“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.”