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Raspberry LA

The Symbol of Unity [Blaurg Mountain] [Factions of Terrenus]

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Knight-General Jessa Chayanne the Fourth, Commander of the Grand Order of the Word, gazed down at the sprawling settlement on the plateau beneath her, from a rough-hewn balcony cut from the side of the sheer mountain slope. It didn't look like anything more than a chunk of rock right now, but in time she would be standing on the snout of a bear, looking out over the right shoulder of Gaia.

The construction of The Temple of the Holy Word had started off swimmingly, with students of The Discipline blazing through the rough work while the masters lovingly carved the details. But the scale of the project was too large; probably all the Geomancers in the world would have been insufficient to complete it without casualty. Burnout ran rampant through The Order, and craftsmen of a more mundane sort were required to continue.

And with craftsmen came the need for housing, and with housing came the need for provisions, and with all of that came the need for gold. And the promise of gold brought more people, who needed more housing, who needed more provisions. Suddenly they were managing a city, and a city needed walls, and walls needed gates to pass through them and guards to stand atop them, and helmets to sit atop the guards and and and and. Even now that the cranes were finally assembled and working, and the forges were firing through the day and night, progress on the Temple had slowed to a pace that might make a glacier feel quite good about itself. 

But someday, Jessa was sure, she'd be standing on a bear's snout, upon the highest of the council members' private balconies. That was a bit of a coup on her part; she had insisted on the highest suite for the strategic importance of the view, but she would be lying if it didn't give her a tiny sense of superiority over the other sects of The Order.

Her long hair, a blonde so fair that it looked silver in the morning light, streamed out behind her in the crisp mountain wind, and she shrugged her thick fur cloak a little closer. The tall woman was used to the slightly warmer (and slightly easier to breathe in) climate of the lower valleys, where the wind was baffled by high slopes; up here, she imagined she could feel every minute of her forty-five years on this world as ice crystals in her bones. She cradled her cup of hot tea to her chest, warming her hands against the ceramic and inhaling the steam.

Well into the distance, a black line crawled towards the incomplete city walls, winding down the switchback nicknamed "Cauda Draconis". The latest shipment of uncut rock and iron ore from the highland mines, and right on time, thank Gaia. One more delay and Jessa might have to add something a little stronger to her morning tea.

A movement from the corner of her eye caught her attention. She shifted her gaze down and slightly to her right, to the balcony which opened into the suite of the Fraternal Order of the Word. That balcony was supposed to be atop the head of a markhor. Two obscene outgrowths of stone flanked platform, and Jessa could hardly wait for them to be transformed into a pair of spiraling horns, which would be at least marginally less phallic than their current state. 

Jessa's lip curled into a slight sneer of disdain as Hearthmother Iliza strolled across the lower balcony. Iliza was highland born and bred, and evidently considered the climate of this more middling elevation to be downright balmy; the dark-haired woman wore only a bulky fur coat which was open at the front, baring an indecent swath of pale skin to the dawn. The Knight-General wondered, not for the first time, if the Fraternal Order was hiding a fountain of youth somewhere up in those frozen mines; while the two women were the same age, Iliza could but for the years around her eyes pass as an untested maiden.

Iliza took a sip from a wine glass and leaned on the half-wall at the edge of the balcony, exposing the curve of the side of her breast. Jessa's lip curled higher. 

The Hearthmother peered out at the same line of laden wagons that had first drawn Jessa's attention. She studied it for a moment before calling back over her shoulder to an unseen person as yet still in the bedroom.

"Up and awake, my dear. The Hearthfather's caravan is approaching; you need get your cohort mounted and ride out to meet him. The Perfected scouts have reported rock trolls in the pass; they haven't come down this far yet but we can't take chances."

Jessa was imagining some poor young man or woman, still groggy from a night of light blasphemy, struggling to find his or her riding boots. Her reverie was interrupted by the curt voice of her second-in-command behind her.

"Madame General, permission to report!"

Iliza looked up from her perch, spotting the Knight-General and favoring her with a crooked smile and a waggly-fingered wave. Jessa, her lips now a tight, thin line, returned the gesture with a terse nod before addressing her subordinate, a broad-shouldered and clean-shaven man in his late twenties.

"Granted, Commander."

"We've opened up another warren, Ma'am. This one's different. Deeper. The Benevolent on site says... um..."

"Out with it, Commander."

"He says, and I'm quoting, you understand, 'the mountain spirits are disturbed here'."

Jessa sighed. This is what I have to work with. I'm rebuilding Terrenus with babbling lunatics and drunken perverts. Gaia preserve me.

"Send a runner to inform the other Orders, and assemble a team. I'll be down myself shortly. Nobody so much as puts a toe over the threshold before I arrive, understood? Dismissed!"

"Ma'am, yes Ma'am!" The young Commander snapped off a smart salute and headed off to his task. Jessa gulped down the last of her tea, wondering if maybe she shouldn't have spiked it after all.
 

Edited by Raspberry LA

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"And I will say to you again, this is a purely internal matter over which I have sole authority!"

Magistrate Karaga's eyebrows, snowy caterpillars on his deep black face, drew together in agitation. He shook his head, and the double braids of his long white beard swung like short ropes on a blowing tree branch.

"And I will say to you again that I respectfully disagree!" Speaker Faekin's voice was low but assertive, 
and her normally soft brown eyes were hard and annoyed. "We can't be sure what cultural significance--"

"Horsedroppings!" the Magistrate grumbled. "I don't care if those old bones are the troll equivalent of Odin Haze's Sainted Nut-Scratcher! Even if you had some voice in this, the absolute last thing I would do is strip my scouts of their hard-earned property so you could waste lives sticking it back into some thrice-damned mountain-ape den!"

Speaker Faekin had stopped being overtly shocked by the rough old man's vulgarities weeks ago, but she shifted uncomfortably in her seat all the same. "Biaru, please," she sighed, addressing the Magistrate by his first name. "Can't we have a reasonable discussion about this?"

The Magistrate made a deft slice in his breakfast - an eagle egg omelette with chives - and shoveled a bite into his mouth, chewing noisily. "I was having a reasonable discussion, Julia," he said around his morsel, "One where a few Perfected scouts come to an agreement on how to divide the spoils of a difficult labor."

The common dining area in the Temple was a large circular room, capable of seating over a hundred people at once and was as yet unadorned except for the sconces lining the walls. Rather than torches, they held magitech crystals which produced soft white light and gentle warmth. Biaru had argued against their inclusion in the design, until it was pointed out that warming the Temple with fire would blanket the mountains in smoke halfway to Blairville.

The dining hall was empty at this early hour but for the two arguing council members, and their voices echoed sharply off the hard stone.

"Then you stuck your nose in," Biaru continued, "with a suggestion that had all the reasonability of a Fraternal in mid-hump."

Julia sipped her coffee and daintily pushed her toast around on her plate, her appetite taking a nose dive. "I read the reports, Biaru; the location of the den, the arrangement of the skulls, the appearance of faded markings on the bone... Disturbing that site could have far-reaching impacts on our work if the trolls place any cultural value--"

"Troll culture!" Biaru laughed. His open palm slapped the stone tabletop and the corded muscles in his arm flexed. "Trolls have no culture..."

"That we know of--"

"...or language, or society, or religion, or anything other than a shared desire to throw big rocks at mountain goats! Why in all the hells would you assume the trolls even had anything to do with that cave? How many ancient cultures have settled these mountains?"

"In which case they should be studied--"

"By whom? The Academy? The government? Aren't we supposed to be the government now?"

"Well, yes, but we don't have the capacity to study--"

"In which case they're academically worthless! Nothing more than trophies my people earned by digging out that pass!"

Julia threw her hands up in disgust. The wide sleeves on her yellow robe fluttered and her eyes cast heavenward. "You're impossible! And rude and disgusting and coarse..."

"Didn't know you liked to talk dirty!"

"Gah!" 

The Speaker pushed away from the table and stood; even on her feet, she was barely taller than the sitting Magistrate. She turned on her heel, her auburn hair whipping behind her like a dozen wagging fingers from an irate mother. "I'm bringing this up at the council!" she huffed.

Biaru's laughing retort was interrupted by the sound of booted feet ricocheting off the rock as brown-caped man in a mix of leather and steel plate hurried into the dining room with an air of purpose.

"Councilor Faekin, Councilor Karaga, begging your pardons," he addressed as he saluted. Julia returned the salute respectfully, if sloppily, while Biaru simply waved his dark hand vaguely in the young knight's direction. "I was sent to find you; the digging team has discovered another warren. Knight-General Chayanne requests your presence or that of your duly appointed representatives in the sanctum before the exploration team begins their work."

In an instant, the notable pair switched faces; Biaru's jovial smile turned into a frown of annoyance while Julia's pursed lips split into a wide smile. "We're on our way," she said.

"Bah. Another waste of my time," the Magistrate grunted, turning his attention back to his breakfast. "I'll send a man down. I'm sure I've got somebody I can spare. Guy with a broken arm or something. After I'm done with my eggs."

Edited by Raspberry LA

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Hearthfather Elijah sat atop his shaggy black horse, trying very hard not to think about a hot bath and a warm bed. While a lone rider could make the trip down the Cauda in a little over an hour (half that if he was in a hurry and didn’t like his horse), the steep, narrow trail and tight turns posed serious hazards for the caravan of heavy wagons he was leading. Even though they’d started the descent as soon as the first fingers of dawn had gently brushed the trailhead, they’d be lucky to reach the city’s incomplete gate by mid-afternoon. If they were unloaded and settled before dusk, it would be a miracle.

Raised voices called back and forth to each other across the trail, carrying directions and warnings and occasionally insults to the porters and the drivers navigating the difficult slope. Sunlight reflected off surveying equipment that the engineers were setting up and taking down along the sides of the trail, and those notables had their own set of calls, often sounding like they were in another language altogether. The oxen brayed and strained wood creaked, and through it all everyone kept one ear out for the clatter of dropped cargo or the panicked yelling that would foreshadow an escaped cart barrelling down the hill. The trip had been smooth so far, or as smooth as could reasonably be expected, but there was still plenty of time for a disaster and Elijah was taking no chances. This was not the moment in which to get hasty or cocky.

At its widest points, the Cauda was just broad enough to permit two wagons to run side-by-side, but Elijah had them single-file along the upland side. The sheer cliffs were only poorly reinforced, and any small bit breaking loose under a heavy wagon wheel would be disastrous. The brown-caped engineers of the Grand Order would begin work on the passage eventually, but that task was weeks away, no matter how urgent they made their current surveying seem.

Through his spyglass, the Hearthfather scanned the cliffs above them, spotting the scattered green-cloaked rangers of the Perfected Order picking their way along goat paths high up on the ridgeline. He had no way to know how many dangers the rough men and women had kept the caravan safe from, but he did know that the caravan was only on time because of their ability to find and fix problems long before the first driver arrived. The shipment before this one might never have arrived if the scouts hadn't taken the initiative to clear a rockslide that had blocked one of the higher passes.

In spite of the harshness of the journey, Elijah was in high spirits. Unlike perhaps some of the other council members, he was a true believer in the dream of a united Order. One day, he imagined, There would be no talk of Grands or Perfected or Benevolents, or even of his own Fraternals. There would just be The Order, in a single color of cloak, working seamlessly together. Purple, maybe, for it's royal association, or black, since it contained all colors (but not white -- dear Gaia, white was so overused). It wouldn't happen in his lifetime; he reckoned he had twenty more good years on this Earth, thirty if Gaia truly favored him, and the changes necessary to bring his dream to fruition would take at least that long. The Grand Order would have to become more flexible, the Benevolents would have to put at least one foot on solid ground, his people would need to perhaps slow down on some of the more hedonistic aspects of their worship, and the Perfected Order… where to start with the Perfected? Baths, he decided. Let's start with getting them to bathe more.

A glint of light caught his attention and the broad-shouldered man swung his spyglass down towards the base of the cliff; a cohort of riders in blue had emerged from the city and begun the ascent up the Cauda. His wife had sent him an escort. Thoughtful, but useless; the last thing he needed was more bodies on horses clogging the treacherous trail.

Elijah put his spyglass away and stroked his goatee, still pitch black despite the streaks of gray in his hair. There was nothing for it; he would have to pick his way to the front of the wagon train so he could intercept them and turn them back. They'd be more of a nuisance than a help up here. He pointed his horse downhill and set off along the cliff-side of the road at a cautious trot.

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"I'm not sure what we expect to do when we get up there," Zacharias groused from the head of the Fraternal column. 

A dozen riders advanced up the steep ascent at a casual walk, both to save their horses and because none of them were in any particular hurry. Most were in their early-to-mid twenties, and were dressed identically in padded, fur-lined leather strategically reinforced with steel mail. Steel open-faced helms shone in the morning sun, and the blue cloaks of their order billowed out behind them in the biting mountain wind. 

Cayla, a tiny young woman on an equally tiny black pony, grinned at his back. "We're going to escort Father back down to the city. Were you still asleep when you were fumbling your boots on? I thought Mother's directions were fairly clear."

"I heard her well enough, sister," Zach grumped, "It's just one of the dumbest ideas I've been party to carrying out. Even if they're attacked from the top of the Cauda, what are we supposed to do about it? Shout and wave our arms a lot? More like, be another obstacle the caravan have to get past as they flee for their lives."

"That's a fine point, brother," Cayla nodded, "Pity you didn't have the presence of mind to make it to Mother this morning. Therefore I lay the blame for this whole expedition squarely on you!"

"Not all of us can be instantly awake with the first birdsong--"

"Enough, both of you!" 

Third in line, Raigh could have been Zacharias's twin, sharing the same black hair and lithe build. "Your woeful tales of a post-carouse slumber interrupted grate on the ears of those of us who spent the night posted to the midwatch!"

"That's right!" A fair-haired girl piped up from further back in the line, "As it is written: 'You're not allowed to gripe while you still smell like sex and beer!'"

Laughter rippled through the company, and Zach laughed along with them. "As it is written, so shall it be!" he conceded.

---

High above the caravan, two green-cloaked scouts of the Perfected Order picked their way along a path that only barely met even the most liberal definition of such. 

"I saw it around this area," the younger one said, biting her lip as her eyes scanned the barren rocks. "I think."

"Don't second guess yourself. Up here, your gut is your only backup. Trust it, or you'll be shat out the back end of a stone wyvern in nothing flat." 

The older scout dropped to one knee and ran her calloused hand over the surface of a large boulder, frowning. "Tell me again, exactly what you saw. Don't make any guesses, don't make any inferences."

"A shadow. Man-sized, against the sun. Hunched over. Could have been--"

"No guesses," the master scout corrected.

"Right. Ok. Hunched over. Broad shoulders. It was hard to see because I was squinting. I blinked a couple of times, then it was gone."

"How did it make you feel?"

"The hair on the back of my neck went up."

The older scout stood and pointed to the rock she'd been examining. "Gouges. Light, four parallel lines. Impossible to tell how old. Keep your eyes peeled." 

Her hand fell on her hunting horn as the pair scanned the rocks again. Dips and crevasses were everywhere, and each one of them could conceal a danger.

"Over here!" her apprentice called out,  "I've got something! Spoor!"

The older scout hurried over and squatted down to inspect the find. It was spoor all right; a small, slightly odiferous pile of excrement mixed in with some undigested bird feathers, still steaming a little in the cold air.

"Fuck, this is fresher than a maiden's snatch. I'm calling it in." The older scout brought her horn up to her lips as the darkened space between two boulders in front of her opened its eyes. 

There was a split second of frozen time where the Perfected studied the golden eyes, sorted through her internal bestiary, and recognized the danger she was in.

"RUN!" she screamed as one of the boulders came tumbling over at her, followed by a roaring mass of furred, clawed muscle. She dropped her horn and scrambled backwards, but the massive rock came down on top of her right leg with a sickening crunch.

Her apprentice made a dive for the dropped horn, clawing her way over the rocks. As the mountain exploded to life all around her, she took a deep breath and brought it to her lips.

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The inner sanctum of the temple was once a natural cavern of fair size, but through the diligent work of geomancers it was turning into a massive chamber deep inside the mountain. Ultimately, it would be a grand place, roughly egg-shaped with a statue of some sort (what sort exactly was still a topic of hot debate) in the center and effigies of Gaian saints lining the walls.

Like most of the rest of the temple, the rough-in was almost done, but the details were still quite a ways away. 

Off towards the back of the sanctum, where the stone was still natural and jagged, a fair-sized group of people gathered. It was to that group that Magistrate Karaga strode, still grumpy over his failure to convince anyone else to take his place for this nonsense.

The Hearthmother, The Speaker, and The Knight-General were already there, along with a team of engineers. They were talking in hushed tones, apparently about the perfectly round pit at their feet.

Biaru sidled up behind the Knight-General and looked over her shoulder, down into the darkness.

"Congratulations. You found a hole." 

"Isn't it amazing?" Speaker Faekin replied without irony. "Brand, how deep is it again?"

One of the engineers looked up from his notes. "From here, it's thirty-seven and a half feet down. The first nine feet are straight down, and the rest is at a four-and-three-quarters degree slope roughly north-northwest. From the point of surface access above to this point, it's two-hundred and fifty-three feet exactly, at an average slope of three and a third degrees south-southeast."

Biaru looked up; sure enough, the hole extended above them up into the mountain. He couldn't see any light from here, but he trusted the surveying expertise of Brand and his engineering team.

"So what's at the bottom?" he asked.

"A cavern of indeterminate size and length. The exploratory team will need to descend to find out more. All we know for sure is that the bottom is composed of a soft muddy substrate."

"Incredible," Jessa breathed. Biaru rolled his eyes.

"Excellent. So we've found Saint Zedda's shit hole. Good work, everyone. I'll go tell the party planning committee." The old man turned and began walking back the way he had come.

"Don't you want to stay an observe the expedition, darling?" Hearthmother Iliza asked his retreating form. "We have to make sure we all have equal claim to anything they find in there."

"Don't care, not interested, waste of time," he said, waving his hand in the air dismissively. "We'll talk when you come back up with something other than a broken pot and some poor wolf's skull."

Julia sighed. "But this matches up with all the research! Saint Zedda's remains could really be down there!"

"About a likely as a garden of big-breasted virgins, Julia. And much less interesting."

And with that, the dark-skinned man disappeared through the main doors.

"Damn that man. He's impossible," Iliza muttered.

"Forget it. He'll change his tune as soon as we have something for the reliquary," Julia said. "I just don't get how the leader of a holy order can have so little faith."

 

Edited by Raspberry LA

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Something stirred.

A puff of air, in a place that had been perfectly stagnant for... how long? Who could know?

Her children felt it too. A few of them shifted in their slumber, and their chains rattled.

So alone. So cold. So forgotten. They'd pay for forgetting her. 

The puff of air swirled weakly around her, and she turned her head as if she could watch it dance in the pitch darkness. It passed over her lips, and she tasted snow, and moss, and... ugh, sunlight. A black fly in her aged red wine.

Another puff of air flitted into her awareness, and this one carried sounds. Soft sounds, hushed voices, echoing from who knew how far away. People.

She became almost excited for a second. People. But they'd never find her. Pity. Pity pity pity. She wished she could sigh. She felt it would be a little relief from the disappointment, if she could sigh about it.

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"Careful, careful!"

"Steady! Don't give her any slack!"

"Three seven nine point two, mark!"

"Watch the tongue! Lighten the front, you knob!"

"Keep an eye on those rocks!

"Three nine nine point one, mark!"

"Pivot! Pivot! Pivot!"

"I don't think it's gonna pivot any more!"

Zacharias and Cayla listened to the voices of the caravan above them as their group navigated the Cauda. The Fraternal riders moved at a leisurely pace, joking and laughing and enjoying the cloudless day, untroubled by the biting cold. As they approached one of the trail's hairpin turns, a rider on a black horse came around the corner towards them at a trot.

"Father!" Cayla waved happily at the Hearthfather, who returned the wave with a smile.

"Cayla, Zacharias, such a sight for weary eyes. I've missed you!" Elijah reined his horse alongside Zacharias, and the two clasped hands heartily.

"Mother sent us to see you home safely," Zach said.

"I deduced as much. Which makes it all the more disappointing that you must turn around and depart without me."

A collective groan went up from the riders, as well as a few muttered complaints.

"Mother won't be happy to see us riding home empty-handed," Cayla protested.

"Be that as it may, this many new bodies will only make our journey more treacherous. It's tight enough for us already. Tell your mother I'll be home the minute Gaia wills it, and not a moment before."

Zacharias prepared to offer another argument, but the sound of a horn ricocheted off the cliff walls. Four sharp blasts, a pause, and four more.

Elijah looked up towards the mountain top. "What is that call? Avalanche? This time of year? I can never remember those Perfected hunting signals."

"That's not 'avalanche'," the blonde in the back offered. "It's 'foes'!"

The horn blew again, but this time the forth blast was cut off abruptly with a high-pitched whine. Other horns began to sound from the upper reaches of the pass as the rest of the scouts picked up the call. The shouts from the caravan took on a frantic tone.

The first hulking silhouettes appeared on the ridge, and rocks began to rain down on the wagoneers. Zacharias drew his sword and prepared to cue his horse forward, but Elijah stopped him.

"No, you fool! You'll be dead thrice over if you charge up there! Get your backs to the wall!"

The riders complied, squeezing as tightly as possible against the cliff face as stones the size of watermelons tumbled from the inaccessible peaks above. Shouts rang out, and brilliant white light erupted from the Benevolent priests as they tried to ward their charges against the onslaught.

"We're cooked geese on the Cauda!" Elijah yelled over the thundering boulders. "I'll signal the retreat; we can come back for the carts! The worst they'll do to our cargo is throw it at us!"

Elijah threw up his hands and a gout of red light shot high into the air. The experienced Fraternal drivers, now with a clear directive, began frantically releasing their draft animals from their wagons, abandoning their load and moving with as much speed as possible down the trail. "Spread out!" he ordered his people, "Post yourselves on the route and protect those passing as best as you're able!"

Some trolls began descending the rocks, climbing like spiders along routes that no human could follow, while their fellows above continued the earthen deluge.

 

---

Standing on the high balcony, the Knight-Commander, Knight-General Chayanne's right-hand man, winced against the sudden brightness of the Hearthfather's flare. The sounds of the horns began to reach his ears, and he staggered. 

"Dear Gaia, no." He turned and shouted over his shoulder into Jessa's suite. "Someone find the Knight-General! The caravan is under attack!"

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Speaker Faekin was nearly trembling with excitement as she descended the temporary steps that the excavation team's lead Geomancer had fabricated along the wall of the pit. She and the other councilors, sans Magistrate Karaga, spiralled down into the depths of the mountain behind the exploration team, a group comprised of both knights of The Order and a few hearty mercenaries recruited from the city. She would have preferred to omit those particular personages, but The Order was spread awfully thin these days.

The moist rock shimmered in the light of their crystals, similar to the ones lighting the temple but small enough to be mounted on sturdy headbands. The counselors' gems had the added feature of linking their surface thoughts, allowing for voiceless, if perhaps overly thorough, communication. Julia was glad all of her comrades were sufficiently disciplined to keep most of their musings to themselves; she had no desire to find out where she ranked on Iliza's conquest list, or to listen to Jessa's judgy critiques of... well, probably everything.

Brand the engineer followed behind, laying out the Lightline, a fascinating glowing cable, about as thick as a hemp rope. It not only marked their path with an unmistakable green luminance, but it also took a variety of measurements: humidity, temperature, slope, distance, surface composition, air quality, and Gaia knew what else. It was a fussy device, however, and Brand had explicitly forbade anyone but himself from touching it. Nobody was willing to pull rank and risk getting lost.

"Hold for a moment, your graces," the lead engineer said quietly from the front of the column. "I'm at the bottom and need to check the depth of this mud."

Julia fidgeted impatiently; due care was certainly important, but she was anxious to get into the cave. She had a good feeling about this one. All the other warrens had felt like dead rock, but this one felt alive somehow, like the shadows were flitting about at the corners of her eyes. The mountain spirits were certainly disturbed here, but she was sure that was a positive omen. The last resting place of St. Zedda was almost in her grasp! The only thing keeping her from the relics that would seal the legitimacy of her Benevolent Order, that could possibly even reveal that they had been right about the meaning of The Word all along, was an over-protective bunch of stuffy engineers.

"Fine silt, about four inches deep. We'll want to move slowly, that depth could change at any second."

Julia stifled a groan. Couldn't they just get on with it already??

---

Magistrate Karaga was lost in his own thoughts as he aimlessly wandered the temple hallways. It wasn't quite as relaxing as walking in the sparse, rough grass of the plateau, but it was the walking that was important, not necessarily the location. He thought best when he was on the move.

So when a messenger of the Grand Order came barrelling around a blind corner at a dead run, it was really both men's fault that they collided.

"What in the name of the Wyld's garters...!" Biaru exclaimed as he untangled himself from the breathless runner and leveled a baleful, malevolent gaze at the youngster.

"Your Grace!" youth stammered, "the caravan from the highlands! It's under attack! We need to find the Knight-General!"

Biaru was on his feet in an instant, his smooth movements belying his advanced age. "She's down in some thrice-damned hole in the sanctum, with the rest of the council! Where's your superior?"

"On the Grand balcony, monitoring the situation your Grace!"

"Go fetch those spelunking idiots, and send the next three people you pass on the way straight to that bear balcony. I don't care if the next man you see is Odin Haze himself, you tell him to get his ass in gear!"

Biaru took off at a ground-covering lope towards the Grand Order suite; someone had to be in charge and he was the only one not fumbling around in the dark at the moment.

---

Scant minutes later, Biaru reached the balcony where the Commander was staring through a spyglass at the Cauda Draconis, his face paler than usual. The Magistrate snatched the glass from the younger man's hand without preamble, and ignored the Commander's protests as he peered at the unfolding catastrophy. Rock trolls swarmed down the cliff face, meeting stiff resistance from the skilled knights of the convoy. A little lower down on the pass another small group also battled the beast's, trying to keep the way to town clear for the fleeing civilians.

One of the trolls launched an abandoned ore cart off the trail, and Biaru cursed as it slammed into several fleeing wagoneers, sending their broken bodies tumbling off the cliff.

Biaru swung the spyglass over the field, and spotted more trolls scaling the stones, ignoring the knights as they dropped lower on the trail.

"They're not trying to just kill the caravan, they're headed for the city! Get the watch mobilized and point those fancy stone-flingers at gates, you dunce! What the hell have you been doing all this time? Forget it, I don't care! Just get us a defense!"

He was interrupted as a panting young woman, barely old enough to hold a sword and wearing a blue cloak, burst onto the platform. "You... Needed me...?" she gasped.

Biaru thrust the spyglass back into the Commander's hand and addressed his messenger. "Go to the Perfected barracks, tell them I need thirty of our best mountaineers to suit up and hit the back passes! I want them on to top of that ridge drinking troll blood before my next bowel movement, you hear me girl? Go! Quick-like!"

---

After several wrong turns, the messenger Biaru had slammed into in the hallway finally found the entrance to the warren wherein he had been told he could find his General. He peered into the depths and his eyes narrowed. He recognized the Lightline trailing into the darkness... but it was unlit. Inert. 

Nothing stirred below him.

"Hello?" he called out uncertainly. "Knight-General? Councilors?"

He strained his ears listening for a response. He could have sworn he heard a soft noise in reply... but it sounded less like the authoritative voice of his leader and more like the tinny giggle of a small girl. Gooseflesh broke out on his arms as he backed slowly away from the pit.

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Rocks, varying in size from softballs to kegs, kept the fleeing caravaneers to a slow crawl, pinned against the upland side of the switchback in a single-file line. The knights of the Benevolent Order took turns creating shields of blinding light overhead, trying to blunt the worst of the carnage, while the Hearthfather and his entourage furiously worked to hack apart the trolls that were climbing down the rock face to engage the humans directly. Life was cheap, to rock trolls, so even though several of their own succumbed to the granite onslaught, still they persisted in their attack.

"This isn't working!" Elijah spat as he pulled his blade from the furry gut of another foe. "We need a quicker way to the bottom, or they'll overrun us!" He motioned to Zacharias, calling him closer. "I'm going to need your help. We're going to make a hole into the mountain, on an imposing slope, too small for these brutes to follow, and hook it back around to catch the trail lower on the cliffside. The rest of you, guard our backs and direct anyone who passes to follow us. It's dangerous without a proper engineer, but maybe less so than standing here and being tenderized!"

 

---

 

The Perfected mountaineers mustered by Biaru's messenger mounted the trails up the cliff. Too narrow, steep, and ill-defined to be of use to wagons and pilgrims, these paths were well known to the hearty men and women who'd spent their lives as trappers and guides in these mountains, whose livelihoods depended on knowing the absolute shortest route from point A to point B. Armed to the teeth, they slowly converged on the barbaric artillery on the ridge above the pass. 

 

---

 

In spite of Biaru's accusations, the Knight-Commander had not been idle in the minutes before the Magistrate's arrival. Every knight that could wield a blade had been scrambled to head to the walls in defense of the city. While this showed The Order's disaster-preparedness in a wonderful light, it made it very difficult for the young man tasked with alerting the council to find partners to help him traverse the tunnels, and he wasn't about to set foot into that dark pit himself. So far, he'd managed to commandeer only one young woman of the Benevolent order and, well, nobody else. Even the mercenaries had other orders that they preferred to follow rather than risk a trip into a pre-made tomb.

So it was with much thanks to Gaia that he spotted, among the civilians being evacuated into the Temple, someone with a shovel and pickaxe strapped to their back. The long, twitching tail... well... that... sure, why not? The Benevolents said to love everyone, right? Time to be flexible.

"You there! Excuse me! Prospector! My name is Squire-Captain Tyrell, and by my authority in the Grand... err, in the Order of The Word, I respectfully require your aid! We have need of your skills for a vital rescue mission!"

 

---

 

The rest of the rescue team, which was to say, Sadie the Benevolent, peered into the hole, wondering what could have caused the Lightline to go out. She didn't really know anything about the device, except that it was supposed to glow and it wasn't glowing.

She looked around the empty inner sanctum, wondering where the rest of the team was. While nothing had happened since she'd been standing there, the air felt thick and chilled all the same. This hole was absolutely creepy, and she couldn't fathom why anyone would have wanted to go in at all.

She looked into the pit again, and saw nothing but darkness. But she was completely sure, in the back of her hindbrain, that something down there was looking back at her.

 

@Jotnotes

@Ellipsis

Edited by Raspberry LA

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Kian was overall not pleased with the current turn of events.

His time in Terrenus had been short, certainly, and yet somehow he'd managed to visit the realm during the worst possible time. Civil war was brewing all around him, and while warfare meant there were graves to pillage and bodies to loot, it meant the laws were far more stringent, and the folks that buffered these laws were nothing short of brutal in execution. It meant the payoff was better, but the risk of being caught was greater too, and the penalty for being caught was worse. To this end, he'd spent more time moving from place to place in the hopes of escaping the more martial areas of Terrenus, where he could dig up graves in relative peace, and make off with less money for his efforts, but certainly less hassle. It was to this end that he'd come across the Order in the first place.

While not terribly active, the Order and their build site was certainly worth sticking around in at the time he'd arrived. From the moment he'd gotten close enough to see her walls, and the guards patrolling the tops he could tell they were a fair ways away from the majority of Terrenus' problems. From word of mouth, this was supposed to be the site of some grand rebuilding of Terrenus following the civil war; a fortress aimed at resupplying and protecting folks, some people even said. To Kian, not much of this meant anything to him aside from the fact that they had an established military force here, and no martial law. This meant that while there was danger, it wasn't of a civil kind. That meant there would surely be graves to exhume later on, if he was patient enough. Moreover, if the site proved to be fruitless, he could at least use this opportunity to resupply before moving along.

At least, that's what his visit had started as. A scarce six hours after his initial arrive, and the call came for the civilians to be garrisoned inside of the Temple, for their own good. Kian remembered following the crowds at his own pace, feline ears twitching in curiosity as people hurried past him in order to secure their place within the walls. If any of them really understood why they were in a hurry, they never said it aloud, though the speed they were moving in suggested something dangerous was coming. For now, Kian was technically a civilian, so he didn't mind escaping whatever danger came his way, although he wasn't eager to be crushed when they reached the temple. Perhaps if he dallied, he'd get a nice place in front of the building, away from the dangers of the crowd, and close to the doors if he needed a quick escape.

8 hours ago, Raspberry LA said:

So it was with much thanks to Gaia that he spotted, among the civilians being evacuated into the Temple, someone with a shovel and pickaxe strapped to their back. The long, twitching tail... well... that... sure, why not? The Benevolents said to love everyone, right? Time to be flexible.

"You there! Excuse me! Prospector! My name is Squire-Captain Tyrell, and by my authority in the Grand... err, in the Order of The Word, I respectfully require your aid! We have need of your skills for a vital rescue mission!"

Kian turned to the man who called for him. Of course, he was one of the few people who might actually be considered a prospector, after all. With little delay he stepped forward, making eye contact with the man.

"I'm not an expert, but generally you'd want first responders for a rescue mission." Kian pointed out, his tail flicking. "What's the emergency, somebody fall into a well or something?"

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On 2/17/2018 at 1:16 PM, Jotnotes said:

"I'm not an expert, but generally you'd want first responders for a rescue mission." Kian pointed out, his tail flicking. "What's the emergency, somebody fall into a well or something?"

Tyrell cast his eyes, noting the large number of uncleared civilians milling about. He tipped his head towards the far end of the hallway. "Walk with me a moment, friend," he said, moving at an unhurried pace deeper into the temple.

He lowered his voice to something just beneath conversational and explained.

"Just before the troubles started outside, a small team of surveyors, including some VIPs, set out to investigate a cave uncovered during construction of the sanctum. I was sent to fetch them back from their study when we learned of the attack; it should have been as simple as following their navigational device. But the device is currently not functioning, and the party was out of earshot. It's probably nothing, just a typical everyday setback. But the buddy system is always best in these cases, aye?"

Tyrell rubbed the back of his neck anxiously. "But if something has happened, like a cave in, I could really use a fellow with some experience and the right tools to free them. I've already alerted my superior, but all the engineers are being sent to man the siege weapons at the walls, because no VIP is more important than the people in the city if both are endangered."

He stopped, and ran his hand through his short black hair. "Look, it's probably safe and simple. We'll have lights, they'll see us coming, we'll be in and out. There's a backup team behind us as soon as any personnel can be spared. You'll be very well compensated for your help and expertise even if we don't have to go more than twenty yards in a straight line. Frankly, I feel that the presence of a fine person such as yourself exactly when you might be most useful is a sign from Gaia that I would be a fool to pass up. And... "

He looked around again, as if he were guarding a state secret.

"... I'm a slight bit nervous in very dark places."

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To be a wanderer meant to be in a place unexpected. How could anyone keep track of someone who didn't know where their own feet were leading them? Frayen smiled at the sun's warmth as it radiated down from on high. He had his eyes closed and arms stretched out, basking in it for a long moment. It was a peaceful morning. That is, until he heard the horn blasts. Four bursts. He peeked an eye open and peered toward the direction he thought it came from. What did four mean again? Form a phalanx? No... that wasn't it. Four more again sounded and Frayen was able to zero in on the direction. It was lateral to him along the mountainside, over near the main pass that brought many travelers to the temple. 

"It means something important." He mumbles to himself as he starts to walk in that direction. "I suppose I'll just have to find out. I should have paid more attention in training." He said rubbing his eyes, still feeling the weariness from a light nap clinging to his personage. He shook his head and picked up the pace, nimbly moving along a narrow goat trail that moved parallel across the mountain's edge.

"One blast was... hmm, and two... yes. Three meant false alarm, pretty sure. Four... Four... Four... Oh shit." Frayen finally remembered. His pace faltered and he came to a halt. Did he really want to go running headlong into danger? You don't live a long life serving Gaia and spreading the word if you go and get yourself killed. He turned around. Then turned around again. He did this a few more times, pacing. "I... I can't do nothing." He finally decided, feet carrying him off toward the horn blasts once more. "If I die, so be it. Let me die doing something heroic, then."

Drawing just one of his blades, so that he could keep a free hand for balance as he moved across the precarious cliff face and narrow trails, Frayen scampered up a large boulder and beheld below him a scene he hadn't expected. It was all laid out and clear what was about. Trolls en mass had gathered along the ridge above a caravan, hurling rocks and boulders down upon them light earthen death. The roar of their actions loud and boisterous. Between the echoing of rock crushing down on rock and wood and flesh, and the whooping and hollering of the beasts themselves, none thought to look upwards at their own flank.

On the opposite side, sprinting across another trail, Frayen saw a few familiar forms. Others of the Perfected Mountaineers were skirmishing for vantage points. Using the side of his blade in the glare of the sunlight, he angled it to flash them a coded message. The response in return made him grin. They wanted to attack, so be it. Looking at their numbers, they wouldn't be able to turn the tides, but they could at least slow things down, give these trolls another target and thin the forces a little. They might die trying, but Frayen swore for each of them they'd take down at least two of these trolls.

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The catfolk followed in tow, matching the guard's pace as they walked the two of them deeper and deeper into the temple for the time being. Kian sort of assumed that by allowing himself to be dragged this far into the middle of the building he'd sort of given up on his plan for a quick exit, so he tagged along with minimal protest as the situation was explained to him. What he was told about their plight certainly made sense to him, but only barely. They needed to protect the most people they could, of course. That was the point of this foundation, Kian supposed. It wouldn't do if they sent everyone to investigate a cave-in. If there was one thing about the situation that confounded the digger, however, it was that it seemed to him that his escort at the moment seemed visibly uneasy at the process. If the situation was as stable as he said it was, why was the guard so uneasy about going underground? He listened patiently, waiting for something that might give him some clue. Some small implication that this was a far more insidious job than they'd anticipated.

On 2/18/2018 at 10:16 PM, Raspberry LA said:

Frankly, I feel that the presence of a fine person such as yourself exactly when you might be most useful is a sign from Gaia that I would be a fool to pass up. And... "

He looked around again, as if he were guarding a state secret.

"... I'm a slight bit nervous in very dark places."

Kian only laughed at the guard's confession, an gesture that inwardly allowed him to relent without protest. This actually wasn't a hard choice to make. Either he took what promised to be a very straightforward job, helped these fine folk out for a moment and left with the newfound weight of money on his hip, plus a little bit of a positive reputation, or he tried his best to explain, without saying it out loud, that he wasn't carrying the pick and shovel for any valid reason. It wouldn't do; if the people around here were suiting up for a siege of some kind he wanted to stick on this side of the wall for as long as possible, and preferably without being in cuffs.

"Alright, alright. I'll lend a hand." The grave robber's ears twitched as somewhere just behind him a small troop of guards ran past. Their clanking joints and rustling mail gave away their position even amidst the noise and clutter around them. It seemed like whatever ruckus was afoot promised to be a dangerous one. Perhaps more than a few of these men wouldn't make it home alive. Kalli supposed it was only fair that he stuck around long enough to pay his respects, then.

"My name is Kian, friend." He stressed the last word, almost sarcastically. He thrust his hand out to shake the guard's. "I'll help you figure this out, I suppose, but don't forget about my pay at the end of it. I don't work for free." He paused, his tail flicking around as he considered the situation. "Oh, and I won't be holding your hand when it gets dark, so bring a lantern or torch or something. Preferably something not flammable if we're going underground, I guess."

Beyond that, there wasn't much else Kian needed. He adjusted the straps on his back, feeling the familiar weight of his shovel and pick shift as he did so.

"Well? Let's get a move on."

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@Ellipsis

The expression on the face of the scout nearest Frayen was just barely visible; a sort of grim anticipation scored his lips as he carefully aimed his loaded crossbow and flipped the safety off. With a sharp twang, the bolt flew from his weapon and plowed into the back of the head of the largest troll, sending it toppling forward from the cliff face.

A collective war cry went up from the Perfected mountaineers, and the attack was on.

A glint of steel from slightly to the east of Frayen's position might catch his eye as the skirmishers surged forward; if he chose to look in the direction, he'd see the someone had gotten here first.

About a dozen yards from the edge of the cliff, behind the line of rock-throwers, four trolls surrounded a young blonde woman. Clearly an apprentice, she wielded two swords, the one in her off-hand clearly not balanced for her and probably too large for her to be effective if not for the adrenaline running through her veins. Sweat poured from her brow, soaking her bangs, and blood dripped from dozens of tiny wounds on her arms and hands as she twirled and parried the grasping claws that encircled her. 

A shattered hunting horn lay at her feet, and the crumpled figure of another scout could be glimpsed on the ground between her legs. She fought valiantly to protect her incapacitated teacher, and the trolls were clearly frustrated at their inability to score a solid blow on the girl, but they were quickly wearing her down. The arms shook a little more with each attack she fended off, and her counterstrikes were off-center and weak. She didn't have long.

 

---

 

@Jotnotes

 

"Excellent!" Tyrell exclaimed. "No worries, Kian, your reward will be both prompt and fully satisfactory! We're almost there now.."

He turned a corner and walked under the grand arch of the inner sanctum. The warren was clearly visible, a dark pit with stairs formed in a spiral around the edge.

"Sadie! Sadie, I've found someone who can help... Sadie?"

Tyrell looked around the empty chamber.

"Sadie? Where on earth did she go?"

He walked to the edge of the pit and peered down. Darkness and silence greeted him, and the inert Lightline mocked him. There was no sign of Sadie.

"Well of all the stupid...!" he cursed. "Should have known better than to trust a Benevolent not to wander off after butterflies, or whatever."

Tyrell ran his hand through his hair again as he opened the supply chest at the mouth of the warren. He pulled out two headbands, each with a small clear crystal mounted to the front. He slipped his over his ears and handed the second to Kian. "Just tap the front, like so," he demonstrated; his gem lit up with a soft white light, like the light of a full moon on a cloudless night. 

Without waiting any more, lest he lose his momentum and his nerve, he mounted the spiral stairs and began his descent.

The bottom of the pit was soft silt, and Tyrell sunk about four inches into the surface as he stepped into it. The substrate sucked at his boots as he slowly began to move down the tunnel, following the dead Lightline. He was not accustomed to cave exploration, and did not notice the scrap of torn yellow cloth dangling from a sharp point on the rock wall at about ankle level.

Up ahead, the path split, with one tunnel intersecting this one at a ninety degree angle from the left. It was down this passage the Lightline curved.

The astute explorer, which Tyrell was not, might notice tracks in the mud as they passed. Many booted feet had gone this way, but the path straight ahead had it's own set of tracks. Tracks that looked like a small, barefoot child had continued straight ahead while everyone else had turned. 

The intermittent sound of dripping water seemed to echo from all around the pair.

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THWACK. The bolt from the crossbow struck heavily and sank deep into the back of the troll skull. Frayen smirked at how the sound stood out among all the chaos and how the trolls instantly took notice of the prevailing assault.
"One down. So many more to go..." He said, the sarcastic remark somehow helping to give him strength and bravery. It made it less real, more like a game. Like the militia and thieves game he used to play as a young child at the orphanage. Only, if you got tagged here...

Frayen scrambled over the side of the boulder he had been standing on for a vantage point. Setting foot on the goat trail once more, he caught a glint of steel off to his left, away from the others. A group of trolls had something surrounded. Something fierce, something dangerous. Something... woman? Alarm set in the moment he realized. This was one of theirs. He found himself sprinting in her direction before he even realized he had made the decision to aid her. The heat of the battle, the rush of the unknown outcome, was like a drug. Wide eyed and feeling a little wild, Frayen lunged into the fray. Apt!

With both hands on the hilt of one blade, Frayen dealt a mighty blow. His downward slash caught a troll at the crook of it's neck, splitting it a good foot and a half down. It tried to scream, but the punctured lung quickly filled it's throat with blood. Clawing at it's chest in feeble attempt, it fell forward to die by bleeding out. Twirling his blade around and drawing his second, Frayen assaulted the next troll. It was already attempting to cleave him with a wicked and cruelly crafted looking axe. The edge of his sword caught the axe blade and angled it down and toward the ground, harmlessly striking into the earth. With a smirk, Frayen recited a small incantation that caused the soft earth to solidify into a pillar of granite around the axe, rendering it stuck and useless. Due to his close proximity, he simply punched the troll hard across it's face, then rotated one blade around as he turned toward the third troll and blindly thrust the blade back and into the gut of the second. It clawed at the blade stuck in it's belly, slathering it with more troll blood.

Frayen pulled it free and felt the troll's body strike the earth, leaving it to die he smirked at the remaining two who had this woman surrounded.

@Raspberry LA

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