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Every step was new. Every look. This was Umbra, but not the one Melfina remembered just two days prior.
Spirit speaking, and how it worked, had taken over her thoughts, and she left for Umbra as soon as duties to her shop eased up.
A step beyond the moongate presented a surprise. An Umbra full of life. It wasn't the vibrant life of Luna. It was more subdued, but its heart was beating. People actually walked the streets, on some errand or another. Melfina had stopped a passerby, and asked what was going on. She got an odd look, a shrug, and a grunt, and the stranger moved on.
The scent of stew, roasted boar, and freshly baked bread caught her attention, and she made her way to a huge grey tent, with a shop sign declaring it The Skeleton's Swill. A look inside confirmed that it was a tavern, despite its odd appearance. Long tables and benches were filled with people, much like any other tavern. A good portion of them obviously not from Umbra. The low hum of conversation swirled around her, with laughter popping up from time to time, and a man dressed in a plain, long sleeved shirt tucked into his cleanly cut pants, both of the Umbran style, stepped up to her.
"Hello, miss," he said with a smile. "You look like you have question that needs answering."
"I uhh... I'm not sure I understand," he replied.
"Where did everyone come from? It wasn't like this last time."
The Umbran laughed.
"So you were here two days ago."
"How'd you know?"
"It was the night of the Shadow Moon. It's our day of worship." He puts a comforting hand on her shoulder after seeing the look on her face. "No need to be embarrassed. I'm sure that happens to plenty of people. This Reunification business has boosted tourism. Where are you from, if I may ask?"
"Oh, pretty much from Luna," she says.
"Oh, how interesting. Despite the Reunification involving Luna, we actually don't get many people from there. Yet. But the news has brought people to come take a look at our great city from pretty much everywhere else as you can see," he says as he extends his arm, presenting the tavern and its patrons to her.
"Yes, I noticed. This is quite an interesting tavern," Melfina says as she looks out the tent flaps to the outdoor stove and cookfire.
"Oh it is. Five years ago, a fire burned the old building down, only the bare essence of the place was left. The skeleton if you will." He grins. "And tents were put up as a temporary measure."
"It turned out that people liked the open feeling the tents gave the place, so while the quality of the materials were improved, the owner decided to keep it as it is. All he really added was a roof over the bar area," he points out the entrance over on her right, where people are enjoying mugs of their drink of choice.
"And of course the open air kitchen allows the smells of cooking and baking to ride the air currents, which can attract people from far off with the right wind."
"You sound like a tourguide," she says.
He grins even wider. "I can't claim innocence. I work for Trent's Tours." He offers his hand. "I'm Trent."
Melfina shakes his hand.
"Well Melfina, any specific reason why you're visiting my lovely city on this beautiful day?"
"Why yes, actually. I'm currently writing a book on... well it was supposed to be about Umbra at first, but it looks like it's turning out to be more about necromancy. Any recommendations?"
"Oh most definitely. I'm sure you'd be interested in taking a look inside the Altar of Divination, the seat of the Warden Supreme himself."
"You allowed to take me there?"
"Not all the way into the private chambers of course, but yes, as an officially recognized tourguide, I have permission to take people inside its walls."
"That would be wonderful!"
"I'll just have a small meal packed up for me, and we'll be off." He takes a step and looks back at her. "Want anything?"
"Oh no, I'd just like to see inside the Altar of Divination, but thank you for asking."
He comes back quickly, and the pair leave the tavern. The tavern keeper's eyes flicker toward the two, and he can't keep a slight frown from forming on his face.
They walk down a paved path, and every step towards the Altar of Divination, Trent spouts off fact after fact. That the entire tower is all of one piece. It was carved directly from the mountain itself. And all the original necromancers built it alongside everyone else, and each of them contributing to the creation of the pentagram that sits in the main hall with their own blood on the day of the Altar's completion.
In the middle of one of his practiced speeches he pauses. "Oh! We have to make another stop first. I'll take you to where the Occlusion Pact was signed."
"What's that?" she asks.
"The Occlusion Pact is something special. It's the backbone of Umbran society."
"We pride ourselves on how free everyone is to express themselves in their own way, and pursue whatever they desire, including research of their choice.
Melfina looks at him skeptically, "Is that why you all dress the same?"
"Oh, no. This," He pinches his sleeve between his fingers, "is new. As a way to take advantage of the renewed interest in our city, anyone who wanted to represent Umbra in one business fashion or another was offered very tempting bonuses to agree to help present a more singular identity of Umbra, that would play off of people's preconceptions." He shrugs. "It seems to be working."
"But back to what I was talking about. The Occlusion Pact was an agreement signed by all the founding leaders of Umbra. All of them necromancers, of course. They all had different goals and ideals, but were forced together out of necessity. It's not like fear of necromancers is a new thing. So this agreement was made to keep a balance so each member could pursue his own individual goals while keeping a united front against any outside threat. Interference into one another's work resulted in severe penalties. That principle eventually came to encompass all residents within Umbra."
"There are some rules we all have to follow of course. But not as strict as elsewhere, especially Luna."
Melfina could see why Luna and Umbra have always been at odds. Their philosophies were so different from each other.
"Here we are."
The Occlusion Monument was a made of three pillars arranged in a triangle with a much shorter column in the center. The bordering pillars rise to a point from triangular bases, at a height twice that of Melfina's. A ring of red moss encircles it all, and the central column carries a copy of the original pact, with the names and signatures of people dead and gone.
Melfina could just feel an intense aura emanating from the monument. She was so enraptured that she didn't notice as Trent moved behind her, or feel him take her supply of black pearl, nor did she hear him as he pulled out a short rope from within his pockets and wrap each end tightly around both hands.
Then a familiar voice called out. "Melfina! That is you! I knew I recognized that blue dress of yours."
She turned around and saw a familiar red-haired face approaching.
"Draven! Look at this! Have you heard of the Occlusion Pact? Luna has nothing like this, the paladin's church I suppose. They've all probably been demolished and used for vendor space."
Her neighbor smiled a warm smile. "Yes I know," he says as he looks up at the monument. "I've been here a couple times, years ago."
"I've owned a museum outside this city almost as long as I've owned the Museum of One Thousand Wonders!" Draven puts an arm around Melfina shoulders and pulls her slightly away from the tourguide. "And who is this young lad you have with you?"
"Oh, he's a tourguide."
Trent interrupts. "Just doing my job... Draven?... is it? I'm Trent. Of Trent's Tours. She's writing a book. Showing her the Occlusion Pact is central to her research. Every Umbran follows its principles."
"Of course, of course. I follow it myself. Of course I've been associated with this city for a while. A lot of visitors these days don't know about our way of life, and might accidentally stumble into someone's business. Some might treat that as interference."
"But of course that's not their fault," he continues. "Which is why that decree was made to allow certain protections for tourists, especially those that may be associated with Luna."
"I haven't heard about that," the tourguide said.
"Of course not. It's possible that not everyone knows about it yet. It would be a shame if an incident happened that would cause the Reunification to fall apart."
"Yes it would. It's a good thing she was with me then. Nothing would happen to her with me around."
"No doubt, lad, but I'm sure an enterprising lad such as yourself has other business to take care of. I can show my friend around from here." Draven reaches into his pocket and presses gold into Trent's hands. "Here's payment for your services. I'm sure you neglected to tell Melfina about the costs associated with your tour."
"Yeah... you got me there..." he glances over at Melfina, "like I told her earlier, I can't claim innocence." He faces Melfina. "Nothing personal miss. Just business."
"Oh. Well, I would have been glad to pay," she says. "Especially if you could have taken me into the Altar."
Draven speaks up, "I was there earlier. Today it's official business only. No visitors. It happens."
"Oh ok. Well then, thank you for the tour, Trent."
"No problem, Melfina," he says. "I'll remember this, Draven." And he walks off.
"Well, I didn't expect to see a familiar face here, but it's nice to see you. If I can't see the Altar, I just need to pick up a book at the magic shop."
"I'd be happy to escort you there, and head back home with you."
* * *
Cadence dropped by to tell me that interest was high, and that she's narrowed the candidates down to 20 potential guards according to my own needs, and the advice of Lord Luna. The recruits will arrive on time. We'll see if I've planned this well.
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