In the basement of the Mages Guild Hall in Justininople, in a former dungeon cell, things have gone very wrong. A ritual to detect the nature of Arkold's silver balm-snifter and Tulani's Naga-head pendant has instead released a tiny Chiga demon! While still confined to the magic circle of the ritual, the vicious little monster keeps battering away at the invisible walls and also appears to be getting larger.
Near the doorway, Fenter is bravely trying to crawl into his own hat no doubt in search of some arcane element that will banish the monster.
A few steps from the doorway and down on his knees rests the slumped and shaking form of Arkold. Despite the presence of the rampaging demon the man seems more concerned with inner demons rather than outer ones, and is in the midst of enduring a pain that makes his muzzle twist and his fingers dig into the floor.
Growling violently through her teeth, fur bristling, Tulani stares at the frightening Naga Demon. She quickly shifts over closer to Arkold, spreading one wing protectively over the Jupani, trying somehow to shield him. Her claws flex out involuntarily, the knife carried at her belt, for the moment forgotten.
The silver talisman that was also in the circle is gradually being covered by the dripping ichor coming off of the enraged Chiga.
Arkold makes an effort to push himself to his feet. An effort that fails miserably and leaves him to crumple forward as a spasm of pain strikes him at a vulnerable moment. Despite his groaned assurance that he'll "be right there," he doesn't look like he's going anywhere soon.
"Is it still there?" comes a muffled voice from within the Rath'ani mage's hat.
The Sphynx continues to stare at the demon, not moving, with half her attention focused on Arkold. Her only reply to the frightened Rath'ani is a loud growling hiss.
"I'll check," hisses Arkold between ragged breaths. "Once I get meself off'o the floor."
As it starts to get larger, the spirit monster calms down a bit and begins to attack one part of the containment spell with its single claw. The luminous skull stares back at Tulani, and green slime drools from its jaws as it bares its teeth at her.
The wolf reaches blindly until he find's Tulani's leg, which he pats to get her attention. "Hey," he coughs. "T-take my sword an' do it in, eh? I'm kinda hurtin' 'ere."
A strange, acrid smell builds, but curiously it seems strongest around the doorway, rather than the circle full of slobbering monster. A white, serpentine head peers cautiously around the corner, taking in the situation, its red eyes peering over the tops of black spectacles, and the whole of the face shaded by a lacquered wooden bowl-like hat. A small bluish wisp hovering over the snake's head drifts out, bobbing almost playfully in the air. Spying the creature in the circle, his eye ridges lift slightly, and he hisses, "What… is going on here?"
The barrier holding back the Chiga weakens, and it manages to penetrate it with the talons of its claw. The creature goes into paroxysms of effort as it tries to force its way out through the breach.
At the voice the wolf looks up, his eyes partially blinded by sweat and pain. "Saints 'o fire it's annuder one," he moans after staring at Qing for a moment. Then he drops his head to the stone floor and starts muttering malformed prayers to various Rephidimite saints.
Tulani looks down at Arkold briefly, sympathetically, before snapping her eyes back up to the demon, her ears flattening back against her skull. Crouching down she retrieves the Jupani's sword, holding it loosely in her hands.
"It's all just a bad dream!" the muffled Rath'ani declares. "I knew I shouldn't have had seconds of the mystery meat last night… "
Ignoring all else around her, the Sylvanian Sphynx focuses all her attention on the Chiga, watching the claw behind the breach, waiting, not sure what to do.
Qing doesn't hint at whether the replies are adequate or not, and pours through the door into the cell, pallid coils sliding after him as he moves to one side of the room. Arm after arm unfolds from a white robe with a dark sigil on the front and back, until six slender limbs have emerged to hold a strange pattern. "Warriors of the Alabaster Hall, I call forth a guardian of old. Hearken unto me, Ssithis, the lightning lance, a witchdoctor of the old realm commands it. Emerge!" One of the three bobbing blue wisps trailing the snake abruptly puffs out of existence.
Just as the Chiga squirms free of the ritual circle and lunges towards Arkold, it is knocked aside by a ghostly blue lance. Wielding the lance is a similarly colored apparition of a Naga in highly ornamented Imperial armor. It takes up a position between Arkold and the demon.
"You tell 'em Tulani," Arkold groans out in misdirected support. "Lightning lances, yeh-huh."
The Sylvanian Sphynx instinctively slashes out at the Chiga as it breaks free, but her focus breaks slightly as she notices the apparition Naga.
Fenter bunches up in his ritual circle, smearing the sparkly chalk on his robes. "You can turn it off now! I promise I won't ever work for free again, even if they do give me tasty sandwiches!"
The pale Rokuga surveys his handiwork for a moment. He glances at the wolf on the floor, then over at the quivering hat nearby. "I am Zhu-Ye Qing. Are you responsible for this?" he asks, somewhat reproachfully. Even as he speaks, his six arms begin undulating again. "Who brought this thing here? It is Chigai, incredibly dangerous. Simple exorcism may not suffice, here." A cloudy lens clutched in one hand finds its way up to Qing's eye, and he stares through it at the monstrosity. "Blinded Eye, That Which Sees All and None, pierce the veil of this mortal world."
The Rath'ani uncurls slightly. "It was just a probing ritual! I didn't! I mean… it didn't even seem strong enough to be cursed!" He gulps. "I can't believe people would actually do this sort of thing on purpose!"
A yellow nimbus briefly surrounds the darting Chiga as it tries to get past the spirit guardian's quick lance and armored fist. The monster could easily reach one of the others in the room, but is only trying to get at Arkold apparently.
Tulani winces back momentarily from the Chiga, dropping down to the ground. She grabs Arkold and drags him into a sitting position, wrapping her wings around the both of them.
Fierce sapphire blue eyes stare out from between Tulani's white wings at the Chiga in a look that clearly says, 'You gotta go through ME first.'
In no position to argue with the manhandling, the wolf finds himself dragged against the wall quite before he realized he was moving. He tries to sit up, pushing himself back against the wall until he just doubles over again. To keep himself from falling, he reaches over and grabs Tulani's arm and rests his head on her wings. From this vantage point it seems to become clear to him that the demon is going for him and him alone, and his fears becomes apparent as his eyes widen and his ears lay back.
Qing's face smoothes slightly, his lens disappearing into a pocket. "Magically charged items are rare and unpredictable. They can hold any number of curses, but it is… a common mistake. We will speak of this later." His head swivels to fix his gaze on the wolf and the Sphynx protectively holding him. A long, bony finger points at the pair. "It wants him," Qing whispers. "It is feeding from his pain. If he continues to suffer, the Chiga will grow, and the guardian will no longer be able to hold the demon at bay. It will meld with him, and destroy him from the inside to mature. Until the Jupani's pain is ended, I cannot be assured of destroying the beast."
The black Sphynx wraps her white wings tighter about the wolf at the Naga's statement. Still staring out at the Chiga with cold blue eyes she speaks, not to the Chiga but to Arkold, "Whatever it is, forget it!! The past is past! What am I gonna tell Raneah if you die here huh?!?".
At this declaration the wolf visibly shrinks from the serpent's pointed finger. His ears splay further pushed back against his head with tenseness that matches the strain in his hand as he grips Tulani's arm. "I c-can't," he whispers to the Sphynx. "It ain't… don't have any spice. Th-thought I got passed tha', y'know?"
The Chiga hasn't stopped growing, but the strain of doing battle with the Guardian has slowed it considerably. It screams out its frustration as it writhes through the air away from the glowing blue lance.
Shakily, Fenter pulls himself up and starts rummaging through the pockets of his coat, shuffling his feet oddly as he does. He pulls out a bottle, sets it on the floor and kicks it towards Tulani. "Make him drink that! It should help a little." The powder in his circle begins to glow faintly. "Master Qing, I think I can give you a little boost if you need it, my ritual never went down all of the way."
Holding Arkold tightly, Tulani looks down at the wolf and some of the fierceness fades from her eyes. "You'll just have to get past it now, wont you?" she sags and opens up the bottle. Holding it to the Jupani's lips, she says more quietly, "I'm not letting go of you, ya know? If you're going, I'm going first."
Despite his assertions that he can't fight the pain Arkold gradually begins to push himself to his feet. He glances at Tulani as he rises, grins crookedly, and drinks the contents of whatever he was given. Then he releases her arm but not before patting it. He holds his hand out for his sword.
Satisfied the struggling wolf and Sphynx understand, the witchdoctor turns his attention to the nearby Rath'ani. "Very good. Repair your circle, then. We need to give them as much time as we can to get the wolf's pain under control. The Chiga is a major entity, it cannot be allowed free. If they cannot end his pain with medicine," he looks back over his shoulder. "It'll have to be with the sword."
Tulani spreads her wings back out, like a curtain of white feathers, giving the Jupanis shoulder a quick squeeze before retrieving the sword and handing it to him.
At the sudden show of willpower from Arkold, the Chiga actually shrinks slightly, and is forced to retreat further from the Guardian spirit.
The brandy from Fenter's bottle doesn't hurt either, giving Arkold some welcome relief and a bit of liquid courage.
Qing's hands close and unclose in a wave from top to bottom and back again, watching intently. "Yes, that's it… "
The raccoon nods and twirls in place, dropping powder in his wake as the lines in his circle sharpen. He begins chanting again, this time focusing on the glowing figure of the Guardian. His hands pantomime gestures of pushing something towards it.
Arkold accepts his sword and clutches both of his hands around the hilt as if afraid his shaky hands might drop it. He wobbles as he stands, stepping one way and then the other before he stabilizes himself. "All … -all right you," he slurs challengingly at the Chiga. "Y'want me, eh, h-here I am." He licks his muzzle tauntingly or maybe just to get the last bit of that brandy still on his lips.
Returning more or less to the size it was when it first 'hatched', the Chiga is prodded back towards the ritual circle by the Lightning Lance Guardian, whose movements are becoming quicker with the boost from Fenter's Chaos magic.
Resting her hand on Arkold's shoulder, the black Sphynx says, "Don't forget, I'm right here, and Raneah will want to see you again." That said, she releases him, drawing her own knife, still ready to block the Chiga if necessary.
With a lightning-like jab, the Guardian manages to pierce the Chiga's side with the tip of the lance, holding the squirming monster in place at the center of the ritual circle.
"Maybe I'll be comin' over to bite you, yah little sh-, woah," The wolf's expletive is broken off a he trips a bit on his way towards the Chiga monster. He steadies himself a moment and continues forward. His head jerking left, right, then rolling as he limbers up a bit after so much straining.
"Perfect," murmurs Qing. He reaches up and snuffs the remaining wisp circling his head, and wipes his hands together as if rubbing talc over them, though there doesn't seem to be anything there. Spreading his arms once more, his hands outstretched and poised in the air, the Rokuga speaks up again, his voice sounding oddly far away. "Jupani… the final part of the ritual… you and this demon are linked. You have grown it, nursed it. It falls to you to slay it. Strike, and divest yourself of your demon. Strike."
The Sphynx follows Arkold, her own knife held up in a ready stance, ready to assist in any way necessary, blinking briefly at the Rokuga's words.
"My pleasure," responds the wolf, sounding confident. He widens his stance, draws his blade back and brings it down in a heavy horizontal-slashing arc aimed to cleave the demon in twain.
The strike is true, slicing cleaning through the wriggling demon-worm. Caught in the exorcism ritual cast by Qing, the creature begins to dissolve into acrid smoke even as the two halves fall towards the floor. The broken bits of silver eggshell are also turning to smoke, and with a mighty heave Arkold coughs out his own cloud of black smoke. The room is temporarily filled with the foul haze, until the wave from the exorcism finally washes it out into nothingness.
As the waves of exorcising magic flow outward from the ritual circle, the Witchdoctor notices an anomaly the magic is actually deflected by something in Tulani's travel pouch.
Once Arkold recovers his breath, he finds that the pain has fled him, leaving behind only a shadow memory of the original withdrawal pangs.
With a hoarse sigh, Tulani slumps back against a wall, visibly shaking. Regarding Arkold while wrapping her wings around herself and sighing, she says, "Its good to be alive, isn't it?" But she looks like she might pass out.
Arkold shoulders his scimitar as he hacks a few more strained coughs. "Well- koff -showed him, I di- koff koff -mean we did. Heh heh heh." He gives his head a shake to clear it, tossing his golden blonde mane back over his shoulder as he does so. He twists around and shoots Tulani a winning smile. "You better believe it is."
Qing's brow furrows, causing the wide lacquered saucer on his head to shift slightly. He lets his arms fall, tucking them back under his robe. "It is done." He tilts his head to regard Tulani thoughtfully, but quiet for the time being as she and the Jupani recover.
The wolf sheathes his sword and stretches his arms. "If I knew killing a demon would take care of that, heh, I'd have done it earlier," he claims. Then he quickly grins and holds up a hand defensively. "Eh, now don' lynch me. I didn't know it was in there. I swear on Raneah's tail. I though maybe it was alive, but, uh, not that alive if you get my meanin'."
Fenter sinks down until he's squatting in his circle, peering over at the remnants of the necklace. "I think this may be a good time to consider moving my residence elsewhere."
Closing her eyes briefly, Tulani laughs weakly at the Jupani's comment, briefly considering her own 'inner-demons.' She can feel Qing's eyes on her as she rests.
Lying in the circle, still intact, is the Naga-head talisman. Around are bits of burnt leather and a few remaining fragments of the silver balm-snifter that didn't finish dissolving. The jeweled eye of the talisman sparkles in the candlelight.
"Dagh's forked tongue, I feel great," comments the wolf gaily. "I haven't felt this great in, uh, heh, well I can't remember. But who cares, eh? Oh, hey, what's with all the glum faces? C'mon, that was a demon. And I think I'm cured. Anyone seen my sandwich?"
Tulani smiles at Arkold, saying, "I think you already ate it," before moving slowly, reaching out to pick up the Naga talisman almost without thinking
The Rokuga adjusts his spectacles slightly, but does not take his gaze from Tulani, even as he speaks to Arkold. "It is fortunate I was on hand, warmbloods," he whispers evenly. "This could have gone far worse. Magical items are strictly regulated, and though I will assume the mage," one hand gestures vaguely in Fenter's direction, "had authorization to work with it, I would know where it was obtained, and what is in the girl's pack."
"They came for a curse removal! I was just checking to see if they had anything else that was cursed too." Fenter pulls his hat loose from his head and wrings it out. "My last nip of Rephidim brandy too."
"Girl? Oh, Tulani?" The lupine runs his hand through his hair as he regards Tulani for a moment and then he shakes his head. "Her pack? Jus' some supplies, a bit of coin not a lot of coin mind ye, we're poor folks come to get a curse removed from our poor, poor wretched hides the ma-, uh, no that's it."
Arkold shoots Fenter a sympathetic look, offering, "Tell y'what. I'll treat you after we're all settled. Off the bill, I mean."
Qing extends one hand expectantly, palm up. "Let's see it."
The raccoon seems interested in this proposition, but keeps his mouth shut for the time being and opts to just bob his head up and down before busying himself with erasing some of his ritual lines and drawing in some new ones just in case.
The Jupani wrings his hands nervously. "Uh, well, y'see it's not like yer thinkin'," he explains worriedly as he gives Tulani a look. "I mean it's not, uh, well y'know. Uh, Tulani? Want to cover this?"
Dazedly, Tulani stows away her pendant, frowns at Arkold a moment a look which quickly turns to that of having made a determined decision, before looking up at Qing. Gritting her teeth she says, "We also have an enchanted map," while placing the roll of leather in the serpent's palm.
"Careful with that," Arkold warns, "It's sarcastic."
"I see," the reptile replies. He looks it over carefully, almost gingerly, for familiar markings. "Where did you obtain it and that necklace? That might give some insight into its origin."
"Oh we know where it comes from," offers the wolf. He makes his way over to Tulani's side and nods to her. "Why don' you explain? Your adventure, after all. The story's yers, girl!"
Unrolled, the map depicts Sylvania, but has a lot of extra points on it that don't mark anyplace in particular. The major cities, roads and counties are named, along with significant geographical features, but there are no arcane symbols that would hint that it was anything other than a map.
Pausing for a moment to look at Arkold, the Sylvanian Sphynx says, "I found the map in a cave on a small sky island along with a puzzle piece, and a pendant with the symbol of Amenlichtli," spitting out the name violently. "We traded the pendant with a Khatta in Abu Dhabi named Punja for the canteen, pendants, and another puzzle piece."
As the Sphynx explains her story the wolf puts his arm around Tulani's shoulders. That is he puts his arm around her shoulders after he figures out how to get it around her wing. He smiles as the girl describes her adventure with an almost proud look on his face.
Feeling reassured by the wolf's warm gesture, Tulani relates her story to the best of her abilities trusting the Jupani to fill in anything she forgets.
Fenter busies himself while the story unfolds. He collects his candles and bottles of powder, gathers up his chalk, and slowly reassembles the bundle of magic paraphernalia he had when he first stumbled into the room.
"The Purple Rose is a perfectly fine establishment," the Jupani inserts as the story reaches their trip to Abu Dhabi, "and renting by the hour is a perfectly acceptable practice. Callin' it 'run down' just doesn't cover the, uh, atmosphere it has."
The Sphynx pauses to let Arkold interject before finishing the story with how the map 'Dunky' spoke to them on two separate holidays, and his story of where the map leads, namely, the tomb of the Necromancer King.
Qing's lidless red eyes don't widen of their own accord, but his eyeridges rise slightly. "Amenlichtli… " Memories of a black Vartan flit through his mind. Memories of foxes, shadows, and death. He seems to lose focus for a moment, and then jerks, as if snapping back to the here and now. "I see. I'm sure I don't have to warn you that you tread in dangerous territory. The find is yours by right, but this map and where it supposedly leads are… remarkable, to say the least. I would urge you to consult the Collegia before you continue your search. It may not be just your lives that are at stake."
Arkold wags his tail and gives the mage a thumbs up from around Tulani's shoulder. "Eh, what's to fear from a few old bones and some crypt traps? I mean they can't be half as bad as the crypt traps in Rephi- er, the, uh, Crypt Trap Emporium," he says confidently.
Tulani just looks down at 'Dunky', not replying for the moment, thinking on the mage's advice.
Qing stares at Arkold over the tops of his black glasses. "The traps are the least of what you should fear in the crypts." Rolling up the map again, he proffers it once more to Tulani, continuing, "Some years ago, an agent of Necropolis, a minion, escaped onto Rephidim. It claimed a great many lives before it was stopped by… an acquaintance of mine. These are not myths, warmbloods. They are not dancing lights or vague presences."
Arkold rubs his head at the warning and his grin fades a little. "Uh, yeah. I guess you have a point there. I'm used to skewering the livin', not the dead," he admits.
"Necropolis? You mean … uh, what's it called … Aztepo?" Arkold asks.
Tulani takes the map from the Rokuga's hand, suddenly remembering something. "Dunky said something about 'the light of Inala too… some sword or something I think," she says, her memory of it a little hazy.
The Rokuga folds three rows of arms over his chest, and his tail turns over itself thoughtfully. "Perhaps a weapon to be used against those restless ones that dwell in the tombs. It may be that a spirit resides in your map, and has a desire for this weapon to be uncovered. Perhaps it knows whether the threat is more dire and immediate than most know. I would ask that you allow the map to be studied by the Collegia elders. On my word, it will be returned to you, and perhaps you can be better girded than with mere chitin and iron."
"What's the catch?" puts in the wolf suspiciously. "I mean it ain't like you're goin' to help us for free right?"
Qing moves his head slightly to just barely include Arkold in his field of vision. "Would you prefer I brought the Chiga back?"
"Uh, now don' be hasty," suggests Arkold as he holds his hands up defensively, "I'm just askin' what you want."
"Besides the map and time," the wolf adds.
The spirit mage lowers his head again, his eyes disappearing behind the broad brim of his hat. "I want what the Collegia wants. A respect for magic and the dangers inherent, and an opportunity to be assured that Necropolis will not corrupt any more territory. This is no child's game of scavenger hunt. Nor is it something the Collegia can afford to throw an army at. If fate has given you the opportunity to drive the taint back where armies would fail, I wish only that you have a chance to accomplish this" He raises his head again, adding, "And not merely throw your lives away."
Tulani pauses thoughtfully before saying to the serpent, "If there is some way to tell 'Dunky' that we're leaving him with you while we find the last puzzle piece that would be fine, I'd hate to have him wake up in the hands of strangers, even for a spirit of some type that must be unsettling."
Qing nods slowly. "Are you in a hurry? If you wish, I can conduct a seance tonight or tomorrow, and you can speak with him yourself. I will see you lodged and fed."
"So, let me get this straight. You're willing to arrange the Collegia to support us as a patron as we fin', loot, an' possibly quell the King's crypt? Now I don' have anythin' against the Collegia Esoterica. They did some good work for me. So I'm willin' to think you're a trustworthy group. An' I'm willin' to believe what you say. I'm not sure if I'm any kin' of hero, I'm jus' a mercenary an' I joined with coin in mind, bu' seein' as how I've come to change my outlook on things I guess I'm willin' to fight the good fight this time aroun'. So if Tulani's in, I guess I'm in too. Someone's go' to protect 'er anyway," says the wolf.
The Sphynx smiles at the wolf, punching his arm lightly saying, "After what just happened today, I'd think you're the one who needs looking after."
Arkold rubs his arm with a hand. "Hey, now, watch it. That ain't any way to treat your elders," he quips.
"The map has placed itself in your hands," the spirit mage murmurs. "Just as the Chiga was your demon to slay, I believe this map's spirit is yours to fulfill, both of you. This time, however, it is not only you who stands to gain from fulfilling it. We will conduct the seance, and see what there is to see. I will expect you shortly."
After going out to dinner and a drink (and subsequently having to help a tipsy Fenter back to the Guild Hall), Arkold and Tulani meet with Qing in a chamber off of the Guild's main hall. Unlike the previous room they used, this one is quite spacious. Lit by braziers mounted behind stained-glass sconces and an impressive chandelier, it could have once served as a grand ballroom. The bare stone walls are draped in tapestries, while the floor is left uncovered. Several apprentices busily update the arcane diagrams and ritual circles drawn upon it, and several Mages besides Qing are present. At the center of the room, on a small table, rests the map, its surface already marked with the glowing veins that presage its awakening.
Qing can be found quietly speaking with an elderly and well-dressed human near the circles of power, occasionally gesturing at the map on the table.
Craning her neck to look around the large room, Tulani notices Qing and heads over to him, waiting patiently for his attention.
As the wolf walks in to the chamber he takes a moment to take in the vast room before he proceeds towards the table and the map upon it. "Looks like we get the royal treatment this time, eh, Tulani? I was expectin' another dungeon," he tells his friend.
"Dunkelstein, was it?" the old man asks Qing, somewhat loudly. "I think I had an instructor in Warding by that name, back when I was a novice."
Tulani resists the urge to interrupt Qing's conversation with the man, turning instead to Arkold, saying, "Yeah, I certainly wasn't expecting this either."
The reptile shrugs at the gentleman, a strange motion with three pairs of shoulders. "It is a name I am unfamiliar with, Guildmaster." He spies his guests, and straightens up slightly. "Ah, you have arrived. You may take your places by my circle of power, there." Qing gestures at the ring and two marked spots by it. "Have a care not to touch the circle itself. Are we ready to begin?"
An apprentice discreetly replaces an incense burner near Qing with a fresh one, which does wonders for subduing the Rokuga's odor. Thinking the last question was directed at him, he suddenly straightens up and says, "Yes, Witchdoctor Qing! Everything is in place."
Nodding to the serpent the Sphynx moves to stand on one of the marked spots, careful not to touch the circle, before turning and asking Qing, "Is there anything we need to do?"
The old Guildmaster shuffles over to his own circle, and leans heavily on his cane.
The wolf gives a half-hearted shrug. "Uh, sure," he replies uncertainly. He walks with Tulani to the aforementioned spots and moves to occupy one of them with his arms folded across his chest.
Qing slithers to the center of his circle. "If the spirit of the map speaks as you say, it is most familiar with you. We will invoke it, and it will be up to you to speak with it. Convey anything you need to, and perhaps we of the Collegia will be able to learn a little in the process."
The wolf gives a bark of laughter and tells Qing, "You'll be learnin' he's a sarcastic old coot, I'll tell you that."
The pallid Rokuga gives Arkold a somewhat curious look, then raises his hands, slightly disturbing the two wisps trailing over his hat. "Let us commence."
Tulani rolls her eyes in Arkold's general direction.
Qing begins swaying slightly, silent at first, then muttering softly. His arms begin flowing around him, and his voice becomes louder. The words are different, not declarations and demands in Nagai anymore, but a long string of mumbled mantras and syllables that flow together into a long drone that's a little dizzying to listen to. The reptile's crimson eyes are firmly fixed on the map, the temperature seems to drop a few degrees, and one by one, the braziers gutter out to be replaced by a soft, blue glow.
The veins just below the surface of the map pulse in time to the chanting then fade out. "This place seems familiar," comes the disembodied voice of the map. "But what's with the smell? Have you been gargling with rancid pickle juice or something, you six-armed nightmare?"
From his place Arkold can be heard laughing merrily.
"You tell him, Dunky," the wolf calls to the map as he wipes his eyes from laughing too hard. "And welcome home."
The Sylvanian Sphynx lets out her own light chuckle, smiling at the map and saying, "How ya been, Dunky?"
The spirit mage's back stiffens, and as the invoked spirit stabilizes, he lets his mutters fade to silence and merely folds his arms over his chest. "The things I tolerate for my craft."
"You and me both, brother," the map says to Qing. "But at least you get to be alive for them."