The tunnels were dark and grim, and Draniel felt a shiver of something approaching concern as he strode down them. If his information was accurate, he should be no more than a few hours out from the city-father Hath. He had already destroyed three patrols, and killed two more Alchemical Exalts, on his journey in, and had expected the remainder of his trip to be a difficult task clogged with the suspicious eyes of his enemies. Instead, the tunnels were silent, save for the distant churning of some great force echoing through the pipes, and the only forces that he needed to avoid were the occasional throngs of the dead that passed through.
The feeling that something was terribly wrong had been intensifying gradually over the last two days, as near as he could tell, of travel. Even from what little he understood of the Machine God's realm, he did not expect shadowlands to form so close to Patropoli. It made his job simpler, for he had no fear of the dead. But still... with effort, he shrugged the thought from his mind. Soon, Hath would lie destroyed, and the matter would no longer have any importance.
â€œI wouldn't bet on it.â€
Draniel stiffened, falling into a combat stance as he slid his claws from their place at his side. In the dim light cast by his caste mark, he saw a black-robed figure step out from the shadows, arms hanging loosely by its side. As it stepped forwards into the clear, it resolved itself into the figure of a man, his face concealed behind a smiling black mask, hair swept back beneath the hood of his cloak, which flowed to the ground and faded with the shadows that already pooled there. It took another moment for Draniel to recognize his vague translucence, as the stranger raised one hand nonthreateningly. â€œEasy, Paladin. I'm no enemy, and you're going to need your Essence soon.â€
Draniel's eyes remained narrowed, and he did not shift position. â€œWho are you, and what did you mean by your statement?â€
There was a throaty chuckle behind the mask. â€œShort and to the point. I like that.â€ The stranger shrugged. â€œMy name is not important â€“ but you can call me the Third. I am a servant of Setesh, the Black King of the Underworld. Perhaps you have heard of him?â€ Draniel nodded warily, and the Third continued. â€œGood. He has sent me here to help you, knowing that you will die without us.â€
â€œAnd why should Setesh care about my fate?â€ Draniel paused a moment. â€œAnd how could you even get here?â€
â€œOne question at a time, please! Dragons, you pile them on.â€ The Third shrugged again. â€œThe easy answer first. As Autochthon dies, his lower passages are finding their way to the Maw of Oblivion. If you are talented, skilled, and tenacious, and if you know the paths, you can make the journey. As it happens, I have all four of those traits.â€ He stepped forwards cautiously. â€œAs to the second, it is simple. Setesh has only one desire â€“ that Creation and the Underworld not fall into Oblivion. He assured me that guiding you, and helping you destroy Hath, would be the only way for this to happen.â€
â€œSearch me. I'm just the servant.â€ The Third shrugged yet again. â€œAnd to answer your first question, I've been trailing you for a few hours. You're losing your caution, getting cocky. I can tell you're starting to think this won't be hard. And I wouldn't bet on that.â€ He leaned forwards conspiratorally. â€œHath is a powerful patropolis, and he knows enemies are coming. He doesn't know it's you, but if you walk in now, you'll fall right into his trap.â€
â€œAnd I suppose you have a suggestion.â€ Sarcasm dripped from Draniel's voice. The Third ignored it.
â€œAs a matter of fact, I do. Did you know that there are four Solars less than an hour behind you?â€ As Draniel's eyes widened, the Third nodded reflectively. â€œI thought you didn't. Let them go first. They're the ones Hath expects to trap and kill. If you follow them, you can wait for Hath to crush them, then strike him while he's distracted and weak.â€ The Third shrugged. â€œI came to tell you, and to offer you aid in the Patropolis's destruction.â€
Draniel studied the ghost closely, turning his Charms to dissect every word he spoke. Try as he might, he could find no falsehood in it, and he knew of no tricks a ghost could use to deceive his ears. For several moments, he thought over the proposal, as the Third stood patiently and waited. Finally, he replied. â€œAnd you believe you can help me fight an elder Exalt, even one of these weak mechanical constructs?â€
â€œDon't underestimate them. The ones you've been fighting were geared for tunnel-clearing. Hath will be primed for Exalt-killing. It's a big difference.â€ The ghost remained calm. â€œBut yes, I can lend a hand. Couldn't take it down myself, of course, but Setesh gave me quite a bit of power for this little assignment.â€ He paused expectantly. â€œSo? What do you say?â€
â€œVery well. But at the first hint of treachery, I will destroy you.â€ Draniel gestured for the Third to lead the way, and the ghost cheerfully obliged.
â€œNo treachery. I'll keep that in mind. Now, if you'll just follow me, I know a good shortcut to where we can get above them and follow at a distance...â€ The Third sauntered down the corridor, with Draniel close behind. The tunnel once again fell silent.
Then, the wall rippled again, and a second figure stepped out, faintly feminine, clad in a pale white robe with matching mask. It shook its head disapprovingly, murmuring into the darkness. â€œYou always tended to the theatrical, old friend.â€ Turning, it started down the tunnels, to where four Solars approached. The Third would have to be trusted not to screw this mission up. It was her turn to do what needed to be done.