It is now the wee hours of April 28, 2022. It is a Thursday. Chiasa has settled into her section of the Sanctum. Davian's door is firmly locked and is impervious to light or sound; whether the mage is sleeping or working, Chiasa would have no idea.
The night is cool and clear as I make my way above the festering boil that is New York City, heading for my target: a small island of green nestled in the corruption (Flushing Meadow/Corona Park).
(Currently in the form of a night-hawk)
It could always be worse; the mortals could be awake.
A bird on a nearby tree whistles a short tune of greeting and then fades back into his general day-greeting tune. There seem to be no dangers on the horizon. Sometimes the best place to hide is in plain sight.
I whistle back before alighting on the branch of a dense bush then shift back into Homid form. Once that is complete, I roll to step sideways and enter the Umbra (Gnosis roll diff:7)
I successfully fight past my rage and find the still center of my being. Embracing the calm, I pass through the Gauntlet instantly, appearing in the Middle Umbra.
The sharp edges of reality soften just perceptably as you sidestep into the Middle Umbra. The trees seem intensely green and brown, and the sky is alight in a vivid dawnscape. The air is dense with presence, unlike the relatively devoid space found on Earth.
How has it fallen so far in such a short amount of time?
You despise this place and its position as bellwether for the steady march toward depravity currently facing the urban centers. Its rapid decline does not foretell good news for those that make their homes in the Wilds.
If not for the premonition, you'd not be here. But for the spirits to command you to dredge up old connections -- it must be important.
You know him by other names but the spirits had described an exile who, too, had seen the decadence of his people degrade into wanton destruction of the natural world. 'The Exile', 'The Shadowspeaker', 'He Of The Silver Tongue'. It hadn't taken you too long to figure out who they'd meant.
At the bottom of the tree, you hear some cat spirits yowling for territory, as well as the scuttling of raccoons looking for an early-morning meal.
I assume my SmolCat form and play with the cat spirits for a short time, distracting myself from my unease about both my mission and the City.
They are happy to have the company and engage you merrily. They seem to recognize your status as a superior kind of Cat and don't try to play too roughly with you. (You happily avoid the bites of kitten teeth.)
Not surprising you, they seem lonely and grateful for your time. You know there have been fewer and fewer visitors to the Umbra over your lifetime. It seems the ignorance of the unseen world could not get worse, but through your travels, there always seem to be new depths of depravity you never thought possible.
At least here, in the Umbra, the air does not stink of feces and sweat. The heavy scent of plants douses the experience in something comforting.
Rising above the towering trees are the concrete monstrosities in the color of blood. Apartment buildings made of earth's bounty. Statues to long-dead mortals whose accomplishments mean nothing in this realm. All of it flickers just perceptably on the edge of the Umbra. Even here are the marks of colonization by infidels.
A whisper tickles your ear and causes you to scratch yourself to set your fur straight again. "Go toward the rising sun, into the labyrinth, and you will find the Exile."
"Do not rush yourself toward your goal and overexert yourself in the new day. He Of The Silver Tongue sits in silence and meditation, despondent of the loss of yet another soul to the hoards of the waking dead."
Heeding the spirits, I settle down in the fragrant grass and rest, allowing my body to rejuvenate from the rigors of travel.
I laze through the morning, letting myself soak up the clean energies of the Umbra. Finally, hunger pierces my contentment and I prepare to return to the physical world.
You try to place the scent of the grass and the feeling of being nestled between its soft blades into your memory and brace yourself for the return to the physical reality.
When you return, the vivid dawnscape has faded into muted blue dotted with clouds. Cars rushing over the nearby freeway can be easily heard. But you pause, and listen, and for a moment you allow the sound of the wind through the leaves of the trees to soothe your disquiet.
The sun rose from the east-southeast, though it now hangs roughly overhead. This aligns with your memory of where his estate lies, though there were a great deal many more trees when you last visited. The distance that needed to be traversed to enter the Umbra much smaller in those days. And not yet had the real wilds been repulsed -- wolves had roamed these forests, wolves that now found themselves beaten back to the fringes of development.
Stepping out of the bushes, I stretch and begin to walk a straight line to Silver Tongue. The rest has rejuvenated me, bolstering my resolve and dampening my feelings of disquiet.
Of particular interest to me are the ways in which animals have made their home in this place, surviving and even thriving despite the destructive behavior of Man.
As you walk through the neighborhoods, you find yourself strikingly alone. There are very few humans walking the streets. What life you do see is in its element; squirrels playing games against the trunks of trees, cats stalking the nighttime lairs of mice. You try to find solace in the fact that many kinds of creatures have made this city home. Who are you to begrudge the rat for acting according to his nature?
As you near the location of Silver Tongue's home, you notice the sky seems to darken and the colors desaturate in the fading light. Straud's home is located on a fold in space-time where the sun never seems to rise above the towering trees.
The space is enchanted to look little disturbed from the day he settled the land. Evergreens stretch toward the sky, oak and maple provide more than ample shade from the dim midday sun. The sound of rushing cars has been replaced by leaves rustling against each other in the wind.
A single bird calls out a lone note repeated. He's looking for someone, calling for someone he's lost. You get the feeling they're playing hide and seek.
You reach into your memory and recall the last time you were here. The trees smelled much the same, with the faint scent of the sea flowing through the air. It seems Straud has split the land into a few smaller parcels; there are three homes you do not recognize.
As you stand in the center of the square, you look up toward a darkly bricked home in an old Gothic style.
I look around in approval. Silver Tongue still respects the land. Good. I take a deep breath and let myself savor the memory of unspoiled forest before walking the rest of the way to the house.
Upon reaching the door, I decide to be polite and use the brass door knocker in the shape of a gargoyle, though I rap a bit harder that might be strictly necessary.
A moment passes and the silence fills you.
Suddenly the door opens and first you spy the man you've been looking for, looking much the same as the first time you met him, but quickly the presence of another soul rises to meet your notice.
From beneath Straud's legs rushes a pure white dog. He runs out of the open door and starts to dig around in a small crate to the left of your feet. It's a box filled with all kinds of squeaky plastic toys and throwing balls.
The dog selects a brightly striped ball that depresses between his teeth. He holds it up to you and gazes into your eyes expectantly.
"My apologies that I cannot teach the mutt any manners."
Then he pauses and really gets a good look at you.
"Ben? Is that really you?"
I take the toy and do the 'throw' pantomime before launching it into the yard.
"Greetings, Nixkamich, It has been long since we shared a fire. May I come in?"
"Of course, of course. My hearth is yours. I expect you've traveled a long way. Please let me know anything I can do to ease your burden."
Straud inhales and lets out a whistle to call the dog back from the yard. He comes bounding back obediently.
"It is wonderful to see you again. Much has changed, some for the better, and some for the worse. I hope you do not bring ill tidings."
Dexx chews on the ball vigorously and keeps both eyes close to Ben.
The inside of the house is warm and the sound of a crackling fire can be heard from inside the sitting room.
"I have become encumbered by a number of fledglings that have pledged themselves to my cause. Times have changed since we last shared company."
"Your offer is appreciated Nixkamich, cool water is all I require for the moment." I step inside and extend my hand to Dex, letting him sniff.
Entering the sitting room, I take a look at the chairs and pick the one that has the least cushioning before sitting cross-legged. "Change is the way of Gaia and gives hope that what is now may someday be no longer."
"I have come at the command of the Spirits. A storm is coming Nixkamich, one similar to the conflagration that consumed your home. It is my duty to help ensure that does not happen on Earth."
Straud disappears into the kitchen and retrieves a glass bottle of water from the fridge. It's a reusable container with a pressure-activated lid. He pours the water into a glass and exits the kitchen.
Dexx is ecstatic at the attention from a stranger and does a play-bow, trying to lead Ben to the door.
"Oh, don't mind the little one." Straud tries to pursuade Ben to come into the living room. "It is good that he's greeted you so well. He is not so friendly ordinarily. Of course, you know the company I keep so it's no wonder he tends toward anxiety."
"Come with me --" and he motions toward the sound of the fireplace, "we shall watch the flames and discuss."
"I have seen the vision, too. We cannot sit idly by while that dreaded future comes to pass. No, we will take action and prevent it, or suffer True Death trying."
"I am never-the-less elated that you've come here to join hands. This city is sorely missing the old wisdom."
"I can only hope, for the peoples of Earth, that what happened to my home does not pass here. The humans of Earth do not have the advantages that my people did, and I fear they will not survive the arrival of the colonizers. I do not want to see the past endlessly repeat itself. It does not bode well for the health of the spirit realm. If humanity is lost, Earth will suffer, but if the Umbra is lost, we are all doomed."
"My people were telepathic and the tragedy left them joined inexorably to each other. Those that were once cousins called each other sister and joined hands and minds. The peoples of Earth do not have that luxury. When the foreigners arrive, fear will drive them apart and leave them standing alone holding a rusted sword."
"You speak truly. Ever have the humans squabbled amongst themselves, brother killing brother over the body of Gaia."
I gaze into the fire for a long moment. "What would you have of me? I warn you, the Garou shattered the Fera and we have been long in healing; I can speak only for myself. The others (a grimace crosses his face) ignore the old ways and many have devolved into monsters...or worse."
"I've been troubled by visions. There is a symbol I've seen repeatedly -- a skull with a machine gear set as the third eye. At first I thought it was the skull of Man but as I iterated over it, I realized it was an Elf. The high-set cheekbones, the gentle slope of the eyebrow; once I saw it I was convinced. Would you allow me to show you the symbol? I know we have not shared mind-space in many a year."
"I don't recognize the symbol otherwise. It is something meant to intimidate but it doesn't match any cult I'm familiar with."
Though obviously discomfited by the idea, I am resolute when I respond "The spirits led me here, and I will not turn away now. Besides, Nixkamich, spirits or not, I would not have come if I did not trust you."
Straud sends the frightening image to your mind: that of a fire-tinged skull with a gear set on the forehead. Roll Int + Occult to see whether you recognize the symbol.
"It is the mark of the God-Machine. An artificial mind existing somewhere in the distant umbra that possesses superlative power. I have fought its agents on occasion, those that call themselves 'Angels'. The Machine instructs these angels to build unnatural contraptions that rip at the fabric of the Umbra."
"This... Cannot mean..." Truly at a loss for words, Straud looks into the fireplace and tries to recenter himself in the crackling.
"The task that lies before us is gargantuan in scope. I'm...Afraid. Afraid we don't have enough allies. Afraid we won't have the resources to defeat them all."
"I'm glad you have come. We are greater together. Do you require shelter?"
"I am owed many favors, on both sides of the Veil. I think it is time I called the debts due." I pause for a moment, then continue "There are rebels among the Angels, Fallen Servants who hide in the bodies of mortals. Finding some such might bolster our ranks."
At the mention of staying in your home, I am genuinely touched: "I would be honored to share your home Nixkamich, though not of The People, we have always respected your wisdom and it is good to be in a place that remembers the land."
Dexx appears and beseeches Straud for reassurance.
"Then we are not without those that understand the scale of our plight. Good." He leans forward at pets the dog.
"We must find respite in the fact that the winds are still. We have time to prepare."
"I would be honored to have you here. My home is yours."
"My honor is yours, Nixkamich. I will prepare for the Spirit Ritual, many across the Veil seek to thwart the GodMachine's plans."
"What can I do to help you with the ritual?" Dexx refuses to leave Straud's side and keeps seeking out his hand.
"When I have gathered all the necessary items it will be helpful to have a witness/guardian; the immediate area around the ritual will become one with the spirit world for the duration of my communion."
"I will be here." Straud's voice is calm and quiet; as was often the case after sharing experiences with others. It was an old skill of his; reaching forward into the minds of others always brought back familiar feelings.
He had avoided looking into the memories of his compatriot -- such focus had required laser attention -- but he'd not wanted to tread into places he was not welcome. He refused to take from a friend.
The image was still burned into his memory. It had been comforting to share his fears with others but it also reinforced the urgency. But what could be done today? Was there anything he needed to alert the others to?
No. Not today. To pierce the silence was to disturb the peace. They would be ready when the day came. He would make sure of that.
He leaves the sitting room and enters the dining room, where set up on the table is a portable computer. It was a high-powered machine, heavy and imposing, set in its resting place. He turns the computer on and prepares to lurk on the wintranet, attempting to lose himself in the message boards and data stores, trying to give Ben any sort of privacy that he needed in his preparations.
I follow Straud out of the sitting room and proceed into the backyard. Once there I center myself and draw upon my inner strength (going to shift into a Raven).
Shift complete, I give a loud 'Caw' and then head off into the woods to gather the required herbs.
On the wintraNet, Straud looks over some of the recent messages. The sun still hangs in the sky so the boards are quiet. In the wee hours of the previous night, Cedric had contacted Caleb Vatore and invited him to Davian's party on Friday. He had accepted and agreed to bring an offering of plasma fruit.
It was comforting, to distract oneself from the threat of the God-Machine. The younglings were blissfully unaware of the magnitude of the threat that loomed over their moment of peace.
Straud did not often accept invitations to gatherings but he'd decided he'd take up Davian on this one. He needed to speak to the mage and introduce him to Ben.
Ben spends the afternoon ranging across what remains of the East Coast Wilderness gathering the required components: White Sage, Fresh Oak leaves, Pristine water, freshly knapped flint and always, blood.
I return as the sun sets, shifting at the edge of the House of Straud. I confirm that I have all the ingredients and that they are in good order, then proceed to prepare a space in the back yard.
As you settle in and meditate on your ritual components, the spirit realm suffuses your consciousness. Your eyes seem to glow as you are joined with another collection of soul-stuff: a predatory cat.
You find yourself already out-of-breath and tired. You've been running. Running for a long time. You're exhausted. But you cannot stop because of the sound. It's a terrifying amalgam of monstrous sounds, some of which you think you can discern, but many of them strange and foreign. It's a machine, whirring, pulsing, made by a culture with a taste for bloodshed. And you must keep running because it's coming straight for you. So you keep going.
You have found the machine destroys the forest you call your home. As you run from it, you retrace your steps and find the riches of the jungle plundered and flattened. For what reason you cannot be certain. You theorize that it is as one-minded in its pursuit of you as you are fleeing from it. But why? You don't have the leisure to ponder the question for long.
You keep running, emptiness in your lungs nagging at your stamina, when you hear the voice of one of your species. It is the welcome sound of companionship in this frenzied fleeing. You run toward the sound, desperate for the warmth of camaraderie.
The cat's roar fills your body with peace, removing the pain of exhaustion from your limbs. The echo of the monstrous creation and its horrible noise fade from your memory as you come to. You try to conjure the fearful noise you were so afraid of as a cat but the sound has been calmed from your waking nightmares. What you can remember, however, is the sound of the cat's roar from a far-away copse of jungle, reverberating gently through the dense forest, the only hope that remained.
I open my eyes and breathe deeply, holding the last image in my mind and committing every detail of my thoughts and feelings to memory. This accomplished, I bless the ritual area and collect the various components, then burn them in a cleansing fire. All of this complete, I enter the house and seek out the Gray Fox to inform him of what I have seen
You tell Straud what you saw in the vision, detailing best you can the life or death fear you experienced running from the terrible noise in the jungle. You end the tale with the sweet sound of hope in the far-away cat's roar.
"Then there is still something we can do." The pair pause, wordless in the face of incomprehensible fear.
"I want you to come with me tomorrow evening and meet some of the people that have been gathered together. Some by me, some by others. Dare I call them that name? They're friends. It will bring you respite and renew your hope."
"Some of them are young and do not comprehend the danger we face. But not all of them."
"But they all have pledged themselves to battle. For some of the younglings, it's almost better this way. They're too young to have been softened by peace."
Ben let's out a deep sigh, and for a fleeting moment Straud sees the weight of 500 years on an unprepared soul before a slight shake and restores those green pools to stillness once more.
"I will accept, and gladly, for it has been too long since I shared the cup of friendship, and I would be honored to meet those you call Friend, Nixkamich."
"I am glad for it. Too often we think we have all the answers prepared and it is too easy in our isolation to become mired in pride and fear."
"We will go tomorrow by car. Today, we rest and meditate over what we've seen."
Straud ends the conversation with an offer of a house tour, noting that he's expanded the amenities since Ben was last here. He intends specifically to offer use of the workout room.