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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.