And we continue!
â€œI donâ€™t like it.â€ Tenrek glowered at the tunnels passing by.
â€œWe know. We all know.â€ Fokuf sighed heavily, shaking his head. Aside from a few encounters with hungry ghosts, their passage had been completely quiet â€“ and Aegis had opined that they should have encountered Hathâ€™s patrols by now. â€œBut we canâ€™t really talk a patrol into existence.â€
â€œI know.â€ Tenrek looked around with a frown. It was a refrain that had been repeating every fifteen minutes this morning. â€œBut I canâ€™t help but think that we need a planâ€¦â€
â€œLike what? Thereâ€™s no plan. Nothing that would work, alright?â€ Finally fed up with the bickering, Alina practically shouted the words as she threw her arms up. â€œThis isnâ€™t what itâ€™s supposed to be? Nothingâ€™s been what itâ€™s supposed to be for months now, why should this be any different?â€ Glancing around, she saw everyoneâ€™s worried expression. Suddenly flushing, she lowered her arms and glanced away. â€œSorry. But I donâ€™t know what we can do.â€
â€œYou could speak slightly louder. They might not have heard you in Jarish.â€ Speaking dryly, Aegis resumed walking, shaking her head. â€œYou all seem to have forgotten that this benefits us. We donâ€™t want Hathâ€™s soldiers fighting us, we want to present our case to him directly.â€
â€œThat will not be occurring.â€ The voice came from the tunnel ahead of them. As Kieran, Alina, and Aegis went for their weapons, and Tenrek settled into a fighting stance, a tall figure stepped out of the darkness ahead. â€œHath is aware of your presence and your mission. You are not welcome.â€ Slate grey skin and black veins drew in the light of the Solarsâ€™ caste marks, and long fingers twitched impatiently. â€œYou should not have come, Aegis.â€
â€œBlade.â€ Aegis frowned thoughtfully. â€œOur paths keep crossing. I never paid you back for what you did back in those tunnels.â€
Bloodied Blade Falling shrugged heavily. â€œI warned you to depart. That test was not directed at you.â€ He raised a hand warningly. â€œThis, however, will be. And it will be a full combat deployment.â€ With a smirk, he continued. â€œI recommend that you leave, Aegis, but if you do not, you will find that Yugash has made great strides in the field of Blight control.â€
As Aegis stared open-mouthed, Kieran raised a hand tentatively. â€œHang on. I thought you guys werenâ€™t doing Charm research into ghosts because it used up your preciously small supplies of soulsteel.â€
The smirk grew. â€œClearly, Estasiaâ€™s information is lacking. Soulsteel is in plentiful supply in Autochthonia. You simply need to enter the Blight to acquire it. Yugash is operating two soulsteel mines at peak efficiency, bringing in as much soulsteel as all of our other materials combined.â€ He snorted dismissively. â€œNo wonder you have been so slow to consider us a true threat, if you are unaware even of that.â€
â€œAre you talking about mining the Labyrinth?!â€ Kieranâ€™s jaw dropped. â€œDo you have any idea how dangerous that is?â€
Bladeâ€™s smile ended. â€œI am uninterested in your conversation, Solar.â€ When Kieran blinked in surprise, he smiled again, just for a moment. â€œOh, yes, I know what you are. Unlike Estasia, we have quite accurate intelligence on you. Now, I believe I promised you a deploymentâ€¦â€ As he spoke, howls began to grow from the tunnels behind him. Aegis shook her head frantically.
â€œBlade, this is insane! We need to speak with Hath. These people could be the only thing that could save the Maker!â€
â€œI am aware. Hence my presence here.â€ With a flick of his wrist, a pair of long, slender blades deployed from Bladeâ€™s arms, and he shook his head. â€œIt is a shame that you will join them, Aegis.â€ As he spoke, the tunnels around him boiled with ghosts. Before the horrified eyes of the Solars, hundreds of hungry ghosts took form, pouring down from all sides. Around them, specters gathered by the dozen, laughing maniacally and brandishing their weapons. Countless undead, monstrous remnants, crowded the tunnels, sweeping towards the team. As they glanced behind them, they saw a second swarm approaching from the rear.
â€œWell, I always wondered how we would die. Anyone know a way to kill a thousand ghosts in under a minute?â€ Fokuf shook his head. â€œIt was nice knowing you all.â€
â€œThe time for your death has not yet come.â€ A cool voice spoke, as a slim woman stepped through the tunnel wall and into the midst of the Solars. White light poured off her, and the gathered ghosts faltered in their advances and stumbled to a halt as an alabaster maskâ€™s gaze swept their ranks. Within a moment, what had been a frenzied charge was a stand-off. Blade ground his teeth together, muscles tensed.
â€œWhat is this?â€ His voice was husky, with an undertone of fear.
The masked woman chuckled. â€œThis, as you so rudely call me, is the Second, the most powerful servant of Eset, the White Queen of the Underworld. It is my charge to hold back the creatures of the Void, and your petty magics are not sufficient to shatter that.â€ She took a step forwards, and the nephwracks arrayed before her fled wailing. â€œAnd you yourself are within my power, Bloodied Blade Falling. I can see your Shadowland Integration Module, humming in your head. I can see the way its tendrils have darkened your heart.â€
Blade laughed nervously. â€œMadness.â€
â€œThen step forwards and destroy me. It would be the work of a momentâ€¦ if you have nothing of the Void in you.â€
There was a long hesitation, then Blade shook his head, backstepping quickly. â€œNo. I must inform Hath of you, rather than risk myself to your companions.â€ He glanced past the woman, to Aegis. â€œYou survive again, Aegis. You must be getting used to luck saving you where skill cannot.â€ With that, he turned and slipped through the hungry ghosts surrounding him, vanishing into the depths of the tunnels.
As Tenrek moved to follow him, the Second laid a hand on his shoulder. â€œNo. If you commit violence within the field of the hungry ghosts, my power will not be sufficient to stop them. We must travel cautiously and peacefully if you are to evade the trap Hath set.â€
â€œRight. And who are you, exactly?â€ Fokuf was regarding the Second skeptically, as the others stared in awe. â€œThe Underworld is a long way away.â€
â€œNot so long, if you can find the paths.â€ The Second shrugged. â€œI am but a humble servant of the Dual Monarchy. I have been sent to ensure that Autochthon wakes, by whatever means are necessary. Iâ€¦â€
The Second was interrupted as Alina somersaulted through the air, coming to rest with her arms wrapped tightly around the figureâ€™s waist. â€œJasmine!â€
Everyone stared in confusion. After a moment, Fokuf chuckled and shook his head. â€œWell, I suppose that answers that.â€