Phoenix is pouring tea when everyone begins to arrive in the western tea garden. The windswept dry rocks and the pools floored with black sand are undecorated today, and the gilmynes dance among them in perfect silence, with not a harpist in sight.
Phoenix "I have been speaking with Iallu regarding assembling a secret police."
Thirteen "How apropos."
zahara comes in quietly, picking up her teacup and moving a short distance away, looking down at the subtleties of the garden.
Imrama enters the garden from the South, casting his eyes with a slight warriness over an empty patch of black sand. He sits down near Phoenix and nods gratefully toward the tea she is pouring.
Thirteen eats some rocks.
Phoenix raises a graceful eyebrow at Thirteen. "Come again?"
Thirteen "Well, she is the goddess of secrets. Since your police would also be secret, it seemed...appropriate?"
Phoenix "Oh. Yes. That's, um, why I met with her about it."
Thirteen "And what were your conclusions?"
Cerin becomes perceptible in the garden next to Zahara, accompanied by the sound of a footstep, audiable despite the sand. He takes a sip from the tea cup apparently already in his hands.
zahara looks up and smiles guardedly.
Phoenix "One: Goddesses are easily persuaded. Two: Why haven't I already done this? Three: Iallu is excited about it."
Phoenix "I think we've been wasting our mortal resources on a one-dimensional military force; given but moments, we can assemble working governmental arms in a number of forgotten directions."
Imrama "Phoenix of Ashes, this tea is superb. Also, Cerin, I will have to acclimate myself to your prodigious capacity for stealth. Also, also, the Realm is in tatters, the forces of ultimate evil are loose in the world, and it is entirely up to us to put things to right."
Imrama "I think we should discuss this last point."
Cerin "Imrama, I feel you raised three excellent points. I also move that the latter be discussed."
Thirteen "Phoenix, this seems quite productive. Can you see to it?"
Phoenix nods in acknowledgement while shrugging, as if to say, 'I am only as good as my tea growers', and takes a seat on a rock. "Surely. What can we do?" To Thirteen, "I will assemble what it's in my expertise to do; the other arms, I suggest to leave to their respective powers."
Thirteen "Yes, Imrama, please elaborate."
Imrama "As a beginning, there are so many problems before us, that we might be best served to compose a list and prioritize it. But to assist with that, I would suggest inviting our Intelligence Czarina to provide some insight."
Phoenix suddenly thumps the side of her head with the heel of her hand as if trying to shake something out.
Phoenix "Maybe that will shake the big words out. Yet, let's have the Czarina join us." Phoenix makes abstract sounds at one of the gilmynes, which rushes out the door.
Phoenix "While we wait for Bella to get here, hm, didn't we once have certain contacts in the Immaculates?"
Phoenix "What's the story with them?"
Imrama "I would very much like to know. I sense that this moment in history may be a grand opportunity to expand the Faith Ecliptic with the involvement of the Immaculate Order."
Cerin "That would be Relovia." Cerin supplies. "I also have some things I feel I should say."
Imrama leans over to another of the gilmynes. "Could you possibly fing Relovia for us?"
Belladonna A few moments later, Belladonna walks in, wearing a practical outfit of jacket and pantaloons, though both are intricately stitched with fine purple quilting. "Reporting for duty, sirs."
Cerin "Most concerningly concerning the immortality of the lady in scarlet and her night blossom."
Belladonna blushes. "Did... did I interrupt something?"
Phoenix laughs! "Don't worry, we are suitable for all ages. Have a seat." Phoenix pours her some tea.
Belladonna sits and grips her teacup, though she does not yet drink.
Phoenix "So um...immortality?"
Phoenix To Bella, "Sorry, we were expecting you to take a bit longer; when we've covered this item, we need to consult together about the state of Creation."
Belladonna nods. "I've prepared some notes."
Cerin "While they can theoretically be killed, as might any 3rd circle soul weilding elemental and solar magics, they will reconstitute themselves from any physical damage or essential disruption."
Imrama "That is magnificently upsetting."
zahara "Is that similar at all the the Shadowed Unlife Equation? Clearly they had a different Essence pattern, but I wonder if there are any principles in alignment."
Phoenix "Are there alternative ...disposal...methods? Maybe Eritrus had something..."
Cerin "I do not believe so my love. The Shadowed Unlife Equation was necrotic essence. This is Celestial and Infernal essence held in a most particular arrangement."
zahara "Hm. "
Thirteen "Do you have any information regarding how we might usefully dispose of them?"
Thirteen "If not, we shall simply have to confine them."
Cerin "I am not sure if the pattern can be unwound. It's very nature is to nit itself together again. An example of it survived direct resonance with a shard of the Chime of Ages and then an essence blast of sufficient magnitude to destroy a mountain."
zahara "Then we will have to study it to find out how to shift the pattern."
Phoenix nods at Zee, "I was thinking the same thing."
Cerin "It is possible, from indications of the notes found in the soul lab below Rathess, that the bird we found there has also been treated with this same pattern."
Thirteen "Can we study it safely?"
Thirteen "Perhaps, if we modify the room containing it into a White Room...."
Phoenix "Maybe we can study the remnants of the research notes and find what we need. I'm a little nervous about disturbing the bird."
Cerin "Yes. I do like Rathess the way it is."
Phoenix "Or we could make our own!"
Phoenix "Maybe we could make it BETTER."
Thirteen "I suspect we shall, in time."
Cerin "I am not sure how one judges the quality of a sentient self-reconstituting bomb... but anyway, it might be possible to create a small bird or something of that nature, imprinted with the lohan pattern. It will take some specialised equipment."
Phoenix stops and thinks. "Can you study essence in a white room?"
Phoenix "That comes as a surprise to me."
Thirteen "It might be difficult, but perhaps you remember that when we prepared our ambush for Cerin and Markuran, we created a White Room tuned to my Essence, so that it would not suppress my use."
Thirteen "The same principle might easily be applied."
Cerin "You can, although it is harder. The larger problem is that they cannot damp out innate abilities. Such as I suspect might be the ability to channel several hundred motes through certain essence channels to create an explosion of monumental proportions."
Thirteen frowns. "What constitutes an innate ability?"
Cerin "I am not sure. Even before I rendered myself immune to the disruptions of white rooms, they could not take my essence sight nor my ability to dodge without effort."
Cerin "We could consider this for many days however, and Belladonna is here to report."
Belladonna coughs. "Yes, we have endeavored to track as much of what is occurring in Creation as possible in your absence."
Belladonna "Shortly after Calibration began, reports began coming in from our agents in a variety of locations -- unsurprisingly enough, what appear to be numerous disasters have waited for this moment to occur."
Belladonna "We have insufficient information to be certain how many have occurred independently, and how many are engineered by a central motive force."
Belladonna clears her throat.
Belladonna "Most relevantly, the Mask of Winters has moved the Juggernaut through the Underworld and out through the Shadowland nearest Lookshy, attacking with the full brunt of his forces. The city fell almost immediately."
Belladonna "Sources in the South have reported the presence of a heretofore unknown army, making use of Essence techniques and striking at areas already weakened by the passage of the Shadowed Unlife Equation."
Belladonna "Several unusual Essence displays have been observed, including one in the Southwest of unknown variety and another directly in the heart of the Varang City-States, which seemed to possess both Celestial and Infernal Essence."
Belladonna "Also, despite serious defeats for the Red Lily Army elsewhere in Creation, Halta appears to retain a full army of God-Exalts and has been fortifying its borders against any possible invasion."
Thirteen "The Essence techniques in the south are Automnonian in derivation, incidentally."
Belladonna "Finally, the gate network appears to have been entirely disabled; none of the gates have responded to our agents' attempts to activate them in any way since yesterday."
zahara clenches her hand into a fist at the mention of Halta, feeling the weight of warmed metal against her skin.
Belladonna pauses politely, as she waits for the Solars to launch into fierce debate regarding the information she has provided.
Cerin puts a hand on zahara's arm instinctively. "Thank you, Belladonna. I can add a few more items to the report, though my intelligence gathering with the Grid was mostly concentrated on the Blessed Isle."
Cerin "First, that several important geomantic relays for intelligence gathering within the Sunlands have been sabotaged and secondly, that there is something in the South East." He pauses. "Oh, and Chiaroscuro may be about to explode with light from within, though I am not sure how literally that can be taken."
The city of Chiaroscuro was glorious, once -- the greatest port in all of the South, its brilliant towers rising up fifty stories from the earth, gleaming in red and gold and green, the Adamant Towers of Glory jutting into the clear azure sky and casting their iridescent light down upon the white desert dunes and the Inland Sea. Twenty million people once lived within its borders, and every passenger who embarked for points south passed through its vast port.
Now, only one-twentieth of that lives within, and the city of old is swallowed up by new buildings, squat and ugly besides the astonishing glass towers; salt runs through the streets to imprison the ghosts and mercenaries walk the borders to keep out the barbarians. But it is still glorious in its own way, a jewel of the Second Age, a magnificent reminder that not all beauty in the world is lost.
What those one million citizens do not see, what no salt or mercenary company can keep out, is what is... underneath.
The knot of tunnels that runs beneath Chiaroscuro was once known as Hezed, a primary access into the Underways, in a more civilized time. Today, its gates are shut and lost, and the elaborate mosaics and flame-arts that decorate its length are darkened. At its heart, in the Hall of First Earth, there is a creature... its tendrils numerous and uncountable, and from each, the terrifying remnants of bodies... an ear, two fingers, a tiny foot... And at their center, a single, lidless red eye...
And around it swarms an innumerable brood, dark and jagged; they crawl over its limbs and scratch at the walls and cut one another, not for pleasure or purpose but solely by existing, and for each that dies five more are born in that dark space under the world.
It is almost time.
zahara "Light from within... I almost want to let it happen just to see it."
Imrama "Was that last bit of information gleaned from a vision or prophecy of some sort, Cerin?"
Cerin "It was part of what I saw as I fell through Creation into the mouth of Nyx."
Belladonna swallows, and looks a little pale.
zahara puts her hand over Cerin's on her arm.
Cerin "I saw other things too. A lion sitting in earthenware bowl, claws of black and of opal, while seven stars orbitted above him. I saw six maidens in heaven, knitting a garment of blue and white. I saw a man with two masks of ice juggling the sun. I saw you, I think Imrama, sailing back from the North, from Askaru's past. I saw a red flower and a fungus, sitting in a city now returned to Meru, entwinned. I saw someone in heaven, (...)
Cerin peering from behind a mask, and I saw the thousand faced man."
Cerin "And I saw the Lacuna. A little spot of nothing. Though I could not tell you where."
Imrama "With the First and Forsaken Lion, this unidentified Autumnonian force, and the Mask of Winters, I count three major military forces for us to contend with, not counting what remains of the Lily."
Cerin "I believe it is safe to assume that the lady in scarlet does not walk Meru unaccompanied."
Imrama "That does sound like a safe assumption."