad.

Just as the final three Dowsers arrived - including, noticeably, the dryad elemental Endicott, who the Exalts recognized from his portrait, the session in the classroom let out. The 47 elemental trainees of every myriad type, size and shape, queued up in an orderly fashion for their meal break. Bryoph, ever the ponderous one, was at the end of the line, and he was joined there by the three recently arrived Dowsers.

"What do you think?" Warden added in Nameless' direction once they found the catering space. "Want to mingle a bit with the people whose life we've changed with our actions here? I'm also a bit curious what the Lodestool considers 'a special learning enhancer'."

"I could enhance my learning, if I'm being honest" Nameless replied, instinctively queuing up in an orderly fashion. On the edges of her mind, she could almost touch a memory. The mess hall - she thought, that's what it was called - but the picture that had felt like it would now form in her mind never appeared. She knew that she expected to smell venison, thyme, and juniper next. Maybe some blackberries. Hear old birch wood floor boards creak in a manner she was sure she would then recognize. But this was different, and there was no memory to pin her expectations in place, so they evaporated as quickly as they had came.

The Zenith took his spot behind Nameless, taking in the atmosphere in the room, curious if the elementals were in good spirits. It reminded him of his youth, the filled communal dining rooms of the monastery. "It never hurts to learn more, I agree. I've already learnt a lot since coming here myself. What is it that you're eager to learn, Nameless?" The obvious answer was, of course, the truth of her past, but he highly doubted that a learning-enhancing beverage would assist with that. Her silence was an answer in itself.
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Cub Goes on a Mission!

After two more days of nearly ceaseless work and three annoying papercuts, Cynis Bellara, who again had returned to her assumed name of Persistent Cub, was finally able to emerge from her underground confinement to again enjoy the light of the midday sun. It had felt like two weeks. But she didn't just have time to rest and relax just yet. Her fellow Celestials below were still frantically toiling away - Khi and Cold were assisting the Lodestool in the final steps of constructing their one-of-a-kind Flux Detainer at the site of the Desmense and carefully sculpting the growth of the Rhizome Plexus around its metal framework in preparation for the whole system going live tonight, along with managing all the other hiccups they had encountered on the way. Apparently Khi had gotten a demon had gotten involved in some capacity? She wasn't too sure of the details, and at this point, she didn't have enough energy to care anymore.

Meanwhile, Warden and Nameless, using their prowess in Old Realm and all the internal technical manuals, flowcharts, and checklists, that Cub had spent the last day preparing for the new Geomancer's Guild, were busy drilling their 50 apprentices in their second day of highly accelerated training on how to operate their new experimental essence source. Scales was bouncing between the two groups, continually updating the training regimes to incorporate all of the changes and hiccups they had encountered on the fly. She thought she had heard something about special clothing that would prevent the mercury within the rock-creatures from boiling them alive from the inside? It all was a blur.

The Lushfield that Cub encountered on the surface was markedly different that the one she left three days before. Honto had gone all out in his effort to prime the population to be ready for the final step of the plan. The whole city center was papered in mass-produced broadsides pasted on nearly every available surface, announcing the temporary state of heightened security stemming from credible reports of rampaging Hurakas on the loose in the hundred kingdoms. It looked like the intended effect had been achieved. The populace had been whipped up into a frenzy: the more steadfastly they were implored that the situation was totally under control and that they shouldn't panic, and the more they had been assured that nothing would change and that the upcoming festivities would not need to be cancelled, the more hysterical they became. Nearly every window in town seemed to be hastily boarded up, fortifications built from grain sacks loaded with sawdust and dirt had been built all over the place seemingly at random, and uniformed guards were posted on every corner. It was perfect.

Cub still had a job to do, though. Today was her big day. She was finally going to be able to take a bath.

Or rather, she was going to be joining the Archimandrite Celcine for an all-inclusive afternoon of spiritual and aesthetic purification at the town's most luxurious and exclusive spa, in preparation for the auspicious events of tomorrow. Celcine had no clue just how auspicious it would be. The Archimandrite was obviously the establishment's premier and most favored patron, and Cub had heard from somewhere - she couldn't even remember who - that the woman spent more time there in her personal chaise soaking her toes and having her cuticles moisturized while chattering to her favorite reflexologist, than actually on the grounds of the Immaculate Temple. On second thought, Cub reflected, that might have been an arrangement that was well-suited to both establishment's needs. Naturally, the two of them would be guaranteed complete privacy.

The Solar touched the vial she had hidden away in the special pocket in the sleeve of her Shifting Cloth. A special poison with delayed effects. She had hoped she had gotten it right. The Eclipse Caste found herself mentally going over over all of characteristics and effects again for the third time, just to reassure herself it would work.

Picking a poison for someone is not unlike selecting a gift for them - it has to be suitable to the person, the venue, and the occasion all. For the Archimandrite at the luxurious spa before she goes to face the Huraka that was more than it pretended to be, Cub had ended up on the seeds of the Hemlock plant. The seeds themselves have a characteristic shape and are too large to hide easily, so in preparation they have been crushed to fine powder. The powder has a bitter taste which has been masked with sugar and finely ground lemon peel. While hemlock is not a swift-acting poison, its victim will almost always feel its ill effects within an hour which is far too soon for their purposes. Thus, why the hidden vial also contained Moon Water - a rare liquor from the Cinder Isles which would delay the onset of the poison and ensure that it happened so gradually that Celcine wouldn't know her trouble before she found herself unable to lift a hand to defend herself against her foe.

"Dahling, dahling," began Celcine, who was lying on her stomach on top of the white sheets of a massage bed with nothing but a towel wrapped around her. She had rose to her elbows and flipped the cucumber slices from her eyes to greet the arriving dynast. Her glossy crimson hair flashed in the midday sunlight streaming in through the elaborate wrought-iron grate windows, which that looked onto the private and tranquil artificial hot spring in the back - clearly decorated in the Dejis Prefecture tropic mountain style. A thick trail of white smoke rose from the heating kiln off to the side that was burning through cords of dried and aged firewood.

The tasteful screen door into the of the salon had been slid open by an obedient employee who had rendered a low bow, and a number of identically dressed women were scurrying around. An empty massage bed a dozen feet away from the one the Dragonblood occupied had already been prepared for her. "You simply must try Auntie Ju's Tui Na Deep Tissue Acupressure," continued Celcine. "Her technique is heavenly." The heavyset, broad-shouldered middle-aged woman working on the Archimandrite's lumbar glanced up at her name being called to assess Cub's Qi with a practiced eye, before returning to her task. Auntie Ju looked like she could successfully wrestle an ox into submission and then eat most of it afterwards.

For a moment, though, the Solar could swear she saw Celcine wrinkle her nose - she must have detected the lingering whiff of the crypt and the elemental domain below that still stuck to the Dynastic exile, though saying anything would be too impolite even for the brash Archimandrite. The amenities that Honto had delivered to the sepulcher-prison were hardly adequate for a woman of Cub's needs. "You need to relax," added Celcine. "Spending so much time in those dark and dusty catacombs is absolutely horrid for your skin glow. I can tell you're a leader, just like me, so why don't you let your underlings take care of the hands-on parts of whatever research project you're doing. There's no rush, the dead aren't going anywhere."

"I know," Cub says with only slightly exaggerated exasperation as she undresses and takes the place that has been prepared for her, "but they just keep getting things wrong" she explains and looks over at Celcine. "I'm sure you know as much from your work in this town, but if you need something done right, you have to do it yourself."

"Ugh," moaned Celcine. "I hate that saying." A far less-muscular masseuse begin applying a perfumed oil to Cub's shoulders. "That's Honto talk, he's always running around this place trying to do everything himself. So hands-on. All that worry and diagnosing and tinkering leads to bad Qi, which ruins the complexion. That's not what a real leader does." She wags a well-manicured finger at Cub.

Interesting, how she keeps bringing up the concept of leadership. And that her mind so quickly jumped to the topic of Honto.

"No, no, a real leader provides motivation and leadership by through inspiration and punishment." There was a nagging familiarity to Celcine's words, like the Solar remembered hearing them before. "If your servant fails, you must discipline them. And if they fail again, they must be replaced. That is the rightful order of thing, everyone in their correct role. If Auntie Ju's lazy husband can't meet his quota, then there must be consequences. There's no use trying to teach a useless farmer. You either are, or aren't. And if he fails again, he'll lose his farm, and then Auntie Ju can get a new husband."

Cub gives a soft moan of pleasure at the skilled application of acupressure (even if it isn't by Auntie Ju herself). "Honto has been running around a lot these past days, hasn't he?" She muses with a conspiratorial air, "stirring up everyone over this talk of rampaging elementals."

Celcine rolls her eyes. "This sort of thing happens every few years. Everyone gets all wound up, and it turns out to be nothing. I think it's just him giving that woman an excuse to do something so she seems and feels important." While the Archimandrite's response is interesting, Cub is unable to penetrate deeper into her psyche.

"Oh certainly," Cub agrees lightly, "but it gets the people riled up and they see those two walking around, looking like Princes of the Earth protecting the poor mortals from the deprivations of the spirit world."

The lips of Celcine's mouth curled up in the barest hint of disgust at the image that Cub suggested, before she winces in discomfort as as Auntie Ju vigorously rolls her forearm across her spine, resulting in an audible crack, significantly loosening the Archimandrite's Qi flows and calming her momentary irritation. Nevertheless, in combination with her earlier statements, it revealed much about the way she ticked. She can't stop thinking about Honto. Celcine was obviously consumed by her obsession with the Seneschal. And the idea of him and Anguilla - "that woman" - she can't even say her name - as a team clearly had triggered something primal in her.

"Though I imagine she might also take it as an opportunity to parade her little soldiers around," Cub muses further, seemingly paying no attention to the thoughts going through her companion's mind even as she steers the image away from the pairing that upset her, "give them some taste of glory after that affair with the dead officer. Her little way of trying to inspire something in the people."

Celcine was still a bit visibly annoyed that Anguilla remained the topic of discussion, but managed to take it in stride, and even turn it into an insult directed at the woman, a grin appearing on the redheaded woman's face: "I heard that he was her personal assistant, and that he killed himself, or at least it was made to look like it. A secret lover, maybe? Perhaps he witnessed a dark secret of hers, and the whole thing was a cover-up."

"He certainly seemed to be something of a protégé of hers," Cub says, adding fuel to Celcine's fire, "and she was remarkably upset when she discovered his tragic demise," she adds with a cruel smile and exaggerated emphasis. "Maybe that's why she's throwing herself at this Huraka-business, to find some outlet for her frustration." Cub giggles before continuing, "just imagine what she'll be like if she fails to get even that relief."

Celcine smirked at Cub's innuendo. "I'm curious now, what exactly are you looking for down there in the crypts under my cathedral? I hope it won't interfere with tomorrow's festivities. You simply must attend the show tomorrow - the dress rehearsal was simply a preview. Lin and the rest have improved by leaps and bounds. Leaps and bounds, I say!" She snaps her fingers at nearby junior member of the staff, who brings over a glass of rose-water on a tray with a tiny bamboo straw.

"Oh, have no fear," Cub says, offering the Fire-Aspect a warm smile. "I wouldn't dream of missing it." "Although," she continues a few moments later, looking thoughtful. "Do you think there's a risk that Anguilla will try to make Honto postpone the show due to this perceived threat? That way, she would be able to take her troops and march around and no one would have the chance to see Lin and the others."

"She wouldn't dream of it!" Celcine replied. "The Ascending Festival is an institution, going back hundreds of years. It celebrates the founding of Lushfield. Like I said, this whole elemental nonsense is probably just a bunch of rumors that got out of hand. That woman might even have started them herself!"

"I'm sure you're right," Cub says, though her tone is doubtful. Is Anguilla really spiteful enough to upset years of tradition just to ruin Celcine's plans? Cub is certain she isn't, but she is just as certain that Celcine is and it's a well known fact that people see themselves in others. Particularly spiteful, petty people.

"Although..." Celcine mused to herself. "I wouldn't put it past her to try and do something to upstage me. I was curious myself, so I had my secretary fetch Old Man Rightness and get any information he had on these... Hurakas. Apparently they're some sort of captive wind elemental that resembles a bear. They're summoned up by sorcerers for use as pack animals and the like. Supposedly docile creatures, usually quite harmless."

She shared a conspiratorial look with Cub as she sipped her rose water until dry, returning it to the waiting tray and dismissing the attendant. "After that embarrassment she suffered at the hands of your woman-at-arms... imagine, a Prince of the Earth dehorsed - there are rumors that reputed martial prowess just might be overstated." Cub saw the wheels spinning in her mind. "Yes, I have no doubt, the timing is suspicious. If a 'fearsome' elemental were to be arranged to suddenly 'appear', I could see her being very-well prepared to ride out and slay it in view of of the whole town."

Cub nods thoughtfully, "that sounds like something she would do." A smile spreads on Cub's face as she turns her head towards Celcine and muses innocently, "it'd be a shame if she went elemental-hunting and found the beast already dead, wouldn't it?"

Celcine joins Cub's smile. "Imagine that, the fearsome beast that's got the whole town riled up, slain by some half-trained border soldiers before she can even get the chance to put on her show." She wasn't getting Cub's implication - perhaps the Solar would have to be more direct. "What would Honto think of her then, with her whole plan ruined? My jade's on him being the one who summoned the thing for her to begin with." Again, her thoughts turn to Honto.

"Yes, it probably is his gift to her," Cub agrees. "I'm not sure the city being defended by, as you say, some half-trained border soldiers, is the best image on this most auspicious occasion. It is a day for celebrating Lushfield's history and Lushfield's strength. Having the city defended - even against a harmless threat - by outsiders seems like a sour twist."

"Who else would defend Lushfield?" asked Celcine, confused. The woman still wasn't getting Cub's suggestion. As the dynastic saying goes, her grandmother must not have given her the sharpest Daiklave from the family armory.

"You," Cub says with an encouraging smile. "Who better than their spiritual leader to be an inspiration in battle as well as the conductor of their glorious history? Think of how heroic a figure you'll make, slaying the spirit that's terrifying the locals. You might even bring the sword that you're lending Lin later - the audience will see its blood still fresh on the blade and the effect will be all the greater for it!"

Do you think that I could.... I mean, I've never taken on a Huraka before." Celcine hesitated.  It was uncertain just what the Archimandrite's physical capabilities were. She was mulling over the idea, but the idea of fighting an unknown elemental creature was still resulting in uncertainty. It might take just one more good push to convince her. "What what Honto would think if I did something like that?"

"Oh, I'm sure of it. As you said: It is merely a glorified pack animal, but the people won't know that and will be all the more impressed. As for Honto," Cub continues with a wry smile, now lying on her side and looking straight at Celcine. "He will see that you for the leader you are - the foremost daughter of Lushfield in battle, history, and spirit."

Celcine slowly nods in agreement, her resistance crumbling under the direct assault by the manipulative tendrils of solar might controlled by Persistent Cub, which pierced through even the unconscious defenses raised by the Dragon-Blooded essence flowing through her veins. Persistent Cub's reassurance that the Huraka would not be a significant combatant, combined with the implication that Honto would be impressed, were exactly the right levers to pull in order to manipulate the vain woman. Yes, she would definitely hazard the chance of confronting the 'Huraka' they had planned for the festival. "Come," Celcine said, getting off the massage bed and wrapping herself in a plush bathrobe immediately brought to her by a waiting attendant. "That's enough acupressure, let me show you the hot springs - they're a wonder, I had them specially constructed. Just like the ones on the Isle." Another attendant quickly retrieved Cub's Shifting Cloth, and held it at the ready for her. The vial of debilitating poison still secured in the hidden pocket in the sleeve, as well Cub's other tools of the trade concealed in various invisible pouches.

Cub gracefully slips off the bed and lets the attendant dress her in the soft, silken robes that her Cloth had formed at the moment. "That sounds lovely," she says as she follows Celcine.

The two exalts step out onto the tropically-decorated patio containing the steaming artificial hot spring. "Tell me," started Celcine, sweeping her arm, "Is it not just like the mountain hot springs outside Mmenon-Darjilis? When we all go to the Isle, I would very much enjoy a visit to the real thing. Do you think that could be arranged?"

As they walk, Cub puts her free hand on Celcine's. She looks at the pale provincial imitation of the actual grandeur of the Blessed Isle and somehow manages to smile at it. "Oh certainly, I would be more than happy to introduce you to some of my school friends from House Mnemon."

Celcine dips her toe into the steaming water, retracting it and yelling at at teenage serving girl to add another two cords of wood to the furnace. "It's not ready yet," she remarked. "Authenticity is important to me. Should only be a few more minutes."

"I don't know if anyone told you, but I'm not going to be an Immaculate Priest forever. For most, of course, it is a lifelong commitment, but Lushfield's circumstances many years ago meant the responsibility fell to me to take up the mantle of leading our most important institution." She was referring to the death of the Old Seneschal and Honto's purge of the old guard in the aftermath.

"Did you know that Honto and I have been engaged to be married for nearly seventy years now, since we were teenagers, actually. Naturally, going forward would not be appropriate at this time, given the needs of the Immaculate Faith for strong leadership. But one day, hopefully soon, when we reestablish ourselves on the Isle, there won't be any need for that anymore. I was thinking of holding the wedding in Mmenon-Darjilis."

"It is a beautiful place," Cub agrees readily and sits down in a lounge chair as they wait for the water to be just right. "May I ask what has enamored you to that location in particular?" She asks as she glances around for a drink to tide them over until the water is ready.

Celcine snaps her fingers at a nearby serving-girl bearing a tray with a pair of chilled glasses full of rose-water, motioning her to approach the relaxing pair. "My grandmother had an exquisite framed mural of the Azure Morning Pinnacle that I would admire when I was a child. The founders who came to this place more than 600 years ago were drawn from all over the Isle, and that's where my ancestors were from. House Lankham - you wouldn't have heard of them. They brought it with them to remind them of where they came from."

"Then tell me about them," Cub encourages Celcine to ramble on about her own importance while somehow managing to sound genuinely encouraging. She beckons the servant to approach her with the glasses and while the Archimandrite is distracted by her family history, Cub reaches out for her drink. As her hand passes by the tray, the sleeve of her robes - helped by her Essence infusing the Shifting Cloth - hides both glasses. For a moment neither drink nor hand can be seen and in that moment, Persistent Cub empties a small vial of hemlock juice and sugar-water into one glass and lazily takes the other.

There is no White Veil Society. It’s not a loose-knit association of martial artists, spies, and assassins spread throughout the Realm and beyond. Its members don’t practice a deadly martial art. It never sees use at dinners, salons, and galas. People don’t die from it, occasionally silently and occasionally screaming, days or weeks after not encountering it. And Persistent Cub was definitely not, in a prior life, a member in good standing of such an organization.

So when her fingers pass over the glass destined for Celcine's lips, a few critical drops of the near-tasteless toxin mixing into the rose-water, the Archimandrite is none the wiser. The gifts of the Dragons are nothing compared to the will of the woman known once as Cynis Bellara, but no longer. Cub had to brew the toxin to just the right potency: the amount she added would be more than enough to paralyze the heart of the strongest mortal, but Princes of the Earth are undoubtedly made of sterner stuff.

Celcine took the glass, but looked sad for a moment, and Cub had chance to recall what poor Rael had said about the woman's family: Honto was her cousin, and after he had returned to Lushfield from his studies in the realm and dispatched the Old Seneschal, both his and Celcine's parents and grandparents, who were important leaders of the town's secret constables, also disappeared. "There was a fire, many years ago. It was when I was still young, at our family's ancestral compound here. My parents, all of my uncles and aunts, and my grandmother died. The mural was destroyed as well. Now it's just Honto and myself, and his brother and grand-nieces, that's all that's left." She didn't know Honto was behind it.

Celcine raised the glass she had taken, offering a toast to Cub in their memory. Cub hadn't had time to test the formula to her satisfaction, so when the woman drank it down, she would have to distract her to ensure any odd taste wasn't noticed.

Cub reaches out to take Celcine's hand and give it a comforting squeeze, "I am so sorry for your loss. And for asking, that was rude of me."

"Thank you for understanding," replies Celcine, fake-wiping a tear from the corner of her eye. "So you see, that's why the wedding must be in Darjilis. You will be there when I send the invitations, yes?" She still held the glass in her hand, not yet having raised it to her lips.

"I wouldn't dream of missing it," Cub says with a friendly smile as she raises her own glass to her lips. Should Celcine survive, marry Honto, and be allowed to host the wedding in House Mnemon's seat of power - there was no doubt in her mind that Cub would not dream of missing it - she would actually miss it by being as far away as possible.

Encouraged by Cub's kind words, Celcine raises the delicate glass to her lips as well, ready to drink together with the dynastic guest in toast to the memory of the dead of House Lankham.

The Solar observes the dragon-blooded carefully to see how the poison affects her, ready at all times to divert her attention away from any feeling of weakness or annoyance at an unfamiliar taste. Celcine has been to this spa many times and enjoyed their rose water every time. Though the exact flavor changes minutely from season to season, and even from glass to glass, she knows the ins and outs of that flavor, and how it may vary. Thus, she must notice that this one is slightly different. Not bad by any means, lemon at the tip of the tongue, a bit more sweetness in the back of the mouth, and a lingering aftertaste that she cannot put her finger on. On another day, if she were here alone or with some unimportant underling, this might cause her to send the glass back, but in such august company as she is now, it would not do to spoil the mood. So she smiles and talks happily with the Lady Persistent Cub as they go back and forth on the Blessed Isle in general and Mnemon-Darjilis in particular. Unlike Celcine, Cub has actually been there.

Celcine stands up and decides to test the water, wrapping the towel around her bosom as she sinks in to the steaming heat. "Thank you for that," she replied to Cub's flattery and kind words. "It's so nice having someone here who truly understands me. I just realized that I've been so impolite. Are you married? If not, where would you like to hold your wedding?"

Keeping her calm at this unwelcome reminder of the husband she left behind screaming in rage, but bound by superior skill and an oath enforced by heaven, taxes the woman who was Cynis Bellara to the utmost, but she manages it, and it would take someone with clearer sight than Celcine to see through to the truth. "I am engaged to be," she answers instead, letting her robe fall as she joins Celcine in the water. "I expect that planning will commence in earnest once I return to the Isle." She leans back and enjoys the hot water in full, letting her mouth form words on their own while her mind lets go in the soft embrace of the bath. "In truth, I will have very little influence on the actual nuptials, our families will deal with all of that. Far too much politics involved." "But if I were to dream big, I would want it to be in the Imperial Palace. To say our vows before the Scarlet Throne - the very heart of civilization and order in Creation."

Celcine smiles at the idea of a wedding, her eyes fluttering shut as she sunk deeper into the water, before catching herself and regaining her attention. "I'm sorry, I must have gotten a little faint just now - that's so unlike me. It must be the heat and the stress of all the excitement planned for tomorrow." She stood up and exited the hot springs, allowing an attendant to come by with a fresh towel. "I hope you'll excuse me, but I think I will be resting up. Please, feel free to use the services of the establishment in my absence."

"Of course," Cub says with an encouraging smile, "thank you for letting me join you, this is a delightful place. And I wish you the very best of luck with everything tomorrow, even if a woman of your skills will hardly need it."
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The Circle Finishes Their Preparations!

Whilst Warden and Nameless are busy smoothing ruffled feathers and Khi and Cold work to prevent death through boiling, Scales tears himself away from the knowledge of the Lodestool to carve out time for his own devices. Sneaking into the town above to gather the ingredients needed for the ritual, all is aligned as the sun sets on what seems to be their penultimate day in Lushfield. As the light retreats and the shadows lengthen, Scales takes his accoutrements down, down, down into the depths of the crypts, only stopping once he reaches the dark chill that accompanies entrance to a Shadowland; the former resting place of Lo-Biven.

Setting the wrapped bundle on the bench, Scales glances at the afterimage of Lo-Biven. Though the darkness will fade with time, it should still be strong enough to not require a portal; though, perhaps one would not be necessary even then. Barrow hounds are able to step between realms. Turning his attention back to the bundle, he slowly removes the wrappings, letting the scent of rotting meat into the dry air. Leaving the old meat and bones upon the table, Scales pulls out the moonsilver inscribed rat skull, eye sockets filled with the soulsteel orb and dark gemstone; moving to the edge of the room, he starts circling, periodically letting out a piercing whistle that goes no further than the threshold of the crypt, yet simultaneously echoes across a great void.

Scales circles, and circles, and circles, until time has lost all meaning; he only stops when a loud baying emanates from a section of the wall. Moving to put the meat in between him and the sound, he waits for the spirit to reveal itself. Phasing through the wall, the head of a large hound slowly appears, followed by the rest of its body; dark as the crypt was with its only source of illumination being Scales himself, it resembled nothing more than a dark cloud, promising a storm to drag ships down to the deeps, pierced by two faintly luminescent eyes, similar to Scales's own. Turning its attention to the offering laid out before it, it sniffs the meal of rotten flesh, old bones, and fresh blood. Scales takes care to stand a distance away, nonthreatening. Though caught between the veil, at heart it remains a loyal hound, searching for a worthy companion to spend its undeath. To break its will, as Khi did the metody, would be akin to breaking a living animal.

Pleased with the offering, the barrow hound feasts on the meat, before coming to lay at Scales's feet; the light radiating from his tattoos and caste mark silhouette the hound, the dark fur devouring any light that catches it. Scales reaches down and scratches their, no, her head; "I name you Tiangou, the black dog that eclipses the moon."

Tiangou half-growls, half-barks in approval at her new name. The otherworldly sound coming from the ghostly Barghest Hound was both unnerving and strangely steadying.

---

It was the final night before the Ascending Festival, and everyone was still remarkably busy. Khi, Scales, and the Lodestool were quite putting the finishing touches on the Flux Detainer they were constructing at the desmense, molding and joining the wood of the Rhizome Plexus around the precise metal frame they had constructed, with all the special equipment build in to allow the geomancers to monitor and control the power intake, and to safely dissipate any essence spikes before they had a chance to fry the whole system. They would turn it on in the morning. The Trainee Geomancers were also getting their final lessons in using the special heat-protective suits that Cold had made with the help of Aghāid, who had returned to her dematerialized form to rest after the weary work. The grandmotherly spider was quite tired - they all were, in fact, but only she had the luxury of outwardly showing it.

That left one final task - disguising Cold in the form of a Huraka. How they would go about doing that was a question they had put off for the last few days in favor of more urgent matters, but now it came back to the forefront.

Khī barely showed her exhaustion, but the fact that her mask hid her worked wonders to show it. She had, however, barely slept for days, sustaining herself as much in essence and stubbornness as a not insignificant amount of tea. She was rarely seen, now, without an increasingly dingy cup close to hand, and the mouthpart of her mask had been stowed for convenience.  She awkwardly patted the wolfman on the back. “You have performed your duty beyond adequately, and with impressive expedience,” Khī said, blandly, “We shall see if our efforts have borne fruit in time,”

Cold was quite the sight. Everybody had seen him vanish in the workshop for the project, and hadn't seen a lot of him every since. But somehow the young wolfman looked like he had wrestled with a nest of fire elementals. His normal snow-white fur scorched black. Aside from that, helooked surprisingly fresh. Energetic even, still running off the high of doing a very good job on a brand new project that he had finished.

"Thanks, it was quite a fun project." Cold said with a nod.  And after Khi pulls back her hand after patting him on the back, there is some sooth and blackened fur left on her hand. "So, disguising me as a Huraka... what do they actually look like?"

Khi wiped her gloved hand on some of the wolfman’s clothing, before returning it to her cup of tea, her disgust visible on what little of her voice was visible. “I appreciate that you were able to work civilly with Aghāid, Cold.”

There was a visible shiver that went down Cold's spine as Khi mentioned Aghaid. "She knows her stuff." Cold says. "Taught me a lot and I even managed to get some better tools out of it. She creeps me the hell out though." he admits. "Nothing that looks like that should act like a doting grandmother. And it's a demon... I can't understand the way they think.  It feels disturbing. Who knows what they're planning?"

“She likes you. But you’ve done well not to pretend she’s human," answers Khī. Demons are perfectly safe, so long as you understand what they are. She’s planning out how to hunt you, if I ever give her the order, and is as excited for that prospect as a good meal. She also likes you. You’re competent, and she likes to dote. These are things that would contradict in our minds. For a demon, this is natural. Aghāid hunts and weaves like you breathe and sleep. Understand that, and you can understand how to keep yourself safe around them,” she nodded. “And, for the record, you need not be threatened by her. I’m certain you’re a better hunter. As should you. Doubting what you were made to do is counterproductive and unseemly, and there is no constructive reason to boast,” Khī said, flatly. As she had told the ghost, she did not threaten. Broadly, Khī also did not flatter. Cold was a competent warrior and hunter. This was clear.

"Somehow, that makes them more comprehensible as most people. They don't pretend to be something they're not." Cold shook his head. "Then again, I'm sure for some demons, lies and deceit are as natural to them as breathing and sleeping. I don't really feel threatened by her." Cold finally agreed with Khi's reasoning. "It's just... look, I took a nap for like five minutes, and I woke up with her looming over me. Brushing that small baby hand of hers through my fur while she was cooing." He shuddered back at the thought. "Disturbing is the only word I know for it. Can you ask her to... not do that? I tried, and she just kinda cackled and skittered off, and I honestly don't know what that means."

“That’s grooming," stated Khī nonchalantly. "You’re like a dog, surely your people do that. And, for the record, yes, it is in the nature of some to lie, but less than you might think.  In those cases you may often find the demon incapable of telling the truth at all.”

"We may look like it, but our people aren't dogs.  Only close family or lovers do that." Cold clarified. "And I'm very sure I don't need to explain that your Anhule doesn't fall in either of those categories."

“Ah. Yes. Well I suppose I can understand why you might find that off putting,” Khī wasn’t so used to demonic servitors that she had forgotten the discomfort of being around those others had bound. They were, after all, dangerous, and often, hardly comely to the eye. And not knowing they were bound completely to you makes them… well it wasn’t much different than a naked blade, really.

"Yeah, so could you please have her not watch over me while I sleep? It would be appreciated," Cold repeats.

“Duly noted,” Khī said, smoothly.

"Right. Well, back to the main point," said Cold. We're gonna have to disguise me as one of those bear spirits. What do they look like?"

"Considering you were there when I described it to Honto, I had hoped that you would have remembered. No matter." Scales spoke from the doorway, stepping into the cluttered workshop Cold had commandeered. "Khi, Cold, this is Tiangou." He gestured to the black hound beside him, reaching past his hip in height.

Khī’s eyebrow raised behind her mask. “And Tiangou is…” she said, leaving the question to be inferred.

"She could help us track down Ivy, should she linger on this plane. Though, given what Tramezia said about the Wellspring's remnants, I'm not sure it's still necessary?" Scales paused. "What happened to him agreeing to retrieve the remnants?" He shook his head. "A problem for another time. Anyway, to reiterate, Hurakas stand roughly three of Khi tall, are shaped like a bear, have bird-like talons, and this one would have green fur."

"We only have one shot at this, I rather make sure I have all the facts straight." Cold simply answered. "If the disguise isn't good enough Honto will start asking questions. something I rather avoid to be honest."  He looked down at the black hound, back up at Scales, then back down at the dog. "Hello Tiangou."

“I am a unit of measurement now, it seems,” Khī muttered, kneeling down nearby the enormous dog, “This isn’t a natural creature, is it?”

"Tramezia is looking through his 'junk heap' to find the remnants as far as I remember." Cold said as he started to gather his own junk together. He examined a few pieces of the nearly indestructible hardwood.  The Lunar had been paying rapt attention when the Lodestool had been working with the chemicals, and had been asking questions. It all seemed to easily click together in his brain - it wasn't too dissimilar from working with fabrics or leather. The ingredients were the threads or base leather, the processes were weaving the strands into fabric or the way you tanned the hide to make it do what you wanted. "He should have it for us in a few hours."

"It would probably best to use something really hard for the talons, like the root-wood. The last thing we need to happen is for a stray sword stroke to reveal them to be wooden pieces," Cold was muttering to himself. "Or for them to catch fire. Celcine is a princess of fire, after all. For the green fur, maybe we could whip up a dye of some sort." He began scouring the rest of the workshop for alchemical ingredients, using his nose to find things just as much as his eyes.  He pushed a few potential items away. "I can't smell enough green in these for them to work." He walked over towards Khi and stood next to her, tilting his head as he was seemingly judging something. "If I shift into a larger form, think I can be at least two and a half Khi's in height. Not a full three though."

Scales spoke up: "One could argue about nature, spirits, and the dead, but no, Tiangau is not mundane. Her species are known as Barrow Hounds; they have the ability to step between planes, predict deaths, and track ghosts." Turning to Cold, he ponders as he scratches Tiangou's ears. "I doubt your height will matter too much. I imagine that people will be more concerned at you killing Celcine than if you're the runt of the windbear litter."

Khī nodded, silently, proffering a hand to the dog for it to sniff. An animal that didn’t react in panic and aggression to her presence was something unusual in her new life. A spirit dog. One of the more interesting necromantic tricks she’d heard of. The necromancer and her were going to have to chat sometime. There were doubtless things they could work together on… such as freeing her master.

"Good point, not like most people would even know how big a Huraka is supposed to be," Cold agrees. "So aside from bird's talons and the color, Is there anything else that comes to mind about thems that I might have to know about?"  Cold thought he had some workable ingredients for the green dye. Something that would stain his fur a bright green and hopefully wouldn't take ages for him to get out of his fur afterwards. He brought them to the Lodestool for their approval and borrowed a mortal and pestle to begin grinding it into powder.

"Well, flight and being able to create a blizzard or storm are noticeable, but I don't think you could replicate those as easily." Khī said.  She looked up, putting thoughts together and arriving at a conclusion she didn’t entirely wish to come to. “There is some sorcery which would allow that. Scales, you have your ways of communicating with your Shahan-Ya. I have ways of contacting my Sifu. She could teach me how to perform this, and she would…well she has indicated she would like to see me again.”  Khī wasn’t certain that she would want to return the favor, especially with the changes she’d found made to herself following her apprenticeship. But if it was necessary, she knew what to expect…she could be strong enough. For Sadrica, she could be strong enough.

Cold looked up from his work with a grimace on his face. "I rather not have any sorcery cast on me, if it's all the same to you." he bluntly says. "Besides, it's not like it's really necessary for me to fly for this, is it?" He had perfectly good wings to fly with. No reason to get involved with sorcery. Few good things came from sorcery.

“Very well,” Khī nodded, “Truthfully I care very little, as long as you can pull off the disguise,”

Cold glanced over towards Khi, ears flicking as he tried to figure out what was going through her head. Somethings didn't really match up here. It clicked... there was a hesitance. It was like she was resolving herself to go and meet her Sifu, like it was a horrible... no not horrible... uncomfortable and dangerous task. But Khi also clearly desired her. Both as a tool and as a person. Was every single relationship Khi had complicated and likely to blow up in her face? "You sound a bit reluctant to talk about your Sifu.  Did you leave them on bad terms or something?" The Lunar asked his question with all the suitability of a rampaging behemoth. "Who is she anyway?"

“She is an associate of mine, who is assisting me with an ongoing project. Our relationship is partly transactional- for knowledge I will pay,” Khī said, flatly, “May I assume that prying is not considered rude, among your people? If you must know, my sorcerous lineage can be traced back to the dawn times, and includes both Birgid and Salina, both luminaries of their era. Does this satisfy you?”

"Oh it does," Cold doesn't even miss a beat. "Who are Birgid and Salina?" Cold gives Khi a curious stare as he shifted the topic to something else. "Sorcerers?"

“The greatest," said Khī. Birgid is commonly credited as the first sorcerer, a claim that is probably unverifiable, and Salina was the greatest mind of the late 1st age, founder of one of the largest schools of sorcerous thought, which is still taught as far afield as my homeland and the heptagram today. Birgid was, I think, five or six generations separated from Salina, but the master to learner chain is unbroken between them. It’s an extremely respectable lineage, if you can prove direct relation by teaching,” Khī rattled off, “I am closer related to Birgid than Salina, but I have studied the original writings of both, and my Sifu studied with both women. She claims she even assisted with the Salinan working, which may even be true.”

"Your master must be august indeed, to have survived from the dawn of the world to today." said Scales. "I imagined only our patrons and their enemies to have done so." I'm sure that deer that became possessed by a demon has some relation to this, he thought privately.

“Only violence, I think, would kill her, and that would be a difficult proposition. She is, I will note, a consummate liar, but I cannot be lied to,” Khī stated matter-of-factly.

Cold tilts his head. processing the new information.  Khi's Sifu wasn't mortal. Exalted? he doubted that. The Solars had only only recently returned, and he didn't think a Lunar of the silver pact would've taught her the things she did. if there even was a lunar who was that old? Ma-ha-suchi maybe? But from all the tales Yi-Han and regaled him with, none about Ma-Ha-Suchi were about sorcery. "So you learned your sorcery from a demon?," he asked.

“Infer what you will, Protects-from-Cold. My will remains my own, no matter which spirits I choose to speak with. Did you think I was trained in Ysyr?” This was…a miscalculation, though Khī. She had shared too much. Now, the best strategy for defusing this

"Ah. That would explain the deer." said ScalesShe was taught by a demon of Malfeas; the constant use of demons and odd relationship makes sense now. Not as dark a secret as it could have been, unless she's keeping more back.

“Yes,” Khī said, simply, “A message. You can trust me to do what I am needed to. And Cold, your assumptions?”

Cold looked over at Khī, a bit surprised she actually was interested. "Well, the both of us have been annoying you about your past. Fair trade that you get a bit of mine in return.  I was the ruler of a kingdom in the north," He grimaced. "Well, I had hoped to make it a kingdom. At that, point it wasn't much more then a collection of beast-folk tribes I united one way or another to keep them from murdering each other. But to me who never saw anything form the outside world? It looked as grand as any kingdom could be.  And then when a Lunar came and offered membership and protection of the silver pact, I refused him. What protection did a king need in his own kingdom?" He rubbed his forehead.  "Well, then the Wyld hunt came. I still hadn't learned my lesson in humility. I underestimated them and I... well everybody paid the price for my idiocy."

Scales lightly places his hand upon Cold's shoulder, silver eyes dimming as he closes them. "You have my sympathies; it seems as though those the gods touch are cursed to suffer great sorrow." Nameless' amnesia, my sister, and now Cold's subjects. Are the others as plagued by misfortune?

Khi nodded, "I had assumed. You have scar tissue on our left oblique, upper left deltaroid, a nick on your right trapezius, and you walk with evidence of damage to your right knee and lower tendon that would have crippled a mortal. They are almost completely healed- almost unnoticeable. The injuries are consistent with higher quality weapons, and precise- not the work of someone untalented, except the right trap, which I suspect to have been an accidental hit. At your rate of healing, I would assume this is recent. You are used to giving commands, but speak rarely of your home- regret, and you occupied a high place there. You are immature and young- no offense, and therefore did not hold your high position long, so it likely coincided with your-" Khi paused, realizing that rattling off why she was unsurprised was both rude and wildly out of turn, "I am sorry. My condolences,"

"I... assume those are names of body parts?" Cold hesitantly asked. Aside from the mention of knee he had no clue what places she was talking about. At the mention of being immature and young he pouted. "I'm not that bad, am I? I thought I did a lot of maturing recently." He looked visibly touched at both Scale's and Khi's sympathies. "Maybe. But I'm one of Luna's chosen. Just as they change and shift with the passage of time. I'll adapt to the tribulations that have been laid out in front of me. In a way, ones enemies are the best teachers aren't they? At least when it comes down to showing you your weaknesses."  His had been in logistics and a lack of knowledge of the grand theater of war and organization. He had foolishly though pure savagery and martial skill could best raw numbers and strategy.  "The woman who led the Wyld Hunt also showed me that the Realm has a wealth of military knowledge. I am eager to plunder it for my own use. The next time that blasted woman and I meet on the battlefield, it wont end the same way. I'll make sure of that."

Khī would have asked with what army he planned to do that with a week ago, but she was trying to be better than that. “This is probably not a conversation to have standing. Tea, anyone?” She stood up, looking to the Lodestool. “I don’t suppose you have any dark secrets we should know, while we’re all sharing, Rhomb?”

The Lodestool looks up from the simmering beaker of green die that was being formulated. "Dark... secrets?," they said in their neutral, somewhat cheery voice. Mushrooms were naturally more content at night, and the lack of sleep didn't seem to bother the odd genderless creature in the least. "That is a piece of information about oneself that is kept hidden out of embarrassment or shame, yes?" Rhomb ponders for a moment, trying to answer the question under Khi's prying eye. "I am, technically speaking, a fugitive from justice under the human laws which prevail in Gem, the Lap, Paragon, and Chiaroscuro."

Khī suddenly stiffened, “A fugitive, you say? What crimes have you committed?”

"I feel no shame for it," replid the Lodestool. "The formula simply was not ready, and I warned them. It was not my fault."

“Elaborate on that, if you would," demanded Khī.

"There was certainly no crime," Rhomb insisted. "They all drank the elixir of their own volition, even as I warned them that it was not ready. They took the chance because the authorities were closing in. Without anyone left to prosecute, their attentions turned to me, that is all. Simple persecution."

“The authorities were closing in?" Khī grew more and more inquisitive. "What, exactly, were you party to?”

Cold had gone silent for a while, interested and wary about where this was going

"Party to? I was hired to synthesize an elixir based on an ancient formula they provided to me, nothing more." The Lodestool began aggressively whirling the flask full of dye and tapping it on the bench to encourage the hunk of compressed green powder that Cold had scrounged up to dissolve. "The business of the Sun Market Counsel was none of my concern."

“Understood," said Khī. "You were employed by this group to synthesize this elixir. Were you aware at the time that it was proscribed?”

"What was the Elixer supposed to do?" Cold aske, unable to keep his curiosity contained. "How was it still incomplete." The Lunar's recent exposure to the art of alchemy had kindled at least the ember of a scientific curiosity in himself.

"Oh, the usual," the Lodestool replied to Cold. "Eternal life, glorious powers. The manuscript they obtained was old, but I suspect its shares a common heritage with the famous White Elixir of Grieve. The organization itself was not proscribed, and I gather the Sun Market Counsel still runs the Sun Market to this day. Rather, it was the leading members at that time - this was more than 200 years ago. They had jointly pooled their resources to purchase the formula and to hire my services. It seems that they were plotting a coup against the Despot, Rankar VII, who had only recently been elevated."

“I suspect you’re no longer wanted, then. Mortal law typically includes what is called a statute of limitation, which it takes from shogunate-era legal codes. Thank you for sharing, Rhomb” Khī said, exhaling.

"I'm going to sound completely unaware. But what is the White Elixer of Grieve? Wait," Cold processed what had been said. "You're more then 200 years old? I didn't know elementals lived that long. Or are you an exception to that?"

“Spirits are long-lived to undying, as a rule," said Khī.  Most demons of the second circle and above have lived since the first age, as is the case for many important gods and dragons.”

The Lodestool answered: "Most of the mundane elementals you see around here live a comparable lifespan to mortal humans. My species in particular is especially long-lived, however, and through my efforts at alchemical preservation techniques, I have found ways to rejuvenate myself, specific to my fungal nature. If I continue, I am unsure if I will ever truly die."

"Huh, that is interesting. Is it anything to do with the entire..." Cold gestured up towards the masss of pipes hanging from the Lodestool's workshop's roof. "I always wondered what those were for."

"Partially," responded the Lodestool, who continued encouraging the dye to dissolve, looking critically at Cold's fur. "This should wash out in a few days."

“Interesting. Would you be able to leave here, then, if you needed to?” Khī too was curious.

"Oh yes," the Lodestool answered. "The apparatus you see before you is merely a convenience, and is mostly related to the automated system for generating the oil, which will no longer be required. The most crucial components can be disassembled rather quickly, if it necessary to depart with haste. My experiences in Gem and the surrounding area have taught me the value in that."

“Good to know,” Khī said, mentally filing this away. The elemental had proven very useful, and would, she though, be better used in her service.

"If you got the time I would be interested in hearing more about your exploits in the wider world." Cold admits. "You've been to a lot of places I haven't even heard about."
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The Dawn of the Final Day in Lushfield

Tramezia the Rhizome was bored. It was late in the morning, and they were nearly an hour behind schedule. He began tapping his hands against the contraption sitting on his lap, generating a rhythmic beat as he played the watermelon-shaped wooden and metal object like a drum. A sound like someone shaking a cup full of sand could be heard with each strike, reminding any listeners familiar with the instrument of a Bo Lang Gu - a rattle drum.

The god watched as Khi, Scales, and the Lodestool went over the final checks on all the connections on the large monolith of rootwood, metal gizmos, and protruding conduits and pipes that they had built to entirely surround the pillar of half-hardened lava - the magmatic upwelling of the desmense far below the them. The Flux Detainer they had constructed, in fact, bore a remarkable external similarity to the object that Tramezia was treating like a tanggu, only much larger. They were closely accompanied by a gaggle of the trainee geomancers in their heat-resistant Hell Silk suits that Cold and Aghāid had built, watching every move they made and taking various notes on their clipboards. Finally, the three looked at each other and nodded: everything was as it should be.

With a signal from the Lodestool, the young dryad elemental standing at the large control panel used both arms to flip the huge master switch that triggered the system. The large tank full of coolant began to gurgle, and each of the quartz crystal panes in the side of the pipeline heading towards the Flux Detainer began to progressively turn turquoise, with the return feed filling up a few seconds in the opposite direction with the color of cobalt. As the coolant arrived, the brown root-wood surrounding the desmense began to faintly flicker with an orange light coming out of the various thin seams and apertures. "Come on... come on...." said the Dryad Elemental as he played his hands across the control panel, finely tuning the handmade dials in front of him.

The massive condenser next to the coolant tank started to violently shake, threatening to rip itself out of its housing, as the flickering of light from the obelisk became faster and more intense. "Just a little longer... hold.... hold..." muttered the Dryad to himself in Old Realm, a bead of sap running down his forehead as he continued to fine tune the controls. Tramezia and the rest of the class of geomancers gathered him, along with the exalts, held their breath in anticipation and dread.

Over the last three days of intensive work, the Celestials who couldn't speak Old Realm had made remarkable strides in picking up the ancient language. The half-remembered school lessons that Cub had struggled through more than a decade ago suddenly made tremendous sense, and Khi's efforts likewise paid dividends.

All of a sudden, the condenser belched out a cloud of steam, and the powerful shaking ceased, replaced by a low, steady purr of well-tuned machinery. The stormy flickering of orange light from the Flux Detainer calmed, replaced by a steady amber glow. A cheer went up from the crowd. "All measures within optimal ranges!," called out the dryad at the controls. "It's working!"

---

An hour later, the Celestials were gathered back in Tramezia's throne room. Everything in the freehold seemed just a little brighter and more vividly illuminated. Tramezia was busy gladhanding all of the leadership of the various guilds on a job well done, reveling in the glory of the recent accomplishments. Finally, he turned his attention to the six Exalts. "You kept your word, and let nobody say that Tramezia doesn't keep his." He picked over to the object that he had been carrying with him that he had left sitting on his throne, and held it out. "This is the booster that Ivy made for me - I dug down through twelve decades of scrap to find it, and it's yours now."

The Lodestool spoke up: "Your Rootship.... I have been reflecting on the last few days, and I have a request as well." Tramezia's attention turned to the fungal alchemist. "Given that my services will no longer be required to maintain the plexus going forward, it has been more than a century since I took a sabbatical. The pace of development in many fields of interest to me has skyrocketed recent years, and if you will allow it, I would like to investigate this progress myself. If you will allow it, I would propose that I travel in the company of your guests." Rhomb the Lodestool turned to the Celestials. "If that is acceptable to you, of course."

“I would welcome Rhomb’s companionship,” Khī said, adding a bit of enthusiasm to her voice, mostly for show.

"Yes, I think we could all learn a lot from each other. Do you mind if I...?" Scales asks permission before taking the miniature Flux Detainer, holding it up and giving it a slight shake.

Tramezia makes a show of agonizing over the Lodestool's request, though he's barely able to suppress the smile under his outwardly reserved visage. It's obvious that the god would be elated to have someone take the meddlesome alchemist off of his hands, now that he doesn't have a direct use for them anymore. "Well, maybe you do have a point, you've been working here for so long without a vacation that it's hard to imagine the place without you. Yes, yes, maybe a temporary change of scenery will do you some good." From the expression on Tramezia's face and the eagerness in his voice, it sounded like he wouldn't be too displeased if the mushroom elemental's departure was permanent. "Losing you will be a tough blow to the whole community, but I understand completely. In fact, you would be wise to depart with some haste, dispensing with any sort of well-deserved going-away party, because I don't trust myself enough not to reconsider and change my mind." The god raises a hand to his eyes in a pantomime of hiding his tears.

Meanwhile, Scales examines the 'Booster' he had taken from Cold. It seemed quite solidly built, if quite dusty, rusty, and generally banged-up, and the sound it made when he shook it was like dry grains of rice sliding in the bottom of a ship's cargo hold.

"No, you must go, now, for my sake!" Tramezia theatrically emotes as he turns his back on the Celestials and their new Alchemist traveling companion and raises his hand in the air to indicate finality. "You know that I'm no good at long goodbyes." And with that, the god allows himself to dramatically dematerialize away, returning to his hidden sanctum and leaving the Exalted guests standing alone in the wood-paneled throne room.

As they walked out to the balcony which overlooked the elemental freehold, they noticed how the bioluminescent fungus the illuminated the underground cavern seemed to shine a little bit crisper and brighter than before. Perhaps it was the influence from the new essence from the desmense, or maybe it was their sleep deprivation, but the underground cavern felt just a little more welcoming and less alien than before, now that they had learned its mysteries.

In the distance, they spotted Bryoph waving at them with a smile, still wearing his Hellsilk hazard suit, holding the helmet under one arm. When Warden and Nameless had spoken to him, he has said he was what was called a half-Jokun, and that his best friend Pinales was one of the inelegantly-named 'stick-people.' Alongside him was his half-Jokun wife and children - from the three ruminant horns protruding from each of their heads, it appeared like her side of the family had some Kri ancestry.

"I suppose I should pack my essentials," stated the Lodestool simply in a neutral tone as they took a final look at the place that had been their home for the past fifteen decades. "I shall wait for you at the lodging you mentioned, in the basement of the cathedral. I wish you good fortune with whatever venture you are planning."

---

Apparently, even the rumor of rogue Hurakas wandering the hundred kingdoms wrecking havoc wasn't enough to put a damper on Lushfield's spirit on the yearly celebration of its founding at the Ascending Festival. Every awning and railing in town was draped with pleated tissue paper bunting, and the skies were ablaze with festive streamers blowing in the wind, flying from flagpoles rising from the tops of tents and clotheslines strung between buildings. The whole town seemed to have swollen fivefold: the nearly-empty caravan paddock where the Celestials lonely guild wagon sat was now crowded with hundreds of carts and their horses - rural famers and their families arriving from the countryside for the festivities. Groups of children were running amok through the streets, roaming from stall to stall to stall and begging their parents for quarter-yens so they could buy a bag of sugar candy or play the carnival games. There were all sorts of competitions for citizens to show off the skills they had practiced for the whole winter: talent shows for quaintly-dressed male quartets singing in four-part harmony; groups of serious-looking judges armed with clipboards scoring traditional quilts; and teams of thirty-six preteen girls dressed in old-fashioned Shogunate clothes performing choreographed Eight Yi Dances under the judgmental eyes of their mothers and grandmothers.

If Scales and Hidden Reeds' absences were conspicuous among the group of four Celestials that were being escorted through the town by Great Uncle Rightness with Honto a few steps behind, nobody had seemed to make too much of a fuss over it. Instead of traveling to the basement of the cathedral they were confined to by order of the Seneschal, the two Lunars had had borrowed the old but reliable Train 41, and had rode it through the underground tunnels to emerge through the hidden borehole to the surface that had been carved by Khi's Metody, at the very location where the demon had met his unfortunate end a few days prior. They were presently stowing away under the lattice framework that covered the deep pit that Scales had dug only five days earlier, but it felt more like five months with how much had happened in that time.

Protects-From-Cold was in his beastly War Form, with his fur died a deep forest green. Scales was helping to finish assemble the costume that they had pitched in together to fabricate the night before. They couldn't manage to find a way to alter the shape of Cold's claws without impeding his fighting prowess, but the spiked fingerless gloves that tightly covered all of his furry paws except for their long protruding claws gave the illusion that he had scaled, leathery bird's talons at the ends of his arms. The Spider-Demon Aghāid had pulled out an old trick of her own, and had woven her silk into hundreds of soft fabric quills that looked indistinguishable from feathers, which they had died in rainbow colors using the Lodestool's alchemical concoctions and had attached to a harness that was invisible under his thick green coat. The effect was startlingly transformative, and the Lunar looked the mirror image of the vivid illustration of the Green Frowning Bear's Huraka from The Hundred Devil's Night Parade, especially with the feathery plumage which covered his soft underbelly.

The ghostly hound Tiangao at Scales' side was curled up and sleeping in a cool corner, nearly translucent even in the darkness of the trench - It was nearly noon, and the sun was directly above them, casting narrow beams of light down through the small imperfections in the camouflaged shelter above them. At the appointed time - when the sun reached its zenith - Cold would emerge and began his rampage, while Scales would begin the process of eliminating the evidence of their alternate route into and out of the tunnel network by transforming back into his massive lizard form and filling the hole back up with soil, before sneaking back into town. With a look of stoic finality, the No-Moon Caste took a final glance at the train cart abandoned below him, and unfolded the hinged heavy-duty metal plate that they had procured for the purpose, laying it down on the wooden surface below to block off their secret passage that they had gone to so much effort to create, before it would be buried under tons of dirt.

Great Uncle Rightness was guiding the four covert Celestials through town and explaining the various festival traditions of the community - Cub was barely able to hold in her laughter at how twee it all seemed - when they finally encountered Celcine.

The Fire Aspect was radiant in her glory as she paraded through town flanked by a dozen Immaculate monks on each side, all dressed in white robes and holding various implements and symbols of the faith. It seemed she had prevailed upon someone to procure a steed for herself that day, who the Nameless Sword Maiden immediately recognized as their sorrowful equine friend Pickle. The Archimandrite's perfect crimson hair shined in the sunlight as it blew gracefully in the light breeze, matched by her bright red lipstick on her wide smile, flashing perfectly white teeth. She was wearing what looked to be a set of Red Jade Heavy Articulated Plate that seemed too large for her frame - it was the same one that they had seen four days prior, mounted to a mannequin in a glass case in the center of the Hall of History - the Cardinal Motivator, which had supposedly belonged to General Gais - the husband of Six Quills and one of the founders of Lushfield. On her hip, in an ornate scabbard, was the Short Daiklave that they had seen at the dress rehearsal of the play a few days prior, also once the property of the Exalted founder of the community.

The keen sense of the Exalted observers, however, revealed that Celcine's face seemed to be caked with just a little too much makeup. It was a good effort, but there seemed to be something a little off about the woman's complexion, which showed telltale signs of wan and fatigue under the cosmetics. The accoutrements of the Heavy Articulated Plate were securely in place, but the upper section of the breastplate was undone and hanging loosely down. The effect was to show off her ample cleavage, enhanced by the tight, revealing gown she wore underneath the armor.

For what it was worth, the woman was naturally gorgeous, and Cub had no doubt that if Celcine had been born in the urbane environs of the Blessed Isle, or at least a Realm Satrapy, rather than in this insular periphery town, her fortunes would have been entirely different. She would have been an object of desire for an endless parade of powerful men. It seemed likely that this slightly gaudy show of seductive sensuality was being put on for the purpose of attracting Honto's attention in particular, as Cub had surreptitiously suggested yesterday at the spa. Then again, it was also quite possible that she was suffering under the the effects of the drug that had been covertly slipped into her beverage the day before, and she simply needed to remove part of the armor to cool down - she seemed to be sweating an awful lot for how mild it was this early in the year, even under the weight of the armor.

While waiting for the opportune moment, Scales sits partially in the light, enjoying the contrast between the warm sunlight and the cool darkness. If all goes to plan, we'll leave Lushfield behind us within a few hours, he thought. Despite the mishaps, he can't say he hadn't enjoyed their time here; we made some new friends, new...not quite enemies, and found some very interesting things. He pats Tiangou. He expected their next destination to be equally interesting: the tomb city of Sijan. What mysteries do it hold in store?

Cold sat underneath the lattice, keeping an eye on the position of the sun by the angle of the light filtering through it. He felt slightly silly while disguised as a green feathery bear, of all things. But he trusted that Scales and Khi knew what they were doing, with them dealing with something as important as murder. Or to him, the hunt. Cold despised Celcine. She was a vapid, petty bitch whose only achievement in life was exalting, and the things others did but she stole the credit for. That wasn't the only reason he was eager to tear the woman's head of her shoulders. She was also a mockery of everything he believed a leader should be. The strong should protect the weak, but she did nothing but exploit them, leeching off the society she was standing on top off. All too eager to sacrifice the lives thousands of her people just so she could scoff and leave behind the community she was a leader of. Disgusting. No, she would not live past today, Lushfield wouldn't be dragged into the Realm's oncoming civil war, and its innocent lives wouldn't be spilled just so a she could spend more of her days drinking wine, or doing whatever it was that the more useless of the realm dynasts did. He would tear her to shreds and take her form as his trophy.

Khi looked on, silently. She supposed Cold would do what needed to be done. Without a looming deadline before them, she'd have greater opportunity to make use of what she had gained in her associates - as well as what she had lost without her realizing.

'A life should never be taken lightly'. That was a principle Warden had been taught early, in the half-remembered days of a fresh-faced initiate at the monastery. They might have been warrior-monks dedicated to guarding Gorgon, but they never enjoyed killing, regarded it as something to use only when necessary. He reminded himself of why Celcine had to die as his gaze fell on her. Soon enough they'd leave Lushfield behind, and he hoped dearly they'd leave it better than they found it.

"Archimandrite," Cub greets Celcine with a smile that is for once genuine, even if it is mostly from satisfaction at her imminent demise, and a respectful bow. "You look absolutely radiant on this great day." As she speaks she spends a moment to take in the Dragon-Blooded's companions. Are these bodyguards who would be able to hold their own in a fight, or merely the trappings of her station for the festivities in the city?

Cub's discerning eyes pass over the group of monks with the Archimandrite, sizing up their capabilities in a single heartbeat. These men and women were no threat to anyone, and seem to have been selected on the basis of seniority and loyalty within the structure of the temple, rather than any sort of talent for the martial arts. Under their hoods, quite a few of them had greying temples, and from the way they shuffled, half of them had some form of arthritis.

As the Immaculate parade passes by, Celcine calls out to Honto, beckoning him to join her at the head of the procession. The notice of nearly all of the onlookers was powerfully drawn the fiery-haired Archimandrite - Indeed, she seems to be inviting and reveling in the attention. Today was her day. Even Warden found himself incompletely immune to the woman's peculiar charms, and was momentarily captivated by her appearance. His determined strength weakened in that moment, overtaken by unbidden prurient thoughts which he had thought he had been banished to the deepest depths of his subconscious decades ago. It was a fabulous waste that a form so lovely would be destroyed this day. Was there truly no other way?

Khi though, wasn't even fazed, and precisely noted the slightest flicker in Honto's pupils before he graciously approaches the lascivious Dragon-Blooded woman, an odd, nearly imperceptible gesture of his hand. If she had not analyzed him earlier, she wouldn't have noticed anything awry. Without even thinking, her orderly mind instantly calculated the azimuths. There - in the tall belfry of the cathedral, clutching the rope - one of the Seneschal's men, ready to trigger a general alarm at Honto's hand signal - a sighting of the dreaded Huraka. Not yet he had signed. He would need to be close to Celcine, to ensure that she would understand the meaning of the alarm when he triggered it, so that she could be navigated in the right direction

Meanwhile, a slim figure in a hooded oilskin coat too big for their frame darts out of a narrow alley and navigates through the crowd to approach the group, Again, only Khi notices, perceiving how the patter of the woman's oddly soft-soled shoes on the cobbles is out of sync with the rest of the crowd noise - different from the wooden sandals worn by the others. She remains on guard, ready to react instantly at the sign of aggression.

The cloaked woman hones in inerrantly on her target: The tall, bearded Solar who stands at least a head higher than everyone else in the crowd. Warden feels the clutching at his arm, and his momentary fugue is immediately shattered. The large solar whirls in a panic to face the prowler that had snuck up on him and ripped him out of his dream against his will, causing a minor commotion around him. His hand instinctively went to the chopping sword at his hip, tearing it halfway out of its scabbard.

"It's just me!," squeaked Lin, her eyes open wide in terror at the Solar's sudden threatening motion. She breathed in and out deeply a few times, seemingly a well-practiced technique she had used before to calm her her fear. "Rock asked me to come and find you. He wanted to say goodbye before we left."

Khī may appear unmoved by the rather stunning dragon-blooded. Once again, she was thankful for the wisdom of the founders of Ysyr, who had seen fit to make sure her face would be covered. She wasn’t distracted, but she was certainly well aware of how the armor fit Celine- both how it was improperly secured but also how flattering it was. The Night Caste politely doesn’t react to Warden whirling around, instantly recognizing the approaching girl as no threat to her safety. Hearing Lin, however, she cannot help but let a quiet but exasperated sigh escape her lips, which, if one were particularly close to Khī, and happened to be listening, might sound like ‘Oh for fuck’s sake.’

The Zenith's eyes widen as he realizes his mistake. "I'm-" he clears his throat. "I'm sorry, you startled me. I guess this talk of rampaging elementals has me on edge." Or in truth, nothing like plots of murder and conspiracy to make people jumpy. "I did not mean to frighten you. Yes, a chance to say our goodbyes would be appreciated."

"Come on!" Lin grabs Warden's sleeve and starts dragging him behind her, towards the way she came. "We're leaving any minute now, so there's no time to waste." Warden glances behind him, raising an eye to see if any of the others want to come along, or if they would prefer to remain at the center of the action.

While Cub was unaware of Lin approaching, she does notice Warden's reaction to said approach and the two moving away from the group. After a quick questioning glance at the Zenith Caste to see if her presence would be appreciated, she follows rather more inconspicuously than one would assume a dynastic socialite capable of.

Khī silently fades into the background, going from silent and unusual to silent, unremarkable, and utterly forgettable- just another part of the crowd, just some woman, following just a half-step behind Cub.

The four Exalts followed the disguised Lin through a network of back alleyways before they slipped through the back door of an unadorned barn on the western edge of town. Inside was a fully loaded freight wagon hitched to a team of horses. Honto's elderly brother Marwin was dressed for traveling in a similar oilskin outfit as Lin, and was checking the harnesses on the horses. He looked up momentarily to acknowledge the presence of the new arrivals, before his head turned to a hayloft, where the Talonlord Anguilla was seated silently in full combat attire, keeping guard. Marwin nodded to her before returning to ticking off items on his checklist.

In the back of the wagon, seated on a cross bench, was Rock, similarly dressed for a long trip. The wagon was loaded with trunks full of goods and supplies, and Khi's keen eye even picked up on a few barrels and a chest she recognized from the treasury - full to the brim with silver and jade, no doubt. Lin climbed up on a spoked wheel and into the bed of the wagon to joined the young Immaculate man, grabbing his hand to comfort him. There was a bandage on the side of Rock's face that covered most of his cheek and one of his eyes, and evidence of bruising to the sides of it, which had seemed to have mostly healed. "I brought him," said Lin to Rock. The young dragon-blooded man turned to face Warden and Cub, while Khi and Nameless mostly stuck to the shadows. He had a serious, dour expression on his face, but there was momentary evidence of a faint smile as he saw Warden.

"You have four minutes left before time's up and you need to go." said Anguilla sternly, as she looked through a set of shutters in the direction of the center of town. The sounds of the joyous celebration still echoed from there - they were blissfully unaware that they were on the verge of chaos.

"I wanted to say goodbye before we left..." said Rock. He sounded somber, almost defeated in a way. "I... see now that I've made a mistake, getting you involved in all of these matters, and I wanted to say that I'm sorry. It had nothing to do with you."

The Sword Maiden stood in the barn's corner, arms crossed, telegraphing her disapproval of the whole situation. Rock had a point though, he did make a mistake, getting them involved, all of them did. They'd upset the balance of the place, a shitty little habitat of self-aggrandizing Dynastic wannabes. Honto would've never made a move alone. Perhaps this would secure a lasting peace for Lushfield for decades, if not centuries. The scheming Dragonblood's capabilities had been artificially inflated by the help of the Circle, and everything was in flux, nothing certain. It was probably for the best that Rock and Lin were leaving, well-provisioned. Still though, she eyed Rock, who had seemed genuinely touched by Wardens' friendship, which she couldn't ignore. There wasn't much she could do about it, but it made the whole situation go down easier. Ultimately she pitied the locals. Her Circle was blameless, they came here with a task, and this was the path of least resistance. Celcine was the smallest sacrifice they could make to avoid more bloodshed. It was an okay deal, but it wasn't quite satisfying. "Goodbye, then," she nodded at Rock, somewhat surprised herself at how much of her disapproval oozed into her voice, making Nameless sound almost sarcastic. She hadn't meant to pile on, but it was hard to hide the fact she didn't really have much respect left to muster for their hosts.

Seeing Rock so dour and injured to boot pained Warden. He shook his head at the young Immaculate's words. "There is nothing to apologize for here, Rock. I insisted in digging and got us all involved in this. It is how I am, I cannot remain uninvolved when I see something wrong." Action was always preferable to inaction, even if the result of these actions were not always pleasant or positive. That, he believed wholeheartedly. "My only regret is the way we messed things up for you with our involvement." His eyes lingered on the bandage in the young monk's face.

"It's fine," said Rock, whose hand went to the tender bandage on his face, touching it and wincing. There was the barest hint of dark hair beginning to grow across his scalp - he apparently hadn't shaved his head since they had last seen him. "This was my fault, and I deserved to be punished." He was referring to the damage done to his face. Rock's eyes looked just as fatigued as the Celestials who had been working around the clock to reconfigure the Elemental's underground society - it didn't seem like he hadn't been allowed a lot of restful sleep over the last few nights either. "I know now that I shouldn't have gone behind the Seneschal's back, but he's going to give me another chance." There was something odd in Rock's phrasing that bugged Warden, like the thoughts that he was expressing weren't entirely his own, but rather were imposed onto him. "He's sending the two of us to the Blessed Island, to live with friends of his in Juche." He squeezed the teen girl's hand next to him. "Lin's going to be trained at the Arizei Academy."

With time running short, Lin had better things to do than keep a close eye on her celestial companions as they made their way back to Rock and Honto's closest allies. Thus, it was a simple feat for Cub to get close to her and slip an envelope into the young woman's traveling robes. The envelope contained two things: The first was a letter for Lin describing how to make her way to Pangu and the House of Flowers that Bloom by Starlight. More than that, it contained a short list of people Cub would trust to see the young woman's talent and arrange for a mutually beneficial relationship. The second thing was another envelop, sealed and containing her personal recommendation of Lin's skills and how they might be nurtured. 'He's going to give me another chance,' Rock said, and the hairs on the back of Cub's neck stood up straight. Where was the fire that had burned so hot in this young Exalt? Where was the righteous indignation and will to self-sacrifice? Had Honto crushed it all beneath a well-polished boot, or were those words for the benefit of his audience?

The pained expression on Rock's face remained inscrutable, leaving Cub to only speculate to herself on the mental state of the bruised young Immaculate. An unbidden thought came to her: If the situation were reversed, and it was my subordinate who had allowed strangers to access the deepest secrets of my operations, would I have done the same as Honto? Worse?

Rock's inscrutability is frustrating for a moment, but that question is a nice distraction from it. Of course, what Cub wouldn't have done is to give an underling who will only grow more powerful in the future a bad lasting memory of herself, and then send them off to rebuild out of her sight. It sounded like a recipe for having Rock come back in a decade or two and do to Honto what Honto had done to the old Seneschal. Mentally shaking her head, Cub speaks up, addressing the young couple in the back of the wagon. "I wish you a safe trip and a good life on the Blessed Isle. While it can be a harsh environment, I have found none more rewarding. Hold each other dear, as it will be hard to find new friends you can trust, and remember the home you have left behind." On the surface, her words seemed benign and pleasant, but Rock and Lin as well as the Celestials could grasp the deeper message: I have left a letter for Lin in her robes. Honto is not your friend despite his gifts and any pleasant parting words he might have given you, do not trust him or his friends.

Rock doesn't react visibly to Cub's subtle impartation beneath her comforting platitudes, but perhaps, in time, the secret advice she whispered between the words would eventually be appreciated by the young man, and might take hold. Either way, the Dynastic Exalt stood aside to let Warden say his goodbyes.

Warden tried to smile at Rock's reassurance, but it did not sit well with him. The boy seemed fully under the sway of Honto, and a few minutes before their final goodbyes were no time to try and shake that. No, all he could do was wish him and Lin the best and maybe give some last bit of advice. "In the end, it might be good for both of you, to get some perspective on things and get out of Lushfield for a time." He stepped closer to rest a reassuring hand on the monk's shoulder. "Remember you have been given power for a reason, Rock. You are young, but you've been favoured by the Immaculate Dragons. Do not let anyone in the Realm or anywhere else take advantage of you. Farewell. I do not know if we will meet again, but I am certain you will do great things in time."

The corners of Rock's lips turn to a smile as Warden's words calls to mind the excitement of their rebellious journey together underneath Lushfield just a few days ago. Even in the young Dragonblood's present defeated state, Warden could tell that his words may very well have planted a small seed that could one day flower.

"Time's up," Anguilla said, and Marwin snapped the reins of the team of horses yoked to the heavy cargo wagon. The Celestials could do nothing but watch as Rock and Lin rode away, both sparing a final glance back at the group before they put on the hoods of their oilskin jackets to conceal their identities from any prying eyes. The cart join the the westbound dirt road, and in less than a minute, they had all disappeared behind a hill and were gone from view.

Behind them, the sound of heavy bells and gongs and whistles sounding continuously in alarm began in earnest - not just from the spire of the Immaculate Cathedral, but from half a dozen watchtowers around town. "They're ready," said Anguilla, who leapt down from the hayloft, Guandao in hand. "The lookouts have sighted your beast. Let's see if it will do the job, as you promised."

The four Solars and Anguilla rushed back to the center of town, where the festivities were being held. The scene had grown to become chaotic, just as Honto had planned. Various uniformed military men and women were scrambling around, trying to keep order, but the Seneschal's public relations blitz had sufficiently primed the populace to panic when the alarms started to blaze. Stalls laden with trinkets and sweets were overturned all over the place, scattering debris across the plaza, and parents who had worn their best clothes for the occasions were desperately trying to locate their wayward child or to carry them inside the nearest fortified indoor shelter, while partially-trained soldiers with trembling hands were holding their pikes and taking up positions alongside their assigned barricade. Honto was in the center of it all, trying to project an image of order as he scooped up a crying girl and handed it to a nearby mother.

Still though, there was a detectable undercurrent of excitement, especially among a number of rural young men and a number of the Immaculate Priesthood who remained in the streets, or were looking for places to climb to obtain a better vantage point - all were looking towards the south. The reports came in from the Talonlord's subordinates at the same time as the keen-eared among the group managed to piece together the gossip that was going around: As soon as the alarm was sounded, and the cry had been heard to call out that one of the dreaded Huraka had been sighted near the edge of town in that direction, the Archimandrite Celcine had emphatically declared to everyone that she was going to meet the threat herself while wielding the arms and armor of one of Lushfield's founders, and she immediately began galloping to the south.
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