Snowbound Blood Transcript: Volume 6

Volume 6 - Of Feats, Culinary and Alchemical

Your name is SECILY IOPARA, and as of right now those two six letter words are the only things in your life that feel real. What felt like purpose and drive has given way to caution and suspicion. 

No longer are these thoughts resigned solely to those you pursue, and instead those you believed you could trust have become shrouded in deceit.

What felt like a sliver of progress has brought you back to where you began, a single inky drop in an ocean of obsidian.

But you have conquered greater depths than this. You've weathered storms more turbulent and faced waves far taller. You're going to grit your teeth and face the unknown head on. 

And you're going to do it your way.

That means getting down and dirty with some deep diving detectiving. You double checked the records around the time of the case and looked into the leads you'd been given. 

And although it has put you into danger more than once, following the leads of that mysterious voice has given you more direction than Corporate resources could provide.

Two more trolls to talk to. Two more pockets of knowledge to make clear.

RAUROU DERSAL

It's rare for you to feel quite this lost.

Not necessarily with physical direction - you can make your way around Stronghold 21 easily enough - but after everything you have now discovered, it's harder to pull yourself through this ordeal.

There's an emotional lilt. A feeling of betrayal.

But to hell with them then. You're tasked with getting results, and that's something you pride yourself on. 

If not for Corporate, then for people like Oricka, like Occeus, who are doing what they can to help you and this fractured world. But to get results, you need more direction than a street corner.

Most of your leads so far have followed either Corporate's directives, or chasing up information from other suspects. 

And while things didn't exactly go as you'd planned with Bytcon, trying something different at least provided you with something new.

Eventually. 

Was it worth it? You leave that up to your mental jury to decide.

Nevertheless, you're feeling better about things this time. Expanding the scope of the investigation slightly, you looked into large-scale events in the fortwice leading up to the philter being stolen. 

One event jumped out at you - Corporate's Awards For All night. In particular, the event was catered for by one Raurou Dersal. It is with him that you hope your next break in the case lies.

>Recall: RAUROU DERSAL.:

Known far and wide as "the curator of culinary creations", Raurou Dersal is often credited as the man single-handedly responsible for the revival of the culinary arts. 

While often employed for upscale events that require a large number of meals, it appears that one of his great passions is in teaching others the craft. 

His influence in the space is all-encompassing, and those who do work in the kitchens swear by raurian steel for their knives and blades.

From personal accounts of those who have worked under him, although he can be tough and strict, Raurou inspires those around him to give their all. 

You're personally aware that Raurou was in charge of food preparation for the AFA night. There's every chance the perceptive chef may provide a connection or two for you to follow up with.

When not cooking during the day, Raurou is usually at his own personal culinary school, where he teaches trolls simple meals that they can prepare at home. 

While digging up information, you noted that the level of class can range from outdoors hunting expeditions and survival preparation to high class meals free of meats altogether. 

It's here you've come to today in the hopes of catching him at the end of his lesson.

>Enter class.:

You try to subtly open the door, but the bell tolls for thee. A small ringing chime, hung above the door, marks your entrance and relays your presence to those inside. 

Thankfully, it seems as though the class is close to finishing, right on schedule, and most of the budding chefs quickly turn back to tidying up their equipment. 

You watch as the cleaning gel pours viscously out of the taps, before being applied to all manner of knives and ladles, pots and pans. Essentially, everything in the kitchen sink.

You sidle across to stand at the back, making a motion to press down your coat in a terrifically nonchalant way. You're the picture of precision, as always. 

As you scan the room, it becomes quite clear to you that each sink space is holding two cooking enthusiasts. The scents of delicious creations lightly float towards you. 

Many spices mix in your mind, but one comes through clear - honey. You feel your heart grab an extra beat or two. She would have loved to do something like this.

People begin to flow out the door behind you, bell chiming each departure. Each pair carries a delicious looking honey spice cake with them. 

Your sweeping scan, cut short by those sweet smells, continues its path along the scene to abruptly stop at a rather familiar pair of budding cooks. 

Oh no. 

You really didn't want to talk to this guy again unless absolutely necessary. Except he's already coming your way, and it's clear both he and his cooking partner have spotted you.

There's no backing out of this now.

BYTCON: 8-> SO WE MEET AGAIN!
BYTCON: 0-> How lovely it is to see you, Secily.

You don't feel you share the same enthusiasm, but you suppose when a move is made, one must respond in turn.

SECILY: 1.d4 I must say, this is quite the surprise. I didn't think you ever left that dome. ...d5
BYTCON: 0-> Secily, please, I already told you I have a number of non-currency related hobbies.
ENDARI: )-| One of which is making an absolutely delicious woolbeast stew! |-(

You almost take a step backwards as Bytcon begins to visibly blush. You're not usually one to meddle in people's personal affairs, much less this particular troll's. 

It certainly helps you paint a more complete picture of the pair, much as it confuses you.

BYTCON: 0-> Anyway we must be off, Secily. Loops don't pop out of trees, you know.
BYTCON: 0-> Speaking of which, I've been thinking of a couple more currencies.
BYTCON: 8-> WHAT DO YOU THINK OF BLADEBITS!
BYTCON: 0-> No?
BYTCON: 8-> HOW ABOUT CURRANTCY?

ENDARI: )-| I'm sure they'll be great successes as always, my little rat~ |-(

You can see Endari playfully nudge Bytcon at that remark. He waves back at you and the two depart. 

You're not exactly sure what you feel at the moment, but thankfully with the place now emptying, you don't have to dwell on it for too long. 

You approach the front of the cooking class, and perform the tried and tested throat clear to the chef in charge.

RAUROU: GAH!!

...Maybe that was too much.

SECILY: 1.e4 I'm... so sorry, I didn't mean to startle you. ...e6

It takes a moment for the chef's hair to deflate and his pupils to return to normal. His hand is clearly tensed on the knife so quickly swung your way. 

If you hadn't taken a short step back, it could've clipped your collar. You give him a chance to catch his breath.

RAUROU: /T'S ALR/GHT. / DO APOLOG/SE, BUT CLASS HAS F/N/SHED FOR THE DAY.
SECILY: 2.d4 I'm not here for the class, Mr. Dersal. Secily Iopara, Corporate Regulator. ...d5
SECILY: 3.exd5 I was wondering if you remember anything about the recent Awards For All event, put on by Corporate. Anything that might have been out of the ordinary. ...exd5
SECILY: 4.Nf3 From the records, I'm aware you were catering that night. ...Nf6

The chef returns to slowly cleaning his own knife, cloth partially coated in that same gel fluid. You note his averted gaze, keenly focused on the motions up and down the well maintained blade.

It feels familiar, the adept care one shows to one's tools, be they sword or cleaver.

RAUROU: ANSWER/NG UNNECESSARY QUEST/ONS REALLY DOESN'T RATE H/GH ON MY "L/ST OF MOST ENJOYABLE ACT/V/T/ES", REGULATOR /OPARA.
RAUROU: /F THAT'S ALL YOU'VE COME HERE FOR, / REALLY WOULD L/KE TO HEAD HOME. /'D PREFER TO NOT KEEP LOWREN WA/T/NG.

He makes a move forward, as if to sidestep you, but you quickly match his steps. You exhale a sigh, prepared to up the ante and advance yet another piece forward on the board.

SECILY: 5.Bd3 This is no trivial catch-up over boiled monster, Raurou. ...Bd6
SECILY: 6.O-O Corporate has had a vital relic stolen, and I believe this party was within close enough proximity that it might hold some clues to the crime. ...O-O
SECILY: 7.h3 The murglary, as it were. ...Be6

Raurou raises an eyebrow in response to that.

RAUROU: MURDER BURGLARY?
SECILY: 8.Be3 I'm trying it out. Nbd7
RAUROU: WORDOLOGY NOTW/THSTAND/NG, MY PO/NT OF CONTENT/ON WAS NOT A/MED AT /TS RELEVANCE TO YOU. MY CONFUS/ON /S WHY YOU WOULD NEED TO ASK ME ABOUT /T /N THE F/RST PLACE.
RAUROU: YOU WERE THERE.

Oh.

That's right. You were there.

>Recall: THE PARTY.:

Every sweep, to help boost the productivity of Corporate, Sestro thinks up an individual award for each member of the company. These are presented at the prestigious Awards For All gala evening.

An event you are unfortunately obliged to attend.

Your wall of trophies from various AFA nights is almost filled, and you feel like tonight's award for "Exceptional Regulatoring in the Field of Detectiveship" will squeeze its capacity to full.

You sometimes joke that it means you'll have to retire soon, but really, you could just use a different wall.

But it's hard for you to keep focus. You stand, wedged against the far corner of the room, picking up the odd scrap of conversations in between beats of the hot jazz. 

You're glad for the moment that the band at this Corporate shindig isn't singing — you can't focus when there's singing.

"I just don't think the genre is lucrative enough to make a whole series—"

"–so I told him, get this, 'We don't manufacture enough plastics in ten sweeps for that to be worth it!'"

"—and I just worry about the integrity of the route data—"

"How frightfully morose, Sessy."

Oh. Yeshin's slinked up to you. So much for focusing. Late, as always, to this party where she's serving as your plus-one, a decision you'd regret if not for the cut of the cocktail dress she's wearing.

She throws a hand across your back and leans in, making a show of conspiratorially surveying the attendees at the party, all dressed to the nines. She scoffs and then whispers in your ear.

YESHIN: methinks its a little 2 easy to find you at these gatherings, my good bitch
YESHIN: just looketh in the corners 4 the sullenest one. lol!

Her frown is clearly exaggerated. You roll your eyes but follow as she leads you to the dance floor. You try to pick up a few more snippets of that conversation about the route data but...

The way she walks makes a thumping upright bass line out of your heart. Like a savannahbeast, loping, prideful. 

Showy. She's all show, this woman, and you've been buying front row tickets, like the complete sucker you are, for seven sweeps now.

You waltz with her, and the moment's almost beautiful until she opens her gaudily-lipsticked mouth to talk.

YESHIN: that's thy problem gurl
YESHIN: thou art always crashin parties, in drug dens, bandit hideouts...ur closer to fun more often than any1 else on this blastedeth planet
YESHIN: and yet thou art never having any of the fun for urself :(

You give her a spin and tell her you were having significantly more fun until a trollop accosted you for a dance. 

Do try not to embarrass me in front of the coworkers, you say dryly as you continue to step to the beat.

YESHIN: oh dont pretend u dont liketh having a bit of ye old arm candy to show off to the suits
YESHIN: and anyway. a dance is the least thou owe me for always bailing u out when ur first choice of date declines—

You dip her dramatically. She rather catastrophically misses the threat in it, instead continuing her ill-advised conversational course.

YESHIN: —bc no matter how i act it doth be less embarrassing than showing up to a gala with your little palewhore OOP!

The "OOP" is from you dropping her straight from the dip, back-first onto the dance floor. The chatter around the room stops.

SECILY: 1.d4 Whoops. ...d5

You take long strides off the floor and past the throng staring at you. All the while, Yeshin's cracking up laughing on the ground. You try not to notice that your face burns.

You swing open the double doors to the balcony where a couple trolls are smoking in the cold night air. 

They see how pissed you are and put out their sticks, charred-sugar smell following their quick retreat inside.

You stew for a few minutes. Then you hear a singsongy voice tauntingly behind you.

YESHIN: see? now ur having fun
YESHIN: i knoweth u need a fight

Like an animal, she pounces on you, hand at your throat, and you kiss greedily in the moonslight. You didn't get any further useful information from that party.

What? We all have our vices.

>End recall.:

Ugh. This investigation keeps bringing up recollections you wish you could forget. Nevertheless, you've been standing here for a good few words and haven't really given Raurou an appropriate response.

He seems to have returned to wiping down his knife, in the absence of a better option, while you delved into your subconscious for a moment.

SECILY: 9.Nbd2 You're right. I mean, I was there but... ...c6
SECILY: 10.c3 For lack of a better word, I was somewhat preoccupied. ...Rc8

You see Raurou glance momentarily at the clock on the wall, before he lets out an exhausted sigh.

RAUROU: /F WE KEEP TH/S QU/CK, / SUPPOSE / COULD HELP SHARPEN YOUR MEMOR/ES.
RAUROU: / CAN AT LEAST ATTEND TO THE END OF N/GHT TASKS /F YOU HAVE ANOTHER MOMENT L/KE THAT.
RAUROU: WHERE SHOULD WE START, THEN?

You're pretty sure there's three easy talking points to cover. The question is, which to indulge first?

>The evening's schedule.:

Something that could help your recollection would be the actual rundown of the night's events. You were swept out and away from the festivities for a while.

SECILY: 11.Qe2 There are parts of the night I can remember, but I'd appreciate a reminder of the full event's programme. ...Re8
RAUROU: ALL TH/NGS CONS/DERED, /T WAS A STANDARD FOUR COURSE GALA EVENT. WE PROV/DED L/GHT REFRESHMENTS AT THE START OF THE EVEN/NG, UPON ARR/VAL. MOSTLY SMALL, B/TES/ZED APPET/ZERS.
RAUROU: AFTER AN /NTRODUCT/ON FROM SESTRO AND HAM/F/, WE SERVED ENTREE MEALS. M/XED GROUNDPLANTS SOUP W/TH L/GHT GRA/NLOAF, /F / RECALL.

That much is familiar to you. For most of this part of the night, you were at your table. 

Waiting, staring idly at the seat beside you, for that loathsome plus one to arrive. Shifting your food around and keeping a careful ear open.

Most conversations were trivial in nature, about current Corporate happenings and goings-on. You quickly rifle through those thoughts but dismiss them as any culpable leads.

RAUROU: AFTER ENTREES WERE THE F/RST SER/ES OF MAJOR AWARDS FOR THE N/GHT.
SECILY: 12.Ng5 I was definitely thankful to be in that first award bracket. Not least of all for how the rest of the evening transpired. ...Nf8

Raurou seems to continue along his meal plan unfazed by your personal musing, glancing away from your face for a moment. 

He clears his throat, you suppose as a small token of acknowledgement to your statement.

RAUROU: THE F/RST SEGMENT OF AWARDS CLOSED W/TH A L/VE PERFORMANCE BY RAMONA RAQUEL, AND HER BERRY B/G BAND.

You remember something from a few volumes ago that lodged itself in your subconscious during a tar drink haze.

It bubbles to the surface of your mind like the sprinklings of ticket stubs, bringing with it the unfortunate recollection of a certain pitch's texts.

You mentally pop that particular thought for the moment.

SECILY: 13.Nxe6 Ramona Raquel, if I recall correctly, has also personally lost something in recent wices, a necklace of some description. There's maybe a chance there's a connection there. ...Nxe6

Raurou raises an eyebrow, before slowly shaking his head.

RAUROU: THAT CASE WAS CLOSED RATHER QU/CKLY, REGULATOR. ONE OF THE BAND MEMBERS HAD FORGOTTEN THEY PLACED /T /N THE/R CASE FOR SAFE-KEEP/NG.

Drat. You feel a pang of disappointment, having being denied a tantalisingly simpler side-case. On long investigations like these, you can really miss the feeling of closure.

There's an itch under your skin to get down to pursuing adversaries. 

Finding tangible clues that lead you from one location to the next, providing evidence to systems of law and order, even the rush of exclaiming your objections and refutations...

You miss it all. Case work is important, you know this more than anyone. But these legs were made for regulating.

SECILY: 14.Qf3 Right. Please, though, continue. The mains were next I believe? ...Rc7
RAUROU: THAT'S CORRECT, YES. WE ALWAYS TAKE THE MOST PR/DE /N OUR MA/N COURSES. / FEEL THAT TH/S MOMENT OF THE CUL/NARY PROCEED/NGS MATTERS MORE THAN ANY OTHER.
RAUROU: YOU GET TO MAKE A STATEMENT AT TH/S PO/NT OF THE N/GHT, AND FOR ME, / BEL/EVE TH/S STATEMENT SHOULD BE AS PERSONAL TO THE GUEST AS POSS/BLE.

SECILY: 15.c4 A personal cuisine statement? ...Rce7

Come to think of it, you do recall looking around and seeing a wide diversity of meals on offer at the table you were seated at for the first half of the evening.

RAUROU: WE TRY TO ACCOMMODATE FOR ALL OF OUR GUESTS. CORPORATE WERE ABLE TO SURVEY SOME EXTRA /NFORMAT/ON FOR US FOR THAT EVEN/NG SO WE COULD TRULY TAKE OUR /DEAS AND HELP THEM BLOOM.

Raurou seems to have a real sparkle in his eyes. The way his face is illuminating with each sentence's increasing passion really makes it easy to see the dedication he has to his craft.

You think back to the warm smells of the evening, the way the food tasted and even the way it felt to eat.

It was clear that everything you supplied to Corporate, thorough as you usually are, was brought back to you twelvefold with a culinary creation that felt matched to you on an individual level.

SECILY: 16.Rfd1 If I may be so bold, Raurou, that night I experienced a truly remarkable dish. Your care and attention to my personal palate did not go unnoticed. ...Bb8
SECILY: 17.Rac1 That's often a length you don't see many in the food industry striving for. ...Qa5

There is a moment where you see a tinge of blush mixed in with the very humble pride Raurou Dersal exudes. He finds himself having to clear his throat for a very different reason this time.

RAUROU: T-THANK YOU, REGULATOR. THAT REALLY DOES MEAN A GREAT DEAL TO ME. ANYWAY...
RAUROU: THE MA/NS WERE PART OF A LARGER /NTERM/SS/ON. GUESTS WERE G/VEN AN OPPORTUN/TY TO M/NGLE.

The moment when the tiger pounced. The moment when you two became lost in your own world.

RAUROU: AFTER A PER/OD OF T/ME, SESTRO RETURNED TO THE STAGE FOR THE SECOND SET OF AWARDS.
RAUROU: WE FOLLOWED W/TH A SERV/NG OF MULT/-STAGED SUGARCAKE, /N ALL THE COLORS OF THE HEMOSPECTRUM AS THE F/NAL DESSERT. PA/RED W/TH A SER/ES OF WARM COCOA BASED DR/NKS, OF COURSE.
RAUROU: HAM/F/ GAVE WHAT / WAS LEAD TO BEL/EVE WAS A TRAD/T/ONALLY BR/EF SPEECH. A F/NAL PERFORMANCE, AND THE N/GHT WAS CLOSED.

Raurou gives a brief sigh, exhausted.

You take a moment to try and push away the fog of red and blue from your mind to grasp onto something from the end of that evening, but it seems you can do little to shake it.

SECILY: 18.a3 Thank you for that, Raurou. If I may ask a follow up question then, you've detailed a certainly tight schedule and plan. Did anything seem out of place on the night? Anything not run smoothly? ...Qb6

Raurou seems to think for a moment, a scowl slowly forming on his face.

RAUROU: SOMET/MES THERE ARE CERTA/N PEOPLE /N THE TEAM / P/CK WHO TH/NK /T W/SE TO TEST MY L/M/TS. THERE ARE ALWAYS THOSE WHO TH/NK THE K/TCHEN /S A PLACE OF JOKES AND JAPES.

He slams his knife down into the cutting board, and for the first time you can notice a few additional stab markings in the wood from previous altercations, where the wood has clearly been split.

RAUROU: BUT / W/LL NEVER ALLOW /T!!
RAUROU: OTHERW/SE, TH/NGS SEEMED TO RUN SMOOTHLY. / CAN'T SPEAK FOR THE AWARDS THEMSELVES, OBV/OUSLY.

That's some quick composure. You think you've gleaned pretty much all you can from this line of interrogation.

>Kitchen room conversation.:

If there's one thing you know is true of a big event like this, it's the level of conversation on offer.

While you managed to catch only snippets of conversations through the headache of auditory overload, there were many guests in attendance and even more ensuring the night ran smoothly. 

Including, of course, Raurou.

SECILY: 19.cxd5 As head chef for the night, I would assume that you would hear many things, both from your staff and around the kitchens. Especially hen people might not think anyone is listening. ...cxd5
SECILY: 20.b4 Do you recall overhearing anything that might be important to divulge from the night? ...Nxd4

It seems that the chef is more interested in the gleam of light his knife makes as he twists it in his hands.

RAUROU: /N TERMS OF MY OWN CREW, / TRY TO RUN A T/GHT SH/P. NO NONSENSE CONVERSAT/ON. WE PREPARE THE /NGRED/ENTS, WE MAKE THE MEALS, WE SERVE THEM.
RAUROU: AND YOU'RE R/GHT. AS HEAD CHEF, /T /S MY ROLE TO OVERSEE EVERYTH/NG THAT OCCURS AROUND OUR K/TCHEN SPACE.

SECILY: 21.Bxd4 Both inside and out, I assume. ...Qxd4

You can see him grip the handle a little tighter, and he continues to avoid your gaze.

RAUROU: YES. THAT'S CORRECT.

This feels like pulling teeth, and you'd rather stay away from morgues after your experiences with Occeus. You figure now is the time to bring your boot down. Hard.

SECILY: 22.Bb5 And if this is the case, Raurou, DID YOU OR DID YOU NOT HEAR SOMETHING THAT NIGHT? ...Rf8

RAUROU: THAT'S QU/TE ENOUGH!!

His knife lodges in the board beneath him. The silence that follows could be cut by the very same blade. It hangs in the air like a particularly thick, viscous sauce.

His hair seems to deflate again after a moment, and with a soft tug or two he removes the knife from its wooden scar.

RAUROU: /T... /S POSS/BLE / OVERHEARD A CONVERSAT/ON THAT N/GHT.
RAUROU: / KNOW / D/DN'T BR/NG /T UP AT THE T/ME. /'M NOT ALWAYS PART/CULARLY FOND OF THESE SORTS OF /NTERACT/ONS.
RAUROU: FOR THE SAME REASON / TEND TO KEEP MY EARS OPEN, / ALSO TRY TO AVO/D... LOUD YELL/NG F/GURES OF AUTHOR/TY. YOU CAN NEVER KNOW WHAT SOMEONE ELSE /S TH/NK/NG.
RAUROU: WHAT THEY SAY BEH/ND CLOSED DOORS.

It's been a while since you were trained for this kind of work. Through your basics, you learnt all manner of blooded traits to keep an eye out for. Strong survival abilities, purple blooded PsyOPs.

But the fixations of the verdant caste are much less documented.

Green bloods will often focus on an individual personality trait, be it striving for perfection, obsession with purity, a materialistic hunger, or perhaps a convergence on one's self-loathing. 

In this case, it seems you're dealing with a deeply rooted paranoia.

You've never been one to care much what others think of you, beyond your employers. And even they are now dubiously placed on that list.

But one thing you know for certain is that isolating Raurou now would bring you no closer to finding the truth behind this case. 

That, at least, keeps you moving in the face of terrible headaches, exploding traps and far too many offers of tea.

SECILY: 23.g3 I understand that it can be hard to know who to trust. Please forgive my outburst. I'm sure you can understand the sort of pressure I'm under. ...Qb6
RAUROU: THERE'S A SAY/NG /N MY L/NE OF WORK. /F YOU CANNOT HANDLE THE HEAT, YOU'LL NEVER BO/L. SO HERE'S MY WH/STL/NG KETTLE TUNE, REGULATOR.
RAUROU: THERE WAS A CONVERSAT/ON / OVERHEARD ABOUT ROUTE DATA BEING SOLD TO SOMEONE PRESENT AT THE PARTY.
RAUROU: / COULD ONLY CATCH THE TA/L END OF /T, BUT /T SEEMED TO REFER TO A CORPORATE ORGANISED TRANSFER OPERAT/ON.

One of the brief snippets you can recall from that night tugs at the front of your mind. Someone was discussing the integrity of route data.

It's a tentative link, but it doesn't take a gigantic leap to see that this might tie into the knowledge of the tundra traversing truckload of goods, including the philter.

SECILY: 24.Bd3 Do you recall anything about the people discussing this? Anything at all? ...Rfe8
RAUROU: UNFORTUNATELY, NO. AS / WENT TO LEAVE W/TH SOME ENTREE D/SHES, / LOOKED AROUND, BUT THE CROWD WAS ALREADY /N FULL M/NGLE MODE. AND... / WAS NOT PART/CULARLY FOND OF TRAVERS/NG SO MANY /ND/V/DUALS.
SECILY: 25.Nf1 The corner and I were becoming quite acquainted, yes. I'll see what I can find out, then. You have my thanks. ...g6

It's not a lot, you suppose, but barring an uninvited guest, you may have a particularly robust suspects list once more.

And there's every chance other members of Corporate present could have also heard this discussion. All the more reason to check out some of the people you and Mshiri were discussing.

>Invited guests.:

If something transpired at this awards night, it potentially places anyone present as a suspect, or they may simply have witnessed other events that neither Raurou nor yourself can recall. 

Any one of them could be a follow up lead.

SECILY: 26.Bb1 This event is usually one of the biggest of the sweep. If I recall, there were many prominent members of Corporate as well as celebrities and big names too. ...Kg7
RAUROU: THE GUEST L/ST / RECE/VED WAS /N/T/ALLY DAUNT/NG. CERTA/NLY /'M NO STRANGER TO UPSCALE D/N/NG BUT... TH/S WAS A LOT OF FUCK/NG PEOPLE TO FEED.
SECILY: 27.Ba2 Anyone there could have been privy to secret conversations and dealings. One of the best ways to hide a secret can often be in plain, albeit crowded, sight. ...d4
SECILY: 28.Nd2 I know I wasn't entirely present for the later half, but there are some colorful characters that come to mind. ...h5

RAUROU: COLORFUL DESCR/BES TURN/N KA/KA/ TO A T. THEY WERE DEF/N/TELY /NV/TED AND EXCEPT/ONALLY D/FF/CULT TO CATER FOR.
SECILY: 29.Qd3 Brendan Fraser was getting an award for his acting, too. ...h4
RAUROU: YES. F/NELY SL/CED HAMBEAST STR/PS, L/GHTLY HONEYED W/TH A CODE RED JUS.
SECILY: 30.g4 I'm sorry? ...Qd6
RAUROU: H/S MA/N MEAL. WE /NTERNALLY CALLED /T "THE RETURN OF THE MUMMY".

You have to give props to his creativity. You would likely just call it a crunchy mess.

SECILY: 31.Nf3 Sounds charming, I suppose. I'm getting another vague recollection, if only because I'm sure it was the longest award name of the night. Todd Howard. ...Qf4
SECILY: 32.g5 Why there's an award for Game of the Sweep that is forced to include his gaudy game title name in it is beyond me. ...Ne4

Raurou's eyes seem to light up a little, though you have to admit the foremost video game designer of Repiton doesn't usually turn people's heads. He just sort of... exists.

Appears when you don't call him, frustrates you to no end, and yet... you can't help but feel entirely enamoured by some of his efforts.

RAUROU: OH, / ACTUALLY F/ND SKYR/M CD FOR THE /NTELL/V/S/ON AM/CO (/NCLUD/NG THE NEW V/RTUAL REAL/TEA DLC) QU/TE CHARM/NG.
RAUROU: THE WAY THEY'VE RENDERED SOME OF THOSE DEL/C/OUS CRAFTABLE MEALS REALLY MAKES ME FEEL L/KE MY WORK /S HAV/NG AN /MPACT, YOU KNOW?

SECILY: 33.Qxd4+ They're really up to the four hundredth installment already? ...Kg8
RAUROU: FEELS L/KE JUST YESTERDAY WE WERE PLAY/NG OBL/V/ON FOR THE F/RST T/ME, / KNOW.
SECILY: 34.Qd3 ... You'll forgive me for not sharing in your recollection. ...Re5
RAUROU: / DEF/N/TELY TR/ED TO MAKE AN /MPRESS/ON W/TH H/S MA/N MEAL. MAYBE SOMEDAY HE M/GHT /NCLUDE /T /N ONE OF THE GAMES FOR REAL.
RAUROU: /MAG/NE, PEOPLE ALL OVER THE WORLD, BE/NG ABLE TO BR/NG THE TRUE CUL/NARY ARTS TO THE/R HOME!!

As much as it's nice to get a smile from the slightly agitated chef, you really want to steer this conversation away from video games. You're not about to be sucked back in by Todd's lies.

SECILY: 35.Rc5 Moving on... We should get back to some of the more internal awards, maybe. Those with closer ties to Corporate. ...Kg7
RAUROU: YOU'RE R/GHT, MY APOLOG/ES.

His face seems to slowly return to the furrowed brow of someone deep in thought. You recall some of the Corporate trolls at your table, but through distant conversations and faces without clear names.

Being in the dregs of Corporate as long as you have, there are so many people who are familiar in features but you never really got to know.

RAUROU: / DO RECALL A COUPLE OF OTHER ATTENDEES FROM THE/R /NTERACT/ONS W/TH MY STAFF. BERARE WAS PART/CULARLY SPEC/F/C ABOUT H/S COCOA.
RAUROU: HE HAD ME DO A STUP/D SONG AND DANCE NUMBER BEFORE HE CONS/DERED /T ACCEPTABLE FOR CONSUMPT/ON. AND / DON'T MEAN F/GURAT/VELY.

Berare... Sabine, you believe. One of the junior designers for Corporate.

It's not the first time you've heard his name, and certainly not the first time you've heard someone complaining about his antics.

RAUROU: AND... / BEL/EVE A LYD/AN WAS RECE/V/NG AN AWARD RELATED TO ENG/NEER/NG OR SOMETH/NG TO THAT EFFECT. HE WAS THERE W/TH SOMEONE, TOO.
RAUROU: THEY WERE BOTH EXCEED/NGLY EXC/TED ABOUT THE BROTH GRA/NNOODLE SOUP. THEY EVEN ASKED FOR THE REC/PE.

Raurou seems very interested in the blade of his knife, his eyes attempting to bore holes through the steel.

RAUROU: /T... /T'S JUST RAMEN.

Lydian certainly rings a bell. You can feel the information manifesting in your mind, a series of numbered points begging to be joined to form some semblance of a picture. Maybe a purrbeast?

Never mind, that's something you can catch up on later. You feel it would be good to break Raurou out of his subconscious spaghetti suffering, though.

SECILY: 36.Rxe5 There is at least one attendee I can vouch for, regrettably. Yeshin, my kismesis. The mind mist that can't be dismissed. ...Bxe5
RAUROU: CAREFUL, ANY MORE ASSONANCE AND YOU'LL BE D/CED UP FOR A SL/THERBEAST STEW.

You run a hand through your hair, exhaling perhaps your longest breath yet.

SECILY: 37.Qe3 Honestly? Just throw me in. I'm meant to be on top of this shit, but every time she all but appears... It's addictive. She's addictive. ...Qxe3

The chef responds with a solemn nod, and you can see an all too familiar flame in his eyes.

RAUROU: WHEN YOU F/ND THAT PERSON THAT GETS UNDER YOUR SK/N L/KE NO-ONE ELSE... YOU SO OFTEN CRAVE SECONDS.
RAUROU: JUST L/KE H/S SL/MY, GREASY, DONE /N M/NUTES FOOD, ABSOLUTELY FOCUSED ON DO/NG /T QU/CK, NOT R/GHT...

You quickly respond to get the conversation back on track. Maybe at least one path in this triad will be resolved without resorting to knife on wood violence.

SECILY: 38.fxe3 I'd rather not let her stake her claim in my mind much further this conversation. She was there. I'm sure I could always just chase up a full guest list if I get stuck. ...Nc3
SECILY: 39.Rd2 We've yet to talk about your end. Do you feel your team was trustworthy? ...Nxa2

Raurou twitches a finger on the hilt of his knife, and you can almost feel the way his teeth grit.

RAUROU: / ALWAYS HANDP/CK MY TEAM, REGULATOR. THEY WERE OF THE BEST QUAL/TY. / KEPT EYES ON THEM THROUGHOUT MOST OF THE N/GHT AND CAN ASSURE YOU THE K/TCHEN WAS A WELL O/LED MECHAN/SED UN/T.
RAUROU: SOMET/MES THEY PUSHED MY BUTTONS, BUT / KNOW THE TRUTH CAME OUT /N THE MEALS THEY CRAFTED.

Well. That settles that. You decide not to press the easily startled chef with the large kitchen knife.

Lots to follow up on, you think. Lots to think about, you follow up.

Do you dare allow yourself a brief moment of positivity?

It's early days on these new leads, but they seem to open up a whole tree's worth of branching opportunities. And hopefully a few of those branches will bear fruit.

You have a clearer direction and some ideas for who to turn to next. Some characters to examine and the clarification of a conversation that seems almost too good to be true.

You extend a hand, thanking Raurou for clearing some of the pitch-induced fog of the night. He hesitates for a moment, before returning the gesture.

After you pull your hand back, the culinary creator pauses for a moment, eyes drifting to check the time once more.

RAUROU: REGULATOR, /F / MAY NOW ASK FOR A MOMENT OF YOUR T/ME... PLEASE, WA/T HERE.

A bold request, but one you feel obliged to accept. After all, it seems only fair. You wave him away, leaving him to his devices.

Turning back to face the back wall of the space, you call out YVES with your voice. You begin to make a note of the important facts, details and new possible suspects.

A report still needs to be filed. A record needs to be kept. If not for Hamifi or Sestro any more, then for the future, for those who need to see it. For those who deserve the truth.

One particular file comes into view. Hers. You find yourself pausing, staring at the cover of the file as if it would open itself and force you to peruse its contents.

Before you can choose to delve into the details of your pitch affection's information, Raurou returns and saves you from decision.

RAUROU: GO AHEAD. / F/GURED YOU M/GHT ENJOY /T.

He pushes forward a small box, wrapped in an olive fabric sheet. While it's no violin case, you're a little more hesitant than usual to accept foreign, strange gifts.

Even if the person they're from is a somewhat more credible individual than a mystery voice behind a screen.

SECILY: 40.Rxa2 And this is? ...Bc7
RAUROU: D/NNER, / SUGGEST. KEEP UP THAT APPET/TE FOR JUST/CE, REGULATOR /OPARA. / TH/NK WE MAY ALL BE COUNT/NG ON YOU FOR TH/S ONE.

The fabric comes away smoothly at a tug of the small knot made in the corner. 

The box inside is a surprising teal, and you find a grin spreading across your face that's joined by the slight cheerful laugh of a certain culinarian.

Placing it down on one of the cooking benches, you examine the box's contents. 

Each small component of the box is filled with those same portioned meals from your main course meal, prepared with the same tender care to your palate as it had been on the awards night.

You take a moment to breathe a deep whiff of the delicious spices before reboxing and rewrapping the food container.

SECILY: 41.Re2 You didn't have to do this, Raurou. But, thank you. I look forward to enjoying it. ...½-½
RAUROU: /T'S MY PLEASURE, REALLY. AND PLEASE REMEMBER, REGULATOR. A WATCHED POT SHOULD STAY OUT OF THE K/TCHEN. KEEP YOURSELF SAFE OUT THERE.

The soft chime of the bell signals your leave from the humble cooking school. Though class may be over, you've got a hell of a lot of extracurricular work to catch up on. Time to hit the books.

END

MASKED HERMIT (CADLYS RANKOR)

Against your better judgement, you are choosing to follow the directives of a voice with no name.

Now, three days after having experienced this barren boneyard for the first time, you've returned for an appointment.

Though you've been interrogated by recordings in falling instrument cases, had things literally blow up in your face, and almost killed a man over a tip off from this mysterious entity... 

You find yourself again carrying out his requests.

Some might think you foolish, but you know (and perhaps find it painful to admit) that each step has also brought you more information than you'd have gleaned otherwise.

Every trail left leaves clues. Every piece you move changes the lay of the board. You are here for the long game, and you're betting that eventually, there will be a slip up.

For now, you bid a brief farewell to your bike, again parked neatly as far into the boneyard as it could go. 

Your appointment is with a hermit, but you were quick to make the connections over the last few days.

"Hermit" is one of the dark web aliases you noted down while following Bytcon's tracks. An alias, much like a mask, can obfuscate and hide the truth.

Your job has always been to search out obfuscations, though. So you step once more into the graveyard, sliding down some weak soil into the pit below.

Your rendezvous is scheduled to occur soon. You make your way to its location - the massive skull of Baragonith.

A horned skull like this would have belonged to one of the breeds of skulltitans that roam the landscape.

You find the skull, and like so much of this barren planet, it is deteriorating, broken and falling apart. Certainly quite a landmark.

You take a moment to scan the area; the chaotic mess of bones strewn about the field make the place rife with hiding spots. Some parasites, freshly hatched, skitter past in the distance.

Being back here again fills you with a sense of circularity, if one can be so geometrically inclined. There's a feeling of chasing your tail this case, and you're not particularly pleased about it.

Twice now you've come to this very area and you honestly feel that is two times too many. An unbonded lusus skitters through one eye hole and out the other.

You hear the soft grit of a shoe against the dirt, and whirl around.

A figure approaches, shadowed by the darkness. It's hard to make them out in the moonslight, and your hand jumps to the hilt of your blade, gripping it carefully.

The figure approaches, hunching their body down, and you can finally see them clearly. You're pretty sure this who you're after.

HERMIT: There's no need for that now, is there? We have an appointment, Regulator.

You decide to deny that de-escalation, and keep your hand on your sword.

The light glow from the mask he wears seems to stare through you, and you can't see much of anything beneath. Like an alias, a mask can hide many things.

HERMIT: Now, why would a chief regulator have a face to face appointment with me? Or perhaps face to mask is more appropriate. Lol.
SECILY: 1.e4 I think you'll find that's unimportant. I'm here, at least. ...e5
HERMIT: Goodness, so defensive! I guess it can't be helped, dealing with someone like you.

Someone like you? You can't help but feel like you're being oddly sized up yourself. 

There's no obvious signs of a weapon being concealed under that triangular cloak, but the absence of visible arms (of either sort) keeps you tense.

SECILY: 2.Nc3 I received a tip that you may have relevant information pertaining to my current case. A vital resource has been stolen and I intend to chase down the culprit. ...Nf6
HERMIT: Noxious did brief me, yes. Funny fellow. No wonder you seem so drained of energy.

Well, now, that's something new. Noxious was another online name you came across in your search.

Although it's likely that this mysterious entity knows how to cover their tracks, you definitely file this under X for Xtremely relevant.

HERMIT: But for you to reveal yourself here, on my turf? Lol.
HERMIT: You must be desperate. :)

That gets a grit of your teeth. You dislike that there is a seed of truth in it. You wouldn't be here if so many other paths you'd already taken had resolved more favourably.

And while you've managed to add several trolls to a strange roster of familiarity, actual advances towards a conclusion to this murglary deal have been few and far between.

You crave progress. Even if it means stepping foot into treacherous territory.

You regret that thought almost immediately, as more sounds make themselves heard. 

It's clear where they are coming from - a small group, similar to those trolls you faced three days prior, are shuffling at a pace only they could find quick.

Your hand is about to tug Proserpina from your hip and show them a thing or two, but before you can, you notice motion from the hunched individual.

In one swift motion, Hermit pulls a spherical vial of something from his cloak, flinging it to the oncoming crowd.

It explodes on contact with the rough ground, knocking about half of the surprisingly large group back, with enough force to cause head trauma, if your recent experience is anything to go by.

That's not even the real kicker - the liquid inside seems to be partially corrosive. It's clear that the skin of some of the creatures has begun to burn away.

A few more approach, and you take the chance to repay the motion.

SECILY: 3.f4 Get down! ...d5

You swing widely, as the masked individual bobs down, cleanly decapitating the head off one of the approaching hordes.

Pivoting around his now even more hunched body, you follow it up with a well-placed kick.

Although you don't necessarily gut the creatures like a certain doctor, they are sent back, crashing into the side of the skull. Hermit dusts himself off, extending back to half-hunched height.

HERMIT: Fancy footwork there.
SECILY: 4.d3 I must admit, you have some truly potent brews yourself. ...Nc6
HERMIT: Oh, that old thing? That's nothing. You couldn't even handle my strongest potions, regulator.

A few parasites exit the head now with no body of its own. Hermit squishes one with his boot, before sighing. You see him wipe his feet on the dirt, scratching off the sticky resin.

Withdrawing a cleaning cloth of your own, you begin to take care of your sword. The brown blood comes off easily enough.

Another link in a cyclic chain. It takes you back to the case you finished before this one. Such closure was tantalising, and feels so out of reach at the moment.

A stomp of feet breaks you out of your introspection.

HERMIT: As much as I enjoy messing with the corpses, out here isn't the best place to chat. Why don't we go to the bunker, have a nice cold OJ and wait for this all to blow over? :)

He seems to be motioning you around the side of the skeleton.

With your blade now out, you feel adequately equipped to deal with any sort of double crossing, and cautiously follow the masked man towards a large bone of these skeletal remains.

With a quick shove, it becomes clear that it was covering a trapdoor, hastily assembled in the ground.

HERMIT: I hope you'll protect this secret for me. It's in your nature, no? After you, Regulator.

The phrasing strikes you as odd. Usually you're the type to search out and expose things which are hidden. Those of ill repute rarely air their dirty deeds in public.

SECILY: 5.fxe5 I can't make any promises. ...Nxe5

You give the surrounds one last look, and send Hermit a judging glare, before stepping down.

Beneath the raised trapdoor is a descending staircase, the bottom of which you can't see. Yet another point of familiarity.

Not too long ago, a different sketchy man of the shadow realm led you down a staircase awfully similar to this one. In fact, if you didn't know better, you would say it looks positively identical.

You hear the rumble behind you of the trap door being shut, and you can only assume there is some complicated mechanism set up to reset the bone from this side.

The thought doesn't dwell for long in your mind. With the outside moonslight covered, the glow from the bottom of the stairs makes itself known.

Soon, you reach it, exiting into a rather jam-packed basement.

HERMIT: Ah, bunker sweet bunker. Well, since you're here, no sense keeping up appearances.

You are surprised he's dropping his guard so quickly. Time to see who this hermit really is. He removes his mask.

You... have no idea who this is.

It shouldn't really be surprising though. 

This world is partially full of so many trolls, and you've only had the fortune of coming across those in Corporate, those who would draw Corporate's ire, and a few others with which you've become otherwise entangled.

And while you may be meeting more and more of them by the day, it certainly doesn't mean you've yet exhausted this planet's declining population.

As you begin to return your blade to your hilt, Hermit reaches for another orange vial from what you can only hope is an organised collection of elixirs. 

He takes a swig of it, before holding it towards you.

HERMIT: Care for some?

You politely decline. It's taxing to try and not to let the repulsion settling into your stomach bore through into your face, like the acid you sincerely hope is not in that vial.

He shrugs and downs the rest of the bottle himself, before pocketing the empty bottle underneath his cloak.

HERMIT: More for me, then. Hahahaha.

The monotone way he laughs sends a shudder down your spine. It would probably be best to get on with things.

SECILY: 6.exd5 If you don't mind, Hermit, I'd appreciate some answers. ...Nxd5
HERMIT: Of course. Ask away!

>The bandaged arms.:

SECILY: 7.Nxd5 I only briefly glimpsed at them while you were in motion, but your arms seem rather... worse for wear. Would you mind if I took a closer look? ...Qxd5
HERMIT: Secily.
HERMIT: Are you asking me to retrieve arms from chest?

SECILY: 8.d4 I... yes, I'm asking you to retrieve your arms from your chest. ...Ng6

He starts to wiggle his arms out from under the cloak, clearly taking his time to tease you with it.

First he reveals his hands, followed by the rest of the arms. You let out a scoff about halfway through the forearm's exit.

And all the while, Hermit's face is plastered with the most shit-eating grin imaginable. You think he could give some of the Repitonian chucklebunkers a run for their money.

HERMIT: Well, here they are.

The bandages run much further up his arms than you initially thought. They might even run beneath his undershirt. It's hard to tell.

SECILY: 9.Nf3 That's certainly some first aid. Do these bandages go all the way? ...Bg4
HERMIT: It's best this way. It hides the pain.

As much as you'd like to push further on that point, something else grabs your attention. There's a feeling in the back of your head, almost like a headache spreading across your mind.

You place a hand to your head for a moment, groaning in pain. It almost feels like something is trying to pull at your thoughts, tugging them a certain way. 

This doesn't feel right. You need to focus.

You remember back to Mshiri, and her meditative session. There is a moment of emptiness in your thoughts.

The soft tug is gone. Shaking your head, you feel the last cobwebs of confusion brush off your mind. Hermit seems to be staring much more intently than you remember a moment ago.

HERMIT: Oho, I've got "nothing" to worry about, it seems. Except, perhaps, your next question?

Sure, that sounds alright, you guess. Time for another question then.

>The elixirs.:

SECILY: 10.Be2 I'm noting a theme here. Lots of potions, vials, and liquids of all assortments. ...O-O-O

Certainly the room seems full of them and not much else. There are many different colours on display here, and you're hoping this isn't a repeat of a certain navy-blooded scientist's laboratory.

HERMIT: I am a seller of all manner of chemical concoctions. Acids, potions, curatives, poisons - you need it, I can make it.
SECILY: 11.c3 And I assume most people on the dark web search you out for this reason? ...Bxf3
HERMIT: It's a living, yes.
SECILY: 12.Bxf3 Dare I ask how you have come to be in possession of so many different creations? ...Re8+
HERMIT: They are all failures.
SECILY: 13.Kf2 And people buy failures? ...Qa5
HERMIT: Failure is a relative term. I'm sure you've failed quite a bit yourself.
HERMIT: Each one of these chemical creations is the result of carefully followed steps. And either they result in what I am trying to make, or they don't.
HERMIT: If they don't, I find out what they do. And then I sell them.

Judging by the volume of vials, Hermit has seen a lot of failure. You feel a strange sense of camaraderie, though.

This whole case so far has seen you mostly at dead ends, and though some of the leads you've taken haven't led to immediate success, each one brought new information and understanding. 

You feel you understand what he's saying.

SECILY: 14.Qb3 So then, what are you after? ...c6
HERMIT: Oho! Now that is truly the question. It is... elusive. And only talked of in hushed whispers between those mad enough to pursue it. The water of life. Aqua vitae!

It's not what you would call common knowledge, but someone of your profession comes across enough laboratory settings and strange individuals to have at least heard the term once or twice.

Most dismiss this practice. It's seen as bordering on fanatical fancy. But...

After what you've come to know from this investigation, and the way something like the lifeblood of the Vivifier could fit into those practices, Hermit instantly rises a few notches on the skepticism meter.

In your more recent memory lingers the pursuit of a devoted man, desperately searching for a cure through careful experimentation. The shared hope of redeeming this fractured world.

In contrast, the haphazard and often self-destructive nature of those who pursue aqua vitae seems impossible to contain.

What you have heard about the water of life is more misguided optimism. The liquid is said to wash rivers clean, to bring those who are suffering back to reality once more.

The thought of someone willingly interacting with water at all almost has you revisiting an earlier meal. Almost. You're a professional after all.

Nevertheless, the parallels to this missing philter are too large to ignore. One could naturally assume it would be a vital component of such a creation.

SECILY: 15.Qxf7 Someone searching for such an elixir would need some seriously powerful items, I assume. Like a stolen philter of import. ...Bd6
HERMIT: Lol. I know all about your missing goods, regulator.
HERMIT: But rest assured I have no connection to the theft. If I had, do you think I would be here in front of you? Hahahaha.

That's true enough, you surmise. If you had an elixir of life-giving blood fall into your lap, you'd hardly be meeting with strangers either. 

Much less so if it were as relevant to your work as it is to his.

You quickly scan the room of bottled potions, looking for anything else to ask about. Your eye is drawn to a particularly dark mix towards the back of the room.

It seems to visibly churn within its glassy confines. You find yourself strangely mesmerised, its motions similar to those conical coulee candles that were all the rage some sweeps back.

SECILY: 16.b4 That darker vial in the back, what type of brew is that one? ...Qa6
HERMIT: No. Absolutely not.
HERMIT: How about a curative? I have some nice salves you might enjoy.

It seems you won't be getting much more out of him about that particular liquid. Best to move on, then. You've no interest in receiving second aid. Or any other ordinals for that matter.

>The other rooms.:

Beyond the comfortably large space you are in, it's clear that there are several other connecting rooms branching out from this central hub. You note as much to the self-proclaimed Hermit aloud.

HERMIT: I suppose I'm yet to give you a tour. What a terrible host I am.

He gestures to the room to the left from the stairwell entrance.

The path towards it seems to be increasingly littered with those potion flasks, plantlife, and a number of other curios whose origins you're not entirely sure you could name.

HERMIT: To the left here is the herb room, where I cultivate all manner of greenery that takes my fancy. It's connected to the main lab area, too.

Before you can comment on the possible dangers of lab work underground, he's already moving on. With a slight motion of his arms, Hermit next indicates the opposing direction.

HERMIT: To the right, my matesprit Marie's workshop.
SECILY: 17.Qb3 I'm sorry, another troll works down here? ...Rhf8

You decide to leave the matesprit revelation alone for now. That could send your thinkpan back to headache city, population you.

HERMIT: Why, Secily, she lives down here! But you're jumping the gun a little. If you'll let me continue? Lol.

You roll your eyes, sighing. It seems he takes that as an invitation to resume.

HERMIT: Marie and I have a room at the very back of this complex. Dia's room is to the right, opposite our ablution facilities.
HERMIT: Sometimes others stay. We try and be accommodating.
HERMIT: I know it doesn't seem like much, but to us, it's home.

Certainly an interesting choice of hive. It's well suited, you suppose. At least from what you've gleaned of Hermit thus far.

SECILY: 18.c4 And Dia? Another bondmate? ...Qb6
HERMIT: No, no, she's... We look after her. She lost everything.

There's an odd quiet that hangs in the air.

For the first time, you can hear the emptiness of the room, the way a plant rustles from an errant breeze, swept leafwards from some hard to see ventilation. The gap it leaves feels comforting, reassuring.

It's clear that he doesn't want to get into it, though he continues to guard his own expressions.

You can respect that, even if it's for a man who you're still not sure is friend or foe. Whether they're in tight cahoots with Noxious or not, loss is universal.

SECILY: 19.c5 That's very noble of you. ...Qb5

Hermit tilts his head, but says nothing more. Perhaps another question is in order, instead.

>Connection to Noxious.:

You figure it's about time you got to the crux of things.

The only reason you're here is apparently on the request of a mysterious figure, known for unsolicited calls and sometimes having just a bit too much information.

But just how Hermit is connected to him, and the bigger plot, remains an unknown.

SECILY: 20.cxd6 My biggest unanswered question in all of this is perhaps the most obvious. How do you know Noxious? ...Re2+
HERMIT: As I said before, I am a seller of many things, to many people. To whom I sell? That is unimportant.
HERMIT: As long as they can fund the work I believe needs doing, I will accept their loops.

SECILY: 21.Kg3 I hope you're aware I could easily bring you in over these admissions alone. Black market dealings, while common, aren't exactly above the board. ...Qf5

"Above the board" here is a turn of phrase referring to the many Corporate boards of directors usually in charge of making decisions on these sorts of cases. You doubt they would be forgiving.

HERMIT: Oho, of course, regulator.
HERMIT: I would love to see you try. I have no intention of letting you separate me and my work. Hahaha.

He grabs a nearby orange potion and seemingly downs it in a single, threatening gulp. But you can't be swayed by such blasé intimidation.

HERMIT: Perhaps unfortunately for me, I have little information. Noxious is notorious for taking what he needs from you.
HERMIT: A pickpocketer of particulars. Someone in the shadows, trading goods and information, silhouetted, staying low.
HERMIT: I've traded with him myself, but it's amounted to little more than this conversation with you outside of those deals.

Great. This feels like another dead end. Another troll in a string of mutated water-fowlbeast chases that has led you no closer to the mysterious puppetmaster tugging you along.

Though it has guided you to some interesting confrontations, a new visor and a collection of youths you would protect with your life, it has lacked the tasty morsels of progress or insight you were hoping for.

Your eyes furrow as you pinch the bridge of your nose. Collapsing into what you are hoping is a chair of some description, you allow yourself a moment to compose your thoughts. 

Some nearby vials idly clink against each other and the ringing sound causes you to wince.

Bringing Hermit in would certainly give you some closure, but you can't help shaking that he is currently your best link to Noxious himself.

And, though you hate how it gets to you in the pit of your chest, the man is clearly responsible for the wellbeing of many people.

Some immediate, some through his (highly questionable) work. For every poison, there is a cure.

SECILY: 22.Rf1 You are quite an enigma, Hermit. ...Nf4

He gives a showy bow in return, smiling a long grin.

HERMIT: I do try my best.
HERMIT: Everyone wears masks, Secily. Even yourself.
HERMIT: They are so good at hiding those pesky feelings we don't want others to see.
HERMIT: If you'll indulge me, I have a question of my own. Lol.
HERMIT: Should we bring back those we have lost?

All at once, you can feel your own mask slip, for just the briefest of seconds. The slightest widening of your eyes, letting loose ten sweeps worth of remorse in a single, controlled motion.

Can he tell? It's hard to say.

Right now, his mask holds up better than yours.

Through the time you spent examining and scrutinising Occeus's work, you never once considered the immediate applications. The possible ramifications. The potential it could bring.

And here, Hermit himself is toiling away, in parallel, on a concoction he believes could do the very same.

You could be with her again, couldn't you?

Tap tap. Tap tap. Tap tap. Tap tap.

You've started to tap at your palms again. What would you say if you could see that glowing face again? If you had the choice... would you bring her back?

The part of you that aches over her threatens to make the decision for you.

HERMIT: There's a lot of good people could do with that blood. There's a lot of bad as well. Like any mixture, it depends on what you add to it. What you feed it.
HERMIT: You've seen for yourself those husks that wander above. I, like many others, want to see this broken world healed.
HERMIT: To patch up the scars, the pain. To undo the hurt.

It's almost imperceptible, but you catch it, the slight twitch of his cheek. A crack in the disguise.

HERMIT: But I am not alone in this ambition. Lol.
HERMIT: There are others who seek alternative methods of retribution. One of them chooses to face these forces head on, and enact his own brand of justice.
HERMIT: I don't think he cares much for my destructive tendencies, but, well. Few can handle my concoctions.
HERMIT: There's a name for him on the shadow web. Ashbringer.
HERMIT: For someone quite so adept with that mechanical arm of his, he's no closer to stopping the scourge than I. Maybe you should pay him a visit?

You have a pretty good idea of who he's referencing.

There's a hint of threat in that last line, and your mind instantly considers this an admission from Hermit that Noxious may have plans for the so-called Ashbringer.

SECILY: 23.d7+ I appreciate the heads up. And I'm sure you'll understand that I intend to keep this place on my radar regardless. ...Kd8
HERMIT: Naturally, Secily. You're welcome to my tame stock whenever you please. I'm sure we can work out a deal.

The very thought of being limited to the paltry dregs of his arsenal gets your scoff of disapproval.

SECILY: 24.Bxf4 Surely if I were going into battle, I'd require your strongest potions? ...Qxf4+
HERMIT: YOU COULD NOT HANDLE MY STRONGEST POTIONS, REGULATOR!

You almost brush off his accusations as some estranged joke, but on second glance, it becomes clear that this anger is real. He allows himself a moment to exhale, before loosening his fists.

HERMIT: Strength, in the hands of those who believe themselves fit to wield it... It can be a curse. It can... cause immense pain.
HERMIT: I reiterate to you, regulator. Should we bring back those we have lost? Should we?
HERMIT: I too know how it feels. That, in some part, they are not here. And when we assume responsibility for it?
HERMIT: That weighs on you. It weighs on your skin.
HERMIT: Sometimes, life is simply unfair.

The breath you had been holding for the past minute finally escapes your lips. You touch a hand to your arm, tracing skin that is lined with reminders of the way you throw yourself into this profession.

The recollection of a blade, plunged besides the bloodpusher of a bronze blooded troll, and the affirmation you made them take, same as all the others.

All you do, you do for her.

The mask has finally slipped away. Before you stands someone who has suffered great loss. And in knowing that hardship, he seeks out to rescue others from a similar fate.

You have a feeling Dia is in good hands.

At times like this, it can seem like the only solace you have is in the most eternal of places.

SECILY: 25.Kh3 When I find myself questioning why I keep going, or in the moments when I dole out retribution... I have a ritual. Something I undertake to reaffirm to myself why I do what I do. ...Qh6+

You raise your hands above your head, and begin to recite that well-trodden oath.

SECILY: 26.Kg3 I, Secily Iopara, do on this day make a promise. This I pledge to any maker, or to the souls who lie beyond. That what we do, we do for them. For those we have lost. ...Qf4+
SECILY: 27.Kh3 We will send them as many as needed to avenge them. ...½-½

You let your words settle in the air. That's the second bout of proselytising you've done in as many wices.

This one, however, feels slightly more honest than a spur of the moment preaching to some children of the corn.

HERMIT: I pledge to any maker, or souls who lie beyond, that what we do, we do for them. For those we have lost. We will send them as many as needed to avenge them!
HERMIT: This I say, and bind to the All-mother with my name.
CADLYS: Cadlys Rankor.
CADLYS: Oho, what a touching sentiment. And I trust that's another secret you'll keep nice and hidden for me, no?
CADLYS: Don't answer that. I already know you will.

Well, maybe you don't completely understand him, but Cadlys has at least earned some of your respect. And he hasn't killed you yet, which is something you consider to be a good sign of a person.

You give a brief farewell, one short wave to the cyprus-blooded troll and a nod and a smile to the young troll in the hallway, curiously peeking into the cacophony. 

Climbing back up the stairs, you give a vocal command asking YVES to call up Oricka.

ORICKA: sessy! so good to hear from you again :glancenuggets:
SECILY: 1.d4 I need Necron's whereabouts. Think you can track him down? ...d5

END