The Elbrus Range, or "Northern Peaks" as most would call them, are massive summits of white emerging in the north of the Sharo network, towering like skyscrapers above their observers. Its frozen cliffs cause vertigo by their sight alone and evergreen arbors dot the landscape along the mountainside, eventually collecting toward the base of the mountains where they make up their own specially named segment of the network: "The Arbor Woods". Just beyond the forest lies the Ural Tundra, also called "The Southern Flats": a seemingly boundless expanse of plains and the last barrier between the wilderness and Com Square, the single largest city in all of Sharo.
Cave systems crawl under the mountain range like worms, harboring some of the net-goers of this northern country. All in all, this land is for only the hardy or the foolish, and even then only if they can manage some protection from the cold. And beneath these lands is the secret of what their beautiful structure truly represents.
" ... "
It had been years since Warrior had last visited these mountains -- much more prepared for the cold weather now with a thicker jacket and thermal clothing, yet there was still an inescapable chill despite the additional protection. Beyond that stark acknowledgement, it was clear that times had changed this place a fair amount.
He'd met two helpful individuals on these mountains in his past: a data-miner named "Iscon" that was was more or less a staple Good Samaritan and a bounty hunter named "Rikaru" that had each helped Warrior out more than a few times before. They both lived in their own caves here on the mountainside, years ago, but those homes were empty now.
More than that: they were completely vacant, clearly having not seen visitors or even residents in quite some time. This left Warrior at a bit of a dead end, unfortunately.
Rikaru harnessed the Life Virus Juuka when Warrior had known him, and that was his only real source of information on how they would function or how they could be weaponized in the way that Nightshade described to him back in Netopia. Iscon was far more wise than Warrior had ever considered him to be, but as far as his considerations went, at the very least his years of data-mining could have provided something useful to the insight that he sought. He'd go on never knowing Iscon's true identity as Turbine, but respected him no less despite that.
There was an explanation to both of their absences, of course: Turbine meeting his demise alongside Toxin in their final bout, while Rikaru was simply segregated from the world in a place far beyond reach at this point. Warrior was ignorant to both of these facts though, else he may have never come here to begin with in search of them.
" ... "
Despite that, he'd somewhat suspected to turn up empty handed.
Standing at the edge of one of the mountain's many cliffs now, Jake looked out to the areas below almost as if in deep thought, but really just looking for any sort of activity in general.
Sharo had more vacancy than just the two caves he'd searched: the entire network seemed quieter these days than it did in years past. Whether that was just because of the border lockdown or just because of his own self-insertion getting the better of him was anyone's guess, really.
There wasn't much else that demanded his time now that he was here, though. Even the weather was cooperating as his scarf beat gently in the calm winds while he looked down from his high ground; nothing could escape his vision here, and whether it be in the plains, the forests, or even just further down the mountain, if there were any abnormal activity he'd see it and be able to investigate from there.
And if nothing else, it was a good excuse to capture the scenery on top of that.
Last Edit: Nov 13, 2019 14:45:50 GMT -8 by Warrior
While his old friends were gone and their homes clearly vacated for some time now. Sharo's activity was certainly more scarce than it used to be. It was always not the busiest of places but this was definitely out of the ordinary. Or perhaps it was simply just paranoia? Perhaps it was because of that paranoia, or could it instead be because of his experience that his eyesight for a moment seemed blurry. It came and went occasionally as he looked from on high but eventually settled down, perhaps just his nerves getting to him. He eventually did manage to see something however, several somethings at that. Some machines that were scurrying about. They were black and resembled some kind of bug, shuffling along the ground through the snow. A few other unknown machines were moving about, as though they were taking care of the mining now that the miners had gone missing.
Warrior closed his eyes tightly to clear them and reopened them when the onset of blurriness came, but it didn't resolve. He considering pulsing out to ensure it wasn't some sort of physical interference with his body back in the real world, but once it settled down he figured he was fine.
It was beyond him to deduce what it actually was, so for now he'd write it off and make mental note of it for later. The thought of it simply being paranoia or vertigo was much more comforting in the moment, at least.
" ? "
Then he saw the movement.
His mind raced to plenty of explanations -- some that wrote this off as well, others that magnified its relevance -- but no conclusions could be drawn without further investigation.
So for now, he'd get a closer view. Next, he'd check whether or not they were docile, but the plan he had in mind was a bit risky so it'd be better to get a head count of them all first.
Warrior carefully descended down to where he had seen the machines, both the bugs and the miners, mindful not to be seen by them himself as he made his approach.
What mattered to him now was what they were doing and how many that there were.
Last Edit: Nov 17, 2019 13:06:30 GMT -8 by Warrior
The black bugs at the distance didn't seem that numerous at first. They seemed like five at best from the distance until he started to get closer. Then he noticed that they were in the dozens. They were hard to discern because some of them had just not been moving and hidden in the snow until they started to move again. And it was hard to tell what they were doing still besides just scurrying about on the ground apparently harmlessly.
The miners were a bit different. They were certainly mining data much like Iscon himself would in the past, but they all seemed different than each other. None of them shared many traits aside from being similar in build. They had different colors and parts, some in black, red, blue, white, beige, yellow, and so on. Some armed with arm blasters, others with shields and others with swords. Some looked like they were there as guards, watching the others move about on their job and do their work. They would gather the material, put them in some cart, then get a move on to somewhere else that was yet to be determined. And they hadn't quite caught sight of him either, so he was able to see all of this without coming to any danger yet. Seeing as some of them were armed however would make it a bit more difficult to discern whether they were docile or not.
The bugs buried in snow concerned him that he may have already passed some of them unknowingly on his way down, but a quick examination of his surroundings showed that he at least hadn't been spotted yet.
He wanted to see where the carts were going, but he had absolutely no confidence in his ability to sneak his way onto one of them unseen. So the mystery would remain just that for now. There was another way to find out, of course, but that sort of depended on what all came next.
' Be careful, Jake. You've got no one to fall back on if you get into trouble all the way over there. '
Faith's words echoing in his mind as he deliberately disobeyed them next. But unfortunately, no reward could be had without some risk. He apologized to her in his mind as he removed his scarves and tucked them in his jacket -- it'd do him better not to be looking "too Gigamerican" in this place. Well, not counting the rest of his attire, but that could be chalked up to fashion choice at least.
The "docile check" was a bit less graceful than pure observation, but the idea was that if he appeared docile and they still attacked, there was likely some malevolence going on and it went without saying why Sharo was quieter than usual as a result. If they didn't attack, then at least he could check that really scary box off.
So he stood up from his position and walked cautiously through the area -- being mindful not to cause any form of disruption, but deliberately putting himself in sight of those present to see how they'd react. If they weren't aggressive, he could continue onto the Arbor Woods further down hill to see if anything of value was to discover there. If they were, then confidence in his own ability had to take a backseat in favor of doing what needed to be done here, but at this point in time, staying hidden seemed a bit more whimsical than showing himself now with all of the eyes they had, not to mention the aggressive clash of colors with his clothes and the environment.
He'd wager he was going to get spotted eventually -- better it on his own terms than not. Being spotted while hidden was suspicious for sure, but being spotted while passing by at least looked innocent.
Now came determining whether the workers, the guards, and the bugs here were all innocent as well. And into the wolves' den he'd go...
As Warrior approached, they clearly noted him when he did. The guards and the bugs both, that is. The bugs approached him as he walked by, scurrying near him... and then nothing. They would move close to him and then after what seemed to be deliberation would stop and do nothing. The guards in a way were similar, watching him as he went by. One had moved its weapon arm for a few moments, but lowered it after what looked like a tilt of its head. All in all, it would appear as though they were docile yet curious? And if they weren't going to bombard him by the legion, then it meant that his dive into the den of wolves was him being able to come out alright.
He was sweating bullets as the bugs drew close, but then they backed off before following up on the threat that was their approach. It was like having your ankles sniffed by a frightening dog, only for it to deem you a non-threat and continue about its way.
The tension wasn't fully alleviated though until the guards lowered their weapons as well. The tilting of their heads completely changed Warrior's intended course of action, though. He continued walking in his original trajectory, but slowed down noticeably to ponder for just a moment.
" ... "
They couldn't speak? Or perhaps only in too basic a sense to ask questions.
They exhibited animal-esque traits with their expressions, as if those were their primary method of communication; likely indeed inaudible creatures. Beings of lesser intelligence was what he assumed, but it was a brave assumption to be truthful.
' They don't seem to attack if I'm not hostile. Even then, they seem to give visual warning to their intentions. '
Warrior wasn't entirely convinced that they were hostile themselves. Not yet at least. But it seemed as though they weren't the authority behind this operation, just the grunts. Warrior was always careful before rushing to conclusions like these, for now though the theory was sound.
' If I help them, they might allow it since it'd be simply speeding up their task. If they show that they don't like it, I'll back off before they visualize me as a threat. '
More than one way to skin a cat, you could say.
Warrior looked to the guards that had tilted their heads and then he looked to the spot where the miners were mining, then back to the guards again, non-verbally asking permission to approach. If they appeared to have no problem with it, then he would do so and assist in gathering the materials they were mining.
Next, looking back to the same guards and then to the cart, he'd make another non-verbal request. If they had any qualms, he'd comply and leave them alone, otherwise he'd assist in loading up the cart.
And finally, if all went well up to this point, he'd place his hands on the cart and be on his way to the lion's den next, likely by following the cart tracks left behind from previous ventures.
If nothing else, it appeared that he was just being a Good Samaritan and lending his hand where it fit.
Last Edit: Nov 17, 2019 17:59:47 GMT -8 by Warrior
The guard continued to eye Warrior, then followed where he looked and then back to him as he did the same, almost in mirror motion. They didn't appear to have any problems with his approach then, allowing him to get closer to the mining without any issues. They showed no problems with him and the cart as well, allowing him to push it and have an easier excuse for his descent besides sneaking around. And he could know the way forward either by following the tracks or the other miners that were moving about.
Seemed to go better than expected. Well, better than it could gone have at least.
During all of that, he was indirectly determining whether they acted as a hive mind or if they operated on a more individual basis, but he couldn't make any certainties from it in the end.
Still, he managed to get into the assembly line and now he was able to see where all of these supplies were being taken. Following the miners that were ahead of him seemed to be a more reliable route than just following the tracks, so that's what he went with for now.
Worst case scenario: this was all just some innocent gig and nothing he needed to be concerned about.
Actual-worst case scenario: it wasn't.
Last Edit: Nov 17, 2019 18:58:58 GMT -8 by Warrior
As he continued forward his eyes started acting up again. It was short and brief, so he could probably blink it away. But as they progressed eventually it looked like the miners were crafting in two different directions. Some continued deeper into the woods as others seemed to go into another route down into the cave system in the area. The only tell he could have on which way determined which among them was the content in their carts, which really didn't appear all that different to the naked eye. So from here he would have to play it by gut instead it seemed.
The blurriness was back, but this time much more brief than before.
' That haze again... but this time I'm moving instead of staying stationary, and it was shorter as a result. '
His best guess? That he crossed some invisible veil, but that thought went back to making uneducated assumptions and not trusting them without further evidence. So he'd have to test that later by coming back, but for now he'd need to keep moving.
The crossroad was a harder decision that it first seemed: going into the cave is like deliberately walking into a closed-off maze -- one way in, probably only one way out. So if trouble was waiting inside, he could get cornered. On the flip side, it'd be easier to find his way out of the cave than out of the forest if he were to get lost, he'd just need to following the wind in there. There were more blind spots in a forest of trees, too.
" ... "
The reality was that he had a better alibi for being caught in a cave than he did for being caught in the forest. So despite it being the lesser option in his eyes, it was the one his gut pulled him toward.
The caves seemed the more inviting choice - this was only a natural answer to Warrior at this point. The frigid path disappears behind Warrior as he enters the dark caverns of the forgotten tundra, and it doesn't take long for him to realize that the blowing frost outside paled next to the far more penetrating cold inside. It's almost as though the entire passageway was cut from dry ice, making it hard to even stand on it due to just how cold the floor is. As soon as Warrior enters the cave, the smell of recently mined permafrost bites at his nose and makes it clear that something is happening here, yet the dimly lit caves appear to be entirely void of life, and no sound beyond the echoes of Warrior's own footsteps on the glassy, frozen floor ring out for even the most attuned ear to hear. As Warrior makes his way in a little deeper, he'd find that the natural, rocky cavern walls end and what would best be described as a hallway begins. A barren path of blue-stoned walls that are cut like polished glass frame a glazed ice floor, frozen so solid that it doesn't even seem slippery despite the light dusting of snow that covers every inch. This hallway continues down as far as Warrior could see, though he'd only be able to make out a few yards ahead of himself, almost as though his very presence was generating a weak light around his position. He would see nothing, be it Navi, virus, or otherwise, but he would feel a presence nearby; a presence that is waiting deeper inside of the icy crypt.
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Warrior took a deep breathe and exhaled as he evaluated his situation -- the expelled air becoming a white cloud from his mouth. The chill in here was beyond intolerable and he didn't have much in the way of warming himself out side of taking out his scarves and wearing them around his neck again. The jacket and gloves would have to do the rest.
Still towing the cart, he kicked it forward into the darkness and listened to it rolling away in the distance -- he himself walking more slowly behind it, using it as a sort of decoy for any traps or worked ground along the path ahead of him. As he neared the cart once more, he'd continue the procedure and put his faith in that inanimate object to act as his warning for any danger that was directly ahead.
The miners he was following before now nowhere to be seen, so it was his own fault to blame for getting lost like this -- finding his way back not being as easy as he'd first assumed either. So it was forward or no where at this point.
Last Edit: Nov 17, 2019 21:17:14 GMT -8 by Warrior
The entire hallway before Warrior is the absolute picture of lifelessness. Warrior would see no movement anywhere, and hear nothing but silence beyond his own footsteps and the clunky, rusted wheeling of the cart. The one good note for this strange hallway would have to be how eerily still the air is, as if it were moving even slightly it would likely bring about hypothermia in a matter of minutes. Still, amid the deafening silence and deathly cold, having something to focus on like the cart or even the sound of footsteps would be a good way to keep from falling into absolute madness from it all.
The cart that Warrior brings around and pushes forward slowly coasts along the icy floor. It wobbles a bit as it slips on the glazed surface and plows away a bit of the powder snow that dusts its path. Before long, the cart would disappear into the shadows, and a moment later Warrior would hear a sound of kin to glass breaking deeper down the hallway. Moving a bit closer so that the light reaches forward, Warrior would see the cart now turned sideways in the path, as before it hovers what appears to be a large snowflake formed from a glass-like sheet of ice. The strange object stands perpendicular to the path, as if a shield erected against those that would seek to move any deeper. On closer inspection, It's divided into four quarters by an "X" shaped bar forged of some sort of metal in an ornate design, with its four quadrants filled with sharp sheets of ice that make up the snowflake pattern. The strange device slowly spins in place like a saw blade, showing Warrior a missing quadrant that was obviously broken by the cart. After a few moments, this missing quadrant seems to heal itself and re-create the full snowflake shape that matches the remaining quadrants that now block Warrior's path fully.
Strangely, this device seems... almost harmless. It's spinning very slowly, its edges are razor-sharp and dangerous to touch yet extremely brittle and easy to break, and it takes several moments for its broken pieces to return. On top of this, Warrior would be able to make out another at the very edge of his visible light, and most likely another beyond that. What is this thing, and why is it here...?
Last Edit: Nov 18, 2019 20:50:36 GMT -8 by Unknown
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Well the spinning snowflake-blades obviously weren't supposed to be fans for ventilation. They seemed to take inspiration from that, though.
Most likely warning barriers to prevent approach, but if there was any going back now Warrior would have done that already. While pressing on posed the risk of an icy, lonely death down here in the caves, it was more than curiosity that drove him forward, but rather the concern of something being amiss in Sharo still a relevant thought on his mind. And if there indeed was, and if this was indeed related, he'd never forgive himself for backing out now.
Answers for what had happened to his old friends that once lived in these mountains may be straight ahead as well, as far as he would know. Knowledge outside of his own would know that this wasn't the case here. That same greater knowledge would recognize this path and advise turning back, but said knowledge wasn't at Warrior's beck and call, so onward would he go.
" ... "
Forward-thinking told him that if he were to break one of the-quadrants of sheet-ice again, he'd have a few seconds to maneuver through the spinning "fans" to get to the other side.
Backward-thinking reminded him that if he needed to turn back around once he crossed this point, these snowflake-sawblades would delay his escape considerably.
Taking both into consideration, he swung his sword at one of the quadrants and quickly passed through without getting caught by the rotating blades but before the ice could reform. He was light on his feet, not trusting the ground beneath him, but progressed through the second, the third, and so on as he moved deeper into the cavern. The frigid air still wasn't helping his cause, but he at least thought of something to try later if it got worse deeper down.
A second presence still filled the air -- something he'd normally just assume to be Remnant in any past situation, but that wasn't the case here. He was certainly not alone, but for now if it allowed him to press on then he'd simply continue to do so until he came face to face with whatever felt like it was watching him -- the shallow light emanating from his body lighting his linear path as best it could here as he drove deeper into the beast's maw.