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The Coterie’s abode consisted of a hive of interconnected tunnels and chambers. There were work areas, living areas, and the largest chambers were reserved for communal areas. The abode was situated amongst a densely populated grotto, where the House of Ileum ruled.
“Our clients are predominately from the clans of the House of Ileum, but we do have clients from other Houses as well. We are loyal to the House of Ileum but our first loyalty is to our brothers and sisters of the coterie,” Fain instructed as she led the three qi warrior women through the maze of tunnels in the abode.
“The Coterie is a family, a family of scholars. New family members are either born or petition to join. For exceedingly talented qi scholars, such as Dyrk, we may even chase them to join our ranks,” she gave a fairly high-level summary, only touching on the surface and excluding the intricacies of the organisation.
“This is where you will be staying. I presumed you would want to stay together in order to make the adjustment easier. You will also feel safer as a group,” Fain stated.
Reyas: it’s as if she cares.
Gisael: she either does, or she wants us to think she does.
“That is appreciated,” Gisael said politely. Pian remained quiet, she was not even aware why she had been purchased. She just watched and listened.
“Tomorrow I will gather Dyrk, the Portal Master, and the rest of the small council to start discussions and plans for the Val’Tien. For the time being, settle here. There are a couple of families who will look after you, there are many among us who are not qi scholars, and they fulfil tasks such as these,” Fain informed them.
“What is going on?” Pian asked when they were finally alone.
Gisael put a hand to her ear to indicate that they were likely to be listened to. Fain possessed qi techniques she had never heard of, let alone seen.
“It is a long story,” Gisael began. She told Pian a summary of the story of the last two years, ever since she met Benzhi. She left out selective, sensitive information, like the location of the Alpine Forest. She just spoke about it generally.
Gisael left out some other important details, which did not affect the overall story. She did not discuss Kebo or the Seer’s duplicitous involvement with QWP. Anything which she deemed could cause them a heartache in the future if the information got into the wrong hands. Pian was a Mogui after all. Moreover, Gisael did not know who else might be listening. But she did mention Glamour.
“Glamour!” Pian interrupted, “it must be him.”
“You know him?” Reyas asked.
“Yes he is my brother,” Pian explained.
“Doesn’t he have hundreds of brothers?” Gisael asked, remembering the conversations with Glamour.
“Yes, as do I, but he is still my brother,” Pian explained.
“So… wait…let us finish our story, and then you tell yours. The night is young,” she chuckled, it was always night here.
Pian nodded throughout the story, how they were separated from Benzhi and they came here.
“So, now his memory is wiped, he will not know you,” Pian speculated, “yet you have a link, it will reconnect when you are close, no?”
“Yes, it will connect when we are within the same city or nearby,” Reyas answered.
“This will be confusing for him,” Pian was pondering their circumstances. She shook her head.
“I will tell you my story, and we can see if we can help each other,” Pian stated.
Pian’s light red skin and horns made it difficult to forget that she was a Mogui. She spoke with a breathy seductive voice, and her tail weaved as she spoke. Some people spoke with their hands to accentuated their points, Pian used her tail for the same purpose.
“My father, the king, has so many sons and daughters that it is almost impossible to count. He is a talented qi master, one of the most powerful in all of the Mogui Realm. It is not difficult for him to find consorts and wives of the Mogui and the other races. His children form his council, his penta, and his power base. This is the world I lived in, one of many, part of the ruling body, child of a king, yet a servant and disposable.”
“It is possible for my father to live forever, he will not die and have a successor unless something dramatic occurs. One such event would be a coup from one of his most powerful offsprings. This is the usual way in the world of the Mogui, for a Kingdom to reach a higher level of power, it requires a child more powerful than the King to kill them and take over. I am not known for my qi talent, and amongst my siblings, I am considered normal. I would never challenge the King or attempt a coup. But this does not stop games, machinations, rumours, and all the risk that comes with such endeavours.”
“I was caught up in one of these and wrongly accused of being the architect. My sister Shade was the architect, she is much more talented and devious than I. I was merely her bodyguard and eventual scapegoat. She had me attend every meeting with her; she was paying me to be her bodyguard. While she is more devious, cunning, and talented than I, she proclaims to not be skilled in combat. But this too is a lie. I accompanied her to assist with the pretence, and by doing so, I was at every meeting.”
“When the plot was uncovered, she carefully placed me as the architect, and her supporters who were caught attested to this. Before I was captured and killed by Father, which happened to each and every other one of her supporters who was found, she sold me to the Myrkalfar and had me taken away.”
“Normally, I would have fought my way free or tried to escape but at least I could live this way. When she sent me to the slave auctions, she promised she would return for me one day and said she was sorry. I do not believe her, she was just saying that in case I escaped so I did not seek revenge on her.”
“Father must have never found out where I was, he probably would have purchased me back in order to kill me. He would not allow anyone to live who was caught in a scheme to overthrow him. So here I am, a slave gladiator who does not try to escape,” Pian finished.
“How long ago was this?” Gisael asked.
“Very recent, ten years,” Pian answered.
“What do you want to do now?” Gisael asked.
“I will accompany you, of course. If you escape so do I. I would rather be free than stay here a slave or prisoner,” Pian answered.
Gisael: what do you think?
Reyas: why not. I cannot see how she can betray us or why, we are her best chance of escape. My only question is if we do escape, where does she go?
Gisael: if we do escape, if we are successful, he can deal with that.
“You are welcome to help us and escape with us, but success is far from guaranteed,” Gisael warned.
“From what I saw of the Coterie, we may have a chance. A good one,” Pian replied.
“Do you want to go home?” Reyas asked.
Pian looked pained. “I would but I cannot see how that is possible.”
Reyas: yes, we will leave that to him.
“If we rescue him, if we all escape together, he can make things happen that you do not think are possible,” Reyas replied, and Gisael nodded in agreement.
Pian looked at them, “He means a great deal to you,” she just stated a fact.
They were in the Myrkalfar world, voluntarily putting themselves into slavery or worse, trying to rescue him. Was it not obvious?
Pian could not imagine someone who created such loyalty. No, it was beyond loyalty. Someone from her world was incapable of understanding this sort of bond.
Fain showed the three women to a large oval hall. Bench seats scaled the walls on all sides except the entrance; this meeting place could hold hundreds of people. The floor area was open for speakers. Other than the stone carvings, the carpets and the bright glowstones, the hall was sparse with furniture.
“We have gathered the small council to discuss strategy, risk, and to decide on a plan. As this attempt will place the Coterie in danger, we must think carefully before taking this action,” Fain began.
Other than the three women, there were twelve masters and grandmasters of the coterie attending. With Fain, it made thirteen.
“Surely any risk is worth taking for the second qi sage,” the portal master interjected.
Fain held up her hand for quiet, “Let us discuss first and then agree on a plan. If that is your view, you can advocate accepting the plan no matter how risky.”
Gisael raised her hand, and Fain nodded to her.
“We are thankful for your aid, and I agree we need to discuss tactics but any plan we come up with here today will be derailed after the first strike is made. This is the nature of war; particularly when considering that Benzhi will not know the plan,” she offered.
Fain nodded solemnly. “We understand. Let us see what can be achieved by using our minds and pooling our strengths. At the very least, we will go into this endeavour with our strengths known,” she said.
“My first question to the members of the Vanguard is about such a strength. Please tell us about this link you have with the second qi sage,” she asked.
Reyas stood at her bench seat; Gisael nodded to her, “We are connected with what he calls a qi communication link. Through it, we can talk, share images, emotions, and auras,” she said, “ah, er, do not call him the second qi sage. Call him Benzhi. That is his name, and he will insist on it.”
Fain exchanged a look with Dyrk, and he stood.
“We were aware of this link, you are not cunning enough. When in the presence of others, I would advise you better hide your body language in the future, especially when you are in front of an empath. About this link, you said it will convey images and an aura, this is very interesting. Normally, I have to touch someone to restore their memories from a crystal,” he held up the crystal, “but I believe we may be able to use this link. We could send him his memories back remotely which, in my view, will be a significant advantage.”
“This is good,” the portal master who seemed to worship the second qi sage stood, taking the floor, “why do we wait for the Val’Tien, why not get near the Val’Sharam castle and send his memories back now?”
“As soon as he gets his memories back, he will want to escape and run to his Vanguard, no?” Fain asked Reyas and Gisael.
“Our initial reason for targetting the Val’Tien is he will not be behind their walls, their shields, their traps, and their many talented rogues and warriors. It will be significantly easier to cause a diversion at the Val’Tien and portal him directly from a public place. I know you are talented master Shirkt, but creating a portal out from their wards or into there will be impossible. But at the Val’Tien, all we need to do is get access to his cell or even a tunnel where he enters or leaves the arena. This will be much easier and will increase our chances of success,” Fain explained.
The portal master nodded, bowing to the wisdom of waiting for the Val’Tien.
“The Val’Tien has barriers and wards,” Dyrk offered.
“Yes, but these are things we can reconnoitre, examine, and plan for. They are far less of an impediment than the heart of the House of Val’Sharam,” Fain replied.
“On that topic, I will leave it to the grandmaster sealer and the portal master to examine the wards and defences at the arena and come up with the details of where we will target the escape, which will determine the when, ” Fain said.
“What happens after?” Gisael said, “where will we portal to? Who will be chasing us?”
Fain nodded, “We have a few options. Portal Master, what are the safest locations you have anchors for?”
Shirkt stood, “Are we looking for outside the Myrkalfar Empire?” he asked, and Fain nodded.
“Then we have two locations into the Qizhu realms and one into the Mogui. We also have fourteen overworld locations here, ones used for Lizard hunting or diplomacy.”
Fain looked thoughtful and asked, “Between you two, do you have any anchors the portal master can use to get back to your home?”
Gisael answered, “No, but he does.”
Fain smiled, “Although he is unaware of them right now. I propose we portal to the most remote overworld location and have Benzhi portal his group from there,” she offered.
Reyas stood, “I have a concern,” she said.
Everyone looked at her expectantly.
“Actually two, but one we can do nothing about and its just as much a problem for the enemy,” she began vaguely.
“My concern is, we have witnessed many high-level techniques, and you just mentioned things like wards, barriers, and things like that. We do not have these things when we travel home. We do not have crystals which hold memories or anything like this. What is the point in sending us home without aiding us to protect ourselves better?” she finished.
Fain smiled, “Ah, we have a plan for that. I will be joining the second qi sage and will take over his training.”
“Hold up there,” Reyas had just asked for aid but was now considering rejecting it. She looked at Gisael who nodded, she knew what Reyas was going to say. “What do you mean by joining exactly?”
Fain looked at Reyas like she was a small child in need of schooling, “Is it not obvious? He needs me more than he needs you right now,” she held up her hand, stalling objections and probably a fist to the face from Reyas.
“We will need five, including you two warriors, to form a penta. One capable of beating any from the Empire. Imagine a penta of five Dread Lords like Azrul, this is what you will need to defend against,” Fain said.
“So you want to join the Vanguard?” Gisael asked.
Fain nodded. “It is my destiny, I knew it from the first moment I met him, even lying their unconscious, the second qi sage has arisen,” she tapped her heart, “I know you may not accept me but it is not up to you, it is up to him and in him I am certain.”
Reyas: I am so going to smash her.
Gisael: but she is right.
Reyas: fuck it. She needs taking down a peg.
Gisael: it is the fact she is so competent, which will save the Alpine Forest and us. If she swears to him and he accepts her, she will make our home a safer place. What issue can I have with that? You need to control your jealousy and put him and our home first.
Reyas: argh, I hate it when you are right. But I will still smash her in training.
During the whole meeting, Pian had been silent. She placed a hand on Reyas’ leg, which prompted Reyas to look at her. Pian smiled and winked. Reyas had no idea what she was on about but she laughed anyway.
Fain ignored the exchange and laughter.
“What was your second concern, the one which we had no power over?” she asked.
Reyas said, “Oh, it was nothing.”
Fain smiled as if she was looking at a child, “Very well, is there anything else?”
Dyrk, Shirkt and the other masters squabbled over nuances for the next three hours. They refined their plan as much as possible before the recon, with ideal strategies in place.
When they had chiselled out all the details, Fain closed the meeting, “For the next week, we shall prepare. You three will enter intensive aura-shield training, from your story, it seems to be your greatest weakness. For the next week, you will focus only on that, Grandmaster Sevrys will also give you a few enhancements with his tattoos.”
“What did you think Pian?” Reyas asked when they were back in their quarters.
“Overall, it is a good plan, but we need to look at the capabilities of those closest to Benzhi. This has not been factored in. Also, does he have any bond with those people, have they turned him? All these things we do not know the answer to,” Pian said.
“Pian, Pian, my dear Pian, you do not know him because if you did, you would never think that. I am more concerned about what he will do after his memories are returned,” Reyas stated.
“Why, what will he do?” Pian said.
“We have no idea; that’s the problem,” Gisael answered for both of them.