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There is a long, quiet moment, and at its end the baby, which had previously done much of what one would expect a baby to do -- drool, loll about, laugh and cry intermittently -- sits up straighter, though understandably it does not speak.

Thirteen reaches out and takes the baby's tiny arm in his. His fingers leave golden, glowing prints on its skin, which slowly fade to a dim but visible radiance. He lets go, then places the baby's hand on his arm, and waits for it to tap out a message.

The infant's forehead glows suddenly with a pale yellow light, in response to Thirteen's Essence-fueled education efforts, and its tiny fingers share a message with him: READY

Thirteen GOOD


Thirteen CAN YOU LEAD?

The child straightens up and looks over the tiny room where they sit once before answering. YES

Thirteen "Ladies and gentlemen, may I present to you the commander of the Sidereal Infantry."

Berwyn is bemused, but nonetheless executes a polite little bow to the small child.

Thirteen "Would you like to speak with them?"

Berwyn "Hmmm." He glances over the baby, like someone inspecting a piece of livestock -- perhaps a respected champion horse, but still an animal -- and then adds "How do they communicate?"

Thirteen reaches over and presses his finger into the pale of Berwyn's wrist, leaving a bright fingerprint behind.

Berwyn clearly considers Impeding Thirteen's Flow, but also clearly realizes that This Is What He's Gotten Himself Into And There's No Use Fighting It, and so he allows Thirteen to imprint his wrist with the spot of finger-speak.

Berwyn The language successfully imprinted upon him, Berwyn immediately knows what to do, and he grasps the infant's wrist for a moment in silent conversation. Looking back up at the others, he says "Excellent. You will teach the others this 'speech' as well, then?"

Thirteen "If they desire it, certainly."

Berwyn "Good." He looks at Thirteen, and gestures with his head to the child. "He says he doesn't have a name yet." Harab responds: "That is probably because he was abandoned to die by his parents."


Berwyn The child nods. I AM

Thirteen "He has one now."

Thirteen "Do you perhaps now understand what I am capable of?"

Berwyn nods. "Yes. You have certainly proved the value in your proposition," he says. "When we regather the other children, it will enable us to do much."

Thirteen "We, indeed."

Thirteen "Now that we have firmly established your dependence on me, perhaps it might be time to discuss our future plans."

Thirteen "Tell me. What do you know of the twenty-three lost constellations?"

Berwyn nods with a little sigh. "We might as well sit down and have some tea, then," he says, and moves to be seated once again.

Thirteen "Thank you." He sits as well, gesturing one of the other Sidereals absently towards the kitchen.

Berwyn (twenty-one)

Berwyn "More than most, less than I would like," he says. "The astrological methods of the Sidereals ceased to function with those constellations when their bearers perished; during the war we were unable to chart new plots for them, and afterwards many believed we did not need to do so." He shakes his head. (...)

Berwyn "I know now that there are many secrets held only in the dead stars, and we have sought to learn more of them since our exile." He closes his eyes unhappily. "Our blindness towards the Underworld hid from us for millennia the secret Cult of the Necrosages that blossomed in Netheos." (...)

Berwyn "There is a temple to the dead gods, and there must be a great deal to learn within, but... only the dead can enter."

Thirteen "Currently dead, or merely dead at some recent date?"

Berwyn scrunches up one eye. "...is there a difference that I am not currently perceiving?"

Thirteen "Both the short answer and the longer answer to that question is yes."

Thirteen "Show me this temple."

Berwyn snaps his fingers and one of the other Sidereals brings over a parchment, which he unrolls to reveal a map of the Underworld. "It is here," he says, pointing to a spot seemingly in the middle of the vast black underworld ocean, "on an island far outside the normal routes of even the most daring Netheos sailors."

Thirteen "How may we get there from here most quickly? This bowl makes it clear that you have always had methods of transportation you have kept secret."

Berwyn "Sidereals are like a person on a diet, who stashes small foodstuffs in every obscure nook and cranny of their home," he says. "We have long made a habit of cultivating resources which we had no need of, but now, for once it has proven useful." (...)

Berwyn "We can enter Creation here," he says, pointing to an area in the southwest, "and then enter Netheos through this Shadowland. We will proceed to the coast, where... a friend will provide us conveyance to the island."

Thirteen "Excellent."

Thirteen "You shall accompany me, while the remainder of the troupe gathers such Sidereal children as they can lay hands on. On my return, I will awaken them."

Thirteen "Perhaps they we may have some answers."

Thirteen *then

Berwyn nods. "I will get my coat."

Berwyn Not too long later, Thirteen finds himself standing on a beach in southwest Netheos. The bone-white sand is lapped upon by ink-black waters under a blood-red sky, with nary a trace of greenery to be seen; (...)

Berwyn Berwyn fidgets with several of the tiny bangles on his rather expensive-looking coat as they stand, waiting for the promised transport to arrive and bring them to the island.

Thirteen "So, Berwyn."

Berwyn "Yes?"

Thirteen "You seem rather young to be the leader of all the remaining Sidereal Exalted in Creation."

Berwyn "Your deductive powers are no lesser than your reputation suggests," he says, undisguised snark filling his words. "You are correct; I will be thirty-two in Ascending Fire."

Thirteen "How did you, of all of those who survived, ascend to your position?"

Thirteen "You must forgive the crudity of my interrogation. Normally Cerin and Zahara handle such interviews."

Berwyn finds a nearby rock and seats himself somewhat heavily on it, though he can't help but sit at that same cocksure, jaunty angle. "To put it bluntly: there is... very little faith in the old-guard leadership amongst those who survive." (...)

Berwyn "The Knights of the Chrysanthemum had an unofficial motto: 'We do what is right, because we are right.' It always seemed accurate, and history has tended to unfold in the way we intended. But most of us getting slaughtered on an inside job made the whole thing somewhat harder to swallow." (...)

Berwyn "I'm the one who actually remembered enough of our mandatory training to know about the Agate, and I was in the middle of a two-year deep cover assignment when the assault took place." He sighs. "I just found everyone I could and dragged them out there."

Thirteen "What was your assignment?"

Berwyn "A midlde-high-level caste astrologer in the Varang capital," he says.

Thirteen "Entertaining."

Berwyn "Unquestionably," he says. "Every day was filled with excitement."

Thirteen smiles slightly.

Thirteen "And what were the goals of the Knighthood, that they would attempt to send history in the direction it has taken?"

Thirteen "Moral high ground is such a dangerous thing/"

Thirteen *.

Berwyn "To keep Creation safe, and whole. And through many crises, it had achieved that goal." He sighs. "When Herons showed up at the Agate, we were fairly unconvinced by his claims that we were continuing to do so."

Thirteen "A laudable intention, at least. It mirrors my own."

Thirteen "What do you know of Herons? He remains the only Sidereal we at the Cascade came into much prolonged contact with."

Thirteen "This may in some way account for our coolness towards them."

Berwyn "Indeed," he says. "He was one of the elder members of our organization -- a remnant of the Deliberative era, someone who had been there to pull the trigger on..." He thinks about where he was going with that line of thought and decides to taper off instead. (...)

Berwyn "The Chrysanthemum had spent quite a bit of time building a delicate stasis around the Scarlet Throne and the appearance of the Solars threatened it, so there were two specific committees formed to deal with the situation." (...)

Berwyn "I spent some time working for the Bronze Committee, getting everyone all worked up about your kind -- no offense -- so I didn't deal much with Herons, who made himself head of the Gold Committee."

Thirteen "Interesting."

Thirteen "Heron's responsibility was to get into contact with us as we emerged, then?"

Berwyn "Yes, and to push you into taking on tasks that you were better suited to, or more willing to do, than Chrysanthemum operatives. I think he made the call to reveal the Gate network to your compatriots, and to put the Night caste seal in your hands." (...)

Berwyn "Everyone was pretty much ready to kill him when he turned up, months after we'd gone into hiding, but he insisted he had one more important task." He sighs again. "As soon as he'd packed off your friend Kai with that piece of the Chime, he disappeared again, and frankly we were happy to see it."

Thirteen "I can understand your feelings."

Berwyn laughs. "Hmmm, I think that's our boat."

Thirteen "I hope...that we have turned out slightly less destructively insane than you were expecting."

Berwyn grins a tiny bit. "Slightly."

Thirteen "Yes, we would not want to create expectations we could not live up to."

Berwyn stands up again and waves what looks to be a rather specific set of gestures out towards the water, and the small spot out on the horizon begins to draw closer.

Berwyn "Most of us hadn't been around for the Solars' last stint -- our job has a relatively poor life expectancy, unfortunately," he says. "The standard curriculum paints you as ogres." He thinks for a moment. "I imagine you edited that part out for Seed."

Thirteen "Why? Without a proper historical context he will be useless to us."

Thirteen "He may make his own decisions, keeping in mind of course that without my help he would be a baby, and without my constant concern he will be trapped, an adult mind in an infant body, without even the slightest capacity to communicate his urgent desires and intentions."

Berwyn "....interesting." Berwyn ponders Thirteen's plan with a mixture of admiration and concern. (...)

Berwyn Out on the ocean, the vessel begins to draw near: what looks like the spine and ribcage of a vast animal, with dark black wood lashed together to it, and a dark red leather sail. (...)

Thirteen "Of course, I intend to make sure his inevitable trust in me is not misplaced."

Berwyn The ship does not appear to have a living crew: instead, what look like plasmic golems work the sails, while a single figure in an encompassing black cloak directs them from the stern.

Berwyn nods. "We would be having a different conversation if I believed otherwise."

Thirteen "Hm."

Thirteen examines the figure in the cloak carefully, or as carefully as echolocation is capable of doing.

Berwyn One thing is quite certain: the figure is not alive. (...)

Berwyn Fairly powerful Essence holds together the stiff bones that walk under the cloak, and streams out in tiny rivulets to power the manufactured ghosts that work the sails as well.

Thirteen "Friend of yours, hm?"

Berwyn "In a manner of speaking," he says.

Berwyn After a long moment, the bone-ship pushes up onto the beach, and several of the plasmics push a ramp off of one side to allow those waiting to board.

Thirteen walks up the ramp, nodding politely to the plasmics.

Berwyn The person in the robe walks over to Berwyn, extending a singular gloved hand. A thin, raspy voice echoes out from behind the red-and-yellow painted mask that sits in the hood: "Welcome."

Thirteen steps neatly in front of Berwyn and ignores the proffered hand. "Good evening."

Berwyn The robed being inclines its head slightly and speaks again in the same monotone rasp. "We have not contracted with you," it says, and looks back over to Berwyn.

Berwyn shrugs his shoulders as if to suggest "he always does this," though which of the other two he is referring to remains ambiguous. "I offer this token of our passage," he says, and produces a large jade coin, one side bloodied and a hole punched through its center, which he offers to the boatman.

Berwyn The cloaked figure takes the coin silently, then waves one hand to direct the plasmics to push the boat back out to sea.

Thirteen "You will have to introduce me."

Berwyn nods. "Thirteen, this is the Drowned Captain. Drowned Captain this is Thirteen," he says, speeding through the second half of the introduction as if he realizes the futility.

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