Chapter 26: Mission
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“Is your bag packed?”

“Yeah.”

“And you already ate? It’s an earlier day than usual.”

“Yes, yes I ate.”

“Did you double check your braids?”

“Yes, Jiju! I’m going to be fine, really. You know, it’s weird when you worry like this. Just look after the boys—make sure Vander doesn’t get bored and into trouble. We should be back in less than a week.”

She looked at me with stern features. “I’m not telling you not to do this, just be smart and stay safe.”

“O-okay. I will.”

The plan was, a day and a half’s journey to the mine, two days in the mine, a day and a half back. When I got to the village outskirts, I found Ghisé and Sen waiting alongside an old friend I wasn’t expecting. I ran up and threw my wings around the lambbull—the very same one as when I returned earlier this year. “Hey boy! Remember me? You’re just as soft as I remember.”

“Uhm Tal? That one is female actually.”

“Ah! And what a beautiful girl you are,” I sung to it. Sen and Ghisé started laughing. “Does she have a name?” I asked.

“Halne.”
“Brushball,” Sen and Ghisé said in turn.

I snorted, “Your naming instincts are wildly different. What does Kelz call her?”

“”Princess,”” they said, drawing a pout from me and breaking into laughter again.

We were still waiting on Cee it seemed. She got the permission I needed to reluctantly continue working, and I did manage to wrangle her into coming along. If only I could’ve gotten her to play Rings with us too, but I’d take the partial victory. This would be the perfect opportunity to get to know each other again. Time, captivity, whispers: I wont let those things keep my family apart.

When Cee finally showed up, she wasn’t alone, but with that same guard from a few weeks ago—Thing AB, two lackeys in one. Okay… Ahbe actually seemed alright. She was only four Springs our senior, and I saw her a few times in the past couple weeks as we prepared for the trips. She was procuring things we needed in preparation while Ghisé, Sen and I were making sure we were ready to protect ourselves. More accurately, Jiju was making sure we were ready, and we were making sure she’d be able to sleep while we were gone.

“Hey Cee!” I called, “And Ahbe too. Good to see you again.”

“Good to see you again Miss Blessed. For you.” Ahbe handed me a small pouch that formed to my hand. “I did the best I could.”

When I peered inside I saw the amorphous substance I had asked for, and once again Ahbe delivered—making her the top of my list as far as henchman go, on account of not trying to kill or capture me and giving gifts instead.

I grinned, “This should do! You picked a good one Cee.”

“Listen Tali,” Cee came right up in my face, “I am putting everything on the line here. Do you understand? The Chief’s trust in me, and my reputation among the village. I need you to be serious.” Her brows were furrowed, even as she warned me through gritted teeth.

For her sake, I could see this expedition as a way to make my sister happy. The weapons didn’t matter to me, but showing everyone that our clutch was the best in the village did. I nodded to her, “I will be.”

———

Once we were a few hours out from the village, we sent Sen up and ahead to scout. Ahbe led the lambbull of many names deeper into the Redwood as Ghisé and I chatted quietly in the wagon or watched the scenery roll by. Cee was all over. She was up talking to Ahbe, dropping back to the wagon to check on Ghisé and I, patrolling flanks, flying up to Sen. It was impressive, but I couldn’t help but worry that she’d burn herself out too quickly. Luckily we encountered nothing, but that was to be expected for the first day’s journey. Beasts stayed clear and humans were only rarely spotted this far into the forest.

When Sen returned as the sun got low, she carried a hunt in her talons. It was a peaceful meal around the campfire, but Cee was still tough to pin down for any kind of meaningful conversation. For her part, Ahbe looked a bit lost. I tried to rope her into conversation, but she always had one eye on Cee, and wouldn’t seem to relax either.

The second half of the journey to the mine went much the same as the first mostly. Partway there Ahbe pointed a freshly marked tree, a sign and new heading from our forward scout. The marking meant humans, but following the new heading we didn’t see any all the way to the mine.

———

“So Alex told you about this?” Sen asked as we started leading the lambull I decided to call Molly into the mine.

“Yeah. Said it should still have a fair amount of ore to find, it’s been abandoned for years now, so we shouldn’t need to worry about bumping into any people,” I answered.

“If they come I’ll be ready this time,” said Ghisé.

“I’ve got nothing but confidence in you Guardian.”

She pulled her wings in slightly, “That’s not official yet… Did Alex say why it was abandoned?”

“There are rumors that it’s haunted, ooOoOoooO,” the effect came out pretty good. “I guess miners are a superstitious bunch.”

“Haunted?!” Cee yelped.

I shot her a cheeky grin, “Are you scared? You believe in ghosts?”

Ghisé cocked a brow and snorted, “You don’t?”

“I haven’t seen anything to make me believe otherwise. Now, I’ve got to redo my braids. The rest of you should set up our base camp,” I said.

“Woah. Serious Tali,” said Sen.

Cee made it a point to say, “Yes, well… While we’re here, I’m in charge.”

Ghisé huffed, “Okay, leader, what should we do?” I shot her a look for her tone. She spent the ride here promising me she’d keep it in check.

Cee straightened up her back. “I want… Ahbe to scout the upper tunnels while the rest of us do what Tali said.” I wasn’t going to point out how she scrambled to come up with an additional order, at least not out loud.

Ahbe set out for her task while my sisters did the same. I found a nice flat raised section of rock to serve as my workstation. From my pack I pulled: a small pot of the purest, finest ground ironsand I had, a small piece of glass, and my faithful companion, the ancient Hesht magic book. The book was increasingly becoming filled with my own notes, cramping the margins and annoying Reyna to no end, but there was no getting more paper in the village.

I set the piece of glass to rest so I could see myself reflected in its surface. My reflected image was dull, nothing like the mirrors that Court Mage Galden had on hand. But it was as clear and even a surface as I could make myself and by hand—magical hands, but still a manual process. Using the handcrafted mirror, I set about the hours long process of undoing and reweaving my series of braids. Magnet would be woven into my hair twice, and neither would be a single braid anymore.

I had begun weaving the second when Cee found her way over to my little workstation. Her hovering over my shoulder eventually proved too much of a distraction to ignore, especially when I could see her face dimly in the corner of the glass.

“It’s a mirror Cee. It helps you see yourself.” I gently plucked the mirror from the rocky bench, and handed it to her.

She took it, and peering into the surface said, “Like the surface of still water… I’ve heard of these.” She was making strange facial expressions into it, poking the surface with her claw; the novelty of it brought a small smile to my face.

“Maybe after this trip I can make one for you,” I offered.

She quickly pulled her attention from the mirror and handed it back to me. “Our priority is the material you need to finish the weapons, not small trinkets. Besides, I’ve seen silver before. I… just wanted to ask if theres anything you need, we’re about done with setting up camp and Ahbe’s back. Nothing dangerous within a thousand wings of here.”

I took it and set it back down, “The only thing I need right now is for you to be patient.” The braids I was weaving were complex and I didn’t want a single strand of hair out of place. “Sit, relax. But not here—I really need to concentrate.”

She nodded and said, “Well it’s good to know you’re capable of that,” then walked away again. I bet the way I managed to keep my rebuttal in my head would have made Jiju proud.

Once I was finished, I sported over a dozen braids, though more than half of them were wrapped up in and supporting others. I was finding this method best to tweak some of the intricacies and add subcomponents to make the braids my own. I then set the small pouch Ahbe gave me down—which rolled a bit before settling—along with another small jar, empty.

I started by sectioning off about half of the ironsand powder into the empty jar, then opened Ahbe’s gift and peered inside again.

“What did you need the oil for?” Cee had found her way over to me again. If it was just her curiosity, I could oblige.

“I have this idea to protect my braids.” I said, “You exposed a weakness when you whooped me a few weeks ago, I’m trying to fix that.”

The corner of her mouth twitched, “Oil isn’t going to protect you from claw.”

“Not alone.” I started adding oil to the ironsand slowly, agitating the pot to combine the fine particulate of solid with oil as thoroughly as possible. After each small pour and combine, I activated one of the magnet braids to test. “I’m trying to get the magnetic forces to be as strong as possible, while still being able to flow without any lightning mana applied.”

She tilted her head in confusion.

“If you’re interested, come to visit. Alex and I can teach you some things.”

“Theres nothing I want to learn from a human.” She made a mock vomiting gesture.

I sighed, “Humans are people too. Like Hesht, there are good ones, bad ones, and everything in between. I actually think you’d get along with Alex quite well.”

“Pass,” she said, “It was creepy enough when he spoke to me.”

I laughed, “His accent is pretty atrocious right? He’s still new, but learning fast.”

“I can’t believe you’re teaching him.”

I shook my head, “Not me, I’m far too busy for that.” The solution wasn’t quite arriving at the consistency I wanted. There was no separating this first batch at this point though, even with the magic I knew, so I poured it off and started over.

“What? Hey you’re wasting it!”

“I’m not wasting it, I ruined it.” This time I started by adding oil to the empty pot, then ironsand into the oil. Things went better this time, it was a lot easier to get the ironsand to coat evenly. Still, the magetic fields didn’t have the evenness I hoped for. I expected this from previous attempts with water. The oil was better, but I just didn’t have a way to make the ironsand particulate super-fine and super-even.

I continued combining and pulling at the magnetic fields with as much control as I could manage until I was sufficiently satisfied—or more accurately, sufficiently frustrated. I could weave Enhancer with my eyes closed and clawed hands at this point, so I didn’t mind the potential sacrifice of that braid for this test. I leaned over my makeshift workstation and dipped Enhancer into the small pot of magnetic solution, then guided it up and around the braid using Magnet.

Once it was coated near enough to the root with about a millimeter’s thickness, I lifted the braid from the pot, and aligned the fields, evening and strengthening the coat into a liquid armor. I looked sourly at the dirty grey looking braid—It was heavy and not particularly fashionable, but it was practical.

“No good again?” Cee asked. “You know, Ahbe had a hard time coming up with this much oil. The healers spent all day complaining to the Chief in chambers.”

“And I appreciate the sacrifice of those whose cuts will scab over. It’s just… ugly. But I think it will work.” I leaned toward her and swayed the coated braid in front of her. I had to keep the braid magnetized so the “armor” would stay in place, but it was worth the cost. I could sustain it just with the ambient levels of lightning mana, even underground where the flavor was rarer than on the surface. “Try your claws,” I said.

Cee struck out at Enhancer much as she had in our bout, but this time, rather than the braid being sheared, it just swung like a pendulum. “Ha!” I exclaimed in victory. “Okay, okay. Try your talons now.” She did as asked, and again the braid stayed intact, though I did have to rearrange the armor to cover up the spot that laid bare after her strike knocked some of it away.

Cee watched with wide eyes as the braid-armor restored itself. She poked the braid a couple times lightly with her finger. Inspecting her talons, she asked, “This is the power of Lightblessed?”

I shook my head, “Nope, you could use Hesht Spellbraids too if you wanted to learn.”

She was deep in thought for a moment before saying, “Chief Getra needs to know this exists.”

I snorted, “You think she doesn’t?”

She glared at me in response, “If she did, I’d know.”

“Jiju knew.” I shrugged, “Maybe the Guardians are just better keepers of knowledge.”

Cee’s face reddened creating a striking contrast between her skin and monotone plumage. “We’ll see,” she hissed and turned away from my workspace once more.

I groaned inwardly, Nice one Tali. Really doing a great job of getting her to warm up…

———

By the time I finished my weaving and coating of my spells, everyone else had long finished their respective tasks and were waiting on me. Cee ordered us to spend the rest of this first day searching deeper into the mine, hopefully finding something worth coming back to the next day.

“Here, here! See this?” It was a full hour before finding anything significant—a section of the mine walls that had an unusual color. “Alex said green is copper.” I scraped at the green on the wall with my feet, putting some nice scratches into the wall. It came off in flakes, revealing the unoxidized metal below.

Ahbe walked up and ran her claws against the stone. “It’s combined with the rock though. How do we get it out?” she asked.

I shook my head, “I don’t think we can without some metal tools.”

“Wait, we need metal to get metal?” Ghisé said. “You can’t use magic?”

I thought on it for a moment, “I probably could blast it out, but that might also bring the ceiling down.”

“Then this is a waste of time.” Cee groaned, “Why even point this out?”

It was getting late in the day—the sap covered rope Ahbe was burning told us that it would be time to turn back in another hour or so. “Knowledge.” I answered. I ran my hand along the surface of the vein, ‘feeling’ for the difference between the magnetic fields of the copper and the much less interesting surrounding rock. “This was an active mine, abandoned in a rush. We could find some already harvested and abandoned along with the mine.”

We had no such luck so far, but I grimly hoped the disappearance of miners that led to the haunting rumors meant we would also find the ore they never managed to bring back with them.

———

Another hour picking our way down the main shaft Cee said, “Alright, it’s time to go back,” eyeing Ahbe’s rope.

So far, we found some small pieces of copper, but no tools. I would’ve really liked to find a pick or something. “Can we keep going a bit further?” I begged Cee. “We can make more out of today. I feel it in my gut.”

“Are you sure that’s not just hunger?” Ghisé asked, shifting the weight of her pack. “We’ve walked for hours, maybe they abandoned the mine because all that’s left are the scraps you’ve been picking up.”

Cee asked me, “How much do you have so far?”

I pulled open my pack and checked the ore load inside. It wasn’t much, and based on the fields coming off, the copper content inside was low. “Not very good for day one, and we’ve pretty much picked clean our route so far.”

I began to worry with how hard Cee was grinding her teeth that she would lose them before even the Chief became toothless. “We go back, but we will check out the side tunnels we skipped.” It was a compromise, but a fairly good one, so we turned back the way we came.

We came to a split in the tunnels. Ahead, the way back to camp, to each side a tunnel.

“Ahbe, Ghisé, Sen: take that tunnel. Tali and I will take this one. Just check it and come back, we’ll do the same.” Cee ordered.

“No problem. I know what the metal rocks look like,” said Ghisé. Sen and Ahbe nodded.

We set down our respective paths, putting me alone with Cee for the first time in a very long time.

———

{{ 3rd person PoV }}

“All that training and there’s nothing even here,” said Ghisé. She was gripping her spear tightly in her clawed hands.

Sen cocked a brow at Ghisé, “You want danger?”

“I just want to prove myself.”

“To who?” asked Ahbe.

“Jiju… Tali…”

“Miss Blessed seems quite pleased with you,” said Ahbe. “Miss Cee is not so complimentary.”

“Why am I not surprised?” Ghisé scoffed. “I can’t remember the last time she was nice to us.”

“We couldn’t do this without you though,” Ahbe continued, “I’m aware that you all don’t care for making these metal weapons.”

Ghisé and Sen exchanged a look. “We want them,” said Sen.

“Yeah, Tali’s the one who’s been pushing back. The whole clutch has been pressuring her. We want to restore Hesht civilization.” Sen nodded in agreement.

“Restore?” Ahbe asked. She didn’t know the stories that were being passed around Sanctuary. The stories of the great Hesht cities of old, of the unifying power the Fireblessed Phoenix had, and the relationships the Hesht had with the other sapient races in the world.

A horrible moaning sound echoed its way through the tunnels accompanied by a low rumble. Ghisé spun wildly for the source of the sound, smashing the tip of her spear off against the rock wall in the process.

Sen dropped low and covered her head with her wings. “Ghosts?” she whispered.

Ahbe grabbed Ghisé and Sen, pulling them towards the main tunnel, “Let’s not find out.”

The three quickly ran their way back, Sen flinching in response to a second instance of the terrifying sound, but Ahbe kept her legs from giving out under her. They made it back to the main passage before Cee or Talivi though, the pair having moved further down their tunnel thanks to Talivi’s magic speeding their group’s search.

It was another thirty seconds and another howl before Talivi and Cee could be seen from the main tunnel, the sound of their talons clacking against the hard stone in haste.

“Tali!” Ghisé called out down the tunnel, but her cries and the clacking of talons all were drowned out by the sound of howling and crumbling rock. The tunnel floor fell out from below Talivi and Cee, the two disappearing from sight.

Ghisé pulled free of Ahbe’s grasp and started rushing down the tunnel. Yet, as suddenly as it all started, the howling and rumbling died down. By the time Ghisé arrived at the spot where the pair fell through, the tunnels were calm and there was no sign of the hole or the two Hesht.

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