The Caines In The East

[15:07] <Minaplo> [August 13, 1999. On a Trans-Siberian passenger train heading towards Irkutsk, Siberia, the Russian Federation.-
[15:32] <Minaplo> [The private cabin was well-lit, a light bulb shining its slightly yellow light over the two benches, finely leather-upholstered seats on wooden frames. The panelled walls and floor, ending on one side in a thick wooden door, and on the other in a wide glass window.-
[15:43] <Minaplo> [The sky outside the window was grey, an endless carpet of thick black clouds, the scene occasionally accompanied by the distant rumble of thunder.-
[15:45] <Minaplo> [The car had two occupants, both silent at the present. A man and a woman.-
[15:56] <Minaplo> [The woman was tall and pale, with long straight blonde hair tied up in a bun, adorned by a cattleya hairclip; and bright blue eyes, over which she currently wore a pair of reading glasses. She was wearing a long blue coat with large black buttons; the coat fell down to her shins, which were covered by a pair of black trousers. Black socks tucked into a pair of black women's shoes. She was currently sitting up against the window, one arm resting on the armrest, her hand holding up her head, the other hand holding a large book from which she was reading.-
[16:01] <Minaplo> [The man was taller and darker, with long black hair allowed to fall everywhere carelessly; he shared his companion's blue eyes, however. He wore a dark purple coat, but his was open, revealing a white shirt under a red sweater vest, with black trousers. In contrast to his companion he was lying down, a newspaper held over his head, his legs propped up on the armrest, his shoes lying on the ground, his sock-covered feet tapping against the wall in an incessant rhythm.-
[16:02] <Minaplo> [The newspaper was a broadsheet, the words written in a cyrillic script. The man sighed, turned a page.-
[16:03] <Minaplo> ["Oh look, they finalised Putin's premiership. How wonderful." He said dryly.-
[16:05] <Minaplo> ["You don't approve?" Asked the woman.-
[16:05] <Minaplo> ["I don't approve, but I don't disapprove. I am decidedly neutral on the topic of Russian premiers."-
[16:05] <Minaplo> [The woman didn't respond to that, merely flicking her gaze up towards him for a second, then back towards her book.-
[16:06] <Minaplo> ["I would make a much better premier, though." He said, flicking the page.-
[16:06] <Minaplo> ["Naturally." Said the woman.-
[16:07] <Minaplo> ["Why? Do you disapprove?" He asked.-
[16:09] <Minaplo> [The woman didn't look up. "I think he's an improvement, especially if he makes it to president."-
[16:09] <Minaplo> ["Anyone'd be better than Yeltsin."-
[16:10] <Minaplo> ["That's what makes Yeltsin so useful." She turned a page. "Every government needs a proper idiot in power every so often to make the next generation of leaders look palateable." She glanced up from her book. "Stop that."-
[16:10] <Minaplo> ["Stop what?" Asked the man, giving her an innocent frown.-
[16:11] <Minaplo> ["Stop being bored."-
[16:12] <Minaplo> ["So demanding." Said the man, turning another page. "You can't expect me to -not- be bored, considering everything that isn't happening right now, Mary." Said the man.-
[16:12] <Minaplo> ["You could try talking to other people." Said Mary.-
[16:12] <Minaplo> ["Pfeh, people."-
[16:13] <Minaplo> ["I happen to like people." Said Mary curtly. "Stop that."-
[16:13] <Minaplo> ["Is my boredom really getting to you all that much?"-
[16:15] <Minaplo> ["It's enervating." Said Mary coolly. "What happened to all the books you brought, Eli? Why can't you read those?"-
[16:15] <Minaplo> ["Don't feel like it."-
[16:15] <Minaplo> ["But you brought them. You brought them to read so you wouldn't feel bored."-
[16:16] <Minaplo> ["That was then. They seemed interesting then." Said Eli. "Now I can't be bothered."-
[16:18] <Minaplo> [Mary let out a low hiss. "I hate travelling with you," she said, getting to her feet. "If it were Azariah, it would not be so bad, but you know better."-
[16:18] <Minaplo> ["I do." Eli turned to give her the biggest smile he could.-
[16:19] <Minaplo> [Mary's left hand curled into a fist. She fought to keep down the urge to hit him. "I'm going for a walk. I'm going to talk to people. and I'm going to eat an ice cream. Do you want anything, or are you too bored to eat?"-
[16:19] <Minaplo> ["Meh." He turned back to his newspaper. "You eat too much. You'll get fat."-
[16:19] <Minaplo> ["I will not."-
[16:21] <Minaplo> ["Like a balloon." Said Eli, making whizzy noises with his mouth.-
[16:22] <Minaplo> ["Hate you." She muttered, turning on her heel and leaving the cabin behind.-
[16:32] <Minaplo> [It would take Mary a few minutes of walking to shake off the irritation that was the natural result of having to share space with Elisha for anything more than an hour. And to think, he was married!-
[16:42] <Minaplo> [The train was about as luxurious as money could afford, and one carriage was put aside purely for the purpose of dining and food preparation, a restaurant on wheels which operated at all hours of the day. Mary let herself be seated at a table, and made her orders.-
[16:52] <Minaplo> [The food arrived quickly, along with a bottle of red wine. For the entree- shchi, a Russian cabbage soup with mushrooms, pork, carrots, peppery spices and a side of rye bread. Now far away from Elisha and his influence, Mary's proper appetite had re-emerged, and she began to tuck in.-
[16:55] <Minaplo> [She did more than just eat. She watched, taking in the other guests. An older gentleman dining contentedly on dumplings, his hair grey, his face plump- a habitual guest, enjoying the meal as much for its ritual as for the content.-
[17:11] <Minaplo> [A young man, maybe in his mid-twenties, dining on burgundy chicken, speaking in broken Russian to a waiter, the lilt of his tone suggesting- she considered- French. He was frustrated, because he'd ordered a side dish, and they'd given him the wrong one…-
[17:13] <Minaplo> [A tall, crisp man, maybe in his thirties, black hair slicked back, his face, clothes- everything was neat and sharp. He was breaking bread, dipping it into various oils and sauces before eating it, wearing white dining gloves…-
[17:20] <Minaplo> [A young couple by the window, man and woman, sitting close to each other, talking quietly. Mary didn't even need to read into their looks and smiles and touches to identify them as a pair of newlyweds on honeymoon. Not even the dull greyness outside did much to calm their ardour.-
[17:22] <Minaplo> [And… A child, by the entrance, eleven or so, with black hair. He wore his well-made clothes in an ill manner, as though unused to them. He'd been waiting to be served, but somehow things had gone sour and he'd bickered with the maitre'd, and now the boy stood, ignored, his misery apparent. He may as well have been crying- although he wasn't.-
[17:23] <Minaplo> [Mary called over one of the waiters. "The boy. What happened there?" She asked.-
[17:23] <Minaplo> ["The boy doesn't remember his room number." Said the waiter. "No number, no service."-
[17:25] <Minaplo> ["A shame." Said Mary. She paused for a moment, eyeing the unopened wine- she hadn't ordered it, but apparently it had been complimentary- before nodding up at him. "He can eat with me. Put it on my room number in his stead."-
[17:26] <Minaplo> ["As you like, madame."-
[17:27] <Minaplo> [The boy was soon informed, and his face lit up, his misery quickly vanishing. He hurried over to the table and took a seat quickly. "T-Thank you very much."-
[17:28] <Minaplo> ["You're welcome. You forgot your room number?" Asked Mary.-
[17:29] <Minaplo> [He nodded. "I was hungry, so my dad told me to come here and eat, but he didn't come with me, and I forgot the room number, and the jerk at the front said I couldn't eat-"-
[17:29] <Minaplo> ["Do you remember where your cabin was? Just generally, so you could go back and find your father if you tried?" Asked Mary.-
[17:29] <Minaplo> [He shook his head. "All the cars look alike."-
[17:30] <Minaplo> [Not even able to go back and get the number. Mary shook her head. "When you're done eating, I'll take you to find your father."-
[17:31] <Minaplo> ["Really? You'd do that?"-
[17:31] <Minaplo> ["I would." Said Mary with a small smile.-
[17:32] <Minaplo> ["T-Thank you very much, miss." The boy wiped his hand on a napkin quickly and held it out. "I'm Pavel."-
[17:37] <Minaplo> [Mary reached out, shaking his hand. "Mary."-
[17:39] <Minaplo> ["Like the Virgin!" Said Pavel.-
[17:39] <Minaplo> ["… Yes."-
[17:40] <Minaplo> ["We used to go to church." Said Pavel. "But we don't much anymore."-
[17:41] <Minaplo> ["Really?" Asked Mary, pausing to take a mouthful of soup.-
[17:42] <Minaplo> ["We used to go a lot before mum died." Said Pavel.-
[17:43] <Minaplo> ["Oh." Mary paused, scrutinizing the boy for a moment. Not finding what she was looking for, she nodded. "I'm sorry to hear that, Pavel. So it's just you and your father?"-
[17:47] <Minaplo> ["Nope." He shook his head. "My dad and Anna now. She's my stepmum. She doesn't like church."-
[17:47] <Minaplo> ["I see." Said Mary. "And what does your father do, Pavel?"-
[17:48] <Minaplo> ["He's a businessman." Pavel grinned. "He got a new job this month, he says the money's much better, but I have to change schools…"-
[17:49] <Minaplo> [Perhaps surprisingly, the boy's enthusiasm was as infectious as Elisha's apathy. Mary smiled in return. "You won't miss your friends?"-
[17:51] <Minaplo> ["Nope. Didn't have any." Said Pavel. "Dad says I'll have lots of new friends at my new school."-
[17:54] <Minaplo> ["I hope that's true." Said Mary. "I never found that I had many friends when I changed schools, personally."-
[17:54] <Minaplo> ["You had to change schools too?" Asked Pavel.-
[17:56] <Minaplo> ["Yes, when I was fifteen."-
[17:56] <Minaplo> ["Why?" Asked Pavel.-
[17:57] <Minaplo> ["I…" Mary paused. "I did something that did not reflect well on the standards of my educators."-
[17:57] <Minaplo> ["Huh?"-
[17:57] <Minaplo> ["It's a secret." Said Mary eventually.-
[17:57] <Minaplo> ["I'm good with secrets! I won't tell anyone!"-
[17:59] <Minaplo> ["Do you promise?"-
[17:59] <Minaplo> ["Uh-huh." Said Pavel.-
[17:59] <Minaplo> ["Alright." Mary smiled. "I took over the school."-
[17:59] <Minaplo> ["-What-?"-
[18:00] <Minaplo> ["I took it over. I made all the students listen to me, and I had all the - bad- teachers fired, and had the bullies punished."-

[20:45] <Minaplo> ["-Wow-." Said Pavel, his eyes wide. "That sounds awesome!"-
[20:47] <Minaplo> ["It was fairly- awesome." Conceded Mary. "But the- authorities- took umbrage to my actions. My father felt it prudent to start with a clean slate. So I transferred."-
[20:49] <Minaplo> ["I wish I could take over my school." Said Pavel.-
[20:59] <Minaplo> ["Indeed?" Mary's smile widened. "You may be too young for now, but you can at least start. The first step is to find the ones in your school who don't have friends of their own, and ally with them. If you can use them to gain leverage on your teachers somehow, then that helps…"-
[21:17] <Minaplo> [Eventually, Mary would finish her entree and begin her main- beef stroganoff on a bed of potato straws with a side of olivier salad. Pavel ate as well- a plate of french fries around some tempura chicken nuggets and, at Mary's urging, a small bit of olivier salad for himself.-
[21:26] <Minaplo> ["… Wife was infuriated and left, taking his prize dog with him. I think it was something of an overreaction." Said Mary, before pausing. "Pardon me, Pavel. I'm going to take a moment to have a drink."-
[21:26] <Minaplo> <with her*>
[21:33] <Minaplo> ["Uh-huh." Pavel took the chance to take a gulp from his own drink, some sort of cola.-
[21:35] <Minaplo> [Mary took the wine bottle, uncorking it and pouring the red contents into her wine glass. Once it was full, she placed it back on ice, picked up the glass-
[21:35] <Minaplo> [murder-
[21:35] <Minaplo> [She froze.-
[21:35] <Minaplo> [Her skin began to crawl, and she slowly put the glass down.-
[21:37] <Minaplo> [Slowly she turned, focusing her attention outwards towards the other passengers in the car.-
[21:37] <Minaplo> [The elderly gentleman. The couple. The French expatriate. Nothing.-
[21:37] <Minaplo> [The slick, sharp man-
[21:37] <Minaplo> [murder-
[21:38] <Minaplo> [He was looking at her without looking like he was -trying- to, but once he realised Mary was looking, turned to face her eye-to-eye, giving her a smile and small polite nod from across the room.-
[21:52] <Minaplo> [Mary smiled in return, even as the goosebumps formed along her skin. Underneath the table, her left hand clenched into a fist.-
[21:52] <Minaplo> [She picked up the wine glass and drained it of its contents, then broke eye contact.-
[22:02] <Minaplo> [The sensation faded, her goosebumps vanishing. She instead looked back at Pavel, who was enthusiastically working on his nuggets. Her appetite soon returned.-
[22:04] <Minaplo> [Mary quickly finished off her stroganoff, before having a simple dessert of three scoops of strawberry ice cream, matched by Pavel.-
[22:05] <Minaplo> [After the meal had ended, Mary and Pavel left, vanishing into the cars to find Pavel's father.-
[22:10] <Minaplo> [The sharp man, had seemingly finished at the same time, and was now moving along the same path. He took his time, stopping to chat with the maitre'd and shaking his hand before he went. He often stopped in each car to talk to someone- sometimes a passing conductor or security guard or even another guest. He was taking his sweet time…-
[22:10] <Minaplo> [… Yet he was never more than a car behind Mary and Pavel.-
[22:16] <Minaplo> [Ultimately, they did find Pavel's father just as he was stepping out of his cabin. "Pavel! You're back!"-
[22:17] <Minaplo> ["Uh-huh. Sorry." Said Pavel, sheepishly. "I forgot the cabin number."-
[22:18] <Minaplo> ["Silly boy. A letter and two numbers, it is not -hard-." Said the man, his tone gentle. He looked up at Mary. "You led him back? Thank you."-
[22:18] <Minaplo> ["Not at all. He was a fine dining companion." Said Mary. "Goodbye, Pavel. Maybe we can have lunch again some day."-
[22:19] <Minaplo> ["Ok. I'll be around tomorrow! We can talk more about conquering schools!"-
[22:19] <Minaplo> ["Conquering-?" the father squinted in confusion.-
[22:19] <Minaplo> ["School survival tips." Said Mary with a smile.-
[22:19] <Minaplo> ["I see…"-
[22:19] <Minaplo> ["Bye, Mary!" Said Pavel happily, slipping inside the cabin with a wave.-
[22:21] <Minaplo> [Mary returned the wave- and then the door was closed, leaving her alone- except for the sharp man, one car behind, just entering through the car door.-
[22:26] <Minaplo> [Mary turned to face him now. Her skin crawled. She felt the dull cold horror, like blunt knives, on her skin. Murder.-
[22:26] <Minaplo> ["Are you lost, sir?" She asked.-
[22:27] <Minaplo> ["A little." He said with a smile.-
[22:27] <Minaplo> ["Shall I show you where to go?" Asked Mary.-
[22:27] <Minaplo> ["That's quite fine." He said.-
[22:28] <Minaplo> ["No, I insist. After all, you sent me that wine, it's only fair I return the favour with interest."-
[22:28] <Minaplo> [The man went still for a second. The sensation on Mary's skin changed. Escape.-
[22:33] <Minaplo> ["… Yes, I suppose I did." Said the man, his smile returning. "Then by all means…"-
[23:18] <Minaplo> [She walked over to him. "Where are you headed? Back to your cabin?"-
[23:19] <Minaplo> ["Quite." He said. "C19."-
[23:19] <Minaplo> ["This is D. You passed it." Said Mary. "Follow me."-
[23:23] <Minaplo> [And so he did, following her back to C19. It was not a long journey.-
[23:23] <Minaplo> ["Thank you." He said, giving her a brief smile, unlocking his door and stepping through.-
[23:30] <Minaplo> [Mary was quick- she entered the room just after he did, closing the door behind her.-
[23:31] <Minaplo> [The man looked over his shoulder at her, frowning. "What are you doing?"-
[23:31] <Minaplo> ["I just wanted to thank you for the wine." Said Mary with a smile. "And repay the favour with interest."-
[23:32] <Minaplo> [There was a pause.-
[23:33] <Minaplo> [The man lashed out with his left hand, throwing it towards her head, but Mary was faster. Her left to his left, pinning the wrist. In one fluid motion, Mary pulled a knife out of her coat with her right hand, revered the grip, and plunged it into the man's exposed left armpit. Once, twice, three times.-
[23:36] <Minaplo> [He didn't have the air or strength to shout, the shock was so severe. Mary released his arm- and he toppled to the ground.-
[23:37] <Minaplo> [She bent down, wiped his blood on his gloved hands, and stowed the knife away. She pulled over the privacy curtain, stepped out, and locked the door behind her.-
[23:37] <Minaplo> [Terror-
[23:38] <Minaplo> [And then, nothing.-
[23:38] <Minaplo> [A few minutes later, Mary returned to her own cabin. Elisha was still lying on the bench seat, his glasses askew, obviously asleep, the Russian newspaper draped over his chest.-
[23:39] <Minaplo> [Mary swatted him around the head. "Wake up."-
[23:39] <Minaplo> ["Guh." He stirred, reaching up to grab his glasses, pushing them back up onto his face. "Oh, you're back."-
[23:39] <Minaplo> ["I am."-
[23:40] <Minaplo> ["Enjoy your banquet?" He asked, picking up the newspaper, scrunching it up into a ball and throwing it at the window.-
[23:40] <Minaplo> ["Quite. I had a charming little boy to share it with- he was far better company." Said Mary coolly, sitting down on her own seat.-
[23:41] <Minaplo> ["Good for him."-
[23:41] <Minaplo> ["Elisha, I don't mean to alarm you, but there was an assassin on the train."-
[23:42] <Minaplo> ["Really? Cool." Said Elisha, not stirring at all. "Did you kill him?"-
[23:42] <Minaplo> ["Yes."-
[23:42] <Minaplo> ["Did anyone see you do it?"-
[23:42] <Minaplo> [Mary shook her head. "No one was around. They won't find him until after we take the transfer to Mongolia."-
[23:43] <Minaplo> ["Great. Was that all?" He rolled over, trying to find that mystical comfort zone that all recently-woken people remember yet can never find.-
[23:44] <Minaplo> ["No, actually. He poisoned my wine."-
[23:48] <Minaplo> ["Did you drink it?"-
[23:48] <Minaplo> ["I did."-
[23:48] <Minaplo> ["And did you know it was poisoned before you drank it?" He asked with a sigh.-
[23:48] <Minaplo> ["Yes." Said Mary. "I felt his murderous intent before I took my sip."-
[23:49] <Minaplo> ["And you still drank it like an idiot." Said Elisha. He had yet to roll back over towards her.-
[23:50] <Minaplo> ["I didn't want him to become too suspicious. I needed to get close so I could-"-
[23:50] <Minaplo> ["Repay the debt with interest?" Said Elisha in a mocking falsetto.-
[23:51] <Minaplo> ["Shut up. That is not- I did not say that."-
[23:51] <Minaplo> ["Get me luggage down, my medical kit's in the brown bag." Said Elisha, still not turning.-
[23:52] <Minaplo> ["You could pretend to be worried." Said Mary, already sorting through his bag.-
[23:52] <Minaplo> ["Meh."-
[23:58] <Minaplo> [It was probably not a surprise to anyone at this point that Elisha kept an impressive set of antidotes in his luggage.-
[00:21] <Minaplo> [A few hours later, the train would pull into Irkutsk- one of the largest cities in Siberia. Mary and Elisha quickly disembarked, transferring to another, similar train, this one heading south into Mongolia.-
[14:21] <Minaplo> [They didn't stay in Mongolia long. Their road took them southwest into China- into its western frontier of Xinjiang.-
[14:27] <Minaplo> [They passed through the city of Urumqi on the way- the capital of Xinjiang. One of the most remote cities in the world.-
[14:31] <Minaplo> [It was definitely a far way from the China most people thought of when China was mentioned. Not the bustling port of Shanghai, this, or the imperial grandeur of Beijing. This was an oasis-like city in the middle of a wide, barren, flat land that stretched uninterrupted for hundreds of miles around, the mighty snow-capped peaks of the Tian Shan Mountains dominating the horizon to the west.-
[14:31] <Minaplo> [Their ultimate destination.-
[14:43] <Minaplo> ["Tension." Said Mary as they waited to change trains.-
[14:43] <Minaplo> ["Mm?" Asked Elisha distantly.-
[14:44] <Minaplo> ["Tension. This whole city is full of it. It emanates off it like heat off burning coal. Tension, and… Resentment, and discontent."-
[14:46] <Minaplo> ["The people here don't think much of the Han." Said Elisha, his arms folded, tapping his foot against the ground. "Resettlement, just general government arrogance…"-
[14:49] <Minaplo> ["It's overpowering." Murmured Mary. "I'm becoming jittery. The sooner we leave, the better."-
[14:50] <Minaplo> ["Want me to hold your hand?" He asked.-
[14:50] <Minaplo> ["If you would."-
[14:52] <Minaplo> [And so he did, his fingers wrapped firmly around her own. Almost instantaneously she felt the steady, unnerving sensation of something -changing-, something draining away, yet also bringing relief, like dropping a heavy weight and letting the arms relax. The nervous, unsettling background tension of this restive city became grey and muted; it bothered Mary no longer.-
[14:53] <Minaplo> [He held her hand until the city was well behind them, at which point its atmosphere no longer affected her. There were simply not enough people in this sparse, empty land for that.-
[17:28] <Minaplo> [Eventually they went far enough towards the Tian Shan that normal transport wouldn't cut it. Trains were replaced by busses. Busses by rickety cars, cars by mules…-
[17:36] <Minaplo> [And eventually their own hands and feet, over mountain paths and roads and through unmapped valleys…-
[17:36] <Minaplo> [It would be one month and three weeks after they diverged at Irkutsk before they finally found what they had been looking for.-
[17:37] <Minaplo> [The hidden valley of Shangri-La.-

[17:51] <Minaplo> [Ephraim Siskin von Brandt washed the tea leaves out of his strainer carefully, running a wet cloth over the metal before wiping it gently, putting it aside on the side of the sink. With this done, he picked up his tea- black with a single slice of lemon. He sat down on his cushion, closed his eyes and began to sip.-
[17:58] <Minaplo> [He was wearing a simple cream-coloured tunic embroidered with little red triangles along the hem and collar, with long loose trousers. He didn't wear shoes- a pair of sandals sat against the door.-
[18:00] <Minaplo> [Ephraim's eyes were closed, but he was still looking. His mind expanded, like a growing dome until it encompassed the entire valley. Within he felt the thoughts of all…-
[18:02] <Minaplo> [The thousand or so inhabitants of the village, going about their daily work. Some grew food or tended to the sheep; others went out to chop wood; others were building little extensions or wells or houses, and others were practicing, sparring, with fists, feet, training their bodies. Others focused on their gifts.-
[18:03] <Minaplo> [Through their thoughts he saw what they saw, and through the collective thoughts of all he could see almost the entire village as though it were a picture… But he didn't do this now, out of choice.-
[18:05] <Minaplo> [There were Laws in Shangri-La. He might see through others' eyes in emergencies, but from a day-to-day… Abusive. Intrusive. Seeing into peoples' most intimate moments if he so wished.-
[18:06] <Minaplo> [So Ephraim focused his powers outwards, outside of the dome- ten thousand mental eyes focused without, not within.-
[18:36] <Minaplo> [People.-
[18:38] <Minaplo> [He felt them, walking on the path towards Shangri-La. Two of them. Probably local explorers- he'd do as he had done many times before, and send them back. They'd suddenly remember an appointment, or be filled with a dread about the area, or…-
[18:39] <Minaplo> [Shangri-La was a secret. It would remain so.-
[18:40] <Minaplo> [He focused his energies, worming his way into their minds…-
[18:40] <Minaplo> […-
[18:40] <Minaplo> [A thrill of horror ran through Ephraim's body. His heart began to beat in a panic; he dropped his tea cup, where it hit the rug, tipped over, and began staining it yellow.-
[18:40] <Minaplo> [It wasn't working.-
[18:41] <Minaplo> [He could sense the two of them, for sure, and the thoughts of the woman were open, but the other- no. He tried, and he simply bounced off like a ball off a wall.-
[18:41] <Minaplo> [And every time Ephraim tried he felt his dome shrinking.-
[18:42] <Minaplo> [He refocused his efforts. He sought out someone else- someone within.-
[18:43] <Minaplo> [He focused his energy on someone, someone sitting within the largest building in the village. A single mental message.-
[18:43] <Minaplo> [People are coming. Marshal the militia.-
[18:43] <Minaplo> [Two minutes later, the bell within the belltower began to peal.-
[19:02] <Minaplo> [----
[19:10] <Minaplo> [The Shangri-La valley was beautiful.-
[19:24] <Minaplo> [Indeed, just looking at it, it seemed crazy to think people lived here. Mary stared out at the valley, nestled between towering mountains covered in ice and snow, the melting ice forming little streams that fed into the valley- a rare, lush, forested eden in the wide barrens of this most desolate corner of the world.-
[19:32] <Minaplo> ["Now to find the settlement." Said Elisha. "Shouldn't be hard. C'mon."-
[19:35] <Minaplo> [The woodland was dark and cool and thick; the light penetrated through only in shafts, creating small points of light in the gloom. Indeed, much of the terrain blended into each other- finding one's way would be impossible without the little patterns of light.-
[19:44] <Minaplo> [Indeed, Elisha seemed to already be prepared. He followed the light like a sailor might follow the stars- and after an hour and a half of travelling, they struck gold.-
[19:49] <Minaplo> [The first they saw of Shangri-La was a bell tower, visible through a gap in the trees. As they approached, they saw that it was a walled settlement, with tall yellow stone walls emerging out of the ground, leading to the left and right before curving in. In the centre of the wall was the gatehouse, with the tall metal gates currently open.-
[19:50] <Minaplo> [A group of people- six of them- stood abreast in front of the gate. It was obvious that this was no welcoming committee- they all possessed firearms. Kalashnikovs.-
[19:54] <Minaplo> [Mary stopped, but Elisha didn't even break his stride as he approached. "Hey there." He said, waving.-
[19:57] <Minaplo> [They didn't react until he was ten metres away, all of them lowering their guns to their shoulder, aiming at his chest. They pulled the safety back in unison, eliciting a truly impressive collection of mechanical clanks and clicks.-
[19:57] <Minaplo> ["Whoa whoa, hey." Elisha raised his hands placatingly. "I mean no harm. Just a weary traveler."-
[20:23] <Minaplo> [A figure approached the forward crenelations of the gatehouse. An old east Asian man, wearing a long, simple white linen robe under a white silk jacket. He stood tall, about 5'9", his hands folded behind his back. He was clean-shaven, with straight cropped salt-and-pepper hair.-
[20:24] <Minaplo> ["Why are you here?" Asked the old man in perfect English.-
[20:30] <Minaplo> ["I came to learn." Said Elisha. "My sister and I here possess the Gift, and came seeking a place where those of the Gifted can come and learn in peace."-
[20:30] <Minaplo> ["Invitation only." Said the old man. He turned on his heel and walked away.-
[20:37] <Minaplo> ["What? Hey!" Elisha took another step forward, waving his arms angrily up at the gatehouse. "Come now! There has to be some deal- something we can do. Your entire thing is providing safe haven for people like us- you're not going to turn us away because we found you and not the other way around. That's not how you work."-
[20:38] <Minaplo> [Silence.-
[20:40] <Minaplo> [Eventually the old man returned again, looking doubly cross. "We provide safe haven for those of us who are not dangerous. This requires study, observation, understanding of the candidate. You have not been studied. We have not observed you, and we do not understand you or your ability."-
[20:42] <Minaplo> ["Here's your chance." Said Elisha, spreading his arms wide. "Study me."-
[20:51] <Minaplo> ["Do you consent to any and all of our conditions?"-
[20:51] <Minaplo> ["Depends on the conditions." Said Elisha.-
[20:58] <Minaplo> ["You will be tested." Said the elderly man. "Physically, mentally- in any way we desire, indefinitely. We reserve the right to remove you from the valley if we deem you unfit, indefinitely. And finally, the word of Shangri-La is sacrosanct. Debate if you must when the sun is high, but once the final word is said at night, all must consent."-
[20:59] <Minaplo> [Mary folded her arms, stepping forward. "I accept."-
[20:59] <Minaplo> ["I-" Elisha paused, clearly irritated at being interrupted and, indeed, shown up. He shot Mary a dirty look, which she returned with the sweetest of sweet smiles.-
[21:00] <Minaplo> ["Damn harpy sister." He muttered under his breath. "Fine, old man. We'll have it your way, on one extra condition."-
[21:00] <Minaplo> ["Mmm?"-
[21:00] <Minaplo> ["You tell me your name." Said Elisha. "I don't like agreeing to these sorts of contracts with total strangers."-
[21:01] <Minaplo> ["Fair. But only if you give yours in return."-
[21:01] <Minaplo> ["Obviously." Said Elisha. "I am Elisha Fontaine, and my irritating female companion-"-
[21:01] <Minaplo> ["I am Mary Caine." Said Mary.-
[21:01] <Minaplo> ["Yes, that." Said Elisha.-
[21:10] <Minaplo> ["Hmm." The old man nodded.-
[21:12] <Minaplo> ["My name was Xun Sheng. But now I am the leader of Shangri-La, and so my name is Tengri Khan."-
[21:12] <Minaplo> ["What, like the mountain?"-
[21:12] <Minaplo> ["In a sense." Said Tengri Khan with a sigh.-
[21:12] <Minaplo> ["Cool. Grandiose. I like it." Said Elisha.-
[21:54] <Minaplo> ["That makes me so glad." Said Tengri Khan in a dry, humourless voice. "Allow him entry."-
[21:57] <Minaplo> [The militia slowly turned on their safeties, raised their rifles and stepped aside. Elisha brushed past, smirking, whilst Mary followed, looking nowhere near as smug.-
[21:58] <Minaplo> [They emerged through the arch, out into Shangri-La proper.-
[22:05] <Minaplo> [The town was quite expansive, that much was obvious. It was laid out in a large oval shape, with the buildings organised around the town centre; a plaza with clean white stone paving, with a large, ornate marble square fountain in the middle. A green jade statue rose out of the water- a beautiful robed woman holding a large peach in both her hands.-
[22:08] <Minaplo> [On the very edge of the square, facing the gate, was a large, high halled building, build like a cross combined with a square. Out of the middle of the pattern rose the tall bell tower which they had seen on the approach.-
[23:09] <Minaplo> ["Impressive." Said Mary, looking around, taking everything in. "Shanghai-la is beautiful, Tengri Khan."-
[23:10] <Minaplo> [The old man was still on the gatehouse, now standing on the ledge overlooking the inner side of the walls. "I am so glad you approve."-
[23:14] <Minaplo> [It wasn't just the architecture Mary took in. She walked close by Elisha, whispering. "The people here feel threatened. Curious, definitely, but threatened, cautious. Be gentle."-
[14:39] <Minaplo> ["How much of it is just generic caution, and how much of it is caution of me specifically?" Asked Elisha.-
[14:42] <Minaplo> ["A little bit is caution of you specifically." Said Mary.-
[14:47] <Minaplo> ["You get anything from the old man?"-
[14:47] <Minaplo> ["A… Little. He's hard to read." Said Mary.-
[14:48] <Minaplo> ["Caution?"-
[14:48] <Minaplo> ["No, actually." Said Mary. "A little bit of contempt, maybe. Expectation?"-
[14:48] <Minaplo> [Elisha glanced at Mary.-
[14:48] <Minaplo> ["Now -you're- feeling cautious." Said Mary with a small, gleeful grin.-
[14:50] <Minaplo> ["Fuck off, sister." Said Elisha irritably. He turned about to face Tengri Khan. "Alright, old man. You ready to test me?"-
[14:52] <Minaplo> ["Are you ready to be tested?" Asked Khan.-
[14:52] <Minaplo> ["Absolutely."-
[14:55] <Minaplo> [The first blow took him completely by surprise, catching him square in the back.-
[14:57] <Minaplo> [Elisha stumbled forward, turning around just in time for a kick to catch him in the face. He fell backward, not even having a sight of his opponent before he had his legs swept beneath him.-
[14:57] <Minaplo> [Mary had long since bolted for the sidelines. Elisha let out a low groan, pulling himself up back onto his feet.-
[15:00] <Minaplo> [His assailant was a man, maybe in his twenties, with dark skin, short brown hair, and a nimble, agile frame. His torso was bare, showing powerful, taut muscles as well as dozens of small scars. He hopped from one foot to another, his hands up in front of him, ready to strike again.-
[15:03] <Minaplo> ["That was a cheap blow." Said Elisha.-
[15:03] <Minaplo> ["You said you were ready." Said the man with a grin.-
[15:04] <Minaplo> ["Yeah, but not -ready- ready." Said Elisha. "There are progressive levels of ready, you see, and by that I mean I was ready to -advance- but not ready to be kicked in the back."-
[15:04] <Minaplo> ["Sounds like a very developed system." Said the man.-
[15:05] <Minaplo> ["It's pretty developed." Said Elisha. He shook his head one last time- then lunged, crossing the space between them in a second.-
[15:07] <Minaplo> [The man leapt back- he tossed a small black stone into the air, and brought his foot up in a graceful arc. Elisha saw the man's shoes were lined with metal bands on the soles.-
[15:08] <Minaplo> [The man's foot struck the stone on its journey, and all of a sudden the foot and leg both burst into flame, exploding outwards as the foot slammed into the ground. Elisha barely managed to leap backwards in time, but he nevertheless felt the heat on his face and hands.-
[15:09] <Minaplo> [Elisha's expression was particularly grim. "You create fire."-
[15:10] <Minaplo> ["I control it."-
[15:11] <Minaplo> ["You must've had a fun childhood."-
[15:12] <Minaplo> ["You have no idea." Said the man with a laugh. The ground beneath them was paved stone, and so had mostly just been scorched- there were no plants or the like to catch aflame, and so the fire remained mostly on the man's foot and leg.-
[15:15] <Minaplo> [Elisha stared at him for a moment, flicking his gaze down to the man's leg.-
[15:16] <Minaplo> ["Doesn't burn?"-
[15:16] <Minaplo> ["Nope." Said the man.-
[15:16] <Minaplo> ["Perfect."-
[15:32] <Minaplo> [Elisha made another dash straight for the fireman, who swept his leg out towards Elisha as he came. Elisha dodged to one side- threw a punch, which was easily avoided- and ducked beneath a wide sweeping kick. He swept a leg out towards the man's other leg, and connected- only for the fire to spread a second later, catching Elisha this time. He rolled away, stamping his foot wildly. "Shit shit shit-"-
[15:39] <Minaplo> [The fireman struck out with a punch, which Elisha blocked- only for the fireman's arm to burst into flame. Elisha pulled away, jabbing at the man's chest- and the pattern repeated.-
[15:40] <Minaplo> [Before long, the fireman was completely shrouded in fire, whilst Elisha sported the odd shiny burn. His sleeves were smouldering, as were his trousers.-
[15:40] <Minaplo> ["It takes me awhile to get going." Said the man. "But as you can see, I'm pretty much impervious now."-
[15:46] <Minaplo> ["That's a pretty neat trick." Said Elisha.-
[15:47] <Minaplo> [The fireman brought his hands up again, ready to strike the moment Elisha attacked. Elisha lowered himself, getting ready to spring-
[15:47] <Minaplo> [He shot towards the fireman, not with punches or kicks, but with a good old-fashioned shoulder tackle. He caught the fireman square in the chest, knocking him over- pinning him beneath Elisha.-
[15:48] <Minaplo> [The fire licked and seared at Elisha's flesh, and quickly began to eat through his clothing- which nevertheless was thick enough to slow the fire down from burning something important.-
[15:54] <Minaplo> [After a few seconds of struggling, however, something strange began to happen- the man's struggling became more desperate, more frantic. Eventually he began to groan, then he started to -scream-, thrashing about wildly.-
[15:55] <Minaplo> [All of a sudden, the flames went out. Elisha- surprisingly, not very burned at all- picked the man up, ran him over to the fountain, and threw him in. A billow of steam blew into the air, mixed in with the man's shrieking.-
[15:59] <Minaplo> ["You've just been schooled." Said Elisha. He turned around dramatically, flicking his hand into the air. "By Elisha Fontaine."-
[16:00] <Minaplo> [Mary groaned.-
[16:00] <Minaplo> ["Shut up." Said Elisha. "I just had to fight a man who controls fire. I deserve some slack."-
[16:02] <Minaplo> ["That was an interesting fight." Said Tengri Khan. "But your test is not over."-
[16:02] <Minaplo> ["It's not?"-
[16:02] <Minaplo> ["I am not yet satisfied with your performance." Said Khan.-
[18:05] <Minaplo> ["You're pretty demanding, huh?" Muttered Elisha. He began tearing off the remains of his now beyond saving shirt. "So what's next? Ice man? Earthquake man?"-
[18:06] <Minaplo> ["Your insolence is noted." Said Tengri Khan. "Take one minute to rest yourself."-
[18:07] <Minaplo> [And so Elisha walked over to Mary, who shook her head.-
[18:08] <Minaplo> ["What?" He asked defensively.-
[18:09] <Minaplo> ["I told you to be gentle." Said Mary, looking over at the fountain, where a group of villagers was pulling the fireman out of the fountain. twisted, ugly burns covered most of his body.-
[18:09] <Minaplo> ["He could control fire." Said Elisha shortly. "My options were limited. Doesn't matter. Are they scared of me yet?"-
[18:10] <Minaplo> ["Yes, but not in the way you like." Said Mary. "They were scared of you a little before, and now they're a little more scared, but now they hate you."-
[18:10] <Minaplo> ["Unfair." Muttered Elisha. "They know he was on fire, right? They saw him kicking my ass with his firelegs, right? He had it coming."-
[18:11] <Minaplo> ["You can't walk into a tightly-knit community like this, set fire to one of their -respected- members, them dump them into the middle of their village fountain without expecting some hate." Said Mary impatiently. "You know, little brother, sometimes I think you don't really understand human beings."-
[18:13] <Minaplo> [Elisha was about to retort when Tengri Khan cut in. "Your opponent, Elisha Fontaine," Said Khan, gesturing towards a girl standing in front of the fountain.-
[18:14] <Minaplo> [Elisha peered at her. Then he peered -around- her. "What, is he invisible?"-
[18:16] <Minaplo> [The girl was maybe 5'2 at best, pale with long, straight black hair tied into a long plait. She was svelte, delicate-looking, almost looking underfed. She glared at him. "I'm your opponent."-
[18:16] <Minaplo> ["…"-
[18:16] <Minaplo> [Elisha shot a dark look at Mary. "This is a goddamned -setup-."-
[18:17] <Minaplo> [Mary was merely smirking, her eyes twinkling with dark glee. "On the contrary. This just became interesting. Good luck, little brother. Don't lose too hard."-
[18:17] <Minaplo> [Elisha fumed, stomping back out onto the paved path. "Look, girl, you're what, 13?"-
[18:18] <Minaplo> ["I'm 17." She said, her hands squeezing into fists.-
[18:19] <Minaplo> ["Then you need to maybe eat a little better. I thought you guys had it pretty good here, but…"-
[18:20] <Minaplo> ["I eat fine. It's just how I am."-
[18:23] <Minaplo> [He took a moment to study her. She was definitely small, although she didn't look unfit, not really. She was probably going to be a thunderbolt on legs in how she moved, and the way she fought would probably use a good deal of leverage and quick hits to unprotected areas.-
[18:24] <Minaplo> [He noticed her, of course, studying him right back in kind- she had the advantage here, she'd seen how he'd fought before. Nevertheless, her gaze had an odd tendency to flick towards his chest and abs. He grinned. "You got a name?"-
[18:24] <Minaplo> [Her frown deepened. "Serafina. Sera for short."-
[18:26] <Minaplo> ["Cute. That's a nice name." Said Elisha. "Alright, then, let's try to play nice, alright? I won't kick your ass too bad, and you won't set me on fire or whatever. Deal?"-
[18:27] <Minaplo> [She began to move before he'd even finished saying the 'd' in 'deal'. She was literally a blur, crossing the distance and smashing a fist square into his chest- an unusually aggressive move, the sort he'd expect from someone twice her size.-
[18:27] <Minaplo> [That didn't stop it from actually working. In fact it worked pretty damn well.-
[18:28] <Minaplo> [The impact picked Elisha off of his feet and sent him flying through the air for a good five, six metres. He landed heavily, bouncing as he did so.-
[18:28] <Minaplo> [He lay there, face-down, for a second, before he let out a single bloody cough.-
[18:28] <Minaplo> [Someone was laughing. Mary. She was laughing and clapping and was almost skipping on the spot.-
[18:28] <Minaplo> [Damn her.-
[18:30] <Minaplo> [Elisha struggled back to all fours- but didn't have time to stand before Serafina was on him again. She struck him with her knee square in the face- he felt something break- before delivering a near-simultaneous kick to his back, which propelled him back into the earth again with enough force that several tiles beneath him cracked.-
[18:31] <Minaplo> ["The moment you stop expecting -anything- from one of us," Said Serafina, "Is the moment you lose -everything-."-
[18:33] <Minaplo> [The pain was unimaginable. He felt nauseous. Several of his ribs were certainly broken, and a few organs had probably been perforated. He suspected a cracked skull- the headache running through his head was concussion-class. He could barely see.-
[18:33] <Minaplo> [He grubbed about under him, grabbed a corner of shattered tile. As fast and as powerful as he could, using what he had left, he drove it into Serafina's foot.-
[18:33] <Minaplo> [It barely left a scratch. And not because he was weak.-
[18:34] <Minaplo> [The same foot ended up on his shoulder. A hand grabbed his arm. She twisted. Something went -crack-. Elisha screamed.-
[18:35] <Minaplo> [She rolled him over onto his back with his foot.-
[18:36] <Minaplo> <her*>
[18:37] <Minaplo> [With his one good arm, he weakly grabbed at her ankle, his fingers worming their way into the gap between her trouser leg and her shoe. Touching the flesh of her ankle as best he could- it was a tenuous grip.-
[18:38] <Minaplo> ["You don't have the strength to pull me down." Said Serafina quietly. "You should just give up."-
[18:38] <Minaplo> ["Why?" He muttered, coughing.-
[18:38] <Minaplo> ["Isn't it obvious? You're beat."-
[18:39] <Minaplo> [She shook off his hand, taking a step back.-
[18:40] <Minaplo> [He rolled over- the pain was intense, but curiously, not as bad as it been, merely a 14 out of 10- and grabbed that same shard of tile again.-
[18:41] <Minaplo> [She didn't bother moving her foot this time, either. He plunged it into her foot- and it tore straight through into the earth below.-
[18:42] <Minaplo> [To her credit, she didn't scream- she let out a small gasp of shock, maybe pain. She pulled her foot away and leapt away from him. "How-?"-
[18:43] <Minaplo> [Elisha grabbed the shard where it was bloody, pulling it towards him, smearing it over his hand.-
[18:44] <Minaplo> [Mary had stopped laughing. She instead watched quietly as Elisha, slowly, pulled himself to his feet. His body was battered, bruised and broken- yet now, it seemed to work enough for its purpose.-
[18:47] <Minaplo> [Serafina struck him with a flurry of punches to his chest. He stumbled backwards a little with each blow, but it wasn't enough to drop him- despite the expectations of everyone watching.-
[18:48] <Minaplo> [Serafina struck him again, this time in the face- right into his already agonising injury. He managed, at the same time, to catch her in the stomach, knocking her back a metre or two into the dirt.-
[18:59] <Minaplo> [It was a powerful blow- and if it'd been coupled with a few more, it might've been enough.-
[19:00] <Minaplo> [But as it stood, the last blow to the head had been the push Elisha's battered body had needed to shut down. He collapsed backwards- and was unconscious before he struck the earth.-
[19:01] <Minaplo> [-
[19:02] <Minaplo> [Mary watched as Elisha toppled- and the victorious Serafina pulled herself up, hurting, but far from beaten. Nevertheless, her face was twisted into an expression of pain and horror, quite unrelated to the beating she'd given Elisha or the punch he'd given her.-
[19:05] <Minaplo> [Mary felt Serafina's intense spike of -fear-, the panicky terror radiating off of her like a wave, threatening to subsume Mary's own emotions. It was a sensation Mary had felt before- watching a mother looking desperately for a lost child, or the survivor of an accident be told he'd have to lose an arm.-
[19:05] <Minaplo> [It was the sensation of a nightmare coming true, and the fear that it would be permanent.-
[19:06] <Minaplo> [Mary walked to Serafina's side quickly, and wrapped her arms around the girl's slim shoulders. "Don't worry." Said Mary quietly. "It isn't permanent."-
[19:13] <Minaplo> [Serafina didn't shake Mary off. Instead she let out a low moan, wrapping her arms around herself. Slowly, her fear began to subside, just a little.-
[19:16] <Minaplo> ["Now I am satisfied." Said Tengri Khan with a small smile. He gestured to his militia. "Take Elisha Fontaine and Sera to Healer Ibrahim. Mary Caine, tell your brother when he awakes that he has passed the test, and that he may find residence and hospitality here."-
[19:16] <Minaplo> ["And what of me, Lord Khan?" Asked Mary. "What of my test?"-
[19:20] <Minaplo> ["You have nothing to prove to us that we do not already know." Said Khan. "We have been expecting you for some time. In fact, a room has been ready for you for nearly twenty years." He smiled. "Truly, you are destined to come here- if it were not for the machinations of your father, you would have joined us long ago."-
[19:23] <Minaplo> [That pronouncement, more than anything, left Mary -cold-. She felt as though the wind had been knocked out of her, and it took all of her strength not to let it show on her face. "Understood, Lord Khan."-
[19:25] <Minaplo> ["As for the rest of you," Said Khan, gesturing to the crowd. "Let the word go out that it is a joyous time for Shangri-La. One of the Star Princes has returned to us!"-
[19:26] <Minaplo> [Serafina let out a little gasp- then looked down at Elisha. She let out a small groan.-
[19:27] <Minaplo> ["… Star Prince?" Muttered Mary to herself. She stared up at Khan, as though expecting an explanation.-
[19:27] <Minaplo> [The old man simply smiled down at her- a small, knowing little smile, his eyes glittering, before he turned and walked away.-
[19:28] <Minaplo> [All around them, the people began to gasp and shout and cry out, the word going out as Khan had said.-
[19:28] <Minaplo> ["A Star Prince has returned to us!"]

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