Kami was getting tired.
This was quite an accomplishment. After all, Kami regularly took blows to the head and vertical falls of thirty feet without even blinking, but this was a long, dragged-out torture that made those experiences seem pale. He was holding onto Olivia’s right arm as she flapped tirelessly over the White Sea, and he had been doing it for a LONG time. They had occasionally taken breaks before they got to the ocean, but it had been a full twelve hours of open, freezing sea and this was getting very old very quickly. Jacob and Veria were both crammed into Kami’s carrier, and while Veria’s snuggling was keeping Jacob warm, it was still a long way from comfortable, especially since the sun had already set and the wind was picking up. Kami shot a glance across to Hunter, who was holding onto Olivia’s left arm, and he looked similarly unhappy.
Kami glanced up at Olivia, who was still flapping away endlessly, as only she could. Her face seemed a bit more worried than usual though, as though she was thinking about something she would rather not. Normally Olivia seemed to relish facing every possibility, but not this time. Kami wondered for the hundredth time what was bothering her and why she wouldn’t explain more about her mentor, Swar, who was apparently an unshaped Raksha? This was all very strange.
Suddenly, quite unexpectedly, a flash of light appeared directly in front of Olivia with no warning. Olivia instinctively drew both her hands up in front of her in a defensive posture, dropping both Hunter and Kami (and Jacob) down towards the freezing White Sea. Hunter rapidly activated his flight charm, On Wings of Night, and as his anima billowed around him into black wings he grabbed a hold of Kami and heaved them back upwards towards Olivia. As they flew back upwards, they saw a blue hologram of a person (difficult to see who from this distance and angle) talking to Olivia. They missed the first part but as they arrived they could hear a little better.
“—could only send this message 500 miles so I hope you are within range this time. Carnot and the rest of the Technomage council have approved taking Swar, and have sealed off your manse. I told Carnot we don’t have the right to do this but he said all sorts of awful things about you, how you want to destroy Exaltation, and how you’re working to bring Creation to a new age that would destroy us. If you get this message, be careful.”
The message flickered out. Kami managed to identify the technology as some sort of long-distance message projection using technology, a thaumaturgical version of Infallible Messenger, apparently limited in range to 500 miles. Hunter, meanwhile, identified the speaker as Isabelle, one of the Technomages from Langri-Sha who Olivia had cultivated a relationship with.
Olivia glanced down at Hunter and Kami. She put up a bit of a poker face, but she could see they were worried and let a bit of her own worry show.
“Sorry about that guys. I wasn’t expecting any messages. Are you okay?”
Jacob yelled up over the wind, “We’re okay! Are you okay??”
Olivia smiled. “Yes I’m okay. I just got a letter from a friend. We have to hurry. My home is in trouble.”
Hunter peered at Olivia closely. Shakkai had hinted that Olivia was not to be trusted. Would she still be loyal to Hunter and Kami if she could save her home by acting otherwise? Perhaps the most likely answer would be that it would depend whether Olivia’s home was a more valuable asset than Hunter and Kami were…
The remainder of the journey across the White Sea was uneventful, and went a bit more quickly with Hunter flying Kami for a bit before returning to Olivia’s care. Once land was in sight, everyone seemed a bit relieved, but this land was much less inviting than what they had left behind. Only glaciers and snow-covered mountains loomed ahead, and the breaks were not very restful anymore. Regardless, they forged ahead as quickly as possible, with Olivia doing most of the carrying.
Finally, Olivia took them down to a ravine between two large glaciers. She looked around as she landed and said, “We’re getting close. Last break. Once we go in, we’ll see what we’re up against.”
Kami and Hunter both nodded and stretched their shoulders. Jacob wriggled a bit, anticipating being let out, and Kami quickly obliged him. As Jacob and Veria started running around and playing, with Kami watching, Hunter and Olivia watched as well. Jacob was clearly healthy now, able to run without being winded and getting up quickly when he fell over, even in the snow.
Olivia’s sharp hearing suddenly detected the sound of approaching hoofbeats. She whirled to face that direction, and her body language rapidly keyed Kami and Hunter to draw their weapons and face the same way. Kami also gestured to Veria, who quieted down and led Jacob around a corner of the ravine.
Around a bend in the ravine came something that all three party members saw differently.
Kami saw a large anthropomorphic fox riding a blazing stallion. The fox had glassy weapons and exquisite armor and had flames licking from his bright red-orange fur. His large tail was like a banner and his eyes burned with red fire.
Hunter saw a Raksha, an enemy that needed to be slaughtered.
Olivia saw the Fox Cataphract, a creature from Swar that was for a long time an extension of him but who has been gaining power. Since he had clearly left Swar recently he probably had his own Heart Grace now and was a fully fledged Raksha.
Olivia gestured to Hunter and Kami to stand down as she called out, “Fox Cataphract! Long time no see! What news?”
The Fox Cataphract didn’t slow down until he was much closer, at which point he dismounted with a flourish and drew his sword, prompting Hunter to raise his Grand Daiklave again. Olivia stepped forward to defuse the situation, affecting an air of confusion.
“Olivia!” The Fox Cataphract cried out. “Where have you BEEN? Do you know what’s happened?”
“I got Swar’s message once I reentered Creation,” Olivia said placatingly. “I came as fast as I could, with help. What’s happening?”
“The intruders have completely sealed up Swar and the manse, and are draining his power already. They must be stopped! I almost didn’t make it out alive. You must have led them here!”
“I did no such thing, at least not intentionally,” Olivia said, trying again to be placating. “How many are there?”
“There are hundreds now,” The Fox Cataphract said, his rage still seething. “Else I would have slaughtered them myself. They came prepared, they knew about me and about how to isolate him. They’re clearly magical experts. You must lead the charge to save our master. This is the moment you were created for!”
Olivia nodded grimly, but as she turned to Hunter, she scowled in a way that made Hunter think this wasn’t what Olivia had in mind at all. He nodded slowly and looked at the Fox Cataphract. “We are friends of Olivia and our loyalty is to her.”
“Then your loyalty is truly to Swar, since her loyalty is to him,” The Fox Cataphract said haughtily. “I too have freedom now to move about Creation, but I do not forget those things that make me.”
Kami was confused. “Swar made Olivia? I don’t understand, she’s no Raksha.”
The Fox Cataphract snorted. “She may as well be. She has been alive a long time. When she was a weeping child escaping the Great Contagion, all those centuries ago, Swar took her in and made her a weapon. Now she will prove her worth once and for all.”
Olivia’s face was briefly shrouded, a mask hiding an internal conflict. After a moment she seemed to settle, and her resolve returned. She turned to the Fox Cataphract and smiled again. “I will see if I can save Swar, but I owe him only as a mentor, not a creator. I have my freedom now, as do you. Pledge your loyalty to me, Fox Cataphract, or suffer the consequences.”
The Fox Cataphract laughed a deep belly laugh that trailed off in foxlike jeers. “Obey you? Foolish girl. You are still just a mortal. Watch your tongue or I will consider your usefulness at an end.”
“Funny, I was thinking the same thing,” Olivia said, her face now stern and cold. “Is that what the fox says now? I think we should find out what else he says,” turning to Hunter with a meaningful glance. Hunter smirked, then as the Fox Cataphract raised his sword with an enraged grimace, Hunter suddenly activated his combo and blasted straight through the Fox Cataphract with three near-simultaneous blows that cut the unwitting Raksha into pieces. The pieces caught fire as they flew apart, rapidly disintegrating into ashes as Hunter flicked his Soulsteel Grand Daiklave and sheathed it on his back.
The Fox Cataphract’s head was the last to combust and as it did so, his final words rang out: “You will regret this, Olivia…“
Olivia shrugged. “That’s what the fox says.”
Kami watched with a tinge of worry. Olivia made a point to appear as though nothing ever affected her, but this trip clearly had. Olivia sighed and turned back to Hunter and Kami. “Well now we know what we’re up against.”
Debate had gone on for a while about how to approach the manse and whether to wait for dawn, but finally the plan that was agreed upon was the simplest: walk up and ask to talk to Carnot right away. The logic was that the Technomages were probably ready for anything at this point, having scanned all their brains a while ago, and the hope was that they could see there wasn’t necessarily hostile intent if they started with the diplomatic approach. Kami applied Anointment of Miraculous Health to all three of them and in they went.
Crazily enough, it seemed to work. As Olivia, flanked by the imposing Exalts on either side, approached the perimeter guards around her manse, several approached but made no overtly dangerous move. Olivia could clearly see a wall was already under construction around the entire area, built with mechanical automata. Interesting, as the Technomages were clearly advanced enough to have access to sorcery but they were eschewing summoned demons or elementals.
As they approached, one of the guards raised his arm and called out, “Halt! Identify yourselves.”
Kami slipped his goggles on, and this guard was human, but he was flanked by four guards who appeared to be more automata with wire-frame illusions of humanity wrapped around them. He whispered this information out as Olivia announced, “I am Olivia of the Guild, here with my associates Hunter and Kami. We come in peace, free love, and capitalism! We wish to speak with whoever is in charge.”
A short delay as the guard watched suspiciously, but then one of his flankers touched his shoulder and nodded. The guard seemed on edge still, but acquiesced: “Please follow me to meet with the field councilmen.”
Olivia, Hunter and Kami were escorted into a squat, bunker-like building that had been hidden by the rise of the hill. Inside, they were taken through a maze of halls and rooms, and everywhere Technomages were assembling equipment and repairing automata. They were obviously in the middle of a huge project, and the building itself had been hastily assembled from some type of factory-produced material. Kami and Hunter wondered just what they were up to. Olivia had no such doubts.
Finally they entered a makeshift meeting room, with three of the Technomage Councilmen sitting behind a large table made of the same material as the walls. The human guard left but the four automata remained in the room. Four more were already in the room, flanking the councilmen.
The middle councilman was Carnot, flanked by men with nameplates that said Gill Bates and Zuck Markerburg. Carnot was shuffling a few papers, and as the three took seats across the table, Carnot passed some of the papers to his two peers, who started to review them. He looked Olivia steadily in the eye. From a closer distance Olivia could see that Carnot himself was Wyld-touched, with one long canine, pointed ears, and two different color eyes, neither of which were normal colors anywhere in Creation.
“So,” Carnot said after a short pause. “Olivia of the Wyld, you return to your mentor too late to save him. My question is, do you think you can barter for your mentor’s life?”
Olivia smiled a disarming smile. “Carnot, my friend, I am a Guild Factor; all we do is barter! I was hoping you could enlighten me a bit on why you’re here though, I was under the impression your home in Langri-Sha was sufficiently impregnable to keep outsiders at bay. Why choose this much more desolate location? Why come here?”
Carnot smiled. “I’m sure you’ve figured out already that we intend to trap Swar and drain his essences to power a new city. I would have to say that you may have guessed that Zi-Band-Ar, the unshaped Raksha below Langri-Sha, is nearly dead, his Graces holding together by only a thread, and he will soon perish. We need a new home, especially because we anticipate that the Yozis have an 86% chance of invading Creation within the next two years. We had originally sent Quetzalcoatl on a long range mission to capture the criminal Heinz, who knew of our existence, but also to try and find some way to extend Zi-Band-Ar’s lifespan and save our civilization. When we found out about Swar, we knew we had a chance, one chance, to keep our civilization going. We have survived since before the Usurpation and we hope to continue surviving long after the next one.”
Olivia nodded. “I’m sure there are many things you could still benefit from having, even if Swar will give you all you need. I think we can come to an agreement.”
Carnot frowned. “We don’t need anything. I’m going to make you an offer right now: walk through that door” — he gestured to a door in the wall to his left — “and we will allow you all to walk away freely. I would strongly advise you to take this offer. Frankly, you have already delayed the near-inevitability of the Yozi invasion through your work so I encourage you to keep that up. But we here at the Technomage Council will take no chances. Our civilization must go on.”
Olivia glanced at the door, then back at Carnot. “An enticing offer, but I believe I can make you see the benefits of capitalism yet. Also, I think that you are underestimating me. If you insist on hostility, you will not survive the next two years.”
Olivia then glanced around at the guards which had subtly moved, then to Hunter and Kami. Carnot noticed her looks and commented, “If you’re hoping Hunter of the Gloaming Truths and Kami will protect you, you should wonder if they will do so when they learn of your intentions to erase Exaltation from the face of Creation.”
Hunter shrugged. “I myself want to erase all of a certain kind of Exalted from Creation, so who am I to judge?”
Kami frowned, but made no move away from his friend Olivia.
Olivia smiled at her two friends. “Guys, you should go. Just in case the negotiations don’t go the way I think they will, you don’t need to get caught up in Guild business.”
Hunter and Kami looked at each other, then slowly nodded. They slowly stood up and left. As they walked out the door and through the hallway back to the outside, Kami hesitated. “Do you think she’ll be okay?” Hunter shrugged. “She’s a survivor, she’s made her way in the world this long, I think she’ll keep it up.” Kami nodded, resolving to keep his commitment to Olivia’s Anointment of Miraculous Health active.
Olivia watched them walk out the door, then once they were gone, she turned back to Carnot with a gleam in her eye.
“I can see that you have a number of needs that the Guild would be more than happy to help you meet, particularly with regard to raw materials to which you lack access. I’m sure you’d want to keep this location secret, so we can continue using the Langri-Sha post, unless you’d like to make other arrangements?”
Carnot seemed almost taken aback by Olivia’s brashness. “You really do think you can trade with us?”
“I know we can,” Olivia said without missing a beat. “Should you choose not to cooperate, I will simply use my manse’s Wyld revocation to reshape the entire environment within the manse’s range to something… much less hospitable. Incidentally, that’s a distance measured in miles. I will also publicly disclose your identities, location, and role in the attempted Yozi invasion. By that point, I doubt I would even need my shockingly large number of divine and Exalted allies to finish you off.”
Carnot turned white listening to Olivia casually threaten to undo his life’s work.
“That said, I’m sure we can agree to better terms for everyone. If you could simply assist with the relocation process, I’ll take my guardian force elsewhere and leave the manse to you. On top of that, you have an opportunity here to ally yourself with a mighty power. My friendship could be a priceless asset when the Yozi Reclamation comes, and until then my division of the Guild will provide profitable trade for everyone involved.”
Carnot was entirely speechless. Gill Bates was a bit quicker on the draw, and articulated his confusion: “In all this, you have yet to have mentioned the fate of Swar. What do you think you can trade us for him? We need him for our survival.”
Olivia smiled. “You can keep him.” In one move she ripped the Bracelet of Shared Life from her wrist.
Kami and Hunter had just made it past the perimeter and were into the unlit snowy wastelands when Kami jerked, stunned by the release of the essence from Olivia’s Anointment of Miraculous Health. He looked back, worried, but his attention was drawn in a moment by Hunter’s body language. Approaching them from out of the snow was a massive unicorn with two riders. One was Richard, bundled up against the cold but recognizable for his smirk. The other was a female Raksha from the East, green-clad and carrying a large wooden boomerang. Her long green hair had antlers protruding outwards with a beautiful, calming flower pinned to one of them, and her voluptuous chest was held in place by an elaborate leafy bra.
Richard waved at Kami and Hunter. “I sort of figured you only turned me down to help your friend. Looks like you’re done with that, interested in joining a cause now? We really need your help.”
Kami and Hunter looked at each other again. In a moment, the decision was made. They both started walking towards the unicorn. Kami shouted out, “Sure I’ll help. Is it okay if Hunter comes?”
Richard smiled, “Of course! We have work for someone like you!”
Hunter shrugged. “I’ll come and go I guess.”
Kami looked back again, worrying. In a moment, however, he saw (or thought he saw) a winged figure zip out of the city and into the frozen wastes. Kami still had to force himself to not run back there, but he knew that with all of Creation at stake, he had to have more friends than just Olivia anyway, and Hunter was right: she was probably fine.
“Okie dokie,” the Raksha said cheerily. “My name is Yvonne, and I’ll be your host today! Everyone say hi to my friend Aveskzia! She’ll be giving us all a ride back to the Bull of the North’s secret base. We have a lot of work to do!”
“Indeed,” Kami said slowly, looking at Jacob, and realizing that curing Jacob had consumed his life for so long that now something new was bound to take its place. “A lot more yet needs to be done.”
“Huh,” Richard said as they were winging above the clouds. “The moon’s red tonight. Weird.”
Kami and Hunter both started, knowing full well what that meant. Suddenly, a spark appeared in the air in front of them, and a Vision Transmission Protocol appeared of a familiar figure: Mithril. He seemed a bit sheepish as he said, “Sorry guys. Mission accomplished” and the illusion winked out. Richard was confused: “What the hell was that?”
In-game effects: Olivia has lost the Mentor (Swar, the City of Formlessness Constrained) background (spending recovered experience on spirit Endowments equivalent to the Immortality and Healing Factor mutations) and the Bracelet of Shared Life he provided her, and will replace her Manse with a new one in Nexus. She now also has Contacts 1: The Technomage Council. Kami and Hunter have joined the Bull of the North. The rules of Exalted are now fully 2.5 compliant.