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.”