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Pathfinder's Helmet / Helm / Visor
NEW COVEN - I
Petra stood at the bordering cliff's edge of the Divalian Mists, wrapped in a concealing vapor. Beside her, Illyn, Techeun Coven Mother. A deluge of water spewed from deep within the stone below; gentle tremors rippled through their bodies without notice. The pure sky above them tore like well-worn fabric as fronds of malignant Taken growth crept into the Dreaming City.
"They will be upon us soon. It was not enough to simply halt Oryx's advance," Petra said.
She had spent months of conversation building the kindling to an idea in Illyn's thoughts prior to the Battle of Saturn: a new Coven, a new class of sister recruits. Now, with the queen's flagship in ruins and the Coven missing several of its most skilled Techeuns, there was no longer the luxury of refusal.
Illyn shook her head. "We are not weapons for the Queen's Wrath to command…"
The Coven's reluctance to forge the next link in the chain of their lineage was a strong one. Since the formation of Eleusinia and the exploitation of Riven, the Elder Techeuns had grown protective of their arts. Techniques and texts were kept close. Despite all that, Petra knew Illyn had always been listening to her words. She too had dreamt of the Harbinger's failure. Of Oryx Taking her sisters.
"…We will snap shut the Ley Lines and seal the city," Illyn concluded.
"No!" Petra retorted. "The queen is lost and might still return." She turned to the Coven Mother. "Of your seven, how many are still alive?"
Petra felt a mournful flame stoking beneath Illyn's visor. "Precisely," Illyn said. "We haven't the strength."
"Then heed my requests." Petra waved away the mist between them. "Train more sisters."
Illyn finally broke her gaze with the sky and scowled at Petra. "We haven't the time. Training spans decades."
"Make. It. Work," Petra demanded before taking a breath and continuing. "Illyn, I will do whatever you need. Please, can we work through this together?"
Illyn's head sunk. She leaned over the cliffside—over the stream of plummeting mist—and watched the flow of water drop into endlessness. "Send me your candidates. I hope they are stronger than you were."
Pathfinder's Grips / Gauntlets / Wraps
WAYFINDING - II
Ylaia placed her hands on the focusing crystal once more. It had been months since she had seen the stars. Her view every day was instead of the same stone chamber she shared with twelve others; it doubled as both training ground and lodging for a new crop of Techeuns. The mustiness made Ylaia crave the open air of the Dreaming City's skyward turrets.
She imagined them piercing the sky like masts and drawing the clouds into sails. In her mind, the whole city sailed through the Ascendant Ocean, navigating the Ley Lines like currents. Ylaia placed herself there: a voyage, a turret crow's nest in search of distant land, ascendant anchors restraining cloud-sail billows against the wind of her will.
She tried to introduce that place to this one, to let them meet and exchange atmosphere.
"Make this real," she thought… but it was nothing more than thought. The concepts were familiar, but the execution was still foreign. Ylaia adjusted the crystal in her hands, as if the orientation mattered. Of all her sisters, only she still couldn't shape the Ley Lines.
"They're going to shift soon, you know," Austyn chided.
"I know," Ylaia spat back without looking. An explosion shook the room, raining plumes of dust over them and breaking her concentration.
"Damn it!" Ylaia slammed a fist into the smooth stone and cast the crystal orb across the floor. "Why are we training in a war zone?"
Austyn watched the crystal skip to the edge of the chamber. "This place is built upon a crossroads of Ley Lines. If you can't align with them here…"
"Don't say it," Ylaia hissed as she stood to retrieve the crystal. "I need to try again."
As she walked, the wall before her illuminated and split into a doorway. Petra Venj entered the chamber, haggard, soot dulling the sheen of her armor. Ylaia stopped in her tracks. She hid away her embarrassment despite knowing that Petra hadn't seen her cast away the focusing crystal.
Petra's foot tapped the crystal. She bent and scooped it from the ground and looked to Ylaia's empty hands. "Do not lose this. There aren't many left."
"My apologies. I… I need to try again."
Petra scanned the faces of each of the thirteen would-be Techeuns before her. The creases beneath their eyes drew deeper from stress and lack of sleep. "I had trouble just the same. Let me show you."
Pathfinder's Tunic / Chestplate / Robe
DURESS - III
Sjari shifted on the wooden operating table. Why must she be the first?
She probed the jelly-like substance smeared across her forehead as Elder Kalli entered the room.
"Don't touch that. It's an antiseptic… and a binding agent," Kalli said, placing a sizeable blue-crystal-adorned mask next to an assortment of scalpels, hooks, and erosion stencils on her back table. Each tool was etched with ceremonial iconography, and freshly sharpened.
"Normally, it takes years to become an Adept among our ranks… but the Queen's Wrath believes time is short. If you survive, these augments will expedite your training and enhance your abilities."
Kalli turned away to work a mortar and pestle. "You will need to learn to focus under duress. Remove your mind from this place. Sink into the cosmic, project out from yourself. There is no pain, no flesh, no nerves."
Sjari gripped the sides of the operating table and pressed her back flat, until no air existed between her and the surface beneath—until she felt herself a part of it. She told herself to ignore the grinding of the pestle and thought about how Petra had taught her to use the physical as a transitionary conduit to the Ascendant.
"Drink this," Kalli ordered, handing Sjari a small cup of queensfoil tea.
Sjari opened her eyes and released her grip as her meditation broke. "Yes, Elder sister. Give me a moment to focus, please," she pleaded, hastily gulping down the tea.
"You think my voice is sharper than this knife?" Kalli asked, lifting the scalpel from her back table. "Duress. You must push through it if you are to survive. Be strong, or you will die. This is your final test."
Sjari drank quickly and pressed herself to the table once more. She focused on her fingertips and the feel of the hand-worked wood. The grain formed diminutive pathways for her nails to trace; tiny patterns hidden away within the enormity that surrounded them, only revealed by shrinking one's perspective. She let herself drift.
Kalli threaded the thin metal edge directly through to the bone of Sjari's skull. A line of incision opened a wave of red. Searing penetration through the layers. Overwhelming electrified senses. They gave way to a calming sting in the discordant firing of nerves. A pattern. The texture. The split between what was and what could be.
In her mind's eye, Sjari saw the Ley Lines unfurl like budding petals of a living blossom. Nebula-like plumes of pollen. She let herself slip away until the pain of her flesh was only one of many choices before her.
Pathfinder's Legguards / Greaves / Pants
JOURNEY - IV
Austyn sat in silence with eyes shut. Ley Lines swept over her in waves—in pulses, which she slowly brought into alignment with her own. Entanglement. It was not the first time she had pressed herself into symbiosis with the Ascendant Plane. She'd been through the thoughts of all the sisters in her Coven. She had dreamt with Petra and harvested secrets from her, with the Queen's Wrath being none the wiser. Austyn knew they were meant to save Queen Mara Sov. They were meant to find her and restore the throne. She had been searching the Ley Lines for a path to the queen each night after her training.
Her Coven sisters lay sleeping all around her body, but her mind flew through countless panes of prismatic glass. As they shattered, she flittered from one plane to the next, catching momentary glimpses of incommunicable wonder.
In the distant cosmos far ahead, Austyn saw a darkened haze of indecipherable noise. Somewhere nestled in the Ley Lines, this shadowed spot was growing. Austyn knew Mara Sov was distant. She knew the queen had obscured herself from her enemies. Austyn had felt a presence reach from the noise toward the Dreaming City more than once. Tonight, she would reach back.
Austyn focused her will on a path to the distant noise and, as she did so, it was. The way was open, but still so far. She reached out with her physical body, placing a hand in the air before her and splitting the oxygen with her touch. She carved a slit in reality, through the molecules of the air, and the path anchored to it at her command.
The noise descended upon her, and instantly, she was at the precipice.
Hand pressed, frozen, paralyzed, and awash in insidious whispers that shredded the doorway into open nothing.
It tore her consciousness across the cosmos to a grand terrace of onyx swords and emerald flame reigning over a red harbor. Fingers reached like blades from distant hollows. Screaming noise upon noise. A lone figure stood on the terrace aside two empty thrones. Testing. Prodding. Tasting. Breeding war.
"Austyn!" A familiar voice pried her back into the waking world. "Austyn, are you all right?"
She woke, soaked in sweat and heat. Petra Venj stood over her, gripping her shoulders.
Austyn struggled to breathe. Her eyes met Petra's.
They'd leave you behind if they knew what you just saw, she thought.
"Just a nightmare," Austyn reassured the Queen's Wrath. "Thank you for waking me."
Pathfinder's Hood / Mark / Bond
THIRD-STRING WITCHES - V
Petra watched Sedia preside over the thirteen of the new Coven. A mixture of pride and fearful anxiety knotted her stomach, as if the interior of her skin was being tugged into her gut by warm sinew strings. She held the shape of her smile until they had taken their positions within the Blind Well. Austyn, Ylaia, and Sjari formed the core of the party, with the others interlinking in an exterior circle. They situated themselves at key points around a thrumming Wayfinder's Compass that bent the air into wild chromatic slurries. The Well awakened.
They prepared their minds. Slipped into meditation. Communion in searching. Thirteen voices spoke as one, and then silence as the Well dropped into prisms of glass beneath the novice Coven's feet. Not but a moment ago, they thirteen stood within the Blind Well, hands and minds interlocked. Now they cascaded through a river of possibility, will, and intention.
It was not long before the connection was made. Queen Mara Sov's voice filled their thoughts, and they drew to it like gravity. The Coven sisters skipped between Ley Lines, ricocheting from time to place until they found themselves swirling in the whirlpool accretion of a brilliant celestine goddess. Their queen.
Not far beyond it, Austyn again saw the noise.
She kept her eye upon it while each of her sisters reached out, until the image of Mara Sov manifested and her words found footing in understanding. They focused their will upon her words, and before them, a pale screen of fog and glass gave way into a distant Ley Line beyond Sol.
"You have done well, my Techeuns," said Mara, stepping from the nothing and into their presence. She placed her hand on the Wayfinder's Compass. "Take me home."
The Coven turned their minds back to the Dreaming City, to safety, to Petra. But as they began their return journey through the Ascendant Plane and across the Ley Lines, they felt the presence of another watching. At the edges of the accretion, a din of distorted noise pursued them.
Mara glowered at Austyn before turning and raising her palms. With a single word, the Ley Line shattered behind them, sending a lance of energy through the heart of the noise as they sped away toward the Dreaming City. "I will not suffer a bloodied mongrel at my heels," whispered Mara. "Keep your focus. She will be back."
Austyn could feel the noise encircling them again, as it had done to her that night in her bed. It would suffocate them in this dream.
Each time the Coven shifted Ley Lines, so too did the noise. She knew they could not escape it, and through her, so did her sisters. It descended upon them, and as it grew closer, the noise manifested into whispers. Austyn's mind could think of nothing but one name: Xivu Arath.
She could see the Dreaming City, but the image wasn't clear. The sharpness of the connection was darkening. Her sisters felt her worry. They did not have the strength to escape. Their minds aligned on an action. Austyn grabbed the compass and placed it in Mara Sov's hands. "We will ensure your arrival."
Each sister shifted her thoughts from the Dreaming City to her own corner of the Ascendant Plane, and with a burst of will, they scattered themselves across the Ley Lines. The noise halted momentarily and split in every direction to follow them.
Queen Mara Sov crashed to her feet as she connected with the floor of the Blind Well.
"My queen!" Petra looked to the quickly sealing rift from which she fell. "Where are the others?"
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