234 – Ritualism
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A/N: Hate to do this again within a short timespan, but I've got an allergy flareup going again, uncontrollable sneezing and everything. Probably no chapter tomorrow.

Before she could even process the sensory overload of witnessing, hearing, and smelling the veritable palace of a kitchen, Ozmir had already whipped his head around to look at her, grinning expectantly as an even larger portion of food steamed upon a plate, just sat there on a counter within arm’s reach. 

“Count yourself lucky, dear elder,” he said facetiously. “This chef knows how ravenous a cultivator’s appetite grows after a fierce battle. Oh, and just leave the dishes on the counter over there.”

Her eyes had glazed over trying to make sense of the kitchen. Everything here was almost, but not quite recognizable, the entire room designed to accommodate sleek centuries-old culinary essentech, its scale obviously taking into account the swelling numbers of a sect. 

At least she could discern the stove and sink apart, but that was it. Half the devices here looked like alchemical tools, and every other hand tool was more torture implement than anything else. Glyphs covered at least half of all surfaces, projections glowing and flickering all over the place, even further contributing to sensory overload. Zel was perfectly content to get out of that place with more food in tow, though the glance into a master epicurean’s work space planted a seed of curiosity in her mind.

…She wasn’t exactly happy to keep Jorfr waiting, but then, the distinctly present growl of her stomach wouldn’t be the best sound to accompany ritualistic chanting.

This meal was certainly lesser than the previous, though exactly why that was, she couldn’t pin down. It mainly consisted of some more sandswimmer noodles, this time slathered in spicy, herbal sauce, with chunks of vaguely poultry-like meat, vegetables, and nuts scattered throughout. 

Alongside a second pitcher of the same drink, Zel finished the whole thing in a few minutes, despite the noodles’ downright infernal heat. By some feat of culinary dark magic, it simultaneously assaulted her mouth with spice without any one flavor ever overwhelming the others.

The aftertaste still burning in her mouth, she finally made her way to the Leyline Well, deciding to ride the elevator down.

Lightgems flashed on by, blending together into a continuous strobe as the machinery ushered her into the guts of the earth. When at last she found herself at the second lift’s very bottom and stepped into that sprawling, artificial meadow, her eyes fell upon the ritual site and she saw that it had been decorated with various greenery, with the lesser pedestals now holding what could best be described as offerings representing earthly elements.

A plain bottle of Viriditas, left open, green Fog allowed to waft into the air. 

A perpetually-smoldering ember in a bed of coals, piled up on the altar; a natural Ignis gem. 

A hunk of meat in a small puddle of blood-red liquid, giving off Fog of the same colour; Rubedo.

A piece of silver metal.

A normal-looking rock.

A small puddle of water.

Even now, the bundle of bear pelt was securely wrapped up on the central altar, now accompanied by a variety of tools and containers - although these were placed on the ground next to the altar. A bowl of blood and an empty bottle, a mortar and pestle, a small laboratory flask stand holding a brass bowl with a candle underneath, and various others.

Jorfr sat there, uttering repeated phrases in the northern tongue, his body covered in bloody paint anew which formed a series of just-barely separated glyphs. It almost looked like a circuit waiting to be completed. He looked to her as she approached, giving a shallow nod while he continued reciting under his breath.

Walking over, Zel knelt down across the altar from the norseman, at which point he stopped reciting. 

“Though I could not be present, decisive battle lingers upon you,” he said, clearly taking conscious effort to sound mystical. Then, reaching for a bowl of what turned out to be just-melted fat and mixing it into the blood, he dropped the act. “That is to say, you’re beat all to shit. Strip down to your waist, I’ll have to paint most of your upper half… You might want to let your hair down, too.”

Thinking nothing of it Zel did as asked, whilst Jorfr mixed up the gruesome body paint. He unraveled the pelt-bundle, taking from within the beast’s still-bloody hide a bundle of bloodsoaked herbs, which he crushed up in the mortar and added to the mixture while murmuring an incantation.

After the gruesome mixture had finally been rendered into a thin paste, the norseman took up a bristly brush made of fine, white fur, its short handle the carved tooth of a predatory animal - perhaps one of this very bear’s teeth, considering two factors; First, the brush looked as pristine and unused as such a thing conceivably could. Second, while the pelt still had remnants of the skull and its upper teeth were all there, its lower jaw was absent entirely.

It was then that she also noticed the presence of a second, used-looking brush of the same make laid next to the bowl. The Norseman got up - bowl in hand and brush between his fingers - and began painting her back, continuing to murmur obscure incantations, his breath as a freezing winter breeze upon her skin. At first, she thought that she was getting goosebumps merely due to the norseman’s frigid exhalation, but it was not so; in the wake of every brush stroke, strange tension washed over her skin. It was almost akin to the arcane thrumming she experienced when directly interacting with magical constructs, but… Not quite there. It was uncanny, uneven, coming and going as it pleased, like a swarm of infinitesimally tiny insects brushing against her.

Minutes passed, stretching on and on as Jorfr meticulously covered her upper body in elaborate norse glyphwork. By the time her back was done, he beckoned her to turn around, in the meanwhile noting: “If it feels as though a swarm of invisible insects, that means it’s working.”

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