Deadly Skies

Accounts of the Adamant Codex, 17
Chapter Four, Scene Three

“I really don’t see why have all been called here on this frivolity!” The Paragon of Wood was shouting, her voice carrying beyond the door ahead of the Eastern Solars. “We have an immediate crisis on our hands and it is time for decisive action. If the Immaculate Order does not seize control of the chaos in the streets right now, then our entire Order of life could fall apart.”

There was no formal acknowledgement of the disguised Solars as they were escorted in; the Paragons being already in deep debate. Two of them – the Paragons of Wood and Water by the colors of their robes and sashes – were disheveled, sporting the dark-circled eyes of those whose usual pristine grooming was wrecked by lack of sleep. Only the Paragon of Air’s appearance showed no indication of the outward crises; he sat calmly, contemplatively, listening to everyone’s words.

“Yes yes, we’re all familiar with your alarmist rhetoric,.” continued the Paragon of Earth, Mnemon Harasa. “The tournaments have temporarily diverted the crisis. We must now attend to the root cause. Lama Pyrrhus is a respected member of the Order who has proved his worth in times of crisis. I think we should hear them out.”

Zaela straightened and began to speak her prepared introduction but was immediately cut off by an irate voice. “—I’ve heard quite enough of the incoherent filth that has been coming out of your month for the last year, Harasa! Your mind must be addled to say such blasphemy. A respected member? He killed Red Coal Bodhisattva!” She gestured frantically at the empty chair where the Paragon of Fire usually sat.

Harasa’s essence pulsed out across the room in a subtle, calming wave as she rose. Her voice was patronizingly polite as she replied. “Pyrrhus’s actions were thoroughly investigated by this very council. The honored late Red Coal Bodhisattva was under the influence of the Deathlord when he died. The very same Deathlord that now threatens us, I remind you. Now I suggest we focus on the current situation before any more noble Dragonbloods are lost because of our own inaction.” She settled back to her place soundlessly.

Zaela inhaled again to speak when the door across from her, behind the Paragons, burst open. A ridiculous man with a tall thin hat and ill fitting purple robes tromped into the room. “A meeting without me! I am the Regent, I’m very important you know. I should have been notified immediately. Nothing will count without MY seal of approval after all.” He brandished a large gaudy ring, a facsimile of the missing Scarlet Empress’s own.

The Paragon of Wood rolled her eyes. “Step lightly, regent. We won’t need you once the Immaculate Order becomes the official ruling body. With the Houses at war, the Order is the only single coherent power on the Isle,” she said with lazy malice.

“Oh you’ve got some nice stories. But they could never rule a nation.” Regent Fokuf stared off absently as a perverse grin spread across his face. “Though I wouldn’t mind ruling over Lady Rataras’s bed.” The Regent hitched at his crotch conspicuously.

At that, the Paragon of Water’s face flushed furiously.. “I have had enough of your desecration of the Sacred Texts! You are disgrace to all Dragonbloods and should be hung so the crows can feast on your flesh!” There was a brief pause as the weight of that threat reverberated through the room.

Caedris turned his head almost imperceptibly as a strand of Fate brushed his cheek. There was another presence here, unseen.

Zaela glanced back and forth between the Paragons and the newly arrived Regent, reaching out helplessly as the situation devolved into shouting and arguments. The Regent rivaled that wood aspect slug from back in the Isles for sheer detestableness.

Him, Lotus whispered, drawing her attention away from the juvenile yelling and towards the man with the blue sash. Lotus quietly emphasized aspects of his body language that Zaela – inexperienced – had completely overlooked. He will listen to you.

The disguised Zenith seized on the potential opportunity and crossed the room to him, dropping to her knees in a respectful genuflection – being careful to stay in character. Ragara Keranda was pious and loyal. “Most Honored Master. I see you and your fellow Paragons have read the letter I brought from my Master. But I have brought one other thing. Will you withdraw a little with me to receive it, and bring it to their attention as you see fit?”

The Paragon of Air regarded her steadily for long enough that Zaela – Keranda – was sure that he’d see she was no Dragonblood. She kept her eyes down, demurely, and stubbornly kept her hands from the red-jade torc at her throat. Was there a wash of cold, misty essence across her skin or was she imagining it?

“I will,” he finally replied, and rose gracefully from his tailor’s seat. A tendril of visible mist quested before him, seeping beneath the prayer-beaded curtain across a doorway to one side.

“Righteous Typhoon! Where are you going?” Mnemon Harasa had noted his movement and another pulse of earthy essence rolled across the floor.

“To do what we came here for.” One eyebrow rose condemningly. “To listen to Lama Lightbringer’s envoy and pass judgment on his request.” He transferred his cold gaze to Zaela. “Come, then.”

The alcove behind the curtain was clearly a small space meant for prayer; a tiny wall-mounted shrine to the Five Dragons occupied one whitewashed wall, and the floors were bare of anything but polish. The noise was noticeably reduced here, and she noted more mist swirling counterclockwise around the room as Air’s Paragon damped sound. As Zaela passed between the strands, Righteous Typhoon turned to her. “What is it you have?”

“A memory crystal.” Zaela/Keranda lifted a delicate chain from around her neck, drawing from beneath the collar of her dress a thumbnail sized clear crystal, shot through with tiny needles of red metal. “It contains the entirety of Master Lightbringer’s encounters with the Deathlord currently threatening the Imperial Mount. It was his opinion that if his superiors were as acquainted with this creature as he is, there would be no question of whether or not to send help.”

She dropped the tiny thing into his outstretched palm. Righteous Typhoon glanced back at her once, considering, then at the stone in his hand. “…That is quite a risk.”

A spark of blue-white essence lit the Memory Stone, and Righteous Typhoon’s fingers closed convulsively around it. She knew exactly the images and feelings he was receiving – on the long three month journey downriver, she too had triggered the stone. Pyrrhus had done his best to place only that which was relevant into the stone, with the discipline of a trained mind. Strung all together, the memories of the Mistress of Bloody Charities were damning – to the Deathlord, and to Pyrrhus. She’d heard it was an open secret that he was “anathema”… but he couldn’t have denied it within his own memories. He’d not seen her during that last fight, having left before her, so her identity was safe.

Righteous Typhoon’s breath left him in a shuddering sigh long moments later. The hems of his robes had frosted over with ice; now as he opened his eyes and stepped forward, it crackled and fell to the floor in a miniature avalanche. The Paragon’s eyes flashed like glacier ice. “I don’t know how party you are to Master,” the title spoken with an ironic slur, “Lightbringer’s heresies, but clearly we have a much larger and more immediate problem.”

Righteous Typhoon swept past her into the main room and the noise returned as his charm ended. He stamped the floor with a thundercrack of essence. Into the shocked silence that followed, he said: “I have reviewed further evidence. The Deathlord is a grave threat. I vote to immediately mobilize all loyal Immaculate troops and eliminate it, rendering all aid to Master Lightbringer.”

Yet again, a nagging feeling pulled at Caiden’s soul, prompting him to look around cautiously. He took a step back and submerged himself in the realm outside Fate, making sure the Shroud of Mercury was fully active.

The room now took on a hazy appearance, and figures sometimes ghosted movement around the room, seconds before the person actually took the action. Caiden gasped in awe when he looked in the center of the room. A nexus of destinies hung like a small star, strands of fate attached to everyone present—even the Solars.

Surrounding it was a series of constellations, representing those seen in Creation’s skies. As debate would ebb and flow, constellations would shift into focus or fade back into an obscured orbit. Caiden had never seen one before, but there was no doubt that this was an intersection of years’ worth of work with destiny.

“Marvelous creation, isn’t it?” an older man’s voice. Caiden quickly turned around to see who it was.

“These only appear when the Fate of Creation is being decided on such a grand scale.” Chejop Kejack was walking towards him, hands held behind his back. The head of Bronze Faction—and arguably the entire company of Sidereals now—was the last person Caiden wanted to encounter here. The elder Sidereal paused.

“Do I sense apprehension?” Caiden couldn’t tell if the question was meant derisively or with genuine curiosity. “Who am I to question the Avatar of Mercury? No, no boy…the Maidens saw fit to give you a free pass out of your responsibilities as a Sidereal. Who am I to begrudge that. I’m sure you’re doing all you can in their service to make Creation a better place.”

Caiden only nodded in agreement. It was obvious there was a hint of bitterness in the old man’s voice.

“Speaking of their service: today is a very important day as you clearly understand.” Chejop was ambulating casually around the nexus, watching it with curiosity. The debate continued, oblivious to the realm they were in. The Regent had just made another crude comment, sparking the ire of the Paragon of Water. This caused a ripple among the nexus, and shifted the constellation in focus.

“How do you wish this to play out, boy?” Chejop was running his fingers along a fine strand of fate connecting to the Paragon of Water. His question seemed rhetorical, but Caiden decided to answer.

“Having a Deathlord atop Meru is not in anyone’s interests.” Caiden began, his voice distorted by the Shroud. “I trust that is a uniform view, regardless of whatever faction dispute still exists among Sidereals.”

“Mm, yes, you are correct in that. You must also be aware that there are many ways that can come to pass. Shadowlands may be outside of Fate, but we can calculate scenarios that result in highly probable success. Deathlords are incredibly powerful beings, but they are not invincible. I myself managed to imprison one centuries ago.”

The Regent of Water just finished her announcement, sending a surge of light across her fate strand and into the nexus. The nexus grew larger, and now the Messenger could be seen clearly amidst the other orbiting constellations.

“And you see, there is always the meddling of Solars that must be taken into account. Zaela’s influence just undid months of work.” Chejop didn’t sound the least bit irritated—more curious about the unexpected result.

“So you desire the Solars to continue without the Realm’s aid?” Caiden asked.

The elder Sidereal paused, observing two overlaying constellations for a moment before answering. “There are…outcomes in which both sides are eliminated simultaneously.” Caiden was almost shocked at such a bold and calculated statement. “The Realm’s aid tips the scales unfavorably.”

“Who are you to say that is the unfavorable outcome?” Caiden nearly shouted. Anger briefly overtook any fear of speaking to the most powerful Sidereal alive. “The Solars on Meru clearly have their sights set on restoring Creation and ushering us out of the Age of Sorrow—something we cannot do on our own.”

Chejop was silent.

“I have spent centuries working to uncover wonders from the First Age that would help us defend Creation against the threats that tear at our borders daily. The Sidereals are in no position to defend Creation by themselves, and it’s a stretch even if we somehow got the Lunar nation on our side. Now that we finally have a chance at defense with the aid of Solars, you wish to throw that all away? No…I won’t stand for that.” Caiden’s golden anima flared to match that of the fate nexus.

“You asked me how I wanted this to play out, well here’s what I want!” Caiden took a step towards the Regent’s strand of fate and reached out to snatch it.”

“Think carefully about what you’re about to do.” Chejop warned, standing unmoved.

“I’ve been thinking long enough.” Caiden reached out and grabbed the strand of Uncertainty linking the Paragon of Water to the nexus. Prayer strips began forming around his hands as he grabbed for the strand of Antagonism attached to the Regent. He stared hard at Chejop before violently ripping both strands from the nexus. Whispering the Mantra of Unexpected Paths, Caiden smashed both strands of fate together, causing a spark to travel along both strands before reaching both Regent and Paragon.

At first there seemed to be no result as the debate continued within Fate. Caiden was breathing heavily, adrenaline from taking such a risk still fresh…

“HOW DARE YOU!” The Paragon of Water roared at the Regent after his latest comment, her fury pouring out into her elemental-aspected anima. The hem of her garment turned into a rushing wave that she directed towards him with horrific speed. In an instant the Regent was pinned against the wall, gasping for breath against the torrent of water crashing into him.

“You have spouted nothing but heresies since the moment you plagued this city,” the Paragon started walking towards him, ignoring the horrified look on the faces around her, “and you. have. crossed. the. LINE!”

The Paragon now commanded the water to form a sphere around Fokuf, eliminating any chance he had of escape. “Regent Fokuf, I judge you guilty of heresies against the sacred texts! May the elements have mercy upon your pathetic soul.”

The sphere of water continued to ravage Fokuf’s helpless body, until he convulsed with finality and became limp. The water crashed to the ground, slamming the corpse down and leaving it in an unnatural resting position. Every ounce of water swept back up to the Paragon’s robes, while attendants rushed past to retrieve the broken body of the Regent. After a moment, she returned to where she was standing and brushed her hands on her robe as a symbol of regaining composure.

“I’ll not stand idly by, knowing that heretics like the Regent favor inaction and cowardice. Let us face the threat on the Holy Mountain and take the reins of this city once more. After all, the Deathlord is a common enemy that all Dragonbloods can rally against. I vote to aid the Lightbringer.”

Caiden stood, shocked with horror. The second Fokuf was pulled from the room by the attendants, his corpse left reality, and flew into Chejop. The elder Sidereal stood calmly before the Fate Nexus, which now glowed much brighter than before.

“I warned you to think carefully about what you were going to do.” Chejop said calmly, unmoving. “Even the Avatar artifacts do not give exemption from Celestial Law.”

“I had no idea the Regent was…” Caiden began,

“Me? That’s the risk you chose to take when you haphazardly layered your perception of how fate should be atop years of careful planning.” Chejop turned to the other Sidereal, “The only thing stopping me from taking you into custody is that Shroud you wear, and I have half a mind to simply deal with the consequences of such an action anyways. I have a feeling, however, that the paradox you just created will be punishment enough.”

As if those words triggered a response from the heavens, a bolt flashed from above and struck Caiden on the hand. He fell to the ground, crying out at the emblem being burned onto his flesh.

“Ahh, the Essence-weeping Venom; a particularly nasty one.” Chejop’s words were a poison all on their own. “I suppose this means you won’t be able to interfere with the final vote. Pity, as this one determines whether or not the entire Circle lives or dies.”

Caiden fell to the floor on his side, pain wracking his entire body as essence bled out into elsewhere. Falling unconscious outside of Fate was dangerous, and it was all he could do to stay awake. Nausea swept over him in waves, followed by burning sweat as essence converted to aggravated energy. Each breath was agony, but he held on to the conviction that he had made the right choice. That thought lingered until gray became black, and then darkness…

A ringing tremble of shocked silence blanketed the room. The Paragon of Water looked nervously between each of her peers, wiping off her hands as if her charm had not already removed all traces of blood.

“What have you done?” from the hushed voice of Mnemon Harassa, Paragon of Earth. In a dry tone the Paragon of Air continued “… you’ve just killed the de facto ruler of the entire Scarlet Empire. The same empire which is already tearing itself apart.”

“I already said” the Paragon of Water raised her chin and the shaking evaporated. “I have removed a heretic from our presence. As I always will.” Zaela caught a quick glance from the Paragon of Air. “I do not care what station a person is, high or low, I will not stand by and have them mock the Immaculate Dragons. No one is so lofty as to survive their wrath. And we…” she gestured to the other Paragons “are highly exalted specifically to face any threat. And so we shall!”

“We shall gather our armies and ascend the Holy Mountain and strike down that Anathema. When its blood is drained out on the ground we shall snuff out its city, its entire existence. The mountain shall be made pure again, and the Scarlet Empire will lead in righteousness!”

The Paragon of Wood began to pick up on the excitement. “Yes, now is the time to put in place a new order that will last ten thousand years. The Immaculate Order will rise to lead the people. Not only in religion, but in government and all ways of life! Look-“ he gestured to the servant carrying out the body of Regent Fokuf. The man dragging the body caught Itzal’s eye and briefly grinned before resuming his somber task. “-the old Empire with all its dysfunction and depravity, its slavish apathy and decadence is now dead. We can give the people a new hope and new focus. We must transform these useless games into a rallying cry to all the Chosen of Dragons!”

Itzal watched the proceedings with growing interest. He knew there would be tension, but murder? Itzal followed the corpse, still maintaining his facade.

“You there,” he said to the servant dragging the regent. “Do I know you?”

The servant straightened up and, with a disdainful look, said. “No Nightbringer, but I know you. That matters little though. I am not who you need to fear.”

He waited for a response. When none came, he continued. “Oh? You don’t know! So it appears you Wretched don’t gather information quite as well as the Paragons. It’s a pity really. Why Peaceful Reflection of Compassion keeps such a useless toy around is beyond me. Ah, but I do digress. You must have questions. You must be wondering what I’m going on about, how I know you, why I haven’t reported you… Why I haven’t killed you. Yes, many questions. All in due… ti-”

The man trailed off as Itzal dropped his guise and took a menacing step toward him.

“I only have one question.” He said, taking another step forward. “How many pieces of you do I need to send to the Paragon before she’ll give me an audience?”

The man’s confidence wavered. For two seconds an internal struggle painted new expressions on his face as though he were practicing for a stage performance before he turned and ran.

Itzal allowed himself a brief smile before he gave chase. This was more like it. The man turned left at the end of the hallway and Itzal followed. When he turned the corner however, the man was gone. There were several doors on either side of the new hallway. They appeared to be private rooms, though it was likely that none were occupied, and the hallway was too long for the man to have run the length of it before Itzal regained line of sight. He slowed his breathing and began stalking down the hallway, ears and eyes intent on every door he passed. He was passing the third door when he heard a sigh of relief from the left. His feral grin returned.

“Are you ready to know why they call us Nightbringers?” He said as he opened the door. Something clicked and nausea hit him in a wave. At the far end of the room, the assassin stood with his arms crossed. There was a smug grin on his face as he watched Itzal stumble forward. The poison was working fast to immobilize him. Then the Paragon of Wood came out of what Itzal had previously mistaken for a closet. She spoke to him, but the words were unintelligible as he slipped from consciousness.

Itzal slowly clawed his way out of darkness. In the distance he heard a voice. It was… No! Itzal thought.

“… kill him now?” Please do. Itzal thought. It was Swift asking. “Why create a scene that may further their perception of you. They already think you are… prone to overreaction. No, I have a better plan.” Itzal heard another man give a disgusted snort before Swift could continue. “All due respect commander, but you know I’m right. I say send your aid, make them think you’ve seen their reason. Let him lead the squad if you must. When they’ve worn down the deathlord, we pull back. Let them kill each other, that way you may strike two birds with one stone. After they’re dead, the other Paragons will see the truth of their heresy and have no choice but to follow your way. They already know the necessary truths, it’s just a matter of shining light in the right direction. What say you?” There was a short pause before Itzal was struck hard in the abdomen, causing him to reflexively double over.

“Wake up Nightbringer.” He heard the familiar voice of his mystery assassin. “It seems there’s been a change of plans.”

Swift winced imperceptibly as Itzal was struck again. But he needed to maintain the facade at any cost. The negotiation was nearly finished. The Paragon of Wood seemed to be on his side or, more accurately, not against him.

“You show a lot of promise. Lateral thinking like that can lead to friends in high places. Too bad Bride of Justice got to you first. I trust you’ll take care of this… problem?” She inclined her head toward Itzal. “It would be mutually beneficial and I have more pressing matters.”

When the Paragon of Wood returned, there was no wasted time. “Our esteemed Paragon of Water is right. We must march against this foul darkness, and we must do so immediately. The time for passivity is over.”

The Paragons traded a series of quick, serious gazes between each other, as if they could read each others’ thoughts.

“The time has come to vote,” rang out the clear voice of the Paragon of Water, the elderly woman known by her peers as Bride of Justice. “All in favor of sending all possible forces to the Holy Mountain to strike down the Anathema?”

Each of the leaders of the Immaculate Order solemnly uncovered a shallow ceramic dish. Contained within were two smooth stones; one black and one white. Each Paragon placed in front of them the white stone: signifying a unanimous vote of support.

Support should be in quotes, thought Swift. Each of them still have their own reasons, but for the moment they’re doing what we want them to do. He looked up at the ceiling, Sol, don’t let this blow up in our faces.

The Paragon of Wood stood up, a bit of a grin creeping onto his face. “Then it is finally agreed.”

He gestured to a servant. “Bring us the list of every one who has ever served on a Wyld Hunt. They will be our command staff.” The servant nodded bleakly.

“Pass along the message that they are to recruit and be in command of all of their descendants, unless one of their descendants has also served in the Wyld Hunt.” The command hung in the silence as the servant looked slowly to each of the other Paragons for help. They remained motionless.

The servant fell to his knees and bowed face to the ground. “With all due respect oh glorious one, your servant only wishes to understand. The elder Dragonbloods that you speak of, over the centuries they have ALL served. If we include their descendants, would that not mean all of the Dragonblooded my lord?”

“Yes,” the Paragon of Wood replied, clearly smiling now. “Summon everyone. We will bring the Dragonblooded Host to the mountain, cleanse our nation, and take back the Realm.”

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Accounts of the Adamant Codex 16
Chapter Four, Scene Two

Traveling by river meant that they passed by many of the difficulties that weighed down the Blessed Isle. But every time they stopped for supplies they were greeted by an uneasy populace. Several towns had barricades splitting the town in two and there were far too many military supplies going up and down the river, even for Dynasts.

Matters on the mountain did not appear to be improving. Every week or so there was another wave of necrotic essence that rolled across the landscape, briefly turning everything to Shadowland before returning the world to a jittery stillness. Sometimes smoke or dust clouds could be seen high up on the mountain. Angeline tried not to think about what that could mean. Each passing shadowland-wave made the people of the Blessed Isle more nervous than the last, and they showed little sign of stopping.

After 3 months of travel they approached the main dock that led into the Imperial City. It was strangely motionless and as they neared the city they saw why. In the water around the main dock there were large gnarled pieces of sharp metal spaced at regular intervals. The wreckage of several boats already attested to their effectiveness.
-
The ship ghosted silently towards the city with the river’s flow. All the hands stood on the fore deck, staring at the City that was rapidly approaching. Smoke drifted up from dozens of small-to-medium fires, unnatural winds tore down streets, and the crackle of lightning was audible even from the river. Moving, leaping figures could be seen, trailing elemental essence in their wake like banners.

Ragara Soras Silas frowned heavily. “This is not right. The Imperial City is supposed to be the model of peace and civilization. Something has gone horribly wrong.”

Zaela, from where she stood at the ship’s rail beside him, glanced back up the river at Mount Meru, where yet another ring of darkness was moving down its slopes with malevolent resolution. “Clearly. The whole world has gone wrong,” she said, with a gesture back at the mount.

“Ho! Blockade! Ho, the ship!” One of the forward hands yelled, suddenly turning from the rail and dashing to the captain’s bridge, while others ran to their stations, pulling on ropes and setting poles into the water. The ship slewed to one side, hard, and the smoke drifting over the water cleared enough to reveal to Zaela what the hands had already seen.

Huge twisted pieces of metal, each as big as a yeddim and snarled with long dangerous spikes, stretched across the Imperial River, blocking access to the City. Several boats were already shredded on the blockade; wreckage floated nearby, pushed up against the metal by the steady current. The quick actions of the crew saved their vessel from a similar fate, and the captain soon had the ship back upstream a way, cross-anchored against the current.

“We’ll have to go upstream several miles to find another daughter-river, and moor there.” The captain, a Cynis Wood-Aspect from a minor branch, had called his passengers together to the bridge for the briefing. “We won’t be able to berth at the main docks, not unless that gets cleared away. There’s a dock on the northern side of the city I can aim for, but it’ll be another day or three to reach, if all goes well.”

Zaela turned away from the windows and dipped a little curtsy. “Thank you Captain. I believe my friends and I will best disembark here. It looks like we’ll be able to walk into the city easier than you can sail.”

Swift gave her an incredulous look across the room and as usual Itzal was silent and dark beneath his hood but she thought she sensed his expression shift in the same direction. She smiled brightly at them both and felt the chuckle of Lotus in the back of her mind.

“As you wish, Lady Keranda.” The captain looked as if he was going to object but was too well-bred to disagree with a superior. “I’ll have the hands set down the ramps.”

“Please send one to acquire mounts for us,” Zaela asked, reaching into one of the pockets of her gown and withdrawing a pair of jade coins, which she handed to him. “My friends and I will be gathering our gear.”

The captain weighed the coins in his hand briefly and nodded. “It will be done; they’ll be waiting for you shortly.”

“Thank you.” She dipped again and slipped out into the narrow corridor. Her shadow trailed her, and Swift and Silas were only steps behind.

“Plainly the situation has degenerated more than anyone expected here,” she said quietly over her shoulder, heading aft to their set of cabins. “We need to get to the Palace Sublime as soon as possible to deliver Lama Pyrrhus’ message. We can meet the ship later, if we must.”

She paused outside her door and reached again into her pocket. When she withdrew it, nestled in her palm were several objects of jewelry. “Swift, you remember these? They will let us communicate across several miles. You wear them like so,” and she brushed her hair back, revealing an ornate curled piece of jewelry hooked over her ear and trailing down her cheek. “I made more, thinking we might need them in the City.”

She offered one each to the others – Swift presumably had his still. Itzal’s was of square black jade wire and beads of sanded jet – nothing to shine or rattle – with less of the aesthetic swirls and curls of her own cuff and more hard bends. Silas’ was red jade wire and gold beads, its filigreed form suggestive of a flame burst.

“I need to pack. I’ll meet you all in a few minutes.” Zaela dipped her head and vanished behind her door.
-
Bronze Faction Sidereals have caught wind of new Solars in the area, making plans much more dangerous and difficult. It is known that Sidereals will take advantage of times of chaos to get away with things otherwise illegal per Celestial Law.

Caiden had prepared a letter sealed with the golden sign of Mercury and slipped it in one of Zaela’s bags before she departed New Meru. He had sent her such communique before in an attempt to establish some form of secrecy should the need arise, and this was such a time.

The Solars were heading into Bronze Faction territory, and that meant trouble. Caiden had woven his own destinies around the party to divert some of the lesser Sidereal agents, but some of the best Bronze Faction agents held stations of incredible power there.

The hidden message written into the “mercantile sales report” was as simple as:

Avoid the following in the Imperial City: Gem merchants, most people from house Ragara, ash trees with more than seven leaves per shoot, the Star of our Empress tavern, anyone associated with the schools of sorcery, Sunday, and paths that have more than three right turns. Bronze Faction = a faction of Sidereals who are not happy Solars have returned. They are frequently associated with the aforementioned. Possible danger to you and your party. Will be down as soon as I can.
-
Itzal reached for Keranda’s cabin door then hesitated. Swift grabbed Itzal’s hand and leaned in close.

“Perhaps you have things that need attending.”

Itzal made no indication that he heard Swift so he added, “In your own quarters?”

That seemed to snap him out of it. He shot a glare at Swift before retreating in the direction of his cabin. “I may never understand that man,” Swift said to no one in particular. His constant brooding was something Swift knew how to handle, but never comprehended. Many nobles he met acted the same way though usually to keep their private affairs private. Swift tried to imagine what two Solars who claimed to be on the same side had to hide from each other. He strolled to his own temporary residence as these thoughts clashed around in his head.

What if he is an agent of the Mistress of Bloody Charities? That idea left a bitter taste in his mouth. He knew he shouldn’t entertain that line of thinking, but he continued stubbornly. What if he intends to kill us all in our sleep? Then. Use your mind, if he intended to do that, he’s had the time and means, why wait? I just don’t like his attitude. He opened his cabin door. Then again, perhaps that’s just the way Night Castes are. With that thought he struck the rest from his mind and focused on his objective.

There were tasks to set about in the City. Information needed to be gathered and every exalt seemed to be going ashore. Swift opened a bag and verified that everything he would need was in there before he closed it and slung it over his back before heading to the top deck. He looked at the Imperial City and flashed back to the battle with Mistress’ minions, the two scenes weren’t very different.

It was a mess. Some of the buildings had been destroyed, people were watching Dragon-blooded fly from roof to roof in what seemed to be a battle to the death. A man in the sensible silk robes of a clerk or accountant held court in the corner of one of the smaller plazas, a travelling desk laid out before him. He was collecting and assiduously noting down small piles of jade coins and scrip, talking cheerfully with speculative citizens around him. There was no mistaking what was happening. This was some sort of sick tournament to prove strength or standing or whatever else these pretentious Dragon-Bloods cared about.

Itzal shouldered by Swift on his way into the city, urging Swift to walk up to the man placing bets.

“What’s your bet?” The man said, then he looked Swift over and continued. “Wait, wait! Don’t tell me, you’re here to bet on our favorite House Tepet huh? You look like the kind of smart man who-” Swift felt someone slip a hand into his pocket and he grabbed their wrist and the man stopped speaking.

“Who wouldn’t fall for such an obvious ploy?” Swift finished for him as he let the squirming hand go. It disappeared into the crowd. “No, of course not.” The man looked him up and down nervously this time. His expression which had been friendly a minute ago was now suspicious.

“Who are you,” he said, “and what do you want?”

“Close up your shop, we need to talk business.” Swift responded.
-

Itzal watched Zaela with an interest that unnerved him. He told himself to get control over his emotions. He was an exalt, chosen of the Unconquered Sun, not some starry-eyed teenage mortal. Maybe if he talked to her it would change things. The thought struck him like lightning. Talk? Who was this man so smitten with an exalt he barely knew? Something touched his hand and he heard the muffled voice of the Eclipse.

“… need attending?” He saw his own hand, already halfway to the latch in front of him and he was appalled. Surely this hand was not his. Then the Eclipse continued.

“In your own quarters?” Hatred clawed its way up Itzal’s throat and threatened to jump out and viciously attack the owner of those words. How dare this baby exalt have the audacity to feel contempt for Itzal, his elder by far. He gathered up all that hatred and shot it in an icy look at the Eclipse before turning to walk to his room. He bit down the mixed emotions with practiced control. As much as he hated it, the Eclipse was right, he needed to gather the things required for this expedition.

Itzal stepped onto the top deck and looked out at the City. It was unusual to be sure. Several of the more clandestine deals Itzal would have been hard pressed to notice were being made in broad daylight. The Dragon-Bloods, which were normally so quietly composed and noble were flinging each other into all sorts of things. From this vantage, it seemed as though that Deathlord atop the mountain had already won. Already on the shore was the Eclipse and the sight of him brought Itzal’s mixed feelings to the surface. He had a job to do though, as much as this particular group of Solars confused him, he still agreed to help them.

He walked by the Eclipse, purposefully bumping his shoulder on the way past. He was headed to a bathhouse one of his contacts frequented. A stout, boisterous man by the name of Rakshir. This particular contact would have valuable information regarding the state of the Imperial City, even beyond what was clearly evident.

The sun was at its Zenith before he reached the bathhouse. He quietly paid for a private bath and waited in it. Right on time, Rakshir walked in and gave Itzal a surprised look before sitting across from him. They went through their usual greeting ritual before the contact said,

“I thought you were going to be in Juche for some time now.” Itzal gave him a look. “No matter, I guess plans change all the time!” He gave a hearty laugh. “So tell me, what do you need…?”

“Everyone knows about the city Rakshir, tell me about the effect this has had on the lands outside the blessed Isle.” If there was any meaningful change in the city, it would be lost in the current chaos. Itzal needed to know just how bad this corruption was.

“Yes, yes everyone knows about the city. But you’re right, the real valuable information is what is going on in the wider world. With all the fighting communication lines have been unreliable at best. The All-Seeing Eye is concerned that we could be blinded from a greater threat with all this in-fighting, but warnings haven’t stopped anyone.”

“I have recently received word from a contact of mine, a dust trader in Gem, that the Wyld has been moving away from the city. It appears Creation is expanding.” The obese man paused dramatically as the steam rose from the bath, hoping to get a reaction out of Itzal. Itzal obediently feigned a look of shock. Though the information was quite surprising, he could not betray his character to let on that this mattered to him.

“He’s had to move his operation 70 miles to the South, since it relies on the Bordermarches to create firedust. He says every time another necrotic wave comes through they gain a couple of miles of barren land. I have a bounty out for exploration in the North, but I haven’t heard anything from there yet.” He rolled back and grinned. “So perhaps these waves are good for us after all. Eh?”

“Good.” He said with just enough contempt to catch Rakshir off guard. “Yes, if you enjoy living in a Shadowland.” He lightened up slightly and inclined his head to indicate that Rakshir should continue.

“Ah yes, well there is the issue of the Shadowlands. It’s true. But this will still be largely profitable. Sijan had nearly grown outside the borders of their shadowland, now they have lots of room to expand. You see my friend? It just depends on how you look at it. Some would say our civilization is crumbling into civil war. Me? I say there’s new profit to be had by making these fights a show. I’m sure the construction business will be booming as well.” He chuckled to himself, but there was a nervous twinge behind his jovial facade.
-

Swift noticed that the man’s eyebrows were bushy and slicked into claws with ear wax. When he furrowed his brow it looked like they were grasping at his forehead. “You want me to pause my business for you? I only interrupt business for business. How much coin is it worth to you? Then we’ll talk.”

“How about I give you information concerning the state of affairs that concerns you most instead?” Swift said smoothly. He knew he had the man’s attention when he motioned for someone to close down his cart.

After some grumbling and shuffling two big, dangerous-looking mortals put a sign up that said closed and stood on either side of the cart. The greasy vendor stepped inside the nearest building, followed by Swift. He turned around slowly and said.

“Normally this is the point where I’d ask you which rock you’ve been living under. But since I can smell the stench of river water on you, I know you’re from out of town.” He tapped a sausage finger to his round nose where his nose hairs intermixed with his thick mustache. “Oh yes. I know you. Nothing gets past Ledaal Consos.”

While Swift waited patiently for the man to finish, he pulled out his singing staff and bow. It was clear Ledaal Consos was accustomed to this kind of situation, but he wasn’t prepared the intensity of Swift’s response. Swift drew the bow across his staff, generating a single eerily melancholic note. His face grew dark and his voice resonated through the room they were in.

“This is the point where I’d have you hauled off to jail for speaking to me with such a tone, but you and I know I don’t have that kind of time. So what do you think I do to those who insult me and by doing so insult my patron House Ragara.” As he spoke, the note drew out into several chords weaving into the intricate patterns of music. The stone under Ledaal Consos’s feet snaked around his body, constricting his movement in response to the music.

“I certainly hope I have your attention because as I said before, I don’t have time for these games Consos.”

His mustache quivered like a mouse’s whiskers. “Certainly. How c-can I serve you?”

“There is a dark force that threatens to overwhelm this mountain and all its inhabitants. You’re correct when you say I’m not from this City, so tell me… While my companions are battling that Darkness, what effect has it had on the City. I want every detail; from how the city’s underworld has been affected to how our great houses have taken this new development.” His music crescendoed into a haunting climax worthy of any opera house before quieting down to a soft rhythmic melody.

“Ah… is that all? You needed only ask.” He paused to gauge whether the mortal threat had passed. “Naturally, these unexplained waves of darkness’ve got everyone all in titters. Every group is using it to try and advance their own agenda. Many have wanted to make an expedition to find the source of the problem and plug it up, but the mountain is the sacred ground of the Order. Only they can approve such an expedition.

The Immaculate Order claims that the House-neutral mantle of authority falls on them now that the Empress is gone, so they’ve tried to seize control of the government. They’ve been blocked by the usual line of contenders for the throne, Mnemon chief among them, each trying to push their own House into power. While some cities are predominantly one or two Houses, the Imperial City sports all houses in equal numbers by design. So that means that they’re held in stalemate.”

“If I wanted a lesson in politics, I would have asked my childhood tutor. Get on with it.” Swift said.

Consos shot Swift a dirty look before continuing. “When the second wave came through the city most people took it as a sign of the end of the world. The city was divided into 11 different sections all winding through each other with barricades set up on practically every street. There was a raid on a major Peleps storehouse and it looked like total war would break out in the next breath.

Instead, our Regent Fokuf had the one cogent idea of his entire life. He declared a tournament between the Houses. Fighting didn’t stop, it just became more organized. We dragonbloods are born for fighting. It’s in our blood, it’s what we’re made for. You can no more get us to stop fighting than you can make water dry. But you know that as well as I do, don’t you? Thing is, I don’t think anyone did the math at the time. With only one fight going on at a time and literally every dynastic Dragonblood in the tournament bracket, we’ll be at this for another five years. While having a single duel go on at a time was very profitable, they began to break into multiple fights around the city. Then someone leaked the bracket roster, or maybe they made it up, and you started seeing groups of the bracket settle it out in a battle royale.
And of course it’s so much more interesting to race over residential area rooftops battling with fire and lightning than to stay in just one city square. It’s all been terribly good for business, if you’re in the right business. Did you know, there’s a cart selling seven different flavors of celestial pretzel? They’re not real, mind you, but still…”

“I could start playing this again, or you could get to the point.” Swift interrupted. “What’s the purpose behind the fighting? Will that resolve anything? What is being done about the mountain?”

“There is a vague idea that the House that wins the tournament will claim the throne but that’s never really been said explicitly and it’s not clear that could be enforced. I think people are just happy to be fighting, and doing it a couple at a time makes for better shows. To be honest, people have mostly forgotten about the Death Waves or whatever they’re called. That they’ve continued on like this without causing any permanent damage and that they’re almost rhythmic, people just assume it’s natural and will work itself out now.”

“Thank you Ledaal Consos. Pray that you never cross my path in such a way as you did today.” Swift finished playing and the ground released Consos, reverting to its original position.


Lady Keranda checked her packs one more time before they entered the city proper, ensuring the memory-crystal rested safely on the chain round her neck and Pyrrhus’ missive was still in its case. Her placid mount -a tidy buckskin mare – took the opportunity to snatch a mouthful of grass, completely unconcerned by the raucous battles occurring just a few blocks away.

Keranda’s fingers tingled as they brushed a folded sheet of fine paper. The saffron seal vanished as she took it in, and she carefully unfolded the note. It seemed like an exceptionally dry quintile sales report… but involving pickled fish? Why would… oh. Keranda sighed at her own slow-wittedness and trickled a little essence through her fingers- suddenly the warning was as clear as day. Avoid ash trees? … too late to avoid Ragara… She glanced over at her escort suspiciously._ Oh well. I’ll just have to carry on as best I can._

Her fellow Solars had struck off without a word almost immediately upon entering the city, leaving her with Ragara Silas. The next block over held a small plaza, filled with shouting people – the occasional blast of water or lightning could be seen between the formerly elegant buildings.

“Alright, goodbye!” She called after them. “We’ll meet up later? You know where to go, right?” Itzal’s cloak might’ve twitched in response, but Swift was already too far down the street. “Please, lead on Master. Is it far to the Grey Palace?”

“It is in the center of the Temple District, near the Imperial Palace. So, not too far, but far enough given the… er… circumstances.” Ragara nudged his horse forward, and they began picking their way down the street. His acolytes followed, keeping a protective perimeter around the two Exalts, their penetrating stares and robes of the Order keeping back most of the rabble.

Keranda arranged her skirts and shifted her seat more comfortably on the sidesaddle. “I’m sure we will manage.”

The Grey Palace was not a palace at all. Keranda had expected a tall, imposing building, meant to humble and humiliate supplicants, much like the buildings in Yu-Shan. The Grey Palace, in contrast, was much more utilitarian, of sensible blocks of granite shaped by an Earth-aspect’s touch. It was more of a complex of low, single-story buildings than a single massive one, arranged around several courtyards. At the back of the complex stood a taller keep, with four towers and one more, much higher than its brothers.

“We’ve reached the place,” Keranda murmured, brushing the metal stud on her earring to transmit to her Circlemate and fellow Solars. “I’m going in, do come join us.”

Ragara Silas went through the gate without pausing except to dismount and toss the reins of his horse to a novice waiting for just that purpose within. Keranda followed his lead, lifting the precious pack with its messages from the saddle and sliding down gracefully, with as much poise and Imperial Dragonblooded arrogance as she could muster.

“Ah, Honored Silas! So glad to see you made it safely. We received your message a sennight ago, and have been awaiting your arrival.” An older monk, a Third Coil like Silas himself, met them at the entrance to the next courtyard. He wore a plain robe of undyed linen, trimmed with geometric patterns, and a belt of woven blue wool. He was younger than Silas, but not by much, with the ink-stained hands of a scholar and scribe. Beyond him, Keranda could just see the kneeling forms of postulants, dressed in their plain gray robes, awaiting their initiation into the Order.

“Thank you, Honored Ilanis. I present Lady Ragara Keranda,” and here he beckoned her forward with a little bow. “The rest of our party will be joining us soon; they were held up by… traffic. However, as we are under some urgency…”

“Oh, that damned inconvenient ‘tournament’,” Ilanis snorted. “As if we didn’t have enough problems to deal with – shadowlands and undead on the Blessed Isle itself and all sorts of divine squabbling!”

“Honored One,” Keranda interjected, before the other monk could work up to what appeared to be quite a long rant. “I bring a message from Master Lightbringer himself, from upon the Mount. It is very relevant to the problems you face, and the Mouth and the Paragons need to hear it as soon as possible.”

Ilanis’s babbling stream of invective cut off abruptly at the mention of Pyrrhus, and he regarded Keranda with a wary side-eyed gaze. “Yes, of course. This way. Normally you would be out of luck, as only the Mouth resides here full-time, but the Paragons arrived several weeks ago and have been unable to leave due to the… traffic.”

Ilanis led them through the maze of courtyards to the final keep. The grey stone was darker here, its aspect more forbidding. Keranda took a meditative breath to still her thoughts – she knew what Immaculates thought of Solars, and here she was walking into their stronghold – and followed Silas within.
-

“We’ve reached the place,” Swift heard Zaela through the earpiece. “I’m going in, do come join us.”

He grabbed his own earpiece and said,_ “Don’t get comfortable, I’ll only be a minute. I had some… Business to attend to, it’s taken care of now. Send my apologies to our host.”_

Swift left the Ledaal Consos in his building and walked toward the grey palace. “If this is the effect the battle for Greyfall is going to have, we need to have a plan for picking up the pieces when it’s all over.” He said. The consequences of battling a Deathlord were unsettling. They needed to end this battle before more carnage resulted.

It wasn’t long before Swift reached the Grey Palace. It was much less grand than Swift was expecting. It followed the same architecture that the rest of the city did, but it was more like a little village of its own rather than a single towering monument of power. A man dressed in the same simple clothing that Swift had come to expect from those of the order greeted him.

“Ragara Joruyo,” Swift said, “I believe you’ve already met my cousin, Ragara Keranda.”

The monk gave him a glance up and down, “Yes. I have. Come with me.”


Itzal heard a melodic voice murmur in his ear. Immediately he recognized the mousy Zenith caste. He almost forgot he was wearing the black earring she fashioned for him. When he finished his meeting, he found a courier to send word of his arrival to the grey palace. It was time to get into character. He sighed. This was always a character he loathed playing, but it was a necessary part for his duties. Before he entered the Grey Palace an elderly monk came to greet him.

“Ah Jarain Aris! It’s good you’re here! How is House Mnemon treating you? Did you deal with that little problem? Oh you simply must tell me all about it. Careful though,” He said with a sinister smile, “we have guests.”

“Why of course, only when you have the time, didn’t I hear you’ve been participating in some interesting activities yourself? Surely you don’t need a Lunar to do that for you. Oh but I digress, for you see, it was during my last visit to House V’neef. They had a very bold request of the families that I just_ had_ to escort them here. Plus,” He leaned in close and whispered, “how could I miss such a spectacle between the houses? Who knew there could be so many fireworks in our very own imperial city?”

“Ugh! Don’t get me started on that blasted tournament. Young hotheads looking for any reason to tear each other apart in the streets. It used to be this kind of thing was done nice and quiet behind doors, you remember. Now it’s all gone to pieces. As if we didn’t have enough to worry about with between the shadowlands and undead, why even the paragons are here bickering about who will be ‘victorious’! It’s downright disgraceful! I mean-”

“Why don’t we save this for another time,” Itzal said. “After all, you do have guests.”

“Yes, yes. You said you were here on their behalf? I suppose they can’t be that bad if they’re here with you. You do know they represent that… The one we can’t get rid of. Oh never mind, we can hear them out, as you said, it will be fun.”

They walked in to where the others were waiting.

“I imagine you all have met, but more formal introductions are necessary. Mnemon Jarain Aris, please meet Ragara Keranda and Ragara Joruyo.”

View
Accounts of the Adamant Codex, 15
Chapter Four, Scene One

Mount Meru was more than just a holy icon of the Immaculate Order. It was the Pole of Earth, the Anchor of Creation, which spread life, fertility, and stability to all of the Blessed Isle. Juche was the gateway to the slopes of the Mount Meru, the Imperial Mountain. A prosperous city surrounded by beautiful vineyards owned by the small but wealthy House V’Neef. Every Dragon-blooded Great House held estates near this city, staking their claim on the Gateway to the Imperial Mountain. But on this day a bad omen appeared on the mountain. A wave of darkness moved across the mountains face and, over the course of the day, approached the city with silent intent.

In the dark hours before sunrise, five shadows stalked the bowels of Juche clad in ebony robes. They entered a door in an alley which led to a room filled with arcane symbols. The last made sure the door was locked behind them and looked around. He always thought that humans had such strange ideas about what real necromancy was. That way they rely completely on their leader for true knowledge, he thought, clever. This was the day he would meet the real necromancers though. He had spent weeks setting up the pieces of this plot. Now all the elders of this sect would be in the same room. It was efficient that way, and the Fifth enjoyed efficiency. The elders shuffled in, the fourth started to shift nervously. Clearly he had never seen them before. The Fifth was familiar with every face, every wrinkle and gray hair. Elders indeed.

The first three passed their tests unremarkably, each only doing what they had been taught, nothing more. The Fourth seemed keen to impress the elders. He drew their attention with flashy gestures and bright lights. The first three apprentices watched from the shadows. The Fifth was drawing a bow silently, darkness embracing him like a lover. The fourth cast his “spell” and the candles in the room flickered out. The Fifth held his arrow; something was not right. The dead came crawling from the floor. Everyone could smell it, though only the elders and the Fifth recognized the stench. This was a shadowland. How had the Fourth created a shadowland on the Blessed Isle when he wasn’t a real acolyte?

The Fifth let his arrow fly and it separated flawlessly into ten black arrows, three of which curved back to strike his fellow apprentices in the heart. The rest shot through the rising undead, striking multiple targets, to end feather-deep in the elders’ stunned heads. Sixteen bodies dropped to the floor. Itzal pulled his necromancer costume off, freeing his usual onyx leather attire and made his way through the dark to the Fourth. He grabbed him and said nothing as they left the building.

Itzal looked up the mountain through the gaps in the city skyline. If anyone knew about this phenomenon, it would be his most useful contact Angelline. He watched as the Fourth left to inform his employer of the situation before he started for House V’Neef. Fifteen minutes later, he entered the estate and waited in her meeting chamber. A servant was frantically waiting for her arrival at the front gate. Another was waiting at her secret entrance. Wherever and whenever she entered, she would know he was here waiting for her.

Angelline paused in the warm, honey-thick sunlight just outside the Jadeborn tunnel, while refugees and soldiers alike flowed past her. Aelius still clung to her skirts, as he had ever since his father had sent them away and the shadowland had rolled over them, drowning the convoy in a few long moments of hopeless despair. The sun was dispelling that horrible miasma, and they were all glad to be in it again. Angelline was looking east; the dark band of shadowland could still be seen, rolling down the plains towards the ocean.

A servant plucked at her sleeve urgently. “Yes, Tarun? … He’s here? Now?… His timing is awful. Tell him I will be there as soon as I’ve changed.” Angelline tried to hand her son over to his guardian, but the boy buried his face deeper in her skirts and refused to let go, with his father’s stubborn strength. She sighed. “Please have refreshments brought. It has been a very, very long week.”

Just shy of a half-hour later, Angelline, scrubbed and dressed appropriately to her rank, with a (finally) sleeping toddler draped over her shoulder, entered her private salon and went directly to her desk. She settled her son on the adjacent couch with his blanket and only then turned to address her visitor. “I’m sorry to have kept you waiting. Please, what brings you to my villa this morn?”

Itzal could hear the words she implied. He raised one brow at her as he said “Your mate and his entourage seem to have made a mess of things up there. Think of this visit as a mission of compassion.”

Angelline just stared at him, and the temperature of the room seemed to drop several degrees. Phantom tendrils of wind stirred the very ends of her hair. Her mother would have had many somethings to say about such a lack of emotional control, but her mother was not here. “There is a powerful Deathlord on the mountain, determined to wipe away the city upon it and my husband also. He is there now, defending, so that we could escape, to bring warnings and help.”

“This Deathlord has made my life a shadowland, quite literally only hours ago.” Itzal replied. “I do not wish to lose one of my most important contacts, and so I mean no disrespect to you or your brood. I am here to help. If only to protect my own interests.” He clenched his strong jaw reflexively. He never enjoyed the inevitable talks he had with contact or client. He was taught at a young age that talk is meaningless without action to back it. Though he usually took it one step further to say that all talk was meaningless. One’s actions always showed their true character. Talk is how rats squirm their way out of execution. He thought with a grimace. “Tell me how I can help.”

Angelline defrosted slightly; her hair falling straight again. “I would love to send you up the mountain, but even with a letter of introduction, I doubt my husband or his brotherhood is in a mood to trust any shadow-walkers, no matter their patron or their skills.” Angelline stopped to think, picking up a stylus from her desk and tapping it against the blotter pensively. “However. There are two others, allies of my husband, who agreed to bring his warnings to the Imperial City and his colleagues. They intend to return to the mountain with an army vast enough to defeat the Deathlord.”

She eyed him, imbuing her words with meaning. “They’re not from the Isle. They are not yet aware of how dangerous it is for them. A Deathlord is one thing, the streets of Juche or the Imperial City quite another. They’ll have proper paperwork, of course. Perhaps you see an opportunity to be of assistance?”

Assistance… Itzal thought. His contact network was extensive and his experience with avoiding trouble was undoubtedly useful to those newcomers. Angelline was right, staying alive in the streets of Juche was no easy task. Though he would never admit it to anyone, he was excited to finally meet another Solar. One of his jobs had taken him up to Angelline’s husband’s manse, but they never spoke, not that Itzal minded of course. Scenarios ran through his mind: Assassinating targets with another night or dawn caste. Rooting out necromantic cults with a Zenith. Even hunting down a particularly evasive target with a twilight caste. The door behind him opened and he stood coolly to greet the new Solar.

The first thing he noticed was the Solar’s essence. From what he saw this was still a baby Solar. It held the strength and naive confidence of a newly exalted. The second thing he noticed was its outfit. Something about it screamed of Yu Shan, but it was torn and bloodied from battle, no doubt with the deathlord Angelline mentioned. A zenith, he thought, _ spiritual warrior of the Unconquered Sun. This could be fun_. After his appraisal, the night caste bowed respectfully to the Zenith. Then it spoke.

“Greetings brother,” The Solar flashed his eclipse caste mark and Itzal’s hope died a bloody and painful death. “Ragara Joruyo, Air aspect and ambassador to-”

Itzal stopped listening. He was boiling inside, but his polite demeanor revealed nothing. He glanced at Angelline with a look that said_ is this some kind of sick joke?_

She smiled and Itzal turned his attention back at the detestable eclipse caste. He was going on about the situation on the mountain and his heritage as an air aspect.

“If it is in your interest to blahblahblah blah blahblah-” Itzal gathered all the contempt and distaste he could muster and shot it in a look at the Solar, who was still speaking. You are useless, the look said. You are not welcome around me and I find nothing you have to say valuable.

The eclipse caste stopped, stunned by the icy glare. Satisfied, Itzal shoved past him and slammed the door. He would not help that Solar if it meant eradicating all hate and corruption in Creation.

When he turned away from the door to walk out he paused.

There was another Solar standing quietly before him. She had the look of a royal who had taken the throne at too young an age and seen too much. She wore jewelry, some, appropriate to her rank but far understated, and wore clothes far more suited to working than politicking. From the way she moved as she slipped past him to approach Angelline, he could tell she was used to elegant dress as well.

That, He thought as she gently closed the door he had just slammed, is a Solar worth helping. He followed her back in, curious.

“Ah, good. These are the two I spoke to you of. …Joruyo and Keranda.” She lifted an eyebrow, gently. Not their real names, then, of course… “Of House Ragara.”

‘Joruyo’ had stopped speaking, to Itzal’s veiled relief.

‘Keranda’ dipped briefly. “Pleased to make your acquaintance,…?” she trailed off, waiting for his name in turn.

“Itzal.” He said. His voice was smooth and quiet, a fitting match for his demeanor. “Pleasure.” He kept his eyes fixed on Keranda, to make sure everyone in the room knew he meant that only about her.

Zaela/Keranda smiled prettily at Itzal, slightly off-balance by the intensity of his regard. And by Angelline’s use of Keranda. It was one of her middle names, worn by an Ancestress, and the one they had decided was sufficiently Realm-sounding to make a good alias, but it was still strange to be addressed that way. “Itzal. I hope we,” she gestured to herself and Swift/Joruyo, “…weren’t interrupting anything. It looked like you were leaving?”

Itzal shrugged and sat down next to the sleeping boy, seemingly oblivious to his presence.

“Well, now that we’re all introduced.” Angelline glanced down at her son, still sleeping on his couch, an arm thrown up over his head and his blanket rucked up around his chest. “Joruyo, Keranda… perhaps you’d like to rest and refresh yourselves? – I know I am still not recovered from the last week, and you two did even more than I. We shall talk more and have dinner later.”

“Itzal, you are welcome to stay on as my guest until you’ve decided how you’d like to assist. Tarun will find you a room, and anything else you may need. And now… there are many messages I must write if we’re to formalize your adoption, my friends.”

She smiled and picked up a pen, bending to her writing. The Angelline here was subtly different from the Angelline on Mount Meru, Zaela/Keranda noted as she paused in her way out. Here, her back was just that little bit straighter, chin higher.

This was her home, Zaela realized. Putting together some of the stories of the Meru Circle’s adventures, with Aelius’ age, must have meant that Angelline spent much of her time here, alone, while Pyrrhus was off with his Circle. She’d shaped much of it to her liking, and she was undisputed Master – except when Pyrrhus was home. Their relationship must be complicated…

The door opened behind them and a servant backed in, carrying a tray. The scent of chilled white grape juice and flaky bread rolls stuffed with various fillings – some savory, some sweet – wafted from the tray as the servant set it on the sideboard and then left, bowing to his mistress on the way out. Angelline acknowledged him with a smile and a dip of her head.

“Help yourselves,” she said, reaching across her desk to pick up a glass, condensation already forming on its sides. Itzal picked up two goblets. Clearly unaccustomed to such beverages, he drank one glass immediately. The second, he offered wordlessly to Zaela. She took it with a gracious smile and picked up the platter of rolls, offering them to each in turn, ending with Swift, and then taking one herself, one of the fruit filled ones.

Swift watched the exchange with a slight glint of humor in his eyes. When Zaela made her way to him, he grabbed one roll and began eating it. This scene; Itzal brooding in the corner, Angelline writing studiously, Zaela thinking hard on something all reminded Swift of home. Except there he was the one writing, or speaking. He had taken a liking to Itzal, despite his ill humor. There was a certain attitude with which he spoke to Angelline and Zaela that told Swift he was still a Solar. He still had a good heart. Zaela interrupted his thoughts.

“Perhaps we ought to move to the gardens so we don’t wake up Aelius?” Zaela/Keranda suggested and began to head towards the door again. “You could tell us something about Juche, Master Itzal. Have you lived here long? Angelline said you wanted to help…?”

Itzal looked down at the boy, as if seeing him for the first time then up at the departing Zaela/Keranda.

“Of course.” He said quietly as he stood. He waited for Zaela/Keranda to leave before heading after her. Swift followed grudgingly silent behind. “I have lived here my most of my life. Even before I exalted my life was devoted to rooting out corruption and evil on the Blessed Isle. That’s why I wanted to help.”

Itzal could not remember the last time he spoke so much. It was odd hearing so much of his own voice. Swift, on the other hand, could contain his words no longer. When he spoke, it came in a stream so fast that everyone present had to focus hard to understand him.

“Naturally you would be inclined to root out evil and corruption I myself spent years training to do just that you see I want to rid creation of the Fair Folk well not all of them I can’t do that just yet but really to expand creation via a liaison with a Fair Folk Lord.” He took a breath. “By the way I never asked because I wasn’t sure it was the right time but now seems like the right time to ask being that we’re all talking now which of the Dragons blessed you?”

Zaela lagged behind for a moment to look questioningly into Swift’s flushed face. She passed him her goblet for a moment to get himself together. He was talking nearly as fast as when he’d run the Isle for that boy back home.There was a long pause while Swift composed himself, and then:

“The Sun.” Itzal did not acknowledge Joruyo/Swift in any other way than those two words.

Zaela stopped in her tracks in the middle of the breezeway nearly knocking Itzal over. She glanced from Swift to Itzal and back again, Did you know he was…? If she’d still had her drink she might’ve choked on it. “Ah. Well, that changes things. I feel I can trust you with our secret, then, as you’ve entrusted yours. I am Zaela Keranda Tokari, Chosen of the Sun at Zenith.”

Swift finished his juice before he said, “Warrick Swift Colson, Chosen of the Eclipsed Sun.”

For the first time since their meeting Itzal wasn’t completely annoyed with the Eclipse caste. Maybe he can be taught to shut up. He looked from one Solar to the other before he said, “Itzal Akar Silent-Blade of The Sun’s Shadow.” It had been some time since he used his Solar name. It felt… Nice.

Zaela smiled. “Well, Master Itzal, it is a pleasure to meet you – again.”

The gardens of Ascending Wood spread out ahead of them – beds of herbs and vegetables, borders of bright flowers, grapevines allowed to grow decoratively and wildly over arches and fences instead of kept neatly in line as in the rest of the vineyard, and pollinating insects humming in the background. Benches were scattered here and there, surrounded by fragrant flowers, trellising, and vines. It was beautiful, and peaceful, and if one ignored the band of shadowland crawling away in the distance, it could have been restful.

That night, Zaela prayed. She lit her incense just as the sun touched the western horizon, laid out in their simple clay holders on a cloth-covered stool beneath the window, gleaming softly in the last squares of light.

Zaela began with her usual entreaties for wisdom and guidance, telling the Sun of the events she’d witnessed, thanking him for sending another of his Chosen to help in the form of Itzal. But, by the end, as the last sliver of sun sunk steaming beneath the Pole of Water, the carpet before her makeshift altar was wet with her tears. The stresses of the last few days caught up with her, as she had not allowed them to under Raksi’s coddling, and her eloquent prayers dissolved into incoherent sobs for help.

“The Unconquered Sun has not responded to our petitions for three thousand years, I doubt he’s going to start now. Your visitation with him in Heaven notwithstanding.”

“H- What?” Zaela’s lament cut off with a startled hiccup and she tumbled backwards, legs tangling in her skirts. “Who are you…?”

Sitting on the other side of the altar, incense smoke suffusing her translucent form, was a woman. After her week on the mountain, Zaela was familiar with the dress and aesthetics of the high First Age through their ruined murals and mosaics. This ghost-woman wore the robes of a First Age Solar, and her straight-backed manner suggested no little influence. Zaela had to peer past the jewels and orichalcum to see the ghost’s face, and was startled to see her own gazing back.

“Prismatic Lotus. I’m the last beneficiary of the Exaltation you now bear, dove,” said the woman, primly.

“Y-you should not be here,” Zaela’s caste mark flared, glittering in the gathering dark as she stretched out her hand to Lotus. The Zenith’s intentions were quite clear – send the ghost on to Lethe, to continue the natural reincarnation cycle.

“Think, child. I have been helping you since your Exaltation in Adrelith.” Lotus leaned delicately away from the glowing fingertips, eying them. “You are about to step into a den of vipers and convince them not to strike at you. I lived in such a den for centuries, with much smarter vipers and much longer fangs. You will need me.”

“Or… you could be another ploy of the Deathlord’s.” Zaela’s hand paused, and her caste mark flickered uneasily.

Lotus roused, her mask of pleasant boredom dropping to reveal a fierce passion. “I might be dead, child, but I have never stopped being a Chosen of Sol Invictus. That… creature… is corrupting the lands I once called home. It must be destroyed.” The ghost woman unfolded long legs and stood, trailing wisps of smoke as her fingers traced the whitewashed plaster of the walls. “If I were the Deathlord’s plaything, how would I know all about your visit to Yu-Shan? The circumstances of your Exaltation in the family chapel? Or even – the color of your eyes and hair before you received the Second Breath? Brown and brown. Arainn would tease you and call you his mouse.”

Lotus lowered herself gently to the bed, though it registered no sign of her weight. “I am, after all, your ancestor. That chapel was my tomb, though it was not built for me, and your family has been my link to Creation since. No, I am not in league with that monster.”

Zaela was still hesitant, but the light from her mark dissipated entirely and her fingers lost their glitter of gold. “I want to trust you. I do. It is hard, going from fifth daughter in the shadow of the heirs, to Queen and Exalted. I am learning I should not trust everyone but I must keep the heart that made me Chosen in the first place.”

“Most of us lost that, over the centuries,” Lotus sighed. “It may be what ended us. But a new Age has dawned, and with it, a chance to start again.”

“It was you, wasn’t it. At the Pole of Wood.”

“Yes, and I apologize. I was… dreaming… for lack of a better word. It took the shadowland wave to bring me back to consciousness. From the moment of your Exaltation until a few days ago, things have been… hazy.” Lotus began pulling off some of the heavier pieces of jewelry and garb. They wafted away as soon as her touch left them, until she looked far more normal, to Zaela’s eyes. Still bejeweled, but no longer as draped as a religious icon.

“And before then?” Zaela rolled onto her knees and stood, drawing the room’s single chair before the bed so that she and her ancestor could speak eye to eye.

Lotus shrugged dismissively. “I remember perfectly well. Not that there is much to remember in the Underworld… it was terribly boring until a decade or so ago, until the Deathlords rose. But my memories of the Deliberative are still sharp. Will you accept me as an advisor?”

Zaela’s nose wrinkled slightly as she squinted at Lotus, as if by squeezing her eyes she could make the truth clearer and divine the ghost’s true intentions. Finally she sighed. “Yes, I will. I’m no more suited to rule right now than a mouse, and I would be a fool to turn down the experience of one steeped in it. But I warn you – if you prove false -” and Zaela did not need to complete her sentence, as her caste mark flared and her eyes flashed with golden light.

“If I cause you or yours to come to harm, I will gladly throw myself into Lethe,” Lotus pledged. She leaned forward, arms wide, and embraced Zaela. For a moment, the echo of the Shadowland wave gave her substance, and the warmth in Lotus’ embrace was identical to her mother’s… Zaela gave a hiccupped sob and Lotus vanished, soaking into the younger Solar like rain in the desert.

It is tiring… being visible, Lotus sighed, and Zaela could feel her curled around the warm spark of her exaltation, melting like a content cat. Let us both sleep, and I will show you the life I once led. In the morning… we’ll see.

That seemed like wisdom to Zaela. She pinched out the incense sticks and pushed the altar stool against the wall, with the chair, and fell into her bed, knowing nothing more until dawn.

Zaela woke slowly, rising out of golden dreams. She moved languidly, sitting up with the light sheet she’d slept under twisted around her. Vague memories of dancing, of talking and laughter, of sparkling essence, tripped through her mind, slipping through her fingers when she tried to latch on to them and examine them more closely.

They’ll come to you, Lotus yawned, … just be patient. I’ve given you the knowledge of a few useful Charms, but it’ll take a few nights’ rest to rise to the surface so that you can actually exercise them.

“Oh,” Zaela said, feeling lost again. She rose and went through her morning habits, changing into the last set of clean clothes in her pack – more formal than what she had been wearing, but nothing like her elegant court garb. Eminently suitable for planning and plotting in the villa, though.

Angelline had promised a fuller wardrobe, suitable for the tasks they were about to embark on and the Imperial City, in few days. By that time, also, arrangements would be complete for their travel. I seem to be in a great many people’s clothing debts, she sighed, twisting her hair up into a loose chignon. She also took the time to fish out more jewels. The only things that never left her person were the artifact Torc and her engagement ring; now she brought out a delicate circlet and several bracelets, earrings, and another necklace. Her silken essence armor remained in the packs – surely she’d not have need of it here.

Clothing and jewels are as much armor as plate mail, where we’re going, Lotus commented, humming approvingly at Zaela’s reflection in the mirror hung over the chest. Now. Dear, I looked through your memories from while I was dreaming – you may not need as much help as I thought. Or as you thought.

“What do you mean?” She tugged the laces on her sandals snug and opened the door onto the veranda. The sun was already a few fingers over the horizon, and a servant had left a covered tray on the table outside, where she would have a view of the estate and the river beyond as she broke her fast.

A series of memories flashed through her mind – the Games of Divinity (and she hadn’t remembered that until just now), speaking up to Sol Invictus; scolding the Mistress and turning her back upon the Deathlord; even speaking up to Raksi, long ago, before she was healed. You’ve already got the nerve, you just need to believe in yourself. Everyone can see why the Sun chose you in those moments – your words and your heart shine through.

Zaela finished her breakfast with a small, happy, smile.

A week later, the small party of disguised Solars, their dragonblooded escort of five of Pyrrhus’ followers, and a pile of luggage as high as a man’s hip, arrived at the docks of the Imperial River. Just a short ways from Juche was the source of the river, and by far the fastest way to travel down to the City short of magic.

A large river-yacht bumped up to the pilings and seamen swarmed over the side to make fast the ropes. An older dragonblood, with the ruddy skin of a high-essence fire-aspect and the robes of a ranked Immaculate, stepped to the top of the gangplank and motioned the group onto the boat.

“Greetings, Honored Guests. I am Ragara Soras Silas, vartabed of Chanos and High Priest of the Illuminated, also Chosen of Fire. I am here to see you safely to the Imperial City, and to vouchsafe your legitimacy as House Ragara. You will be safe here with us, and the crew has also been chosen to be discreet.”

“The interior of the Blessed Isle is not as safe as it was ten years ago. The Houses are very close to open war with each other. Unfortunately, the problems with the Holy Mountain have only served to catalyze their conflict instead of bringing them together. If you are truly messengers from,” and his voice lowered discreetly, “…the Shining Ones, I hope you can bring the nation back together again.”

View
Accounts of the Adamant Codex, 14
Chapter Three, Scene Three

Raksi was there to see Akaris off at the Gate of Five Corners. “I feel as though in you I am finally seeing a glimpse at my destiny.” Raksi held both of Akaris’s arms as a proud parent sending her child off to school. The image wasn’t quite perfect since Raksi was two hands shorter than Akaris. She kissed her on the cheek. “I’ll be here when you get back, I promise.”

Akaris was about to respond when a soldier came skittering into the room. “Your Highnesses, the Mistress of Bloody Charities has been spotted coming around the mountain, much further up slope.” Raksi squared her shoulders “She’s making a dark trail behind her. We think it’s some form of Necromancy.”

“Yes, well, I didn’t expect her to stop while we made our own preparations.” she turned back to Akaris with a smile. “Don’t worry. We need Solar Circle Sorcery to full counter her might, but I think I am her match physically. I’ll engage and keep her busy while you are gone.” Raksi’s expression became blank for a moment. “Lunars specialize in surviving. I’ll engage, keep her busy, then come back here to heal. Rinse, and repeat.”

Another pause. “You just focus on your sorcery and come back when you’re ready.” Raksi took off at a brisk walk. “Has anyone seen Pyrrhus?!” she called.

Caiden caught sight of Raksi after Iyanden informed him she was heading away from the Gate of Five Corners. The elemental dragon descended rapidly, bringing with it a small trail of clouds that clearly wanted to become something much more. A short turn allowed them to match stride and direction with Raksi, who observed the duo with the same candor as if she were watching a kite in the wind.

“You’re not Pyrrhus.” She jabbed.

“I certainly could be if you turn around for a minute.” The Sidereal said, quickly jumping off Iyanden who became a translucent serpent-shape that swam through the air aside the two exalts as they walked.

“Very funny,” Raksi said, rolling her eyes. She jerked her head towards the upslope of Meru. “I take it you’ve heard the news?”

“Yes,” Caiden responded grimly. “I’m no master of Death Lords, but I know she’s specifically targeting the Dragon Lines with Void Circle necromancy. I shouldn’t need to explain how that’s real bad for us—I can’t tell right now if she’s drawing power from them or if she’s corrupting their essence, but if I were to guess, it would be the latter. Thanks to Akaris’s curse upon her, the Mountain has been fighting her with everything it’s got. Unfortunately, we’re running out of time…fast.”

“Precisely why I’m trying to find Pyrrhus!” Raksi exclaimed.

“Hold your horses…or horse…or whatever form you’re the fastest in.”

“Razor falcon.”

“Razor falcons, yes—hold those. We’re headed his direction, but I wanted to brief you on a potential solution before we go charging in.” The path before them shimmered slight gold, as if specs of the precious metal were floating above the walkway, leading them towards the heart of the city.

“You know the curse I mentioned earlier? I believe that’s just the advantage we need to keep her from finishing whatever dark ritual she’s pouring into the mountainside. What we need to do is catch her off guard with the elements. I’m hoping that she’s somewhere within your new domain here. I can set off a series of unfortunate accidents near her, essentially boosting the effectiveness of the elements already contending with her. Anything you and the Solars can add to that will help push things in our favor.

“If we can cause her to mis-cast Void Circle Necromancy, we may cause her to think twice before throwing herself at us with its power. Either that, or we’ll have cursed the Dragon Lines near her for miles.”

“I see, I see.” Raksi said, a grin crept its way onto her face as Caiden played out the scenario with potential results. Mis-casts were terrible, but quite intriguing spectacles. “Well let’s see what Pyrrhus is up for. Maybe a good ol’ red herring for the Mistress while we work some dirty tricks behind the scenes…I suppose I could actually turn into a red herring…” She tilted her head pensively, “No, no…that would be silly. Fun, but silly.”

Caiden mentally facepalmed for the second time.

Pyrrhus stood forehead-to-forehead with his wife at the entrance to one of the Jadeborn tunnels. A cadre of warrior-caste stood guarding the mouth as a small convoy of Meru’s noncombatants – mothers, young children, the old, sick, or disabled – began the long trek downwards. Angelline gave him a final embrace and picked up Aelius from his clutching hold on her legs.

“Be safe, mia kara,” she said quietly, for Pyrrhus alone. “Do not leave your family alone in this world.”

“I will not, as long as it is in my power to do so, koron de mia vivo. As soon as the Mistress is defeated I will come for you.” He kissed his son on the cheek, sending the little boy into squirming giggles. “Be good and obey your Mama, Aelius. I will see you in a little while.”

“We’ll see them safe, Lord,” said the Enlightened Jadeborn warrior, touching a fist to his chest in salute. “Urzik’s Shard will be here soon, to help with the defense.”

“Thank you. It will be appreciated.” Angelline started down the tunnel, trailing her fingers in Pyr’s as long as they could reach. Aelius babbled happily for a few moments before he realized his father wasn’t following and began wailing. Pyrrhus turned away, stiff; it was always a heartbreak.

“Well I remember that feeling,” Raksi said, coming up quietly beside him.

“Worse, this time – I’m to be a father again. And I cannot be there with her.” Pyrrhus shook himself as the Jadeborn closed the tunnel entrance behind the last of them. “Our respite is over, isn’t it?”

“Indeed. Mistress comes on a streamer of necromancy. But the Sidereal and I have a plan. We’ll need your assistance. Are you ready?”

Pyrrhus rolled his shoulders to check the fit of his armor, and the looseness of his swords in their scabbards. A faint golden haze settled over the red jade as he took up the kata of the Unconquered Sun. “Yes. Let’s begin.”

Caiden slapped down a prayer strip on a table that may or may not have been there just seconds ago. “I’ll make this quick,” he promised as the strip turned into a three dimensional representation of the mountain, layers of reality washing over with each passing second.

“Mistress is at the fifth Dragon Line junction—the one leading directly into New Meru.” He pointed at a small figure shrouded in a necrotic-green haze that trailed for miles back towards the City of Night. “We’ve already been over what this means to us; now it’s time to do something about it.” His battle mask was stern and resolute. The playful glint that he arrived to New Meru with was replaced with a furious golden aura.

“We will come at Mistress from three points of attack.” He looked at the Lunar elder to his side, “Raksi will be just one of the surprises as she attempts to catch Mistress off guard from underground. Her terror worm form should be resilient enough to withstand some of the initial damage from the ultimate plan of attack.”

He drew a line on the map with his finger representing the course Raksi would be taking on her subterranean route. “Pyrrhus and a contingent of soldiers will conduct a frontal charge on Mistress’s position. It is imperative that we bring enough that we seem serious, but not too much as to seem like a distraction. I will accompany this group, as we will need to escape quickly once Raksi strikes.”

“Tell them what this ‘ultimate’ plan is,” Raksi said, grimacing, “It really is my favorite part.”

Caiden acknowledged her request with a nod, pulling out another prayer strip and wrapping it around his hand, causing it to glow with an intense golden light.

“The ultimate goal is to interrupt her cast, and to do that we need to do as much damage as we can to her in as little time possible.” He reached his wrapped hand towards the side of the mountain Mistress was on and tapped it once.

Immediately a skein of Dragon Lines materialized as if one were looking at the sun through a leaf. He reached his hand just south of the Dragon Line Mistress was corrupting and began to pinch it. Hissing golden steam rose from the junction, sounding as if a scalding stone had just been placed into water. Caiden’s expression did not change, even though the tips of his fingers looked black and charred when he brought them back up.

“I have hemorrhaged the Dragon Line, which gives us roughly ten minutes to strike.” A quick tug at a point in the miniature ‘sky’ produced a rapidly growing storm cloud. Creation mimicked this command, and clouds began to gather further up the mount. “We will have the elements on our side as our third point of attack, and I will channel them into a single strike against Mistress at the breaking point. With this, we should be able to detonate the Dragon Line hemorrhage causing irrevocable amounts of damage that no necromancer could cast through. Repairing the Dragon Line afterwards is a much better alternative than necrotic energy pouring into the city.”

Caiden turned to Pyrrhus, “Gather whom you can, as fast as you can, but rest assured I will see them to safety should we happen too close to the Ley Line. I will be tracking Raksi and can pace our movement accordingly. After she strikes, we will execute a fast retreat, provided our distraction proves effective.”

He gave the real Meru a glance, preparing himself for this upcoming strike. He had excelled at precision strikes against Fair Folk courts, even go so far as defeating a Raksha in combat; this was much more difficult, but the goal was different here. Mistress would certainly survive, but she would hopefully think twice about throwing herself at New Meru in the future.

“Let’s go.”

A ring of dripping black circled the peak of Mount Meru, stopping a few miles short of the topmost pinnacle. It slowly seeped down the rugged slopes, reaching for the ruins and communities surviving further down. Mistress stood nonchalantly at the place where the ring tied shut, cutting off the peak from the rest of the sacred mount. A century or more of others – war ghosts, necromancers, other dead shades – flanked her, waiting with perfect calm for their lady’s word. A massive, lumbering shape with a few too many spindly, insectoid limbs and quills like a demonic hedgehog loomed over her.

Pyrrhus and his band – a few Talons of Dragon-blooded soldiers who’d followed Pyrrhus from the first battle against Mistress, seasons ago in the Underworld – came up the slope to meet the Deathlord. They were all mounted, their various steeds armored and hastily warded against the dead. Golden light began to stream from the Zenith’s shoulders as he exhorted his command, then as one they charged the last quarter-mile.

Mistress waved a hand lazily and her retinue – minus the hekatonkhire – streamed down the slopes to meet their attackers, weaving easily in and out of the fast reaching tendrils of Shadowland. Upslope, more tatters of darkness were reaching for the Peak, but the sheer strength of the Pole was holding them at bay. For how long was unclear.

The two forces clashed in flashes of brightness and dark, obscured by the growing mist of some essence-fueled working. Further up the slope, the ground began to rumble. Rocks and pebbles jittered from beneath Mistress’ feet – not unusual since the Curse of Elemental Hatred. Until a round gaping maw full of long, needly teeth, circles upon circles of them unfolding like an acid-laced flower burst out of the rock and engulfed the smiling Deathlord. The terror-worm neatly dodged a swipe from the dead behemoth but took a tailful of quills on the rebound.

Mistress struggled free of the grasping petal-jaws, and Raksi began to beat her against the mountain like a heron with a fish. The Curse worked further havoc on the Deathlord, ensuring everywhere she struck, razor sharp rock shards sliced her cold flesh. Blood added to the seeping shadows. Dark essence dripped from the Mistress s she began to twist and spin, carving a hole through the shifted Lunar’s flesh.

Every essence wielder on the mountain felt it when the dragon-line ruptured. White-hot motes exploded from beneath the necrotic knot tied around the peak, instantly transmuting the ground to white jade and flinging it off the mountain with the force of a thousand implosion bows. Plumes of dust and ash billowed into the sky, clearly illuminated by the zenith sun. Across the realm, savants and serfs alike stared toward the center, at the spreading dark and the worrying pyroclastic pillar.

Dazed, Raksi fell toward the earth, her grip on the Mistress gone. The Hekatonkhire caught her by the tail, smashed into the rock and then off again, into the air, arcing toward the flatlands far, far below. She shed the wounded form of the terror worm, condensing herself into a black feathered Roc.

The Hemorrhage freed the shadowland from its hold on the mount, and it swept down the mountain, a strange shockwave of creation-shadowland-creation, corrupting and restoring again at a brisk pace, as fast as a cheetah could sprint. It rolled down the slopes, and Raksi could see it would hit the flatlands and keep going, perhaps until it reached the Wyld.

Unprecedented. Raksi had no idea this was even possible. She couldn’t begin to predict what its effects would be, this rolling wave of Underworld.

View
Accounts of the Adamant Codex, 13
Chapter Three, Scene Two

The two circles of Meridian and Imperial sat around a coal burning fire pit wrapped in wool blankets. Raksi had spent the day playing mother hen to the whole city. It had been a strategic decision to stay at home and rest up instead of going on scouting missions. It was clear that these youngsters did not fully understand how to take care of themselves. They were not going to accomplish anything with so little sleep. It was a common mistake that young Exalts made in thinking that they were invincible just because they had more strength than they did as mortals. They had picked a small private room this time, without all the servants buzzing in and out. There were important matters to discuss.

Outside the tiny budding city of New Meru lay drenched in blood, plagued with disease. What little ground creatures that were here had all gone mad and either cannibalized each other or killed themselves. There were no birds left in the city. The recently nurtured plants also wouldn’t survive except for a couple hardy breeds bolstered by the Provider Manse’s power. The one good thing that could come of all this was perspective, and with perspective, cooperation.

“Now that we have a better understanding of what you are really up against I think it’s time that we lay aside our noble pretenses and share our secrets. If we cannot figure out how to trust each other and work together, then we will die alone on this mountain.” Raksi looked around at the circle: the same group, but each more somber than they had been two days ago. Pride is a more potent obstacle than any Deathlord, and we’ve set that aside. The thought surprised Raksi; she had always held her pride as a treasure, back before…

“I’ll just say it. We have come bearing the Adamant Codex, a repository of knowledge similar to the Book of Three Circles, but much more focused on the Elements. I believe Fate has brought us here for a reason. But first, you must show us the same trust and tell us your struggles and what we are up against.” She looked pointedly at Pyrrhus and Akaris then relaxed back against her cushions. Hopefully not too forceful. Old habits die hard.

Akaris closed her book after pretending to read it to avoid conversation. Just being around others right now was like an itch under the skin, kept in check by staring at dragon-line diagrams she had drawn earlier. She looked up, pushing her tongue hard against the roof of her mouth to keep some of the frustration in check before speaking.

“We are up against unstoppable magic Raksi.” She started, trying not to sound irritated – it certainly wasn’t the Lunar’s fault they were in this situation. If anything, it was her actions that brought Mistress down upon the city. How stupid of her to think that she could judge a Deathlord. How stupid of her to think that the holy mountain pushed everything in the favor of the Solars. No, the Neverborn had set up a stronghold where she never dreamed they were capable of.

“It is clear my sorcery isn’t developed enough, and quite honestly never will be.” Her mood shifted slowly back to inquisitive, shedding some of the ire. “Who can stand against the pinnacle of Necromantic energies? At best, Solar circle could only keep it in check. My gathering of the Court of Seasons was intended to serve as a bridge to gap that power I cannot provide.” She looked back down at one of the diagrams. “Even the dragon lines can only do so much without the full sorcerous knowledge to harness them.”

She looked back up at Raksi, a fire dancing in her azure blue eyes. “What sort of message are we sending to our Solar brothers and sisters if our combined power is still not enough to silence even one Deathlord in our own capitol?

Akaris leaned back on her pillows, picking up the perfectly warm tea sitting on a stool next to her. “That is some of what we’re up against Elder Lunar, and it is what we have been contending with for the better part of a decade.” With a sip of cryst-bloom tea, she let out a sigh, as if a great burden had been released and into the care of another.

Zaela’s pack – brought from their Airship, ignored by raksha, carried through the Pole of Wood, returned to her after Yu-Shan’s prisons, carried on the Solar Train, and ignored by ghosts and zombies – had thankfully also not been despoiled by the blood rain. It lay open beside her as she sat by the fire and listened to the Elder and elder exalts, a scatter of jewelry making tools and supplies spilling from its mouth. Zaela herself meticulously wound precious metal wire around a pretty gem she’d picked up somewhere, her hands busy while her mind paid rapt attention.

A good meal, a bath, a night’s relatively peaceful rest, clean clothes and even more food had done wonders for her outlook, and by their expressions, most of the others’ as well. But not Akaris, apparently.

“Lady – you must give yourself some credit. There are five of us, two of us not accustomed to any combat but that with words and a pen, against a Deathlord in the peak of her power. In the East, my Circle mates are preparing for a war against the Deathlord known as Walker in Darkness – and we have gathered a whole army, equipped with as many First Age weaponry as Lexicon left behind, the alliances of several Lunars, companies of Dragon-Blooded, a warstrider of staggering magnificence… and yet we still fear it will not be enough. We are prepared for a long, long war.

And yet you… You wounded her. You drove her from your city. Do not despair when blows are traded. If you two have managed so long and not broken – I know you will triumph.”

Akaris felt the Zenith’s words wash over her, feeling familiar as the warmth of the noonday sun. It brought back memories of reading on the balcony during spells of perfect weather once they fixed some of Meru’s broken weather controls.

“I suppose she didn’t escape this unscathed herself, you’re right.” She allowed herself a hopeful moment of contemplation, which evolved into an array of strategies that began drawing themselves out in her mind. This certainly wasn’t the end.

Blood enveloped Swift, it was pouring into his eyes, his ears, his mouth. He heard children crying, men and women screaming. They needed him!

“Where are you?!” When he spoke, the blood vanished, and he was in New Meru. The crimson cloud was covering the sky and some kind of blood-mist filled the streets, tainting everything red. Swift ran to the nearest building. It was dark, but he could make out some huddled shapes in the corner.

“Praise the Unconquered Sun!” He said. “Are you all okay? We need to get out of here.” He grabbed an arm and pulled. Horror swept over him as he pulled an arm away from the carcass in front of him. A feral yowl erupted from his mouth and he woke up.

Swift was sitting up, trembling and all eyes were on him. He looked around, fear rising inside him again. They knew… They knew he killed them all and they were going to make him pay. He was ready to run when a calming voice spoke up.

“Shh.” Swift looked around for the owner of the voice, but he was still too frantic to see who was speaking to him. He only knew it was friendly. “It’s okay Swift. We’re safe. You’re safe. No one is in trouble anymore.” Swift inched closer to the fire pit. He was less frantic, but he was uncharacteristically withdrawn. They were silent for a moment.

“Bareni…” Everyone looked at Swift again as he spoke up. “I was very young. We were on a mission to the Bareni tribes. My parents told me they didn’t have the kinds of things we did. They said the wyld mutations were getting bad, members of some tribes were completely consumed by their mutations.” He seemed so fragile, curled up, staring at the fire, talking about his past. No one dared interrupt him, lest they shatter him completely.

“Everything was going fine until I wandered out into the jungle.” His voice was hollow, his eyes distant. “A former tribesman turned beast was going to kill me; there was nothing else they could do. There was nothing I could do. An air aspect Dragonblood saved me that day, but if I could have been stronger… Maybe my parents would still be alive.”

He sat up a bit straighter and his eyes focused, he was now looking at the rest of them. “Now I do have the strength to fight the Wyld. I have the strength to fight the monsters that threaten our families. Yet I still couldn’t save them.” He remembered the boy he saved some time ago, Malachi.

“There is hope though. This battle may have been lost, but as our dearest Zaela said, we are fighting a war, and this is a war we will win. For the sake of creation, we must win. Even if I despair now, I will fight for those who need it. That is why I am here. May I?” A cup of tea was poured for Swift and he took a drink. “The Codex… It’s an incredible source of knowledge. We must decide how best to utilize it for the good of Creation if we can.”

Pyr set the teapot back onto the warm-plate by Akaris and settled back into a tailor’s seat, near enough the fireplace to take advantage of the warmth. He picked up one of his short daiklaves and resumed tending to the blade, the long purring strokes of the whetstone a background to conversation.

“I will leave the Codex to Akaris. Sorcery and elementals are her domain, and I fear my ignorance would only set progress back.” He paused to check the edge of the blade, then reversed it and began honing the other side. “My talents are generally more martial in nature. I’m happy to answer any questions you may have for us, in the meantime.”

“And regarding an army… I think I can raise one. Especially if any of you know a spell to allow another to experience a memory. I’ll be leading a group down the mountain soon, to speak with the Paragons.” He examined the edge again and satisfied, set the blade down and picked up the other to give it the same cleaning and honing.

“Lady Raksi. I am sorry we did not get a chance to be properly introduced earlier. I am pleased to see you returned to sagacity. Was there something in specific you wished to know of us?”

Raksi nodded solemnly at Swift. “I am sorry for your loss. I know what that feels like.” Raksi was silent for a time. “While it’s true we are stronger, and we have a duty to protect others, that will not insulate you from loss. In some ways it’s more intense now. You can drive yourself crazy trying to control everything” she stared off for a moment then looked to Pyrrhus.

“We were not introduced the first day for a reason. I have spent too much time on a throne and not enough time listening. It was my plan to simply observe, but my friend Swift introduced me to make a point to the Mistress. Then it seemed only right to help when the monsoon started. I am not here to enforce my will. I’d much rather hear your stories.” She looked around the fire circle and realized she felt genuine warmth towards these people.

“While there’s the obvious question of the Deathlord, I think I can read that situation. Pyrrhus, would you explain your relationship with the Realm? I really… can’t fathom. New Meru is located on the sacred site of the Immaculate Order. The Mistress will certainly try to use that against you.”

“I’d like to say that the Realm and the Order simply recanted their outdated notions and welcomed us… but alas, that was not the case.” Cleaning the sword in his lap with smooth, meditative strokes, he settled into his “preaching voice” and a storyteller’s cadence.

“To start from the end and work backwards: The Realm and New Meru are in a state of armed truce. We are here only because we had some of the automated defenses working, because the Empress is not here to use the Sword of Creation against us, because several of the Paragons are advocating on our behalf, and lastly – because they have bigger problems than a handful of Solars on the Imperial Mount.”

Pyrrhus turned the sword over and began on the other side, refreshing his cloth with oil. “The Paragons are truly the most influential voice. And of their voices, the Paragon of Pasiap, Mnemon Harasa, is the loudest. If you are familiar with the Great Houses of the Realm, you will know of Mnemon.”

“Harasa was on tour across the Realm and its Satrapies when she was kidnapped by powerful demons and dragged into the Underworld – on Mistress’ Orders, and to Mistress’ stronghold. A fraud posed as the Paragon for the better part of two years, until the Inquisition.” Pyrrhus stopped polishing the sword and sat very still for a long moment, remembered anguish crossing his features. When he had regained his composure, he glanced at the faces of his audience before resuming his meditative burnishing.

“Suffice to say, one of our former friends had been party to the kidnapping. It came out during that encounter with the Wyld Hunt. My mentor, the Paragon of Hesiesh, Red Coal Bodhisattva, and I led an expedition to rescue Harasa. We succeeded.”

And how much more did those two words hold. Pyrrhus remembered standing against the Mistress, feeling the kiss of her sword against his armor. Remembered the sickening realization, later, as they led troops against her stronghold, that his Anima had begun to flare. The confrontation on the hill in the Underworld where his mentor, his respected teacher and elder, turned on him in murderous rage and would have killed him had it not been for the Dragon-blooded troops who saved him. Pyr sighed. “But not without cost.”

“When we re-emerged from the Underworld, we were trapped in the West. Harasa was yet weak. We spent a rather pleasant two seasons, actually, sailing back to the Isle and discussing philosophy and theology. When we debarked, Harasa declared herself in our debt, and my friend and ally. As Red Coal had been killed in the battle, she offered me the position of Paragon… I declined, but she made me Lama of the Center district anyways. So really… I am the Order’s authority here.”

“Additionally,” Pyrrhus set aside his sword and pulled a small, leather bound book from the case of cleaning tools beside him, holding it so they all could see the shining orichalcum symbol – of the Immaculate Order – on its cover. “It helps that I have the original founding documents of the Immaculate Order. A far different faith than what currently exists, and one I hope to restore. A previous incarnation of mine… was the Order’s architect.”

He looked to Raksi and inquired sincerely; “Does that explain sufficiently?”

“Yes, thank you for your candor.” Raksi paused. “The reason I ask is that it is classic strategy to get your opponent to fight a war on two fronts. I suspect that’s why The Mistress of Bloody Charities picked the Blood Monsoon spell specifically. Any other spell would be a problem only for you, but this will certainly cause damage in the Realm below. Since the Realm is the natural third party in this war, whoever wins over the Realm will win the war.”

The Lunar sat forward and peered at the cover of the book in Pyrrhus’s hands. “May I read through that journal? If your previous incarnation really was the founder of the Immaculate Order, then he must have worked with Lexicon of Elemental Harmony. In which case, I’ve probably met him. Though I’m honestly drawing a blank. It’s interesting that you claim the title of reincarnate of the Immaculate Order, since I thought that was Lexicon, whose Exaltation is now held by our very own Willow.” Pyrrhus gave her a puzzled look.

“The whole circle isn’t here. Willow is our Twilight. She and the others are leading the army currently marching on the Deathlord, Walker in Darkness. It seems that our Fates have been deeply entangled for millennia. When the opportunity arose, we left our caravan and went through the Celestial Gate to deliver the Adamant Codex. We certainly couldn’t march the whole army through the gate, so it was necessary to split up.”

Gods, if only they knew the amount of Fate planning that went into this very event. Caiden sat thinking, full Vizier attire showing now that there wasn’t really any need to assume a Resplendent Destiny.

Centuries of Fate-weaving had been cast on the Codex. Years of wandering in the Wyld were spent—maybe even millennia. Time flows differently there, as everyone knows. Even he bore the mental and physical scars of dealing with the Raksha, and things far more terrible then they.

Regardless, this was a monumental occasion. Sayuri and he may even get a promotion for this afterwards, though the setting could be different. He didn’t exactly imagine being surrounded by the remnants of Void circle necromancy. That stuff took years to clean up…

Regardless, it was finally here and he would do anything to make sure this meeting happened uninterrupted.

“No, of course not. I wish them all luck, and will say prayers on their behalf. One day perhaps we’ll have the chance to meet.”

“My predecessor went by the name of Perfect Silk Guardian, or just Silk — if I’ve translated this properly.” Pyrrhus opened his previous incarnation’s journal decorously, showing Raksi the title page. It had an inscription remarkably similar to the one he’d glimpsed on his younger sister’s diary when she was still in secondary school – Property of Aliset, Don’t Touch, Especially You Pyrrhus, Aliset’s Journal I Will Hurt You – etc.

Raksi peered closely at it, deciphering the writing. Silk did not have the best handwriting, and it was further complicated by his own particular idiosyncrasies. Her eyebrows drew together, mouth working as she silently mouthed the words, then flew up in pleasant surprise. She lost several apparent decades as she unearthed the memories. “Oh! Perfect… No, he was a terrible scribbler. I know him. This was Calansei, or Flawless Silk Cascade. He grew out his hair after Exalting, was terribly vain of it, and then a Wyld beast caught him by it! He was never able to grow it long after that, the others used to tease him for it. Silk was a friend of Lexicon’s, and a great philosopher.”

“Calansei. I’ll remember that.” Pyr nodded, peered at the writing himself. “Ah, I see where I confused the diacritics.”

“May I?” Raksi prompted again, reaching a hand carefully towards the text.

The Zenith caste withdrew abruptly, tucking the book close to his chest like a hawk mantling. “Forgive me, Lady, I… not just now. I’ll be happy to look them over with you later but… well, let’s just say I’ve had trouble with documents falling into another’s hands.”

“I understand. Another time, perhaps. I will regale you with stories of your predecessor’s adventures and foibles.” Raksi did not appear offended, and for that, Pyrrhus was relieved. She sat back against her cushions, relinquishing the floor, for now.

Akaris now felt the full effect of the tea’s calming effect. She finally felt at peace in the room, ready to expound on her dealings with Mistress.

“It has been almost a decade since we were first introduced to the Mistress of Bloody Charities.” Akaris began, the tone already set for reviewing the past. “For a while, we actually traveled with one of her Deathknights, though we know not where he walks now. Brief encounters with her were actually more harmless than you might imagine. I even visited her in the Underworld on occasion, curious about what sort of creature she was.” She looked around, slightly abashed at the confession.

“It was certainly a unique relationship, and Mistress was willing to throw knowledge—even secrets of sorcery—at my feet. I could never guess her motive, and only now do I understand how truly gone deathlords are. My visits to Mistress ended when I found a soulsteel dagger near her manor that caged my first age soul.” The memory of that moment caused a flash of pain.

“I liberated that soul, finally coming to a realization that I didn’t belong there. The Underworld was a twisted version of its intended design, and the deathlords were shaping it to their will.”

She shifted her pillows around, growing uncomfortable with the pain of those memories.

“Pyrrhus has recounted the underworld battle, and so now you are caught up with our past regarding Mistress. The City of Night was yet another of her schemes to disease our goals and tear us down slowly. Only now has that disease shaped into a blade with clear intents for the heart of our city.

“I have been researching sorcery intent on preserving elementals, and even returning sanity and being to the elemental dragons that have faded over the centuries. Meru is vital to that goal, and if Mistress succeeds in stripping us of it, I’m afraid my progress will be for naught.”

Her eyes gleamed, remembering her recent victory, “Four nights ago, I reached a breakthrough in my research,” she said nodding to Israya, the water elemental sitting across the room in a sort of meditative pose with legs crossed. “One of Mistress’s Deathknights had struck down Israya, but when the Deathknight was slain, I used the soul as a catalyst to call back the elemental energy before it was lost back into the ley lines. The soul is a vital part in restoring elemental harmony across creation, and I just need more time here on Meru to continue research.”

“I know it sounds terribly forward of me, but you have mentioned both access to higher levels of sorcery and this Adamant Codex that you have brought from the East. It would be to the benefit of us all if I had access to that information. I consider myself a master of the elements, but there is still so much I do not understand, and even less that heaven is willing to share.”

She met Raksi’s gaze, and exchanged trust through some unseen gesture, the way humans had always been able to gauge sincerity on some instinctive level.

“You hold what may be the key to our survival here, and I hope some of what you have learned this evening helps shed more light on the depth of our situation. I don’t need to tell you that having a Deathlord on Meru is a bad thing, and right now we are in desperate need of a game changer.” Akaris said, taking the last sip of her tea before placing it back on the table beside her, a subconscious statement of finality.

“You’ve done well to make it so far in only a decade with so little resources. It took Lexicon over a century and the wealth of an entire nation to make it only slightly farther. You would make a worthy pupil and I would be happy to guide you on the path to Solar Circle Sorcery. It will require of you a sacrifice greater than the previous two circles combined” Raksi paused.

“I’ve long explored the front porch of Solar Circle Sorcery, peering in through the windows. I have spent most of my life longing for that power. But the sacrifices required for a Lunar like myself are simply unacceptable. My new goal is to teach the new Solars how to access their full range of powers. You would be the first among many. Ah, but I’m skipping ahead of myself.”

Raksi’s eyes traced a line backwards in time. “The Adamant Codex contains a Solar Circle spell that binds an elemental essence onto a living creature to create an elemental hybrid. Lexicon used this spell to create five Dragon-blooded that were taken to a new level of Enlightenment, comparable to Solar Exalted. He called these five the Immaculate Dragons to distinguish them from their lesser kin. Their purpose was to acts as anchors for the next step: resurrecting the Elemental Dragons. Despite meditation and counsel, the youngest, Hesiesh went mad and turned on his creator. He then played a crucial role in the Usurpation.”

“The Lunar elders at the time concluded that raising a Dragonblood up to the power of a Solar was a foolish endeavor, though I think now that they only wished to hoard power to themselves. I think the real lesson to be learned is that a neophyte Terrestrial Exalted is not powerful enough to carry the burden of a full Elemental Dragon.”

“Is any mortal? Truly? I know we carry fragments of the Unconquered Sun, but do we even have the capability to handle such power? The Singers… er, they’re a clan of Dragon Kings on the isle… used to tell us royals stories of the Mad Kings they knew and served. I didn’t connect those tales to Solars until I was graced….” It had been something she worried at, like a loose tooth in the back of her mind. Sol was so good, surely He would not give her something destined to corrupt her….?

Raksi stared at the fire for a time. “It’s true that there’s a dark side to every Exaltation. I’ve become warped by it myself. That’s why our work is so important.”
Raksi pulled her eyes away from the fire and looked softly at Zaela. “It seems to mainly affect the old. You have little to worry about, darling. You must remember that some Solars survived the Primordial War. They were ancient 2,600 years ago. It’s possible Autochthon never designed the human mind to last that long. That’s why I want to get all of the Lunar Elders restored at the Throne of Creation. They… we’ve been at war for so long we’ve basically all lost it…” Raksi winced at that admission.

“Anyways, we were talking about Deathlords, but what we really need to anchor an Elemental Dragon is an ancient Solar.” Raksi pulled out the gleaming cylinder of the Adamant Codex and pointed to a diagram on the outside.

“Solar essence is the unifying essence between each of the elements. Anything that is Solar derived should be compatible with all 5 elements. This brings me to a bit of history…. When the Deathlords first arose, there was much speculation amongst the magical intelligentsia about where they had come from and why there were only thirteen of them. Given the timing after the Usurpation, some scholars believe that they are the ghosts of fallen Solars come back to take their revenge. I think that’s only partially true. I think the Neverborn used the angry ghosts of Solars as a foundation for creating a new kind of terror: the Deathlord. But Akaris’s experiment with Israya shows they still have elemental attunement, it’s just inverted right now.”

“That just leaves one question. How do we capture and kill the Mistress of Bloody Charities?”

Akaris closed her eyes, envisioning a past, present, and future that had been discussed this evening. Elemental dragons stirred in slumber, just beyond the range of mortal senses. But the dragon lines took that stirring and amplified it, instilling a purpose within the twilight that had been scattered before. Just as Lexicon bound elemental essence to a living soul to create the Dragon-bloods, so too must she bind the elements once more to mend the millennia of corruption. It would all start here.

Akaris took a deep breath and opened her eyes, meeting the Lunar’s gaze. “I accept your offer Raksi. I come from the Salinan school of thought, so I will need to research an appropriate sacrifice before I take this next step,” she said, pouring herself a fresh cup of team before facing the Lunar again.

“I do not think it coincidence that we were brought here today,” She stole a quick glance at the only Sidereal in the room, “and we truly owe you our lives. Thank you.”

“I’ll admit, I will have to leave this in more capable hands right now. Remember that the elements of Meru have already turned against Mistress. Ideally any trap would be set for the juncture of the dragon lines, where their power will be strongest.”

Zaela finished with her gemstone, tucking it away in a scrap of silk into a bag with other finished pieces. She dumped out her pack in front of her, rummaging through its depths for another project to keep her fingers busy. A wealth of shiny objects – gems, crystals, coils of wire, small artifacts components – spilled across her lap. The conversation batted back and forth over her head and she felt far out of her depth. Prismatic Lotus stirred in the back of her mind, interested, finally over the snit she’d been having over Veridian Mantle’s snub and their terrible treatment in Yu-Shan.

Across the room, Pyrrhus finished putting away all of his cleaning supplies and sheathed his swords. He sat loosely, listening, hands draped over his knees. “I suggest, Akaris, that if you need extended meditation as I did, to travel through the Corners to the Southern Tomb – likely no one will bother you there, and it is an excellent place for contemplating the Sun.”

“As for capturing the Mistress…” Pyrrhus sighed and scrubbed his face. “We’d planned on trapping her in one of the Manses on the hill, with elemental geomancy and… transforming her. Akaris was working out the details. Our premise for bringing her there, however, is no longer an option now we’re in open war. We’ll need more allies.”

Zaela drew a clear green and brown crystal from her pile and turned it in her fingers. “Master Pyrrhus. You mentioned earlier you wanted a memory-sharing spell? To raise an army? How…?”

“There are few things the Scarlet Empire hates more than Solars. Necromancy happens to be one of them. It is my duty as Lama to inform my superiors of developments on the Imperial Mount. Word would bring them, reluctantly, to our aid. A verified memory, with all the attendant visceral feelings? Will bring them running.”

“And leave you with an army bent on cleansing their Holy Mount, who believe Solars are anathema.”

“Yes, well. It would not be the first time. And we have many more friends now.” Pyrrhus picked up the teapot, checked the contents, and set a re-filled kettle onto the fire.

Zaela held out the crystal to him. “The Dragon Kings that share my home grow these from the Wyld, to share their knowledge amongst each other, and to help their children. It’s not a spell, but perhaps it will do as well?”

Pyr turned the crystal over in his fingers. “Thank you, Lady Zaela. This will be fine. I… it might even be better. If Akaris goes to meditate and learn, I must stay here, and protect the city. I could not go to my friends and share the memory with them in person. But a gem…”

“Lady Zaela, Master Swift, Master Caiden: would some of you be willing to take this memory to my friends in the Imperial City, along with a letter, and return with help? I will send one of my followers with you, they know the way.” Pyrrhus watched them, hopeful.

Swift had been listening intently as soon as Akaris had broached the subject of dragon lines. Geomancy had been a point of interest to him from the moment he understood the significance of dragon lines in Creation. He looked at Pyrrhus, his hazel eyes sparkling with excitement. He noticeably composed himself and bowed his head.

“A Solar eclipse given the opportunity to persuade the high and noble of the Imperial City?” A mischievous grin crossed his face. “Why it would go against my very nature to refuse such a venture.”

“Thank you. I will make the arrangements.” Pyrrhus smiled, relieved. He held the memory crystal up to the light, examining it for a moment. “Is there any specific way to activate this, Lady Zaela? Or does it follow the usual artifact pattern?”

She shook her head. “The usual pattern, as far as I am aware. Concentrate on the memories you wish it to store, and feed it Essence. It will change color when it is full.”

Pyr nodded. “Then I will begin there.” He rose and tucked the crystal into his sash, and slung his swords and pack of cleaning tools over one shoulder.

“I thank you all for your trust and your friendship. We on the Isle have been much isolated from the rest of the world, and it is heartening to know that not all of it wishes our destruction… just most.” Wry smile. “We have many plans for bettering the future of Creation, and we welcome your fellowship and participation. I will see you tomorrow.”

Pyrrhus bowed deeply and left the room, beckoning a disciple waiting at a respectful distance beyond the door to walk with him.

View
Accounts of the Adamant Codex, 12
Chapter Three, Scene One

The air shifted, what should have been a gentle breeze from the mountaintop was now a forceful gale from the mountain’s base. The murder of crows faltered for a moment, but pushed on toward the city. Every human, exalt, elemental, and beast watched its approach. For minutes they were frozen, as though the entire city had turned to marble, all gazing in the same direction. The sight would unnerve even the most stoic battle-hardened warrior.

Yes! The crows were one voice, one mind, one Mistress. Yes, feel that fear sinking into your bones! She could sense the anticipation and it made her quiver with joy, the crows cackled wildly. I will liberate your flesh soon enough children. Oh and you don’t even know what’s coming! The murder of crows stopped abruptly outside the city and began attacking each other. They were still some miles away when they began falling out of the sky.

One.

Two.

Six.

Thirteen.

Twenty.

As they landed, blood sprayed and a figure started to rise with each new bird. Pale limbs, pale as bone. Ebony dress, black as the void. There was no mistaking the very dress she wore when she arrived to ‘help’ the citizens of Meru and though her garb was familiar, that was the only thing that was. Her hair was black and her face wore a look of flawless hatred. Her eyes had dark circles underneath them. She smiled as she pulled out a small knife.

“Remember, your precious Solars asked for this.” Her breath came in short gasps, as if she had ran from the base of Mt. Meru. The ground began to crumble under her and she tried to gain footing, but couldn’t seem to.

“You wanted war,” She paused, “well here it is.” She drew a second knife for her left hand. Slowly, deliberately, she pulled the knives across each wrist. Dark crimson liquid poured from each wrist and she cupped her hands to catch some. With a look of wild ecstasy, she thrust her hands to the sky. Necromantic energies swirled around her, whipping the blood into a tornado. She laughed breathlessly as the sky began to darken around the city.

Raksi felt the energy building in tandem with the horror and panic inside her. There was no mistaking Void Circle Necromancy. She frantically combed through her knowledge of countermagic and raised her hands to conjure Sapphire Circle Countermagic. A visible wave of essence rushed toward Mistress of Bloody Charities, ignoring buildings and terrain. It swept up around her and dissipated ineffectively. Raksi shifted into a large spotted cat and sprinted.

“Akaris, where are you dammit?!” Raksi saw her standing in front of the manse, a wave of essence shooting away from her. Just as before, the essence reached Mistress of Bloody Charities and fell away, useless. “I suppose all we can do is watch then.”

Then the rain began. Blood poured from the sky, slowly approaching them as a wall of carion. When it reached the city what citizens that had stood their ground began retching. Bile was washed down the alabaster streets and the city that had so recently been akin to marble statues was a chaotic seething red mass of panic. The citizens of New Meru were lost, directionless.. They needed leadership, unity, hope.

The war had begun.

Pyrrhus stood transfixed with the rest of them as first the crows fell, then Mistress rose, and finally the clouds boiled and the rain began. He wasn’t given to strong language, but…_ Oh, frell…_

“Don’t let the rain touch you!” he yelled, igniting his anima through the red dragon torc at his throat, turning it from coruscating white gold essence to bonfire bright fire. He felt the last of his essence go to fueling it, and fought off the lethargy that always followed. He’d need to spend some serious time resting and meditating before his essence renewed.

“You!” He gestured to the City of Night citizens who also stood paralyzed, presumably both by the deadly rain and the abandonment by their Mistress. “Quick, help bring the wounded inside. Now!”

The authority in his voice shocked them into action; they dropped what burdens they carried still that hadn’t been burned to ash by Akaris’ sorcery and ran to help Zaela bring the wounded to the Manse.

As the first drops began to fall, they hissed out against the fire of his transmuted anima. He gathered his Dragon-blooded followers and had them space themselves along the route to the Manse, animas flared or other charms performed, so that they might create a blood-rain-free path.

The city was going to be a wreck for weeks, he noted as he jogged back towards the Manse, grimacing as blood dripped and streamed down newly renovated buildings and ruins alike. More so than it already was. He could feel the timbre of the air change and realized that the rain wasn’t only defiling the city, but it had changed the resonance of the entire area. It was like being in the Underworld again, when he and Red Coal had fought Mistress’ army… His suspicions were confirmed when he saw one of the City of Night visitors, previously the milky translucence of a sun-protected ghost, now opaque and solid, slinging the arm of a wounded man over his shoulder and hurrying him to the Manse.

He reached the portico of the Manse where Akaris still stood, careful not to get close enough to burn. “So much for the Turn-The-Deathlord-Into-A-Dragon plan,” he commented. “She has done us a favor, though she knows it not. If we can record these sights, the memories of her and her necromancy… I think I can bring the Realm in as our firm ally, instead of our enemy. But.. We will talk of that later?”

As the last of the wounded and stragglers were brought in, trailed by his followers, Pyrrhus turned and surveyed the gathered crowd inside. Thankfully most of the inhabitants of New Meru had fled to the Manse for safety in the attack last night.

The City of Night citizens, freed from the command he’d given them, now stood in the center of the room, arguing stridently with the New Merians also there. Of course, the topic was Mistress.

Cathak Avram, one of his followers, was still swirling with anima, leaving scorch marks on the wood floor as he paced. “Your Mistress abandoned you to the same fate she inflicted on us, and you still follow her? Did you not hear what she said?”

“We heard. I’m sure it’s a misunderstanding.” Sesus Dekai looked uncertain. “All Mistress wants is for the living and dead to live in harmony.”

“Misunderstanding! She admitted she works for the Neverborn and by following her so do you! All they want is the obliteration of all Creation, to pull it into the Abyss. Rose told us!” Katsuro, a stonemason, stamped his foot and the Manse reverberated with its force.
“Please.” Pyrrhus strode between the two groups, turning to Dekai. “Katsuro speaks the truth. I have heard the whispers of the Neverborn when I faced Mistress in the Underworld. She had stolen my friend and mentor, the Paragon of Pasiap, and I went to her rescue. I still bear the scars of Mistress’ blades.”

“Mistress has only ever acted in self defense! Akaris provoked her today, and you must have provoked her then. She has been nothing but kind to us,” Dekai countered.

“Self-defense? She kidnapped and tortured the Paragon simply because it amused her. She has set herself against us at every turn. Dekai, you have only known her in this City. I have known her since before my Second Breath. If anyone has been acting in self-defense, it is us.” Pyrrhus crossed his arms, his anima beginning to fade. “I’ve been to her fortress. Seen her soulsteel implements of war and torture and heard the screams of the ghosts trapped within.”

“What of your family, Dekai? This rain will not only fall on us. It will affect them. They will suffer, and sicken, because of Mistress’ “self-defense”. All of your families will suffer,” he added, looking at the rest of the group.

Avram nodded. “I was with Master Pyrrhus in the Underworld. He speaks truly. Mistress came to slaughter my company before we even knew we were going to her Fortress, while we were still in camp in Creation. Pyrrhus took the blows meant for us.”

“Perhaps… Mistress still has a plan for us? She doesn’t tell us everything.” Dekai shifted from foot to foot.

Katsuro snorted derisively. “Watch and wait. You’ll learn better.”

It had taken Akaris nearly all her will to stand up to Mistress of Bloody Charities, and now the deathlord was back in full force. She knew she made the right choice, even though it was about to cost New Meru dearly.

But there was little she could do right now. What remaining willpower she had only served as a rent in the veil of blood closing fast. She needed stronger sorcery to protect these people. She needed energy to continue. She needed help.

Frustration coursed through her veins as she escaped down an alley while others were distracted by the coming horror. Too long had Mistress been a thorn in her side. Lies at every turn; malice beneath words. This was the price for standing up to darkness?

It had always been an assumption that because they were on the holy mount, the Unconquered Sun would pay more attention to New Meru. How wrong she was. It was the Solars against the world now…

Frustration steeled into anger as Akaris made her way through back alleys to the Crystarium. Guilt had introduced itself as she passed a house where a mother consoled her crying children, telling them that the Solars would take care of them. Still she fled towards the manse, using essence to veil herself in mist and wind.

When she reached one of the secret entrances to the manse, she stopped briefly and looked back. The raging cloud of red-death had already touched the city gates. It was too late to stop it; she was months too early in her studies to do anything about it. The steps up to her study were like tiny reminders that she still hadn’t done enough.

The door at the top of the stairs recognized her essence and opened with a touch. Once inside, the reality hit her that this wasn’t the right answer. There was no solution here. With her back to the wall, she slid down to the floor, cradling her last mote of essence into a prayer to the Unconquered Sun.

I know you give the Twilights a lot of room to work, but I’ve used it all up. You have a city of followers scholars, artisans, priests, families that are about to fall to wicked power. Surely you can aid us? Surely you hear… her words trailed off as exhaustion evolved into slumber..

Swift watched the wall of blood approach. He watched the citizens fall victim to its blight. He watched as Pyrrhus rallied the people of the City of Night. He watched as Akaris ran from view. He watched it all from the same spot he had stood up to Mistress and given an inspiring speech to the people.

Mom, he thought, they’re dying.

Dad, he thought, help them!

Panic rose within him. No one was helping! Everyone seemed to be looking out for themselves.

“This is your fault Swift.” The words fell out of his mouth. “If you hadn’t been so arrogant and selfish, they wouldn’t be out there right now. They wouldn’t have stood in the streets to be consumed by this…”

His voice trailed off and he was just a child again. He was playing outside when he saw it. A massive shadow crept toward him. Run he thought to himself, but his legs wouldn’t move.

“RUN!” he shouted. It was only then that his body obeyed him and he ran. He ran all the way to his house with the great beast thundering behind him. “Dad! Mom! Help!”

At the sight of much more attractive prey, the beast launched itself over him and into his parents who had come running. Ice cold horror poured into him. “No…” The beast killed his father. “No…” The beast killed his mother.

“NO!” Swift pulled himself out of the memory and drew his singing staff in one adept motion. When he slammed it into the ground the nearest buildings responded to its call… And his anger. They exploded with forceful energy. Shards of earth crumbled down the streets, crushing some innocents. Swift rushed forward and picked up two broken bodies.

“You’re okay, I have you — we’ll get through this!” A building started crumbling in front of him, and with touch of his staff it solidified, but continued falling. Blood rain trickled into his mouth and he fell to his knees and retched. One of the bodies fell off his back. His vision was blurry, and his muscles wouldn’t allow him to stand.

“I’m sorry…” He said as he fell forward now laying in the blood soaked streets. “I’ve killed you all.” He was broken, in body and spirit, and the ground felt so soft. The rain was a gentle kiss, lulling him to sleep. Swift closed his eyes and waited to die.

Raksi stared up at the cloud while she did sorcerous calculus in her head. The only way to affect areas this large without a ritual was by subverting the laws of Creation, so any more weather effects would only be subsumed into the storm. That exhausted the last of her spell options. She blinked back the tears of old blood running down either side of her face and looked down at her arms. They look so strange without tattoos. A little tinge shifted her reverie. You are a Lunar, you are built for adaptability to any circumstance and you are called to protect the weak, not give up. Don’t let your mind be shackled to sorcery. I will rise above this as well.

The buildings began to look smaller as her head and shoulders rose above them. She stretched out her arms as she covered them in golden feathers to block out the rain. She hunched down over the street in the form of a 30 foot tall golden eagle and used her wings to create shelter for the mortals retching and fumbling around in the street.

“Come, stay near me and you’ll have shelter from the storm. Those who are able will carry the sick. This storm is not going to kill us.” Raksi had read about this spell 352 years ago. It was a form of psychological warfare, desecrate the land and cause lingering sickness. In some ways worse than being run through with a sword.

She waddled her huge bulk from street to street gathering people as they limped along underneath her. Every movement was painstakingly slow as she balanced on one huge taloned foot to move move debris out of the way with the other set of talons.

She uncovered Swift from the side of a collapsed building. He looked mostly dead and it clearly discouraged his recent followers to see him this way. She nodded her golden beak and Hokaru knelt to carry Swift with the group. She needed to lighten the mood.

“You know a duck form would be real nice about now. Slick feathers, water proof, non-deadly feet. But no, Old Raksi only hunted predators. But spiders and cougars and tyrant lizards aren’t going to help right now. But a duck, a harmless little duck would be great to keep the ick off of my skin. I say we have a washing party after this. Get some tubs of soap water and wash everyone down.”

She used her body to create a lean-to against the entrance to a storage house that was undamaged. The people shuffled in and Hokaru turned around in the doorway with a weary expression on his face. “I fear we are only a burden to you. Mistress was only able to attack them because we live here… on this wild impractical mountain, hiding from reality under the Solar’s good graces. What are we even doing here? This isn’t the life I imagined.” Hokaru hung his head and turned inside; not expecting an answer.

Raksi shrunk down to her human form, which made her feel like a scared teenager all over again.

“What the Exalted don’t see at the moment is that having you around, to walk with them through their struggles is what helps them keep their humanity. They’re under enormous pressures and they weren’t given any time to adjust after exaltation. Each one is thrown directly into the fire, into a fight for their life. It’s natural for Exalted to completely break with their past and start to think of people as chess pieces in their plots. I’ve seen so many Lunars fall to callousness or depravity because they surrounded themselves with their own creations.” Raksi shrugged.

“Who am I kidding? I’m describing myself. Having you here is good, even when you’re here to suffer with them. You remind them where they came from and what they’re fighting for. Stick in there, the storm will pass.” She put a hand on his arm as Hokaru went inside. She looked up at the dark red storm again; blood streaming down her face. “…unless she figures out how to power it off of the energy of the elemental pole we’re sitting right next to…”

Zaela curled into a ball just inside the door to Master Pyrrhus’ Manse, listening to the back and forth arguments of the people behind her and the drumming of the rain on the streets below. Strange. On the Isles, she used to love the sound of a rainstorm outside her window. This was a different rain, even though it sounded exactly the same. A malevolent rain. Would it ever sound comforting to her again?

The arguments wound down – the citizens from the other City were clearly wanting to admit Pyrrhus’ and the other New Merian arguments were true, but like all beings, their pride would not yet allow them. Pyrrhus finally left them to their own devices, exhaustion written in his face and bearing. Only a matter of time before they come round…

I know we did everything right… and yet, still there is suffering. I only hope we will endure… Zaela shuddered, and not from cold. What must they think of us? To speak so confidently, and yet bring down further wrath on them? And I am supposed to be a Queen, supposed to be able to save my people from such things! I have not even been here a full day and already these people suffer because of me.

The last of the Dragon-blooded sent to guard their path from the Plaza to the Manse came trotting back into the building while Zaela followed that downward spiral of thought. They were mostly unscathed, although a few had bloody streaks down their skin and clothing. They headed immediately for the inner rooms of the Manse.

A rustle of cloth heralded the presence of a white-haired woman – surprisingly young for that hue, she couldn’t be too much older than Zaela herself – kneeling beside her. A sleepy toddler was curled in a sling on the woman’s back, gazing unfocused into his mother’s shoulder and sucking a thumb. Her quiet, ethereal mien and pale skin was likely the mark of a high-blood Air-aspected Dragonblood. Zaela shrank from her. She must hate me. They all must hate us…

“Hello,” said the woman, softly. “You must be one of the new Solars. Queen Zaela, was it?” At Zaela’s timid nod, the woman continued. “I’m sorry we did not have a chance to be introduced last night. My name is Iselsi Araceli Angelline. I am Pyrrhus’ wife. I wanted to thank you for all your help with our — antagonist.”

“But… the blood rain! It’s my fault! I -…”

“Oh, no. Please, you must be exhausted – travelling, and that midnight attack… The rain will not stop for several hours at least, I’m told, and there is nothing else we can do in the meantime. Come wash, dress in clean clothes, eat and rest. Things will look better after.” Angelline’s gentle patience finally drew Zaela to her feet after the woman, down to the bathing chambers and their purifying waters.

Hope comes in the morning…

View
Accounts of the Adamant Codex, 11
Chapter Two, Scene Eight

The slow painful shuffle of recovery continued through the night in Meru and into the dawn. No one could sleep after the horrors of the night, but exhaustion still pulled on everyone’s soul and feet. Thanks to the decisive action of the Exalted casualties were small given the massive force that attacked the small community. But the dead were beloved close to home. The town baker, Mr. Aker, apprentice to Granny Starbuck, was the first to die in the streets. He had stayed up to clean after the festivities of the night.

Akaris and Raksi spotted the entourage when they were still far off. It was hard to hide much on the barren slopes of Mount Meru. The delegation from the City of Night approached in a formal procession, baring baskets of food, white flowers, and practical items. The Deathlord, Mistress of Bloody Charities, lead the procession dressed in pure white. She looked like an angelic spectre of beauty backlit by the golden morning light. It was hard to recognize her apart from the usual black leather. She’d even changed her hair color. She stood up on a ruin to address everyone.

“People of the City of Light, fellow citizens of New Meru. It is with a sad heart that I come to you today to help mend your wounds. We have both suffered a terrible tragedy. Two girls living in the City of Night were studying magic and they decided to use their experiments on their neighbors. In the City of Night, there is no death, and so they have not learned to fear death in the same way you do. Their calloused actions were taken without my knowledge. I am here to repair the damage done.” The Mistress of Bloody Charities spoke calmly and soothingly.

“First, there is the matter of justice. To my Solar friends, I recognize the Sisters Ayala and Alasuin have trespassed on your land and wronged you deeply. Their souls will return to me, and I in turn give them into your hands. You shall decide. Shall I bring them back to life, or condemn them to eternal darkness for their crimes?” The cool morning air was filled with an electric tension as the citizens awaited the verdict.

“Neither.” Pyrrhus was still sheathed in the midday light of the sun, flaring outward in loops and whorls. Smudged with blood and ash, his hair fraying from its bonds, he did not look the part of a Sun Chosen, but just another mortal. “If you give their souls into our hands, then do so. Just and exactly that.”

He raised an eyebrow, waiting.

Swift was livid. He heard Pyrrhus speak up from behind him. Swift was astounded Pyrrhus could hold his composure so. Obviously Pyrrhus had dealt with this monster before and his experience and wisdom were well beyond Swift’s own.

Swift’s anima lion crouched behind him, as if ready to pounce, its head now level with his. This was his domain; he knew as the battle came to a close, that where Sol Invictus’ true children were he was welcome. He stood upon this mountain not as a guest, but a brother and perhaps even an apprentice to the Imperial Sun Solars.

“You dare mock our suffering with two-faced diplomacy? We who have labored, fought, and struggled to bring peace to this world. You use words such as tragedy and yet as you have said you have no fear of death. How then can you begin to comprehend the loss within this city that your carelessness has brought?” As he spoke, the words visibly left his lips in a silver/gold blur and intricately wove their way through the air and into the lion behind him. His eyes began to water but he continued, nevertheless. “We Solars have lived in persecution, hunted like animals by monsters like you. The great people of New Meru and mortals around Creation have lived in fear of monsters like you. Monsters that see death as just a game, something you can toy with and use for your purposes.”

Vision came to Swift as a blur, tears were falling now, but his voice remained strong, and he was walking toward Mistress of Bloody Charities. His lion prowled behind him. With the clarity of the sun at zenith, he said, “You know nothing of mending wounds, Mistress of Bloody Charities. If you wish to hear of mending wounds, hear of Raksi, Queen of Fangs.”

At the mention of her name, Raksi dove from the sky and stalked next to Swift. “She, Luna’s Chosen, was lost in madness and grief. Hear the tale of her struggle, no different from the struggle these great people face. Hear how she was mended from her madness and brought back from the brink of death into the loving arms of Luna!”

His hands were trembling now, but still he walked on. “Do not feign understanding where you only have condescension! We have suffered a terrible tragedy. You have come to bring apathy and suffering.”

His last sentence came as a whisper only she could hear. “Leave where you are not welcome, it would only be wise.”

When he stopped, he was standing only a few feet away from her. The sight captivated all around them and it wasn’t hard to see why. It was the pinnacle of his speech; the decisive blow to a well-executed battle. Mistress of Bloody Charities was standing calmly before him in immaculate regal form. Swift appeared only to be standing by the unmitigated strength of his passion. His face stained with tears, blood, and ash. His caste mark and anima shining like a beacon of hope which was only rivaled by the other Solars and the Sun itself. Even his outfit might have been comparable hers if it weren’t torn, bloodied, and disheveled.

He locked his eyes with her and waited.

Mistress of Bloody Charities stared into Swift’s eyes. A bit overly theatrical for five casualties, but of course you know I can’t say that. Swift noticed her eye twitch, a slight crack in her serene mask. She was sorely tempted to use Eyes of the Abyss with Swift standing there like that. But it would detract from the main event.

Mistress turned to her followers behind her. “Let us not keep our allies waiting any longer! Bring forward the gifts. Food supplies go to town square. Nurses and medical supplies go to the Gate to care for the wounded.” The procession started moving again, streaming into the city. “Once we’ve done what we can to help, we’ll return to our own city while the Solars regain their senses. Then we can return to the matter of justi-"

The Mistress was turning around to smile at the Exalts again when her composure was suddenly broken by Raksi interposing herself between her and Swift; a distance so tight their noses touched. “I remember…” Raksi’s voice was a threatening purr, so low only Swift could hear. “I remember this city when I was a little girl. You probably wouldn’t recognize me.” The Deathlord’s eyes widened in horror. “There is so much to be angry with, so much to mourn. I’ve spent my life trapped there. It’s time to be free of it.” Raksi sniffed at her “…for you it would be a more physical change.”

For the second time in his life, Pyrrhus glimpsed real fear on the Mistress’s face. The Deathlord did not often encounter someone that would be a challenge in one on one combat. He’d seen the Mistress take down multiple elder Dragonbloods, so Raksi would ultimately fall. But they were at least in the same league.

Raksi stepped away from the Mistress to give her some breathing room. The Deathlord shook visibly as she attempted to pull herself together. She smiled and nodded at her passing servants as she smoothed out her dress. “I’ll head to the Gate to tend to the wounded.”

Zaela had been attending the wounded there at the Gate, where Mistress was heading. The Gate plaza had been their triage area, with the most wounded being brought within the Manse for more intensive treatment. Those left here were not in danger of dying, and soon they would be moved to their own homes, or temporary quarters if their homes had been destroyed.

Not gifted like Pyrrhus with the power to heal with a touch, she had been shuttling food and water, fetching fresh bandages, and practicing that all important royal skill: Listening. As she went from bed to bed, her patients all poured out their frustrations… the constant raids from angry Meru ghosts, Mistress’ zombie minions, her zealot preachers always attempting to convert them, spreading their lies. But they – the wounded – all served the Golden Ones, who protected them from the City of Night’s depredations and exposed them to the searing light of truth.

So when Mistress began sauntering down the path towards the Plaza, Zaela gathered the folds of her rough nightgown and her courage around her, and with the cadre of Need Fires haloing her went down to meet the Deathlord.

“Fairest and fallen, greetings and defiance,” Zaela said, blocking the deathlord’s entrance to the Plaza with a neatly executed curtsy. The fabric trembled in her fingers while the Need Fires swirled around in angry circles, flaring with holy essence. They sensed the darkness and only Zaela’s will held them in check. “The wounded rest comfortably; there is nothing left to do. You come too late, your gifts hollow.”

“Why do you obsess over this Circle? I have heard the tales – they have defeated you thrice and yet you keep returning – a clipped coin in the treasury. Why, Mistress? Do you desire their attention so that even their hatred is prized, like a play yard bully?”

“Please… Take your minions and go home. You are not welcome here.” Zaela, well aware that she could be struck down in the next instant, straightened and with only a little trembling turned her back on the Deathlord.

A young courier stood tip-toed at the back of a crowd, listening intently to Mistress of Bloody Charities go on about judgment and peaceful reparations. She’s way different than the report made her out to be. Better make sure that’s updated for the records…Scratch that, too much work.

Any second now Akaris would chime in and Mistress would be drowned out by the number of Solars confronting her.

Aaaany second…

Wait…Where is Akaris?! This isn’t good. A quick survey of the crowd told Caiden that she was nowhere near the crowd or the other Solars facing Mistress.

He pulled out a prayer strip that looked entirely like an undelivered letter. Mercury’s Guidance. A taut skein of fate shimmered in the morning light, leading the Sidereal down alleys towards the great fountain.

Of course! She was still attending to Israya after the intense amount of sorcery unveiled just hours ago. He saw the Solar intently focused on the fountain, a branch of yew in her hand. It seemed as though she was redirecting strands of dragon lines towards the fount where Israya lay.

No time to be distracted. Caiden pulled out a letter and merged a prayer strip with it before sealing it in an envelope. He emerged in the courtyard at a brisk jog, clutching the letter in hand and intent at making a delivery.

“Lady Akaris!” he called, nearly startling her and invoking her ire. “I have a letter from Mistress addressed to you!” he said, slowing to a walk before standing before her. She looked much more imposing standing without distance as a buffer. Even the air seemed to hold its breath for her next move as she turned her solemn gaze towards the outstretched letter…

The Mistress’s dark anima flared outward in an involuntary flush of rage. For a moment her colors inverted and there was a pool of shadow around her. The little Solar girl’s back presented an irresistible target. Which is the point she’s making. The darkness crept back inside her and she resumed her placid exterior. Stick to the mission. Destroy everything they love, outward in. Patience.

“I have brought something more valuable than bandages and empty words,” she announced to the crowd since it was clear Zaela would not listen. “By the powers given to me by the Neverborn and Neverdying, I can bring back the ghosts of those taken from among you. The souls of your dearly departed, your husbands, your children can be returned to you. You can be together again and never suffer the pain of death. I can heal their bodies and bind their souls back onto their bodies. They can walk among you once more. Please accept my generous offer. Don’t let this tragedy go unmended. There’s no reason to live in constant fear of death. Just let me work!”

Citizens in the crowd began arguing with each other. One woman began weeping. At least she was making some impact, though the Solar had not behaved according to plan. She beckoned forward one of her citizens and put a hand of encouragement on his shoulder. The young man looked sickly pale and his voice had an echo. “I am Sesus Dekai, once dead but our Queen brought me back. I now live with my family again. I owe her my existence. Heed her words.” Sesus Dekai turned to watch the remaining Exalted coming up the hill towards them and they looked serious. It was time to settle this.

“Yes, and make sure A’Sorak is undisturbed while he’s meditating at the Dragon Line juncture.” Akaris reminded her top student from the Crystarium Academy, though he hardly needed it. A quick nod from the young scholar was all she needed.

Preparations were nearly complete for dealing with Mistress. After reading the two-faced letter addressed to her from the Deathlord, Akaris had had enough. The city-no, this mountain – would no longer be some plaything of the neverborn. All that was left now was to assemble the regiment of elementals to accompany her – making sure the now-whole Israya was with her at the front.

Stepping outside the Crystarium, Akaris was met by her top Elementals. It was time to set her plan in motion, and each of the five elemental leaders before her nodded in understanding.

Calling upon wells of sorcery, she drew a great cloud around her and the elementals. It filled the entire courtyard in front of the Academy, lifting them slowly off the ground before moving towards the Gate on the other side of New Meru.

Wood

The cloud moved through the city like a fog, muffling the shocked cries of Mistress’s envoys that were snatched up into the mist in the blink of an eye. A mild sedative from the snatcher vines ensured the new passengers remained blissfully unaware of what had just happened.

Fire

Each “gift” brought by the City of Night burst into a cold flame the second the fog touched it, leaving behind a silver ash that was drawn into the moving cloud.

Water

The mist brought healing to all it touched: wounds were closed, burns absolved, and pains eased. Pitchers and cups alike were filled to the brim with this gift, and all who drank of it were well.

Earth

Broken buildings were restored, heard as a low rumbling within the blinding fog. Towers rebuilt themselves, and smashed pillars once more supported the buildings they proudly belonged to.

Air

The clouds above New Meru began opening to the sky, forming a swirling tunnel that opened to the sun.

A sudden change in the air brushed past Mistress – fog. She closed her eyes and drew the inverted anima back in with a deep inhale. I wondered how long I could keep her busy. There was no mistaking sorcerous fog, especially when one was well versed in the arts.

“Akaris dear,” Mistress called in her sweetest tone, “I was positively crushed when you chose not to meet me at the Gate.” She was still speaking to a cloud of mist, but the Solar was most definitely there. “You know I miss our little visits – it’s been too long since we’ve shared a cup of nether-tea and had our speculations on the fate of Creation.”

The mists parted, sweeping a bowl shaped clearing around the deathlord and a now visible Solar. A column of silver ash swirled slowly around the two, catching bits of daylight and sharing it with the cloud wall.

“Oh how I’ve missed your flare for the dramatic.” Mistress said, a smirk appearing as she made eye contact with Akaris. The Solar had chosen a familiar white gown, accented with a gold-embroidered frontal sash. “You’ve certainly learned from the best.” She said, reaching out to the ash with a finger and swirling it playfully.

“Mistress,” Akaris said, a hint of something dangerous flashing in her eyes, “I come to answer your call for justice.”

Perfect! Mistress thought, she took the bait…

The Twilight’s anima flared and formed itself into three spheres that lined itself in front of Akaris. Each sphere had a primordial quality to them, and mudric symbols orbited in and out of reality. The deathlord’s brow raised in amusement.

“Three judgments will be spoken, each bound by the Laws of Creation.”

Oh good, I love when Solars try to get all goody goody with laws. Who doesn’t love a little taste of nostalgia once in a while?

“The first, is the judgment of Ayala, the Deathknight.” Akaris walked up to the first sphere, a small golden hammer appearing in her hand. “The matter of her punishment has already been resolved.” With a slight tap, the sphere shattered into golden dust that swirled violently in a burst of light before joining the column of ash around them. “Ayala’s soul now lives as an elemental heart, and so it shall be until the end of days.”

“Akaris, my dear,” Mistress began, a seed of worry growing deep inside, “I’m afraid such judgment requires mastery beyond your reach. We’ll work on this together though when you visit.” That surely can’t be why I haven’t been able to find Ayala’s soul yet.

The Solar stepped to the second sphere, ignoring the deathlord. The fog had parted even more and the crowd was growing even larger, though none of her envoy was anywhere in sight.

“The second judgment is on Alasuin, who’s soul will be returned to to the reincarnation cycle with the memory of her forever-gone sister. Beyond that, her punishment is fulfilled.” A tap on the second sphere produced familiar results, crystalline chimes echoing in the cloud.

“How tragically merciful,” Mistress conjured up her most endearing voice, “Their tale of separation will be written about for decades in our city.”

“The third judgment is for servants of the Neverborn,” Akaris said, moving towards the last sphere. “You defile the Solar capitol, spreading lies and confusion. It will no longer be tolerated on this mountain.” Akaris turned to the now populous crowd in the streets. “The Neverborn exist contrary to Creation and hold nothing but contempt for life. This mountain stands as an anchor for Creation against their unnatural power, and I will see it restored to such.” At the prompt of her words, the fog dispelled entirely, revealing a shining city, gleaming as if destruction never touched it the night before, evoking gasps of wonder.

Akaris turned once more to Mistress of Bloody Charities, who stood calm and collected, but deeply worried. A whisper of insanity urged her to slaughter everyone before her, but the desire to see this play out seemed more fun.

“Cursed is the ground on this mountain for all who serve the Neverborn. The earth will move against you, and the very dragon lines that breathe life into Creation will work to expel you. The elements know your name and will be a thorn in your flesh; a shortness of breath in your run. Everywhere you turn will be adversity; each moment here will be agony.”

As she spoke, the column of ash and gold surrounding the Solar and deathlord narrowed around the final sphere, concentrating into a shimmering pillar.

“So it shall be.”

The pillar formed into a spear of light that shot through the sphere and into the ground, creating a blinding explosion of anima-fueled light. It took a moment for the shimmering to subside, but it settled to reveal lines of golden energy throughout the city, following some orderly, yet undefined pattern.

Mistress clenched her jaw, sensing a dramatic shift in the energies here, a pain which was instantly recognizable. She could easily shatter a salt barrier mortals used to keep undeath away, but this…this was directly tapping into the dragon lines that had lay dormant for millennia. How had they harnessed this power so quickly! Hahaha, no matter! The petty games were over – it was full on war, just like before! Nothing was more thrilling than this! Nothing!

Mistress chuckled, her white dress flushing into a void-black. Blood seeped down her wrists, and dripped onto the alabaster lit street, staining it deep red. “I’m so glad we finally get to sort our issues out.” She let out another shrill laugh, “I’ll get to claim this mountain for the Neverborn, and you all will get to serve under me. I know that sounds like fun, so I won’t make you wait too long!”

Horrific screams from the void could be heard as she bowed and stepped backwards before transforming into a murder of crows that trailed shadows over the horizon towards the City of Night.

“Wow…” Fatimah, the city’s goldsmith walked up next to Zaela. “I had no idea she could be that duplicitous. She really means to start a war over an insult?” Zaela nodded soberly. “That took a lot of courage turning your back on her. You’ve proven yourself today. My family came here because the Solars saved my town from a plague when everyone else wanted to write us off for dead. Now I see it’s not just the four we know, but all Solars are worthy of respect. You lead and we will follow.” Fatimah knelt before Zaela with her head to the ground and the citizens around the Gate followed suit.

Zaela blushed bright red at this display. She gathered herself and then walked through the group, touching each person on the shoulder or head. “I have walked with you in pain, now walk with me in this struggle.”

Outside the Gate plaza a circle of shocked onlookers and loyal elementals surrounded Akaris. Her anima still crackled with energy and no one dared touch her. Raksi approached her and bowed respectfully. “That was a very impressive display of sorcery; powerful but still disciplined. You managed to nullify the threat and still be constructive…” she surveyed the repaired architecture for a moment. “…literally. I am Raksi, Master of Sapphire Circle Sorcery, Keeper of the Book of Three Circles. If you’ve heard of me, I apologize for my reputation. I am recently reformed and I am now in search of pupils who wish to learn the secrets of Solar Circle Sorcery.”

Hokaru, leader of the stone masons, put a firm hand on Swift’s shoulder. “Thank you for being the first to stand up to that Deathlord today. Everything you said was proven right. It was all just an act.”

His eyes swept over the sky. The sun was still dawning. The clear air reflected the clarity that had settled on the city. There was a Deathlord living next door who wanted nothing more than to see them all dead. Everything else was a facade. The sky was a deep blue overhead. No clouds formed naturally at this elevation, so they were always under the Sun’s light. His eyes went to the road that led to the City of Night and the murder of crows carrying the fleeing Deathlord.

“The crows.” Hokaru said blankly.

“Yes?” Swift asked.

“She’s coming back this way.”

He could feel his great flaw tugging at him as a thief might tug at a his coin-purse. It was familiar, comforting, deadly. The skirmish with the denizens of the Neverborn had taken it’s toll on Swift’s body, and Mistress of Bloody Charities had taken her toll on Swift’s mind. Every part of him screamed the same thing.

Stop!

For the second time since his exaltation, Swift wasn’t sure he would survive this encounter. For a moment, he let the fear sweep over him, covering him like water, pouring into his eyes, his ears, his throat. He couldn’t see, he couldn’t hear, he couldn’t breathe. There it is. He thought as he felt the adrenaline pumping through his veins again. When he came to his senses, he was kneeling, head bowed toward the rising sun and he had drawn a crowd. He was glad none of them could see the look on his face. He composed himself and stood to address them.

“Citizens of New Meru,” he glanced at Hokaru, “…this city has seen hardship.”

The people nodded.

“Where do you think the warriors of Creation brought down the primordials? Even through the Great Contagion you stood tall, a golden beacon of hope to the rest of Creation. You said ‘We will not falter!’, and so you did not. Now a deathlord wishes to enslave you proud, strong, resourceful people! She has shown her true colors, and she now expects us to show her ours! Will you give in to fear and death? Will you lie down and accept a fate she has for you, or will you stand and be the leaders of men I know you to be? Stand with us and let the tale of your deeds rival the legends your past!”

Cheers erupted in the streets, despite the horror they all witnessed and the impending battle that crackled on the wind, the citizens of New Meru had hope for a future.

Let them encourage each other_.. Swift stepped away from the crowd to peer at the approaching crows, a sense of foreboding washed over him. Somehow I think we’ll be the ones needing help this time._ He searched for the other exalts and their eyes confirmed what he feared, this battle is far from over.

View
Accounts of the Adamant Codex, 10
Chapter Two, Scene Seven

Sol Invictus destined Solars for many things, sleep was not one of them. An all too close crash of boulders was followed by an Air Elemental’s banshee warning call. Soon everyone was groggily rousing from their short nap. All except for Raksi, whose Resistance and Integrity charms extended even to getting a good night’s rest.

“Akaris, come quickly!” one elemental shouted before being batted aside by the spiked tail of a huge quadruped lizard. The girl riding on the lizard’s back giggled frantically. “This is so much fun! Let’s do this every night, sister!” The great beast swung its tail through a building and it crumbled to the ground, prompting more laughter from the pair.

Both of the girls looked like they were still of schooling age. They were dressed in overly dramatic black garb. The only distinguished feature was that one had blonde hair, and the other black. “The Sisters Grimm rise again!” cried the black. She stood up on the back of her giant lizard and pointed drammatically. “We are immortal! Attack!” Droves of war ghosts and hungry ghosts surged past the girls, penetrating the building and flooding into the Manse Villa courtyard. The sparse citizens of New Meru were being pulled out of their homes and impaled on spectral blades.

“Sister!” blonde called out. “I found the best corpse in the old Genesis Lab! It’s an octopus, made out of octopus-es. Totally better than magma kraken.” The ichorous black mass rose up under the power of necromancy and flowed forward, pulling itself into the streets in lurches. The other sister agreed “definitely better than magma kraken.”

Pyrrhus rolled from his pallet at the first crash of rock and tea-kettle shriek of furious air elemental, pulling his swords from the stand beside his bed. Angelline bolted out of bed like a startled cat, rushing to the pallet that held their nearly three-year-old son – Aelius was already starting up a wail fit to rival the air elemental’s, and other children were following his example, all across the manse.

Trusting to his wife’s competence with the non-combatants, Pyr summoned his Arbiter armor as he ran barefoot down the corridor towards the sounds of commotion. There was no time to don his scale armor, but Pyr had relied on his Arbiter armor for most of his life; it would not fail him now. Essence washed down his limbs and solidified into a golden second skin, nearly as substantial as his red jade scale.

A war-ghost barred his way, hacking at him with a jagged ancient sword. Pyrrhus gave a flick of his sword, his anima flaring down its length, and sent the unholy creature shrieking away, a rent in its form spilling dark essence like blood. Ah, so this was what came against them tonight?

He let his essence rise, filling his anima to overflowing with the infinite well of Sol Invictus’ holy light. The faintest suggestion of a beaked head rose over his own, and the Manse hummed in response to his brilliant aura – Sunlight pooled outwards until he stood in a pillar of meridian light. The Manse’s automatic defenses began kicking in; dropping gates of Holy Essence to block off areas, sliding defense turrets into view from behind polished amber bubbles.

Thank you, Angelline, Pyr breathed, knowing his wife had gone straight to the Hearthroom and begun coordinating defenses as one of the individuals Pyrrhus had authorized the Manse to obey. Pyr slid to a halt in the Manse’s foyer, assessing the scene before him.

The black-haired Sister was closest to him, trundling onward on her massive reanimated reptile. Black cosmetics, impractical black clothing, melodrama theatrics? She’d been taken in by a juvenile death cult, clearly. But now she had the power to back it up and not the sense Sol Invictus gave a newborn mouse.

Pyrrhus strode down the middle of the street towards her, hardly inconspicuous as he blazed like the Sun at Zenith, sending creatures of darkness shrinking away from him in all directions. He settled his bare feet in a solid stance and leveled a sword at her and her monsters.

“Cease your destruction, child. You came into my city, terrorized and murdered people under my protection, and now you must answer for it. This is your only warning. Cease your violence, remove yourself and your minions from this place, repent and amend your ways – or face judgment by my blade.” Essence made his words reverberate with truth as his stance and voice invoked the Meditation on Judgment: the highest kata of his Arbiter arts.

“Repent? Ha! Silly little Solar! You don’t scare me, I have the power of DEATH at my command! I returned from the Abyss and it Chose me! I am daughter of the Mistress! Bring your blade, if you can!” The Sister stood and flung out a hand towards Pyrrhus, coalescing a crackling sphere of viscous green Essence.

“As you wish, my Lady.” Pyrrhus dodged, coming up beside the beast – a slash sent it groaning to its knees, tendons snapped like gitar strings. With such a stepping stone Pyr surged upwards.

“Mercy was offered you, and mercy refused. Have now what mercy would have spared you.” The weight of his words shattered into golden shards, falling through the young Sister and pinning her to her mount. The death essence riddling her flesh writhed and shrieked at this intrusion of Light, adding its voice to her own. Pyrrhus reversed his blades and stabbed downward – a short quick thrust ended her hysterical laughter in a gurgle of congealing ichor.

“One day, someone will take me up on the offer of repentance and I will die of the shock,” he muttered to himself, sliding down the blood-streaked flank of the thrashing corpse. He murmured a word and touched it – the beast went up in a pyre, utterly consumed in the fires of his Zenith anima.

Swift jumped out of bed at what, he did not know. He looked around his room but it was bare. Then he heard it. The clamor of battle. No. The slaughter of innocents.

“This is so much fun! Let’s do this every night, sister!”

He scowled, more at himself than the clearly insane… little girl? His head hurt and he was not as sober as he would like to be for a battle. There was another crash.

“The Sisters Grimm rise again!” There was a pause. “We are immortal! Attack!”

As Swift hastily donned his armor and weapons, he heard the first little girl again. “Sister! I found the best corpse in the old Genesis Lab! It’s an octopus, made out of octopus-es. Totally better than magma kraken.”

He could feel the characteristic panic rise within him. He remembered Willow’s creature of war and he could see this thing tearing through house after house of innocents. His hands trembled with anger. “I won’t let that happen.” He said.

No sooner that the words left his lips did he hear the second girl’s voice chime up. "Definitely better than magma kraken.”

His anger flared again, this time supported by his caste mark and a wave of essence. He felt his jade Sky-Cutter and war-boomerang resting on his back, and his two chakrams, one on each thigh. He knew their exact weight, their effective distance, and every charm to enhance their power. He could feel his motes draining away, like stretching his muscles before a run.

And so he ran. Through his doorway, down the hall, and into the front room, where he saw Pyrrhus standing as a commander would stand before his army. His skin shone with the light of the Unconquered Sun and in his hands were two red jade daiklave. In that moment Swift was uncertain if all the Meridian Isles Solars could take him down. “I’m glad you’re on our side.” He said as he walked up to stand next to him.

The scene before him was that of his deepest fears, too close for comfort was a writhing mass of dead flesh rampaging through the streets. He could see a blonde girl sticking out of its head and he could only assume this was the one who had spoken about an octopus. Between her and Swift there were hordes of undead breaking open doors and slaughtering the inhabitants. People were running away from the one sister and right into the path of the second, who was riding a giant lizard and closing in on the manse.

Pyrrhus saw her too, and he strode confidently forward. Okay, Swift thought, one down, one and dozens of undead to go. He ran out toward the other sister, his caste mark burning bright and his anima lion following close behind. The blonde noticed him, which wasn’t surprising considering the maelstrom of words in the shape of a lion behind him.

“Oh look!” She said, eyes wild and teeth flashing in a mad smile. “It’s a cute little Deceiver! Aww, who’s an adorable solar?” She giggled. “Attack my unending horde! Swarm that pathetic excuse for an exalt!”

At her call the undead host between them formed up in the middle of the street and charged. She let out another shrill laugh, throwing her head back, and continued her war-path to the manse.

Swift saw the army approaching him and smiled. He stopped and let them close the distance as he calmly pulled out his two war-boomerangs.

“Enemies of Sol Invictus, hear my words and despair, for they are the last you will hear. I am Warrick Colson, Crowned Sun and Resplendent Emissary of the Meridian Isles.” His right hand twitched and he was now holding a chakram.

“With the authority of my title I demand you leave this place!” The army was almost upon him “You are not welcome here!”

He spun around and threw both weapons at the wave of enemies. As soon as they left his hands, both weapons multiplied and filled the entire street. The wave of chakrams hit first, followed closely by the wave of war-boomerangs. Body parts spilled onto the streets and the few remaining undead turned to run away. It was then that his first boomerang found them. He strode forward and picked up his chakram and boomerangs. It was now time for the baby death knight to die.

Akaris lay awake, dread washing over her. How was the city infiltrated so easily…We had better defenses than this! The earth outside groaned amidst cries in the night. There was certainly more than one horror unleashed upon New Meru.

“My lady,” a voice startled her. It was a now-materialized Serelle, one of her most trusted advisers. “Assailants from the City of Night have brought death to the city.” she said, her voice still the sound of a crystal echo.

City of Night. Of course. How could she have been that naive to think that Mistress of Bloody Charities had been pacified. She was in charge of monitoring the ley lines. She could have picked up this impending attack had she not been so…

“My Lady,” Serelle interrupted her thoughts, “I know what you are thinking – it’s not your fault. We all…”

“Not my fault?!” Akaris interrupted back, pushing herself out of bed. “I have these ley lines memorized! I should have sensed necrotic energies passing the border and I didn’t.” She walked over to the vanity, too ashamed to look up. Her head hung over the bowl of washing water, a dim reflection of the Luna’s light dancing on the rippling surface. How could she have grown so complacent with Mistress right. on. their. DOORSTEP!

A wave of frustration washed over her as she pounded her fist on the table, splashing some water out of the bowl. She almost shed a tear, but a visage drew itself on the now calming water. It was of Israya, one of her water elemental advisers, before the merciless grin of the Blonde sister. A flash of necrotic energy shot through the elemental, dissipating her into a cloud of green mist amidst a scream of agony.

Grief turned to rage as Akaris turned around, Serelle still standing calmly in the middle of the room. The balcony doors were already open, as if the elemental knew where she was headed. Akaris embraced the elemental, shivering with a vast range of emotion surging through her.

“Thank you once more, friend.” She said before turning towards the door, grabbing the Ending of Days on her way out. In true Air Dragon form, distance and surface were worries of the past. She sprung into the night, calling all children of the water to her. Israya’s death would be avenged a thousand fold…

A shrill giggle pierced the night amidst screams and thunder. “Mistress was so right! I could just drink all this terror until I die!” Blonde laughed, watching as her ichor-kraken smashed two supporting pillars of a nearby building. “Oh wait! I can’t!” Another shrill giggle echoed into the streets, but this time it was more muted than before. A perfect sphere of mist created a shell around her, reflecting her silver-blood anima.

“Oh please, Mistress told us to expect some resistance, but clouds?! A ha hahahahahaha!! No wonder we made it in so easy!”

The dopplered sound of a heavenly chorus sung itself past Blonde at deadly speed; a golden chakram lodged itself into the skull of the ichor-kraken. Blonde turned just in time to see a second one sing past and lodge itself in the beast’s head before exploding in golden light. The golden outline of its carcass collapsed in on itself before vanishing into nothing.

Akaris flew out of the mist, calling the Ending of Days back to her, creating another brief heavenly chorus.

“How dare you take away my toy!” Blonde stared up at the Solar, who stood as if one foot were resting on an invisible post. “You don’t think we’d be let loose in the city without some gifts from the Mistress, do you?!” More giggling erupted.

“You fool.” Akaris interrupted her with a thunderous voice that echoed within the mist-shell. “You know little of what games you play, and even less of the rules.”

“Listen, bitch.” Blonde’s laughter was replaced with a wickedly confident grin. “I make my own rules, and in my game I win…not you.” She pulled out a green glowing heart from her satchel and shattered it as though it were weak glass. Blood mixed with green mist as she lifted up her hand, kissing it before blowing the mist at Akaris.

Why did Mistress’s chosen always have to be so obnoxious?

One brings mist against an Air Dragon master. Touching. Akaris knew this was magic she did not want touching her, even if she was confident she could route it. With the mudra of the Spoken Wind gestured, Akaris blew at the mist, creating a swirling green tempest that stood between her and the Abyssal. This isn’t enough.

Mudra of the Charged Storm. The entire shell of mist began coursing with electric energy. Blonde looked around, half frightened, half struggling to keep her composure. Hurricane from Tempest Method.

“Should you remember something after today,” Akaris said, making one forced palm gesture towards the swirling green mist, giving her the control she wanted of its position, “…know that New Meru is not a playground.” One more forceful palm thrust pushed the miasmic cloud over Blonde, evoking panicked coughs and screams. “Your Mistress has stepped over the line…" Shape Celestial Circle Sorcery.

“No!” <cough> “You’ll never…” <hacking> “ah hahah ha” <bloodied> “You’ll never be safe,” <cough> “here!” <gasps>

“…and by extension, so have you.” Akaris stepped towards the swirling green cloud, parting it as if she were air itself. At the core, Blonde was gasping and reaching out, almost enjoying the experience of suffocation. Her eyes flashed from green to red to black – clearly the effects of whatever sorcery was woven into the mist. Akaris almost felt sorry for her.

But not sorry enough. Cast Celestial Circle Sorcery. The Solar took Israya’s black-jade heart and held it forward with one hand. The other made the gesture of Breathless Air, and slowly Blonde’s life-force drifted into the mists. With a final thrust of the black-jade into the Abyssal’s heart, a flash of energy engulfed her, transmuting her body into a statue of pure black jade and burning away the green mist.

Dozens of lesser water elementals from the mist shell swarmed towards the statue, permeating its surface, as if they knew exactly what they should do. It worked! Akaris thought, exhausted to the core. It actually worked!. It wasn’t her ultimate goal, but it was one more step in the right direction. Kind of Mistress to give me a research assistant.

Slowly the statue came to life, and the once fallen Israya now lay on the ground, clearly unconscious.

“Come, we must get her to the fount if she is to live!”

Zaela dragged herself groggily through the Manse, still half-asleep and wrapped in a fog of disjointed, unnerving dreams hovering just under her skin. People were rushing past her, and once a barred gate of golden Essence dropped down behind her, securing the sleeping quarters she’d just come from.

In the foyer of the Manse, several Dragonblooded stood guard – two in military style armor, three in the odd variant of Immaculate Monk robes she’d seen earlier, but all were armed and wary, essence beginning to manifest into elemental auras. She went and stood next to the armored Fire-Aspect, shivering. “What is going on? I heard shrieks – I thought it was a dream but…?”

“The Mistress of Bloody Charities – the Deathlord in charge of a Shadowland City on the far side of the mountain – has sent her undead horde to attack us. The Sun Chosen and some of my kin have gone out to battle them,” he replied, eyes warily scanning the streets.

“The.. Undead? Like ghosts? Zombies?” Zaela’s caste mark begin to glitter dangerously on her forehead. Her Second Breath had been at the end of a nephrack’s sword, and those unnatural creatures were forever a source of anger and anxiety.

“That and often worse.” The guard pointed to a burning hulk a block away. “That was a zombie Thorn Lizard, until Lama Pyrrhus set it ablaze by his anima.”

“Oh?” Zaela stared out at city, noting the three pillars of sunlight moving through the darkened ruins. “Well. I suppose I should go help out. Please, excuse me.”

She turned and strode back into the Manse, stopping in the massive plant-filled courtyard. “Raksi?” She called into the jungle. “Are you in here?”

“I am now.” The eldest Lunar sauntered in, smoothing the last traces of jaguar and sleep from her features. “I take it our arrival has not gone unnoticed by the enemies of Meru.”

“No. A force of the undead has arrived.”

Raksi perked up, grinning ferally – for a moment, looking like her old crazy self. “Oh, lovely! I was needing to work out some energy. I’ll just go help, shall I?” Without waiting for an answer, she shifted to some unnameable Wyld creature – an amalgamation of fangs, claws, and wings – and flowed out the top of the dome, presumably in the direction of the carnage.

Zaela shook her head and, heading back to the streets with a reassuring smile to the Dragonbloods, began drawing on her essence. Looped about one wrist was a delicate looking piece of knotted jewelry – which was no jewelry at all. She began picking at the beads between the decorative knots, and soon it fell apart into a handful of them. As she passed the burning pyre of the thorn lizard, she stopped and dripped essence on the knots, then tossed a few into the flames.

“Come, Need Fires, and devour the creatures of darkness in this city!” she cried, kindling her own anima to match her Circlemates. An eruption of tropical birds spiraled around her in the pillar of her sunlight.

The pyre flared and split into six individual spheres of fire, white veins crossing their surfaces and phantom faces floating in their depths. We have come in answer to your summons, Zenith Chosen. We BURN! Screeching in glee, they zipped off down the streets, leaving trails of fire in their wake. A war-ghost fell into their path and they converged on it. It fell, twitching, into a burning heap, and two more Need Fires sparked from its flames and joined their fellows.

Zaela smiled and hastened towards the encroaching sounds of battle, setting corpses ablaze and summoning more Need Fires as she went.

The battle barely lasted until the rising of the Crow.

Raksi flowed over the ruins of the city hunting prey in her chimeric battle form. But she soon felt the essence of the mountain reaching inside of her and slowing her wyld energies. Not more than three miles outside of the city of Meru lay a river of pure Earth essence which calcified any Wyld energies in the area. This was not a good place to be a Fae Folk. “Time to change tactics…” she decided.

She descended upon a large group of ghosts and shifted into an Ifrit fire elemental as she went. When she got close enough to make eye contact she realized this was a crowd that she knew full well. These were the former citizens of Meru as she knew them just before the Usurpation. She paused for a moment while memories came flooding back to her. The shade of an athletic young man bit onto her arm and caught his face on fire in the process. She regarded the young man with a grin. “I never liked you anyways.”

Raksi fueled her emotional maelstrom into a dagger and a whip of Fire essence. She exploded into the crowd of undead, bouncing from one impaled target to another.

“This is for calling me fat!” Two ghosts turned back into ash.

“And this is for all the things you thought I couldn’t hear!”

“And this is for giving me an A- on my spell.” Raksi’s whip sent a head flying through the air.

“This is for being an incompetent obstructionist jerk,” she gripped the shoulders of a hunched form and bisected him top to bottom with a kick.

Soon the ruined intersection was littered with the smoking remains of ectoplasm. The shouts of war had finally stopped. Raksi stood alone looking out over the slopes of Mount Meru to the rest of Creation. Need Fires rose up from the city all around her. In the far East, the first glimmers of the Daystar began to grow. She dropped her weapons and they evaporated into mist. “That was sooo much better than talking to a therapist."

View
Accounts of the Adamant Codex, 9
Chapter Two, Scene Six

The two Circles entered the Manse to stay safe from the ghosts that wander the streets at night. They both had reason to distrust each other, but knew they would eventually need to make Solar allies if they were to survive.

Raksi followed the Solars in, sniffing the air cautiously, but content to observe for now. Her interference had done enough harm and she was relieved to play the part of the observer for once. Raksi had shifted herself a feline tail to better communicate through body language as it twitched nervously against the wall.

Pyrrhus’ Manse was a sprawling villa-like complex closer to the top of the mountain than the Plaza. Its doors were open but guarded by elemental servitors, and people streamed hurriedly in and out before the last light of the Sun vanished. Most of the chambers were still empty of the furnishings they would have had in the First Age, but a few – the meditation room, a bedroom or two – had been restored and refurbished for use. The overall architecture favored cream-colored pillars and tall, open ceilings, in various shades of warm exotic woods, amber cabochon gems, gold accents and deep sable-brown stone.

The central courtyard was a massive greenhouse with an accurate replica of the Daystar at the top of its glass dome ceiling, casting natural sunlight on the greenery below. The manse’s essence vents manifested as glowing veins of lush plant life, overflowing with perpetually ripe fruit, vegetables, flowers, herbs and spices – and even more exotic, engineered foodstuffs: a First Age Solar’s boastful conceit. A fountain blossomed at its center and draped arcs of water toward each wall in life-giving streams, leaving a ring of open water-shrouded space around it. The manse had been a literal godsend when they’d first discovered it, making it that much easier to support the population of mortal people who had chosen to resettle the mountain with Akaris, Pyrrhus, Starbuck, and the rest of their Circle.

Just beyond the courtyard, on the far side from the Villa-Manse’s entrance, was a lavish dining hall. Or, it was once lavish. It was sparsely furnished with simple but elegant furniture that almost but not quite clashed with the room itself… a visual tension between the old golden age and the new one they were creating.

It was here that Pyrrhus led them, drawing aside a young man with a shaved head dressed in a peculiar variant of Immaculate Monk robes and directing him to please help serve their guests. In moments the party was seated, platters of food and drink set before them – simple, but comforting dishes, especially after the extravagance of Yu-Shan.

“Shall we start over?” he asked once they were all seated. “Introductions… I am V’neef Pyrrhus, called Lightbringer, Chosen of the Sun at Zenith and Lama of the Center – that is, in the Immaculate Order, I am in charge of this district, the Center of the Blessed Isle.”

“Lightbringer, truly a proper title for one chosen under the Sun’s Zenith.” Swift bowed his head in respect for the solar. “I must ask you to forgive my candor, but I don’t enjoy being taken for a fool. Am I to believe that this is not a safe place for me and my circle mates? I was under the impression that this was a sanctuary of sorts.” Swift’s hand drifted to the chakram that was attached to his hip instinctively. He looked down at his hand as if it had betrayed him and straightened up in his seat.

“I would like to remind you of the current… Diplomatic nature of our visit. I must say, after your very unorthodox welcome, I’m not sure we have come to the right place.” He looked at Raksi, who had taken on a much more feline attitude her eyes shifting between the two Solar Circles. The tension was visible, clearly Pyrrhus’ response was unexpected.. To say the least.

Pyrrhus nodded slowly and began stripping off his armored gauntlets, laying them to one side of his plate. He unslung his sword belts as well, hanging them across the back of his chair. “Please forgive us – but you must understand, we have not survived as long as we have, here on the Blessed Isle, by being foolish, either. We have enemies — and I’m sure you’re aware enemies do not always appear as mustachioed cloaked villains as in festival dramas.”

“New Meru is a haven – for people who want to learn to work with each other and see past their differences, save Creation from her enemies, fix her broken borders, restore her people to peace and plenty, and learn from the mistakes in her past.” Pyrrhus picked up his glass and swirled the wine within idly, clearly collecting his thoughts. “If you are troubled by my association with the Immaculate Order – well, the short version is that the Order that is now practiced among the leadership and my district is far closer to the original… hmm… Solar friendly? … first age version than that which has been bullying everyone for the last several centuries. It has been a slow process, but the truth wins over fear.”

He smiled, took a sip of his wine, and leaned back in his chair. “Have I set your mind at ease?”

Akaris saw an opportunity to interject. “Actually Swift, if it’s any consolation, I have no connection to the Order here on New Meru, or anywhere for that matter.” She idly dismissed the sommelier who started to tip more wine into her glass.

“Pyrrhus and I walk different ways of life, but we both have a vision for a better Creation.” She waved a hand dismissively, “I know, it sounds all grand and exaggerated, but I’ll not sit idly by as the elements are slowly corrupted and twisted exalts manipulate towards dark ends. Others of our kind are being hunted, no doubt even as we dine in small luxury.”

“A tad dramatic without even introducing myself, apologies. I am Akaris, the Elemental Warden of the Court of Seasons, and head of the Crystarium Academy here in New Meru. We are working hard to restore the vast troves of knowledge that once resided here in the First Age, but it is no small feat.”

She folded her napkin neatly in her lap before continuing, “We’ve provided a glimpse of who we are as fellow Solars; tell us more of your journey and what brings you to the old capitol?”

Caiden checked the label on the wine bottle when he was back in the prep room. Prayer strip still going strong. I mean, it was definitely a diplomatic meeting, but something needed to remove the edge from the earlier disastrous introductions and speed things along. The wine was just a bit…stronger, one might say. Viziers had a way of making sure meetings stayed on track – gods know even the Incarna get distracted by petty quarrels.

Of course, nothing is as irritating as going too fast:_ Yes, look at me! I can Speed the Wheels! I can tangle the Loom and create microcosms of loopholed Creation! I can create a week’s worth of work in 5 seconds!_ Damned Solar charms.

One of the servers was staring at him, half amused, half frightened.

“Oh, just lost in thought – here, have some wine. You look like you could use a glass.”

“Hear hear Pyrrhus.” Swift raised his wine. He had always enjoyed the wine of Laenia’s courts, but this was exquisite. Surely it was made for Gods and Exalts to share during times such as these. “To you as well, Akaris.” He dipped his head to acknowledge the other solar.

“I too have a… dramatic,” He shot a wry smile at Akaris, “and bold vision for creation. You see it is my dream, if you will, to see Creation restored to her full and proper glory. It is relieving to know I am not alone.” He took a quick drink of his wine. “And I must say, you have excellent taste, which is high praise coming from one who has spent much of his life in the higher courts.”

Raksi looked at Swift impatiently, her tail flicking back and forth aggressively.

“Ah, forgive me, it is in my nature to prattle on, as our resident Lunar is obviously comfortable with expressing.”

Raksi gave him a piercing stare. “You have done well to put my mind at ease. It is as you say, our enemies unfortunately do not always advertise their.. true nature. Even allies can have reason for discretion. I certainly hope we will be allies in this endeavor and all future ones.”

He swallowed yet another mouthful of the bottomless nectar in his goblet. “Ah! Not to worry,” he said to no one in particular, “I won’t hold an oath over your heads on that one. As for our purpose in coming here, I defer to lady Raksi’s better judgement here, but I say let us save business for later. I find these things are much more smooth after a bottle or two of fine wine. I’m sure you’ll agree.”

Zaela blinked sleepily and yawned behind her hand. The long, long events of the last few days had started to catch up with her. Thinking back, she hadn’t had a proper night’s sleep since before the Fae attack! Capped with fine meal and perhaps a little too much wine… she would be lucky if she did not embarrass herself by falling asleep in her plate. “Yes, Emissary Colson: much more amiable. And even more so after a proper rest.”

She turned to Pyrrhus and Akaris, two seats down to her left. “I hate to impose further upon your hospitality, but is there somewhere we may sleep for the night? It has been a very long trip from the Pole of Wood. I would be happy to share the details of our journey on the morrow, as it does relate to our presence here.”

“Of course.” Pyrrhus pushed back from the table and crossed the distance between them, offering a gentlemanly arm. “Er… do you prefer to room together or —?”

“Separate!” Zaela blushed furiously and hid it in flustered flutter of sleeve and hair as she stood, her chair neatly hooked out of the way by Pyrrhus. Thank Ignis Divine that her fiance Arainn was not here to see that. But oh, she wished he was. “Separate w-would be fine, thank you, if it’s not t-too much t-trouble.”

Raksi rose lazily to her feet and stretched languorously, as she stood her feline features melted away. She looked like a woman in her early twenties with midnight black hair, subtly more mature and stable than the teenager body she had been trapped in until this year. Her clothes rippled and morphed into an silk gown made of black and deep blues with gold edging. It looked comfortable enough to sleep in. She stood next to Swift’s chair and rested his head against her side. “I think we’ve all underestimated how travel weary we are. It’s been several days now since we slept. I would love to tell you about our mission, but I think it’s best to save that for when our heads are cleared. Thank you for your hospitality.”

She tugged Swift to his feet then stared hard at the Sommelier and crooked a finger at him. “Servant, show this man to his room. Let’s all get some rest…” she sighed “…independently.”

As all were separating and departing from the evening meal, Starbuck took this moment as an opportunity to acquaint herself with the newly found allies.

Approaching the one named Swift, she began to speak. “Greetings, I wanted to officially welcome you as well. My name is Starbuck, Chosen Eclipse of the Sun, and most simply call me Granny.”

“Feel free to let me know if you need anything while you are here. I make a wonderful set of breakfast pastries and tasty drinks.” With that she smiled warmly, waiting briefly to see if there were any immediate needs or questions, before heading off in the direction of her own rooms.

“Greetings Lady Sarbuck!” Swift struggled to bow with Raksi in tow, but she slipped out of his grip.

“Your problem now,” she said to Starbuck as she walked away. Swift gave her a piercing glare and turned his attention back to the Eclipse waiting patiently before him.

“As you may well know, I am called Swift among those who care to call me such… er.. Yes, you may also call me Swift. I am formally called Warrick Colson, Resplendent Emissary of the Meridian Isles!” He bowed again, somewhat less gracefully. “I am also a Chosen Eclipse of the Sun, and would be honored to call upon you for my sunrise culinary needs.” He seemed to sober up for a moment. “Or your wisdom.” His face lightened up as he said “Might I be so bold as to say that smile is very fitting for one so… well-weathered.” He bowed again. “If you will excuse me, I fear I have enjoyed this evening much more than I planned and I must rest.”

With that, he bowed again and set after Raksi. “Dearest elder lunar! Where have you run off to?! How will I find my room?! Raksi?”

Raksi laid her friend down in his bed and kissed him on the forehead. She stood up with a shiver, clutched her arms together and walked out into the cold night’s air. It had only been three months since her restoration and there was still millenia of thoughts and experiences to work through. She wasn’t tired at all. Her body ached and shivered with a maelstrom of emotions. The magical essence flowing through her veins did nothing but amplify her fluid nature.

Pyrrhus and Akaris think of us as children because they’ve been exalted ten years and my friends only one year. They try to damp it, but I see it in their eyes. A parent to a child. And yet, none of them could imagine the gulf of two hundred of those decades stacked on top of each other. Raksi kept prowling out beyond the perimeter of the villa. No one here would be able to relate to her. Elder Lunars were a dying breed. There was really only one whom she might ever have a relationship as an equal. The memory brought a new wave of longing to her. It would be irresponsible to leave right after finding a group that actually treats you like a human being. It can wait a decade. Train some Solars, get things straightened out, then go see him, she told herself. Having a conscience was really a new experience. Her instincts were still telling her to work out her frustrations on a peasant and then dispose of them when they wouldn’t be missed.

I’ve got to do something to work out these jitters. Damn Games of Divinity. Something that doesn’t end up with someone dead. She thought of basking in the warm sun above Mahalanka and grinned. She shifted into a jaguar and headed back towards the Villa, superhuman hearing leading the way to her crackling target.

Later that evening… all the visiting Exalts were tucked up in bed – or in Raksi’s case, shifted to jaguar and sprawling in front of a hearth – Pyrrhus escorted Akaris to her own dwelling, his swords back on his back but gauntlets tucked in his belt.

“Perhaps, Lady Akaris, just to be safe: would you set a few of your friends to guard our visitors’ doors? It would be a shame if they were to succumb to angry ghosts or the other horrors. I have already requested my acolytes be ready should the guests require anything before dawn.”

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Accounts of the Adamant Codex, 8
Chapter Two, Scene Five

The gleaming sleek shape of a monorail made out of pure orichalcum slid into view. Its monorail was forged out of pure essence in whatever path the train wished to take. It pulled up before them just outside the entrance of the Jade Pleasure Dome, and with a sigh and a hiss, the doors slid open. A righteous ghost stepped out of the train and beckoned for them to join him “May I introduce the Solar Monorail Chirmirajen, the personal transport of the Unconquered Sun? Please, step aboard."

The overwhelmed Solars were shepherded aboard by the ghost – recognizing the symptoms of Games shellshock – and moments later they were gliding along at impossible speeds past the now-dim wonders of the gods, heading towards the edge of Yushan.

All of Creation waited like a toy model before them, spread out as far as they could see. The train took a sickening tilt downward and plunged towards the model of Mount Meru. The Imperial Mountain, pillar and anchor of all Creation, rose before them. What had once been the holy symbol of the Scarlet Dynasty and all Dragonblood had been usurped by the Imperial Sun Solar Circle. One of them needed the Codex… but what would they ask for in return? Willow hadn’t understood all of the contents of the Codex, but what she had said about it made it sound like it could be traded for a kingdom, if not several.

The buzz of the Games faded, humming gently in the background as the Meridian Solars regained their wits. There was just enough time to reflect on that first experience in Yu-Shan before the ruins of Old Meru began to loom before them. Where was the train going…?

Once, the Glorious Arch – gateway to Yu-Shan and places beyond – stood in the heart of the Ancient Academy in the city of Meru, dazzling travelers with the breadth of knowledge the first age Solars once possessed. The Academy was one of the better preserved ruins on the mountain, but unsuitable for defending against possibly hostile gate-walkers, and so, with a little Sorcery and a little Sidereal help, the Glorious Arch had been moved.

Now it stood at one end of half-completed Grand Plaza, whose jade inlays and incised whorled patterns held enough stored Sorcery to stop anything short of a Greater Elemental Dragon – theoretically. The Sorcery storing mechanisms were the first to be completed, and were yet a crude rendition of their final form (he was assured by the Earth elementals in charge of construction), but they should work.

Deus Ex had sent them a warning that something was intending on passing through their Gate, and so now Pyrrhus and as many of the rest of their Circle he could muster were waiting across the Plaza from it, arrayed in their most impressive panoply. He was seated on Sorin’s back, both himself and the fire-mane in gleaming red-jade armor. His swords hung ready but sheathed, in case what came through was not, actually, hostile.

And there was nothing.

No flicker of essence from the gate, no brightening light, no beings materializing from nothing. Hours passed, and some of the Circle began to drift away, assuming a false alarm. Sorin pawed at the paving stones impatiently and champed at his bit, tired of standing. Pyrrhus dismounted and sent him back to his stables, where his son and hired hands could help the stallion remove his armor and barding.

Pyr remained. “Deus Ex has never been wrong with a warning before,” he remarked. “Something else must be happening in Yu-Shan…”

A few minutes later Akaris stepped up to Pyrrhus with two of her closest elemental advisors in tow and greeted the Zenith with a short bow.

“There’s a subtle shift in the dragon lines leading here, friend. I only felt it moments ago.” The feeling was few and far between, but distinct enough that she had an event to attach it to. Someone or something was preparing to come through the gate.

“A’Sorak – Warden of the Gate,” Akaris called to the armored stone golem that stood in front of the Celestial Gate, “we will soon have guests!” She then took some sand from the ground and blew it in the direction of the gate, whispering the Mudra of the Unformed Man. On each side of the gate, stone figures rose from the ground, assuming an orderly row.

“Simply an extra precaution Pyrrhus,” she said, dusting her hands off. “I know you do well enough with our safety here. I’m still not convinced we can open welcoming arms every time someone comes through that gate.” Gods know we’ve had our troubles with heaven…

She pulled air around her which became a stole that rested upon her shoulders. The only thing left to do was wait, and judging by the swelling energies ahead it wouldn’t be long…

“No, our position here is still too tenuous to rely on fellow-feeling. I appreciate your Guardians’ presences – and yourself, of course.” Pyrrhus inclined his head to her respectfully. “And speaking of that… how goes work on the… hmm… Amphitheater of Felicitous Greeting? Is that the name that was finally decided on?”

He shifted his weight slightly, allowing his gaze to sweep the Plaza and the outlying ruins for movement or threats. The sky was just beginning to darken from its midday hues towards the brilliant warm colors of evening as the Daystar sank towards the West.

“I hope whoever’s coming does so quickly… Night is yet dangerous on these streets.”

The essence in the dragon lines began to swell but something was seriously wrong. The gate remained dormant. Akaris’s ears pricked back, there was something behind her. Out in the sky beyond Mount Meru a golden thread snaked towards them at alarming speed. The thread resolved into an essence monorail that looped just outside of the plaza behind them. Just outside the defensive circle.

Moments later a sleek orichalcum train swooped in. The screech of the brakes filled the air with an oddly cheery shrill, then the cars hissed to a stop and the doors opened. A fully armored ghost carrying an artifact blade stepped out of the first passenger car, bowed and gestured for the other occupants to step forward.

Zaela took the Righteous Ghost’s proffered hand but stopped at the threshold of the passenger car, staring out at the half-restored city beyond, momentarily overwhelmed again. A familiar feeling, lately…

Two main figures stood in stark relief, silhouetted by the setting sun and the glare of their own startled flare of anima. One held a pool of Essence in her open hand as one preparing to shape a Sorcery, with two hulking elementals flanking her protectively and a third dematerialized swirling about her shoulders. The other, clad impressively in a pristine set of First Age red jade scale armor, held two short daiklaves in a guard position, golden essence trickling up and down their razor edges.

“Oh…” Zaela breathed. The Ghost squeezed her hand gently and drew her down from the car, bending his armored head and whispering an encouragement as she passed. She stepped to the edge of the Plaza and straightened her back, arranged her heavenly new skirts, and sank into a obeisance a degree short of the one she had offered to Sol Invictus. She took a breath, trying to channel her previous incarnation’s self-assurance.

“Greetings are given to you, Lord and Lady of New Meru. I am Zaela, Queen of Adrelith on the Meridian Isle. The Unconquered Sun has sent me here to you.”

Caiden stepped off next after quickly gauging the reactions from Zaela’s introduction, and deemed it appropriate to step off and introduce himself. Iyanden followed suit, a mere fraction of his larger elemental dragon form, but much more suitable for diplomatic engagements.

“Solars of New Meru,” he started, walking forward. “as in days of old, I greet you under the Sign of Mercury.” His caste mark shone brightly on his forehead as he stopped just before where Zaela was and bowed shortly._ Surely they had encountered other Sidereals before, but protocol was best observed in case they met some of the lame bronzies first… Wait, was that even the protocol??_

“Anyhow, we bring gifts from Yu’Shan to help in the…recovery efforts…here, around here…yeah.” Oh gods, everyone was staring. Face reddening; sweat breaking out; dematerialize would be great right about now.

“Wait, we weren’t expecting anyone to be coming to through the Meru gate!” Judging by everyone’s reactions, this wasn’t the most effective introduction. Regardless, the blinding flash of light at the celestial gate behind the crowd diverted their attention. Not sure if we’ll document that as a failure or success. Although judging by Zaela’s expression…I think failure.

Akaris had a split second to make a decision. The conflicting introduction smelled more of incompetence, and she actually felt sorry for the Zenith before her. But the gate! The gate activating at this instant was no small matter!

“Seal the Gate!” She called among the escalating noise, knowing that there was no actual way to seal the gate, but the most strategic option they had arranged was encasing the gate in a sphere of water, allowing clear visibility of whatever came through. Freezing it would be just a matter of blinking an eye.

“We will deal with you lot after that gate!” She called to the group that arrived off the golden train.

The Imperial Sun group watched as a sphere of water engulfed the Celestial Gate. It was almost finished resolving…

Swift watched the gate open slowly. After spending so much time in Yu-Shan, he was sad to walk out, but the solars of New Meru needed the codex. The codex, yet another treasure he must part with. All that knowledge condensed into one book. This trip through Yu-Shan was by no means a loss, Swift thought as he looked down at the ornate robes and back at the flowing cape that adorned him._ Clothes befitting such an accomplished diplomat and Chosen of the Sun._ His mind drifted back to the “negotiations” with Veridian Mantle and a smirk pulled at his face as he thought of a way to tell Zaela about their new flagship’s figurehead. That smirk remained on his face as he stepped through the gate with a regal authority befitting an Eclipse, Child of the Unconquered Sun.

Everyone watched the Celestial Gate with bated breath. After what seemed like hours but what could only have been seconds, a silhouette entered the water. Swift paused for a moment after the gate closed. Perhaps he was in the wrong place, he held his breath as he calmly strode through the water. When his foot broke through the wall of water, he flared his anima banner. Familiar words coalesced behind him into a formidable, majestic silver lion. Water dripped from his elegant garb as he bowed and said “Greetings my friends, circle mates, and strangers.” He straightened up and rested his hand on the lion that had made it’s way next to him. “My name is Warrick Swift Colson, Chosen Eclipse of the Meridian Isle Solars… We have much to discuss!”

Pyrrhus sheathed his swords and relaxed from his stance, letting the held essence of his charms drain back into his anima. He touched Akaris’ arm briefly and said,_ sotto voce_, “None of these look like to attack us now with anything other than words. We shall be wary but… shall we be good hosts for the night?” He inclined his head to the few who had stepped from the train, which even now was closing its doors and beginning to steam away.

“Welcome, Meridian Isle Circle. Please, may we offer you refreshment? Perhaps… dry clothes? The hour grows late and the streets are still not safe after sunset.” He took a step back and turned to encompass both groups – Swift at the Gate and the group from the train – sweeping his arm and pointing the way down the path towards his own manse.

Thank the gods for Arcane Fate. I mean, not really, but at least everyone will forget his blunders in an hour.

Caiden rushed the smaller gods along as they carried various smaller troves of gifts for the New Meru Solars. A small cost from his salary, but triviality in heaven was luxury in Creation. He followed those headed towards the manse Pyrrhus gestured towards.

“Yes, I’ll see what I can do to rectify the situation.” she said quietly to Pyrrhus.

Glad I don’t have to add “accidentally froze friendly Solar in ice” to my list of diplomatic mistakes. However, I am adding “magical golden train” to my list of things to watch out for here…

“Serelle,” she whispered to her air elemental advisor nearby, “make sure our guest’s clothes are dry upon reaching the manse.” It would only appear as a strong breeze, but it would save some time.

Akaris waited for Pyrrhus to move towards the manse before joining him.

After everyone else had departed, Granny Starbuck shuffled off the train quietly, giving a nod to the kind dead gentleman on the way out. She toddled into her bakery and disappeared from view…

Pyrrhus was leading everyone to his manse when he turned around to check their progress – no stragglers allowed, not when his Circle was still on knife’s edge about their own problems — and noticed Lady Starbuck (he never referred to her as “Granny” like some others, disliking the informal address) coming out of her building with a tray of steaming pastries. When had she gotten back? Pyrrhus frowned briefly, making a mental note to chat more often. The last time they’d spoken he had said she needed to take care of a few things and apologized that she wouldn’t be around. Come to think of it, she usually disappears just before a conflict… and then things always work out.

Pyrrhus turned back to continue to the Manse when a thought stuck in his head. An image of Lady Starbuck shuffling between buildings was overlaid with depictions he’d seen of the Northern Bull as a muscular, white haired warrior in his prime. Bull of the North was on the verge of dying of old age when he had been blessed with Solar Exaltation, restored to perfect health. Underestimation is the perfect disguise, he thought with admiration, remembering her at Calibration, years ago:

The woman with silver hair and granny dress came through the gate in a starburst. For a moment Yu-shan and Meru lay against each other once more.

Pyrrhus started at her sudden appearance, then smiled and bowed. “Lady, it is an unexpected pleasure to see you again. Welcome to the company,” he said, inclining his chin to the shining gold circles of her Caste mark. “I think perhaps I underestimated you, previously.”

“Oh, most people do. That’s intentional. No offense taken…,” she said as she placed her hand on the next gate…

Lady Starbuck had survived longer than any of them… Pyrrhus flashed back to defending the Jade Prison, full of Solar shards, from that necrotech behemoth. When the Solars were again released on the world, Starbuck was already well established. His Circle predated all other Solars as far as he knew. And yet, there was Lady Starbuck. How is that possible? Pyrrhus shrugged. There were always more things to learn.

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