Lady Koralia and her entourage head back to Commander Brandon Estes to let him know that they wish to head to the Hapi Sea to the south to explore. Commander Estes, for his part, has not actually been “holding down the fort” on the shuttle: he went out carousing the previous night, and he muses aloud that Gizeh is a wonderful place, and may be better off without the influence of the Known Worlds and the Empire. Kadan and Paxton seem inclined to agree, but do not voice their opinions.
The trip to the Hapi Sea takes nearly eight hours, as the shuttle’s speed is severely reduce in atmospheric flight.
Upon arrival, the group sees that the Hapi Sea is actually three inland seas connected by a series of rivers and deltas. Governor Khonsut was correct: there is clearly mist in this place. Lady Koralia has Commander Estes land just outside of the thin mists, and the group proceeds to explore on foot. After a time, Doctor Wulfric begins to notice strange geographical features, which he recognizes as remnants of buildings and other signs of settlements that have long since been covered with blowing sand and dirt and grown over.
At the center of the juncture of rivers, Enhenduanna senses that there is something beneath their feet. Paxton turns on the x-ray feature of his goggles, and looks down, seeing a structure buried beneath the earth. He is able to trace the outline of the structure and find an old elevator shaft, buried beneath rubble, its machinery long since destroyed. The group make their way underground with the help of explosives, ropes and some physical prowess. At the bottom of the shaft, Lady Koralia opens her glowstaff umbrella. It is a fashion statement to be sure, but it easily provides enough light for the group to see.
The structure appears to be an old research facility of some kind. Due to its subterranean nature and high test concrete construction, it is safe to assume that the research done here was as furtive as it was dangerous. The main room of the facility has walk to wall Think Machine banks, all burned out and useless. Paxton examines the wreckage, and announces that the destruction of the machines was most likely the result of electromagnetic defense countermeasures: it seems like whoever ran this facility would rather destroy all of their work than have anyone else find it.
In one of the antechambers, the group discovers another bank of Think Machines, also destroyed. However, it appears as though these machines were wired into some strange device. It is a metal plate that rests on the floor, about one meter wide by three meters long. From either end of the plate rises a metal pole, three meters high and one meter around. Looking at the contraption makes Lady Koralia and Kadan uncomfortable. Enhenduanna feels a primal fear when gazing upon it. The device is constructed of some sort of purplish-copper metal. Lady Koralia, Paxton, and Doctor Wulfric think that it looks strangely like the metals that compose the Jumpgates.
The Think Machines here are not as badly fried as the ones outside, and Paxton thinks he may be able to extract some information from them. With Lady Koralia’s approval, he begins working. It is arduous, time consuming, delicate work, but he manages to extract some amount of data from the machines. It appears that the device was an Annunaki artifact discovered here on Gizeh. The exact purpose of the device is a mystery, but it seems that when powered properly, it opens a doorway into a “world without light, sound, life, or energy of any kind.” The researchers here believed that the device functions on principles similar to the theory of Pan Physics, as established by Doctor Viktor Domokos Erling. Enhenduanna knows that name: he was the uncle of Saint Almathea, and is even quoted in the Omega Gospels. Paxton is also able to recover some fragmented personal logs. It appears that when the device was activated, many members of the staff reported hearing strange voices from the doorway it opens. They each found these voices highly disturbing, as their readings and research suggested that no life could exist in that place, and no sound could be carried through it.
Lady Koralia wants to leave immediately, and collapse the entrance behind them. No one else has any objections to this plan. They leave, and get back to the shuttle. By this point, it is late evening, and Commander Estes requests that they camp here for the evening and leave for Memphis at first light. He is not keen on flying all night on an unfamiliar world, and no one challenges him.
The following day, they return to Memphis and go to speak with Khonsut. After informing him of what they encountered, believing that device to be the source of the “great devil rising from the mists,” he tells them that speaking to the Ming may be their best option. He says that if they go to the Aret Monolith, nearly 6,000 kilometers to the southwest, then they can seek an audience with the Durgwhallah desert nomads. He warns them that directly asking to be taken to the Ming is a grave offense in their culture, so the group must exercise tact. Lady Koralia assures Khonsut that she is more than capable of tact, and they set out at first light.
Enhenduanna is fascinated by the monolith after their arrival. Her celestial attunement with Gizeh allows her to see that it seems to sit on a juncture of ley lines. Paxton is equally fascinated with the monolith, but for different reasons: the crystal structure is a perfect fractal pattern, completely predictable and ideal in every respect, carrying not even a single flaw that he can deduce.
Their fascination is short lived, however, as they are approached by a group of six people who seem to appear from the sand dunes themselves. Five of them are leveling weapons at the group, the sixth, a woman, appears to be unarmed. All of them are wearing strange, form-fitting jumpsuits, rebreathers, and goggles. The woman, apparently the leader, looks to the group and demands to know why they have trespassed on sacred Ming lands. She does not seem surprised when Lady Koralia tells them that they are from off-world (their strange dress and accents are a dead giveaway, and the Durgwhallah saw their shuttle making passes when they arrived several days ago), but she does seem very interested when Lady Koralia mentions that she heard a prophecy of great destruction to befall this world and the Ming.
The Durgwhallah woman introduces herself as Fatima, and says that the group should come with her to her tribe’s camp. She says that there may be something she can do, but a member of the group will have to undergo a trial for it to be possible. After talking in her tent for a time, Kadan agrees to undergo the Durgwhallah’s trials. Fatima announces to her camp of two dozen Durgwhallah a single word: Bisha’a. The entire camp goes into a frenzy of activity. Fatima tells Kadan to prepare himself, as his Bisha’a begins at sunset.
The Bisha’a begins. The first part of it requires Kadan to walk across a nine meter span of broken glass and blazing hot coals, an act which requires great self control. After doing this, Fatima holds a white-hot metal spoon to his tongue three times. Afterwards, he must reach into a pot of boiling oil elbow deep to retrieve a stone, which he must hold until it cools. A lesser man would have lost consciousness from the ordeal, but Kadan remains awake, barely holding on. Finally, Fatima says that he must be sequestered for three days without food or water. If, at the end of that span, he has not died from hunger or thirst, nor succumb to infection, then he will have passed. Thanks to his meditations, Kadan endures the three days without serious effort, and is declared successful. Upon examining him, Doctor Wulfric notes that he has the beginning of an infection in his arm, but it is not serious and with ministering from Enhenduanna and Doctor Wulfric, Kadan is in no danger. The group feasts with the Durgwhallah that evening, and they head out for a destination unknown at dawn.
The group is provided with the equipment that they require to survive the desert, and basic training in how they work. They travel for three days across hostile, inhospitable terrain. During those three days, they begin to here rumors and dissent amongst the Durgwhallah; a man named Ruhk does not seem to be pleased with Fatima’s decision. After making camp on the third day, Ruhk calls out Fatima. They duel, wearing only loincloths, and wielding only ceremonial knives. Fatima handily defeats Ruhk, and announces to the rest of her tribe that there will be no further challenges as to her decisions.
They camp for the evening, having another feast to celebrate Fatima’s victory. The following day, she says that they have arrived, though their location appears to be just another random spot of desert. After a short time, three massive, lumbering figures appear from around a large sand dune. They appear to be made from animated sandstone, and have a series of beautiful crystals around the area that appears to be a head. They speak, though the group cannot guess how, and ask to speak to Lady Koralia and her entourage in private.
The Ming are difficult to understand, as they appear to have a very different conception of time than humans. However, the Ming do seem to be aware of the prophecy that Lady Koralia brings, and the device they discovered (which the Ming call the “Gate of the Qlipphonim”) near the Hapi Sea. They warn that “men who walk a path unseen” are coming, seeking to activate the device, and after that all the Ming can see is darkness. The group interpret the “men who walk a path unseen” to be members of the Invisible Path coven, and immediately begin to prepare to head out towards the Hapi Sea once more to intercept any agents they may send. The Ming ask on thing of the group: to seal the Jumpgate out of the Gizeh system behind them when they leave, as the Ming see millions of Gizehn dying in fire by the hands of Temple Avesti.
As the Ming leave, the group is contacted by Commander Estes, who says that their whisper pins have been giving him only static for the past little while. He says that the Silver Lining is in radio silence: he doesn’t know what happened, but he can’t contact the ship. Furthermore, it seems as though the second shuttle has been launched. He says that he can patch into its tracking beacon to locate it, but Lady Koralia tells him that there is no need, as she already knows where he is going. They give Commander Estes their current coordinated via Enhenduanna’s celestial attunement, and prepare to head once more to the Hapi Sea.