Several weeks have passed since the battle against the Mask of Winters' forces outside Marukani lands, and several more since the engagement with the Wyld beast outside the village of the Ebon Stonegazers. Markuran's sentries spot a small party approaching the Cascade from a distance -- five men in cloaks, riding black horses. They are half a day's ride away from the doors of the Manse, slowly moving towards it.
<Tribesman> "Unusual, though not unnatural. They appear to be mortal men, by all appearances, and they have taken no strange actions," reports a tribesman.
<Zahara> "Perhaps instead we should prepare a welcome for them. One that puts them on OUR turf."
<Markuran> "Like the first messenger. Your siege work can be overseen by others, Zahara. We should go as quickly as possible to prepare your 'welcome'."
<Birds Of Trinity> "And besides, not -everyone- is out to kill you."
<Birds Of Trinity> "After meeting you, sure."
<Birds Of Trinity> "So let's find out who these riders are."
After many hours of being silently watched, the riders arrive near the doorstep of the Labyrinthine Cascade. One rider unseats himself and stands before the gate, apparently preparing to deliver a message. "Noble inhabitants of this glorious Manse, I come bearing a message from the Court of Thorns!"
The man quakes a little, but continues. "The honorable Mask of Winters sends humble greetings to the leaders of all free nations in the lands south of the great Yanaze river.
<Markuran> "You may get to the point of your message. We hold little care for the words of the dead in these lands."
The man coughs slightly. "His court humbly invites ambassadors from all such nations to join together for a diplomatic meeting, to discuss the ending of hostilities amongst free nations and the institution of closer bonds of alliance against potential external threats."
<Markuran> "We refuse his invitation."
<Diplomat> "Should the honorable representatives so entreated wish for reassurance as to the truly benificent nature of this offer, the court offers the knowledge that the nations of Marukan, Melekin, and Jakobi have graciously accepted this invitation, and the meeting will be held on territory generously provided by the city of Tareveth."
<Zahara> "We require time to decide."
The man nods, turns, and leaps back on his horse. The Solars imagine that, despite their attempts to appear calm and collected, the messengers ride away more swiftly than they arrived.
<Birds Of Trinity> "I was looking forward to that, too."
<Birds Of Trinity> "So, it can't hurt to have someone go to keep an eye on the proceedings."
<Zahara> "I put some firewood in the bottom, too."
<Markuran> "We should return now and send for Rannath, since it seems the two of you would prefer to speak with this..abomination.."
<Zahara> "Markuran, it does not hurt to find out what the enemy wants. Besides... I could always use the chance, if it turns sour, to spread dissent among their ranks."
<Markuran> "Would you be the one to go to this meeting then? And return betrayed, dead?"
<Zahara> "Perhaps. But I do not intend to return 'betrayed, dead.' "
<Markuran> "I don't trust the deathlord's intentions."
<Zahara> "The Deathlord fears our ire. Why else offer peace?"
<Birds Of Trinity> "So..."
<Markuran> "To gather enough powerful to destroy or corrupt."
<Zahara> "But we can destroy or corrupt in turn."
<Markuran> "If you are so determined to go, then I won't stop you." The expression on Mark's face suggests that would be an effort of will.
<Birds Of Trinity> "I didn't think you would." The look on Birds' face suggests that this has nothing to do with Markuran's decision about it.
<Zahara> "Ah, Markuran. Just think, if I die, it will give you good reason to launch your armies against The Mask. But perhaps he will not have so many allies as he would if I were not there."
<Zahara> "I know of a spell, which we may use to converse while dreaming. It also allows the sending of emotion from one to the other... and if needed, one can call the others to her."
<Markuran> "Perform your sorcery as you will. At least it may afford some protection in this mad endevor."
Two days pass.
Smoking Mirror's observations of the messengers has yielded little fruit -- they camped some miles downstream, then returned on the stated day. It grows now towards evening as they return to the gates of the Manse. The gentleman who delivered the message two days previously unmounts again and stands before the gates, awaiting a response.
The man smiles unpleasantly, then looks at Markuran's stern face and frowns unhappily. "My master will eagerly await your presence," he says, and hands Markuran a scroll. He then turns and departs, even more swiftly than before. Upon the scroll is detailed information about the location of the meeting, which is to be held seven days hence.
<Zahara> "Well, isn't this fun?"
<Markuran> "We'll have to gather the guard. I think 100 Bersarks and 10 Dragon-Guard will do. I'll see about it."
<Birds Of Trinity> "Mm."
The scene: A plain in the deep North.
The land here is desolate; a thick sheet of ice hides the earth from view. Cruel breezes waft icy dust across this vast plateau, swirling and obscuring anything more than a few hundred yards from sight.
In this great ice field sits a small village, a circle of huts built of crude ice blocks hewn whole from the frozen ground. Around it is a wall of stone -- the blocks which make it up having been painstakingly mined by the strongest villagers over five generations to protect the village from danger.
Several miles away, a small hill holds within it a dark, imposing cave entrance. Anyone there would scent the stench of decay rising from within -- but of course no man would journey there. Out of the cave, a great beast arises. It stands as high as five men. It is a terrible sight to behold -- the bloated form of a gigantic frog or another corpulent beast, built from a thousand carcasses' bones. Each has frozen over with a thick coat of rime, but blood still flows from within each -- adding terrible streaks of red to the icy coatings. These bones shift and creak within its monstrous form with every echoing step, producing sounds unlike any the world has ever heard. No mortal should ever live to see such a sight.
Beside the great beast, there are four men -- each bearing a coat of armor and a vicious blade crafted of blood-streaked ice, each leaving blood behind them in their footsteps upon the ice, each staring coldly towards their destination. They walk southwards, across the ice, the only sounds being the beasts' monstrous footsteps, the horrifying groan of the bones, and the cruel wind.
When they reach the village, those sounds are joined by the terrible wails of the villagers. Twenty minutes later, there is no sound whatsoever. The stone wall, the product of five generations, lies upon the ground, shattered.
Six days later, the group from the Sunlands is arriving in Tareveth. It was an uneventful journey up the river, and the weather has been kind. The city, a smaller city built amongst the remnants of a First Age town, lies before the party, across the broad plain. It is noon; the meeting occurs two hours before sundown.
<Birds Of Trinity> "As always."
The town of Tareveth is only lightly defended from the outside; only a small wall divides it from the plains, and the main gate lies open in the daytime. Its streets are quaint and old-fashioned, lined with cobbles enchanted never to wear down and zigzagging in numerous directions. Its buildings are designed to be as open to the air as possible, with numerous balconies, verandas, and mezzanines everywhere.
The people of this town seem somewhat withdrawn -- they can be seen happily enjoying life in its streets, but they glance nervously at what is clearly a party of foreigners. It seems unlikely that unusual travellers are seen too frequently.
As the group passes through the streets, there begins to be something of a commotion -- the locals seem to be slightly frightened by the presence of the fighting men. Individuals begin to emerge from nearby taverns and other buildings to observe the group.
The soldiers are very well disciplined; they make no motion to cause any difficulty with the locals.
The townsfolk, though still somewhat unsettled by the military presence, find themselves calmed by Markuran's disarming demeanor. The commotion subsides, and people begin to return to their previous business.
Listening to the whispers amongst the populace, Zahara learns that Melekin, Jakobi, and Crosanti have all sent representatives to this meeting. Lookshy and Nexus are notably absent. There is no word as to the Mask's representatives; no one seems to know he is the one hosting the meeting. As the appointed hour arrives, the group finds their way through the crowded streets to the location of the meeting, as stated in the scroll. It rises above the other buildings surrounding it, imposingly built of black marble and dark wood, treated to survive the elements: the funereal temple.
<Birds Of Trinity> "There...doesn't seem to be anyone here."
<Markuran> "My feelings on this have been made known...I dislike the situation."
<Zahara> "Why am I not surprised its a funeral temple?"
<Markuran> "I'll keep the guards on the edge of the area, however. Since you insist."
The troops eagerly follow Markuran's orders.
The inside of the building is much like the inside of any First Age funereal temple -- numerous censers for offerings to the dead, hallways leading off to preparatory rooms, and an audience hall for the funerals proper.
Two darkly dressed gentlemen man the door to the audience hall. One looks at the group with recognition. "Ah, you must be the delegation from the Sunlands. Other delegations have already begun to arrive; you may join them in the audience chamber."
<Zahara> "Thank you, good sir." she says politely, then walks in the indicated direction.
The chamber is tiled with the same dark wood used to cover the outside of the temple. Within, there is a raised altar, upon which a body would be placed for purification. In front of it is a seating area, in which mourners can witness the ceremony. The chairs have been hastily rearranged and placed around a series of tables which have clearly been dragged in for the occasion.
<Zahara> "Cheery," she comments.
Several of the tables are already filled. One has two people wearing the traditionally light and verdant clothing of Jakobi; the other has two old gentlemen in fine, rich silks and other signs of great wealth, along with...
The other delegations turn to look at the entering Solars. The gentlemen in the silks seem to visibly blanch slightly, while the Jakobin representatives are familiar with the Sunlands and offer warm greetings.
A careful glance at the two merchants reveals them to be representatives of the Crostani City-States.
<Markuran> "Do you know who has called this gathering?" Mark asks of the Jakobin leader
Leaves-of-Autumn responds to Mark: "I was told that it was the being they say now rules the town of Thorns."
Her companion seems suspicious of the proceedings, and clutches a folk talisman to his chest.
<Markuran> "The Mask, of course. Yes."
"Yes, that is his name. I do not know what business he has with us, other than that he apparently offers peace." speaks Leaves-of-Autumn
<Zahara> "I yet wonder what the price of such a peace is."
The two merchants seem shaken for a moment. One of them collects himself sooner than the other, and mumbles out, "Ah, hmm, yes. We represent the Crostani; I am Texev and this is Latunn," gesturing to the other silk-clad man. "And, ahem, you would be?"
<Zahara> "I am Zahara Zhan.. perhaps you have heard of me?" she smiles sweetly.
The two blanch again. One adopts a look of fear; the other a leer of desire, though he quickly supresses it.
<Markuran> "I am Markuran the Bear. I lead the Sunlander tribes."
<Texev> "I have, ah, heard of you before. You border closely on our lands, do you not?"
<Zahara> "A pleasure to meet you, Texev, and Latunn." she reclines easily in a chair, crossing her legs.
At this time, the delegation from Melekin -- a single man in a funereal robe -- enters, sits down silently at another table, and does not move further
<Zahara> "And who is your friend?" she nods to the man behind them. "Or is he your bodyguard?"
<Texev> "Ah, this is Cerin. He is indeed our bodyguard. Finest money can buy!" He winks.
<Zahara> "A fine bodyguard indeed." she smiles, stressing the word 'fine' slightly.
A gong sounds, low and deep, from outside the audience chamber.
<Birds Of Trinity> "I think I have heard of a Cerin. Are you the same man who defeated the Tigerfish of the Misty Isles?"
<Birds Of Trinity> "I seem to remember writing an ode to that Cerin's exploits...how did it go..."
A second gong, lower and deeper than the first.
<Cerin> "It appears this meeting is to start, perhaps later Birds of Trinity?"
From the area behind the altar, a seemingly hidden doorway opens up, just as the third gong rings. From the darkness, four pale individuals in black robes emerge, bearing an ornate litter of dark cedar. They walk in, slowly, then set it down in front of the altar, and a figure in an unassuming black cloak emerges.....
Water runs up the inner column of the vast building, then gloriously falls down its many-tiered sides. Within, a chamber stands, quiet and empty.
There is, suddenly, a burst of red flower petals; a moment later, a man, clad in red robes, stands where once there was no one. He surveys the room, carefully examining it, then walks towards the door.
Through the Manse, iron fillings push away from the presence of the Wyld, repullsed by it. As they push against flows of Earth a static enchantment is shattered. A howling wail resounds through the halls, carried in the water that courses along the walls and ceiling of the entire Manse. Beyond the chamber, a Gilmyne dances, lithe and quick, its movements describing the secrets it knows, its movements mirrored and expounded upon by another, dancing across from it. As the wail from the defenses sounds, the great pillars turn, exposing a side of White Jade, the power of the Earth seeking to stabilize the troubled flows of Essence.
The heavy boots of a guard triad, one essence-weilder and two mortal warriors, rings through the hallway in counterpoint to the alarm. The Tribes look up as one, at the sound of the alarm, and prepare themselves for battle.
As the man hears the wail, one eyebrow shoots up. He walks to a window, where he sees the group of fae soldiers even at that moment nearing the outside of the building. "Damn. Awful timing; they're going to ruin my business here," he thinks to himself. As he hears the sound of the guards, he suddenly stands still; grabbing at his belt, he draws out a rapier of bright red metal. The guards round the corner, two husky Lake Dwellers and a lithe god-blooded woman with diamond hair. Her paper-thin sword comes up "Halt!" As they round the corner, they see nothing, and are momentarily confused...
Suddenly, the man in red drops from the ceiling onto the god-blood, driving his rapier viciously through her back. With the speed of a trained essence wielder, he rights himself again and holds his rapier up, facing the two mortal guards. The woman's corpse falls to the ground even as her blade is thrown upwards in reflex, slicing into the crimson figure's chest. The mortal guards move in concert, trained to deal with essence-users as best they can..
More boot heels can be heard in the distance as the screaming siren continues unabated. As the sword strikes the man, his body breaks into flower petals, then reforms moments later -- petals and a thin trickle of blood strike the ground below his feet. He quickly moves to strike at the mortal guards, driving his weapon into their hearts with inhuman quickness.
Hearing the advancing guards, however, he seems to grow uncertain of his presence here. As the symbol of an infinitely regressing flower begins to glow upon his forehead, he waves one hand and disappears once more.
In the funereal temple.
The figure which has just emerged from the litter rises up, allowing those assembled to see his face -- an icy theater mask with a permanently etched smile upon it. In a melodious, yet unnerving voice, the figure states "I welcome you, delegations of the free Southeastern states, to this diplomatic gathering. I thank you all for coming here."
<Birds Of Trinity> "A fine host you are, being fashionably late to your own party."
<Markuran> "Previously or now, yes. We are aquainted."
<Zahara> "Which forces are you referring to?"
The Mask swivels to look at Zahara. "To be blunt: all of us are poised within a threatening vise: the ever-encroaching faerie horde to the east and the threat of rogue legions from the collapsing Realm to the west."
<Markuran> "And the dead the Marukani fought off not two months ago. They too, threaten the lands."
<Birds Of Trinity> "The faerie horde, eh."
The Mask looks momentarily taken aback. "You do not have the whole story, young sir. My forces struck back at the Marukani in retaliation for an unprovoked raid in which their forces razed two villages under my protection to the ground."
<Zahara> "To be blunt, how can we trust YOU?"
"....it's true," says a voice from the doorway. Three men, bearing the brightly-colored clothing of the Marukani riders, stand in the doorway. They acknowledge the looks of the assembled host, then move to sit at an empty table.
<Birds Of Trinity> "Welcome."
The men nod towards Birds, slightly hesitantly.
"It is true, what he says," one of the Marukani continues. "We did attack his villages."
<Zahara> "Then why are you here?"
<Birds Of Trinity> "Good, we're all in agreement about that now. Would you like a seat?"
"Because we do not have the resources to continue warring against Thorns, whatever the reason behind it."
<Zahara> "That seems a poor reason to form an alliance."
<Marukani> "Perhaps. But my elders wished to hear what the Mask has to say nonetheless."
"Thank you," the Deathlord intones. "Your people are gracious to me here. I hope that we can put aside our previous squabbles and come to a new agreement. The position of our nations is tenuous. We are surrounded by several greater powers, and I know that few of us have the military force necessary to properly defend ourselves against multiple foes," the Mask continues.
The Melekin ambassador shifts uncomfortably in his seat.
<Zahara> "And when we have defeated all other foes, what then?"
<Birds Of Trinity> "Then we subjugate them. Obviously."
The icy mask, somehow, seems to smile even further, without actually moving. "Then all of Creation will be ours to divide as we see fit, Zahara. I propose that we form a pact of neutrality, not agressing against one another, nor assisting each other's foes in combat."
The Melekin ambassador twitches more visibly.
<Birds Of Trinity> "This all seems well and good, but no alliance was built on such...amicable...terms. Mask, you are the most powerful among us, and you arranged this. What is your agenda?"
The Mask begins: "I expect to come into conflict with the Blessed Isle in the very near future. I wish to be safe and comfortable with my neighbors if I should so find myself...."
Suddenly.... the Melekin ambassador leaps forward suddenly and violently, his cloak shreds off violently, as does his... skin, evealing a dessicated form in white rags underneath. Drawing a blade from the air, he leaps forward, striking violently at the Mask of Winters.
<Zahara> "Is this how you treat your allies?"
Birds' weapon interposes itself neatly between the apparition and its target, putting it exactly in the correct place for Zahara's blazing bolt to strike it directly. The ghost withers and thrashes under the concentrated power of the sun.
<Zahara> "As I said, a poor reason for an alliance," she says coolly.
<The Mask looks at the twitching body of the Melekin ambassador coldly, then turns to Zahara. "As you see, even now my neighbors turn to strike at me over imagined slights. I wish to end such tedium."
<Birds Of Trinity> "There will be no further need, I'm sure." Birds-of-Trinity sheathes the Plume with a conclusive gesture.
As Cerin pokes his head out of the door, a startling sight greets him. Outside the temple doors, no longer can he see the quaint streets of Tavereth. Instead, he sees a great, crater-marked plateau, lit by harsh, alien stars... And surrounding the building, a great army of the dead, with a soulsteel-armored individual with an enormous daiklave standing at their head. The man walks towards the door, and begins to shout out. "Quen, you bastard, I know you're in there. And I know who you are! I remember everything now! I swear to you that you will not escape my vengeance this time."
The man points his daiklave towards the building, and as one, the army of the dead begins its charge.
<Zahara> "Who's Quen?"
Location: one hundred miles beneath Creation.
A vast cavern sits here, not forgotten by those who dwell upon the surface -- for they never knew it was here. Stretching five miles up at its highest point, its roof is dotted by strange, gigantic fungi which give off an unearthly glow in yellow and red, lighting the chamber below. At the floor of the cavern, a magnificent city rises up, jutting up so far as two miles from its base. Its infinitude of towers rise up like minarets of spun glass, growing constantly higher, finer, more intricate as they rise. The fungal light glints off of them, granting them a greater beauty even than they possess on their own. The city is still. Nothing moves within it, as nothing has moved within it for two thousand years.''
From far above, an observer might witness a single figure walk the winding, mosaiced path that leads into the city, stopping several times a day to eat or rest. Eventually the figure passes the edge of the city and all sight of it is lost, obscured by the city's upward spirals.
There is a rumbling.
Something has awoken deep within the city.
A single tower cracks, and falls.
Tags: (:tags Mask of Winters, Tareveth, Melekin, Marukani Plains, Crostani, Jakobi, Underworld, Walker in Darkness, Fair Folk, Lai Misuna, God-Exalts, Northern Behemoth, Rintoko:)