"I have a task I need performed, and an object I need retrieved. Neither should bother your outdated morals too greatly," the Doctor had said, when the Solars had consulted him regarding Imrama's "case." (...)
It was not too much later that his notarized invoice, with attachments spelling out what he asked for payment, arrived at the Cascade. (...)
The task, it seems, is to perform a relatively small act of sabotage in the Underworld: to remove a single, carefully selected cog from the Calendar of Setesh, the vast clock that drives the motion of time itself within Netheos -- (...)
and the object to be retrieved, a small goblet, kept within the home of a prominent noble in Stygia. Easy easy. Nothing that should prove difficult in any way. Right?
Bertrand stands at Zahara's desk as she reads the letter, trying not to let curiosity get the best of him.
Zahara glances up abruptly at Bertrand, and just eyes him for a bit.
Zahara "Well, it seems, Bertrand, that you will be handling the affairs of the Sunlands again while we are otherwise engaged." She taps the letter idly with a finger, and looks up at the others.
Bertrand has been practicing his self-affirmations and, while remaining somewhat awkward, does not flinch at Zahara's glance.
Cerin Cerin has, of course, already read the letter. He gives her a small smile, although he doesn't seem entirely convinced at the the innocent nature of the tests.
Bertrand "As always, I shall do my duty to the Sunlands to the utmost of my ability," he says -- again, clearly this is something he has practiced off of a notecard. Repeatedly.
Zahara affords him a smile, "You have done rather well since your appointment to Minister of the Interior." She reaches over to where he stands and traces a single finger down the center of his chest, leaving a golden trail in its wake. "I have been quite pleased with your performance."
Bertrand grins a little lopsidedly. "I... am happy to hear that," he says.
Varanim is slouched on a chair in the corner, looking sulky and twirling a piece of chalk in her right hand. She keeps losing the rhythm because her ring finger is now missing, but that doesn't really seem to account for the scowl.
Varanim "What does he want?" says Varanim, realizing that waiting for Zahara to get to the point will make her late for drinking.
Zahara "We will be visiting the Calendar of Setesh in Netheos, and a home within Stygia. I don't suppose you've been to the Calendar before?"
Lucent "We were flying above it before." Lucent calls from the door. "The Sun was right above it."
Zahara "Ah, Lucent, you're here. I was wondering where you'd gotten off to."
Varanim "Nope. Big tourist trap, and I hate crowds. Does the Doc want one of those little bobble-headed Setesh dolls?"
Zahara "Actually, he wants us to remove a cog from it."
Lucent points to the medicine book on his robes. "Reading. Varanim is a bit of an absent teacher, you know."
Zahara "Ah, yes, well I suppose she's been too busy chopping bits of herself off to properly teach you."
Lucent "... say what?"
Varanim inspects her fingernails. "I'm sure I said my office hours were at a bar or something." Her eyes glitter with sharp speculation at Zahara's news, but she chews on it without comment yet.
Zahara "Or I suppose it could have been a drunken bar brawl."
Zahara "So, after that, we will be visiting [name], a prominent noble in Stygia, who seems to have a goblet our good friend the Doctor would like to acquire. I don't s uppose anyone knows about him?"
Lucent "Well, he DID help Imrama."
Varanim "Ej Ri is a jerk, big shock. Nice pile of loot, though, even for a Stygia address. This thing about the cog, that's way cooler. Which one?"
Zahara passes the letter to Varanim, rather than attempting to describe it. "That one."
Lucent "What would he want with that? What does it allow him to do?"
Cerin "It might perhaps be 'What will the Calendar do without it?'"
Lucent "That, as well. But never underestimate its opposite, Cerin."
Zahara "Is it just me, or do these tasks seem... too simple?"
Varanim opens her mouth, then nods as Cerin recenters the question appropriately. "Last time someone broke the Calendar, the Netheos sun stopped moving." She gets a funny look on her face, remember a dream, then shrugs. "This probably won't be that exciting."
Bertrand The item indicated is a single soulfire onyx, about the size of a particularly large orange; Varanim is familiar enough with the calendar to use the very basic description on the sheet to determine where and when that particular item might roll by on the exterior for easy grabbage.
Varanim "Well, I think they're sort of touchy about the calendar, these days. And Ri is sort of chummy with several Deathlords, but you've probably already made enemies of all of them."
Lucent "... except that Pluto is on the Sun. And if we manage to piece him together, the Deathlords will have trouble in their hands. So that can be bad." He looks at Varanim, "What do you think would happen?"
Zahara "Oh, yes, Pluto. Hmm."
Varanim glances up sharply at Lucent, then looks distracted.
Varanim Then she looks annoyed.
Lucent "I asked a question."
Varanim "And I'm thinking about it," Varanim snaps. "That occasionally takes time--consider trying it." She leans back, scowling harder. "I have no idea what it would do."
Cerin "Are there any particulary troublesome aspects of ghostly theivery I should be aware of?" Cerin asks.
Varanim looks thoughtful, then shrugs. "Not especially. Most of Ri's swag is death-remnants of focal items of great betrayal, though, so there may be some nasty after-echoes."
Cerin nods, apparently not too concerned by this.
Lucent "She does not know, clearly. Who can tells us if she cannot? Hmmmm. The Calendar is a focus of Underworld religion, I take it?"
Zahara "I am rather concerned about what sabotaging the Calendar might do to Pluto - or if we can use it to our advantage in some manner."
Varanim "Yeah, the Dual Monarchy cult is a great pyramid scam, and Setesh is one of the Four Faces," Varanim nods to Lucent. Then she looks very vaguely annoyed at Zahara.
Zahara "Perhaps when time is stopped, we could reach into his past and reconnect some of his Essence pathways..."
Varanim "Nothing. Go on."
Lucent "Well, we do have an expert in Underworld religion here. Wait a moment, I am going to call on one of our 'Cultural Emissaries.'" Lucent nods, walking out to drag Ember of Glory to the room.
Bertrand swallows. "Does he have to get that guy?"
Zahara eyes Varanim suspiciously for a moment, then shrugs. "If nothing else, perhaps we should investigate Pluto more closely before we take the cog."
Zahara sighs. "Honestly, if he tells whichever one of his pet Abyssals he finds, what we're going to be doing here, I might have to strangle the boy."
Varanim "How do you investigate a dead guy on the sun?" Varanim asks casually, resuming chalk-spinning.
Zahara "Technically he's inside of it. It's hollow."
Cerin "Imrama flew us inside, so the second trip might be a little trickier."
Zahara "Ah yes." she purses her lips in irritation. "Well, luckily his ship is still here, perhaps I can fly it."
Varanim "Might be interesting," she says noncommittally. "Have you decided to pay the Doctor's full fee?"
Zahara (scratch that.) "Ah yes." She purses her lips in irritation. "Well, luckily I have a ship of my own, though I am not sure it will be sufficient."
Cerin "I'm not sure we are yet aware of what his full fee is," Cerin points out.
Lucent "Nothing we would like." Lucent returns with Ember right behind him, both of their Caste Marks showing the golden and dark crescents, "So, here is our expert! I imagine we will need to oath him, of course."
Varanim looks over at Zahara with a hopeful expression, as if anticipating strangling.
EmberOfGlory looks rather as if he has been dragged away from something important and would really rather not be here.
Zahara ::Lucent, please do not tell him what we are planning.:: Though the directive is aimed at Lucent, all the assembled Solars can hear her. ::If you MUST ask him about religion, do so in the most general way possible to get your answers.::
Varanim looks crestfallen.
Lucent ::Zahara, we can just oath him so he will never tell a soul.::
EmberOfGlory "Is this important?"
Cerin ::There are ways of extracting information that do not require him to speak nor conciously will the imparting of information.::
Zahara ::I do not trust him enough even for that. Besides, it will not help if his Deathlord is looking through his eyes or some such.::
Varanim "They think everything's important," Varanim says to Ember. "Probably safest to humor them."
Zahara ::In fact, you might as well get the information we need that way::
Lucent ::You COULD interrogate him in a warded place, you know. But, I will follow that.::
Lucent "Ember, we need to know about the Calendar of Setesh, and its importance to the Underworld."
Lucent ::... it is best if we oath him ANYWAY, though.::
EmberOfGlory "Its importance is that it is very important. Every click of the calendar advances another second of time; every turn of the great wheels brings about another day."
Lucent ::Well, sorry for asking. But you can get deeper information from him while he recites cursory one?::
Varanim rolls her eyes back so far she can see her brain, then settles into her chair for an apparent doze.
Lucent "Hmmm. I see, carry on."
EmberOfGlory "It is... bad... when it breaks. It is maintained by the regents of the Underworld." He looks around as if attempting to discern whether he is being set up for some manner of practical joke.
Zahara "What happens then? And who are the regents?"
Varanim "We're arguing about how it important it actually is," Varanim says helpfully. "I'm not sure anyone really cares if time stops, besides the teeming ghostly masses--and no one cares about them otherwise, so why start now?"
EmberOfGlory "Time stops. The Dual Monarchy, the ghosts who rule ghostly society." He looks over at Varanim. "I see you already have someone here with knowledge of the matter."
Cerin "Perhaps we don't need to distract him from his work any more in fact?" Cerin askes out loud. ::I would like to ask him things that he would be best not remembering.::
Lucent "Yes, yes. You can go now, Ember, we just needed to know that. Sorry about distracting you from your prayer."
Varanim wiggles a 'meh' hand at Ember. "Not entirely my field. And SOME people here get fidgety and want second opinions."
EmberOfGlory rolls his eyes a little. "It is clear that my presence here was entirely unnecessary," he says, "Please excuse me," and turns to leave.
Varanim gives him a little finger wave.
Cerin is no longer in the room.
Varanim "Some people are so cranky," Varanim says after he leaves. "Where were we?"
Lucent shrugs. "Oh, no, we were curious!" He says as Ember goes, and then, Cerin vanishes, "And the wolf goes do wolfy things."
Varanim "So," says Varanim, scowling a bit, "it would probably be good to visit Pluto before jacking the Calendar. If you people can fit that into your busy schedule, of course."
Lucent "We can do that now. Only problem is to get the ship unscathed through the sun."
Lucent "Varanim, that is the flame of the Underworld. Think you can summon some ghost who is kin to it, and can negotiate us safe passages through the flames?"
Zahara "And while you're at it, think of a good way to make Ligier cry."
Lucent "... Ligier! If she cannot, Zahara, think you can summon a Demon able to do so?"
Varanim looks wary, then thoughtful. "I HAVE been meaning to practice my outside voice for pestering bigger dead people. I'll give it a rattle."
Zahara "Quite possibly."
Varanim "Neat, we'll bring them both. Nothing can possibly go wrong."
EmberOfGlory Zahara's airship is, she believes, ready to enter the Underworld.
EmberOfGlory As the vessel approaches the Shadowland which abuts Thorns -- the nearest one which would allow a vessel of this size to enter easily -- Varanim and Zahara ready their preparations for the difficult tasks ahead.
Zahara gets her summoning on!
EmberOfGlory Zahara's selection of three distinct fire-related first-circle demons run about the cabin like exciteable children, only the bonds of summoning keeping them even that much in check.
Varanim was particular about the slice of shale she wanted carted on board, circular with a groove around the edge, and also the big heavy jugs from the Cascade's kitchen refrigerator labeled "Nim's Booze, Keep Out." Two minutes before midnight, she walked around the edge and set down seven more lumps of stone, whistling a jaunty tune.
Varanim One minute before midnight, she popped the cork out of one jug and pushed it over. Dark blood bubbled out, pouring into the groove and sluggishly starting to flow around the ring. Varanim paced alongside it, jabbing a calligraphy brush into the stream and painting characters that completed the half-words coming from her lips.
Varanim When she reached her starting point, on the stroke of midnight, the altar held the dark bloody outline of a sun, the seven stones of her dream, and terrible words of command.
Lucent walks close to the burning demons, unfazed by their flames. He watched Varanim's ritual, most interested. "Ivory and Mastodon taught you that?"
Varanim "Not on their worst days," Varanim says to Lucent through gritted teeth. Then she slams her soulsteel hand down on the altar, barking a sharp and angry-sounding syllable.
Zahara closes the door to her cabin and leans back against the door, clearly annoyed.
Lucent leans against the wall and considers wether to say something else or not. Eventually, something wins out over his temperance. "Kelen, then?" He did not expect an answer, of course.
EmberOfGlory A creature of ghostly bluish-purple flame, its shape like some manner of gigantic winged fish-lizard, roars into un-being in the midst of Varanim's circle, its wing-limbs striking out against the restrictions placed on it by the circle and its eyes filled with a hunger for death.
Varanim "We're going to fly into the sun," Varanim says calmly up to the plasmic, "and you're going to see that we get there and back safely." To seal the bargain she unstops the other jug, also full of blood.
EmberOfGlory The plasmic grabs up the jug and greedily devours the contents.
Varanim "And they said there was no point in keeping ten gallons of blood around."
Zahara smirks. "Blood is always useful. Especially in summoning rituals."
Lucent "That is just plain disgusting, you know that, right?"
Varanim She dips her hand in the trough along the edge and scoops up a mouthful, swallowing to finish her part.
Lucent "You are disgusting sometimes, too, just so you know."
Varanim Without turning around to answer Lucent, she rolls her eyes up at the squamous horror in the circle, as if asking whether it too has to work under these conditions.
EmberOfGlory The plasmic only looks on with dead eyes and blood-encrusted flaming jaws.
Zahara "At least yours isn't wrestling and screeching."
Lucent "Yes. You know, I prefer when they are swearing they are the greatest thing to ever grace Creation, ruled it all, and will feast on our bones someday. You know, at least then it is amusing."
Varanim Satisfied with the plasmic's agreement, Varanim finally turns back to the others. "Damn," she says to Zahara. "I forgot to put a bow around it so Lucent would approve."
Zahara chuckles drily. She pulls a shiny ribbon from the air, which glows slightly and offers it to Nim
Lucent shrugs. "I will approve if we get there without two charred friends of mine, thank you very much." That he was untouchable by flame was well-known, of course. But to many a surprise, he just called Varanim a friend.
Zahara raises a brow
Varanim gets kind of a funny look on her face, then erases it as well as the dark redness on her teeth by gargling with some wine. "Anyway," she says. "It either worked or we won't live too long to be sorry."
Lucent "I am going to mock your ghost."
EmberOfGlory Outside, the ship flies over the Underworld equivalent of the inland sea. Off in front, the cursed isle, the vast island where the city of Stygia sits, creeps into view, the vast wildernesses and abandoned necropoli of its outer regions rising up from the black waters.
Zahara "Very pragmatic of you." She surveys the ship, walking the perimeter and reaching into the structure, strengthening it, searching for any missed flaws. She watches to see whether the wisps of the clouds it is composed of keep moving after she does.
EmberOfGlory The ship seems remarkably sturdy; Zahara can certainly see no way that she might improve its construction.