In the arms of a gnarled apricot slowly weeping amber, they found White Feather waiting for them. The white eagle launched itself into a glide along the ground, leading them through the night city, whose scalloped folds and tall trees seemed designed to baffle interlopers.
In their flight, they surprised and knocked down several indigo-robed workers returning from the orchards with fruit. Eventually, White Feather led them to a huge storage building in a circle of weeping willows. Beneath the white plaster and the adobe roof, they found their companions. They palavered. The murderous young blond man regarded Onyx and Brink as they stood together. He talked of escaped Princesses and his quest to recover one.
Then, other things found them.
One of Paean of a Wished-for Exultancy‘s little ghosts ran through the wall, skidded to a halt, counted them on child ghost fingers, and ran away. As they dithered and planned to escape, another being came to the door, knocked and entered after its own fashion.
It wore a gore-splattered butcher’s apron over a dark robe. Its flesh was black frozen fire. The features of its face were gashes that flushed with fresh blood when it used them. Its shoulders slumped, lifeless, ending in hands that constantly dripped blood. Its bare feet left bloody footprints that crept away when no one was looking.
“Oh, great Lord Adjutant! How glorious it is to be in your presence!” it intoned at Sanction across the room. Its presence raised horripilations across their skin – the pure animal terror of being in the presence of the murderer or the murdered, the awareness that life is finite.
Sanction snatched up a nearby paper lantern, resorting for the first time to quick violence. The creature crossed the room in an eyeblink of tortured postures, ending up kneeling in front of Sanction, and depositing a slightly blood kiss on his left foot.
Chain gently pulled the lantern out of Sanction’s frozen grasp.
In a spasm of back-bending agony, the creature resumed a more respectful distance, and inquired if there were anything a humble Spirit of Murder could do to help one so great. The group held in its collective horror.
It was clear that the creature didn’t mean to help them achieve a peaceful solution with the folk of Boarport were closing in.
Sanction put on a brave face, trying not to expose his ignorance to the spirit, but the spirit seemed undeterred. It offered any help, and to provide any information that might lift the blight of the dessicated mortal flesh Sanction had wrapped himself up in.
Resolving his internal split quickly, Sanction turned to the spirit. “Could you find who is responsible for … ” he gestured at himself and around “this. For me….”
The dark delight of the spirit was like a fountain of gore. As it spoke and moved through a flash-quick series of postures of killing and being killed, “Oh my… to be involved in, to find who is responsible for the murder of your identity. What a great gift. At the convocation of my fellows, there will be such acclaiming!”
On its knees again, a sigil of a set of red scales pulsed above its hand. “To do this, this one will need to enter into the city of Heaven. Does this one have your approval to act in your name?” The sigil thudded like a distressed heartbeat.
“Yes, yes,” Sanction answered, hurried to be done with the creature, and also hearing, as they all did, persons moving around outside.
Then Murder was gone, for the moment, from their presence. But lingered inside Chain’s heart.
“I have come alone, and call for parlay” came the voice of the Schola.
They snuck into positions for battle, and Chain walked into the dark night, finding the Schola true to the letter of her word. The Schola expressed her sadness over their conflict and inquired what the Exalted were in their city for – really – and how she could help them to conclude their business and depart.
Chain became their ambassador of broken seas and hateful resistance. With the death of the Legate, Ceres, in his heart, and the Schola’s betrayal in his mind, Chain laid disbelief and vitriol at the feet of the woman. They went back and forth with rising intensity.
The Schola called for someone else in their party with a spirit for Diplomacy instead of battle.
Sanction and Onyx emerged and were able to broker understanding and eventually peace with the Schola. The Furious Seers were mortals, it seemed, and not demons as Chain assumed, and their truth won out. The Imperial Legate had been inflicted with a spiritual corruption that the Empire had attempted to trick the Schola into visiting upon herself. They thought it meet to visit the corruption on the Empire’s legate and return him as answer to the question of their satrapy.
They did indeed possess the Beacon, and explained its modest use to sight vessels approaching Boarport. It turned out that the Sidereal Exalted who helped them throw off slavery and the yolk of the Scarlet Empire, one Sanito Mundum, installed the Navigation Stone in the Sea Palace as part of their Essence-based defenses. Its loss would render them less able to protect their deep harbor, but would not cripple them.
If Sanction’s scroll were to be believed, and they were acting pro se Yushan, Boarport was more than willing to hand it over – especially if it meant the departure of the Exalted.
Brink headed furiously off with White Feather to scout the roads and see if the Boar Warrior, Comely Adamant, who had apparently exited the city shortly after they arrived, could be found, also conveniently avoiding more conversation the little blond helper who had found them.
They were escorted through the town, and met the shaved-pate administrator, The Studiant to pledge their connection and support.
They camped around a hill from Boarport to find their rest.
Their blond rescuer, calling himself Aeon Iniquity, suggested that it was time to conclude his business with them. Calling on their memory of his service to them by saving them from the Fallen Treasury in the Sea Palace, he reminded them he had come to bring back a princess who’d wandered away. Since they had paperwork empowering them to negotiate on behalf of the Caravan, he would like to buy out Brink’s contract and return Princess White Marigold to her home and loving family.
They blustered, they talked things over, but eventually rebuked the offer of this cousin of White Marigold, even when he offered them a piece of Immaculum, the condensed Essence of grateful prayer that was the sustenance of the gods of Yushan.
Undeterred, Aeon Iniquity set off down the road, alone, to find the Endless Caravan and negotiate with the Night Driver directly. And gods help him when he did.
Some time toward nightfall, Brink returned to tell them he had found evidence of a small Imperial company that had been killed along the coast trade route, and suspected Comely Adamant had gone that way.
In the evening, through a seagull, they arranged to meet Second Efficient Gathering of Loam at the edge of the Disturbed Essence near the crossroads, where they had met before. She would Translate them to the fane of the Manufactorum, as promised, using the Beacon.
They left their horses to wander back to the Caravan alone, and went gainly inside the massive black beetle. The high burn of its gleaming eyes painted the grass like blood in the dark outside.
In response to a command from Second Efficient Gathering of Loam, its wings closed. The dragonfly secured itself to the beetle in a minimum of clattering. With a final functional smile, she stroked a set of the Beetle’s internally luminant tentacles. Nothing changed except the light. It grew broader, and more hollow.
They were swept up in yearning. Inside them every yearning gave birth to itself. The way children want to grow up so badly it hurts, the way a weary traveler longs for bed, the way a young man aches for the completion of his sexuality, the way a pregnant mother longs to birth.
The translation ended.
The Beetle’s wings snapped open. Second Efficient Gathering of Loam gasped.
In a great metal-ribbed room lit with soft indigo light, a creature as tall as a statue, with great metallic shoulders, and a forehead burning with a circle of white light stomped forward on great metal boots, booming:
YOUR PRESENCE HERE DEFIES THE COMPACT!