"Hold on one moment," someone commanded.
Christopher stopped in his tracks. Beside him, Amelia froze as well, eyes wide.
Making their way through the village of the Serpent's Collective had been easy so far. Unease had bubbled its way up into Christopher as he passed by dozens of villagers -- but until now, no one had questioned what they were doing, Amelia's presence seemingly giving the two of them a free pass.
Now, however, a tall, severe man strode to a stop in front of the two of them. He looked faintly familiar. It took Christopher a moment to place him -- Vladimir, one of the Collective's 'elites.'
Amelia forced herself to relax as soon as Vladimir appeared in their view. "Oh, hello, Vladimir," she greeted, without any hint of apprehension in her voice. "What do you need?"
Vladimir glanced at the both of them, but his gaze stopped at Christopher. "You are just a recent arrival within our Collective, I'm aware. I'd just like a quick [[chat]], if you don't mind?"Vladimir's words seemed friendly, but his tone was flat and his face completely blank.
Christopher forced on a polite smile anyway. "Oh, sure," he said. "What do you need?"
"I do wonder how you're finding our humble little village," Vladimir started. He paused for a moment, and then shrugged. "But right now, I think we can skip the pleasantries, yes? The two of you are out and about for a reason, after all."
Amelia nodded. "I'm giving Christopher here a more indepth tour of our home," she said smoothly.
Vladimir accepted the excuse with a faint nod. "I'm here to follow up on some of your words when you first made contact with us," he said, turning back to Christopher. "You were concerned of creatures in the forest, yes?"
"Uh, yeah," Christopher said.
"Do you still find yourself concerned, within our walls?" Vladimir asked. "And have you had any strange... occurences, since you arrived?"
Christopher looked thoughtful for a moment. "You know?" he said. "Nothing strange at all. I've felt pretty safe here, since I arrived."
Vladimir's lips twitched down into a slight [[frown]].The Puppetmaster was still (css: "font-size: 115%;")[''MAD.'']
Things were going //off-track// at far too ''rapid'' of a rate. But further ''Adaptation'' would have to be considered at a later date.
No, there were too many (text-style: "emboss")[Variables] to take a look at right now. ~~Nobody~~ was making his escape (click: "escape")[ (t8n: "dissolve")[(His ''PREMATURE'' escape, damn him, already skirting towards breaking the rules!!)]], and so...
The Puppetmaster turned its attention towards the [[Witchfinder]].Jehan considered the forest with a frown.
Darkwood Forest wasn't that difficult to traverse, if one knew how to handle the area. The forest changed, but it frequently changed in ways that could be predicted. Even during the past few months, where the forest had been changing in ways unprecedented, Jehan had never found himself surprised.
His own experience combined with the additional aid of his benefactor meant that Jehan was never //lost// in the forest. It was how he'd come so close to finding Christopher already.
So he was a little baffled at how utterly he'd failed to find his way to the right place in the past few days.
His ability to contact others had been sporadic recently -- due to the 'Puppetmaster', he assumed -- but right now, for the moment, he seemed to be in the clear.
He contacted his [[benefactor]], first.Christopher stopped. He wondered if he'd overselled it, and carefully kept his face as friendly as he could manage.
"You're completely sure?" Vladimir prodded. "Nothing out of the ordinary?"
"Um, no," Christopher answered. He glanced towards Amelia, but she just seemed confused.
"Well, that's good to hear," Vladimir said, but where his tone was previously flat, now there was a tinge of something within it. (Disappointment? Displeasure? Christopher couldn't tell.) "One final thing, though, before you go."
He stopped, then, and considered the two of them.
"Yes, Vladimir?" Amelia prompted him.
"Sometime recently, an important artifact of ours has disappeared," Vladimir said. "A [[map]], straight from the Speaker's offices."Christopher couldn't stop himself -- he stiffened, for just a moment, before he forcibly relaxed and put on a confused expression, to match Amelia's surprise.
"Well, that's awful news," Amelia said, sounding just a little too invested.
"Indeed," Vladimir said gravely. "Now, our Speaker has only had a handful of meetings within the last week. I've personally been tasked with investigating everyone upon that list. And, well, our new recruit here just happens to be one of those who met with her..."
Vladimir trailed off, turning his intense gaze on Christopher, and Christopher resisted the urge to take a step back. "Ah, w-well," he stuttered.
Vladimir reached out and planted a hand on Christopher's shoulder. Christopher trailed off.
"But you seem a good sort," Vladimir continued, and the tinge to his tone was undeniable this time -- he sounded amused. "I know you wouldn't steal from us. Call it a gut feeling."
Christopher stared. "Um," he said.
"I... agree," Amelia said, sounding lost for just a moment, before she made her tone more upbeat. "I think Christopher here is rather trustworthy."
"Indeed," Vladimir replied. He regarded Christopher for another moment. "Claire said you had [[potential]].""Did she?" Christopher muttered. He coughed. "I mean, uh, you're not the first person to say... that. To me."
"Claire has good judgement, you'll find," Vladimir said. "Most of the Collective understands this, and I'm inclined to agree. You, and you as well," he nodded towards Amelia, "are both the types of people that our Collective would benefit from. Even if //some// people don't recognize that."
"Thank you?" Amelia said. Christopher nodded -- he was pretty lost, at this point.
Vladimir released his grip on Christopher's shoulder. "Keep on as you are, you two," he said with a brisk nod.
Vladimir strode off.
Christopher and Amelia both watched him as he left, waiting in silence until he disappeared from view.
"...What, uh," Christopher started quietly, hesitated. "What was //that// about?"
"I'm not quite sure?" Amelia answered. When Christopher made to speak agian, she shook her head and glanced around -- there were a few people on the street, watching the two of them. No one had eavesdropped, but the conversation had drawn some attention. "Later, alright?"
Christopher nodded. The two of them headed towards the gates.
//''The [[Puppetmaster]] watched.''//<u>''Witchfinder:''</u> Hey. I'm having some trouble finding where this 'Serpent's Collective' is located.
<u>''Witchfinder:''</u> I could use some assistance with this.
<u>''B:''</u> So I've got [[bad news]] about that.
Jehan started at the next messages he received.
He swore.The //''Witchfinder''// was (css: "font-size: 90%;")[lost.]
~~Nobody~~ (click: "Nobody")[ (t8n: "dissolve")[(No, not ~~Nobody~~ -- //nobody//)]] had told the (text-style: "outline")[idiot] that the (text-style: "shadow")[Serpent's Spawn] had (css: "font-size: 70%;")[hidden] themselves from normal sight.
The //''Witchfinder''// had spent the past few days //wandering// the ''FOREST'', just hours away from the <p style="color:#0da82a;">''Serpent's Compound''</p> and missing it regardless.
''The Puppetmaster'' tittered to itself.