The Chronicles of Heavenly Artifice CLXI – The Hidden Paths

On the hidden ways of faerie England the quiet back roads passed behind hedgerows and through gates in mossy walls and patches of woods, dipping into a hidden realm of freeholds, faerie paths, and enchantments that managed to quietly coexist with modern England thanks to various concealing dream-magics. Creaking farmcarts were drawn by horses, and many of the folk around were obviously a bit inhuman.

The place wanted to cast Aikiko as a “Gentlewoman Adventurer”, of the early Victorian period – although that mostly only affected her clothing, which she was willing enough to go along with even if a dress and martial arts were unlikely to interact well! Still, a bustle-roll, and a skirt with pants underneath would do – as long as it was sturdy cloth with many pockets, a long-sleeved blouse, a hat, and some nice high boots to avoid baring her ankles…
She went looking for a carriage to get the lay of the place.

The old inn was half under a hill, and there were several cars parked there, as well as a stable, and some carriages. The smoke curling from the chimney carried the pleasant scents of stew, bacon, beer, and fresh-baked bread and butter. The stable-boy was currently tending to the customer’s horses – and was a young satyr. It gave Aikiko a dreamlike feeling to note that at least one of the horses had a stubby little horn…

(Boy) “C’n I elp ye’s Madam? It nyt be safe te be traipsin about the bak rods alane! Nyt fer a yng woman on er own ook!”

(Aikiko) “What’s the trouble?”

Hrm! This was a new frontier indeed! He probably needed to be tipped, but how much?

(Boy) “Whalp, er be ighwaymen, an Trolls, and nots a few triksers! Over fram `e new world hey is! Bleedy pests, yr pardn mam!”

(Aikiko) “Hrm…” That DID sound like a lot of hassle . . . she might need to look into a guide! Or at least into some further anti-shaping measures. “Know where I can find a trustworthy guide?”

(Innkeeper) “Hwat yer be arrassing er fin lady fer Samelin? Don’ mind te boy Mam! E’s a bit citeable bout young women!”

(Aikiko) “Hello, sir. Uh… not the kind of excitable I’m thinking about, I hope.”

After all the time she’d spent in Yu-Shan, she knew that much about satyrs!

(Innkeeper) “Ell, tain’t so bad bout it eny morr! Ill ants ter fuss oer em… Be ye needin such? E’s ot too bad if’n ye be new to ther edden ways!”

(Aikiko) “Does he know the area pretty well? I’m here on business.”

At least she was getting used to the dialect… he wanted to know if she needed guidance…

(Innkeeper).”E’ knows et! Efter al, e’ be about what, two unnderd now?”

(Aikiko) “Good. . I could definitely use a guide.”

(Innkeeper) “`ell ten! Ye be antin ter rnt er by?”

Wait, he was offering to… sell the boy? He was a slave? And he was two hundred years old? That had to suck!

(Aikiko) “Rent for now, I think”.

The youngster looked mildly disappointed – but only mildly, he WAS getting a break… Oh. If he’d been a stableboy for that long, it was no wonder that he’d welcome pretty much any kind of a diversion; he had to be pretty massively bored.

(Innkeeper) “An `os ill ye be payin?”

Oh dear! She didn’t know the ongoing rates around here… and haggling was probably normal and expected! After all… renting or buying a slave would be a bit more individualized than buying a shirt off the rack!

She invoked her mystical boost to her occult lore.

Hm… Renting for a bit (him and/or a horse and/or a carriage) would call for normal money or some Gossamer. Buying him… would call for a strong talisman, a very minor artifact, or a notable magical service. Owing a major favor would be possible, but for that they’d have to know her a lot better. All of those were readily within her means, at least if she checked with her various backers.

About what she would have expected really, and the satyr-boy – did that make him a faun? – seemed kind of disappointed not to be purchased. Depending on how he performed, perhaps she’d purchase him and send him to Aden. Charles could find some use for him – or at least give him more prospects than caring for horses for the rest of his life! So renting him, a carriage, and a horse it was! He’d doubtless enjoy the potential change in his circumstances!

(Samelin, cheerily) “Whr ye be wishin’ ter go Lady…” (he looked at her expectantly) “ow ould ye wish to be addresed Mistress?”

(Aikiko) “Um, Aikiko. Hey, do you know where I can catch a concert?”

(Samelin) “Many Mistress! `ers the Gray Sparrows, i’d nay risk t’ Fiddlers Green, but T’ Satyr’s Reel is gud if’n ye be lokin fer tat kind’o ting! T’ Ampsford hair alays `as lots of playin, `an oathbond hat nay magickin be outlastin t’ hair!”

(Aikiko) “The Fiddlers Green must be the rough tavern…”

(Samelin) “hus t’ site uv a greats battle, long hast! Tis stil aunted by t’ music of t’ unquiet ded if’n ye dare to face t’ spectres!”

Oh! THAT sort of “fiddlers green”. Hadn’t there been something about that in literature class once?

(Aikiko) “Eh, I’ll pass.”

It didn’t sound like the kind of place the people she was looking for would play, anyhow. The Satyr’s Reel would probably be rather vulgar, the Gray Sparrows… well, she didn’t have enough information to say what that was about – but the Hampsford Fair was probably a big gathering place; fairs usually were.

The kid might know more if she got more specific though.

(Aikiko) “I bet more than a few performers around here have supernatural powers . . . do they favor any particular spots?”

Hm… The Gray Sparrows had the most power that he knew of; they were the keepers of many really ancient musics, know a lot of the secret keys, and were powerful enough to pretty much travel wherever they wanted to. They did have some gatherings that they appeared at fairly regularly though. mostly to perform songs commemorating some great victories. Bad things were said to happen if they did not perform on time. The Fair drew all kinds of groups, mostly with lighter and more immediate powers. The Satyr’s were mostly into fertility magic of course, but did see to it that the crops were bountiful and such. They also solicited audience participation of course. The Fiddlers Green was one of the few spots where you could pass into the underworld on the right days of the year.

It would probably be best to hit the fair first! It seemed like a good place for an underground band to drum up an audience around here, even if they performed elsewhere.

Meanwhile… the landscape around them was a curious mixture of the utterly mundane and the quite fantastical. There were little folk (hobbits?), and Satyrs, and Trolls (although apparently only Troll Bandits were really a problem), castles, occasional knights, and – of course – dark sorcerers and the Blatant Beast, with all its tongues!

In fact… they were passing though a dark woods and there it was now. It had probably been a bad idea to bring it up, because there it was!

(Samelin) “`ets mellowed a bit miss! T’ Gray Swallows bound et t’ accept travelrs tales, ather en hattle if’n ye ave a new un, an I be prepared!”

Well, that should be interesting!

Samelin cheerily fished around in his bag and came up with several cheap paperback books…

(Samelin) “Ey ome out mit a new one twicet a week! An not manys use any o tese for some scruple!”

Clever child! Well, she picked up one to read to the Blatant Beast – and nearly choked!

“Spy Kids on Gloria’s Secret Island!”? “Annie’s Black Stallion Adventures!”?!?, “Spartacus and the All-Female Ninja Squad!”?!?!?!

It… was something of a struggle to read through a few chapters – but the Blatant Beast quickly decided that it could not compete with tales of such… er… spice… and retreated by chapter three of “Spartacus and the All-Female Ninja squad!”

The God of Sleazy Literature must be pretty busy these days! The creation of paperbacks alone had probably greatly expanded his or her domain. There had been much dwelling on “his mighty blade”, and their secret comings and goings in the night, and…

(Samelin) “`rrr… Mistress? Do er RELLY be such goings-on out tere beyond tere veils? Iv ondered for yeers! ot eben Father er t’ othrs evr gots up to tings lik HAT!”

(Aikiko, sighing) “Not on this planet…”

Although, really, after learning that Krypton was real, she had to suspect the – somewhere in the universe – the was historical nonfiction – even if that meant that that planet was badly tainted by the Wyld in some VERY perverse ways. Poor Blatant Beast! The people who had dreamed it up had probably never imagined stories like THAT.

If only for pure tawdriness.

Fortunately, the actual size of the faerieland overlay was actually relatively small (even compared to the British Isles which weren’t all that huge).

Meanwhile, back in Yu-Shan, Charles shook off the… ODD double-minded feeling that he’d been getting lately (not at ALL like the usual!) and got on with tracing energy-flows…

And it looked like the first set of unidentified energy flows went to… the Forbidding Manse of Ivy – the most secure place in the Bureau of Destiny.

Well, he had been there once to be scanned, and it did have a neat library that he’d like to get a look at! Besides… if anywhere would have information that would help, it would be there – and he DID have a writ that would justify him asking!

For whatever reason, the region around the Forbidding Manse of Ivy was fog-shrouded, with swampy, moorish terrain. Mist slowly crept along the ground and visitors had to be careful not to fall into ponds covered with dark plants. The Malachite Archives were a few hundred miles away (and the poor shadowing Celestial Lions were wondering why Charles had chosen HERE of all places). This place was not the central focus of a nexus… but it WAS a component of one, as well as a part of the biggest (and only sanctioned?) Spatial distortion in Yu-Shan…

The usual chills and feelings of fear that came with passing through the dark green jade and adamant citadel’s gates rebounded from Dudael and his own manse-defenses – but the place did have a certain amount of gravitas. It was one of the biggest libraries in Yu-Shan, after all.

He went to the front desk and asked.

(Charles) “Hello Sir!”

He peered over the edge of the imposing basalt desk, sized to make adults feel small, and looked up at the black-masked imposing guardian god…

(Charles) “I need to know some things that possibly no one does any more!”

The black-masked, imposing guardian god, who by now knew all about the writ (Blasted Luna, exempting this boy from the tests!) looked down at him imperiously (it was an unofficial job requirement for gods working here).

(Guardian) “And what sort of things are those?”

(Charles) “I need to know where the essence flows of Yu-Shan are linked to Creation and how that’s related to the elemental poles! And possibly some other bits that are probably too secret to talk about…”

A good thing that his writ provided clearance for that.

The Guardian sighed. At least the child wasn’t an Abyssal or Infernal… the whims of Luna were indeed fickle! Still, he carefully checked the writ, and had those Celestial Lions backing him up (as well as the extras who had suddenly appeared) ensure that Charles AND his writ were not imposters.

Charles had actually made very VERY sure that nothing would happen to that Writ – he needed it!

Still, the usual complexities of the approval process… just did’t apply to Charles. That was probably for the best, considering some of the noises coming from the testing chambers. They were quiet, to be sure, but they still didn’t sound good!

He could probably manage better than expected… but that was still a good thing! It would take a lot of time!

His escorts were a couple of the lions assigned to this division, their manes and claws shimmering with the same dark green jade as in the place’s walls. Celestial lions did’t need any help being imperious, of course.

(Charles) “Uhrm… do you know where to look, or is there a catalog?”

(Escorts) “Right! That’s a very deep archive, that one. And this… this is one of the things known only to Master Nara-O itself. So I’ll expect you to be on your best behavior… not that it’s been a problem in the past.”

(Charles) “I’ll try!”

There were some additional instructions – but most of them came down to “do not touch the division head’s Hundred Veils. Bad things happen to those who do.”

They took an elevator a LONG ways down into the foundation. It would be almost reminiscent of the underground down here, were it not for the lighting and massive chambers, blanked out with the best warding Heaven coould buy. Some of it was tremendously deadly; the strongest make him tingle uncomfortably. As they descends, he could seet gods on loan from the Crimson Panoply, resplendent in their arms and armor, patrolling the archives. As they continued to descend they passed by the divisional offices/libraries. The better your Salary, the better that space was, of course. And… the lower, too, apparently.

One of the lowest offices was sealed off, with several markers on the door. That was one of the few secrets the division could not hide: the office space of Chejop Kejak, practically an apartment considering the former occupant’s work habits. This place, while not next to Nara-O’s, was close.

Well, that was interesting, but not what this was about – and he kind of suspected that random curiosity would NOT be encouraged. It was off at the end of an ominously quiet corridor anyway.

The lions were watching him very carefully, friendly or not. They KNEW how Charles was

And, at the end of a space that practically swallowed footsteps, was a basalt door with no latch.

(Charles, sighing a bit mournfully) “I know! Only the information that I actually need…”

(Lion) “Hrmph. Writ or not, the faster we get you in and out, the less you’ll be tempted.”

(Charles) “Very true!”

(Hanxuo, the lead lion, who he’d been speaking to) “And considering we’re here…”

(Charles) “Do I knock?”

(Hanaxuo) “I wouldn’t recommend it. Last god to try on a bet just…” (And he snapped his paw.) “Like that.”

He produced a simple bell from his mane and rang it. It didn’t make a sound, but the door still opened with a fluid, oddly silent, motion. The chamber beyond had it’s own basalt desk, with a multitude of sealed cabinets, no doubt full of Nara-O’s scrolls of things known to only one person. There was a vague, indistinct figure at the desk, wrapped in veils of gray and blue. It hovered, the veils wrapped tightly around it, faint motions suggesting some mild frustration. There ass also someone else here, in the darkness. The lions escorted him up to the desk.

(Charles) “Hello Sir!”

(Nara-0, in a sibilant voice) “Sir… perhaps. You have the writ?”

(Charles, holding it up) “Uh-Huh!”

He’d run it through the deep wyld and made six originals, but that really didn’t make a difference. With a… hand? tentacle? something else?, Nara-O gently picked up the writ and examined it – and then passed it to the shadowed figure, who also examined it.

(Nara-O) “This secret is not mine to give… (with just the faintest hint of frustration) unfortunately. Thus…”

He nodded to the shadowed figure – and there was the sound of a key unlatching from something in that direction. The figure handed the key to Nara-0, and there was just the hint of a sleeve with something slithering beneath it.

Nara-O unlocked one of the cabinets; inside was a scroll.

And Charles waited for permission.

(Nara-o) “Commit that to your memory well, whatever you are. Once you’ve read it (sigh) it will disappear from my presence.”

Nara-O looked at the lions, who discreetly turned away. The shadowed figure nodded, and the head of the Forbidding Manse of Ivy handed Charles the scroll.

(Nara-o) “The price of that information . . . not even the one who has been forced to give it to you knows.”

(Charles) “Well… I think you know that the price of not looking could be pretty high…”

He took a look. It… was a map of Yu-Shan, but not like the ones most people would ever see. The Old Realm was archaic, written in a cramped, ragged hand. It was the most detailed geomantic map of the place Charles had seen yet… Primary links to Creation were through the sixty gates. One of those gates was itself a geomantic location – and that, of course, was the Calibration Gate.

Hrm! He should have thought of that!

It also indicated the locations of Yu-Shan’s elemental poles – or at least something of great importance. There were six spots marked. One at the pinnacle of the Sky Dome, one far beneath the Jade Pleasure dome, and four others, one each at the center of each district. Those were in addition to twelve other spots – thirteen, counting the Calibration Gate. Most likely the Elemental Poles and Structure-Devas!

He carefully didn’t say anything. Who knew what might be listening? Although if they could penetrate this office’s security, nothing was hidden. Of course, the best indication that they couldn’t… was that Nara-O still had it.

He stored the information in the privacy manse – which would technically mean that he STILL didn’t know it quite a lot of the time, and so Naro-O would still have it part time, which would be weird – if probably a pleasant surprise.

The shadowy figure spoke when the scroll did vanish… stepping out, a woman in layered robes of white, emerald, and jade, the myriad keys on her skirts and bells in her green hair softly tinkling .

(Jupiter) “And now you know. You really intend to revive her, of course.”

(Charles) “She needs help! And… even if it wasn’t the right thing to do, it’s the only way to avoid a catastrophe in the long run.”

Jupiter smiled distractedly, as was her way, and nodded to Nara-O. Charles couldn’t read that smile (not that he really tried) frustration, nervousness, relief?

(Nara-O) “And I believe that concludes your business here.”

He sounded a bit frustrated. At Luna?

(Charles, a trifle sadly) “I suppose!”

There really wasn’t any way that he could fit “where’d my parents go?” into “fixing Yu-Shan”…

(Hanxuo) “Well, you heard the Master… let’s get you back up.”

Charles left Jupiter and Nara-O spectacularly good artifact smartphone-computers-pocket-secretaries with lots of functions as minor presents. Why not? The encryption on them was, of course, perfect. They had similar items already – but Charles WAS known as an artificer, and such gifts were kind of expected by now – although they were as throughly scrutinized as anything that came within these walls.

Charles decided to go somewhere less grim next! Perhaps the Algedonic Palace over in the Five Spheres residential district? You had to do a great service for Heaven to actually get inside – the place WAS a reward – but analysis should be easy enough and it was, indeed, one of the places on that map.

The palace was a squat compound, several acres in size, with indigo-pearl walls. Even from a considerable distance Charles could feel the warmth emanating from it. There were some other businesses nearby though! Some of the most prestigious and expensive outside the central districts actually. The businesses were focused on pleasure of course – but not all pleasure was like THAT. There were game stores, toy stores, and… candy stores.

Candy was first of course! It wasn’t quite Zataran’s but it was VERY high end! The upper floors were dedicated to the ambrosial varieties (and were watched by the lions carefully), with quintessence-based candies on the lower floors. Machines that let people make their own candy – in every shape known on Earth and some that are not – whirred quietly, the warding muffling their noise for divine ears. Some of these machines had engravings indicating their makers – Solars and Chosen of Serenity, mostly. Using the solar machines was expensive though! Those were, at least for the moment, irreplaceable.

Charles happily set to work making his dream peanut butter confection – although he settled for the less-than-solar machines (except to analyze them for later production).

Thanks to his absurd set of piled-up bonuses Charles readily achieved 40 successes.

What popped out after his work with the candy designing interface was a work of art, Nice simple squares, albeit with molded edges and very pretty images. Gods in the area, and more than a few human attendants and servants, smelled it and were in awe. They looked his way; was he really going to eat it?

Charles made several boxes full and handed some out. He left the pattern available for later use too. The proprietor should be pleased!

Even the lions trailing him took some. And Full with Goodness, god of candies with fillings, was quite delighted to have him there!

Charles went outside to sit down, have a few candies, and do his analysis. They were good! Clearly he needed to do some of his own candy-making, like doing his own peanut butter! As for the analysis… the Algedonic Palace was almost certainly the Pole of Pleasure (or he’d missed something very basic in the structure of elemental poles). It ought to be transmitting energy into creation. In theory, all he needed to do was let a beacon-spell be drawn through with the flow and locate it on the creation end! It would have to be in one of Creation’s elemental poles…

The probe rippled through the geomancy of Yu-Shan, and the palace. Charles felt…. funny as it shimmered through; the warm sensation from the palace walls intensified. It popped up in Creation parallel to the Elemental Pole of Air.

That was a long ways out! But the correspondence was sensible enough… And the warm sensation… was making him feel like it was time to take a little break!

Why not? He was ahead at the moment and still had chocolates. Ten or fifteen minutes wouldn’t hurt anything; he was at work in several other places anyway.

While Charles was munching, a couple of young women of around his “actual” age had been watching him out the window: one, a pretty girl of Asian descent, the other a heron beastwoman Half-Caste. From the eyes, respectively, Serenity and Journeys. An older woman – an escort, perhaps – sat on a nearby bench, watching them.

They opted to wander over, bringing their own candy with them. The heron-girl daintily plucked one of the pieces of candy up with her beak and gently let it fall into her mouth proper.

Hm… The Elemental Pole of Air was a very BIG set of nebula there… There might be some asteroids big enough for demesnes though, or maybe some stable cyclonic storms like the great red spot? Er… I wonder what they’re looking for?

(Charles) “Er… Hello! What’s up?”

(Sarai, the Serenity Half-Caste) “Thanks for making us candy! It’s really good.”

(Lalury, the Journeys Heron Half-Caste) “No, he’s really good. What’s your name… and what are you doing so close to the Palace?”

(Charles, absently passing them more candy) “You’re welcome! I’m Charles! And… I was tracing geomantic essence-flows. The Palace HERE seems to be linked to the Pole of Air in Creation, which may have philosophical implications, given that Air is deeply linked with communications, language, and relationships. Thus things like Poetry are linked to all those things.”

(Sarai) “Well, that’s neat. Is it for school? Do you need any help? I know a little thaumaturgy.”

(Charles, with slight startlement) “School? Oh, it’s sort of a special project!”

(Lalury) “Wait a minute… you’re not that Charles, are you?”

(Sarai, taking another look) “Oh, Incarnae, he is!”

She was still being hushed, but was visibly excited.

(Charles) “Er… which Charles is that?”

(Sarai) “The one in charge of Dudael!”

Ah! Something about artificing?

(Charles) “Oh, yes, that’s me!”

(Sarai) “What’s it like running a factory-cathedral? You must be really tired with that and school.”

(Charles) “Well… you get to make a lot of things – but it’s a lot like an extension of the advanced artificing classes really, but instead of disappointed teachers if you mess up you get cross gods.”

(Lalury) “My mother said you also have this pocket dimension. I want to go there sometime; I’ve heard the laser tag park is awesome.”

(Charles) “Well, if you want! But you’d have to ask first; parents get cranky if you leave Yu-Shan without asking!”

(Lalury, mischievously) “Of course.”

(Sarai) “That’s why your mother won’t teach you Travel magic, you know.”

Lalury just shrugged.

(Lalury) “OK, I’ll ask.”

(Charles) “It’s hard to get in and out of Yu-Shan with just travel magic anyway!”

(Sarai) “I’ll ask my parents too!”

(Lalury, looking at Charles oddly) “You’d better not come the same day I do.”

The two of them shared smiles and an oddly competitive look – which Charles found rather puzzling.

(Sarai) “Oh, come on, I’ll be careful with him and won’t get him dirty.”

(Charles) “Well, if you need to get in touch with people, I’ve got some of these left over from the last batch!”

He had some extra artifact cell phones.

(Lalury) “YOU’RE the one who likes the active stuff anyway.”

Er… what? Oh well; that must be “girl talk”. They grinned sheepishly and took the phones, trembling a bit – before going back to the competitive staring and staying quite near.

Elsewhere, both Frumisera and Hala were stifling laughter.

(Elzeard) “Charles… have you really repressed that so much? That’s sad. I hadn’t wanted to believe it!”

(Charles) “Er… repressed what?”

(Malinda) “Dearie, can’t you see it? I think both of them have a crush on you!”

(Elzeard) “Which, of course, means that they are attracted to you, and – on some level-wish to reproduce with you. Oh, goodness… you really didn’t realize, did you?”

And Charles was abruptly torn between “Ugh! Cooties!” and “Er, like the Kickaha?” a bit of curiosity – and a bit of panic too! That was grown-up stuff, and he’d kind of thought that he’d stopped well before that!

Besides… was that really something that they wanted or needed? That was something that he wasn’t too sure about fulfilling! Even if it wasn’t like “I want to blow up the universe! Be a good boy and make me an artifact for that!”

Oh dear. Siranaya had been acting kind of like this too lately!

The Guardian’s opinions were mixed… Most of them were of the opinion that Charles should have some sort of diversion going; all work and no play would tire him out too much! Elzeard had been prepared for this for months, Malinda wanted him to know what he’s getting into first – and so would Gothmug.

(Gothmug) “Love can lead to such wonderful despair if you’re foolish! And then I can write poems about it!”

(Charles to Gothmug after a little thought) “Er… wouldn’t this fall more under… “adolescent mating displays” than love?” (To Malinda) “Er… like the Kickaha? They get… a palace, some servants, the various things they need, and… well… bred?”

(Malinda) “I don’t know if “bred” is the word for it, dearie – but divine and Sidereal parents alike do seem to expect grandchildren, and they do give their children rooms in the family residence at the very least.”

(Gothmug) “It COULD lead to love! I think you should at least try.”

Oh dear! At least three with an interest. Was satisfying them all even possible? He’d never really told anyone with a harmless personal desire that they couldn’t have what they wanted…

He did a little divining and and checking of social expectations… It was all too complicated! He got some advice from Malinda and set up one of his aspects in a nice residence, with some servants – there were more than enough ex-raksha servants for that – and various facilities and resources and adenic thaumaturgy, and let the ones who wanted to visit come and visit. That way the decisions and worrying about traditions and cultures and such was for them; if they want to climb into his bed, that will be facilitated. If they decide against it, they go home after visiting with no harm done!

And that would be something else handled!

Elzeard quietly let the ones who seemed interested know that they could come visit if they wanted to and made sure that the arrangements were easy enough to figure out (“ask the servants where his bedroom is”). That should work out naturally enough!

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