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

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{Topside}

The knights watched as the troll war party swelled its numbers at the base of the pass, their mingled roars a defiant cacophony to the ears of the assembled soldiers. Hands tightened against wood, mail squeaked and leather groaned as they fidgeted in their places, fighting down fear and uncertainty.

Taking turns with the spyglass, the Magistrate and the Hearthfather watched as the furry throng parted, allowing the passage of a much larger troll to the front of the horde. It was several inches taller than the rest, though the headdress it wore made it appear to be even bigger than that. Bold feathers, blue, red, and purple, each as long as a man’s forearm, sprouted from a headband of poorly-tanned leather adorned with beads made of dyed bone. The noise faded, and silence filled the plateau.

The beast let out a series of roars, clearly amplified by some magic, which reached the ears of the commanders, cleanly and undistorted though entirely incomprehensible. Some speech was being delivered, however ineffectively. The troll leader reached the end of his tirade, waited for a few moments, then began again.

“What do you make of that?” Elijah asked, stroking his dark goatee.

“That I was wrong,” Biaru grunted.

“About what?”

“Many things. I was wrong that there were no such things as thunderbirds, phoenixes, or rocs, but you tell me what those feathers could have come from. Also, that trolls don’t have a culture.”

“Good to know a man who can admit his mistakes. Past that, have you any thoughts that might present a course of action?”

“Maybe we can understand it if we use the master crystals. They should be in the inner sanctum; the women surely took theirs to light their way into that damnable warren, but our pair should still be among the equipment they were gathering. Surface thoughts aren’t exactly a translator, and the feathered one may be too far away regardless, but it’s worth a shot. Assuming he keeps talking.”

“Wouldn’t he have to be wearing one too?”

“Don’t ask me, I’m not a wizard. If his soul is potent enough, maybe it’ll bridge the gap?”

“A better idea than picking our noses. I’ll send a page.”

“No,” Biaru raised a scarred hand. “I’ll go. I was just there; the image of that pile of exploration junk is fresh in my mind’s eye. I won’t have some dimwitted page spending the whole war digging through a box of engineering toys.”

 

----

 

{Tomb}

On 4/24/2018 at 2:50 PM, Jotnotes said:

He pulled on the head, and pulled it from the pedestal once again, removing it from its place on the pedestal. Once freed, he opened up his rucksack and stuck the head in there, right next to the knife he'd collected earlier. The crescent-shaped pommel slipped, and the edge poked into the skull's left eye-socket, but Kian figured it wouldn't do much. He slung the bag back over his shoulder, and turned to the other two.

"So...we should probably go kill the rest of these critters, right? Save your friends, maybe?" He paused for a second, staring them down before deadpanning.

"Look, it's super fucking weird having a woman in her forties talking through a child's skull and acting like it's the most casual thing ever, right? Let's stop thinking about that and get this over with."

 

“Son, you’ve just had the best series of ideas I’ve seen since I got into this damned mess.” Brand adjusted his light and moved towards the chamber’s exit. “Remind me to have the Knight-General extend you a commission. And some day, over a beer, you’re going to have to tell me what that cursed thing said to you.”

The skull in Kian’s possession said nothing.

Tyrell stooped and shakily snatched the canines from the broken skull at the pedestal’s base before hurrying to follow. He was trying his best to be brave and soldierly, but Kian could tell somehow that he’d been thoroughly shaken by the events they’d witnessed. He was petrified, and only kept moving so that he didn’t forget how to use his legs. How reliable he’d be in a fight was, at this point, anyone’s guess.

The damp tunnels twisted and wove through the mountain, and while the burial alcoves continued to be a feature, there were fortunately no more side passages to add to the confusion once the party was past the skull chamber. The cave turned back on itself like a lazy snake in the sunlight, and as the team rounded the bend, they were met with the sight of a great gaping opening, twice as tall as the cave had been up to that point. Jammed along the wall, wedged under the angle of the extending ceiling, was a cracked, crumbling rock. Kian, as an experienced tomb robber, would immediately recognize as an ancient capstone. Carefully carved from a single piece of granite, it was smooth and oblong, perfectly shaped to block the hole before them, at least until some unknown force had reduced a good third of it to gravel and dislodged it from its resting place. How long ago this even had occurred was unknowable.  

The room beyond was even darker than the blackness of the cave; it seemed hungry for their light, consuming the white glow just a few feet past the threshold. Sounds echoed from within, arcane words, energetic sizzles, and exclamations of anger and pain, most of them disturbingly child-like.

Brand drew a glyphed tooth from the sheath on his belt. He took a deep breath and, without waiting for advice, stepped through the opening.

The darkness felt like a physical thing, a wispy curtain of fine threads that parted easily as he pushed through it, brushing against his skin like soft, luxurious fabric and closing behind him again as if it were a curtain. Like a curtain, it only blocked the very entrance; he could no longer see his compatriots at his back, but could see clearly into the chamber.

The room inside was immense, almost as immense as the inner sanctum of the temple above. It was neither dark nor bright inside, but a sort of twinkling dimness he normally would have associated with a night sky adorned by a full moon and a thousand winking stars. It emenated from a statue at the far end of the room: a beautiful woman, carved in magnificent detail, one arm across her chest and the other extended towards the ceiling as if she were preparing to receive some gift from above. She was dressed in a fine gown that was slightly too formal for a casual outing but slightly too revealing for an official function. Some bits about the woman were peculiar; her ears were slightly pointed, her eyes slightly almond-shaped, and her full lips curved into something like a secretive smirk.

Several chunks of stone had been torn from the effigy, and it looked like it was hollow inside, or perhaps the inner layer was made up of something that didn’t reflect light as well as the sparkling granite, making it look empty beneath.

Above her head, fused into the stone wall, was an enormous troll skull, bigger than any of the others, wearing a headdress of tattered, moldy feathers.

The statue, however, was not Brand’s real focus; the three councilors huddled in a defensive formation along the north side of the room. Speaker Faekin’s small face was clenched in concentration as she fought to hold a magical barrier around them; anywhere else, it would have glowed with a golden light bright enough to repair the gears of a clock by, but down here it was muted and dim. Behind her, Hearthmother Eliza wove her hands in the air, gathering dark energy to strike at their assailants from behind the shield. Against the wall, Knight-General Cheyanne leaned, breathing heavily. Her bastard sword dangled from her weak right hand and she held her left across her abdomen. Blood had seeped into her jerkin and sleeves.

Arrayed around the trio was a quartet of disfigured child-demons, identical to the ones that Brand had seen before. Three girls and one boy, each had a look of rage that was entirely unchildish. Five or six of their fellows littered the stone floor, most charred, a couple mangled.

Before Brand could gather his wits to act, one of the child-monsters shrieked and threw itself at the barricade. Speaker Faekin winced and the shield crackled as the beast slammed against it, and the Hearthmother let loose a ball of dark fire; the combined magics pushed the creature back and it screamed as the black flames spread over its skin.

One of the corpses at Brand’s feet twitched. Its shattered arm moved as if it had been filmed in time-lapse, pulling itself back together and properly into its socket while the gaping wound in its bloated stomach knitted itself closed. Disarming blue eyes opened to the world, and it struggled to stand.

Brand lashed out with his tooth; the weapon easily pierced the flesh of the monster’s forehead and sank deep as if there was had been no bone at all to obstruct it. The thing’s mouth dropped open, but it released no sound; instead it exploded in a puff of fine, black dust which hung in the still air of the chamber, glittering in the starlight.

Everything stopped. The shrieks, the chanting, the movement; even the beast that had been trying to roll out the flames upon it ceased it motion. All heads turned towards Brand.

As a single unit, the three demons yet on their feet charged at the grizzled engineer.

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Kian didn't have the heart to tell the engineer that their time together was short-lived. It was a kind gesture, for sure, and he did appreciate his words, there was no mistaking that. However, no matter what they were doing, no matter what happened down there, there was no doubting that Kian would not be staying around for long. He was there to make a quick buck, pretend to be a miner for a day or so, just long enough to get some supplies together and skip town, and then he was gone again. Gone before anybody would notice or point out that the catfolk had looted what he could off the dead, and plundered whatever he could get away with before running off. Still, he nodded appreciatively, and followed along with the party. In his backpack, the skull was silent, and a fleeting thought wormed through his brain.

Was their communication with the woman they'd spoken to severed forever? Moreover, if they did manage to speak with her again, would Kian be able to talk to her a little bit more about the catacombs? He had to admit to himself that he was curious; about her, about these graves, and about the peculiar magic that trapped her. If the folk who'd imprisoned her were at the very least intelligent enough to use powerful magic, perhaps they had some equally impressive loot hiding about. Perhaps the woman would be able to offer him some of the tomb's various secrets in exchange for her freedom, or her vengeance.

He had to concede that it was at least a tempting thought.

Kian followed just behind the rest of the party, keeping an eye on their backs as they stepped boldly through the tunnels, towards what Kian could only assume was their first--and possibly their last--confrontation with the living relatives of that thing he'd decapitated earlier. Faux-Children, the woman had called them. Kian wondered if there was some kind of market for such a concept, but didn't really entertain the thought too rigorously. Ahead of him, Brand led the way as best as he could. Just behind the engineer, Tyrell walked on, shoulders squared and back straight. Kian was impressed the knight could put on such a brave facade in the face of death. The catfolk himself was moreso composed, but not out of any real calm. He'd just been speaking with the skull of a child, who told him how to kill other not-children. Coupled with the fact that they were in a setting the grave robber was more or less familiar and comfortable being in, there wasn't too much to fear. Besides, he was at the back of the party. Either things went well, and they saved Tyrell and Brand's friends, or Kian took the first chance he could to back out of this place and make for an exit. He hoped it wouldn't have to come to that; if they could resolve this situation without incident, he could come back later for loot, after all.

The tunnels wound and warped as they moved through them, mud squelching beneath their boots as they moved, and twice a water droplet plunked down onto his head, causing his ears to flick in displeasure. He didn't say much, as they moved out of the tunnels and towards a hole in the earth, which Kian quickly understood to be the entrance to a tomb, by the capstone nearby. Kian paused in place for a moment, to think about where they were. They'd wandered through a tomb already, that much was for certain, and now they were headed deeper, into what he could only assume to be the second, more ancient of the two graves they'd mentioned earlier. The catfolk hadn't encountered anything quite like a tomb on top of a tomb before, in his years of practice, and the thought was almost eerie. The capstone had been busted and thrown aside, either by other grave robbers, or by something contained in the tomb yearning to get out, and he didn't know which was more likely at the time. Ahead of him, they quickly marched down into the tomb, and into total darkness.

Kian held his breath for several seconds, until Brand ignited some form of light, and they were able to see again. Ahead of them, Brand stepped through the dark, and only a moment afterward Kian and Tyrell followed suit, into the grand chamber beyond.

It was immense, too immense for Kian to appreciate in the limited time they had to act, though the statue in the center of the room did catch his eye. After all, why wouldn't it? It was of a woman, tall and proud and beautiful, and right away Kian couldn't help but to imagine if this statue depicted the woman they'd spoken to through the skull. If it was, he'd have to look into seeing if he could set her free somehow. He wouldn't mind currying such an attractive figure's favor.

He didn't have much time to imagine how she'd thank him for helping her, because almost immediately their attention was pulled to the task at hand. More of those monsters, alive and angry, thrashing out at people that Kian could only assume that Brand and Tyrell knew, probably even by name. He watched from the far back as they threw themselves at the barrier one of them had erected, desperate to break through and attack the people it protected. One of them was wounded, quite badly, and she was also quite attractive, though somehow Kian doubted that mattered much, as once again his rampant hormones were rudely interrupted by things that weren't related to attractive women. Somewhere at their feet, Brand lashed out at something--possibly another one of these monsters, and it exploded with an almost comical poof. An awkward silence reigned, and the next thing the grave robber knew, they were in battle.

The three monsters turned away from the survivors huddled behind their bubble, and rushed the newcomers, bearing down on them with terrifying speed. As his friends moved around in an attempt to avoid striking each other in the coming fight, Kian found himself with nobody to hide behind, with one of the demons rushing him. It was fast, faster than any man Kian had been forced to fight with. Kian also didn't have many places to move, nowhere to run off to.

At a loss for options, he reached behind his bag and grabbed his shovel. The handle was firm and worn to the touch, a familiar weight in his fingers. He pulled it free and swung hard in the same moment, and Kian heard the satisfying sound of the blunt instrument striking the charging beast into the dirt at his feet, just in time to keep it from leaping at him.

THWTANG

The monster went down, and Kian didn't give it much of a chance to recover before lifting his shovel again. He adjusted his grip, and smashed it on the head once more, with a similar sound, before bringing it up and back down again, refusing to give the monster much of a chance to react.

THWTANG! THWTONK! THONK!

The metal rang in the otherwise mostly-still air, and Kian's palms felt numb from the high impact shovel-based violence he'd demonstrated upon his foe. Each time he saw that it was about to move again, he gave it another bash upside the head, his ears standing on end as his allies fought around him. Eventually, the beast didn't move very much at all anymore, and Kian put away his shovel, reaching instead for his pickaxe, bringing it back down with a similar motion, driving the end of it into the beast's head.

 

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The head of the creature at Kian's feet exploded under the force of the pickaxe; the body twitched once, then lay still. 

An unmanly screech rise above the din of the battle as Tyrell stumbled backwards into the chamber, clawing at the curtain of darkness with one hand and shakily brandishing his tooth in the direction of the passageway with the other. A headless, charred corpse followed him in, chitinous arms outstretched as it blindly scraped its shoulder against the rock. Without a child's face to confuse the sensibilities, it was truly a hideous demon, albeit one which seemed somewhat comical in its sensory-deprived state. 

Tyrell was blind as well, but with panic rather than decapitation.

Nearby, two balls of black fire erupted from behind the Speaker's defensive shield. The projectiles were hastily formed and imprecisely aimed, but they forced the two remaining beasts assaulting Brand to alter their course, buying the engineer a bit of space. 

Both balls slammed into the statue, and a yelp of pain shot through Kian's mind. Tyrell and the embattled councilors winced simultaneously, through Brand seemed unaffected.

Large chunks of stone broke off the surface of the statue, revealing the head, right arm, and left hip of the woman who was trapped within it. She was the identical to the exterior depiction, except that her skin was dark; not black like Magistrate Karaga's, but inky, almost indigo.

A flash of surprise crossed her features, the she immediately began using her free arm to tear small chunks of stone from her body, causing a sensation of moderate pain to corse through the minds of those in the chamber.

"Help me!" she cried as she ripped off another flake of rock. "I can aid you! I can dispel them!"

BITE HER! BITE HER NOW!

The giant skull in the wall creaked as the jaw opened to growl at the struggling woman. 

"No! Let me save you, let me free! I will be your loyal servant in any way you desire! Please!"

Brand was caught between two of the demon children, fighting for his life. Tyrell was fleeing in panic. And more of the corpses on the ground began to rise up, their wounds knitting and their senses returning, taking the full attention of Speaker Faekin and Hearthmother Eliza. Kian was the only one with room to act.

The wall around the skull was cracked and weakened by age and erosion. One good whack with an appropriate digging tool would send the gaping maw down atop the stranger. On the other hand, such tools were also uniquely equipped to remove the thin layer of stone incapacitating her. 

The dark woman met Kian's eyes, her gaze pleading. The troll skull growled again. The demon children shrieked, though whom they rooted for could not be determined.

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The skull exploded beneath his pickaxe, showering the dirt and stone beneath them with viscous grey matter. The catfolk had to bite back the ensuing bile that threatened to rise up and out of his body, as if expunging the contents of his stomach would also purge the vision from his memory. However, Kian was able to keep his lunch down. Around him, the battle raged on, oblivious to his discomfort at rupturing the monster's cranium in such a brutal fashion. He eventually recovered enough to look around, and watched, almost in slow-motion, as a fireball slammed into the woman's statue.

Kian's head suddenly throbbed in agony, and the grave robber dropped his pickaxe as both hands flew to his noggin' as he attempted to stifle the sudden, ferocious headache. He looked down to the floor, and rubbed his temples, groaning in obvious displeasure. What on earth had happened, and why was his head hurting so much? He glanced back up, at the statue, and nearly threw up again, this time in shock instead of disgust. Beneath the fine, dignified features of the statue had been hiding a real woman, a woman who, despite her skin tone, appeared to be healthy and alive, as evidenced by how she was suddenly, rapidly, plucking at her stone prison. With each chunk of rock that came free, his head throbbed again. She must have noticed he was staring, she had to have noticed, because she spoke out loud then. Or, not out loud, but in his head like she had before?

She? Indeed, Kian realized in the same instant that he'd heard her voice that he'd heard the woman's voice before, or at least he believed he had. The graverobber rubbed his temples again, as the woman begged for freedom.

On 5/5/2018 at 2:17 PM, Raspberry LA said:

"Help me!" she cried as she ripped off another flake of rock. "I can aid you! I can dispel them!"

BITE HER! BITE HER NOW!

The giant skull in the wall creaked as the jaw opened to growl at the struggling woman. 

"No! Let me save you, let me free! I will be your loyal servant in any way you desire! Please!"

Nobody else was able to respond, and very few of the others seemed to be reacting to her pleas now. 

Kian was alone in this decision, and conflicted as he could be.

On one end, Kian understood that she could not be human, or mortal for that matter. He also understood that, if the skull of these beasts was trying to get her killed again, she was either a danger to them, or a danger to someone else. Kian had no way of knowing for certain, and no room to find out for himself. All around him, battle threatened to break out once more, and Kian sighed loudly, before bending over to grab his pickaxe off the floor where he'd dropped it. In the same motion, the catfolk surged forward, making a mad sprint for the statue.

"This is such a bad idea!" He declared grimly, pickaxe at the ready already. Even so, the grave robber rushed the statue, and once he was in range, he took a swing at its base.

Then another.

And another.

Each swing was fast, and furious, driving deep into the stone, pummeling it away nearly effortlessly. Each blow brought untold agony to his ever-aching head, and doubtlessly hurt his companions just as much, but he did not relent.

Another blow, and then another.

He could see the other's wincing in pain, and hoped against hope that they would outlast the torment, and their defenses would hold until he was finished.

"You'd better be worth the effort!" He shouted to nobody in particular.

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The dark woman winced with each blow to the statue around her. The troll skull growled louder, and shifted in its setting, leaning slowly forward as if attached to some great arthritic neck. The demonic beasts assaulting the team screamed, their childish faces twisted in temper-tantrum-like rage; they turned from their quarry and charged towards the statue.

The stone flaked away easily under Kian’s pickax, calving off in large slabs; after only a few strikes, cracks began to work their way up the facade, and the whole structure began to wobble. One more swing, and the remaining stone lost its grip, crumbling away from the woman like a landslide. Wasting no time, she quickly stepped from the pile of rubble and jogged away from the podium upon which she had stood for an uncounted millennia, favoring her right leg.

The troll skull, having finally shed its moorings, crashed to the ground just inches behind her, its sharp teeth snapping shut on empty air before large fissures spiderwebbed up its surface. A sensation of intense frustration shot through Kian’s mind, then was suddenly silenced as the skull crumbled, adding its leftovers to the pile of crushed stone it had fallen atop of.

The nude woman did not even glance over her shoulder at the danger she had just avoided. She instead focused her attention on the swiftly-approaching faux-children, favoring them with a look of disgust so sharp it could cut glass. She raised her bare arms over her head and a dome of pure blackness sprang up around Kian and her. If one were to touch it, it would have the texture of soft terrycloth and the strength of a thin sheet of plywood. To the angry child demons, however, it may as well have been a dome of chromium-steel. Kian could hear their bodies hit the dome; it was a sickening, crunching sound like someone flying face-first into a brick wall. It was impossible to see outside, but the mental image of what the demons must look like after such an impact was quite enough.

The former prisoner wasn’t done, though. She stretched her arms higher, throwing her shoulders back, and her almond-shaped eyes - otherwise normal, brown, human-like eyes - glazed over, becoming a pure white which seemed to emit a little bit of their own light rather than reflecting the moonlight which still emanate from the crushed stone.

“For the crimes of raising a hand against the Vas, endangering a member of the Vas, and creating displeasure in the Vas by far outliving your purpose! You are hereby condemned!”

The dome expanded outward in a flash, losing its physical substance and washing over everyone in the chamber. Across the skin of the mortals, it felt like a layer of soft frost, but as it rushed over the demons - those yet still standing and those twitching on the floor - it dissolved them into black, sparkling dust, identical to that which Brand had created with his troll tooth. The room quickly became full of it, and for a moment it seemed to create its own danger; it was hard to breathe without inhaling the tiny bits of velvet glass, which irritated the throats and the noses of those trapped inside of it.

The strange woman waved her arms again; more shadows moved, becoming a frigid gale which shoved the dust forcefully out of the chamber and into the tunnels.

The shadow-wind tore through the warrens, picking up and dissolving straggling demons, until it reached back to the exit of the tunnels.

 

---

 

Just above, Biaru was hastily digging through the box of what remained of the tunnel exploration supplies when he heard the sound of a fierce wind rising through the caves. Black dust began to pour into the inner sanctum, causing the Magistrate to cough and shield his eyes.

“No!” he growled, hacking, gasping for a breath that wasn’t painful. He thrust his arms out and used his command of Gaia’s earth to hastily erect a vertical barrier in the archway between the warren entrance and the temple, funneling the wind higher, to the surface exit far above.

 

---

 

The troll leader was done talking.

Hearthfather Elijah watched with a sinking heart as the troll army began across the plateau at an energy-conserving lope, their long legs eating up the distance between the pass and the city wall, their huge weapons bared and ready. Blood would be spilled this day. Lots of blood.

He signaled the siege commander to hold fire until the trolls were unquestionably in range, and commanded his page to blow two sharp notes on his hunting horn: “Be ready”.

Just as the soldiers at the catapults tensed their hands to their levers, a huge black plume erupted from the mountain behind them, like a billowing cloud of ash from a volcano. It hit the winds above the peak and spread out, soaring over the battlefield and turning the bright sun into glittering dimness.

The knights, forgetting their peril for a moment, cast their eyes skyward in wonder and suspicion as the dust began to lose its buoyancy, slowly drifting towards the ground.

The trolls, on the other hand, had an entirely different reaction. The headressed leader let out an exclamatory roar, which had a note of fear in it, and the entire phalanx dissolved into a chaotic rout. The formation became a disorganized mass, sprinting back towards the pass; any who fell or lagged were left behind.

A piqued siege operator let loose a basket of scattershot from behind the wall, which crashed harmlessly onto the plain in the wake of the fleeing army.

As the trolls began to scale the wall of the Cauda, vanishing into crevasses and holes, the first motes of dust began to settle over the city and its proud, if confused, defenders. Most put their colored cloaks over their heads to shield their heads and eyes, which would end up staining them irreversibly black.

 

---

 

In the chamber below, Tyrell coughed up a wad of dust-infused phlegm, spitting it out onto the stone floor. Everyone was covered in fine black powder; while it would wash off their skin, their clothes, and especially their cloaks, would never again be any color other than black.

Speaker Faekin dropped her magical barrier with an exhausted exhale, and slumped into a sitting position on the floor, panting heavily. The Hearthmother dispelled her last, half-formed ball of magical fire, and rushed to attend to the Knight-General.

Brand stared warily at their new companion, but said nothing as he fought to catch his breath.

The nude, indigo-skinned woman’s eyes returned to normal, and she looked around at her saviors before meeting Kian’s gaze directly.

“I am Vas-Vivine, youngest daughter of the highest-station surface clan of the Vas-Sukai. An eon of crass injustice is done! I owe you a debt, lightwalker.” She clasped her hands together over her heart and lowered her head, touching the bridge of her nose to her knuckles.

“The Vas-what?” Tyrell whispered.

“Never heard of ‘em,” Brand replied.

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With Kian's work done, and the woman freed, his pickaxe rested against his foot as he stopped to breathe for a moment. All around them, the world continued to turn, with the demons still going about their wretched work. Kian cursed himself inwardly for being so foolish as to leap into action as he had. Now, without the strength to lift any of his weapons, he would be defenseless as the monsters turned their attention towards him. Before him, the woman fled from her previous position, and just in time too, as moments after she fled, the skull above her crashed down on top of the pillar she'd rested upon. Kian winced as it slammed into the earth, and then just like that it was no more. The skull dissipated, crumbled into nothingness. It was poetic, in the same way that Kian felt as though he might be reduced to nothingness if he didn't get moving. Without any further prompt, the grave robber made a dash in the same direction the woman had bolted towards safety.

For now.

Now, by the woman's side, he was able to pause and catch his breath as she got to work. Next to him, the woman had already begun to work her sorcery, and the grave robber could only watch in confusion and awe as she conjured a dome around the two of them, blacker than pitch. As it descended over him, he lost sight of everything else in the room, and could only hear what was going on outside of the dome, as the monsters flung themselves at the dome surrounding them. This was punctuated by the sickening crunch of bones splintering, and although the grave robber could not see what was happening, he could only assume. The thought nearly made him want to vomit again, and his ears splayed against his head once more. Eager to avoid losing his lunch, he took advantage of their situation to pick up his pick, and steady himself, all the while taking a chance and looking over the woman he'd freed.

She was...if Kian only used the word "Otherworldly" once in his lifetime, he would have used it here. Aside from her smooth, dark skin and her shapely, nude figure, she was a sight to behold, with firm, yet soft-looking lips, dazzling eyes (which were currently looking elsewhere, to his dismay) and beautiful hair. The catfolk was awestruck, and could only stare for the longest time, before he feared his gaze had turned vulgar, and his leering was cast downward. Kian focused on the dirt while the woman before him called out in her bone-chilling, yet entrancing voice.

3 hours ago, Raspberry LA said:

“For the crimes of raising a hand against the Vas, endangering a member of the Vas, and creating displeasure in the Vas by far outliving your purpose! You are hereby condemned!”

All around them, the room suddenly filled with billions of shards of that peculiar dome's material, and the grave robber looked up in time to watch as it went to work. The demons, the faux-children, dissolved and broke into fragments at the dust's touch, and the various other people in the room coughed and covered their mouths as the dust billowed in their direction. Kian, in the center of the room, quite close to the woman even still, and was mercifully out of the dust's way, where it could not get caught in his ears and hair. He looked all around him as she made another gesture, and the dust was forced out of the room, through the tunnels to parts unknown. The roar of the wind died with distance, and Kian sighed in relief as the world fell silent.

With the wind, and the monsters, gone, Kian was able to put his mind at ease. Around the room, the people he'd saved rushed to each other's aid, while the two people who'd accompanied him to their rescue looked on.

Kian himself turned back to the woman that had saved them, and made a genuine effort to avoid looking at anything other than her face.

3 hours ago, Raspberry LA said:

“I am Vas-Vivine, youngest daughter of the highest-station surface clan of the Vas-Sukai. An eon of crass injustice is done! I owe you a debt, lightwalker.” She clasped her hands together over her heart and lowered her head, touching the bridge of her nose to her knuckles.

 

3 hours ago, Raspberry LA said:

“The Vas-what?” Tyrell whispered.

“Never heard of ‘em,” Brand replied.

His ears twitched, as behind them they shared the same sentiments that he had. He hadn't heard of the Vas-Sukai, or any other 'Vas' before. That was hardly important now, however, as there was other things he cared about. The catfolk steeled himself for anything she might say to him, and when he was ready, Kian did what he thought was appropriate. He dropped his bag on the ground, shovel and pickaxe falling to the wayside, and shrugged off his jacket. He offered it to her.

"I get that this is supposed to be a serious moment," He acknowledged, at her look of confusion--or surprise. "But I am, like, too immature to maintain eye contact right now. Put this on for me, please?"

Whether she accepted his jacket or not, Kian was still determined to get a single question answered, if nothing else.

"Alright, so before you lure us into a sense of false security, I want to know one thing. Why were you trapped in stone, in an ancient tomb? No, more over, why are you still alive and well, when the tomb you were trapped in is so old that another civilization built their own tomb on top of this one?"

Edited by Jotnotes

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On 5/9/2018 at 1:08 PM, Jotnotes said:

He dropped his bag on the ground, shovel and pickaxe falling to the wayside, and shrugged off his jacket. He offered it to her.

"I get that this is supposed to be a serious moment," He acknowledged, at her look of confusion--or surprise. "But I am, like, too immature to maintain eye contact right now. Put this on for me, please?"

Vas-Vivine donned the proffered jacket with a look back at the statue; her expression was somewhere between embarrassed and amused.

"Oh dear. I didn't plan on the calcification of my attire. Pity, that was one of my favorite outfits; though the 'immature' compliment of your gaze does somewhat lessen that specific sting."

 

On 5/9/2018 at 1:08 PM, Jotnotes said:

"Alright, so before you lure us into a sense of false security, I want to know one thing. Why were you trapped in stone, in an ancient tomb? No, more over, why are you still alive and well, when the tomb you were trapped in is so old that another civilization built their own tomb on top of this one?"

Vivine looked over at the wounded Knight-General and her caretakers; it didn't seem like anyone was in a real hurry to get a move-on, so she returned her attention to Kian.

"Your adorable little body is powered by energy much like that of the sun; bright, hot, powerful and vibrant. Yet it burns out quickly, and requires you to rest in places unseen after a time before you can return to make an impact upon the world. My body is powered by energy much more like the stars; producing little light and less warmth, but which smolders for time uncountable and is ever present behind those who shine with purpose. Light doesn't last, but shadows are eternal."

She examined her fingernails, still perfectly trimmed and buffed. "The flesh, however, does wear in time, though my prior circumstances seem to have made that a non-issue. Thank the Velveteen for small favors."

Vivine met Kian's eyes again. "As for why? A kangaroo court based on one part circumstance and eight parts prejudice. These strong but simple beings," she gestured to the shattered skull, "have no real concept of a judicial system. Investigation, testimony of the accused, any kind of proper jury? Bah! I should have been so lucky! But speaking of our moldy hosts," she turned her attention to Tyrell, "didn't you have some news of minor urgency to impart? Or did my shaky connection to a hungry monster's ears deceive me?"

Tyrell looked blankly for a second, then startled as he remembered the entire reason he was in this accursed tomb.

"Knight-General!" he cried, turning to the councilors, who were dividing their attention unevenly between the wounded Jessa and ostensible savior, "the rock trolls are attacking the caravan on the Cauda! The Magistrate told me to find you!"

Jessa shrugged off her caretakers and hefted herself painfully to her feet. She staggered, but waved away Eliza's offer of support. "Then there's no time for coddling. I can walk. Brand, Tyrell, restrain that woman and keep a close eye on her until we can properly sort this mess." 

"Restrain? Oh come now darlings," Vivine protested, "The only people calling me 'enemy' are the same ones calling you 'enemy'!" She threw a sly glance at Kian. "Though that's not to say I'm necessarily adverse to restraints."

Jessa's brow furrowed and her lip curled up in disdain, but Hearthmother Eliza intervened before anything undiplomatic could leave her colleague's mouth.

"That's fine. You did us a service, and we owe you thanks, along with some small measure of trust." She shot a piercing glare at Jessa before tuning to Kian. "You chose to free her, prospector, and we shall trust your judgement; it has worked in our favor so far. But we have many things that need to be quickly addressed before we can determine the truth of this matter. I would ask that you take our new friend--" another piercing glance at the Knight-General, "into your responsibility for the time being."

Jessa heaved a sigh, and wobbled on her feet. "Forgive my lack of gratitude, it must be upon the stones, under my blood. But I will defer to the Hearthmother's recommendation. For now. Tyrell, when we reach the surface, guide these two to Eliza's suite, then meet us on the front lines. Now let's move!"

Jessa turned and marched unsteadily towards the exit; Speaker Faekin jogged to catch up and put a supporting arm around the much taller woman's waist. Eliza simply rolled her eyes and followed; after a quick back and forth glance, Brand and Tyrell did likewise.

Vas-Vivine smiled teasingly at Kian, and extended her hands towards him, wrists together. "What do you think, darling? Do you also want to tie me up?"

--

The knights moved through the warrens, following the dead lightline and Brand's sharp recollections. They reached the stairs to the surface just as Biaru opened a small hole in his barrier to check if the tunnel was still clogged with dust.

He was both surprised and elated to see his fellow councilors, and after brief greetings he took the Speaker's place at the Knight-General's side, half-carrying her into the upper reaches of the temple as they exchanged reports. 

Tyrell remained at the entrance to the warren; he would do as ordered and escort the civilians to the posh suite of the Hearthmother as soon as they arrived. 

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7 hours ago, Raspberry LA said:

"Your adorable little body is powered by energy much like that of the sun; bright, hot, powerful and vibrant. Yet it burns out quickly, and requires you to rest in places unseen after a time before you can return to make an impact upon the world. My body is powered by energy much more like the stars; producing little light and less warmth, but which smolders for time uncountable and is ever present behind those who shine with purpose. Light doesn't last, but shadows are eternal."

Kian had to make a legitimate effort to ignore her comments about him, as there appeared to be a lot of them. From the moment he'd spoke with her through the skull, to the moment she called for him in the stone, she'd done nothing but...egg him on. Her words were playful and coquettish, and toyed with his fragile male brain as if it were putty. It was working, too. Between calling him adorable--which, of course, prompted him to puff out his chest in indignance--to taking his comment about being 'immature' as a compliment on her body, she'd managed to get her hooks in him. Now, the grave robber needed to make a genuine effort to keep his thoughts clear and remain focused. It didn't once cross his mind that she might have been using some mild form of magic on him. He was content to believe that she was simply a confident flirt.

Once he was able to focus his thoughts, however, her response made quite a bit of sense, and at the same time didn't totally horrify him. If he had to put it into his own words for somebody else later, he would have probably explained it like so.

"So...you're an immortal." There wasn't a lot of weight behind a word like 'immortal.' Immortal referred to just about anything that didn't immediately die within the span of a hundred to a thousand years. For Vivine to have survived beneath both tombs for as long as she had, of course she was immortal. It didn't explain much else, though. For one thing, she referred to mortal life as 'light' and her own life as 'shadow.' Was she merely...well, he hadn't time for speculation.

Around him, the rest of the party was getting ready to move, once Tyrell relayed his initial orders to the rest of their party. Kian took a full step away from Vas-Vivine, his tail wrapping around his own legs for protection, as he looked them all over. In the heat of the battle, they were strangers, and in the still of victory, they were strangers even still. Still, he paid attention as they spoke, and found a few of their names quite quickly. Just enough to call them by name if he got caught doing something unscrupulous. 

Speaking of unscrupulous, the one that went by the name Jessa looked towards the two of them--no, no, just Vivine, not him, and spoke up. Kian's ears twitched as he scooped up his backpack and tools again.

8 hours ago, Raspberry LA said:

"Then there's no time for coddling. I can walk. Brand, Tyrell, restrain that woman and keep a close eye on her until we can properly sort this mess." 

Kian glanced up, suddenly on edge. He was sort of gambling on Vivine at this point. If she were entombed here, she definitely had to be useful, even if her use only went as far as 'getting him very very far away when they realized he was going to dig up their dead'. If she were imprisoned, though he doubted it last very long, it would make his efforts much more difficult. 

Vivine seemed to share his disinterest in being imprisoned, and she was quite vocal about it.

8 hours ago, Raspberry LA said:

"Restrain? Oh come now darlings," Vivine protested, "The only people calling me 'enemy' are the same ones calling you 'enemy'!"

And then, she threw a glance at him, and literally purred at Kian.

8 hours ago, Raspberry LA said:

"Though that's not to say I'm necessarily adverse to restraints."

The grave robber needed to suddenly hug himself, and was suddenly grateful he'd given up his jacket. Was it that hot down here? The grave robber avoided eye contact, ears on edge, cheeks flush with color. He had no way of knowing if she was teasing him, but he had a pretty good impression that she wasn't. This was too deliberate to just be mild harassment, though the catfolk was too modest to admit it out loud.

Around him, the rest of the group argued among themselves quite a bit more, and without anything else to distract him, he tried to remain involved. He couldn't see what she was doing next to him, but it didn't concern him, either, and he kept it that way for the time being.

The others quickly admonished Jessa for being so quick to judge, and from the look on her face he could tell she wasn't pleased with the backlash. From what he could tell, it wasn't that she disliked being talked back to, but rather she disliked being talked back to when she knew she was in the wrong. He could sympathize. It was one thing to deal with idiots telling you that you were wrong. It was another thing for educated people to tell you that you were wrong, and explain why. If anything, though, he was glad that she had to suffer through it. It meant that Vas-Vivine wasn't going to jail immediately.

8 hours ago, Raspberry LA said:

"That's fine. You did us a service, and we owe you thanks, along with some small measure of trust." She shot a piercing glare at Jessa before tuning to Kian. "You chose to free her, prospector, and we shall trust your judgement; it has worked in our favor so far. But we have many things that need to be quickly addressed before we can determine the truth of this matter. I would ask that you take our new friend--" another piercing glance at the Knight-General, "into your responsibility for the time being."

Oh, good. Kian's somewhat mild pleasure at the Knight-General's annoyance almost immediately vanished as the mysterious immortal was placed under his care. He glanced over at her, pained before glancing back at them, and back at Jessa. He half-hoped that she would argue the claim.

8 hours ago, Raspberry LA said:

Jessa heaved a sigh, and wobbled on her feet. "Forgive my lack of gratitude, it must be upon the stones, under my blood. But I will defer to the Hearthmother's recommendation. For now. Tyrell, when we reach the surface, guide these two to Eliza's suite, then meet us on the front lines. Now let's move!"

With that, the last vestiges of not being flirted with and harassed vanished, much to Kian's bewilderment. On one end he was genuinely flattered at her attention. What man wouldn't be, after all? Vas-Vivine was beautiful, and undoubtedly interesting. The fact that she also appeared to be quite flirty, and possibly even a bit easy, would have made her easy prey for another man, most certainly. However, Kian and his compulsion to not get arrested or executed for being a grave robber strongly overpowered his lust for wealth and women almost every time. To this end, Vivine was a bit of an antagonist to his own goals. The grave robber wanted to skip town as soon as he had some loot to his name. Vivine made him want to stay, for as long as they'd let him and his new companion stick around in that room they'd mentioned.

While he'd pondered their situation in near silence, the party had begun moving along, and behind him Vivine gave him a nudge. Turning around, she fixed him with another enticing smile.

8 hours ago, Raspberry LA said:

Vas-Vivine smiled teasingly at Kian, and extended her hands towards him, wrists together. "What do you think, darling? Do you also want to tie me up?"

"I mean, yes, but shouldn't we wait until we get to the surface?" He asked confused. He caught his misdeed literal seconds afterward and looked away, ears splayed against his skull as he berated himself inwardly. "Oh, for the love of--"

When he finally finished killing himself to avoid being embarrassed, Kian was sort of in a better place mentally and agreed to let Vas-Vivine go up the stairs unbound. It was an easy choice to make; she'd saved them in exchange for being saved, it was only fair to keep her unrestrained, in case she took offense to being tied up. Again, she'd mentioned to Kian that she wouldn't mind him tying her up, but the catfolk wasn't going to lose himself so quickly. Instead, they both clambered out of the tombs, back the way they came, and into the light once more. It was an easier trip backwards than forwards, something that the grave robber was grateful for. 

When sunlight pierced their eyes once more, he breathed a sigh of relief and moved quickly out of the way to help his new playmate out of the hole as well. He glanced around, blinking away tears before looking to Tyrell.

"So...this suite of yours." He thought about asking about the bed size, but figured that he would be getting carried away. Besides, Vas was probably already on it. He glanced over at her, and back at the hole in the dirt. "Talk about an upgrade, right?" It was supposed to be a joke, but it wasn't that funny.

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Vivine giggled. "Keep laying your cards so skillfully, darling, and I may just allow that."

Then, with an extraneous swing of her hips, she stepped past the threshold of the chamber. The curtain of darkness seemed to slide across her skin like water, vanishing entirely as she passed through it.

She was quiet, if swishy, on the trip back, but she hesitated at the tunnel entrance, squinting at the bright artificial light. She gingerly extended her hand from the shadows with an anticipatory wince. When nothing happened, she let out a relieved little puff of breath and stepped fully into the sanctum.

In the light, her skin was definitely a deep indigo color. Her shoulder-length hair was darker yet, though still too blue to be black, and shot through with highlights of lighter cerulean.  She drew many stares as she followed Tyrell through the halls, but gave no response except for the smirk that had been on the face of the statue.

She was doing a wonderful job of hiding her weakness. The truth was that she was as no stronger than a month-old kitten. While the emotional energy of pain, anger, and fear during the battle below had made for a fine meal, she had used it all up in the effort it took to forcibly deport her sister's wretched retainers. She didn't even have the strength to establish a proper empathic link.

It took all her will to be satisfied with the simmering heat of Kian's arousal, to only sip the delicious stew that bubbled out of that large, divine-smelling caldron. But once they were alone...

Luck, again, had come in Vivine's favor. The cat-boy was young and strong, and his constant blushing indicated a degree of inexperience. He would likely believe the sense of deep fatigue to be perfectly normal after intense congress, and would replenish himself of all she took with but a couple hours of sleep. 

There were definitely some advantages to sticking by his side, she mused.

---

Over the coming hours, the four leaders of The Order of the Word came together to assess the events of the day. 

Scout reports confirmed that the rock trolls had dispersed, presumably vanishing back to their homes, though for what reason they could only guess.

Casualties had been light; less than half a dozen were missing, and only four deaths had been confirmed. Sadly, the young woman who had first sounded the alert was among them, as was her master. It was quickly decided that they would be given high honors at their burial.

Discussion then turned to deeper matters. Just before sunset, it had been agreed that great change needed to come to the Order. 

"We are all supposed to be, in our own ways, dedicated to the Word. Yet we live as strangers sharing a house," Elijah began, sipping a glass of warm scotch. "We only survived this by forgetting the divisions among our orders, and acting as we should have from the beginning; as one family."

The others nodded, even Jessa. 

"We need to restructure. There can only be one Order, sworn to loyalty and unity. We can keep our traditions, but as an integrated whole rather than as competitive rivals."

"We'll need to pick a color, then," Julia ventured. 

"We could spend all night arguing over which of our cloaks is the prettiest." Biaru snorted.

Jessa held up the hem of her cape, stained with the dust from the catacombs. "Black. A reminder of the day, and the merging of all colors."

There was more discussion beyond, some heated, but in the end, it was decided that the Order would henceforth be united by the black cloak.

The symbol of unity.

~~~

EPILOGUE

The darkness of the mountain night was broken by a faint white light bobbing along a crooked trail. The city's illumination was blocked by the craggy outcrops, leaving just a hint of a yellow aura above the peaks. 

Speaker Julia Faekin carefully picked her way over the rocks, the narrow beam of her crystal casting enlarged shadows off to the left and right.

A growl stopped her in her tracks, and the master crystal on her forehead translated the surface thoughts of the growler.

Close enough, faithless one.

"I have not broken faith with you, Turra," she replied calmly, letting the magic of her stone carry her meaning to the potent spirit ahead.

Into the light stepped the troll shaman, his headdress resplendent even in the gloom. 

Human Julia, why do you seek me? Our agreement is shattered. You have failed. Do you know how badly?

"I only want to restore the peace, Turra. To give and receive assurances, in spite of today. To tell you that the scouts have agreed to return the bones they found in the pass, to restore their magic, so we can minimize this."

There can be no peace. This is an evil my far-fathers spent a generation to seal, to the benefit of your ancestors even more than mine! Your restitution is too late to be more than a decoration for my temple; that prisoner as well is upon her feet.

"We didn't know!" 

Ignorance! A good way to lose your soul!

"How could we have?" Julia pleaded.

BY ASSUMING ALL THINGS DONE ARE DONE WITH PURPOSE! The troll's roar shook the stones, and Julia flinched. You have no tales of these things, THANKS TO US! You have not been touched by their madness, THANKS TO US! A week ago you gave one legs. Today you have given the other wings! Shall I dig up the third so you can give him fins??

"We have this one under control, I assure you! She will not stray from our sight, and under good eyes she can do no evil!"

Arrogance! A better way to lose your soul! It takes but one flaw, one weakness, one lust, one dark thought unseen for them to grasp you in their talons and make you anew!

"You insult us, Turra; we are a pious order. We endure much training just to make ourselves aware of all such paths to darkness within us."

Yet you are here. Sneaking in the night to engage in secret diplomacy with your enemies, and you shall tell none of your people what we discuss. Or will you?

"I'm only trying to make things better!" Julia threw up her hands, exasperated. "There's no evil in that!"

Intentions! The very best way of all to lose your soul! Your intentions are their currency, their livestock, their stone to carve!

"Her lies will not go uncovered, and will have no hold on any of us!"

That is their true craft, Human Julia. They do not lie. Every word she speaks will be truth. A twisted truth, a darkened truth, but a truth. No, soft one, as long as these roam, there can be no peace. We cannot trust that even now you are not acting on her desires and taking them for your own. Go back to your people. Seal this evil, purge her influence, and pray to your god that she has not already begun to reproduce herself. My people will take their own precautions. Our territory is now fobidden to your kind. May the spirits preserve you. I liked you. I will miss you.

And with that, Turra faded back into the darkness, impossibly silent for a beast of his size, leaving Speaker Faekin to wrestle her thoughts alone as she trudged back home.

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Thread Summary:

The Order of the Word is well on their way to establishing a temple to unify their disparate sects. As two of the leaders, Julia Faekin and Biaru Karaga, argue about whether or not to return a number of ceremonially-decorated troll skulls discovered after a cave-in on a high pass,  they are interrupted by a message that a tunnel has been discovered below their inner sanctum.

Believing it to possibly be the resting place of their holiest saint, Julia, along with Jessa Cheyanne and Hearthmother Eliza, heads of two other sects, venture in with a team of explorers.

While they are gone, a caravan from a far settlement is attacked by savage rock trolls. The number of trolls grows until it becomes clear that this was not a raid, but a war party. With the caravan routed, they make their way to the city. Biaru is the only leader still topside. He takes command, and sends a messenger, Tyrell, into the warren to alert the others. Tyrell, not fond of dark places, recruits a civilian prospector (actually a grave robber) named Kian to aid him.

In the warrens, Tyrell and Kian encounter a strange, demonic beast. They hide from it, and after it has passed they meet Brand, the engineer who was in charge of the exploration team. Brand tells them the team was attacked by these demons, after a decorated troll skull was accidentally shattered in the main chamber.

Brand leads them to the chamber, as well as to the body of one of the demons. Acting on impulse, Kian severs its head and puts it on the empty pedestal. 

The skull begins to speak as an unknown person hijacks the magic of the pedestal. This person tells them that their leaders are under attack in another tomb.

Brand, Tyrell, and Kian find their commanders and a battle ensues, during which time an ancient statue in the tomb is destroyed, revealing a living person underneath. This person identifies herself as Vas-Vivine, youngest daughter of the greatest surface clan of the Vas-Sukai, which no one present has ever heard of.

Vas-Vivine destroys the demons, creating a vast cloud of black dust which she expells from an opening high on the mountain. Tyrell is finally able to deliver his message, and after some tense discussion, they depart with Vas-Vivine in the care if the bewildered Kian.

The trolls on the surface, upon seeing the cloud of dust rise from the mountain, become terrified and cease their attack, retreating back to their caves. 

A council ensues, at which time the leaders of the Order commit to full unification of all their beliefs and traditions. They choose black, the color of their dust-stained cloaks, to represent their new unity.

Late that night, Julia secretly meets with the leader of the trolls, Turra. After hinting at some prior correspondence, Turra scolds Julia for unleashing a powerful evil. He declares their peoples enemies as long as Vas-Vivine, and her kin who was released by the finding of the first skull, walk free. Before he leaves, Turra makes mention of a third member of that race who is still imprisoned, but provides no more detail.

Short Summary

The Order of the Word has been simultaneously attacked by trolls in the mountains and demons under the earth. With the help of Kian, a cat-boy grave robber and Vas-Vivine, a strange dark woman of an unknown race, they manage to destroy the demons and in the process frighten away the trolls. With fresh purpose, the four sects of the Order fully unite, under the symbol of the black cloak. But Julia has spoken to the trolls, and knows they believe Vas-Vivine, and the rest of her kind, to be an insideous evil.

 

Consequences

The followers of Order of the Word no longer identify themselves with their specific sect. While tensions remain, they are now a single religion, restructuring their beliefs and practices.

At least two members of a race, possibly evil, called the Vas-Sukai have been released from ancient prisons, and one is currently in the city as a guest.

The trolls will now agressively defend their territory against any incursion by humans, and will seek to hunt down and destroy the Vas-Sukai.

 

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