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One of the few luxuries afforded by Hollowroot was a rudimentary tavern.  It didn't have all the amenities of a tavern back in the Commonwealth.  It lacked most types of beers, food that didn't twitch, and a roof to start with. But it had chairs and a firepit and some tables and enough moonshine to get you hammered enough and really, what else could you ask for in a place like the Downside? Ignarius visited the place when he could. The barkeep liked him. He tipped extra in a good mood, and a trip to the tavern always put Ignarius in a good mood.

 "And a round for the Tempers," he declared, "Give us something strong enough to peel paint off the walls. 'Cause we cleaned house."

They'd just won a Rite out on the Ridge. They knew, from the rumors, they'd need to win many more: the word was that the Nightwings were back in town.

"This lady isn't sure she should partake in this," whispered Lady River in a tiny voice.

"Aw heck, quit worrying, kiddo." Ignarius patted the wyrm on the back of the head. He took care with her. Her head only rocked forward a little with the strength, "The wagon's got wings, don't it? We'll be off and out to the valley before noon."

"Provided these poisons do not keep us in our beds," muttered Pfumfta.

"What, you going dry tonight?" asked Ignarius. "Then hand over your round. I'll give it a good home."

"We did not say that," said Pfumta, coiling a bit around her steaming mug.

All in all, life was looking pretty bright for Ignarius, in the firepit, surrounded by exiles all looking to drown away their worries and sing broken songs. He didn't notice the stranger when he slipped in. Ignarius must've been real toasted -- the stranger was a big one. A demon, even.  The heavy cloak did nothing to obscure their broad shoulders or the forward sweep of their horns. They'd posted themselves at the table closest to the firepit, and seemed content to stare into it. Ignarius called in another mug for Lady River and shoved off his stool, sidling over with only a bit of a sway in his step.

"Yo, stranger," he said, "Been awhile since I've seen another set of horns."

The stranger said nothing, just lowered his head slightly. He was well into is transformation-- his heels high, his hooves fully formed, and his horns so long they nearly touched in the front-- at least, they would've if the tip of one hadn't been broken off.

"Not a talker, eh?" asked Ignarius. "Fine, gonna complain if I buy you a drink?"

The demon looked up. His bedraggled black hair slid over his shoulders.

"I gave that up when I came here," he said, in a deep, sad voice.

"Oh, buddy," Ignarius laughed, "You're living in hard mode, then!"

"As it should be," said the stranger, "It was an easy life that brought me here."

"You and me both, brother," laughed Ignarius. He ordered another round for himself.  The stranger eyed the mug with some distaste, but didn't say anything when Ignarius knocked it back.

"I'm giving you company," said Ignarius, "Whether you like it or not. Folks like you and me, we gotta have each other's backs, yanno? And look, if you want a way back to that 'easy life' of yours, your ticket might come up soon enough."

"You speak of the Rites," said the stranger.

It was if all the warmth was sucked from the room. Ignarius put down his mug.

"Uh. Yeah. So. You... already know about 'em," he said, sheepishly. "You want in? We could use a swing."

The stranger laughed, a soft sound like crackling flame.

"Your excess concerns me," he whispered, "But your sentiment does not. The bog crone is strong, but tell me, why do you travel with the wyrm? Someone so small could surely be little but a hindrance to your cause..."'

"Oy," said Ignarius, his smile fading. He dug his claws into the table and glared. "Lay off the Lady. She might be the size of my hoof but she can throw down with the best of us. And that's what we are, the best!"

"I see," said the stranger. He sat back, tiredly. He may have smiled, but the shadows from the fire made it hard to tell. "Then, my apologies, brother demon. You do for your own, after all."

Whether or not it led to a fight, Ignarius actually couldn't say. That was about the time tenth mug of moonshine finally hit him, and anyway when his companions dragged him back to the wagon, none of them could confirm they'd seen another demon at all.

Chapter Text

The collision didn't leave a scratch on the marvelous blackwagon they'd commissioned for the occasion of H. Manley Tinderstauf's glorious return to the Commonwealth, but the wagon made a terrible grinding noise the rest of the flight. By the time they'd landed at Black Basin, it refused to even roll, and alas, the Chastity was required to tend to the issue.  Or at least, two of the Chastity tended to the issue. Manley himself chose to oversee the process from a respectable distance. It was a very important part of the process.  Manley explained this to his cohorts as they worked, in great detail.

"I am delegating, you see. Good leadership requires knowing when to allow your so very competent subordinates to truly shine...."

"Think I'd shine brighter if we could have another set of arms holding this up..." groused Avrec, a savage with a rough countenance but a strong affinity for coin. It gave him a certain amount of good taste-- even if it made for poor conversation.

"Nonsense," said Manley, settling further back in his favorite chair. He'd found a very good sunspot and his leaves simply had to take it all in. "I am already contributing in the most constructive way. By which I mean, I have purchased the tools with which you work, and they are finest quality. Yes, yes. Extremely so."

"Ok, but I don't have arms," said Xaxania. She was harp, as it happened. Lovely girl. Absolutely amenable to blooding a fool if necessary, but only if!

"Fine, fine," sighed Manley, waving an arm. A vine emerged from the ground to hold the blackwagon steady. "Only because I care for you all so VERY much. I value your input. I should remind you I intend to give the finest recommendation upon my  return to-- all right, but what's taking us NOW?"

"Spanner's missing," admitted Avrec.

"And the toolbox," said the harp. Indeed, the finely inlaid chest had gone missing from its place of honor -- next to Manley's chair, of course.

"Oh," said Manley. He didn't drop the blackwagon in a fury. He was very proud of himself for not doing that. He ran his hand back through his leaves instead.  He could feel through his roots the crushed grass that indicated the chest had been dragged-- off into the deeper brush, not far from them. "Oh. Well that's just....so very inconvenient. I suppose we shall have to go looking for them, won't we?"

He remained seated.

"Go on," he said. "You go north. And you go east. I will watch the wagon. As that is the most dangerous job of them all, and I could not possibly risk you all at it."

They left in different directions. Manley waited. After a few hours, there was not a sign of the tools or the rest of the Chastity, and the sun had passed out of its more favorable spot. Manley uprooted himself.

"....we get what we pay for I suppose," he sighed, as he ventured into the wood himself.

He managed just fine. Unlike, say, a savage or a harp, Manley knew something about forests. So when the path closed behind him, and opened up in the completely opposite direction, Manley took it in stride.

"Well," he said.

When that path closed up to show him a solid hedge row, that didn't phase him either.

"Well."

When more rows began to pop up, forming a most definite maze, Manley clapped his hands. "Well, well, WELL," he said. "And will we have an explanation for this, hm?"

He found one. It was written in a set of vines that dangled over the nearest hedge, shaped out in an ancient language of the Westerly Wood that Manley, in all his radiant experience, happened to know: Those Who Find Humility Find Their Way.

Manley clapped his hands again.

"I see," he said, "How interesting. A certain someone seems to be having a bit of fun, aren't they? I wonder whoever that could be. Certainly not some infamous person with a design, hm? Nevermind, that. Let's play for a bit. I think you'll find me a most devoted opponent. And with no Rites to hold me back, no less."

And, with a flick of his wrist, Manley sent six spears of wood plunging up through the nearest hedge. They tore the bush apart in a second. Another bush sprouted in its place, taller this time.

"Hmph," said Manley. He tore at it again. And again. And again. More bramble grew up in its place, choking the path.

Through the branches above, the wind blew through like labored sigh.

'Oh, dear,' it seemed to whisper, 'this may take awhile....'

Chapter Text

As they waited for the the next cycle, the Essence trained.

"Umani, to me," called Tamitha. "Shikara, feet higher. They will drag you from the skies if you are not careful."

Tamitha Theyn did not train for the Rites. She trained for war. As far as she was concerned, the Rite was basic formality. Oh, if only she could just dash her enemies to the earth the way she did on the battlefield. If only the aura did not stop her from snapping men's necks with her wings. But, alas, as the Rites were the condition of returning to the front, she would play by their rules. For now, and only for now.

It didn't mean she wouldn't keep her soldier's sharp.

"Sun formation," she declared, and Shikara and Umani winged upwards -- as far as they could, with clipped wings anyway. Still, among the crags of the Glass Peaks, even a clipped harp could achieve decent altitude as they rode the hot thermals ever pouring from this land's molten innards. It almost felt like true flight.  Tamitha caught a burst of air and sailed upwards, savoring the feeling of the wind sliding through her feathers and the memory of her enemies shouts of disbelief.  She stooped and dived, peeling away only at the last moment. Her wing sisters followed her, almost to the last.

"Umani," she said sharply, wheeling around to face the younger of the two. She'd pulled out a second too soon.

"You gave your enemy quarter."

"I'm sorry--" started Umani.

"No apologies. Do it again," said Tamitha, "And again until the last kernel of fear crumbles and dies in your heart. Our fearlessness shall be our edge over our foe. Cripple them with it."

"Yes'm." Umani let the hot winds pull her skywards once more. Her next dive was better, closer to the earth. On the third attempt, the winds went cold and died suddenly, breaking Shikara's form. Her wingtip caught Tamitha's side as she righted herself. Tamitha rolled into a recovery, but Umani startled.  Her foot scraped the crag. She tumbled into the crevasse, wings folded around her face.

 

"Umani!" cried Shikara, skidding along the crag.

"Hold," said Tamitha. Shikara's wings were splayed in a panic, and Tamitha didn't trust her to keep her nerve. "I'll get her."

Tamitha jumped down into the crevasse.

She found Umani's bent headdress, some downfeathers, and a clasp, but no immediate sign of her wing sister. The crevasse below was larger than expected, the glass bottom rippling under Tamitha's feet. She caught the reflection of shifting plumage in the walls. Not russet, like Umani's wings or even red like her own, but pale silver, like ice...

And the opposite end of the crevasse, a strange harp folded her wings.  She didn't wear a uniform.

"Who's there?" called Tamitha. "Identify yourself. Line and unit. Now."

The strange harp turned. Her feathers didn't rustle as she moved. She was an older woman, her dark hair streaked with grey, and tied in a severe bun. This in of itself was a surprise to Tamitha. Few of the remaining harps had survived for nearly long enough to show such signs of age.

"What will you do?" asked the stranger, softly.

Tamitha recovered from her initial surprise, raising her wings in warning.

"I'm the ranking officer in this detachment," said Tamitha. "I ask the questions here."

But the stranger showed no reaction to this, only spread her own wings. She'd been injured at some point in her life. One hung a bit lower than the other, missing its tip. "I know who you are, Tamitha Theyn."

"Then you should know I suffer neither fools nor traitors. Answer me, or answer to me."

But the woman only stared at her with calm, grey eyes.

"If you gain your freedom," she said, enunciating very slowly, as though talking to a child. "What will you do?"

And, taking that for the challenge the woman so clearly intended, Tamitha lunged.

She missed, somehow. The strange harp was faster than her injuries and age should have allowed, stepping to the side without even a whisper of cloth. Tamitha struck out with her wing, a favored swipe move that had often stunned her adversaries.  The woman leapt over it, light and easy in the air, despite the fact she could no longer fly.

"If you know me you should know that," snarled Tamitha, waiting for her to land. "I intend to continue our people's fight."

She kicked out with a foot, but this too the woman only deflected with a wing pass of her own, sending Tamitha rolling.

"And what will you do then?" asked the stranger, cooly.

Tamitha pushed off the side of the crevasse and rebounded. The stranger dropped to the floor. Tamitha passed over her without connecting.

"Rally and fight, down to our last woman," said Tamitha, whirling.

"And what will you do then?" asked the stranger, righting herself. Not even a strand of hair had fallen from her bun.

"Fight on, while there is breath in me. Fight, and burn the Commonwealth to the ground. Do not think your little games intimidate me!" This time, Tamitha didn't aim for the woman's body, but her flowing robes. She caught a piece in her teeth-- or at least, she thought she did. The injured wing came down and struck her across the back. The stranger had more strength than expected. Tamitha slammed into the ground, winded. She stared up at her opponent. The woman hovered just a foot above the ground, kept aloft by soft, uneven wingbeats. She tilted her head to one side.

"And then?" she asked.

"...such foolish questions," gasped Tamitha, vision blurred, "You sound like my sister..."

When her vision cleared, she was back on the crag. She'd never left it. Shikara and Umani landed beside her, feathers puffed out in concern.

"Commander," cried Umani, who had never fallen into a crevasse. There was no crevasse to fall into, on this side of the peak. The Highwings Remnants had studied it well, when they'd marked it for training. "Are you all right? We saw you fall. I'm so sorry -- can you move?"

"How sloppy," muttered Tamitha. To dash herself against the crag like some fledgling. Hmph. She would erase the mistake. "I can move, Umani. Do not crowd me."

Her wing sisters hung back nervously. Tamitha stood, shaking out her plumage. She took stock of her condition. Stunned. The fall had stunned her. She was lucky her instincts were good. She'd pulled out of the ruined dive just in time. If she'd done it a second later, she'd have broken her neck. A bloodied lip and a cut above her eye was nothing on that.

"Winds change at a moment's notice," she said. "It is the way of the world. We must expect no quarter from anyone. Shikara, run that maneuver again."

"Er, yes'm," said Shikara, "Are you sure you are--"

"Again," said Tamitha, rubbing the blood away with a wing. She would not be fazed. Not by a fall, or by silly dreams, or anything else. "Until we are without fault."

Her wing sisters obeyed, as always.

Chapter Text

The Pyre died in one last guttering plume. An ocean wave sent water surging over the ship's deck. The rain fell harder, battering the ships' rotted boards, but the Pyrehearts paid it little mind. A bit of spray never meant much to a wyrm. Lady Seagrass materialized in a puddle in front of their own Pyre. Sir Deluge, startled as always by his teammate's return, coiled up into a ball.

"My miserable Sir Deluge," reported Lady Seagress, "This lady has done her duty. The day is ours."

Sir Deluge opened his eye.

"Is it?" he asked.

The Accusers re-materialized. Their leader took off his mask and threw it down. One of his teammates picked it up. Another took him by the shoulders and walked him off the field.  Not a one of them looked back.  The waters rose higher against the side of the ship, and without the break in the tempest afforded by the stars, the storm would swamp the wreck soon enough.

"So it is!" cried Sir Deluge, when it was clear their enemies were well and truly gone. "The Pyrehearts are victorious."

"And how furious they looked," marveled Lady Seagrass.

"As it should be," cried Sir Deluge.

"And graceless in their shameful defeat," added Lady Seagrass.

"The most graceless. We destroyed them," gloated Sir Deluge.

 "If it were allowed, this lady is sure they would gladly kill us all!"

"Yes, most gladly-- wait what?!" Sir Deluge froze.

Lady Seagrass wriggled happily. "Yes, yes down to the last of us."

"This knight does not approve. This knight does not approve of this at all!" shrieked Sir Deluge, but Lady Seagrass, undaunted, coiled around him in unmitigated enthusiasm, shaking him back and forth.

"Oh, Sir Deluge, how marvelous you look, victorious and yet shivering with unmitigated fear!"

At which point Sir Marsh emerged from his corner of the field, and cleared his gills. By now waves crashed into the side of the wreck more regularly. Foam flowed past them, along with rotted rope, flapping fish, and more than a fair bit of loose change.

"Well fought, Commander," said Sir Marsh, with dignity. He rather elderly by wyrm standards, having survived a whole 30 years. It had made him easily tired and eminently agreeable-- qualities Sir Deluge valued in an underling.  "Perhaps your fine subordinates had best retrieve the sigils?"

Lady Seagrass coiled herself tighter around her commanding officer.

"Yes," squeaked Sir Deluge. "Yes, you'd best!"

"And perhaps the commander ought to go on ahead?" suggested Sir Marsh

"Ngh," said Sir Deluge, now rather unable to speak.

"Would the Lady care to join me?" added Sir Marsh, helpfully.

"Ohh. Very well," said Lady Seagrass.

She released Sir Deluge from her artful stranglehold. Sir Deluge collapsed on the floor, face down in the foam.  He gagged and straightened, banging his armor with the tip of his tail.

"Well--do it! And make it quick!" he croaked, and let the next wave over the ship push him in the general direction of their blackwagon. It couldn't be called a retreat. He was eager to secure the safety of their wagon. That's right. The wagon's safety. Not his own at all.

Unlike the pathetic land dwellers that had made up their adversary, the Pyrehearts had been able to moor their blackwagon right next to the wreck. The wyrms' amphibious nature meant there was no risk of drowning if sucked under the ship, but it also meant the fastest route required a trip through the shattered hull, which was a network of broken beams, churning waves, and arms from the Titan Plurnes. Sir Deluge bounced from one beam to the next, careful not to slip in the spray. He was so focused on finding the wagon he didn't notice the glow of the water until he was nearly at the bottom level. At which point, the waters began to churn, forming a whirlpool filled with glimmering stardust. A water spout exploded upwards in the middle of what was once the ship's cargo hold. It shone bright like the scales of a fish in moonlight and roared like a crashing wave.

"AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAND SO IT IS," bellowed a voice from the deep, "AAAAH SWEET VICTORY, AND IN THE SPOT OF OUR OWN MIGHTY BATTLE. THIS ONE HAS WAITED SO LONG. YES, LOOK UPON US IN AWE. FOR THIS ONE HAS ARRIVED!"

The shimmering spray lingered in the air. It hung there, forming the shape of some great serpentine figure, wrapped around the ship's bent keel.

"BEHOLD, OUR HEAVENLY VISITATION, FOR OUR FAVOR IS UPON YOU. MAY YOUR NEWFOUND COURAGE FOLLOW YOU TO THE PEAKS OF MOUNT ALODIEL ITSELF. THE WISDOM OF THE UNDERKING IS YOURS. BASK IN ITS PRESENCE AND ASK WHAT YOU WILL OF HIM. WAIT WHERE HAVE YOU GONE? DO HOLD STILL. THIS ONE CANNOT SEE YOU IF YOU MOVE SO QUICKLY. HELLO? HELLO?"

When the Pyrehearts returned to the wagon with the sigil, they found Sir Deluge curled up in a ball beneath his bunk, shaking from tail tip to gills. A matter of vigilance, he explained. He was testing its balast. It was very important, he needed to do it, and Lady Seagrass and Sir Marsh were to be posted at the door for the rest of the night.