Journeys in the Vale
This is the chronology of adventures set in the Vale, beginning February 3, 2008 and fading out around July of 2009. This is the ENTIRETY of the adventure log on two pages (link to page 2 at the bottom of this page). It will be long, and may feel disjointed in places because the tense shifts. Other than that, enjoy.
“I told you so.” Azis’s voice was rough against Seraph’s ear.
“Shut up.” Seraph wriggled his wrists, trying to shift the ropes to some slightly more comfortable spot. Enough sand had gotten between the ropes and his skin that there was no such thing. Not that it would matter for much longer, he supposed.
The white-clad knightess who had captured him was arguing vehemently with two other women who had ridden up shortly thereafter – more fuel, Seraph thought, for his half-brother’s assertion that this lightly guarded caravan was sure to be a trap. But it didn’t make sense. His Oracle, the masked lady of whom he’d dreamed regularly since his rite of passage, had led him to dozens of other such caravans over the last five years, and they had been genuinely ripe for plundering. Why had she led him astray now? Or had she too been fooled by the Knights of the Vale hiding their armor beneath burnooses and playing the helpless maids?
The three women finished their discussion, and the knightess’s face was filled with impotent rage. “Line up the…prisoners!” The final word was spat in disgust.
“What the hell?!” Azis echoed Seraph’s surprise. The Knights of the Vale never let raiders live, and especially not raiders from Zinyini clans such as theirs, who were adamantly opposed to Valite rulership. There was no time to wonder, though. The two other women, one leading the other on her arm, were walking toward them even as the Knights hauled everyone into a semblance of a straight line.
“Greetings,” the leader said. “I am Princess Germain of the Vale. This” – she indicated the woman on her arm, whom Seraph and Azis could now tell was blind – “is Princess Brandy of the Vale.” Germain began to lead Brandy down the line of prisoners, and Brandy kept shaking her head and saying “no” until she got to Seraph.
“This is the one,” Brandy said. Germain squinted at Seraph, making no attempt to hide her contempt, then leaned in close enough for him to smell her sweat. He could feel her eyes entering his mind and rummaging around.
“You…Seraph…have the power to spare your life and the lives of your kinsmen. All you have to do is whatever we ask.”
“Abbadon,” Prince Lewis said as the black-haired dwarf filled the doorway. “Come in. I have a task I must set to you.”
“I am at your service, Your Highness,” Abbadon said as he bowed. Indeed, he could not think of any Azer who would have said anything else. Prince Lewis was only half-blooded, through his father King Airom, but he was beloved among his people, and some openly lamented the fact that he could not assume rulership once Airom passed.
“You are a good knight, Abbadon. Ah! And Gorlon! There you are!” The prince nodded to another half-blood who had pushed aside the chains which served to curtain the room. “Come in, then, and let me tell you what I need of you.
“It is commonly known that twenty years ago, this land was invaded by demons, who waged war on the Zinyini and the People of the Vale. It is less commonly known that my half-sister, Empress Carawynne, sealed off the Vale so the demons could never return. It is even less commonly known that another half-sister, Princess Blaze, began the demon invasion by taking a demon as a lover, and that she bore a child to him, and that the child resides in the Vale.”
“Princess Blaze?” Gorlon sounded confused. “I don’t believe I’ve ever heard of her.”
Prince Lewis nodded. “She was wise enough to obliterate her name from history. But we were able to use her child as a bargaining chip of sorts, forging a treaty with the demons so they would not attack again.” He held up a hand to Abbadon, who was poised to speak. “It is true that Carawynne made it so the demons cannot physically manifest in the Vale ever again. However, they are powerful beings, and they threatened to destroy the Vale by dropping mountains from the sky – something against which Carawynne’s magic cannot defend. The treaty was necessary.”
Gorlon shook his head. “But I still don’t understand where we come in.”
“She is a young woman now, and every bit as headstrong as her aunts and uncles. I want you to go to the Vale on my behalf, and see to her welfare, and ensure that nothing happens which would break that treaty. We cannot risk another war.”
“Malak,” Einac said, stroking her hair, “Did you know that you have a grandson?”
“Hmmm?” Malak stretched, trying not to disturb the other scarcely-clad women piled around them. She stretched out one hand, palm up. “Well, I suppose I knew it was possible. I had four children before I died. Surely one of them would have lived long enough to marry and have their own children.” It didn’t even occur to Malak to be bothered by not knowing. All infants born to temple whores were considered blessed, but were given away to the father’s family so that motherhood wouldn’t interfere with their priestess work. It hurt a little the first time, but she never once thought to question the gods’ wills on the matter.
“Well,” Einac said gently, “it appears that events are about to transpire that would allow me to send you back to guard him. Would you like that?”
Malak tilted her head, looking at the young god adoringly. “I serve your will. Do you wish for me to go?”
Einac pursed his lips. “All your priestessing, and you have so little respect for me that when I ask what you want, you refuse to answer? Have you forgotten the very lesson you teach – that I love you as well?”
Malak shivered a little, but saw no true anger in Einac’s eyes. Still, it took her a while to answer him.
“I would like to meet the child, if nothing else. But will I see you again?”
“Of course. You are a Spirit Warrior now – you may come and go as you please.” Einac reached over his head to fetch Malak a burnoose. “The Vale’s Royal family is sending your Seraph on a quest. They have made him swear a vow not to harm any of them. I want you to protect Seraph, and I want to know what this quest is.”
Malak hastily straightened her caftan and threw on the burnoose. “I will do what I can, my Lord.”
“I ask no more, and no less.” Einac smiled and gestured. The sea parted above their heads, and Malak felt the salt breeze lift her feet off the ground, speeding her away into the desert.
Red awoke, rolling over gently to make sure Adam was still in the bed. He was, though it had taken building a wall of pillows between them for him to think it proper to be there. He was a perfect gentleman, which occasionally got on her nerves.
She changed into fresh clothes and pulled on her boots. She had a Princess to visit. She trudged down several hallways, and was about to knock on the door when a sudden voice made her jump.
“You there!” Princess Chance had come up silently behind Red, and was scrutinizing her. “So I guess you accepted the bodyguard offer?”
“Y-yes,” Red said, composing herself quickly. “I was just about to rouse Morgaine for breakfast.”
“Of course,” Chance said, and Red could never be sure how she meant it. But the Princess turned on her heel and walked away, leaving Red alone to open the door to Princess Morgaine’s bedroom.
“So hey,” Red said as Morgaine struggled to wakefulness, “you’re allowed to leave the castle as long as you don’t leave the city, right?”
“Right,” Morgaine mumbled sleepily.
“Then come on. Let’s go get some breakfast and we can talk more about what you were planning.”
Seraph had been on his feet perhaps two minutes before he was nearly knocked off them again by a glowing Zinyini girl giving him a bearhug. He shook his head dazedly as she let go. The word was a term of affection usually used by mothers to their children, but this girl was younger than him. It made no sense – not that much was making sense recently.
“Hakim!” The girl positively squealed to see Azis, and had planted a huge smooch on Azis’s lips before he could move to defend himself.
“No.” Azis shook his head and wiped off the kiss, confused and slightly angry at being confused. “Azis.”
“Oh.” The girl put a half-curled hand to her mouth. “I’m so sorry. But you look just like him.”
That gave both men a start. They had a grandfather Hakim, and Azis did look just like him.
“Honored ancestor,” Seraph finally stammered out, but the girl cut him off with a wave of her hand.
“Please, habbibi, call me Malak.” The girl smiled. “I’m your grandmother.”
“So it seems you will have two witnesses to your vow, then, Seraph.” Princess Germain’s voice broke coldly into the reunion. She turned, her eyes compelling Malak’s to meet them. “You are aware of the pact that Modnar, king of your gods, made with the Empress Carawynne.” The word “your” had an unmistakable sneer behind it, and Azis spat in the sand beside him.
“I am,” Malak said, as humble toward the Princess as Azis and Seraph had been defiant. “I am here to guard Seraph’s well-being on his quest, whatever that may be.”
“Well, then,” said Princess Germain, “mount up. We ride for the Vale to meet with Princess Morgaine. You” – she indicated the other Zinyini – “are free to go. Cut them loose, Julianne,” she addressed the knightess, who grumbled as she complied. Azis and Seraph and Malak were hauled up in front of three of the white-clad lady knights, and they were off at a gallop.
Abbadon grumbled. “It’s cold!” It was midday in the desert as the two rode their red-furred goats down the switchback trail to the city of the Vale, but it was still a drastic difference from the climate of their home inside the volcano.
Gorlon shrugged. “I’m afraid it doesn’t get any better in the Vale itself.” He gestured down the mountain path before them, where green leaves and flowering trees proudly displayed their bounty for the delight of birds and buzzing insects.
Abbadon particularly noticed the giant cloud hovering high above the city, providing shade from most of the sun’s heat. He made a face. “And we’re to be here until told otherwise by the Prince. I hope you do a good job of charming her into behaving.”
Gorlon did not answer. His eyes had strayed to the sliver of desert on the far horizon. Abbadon followed his gaze.
“Knights of the Vale…with prisoners.” Abbadon frowned. “That is highly unusual. But they seem to be riding to the castle as well. Let’s meet up with them. Perhaps their company will make it easier for us to get our audience with the Empress and with Morgaine.”
Red and Morgaine finished up the last of their breakfast. Red tossed a few extra coins on the tavern table. “Come on. Let’s get you back home.”
They had ridden as far as the garden outside the castle walls when suddenly the air in front of them was rent asunder, offering vague glimpses into darkness. A glowing young Zinyini girl stepped through, followed by a hastily groomed Zinyini man, two Azer, another Zinyini man (this one very tall and fierce-looking), and finally the Empress Carawynne.
“Morgaine,” said the Empress, inclining her head. She then waved to indicate the others. “These are the rest of your bodyguards.”
“Your Majesty, I have to object,” Red began, but was promptly cut off.
“It is not your place to object.”
Red pursed her lips, but kept silent. Even if she disagreed with the Empress’s assessment, Carawynne was in one sense right. It was not necessary at the moment to argue that Red felt none of them were trustworthy because they had all in some sense been forced into the job by others, and not drawn to the job out of any genuine concern for Morgaine’s welfare. If for no other reason, Red knew she didn’t need to argue because she knew the Empress could read her mind.
“By your leave, aunt,” Morgaine said, stretching herself as tall as she could, “I would speak with them alone. Surely you can trust me alone with them if you are trusting them with the task of guarding my welfare.”
Carawynne narrowed her eyes a bit, but silently turned and walked back through the hole in the air, which sealed up behind her, leaving them alone in the garden.
“I wish to thank you,” Morgaine said. She turned immediately to Azis, who had made a face at her words. “I know that some of you were not brought into this willingly, but I would thank you just the same. I have been speaking with Red here, about a dire situation I feel compelled to investigate and perhaps resolve. Prince Florin has courted the Zinyini goddess Li’Marolf, and fathered a child on her. About seven days ago, Florin stole the child away. My best attempts at scrying show that he is in a cave in the Hidden Valley, south of the Vale. I wish to find him, and return the child to its mother.”
“All due respect,” said Abbadon, “my orders are to guard you, and I understand that you are not to leave the city of the Vale under any circumstances.” His words echoed the confusion of the rest of the newcomers.
“I am not allowed to leave the city of the Vale physically,” Morgaine replied with a nod. “However, my aunt Brandy has taught me how to project my spirit out of my body, and in such a state my spirit may wander freely. I have tried this already, and in fact I have visited the cave in question.”
“But you haven’t found anything yet,” Seraph said, feeling a cold certainty as to why he was chosen to accompany Morgaine. Caravans weren’t the only thing his Oracle had shown him the path to find.
“Well,” the princess said, “it’s impossible for me to do things like move rock barricades when I don’t have a body. I would need someone to physically be there searching, with my spirit guiding you. I would take a sleeping potion so I could remain with you for longer periods of time.”
The crowd began devolving into argument, some calling her quest madness, others questioning her motives as being more than simply wishing to console a mother whose divinity she did not acknowledge, and still others firmly maintaining that they were to guard her, and that meant guarding her body – especially if it was to sleep for long periods of time – and that meant staying in the city of the Vale. At last, of all people, Azis finally and loudly agreed to undertake the quest, on the grounds that it entailed finding the child of one of his people’s goddesses, and thus was a holy mission of some sort. Abbadon sighed and mumbled something about youngsters feeling the need to sow their proverbial oats. In time Morgaine summoned attendants to show her new bodyguards to their palatial quarters until such time as they could be ready to depart on their quest.
Red fidgeted for a bit, then decided to go to bed early. She would need to be awake extra early to do last-minute inspection of all their traveling gear. A henchman’s work was never done.
Gorlon and Abbadon spent a while standing in the twin fireplaces in their room to get comfortable, then went to bed themselves.
“I still don’t understand,” Azis growled. “If she can’t leave the Vale, then who’s the threat? If it’s other Valites, then how the heck are they going to react to a Zinyini taking down a Valite? And why US in particular?”
“They know she can leave as a…projected spirit,” Seraph said with a shrug. “Princess Brandy as good as told me she fully expected Morgaine to do this, and we’re supposed to keep her safe and help her with it.”
“But why US?!”
Seraph sighed. “I think that is mostly my fault, brother. They know about my dreams and the woman in them. I think they wish to find her and do her harm, though I will certainly do what I can to prevent that.” He regarded Azis for a moment. “If it makes you feel any better, you weren’t made to take that vow to not harm the Valites. You were only asked to bear witness to me. Though my vow does state that I not only can’t harm Vale Royalty, I can’t allow harm to come to them, or else all our raiding brothers will be killed by Germain and that damnable mind rape of hers. Ah!” Seraph jerked his hand upward suddenly. A cut had appeared on the back of his hand, and was bleeding slowly.
Malak, who had been just quietly listening to the men talk, gasped in horror, and immediately rummaged for a kerchief to serve as a bandage. She grabbed Seraph’s hand and pressed the cloth to the wound herself, and it was several seconds before she would give back Seraph’s hand and let him tend the wound himself.
“I guess mind rape was too gentle a term,” Seraph muttered. “Right before this happened, I saw Morgaine in my head, and she had just been cut on the hand too. So whatever happens to them happens to me.”
Malak’s fists were clenched, and her face was taut. “I was sent to guard you, Habbibi. And if a dozen soldiers came through that door right now” – she swept with her hand – “with blades and pistols, I’d still have a hope of saving you. But this…” she let the remaining words fall unsaid. Seraph was equally silent. Eventually Malak spoke again.
“You mentioned dreams and a woman in them. Is this something you can trust to me? Einac did not simply send me to guard you – he wished to know more about the quest you are now on, and I will be telling him at my first chance, perhaps getting insight from him on the matter. It may be that if I can tell him of your dreams, he will also know something of use to you.”
Seraph shook his head. “I will not tell you here. I don’t know how strong their mind-reading power is, but I can only imagine it would be even stronger as close as they are right now.” He managed a smile at his grandmother. “But thank you for the offer, and please remind me to tell you of them later. For now, I’m off to go stand guard for Morgaine. I guess you’ll be coming along?”
To his surprise, Malak shook her head. “I’m of no use to you right now.” She could hear her faith shaking, rattling in her heart. “I hope to see you in the morning.” She shooed Seraph out of the room and walked out the window onto the balcony.
Azis had apparently slipped out here while she and Seraph had been talking. He stood on a small mat practicing a kata. Malak’s heart began to race. This clearly meant Azis revered T’Cidien, the Zinyini god of war, just like his grandfather had. Oh, this would work very nicely, if he was amenable…
“You are very strong,” she murmured as Azis reached the end of his martial meditation.
Azis shook his head. “My strength comes from my god.”
“And his from you,” Malak countered immediately. “T’Cidien is strong because you are strong in his name, and your faith is strong in your heart.” She reached out and stepped forward, trying to push him backward. “Let me show you.”
Azis reached out and pushed her to his arm’s length, which was significantly longer than hers. “This isn’t the temple,” he growled.
Malak simply looked at him, already half entranced. “It doesn’t need to be.”
She barely noticed Azis’s expression change a couple of times, but then he wrestled her to the ground as so many other men of T’Cidien had done so many times before. Malak breathed harder, opening her body and her heart to the sacred love that was hers to give and receive, letting it scatter her doubts like palm leaves before a simoom.
Red awoke shortly before dawn, as she had hoped. She leaned across the wall of pillows and awakened Robert with a tempest of passionate kisses.
“I’m off to double-check the gear before we leave,” she said as his bleary eyes finally focused on her. “Be careful around all those angry gods,” she said, referring to his own personal mission elsewhere.
“I’m always careful,” he murmured, half-slurring. “Come back when you’re done, before you leave. I don’t get up this early.”
Red stroked his hair. “I will.” Leaving him to his rest, she quickly pulled on clothes and boots, bothered one of the palace servants for the checklist of gear that had been gathered, and headed to Morgaine’s chamber. She pulled up short as she saw Seraph seated leaning against the door, his eyes bleary as if he had stayed up all night.
“Seraph, are you all right? Do you need something?”
“I got a light snack a few hours ago,” he said, shaking his head heavily. “I don’t get it…if the Princess is in so much danger, why weren’t there any other guards here?”
Red had already turned on her toes and begun striding toward one of the kitchens. “I’ll get you some coffee and some breakfast.” She returned in short order, carefully placing the warm mug into Seraph’s hands for him. “Now, I need to double-check our gear before we leave, but I’m just inside if you need anything.”
Seraph, abandoning all hope of an answer, sipped the hot liquid and nodded his thanks. Red opened the door, trying not to bump it into him, and stepped through. Traveling equipment of all sorts lay in piles around the anteroom. Red glanced at the checklist and looked over the piles, trying to figure out what of it was truly necessary. Valites often had a skewed definition of “need”, and she knew they wouldn’t be able to get pack animals to where they were headed.
“Good morning!” Morgaine was dressed in a sheer red nightgown. Her hair was still fairly neat; she clearly had not yet slept any. Which also was part of the plan. She was talking now, but Red really didn’t care. All she really cared about right now was whether it was really necessary to take that many cooking utensils, and why the heck were there only 500 meters of rope to be found?!
Gorlon awoke to a knock on the door. Turning to his side, he noticed that Abbadon had not even remotely reacted to the sound. Ah, that was why. The Azer was sleeping with his unscarred ear toward the pillow. Some guard he was going to be. Still, grumbling wouldn’t make the knocking stop. Gorlon slipped reluctantly from under the covers – the room was only almost warm enough – and opened the door.
A young Valite girl was standing on the other side. She held up a square of heavy paper. “An invitation to breakfast for Mr. Gorlon and Sir Abbadon.”
Gorlon quickly took the paper, promised the girl that the two of them would be there, and promptly dismissed her, closing the door before any more cold air could spill in. Only once the door was closed did he even bother to read the invitation:
Princess Chance and her husband Silas request the pleasure of the company of Mr. Gorlon and Sir Abbadon at breakfast, 9 am this morning in the Princess’s chambers.
He checked the large clock standing in the corner. They had about one hour to dress and make themselves presentable. Gorlon took a poker and nudged Abbadon with it. He knew better than to be within arm’s reach if he unwittingly startled his comrade.
Gorlon repeated the information on the paper as Abbadon sat up, then went to stoke the fire underneath the large marble bathtub in the adjacent room. The knight would likely just purify himself in one of the fireplaces, but Gorlon intended to indulge his Valite heritage with a good soak. He then changed into his best clothes, nodded to a similarly well-dressed Abbadon as he strode to the door, and nearly tripped over the young girl as he began to leave.
“I’m sorry,” the girl said as Gorlon regained his balance. “I’m supposed to show you to Princess Chance’s quarters.” Gorlon gave no answer but a wave of his hand, and the three of them headed to breakfast.
The girl opened the door for them, and Princess Chance and Silas nodded greetings as the two Azer stepped through.
“It’s an honor to meet you,” Abbadon said, addressing both of them, and Gorlon nodded his agreement. Silas was an Azer himself, and a great hero of the War of Heaven and Hell. Captured and tortured by demons, he remained unbroken, confessing nothing. Finally the demons cut out his tongue in a rage, and he later escaped back to the Vale and was able to relay information he had learned about the demons. Not even the Empress’s magic had been strong enough to restore his tongue, but he was highly regarded by both Azer and Valites alike for his courage and resolve.
“We are pleased to receive emissaries of my brother Lewis,” Princess Chance said, smiling. “And now, if you’ll excuse me, I intend to get comfortable.” She promptly shucked her leather jerkin and breeches, remaining clad in only a short chemise. It was then that both Gorlon and Abbadon noticed how comfortable they were in the room, and how hot that meant it must be for her. She seemed utterly unperturbed, though, and gestured for them to eat, serving herself from the piles of platters that crowded the table.
About midway through the meal, Silas looked at his wife, and she nodded. “Yes, I suppose it is time to talk business. Gifts first, I think.” The Princess reached beneath her chair and retrieved two boxes, passing one to each of them with a nod.
Abbadon’s box contained a heavy chain necklace threaded through a perforated disc of stone. The stone was carved with letters that he could barely understand, but recognized as being a very ancient form of the Azer’s language. He had seen similar letters on historic markers and other such sites in Kheldmirkhan. He turned the stone in his hand, his lips moving silently as he tried to translate.
“Silas says the stone isn’t from around here,” Princess Chance interrupted his thoughts. “And he believes it can do more than what we know it can do. But we know it has healing properties.”
“This is amazing,” Abbadon replied. He reverently slipped the chain over his head, feeling the stone rest against his chest hair.
Gorlon’s box contained a flask that was warm to the touch, even for him. He chuckled slightly as he opened it, and then his face contorted as he got a whiff of the shimmering silvery liquid inside it. It smelled like an amalgam of cinnamon and sulphur.
“There are probably about forty doses in there,” Princess Chance said, failing to hide her amusement at his facial expressions. “It’s really supposed to be more for things like poison or plague or the like, but it’s very potent stuff.”
“So you already know what Morgaine has planned, don’t you?” Abbadon had recovered himself and remembered his confusion. “These aren’t the sort of gifts you give regular bodyguards. You’re probably the only one in the entire Royal Family who doesn’t get tangled up in politics and bullshit – you speak plainly. Please do so now. What’s going on, and why are we needed?”
The Princess’s smile was as warm as the room. “Yes, we already know what Morgaine has planned. And that’s why you’re needed – to help her in that.” She cracked her knuckles absently. “Morgaine is confined here because of the treaty. And she is held in somewhat fearful regard by many of the people in the Vale, because of her demonic heritage. She chafes against both.”
Gorlon nodded. “Most people that age begin having the desire to go out and see the world.”
“It’s more than that,” Princess Chance said earnestly. “She wants to do good in the world. And she has no chance to do it here in the Vale. Even if we her aunts and uncles could afford her the opportunity to try, the people would not – they hold too tightly to their fear. That is why Brandy taught her how to project herself – so she could possibly do some good outside, where she is not known and feared.” She cracked her knuckles absently. “Perhaps she could have chosen a less ambitious task for her first time, but we wish to support her drive to be honorable despite her parentage.”
“And how does her…projection work?” Gorlon asked. Princess Chance waved dismissingly, and Gorlon was briefly offended until he realized she was actually gesturing to young Valite girls who had appeared to clear dishes.
“I think it’d be better if we show you. Come with me.”
Another knock on the door. Malak guessed that meant breakfast was over. Azis was practicing on the balcony again, but that was just as well. The three servants who had brought a table and trays for them had nearly knocked it all over in their haste to leave after they got a good look at him. She wondered if Seraph had gotten any breakfast, and decided to wrap up a few things in an untouched napkin for him before answering the door.
“Your Highness!” Malak said with a start. Princess Chance stood in the doorway.
“The others are waiting for you in Morgaine’s chambers,” the Princess said.
“Azis is still at his morning prayers.” Malak frightened herself a little with the intensity in her voice. Princess Chance seemed completely unruffled, though, and that did not change when Azis came into the room shortly after and glared at her.
“Please ready yourselves quickly, and I will lead you to Morgaine’s chambers.”
Malak hurriedly scooped up her burnoose with one arm and grabbed the napkin of food with the other. Azis had a few more things to don, but soon enough they were following the Princess’s quick strides through a veritable maze of carved stone hallways.
Seraph nodded greetings at them. Red was lacing up the last of six packs of gear. Gorlon and Abbadon looked at the closed door on the far side of the room as if expecting something. A few moments later, Morgaine appeared through that door without opening it, wearing a sheer red nightgown that Malak wasn’t sure she would have worn when she was alive.
“Ah, just in time,” Chance murmured. Malak turned to ask what she meant, but the Princess had already vanished.
“You…don’t…look…like a ghost,” Gorlon said, looking at Morgaine but pointing at Malak.
“It’s ‘cause I’m not,” Morgaine said. “It’d be easier if I was, honestly. I could just go through all the big rocks instead of needing someone to move them. But I can only move through so much solid matter, and I can only move about fifteen or twenty kilograms of anything.”
“So you can touch things?” Seraph lobbed his sheathed dagger at her. Morgaine squeaked as it passed through her, thumped against the door and landed on the ground.
“I have to be thinking about it!” She pouted, bent over, picked up the dagger and handed it back to Seraph.
“That reminds me,” Red said. “We can’t have you running around like that. You need to change.”
Morgaine’s features swirled briefly, and suddenly a duplicate of Azis stood where she had. “I told you,” the double growled, “it’s harder for me to stay asleep when I’m having to concentrate on holding another form!”
“And I told you to wear the caving gear to bed so you wouldn’t need to, but you didn’t listen. Now come on.” Red beckoned expectantly. The Azis-double snarled, then flickered again and became Morgaine in traveling clothes and a strange flat white helmet on her head.
“That’s better.” Red gestured to everyone, and then to the packs. “Let’s go.”
“Wait, where exactly are we going?” Abbadon asked.
“Right now?!” Azis was incredulous. “A god-damned secret mission and we’re leaving in the middle of the day?!”
Morgaine sighed. “It’s not a secret mission. I just don’t necessarily have permission to do it. As for where we’re going, we’ll be heading south out of the Vale to the Hidden Valley, and through there to the Stones of Swords. Just past that is a hill, and at the top of the hill is the cave where Florin went.”
“He took a baby all the way there?” Azis shook his head in disbelief.
“And what are these second packs?” Gorlon pointed.
“Those are parachutes,” Red said.
“Para-whats?” Malak arched an eyebrow.
“It’s how we can get into the cave quickly without getting hurt,” Morgaine said.
“You’ll see when we get there,” Red answered. “Now, come on. Let’s move.”
Few of them were happy as they walked through the City of the Vale. Abbadon was miserable under the shade and breeze. Malak was horrified at the number of fountains that so casually spilled precious water into the streets. Azis was astounded and disgusted at the opulence of the houses. Seraph had to endure his half-brother’s grousing, though he tried to lighten the mood with whispered plans of thievery on their return. And Morgaine couldn’t possibly have missed all the faces of Valites who dragged children away from their playtime as the party passed by, lest they get too close to the demon-girl.
She had other worries as well. “Seraph,” she said as they neared the southern gate, “I just wanted to say I’m sorry.”
“What do you mean?”
“The way Germain…linked us like that, with the hand, you know? She said she did it to make sure I’d be careful.”
“Well,” Seraph said, “she’s out to get me one way or another. Don’t worry. It’s not your fault. I’m not mad at you.”
“I’m still sorry.”
The trip through the narrow pass into the Hidden Valley went without incident, though all Zinyini eyes were on alert for the inevitable ambush. Beyond the valley, narrow spires of sharp stone jutted out of the ground like disorganized teeth.
“We’re almost there now!” Morgaine said, and began to run ahead. She was promptly overtaken by Azis.
“I don’t care what the hell you are or what you think you can do or they can’t do to you. You are not going first. Get back there with Seraph.”
Morgaine began to argue, but was completely outnumbered, and she settled sullenly into the middle of the group. “It’s just at the top of that hill.”
Cresting the hill, they were met with a yawning hole nearly 50 meters across. A group of Valite men stood nearby, twisting and knotting ropes. A stream ran up to the hole on the far side and just dropped straight in, making a low rumbling sound even at this distance.
“Archie!” Morgaine squealed, running to an old man who appeared to be leading the rope efforts.
“So much for secrecy.” Azis shook his head in disgust.
“It’s just Archie,” Morgaine insisted. “How are things going?” she addressed the old man.
“Well, we hope to have the ladders ready in about five days or so,” Archie said, nodding absently.
“The Empress is planning to take official action against Prince Florin,” Morgaine explained, “but a small group like us moves faster.”
Abbadon hawked and spat into the hole, peering in, but could not see the bottom. “How deep is this?”
“About 500 meters,” Red answered for Archie. “That’s why we have the parachutes. You put it on” – she demonstrated – “jump down the hole, count to five, then pull this cord here.” She indicated the ripcord. “The cloth spreads out and slows your fall.”
“No way in hell!” Azis sputtered. He gestured at the Valite men. “There’s gotta be enough rope to lower us down.”
“There is,” Archie said, still nodding, “but that’s dangerous, or unpleasant at the very least. Wind off the water…you’re likely to spin.”
Azis still seemed adamant. Malak turned to Red.
“Why don’t you demonstrate these para-whatsits?”
Red shrugged. “Okay.” She stepped up to the very edge of the chasm, and jumped. Everyone saw just a brief explosion of bright yellow before she disappeared completely into the blackness. About a minute later, a tiny light flared, and an even tinier figure waved at them.
“I guess I’m next,” Morgaine said. She stepped into the hole and vanished. More small lights were appearing now, forming a circle.
Malak looked at Seraph and smiled. “What’s the worst that can happen to me? I’m already dead.” Her high ringing laugh could barely be heard over the rush of the water as she jumped.
Morgaine emerged from the hole not long after. “Red and Malak are both safe at the bottom.”
“Good for them,” Azis said. “I’m still waiting on a rope.” He was sitting cross-legged on the ground with a reed flute in his hands and a heart-headed snake in front of him. He extended one arm to the ground, and the asp slithered and vanished up his sleeve.
Morgaine sighed, but did not argue. Eventually enough rope was knotted together to allow the others to be lowered down one by one. As Archie had predicted, they were spun rapidly as they descended, though blessedly this cave seemed almost spherical and none of them were blown around far enough to collide with a wall. As Azis landed on the pile of mossy pebbles beside the waterfall, he waved off offers of help from the women to untie him, worked his own way loose, then promptly crawled to the water’s edge and began vomiting.
The two dwarves made it down with serious discomfort but no incapacitation. Seraph had the worst of it. He ended up seriously tangled in the rope and made most of the journey upside-down, which meant he struck his head against the rocks when he landed. As Malak and Abbadon ran to cut him loose, their attention was diverted by a yelp from Azis.
A giant pink lizard with red neck frills had started gumming on Azis’s legs. Gorlon and Red immediately ran toward it, ready to strike. Malak wished they hadn’t. There was no way to get into a good position and still do something. Still, she could at least spare the Azer.
A high-pitched rushing sound filled the cave, and the echoing cry of birds. A tremendous blast of wind streamed from Malak toward the lizard. Red was blown toward it, but miraculously had the reflexes to jump and land on its back.
The lizard shook its head, let go of Azis, and began retreating into the water. Red jumped off, keeping her footing despite the mossy rocks, then pointed. “Look out!”
Three more lizards had crawled up from the other direction, and were uncomfortably close to Morgaine, who was still fretting over Seraph. Red yelled and threw her lantern toward the one in the middle, hoping the sudden flash would startle them away. They didn’t even blink. Eventually the party would realize this was because they had no eyes.
Azis had regained his feet, and he charged, leaping to punch one of the lizards in the face. His fist connected, but appeared to bounce off without ill effect to either of them.
Abbadon finished using his new healing stone on Seraph, and once he ascertained that there wasn’t any more blood oozing out the back of the Zinyini’s head, Abbadon unslung his axe and ran at one. He cleaved it in half. Malak noticed that the dozens of smaller lizards who had come up out of the water now began swarming toward it. They eat their dead, she thought. Seeing that Seraph was also on his feet and making ready to fight, she decided she would be more useful watching for any more giant lizards attempting to join the fun. She cringed as Red threw a dagger into the neck frill of the one facing Seraph – that had been just a little too close! – but to hear Red talk, the bigger danger was that the thing had almost retreated and taken the dagger with it except Seraph had come up in time to dispatch it. Azis landed a more telling shot on the one nearest him, and after a while the lizards left them in some semblance of peace.
“So…” Gorlon said. “We probably shouldn’t stay here.”
“Where do we go from here?” Azis asked Morgaine.
“The water goes down another drop,” Morgaine said. “When I was exploring in here last, I went that way.” She pointed to a narrow tunnel. “It leads into a room that looks like it’s full of stars. When I went in there, I really thought I was outside.”
“I vote we camp in the tunnel, if we all fit,” Abbadon said. “It’s more easily defended than a big room.”
“We’re going to stop here?” Morgaine whined.
“We’ve been walking for ten hours, and awake for fifteen,” Gorlon said.
“Thirty-eight,” Seraph said, raising his hand.
“I don’t sleep,” Malak gently pointed out.
“Oh, that’s useful,” Gorlon said. “But in any case, yes. We are camping here and moving on once we’ve gotten some rest. Douse this fire and let’s go.”
Red tilted her head at Gorlon. “You could just carry the fire with you.”
“Well, unless you need Abbadon to do it because you can’t touch it directly yourself.” Malak didn’t mean to offend with her words – simply acknowledge his half-bloodedness – but she got a glare from Gorlon as he bent to scoop up coals.
The tunnel was very narrow. They would need to camp head-to-toe along its length. But this they did. Gorlon set the fire down, Red began feeding it some more, and Abbadon quickly claimed a sleeping spot directly next to it. He would have stood entirely in it if Red hadn’t so quickly set up a tripod and cauldron to make dinner.
“We should set watches,” Abbadon said.
“Not it!” Seraph had already lain out blankets and folded his caftan under his head.
“At least eat something if you can’t wait for dinner,” Malak said, fishing out the napkin of leftover breakfast and handing it to him. He obligingly polished off the contents before dropping off to sleep.
“I’ll take first watch,” Azis said. “And so will these two.” He held out his arms, and a pair of asps peered out from under his sleeves. He bent to the ground, mumbling something, and the two snakes slithered off into the starry cave beyond. He stood, and for a brief moment it appeared his eyes had become those of a serpent.
“I will too,” said Abbadon. “It’ll be hours before I’m warm enough to sleep.”
“Fair enough,” said Gorlon, unrolling his bedding. “Wake me when you need to.”
Red turned to Morgaine. “You really shouldn’t sleep much longer than this at a stretch anyway. Go wake up, take care of your bodily needs, do whatever, and come back in a few hours. Okay?”
Morgaine pouted, but faded from sight.
Red then addressed Malak. “I planned for you, obviously, but I didn’t have the chance to ask: do you need to eat?”
“Yes,” Malak said. “And thanks for asking.” Red responded by thrusting a bowl of something at her and immediately working to dish up others.
Azis sat cross-legged, Abbadon behind him. The Azer would watch for nearby danger. He was going to see what his snakes saw.
His senses were limited to theirs now, and he kept getting the uncomfortable feeling of there occasionally being something sticky on his back. Then the snakes stopped trying to climb up the cave walls, staying closer to the floor, and the stickiness went away, though occasionally there was a gigantic cockroach with which to contend. Azis nudged them to travel to the far end, and his eyes through theirs beheld a shorter tunnel leading to a large mountain that glowed. One of the asps passed another snake, but neither of them seemed concerned at the other’s presence.
Then the snakes’ tongues began flicking rapidly. They were excited. Something was coming! Azis barely heard voices from over his shoulder…
“Seraph,” the girl’s voice floated from behind her golden mask, “I have been unable to see as I have before. What is going on?”
“I’ve been taken by the Vale Royal Family. They made me promise not to harm them, and to go on the journey I’m on right now. I think they are after you. But I am doing what I can to protect you from them. As good as you and your visions have been to me for the last five years, I would rather be without them than let you fall into their hands.”
Seraph could not see the oracle smile, but her delicate body shifted under her diaphanous robes, and she reached out a hand to him. “My dear Seraph.” Her hand was scarcely an inch from his face when suddenly it jerked back, pointing over his shoulder. He could not tell if the voice was coming from inside his dream or outside…
Malak stood at the end of the tunnel, facing the waterfall. She had borrowed Azis’s cloak, not to keep herself warm but to block some of the glowing from her body lest the others find it harder to sleep. It puddled on the ground behind her.
The rumbling of the water as it hit the rocks in front of her, and apparently as it fell yet further and crashed again, filled her ears. Still, she craned her neck when a new, more rustling sound came to them over the din.
She had been able to see glimpses of the sky from where she stood, but suddenly that view was obliterated. A huge black cloud was descending and heading toward where her comrades lay. Her shining self gave just enough light for her to recognize the danger as she turned, lunging for her grandson and crying out…
... “LOOK OUT! BATS!”
Seraph awoke in just enough time to feel Malak land on top of him, rolling to press him against the wall. He would never have guessed Spirit Warriors needed to breathe, but her breath was warm in his ear.
“Isn’t there a taboo about this, grandmother?”
“Ssh!” Malak flung one arm around Seraph to keep him still and held Azis’s cloak closed around her throat with her other hand. She hadn’t had time to check and make sure everyone else was covered under either a cloak or a blanket, but she also didn’t have time to worry.
The tunnel FILLED with bats. Thousands upon thousands of them poured through, and time seemed to slow to a crawl as all anybody could do was lie still and wait for them to pass. And stop crawling in their hair.
“Is everyone all right?” Red asked after it seemed all of them had finally filtered through. She thought she heard that the bats’ staccato chirping had turned to screams. That didn’t bode well at all.
Abbadon grunted, and Gorlon made a face as he worked a bat free from his blanket. “Aside from that being absolutely disgusting? Fine.”
“Maybe a bruise or two,” Malak said, rolling over, “but better me than him.” She tilted her head to Seraph, who had already started to doze again.
Azis frowned, concentrating. Yes, both of his asps were fine. In fact, they were both tremendously happy with full bellies since the bats had flown through the star cave. But wait…something else was coming back through the other way…
”...birds?” Azis said, incredulous. The others looked at him, then heard the flapping and chirps and dove for cover again.
Blessedly, once the birds had left the cave, there were no further incidents during the evening. Morgaine reappeared to find them all bruised and groaning – despite Malak’s best efforts, Seraph had not emerged unscathed. Morgaine suggested that all of them sleep, with no further regards to promises of standing guard, and she and Malak kept vigil until the others were ready to move again. Red passed out fruit and biscuits as people repacked their bedding and got dressed.
Because the tunnel was so narrow, Azis was the first one to set foot in the star cave. The ceiling really was dotted with tiny glowing bluish lights. By lantern- and Malak-light, everyone could also make out hundreds of thin strands danging from the ceiling to fewer than two meters from the floor. Liquid gleamed along them like strung silver beads.
“Hmph,” Azis said, taking a step forward. His head brushed against one of the strands, and Seraph cried out as he noticed the top of Azis’s turban start to come off, remaining stuck to the strand.
Azis stepped back, took off the turban, unwound it enough to get a good grip on one end of the cloth, and gave a sudden merciless yank. With a SPLUTCH sound, the sticky strand went limp and a translucent white sac landed on the ground, obviously attached to the strand. One end glowed a bright bluish-white, and the sac seemed to be filled with pulsing red blobs. Seraph muttered something likening it to camel guts.
“The strands are sticky?” Malak mused. She gently nudged her way to just behind Azis’s massive shoulder, ducked around him as best she could, and whispered a prayer. Another burst of sea-wind sprang from her hands, shoving all the strands toward the far side of the cave. Three seconds later, Malak squawked in disappointment as she watched them all float gently back down into place.
“So they’ll stick to us, but not to each other? Unfair!” she whined.
Azis whirled on Morgaine. “And you are ABSOLUTELY SURE that Prince Florin would have brought a child in here?!”
Morgaine said nothing, but walked unfazed by the strands to about the middle of the cave. She pointed to what appeared to be a puddle on the ground, with a clear imprint of a boot in the middle.
“Well,” Abbadon said, “not to boast, but I don’t think they’ll be bothering me any.” He held his hand level above his head to indicate his relative height to theirs. He pushed to the front of the group, slung his axe low across his back and strode stooped across the cave, glancing upward cautiously once in a while. He had to leap forward once, as a large glob of liquid fell from the ceiling to where he had just stood. It landed with much the same sound as the strand-sac had, and in fact a strand was attached to it, leading all the way back up to a very large sac near the middle of the ceiling.
“So they can catch ground-traveling critters,” Red mused. “So much for just crawling.”
A few seconds later, Abbadon was out of sight around a bend in the cave. Morgaine beckoned to the rest of them, and Gorlon shrugged and made his way through. He inadvertently revealed the location of a second spitting sac, but otherwise made it without incident.
“You next, Azis,” Malak said. “I can buy you some time.”
“I don’t need your help,” Azis said with a sneer. “I don’t need to be babied every step of the way here.”
“You’re getting it anyway,” Malak replied calmly, and the sea-wind rose at Azis’s back. He spat an obscenity at her and ran across, his long legs meaning he had no trouble dodging another falling glob of “spit”.
Malak rolled her eyes and smiled at Seraph. “Why yes, in fact, that was a very important part of my calling in life. Your turn, habbibi.”
“Are you -” Seraph started to protest, but was cut short by a look. “Fine.” He dutifully waited until Malak had called another blast of wind, which meant he had to crouch quite a bit at the end as the strands drifted back down, but otherwise he was fine.
Malak gestured to Red, who shook her head. “No, no, the henchman always goes last. It’s your turn, sweetie.”
Malak sighed, just now beginning to feel the toll her prayers had taken on her. Grateful Azis had taken back his cloak so it wouldn’t drag her down, she blew the strands away one last time and ran as fast as she could. She did not wish to look up lest she trip over something heretofore unseen, so she was completely taken by surprise when the glob of shimmery sticky fluid dropped on her head.
The men stood staring at the mountain before them. It seemed to rise nearly a hundred meters of the ground, and it was carpeted with cockroaches. Azis’s asps came slithering directly up to him as soon as he arrived, curling their way up his legs and up to his shoulders.
“They don’t like this much,” Azis said.
Abbadon was waving his hand in front of his face. “Is that mountain made of shit?”
“Mflgh!” a noise came from behind them.
“Oh,” Gorlon said, feeling strangely detached due to the fumes. “The things got Malak.”
Azis and Seraph looked at each other uncertainly. Abbadon sighed, shaking his head at the Zinyini, and charged, leaping at the strand which had begun lifting Malak off the ground.
Malak fell to the ground and rolled toward where she had wanted to go in the first place. Abbadon, on the other hand, remained dangling. His axe had severed the one strand, at the cost of adhering to several others. And he wasn’t about to leave the weapon behind.
This spurred Seraph to action. If the things had eaten Malak, she would have come back the next day. Not so with Abbadon. Seraph loosed his scimitar and chopped…and made the very same mistake as the Azer. To make matters worse, he had not fully cut down the dwarf.
Azis swore again and ducked, wading in after his brother.
Malak got clear of the strands and looked fretfully toward the men as they struggled. Then she realized the cursing she heard was coming from behind her. She turned, to find that Gorlon’s arm had been solidly entwined in a black-and-white snake that was slowly squeezing. She had no idea what to do. A blast of wind wasn’t going to free Gorlon, and it wouldn’t help the other boys cut each other down. She wished she had a knife.
Suddenly the snake went slack around Gorlon’s arm, and Malak was suddenly aware of Morgaine’s form clinging to the side of the cave. She had nearly gutted the snake with a dagger.
Eventually the boys returned, victorious at the cost of Azis’s cloak, and Red shouted from the other side that she was on her way. She seemed to have no troubles whatsoever. It was almost as if she was beneath their notice.
Malak sank to the ground, panting, and began to pray.
They looked at the enormous hill in front of them. It stretched up further than Malak’s light could reach. Morgaine asked Red to shine her lantern up to the top. The lantern’s light played off the wings of millions of bats, and just barely glinted off a rope suspended from a hole in the ceiling of the cave.
“Is this…bat shit?” Abbadon repeated his question regarding the hill.
“This whole thing’s batshit,” someone muttered behind him.
“Prince Florin went up there,” Morgaine said very matter-of-factly, pointing to the top.
“Well, then,” Malak said, “take one of the other lanterns and skitter on up there so we have something to aim at as we run.”
“I can’t,” Morgaine said, almost whining. “There’s too much life on it.” She gestured to the carpet of roaches. “I pass through life – I can’t walk on top of it.”
“But you know Florin went up that way?” Azis’s eyes narrowed, and he shook his head slightly.
“Well, yeah.” Morgaine gestured helplessly up toward the rope.
“Well, I don’t. I’m going to take a look on the other side of this shitheap.” Circumnavigation still meant climbing up about fifty meters where the dung met the right-hand wall, but Azis set off anyway. About halfway up, the rest of the party heard him cry out, and then heard a solid THUMP that could only mean he had just punched something. A few moments later there was a second THUMP, and a curled-up centipede the size of a young goat rolled down to the bottom of the dunghill. A few cockroaches crawled up to it and then skittered away.
Abbadon began moving toward Azis, climbing the hill, and Gorlon stared after him. Only at the last moment was Seraph aware of a large cockroach crawling along the wall toward Gorlon’s head. Seraph drew his scimitar, lunged, and sliced the insect in half – much to Gorlon’s fright, as the blade passed uncomfortably close to his ear.
“At least THAT thing didn’t bleed on me,” he said, watching the insects swarm over the ichorous corpse. Morgaine had undoubtedly done him a favor by gutting the snake which had ensnared him, but it had bloodied half his body in the process.
Startled but definitely alert now, Malak asked Seraph for one of his daggers, and began watching for any other danger. Only moments later, a large lump of dung near the bottom of the hill began moving on its own. The cave was filled with a blast of salty but much sweeter-smelling air, and Malak found there was a large crab hunkered down underneath the dung. It was easily the size of a yearling horse, and as the wind faded it slowly rose to its feet again, walking toward her.
“Wait!” Seraph said as Malak readied to strike. “Its claws aren’t out.” She stayed her hand then, and watched dismayed as the crab sidled up to her, repeatedly bumping into her leg.
“What?! What do you want?! You are not my species!” Malak tried in vain to walk away from the crab, flailing at it with her hands. Seraph, still not wanting to attack what didn’t truly seem to be a threat, leaped onto the crab’s back in hopes of scaring it away. It squeaked and crouched down, but after a few moments returned to its feet, Seraph still atop it. Seraph laughed, hanging on with one hand and waving his sword with the other.
That’s one way to get him up the hill, Malak thought, and began making the climb herself, the crab close behind. About ten meters up, her leg sank up to her knee in the muck. Annoyed, she turned and reached out a hand for Seraph to pull her out – then shrieked as she felt something slither up and around her leg, poking out of the dung at about her waist. Two more tendrils shot up from under the dunghill, and all three of them opened up tiny malevolent eyes perched at the very ends. Malak began hacking at the tendril with her dagger, but might as well have been chopping down a palm tree. She then screamed as she felt a hundred little stings like teeth burying into her flesh, and a cold fire spreading throughout her body.
“Leave me!” she croaked to Seraph, and succumbed.
Azis crested the side of the dunghill and looked around. Up was the rope, down was more dark cave punctuated with cracks, and along the wall up here were thousands of tiny white half-moons jutting out from the wall. If he squinted, he could make out more of them on the ceiling, though eventually they were obscured by bats.
“Looks like we’ve got handholds here?” he called out to no one in particular.
Red squealed delightedly, and a few seconds later a grappling hook whizzed by Azis’s head to land in one with a delicate crunching sound. The rope went taut, and shortly after that Red had shimmied up to his level.
“They look like birds’ nests,” she said, looking up. “But they’ll hold me just fine, it seems. And we can probably get all the way over to the rope on them if we need to.”
“Let’s see if we do,” Azis said, crouching down. He whispered, and the two snakes emerged from his sleeves. He sent one of them swiftly down the hill to the far side, and after a little convincing was able to send the second one up the hill toward the rope. He then unfocused his eyes to see through theirs.
The upward-bound snake was very uncomfortable slithering over and around so many millions of cockroaches, but made it to the top…and found the surface…bouncy. The downward bound snake noticed several large cracks in the far wall, one possibly large enough for people to pass. As Azis directed it toward that fissure, though, it saw a flash of grey teeth, and then nothing more.
Azis recovered from his sudden disorientation in just enough time to see thin white tentacles lash out at him. He ducked and dodged, slowly working his way past it and up the hill, but shortly before he was completely clear, one of the tendrils nicked him on the wrist. His arm began to feel very warm, and then he realized that he could no longer move it. Nor his leg. Nor his other limbs. Azis fell backward, his head pointing downhill and his body completely rigid.
Gorlon, who had dawdled hoping someone would find the easiest path, watched Azis fall and sighed. He reached into his pack for the silver flask Princess Chance had given him and began scrambling up the hill toward the Zinyini. He hoped the stuff inside was as good as she said it was.
Nothing leaped out to attack Gorlon, but his foot caught on something when he was about five meters away from where Azis lay. He was able to keep hold of the flask, but it meant he landed very badly, planting his face into a layer of bugs and feeling more of them swarm over him, beginning to bite and sting.
Then he caught a brief whiff of something that smelled like burning whisky, and felt somebody yank him to his feet.
“No time to chat!” Gorlon’s eyes were squeezed shut against the muck that covered them, but he recognized Abbadon’s voice. “I’m on my way up!” Gorlon wiped one eye clean enough to feel comfortable opening it, and saw that the Azer was charging up the dunghill, glowing in a blue fire that was sustained by the guano’s fumes. Shaking his head, Gorlon resumed his trek toward Azis with the flask.
Seraph saw that the tendril creature was beginning to drag Malak below the surface, and decided to ignore her last request. He began hacking at the tendrils with his scimitar, also finding them as tough and resilient as a palm trunk. His second swipe seemed to do more good, but then he saw the spreading glow and realized the soft part he’d hit had been his grandmother’s leg.
He began trying to stab for the thing’s eye, hoping to convince it to let her go, and he gave a joyful whoop to see that the crab had carefully set its claws into Malak’s caftan and was also trying to pull her free. Then with a sickening noise, Malak’s leg came away from her body, and her light went out. Moments later, there was another burst of salt air as the spirit warrior vanished.
The crab, apparently still heedless of the Zinyini atop it, turned and began to climb back down the hill. Seraph crouched and leaped off its back, landing just out of reach of the tentacles, and started heading toward the top where he could barely see Abbadon’s glowing form.
Wait! came Morgaine’s voice in his head. Think at me.
Seraph was briefly puzzled, but focused a glance downward. About five seconds later, he felt a thump across his shoulders as something landed on them.
“Angle up that way,” Morgaine said, passing her finger in front of his eyes and then off to the left.
“I thought you passed through life,” Seraph said.
“Cloth’s dead,” Morgaine said, thumping his cloak. Seraph sighed, but heeded her directions, and soon found himself at the top of the hill next to Abbadon, who was crouched down brushing away filth and bugs.
“It’s a … it’s a bleedin’ flying carpet!” the Azer said, shaking his head.
“Gorlon!” Red’s voice came to him from overhead just as he was about to pour some of the flask down Azis’s throat.
“What?!” Gorlon immediately started looking around in case Red had spotted another immediate danger.
“Grab on!” Shortly after, a rope and grappling hook fell to dangle just above the dunghill.
“Just a second!” Gorlon had no intention of wrangling the rope or hook around a rigid Azis. Very thankful that the Zinyini had frozen with his mouth slightly open, Gorlon tipped the flask and poured a small amount down Azis’s throat.
Azis’s limbs soon began to loosen, and he got to his feet.
“What is that stuff?!” he said, shuddering.
Gorlon shrugged. “Effective.”
Azis rolled his eyes and looked up the length of the rope. “So you’re gonna, what, haul us up the hill there, Red?” he called.
“Girl’s gone batshit from all the bat shit.” Still, Azis willingly grabbed the rope and shoved a foot into a curve of the grappling hook. Gorlon followed suit, and then both of them felt themselves being hauled up the ground as Red took the rope in one hand and began curling it around her elbow to shorten it.
“That can’t be possible,” Gorlon murmured to himself, but kept his hold.
“Okay, hang on!” Red called down. “I’m going to find another handhold.” She gamely moved three of her limbs to new nests, but when it came time to move the hand holding the rope and the two men, she began struggling too much for their comfort.
“Stop!” Gorlon said. “If you can hold still, Azis and I can probably start swinging the rope and get close enough to the top that way.”
Red obligingly paused, and the two men began kicking their legs back and forth to move the rope in a wide arc. Gorlon, facing toward the hill, jumped off first and scrambled out of the way. A few swings later, Azis landed, nearly crashing into Abbadon, who was still staring at the carpet.
Gorlon looked around. “Where’s Malak?”
“She…” Seraph paused. Died would not be the correct word, since she was technically already dead. ”...went poof. She’ll be back tomorrow.”
“Wait,” Azis said to Red, who had scrambled all the way over and was winding up to throw the grappling hook up the hole. “Let me see what’s up there first.” He whispered to his surviving snake, lifted it up to the already-hanging rope, and set it loose. He closed his eyes and began to slow his breathing.
“Nothing living,” he said tentatively. “Looks like the remains of a camp. Possibly a river up there, too.”
“Anything’s better than down here,” Gorlon said. He reached for the hanging rope, and Red stopped him.
“The bugs have been all over that one. I don’t trust it to hold weight anymore.” She resumed her windup.
“Well, wait again,” Abbadon said, pointing at the carpet. “If we can get this thing going, we may not need the rope.” And indeed, the carpet seemed small enough that it would pass through the hole.
“Are we sure we can? I mean, it’s full of holes,” Seraph said.
“It’s floating right now. When I got to the top, I ended up bouncing on it by mistake.” Abbadon grabbed a short edge of the carpet and pulled. Under where it had been, the rest could see a divot in the dunghill about ten centimeters deep. Abbadon gave the rug a shake away from everyone else and set it back down away from the divot. It floated about ten centimeters off the ground.
Azis bravely sat down on the carpet. “Up!” he said firmly. The carpet did not respond. He tried again with other commands and names and words, but all in vain.
“Still, no saying we can’t get it to work eventually,” he said, climbing off. He began to roll it up. The carpet fell slack to the ground as soon as it was no longer fully unfurled.
“Give it here,” said Red once it was all rolled up. She hoisted it under one arm, and with her other limbs shimmied up the rope she had just launched. In minutes, everyone else had either climbed up or been hauled up the hole, and stood brushing bugs off of themselves. Gorlon found to his dismay that every spot of his clothing which had been splashed with snake blood had now been eaten away.
Just as Azis’s snake had seen, there were the remains of a camp some three meters away from the hole. They saw a ring of stones that had obviously held fire, a wooden chair that looked like it could collapse for traveling, and a strange chest half-filled with water so cold that pieces of ice were floating in it. The chest also held a few apples, a wax-covered round of cheese, and two bottles with tiny bits of milky residue remaining in the bottom. From some twenty meters beyond, the travelers also heard the chuckling of a swift-flowing river. A wooden piling had been driven into a crack in the rock by the water, and what looked like a pair of oars lay near it.
“There’s still ice in there,” Red mused, pointing at the chest. “They can’t have left that long ago.”
“I don’t suppose we could re-use that fire ring?” Abbadon said, almost plaintive. “Whisky burns hot enough for cockroaches, but not for me. And we both need to clean up a bit.”
“Just a moment,” Gorlon said, hitching up the tattered remains of his tunic and bending down to inspect the ashes. After a couple minutes’ pause, he spoke. “Whoever built this knew what they were doing. It would have been a very hot fire with very little smoke.” He was silent for a while longer, then nodded. “Probably no more than two days old.”
Red and Morgaine fidgeted. Finally Red looked to the Valite and said, “They’ll move faster if they’re not miserable.” She began unpacking kindling, and shooed off the Zinyini to begin bathing themselves in the river.
Seraph dipped his hand in the water and sniffed. “This is drinkable water.” He began shucking clothes. “It feels so wrong to wash in drinkable water.” Such an act would have been unthinkable out in the desert, even if they had only been a tenth as filthy.
“Well, there’s definitely no shortage of it,” Azis said, nodding. He stuck his bare foot in the river and immediately yanked it back out. “Fuck, that’s cold!” Still, a few seconds later he steeled himself to wade out calf-deep into the middle of the river, rubbing folds of his robe against themselves to loose the muck from them.
Azis had taken the carpet, to clean it as well, and the men soon noticed it exhibited a curious behavior. When the carpet was unfurled and floating, it could be pulled from one place to another, but it could not be pushed, and it held perfectly still even when floating above the moving water. But all Azis had to do was fold enough of the carpet back upon itself and it would fall down.
Their dry clothes clung to their wet skin, but they didn’t mind. Seraph and Azis rejoined the group, glad to be clean and glad for the fire which the Azer had themselves “bathed” in. After a few minutes, Azis walked a short distance away from the others, unrolled the flying carpet, lay his prayer mat on top of it, and began his devotionals.
“Einac,” the voice came deep and strong from just outside the god’s chambers. Einac untangled his arms from around Malak and rolled to his back, not caring if he was covered or not.
“T’Cidien. What brings you over here?” Einac nodded respectfully and pushed himself to a sitting position.
“Malak, after a fashion.” The war-god’s eyes settled on her as he entered. They were not cruel eyes, but definitely cold from the aeons of battle he had witnessed. Malak was only able to meet his gaze for a moment or two. “You’ve asked her to guard your Seraph, yes?”
“Yes,” Einac said evenly. “What is the matter?”
T’Cidien twisted his mouth into what for him was a smile. “It is not a ‘matter’ per se. Seraph’s half-brother Azis…he is one of my devoted. And this evening, as part of his prayers, he requested that Malak be returned to them more quickly.”
Einac quirked an eyebrow. “But that can’t be done. Perhaps Father Ni’krowd could have defied time like that, a thousand years ago, but not any of us. Especially not anymore.”
“This is true.” T’Cidien nodded. “However, his prayers ended only minutes ago, and I also find that sundown is only minutes away. It was the least I could do for my devoted to ensure that Malak would not be…detained from her return.”
Malak blushed, and hurriedly rolled out of the bed to scoop up new clothes and straighten her hair. Einac chuckled, but not at her. “And since Malak said they’re all underground, he probably doesn’t know where the sun is, and he might actually think you were able to do that for him. Isn’t it great when things work out like that?”
“I do not approve of false hope,” T’Cidien said grimly. “It makes one careless.” The war-god beckoned for Malak to come closer, and whispered something in her ear. Then the earth beneath her feet rumbled with the roar of a million marching soldiers, and she was swept away once again.
Azis had convinced everyone to help him experiment with the flying carpet, and right then all of them stood crowded atop it to test its strength. It showed no sign of bowing under their weight, but then Red squeaked as one of the bug-chewed holes near her feet started to tear further.
“That’s enough of that!” she said, hopping off. “Dinner’s probably ready now anyway.” Soon Azis alone remained on it, and he kept trying to think of new commands or words of power that might activate it. Then he noticed a small glowing light swirling between him and the fire. It grew larger, and began to coalesce into a human shape. Everyone saw the spirit warrior return, but Azis was the first to speak.
“Welcome back,” he said simply. Malak smiled dazedly at him for a moment, T’Cidien’s whisper still ringing in her ear. She then nodded in return and began turning slowly, looking for Seraph.
“Ah, just in time,” said Red, proffering a bowl. Malak politely refused.
“It’ll be hours before I’m hungry again.” Malak walked over to her grandson. “How are you feeling?”
Seraph found it hard to speak for a moment, until Red walked up offering him dinner. “Maybe later, thanks.” He looked to Malak again. “Please, Reverend Mother, walk with me for a moment.”
Malak pursed her lips at the honorific, but nodded and followed him. Seraph paused about two meters from the river and turned to face her squarely.
“I am sorry that I was unable to save you, and I apologize for causing you to…uh…poof.” Seraph punctuated the word apologize by kneeling in front of Malak, and touched his head to the ground as he had so often done in ritual prayer.
It had not been there long before two glowing fingers slipped under his chin and began to tug him upright. Malak was also kneeling now, and looking at him lovingly. Seraph tried to look away, but her hand held his chin fast.
“Habbibi…” Malak said, then shook her head. “No. Seraph.” She smiled. “For you truly are a man and not a child. I’m not upset with you for trying to save me. I’m sure it is what your father and grandfather raised you to do, and you honor them well in that. And I’m not upset that you…couldn’t, because that thing, and nearly everything else we’ve had to face so far, is like nothing we would have ever seen in the desert. But I am upset” – she tugged Seraph forward slightly for emphasis – “that you put yourself into needless danger to do it, when the very reason that our god asked me to be here is to help keep you safe from danger.”
Malak stroked Seraph’s cheek with her thumb, looking at him intently, then sighed. “Sometimes I forget. I forget how long I’ve been dead…how long ago it was that the demons invaded and the Empress took away the Spirit Warriors. Perhaps you were not even born then. But still, I know that you at least know about Spirit Warriors, and what we are and what we do. And I know Azis does too.” She glanced toward the camp and smiled, then looked back to Seraph. “And you need to not forget. I told you to leave me because I was certain once that…thing had me, it would have no need to take you, and you could leave unharmed. I will sacrifice myself like that when I need to, because I can. It’s part of the vow I made to Einac to protect you. But if you then turn around and all but throw yourself into the thing’s mouth trying to rescue me, then it was all for nothing.” She looked solemnly at Seraph for a second or two, then grinned, indicating her body with her other hand. “I know I don’t look like it, but I was forty-one years old when I died. You’ll have to trust that every once in a while I’ll know better than you.”
Malak leaned to kiss Seraph’s forehead, finally letting go of his chin. “You would not have pulled me aside for something as simple as an apology, though. What else is there, Habbibi?”
Seraph shifted from kneeling to sitting. He gestured to the ground in front of him invitingly, and Malak moved to sit near him.
“Back at the Castle,” he said, “you asked about my dreams and why the Valites might be interested in me. To be frank, I doubt it is really me they are interested in. Somehow they know about my Oracle in my dreams. She started appearing to me about 5 years ago when she guided me to water and then back to the camp after I went out to complete the trial of manhood. I’ve never seen her face nor been gifted with her name, but it seems that was for the best after being captured by these Valites.
“I don’t always dream of her, but when I want or need something strongly enough, she comes to me and offers guidance. Most often I pass through a…shifting city of sand and waterfalls before going to her room where she waits.” Seraph sighed. Malak saw his face soften for a moment, almost wistful, then the grim determination returned like iron walls to lock away such tenderness.
“I’m afraid there’s not much more that I can tell you, unless you have specific questions. I will tell you this, though.” Seraph clenched his fists for a moment. “I will protect her from the Valites however I can. They may have forced this vow on me now, but she is important to me.”
Malak looked pensive and a little sad for a few moments after Seraph was done speaking. She sighed. “I’m afraid I can’t help with that as easily. Your hand in the castle” – she mimicked cutting herself with a knife – “is proof of that. But I will pray with you, and for you, that you might be strong enough.”
Malak curled her legs underneath herself and gracefully pushed herself upright, reaching out a hand to help Seraph stand. “Is this something you think I can entrust to Einac? I would seek his advice on such an enigma, but believe it or not, I can keep things from him if you feel I ought.”
Seraph took the hand, but stood under his own strength. “I would be glad of the gods’ counseling in this matter. Is there…” Seraph hesitated a moment, “anything I can do to better serve Einac?”
Malak smiled and embraced Seraph. She held him at arm’s length for a moment, then let go, still smiling.
Malak brushed her hair out of her eyes. “It really is that simple. And I know sometimes the simple answers are the hardest to believe, but it’s true. I tried to tell Azis that the night before we left on this trip. He has no problem believing that he gets his strength from T’Cidien, but for some reason it’s harder for him to fathom that T’Cidien in turn gets his strength from Azis.” She hitched up the shoulder on her caftan. “But that’s really how it goes. Because Azis has faith in T’Cidien, and because he acts in accord with that faith, T’Cidien’s presence is increased in the world, and so he becomes stronger. And he can then bless his devout worshipers, knowing that those blessings will also be used in accord with their faith, increasing his presence even further.
“It’s the same for you, or for anyone else. Even me. I’ve seen the gods. I’ve touched them, and even made love with them. But when I’m a spirit removed from this world, it does nothing. It’s that bond between the living and the gods – that beautiful circling dance of devotion and blessing! That’s what keeps them alive and strong for us even as the Valites would try to reason them out of existence.”
Malak paused for a moment, looking giddy, then reached out to smooth a stray lock of Seraph’s hair. “Believe. Be mindful. Be respectful. That’s all the gods can ask of anyone.”
Malak tilted her head toward the camp, and she and Seraph walked back to find Azis talking to Gorlon and Abbadon, and Red unfolding three large bundles of what looked like shiny cloth. At first, Malak thought they were tents, but then Red took hold of one’s corner, placed it to her mouth, and began blowing.
“Um, what’s this?” Seraph asked, pointing to the bundles.
“These are boats,” said Morgaine. “Or rather, they will be once we get enough air in them.”
Malak looked at Seraph, then looked at Morgaine, then smiled modestly. “Might I try?” Morgaine shrugged and gestured to an unattended bundle.
“Um, guys,” Malak called to the rest of them, “I don’t suppose some of you would mind sitting on this to weigh it down, would you? I’m not exactly sure this will work and I don’t want to send it into the water early.”
“Wait, you’re going to…?” Morgaine scrambled to rearrange the pile of cloth and point out exactly where Gorlon and Abbadon could or could not sit. Malak picked up the corner of the boat, found the valve where the air would go, placed her finger against it, and prayed. With a WHUMP!, the cloth sprang into shape almost instantly, and the two Azer were snugly nestled inside the boat. Laughing, Malak went over to the third boat to repeat her efforts.
“Okay, note to self,” Gorlon said as he deliberately fell out of the boat and lurched to his feet. A stone disc on a heavy chain came out from under his tunic, and he tucked it back in. “I will not be riding in the same boat as Abbadon.”
“Well, no,” said Red, leaving off blowing for a moment. “I wouldn’t expect either of you knows how to steer one of these things. Morgaine and I do.” She frowned then, visibly upset with herself for something. “So who is our third pilot going to be?”
Seraph waited for the second WHUMP!, then shrugged. “It can’t be that much worse than a camel, can it?”
Red looked askance at him, but told him to go ahead and sit in one of the inflated boats. She handed him a pair of oars and attempted to quickly teach him how to maneuver. After about a minute, she asked for the oars back and looked at Morgaine.
“So…I guess we can tie the third boat to yours, Morgaine?”
Seraph looked offended, and Azis looked dubious.
“Well, it looked like boats were only going to hold two people each anyway, and there’s seven of us if we need the ghost-girl to steer. If we’re going to get tied to a boat, I say we use the carpet. We know it can be pulled, and I also know the three of us” – he indicated himself, Seraph and Malak – “will fit just fine, unlike in one of those.”
To nearly everyone’s surprise, Red thought this was a fine idea, and began squeezing air out of the partially inflated boat. Halfway through, she reached in to retrieve a pair of oars from inside the bundle, handing them to Azis.
“You may still need those, and Abbadon insisted on burning the ones Florin left.”
“I was cold! I still am, too!” Abbadon stalked back over to the fire ring.
After Red had stashed the third boat, she began organizing boats and the carpet in the water. After some agonizing confusion, the group were eventually on their way.
It was a miserable ride for everyone other than Red and Morgaine – the latter being incorporeal, and Red having done this many times before. Abbadon and Gorlon were repeatedly splashed with the bone-chilling water from the river as the boats bounced up and down in the rapids, and the Zinyini had to cling with all their strength to the edges of the carpet and to each other, lest they fall off and be swept away.
“Can you please explain to me again why we’re doing this?” Azis snarled. “Those Amazon bitches had us dead to rights, and every man in that raiding party knew any given raid could be their last. We should be dead by now. We should be off in the city in the clouds, serving the gods directly.”
“Those men were – are – my responsibility,” Seraph shouted over the current. “I was given a chance to keep them from dying, and I took it.” His half-brother’s attitude irked him, and he tightened his grip on the carpet. “Princess Germain said that Malak would also be a witness to the vow I made. So I suppose that if we were to find a point where you could leave, you’d be free to do so.”
“That’s not what I meant!” Azis shook his head, frustrated. “But you know, us off on this wild goose chase for some demigod baby, and maybe the rest of the raiding group hitting a couple more caravans…I really don’t understand how this serves the gods’ best interest.”
“You’re alive!” Malak leaned forward to interject herself. “I tried to tell you that two nights ago, and you didn’t believe me then either. But it’s still true. You’re worth more to the gods than I am.”
Their conversation was cut short by Red yelling backward to Morgaine, “Here it comes!” Everyone else heard the grumbling roar, and it seemed sort of familiar to them, but being desert-dwellers all, they were still taken completely by surprise by the twelve-foot waterfall.
Azis heard Gorlon scream, then felt the front edge of the carpet being tugged downward dramatically, and he lunged to slice open the knot. The carpet righted itself, and floated gently down to hover once again six inches above the water. It still refused to go forward, though, and the three were now getting thoroughly drenched by spray off the falls.
“Grab the oars!” he shouted to Seraph and Malak. “I’ll keep hold of you.”
After some awkward fits and starts, they discovered the best way to move forward was to simply leave both paddles in the water and hold them still, letting the current pull them along. A few boulders in mid-stream also forced them to learn how to steer.
They went on for several minutes that felt much longer, and suddenly Azis hollered, nodding his head to their left. The two other boats were just up ahead, tied off to another piling, and if he was hearing things correctly there was yet another waterfall ahead if they weren’t careful. Seraph and Malak tentatively steered the carpet to the bank, and Gorlon pulled on the carpet until it hovered over the dark sand.
As the Zinyini crawled or tumbled off the carpet, they noticed theirs were not the only watercraft here. A very shiny blue tube sat on the sand, tapered shut at each end with a hole in the top perhaps big enough to seat one man. The name “Florin” was etched across the side in large gold letters. Red was inspecting it closely.
“This is a really nice kayak,” she mused.
The Zinyini looked at each other, and Seraph said “So can you tell anything from it, like how long ago it got here?”
“Not from the boat itse – HEY!” Red was nearly knocked over as Seraph and Malak each grabbed an end and heaved the thing into the water, where it promptly disappeared from sight.
“You didn’t actually inconvenience him any, you know,” she sniffed.
“Yeah, well, it made me feel better,” said Malak. “Let’s go.”
The narrow passage led to a large limestone cavern. The stone seemed to form itself into large curtains that flowed down the walls, and the ceiling was covered in menacing stalactites. A large lake took up most of the floor, and slender hollow tubes sprung up around it like stone rushes.
Azis halted everyone just before they left the passage. He looked around, then pointed to where some of the tubes had been broken. “Something went that way,” he said. “Need to take it single file.” He strode into the cavern, obviously placing himself in the lead.
“You’ll need a light behind you,” said Malak, and stepped in.
Seraph waved around at the others. “I’ll take up the rear.”
“I wish you wouldn’t…” Malak began. Azis whirled on her.
“Good gods, woman! In case you hadn’t noticed, Seraph is a grown man! He has actually done pretty well for himself without a woman hanging off his neck like a bat!”
Azis began to stalk forward. Malak glanced once more at Seraph, then turned away and began to follow. Seraph quietly waved everyone else ahead of him while she wasn’t looking.
Forward progress was slow, because Azis had to keep looking for signs of someone else’s passage. It was very quiet except for the sounds of their breathing, and the occasional crunch of stone underfoot. They had just skirted one “corner” of the lake when a louder crunch sounded from the ceiling, and Seraph yelped. Everyone turned, and saw that a stalactite had fallen and buried itself in his shoulder.
Malak, knowing she was too far away to do anything else useful, immediately began looking up, in case something had thrown it at them and planned to do so again. She then noticed that all the stalactites were moving. Worse, they were all very deliberately moving toward them.
“MOVE!” she yelled, gesturing wildly in front of her and launching herself toward the lake so people could get ahead of her. She hadn’t quite expected the water to only be a few inches deep, so she stumbled and landed ignominiously on her side, but that didn’t matter. For all she knew, that made her an even more attractive target.
To her surprise, Azis actually began to hustle more quickly along the water’s edge, and by the time Malak had regained her feet, she was able to slip back into ‘line’ right behind Seraph.
“Pull it out!” said Red, who was just in front of Seraph. Malak considered arguing, but didn’t have time. Seraph pulled the stone from his shoulder with Red’s help, and a split second after it came out, a fangy mouth opened on the narrow end. Red threw the stone into the lake, and Seraph jammed a fold of his cloak into the wound with his other hand.
The cave expanded away from the lake at the far corner, and Azis paused. The stone tubes were fewer here, which meant it was harder to tell where someone might have walked. Especially now that Malak wasn’t right behind him anymore.
“Left!” Seraph called out as he continued to hurry forward. By a strange trick of chance and light, he saw faint scrapings on the ground leading toward the cave wall. Azis chose to hold still then, instead waving everyone else in front of him. He looked upward intently, and another stalactite threatened to fall on him, but he smoothly stepped back and knocked it away as it came down. He continued to do this for several minutes.
Meanwhile, the others huddled up against the cave wall. Gorlon pulled the flask out from his pocket and made Seraph take a small sip. The wound closed, but it was then Seraph realized just how hard it was to move the injured arm.
Gorlon frowned worriedly. “Hm. Well, let’s see if this does something before we use up more of the flask.” He pulled the stone disc out from under his tunic and touched it to Seraph’s shoulder. Gingerly, Seraph moved his arm in a small circle, then nodded.
“I won’t be fighting with this arm anytime soon, but at least it moves now. Thanks.”
“Now that you’re done with that,” Malak said grimly, “are you going to tell me we have to go through that?” She was pointing at a very small aperture in the rock, about waist-high on her, and less than a meter wide in any given direction. When she looked through, it appeared to be a passage about two meters long.
Seraph sighed. “Unfortunately, yes.” He gestured to the scrapes on the stone, which were easier to see from this angle. “And I know we haven’t even tried to look on the other side of the lake, but…” He sighed again. “I just know.”
Abbadon unslung his axe. “Well, if we’re doing this, I think I’ll have the least trouble out of any of us.” He began pushing the axe into the tunnel. “And then I can help pull people through.”
“Can you leave that here, actually?” Red asked. “I was thinking everyone should leave their packs, and I can use that to push them through at the end.”
Abbadon looked wary. Seraph fumbled with his scabbard buckle for a few seconds, then gestured for Malak to help him, hoping Azis wouldn’t notice.
“You can use this, Red,” he said as Malak handed over the scimitar. “I won’t be for a while.”
Abbadon nodded, doffed his pack, and began clambering through the passage. A short while later, they heard him grousing about wet feet. Morgaine moved forward.
“I’ll go next. We know he won’t need to pull me through.”
“You’ll go after-next,” Malak said firmly. “So someone else can keep an eye on you if Abbadon needs to pull the rest of us through.” She nodded to Gorlon, who hurriedly shucked his gear and all but dove in. He grunted and cursed a few times, but was able to make it through unaided.
Morgaine disappeared effortlessly through the passage, and Malak glanced over at Azis, who was still easily dodging the falling tooth-filled rocks. She then looked to Seraph.
“How about you go next?”
Seraph shrugged with his good shoulder, dropped his pack, then crawled in, making sure to keep his injured arm by his side so Abbadon wouldn’t pull on the wrong one if needed. About halfway through, he felt his sash catch on something. He struggled, but with only one arm to propel himself, he found himself stuck fast. His fingers were, maddeningly, only a few inches from where he could grab down and possibly pull himself.
“Y’need some help, lad?” Abbadon’s hand closed over Seraph’s before the Zinyini even had a chance to answer, and the Azer was pulling firmly. Seraph opened his mouth to suggest that perhaps he should back out and then try again without his sash tied, but he was interrupted by two very loud SNAPs. One was from whatever had snagged his sash. The other was from his collarbone. Seraph yelped as he felt a searing pain, and then he fell into blackness.
Malak heard the Azer and Morgaine talking in worried voices, and she crawled into the passage without even asking Red. Cursing her figure a few times, she was able to pull herself through, landing on smooth round rocks that apparently made up the entire floor of this chamber.
Seraph was laid out about two meters away, and Gorlon was turning a flask in his hands uncertainly. Malak flew to Seraph’s side, kneeling down.
“His collarbone,” Abbadon said simply.
“The flask helped with the other shoulder,” Gorlon offered, “but with a broken bone…I’d be afraid it would heal his arm into that position permanently.”
“Sssh. Let me,” Malak said, gently loosening Seraph’s robe. She slipped her fingers underneath the cloth, probing gently to find where the bone had broken, and feeling grateful that twenty years of being dead hadn’t dulled her memory. After a while, she slipped her other arm under Seraph’s, twisting her body to carefully lift his head so his jaw would drop.
“Okay, I’ve got the pieces together,” she said softly. “If you’re very careful, you should be able to pour it down the side of his throat and he won’t choke on it.”
Gorlon slowly poured a dose of the flask into Seraph’s mouth, and Malak could feel the bone knitting together under her fingers. She nodded to Gorlon and began to lower Seraph back down when Azis’s voice stopped her.
“No! Wait! Gzgh!” Azis came around to Seraph’s feet, and nodded to something behind Malak. Craning her neck, she saw that the carpet had already been unrolled and was patiently hovering. “Let’s get him out of the damned water.”
In truth, the tops of the rocks were still dry, but Malak didn’t argue. She gently lifted, and the two of them set Seraph on the hovering carpet. Red had already begun unfolding tarps, and Morgaine was helping her lay them out. Not certain she could be useful in any other way, Malak folded her hands and bowed her head. Gorlon touched the stone disc to Seraph’s shoulder, and then to the old wound just in case, and then again to the broken shoulder just in case, then thumbed it nervously before putting it away again.
Azis and Abbadon promptly took up watch. Looking around, they saw that water flowed down from several points along the walls, and little flat fish clung to the stone where it flowed, their oversized fins looking like wings. The water pooled on the floor beneath the smooth stones on which they stood. The room was vaguely circular, but they could make out a fairly large fissure in one wall that was most likely where they would need to go next.
“Morgaine,” said Red, “I’m pretty sure we’re going to be staying here for a while. Why don’t you go wake up, take care of your bodily needs, and we’ll see you again in a few hours.”
Morgaine had walked over to stand by Seraph, much to Malak’s disgust, and she stroked his hair a couple of times before vanishing.
|NB: All I have to say about Red’s question about the white boxes is: Yes. Really. And we don’t know how she recognizes them, either. ~ FemmeLegion|
The party readied to stay the night in the angelfish cave. Azis sent one of his serpents through the fissure that appeared the most obvious means of exit, and began looking through its eyes. It noticed a ledge with a sheer drop on the other side, but no living creatures anywhere it was asked to look. Azis called the serpent back to him and turned back to face the others. He noticed to his relief that Malak was apparently done with her prayers for the moment; she was supposed to take the next watch so he could pray and rest, but he would not have been able to bring himself to interrupt her even for that.
After Azis had unrolled his prayer mat, but before he could actually begin his devotionals, Red motioned for his and Malak’s attention, walking over to the carpet.
“I was hoping,” she said, “now that I’ve got all the tarps down and there’s plenty of dry space, could you move Seraph off the carpet so I can try and mend the holes?”
The Zinyini looked at each other, and Red hurriedly added, “We don’t know how long Seraph will keep sleeping, and I was thinking that if we patch up all the holes, we can start using the carpet to drag the gear as well, or maybe more of us if we need to. The whole problem with putting us all on there before was that it started to unravel some more, but if I fix it…” She trailed off, as Malak was already gently lifting Seraph up and off of the carpet. Azis unpacked a spare cloak from Seraph’s pack and laid it on the tarp, rolling up the large hood to serve as a pillow. Malak laid Seraph on top of the cloak, wrapped him up as best she could, and shucked her own burnoose to cover him further.
With that done, Azis began his prayers while Malak relieved Abbadon of guard duty, standing watch alone. She watched as one of the living stalactites crawled through the same hole they had used, and began trying to climb the wall. She would have called a warning to the others, except that the thing was never able to actually make it up to the ceiling. It would get about halfway up, then be stymied by the flowing water, and crawl back down to try and find another path upward. Malak would have found it pitiful if one hadn’t hurt her grandson.
Red began humming as she ran heavy thread along the edges of one of the larger holes, and suddenly the carpet started moving away from her. Too surprised to actually feel surprise, she simply grabbed the carpet and pulled it back toward her. She resumed her work, and resumed her humming, and the carpet moved once again. Red glanced over to Azis, who was still praying. She began to hum single notes, to see if a specific tone meant a specific command, but only when she began the tune anew did it move again.
“Azis,” she said when she saw the Zinyini rolling up his prayer mat, “your carpet has started moving.”
Azis blinked, a little surprised it was now considered “his” carpet, then walked over to Red. She hummed the tune again, and the carpet obligingly floated away again. Azis mimicked the song, and got the same result. He too tried to command it with single notes, then was struck by inspiration. He pulled out the same flute he used to charm serpents and began a tune on it.
I AWAIT YOUR COMMAND, MASTER… The voice droned deep inside his head. Azis started in surprise, then shook his head a couple of times.
“Um…up?” he said at last.
HOW HIGH, MASTER?...
Azis, already seeing a potential frustration in trying to command the carpet, snapped at it. “Until I say to stop!” His jaw then dropped as the carpet obediently began to rise. He only let it get about three meters above the ground before he told it to stop, which it did immediately.
“Um…come back down. Follow me.”
The carpet swiftly dropped to ten centimeters above the ground, and Azis began to walk across the cave. The carpet faithfully moved precisely three meters behind him. Azis called for Malak to hold still, then changed his path so Malak ended up between him and the carpet. He then began walking away from her, and she squawked as the carpet shoved inexorably against her ankles, eventually knocking her from her feet to land ungracefully upon it. She rolled off, glaring at Azis as she stood up again.
“I had to know,” he offered simply. He then led the carpet back to Red, told it to hold still so she could keep working on it, and laid out his own cloak to sleep.
Morgaine arrived again to find everyone but Seraph already awake and having eaten breakfast. She glanced at Seraph and then at Malak, who glared and gestured that he should not be disturbed. Malak and Azis carefully placed Seraph on the carpet, and Red expertly arranged everyone’s packs around him with some room to spare at his feet.
“Follow me closely,” Azis instructed the carpet, and it faithfully kept about a half-meter behind instead of three. Azis was first through the fissure, with the others behind. Red, who had stayed up much later finishing carpet repairs than perhaps was good for her, flopped onto the trailing edge of the carpet as it went past, lazily trailing her fingers along the stone floor.
The ledge was comfortably wide for about a hundred meters, but then they saw it began to narrow sharply. Azis also noticed that while the path ascended, the ceiling did not, meaning the way would get more and more cramped.
“By your leave,” Abbadon said as they approached the narrowing point, “let’s back up a bit, and I’ll take the lead a while.” He turned to Red. “I expect you’ve packed rope and pitons in one of these dozen packs?”
“And a mallet. Of course.” Red rummaged through the packs on the carpet and began passing gear to the Azer. Abbadon started edging ahead, driving pitons into the wall and running the rope through them.
“Perhaps you could have the carpet flying to our side rather than behind you, Azis,” Malak offered. “I don’t know if you’d be able to tell it to catch one of us if we fall, but in any case I’d rather none of us trip over it because you stopped and we didn’t see.” A moment later, the carpet had gracefully shifted about a meter to the right, and floated to where Malak or Gorlon would land on it if they lost their footing.
Everyone cautiously inched along the rope as best they could, but soon even Abbadon was having to stoop, and tall Azis was almost unable to move any further. He called for a stop, and sent his snake to look ahead again. Through its eyes, he could see that the path continued to get narrower and shorter, but then after a time it began descending again. It took several minutes, but Azis was eventually able to recognize that the path met up with a worked-stone ledge that was part of a switchback trail. He called the serpent back to him, told everyone to scoot back a little bit until they were more comfortable, then explained what he had seen.
“At this point,” he said, “my thought is that we take Seraph and about half the gear off the carpet, and I’ll take it down to the bottom of that trail to see where it goes and if there’s anything waiting for us. Once we know where’s a safe place for landing, I’ll bring it back up here for the rest of you. Malak, if you’ll come with me…” Azis nudged the carpet closer to the ledge and began unloading packs.
“Please take care of him for me,” Malak said to Gorlon, who looked at Seraph’s unmoving body and shrugged. Malak climbed onto the carpet behind Azis, and they began to slowly descend.
”...I’m sorry,” Azis said suddenly.
Malak blinked. “Um, for what?”
“About Seraph. I shouldn’t have argued with you when you said he shouldn’t be in back. I mean, clearly you had some sort of divine insight on it – I should have listened.”
“Azis…” Malak shook her head. “It’s not like that. I was just worried for him, that’s all.” She sighed. “And I probably have overdone it a couple of times trying to protect him. But…I’m really new at this. I know Einac picked me because I had a blood connection to Seraph, but…when I was alive, I never had a chance to actually be a mother. I had four kids, but I got to feed them for three days, and then they found someplace else for them. So no…I most certainly don’t have any sort of mother’s intuition on this. So I’m over-worrying just in case.”
“Well, whatever it is, you were still right and I still shouldn’t have doubted you. And if that stalactite hadn’t gotten him in the one shoulder, he probably wouldn’t have gotten hurt in the other shoulder going through the tunnel, and he’d be just fine right now. So if you have any more bad feelings from here out, just speak up, and whatever you say goes.”
“Azis, no.” Malak shook her head again. “Don’t say it like that. Don’t forget that T’Cidien works through you. If you and I disagree on something about fighting or tactics, it should be I who obeys you, because war is T’Cidien’s domain and he is much stronger in you than in me.” Malak ached to touch him, to reassure him, but stayed her hand. None of the war-god’s children had much use for affection; it would not actually help. Neither would any of the other thoughts in her head at the moment.
The bottom of the switchback trail led to a series of terraced pools filled with liquid as opaquely white as milk. By Malak’s light, they could also see rocks eroded into lacy filigreed patterns, and that a few of them had been obviously crunched in roughly the shape of bootprints. The air smelled foul, something in between rotting eggs and the stench of the dunghill they’d climbed the day before.
Azis unloaded the packs, then frowned. “I hope this works,” he muttered.
Carpet, he instructed it silently as he often did charmed serpents, return to where you were, wait for Red and Abbadon to climb aboard, then slowly come back to me. Azis fully expected to get the same stuttering sound in his head as he’d gotten when he’d jokingly ordered it to start singing, but to both his and Malak’s surprise, the carpet zoomed upward, coming to a sudden halt directly beside Abbadon. He did hear Red squawk as the carpet descended without her, and had figured out why by the time it had returned.
“Sorry,” Azis said as Abbadon climbed off and struggled with Red’s pack. “I told it to wait for the two of you, and I guess as soon as it felt two weights on it, it decided it was time.” This time, he sent it back up and made it wait until he gave the command to descend. The carpet was severely crowded with the others and their gear, but Azis didn’t want to waste the time with yet another trip.
Azis repeated his apology to Red as she lightly swung her pack to her shoulder and rearranged Seraph and the other gear on the carpet. She didn’t appear to hear him at all, looking totally enthralled with the cave itself. She tossed pebbles into the pools to check if they were deep or shallow, and waxed rhapsodic about the different stone formations and how the white water ate away the rocks to form them into such delicate designs. The others politely ignored her, turning to follow the path of crunched lace-rocks.
The pool cave was huge, and they walked for nearly half a kilometer. The air became more and more foul, and Azis and Red and Malak began coughing. Gorlon sniffed, then nodded. “You’ll want to cover your faces with damp cloth until we’re out of here. Sorry it didn’t occur to me sooner – it smells like home to me.” Malak also made sure to cover Seraph’s mouth and nose, and they continued.
The lace-rocks gave way to a more wide and solid ledge, much to Malak’s relief. However, her relief was short-lived. About a minute later, people began to notice that their boots were smoking. Shortly after, Malak shrieked as her feet began to burn. She brought one knee quickly to her chest, and the remains of a sandal fell away.
Red, almost without thinking, reached for Malak and heaved her effortlessly onto the carpet. The other sandal flew off, landing in the white water. The pool then erupted as a gigantic insectoid head rose up, mandibles clicking. It looked like a centipede, but much, much larger.
Abbadon hefted his axe and took a swing as it came close. The blow landed solidly, but the blade was deflected by the creature’s chitinous plates. Gorlon valiantly stepped up as well, shoving his dagger in between two of the plates. Red nocked an arrow and waited for an opening.
“I can’t do anything from here!” Malak cried. Any blast she let loose from her current position would sweep one or more of them toward the beast, if not into the water. Azis summoned the carpet to him, leaped aboard, and with a severe gesture sent it flying to about ten feet above the ledge. From there, Malak began calling upon the sea-wind to drive the creature away. (The temporary improvement in air quality didn’t hurt, either.)
Finally Red saw her opening – literally, as the centipede spread its mandibles. She fired, and the arrow went into its open mouth to lodge behind its eyes. A split-second later, Red had to drop flat on the ground as a gout of greenish fluid spewed from the creature’s mouth at her. The vomit hit the wall behind her, leaving a pockmarked trail six centimeters deep.
Abbadon, realizing just how similar these caves were to some of the others around Kheld-Mirkhan, waited until a blast from Malak had knocked the creature away a bit, then jammed one hand in his pouch looking for flint and tinder. Seconds later, his torch was lit and he was throwing it past the centipede into another pool beyond it. The pool immediately went FOOMP! and burst into flame. Soon adjacent pools were also lighting. Azis sent the carpet down to collect the others, and took off as fast as he could make it go, still following the trail that (presumably) Florin had left. The centipede left the water, crawling along the ledge to follow, and Red spread her cloak along the back of the carpet as wide as she could, in hopes of protecting the party somewhat.
After a minute or two, both Azer and Red hollered and pointed up the wall. Azis craned his neck. There was another switchback carved into the cliff, this one leading to a small hole – perhaps not much larger than the tunnel through which they’d needed to crawl. When a few evasive maneuvers made it clear that the centipede was truly giving chase and not simply escaping the flames, Azis nodded grimly and steered for the hole without even checking for a trail – if it did in fact lead to a cave or tunnel, it was almost certain the centipede would not be able to fit through it, let alone continue pursuit. Just outside the hole, Red asked Azis to stop because she spotted something. A little wooden stool sat on the ledge, and white water flowing from the hole had started eating away at one of its three legs. On the seat of the stool were two flimsy spheres that were transparent but not glass, one of which contained a piece of paper. Red scooped up the spheres, and Azis roared for everyone to squeeze together as he nudged the carpet inside.
The edges of the carpet curled up along the narrow stone walls, and Azis occasionally felt the tunnel ceiling scraping his hair. But after a few twists and turns (for which everyone was grateful, as it meant the centipede could not vomit at them), it eventually opened out into a much larger cave.
There were more stalactites on the ceiling, but they quivered like leaves. There were also pools of water on the floor, but unlike the lake of before, they flowed out of the cave into the tunnel through which the party had just come. Azis noticed, much to his joy and relief, that there were more bootprints through the room.
“Ever seen things like that, Morgaine?” Azis asked, pointing to the quivering stalactites. Morgaine simply stared and shook her head.
“All right then. You’ll excuse me if I take it slow and watch for them falling on us.” And true to his word, he nudged the carpet forward slowly, his eyes and fists up. A drop of water slid down one of the stalactites and landed on Azis’s upper back. It took him a few seconds to realize that the liquid had started burning away his clothes and skin, but then he howled and urged the carpet forward more quickly. Malak saw that more drips were imminent – almost as if they were deliberate attacks – and immediately moved to shield Seraph with her body. Red tried holding up her cloak to protect people again – though she quickly put it away when she found it was getting pitted by the dripping acid. About halfway through the room, a large red quivering mass rose up from one of the pools, lurching menacingly toward the carpet.
“Snottite!” Morgaine cried, pointing. Azis urged another boost of speed from the carpet, and the creature never got the chance to touch the party as they passed.
Rapidly approaching the far side of the cave, Azis slowed down the carpet as everyone noticed something blue and sparkly tucked away in a shadowed corner.
“Could be a baited trap,” Abbadon said.
“Or it could be more crap that Florin’s been just leaving behind,” Malak suggested.
Azis looked around quickly. He saw no puddles on the ground near that corner, nor anything hanging from the ceiling.
“We’ll take it on foot,” he said, bringing the carpet to a stop. He and Abbadon quietly dismounted and stepped forward. A few moments later, they beckoned that it was safe. In the corner they found a parasol (also pitted as if by dripping acid), a large blue thing that looked like a backpack but made out of that same shiny hard stuff that Florin’s boat had been made out of (and also with “Florin” written on it in gold), and a pick leaning against the far wall. Someone had also broken through the few inches of stone that separated this place from yet another cave.
Red snatched up and began to investigate the pack, along with the globes and paper from before, and Abbadon began examining the stone and pick for wear, in hopes he could determine how long ago the excavation had happened. His best guess was that it had been very recently – possibly less than a day, since the pick otherwise looked brand new.
Abbadon then peeked through the hole to see what was next…and just stopped. The floor was covered in glittering white powder that looked like snow. Crystalline trees, like the conifers that he had occasionally seen on non-volcanic mountains, rose up from the ground laden with gems. The ceiling, too, was decorated, in large formations of glass that looked like tree roots.
He was vaguely aware of someone calling his name, but he stood transfixed. He perceived motion in one of the glass roots, as if he was watching through a window. He saw a sky-blue bucket, with its lid propped up against it. The lid was covered in ancient dwarven runes written in gold, not unlike the ones on the stone Gorlon now wore. He then saw a black-skinned, white-haired figure bend down to inspect the open bucket.
“Abbadon!” Malak’s voice pierced through his trance at last, and Abbadon shook his head and stepped back.
“It’s like a mountaintop in there,” he said. “Snow, and trees made out of gems. And things in the ceiling like roots, made of glass. And…I don’t know.” He shook his head again. “But I think I saw a trail in there.”
Azis’s hackles raised as he heard the uncertainty in the Azer’s voice, and he stuck his own head through. He saw how Abbadon might mistake the powdery white sand for snow, right down to the footprints breaking through the crust, and he found himself similarly entranced by the glass roots in the ceiling.
He saw…himself, sitting on a bench carved out of wood, surrounded by more grass than he’d ever seen in any oasis. Standing in front of him was a tall man with a close-cropped beard, dressed in strange snug-fitting clothing that would not be in the least bit suited for desert life.
“I just wanted you to know…” the stranger said, in a voice obviously foreign to the Vale, “you’re an honorable man put into a dishonorable situation, and I feel for you. I’ll keep an eye out for you.”
Azis, having absolutely no idea how to react, shook his head, and was able to wrench his eyes away. He immediately withdrew his head, muttering to himself.
Red, meanwhile, finished examining all the new items. She recognized the flimsy transparent orbs as “bubble helmets”, and the piece of paper was a map of the cavern, though she really couldn’t make heads or tails of it. She also looked inside the hard-sided backpack, and found that it was a baby carrier, with a blanket and pillow and pacifier tucked inside. She showed everyone else, impressed with the ingenuity that went into making such a thing.
Malak was furious at the sight of it. “Why the hell did he leave it behind, then?” she cried. “Why is he so cavalierly leaving this trail of crap for us to follow – BABY care things, at that? Is the child already dead?” She turned to glare at Morgaine. “Is this whole thing some sort of joke?”
“Either he isn’t afraid of who might come after him, or he really thinks nobody would,” Abbadon muttered.
Morgaine stared wide-eyed before Malak’s anger, but then Red broke in. “Morgaine,” Red prompted gently, “was Prince Florin a trump artist?”
Relief flooded Morgaine’s features. “Yes, he was.”
“And what does that mean?” Malak shifted her rage to the henchman.
“It means,” Red said calmly, “that Prince Florin can draw magical pictures of items, and use the pictures to summon the items to him. Where we had to pack everything into bags and carry them on our backs, he could have left everything hidden somewhere – anywhere! – and used his pictures to conjure up whatever he needed, when he needed it.”
“And then he could just leave things behind wherever if it was too much trouble to carry them, since he could call the item back to him whenever he wanted.” Azis was nodding.
“Exactly.” Red’s mouth twisted slightly. “Which means I was right – you didn’t inconvenience him a bit when you threw his kayak down the waterfall.”
“And I already told you that wasn’t the point,” Malak grumbled.
“So that’s the way we’re going?” Gorlon pointed to the hole, hoping to defuse the argument by getting people back on track.
Azis nodded roughly. “We’ll take the carpet again, so we’ll make less noise and not leave a trail ourselves. Abbadon, did you ever figure out anything looking at the pick?”
“I don’t think we’re any further behind,” Abbadon said. “We may be as little as a day behind now.”
“Makes sense – we saved some time by not actually walking down the switchbacks. Malak,” Azis made an effort to soften his voice, “we’ll probably want you to wrap up in the spare cloak to keep the glowing down. If we’re catching up, we’ll need to start being sneaky.” The spirit warrior nodded and began unwrapping Seraph.
“And nobody look up if you can help it. The ceiling’s got witchcraft in it.” Azis gestured toward the carpet, climbing on in front.
Malak had covered herself with the cloak except for her face, but the white sandy powder on the floor reflected her light very well, and the crystalline trees sparkled as the carpet neared them. She had heard Azis’s warning about the ceiling, but after having been attacked twice by things on ceilings, she could not help but let her eyes wander upward.
“And you!” A man shouted contemptuously at her through one of the glass roots. “You, harlot who betrayed the gods! You shall pay the final price for your heresy! Traitor!”
Love and defiance flared in Malak’s heart, and the man flickered out of existence.
Red sighed wistfully as they passed one of the trees. “If only a few of the gems had already been knocked loose, by Florin or an earthquake or something. I’d love to take a souvenir back to Adam, but I’d feel bad about destroying one of the trees.”
“I wouldn’t,” Abbadon said, and promptly demonstrated by knocking a branch loose with the butt of his axe. Azis sighed and stopped the carpet so the Azer could pick up the branch and pry the colored gems loose with a knife. Abbadon lobbed a thumbnail-sized ruby to Red, then discarded the barren branch and hefted his axe again.
“As much time as we’ve gained,” Abbadon said, “surely we can spare five minutes to make sure we get something out of the trip if things go poorly.”
“You’ll get something out of it,” Malak muttered. “THEY” – she pointed to Morgaine – “won’t let us past the City to trade with your kind, and they’d probably kill us for thieves if we tried to use those as barter.”
Abbadon cheerfully ignored her, knocking branches loose and stripping them. As he reached down to collect his fourth branch, he noticed that the tree had dripped some sort of clear goo on him, in a strand running up to a higher branch. He tried to ignore it and shake it off, but then a small amount of it slipped past his gauntlet and onto his bare wrist. He howled in pain as he felt his skin burning away.
The Azer plunged his hand into the white powder, which brought him a little relief, but it did not free him from the goo-strand. He fidgeted with his axe in the other hand and took a swing, which got him loose, but bits of goo remained on his gauntlet and his axe.
“Can we leave now?” Azis asked sourly.
“Aye!” As the carpet lurched forward, Abbadon dragged both his hand and his axe by turns on the powdery floor.
“So much for not leaving a trail,” someone sighed.
Abbadon hefted his axe to stow it. It appeared clean, but had been notched along one edge by the acid. He stared at it, almost smiling, then put it away.
“Morgaine,” Red leaned over to whisper in the Valite’s ear. “The next time you’re awake, please tell Adam about this room if you can’t find the Empress. If it’s at all possible, I really think that the big army shouldn’t come marching through here and destroying something so beautiful.”
Morgaine shrugged, looking at Seraph worriedly and then back to Red, who also shrugged.
Azis followed Florin’s trail to a natural fissure, which promptly opened up into a yawning chasm below, spreading farther than they could see in either direction. Immense columns and stalagmites peppered the floor. Far, far below, their eyes could barely pick out some white boxes and a fire ring. Several well-worn trails crisscrossed the cavern floor.
“Someone else lives down here,” Abbadon whispered, tracing the trails with his nose. “I wonder if Florin planned to meet them here as allies, or if he got chased off by hostile locals.”
“First thing I need is to take a look around,” said Azis. “Same as last time. Me and Malak go first. Malak, cover your face this time – we need to keep it as dark as we can stand in case we are getting close.”
Malak nodded and drew her hood as soon as the others had disembarked. “Try using the stone again on Seraph,” she whispered to Gorlon before covering her face.
Azis reached over and shifted the cloak just a little to let out more light as they descended. The carpet came to a shivering halt above the ground, and Azis nudged it further forward, toward the boxes and fire ring. Holding up his hand for Malak to remain still, he slid from the carpet to look around.
Powdery white footprints led away and came back from the camp in two different directions, as far as Azis could see by the scarce light. The boxes were made of a substance he had never seen before, and the name COLEMAN was stenciled onto their surfaces. Azis reached down to touch the fire ring, and drew back his hand quickly – it was still warm. He crawled back onto the carpet and leaned in very close to whisper in Malak’s ear.
“We are very close to something now. I don’t know if it’s Florin, or something else like Abbadon suggests. But that fire ring is still warm, so whoever it is, is nearby. I’m going to send the carpet back up with orders to return in five minutes. And I want you to stay on the carpet and head back up there with it, so you can tell everyone else: we’re going to need to stay quiet and stay in the dark. I’m going to find a place to hide and have my snake look around until the rest of you get down here and Red can look at more of that creepy Valite shit.” He indicated the white boxes with an angry wave.
Malak’s heart quailed, but she remembered her words to Azis from earlier and remained still. Azis moved away and vanished from sight, and the carpet swiftly climbed to the high fissure.
Azis set his serpent loose, and through its eyes noticed a human-sized figure walking into the camp. Azis froze, then began to silently negotiate a better hiding spot with respect to the figure. The figure actually noticed the snake, and began talking to it in a language utterly foreign to Azis’s ears. The snake was also unable to understand. Finally the figure chuckled and walked away from the camp.
After five minutes finished dragging its feet in passing, Azis saw the glimmer from Malak’s cloak that meant the others were on their way. He noted with satisfaction that they immediately began looking at the boxes and did not try to find him. He sent his serpent on ahead just a little more, concerned that whoever lived down here might notice even the sliver of shining.
“Coleman coolers?” Red’s whisper was laden with disbelief, and Morgaine’s obvious confusion was no help. Still, it did not stop her from quietly fiddling with the twin latches that held each white box shut.
The boxes were tightly packed with crushed ice, surrounding various things. The first box had about a dozen baby bottles in it, and two divots in the ice where others might have been. The second one contained four large bottles of champagne. The third was filled with wheels of cheese and what smelled like ham. The fourth one was empty save for the divots in the ice – two might have been made by waterskins, but the one in the center was very large and round.
The camp held nothing else of note save for the still-warm fire ring, but as Red lowered the lid on the final cooler (leaving them unlatched because working the latches was too noisy), Abbadon held up his hand for silence. Everyone strained to hear, and heard a steady clinking sound.
“Someone’s mining,” Gorlon whispered.
Malak tilted her head toward the carpet, and moved to climb on it, rearranging packs and pulling Seraph onto her lap so others wouldn’t squish him by mistake. The others also climbed aboard, and several seconds later Azis also appeared. He whispered into his sleeve, and the serpent emerged. The carpet drifted slowly forward, and Malak could tell from Azis’s posture that he was using the serpent’s eyes instead of his own.
Then the carpet came to a halt, and Azis twisted his body to face the rest of them, his head low. Malak could see that his eyes had turned yellow and cold, like a cobra’s.
“There is someone warm up ahead, and something cold.” Azis held up his hands to indicate the size of the cold thing.
“One of the boxes of ice had an empty space in it about that big,” Morgaine whispered back.
Malak was only barely glowing from under her cloak at this point, but everyone’s eyes were well adjusted to the darkness, and they saw that the cold item was a blue bucket with a lid covered in odd runes. As the carpet silently drifted past, Abbadon murmured to himself and hopped off the rug. He had been sitting on the other side from Red, and nobody else wanted to make any noise, so they were powerless to stop him from grabbing it and returning with it. As he set the bucket on the carpet’s surface, Morgaine gasped, and promptly blinked out of existence. About a second later, so did Abbadon.
Azis and Gorlon and Malak and Red all stared at each other, but had little time for the luxury of horror. The silence was rent by a thick voice, gutturally slurring that the coward who stole from him should show himself, he’d take the fool on, and his friends as well. Azis promptly told the carpet to climb to about eight meters above the floor, and none too soon. They heard a rough clang as something collided with one of the massive stone columns.
Far beyond the remaining party members on the carpet, a light flared up. It illuminated two cloaked figures, and in fact seem to be a glowing ball that had sprung from one figure’s hand. The two figures conversed quietly, and even those who strained to listen could not understand. Azis recognized it as the same kind of language his visitor had spoken, but that was it. Then the light went out, and seconds later, they heard the whistling sound of something moving swiftly through the air, then a THUD and the sound of metal clanging on stone. Then the light flared up again, and the two cloaked figures beckoned over their shoulders. More torches flared, borne by strange squat creatures with thick carapaces on their backs.
“Crucians?” Azis kept his question to a rough whisper. “They’re about as native underground as I am. What the hell is going on?”
The Crucians were picking up a limp body that looked like an Azer, save that it was dressed much less warmly than Gorlon or Abbadon. The cloaked figures removed their hoods to take a closer look, revealing delicate faces with pitch-black skin, and hair white as the moon.
“Drow.” Red’s voice almost sounded like it was trembling. “They live in the dark, and use magic, and traditionally they and the dwarves have hated each other. We’ll need to rescue that one.”
“I’m more interested in rescuing Abbadon,” Malak hissed.
“How can they traditionally hate Azer?” Gorlon muttered, overlooking the racial slur. “I’ve never even heard of them before today.”
Abbadon stood bewildered. He had never before in his life seen a pathway marked with slices of fallen trees. He had never before in his life seen such a vast expanse of water as what he faced now – it stretched away from him as far as he could see, and spanned the whole horizon. But what truly bewildered him was the creature in front of him, also facing the water. It stood upright like he did, but it was covered in shaggy brown fur, and when it occasionally turned its head in profile, its face looked more like an animal’s snout.
Abbadon turned around, putting his back to the water, and started in surprise. Morgaine was standing there, also looking bewildered. Abbadon drew closer, and waved his hand through her. Whatever had happened, at least she was still incorporeal and wasn’t in violation of the treaty.
“Where are we, lass?” he asked.
Morgaine shook her head. “I…don’t know. I’ve never seen anyplace like this.”
Looking over her shoulder, Abbadon spotted another figure that didn’t quite look like a Zinyini or a Valite, but was close enough for a place as strange as this.
“Excuse me, sir…” he asked politely. “I’m a bit lost. Where am I?”
“Well,” the reply came politely, “you’re on the boardwalk.” Seeing Abbadon’s lingering confusion, the man tried again. “On Champion Island. ...Tuteck.”
|Seraph’s “dream sequence” whilst unconscious|
Seraph walks through the dream corridors to the Oracle’s room. It is a familiar path to him and he arrives there quickly. Upon arriving, Seraph kneels down and offers his ritual greeting to the Oracle. His scimitar across the palms of his hands, blade on the left hand, hilt on the right hand, and he holds the blade out and says “I offer my blade to you that it may serve you as you have served me.”
“Seraph, Dear Seraph” she says. Seraph hears that odd music that he heard last time, sounding like drawn out bells, but faster. Tinkling music. Pretty, but very odd. “Seraph… this is not real dreaming. You have fallen unconscious from pain. You are injured but not from battle…” Her voice holds great concern as her golden mask turns to face him.
Re-sheathing his blade, Seraph settles into a sitting position. “Can you show me what lies ahead in this cave before I recover? I need to know the way out and what the next danger will be.”
She motions to one of the sheer curtains which blows back with unfelt wind. Seraph sees a blue bucket sitting in a cave that seems to be full of white glistening trees about 8 to 10 feet tall covered in snow.
Sitting on a rock midst the snowy ground is this blue Bucket with glyphs carved on the outside. “The path of the child and its father go through this bucket, or rather the water that once was inside. My dear Seraph, if you wish to follow, you shall have to find the water that once filled the pail again,” the Oracle says sadly. “I shall look for this for you … but the water comes from the Oasis of Inyanna.”
“But watch…” she says. Men with deep blue/black skin come and look at the bucket and talk quietly among themselves. Behind them you see what can only be slaves in chains and rags struggling to cut down one of the snowy trees with picks. They are guarded by 6 Crucians.
“These are the threat your friends must face to retrieve the bucket” the Oracle says. “And she can guide them out of the dark…” Seraph can now see one of the slaves. A woman with reddish skin, bald but still very beautiful, swinging a pick. She is bleeding from multiple whip marks through the rough rags on her back. “She knows the way out. Your friends must free her.
“Dear Seraph, that is at the trip’s end. But first you may not face a monster but fumes.” she goes on. “Sulfur fumes like you have faced in the boiling pits of Karakul.” She pauses, “Down into the darkness there are poisonous fumes. Be warned My dear Seraph.”
“Thank you, Oracle. Sometimes it is hard to leave this place and return to what is surely going to be a painful wakening.” Seraph smiles tiredly. “You haven’t been bothered by any Valites have you?” A flash of concern crosses Seraph’s face.
“Dear Seraph…” The Oracle’s golden mask hid her smile, but it was clear in her voice. “If the Vale makes plans against me I will be the first to be aware of it. You need not fear for my safety.”
She looks away for a moment. “What do you think of Princess Morgaine?”
Seraph frowns, “I think that it is commendable that she wants to get this child back, but that this trip is stupid on all our parts. She still has the optimism of a person who has not seen comrades die in her sheltered life.” Seraph turns and looks out the window at the blowing sand. “At least she seemed sincere in her outrage when she found out about the Vow the other Princess put on me, and then about trying to get the Vow lifted from me.”
“She wept true tears when she was told that your vow and its consequences would not be removed” She looks down. “I have no doubt that you will….. get along,” she says almost sadly.
Seraph’s eyes narrow. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“She is attractive is she not?” she says. “And.. you will be in close contact with her. Are you not attracted to her?”
“She’s pretty enough, for a Valite, but I’m not attracted to her.” Seraph chuckles, “Besides, I already spend time with a beautiful woman I’m attracted to.”
The Oracle tilts her head quizzically. “You do? who?”
Seraph gives a big dazzling smile, which he does very rarely considering his generally solemn state as he worries about his responsibilities to to the men in his raiding party. “I’m here aren’t I?” As he gestures around the room.
She puts her hand to her breast and gives a small gasp. “My dear, dear Seraph. You can not have feelings for me. You do not know me or the …things of my life. And we only meet here in your dreams. You need a woman of flesh and blood next to you in your bed. Not one far away and only in your dreams…” She says sadly.
A hint of the steel returns to Seraph’s eyes but he maintains his smile. “Perhaps, but that is for me to decide. Some day I may not be so far away and you may not be only in my dreams.”
“Perhaps you will not want me if you found me. There is a reason for this mask, my dear Seraph.” she says. “But no matter. Both in your life and mine there are responsibilities. And as much as it is … entrancing… to think otherwise, today I shall remain alone and you shall return to your companions and the cave.”
Seraph frowns, at a loss for a suitable reply, when his senses become alert and he hears footsteps coming down the hallway. He whirls, his scimitar blurring into his hand, and faces the doorway as a woman in a red dress glides in. She is babbling on about some nonsense but begins to stride toward the Oracle, which is unacceptable. Seraph moves swiftly to place himself between the woman and the Oracle. He brings the scimitar up to place it at her throat in hopes of silencing her. Amazingly, this woman seems to float by it. She’s fast, very fast. Seraph takes only a moment to make the decision, she’s too fast to just pin, he will have to kill her.
“Cease, my Seraph.” The Oracle says. “Amelia is not here to harm me.” Seraph returns his scimitar to its sheath, and proceeds to half-heartedly listen to the women speak of dreamscapes and prophecies. He doesn’t understand much of what is said, but he can tell that Amelia is not here to do violence. Seraph does remain close by, within striking range though.
Suddenly, in between one word and the next, there is a man standing next to Amelia and slightly farther away from the Oracle. There is no hesitation on Seraph’s part, only instinctual reaction as he draws his scimitar and removes the intruder’s head all in one blurring motion. Only to have the head and body dissolve away into dust and the man to re-appear on the other side of Amelia with his hands outstretched to show no weapons.
“Leave him be Seraph, he has a message for Amelia.” chuckles the Oracle. Still wary, Seraph keeps his scimitar out this time as Amelia and the man talk. As soon as they finish talking the man disappears in another puff of dust. Amelia and the Oracle continue their conversation, but now there is a note of urgency about Amelia. As Amelia goes to leave, Seraph gives a fraction of a bow as she departs.
After a moment has passed, Seraph turns and looks at the Oracle and crosses his arms over his chest. “How can you say you’ll be okay here, if just anyone can wander in!?” He gestures in the direction that Amelia departed. “And what in the hells, I killed that guy cleanly, it was a good cut, but he appeared whole and hearty behind her.” Seraph shakes his head. “I don’t understand what just happened here.”
“They are dreamers, my dear Seraph” she says gently. “And in my realm I am as safe as your charge Morgaine is with you.” She sighs. “No, I do not fear them. It is my physical form that can be killed. The worst that can be done in this place is to force me from it.
“And the man was a ghost, dear Seraph. An ancient beyond ancient spirit,” she says. “You could no more kill him than you could your grandmother Malak. He is just more adept at returning than she is. But then he has ages upon ages of experience.” She holds up her finger. “But the Lady of Wind…she is altogether different. She is mighty, perhaps more mighty than even Noi’fei. And her destiny and yours intertwine. Beware of her, my dear. She is one that her friendship could mean much and her enmity could ruin everything.”
“I see. You have given me much to think on.” Seraph returns to a cross legged sitting position.
“Listen for the music, my dear Seraph,” the Oracle says, and Seraph begins to feel as if he is waking up. “The music shall lead you to where you need to be.”
Between one moment and the next, Seraph finds himself standing looking out over the most water he has ever seen in one place. He is standing on a a platform made of whole logs, on the edge of those logs, and he is looking out over this immense body of water. He feels dizzy and feels like he can’t look away. He grabs on to a short railing, profoundly glad that it is there, and stares out into the expanse, his ears ringing.
|End oracular journey #1|
Seraph wakes up in Raeb’s body. He is now eight feet tall, hairy, with huge clawed paws and a sense of smell that allows him to perceive every dead fish and crabshell under the boardwalk. Amazingly, Morgaine recognizes him anyway.
Chosofi comes running pell-mell down the boardwalk and caroms off Berun-Seraph. A pack of Kymelions appears close behind her. Collin, Chosofi’s companion, shoots one. Morgaine steps in front of one to protect Chosofi from the poison spit. That draws Abbadon and Berun-Seraph into the fight. Marli, who knows Kymelions mean nothing but trouble, flying leap-kicks one into another, staggering them. Leno, who is nearby, cold-cocks one and cleaves another who has spit at Marli. Chosofi heals the wound, but there will always be a bald patch. At least it’s the same arm as the lack of hand.
Collin mentions that he and Chosofi are trying to go into hiding, and would like to be out of the street. Marli is surprised to hear that Seraph is also being prompted to follow the music, but since Leno says it’d be okay for everyone to hide out in a small room near the source of the music, everyone crowds in.
Chosofi is blind, but has absolutely no problem seeing Morgaine because she’s a projected spirit. When Morgaine mentions she’s lost, Chosofi does a little magic and locates Morgaine’s silver thread and gives it to her. Seraph understands her, much to Collin’s amazement, though Collin does find himself translating a lot for the rest of the time. Also, as soon as Morgaine has the thread in her hands, Seraph can see his way home too, though it looks very far.
Marli goes out to see the source of the music, and recognizes the man at the piano as the black-and-white thread in the tapestry. Collin calls her back, and she talks about the prophetic vision she had (and how she recognizes Leno and Abbadon and Chosofi as being part of it too), and about the child who needs to return to her mother or everyone will die. Conversation ensues about Marli’s vision-child versus the baby Florin took. The very strong possibility is that Florin has taken the child into the Dreaming, where time is all sorts of messed up, and that’s why Marli sees it as a young woman rather than an infant. Collin mentions that Chosofi had also been guided to find a rabbit-woman.
Thaddeus finishes his concert and returns to his dressing room, horrified to find a crowd in it. Marli creeps him out yet further by “knowing” that he’s going to Thistledorf, and offering to pay his fare if she can come along, since he’s part of her prophecy too.
When Marli recognized Abbadon, she also noticed that Seraph was dreaming (which also was part of her prophecy, that some who met her would be dreaming). Abbadon, on the other hand, was apparently transported via the blue bucket, which Seraph said contained water from the Oasis of Inyanna. Abbadon insisted that such a place did not actually exist, and this prompted a heavy discussion about how, or if, Abbadon was going to get back to the Vale. They also weren’t entirely sure that Morgaine could get back because she’d been flung past the Dreaming into this world, but Seraph was able to contact Brandy, who seemed confident that if Morgaine attempted to wake up, Seraph would be able to find where she got stranded, and guide her back to her body. (That’s why Brandy picked Seraph!) So they’re sure Morgaine and Seraph can get back, but not so much about Abbadon. He accepts it stoically, since it seems they were sent here for a reason, and in any case it will be fun to try and thwart a prophecy by deliberately not attempting to travel with Marli. Berun-Seraph offers to kill Thaddeus and see how that affects the prophecy. Marli attempts to punch him, but Berun-Seraph is easily able to hold her at his arm’s length, which is very long. Morgaine then winks out, and Seraph wanders away. The rest of the people also split up, Marli and Collin and Chosofi immediately booking passage to Thistledorf.
So…back to Zinyini-Raeb. Utterly baffled by his new turn of events (and not being able to smell anything), he attempts to sit up and start shouting. The rest of the party restrains him, and Red gives him a rapid-fire explanation of the situation which pretty much just confuses him into silence. Finally Red convinces everyone to try and rescue the other dwarf-looking creature on the grounds that he might know something about the bucket. It ends up being a very simple snatch-and-grab. Malak asks how well the drow fare in the light, thinking about using her own glow to blind them, but Red instead opts for a flash arrow. The carpet dives, Azis and Gorlon haul up the dwarf by his ropes, and the carpet takes off for the hole in the ceiling that leads into the crystal-tree room. The drow try to slow everyone down by casting a deep magical darkness, but the carpet doesn’t have eyes, so when Azis instructs it to travel to the hole from whence it came, it can still do so! The drow then cast some sort of flickering pink glow around everyone, probably to make them easier targets for crossbow bolts. Red quickly improvises a blind with her cloak.
As the party enters the crystal-tree room, Red finds herself looking up. In the glass roots, she sees Adam courting a lovely woman whom he calls Li’Marolf. She tears her eyes away, then has the idea to try and use the glass roots to scry on the drow. It seems having intent does allow one to control what one sees, and they’re not yet flying up after the party…
The dwarf is loosed from his bonds and introduces himself as Dohr. As Malak tends to his shoulders and wrists, he says that he actually came from the dwarven version of Heaven, and was very grateful to be free from the accursed drow. Red shows him the bucket, and Dohr translates the runes. They say that if the bucket is filled with water from the Oasis of Inyanna, then one need only touch the water and chew upon some root (those runes are untranslatable) and one can be transported anywhere one desires. This in turn prompts Gorlon to insist that the Oasis does not exist, and the others to speculate as to why the heck Florin would have it all the way down here. The best answer they have is that the drow possess the needed roots, so Florin would need to either trade for or steal them to make good his escape with the child.
Zinyini-Raeb, not understanding any of the conversation but very thoroughly understanding the market value of the gems on the trees, takes the knife off his belt and reaches to pry a sapphire off a nearby branch. The others try to talk him out of it, Gorlon mentioning the acidic creatures living in the trees that will “eat your face off”. Zinyini-Raeb shrugs and says he doesn’t care ‘cause it isn’t his face, and continues prying. Malak, furious at this body-snatcher and his disregard for her grandson’s corporeal safety, blasts Zinyini-Raeb and sends him tumbling across the sand crust just as he finishes prying. The gem flies from his hand, and he cracks a hole in one of the crusted sand drifts as he bounces off it. Clear liquid oozes out, and begins very obviously flowing toward him – it’s another of those creatures! Zinyini-Raeb scrambles to his feet and rushes for the carpet. Gorlon, who’d hopped down to help him up, follows close behind. Malak lets loose another blast, which kicks up the loosened sand, burying and flaying the ooze.
After the fight, Dohr laments his sobriety. Gorlon obligingly digs out his flask of firewhisky and offers it to Dohr, who proclaims it the best alcohol he’s had since Tuesday. Zinyini-Raeb clamors for a sip as well. Malak objects, but is unable to physically stop him from seizing the flask and taking a pull. She then grabs him and begins to threaten his well-being if he continues to have such callous disregard for the body he’s currently inhabiting.
At about this point, Seraph’s and Morgaine’s journey through astral space is complete, and Zinyini-Seraph celebrates his return to himself by promptly vomiting up the firewhisky…all over Malak. Malak, too furious to have noticed any change, continues her beratement until Seraph addresses her by name, thus cementing that it’s really him in there now.
Seraph recounts his adventure in the Berun’s world, and says that nobody really knows how they’re going to get Abbadon back, but apparently there’s some sort of prophecy in that other world that involves him. At this point, the party begins to plan their next move.
|Begin oracular journey #2|
Morgaine blinks out and Seraph’s attention is pulled back and over his left shoulder. As he turns the scene shifts and he realizes that he is somehow back looking as he should. Morgaine is standing in front of him. He recognizes that he is in the hallway directly leading to the Oracle. High walls with silken hangings covering them attached to nothing. The swirling clouds above in the sky. Seraph has seen this hallway from inside the oracles room but has never been in the hallway. One direction of the hallway leads to the Oracle’s chamber a mere 10 feet away. The other runs back and turns left about 30 feet away.
“Where are we?” Says Morgaine.
Seraph will adjust his sword and make a quick sweeping glance of the area. “It is the place of Dreams. Sometimes I find myself here while dreaming. Do you feel closer to your physical body or is it still hard to return to?” Seraph will look wistfully down the hallway leading away from the Oracle’s chamber, knowing that he would much prefer to head that way rather than through the Oracle’s chamber like his internal compass indicates.
“I don’t feel close or far away,” says Morgaine. At the same time Seraph starts hearing footsteps from around the corner in the opposite direction.
Seraph will quickly motion for quiet. He will then palm a dagger and hold it behind him for her to take. They’ll then begin to slowly move back towards the other opening towards the Oracle’s chambers as quietly as possible, with Seraph in a fighting stance. He hasn’t drawn his sword though, in an effort to not make noise.
Morgaine takes the dagger. As Seraph moves through the threshold into the Oracle’s chamber he hears her say “Seraph? Is that you?”
Glancing behind him, he sees her finishing putting on her mask and looking in his direction while still laying on her couch.
The footsteps are light and muffled as if it is someone wearing robes or the like. Not a big someone but obviously moving this direction with a purpose.
“Sorry to bother you, but it appears that we have to go through this room to get Morgaine back to her body. Also, you have a visitor coming down the hallway. The steps are light and it sounds like they might be wearing a robe.” Seraph edges his blade out a fraction. “Are you expecting anyone or is this another intruder like the last time.” Seraph will now attempt to divide his attention between watching the door and keeping an eye on the knife he gave Morgaine. With more time spent watching the door.
“I’m terribly sorry for intruding, M’lady” Morgaine says slightly bowing to the Oracle. The Oracle’s masked face whips around and you are immediately struck that she had no idea that Morgaine was there.
And from beyond the curtained entry arch to the Oracles chambers you hear a sultry womans voice. “It’s a gown actually Not a robe. I usually do not meet royalty in my robe.”
She steps in. “My name is Solace. And you must be the famous Seraph of the Zinyini.”
“I am, although I’m afraid you have me at a disadvantage here as I do not know you.” Seraph will not take his hand away from his sword yet, although his stance will relax as he positions himself between Morgaine and Solace.
(Morgaine would be close to his right hand, the Oracle back behind his left hand, and Solace would be in front of him.)
“I would ask how you found this place but the answer to that never seems to get me anywhere.” Seraph will scowl. “What is your purpose here and how do you plan to leave here if I don’t like the answer?”
Seraph is now mentally making a list of all the people who have seen the Oracle who he’ll have to find time to deal with to keep her safe. Amelia, Cruz, Morgaine (bah, vow), and now Solace.
“Oh, Your Highness, You were right. He is Handsome. ” Solace says addressing the Oracle behind Seraph. “But I suppose that wouldn’t matter to you..” She finishes smiling coldly at Seraph.
Seraph shifts his eyes briefly toward the Oracle, when Solace calls her “Your Highness” but maintains a commanders unreadable face.
“It is not yet time Your Highness..” The Oracle says with steel in her voice. ” Your Grandfather has not yet gathered his forces And My… And Seraph is not yet fully trained. Neither is Morgaine.”
“Me?” Peeps Morgaine quietly
Seraph glances at Morgaine.
Solace curtseys. Seraph feels a wave of desire wash over him. Nothing he can’t resist but definitely emanating from Solace.
“My desert raider.. I am Princess Solace. I came from very far to just get a look at you.” Solace says and curtsies to Morgaine as well. “And Princess Morgaine Dar’ Al’Erised, Daughter of the Heir to the Black throne, and all the realms of the Court of the Abyss. Greetings.”
“You see, Seraph..” Solace says conspiratorially. “Your people and I share a common enemy. We both hate the ‘demons’”.
Seraph finally removes his hand from his sword and crosses his arms since obviously Solace and the Oracle know each other. “It is true that the Zinyini hate the demons. The deaths they inflicted upon us as they marched across the land building their black road still call out for retribution.” Seraph’s arms tighten and flex. “But I do not understand what that has to do with you or what this ‘time’ is that you and the Oracle are speaking about.” Seraph’s eyes get wide, “Are the demons preparing to attack again?”
Solace smiles at you. “The ‘demons’ and their Allies are threatening My realm. Though If my realm falls your world would be next. Indeed much of the reason behind the attempt upon the Vale was to have a staging point to attack…My home.”
Solace motions with her hand and a velvet chair appears. She sits gracefully down. “I* Have no cause to lie to you Seraph.” She smiles sweetly. “My Grandfather has allied himself with the ‘demons’ and is going to attempt to take back his throne. But that can not be allowed. My Grandfather is … a monster. So I came, as a supplicant, to your dear Oracle..” She motions toward the Oracle. “Asking her to find me … champions. Someone with special abilities that could help me save my home. Someone who had reason to hate my realms enemies, just as your Oracle does. Just as you do.”
Seraph shakes his head. “While I would not see another realm fall to demons, everyone knows that we are protected here by Empress Carawynne. You don’t need champions, princess, you need an Army. One man can’t hope to defeat the demons, especially me. I can’t even fight the Knights of the Vale successfully.”
She smiles enigmatically. “You don’t need an army to defeat the demons..you need a weapon.”
Morgaine is getting visibly upset at this, but she looks to Seraph following his lead. Seraph can see she is just about to launch into this lady given the slightest reason.
Seraph steps back half a pace so that Morgaine may better address Solace. In his head he thinks ‘just don’t say anything you might regret’.
“My mother and Father would never break their vow and attack the Empress!” hisses Morgaine. “Especially not while I am in the Vale.”
Solace nods to Morgaine. “I meant no disrespect Princess Morgaine. I would never impugn your family’s proverbial sense of Honor. Of course they wouldn’t.” She smiles ferally “They would wait for my grandfather’s forces to rape the world and all who are on it, and come to their sister’s… and your, rescue.”
Seraph moves forward a half step to forestall whatever Morgaine’s response would be. He holds up a hand palm out to Morgaine and Solace. “Hold princesses. Princess Solace, do I have the right of this? Your grandfather has enlisted the aid of the demons to claim the throne in your realm. You however have a weapon that can stop them and you just need a champion, or you need both a champion and a weapon? If the champion and weapon don’t work, then you say that the demons will then descend on this land again, because of your grandfather? How could the demons overcome what Empress Carawynne has done, even with your grandfather assisting?”
Solace leans back. “There are greater forces yet than your Empress Carawynne. And what I am saying is that there IS a weapon, one that can defeat the plans of the demons and my grandfather. And that I will need a group of champions to both find it and wield it.”
Seraph will glance at the Oracle, “Is all that she says true, Oracle? If her realm falls, will the demons come again?” Seraph clenches his fists.
The Oracle shudders. “If the princess’s mothers lay o’erthrown, then the Remorseless shall send his children to this place to devour the living and the dead alike. The Empress’s sister shall make the attempt to rescue her house but the Vale itself and the desert of Nadra shall be no more.” The Oracle puts her hand to her breast, breathing hard with the effort of her “seeing”.
Seraph blinks as he listens to the prophecy. As the Oracle comes to the part where ‘the Vale itself and the desert of Nadra shall be no more’ his eyes harden and his hand tightens on his sword grip. “I will not allow the desert to fall and I am bound to protect the Valite royalty.” Seraph turns to Solace, “Can you show me how to obtain the weapon and put a halt to this madness?” Seraph sighs and relaxes a fraction, “There are people I must protect. Although Azis probably isn’t going to like this turn of events.” Seraph turns and looks at Morgaine, “Actually, there is another task I must finish first, before I could search for this weapon.”
Solace smiles. “Actually you have some time yet.” she says. “Even with our weapon the timing must be precise. And my grandfather can not be shown our plan before it’s time. And yet I am glad to hear you say you will aid me. Learn what you can Seraph – and you as well, Princess Morgaine. We shall meet again ere long.”
Morgaine says “I will not fight against my people, but I will not let Seraph’s people be in harms way.”
Solace says. “If my plan works, your highness, Your people will never even come to a battlefield. It will all be over long before that.” She stands, and the chair she was on turns to mist. Solace curtsies low to the Oracle and then to both the others. “I have other rounds to make if you’ll excuse me..” She smiles and turns her back on them all.
Once Solace leaves the room and her foot steps fade, Seraph turns to the Oracle and give his ritual greeting. Seraph kneels and offers up his scimitar across the palms of his hands, blade on the left hand, hilt on the right hand. “I offer my blade to you that it may serve you as you have served me.” After the ritual he rises back to his feet. “I apologize for the intrusion Oracle, somehow through here is the path back for Morgaine to return to her body.” Seraph pauses with a contemplative look. “This was a lot to take in and probably I will have questions when I return next, but can you add anything to what Princess Solace said?”
“You were breathtaking,” she says “And you handled her well. She is an evil woman and I regret dealing with her.” The Oracle shakes her head. “But there really is no other choice. The doom that will fall upon the world is too great. I… Thank you, Seraph. I look forward to our next meeting when we shall perhaps speak more… plainly.” She turns toward where Morgaine stands. “May your journeys be educational Princess Morgaine. You are free to return if you wish.” and she will incline her head to Morgaine.
“Thank you M’lady” Morgaine says.
“You can find your path, my dear Seraph.” She says with a smile in her voice. And indeed Seraph can sense the path through one of the sheer curtained openings.
Seraph will sketch a quick bow and then gesture for Morgaine to follow him through the curtain. Seraph will wait till they have taken the first corner in the hallway and then stop and look Morgaine in the eye. “I can’t stop you from telling your sisters about this place, but I will say this. The Oracle and my ability to guide you back are the two main reasons that Princess Germaine bound me with the Vow to help you; however, they would kill the Oracle given a chance, for the assistance she gave me on the raids.” Seraph pauses. “Do you understand? She will die if you tell your sisters about this place, and with her death we lose any help she could have provided stopping the demons.” Seraph will look away for a moment in case Morgaine wants to speak.
Morgaine winces when Seraph mentions stopping the demons, but her face softens after that.
“She is in love with you, Seraph,” she will say simply. “I am not going to do anything to jeopardize that.” She pauses “My family are not demons. They are just another group of people that have other interests that ran afoul of the interests here.” She shakes her head. “You probably won’t believe me, but I am NOT your enemy. And I am mortified that your current situation is mostly because of me.” She looks up at the Zinyini. “I’m not your enemy and I would like to be called your friend. I vow to you that I will not tell anyone about the Oracle and MY family does not break its word.”
Seraph holds the silence for a moment more, then give a curt nod.
“After you come back from your physical body next time, I will begin teaching you how to wield a dagger. If you want.” Seraph cocks an eyebrow, “Or maybe I could teach you while I am asleep, in this dream place. I’ll have to see about getting permission from the Oracle for that.”
“I think I will need that training,” Morgaine says, nodding.
Seraph nods and takes a moment to calm himself. He then starts off in the direction that will return Morgaine to her physical body.
After a time they begin walking through a ghostly castle. The walls seeming to be made of solid mist. And finally they will walk through the door of Morgaine’s room and see her laying asleep in her ghostly bed.
“Here I am.” Morgaine says. “Seraph… I have been thinking. You need to find her. I mean the Oracle. What if someone comes for her when she is ‘awake’? We would never know. She needs to be protected. We need to find where she actually IS.”
Seraph had started to turn away and pauses with his back to Morgaine so that she can not see his face. “Yes, I had said something similar to her the last time I was there but she brushed my concern aside and said she was far off and safe enough where she was. But even as it stands I’m not sure what good I would be to her like I am. I’m too weak right now to provide protection from demons or Knights of the Vale.” Seraph sighs, “Well it seems like I have a long walk ahead of me. I will see you back at camp.”
“You’re stronger than you know, Seraph.” she says. “I’ll see you back at camp..” And she crawls into bed.
|End oracular journey #2|
Unfortunately FemmeLegion couldn’t make it to the session and I lack her creative story telling so you only get this session in summary form.
We picked up right where we left off last game, with Seraph having just returned to the party without Morgaine and Abaddon. There was some talk about what to do about the Drow below and Seraph reiterated that if the party could free the red slave that she should be able to lead us out of this place. There was some initial resistance to attacking the Drow from Gorlon and Red, but in the end Seraph’s insistence and the replacement Dwarf’s (Dohr’s) enthusiasm won out. Seraph assigned roles to each person in typical raid fashion to increase the odds of winning but otherwise there wasn’t time for some big elaborate plan as Azis reported that the Drow were packing up. Azis, Seraph, Red, and the Dwarf were tasked with defeating the 4 Drow quickly and then dispatching the Crabs. Gorlon was assigned to the responsibility for freeing the slaves as quickly as possible, in the hopes that they would join the battle as well. Malak would of course provide the intial distraction and blinding strike.
The party loaded up on the carpet and down we zoomed. Gorlon dropped off the carpet as we passed the slaves and then Azis did a flying tackle from the carpet and snapped one of the Drow necks. Unfortunately this maneuver lined him up with a swing from one of the hammers that the Crabs were using and he was knocked out after killing the initial Drow. At this point Malak kicked up a wind and a brilliant flash of light that took the Drow and Crabs unaware; however, the Drow recovered quickly and the three remaining Drow each hit her with one of their crossbow bolts knocking her to the ground where she quickly faded away. Dohr and Seraph closed in to melee range and began engaging the Drow, with two of them on Dohr and one facing Seraph. Red hung back and began to shoot them with pixie sticks, errr… arrows from her bow. The Drow were proving to be far more agile than expected and Dohr and Seraph were having trouble landing hits on them while Red’s arrows were proving ineffective against the Drow chainmail. As one, the three Drow cast darkness over the area and highlighted each of their opponents with faerie fire. The two Drow facing Dohr reloaded their crossbow bolts and fired nearly point blank at him, scoring hits on his head with the deadly bolts.
During this time Abaddon, still trapped on the Isle of Champions, had begun to get a feeling as if someone was watching him. Shadowing his every move with an intent to attack. As the bolts struck Dohr and he started to fall, Abaddon found himself back in the cave facing two bewildered Drow attackers. Thanks to his special eye patch, Abaddon is able to “see” all that is going on and successfully kills the closest smug Drow in front of him.
During this time shortly after the darkness appeared, Gorlon was working over the leg chain binding the slaves and finally snapped one of the links using knife and a bit of leverage. Luckily for Gorlon, the Crabs had been stunned from Malak’s initial attack up until about this time. As the Crab warriors began to advance on Gorlon on an unsuspecting Gorlon, a hand reached out and touched him gently on the forehead after which he could see in the unnatural darkness as well. Once recovered from the light attack the Crabs seemed to have no trouble in the darkness although they were clutching an amulet on their chest, but as the nearest Crab went to strike Gorlon a shovel embedded itself in the Crab’s forehead as a very large jackle-headed freed slave came to Gorlon’s assistance.
As the darkness enveloped all, Seraph tried for a desperate strike to the last place his Drow opponent had been; however, his blade caught only air as the Drow had already moved back for a crossbow attack. Suddenly there was a rustling of chains and the Drow that Seraph was hunting became visible in a ruddy red light with chains wrapped around his body and the red skinned chick holding on tightly. Not wasting the opportunity, Seraph quickly delivered a killing strike to the trussed up Drow.
Growing fed up with her ineffective arrows, Red tossed the bow away and sprinted over to the remaining Drow and knocked him unconscious. Seraph, Abaddon, Gorlon, and the freed slaves rapidly went about dispatching the rest of the Crabs as Red made her way over to the Drow’s pack lizards with her unconscious prize. She quickly went through and sorted out any food/drink for the freed slaves and any treasure and useful items that the Drow had been carrying.
After all of the enemies had been dispatched one of the freed slaves hurried over to where Seraph had been checking on Azis. Seraph could barely believe it but the slave was Uncle Babzim who had been presumed lost to the desert these several years. The man that taught Azis the snake charming rituals was here in front of him, though the years had not been kindly. He then told Seraph that Seraph’s mother Rashell had been captured by the Drow in the raid that was blamed on the Dog clan. She was being held in the Drow city deeper down in the earth with other Zinyini captives. He then made the cryptic statement that “He had not been honorable.” And scooped up one of the war hammers that the Crab folk had used and rushed at Seraph. Understanding his intent, to regain his honor by being killed in battle, Seraph struck quickly to preserve his own life and killed Uncle Babzim. Not understanding, the non-Zinyini gathered around as Seraph lowered Uncle Babzim’s body to the ground reverently. Seraph waved away Gorlon’s attempts to heal Uncle Babzim.
At about the same time that Seraph was learning of his kin being detained in the Drow stronghold, Abaddon was receiving similar news regarding the fate of several mining parties that had gone missing but were presumed dead. After learning this he stormed over to Red’s unconscious captive and demanded that he be woken up and interrogated. Red agreed to wake him back up and with the help of the old wizened slave who granted Gorlon sight in the darkness they attempted to question the Drow. However, the Drow was not in a cooperative mood and the questioning was going no where. Abaddon produced a knife and began removing toes, starting with the smallest first. After 3 toes Red called a halt to the torture, knocked the Drow back out, and dressed his foot so that he wouldn’t bleed to death. It was agreed that the Drow would be handed over to the Valites so that they might probe his mind. Seraph mentioned that they are good at that kind of thing… At about that time Morgaine popped back in existence and despite Abaddon asking her to return to the Vale and tell everyone of the Drow, she was unable to wake back up having just taken the sleeping potion.
The red-skinned slave (who is apparently the equivalent of a sand mermaid) pointed out that we must leave this area quickly if we wanted to get away before a Drow patrol found us. She indicated that she could lead us to the nearest exit, and the wizened slave who helped Gorlon said he could get us past the Coolo (?) that would be guarding the exit. Red readied the pack lizards that the Drow were using and the group began making our way out of the caves. The group did not stop to rest along the way, instead choosing to have those tired ride on the lizards and nap, and swapping out along the way, to make the best time. During this time, one of the other freed slaves who was a Zinyinni revealed himself to be of the Dog clan and attempted to goad Seraph by reminding him that the Dog clan had been wiped out by Seraph’s clans insistence that the Dog clan were at fault. He then made the mistake of further insulting the Azer and Abaddon promptly knocked him unconscious.
On the way to the surface, Morgaine was unable to container herself or wait for the appropriate time and blurted out much of what her and Seraph learned when returning from the Isle of Champions. She expressed considerable surprise when she learned that Seraph hadn’t come back and immediately told the part that this world was facing impending doom sometime in the vague future… She told her story fully to anyone who was willing to listen.
The party managed to get safe passage through the guardians at the exit of the cave, but it was 500 feet above the surface of the desert. Red whipped out the parachutes while some of the other party members debated the best way down. Impatient to get to the bottom, Red chained the Drow to her, donned a parachute and went over the side. Unfortunately, the rapid passage of the air appeared to have woken the Drow up and he struggled violently to disrupt the controlled jump. Unfortunately he succeeded and him and Red slammed violently into the cliff face 200-250 feet above the ground. He tilted his head back as they hit the cliff, to ensure that he would not survive it.
As those still up on the cliff debated what to do, Gorlon quickly donned a parachute and lept over the cliff’s edge hoping to find a way to tend to Red’s injuries. Shortly after, Azis began to rouse himself and so preparations were being made to retrieve Red with the carpet and join the lonely Azer on the desert floor below.
The first thing Azis noticed as he swam out of the blackness was that his head hurt…a lot. Eventually other things came to him despite his closed eyes. Murmurs of voices. The feeling of sunlight on his skin. A breeze, carrying a familiar scent.
After a few moments, he chose to re-enter the waking world.
The first thing Azis noticed as he opened his eyes was the corpse of his long-lost uncle Babzim lying next to him.
|NB: The following are summary notes, which I may or may not expand to full narrative in the future. The rush of energy I had at the start of the campaign is starting to drain. That, and if I write them out completely *now, what will I do for NaNoWriMo? ~ FemmeLegion|
With Azis awake, it’s finally an option to use the carpet to rescue Red and get everyone down the cliff. Morgaine was apparently trying to cut Red out of her harness despite the 100-foot fall that would cause. And nobody heard Red yelling at her to stop…odd.
Malak reappears shortly thereafter. Seraph pulls Azis aside and briefs him on how the fight went after Azis fell – they freed some slaves, including Uncle Babzim who insisted on attacking Seraph so as to reclaim his lost honour. Another freed slave is a Zinyini of the Jackal tribe, whom the Tal-Madge had blamed for the theft of their women and children (including Seraph’s mother Rashell). According to “Dog”, Seraph says, it had in fact been the drow who had abducted the Tal-Madge, and Babzim had corroborated the story. The drow have been making slaves of Zinyini, Azer, Bhuka, Asherati, whatever the jackal-headed thing is, and even Valites, and feeding them a strange fungal root to keep them docile and dependent. Red believes it’s the same root that Florin needed in order to activate the bucket upon filling it with water from the Oasis of Inyanna. Seraph also mentions that it seems as though Florin had traveled to the same place that he visited with Morgaine and Abbadon, and short of more dream madness only the bucket would be able to transport them there.
Azis regains his bearings and realizes they are standing at the feet of the Cliffs of Insanity, which means they are only two day’s travel from the City of the Vale. Night is falling, which normally would be the best time to travel, but out of respect for the much-weakened freed slaves accompanying them, the party instead opts to make camp and set out at dawn. The red-skinned female, who calls herself Djeti, promptly celebrates her freedom by diving into the sand as though it were a pool of water. She emerges a short distance away, giddy with joy, and continues diving for several minutes. Finally Djeti has had her fill for a while, and sheepishly asks Red if she has any spare clothes, as she has just shredded hers in the sand.
Dog approaches Red and informs her that both he and Rasko (a freed Azer) are still dependent on the fungal root, and that they will die without it, but he believes that a small dose once or twice a day will be sufficient to keep them alive. When Red speaks with Djeti and the Bhuka (Stork-with-legs-in-mud) and the jackal-headed beast that will not reveal its name, she finds that their addictions, while still present, will not kill them if not indulged. All the same, Red is glad she hoarded an entire pouch’s worth. She makes plans to show the root to any and all herbalists and apothecaries she may meet, in hopes of figuring out how to cultivate more or duplicate it some other way.
As Red builds up a small fire and cooks dinner, the party converses amongst themselves, and in the end they decide that the most immediately pressing course of action is to return to the Vale and warn people of the drow threat rather than pursuing the Oasis of Inyanna and the magic bucket Florin had apparently used. Red asks Morgaine if she thinks she’d be able to wake up now and alert her family that the party would be returning to the Vale with dire news, a dead drow for her auntto question, and a few extra people for whom to care.
As Azis paces the perimeter of the camp scouting for any obvious dangers, he passes just a little too close to Gorlon for the jackal-man’s tastes, and receives a glower. Azis takes offense, and asks who the jackal-man is. The jackal-man maintains that he will not give his name to such inferior and impure creatures. Azis takes further offense, and a swing, which misses. The two trade blows again, and Malak is readied to knock one or both of them down herself, before Gorlon is able to talk the two men out of it (mostly by commanding the jackal-man to stop). The jackal-man relents, and begins to bitterly lament that he will need to not only ritually purify himself, but castrate himself after having associated with such creatures. Gorlon attempts to get him to talk more about himself, and the jackal-man proudly identifies himself as one of the first creations of.
As night falls, Malak approaches Dog, asking him if he prays. He snorts and asks “to what?” Malak is unaware that he is a former Ahmari, since she died many years before that fateful altercation, so she is surprised by this absence of faith from a Zinyini. Dog says that while it’s obvious that Malak has met at least one of the gods in person, and while he genuinely means no disrespect to her having faith, he would dare (for example) Azis to climb the smoldering staircase up to the City of the Gods and meet T’Cidien and come away still feeling that the gods were worthy of adoration. Malak clarifies with Dog that he’s okay with her believing, but that he feels her faith is misguided, and wanders off very concerned for his sake. And very glad she’d just gotten back from another tryst with Einac – being around only one Zinyini who wasn’t sexually taboo to her had been rather frustrating, and now it turns out Dog would not be interested without a whole lot of philosophical work on her part.
Abbadon regretfully informs Malak that he won’t be able to help too much on watch, having promised to help Red bundle up the dead drow body, and feeling responsible for fellow Azer Rasko. Rasko is in particularly bad shape due to hard abusive life as a drow slave and his addiction to the fungal root. He finally wrangles Rosko to bed and camps next to him, trying to sleep on his other side so his unscarred ear is to the sky and not the ground.
Gorlon is awakened promptly at dawn by the jackal-man kicking him in the side. Azis once again begins patrolling the camp’s edge looking for potential trouble and the best route to the city, and once again is glowered at by the jackal-man. Azis asks if the jackal-man is going to throw another punch, and the jackal-man says that he cannot unless Gorlon commands it, as per the terms of the life-debt. Gorlon tries to insist that he did not want the life-debt and he would gladly free the jackal-man to return to his home and people, but the jackal-man simply shakes his head and declares that the idea of life-debt is something beyond the understanding of anyone else present. Along the way, he refers to the Zinyini pantheon as inferior gods, which prompts Azis to lunge at him again.
Seraph does the best he can to construct an elevated bier for uncle Babzim, in accordance with Zinyini death traditions. He wonders how far away it would be to reach Grandfather Hakim and inform him of the drow danger, and through both logic and mystic gift divines that they’re about a month away at normal pace, and three weeks away at a strenuous pace. Abandoning that plan, Seraph mumbles a prayer that the birds take Babzim’s soul to the City of the Gods, then walks away without looking back.
Blessedly, the morning’s travel passes without excitement. Red surprises the Zinyini men by marking their midday camping spot with a urine still. Seraph asks Red where she learned that, since that knowledge is traditionally only passed down among Zinyini men. After a meandering tale, Red eventually answers that someone not of the Vale or Zinyini taught her during a henching run in a completely different desert.
Djeti, still in very high spirits to be back out in the sand, starts singing. Azis shushes her because he knows from experience that anti-Valite Zinyini think nothing of striking at and raiding any group they think too weak to defend themselves, even this close to the City. Gorlon leans over and tells her that he would be very happy to trade songs with her once they were safe inside the city.
Morgaine reappears during the midday rest. She says that Benevida will gladly attempt to question the dead drow, that plans are being made to accommodate additional guests, and (she looks sheepishly at the ground as she says) Seraph is to accompany her to a royal ball to be held an evening or two after everyone is expected to return to the castle.
Travel through the late afternoon and evening passes uneventfully, except for a brief tussle between Abbadon and Red over Rasko. Red knows that his mind is nearly gone and he’s prone to wandering off and making noise, and she wants to put him on a leash of some sort. Abbadon insists that Rasko will never be chained again, and much like the night before spends a lot of his effort keeping him corralled and quiet.
Gorlon speaks with Djeti along the way, reminding her that she, too, is free – the party did not liberate her from the Drow just so they could keep her for themselves. She replies that she understand this, but she has also heard them discussing a possible need to visit the Oasis of Inyanna, and she has been there. She feels somewhat obligated to remain with the party until they visit, because she is quite confident they will require her help to get there since it’s under the sand. This floors Gorlon for a moment, since he had been raised to consider it simply a child’s tale – and Djeti takes advantage of his silence to explain that the oasis is a sort of chamber formed by walls of water flowing down through the sand, but it is most definitely underground.
As Azis scouts ahead, he crests a dune and notices a tent city sprawled in a crescent around the entrance to the “Endless Tunnel” leading to the City of the Vale. He remembers tales of this city as being inhabited by Zinyini who have “sold out” to the Valites to such degree that they even abandon their nomadic lifestyle. His disgust turns to impotent rage as he notices three of the white-clad Amazon Knights riding perimeter patrol. He turns back and tells the others, and insists that under no circumstances are they entering the city with a flying carpet visible.
Abbadon volunteers to try and leverage some of his status with Prince Lewis to get some pack animals to carry the gear they’d been carrying on the carpet up until now, and perhaps some other supplies. He takes Rasko and strides up to the (normal, non-Amazon) guards at the front of the city and introduces himself, asking for medical attention for Rasko and permission to speak with the captain of the guard because he has other requests as well. One of the guards obligingly leads Rasko off to what passes for a hospital in the tent city. The captain of the guard arrives quickly and tells Abbadon that the Empress herself had told him of the party’s imminent arrival, that he was to indulge all reasonable requests Abbadon might have, and that a barracks tent had been cleared out to accommodate everyone for the evening. Abbadon requests some horses and pack animals along with food, water, and a few medical supplies for immediate care before everyone makes the final press for the city.
Azis has rolled up the carpet and slung it on his back under his robes, and he helps load the packs onto dray beasts. As the sun sinks below the dunes, the party enters the tent city and are shown to the barracks tent. The jackal-man warns Gorlon that he will not be able to kill everyone in the city if it turned out to be a trap, and that Gorlon will need to run if violence erupts. Gorlon, convinced it’s not an issue but not wanting to offend the already touchy jackal-man, simply agrees to the plan.
Along the way, Malak’s attention is drawn to several divine sigils posted outside other tents. The guards escorting them explain to her that the tents are temples to different Zinyini gods. She marvels that each god/dess would have his/her own temple – she had been trained to priestess for any and all of them depending on the faithful’s need – and she feels the call of her old life tugging at her heart. After everyone is settled in, she checks with both Seraph and Azis to confirm that they feel they can guard themselves without her, and that they don’t “need” her for “anything else”, then slips out to the temple to Einac. The clergy are honored to have a Spirit Warrior as a priestess, and Malak spends the entire night there, reveling in her old calling.
Red leaves small offerings in each temple’s basket in keeping with a henchman’s tradition of thanking any deities native to the region in which she’s adventuring, then searches the city for an herbalist or apothecary. She finds a couple of them, and they are all utterly fascinated by the fungal root she shows them. None have ever seen anything even remotely like it before, and would have no idea how to cultivate it.
Azis is still slightly confused by the idea of sleeping at night rather than traveling, but his temporal disorientation from several days underground (and his lingering injury) means he’s not inclined to argue. They stand watch out of force of habit, but by this point Azis and Seraph are both becoming resigned to the notion that the Valite Royalty have too much invested in Seraph to allow any harm to befall him or his companions.
Malak returns in the morning, an emotional glow matching her body’s luminescence. The guards bring an amazing amount of breakfast, Abbadon dons every stitch of clothing he has in anticipation of the “cold” of the City, and the party is off to the Endless Tunnel. Thankfully it is not actually endless, but with the number of curves and switchbacks deliberately included in the tunnel’s construction, what would take two hours to walk in a straight line instead takes eight. The tunnel is smooth save for a pair of wheel ruts in the floor and another worn indentation in the stone along the left-hand wall. There are a few torches, though Malak obviates the need for too much light. Occasionally the party passes by some enterprising vendors who have set up carts in a few of the tunnel’s wider curves, selling fruit and beverages.
Morgaine reappears to say that accommodations have already been secured at the nicer of three inns just on the other end of the tunnel, since it would be another four hours’ walk to the castle from there. The Zinyini would have been up for the walk even though it would be deepest night when they arrived, but they had to consider the freed slaves who still accompanied them (Red, being the one with the stash of fungal root, had insisted that Rasko be allowed to continue traveling with them rather than remaining in the tent city for additional treatment).
The party arrives at the inn. Gorlon and Djeti promptly set to exchanging songs. Red contributes a few as well, but they are of less interest to Gorlon because he cares also about the people and history behind the songs themselves, which Red cannot always supply. Malak looks up, and nudges Azis and Seraph to join her in the inn’s courtyard, which boasts a view of the smoking staircase that leads to the City of the Gods – as the moon rises, it’s also possible to pick out the switchbacks carved into the volcano which belches forth the staircase. All devout Zinyini are encouraged to make the journey at least once in their lives, so Malak feels the need to point out how close they are, as a possible “up side” to everything they’ve suffered so far.
Azis, giving no sign whether he’s inspired or even interested by the sight, unfurls his prayer mat and begins his evening devotionals. Seraph also runs through some kata, though his do not have the spiritual significance of his brother’s. Malak flops onto the grass on her back, staring at the cloud above her, and knowing what lies beyond.
Azis is suddenly aware of someone immediately behind him. Startled, and furious at being startled, he whirls around to punch whomever it is. His fist collides with stone, and the eldritch-looking Valite woman standing before him merely smirks. In a low voice, she introduces herself as Princess Benevida, and mentions that she has come to collect the dead drow body from him. Azis immediately informs her that he has nothing to do with that damnable thing, that Abbadon and Red were bundling it up, and they’re inside. Benevida thanks him and goes inside. Azis makes sure nobody else is looking when he shakes out his hand and allows himself to feel his pain.
Benevida strolls into the inn where the others are singing (save for Abbadon, who is drinking heavily to make up lost time). She touches Abbadon with a very cold finger and asks where the drow body is. Abbadon looks to Red, who produces it. Benevida lifts her other hand, and black shadowy shapes coalesce and levitate the body out a window and away toward the castle. She then bids everyone goodnight and takes her leave.
The rest of the night also passes uneventfully, and since the jackal-man once again insists on rousing Gorlon at dawn, they make an early start and reach the castle as the sun reaches its peak. The jackal-man once again informs Gorlon that he might be unable to kill everyone if the need arises, and Gorlon once again wonders if it had been truly worth it to rescue him.
The party are shown to the same rooms as before, and the guests to their own quarters (save for the jackal-man since he refuses to stop shadowing Gorlon). A runner is sent almost immediately to Gorlon and Abbadon – in light of the dire news Morgaine hinted at earlier, Prince Lewis has chosen to come to the castle as well and would speak with the Azer. They are escorted to Princess Chance’s and Silas’s room, and the jackal-man stoically bears the intense heat which makes Abbadon very happy after the miserable trek through the cool shady Vale. Gorlon and Abbadon tell of their discoveries underground – though they both independently decide to forgo mentioning Abbadon’s strange journey to another world, opting instead to focus on the drow threat and mention how the drow are quite happy to make slaves of anybody, and have even been powerful enough to capture Valites, making them a threat to all peoples of the Vale. Prince Lewis nods grimly. Abbadon asks when the Azer will march against the Drow, and Prince Lewis shakes his head. He says that yes, the Azer will march, but he needs Abbadon and especially Gorlon for something even more important. Prince Lewis sees the need for a strong, united force against the drow, and he feels the Zinyini are not only particularly vulnerable, but a potential threat due to their fractious tribal nature – he fears the drow could easily set the Zinyini against each other (nobody in the room knows that it has already happened) or against any forces mustering against the drow. He wants for Gorlon and Abbadon to continue traveling with Seraph, and for them to try to make contact with as many Zinyini tribes – especially the zealously anti-Valite tribes such as Seraph’s and Azis’s – as possible. Gorlon is simultaneously honored and intimidated to be trusted with such a task, but says that he is uncertain how to demonstrate the Azer’s good faith to a naturally suspicious people. Prince Lewis smiles and wrangles a very large parcel from beside his chair. Gorlon unwraps it and sees three sets of the Azer-forged white armor worn by the Amazon Knights of the Vale – armor that is rumored to be absolutely unbreakable, though perhaps unfortunately shaped for a woman’s figure. Prince Lewis expresses confidence that a rare treasure such as this ought to give the Zinyini tribes some idea of how seriously the Azer want an alliance.
As the Azer rise to take their bows and their leave, Princess Chance mentions the court ball later that evening and invites them both. Prince Lewis asks if Gorlon still has his lute, and when Gorlon sheepishly admits that he used it underground to attack a cockroach since it was the closest thing to hand, the prince smiles and promises a replacement within hours, since he would like Gorlon to consider performing at the soiree.
Red, after stashing her personal effects in her room, immediately sets off looking for Adam. She encounters him walking down the hall with Empress Carawynne, insisting to her that there is NO arranged marriage planned, and… Red leaves him to business, opting instead to visit the quartermaster and account for all the gear the Valites had supplied her with for the trip, then maybe try to find the castle’s apothecaries or herbalists and see if they know anything about this drow root, and perhaps a means to cure addiction to it.
Seraph and Azis and Malak are just settling in when there is a knock at the door. Azis tenses, and Malak insists on being the one to get the door. It is a young page guiding Princess Brandy, who wishes to speak with them. The page offers the princess’s arm to Malak, who nervously guides her into the room and into a chair. Princess Brandy mentions the court ball later that evening, and expresses particular wish for Seraph to attend, though of course Azis and Malak are also invited. Seraph tells her that Morgaine had already mentioned the event, though she hadn’t seemed happy about it, and promises that he will be there. Malak decides not to mention that her promise to Einac means she would be going even if she wasn’t invited. After a bit of agonizing, Azis decides that this opportunity for him to come face-to-face with his gods will be worth the inevitably required bathing and perfumery, not to mention all the effort it will take afterward to re-mask his scent. Brandy smiles, thanks them, and promises to have suitable clothing sent to their quarters before dinner. She then raises her arm, and Malak again nervously leads her out the door to the waiting page.
After accounting for all gear returned or consumed, and being met once again with utter confusion and fascination by the castle’s herbalists with regard to the drow fungal root, Red decides it’s time to divide up the spoils of their adventure. She first visits the Azer’s room to find Gorlon has not yet returned, having felt the need to look in on Djeti and Stork and Dog after speaking with Prince Lewis. Abbadon, having been wholly unconcerned with such a primitive notion as “loot splitting”, insists that he trusts her to divide things fairly and she can go bother the Zinyini. For their part, the Zinyini have no use for any of the strange or exotic items which fascinate Red so (though Seraph and Malak each lay claim to one of the pendants that purportedly allowed the Crucians to see in the dark – Azis does not trust them). Malak voices concern that while perhaps one or two gems from their share might be useful to keep for bartering in the future, the Valites think very little of the Zinyini and might accuse them of theft if they themselves attempted to convert too many of them into more practical goods. Red nods understandingly, mentions that she will happily spend their loot for them if they’ll just tell her what they want and need, and takes her leave. Seraph silently ponders the potential irony of buying goods from pro-Valite Zinyini to be brought “home” to his anti-Valite tribe.
After making sure everything is squared away, Red returns to her room. Adam is there, the two of them snog for a little while, then Adam tells her about the court ball that will be held that evening, and asks her to join him. Red isn’t sure she can say yes strongly enough, and becomes even less sure when Adam says that they then need to go shopping so he can buy her a suitable dress and shoes.
The day of the Ball started off with a rowdy breakfast. Adam had proposed to Red sometime the previous day so Red was showing off her ring. Gorlon brought his pet to breakfast and it stood around glaring at everyone so Seraph tossed it a piece of fruit to snack on, thinking that it would catch it. The meru-spawn decided not to catch it and the fruit smacked him in the chest and slid to the floor nearly sparking another incident… After breakfast everyone went their ways to prepare for the trip to the City of the Gods in the afternoon.
After over-hearing that the royal procession would be going straight up the mountain and not stopping to pay respects and worship along the way, Azis and Seraph left earlier in the morning to make the pilgrimage in the traditional way. They had barely begun the trek up the path when they came across a vendor selling knick-knacks. After upending his cart and demanding to know why he was defiling the path, the Zinyini’s advance on the merchant was halted by the three spirit warriors that responded to the merchants panicked whistle. “Halt good Zinyini, the god’s have decreed that these merchants are to be allowed on the path. Continue your journey to the top.” spoke the lead spirit warrior. And so the Zinyini warriors continued up the path to the City of the Gods, paying their respects and receiving the confirmation of the spirit warriors as they progressed to the top of the caldera. There at the top as they faced the final spirit, the gate keeper if you will, with the sound of the Valite Royalty riding up the trail behind them they awaited the final judgment to determine if they could enter the City of the Gods.
“Honored warrior you have come far and your deeds are known here. Is there anything that would prevent you from serving the Gods?” Azis shakes his head. “Then rise Faithful one you are worthy.” says the beautiful spirit warrior to Azis and he throws himself over the edge in a leap of faith. Seraph has paused and looked back to see the Empress and the other royals riding up on white horses. He steps aside that they may pass.
“Please enter Empress, the Gods are expecting you inside.” says beautiful spirit warrior to the royalty. They take their horses over the lip of the caldera and continue on up the narrow stairs that appear on the other side, quickly passing Azis on foot. Princess Morgaine stops at his side as the others continue on but Seraph returns to his knees awaiting his judgement.
“Honored warrior you…” the spirit warrior looks closely at Seraph as she stumbles over her words. “You.. may pass.” Seraph also goes over the edge of the caldera, his face betraying nothing.
insert highly detailed descriptions of the City of the Gods, spirit warriors, and pilgrims in the area from the GM
The party continues on inside the castle at the heart of the City of Gods, to scenes of such opulence and elegance as to take a Zinyini’s breath away. Although the only flesh and blood Zinyini there to see it are Azis, Seraph, and Dog. Everyone else is Valite royalty, a spirit warrior, or a Zinyini god. Azis immediately breaks away from the party to head toward T’Cidien and the group of nude male wrestlers surrounding the God of War. Seraph hesitates only a moment longer to check with Princess Morgaine and then heads over to Einac and the group of gods and spirit warriors surrounding the God of Navigation. Seraph has a brief conversation with Einac where the god confirms that Seraph is currently following the path Einac intends him to and that there is yet more to this journey that Seraph is on. Einac motions Seraph to walk with him and together they head toward Malak. Unfortunately, two of the other gods arrive there first and continually issue her conflicting orders causing Malak to explode. Einac dismisses Seraph to return to the party and his own devices. Meanwhile, Azis is getting his own welcoming party with T’Cidien and his subordinates.
Modnar intercepts Seraph as he is heading back toward Princess Morgaine’s side and together Seraph and Modnar go to extricate Azis from the God of War’s party. Unfortunately for Azis and Seraph, Modnar tasks them with searching among the five eligible princesses gathered here tonight for one most suited to marrying him. After Azis has determined that perhaps Princess Juliane does NOT want to be Modnar’s wife, Seraph announces to Modnar that Princess Germaine would be the most suited. What Modnar neglects to tell the two Zinyinni is that he’s pretty much already chosen who he wants (Princess Brandy of course) and he’s having them try to pick one out just for kicks.
While Azis and Seraph wander the Ball trying to do as the King of the Gods has bid, Gorlon finds himself having to intervene in a situation that his meru-spawn is causing. This time, the meru-spawn is surrounded by spirit warriors as it is trying to move forward toward a wizened old man sitting on a couch. Gorlon quickly rushes over and the spirit warriors inform him that the meru-spawn is trying to see Ni’Krowd. Gorlon begs an audience for his friend and surprisingly it is granted. By the end of the audience Ni’Krowd has made Gorlon a small bird that follows him every where and the meru-spawn a young pup to raise.
In the mean time, Abaddon has been chaperoning Princess Morgaine’s dance time, keeping each dance to a politic 7.5 minutes and shooing away those that would seek to dance to often. He even butts in on the King of the Gods dance.
Suddenly, there is a swirling of magic in the Ball room as Noi’fei announces her entrance. Noi’fei and Modnar exchange some tense words and then she lets loose with words that have the weight of prophecy. She wonders aloud why everyone allows Red into the ball, when clearly Red is “Daughter of the Fatherless” (is that correct or just the Fatherless?). Princess Brandy calls for Red to come to her so that she can feel the features of Red’s face. As Princess Brandy does so, she falls back from Red and calls out for Seraph. Seraph rushes over, though he does not know what to expect or who has been attacked. Princess Germaine reminds Princess Brandy to get a hold of herself and then Princess Brandy pulls herself away from Seraph and turns to return to the castle with Princess Germaine. Noi’fei is long gone by this time but the atmosphere of the Ball is in tatters. Most of the Valite royalty and the party members decide it is time to leave the City of the Gods and head back to the Vale.
Abbadon and Morgaine make their way back down the side of the volcano toward the Vale and the castle. Morgaine is happily humming and babbling about all the interesting people she got to meet (one name she drops is Nilarem). Abbadon, who has been leading Morgaine’s horse, yanks it to a stop, and flat-out asks her if she is still serious about anything anymore – in particular the party’s mission to warn the Zinyini about the drow menace. Morgaine insists that she is, though she admits that if they were to find some way to both do that and make progress in finding Prince Florin, she would want to do both.
Red, meanwhile, has recovered enough from her panic attack to realize that she is missing a shoe, and somewhat sheepishly runs back to the cloud city to retrieve it. Seraph, who has made his way toward Djeti, Gorlon and the meru-spawn, spots her and waves her to them. He mentions they will be leaving soon, and the five of them begin the trek down. Gorlon asks after Azis, Red mentions that he fled the party even faster than she did, and Seraph says only that “he’ll be around”.
The meru-spawn has been pensively quiet (as opposed to his normal balefully-glaring sort of quiet), and finally declares that Ni’Krowd has clearly blessed Gorlon with his gift of the tiny bird. Asking for a knife and Gorlon’s palm (both of which Seraph hands him), the meru-spawn cuts both Gorlon’s hand and his own. Pressing them together, he declares Gorlon to be his blood brother and packmate – he will now guard Gorlon for that reason rather than his life-debt…and Gorlon will need to help him raise his new pup. Eventually the group catches up to Morgaine and Abbadon.
Malak finds herself in Einac’s chambers, and it is a while before the young god is able to visit her. Einac asks Malak if she believes she is loyal. Malak, unsettled by the question, says that she believes so and that she is sorry if she has done anything to make him doubt it. Einac then warns Malak that her faith will be very sorely tested in the times to come, that she will need to show the love of the gods to those who would be their enemy, and that some will call her a heretic for this, but that while she will proverbially sail rough waters in so doing, Einac believes this to be the best navigable course. Einac says that he will need Malak to serve as a wet nurse, and Malak’s only question is answered almost immediately as she feels her breasts swell. Graciously accepting a kiss goodbye, Einac waves his hand and returns Malak to Seraph – for reasons neither explained nor questioned, this time he is able to do so hours in advance of sundown.
The sound of seagulls prompts the others to welcome Malak back to them. Both Red and Abbadon offer varying degrees of sympathy and disgust for how the Spirit Warrior was treated at her gods’ hands. Malak shakes her head and insists that it was an honor to die at their command, to give back to the gods what so many of them give on a regular basis to provide for the Zinyini. The meru-spawn snorts derisively, but the others apologize for the misunderstanding. Malak kisses Abbadon on the cheek and reassures everyone that she would never have expected them to understand. She then inquires after Azis, and Seraph once again maintains that “he’ll be around”.
The remainder of the trip to the castle is filled with plans for their next excursion, but is otherwise uneventful. Djeti proposes that the fastest route to the Tal-Madge oasis is about two days’ travel to the Flaming Pits, about a day to cross that, then about another twelve days’ travel across the Dune Sea. Seraph shakes his head, saying that the Zinyini never cross the Dune Sea because the reason it’s thusly named is there are no oases, and it would be impossible to carry enough water to sustain them that long, even if they are taking pack animals with them this time. Djeti smiles and assures Seraph that there are oases in the Dune Sea – it’s simply that they are all under the sands, but she could easily dive down into them and bring up water for the group. She also says that the Dune Sea is where one can occasionally find the Oasis of Inyanna. Morgaine crows at that revelation, as it potentially fulfills her wish to “do both” finding Prince Florin and warning the Zinyini. Seraph is still hesitant, but agrees as long as Djeti understands how critical it is that she keep out of danger if she is offering to be their only hope of finding sufficient water.
It is very late in the evening when the group returns to the castle. As they thread through the veritable maze of hallways, the meru-spawn tells Gorlon that they will need to acquire at least one camel that is currently milking, so the pup may feed. Malak, who is a few paces ahead, turns and asks if she may hold the pup. The meru-spawn sharply declines, and Malak says that he may call on her to feed the pup if needed – illustrating her point by ordering Seraph to look away and expressing a thin jet of breast milk in the meru-spawn’s direction. The meru-spawn then turns to his new brother and asks if Gorlon feels it wise to allow “the Zinyini whore” to suckle the pup. Whether it’s because he feels the need to smooth over the remark which completely failed to insult Malak, or because he saw Seraph looking very uncertain about the whole lactating camel thing, Gorlon immediately says that yes, it is a good idea. After a moment’s hesitation, the meru-spawn decides to trust Gorlon’s judgment and insists that Malak feed his child. Malak waves Seraph on ahead, and on the spot sits down and nurses the pup, trying not to wince too much at the pup’s milk teeth.
Gorlon, passing a particular hallway, remembers his obligation to inform Prince Lewis of their impending plans. He makes a sudden turn, and finds to his relief that the meru-spawn chooses to stay with the pup and Malak rather than guarding him. The half-azer is greeted warmly by both the Prince and his hosts (Princess Chance and Silas), and Gorlon tells them of their chosen direct route and the rumor of the Oasis of Inyanna. Princess Chance then warns Gorlon that the Oasis is known for driving people mad, and that Nilarem is rumored to be building something there. Gorlon is puzzled that Chance speaks like someone who has been there, and politely takes his leave.
Seraph backtracks a little, making his way to the quartermaster. He is told that Red has already submitted a list of supplies, and he reviews it, making several changes – mostly deletions. He returns to his room, his mind still racing with everything he has seen and heard in the City of the Gods. Seraph finds Malak already in the room, but can barely manage more than a few words to her, and decides one last bath at the Valites’ expense wouldn’t be a sin. Malak spends some time in prayer sitting on Azis’s empty bed.
Gorlon seeks out Djeti and asks her to accompany him to the castle’s library. He procures a parchment copy of a map of the Vale and its surroundings, and after explaining it to Djeti (whose people make a very different sort of map) asks for her help in marking where she remembers the underwater oases being. Djeti gladly helps, but is unable to actually mark the map because she is shivering too hard. She tells Gorlon that it is because of her withdrawal from the drow’s fungal root, and while her addiction will not kill her (as it would Rasko or Dog), she would appreciate if he held her to help stop the shivering. He does so, finding her VERY warm and radiating heat, and in addition to asking about oases asks Djeti about her people and her family to keep her mind off her misery.
The meru-spawn once again kicks Gorlon awake at dawn, and the tiny bird immediately begins peeping cheerfully, further assuring there is no chance of him sleeping any later. Blinking blearily, Gorlon asks the meru-spawn if, since they are brothers, Gorlon might finally be allowed to know the creature’s name. After a long pause, and after extracting a promise that Gorlon will not allow his unclean companions to speak its name, the meru-spawn finally reveals that its name is Tahko. Tahko then asks Gorlon to think of a common-use name for the new pup, so that the others may address it without defiling its eventual true name. Gorlon thanks Tahko for the honor, and says that the matter will require thought. He then finishes packing his personal effects. Abbadon walks in, munching a handful of sunflower seeds. The tiny bird peeps loudly and immediately soars to the Azer’s hand, wrangling for the better part of a minute to try and open a single seed. Gorlon and Abbadon look at each other and make a mental note to add sunflower seeds to the supply list. The tiny bird, whom Gorlon decides is named Woodstock, begins whistling an Azer child’s tune. Abbadon looks at the bird wonderingly, then gathers up his own things whistling the tune himself.
Seraph finishes breakfast early, and drags Gorlon to the quartermaster’s office to run a final check on the supplies. He also begins instructing Gorlon in how to wear traditional desert gear. The two are treated to the sight of Djeti emerging from a small broom closet, trying on a VERY skintight traveling outfit that she insists is commonly used among her people to travel through the sand. Abbadon has shown up by now, and quietly pulls Gorlon aside, exhorting him to remember his loyalty and not be swayed by the pretty lass he’s been spending a lot of time with lately. Gorlon is somewhat taken aback by the remark, but puts it aside and begins showing Abbadon how to dress for desert travel.
The going is painfully slow in Seraph’s eyes, and made no better by knowing that the entire day will only get them through the endless tunnel and into the tent city, and that another half-day will be lost so that they can begin traveling at night as is the wisest course of action. He finds himself that much more grateful that Azis went on ahead – the slow pace would probably have killed him. When they reach the tent city, Seraph tells the others to stay awake as long as they can – the better to adjust themselves to nocturnal travel – and he and Malak both go and pay their respects at Einac’s temple. Malak once again spends time in her former life, though she is conscientious enough to return when she suspects the meru-spawn pup will need to feed. Seraph begins trying to teach Morgaine the finer points of fighting with a dagger in conjunction with her astral projection abilities. Red checks in with the local herbalists and apothecaries, all of whom are still mystified by the drow fungal root.
At last the evening falls, and the party makes its way out into the desert. Seraph teaches the others how to walk carefully on the sand, and steels himself to travel in a direction no other Zinyini dare. The first evening and morning pass without incident, due in part to a cairn they encountered on their path warning of a raiding party in the area. Malak’s heart leaps when Seraph tells the party what the pile of stones means, hoping it also means Azis has passed this way ahead of them.
During the second night of travel, Woodstock suddenly stops its cheerful peeping and begins to make noises akin to desert animals. First it howls like a coyote, then it hisses like a snake, and finally it makes a deep chittering sound that sets Seraph on edge. He explains to the others that there are black scorpions easily twice the size of their camels, who burrow in the sand and emerge when prey is near.
Seraph’s sudden tensing up puts everyone on alert, so Abbadon is not taken by surprise when one of the giant black scorpions emerges from the sand about fifty meters away and charges at his camel. Swinging down, he slaps the beast on its rump and readies his axe to strike. Abbadon and Seraph both strike, and then a blast of wind from Malak sends the creature tumbling end-over-end. Its subsequent focus on keeping its feet on the sand means that the fighters have no problem dispatching it – and that Red has no trouble leaping on its back and both grasping and IMMOBILIZING its huge venomous tail. Once she is certain the creature is dead, she SINGLE-HANDEDLY holds the creature over her head to drain the venom out of the stinger. Seraph finally looks at Red and asks “What are you?”, and isn’t in the least bit convinced by her claim that she doesn’t know what he’s talking about, all henchmen are supposed to be strong like that. Stone-faced, Seraph hacks off the now-empty stinger and part of the creature’s carapace as trophies and leads them the rest of the way to a suitable campsite.
|In my opinion pretty massive spoilers for what’s up ahead for Seraph, as well as some Red spoilers as well. Meta-game at your own risk. ~Vahla|
Seraph needs/wants to talk to the Oracle tonight after he is done standing his watch. (this night being the same one where he had the conversation with Malak)
So he will try to think about her as he is going to bed so that he ends up in the dream world. He drifts off to sleep and then suddenly finds himself in the Oracle’s room.
“Hello my Seraph.” she says.
Seraph will kneel down and offer up his scimitar across the palms of his hands, blade on the left hand, hilt on the right hand. “I offer my blade to you that it may serve you as you have served me.” He will then rise and say “Thank you for this audience, Oracle.”
“I need to see and travel the path ahead of my group. We enter the burning pits tomorrow and I need a better idea of what to expect there. I hope that Azis will rejoin us in time to scout the way, but if not I need some idea of what is ahead. Also, the King of the Gods has tasked me with finding some city in the middle of the deep desert, where his cousin is. I may need help finding that as well, as we get closer.”
Seraph stops a moment. “One last thing, I travel with a woman named ‘Red’. Can you read her future or has she come up lately in any prophecies?”
“Come take my hand Seraph.” She says. “I needed to talk to you as well.” When you do she will squeeze your hand. “In the future there may be times I will not be able to speak with you.” She looks away. “I am to be promised in marriage to a rival kingdom soon. And that will preclude me for being…as available here.” She finishes with obvious sadness and regret in her voice.
For a moment, just the briefest of moments a hint of darkness will pass across Seraph’s face. It’s hard to tell if that happened though, because his raid leader mask has already slammed into place. However, since she is holding Seraph’s hand she can probably feel him tense up.
“Marriages should be a joyous union between two people, yet you sound sad Oracle.” Seraph takes a deep breath, “Did you not choose this marriage or… are your people like the Valites, where they marry for politics, not love?”
Seraph leans forward a bit, his voice taking on an edge of anger. “Is this marriage being forced on you? No one should be bound against their will.”
“I fear the needs of my family shall force my hand.” She sighs. “I do not love him. He does not love me. But yes.. Politics may force my hand.” She shakes her head and looks away. “But I shall not leave you without guidence. I.. Can not leave you.” She chuckles. “But I suspect I shall not sit waiting breathlessly for your return each night as I do now.”
Seraph pulls his hand away and walks over to the window/curtain. Facing outward, away from the Oracle. “I wish that I could do away with all distractions and come spirit you away. If I did so all the men that entrusted their lives to me in my Raid group would die. My brother Azis would die. Probably the party I am in right now would not make it through the deep desert, or if they did not survive the meeting with my clan.”
Seraph walks back over and takes both of the Oracle’s hands into his. “BUT, if you ask it of me, I will come find you and save you from this marriage of convenience. I would not wish another man to have you, if you would have me I would kill him to free you. You saved me so long ago and my life is still yours to use as you would.”
She lets go of one of your hands and caresses your cheek. In a whispered voice she says “All I would desire is to belong to you…” She turns her face, “But there is more than distance, Seraph, my dear, dear Seraph. There are a thousand reasons we can not be together. And Red MAY be one of them. I know her now. I feel her presence in your eyes. She is the daughter of the man that…” She pauses. ” Of the man that disfigured me.” She shakes her head. “I can not foresee Red’s path. But her father was the leader of a group of terrible assassins.And dark were his designs. When I found them out he kidnapped me and used my oracular gift for his own ends. It is why I hide here now. For fear of others using me for evil. Horrible evil.” She put her face in her hands. “It was he that disfigured me before he was killed like the dog he was.”
She looks back at you. “I do not know if Red follows his path. But I fear it. I can not imagine that he did not train her for his own uses.”
Seraph’s free hand gravitates to his the hilt of his scimitar, flexing unconsciously on it. His Raid leader mask has slipped away and anger and frustration show through. “Would that I had been there to teach this dog a further lesson. I will watch Red, if she shows any hint of what her father was I will kill her myself. It will not be an honorable death for her. Thinking back, she has already shown a tendency to toy with those she overpowers. Seraph recalls images of the Dark Elf and the Scorpion being hoisted in the air. I will watch her all the more.”
“The Oasis of Inyanna will be a trail for all your group. Truth is shown there. What was. What is. What shall come to pass. But that knowledge is dangerous. Look Now what do you see?” she says gesturing to a curtain that blows aside.
Seraph sees himself in the dune sea. and Dejedi bursts up from the sand in front of you with wonder in her eyes. “Your right! It is here. directly beneath us! How did you know?” The red skinned woman says. “And further, some of the halls have been cleared. There is air and space for all of us below. I can take us down one at a time to an open hallway.”
“I see myself surrounded by sand dunes. Dejedi comes up out the sands in front of me and tells me that I was right, it is here. She says the halls of ‘it’ have been cleared and that there is air and space down there. She can take us down one at a time to an open hallway. She must be talking about the Oasis of Inyanna, the regular water oasis’s shouldn’t have hallways or at least we wouldn’t need to explore them.”
“Indeed it is. you shall find the oasis. But beware. Nilram will not have left his toys unguarded. and it will be guarded by something that can move tons of sand.” she says. ” You must look to Morgaine to defend you from the wrath of the god himself.”
“And of your brother…” she says. “What do you see?”
You see Azis sitting under a tree of some kind. There is grass as far as you can see all around him. There is a half naked ,young, pretty girl riding a horse you can’t help but envy.It is a magnificent animal. The young girl rides like a demon. She is VERY good.
A few moments later Azis is joined by another man, older but without a beard. He has a very large widebrimed hat. ” That’s my youngest.” the man says nodding toward the girl. Azis grunts.
“If’n ya ask me..” the older man continues. “It don’t sound ta me like ya lost yer faith. It just sounds like ya found out that faith means a hell of a lot more than any one person. Be they god or no…” He looks Azis in the eye. ” Now I don’t hold with bein’ called no god. But ifn’ ya want, I could use a pardner. That means an equal pardner. Honor needs ta be worked at. It don’t come by itself. And there are folks that need ta not be forced into nuthin’ by a bunch of High falutin’ pretty boys. So if’n ya want my help, I’ld sure be glad ta give it.” And he extends a hand to Azis. Azis hesitates , but begins to reach forward ,and the vision ends.
“What I see of Azis is more troubling. He is talking to in Old Man under a tree, maybe somewhere in the Vale because there is lots of grass. The watch a pretty girl ride a fine horse and the old man speaks. He says it doesn’t sound like Azis lost his faith. He says he isn’t a god, but he invites Azis to be his partner. Something about equals. The old man offers his hand, and Azis begins to reach for it and the dream ends.”
Seraph shakes his head. “I don’t understand all of what is happening, but it makes me worry for Azis. Is it because of the City of the Gods? I didn’t… like everything I saw in the City of the Gods, but I didn’t realize it had tested Azis faith to this degree.”
“Yes, it did test his faith. He is going through his own fire now. I hope he shall come out purified and stronger, not destroyed.” She says. “I hope you will as well.” she says almost in a whisper. “Now in the flaming pits, there are dangers as well. ” She motions to another curtain ” Tell me what you see there.”
GM(you see various pitfalls and problems, I’m gonna play this like a danger sense roll for Seraph next game but the dangers are all natural ones.)
The Oracle takes your hand. “Seraph will you promise me something?” she asks looking down at your hand and caressing it.
“Of course.” says Seraph.
“Promise me you will not throw your life away. Whatever happens to me, whatever you find. Promise me you will not give up. that you will somehow find your way back to me. I know there are dangers, some that must be faced. But please… live for me. What I want most is that you be… content. That, in measure, there be more happiness in your life than I have had. That is my fondest wish for you.”
Seraph looks puzzled a moment. “The desert is a harsh place and being caught up in having to protect the Valite Royalty is not helping at all. I will do what I can to stay safe, but… I can not make that promise. Too many cords bind me, if I made you that promise it might become even harder to fulfill the rest of my promises.” Seraph sighs, “I would make a pact with you. Let us each continue to hold to life fiercely and sometime in the end maybe we can be together.”
“Very well.” She says quietly. “I shall hold to that hope, even if it’s a fools hope. I…” She pauses. “I love you, My dear Seraph.”
“I love you too, Oracle. I will find some way to free myself so that I can come and save you. Count on it.”
Seraph returns to consciousness with a start. It is time to get the party on the move again.
|End oracular journey #3|
Azis fled down the mountainside, barely even remembering passing his little brother as he made his exit from the Gods’ Ball, let alone what they might have said to each other. As he reached the foot of the mountain, he turned his feet to the southwest and the Flaming Pits. Vast swaths of what he’d always known and accepted had been ripped away from him, not unlike when he had lost his cloak to those sticky cave-strands. It was time for him to try and find new answers. He hoped he could find them within himself, or within the harsh environs of his home.
No amount of distress could distract his keen senses, though, and he froze as he heard the sound of animals. With all the stealth he could summon, he crept up the dune and peered over. The group before him was undoubtedly a raiding party. Some of the men began conversing in low tones, and Azis couldn’t help but strain his ears to listen. He began digging in the sand with a toe, unearthing some small stones. He quietly scooped them up and retreated down the dune, where he built the stones into a cairn. Only Seraph or another Tal-Madge would be able to divine the meaning behind the stones’ placement; other Zinyini would know the cairn was a message but would not be able to understand it. He really hoped nobody would actually read it, since that would probably mean Malak had nagged Seraph into trying to find him, but he couldn’t not leave the warning. Just in case. Azis skirted the dune and kept walking.
As the sun was promising to rise after another night’s travel, Azis found himself facing a small patch of weeds. At first he paid less heed to them than to their implication of there being water not far from the surface. But after he had refilled his skins, he looked at them again and recognized them as something his uncle Babzim had pointed out to him nearly a decade ago. Babzim had warned Azis that eating the plants would make him go crazy, and Azis seemed to recall it was his grandfather Hakim that had spoken derisively of Zinyini who claimed the plant would induce “vision quests”. Now, though, it was much harder to decide who among them had been the crazy ones. Azis pondered only a moment before ripping up two handfuls of leaves and cramming them into his mouth.
Azis was vaguely aware of getting sleepy as he wandered off to find a suitable spot to pass the daylight hours. Then his head jerked up, as if he had just awakened from dozing on his feet, and he found himself surrounded by tall grass, near a herd of amazingly fat and sleek cattle. That was strange. He didn’t remember there being many oases in this part of the Nadra, and surely he hadn’t been sleepwalking so long that he would stumble unaware upon one this large?
He then spied men on horseback, wearing strange broad-brimmed hats, and he crouched to hide in the grass. One, however, came chasing after a calf that had strayed hear the Zinyini, and spotted Azis. The stranger was startled to find someone hiding in the grass, but did not seem immediately hostile. He introduced himself as Robert, and asked what Azis was doing there. When Azis could find no answer other than he didn’t know, Robert changed questions and asked if Azis was hungry.
Over a helping of beans and cornbread, Azis told Robert a few things about his recently lost faith and the plants he’d eaten. Robert said it sounded like Azis had put himself on a vision quest and that was how he’d found these grasslands. He saw Azis looking at the cattle and asked if Azis knew anything about herding them. Zinyini are nomadic beastherders, so while there were some stylistic differences, Azis was able to assist Robert over the next few days in driving the cattle back to what the other men called a “ranch”.
The work brought Azis some comfort, as did the lovely sight of Robert’s youngest daughter, but his subsequent talks with Robert did not. Robert seemed to be wholly unfazed by the Zinyini’s tales of his gods’ childish behavior, and at one point defined gods as being merely “people with more power’n you”. He was sympathetic to a good extent, calling Azis an honorable man in a dishonorable situation, but Robert’s suggestion that Azis would need to craft his own philosophy from scratch – retaining the ideas which were good and discarding the rest – brought Azis more confusion than comfort. After taking a long walk to settle himself, Azis approached Robert again and asked what would happen to him when he died. Robert shrugged, saying Azis would go where he needed to go, and expressing hope that Azis would end up back here on the ranch. Robert said that he’d never been much for the notion of worship, but that he would welcome Azis as an equal partner if he was willing. Azis, still shaking his head at earlier words, made a polite farewell and walked away from the ranch.
As he walked, he noticed the ground turning from grass to crusted sand under his feet, and smelled salt and dampness in the air. It seemed to be getting hotter, too – or perhaps he simply hadn’t noticed it being cooler in the grasslands. Instinct guided his feet, and he dodged a geyser as it spouted. And there were voices in the distance. He paused. He recognized the voices. Then he recognized the silhouettes, backlit by another of their number. Some were bent over something on the ground. The voices were arguing. And one short silhouette was heading his way.
The party’s tale
Red seemed wholly unfazed by the suspicious glances given her by Seraph and Abbadon as they packed up for the evening. She had been with many, many adventuring parties in her life, and she had seen it happen again and again. First came the friction between the party members, then some huge catastrophe they’d have to face together, and then that would lead to the bonding phase. She could have hoped that the perils in the cave would have been sufficient catastrophe, but some nuts were harder to crack than others. At least neither of the men refused breakfast. That would have been a real insult. She quietly handed Gorlon a small rubber ball that she had picked up in the tent city for the pup to play with.
The meru-spawn (hereinafter Tahko, though only Gorlon can use that name – and maybe not even he can) brought a hungry pup to Malak, and she cradled it against her breast as she had done several times before. A strange expression slithered across Takho’s face, and he managed to spit out the words “thank you” to the spirit warrior. Malak smiled and once again said that it was an honor, even though she was fairly certain Tahko didn’t take it to mean what she actually meant, and she kissed the pup on the forehead before handing it back and packing up her own belongings.
Between the moon and Malak, it was very easy for Seraph to see where he was going, though for him visibility was more for the sake of spotting potential hazards. He knew where he was going. His Oracle would never lead him astray.
Unfortunately, his brother would.
Seraph motioned for a halt and gestured in front of him. A thick patch of weeds sprung up from seemingly nowhere. The sand was disturbed nearby, several leaves had been torn from the plants, and very large footprints wandered away from the plants. Seraph’s heart sank. It was Azis. It had to be. He’d gone running off to find his answers, and instead found a patch of crazeweed. And Azis was definitely not in his right mind, or there’d be no way in hell he’d be leaving tracks. Seraph told the others, and guessed they would lose about two days off their time if they tried to find Azis. Consensus was quickly reached that it was worth the lost time – most importantly, Djeti remained confident she could find enough water along the way. The party turned to follow the tracks.
The tracks led down a ridge into a bed of geysers. The ground was stippled with patches of cactus, though Seraph noted with relief that the tracks did not seem to lead into any of them. He didn’t know precisely what crazeweed did, but he’d heard of people being so drunk that they never felt wounds that would later kill them. They had just gotten the pack animals down a significant drop along the ridge when Woodstock (Gorlon’s bird) fluttered off Gorlon’s shoulder and began making a strange noise. To Morgaine, it sounded like a melon being dropped on the ground from a second-story window. To Red, it sounded like a plant exploding. To both Gorlon and Seraph, it sounded like the bird would soon attract unwanted attention, and Gorlon promptly fished out a seed for the bird to snack on instead. The bird made some sort of noise around the seed in its beak, then soared over a faraway patch of cactus and appared to fling the seed at it. As best as anyone could see, the cactus promptly exploded, and quills went flying in all directions.
Red nodded, mumbled something about propagation, and drew her bow, firing at the faraway patches so they would already be exploded by the time the party reached them and a stumbling pack animal wouldn’t set them off. Seraph carefully led the beasts past the patches too close to shoot, and as they continued their journey, Abbadon picked up a piece of exploded cactus and sniffed it. It smelled pleasant, if a little strange, and there were layers within it of juicy flesh, gummy sap and a tough rind. He happily picked up a few more pieces and began munching, grateful for the extra fluids to nourish his denser musculature. He hoped it meant some of the cramps he’d been stoically enduring would cease.
After a couple more hours of traveling, they reached the bottom. It was treacherous going, though. Gorlon’s foot broke through the crusted earth to reveal a divot nearly three feet deep. Red bent over to inspect it – and was suddenly blasted with steam as a geyser erupted. Seraph, however, was less concerned with that than he was with the three large vulture-like birds that had been circling up ahead and were now moving to circle over them.
And then the birds dove.
One swooped and snatched up Abbadon. The second nabbed Red. The third had also been hoping for Red, and actually halted its dive, soaring low. Seraph and Gorlon began slicing and stabbing to free their comrades, but Malak didn’t dare use her power against those birds. She instead kept her eye on the empty-taloned one in case it tried to dive again.
Fortunately for Abbadon and Red, both birds had seized them around their waists, meaning their arms were free. Abbadon began hacking with his axe, and Red decided to launch a strategic strike and break the bird’s leg in hopes it would loosen its grip. Malak then saw both birds were lifting up again, higher than Seraph or Gorlon could strike, and she went ahead and risked a blast, hoping against hope that the sudden draft would destabilize the birds’ flight. It was not to be. Both birds felt the breeze, tensed their wings and tails, and simply rode the draft upward with prizes in tow. Malak swore creatively.
Tahko, seeing that the only archer had just been snatched away, thrust his pup at Morgaine to hold and ran over to Seraph, gripping him by the shoulders.
“What are you doing?” Seraph asked.
“I’m throwing you,” the meru-spawn replied, and did so before Seraph could protest or even really react. Thankfully, Tahko’s strength was great and his aim was true, and Seraph landed on the back of the bird that had taken Red. Seraph muttered to himself. He’d much rather have left the henchman to her own devices and tried to free Abbadon. Still, it wasn’t likely to land and let him dismount if he asked politely. He dutifully began swinging at the bird’s back.
Red, meanwhile, had not only broken the bird’s leg, but pried her way out of the other foot. So she was free, at the cost of not being able to do a whole lot lest she fall to the ground. The third vulture, seeing that his original target was no longer in the second bird’s clutches, swooped in and made a grab of his own. Red grabbed the bird’s leg at the same time its talons closed around her, and briefly contemplated trying to hang on to both vultures at once. She decided it would be putting Seraph at unnecessary risk, and allowed the third one to carry her off, planning to give it much the same treatment.
Seraph landed a telling blow, and felt himself begin to descend rapidly. Not knowing what else to do, he began to simultaneously curse the meru-spawn and pray to Einac for deliverance.
Abbadon struck his own captor in the head as it attempted to bite at him, and severed the head completely. The body crumpled and dropped, but they had been high enough that Abbadon still felt he had time to cut into the bird and use its entrails for padding for the crash-landing. Then a rush of cold salt wind roared up to meet him, and he felt it slowing his fall. The landing was still rough, and he knew he’d feel it for a couple of days, but there was no doubt it could have been much worse. He crawled out of the carcass to see Gorlon running toward him, the magic dwarven stone already in his hand.
Malak barely had time to breathe a prayer of thanks that she’d had time to try and save them both, and in so doing figure out that her idea actually worked. Skittering sideways to where she felt was directly under her grandson, she fired another blast with everything she had. Sadly, it was actually a little too much in this case. The sea-wind was powerful enough, and the bird’s wings were still spread enough, that it actually started to go back UP. Malak’s jaw dropped for a second, then she hardened her face and readied. It would come back down again. Perhaps it would take longer than she’d liked, but this would work.
Seraph felt the bird rise again, and smelled the salt wind, and realized Einac had already sent his answer. Barely taking a moment to sheathe his scimitar so he wouldn’t lose it, he rolled off the bird’s back and fell against the wind. He had to shut his eyes against the air, but he felt a second gust catch him, and then a pair of arms catch him, and then he was landing on somebody and rolling to the ground with a gentle THUMP.
He lay there for a moment, wiping the spray from his face, then heard a much less gentle THUMP! and heard Abbadon cry out in frustration. Malak, too, was rolling away from him, scrambling to her feet.
All anyone could figure out was that Red had been able to attack the bird which had stolen her away, but as a consequence had been dropped while that bird soared out of sight in search of easier meals. There was a two-meter crater in the salt crust now, with Red lying very still in the center of it.
Tahko got there first, and actually loomed as if to keep others away. He permitted Gorlon to approach with the stone, but insisted on looking her over first. He finally pronounced that while Red had several broken bones which would need to be set before Gorlon tried any sort of healing magic, she was dead, and they would not need to eat her. That last bit prompted some disgust and indignation on Abbadon’s part, which Tahko met with accusations that Abbadon did not know his own peoples’ history, where several fallen Azer had been raised as undead. Malak took Tahko’s side in her own way, saying that Abbadon’s reaction was excessive since Tahko himself had just established that nobody would be eating anybody. She helped set the broken bones, verbally assuring the others that yes, the meru-spawn knew what he was doing and she knew this because of her own training. Gorlon was hesitant to use the flask after the stone failed to bring Red back to wakefulness, but Malak reminded him they had done so with Seraph earlier, and helped cradle Red at an angle to where the elixir would go safely down her throat. After agonizing for a short while, Gorlon decided to follow it up with a second dose. He knew the stone would not work twice, but the flask would.
Abbadon, meanwhile, had needed to walk away from the scene in frustration, but it meant he was the first to see the tall man shuffling their direction. “Azis!” he cried, and ran toward the figure.
The others barely had time to welcome back Azis, as pressing a concern as Red was. Malak brought him a skin of water, and while he accepted it, he also peered at her suspiciously. Malak felt something stabbing at her chest and gut, and she promptly scooped the meru-spawn pup out of Morgaine’s nervously bouncing arms, walking away to what appeared to be a decent vantage point. A feeding would calm both of them.
The second dose from the flask had allowed Red to regain consciousness, though at times she wished it hadn’t. Woodstock had gotten agitated again, and began pecking at the lute which Gorlon had acquired at the Ball. As Gorlon reached for the lute to protect it from the bird’s attack, Woodstock then switched to whistling a tune he recognized as a song the Azer soldiers often used to boost morale. It seemed ridiculous, but the bird was insistent, so Gorlon slung the lute across his lap and began to play. Red felt a few of her bones knitting a little faster, and she thanked Gorlon for the tune, shyly asking if perhaps he could continue playing. Djeti nudged Gorlon, and he attempted one of the tunes she had taught him. His fingers were less sure with the unfamiliar melody, though, and despite her singing along it didn’t seem to have as much effect.
Meanwhile, Abbadon had dragged Seraph off for a quiet parley of their own. It seemed both of them agreed that it was highly suspicious that Red could have fallen from that height, without Malak’s help in slowing her fall, and still survived. They differed slightly on whether it had been a good idea to care for her; the Azer was still soldier enough to believe that nobody should be abandoned. Seraph looked as if he wanted to say something more, but kept it to himself for the time being.
Azis perhaps had lost his faith, but his pragmatism was still intact. He unslung the flying carpet from his back and laid it out, and he and Seraph moved Red onto it. It no longer surprised anyone that the packs she’d carried were tremendously heavy, and Seraph considered that they might have to do more walking for the sake of the dray beasts.
After things had settle down somewhat, Gorlon approached the others. He pointed out that additional uses of the flask would allow him to heal Red very quickly and thus allow them to continue on their way sooner, but there was only the contents of that one flask and then it was all gone. In a rare display of vehemence, Seraph insisted that Gorlon not use the flask any further – they would figure out something else. Malak turned to Morgaine and suggested that she wake herself up and perhaps inform some of her aunts of what had happened, and perhaps they could send somebody to meet them halfway. Morgaine readily agreed to this and also offered to tell Robert since he would want to know.
The sky was lightening in the east as they made their final decisions, and Seraph led them back along the trail to someplace he and Azis both felt was relatively safe and defensible. Dog took over Red’s usual task of cooking dinner. As people finished eating and the sun climbed higher, Azis took Dog aside. As a Jackal, Dog seemed to be the only person Azis felt he could trust with what he’d gone through and what he thought of it. He asked Dog what he had done to replace his missing faith, and Dog said that he hadn’t been able to do much yet. Dog did offer to pledge friendship to Azis, and the two of them would watch each other’s back in the face of what was coming.
Malak saw Azis talking to the Ahmari and felt something stabbing her heart again.
|Begin oracular journey #4|
As the group continues across the deep desert, Seraph continues to visit the Oracle before moving on to the next Oasis.
As Seraph approaches the Oracle’s chambers he hears the Oracle inside. “I fear his mind will break.” she says.
Seraph hears Solace “It doesn’t matter, Seraph needs to know how to return to the white tower for this to work and there will be no other time better than his first trip to The Oasis of Inyanna.”
“He is loyal to his party. He will not lead them to the well if it will bring them to danger.” The Oracle replies.
“He is a Zinyini raider.” Solace retorts. “Do not burden him with honor that he does not have. He will kill as is needed to further his goals.”
“He is more honorable than you can know” The Oracle defends “Far more honorable than I…”
“He is coming.” Solace says and turns and greets him as he walks into the room.
“Seraph” She says inclining her head yet not taking her eyes from you. “I shall not take your time with the Oracle. I know it grows short…” and she will walk past Seraph and out the door as he steps aside to make way.
He will walk over toward the Oracle, kneel down, and offer up his scimitar across the palms of his hands, blade on the left hand, hilt on the right hand. “I offer my blade to you that it may serve you as you have served me.” He will then rise and say “Thank you for this audience, Oracle.”
Seraph will pause a moment, studying the Oracle and her golden mask. “I beg your forgiveness Oracle but I overheard a portion of what Solace was saying to you as I came down the hall. Have you had a prophecy about a white tower that I should know of? Is there more danger at the Oasis of Inyanna than the guardian you have already warned me of? We are getting closer, possibly within two days ride of it and I came here to make sure the path to the Oasis was still clear.”
“If my questions are out of line then I shall withdraw them and be content with what you tell me.” In his head Seraph reflects on the fact that the Oracle has always identified dangers ahead on the path, with the one exception where the Vale witches and their Amazon bitches interfered. Such is his trust in the Oracle that he would forgo knowing the answers to the questions he has posed if she does not deem them worthy.
“My dearest Seraph..” She says with happiness in her voice. “I trust your judgment in what needs to be seen more than I trust my own. Indeed I would trust my life to you. And give it up if it meant saving you from harm. Please believe that.” She sighs. “The Path to Florin and his child will be full of odd sights and strange places. It will be a trial to your party. But know this. You will not lose time in your journey. For such is the magic of the Oasis of Inyanna. “
“The White tower will hold no perils for you, nor for your party if they do not bring the troubles WITH them. The White tower is no danger THIS time. It will be different when you return to it. ” She reaches for your hand. “As for the Oasis itself. .. I can not see into it. I fear what you will find there. I fear that Nilram will be wroth with you. I pray that Morgaine can protect you. Please Seraph. Tell her what the king of the gods told you about what Nilram was building.”
Suddenly she looks back over her shoulder at nothing in particular. “How else may I aid you, my love…?”
“I will tell her the next time I see her.” Seraph inclines his head in gratefulness. “Just a glimpse of the remainder of the path to the Oasis.”
The Oracle begins to show you the dunes ahead and then turns to “look” behind her “He is coming.” She says. “I do not want him to know of our rendezvous or how I get here. I must leave you Seraph my love, for now.” She says in a heartbroken voice. She grabs for your hand and squeezes it.
From behind you you hear Solace’s voice. “So the mighty Oracle has a weakness. Who could have known?”
Seraph whirls around has hand on his sword as though to draw it. “You should not speak of the Oracle so.” He frowns, “Why are you here?”
She smiles enigmatically “Why are you? Your love is being seduced by another.” She raises her hand. “NO, I apologize That was uncalled for.” She opens her hands to you. “Seraph, I do not mean to brag but I am rather fantastically wealthy. I realize that you can not go to her. And I realize that it’s probably killing you not to. I can, If you wish, make this fellow an … offer. And he will drop your Oracle like a hot stone…” she smiles.
Seraph will have drawn his blade out about an inch by the time she finishes the word ‘seduced’ but will slam it back into place when she apologizes. He then goes very still at Solace’s offer. “Why would you do this for her, for me? I do not have wealth to match yours, I would not be able to clear this debt quickly.”
“It’s a gift, not a debt. Call it insurance if you will.” She says. “I need to have you at least interested in finding my weapon. My lands depend on it. And to do that you will need your full wits about you.” She shrugs “I can see that having the woman you love being married to another might be something of a distraction. I’m sure you’ll agree.”
“I..” Seraph frowns and releases his grip on his sword. He sinks down to his knees and leans forward on to his hands, his face staring at the ground. His arms tense up with the effort it takes him to say these next words. “Please do what you can to free the Oracle from this impending marriage. Because of the restraints placed on me, I don’t know how I will be able to get away to find your weapon. But I swear on my honor that I will try.”
She will be silent for a moment then kneel down next to you. “The Oracle was right about your honor.” she says quietly.
“Seraph… the Vale’s interests and my own coincide. Finding my weapon and and dealing with the demons are good for both estates. That IS why I came here in the first place. I will not pretend to you it will be easy or pretty. But for my plan to work I need both you and Morgaine to play a part. And obviously that is why I came to the Oracle in the first place as well.” She places a hand on your arm and “lifts” you to standing so she is facing you. “I will deal with the Oracle’s paramour. It may be That I will need you to speak with him. JUST speak, mind you. But I don’t think it will come to that. But I* swear on my honor that it will be done.”
Seraph’s eyes go cold and hard. “Do not mistake me, Solace. I don’t do this for the Vale people. I do this for the Oracle and for the Zinyinni people of the desert. The Vale may indeed benefit for it, but this promise to find the sword is not for them. I have no say over what Morgaine does or doesn’t do, I am bound to protect her and the other royalty because of the threat to my kinsmen. Bound. I care nothing for the Valites.”
Seraph looks away and then looks back. “I thank you for what you will do for the Oracle, but now I believe I have overstayed my welcome and should go.”
“Seraph… Sometimes Bindings heal not hurt. Don’t be too ridged in your thinking. To get through this and the oasis your mind must be as agile as your feet. Fare well.” and she fades and Seraph wakes.
|End oracular journey #4|
The day’s rest found Seraph training not only Morgaine, but Gorlon, in dagger fighting. Tahko, observing this, began rummaging through one of Red’s packs and ignoring her protests. He retreated to the bright sand, fiddling with what he’d retrieved, then approached Gorlon and Seraph. The meru-spawn stated simply that he’d seen they lacked for ranged attacks when Red was incapacitated, and that he would instruct them in his people’s use of javelins and atl-atl. The gear was too heavy for Morgaine to use, but that was okay, as Red wanted her to wake up yet again and go tell her family that in fact they should NOT send a healer after them for Red’s sake – she would be fine. Tahko drilled the other two until he felt they had the basics down. Occasionally Red would complain that he’d ruined one of the spare tents. Nobody really listened.
An uneventful half-night’s travel brought the party to what looked like marshy flats on one side and a shallow salty lake on the other. Both stretched as far as the eye could see in either direction.
The Zinyini expressed a preference for traveling in the water, since then the pack animals would be much harder to track. Malak dutifully waded in to test the water’s depth. It barely covered her feet at first, and she had gone nearly a half-kilometer before it threatened to crest her waist. She noticed a line of luminescence where her cloak touched the water, but gave it no thought. She turned and waved to the others.
Abbadon boldly stepped into the water, and the metal in his boots promptly fell apart. As he remained in the water, trying to wrap first one foot and then the other in cloth, he realized that his skin was stinging. He sprang back to the dry land and yelled for Malak to get back here, couldn’t she tell it was dangerous? The Spirit Warrior really had to say no. The ground felt a little muddier as she walked back, but it still took other people pointing it out to her before she realized that her glow had dimmed considerably, her cloak was gone from the waist down, and that her feet were sinking THROUGH THE SOLID STONE beneath them. Still, she was not in pain and it did not seem to affect her ability to walk with them.
The party realized there was little choice but to take a path through the marshy ground for the sake of the dray beasts. Malak tried to obliterate their tracks, but the mud was too stiff for a blast of wind to do any good. Abbadon tried to reassure the other Zinyini with his confidence that nothing could possibly live in the immediate area. It didn’t work well, especially when Azis pulled out his flute and was able to charm two more vipers into his service.
By sunrise they had made it through the mud and into a long stretch of sand that was actually pink salt. They set up camp and settled into their “rest” routine. While Malak was feeding Tahko’s pup, Gorlon approached her about potentially using her power to blast some salt at him to cleanse his skin. Malak was taken aback slightly, but agreed. Gorlon invited Abbadon to join him, but Abbadon snarled at him and said to keep away from him with his witchcraft. Gorlon was surprised by what appeared to him a sudden shift in attitude, and wished he knew what exactly had brought it on. Djeti asked if she could join the half-Azer in his salt bath, and he shrugged, too confused and sad to fully appreciate the offer. They stripped down as far as they dared, and Malak obligingly sent blasts of wind into the pink salt to fling it at them.
Azis scouted ahead as he was wont to do. This area was amazingly flat, with not even the slightest hint of dunes, which made him slightly nervous. His feelings were exacerbated when he spotted the tracks of sandhunters – strange beasts that were a mix of canine and reptile. They were known for traveling in single file so as to not belie their numbers, but Azis had tracked them before and was able to guess there were somewhere between five and eight of them moving in that pack. He also figured the trail was about a day old. He hoped that meant they had found other prey by now.
Then a horrible growling rumble came through the air and the ground to everyone’s ears.
Azis’s keen sense told him the sound was coming from the land they’d put behind them. The shade-tents would only provide a little cover. He began scraping out a depression in the salt, better hiding himself to be a surprise later if the situation called for it.
The other men readied, though even Seraph was loath to step out of the tent into the full strength of the sun. Malak quietly handed the meru-spawn pup to Djeti. They’d made the Asherati promise to stay out of fights; no sense in hobbling two women.
Red asked Abbadon to hand her a specific pack, and began rummaging through it. She pulled out binoculars and peered through them. (Not that anyone but her knows what they are, but these are summary notes. Mostly.)
“An ATV? What the hell?” she murmured, putting down the binoculars.
“What the hell indeed,” Seraph said coldly. “What *is an ATV?”
“Well, it’s like…” Red fumbled for words that would make sense to someone who had never seen one before, and finally just gave up and handed over the binoculars, telling him which end to look through.
It was moving toward them very quickly, tearing a trail through the marsh flats on four huge wheels. There was one person on it, his face hidden by wrappings and a helm. Seraph handed back the binoculars and stepped to the edge of the shade, fidgeting with his scimitar.
The contraption swerved to a farting halt only a few meters from them. The rider leaped off and began striding for the shade-tents – or more precisely, for Red. He called out as he moved, but before anyone could recognize the voice, Abbadon charged at the man and tackled him roughly to the ground.
“Stop! Wait! Friend!” the man began shouting, and Red finally placed the voice as belonging to Adam. She somehow convinced Abbadon to stop long enough for the man to take off his helmet and prove that it was in fact Adam. Abbadon promptly began apologizing, but Adam waved it off and admitted that he’d deserved it for being overly hasty. He then went over to Red and insisted on hearing it from her own lips that she was okay. Red was actually a little annoyed that he hadn’t listened to Morgaine, but finally admitted there wasn’t much that would stop her fiance from checking on her after hearing news like what had recently happened. Azis was tempted to get the hell out of the sun once it was established the rider wasn’t hostile, but knew better. That contraption would have gotten the attention of any living thing in a ten-kilometer radius. He began a circling patrol.
Adam pointed to his vehicle and said that he had also brought food and more waterskins and extra supplies. He turned to Gorlon and said that Princess Chance was asking how quickly they’d been going through the flask. Gorlon unstopped it, looked, and estimated it was about a quarter gone. Adam pulled out a second identical flask and said that Chance had sent it with him after hearing about Red. Seraph and Gorlon both kept their mouths shut, but for different reasons. Dog helped Adam unload the two extra packs of gear off the vehicle, and when Red asked Adam where he’d gotten an ATV, Adam said that he had been given it by Nilarem . Adam sadly mentioned that it had taken him half a tank of fuel to reach them, so he would not be able to travel with them any further, but he did suggest that he and Red could keep in touch via Morgaine. Red thought it a fine idea, and also handed Adam some pages from her journal to take back to the City. After a few prolonged minutes, Adam gave Red a final goodbye kiss and put his helmet back on. Abbadon apologized again, Adam promised to wave or otherwise signal himself next time, and the ATV roared away. Tahko’s hackles raised at the sound of the engine, and he made no secret of his belief that the ATV was a demonic contraption – that in fact his people had once built “machines” like that and it was the machines which had led to their decline. Seraph’s own hackles raised at the accusation, since the meru-spawn had effectively insulted a gift from the gods, but he kept quiet, knowing well that arguing with Tahko about religion would be fruitless. Malak fed the pup once again and went out to relieve Azis of guard duty so he could sleep through the hottest part of the day.
That night offered no moon to see by, only the Peacock constellation and Malak’s shining next to Seraph at the front of the procession. She was trying to move quietly, but could not completely stifle the startled yelp as her feet slid out from beneath her. Seraph immediately held up his hand for everyone else to halt while Malak struggled back to standing.
As best as Seraph could figure, the ground was now covered in glass. Red immediately wanted to know how thick it was, for the sake of the pack animals. Abbadon stomped on it and pounded it with the butt-spike of his axe handle, and determined that it was at least several inches thick. This was deemed good enough that the camels could walk on it without breaking through and cutting themselves. There was some concern that the camels wouldn’t be able to keep their footing, but the beasts themselves proved everyone wrong.
The going was painfully slow, except for Red who gleefully skated around when she wasn’t needing to guide pack animals, and Seraph was glad for the extra water Adam had brought them. Djeti had predicted they’d be completely across the Pits in one night, but they were already on the second night – not even counting the time spent tracking down Azis and then starting back to get Red some healing. He glanced often at the turning stars, and hoped they’d find the end of this glass by morning. He especially hoped there wouldn’t be too many more of these weird ridges in the glass. They were hard to navigate, though thankfully the camels quickly figured out they could simply step over.
A growing light at the horizon made Seraph panic for a moment, before he remembered they were heading away from the sunrise. Then the light simply made him curious. It was a dull red glow, and seemed to be rising up from beneath the glass on which they trod. Abbadon, who was not far behind Seraph, began quietly musing about the Azer creation myth and how the Azer’s creator was portrayed as being taller than a mountain with huge eyes of fire. The glowing glass sort of reminded him of that.
The reverie was shattered along with the glass. Abbadon, still not used to the gentle stepping the Zinyini always used when traversing the desert, planted a little too much weight on one foot, and his boot cracked through the glass. He was then knocked flat by an intense blast of heat.
“FISSURE!” the Azer shouted as he had done before in Kheld-Mirkan. “Get away NOW!” The ground answered him as a jet of blue flame erupted where his foot had been.
Chaos erupted around them. The camels began to panic, and the one Abbadon had been leading finally lost its sure footing, landing splayed and knocking over Malak into the bargain. Rolling onto her stomach, she saw Azis unfurling the carpet and telling people to climb aboard, while Red zipped from lead to lead gathering all the beasts together. She also saw that the hole Abbadon’s foot had punched in the glass was growing. The glass was melting from the intense heat of the flame, threatening to yawn wide enough to swallow them all, starting with the Azer. And with Dog and Tahko and Djeti traveling with them, they no longer all fit on the small carpet.
She prayed, and her prayer was answered with inspiration. Scrambling on her hands and knees, she placed Abbadon directly between herself and where she wanted to go. Checking two more times to make sure she wouldn’t interfere with anyone else’s escape, she turned her back to the Azer and called the sea-wind. She began to rocket backwards. She barely had enough time to hope he wouldn’t be too badly hurt before the back of her head collided with his armored chest.
Abbadon grunted in surprise as the Zinyini girl crashed into him and he was sent hurtling along the glass. He tried very hard not to think about how fast they were going, but the camels were rapidly dwindling before his eyes.
Then glass became sand, and the pair of them tumbled end over end, eventually coming to rest at the base of a dune. Malak lay very still. Abbadon fretted for a moment until he remembered that when Malak died, her body vanished in a puff of light and wind. That didn’t seem to be happening. He turned his attention toward the others. It chafed him to merely sit and watch as his companions scrambled for survival, but there was nothing he’d be able to do to help without putting himself back at risk.
The carpet came swooping in, kicking up small puffs of sand as it passed. Djeti hopped off before it had completely come to a stop, diving into a dune. Red was not far behind, leading all the pack animals at once. Azis asked Abbadon what had possessed Malak to attack the Azer thus, and Abbadon shook his head, suggesting that she had done it to carry them both out of danger – pointing out in particular what a spectacularly ineffective attack it had been were that actually her intent. Djeti emerged to tell everyone that they were now officially past the Flaming Pits, and the first oasis would be about two days’ travel. Seraph looked at the three days’ worth of water remaining and really hoped she was right. He and Azis took off ahead, looking for a suitable campsite.
The next morning and evening and morning again were all uneventful. Azis had finally taken once again to using the flying carpet, and he hovered like a cloud across the sliver of moon that had deigned to light their way. Perched above the dune-tops so his eyes could see farther, he still remained close enough to act if they needed his help. So far, the only thing of note he spotted was that the sand itself turned black just beyond the dune his brother was cresting. It almost melded perfectly with the night, its glittering surface mirroring the stars.
Then the others climbed down the back of the final pink dune, and Malak’s light went out as they entered the valley.
Azis swooped down, pulling up behind Red and Dog, the only two of their number he could see. “What the hell is going on?”
The world went black and silent. Somewhere far away Malak could hear Seraph shouting. The others were completely lost to her, and she to them.
“It’s blacksand,” Dog said. “I’d heard of it, never seen it before. It’s just an illusion, but it’s a hell of an illusion. Messes with your head, takes away your sense of direction, if you’re lucky you blunder back out the way you came.”
Red was already digging through a pack, pulling out a skein of rope. Asking Azis to hold one end, she unfurled it to its full length and pulled it somewhat taut.
“Hopefully nobody has moved much,” she said, stepping into the black and vanishing.
“Gorlon!” Djeti’s voice sounded like she was shouting from a mile away, but then he felt her hands on his arms. “If I get deep enough under the sand, I can see again. I can get us out. Can you hold your breath?”
“Yes,” he said, forgetting that he too would need to yell. Djeti’s hand moved to his face in silent repetition of the question, and he nodded.
“Hold your breath!” came the faint shout, and then Gorlon felt himself sink. It took everything he had to trust the Asherati and not struggle, but the sand was very cold as it flowed past.
“What the hell is that stuff?” Seraph grumbled as he staggered into view and moonlight. Morgaine appeared at his shoulder.
“Blacksand,” Dog repeated himself. “Makes you lost. I think Red’s gone in there to try and sweep for everyone with the rope.” He gestured to the hovering hemp. “Hopefully they haven’t wandered too much further in.”
Seraph choked back a cruel thought. “I don’t suppose you saw this was only a little patch?” he asked his brother.
Azis shook his head. “Water the way it is, we’d lose too much time going around.” He looked at the rope again. “But I might have an idea.”
Something caught Malak around the waist. She shrieked and grasped at it, then her hands recognized the rough texture. It was rope. Someone was trying to pull her to them. The rope kept moving, and she went with it, edging slowly along its length.
Malak collided with something huge and furry. Straining against the rope a little, she paused to place a hand on its chest. A huge furry hand clamped over hers, then moved to the top of her head, then snaked around her arms as the creature pulled her close. Just at the edge of her hearing, she recognized the pup’s cry. Malak and Tahko walked together with the rope until they saw the stars again – and Abbadon just a little further up the rope.
With everyone reunited, Malak focused on warming Gorlon (who actually had frost clinging to his clothes) and helping Tahko calm the pup by bribing it with food. The others came up with the plan for traversing the blacksand: Azis would take Red’s length of rope and fly the carpet above the dunes, remaining outside the reach of the blacksand’s magic. The camels would all be tied to each other and led by that rope, and the people would hang on to the camels to keep from getting lost.
Blessedly, they did not appear to have lost much more than an hour to this obstacle, and it was just past dawn when Djeti called everyone to a halt because they’d reached an oasis. Red began digging for her bubble helmet and one of the two great helms she’d requisitioned just for this purpose. She inflated the helmet and placed the great helm over it. She then informed Djeti that she wanted to go along too. Djeti looked her up and down and told her she’d need to change into something more like what the Asherati was wearing. Red approximated tight leather as best she could while Djeti loaded up on waterskins, then the two of them vanished below the sand.
It was a tense few minutes waiting for them to surface. Djeti handed off full waterskins and took on empty ones, but Red did not join her on subsequent dives. She said that the oasis had been disappointing – it was merely an underground river without any empty space around it or anything interesting to see. Seraph sipped at the water in the skins and was not disappointed at all.
The day passed quietly, though Azis was more tense than normal, having seen some sandhunter tracks that had been too windblown to properly tell their age. That evening, he asked that Malak hood herself to keep the glow to a minimum, and they would make do with the moon and the Peacock and perhaps avoid their attention. True to her word, Malak did not argue, though she wondered if her reasons were still valid.
Unfortunately, it didn’t help, as the beasts made their move as the party was breaking camp. Two immediately charged for one of the camels. Everyone scrambled into action. Azis began crawling up the dune they’d put to their back, hoping to get at them from the flank, but ended up face to face with five more. With reflexes matching those of the vipers he charmed, he snatched the flying carpet off his shoulders, unfurled it with a snap, and leaped on it. The other sandhunters, realizing he was out of their reach, decided to join their companions. Azis swooped down, picked one up, and snapped its jaw with one forceful twist.
Seraph and Abbadon began slicing into them, but could not prevent them from getting fang and claw into one of the camels. Gorlon launched some javelins, and Tahko handed his child to Djeti and waded in himself. Morgaine got some unwanted attention when she tried to attack one. Malak tried to yell at the boys to assist Morgaine, so she wouldn’t unwittingly blast her comrades in trying to scare off the sandhunters on the camel, but nobody would hear it. Red, seeing the other sandhunters charging in, stepped up and grabbed one, holding it over her head for the duration of the fight.
At last the sandhunters were beaten back. Everyone fussed at Red to quit toying with the one she’d been holding captive, and she threw it over the top of the dune, doing nothing to allay anyone’s suspicions of her. Gorlon saw to everyone with the dwarven stone, though Tahko insisted that he see to the beasts instead, and even agreed to pour out a small bit of the flask to help heal the camel that had been attacked. Unwilling to give it more than two doses, though, he instead hoped that Allewel’s lute would finish the job. He began picking out a tune, and discovered that everyone felt slightly better afterward. The party finished striking camp and headed toward the next oasis.
Aside from Seraph perhaps sleeping a little more soundly than usual, the next two days and nights were uneventful. Djeti, having finally gotten the hang of the map Gorlon had copied from the castle, called them to a halt a couple of hours past midnight, saying they were currently above the Oasis of Inyanna. Something stirred in Seraph’s gut even as she dove into the sand, and he knew it was not true. At the same time, he knew the Asherati was not maliciously deceiving them – she simply didn’t know it had moved. This place did not match the vision from his dream but by looking around and trusting his internal sense of direction he could tell that the Oasis is few kilometers…that way.
When Djeti emerged panic-stricken, Seraph calmed her and said they’d be traveling a bit further. He led them until the surroundings matched his vision then told Djeti to try there. She surfaced with amazement on her face – he had been right, and this time the Oasis of Inyanna was cavernous enough to hold them all comfortably. Red again unpacked the bubble helmet and great helm, and Djeti guided her down, carrying the gear back up with her. As Djeti and Red descended, Seraph called Morgaine over to him and asked her to fade them both and sink down through the sand to the Oasis. Morgaine initially refused but Seraph insisted and said to consider another aspect of her training. She quickly gave in and reached out to Seraph and faded them both. The world turned foggy around Seraph, and everything went black and white, except for Morgaine who was in brilliant color, as if she had leached it all from their surroundings. Seraph realized he could only see four or five feet around him, and then even that went away as they sank into the ground. All he could see was Morgaine right next to him as he experienced a sensation of falling the whole time. As they faded away, Malak rushed over in a panic to the spot where they sank below the sand.
There was a moment of concern for how the group would care for the dray beasts, but Dog solved it easily by flat-out refusing to go with them. Gorlon had claimed the other bubble helmet as his own treasure from their cave exploration, and he opted to take the trip wearing the bubble without a great-helm. That ended up not working very well – the bubble remained unharmed by the sand, but it collapsed against his face and prevented the breathing it was supposed to allow. When it was Tahko’s turn, he placed the bubble and helm on the child, saying that he would hold his breath.
One by one they followed the Asherati through the sand into the Oasis. It was a large hallway, defined by walls of water flowing down into channels along the floor, each side flowing in opposite directions.
They made ready as best they could, not knowing what to expect.
While everyone else was getting their footing and bearings, Red walked down one of the sandy corridors and turned the corner. She vanished from everyone’s field of vision, but then shortly after they began to hear male shouting. The voice was berating Red, saying that she had been destined to become a queen, a goddess, and yet she was choosing a path that would leave her as nothing more than a henchman all her days.
People exchanged glances. Gorlon was the first to begin walking after Red, though a few more were prompted into action when the sound of a slap (and Red’s sharp intake of breath) drifted down the hall to their ears.
The room before them was completely defined by flowing water. It formed the walls and parted into windows, and flowed down a sandy staircase around a curve and into a pool. Water also hovered in the shapes of tables, and books on the tables, and of a large man who was apparently the source of the shouting. Red had a welt on her face, and looked as though she had been splashed as well as slapped. While few in the party really had any love for the freakish woman, it concerned them that she seemed to make no effort to fight back or even talk back in the face of such abuse. It seemed completely contrary to the Red they had been traveling with.
Malak took one look at the room and decided someone else could figure out what to do about Red – she knew their goal was to get some water from the Oasis. She began skirting the wall toward the pool, in hopes the water there would have less sand swirling in it. The watery man paid her no mind at all, but shouted at Red to get back into the training facilities and not come out until she had gone at least two rounds. As Malak stooped to fill a waterskin, Red hurried past everyone else to some unseen destination. Seraph spoke out, addressing Red, and it seemed to bring her out of her reverie somewhat. The watery man and all the watery furniture also dissipated as Red returned to the present moment, and the sudden collapse of liquid dissolved the staircase and seemed to open up two passageways on the far side of the room.
Red was now finally aware of everyone else in the room and hallway, but it was impossible to say that she was back to herself. She was cowed and timid. Gorlon reached for his lute, hoping that its powers could heal mind as well as body. When it didn’t seem to have the desired effect, Malak asked him if he had any alcohol. The remark was half in jest, but Red diffidently volunteered that she had some in one of her packs, and promptly retrieved it for the Spirit Warrior. Malak and Gorlon were particularly taken aback when Red began addressing them as “m’lady” and “m’lord”, and apologizing all over herself when this behaviour was pointed out as something new and unusual. It took some creative argument on Malak’s part to convince Red to take a drink of the alcohol. Sadly, it did not drown the problem.
Azis, ever the scout and in no way concerned about Red, crossed the room to the two passages. From one passage came total silence, but from the other came a weird shifting, scraping sound. Seraph, remembering Modnar’s admonition that Nilarem was building a machine in the Oasis and that he should find out about it, offered to take Morgaine and go down the passage with noise, while Azis led the others down the other passage. Abbadon fidgeted at the notion of splitting the party, but Seraph reassured the Azer that he still possessed his gift of being able to find his way, and of course Morgaine could project herself to any of them at whim. He maintained it would be easier to do a simple spy mission with only the two of them, and they would not be separated for much longer than it took to do the job.
The Passage to the Right
Morgaine and Seraph started down the passage with the scraping noises, Seraph moving as stealthily as possible, and Morgaine fading away to invisibility. Following the tunnel they moved closer and closer to the scraping sound, until Seraph slowed to a halt listening intently to the loud noises coming from the room up ahead. Morgaine whispered next to his ear that she would go ahead to scout out what was making the noise. Seraph nodded curtly, waiting patiently for her return. After what was probably a much shorter time than it felt, Morgaine’s voice whispered in Seraph’s ear, warning him that there was a huge beetle like creature up ahead. Still thinking of the King of the Gods’s warning that Nilarem was building mechanical constructs in the Oasis, Seraph mistakenly interpreted Morgaine’s description to mean some sort of clockwork beetle. She also reported that the beetle was digging into a wall in the chamber and that the passage otherwise came to a dead end next to the beetle. Thinking that he had satisfied Modnar’s request to investigate Nilarem’s constructs, Seraph withdrew back down the tunnel intending to meet up with the others…
The Passage to the Left
With the decision to split the group made, Azis disappeared ahead into the silent tunnel. He had long given up on trying to make the others move as quietly as himself, even if they did seem to appreciate the importance, so his best hope was to stay as far ahead of them as his eyes would allow. Still, the glow of torches and the clinking of armor behind him kept him tense. He hoped he would at least have some chance of spotting whatever danger lay hidden in this tunnel before it spotted them.
The first time the tunnel bent, Azis flattened himself as close against the wall as he dared without disturbing the falling water which defined it, and waited until the light crept around the corner behind him. The second time the tunnel bent, he waited again…and nothing followed. Then a loud and unfamiliar voice came down the tunnel, and voices he knew murmured in hopes of quieting the stranger. Azis dropped to a crouch, peering intently down the tunnel ahead. He knew they’d yell for him if they needed him, and now it was more important than ever that he keep alert for something coming toward them from this direction, in case they were attracted by the extra noise.
“What are my matron’s orders?” The words came as suddenly as the hand on Malak’s elbow. Gasping, and biting her tongue to keep from shrieking, Malak deftly wrested her arm out of the stranger’s hand and whirled around. She felt her comrades tense behind her, though none said a word.
It was another humanoid figure formed of water, sort of like the one which had accosted Red earlier. This one, though, had more delicate facial features and distinctively pointed ears. Malak thought it resembled one of the Drow from whom they had rescued Tahko and Djeti and the other slaves.
Malak glared wordlessly at the figure, and its features puckered into a frown, though its voice remained pleasant and respectful. “Honored Matron, are you all right?”
“Please lower your voice,” Malak replied quietly, “and my name is Malak. I am no matron. I’m not even alive. I am a dead priestess tasked by the gods to protect my grandson. You have the wrong person.”
The water-drow reached for Malak’s hand, and dropped to one knee when she would not let him touch her. “Malak…please, sit down.” With a subtle gesture, the water-drow conjured a tall stool from the water flowing down the walls. “I will fetch Healer Gorlon to see to you. Something has gone wrong with your memory.”
“Nothing is wrong with my memory. I do not know you. I only barely even know what you are.”
“Why don’t you tell her your name and see if that helps.” Gorlon had been shifting his way toward Malak ever since he’d heard the water-drow speak his name. Gorlon didn’t recognize the figure any more than Malak did, but he hoped to avoid a fight with the thing if he could think fast enough to undo her hostility.
“Ah! Healer Gorlon. You heard my need. I am grateful for your wisdom.” The water-drow tilted his head to look up adoringly at Malak, who remained standing and suspicious. “I am Ten’nev. My house is now the greatest and strongest among the drow, ever since you captured my heart all those years ago and showed me just how corrupt and evil the other houses were – how ripe they were for striking down. I never would have dreamed I would turn against my own people, but you, my matron, my love – your shining example led us into power and prosperity beyond our dreams.”
Ten’nev reached again for Malak’s hand, and this time she did not argue, even when he pressed his lips to it. She sank into the stool, not caring about the cold and wet. She had not understood a word that he had spoken, and yet she knew in a way beyond explanation that he was not lying.
“And when was this, Ten’nev?” Gorlon could see that Malak was going to be useless in this conversation. Ten’nev paused only for a moment and then provided a date that was in the future.
Malak shook her head, mouth agape at the answer, though she remained present enough to keep her voice low. “That’s more than a year from now. It hasn’t happened yet. That’s why I don’t know you. We haven’t met.”
The water-drow looked pleadingly at Gorlon, and its face fell to see the Azer shaking his head as well. “Something is terribly wrong here. Both of you wait. I will try to find someone who can help.” The water-drow walked toward the wall and melted into it. The stool also melted away from under Malak’s buttocks, though mercifully her reflexes were quick enough to keep from falling. Where the drow had passed, another tunnel was opening in the sand.
Malak gestured angrily for Gorlon to move up ahead to where he had been, and for the rest of them to keep moving forward toward Azis.
The Passage to the Right
Seraph had gone maybe 20 paces down the tunnel when the water on his right bulged out of the wall and a watery female form took shape in front of him.
“Seraph,” came Solace’s voice through the figure’s lips. “I see that you made it to the Oasis. Have you found what you are looking for? No matter…” Solace’s watery form solidified, taking on her flesh and blood appearance. Her voice boomed in Seraph’s ears, and he held his finger to his lips trying desperately to get Solace to lower her voice lest the noise attract the beetle creature in the room behind him. “Even in this place it is hard to maintain my form here so I shall try to be brief.” She finally noticed Seraph’s frantic efforts and the way he glanced over his shoulder to see if anything was coming from behind him. With a sigh and a wave of her hand she said, “Do not worry about the Hulk, it won’t disturb our conversation.”
She paused, then, looking directly over Seraph’s shoulder. She nodded politely. “Princess.” She then turned back and looked directly at Seraph, “I am here to tell you that I have upheld our end of the agreement and that your Oracle should no longer be having to marry her suitor. I am not sure if the Oracle knows yet, but she will soon if she does not already.”
Seraph bowed. “You have my sincere thanks, I will not forget my end of the agreement when I can fulfill it.”
Solace nodded grimly as the Zinyini stood. “You are not ready yet, but once you leave the White Tower you will be much closer. However, in the mean time, I do have something you can do for me right away.” Solace looked appraisingly at Seraph. “I have brought a young spirit walker to the Oasis, although I don’t know where she is right now. I want you to find her and help her for now. Her power is similar to Morgaine’s and I am sure that she will be of use to you later on. If you have time, maybe even guide her home.”
Seraph frowned. It seemed unfair for Solace to suddenly expand the agreement. After a moment, he decided that it was reasonable to try and begin repaying Solace now since she had worked so swiftly to free his Oracle.
“I will find the girl and help her, as you wish. What is her name?”
Solace’s voice changed slightly, as if she were speaking through water. “Her name is Aimee, and thank you for looking after her.” As she finished the last word, her form was once again purely water, and she moved and flowed into the water falling along the walls.
Morgaine promptly solidified into view beside him and bombarded him with questions. “What was that about? What did you agree to do? What happened to the Oracle?”
Seraph started heading back toward the start of the passage, answering her questions with as little information as he could get away with. He was not willing to waste anymore time standing around waiting for whatever witchery Solace used on the ‘Hulk’ in the other room to wear off.
They turned the final corner back to the main room, where Red had started acting weird…and found that the tunnel stopped suddenly like there had never been an entrance. Frustrated, Seraph gestured that they should turn around to check and see if the tunnel opened up anywhere else along the way back toward the Hulk.
The Passage to the Left
Finally the noise behind him died down, and the light reached timidly around the corner, and Azis was able to push on ahead. He had gone perhaps another thirty paces when he could feel the tunnel had widened into a chamber. He could also see that a curtain of water flowed from nowhere to nowhere in front of him, and it was shaped like one of the doors of Valite houses.
He thought he heard voices, so Azis slowly and quietly began to edge away from the door and back to the group; however, after moving only a few paces the door opened and light flooded into the tunnel, illuminating Azis and nearly blinding them all.
Standing in the doorway was a male figure made entirely of water. “Pasha Azis?” it called out. “Was that you out here?”
Azis shifted stances, caught off guard by the strange title and by the fact that the water creature seemed to know him. “I’m no pasha,” he growled. That title would have been generous even to apply to his half-brother, who was the tribe’s official Raid Leader. Only Valites amassed in groups large enough to warrant that sort of honorific.
The water-Man sketched a hasty bow. “Forgive me. Amir Azis.” He continued to speak, “Sir, the ships are in position. We merely await your orders,” and then stood quietly awaiting Azis’s response.
Azis was not in the least comforted by the new title, which he did not recognize at all. “Do what you know to do,” he snarled, “and go away. Leave me alone.” By this point the group behind Azis had caught up to him, and he wished they hadn’t. It left him little room to retreat should the water-Man prove hostile.
Gorlon piped up as he spotted the watery figure. “Azis, ask it what the date is. Another one of these things appeared to Malak, and when I asked it the date, it was in the future.”
“You ask it, then,” Azis growled. The water-man tilted his head, frowning slightly.
Gorlon politely complied, but the creature did not acknowledge him at all. Azis sighed, and addressed the creature. “Fine. You want orders? Tell me what today’s date is.” The creature’s answer was about ten years into the future, and the knowledge raised eyebrows throughout the group.
“Well done,” Azis said, tired of pretending to be some military leader. “That will be all. We discussed all this before; go on and carry out the orders you already had.” The water-Man saluted nervously and went back into the doorway closing it behind him. The tunnel was again plunged into darkness for a moment, with only Abbadon’s torch lighting the area. The doorway vanished, and ahead the tunnel became a blank wall.
“Well, that’s probably not good,” says Abbadon.
“No” Azis says, “that wall wasn’t there before the water creature showed up.”
Abbadon turned to the side and spat. “We should head back to that main room, I don’t like a tunnel where the walls can move. Best we meet back up with Seraph and Morgaine.”
Malak turned to Takho, reaching for the baby. As she fed it, she remarked quietly to the others, “If for some reason I get separated from the rest of you, just keep going. The little guy’s been eating well up until now, he should be okay for one day before I can get back to you.”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” Gorlon started to argue, but Tahko waved him to silence.
“I will look after her,” he said, and did not elaborate.
The group turned around, moving back down the tunnel toward the main room. As they pass by the new entrance made by the water-Drow they heard faint voices. Azer voices – Azer children’s voices – saying, “Uncle Abbadon read us a story. Tell us about your adventures. Can we stay up late?” drifted out from the side tunnel.
Abbadon turned white for a moment, then grumbled and hustled the group past the opening, “No detours, less likely to get lost. Keep steppin’.” As the group retraced their steps and rounded the last corner, they saw that the room they expected to find had been replaced with a completely different room.
The Passage to the Right
Seraph and Morgaine made their way back toward the tunnel creature, hoping to find a new tunnel exit to replace the closed tunnel behind them. As they got closer Morgaine faded away again, plunging the tunnel back into darkness. Seraph slowed his pace and patiently waited until he heard her voice over his shoulder.
“The creature is still… asleep maybe? I don’t think Solace killed it but it’s not moving right now. There’s no more tunnel though, it’s still a dead end.”
Seraph nodded, then realized that Morgaine probably couldn’t see that. “All right,” he whispered, “fade us past the creature and we’ll continue through the wall then.”
“Through the wall?!” Morgaine was still whispering, but it seemed loud in Seraph’s ear. He cringed.
“Yes,” he hissed back. “This is all part of what we were practicing. We need to go that way. I know this.” Seraph pointed. “And since there’s no tunnel here, we need to fade through until we find one.”
“Okay.” Morgaine didn’t even try to hide her nervousness. Still, she gamely wrapped her arms around Seraph from behind, and he felt himself flicker. Trusting once again in his instincts, he stepped through the wall of water and into the sand.
The New Room
This had been a simple round room, big enough to hold them all comfortably but not much larger than that. Now, though, they saw a wide balcony that jutted over a vast chamber, perhaps even larger than the ballroom where they had met the Zinyini gods.
The balcony and the room were both crowded with watery meru-spawn. Tahko tensed, and Malak instinctively squeezed the baby a little closer to herself. The figures appeared to be dressed for an impending battle, and some hovered over a large watery table. None of the standing figures paid any of them any heed, but one at the table looked up as they approached.
“Father Gorlon!” it said, and moved unnoticing through everyone else to embrace Gorlon. “It means much to me that you would come to see me tonight. I would like to think that I have done you and my father proud, and I believe the attack plans are solid, but even so I had been wishing that you would find me tonight so I could show them to you. You’ve been such an inspiration to me growing up, with your talk of Reason, and I was hoping you could perhaps find where my wisdom might be lacking.”
Both Gorlon and Tahko went wide-eyed as they realized this was a vision of the pup in Malak’s arms, now fully grown. The water-jackal beckoned to Gorlon, motioning him over to the table. Tahko followed as he always did, but the figure seemed not to see him. Gorlon squinted slightly at the table, and vague outlines flickered in and out of view, sketching a large map that covered most of the table’s surface.
“This is the Creche,” the water-jackal said. “I will be leading a squadron from this direction. My father will be leading his forces around from the other direction.” It moved a few watery tokens along lines on the map. “Azis’s ships will come over to here.”
“It looks like you have a very solid strategy there.” Gorlon nodded, pretending to understand. It didn’t really matter what he said, since this wasn’t real, but the figure seemed to want reassurance. The Azer saw that Tahko had gone paler that he would have thought possible, and stood frozen with mouth agape.
“I know,”, said the water-jackal, but its voice was sad. “I just…there will be so many lives lost, people dying to defend their useless archaic beliefs. And even as much as I think the ways of Reason that you taught me will help the survivors be happier in the end…is it worth those who will die?”
“Are they really living, without Reason?” Malak’s voice made Gorlon wince slightly. At least this time she was trying to help, but all the same he wished she wouldn’t. Especially since it appeared that the water-jackal heard her.
“Malak,” it said, smiling. “I didn’t expect you, but I am glad nonetheless. And I must thank you for the assassins you sent. They were a tremendous help. In fact, their work may well result in fewer casualties, which would be a great thing.” It sighed, turning back to the map. “Everything’s in place. I know we’ll take the Creche. I’m just sad about what it will cost.”
Gorlon picked up and toyed with one of the tokens, feeling it dampen his fingers. He tilted his head at the water-jackal. “You’re how old now?”
“Eighteen, Father,” it said, not understanding. Gorlon looked at the pup again and nodded. He’d expected this to be some vague vision of the future, just like all the others.
“Well, I’d hope that by now you’ve learned that anything worth having is going to come with a price. You’re ready to do what you need to do, and more importantly you’ve been doing what it will take to give you the best chance at success. I’m proud of you.” Gorlon’s words fumbled slightly, but the water-jackal didn’t notice. It placed its hands on Gorlon’s shoulders.
“Thank you, Father Gorlon,” it said. “You have been a comfort to me.” It turned away then, bending back over the table, and then melted away.
“We should kill it,” Tahko said, clearly referring to the pup. His eyes were still inhumanly wide with fear. Malak took several steps back, handing the pup to Djeti for a moment.
“That seems a bit extreme,” Gorlon began, but was cut off.
“The Creche is the holy place to us, it’s where our young are raised and taught the ways of their people! He cannot be allowed to destroy his own people like this!” Tahko’s emotions almost freed him from his paralysis then, but Malak walked back up to him and reached up to place her hands on his shoulders.
“Listen to me,” she said, her voice brooking no argument. “This isn’t going to happen. Not if you don’t want it to. There’s a reason the visions are made of water and not stone. The future is fluid. You can change it. And you don’t need to kill your own son to change it.” She leaned in as if to kiss his chest, but was suddenly thrown away as the ground lurched under her feet.
Everyone scrambled back toward the tunnel as the balcony started turning into soft sand and falling away – everyone except Tahko, who remained frozen in his fear and confusion. Malak ran over to him again, grabbing him by the elbow.
“If you love your son, you will follow me RIGHT NOW.”
The meru-spawn remained unmoving. Malak sighed, moved closer in to the furry chest, then stuck one ankle behind his and pushed. As he fell off-balance, she yanked his arm, and was finally able to drag him stumbling behind her just as the sand finished falling, revealing a long slope down into a stone archway.
“So now what?” Abbadon asked. “Down there?”
“Now we get the hell out of here,” Azis said firmly. “We’ve gotten the water, Seraph’s doing what he needs to do, he’ll find us if we leave. This place is crawling with witchery and I don’t see a need to be here anymore.”
“My people come here to find answers, find truth,” Djeti said hotly, “but one can find madness here instead if your will to know isn’t strong enough.”
“Well,” Azis said, pointing to Tahko and Red, “I know what we’re finding right now. Take me back up.”
“Giving up now means your will is weak,” Djeti argued. Everyone began talking at once at that point, but eventually all agreed that they could continue through the Oasis, but it would be best to do so once Seraph and Morgaine had rejoined them, and the two of them could find the others topside as easily as down here. Azis insisted on being the first one Djeti escorted topside. She sighed, handed the pup back to Malak, asked Abbadon for a boost, and shimmied up through the sand, emerging head-down to reach for Azis’s hand. She pulled him up, and the sand-ceiling swallowed them both.
The others had just agreed that Red should be the next one removed when Seraph and Morgaine emerged from the tunnel wall.
“Habbibi! You’re all right!” Malak pressed her free hand to her chest and sighed in obvious relief.
“I’m fine,” Seraph said. He looked around, then frowned briefly. “Where’s Azis?”
Djeti and Azis spilled out onto the sand as they reached the surface of the desert. Azis’s clothing looked a bit worse for the wear after a second trip through the sand. “I will go and get the next person,” said Djeti as she slipped back beneath the sand. Azis shook himself to dislodge some of the sand and then checked the sun and surrounding dunes to get an idea of where he was at. He found to his relief that the camp would be close by, just a short ways over to the south. He also knew that nobody else besides Seraph would be able to figure that out. He would have to wait here for the others to surface.
His calculations were interrupted when he noticed that in about the same spot where Djeti surfaced, there was water rising up through the sand. Given what he had just witnessed in the Oasis, he eyed the water with some wariness. As though eager to not disappoint, the water suddenly surged upward into a man shaped form. This time, though, the form flowed from water into flesh. Azis caught a whiff of salt, and figured out who the visitor was just a moment before his features solidified.
“Why are you here?” snapped Azis. “Seraph is down below, shouldn’t you be pretending to be a god and helping him?”
Einac smiled. “Seraph does not need my help at the moment. I’ve already done what I can for him and besides, he hasn’t lost his way yet.” Einac finished with a pointed look.
“This sweet talk will get you nowhere.” stated Azis. “I don’t believe in the gods anymore. Maybe you do have powers that we don’t, but that doesn’t mean I need to respect you or worship you. It just means I need to fear you.”
“Exactly!” Einac laughed heartily. “Oh, I have been waiting so long for someone to finally see the truth of that. I am here to offer you a purpose. Your brother, Seraph, he will need your help soon. I have set him on a difficult path, and really it has only just begun.”
Azis bristled, “Just like that? You expect me to come crawling back? Seraph is my brother but I will not swear myself into servitude to a god I don’t believe in.”
Einac sighed. “I’m not asking you to worship me, swear yourself into servitude to me, or even believe in me. What I am asking is for you to believe in Seraph, and to help him.” Einac’s watery features took on a hard but thoughtful look, “If the two of you are successful, then change will sweep this desert. You can help guide that change. You can finally get your people out from under the thumb of the Valites. My brothers and sisters grow lazy and decadent in their status. They have been cowed by the bitch-queen Carawynne, and they wonder why more and more Zinyini fall away from their faith. They have forgotten that if we could improve the lot of those who adore us, then our own stations would improve as well. I have not forgotten. I have plans. Look.” Einac waved his hand, and a large crystalline orb appeared in it. Through it, Azis could see a lush field of grass, not unlike what he had encountered in his vision quest.
“There is a land of milk and honey that I have found for the Zinyini. They could rule it as the Valites rule this awful desert. Some day, I will need someone to lead my fleets. I believe that someone could be you. I will teach you to sail.”
Azis frowned, wary of Einac’s words and newly disturbed by the questions he still had unanswered. “Okay, you have my interest. But that’s still not my respect. You have to earn that just like anyone else. Especially since it sounds like you stand to gain from this as well.”
“Of course.” Einac seemed strangely pleased to hear it.
“And what happens if none of you ever earn my respect? What happens if I die and I’m not bound to any of you?”
Einac waved the orb out of existence and stretched, cat-like in both physique and grin. “Ah. You see more of the truth than any Zinyini I’ve ever met, but you’re still worried about your…soul. Fear not, Azis. Your soul is subject to your will, as is anyone’s. If your will is strong enough, you can create your own destiny. In death, and in life.” Einac gestured to the sand. “Just as if your will is strong enough, you can force the Oasis to show you truth instead of madness. And I would suggest you try. Or at least help Seraph to try. He is far from done here.”
Then Azis heard the call of seabirds and smelled salt in the air again. For a moment he looked around for Malak, then realized that Einac was growing more and more insubstantial, being blown away by his own breeze. He also saw that Djeti was emerging again from the sand, Red in tow.
Djeti sniffed the air suspiciously. Azis reached down to help Red to her feet, and turned her to face the south.
“When you get to the top of that dune, you should see the camp from there. Just look for the camels. Head to camp and wait for us there.”
“Yes, m’lord.” Red dutifully trundled off.
“Wait!” Azis cried, and Red turned around, confused. But he was not talking to her. He was grabbing Djeti’s attention before she dove back down.
“Take me back down there,” Azis said, waving for Red to continue on her way.
“Well, I can’t leave yet,” Seraph said. “Back at the ball, the King of the Gods told me that Nilarem was building something down here and he wanted me to find out about it.”
“That’s all well and good,” said Abbadon, “but we’ve already had Red and now this one go mad from what they’ve seen.” He indicated Tahko with his thumb. “Maybe you’ll be fine ‘cause you have a mission down here, but we can’t risk all of us going crazy down here.”
“I’m staying with him,” Malak said. Nobody noticed.
“Djeti said that the Oasis moves around from place to place, but it will stay put as long as someone is in here,” Gorlon said. “And like you said earlier, Morgaine can send herself to any of us. We can just send her to check up on you once in a while, and Djeti can come after you when you’re done.”
Seraph whirled and tensed, drawing his blade. The shifting scraping sound he’d heard before had started again. The others began craning their heads to hear, tensing for battle themselves, and then Azis fell through the ceiling and thumped down next to them. Djeti landed softly nearby.
Everyone stared in surprise at Azis, and he shrugged. “It was hot up there.”
The words were so absurd coming out of his mouth that everyone had to laugh, and nobody ever bothered even trying to get at the truth. Then Seraph heard the shifting scraping sound again, and turned to face the chamber wall just as a hole erupted in its side.
It was easily taller than Azis, and broader than both Azer put together. It looked almost like an oversized beetle, but two of its limbs could be generously described as “vestigial”. It appeared to compensate with a pair of huge manacles, clicking together as it moved toward Seraph.
Instinct overruled Malak’s common sense, and she immediately strode forward, ready to unleash divine power against the beast. Then the beetle turned slightly to look at her, and suddenly she simply could not do anything in the face of its green swirling eyes. She still wanted to, she could feel it, still wanted to strike or at least run…but it was like she didn’t know how anymore.
Gorlon braced himself. Tahko was going to be useless in this fight, and for the most part so was he. But he was the only one that was going to be up for rescuing the pup out of Malak’s grasp. He sprinted forward, snatched the child, and leaped back as an arm sliced the air in front of him.
Abbadon unslung his axe and rushed at the beast, hoping to get in a good strike from behind while it was distracted. It was amazingly quick for its size, though, and one of its arms struck Abbadon in the face, sending him sprawling along the floor to lie still. The beetle lurched again for Gorlon, who was too busy holding the pup to do much else, but then a blaze of fur streaked in front of him. There was a screech as Tahko reached into the beetle’s mouth and clawed, and then there was a howl as it bit down on the meru-spawn’s arm. Tahko was able to retract his limb, but it was horribly mangled and bleeding.
Quick as the beetle was, Azis was both quick and stealthy, and a perfectly timed leg sweep sent it crunching surprised onto its back. He too met the thing’s eyes, and he felt the confusion wash over him, but he forced himself to keep moving.
“Don’t look at its eyes!” he roared.
“Good to know!” Seraph shouted back. He had moved past everyone and was facing down another tunnel. A second one was coming, clicking as it walked.
“Be right back!” Morgaine chirped in Seraph’s ear. He spared a quick glance, and saw her appear at Azis’s side, moving just as he’d trained her to do. She drove an insubstantial dagger into the supine beetle’s eye, and then solidified both herself and the dagger.
Seraph heard the lengthy wailing screech and allowed himself a brief moment of pride. But there was little time for anything else. He ducked to the side as the second beetle neared, trying to slash under its arms to get at the belly. He lunged just a little too far, though, leaving himself open, and the beetle landed a solid hit. Seraph couldn’t tell if he had made any noise before he hit the ground.
“Give me the child and go assist him!” Tahko roared as soon as he had finished swallowing a draught from Gorlon’s flask. Seeing the hesitation on the Azer’s face, he went on, “Use the javelins!” The meru-spawn reached down with his unbloodied arm and roughly snatched up the pup, hoisting it to his shoulder.
Gorlon fumbled to unpack his atl-atl and wove his way to Seraph, just in time to see him fall. His heart sank, but he still bravely launched a pair of missiles even as he knew they’d miss their mark. He hoped Tahko had forgotten his earlier desire for infanticide.
“Good job,” Azis said to Morgaine, his words no less sincere for the disbelief that suffused them. Seeing the princess preen, he snapped at her. “Now get back over there and help him!”
Azis then turned to Malak. “Snap out of it, damn it! This thing’s dead, or at least it’s gonna be. Go blow away the other one and don’t look at its face this time!” He heard the sickening thud of his brother landing roughly on the ground, and shook Malak’s shoulder. “Damn it, what kind of Spirit Warrior are you? Get hold of yourself and go save Seraph like you’re supposed to!” He roughly let her go as he saw her start blinking. He shoved her forward, and she staggered away.
He looked at the beetle lying in front of him. It was badly injured, but its legs still twitched as if it planned to roll over and stand up. He whispered into his sleeve, calling forth the viper.
“There, look at that,” he said. “I promised you food, lots of big bugs to eat? You don’t get any bigger than that. You’ll need to finish killing it first, but then it’s all yours.” He gently tossed the snake onto the beetle’s head, and smirked as he saw it eagerly sink its fangs into the uninjured eye. He then charged toward the remaining beast.
Malak saw Seraph lying still on the ground, and the beetle reaching down as if to grab him. Frightened and furious, she called the sea-wind, knocking the beetle away and onto its back.
“Get him away!” she cried to Gorlon. He was all too happy to comply rather than continue trying to attack.
Morgaine flickered into sight at the beetle’s side. “No more!” she cried, and plunged both her hands into its chest. It screamed and thrashed for a moment, and then the thrashing subsided to the occasional twitch.
Azis pulled up short as he saw this. Briefly uncertain what to do next, he then called to the snake in his other sleeve.
“See? There’s one for you too,” he said as he lobbed the snake into the beetle’s open mouth. Azis then waved at the others to be quiet for a moment before he spoke.
“Those guys are a couple of the most poisonous things out there, and they’re hungry. I don’t hear any more bugs coming, so we should be okay for now.”
After everyone had rested up and Gorlon had done what he could to tend wounds, Seraph took the lead point and started in the direction that ‘felt’ like the way out, which of course was through the stone archway. The group had only gone a short ways when Seraph turned a corner and came to a dead stop, hand flying to his scimitar.
A young girl with sand-colored hair stood facing him, looking harmless but very lost.
“Let me guess,” Seraph said softly. “You’re Aimee?”
“Yes!” the girl replied, her voice strong enough to make everyone flinch. “How do you know my name? Who are you?”
Her voice projected strongly down the tunnel and made Seraph wince as he replied, “Do you know Solace? Well she sent me. I’m to guide you out of here. And take care of you until you can get back to your home.”
Aimee smiled brightly. “I know Solace but I’m not sure how I got here. I was just in a room for a while, but then I started thinking I should look around, and then I just kept getting turned around, and how is there so much water in here without the walls just collapsing in?”
Azis pushed his way to Seraph’s side. He bent down to peer at Aimee’s eyes. “Let me tell you something. Whenever ten or more people travel together in the desert, the tenth one has to be completely silent or the ancestors will wake up and be upset with us. And if you’re going to come with us, you’ll make number ten. Am I understood?”
“Oh, sure,” Aimee said. “I have no problem with being quiet. Goodness knows I’ve been doing it up until now, but that’s because I’ve had nobody to talk to…”
Azis rubbed the bridge of his nose and sighed.
Having finally quieted Aimee, the group continued on. Seraph began to get a cold feeling of recognition in his gut as the tunnels turned into vaguely shimmering hallways. He turned a corner and froze, so great was the force of deja vu at seeing the Hallway to the Oracle’s chamber in front of him. He was torn between his desire to finally see his beloved face to face, and his fear of just how ominous the Oracle had made it sound when she said that all truths would be revealed here.
Abbadon’s voice broke through his thoughts: “What is it? What’s wrong?”.
Seraph started forward, his stride determined. “It’s nothing. I’ve just… I’ve been in this hallway before, in my dreams.” With a final gathering of will, Seraph stepped through the archway into the room beyond.
Save for being sculpted of water, the room was a perfect replica of the Oracle’s chamber he had seen so many times in his dreams. A water version of the Oracle reclined on a watery couch. Seraph walked farther into the room, toward the water-Oracle as the rest of the group filed in and spread out behind him. He resisted the urge to do his ritual greeting; especially after Gorlon’s explanation that the watery figures seemed to be visions of the future and not truly “real”, he was very uncertain what to do.
“Seraph, my dear Seraph!” said the water-Oracle. “I have such good news! The wedding has been called off! I’m not sure what happened, but I won’t have to marry now. Isn’t this wonderful, my love?”
Seraph takes a deep breath, “It is good news, it means that Solace has kept her word and prevented your marriage.”
The water-Oracle gave a sharp intake of breath. “Oh no…Seraph, what have you done? Did you make a deal with that, that woman?”
Seraph stood up as straight and proud as possible. “I did. I have agreed to help her find her weapon, when I am able. I did this in exchange for your freedom from the un-wanted marriage.” Seraph paused. “But Oracle… you are made of water right now. We are inside the Oasis of Inyanna. Is this really you?”
The Oracle sighed, murmuring. “I would almost rather have married another than to know you were in her debt.” She recovered some, her masked face turning toward Seraph. “Water you say? I guess that makes sense. Yes, it is me, as it always is. When we meet in dreams, we project into a portion of the Oasis. Would you say that we are real then, there?” She reached out her hand. “Is what we have between us real?”
Seraph took the hand gently, not wanting to find out what would happen if he squeezed it. “I think so.”
The water-Oracle paused. “My beloved Seraph, do you remember your promise to me? That you would come find me and spirit me away into the desert.”
“Yes, of course,” Seraph answered quickly. “But I don’t know where you are. You have led me to water when I was dying, and to caravans when my people needed supplies, but you have never led me to you.”
The water-Oracle’s hand fidgeted nervously out of his, and she reclined on the couch. “Take off my mask, dear Seraph. And then you will know that in fact I have.”
Seraph stepped forward, only a moment’s hesitation on his part. He reached up to the water-Oracle’s mask and slowly lifted it away. The water-mask dissolved away in his hands, and he beheld his beloved Oracle for the first time…
Seraph’s own mask cracked, his face betraying his every emotion. He stepped back, overwhelmed by the thoughts racing through his mind. A princess, a Valite, the enemy, the betrayer…and he had loved her!
“They disfigured me in the War, but taking my eyes could never stop me from finding you, my dear Seraph. I know this is hard, but I love you. You have to believe this,” said the water-Oracle.
Seraph took another step back. The ambush had been a setup, her plan from the start. She had tricked him, led him into it, endangered his raiding party, enslaved him to herself and her sisters…for what?
“I could not let them kill you. I had to tell them we needed you, or you would have died at Julianne’s hands, and I would not have been able to bear it. Please, Seraph, say something,” the water-Oracle pleaded, stretching out her hand toward where he had been.
Seraph took a final step back, the shock still writ plain across his face. He shook his head in confusion and looked away, looking anywhere but the water-Oracle in front of him. Somewhere at the edge of his senses, he heard his comrades trying to talk to him, but their voices were miles away.
The water-Oracle cried out one last time, then her outstretched hand lost its form as she splashed down into a puddle.
The water-Oracle’s cry seems to hang in the air for a moment longer, as no one else dares break the silence. Suddenly Malak swings round and faces Seraph, “They do not mean anything. These visions are worthless, they are not real,” she says fiercely. When Seraph shakes his head slowly to disagree with her, Malak places her hands on his shoulders and forces him to look at her.
“Do you believe that your brother would even CARE about that worthless expanse of water past the mountains, let alone try to conquer it? Do you believe that Gorlon would be so irresponsible to his new packmate that he would raise the pup to hate and try to destroy his own people? Do you think that I would willingly give myself over to these drow creatures that are trying to enslave us all? Everything we’ve been shown here is madness. What makes you so special that you’d see the TRUTH?”
Seraph keeps shaking his head, muttering “No, the… the Oracle told me that the I would find truth in the Oasis. I… I believe that Princess Brandy is the Oracle, it almost makes sense in certain ways.”
Tahko and Gorlon are quick to voice their disbelief in Princess Brandy being the Oracle as well, but no one (other than Seraph) is more distraught over the possibility than Morgaine. “It can not be. She is of the Vale, she would not betray us to help you raid. It can’t be HER.” Morgaine rushes over to Seraph, “Ask her, ask Brandy if she is the Oracle. Find out the TRUTH.” Seraph again shakes his head ‘no’, this time much more forcefully than when Malak confronted him. “I will not ask. I already know the answer, the truth has been presented before me.” In a fit of frustration Morgaine says, “If YOU won’t ask then I’ll go ask her myself. It can not be her, she’ll tell me the truth.” as Morgaine appears poised to wake up, waiting to see if Seraph will give in and talk to Brandy himself. Seraph levels a piercing look at Morgaine, as if gauging her determination. “Fine, go ask her if you must. I refuse to do so right now.” Morgaine disappears, and then Seraph gets a splitting headache as he hears Morgaine’s scream in his head.
“Foolish girl, now what have you done?” Seraph growls in his mind at Morgaine. Faintly he hears her respond, “I… I couldn’t wake up. I’m stuck somewhere here in the Oasis. I think. Yes, I’m still in the Oasis.” Seraph relays Morgaine’s predicament to the rest of the party; then, using the same skill that got her home last time, he heads off in the direction that he senses Morgaine in. The rest of the party follows, with arguments still breaking out about what the visions mean.
As they travel down the corridor, Red and Aimee begin having a conversation about where Aimee is from and how she’d gotten here. Aimee said she was originally from a place called Los Angeles, but had somehow dreamed her way into someone else’s body and then Solace had helped her find her way here to the Oasis. Red, to only Aimee’s surprise, is actually familiar with Los Angeles, having been there and some related place called Las Vegas, but when Aimee tries to talk more about Red’s travels there, it becomes apparent that several of Red’s memories have been suppressed. Red, when confronted with this possibility, seems completely unsurprised and willing to believe it, making mention of a psionic. Aimee suggests that she as a psychologist might be able to help Red recover and integrate her suppressed memories. Red absolutely refuses, and changes the subject.
Along the way, Abbadon remarks mostly out of nowhere that he can tell the party is descending even deeper into the ground. After traveling for only a short while beyond that, the party enters a rough hewn room with a pool of water spreading out from the entranceway. Azis skirts the water and goes along the side as far as he can, but must eventually resort to using the carpet to drift up to the ceiling and begin to cross the water. Seraph, still distraught from the oasis’s revelation, barely glances at the water as he wades directly in, ignoring his companions’ urging to be careful. The water deepens quickly, and is about up to his knees when suddenly two eyes open above the water farther in the back of the cavern. A voice calls out questioning who seeks to cross the waters, and slowly a ferryman rows into view. The ferryman has the upper body of a fish with big bulbous eyes, a wide mouth, droopy whiskers like a catfish, and strong muscled arms.
Unlike previous visions, the Ferryman appears to respond to anyone who talks to it, and during Gorlon’s questioning reveals that it guards the temple of Blibdoolpoolp, which lies upon a route to one of the Drow cities. (Azis fails his roll and snickers at the name, thus giving away his position, not that the thing noticed or cared.) Although not able to secure a specific time frame like he had with previous visions, Gorlon does eventually establish that this appears to be a future vision, as the creature mistakes the group for an advanced scouting party of a surface dweller host. Growing impatient with the vision and wanting to proceed on, Seraph tells the Ferryman to let them pass or get out of the way. The creature offers to row them across the water if they can pay for it, and much to Red’s dismay Seraph quickly produces a diamond and asks if that will be enough for it. The creature agrees perhaps a little too quickly and Seraph flips it the diamond which it snatches out of the air. As soon as it does, the Ferryman collapses back into water and the pool of water quickly recedes, leaving a diamond sitting on the floor where the water-Ferryman had been.
As he picks up the diamond a sinkhole opens up in front of the group leading down into a room below. Without consulting the rest of the party, Seraph hops over the edge, hits the sand at the bottom, and successfully rolls into a crouch into this new room. It is shaped like an upright cone, which combined with the room above gives the whole an hourglass shape, and rivulets pour from above into an hourglass shape of water in the middle. As the others lower themselves into the room, they realize that the pillar of water is hourglass-shaped because it is taking the form of a watery Morgaine. Seraph intuitively knows that this really is her, and stops to consider the best way of freeing her from the water; however, Red springs into action and rummages around in her pack until she finds a rain coat. Hurrying forward Red drapes the rain coat over herself and then goes into the pillar of water and spreads the rain coat over Morgaine’s form. This causes Morgaine to scream out in pain and then vanish again, but she does not feel she has come “unstuck” yet. She fears Seraph will need to find her in his sleep to “free” her. It also causes Seraph to have another excruciating headache. “Perhaps we won’t be in such a hurry to do that next time.. eh Red?” growls Seraph.
Two tunnels yawn on opposite sides of the room. Water flows around the edges of the room like it had in all the others, but something isn’t quite right about it. Red puts her finger on it first. “The water’s all flowing one direction here. It had been flowing in different directions on either side up in the other tunnels, but now both sides flow the same way.”
Abbadon looks thoughtful, at least for him. “You look at this room and that one together” – he points upward – “you get an hourglass. It’s almost like now time is flowing right here, past to future.” He indicates the current with a sweep of his hand.
“So maybe down here there’s more truth than madness,” Malak grudgingly admits, giving Seraph a hard look. “I still think the rest up until now has been bullshit.”
“Well, which way is Morgaine?” Djeti asks quickly. Seraph closes his eyes, thinks for a moment, then points. He opens his eyes to find he is pointing “upstream”. Again with little regard for the others, he strides off immediately.
The tunnel widens after about fifty meters, and the party (save Aimee) see watery copies of themselves approaching the City of the Gods as they did when they were invited to the Ball. Malak and Red are both intrigued by this, wondering if perhaps they might be able to see some things they had missed. Seraph, of course, walks straight through without interacting with anything, though as he passes a watery table near “the back of the hall”, he overhears a watery Princess Germain asking a watery Princess Brandy what she thought would happen if he were to find out his own gods gave up the information that led to his capture. Brandy gets a pained look on her face and simply shakes her head in silence.
Azis beckons angrily to Malak, reminding her in rough whispers of her own belief that the visions were false, but his tone of voice only encourages her to wave him on while she catches up later. It makes too much sense to her that whatever transpired at the ball is what caused Azis to have his crisis of faith, and her desire to know outweighs her inclination to disbelieve. She watches Azis present himself to T’Cidien like any good Zinyini would to his god, and her heart and stomach both lurch at what follows. She had forgotten that not everybody knew, and moreover it is plain to her that the war-god rarely interacts with mortals anymore, keeping instead to his Spirit Warriors. Malak watches Azis’s devotion turn to disdain as he flees the Ball, and she feels her heart breaking because she knows there will be nothing she can do to restore his faith. Especially after that.
Red also pokes around the watery ball, but most of her interest lies in what happened near the end, after she too had run off. Unfortunately, events in the vision seem to be unfolding at a normal pace, which makes her impatient. After Red sees that Malak has wandered past the edge of the vision, she tries mentally forcing it to proceed faster. The vision stubbornly plods on at normal speed, and eventually Red simply gives up and hurries on.
Meanwhile, the others have encountered a watery Nerwoc who hails Seraph with “leaving so soon?”. Since this was not an encounter had by anyone when actually at the ball, Seraph is intrigued enough to pause and talk with the figure somewhat – though he is frustrated enough at what has happened down here that he addresses the god rather flippantly, starting their conversation by asking Nerwoc where he is, and then asserting that he and his companions aren’t at the ball right now; they’re in the Oasis of Inyanna. Abbadon lets slip that part of their reason for being in the Oasis is to find Nilarem’s machine, and Nerwoc raises an eyebrow to hear this. Nerwoc wishes Seraph good fortune in finding it, and also warns him that the machine is dangerous because it is a powerful device for gathering intelligence, and could do devastating things in the wrong hands. Nerwoc says that Nilarem had only noble intentions when building the machine, and was probably unaware of the ways it could be maliciously misused. He also suggests the best course of action may be to destroy the machine.
Malak rejoins the party just in time to hear Seraph say “I’m sorry I can’t owe you for that information. I’m done owing any of you anything.” She then sees Seraph stalk off further down the tunnel. The watery Nerwoc tries to argue further with Seraph, but only gets response from Abbadon. Malak tightens her face yet further as she hurries off after her grandson.
After a bit more of a walk, Seraph hears Morgaine’s voice in his head again, saying that the walls are moving and she’s frightened. After a bit of questioning on Seraph’s part, she is able to tell him that yes, really, she’s still “stuck” in the same place and everything else is shifting around her. Seraph’s own intuition verifies her claim. A few moments later, her awe-filled voice whispers once more in Seraph’s head: “I’ve found the machine.”
Even further along, a watery apparition of Nilarem fills the tunnel and declares “Turn back! This area is forbidden by the gods!” Malak quails despite her previous assertions that watery apparitions were all by nature false, and even the others are stymied for a moment. The Zinyini attempt to address this watery Nilarem, to see what sort of vision madness it has in store for them. After a while they realize that the apparition isn’t reacting to them at all, simply booming out its forbiddance over and over. Gorlon cautiously threads his way past, and the apparition doesn’t even notice. As the others file past, Abbadon attempts to break the flow of water with his axe, much like Red did with the watery Morgaine. Since there is nothing “real” in this particular apparition, the act has no effect.
Malak looks over her shoulder a few times as the party continues on, half afraid their trespassing will bring down divine wrath, and half hoping it will because then it might set the other Zinyini “back on track” spiritually. She bumps into Aimee, who has drawn up short, along with the rest of them. Peering over the pale woman’s shoulder, Malak can see that they have found the tunnel’s end, where it intersects with a vertical shaft.
A quick glance reveals that unlike the previous drop this one is much farther down; however, the shaft also extends upwards which none of the other tunnels have done. As Seraph crouches at the lip of the drop, he can feel that Morgaine is down there somewhere. Red begins rummaging around in her pack for links of rope and Azis starts to unfurl his carpet.
“Who is going down first?” says Red, “I’ll hold the rope.”
“We could just take the carpet…” Gorlon points at Azis.
Malak volunteers to descend first since she doesn’t need to carry a light. She is a bit vehement in her desire to descend immediately; Azis, while acknowledging Seraph’s intuition that Morgaine is below them, is wary of danger coming from above, and is nearly as vehement about going that direction first.
Red shrugs, quite happy to go along with whatever decision, and Malak grabs the free end of the rope, tossing it down the hole and shimmying down. As Malak continues down the rope, she still doesn’t reach the bottom of the shaft as the first rope plays out. Red quickly ties a second rope to the first and continues lowering her down.
On the way up
“All right. I’m going to check the corridor above.” Azis growls, then zips off up the tunnel, grateful that nobody insists on coming with him. He has been irritated for a while at the series of visions which he too believes are meaningless, and more so with his traveling companions who seem to be considering them seriously. It would be a lie for him to say he isn’t intrigued by what he was shown when something claiming to be Einac appeared to him up on the surface, but even so he has no intention of just blindly blundering forward on it, in case it is just more watery bullshit.
“Ah,” a voice sounds in Azis’s head. “I knew I chose well.” It sounds like the same thing which appeared to him earlier. Azis snorts, and addresses the air around him saying that if Einac is a god, can he tell him where this shaft leads? The voice replies that it leads to Azis’s destiny. Azis rolls his eyes and continues upward.
The carpet ascends quickly until Azis slows it as he sees a dome above him. As he drifts up under the dome, he checks all about him but there are no branching tunnels from this spot. Suddenly, the dome shifts around him and suddenly he is looking out over a large wooden platform on a huge expanse of water. Unlike the watery but three-dimensional visions in the rest of the oasis, this looks as if there were moving murals painted on the dome “walls”. Azis sees Ramses’s son Sita, currently just about the age for trials, all grown up and apparently able to interact with Azis. Sita speaks of how excited he is about taking off. Right on cue, the large wooden platform launches into the sky. Azis quickly orders the carpet to drop as he speeds down to go get Seraph. Azis has been trying and failing to explain what possibly-Einac had shown him aboveground; now he can show instead of merely tell.
On the way down
Malak’s heart is despairing as she shimmies down the rope, and she hears Einac’s voice asking her why she’s so convinced she has failed. Because it is merely a disembodied voice and not a watery apparition, she takes it seriously, and she tearfully berates herself for having failed to help Azis and Seraph better hold on to their faith in the gods – something she sees as her primary duty as a Spirit Warrior. Einac in turn chides her for what could be construed as a lack of faith on her part – did she truly believe that Einac would have charted such a faulty course? He assures her that Azis is “moving” exactly as He had hoped. Malak questions a course that requires Azis to turn his back on the gods, and is simply told that her true duty as a Spirit Warrior is not to understand – it is to have faith. Malak, still convinced of her other failures, construes this as a condemnation on Einac’s part, and begins wondering what would happen to her this time if she were to let go of the rope and fall to her death.
On the way up
Azis arrives and convinces Seraph to go back up to the top with him and witness the strange sight he has seen. As they arrive at the top, the dome changes again and instead of Azis’s wooden platform they see a large bed, and then a young boy climbing onto it clamoring for Seraph’s attention and saying that Mommy wants him. Azis speaks up asking who Mommy is. The child notices Azis at this point, and gets very excited, asking about the carpet and oh wow that is so amazing is it real? Azis invites him on, and a watery child bursts out of the wall and lands on the carpet. Azis dutifully guides the carpet up and down a little, then repeats his question. The boy looks at Azis a bit quizzically, and says that his mother’s name is Brandy. Azis takes one look at his brother’s face and tells the kid to scram. Azis again orders the carpet to quickly drop down, returning them to the opening where Seraph quickly disembarks.
On the way down
Malak is upset enough to be shaking, which slows her descent significantly. Thankfully, Red does not seem to notice, but somehow the disembodied Einac voice does, and prompts her to confess what else troubles her. Malak declares herself an unworthy Spirit Warrior because she loves Azis and she had been taught from the beginning that loving a mortal would interfere with her ability to love the gods. Einac simply asks how she could believe He didn’t already know that, which Malak is unable to answer. Einac asks Malak if she is alone, then, since she was able to speak her heart so freely. Malak replies affirmatively, and feels a warmth in her soul like an embrace. Einac reminds her that she is His servant, which is not a task given lightly, and exhorts her once again to serve Him. Malak again reaches the end of the rope and is ready to shout up to Red to add another, when she looks down and realizes that through her glow she can see the sandy floor just a short drop below her. She lets go and drops gracefully, and Red feels the rope slacken.
On the way up
As Seraph leaps off the carpet Azis offers to take anyone else up that wants to see the dome roof. Tahko flatly refuses, saying that he has no need for visions and reminding the others that danger could come from behind as easily as above. Red, Aimee, Gorlon, Abbadon, and Djeti all agree to go up and see it, with Red showing particular excitement. This time when the carpet comes to a halt beneath the dome, it changes and shows the group the view from a balcony of a large home that overlooks an even larger city. There is a multicolored glowing rune over the door, and the sky above is dark. A drow, whom Gorlon recognizes from earlier as Ten’nev, approaches them and says he thinks he’s figured out where the others have been taken, and he might be able to bargain with their captors. Red asks what the price will be, Gorlon questions the need to ask since this isn’t real, and Red insists because then she can make sure she has it with her whenever this happens, which upon quick questioning Gorlon finds out is about six months from now. Ten’nev says the chip would probably be Red, naked. Gorlon asks why Ten’nev cares about rescuing the others, since as far as he knows the drow are the enemy, and Ten’nev says it’s because he’s been in love with Malak ever since she bargained HER self to get the others this far. When the party seems confused by this, and begins to speak amongst themselves about “this hasn’t happened yet”, Ten’nev grows worried and hustles off to get a healer to check on them.
Azis quickly orders the carpet to lower and then they head back to the opening so that Seraph can rejoin them. The carpet quickly deposits them at the bottom of the shaft where they see Malak’s footprints heading down a short tunnel. Seraph can tell that the tunnel leads to Morgaine, and for some reason the sight of tracks lends a sense of urgency. Seraph hurriedly herds everyone down the tunnel until it opens into a huge cavern.
Even if Morgaine had said nothing, and even if he had not seen her in the room not far beyond Malak, Seraph would have known that he is now looking at the machine Modnar had asked him to investigate. A bright shaft of sunlight pierces the ceiling of this impossibly large cave, and trickles of water pour down as well, landing upon an incomprehensible conglomeration of pipes and waterwheels and grinding gears. The walls on all sides of the cavern are lined with mirrors. Between the party and the … machine are a well with a blue rune-covered bucket suspended from the crossbeam, and ten identical buckets on the ground around the well.
Malak quietly pours out the flask of water she’d gotten earlier, refilling it from the well. Obviously, this is the stuff they really need. Red also fills one of the empty skins, being very careful to mark it as being from the oasis. No telling what would happen if any of them drank it….
In the Oasis
Morgaine began staring intently into a mirror.
“Guys,” she said. “These mirrors…they can show you anything. Anyone. Just walk up to one and want to see something. It’s amazing.”
Red and Seraph, each with their own ideas, stepped forward to face nearby mirrors. Red then screamed and fell catatonic. Malak and Gorlon both went over to comfort her, but nothing was wrong that they could heal. Once again, it seemed, something had gone horribly awry in Red’s mind.
It is time, Einac’s voice rang in Malak’s head. The mirrors. Come find me.
For all her conviction that Oasis apparitions were utterly false and meaningless, Malak could not bring herself to disobey a command from Einac. Walking a few feet away from everyone else, she silently commanded the mirror before her to show her the sea-god.
Einac was sitting in a small wooden room, in an ornate chair that Malak had never seen before, but to her resembled a throne. He turned his head to meet her eyes.
“Bring Seraph to me,” Einac said. “I wish to speak with him. Bring him to me, through the mirror.”
Malak blinked a couple of times, then reached out to touch the mirror before her. She felt her fingers pass through its surface, though she could still see them attached to her hand. She sharply jerked back her hand, turning it a couple of times to ascertain that it was unharmed.
“Seraph…” Malak said, her voice trailing off as she continued to stare at the mirror. She didn’t dare turn her head, for fear the vision would vanish.
“What do you want?” Seraph was still stinging from the Oasis’s revelation, and was currently scrying on Princess Brandy, watching her pace back and forth in her chambers. Why had he promised…
“It’s not what I want.” Malak seemed unruffled by her grandson’s brusqueness. “It’s what Einac wants. Please come here.”
Seraph looked at her quizzically, but walked over. Malak held out her hand to him.
“He wishes to speak with you,” Malak said, still gazing intently into the mirror. “Come with me.”
Seraph had begun to stretch out his hand to take hers, but he paused then. Come with her? Where? How? His hand was still close enough, though, and Malak seized it. Before he could ask her anything, she had stepped through the mirror, and he felt it trying to pull him through as well.
“Hey!” Seraph cried, bracing his feet against the floor. The pull was stronger than the purchase he could find in the sand, though, and he felt his hand go through the mirror after Malak.
Azis, hearing Seraph cry out, hustled over to try and break him free. The mirror’s pull was inexorable, though, and Azis could tell that not only was Seraph doomed to travel through, but he would as well if he continued to hang on. He briefly debated letting go, but in the end decided he could not abandon his brother.
Through the Mirror
The Zinyini found themselves in a small wooden room. Einac rose from his chair as they came through the glass. Malak quietly walked to the far corner and sat on her heels, as she always did in her god’s presence.
“Seraph of Tal-Madge,” Einac addressed him formally, then turned his head to nod again. “And Azis of Tal-Madge. I did not expect you, but you are welcome nonetheless.”
Azis nodded curtly, and Seraph bowed.
“I trust you are doing well, Seraph of Tal-Madge?”
Seraph barely hesitated. “Except for finding out that the Oracle that’s been helping me for the last five years is actually a Princess of the Vale. She said I’d find the truth in the Oasis, and that’s where I just was, and the Oasis showed me that the Oracle is Princess Brandy.”
Einac narrowed his eyes and tilted his head slightly. “And this distresses you.”
“Yes!” Seraph’s disgust choked him, and he could not answer further.
“Tell me, young Seraph of Tal-Madge… what did you think of the Oracle when you did not know who she was?”
This time Seraph did hesitate. “She saved my life. She helped me, helped my clan with the things she showed me. She was kind to me.” He took a breath. “I loved her.”
“Ah. And were these feelings returned?”
Seraph paused again, clenching his fists briefly. “Yes. I believe she loved me. She asked me to come find her and rescue her, take her away with me. And I promised her that I would. So now I have to figure out how to kidnap a Princess of the Vale.” He sighed. “I’ve made too many promises to too many people.”
Einac pressed his fingertips together. “Do you not think that a clever, insightful young man such as yourself might find a way to use this woman’s emotional attachment to his own advantage?”
“What?!” Seraph and Azis spoke at the same time. Malak saw the body language shift in both the men and the god, and dug her fingers into her knees.
“Seraph of Tal-Madge, do you not realize or appreciate what would happen if you were to marry this Princess Brandy?” Einac gleaned his answer from the looks on the Zinyini’s faces, and he narrowed his eyes a little. “Would this not make you a Prince of the Vale? Would this not be a good thing for the family, the clan, you profess to love?”
Seraph merely stared at his god. He wanted to argue, to shout, but years of faith and discipline muted him. He was, however, upset enough to lose control of his face again.
Einac’s face remained mostly unperturbed, but his voice grew stronger and more menacing. “We are talking about nothing less than the well-being of the entire Zinyini race. Do you doubt the wisdom of the course I have charted for you? Do you find this gift I have given you somehow unacceptable?”
Slowly, but without shaking, Malak pushed herself to her feet and quietly walked toward Seraph. She said nothing, but placed her back to her grandson, facing Einac with her hands at the ready and hoping she wouldn’t have to….
Einac did not appear to even notice. “I have charted your course since before your family had a name of its own. I have moved through the dangerous shoals between the Vale and our homeland time and again, and you take the gifts that I have set before you and spit them back in my face as if you were a camel?!” The god’s voice was booming now, echoing off the wooden walls. “Do you not believe that I have thought this through? Do you not believe I have foreseen the dangers? Do you think so little of me to believe I would abandon you when the very destiny of the Zinyini runs its course through this plan?!”
Einac’s attention was diverted when Azis finally spoke.
“Are you saying we need to wade into that…FILTH of politics and bullshit? And this is supposed to make the Zinyini greater how? Use that power to do favors for the rest of the family?”
“And that’s if the Valites let it happen and don’t just kill me!” Seraph blurted out, freed to speak by hearing his brother’s voice.
Einac turned his entire body to face Azis. “Do you not believe your brother honorable, Azis of Tal-Madge? Would you not perhaps argue that he can instead be a little too honorable? Do you not think that perhaps he might be able to influence the goings-on among the Valites and make them less…distasteful? The Valites were Zinyini once themselves, you know.”
Azis shook his head. “It’s not that I doubt him, but you’re asking him to put out the volcano by pissing in it.”
Einac smiled inscrutably, and his voice was calmer when he spoke again. “He is stronger than you dare believe, and it would not be his efforts alone.” The sea-god turned back to face Seraph. “And as for you, young Seraph of Tal-Madge…you might wish to consider becoming a little more like your brother. He is a real Zinyini warrior!”
“You hold your tongue!” Azis growled. “NOBODY accuses my brother of being anything less than I am. He is an honorable warrior through and through, and I have been proud to have him as a Raid Leader. Nobody insults him like that!”
Einac grinned smugly. “Perhaps a second example is also in order, Seraph. Your brother has his flute, and he does not try to charm the vipers with singing. You have a sword, and you do not leave it in its scabbard to kill men with your bare hands. You are given tools, and you must use those tools to do things you might otherwise find impossible. It is so here as well. I have provided you with tools that will elevate your people out of the desert to a much grander destiny, but you must not fear to use them or it is all for naught. The Princess Brandy is one such tool. The machine in the Oasis is another.”
“Modnar said we might have to destroy that machine. So did Nerwoc,” Seraph said. It seemed all right to argue the point since Modnar was currently King of the Gods.
“That world you showed me,” Azis said at about the same time. “Why can’t we just round up everybody and just leave? Why all this mucking about and using people? I’d rather just never see them again.”
“And well you may,” Einac answered Seraph. “But not yet. First you will use it. And be aware that Nilarem will not take kindly to…destructive efforts. Of course, he may also not take kindly to your using the machine. You may need to fight him, and you may need to use your young charge as a proxy.” Einac turned his head. “And distasteful though the course may be, Azis, simply leaving is not yet an option, for the world you have seen has not yet been brought to us. That is part of your destiny. You will see, you will make a fine commander.”
“Go find a real commander,” Azis snarled.
“Perhaps you should,” Einac replied.
“I believe I will.”
“Excellent! It is settled, then.” Einac smirked. He then took a step forward and placed his hand on Seraph’s head. “Seraph of Tal-Madge…you are my servant, and my child. You have my blessing. Serve me, for in so doing you serve your clan and all the Zinyini.” Einac removed his hand from Seraph’s head and leaned in slightly. “And you may soon need to speak with King Modnar about your intentions toward his betrothed.”
“I’ve already…someone else has already done that,” Seraph replied. “A woman named Solace…she said she had worked to end that betrothal.”
“You may soon need to speak with King Modnar about your intentions toward his betrothed,” Einac simply said again. “But for now, I expect you wish to rejoin your companions in the Oasis of Inyanna.” He waved his hand, and the image of another mirror took shape over Seraph’s shoulder.
Azis wasted no time in striding through the mirror. Seraph sketched a final bow, then turned and left himself.
In the Oasis
Gorlon found that talking to Red brought her out of her stupor somewhat, though she’d reverted to calling people “m’lady” and “m’lord”.
“So, Morgaine,” he said, abandoning hope of helping Red, “you just walk up to one of these things and tell it to show you something, and it will?”
“You’re going to do it?!” Abbadon whirled on Gorlon. “After one just shattered Red’s mind and another just ATE Seraph and Azis and Malak, you’re going to risk yourself too?”
“Hey!” the watery Morgaine argued. “I didn’t have any problems. I’ve been trying to find myself in the mirror, hoping maybe that’d unstick me. It hasn’t worked, but it hasn’t eaten me either. Malak said something about Einac before she walked through – he’s probably what pulled them through. As for Red…” she trailed off and shrugged.
Gorlon held up his hand. “Seraph had his own reasons, but I seem to remember that the reason Morgaine wanted to come down here is so we could find Florin. This seems like a good way to try just that.” He positioned himself in front of one, absently straightening his clothes as he saw his reflection.
“Just please don’t touch the mirror,” Djeti said suddenly.
Abbadon growled and began pacing quickly.
Gorlon shrugged and began thinking of Florin. The mirror shimmered, and Gorlon saw a tall blond man cradling an infant in one arm. He appeared to be in a cave of some sort. It was hard to tell if it was the one they had tried chasing him through before. Unable to figure out how to make the mirror tell him more, like perhaps when this image was happening, Gorlon sighed and turned away.
Morgaine threw up her hands. “Augh!” She sighed. “There’s no way around it. I’m stuck in the Dreaming. Seraph’s gonna have to come find me. And actually, we’ll probably need to use the buckets to send a bunch of you into the Dreaming with him. It’d make it a lot easier for me to find him before he leads me back.”
“You’re kidding!” Abbadon cried. “I’m not getting any closer to those accursed buckets than I absolutely have to!”
Gorlon held up both hands this time, to shush both of them. “There’s not much point in talking about this until – unless – Seraph comes back.” He shrugged. “What the hell.” He faced the mirror again, this time thinking about Seraph and Azis.
Azis strode out of the mirror and collided with Gorlon’s nose. As the two of them caught their balance again, Seraph also emerged from the mirror.
Gorlon said nothing, but grinned and raised his hands victoriously.
Through the Mirror
Malak stood still for a moment, trembling, then collapsed to her knees like a marionette whose strings had been cut.
“Malak.” Einac’s voice was gentle now. “Speak your heart. We are alone.”
“I…” Malak’s throat was tight, and her eyes squeezed shut. “I was afraid… for him. Of you. If you had… I would have defended him... against you.” It was heresy. She knew it, and she knew what would come of it. The confession was merely a formality. There, that was his hand sliding under her chin to her throat, lifting her head…
A kiss. Arms sliding beneath hers, pulling her to her feet and squeezing her against his chest. Malak’s legs were water, but her god did not let her fall again.
“Malak, my lover, my love.” His voice was a warm rumbling breath in her ear, as she had heard it so many times before. “I would have expected nothing less.” A soft touch brushed away her tears. “Is that not precisely what I asked of you, to guard your grandson? You have not betrayed me.”
Einac held the spirit warrior until she stopped shaking, then stepped back, still holding on to her shoulders. The fear was gone from her face, but he kept his grasp until she finally opened her eyes to face him.
“They will fear for you if you stay away much longer.” Einac nodded toward the glass. “And the little one will be hungry soon. Go then, Malak. For now, you serve me by serving them.”
“I will.” Malak smiled for what felt like the first time in days. She could not bring herself to turn her back on Einac, and ended up walking through the mirror sideways.
In the Oasis
Neither Seraph nor Azis were much in the mood to answer questions about what had just happened, but fortunately none seemed forthcoming.
“So where’s Malak?” Abbadon broke the silence.
“She was with us,” Seraph said. “She’ll come back.”
“One way or another,” Azis muttered.
Morgaine began detailing her plan for Seraph and others to journey to the Dreaming and help free her from the Oasis, but Seraph was only half listening. He abruptly walked over to a mirror and called up an image of Princess Brandy again. He found her still pacing, fretting over something, though she said no words.
Cautiously, he reached his hand through the mirror. Thankfully, he did not feel the same pull as he had before. He reached further in, to his elbow, and wiggled his fingers. The Princess was blind, he knew, but that made it even more likely she’d have some sort of magical ward or alarm in her chambers. Nothing seemed to react to his entrance, though, and he began to step through more fully, making sure to leave his sword hand on the other side of the mirror, back in the Oasis. Intuitively he knew that if he did not leave at least some part of himself there, he would be completely in the Castle and would need to walk back to the Oasis. And he had nowhere near enough water for that.
“Princess Brandy,” he said, “it’s time to come with me. Now.”
The Princess turned her head to face in roughly his direction. “Seraph.” Her voice was trembling.
“Come on,” he said. “the Oracle said I’d find the truth in the Oasis of Inyanna, and now I’ve been there, and the Oasis said the Oracle was you. Which means it’s you who asked me to come find you and take you away with me. And that’s what I’m trying to do right now.” He stretched out the hand he’d brought through the mirror with him. “You can hear me. Take my hand.” As he said those words, he felt a pair of hands clasping around the hand and wrist he’d left in the Oasis. He glanced backward briefly, and saw Malak holding on to him.
Princess Brandy did not move. “I am a Princess of the Vale,” she said simply. “The Oracle is a criminal to the Vale, and to the royal family in particular.” She began to turn away. “For my family’s sake, I am duty bound to find your Oracle and bring her to justice,” she said over her shoulder. “If you wish to speak with her, you will need to do so in whatever way you have before.”
Seraph remained as far in the room as he dared, for just a little longer than he really dared, before finally withdrawing through the mirror again.
Malak motioned for Seraph’s attention as he returned, indicating she would like to speak somewhat privately.
Seraph glanced away from the fruitless debate going on between Gorlon and Azis, about whether they should go with Seraph, and if so what “on three” meant for getting everyone to go at the same time. He followed Malak off to the side of the room.
“Habbibi, forgive me,” Malak said, “but I can’t help thinking about your Oracle. Especially after what Einac said.” Malak shushed Seraph preemptively with a finger, shaking her head. “And…I don’t think he should have talked to you like that, but…actually no, forgive me, I misspoke. I think what actually matters is what you said to Einac.
Seraph frowned at this.
Malak fidgeted. “You…you said that back before you decided your Oracle was Princess Brandy, you loved her and you believed she loved you as well. And even if you ignore everything Einac said about using her like a tool…if she loves you, and she’s been helping you – I mean, you! Raid Leader for one of the last truly strong anti-Valite clans! – then even if it really is the Princess, which I guess Einac said it was too…isn’t there at least some chance that she really isn’t an enemy?”
“That is something I would like to know for certain myself,” Seraph said grimly.
Malak laced her fingers together and pushed her palms out away from her, stretching nervously. “Yes, I know. Plans within plans, backstabbing machinations. I should know. That’s the very shit that started the war that got me killed twenty years ago. But…” she flung her hands away from each other, looking at Seraph with an odd mix of tenderness and frustration on her face.
“I still remember when you spoke of her to me the first time. I still remember the look you let yourself get on your face for just a few seconds. I know that look. I remember that look. And…” Malak paused, and had to look away for a moment. “Call me stupid if you want, but if you can find even the tiniest reason to believe that her feelings are real…I saw the joy she brought you, whether you wanted me to or not. I just don’t want you throwing that away unless you absolutely cannot see any possibility that she cares about you too.”
Seraph’s raid leader ‘mask’ slammed down into place, and then he gave a slight nod, “This journey is not over.” He turned and walked back to the pointless arguing and harangued the others into action.
Malak stared after him for a moment, then strode over to the entrance to the chamber and let fly with a blast of air before rejoining the others.
In the Oasis
“I’m the one who can lead her back, so I’m going,” Seraph said. “And I really don’t think any of you should come with me. I know I can find my way back.”
“Actually,” Morgaine said, “since I’ll have to come and find you in the Dreaming, unlike last time where we got sent there together, having more of your minds in one place will make that easier.”
“Well, you’ll be doing it without me,” Abbadon said firmly.
“With all due respect,” Djeti said quietly, “I would just as soon never again chew that awful drow-root.” Tahko simply nodded his agreement. The others agreed this was reasonable.
“And in that case, I’m sorry, Habbibi, but I’ll need to stay as well,” Malak said sadly. “I don’t know how this magic would affect me, and for the pup’s sake I can’t risk being sent away bodily.” Malak gently clenched her fists. “I do promise that if anything else wakes up in your body again, I won’t let them hurt it.”
In the end, Seraph, Gorlon, Azis, and Red all agreed to undertake the journey, and Morgaine felt that would be enough people. Malak drew more water from the well into one of the rune-covered blue buckets and handed it to Seraph, promising once again to at least guard part of him.
Gorlon and Azis had finally agreed on a count, and who would be giving it. Simultaneously the four travelers placed their hands in the bucket of water, put small pieces of the drow-root in their mouths, and began chewing. Seraph and Azis and Gorlon all stumbled and fell sleeping on the sandy floor. Red tried chewing a little harder, and then putting a second piece of root in her mouth, and then putting both hands in the bucket, all to no avail. She was somehow immune to the magic.
Djeti and Malak had finished arranging the sleepers to be more comfortable, when an unexpected breeze tickled the backs of their necks. Both women turned around, and then started looking rapidly all around the chamber.
”...Abbadon?” Djeti called. “Where’d you go?”
A second breeze answered them, as the empty spot where Abbadon had been was filled with another creature. They recognized it as Dohr, the dwarf that had been sent to them the last time Abbadon had vanished.
In the Dreaming/Tuteck
In less than an eye’s blink, Abbadon found himself on the deck of a ship. It was nighttime, and he saw harbor lights drifting lazily by in the distance. A blue salamander, slightly taller than the Azer, scuttled about the deck checking to make sure items were securely fastened.
Abbadon didn’t need much time to figure out what had happened, and strode up to the salamander, his stocky build meaning the rolling deck didn’t slow him much.
“Take me back now!” he demanded.
The salamander gibbered for a moment, then spat out, “I canna’ turn th’ boat around, mon!”
“Take me back this instant or I’ll knock you to the floor!”
“It canna’ be done, mo-AH!” The salamander tumbled head over tail as Abbadon sent him sprawling.
“Hey!” An indignant squawk came from over Abbadon’s shoulder. He turned to see a large white rabbit-woman scowling at him. He remembered her from before.
“YOU?!” Marli said, her voice laden with disgust. “Okay, even if we DO need you for this, let’s get one thing straight – you don’t get to abuse the deckhands!” She glared as she walked past him to help set the blue salamander back on his feet, then jerked her hand in an angry beckoning motion as she scampered down the stairs to belowdecks.
Seraph woke up in bed with his arm around a scarcely-clad woman. The light in the room was dim, and his eyes were not quite as sharp here, but he could tell that she was quite beautiful save for a very bad haircut.
After a brief pause to appreciate the situation, Seraph climbed out of bed and looked around for a pair of pants. The movement woke the woman, who turned her head toward him and asked where he was going. Seraph, seeing no harm in a truthful answer, said that he was going to walk around. The woman’s face darkened, and she said “you’re not Collin. Where’s Collin?” The voice sparked Seraph’s memory, and he recognized the woman as Chosofi, the blind spirit-talker woman from the last time he went into a dream-state with Morgaine. Having no good answer for her, he ignored her question and resumed his search for pants. With a “hrmpf” Chosofi did some sort of witchery to bind his feet to the wooden floor. She began shaking her shaman’s rattle at him demanding further answers, so Seraph grabbed the rattle away. “Undo this witchery or I’ll break this toy,” growled Seraph. As the woman pondered her answer or better yet why the spirits had not struck this man down for such blasphemy, she suddenly recognized Seraph’s spirit.
“You’ve been here before,” Chosofi said. “As a Berun.”
“Yes.” Seraph said irritably.
The first thing Azis noticed was that he smelled like a Valite.
That alone was enough to startle him into full wakefulness. Lying still and getting his bearings, he could feel that he was in some sort of cradle made of rope, that was swaying gently from side to side by means he did not understand.
A single dimmed lantern lit the room, but it was enough for Azis to see that his hands were smooth and long-fingered, with neatly trimmed nails. He put his hand to his face and found to his horror that he had no beard. The skin felt rough enough to suggest one could be grown, but he still needed to pat both his chest and his nethers before he could be convinced of his sex.
In the bare sliver of light, Azis saw there was a second, very large person asleep in the room with him. It took him a couple of tries to figure out how to escape the rope cradle, and he lurched wildly as his feet touched the floor and he realized the floor was rocking from side to side as well.
“Hey!” Azis called, hoping to wake his new companion. “Hey!”
Gorlon felt fuzzy-headed, as if he were awakening from not quite enough sleep. Somebody was calling him, a voice he didn’t recognize.
“Whuh?” he grumbled. Drowsiness had thickened his voice, and it sounded foreign to him.
“Who are you?” the stranger asked. Gorlon opened his eyes the rest of the way to see who it was. A tall man in fine robes with well-kept hair and no beard…Gorlon had no idea who this might be.
“Who are you?” Gorlon asked in return.
“It’s Azis,” the stranger said.
“Oh,” Gorlon mumbled sleepily. “I’m Gorlon.”
“Okay, then,” said the man claiming to be Azis. “Now we just have to find Seraph.” He lurched toward the door, needing to hold on to the knob with both hands in order to open it. He took a deep breath.
“Um, I don’t think…” Gorlon tried to argue, but did not sway Azis in time.
“SERAPH!” The man’s voice rang through the hallway, audible both below and above decks.
Seraph dropped his head into one hand and groaned. “My feet?” he reminded Chosofi, who held out her hand for the rattle.which he dropped into it. She motioned with the rattle and he could feel his feet free up. Seraph finally found the pants he was looking for and quickly pulled them on then opened the door and leaned out, looking around.
Chosofi walked up behind him, bumping into him. “You are Seraph? Of the Vale?”
“Yes, I’m Seraph,” he said, though it was directed more toward the hallway than toward her. There was clearly neither rhyme nor reason in which bodies people would awaken, so if he was going to get everyone in one place for Morgaine to find them, he needed to risk drawing attention to himself.
“Do you know the bearer of the sacred pinyon nut? The one who had lost her thread? I believe she was also from the Vale.”
“Sacred what? I have no idea,” Seraph said absently. “Actually, I’m here because I am looking for someone. Morgaine, actually if you remember her from last time.” From a few doors away, he recognized the piano player and the bodyguard from the last time he had been swept into a dream. They were coming toward him. Looking the other direction, he saw stairs leading up, and the rabbit-girl he’d seen before leading very familiar face down toward him.
|From here forward is mostly Seraph’s doing. Make sure to thank him, everyone. ~ FemmeLegion|
Abaddon stomps down the stairs following Marli below decks when he hears his name called. Looking around to see who could possibly know him here, he sees a fella standing down the hall a bit, next to a half naked human female who wouldn’t look half bad if she had a bit of beard on her. “How do you know my name?” says Abaddon as he steps forward cracking his knuckles. Maybe this one knows how to send me back, he thinks. Right as he finishes the last knuckle another pair of humans walk out of a side room.
“Because it’s me, Seraph. But you aren’t supposed to be here, you didn’t chew the root.” Seraph turns and looks at the new comers, “And just who are the two of you?” The piano player points his hand at his chest, “Azis.” and then jerks a thumb over his shoulder at the hulking body guard, “Gorlon.” By this point both Gorlon and Azis are close enough to Seraph to see the woman standing next to him and both eye her form appreciatively. Continuing his scan around the room Azis emits a short whistle when he catches sight of Marli, the Callix, or rabbit-girl. “She’d feed the clan for at least a week,” he says to which Marli rolls her eyes.
Suddenly Aimee walks up from the holds looking very confused. “Weren’t we just in the Oasis?” she says. “I don’t understand why I should be here, I didn’t eat the root.” She then looks at Seraph suspiciously, “Unless it is because you are here… maybe your promise to Solace makes you my anchor point?”
Azis wonders if Tahko was also summoned, and begins whistling as if calling a dog. He ends up calling the captain’s poodle, who is not Tahko.
Chosofi glares around at all of the misplaced spirits that she can see in this gathering. “Why are you people here? And where are the spirits of the bodies you have taken?” Seraph shrugs, “Your friends are probably in our bodies and the reason we are here is because we are trying to find Morgiane, the girl that was here with me last time.” He pauses, “She’s unable to return to her real body at the moment.. but she thinks that if we come here she can find her way to us.”
Chosofi says, “She’s the one I gave half of the sacred pinyon nut to.” She quickly pulls out the other half and does some magic to establish a connection between the two. “She is on her way now, she’ll follow the link between the two.” Chosofi frowns, “I’m not sure how long it will take though.” Frustrasted at being unable to tell how long it will be for Morgaine to find them, so she asks the spirit of Water, who says that it will probably be three days.
While Chosofi is distracted with her magic, Seraph says “Where are we?” Marli replies, “We are on a boat headed to the Starsisters’ city, maybe a couple of hours away. If you come up on deck though we can already see part of the White Tower from here. Once they’re on deck, Azis promptly gets seasick and spends the next several minutes over a rail. Seraph dutifully looks at the White Tower, and recognizes it from the visions his Oracle had sent him, but looking around him at the expanse of water makes his bones freeze and his chest tighten, and he quickly disappears back below decks. He makes it a few feet from the stairs up and then hunkers down in the hallway trying desperately to forget the sensation of that much water. Chosofi tries to calm Seraph’s fear by introducing him to the Spirit of Water, telling Water that Seraph is a friend and should be returned to Chosofi rather than kept as a plaything if Seraph falls overboard. This doesn’t allay Seraph’s fear at all.
Gorlon, still uncomfortable in his new skin, asks Marli if she knows the usual tenant. Marli identifies him as someone named Leno, who is a fighter or guardian of some sort. She says that Azis is normally a man named Thaddeus Winchester, who plays the piano. Seraph is currently in the body of a man named Collin, whom Marli doesn’t know except as Chosofi’s boyfriend.
Abbadon, concerned for Azis, intimidates a salamander deckhand into fetching some ale to drown their troubles. The word “drown” sends Marli into panicked flight downstairs, the sight of the ale makes Azis sick again, and Abbadon laments its poor quality. He “asks” the salamander if there is anything better on board, and the salamander points to Azis and says that he’s got private stock in the hold. Azis possesses wits enough to agree to let Abbadon open “his” stock, and works up the nerve to push himself across the deck to lean up against a mast until Gorlon can help him to his feet and get him back below decks.
As everyone save for Seraph and Marli are headed down toward the hold, a small bird lights on Gorlon’s shoulder and peeps loudly. It’s Woodstock! Even more surprisingly (for Gorlon), the blind woman is able to see Woodstock, and reverently converse with him. Chosofi says that the bird is a powerful spirit, and its companionship is a great gift for Gorlon. She says that Woodstock tries to serve as a subtle warning of danger by imitating the sound of the impending danger (e.g. animal calls). She ends the conversation by giving the bird a large seed, which it happily nibbles.
In the hold, they not only find Winchester’s crates of cognac, but also his piano and several other musical instruments. Azis even finds a flute, except this one is made of metal. He needs to contort his lips a bit to coax sound from it, but he can appreciate that it would last much longer than a normal reed flute.
Chosofi sits down at the piano and plunks out a simple tune that Winchester taught her. She then turns again to address Woodstock, asking if the bird’s talent for imitating noises extends to simulating the sound of a piano – she would love for the visitors to be able to hear music akin to what Winchester can produce. Woodstock opens its beak, and a grand symphony pours out of its throat. Even Marli and Seraph, both huddled in the hallway above, can hear the music. Marli finds it soothing and soporific, and it calms Seraph enough for him to decide that the bed he’d been in would be more comfortable than the floor.
Gorlon thanks Chosofi for the insight she has provided about Woodstock. He then turns to the bird on his shoulder, lamenting that it can make any sound it wishes, so perhaps just once could it plainly say “Look out!” instead of trying to hint at the danger by mimicking it?
“Look out!” Woodstock chirps.
|Begin oracular journey #5|
So when Collin-Seraph falls asleep on the boat, he finds himself (in his accustomed body) in the Hall outside the Oracle’s chambers. He hears the Oracle saying obviously to herself “Seraph, oh my Seraph. What can be done? What can I do?” in a shaky, piteous voice.
Seraph walks in, loudly scuffs his boot on the floor and says, “Well, it seems obvious that it’s not running away with me.” In a complete departure from his normal actions upon entering the chamber, he crosses his arms and leans against the entry way.
With a trace of mockery in his voice he asks, “So tell me, was what I saw in the Oasis of Inyanna wrong or are you not Princess Brandy?” He pushes off from the doorway and stalks toward the Oracle in the center of the room, “Because if you are Princess Brandy then I would like an explanation as to why you didn’t come through the doorway with me…”
“Seraph!” the Oracle exclaims as she turns toward a spot slightly to Seraph’s left. She is wearing her silken gown but has her golden mask in her right hand. It is in fact Princess Brandy’s face behind the mask. “Seraph… That was the single most devastatingly difficult and awful thing I have ever had to do in my miserable life.” She says almost shaking with emotion. “Forgive me, please, forgive me. To deny you like that when to the core of my soul all I wanted to do was to run to you…” She chokes.
“Please Seraph,” she says. “I know how much you love your family. And I shall have to ask you to believe me when I tell you I love mine. For all that is enchanting in the thought of having you sweep me off into the desert sands forever, if we were to do that, then the ONLY two people that would have a chance of happiness would be you and I. And only till the bloodshed swallowed up our love and ruined it.
“If there is a barest thread of a chance for we two, it will be only that one Seraph Tal-Madge begins to talk to a Princess Brandy, courts her, and they fall in love. Believe me, she will not find it hard to do.” the Oracle chuckles ruefully. “Perhaps, just perhaps then my family can see how noble, how honorable, you are. And how much more they can be. And just perhaps your family can see, that in at least some things, A Princess of the Vale can submit to her warrior husband. Perhaps we can move from this blind hatred. Perhaps we can…” She smiles briefly then turns away suddenly. “That is… That is if you can even look at me now.” She clenches her hands. “I wasn’t supposed to fall in love with you! Why are you so…perfect?! You are everything in a man I have ever wanted or dreamed of…” She puts her face in her hands, choking back sobs, her mask falling to the floor.
Seraph moves quickly to enfold Brandy in his arms and just hold her. “Hush, hush now. I was afraid it was going to be something like that, but I wanted to hear it from you.” He lifts her chin up so that they are face to face. “Do not cry, take strength from me if you need it. Show me that smile you had while speaking of our future.”
And it is in this moment that Seraph stops caring about all those doubts in the back of his mind. All of the niggling suspicions that had weighed him down since the water-Oracle first revealed the truth. It is irrelevant to him how set-up or contrived their first meeting is. He does not care if the gods are interfering in his life. It all melts away in the certainty that he will have this woman as his wife. The gods, fate, and destiny be damned, he’ll fight anyone, endure anything, and go anywhere to make that happen. In his heart, he swears this to himself.
Brandy smiles up at Seraph. Lifting her face to his, tears coming from her unseeing eyes. “Seraph, oh my Seraph…” she whispers happily, her warm breath on his lips.
Seraph leans down to steal a kiss then, maybe one a bit longer than propriety would like…then reluctantly breaks the embrace and holds Brandy out at arms’ length. “There are things we must discuss, and I do not know how long I can stay asleep on that cursed ship surrounded by all that cursed water.”
Seraph takes one of Brandy’s hands in his, then begins stroking thoughtfully on his beard. “First, how do I keep Germaine from ripping these secrets from my mind when I return to the Vale? Second, you should know that my God Einac knows of you, and us. Not only does he know but he approves and says that this is a course he charted us on.” He lets go of his beard to softly touch Brandy’s cheek instead. “Lastly, how is a sand raider ever supposed to win the heart of a Princess of the Vale? I’d wager I have not made a good first impression.”
“You’re on the boat? That is wonderful, my Seraph!” Brandy exclaims. “You are on Florin’s path! We have but to find him and then one major player in all this will be gone.” She pauses, reaching for Seraph’s hand and pressing it to her lips. “No more secrets,” she says, smiling adoringly.
“I have answers or at least guesswork for all your questions. But let me tell you all and where they all fit in. Please, my Seraph, lead me to my divan and sit next to me.”
As Seraph escorts Brandy to her divan, she says ”’A course he charted us on’, eh?” She chuckles. “I should never speak to gods, it is just too dangerous,” and giggles slightly as she leans into your shoulder.” I must remember to thank him.”
“Very well…” she begins. “All of this started with a prophecy of a war between our two peoples. A terrible war that….” and she pauses again. “No, I must start even further back,” she says, her face going dark.
“My brother was named Finn,” she begins. “My brother, who is Red’s father,” she explains. “It was he that convinced me long ago to travel to the Oasis of Inyanna in my dreams. To develop my powers to a frightening degree. To the point that I had … vast knowledge. Things I am sure I was not meant to know. To the point that I saw with horrible clarity what evil he meant to do, what horrors he would unleash. My brother was a madman who not only manipulated my sister into bringing the demons here but would have done much much worse if he had not been stopped.
“And he was brilliant. At every turn what I thought I was doing to stop him turned out to be just exactly what he had planed for me to do. What good is foreknowledge when your only path leads to greater and greater evil? When I finally did happen to get ahead of his plans he…hurt me.” The Oracle stiffens, shuddering in Seraph’s arms. “I should tell you, my Seraph, I am blind. Not only did my brother make me not see, but he removed any memory OF seeing from me. I once knew what the red of a rose meant. But I do not even remember it now. Germain says my eyes work. It is my mind that refuses to see. Until I found you, my Seraph, I was alone in the dark.”
A little arm tensing, a little righteous anger stewing, and thoughts of what Seraph would do to this Finn…
“Much of my power was based on my sight,” the Oracle continues. “Gradually I have been able to teach myself to do a fraction of what I used to do. I spent years wandering blindly in the Dreaming till I stumbled once again upon my room here.” She shakes her head. “I am terrified of Red, but if you are at my side I think I may be able to face that and perhaps begin to heal her.” She squeezes your hand. “But that is for later.
“The war I speak of. It would be terrible, and though the Vale would win, it would push the people of the Vale into the greatest of depravity. It would ruin them forever. I have seen and done so much evil in my time, yet I refused to believe that was inevitable. And yet what could I do? I am blind and nearly powerless. And if I spoke of this to my family their response would be predictable. Build defenses, make preemptive strikes. Which of course would escalate the Zinyini desire to fight back. I would precipitate what I was trying to stop.”
“Of course, the war would be over land. Space to grow. The Vale provides all our needs but the number of Valites is rapidly reaching the point that there will be no more room for us in the Vale. My sister Carawynne could open gates into other far realms, but gates always have the risk of things like the demons or things much worse coming through. We could go to the worlds around other stars perhaps. But a physical travel would take generations. So the only place to move to was the desert, where the Zinyini dwell. It was by happenstance that I was able to privately speak to Einac about my ‘theories’ and he admitted he had seen the same type of developments. He admonished me to seek out others, that we might speak to them and perhaps develop a second way.
“Finally I began to make contacts. Some of which were not of the savory sort but I was determined. One of them is the Princess Solace. I began to see this was part of a larger picture of evil in the greater scheme of things. That the war between our people was not to be just an isolated incident, but part of a cohesive and insidious plot by creatures with power that makes the gods look like children playing with toys.
“Now, Solace is a evil woman in her own right. But her contacts are… legion. She began to develop a plan, a horrifying plan, and yet one that might prevent bloodshed between our people and even address the greater evil beyond. For the plan to succeed, however, we needed to find you. When I heard that you had been born I began to search, listening for clues as to your whereabouts. I developed my Oracle persona. I could not let my family know what I was doing. Solace’s plan was just to frightening. My plan was to find you and begin to train you in your power….
“And then I did find you. And you were…you.” She smiles again. “You were so sincere, so noble. I fell in love when I first heard your voice. I chided myself. I told myself that you felt only gratitude, not love. But gradually I could not deny how deeply I felt toward you. I led you on your raids. I tried to minimize casualties – on both sides – but for this to work, to truly develop your power, you needed real training, real situations. And too much of the future was at stake to ignore this. Still, I can not deny that what I did by helping you made me a criminal to my own people. I was able to ‘forget’ what happened in the dreaming until I dreamed once again. Germain never pried deeply into my mind enough to find the truth. My sister really is loath to use her powers so callously.”
A wry smile crosses Seraph’s face…
“And then there was your capture. Nilarem has made some machine in the oasis. You are there now, I suppose, or have passed through. Your raids and those of other Zinyini clans had been making Carawynne nervous. She felt a stop needed to be made of them. She told Florin to speak to Modnar about it and see if he could help. He is after all the King of the gods of the Zinyini. Modnar sent Nilarem and Florin off to the oasis of Inyanna to make use of this secret machine Nilarem had made.
“I of course do not find this out till I find out that Julianne is already out in the desert in the very caravan I sent you to find the night before. I waited frantically all day here hoping against hope you just might take a nap.” She shakes her head. “And so you were captured. Florin had gotten your precise location and actions from Nilarem’s machine. And apparently also something else, some information that set him to take Li’Marolf’s baby and leave this world altogether. All of this is because of that blasted machine.”
“I could not bear to have you killed. But nor would have it done any good to stand up and say ‘No don’t kill him, I love him and have for years’. I HAD to think of some plausible way for me to NEED you alive and NEED you to have your band alive. Thus, after much arm twisting I forced Germain to to link you to the royal family and to Morgaine in particular. That at least let me save you. And incidentally put the other member of my family I needed to make this plan work, Morgaine, with the one person I knew I could trust. You. I know it is awful, and please, my Seraph, forgive me for putting you through that. It was the best I could think up in the two hours I had after your capture.”
Seraph squeezes her hand encouragingly.
“And then of course I found the flaw in my plan.” She smiles. “You were THERE. In my household. Where I could smell you and hear you and it almost drove me mad to have to play the distant, cold princess. When you were RIGHT there, just down a few halls from where I was sleeping. But I HAD to keep up the charade or Germain would simply find everything out. And then both of us would have to flee and the war would start then and there.
“As to your questions… I don’t know. I have ideas but they are … well they are depending on the kindness of strangers. In the city you are heading towards there is a queen. She is a great and good lady. But it is unlikely that anything will happen that will let you even meet her. And frankly that would be wiser for later we will have to … return to her tower. But if indeed something happens that you CAN meet with her, you CAN trust her with our tale and ask for her aid in keeping Germain from finding out too much.”
“Ah well, it is not like I ever expected to meet the Empress of the Vale. It may yet work out that fortune favors me with this other queen.” Seraph says.
“More likely is the fact that you will meet the man you saw speaking to Azis again. Though he is a good man he will draw too much from our tale . do not speak of it to him. HOWEVER. His wife. Fyan. She is the goddess of secret lovers. Our tale will be safe with her and I have no doubt that she will aid you in guarding your mind.
“And lastly… I think I should have trusted you all along, as I am finding all too often. When you awake and return to the room of Nilarem’s machine…” She smiles at you sheepishly. “Perhaps you could come and fetch me there?”
Seraph gives a soft sigh and hugs Brandy again. “If Nilarem has left me a body to return to, I shall. I fear that this journey to retrieve Morgaine will take more time than we truly had.” Seraph cocks his head to the side. “What has changed that I can spirit you away now? Won’t there be the same problems as before?”
“It won’t be that you’re spiriting me away.” Brandy smiles slyly. “Seraph will contact Princess Brandy with information about Nilarem’s machine and the Princess, as is her right, will demand to go and deal with such a danger. Of course that will put me very far away from my home and I shall at some point have to be fetched back. But I will let my sisters deal with that, and in the meantime I will have a convenient excuse for us to become acquainted.” She kisses Seraph’s hand again. “And the Oasis cheats with time. You will gone for only a few moments.”
Seraph pauses a moment to think on this. “I will probably have to answer to Modnar for bringing a princess in on a errand for the Gods, but I should be able to pass that off on Morgaine, and say that she insisted on it.” Seraph gives a sudden start. “Speaking of Morgaine, she saw the same vision I did in the Oasis. How shall we deal with her and what she saw?”
“It’s worse than that,” she replies. “It is your entire party that needs to be protected somehow from my sister Germain’s ability. Perhaps the truth of all this needs to just be told to them.” She shakes her head. “I’m afraid we just need to trust those with you. I have no other alternative.” Brandy shrugs. “Who knows, perhaps someone will come up with something else. We are now walking upon the sword’s edge, my Seraph. And I am prepared to take any aid that will allow me to be with you.”
In a dead serious voice Seraph says, “We could always trim down the number of people we have to trust to Azis, Malak, and Morgaine… bah, and Aimee because I told Solace I would help her.” Seraph stands up, letting go of Brandy’s hand, and begins to pace.
“Gorlon and Abbadon are representatives of the Azer,” Brandy says solemnly, “and as such we will need them to deal with their people when the time comes. And frankly, it was a stroke of incredible luck that Gorlon has …bonded with the Meru-spawn. That will be fantastic if we play that right. We will have thousands of fanatics at our call. Djeti will be helpful to you as well – and as a control on Gorlon. She favors him mightily.”
Brandy looks down and says quietly, “and Red is my niece. I can not imagine the horror of having Finn as a father. I must help her if I can…”
Seraph scowls but continues to pace for several minutes and then comes to a halt. “Although I don’t need to say it, I will. You should do nothing you haven’t done or take any unnecessary chances. Let me be the one they see changes in. The one that they watch closely.”
“Yes, my Seraph,” she says obediently. Then she smiles like the sun in the morning. “I almost said ‘my husband’.”
“A man could get used to that kind of talk,” Seraph growls, lunging to sweep Brandy up in a passionate embrace.
|End oracular journey #5|
Curtain rises back in the Oasis of Inyanna. Dohr begins loudly asking where the hell he is. Upon recognizing Malak and Red, he demands to be sent back because dammit, he’d been yanked away from mining out a diamond the size of his fist!
The noise awakens Leno and Winchester and Collin (respectively in the bodies of Gorlon, Azis and Seraph). Zinyini-Collin opens his eyes, and before he can stop himself says “Holy Mary Mother of God”. Malak, hearing Seraph’s voice, and NOT wanting a repeat of last time, whirls and pins him to the ground with her knee, rapidly explaining the dreaming phenomenon and hissing vague threats of misery if he attempts to hurt himself. Zinyini-Collin, taken severely aback, promises that he has no such intent.
Red, seeing the “guests” awaken, promptly fixes something to eat. Malak tries her best to explain what is going on, about how her friends used magic to travel and the travel is happening by usurping bodies. This is hard to do, especially since the soul in Gorlon’s body is QUITE simple-minded (to be generous!). Dohr sees the pile of blue buckets, recognizes it as the means of travel by which he was swept here before, and seizes one, filling it from the well. Red calmly rummages for a piece of drow-root and hands it to him. Malak shrugs – she didn’t have any better ideas for sending Dohr away and getting Abbadon back. Last time it took Dohr getting shot by drow.
As Dohr is getting ready to leave, he sees the stone around Gorlon’s neck. He pauses and demands to know where they got it. Malak explains that a princess gave it to them, and that it has healing properties. Dohr insists that it is his, and demands that Azer-Leno give it back to him. Azer-Leno contentedly complies. Djeti tenses at this, but Malak waves at her to be calm. Malak says she doesn’t believe Dohr will actually be able to take the stone with him when he leaves. She can’t imagine that anything the Valite Royalty considers a treasure could be that easily stolen!
Red similarly makes no move to violently intercept it, but asks what Dohr knows about the stone. Dohr says that it is a fragment of his clan’s Heartstone, the monument raised to the first of a clan’s line. When any in his clan die, they come back to life at their clan’s Heartstone.
Back aboard the ship in Tuteck, Chosofi greets the dawn as it breaks, and then returns to her room. She pauses, briefly unsettled by her awareness of what the spirit in Collin’s body had been doing in its sleep, then finally moves to wake him.
Gorlon wakes suddenly at dawn, cringing slightly, then realizes that nobody is kicking him. He is surprised for a moment, having grown accustomed to Tahko’s method of rousing him. He gently nudges Azis awake with his own massive foot.
A loud whistle informs everyone that they will soon be at the docks. As everyone gathers on deck, Gorlon asks Marli what was “supposed to happen” with the people whose bodies they had usurped. Marli says that she and Chosofi and Collin were to disembark here at the Starsisters’ City, and Winchester and Leno were going to continue on to Thistledorf. Azis’s relief is short-lived, as Seraph speaks up saying that his Oracle had said they would all need to “follow the rabbit” to get where they truly wanted to go. Seraph promises to explain more later, but insists that folks will simply need to trust him for now. Azis rolls his eyes, and makes a sour comment about just how much good trusting him had done for them so far, but then promptly begins asking about what sort of terrain they’d be traveling over and what sort of provisions they would need. Chosofi remembers that Collin had already acquired several days’ worth of provisions, and they were in the hold of the ship. Once the porters unload all their gear, all they will need would be water, which Collin had planned to obtain here.
Abbadon, who has been cringing from the sun ever since he went topside, suddenly turns to Gorlon and asks for his help. Abbadon ties a rope around himself and tells Gorlon to hold the other end and haul him out in a moment. Before Gorlon has any chance to argue, Abbadon jumps over the side of the boat in hopes of dousing his headache and washing off some of the liquor he spilled on himself.
The sudden splash brings a trio of female guards running, above and beyond the women who had come walking up to ask the party’s business in the Starsisters’ City. They ask if they need to jump in and rescue Abbadon. Gorlon waves and yells down that it’s not necessary, and begins hauling Abbadon up by the rope.
As the Starsisters’ City is a strict gynocracy, the women taking census refuse to deal with anyone in the party except for Chosofi and Marli. The others are frequently alluded to as “boys” and “belonging to” them. Some of the guards do seem to pay special attention to Gorlon, though it entails them speaking to him as if he was a child. He is puzzled by this, and it’s not nearly worth such treatment for the stick of liquorice they give him.
Abbadon, too, is given direct attention by the SSC Guards, though of a much different nature. About a dozen soldiers march in formation on the dock, then wait as what appears to be their leader strides up the gangplank toward him. They greet him and apologize for not being here sooner, saying that the Queen of the Starsisters had anticipated his arrival today, but had been unclear as to the time or precise location. This gravely puzzles Abbadon, who of course had not intended to be on the ship in the first place! He asks Marli if there had been another dwarf on the ship, perhaps one with whom he had traded places. Marli’s eyes go wide, and she shakes her head no. Abbadon respectfully refuses to give his name, introducing himself to the guard leader only as “Knight of Kheldmirkan”, and asks that Chosofi and Marli be allowed to come along with him to see the Queen. He has no intention of going by himself, and would rather have companions that a) are native to the area and b) are not going to have a sudden body-swap if the wrong people wake up. He promises to accompany the lady knights as soon as business is tended to here.
Meanwhile, at Azis’s urging, Chosofi asks the census guards if they might inquire after someone whom they anticipated had been here a short while previous – a tall blond man named Florin. The census guard flips through a couple of pages on her clipboard and says that yes, someone by that name had come through. After a few more questions, the men are certain it was the same Florin. Chosofi “gives her men” permission to gather water and visit the place where Florin was rumored to have stayed. The guard graciously summons one of “her boys” to guide them both places. A young man rapidly hobbles over to them. His hair is long and has been braided, with flowers and sparkly things in the braids. He is clad in a long dress that has been bound at the knees and ankles. Azis and Seraph and Gorlon are horrified, but the boy seems at least resigned to his situation.
The boy leads them to a “boys only” lounge in a not-quite-seedy area of town. The party is greeted by another, older man – also in a dress, but not bound. He very politely informs them that yes, Florin lodged here, but it was not for more than a few hours – he set out through the east gate into the desert. The man expressed concern that Florin had a child with him but no bags of supplies. Everyone thanks the man for the information, unsurprised but still feeling the investigation worthwhile, and the boy leads them to fill their waterskins for their own journey.
Abbadon and Chosofi and Marli are led to the huge White Tower at the center of the city. Chosofi is actually able to see the tower and the flagstones of the plaza, because they’ve been imbued with strong spiritual energy. Abbadon, expecting it to be the custom, surrenders his axe as they enter the tower. Cresting the first flight of stairs, he asks if there is someplace to refresh himself before he is presented to the Queen of the Starsisters. The honor guard lead him to a small lavatory. The Azer winces at the profusion of rose and lavender petals in the basin of water, but proceeds to wash his face and hands.
Marli, who makes a similar request, is shown to a much larger bath and presented to two more dress-bound boys, who request the privilege of washing her. Marli, having grown up with seven brothers, is quite appalled at how the boys are being treated, but feels it wiser to accept their offer in case refusal would be seen as some sort of insult to them personally.
Chosofi, who had purified herself at dawn, is led to the Queen’s antechamber, which is covered in a large mosaic depicting several heroic and possibly divine acts of legend. Abbadon is only a minute or two behind her, and he too admires the wall art – though he considers mosaic to be “cheating” compared to his peoples’ tradition of bas-relief carving. Chosofi points out one story that she recognizes as being the deeds of a sun god. Abbadon, whose people do not worship at all, asks why people here feel the need to give everything spirits and gods and the like. His hammer, for example, may be strong, but it is only strong because he is strong – he does not need to ascribe mystical properties to it and call it by a name as if it were a living thing. Chosofi merely points out gently that he could if he so chose. Abbadon shakes his head and says that he hopes to never be on those sorts of terms with weaponry.
Eventually Marli joins them, washed and fluffed and her hair braided with flowers and sparkly things, and the three of them are led in to see the Queen of the Starsisters. Feelings of maternal love are palpable in the room, and emanate from the Queen herself, who is seated on a dais piled with pillows. She invites the three to sit with her. Abbadon respectfully declines, explains the mission he has suddenly found himself on again, and asks the Queen for her leave to travel through her city and her lands to the box canyon he remembered Chosofi describing.
The Queen gives her blessing to the Azer’s travels, and also to his request for horses, then turns to Marli inquiring about Grandmother Callix. Marli is surprised for a moment, then hesitantly answers that she seemed fine, if a bit old and in need of help. The Queen smiles and suggests that instead it was Marli who needed to give her assistance. She then says that she knows the reward at the end was not what Marli sought, but it would be hers nonetheless. Marli is thoroughly disconcerted.
Reunited and now fully equipped, the party decides to press on toward the desert and the box canyon, resting out there if need be. The men are particularly uncomfortable with the notion of passing the rest of the day in the town. Marli is uncomfortable with how silent and sullen Seraph has become. She would have expected his mood to improve once he left the ocean….
This desert, though much too hot for Marli’s comfort, is milder than the Zinyini souls were expecting, and they press on further than they expected they could, finding a defensible spot with relative ease. Chosofi is distraught during the journey, but not because of the weather – the desert is teeming with spirits who have lost their way and cannot find where they are supposed to go next. They seem to sense that she can see them, and besiege her with pleas and questions. When she reaches their camping spot for the day, she goes to great lengths to ward it against spirit visitors, lest she be completely unable to sleep.
First watch passes uneventfully, but on second watch, Azis and Abbadon notice an immense creature slithering from sand dune to boulder. It looks like a snake, except they swear they can see just a few legs. Azis crouches in the lee of his boulder, watching intently. Abbadon readies his axe. Chosofi, to their dismay, seems to notice the creature also, and begins singing to it, thus completely giving away the campsite’s position. The snake creature begins moving closer, and Abbadon begins rousing the others – trying not to let his disgust get the better of him as he hears what Seraph is mumbling in his sleep.
Azis, furious with Chosofi but not willing to let her shenanigans endanger the entire party, decides to divert the creature’s attention by playing a tune on his flute, and allows himself a sliver of hope that perhaps the creature’s serpentine nature will mean he can calm it. The beast raises its head easily fifteen feet off the ground, then curls its impossibly long neck down to stare at Azis’s hiding spot. It begins to speak. Azis cannot understand it, but Chosofi hears that it is expressing surprise or amusement that Azis hid himself but not for the purpose of an unseen attack. Chosofi begins to try and speak to the creature’s spirit, but it ignores her for now, bringing a massive taloned paw toward Azis’s face…and showing him where to place his fingers on the flute. Azis tentatively breathes the notes the beast shows him, and suddenly he can understand its speech. The creature explains that it is a dragon, and dragons are far enough removed from ordinary serpents that their “language” is slightly different.
As the rest of the party stands down somewhat, Chosofi and Azis ask the dragon about local hazards and geography, and eventually negotiate with it to travel with them and guide them to the Canyon of the Sun Symbol, their destination where Chosofi will perform a ritual to send Marli (and possibly others) bodily into the Dreaming. The dragon will also ensure that nothing disturbs them on their journey. In exchange, the dragon gets to eat one of the horses. Chosofi begins a song that will send the horse’s spirit to wherever is good for it to be.
Suddenly mindful of the more difficult logistics of being down one horse, Azis asks the dragon if it’d be offended by taking passengers. Thankfully, the dragon is not. As the dragon curls around the campsite to sleep (and to very effectively guard it), people begin discussing the possibility of having the dragon travel toward the canyon at top speed rather than traveling with them, and perhaps intercepting Florin before he can reach the Canyon. Azis notices that Marli is being unusually quiet, and finally forces her to comment. Marli finally remarks that her vision of the Tapestry showed the ritual happening, which in her mind suggests that nothing they do will change the need for it – it seems unlikely that they will intercept Florin before he departs. Azis wonders why Marli didn’t volunteer that insight sooner, and she hotly defends herself by saying there hadn’t been convincing Azis of anything else he didn’t already believe.
In the evening, the dragon readies for the trip, and Azis tells it that while Abbadon and Chosofi will be riding on its back, it need not travel ahead. Azis mentions Marli’s prophecy, and the dragon asks if she is sure it is an immutable thing. Marli simply states that tapestries are knitted up. The dragon smiles but does not press further. With a heaving lurch that nearly frightens the war-trained horses, the party is off toward the Canyon.
(Journey is expected to take about three to five days; next session will start midway to the canyon because that is when Morgaine will finally find her way back along the thread to rejoin everyone.)
|Begin oracular journey #6|
Going to sleep the next night after leaving the ship and the Star Sister city, Seraph finds himself unsurprisingly back in the Oracle’s chamber. Brandy is laying on her divan in almost exactly the same place as he left her the previous evening. Hearing the noise of his entry, she quietly asks “My Seraph?” Seraph gently responds, and she welcomes him into her arms and her bed.
Later, as Brandy lies naked on Seraph’s chest, Seraph begins to relate the argument between Abbadon and Azis about what should be done when they find Prince Florin and Li’Marolf’s baby. Abbadon wants to take Prince Florin into custody and bring him and the child back to face trial. Azis thinks that’s foolish because Prince Florin IS the child’s father and thus has every right to take the child away if he thinks it best. The irony of Azis defending a Prince of the Vale and Abbadon wishing to do the gods’ bidding is not lost on Seraph, and he mentions this.
Brandy sighs. “Bringing Solace her weapon will end the possibility of a war between our peoples, my darling Seraph, but it will inevitably lead to a… ‘war’ among the gods. Solace and Modnar and Einac and I have gone over this forwards and backwards, over and over again. It would end up that Modnar, Einac, Nilarem, and Nerwoc would be on one side, and Niel’Aja, Ezalb, and Li’Marolf would be on the other. Ni’Krowd would of course be neutral, but if we can convince the Meru-spawn that he was somehow being disrespected or was in danger we would have them as a mighty force on our side. Allewel, Darreg, and T’Cidien would most likely stay out of the fight. Which is a good thing, because If T’Cidien joins on the wrong side it would go ill for us. Luckily he is bound by his oath to Modnar.”
Seraph frowns. “How will Solace’s weapon lead to a war among the gods? Don’t they all want to see this threat to the Desert and the Vale stopped? And if I break Nilarem’s machine he may be unhappy about that, you should beware him changing sides.”
Brandy does not answer for a moment. “As for Nilarem. He is a dear boy, but he really doesn’t understand the family ‘game’ very well. The destruction of his machine will be a blow but it will also be a wake up call that he can not make things with no regard as to their ultimate use.” She stifles a laugh. “It is funny to hear him pine so after Morgaine. The dear boy sounds like I want to sound about you.” She snuggles into Seraph.
Seraph won’t interrupt but he will have a thoughtful expression at the news that Nilarem ‘pines’ for Morgaine.
Brandy leans up in obvious expectation of a kiss. Once she gets it, she continues. “Indeed, one of the major reasons I was to marry Modnar was to take my father Ezalb out of the fight.”
Seraph will be unable to hide the shock at hearing her claim one of the Zinyini gods as her father. “What is the meaning of this? How is the Zinyini god of fire father to a Valite princess??” Seraph will pause. “Is that common? Are there other Valite royalty descended from the gods?”
“Seraph, my love, almost all of us are.” She smiles up at you. “Benevida we’re not sure about. She was so old already by the time any of us were born. It has always been the family’s assumption she was Ni’krowd’s daughter but neither Mother or Benevida ever would talk about that. And Ni’krowd always changes the subject when it’s brought up.”
Brandy pauses thinking. “Of course Carawynne and Deter and Erica are Norebo’s children. You don’t know Erica, she died at the beginning of the War of Heaven and Hell. And Julianne is Norebo’s Daughter as well, though she came after my family.”
“After Norebo and Mother separated mother took up with Ezalb. My father and mother argued constantly but apparently there was some real affection. Blaze and Finn and I were born of that union. Julianne’s birth, and mother’s going back to Norebo, broke up my family.
“After that was Florin. We don’t know who his father was,” Brandy goes on, “but when Mother settled in with Darreg we all thought her ‘bad’ ways were behind her. They both seemed very much in love.”
She frowns. “But no. At the first sign of political expedience Mother seduced King Airom of the Azer and turned her back on Darreg.” Brandy sighs. “Darreg was heartbroken, and I think Germain never forgave Mother for hurting her father like that. Germain and Darreg are really the only ones that have a good relationship still.”
“After that Mother still was unfaithful,” Brandy continues. “After Lewis was born Mother left King Airom and he was not sorry to see her go. She would never be a good Azer wife. And really, even when mother returned from living with the Zinyini with Chance still a baby, she never settled down again.”
Brandy squeezes you. “I never want to be like her, like my mother.” She says. “I want one man. Only one man, for the rest of our lives.”
“I see.” Seraph will nod his head at her last statement. “That is the proper way. I have sought only one woman in this life.” He will pause. “Every time I think I am closer to understanding the people of the Vale, I find that I do not understand them at all.”
To himself, Seraph wonders in his heart if this is what it means to leave the desert. Is it because they have nothing to struggle against that they dabble in all these convoluted politics? Will this happen to him if he follows Einac’s path into the Vale?
Brandy reaches up to stroke Seraph’s face. “But my marriage to Modnar will not happen now. Modnar says Solace has another plan.” She shakes her head. “I do not like her, my Seraph, I do not trust her at all. But she has given me and Einac our only option that I can discern.
“I don’t really know her, but so far she has upheld her end of the agreement between us. It is not the same as trusting her, but it means her words and advice have great weight to me, to know that she can keep her word.
“Seraph, my love…” Brandy begins. “Solace’s weapon isn’t a sword or a spear. It is a whole land. The land that Einac wishes to give to the Zinyini. And by extension to those that care for them – your Gods, my relatives. But who is to control a weapon that could instantly destroy not only a god but all their followers as well? Einac’s plan is for your brother and you to lead those Zinyini who will brave the trip to take possession of this weapon. But I don’t think all the gods are as trusting of their people as Einac is. And I certainly know Father will not trust Modnar with it. No, some of the gods would wish to take it for themselves. And perhaps use it on the Vale. Perhaps on each other. And that would start my prophesied war between our people all over again. And in the meantime Solace could recover from its first use enough to take possession of that land herself. I do not wish that. No, it must be you and the Zinyini that rule the weapon.”
Seraph simply stares at his lover, grateful she cannot see the stupid expression on his face. Despite everything he’s been through, he still can’t help but think she is crazy for suggesting that a land is weapon.
“I was shocked that when the news of Florin taking Li’Marolf’s child reached Modnar, he broke into laughter,” Brandy’s voice interrupts his thoughts. “He explained that it was perfect for getting Li’marolf out of the way in the coming war. All we needed to do was FIND where Florin and the child were, and then give the information to Li’Marolf and she would go to retrieve her child – and be safe and gone during the hostilities. The hope is that with both Li’Marolf and father occupied, and a horde of Meru-spawn ready to defend Ni’krowd, that Neil’Aja would realize the …timing was bad and bloodshed could be avoided altogether.”
Seraph will scratch his head at the politics of the gods. “And what would you have me do if we can find the child? My first instinct is to return it to Li’Marolf. As to Florin, I think more moves him than you suspect. Does Einac tell you his plans as well? Because I… sense his hand in this. If Florin will hand the child over to me, that I might return it to her mother then he will be free to go on about his business.”
“My guidance as to Florin is this.” she says.” First make sure the baby is well and well cared for. Then return to the oasis and eventually to the Vale and tell Li’marolf where her child is and how you got there. Leave it in your goddess’s hands. No doubt she will be pleased enough to reward you.” Brandy breaks into a grin. “But if she rewards you as she often does I will be very angry with you. I want you for myself.”
“Thank you,” Seraph manages to answer. “I will do what I can once we catch up with Florin. Speaking of, I have been thinking of a way to catch him using Nilarem’s machine, before Florin left the Vale. I don’t know if it will work though, but it would simplify matters greatly…”
“My Seraph,” Brandy says, “It may simplify matters, but it would not get Li’Marolf away from any potential fighting. I think we should let her run off and deal with Florin. Perhaps they will even get back together,” she says and looks away. “Though I don’t see what he sees in her. She is really rather vapid.” Brandy sighs. “By the way, you should be able to see the weapon from where you are right now. It would appear like a ring or a arch in the sky.”
Brandy reaches to touch Seraph’s face again. “There, my love. I am keeping no secrets from you now. And yet you know now that I am playing a very dangerous game. Please, tell me you still love me in spite of what I have told you.”
“I do love you, in spite of all these politics you play.” Seraph holds her hand to his lips so that she can feel his smile to take the sting out of his words. “Thank you for telling me all of this, now I just have to chart a path through all of it…”
|End oracular journey #6|
In the Oasis
Dohr had not yet ceased his chewing and chanting, trying desperately to travel home via the blue bucket. Leno and Winchester and Collin stood blinking at Malak’s words about why they were there and when they could expect to return. At the mention of the magical mirrors, though, Winchester perked up and immediately strolled over to one.
“Augh!” he cried. “Why am I so filthy?!”
Malak was confused for a moment until she looked past Winchester into the mirror.
The mirror showed rapidly fading light, not helped at all by what appeared to be the sides of mountains nearby, though at least a moon appeared to be rising. A stone circle had been elaborately decorated, and there was one woman standing in its center and five people lying down in various places upon it.
One of them was Abbadon. There was also a large hulking brute of some sort, and something that resembled a man-sized rabbit. Malak remembered Seraph moaning about being a bear-person last time he’d traveled after Morgaine, and wondered if he’d had bad luck again. The other two looked like people. One could have passed for Valite except for the hair; Malak guessed that was the person in Azis’s body right now. Valites were always far too concerned about sand stains on their clothing. She also thought she saw Morgaine and the other spirit-girl they’d found in the Oasis, but she couldn’t be sure.
As Malak and Winchester watched, the moon lined up perfectly with a circle of colored glass above and beyond the stone circle. Colored light streamed onto the circle, and the standing woman began dancing fervently. Then something happened in the mirror – Malak could never be sure precisely what – and Azis’s body crumpled to the ground beside her, a sleeping husk once again.
Malak was strangely unperturbed by this, but she was startled by Dohr’s angry howl.
“Looks like your aim was off,” Red said drily to Dohr, indicating the three fallen bodies. She then walked over to Seraph’s form and laid him out to be more comfortable when he awoke. Dejeti and the meru-spawn were already working on Gorlon. Malak uncrumpled Azis, fished out a couple of large dead beetles from a pocket, and made noises of enticement to the two vipers who had fled as he fell.
“He should be awake really soon now,” she cooed to them, tossing the beetles onto Azis’s chest.
The dragon rumbled, and Azis began arguing. “No! We don’t have time for that! If it was that important, why didn’t you handle it before you agreed to come with us?!”
Pressed to translate, he said that the dragon wished to make a detour on the way to the Sun Symbol Canyon and retrieve an egg to give to Chosovi, which would add about a day and a half to the trip. Everyone agreed that a detour would be unfeasible for them, but after more discussion it was decided since they knew the dragon could move incredibly fast when not constrained to keep pace with them, it and Chosovi could make the side trip and rejoin them in a little while. Chosovi had no objection, being rather fond of riding dragonback, and the two of them vanished from sight in short order.
Marli was panting from the desert heat on her fur, but the others remained pleasantly surprised by how mild this desert was compared to home, and they found they had no trouble traveling even during the daylight hours. Making sure not to overtire the horses, they pressed on until close to twilight, when Marli signaled a stop because she smelled something horrible up ahead – like something had died. Climbing up a jutting rock, Seraph spotted a cluster of slightly ramshackle huts in a sort of valley, and could vaguely scent what Marli was talking about. Marli offered to go and see if the people there were friendly or hostile, on the grounds that while she wasn’t local to this part of the world, it was still better than any of them, who weren’t native to this world at all.
While the others began scoping out campsites at a safe distance from a potentially hostile village, Marli scampered down to meet the locals. She noticed with a little concern that these people had an odd tinge to their skin, and their noses were pushed up not unlike the snouts of pigs or An-Phar (who are to pigs what Callix are to rabbits). Marli, having led a mostly charmed life up until this point and still trusting completely in her instincts and in that no real harm would befall her if she was working to help her traveling companions, felt no compulsion to keep anything hidden as the locals asked questions about who she was and where she was going and with whom. Her luck held, though, and what appeared to be the leader of the village said that they didn’t have much to spare, but could probably at least spare space for the night if they wanted. Marli said she would talk with her companions and come back one way or the other. She did at least have the sense to scamper up a different direction, so she came back into sight about a half-kilometer away from the rest of the group.
It was never clear to Marli whether her companions were more concerned about taxing scant resources or about how funny the people looked, but they said they would rather camp on their own. True to her promise, she told the others she would need to run down there again and tell them not to expect anyone. She also rummaged through bags and found about a day’s worth of her rations to take with her. (There were still two days’ worth of travel there and five days back; it wouldn’t be hard to stretch what was left.) She was met by the leader with whom she had spoken previously, and she fumblingly offered the items she carried as a thanks for their offer of hospitality.
Then an eldritch hissing sounded from one of the huts a distance away from them, and the leader said that the elder of the village wanted to speak to Marli. The Callix’s danger sense didn’t set her to flight, but she was very glad that whoever it was seemed content to let her stand just outside the very dark doorway to the hut. The elder asked by name about her traveling companions, which scared Marli a bit because she was pretty sure she hadn’t mentioned any names. Still, she saw no need to lie now, and when she mentioned that Chosovi wasn’t with them right now, the elder simply said that it would do what it could to keep the spirits away from them tonight, but that Gorlon might need to play a tune to help soothe them. Marli stammered a thank-you and tore off at top speed back where she thought her friends had been last.
“You’re just in time,” Abbadon said as Marli hurried up to them, pointing to the stew pot.
“That is totally not funny,” Marli snapped, then turned to Gorlon. “Do you have a lute?”
“Yes,” Gorlon said over Abbadon’s muttering. “No, wait. The real me has one. But the real me is back on a different world.”
“Peep”, said Woodstock, taking off from Gorlon’s shoulder to light on a rock a couple hundred feet away. “Peep!”
“Oh, you’ve got to be kidding me,” Azis groaned.
“It makes sense, actually…” Aimee offered. Gorlon did not ask, but sighed, stood up, and walked over to the rock, hefting it easily with his massive frame. Allewel’s lute lay beneath, completely unharmed despite what had been on top of it.
“Okay, fine, now I’ll ask,” Gorlon said resignedly.
Aimee said she’d heard that the lute was a gift from a god just like the bird was, so as such it was probably tethered to his spiritual self – not unlike how she was tethered to Seraph’s spiritual self. Wherever his consciousness was, then, he would be able to call both the lute and Woodstock to him at any time. Aimee felt that he had done just that when he had unthinkingly answered “yes” to Marli’s question of whether he had it.
“Sorry to interrupt,” Seraph said, not meaning it. “But Marli, how did you even know to ask?” His face darkened significantly as Marli stammered out her tale of her visit with the village elder.
“Double watch, then,” Azis muttered, sharing his brother’s misgivings. “And let’s move the fire over there.” He tore a gobbet of stewed meat in half and shared it with the two vipers he’d found along the way, whispering to them sibilantly.
“Though, yeah, I guess that means I’ll actually try playing this thing tonight,” Gorlon said uncertainly. “I’ll try to keep it mostly quiet.”
Marli picked up the stew pot, fretting as Abbadon scooped up the coals beneath it. She nibbled rapidly on a turnip and half a sweet potato after everyone had relocated, nervous without being able to fully articulate why. Then Gorlon began to play, and something inside her eased.
Gorlon woke to someone kicking him in the side.
“I can’t believe I actually kind of missed that,” he murmured as he struggled to sit up. Then he noticed he was still in the desert, still trapped in the huge body. It had been Seraph who woke him, not the meru-spawn.
“Good try, at least,” Seraph said, gesturing to the lute and to the drool that had caked on Gorlon’s chin. “I think the bird ended up taking over at some point.”
Azis squinted as he propped himself up on an elbow. “Dragon’s back.”
Seraph looked around rapidly. “Where”? Then he saw where Azis was pointing, and looked up. The dragon approached like an ebony curl of smoke, and Chosovi slid off its back. She carried something large wrapped in a blanket on her back, which people could only conclude was the egg in question. Unless perhaps it had hatched into the large white owl on her left shoulder.
Gorlon opted for humor to break the ice. “Trying to show me up with that bird there?”
Chosovi smiled and was about to answer, but Morgaine distracted everyone by running up to Abbadon and flinging her arms around him.
“It was HORRIBLE!” she sobbed. “It took FOREVER, and I couldn’t see where I was going, and then I ended up with HER instead of Seraph…” Morgaine indicated Chosovi with her head, then let go, turning fearfully. “Or are you…”
“No,” Seraph said, waving. Morgaine sighed in relief and went to hug him too.
Meanwhile, people had been busying themselves with breaking camp and packing up. The rest of the journey was uneventful, though Gorlon happily relinquished to Chosovi the duties of trying to keep the spirits at bay.
The sun seemed to set earlier on the second day, mostly because of the mountains looming over them. But Chosovi was even more confident than before of where they were going – something the others could only attribute to the owl on her shoulder, which she called “her guide”. Eventually she halted.
“We are about to enter sacred ground,” Chosovi said. “You’ll need to remove your shoes so you don’t anger the spirits.
This was reason enough for Marli and Gorlon. Seraph snorted, remarking that he hadn’t died as she predicted when he touched her spirit rattle. Chosovi argued that it was because she had interceded on his behalf.
After much more arguing, they all found themselves threading down a narrow canyon that was made to seem unnatural by the rows of birch trees growing down one side. Abbadon also noticed “stumps” that were actually the bases of pillars worn down by thousands of years of erosion. That made the next sight all the more unsettling:
Four perfectly intact pillars rose from the corner of a large stone dais overgrown with vines. Abbadon squinted to look at them, and scowled in disbelief. These were easily as old as the ones worn to nubs, yet showed no damage. A delicate arch sat between the two pillars closest to them, framing a mosaic of colored bits of glass.
“This is the place,” Chosovi said. “I just need to clear off this stone and then I can prepare for the ritual that will send you after Florin.” She bent down to tear up some vines, and was overwhelmed as the men scrambled to help. She decided against telling them she’d need to wait for moonrise no matter how fast it got cleared.
Marli, meanwhile, pointed to some tracks that started beyond the dais and continued further down the canyon. Chosovi called for the men to stop, since there was no easy way to tell how old the tracks were, and the group followed the tracks down to another sort of alcove. A large black horse was hobbled there, and the men recognized more of the strange boxes marked “COLEMAN” that had been in the cavern where they’d chased Florin the first time.
Chosovi went over to talk to the horse, and the others thought they overheard her promise to take it back with her before hurrying back to prepare the stone dais. The men decided to help themselves to the ham and cheese that were in the cooler, taking perverse joy in the hope that this would come back to inconvenience Florin at a crucial time later. Abbadon also uncorked one of the many bottles of wine, but then took a sniff and recorked it, making a face of disgust.
It wasn’t until after their stolen dinner that they noticed how dark it had gotten. The Ring was visible in the sky, much to Marli’s relief, and so was the moon. Chosovi was calling to them now, and they walked to the dais. She beckoned them to step up onto the dais, and for each of them to lie down in one of the circles she had outlined with blue powder.
“The two of you are connected to him, right?” Chosovi asked Morgaine and Aimee. She clucked her tongue at their affirmative reply. “Okay then. It is just the five of you” – she gestured at the others – “who will need to actually fall asleep. And you do need to be asleep when the moment arrives, or you won’t get sent into the Dreaming.”
“What, you think we can just fall asl” – Azis’s protest was cut short as Chosovi retrieved a large pinch of sand from a pouch and sprinkled it into his hair. He had started to get back up, but now he lay down peacefully. A few moments later, he was quietly snoring.
“Let’s just play it safe,” Chosovi murmured, and dusted the magic sand onto all five people. Through the owl’s eyes, she could see that the top edge of the moon was just starting to peek through the stained glass. Less than an hour, then. Chosovi began dancing and chanting, calling the spirits to guide these sleeping souls to where they truly needed to be.
In the Dreaming
Abbadon awoke to find himself on a mountainside. The sky didn’t look quite right, but he recognized some of the plants growing around him. He also recognized the people lying near him. The rabbit-girl was gone, but it was actually Gorlon and Azis and Seraph with him now, in the bodies he (and they) were accustomed to.
Abbadon sat up, looking around. It soon became clear he was in the foothills of a larger mountain range. Below him sprawled an endless sea of grass, and in the distance he saw conical shapes clustered together, and a crude fence holding several animals of some sort. Squinting, he made out figures moving around them.
He heard interrupted breathing behind him, and twisted to face it. The other men were waking now, and Morgaine and Aimee had begun to shimmer into view.
“So where are we now?” Seraph croaked, squinting, his face taking on the same look of partial recognition that Abbadon knew he must have displayed just moments before.
Azis looked grim. “I’m pretty sure I’ve been here before.” He exchanged a look with his brother, but otherwise did not explain further. “I’m going to go have a look around.” He unfurled the carpet on his back, climbed aboard, and took off without a moment’s pause.
Gorlon rubbed his eyes, looking at the cluster of cone tents, then looking behind him, noting that a fairly well-worn trail led up toward some trees. He turned back and pointed at Azis’s disappearing silhouette. “Okay, he can go whichever direction he wants, he’s not actually walking. I’m not particularly inclined to wander willy-nilly. Any ideas?”
Seraph had started nodding even before Gorlon had finished speaking. “He’s ahead of us,” he said, gesturing down the mountainside. He took a pull from a waterskin, then rolled to a standing position, extending a hand to help the Azer to their feet. He did not see any obvious tracks on the trail, but he still chose to keep himself at the front just in case.
Seraph sighed as one of the men ahead of him fled back toward the cones at a dead run. He’d expected sentries, but had also hoped perhaps Gorlon could talk to them before they decided to put the rest of their people on high alert.
“Stow it,” he addressed Abbadon over his shoulder, sheathing his own weapon for the moment. Ignoring the rumbling sigh behind him, Seraph approached the remaining two men, his hands up and out just enough to declare the intent of not being a threat…but not so far away from his scimitar that he actually was not a threat.
The two men looked tense, and it echoed in the taller one’s voice. “People of the Bear!” he said, holding out his hand for them to stop. “You and your cohorts will not – “
“People of the Who?” Gorlon interrupted, taking two paces forward to bring himself even with Seraph, his hands genuinely up peacefully. “I’m afraid I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
The strange men did not answer, but peered intently at Gorlon, and occasionally craned their necks to look around Seraph to Abbadon.
“They are not People of the Bear,” the shorter one finally said. “Their noses are too straight.”
“We’re not from around here,” Gorlon offered tentatively. “We’re from far away, actually.”
“Maybe,” Abbadon muttered to himself, still mindful of how familiar the local flora seemed.
The sentries’ eyes widened at Gorlon’s words. “You are foreigners, then?”
“Yes,” Gorlon and Seraph said at the same time.
“Oh!” said the shorter man. “Please, come with us, then. There is another foreigner in our village right now as well, looking for other foreigners.” He beckoned everyone forward, leading them along the path leading toward the cluster of cones. The taller man waited, falling into line at the rear.
“Do you think it might actually be Florin?” Aimee whispered to Morgaine as they walked.
“I don’t think so,” Morgaine whispered back. “He’s been going on such a long and weird chase to keep away from us…why would he then turn around and want to find us?”
“Unless he’s already done whatever he wanted to do with the baby and doesn’t care anymore if you find him – or worse, he wants to gloat,” Aimee pointed out solemnly.
Morgaine did not reply.
The group was welcomed by a man who, judging by the decorations on his clothing, was very likely the leader of the village. He bade them be welcome among the People of the Elk. It was then that people noticed the large number of antlered quadrupeds penned inside a crude corral.
“And there is another foreigner here as well,” the chief echoed earlier news. Beckoning, he led them past and around several of the large conical tents, finally pausing in front of one.
“Foreigner!” the chief called. “There are other foreigners here, and you had wished for us to bring any to you.” The chief then took three paces backward. Seraph tensed, hands hovering at his hips…
The tent flap pushed open to reveal a tall but slight woman with bright pink hair. She had taken to dressing like the others, but did not even remotely resemble them physically. “Hello!” she said. “You’re welcome to come in, I guess.” She withdrew, pulling the flap open behind her.
Abbadon unslung his axe and put his back to the tent, standing akimbo. The others exchanged glances, then went inside.
“I’m Lady Wynott,” the woman said, ducking behind an ornately decorated screen. “Excuse me while I change into something less itchy.” The others did not respond, being wholly occupied with their confusion. There was simply no way that a tent the size of what they’d seen could have this much space inside it. Gorlon looked around, left the tent, took approximate measurements with his hands, and stepped back inside. It was unmistakable. Somehow the inside was larger than the outside.
“This is like something out of Doctor Who,” Aimee murmured to nobody.
“Ah, sorry about that,” Lady Wynott said, emerging dressed in something not too unlike what Morgaine was wearing. “Anyway, what can I do for you?”
Seraph had visibly lost interest already, but Morgaine piped up. “We’re looking for my uncle Florin. He’s got a baby with him and we think he’s around here somewhere. Have you seen him?”
“Most of my attention has been focused on researching the lake that’s about ten kilometers from here,” Lady Wynott replied. “There’s something strange about the lake, and there’s something in it. I’ve been hoping I can find out what it is, and if I might be able to use it to get home from here.” She permitted herself a brief sigh. “I’ve been here for what I think is a few months now, and haven’t found my way out yet.”
That did get Seraph’s attention, but Lady Wynott seemed oblivious to the change of expression on his face. “Can you describe your uncle to me?” she asked Morgaine. “If there’s anything distinctive about him, I might be able to scan for him.” She did not explain how.
Morgaine dutifully rattled off a description of Prince Florin, aided by the others, listing his looks and things he might be carrying or wearing. At the mention of Florin’s fondness for wearing silk, Lady Wynott held up her hand, walking over to a strange box that occasionally flashed as if starbugs were trapped inside it. She tapped on its surface a few times, her face intense, then disappointed.
“Sorry,” Lady Wynott said, “there isn’t any silk to be found within a twenty-kilometer radius of here. But I plan to go out to the lake again this evening, if you’d like to accompany me – I might be able to scan again and get a reading from further away.”
“We’ll find him,” Seraph said suddenly, feeling a strong desire to be out of the tent. “Thank you,” he barely remembered to say before striding out. Lady Wynott seemed wholly unperturbed, waving briefly as everyone filed out of the enormous room.
“We’ll need supplies,” Seraph grumbled as the others joined him outside. He rummaged in a belt pouch, fishing out a gem “he” had acquired in the sparkly tree room back in the huge cavern. He looked at it, looked at everyone else, shrugged and stalked off. Morgaine and Aimee followed, though they didn’t look happy about it.
Gorlon turned to Abbadon. “We might want to go back and talk to the leader. The Zinyini can scout just fine, but it might help to know something about what we might expect.”
Abbadon agreed, intimidating a passing local with his attempt at a friendly question as to the leader’s whereabouts. They were both hastily brought to the chief, who welcomed them warmly and said that plans were in motion for a large gathering in their honor. The chief also apologized for the initial hostility, as the People of the Elk frequently had trouble from the People of the Bear, who were short and stocky not unlike the Azer. He knew little about Lady Wynott except that he always argued with her when she insisted on going to explore the lake, which he believed was evil – he knew that not even insects lived near it, and the elk would go no closer than this.
The Azer’s presence near the chief had begun to draw attention from the other villagers. Gorlon decided to milk this somewhat and unslung his lute, entertaining people with tunes he’d collected and asking them to perform some of their music in return. Abbadon made a show of presenting the chief with the bottle of wine he’d stolen from Florin’s cooler. Noticing that the chief had about the same opinion of wine that he did, he suggested that the chief’s wife use it to cook meat or vegetables in, that such was a popular custom in his lands. This idea pleased the chief, who in return gifted Abbadon with a small bottle of something the Azer never could correctly pronounce, but was very similar to the whiskey of Kheld-Mirkhan. Abbadon was very grateful.
Time flew for Gorlon and Abbadon, and it wasn’t until someone thrust bowls of food at them that they really noticed how late it had gotten, even though they had seen the bonfire being lit to fend off the night. Looking around, they were relieved to see Aimee and Morgaine, which meant Seraph was not far away. Then they saw Lady Wynott circling the campfire toward them, holding what appeared to be slips of vellum in her hand.
“I took these pictures at the lake this afternoon, and thought you’d be interested,” she said, handing them to Gorlon. Feeling his comrades – including Seraph, he recognized the breathing – crowd behind him to peer over his shoulder, Gorlon sifted through the pictures. He was very impressed at the level of detail in them, and complimented Lady Wynott on her artistic ability.
“That’s his bootprint,” Morgaine murmured. After a quick conference, everyone agreed to catch a few hours’ sleep and pursue him in the morning, lest fatigue slow them further or make them more prone to error.
Seraph noted with well-concealed relief the cairn that Azis had left at the side of the path leading to the lake’s edge. His brother was “saying” that he’d gotten here just before dark, and had been unable to see anything, but Seraph had a hunch he was still nearby.
The sun had not yet burned off the dew, and the bootprints almost sparkled as they drew near. Florin had walked near the water’s edge, where the soil just started to turn to mud. Looking along the anticipated path, people were able to make out slender sticks with strange glowing tips planted about every twenty meters or so. Seraph wished he knew why the prince had deliberately made himself so easy to track…
His concentration was shattered by the loud voice of a young woman. “Get away from the lake!” The voice was coming from above him. “I will not let you wake the beast!”
Seraph looked up toward the voice. The woman was probably about as tall as himself, with dark hair pulled up and away from her face. She was dressed scandalously by Zinyini standards, but an aura of green light kept his eyes from seeing too much of her skin.
“Get away!” the girl shouted again. Lady Wynott held up one of her strange devices and tried to explain that they weren’t trying to awaken anything, they were only looking around. The girl shrieked at the sight of the weird bauble, though, and let fly with a blast of energy that only narrowly missed Wynott’s shoulder.
A flash of color streaked out of the trees to their right. Seraph recognized it as Azis’s carpet. Seraph’s glee was short-lived as he saw a vaguely fist-shaped burst of green light shoot out of the girl’s hand and collide with Azis, knocking him off the carpet to the ground where he lay still. The carpet, bereft of its rider, froze in place.
Gorlon quickly realized there would be no speaking reasonably with the girl, but hoped actions would speak louder. He took off at a dead run back up the trail, hoping the others would follow and the girl would leave them alone until they could regroup and figure out how to deal with her.
Seraph, on the other hand, was not happy with what the girl had done to his brother, and welcomed the chance to burn off all the other frustration he’d been suffering over the last few days. Quick as a viper, he snatched a dagger out of his belt and flung it at the girl. The missile flew true, but collided off the green light that surrounded her. Abbadon unslung his bow from his back and fired. The girl ducked away, moving around to behind them.
“Let me try something,” Morgaine said. “Aimee, you too.” Both spirit-girls faded from sight.
Lady Wynott, who had been shouting constantly at the girl about their lack of evil intent, suddenly whooped and said that she’d discovered the girl was vulnerable to wooden weapons. Abbadon nodded grimly and nocked another arrow, but the girl had already sent another tendril of green light toward him. This one curled around the bow and began to tug it out of his hands. Abbadon tightened his grip. He felt his feet begin to leave the ground, but he did not let go.
Seraph was furious, his eyes blazing with frustration. His daggers did no good, talking did no good, and now nobody else traveling with him was doing any good. He began looking about wildly, hoping to find a stick to throw at her in case that would break her hold on Abbadon’s bow and put him back in the fight. Then he heard Aimee’s voice as if she was whispering in his ear.
“Something’s wrong with her mind,” Aimee said. “She’s been externally influenced on the subliminal level into an extreme state of paranoia, probably due to isolation. She’s just scared of us.”
The last five words, at least, made sense to Seraph, and inspired him. He looked up just in time to see Abbadon take a jab at the green girl with the butt of his axe handle, at the cost of his grip on the bow. Another green hand of light shot from the girl, and moved to cradle the Azer before he hit his head on the ground.
“See?” Aimee’s voice came back. “Even as much as she wants us away from here, she didn’t let Abbadon break his neck. I don’t think she has any more malicious intent than we do.”
Seraph was barely listening. He had taken advantage of the girl’s brief distraction to sprint to the water’s edge. One hand had grabbed another dagger, and he held the other over the water, brandishing the blade at it.
“Stand down!” he shouted at the girl. “Stand down or I will let my blood into the water and draw the beast to the surface!”
It was a bluff, but it seemed to work. The girl’s posture changed in the air. “Back away!”
“You back away!”
“You back away!” The girl’s face began to betray the fear Aimee had seen.
“Fine!” Seraph said. “One, two, three!”
Fortunately, the Zinyini call for simultaneous action appeared to be universal. As Seraph inched back from the lake, withdrawing his palm, he saw the girl lowering herself to the ground, still watching him intently. They regarded each other for a long time before either of them truly relaxed their stance.
“All right, then,” Seraph said finally. “Let’s go find Gorlon, I guess. All of us,” he added quickly and sternly as he saw the green girl start to run up the same path the Azer had taken. Seeing her pause, Seraph motioned her back toward them, then moved to help Abbadon lift Azis onto his carpet. Seraph lifted the carpet up to a comfortable level and began pulling it behind him as he walked.
“There is definitely a fundamental alteration in her mind,” Aimee whispered to Seraph.
“Something’s wrong with her mentally,” Morgaine’s voice trickled into his other ear. “Aimee thinks we can fix it, though.”
Seraph did not answer either of them.
Seraph eyed the green-clad girl warily as they both moved slowly away from the water, and he could see that she was regarding him with similar suspicion.
“Aimee says that we can block the outside influence on her mind without actually going into her mind and changing how she feels right now,” Morgaine’s voice whispered in Seraph’s mind. “I mean, I guess I understand if you don’t want to touch it at all, but…”
“It’s fine.” Seraph’s thoughts were a sigh in his own mind. “Go ahead.” He could almost rationalize it to himself, altering the girl’s mind in order to stop someone else from altering it.
“We were following tracks!” Abbadon was gesticulating wildly at the girl. “We’re on the trail of a kidnapper! What would possess you to think we’re trying to unleash evil?”
Interesting choice of words, Seraph thought as he caught the tail end of the rant. He almost felt like he should step in. Morgaine and Aimee could only block the girl’s mind from whatever was trying to control her; they could do nothing against the Azer’s occasional lack of social grace. But he was more interested in rousing his brother, and in possibly overhearing the girl’s answer in case it proved important to them.
“My father has had the gift of prophecy since before I was born,” the girl said, scowling at Abbadon’s undisguised groan. “There is a nameless evil imprisoned in the lake, and there are agents working to free it to devour and destroy everything in all reality and all imagination. I have sworn, by everything I am and everything I will be, to use my power in the cause of Justice. And when my heart told me to come here, it only made sense to me that it was because one of the Evil’s agents was on its way here. And then I saw you.”
“Well, I don’t suppose you happened to see Florin, then, did you, if you’ve been guarding the lake like this?”
The girl’s face went pensive. “No, I did not.”
“Of course not.” Abbadon hawked and spat.
“So of course all of you are standing around with your dicks in your hands talking about Florin instead of actually going and looking for him.” Azis floated up on his carpet, his face and robes still damp from Seraph’s waking him. “Excuse me while one of us actually goes and gets a clue.” He flew off.
The girl looked warily at his vanishing backside. “Is he always like that?”
“No,” said Seraph.
“Yes,” said Abbadon and Gorlon.
“Aimee’s done,” Morgaine whispered to Seraph. She then spoke audibly to everyone. “Okay, just so people don’t panic, I’m about to become visible now.”
Sadly, but perhaps unsurprisingly, the words had the opposite of their intended effect on the girl. She began looking around wildly for their source, and narrowed her eyes at Morgaine as she phased into view behind Seraph’s shoulder. Morgaine put her hands up peaceably.
The girl was still dubious. “Are you hiding anyone else from me?”
Seraph glanced around. Yes, they were. “Aimee,” he prompted. Aimee shimmered into sight behind Seraph’s other shoulder.
“Harem,” the girl muttered.
“We need to find Gorlon and tell him we’re moving on once Azis figures out the tracks,” Seraph said. “Morgaine, if you could go on ahead and tell him to stop and maybe turn around back this way…”
Morgaine nodded and vanished.
“And we should go ahead and start heading toward Gorlon,” Abbadon suggested. “The sooner we’re all together, the sooner we can get back on track.”
Seraph nodded his agreement and threw together a cairn to inform Azis.
“So…” Lady Wynott addressed the girl as they walked. “Well, to start, I don’t believe I know your name. I’m Lady Wynott.”
The girl looked surprised, and possibly a bit embarrassed. “I’m Jill. Jilial Corbadesh. But just call me Jill.”
“Jill.” Lady Wynott inclined her head. “You mentioned using your power for justice. I was curious as to the source of your power.”
Jill paused then, and took a step back from the others. She pressed her right hand against her chest, fingers splayed. A large emerald ring glittered on one of her fingers. Jill then drew the hand tight against her side, fist clenched, and looked daggers at Lady Wynott.
“I was strictly curious,” Lady Wynott said, holding up her hands and angling her stride away from Jill a little.
“The tracks look to be about a day old,” Azis said as he arrived, having easily found and caught up to the rest of the group. “And we’ll all need to use the carpet if we want to catch up. He was on foot until about the far edge of the lake, but then he pulled a horse out of nowhere and started riding hard.”
“What do you mean, out of nowhere?” Abbadon asked, suspicious.
“Uncle Florin is a trump artist…” Morgaine hesitantly reminded him.
“What I mean is there’s boot tracks, and then there’s hoofprints, and the hoofprints begin right where the boot tracks end.” Azis looked frustrated for a second. “I looked. There’s just no trace of any hoofprints anywhere else, like there should be if someone brought Florin a horse. He created it out of thin air, or pulled it out of his ass, or something, but it was not there one minute and there the next.”
“Anyway,” Seraph broke in, “it sounds like we’ll need to climb on and head after him as quick as possible.” He began motioning toward the carpet.
Lady Wynott immediately stepped forward, halting only in the face of Azis’s glare. “Permission to come aboard, captain?” she asked, smiling. Azis’s glare only intensified at those words.
“So what do we do with those two?” Azis finally addressed Seraph, tilting his head to indicate Jill and Lady Wynott. “Are we gonna have to drag them along like the blind chick and the rabbit? Or worse, like Aimee?”
“Since there is a chance that you might need to leave this place in order to find your Florin, I would be intensely interested in joining you,” said Lady Wynott. “I’m not much in the way of combat, but I can offer you shelter.” She pulled a miniature tepee from her pocket, set it on the ground, and pointed a strange wand at it. It then expanded to full size – in fact, it was the very tepee they had visited when meeting her in the village.
“Comfortable beds, hot water for bathing, and cooking facilities,” Lady Wynott said, shrinking the tepee and returning it to her pocket.
Azis looked to Seraph again. Seraph, in turned, looked expectantly at Jill.
“I don’t get prophecies like my dad does,” Jill said, “but I’m still willing to bet I met you guys for a reason. That one” – she pointed at Abbadon – “claims you’re after a kidnapper, to bring him to justice. That’s something very much in line with the promises I made in exchange for my power. If you’ll have me, I am at your service.” She finished by inclining her head and bowing slightly.
Seraph looked back to his brother and shrugged.
“I’d rather have them with us than against us,” he said at last. “At the very least, keep them where we can see them.”
Azis nodded grimly, but still ensured that Lady Wynott was the last one allowed to climb onto the carpet. Jill declined to ride, preferring to trust to her ring’s power of flight.
Azis pushed the carpet as fast as he dared, noting with a small amount of annoyance that the girl was effortlessly able to keep pace with him.
“We’re in a hurry?” Jill called across the air to him.
“Yes!” Azis was astounded she could be stupid enough to ask such a question.
“Well then…” A globe of pale green light swelled in Jill’s hand, enveloping the front half of the carpet. It became hard to see the light as it moved into place, but its purpose was obvious; the wind was no longer roaring in their faces and forcing them to squint their eyes shut, but the back half of the carpet remained open to the air so they did not feel trapped. Azis even found he could nudge the carpet to go a little faster now.
Then he realized it was not him increasing the carpet’s speed. Little fingers of light had snaked up from the bottom of the windbreak and curled around the bottom of the carpet. The girl had it – and them – completely in her grasp, and was pulling them along much faster than he would ever have thought he could travel.
“I hope you’re right about her!” Azis shouted to Seraph, taking a small amount of comfort in seeing his brother’s face as taut and knuckles as white as his own.
Jill slowed down a few times along the way, when the trail grew harder to find. Still, the others could only surmise that it was a very powerful horse Florin had found for himself, because despite their great speed, the tracks had still not ended and they still had not seen anyone by the time the sun began to descend behind the trees.
Then Jill suddenly took the carpet in a wide arc, circling before bringing it and herself down for a landing near the tracks. Seeing the green light dissipate, Abbadon promptly rolled off the carpet, staggered over to a nearby tree and began retching.
“Sorry about the funky landing,” Jill said to Azis. “There’s a big campfire up ahead, about two kilometers, and I figured we’d want to come down here since I glow in the dark when my powers are active.”
“Was he there?” Gorlon asked hopefully.
“I couldn’t tell from this far off,” Jill admitted. “I stopped here ‘cause if I could see them, they could see me, and I figured that would’ve have been bad.”
“Everybody off,” Seraph said. “Let Azis go scout. Try and get at it from the far side – Morgaine and I will come up on it from this direction.”
“Are we to just wait here, then?” Lady Wynott said as she hopped off the carpet. She had pulled a strange tube out of one pocket and was looking through it. It almost looked like whatever Red had used to spot Adam coming at them back in the desert, except Red’s had been a pair of tubes.
“No, but follow slowly. Azis and I are the sneaky ones” – Seraph gestured to the empty space where Azis and the carpet had been – “so we’ll go first. But if he’s there, we’ll need all of you. Morgaine, phase me out and let’s go.”
“There’s a dead horse,” Lady Wynott said as Morgaine reached for Seraph’s hand. “And it looks like part of the fire was a pentagram. My guess would be some sort of animal sacrifice ritual.”
“That doesn’t sound right, not if the tracks lead there,” Seraph said. “But we’ll see.” He squeezed Morgaine’s hand as a signal, and the two of them vanished.
The world was suddenly washed in white before Seraph’s eyes, and he had to squint for a moment. The trees and the people nearby began to appear double, superimposed upon each other and slightly out of line – as if he were actually looking at a point beyond them. Voices wailed at the edge of his hearing, and he saw more figures ahead on the trail – but only single outlines, not like the double visions of his comrades.
“Is it always like this for you?” Seraph whispered. He’d remembered the world going sort of blurry when Morgaine had phased him through a wall in the Oasis of Inyanna, but that was all. There had certainly not been any of these ghastly apparitions.
“Yes,” Morgaine whispered back. “Chosofi says that I’m seeing the spirits of these worlds whenever I do this.”
“Do you think they’ll attack?”
“I’ve never stayed still long enough to find out. It was worse in the other place when I was trying to find you, but so far as long as I’ve kept moving they haven’t bothered me.” Morgaine emphasized her point by striding forward.
Seraph followed and overtook her. He was silent for a few moments more before finally letting his curiosity get the better of him.
“Have you touched one of these spirits before, having to walk past them?”
Morgaine shuddered and remained silent. Seraph took that as his answer and began to move a little faster.
At the campsite the six torches around the bonfire are dimly visible while in this phased state. Most notable is that each torch is pinning a spirit in place because the torth is spiked through the mouth of the spirit and comes out the ass to pin it to the ground. A painful sight to see. Seraph has Morgaine unphase them at a tree on the edge of the clearing and quickly looks around. Across the clearing Azis ghosts from one tree to the next, making his presence known to Seraph. The white wounded horse is thrashing on its side just outside of the torches, its stomach has been sliced open and it is nosily dying. Seraph walks over and slits the animal’s throat to quiet it and stop its suffering. Turning his attention to the tracks on the ground Seraph can tell that there were 10-12 people here, one of them notably Florin. Another one of those strange containers is also present, but Seraph ignores it for the moment. Circling the clearing Seraph can see that about 8 of the tracks leave the clearing but that leaves 3-4 people unaccounted for. About this time the rest of the party shows up and begin checking over the campsite. Someone comments (Aimee?) that this might be similar to the ritual that sent Florin and then later our party from the last world to this world. Seraph tells Azis to follow the tracks that lead away from camp, and to take Aimee with him and send her back with what he finds. Discussion about what might have taken place here continues. Abaddon shifts the dead horse and finds a whistle under its head. He blows the whistle, the horse disappears. He blows the whistle again and the horse reappears whole, hearty, and alive. Dr. Whynot makes a comment about astral horses or summoning horses. Abaddon blows the whistle again and the horse vanishes. He drops the whistle in a pocket. When the cooler is opened it reveals sealed bag(s) of blood lending furthur support for the sacrificial nature of this ritual.
Aimee reports back that Azis has found people he knows and that we should meet up with him. The group decides there is nothing more to be immediately gained from this campsite and proceed to follow the tracks which Azis followed. When Aimee directs them to continue on straight to a campsite while the tracks veer to the left, Seraph sends the rest of the group on, has Morgaine stick with him, and they follow the tracks. The tracks lead to a area of darkness, very similar to the dark sands that the group went through back in the desert. Seraph has Morgaine phase him and where there was once darkness there is a great wall of spirits surrounding the area, almost like they are pressed up against an invisible wall. Seraph opts to withdraw and they rejoin the others at the camp Azis has led the group to.
After Seraph and Morgaine break away the rest of the group press on and come upon a camp where Azis is waiting for them with an older man. Bob Roberts introduces himself and the cowboys with him and says that they are currently getting toward the end of a cattle drive. Abaddon cuts straight to the chase and wants to know if Roberts or his men were a party to helping a guy named Florin or the big bonfire back on the hill. Roberts says no they are just passing through, but if the group needs help catching up with this Florin he can provide it. Roberts invites them to the fire for some supper (which Abaddon does not touch). Azis somewhat explains how he met Roberts but eventually Roberts has to fill in the rest of the details for the group. Seraph and Morgaine return at this point and Seraph quickly agrees to Roberts offer of assistance (with the jist of the conversation having been relayed to him by Aimee). Roberts says that he will need to enlist his son’s help, and his son is currently back at the Big Sky ranch (their ultimate destination), but going there should only delay the group a day and it will be worth it because they can go right to Florin instead of where Florin has been. Roberts makes a comment that Azis has talked all about Seraph and how he is a great tracker too. Seraph remarks that he could not be so great a tracker as Azis although surely Azis noticed that the tracks diverged away from this camp. Azis seemed to not take this joking rebuke very well and left the camp fire to disappear into the night. Abaddon seeks to argue with Seraph regarding taking help from these strangers, particularly since Roberts seems to be speaking of witchery, even if they do know Azis from some fever dream. He insists that they would be better served tracking through the magical darkness to find more clues to where Florin went. Seraph does not budge on the issue and so Abaddon leaves the fire too. He comes upon Azis and they have a brief chat. Gorlon plays some music for everyone around the fire. Dr. Whynot bakes cookies. Watches are set throughout the night and one person of the group is always awake regardless of any cowboy on duty.
Seraph sleeps, and as usual meets up with his Oracle/Princess Brandy – this may be posted separately.
The cattle drive swings into motion the next morning with the others somewhat amused to see Azis helping herd the cattle on his carpet. Abbadon, either out of genuine concern for Seraph or a desire to make the Zinyini as uncomfortable as himself, rides up to Jill and mentions that Seraph is long used to keeping secrets from his companions, but they seem to be weighing on him more heavily than usual, and perhaps he would be helped by opening up to a stranger. Jill nods and rides faster to catch up with Seraph. Asking a few questions, she soon figures out that if in fact Seraph needs to talk with someone, it’s not her. Slightly hurt, she rides further to the front of the column.
The day seems to pass in a blur with gradual changes taking place in the landscape until it becomes obvious to the group that something unusual is happening. All of the colors seem more vivid in the surroundings. They arrive at the Big Sky Ranch that Roberts calls home and are introduced to his wife Fyan. Everyone sits down for a big lunch (lunch!? how can it be lunch, they walked all day). Dr. Whynot politely excuses herself for a moment, does a few scans, and can scarcely contain her delight to find out that she has in fact left the Dreaming – meaning she can finally begin to make repairs to her portable tepee. Fyan looks at Jill and asks if she would like a change of clothes. Jill gratefully accepts, and in the process of borrowing an outfit talks to Fyan, mentioning that Seraph seems to need someone to talk to.
Fyan approaches Seraph who initially wants to go somewhere they can’t be overheard, but she assures him that no one will hear them as they talk at the dinner table. He asks that he be able to tell his story first and then decide if her husband should hear it. Seraph tells his story to Fyan (actual recap to follow). She says yes she can probably help, but to shield his friends or hide the knowledge from those that would look for it, the whole party must know his story. Fyan then holds up her hand for Seraph to be quiet a moment, leans over to Abbadon, and asks the Azer to round up the crew as Seraph has something to tell them.
Abbadon went to roust Lady Wynott from her tepee. As he tapped against the cloth door, it suddenly belched a cloud of smoke. Lady Wynott poked out her head. There was soot on her nose.
Abbadon was so taken aback by the sight that he forgot his original mission. “What’s going on in there, woman? Are you fighting a dragon or something?”
Lady Wynott shook her head. “It’s the entire coil!” she groaned. “I was hoping I could just remove a piece of it, but no, I’m going to have to take out the entire thing.”
Abbadon stared at her. “Well, usually, when I’ve got a dragon coiled around something and I need to take it out, I go for one of the eyes.”
Lady Wynott’s eyes lit up at this suggestion, and she ducked back into the tepee. She emerged moments later, still frustrated.
“If you need the dragon intact, I could possibly rig up a trap for you,” Abbadon said as he escorted the pink-haired woman back to the ranch house.
“Gorlon,” Abbadon said, walking up to him with Lady Wynott in tow. “Jill. Apparently Seraph has something he needs to tell us about.”
“Something about needing to trap a dragon,” Lady Wynott clarified as the four of them made their way to the bench at which Seraph and Fyan were seated.
“But we left the dragon back in the other place,” Gorlon said, “and in any case that thing is huge! It’s probably fifteen, twenty meters long. How would we trap something like that?”
“Well, you figure you need a trap about one-point-five times the size of the dragon, so that’d be twenty-two or thirty meters…”
Gorlon decided to forget that he’d asked. “Okay, Seraph,” he said when they had all gathered closely enough. “We’re here for your dragon speech.”
“What are you talking about?” asked Seraph.
Seraph again tells his story, this time to the whole group (even Jill and Dr. Whynot). He hits the majority of what he has learned, including that most of the Valite royalty are descendants of the Zinyini gods, what little he knows about Solace, and the Ringworld that Azis and him are supposed to secure for the Zinyini people. Dr. Whynot becomes flustered at hearing the Ring might be used for destroying people. Seraph argues that it is to stop/prevent another demon invasion. Who cares if demons are destroyed? Azis has a… possessive glint in his eye when the Ringworld for the Zinyini people is mentioned. Gorlon has some interesting points about how everyone should be told. Seraph mentions that this could cause a civil war among the gods which would also bleed over into the Vale as seen by the Oracle… err Princess Brandy. This brings a snort of derision from Abaddon at the mention of prophecies. Then something else clicks in Abbadon’s head, and he promptly gives Morgaine a dressing-down – a Princess of the Vale has been conspiring in attacks on her own people, and she’s been entering diplomatic relationships without the knowledge or consent of the Empress – possibly involving arms treaties – and Morgaine has been having them devote their energy instead to a simple kidnapping?! Morgaine insists that she had no knowledge of any of it, and in fact is not inclined to believe it. Seraph explains that he has only known most of this for a short time, and that he has withheld the knowledge up until now to try to safeguard Princess Brandy’s secret for as long as possible, because he loves her.
“So now,” said Fyan, “what I would need from each of you is the promise to keep their secret safe.”
“How’s that going to work?” said Abbadon. “Some sorcery to make us burst into flames if we blab?”
“Not at all. I would link your minds together, and your collective wish to keep the secret would hide it from any who would probe your mind.”
“Germain’s pretty powerful,” Seraph said hesitantly.
“Not as powerful as all of you together. You’d do well to remember that.” Fyan tilted her head at Seraph. “But you indicated there are others who would need to be shielded.”
“Yes,” Seraph said. “But they’re back in the Oasis of Inyanna. Though really, at this point all they know is that they saw in the Oasis a vision that suggested Princess Brandy was my Oracle. And I know at least Malak doesn’t believe it.”
“If this Germain were to read Malak’s unshielded thoughts, she would see that vision. Do you think Malak’s attendant disbelief would be sufficient to keep Germain from investigating it on her own?” Fyan did not wait for an answer. “If Malak or anyone else will encounter Germain again, they will need to have their thoughts shielded. And they will need to know the truth in order for their promise of secrecy to be meaningful.”
“So when would you do this?” Gorlon asked. “I mean, we’re waiting for your son to take us to Florin, and the others are back in the Oasis. And really we are too, since this is like dreaming.”
“Well, first, I need those of you who do know the truth right now to promise you’ll keep the secret. Then we’ll ask the others to make the same promise. At that point, I will send you all to Princess Brandy so everyone is in the same place. It is much more efficient that way.”
“But isn’t Princess Brandy in a castle somewhere?” Jill asked. “And isn’t this Germain in the same castle? That’s, like, the worst possible place to do it!”
“That is not where Princess Brandy would be,” said Fyan, smiling meaningfully at Seraph, who did not explain. Lady Wynott, on the other hand, seemed to register a realization of some sort, and promptly went to find a comfortable spot on the grass to sit down. She encouraged others to similarly find good “flopping spots”, though she also did not elaborate.
“And just how do you plan to contact the others?” Abbadon said dubiously, crooking an eyebrow in Lady Wynott’s direction.
Fyan smiled and inclined her head toward Gorlon. “Would you play a tune?”
Gorlon was too far past surprise to do anything beyond unslinging his lute. “Anything in particular?”
Fyan thought a moment. “Something that those you wish to reach would recognize as coming from you.”
Gorlon ran his fingers up and down the lute’s neck, then settled on a tune Djeti had taught him. Surely that would be distinctive enough…
“Do you hear that?” Malak said, turning toward a mirror.
“You’re mad!” said Dohr, who was still trying feverishly to use the buckets to get home, and who genuinely didn’t hear the lute playing.
“Gorlon!” Djeti said, and ran to the mirror, peering into it.
“Hold on,” said Malak. “Literally.” She offered her arm to the Asherati. “I’ll go find out what’s going on. I’m the best bet in case of danger.” Nodding as Djeti’s fingers closed around her wrist, Malak stepped through the mirror.
“Habbibi?” Malak said to Seraph, forgetting herself in her relief. “We heard the lute.”
Seraph fidgeted and nodded at Fyan, who spoke. “Welcome to the Big Sky Rance. My name is Fyan.”
“I’m Malak. I’m his grandmother.” Malak nodded at Seraph.
Everyone agrees to keep the secret, and they’re whisked away to the real oracle chambers. Red is unable to make the trip to this place, but Fyan is quite certain that Red’s mind is safe. Brandy is said that Red is not here. Brandy tells the story again, fully admitting to her involvement in training Seraph and trying to explain about how she had foreseen the war between Zinyini and Valites. She also mentions the demons gearing up to invade again using the drow as proxies to evade Carawynne’s ban. The Azer are the least sympathetic to Brandy’s plight, but Abbadon agrees finally to refrain from telling his king or Prince Lewis about any of it for a period of ninety days. He also insists that Brandy go and beg forgiveness at the graves of those slain in Seraph’s raids.
With the secret shared and sealed, everyone is whisked back to where they had been. Joe arrives. Jill tries to find out how his co-location powers work; Joe is too simple-minded to understand his own abilities. Seraph, Azis, Abbadon, Gorlon, Lady Whynot and Jill ride out/run with Joe for what seems like the rest of the day – then suddenly it’s noon, and it’s smelly and the air is hazy with filth. Aimee appears over Seraph’s shoulder and exclaims delightedly that she’s back home in San Bernardino. She hugs Seraph and trots excitedly down the hill. Jill asks Joe if this is where they needed to be (or if Aimee hijacked the trip), but Seraph says no, Florin is up that hill somewhere. Aimee is impressed; Florin is currently located in quite the mansion.
The party walks up the hill, encountering a strange burning machine with someone trapped inside. It moves quickly past and does not threaten them, though, so they ignore it and press on to Florin’s. Jill lifts everyone over the huge gate, flies over herself, and they walk around to the other side of the house, where they see Florin and a young child playing on a blanket in the yard.
Abbadon immediately rushes at Florin, intent on immobilizing him to bring him to justice. Florin dodges easily. Seraph and Azis make their own attacks. Jill quickly conjures a forcefield around the baby lest it get trampled in the scuffle, and otherwise stays out of matters.
Whilst dodging, Florin entreats everyone to stop attacking and perhaps hear his side of things for a moment. Once everyone is sufficiently frustrated, they leave off attacking, and Florin asks Jill if the baby can breathe inside the forcefield. Jill says yes, and seeing the fighting has left off, dispels the forcefield. Florin tells the party that he stole the child away from Li’Marolf because the goddess wanted to drink the child’s blood. He says that the Valite royalty have the ability to shift between worlds, and this child would also have that ability, and Li’Marolf wanted the ability for herself. Florin says that he will quite happily allow the party to return to the Vale and tell Empress Carawynne what he has told them – and even where he and the child can be found, promising he has no desire to be anywhere else – but he will not return to the Vale with them.
Azis had become quite happy to leave the child here after hearing what Li’Marolf planned to do with it, and Seraph was willing to agree on the grounds that it would get them back to the Oasis of Inyanna, and thus on the way to his tribe’s oasis, that much faster. Abbadon took one last lunge at Florin hoping to get in a lucky strike. Florin dodged and punched Abbadon in just the right way to make him fall unconscious. Abbadon then vanished. Hoping this meant Abbadon had finally returned to the Oasis of Inyanna, the others agreed to leave and tell the other Valites what was going on. The gates were open for them this time, and as the party rode down the hill toward where they had been, Azis and Seraph and Gorlon found themselves getting very drowsy.
They awoke in their own bodies inside the Oasis of Inyanna. As Seraph had promised his Oracle, he ignored Red’s offer of dinner to stand before a mirror and conjure Princess Brandy. Leaning through the mirror, he directed Brandy to take his hand and come to investigate the machine. Brandy smiled and found his hand easily, stepping through to join her love in the Oasis.
Abbadon had already begun making plans to demolish the machine, and Red had helpfully shimmied up a pipe to begin cutting it. As sawblade touches pipe, though, a booming voice rings through the chamber demanding to know who is destroying his machine. Malak quails as Nilarem takes true form in the room (as opposed to the watery illusion of the hallway before), but Princess Brandy squares her shoulders and says that she wishes to initiate a formal dispute against the gods of the Zinyini for acts of hostility against the royalty of the Vale. This gives Nilarem pause, and Brandy seizes the silence, asking Gorlon to play a tune on his lute. As Gorlon strums, Brandy calls to the goddess Allewel, asking her to come and serve as a mediator in the dispute.
Allewel emerges from the well, since water is her domain. Nilarem pleads that his invention is a tremendous resource for gathering information and intelligence against threats to the Vale. Brandy counters that it could gather intelligence against the Vale itself, and further points out that Seraph had been able to enter her quarters and bring her to the Oasis. She had been able to trust him because he’d been made to swear the vow and was supposed to be helping Morgaine, but what if one of the other Tal-Madge raiders had found this place instead and gained access to her bedchambers? After a bit more debate, Nilarem reluctantly agrees to let the machine be destroyed. Allewel calls Red down from the pipes, saying that she will personally see to the process once everyone is safely above the ground. As a sign of good faith, she places her mark upon Gorlon, saying that he would be able to return to this place at will, to ensure that the machine had been truly destroyed.
Red quickly fills a couple more skins with water from the well and steals a couple more buckets, just in case. Then Djeti takes people one by one above the surface of the sand. Standing atop the nearest dune, they see Dog and the pack animals less than a half-kilometer away.
“Hey,” Dog says. “That didn’t take long.”