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Zahara packs up her things, makes sure the Cascade is secure, and then sets off to the gate. She had had a bit of time to relax while her circlemates were off in Wassiru, and sort through the various reports of the spy networks that had been deemed interesting by those lower down on the chain.

Zahara had siezed on a report of a third circle demon appearing near Halta, and now punches in the coordinates closest to it, mounts up on Tanty, and rides through the shimmering pool of essence that will take her there.

alsoquin The gate in the clearing is well-familiar now, and Zahara briefly muses on the odd dinner they shared with Herons, now so long ago...

alsoquin Zahara emerges from a ring, high up in the air, hung between two evergreen trees by orichalcum-laced ropes. The Haltan city of Whispering Oaks is perhaps a quarter mile from here, and the reports of the demon stem from that direction....

alsoquin The breeze is oddly cool thanks to the position much farther north than the Sunlands; the biting scent of pine brings mixed emotions to Zahara's mind, though she dismisses them all easily enough.

Zahara idly wonders what Herons is doing now, as Tantamount takes care of the flying and such. "Mmmm. Halta. My favorite place in the world." she says drily.

alsoquin Like all Haltan cities, Whispering Oaks is built into the trees, dark wooden buildings in hexagonal shapes hung at various heights in the trees, while elaborate rope bridges and walkways connect them. Zahara might wonder momentarily if Wasirru looks anything like this....

alsoquin The city appears to be thoroughly locked down. No one is currently moving freely between the buildings of the city, and the doors of the public halls are roped closed -- a traditional Haltan sign of war. This far west, the Red Lily armies have not penetrated yet, but it is only a matter of time...

Zahara spares little thought for anything other than her quest - especially here, all else is just a distraction. She has risen above Halta, in all respects, and does not care to walk down old roads, or new ones that may lead back there.

alsoquin The report Zahara read mentioned that the demon was seen by a small child who claimed to witness it capturing three warriors and spiriting them away. They were believed to be operating near the ground, the forbidden territory where the fae walk freely, so most in the town have dismissed the child's claims... but Zahara knows a little of the difference and is not convinced.

Zahara looks for someone to ask about the child

alsoquin At first no one seems to be around, but after a few moments Zahara notes a single warrior, moving between two buildings -- carrying sacks of food and water, to feed the invalid and children in one of the long houses, Zahara would guess.

Zahara swings off of Tanty's back, asking him to wait for her, and walks over to him. It does not occur to her that she is not actually on the pathway.

alsoquin The Haltan warrior is surprised, and holds his spear and tree-sickle ready, prepared to strike if Zahara is aggressive in any way.

alsoquin "Who are you?"

Zahara holds her hands out in a gesture of peace. "I am here to investigate the reports of a demon."

alsoquin "There is no demon. The child saw a faerie, no more." He seems unthreatened in general by Zahara. "The redfruit grove near the floor is often attacked when our citizens break our oaths there."

Zahara "Is that where the child saw the fae?"

alsoquin "Of course." He looks Zahara over. "Do not follow me, or the spear and sickle shall find their mark in you." He runs up the pathway towards the long house.

Zahara shrugs.

Zahara "They already have." she heads towards the redfruit grove.

alsoquin The grove sits perilously near to the ground. The redfruit vines parasitically live upon the Haltan trees, but can only flower within the first fifteen feet of height from the ground... so the Haltans go down to gather them, though one wrong move could render them defenseless from the fair folk.

alsoquin Zahara has been practicing her Essence sight, learning to detect the traces and signals that Cerin detects so easily. With a little effort, she picks out the traces... it was no fae that came here. The demon's trail leads off into the forest, away from the city....

Zahara picks a few redfruits on her way down, tossing them up to land in a neat pyramid on the nearest platform. She whistles to Tanty, and they proceed further into the forest, warily. It is one thing to summon a demon, and another entirely to be confronted with one not under her control.

alsoquin The forest grows a little darker as Zahara proceeds inwards, and up ahead she notices that there is a Heartless Knot, one of the many places in the Haltan forest where a group of trees, presumably twisted by a hint of Wyld essence, grow together into an improbable, elaborately shaped braid, with a great cathedral defined by bent-together trees at the bottom.

alsoquin The hints of demonic essence, quite unsurprisingly, seem to lead directly to it....

Zahara 's lips tighten into a thin line, and she approaches slowly, circumspectly, testing the air to see if the demon is still in residence.

alsoquin It's not particularly ambiguous -- a demonic entity definitely waits within.

Zahara attempts to discern whether it is accompanied by a Solar, and if so, how powerful that solar is.

alsoquin No Exalts are discernable... it does not seem that any Exalted Essence has been channeled in the area.

Zahara frowns slightly. What would it be doing here with no master? How did it cross the threshold without the power of Sorcery?

Zahara wishes Cerin were here... unwilling to confront the being on her own, without backup. Stupid wasirru.

alsoquin An excellent question, but one without an obvious answer.

Zahara decides to grab the snake by the tail, as it were, and descends to the bottom of the tree. If she cannot do this by herself, she does not deserve it. "Hello," she says pleasantly into the tree. "I have come from afar to seek you." she feels a bit cliche as she says it, but hell, it'll do.

alsoquin A booming, deep voice calls out. "Your warriors are within, would-be hero. Come in, if you dare seek after them."

Zahara "I could not care less about the warriors. You can keep them if you wish."

alsoquin "Then flit away, tiny fly, and do not bother me."

Zahara "I came seeking information fron you. I would offer you a trade."

alsoquin There is a long pause. "Speak to me of this trade, little fly."

Zahara pauses as well, considering. "What use do you have for those warriors?"

alsoquin "They are still whole. I can make them not so." A long pause. "Or trade them to one such as you..."

Zahara "I was thinking of the opposite. I assume you have some use for the warriors of this village if you took them."

alsoquin "Perhaps. Their souls are still whole..." There is a deep rumbling sound. "What do you wish of me, tiny fly?"

Zahara "The knowledge of how to bring one such as you across the veil of the worlds."

alsoquin Booming laughter echoes from within. "There is a story of one who sought such a gift once... who sold all she held dear in trade for that which she hated most of all." Another long pause. "What do you offer, small fly?"

Zahara "There are many stories of those who sacrifice for power. And more of those who thought they were getting that which they were not."

Zahara "You have a certain fondness for human souls, lives, and the destruction thereof, do you not?"

alsoquin "I do."

Zahara "I happen to have quite a lot of them that no longer need to be alive, and there will be a steady flow of new lives in the coming months as well."

alsoquin "I have a vast appetite. How many can you offer?"

Zahara "Have you heard of the Red Lily?"

Zahara "I will endeavor not to slay our enemies but to bring them to you for your amusement. Many of them will be exalted of the lesser gods, and provide particular amusement. I can give you tips if you wish."

alsoquin "How.... many?"

Zahara idly counts the number of prisoners in her dungeon, and estimates the number of the Lily's forces they expect to face.

alsoquin laughs deeply.

alsoquin "So... " A long pause. "Zahara." Another pause. "You will swear to this bargain with me? Seal it, that we may each gain what we... desire?" As he speaks, several of the trees peel back and let Zahara see the demon -- Jugurtha, a great, broad ebon-black torso upon snakely tendrils, like stars reflected on the night-time ocean....

Zahara "I will swear to give you the lives of my choosing in return for the knowledge of how to summon the demons of the third circle, such as yourself, Jugurtha. It is your choice whether you wish to join us on the battlefield, or simply have them brought to you."

alsoquin "Bring them to me." He breathes deep, within his vast chest cavity. "Swear this to me." He leans against the far wall of the cathedral -- perhaps 20 feet from the entrance -- and holds one hand, two fingers extended, out before him.

Zahara "Will you teach me immediately if I swear?"

alsoquin "I will teach you when my prize stands waiting."

Zahara "That is unacceptable. I will give you one quarter up front."

alsoquin "One half, and I will swear to you."

Zahara "One third."

alsoquin laughs his deep, barrelling laugh again. "I shall swear to this." His hand remains outstretched.

Zahara "I swear to deliver to you (number) of the lives of my choosing in return for you, Jugurtha, teaching me how to summon and control Demons of the Third Circle." She reaches out to touch his hand, the oath taking hold of both of them in a shimmer of golden light.

Zahara steps forward into the tree in order to do so, of course.

alsoquin Zahara walks into the Knot and reaches her hand out, to touch Jugartha's, and the swirls of golden Essence flow out to seal the bargain. No sooner does she do so than she notices the... odd decor within the knot -- great bricks of white jade, affixed by orichalcum thread to every branch forming the tiny chamber.

alsoquin As if triggered by her oath, they begin to glow a brilliant white color, and Zahara feels her control of Essence slip away from her.

Zahara "What is this?" she demands, pulling back from his touch.

alsoquin "I look forward to completing the terms of our arrangement, Zahara Zhan." The demon smiles a wicked, cruel smile as Zahara suddenly feels a sharp crack to the back of her head, and slumps to the ground.

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