7 First Ones, 6104 RTR (11 Jul 2000) Willow reveals her choice of the new Archon … and investigates the domain of Light-of-Star.
(Space) (Spheres of Magic) (Test of the Archon) (Willow)
Monastery of the Sunrise
Nestled within a large crater knocked into the tallest of several mountains in a long ridge is a monastery of stone, steel and less easily identified materials. It is a collage of the ancient and the futuristic – dark gray walls built block upon block, with gargoyles upon their perches and stone statues of saints, angels and knights standing in prayer or at guard in alcoves. Emblems of the Star appear in stonework and stained glass, and tall spires launch upward toward the sky, supported by flying buttresses below. The doors, however, are far from such things as being made of wood – they are of plasteel or ceramisteel or some other such space-age materials, sliding smoothly into stone, and operated by hand-panels to the side. Giant armored robot vehicles in the shapes of knights stand guard on pedestals at the corners of the monastery – statuary capable of coming to the defense of this mountain sanctuary.

Six aerospace shuttlecraft await in a tiled courtyard of the monastery, as twenty-four cheetahs in multi-colored robes – faces hidden by cowls and veils – climb in, four to each shuttle, plus the pilots. Into the sixth, four cheetahs strap themselves into the passenger compartment, which contains two rows of seats on either side of the central aisle. One of them wears robes of seafoam green and turquoise. The other wears robes of royal blue and bronze. A third wears robes of ebony and yellow, and a fourth wears robes of violet and copper.

Another chair is occupied by a black Khatta, and the last seat in the compartment is occupied by a gunmetal-grey Skreek. Tinted panels show the sky above and the monastery to either side, though there is no view to the back or below. Forward and slightly down can be seen the semi-conical shape of the cockpit, where the pilot and co-pilot prepare for takeoff, unseen.

The shuttles look ungainly, each looking in profile something like the silhouette of a raptor's head. The rear section is big and bulky, housing the primary thrusters, whereas the front section quickly tapers into a slightly downward curving nose. Window panels mark the passenger compartment, with the cockpit bubble in front of that. The weapons mounted at the bases of stubby ailerons look just as vestigial as the wings do, but should there be an attack on the shuttles, ground-based weaponry and flanking aerospace fighters would be providing defense.

The candidates have been told that they are about to embark on another survival test, and that they've been split up into teams, to be sent to different destinations off-planet. So far as they know, the foursome in the sixth shuttle are going to partake of the same exercise, though no doubt they may be surprised upon seeing that there are two other passengers coming along.

With a whine of engines, the six shuttles begin to lift off, using vertical thrusters, and then they begin to reorient themselves for the upward thrust into space.

The passengers of the sixth shuttle find themselves seemingly crushed back into their seats as they rocket skyward, and the blue skies fade into star-speckled darkness, and two crescents of the double moon. The backward rush gives way to a dizzying sensation of falling … one that does not go away, even though there's no evidence that the craft is going back down again. As the other shuttles head in other directions and become mere points of light in orbit around Zion, other points of light can be seen as well – the multitude of artificial satellites – many of them heavily populated – orbiting the planet.

A sequence of color variations in the cabin lighting is the signal that the craft has reached space, though the relative silence of the engines is clue enough. It's now quite obvious why Willow was instructed to wear a hair-restraint, as she is treated to the sensation of total weightlessness – a sensation she didn't have to experience on the way to Zion, thanks to artificial gravity generators – but it seems that the Silent-Ones often do without such "frills" on their small spacecraft.

Willow's chair is not luxurious, but reasonably comfortable, and the restraints keep her from floating loose, though a couple of push-button clasps can be easily released in a hurry. In front of her seat – located on the right side of the central aisle and in the front row – is a console with a couple of silvery panels.

By holding her hands over the panels, her hand-signs can be relayed to the cockpit, or to the rest of those in the passenger compartment. A glassy panel over these serves as a viewscreen and control interface. Symbols can appear in its surface, and Willow can touch different points to activate controls. Alas, she hasn't been briefed on the full extent of possibilities, so a great deal of the options fall under "best not to be messed with".

Lady Willow DackThe Skreek bounces a little in her seat at the odd sensation of weightlessness. "From what I gather, it's not a good idea to get sick up here." She waves her hands over the panels. "We were the last to take off, correct? None of the other candidates saw us board the shuttle I hope?"

Images form on the viewscreen in front of Willow. "Affirmative. None of the other candidates were allowed to see your boarding, and the shuttles are identical."

"Good job. I'll give you your next set of orders as soon as we've settled in up here." She clears her throat and looks to the four cheetahs. "Gentlemen, and fellow lady. If you're comfortable enough, you can take off your masks now. They're no longer necessary."

The veiled cheetahs exchange glances. Willow's instructions are fairly clear, however, and, after some hesitation, they remove their veils. The one known as Ebony-Yellow is now easily identified as, without a doubt, Jade Eyes, Priest-Queen of the Savanites, standing out with her curly black hair (tightly bound back so it doesn't float into her face) and her deep green eyes.

Seafoam-Turquoise is a fairly rough-looking fellow, his muzzle looking a bit twisted, as if it had been badly smashed and the bones hadn't been healed properly. It almost seems to be muted, though, by the vast number of other scars that mottle his fur.

Violet-Copper is recognizable now as Yoshua – "Methuselah's" companion when he was on Sinai. His hair is the standard black-streaked gold of the space cheetahs, worn long, but pulled back much as Jade-Eyes' hair is.

Royal-Bronze looks about as old as Seafoam-Turquoise. It wasn't obvious before, thanks to the veil, but his left eye is covered by a patch, and his head hair is cropped so short as to blend in with the rest of his fur.

Willow nods to the scarred cheetah. "You've probably already figured it out, Storm-Born. The tests are officially over. What is happening now is just fussy work to keep the candidates busy while the four of us make plans. I've come to my decision and I've met with the Archon's approval. Suffice it to say this has been probably one of the most difficult decisions of my life. Each of you have strengths and weaknesses, but I could only choose one Archon."

Storm-Born nods, and spares a glance around the compartment at the others. "Yes, but I do not venture to guess who you may have chosen," he signs.

The one known previously as Royal-Bronze signs, "Why the subterfuge?" He makes a gesture at the shuttle about him. "If you've already made your decision… "

"Anchor-Point, you have charisma and fortitude. But your blood runs too hot; I felt that you were too quick to judge and not easy to forgive." Willow shifts her gaze from the blue and bronze robed cheetah to Yoshua. "And you lack experience. But you have a good heart and aren't afraid to stand up for what you feel is right. Your greatest weakness is that lack of experience, and the fact that you might be manipulated by your lack of a female companion." She then points to Storm-Born. "And you lack diplomacy. You do your job because it must be done, but I fear that you concern yourself too little on the opinions of the role of Archon. A leader who isn't respected in a time when others wish to take his role may lead to trouble in the future. You may inadvertently change for the bad as to what the Archon is to be viewed as."

Anchor-Point – previously known as Royal-Bronze – takes in a quick breath through his nose at the criticism, but his eyes don't show defiance or any malice. He might very well agree with the assessment. Storm-Born smirks faintly, looking as if he has no argument at all against the judgement. Yoshua/Star-With-Us has a faintly chastised look for a moment, and then looks introspective, as if mulling Willow's comments and running them over in his mind.

"But the three of you together can combine your strengths and cancel out each other's weaknesses. Anchor-Point, your current role as commander of the military will still remain. I feel that should the Archon ever need to take an unfavorable military action, then you could convince the public of its worth without added bloodshed. Storm-Born, what you lack in diplomacy you make up for in perception. You can see vipers amidst the flock and act as a voice of wisdom to the Archon. You may not have the diplomacy to be an Archon, but you would make an excellent advisor to one." The Skreek looks back to Yoshua. "Congratulations, Star-With-Us."

"As for the deception … the answer is easy. The new Archon now has some extra time on his hands as to how to deal with Light-of-Star and potentially catch him unaware, if that is his plan." The Skreek lets out a breath. "Jade-Eyes is here because Sinai is involved, and she has a right to have a say over how to deal with the people there."

Yoshua blinks a few times, looking up to Willow in surprise at the sudden shift. Storm-Born's smirk turns into a full-blown grin as lopsided as his muzzle. Anchor-Point bows his head in acknowledgement. Jade-Eyes has a look of obvious relief.

Star-With-Us – also known as "Yoshua" on Sinai – signs, "I am greatly honored. I will not falter in the service of my People, and will give the Archon no cause for regret, or may the Star deal with me ever so severely."

"Storm-Born, if you accept the role of advisor, you will be granted amnesty. I've been told of your history." Willow lets out a breath of relief and flops back in her seat. "And the three of you I feel will make an excellent team. But you need to quickly become that team. Don't be afraid to speak your mind or point out a flaw you see in the other's judgement." She points to Yoshua. "And don't forget that ultimately the decision is yours. Keep your eyes open to the signs of those you trust, but remember that you were chosen to rule."

Storm-Born sobers a bit at the mention of his history – and of amnesty. He dips his head. "The Archon is most gracious." Star-With-Us has a flicker of curiosity to his brow, but his expression suggests that he's content to pry for details at a later time.

Jade-Eyes signs, "In a way, I regret being left out of this team … but I think I am needed back on Sinai. This has been a most … enlightening adventure." She tries to smile.

"We're all part of it for the moment. This is horribly sudden, but we're currently running on borrowed time. I've no idea when Light-of-Star or one of the other candidates will catch wind of this little ruse. We've a few days, maybe a week or more if we're lucky, but we can't be too sure. My first reaction would be to shut the gate down in the Primus system, hopefully cutting off communication and allowing us to reach the satellite orbiting Sinai without fear of them notifying Light-of-Star about it. But that won't help things here, and I'm hesitant to just up and leave things here on Zion if they turn out to be more dire." Willow tugs at the bindings holding her hair in place. "So what are your opinions?"

Yoshua signs, "I have not had communications with the outside during this contest. Have there been new developments? Has anything changed on Sinai since I visited there?"

The Skreek shrugs. "All I know are intelligence reports sent to me during this whole thing. I know that Nagai and Khattas are working in the satellite as well as some of the People, probably wooed by Light-of-Star. I think he has some kind of mind-control device in his temple, but it's so hard to examine the place that I can't be too sure how it works or what it is exactly. I don't know about the gate either." She looks to Jade-Eyes. "What was happening in the city before you left? Had you been told if anything was going to happen, or if the Star was planning on stopping by anytime in the near future?"

Jade-Eyes shakes her head. "The revelations from the 'angel' were very vague. In retrospect, I believe that the intent was to leave an opening, in case Light-of-Star needed to step up his schedule for whatever he has planned. There were suggestions that there would 'soon' be signs and wonders, but 'soon' could be days, months, years or millennia."

Anchor-Point shakes his head. "Light-of-Star's orbital palace is a security risk. But there are many other lords who have their own orbital fortresses. They usually keep each other in check. Light-of-Star, however … is an unknown quantity."

Willow nods. "Has there ever been an inspection of his cathedral? I mean, have any of you ever seen the inside of it or know anyone who was allowed to walk on in and say hello?"

Star-With-Us signs, "The Nagai and Khatta? I suppose he needs their help, to have access to cargo transporters without a completed gate. We have jump-ships that we can use to reach systems that do not have gates … but they are limited in where they may go, and are less flexible than the faster-than-light technology of the other empires."

Storm-Born signs, "I'll have to stay out of this. If you know my history, you'll realize that I've been kept out of the affairs of Zion."

Anchor-Point signs, "The palace has been inspected, but not every last recess. There are only certain areas that visitors are allowed to go. Attempting to push too hard might result in an 'incident'. But eventually, an 'incident' will happen, whether we start it or not."

"I was given the diary of a Khatta trader who visited his temple. It all but convinced me that Light-of-Star somehow has access to some Sifran mind-zonking technology. Is anything more known about this?" Willow drums her fingers against the armrest of her chair.

Storm-Born raises an eyebrow. "Mind … zonking? Then it's not just his magnetic personality, is it?"

Jade-Eyes signs, "Sifran? Do you mean that he is able to work magic?"

Anchor-Point nods. "It is well known that he has accumulated many crystal artifacts that originated in Sifran space. He regards them as 'holy'."

Yoshua nods. "The Archon was aware of his interest in Sifran artifacts. But I was not clear on the notion that they actually served any purpose other than a symbolic one, and their resemblance to our own use of crystals in our optical technology."

The Skreek bites her lip. "Sorry, me and my slang. On Sinai, if someone's mind is weak enough, a mind mage can plant suggestions in their brains or control someone. If all I've been left to believe is true, then magic is just a by-product of the Sifras. I've no idea how it all works, but maybe he's found a way to mimic some of the abilities of the spheres."

Yoshua nods. "So far as I know, magic exists only on Sinai … but I have heard tales of Sifran artifacts possessing strange abilities. Caltrop Station is one of the most obvious examples. It is, after all, a gigantic 'Sifran artifact'. It is not known how it draws its power, though it is suspected that the Lotus Nebula fuels it somehow. Its ability to maintain an atmosphere and multiple alignments of gravity defies our current understanding of science."

Jade-Eyes signs, "If this is true, then he could impress those who think that magic only works on Sinai … by performing it elsewhere, and then claiming that he is able to do so because it is a miracle."

"I just wish I knew what his whole scruddy plan is. Do any of you know how far his influence might be? Could he potentially drag the People into civil war and get the Khattas and the Nagai to join him, or does he just have a handful of followers in a few high places?" The Skreek tugs at her whiskers. "Sebazhan, are you listening to any of this?"

Sebazhan looks over to Willow. "I'm just trying to keep my mouth shut. I'm only a 'hedge wizard', remember. I don't know the least thing about the Sifras."

Jade-Eyes signs, "I would think that his ultimate goalwould be rule of all Sinai … though I am not entirely clear what would motivate him to do so. There is so much more out here. I am not certain that he would gain more than he would lose, if he is as influential as I've gathered."

Storm-Born frowns, then signs, "You've got a point, about civil war. His actions on the surface look like he's just trying to make himself out to be a god, a ruler … but with his resources, surely he could have done better. He could have secretly used these mind-bending techniques and quietly built up his web of influence … gotten himself into the position of Archon … and then taken whatever he pleased. Of course, it would take time … but maybe he doesn't have that?"

"Did you pick up any magic feelings while we were in Caltrop Station or near the Gateway Tower on Abaddon?" The Skreek takes a hesitant breath. "I'm asking because it wouldn't be out of the question for us to pay a visit to Light-of-Star's shrine under the pretense of taking a break while the candidates are on their survival test. If you could tell for sure whether there was magic there or not, and I might be able to sniff out clues on his true goals… "

Sebazhan's whiskers twitch. "You know … now that you mention it … it wasn't that I got 'magic feelings' in Caltrop Station. It's more that … once we left it … everything seemed so quiet by comparison. I suppose … it's like when you're sitting on the back porch, and the flickertails are buzzing. You don't really hear them. But if something's out there, and the flickertails go silent … then you suddenly hear that they're not there. Am I making any sense?"

Willow nods. "I think so." She nods to the three candidates. "You'll need time to get ready, anyroad, and once we make our move, the ruse will be up unless you do something really subtle. As much as I don't like the idea of wandering around in the enemy's backyard, a little voice in my head is nagging at me that I might regret it if I don't see it for myself before anyone orders its evacuation. Unless Light-of-Star has an army stashed someone near Sinai that I don't know about, the best bet might be to try to deal with here before moving back home. Do any of you agree?"

Storm-Born nods. "If we can learn anything about this while Light-of-Star is away – off on that survival test, right? – then this is the best opportunity we'll ever get. I've got a feeling that this is risky … but what isn't?"

Anchor-Point signs, "I would want a chance to make sure we have some firepower behind us. I realize that we don't want to cause an incident, but our hand might be forced. I wouldn't put it past Light-of-Star to have some sort of trap set for us. Maybe not specifically for us, but for anyone who might snoop around in his absence."

Yoshua signs, "I agree. But I would like to know something – What was your husband referring to, when he was speaking about 'sensing' magic? Is that some special gift of his?"

Jade-Eyes looks as if she's about to answer Yoshua's question … but she looks to Willow to see if she might be interrupting something.

"Sebazhan is a shadow mage. I suppose that the best comparison would be that just as an artist might be more sensitive to different colors in his paints because of his training, Sebazhan is more sensitive to magic … although more specifically to his own sphere." The Skreek looks to the black Khatta for his approval on her statement.

Sebazhan smiles and nods. "Truth be told, I didn't really sense any 'colors' at Caltrop Station. Just that the canvas was a bit off-white, whereas out here, the canvas is bleached."

Yoshua signs, "How far away can you be from something magical to sense it? Is it possible that mere proximity might give you a sensation?"

Sebazhan ponders this. "Out here, I am uncertain. I am dealing with unknowns. For all I know, it could be possible. It's just that if I don't sense anything … that is not the final say on the matter. I should note that some users of magic are more sensitive to its presence than others. I only … ah … 'dabble' in it, myself."

"I should note that I do have a weakness to magic. If Light-of-Star or one of his followers tries to do something to me, I might not be able to do anything about it. It gives me a certain amount of sensitivity as well, but not in a very positive way. I had my appearance changed by magical means about five years ago and to make the change permanent they had to strip my natural resistance to magic." The Skreek taps her finger against the armrest again. "Although you'll have to admit that if I pop out of the Palace jabbering about how Light-of-Star should be the next Archon, you'll know that something bad happened in there, hands down."

Anchor-Point looks to Willow. "Regarding your notion about Light-of-Star having an 'army' near Sinai … I do not believe that it is likely he does. He may have made contact with elements of the Khatta and the Nagai, but you should be aware that they are very fragmented. The Khatta are very feudal, far more than the People are. They are united mostly on matters of fixing prices for trade, and establishing trade routes. In matters of war, they are concerned with only their own estates, unless they are all threatened as a whole."

Sebazhan blinks. He has that 'something just occurred to me' look on his face. "Willow, darling … I … ahem … pardon me if I go careening off the walls." He starts to work at the restraints holding him into his chair.

Willow sinks down in her chair. "What's on your mind, Sebazhan?"

Sebazhan manages to get the restraint loose … and starts drifting. The cheetahs try to sign instructions to him, but he catches on, and the passenger compartment is small enough that there's really no chance of him getting stranded in the middle with nothing to push off from. He drifts over toward Willow. "Just hold still. This probably won't work, but if it doesn't … no harm done." He places a hand to Willow's forehead … and starts to chant.

The Skreek's ears flatten nervously, but she doesn't move or comment beyond that.

Sebazhan closes his eyes, deep in concentration, chanting. At last, he finishes, and lets out a long breath. "I'm sorry. Nothing. It was just an impulse. In retrospect, I remember that when you came back from the interviews, I felt a strange sensation when you came back – though I dismissed it out of hand at the time. I thought maybe I could sense that again … but I suppose even detection spells don't work when there's no magic to work with. And even if you did have some sort of spell put on you, that doesn't mean that it would leave some sort of 'aura'… " Sebazhan pushes himself back, drifting backwards toward his chair and impacting lightly against the canopy just above it. He shuffles about, trying to correct for his bad aim.

Willow bites down on a profanity that tries to leak out of her throat. "You don't think he's been spying on us? Light-of-Star kept prancing around as though he had some ace up his sleeve the entire time. He seemed more focused on staying in the contest more than winning."

Sebazhan frowns. "If he's got some sort of way to use magic … I find it hard to believe that it would be something that would work over great distances. On Sinai, if a mage is scrying on someone, there is a trace-line that has an ever-so-slight chance of being detected – a magical link between the caster/observer, and the one being observed. That is how another mage can try to detect that someone is spying by magical means … and attempt to either sever the connection, or trace it back to its source. If Sifran crystals could somehow create magic … you would need their presence all along the 'link'."

Storm-Born signs, "Light-of-Star … he was Magenta-Steel, wasn't he?"

The gray rat nods. "Yes. He might have also gotten me to blurt out some of my secrets to him. Like the fact that during the testing the Archon fell ill and almost died, and also who the people I was considering for candidacy were. I'd not made my final decision yet though, nor had I made these plans up as far as I know… but that does make me want more answers now."

Sebazhan frowns even more deeply. "I haven't exactly been on guard to notice any magical effects. If he did do something … he might have done it more than once." His brows furrow angrily. "Mind magic used like this … it's such a … violation." His expression softens a bit, perhaps remembering a few mental violations he'd been guilty of himself, when he was using the Throne of Dagh.

Willow grinds her teeth, visibly seething at the thought.

Yoshua shakes his head. "We must be wary of the possibility, but we must not let ourselves be paranoid. We must not let the enemy defeat us in our own minds. Our enemy may know more than he ought to … but I think he should be occupied at least for the duration of this latest 'test'. Even if he knows your plans, he should not be in any position to contact his followers or to give them orders. Unless that is possible with this 'magic'?"

Sebazhan shakes his head. "I can't give you absolute answers – Magic is never fully understood even by the greatest of mages – but just as I do not think he could use an artifact to scry on us from afar, I do not think he could use it to transmit messages magically."

Anchor-Point signs, "I would expect that the Archon would have been very diligent in making certain that no transmissions would be made to or from the candidates during this test. That is … of a non-magical means."

"I just don't like the idea of someone knowing all of the skeletons in my closet. There's quite a few in there, and plenty that could be used to discredit me and my choice in candidates." Willow shakes her head. "All the more reason to get my tail in gear and get to the bottom of this. Might I suggest that I and my husband pay a visit to the Palace while you four start working up plans? At the very least, we need to get Yoshua officially sworn in as soon as possible."

The cheetahs nod in agreement. Sebazhan takes a deep breath. "I don't like this one bit … but I have a bad feeling that this place is going to spell trouble for us, whether we visit it or not. Best that we do it on our terms, right?"

"I've always preferred going against my enemies face to face instead of playing my hand at politics. I'm no good at it, but I can still deck anyone who shoves their nose too far in my face." Willow sighs. "Then let's get going. Jade-Eyes, I want you to tell these three everything that Light-of-Star has been telling you from Sinai and how his messages looked. We'll manage this."

Yoshua nods. "Will we be dropped off somewhere, or will we be accompanying you to Light-of-Star's orbital palace?"

"It would probably be best if we dropped you off somewhere, and probably took a separate shuttle. For now I'm going to assume that Light-of-Star isn't onto our ruse… and I have the feeling that his palace would be safest to investigate when he isn't in it." She waves a hand. "It would probably be best if you got dropped off at the Archon's cathedral and quietly snuck in to see him. I'll be more comfortable knowing that the mantle has been transferred already even in secret, than leave it open for someone to steal."

Yoshua nods. "I look forward to seeing the Archon again."

"I have one request… Jade-Eyes?" Willow bites her lip. "I don't want my daughter anywhere near that place. Could you take care of her for me while Sebazhan and I check it out?"

Jade-Eyes smiles. "It would be my pleasure."

"Thank you. Then let's be on our way." The Skreek whispers a prayer under her breath as she signs the group's directions over the panels in her seat.

The exchanges are made, and some time later, the shuttle – now only carrying the pilot, co-pilot, and the two adult Dacks – drifts toward a dazzling structure, somewhat wheel-shaped in structure, but with a multitude of spires and spines that have a glittering appearance to them that is suggestive of crystal, though this is no Caltrop Station. Still, it's a marvelous structure, far beyond what could be built on Sinai in many lifetimes.

Sebazhan, upon seeing the structure, frowns deeply as the shuttle approaches. "I can feel it. We've gone from an empty canvas of bleach white, to an undertone of gray. There's something here. I can't for the life of me tell you what … but this is something out of place."

"Could you do any magic if you tried?" the Skreek asks, straining forward in her seat to get a better look.

Sebazhan frowns, furrowing his brow, closing his eyes tightly shut. "I … I do not think so. It's not strong enough, not organized enough. It's as if I can reach out and brush my hands against … something … but I can't get a firm grasp of it. This is a little like Caltrop Station … but not like Sinai."

"I'm going to trust you to be my feelers for this. If you think someone is doing something to me, don't hesitate to smack me as hard as necessary to bring me back to my senses." The Skreek wipes her arm against her forehead. "We'll see how things go from there."

Sebazhan nods, evidently nervous. "I'll do what I must." He smirks. "But I'll try to find alternatives to the smacking part."

Willow nods and reaches out to hold the Khatta's hand while the ship descends.

The ship shakes softly as maneuvering rockets fire on the fore of the shuttle in short bursts. In the air, craft glide and soar about, but in space, once they start moving, they continue in a straight line indefinitely, changing course with precise bursts of rockets, each change sending the ship on a new course, in another straight line. Now, the rockets are used to gradually slow the movement of the craft as it approaches the station … and then it aligns itself with the axis of the hub of the "wheel", and uses lateral thrusters to put itself on a spin to match that of the station, resulting in a mildly unpleasant sensation for the moment, as gyroscopic forces pull outward from the center of the shuttle.

"Have we landed yet?" The rat creaks an eye open. "That felt like someone just tried to push my stomach out from the inside."

The station draws closer … and then, after what seems like too long of that unpleasant sensation, the shuttle finally docks, and then moves on a conveyor away from the center of rotation. The unpleasant spinning gives way to the new sensation of gravity, aligned the way it ought to be, from Willow's perspective. The shuttle comes to a halt, and the boarding ramp hisses open. A light sequence indicates that the passengers may now debark.

Through the canopy, it can be seen that the shuttle is in some sort of bay that is "below" the central axis of the station where the craft first came in. Other shuttle bays apparently radiate outward from the central hub, like spokes on the wheel. The actual living areas of the station are located along the rim of the wheel, the nearest portion of which is "below" Willow at present.

Willow starts to fuss with her restraints. "Well, let's have a look around. Unfortunately there's not much I can do to be unobtrusive since I'm apparently the only Skreek in several solar systems… but hopefully my position as the judge might give me a small measure of clout."

Sebazhan chuckles. "Well, I suppose that in a remote place such as this, any arrival is conspicuous." He pops himself out of the restraints, then looks out the boarding portal. "Well, it looks like we have a small welcoming committee." Four cheetahs in uniforms stand outside.

The Skreek swallows and then puffs herself up, trying to at least look like she's not shaking on the inside. She exits the ship and walks up to the guards. "Greetings. My name is Willow-the-Wisp and I and my husband would like to explore the cathedral. Would that be permissible?"

The guards bear no visible weapons. Their uniforms bear sashes and ornamental touches that remind Willow faintly of … images of the earliest Savanites in the City of Hands. A female bows to Willow. "We welcome those who seek the Light. I am Chosen-Wind, and I would be glad to give you a personal tour."

"I would welcome that. Where do we start?" The Skreek twines her arm around Sebazhan's and squeezes his hand several times. ( Hopefully he'll pick up on the signal. If something catches your attention or seems wrong, squeeze my hand. )

Chosen-Wind seems a little … detached, and shows no sign of clueing in on Willow's little sign to her husband. Sebazhan gives Willow a reassuring stroke on the back of her hand. The other guards are virtually unreadable in their expressions.

Chosen-Wind signs, "Very well, then. This way, please." She walks over to a circular lift that looks to descend to the outer rim of the station.

"Would it be rude of me to talk here? My husband isn't as familiar with your language as I am and I would like to provide him with a translation." The Skreek's signs are a bit more clumsy now as she tries to keep up.

Chosen-Wind nods. "Feel free to speak. I am versed in the tongues of the Khatta and of the Terrans."

"Thank you. I just didn't wish to offend with my noise if you preferred silence here." Willow looks around a bit, her hand linked with Sebazhan's. "Are you a priestess?"

Chosen-Wind seems to understand Willow's Rephidim Standard just fine. "Oh, no, I am but an acolyte, come here to seek illumination." As the group gets onto the disc-shaped platform, it lowers down a vertical shaft, accelerating downward, then decelerating again, coming to a smooth stop at the bottom. Curved doors at one end of the cylindrical shaft open up, revealing a chamber beyond, which Chosen-Wind leads the Khatta and Skreek into, gesturing about. "Welcome to the Heavenly Palace of Divine Light." It certainly looks like a palace. Glassy panels open up, affording a more expansive view of Zion below than was possible through the narrow canopies of the shuttle. However, the views look a bit different – they might be some sort of sophisticated "viewscreens", rather than actual windows. After all, if there are windows on each side of this chamber, then the station is far smaller inside than it appeared on the outside.

As is appropriate for Silent-Ones stations, the chamber looks as if it were made from stone, and there are walkways that traverse streams of water and beds of flowers. Flowered vines cling to columns that rise to the high and peaked ceiling, and the air smells faintly of honeysuckle and a touch of incense.

"It's quite beautiful," the Skreek honestly admits. "How did this place come to be?"

Chosen-Wind signs, "It was built many generations ago, long before the War of Ascension, and was held by the line of Lord Stars-Gate. He donated it to Light-of-Star, as a place of meditation for those seeking enlightenment, and refuge from the distractions of the material world."

Sebazhan looks about the chamber, then gives Willow's hand a gentle squeeze. His face betrays a hint of uncertainty.

The Skreek's ear flicks several times as though a bug had alighted itself upon it. "War of Ascension? What is that?"

There are many statues to be seen about the garden, of cheetahs, done in a style unlike that of the statuary Willow has seen in the monasteries and cathedrals. There is a faint hint of some of the designs she saw in the replica of the City of Hands, something archaic about them. Plus, to be perfectly frank, they do not fit the seemingly prudish standards of the Silent-Ones in regards to their statuary. These do not look like statues of saints or martyrs or warriors or priests … they look more akin to gods and goddesses from a Babelite shrine, only depicting cheetahs rather than bats.

Chosen-Wind signs, "Ah, that was a time of terrible conflict for our people, over two millennia ago. There have been times when there were conflicts over the ascension tothe position of the Archon, but never so violent as that time. Traditions held for countless ages were broken, and new schisms formed such as were never before seen amongst the People. But the People found their way through the Darkness, as they groped about for the Light. Still, to this day, we are a divided People, though the lines are not so easily seen by outsiders."

Willow's eyes widen a bit at the statues. She's always considered the People to be in the prudish side after her experiences with the Abaddonians, who never even showed their faces in public. "Who are these people?"

Chosen-Wind smiles. "These are the Ascended Ones, the Exalted of Old." She gestures toward a statue at the far end, in a place of prominence, seated upon a throne. "The lord of the Ascended Ones is the Lord of Illumination, the Bringer of Light." The statue resembles a handsome male cheetah with a mark upon his forehead … much like the one Moon-Brow has upon hers. Aside from that superficial similarity, though, Willow is struck by an overwhelming sense of deja vu … and a sense of calmness … peace … and a TIGHT SQUEEZE OF HER HAND FROM SEBAZHAN.

"Wow… he's so beautiful… so powerful looking… so… NNGH!" The Skreek blinks and shakes her head, wrenching her eyes away and forcing herself to look at the lesser statues. "So… very well sculpted."

Sebazhan lets out a faintly audible sigh. Chosen-Wind, again, seems to be completely oblivious, except that she smiles at Willow's praise of the sculpture.

Exactly opposite the statue of the Lord of Light … is a statue of a female cheetah with a third eye in the middle of her forehead, with cascades of curly hair spilling down over her shoulders and reaching down to her waist. Six arms reach outward, each pair elevated to a different angle, holding strange shapes that might hold some sort of arcane symbolic significance. She has a fierce expression about her face, and seems somehow lethal, dangerous, aside from just her strange appearance.

"Do… do you have anything in writing that tells me who these figures are?" The Skreek unconsciously rubs the center of her forehead and turns around to look at the statues on either side of the larger one.

Chosen-Wind points to the six-armed figure, and signs, "That is the Bride, the Lady of Shadow, the balancing force." She then looks to the other directions indicated. "To the right hand of the Lord of Light is the Lady of the Underworld, Keeper of the Gate to the Great Beyond. To the left hand of the Lord of Light is the Lady of the Seas, Granter of Fertility."

It looks as if the statues alternate in a circle between male and female. Sebazhan nods, whispering, "Light … Spirit … Water … and I'll bet that's the Lord of Dreams." He points to the next statue over in the two o' clock position.

Chosen-Wind nods approvingly. "Yes! That is the Lord of Dreams, the Master of Sleep. You are a student of the Ascended Ones?"

Curious, Willow studies the other statues to see if any of them hold other deformities besides the extra eye. "Does the Lady of Shadow really exist? It's hard to believe that someone would really have six arms." She tries to interrupt the conversation to distract Chosen-Wind from Sebazhan.

Chosen-Wind signs, "The prophesies indicate that she will take on material form to rule with the Lord of Light over the material plane. With the Ascended Ones, all things are possible." Yes, it appears that every single one of the statues has some sort of deformity, though the six-armed cheetah is by far the most obvious, and the cheetah with the spot on his forehead the most subdued.

The Skreek licks at her nose, sniffing at the air. "Does she have a name? What happened to her?"

"We know her by her title," signs Chosen-Wind. "When she takes on her avatar, we will learn her name in life." Chosen-Wind smiles. "I have my own suspicions as to what the name of the Lord of Light will be … but it is not my place to sign of such things."

"Ahhh… so this person hasn't been born yet?" The rat studies the statue again. ( I'd hate to run into you… You don't make as good of an opposite as Ariel was to Dagh. )

Chosen-Wind signs, "It is not known. She might be alive at this very moment. She might have been alive and died generations ago. Part of the prophesy is that the Lord of Light will bring her avatar back from death, along with many heroes and saints, and he will build a new Zion, where he will rule for all eternity."

For a moment, Willow catches … a whisper? No, it's not a voice. It's something … out of place. Maybe it was just her imagination.

Sebazhan looks about, as if distracted … and faintly worried.

Of course, when it looks like Sebazhan is 'faintly worried', that probably means he's actually a bit more so.

Willow nods. "So what else is there … to … see … here?" She turns back to look at the statue again, her ears flattening despite herself. ( If you have something to say to me, speak up. I'll admit that you scare me, but I won't cower either. )

Maybe it's just a trick of the light, but one of the hands of the six-armed statue seems to have shifted a bit, forming a sign for "warning" or "beware" out of the corner of Willow's eye. But when she focuses directly on it, it's just a hand holding some sort of trinket.

The Skreek arches an eyebrow and walks closer to the Shadow Lady statue. She stands on her toes to examine the trinket in her hands.

The trinket looks like it might be some sort of a representation of … a crescent phase of a moon, superimposed upon an irregular shape that suggests the framework of a sphere. The other trinkets similarly seem to represent moon phases … first quarter, third quarter, waning crescent, waxing crescent … there is no "full moon" or "new moon", however … unless the third eye in the middle of the cheetah's forehead corresponds to the "full moon" and the new moon – being absent – is represented by nothing at all.

( Were you warning me? Of what? ) The Skreek coughs. "She's… a bit different from the others. Interesting in her own way I suppose." ( Come on. I'm just a dumb rat. Odd that I should get a warning in a place that's probably specially made to seduce people. )

Sebazhan gives Willow another squeeze. "So," he says, his voice cracking faintly, "it's quite a place you have here. Ah … how are we doing for time, dear?" He looks to Willow.

Chosen-Wind nods. "Would you like to see the Crystal Cathedral? The Prophet has the most wonderful collection of Sifran crystal in the entire galaxy. I find it the most peaceful place for meditation."

( I suppose we'll talk more later. I'm not risking my free will on a statue. ) The Skreek squeezes the Khatta's hand in return. "Perhaps just a peek. Do you have a library here by any chance?"

Chosen-Wind nods. "Oh yes, several!" She leads the way toward an arched doorway. At a touch from her hand, the doors slide open and retract into the walls.

Beyond, the glittering of crystal formations can be seen … forming, appropriately enough, what looks like a cross between a cavern of wonders and a Silent-Ones cathedral sanctuary.

"Where did all of these come from?" The Skreek tilts her head to the side. ( I wonder if he keeps those odd suspended animation chambers he's been hoarding around here anywhere? )

Chosen-Wind signs, "They came from private collections throughout the Empire, and beyond. Most of them were donated, though many of them were purchased. The Prophet is an avid collector."

As the party moves into the sanctuary, the double doors slide shut behind them. Sebazhan surreptitiously places a hand on the door the same way that Chosen-Wind did. It does not open for him. He frowns.

"The door appears to be locked," Willow chitters. She tries to hide the growing nervousness in her voice.

The chamber consists of a flat and smooth floor, polished to a nearly reflective surface, while the walls and ceiling are obscured in crystal of varying colors, some of them pulsating in the way that Sifran crystals often do … but it does not have the appearance of a true Sifran construct – This is obviously made from collections of a multitude of crystals from different sources, not some unified construction built for a single purpose.

Chosen-Wind starts, then smiles, and reaches over to touch the door panel. It slides open. "Oh. Perhaps it was stuck. I will have someone look at it."

Sebazhan frowns again … but then his attention is diverted. He looks over toward a pulsating crystal that glows a purplish hue. "Is it safe to examine these more closely?"

( I wish the Sifras had left some word on how tocounteract their own crystal magic hoo-hah. Although I know enough about it to know that when it breaks, you get thingslike Bosch and Aeztepa. ) The Skreek lashes her tail and then stills herself at her husband's sudden interest in the crystal.

Chosen-Wind signs, "Oh, please, go right ahead. Sifran crystal is amazingly durable. You can't do it any harm."

Willow leans over Sebazhan's shoulder, whispering in Krozite, "What is it?"

Sebazhan answers in kind, "A focus. It's as if each of these crystals is focused for a different purpose. This one … is Shadow. I think I could probably manage an Obfuscate cantrip, or maybe Shade. For all the good that would do us."

Chosen-Wind walks about the room, making signs presumably about the crystals and just how wonderful they are.

"Could you hold one?" Willow chitters softly. "Something that might let me sneak around a little bit?"

Sebazhan whispers, "'Obfuscate' is only useful in a crowd, or when people don't necessarily care about the random passerby. If anyone is specifically on guard or is looking for you, it won't do you a bit of good. It's not Invisibility."

The cat pauses, pondering, then adds, "I could perhaps do something more potent … but it would require time … and possibly making a mess of the floor. I think our host might get suspicious."

The Skreek nods, feigning interest in some of the other crystals. "How long would it take you to set one up? I could probably distract our friend for a few minutes. I've already got something in mind."

"Also, could you hold it if necessary, and get the floor cleaned up in time?" Willow's tail lashes again in thought.

Sebazhan closes his eyes, concentrating. The crystal glows faintly … and he quickly snaps his eyes open, gasping. He whispers, "If I knew how to use this … I might be able to do something fairly impressive. But we don't have time for me to experiment like that. I think I can manage a Minor Spell. I don't think we should risk anything more than that. Not unless it's an emergency. Softstep to allow you to move quietly … or Blend to allow you to slip into shadows … or perhaps Blot, though that might be conspicuous – I could create a darkness area of effect, or else I could do the same thing to any other sense … large enough to fill a small room, or just enough to cover you. I don't see any of those 'ca-mer-as' here, but they might have them elsewhere in the station, and they might think a moving shadow to be suspicious … " He furrows his brow in deep thought.

Sebazhan whispers, "There's enough residual magic in the station that I should be able to hold a spell or cast a lasting effect … though there may be 'pockets' where the spell would get snuffed out, and it would certainly die out if we get far enough from these crystals."

"Try a Blend, and hopefully we won't have to use it." The Skreek stands up and clears her throat. "Um… excuse me, Miss Chosen-Wind. Er… I don't mean to be a bother but I… er… need to visit the… um… facilities. Could youshow me how to get there?"

Sebazhan nods, and hunches over the crystal, chanting. Chosen-Wind doesn't seem to be alarmed in the least. "The crystals help me to clear my thoughts and to focus my prayers," she signs, with a look of approval. She then gestures off to one of the side passages, and leads the way.

"I'm very grateful. Um… you have plumbing here, right? They don't have that where I'm from. I hope it's not too rude of me to ask you to give me a hand while I'm in there? Ohh… it makes me sound like such a bumpkin. I try to hide it as much as I can… " The Skreek prattles on while she follows Chosen-Wind, occasionally stopping to ask about various little odds and ends during the walk.

Some while later, after getting a tour of the facilities, and stretching it on for all it's worth, Willow and Chosen-Wind come back to the Crystal Cathedral. There's the faintest hint of some scuffs on the floor – it would seem that Sebazhan decided to take his chances with a quickie magic circle after all, either for a more potent effect, or maybe just for added insurance. He holds his hands behind his back. The crystals near him glow more brightly than those further away.

Sebazhan smiles, and pulls out one hand to wave at Willow … then slides it away behind his back again.

"So what else is here? I'd been told that the master here was also interested in other artifacts besides Sifran. Could I see those as well, or are they off limits?" Willow adjusts her shirt a bit.

"Well," signs Chosen-Wind, "there are many private areas that are restricted. They are being refurbished. This is a very old station, and went through long periods of neglect. Not all of it is safe to be explored, and if someone were to go wandering off into the closed-off areas, accidents might happen. But there is the Terrace Garden, where you can enjoy the playing of the more musically-talented amongst the acolytes here."

"You mentioned a library as well?" The Skreek rubs her chin. "As much as I enjoy music, I came here to learn more than to be entertained."

Chosen-Wind signs, "We don't think of it so much as entertainment, as it is a chance to create an atmosphere more conducive to meditation and introspection. But, yes, there are many libraries. Are there any particular subjects that interest you?"

"History, and anything pertaining to the beliefs of this religion. If the master has written any books himself I would be most eager to read them!" Willow bounces on her toes, trying to look like a jubilant child eager to find out some new secret.

Chosen-Wind smiles – again – and leads the way…

Chosen-Wind leads the Dacks through many passages and corridors and chambers, past numerous examples of positively gorgeous architecture, and lots of statuary, some of it quite ancient. At last, they enter a tall hall with shuttered windows on each side that go nearly from floor to ceiling – at least three stories high. The windows let in faintly golden light, given the illusion of sunlight. If Willow is able to keep her bearings at all, however, on the other side of each wall should just be more of the station – the "windows" are, again, artificial.

"Thank you." Willow carefully studies the room, looking for signs of the cameras that might peek on her activity.

The library is a place of wood and polished stone, well-kept, yet somehow having a "dusty", aged feel to it. The shelves are lined with cylindrical receptacles, each holding the translucent "scrolls" that are the preferred means of conveying written material in the Empire of the Silent-Ones. There are several ladders that can be rolled along to allow access to the higher shelves, and a number of desks, some of them occupied by acolytes diligently poring over piles of scrolls.

Willow spots a couple of cameras, focused on the two obvious entrances to the room, at each side. They occasionally scan back and forth, covering the room in slow sweeps.

Chosen-Wind bows, then signs, "I will leave you to your studies. If you need anything, just go to one of the attendants, and you can have me summoned, or someone else who can continue leading your tour."

The Skreek bows back. "Thank you again. I'm very grateful for your help."

Willow focuses on the racks of scrolls. At first it appears that she's looking into the history of the building, but specifically she searches for a scroll that might have a map of the station within it. Her ears stay pricked towards the cameras, trying to see if she can pick up a distinctive sound they make when they're not facing towards the entrance. She could probably sneak out while the camera was facing away, but it would be nice to have a mental reference as to when she could sneak back in again without being spotted and stirring up curiosity as to how she left in the first place.

Chosen-Wind departs, and Willow is left to her scanning. Sure enough, Willow's keen ears are able to detect a distinctive sound of the camera movements. The mechanism that moves them to and fro is electrical, by the sound of it, and no bizarre and marvelous "Sifratech" or any such thing. The cameras do not move in sync with each other … which, after prolonged observation (a few minutes), allows Willow to realize that, if she times things just right, there are briefly occurring but still distinct gaps in their coverage.

Fortunately, Willow has had ample time to acquaint herself with the usage of the "crystal-scrolls" while at the monastery, and the cataloguing system is identical to that used by the monks. In just a few minutes more, she's able to locate a scroll that contains enough details of the architecture of the station for her to be able to piece together a map. However, this doesn't provide sufficient detail to be able to tell what is located where, per se, since Light-of-Star moved in and set up shop. Still, she's able to figure out from the map – and her own memory – what areas she's actually been in, what areas appear to be duplicates of sections she's already been in … and what areas were conspicuously absent from the tour.

The Skreek reads as much as she can and swallows. ( Everyone else is risking themselves for this. I've got to try, and this will be my only chance at definitive answers. C'mon Foxfire… ) The Skreek pretends to read a history scroll as she walks over to Sebazhan. "I'm going to walk behind that bookcase. When I do, I want you to activate the spell. How much time will I have?" she whispers in Krozite again.

Sebazhan sighs. "I wish I could tell you," he whispers back. "Maybe an hour? Just be careful of crystal formations, if you see any more. They might disrupt the dweomer. I just don't know enough to give you a straight answer. Consider it my best professional estimate."

"I'll try to be quick. If there's a mob of guards or cameras in every corner and no place to hide, I'll scuttle on back." She kisses the Khatta's cheek and walks around the bookcase, pretending to put her scrolls back in place.

Sebazhan mutters a bit at Willow's departure … a sign that he's winding up for the pitch. The cameras continue to track, going through the same out-of-sync cycle as before. A few seconds, and there should be a gap.

( Star be with me. ) Willow swallows and tries to duck through the door during the gap, doing her best to keep to the shadows as much as possible.

Willow's timing couldn't be more perfect, despite her nervousness. For a moment, it seems like she's lost her hands … but, no, she's just blending into the shadows. Sebazhan's spell is working. For a moment, it seems to be a little more potent than Willow recalls his previous castings of Blend being … but then, it seems to "flicker" momentarily … then resume. It doesn't flicker again, so far as Willow can tell … but it isn't exactly encouraging, either.

Presently, Willow finds herself in a corridor that continues onward in a straight line, then ends in a T intersection. Signs indicate that the right leads to "guest rooms", and the left leads to "acolyte dormitories". There's also a door off to the side that says "Restricted."

Another doorway, across the hall, is slightly ajar. From what can be seen inside, it looks like a janitorial supplies closet. Even in space, there's still dirt to be cleaned.

According to the maps, the "restricted" area most definitely is an area not on the tour (as if the sign doesn't tell that clearly enough). The passages leading to "guest rooms" and "dormitories" keep going, leading into other areas of the station.

( I'll try to rely on my own skills and not just the spell. Be quick, rat. Be quick. ) She keeps her eyes peeled for cameras and scurries quietly towards the restricted door. She cautiously gives it a poke to try and open it.

The door shows no visible sign of a handle or keypads. It would seem to have the same sort of mechanism as the double doors that Chosen-Wind opened earlier.

The door across the hall seems to be operated in much the same way, except that a broom handle has stopped it from closing all the way, hence its "ajar" status. The passages leading to the dormitories and the guest areas are not blocked off by doors, however.

The Skreek doesn't want to stand still for too long and dashes towards the janitor closet. ( Maybe he's got a key in here. )

The door isn't ajar enough to squeeze through … but Willow finds that it's possible to get it to slide open enough to get access to the inside … though there's just enough tension to suggest that if the broom were moved and she let go, it would close all the way, with no visible way to gain purchase to force it open again. Inside, there are various brooms and mops and spray bottles and canisters of chemicals that have something to do with cleaning and should never be consumed, and would probably be harmful if randomly mixed together. There's a spare uniform inside, but it's not Willow's size, and she'd never pass for a cheetah anyway. Down the better-lit "dormitory" hallway, footsteps can be heard, approaching the T-intersection.

The Skreek takes a moment to rifle through the uniform's contents to see if a key or some odd device might be hidden in it to open the doors if necessary. Her ears quiver at the sound of footsteps, and she bites her lip. ( Don't be the janitor… don't be the janitor… )

Willow's keen ears pick up the sound of sloshing water, and the light shuss of rollers across smooth marble floor.

Alas, no keys or odd devices present themselves.

( It is the janitor. ) The Skreek tries to get the door open and duck into a shadow before she's discovered hiding in the closet or locked in when the loose broom is spotted.

As Willow slips out into the hallway, her foot knocks the broom loose, and the door abruptly snaps shut, the resistance released.

The cheetah in the janitor's uniform stops abruptly, as the wheeled water-bucket he was pushing along sloshes some water out on the floor. He is greeted with the sight of a fuzzy-looking rat-shaped blob. His jaw drops.

( Hell with it… ) the Skreek waves her arms. "Loyal pilgrim! An errant acolyte has stained the floor of the Crystal Cathedral! This spirit would ask that you clean this mess so that I may rest with my ancestors until the time of Ascension comes! Only you can do this job!)

The cheetah staggers backward, eyes wide, reflexively putting a "who me?" finger to his chest … then, gathering his resolve … he takes up his mop, casting about as if looking for the quickest way to wind his way back to the Crystal Cathedral from here.

"Your loyalty will be rewarded," the fuzzy blob signs. "Now go! And tell no one of this miracle you have witnessed, lest those with weak faith also demand miracles." ( Please take the restricted door. Pleasepleaseplease… )

The janitor looks about, then rushes over to the door marked "restricted", and puts his hand on the door. The door slides open, and he darts through … then rushes back to grab his wheeled water bucket and mop.

The Skreek makes a dash for the door as well, diving into the closest shadow she can find past its entrance. She pulls a dagger from her belt, hoping to subtly jam the door open with it like the broom did with the janitor's closet door.

Inside, the restricted area is quite dark, making for ample shadows to hide in. The janitor rolls through with his wheeled bucket, down an aisle that runs between jumbles of tubing and wiring, and large tanks suspended from the ceiling. The room is limned in only a faint greenish glow from indicator lights and a dim contribution from the tanks themselves.

Willow sets her knife in place and follows behind the janitor, quietly studying the tanks on the walls and looking inside of them to see if they hold anything.

Even though the lighting is pretty bad here, and most people would do well just to find their way across the room to the other side without bumping into anything, Willow's eyes are able to pick out shapes within the tanks.

( I suppose that he uses these for storage? I wonder what you have to store in canisters of liquid… giant pickles? ) The Skreek squints at one of the tanks to get a better look.

In one of the tanks nearby, it looks like a Titanian is floating in the liquid. He hasn't a scrap of cloth on him, though there's such a jumble of tubes and cables and wires running down from the top of the tank to his suspended body that even if his shaggy coat weren't enough to preserve his modesty, the jumble does the job. Another, much larger tank, holds an immense Naga … not quite the size of a Bromthen sea serpent, but still fairly impressive. It's hard to tell in the light, but the scales seem to have a golden glint to them.

( By… the… it can't be! ) Willow swallows and starts peeking into more of the tanks, looking at them for any type of label to see if the contents are listed.

There are plates with long serial numbers on them, but no identifying names. If it weren't for the Nagai Emperor being dead, this Naga could probably pass for him. Not that Willow could tell one giant golden serpent from another. The Titanian looks like pretty much any other over-muscled, under-brained Titanian, without any particularly distinctive features. The next tank has a male poodle in it. They look pretty pathetic in the buff. Another tank has a Korv in it, of the raven-colored variety. Other tanks have an assortment of other species … all of them recognizable as species that can be found on Sinai … and given what the Archon said, many of them being species that can only be found on Sinai.

The janitor, meanwhile, despite being slowed down by having to push a sloshing bucket along, is disappearing down the corridor, leaving Willow behind.

The Skreek bites her lip and follows after the janitor. ( They might not be real. There's no way the Emperor could have been smuggled through the Gateway without someone noticing. He's too big! ) Her eyes drink in as much as she can manage down her path.

As Willow heads along, some of the bodies seem a bit … different. Younger, sort of … smaller … or, that is, not fully formed? They don't seem so much cubs or pups or kittens or fingerlings. There's something decidedly unnatural about whatever growth process is being demonstrated here. Also, especially conspicuous is that not one of the Titanians has so much as a torn ear or missing digits or any sort of visible scars or discolored patches of fur.

( Is he making them? I'd heard of the Terrans or whatever making Jupani… but this doesn't seem right. Is he… Hmm. Maybe those stories of resurrecting the dead are just fibs so he can put his own replacements in power. ) She swallows and scurries along after the janitor.

The janitor reaches a door at the end of the corridor, and puts a hand to it. It slides open, revealing a cross corridor. Directly across the hallway is another "Restricted" door. The janitor doesn't head that way, however – he backtracks in the direction that the Crystal Cathedral should be in, off to the left.

Willow flexes her hand, trying to mimic the gesture of the cheetah. ( There might be something in his hand that opens the door. Regardless I've seen enough. ) To test her theory, she waits for the janitor to leave and presses her hand against the door in the same manner as the janitor.

Alas, nothing happens. The door doesn't open. The janitor disappears down the corridor, and the door behind Willow starts to slide shut. Down the corridor the janitor dashes down, a guard can be seen, startled by the janitor's rush. He tries to wave down the janitor … then sternly looks off in the direction the janitor came dashing from.

The Skreek swallows and ducks back through the closing door, feeling a bit safer in the shadows, especially in her current fuzzy state.

The door slides shut … then makes an audible clicking sound.

Willow frowns and jogs back to the original door.

The door doesn't open again behind Willow. So far, there is no pursuit. A bit of a jog, and Willow reaches the first doorway she entered through.

Fortunately, the knife is still in place, holding the door a blade's thickness open.

Willow puts her ears to the door, listening for footsteps as she tries to work the door open again. She wishes she could have put something a bit thicker into the doorway instead, but it might have been more prone to be noticed that way.

No footsteps approach – yet – and with a bit of wrestling, Willow manages to get the door open, though ruining the edge of the knife in the process. (But then, it can be sharpened again.) Looks like, for now, the coast is clear.

Whispering a grateful prayer to the Star, Willow starts back towards the entrance to the library. She tucks her knife away and waits for the sound of the cameras in that quick moment when they're not facing the entrance.

By the time Willow slips back into the library, she's her usual gunmetal gray self again, not a rat-shaped blob, either due to really amazing coincidental timing … or else because Sebazhan saw the rat-shaped blob and dispelled it before anyone else could notice.

Willow does her best to look nonchalant as she walks back from around the bookcase with a few more scrolls under her arm. "I think we're done here. I'm starting to get tired. Let's head back to the shuttle and come back some other time. Maybe after the trials are over and we have more time for more than just a quick visit."

Sebazhan nods. "Yes, let's." He takes Willow's arm and walks over toward one of the attendants. "I think we've had enough excitement for one day."

The Skreek's gaze seems distant as she's led out of the cathedral. Most would probably mistake it for the common look of someone who might have just had their first religious experience and was a bit unsure about it. But underneath it all the Skreek's mind reels. She's got a report to end all reports when she meets the new Archon…


GMed by Greywolf

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Today is 6 days before Midsummer's Day, Year 28 of the Reign of Archelaus the First (6127)