The storm raged.
The air crackled with energy, and was filled with an endless driving rain and salt spray from the crashing waves. Sheet lightning flickered continually with an endless low roar of thunder, casting the world in bright strobing light, halfway between light and shadow. The clouds were pitch dark, turning slowly in an enormous ponderous gyre, swirling endlessly around the central point. At the centre of this furious vortex of cloud and spray and lightning, at the centre of the vast and churning storm, a lone pinnacle of rock rose, a solitary spire standing in the midst of churning sky and sea.
And, at the very top of the stone pillar sat Ariel, Shepherd of the Blue, her legs crossed and her eye closed. The water of the storm ran over her, but it did not soak her. The crackling electricity that stirred within the clouds played through her hair and across her skin, but left no marks, no scars. The water was cold and the wind was biting, but she wasn’t uncomfortable.
She extended her mind as she sat in contemplation, her skin prickling as she felt the winds move across it, feeling the entirety of the storm move around her, her senses expanding beyond, and then…
Something changed. A disturbance, an outer factor, an imposition on the chaotic gyre around which the wind swirled, never ceasing. She turned her head, slightly, eye still closed, facing towards the movement.
“Ariel,” Notos whispered, somehow audible over the crashing of waves and the booming thunder, “The Gone, The Hunter and the Steward await you, at the encampment.”
Ariel sighed. She didn’t bother opening her eye — Notos was invisible. “Can they not wait?”
“Oh, I hid for a while before they could find me to ask me to get you. Took them nearly an hour.”
She barked out a laugh. “Beautiful! Hah, wow, that’s put me in a great mood. Yeah, I’ll see them now.”
Shaking her head and chuckling, she stood up slowly, stretched, and in a flash of light and another boom of thunder, she was gone, streaking through the endless churning skies of the Blue.
Ariel’s familiar wind-creature had gone to find their master, so Eve was passing the time by perfecting the art of lounging. Currently, she was lying across the top of a bookshelf, back bent right the way over in a way that would have been intensely uncomfortable for someone who only had one spine. Occasionally, she shifted slightly as gravity attempted to seize hold of her and dash her various brains upon the unforgiving carpet of the Library, but she was perfectly capable of catching herself, turning her feet backwards and grabbing the shelves.
A familiar head of thick black hair entered her field of vision. “Eve.”
She sighed, and slid down the bookshelf until the Steward’s upside-down frown was fully within her field of vision. “What is it, Tarquin?”
“The Shepherd has arrived.”
“Huh. Didn’t hear the thunder.”
“I requested, last time she scorched a hole in the roof of my tent, that she approach us on foot, lest I start setting up lightning rods.”
“Huh.” Eve kicked off the shelf, flipping over and landing on her feet, facing Tarquin. “Could you keep her in a battery or something? What’d happen then?”
“I do not know. More importantly, neither does she, so she is disinclined to test her luck.”
She snorted, dusting herself off. “Right then. Well, if it gets her to play nice, I’ll take it.”
She stretched, cracking far more knuckles than most people got to use in their lifetimes, and followed the Steward up towards one of the larger tents of the STAR encampment, the temporary ‘forward base’ in the Library.
The meeting tent was large, in fact large enough to encompass a couple of smaller shelves in the clearing. At the centre stood a table with a map of the ‘southern’ Foyan Polity, complete with flags, drawn-on patrol routes, little figurines and a croupier’s rake to move them around.
“I appreciate you turning up in the end,” said the Steward, fixing Ariel with a withering glare.
“Hey now,” she retorted, “I came as soon as Notos found me.”
He scoffed. “Yes, and I’m certain you told your familiar to avoid us. It took an age for me to find them.”
“Oh, I didn’t know,” she lied, shrugging. “Air spirits are tricksy, sometimes, and not even I can control the storm in all its aspects.”
He glared at her, deeply suspicious. “If you say so,” he said, believing nothing of what she’d said. “In any case, I think you were wondering why I gathered you all here.”
The Hunter, who had been sitting sideways on a nearby chair, stood up languidly, moving with a feline fluidity. “I didn’t manage to find your missing homunculi, Tarquin. Given how brainless they literally are, they probably fell down a hole or something.”
“Their pathfinding is better than that,” the Steward growled. “And, I specifically put trackers in them to solve this exact problem.”
“Why did you need me to track them down, then?”
“Because when I hunted down the tracking signals of the missing homunculi, I found them. The tracking devices, which are embedded in the base of their skulls. All of them. In a pile, covered in blood. Someone has stolen my homunculi.”
Ariel raised an eyebrow. “Stolen? Surely some horrible book-beast could have eaten them or something?”
“Bones, leathers and all?”
“I mean, sure?”
“And then, this creature presumably spat all of these tracking devices, unharmed, into a neat pile? They were arranged geometrically, Ariel!”
“I mean,” said the Hunter, “this is the Library, the Akashic Record itself. If anywhere was going to have some weird predatory creature that arranged indigestible bits of its prey in neat piles, this would be it.”
The Steward scoffed. “Possible, but Occam’s Razor suggests-”
“-that this is a different world, with different rules?” Orion supplied. “Face it, Tarquin, the Realms don’t operate by material laws from Earth, and they don’t necessarily operate by philosophical ones, either. You do literal alchemy. Eve was stitched together out of eight corpses!”
“Twelve, actually,” said Eve.
“Anyway,” he harrumphed, “we need to work out what’s been taking my homunculi, beast or not. I’ve drawn up a map of their patrol locations, and…”
Ariel looked over. “And what?”
He was staring at the table, where the maps lay, under a little pile of electronic doodads. “Blast.”
“Can’t you even swear like a normal person.”
“Not now, Shepherd. One of the trackers is missing.”
It was her turn to scoff. “Oh, only that? Wow, we really need to send out the hunting party for this one.”
He glared at her for a moment. “Fine. It probably fell somewhere. I’ll look for it later. Anyway, as for the actual content of this meeting, here’s what I have in mind—”