When Ebon Dirge and Gilfred returned to Carmella's mansion after handling their preparations for departure, they were greeted with the sight of the mistress herself standing before an empty lot. "Ah, just in time, boys," she said in greeting, "I just finished all my packing."
Dirge allowed a smirk to creep across his lips even as his more youthful companion goggled at the change. He'd assumed that the mansion itself was spun out, at least in part, from Carmella herself. The difference in material coupled with her telltale signs of baptism in the laws of blood had given him a clue there. "Excellent. Gilfred here is going to take the lead for our initial leg, as I mentioned before."
"Uh, um... yeah," Gilfred said in a none-too-confident confirmation of the plan. "If you'll come right this way, we're going to take the west gate out of the settlement, ma'am."
Carmella chuckled. "Lead the way then, boy."
Gilfred took the lead while Dirge and Carmella matched their pace just behind him. "I trust my information was correct and you've handled all accounts then, Black?" The red woman asked with an arched brow.
"That it was," Dirge replied. "Although I imagine that even though I've smoothed over everything, it might be a good time to cover what entanglements you might be dragging along?"
Carmella smiled. "Nobody particularly smart. I'm surprised that someone who seems to want to keep his hands clean would drag me along, though, knowing even that much."
Dirge returned the smile with a slight shrug. "If it becomes too much of a problem and you can't handle your own messes, I'm perfectly capable of cutting you loose. Just because I allow my intuition to guide some things doesn't mean I'll be a sentimental wreck over it."
"You really are a strange creature," Carmella remarked with a small shake of her head and a wry twist to her smile. "Out here where I might have some admirers following along, it shouldn't be a big deal. The real problems start when we've left the Ghostlands and make our way closer to Blood Prefecture."
Dirge nodded. In discussing their plans, he had learned that many of the Underworld's regions were segmented by the types of laws practiced by the rulers of those regions, which in turn attracted inhabitants that followed the same or similar paths. It made perfect sense, then, that both the woman's destination and that tug on his soul were directing him to a place called the Blood Prefecture, far to the south. "That's when the reasons for hunting begin to change, no?" he asked probingly.
Carmella's smile shrunk a little. "Indeed. Raw soul essence is always a commodity worthy of acquisition, but other lures attract predators once we've reached the so-called civilized parts."
"So extraction of a path codex is that simple when it's just souls involved?"
Carmella's eyes widened, and her next words came with an effort to remain steady. "Yes, although if you're admitting having a full codex..."
Dirge laughed. "Mine isn't blood path, so you don't want to waste the effort."
"Even the bits and pieces are considered valuable," Carmella replied. "Of course that's only if people know you dabble enough to have them."
Dirge nodded. "Point well taken. You have my thanks." He meant it; he had casually informed her that he dabbled in other paths because he had the utmost confidence that he could crush her if it were a problem, but the confirmation that such admissions could garner him unwanted attention from others was useful.
In a world where power was tied to the soul and to the comprehension of laws, it made sense that both were obtainable resources. Given the position of the soul in advancement for essence cultivators in the material plane, the chances of high-level experts entering the Underworld proper intact would have to be small; in his case and in Threnody's, other circumstances were at play that kept them intact, and those circumstances put them somewhere near the top of the hierarchy of power. This was also why Dirge had confidence that he wouldn't have to work too hard to find his long-time partner-in-crime.
If most experts didn't enter the Underworld proper, then it made sense that the swiftest method of advancement was to find others with fragmentary bits and pieces of a compatible path and fuse it all together. There were methods to do the same sort of things out in the material world, but out there it was limited by the protection of a Nascent Soul or the latter Essence Avatar, not to mention to the utter dearth of useful soul methods. Here, where soul and consciousness took form, such matters became more straightforward.
That knowledge heartened Dirge some; he needed to rid himself of incompatible law in order to advance his plans before returning to the Mortal Realm. He'd made assumptions that what he had exchanged with Threnody when he sent her here could be restored as it was before, but there had been no guarantee on how difficult it would end up being.
"So then, our little detour..." Carmella said with a prod that took Dirge out of his contemplations.
"I need to commune with the other side, and Gilfred says he knows a nearby location that would be appropriate," Dirge replied. "While having your company is nice, I also want someone along who can stand vigil during those kinds of sessions."
"You plan to do it more than the once?"
Dirge nodded. "Whenever the opportunity presents itself. I imagine I'll be needing a bit more currency, and that's where I can get it."
Carmella pursed her lips in thought. "You think you could hook me up with this supplier of yours? I'd never heard of necromancers paying so lucratively, or else I would have considered answering the call before."
Dirge chuckled. "This particular arrangement hinges on the fact that I'm the one in charge of the transaction, Carmella. If you haven't heard of any deals like this coming from the other side, it's because they probably don't exist except in this circumstance. You're better off working for me directly if you want a supply."
"Forget it," Carmella replied with a small pout to her lips. "The more of an enigma you present, the more I think I don't need or want to learn more."
"Chickening out?" Dirge asked wryly.
Carmella shook her head. "Knowing my place. I may be a large fish in a small pond out here, but you're a tiger shark."
Dirge laughed, but said nothing more, taking note of a little trembling in their guide's forearms as he undoubtedly eavesdropped and learned he'd leapt into something far beyond his own depth. He had to privately admit that after all the skulking and subterfuge in his life lately, it actually felt good to instill some old fashioned fearful respect.
The trio left the settlement and began their trek through the grassland without incident. Carmella demonstrated a useful technique for scaring off the local monsters, and it seemed that anybody willing to chase after them hadn't yet caught up.
"This is it," Gilfred announced as they approached an outcropping of gray rock in which a maw-like cavernous opening gaped. "This is the local spot where those looking to make contact with the other side go. It isn't much, but it supposedly has what's important."
Dirge had a small smile at their guide's most talkative string of words ever since he had listened in on the earlier conversation. "Anything in particular I should be doing in there?" he asked.
Gilfred glanced over at Carmella before shrugging. "I don't know. I thought you knew what you were doing here."
Carmella smirked. "He's right. There's all sorts of mumbo-jumbo on the subject, but those who have successive and lucrative channels to the other side aren't really the type to share their methods."
Dirge shrugged. "Just making sure there's no local variation I should be aware of," he glibly lied. It looked like blind groping was the order of the day, but he thankfully had other resources at his disposal to work with. "I'll have to trouble you both to keep watch out here while I do this. I've never been interrupted before, so I can't guarantee what'll happen if there's an incident." While he trusted the binding power of their deals, that was at much a warning to not try anything as it was a note that they'd likely be on their own if something came up.
"We can handle it, right little boy?" Carmella said with a smirk.
"Um, yeah," Gilfred half-heartedly agreed.
"Good. I have no idea how long it'll take, so make yourselves comfortable out here."
Carmella waved a hand and a tall-backed red throne materialized, which she promptly sat back in, arms draped over the rests. Gilfred only made a sour face before leaning against the rock face next to the cave entrance. Dirge nodded to the pair and entered the yawning maw.
The interior of the cave, as it had been so far elsewhere in the Underworld, was plainly visible without any apparent light source making it that way. The height of the interior was just enough to avoid brushing against the top of Dirge's head, and it only took about a minute of walking to reach the central cavern. It was a roughly ovular chamber that was wider than it was tall, the porous pockmarked rock uniformly gray barring scratchings in some sort of chalk-like material that seemed to be attempts at runes.
Shrugging to himself, Dirge sat down cross-legged in the chamber's center, closing his eyes as he sought to attune himself to other senses. The ever-present handful of little bundles at the back of his mind grew closer as he picked out a specific pair of them. The connection through those had attenuated ever since he had come to the Underworld, and they weren't quite as lively now as they were in the world of the living, but he did feel a definite sense of better proximity to their owners in this place. The cave was indeed a legitimate conduit of some quality.
Dirge nudged at the first bundle and felt it stir a little, but there was nothing coherent from it. Frowning, he poked it again and watched it stir a bit more. The very real possibility that it might be in the middle of the night on the other side occurred to him, but that wasn't particularly relevant: when he called, his servants needed to answer. He nudged again, more forcefully.
The bundle stirred and a flow of information trickled out. Dirge snorted; he didn't miss that initial spike of irritation, but the sharp terror that followed it mollified that somewhat.
Acris had heard his call and would open the way shortly. Now all Dirge could do was wait and see what happened.