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Secrets of Black Sands: Libraries of Saddlelon


Ciraxis
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TT thought for a moment.  "Merely seeing the memories of who the stone once belonged to sounds oddly limited.  Like a small function of either a memory vault or mind siphon trap.  Or an incompletely enchanted artifact - it was supposed to do more, but the enchanter didn't get around to finishing the job.  We'd guess there is much more to the stone.


As to why Hou is here, probably Evil Schemes 101 : the bigwigs don't usually get involved unless it is really, really important.


She stayed hidden in the shadows for centuries, then challenged you to combat, just to stop you from potentially interfering with a robbery.


Now she's in a distant country herself, when she could've just sent some minions or henchponies."


She sighed.  "But we don't have enough info to even guess properly.  Best to hold off until we know more."


She looked around a bit, trying to locate a familiar merchant's stall, "Saddlelon is the closest town from here.  If she were going to Pharaoh's Vale, she'd have to go through Saddlelon.  If she wanted to go to Manephis the long way, the only road goes through Saddlelon.


There - really aren't that many options.  Unless you want to head out into the tractless Great Desert.  Not a good idea.


 But we do know that if you're looking for ancient knowledge, Saddlelon is the place to go.  They have libraries nearly the size of cities."


Then she noticed they were standing in front of a merchant's stall - the one she was looking for.


The Saddle Arabian native stallion noticed Tongue Twister and smiled.  "Ah, Miss Twister !  You are here moons earlier than usual."


"Yeah.  Business this time Sekani."


"Ah.  So you'll be wanting the usual gear anyway ?"


"Yep.  Times two." TT replied, gesturing to Sombra.


The merchant nodded before turning to the back of the stall and shouting some commands to two younger natives.
Within moments, she and Sombra had everything they'd need for a trip to Saddlelon.

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"I never said that was its only purpose, just that that was one of its known functions. The others I mentioned are merely speculation, possibility. Nopony really knows what all the stone does. Hou might, if she's as old as she says." Sombra snorted softly. "I think she's gone too far just to avoid a few wrinkles," he mutters, loud enough for only Tongue Twister to hear him and the derision in his voice.

As soon as Tongue Twister noticed they were at their destination, it didn't seem to take long for her to secure them the light, loose clothes that would help them in this hot climate. Sombra was quick to remove his cape and sweep on the new garb and reattach his pocket realm on the inner lining by his shoulder. His old cape disappeared into it, stored safely away for now. It felt strange without it and its subtle weight on his back, although he felt a lot better without in this climate. Give him icy cold and snow any day over this. Why hadn't Hou gone somewhere cold? Was she trying to annoy him further?

 

"If we don't need anything else, we should go ahead and head to this Saddlelon if you think that's where she's going. It's as good a destination as any." As much as he hated having to rely on somepony to show him the way, he had to for now. This was an entirely different country and he was sure Tongue Twister was the one with the map between them.

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"I never said that was its only purpose, just that that was one of its known functions. The others I mentioned are merely speculation, possibility. Nopony really knows what all the stone does. Hou might, if she's as old as she says." Sombra snorted softly. "I think she's gone too far just to avoid a few wrinkles," he mutters, loud enough for only Tongue Twister to hear him and the derision in his voice.


TT had to smirk at that.  "Well, she did suggest she's planning on outliving the universe."

 

Then got solemn and morose.

 

"Back in White Tail Woods.


We were pulling our scattered selves back together after she flooded us with dark magic."

 

She then changed her voice to a fairly good imitation of Hou Shuren.


"Nothing is Forever? Well, then it pleases me that I will be the first...  When sentient life will forget what Equestria or Long Guo were, I will be there. When Equinekind will leave it's cradle, and spill to the sea of stars, I will still be there. When this universe collapses unto itself and gives birth to a new one. I. Will. Be.There."


There are some things that are so horrid, or so bizarre, that cannot be forgotten.  Even if one wants to.


Upon further reflection, she was merely kicking us when we were down.  She noticed we were trying to recover, and by Mad Villainy 101, one should always stop such things.


If she needs souls to stay young, she'll eventually run out.  Unless there is an easy way to get to other worlds and other universes.


Then she'd be a plague of locusts that strips worlds and dimensions of souls.


That does sound scary.  But The Caretaker, He Who Waits Between Worlds, the Nothing and the All-Consuming Void don't like competition or upstarts.  They would deal with her.


If they actually exist, of course." she continued, "Ancient societies had some rather imaginative concepts of the universe, and their place in it."

 

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"If we don't need anything else, we should go ahead and head to this Saddlelon if you think that's where she's going. It's as good a destination as any." 


"Very good, sir."  TT replied as she took out her map to double check a few things.


"This is a major trade route, so the path should be easy.  Heads due south beside the Shatt-Al Malik, then the Shatt Al-Iblis.  Very few chances to get lost.
 

As the highest ranking member of this rather small team, any ideas or orders, sir ?" she inquired.
 

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"I know this, I am just venting!" sorceress said in annoyance, but without anger. "....Just trying to stay 'in touch' with my 'simpler' years. Woe to any immortal who forgets what it is, to be young." Hou mused. It was true. With age came wisdom, but as years gone by, it became harder and harder to empathize with those that didn't had such boon...and thus, harder to manipulate them.

 

"...Learn yes, but not imitate. Anypony who became 'history', simply wasn't good enough to stay in the 'game'." white mare expressed her belief.

"And regarding Sparkle....I am not foolish enough to face her head-on. No...the best course of action would be to strike from where she leat expect. But I don't want to slay her Dox. Absence of a ruler in Equestria would make things...chaotic. Unpredictable. Undesirable. No...what I want is access to those secrets and hidden vaults that my servants didn't had time or means to get to last time. There are still some secrets of arcane that Celestia hoarded all for herself....and that she now bequeathed to her successor....And speaking of Celestia..." Gou paused as she looked over the horizon, towards the spot that she knew sun will rise up in few hours.

"It would be foolish to disregard that mare just because she is 'retired'. She still surely has plans in motion, no matter how hard she pretends otherwise. I assume she wants to put herself on the sidelines, just so that most will forgot about hers and her...capabilities. In short, she's starting to act like...Me." Shuren said, flashing an satisfied grin. The say that enemies equals greatness, and that imitation is greatest form of flattery. Well, in that case...if your enemy started to imitate you....

 

"Well if that case....creating more tools and servants will make me to step up my own game. After this trip, perhaps I will pay Celestia...and Luna a visit. It's been too long since I saw the Moon-rump."

 

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Next Morning. Five Miles from Saddleon.

 

Hou and Dox were travelling at the tail and of the caravan. As the evil duo climbed up the latest dune, upon teaching it's top they could finally see the gleaming waters of Shatt al-Iblis river, and world-wide known Palaces of Thought. Unlike Palace complex in Manephis, Shuren was fond of this institution. The sorceress lowered the cloth over her muzzle before speaking

"Finally. I don't know about you Hei, but those few days make me miss a batht...." sorceress paused as her eyes grown wide for a moment...before squinting them and turning around to face the direction from were they came.

"He's here...." she said, before making a quick glance at her companion and clarifying "The Fallen Umbrum King. There is not doubt....he's following me.... Saddle Arabia is alien land for him. There is no reason for him to be here, aside from myself." she deducted before making an audacious smile. "....Somepony has a grudge....Perhaps we can take a peek..." she said, waiting for a moment for the last of the caravan to go far away enough. When it did, Hou reached towards one of her bags, pulling out an ivory wand. Using it, she drew an magical circles in the sand, each inside the other one. Despite desert wind, the writing remained undisturbed. Between the circles, she started to inscribe arcane writings...a mix of words of power from Long Guo, Whitescar, and even Unyasi. Following this she reached towards her canteen, and poured it's content at the circles - instead of soaking into the sand, the water filled the largest circle perfectly. Following that, sorceress put away the wand, reaching for pearl needle instead. The white mare rolled up the sleeve of her clothing, before puncturing her own flesh. Allowing a few droplets of blood to fall into the water, sorceress erased that self-inflicted scratch, and extended her hoof, while flaring up her magic.

"The Fallen King of Crystal Empire, Sombra." she ordered, and with those words the symbols under the water started to glow. Seconds later, reflection of Hou and Dox disappeared, the water becoming a magical window aimed at their pursuers instead....

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"I remember her saying that," Sombra replied with a soft grumble in his voice. "She intends to live forever from the sound of it. Personally I don't think any mortal born creatures should live past their natural expiration. Who knows what madness she might fall to." The king heaved a soft sigh and left one ear tilted towards Tongue Twister as he looked around at their surroundings, his expression set in a thoughtful scowl while the mare talked.

 

"I never believed in gods. The closest we might have to them would probably be the royal sisters, and even then they might still be able to be slain. Nothing has managed to do so, so far, so we'll never know until it happens." His eyes narrowed in thought. That was something he certainly tried when fighting them for the Crystal Empire, but they were alicorns, not ponies, and they were rather tough. Princess Luna was more of the skilled fighter of the two, while Celestia relied more on her magic; he recalled she'd somewhat kept her distance from him in the middle of it. Up until the end, anyway, when they combined their magic against him.

 

Sombra glanced over at Tongue Twister and her map, pulling himself out his memories. "Due south?" he repeated. "Well, I think the only thing I have to say is 'lead the way.' I'd prefer to get going."

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"We've never understood the appeal of immortality, sir." TT stated with a shrug as she looked at a clear oval crystal before putting it back in her robes, "Some ponies can't find things to do on a lazy afternoon; but extending that to years, or centuries ?


We can see an extension of a few years, or maybe a decade or two.  But only if there is an important task that only we could accomplish.  Part of the definition of being mortal born is you are born, you live for awhile, then you die.  Like everything else that exists - even civilizations, mountain ranges and stars have finite lifespans !


Anything that lives can be killed, if only for a little while.  It is merely a question of how.


But as the ancient cultists supposedly said : 'That is not dead which can eternal lie, and with strange aeons, even death may die.' "


After checking her map, they headed due south.


"And off to the right, in that gap in the Antlion Mountain range, is Pharaoh's Vale.  Testing location and burial location of generations of Saddle Arabians.  And quite a few very troublesome entities and items." she announced,  "We'll need to get on the other side of the river, sir.  Either here or over a bridge later.  Otherwise, the Shatt al Malik starts heading northwest, then south.  It will pass Saddlelon, but the journey would be twice as long."


She looked at the crystal again.  It was now swirled sky blue and white.


"We were wondering when this would happen." she stated, "We are being watched.  Don't know by who, or where.  But somepony is using surveillance magic."

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Dox didn’t have anything to really say in response to Hou’s words during the night, since he largely agreed with her anyways, so he had let things sit as they were and go back to his reading. When they eventually came into sight of the Palaces of Thought the next day, he smiled and nodded to the bath comment. When she mentioned Sombra, he closed his eyes briefly as he concentrated, confirming Hou’s claim as he felt Sombra’s magic out there. 
 

“You know there’s easier ways to do that, right? At least for a target you are familiar with, like you are with Sombra. It’s how I watched you during the Running of the Leaves. How’d the meetup go afterwards, by the way? With that bat stallion and earth mare you seemed to have your eye on.” Dox said, giving her a playful nudge at that last part. Hou had certainly cast a successful and functional scrying spell, but he still felt the method he used had been sufficient, and it did not require blood like this one had. 

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Upon Dox mention of spell's lack of subtlety, Hou averted gaze from the scrying pool.

"I want them to know. Awareness of being watched...it might make them more careful, but it also might as well prompt them into foolish mistakes due to paranoia. And even if not....forcing them to be provident will significantly slow them down. Now, hold on...the image is a little blurry...." sorceress said as she did necessary adjustments....

 

Sombra was of course expected....but his companion...

"Nnnnnnnow, that's quite an surprise!" Hou said, barely suppressing an amused chuckle. "I assumed that this mare would run for the hill upon hint of sight of me...but I am wrong. I wonder....is that overabundance of recklessness...or lack of common sense....this 'Experiment' of mine is plagued by?" Shuren said with a grin that was downright predatory.

 

Not that she could keep going about it...cause her colleague apparently decided here and now was a good time to ask about her personal life out of all things! She wanted to berate Dox for this, but memories of that evening put her in a better mood. A very good mood.

"Well, what do you think?" she asked, while unconsciously flashing a grin that was half-prurient and half-triumphant. She decided that Dox didn't had to know, that she planned for the regular trips to small town. After all, the best place to hide something, was in plain sight....

 

After a moment Hou waved her hoof dismissively. The small talk was better left for hotel room or a meal in one of numerous restaurants of Saddleon.

"....I find it strange that Sombra chose to pursue me so soon after our last meeting. It was quite a one-sided encounter. Why chose to avenge his loss now? Unlike you or me, he can't rapidly increase his power...." sorceress started to put her analytical skills to work. "Despite his obliviousness in certain regards, Fallen King is not an fool.....Either he got his hooves on artifact of great magical power, or secured reliable alliance. Perhaps both." she mused. "At least, the later almost certain. He had to get intel about my presence in Arabia from somewhere. The mare you see probably acted as a liaison...she was there when I schooled him after all. And since I doubt he gave her post address, it means that she's member of some group with great resources." Shuren deducted.

"After all, I don't exactly see him booking a ticket on ocean liner. Not to mention his arrival had to be rather quick. This mean that whoever he made a deal with, had to possess resources great enough for quick travel by air. Hmmmm...could it be that he overcame his animus against them, and met with Equestria's Princesses?" Hou theorized. She herself alluded to her many battles with Celestia. Did Sombra decided to head the well know wisdom about 'enemy of my enemy'? Still, not enough info to draw a proper picture of the situation.

 

"Hhhmph...perhaps we can eavesdrop as well?" white mare said, adjusting the spell once again.

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The king twitched an ear towards his companion as they headed out, leaving the scattered buildings and stalls of the little town for sprawling desert hills of sand and not a single tree in sight. Something was beginning to prickle up his spine, a feeling that he couldn't quite name while some of his focus was on what Tongue Twister had to say about immortality. "The Crystal Heart.. I thought it destroyed me, and yet here I am. Either it failed to do its job well enough, or.. it can't kill me. I'm not sure what could at this point if it couldn't," Sombra mused, tilting his head to fix Tongue Twister with one sharp red eye, the pupil a mere vertical slit against the sunlight here. "There's a lot I don't know about being umbrum."

He turned away, his mouth set in a thoughtful line. "The river we'll be able to cross easily, and we won't necessarily need to find a bridge when I could simply make one. It would cut off some time searching for one or making a lengthy, unnecessary detour."

 

Sombra flicked his tail, as if swatting at a fly that wasn't there- or perhaps it was, in a sense. The feeling was only stronger now, and it wasn't put into words until Tongue Twister spoke it aloud after he caught her staring at a peculiar crystal. His dark brows furrowed.

"Figures," he grumbled, glancing up and around. His nostrils flared when he snorted, mildly annoyed, and a faint spark of dark magic started up around his horn, black fizzling in the depths of green and purple hues. "I bet I know exactly who is watching, and perhaps even listening in." His magic flared testily for a moment before he worked on focusing it. He knew a few things, even that which he came up himself, and he wondered if he could still manage to disrupt such magic. The princesses hadn't been able to spy on him, much less anypony else, while he ruled the Crystal Empire; he'd been unstable and quite paranoid then, with his curses, spells, and traps that made the castle such a hard thing to navigate for anypony that wasn't him unless he let them. He was going to try to now, just to spite her, and all without breaking his long stride.

"If she's spying, then I'm sure she already knows I'm coming for her."

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The king twitched an ear towards his companion as they headed out, leaving the scattered buildings and stalls of the little town for sprawling desert hills of sand and not a single tree in sight. Something was beginning to prickle up his spine, a feeling that he couldn't quite name while some of his focus was on what Tongue Twister had to say about immortality. "The Crystal Heart.. I thought it destroyed me, and yet here I am. Either it failed to do its job well enough, or.. it can't kill me. I'm not sure what could at this point if it couldn't," Sombra mused, tilting his head to fix Tongue Twister with one sharp red eye, the pupil a mere vertical slit against the sunlight here. "There's a lot I don't know about being umbrum."

 

"We would surmise you know more about it than anypony else, sir." TT replied, "But the ability to keep coming back after being destroyed is a common element in mythology.  Creatures not native to this dimension could supposedly 'project' themselves into ours, forming a body out of local material. Since the projection is merely a shell, it could be destroyed, and all that would happen is the invader would be sent back home to stew for a bit.  Or gather enough energy to try again, and again, and again, and again.  The only way to permanently defeat them is to destroy them in their home dimension.

 

So unless somepony can get into the Umbrum and 'deal with' you there, you may be technically invincible.  That won't help against being imprisoned in stone or on the moon, but short of that, you may have a lifespan closer to stars than ponies.

 

But who's to say, really ?" she finished with a shrug, "Not enough data to be sure."

 

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He turned away, his mouth set in a thoughtful line. "The river we'll be able to cross easily, and we won't necessarily need to find a bridge when I could simply make one. It would cut off some time searching for one or making a lengthy, unnecessary detour."

 

TT smiled.  "This road has been a major trade route for millennia, sir.  Crossing should be no problem."

 

Sombra flicked his tail, as if swatting at a fly that wasn't there- or perhaps it was, in a sense. The feeling was only stronger now, and it wasn't put into words until Tongue Twister spoke it aloud after he caught her staring at a peculiar crystal. His dark brows furrowed.

 

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"Figures," he grumbled, glancing up and around. His nostrils flared when he snorted, mildly annoyed, and a faint spark of dark magic started up around his horn, black fizzling in the depths of green and purple hues. "I bet I know exactly who is watching, and perhaps even listening in." His magic flared testily for a moment before he worked on focusing it. He knew a few things, even that which he came up himself, and he wondered if he could still manage to disrupt such magic. The princesses hadn't been able to spy on him, much less anypony else, while he ruled the Crystal Empire; he'd been unstable and quite paranoid then, with his curses, spells, and traps that made the castle such a hard thing to navigate for anypony that wasn't him unless he let them. He was going to try to now, just to spite her, and all without breaking his long stride.

"If she's spying, then I'm sure she already knows I'm coming for her."

 

"So THAT'S Umbral magic !" TT noted to herself, "Last seen in major use about a thousand years ago.  Feels different than most darker magics we've been around."

 

"Who else would it be ?" she asked, "We're merely surprised it took her this long to get around to doing it."

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  • 3 weeks later...

Dox simply hummed, listening to Hou's speculation about Sombra as he watched the scrying spell. He narrowed his eyes a bit as he saw Sombra's horn start to light up, pausing a moment to consider his options before his own started glowing as well. Weaving his own spells into Hou's, Dox made it much more difficult to counter as well as activating sound so the two ancients could hear Sombra and his companion, and creating some backups. No need to underestimate Sombra's abilities at countering magic, especially Hou's, since the former king was more familiar with her.

 

"There we go, that should hold him back for a while if he wants to stop our surveillance." Dox said, nodding. He was tempted to provide more physical obstacles, but conjuring something that would provide a challenge over such a great distance would take more time and energy than he cared to put into it at the moment. He had to make sure he was ready for when they arrived, after all.

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"Hhhh it should stop him yes....But should we allowed him to know that we could?" Hou mused before grinning. "Sombra works best when he has time to prepare. However as far as social interactions go...he's lousy. And one who knows this, can run mental circles around him by playing mind games." sorceress pointed out, before lowering her canteen. Water, obediently came back into the flask, cutting the spell short.

"They would be on guard right now, so us watching them right now wouldn't amount to much. Not that I don't appreciate an helping hoof with it Hei." she said with slight smile before her expression turning serious. ".....The surely know that you are with me. We been together since my departure from the ship. This mare...her name's a Tongue Twister. From what I learned during my last visit to Ponyville four months ago - time well spent by the way, very relaxing - she's...historian and translator of sorts....no...perhaps 'omniglot in training' would be a better description. Her presence here is no surprise, digging through ruins is a passion of hers. This however, implies that she knows Saddle Arabia well. She certainly fluent with local language, customs etc. Not much combat ability however, at least compared to us. Either you or me could break her over the knee like a twig. This means that in their duo, she will be the face, doing all the talking and investigating, while Sombra will just stand there, adding the intimidation factor...." Hou shared with her colleague what she knew about the mare. "This means she will notice things that are...out of place. But unfortunately for them, I have many local servants...and thuse we can turn her perception against her." Hou grinned evilly. "We have planning to do." she announced and turned back towards the Saddleon.

 

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Three Hours Later - Hotel Saddleon Al Jaddaf

 

"So...." Hou said, as she stepped out from penthouse bathroom wrapped in towels. "We should review our advantages and potential strategy." white mare said as she sat down on very luxurious couch, opposite to Dox. Of course her changeling colleague probably arrived to pretty much the same conclusions as herself, but it didn't hurt to say all of them aloud.

"The biggest one would be of course you Hei. While Sombra knows me at least a little, you are complete enigma to him. He knows nothing of your true nature nor capabilities. We should keep it that way as long as possible. Perhaps you can pretend to be entirety that is powerful, but with known weaknesses? Thus those two will waste time and effort on useless countermeasures. Jiangshi perhaps?" she pondered, before waving her hoof "Well, you will be the one playing this role, so I leave the exact choice to you. Second..." Shuren tried to continue, but was interrupted by knocking to their door. The two didn't order any hotel service, so that couldn't be the staff. However knocking had..pattern to it. One that Hou recognized and smiled upon hearing.

"Enter." she said, as she used telekinesis to unlock doors from afar.

"Lady Shuren..." said the bearded saddle arabian stallion, with his head lowered in reverence. His hair where half grey with age, while garb traditional. Overall, ordinary citizen from Saddle Arabia. He could be anyone, trader, craftsman, or even retired soldier. What was important was the suitcase that he brought with himself.

"Did you brought what I requested?" sorceress asked, while taking off the towel around her head.

"All that and more! We even gathered accessories to go along with them." the stallion confirmed, while setting the suitcase aside.

"Good, I approve your initiative Umair Ibn Khaldun. What about preparations for Him?" Shuren inquired.

"We carved image of Fallen King into out minds, hearts and souls Lady Shuren! We will not fail in our efforts to stall him!" Umair confirmed.

"Good. Remember, don't try to fight him, or outright lie to him. He is perceptive when it comes to blatant lies, and too strong for you to slow him in battle. However, there is another difficult obstacle that cropped out...." sorceress announced, as she reached into her luggage. What she pulled out was copy of commemorative photo made after Running of Leaves. Hou quickly pointed at the mare with '1st Place Medal' before hoofing her servant the photo in question.

"This mare is named Tongue Twister, Equestrian, and she is travelling with Tyrant of Crystal Empire. She knows your language, your customs and is very quick of mind. You all must be trice as careful when deceiving her. Better to tell her that you saw us, then pretend to do otherwise. But make sure you responses are detailed and has flawless logic. Spread around information about her to our network.Also.....Despite how easy it could appear to be, don't hurt her or kill her, understood?"

"Of course Dark Lady. Is there anything else we can do for you?"

"Actually yes. Make sure to include our inside equines in the gaur and the military. I very much doubt those two - or STAR for that matter - act with approval of the local government, and I am certain they would not approve of known tyrant and dark warlock...." Shuren smirked at the irony "...sniffling around the country."

"As you command Lady Shuren." Umair said as he bowed out, correctly recognizing his mistress tone as a sign that he was dismissed.

 

As the doors closed, Hou turned her attention back to Dox.

"Before you ask, she is...pet project of mine. Let's just say I pumped her full of raw, dark magic, and now I am waiting to see where this will go." she said. "I prefer...to keep her around, so  to see the fruit of my 'experiment' on her." Shuren admitted. Her gaze shifted towards the item Umair brough along.

"Now...about our second advantage..." Hou opened the suitcase, to show her travelling companion dozens upon dozen of ID's passports and other documents  confirming ones identity.

"I even gone for extra and included some disguises your made in the past, around this area." she said, as she rummaged in those documents. She smiled as she saw few familiar masks Hei used to wear over the years. And many that she wore herself. Ahhh, nostalgia!

 

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Sombra became aware of a second presence of magic, and he knew it to be whoever Hou Shuren's companion was. He would definitely make a note of it, even as he dug his heels into the sand and pushed back against the combined resistance before.. the magic disappeared entirely, and that eerie feeling of being watched vanished. The king blinked, entirely caught by surprise. What had that been about?

Maybe Hou's companion was making a foolish show of keeping their scry open, only for Hou to decide it was a waste of time now that he was aware of them, and ended it? He could think of no other possibility, because his magic certainly hadn't broken the link- that was something he would've felt. His magic roiled around his curved horn for a few minutes longer before he let it fade, his lips twisted in a frown that spoke much of his annoyance. And here he thought he could have had a chance to spite Hou. Maybe the next time they had to deal with this, he could especially tell her companion to stay out of it.

 

His tail lashed behind him and he grunted, giving Tongue Twister a glance that conveyed how he felt about what just happened. "They've stopped for now. Let's move on, shall we?"

Sombra gave himself a shake and started off, grumbling under his breath before he thought to return to the conversation he and Tongue Twister were having previously.

 

"As far as I'm aware, I'm not a projection from some dimension. I was still very much present throughout my loss of body, and even during my banishment at that." He gestured with his head in an equivalent to a shrug while he walked, at ease for the moment. He'd fall silent, mulling over that vague encounter on their way deeper into the desert. He had a feeling he'd felt that other magic before.. but he couldn't be entirely sure of it yet. There had been Magnus, and then of course there had been Dox, and that particular meeting hadn't gone anywhere. Maybe the next time some creature came to him asking to learn magic, he would simply turn them down instead of giving away any sort of information.. especially when they were connected to Hou.

 

He would remain in a sour silence, unless there were any other snippets of conversation to engage in with Tongue Twister.

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Sombra became aware of a second presence of magic, and he knew it to be whoever Hou Shuren's companion was. He would definitely make a note of it, even as he dug his heels into the stand and pushed back against the combined resistance before.. the magic disappeared entirely, and that eerie feeling of being watched vanished. The king blinked, entirely caught by surprise. What had that been about?


TT had noticed Sombra's magic flaring, and him looking annoyed.  "They've stopped for now.  Let's move on, shall we?"


"As you wish, sir." she answered after checking her Squealer's Stone - it was back to its resting state.  "Pity one can never find a cockatrice or a banshee when you need them.  But, then again, how often does one actually need them ?" she groused to herself.

 

"That was probably just a bully's poke.  A demonstration of power to show they could mess with us if they desired, and we could do nothing in return.


But since we already know they're here, that was kinda pointless." 


Sombra gave himself a shake and started off, grumbling under his breath before he thought to return to the conversation he and Tongue Twister were having previously.


"As far as I'm aware, I'm not a projection from some dimension. I was still very much present throughout my loss of body, and even during my banishment at that." 


TT shuddered, trying to imagine what that must have felt like.  "Well, it was just a possibility." TT stated, "One of many, and with little information to sort out higher from lower chance of being right, it will have to remain just a musing.


Speaking of musings, do you have a plan about what we should do once we catch up to Hou and her ally, sir ?  It - didn't go very well the last time."


She sighed.  "But, then again, no one knew what she could do the last time.  Now we do.


There was an old Feng Huang saying  : Your greatest strength is your greatest weakness.  Every time she shows off her power she gives us a hint.  


Hou is a plotter.  She has wheels within wheels within wheels, all spinning in perfect accord.


All it would take to bring it all crashing down is a little well-placed chaos.  Some disinformation to get a few of the wheels going the wrong way.


We didn't have a way to do that - until now !  If she's even a tenth as smart as she thinks she is, she'll have a few of her agents looking for us in the next town.  To 'deal with' any ponies that are asking about her.

 

Not sure whether they'll go for the 'Las Pegasus mob' solution, or just  the 'harass, misdirect and stall us' routine.  But they will be in contact with their boss.


From Sun Tzu's The Art of War 'No soldier is closer to a leader in the whole army than his spies.'  Fooling a few of those could be just as good as tricking Hou herself."
 

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Dox shrugged as Hou stopped her magic, canceling his as well. He had wanted to see how far Sombra would go to disable the scrying, but oh well. This was Hou’s show, mostly, so he was content to play along for now and see where things went. It was interesting to hear what she knew about their two pursuers, especially the pegasus that was apparently quite knowledgeable. He always did enjoy meeting a fellow scholar. He nodded as she finished, walking towards their destination with her.  
 

———————

 

Dox looked up from his book as Hou emerged from the shower, humming a bit as she began going over their advantages and a possible plan. 
 

“Seems somewhat strange to have a creature that doesn’t like sunlight to be wandering the desert during the day. I’ll have to think of something else.” He chuckled at her suggestion, though the arrival at the door interrupted any further conversation. Dox examined the stallion silently as he spoke to Hou, looking at the briefcase as he left. Tongue Twister was Hou’s experiment now, hmm? Interesting. 
 

“IDs, hmm? Those certainly are useful.” Dox nodded, sorting through a stack he was floating in his magic. His were, of course, a bit more varied. The benefits of changeling magic. Still, he smiled a bit at the memories, some of these had provided very fun times.  

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  • 5 weeks later...

"Oh those documents are more then useful. They will grant us even greater potential to move discretely, and we will exploit that potential maliciously." sorceress said with a grin.

"After all, Twister and Sombra are looking for myself accompanied by a stallion...but what about a pair of newly-weds? Elderly Professor and his assistant? Two mares on vacation?" she asked, fully aware his potential for disguise was greater then hers, and thus, not limited by gender.

"Of course this brings us to the next advantage we have over them.....they may know that I may search for secrets of the Stone......but they unaware about Stone's connection with pharaoh Teti-Ra...." Hous said, before showing Hei what she found in basement of Xuanwu Temple. This in turn, was followed by lengthy explanation about the ancient book, the golden disk, and Stone's relation to ancient ruler.

"....So, as you see, there is no way they could know what we seek. No to mention I doubt that copies of the book I found - if they exist - would be available to public. Besides, Teti-Ra is both half-myth and final goal, but it's his grandson tomb we seek to point the way to it. And if I recall correctly, he is one of Twelve Kings who's final resting place is still to be discovered. Of course, unlike those other aspiring vultures and tomb raiders, we have the disc. With yours and my magic find Theth'Ka resting place in Pharaoh's Vale would be but a formality.....but I would like to find more information of this king first. And even more so about the priests and magus's who's spells undoubtedly protect that tomb." the mare mused, before pausing. Then, an a deceitful  flint appeared in her eyes.

"...And speaking of protection......I honestly doubt that Saddle Arabian authorities would be fond of having known warlock, Dark King Sombra on their territory. And it's very dubitable, that he has valid visa either...." she said with a smirk, before throwing one of the ID's at Dox. It depicted a pony that - according to the document in question - was local.

"I guess some dutiful and concerned citizens should...bring his presence to...attention....."

 

 * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Two Days Later: The Palace's Of Thought - Shatt al-Iblis North Bank, Hanging Gardens

 

Forty-eight hours later, an inconspicuous pair was walking on the massive open-air trotway linking the four ziggurats. The broad shouldered, muscular zebra that looked like Clawifax business-stallion, and bespectacled mousy mare that appeared to be his assistant.

 

"[This search is more challenging then expected....]" Hou said, In one of Unyasi languages, to keep the appearances. "[At least our other effort are bearing fruit.]" sorceress mused before looking left. One of the locals was just now glueing the wanted poster, depicting Tyrant of Crystal Empire to the notice board.

 

After Hou and Dox got their resource's from Shuren's followers, the got to work intimidate. Using the ID's, the sinister pair rented rooms in eight different hotels - all under different disguises -with resolve to rest at different one each night, at random. This should make them untraceable. Using the ID's showing local equines, the two then made report of their sighting soft foreign dark magic user. Separately, and further confirmed by those of Hou's servants who were shortly ago travelling. And since Saddle Arabia had good relations with Equestria's - and 'Sombra's' attempt to subjugate it a year back - were well known already, this resulted with warlock king being assigned a bounty for him, and anypony else who was aiding Sombra. Of course Hou's servants planted in Minister of Public Safety and in in Arabia's army greatly speed up this process....

 

Hou of course had no delusions of Saddle Arabia officials or military to detain Sombra for long, if at all. But he will surely be greatly inconvenienced. What's better, any attempts to fight back will surely make his situation worse, and Princesses of Equestria won't be able to help him (if they helped him at all earlier. Hou still wasn't sure about that) without losing credibility. One day they say he's great danger, and next he's an ally? This would make it appear that Equestria's is fabricating danger's to gain political advantage.

 

Of course, as brilliant constructed this plan was, it didn't helped with their search for any writings about Theth'Ka at all. The first ziggurat, despite it's massive size - was very scant with information about ancient pharaoh's life and royal court. Spending day and a half there, Shuren and Hei moved to the next one, with hopes it's archives would be more informative.

"[I still remember when they were building them...]" Hou mused about the Hanging Gardens they were traveling through "[Not the first Hanging Garden's, but certainly the most impressive. Longri-la - if they could see them - would get their scales green with envy.]" sorceress expressed with satisfaction. For Dox - being most privy to Hou's backstory - her enmity towards dragons of the east was no secret.

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Tongue Twister's hidden wings twitched under her cape as she and Sombra trudged along - as they usually did when she was deep in thought.


"What could she be after ?" she groused, "Saddle Arabia and the Pharoah's Vale are home to ancient knowledge and powerful artifacts.  The likes the which Equestria hasn't seen for millennia.  Could that stone be part of a matched set of horrible items ?  One to steal memories, one to shove false ones in, and the Mind's Eye gem to get a clear view of what needs to be done ?  The instructions on how to make such things would be worse than the items themselves !

 
And that is something that might be tucked away in a forgotten tome in a secret room in the Palaces of Thought !"
she finished with a shudder.


She took a few deep breaths to calm down.  She didn't have enough information to figure out Hou's final goal, so there was no sense burning her brain out trying to guess.


"Focus on what you can do.  Focus on what you do know." she quietly chanted to herself, "What I do know is we might need a bit of money soon !


I was planning on being on vacation for a few weeks.  But this mission to figure out what Hou Shuren is up to and, if possible, stop it takes precedence.


No point trying to pick up Hou's trail - she knows we're here, and she didn't get to be thousands of years old by being stupid.  Probably pulled the fake ID shuffle, at least six identities deep given her near unlimited resources, making her and her friend nearly untraceable by normal means.


But like daddy says : when normal means are shut down, go to ABnormal means !  And magic is the most abnormal means of all !


I should be able to make use of the Law of Contagion, given I have some of Hou's 'freely given' magic running through me.  Just need to find a long stick, some alchemic chalk and candles, and some open space.  Or a small bag of iron filings or ball bearings ...


Since Hou and accomplice are hiding, the odds of running into them by accident is virtually nil.  And when dealing with powerful magic wielders, one does NOT want to encounter them without a very good plan !  So that sort of twisted to our advantage.


Which leaves the money situation ...


Well, the good news is that since Sombra is here, that means this is an official STAR mission.  I can just file for reimbursement to cover whatever costs we accrue.


The bad news is that requires paperwork back at base.  And a short wait.  I doubt any of the banks around here have a transfer agreement with accounts back in Equestria.  I HAVE funds back home - but I doubt I can access any of them here in Saddle Arabia !"


She had just strolled past a freshly posted sign while deep in thought - but backed up to take a closer look at it.


"What fresh pile of lies is this ?!" she exclaimed to Sombra, "A bounty ?  On you and anypony aiding you ?"


"Well, that would solve the money issue if I could pull a Las Pegasus double dip !" she mused to herself, "Turn Sombra over, then break him out once I get the bounty.  But that would get us deeper in whatever trouble we're in now.  And we'd most likely be forced to leave Saddle Arabia - leaving Hou and company free to do whatever they like unimpeded !


Enlisting the law to hinder your foes.  Clever !  Just like what the crime families in Las Pegasus used to do to their 'competitors' - why attack them yourself when a simple tip to the law can have them taken out of the picture with no effort from you ?"


Tongue Twister started thinking up a cover story - she, at least, had a reason to be in Saddle Arabia.  Explaining Sombra might take some effort.  She figured the best cover story would be the truth - or a very carefully edited 90% of it ....

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Sombra fell into a brooding silence throughout a chunk of their journey, with a few wandering thoughts here and there about what Hou might actually be up to here. There wasn't much more he could wonder that he hadn't already asked others and himself, and it felt like too much of a continual, circular distraction to keep worrying away at it with questions. When Tongue Twister spoke up eventually to ask her own questions, he gave her some of his attention through turning an ear her way. Sombra doubted that there were other, connected items to the Remembrance Stone, but he couldn't entirely dismiss it as a possibility despite those abilities already being speculated on for the Stone itself.

He chose not to say anything on the matter only because he didn't want to fall into a conversation involving more thoughts and speculations again. He let Tongue Twister mutter to herself while he surveyed the sandy desert around them up until her exclamation grabbed his attention, drawing it towards a sign he hadn't noticed while he was lost in his own thoughts.

The king stopped and stepped back to stare at the wanted poster, which had not only a bounty on him, but a crude drawing of his appearance on it. No doubt taken from whatever descriptions existed of him from Equestria- he doubted they had any actual pictures of him.

 

"It figures Hou would try something so petty as this," Sombra grumbled. "As if she thinks I'm incapable of just making a disguise for myself with magic." The umbrum rolled his eyes and shook his head in disdain. "I never bothered with one before since I usually kept away from ponies and hadn't had much of a need to, at least up until that nonsense with whatever Discord-made fake that he made to attack Canterlot."

Sombra sighed softly through his nose, a flicker of his dark magic curling up around his horn in a thoughtful way. "How close are we to civilization if there's a sign here? I think I can make us some disguises if need be."

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Well well, this information about the book was quite interesting indeed, and Dox nodded along as he jotted down notes. On a separate sheet, he wrote down the topics Hou wished to know more about, his horn glowing brighter for a moment before the paper disappeared. A moment later, he nodded to himself, turning his attention to the id Hou had thrown him and her idea to inconvenience their pursuers. That would be a trivial matter, so he nodded in agreement. 
 

———————

 

Now in the form of a muscular zebra, Dox walked along with Hou, pouring over the relevant information he had copied down from their search so far, trying to figure it out. The picture was incomplete though, the answer unclear. Hopefully the servants he had sent ahead to search the other archives had found something more helpful by now. 
 

“[Yes, as do I. Amazing what was built back then without all the advancements we have today.]” He responded, looking around at the garden as they walked. 

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Quote

"It figures Hou would try something so petty as this," Sombra grumbled. "As if she thinks I'm incapable of just making a disguise for myself with magic." The umbrum rolled his eyes and shook his head in disdain. "I never bothered with one before since I usually kept away from ponies and hadn't had much of a need to, at least up until that nonsense with whatever Discord-made fake that he made to attack Canterlot."

 

"One can never be sure what spells any given unicorn knows." TT thought to herself, "Theoretically, any unicorn with enough power and skill could alter their appearance with an illusion.  Just so few have any need or desire to learn such a feat."

 

Quote

Sombra sighed softly through his nose, a flicker of his dark magic curling up around his horn in a thoughtful way. "How close are we to civilization if there's a sign here? I think I can make us some disguises if need be."

 

TT looked around to get her bearings.  "We're about an hour away from a town, sir.  And about a day or so away from the Palaces of Thought.  You're the only one that should need a disguise, since no one will notice me if they don't recognize you.  And I have spent months here doing research over the years, so some locals recognizing me would not be all that strange or concerning. 

 

Hopefully the Librarian's Truism will keep Hou and company stalled for a bit - the bigger the library, the longer it takes to search for one desired reference.

 

Even an army would need days, maybe weeks, to do a proper search of the Palaces."

 

Tongue Twister sighed, recalling that her mom could not only calculate the expected search time, but give the odds of Hou succeeding by then.

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  • 2 weeks later...

"[....They build easier, but not smarter. Few centuries ago, when you wanted to rise a monument, you had to spend whole hill of gold and twenty or so years toiling over it. But because of those costs, they were made to last. Serpent's Wall stands for 20 centuries (it's doubtful usefulness notwithstanding), some pyramids from this realm for over 40. Which modern construction has expected life that's half length of that?]" sorceress scoffed. She didn't exactly belonged to the crowd of old, dry pensioners that rambled that everything was better in their youth, but when it came down to architecture, she really believed that building method of the past were much more solid. Being old enough to see many of those methods turn from 'new' to 'classic' probably helped. And speaking of classics....

 

"[Hei....I have an idea...before we dive head-first into more books and volumes...]"

 

 

 * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

 

 

2 Hours Later - Roof of the Ziggurat.

 

"Finally" Hou exclaimed, after they were don scribbling two large magic circles on the building's roof. They used twelve pieces of enchanted chalk, but with their combined expedience, they were able to avoid and mistakes that would require them to re-write the symbols. They were even sure to choose correct chalk color, so the circles were almost invisible from the air.

"This should be enough of an insurance. Now, back to..." unicorn mare sighted "...reading."

 

 * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

 

Many Hours Later. 6 P.M. - Inside Palace of Thought

 

Hou - still under illusion of earth pony secretary rubbed her hurting temple. Next to her, on the reading table, was a pile of books about Ancient Arabia. It was two hours before library will be closed for a day, and all their work yielded no results so far despite search volume after volume. She didn't knew if Hei had similar problems, due to them splitting up to conduct more effective search....but judging how he still was somewhere in-between the shelves, that was probably the case.

"[......If that keeps going, I am about to kill somepony.]" sorceress murmured in Unyasi language. Somepony like say...Sombra. Of course, fallen king was far, far more durable then normal equine....but at least he would be good target to vent her frustrations right now. As it was, she had to elude him for as long as she could. Hou only hoped that he and Twister will be stalled enough by Saddle Arabian forces. At least both her manechaurian agents planted in them, and bribed officers should be enough to prevent them from talking their way out of the situation.

 

Her thoughts were interrupted by a sting. No, that was the wrong word for it. It was more like having your flesh pulled by a pincer, but painless. Pulled by her own magic, but from outside.

How in the....?

 

Hou straightened up when realization came to her. Law of Contagion! She didn't put up any jamming spells, and that little squirrel was using it to get her location! So...not only and linguist and historian, but also educated enough about arcane despite being pegasus and daughter of the street rat.

"Clever girl....." Shuren growled under her breath.

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IpIdmkv.png?1

 

Saddle Arabia was hot. Really really hot. The atmosphere was dry. Bellissima Stella couldn't help but drink water every two minutes. The poor spoiled unicorn honestly wanted to go home. She shouldn't never agreed to a concert- especially since this was a rather small audience. She peaked through the curtains on the stage, seeing only a few hundred ponies sitting there, patiently waiting in the hot weather. Barely any wind was circulating. Bell felt hot and miserable in her outfit. The mare was wearing her famous dress that beautifully compliments her coat color. Her eyes popped in a way that would make any pony look her way. Though her looks were attractive, her voice was too. It was so angelic and peaceful. Her slow songs really proved it, but her other pop-music was too upbeat to really encompass her true talent. It was all okay though, because her songs were catchy. 

 

She peaked her head through the currents again, sighing at the outcome. She was used to thousands of fans. Her mind traced back to the hot weather again. The only thing she felt at this point was a small fan pointing her way. She trotted over to her mirror, beginning to hum one of her songs. The unicorn's horn became an aura of blue as she lifted her mascara, slowly applying some on her lashes. She began to sing quietly. 

 

"Here, where the sky's falling
I'm covered in blue
I'm running and I'm crawling
Fighting for you
When the rain stops, then, darling
What will I do?
And I know I go all in
But why do I?"

 

She put the mascara down, than began fixing her eye makeup. 

 

You give me a reason, something to believe in
I know, I know, I know
You give me a meaning, something I can breathe in
I know, I know, I know
It's a bittersweet feeling
Longing, and I'm leaving
I go, I go, I go
But I wish I was there with you
Oh, I wish I was there with you

 

One of her managers rushed in, trying to grab the unicorn's attention. Bell ignored him. 

 

There's a crack in my window
A bird in my room
Angels all over

That watch over you

 

Her manager started to yell at her.

 

When I'm walking on water
All my dreams have come true
Still, nothing means nothing
Without you
You

 

He finally tapped on her shoulder with his hoof. Bell whipped her head over to him in annoyance. "What can you possibly want so incompetently? If you weren't so inept, you would know to never touch me before a performance!" 

 

The manager rolled his eyes, ignoring Bellissima's hostile attitude. "You're on in like- 5 minutes, Miss." 

 

Bell's eyes shrunk. "Yes, I'm completely aware. Now get out of my profile. You're melting my makeup with your disastrous body heat." 

 

What she didn't know, was complaining about this would be minor compared to the future...

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The king rumbled softly at how much closer that they were getting to Hou Shuren. Just a day or so away.. If she was kept busy in such a vast library like what Tongue Twister hinted to, then they might be able to catch up sooner. Might even get to be nipping at Hou Shuren's heels soon enough, if they weren't tripped up by whatever flimsy attempt at barriers that the sorceress was going to try to erect against him. His tail flicked and Sombra looked down at his long, grey legs as he walked.

It would be best that he took a disguise, and it might even be smart enough to go with the form of a mare; the ones looking for him wouldn't be expecting that. A couple of colorful, pastel Equestrian mares breezing in through town wouldn't be as suspicious as any description of a mare and a stallion would be, the latter's height excluded. He would quietly work on a disguise during the remaining hour they had before they reached the next town, and by the time that they had he would be nothing more than an average-sized mare of pastel colors; pale blue coat and a mane with a gradient from pink to pale orange down a shoulder-length mane of curls. Teal eyes peered out from underneath the white hood of the clothes that were still kept in place, merely altered to match this mare's form.

Sombra had spent the time quietly muttering to himself to test out a voice for his disguise, altering his spell until he had something he thought was fitting enough, but for the most part he was silent by the time they strode into town among the square, tan buildings. It was a dull little town, expected of something sitting out in a desert.

Edited by dragonofruin
removed something :)
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Tongue Twister was actually impressed at Sombra's illusory disguise, since it was not a commonly used spell.  He even managed to alter his voice !  She'd seen unicorn spell matrices before in her dad's shop, so she knew that it was a moderately difficult spell.


Theoretically, any unicorn with sufficient power and skill could cast a disguise illusion, but like arcane bolts and teleportation, most didn't learn unless it was needed for their Talent, or had time and power to investigate the finer points of spellcrafting.


It was like walking backwards from Canterlot to Manehattan - one could do it if they really wanted to and tried, but ...... why ?


She noticed the stage being set up, then Sombra's questioning look.


She cleaned the dust off her glasses to get a clearer view.


"Hmmm.  It looks like an entertainer is setting up for a show." she answered his unstated question before looking around, "Not a very big venue though.  And kind of out in the middle of nowhere." 
 

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“[Things are built for comfort and various features nowadays over longevity. A castle is sturdy because it was made to repel attacks, a house isn’t because they don’t need defensive capabilities over comfort and livability.]” Dox shrugged, pausing as Hou stopped and mentioned getting an idea. 
 

———————

 

After finally finishing the magic circles, he breathed a sigh of relief. While he appreciated the chance to practice creating magic circles, ones of this size in an outdoor environment were generally more difficult and time-consuming. Now it was research time though, so that was something to look forward to. 
 

———————

 

Dox had been exploring the shelves after his minions had delivered relevant material they had found. Nothing that they needed, but it was still interesting, and he had found some new uses for weather magic that he had copied down. It took a while after that before he found a very promising book, looking it over as he walked back towards where Hou had set up. 

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