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

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Backstage, returning to the the conversation between Cub, Cold, Honto, Lin and Celcine

Cub took a step back to let the exuberant Archimandrite past and regards both she and her former ward with curiosity and suspicion. Lin seemed to dislike praise before, but also seemed genuinely moved by Celcine's encouragement in the break. Celcine seems, well, like a bitch, but offering Lin the actual daiklave has to be more than a stunt for her to give that honor to another.

Cold's bewilderment at being shoved aside like he was a piece of furniture was clear to see on Hidden'-Reed's face. He gritted his teeth, lips and eyes narrowing as he glared at Celcine's back. His hands tightening into fists as the urge to shove Celcine's head first through the wooden floorboard was nearly irresistible. He forced himself to calm down; the last thing they all needed was suspicion because the small and unassuming Hidden-Reed had been able to humiliate an experienced prince of the earth.

Still, Cold's polite smile still looked extremely forced and he couldn't really discount him lashing out if Celcine kept doing stupid stuff. But for now, he still had a handle on his temper. His eyes glanced towards Lin, she hadn't liked the heaps of praise he, Tinya or Nadiyo had given her. Was her reaction to Celcine's praise different? Did she actually value her input or did Lin think Celcine was only out to use her as well? Was Celcine's affection honest?

The two undercover Celestials scrutinized Lin and Celcine's demeanor towards each other, eager to discover what they could about their relationship. Lin, by all appearances, seemed to show honest affection for the Archimandrite. Despite the girl's complicated feelings about accepting praise, at least from those who only knew her after her talent emerged, she seemed to legitimately accept it from Celcine. Was it possible that the Archimandrite was the closest thing Lin had to a motherly figure in her life? After all, it wasn't atypical for children to be blind to the flaws of one's own parents.

Meanwhile, Celcine's demeanor was a bit more difficult to perceive. Cold couldn't get a good read on her, but Cub knew exactly what she was seeing - she had seen it dozens of times before, at every public event where young dynasts were involved: musical recitals, sporting competitions, beauty contests, and yes, theatrical performances. Celcine was living vicariously through Lin, and savoring every minute of the young woman's success as if it were her own. Celcine probably thought it was. In her mind, she was the true sculptor here, and Lin was her masterpiece.

"Wasn't she wonderful, Cousin?" Celcine half asked, half stated to Honto, as she released Lin from her bear hug. "Quite wonderful" he replied dutifully, if a little dryly. "A stirring performance."

You know Linny," Celcine continued. "When we fix up all the problems from tonight's performance and really get everyone up there on the same page, you're going to be a smashing success!" Lin's eyes started to gloss over as Celcine began cataloging all the various failures of Lin's co-stars.

Completing her lengthy list of the deficiencies in tonight's dress rehearsal, Celcine finally said something worth paying attention to: "Now, let's not us get a full head of ourselves though. We have to honestly criticize our performances as well. You missed your queue and entered the scene slightly early in Act I, Scene III, and on the third verse of the the musical number the line was 'eternally entwined together,' not 'eternally entwined forever'. Eternally already means forever dear. It would be redundant. Also, your need to keep your eyes looking straight ahead at nobody in particular. Your eyes seemed distracted during the performance, glancing about like that."

Lin seemed slightly uncomfortable being on the receiving end of the Archimandrite's nitpicking. Celcine continued: "However, I'll know we'll get that fixed up, and when the big day comes, you'll be stunning dear! Absolutely stunning! In fact, I'm already thinking that we might not do just one performance, like the last few years, but we might extend the show another week and do another three our four extra performances. The people will demand it, Linny, I'm sure of it - they'll pack the house every night!" Celcine began to grow enthusiastic, while Lin seemed to grow more uncomfortable. Tinya and Nadiyo were nothing but smiles, while Honto kept his stoic demeanor. "In fact, I've think the people will love you so much that they'll want to see you in performances year round. Every few months, we could put on a new show, and of course you would be the star. What about The Daimyo's Curious Daughter for this summer, Linny - I heard you reading one of the monologues from that folio I got for you."

Cold's mood didn't improve as Celcine kept talking. Those big words about self improvement in their performance leaving a bad taste in his mouth. All of the criticisms had been aimed at others. The other actor's faults, the stage hands mistakes, Lin's mistaking lyric's or missed cues. But about herself? Celcine, for all her words about self-improvement, didn't once mention something she could've done better, or what she could've improved. Not to mention that for somebody who barely paid attention to the arts before, she seemed to think that she was perfectly capable of guiding Lin's talent to the fullest extent. That was absurd. Cold might not be familiar with the performative arts of the isle and the satrapies. But the storytellers back home had to practice for years to really understand and learn the stories of their people. To figure out how to make a story resonate with the audience, no matter who or what your audience was. Celcine reeked of arrogance right now. Blessed by the dragons or not. There was no way she could've learned what she needed in less then a year.

"If you're so focused on honing Lin's craft," Cold started, pulling Celcine's attention towards him and hopefully giving Lin a short moment to breathe and collect her thoughts after that onslaught. "You'll have to be very pleased to hear that my aunt is able to introduce her to the House of Flowers that Bloom by Starlight. One of the finest schools for the performative arts in the Realm."

Celcine looks confused for a moment at Hidden Reed's statement, then glanced at Lin before turning to Honto. "Oh, not that nonsense about the Realm school thing again, the Flower Bloom Academy or whatever you said it was called," she dismissively told the Seneschal. "I thought we talked about this already - Just because you spent two years going to one of those fancy school on the Island doesn't mean you know what's best for Lin like I do. No, I've made up my mind, She's staying here with us, where she belongs."

Honto doesn't respond at all, merely cocking his head as Celcine spoke, in apparent outward acceptance of her declaration. Apparently, he had no interest in arguing the point with her. Lin didn't see the wisdom in speaking up either. The situation began to grow awkward.

"You were soooooo good Linnybells!" screeched Tinya, breaking the uncomfortable silence. "And the sword! It looked like the real thing? Was that the real thing? It looked so heavy! It's going to be amazing when you reveal it in the live show!" Nadiyo tacked on her own insights: "You were suuuuper good! For a moment I almost thought you were Six Quills up there when you lifted it up, and that you were ready to retake the Blessed Isle! Like, not just on stage, but in real life!" She gasped. "I bet lots of people will think that, that will be so amazing! You'll be so popular!"

Lin, in recognition of the deeply uncomfortable situation she was placed in, willingly joining in with the other teenage girls in their exuberant chatter in order to escape the awkward tension between Celcine and Honto. She commenced gossiping with them in the same high-pitched affection they were using about how yes, it was the real thing, and how it was a total surprise to her, and how it was super heavy, before the conversation meandered into various mundane topics of interest in the local teen scene like who they hard asked who out as their date to the festival.

This turn of events seemed to please Celcine, who seemed entirely at home following along with their conversation. "Girls, you must be absolutely be starving, Let's go for dumplings and tea at Madame Peregrine's!" Celcine announced.
"Cousin, I trust you don't mind if I take your nieces off your hand for the evening?" Celcine said to Honto, more telling than asking him. "I'll babysit so that you can entertain our esteemed guests in the manner that befits their station." It was clear that the Archimandrite had no interest in extending the dinner invitation to him, Cub or Hidden Reed.

"How generous of you, honored Archimandrite," Cub says and gives a small bow to Celcine before turning her attention back to the young starlet. "It was a pleasure meeting you, Lin Euphonious Bell, and let me once again complement you and the rest of the troupe for a stirring performance. I wish you all the best of luck at the premiere." However, Lin, Cold, and Honto are able to understand what she is also saying: Please come to the Seneschal's villa tonight so that we may finish our conversation.

Cold kept as much of a polite face as he could while Cub said their goodbye's and gave Lin the offer to meet her later without Celcine being around. As soon as the girls' tittering had faded out of earshot he looked over at Honto, the polite mask he wore falling away for a moment and sincerity shining through. "You have my sympathies for having had to deal with her as long as you have."

"All families have their trivial squabbles" Honto replied cryptically, with a side-eyed, knowing glance at Cub. Marwin joined them in the dressing room after Celcine left with the three teen girls - he had apparently been waiting outside the door. "I apologize" Honto said to Cub - "I was unaware that your niece was traveling with you, and I should have offered her proper lodgings last night as well. Marwin, will you arrange for another of the rooms at the estate to be prepared for Miss Reed?"

"Of course" said Marwin. "Ladies, I'm sure you've built up an appetite as well. If you would like, I could have the chef prepare something for you tonight, or if you would like, I could recommend a few of our local establishments."

Cold gave a quick Honto the politest curtsy he could manage. "A local establishment sounds like a splendid idea," Cold says with a polite smile.

Meanwhile, Warden watched as Celcine, Lin, Tinya and Nadiyo, much in the matter of a mother hen leading her three chicks, emerged from backstage and made their way up the steps of the Amphitheater, towards the street on their journey to Madame Peregrine's and her delicious dumplings. Lin, spotting Rock, called out his name enthusiastically and waved at him, a grin on her face. Hearing his name, he looked up and waved back, in a friendly but detached matter - his inner thoughts were clearly occupying his attention.

Warden headed towards his companions, himself rather deep in thought, still processing Rock's words regarding the godly conspiracy, mulling over the details. "Well, where are we planning to head now?"

"Your presence has been quite engaging" said Honto, who moved to take his leave. "Unfortunately, I have a few pressing matters to attend to, so I won't be able to join you for supper tonight. Rest assured, however, that you are in good hands with Marwin." He moved to exit the dressing room as well, ready to head in a different direction down the hallway than that taken by Celcine.

"Of course, Honto," Cub says with a smile, "thank you very much for suggesting we attend the play this afternoon, it has certainly been... enlightening," she finishes with the slightest inclination of her head to him.

Honto turned around at Cub's statement, recognizing the specific tone and subtext imparted on the final word, in combination with understanding the subtext of Cub's suggestion to Lin. "Ahh, so I take it that perhaps you would like to continue our discussion from yesterday, later this evening perhaps? If it's a matter of... remuneration, then I'm sure we can talk through our differences."

"That is certainly one matter we should reconsider," Cub agrees, "but I believe we can come to an agreement."

"Fantastic" replied Honto, with a smug smile. "I sense this could be the beginning of a quite productive friendship."

Honto raises his empty hands. "If I had a glass, I'd raise a toast to House Cynis" he said in a soft voice, tinged with appreciation and trustworthiness.

Behind the facade of her perfectly calm and pleasant face, Cub's respect for Lushfield's seneschal takes yet another dive at this laughable attempt at subtlety. This country bumpkin with delusions of adequacy who has taken her not even at her word, but at the mere flashing of a House Mon. To think that if he knew her to not be Dragon-blooded, he would consider himself her better. Contempt is too generous a feeling for men like him. Her smile widens to match Honto's and she takes a step closer to him. Her eyes catch his and she raises her hand as if she too were holding a glass and let the backs of their fingers brush together. She offers a small nod in acceptance of his good wishes and says "if I had one, I would drink to that and to the growing friendship between us and the good of Lushfield."

Cub was a charmer, alright. Something about that smile made Honto want to trust the woman implicitly. It pulled at him. They had known each other for only two days, but her words made him feel like they were destined to be boon companions. It viscerally made him feel good to trust this woman. He needed to focus though - these were critical times, and his logical side managed to overpower his emotional instincts that were telling him to hang on her every word. No. Not yet - the deed is not done. Hold Fast. "I truly must be off to deal with a pressing matter." said Honto, "Marwin, please make sure our guests are treated well this evening. I shall return to the villa after midnight."

Once Honto has left, Cub turns to Marwin and says "I'm sure you also have many pressing duties, if you can merely direct us to a suitable establishment, we will be well contended despite your absence."

"Of course," replied Marwin, the aged right hand man of the Seneschal nodding approvingly. "Is there anything in particular you would prefer? I believe the Dream of Red Mansions would be a fitting choice. They have many private rooms, and they serves a exquisite roast duck with sweet plum sauce. Alternatively, if you have a sweet tooth, the Sesame Palace, though perhaps not as refined, might be more to your liking. Their five spice chocolate cream pot is quite excellent."

"The Dream of Red Mansions sounds excellent, thank you very much, Marwin," Cub answers with a grateful smile.

"A wise choice" he replied, leading the way out of the amphitheater, Rock was still in his box, seemingly lost in thought. "Will your associate also be joining you at Red Mansions," Honto asked Cub, referring to Warden, "or should I arrange for an escort to ensure he safely finds his way back to your wagon?"

"He will be joining us, but than you for the consideration," replied Cub.

"Certainly - then if you all will follow me, I will direct you there." Marwin lead them back up to the street, where they came across two of the ever-present constables who occasionally served as their watchful guides, in the process of hastily gathering up the cards of the game they were playing. With a signal from Marwin, however, they returned to their game - apparently, they were not needed tonight. The three exalts were guided into the more refined business district of the town. A few blocks away was the market where, even in the later hours of the evening, vendors were still hawking their wares, and the smell of fried scallion pancakes and toasted rice balls carried.

The restaurant was almost inconspicuous from the street outside, and all that could be seen was a trellised archway that lead into a garden, with nothing more than a small wooded sign hanging from the trellis that read "Dream of Red Mansions." Inside the garden however, up the path, was a very fine, large house that could easily have blended it with any number of residential districts of any of the capital cities of the realm or its more civilized satropies. Marwin stepped inside first, speaking quietly but not without affection to the concierge there, another elderly gentleman, for a few seconds. After their short conversation, Marwin announced: "This is Han Drau, a dear friend of mine." The relationship between two older gentlemen distinctly reminded Cub of the elderly men she saw frittering away their days gambling for low stakes at the Wei Qi parlors. "He will take care of you tonight." With a tip of his dynastic official's hat, Marwin took his leave.

Han bowed deeply to the three Exalts. "Please follow me," he stated, leading them through deeper into the building, down a hallway running alongside the main dining room. To their left, through the mostly-transparent rice paper windows, they could make out dozens of diners at their tables. To the right, they passed by a series of carved doors, each one leading into a private dining area. The elaborate latticework on the doors were backed by screens, which would give the opponents privacy. Most were dark and empty. Finally, they reached the rearmost private room - presumably the most exclusive, and Han bid them wait outside for a brief moment while he snapped his fingers and was joined by two busboys from the kitchens, who begin quickly and efficiently began reorienting the furniture inside at Han's direction while he lit the room's lanterns.

Less than 30 seconds after they had entered, the two busboys exited, followed by Han. "This way, your excellency." Inside, the spacious, tastefully decorated room had been reconfigured - plainly it would comfortably seat twenty, but the long table had been folded into its constituent segments and placed in the room's corners, leaving only a single round table remaining in the center of the room, perfectly suitable for seating three or four. It was topped with a silk tablecloth, a silver candelabra, with fine silver place-settings. "The chef will be with you shortly" said Han, who departed to make further arrangements. For the first time all night, the three Exalts were finally alone.

Cold wanted to relax so badly. For the first time in hours there wasn't a need to keep a polite face, there wasn't any political backstabbing or feeling out, no need to keep the mask of Hidden-Reed on and to fear slipping. At least, that was how it seemed. Cold wasn't as well versed in political stuff as Cub or Khi. But to his mind, listening on on people when they thought were going to be private was a basic thing to do.

He focused on his hearing. His nose was to clouded by the delicious smells coming from the kitchen and he didn't have enough time to start searching the entire room to see if something was wrong. But if they wanted to listen in. Then there needed to be people. and people made so much noise, the sound of their clothes rubbing against them or the environment, the sound of breathing, the wooden floors creaking softly underneath their weight. For Cold's senses those things were as easy as finding a lit torch in the dark.

To Cold's more-than-mortal sense of hearing, the bustling restaurant was anything but the tranquility that would be expected for honored guests in the luxurious private room. In contrast, he heard nearly everything - it was a veritable cacophony. The guffaw of the drunk, fat man seated in the main dining room, the obnoxious laugh of the woman a few tables over, the crash of dirty dishes being dropped into soapy water, the footfalls of waiters carrying trays full of entrees, and the sound that most interested him at the moment: the crackle of perfectly roasted, crunchy duck skin accompanied by the twump of a cleaver slamming into a wooden chopping block. No - it was time to focus. He tuned all of that out, honing his ears for the sound of any nearby stationary heartbeats that would indicate if anyone was perched behind a wall or in the rafters, ready with a cupped ear to overhear their conversation. Three beating hearts in the room, accounting for three Celestials. He couldn't hear a fourth anywhere nearby.

"Unless they have sorcerers, nobody is around to listen in." Cold happily informed Cub and Warden. "Oh, and Marwin wasn't kidding. That roast duck really sounds like it's roasted to perfection." if either of the two was paying close attention they could hear his stomach growl lightly when he mentioned the roast duck. Cold sat down in one of the chairs and looked over at Warden. "So, what did Rock have to say?"

"He plans to come clean, to tell the people of Lushfield what has been going on, where their prayer has been redirected." Warden began with a sigh. "It was not an easy decision for him, he is torn between his loyalty to Lushfield and what he knows is right. He said the prayer buys the fact that Lushfield's people are always healthy and their fields always lush, and that it has been going on since before he was born. I did not wish to press him any further on details in the moment. I guess we will learn the full truth in three days. He intends to do it just before the big play, when everyone is here."

"Thank you for confirming that, Hidden-Reed," Cub answers, making sure to use Cold's assumed name despite the Lunar's assurances. Just because you're safe, there's no reason to leave character more than necessary. She nods at Warden's words. "Honto was also rather hung up on that even and strongly urged that we should move on his previous suggestion before then. For the safety of the city in general and Lin in particular." "He fears that Celcine will use her as a figure of warrior-zeal by giving her the sword and proclaiming a prophecy has been fulfilled. I am personally more open to his suggestion now than I was when we last spoke, but then as now, it is not our main objective here and I am more than hesitant to move on it before we even know where to find that."

Cold taps his finger to his chin as he mulls everything over. Honestly, if it was up to him he would've already eaten Celcine's heart. Everything the woman did seemed to offend him on some level. And snooping around wearing her face would probably be more productive then leaving her alive. Not to mention it would almost ensure that one house would have less soldiers. he didn't know why the houses were looking for more soldiers exactly, but from what he gleaned from conversations between Cub and honto. Not to mention the rumours floating around. A civil war might be brewing after the loss of their leadership.

"Celcine is completely useless for us as she is." Cold agreed. "Though if we delayed informing Honto after the deed is done she might be of some use. Might have it's own risks though." Cub had the right idea, just because nobody was listening, didn't mean they needed to outright state some things. The shapeshifter saying somebody might be useful after their death probably made the point very clear. "It's a pity Honto himself doesn't know anything about our objective." Cold said with a sigh. "Otherwise we could've asked him about it as part of the payment."

"We do not know of any use Celcine may have for us. That is not quite the same thing, but I do not strongly disagree with your assessment." said Cub "I believe Uncle may know something, but I do not know for sure. Khi has mentioned that she may be able to find out."

"Remember Honto wants us to kill Celcine somewhere public. It's not just about her death, it's about turning the people of Lushfield against the Realm. In either case, it doesn't help us find the Wellspring either. Don't forget why we're even here."

"Or if whatever use she has for us outweighs having to deal with her." Cold muttered under his breath. "But fine, we'll stow it for now." Cold relented reluctantly. "So if Khi doesn't get anything, talking to Uncle would be the only lead we have now, aside from the root." Cold summarized. "Do any of you have other leads we could follow up on? Should I sneak back into the cathedral to find more clues?"

The Exalts quickly cease their conversation at the sound of approaching footsteps - the door opens: The chef has arrived. "Welcome! My humble establishment is honored by the arrival of such dignified guests!" The jolly, portly man bows deeply. "If you have any special requests for your meal, then please do not hesitate to ask." He claps his hands and a pair of serving-women enter the room and begin uncorking bottles of rice wine and filling goblets. "I sincerely apologize for our distinct lack of preparation, as we did not realize you would be dining with us tonight. As such, we are deeply shamed to only be able to offer nine courses tonight."

Cold perks up at the mention of food the very idea of a nine course meal alien to his sensibilities. But he is more then willing to give it a try at the least. "I'm sure they're quite lovely still." Cold piped up with a youthful eagerness. "Could I ask what is on the menu?"

"Of course, my Lady," the Chef eagerly replied, relieved that his guests didn't seem overtly disappointed by the news. "We will begin with quail breast skewers served with Shao Kao sauce. Following that will be peanut chicken lettuce wraps, and then we will serve swallow's nest soup, a true delicacy reserved for our most exclusive patrons. The first entree will be longevity noodles in a ginger and sesame sauce. After that, charred shimeji mushrooms stuffed with carrots and honey as a palate cleanser, followed by the main course - Red Dream Duck, carved tableside, which is the specialty of the restaurant. After that, another palate cleanser: stir fried eggplant, scallion, and lotus roots. Finally, dessert shall be steamed sweet rice gao stuffed with jujube paste, rounded off by a deep fried egg custard accompanied by a glass of Sijanese brandy." He seemed pleased as he rattled the final course off. "Of course, if you would like to request any substitutions, we will do our utmost to oblige."

Cub raises a questioning eyebrow at the veritably ancient menu. While roast duck never went out of fashion, everything else was things that not even her grandmother's decennial Calibration would feature, and that woman liked to pretend that she were two hundred years older than she was. Were this at a restaurant in the Imperial City, she would have had comments for the chef at his menu, but out here... who knew what they could even figure out with their antiquated habits? Thus, all she said was "that sounds lovely, thank you."

"It's an honor to serve, your Eminence." The chef bowed again, and then clapped his hands together, signaling the serving-woman waiting outside to enter with the plates containing the steaming quail-breast skewers, which they laid out in front of the three Exalts. The chef reached up to a rafter towards the ceiling and untied a thin silk rope tipped with a red tassel, dropping it down to hang in the air, off to the side of the table. "This is attached to a bell in the kitchen. Two pulls will signal you are ready for the next course to arrive" He demonstrated, and a quick, vigorous tug caused a faint ringing sound in the distance. "For beverage services or any other requests, one pull will bring a servant to your side. Otherwise, you shall not be disturbed." Looking satisfied, the chef and his staff departed, leaving the three diners to themselves.

Cold simply listened and nodded, more interested in the food that was put in front of him. The scent wafting off the food making his mouth water. As soon as the doors closed behind the chef he picked up one of the skewers and tore into them. Letting out a sigh at the taste. For Cub it might've been basic or even sub par. But for Cold, who had spent most of his time in the frozen wastes up north or on the run? It was the best damn thing he ever ate. "So," he swallowed the mouthful of food. "Sneak in or not?"

"I'm not sure the temple is where we should focus our attentions." answered Cub. "It is my impression that we have a decent understanding of both Rock and Celcine, it is the others' secrets that interest me at this stage. My impression of Anguilla is that she is of the same mind as Honto, but I am curious if she has deeper layers. Likewise, I would like to know if he is as distracted as he lets us believe."

Warden remained mostly quiet when the question of food was brought up, mostly happy with what he got. At Cub's question, he shrugs. "As long as we don't get caught, more sneaking means more information, which never hurts. I do wonder how things for the others went, with their attempt to get through those roots."

"It wasn't exactly to find out more about Rock and Celcine," Cold clarified. "But we still don't know anything about the roots or the god. Or if they are even related, we assume they are. But you know, gods and spirits are weird." Cold shrugged as he tore into another skewer. "I'd assume the cathedral has documents on both of those somewhere, there has to be a book or something that explains who or what all the gods are right? I mean, Rock is going to spill everything in three days. But I don't think he's going to preface it with a lecture on who or what the rhyzome of outgrowing roots is."

Cub nods in agreement, "more information on the god themself would undoubtedly be useful, and you are right that documents containing such information might very well be found within the immaculate temple."

"If the official documents are accurate and have not been altered as part of this conspiracy, that is." Warden interjects.

"If they are altered, then Khi can probably look through them to see what exactly changed. She did the same with the prayer calendar." Cold said before devouring his last skewer. "And having some information that we know has gaps in it is better then having no information at all. I don't really find the idea of sitting on my ass for three days till something happens very appealing."

"Indeed not. There is another thing we should discuss among all of us, but I would like to hear you opinion on it first," Cub says somewhat hesitantly between delicate bites, "Honto is insistent that we proceed against Celcine before the people can see Lin with the Daiklave at the beginning of the second act. I have no interest in acting as his lapdog, but it may be in our interests as well, and I do believe that her death would allow the people of Lushfield to live a rather quieter life than they otherwise would.

Warden frowns. "The thought of assassinating her does not sit well with me. Besides, do we think their crusade will still happen if Rock makes his speech before the play?"

Cold tilts his head as he mulls it all over. "The less troops the realm can bring to bear in their civil war and the more equal the houses or their factions are the better for all of us on the outskirts. So I rather be certain about Lushfield not allying themselves with any house." Cold started. "But, the most important thing I think is the fact that with the Archimandrite gone, There will be a transition of leadership. They might have to try and convince Rock to stay and take over the church since he is fed up with the lies, and even if he did end up the head of the church, he might try to reform it to be honest. If he leaves then there is the question of who will become the new Archimandrite. All of this will leave Lushfield weaker and less able to act against us when they figure out the wellspring is gone. They'll start connecting the dots sooner rather then later. Uncle looks like a doddering fool, but I doubt he's so far gone he won't tell the others about the wellspring when whatever magic it is feeding into this country goes missing."

"The fact we get paid for it is just a bonus." he added. That Cold hated Celcine's guts was just the icing on the cake.

"I am not sure it is actually true that the threshold is better off with a small all-out war on the Isle than a large one. The more resources they pour into fighting each other, the less they have for the rest of us." Cub thought for a moment. That said, The Realm does have a role to play in Creation. Particularly with the appearance of beings such as the Mask of Winters in Thorns. Of course, a few thousand untrained volunteers are unlikely to do very much one way or another."

"It's less about the size of the war and more about the houses being on par with each other power-wise. If the power difference is to great one side will easily absorb the other. But if they're equal, now then you get the kind of long drawn out wars that will leave everybody involved in tatters." Cold clarified his earlier point. "The mask of winters?" He furrowed his brow in confusion, he never heard about that. "Who is that?"

"I am not sure anyone knows exactly." answered Cub. A powerful necromancer who led an attack on Thorns, once the strongest Realm satrapy on the Eastern shore of the Inland Sea."

That... that didn't sound like good news. Cold didn't know anything about current politics and power struggles. But if somebody was powerful enough to roll over what was the most powerful realm satrapy. That meant he had some serious power indeed. "That is worrying."

Warden's brow furrowed at the mention of the Mask. "Mhm, rather unpleasant business, that. The dead have no business meddling in Creation. I have no sympathy for the Realm, but the people of Thorns deserve better than that."

Eight courses later, the Exalts were finishing off their egg custard and sipping on the glasses of Sijanese Brandy. The duck was quite excellent. In agreement on the broad strokes of the next steps to take, they moved to take their their leave of the Mansion of Red Dreams. As they exited, the staff were lined up on the hallway, deferentially bowing to their esteemed guests. Cub had an appointment that evening with Honto, and eventually (she hoped) Lin, and she prepared to return to the estate. Cold too, had been invited to spend the night in a spare room there, but it was unclear if his presence would be expected for any discussions. Likewise, Warden's evening plans were still undecided. Stepping out of the restaurant's gardens and onto the evening streets, the three met in quick conference to discuss the plan for that evening.

"So," Cold started as soon as they got out of the restaurant. "I know you have a talk with Lin later this evening." He said as he looked at Cub. "But what are you going to do, Warden?"

"I am not sure, to be quite honest." replied Warden. I would like to gather some less biased information on Lushfield itself and what the common man feels and knows. This late, I won't find much conversation on the market squares or the like, but there's probably a drinking establishment or two that's bustling this time of night."

The spark of interest in Cold's eyes was easy to see. He had felt like he had been walking on pins and needles the entire evening. Playing the part of the good little niece to Cub. And it had felt extremely stressful. A chance to get a change of scenery into something much more familiar? Yeah, he didn't wanna let that chance slip by. "I could join you if you want? I don't think Cub has any need of me on her talks with Lin and Honto. And I'm sure it's not that uncommon for a young noble to go slumming to see what it all is right?"

Warden nods. "Of course, that shouldn't raise too many eyebrows."

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And so Cold and Warden go out on the town looking for information...

Cold and Warden parted ways with Cub in front of the restaurant - she had given her blessing to their quest to gather information from the local rumor mill, helpfully suggesting that a few well-placed bribes or cheerfully bought rounds of drinks might lead to them acquiring useful intelligence on the state of Lushfield. After the two had made a show of rifling through their empty pockets (Cold, in fact, had no pockets at all on the dress he had created earlier), she rolled her eyes and produced one of the money-purses that she kept secreted on her person, testing its weight and emptying about half of of its contents into an open palm, then cinching it closed and tossing it and what remained inside to Warden. After she turned and left with her trademark aristocratic poise, the two greedily counted out in the moonlight what they had to work with: thirteen and three-eights silver dinars, mostly in realm-minted quarters and eighths. Nearly a year's income for a common household, and by total coincidence, the exact current price of a 1-pound imported brick of medium-grade Great Forks hashish as set by the Imperial Narcotics Price Control Board.

The two wandered in the direction of the previously bustling market they had passed by hours earlier. By now, most of the stalls had been abandoned and closed up for the night, and only a few merchants remained, packing away their wares or scrubbing at their dirty pots, pans, and kettles. Looking around for likely places where they may be able to locate loose-lipped individuals, their eyes were drawn to an establishment across the square. The window of its two stories showed the occasional bustle of movement inside, and were ringed by lit red paper lanterns. They could hear the occasional hushed shouting and other assorted sounds of various murmurs and activities coming from inside. Shrugging at each other, they headed in that direction.

Stepping inside, it was clear that the establishment was far different from the refined party of the night before or the fancy dining experience of that evening. Along one whole side of the expansive floor was a bar lined with low-backed chairs, with dozens of barrels and hundreds of bottles of intoxicating beverages on display, and half-a-dozen bartenders working to pour drinks. Around three quarters of the chairs were full of men and women of all ages, drinking, flirting, and back-slapping each other as they told various stories. The periphery of the floor were ringed with square wooden tables, nearly all occupied by quartets of gamblers, most who skewed older, and all constantly shuffling around various colorfully painted bone or bamboo tiles, and occasionally rolling dice, tossing coins into a pile in the center of the table, or claiming the winnings for themselves. The clickety-clack of the tiles being shuffled around or snapped down onto the tabletop was constant, and would have been near-maddening if they weren't punctuated by the various zesty insults directed at whoever had won the latest round. At a nearby table of middle-aged women, Cold distinctly thought he heard one woman yell "Fuck your ancestors to the eighteenth generation!" at the one who was scooping up her winnings, causing the other two women at the table to shriek with laughter.

At the back of the room, two diverging staircases lead up to the second floor, where the faint sound of music could be heard coming from accompanied by the rhymic pounding of feet on floorboards. Patrons and uniformed waitstaff carrying drinks bustled up and down the staircases constantly, turning the stairs into a chaotic shoving match. In the center of the room was a pit ringed by a dense mob of what were mostly men, all watching some spectacle and talking over each other, making various wagers

Cold still didn't have a great grasp on the value of money. Barely having used it at all. But even he knew that the amount Cub had nonchalantly given them was a lot, mostly because he hadn't seen anybody else carry that amount of silver before. He couldn't keep the smile of Hidden-Reed's face as he took it all in. No heavily enforced etiquette, no double and triple layered meanings. No honeyed words while you wanted to punch people in the face.

No, if you were angry you just cursed out somebody else's ancestors and called it a day.

Even though the ambiance was familiar to Cold, the actual trappings weren't. He didn't know the gambling games, the liquor was unknown to him (although if it was up to him that wasn't going to take long.) and while he assumed people were dancing on the floor above them he wasn't sure. His eyes strayed towards the middle of the dense mob. Was that a fighting ring? Or some other contest of strength? The eagerness to start exploring his brand new alien yet familiar world was clear to read on Hidden-Reed's face. He glanced over towards warden. An eager smile on his face. "So, what first?"

Warden scanned the room, his expression non-judgemental. In his travels, he had seen all kinds of establishments like these, of earnest relaxation after a hard day's labour. At Cold's question, he shrugs: "I suggest we grab a drink to fit in, then we can take a look at what interests us. The gamblers are an option, but be prepared to lose a lot of money as they 'teach' us. The fighters don't look like they're up for much talking." He jerks his head up where they can hear music and the pounding of feet. "Or we could try the dance floor."

"Not like we don't have enough of it," Cold said with a shrug. Losing a lot of money could loosen lips as well. Though he rather not waste money. Who knew if they were gonna get more later if they managed to waste this large sum in a single night. "Then drinks first it is!" Cold said with an excited grin as he walked over towards the bar. Eyes flitting over the unfamiliar bottles, eager to try quite a few of them out. He doubted they had enough money to seriously get him drunk... or if the bar even had enough liquor stocked to get him sloshed.

"Spending too freely might draw attention, at least unless we appear very drunk. Then again, it would fit your persona." With a shrug, Warden followed in Cold's wake, taking the stool next to him, waiting for the question to be answered before he placed his own order.

"Good evening," Cold said as he sat down on a bar stool. "What's on tap?"

The bartender, a decently attractive woman wearing a low-cut uniform that exposed her ample cleavage, headed over to take the newcomer's orders, before doing a double-take at noticing the lady dressed in the fine gown, and the large, armed man at her side, serving as her bodyguard. Cold, disguised as Cub's niece, had long since dispensed with the red headband that marked him as an outsider, but Warden still wore his. Either way, it was clear to the woman working behind the bar that these weren't normal customers. "Uh... Boss!" she called out in confusion, directing her shout to a back room behind the bar. A moment later, a bespectacled man came out to meet them. He had distinctly murine features, and atop his head was a black skullcap with red embroidery, from under which emerged a long, thin, greasy braid of hair that ran down his back. He took a puff from a cigarette through the ivory cigarette holder he held. "What's the problem, sweetheart?" he asked, before noticing the two new customers. "Well, well, if it's not two of the town's newest celebrities." He turned to the bartender and flicked the cigarette to the ground. "I'll take care of this, doll" he said, giving her an unwanted squeeze on the behind that sent her scurrying off. "Welcome to the Lotus Union Club and Dance Hall. I'm Fang, the owner. What sort of excitement are you looking for tonight?"

"Both of are planning to start with drinks," Cold answered with a smile. "After that, well, I haven't really been to an establishment like this before. So what sort of excitement does your fine establishment bring to the table?" For Warden, it was clear that Cold was using the term 'fine' without any irony or sarcasm, because he knew the real Cold was some sort of wolf-folk tribal from the freezing north. For Fang though, it was still obvious that there was no sarcasm or irony in Hidden-Reed's statement. Though he would have no idea why.

"My name is Hidden-Reed, a pleasure." Cold said. "So we're celebrities? My, word spreads quick in this town. Or are you just very attuned to the word on the grapevine?" He still struggled with the nuances of high-realm colloquialisms.

Warden nods at the boss with a charming smile. "Warden. And I wouldn't be surprised if his answer is both of those. Looks like half of Lushfield finds their nightly drink in this establishment, after all. Hard to stay uninformed, I'd wager."

Fang nodded at Warden's comment and winked knowingly at Hidden Reed. "Secrets don't usually stay secret for long around here." He over the bar, leaning in towards the two newest customers. "See that woman over there, in the yellow shawl." - he gestured with his now-empty cigarette holder at a woman at a mahjong table. "There's a story that her son got..." he scanned the room, locating someone else... "his daughter in the child way last month, even though she was promised to another boy. Rumor has it they settled the matter quietly for four oxen and twenty-five yen to cover the Maiden Tea."

Fang turned around and grabbed a bottle of a golden-brown liquor off a high shelf behind him, snatching two glasses from under the bar and filling them both halfway. "Fifteen-year aged goji berry baijiu - the good stuff. On the house."

"Well, if drink you're looking for, you're already in the the right place." He chuckled darkly. "And if it's dancing and merriment you're craving, I can have the private lounge opened for you upstairs, along with the rest of this bottle and Silene..." he pointed with his thumb to the bartender whose butt he had groped - "will make sure you and anyone else you invite to join you will be well taken care of for the rest of the night." He cocks his head. "Or, if it's action for high stakes that gets your heart a-flutter, then that can be arranged as well."

"Oh my," Cold said. "It really seems like people get up to the same things no matter their social standing. Don't they. Thank you," Cold continued with a smile as he took the offered glass and took a sip. He didn't really know anything about Baijiu. But the taste was quite pleasing to him to say the least. "It's very good, I'll need to keep that drink in mind the next time my Aunt restocks."

"Hmm, I'm feeling up for some Dancing and Merriment." Cold answered. "Get a chance to relax for a bit. Upper class events can be the complete opposite of that."

"Excellent" said Fang. "And, uh, Warden." Fang seemed a bit unclear about the relation between the two, and didn't want to presume anything. "Will you be remaining with Hidden Reed, or can I arrange for anything that will suit your fancy? I assure you, she will be quite safe without you at her side."

Warden shook his head. "No, thank you. I will remain with Hidden Reed for now. Perhaps I will split off as the night progresses."

Cold rolls his eyes a bit, faking annoyance. "He takes his duties very seriously," He looks over to Warden. "You do know I won't tell my Aunt if you kick back a little bit right?" Cold say's, giving Warden at least an excuse to wander off if he decides to wander off to find out some more attention.

"Very well" replied Fang - "Follow me please!" He lead them through the room, parting the crowds as they headed up one of the staircases. The bartender, holding a tray with a selection of alcohols, followed behind them. Upstairs, there was a stage with a medium-sized band and a crooning lounge singer on a red candle-ringed stage, with a large dance floor lit by yellow beams of lanternlight glimmering off mirrored reflectors. The dance floor was packed, mostly with young people carrying drinks, some dressed in common workman's clothes, some in more formal hanfus or cheongsam dresses, some in provocative dresses that bared their navals, and some even in military uniforms. A few eyes turned towards the group as they were lead up to a private area overlooking the dance floor. Fang unhooking a silk rope and lead them to the balcony with two plush couches and a low wooden table, upon which the bartender in the low-cut uniform laid out a collection of bottles and glasses. "If you need anything, just ask Silene." said Fang, who bowed and departed.

Cold's eyes are gleaming with excitement as he follows Fang and Silene towards the VIP section of the party hall. A wide smile on his face as they get up to the second floor and he gets a look at it all. People dancing, drinking and having fun with laughter, and quite a few curses, rough language punctuating it all. This is what having a party or having fun should be. Not sitting at a table and trading veiled insults and demands with each other like it was a fight. He gave a quick look over to the dancing men and women below him. Trying to make sense of the dances that were going on. After realizing he was gawking he stepped away from the edge and gave Silene an awkward smile as he tried to get his composure back.

"So Silene, do you know how the dances work?" said Cold in the guise of Hidden-Reed said with a friendly smile, as he held out his glass. "And could you top me up again please?"

Recognizing Cold's words were a way to let him split off later if necessary, Warden chuckled slightly and nodded. "Don't worry, I won't spoil your fun all evening. Once I'm sure things are all in order, I might give those games a try." As he followed Cold and Fang through the room and up the stairs, he made a show out of taking a look at everyone and everything. Part of it was for show, to play the dutiful bodyguard. But he was truly looking as well, trying to tell if any of their minders from earlier in the day, or anyone else for that matter, might have followed them into the establishment. When they arrived at the VIP section, he settled down on one of the couches.

"Of course" Silene responds to Cold, pouring more booze from the bottle into Cold/Hidden Reed's glass. She put a finger to her lip, thinking for a second. "Well, all the dances are different, but most of them are what is called a two-person rotation. If a guy wants to dance, he'll... sort of come up to you and bow, and if you nod to him, the two of you will twirl around each other in the center of the dance floor. The men carry colored handkerchiefs, and the women carry painted fans, and they make patterns with them while they dance, and what they do and who does it is specific to the song. This song is called 'At Ralth Mountain," so the ladies draw, sort of this triangle in the shape of a mountain in the air whenever the singer says "At Ralth Mountain." Silene giggles and demonstrates the upside-down V shape with a serving rag. "It's an old love song about missing your boyfriends and husbands because they're in the army."

Silene continued: "If you want to dance, I can find you a few dance partners, or you can point to anyone you're interested in and I'll see if they want to join you. Just a tip - you're expected to turn down a man the first time he asks you to ask though, even if you want to. After that, he's supposed to offer you a gift, which is usually a drink. If you see a guy you're interested in, you can also ask them to dance as well, but that's pretty bold, and the guy can't refuse without dishonoring himself."

Cold's gaze dipped as he watched Silene refilled the glass, his eyes widening slightly and a blush crawling on his face as he finally gave Silene more then a cursory glance and finally noticed the low cut of her uniform. Up north, people wore a lot of clothes, you had to if you didn't want to catch frostbite, even in the summer the temperatures could take a sudden dip. So unless they were family or you were intimate with them, you wouldn't see much of what was underneath them. And Cold never had been a hit with the ladies when he was young, and that hadn't changed at all when Luna had chosen him. Especially with him being completely and utterly buried in his task of uniting the tribes and forming a doomed kingdom. It had influenced his own design of the dress he was wearing. With a lot of hugging the shape and not actually showing a lot of skin. He really didn't mind the view though.

Cold snapped his gaze back to Silene's face, trying and failing to keep the blush off his face. Focusing on her explanation and hoping he didn't do the social equivalent of slapping her on the ass. Taking a sip of his drink to try and hide his face for a moment.

"I am interested in dancing, yes. I'll take a look." Cold finally said. Giving her a weak smile, he wished he was in his original shape so the fur would've covered up his embarrassing blushing. How did non-beastfolk deal with their entire faces going red? For that matter, how does this whole dance thing work? He was more confused than anything else at this whole VIP section thing. Was it like the prostitutes in the red-light districts he saw in Nexus, where you choose someone and they have to dance with you? Does it just become a formality at that point? At this point Cold knew that trying to hide his blush was a lost cause and instead glanced at the dance floor below. Trying to find anybody who looked interesting.

As Silene departed, Cold glanced at Warden to see if he had any ideas of his own, before the two began scanning the dance floor to see if anyone in particular caught their eye as potentially useful sources of information. Most of the dancers seemed genuinely engrossed in the musical performance, and hadn't taken much or any notice of the two. Over there though - across there room - there was a group of two men and a woman that were peering up at them. Even in the dimly lit room, Cold could tell that they were a little different from the rest of the dancers - they seemed to be a bit out of place from compared the other revelers. One of the men seemed to be in his late 20s and was wearing some sort of light green and grey outfit that reminded Cub of the uniform worn by the recruits they watched during military training earlier that day. However, unlike them, he had a braided green and gold silk tassel hanging from his shoulder down from his waist. The woman and the other man were a little younger - maybe in their early 20s, and seemed to be a couple, from the way she was holding on to his arm. They were dressed a little more fashionably, but they weren't taking part in the dancing. The woman had noticed Hidden Reed and Warden's entry, and was pointing her out to the two men with her. The older man seemed to be explaining something to the other two.

Warden leaned back in the couch, shrugging at Cold's glance in his direction. He didn't really have any desire to go dancing himself and was content for the moment to watch, reaching for one of the bottles that the bartender had prepared. Then, though, he noticed the three people that stood out, woman pointing back at Warden and Cold. He focused on them for a moment, trying to read from their gestures and posture just what brought them here. Were they here just for fun, or did they have other reasons for their presence?

After Silene departed, Cold walked away from the edge of the balcony and sat down on the other couch, looking over at Warden. "You saw those three too, right?" He started. "They didn't look like they were a part of it all? I mean, I don't know a lot about military dress. But from what I've seen, tassels and embellishments like that aren't usually part of the uniform for the lower ranking. So he might be a military officer of some sort? Not sure about the rest." Cold tapped Hidden Reed's chin as he thought it over. "They've caught my interest," he admitted. "you mind if I ask Silene to call them up here when she's back?"

Warden in turn scrutinized the group. They had clearly arrived together, but the man in the military outfit - perhaps an officer of some sort - seemed stiff and uncomfortable in their surroundings, while the couple seemed to be more relaxed and casual. It clearly wasn't the couple's first time here, but it just might be the officer's. But why bring the third wheel along? It crossed Warden's mind that this might be some sort of undercover investigation by the local authorities into the local den of vice, meant to clamp down on the trade in flesh, drugs, and gambling, and the couple were informers or provocateurs. That seemed unlikely - what he was witnessing lacked the secrecy and finesse required for such an operation. Besides, this joint was positively tame compared to some of the salacious dens of iniquity he had seen on his travels, and it didn't seem especially hidden from the powers that be. No - from the way they interacted, this was more ordinary. The officer was unfashionable, a stuffed shirt, while the couple were trendy and chic. His best guess: A younger sibling was prevailed upon by a parent or grandparent to drag their stodgy, career-minded older brother out for a night on the town, in the hopes that he would maybe live a little and potentially even meet a nice girl.

Warden relaxed when his scrutiny revealed nothing untoward, then noddes at Cold's question. "Mhm, I saw them. Feel free to call them over. Could be interesting. If my read of them is correct, he's being dragged along by the two others. Probably to have some 'fun' while on leave or the like. If nothing else, he should make an interesting contrast to the other conversation partners you can find in here."

"Alright then. As a military man he might know something that we find useful." Cold agreed. "Though I doubt anybody would talk about such things while in an establishment like this." Speaking of military matters in a place this public? The very idea was alien to Cold. Whatever Warden had meant with his emphasis on 'fun' went completely over his head. "And you're right, a bit of variety never hurt either." Cold takes another sip from his drink, enjoying the taste as he settles until Silene comes back. "So, you been in a place like this before?," he started, not wanting to be just sitting there in silence while they waited.

Warden lets out a light chuckle at Cold's words. "You really think so? When people get drunk and there's women or men to impress, many a soldier finds their lips loosened quite a bit. Of course, there's units that maintain crack discipline, but generally I wouldn't expect a militia that hasn't fought any real wars in forever to be among them." He sat there in comfortable silence for a moment before answering Cold's other question. "Mhm. I've traveled far and wide, and there's few places better to get into touch with almost all layers of citizens. Sure, it is not a place of great virtue, but that just means the people here need help more than most."

"I mean, wouldn't the knowledge that you might hurt your own people hold you back on that?" Cold asked, hesitation in his voice as he mulled over what Warden had said. "I mean, sure, warriors boast and brag, but they can keep themselves contained when need be right?" The warriors back home boasted and bragged to others quite often, about ambushes they did, about the beasts they felled. The more he thought about it though, the more he could see the truth in Warden's words. Sure, the warriors he commanded never spilled secrets. but was that because they were disciplined and careful about what they said? Or was it because they literally didn't have any means to leak that information?

Given that his former kingdom had been a group of raiding tribes united under the same banner while living in the frozen wastes, he got the sinking feeling it was the latter. And Warden could easily see that thought process and the realization at the end on Cold's face. "Ah, I think you might be right, now that I think about it. I'll have to keep that in mind." Cold admitted. "Well, that means at least one of us knows what's going on." Cold said with a laugh. "We didn't have places like these back home and until now I didn't exactly have much time to hop in them."

"Mhm, that makes sense." Warden saw the thoughts cross Cold's face. "You didn't travel much before we met, then? I don't really know how it is with your kind." He was a bit wary to say 'Lunars' or 'Beastfolk' in a place like this, even with seemingly nobody overhearing them. Hopefully, Cold understood anyway. "Are cities and towns less suited to you, or was it just a lack of time or inclination that kept you away?"

"The only travel I did before we met was the one I did towards Nexus." Cold said in his peculiarly accented High Realm. "I don't think that's really typical. But when talking about my kind, is there even a typical?" Cold's mood dimmed a little bit as he thought back to the people he left behind, to the other lunar he failed and to the terrifying time spent running from the Wyld Hunt.

"More of the former I think, but also a lot of, I dunno, shortsightedness? I was so busy with working towards this grand" - he made a wide gesture - "vision I had, looking fully inward. that I didn't notice how big the world around me was." Hidden-Reed gave a wry smile. "Until it came knocking anyway. Really showed how small I was. I wouldn't have minded that much if others weren't the one who paid the most for it." He remembered the way his heart seemed to stop as he could see his warriors dying and falling into the snow. He remembered the anguish of the survivors and the other tribesmen, the anger, at him for leading them astray, at the realm for bringing their warriors to their realm. And the way their usual vigor had turned to ash and hopelessness.

"I wouldn't truly know what's typical or not. Well traveled I might be, but that's not an area where I've much experience, yet." Warden saw Cold's mood dim. Together with his words and what scraps of his past he knew, he had a good guess as to what was going through his head. "Leadership is a heavy burden, for those that take this responsibility seriously. But you would not have been Chosen if you were unfit to bear it. Learn from it and it will never happen again."

Cold gives a nod at warden's word. A determined look at those words coming on his face. "I'm going to do whatever I can to put that right, more then that even. I've failed, badly, but as you say, failure is the most valuable teacher. With your enemies a close second." He was going to give his people the life they deserved. No matter what. That was a promise.
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When Silene returned with the drinks, Cold watched as Warden whispered something in her ear and point out the three wallflowers they had taken notice of. Receiving her instructions, she nodded, and headed over to the group they had observed, and began speaking to them - or more precisely, speaking to the woman. From their interactions, it seemed like they were familiar with each other. Warden couldn't help but chuckle at the officer's dazed expression, as his gaze was inexplorable drawn down towards Siline's conspicuous cleavage. After a few moments, they seemed to agree, and Silene lead them to the back of the room to exclusive balcony where Cold and Warden sat. "Miss, this is my friend Bilani, her fiancé Armun, and her older brother Rael." Each of them curtsied or bowed in turn as they were introduced. "They would be pleased to join you. Bilani is a wonderful dancer, and would be glad to teach you."

"Welcome to Lushfield," said Rael, who had bowed a little more more formally and militarily than the other two, who had made their greetings more aloofly. They took their seats on the couches, and Armun was quick to reach for a glass and one of the bottles, no doubt amazed by his luck at scoring free drinks. Warden grinned as he witnessed Rael crane his head to check out Silene's backside as she departed down the stairs with her empty tray of drinks - the guy was trying to keep his wits about him, but was clearly losing that battle. Shaking it off, Rael spoke up: "Bil," he said to his sister, loud enough so that everyone could hear - "This is one of the dignified guests from the Blessed Isle - we were briefed about their arrival yesterday." He turned to Cold. "You're Miss Hidden Reed, right?"

As soon as the footsteps of their guests came closer, Cold stopped their current conversation and composed himself, trying to get back into the role of the girl Hidden-Reed. "I'm pleased to meet all of you," Cold said after Silene had introduced the newcomers. "And I would love it if you taught me how the dances work, Bilani."

It was pretty hard to miss Rael's gaze checking out Silene's backside as she departed, though Cold honestly couldn't blame the man. Not after he had also accidentally gawked at the pretty bartender's cleavage, much to his own embarrassment. It had been a struggle to not join Rael with looking at it. "That would be correct," Cold added with a pleasant smile, replying to Rael's question. "But please, drop the miss. One of the reasons I came here was to avoid the formalities. It's just Hidden-Reed"

"And this is Warden, my bodyguard." He gestured towards his fellow exalt. "I'm not sure if he'll be here for the entire evening, but with a military man up here I'm sure my safety will be assured even with him gone."

Warden nodded a quick but warm greeting at the three as they introduced themselves. At Cold's introduction, he inclined his head towards his 'ward'. "Indeed. It's not like I think there's any real danger in a peaceful place like Lushfield, from what I've seen. But given the amenities on offer-" He gestured at the glasses and bottles that Armun was helping himself to. "I will stay on my 'post' for a bit longer before I try my hand at some of the games downstairs."

The three newcomers that had joined them seemed to relent and visibly relax at Hidden-Reed's invitation to dispense with the formalities and treat them as equals, rather than a powerful visitor with an armed bodyguard. "Of course, Hidden-Reed" said Rael, who had relaxed in his own way, though clearly less so than his younger sister and her Fiance, who had began pawing through the bottles of expensive alcohol that was laid out on the table and pouring new rounds of drinks. "We'll dance later" Bilani said. "But first, a toast to welcome our new friend Hidden-Reed." She lifted her glass, prodding Rael with an elbow, which prompted him to grab the glass she placed in front of him and do the same."

"I highly recommend the goji berry baiju, it's very good." Cold suggests as Bilani reaches for the alcohol. "To our newfound friendship." Cold say's with a wide smile as he mimics their gesture to toast. "May it be a good one." Cold enjoyed the taste of whatever alcohol had been served. Draining his glass in a single go. "So, Rael," Cold started, "You seemed to be a little bit out of place, unlike your sister and her husband," He gave him a reassuring smile. "Is this also the first time you went to a place like this?" He gives him time to respond before turning towards Bilani. "For the dancing, do we have enough space for you to teach me up here?"

Rael looks down, slightly embarrassed at Cold's blunt assessment of his un-hipness. "It's my second time here, but it's, uh, was quite a few years ago. The place hasn't changed much though." Armun piped up uncouthly: "Oi! we ain't married just yet." He smacked Rael on the shoulder. "Would help if this'un got a move-on. Their mother's a real stickler for tradition, and say it ain't proper for us to make it official until he gets hitched first. That's why we're here, ain't it!" Armun chuckles to himself, while Bilani looks a little annoyed. Bilani intervened, diplomatically changing the subject: "Yeah, if we pushed those empty couches aside, there would be plenty of room to dance here."

There was sympathy in Cold's eyes as Rael admitted his unfamiliarity with gatherings and clubs. He could relate - after all, when was the last time he had been in a place like this either? Before the recent events, all that he had been busy with was hunting, repairing the tents, smoking meat, and all the other work that was needed to keep the tribe up and running. He remember the celebration of him becoming an adult and earning his name. Courage bolstered by the rush of pride of becoming an adult and being drunk for the first time, walked up towards the prettiest girl his age and promptly put his foot in his mouth and made an ass of himself. That was what, 4 or 5 winters ago?

Now that he was thinking it over, shame was probably the reason he kept to the side on the other gatherings. Cold's exalted senses honed in on the body language of the three as Rael opens his mouth. Scanning their expressions to try and get a deeper read on all of them. See what he was working with. Was this a common occurrence, was it friendly banter between people who were actually close? Did Rael not like Armun's comments, and was Armun was completely oblivious to it? What were the thoughts of his fiance on those comments about her brother? Regardless, Cold gratefully took the offered change in subject. "Lets get those couches put aside then!" he said with a cheery smile as he started to get up to move them over. The fact that most young female dynasts wouldn't be able to casually move entire sofas with barely any effort had slipped his mind.

"Please, allow me." Warden quickly says when Cold begins to get up. A sword-carrying mercenary moving something heavy would probably raise less eyebrows than a supposedly frail woman. As he started to make some space for dancing, he addressed Rael. "I take it by your uniform you're an officer of some kind? It's understandable you don't have much time for other things."

The dynamic of the three Lushfielders sitting with them seemed to crystallize. By all indication, this Armun fellow was a rather ungentlemanly lout. His general lack of proper manners and his abominably accented High Realm, the way he had seized upon the free alcohol without paying due respect to their host, and how he openly mocked and teased his fiancee's older brother (seemingly outside the bounds of mutual friendship) confirmed in Cold's mind that the young man was nothing more than a common bully. 

The military officer, Rael, seemed the opposite - even though he was in an unfamiliar place, he had followed proper protocol and shown deference to the town's esteemed guests. It was easy to see how he had grimaced in disgust when Armun ribbed him. To Cold, it seemed like Rael would be well within right to savage the man for his insolent behavior to a family member, and given that he wore the uniform of a professional fighting man, Cold had no doubt that he could accomplish it if he so wished. Cold guessed what stayed his hand was love for his sister and respect for her apparent wish to make a life with this man. Then again, maybe it was a dearth of courage - which could also explain his unmarried state. Or it could also be some combination of the two.

That left Rael's sister Bilani. She seemed well-bred enough. But just what did she see in this hoodlum? Cold sniffed the air. The girl wasn't with child, at least according to her scent, so that couldn't be it. He chalked it up to the mysteries of attraction and young love.

Rael answered Warden: "Yes, sir, Scalelord of the Fifth Scale, First Talon." Warden recalled his memory of military organization - A talon was 125 men and was divided into five scales of 25. But because Lushfield's military was based on the Shogunate-era 10,000 strong legions, those needed to be doubled. So Rael commanded 50 men, and because his was the Fifth Scale, he was the least senior of the five Scalelords in his Talon. Presumably then, his commanding officer must be a Talonlord - likely Talonlord Anguilla herself, given that it he belonged to the First Talon.

Cold couldn't help but lightly frown as he figured out the relationship between the three of them. A bully, one man who was too caring of his sister to call her out on her horrible taste in men, and Bilani, who was so blinded by love that she couldn't see that her intended husband was a piece of shit. He had half a mind to tell Armun off, but he doubted that would be appreciated. Oh well, if the man continued to be a complete lout, which there was no doubt in his mind that he would continue to be one, he could try to admonish him for it at a later time. Or give Rael the push in the back that he needed to put that boor in his place. "So, Bilani, could you please teach me how to dance?"

With the space cleared, Warden stepped back, ceding it to Cold and Bilani as he headed back to his seat, pouring himself another drink. He leaned back on the couch, sipping at his glass, studying the two men before him. "And you, Armun, did you already complete your mandatory tour of duty?"

Armun put down his drink and leaned back in the couch, propping his feet on the table - he was clearly luxuriating in the VIP life. "Yeah, two years ago." He chuckled. "Me and me mates got real good at saluting and grinding rice flour and once a day we'd play with spears pretending to stab the air while sweating our nuts off." He did a mocking fist-in-palm salute and half-snorted, half giggled. "Wasn't so hard. Not sure why anyone would wanna stick around though" - now Rael was glaring at him. "It's fuckin' boring and there's not much to it other than that. Just a waste of time really."

In the middle of Armun's explanation, Bilani stood up and beckoned Hidden-Reed to join her on the cleared-out space that served as the miniature VIP dance floor. "So you see my feet?" she said, showing Cold the how she placed them one in front of the other. "You just do this - and then this." She demonstrated the footwork a few times. It looked tricky, but after seeing the motion a few times, Cold thought he had a handle on it. "Once you can do that, then you've mostly got it, the rest is done with your fan. Here - I've got an extra." She reached over to her handbag on the table and pulled a paper fan, lending it to Hidden-Reed. "Now you try."

Cold was glad that Bilani beckoned him to join her on the dance floor, because the way Armun was talking about warrior life and their training made his blood boil. Yes, they were a militia force with very little actual combat. But he was quite sure that the only reason they had little to do was because they were able to scare off their many neighbors. He carefully observed the footwork, slowly following along the last few times that she showed it. "Alright, that's tricky, but has to be doable." Cold said as he gratefully accepted the fan. "Here I go," he said before giving it a shot. Cold didn't have any practice with any style of dancing to fall back on. All he had was his own natural grace. Which should be enough, hopefully.

After watching her demonstrate the footwork one more time, he took a leap of faith and did his best to mimic the steps for himself. Making precise movements in this unfamiliar form was awkward, especially when he couldn't recall ever dancing before in his entire life. But Cold found it oddly familiar, even exciting. It reminded him of trudging through a deep snowdrift with woven-thatch snowshoes strapped to his feet, where every third step you to do a quick flick of your ankle to throw off the built-up snow, and that was second nature the time he was six.

"Well done!" cheered Bilani as she watched Hidden-Reed deftly perform the first few steps. "You're a natural!" "Rael, come dance with us!" Rael eyed the drink he held and grinned playfully to his sister, but didn't seem eager to move. It seemed like it would take a little more liquid courage (or other form of courage) for him to risk embarrassing himself, especially in his current mood, after Armun had openly referred to his chosen profession as a waste of time.

"A waste of time, is it?" Warden spoke up with a raised brow, returning to Armun's earlier comment. "Well, by what I have heard, Lushfield has been remarkably peaceful the last few centuries. Quite extraordinary, considering the general state of Creation, is it not? Especially since Lushfield's rich fields are famous throughout the direction. Has no neighbor ever gotten greedy enough to try and take its riches for itself?"

"Not in living memory." replied Rael, watching Hidden-Reed and Bilani practice the dance together as he slowly beginning to tap the hard toe of one of his military boots against the wooden floor in time with the tune while the booze slowly loosened his lips. "The Guild highly values stability, and our long-standing treaty with them provides for certain conting- conting-" he hiccuped, the alcohol taking effect - "contingencies, in the case of foreign aggression. In return, they have the exclusive right to purchase our produce at guaranteed prices. Even if we were taken by surprise by an overwhelming force, we'd only have to hold out for a week until a flying column arrived. If it came to the worst and the walls were breached, we'd be able to fortify the town and shelter everyone from the countryside under the temple."

There was a wide approving smile on Hidden-Reed's face as Cold heard Warden's rebuttal. A small idea began to form in his mind. Cub would've thought it petty and barely a notion worth considering. But to Cold it sounded brilliant. If he got Rael out of the way and distracted and kept the attention of both Rael and Bilani on him. Warden could simply and 'politely' tear that lazy Armun new one without ruining most of the mood. Maybe that would reform the guy a little bit, to be less of a brutish mooch. If Warden could talk a complicit monk into confessing crimes publicly, he could handle a single rude mortal. "Come now Rael!" Cold said, the excitement of getting the dance right, not only that but the rush of his first time ever dancing was making him fell all tingly and pretty pleased with himself! "Whats the harm in a dance or two? It'll be good practice at the very least wouldn't it?"

Finally persuaded by the combined efforts of Hidden-Reed and Bilani, Rael allowed himself to give in to the music and join the two of them on the ad-hoc dance floor they created. Armun smirked and remained seated, eager to see how his soon-to-be brother in law would make a fool of himself. With a little urging, Rael tried his best to move his feet in time with the music. His lack of rhythm was noticeable, but Bilani cheered his efforts, and after a few moments, started maneuvering herself out of the way so that he could dance with Hidden Reed.

Cold in the form of Hidden-Reed was the picture of enthusiasm as Rael got up and joined the dance. Clapping his hands in excitement as he tried to sync up the steps of the dance like they were supposed to. He honestly wouldn't know a bad rhythm if it bit him in the ass. "You're doing great!" There was nothing but honestly in Cold's words. If everybody involved was having fun. Then that was all that mattered didn't it? "Bilani," Cold belatedly asked, gesturing with the fan. "how did the movements for this work?

"Alright, so this new song." Bilani replied, listening to the band start up a new, slower tune. "I think it's called Four Years Before the Plow. You twirl your fan like this on the beat, and then you snap it shut like that when the singer ends the line."

Cold is paying rapt attention as Bilani explains the movements of the Fan. Copying them as well as he can while also keeping his feet going through the steps correctly. Not as easy as it looked. "Isn't this more enjoyable then sitting at the edge?" Hidden-Reed says, face wide in excitement. She lowers her voice a bit as the steps bring them slightly closer together. "Must be much more enjoyable then talking to your future 'brother-in-law'." The way Hidden-Reed's smile tightens. It shouldn't be hard to figure out what Cold thought about Armun.

Rael flashes a smile at Cold's comment, before turning his neck at the click of approaching footsteps on the stairs: Silene, the waitress and Bilani's friend, had returned with an additional tray of drinks. Rael stumbled for a moment, distracted by the arrival of the seductive woman and losing his place in the dance. Feigning an improvised dance move, he turned his back to Hidden Reed, so he could keep an eye on Silene as she bent over to begin place the extra glasses and bottles on the table. Both of them caught how Armun quite visibly straightened his back and lowered his gaze so that he could look down the front of her blouse, and the way he unconsciously licked his lips.

Rael had seen enough, and turned back around to continue dancing with Hidden-Reed. Bilani was lost in the music and didn't seem to notice anything. "I fucking hate him," Rael whispered to himself under his breath, but more than loud enough for Cold's supernaturally-enhanced hearing to pick up.

I've known Armun for less then twenty minutes, and I already want to throw him down the stairs Cold thought. "Is that a usual effect he has on people?" Cold asked, low enough that only Rael could hear him. "The way he glances at other women while his intended is right there."

"We don't usually fraternize" said Rael by way of explanation. Cold though, could see the gears turning in the man's head. He clearly wanted to respect Bilani's independence, but was being pushed to his breaking point. There was no way to take Armun's actions as anything other than a direct insult attack on the honor of Rael's younger sister, and by extension Rael himself. Cold recalled a few of the sanctioned honor-duels he had to mediate in the short period of time he served as the tribal chief in his homeland. An insult of this type usually ended with someone losing an ear.

"Have you or Seline ever tried to tell her what kind of scumbag he is?" Cold leaned in a little closer to make sure only Rael heard. "I'm willing to help you break them up. It's an affront to see your sister be wasted on a swine like him."

As Seline departed, Rael mulled over his response for a moment, before finally speaking: "He wasn't in my Scale when he did his training, so I only got to know him two weeks ago, when Bilani told us she was engaged. And tonight's my first time meeting Seline. Bil's just... passionate about things sometime." He shook his head - Rael clearly was just as confused about her attraction to the loathsome man as Cold was. But he definitely was interested in hearing what Cold had to say. "What do you propose?"

Cold had to think about that one for a bit. "Can we arrange to have her catch him in the act while he's gazing down Seline's dress?" He offered as an option. "I'm sure Seline will want to help us out with that."

Rael glanced over at Bilani, and back to Armun. People have funny ways of rationalizing things when they're young and in love. He shook his head - no, that wouldn't be good enough. "Armun would just talk his way out of it, and Bilani would take his side and blame Seline for being jealous and trying to steal her fiancee."

Warden, meanwhile, had noticed the looks the bartender received. Usually, he did not think less of men that let their eyes wander a fair bit, but an engaged man in the presence of his fiance was a different thing. With his earlier comments added in, he couldn't help but judge the man. An idea sprang to mind, to either give the man a chance to improve his horrible first impression or confirm it. "Seline!," he called out before she could move out of earshot. "Why don't you join us for a bit. Take a quick break under the guise of entertaining the important guest." He winked conspiratorially. "We won't tell Fang, promise."

Cold thought about Rael's comment. He glanced over at Bilani, as entranced into the music as she was trying to get a better read on her as he and Rael did their dance. "Is there anything you know that would irrevocably tick her off?" He asked Rael, trying to get any more information.

Rael shrugged - he seemed out of ideas. Meanwhile, Bilani had heard Warden call out for Seline to stay with them, and temporarily ceased her dancing to add her voice to his. "Yeah Seline, come dance with us! We won't tell the boss!" The combined efforts of Warden and Bilani bore fruit - Seline laid down the tray she carried and came up the steps to join her friend. Bilani hopped and clapped excitedly, and then snatched two small glasses full of liquor, handing one to Seline and keeping one to herself. The two ladies clinked the glasses together and drank every drop in one motion. "Rael!" called out Bilani, reaching out to grab his wrist. "Come dance with Seline." She pulled her brother over and deliberately planted his hand on Seline's lower back. "You two would make such a cute couple!" Bilani shrieked in delight.

There was an amused smile on Cold's face as Bilani was shrieking in delight. Maybe Bilani just wanted to get her brother a date so she could get married. But it honestly just seemed to him like a younger sister who wanted her brother to be happy. "Has this been your plan from the start?" he mused, stepping towards her. "To get him and Seline dancing together and hope for a spark?"

Bilani smiled at Cold, seemingly in a state of mild alcohol-inspired euphoria as Rael danced with Seline. The military man seemed to be genuinely trying his best to overcome his self-consciousness. "My brother's actually a really good guy," responded Bilani, who was intoxicated and shouting in Hidden-Reed's ear. "He's just too serious and focused on his career. He's such a smart guy, too, and he's not bad looking, especially when in his uniform. Sometimes I just need to look after him, that's all, or he'd let people push him around."

"Oh, I noticed that he's a great guy." Cold agreed, leaning back a bit to spare his ears the shouting. Seemed like Bilani really couldn't deal with the alcohol that well. "Is that a recurring problem? him being pushed around I mean."

"What?" says Bilani. She can't really hear or understand Cold too well over the music or in her inebriated state, and she seemed more interested in dancing than conversing anyways. Meanwhile, Armun was still happily pouring himself more shots of the (free!) alcohol.

"Say, Armun." Warden began before the man could drink himself into a total stupor. "How did you and Bilani meet? Have you been planning to marry for long?"

Warden noticed that Armun seemed more preoccupied with watching Rael and Seline dance than in making conversation. The man started out with a cocky look on his face, presumably in anticipation of watching Rael be turned down and fail. Having been denied that, his attitude turned into one of jealousy and bitterness. "Huh?" he responded, as Warden persisted in asking him personal questions. "That's none of your fuckin' business, mate."

The Solar was easily able to see underneath Armun's shallow exterior: The man is plainly a macho idiot driven by his base desires, with little respect for the feelings or emotions of those around him, even those of his fiancee. She seemed to be the romantic type too. The chain of events was obvious: Bilani started sleeping with Armun (an obvious mistake), and being young and naive, she interpreted their sexual intimacy as a true emotional connection. No doubt, she quickly escalated the status of their relationship. Armun didn't love or respect the girl: he was just nodding and agreeing to everything she said because he wanted to keep getting laid.

Warden followed his gaze to where Rael and Seline are dancing. At the irrate response he got, he surpressed his frown at his own rising irritation. This man really was something. Instead, he raised his hands in a calming gesture. "Calm down, 'mate'. Most young couples love recounting their first meeting, is all. Like them-" He jerks his head over towards the dancing officer and bartender. "If they hit it off, and it looks like they might, they'll have a story to tell of how the exotic visitors from the Realm led to them meeting."

Armun processed Warden's words, loaded as they were with the force of Solar persuasion, and the shallow man's thoughts immediately influenced in the direction Warden pushed him towards: So, this fucking loser who thought he was some big shot because he wore a uniform really thought he was gonna bag the hottest girl in the club? Not on my watch. Armun rose to his feet and stepped over to where Rael and Seline were dancing. "Hey mate," said Armun, grabbing Rael's shoulder and pulling him away from Seline. "She's out of your league, and it ain't gonna happen. Let me cut in."

There was murder in Cold's eyes. Not just interrupting in the middle of a dance, but the brutal comment he threw in as well. Fucking scumbag. He leaned in close to Bilani to make sure she could hear his words loud and clear. He knew Bilani could see the scene, as transfixed as she had been watching her brother and Seline dance. "Seems like your 'intended' doesn't approve of what your brother is doing." There was distaste towards Armun easily audible in his voice. "Trying to shove himself in between them like that. Are you going to let him push around your brother like that?"  His words were likewise loaded with the force of Lunar persuasion.

The music abruptly ended, almost like it had been planned that way all along in order to heighten the intensity of the moment. Rael whirled around to face Armun, his fist clenched. For a brief second, it seemed like he was going to slug him. But he slowly relaxed his fist, and breathed in and out, calming himself by the self-control that had been bred in him by years of military training. That didn't stop Bilani though.

"You fucking cheating asshole scumbag!" she screamed, launching herself into Armun and shoving him backwards and into the glass table that was covered in half-empty bottles. A massive crash resonated across the room, turning all eyes toward the fight, as glass shards scattered across the floor. When the dust finally settled, Armun was on his back, dazed and bleeding from a dozen cuts across his body, and drenched in booze. Seline fled, running across the room towards the stairs, presumably to summon security. "That's the last straw! You can't talk to my brother like that!" Bilani yelled down at him, her eyes full of fire. "We're through!" Bilani grabbed Rael's arm and started to drag him behind her towards the exit. "Come on, let's get out of here."

Warden stood up, gladly playing the part of protective bodyguard in this instance, cracking his knuckles as he towered over the prone Armun. "I don't think the Lady Hidden Reed enjoys your company anymore, scoundrel. Truth be told, I doubt she ever did, since you wear your low character on your sleeve, but you truly managed to exceed even your abysmal first impression. Now get lost, before I make you pay for ruining the lady's evening like this."

Meanwhile, a minor commotion was ensuing on the stairs as scared patrons, Rael and Bilani among them, were trying to flee downstairs, while Fang and two burly-looking bouncers were headed in the opposite direction. Armun slowly managed to clamber to his feet, though he looked worse for wear. The man was trembling - drenched in booze, bleeding, and scared witless by the huge, armed bodyguard who was using words that were far too complicated to process in his current state. Fang and the security detail arrived on the scene. "What's the meaning of this?" Fang said, surveying the property damage and the bleeding man.

Cold scowled at the dazed, drunk, terrified and bleeding man. "As far as I could see? Armun decided he was entitled to Seline's attention and made a rather crude pass at her. His betrothed took exception and pushed him, causing him to fall against the glass table." He looked over at Warden - prompting him to add to it.

As Cold was speaking, Armun instinctively tried to flee, and was quickly manhandled and restrained by the two bouncers with Fang. "Which one's Armun?" Fang said. "This bleeding idiot?"

Warden nodded immediately, backing up Hidden Reed's words, his expression stern. "That is him, yes. He drank far too much of Lady Hidden Reed's booze, was rude and without manners all evening, then ruined the Lady's evening by getting far too possessive of your staff, even while in the presence of his own fiancee. If you ask me, nobody has ever taught this waste in human form a single shred of manners." As he talked, Warden let some controlled anger seep into his words, communicating to Fang just how little he thought of Armun. And of course, he emphasized how he absolutely ruined the Lady's evening.

Fang looked to the imposing Warden, then to Hidden-Reed, who was trying her best to appear noble, then to the pitiful-looking Armun. Fang seemed to make up his mind, giving instructions to the bouncers while he rifled through Armun's pockets, pulling out a few paltry coins that he confiscated as partial payment for the damage. "Alright, take him out into the back alley, and make sure he knows he's not welcome back." Fang thought for a second. "And ensure he learns a lesson about proper respect for his betters, and won't forget it for a long time." Fang was clearly suggesting that the two bouncers deliver a beating to the drunken idiot.

"My apology for the disturbance" said Fang as the two bouncers begin to haul off Armun, who was limply resisting with his legs being dragged across the floor. "Please consider the services tonight gratis, to make up for the inconvenience."

Cold's contempt was clearly visible as they dragged Armun off. "Such generosity, it pains me to leave such a gracious and attentive host with such a mess. Especially if the source of it didn't have anything worthwhile to pay for the damage on him either." Cold rolled his eyes. "The nerve. Let us at least compensate for the damage that that Lout caused." He glanced over at Warden and made a motion to take out the silver." Could you tell me if Seline is okay, she looked like she caught quite the fright?"

Warden dutifully got out the purse entrusted to them earlier and started to pull out some coins, being generous in his counting.

Though a good host would insist on turning down Cold and Warden's expression of generosity, Fang hadn't ever turned down an offer of cold silver, and wasn't going to start tonight. Interrupting Warden as he started counting off the seventh Dinar, he gracefully accepted the pile of slivered silver coins, which he squirreled away in the folds in his robes. He turned to the bandleader, waving his hands in a motion that caused him to start the music back up again, which mercifully took the attention of the crowd of party-goers that remained, who begin returning to their normal revelry. "The rumors of your nobility, Lady Hidden-Reed, are well founded," said Fang. "Seline is thankfully unhurt, and has seen worse in her time. Please be careful not to cut yourself on any of this glass - I wouldn't want you to be injured. I will arrange for someone to come clean up this mess." Fang bowed deeply, and soon after departed down the stairs.

Cold waited until Fang and the bodyguards were out of sight before he looked over at Warden. "Well, a bit more messy then I had hoped for. But at least that scumbag got what he deserved." He walked over towards the shards of glass and picked up one that had some of Armun's blood stained on it. People like that, well, they were punished harshly in his culture. Cowardly, lecherous, greedy, just a total piece of shit. "Luna, his shape will serve me better." He muttered under his breath before dropping it back down.'

Warden nodded at his words at him getting what he deserved. "Indeed. And who knows, maybe this will serve as a wake-up call to better himself." A beat passed. "Though I do not bet on it."

Cold couldn't help but laugh at Warden's comment. "no I wouldn't either, one rarely changes in an hour or two."

"Yes, probably. Well, maybe with the years he will look back on his youthful foolishness with shame." Warden threw a last look at the ruined table, shaking his head. "A shame about the others, though. They had their evening ruined as well. Though at least they avoided having to spend any more time with that man."

"He won't have those years," Cold said offhandedly. "And yes, you're right. They deserved better then this. A nice evening with friends and merriment. I'll have to apologize if I run into them again."

"What do you mean, surely- Oh." Understanding bloomed on Warden's face. "That is what you meant, with his shape serving you well?" The concept of Lunar shape-stealing had been explained to him earlier by Scales. He fell silent at that, mulling it over for a few moments. "Does being an ungrateful guest carry a death sentence among your people? It seems a bit much for my taste, I must admit."

"Do you think we had much to spare in the north?" Cold asks. "One gives in the hopes that that kindness gets repaid, and one person overcome by greed can cripple a tribe by only taking and not giving in return." He looked over at Warden, raising an eyebrow. "Or am I wrong?"

Warden spreads his hands, indicating the bar they're in. "And yet these people do not live under such conditions, do they? What harm did he do with his actions? He hurt some feelings and caused some discord, yes. But in a week or a month, it will be all but forgotten, will it not? I am not against the taking of lives, but it should be for a suitably heavy reason."

Cold looked around, the bar, lively, no harsh winds blasting against the windows, no huddling around a fire. No rationing of food. A celebration simply because they had time. Warden... had a point. He sighed, pouting a bit at how Warden had easily disarmed his murderous intentions. "He'll have his extra time then."

Warden nodded, acknowledging Cold's change in judgement. "Well then, shall we leave and link up with the others? Or try to learn some more in this place? I could still try the gamblers, I suppose..."

"I think I just want to go back to the others right now to be honest." Cold answered, a bit deflated.

Warden nods in agreement. The events of that night may not have gone in the direction they had originally planned, but they had managed to extract a few key pieces of information from Rael about the operations of Lushfield's military, and more importantly, the two had learned more about each other. It would have been remiss of him in his assumed role as a bodyguard to leave Cold (playing the noble Hidden-Reed) alone, so after a few more moments of enjoying the somber music, the two moved to go downstairs and make their way out of the establishment.

The two Celestials shivered slightly as they exited into cool, foggy night. For a moment, Cold greatly missed his fur, lamenting that he was still wearing the handcrafted paper dress. It had served its purpose admirably, but it wasn't exactly built with warmth in mind. His ears perked up as well, as his extraordinary sense of hearing picked up on the muffled but distinctive sounds of fists thumping into flesh coming from the alleyway behind the club. Seems like Armun was getting was he deserved. He may consider this the worst night of his life, but the man would never know how lucky he actually was, and how much he owed his life to Warden's sense of mercy. Few ever escape the pledge of a Sacred Hunt initiated by one of Luna's Chosen.
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Khi, Scales, and Nameless, sneaking back to the campsite after summoning Skæletheia the Metody, a Demon of the first circle, and binding him to the task of dissolving a hole through the strange underground root structure

The three exalts, guided on the cloudy night by the the dim moonlight, and gently corrected once or twice by Scale's innate sense of direction, began their covert trek back in the direction of the town. Most of the countryside is rolling tilled farmland, but they also threaded their way through occasional copses of trees like the grove they had used to summon the Metody. The densely planted trees served to give farm workers shade during the hot early afternoon hours. Just as they had crossed the threshold of one, they froze - a rustle in the leaves, over there, coming from the far side of the grove.

Scales stills, trading glances with Khi and the Sword Maiden, before straining his eyes and ears to pick up any visual or audial clues.

Scales detected thin shadows of movement through narrow gaps in the brush, but it was impossible to make out who or whom could be hiding there. Eventually, he managed to pick up on the sound of the hushed pattern of footfalls amidst the persistent chirps of the crickets under the stars. They seemed disguised and inhuman, as if someone or someones were trying to quietly sneak around by carefully placing one foot after the other, but the rhythms was too closely spaced together to represent a single person picking their way across the greenery.

Scales raises his hand in the other’s direction, showing two fingers, before slowly raising the other three, to signal that there were at least two people, but there could be more; as he does this, he also pulls the longbow off his back.

“It’s not an ambush,” Khī says, quietly, “They’d have showed themselves behind the bend if they had,”

Freezing completely the very moment she detected Scales changing pace, noticing the movement of his muscles twitching in his shoulder just before he raised his arm, Nameless stretched her neck, and stared eagerly into the darkness. Goose bumps appeared on the Sword Maiden's arms as she isolated the sounds of the steps between crickets, rustling leaves and the wind. While Khi was probably right, that didn't mean it couldn't still be an ambush the other way round, if they determined someone hostile to be lurking in the dark.

The first thing the trio saw as the creatures emerged through the wooded copse were the two pairs of pale yellow eyes reflecting the moonlight, the larger pair shining at shoulder height, and one the smaller pair at the knees.

The outline of the pair of creatures who had startled (and had been startled by) the Exalts quickly materialized as they approached calmly and apparently unbothered: it was a pair of water deer, a doe and a fawn. The doe slowly walked up to Khi and kneeled before her, and began gingerly nibbling at her ankle, completely comfortable in her presence, while ignoring Scales and the Nameless Sword Maiden. It was almost like the doe didn't recognize Khi as a human at all, but one of its own kind. A thin layer of perspiration had built up from Khi's hours-long efforts in summoning the demon, and two deer attempted to lick whatever salty patches of exposed skin they could locate.

The Sword Maiden tilted her head, watching the water deer with curiosity and a hint of fascination, as they approached Khi. Painfully avoiding any sudden movements, she got down on one knee, slowly, to make herself smaller, and then gently stretched out one arm, offering up her hand to the two deer, to let them get her scent. She liked animals. No hidden agendas.

Khi removed her gloves, allowing the deer to lap at the sweat that had gathered beneath it. She let out a sigh, regarding the deer fondly. She could, of course, take these as an omen, a sign of Mara's favor, but the rational part of her suggested the creatures just happened to be nearby, the whole of it a false alarm.

The threat resolved, [/b]Scales[/b] relaxes and stows his bow once more, watching as the two elk-like animals start cuddling Khi. “Are these animals common here? I’ve seen their like before in the North, though bigger, and more…pointy.”

The doe and then the fawn sniffed at the Nameless Sword Maiden's outstretched arm curiously. Both apparently determined that she didn't present a threat, before going back to gingerly licking at Khi's fingers. The fawn laid down in a soft patch in the grass and closed its eyes.

With slow movements, Nameless crouched down next to the fawn, head still tilted to the right, watching it's little body move with each breath, the fur blending with the blades of grass around it. She then gave Khi an almost envious glance as she got so much attention from the doe, but then gave the Night Caste a warm smile, and a slow nod, still intent to not spook the animals, before slowly reaching out to gently touch the doe's flank.

The Nameless Sword Maiden turned back her attention to the fawn. Where just a moment ago its breaths were quick and shallow (which she had attributed to nervousness), it was totally and completely still now. There was two thin dark streaks running down its snout, one from a nostril, and one from the corner of its small mouth. Every few seconds, a drop would fall down and be lost in the grass.

Khī sighed. It was too much to hope for that this wasn’t a message. Stupid girl. Foolish of her to think she wouldn’t be sent a message of her lover. Khī felt hot, full of self recrimination, disgust and guilt. Stupid selfish little girl. Sadrica wouldn’t have let this happen, if the right woman had exalted. “Get away,” she said, gently pushing the Swordswoman back, “Something isn’t right here,”

Hearing Nameless let out a small gasp, Scales slowly moves over and looks at the fawn. That...doesn't look good. he thought. Carefully extending a finger, he catches a drop on his finger and examines it, testing the viscosity, drying rate, and other properties.

The doe was a bit startled as Khi pushed it it away, and returned its attention to its fawn. It began nuzzling at the small animal's body, first lightly, and then more and more vigorously, in an attempt to prompt a response from the limp creature. Scales, meanwhile, examined the drop that he had caught on his fingertip. The color was difficult to make out in the dark of the night, but it certainly felt and behaved like blood.

Nameless' eyes darted between Khi and Scales, as she didn't really know what to do. As far as she knew, animals died sometimes, and it was not a big deal. It was still a bit gut-wrenching and she swallowed a bit of nothing. "Can you do something?" she asked no one in particular, but probably also Khi and Scales. It was apparent that something was very wrong with the fawn, even though it had just seemed so calm. Had they angered the gods? She narrowed her eyes, staring into the darkness, seemingly lost in thought.

In her state of despair while taking in the bleeding, motionless fawn, something within the Sword Maiden caused her to perceive, just only for a few seconds, more than the material world. The fawn's closed eyelids seemed to have around their lower edges the barest hint of a dim, pale blue glow, which in the few moments she watched it grew ever more faint before going completely dark.

Khī took ahold of the other deer’s face, gently, like one might a lover, and tilted it up to look at her. “My love, most people would have written a note, or sent a rider,” she said, quietly, into the animal’s ear.

The deer was clearly agitated, and after a moment of confusion wrested its face out of Khi's hands. It returned to its more and more persistent attempts to awaken the its immobile, bleeding fawn. Whatever was there, in that moment, was merely a doe preoccupied with motherly concern for the well-being of her offspring.

“Ah,” Khī said, “well don’t let me detain you in your grief,” she said, absent-mindedly patting the bereaved doe on the back.

She stood, examining the corpse, and the spreading pool of blood around it illuminated only by the dim light of the moon. In Hrotsvitha, she and her lover had played a game, a little private thing only for the two of them. In the patterns of the brass leaves, she would hide for Khī a note, a lesson. Sometimes in the occult significance of the not-stars above, sometimes something significantly more purient. Once, in the musical screams of a Melliwick that was the entertainment of a garden party, she had hidden the secret songs of the Saigoth gates. Occult knowledge and supernatural perception mixed and muddied with lust and desire and burned a code into Khī’s mind. She looked down on the body, it’s young limbs all askew, and opened her mind to what her lover had wanted to tell her, hidden in bloodletting and the significances of the stars.

"Something else did this" whispered the Sword Maiden, gesturing at the lifeless doe. "A spirit, perhaps. There" she pointed at the doe's forehead, "it's been touched by something else."

“Yes” Khī said simply. There was no need to let the others know exactly what spirit or how significant it was to her personally.

Mara, the Shadow Lover, was attuned to the woodlands of creation and favored the guise of a tree-spirit when appearing among her cults across creation. She was eagerly drawn to beautiful lovers with dark destinies, who she would eagerly seduce. And she was eternally hungry. Incapable of knowing the true fulfillment of honest affection herself, she found herself seeking it out in others, drawing from them the pitiful secrets hidden within their souls in neverending fruitless attempts at discerning whatever celestial or malfean mechanics were behind the very force of love itself. Her procession of failed experiments gnawed at her, but perhaps her most recent would bear fruit - for she had finally gained within her clutches one of the chosen souls of the Unconquered Sun, and sent her out into the world.

The only true kinship felt by Mara was with the deer. All deer belonged to her, and they were her eyes and ears and nose and tongue, when she so desired. The reindeer and moose of the northern tundra, the antelopes and impala of the dry southern plains, the pygmy island deer of the western archipelagos, and yes, the river deer of the scavenger lands - all were her true family. And so in that moment, Khi understood what had happened. Mara had released her back among the mortals, but she had not lost the taste of her in the slightest. When Khi allowed the doe and fawn to greedily lick the salt of her sweat, it was like she had set out a midnight lantern. Mara's full attention in one instant was focused on the sweet, sweet taste that she vividly remembered, far sweeter than any mortal being. It would have been like tasting sugar for the first time after months of eating nothing but straw, and the force of that attention was certainly far more than a poor newborn fawn's fragile body could take.

In the final moments of the poor fawn's life, however, had Mara sent a message to her? Khi examined the placement of the poor creature's limbs, the blood droplets staining the dark grass, the dark pattern of internal bleeding only now welling upon the animal's breast. There was a message there, she was certain. It may have been incomplete, abridged by the pitiable animal's expiration. Yes, there it was, written in the secret code of death and lust and hunger that Mara had subconsciously trained her in. I'm watching you, and we shall always be together it said. You taste just as sweet as the first time I kissed you.

And the final portion of the message - Don't forget what you owe to me

A knot tied itself around Nameless' heart and throat, as blood rushed almost imperceptibly to her ears, tinting her pale cheek and nose a rosy color - almost lost in the moon- and starlight, before disappearing as quickly as it came.
She, again, swallowed a heavy bit of nothing, before nervously licking her lips, her eyes darting from side to side, a reflex of looking out for danger, even when there was none.

In her gut, she felt like she needed to do something, lash out, cut something up, or at least punch someone in the nose. But she couldn't make out anyone she could blame. "This is fucking depressing" she finally whispered, teeth pressed together.
"Is the doe fine, at least?"

Seeing Khi finish her examination, Scales, still crouching, asks, “Any thoughts?”

"The doe is fine," Khi said, swallowing. The nameless woman twitched a bit, clearly upset, and Khi felt a bit sick to her stomach. Beneath her mask, her face colored at the reminder of Mara's attention, even as she felt the bottom drop off her stomach. It wouldn't be hard for Khi to take a moment to consider her emotions, break them down in her gaze, turn that incisive mind to herself. Khi didn't. "We can go," she said, the emotion completely gone from her voice.

"Very well. I shall be taking the corpse for further inspection; if there is even a chance that the spirit that did this is related to that one god, the corpse could reveal useful information." Scales lifts the dead animal into his arms, then stands and nods, ready to return to the caravan.

“It isn’t related,” Khī said flatly.

The doe just stood there, without visible reaction as Scales reached down to pick up the dead fawn. It had already ceased its prodding of the body, and soon began trotting away, bending down to munch on a dandelion. In the world of the deer, there was no grieving or mourning or hysterics over the death of a loved one. To them, death wasn't a stranger - it as much a part of life as breathing and eating. Life and death were simple states of being. There was no need to muck it all up, like people did. Maybe that's why Mara was their kin.

The three Exalts complete their covert trek back to the caravan in silence. The event with the deer had apparently cast a pall over the prior successes of the evening. Scales cradled the body of the fawn in one arm as he hopped the fence into the caravan paddock. It was deep in the night by now - more than an hour after midnight.

---

Scales returned to his bedroll with the others, before carefully putting down the fawn and searching through his pack. A few moments of searching through bones, maps, dried fish and plants, and myriad other items revealed his quarry: a sharpened sea glass blade, secured within a handle of dark, polished wood, a needle made from bone, a length of twine, a small shuttered oil lamp, and a small bundle of aquatic herbs native to the West.

Now, where would be a good place for this.... Scales casted his gaze around the paddock, large shadowy shapes catching his eye. That'll do. Securing his tools to his person and once more carrying the fawn, Scales heads towards the concealment of the bleachers, their partially skeletal frames creating a maze to block any observation.

Stopping within a clear space within the maze, he put the fawn down and lights the lamp. Separating the bundle of herbs, he burned a handful, filling the air with the scent of salt, cinnamon, and myrrh. "Honored Cernunnos, lord of the horned ones, pray accept this offering, that the soul of your fallen child may find peace in the twilit forest."

Smiling Rat's lessons echoed through Scales' head. 'It does not matter what culture they hail from, nor their species; the soul must be appeased before work on the flesh can occur, lest you incur their wroth.' With the offering complete and the soul, hopefully, fled, it is time to get to business. Raising the sharpened glass knife and letting his eyes sink into the fundamental layer of creation, Scales started to slice open the chest cavity of the fawn.

---

The Sword Maiden wasn’t quite ready to sleep yet, something about the events of the night still gripped her. Well, that was a foolish thought, she realized. She met a demon, had formed a bit of a bond with Khi, who remained mysterious nonetheless. She had witnessed the fawn dying, which had been surprisingly impactful for Nameless, sure, death was a part of life and she was hardly traumatized, but it gnawed at her still.

She had seen Scales skimper off with the little carcass, little head dangling on a little neck, and couldn’t quite bring herself to have a look at what the Lunar was doing with it. She instead hunkered down at a stack of crates, long legs awkwardly crossed, let her head sink down and closed her eyes, taking a few deep, slow breaths.

From within the folds of her silken dress, Nameless produced her bamboo flute, which she stroked for a bit, lost in thought, enjoying the feeling, the texture of the polished instrument against her finger tips. She sighed.

The first note she played already transported a measure of sorrow, as she began a song, of mourning and of hope, something she picked up in… She didn’t remember where she knew the melody from. Maybe she had forgotten, maybe she was making it up on the fly.

She didn’t play very loudly, as she didn’t want to wake anyone. But in the almost silent night, the wind carries sound a long way. To those listening, the tune transported a sense of melancholy, of distant hope. Like a tale of a long night, that might not be endless after all. Hauntingly beautiful, yet fleeting. The Sword Maiden played the flute for quite some while, listening to herself, quickly improvising to blend the melody into the wind, the rustling of leaves, the odd nocturnal bird’s song or cry.

She was far away from gripping any memory, but it was fascinating to her how part of her always knew what note to play next. Whether she had played this before, or was making it up as she went, she did not know. Nameless felt utterly tired, yet knew she wouldn’t be able to sleep for a while - might as well provide a lullaby to the others.

---

Like anyone who grew up in a fishing community, Scales was adept with a small, sharp blade, and he was confident he could gut and filet a freshly landed and spiked Mahi Mahi with his eyes closed. It wasn't until his time with Smiling Rat that he learned to apply his blade scientifically. They started first with mice. Those were easy - every ship had its own small colony of the troublesome pests, and woe to the vessel that wasn't equipped with a skilled mouser. In those early days, he would dissect two a night by candlelight, consulting the illustrated codex from Smiling Rat's library to learn the names and function of every organ.

He moved on next to marmosets and capuchins - monkeys that Smiling Rat had brought to him by eager tropical islanders, drawn by the rumors that he would pay well for caged mammals of all types taken from the jungle. Their anatomy was more similar to that of a man, down to the bone structure itself, and the sub-regions of the brain. Once, while serving as Smiling Rat's assistant, he had been tasked to trepann the skull of four monkeys and isolate their pituitaries, which were placed in a glass jar and covered with distilled spirits.

One rainy evening, during the monsoon season, a woman quietly arrived in a canoe with a drowned man's body wrapped in large banana leaves and concealed under sacks of mangoes. Smiling Rat wasn't known for asking many questions, and she left much richer than she came. They had opened him up together, and broke him down until the stench was too much to bear, even while wearing masks and burning enough incense so the could barely see.

So when Scales deftly guided his razor-sharp seaglass blade up the fawn's chest, careful not to perforate the digestive tract, and then began making side cuts to peel back the layers of skin, he knew what he expected to find. But what he actually found was.... different.

The inside of the fawn's body was, in a word, putrefied. While externally, the animal had the appearance of a normal two-month old deer, internally its organs were in various states of decay. When Scales had tried to saw through the ribcage with his wire saw, the bone simply crumbled - it was porous and hollow, like a bird's bones. The animal was only dead for an hour at most, but on the inside, it smelled like it had been rotting for a week.

The same pattern repeated in the other portions of the body that were examined: certain organs were brown and leathery where they should be pink and tender, and when he made an incision into the base of the skull, a pus-like fluid leaked out of the spinal column. Turning his attention to the stomach, Scales steeled himself as he opened it, prepared for the worst. But oddly enough - when he sliced into it, it wasn't a mess of rot that flowed out, but the immediate impression of an incongruous, sweet scent followed by the flow of a golden liquid. Honey? In the stomach of a deer? How could that be?

Scales pondered for some time. This was obviously no mortal fawn, or at least, at the time of its death, it was a mortal fawn no longer. The cause of death was clear: the putrefaction of its innards simply led to its heart losing its vitality, ceasing to beat, while also causing its lungs to internally rupture, leading to the respiratory tract slowly filling with blood. No natural disease could cause this, at least not in the short amount of time - the fawn had seemed fine in one moment, and then it simply laid down to die. There had to be a supernatural, occult explanation. Scales wracked his memory, correlating the signs here to the supernatural phenomena, legends, and folklore he had studied under Smiling Rat.

Many things could cause rot or putrefaction. But the honey - that was the key. Scales recalled the stories of the Shadow Eaters, demons who took the shape of men or beasts. According to the legend, they wriggled into creation, being summoned into the bodies of loyal animals that were grossly mistreated by their masters until they violently lashed out - the mixture of animal and human blood was supposedly the key. Eventually, they would steal their former master's shadow, and then perch on their back until they collapsed from exhaustion and died. In High Realm, they were called the Bisclavaret, and it was also said they fed exclusively on honey. Strange though: a wild deer has no human master to lash out at, so how did this Shadow Eater come into creation? Perhaps it was not pulled into creation, but sent out from Malfeas, for a purpose, for so brief a time? But what purpose could that be? So many mysteries.

His examination done, Scales rocks back on his heels and ponders amidst the smell of the incense. A Bisclavaret? But why would it be sent, and by who? Khi could probably tell me more since that's her area of expertise, but she acted strange when I asked her before...and there didn't seem to be any problems with the fawn before it interacted with Khi...could the demon have been sent for her?

Putting his suspicions out of his mind for now, Scales focuses on what to do with the body. With the decay as far gone as it is, with even the bones crumbling, the corpse isn't viable. The only thing I can do is return it to the dust.

With that thought and the sound of Nameless's mourning song in his ears, he digs a small hole and lays the fawn to rest. Filling the hole back in, he extinguishes the lamp and heads back towards Nameless and the caravan, giving her a nod as he approaches.

---

The Sword Maiden had heard the footsteps, solemn trodding back towards the caravan camp. A last few somber notes emanated from the bamboo flute, before the Dawn stopped playing, and opened her eyes. Even though they had been closed, when Scales nodded at her, she repeated his gesture.

The Lunar still had specks of dirt falling off him, streaks of dark, putrified blood had mixed with the earth. She figured, that, together with the noises she heard mixing in with her music meant, Scales had buried the fawn, instead of just tossing it aside. She liked that idea. A thin smile appeared, white teeth and pale face reflecting the moonlight as she looked up.
"Find out anything?" she asked, her voice hollower than she had anticipated, so she covered her mouth with her left hand and cleared her throat audibly.

“The deer’s internal organs and bones were putrefied. I suspect the deer’s life force was used to momentarily sustain a demon that possessed its body.” Here Scales paused. Should I share my suspicions? She would be a useful ally in keeping an eye on Khi…, he thought. “I have no concrete evidence, but I suspect that the demon was not summoned to the deer’s body, but was sent by a denizen of Malfeas. For what reason I do not know, but it likely involves Khi.”

Nameless sighed, making a bit of a sad face. Her face went through an obvious array of emotions, as she denied herself saying anything along the lines from 'I knew it!', with a hint of disappointment after the recent talk she had with Khi.
Then, a confusing mixture of both helplessness, as well as determination.

"Khi might be more haunted than she lets on", the Sword Maiden echoed the suspicions, though she was clearly unwilling to blame Khi for anything, at least for the moment. "So just wrong place, wrong time for the little fellow? Quite sad" she slowly shook her head. "But I guess nature was already dangerous. So many things that kill..." She trailed off, but seemed to realize she wasn't making much sense anyway, as she slapped the palm of her hand on her thigh, before she got up, and tilted her head to the side, giving Scales another long, curious look. "You know a lot about demons?"

Scales finds a small tree to lean against. “A fair amount, mostly theoretical. It’s not my area of focus, but my mentor is quite thorough and I quite curious. As for death and danger, aye, that is the nature of the world; you would change that?”
Scales questions, realizing he doesn’t know much beyond the surface of his companions.

Straightening up, the Sword Maiden crossed her arms over her chest and shrugged. "I don't think I am one of those people that thinks constant danger and strife toughens you up, I think it's just exhausting. But I also don't think anyone but the gods can change the nature of the world. It is what it is." She sighed. Clearly, it wasn't that she was thoroughly happy about the state of the world. "Doesn't mean we can't strife to improve our lot, though" she tried to express her thoughts, a thing smile on the lips. "I just prefer deaths to have meaning. That fawn might've been the meal for a wolf, sure. But to die so some foul creature can make a point? Doesn't sit right with me."

"It is a shame, but who are we to assign meaning to death? Perhaps its manner of death forewarns us of a foe we must face, and so we survive where we otherwise would fall; in this case, its death could be argued to be meaningful. Of course, perhaps it doesn't..." Scales rests his head against the tree, looking up at the stars. "We cannot see every consequence of our lives, nor our deaths. We must do as best we can with the information we have; we are not those starry-eyed arbiters of destiny." He turns his head to look at Nameless. "Unless you are?", he chuckles.

For a second there, Nameless looked a bit confused, unsure of whether Scales was being serious or not, so she shrugged.
"I... Don't think I am?" she answered with a faint smile, a response which would probably work in either scenario. Either way, she genuinely didn't really know who she was supposed to be, so why dwell on it? "The thing is, from what I've seen, most deaths have meaning. Obviously not for always for everyone. Not that we can do much about it anyway. For now, I'll be content if we can get out of here with what the Lamplighter wants, so I get to properly ask them a couple of questions. If that doesn't suffice, I'm still open to then turn to philosophy."

"What do you suppose our patron wants with the object? Merely to remove it from those who hold it, or do you suppose that they wish to use it in some manner?" Scales mumbles as an aside, "Assuming it is an object, and not some sort of blessing, or perhaps even a person..."

"I think we won't know until we see what it is." She raised an eyebrow as Scales mused on, "I hadn't even considered that it might be a person" the Sword Maiden admitted. "Though I bet it'll be connected to the tunneling project in the past, I expect some source of power, and if the Lamplighter is as well informed as they led us to believe, it'll be something we can transport." She looks left, and right, a hint of conspiracy gleaming in her eyes. "Doesn't mean we have to give it to them without demanding some answers."

Scales quietly replied: “And what would you ask them? About their goals, or about yourself? I cannot imagine myself in your situation, but I think I would be burning with questions.”

"I mean. Yes." The Sword Maiden nodded into the night, seemingly lost in thought. "Yes to all of the above. Even if I wasn't in my special situation, they have tracked my every move for weeks, and knew enough to warn me of the Empire's and Lookshy's agents looking for me, and that alone raises a lot of questions. And I don't really appreciate being sent on errands like a servant." She made a pause and stared at the starry sky for a minute. It had just occurred to Nameless that she might be, or might've been, a servant. And she wouldn't even know it.

Deciding not to break the silence, Scales sits and looks towards the heavens as well, enjoying the quiet moment of contemplation.
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Persistent Cub Heads to the Seneschal's Manor for her Meeting with Honto and Lin

Parting ways with Cold and Warden, Cub made her own way back to Honto's manor. The cool night air of the early months of the year lent a stillness to the streets after dark. The atmosphere itself felt tense - icy. Marwin was waiting at the front gate, sitting on a bench at the top of the stairs and reading a ledger by the light of a lantern by his side. "Welcome back your eminence." he remarked upon noticing her arrival, opening the gate to allow her to proceed, walking beside her through the garden. "The Seneschal hasn't arrived just yet, so you're welcome to relax in the garden, or in the study or your room, if you would prefer. Is there anything you require, some tea perhaps?"

"Tea in the garden sounds lovely," Cub answers Marwin with a serene smile. "I should also tell you, I asked Lin Euphonious Bell to join me here later. Please show her to me when she arrives."

"Oh," responded Marwin demurely as he guided Cub to a quite serene and tranquil gazebo in the garden. "I shall bring the entire kettle then. I do hope the pavilion will suffice - I will have someone sent with fuel for the brazier shortly, so you will not get too chilly."

"Thank you." she answered. "The wind does seem to have more of a bite to it than it did yesterday."

The evening grew cooler, but the fire that the serving boy kindled managed to provide a respite. Without the ornamentation and decor of the prior evening's bustling party though, Honto's curated garden seemed larger, less welcoming, and almost menacing in the night. The walls of the estate shielded Cub from the wind, but it still whistled overhead and rustled the high branches of the exotic trees that surrounded isolated the manor. Marwin soon returned with a tea cart, setting out cups, before removing a glazed porcelain tea kettle with jade inlay, placing it on an iron grate atop the brazier to boil.

For a few moments, Marwin worked in silence with the tea needle, flaking and loosening the compressed tea brick. Glancing over, Cub could see in the light of the moon and the fire that the brick was embossed with the seal of the Scarlet Empress - the modern one, and below that the mark of the Lord's Crossing Dominion, along with the date of harvest. Curious - this was Lord's Dominion Silver Needle, from two years ago. Grown on the hills below the Blessed Mountain. She didn't know it was even legal to export it, and maybe it wasn't. Her train of thought was interrupted by the sound of the thick outer doors to compound creaking open. Her host had arrived, and he was not alone.

"Look who I found climbing out of a second story window behind the temple" remarked Honto. He was still dressed in the same outfit he wore at the performance. With him was Lin, who had changed into warmer clothes, punctuated with a woolen scarf and a knit hat. "Oddly enough, we both happened to be headed to the same place," he said, flashing a mischievous grin. "Good evening" added Lin. Her tone seemed overly respectful and dutiful. It reminded Cub of the behavior of an embarrassed child caught stealing from the sweets cabinet, unsure if they would be punished.

Cub stands up and turns around, greeting both of them with a radiant smile, "good evening. I hope you don't mind that I've asked Marwin for tea, but it seems to be a particularly excellent leaf," she says to Honto specifically before turning to Lin. "I'm so glad you decided to come. I hope you've had a pleasant evening since we parted ways."

Lin had spent the evening with Celcine and Marwin's two materialistic granddaughters. "Pleasant enough," she meekly replied. Lin was a headstrong girl, but she seemed mildly intimidated at the situation she was in, standing alone in the presence of the two adults - Marwin had apparently found an excuse to make himself busy. Honto reached over to the wooden box full of tea flakes and grabbed a generous pinch, dropping them into the bottom of one of the cups and filling it to the brim with the not-yet boiling water from the kettle. There was no move to offer it to Cub or Lin - he was keeping it for himself.

Honto broke the ice: "If I recall, the two of you were discussing the House of Flowers that Bloom by Starlight in Pangu City. A fine institution, I have no doubt, at least the equal of the Arizei Academy in many respects. But the Archimandrite is your guardian, and as you heard, her mind seems made up." He gets down on a knee to face Lin, brushing a loose strand of hair out of her eyes. His words are directed to Lin, but Cub suspects the message is meant for her instead: "I don't think I'll be able to change her mind alone, but if all three of us came to an agreement on what is best for your future, and worked together as a team, then it's possible she could be convinced."

With a smile, he hands the steaming cup of tea to Lin, who had begun to shiver. It was unclear if it was due to the chill night, the prospect of facing down Celcine, or something else. Lin eagerly takes a sip, sparing her the burden of having to figure out how to respond. Instead, Honto looks up at Cub: "What does the Lady think?"

Cub understood the subtext to Honto's words. They weren't actually having a discussion on Lin's education. He was negotiating the terms of Celcine's assassination by Cub and her lackeys, and the potential inclusion of Lin in the bargain. It could be interpreted as a kindness, to let Lin at least believe that her opinions were valued and would be considered. Or it could just be deeper depths of manipulation.

"Going against the wishes of one's guardian is not something that should be contemplated lightly," Cub says serenely, her attention on Lin despite Honto's cry for attention, "but it is a sad fact that sometimes the old stands in the way of the new, and that guardians in Lushfield can only do so much for someone on the Blessed Isle. I asked you to meet me here tonight because I'd love to hear in which direction you would like to take your talents. Passion, after all, drives excellence as much as talent or hard work." She spares a glance for Honto before finishing, "once you are clear on the future you wish for yourself, we can consider how Celcine might be persuaded."

Lin glanced over at Honto, checking to see if she was understanding Cub correctly. The girl, raised since birth in the strict, regimented life provided by the temple, wasn't used to speaking her mind on most any topic, let alone that of personal ambition and desire. This went doubly so in front of her social superiors - those who had the power to reshape her life and destiny. Honto waited a few beats, before nodding at Lin, giving her tacit permission to speak.

"Well..." Lin thought, nervously biting on a fingernail, "I mean, I like it here, and everyone's been so supportive of me so I don't want to let them down, especially the Archimandrite..." - there was a pause - "But I like being on stage and I want to get better and better, and you've both told me that the best way to do that is to go to one of the special schools in the Blessed Isle. I mean, the Archimandrite's a good teacher but she's sometimes wrong about- I mean she's..." Lin stumbled, picking her words carefully. "I mean, she's got so much to worry about with everyone else on the stage not really knowing their lines half the time, and with her other important duties, so a lot of the time I'm sort of just doing what comes naturally and I don't know if that's the best way to get better."

"So I think, maybe, it would be okay if...." Lin was now speaking with extreme particularity as she tried to reveal her preference with as much tact as possible - "I could go to one of the schools in the Blessed Isle, I don't really know which one is better, but they both sound good. But when I told the Archimandrite, she said that it's a bad idea because it's not safe away from home for a girl, and that she was so worried about me and wanted me to be safe. But then you mentioned that Rock, I mean, the Vice-Archimandrite might go with me, and I think that's the best idea, because then the Archimandrite wouldn't need to worry, because he would be able to protect me until I came back." Lin glanced between Honto and Cub. "So that's what I think," she squeaked nervously, out of breath after her explanation.

Cub nods in agreement "doing what comes naturally only helps you for so long, if you want to truly excel you need better teachers. I don't mean to sound disrespectful towards the Archimandrite, but there are people on the Blessed Isle who have made theater their life's work, and it is only to be expected that they surpass even one as devoted to the Dragons as she in this one area. Traveling alone can indeed be perilous and I am certain the Vice-Archimandrite would be as staunch a protector as anyone could hope for on the journey. I think him accompanying you would be an excellent idea."

Honto spoke softly: "Unfortunately, an arrangement of that sort would only be within my power if you were to attend the Arezei Academy in Juche." By way of explanation to Cub, Honto picks up the the contraband tea brick. "There are certain Cadet Houses who have made a business out of maintaining a few overseas family members who rarely visit, and whose existence, strictly speaking, is solely a matter of paperwork." Honto was hinting that he knew of a Cadet House that would sell false identities to Outcastes who wished to travel to and spend time in the Blessed Isle without being subject to special scrutiny - which perhaps explained how he was able to travel there in his youth, and up to the present day. "Sadly, my contacts of that sort are nowhere near the vicinity of Pangu City."

"Fortunately," Cub counters, "mine are." She looks closely at Lin and catches the young mortal's eyes. "You can achieve great things within your chosen field, Lin, but you need to choose it for yourself. I understand that stepping out from the guidance of others is a hard thing, but the drive to push forward must come from you if you are to reach true excellence. No matter where you go, you will have hard and lonely days before you, even with the Vice-Archimandrite for companionship, and while of course you cannot know for certain which will suit you better, you should give some thought to which qualities you are looking for in an institution of learning. Once you are certain of your priorities, I can help you find out which place would best help you fulfill those."

Honto got to his feet. "Alright, little lady, you're lucky I'm the one that caught you sneaking out and not one of the mendicants. It's time for you to go home. Marwin, would you mind making sure Lin gets home safely? If they ask where she was, tell them I had fetched for her." Marwin took the girl's hand and led her off.

Meanwhile, Honto took a moment to examine Cub's demeanor as he poured her a cup of the tea. The woman still seemed a closed book, and pestering her further about committing to the proposed conspiracy didn't seem like it would be productive at the moment. The fact that she had taken his bait and was openly expressing interest in Lin's future was encouraging, at the very least, so he changed the subject: "Speaking of wayward children, I am informed that your niece and her chaperone found their way to our local gambling den and dance hall. The establishment is fairly tame, and they can't get into any serious trouble. If she makes her way back here tonight, the room across the hall from yours has been prepared for her use."

Cub raises an eyebrow at that piece of information as she sips from her tea. "I do hope they're not making a nuisance of themselves. Thank you for the information, and your consideration in making a room available for her," she adds with a grateful nod.

Honto poured his own cup of tea, smelling the steam as he let the ridiculously expensive white leaves steep. "The girl's emergent talent is quite the curiosity," he mused. "Your deputy, the one with the mask, she also happened to mentioned something curious as well about your swordswoman."

"I suppose it's not such a strange idea, a menagerie of that sort. Though most collectors prefer to focus on ancient coins or rare species of tulips, things they can squirrel away in a glass case." Honto paused for a moment. "I suppose I'm in in no position to judge, considering. But if Lin were to end up under your protection in the Isle, I'd consider it an enduring favor if she was... sheltered from some of the business interests of your esteemed family. I mean no offense, of course. It's just there are all those stories about pretty young dancers and actresses getting mixed up with drugs, and being made available by their patrons to... personally entertain important guests after the show. It would keep my conscious clean, you understand, especially after what happened to her mother."

"Of course," Cub assures Honto and places her hand on his. Her gaze matches his and the pale blue of her eyes matches Venus's light in the night sky. "I wish for her talents to be allowed to flourish, and will make sure that her path does not lead to such ends. It would not only be a tragedy for her, but also a terrible waste of what makes her stand out so clearly from the masses."

Honto nods, seemingly accepting Cub's pledge. "Very well then, you've set me at ease. He finished off his cup of tea in one gulp, and flung the dregs into the brazier, which sizzled with a loud hiss. The night had gotten misty, and it was beginning to lightly drizzle. "It's getting quite late, and I'm sure you are still tired from your travels. Let us retire for the night, and we can discuss the matter further at your leisure. I'm sure Marwin will return shortly in case you require any assistance." And with that, he drifted off through the fog in the direction of the the main residence
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Khī returns to the Manor in the Late Hours of the Night

Khī walked silently through the halls of Honto’s manor, navigating by memory, moonlight and occasionally a rare candle. Not that she much needed to be silent- the extremely classical shogunate manor was as silent as a grave this late at night, it’s masters and servants both by all rights asleep. Khī yawned beneath her mask. She couldn’t pretend the day hadn’t worn on her, but she pushed through. Being close to sleep wouldn’t be the disadvantage here that it might if she tried to bind another demon.

The former slave felt almost sick. It hurt her more than expected to see the amnesiac upset. The woman was in many ways an innocent- an incredibly deadly innocent, but an innocent. And it had been her actions tonight that had so upset the other woman, even if she hadn’t understood them for what they were. Scales had taken the deer for autopsy. She shouldn’t have let him- he was going to find a love note written for her writ among the fawn's intestines, and then she was going to have to explain and then she was going to have to leave and she’d be back to where she was in the beginning, having well and truly cocked up her rescue attempt before it had even started.

Seeping in these thoughts, Khī let herself into the guest quarters, making straining to be unheard as she slunk to the bath.

Cub has been a light sleeper since long before she took that name for her own, and between sleeping an unknown bed and the events of the day, it can hardly be surprising that she stirs when Khi returns to their suite. As the other Solar makes her way to the bathroom, she calls out softly with amusement and affection in her voice, "you need to call the servants if you actually want a bath, you know."

Khī started a bit, not enough that the other woman would notice, hopefully. She could have sworn the other woman was asleep. All the supernatural insight in the world couldn’t make up for poor night vision on land, apparently. “I need to call the servants for hot water. Cold, however, will suit my purposes fine,” she says, her voice carefully neutral.

Cub looks at Khi in the darkness for a few moments before nodding resolutely and stepping forward, "I remember days like that. Please, let me help you."

“Cub” Khī said, removing her mask and setting it down on a dresser, “I don’t need the water to bathe. I need it to walk into the Great Uncle’s dreams."

Shrugging at the misunderstanding, Cub says "the offer still stands, though I have rather less experience with sorcery than bathing."

“I’ve had somewhat poor luck so far with having an audience so far tonight, but I suppose you have a bit more stomach than our nameless friend,” Khī couldn’t hide her grimace- it was clear something had troubled her more than she would let on through the mask.

"I believe so," Cub answers with a nod, "while I have always lived a life of plenty, it has hardly been one of, shall we say, simplicity."

Khī snorted. It was hard to imagine Cub tolerating a simple life for any longer than she would be absolutely forced to. Khī, on the other hand, had spent her earliest years before her masters had taken her in a half submerged shack with one bed and, last she had checked, 13 of her siblings. “I suppose we may as well get this on with, I do want to sleep tonight.”

"In that case, after you. My lady." Cub says with an amused smile as she holds the door open for Khi.

Khi follows behind, removing her gloves as she went. "Is this how the water mechanism works?" she mused, testing the spigot that began filling the bath with the collected rainwater from outside.

With the water, far colder than Cub would tolerate, mostly filling the tub, Khi steps into the tub, not bothering to remove her clothes. She closes her eyes, and remembers the face of Great Uncle Rightness, focusing on it, as she takes a step forward- and down. She descends, not looking at where her feet are going, her eyes fixated on her reflection, which, increasingly, looks less like the petite Ysyrian and more and more like an old, Lushfieldan man. She steps forward again, seeming to descend a set of stairs tangible only to her, following one step after another as her feet fall on something older and more elemental than a bathtub. Soon, with a blup, Khi's head vanishes beneath the water, leaving behind a completely empty tub, and Cub the only one left in the room.

In a forgotten age, the creators of the universe fastened the architecture of dreams, and made pathways so that the gods set over it might go about their business. These pathways are still in use, and many sorcerers know how to use them to send messages, and, far more rarely, assassins. Someone taught by a particularly knowledgeable spirit might even know the sorcerous way of entering these paths bodily, to gossip and spy and make love. Khi was one such sorcerer, but she held no illusion that this talent was particularly unique to her. For a time after learning the art, she was in the habit of taking a tonic to ensure her sleep was dreamless, so she would know if she dreampt to be on guard, and that anything she saw would be the artifice of a trespasser.

Rightness, she suspected, would lack the studious paranoia she had cultivated.

When Khi opened her eyes, she was no longer on her back in the bathtub. Instead, she found herself looking up at the a cloudy sky on a cool early summer morning. She sat up and looked around. By all appearances, she seemed to be in a small clearing in the middle of a wheat field. The stalks rose up over her head, blocking her view beyond. Instead of the soaked clothing she had been wearing, she now was dressed in a common home-spun peasant's tunic. She raised her hands up to her face in the barest moment of alarm upon realizing that she wasn't wearing her mask, and inadvertently brushed her hands by the smooth sides of her neck. It seemed that where she had traveled, she was no longer herself.

A strong gust of wind came from the wheat from behind her, blowing chaff across the clearing and throwing Khi's long, pale green hair into disarray. She turned to see the cause: behind her the stalks rippled in the gale, and through them she saw the outline of a person. It was a fit, tall shirtless man by the looks of it. From his motions, it appeared as he was practicing some sort of martial art, but unlike any Khi had ever seen. His acrobatic maneuvers made him seem to float through the air with every roundhouse kick and cartwheel, and he only ever seemed to be touching the ground with one hand or one foot at a time.

"I didn't wake you Ivy, did I?" the man called out, ceasing his training routine, having noticed her form through the rippling stalks, just as she had noticed him.

Ivy tucked a lock of green hair demurely out of the way. “Not at all, I’d just woken from the strangest dream.”

Pretending to be a person in a dream is very hard. Being a person in a dream is fairly easy. The unconscious mind has a current, and Khī knew enough to just go along with it, shaping its flow gently as it went. Many less talented users of this spell would channel the dream, and push it into a shape. And, for some purposes, this was for the best. But tonight, she needed uncle’s memories to fill in the gaps in her own knowledge.

Ivy calmed herself, allowing her host to lead the way. She felt buoyant in that moment, laying back down on the blanket that was spread over the soil. It felt like she was floating in a pool of cool water. Maybe she still was? There was a bathtub, right? No, that was just the dream. Or was it? A chill ran through her body and shocked her eyes open. Still in the wheat field. She had to be careful she didn't give in entirely to the dream and lose herself, her identity. She was Khi, not Ivy.

The man came through the stalks, pushing them aside like a beaded curtain. They didn't behave like wheat stalks would this late in the harvest. Those crackled and bent underfoot. Here, they swayed in perpetual motion. She was reminded of the miles of kelp farms at the base of the rocky cliffs on the north shore of Ysyr, in the Dreaming Sea. He kneeled on the blanket next to her, bending over and lowing his head to the earth, in silence and stillness, and the swaying of the wheat slowly stilled into pure tranquility. He was shirtless and slightly sweaty, and from the tanline visible along his lower back as he bent over, this must have been his daily routine. He was realigning his chakras, as he did every morning. Khi didn't know how she knew that. It was something Ivy knew. The closeness of the man in this moment felt deeply peculiar. Khi didn't know how to feel, but Ivy - Ivy was supposed to be feel content. More than content - blissful. She had to keep it together.

She focused. She was Khi, not Ivy. But part of her had to be Ivy, to know what was the dream trying to tell her to do. What was Ivy supposed to do here? She wanted to say something. It started with his name, but Khi didn't know what to say. What was his name? What did the dream want her to say? Once she knew what it wanted Ivy to say, Khi could make small her own small changes, guiding the dream in the direction it naturally wanted to go, but channeled to Khi's purposes.

Ivy/Khi let the dream push her along. Dreamlike, she rose, the shoulder of her dress slipping a bit, revealing a collarbone before she pulled it back up. "I dreamt of the wellspring" Ivy said. She let the dream push out his name through her lips, without thought. The wellspring was close, she had decided, and wherever the dream would flow, she pushed it into that conceptual space. Whatever banal romances of (presumably) Uncle's past would happen, they would pool and play out in someplace so deeply connected to that concept. There was a lot of flexibility here, before it became clear the dream was being shaped. The logic of dreams is odd, and even some bizarre things might be easily taken in stride.

The part of Khi that remained wholly her couldn't help but find it odd to feel so drawn to a man. She let herself feel Ivy's contentedness, let that show.

The tone of the dream shifted as a cloud (was that there before?) passed in front of the sun, casting a shadow over the bright, dewy morning. Subtle imperfections began to appear - Khi began to notice frayed edges on the blanket she sat on, and the bird in the distance that she could have sworn was a noble peregrine turned out to be a vulture. Holdfast - that was his name in the dream. Holdfast Rightness. The Uncle and Great Uncle must have came later.

Holdfast looked down in pain as the next words came to Ivy's lips. There was a sense of congruence here - Khi had taken the dreamer down well trodden paths, and all she had to do was let the words flow like water through a channel carved by centuries of erosion. "He spoke to me about it, in the dream." said Ivy. "He said it's getting worse, flickering, dying. Soon it will fail altogether - in months, maybe weeks. The worship isn't even close to enough. Maybe 40, 50 years ago, at the beginning, it filled the gaps, but it's like a drop in the ocean now." Khi glanced up at Rightness's ashen face and realized, this wasn't a dream at all - it was his nightmare, the one he had suffered through uncountable times.

Ivy's words continued: "You know it doesn't come from him, the power... he takes it, redirects it, distributes it. Like a conduit. He's drained the land below us, down to the bedrock, that's how he's made up the difference. It's toasted now, there's almost nothing left. That's why I need to go."

Khi felt her grip on the dream become shaky. She looked up and saw the dark thunderclouds that blocked out the sun crackle with current, and the first heavy drops of rain began to crater into the dirt around her. Holdfast grabbed her by the wrist, holding it tightly, until it began to hurt, desperate to stop the pain he himself was feeling It was hurting her now. Still she managed to continue:

"I have to find it and fix it." Ivy said. "The manse, or the demense, whatever it is that's broken. It's my responsibility. All he can tell me is that it's in the north somewhere, the far north, maybe near the pole." Ivy breathed deeply. The drops of rain were turning into a full-fledged monsoon. "I don't know how long it will take. But if it's not fixed, he won't stop. He can't go down anymore, so he'll go outward. Without the Wellspring, the rate will increase. He'll drain the land around us, for hundreds of miles, pulling the essence inward to feed the topsoil. They'll notice the the theft, eventually, we won't be able to hide it forever."

Holdfast grasped her tighter and tighter, extending his hold over her, wrapping his other arm around Khi/Ivy's body as the grip on her wrist became as strong as a vice - it hurt, excruciatingly. The wheat fell away, chopped into pieces and blown away by gale-force winds. He wouldn't let her go - couldn't. Ivy had left and never came back, and he wasn't going to let it happen again. The driving rain was stabbing her body like needles. The cracks of thunder were stinging her ears. The freezing air was burning her eyelids. It hurt so much. She had to get out, somehow.

"I have to go, Holdfast," Ivy said, her hair whipping around her as the rain picked up, "I can't stop this any more than you can. I'll come back some day," Inspiration shook Khi, so much of the man Holdfast Rightness had become was so clear to her now, even the reasons for his abuse of the ghost flower. "I'll see you one more time. I can't go on to Lethe without you. Let me go, Holdfast. Wait for me. Stay. I need to see you before I can pass on" tears ran from Ivy's eyes, and behind them crept rot and decay, her beautiful skin blackening behind her tears. "Please," she said, placing a hand on his chest. Not that Rightness or Ivy would know to recognize farm-girl-pleads-with-the-soldier, a classic Black Claw hold, almost, but not quite distinguishable from a woman trying to push a much larger man off of her. In Black Claw, it was one of seven ways to proceed to the Emerald Claw. In case the dream did not cooperate with her, Khi did need to be prepared. Of course, the dream would cooperate with her. Uncle Rightness hated himself, she could see that now. And his mind would accept wounding itself, provided the wound was cloaked in a friendly face.

Black Claw was not so different from many things, Khi reflected.

"The woman, the Cynis, she can end this. She can let my spirit free to see you one more time. Help me, Holdfast," Ivy pled, her rotting face dissolving into dust, picked up into the storm, "Help me end this," Khi let herself become the dust. Rightness's mind would accept his own failure, even in a dream. He had, after all, failed in the waking world, and he had, clearly, relived this failure many many times in the dreaming world. She let the winds of the dream carry her onto forgotten paths, away from Uncle's dream, and once more toward the waking world.

The icy storm of the dream world slowly began to abate. Tears welled from Holdfast's eyes as he buried his face in Khi/Ivy's hair. He couldn't bear to look at her face as it rotted away in the dream. She had promised to come back to him. She wouldn't leave him - that's what she promised. That was why he traveled for so many years, trying to follow her path and discover any trace of where she had gone, and why she didn't return. That's why he ended up in Sijan, where he learned the secrets of speaking to ghosts. It's why he smoked the ghost flower every day, even as its pernicious effects slowly sapped his mind and body, clogging the chakras that connected him to his birthright. Khi saw what he could do in his prime, when his body was strong and fit. Could he be the man he once was, if he only gave up the dream smoke? If he finally found his beloved, learned of her fate, maybe even had one last chance to speak to her, would it finally console his grief?

All he knew in that moment was that the Cynis woman knew something. Maybe she had a lead on where Ivy had gone, or could find her spirit if she had departed from this world. He slowly let his grip on Ivy's wrist slacken. This was just a dream. It wasn't the real thing. Just a dream, like every other night before this one. He would wake up from this and take a hit and he would feel better. It would numb the pain. But he wouldn't forget. Finally, the wind stilled completely. He had dreamed for so long, waiting for inspiration, a clue on what to do next. It had been so long. "Thank you" he whispered, as he finally let go, letting the dream finally dissolve. Khi's eyes slowly shut, like she was falling asleep. When she opened them again, she was back underwater, in the tub, wholly herself again.

While Persistent Cub is a patient woman, she is not quite patient enough to stand all night looking at the empty bathtub Khi disappeared into. She has, however, laid out a change of clothes and a towel to be readily available should Khi need them when she returns. She has also moved a chair into the bathroom and is reading a book on the history of Lushfield she found in the suite. There is no reason to entirely waste her time, but she is ready to assist should something happen to the sorceress.

Khi emerges from the bathroom, sopping wet. "I have some answers, I think," She said, helping herself to the towel Cub had set out, "Holdfast- Great Uncle Rightness- he knows what's happened to the wellspring. He thinks you can help, thinks his lost love told him to come to you,"

"Well done," Cub answers and puts aside the book. "Do you think he will approach me without further prompting?"

"Hard to say," Khi says, stripping perfunctorily, changing as quickly as she could into a set of clean clothes, "But it seems the wellspring is damaged somehow," An undershirt covers her face, then is pulled down, "It seems the god is doing what it can, but it's stealing what essence it can to hold Lushfield's unnatural fertility. It's a malfunctioning manse of some kind, or a demesene, and it's not here. But it's pulling energy from here to somewhere else, somewhere up north. They must have managed to repair it a bit- Lushfield isn't a wasteland yet- but I doubt they were able to fix it."

"The Wellspring is a Manse?" Cub says questioningly. "Do you have an idea how far north? Or how it would be possible to 'retrieve' it?" She adds, stressing Lamplighter's original request.

“The wellspring is a hearthstone, the fruit of a manse. I was...” Khī trailed off, “High Realm is not my native tongue. I was imprecise. The manse itself, I am not sure, but far. Closer to the pole. It sounds that that is where the wasteland is. If the hearthstone remains, it is below."

Cub nods in understanding, "that seems far more reasonable. And presumably, Rightness would know its location. And likely some of the other Exalted as well, though they may not know it by name. Certainly, the Immaculates should have at least a cursory knowledge of it in order to continue the rituals."

“I’m not convinced they all know the specifics of it- it seems the majority of the work of it is shouldered by the god,” Khī yawned, despite herself, “It’s getting very late. Let’s have the conversation with the others tomorrow, shall we?” Khī grabbed her mask from a nearby dresser, re affixing it over damp hair. She nodded, awkwardly, to Cub, before departing to her own quarters.
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The Next Morning, Cub, Khi, and Cold wake up at Honto's Manor

Cub, Khi, and Cold each awoke late the next morning to the seductive sounds and smells of scallion pancakes frying in hot oil, which permeated throughout the house. The events of the night before had taken them into the hours well beyond where reasonable gods-fearing folk had long retired, and they had slept long and deep. Cold had returned to Honto's estate escorted by Warden late in the night, and Marwin had met them at the front gate, where he quietly directed the shapeshifter to the room that had been prepared for Hidden-Reed's use. Warden had departed, and returned to the caravan paddock to rejoin Scales and Nameless by the wagon, where he had found the two blissfully asleep.

The smell of alcohol still clung to Hidden-Reed's body that morning, flung in all directions by Armun's crash into the glass table loaded with booze, and Cold was glad that Marwin had not so much as raised an eyebrow or asked a single question about what had transpired. In his tiredness, he had shrugged off the lovingly handcrafted, but perhaps irrevocably stained paper dress the moment the door to the room had closed behind him, and had crawled in-between the luxurious silk sheets of the four-poster bed. It was the most comfortable place he had ever slept. Was he getting soft? The Cold of a week ago wouldn't have thought twice about ripping that insolent man's heart out and drinking his blood.

Cold woke up after what felt like the best sleep in his life. It had felt like sleeping on a cloud, wrapped in gloriously soft and war sheets that made the idea of freezing seem like nothing more then a far off memory and the idea of getting out of bed didn't sound appealing in the least. But, the smell off food and the grumbling of his stomach made a good argument.

He got out of bed, looking at his dress with a hint of sadness on his face. He had put so much effort into it. And because of one scumbag all that work might've gone down the drain. Maybe he could ask if the servants if they knew how to get the stench of alcohol out of the fabric? With a heavy heart he removed the paper parts of the dress. The alcohol already having ruined those parts beyond repair. A pity, though to be fair the paper had always been a temporary solution. If the dress was salvageable he should look into replacing it with silk perhaps? Either way, the fact his dress was... not fit for wear brought him to his next hurdle.

He didn't have any clothes.. Fuck.

Well, Cub might have some! And she was only right across the hall! Maybe she could tell him where the bath was as well, because he smelled of stale beer and liqueur. Not exactly a good look if you're going to have breakfast in high society. Seeing no other option, he quickly wrapped the silken sheets around his body, Poked his head out outside the room, letting out a small sigh of relief when he didn't see any servants and tiptoed across the hall, Knocking on Cub's door.

"Cub? Cub, are you awake?"

Khī opened the door a crack, her mask poking out from behind. Grey eyes, hooded by a wooden mask coolly surveyed Hidden Reed.

“You look awful.” Khī stated simply, “Do come in though. We can’t let you go out looking like this,”

Cold let out a sigh of relief when the door cracked open. Seeing Khi's familiar wooden mask give him a look over. He could only guess at what the sorceress was thinking. Judgement? Confusion? Curiosity as to how he got in that state? His face fell a bit at her statement. "It's not that bad, I think," He muttered. But still gratefully slipped inside of the room. "I just stood to close to somebody falling through a table that had a lot of alcohol on top of it. I got splattered." Cold explained unable to look her in the eyes out of embarrassment.. "That's why I'm in this mess."

The entire situation was... more embarrassing then he thought. "So, do you know where I could get a cloth and some water to clean me off?" He didn't know what the people here used to clean themselves. But he hadn't seen anybody bathing themselves in streams. And some clothes?"

Khī listened to Cold’s explanation halfheartedly. Between his gait, the smell and the tear patterns of the dress he’d brought with, she had no need for the Lunar to fumble with an explanation. “I know.” She said simply, “Lovers falling out, I see,” it was a good guess, given the damage, and she watched Cold’s face twitch, involuntarily, she could see it confirmed, a story written on the woman’s face and body. He had more tells in this form, or, perhaps, his body language was easier to read. “And you were more involved than you’re going to admit. I must say, I didn’t think you had that in you. Full of surprises, are you not?”

“I’m sure I can have some clothes brought for you,” Khī said, ushering the shapeshifter inside, “I’ve already drawn Cub a bath, but she won’t be up for a bit and I suspect she may be willing to wait." Truth be told, the scent of stale alcohol on Cold was not terrible. It would probably be more noticeable if they were both underwater, but that was fairly academic.

Cold simply stared at Khi as she crudely outlined what happened. There were a few things missing. Like him and Warden being the ones causing the lovers to have the falling out in the first place, and it being for a good cause. But that was scarily accurate, especially with her being able to figure it out simply by looking at him. There was just one thing that confused him in her little explanation.

"That's both impressive and slightly scary, how you figured all that out with just a look. But what did you mean by 'having it in me?'" he asked, his head tilting in confusion as to what she meant with that. The confusion didn't stop there. "Wait, bathing? Do they have a stream indoors? or does the room connect to the outside?"

“Oh I just didn’t think you as the type to orchestrate a breakup,” Khī said, shrugging, “You and…someone else. Warden?” Another twitch, “Well look at that. I would expect that from Cub, but the two of you, less so.” Khī was fairly blasé through the whole thing. Intellectually, she was aware it was impressive, but being faster at this than most people had stopped being a novelty when she was still in hell.

"Ah, well I'm usually not the type." Cold responded. "But you would've understood if you had been there." A look of pure disgust crawled on Cold's face as he thought back to the absolute piece of reindeer-dung that Armun had been. "the fool had less restraint then a dog in heat."

As for the second part of Cold's question, Khī opened the door to the bathroom, and gestured to the steaming tub. “Cold, the wealthy live different lives, especially in places like Lushfield."

Cold peeked into the room Khi had opened and his jaw dropped. When you lived up in the freezing north, you get a good grasp of how quickly you burn through your firewood and how long it takes to warm things up. It had certainly taken a good chunk of firewood to heat up enough water to fill the tub. "They really really do." Cold could only agree. It wasn't just the water, but he could also smell that aromatics fragrances used in the soaps weren't from the local foliage around here either. Or at least, he hadn't smelled any them in the wild in all of his travels through the region. So those probably had been imported as well. He wondered if he could one day enrich his own people so much, so that things like these were common indulgences.

He walked up to the bath and gave an embarrassed look towards Khi, "Uh, could you give me some privacy while I bathe?"

“Oh believe me I had no intention of gawping,” Khī said, taking her leave.

"I can hardly believe it," Cub says with an amused air as she strides into the room wearing a loose robe of emerald green silk. Her voice is raised slightly to transmit through the closed bathroom door, but not quite enough to be easily audible in the hallway outside. "My own niece a prude. I would have thought half a lifetime of bathing in rivers would have drive that out of you, to say nothing of your heritage." Despite her taunting words, she makes no move to open the door, but merely shakes her head at it.

"I'm not a prude," Cold shot back with all the dignity he could muster, which wasn't much. "I'm just not used to being naked in front of others, that's all." Or being naked at all, to be honest. You wore layers while you were in the north, or you were going to freeze off some bits. He rather liked having those bits. And even though he wasn't in danger of freezing anything off. The idea of disrobing with other people in the room was weirdly intimate. For as long as he had lived, he had learned you only did that with close blood relatives.... or people you were planning to be intimate with. He was pretty sure Cub and Khi were neither.

He dropped the silk sheets he had been using to cover himself up and slid into the tub. Picking out a shampoo that smelled nice and starting to lather himself up. Trying to wash the stink of stale alcohol out of his hair and off his skin. "Besides, I doubt you would like me being around in the bathroom while you were soaking in the tub."

"That depends. Would you be making yourself useful?" Cub answers, still amused.

"Useful?" Cold called back. "Like washing your back or something?" Cold continued to scrub his scalp. Cursing a few times at the sheer amount of hair he had on his head. and the significant lack of hair everywhere else. Bathing like this was unfamiliar.

Khi chuckled from the hallway, "I don't think that's what she meant."

"Potentially." Cub responded. "Or bringing wine, making music, or offering joy in whatever way you do best."

Offering joy. Khi snorted quietly underneath her mask.

Cold wasn't that good at non-direct conversation. But even he was pretty sure they were dancing around something. And being very amused at the fact he didn't grasp it. Bringing wine and making music all kinda sounded in the same vein of washing your back. Something Khi told him wasn't what Cub meant. And why was Khi snorting? So offering joy, what kind of offering joy wasn't like music enterta- Oh. The yen dropped in Cold's mind and he could feel him starting to blush a deep tomato red. The few seconds of complete and utter silence from the other side of the door being enough of a clue that Cold had finally put two and two together. "W-well, uh, bathing things aside," the beast-man lunar stuttered through the sentence. "I don't have any clothes, could I borrow a set? Please?"

"I'm sure we can find something," Cub says helpfully. Or perhaps ominously, though that would depend entirely on how suspicious one was.

Cold let out a sigh of relief both cub and Khi could hear. Trusting Cub at her word when she said she would be helpful. He took a little bit longer to make sure the last of the shampoo was washed out of his hair. Got out of the tub, dried off, wrapped himself into the large towel and made his way over to the door. Ready to finally get himself a set of clothes that didn't stink of alcohol.

A proper dress is soon procured for Cold, though getting it on him is not accomplished without some good-natured ribbing. That accomplished, Cub takes time to have a bath herself (once fresh hot water has been brought up of course). Once all three Exalts are ready to face the day she says, "I believe we should avail ourselves of our good host's breakfast, but afterwards we should find the others and share what information we have learned since yesterday. I believe Khi's insights in particular are something everyone should know."

Cold was happy that he finally was clothed. Even though the process of actually finding a dress had taken a lot longer then he would've liked. Some of it could've been traced back to Hidden-Reed and Cub being of different builds. But he could've sworn that Cub was enjoying herself while flitting from dress to dress.(though he was sure some of the shown ones were showing way to much to be called a dress.) Always having some sly comment ready that would make him blush but any attempt of calling her out on it just made him look like his mind was the dirty one. "Yes, that sounds like the best idea." Cold agreed, flush slowly subsiding. "Warden and I also found out an intriguing little nugget while searching that could merit some following up on."

The three celestial guests headed downstairs together, following the sound and scent of the sizzling scallion pancakes to the dining room. From the sounds and unfamiliar voices they were hearing, the meal was not merely for their benefit. There must have been at last eight or ten people already there as well, chattering in indistinct, though generally amiable tones. Marwin was, of course, dutifully waiting for them at the door, and greeted the two dynastic ladies and their dutiful servant with a sufficiently polite but abbreviated bow.

The sight inside of the dining room was rather unexpected: the breakfast must be some sort of military staff meeting. At the head of the table was not Honto, who was in fact nowhere to be seen. Instead, Talonlord Anguilla presided at the head of the table, dressed in her ceremonial regalia over her blue jade artifact armor. The seven nearest seats to her were occupied by her officer corps: mostly middle-aged men with perfectly groomed mustaches and salt-and-pepper hair, dressed in their finest lamellars of gleaming polished bronze, the quilted shoulderpads embroidered with designs in gold thread. Mixed among them was another woman, who looked just as hard as the men. And seated furthest from Anguilla, perhaps indicating his lowly status in the group, was Rael - the man Cold remembered from the night before.

The free-flowing conversation among the officers did not immediately halt upon the entry of the three women - it seemed as though the group was engrossed in some bawdy story being told by the woman officer, and they were expecting to hear the punchline any second. The faint sound of chopsticks clacking against porcelain as scallion pancakes were dipped into chili paste still continued, almost musically. The table was covered with helmets and plates stacked with quartered pancakes. Only Rael left his seat to stand to attention immediately and performs a hand-in-fist salute - apparently he was new to the clique. "So she ends up puking up all the rice wine, and then falls off the horse and breaks her arm!" The officers burst into laughter, with a few giving her convivial pats on the back. "Attention!" Anguilla shouts, silencing the room. There was a glint in her eye from across the room - she had immediately noticed the entry of the three distinguished guests, but decided that it wasn't worth interrupting the story.

"Men" Anguilla said firmly - she had barely spoken three words when she was in Honto's presence, but in these circumstances, she was plainly in her element: "This is Lady Persistent Cub, a representative of one of the great dynastic houses of the Blessed Isle, along with her niece and her secretary. Yesterday she observed the late morning maneuvers. They are invited to join us for breakfast." A few officers whispered to one another - apparently, the story of the match between Anguilla and the Nameless Sword Maiden had swiftly circulated throughout most of the community, and a few of the officers craned their heads to see if the swordswoman was among the three women. Picking up on chatter, Anguilla popped a bite into her mouth and chewed it quickly - "My men heard about the duelist in your service, and they're intrigued."

Cold couldn't help the surprised look on his face as Anguilla and not Honto was waiting for them at breakfast. Only catching the tail end of the riveting story. This honestly reminded him of some of the tall tales and stories hunters and warriors told each other at home. No matter the distance, it seemed people that practiced war always felt familiar.

He gave a polite curtsy at each of the officers and then took the offered seat. Cold was unsure if he was supposed to join in with the conversation. So instead he simply started the breakfast and kept an eye on the rest of the table. Giving Rael a smile, he really needed to ask him if everything had gone alright after yesterday's unpleasantness.

Khi stayed by the door, standing quietly by the entrance. To any observer, it was clearly so she might leave at her lady's convenience, should she need something. In practice, of course, it was to get a better view of the proceedings. She would let Cub handle the formalities and little graces, as was her specialty, and give Khi the space to do her job.

She cast an eye over Anguilla's men. One of them was clearly a stranger to the bunch, who seemed to know Cold. A witness to last evening's debacle, no doubt. Not the party at fault, she could see that with a glance. The others... Khi had a keen nose for guilt. If any of the others were culpable in Lushfield's little conspiracy, she would know. (Although she suspected only the highest echelons of Lushfield knew anything about the real source of the region's fecundity.)

Khi's discerning eye couldn't detect anything out of place that would indicate their present company wasn't anything else than what was presented - this was the military clique that served as Anguilla's loyal retainers and subordinates. More than that - their easygoing disposition and affability even in their Exalted commander's presence was a sign of longstanding stability in the upper ranks. It also said something about the Talonlord herself: a healthy respect for authority was expected among one's subordinates, but here there wasn't the typical holding of one's tongue that typically went with fear of a superior's caprice or spite, if a comment were taken the wrong way. Khi wasn't a military type, but she knew how commands were supposed to be given and received in rigid organizations, and how over-familiarity can sometimes breed ineffectiveness. Only that younger fellow over there - the one desperately pretending that he had never met Cold before, seemed to internalize his proper role as his mistress's tool. The rest seemed more like her drinking companions. Was this a true military, or merely a social club disguised as one?

Cub could read between the lines better than anyone: Honto wasn't present, but this had his fingerprints all over it. This was a demonstration of unity and strength. He was in control of the civil government, and Anguilla was in full control of the military establishment. Two of the three traditional pillars of power, as laid out by Cathak Azar, the author of the introductory text on governance that most dynasts were required to read by the time they were ten. Cub had seen a copy in Honto's library. The remaining one, of course, was the religious institution.

"My," she says to Anguilla, "these truly are Lushfield's finest. It is a pleasure to meet you all." Cub nods at each of the officers in turn, giving them her most pleasant introductory smile and letting her eyes linger just long enough at theirs to make each feel like there is a connection between them. She takes the seat that was offered her and answers Anguilla's implied question, "I am not surprised. She is an intriguing woman. I just hope some of the mystery rubs off on me."

"It has, truly" replied Anguilla to Cub, a knowing look in her eye. Cub recalled the image of Anguilla reclining comfortably in Honto's study, an eager co-conspirator in his proposed plot to decapitate the religious leadership. And for that matter, the woman seemed rather comfortable in her comings-and-going within what Cub still perceived as Honto's household, even holding her little supper-club meeting of the brass in his dining room. "Unfortunately, my staff were not able to attend that night, and I am informed that the minor demonstration of mock combat which we put on has by now become rather legendary in their minds." Anguilla looked around at her officers with a grin, before swilling a cup of tea.

"It has been proposed," said Anguilla, "that a further demonstration, perhaps along similar lines might well have strong educational value, among the men of the legion. I would consider it a great personal favor if you could lend me your swordswoman for the day. The two of us spoke only briefly that night, and I felt that much was left unsaid." She looked around the room for a moment. "I promise she shall be returned to you in one piece" she wryly added, the gaggle of officers chuckling as if she had just uttered the funniest line imaginable.

Cold frowned as even he could see Rael desperately trying to pretend not to know him. Trying to figure out the reason. Had his attempts to break up Bilani and that scumbag been slightly to much? No he doubted that. He had seen clearly how much Rael had wanted to cave that scumbag's face in. Was it something to do with the place they were in? Was he not supposed to be in a place like that? Or was it because he wasn't supposed to slum with the locals?

Being in social situations like this felt like walking across a frozen lake, unsure if your next step would send you crashing into the freezing water below. He still couldn't help chuckling along at Anguilla's statement. The idea that Anguilla could break Na-Mai being unfathomable.

"A great personal favor from a Prince of the Earth is quite the prize for a day's work," Cub answers, her eyes on Anguilla, probing the other for deeper desires in the request than the obvious. "I believe that can be arranged, and with your promise that she will return in one piece, I don't see how I could refuse."

The barest twitch at the corner of Anguilla's mouth when she grinned betrayed her intentions: she did not merely intend to satisfy her own curiosity or pride, or to put on a show for her subordinates. No, this was part of the conspiracy as well - a test of the Nameless Sword Maiden's skill. Anguilla was reasoning that if an assassination were to be perpetrated, it would be this uncannily swift woman that would be swinging the sword. She wanted to be sure that what they witnessed that night in the garden wasn't a fluke, that the deed could be reliably carried out, and that everyone else in Lushfield would be aware of their intended patsy's skill as well.

"Are officers' breakfasts in the Seneschal's house are Lushfield tradition?" Cub inquires as she takes a delicate sip of her tea.

"It's not unheard of. The mess does tend to get dreary at times, and horribly drafty." Anguilla replies. "Besides, since I had already decided to join you for breakfast, it would have been wrong to indulge in such luxuries" - Anguilla daintily picked up a crispy pancake with her chopsticks - "while my staff suffered through another morning of rice porridge."

Cub decides to also try the pancakes, applying her chopsticks with precision and grace. "Ah, soldiers and complaining about the mess. A tale as old as time," she quips amicably.

The collected officers politely laughed along with Cub's quip. "Sadly," started Anguilla, "You've caught us at the tail end of our meeting, and we all have our own pressing duties to attend to." She thought for a brief moment. "Scalelord Rael" - she indicated to the youngest officer, who Cold had sat next to. He snapped to attention in response to hearing his name - "will arrive at your carriage at noon to meet your woman-at-arms, and escort her to my tent." The officers slowly began to rise in a slightly lethargic manner from the rich fried food, taking their helmets under their arms and bowing in turn to the guests as they shuffled out of the room. "Marwin -" Anguilla noted with a thankful, acknowledging nod as she exited. It seemed nothing need to be said between the two. The cacophony of bronze armor plates clacking together and boots on hardwood floors slowly faded away as the soldiers departed. And with that, nothing was left but a mess of dirty plates and chopsticks, and a few remaining platters of crispy breakfast treats.

"Well, then," Cub muses once the soldiers have left. "We might as well partake before we join the others," she says with a sweeping gesture as she picks up another pancake.

Cold was already way ahead of her, sitting back in his chair to let his meal settle a bit.
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Scales, Warden, and the Nameless Sword Maiden Wake the Next Morning

Scales and the Sword Maiden awoke next to each other, stirred by the light of the morning sun and the crow of a rooster. They must had dozed off together and finally given in to inexorable pull of sleep, lulled into oblivion by the slow crackles of the small campfire that now was nothing but ashes and embers. Someone had gently draped a large horse blanket over the two of them to keep them warm in the cool night, and had compassionately snuck a folded saddle pad under both their heads to keep them from laying directly on the dirt. It couldn't have been Nisalta, who was asleep inside the wagon when they had returned the night before, and still had not stirred. The only other person with them was Warden, who neither of them remembered having arrived, but whose large, sleeping frame was occupying the padded driver's bench seat of Nisalta's large Guild Factor's Wagon, a pillow under his head and a straw wagon-driver's hat pulled down low over his eyes.

The Sword Maiden started moving first, her left foot twitching a bit until it slid out from under the horse blanket, the cool morning breeze reaching her ankle, which fully woke her up. She'd slept well - something she often did, while she had a whole life to chase, she was unburdened by uncomfortable memories, and her keen senses meant she felt secure to just doze off wherever, without any thought of danger. She blinked a few times, her eyes quickly adjusting to the morning light, and yawned slowly, before getting up, straightening her posture, and loosening up her limbs.

It was her time of day, after all.

She gathered up her things, and ran her fingers through her hair, until she thought that it might be moderately straightened, and then trodded off to find some fresh water. Might as well rekindle the fire and cook some tea for Warden, Scales and the others.

Despite the late evening and the several drinks he had in the process, Warden wasn't one to sleep in. Perhaps a youth spent in a monastery left his body trained to wake up early, or perhaps he was just that kind of person. Either way, he sat up with a stifled yawn, pushing back the straw hat from his eyes to admire the first few rays of the rising sun in the distance. He noticed Maiden's empty blankets and busied himself getting the fire started again that had burnt down to embers during the night.

Scales, feeling the warmth of the sun and hearing the crowing of roosters, shuffles further underneath the blanket, trying to block it out. After a few minutes, he gives it up as a vain attempt, rising and greeting the morning with a muttered, “Damned bird.” Going through a few stretches to work out the kinks that developed though the night, he spies Warden and offers him a “Good morning.”

"You guys sleep okay?" the Maiden asked politely, as she got down on one knee next to Warden, shoving a bit of dry weeds into the still-warm embers, managing to stay out of Warden's way and actually helping the fire flare up again. She'd placed a banged-up tea kettle next to the fire, filled with fresh water, and conjured a packet of aromatic tea leaves from somewhere in the caravan's supplies.

"Good morning." Warden repeats Scales' greeting cheerfully as he slowly fans the flames. "I slept well, thank you. And you two? You looked a bit uncomfortable when I came back to camp."

"I slept fine. I assume we have you to thank for the blanket?" answered Scales.

Warden nods at the question. "It was a cool night. Did you two have a productive evening yesterday? Learned anything new?"

Warden's question to Scales and the Nameless Sword Maiden was most timely interrupted by the arrival of the other three Exalts. From the numerous flakes of fried pancakes that were still visible on Cold's borrowed clothing, it was apparent that the three had already eaten, and that Cold had not yet fully mastered the intricacies of chopsticks. The fact called attention to the rumblings of their own stomachs, especially Scales and Nameless. Even though both had slender builds, neither had eaten much the day before, and the events surrounding the burial of the fawn had tempered their appetites.

"Good morning," Cub greets the others with a friendly smile.

"Good morning," Cold echoes as he walks up to the rest of the circle. Unaware of the remains of his breakfast on his face. Cold sniffed the air and and listened to the world around him, trying to see if any of the goons sent to keep an eye on the circle were far enough so they could talk freely. They seemed to be just as competent at their jobs as always, from what he could hear. "I found out at least one more interesting thing while I kept my ear to the ground with Warden." he gestured towards the Zenith.

Khi brought up the rear of their little group, having produced a scroll from somewhere. Rather than greet the others, she just nodded curtly, interrupting the smalltalk. "I have drafted a brief agenda, to ensure this meeting is conducted efficiently. As there is no clear superior, it is my suggestion that we resolve questions of our plans with a simple majority vote while we still travel together. Is this amenable to all of you," Khi said, flatly. She had the time in the morning to plan things out, and, frankly, the less time they spent here the better. Khi had little interest in continuing to dawdle here, even if she deceit that kept the country functioning did not exactly endear it to her.

"That seems agreeable. We are all peers, after all." Warden said with a nod towards Khi.

"It is fine with me as well," said Scales "So, what's first on the agenda?"

Cold nods, waiting for Khi to explain.

Khi flicked her wrist, to flatten out the scroll. Written in Flametongue that seemed almost block printed with how uniform the characters were penned, was a short list. "To make some order of the information we've all gathered, we'll all, in brief, share what we've found. I've afterwards allowed a short period for negotiation, after which we will all vote on a course of action, and stick with it. We've thus far prosecuted this investigation in a rather disorganized fashion, and this has bred inefficiencies. I trust this schedule is amenable to you all, I rather think its on the skeletal end of things,"

Khi, as ever the efficient Night Caste, cleared her throat. "To this end, I will begin. I bound a metody last night, as we agreed, and it will toil to burn a hole in the root structure beneath the country until I am satisfied with its job. I also entered the dreams of Holdfast Rightness, now Great Uncle Rightness. The Wellspring is the hearthstone of a manse, which is now either quiescent or broken. It is the fruit of a manse far to the north, and before it broke, it functioned to ensure the enduring lushness of the land. One of Lushfield's champions, Ivy, departed some years ago to repair the manse, and has not returned. Someone, presumably Tramazia, has been pulling essence from the land around to make up the difference, hence the worship. I visited Holdfast with the face of his long-missing, likely dead lover - this Ivy woman - and have convinced him that Cub is the key toward letting her spirit finally rest. Cold, Warden, if you would fill us in on what you found, between the play, your conversation with Rock, and, of course, whatever course of events that lead to you deciding to break up a young couple."

Cold didn't look repentant in the least at Khi's comment of breaking up a young couple. "Most of the stuff I heard during the play are things Cub talked with Honto about behind closed doors. So she has the bigger picture of it and I'll leave that to her to explain." Cold started.

"After the play, Warden and I decided to check out a drinking hall, spend some money and see where it leads us. We had a talk with a man named Rael there, who is something called a scale-lord in Lushfield's military. He mentioned that there is enough space underneath the cathedral to house the entirety of Lushfield's population in an emergency. I think they might have repurposed that tunnel that was dug ages ago into a shelter. As for the breaking up a couple," Cold rolled his eyes. "Rael's sister's fiance was an absolute scumbag, and he's lucky I didn't throw him out of a window."

Warden listened attentively to as Khi and then Cold as he spoke. The Zenith's expression darkened for just a moment at the mention of the demon, but he quashed it quickly. When it was his turn, he took a small step forward, stroking his beard.

"Mhh, first there was my talk with Rock. I believe you all already heard a short summary before, but just to repeat: Rock told me the deal with the God existed even before he was born, and that said deal is what ensures the children of Lushfield are never born sickly and that the fields are as lush as they are. He also intends to reveal everything, the whole deception with the prayer calendar, to the people before the play in a few days."

Next, he added what he summarized about the play: "The play is based, of course, on a national founding myth and story of a coming savior. If things go as planned, the people of Lushfield might be pushed into a fervor. I know how crowds work, how a masterful performance can incite them into an angry riot. Of course, with Rock's plan, that's much less likely to function." He hmm'd thoughtfully. "It might even be our chance, if we want to make our own appeal to the people of Lushfield after Rock's reveal. They will be off balance, their patriotism disrupted, their emotions in turmoil."

Then, he waves a hand in Cold's direction. "I don't have much to add to Cold's report, except perhaps that Lushfield hasn't been attacked partially because they have a deal with the Guild. A deal that might fall through if Lushfield stops being quite so lush."

Cub leans back and regards the assembled exalts with a somber look on her face. "Honto is mostly occupied by two projects at the moment. One: To have us rid him of Celcine. Preferably violently, with the blame being placed firmly on the shoulders of House Ledaal. For this he is willing to pay significant sums of money, and likely also other things from the museum we visited yesterday. Two: On a somewhat related note, he would like to get Rock out of the way by sending him and Lin - the star actress of the play - off to the Realm so that she may better learn the art of the theater."

Khī smiled thinly, beneath her mask, “Scales Glisten, our anonymous colleague, did anything happen after I left you last night?”

I’ll keep my suspicions to myself, for now, thought Scales. “Nothing of note with regards to our investigation," he spoke, in a half-truth.

Khi nods. "If no one else has anything else they would like to contribute, I suggest we have a short time for discussion, settle on options and vote. I will say, I have little patience for the intrigues of these dragon blooded. I despise how they rule, but only because of its foundations on corruption. And, in any case, it's academic, as I have no jurisdiction here. In any case, I'd like to hear everyone's thoughts,"

"Our first priority must be the Wellspring," Cub offers as an opening. "But we should perhaps consider both the implications, if any, for Lushfield should it be removed, and Lamplighter's reaction to finding out that it no longer functions as intended, assuming that they do not already know."

"As far as I understand, then, the wellspring isn't doing anything anymore for Lushfield, and it's the God who is causing the fertility by sucking the essence out of the neighboring places?" Cold asks. "And if the Lamplighters don't know the wellspring is broken, they might not consider our deal fulfilled if we return without it. If we can get some info on where that manse, perhaps we could mollify them with that piece of info?"

"As for the other matter, I wouldn't mind killing Celcine and getting paid for it. Plenty of things we can use the money for down the line." Cold adds his own two cents on that little bit.

“Perhaps the God could give us that information?," noted Scales. Although, that might require us to find its sanctum…”

"Or we could force it to show itself by threatening its agenda sufficiently that it comes to us," added Warden.

“But what is its goal?," Scales speculated. "To see Lushfield prosper? To gain more followers? If it is the latter, perhaps your conversation with Rock, and his plan will be enough.”

"Hmm. Both of those would require us to disclose Rock's plan to the God or wait for its execution," answered Warden. "And then he might prevent Rock from doing it in the first place."

"Do you have a stake in whether or not Rock gives his explanation to the Lushfielders?" Cub asks Warden, genuinely curious. They haven't spoken much, and she would like to know more of the swordsman. "Cold also brings up a point for which I am curious to what you all think about. Would you object to leaving Celcine dead when we depart Lushfield? I have no strong interest in seeing her live, but I do find it somewhat grating to be considered a murderer for hire by Honto."

Warden nods, determined. "I may not believe in the Immaculate Faith, but it is wrong still to deceive the people. This entire prayer fraud sits ill with me, and the people deserve to know the truth. And Rock deserves to make his principled stand before them all. As for Celcine... I do not like to take a life easily. But she has not endeared herself to me and seems determined to lead her people to bloodshed and doom. I would not object to her death, but the payment is immaterial to my reasons."

The Sword Maiden looked in the other Exalt's faces, eyes narrowing. The entire course of the discussion seemed to be uncomfortable for her.

"I don't think we should murder someone just because we're being offered payment. We are already about to disrupt the state of Lushfield's fertility. If we also meddle with it's leadership, we should put some thought into what that might do to the place. Celcine has my contempt, but if removing her just brings turmoil, I'm not voting for that idea. Peasants need stability more than anything. Remove their leadership, and they just wouldn't know what to do. If you guys think it would allow the likes of Rock to lead in a better way, I am open to it, however."

Cub spoke up: "Honto's argument, which I believe is made in good faith and not unreasonable, is that killing Celcine will bring stability, not chaos. I also have no intention of murdering for payment, but if the murder in question aligns with our plans regardless, I'm happy to take the payment."

Khi responded to that: “We have the keys to their treasury, so payment isn’t really a question. If we truly need money we can burgle them on the way out. I find it perhaps a bit unnecessary and distasteful, but if payment is the deciding issue, I feel this should be noted. But I care little for the money and less for the Lushfielders. It thus seems to me we have two separate issues to vote upon at stake. What to do with the locals, and our next step towards the Wellspring."

"I have no problem at all with ripping Celcine to shreds. and eating her heart. The payment would be a nice bonus." Cold bluntly put in his word on that issue. "People like her in leadership roles only bring ruin in the long run. That and it might make Rock a little bit less expendable." He looked to to Warden and added additional context: "Honto is a man who has no problem murdering his cousin in the name of stability, so what do you think he would do to Rock if he exposed the entire scheme? With Celcine out of the way, Rock's value to the community as a dragon-blooded might weigh enough that his punishment wouldn't be the same fate. Or it might buy Rock more time for him to leave Lushfield behind. Who knows. I can't read Honto's mind unfortunately."

"I don't think Honto would have reason to murder Rock after the reveal, especially if he leaves as he intends to." Warden answered. "With the cat out of the bag, killing him would be an act of pure spite, wouldn't it?"

Khī silently let things proceed. Questions of ‘should this be done’ became fundamentally abstract, and therefore a question for people whose duty it was to make decisions. Whether it was ‘okay’ to do something had never been a question posed to her. Her house was to be told to do, and then make done. In the absence of direct orders, her duty was to return to her mistress’ side. Much of Lushfield was fundamentally irrelevant to this, so she did not bother to formulate much of a stance on the matter. The government of Lushfield was clearly in dereliction of their duty as rulers, and slunk around hiding things. This didn’t please her, but it equally didn’t affect her goal. The relevance of her actions now was solely in how her actions here could solidify her ability to use the other exalted to free Sadrica. It was then, therefore, advantageous to wait, and before arguing, see where lines were drawn, and argue from there to endear herself to the others.

Scales and Cub were intelligent as well as learned, and therefore both threats, as well as potentially her best assets in her goal. Cold feared her, but would listen to her. The Maiden had her reservations, but Khī understood what moved her, and therefore made her a good tool. This Warden, she did not have a good read on. With this in mind, it would be beneficial to appear to agree with Warden, Cub or Scales, and build some method by which they could be turned to her ends. Satisfied, the gears of Khī’s mind quieted, and she sat back, committing every word spoken to memory as best she could.

“Celcine’s fate doesn’t concern me," stated Scales bluntly. "I don’t think I’ve spoken a word to her, and it doesn’t sound like she’ll be very missed.”

Turning to Khi, Cub changes the subject. "You mentioned that Rightness thinks I am the key to putting this 'Ivy' to rest. Are you confident in how he will act on this belief?"

"Reasonably. At the very least it predisposes him to work toward our advantage. I have full confidence you can use him," Khi said flatly.

The discussion between the Exalts continued, but with no clear consensus emerging as to the fate of Lushfield. It was clear that they had to investigate this God - Tramezia the Rhizome - in order to learn more about the Wellspring, but disagreement persisted. Should they accept Honto's proposal to murder his rival and ask for the Wellspring in return? Or would they simply track it down themselves and abscond with it, and perhaps a large chunk of Lushfield's silver and jade as well? And what about the God who was slowly leeching the vitality out of the soil of the Hundred Kingdoms to fuel Lushfield's eternal prosperity? Was this a form of injustice they were obligated to put a stop to, or simply not their problem?

"I think this is an adequate amount of discussion time to allot to this. Now, to vote," Khi cleared her throat, "Celcine. those in favor of killing, please make some kind of noise of assent,"

After a moment, Warden nodded. "Aye."

Cold nods. "Very much for it."

Scales, not concerned with the local politics, nor convinced that Celcine could help or hinder their goal, keeps silent out of apathy.

"It does seem to be in our best interest," Cub says after spending a few moments pondering things out following the discussion. "Aye."

"I wouldn't mind seeing Celcine dead", the Sword Maiden whispered, slowly. "But should we be the ones to kill her? For being rude? Where would that end? I vote no." she was almost grinding her teeth.

Khi looked around, examining the group. Scales tactfully silent, the Nameless Maiden once again proving to be a more sensitive soul than she had expected. Khi looks over to Cub, and nods. "I am in favor. Motion passes. And, again, the wellspring. What to do about it. To the God? And where to look for him?"

"The L:amplighter asked for us to bring the Wellspring, they didn't specify that it should be in working order." Cold simply stated. "Though I doubt they'll take that as an answer. It might be best if some of us found some info about that manse it's connected to. They might take that instead. Otherwise, maybe the roots might be a good place to start looking for the God? Its name has something do with roots, after all."

“I feel as though I recall something about hearthstones powered by manses, but I can’t quite remember…," mused Scales.

Then like a bolt of lightning, it struck him - “When a manse that powers a hearthstone is disrupted, the hearthstone usually crumbles to ash.... Depending on if the manse was fixed or not, as well as how long ago, it’s possible a new Wellspring might have formed at the manse.”

"I will find out how much Rightness actually knows, then." Cub said. As for the God, I leave that in all your capable hands."

"So, Cub, I will go with you to Rightness, and then everyone else...to the God, then?," Khi summarized. Any objections?"

Warden shook his head. "A talk with that God has been long overdue, if you ask me."

"No objections here," said Cold. "Not like I would be much use in talking with Rightness"

"While you're speaking with Rightness, could you retrieve something from him that once belonged to Ivy?," asked Scales. An article of clothing, or some other like item. There's a slim chance that if she remains as a ghost, this would let me track her down, so that we could question her about the location of the manse."

Khi nodded. Her sorcery and necromancy were close enough for her to understand the occult significance of what Scales wanted.
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And so the Exalts put their Plans into Action, with Warden, Scales, and Cold Heading to the Temple

The long discussion that had consumed the morning was halted by the sound of a pair of approaching horses. As promised, the Scalelord Rael was arriving to escort the Nameless Sword Maiden to her appointment with the Talonlord Anguilla. He was mounted atop one of the coursers, his gleaming bronze helmet with the red crested plumage easily identifying him in the distance. The extra horse was apparently for the swordswoman. If they were lucky, the man might be prevailed upon as well to direct some of them to wherever Great Uncle Rightness could be located - Cub and Khi had decided that they would see what information he could be prevailed upon to reveal. Meanwhile, Warden, Cold, and Scales would focus their efforts on finding more about this god Tramezia - perhaps they would even be able to find a way to track down and confront the divine being themselves.

"It is so good to see you again, Scalelord Rael," Cub greets the young man, stepping in front of the group to further distract from their discussion. "I hope the rest of your morning was as pleasant as its beginning."

"It was quite pleasant, your ladyship" the Scalelord replied as he rode up, wheeling around his horse and removing his helmet, before dismounting and bowing as professional as he could under the withering gaze of the aristocratic Solar, his eyes betraying a momentarily embarrassed glance in Hidden-Reed's direction. "I'm here to escort your swordswoman to her luncheon with the Talonlord, and further to extend an invitation to anyone else who may wish to join."

"Excellent. I'm afraid most of us have other plans, but perhaps you would be kind enough to direct me towards Great Uncle Rightness. We saw his lovely museum yesterday, and there are a few things I would like to discuss with him."

"Of course, m'dam," replied the deferential Scalelord. "The Ancestral Teacher should be at the Hall of Records, which is only a short detour. You are welcome to ride my charger, and I will walk and guide you there. The roan colt here is from the garrison's stable, for your swordswoman's use during the demonstration." He handed the reins to the Nameless Sword Maiden. "He is quite trustworthy. His name is..." - he hesitated for a second - "Pickle." Rael looked down and blushed slightly.

"Thank you, but there is no rush, I will be happy to walk," [bCub[/b] asnwers. She had never quite gotten comfortable in a saddle.

The Sword Maiden patted the horses neck, and looked up, the animal towering beside her. In comparison, that is. The horse seemed calm enough and, like many animals, seemed friendly enough towards Nameless. She'd seen people get on and off horses, so the theory made sense to her. And she had been taking to a lot of endeavors with surprising ease, so she didn't hesitate long. "Thank you" she replied, seemingly oblivious to horse naming patterns. 'Pickle' was just as well.

She grabbed the horses reigns, and swung herself up on the animal's back, where she immediately gasped, and stiffened up, having zero muscle memory helping her out with actually staying on a horse. The animal under the saddle swayed unpredictably, and the entire feeling was strange, weird, and uncomfortable. Luckily, the Sword Maiden was supremely dexterous and shifted her weight around as the horse demanded, so she wouldn't be thrown off.

"Been a while since I've ridden anything" she half-lied. Badly.

"Very well," the Scalelord acceded, strapping his helmet back on as he took the reins of the horses, trying not to betray any sort of reaction to the Swordswoman's odd riding technique. "If you prefer not to ride, I shaln't either." Quietly, to the clopping of horseshoes on the dirt road, he lead the way into the town, first towards the Hall of Records.

---

"So," Cold says quietly enough that Nameless's intended escort couldn't hear it. "If we're going to be looking for the God, the temple might be a good start? Some of the monks might be able to tell us about him. Not to mention we might be able to get into the tunnels from the temple."

Warden replied: "Well, the issue is us pretending to be mortals, because Immaculate monks see themselves as mediators between mortals and gods. We might need a really good reason."

"Do you think you could convince them to tell you about him? Pose as somebody with an interest in the immaculate philosophy? You're quite good at making people talk. What you did with Rock proved that." Cold asked. "I guess I and Scales could sneak inside, nobody really cares much for a cat or rat scuttling about. But I don't know how good you are at being sneaky."

"Tell me about the God?" replied Warden. "Sure, I could probably get some information out of them. We'd have to hide that our goal is actually meeting him, though."

Scales speaks quietly, counting on the discussion with the Scalelord to muffle their separate conversation. "Perhaps we could create a distraction that would Warden sneak into the tunnels?"

Cold noticed Rael and gave him a pleasant wave as he departed with Cub, Khi, and Nameless. "I guess so, but what kind of distraction? We can't go too big, or they would notice, right?"

Now alone with their unhorsed wagon - Nisalta had departed some time that morning to have the two draft horses re-shoed - Scales, Warden, and Cold pondered their next move.

"Either way," Cold started as he watched the others leave. "We should head to temple and check it out at least. I'm sure with the current commotion, there might be a lot less people over there. Might make it easier for Warden to sneak in with us."

Warden nods along with that proposal. "That sounds like a good idea, yes. Shall we do anything to prepare first, maybe a disguise? I'll defer to your experience in this"

Scales answered: "Hmm, I haven't much experience with disguises. Usually if I need to sneak somewhere, I use a different form, but that won't work for you...How about you, Cold?"

Cold shrugs at the mention of a disguise. "I mean, If I want to sneak into a place, I either eat one of the guards and use their shape, or I turn into a cat or mouse. So I'm not the best at disguises either." he admits. "Though with how insular and isolated Lushfield is, I'm not sure we can pull off a disguise anyway. If people don't recognize you they probably would start asking questions."

"I think the best idea is to still talk with Rock, maybe you can convince him to tell you more about the God to try and help him with exposing the corruption? If the Vice-Archmandrite vouches for you, you can simply walk inside right?"

"Mhm. I think I can make that work," Warden replied. If he's in the mood to talk to us, that is. He needed time to think yesterday, I assume it will be better today."

"It's something at least." Cold said. "So, you try to get Rock to help us? And as a second option we can come up with some sort of distraction so me and Scales can sneak in?"

"It seems like a sound plan to me," agreed Scales.

Warden nods again. "Yes, let's be off."

In agreement, the three Celestials set off for the temple, with Cold still in the form of Persistent Cub's purported niece Hidden-Reed leading the way. The visible constables that had been shadowing their movements for the first two days had backed off by now at the instructions of their Dragon-blooded masters not to interfere with the comings and goings of the supposed Dynasts and their retinue, so they were unchallenged during the journey. As they strode into the temple, they heard the voice of the Vice-Archimandrite, Attenuating Rock, leading the Immaculate faithful in the final minutes of the pre-noontime prayers before the mid-day break.

The Vice-Archimandrite couldn't help but notice the tall, muscular vagabond-warrior that he had bonded with over the last few days, and smiled slightly as he continued to pontificate to the assembled monks and other faithful townspeople on the importance in the Perfected Hierarchy of the proper awareness of one's overt displays of public exuberance and the dangers of reckless gossip and rumor-mongering.

With a final exhortation to the flock to remain mindful that prosperity can only come through adherence to the Immaculate Texts, Rock dismissed the congregation. Most of the bald monks quickly departed, eagerly filing past the undercover exalts, excited to patronize the various canteens and noodle stands that lined the road in the center of town. With a serene smile, Rock approached Warden and his two colleagues, and welcomed them to the Temple.

Cold tuned out the sermon and instead took his time to look around the cathedral, he hadn't done that when he had been sneaking around. He didn't know much about stonework or carpentry. But to his more 'rustic' sensibilities. this cathedral looked downright opulent and he didn't really bother to hide the fact he was impressed. "Good day Rock," Cold said with a simple curtsy. And then let Warden take the lead in the conversation.

Warden had nodded to Rock in greetings when they came in, then stood patiently, listening to him finish his sermon. Once he is done, he approached the monk, greeting him more warmly: "Rock. I am glad to see you look so serene and certain of purpose." He begins, remembering the state Rock was in the last time they spoke, when he asked for some time alone to process it all.

Rock smiled, nodding at Cold before putting a hand on Warden's shoulder. He clearly was in a good mood, perhaps reflecting his newly-found sense of resolve and clarity of faith that Warden had instilled in him as a result of their conversation in the amphitheater. "It is a new day," replied Rock. "And I see you your colleagues have joined you in coming to the temple as well. Did you come to seek the wisdom of the Immaculate Teachings?"

"In a way," Warden began, making sure none of the other monks were within eavesdropping distance. "I hope you don't mind if I say it straight-away. We hoped to learn more about Tramazia the Rhizome. He is at the heart of all this, but we know next to nothing at all about him. For one thing, how will he react to having it all exposed?"

Rock looked around, checking to see if there was anyone who was possibly listening in - even if Warden was keeping his voice low, Rock's reaction indicated he was was deeply uncomfortable discussing these matters while standing in main chamber of the temple. "Follow me, we should discuss this somewhere more private." He hesitated - looking at Scales and Cold, "Do they... are they..." he was trying to put it into words - "need guidance as well in this matter?" He was asking if they also needed to be part of the conversation - and he seemed somewhat disagreeable about the idea of including them as well.

"They indeed need some guidance in this as well. I have found them to be of upright moral character, I trust them." Warden said warmly, looking back at his two companions. "So I would be glad to have them along."

Rock nodded, shepherding the three away from the center of the central prayer chamber, and through a set of doors and down a staircase, down into the corridors behind the scenes: They were in the ancillary regions of the temple now - the places where the high and mighty rarely tread. They passed by storage rooms stocked with all sorts of necessities for the running of a temple: thousands of prayer candles in crates, tall stacks of dusty prayer rugs, and hundreds of flimsy-looking wooden chairs for use in outdoor events. They saw a poorly ventilated laundry room filled with towering piles of dirty linens and stained white immaculate robes, ready to be immersed a wooden vat of acrid-smelling bleach. The only light came through high slit windows just above ground level, and the cool temperatures reinforced the fact that they were underground. It occurred to Warden that since Rock was given up by his parents as a child and grew up in the temple, he must have been intimately familiar with the menial spaces of these roundabout cellar corridors - he probably had spent countless hours working in the laundry room himself. This probably felt like home to him.

"In here." called out Rock, ducking his head under a low overhang, his voice ringing off the white stucco walls, The were in an odd, long room now. Rather than the white stucco walls, instead the walls were lined with were large stone squares with worn markings on them, three high on each side. Scales knew immediately what it was - they were in the temple's sepulcher. Behind each stone square was a grave that had been chiseled into the bedrock. "Our voices won't carry in here. What do you want to know?" repeated Rock.

Warden moved carefully to avoid hitting his head or the blade on his back on any low doorways or the like, following behind Rock without a word. The place almost reminded him of his own monastery home, before it was all destroyed. "Well, we hoped to get a feel for this god, how he will react to having this scheme revealed, for one thing. Would he get angry? Try and propose an alternative deal?"

Cold had easily followed Rock through the more cramped parts of the cathedral. He tried to drink in as much as he could about the construction of the building. But it was simply so much more then anything he had ever known, that he couldn't even hazard a guess. "Also, what kind of god are they?" Cold piped up. "His name doesn't really tell me much I'm afraid."

Scales moved easily through the tunnels and stairways, his shorter stature allowing him to not worry about knocking his head on any corners. He rested a hand against the stone tomb-slabs, ignoring the way the shadows cast by the windows angle towards him slightly. An auspicious place for a spiritual discussion. "And how did this deal, or bargain, happen to begin with?" he added.

Rock remained stoic under the sudden barrage of questions from the three Celestials, all seemingly speaking at once. "I don't know. Any of that. I've never seen or met the God - Tramezia I mean. They only ever told me about him about a year or two ago, when I started asking questions. I got curious about the inconsistencies in the prayer calendar, why the Archimandrite was setting up the altar wrong on certain days, who the Seneschal was coming to visit so late at night."

That last part peaked Cold's interest. "You are talking about the Seneschal visiting the god late at night if I am following you correctly right? Does that mean we could also meet with the God in some way?"

Rock pondered Cold's suggestion, the gears turning in his mind. To Warden's knowing gaze - it was clear what was going on - Rock had grown up as a ward of the temple, and still wasn't used to thinking and doing anything on his own initiative. Warden had also lived a large part of his life in the stifling confines of a monastery, and he knew just how suffocating that life could be in terms of repressing curiosity and independent thought. Chances are, almost nothing Rock had done his entire life was his own decision. Now that Warden had convinced Rock to rebel against authority, the young Dragon Blooded was hooked, and was clearly ready for more. "Yes!" explained Rock. "And I think I know how to find him!"

Warden smiled and nodded. "Excellent. Shall we be off right now, or do you need time to prepare?" He was eager to meet the God himself, for multiple reasons. For one, he wanted to know how much blame should be put on him. Secondly, he might be important to help Lushfield's people once the deal was broken.

Rock reached down and picked up one of the dozen large liturgical candles kept in the iron rack near the entrance to the catacomb for mourners to hold during funeral rites. With a well-practiced, single-handed flick at his jade-inlaid steel and leather chuckmuck fire striker (kept dangling from his belt at all times, so as to always be ready to light a flame and discharge the highest duty of all Immaculate monks), he lit the tallow-soaked wick. "I grew up hauling laundry and playing Hidden Cat in these cellars every day, and I've seen behind every locked door at one time or another. There's only one place where that was off-limits, so that must be where they go to meet this god, Tramezia. The Heaven's Most Illustrious wing of the catacombs!" Rock headed deeper into the depths of the sepulcher, and the three exalts followed. The natural light rapidly faded away as they proceeded further, and after a few minutes, it seemed like they had passed thousands and thousands of carved stone and ceramic ossuaries embedded into the walls of the corridors and niches, some containing dozens or hundreds of family member. Both Lunars' keen internal senses of direction told them that they were slowly proceeding downward on a nearly imperceptible gradient, in a large spiral that must have extended the entire circumference of the temple.

Following Rock's lead, Scales takes a candle and lights it from Rock's, before following him through the tunnels.

Cold's special talents meant he could see in the dark just fine. But Hidden-Reed wasn't supposed to be able to be nearly as perceptive. So he grabbed a candle and lit it as well, and followed Rock into the depths of the cathedral. He made a little bit of conversation: "Heaven's Most Illustrious wing? I assume that is where the Princes of the Earth of Lushfield are buried then?"

"Precisely." answered Rock, who continued navigating down the long, dark tunnels, each steady candle projecting four shimmying shadows on the walls, which already had begun to grow less dense with ossuary stones, as they began to approach the more recent burials. "It's not too much further," he noted. The walls of the crypt now were completely stark for hundreds of feet, representing unused but available space for tens of thousands of future burials. Finally, they reached the end of the long, helical main corridor of the catacombs, which terminated in an ornately carved matched pair of stone doors bearing a prominent thick metallic plate at shoulder-height, which must be the locking mechanism.

"This is it." said Rock. The Heaven's Most Illustrious wing, beyond these doors. "Where Six Quills and her husband are buried, among others. I've never been inside before."

Scales steps up to the imposing doors, his eyes slightly flaring as he moves the candlelight across the carvings and metal plate.

The black pupils of the No-Moon's piercing metallic eyes narrowed to distinctly reptilian slits as he brought his face close to the metal plate, the burning flame the candle illuminating the ridges and grooves of the fine filigree work that marked its surface. The metal plate was pure silver - it was unmistakable. This journey through through the halls of the crypt, the proximity to the the remains of tens of thousand of the town's honored dead, it had galvanized the slender Lunar - steadying his heartbeat and sharpening his senses. For the barest of moments, the shadows cast by the candles carried by the Exalts shifted and darkened in impossible ways, as if a stiff sea-breeze had caused every open flame to dance at once - quite impossible this deep within the Earth. And suddenly he peered through the silver slab, the outlines of the complex clockwork of the mechanism within revealing itself. Then he peered beyond it, into the burial chamber within. There was unsoundness inside. It was faint, very faint, but he glimpsed that within, reality seemed thinner, more unstable, slightly fraying at its edges. And there was the thin pale blue outline of someone, or something in there. It looked like a person asleep, with the thinnest wisps of light at their ankles and wrists. It hit Scales: the purpose of the lock being silver wasn't physical - any metal would have done, and many better. It was spiritual: to bind the dead within.

"So, do we have the key to get inside?" Cold spoke up. He was still unaware of what was lying beyond the door. "Is there even a keyhole or does it open up in another way?"

"I don't know" answered Rock. "I've never seen it opened, nor examined the mechanism closely - it was forbidden for acolytes to venture this deep into the crypts, so when one of us would do so on a dare, we didn't linger."

Scaled didn't let his surprise show on his face as he rested his slender fingers on the filigree. Such intricate work; what spirit could be bound here? Wait, did this segment move..?. Stepping back to evaluate the full pattern, he finds the Scarlet Shogun's seal, attended by depictions of the five elements of Creation, encircled by text in Old Realm, blessing the doors with the divinity of the Elemental Dragons, that they might keep closed the gates of shadow, resting at the bottom of the inscription. With what I saw of the inner workings, the Lunar thought, those doors can slide open, and those element depictions come loose...If the Underworld swallows Creation, the dead will walk. Perhaps that is the key.

Scales ran his finger over the candle-lit Old Realm glyphs embossed on the seal, trying to discover a clue to the puzzle. There - another circular disk on the surface seemed like it moved as well - giving ever so slightly under the pressure of his fingertips, and another. It appeared as though they could be depressed into the face of the seal to trigger the tiny clockwork internals of the mechanism. He ran his fingers across its surface to locate them all. Each of them was positioned under a specific glyph in the inscription. He had read about these works of artifice: the symbols needed to be be pushed in a specific order or sequence for the seal to be opened. In a steady cadence, he slowly translated the full text to High Realm for the benefit of his comrades:

"Pasiap, Mela, Hesiesh, Daana'd, and Sextes Jylis, Lords of the North, South, East, West, and Center, defend this portal as Chuzai Vagyn Zu defended the Realm of old."

Chuzai Vagyn Zu... that name was intimately familiar to Scales, a native son of the West. A legendary hero of the First Age, he was a naval officer, the dragon-blooded commander of the Dagger of the Throat of the Sea, his ship which could both sail on and below the water. Renown for his clever and unorthodox tactics, the stories of his famous deeds still are told in sailor's bars.

He located all the movable glyphs: Each of them was located under one of the symbols for the directions - North, East, South, West, and Center. Five in total, and if they all needed to be pressed, that was 120 possible combinations. He doubted he would have the opportunity to systematically try them all. From the description he remembered, a special ratchet within would trigger an alarm after too many incorrect attempts.

Scales wracked his brain, trying to trace the life of Chuzai Vagyn Zu - his journey from ship's boy to Admiral-Lord. He was stationed all over, and he took his ship to every corner of Creation at one point or another during his epic career. Everyone knows he started his career in the West, in his homeland of Luthe, now sunken into the seas. Where he first got command of his ship, as a reward for saving the life of Admiral-Artificer Seralin. He depressed the symbol for West, the glyph clicking into place. But where did he go next?

Chuzai Vagyn Zu; I haven't heard that name since I was a child, thought Scales. The most famous scion of the West, a hero who overcame any obstacle in his way, fighting tower sized monsters, demons from the sea bed, and countless other exploits and adventures. Me and my sister would pretend to be the hero and the villain of the day, though all our prowess meant naught in the end. Wetness glistens in his metallic eyes, creating a prismatic effect with their slight glow.

"Yes, I remember Chuzai Vagyn Zu; he was a Western hero. I imagine the combination is based on the most famous tales. Chuzai's brother requested his aid to defeat the Earthwalker, so he journeyed to the Pole of Air to find ice that had never known warmth. With a harpoon made of this ice, he assisted in the Earthwalker's defeat and imprisonment, causing the Boiling Sea to dry up and become the Burning Sands. He was then recalled to the Blessed Isle to serve against the Spoken. In his twilight years, he went East to gather blessed timber to recreate his beloved vessel, destroyed in the final battle."

As Scales speaks, he presses the glyphs for North, South, the Center, and then East.

After a distinct whirring of the minuscule clockwork gears as Scales punched in the code he had discerned, the seal of the Scarlet Shogun at the center of the front face of the engraved silver panel sprung open along a previously undetected seam with a quite perceptible but still very precise sounding click. Hidden behind the seal was a small, brass keyhole.

Cold smiled at the click and waited for the door to swing open. And was visibly confused when it didn't He took a step forward so he could get a better look. And winced when he saw the newly revealed keyhole. That was a bit of an issue. There were still those two keys he had stolen from the Archimandrite Celcine's office that they hadn't discovered a purpose for. But with Rock here. That could cause some questions they weren't ready to answer.

"Can any of you pick locks?" He looked over at Rock, "Or do you know where the key might be?"

Warden chuckled and shook his head. "I'm afraid that's definitely not in my wheelhouse. I have to say, a puzzle lock and then a keyed lock behind it, someone definitely wanted to keep this crypt save from unintended visitors."

With Scales stepping back and Cold and Warden seemingly at a loss over what to do, Rock moved forward to examine the newly discovered keyhole that had appeared. "No locked door can bar the celestially guided" he recited. Warden recognized the quote, but couldn't quite place it. Reaching into the pouch of his chuckmuck, he produced a pair of wire-like, shiny metal tools that glinted in the candlelight. He began peering at the lock, and a dim, faintly brown glow began to outline his body, casting enough light to illuminate the lock even without needing to hold one of the flames nearby. The three onlookers standing behind him couldn't see entirely what he was doing, but he began manipulating the keyhole with the small tools he held in his large hands.

Warden had finally recognized the quote - he had assumed it was a stock line of Immaculate dictum, a cliché that Rock had pulled from the hundreds of precepts available to the Order's monks to offer vague guidance or serve as pretextual justification for unpleasant action. But it wasn't. No, it was the main catchphrase of Lo Kas Li, the protagonist of a mass-produced and popular ongoing series of highly formulaic adventure novels, written (by a pseudonymous author who in reality was a succession of dozens of ghostwriters over two hundred years) at an appropriate reading level for teenagers across creation. They were printed by the millions on cheap, flimsily bound paper, and sold at three for a yen. Lo Kas Li was a reformed criminal who had experienced a vision sent by the Immaculate Dragons, and had abandoned his evil ways to become one of the legendary celestially guided itinerant monks. He traveled from village to village, solving problems not just with faith and prayer, but with his wits and the unique skills of his old career, now turned to righteous purpose. It was enduringly popular among young men everywhere where High Realm was spoke, and most places it wasn't. After a few moments, there was a perceptible thunk of a thick bolt retracting, and Rock pocketed his tools and stood back to admire his handiwork.

Warden watched Rock work, initially with a raised brow, then with a slim smile once he realised what was going on. "Mhh, I admit, I didn't think the books were quite descriptive enough to serve as manuals. That's quite the impressive feat." With a chuckle, he added: "Though maybe you had some celestial guidance of your own there. Anyway, let's see what's hiding behind this door."

“Impressive. Now, let’s see what’s beyond this door; lead on, Reed," added Scales.

Of all the things that could've solved this situation. Cold wouldn't have thought that Rock being able to open locks without the key would've been the answer. He let out a laugh and grinned at Rock. "Skills from a youth well spent I assume?" He stepped towards the door and made a motion to pull it open, eager to continue on.

The three Celestials and the Terrestrial together pulled open the thick wooden doors, weighed down even further by the heavy silver plate bolted to its front. The cool, stagnant air of the crypt suddenly grew positively frosty as they crossed the threshold, and the candles that provided their illumination dimmed perceptibly, the flames dancing at tips of the wicks shrinking down to smouldering embers. It was almost like the fire was suddenly struggling to exist on the other sides of the doors. The act of breathing grew more laborious, and the air seemed somehow... heavier, harder to shift. Scales recognized the feeling immediately. They were in a shadowland, a place where the reality of Creation crossed over with the Underworld - the land of the dead, floating on the sea of the void. His mentor, Smiling Rat, made his warren deep within a mazelike shadowland in the northwest of Creation - the Black Winter Boneyard. Smiling Rat had erected wards throughout his domain to control the growth of its borders, and had discovered hidden paths through the boneyard where the effects of the shadowland were attenuated, where he could safely venture and hunt. The undead denizens within its harsher regions served as defenders against too-curious outsiders as well as an endless supply of test subjects for his experiments. Scales had been careful to always stay where it was safest, where the barrier between creation and the underworld was still mostly intact. But this was a wild, untamed shadowland, and he was all too aware of the hazards involved.

The being Scales perceived earlier, when he looked through the doors, came into more clarity. It was still around noon up at the surface, which is when the strength of life and the Unconquered Sun is at its zenith, so the powers of the underworld to intrude into creation through shadowlands was at its weakest. So all the others could see, mostly from the glow of Rock's dim brown-tinged aura, was a faint shimmer atop the bench. But Scales, looking with his supernatural senses, could more clearly perceive the immaterial. It was a ghost of an old, long-bearded man, lying motionless, apparently asleep on a heavy-looking stone bench at the center of the room that was inlaid with silver and was bolted into the stone floor with heavy metal bindings. Ghostly silver shackles were at his wrists and ankles, silver chains falling from them down to the floor in a tangle, binding him to the bench but not restricting his ability to stand and pace around for a few feet in any direction.

Scales stops after the first step. “Have caution; we are not in Creation anymore, nor are we alone.”
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Cub and Khi are Escorted to the Hall of Records to Speak with Great Uncle Rightness, on the Morning After Khi Entered his Dreams

Behind Cub, Khī stood, silent, her masked face as impassive and inscrutable as ever. She stared at the horse. Wide-eyed, ‘Pickle’ stared back. The horse flinched back a bit as the swordsmaster moved to saddled up, spooked not only by the woman’s discomfort but also some disquiet the horse couldn’t name. The horse lolled it’s head, the whites of its eyes visible as it stared at Khī. Khī couldn’t look away.

Nameless, with great difficulty, mounted the horse. It nickered in distress. Khī looked away, expression tight.

Even before she was tattooed, Khī had never been comfortable with horses. Thankfully, she’d never had to ride one. It wasn’t her place, and she was frankly thrilled to keep it that way. When she’d been a girl, she could sail the little fishing outriggers of White Hook, but, she realized with a pang of something, she couldn’t remember which ropes went where. She remembered her father showing her how to read the waters to see the wind and the fish, but just in flashes. In her memory, she looked up, and couldn’t really remember what her father looked like. She remembered she had his gills, but his eyes, his face…there was just an absence. A hole.

Khī said nothing, her body kept consciously still, held. Like a decoration. A tool.

With a mildly curious look, but apparently satisfied that the slender swordswoman with her unusual riding style wouldn't fall off her horse at an unexpected breeze, the Scalelord - Rael was his name - began leading the three women through the center of town. Apparently the rumor had already gotten out that morning: there was a noticeable uptick in the amount of curious onlookers hunched on porches and peering through windows, hoping to catch a glance of the mysterious, beautiful woman of few words who had sparred with the fearsome Talonlord a few days earlier in the Seneschal's garden, and had fought her to a draw that was only declared when both combatant's swords had shattered.

The prospect of a rematch, this time perhaps to be held in the open training grounds to the north of town, rather than behind the high walls of an aristocratic mansion, was sure to bring on more than a few interested spectators.

Taking a turn down an unpromising side-street, the Scalelord led the group to an inauspicious, boxy two-story building wedged in-between a noodle bar crowded with artisans on their lunch-break, and what seemed to be a dilapidated and boarded-up furniture shop that had fallen on hard times. "The Ancestral Teacher's Recording Hall, M'am" said Rael. Perhaps the place was something to behold a century or two ago, but from the outside, the fading signage, the chipped paint, and the dusty windows of the place seemed to be at odds with both the orderly efficiency of Honto's machine-like city hall and the liveliness of the temple.

After looking up at the mounted swordswoman to check if she was still securely mounted atop Pickle, the Scalelord motioned with a quick bow of his helmeted head towards Persistent Cub, before shoving one of his boots in the stirrup of his horse and deftly climbing atop. The horse whinnied and recoiled for a moment as Khi turned her masked face in its direction, requiring Rael to steady the charger with a quick "calm now," and a rub of the animal's mane. "We're off to the Talonlord," he stated, perhaps to himself rather than anyone in particular. Bracing the reins, he set out at a trot, with Pickle and the Sword Maiden still atop him, loyally following along.

Glancing at each other for a moment, Cub and Khi pushed open the weather-worn door of Great Uncle Rightness's Hall of Records, a few more dried, cracked flecks of paint falling to the ground as it creaked open. The scene inside struck them as the work of a disquieted mind. Papers everyone, stacked on tables and on the ground, some extending nearly all the way to to the ceiling in places , bound and unbound in seemingly hundreds of shaggy piles, seemingly organized according to no discernible rhyme or reason. The light coming in from the dusty windows struck the tallest of them and projected long shadows across the large chamber, As their eyes adjusted to the scene, the two were able to discern a convoluted and winding path, where papers didn't litter the floors. It reminded them of a trail in the undergrowth formed by animals moving through a forest.

"Can I help you young ladies?" whispered a creaky voice - a aged, hunched, bespectacled woman, they saw now, poking her head out from around the side of a tall wall of stacked papers. Taking a few steps forward, they could see that she seemed to have carved out an area within the mass of papers for herself to work at a small desk with a smaller stool. It was like a cave carved into a limestone cliff. Her desk had an assortment of stamps and inkpots. If Khi had to guess, she must have been some sort of secretary or clerk.

"We are looking for Great Uncle Rightness," Cub answers the woman with a pleasant, if somewhat condescending smile. That the people of Lushfield seemingly cared so little for their history did not, to her mind, speak well of their general character.

"Oh..." mouthed the older woman, with worrying, grandmotherly concern. "Well you've come to the right place, dearie. Follow me." She began picking her way carefully through the maze of records, watching her steps to see that she didn't trod on a corner of a page and risk creating a whole mess of things. "He's so peculiar with where he puts things. Are you the new novices?" She adjusted her spectacles. "The last ones quit after a two weeks... I was so sorry to see them go..." She ignored any protestations they may have - it seemed like the woman's hearing was going. Finally, they reached a wooden spiral staircase, tucked away in a corner. Taking a hold of the railing, the woman climbed it one step at a time, in a fashion that was agonizingly slow, the steps creaking underneath them. "Holdfast, the new novices are here," She said as she reached the top of the stairs, moving aside to let Cub and Khi enter the room. Great Uncle Rightness was seated at a desk, scribbling away with a quill. There were two medium sized stacks of paper to each side of him, similar to the thousands of stacks of paper stored on the lower floor. In a well practiced motion that they observed repeat itself a few time, he would taking one at a time from a stack, examining it, making a few marks to a ledger, and then signing the paper and slapping it to the top of the other stack.

"Rightness?" the woman remarked, louder this time, finally succeeding in grabbing his attention. "The apprentices are here." He finally perked up, and whirled around, peering at Cub and Khi. "Ha!" he smiled, in a jagged, partially toothless grin. "These aren't the novices. It's the Dynast, from the island, come to pick my brain on hexogrammic theory or some related business." "Oh..." the old woman mumbled, obliviously. "Well, I'll put on the kettle then." She departed down the stairs, descending them just as deliberately as she had climbed them.

"Persistent Cub" Rightness wheezed. I knew I would be seeing you here. He sweeped his arm grandly. "Welcome to my workshop. It may not look like much, but what you saw below you are centuries worth of records - every marriage, birth, divorce, and death, all categorized and in their proper place. "I take it you've come to learn more about Six Quills' methods, then?"

"While I am sure they are fascinating," Cub answer as she takes her seat opposite the old Dragon-Blooded, offering him a smile that is rather more humble if less honest, "what I am really interested in is Lushfield's... well, lushness. It is like an island of fertility in a sea of mediocrity. Do you know if it was always like that?"

"Is it really that surprising?" Great Uncle Rightness cocks an eyebrow and shakes his head in disappointment. "I can't blame the common folk, of course. It's their rulers - weakness in the bloodlines. It plagues this part of creation they call the Hundred Kingdoms. That's why none of them last longer than a few generations, at best. Centuries of self-proclaimed kings and queens, rising and falling, half of them upstart bastards who can't even trace their own lineage back a hundred years. It's no wonder that mediocre, impotent lands come from mediocre, impotent kings."

"How the land is ruled is one thing," Cub agrees, "and of course no mere mortal can equal the Princes of the Earth that the dragons have so generously blessed Lushfield with, but the land's own fertility is another, is it not?"

"I don't see how it can be otherwise," replied the old Dragon-Blooded. Even a novice immaculate will tell you the bounty of the land is direct evidence of Heaven's Mandate. Lushfield's fertility comes from from Heaven smiling down on the enlightened practices we received from Six Quills herself." Rightness reached over to grab his pipe, holding the bowl in a wrinkled hand. His fingers trembled ever slightly as he reached in a pouch for pinch of dried flakes to fill it with, and for a burning stick of incense in a jar on his desk to set it alight. This line of questioning seemed to be agitating the man.

Khī had trailed quietly behind Cub, content to simply silently observe, and let the woman navigate until she was needed. Rightness seemed rattled already- had she pushed too far with her invasion of his mind? Had she estimated how he would take her uncanny vision wrong?

Khī glanced over at Cub, tilting her head slightly, but sharply, trusting the other woman to understand her meaning: shall we just come out with it then?

"In that case," Cub says leaning back and adding another helping of smug superiority to her smile, "Could you explain to me the purpose of the Wellspring?"

Rightness's pipe clattered to the floor, the embers spilling across the tile. "How did you hear about that?," he reflexively snapped.

“My mistress is a collector of many things. Curiosities, oddities, obscure footnotes…” Khī trailed off, grey eyes intense behind her mask, “Secrets,”

Khī steps aside to stand beside Cub, appraising the old man. She couldn’t see his pulse, or smell his sweat, but she didn’t need to. Her instincts told her the man was off balance, reeling, and therefore vulnerable. Like any interrogation, she needed to push, and just be mindful to keep him from falling against her. “If we’ve heard about it, consider who else could know. How easy it might be for them to get the wrong idea.” Khī adjusted her shoulders for a moment, opening herself up, a gesture to belie any threat she posed. To make herself unthreatening. “If I may speak for my mistress, we mean no harm to Lushfield. But the clues she followed could be found by anyone with the resources. Better her than…” she left it unsaid. The myriad threats of the hundred kingdoms. The Mask of Winters, so notorious even Khī had heard of him so far in the south. Anathema.

Leaning forward, Cub's smile takes on a air of understanding and perhaps absolution. "In the end, it doesn't matter who told whom what. What matters is if we can help each other and those we care about," she adds, looking deeply into the old man's eyes.

Great Uncle Rightness started jittering with anxiety. The man's composure had been thrown off balance, and his mind was spinning. "The dream..." he whispered to himself, suddenly bolting to his feet and grabbing the frocks of Cub's Shifting Cloth. "A woman! With pale long, green hair and purple eyes. That must be it! Did you hear anything of her, do you know her fate?" Please tell me!" He was nearly begging.

Khī looked over to Cub. The hook was baited and the fish was on it, all she needed was to reel it in. Almost imperceptibly, Khī jerked her head, so as to indicate it was Ivy that Rightness was referring to. For any mortal, the gesture wouldn’t carry anything. Khī, however, was aware of her audience. If anyone could read a sentence in gesture, it would be Cub.

"I think I may have read her journal," Cub answers without preamble. "It was given to me as a graduation gift when I finished my studies at the Spiral Academy by Cynis Iravah, a cousin who served as a Shikari at the Pinnacle of the Eye of the Hunt near Pneuma. It was written in, if you'll forgive me, somewhat archaic High Realm and beautifully hand-bound. Reading through it, I remember repeated references to a 'Wellspring' and a man called 'Holdfast.'" She looks the old man in the eye and continues. "However, it was several years ago, and then as now, I feel like I am missing some context on the events she described. Perhaps you would be able to offer that, and I might be able to tell you more."

Cub could visible detect Rightness melting in the palm of her hand. By the mysteries of fate, Cub's statement about the journal in fact wasn't even a bluff at all - Cub had indeed received a ragged antique journal that matched the description she gave. It was a socially-obliged gift from her least favorite cousin upon her graduation from the Spiral Academy, and she had actually skimmed through it for about six minutes before tossing it in a dusty drawer, where presumably it remained to this day. Rightness's eyes were wide though, and it was clear that he was desperate for any more information he could get about the fate of his beloved Ivy, and that he could likely be convinced to trade information or favors in kind.

"Holdfast," that's was me, yes. He stuttered. "She had gone north to... to...." He was clearly choked up and conflicted, and needed a final push to encourage him to fully spill what he knew about the Wellspring.

"Holdfast," Cub repeats the name Rightness used for himself. That Ivy used for him. Though the two women separated as they are by centuries look very little alike, there is a purple gleam to Cub's eyes and when Holdfast meets them, it is hard to remember to whom he is speaking. "I want to help you. To help Ivy. But I need to know why she went to the North, why she had to leave you behind even though it broke her heart to do so." As she speaks she reaches out and gently takes hold of the old man's hand, pressing softly to give warmth to those withered fingers.

An eerie silence prevailed in that moment, as Rightness wrestled with the internal contradictions he faced. The only sounds were the slow steps of the elderly assistant trundling up the wooden steps, and finally appearing with a tray bearing a steaming kettle of a trio of ceramic cups. None of the three spoke, but the piercing glares she received immediately told her that she was intruding upon an important moment. She deposited the silvered tray down on the nearest table, and quickly retreated back downstairs. The metallic clatter of the tray seemed to break the tension though. "The Wellspring," Rightness finally started to speak, this time in the voice of a learned scholar - "is, was, what is called a Hearthstone. A hearthstone is a special gemstone formed of geomantic essence, the energy that naturally flows through creation. All the famous currents of the Western Ocean, the eight winds of the Inland Sea, the Dragon Lines - these are all types of geomantic essence flows. The greatest sorcerers and artisans of ages long ago learned to harness these essence flows, and to condense them into Hearthstones."

"Our colony was blessed by Heaven with the Wellspring, as a symbol of the righteousness of its rulers and the faith of its people. Understand though, that the acts of Heaven are not random. When Six Quills came here, we were weak and disorganized, and so we needed the direct intercession of Heaven to survive, to thrive. It is like a man with a broken leg, who needs a cane until he fully heals. Eventually, the power of the wellspring began to fade - physically, the stone began to crack and flake away, until there was almost nothing left. But this was part of Heaven's grand design. Much like the man with the cane, it too had served its purpose, and we did not need it anymore."

"There was... some disagreement though." He was carefully choosing his words now. "This was long, long ago, more than two hundred years now. Some questioned Heaven's grand design, and thought that the Wellspring could and should be repaired, or a new one obtained. It was a ill-conceived plan to begin with, but they refused to listen to reason. These moral coward convinced - no, blackmailed - one of their daughters to leave Lushfield, to go north, to find something called a Desmense. That's where the geomantic essence are strongest, the place where the Wellspring was originally made. Her name was Ivy, and..." - he choked up - "she never came back."

Khī had long ago come to appreciate her mask. Ostensively, it was to prevent her betters from having to see her features, but Khī had come to be deeply thankful for its ability to cover her reactions. Those that she had not trained into stillness, that was. As Cub spoke, Khī’s couldn’t help her eyebrows shooting up.

She’d have thought Cub was lying, with a kind of fluidity that beggared belief, but the other woman seemed to be telling the truth. Khī had made a very careful analysis of Cub’s body language over the last week. (Her mind attempted to diverge into a very different place before she very quickly and very thoroughly shut that enjoyable divergence down) Cub wasn’t lying, Khī noted with utter astonishment. Khī turned her analytical gaze on Rightness. Any change in his body language, any slight movement in his face to indicate he was lying, and she would know.

If there were a taxonomy for lies, Khi would be a world-renown naturalist in the field. Harmless white lies between friends, stretches and exaggerations of the truth, and every possible shade of rubbish, hogwash, hokum, and straight-up bullshit: She excelled in their identification. Great Uncle Rightness wasn't lying about the Wellspring being a hearthstone, and the the fact that those rare and valuable gemstones were formed from geomantic essence was an indisputable fact. But from there, it got a little more hazy. He certainly believed that Heaven had blessed Lushfield with the Wellspring for the purpose described, and the fact that the stone degenerated over time seemed honest enough. The actual truth of the reasons involved were largely unknowable and irrelevant - theological matters for priests to debate.

But when he started talking about Ivy, that's when it really got complicated. Disagreements about Heaven's grand designs? Perhaps, but clearly he wasn't telling the whole story, and was shading the truth in highly charitable ways. Was Ivy convinced to leave Lushfield by a den of moral cowards? Questionable at best. Blackmailed though? That was delusional - A pure mental defense mechanism that even Rightness didn't actually believe at his core. No, she left of her own free will. Yes, she left to find the Desmense, but again, he was holding back.

Cub quickly catches the old man's eyes again once the servant has left them. Had her companion been a mortal servant, she might have felt the need to signal that they hold off on serving the tea for now. This moment with Rightness is crucial both to understanding the man and getting from him what they want. And so she reads every line of his weathered face as if it were one of the weathered sheets of paper strew about his office. Her focus fixed, she continues. "How did she know where to go?"

Rightness sputtered. "That's the worst part - She didn't know where to go! I tell you, the idea was crazy! All they were able to tell her was that the Manse - that's what you call a Desmense when its power has been tapped into - was in the far north, near the elemental pole of air, supposedly at the convergence site of four great blizzard winds. How you could find something like that, with so little to go on? We were both young, and she was naïve and thought she could do it." He was getting apoplectic and emotionally unstable now. "I should have gone with her. That way at least we both would have been frozen to death in some place heaven forgot about, buried under a thousand feet of snow and ice, souls trapped in the frozen wasteland!"

"I cannot believe that is what she would have wanted," Cub says warmly, her voice mending some of the shattered threads of Holdfast's heart. "Nor can I believe she went off on such a wild goose chase, surely there must have been more," she adds pushing him, "She must have known more than that, or had a second purpose. To best help you find out what happened to her, I have to know as much as you can possibly tell me," she says, her eyes boring into his. "Please think back," she urges him, "what was Lushfield like when she left?"

"She didn't want to go!" reiterated Great Uncle Rightness. He was seemingly lost in the past now, and ranting. "It was the Old Seneschal that lied to her, he convinced her that it was somehow her responsibility, her duty. Imagine - her own father, sending away his own daughter into the wilderness! It was jealousy, I tell you, to spite me! That wicked, evil old pervert - he always hated me!" Rightness was nearly foaming at the mouth now. "We were to be betrothed, Ivy and I, the perfect Hexagrammic union! Destined by fate to be together, and he must have found out about it!" Rightness was standing and his anima was flaring to life now, the air in the closed room whirled around in the tempest created by his erratic emotional state, papers being ripped off of table and carried up into the slipstream.

"He was a madman - depraved and corrupt to the bone! He bullied Old Wise Lanalla into producing a false report on his bloodline - I found the true one buried in the archive. The old man had weak, weak blood - by all rights he should have been as sterile as a mule. It was a miracle his decrepit prick even worked at all. He was obsessed with producing a son, thank Heaven it never happened. That bastard went through thirteen wives before he breathed his last, and all it led to was four daughters. Mark my words - Ivy would have been among them too, eventually, if he had his way! I saw how that sinful degenerate looked at her, just like how he looked at her poor mother, before he cast her off."

Rightness tried his best to calm himself down, and the violent gusts abated suddenly. But he still fumed, slumping back into his chair. "The old man, he couldn't accept Heaven's will. Like I said, the Wellspring was never meant to be a permanent crutch - its degeneration was planned by design. But to him it was personal - he thought Heaven was taunting him. It haunted him - In his twisted thoughts, he was convinced it was his own lack of masculine virility was the true cause of the decline of the Wellspring's potency, or vice-versa - and that they were linked. So he was obsessed with reversing both. Sorcerers, wayward Gods, traveling merchants hawking ground-up parts of exotic animals, all sorts of charlatans. He would entertain all their schemes in hopes of reversing his own condition and the Wellspring's, sometimes for years! You barely could keep track of it all."

Khi watched the old man impassively, unmoved by his flaring anima, watching for any signs of lying or half truths.

In Great Uncle Rightness's mind, at least, every word he spoke was Heaven's honest truth. Khi focused with special attention on the final statement though - the fact that the Old Seneschal was driven endlessly in the quest of discovering a cure for his impotence and soothing his wounded ego. A prideful man could be driven to madness by an inadequacy like that, made crazy by the endless multitude of imagined whispers, jokes, and snickers the moment his back was turned. The schemes of sorcerers, wayward gods, and traveling merchants - that Khi gave special attention to. Was this how this God, Tramezia the Rhizome, sunk its long tentacle-like roots into the soil of Lushfield? Perhaps a bargain struck by the Old Seneschal to conceal the failing of the Wellspring, borne out of the need to conceal the failing of his own masculine prowess?

This is far from the first time Cub has had to deal with an upset Dragon-Blooded with no room in his mind for anyone's perspective but his own. In fact, it is in some ways the most at home she has felt since fleeing the Blessed Isle. Her years in the Thousand Scales and the Deliberative have taught her how to keep her head when animas start flying, and now that her own Exalted nature and their misperception protected her, she was free to study the man in the middle of the anima-induced whirlwind. It was far easier to read him than to read the pieces of paper flying around him.

The emotional aged Dragon-Blooded's hatred for the Old Seneschal was palpable and thicker than goji syrup. If it had declined in its intensity, it only was due to the abominable man's demise, the passage of time, and the distraction of mind-altering drugs.

"I am sorry to have made you relive such painful memories," Cub says and once more puts her hand on Rightness's. "Let me tell you what I remember, hopefully that will bring you some amount of peace." Leaning back and looking thoughtful she begins. "As you probably know, she left traveling north over land and quickly made her way to Sijan where she sought out such records as were unavailable to her in Lushfield. It was here she first came upon the name Tzatli. Supposedly an ancient city of the Anathema beyond the White Sea where wonders and horrors of artifice and sorcery were wrought. From Sijan, she followed the Silver River until she came to the fortress-city of Karasch in Medo. No futher boats would go north, so she traveled by land along the road to Gethamane, and it was here the book left her possession. She met up with a Wyld Hunt attached to the Dragonguard of the Sacred Waters of Sextes Jylis who were waging war on the Anathema Jochim. Rather than travel through his territory on her own, she joined them and the book ended up in the hands of Sesus Satake, a Shikari who brought it back to the Pinnacle of the Eye of the Hunt. Satake wrote a brief passage in the end of the book explaining that the original author had gone missing during the final battle, and though they searched thoroughly for her body, they could not find trace of her. He believed her to have left, but could not explain why she would travel alone rather than in the company of other Exalted."

Great Uncle Rightness slumped in his chair in silence while listening to Cub's description of Ivy's travels, and the occasion of the discovery of her journal. "A year later, after no news ever came, I traced her path to Sijan. She sent me a letter from there. Heaven, it was so long ago. The trail was cold. I spent years there, trying to find something, someone that could give me more information, but there was nothing. And it was... unbearable. You're too young to remember the what the days of the Great Northern War were like. Jochim's War, they call it now. It was terrible, and Sijan... that was the worst of all. Every day the bodies would arrive on barges. Mercenaries, levies from every satrapy, conscripts from every cardinal direction. Men, women, children barely old enough to carry a spear. It was unimaginable. After the first three years of the war, they ran out of space in the vaults, and had to keep nine great pyres burning every hour of the day. I looked for her, on the docks, nearly every day that I could stand it."

"I can only imagine your pain," Cub says, her eyes and tone conveying the sympathy her heart is empty of. After a few moments of silence has passed between them she adds, "I do not want to offer false hope, but there are two things I might attempt on your behalf. If you still have anything she owned or that she gave you, a piece of jewelry or such perhaps, that can possibly be used to find wherever she might be now. Furthermore, if there are any fragments left of the actual Wellspring, they may be able to lead us to the Demesne, and if Ivy was as talented as you indicate, she might have made her way there despite the hardships in her way."

Khī silently watched, ready to report on her findings. The old man was, broadly, truthful, although years of self deception had colored his memory and much of what he said. Cub was, as she had suspected, more than competent at working the old man over.

"The Wellspring," Rightness started. "Even if there's anything left after all this time, I wouldn't know where to find it. Times were much different back then... us Chosen didn't sit as equals at the same table, like you saw at the dinner party a few nights ago. No, the Old Seneschal made it clear that he was the one in charge. The rest of us... he had a fiery temper, and if you weren't his lackey, you were his enemy. He jealously guarded the Wellspring, and never allowed anyone else to see it or know where it was kept. Ivy knew where it was. I remember now - he had been hoodwinked into yet another failed scheme to supposedly mend it by some vagabond wood god, so he roped her in to oversee the project. She was his own blood, and he supposed he could trust her."

"If you think you can find her...." he anguished for a moment, before creakily standing up and doddering over to the far side of the room, where there was a large wooden room divider with semi-transparent panels. Through the panels, which were illuminated by the brightness of the noontime sun, Cub and Khi could see the outline of some furniture, including a bed. Apparently, this building wasn't just the old man's workplace - he must live out of here as well. They saw what looked like him reaching down under the bed, accompanied by the sounds of fumbling at what sounded like the cracked leather straps of an old footlocker. Slowly, he returned to where Cub and Khi were seated, clutching an old, thin, hardback volume to his chest, as if it were his most prized possession. The pages were lined in shiny gold foil, and apart from a little dust on the cover, it was in surprisingly excellent shape - evidently it had been well cared for. Cub recognized it as a book of sonnets by the first century poet Sirel Gemeni. Carefully, with trembling hands, he opened the book at a point in the middle, revealing a pale green lock of hair tucked between the pages, preserved for two centuries from the ravages of time. Looking longingly at the lock for a little while, he finally forced himself to gently close the book and tenderly place it on the table. It seemed like he was scared that if he touched it again, he wouldn't be able to give it up. "Take it, if it has a chance of helping."

Khi looked over at Cub, as if to say, 'is there anything more you'd like to do here?'. As far as she was considered, they were done here.

"Thank you," Cub says softly and gently, but without hesitation, she closes the book and places it within a fine silken purse pulled from somewhere in her robes. "I will let you know as soon as I have anything to tell you, and do my utmost to return this to you afterwards." Then she rises and gives Rightness a respectful bow, "I appreciate the time you have taken to see me and the things you have told me."
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The Nameless Sword Maiden Heads to her Meeting with Talonlord Anguilla

Now alone as they continued through Lushfield Town, The Nameless Sword Maiden couldn't help but notice Scalelord Rael occasionally glance back at the lethal woman in his charge with curious eyes. "Just checking to see if Pickle's behaving himself, miss," he lied. It was obvious that the man couldn't keep his eyes off of her. This most recent time, his eyes were drawn to the long, slender blade sheathed at the scabbard at her waist - he didn't know the name for a Reaper Daiklave, but he could sense its deadliness, and shivered as he looked away. Like everyone else, he had heard the story of the duel from two nights ago. All of those in Lushfield, indeed, the entirety of Creation knew of the armed prowess of the Dragonblooded Princes of the Earth. Who exactly was this eerily quiet, oddly beautiful woman, who had supposedly fought his own commanding officer to a standstill? Whoever she was, he didn't want to get on her bad side, that was for sure, but he desperately wanted to know more. He steeled his nerves enough to ask the question that's was on his tongue: "Miss, if you don't mind, me asking, by what name would you have me introduce you to my Commander?"

The horse trotted along, gladly following the Scalelord, hooves knocking gravel about, as the Sword Maiden balanced on it's back, still concentrating on the animal's movements. But since she didn't have to bother steering, she was holding up alright. She blinked, staring off into the distance, feeling the warmth of the horse on her legs, taking in the smell, which wasn't too unpleasant, especially now that it's coat was hit by rays of sunshine. "That's always the question, isn't it?" she mumbled, before straightening up.

"Nameless. Nameless will do. For now."

The Scalelord let his shoulders sink almost imperceptibly at her answer. He had never attempted to make any deeper sense of the political intrigue and social gamesmanship that the Chosen of the Dragons played - his place was to serve at the pawn of his betters, and his rank was a testament to his quiet combination of his servility and demonstrated competence at horsemanship - he understood horses better than he understood people. Indeed, he had no notion of any other way a mere mortal could exist in creation. Still though, he couldn't help but fantasize about the alluring woman behind him. Her presence made him want to be more than he was, and in his mind, being on a first name basis was the first step in his hastily-thought out plan, which had quickly been smashed to bits by her puzzling non-answer. "Very good, m'am," he defeatedly responded - what else could he say? Trotting his horse up to the hitching rail outside headquarters, rael deftly dismounting, quickly securing both horses' reins to the post. Standing by, he executed the next stage of his plan: helping the Nameless woman down from Pickle, ready to catch her if it looked like she may tumble. Sadly, she needed no such assistance.

Headquarters was a testament to wrought iron. The squat but expansive stone and metal building, complete with crenelations and murder-holes, plainly served as the center of the town's center of military life. In the time it had taken for them to ride up, half a dozen men in uniform had disappeared into or emerged from the large portculussed portal projected from the premises. From the trifecta of hung-over drunks being herded outside by one of the town's constable and shielding their eyes from the light of the sun, it must also have served as the town's jail. "The Talonlord is waiting for you in her private quarters, Miss" said the Scalelord, who held the door open for the Talonlord's guest. Even as they swiftly proceeded deep into the depths of the building, the Sword Maiden could see the place was was a flurry of activity: Constables standing at desks dictating reports to scribes, armorers polishing weapons, riders carrying dispatches to and fro, and vulgar sergeants complaining about useless malingering recruits as abacus-wielding scribes processed and tallied their daily account of illness, injuries, and punishments.

As they turned the final corner, most of the noise behind them seemed to fade away entirely. The Scalelord nodded to a guard posted at the ornate entryway, who twice banged a mailed fist on a well-worn section of the entryway. "Enter" they heard, in the stern voice of the Talonlord, as the guard opened the door for the visitors. "Your guest, M'am," Rael announced as he strode inside. "She, uh," - he hesitated for a second, "would prefer to be called Nameless, or to remain nameless - I'm not sure which."

Inside, the Talonlord was seated at the head of a rectangular table, in a room that seemed to both double as an office and dining room. Indeed - a bundle of reports was already pushed aside, and lunch was laid out. "What horse did you give her?" Talonlord Anguilla asked, as she put away a final sheaf of papers. "Pickle, m'am," he quickly responded. "Very good," she said. "Leave us," she commanded, accompanied by a dismissing hand motion. Rael eagerly complied, letting the heavy door clang shut behind him.

The two women were finally alone. "Nameless?" Anguilla curiously asked, motioning for the woman to take a seat, while she grabbed a hardy-looking roll of bread, ripping it in half and slathering it with butter with a sharp-looking knife that didn't look appropriate for the task.

"Quite a deliberate sobriquet, I think" Anguilla continued. "After our sparring session, I couldn't sleep without figuring it out. Your unconventional form - I found it buried very, very deep in an old edition of a treatise. It is the Iso-no-nami, is it not? The Water Iris, in Riverspeak. Very clever wordplay. Iso-no-nami. No nami. Nameless."

The Sword Maiden had followed politely, nodding and smiling at anyone that seemed vaguely worthy of notice, as Rael had led her. She bowed to Anguilla, a somber smile on her face. Already, this had been a worthwhile meaning. No she knew where to look, what to look after. In fact, it made the Sword Maiden actually chuckle. "Yes, clever. What else could it have meant?" she agreed. "Might I ask where you found the treatise? I'm always so curious." She sat down, and eyed the sharp knife. Intimidation, or just a soldier's habit? Iso-no-nami, Nameless thought to herself. Now that's fate!

"It was part of my inheritance." replied the Talonlord, pouring herself a glass of water and motioning Nameless to eat. "My actual one, from my father. He was the Seneschal, before Honto, and collected rare volumes." She smiled wryly. "I checked Short but Clear, and The Hundred Schools, of course," she said, presumably using colloquial names of different books on swordfighting she assumed Nameless would know about. "I found it in The Science of Mental Presence. The Iso-no-nami is only described in the first edition - it was cut from the second edition - that's the one that's most people have."

"Well then - word has got out about our last performance, and we've been asked to reprise it for a larger audience. A demonstration of martial spirit, to invigorate the little people - that's the idea. Let them all see what a blade in the right hands can do. What do you say?" asked Anguilla.

"Oh?" said the Sword Maiden, eyes widening with surprise. "I have to say, that's curious to me. I know it's been very interesting for us - but to the onlooker, didn't we just mostly circle each other, until we broke a couple swords?" She shrugged. "I am not against it, mind you. Though it has to be said, that I'm not sure it's a great idea for me to tempt fate yet again and go for another dance with a dragon" she lied, not wanting to get in trouble for hurting a Dynast. Also, quite opposite to Celcine, Anguilla seemed the respectable sort, in the Dawn's eyes.

The Talonlord narrowed her eyes as she examined the strangely innocent-seeming woman who had so surprised her with technique. Was the girl really not informed yet as to the true purpose of the public demonstration? Either Persistent Cub played her hand close to her vest indeed, or she did not yet fully trust this swordwoman with important details of their plot. It must be believable, Honto had stressed, that this nameless woman could perceived as capable of murdering an experienced Fire Aspect, and if necessary, an Earth Aspect as well. "It's the eternal paradox," Anguilla mused. "Why the strong serve at the behest of the weak. I sometimes ponder it it in myself. What binds you to that woman, Persistent Cub, if I may ask?"

"Eh," answered the Sword Maiden, shrugging off the question, seemingly, at least, before taking a deep breath. "She was traveling the same direction as me, when we met, and could afford to feed me along the way, and I had the steel to keep her safe. It seemed only logical." Her big eyes half closed, and she started breathing a bit quicker. Nameless was not a good liar, and while she excellently hid basically everything about herself by virtue of not knowing anything, to Anguilla it was clear that the warrior woman was - at least a bit - charmed by Persistent Cub. Hardly a surprise, though.

Nameless's hesitancy towards participating in a martial demonstration just seemed a polite, white lie, on the other hand. Her lips had moved ever so slightly, almost revealing a tiny smirk as Nameless had feigned caution. She clearly was itching for a fight. Big, dark eyes darting from Anguilla's face to her hand holding the oversized blade and back. It was almost charming however, to see someone so clearly devoted to their craft, and the readiness to fight didn't convey a hint of bloodlust. Just a healthy appetite to hone one's craft. "You seem quite eager to cross blades. I appreciate that" the Sword Maiden smiled.

"I would be lying if I claimed otherwise." replied Anguilla, who clearly respected Nameless's inclination towards martial prowess. "It is the deepest act of cruelty to deny a living thing its birthright. Take a magnificent thoroughbred, for instance. It would be kinder to slit its throat than to deny it the feeling of the wind in its mane at full gallop. We too were given our gifts so that they may be wielded and tested to their limits."

The Talonlord's gaze turned towards the blade strapped at Nameless's hip. "Your sword, it is a Reaper, a - uh - Miaodao, yes?" Her attempt at Riverspeak wasn't half bad. "I had hoped you would not object to the use of our real blades this time, and not replicas." The Talonlord turned to pick up the sheathed long-handled blade from the stand on the cabinet behind her, holding it horizontally in both hands. "I will accept the risk and will protect myself well enough from errant blows, but I will require your solemn oath to refrain from any of the sixteen recognized anti-horse strikes, as well as any unconventional pranas or techniques which have a probability of causing discomfort or injury to my beast. I, of course, will abide by the same conditions - I have no desire to harm any horse that I will loan you."

"Anti-what strikes?" the Sword Maiden asked, one brow raised. "This is supposed to be mounted?" She shook her head. "I can try, but I don't think I've ever had the chance to fight atop a fine steed. If you don't want to look like you're beating on a country bumpkin, we should leave the poor horses out of it" she argued, then slapped the side of her sword's sheath. "A Reaper indeed, is not exactly the horsewoman's best friend; if I had known I would've brought a Tachi - and practiced for a couple of years." Nameless put on a crooked smile. "I do not wish to offend you, if this is what it takes, I will take comfort in knowing that Pickle is safe and try my best. You will certainly have my word, loyal animals shouldn't suffer for petty games. I just want you to know I might not look as threatening as I did the other day." She sighed. "I guess I might have overstepped my bounds when we crossed blades as equals. I've not got the highborn blood of the Dragons like you, I just enjoyed the challenge. Of course, as a Prince of the Earth it's your privilege to demand we engage mounted, I just hope I don't look too pitiful when I fall. I've really only ever ridden the odd mule to market, never a horse in combat. Apologies."

Anguilla examined Nameless with quizzical, curious eyes. This woman wielded an expert's weapon - a Reaper, knew the distinction between a two-handed Miaodao vanguard infantry saber and the single-handed Tachi cavalry saber, and seemed to be a master of the obscure Iso-no-nami form, but was unfamiliar with basics like the Sixteen Anti-Horse Strikes, and confessed that she didn't know the first thing about staying in the saddle? Very odd indeed.

"I won't force you to make a fool of yourself." Anguilla replied in tentative tones, trying to reconcile the oddities she was hearing. "If you are telling the truth, a complete lack of experience fighting on horseback would be more likely to risk poor Pickle's ears than achieve anything useful. But I will commence the demonstration in the saddle. Soldiers must be prepared for the chaos of actual battle, not honorable combat. The enemy will seize every advantage available, and their cavalry will not voluntary unhorse themselves out of charity or to preserve a sense of noble dignity. They must be able to defend themselves under all conditions." The Talonlord tossed aside her cavalry cloak and attached the sheath of her long-handled weapon to hooks on the back of the blue jade lamellar armor she wore underneath, so that the hilt extended diagonally above her shoulder. Though she couldn't recall ever seeing one before, Nameless somehow knew that the woman's weapon was a Guandao. "I won't belabor it however, and we shall progress to dismounted techniques soon enough."

Anguilla picked up her elaborate helmet from the table, holding it under her arm as she lead the way in a new direction through the winding halls of Headquarters building, before the two woman finally emerged into the stables. Rael was waiting for them there, holding Pickle's reins as well as those of Aguilla's beautiful mount in a single hand, almost all white with only the faintest grey dapples. Both horses were freshly saddled and ready for the demonstration. "Talonlord," he began - "the entire Talon is assembled, along with the Third, Seventh, and Tenth auxiliary cohorts - all the militia on call this season." He made a quick bow accompanied by a fist-in-palm salute. "There is also a sizable contingent of civilian and off-duty... spectators, M'am," He hesitantly reported. "And more arriving by the minute."

"So, people are really hoping for a show, then?" Nameless sighed. She immediately started smiling, however. Surprisingly - at least surprising for herself, the idea of being the center of attention was quite appealing. Maybe she was a bit of a show-off? "I don't mind you having your horse. How else would you take advantage of your reach?" She patted Pickle's side and looked at the horse's big brown eyes. "I'll take good care of you, don't you worry" she soothed the animal.

Anguilla nodded approvingly at Nameless's treatment of the steed, and reached out herself to tousle Pickle's mane herself. The charger seemed to reacted with excited recognition at the Dragon-Blooded's touch. It hasn't occurred to Nameless until now, but Pickle must have been one of the Talonlord's own horses - perhaps she was even responsible for the choice of his name. "He likes you." Anguilla said. "Maybe we'll make a rider of you yet." With well-practiced agility, the commander mounted up in the custom saddle of her dappled white destrier, and spurred it onward out of the stable with the slightest twitch of her heels.

Nameless looked at Pickle's reaction as Anguilla left atop her steed. A white stripe running down the chestnut brown fur of the horse's face, a different color than the lightly mottled grey fur that covered the rest of his body. For some reason, the Sword Maiden thought she saw a twinge of sadness and longing in the horse. She recalled Anguilla's comment about horses being permitted to run free. Scalelord Rael still stood there patiently and silently in the stable, waiting with a slightly awkward look on his face after the departure of his commander, watching with eager eyes to see what the lovely Sword Maiden would do. The man had gone to such hard work to saddle and tack the horses - it would be a waste to leave Pickle alone in the stable. The Sword Maiden finally decided: she put an unsteady food in the stirrup, and leaving nothing to chance, propelled herself upward with enough force to send her a good foot in the air higher than necessary for her other leg to clear the colt's back. Her derrière landed squarely on the padded saddle with a muffled thump, and her legs involuntarily squeezed inward - the signal for Pickle to unleash his instinct to gallop. The grey charger shot out of the stable like a cannon, following the trail of dust clouds left behind by Anguilla and her charger. Nameless threw her arms around Pickle's neck, holding on for dear life as she tried to grab the loose reins and to slip her other foot into the dangling stirrup on the other side to regain control.

It was great dexterity that was needed to replace experience or expertise. Nameless had no idea how to ride, but she instinctively knew how to stay on something that was rumbling, rocking and swaying. After a few yards she managed to wrap her legs around the horses flanks, pinning her in place on the saddle, though she already perceived omens of an aching lower back the following day. After a bit more time had passed, she actually managed to inch her hands away from the horse's neck, getting a grip on the reins - or were they called a bridle? And if not, what was a bridle? Finally, she started to get used to the feeling. She still had no real idea how to control the animal, but she somehow trusted Pickle to know what he was doing - for now - and se actually seemed to be enjoying the challenge of trying something knew. After a few moments, she knew she was certainly in no danger of being thrown off, but if combat were to ensue, she'd be at no advantage from being on horse back.

The Sword Maiden had maybe hoped that - like at other times in her new life - memories, pictures would flash before her eyes, her limbs would remember what to do, or the like. But either she had never been much of a rider, or the memories were buried deeper yet.
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Warden, Scales, Cold, and Rock Step into the Shadowland

Cold stops as soon as soon as he was more then a few steps inside the place. A shiver running over his back as the cold seeps into it. Cold knew what cold and frost was supposed to feel like. This... this felt wrong.  There was no way that the fire should be this low without any harsh winds or moisture battering the flames. Those feelings of doom only heightened when Scales mentioned they were not alone anymore. "Then where are we?" The completely-clueless-about-the-occult Cold sounded nervous.  He looked around for something that was in the room with them and hoping he could punch it somehow.

Warden tensed at Scales' warning, resting a hand on the hilt of his sword for now, looking around warily. "The better question is, what do you mean with we aren't alone?"

"The land of the dead bleeds through here, and there is one of it denizens." Scales nods towards the stone slab in the center of the room. "Rock, do you know anything about this?"

Rock shook his head and shivered. For all the theoretical knowledge he had gleaned from senior monks and pulp novels, his practical experience was highly limited. He clearly had no idea what he was dealing with here. "To think - a place like this a mere few dozen feet under the temple."

"This has to be deliberate, right? The monks responsible for this place would notice and prevent a shadowland forming if they wanted to." Warden speculates.

Cold looked into the direction of Scales nod, noticing the hazy shimmer. "Can't we simply ask the dead for that answer?" Cold didn't like this - dead were supposed to be dead, not lurking around in the land of the living, their bodies should be laid to rest and their spirits sent off to their final rests. But that seemed to be the quickest way to get that information. "Or do we need some kind of special ritual to make it able to hear and understand us?"

Rock peered at the unstirring shimmer atop the stone bench with curiosity and some apprehension. "A Shadowland, is that what this is? I've read about those.... The last time this door was officially opened was more than fifty years ago. It could have formed between then and now, perhaps?"

“Perhaps, though the lock seemed to be made to ward against the dead," said Scales. The ghost is also chained to the stone. He should be able to hear us, Reed, though our voices will be faint.”

"So we just need to be loud then." There was a wide smile on Cold's face as he took a step forward. When he had been a warlord he had been able to boom his voice over the sounds of battle, he had been able to address entire crowds loudly and clearly enough everybody could hear. Cold knew a thing or two about making himself heard loudly and clearly. "Spirit of the dead!" Cold said in a loud and clear voice. Hidden-Reed's frame wasn't quite as able to make his voice boom as he was used to. But he still spoke with a tone of somebody who was used to wielding authority. "Who are you, why is the land tainted and why are you bound here!"

The spirit grew slightly more real in response to Cold's shouting, shifting from a faint, person-like shimmer to a translucent pale cyan outlines of what seemed to be an older man. The loose fetters at his wrists and ankles which bound him to the bench seemed more grow more real as well, and very faintly clinked against the stone floor. He rolled over, as if stirred from sleep. "Blast it. What time is it?" the ghostly man croaked in an abrasive, whispered voice."

"Almost noon," Cold answered. He barely held himself from impatiently tapping his foot at the way the old man ignored his questions. "So again, Who are you, why are you down here and why is the land here tainted?"

The bound ghostly old man continued to increase in his permanence as he rubbed his eyes and took in his surroundings, examining the four newcomers. "I don't answer to encroachers rousing me from my sleep." he snarled angrily, "If Honto wants something, tell him that he should come himself, or at least to send a prettier girl next time."

Cold visibly twitches at the old ghost's comments. If Cold could've touched the immaterial ghost, he would've already grabbed him by the collar and and shoved his head in the nearest puddle or whatever to cool the old man off. He took a deep breath and tried to calm down, it seemed like the old man wouldn't simply be cowed by a loud voice though. Time to take another approach. "Honto didn't send us, we were expecting something completely else. We didn't know you were here. You can imagine our shock in finding a shadowland below the cathedral with a ghost trapped inside."

The old ghost snorted with laughter - like he saw comedy in the situation. "Imagine that. Young Honto's finally got what was coming it him, then, is that it? And you're here to bury him?" He peered at Rock. "A boy monk, come to arrange the funeral of a Seneschal of Lushfield. Wonderful!" he exclaimed sarcastically, metaphorical venom dripping from his words. "I suppose that's what comes of putting children in charge."

Rock looked over at Warden, wondering if he should speak up, or see how this plays out.

"Unfortunately I'll have to cut your mirth short," Cold said in a flat tone. "Honto is still alive and well. We simply had some questions about why the Seneschal of Lushfield crawls down the crypts every so often. Secrets like that can be quite useful." He simply said. "I'm sorry, I don't quite know who you are. Are you Honto's predecessor?"

The tone of the conversation shifted as the old ghost's laughter ceased abruptly. "So the Seneschal still lives, then? Ha!" the ghost smiled. "I shouldn't have been so presumptive. Young Honto's a tough one. If he wasn't, it would be him down here and me up there still, and not the other way around. No, you craven foreign spies can try and steal secrets from someone else."

Rock spoke up - "I know who you are now, or were. You must be Lo-Biven, the old Seneschal who died in the year seven twenty-three."

The Ghost Lo-Biven's wispy, incorporeal features made him difficult to read, but something seemed strange about the way the ghost spoke of Honto. Him down there and me up there still? The two must have engaged in a struggle of some sort in the past, with Honto coming out on top. But Lo-Biven didn't seem to be entirely full of vitriol for the man who likely sent him to his grave, as Cold had mentally guessed earlier. Instead, the intruders into the shadowland identifying themselves as adversaries of Honto seemed to harden the ghost's expression and resolve against them, rather than the opposite.  Cold tried to puzzle out what the Old Ghost what getting at.

Oddly, the timbre of the old ghost's voice seemed to convey a feeling of respect, and maybe even a little pride towards Honto. It even started to make a twisted sort of sense. A proud, experienced man used to commanding the levers of power could not be overthrown by a coward or a weakling. No, it would take a worthy opponent, and such worth could only be proven by successfully carrying out the deed. Honto could never have beaten him at his peak, of course, but even the glorious Lo-Biven was able to admit to himself that he was getting up there in years, and he wasn't the same man as he used to be. No, the Old Seneschal didn't think of Honto as a usurper - he begrudgingly viewed him as, if anything, his rightful heir.

"Aye" said the ghostly Lo-Biven to Rock. "Guilty as charged."

 Well, Cold had outright told their only potential lead that they were seeking dirt on his successor. The successor who murdered him to be able to take his place, the successor who he bent over double with mirth at his death, but still wanted to protect and saw as worthy instead of a mere usurper. By Luna's mercurial moods, some people made no sense at all. And dealing with these kind of people was what Cub did her entire life? He wasn't sure to be afraid of of her of being able to or respect her for not going absolutely bonkers because of it. probably a bit of both. At least now they knew he wasn't coming to talk with the god. He was coming to talk with the ghost of his old mentor.

"So, he overthrew you, his old leader, chained your soul up in the depths of the crypt, and then continues to visit you occasionally. And you're somehow quite proud of what he managed to pull off. No not just proud. You see him as a worthy successor because of it. Are you that knowledgeable that even after your death he still requires your advice?" The look of absolute incredulity was clearly visible on Cold's face. He looked over at Warden, Scales and Rock, hoping at least
one of them could find the reason in that.

Lo-Biven stood to his feet from his seated position on the stone bench and approached Cold in the form of Hidden Reed. The clinking of the ghostly chains dragging against the dusty stone floor echoed off the walls. He got up close to Cold's stolen face. "I almost couldn't be more proud of the man," the ghost snarled in a twisted grin that displayed his his chipped teen. "I taught him everything he knows, and he was the best student I ever had. Why, I should have adopted him as my own true son."

The ghost continued, induced into bragging by Cold's manipulation: "The boy's a little soft though, but that can still be fixed." Now was he disturbingly close to Hidden Reed's face, close enough for Cold to sense the chill malevolence exuded by Lo-Biven's forceful personify, frightful even in death. "If you see him - tell him I said the only thing that would ever make me more pleased, would be for him to take that unruly daughter of mine by the throat, and force her to spread her legs so I could finally have a worthy grandson."


Scales was taken aback. Now I see why he would want to kill you, he thought. Such vileness must be destroyed, lest it destroy all it touches. Honto did the world a favor, but he did not finish the job.

Rock gasped audibly at Lo Biven's crude remarks. "His daughter is the Talonlord Anguilla," he whispered to Warden.

Warden, too, was shocked at the ghost's behavior. "To talk about his own daughter this way. Rock, I don't think this ghost should be allowed to linger here. If he sits here, trying to harden Honto, extending his vile influence through Lushfield even after his death..." He whispers back to the monk, his resolve hardening as he talks. He take a step forward towards the ghost, his back straight, his eyes burning with contained fury, a hand tightened on the hilt of the massive, wrapped blade on his back. "Shade-" He begins, spitting out the word. "Know that you stand in the presence of the righteous. Your vile presence corrupts both this very crypt and the moral character of Lushfield's government. Give us a good reason why we should not send you along to whatever next existence reincarnation has in store for you."

Cold's bafflement also quickly turned into disgust as the spectre got into his face and tried to intimidate him.  When the ghost started talking, with his broken teeth put on display through a twisted smile, his malevolence almost seemed like an actual substance that poured off the shithead and over Cold. He felt bile rise into his throat as he started talking about how Honto was soft for not forcing his daughter into his bed. About how he would be even prouder if his own daughter was to be raped by his killer. The very thought made him gag. How could such filth be allowed to linger on? He backed away from the spirit, rage, hatred and disgust warring for a spot on Hidden-Reed's face as he bared his teeth at the spirit, his hands balled into fists. He wanted to tear this thing down into shreds and burn the remains. Tear down everything that reminded him of this monster and burn it as well, so his name and memory would be forgotten like it should be.

"I'm going to rip your cock off and make you choke on it." the Casteless Lunar snarled out. "If it was ever big enough for that." It was a petty and childish insult, but Cold was perfectly willing to make good on it.

"Oh ho ho, we must have a real big man here," Lo-Biven replied to Warden, ignoring Cold's bluster in favor of the man with the hand on the hilt of the large blade. "Do you think that scares me?" The ghostly old man spread his arms in an invitation for Warden to ram his sword through his torso, and mockingly rattled the silvery chains that hung down from his wrists. The dull jangle resonated off the carved stone squares that marked the ossuaries of Lushfield's deceased Dragons. "In case you didn't notice from these..." - he indicated the manacles around his wrists - "and that big silver ward on the door you just barged through, I'm not exactly living a life of luxury down here. If your idea of righteousness involves breaking into jail cells and murdering defenseless prisoners, then by all means - go ahead."

Despite his words though, Warden saw, in the devious gleam of Lo-Biven's eyes, a twinge of fear. The ghost hadn't abandoned existence and didn't want to move on - he still had work to do, hopes and plans for the future. "Besides," Lo-Biven added, "You won't exactly get whatever information you're looking for if you silence me forever. You might as well tell me what you want to know."

Warden crossed his arms in front of his chest, unimpressed by the ghost's show at victimhood. He exchanged a short look with his companions, especially Rock, before focusing on what they originally came here for. It might not be what he expected, but perhaps the ghost knew something anyway. "Very well, then. What do you know about Tramazia the Rhizome, the god of outwards growing roots?"


Cold looked just as unimpressed as Warden when Lo-Biven tried to claim the mantle of victimhood. And still more then eager to brutalize him beyond recognition. But he let Warden do the talking for now.

"Tramezia?" Lo-Biven laughed hauntingly, taking in the others standing behind Warden and Cold, and taking notice of the fact that Rock seemed to be the only one with a local look about him. "Is that who you're here about? That second-rate charlatan? He's just another fugitive from Yu-Shan who talks big but can't deliver - a dinar a dozen. I protected that overgrown potato for centuries, and he was nothing but a useless layabout, more interested in lording over a petty little little subterranean fief and calling it his Elemental Court like he's Sextes Fuckin' Jylis, than holding up his end of a bargain."

Warden raised a brow in surprise at the ghost's words. "What, so he didn't hold up his end of the bargain? From what we've seen, Lushfield is as lush as its name implies and its people are healthy." He crossed his arms before his chest. "What exactly was the bargain you made with him, that he never really made good on?"

Lo-Biven glanced for a moment towards Rock, dressed in his white robes with his shaved head, still now dimly glowing with the anima of one with the blood of dragons, who was fiddling with the firestarter at his belt. Whatever Lo-Biven was, he wasn't a fool - the Immaculate position on beings who persist beyond death and refuse to submit to their rightful reincarnation was not subject to reasonable dispute. It was in his best interest to keep talking and probing.

"When a great man has reached the pinnacle of his prowess," Lo-Biven started his monologue, "and has accomplished all of the goals he has set out for himself, there is a sort of reckoning, with the prospect of your own mortality. Some even go through a crises. What will your legacy be?" He paused for effect. "You see, I had no son to carry on my legacy, only daughters. It was my affliction, perhaps even a curse. Tramezia - he was a shifty one. He called himself a fertility god, and said he could bless the land to treat my... peculiar condition, and would guarantee that I would have a son to raise in my own image and carry on after I was gone. Of course, it was a pernicious lie, but I trusted him for far too long, and that was his plan the entire time. By the time I realized that he was nothing but a dirty parasitic leech, he had entrenched himself so deeply into the very fabric of the soil itself that removing him was out of the question. The bastard pulled a fast one on me, and I'm not too proud to admit that I was had."


Cold's scowl deepened the more the ghost kept talking. A pinnacle, a legacy. Why the hell weren't the daughters good enough anyway? Cold couldn't help but feel glad the piece of shit never managed to create a legacy of his own. Filth like him deserved to be forgotten. "Getting deceived by a second-rate charlatan, wonder what that makes you," Cold spat out. "So, if he wasn't a fertility god, then what the hell is he the god of? And what do you mean, entrenched himself into the fabric of the soil? That had to be something to do with the giant roots, but he didn't know if it was smart to let them they knew about that in front of Rock.

"Why don't you ask him about that," said the ghostly Lo-Biven, pointing at Rock. He was seeking an opportunity to drive a wedge between the foreign-looking interlopers and the local they accompanied. "The Immaculate high priesthood has been complicit for centuries."

“Perhaps this may come as a surprise to you," said Scales, "but not everyone is corrupt. Rock seeks to reveal the truth, but to do that we need more information. Surely you would have no problem telling us information that will prove detrimental to the…‘overgrown potato’, was it?”

"That's where you're wrong, little man," replied the ghost of Lo-Biven to Scales, seemingly having struck on a wedge he could use to his advantage. He smiles, easily seeing through Scales' attempt to manipulate him. "You think the prospect of revenge motivates me? Don't make me laugh! I could have toasted that grifter and turned him and his entire domain into blackened carrot skewers any time I wanted to, and don't think I didn't consider it. No - you're quite mistaken - Tramezia's entrenchment wasn't physical, it was metaphorical. He found a way to make himself indispensable."

"So you say you want information on Tramezia," He continued. "That's good to know. A good starting place for striking a bargain." An evil glint was beginning to form in his blue-grey ghostly eyes. "What will you give me for it?"

Cold felt his blood boiling at the audacity of this old decrepit shade. "You misunderstand your situation," he said in a voice cold as the northern winter gale. "We asked you to give us one good reason to allow your existence to continue on. You still haven't. You're not a poor and defenseless prisoner," he spat out the words. "You're a vile shell of a man who was so obsessed with covering up the failure of his own manhood, that he blundered into the trap of the first con-man that picked up on it. A sadist who takes delight in the idea of one of his daughters being taken by force. A soul so twisted your very presence blights the land you inhabit." Cold didn't know if that was how these.. shadow lands worked. But what else could it be? This shade's presence was just so wrong, so foul that it just made sense he was poisoning the world around him by merely existing. Destroying him would surely fix the shadowland.

"Do not presume this is a bargain between equals, shade. This is you trying to convince us to not end your existence. And you haven't been doing a very good job of that." Cold knew it was probably going to cause a delay in searching for the god. But some part of him wanted the ghost to deny them. He
wanted to destroy this spirit and cleanse the world of it's presence. And Cold didn't even bother to hide that.

Lo-Biven wavered. He had spent his life as a keen wheeler and dealer, playing colleagues and adversaries alike off one another so that in the end, only he would come out on top. He had a second sense for knowing when there was still room to
squeeze when driving a bargain, and he rarely left a single siu on the table. He loved money. Jade, silver, cash, all of it. He loved the feel of it in his hand, but even more, he loved taking it from others, and hated to see it go. He had amassed a hoard in his lifetime, and he saw no purpose in it other than it meant he had it and others did not. It was proof of his superiority. So when this ranting woman was screaming at him, he knew what he was seeing. It wasn't the words that had bothered him: he had been called a million loathsome things, and they simply rolled off his back like water off a duck. It was the look in her crazy, frigid eyes - this wasn't calculated rancor meant to bluff lesser men. No, this bitch is cracked. The type that would light it all on fire, with her standing in the middle of the blaze, rather than compromise.

"We could...." he started, trying to weave through the treacherous tides he found himself in. "Make a deal. I'll show you how to find Tramezia, make a formal introduction - hell, I'll tell him whatever you want me to say," he proposed - "But I need something in return, to guarantee that you won't simply murder me once you've gotten what you seek and I'm no longer useful to you."

"The barrier between Creation and the other side is thin here, very thin. My current... existence floats between both sides, and with some effort, I've found I can cross over. I'll take something from from you, as security for my safety, and I'll store it just on the other side. You hold up your end of the deal, and you'll get it back. But if you betray me, it will be gone forever. He looked at the four standing in front of him. Something drew upon his ghostly greed.

"That trinket hanging from the chain around your neck, under your shirt. Yes, you, little man." The ghost had detected the curious scent of an item of power - the polished rodent skull that had been given to Scales by his mentor. Through its use, for the expenditure of a few motes of power, Scales' words could bore through the Underworld and reach Smiling Rat, no matter where in creation Scales was, even thousands of miles away. Viewed from the other side, it seemed to carry its own gravity, bending the un-light around it. Lo-Bevin peered at its deviancy. A tiny mobius where Creation and the Underworld wrapped around one another in a tangle of geometric impossibility. Not two sides of the same coin, but rather a coin that only had a single side. "That's what I want."


He must not have realized what I am, thought Scales. There's no way he would have suggested this if he knew what I could do. A barrow hound should have no trouble with crossing over and stealing it right back. "Very well; I'm willing to accept this, unless my companions disagree?" he responded.

"No, if you agree then I won't go against it." Cold said.

"If you're willing to bear this risk, who am I to gainsay you?" added Warden. Very well then, it seems we have a deal."


Rock looked on with curiosity as Scales slowly reached under his shirt, exposing a bleached white skull the size of an walnut. It was hanging as a pendant from a silver chain attached to the necklace of lizard teeth he wore around his neck. The four oversized, chisel-like incisors of the rodent glimmered in the dim light of the crypt - they had either been coated with or replaced by a metal the color of silver, but somehow more vivid. The eye sockets were inlaid with two polished onyx gemstones, and the bone surfaces seemed to be engraved with dozens of glyphs.

Brushing aside his western island-style ponytail, Scales removed the entire necklace, and took a one last look at his prized possession, before handing it over to the ghostly Lo-Biven, who greedily snatched it and began to examine it with curiosity. He paced around in a circle around the bench he was chained to, at the maximum distance permitted by his fetters, which oddly never seemed to become tangled or knotted - rather, the individual strands of ghostly metal seemed to slip over each other effortlessly. In an instant, a part of him seemed to slip apart from reality, flickering rapidly like candle caught in a windstorm. With his enhanced vision that could peer into the ghostly immaterial realm, Scales could see the upwelling of necromantic essence that seemed to come from the Shadowland and through Lo-Biven that permitted him to shift between Creation and the Underworld. The chains, however, never wavered in their solidity. A moment later, the bargain was complete. "There, it's done," said Lo-Biven. "Now for the next step." He held up the chains that still bound him. "If you want me to take you to Tramezia, you're going to have to find a way to unshackle me from that damnable stool."

Cold got closer and got a better look at the chains. Trying to get get a grasp on it's construction or if there were any clear weak points. Or anything that looked like it could make the chains open up so the ghost could leave. He reached down and reached for them, wondering if he could even touch the ghostly metal to begin with. If he couldn't, that would make the task a lot harder.


The chains were frigid at Protects-from-Cold's touch. They were looped through a thick metal boss on the bottom side of the flat top of the bench that was embedded into the stone itself. Two thick square stone blocks on both ends of the bench held it up, and were themselves firmly bolted into the stone floor. At their core, the materials of the chains and the metal fixtures of the bench appeared to have a physical component firmly anchoring the in creation, but there was also a supernatural glow about them, preventing their degradation in the harsh environment of the shadowlands, where other metals rapidly tarnished and rusted, as shown by the rust-flaked candle-braziers that ringed the room. If they had an identifiable weak point, it would take more than a casual glance to detect it.

Cold's unpracticed evaluation of the chains was unable to detect any particular weak points where sufficient application of force would be sufficient to shatter a link apart. Nevertheless, there was nothing built under heaven that could not be destroyed. If any of them had a chance to physically break the chain, it would be a hulking solar using a large weapon.

Cold stood up. "Warden, do you think these chains will be a problem for you?" He made a quick gesture towards the sword on his back.


Warden took a step forward, giving the chains a quick glance before shaking his head. "I doubt it. Please give me some room to properly swing." He reached for the sword on his back and drew it, still wrapped in the cloth that hid its true nature. As he pulled the cloth off, the gray jade blade glints in the candlelight. It was a massive blade made for chopping and cleaving, unadorned save for a closed eye engraved in one side of the blade. "This blade is called Gorgon, though its original name has been lost to history." He began, running a hand along the smooth, pure jade, assessing it for damage. Not that he feared a dulled blade, such was not a concern for artifacts. No, it simply reassured Warden to make sure the beast's prison was still intact and its eye closed, unlikely as an escape may seem. "Within it sleeps an ancient evil that, in this form, shall be turned to good ends. I have dedicated my life and my name to this task." His inspection finished with a slight nod, he took a wide stance, slowly raising the blade above his head. "So not make me regret this, ghost, or you may learn what this cursed blade does to the spirits it cuts."

Rock had stood aside to give Warden room to reveal the colossal Daiklave that was worn strapped to the man's back, and decided to make himself useful. The Earth Aspect lowered the tip of the candle alongside one of the keystone links of the silvery-blue glowing chain that looped through the boss, presenting a target, while he also fixed the chains tautly in position on the stone floor by planting a sandaled foot on top of them. Of all of them, his Immaculate training perhaps made him the most untrustworthy of unnatural spirits like ghosts and the undead, and if not for his innate curiosity, he perhaps would have taken a hard line against this endeavor and demanded an immediate exorcism. Still, he wrapped the end of the chains closer to Lo-Biven around the forearm of his other hand - if this unsettling blade called Gorgon (was that an eye on the side?) indeed managed to slice through these fetters like a butcher's cleaver chopping through pork ribs, he would be ready in case the evil ancestor spirit - maybe one of his very own, he grimly thought - decided to run for it.

The daiklave dropped like the falling of an executioner's blade. Whistling through the cold shadowland air, the
mass of the artifact seemed to cause an inhaling, as if gravity itself was momentarily distorted around the closed eye - and did it twitch there, slightly? Perhaps Gorgon was dreaming in that very moment of the horrible and glorious days of its past, dropping down in exactly the same way as it did now to sever the heads of captured enemies brought to sate the lust of the spirit within - hundreds or thousands - until the very ground around the block was water-logged with their blood. The edge struck the thick link of the chain with an otherworldly crunching sound. Nobody knew what to expect, but it didn't simply slice through like a cleaver through a duck's neck. Rather, it crushed with its weight, like a boulder rolling down the side of a cliff and bashing its way through the side of a tree trunk. Blue tinged silvery sparks shot out and illuminated the air at the moment of impact, instinctually causing the onlookers to shut their eyes and look away. When they returned their gaze, they saw the blade Gorgon wedged deeply into chain, a full quarter of the circumference of the large link pulverized into metallic fragments of dust, packed around the side of the mammoth sword. Whatever enchantment it was that caused the chain to shimmer in its blueish hue was unaffected, but it had vanished from the remains of the link that had been struck.

This had been the first time Cold had seen the blade without the wrappings. And Gorgon unnerved him slightly. That carved eye seemingly twitching, and the fact warden proclaimed an ancient evil was sleeping within it. Well, that was
not what he had expected. But it smashed the chain into bits all the same. "You are unshackled," he dryly stated.

"I see," said Lo-Biven, flashing a nasty look at Rock, who tightened his grip on the azure-glowing chains in response. It might have been that the ghost had hoped his guests would ignore this basic precaution, letting him bolt the moment the chain had been been bashed apart. Reaching down, the shade swept away the debris of the shattered metal and unhooked his fetters from the shattered link. Then he turned and started walking towards the rear of the private crypt, on the other side of door through which the Exalts entered. The loop at the free end of the chain unsnaked around the metal boss on the underside of the bench as he walked, the shattered link at the end finally clanking to the floor.

"His domain is in the tunnels, even deeper than the crypts." Lo-Biven ran a ghostly nail along the stucco wall, far beyond where he could have roamed when he remained shackled to the stone. It looked like he was searching for some sort of hidden seam between ossuary stones. "There's a door here, which leads to the shaft. His nail seemed to catch on something. "Ahh, here it is," he said, locating the seam, and running his hand down to one of the ossuaries at waist level, before sliding the stone on its face to the side, revealing a conventional deadbolt-style lock that seemed to match the style of the lock on the door into the room. "If you got in here, you shouldn't have a problem with this one either," he said to the group, standing back to let the exalts before him manage the obstacle.

Warden hefted the massive blade over one shoulder, deciding to keep it ready and unwrapped for now. At encountering a new lock, he looked towards Rock. "Shall I hold the chains so you can deal with the lock?"

Rock peered accusingly at the the shackled ghost, as if to warn him that he shouldn't try any funny business, before carefully handing the end of the chains to Warden, making sure that the man still carrying the imposing blade had a firm grip on them before he unwound them from around his forearm. Pulling out his homemade lock-cracking tools, he started to work at the small keyhole. He seemed to struggle more with this one, and after an awkward minute of attempting to open the door accompanied by various frustrated murmers, a high pitched metal snap sound was heard. "Dammit!" exclaimed Rock, who was examining the sheared-off edge of his homemade tension wrench. "I'm pretty sure I've got all the pins, but the bolt won't budge. I think it's jammed, could be rusted shut."

"Hrm, that's some bad luck," said Warden. "When was the last time someone used this door, if it had time to rust over?" He addressed his question at the ghost, though he was already studying the door before him. "Perhaps it can be opened from the other side? Or we could try Gorgon again..." He said, thinking out loud.

Cold winced as he heard the snap of Rock's lockpicks. of course it couldn't be that easy. "We've already started breaking things. So just smashing it down is always an option." He looked over at the ghost. "Shade, can you stick your head through the door and see if you can see what's causing the trouble?"


Lo-Biven didn't even acknowledge Cold's suggestion after the way she referred to him as 'Shade.' "It has been a while, hasn't it..." he said wryly and perhaps cryptically to Warden.

"Hrm, fine then, answered Warden. It's not like we could hide the broken shackles, so we might as well break this door as well." He handed the ghost's chains back to Rock and readied his blade once more. "It's a good thing we're so far underground, or I'd be worried about all the noise breaking through a solid door might make."


Cold gritted his teeth in annoyance as the ghost completely ignored him. He simply motioning to Warden to go ahead with bashing the door down.

Warden waited a few seconds for someone to interrupt him with any better ideas. When Cold waved him forward, he stepped up, his two-handed grip tightening on the hilt of Gorgon as he raised it high above his head, as high as the ceiling of the crypt allowed. Warden had learned how to use Gorgon, its enormous weight, lessened only for the attune user, for devastating chopping motions. Muscles and gravity both bless the blade with momentum enough to slice off heads, dismember armored warriors... and hopefully crush through an old hidden door with equal ease. "No blood for you today, Gorgon. Just stone and dust." He mumbled under his breath with a slight chuckle.

It wasn't an ideal tool for the task, but Warden wielded Gorgon with his best impression of a sledgehammer, using the sword's mass to crush through the hidden door. He aiming the strike at the area around the lock mechanism, hidden behind one of the fake stone plates on the door that had slid aside. There were two other fake stone plates that mimicked the appearance of the front of the surrounding ossuary boxes arrayed on the walls of the room, one above and one below the lock. With the strike, all three stone plates both seemed to disintegrate at once into rubble, and the the wooden material of the doorway stove inward, one side blasting away while the other swung to the side on shrieking hinges with a grating sound that made it seem like like they were nothing more than rust. A jagged metal crossbar, nearly entirely eaten away by corrosion, was hanging limply from the remains of the busted timbers.

Peering beyond the doorway revealed that the walls, floor, and ceiling on other side was no longer sheathed in stone like the crypts. Rather, the way forward was bare tunnels. As their eyes adjusted, they began to make out small pinpricks of luminescence - what appeared to be glowing fungal caps growing sporadically on the shaft that proceeded deeper into the earth. The walls and floor were uneven, and appeared to bear distortions and curves indicating large roots protruding at random places.

Cold waited for the dust to settle before stepping through the broken door, peering into the darkness. It was only sporadically broken up by the faint light of fungi.
"Well then, lets go and meet this god and get some answers shall we?"

"Yes, let's." Warden agreed, stepping through the doorway close behind Cold.

Quietly in awe of Warden's strength, Scales followed him into the tunnels.
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The Boys Delve Deeper into the Tunnels Below the Cathedral

"This better get us some answers," said Rock to the shackled ghost, yanking on the chain to drag the ancestor spirit out of the shadowy, chill crypt and down into the tunnel. The air grew perceptibly warmer and the flames on the candles seemed to double in size as they stepped out of the private tomb that seemed to radiate disquiet and unease, and began trodding on bare, slightly damp earth. Meanwhile, Lo-Biven, who had seemed such an imposing personality, seemed to shrink away as he crossed the threshold - it became more evident that he was the ghost of an old man who had been far beyond his prime at the time of his death.

Cold couldn't help the smug sense of satisfaction as the arrogant and pompous ghost started to fade away. That was how the world should be, the vile, exploitative and disgusting shouldn't be more then a faint outline, easy enough for anybody to stamp into the dirt. The world wasn't like that right now. But he would make sure to bend it into the shape he desired. "So how far till we get to the god?" Cold asked as he glanced towards the spectre.

"This is his domain now that we're treading in, unmolested by man for a century or more." Lo-Biven paused. "Unless sly Honto decided to stick his long neck down here at some point," replied Lo-Biven, the shining shackles between his ankles dragging over a protruding root sticking up from the ground with a clank, as if to emphasize his comment. "Tramezia likely knows we're here already. He'll materialize for us when it suits his whims, I suppose."

The group continued trekking further onward and downward through the winding tunnel. Scales and Cold's keen internal sense of direction told them that by now, they must easily be 40 or 50 feet below ground. Up ahead, there seemed to be some sort of grotto that emanating a steady ambient glow of green-tinged light, far brighter than the scattered bioluminescent fungi which had been their only source of light apart from the long candles most of them still carried - half burnt through their lengths of wax by now.

"Well, then let's hope he's feeling talkative after this long without visitors," Warden said as he followed the ghost. Of course, he could force the issue of the god materializing if necessary, but that brought its own host of troubles with it.

The exalts and the ghost ducked under a formation of low hanging, moss-covered stalactites leading into the grotto, and stepped around a large vertical knotty root the size of a massive trunk. They let their eyes adjust to the steady ambient greenish light that seemed to come from all directions at once - the product of the bioluminescent fungus that grew heavily across most of the melted rock surfaces around them. What they saw could be most closely described as some sort of underground metropolis. The massive grotto must have been the size of a whole Nexus city block, extending both upwards and downwards, seemingly consisting of multiple vertical levels ringing the periphery, connected by trellises, ladders, and ramps going up and down. Below them, on the floor of the lowest level, seemed to be some sort of marketplace, swarming with dozens of strange creatures. Peering closer, they also could see that in many locations on the walls, there were openings or primitive-seeming structures of all sorts, and they could pick out a few more of the beings through windows going about their daily lives.

The creatures themselves were far more varied than in any mortal metropolis they had ever seen. Some of them seemed to be tall, willowy beings, over seven feet tall and formed of bark, that moved with unnatural grace. Others seem to be stocky, moss-covered, lumbering beings, formed of wood inlaid with stone, or stone inlaid with wood - it was difficult to tell. Some were maybe a foot tall, and others exceeded ten feet, hunching over to avoid knocking down the banners of the market stalls. Most seemed vaguely human-shaped, but they spotted a few that could best be described as flower-creatures, moving on spindly root-like feet using thick, finger-like stamens to examine various gemstones being bartered. It was unmistakable: these were Elementals.

Of all the things Cold expected to see underground when they met the god... A massive underground city. Dwellings, ladders, platforms and businesses all carved into the rock. Completely covering the cave walls as far as they could see. But what was even stranger were the inhabitants. Walking plant creatures of all shapes and sized made their way through the city, going about their daily lives. The shock was easily visible on the Lunar's stolen face. He leaned towards Scales - "What, are those things? Gods?," he asked in a low voice.

Scales' surprise at the size of the god's supposed court was also on his face. "Not exactly," he replied, "though I suppose they could be considered somewhat as kin. I believe they are elementals; spirits whose Essence is overwhelmingly aligned with one of the elements of Creation." He turned towards Lo-Biven. "If this is all under his rule, then he must have a place to reign from, no?"

The ghostly ex-Seneschal scoffed at the concept of the jumped-up god ruling the underground grotto like a king. Though the Ancestor Spirit was still just as arrogant as ever, his voice seemed muffled - thinner and less resonant than it did when they were in the Shadowland. In fact, everything about him seemed a little less imposing, even as he guffawed. "Tramezia knew his place and attended on my command, not the other way around. How he ran his refugee ghetto was... beneath me." The ghost chuckled at his little joke. Still though, Lo-Biven saw the wisdom of Scales' words, and started scanning the walls of the massive cave complex for something that could be reasonably interpreted as some type of palace or throne room.

Scales' words made perfect sense. In any large enough group there would always be leaders and wither they were kings, tribal elders, warlords or anything else. And they always had a place where they ruled from. Find that and the god wouldn't be to far away. Cold scanned the grotto, trying to find the telltale signs of opulence, intimidation or other badges of office that most leaders adorned their home with.

Most of the structures that ringed the grotto seemed to be built on the side of, or laboriously chipped into, what appeared to be tall bedrock walls. The places on the dark walls that weren't covered in the bioluminescent fungus that gave the entire cavern its strange half-light emerald hue were strangely smooth and glass-like, almost as if the stone itself has been melted away. The far end of the massive hollow, however, had a different appearance. The monolithic bedrock walls ended, and it seemed as if the grotto had been partitioned off, from the floor to the ceiling, by an immense twenty-five foot high dam of hard, knotted root-wood, which reminded Cold and Scales of the roots they had dug up earlier. Looking up, Cold also saw that the root-wood also extended to the vault of the cavern, covering most of the ceiling. The multiple levels of walkways that ringed the cave extended across the root-wood barrier, but where the dwellings on the stone walls seemed mostly primitive and ramshackle, the structures built into the wooden edifice seemed more intentionally planned. In fact, the contours of the wood itself seemed to deliberately accommodate the various doors and windows built into it, and presumably the rooms beyond. And the most elaborate of them seemed to be the one at the top - a single adobe that appeared to be built into the entirety of the top 'floor' of the wooden monolith.

Cold smirked when he noticed the giant wooden structure at the other end of the grotto. The crude dwellings roughly hacked into the bedrock wall replaced by carefully designed and planned dwellings. The painstaking care and attention put into it immediately singling that place out as the place where the important people lived. And all the way on top of the structure there was a single dwelling taking up the entire top of it. So the 'king' could survey, and look down upon, his people at his leisure.

"Seems like Gods and elementals aren't that different from us mortals in some respects." Cold quipped as he gestured towards the structure on top. "Talk about looking down on your subjects." He looked over at the shade. "Well then, time to hold up your end of the bargain and get us an audience with him."

"Easier said than done." replied the snide Ancestor Spirit, waving his hand in a gesture to refer to the numerous elementals below them. "We didn't exactly arrange for our visit beforehand. This could be be the elemental equivalent of a pirate's nest. Tramezia's a scoundrel, I tell you, and his lot here is probably a bunch of murderous malcontents and exiles on the run." The Celestials looked down at the elementals shopping at the market stalls. They didn't seem like murderers - some of them even looked like families - holding hands, or branches - whatever they had to work with. "Hey, you - Philosopher," Lo-Biven condescendingly remarked, pulling at the chains that were held by Rock. "You learn Old Realm in the priesthood, like you're supposed to, so you can tell them not to eat us?" Rock sheepishly grimaced, muttering something about knowing his prayers by rote. "Thought not," said the ghost, putting down the Immaculate.

Scales stood up for Rock, pushing back on the demeaning ghost' remark: "And yet you worked with this god for centuries, but never learned any? Unsurprising. Regardless, I believe Warden knows how to speak it."

Warden agreed. "So you believed there was a nest of murderous malcontents under your very home, held back by only a flimsy door? Somehow, I doubt it." He addresses the ghost, stepping forward to take the lead. "Regardless, I speak passable Old Realm, so I'll try and get us inside." With that, the Solar walked forward towards the wooden monolith, looking for a way up towards the most impressive of the dwellings.

Cold ignored the ramblings of the shade. The thing's cynicism and vileness already starting to wear his patience thin. The lunar swiftly followed Warden. The sooner they got this over with the faster they could get good distance between the evil spirit and themselves.

The tall, muscular, bearded Zenith took the lead and strode out from behind the stalactites they were hidden behind and made his way down towards the marketplace at the center of the elemental haven. Cold, Scales, and Rock followed closely behind him, with the ghostly Lo-Biven being dragged by the chains at the rear.

The reaction of the Elementals upon noticing the upworlders was instantly chaotic: "Mommy, what's that?" remarked a little girl elemental in Old Realm, pointing at the intruders. She had bark for skin and braided leaves for hair with little bows tied around them, and had clearly never laid eyes on a mortal surface-dweller before. Recognition and then panic flashed in her Dryad mother's eyes, as she scooped up her child in her arms and began backing away and shrieking for help. Others took notice, and the scene turned into an absolute cacophony: The sounds of shocked shoppers knocking over carefully-laid out displays of vegetables and minerals in the market stalls mixed with fearsome shouts in Old Realm declaring that they must be under attack by surface dwellers, outsiders, burners, strip-miners, polluters, and half a dozen other slurs, along with many other unrecognizable words in languages none of the Exalts there could comprehend. "Run straight home and bolt the door" said a burly, 8-foot tall moss-covered rock creature in his deep-voiced Old Realm to a skinny tree-spirit, whose massive head of whispy grass-like hair flowed down all around her and nearly to the ground like a weeping willow. The large stone elemental rumbled over to confront Warden, standing in his path with his arms folded. "Step no further!" the Elemental commanded in Old Realm. A few other elementals of different forms, some wielding banner-poles like makeshift staves, were emboldened by his courageous stand, and took up places behind him. "Identify yourselves!"

Cold winced at the panicked chaos that broke out as soon as they were noticed. They probably should've thought about that possibility before they came down to be honest. The disguised lunar looked towards Warden, hoping he could translate and explain their situation. Otherwise, he tried to look as harmless as he could to the 8-foot tall rock elemental in front of them.

[g]Warden[/g] paused when he saw the panic they were causing, returning the sword Gorgon to its place on his back so he could raise both hands in a calming gesture towards the stone elemental. "Peace. We mean you no harm." He began in Old Realm. "I am called Warden of the Onyx Eye. We merely wish to talk to Tramezia. We've been told this is where he lives. I am sorry if we frightened you, that was not our intent."

The large moss-covered stone elemental looked suspiciously at the four Exalts, and curiously at the chained Ancestor Ghost who was being hauled behind them. While Warden's calm words and invocation of the name of Tramezia the Rhizome seemed to work to dissuade the elementals from any immediate hostility, it certainly wasn't enough for them to let the pass by unchallenged. "We'll see about that." replied the rubble creature in his ponderous Old Realm. "No funny business though," he remarked, keeping his eyes on the hilt of the large blade sheathed across Warden's back. "We all know too well what your type are like." The craggy creature looked down and just behind him, and spoke to a barely two-foot-tall sapling elemental who had a scowl on his face. "Go to the Shrine-Hof, and make the imploration. Say that a Warden of the Onyx Eye has come to talk to him."

The sapling elemental nodded and turned to leave. "Wait!" called out the Ancestor Ghost in High Realm - completely unintelligible to the Elementals, but the shout was alarming enough to delay the departure of the small tree-being. In broken, grammatically incorrect Old Realm, and with heavy enunciation on each syllable, the dead man's spirit spoke up: "Say at Tramezia that I am named Lo-Biven." The Ancestor Spirit turned to the Exalts, and returned to speaking in High Realm. "That should do the trick," he confidently remarked.

Warden sighed when Lo-Biven intervened, since he did not share the ghost's confidence. "Well, hopefully the fact we have him in chains means any enmity felt towards him won't fully reflect on us as well."

Cold also didn't seem to share Lo-Biven's confidence and he gave a doubting look towards the others. "So, do we have a backup plan if this blows up in our faces?"

Scales answered quietly: "While it should be a last resort, with one of the Dragons' chosen with us, violence is an option. "

Cold glanced around at the underground metropolis, noticing the scared elementals hiding in their homes, wearily looking at the strangers. "Yes, I rather not use violence here."

Rock wrapped another loop of the chain around his forearm, tightening his grip on the Ancestor Spirit as the tension simmered. The minutes ticked away as the jumble of elementals surrounding them awaited the response from the messenger that they had sent. Some whispered among each other, commenting on the grotesqueness of the surface dwellers, or speculating on the odd presence of the chained-up ghost who had spoke in mangled Old Realm. Finally, the sapling runner returned, clambering along overturned market stalls and dexterously slithering his limber whip-like branches along the mossy crevices on the Stone Elemental to climb up to his shoulder, to whisper something inaudible in his ear. The bedrock-hewn creature nodded slowly to himself, before finally speaking a few words in Old Realm: "He'll see you. Follow me." The elemental turned and began to lead the way through the marketplace, towards the far end of the cavern, in the direction of the massive root-wood edifice. The small sapling elemental remained on the shoulder of the shambling granite hulk, its head turned to keep an eye on them. "No strange movements" it called out in a squeaky voice in Old Realm. "We know your kind's tricks!"

Warden tried his best to project calm and not frighten the elementals watching them. When the runner returned, he responded with a quick nod, then translated for the others: "He will see us, let's follow them. And they're rather on edge, try not to frighten them."

Cold didn't need to know the language to feel the tension in the air and he nodded at Warden. "Makes me wonder what happened to them for them to react like this to surface dwellers." he glanced over at Rock. "Have you heard anything about something that could've terrified the elementals like this?"

"Well, with how rusty that door was, it's possible that we're the first people from the surface they've seen in decades, if not ever," Scales speculated.

Rock spoke up softly, still clearly a bit shocked at the presence of hundreds of elementals living in a haven under Lushfield: "None of us" - he corrected himself - "I had no idea they were here... imagine, a whole elemental society living under our noses. The texts teach that their place in the natural order to be the obedient servants of Gods, dutifully maintaining the geomantic rhythms of Creation. Do you think they dug these tunnels and perform the labor of harvesting the essence that feeds Lushfield's fields?"

Slowly, the group was escorted by the elemental posse up the network of winding walkways, some of them hewn into the bedrock walls, others in the form of massive sloping roots that bridged gaps between the more deliberate constructions - or was is the other way around. Finally, they reached their destination: the highest tier of the massive solid wooden palisade at the far end of the grotto. Twice now, the bioluminescent fungus that lit the entire cavern seemed to subtly change in color and intensity, like the way the light from the sun changed its hue in a the mornings or evenings, or as it passed behind dense clouds. The shift in iridescence wasn't simultaneous, but rather it visibly propagated across the whole of the grotto like a wave breaking across a coastline. It reminded Scales of a school of the way a whole school of fish switched directions, while Cold sniffed the air suspiciously, suspecting some sort of pheromone, but detecting nothing. But it was unmistakable: the starting point of each ripple of light was here, within the rooms at the top of the root-wood edifice.

Upon their arrival at the large central portal, the tall doors of thick knotted wood opened up before them in a smooth, deliberate motion - they did not swing on hinges, but the edges seemed to shift and distend as the entrance-way grew open. With only a gesture, the burly stone elemental commanded them to enter into the large opening before them, and from his steadfast demeanor and those around him, it seemed that he would not be going in with them. The inside was well lit with the chemical glow, as bright as the noontime sun on a cloudless day. After so long in the dark, it was only after the exalts stepped inside that their eyes managed to adjust.

The place seemed to be some type of root-hewn throne room. The floor, walls, and ceiling all seemed to be grown of the same iron-hard, oil-varnished wood. More than a hundred Sconces of bright green-yellow luminescence, like the tails of fireflies, lined the walls and ceiling, illuminated the chamber, which was a good sixty feet deep and half as wide. There was an open path up the middle, and the sides had a dozen intricately carved wooden pews grown out of the floor, naturally cushioned with springy branches and moss. In the back of the room was a curious-looking tree, its own trunk seemingly merging into the floor, like it was grafted into it. It didn't seem to be grown of the same root-wood that was the main form of plant life down here, but instead was oddly foreign - like a surface tree that had been transplanted. At the center of the room though, where all eyes were intended to be drawn, was an ornately formed root-wood throne. And seated in the throne was unmistakably the being they had come to meet: the materialized God and ruler of the Elemental Haven, Tramezia the Rhizome. His skin was rough and very pale brown, with webbed striations like the veins through a leaf. His hair was thick, tangled and blonde, and evoked an plant's system of roots. He wore an elaborate green and gold robe with a high collar and large onyx gemstones embroidered like buttons along the front. In his hand, he carried a tall crook staff festooned with emeralds and green jade, a symbol of his authority.

"Lo-Biven!" Tramezia called out in High Realm in a tone half-astonished, half mocking, upon seeing the group enter with the chained ghost. "You cancerous bloodworm-fucking piece of shit. I knew death was too good for you." The god smiled and laughed at the pitiful state of his old associate, shackled and bound. "I never thought I'd hear from you again." He scanned the four exalts with the Ancestor Spirit with a measure of ponderous curiosity. "Tramezia," Lo-Biven answered, chillingly acknowledging the god, in the manner on would speak to an old accomplice. "Well, well," continued Tramezia - "to who do I owe the pleasure of being reunited with my old friend." The way he said the word left little doubt in its ironic use. "Out with it, then, who are you, which one of you is this Warden fellow? Speak up, I don't have all day."

Warden stepped forward confidently, bowing his head slightly to the god. "I am Warden of the Onyx Eye. This is Attenuating Rock." He indicated the young monk, then continued: "And these are my companions, Hidden Reed and Scales Glisten under Storm-tossed Waves. I hope we didn't disturb you or the fine people outside too much with our appearance."

Cold couldn't help but chuckle at what the god described Lo-Biven as. That was a very apt description. When Warden gestured at him and introduced. He gave a polite bow. "Pleased to meet you ."

Taking note of the seemingly less than pleasant relationship between Tramezia and Lo-Biven, Scales also gives a small bow. "Greetings."

Tramezia seemed more amused than anything else by the Solar's apology and kind words. "Fine people, my elementals?" the god reacted, tickled by Warden's overeager attempt at flattery. "Shiftless and spoiled is more like it. I give them a home, a place where no questions are asked and they can leave whatever happened in their sordid pasts behind to start a new life, and most can barely be bothered to put in an honest day's work." He dismissed the distasteful topic entirely with a grimaced look and a flick of his hand. "Very well, what's so important that it needed to be a surprise rather than going through the normal channels... unless... is this a surprise gift?"

Tramezia stood up and peered down at the chained-up Ancestor Spirit, and his green snake-like tongue involuntarily flicked out of his mouth. "Honto you shrewd fox, have you been keeping this wraith around all these years as an offering for me?" The ginger root god marveled, now addressing Lo-Biven. "The ruthless cunning... your protégé learned well from you, didn't he, old friend."

Cold wasn't sure how to react to Tramezia's barely concealed disdain for his subjects. What Tramezia wanted to do with the ancestor spirit... Cold honestly didn't want to know. Especially since the god was licking his lips like that. He glanced over at the other members of his group, hoping that any of them had the tact required to get through this situation.

With how they both seem to feel about other people, they deserve each other, thought Scales.

Warden silently adjusted his impression of Tramezia down by several degrees. A ruler that disdained his own subject was barely worthy of their obedience. "Oh no, he insisted he come along. Maybe he missed you even."

Tramezia eyed Warden for a moment, the corner of his smile twitching as he waited for the other shoe to drop. If this was the setup for a joke, he was all-too prepared for the punchline to land with effect. But the moment stretched on, and it was Rock who finally spoke up.

"No," Rock said, his voice a little unsteady. "Honto didn't send us - he doesn't even know we've come." "I - we speak on behalf of the Immaculate faithful." He grew steadily more confident. "It's about the deal you made - with this man." Rock jerked on the chains binding the ghost of Lo-Biven. Tramezia slumped into his throne, clearly disappointed, with a crestfallen look on his face, as if he was bored already.

"We think it would be right if... if the deal ended," Rock continued. "It's not right, you know, according to the rules of the faith - it never was - and it's gone on too long. All this time, we've had to hide it from our people." Rock was circumlocating, trying to find the right words, but his hesitancy seemed to reveal his lack of experience commanding with authority, and his assertive tone was wavering.

"I mean, nothing's final or been decided yet, but... I just don't think we need your help anymore. We'll stop the prayer, and you can stop whatever you've been doing to keep the soil fertile. That sounds fair, right? I don't - even think you'll have to leave, you can probably even stay down here. It's not like you've been bothering anyone. We didn't even know how to find you until we discovered the Old Seneschal's ghost - They've kept him chained up and locked away deep in the crypts - and he showed us how to get down here." Rock looked towards Warden and the others for some sort of backup.

Tramezia blinked a few times in a state of incredulousness, and even Lo-Biven winced at Rock's attempt at negotiation: The Dragon-Blooded Monk had not only seemed hesitant where he should have been strong, but he also had made plain to Tramezia that he didn't actually speak for the whole of Lushfield - or for that matter, for anyone of power or consequence besides himself and the three odd-looking fellows beside him. Tramezia spoke up, a look of bafflement on his face. "You're what, the Archimandrite of the Faith, or something?" asked Tramezia.

"Well, I'm actually the Vice-Archiman-" Rock sheepishly attempted to reply, interrupted by Tramezia's snorting at the ludicrous nature of the request and the fact that he wasn't even speaking to the person in charge of the Immaculate Temple, but the second in command. "Is this a fuckin' joke, kid?" the God asked. "Honto!" he yelled out in a mocking tone. "Are you just outside that doorway, ready to waltz in wearing a big smile, bragging that you got one over one me!?" Rock's face grew red with embarrassment, and he seemed desperate in that moment for some sort of help.

Scales steps forward, clasping Rock on the shoulder. “Perhaps a sterner hand would be appropriate.”

Warden took a deep breath, then stepped forward as well, in front of Rock. "You misunderstand." He began, raising his voice to cut off the god's mockery. "We are not here to negotiate an end to that deal. We are here to inform you that it is over. The people of Lushfield will learn of the duplicity that has been going on behind their backs. The manipulation of the prayer calendar will stop."

After a short, rhetorical pause, the Solar continued in a slightly softer tone:

"These are simply the facts, and there's no changing that. What we came here to do was to make sure we have as much information as we can, and perhaps even to find an alternative that does not relay on centuries of fraud and lies. But it is no big loss for us if we cannot. In that case, we simply leave, the prayer stops, and you will likely cease to provide your blessing to Lushfield. It would be a tragedy, but it would merely be a return to the status quo."

"Well," replied Tramezia, who had been now eminently convinced by Warden's dignified interjection and serious tone of voice that this wasn't merely a joke. "Now we're talking business. I suppose if things are ... as you say they are, then what sort of 'alternative' do you propose? Mind you, I do find the current state of affairs quite satisfactory to my purposes."

"Let's start with the current state of affairs, then," Warden said. "We managed to puzzle out the rough terms of your present arrangement, but Lo-Biven did not want to get into detail, suggesting we ask you directly instead. So, what are the exact terms of your deal?"

"The deal hasn't changed," said Tramezia dryly, the god's irritation in having to go over preambulatory matters that should be handled beforehand in any reasonable attempt at re-negotiation by lesser intermediaries clearly on display. With a sigh, and the sound of ruffled pages, an unfurled scroll suddenly appeared in his hand in a puff of smoke, and he began quickly rattling off legalese: "By the terms of the secret treaty between the Princes of the Earth as the Loyal Representatives of Her Scarlet Majesty's Sovereign Dominion of Lushfield and the God or God-Like Entity - your words, not mine," he added - "known as Tramezia the Rhizome, accredited Exponent of Heaven's Bureau of Nature, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera, in exchange for performing the special and non-delegable or sub-assignable services necessary to maintain the average condition of the topsoil in the geographic regions defined in Appendix III hereto at or in excess of the agreed quality standard as described by paragraph twenty-six below, shall receive, in addition to the demarcated freehold and mineral rights as set forth in part IV, subpart D, and the other one-time considerations, etcetera etcetera etcetera..." he flipped two pages over. "Here we are, in the case of the Dominion having less than one hundred thousand living permanent residents as defined in paragraph fifteen, within the Defined Borders, the God shall receive Directed Veneration from the Dominion of not less than seventy-two hours per calendar year, not to exceed twenty hours in any calendar month. There, that's the important part."

Tramezia looked up for a moment from the densely worded contract he held in his hands. "Didn't you have the guy who drafted this thing killed for some reason or another?" he asked Lo-Biven quizzingly.

"It was an unrelated matter," the Ancestor Ghost piped up.

Cold honestly tried to follow along when the god started to rattle off the terms of the deal. But the language used just... hit him like a hammer in the face leaving him dazed and confused.

Faced with the same lack of bureaucratic experience as his fellow Lunar, but catching a general idea, Scales quietly swivels his eyes towards Warden and Rock in the hopes that they can further understand the specifics.

---

Knowing that he was about as useful with bureaucratic stuff as a wet coat in a blizzard. Cold instead tried to get a good look at the strange tree transplanted onto the wood. The thing stood out, it was a tree while everything else was roots. The wood was different and everything about the god evoked the feelings of roots and the ground. Not the rest of the tree. So why was it here? He wracked his brain to see if he could remember anything that looked like the tree that could give a bit more answers.

Something about the tree caught Cold's attention - and it wasn't just the fact that to his lunar nature, anything was more interesting than the dry, unparsable legalese that immediately fogged his mind. The tree bugged him, and it wasn't just the oddness of a surface tree being planted in the underground grotto. Like all denizens of the untamed north, Cold was brought up to recognize the different trees that grew in the tundra: which ones were good for firewood that would burn cleanly without smoke, and which would produce a thick black signal fire that could be seen a hundred miles away; the ones with stiff hardwood that were good for carving hunting bows, and the ones that had soft, springy wood that could be bent into baskets, snowshoes and tent-poles. This tree wasn't native to the north, but he could swear he had seen something like it before. Then it hit him: It looked just like the Seneschal's Ten-Talent Tree, planted as the centerpiece of the garden of Honto's manor. The tree planted here had temporarily deceived Cold, because it didn't have the steeply leaning trunk and the sideways-pointed branches like the one he saw a few days before. Unaffected by the howling winds of the Blessed Mountain or the shaping hands of man in mimicry of nature, it grew straight upward. But it was unmistakably the same species - and considering the rarity, it might have even been cultivated as a cutting from the same tree he had seen before.

Cold was suspicious of the tree. It didn't fit here and he was sure that he had seen it before in Honto's garden. Not to mention what the God had said, the normal channels didn't involve Honto coming down here. And Honto was a wood-aspected prince of the earth. He didn't know what they could all do, but using a tree like a messaging system? That didn't sound that out there to him.

With Warden occupying the god's attention, Cold took a single step closer to Scale. The man was a scholar of some sort. And he no doubt knew more of magic and sorcery then he did. "Scales-" he kept his voice low. Gesturing with his head towards the tree. "What do you make of it? I've seen that exact type of tree before, in Honto's mansion. might be linked somehow? Honto is a wood aspect."

"Hmm, it's possible," replied Scales. Seeing that Tramezia and Lo-Biven were busy negotiating, Scales slowly made his way towards the tree, inspecting it for any oddities.

There was something about Scales's muted presence among the gathered Exalts and the Ancestor Spirit that seemed to defuse the tension of the situation and give gravitas to their presence in the negotiation, but nobody present was able to exactly put their finger on it. It was in the small things - the way he had clapped his hand on Rock's shoulder to steady his faltering nerve; the way he had slyly deferred to Warden to respond to Tramezia's legal gobbledygook with a subtle but measured tilt of his head. Together it all had the effect of communicating great hidden strength and resolve. Even when he edged around the side of the room to get a better look at the tree that Cold had pointed out behind Tramezia's, the way he disguised it as thoughtful pacing make his investigation look like a honest gesture in service of the parley. Either way, he applied his trained senses towards the mystery of the Ten-Talent Tree.

The wood of the tree had a silver-grey color, and there was a strange oddness to it: it was too perfect, too sculpted, almost ominous in his eyes. He could have sworn the vertical twisting striation pattern on the trunk seemed to have been curated by an intelligent, occult hand in order to achieve a mystical purpose. Peering beyond, into the realm of the dematerial, he could see minute, fleeting sparks of essence, in the small slivers of the deepest crevices where larger plates of bark were joined together. If the bark was the skin, the heartwood was the bones, and during his training with Smiling Rat, Scales had quickly understood that when dealing with living things, bones were the best conductor for sorcerous intent. As he circled around the chamber, he started to see it: the focus of the small sparks, on the rear of the trunk, hidden from view in the entryway of the room. A pattern of notches in the bark, around six feet up the trunk, small divots and strips only a few inches long at most that exposed the heartwood underneath. At first they seemed random and inscrutable to him - certainly not any form of runes he was familiar with. But as he continued to walk around the back of the room, they came into focus: it wasn't a message - it was an illustration. The cuts came together to define a life-size portrait of a man's calm, sleeping face, gently engraved into the bark in a way that was neither gaudy or exaggerated, but expressive and, speaking of a cultivated artistic sense - the different depths of the cuts and the angles lent depth of tone and shadow. And it was unmistakably the face of the current Seneschal, Unfettered Willow Honto.

---

"Does the contract mention the fact that enriching the topsoil as specified would involve sapping the fertility of the surrounding regions, with all the consequences that would entail for those lands and their inhabitants?" Warden asked.

Tramezia frowned. "I've gone over this with you a dozen times before," he spoke assertively, his words clearly directed at Lo-Biven. "The contract clearly specifies only the form of payment and delivery. It makes no guarantees regarding the providence of said fecundity."

Lo-Biven smirked and spoke up - "I told you he was a fraud" he bantered, laughing to himself. "Fertility god, my ass. This swindler couldn't grow a jujube in a jungle."

"I can see what you meant with the fraud part, yes." Warden admitted towards Lo-Biven. "Well, you might have gotten away with it while Lo-Biven was in charge. And Honto might have kept it going through pure momentum, but the time where you could cheat like that is over. If you really can't provide any fertility without stealing it from the surrounding land..." He trailed off at the end, giving the god a chance to admit if he had any other options for providing fertility. "Well, I wouldn't be surprised if your prayer begins to dry up soon. And with its fields less lush, perhaps Lushfield plans to do some prospecting for minerals."

Tramezia cocked an eyebrow at Warden's cryptic comment. "Was that supposed to be a threat?" the God answered. "It's none of my concern who gets to be King or Seneschal or whatever you feel like calling yourself on the surface. But if this is your attempt to enlist my support for some sort of coup, then your offer isn't very persuasive. As a matter of fact, not that I would care to take sides in terrestrial affairs, but given the choice between your proposal and the status quo, I'd be inclined to oppose you."

"So you tell me." Tramezia said to Warden. "Give me one good reason why I shouldn't throw you out of here right now, and tell Honto exactly what you told me. He pointed at the chained Ancestor Ghost - "If he could deal with the mighty Lo-Biven, he can certainly deal with a rogue.... Vice-Archimandrite and his flunkies." Tramezia crossed his arms, the contract still dangling loosely in one hand.

Cold had kept close to scales as the scholar took a look at the tree. and then he heard Tramezia words about to give him one reason for them to not be thrown out and inform Honto about what they told him. The smile on his face was... wide, feral and showing way to many teeth to be friendly. Hands tightening into fists. He had one very good reason. Because he would tear everybody who would try limb from limb and then tear the god form his throne and use his face as a hammer to smash the tree into splinters. They were talking and talking and talking and this god, and it all sounded exactly like it sounded before. A small fish in a much smaller pond that made him think he was big. Except that this god was even weaker then he had ever been. He was itching for some action.

Lo-Biven raised his voice, trying to prevent the situation from spiraling out of control. "Let me try and explain the circumstances here as I see it." the Ancestor Ghost said loudly enough to cut through the tension, his ancient, creaking voice twinging at the bounds of reality to demand attention, sending chills through spines. "I know to a God like you," he said to Tramezia, "one surface-dweller looks no different from another. But these three aren't from here - they're foreigners to this land, and they've explicitly come for information about you. I suspect they're the agents of some local foreign power that has discovered that the fertility of their lands has been sapped away by your actions, so understandably they're quite angry. They've enlisted the help of Rock here, who is opposed to the bargain that we struck on religious grounds - quite justified, of course," he added, noticing who tightly held the chains that bound him.

"Now, I want to emphasize first that I am not responsible for any such theft," Lo-Biven prefaced, making sure to cover his own ass. "You represented, as the contract quite clearly stated, that you were a fertility god, which I took to mean you would be capable of generating the necessary soil conditions yourself, and not via... what some could call parasitism," he tacked on quickly, trying to remain diplomatic.

"I know you like the prayer, but, really?" Lo-Biven threw up his hands to emphasize the ridiculousness, clinking the chains. "You and I both know that a measly 72 hours a year is chump change, and ain't worth dying over, or whatever happens to gods when they're killed. And that's exactly what will happen. Sure, you might be able to kill these fine folks, or get Honto to do it for you, but whoever sent them will just send someone else, and someone else after that, and eventually they'll send an army big enough to do the job. Do the math - Lushfield is a small place, and there's not enough of them to protect you, even if they wanted to. Honto might just decide to sell you out to save himself - I know I would. Let's face it - the jig's up. Maybe not today, or this year, or even this decade, but eventually someone's gonna dig you out of your hole and put a torch to your whole operation here."

"Plus, you have your elementals to look out for." Lo-Biven added. "You've made a good, safe home for them here, and they worship you for it. You pretend you don't care about them, but I know you do. Even if you didn't, the steady drip of 425 full days a year of adulation from them is surely a hell of a lot better than whatever cheap feel-good high you get for a measly 72 hours. These people seem to be willing to cut a deal that would let you keep that, so why not hear them out?" Lo-Biven looked to Warden, hoping that he had said the right words that would defuse Warden and Tramezia's mutual threats and prevent the situation from descending into violence.

Warden listened to the ghost's words, taking the moment to take a deep breath himself and rethink his approach. When the ghost finished, the Zenith nodded towards him. "I underestimated you, Lo-Biven. You've figured out quite a bit about our motivations for coming here. Though of course, I am also opposed to fraud on such a large scale."

Turning towards the god, the Zenith continued: "We are not at liberty to discuss the details, but we've indeed been pointed this way by a god." He suspected the Lamplighter to be a god at least, so it was close enough to the truth. "Lushfield stands out and with tumultuous times ahead of us all, more eyes will fall on it soon. Parasitism is not sustainable, someone will find out and take offense, or whatever you're leeching off from will run out, forcing you to cast an ever-wider net. Wouldn't it be better to build something new? Something one can be proud to have achieved?"

"Your point on the unsustainability of the current arrangement is well-taken." Tramezia replied. "Though why should I not already be proud of what I have achieved?," the imperious God proclaimed. "I started with nothing, and now my Elemental Court numbers nearly three thousand spirits, refugees from the four directions of creation, given a home and a purpose." He sat back down on his throne and pounded a fist onto the wooden armrest with a gavel-like sound to emphasize his next words: "Dignified work to give their lives meaning, free from the assaults by the meddling surface-dwellers that drove them from their lands. Some have spent three generations tending to the rhizome plexus. How do you propose I replace that?"

Cold once again leaned over towards Scales when Tramezia mentioned how he could possibly replace what he was doing with another purpose. "Scales, you're a scholarly type," he started. "Do you got an idea about that?"

"Three thousand?" said Warden. "That is an impressive number. You are right, that is something to be proud of." He admitted, studying the way Tramezia talked about his followers, trying to gauge if true fondness was in his tone or if he just liked lording over them.

To Warden's surprise, he managed to discern that the answer to his question was a little of both. Tramezia's attitude towards the elementals could best be described as patronizing - the God certainly reveled the power and authority he wielded from being in charge of so many elementals, and didn't try and hide that fact in the slightest. At the same time, however, the Zenith detected an undercurrent of deep paternalism. The God didn't simply view them a disposable class of servants, but in many ways they were a sort of family to him. To the extent that he controlled their lives and labor, and lived as a king among them, he sincerely believed that it was in their best interests. Warden also detected that Tramezia would not hesitate to respond to a threat to their safety as if it were a threat to himself.

Warden ran a hand through his beard, pondering the question. "Your elementals, there are plenty of Wood elementals among them, correct? Could they simply help promote crop growth themselves? And the Earth elementals among them could help dig up minerals to use as fertilizers, couldn't they?"

"It could be done," Tramezia admitted, slowly standing up pacing, doing the mental calculations. "It wouldn't be as efficient - nothing could be, compared to the Plexus. If that were to simply stop, the top six feet of the soil would crumble to dust and blow away by the end of the season. It would need to be tapered off slowly, to ease the transition over ten or twenty seasons. With good effort, you'd get a drop of twenty, maybe twenty-five percent in the yield. But it would be sustainable."

"But also consider my elementals," Tramezia explained. "They are simpler creatures than you or I, in many respects. Driven to their calling, they're easy to trick and manipulate. Without the protection of a God to intercede on their behalf, they quickly find themselves at the mercy of wicked and corrupt masters who think of them as nothing but tools. They keep them chained up in the fields or mines like common slaves, but worse. Even the slaves in your mortal societies are protected by your mortal laws, but no such laws protect elementals. You can't imagine the horrors some of them have escaped. Going back to tending the fields and mines of a mortal might be too much for some of them to accept."

"Besides" continued the God. "Even assuming our willingness to try something new, convincing the dragon-blooded lords to accept a reduction of a full quarter would be a bitter pill to swallow. They would demand more, and I don't know what I could offer."

Warden thought to himself for a moment. "Hmm, I have some ideas on that front I will look into. But still, this is a good start. We will try and get Honto to come around, now that we know your standpoint on this. Oh and, I assume that restoring whatever made Lushfield Lush before you came here is not an option, even partially to take up the remaining 25%? I heard it was some kind of 'Wellspring' or the like? Do you know anything about it?"

Warden caught Tramezia shoot the barest of sidelong glances at Lo-Biven upon hearing Warden mention the Wellpsring. "Can't say I do." replied the God nonchalantly - clearly lying. "I'd like to know who this god is that you're getting your information from, however. Could be an old friend of mine." Tramezia's eyes glinted vermilion for the briefest instant as he probed the Zenith, trying to bring the name of whatever god sent him as his emissary to the forefront of the Solar's thoughts so that he could glimpse it for himself.

Warden followed that look towards the ghost, his mind churning already. Perhaps it was this distraction that allowed what came next. When he looked back at the god, a polite denial already on his lips and the Lamplighter in his thoughts, he was wholly unprepared for the sudden flash of his eyes.

Warden took pride in his willpower and determination, but the mightiest fortress could be stormed by a lightning-quick attacker when it's gate was unbarred. Tramezia was gone with the name "Lamplighter" before the Zenith could even muster his defences or expell the intruder, a frown on his face.

The Solar's eyes narrowed at the god, but he decided against causing a scene. "I'm afraid I can't say." He said instead, for the benefits of the others present.

Tramezia mulled over the name he had snatched from the Solar's unguarded mind using his insightful talents, in the brief milliseconds before the Lawbringer had realized what was happening and his iron will had closed off the god's probing gaze like a heavy vault door slamming shut. Lamplighter. A peculiar name - sounds more like an alias. Never heard of them, but it's certainly curious - maybe worth looking into. "Very well - it's none of my concern anyways," he replied, the edges of his lips curling up minutely, clearly pleased with himself. "Is there anything else you require of me?"

Warden spoke up for all of his companions: "With your permission, we would like to speak to a few of your fine elementals before we depart your domain, so we can know how they'd feel about the deal we try to negotiate."

"Very well," replied the God, who concentrated and closed his eyes for a quick moment as the light cast within the cavern through the open doors behind the negotiators pulsed with a yellow hue. A few seconds later, the large stone-and-moss elemental that had confronted the group earlier lumbered into the deity's wooden throne room, with the small sapling elemental that had served as the their messenger perched on his shoulder. Tramezia looked beyond the gathered petitioners and addressed the newcomers in Old Realm: "Bryoph, Pinales, I'm placing you two in charge of these outsiders while they remain in my Court. See that they do no harm and no harm comes to them, and permit them to speak with anyone they wish to, provided the topic of conversation does not become too distressing." He looked back down to speak to the four Exalts and the Ancestor Ghost in High Realm. "We shall see what, if anything comes of this. I may yet decide to take my tribute in... other ways." he added, his eyes seemingly boring into the spirit of Lo-Biven with greedy desire as his green tongue darted across his lips. "You're dismissed." he proclaimed with a measure of finality, as he returned to his seat and began to ponder this new state of affairs.
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The Nameless Sword Maiden joins Talonlord Anguilla at the Parade Ground

The Talonlord galloped atop her dappled white and grey charger into the brown clay of the parade ground, her steed's enthusiasm kicking up clods of the hardy, trampled crabgrass that speckled the soil, persevering even in the face of centuries of stomping recruits learning the basics of marching in close-order drill. The forces of the city's Legion, at least in name but not in number, were arrayed off to one side of the parade ground in neat rectangles, an officer flanked by a flag-bearer at the fore of each. By Nameless's quick estimation, there must have been about 1500 soldiers presently marshaled there. As Anguilla's horse easily hurdled the gate on the path to the stables, she deftly dipped down sidesaddle, snatching a scarlet banner bearing the ancient military seal of the Scarlet Shogun that was firmly planted in the dirt, which she held in the air and let trail behind her as she wheeled around and finally slowed to a trot before the mass of assembled men and women, most in spotless uniforms that hasn't seen use in years or even decades, to judge by the age and physical condition of some of the older reservists.

The Sword Maiden followed Anguilla with moderate dignity, depending on how onlookers judged her. She still clearly lacked any skill in riding, her form was all wrong, she held the reins all wrong - but she was also clearly not having any trouble staying in the saddle. Maybe she was from a faraway people who simply rode differently?

Nameless nodded, an impressed look on her face, as the Talonlord picked up the banner. She didn't have any banners, and didn't feel comfortable doing stunts so soon after having been introduced to Pickle. She did look the proper warrior though, long blade at her side, the wind that was playing with her silks was exposing the lacquered leather and fine steel reinforcements of her armor. So not a distant people, as those in the know could deduce. That was Riverlands armor, not unlike what they make in Lookshy, but devoid of the Mon of any Gens.

The Sword Maiden somehow brought her horse to a halt a few yards behind Anguilla, looked at the assembled soldiers, smiled a friendly smile - and just dismounted, patting Pickle's side to calm the horse. "Rather not let you get hurt, friend" she whispered to Pickle.

Hundreds of civilian onlookers were crowded around the fence line on the periphery of the training ground, hoping to catch a glimpse of the action - men and women carrying their lunch in stacked bamboo boxes, fathers with their small daughters perched up on their shoulders, even a few Immaculate monks of the temple, all waiting to see what would happen. And more were trickling in, some even armed with footstools and stepladders to get a better view.

The Talonlord finally stopped her horse, holding the banner up in the air, before propelling it like a javelin directly into the ground with a hiss of wind and a crack like the sound of a bullwhip as the silk braided cord at the end of the streamer split the air. Silence immediately fell upon the parade ground, the murmurs and hushed whispers dying into nothingness. Anguilla's voice boomed as she slowly trotted down the ranks, the sound echoing with far more gravity and weight than any woman, even one with such an athletic build like hers, would seem naturally capable of. "Legionnaires! If you can even call yourself that," she mockingly called out. "Don't think that I haven't heard your faint-hearted wisecracks and witnessed your cowardly, duty-shirking ways." The assembled troops began nervously glancing towards each other and to the officers, wondering with apprehension where this was going.

"Prosperity," the Talonlord continued, "has made you soft!" She looked down with disgust at a fat-bodied reservist who barely fit into his uniform. "Hundreds of years of serenity, protected by our walls from the crucible of battle, has allowed weakness to breed and multiply. Your ancestors were once as vicious as tigers, but now all I see are plump, juicy pigs, ready to be devoured by hungry wolves." She let the stinging words linger for effect.

"Creation" - she proceeded - "Is a dangerous place, more so than ever before." The rumors are true! I know you've all heard them. Her True Majesty, the Queen of the Realm - the Scarlet Empress - has been missing for more than five years now - and in all likelihood, she is not coming back." She paused for a beat. "War on the Island - actual, all-out war, like there hasn't been for over seven hundred years, is an undeniable possibility, and is becoming more and more likely by the day. And when it happens, don't think it will just stay on the Island. No, mark my words, it will spread across every direction of Creation like a brush-fire, and it won't stop at our walls and leave you all alone. Especially not -" she punctuated - "when everyone out there knows what well-fed hogs live in Lushfield. They look at you, and they see nothing but domesticated farmers that have had all the fight bred out of them."

"But -" Anguilla yelled, her voice instantly interrupting the faint chorus of no's and boos, "I know that's a load of horseshit!" She raised a fist. "Fighting" - she paused momentarily - "is in your blood. Every true son and daughter of Lushfield, deep inside, craves the glory of battle. Some of you are know this already. Some of you must still learn. And I Will Teach You!" Various cheers began to break out now among the crowd of soldiers, which quickly died away at the sound of the officers' sharp commands for silence.

"Now, I have heard, from the malingerers and malcontents among you, that what we have done on these training grounds for many years now, is nothing but play-acting, a bunch of useless theater. And they are right, but not because I have been too hard on you, but rather because I have not been hard enough! None of you have seen true what real combat is like, what it looks like when true warriors cross blades with pure, glorious intent behind every blow. Today you will see it!"

"This woman -" she indicated to Nameless - "Is a master of the Iso-No-Nami school of swordfighting. She has dedicated herself to the ways of battle, as I have, and as you may too. Some of you have heard that two nights ago, we crossed blades in an exhibition fought with wooden practice swords, and fought to a standstill when both blades shattered." She again paused for effect, as a hush went through the crowd. "It is all true! And today, we shall finish that exhibition, but this time with real blades. You will see what well-trained, elite warriors are truly capable of! You will see what your ancestors were capable of! And you will see what YOU are capable of!" The Talonlord shrugged off her riding coat, revealing her lustrous blue jade lamellar armor, and unsheathed the gleaming glaive from her back, holding it in the air as she started to gallop again, her horse picking up speed as she crossed in front of all of the assembled men and women of the legion.

The Sword Maiden eyed Anguilla. It was good that the Talonlord was trying to break the lethargy of her troops, if Lushfield was to soon lose the benefits of the Wellspring, and maybe even it's overreaching god's blessing, it better have the strength to endure harder times. Also, and this was obvious, Nameless quite enjoyed being called a master of, well, anything. And hearing, again, the name of her style of fighting made her feel a certain belonging, that had been absent from her heart as far as she could remember.

She might have drawn her sword as the Talonlord presented her glaive - but if she did, she quickly sheathed it again, and nobody seemed to quite remember whether the blade was shown, and if it was, what it had looked like. But the size of the sheathe implied quite the weapon indeed, that was easily agreed upon. She was mostly waiting for the moment that the test of skill might begin, but the Sword Maiden nodded along to Anguilla's words. Might as well make a friend, even if it could turn out to be very, very temporary.

"Your Talonlord is right!" Nameless proclaimed. Her voice clear, and loud, much louder than one would expect from the slender woman. "You have it good here, maybe too good. You don't know what's outside these walls, Creation is vast. Today I come here but a humble servant of a caravan, because these times demand people like me be on hand. Mostly to defend against other people like me."

She smirked. "And if you do not grasp everything your Talonlord has to offer you, you might one day face the likes of me without her tutelage to prepare you. And today you will learn what that means."

The Sword Maiden threw back her silken cuffs, revealing the armored bracers underneath, tucking her overcoat behind her sheathe to make her draw easier and quicker. "Without protection, your wealth means nothing, because out there are those who will take whatever they can by force, and your walls are only as strong as the women who guard it." She nodded at a particular group of soldiers. "Or men, if you insist. And a good understanding of what might await you will serve you far better than complacency. So be sure to remember what you witness today."

---

When Persistent Cub and Khi aka Sadrica Ar White Hook arrive at Lushfield's training ground, they do so without fanfare. Though the guardsman on hold was flustered at the request not to announce the Dynast's arrival, he obeyed as well he should, and the pair make their way quietly and efficiently to the fore of the assembled crowds, the people naturally moving out of the way of their perceived betters. This is Nameless's time to shine, and Cub has no wish to take away from that.

Khī followed behind, keeping half a step between herself and the other woman. She had produced, from somewhere, a rather tattered white parasol, which she held straight to keep the sun off herself. Shadows, as ever, fell slightly oddly on her, just ever so slightly deeper and darker than one might reasonably expect, only visible on close inspection. And, of course, who closely inspects a servant? She had, on the way, quietly and concisely worked through which parts of Great Uncle Rightness’ statements were lies, which were self delusion and which were, indeed, mostly accurate. The masked woman had been focusing intensely on holding it all in her memory, trying to hold, crystallized in perfection, all the little tells and twitches of the old man, committing them to an enormous evidence locker in her head.

Cub nods in appreciation as Khi walks her through the subtleties of her conversation with Rightness, though there are no great surprises it is always good to have one's perceptions confirmed by another, and to make others feel that you appreciate it when they help you, so she offers the other woman a quick, but genuine, smile once the retelling was done.

It is clear that Anguilla has assembled a significant fraction of Lushfield's soldiery and commoners, but what of the city's greats? Particularly those its dragonblooded leaders might not want a foreigner to know about. These are whom Cub keeps an eye out for as she looks across the assembled multitude.

Persistent Cub's eye for the small details of human nature that subtly influenced the actions of crowds had served her well in the past. Just like the contents of a deliberately misplaced document might be reconstructed by the effects of its penumbra, so too can the actions of luminaries be discerned by their effects on the lesser being around them. Over there - the turmoil as a few goon-types cleared a path through the crowd to obtain a ringside vantage point for their garishly dressed employer - that must be one of the local underworld sorts, probably associated with the local gambling and vice establishments. Another section of the crowd that had been populated by working-class types wearing identical garments, it must be some artisanal guild of minor consequence, using the opportunity to come out in force to proclaim their presence. Neither were of major consequence. Cub continued to scan. There - on the roof of the tallest nearby building - it looked like a brewery of some sort. The small balcony around the brickwork chimney was experiencing a curious amount of activity: a few workers hauling carrying a chair, table, and a parasol through the narrow hatch-style door, clearly meant to allow maintenance workers to access the brickwork. It clearly wasn't designed as an observation deck. It was far much work for a curious brewmaster to get eyes on the action. No - this is where someone of true consequence would set up to observe, who didn't necessarily want to be seen, and wouldn't expect to, especially with all eyes on the action. Cub's vigilance was rewarded: a few moments later, none other than the Archimandrite Celcine emerged and occupied the lone chair, producing an observation glass from the folds of her white robes to better observe the action.

---

"For too long," boomed Anguilla's voice, "your training has told you that our high walls will do the hard work of winning any conflict. And maybe that was true before. But that changes now - We are living in unprecedented, dangerous times!" she yelled out. "Walls can be torn down, so you must know how to meet an enemy in the open field!"

"An army is not a mob. A mob can be dispersed. This is because a mob's components are single individuals. When an army becomes a mob, they have lost the battle." Cub, listening in, realized that she was paraphrasing from the Thousand Correct Actions of the Upright Soldier. "The single individuals of a mob will embrace their fear and run, and they make even think that this will save their lives! Think again!" She called out. "A soldier who breaks and runs in an open-field battle is committing suicide - they have marked themselves for death at the end of a cavalry lance! To a mounted veteran, there is nothing easier in Creation than running down and killing a lone soldier!" She lowered her masterwork glaive for effect, showing how it can be braced against her armor and used to impale a man through the chest. "This is why an army soldier obeys without question and without fear, even in the heat of battle! You must be fearless to achieve victory!"

The swordswoman you see here is an expert, and she has all the bravery of any hero! But the one who is superior in battle is the one who is unified while the enemy is divided! Watch carefully!" the Talonlord loudly instructs, as she again prompts her horse to start picking up speed, beginning to gallop in a long circuit around the parade ground. It slowly dawns on the masses what is going to happen: Anguilla is going to attempt to aim a non-lethal, but highly instructive strike at the Nameless Sword Maiden to illustrate the superiority of a mounted enemy against a lone foot-soldier.

The Sword Maiden eyed Anguilla, broadening her stance, left leg forward, towards the rider. Sword at her hip, eyes narrowed. Nameless blew a strand of hair out of her eye and focused. Taking in the sound of each hoof striker grinding the kernels of sand and dirt, it's heavy breathing, the sound of Anguilla's Jade armor. She made two quick sidesteps. If the Talonlord were to adjust her trajectory to still charge at Nameless, the Dawn would have the sun right behind her, blinding Anguilla. At least it would provide a little help against a mounted opponent.

Her knuckles turned white as she subconsciously tightened the grip on her daiklave's hilt. Always be aggressive she thought to herself, looking for an opening to meet the oncoming strike. Nameless was ready. Battle was her life. A grim smirk flashed across Nameless' face as she saw the sun reflect off Anguilla's armor - the Dawn had clearly seized the initiative, even though she couldn't yet do anything with it, the Dragon Blooded rider was still too far out, but at least she was galloping towards her, so that'd solve that problem in a second or two.

Then again, she had lessons to reconnect that she internalized in another life. Press your advantage - her first step was spritely, soft, then she became faster, her boots kicking up little eddies of dust, as she started running towards the speeding rider, ready to unleash her blade the very second she closed the distance.

Seeing Nameless move towards at her, Anguilla instead peeled off, turning her horse in a smooth arc, passing around the swordswoman and carrying her across the face of the assembled troops. Her voice again boomed out: "She is is demonstrating for you the correct tactical response for a footsoldier faced with approaching cavalry. Panicking and trying to run away will only guarantee a lance in your back! You cannot outrun a horse! The only answer is to maintain a cool head, and to face the threat head-on!" A sly look was in her eye, however. Was it possible that in her research, she had learned more about the Iso-No-Nami school than she had let on, and decided that a more methodical, probing approach was best, rather than simply a test of steel on steel?

---

The clacking of hoofbeats. The adrenaline of a fight. Her hand around the grip of an unsheathed sword, ready for combat. An instructor bellowing out commands on proper technique. Something in it all seemed deeply familiar, and in one instant, it seemed to forcibly tug on some small strand that unraveled something within her. It was like an intense feeling of Deja Vu, similar but different to the purely psychological incident from a few nights ago. Another distinct memory returning to The Nameless Sword Maiden.

Today was an auspicious day. Today the Instructor-Winnower of the Beam was going to teach her echelon the first of the secret techniques of their Kobudō.

Officially, she knew according to her indoctrination, there was no such distinction. All techniques of their Koryū together formed a unified and inseparable whole - that was fundamental. But they all knew that, unofficially, there were certain techniques that that were rarely if ever discuss even between those of the senior echelons, and which by an unspoken code, were taboo to discuss in the presence of those not yet inducted into its mysteries.

"I will now demonstrate for you Breaking the Barrier" said the Instructor-Winnower as she lead the lame horse under the bare winter branches of the cherry tree, where the four Uchi-deshi of her echelon were assembled. It was late in the autumn, or maybe early in the winter. The leaves and blossoms of the tree had long since vanished, but it was still before the first snow of the year. Instead, more than a hundred red silk streamers were tied to the tree, each one to a tip of one of the tree's bare branches, where they trailed down to the ground, moving ever so slightly in the light breeze. Within, it tinted the scene with a crimson hue. From outside, it effectively served to protect the secrets of the Koryū from unwelcome observers. "You will only see this once" added the Instructor-Winnower, who began to lecture.

"A horse is both valuable tool and a dangerous threat. A thousand pounds of brawn and armor, moving at speed, must be respected. You all know this. You all have demonstrated acceptable proficiency in Tree Trunk Flowing Through Rapids and Meteor Gouges A Crater." Everyone suffered when learning Meteor Gouges - it was the primary method for surviving an impact at high speed without incapacitating injury and emerging in an alert fighting stance. It was also one of the techniques that strongly emphasized the difference between being hurt and being injured. Surviving being thrown from horse was one of the main examples of how it could be used. She distracted herself from the reminder of that pain by admiring the horse: this one's physique was marvelous, and there was something about the beast's rippling muscles and the steam of its breath, visible in the cool early winter air, that she found strangely alluring. When it healed up, it would be a force to be reckoned with.

"Now, there may come a time when you must use a horse to go through something. Men with shields, barriers, you name it. A thousand pounds of flesh and metal, moving at full gallop, is a potent weapon. "But" - emphasized the Instructor-Winnower - "A horse is just like a person. It never can be completely trusted. It can and will fail you! Only your blade can be trusted." Trust Nothing But Your Blade was one of the credos. "There are things that a horse will refuse to go through. They will rear up on you, or hesitate at the last minute. Imagine if your blade refused your will because it did not believe it could make a cut!"

"This is the purpose of Breaking the Barricade. When you approach the barricade, you will began to count down until you will make impact. Five seconds before impact, you will jump on the saddle or the Horse's back and you will assume Tree Trunk Flowing Through Rapids form. The Instructor-Winnower demonstrated, leaping up to the Horse's back. "Three seconds before impact, you will mentally prepare yourself to shift to Meteor Gouges A Crater form. Two second before impact, you will locate a special spot on the back of the Horse's neck, between the first and second vertebrae - here" she indicated. "You will memorize that spot by heart. You will place the tip of your blade there!" she commanded, demonstrating it herself. "And one second before impact, when you are moving at maximum velocity, but before the horse has a chance to fail you, you will ensure it does not!"

The Instructor-Winnower forcefully plunged the blade into the neck of the animal. Blood spurted across the Nameless Sword Maiden's younger face. The life went out of the animal's eyes in an instant, and it collapsed to the ground like a puppet with its strings cut. "That is Breaking the Barricade."

And that is how the woman who would become The Nameless Sword Maiden learned the first secret technique of her Koryū, and learned the real reason for their secrecy.

---

An invisible fist had gripped the Sword Maiden's intestines and gripped them tight. Her movements slowed, she seemed yet paler than usual. Saliva pooled in Nameless' mouth, as if indicating that she was about to get sick. It carried, imagined or not, the irony taste of blood. She stopped in her tracks, eyes on Anguilla, no, on her horse. Hand limp on the hilt of the Forgotten Blade. Nameless spat on the ground, a gesture that didn't quite fit her.

She shrugged, trying to shake off a very unwelcome feeling. She remembered what she had felt when she'd learned Breaking the Barricade. Back then, she'd might have thought about the edge such cold-hearted tactics might give her on the battle field. No wonder she had blocked out everything she knew about riding a horse. She clearly hadn't appreciated the art in her previous life. Nameless shook her head.

The banner fluttered in the wind before her, since Anguilla had thrust it into the ground. Nameless sighed. The movement seemed, for the moment, too irritating. With a swift flick of her blade, she had cut through the banner bearing the crest of Lushfield that Anguilla had stuck into the hard soil. The fabric was carried by the wind for a few yards before it fell onto the dusty ground.

The Sword Maiden had collected her thoughts for a bit now. She was still haunted by her memories, but she was also always quick on her feet - especially the metaphorical ones. "Giving up ground always means suffering losses, though" she yelled, half towards Anguilla, half towards the assembled troops.

Anguilla's nose twitched a little at the sight of the Sword Maiden defiling the banner. Whether it was meant to be an insult or simply some sort of strange way for the woman to prepare herself, she wasn't sure. Regardless, it was dishonorable. She spurred her horse forward, charging in the direction of the swordswoman. As she approached, she began to lowered the point of her Guandao glaive down and off at an angle from the direction of her charge, the way of a proper cavalry soldier did when preparing to engage infantry outside of close formation.

Rather that bracing her glaive against her armor though, flowering roots and branches seemed to spring from underneath the scales of the lamellar armor on her arm, intertwining themselves with the hilt of the blade and firmly holding it in place.

The Sword Maiden breathed calmly, focusing on the rider charging at her. She closed her eyes for a split second. When she opened them, she met Anguilla's gaze. Nameless smirked. She didn't know much about cavalry combat, but she knew a lot about... Well, nothing. But she instinctively felt a lot about all facets of swordmanship.

She made two quick steps in the horse's direction to gather momentum, before jumping off, launching herself high into the air, her feet leaving behind two little dust devils spinning in place. The Sword Maiden's silhouette crossed the sun's face as she arced through the air, her silken robe fluttering in the breeze. Less like a hungry raiton, more a determined swallow she dove at horse and rider.

The lithe woman completed it a full somersault for the added effect before she landed right next to Anguilla, on the horse's back, right foot positioned just behind the Talonlord's lower back, left knee on the horse's back right behind the saddle. She would force the Dragonblood to face her at an awkward angle, while Nameless would be able to strike forward and down, like cutting down someone fleeing and cowering. That was something she possessed ample muscle memory for.

Having secured her footing, Nameless let the Forgotten Blade flash out of it's sheathe, the Starmetal blade flickering as it coolly reflected the sun's rays, emitting a whirring sound first, cutting through the air at supersonic speed, as the Sword Maiden executed a perfect form killing blow - except she was willfully directing her attack against the glaive, to knock Anguilla off balance. There would be no wanton murder on this day. At least for now.

The Talonlord reacted immediately to the Swordwoman's anticipated trickery, and the the tangle of roots and branches that bound the glaive to her forearm and formed a basket-hilt convulsed, permitting her to nearly-instantaneously shift her grip away one end of the Guandao, where she was able to hold it like a lance, and more towards the center, where it could be held like a staff. With a burst of essence, the dim radiance that surrounded her grew in intensity to a solid glowing light, radiating heat, and her weapon began to spin around her in a defensive typhoon pattern, too fast for the eye to see. The exposed skin on her face began to shimmer with a slight pearlescent luster, with an iridescent sheen like river seashell nacre. She had learned well from their first encounter, and the dual blows the Swordmaiden deflected harmlessly off the ornate metal sheathing that formed a double-helix around the wooden core of the long shaft of the Guandao.

Harnessing the glaive's prodigious angular momentum from her successful parrying maneuver, she brought it around in to the logical conclusion: bashing the Sword Maiden with the leather-wrapped stone counterweight at its base, the size of a dragonfruit. With her other hand, she yanked on the reins, commanding her warhorse to perform a tight turn - she aimed to disturb Nameless's equilibrium to more easily knock her off the precarious position she had assumed balanced on the rear of Anguilla's steed.

Nameless was disappointed. She'd hoped to land a quick blow to seize the advantage, but Anguilla had been well prepared, and now she was on the receiving end of a proper attack. Still, her position was good, the Guandao hardly the perfect weapon it had been before at this close distance. From the previous clash she knew Anguilla was stronger. But she wasn't quicker.

The Sword Maiden shifted her weight to the back a bit, cancelling out the horse's momentum from the quick turn, as well as giving her a few more inches to maneuver into a defensive stance, shoulder towards her opponent. She pushed her sword's sheathe up with her leg, and unsheathed just half of her blade, exactly the portion of harder-than-steel edge that she needed to expose between hilt and sheathe to knock the glaive aside by a few inches. Not one of those brutish blocks where you meet force head on. A redirection. It was much easier for her to have blows flow around her than to stop them outright.

The Sword Maiden managed to contort her body in just the right directions to keep herself from being thrown to the ground by the the horse's quick jerk, as the heel of the Guandao skidded along the starmetal tang of her blade. But the maneuver had seriously unbalanced her, and the bare flank of a destrier didn't exactly provide the most even footing. Remaining atop the back of the bucking horse would demand a burst of further concentration that she didn't exactly have to spare.

---

Khī watched the duel with some interest. Armed combat was not her area of expertise, and Ysyr kept few horses, and did not field cavalry in times of war. (The tributaries, she understood, through dim recollection of supply trains and reams of requisition paperwork, fielded cavalry on occasion, but the dreaming sea only rarely saw land battles). She carefully squelched a gasp as the maiden jumped up onto Anguila’s horse. She couldn’t help but think this was rapidly becoming a demonstration well beyond the ability of the mortals for whom this was ostensibly a tutorial.

Black Claw had several techniques to combat a mounted attacker, all of them centering on how to appear to be trampled as part of unhorsing a rider, all in the ‘peasant girl flees the tiger’ set of forms. None of them, however, involved jumping onto the horse. It was, of course, no surprise that that was where the Maiden had come from. Khī didn’t need more evidence to know she was a prodigiously talented swordsman.

---

There was no time for disappointment. Nameless failed to capitalize on the surprise as well as the superior mobility. She'd always assumed a Dragonblood would be a tough nut to crack, but maybe she owed the Lamplighter a bit more thankfulness than she'd be carrying in her heart so far. Five Anguillas would've been downright terrifying. Brushing aside such thoughts, the Sword Maiden shifted her weight atop the Horse, trying to keep her footing. Kneeing? Not fall off. She probably would have to dismount eventually. She'd just hoped to have kicked the Talonlord off first.

Nameless felt the horse's deep breaths and pulsating heart beat against her thigh and knee, which let her anticipate the animal's movement well ahead of time. But she also had to keep Anguilla from knocking her on her ass, which was taking quite a bit of her concentration. Nameless let herself be knocked back a bit by the force of the Guandao, which allowed her to lift her knee off the saddle, and bring her behind up in the air a bit, allowing for more leverage for her upcoming strikes, utilizing the horse's movement to channel momentum through her legs up the torso straight to her shoulder that she put behind her sword arm.
Her next two quick strikes aimed to again exploit the fact that Anguilla had to uncomfortably turn around to not have Nameless at her back.

Press the advantage, be aggressive - this seemed like shit advice, but it was the only thing she could remember from her training. Frankly, she was terrified of embarrassing herself. Eventually, she might have to assist the Talonlord in a teachable moment if she wanted to leave the field with the respect of the Dragonblooded woman intact.

Still, better show that she was serious first. With lightning speed she executed her form. If both had been standing upright, the first one would've been a perfect form Hidari Kessa Giri as it was called in Riverspeak. A diagonal cut through the torso, perfect for instantly stopping an unarmored peasant militiaman. Or seriously knocking about someone in Jade plate armor. If one were to use speed such as Nameless possessed, the logical followup was the Migi Joho Giri, bringing the blade up again, tracing the previous cut, to either cleave a man neatly in half, or - again - scratch some Jade plate armor. The Sword Maiden even let loose a proper Kiai with the strikes, her voice echoing clearly, beautifully, through the arena.

Nameless had no time to think, merely to act. She was having a difficult enough time keeping herself steady atop the swaying horse without benefit of stirrups or saddle. If the swordplay was anything less than an instinctual reaction, as natural as breathing, it's doubtful she would have been able to manage this feat of grace of daring. The Sword Maiden gave two spirited slashes nearly simultaneously, dropping down to one knee to steady her balance and give some leverage to the attacks. Anguilla swayed her body around in the saddle in a rotating motion that was surprisingly fluid, like a whirlpool at a river rapid, and again shifted her grip on the Guandao, letting it slip through her hands until it was again extended at its full length, its razor-sharp blade slicing through the dirt in a circle around the moving steed. Her first strike was disappointingly wild and achieved little, but the other slid off the metal-reinforced oak shaft of the Guandao as it came around, ricocheting off a blue jade scale on a shoulderpad of the Talonlord's lamellar armor to little effect, though mercifully disrupting the woman's concentration.

The return strike an instant later was not so delicate: They were far too close for the heavy blade at the end of the Guandao to be of much use, but at its full extension, the heft served quite effectively to add momentum to the long circuitous swipe. The midsection of the long steel-sheathed wooden pole bashed aside the Sword Maiden's guard and clobbered her in the side, the blow involuntarily expelling the breath from her chest and causing her to drop like a bag of sand from her upright posture into a bent-over pose atop horse's muscular flank, desperately clenching her legs together around the animal so she didn't topple off. The armored coat she wore over her lithe frame took the brunt of the blow - she would assuredly wake up the next morning with a painful purple bruise, but it likely saved her from a pair of fractured ribs. It was clear that the Talonlord's attack had stolen the initiative from her.

Instead of fully blocking the blow, which was futile, the Sword Maiden let herself be knocked to the side - to a degree. She lifted her knee off the saddle, and seemed, for a moment, to fall off to the right side of the horse, while she tucked her left lower leg under the saddle's straps. Now she was hanging slightly off the side of the horse, meaning that Anguilla's next strike would have an awkward angle to get around the saddle, if the Talonlord wished to press her advantage.

Nameless had already positioned her sheath in such a way, that she could easily draw for the parry, having a clear arc free in the empty air between the two. Still, this wasn't going nearly as well as she had hoped, though perhaps about as well as she'd expected. There was a reason she was taught to go for the killing blow before the enemy had time to collect themselves. A fair fight against a heavily armored opponent was not something a smart warrior looked for. Nonetheless, she was determined to give it a good go.

Seeing Nameless clinging to the side of the stallion after the first close-range blow with the staff of the polearm had landed, Anguilla quickly reversed the momentum of her Guandao, slipping by the woman's hasty guard and delivering a quick, hard twack of the heavy reinforced wooden pole into the fleshy part of the swordswoman's leg in an effort to loosen her will to persevere and knock her off the horse for good. The smack of the blow was audible to the assembled audience, many who winced at the sound.

The Sword Maiden exhaled sharply, seemingly not making much of the hit, though to Anguilla, close as she was, Nameless' face made on thing clear: that really hurt.

Maybe this lack of mobility wasn't as advantageous as she had thought. After the Talonlord's insistence on the horse, Nameless had assumed that it would be the deciding factor. But the Dragonblooded had absolutely no problem holding her own even without that advantage. And all she had to show for so far was a glancing blow delivered, and two bruising love taps received. Not a great start. She let herself slide off the horse a bit more, before hooking her - now upper - left leg into the saddle's straps, and rapidly pulling herself back up, adding the momentum from her leg pulling her up to the motion of her arms, drawing her Daiklave and harshly thrusting the hilt into Anguilla's ribs.

Despite the move not showing much promise initially, Nameless actually managed to time this just right - as she got herself back upright, she rammed her blade's slim hilt between some armor plates, knocking the air from Anguilla's lungs, before she swung back up on the horse, behind the saddle, first up on her knees, she then pulled two-thirds of the blade from it's hilt, and used the sides of it to brush the Talonlord's arm out of her way, using her as an unwitting stepping stone.

The Sword Maiden swiftly placed one foot on Anguilla's shoulder and launched herself into the air, executing a graceful somersault that landed her on the disused wooden tower in the middle of the field, that the horse had been rounding. She stood on the remainder of a wooden scaffolding that was precariously clinging on to the porous stones that made up the base of the pagoda on top of the tower, and took a single breath, as she watched the Dragonblood below regaining her balance.

Without wasting any more time, she pushed off - before the scaffolding could drop her, anyway - diving right past horse and rider.
The Sword Maiden had chosen her arc to take her right past Anguilla, meeting her solid armor with the back of her blade and the entire weight of her jump, a few annoyed doves fluttering above her, seeking to knock her opponent off the horse.

The Swordwoman's sequence of supernaturally acrobatic leaps both astounded and confused the onlooking soldiers: What exactly were they meant to learn from this? They had been led to expect some sort of teaching moment, a demonstration of combat tactics they could grasp. None of them could leap fifteen feat in the air or jump off the side of towers and balance on the back of horses - hell, they barely could stay in formation. Cub and Khi had keenly heard a few undisciplined mutters emerge among them when Nameless has spitefully slashed their banner for seemingly no reason. Now the crowd was getting positively unruly.

Common people Creation over had a basic sense for fairness, and while they may have initially been willing to tolerate the foreign-looking, fair-skinned and raven-haired swordswoman that they had seen being shown favor by their commander - she even had been lent what most recognized as one of her own personal horses (the sweet Pickle, a favorite of every conscript who had pulled stable duty), they were quickly turning against her, convinced that she wasn't playing by the intended rules or spirit of the demonstration. They watched as Nameless performed a supernaturally acrobatic flying leap, leaping from the horse and bouncing off the side of the pagoda, reversing her momentum and perfectly timing her airborne attack to tackle their leader to the ground. Then, rather than letting her get up, she aimed another strike at her while she was flat on her back. The blow mercifully clanged off her armor with a few visible chips of blue jade dust flying, but the mass of mostly conscript troops began to roil, barely staying under the control of the few professional career soldiers among them who were shouting at them to maintain their composure, though themselves were just as confused about what was occurring.

The façade of good order and discipline maintained by the 1500-strong gathering of soldiers arrayed on the field, as well as the several hundred observers in the audience beyond the gate, was quickly crumbling. the sound of hundreds of whispered voices at once, asking questions of their neighbors, began in earnest. An isolated shout were distinctly heard: "Cheater!" cried out a daring member of the crowd speaking up. The volume increased in response, the crowd's agitation feeding back into itself. Another shout followed a few seconds later, emboldened by the reception received by the first: "Anathema!" The tension in the audience ratcheted up further. If the trajectory of the scene didn't change quickly, there was every probability that the result would be a riotous mob.

Meanwhile, Nameless's keen hearing hadn't betrayed her: even in the midst of combat, and with the intrusion of the sounds of the one-silent audience, she hadn't failed to hear the snort of the warhorse and the sound of the 1000-pound animal skidding to a halt in the loose dirt as it reared up on its hind legs. Horses don't understand the meaning of a duel or the difference between simulated and true lethal intent: This one was loyal, trained since birth by a Prince of the Earth, and had just seen its lifelong rider thrown to the ground and struck at by the unfamiliar, strange-smelling foe that was moving with supernatural agility. Its instinct was to defend its mistress, and it aimed a kick with a metal-shod hoof directly at her!
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Nameless's Battle Reaches its Conclusion!


Now you did it again, your stupid pride getting you in trouble. Nameless resisted the urge to physically shake her head to banish the thought, just as her senses alerted her to everything. The rumble of the crowd had only just begun to pick up momentum, Anguilla was sorting her limbs in order to get up, armor plates creaking against the dusty, sandy ground of the makeshift arena. Well, the training grounds. The field of dirt.

With an inaudible gasp escaping her, she made a step back from the Dragonblooded's horse, raising her hands as a gesture of peace and good will - reflexively, she didn't actually think the horse would recognize the gesture - trying to calm the animal. But it was a well-trained war horse, so it didn't exactly stop to consider it's enemy's remorse. The Sword Woman couldn't do much now, but retreat, raising her daiklave's sheathe to knock aside any hoof aiming for her squishy bits and doing her very best to appear non-threatening. And if she didn't get trampled to death now, she would have to deal with the angry mob later, she reckoned. Should've just taken a dive, she thought, gritting her teeth.

The horse's kick was assuredly lethal, but the aim of a half-ton, disoriented and engraged animal wasn't up to the task of taking down the shifty swordswoman, and her blinding speed allowed her to easily sidestep the destrier's assault.

In the momentary confusion caused by the horse's entry into the fight, and with the Swordswoman's attention diverted for a split-second, Anguilla was able to hop to her feet. Her eyes were visibly swirling with essence, betraying her loss of control and  the humiliation she had suffered from being dehorsed, and her anger at her opponent's complete lack of honor in striking at her while she was prone on the ground. Her red-tinged anima instantly leaped in intensity, brightly burning even in the light of the midday sun as she began screaming in near-incoherence at the Nameless Sword Maiden. The volume of the massive crowed managed to prevent any but the two of them from hearing what was said, but the words were backed by the force of essence. To the Sword Maiden, the scene grew surreal and overwhelming; there was simply too much going on, and her ability to process it all began to crack. Her supernaturally enhanced sense began to stutter: her vision grew blurry at the edges and she seemed to lose track of the flow of time - one second between blinks seemed to just vanish altogether, while another seemed to last an eternity, her mental processes grinding to a halt for the duration. She tasted metal and faintly smelled rotten eggs. The voices from the crowd and the Talonlord blended together, and only certain words seemed to ring in her head over and over. "Dirty." "Bitch." "Anathema." It was a sense of intense emotional pressure that felt physical, like she was a hundred feet underwater, and every breath was a struggle.

---

The crowd around her is on a precipice, and despite being momentarily caught up in Nameless's displays of acrobatics and swordswomanship, Persistent Cub is quick to see the tides turning around her. With the people like this, all it takes is a few choice words spoke in a few choice ears to push it one way or the other, and with the word Anathema on people's lips, those words need to be spoken sooner rather than later. With an eye for the crowd she could only have dreamt of when she was mortal, Cub looks for those people whose words may sway the crowd and moves to sway them before they do.

A rabble on the verge of a riot was, in many ways, the perfect model for studying the organization of human beings. In chaos, superfluous details like logic, reason, or nuance are stripped out, and all that remains is the emotional forces of pure socio-bureaucratic dynamics. The identity of the forces capable of spurring the mob on, or shutting them down, are quickly clarified. And nobody present was better positioned to quickly ascertain and exploit those forces to her own ends than Persistent Cub, the ministerial wizard. She fondly remembered the time when, fresh out of the Spiral Academy, she had quickly exploited her position as the temporary acting head of a unimportant procurement bureau, artfully converting a minor ambiguity over whether a contract quota referred to the net or gross weight into a bitter, full-blown labor dispute that threatened to shut down two-thirds of the Isle's production of standardized commodity blended livestock fodder, only to maneuver both sides into voluntarily submitting to a vastly enlarged, self-funding regulatory regime that quadrupled the size and power of her department.

Even in a brewing crises, it is rare for any to have the courage to take independent action. Nearly all will look for a sign, some form of permission to act on their emotions. As tensions started to grow, Cub stepped up on the rail for a better view, and examined for the social cues in every hesitating glance on every face, comprehending them all with the limitless understanding of the chosen of the Unconquered Sun. Perhaps a hundred professional officers or professional soldiers barked staccato orders at the masses of conscripts and reservists, but they mostly looked at each other for reassurance, and with the Talonlord occupied, they were hard-pressed, and none seemed willing to take charge. Some of the more disciplined troops were obeying, but the majority seem to have forgotten, or never acquired the requisite indoctrination - at their core, they were civilians, and looked towards those who commanded them in civilian life. With a quick glance, Cub looked again up at the rooftop, where she spotted the Archimandrite a few minutes ago. She was no longer there. Instead, she was now twenty feet away from Cub, walking through the group of dozens of pale-garbed monks, the sunlight glinting off their bald heads as they moved aside to let her pass. As the monks parted, Cub recognized Lin's shorter figure standing among them. Many heads turned Celcine among the civilians, conscripts and reservists. From their tanned complexions and manner of dress, Cub guessed she held substantial sway among the farmers who lived outside the city - it was a maxim that farmers everywhere were more given to religiosity.

On the other side of the crowd, Cub spotted another familiar figure who had stood up on a stool: It was the elderly Marwin, Honto's mortal brother and right hand man, now retired from public life. From the way that many were looking towards him - from their appearance, chiefly those who were clerks, artisans, and shopkeepers in their daily life - he seemed to maintain a substantial level of respect among the city-dwellers.

Though a crowd close to panicking is indeed humanity as its most fundamental, it still holds true that some bonds are stronger than others, and while it would be easier for Cub to leverage Marwin's influence, Celcine was the one who held sway over those she would most need to calm down. Approaching, the Archimandrite, she kept a close eye on the other woman. Why was she here at all? Why had she her high perch? And what would make her act as Cub's well-honed tool?

When Cub had first peered Celcine atop the building, her motivation had seemed somewhat inscrutable: In all likelihood, the Archimandrite had heard about the demonstration through the rumor mill, was curious and wanted to observe, but from a concealed vantage point, so not to admit her interest. With the escalation of tensions however, beginning with Nameless's assault on the military standard, it hadn't taken her fifteen seconds to descend from the rooftop and start making her way towards the crowd: The woman clearly sniffed opportunity. Cub recognized the look on her face, recalling the snide comments and put-downs from their earlier interactions. The Archimandrite was clearly someone who viewed other women through the lens of competition. A Queen Bee - Cub had seen a few in her time in the ministries: female leaders with unexceptional minds but strong social instincts, who instinctually knew they could never rise to the top on their own merits, so they systematically tormented the women under them to ensure they remained firmly atop that particular hierarchy. An opportunity to embarrass and assert her dominance over both Anguilla and the pretty Swordswoman that had been the target of her ire would have been irresistible.

With a quick glance to confirm that Khi was still following her, Cub approached the Archimandrite with a serene smile, seemingly quite unconcerned by the rising chaos around them. To some crowds seem to move with a will of their own, pushing this way or that, but to one who understands them, they are easily predictable and so Cub can without trouble make her way to the Archimandrite's side where she speaks softly, but with amusement clear in her voice, "I am told that the discipline of a military force reflects solely on its commanding officer. Is this also held as a truism in Lushfield?"

"I never heard it put so succinctly," the Archimandrite replied, surveying the scene of growing discontent with a look of smugness on her face. "But I would agree. Emphatically."

"Indeed, and poor mortal Marwin is doing no better vainly trying to calm them down," Cub adds, still clearly amused. "I'm sure they have their meetings talking about who really controls Lushfield, who wields the true power. And look at them now."

Cub's words absolutely dripped with the power of celestial manipulation. To a petty mind like Celcine's, they was more than sufficient to achieve the intended result of enkindling an idea in her head, and even more importantly - making the Archimandrite believe it was her own, so that she would act upon it without considering whether there were any ulterior motives.

The Dragon-Blooded Archimandrite deftly hopped up atop a nearby tree stump to ensure she could be seen, and in her spotless bright white Immaculate robes, she almost demanded the attention of the masses. Just as the Talonlord had rolled away after the Sword Maiden's blow against her armor, and had sprung back to her feet to assume a renewed fighting stance, Celcine began to glow with a soft light that seemed to still the numerous voices in disarray. "Devoted Citizens," she called out in a stern, but authoritative voice that seemed to slice through the confusion and offer an anchor for the audience's unease. "Calm yourselves! Remember the parable of Mela and the Legionnaire! The soldier with an iron spear and paper-thin faith will be defeated by the warrior with iron faith and a paper fan! Show me your souls are iron and not paper!"

The Archimandrite's proclamation seemed to have achieved its intended purpose: the fever broke, and a wave of calmness and resolution seemed to ripple through the nearly two-thousands onlookers, who until then seemed to have been on the verge of a riot. Celcine smirked at Cub - the woman was clearly exceptionally pleased that she had gotten one over on Anguilla. Where the Talonlord's implicit authority as the military leader had failed to control her own legion, The Archimandrite was able to decisively quell the turmoil in their ranks, demonstrating the superiority of her influence in the community.

Khi quirked an eyebrow behind her mask, all but invisible to the Archimandrite thanks to the disparity in ranks between them. Cub's manipulation was deft to the point that she may not have noticed it a few months previously. Could the Archimandrite notice? Khi was certain she probably could, if she had thought to look. Would she? The woman's overweening pride and vanity all but compelled her not to.

Cub returns Celcine's smirk and offers a small bow appropriate for congratulating an equal on a job well done. "Lovely to see that at least one of Lushfield's Chosen is a true master of her craft."

---

There was a ringing in Nameless' ears, like a thousand discordant bells, that somehow still didn't manage to drown out the wind-carried mumbles of the crowd. Her thoughts collapsed in on themselves, should've just taken a dive echoed through her mind. All the concentration, the steely determination to put her instincts, her training, her talent to good use tumbled over, feeding the bonfire of doubt that had turned her stomach into an unpleasant assortment of knots. She tried to swallow, but couldn't, panicking for a split-second as she seemingly forgot how to breathe, she spit out in the dust between her feet. This was probably the last chance for her to turn it around, keep the crowd from whipping itself into a frenzy.

"Unnatural" was one of the words she definitely picked up. "Dishonorable" another. If this wasn't to end with her circle dying here today, or having to slaughter every Lushfielder within a league, she needed to do something. She gripped the hilt of the Forgotten Blade tightly, so her hands wouldn't shake. Her field of view had already narrowed, edges of blackness infringing on her vision, she had been sure that she would feint any second now for a bit, but the moment just didn't come. So this was it, then. Last chance to make something of her earlier mistakes. The horse kept coming at her. Anguilla's anima was now also clearly visible. This utter chaos made it tough for the crowd to see what exactly what was happening, that was for sure.

The Sword Maiden let the horse intentionally come dangerously close to her, before tumbling in Anguilla's direction, stepping in between most of the crowd and the Talonlord. She feigned being unbalanced by the horses attacks, presenting Anguilla a clear opening.  "Come on, if you get me now, your people will never forget that you showed the foreign bitch!"

The Talonlord's eyes narrowed behind the burning mein surrounding her, as the two fighters circled each other. Nameless was clearly afflicted by something, and stumbled in what most onlookers would guess to be a concussed or dazed state. In the background, they could hear the clear, soothing voice of Celcine calling out to the crowd, but the words washed over them and had no meaning - it was like they were in their own private world at that moment. Anguilla's puzzled lips revealed her inner thoughts: Just what game is she playing at? Was this some sort of trick, or yet another way to try and humiliate her further?

"Do it, then, take the victory!" Nameless hissed, "I admit I went a bit far there just now. But this - " she nodded in a direction Anguilla couldn't see, over the Talonlord's shoulder. "- This I didn't want." The Sword Maiden feigned a dodge again, to make it look lively. She had this acting thing down. Quick in thinking on her feet, good grasp on what she was outwardly presenting. Quite different from how she carried a conversation.

"I can hear it from down here. Your Archimandrite is playing to the crowd. You either take me out now, and make it pretty, or she reaps the glory," the Sword Maiden explained, pulling her daiklave fully from it's sheathe. "The crowd already hates me, now give them a hero before that bitch Celcine does it first!"

Nameless lifted her blade high, as if going for a forceful strike. It was obviously too high, leaving her armored torso mostly unguarded. She really hoped Anguilla would believe her. The Dawn Caste had gotten even paler than usual around the nose, and only the fact that she kept moving kept her from shivering, and the edges of her vision were still blurred. She was concentrating so hard right now she almost felt like she would explode. She needed to get out this situation now, or she would either break down and cry, or try and cut the Dragon-Blooded woman in half, just to escape the pressure.

The two women were breathing heavily in their armor as they stared each other down, while the hiss of the crowd faded away as Celcine managed to reassert order. Anguilla didn't like this - not one bit. The foreign girl's defiant and condescending arrogance was unrestrained. Even after the Talonlord had extended her hand in friendship on the basis of mutual respect as Shīfùs, this woman had smacked it away, rejecting what was supposed to be a demonstration between equals and clearly turning it into an attempt to establish a dominance hierarchy between the two of them on the basis of martial skill. These were the types of games Celcine played, and it made Anguilla angry. She wanted to clobber the raven-haired hellcat badly, and the fact that she was inviting it while simultaneously claiming it as some twisted victory in her own mind made her even more mad.

The anger flowed into a skipping reverse power stroke leveled with her heavy Guandao, the smooth, inch-thick spine of the heavy blade bashing into the Sword Maiden's gut. The hardened leather cummerbund tightly cinched around Nameless's skinny waist cracked as she flew back a good ten feet, landing in the dirt and half-rolling, half-skidding before finally coming to a halt in a fetal position, doubled over with every ounce of air forced out of her lungs. A hundred conflicting signals were sent between the different parts of her body all at once, and she was simultaneously overcome by the incredible pain in her abdomen, her desperate need to breath, and intense, all-encompassing nausea. Nameless's peripheral vision entirely disappeared in a pulsing blackness that continually narrowed as she tried to control her body's wretched urges, only managing to get one knee up off the ground before she violently expelled her breakfast onto the turf, and collapsed again on her side. She just needed a moment... just to close her eyes... as she rested her head on the cool, welcoming ground, blissfully embracing her as she passed into unconsciousness.

---

Khī winced, as the woman went down. She’d seen it all play out, in more detail than, she could comfortably say, every other onlooker. The panic and fear in her unnamed comrade’s eyes. Her attempt to throw the match to deescalate the crowd. Anguilla’s rage. An unfortunate chain of events she couldn’t help but think of how she could have intervened to stop. It would have been simple, if she’d just thought to run out a little earlier, rather than let the other woman take care of it. Played the hysterical out of line servant, proceeded into the horse’s way, and used the torn lotus defense. She’d have been lucky, seemingly, but endearingly so, and this whole nasty spectacle could have been avoided. Instead, she’d been too focused on pretending this foreigner could fill the void Sadrica had left. What a stupid, unfaithful lover she was.

Khī, naturally, allowed no emotions to show on her face. She did, however, sprint out onto the field, ostensively to check her fellow’s condition, but more practically, she wanted to forestall any chance that the angry crowd would get any ideas like kicking her while she was down.

Despite her calm exterior, Cub was concerned about the turns that this little demonstration had taken. She had thought this would be a relatively private thing for Anguilla and her closest officers, but turning it into a display for the entire town had changed things considerably. On top of that, the actual fight had not really reflected what she thought anyone would have wanted, had they had time to think about exactly what was going on. At the sight of Nameless falling defeated on the ground, and Khi running off after her, Cub give Celcine a regretful smile that seems to share with her the woes of having inept servants, and then begins walking towards Anguilla, hoping to forestall the warrior's rage if needed, and if not, to merely congratulate the victorious Dragonblooded on her victory over an upstart.

Meanwhile, a moment of dumbstruck silence paralyzed the crowed in the moments after the Talonlord's blow landed, and everyone watched with bated breath as the Nameless Sword Maiden stumble to her knee and then slowly toppled over, signaling the conclusion of the fight. A cacophonous cheer went up among the soldiers as they realized what happened. A broad smile crossed Celcine's face, for multiple reasons. Little minds everywhere are easily pleased by violent sport, as many wise observers have noted. Anguilla turned and began walking towards the crowd, pulling her horse behind her by its reins, the rope smoldering in her hands and trailing a wisp of smoke. A few of the officers rushed forward to meet her ahead of Cub and Khi to in an attempt to lavish glory on their exalted commander, but were forced back from their attempts to clasp her on the shoulder by the heat from her burning anima, and she simply ignored them as she continued walking. Behind them were Khi and Cub.

"Have your minion ready for what needs to be done." Anguilla sneered at Cub as she passed. The Dragon-Blooded woman was clearly indignant and in no mood for company. She continued onward, parting the masses of cheering soldiers as she walked, aided by the the heat from her anima. Finally, with a raised hand, she appeased the soldier's acclamations, but clearly she did not intend to make any sort of rousing speech as she exited the training grounds. A few hangers-on tried to follow her, but she shooed them away, and the only one that she permitted to accompany her was Old Man Marwin, who followed at a respectful distance as she headed back into the town.

By the time Cub and Khi had arrived at Nameless's side, Rael had reached her first, dismounting from the horse Pickle and checking the woman's pulse. He rotated her slender frame over on her stomach and tilted her head to better help her clear her congested lungs from whatever sick she had aspirated. Removing a glove with his teeth, he started to brushed the dirt off the unconscious Swordwoman's pale face and pushed her long hair behind her ears, and he bunched up and laid down his horseman's cloak for her head to rest on. Her raspy breathing became markedly better almost immediately, and after a few seconds, she had the look of a woman merely sleeping after a hard day's exertion. He looked up as the two women approached. "Should I take her to the doctor?" He asked Cub.

Though Cub is more than a little annoyed at Anguilla's snub, she ignores the lesser Exalt for the moment. When she does see Nameless and the mortal Rael, she regards the man with curiousity, knowing that this man has interacted with several of her fellows already, but so far she has not had occasion to do so herself. She considers the man and his actions towards the Swordmaiden before answering.

The mortal junior military officer certainly wasn't a threat, Cub instantly discerned - she remembering him from the breakfast that morning, and after that, when he guided her and Khi to Great Uncle Rightness's dilapidated records hall that had, at some point, become the crazy old man's permanent residence. Someone had to be tasked with the responsibility of babysitting the outsiders, and like many unpleasant things in life, it fell to the lowest on the totem pole. From the way he had ran his hand across Nameless's unconscious face, the man had evidently developed a bit of a crush on the pretty swordswoman from their limited time spent together. It was understandable - there are few times in life where a petty mortal ever has the privilege of touching the divine.

"Yes, I think that would be best," Cub agrees with a pleasant smile towards the young man. "Please lead the way," she adds indicating that she and Khi would follow.

Khi nodded curtly, then glanced back at Anguilla. She'd never taken the opportunity to thoroughly examine the dragon-blooded woman, and assemble the kind of psychological profile she might of anyone implicated in such a scheme. She'd been lax in doing so so far, but, perhaps, understandably so. There had been a great deal of other, more pressing concerns. Not to mention the whole affair taking a matter of moments rather than a day had rather changed the way her timelines for such cases worked.

Behind Anguilla's scowl and the heat shimmer from her burning anima, Khi felt a twinge of strange... kinship as she studiously observed the armored woman through the slits of her mask. There was something intensely familiar about the Talonlord. Khi's mind moved at blinding speed. It was because of the dream - Khi thought logically - the one from the night before, when she found herself masquerading in the role of the green-haired Ivy, or at least Great Uncle Rightness's memory of her. Something more linked Ivy and Anguilla together - she just knew it. From the questioning of the old eccentric dragon-blooded, they learned that Ivy was the daughter of this mysterious Old Seneschal who had allegedly ruled over Lushfield for centuries with an iron fist. She replayed Great Uncle Rightness's specific words about Old Seneschal in her head: He was obsessed with producing a son... That bastard went through thirteen wives before he breathed his last, and all it led to was four daughters. Mark my words - Ivy would have been among them too, eventually, if he had his way! Was it possible that Anguilla was another of the daughters - a half-sister of Ivy, born ten or twenty decades after she had gone missing? The blood of dragons was hereditary, after all.

The Night caste, a peerless investigator, had brought her hand up to her mask reflexively, similar to how she had tested her face in the dream. She recalling the perfect feminine grace of Ivy's smooth skin and slender fingers that ran along the contours of the her face, and mentally constructed an image. Even if it was an idealized image, more fantasy than reality, the resemblance was there. Khi ran a test: swap Ivy's pale green hair for Anguilla's blued steel, add 30 pounds of athletic muscle, slightly darken the skin tone to adjust for a military life spent outdoors. Reconstruct. More than possible - probable. No - a near-certainty.

Khī ‘hrmm’ed quietly beneath her mask. An interesting detail to file away, to be sure. It certainly explained some of why Anguilla was the way she was. She turned her head back to Nameless, and, prepared to help shift to unconscious woman.

By the time Khi turned her head and moved towards Namless, Rael had already managed to gather the unconscious Sword Maiden in his arms with a grunt. Working carefully, he managed to drape her limp, sleeping form over the saddle on Pickle's back. In a sign that was taken as good news, the raven-haired swordswoman managed to mumble something incoherent in whatever dream she was having, and reflexively clutched at the horse's soft coat. Rael walked over to retrieve Nameless's fallen blade, picking it up by its hilt with a surprised grimace: it was far, far heavier than he expected any sword to be, even one this long, and he needed both hands to lift and balance it - one on the handle, and the other halfway down the ridge of the shimmering starmetal blade. As he turned , he froze in his tracks, a look of blank bafflement on his face, as if he had forgotten what he was he was doing. Blinking twice, he shook his head to clear whatever cobwebs had befuddled his judgement. Looking down, he reaffirmed the identity of the heavy weight he carried, remembering that he was going to return the sword to the scabbard that remained attached to Nameless's waist by its cord, which with some effort he proceeded to do.

Resting a hand on the small of the Sword Maiden's back to keep her balanced, Rael began to lead Pickle onward, Cub and Khi following behind as they took a conveniently circuitous route away from the crowd to avoid further unnecessary attention being given to the four of them as they slunk away. Luckily, it didn't appear necessary - the gathered masses continued to remain distracted - first by Anguilla's exit, and then by the beginnings of a feel-good speech on internal spiritual strength that Celcine had taken the opportunity to launch into, taking advantage of the captive audience to allocate the glory to the onlooker's collective display of faith in Immaculate Providence. Cub couldn't help but noticing the ultimate effect of the display was the Archimandrite patting herself on the back, but the woman's beaming smile and faultless tone of comforting matronly authority balanced with a whiff of calculated feminine sensuality just seemed to work to comfort the crowd and feed their self-esteem with wholesome platitudes.
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