This story is set in the Exalted© role-playing universe,
as published by White Wolf™ Publishing, Inc.
Exalted and Age of Sorrows are trademarks of
White Wolf Publishing, Inc.
Do not believe what THEY tell you.
History and Science are nothing but candy-coated lies of fearful old men who would make the world into a stark prison to protect us- or maybe themselves?- from the threat of freedom. THEY would tell you that the universe is a sterile void, and their truth and their law are the only truth and the only law.
Open your mind, and remember.
THEY would teach you that the time before now was a time of brutal chaos and bestial savagery, and that THEY saved us all from that, and taught us civilization.
It was an Era of legend, when heroes walked the face of Creation, and were as unto Gods.
It was an Era before the World was broken to THEIR will.
It was an Era before the magic was lessened, a time before the spirits of men were bent to the yoke.
This is a story of that Era.
This is a story of the Exalted.
“Rennar, you can call this off right now, and we can just stay on the boat until Threebridge,” Esrak said from where he was seated cross-legged on the sidelines, fanning his broad, rugged face with the referee’s fan.
“No, no, old man!” Isegris chuckled as he adjusted the fit of his red silk robe over his wiry frame, “You dishonor the squire! He accepted the challenge like a man, and he’ll accept what’s coming to him like a man!” Isegris punctuated this with a chopping stroke of the wooden blade. But then, subtlety has never been a hallmark of the Fire Dragon.
I never asked to be a sidekick. The Dragons know, *I* didn’t have any intention of becoming my cousin Adlynn’s keeper when we were both at school. But, when our times came, Adlynn exalted, manifesting the aspect of Mela the Air Dragon, and I didn’t. And Daana’d knows, I did everything that I could to exalt. So, Adlynn became a true Dragonblood. And me? Well, I’m family, but I failed to exalt. Which means that I pretty much have to fetch and carry for the ‘spiritually exalted’ Knights of the Dragonblood, which includes cousin Adlynn.
Still, Adlynn’s not a bad sort, all things considered. She’s got guts and a good heart. No common sense that I’ve ever been able to find, but a good heart and lots of guts. So, it falls to me to follow Adlynn around on her wander-year, covering her back and basically making sure that she comes out alive of the scrapes that she keeps jumping into without looking first. So far, I’ve managed to do that and keep us both alive. But all that means, is that Adlynn’s come to rely on me dragging her backside out of her latest debacle as a matter of course.
Esrak folded the fan and tapped it three times briskly. “Standard practice bout rules. To the first three touches, or when one party is rendered hors de combat.” When we were both ready, he snapped, “Begin!”
Still, as blithely unaware as Adlynn is, she’s never shoved my nose in my failure to exalt. The same cannot be said for the rest of the ‘Knights Errant’, most especially Isegris. Mordrese Isegris was one of the ‘Knights Errant’ who was travelling around the Threshold with Adlynn and me. It hadn’t started out that way, of course. At first, Adlynn wanted to go on wander-year by herself, the lone Dynast going forth and doing good, and all that cheap romance. But her mother, my Aunt Shallis, asked me to go along with her to make sure that she didn’t do anything outrageously stupid. Besides, even when a woman is a Dragon of the Realm, it’s good form for there to be a man (that would be me) around to ‘protect her honor’. Since I’d been more or less doing that all through school and Academy and the Cloister - not to mention the fact that there was no way that my own family was going to pay to let ME gad about the Frontiers - I accepted. Well, then her brother Randrel decided to come along, and caught up with us at Chiaroscuro. And if Randrel was there, then you just know that his best friend Mykiros was there as well. I’m still not exactly sure as to how Isegris and his brick-headed brother Nog managed to attach themselves to our party in Great Forks, but they’re Dragonbloods and I’m not, so I didn’t have a lot of say in the matter. We picked up Ba’Selig Esrak, a veteran Dragonblood and our group’s token Outcaste, a few kingdoms ago. And I’ve regretted every single addition.
Back when I was expecting to Exalt, I always figured that I’d manifest the Aspect of Daana’d, the Great Water Dragon. So, it followed that I’d study the Order’s Water Dragon style. The Water Dragon style flows around an opponent’s defenses, and hits like a crashing wave. Isegris manifested the aspect of Heshieh, the Great Fire Dragon. And, as any fool knows, Water beats Fire every time. Wondrous is the way of the Elemental Dragons in how these things turn out, no? Instead of beating his sword back, as most parries do, I beat his sword forward, so that it went ahead of where I was. The Fire Dragon style expects conflict and resistance, not to have its own force turned against it. I managed to get Isegris off-balance enough that I was able to swing my blade up under his guard and score off of his hip.
Not that I particularly dislike Esrak. It’s just that he’s sort of set himself up as the ‘elder statesman’ of the group, which means, if anything, my opinion just counts for less and less. When it was just Adlynn and me, I was a serious part of the decision-making process. She’d still storm off without thinking about it, but I could at least put a good word in her ear, which would give her a vague idea of what was going on. And if she didn’t listen, I could usually figure out a way of getting her out of whatever scrape she’d gotten herself into. Even with Randrel and Mykiros, my opinions mattered. But with Isegris and Nog along, I was relegated to shield-carrier. For the entire group. And Esrak just put the nail in the coffin.
Bop, my trained mospid gave a loud squeak to cheer me on from Adlynn’s arm. “Good one!” Adlynn agreed. But then, of this crowd, Adlynn always was the one who was on my side. I think that that makes Isegris hate me even more.
Now, every time that I speak up, Isegris feels obligated to put me in my place. Not that it’s ever phrased that way. No, this time, it’s a ‘wager’, over whether we’ll visit the Great Tower of Keldon, or the riverside resort town that Isegris had his heart set on. I pointed out that it was just another resort. Isegris shot back that the Great Tower of Keldon was just another tall building, and we had that, back on the Blessed Isle. I pointed out that it wasn’t just a tall building, it was an entire monolithic city, a relic of the Old Realm. The sky scraping towers back home were stuff that the Dynasty put up, just to prove that they still could, but they weren’t anything like the things that the Old Realm had.
And Isegris snapped something about ‘squires’ minding their place. Like he was paying for any of this. I returned with a comment about being stunned to learn that this had been a secret mission for the All-Seeing Eye, all along. Isegris retaliated that my comment only demonstrated exactly how unenlightened I was. I cheerily parried that by asking if I was right, it WAS a secret mission for the Eye?
Of course, I’ve pulled that trick on Isegris before, and on the next bout, Isegris nailed me with a blow that would have broken my collarbone, if not for the practice armor. He got me again during the next bout, and was boasting that he could just about taste the jinjin brandy already. The fourth bout took a lot longer. I had his tempo now. I had a good idea of what he was going to do, just by the way that he was squared on his feet. Not that I let him see that. He thought that I was just barely slipping away from his blows.
Mykiros got between us, and dragged the conversation back to the topic of what our destination was going to be. Isegris stuck peevishly to his insistence on the resort. Really! How can such a theoretically ‘spiritually advanced’ person like Isegris be so childish? We weren’t even near Keldon yet; we were still two days down-river by river barge. We could set off in two days, be at Keldon, and actually see something worth talking about when we got back home. The wine, gambling and wenches would still be at Threebridge when we were done. Then Isegris gave me that nasty grin which I’m all too familiar with. “Why don’t we make it a sporting proposition?”
The bout went on until I heard Isegris give a ragged breath. I fell to one knee, breathing hard. Isegris gave a chortle of vicious triumph, and raised his sword to finish me off. As soon as his daiklave was above his head, I jabbed forward with my own sword, and delivered a perfect heart-killing thrust. “Touch!” shouted Esrak.
Which is how I got stuck on the aft deck of a river barge, hefting a wooden daiklave at a minor demigod. Isegris’ ‘sporting proposition’ was a ‘practice bout’ of swordplay. I think that Isegris wants to ‘put me in my place’ again, my place apparently being below-decks with a concussion. Still it is practice bout rules with wooden swords, padding, and Esrak acting as referee, so there might actually be a chance that we’ll see Keldon. Or, at least, that Isegris won’t cave my skull in, wooden sword or no.
“What?” sputtered Isegris, “But he surrendered!”
“In a practice bout, you surrender by presenting your weapon,” Esrak pointed out. “The hit is valid. Two hits all.”
He gave us a moment to get our breaths back. Then he tapped his fan three times and barked, “Begin!”
We circled each other for a moment, and then, unable to restrain himself anymore, Isegris charged. Now, on the surface, it may seem that I’ve let myself get talked into a no-win situation. Isegris is a Dragonblood; he’s stronger, faster, tougher, and more durable than I am. And, he’s supposed to have some superior understanding of Creation that I, poor drooling mortal, am not privy to. Well, far be it from me question the precepts of the Immaculate Faith, but if Isegris is enlightened, then I’m the Scarlet Empress. I’ve known Isegris since school, and to be honest, he was the last one of our schoolmates that I thought would Exalt. Well, second to last. Right after his mutton-headed brother, Nog. No, whatever insight Isegris might have, he’s wasting it.
Again, I had Isegris’ tempo, and this time I let him know it. I didn’t even bother swinging my sword at him. I just let him swing ineffectively at me, effortlessly slipping just out of the reach of his wooden blade. Then, when he was angry enough and far enough off his mark, I started on a sequence of blows that pushed him further and further off balance. Isegris finally saw what was happening, and just as I was entering the endgame of the sequence, he gave out a yell and erupted into flames.
Now, *I*, on the other hand, have made the most of every opportunity that I’ve ever had. Even after it became clear that I wasn’t going to Exalt. Daana’d’s Briny Breath, especially when it became clear that I wasn’t going to Exalt. And of the many things that I’ve studied as not to be left in the dust by my Exalted kith and kin, was the fighting style of one Mordrese Isegris. Isegris follows, quite naturally, the Immaculate Order’s Fire Dragon style. The Fire Dragon style can be described as ‘strident’, with emphasis on strong strikes and minimal dodges. Isegris is going to try and keep on me, pushing and pushing, trusting to his superior endurance to keep him going after I’ve been worn out. And then he’ll brain me.
“Isegris!” Esrak snapped, “Standard Practice Rules! No use of Exalted Charms!”
Isegris wasn’t listening. He started battering away furiously at my sword, even as both of them blazed away. He shattered my wooden sword and sent me sprawling. Once again, he stood over me, this time glaring in rage, his sword over his head.
Adlynn’s chakrams came zipping through the air and sliced Isegris’ sword into bits, even as it started its descent. Isegris screamed foul, but Esrak stood firm. “It was Standard Practice Rules. A practice bout is supposed to be about skill, not the power of your Essence.”
“But I BEAT him!”
“You won,” Mykiros said calmly, “because you used a Battle Charm. Using a battle charm in a practice bout means that you default. You admit that your opponent’s skill is greater than yours, and you have to resort to charms to win.”
“The bout goes to Rennar,” Esrak agreed.
“But she interfered!” Isegris screamed.
“You had already defaulted by that time.” Randrel pointed out. “This way, we’re not stuck in some backwater as Ren heals up, just because YOU lost your temper.”
Isegris was about to lose his temper even more, when a strident clanging, which could be heard the length and breadth of the riverboat, sounded. “PIRATES!” Somebody shouted, “Two hands off the port bow!”
Our quarrel forgotten, we all rushed forward to the flatboat’s prow. Five lateen-sailed longboats were coming straight at us from up-river. A nervous woman asked, “How do they know that they’re pirates? They could-”
“Five longboats with blank sails, no flags, and shield-roofs?” Esrak said gruffly, his long face grim. “Trust the river-dogs to know their fleas, ma’am.” Then he turned to us. “Playtime’s over, children! Break out the weapons!”
Then we ran to our rooms and got into our armor. One of the few graces that Esrak provides me is that now when we take rooms, he shares a room with me. Before, I had to share a room with Isegris and Nog’s manservant, Chos, further relegating me to servant status. First I helped Esrak into his lamellar hauberk, as I was already in practice armor. I reached for my daiklave, but Esrak said, “No! There’s no room on this tub to swing a daiklave! Use your claws!” He himself was fixing the straps on his green jade-metal Smashfist fighting gauntlets.
Seeing the wisdom of this, but also knowing that there were open areas on the boat where a weapon with reach would be useful, I wrapped my fighting chain around one shoulder, and pulled on my tiger claws.
We were almost out the door, when the entire boat shuddered. “What was THAT?” I gasped.
“My guess is that they’ve stopped the ship’s wheel,” Esrak grunted. The riverboat was propelled against the river’s current by a huge paddlewheel on the stern. A pair of oxen on a treadwheel powered the paddlewheel through a complicated system of cables and pulleys. “Until we get that wheel moving again, we’re not going anywhere.”
When we got out on the deck again, Isegris and Nog were struggling to help each other into their reinforced breastplates. “Oh, this is simply typical!” Isegris snarled, “A pack of grubby river rats attack, right after I wear myself out keeping the help in line!”
“We’re still going to Keldon,” I said smugly, and Bop whistled in merry agreement. Then Esrak and I charged down the gangway to where several of said grubby river rats had clambered up onto the deck, as Chos stepped in to get Isegris properly strapped into his breastplate.
Adlynn had already charged into the middle of the pirates, who had climbed up ropes onto the aft deck. The story of my life- Adlynn jumps in head first, and I have to jump in after her to keep her from drowning. She was whirling around with her daiklave as best she could in the cramped bales of cargo, but the pirates were obviously more experienced at this sort of fighting than Adlynn was. They used the bales and crates to their best advantage, while she was flailing about.
One of them managed to vault over one of the crates, and get behind her. I managed to catch his cutlass with my chain, and pull him off his feet. Esrak plowed right past him, and started cracking heads. “Hey!” Adlynn yelped, “Go find your own party!”
“Adlynn!” I shouted, “They’ve stopped the wheel! Find out what they did, before it snaps the drive ropes!”
Adlynn may have more wind blowing between her ears than in her soul, but knows me well enough to know when I have a good idea. She manifested her Air elemental aspect, wrapping herself in wind. When she’s wrapped up in her wind like that, she can’t quite fly, but she can run, skip and jump so that a mountain goat would die of envy. She hopped to the top of the highest crate, taking a pirate’s head off as she did.
She looked around, and saw something off the port side of the boat. She pulled out her chakram, and focused. Then she let fly, and the chakram flew alongside the railing of the boat, rebounded against the iron gate on the loading dock, and returned to her hand, like a dog playing fetch. Four grappling hooks dropped, and there was the sound of splashing and cursing in the river.
Adlynn skipped over to the paddlewheel, and called out, “They set an iron grappling hook into the wheel! The tension of the wheel has it stuck in there!”
“Well then, get it OUT, idiot!” Randrel shouted from where he was coping with a group of pirates of his own.
“Oh, why didn’t *I* think of that?” Adlynn shot back at her brother, “I SAID, the tension of the wheel is keeping the hook in place!”
“I’ll tell the captain!” Mykiros said, “They must get things stuck in that wheel like that all the time! They should have a way of relieving the tension! Nog! Go help Adlynn!”
It was a good idea. The problem with it was that if the pirates could stop the wheel once, they could do it again. I used my fighting chain to swing up to the next deck up, and from there, I climbed up onto the roof of the riverboat. This wasn’t a very good idea - people up on a roof are easy targets for archers.
On the other hand, it also makes it easier to get to the loading boom. I gave a running start and jumped, grabbing the boom, digging into the wood with my tiger claws and twisting it over the water. I gathered up enough rope, and then used it to lower the cargo hook down to just above water level. At first, I just used it to discourage the pirates on the third longboat from getting any closer to the river barge. But, that was just to get the hang of handling the hook. When I figured out how to do it, I set the hook into the wood and jumped. The river barge is a large, stable flat bottom boat, half as wide as it is long; it’s nice and stable in the water. The longboats, on the other hand, were long, lean and fast, little more than canoes with delusions of grandeur. The hook hauled one side up out of the water, capsizing the longboat, and sending the men in it into the water. Water with a reputation for having very hungry eels.
The barge shuddered, the paddlewheel lost its tension, and Nog managed to force the wheel back. This freed up the grappling hook and chain that the pirates had shot up into the wheel to stop the ship. Adlynn pulled the hook out and someone clanged a bell. This just may have been the signal to whip the oxen, because the wheel started up again, catching Nog by surprise. He’d had to squat with his back to the paddlewheel’s frame and force the wheel back with his legs. Now, he was pulled along with the wheel and was carried down into the water with the paddle that he was clinging to for dear life. He hung onto the paddle and let it carry him under and then lift him up again. When the paddle hit its crest, he tried to leap up and grab the overhead frame, but missed it. Nog found himself running for all that he was worth backwards on the spinning paddle blades.
I’m sure that Adlynn would have come to Nog’s rescue, but the second that the grappling hook was free, she put it to her own use. She swung the chain, set the hook into the loading boom, and used the chain to swing to the longboat that had launched it.
As soon as she started swinging, I shouted, “Adlynn! No!” But did she listen? Does she EVER listen? No! No, she leapt from the chain into a graceful dive, unfurled her war fans, spread them out for a ‘magnificent mospid swooping down on her prey’ effect, with her long blonde hair streaming behind her. Yes, Adlynn really does think like that. Yes, I’ve had to put up with that for most of my life. She landed in the middle of yet another knot of pirates and started swinging.
Now, I fear my Aunt Shallis far more than I do any thousand pirates, as any sane person would, and Aunt Shallis would be very displeased if Adlynn got hurt. So, I swung the hook over to the mast that I was clinging to and used it to swing over to the pirate boat. Yet again, Adlynn dives in face first, and yet again, I dive in to cover her back.
I landed on the back of a pirate who was about to plant a cargo hook in the back of Adlynn’s head. Not being fool enough to trade blows with these bilge-waders, I settled for grabbing them and throwing them over the side for the eels. From the screams, I presume that the eels were grateful. It was going along nicely, until the other pirates started to get ideas. “Rennar!” Adlynn barked, “We have company!”
One of the other longboats pulled alongside. “Isn’t that always the way it is?” I asked as I disarmed one of the rabble. “You pay for the food and drink, and then the neighbors want to crash the party! Adlynn, would you be a dear, and tell them that it’s an invitation-only affair?”
“I’m afraid that the neighbors have other ideas!” The pirates had wrapped chain around the railings of the boats, binding them together for greater stability as they boarded.
“Why, a visiting gift!” I cried, as I disarmed the lout with the great axe, “Perfect! Just what this party needs!” I hefted the axe, and started chopping at the boards of the boat.
“What are you doing?” gasped one pirate in horror.
“Winning.” A few more hearty strokes and the longboat was taking on water. “Well, it’s been a lovely party, but I’m afraid we must be going. Adlynn, do you remember where you left your cloak?”
The sinking longboat took its chained partner with it under the water. As Adlynn hopped over the water on the tops of the heads and backs of pirates in the water, I hauled myself up on the chain that I’d swung in on. Even so, the chain dipped, and I had to tell the river eel that was chewing on my boot, that no, I didn’t want another pet.
As I hauled myself up the chain, I could see that Isegris was in one of the longboats alongside the riverboat using his daiklave for all that he was worth. From the way that his Fire aura was going, I rather doubt that that longboat would be taken as a prize. I started to shout to the poor fool to turn off his aura, and climb up one of the ropes to the riverboat, before he set it on fire. Then again, I’d vastly prefer Isegris as a dead hero than a live nuisance, so I kept my peace. It’s not like he’d thank me, anyway.
When I’d shinnied back up the chain to the loading boom, I could see that Nog had managed to get off that fool paddlewheel. I could also see that one of the pirate boats was unfurling its square sail and was getting ready to leave its fellows to the eels. Really, such a lack of fellow feeling! I called down, “NOG! The Spar! Turn the Spar!”
Now, Nog isn’t the brightest candle on the table, but if there’s anything that he’s good at, it’s following orders. He put his prodigious back into turning the loading mast, and I started fishing for pirates again. But this time, the pirates had caught on to my game, and they batted the hook away when I tried to catch their railing. Really, I ask you! Is that sporting? So, I managed to catch the hook onto the forward mast. Which would only hold them for so long.
I slid down the mast and said to Nog, “Turn!”
“I already did!”
“Turn it THAT way!”
“But it will…”
“Exactly!” Putting both of our backs into it, we turned the loading boom, and swung the longboat around to the rear of the ship. Where it ran into the blades of the paddlewheel, which took little time in tearing the longboat to splinters.
Down on the last of the pirate boats, Isegris had caught on that he’d set the boat on fire. He did an Essence-enhanced leap from the longboat to the deck of the river barge. Then he amused himself by kicking those pirates who were clambering for dear life up the ropes from the burning boat back into the water.
Esrak and Mykiros had those pirates who had gotten on board gathered together in a battered mob. “Well!” Isegris said brightly. “That was a fine bit of sport!” He looked eagerly at the prisoners. “Well, what shall we do with these delicate fair flowers? Over the side, or maybe a little target practice?”
“Isegris,” Mykiros said wearily, “technically they’re the captain’s prisoners. No doubt, he’ll sell them as slaves in the next port we pull into. He’s an honest man, and he has his profits to think of.”
“Well then,” Isegris sighed, “no joy until we pull into Threebridge. What a bore.”
“Threebridge?” I asked, “We’re getting off at Kelfaris, on our way to Keldon.”
“Keldon?” Isegris asked with a whine, “WHY would we want to see Keldon? In Threebridge, there’s wine, women, and gambling!”
“Well, Isegris, there’s really no reason why you have to,” Adlynn said sweetly. “You can stay on the boat when Ren and I get off at Kelfaris, and you and Nog can go on to Threebridge. And, of course, Randrel, Mykiros, and Esrak can go with us or with you, as they please.” As if Isegris would. He and Nog were pretty much tapped out for money when we ran into them in Great Forks. As a matter of fact, the funding for most of our expenses came from Adlynn and Randrel’s wanderjahr fund. And Adlynn was the one who could reach Home and put the touch on the family for more money, so I doubt that Randrel was going to pitch a fit about this. Besides, Randrel was going to have to answer to Aunt Shallis when HE finally goes home as well, so I doubt that he’s going to vote for carousing over culture, at least when it was on the official record.
“Well, Isegris, tell me that we could see THAT, back in Juche!” The Great Tower of Keldon is a legitimate wonder of the Old Realm, and there was nothing like it in Juche, or even the Imperial City. The Great Tower loomed over the rest of Keldon like a white Titan Oak over a field of grass. The tower had twelve sides, but the most dramatic things about it were the balconies. There were twelve general levels, and at each level, six balconies stuck out like petals from a gigantic daisy. Well, the balconies, or pods, or whatever you called them were much sturdier than a daisy petal, but that was sort of the basic idea. The balconies themselves were more shaped like the bowls of giant spoons, with the tips pointing outwards. Inside the ‘bowls’ of the ‘spoons’ were crescent multi-story courtyards with pools in the centers. Water was pumped to the very top of the tower, and fell down in falls to the pools in the center of the courtyards, and it then fell through sluices to fall from the sides of the balcony. The ‘daisies’ were offset, so that the water falling from the sets above fell in the pools of the sets below it, and so on until the bottom. At the very top of the tower was a huge gilded onion dome, with a wide platform ringing the base of the dome.
“That can’t be right,” Randrel said. “Those things sticking out can’t have enough support to stay up. It should have fallen apart years ago!”
“Centuries ago,” I said, warming to my role as the only one in the group who actually bothered to study back at the Cloister of Wisdom. “The Great Tower was built in the latter part of the Old Realm, allegedly by an Anathema known as the Mirror of Severe Reflection. It was supposedly built in a year and a day by a combined force of demons and elementals forced into labor.”
“Sounds about right,” Isegris grumped. “The elementals have their own jobs to do keeping Creation running, but did the Anathema care? No! They just snapped their fingers, and dragged the elementals away to do something stupid like this, and let the rest of Creation run completely amok!”
“Actually, according to Mnemon Arthlin’s Survey of the Old Realm, the Great Tower is supposed to be some sort of bulwark against the Fair Folk. I guess that the reason those ‘petals’ stay on their stalk is that the Tower draws Essence from the area, to keep them up.”
“See what I mean?” Isegris said in a voice of total vindication, “No sense of the proper way that things are done.”
“I wouldn’t go saying that TOO loudly, Isegris,” I grinned, “Mnemon herself used both demons and elementals to build her latest tower on the Blessed Isle, and she used many of the very same principles to construct it.”
“Well, that’s different,” Isegris said mulishly. “She’s Mnemon. She’s a daughter of the Scarlet Empress herself, and the Eldest of the Imperial bloodline - save the Empress herself - and the head of one of the Great Houses. She’s entitled.”
“Oh? How is it different?”
“How? She’s a Child of the Great Elemental Dragons!” As if that settled anything. “This ‘Mirror of Insipid Vanity’ of yours was just some filthy Anathema.”
Yes, they were Anathema before the Immaculate Faith, and those ancient demi-god rulers that the Dragonblooded had put down were evil. But they built wonders such as our greatest triumphs are mere shadows of. And to look upon their works is to feel a sense of lost grandeur.
As we rode towards the tower, we became more aware of the town that surrounded it. The rest of Keldon was far more the norm for this part of the East: two- to three- story brick, fieldstone, and wood-frame buildings with steep gabled roofs, arranged in boxes around a central courtyard, with a single gate opening to the street. The streets were thankfully free of sewage, but they were lit by candled lanterns, not by flame-less lights, as towns of the Blessed Isle were. But still… “There’s something wrong.”
“What are you moaning about now?” Isegris asked in a martyred tone.
“There’s something about this street that doesn’t seem right.”
“What do you mean?” Adlynn asked. “It’s leading us straight to the tower.”
“Yes, and that’s wrong! A street that leads to a major installation like this shouldn’t be straight when it’s between a river and a mountain! There should have been a fountain, or a statue, or at the very least an obelisk at the end to this street and there should be a line of trees to keep the Essence from slipping down the street from the tower to the river. Or, better yet, it should part and bend to form an oval ‘island’ with a fountain in it, about halfway between the tower and the river.”
“Heshieh’s Bituminous Breath, he’s talking about a geomancy problem.” Isegris moaned.
“Isegris, the only thing keeping that tower UP is that it was built to use Essence to keep it up! If they weaken the flow of Essence like this-”
“Then it’s their problem, and none of ours,” Randrel cut in pragmatically.
“THIS is what I’m talking about!” I snapped. “LOOK at that!” I gestured at the Tower. “During the Shogunate, we could put up things like that! But now we don’t! Why? Because nobody stops and thinks about the rest of the world anymore! Here we have a wonder, a marvel, something that this entire city benefits from, and look!” I gestured at one of the obelisks that helped to direct Essence into proper channels for the Tower. It had been defaced, and some vandal had chiseled out the orichalcum letters that had once been inset there. “If they keep befouling the flows of Essence, the Tower won’t be able to keep standing, and fall! Not only will hundreds, if not thousands of people die, but the Tower is the city’s main source of clean water! This city will just up and DIE, just because people want to take a short-cut to the Tower.”
“It’s sad,” Mykiros agreed, “but what can we do? The city no doubt has laws regarding how the streets are to be laid out. It’s not our fault if the Keldonar don’t bother to uphold their own laws.”
“Things like this would never be allowed in the Realm Proper,” Isegris sniffed disdainfully.
I shut my mouth and let out a silent breath of exasperation. As if the people of the Blessed Isle were any better. As long as the problem wasn’t opening a festering cyst on THEIR cheeks, where all the world could see it, they’d just close their eyes and ignore it. Even in the Imperial City, there were great townhouses built where the geomancy demanded a fountain or great obelisk should be. All it took was a quiet pouch of jade in the proper hands. Even as it was in Keldon.
As we crossed the bridge spanning the moat that surrounded the five-story building that completely encircled the tower, I noticed something interesting. The bridge wasn’t quite a drawbridge. It was designed to pull back into a recessed slot in the building. I wondered if they knew how to activate that feature, and if so, when was the last time they checked to see if it were still functioning properly. On the other side of the tunnel, the building opened up into a large park that surrounded the Tower proper. Off to either side of the wide mall that we were in, there were two large - well, you couldn’t call them pools, more like artificial lakes - that were fed by the waterfalls.
As we did the tourist things, Chos made sure of our horses and luggage, and secured our quarters. The rooms that Chos arranged were a suite in one of the balconies on the second level. The second level was over a hundred cubits up, which would have been a hard trip up the stairs, after riding all the way from Kelfaris. But the architects had come up with a minor wonder to solve that, as they seemed to do all the time, in the Old Realm. The spiral staircase up to the next level moved all by itself, carrying all upwards and forwards.
“Stupid idea,” Isegris grumped again, as he sat on the silently escalating stair. “How are we supposed to get down again? Slide down a pole?”
“Over there, idiot.” Randrel pointed at the far side of the atrium, where there was another curving staircase, with figures flowing downward.
“Remarkable,” I commented. “I wonder if they have technicians who know how to fix this, or if it just never breaks down?”
“Ask them,” Isegris offered lightly. “Maybe one of them will take you on as an apprentice, and you’ll have finally found your niche. Yes, I definitely see a life of menial labor in your future, Rennar.”
Bop squeaked angrily at Isegris for that, but I waved the snipe aside. “And yet,” I said lightly to Adlynn, “he’s always the one who complains the loudest when something breaks down and he can’t benefit from it anymore. Still,” I mused, “if they DO know how Old Realm Perpetual Maintenance systems work, that WOULD be something valuable to take back home. Might be a feather in my cap, if I could get the locks on the Old Juche Canal working again.”
Mykiros nodded. “And if House Sarthos didn’t know that we knew how to fix them, then they might be persuaded to part with the locks and the land around them for a decent price. Rennar, do you really think that the locks at Juche and these stairs work on the same principle?”
I shrugged as cavalierly as I could. “Who knows? Even if they aren’t, it might prove instructive.”
“How utterly, utterly, utterly boring and useless,” Isegris moaned.
“That’s what you said, when Ren insisted on tracking down the only man in Allusyoan who knew how those hydraulic pumps worked,” Adlynn pointed out. “And Ren used that to save our lives, down in that tomb we were exploring.”
Isegris sneered. “So the mayfly carried his weight for once. So what?”
Randrel sniped that Isegris might actually get an education from this Grand Tour, despite himself, and it proceeded on in that vein until we got to our rooms. The ‘balconies’ were apparently referred to as ‘bowers’, and the bower that acted as a hospice was known as the Bower of Resplendent Azure Welcome. The suite was nicely done in shades of dark and pale blues, with elaborately carved wooden furniture, and a river motif in pale blue glass, which really amused Bop as she wove in and around the carvings, looking for mice.
I spent the next day tracking down the Tower’s maintenance technicians. Adlynn, Randrel and Mykiros did the more usual tourist things. And Isegris and Nog had a gift for finding the lowest, sleaziest dive in any given municipality, so they were busy for most of the day. I’m not sure what Esrak did. When I got back to the suite, Adlynn was bubbling with excitement. “We’ve been invited to a party tonight!”
“A party? Well, someone made friends quickly,” I said as suavely as I could.
“Apparently, some of the passengers on the river barge were related to the local nobles,” Randrel explained. “It seems that we’re to be feted as heroes for our efforts with the pirates.”
“At least we’re going to get something,” Isegris growled, “since someone sent those pirate longboats to the bottom of the river, we can't claim and sell them."
“Oh?” I parried, “You mean you couldn’t find anyone to buy that burned out hulk that YOU brought in?”
“Lady Vel’Parres came by and delivered the invitations personally!” Adlynn said, blithely ignoring Isegris and me. “Now I finally have a reason to wear that white dreamsilk gown!” In Deornel, we’d taken out an isolated band of Fair Folk who were ravaging the locals, and Adlynn had managed to wrangle an entire bolt of white dreamsilk as part of the reparations. She’d had an admittedly quite fetching gown made out of it, but Randrel, Mykiros and I weren’t quite happy about her wearing something made by the Fae. They don’t take kindly to losing, and weaving some sort of curse into the very fabric of something that was supposed to be spun from the very stuff of dreams is just the sort of petty vengeance that they’d take. Of course, telling Adlynn that only makes her want to wear the fool thing even more.
Well, Daana’d knows, as Dynasts, we have a responsibility to do what’s best for the Realm, especially when we’re out here in the Threshold. And none of us have ever turned down free food and drink, for that matter.
So, we all dragged out our best high-fete outfits. Adlynn wore a pale blue over-robe embroidered with dragons dancing among clouds with her new white dreamsilk gown. It suited her large blue eyes and pale blonde hair. The others were also appropriately dressed for their Aspect: Randrel and Esrak in shades of green and brown for Wood, Mykiros in black and blue-green for Water, Nog in gray and brown for Earth, and Isegris red and umber for Fire. And me? Well, I may not be an exalted Dragonblood, but I am a Patrician of the Realm, so I had to do right by the family. I wore a royal blue tunic and trousers with a crimson cloak and sash, the cloak pinned with a golden clasp in the form of the family crest. Bop, of course, wore her feathers with pride.
I knew that I’d hit exactly the proper balance with my outfit; Isegris had no cause for caustic comment about either presuming airs above my station, or for embarrassing the Realm. Not that that stopped him. He was trying to stir something up as we started out for the party, which was up on the ‘piazza’ way at the top, just under the bulb. We walked up to the stairwell. “What’s this? Why aren’t the steps on this thing moving?”
“Well, from what I heard from the technicians, only the stairs up from the first level move that way.” I explained.
“How do they expect us to climb all these stairs?” Mykiros asked plaintively.
“Well, they manage somehow.” Isegris said sturdily. “Now, please, how hard could it be? We’re Dragons of the Realm, after all.”
Randrel looked up the stairs. “I’ll bet that it’s one of those Old Realm features. Maybe when we start climbing, we’re carried up by winds, or the weight decreases or some such.”
We all collected ourselves and started climbing the stairs. I counted out the stairs. At exactly 100, I stopped, breathed hard, and sat down to rest. “What’s the matter, Rennar?” Isegris needled, fighting to keep his breath under control, “Can’t keep up?”
I told them to go on, that I’d catch up later. As soon as they were well out of sight, I went back down to the first level lobby. You see, not being a proud Dragon of the Realm, I could ask the locals slightly embarrassing questions, such as ‘how do I get up to the piazza?’ I proceeded further into the tower, and came to a selection of odd doors. My time with the tower technicians had turned up that the way that the locals got up and down this cloud-piercing tower, was that there was an ingenious arrangement of tubes that ran the height of the tower. These tubes carried gondolas with people and cargoes up and down on columns of air. Very convenient. And I would have told the others. If they’d asked. I waited with several other people whose gaudy dress suggested that they were also headed up to the festivities.
Even with the swift ascent, it still took a while to get to the piazza. So, I indulged in what Aunt Gesselyn called my ‘ill-bred, unfortunate, embarrassing, but occasionally useful habit of eavesdropping’. The gondola was cramped, but there seemed to be some unspoken agreement that everyone faced forward, and you only looked at the people that you were talking to. Even so, one small group of men huddled closely together, and kept their voices quite low. So, of course, I paid special attention to what they were saying.
I heard them coming up the stairs well before I actually saw them. Isegris was saying something about me puking up my guts. They staggered to the very top of the stair, gasping for breath. I handed Adlynn a drink. “Well, here you are at last! Everyone’s been asking after you!”
“How… how did you get up here before we did?” Randrel rasped.
“Oh, it’s just a little trick that they teach us mortals, when it turns out that we’re not going to Exalt. But what of it? After all, you six are Dragonblooded Knights of the Realm, no? Charging up a thousand stairs in super-heavy plate is nothing but a mere warm-up for you! Come! The night is young, and the local quality are champing at the bit to meet the heroes of the hour!” I gave Adlynn my arm and helped her in the general direction of the party, as the others just stood there gasping for breath.
Still, I do have to admit that there is something to the Exalteds’ claim to being superhuman. A stiff drink and few minutes of not trudging up flights of stairs, and they were right as rain. Lady Vel’Parres, who’d been on the riverboat when it was attacked, immediately swept forward, gushing for all that she was worth. She passed around compliments and praise with a broad brush. Then she looked at me, and paused. “My pardon, Exalted Sir - but what Aspect do your manifest?”
Seeing Isegris’ smug smirk in the corner of my eye, I confessed to being a mere patrician, not a Dragonblood. And, of course, I was promptly relegated to the role of shield carrier. Somehow, in the retelling of the tale, Adlynn was the one who courageously leapt to the two longboats and sank them. And somehow, Nog, of all people, became the clever fox who hauled the last fleeing longboat into the riverbarge’s paddlewheel. But then, this is the story of my life: Adlynn charges in without thinking, I jump in to drag her out, and she winds up being the hero. I, if they remember me at all, am just the loyal sidekick in the tale. Just what a man needs, to be utterly dismissed by a woman that he wouldn’t give a second thought to.
Still, I suppose that I should count my blessings; at least I’m not comedy relief, like Nog usually winds up.
As Adlynn warmed up to her accustomed role as the shining heroine, I stepped aside with Mykiros. “I think that they’re intending to make us sing for this supper.”
“Oh?” Mykiros dissembled, “Drat. I forgot my sanxian.”
“The hand of the Dragons is over us; your last sanxian recital cleared all the mice out of your family’s house. I overheard those four, the ones talking with the Satrap. His name is Prince Seles Avrall, he’s a Dragonblood, but only peripherally connected to House Tepet. He manifests an Earth aspect. He wasn’t the Heir Apparent, but the local Legion sort of muscled him onto the throne, over a mortal older brother. He owes everything to the Realm, and he knows it. I couldn’t tell exactly what they were saying before, but from what they pointedly refrained from saying where anyone could hear it, they have a nasty little problem that Prince Avrall doesn’t want either his people or the Imperial Legion in place to handle. Some of the local quality are rather upset, and the Satrap wants it handled, without directly stepping on anyone's toes.”
“You picked up all of this just by eavesdropping?”
“I do my feeble best, for the glory of the Realm.”
“Were you too feeble to pick up on precisely what got the bee in his bonnet? Bandits? Fae? The Dead not staying in their graves as they should?”
“Not sure. It’s local, it’s quiet, and they’d vastly prefer to pretend that it never happened.”
“So, they don’t want the Imperial Legion, or the Satrap’s own guards doing this.”
“However, if a band of wild young Dynasts should kick up some dust in his bailiwick, well, what can a simple Satrap do about it?”
“Well then, if you’re so clever, then who’s that standing next to him, whispering sweet nothings in his ear?” Mykiros indicated a rather… lavish I think the word might be, woman standing next to Prince Avrall. She was beautiful, in a dramatic way, fully enjoying her prime. She had large dark eyes set in a long perfectly sculpted face, surrounded by an exuberant mass of long, midnight black hair. She had a wide, full mouth that communicated subtle nuance with every motion. She was short but well rounded, and her manner was animated in the extreme. Her dress was cut in such a way that was just restrained enough to be called ‘daring’, and not quite risqué. She seemed to be enjoying the party, and Prince Avrall’s company, immensely.
“I admit, I have no idea,” I confessed.
“Well, in the interests of Imperial Security, we must find out, now mustn’t we?”
“After you, My Lord.” Mykiros is one of the few people my age that I honor with the title ‘My Lord’. Adlynn has a good heart, but she lacks something that Mykiros has. I can’t say exactly what it is, but I will say this: if it’s my destiny to follow a Dragonblood all my life, then let it be Mykiros. I know that Mykiros would lead me on a just cause, and honor my efforts. When you are born to serve, all that you can really ask is a truly noble master.
We approached the Satrap with what we hoped was the appropriate superciliousness. Mykiros presented himself and introduced me. The Prince accepted the introduction with a suitable panache, but after a nice start, foozled rather badly by a rather drab dismissal of the entire affair. Really! They were the ones making such a to-do about it. All that a dismissal could mean, was that Avrall was trying to prick our egos. How obvious.
Mykiros riposted the dismissal with a wry comment about how such a minor manner can cause such a stir in a backwater like Keldon. Prince Avrall resumed the attack with how busy his Dragonblooded vassals and mortal soldiers were, keeping the Fair Folk from a Wyld enclave some hundred leagues away in line. There was some flurrying back and forth, with the Prince ever so subtly dropping hints the size of yeddim about dangerous threats, sinister conspiracies, the inevitable artifact of incredible power, and the tawdry bribe of further glory for the party that resolved the matter. The lavish number by his side, one Lady Bel’Yal, did her level best to keep the conversation light and witty, while Avrall slammed away at us with all the restraint of a slave-driver who had to get the block into place by sunset.
Really, I had greater challenges defending my essays at the Cloister of Wisdom. Mykiros and I drifted away from Avrall’s circle, to let the Prince ply his wiles on Adlynn or Isegris. We walked over to the railing at the very edge of the piazza. In the waning afternoon sun, the view truly was spectacular. From so high, we could see for hundreds of leagues to the east, northeast and southeast. We could see the gray and brown ring of Keldon-town spreading from the base of the tower. Surrounding the town was the jagged spread of farmlands that seemed so meager next to the looming forests, as we looked eastward towards the elemental Pole of Wood. I looked down and noted almost automatically the places where the geomancy of the layout of the town was being violated by blocks of expensive housing. I noted one place where the flow of Essence would have been greatly improved by the creation of a pool or pond, and it would even have increased the standard of living in that neighborhood. I turned my back on things that I could do nothing about. “So, Mykiros, what do you think?”
Mykiros shrugged. “What does it matter? It’s not up to you or me. Adlynn and Randrel are the ones picking up the bill for all this. They’re the ones who are really beating the drum.”
I nodded. “True. But Randrel trusts your opinion.”
“And Adlynn’s been letting you do her thinking for her for years.”
“So, the question is, do we want to get involved in this, and if so, on what terms?”
Mykiros grinned. “What’s the point of going on wanderjahr, if you don’t pick a few fights? When you come out here to the Frontiers, the entire point is to gather up some glory-”
“And maybe some treasure while we’re at it.”
“- prove your mettle-”
“Bring back a few good war stories for when you have a real job.”
“- and do some actual GOOD for Creation!”
“And drive home to the locals that the Dynasty is still in charge.”
“Are you quite through being urbanely cynical?”
“Why? I’m having so much fun being urbanely cynical.”
“My POINT, is that we have no real reason not to get involved, and several very good reasons to do just that. If nothing else, maybe Isegris won’t complain as much, when you want to go see something elevating, instead of going to the nearest dive.”
“You give him far too much credit. So, do we let Avrall talk Adlynn into this?” I tilted my head in the direction of Avrall’s clutch, where he was working my cousin.
“No,” Mykiros shook his head. “The prince still hasn’t given us either any real motive or reason to do so. If we get involved as is, we’re interfering with local affairs.”
“Let alone, he hasn’t given us any real information.”
“So, when he does, do you think that she’ll be blonde or brunette?”
It turned out that she was a redhead. Her name was Syresse. Lady Bel’Yal brought her to our bower the next day. Lady Bel’Yal swept into our suite with the vivacious panache of royalty coming to visit an old friend - or vassal. She gushed elated approval of our quarters, and generally filled the rooms with her presence. She was a bit more sedately dressed than last night, but what she was wearing, liquidated, would have fed the poorer half of Keldon for a month. She effused for a few minutes, and finally got down to the reason for her visit. “This is Vallare Syresse, a daughter of the Noble house of Ormas.” She imperiously snapped her fingers.
A girl stepped forward. She was a lovely young thing, just old enough to have graduated from Academy, if she’d gone to Academy. She was willowy thin, with just enough curves and bumps to hold a man’s interest. Her hair was fiery red and would have fallen to her waist if it weren’t done up in an elaborate style. She had large green eyes that were red with sorrow. Yes, if you’re going to be bribed into compliance, it’s good to be bribed by something that reminds you that even if you’re not a Dragonblood, you’re still a man. She came forward and curtseyed. “Exalted Lords, Lady.”
“Syresse,” Lady Bel’Yal said in a kindness that seemed strange for her, “please tell these noble folk of your recent tragedy."
Syresse settled herself on a couch with head bowed, looking at her hands folded in her lap. She took a deep, tear-filled breath, which did wonderful things to her chest. “My sister... my little sister, Thyrelle… she… My darling little sister Thyrelle was the first child in our family to Exalt in generations! The only living Dragonbloods in House Ormas are over two hundred years old! And they were beginning to make comments about Line Vallare… But when Thyrelle Exalted… Everything changed! We were all so proud of her… We were going to send her to the Academy on the Blessed Isle, so that she’d get the very best education. We were hopeful that she might even be adopted into one of the Great Houses. She was… she was so happy…” Syresse broke down and cried for a moment.
Lady Bel’Yal comforted Syresse and encouraged her to keep talking. “A few weeks ago, a rash of fires and vandalism began. Houses were burned down, fountains and sluices were re-directed, an entire boulder was somehow dropped from a great height into the middle of the Tor’Kerres’ town house! And then, about a week ago… Someone introduced some sort of sleeping dust into our house, and made off with Thyrelle! But, before we could seek out a sorcerer to help find her, a footman from House Dyraas came to our door. He told us…” she choked, “He told us that they’d found Thyrelle… they found her strung upside down from a rafter in the Dyraas’ morning room! She was naked, a glyph had been cut in her chest, and her throat was cut like a pig!” Syresse grimaced at the pain of the memory. “Whoever had done it had ripped up the floorboards of the house and spilled her blood in a pattern on the ground! Oh, sweet little Thyrelle! She was only twelve!” Syresse broke down crying again.
“And what do the Dyraases say about all of this?” Randrel asked seriously.
“Oh, the Dyraases would never do anything like this!” Syresse gasped, “Dyraas Verthal and I were… very close… there was some talk of a betrothal… but now…” She trailed off, her silence betokening tragedy compounding tragedy.
“They found traces of a sleeping pollen in the Dyraas’ townhouse, which was of the same sort that put the Vallares in a deep sleep,” Lady Bel’Yal explained. “The Dyraas’ house is contaminated. The blood of an Exalt was spilled there, and the earth has drunk of it. It will take Exorcists years to cleanse the site.”
“This pollen that you spoke of,” I asked from my own seat, “what sort is it?”
“It’s called Micomicon Dust,” Lady Bel’Yal offered. “It’s a product of an unnatural bloom that’s taken root in the back woods. There are several vile uses for this flower, including the pollen, which would put a Death Lord to sleep.”
I asked, “You know a lot about this Micomicon flower?”
“It is the backbone of the power of a local heretic cult, the Cult of the Bear Emperor. Besides highway robbery, attacking tax collectors, and apparently slaughtering little girls like pigs, they also kidnap people to feed to their Micomicon vines. They harvest various parts of the plant, which they sell to corrupt merchants, and use the proceeds to fund insurrection against the Realm.”
“And how do you know so much about it, my lady?”
“The Cult of the Bear Emperor has long been a thorn in the side of the Satrap,” Lady Bel’Yal said calmly, collecting her dignity about her. “And now that the Scarlet Empress has so mysteriously vanished, Prince Avrall and the local Daimyos are even more concerned, lest these lice take advantage of the situation as House Troops are recalled to the Blessed Isle. Finding and destroying the cult’s Micomicon fields would diminish their ability to bribe watchmen, hire mercenaries and buy weapons. First the arson and vandalism, and now this unforgivable atrocity - the Beast Cult must be girding itself to wage all out war on the Satrap.”
“And why hasn’t your Prince Avrall just ridden out with his Daimyos and their legions, and cut these maggots down?” Isegris snarled, with his usual failure to grasp the situation.
Lady Bel’Yal shook her head sadly. “Fighting the Cult of the Bear Emperor is like fighting a mist. It’s here, it’s there, it’s not there, it’s here again. Prince Avrall has sent envoys to the Spirit Court of the Snake’s Back - that’s what the peasants call that range of mountains to the west - but the Lesser Dragon of Earth who rules that court swears that the Cult of the Bear Emperor worships no one at his court.”
“Little Gods, even ones who take the forms of dragons, can be wile-some,” Esrak muttered thoughtfully.
Adlynn had foiled most of our companions by settling herself next to Syresse, and patting her hand comfortingly. “There, there… We can’t do anything about bringing sweet little Thyrelle back, but we CAN bring you the heads of the scum who committed this atrocity! The children of the Dragons shall avenge the murder of a child of the Dragons!” Now, this is exactly how we get into half the messes that I have to drag these fools out of - Adlynn makes some damn-fool promise, and the rest of us have to make good on it.
We each spent most of the next day making good on Adlynn’s pledge, each in our own way. They each went off to stir things up as best they could, and I, of course, did the intelligent thing.
When I came back from my inquiries, I left a message with the concierge for my companions to meet me up in our quarters. “So, what have you all found out?” I asked as I looked up from my pile of books, papers, instruments and calculations.
Randrel stood straight. “Well, I found a local who says that he can lead us to an abandoned Demesne called ‘the Underground Palace’. It’s-”
“It’s the ancient stronghold of the Anathema that built the Great Tower,” I cut him off with a flat voice, not looking up from the schematic that I was studying. “It’s hidden under Jade Hill, but he just happens to have recently found a hidden entryway that leads deep into the hill. There are traps and guardian demons, but brave young Dragonbloods should be able to get past them, am I right?”
Randrel deflated. “How did you know?”
“I spent my day with the Under-Magistrate of the Assessor for the Satrap. A fellow who was suspiciously well dressed for his office, I might add. He mentioned that maps of the Underground Palace are favorite ploys of local confidence artists, along with ‘hearthstones’ made of paste, ‘orichalcum artifacts’ that are gold-plated brass, and ‘jade talents’ that are made of green soapstone.”
Mykiros rubbed his chin. “Of course. Still, you have to wonder about what that other chap said.”
“Which was?” Esrak asked.
“He said that the Bear Emperor’s ‘Claws’ - that is, the cult’s bully boys - were turning the town upside down, looking for something that had been stolen from them. He also said that there was a new group in town, from somewhere in the Southeast. They’re supposed to call themselves the Black Dragons.”
“The nerve!” Isegris snapped.
“And what are these ‘Black Dragons’ supposed to be about?”
“Well, according to our sources,” Randrel said, “they’re supposed to be hunting for this precious whatever-it-is in competition with the Bear’s Claws.”
“I spent MY day sharing tea with the Under-Captain of the Watch for the southern quarter of the city.” Esrak said sturdily. “From what I gathered, these ‘Black Dragons’ are very real. AND the Watch is quite aware of them, and they’re far more interested in their hunt for some sort of Crown than they are in any possible uprising among the riffraff.”
“Interesting,” I mused. “I wonder why Lady Bel’Yal was so insistent that the Bear Emperor had all but had the lower orders up in arms?”
Esrak shrugged. “Ladies of unexalted quality tend to get nervous whenever they think that tea might be late.”
“What about the Micromos powder?” Adlynn asked. “Isn’t that proof that the Bear King was involved?”
“Micomicon pollen,” I corrected her reflexively.
“Micomicon pollen can easily be purchased, if you know the right people,” Esrak assured Adlynn. “Moreover, the Bear Emperor’s people would hardly use a tool that would incriminate them to do something that would get the quality in an uproar like this.”
“They would, if they were ready to lead an uprising!” Adlynn snapped.
“But they’re not,” Esrak responded calmly. “From what I was able to gather from what the Watch didn’t say and didn’t do, the Bear Emperor is an accepted part of the local power structure. Not an official part of the power structure, or even a particularly liked part, but it’s still a part.”
“By ‘part’,” Mykiros asked, “do you mean that they’re hand in glove with the Satrap, or that they pay off enough officials that they’ve more or less bought their way into the system?”
“More the second, but I’d say a chunk of the first. As a matter of fact, I’d say that Lady Bel’Yal tried to set us on the Bear Cult as a way of slowing them down, while the Satrap gets his hands on this crown thing.”
Esrak shrugged. “People say things that they don’t mean to. Am I to go around with beans in my ears, just in case someone has an overactive tongue?”
“Esrak’s right about one thing,” Isegris agreed, “the Watch is turning over every bushel, and opening every pot in Keldon to find whatever it is that they’re all looking for. And they’re not being anywhere near as quiet about it as the Dragons or the Bears are.”
“Where did you find this out?” I asked, already knowing the answer.
“Oh, here and there,” Isegris said airily. Of course. Isegris is never as at home as he is when he’s rolling around in some gutter.
“Tell them about that hot lead that you got, Iz,” Nog prodded.
“Well, this one fellow was, ah, so moved by our suasion-” I wondered whether a knife at the throat or being dangled off a roof was the key element of this ‘suasion’, “- that he offered that the Claws were after a renegade from their own ranks. He also offered they were shaking the tree for any of his known receivers for stolen goods.”
“Very good, Isegris!” I applauded, “That’s hands down the most important bit of information that we’ve gotten so far!” Bop trilled in agreement.
“It is?” Isegris said, only half believing it, “Of course it is! And it’s about time that you recognized that!”
“It’s unlikely that the Bear Cult would divide their efforts hunting a renegade, tracking down some mystic doo-job, AND initiate a bloody campaign of vandalism, terror and murder, just as a new force starts digging trenches in their back garden. It’s far more likely that these ‘Black Dragons’ are the real murderers of Vallare Thyrelle. They’re new to the area, so they aren’t that concerned about upsetting apple carts. If anything, setting the local Dragonbloods against the Bear Cult probably serves their purposes on two fronts. My guess is that these ‘Black Dragons’ somehow learned of some artifact that the Bear Emperor had, and managed to identify one of the more... amenable… members of the cult. I imagine that the vandalism and so on might have served a double purpose, with framing this as-yet unnamed cultist for at least one of the acts in some way.”
“You’re guessing,” Isegris said in a flat voice.
“It’s the only way that it all fits together,” I responded reasonably. “It’s possible that this renegade chose this time to steal one of the Bear Emperor’s treasures, while the cult was busy tracking down these ‘Black Dragons’, but I doubt it. No mortal crosses a lesser god unless they have someone that they’re sure will protect them.”
“Or that someone is a more direct threat,” Esrak pointed out.
“Precisely. This treasure of the Bear Emperor’s is either very powerful, and possibly the key to his power base here, or-” I looked at my calculations, “it somehow factors into the reason WHY these ‘Black Dragons’ are messing around with the geomancy of Keldon.”
“Geomancy again,” Isegris moaned.
Adlynn pouted a bit. “How dreary. You all went out and discovered important things. All that I’ve done is drop in and visit a few of the local Dragonblooded families hereabouts, and ask them if they know anything.”
“I am amazed that that many people who claim that loudly to be that enlightened, can be that oblivious.”
“Welcome to my world,” I muttered under my breath.
“Indeed, all that the Telvis line of House Cathak cares about, is that one of their basements is flooded, and they can’t get it pumped out.”
“Really?” I said, my interest genuinely peaked, “Only one of their basements?”
“Yes,” Adlynn said, obviously missing my point.
“Did they say which one?”
“The… north one, I think.”
I made a note of it on one of my charts. “Anything else?”
Adlynn was flustered that her information was valuable after all. “Well, there a bit of a fluster that someone attacked and tried to torture a local scholar, but he’s just a patrician, not an Exalt.”
“Someone interrogated a scholar?” I raised one eyebrow, and leaned forward keenly. “And exactly what is the name of this unfortunate scholar?”
Sthallen Kesros? THE Sthallen Kesros? “And would you happen to know where we could find the unfortunate Sthallen Kesros?” I asked as I rose and pulled on my cloak.
“You could have TOLD us about that thing, three nights ago!” Isegris stormed as he and the other ‘Knights Errant’ walked out of the elevating gondola onto the piazza atop the tower, where I was waiting for them.
“You never asked,” I said as ingenuously as I could from where I had set up a small table near the edge of the piazza, overlooking the city. I was going over a few calculations with a tall, spare man, dressed in robes of fine cut and cloth, but shabby condition. He had the dark skin and hawkish features of a Southerner, and his long black hair was streaked with reddish gray at the temples.
Isegris gave the table, which was laden with books, scrolls, papers and instruments, and my obviously scholarly companion a sour look. “Oh, Heshieh’s blistering breath, you aren’t going to give us another Geomancy lesson, are you?”
“Does this have something to do with that scholar that you, Adlynn and Mykiros visited?” Esrak asked.
“It has everything to do with Sthallen Kesros,” I replied smoothly. “Remember this: after you get out of school, the only reason to torture a scholar is that he has information that you want.”
“What would some stupid bookworm have to do with what’s been going on in Keldon?” Nog asked.
“Well, you see, Nog,” I started in the tones of a tutor being patient with a slow student, a tone that I am all too familiar with, as I occasionally had to drum something into Nog’s skull back in school. “Someone is playing a subtle game, and Sthallen Kesros happens to know the rules of that game better than anyone in Keldon. Now, ask yourself: WHY would anyone contrive to move a boulder over 300 cubits from where it’s stayed for over a hundred years, into the middle of the Tor’Kerres’ townhouse? Let alone cast powerful magics that would throw that boulder in a high arc so that it would crash through the roof?”
Nog furrowed his brows. “They… threw it… ‘cause it was easier than just draggin’ it?”
I patted Nog on the shoulder. “Surprisingly shrewd guess, Nog. Yes, doing it that way was more effective than dragging it through the Tor’Kerres’ walls - not to mention the Tor’Kerres themselves. Now, as to why it had to be moved in the first place? Well, my afternoon with Under-Assessor Agaenep turned up that that boulder had been moved from that very spot roughly 135 years ago, to make room to allow the Tor’Kerres to build their townhouse.
“Next, there’s the issue of the Telvis’ flooded basement.”
“So, the Telvises have rising damp in their parlor!” Isegris roared, “So what? What does that have to do with Ormas Thyrelle having her throat cut, and being bled like a pig?”
I ticked off items on my fingers. “The boulder in the Tor’Kerres’ parlor: Earth. The Telvis’ flooded basement: Water. Thyrelle’s elemental aspect was?” I raised an eyebrow.
“Fire.” Randrel gasped, realizing the implications. “A simple fire destroying the house wouldn’t have established enough of an Elemental presence to affect the ley lines, but the blood of a Fire Dragon would! The reasons that the Black Dragons are targeting Dynast and Patrician homes isn’t that they’re acting against the Realm - at least not directly. It’s because the places where the ley lines are most powerful are very auspicious places to build a house! And Dynasts and Patricians are the only ones important enough-”
“Or rich enough,” I muttered under my breath.
“-to bypass the city’s Geomantic laws!” Randrel rushed over to the railing and looked out over the city. “Rennar! What was the precise sequence of the acts of vandalism, and what were the dominant Astrological signs at the time of the act?” Seeing that Randrel was getting my point, I reeled off each act and the ascendant star in the order, and location of each act. Randrel spotted each site, and followed the line of sequence as it related to the geography of the city. “Rennar! Is there a-”
“Is there a Rising Fire line along that tangent?” I beat him to the punch. “Yes. And, there is a fluctuating Water line, beginning where the Telvis’ flooded basement just happens to be.”
“Sextes Jylis’ Mossy Scales!” Randrel yelped, “They’re re-writing the entire geomantic foundation of the city! They’re going to undermine the flow of Essence to the Tower, so that it falls!”
“Oh, now you’re sounding like Rennar!” Isegris said disgustedly, “Even IF these ‘Black Dragons’ are messing with the city’s geomancy, they’re not going to try and topple this tower. Why would they? The Tower provides the city with most of its clean water.”
“Fool!” Randrel yelled, “Don’t you SEE? That’s what they WANT!”
“Actually, Isegris is quite right,” I said quietly.
“What?” Randrel and Isegris asked as one.
“The Black Dragons are altering the flow of Essence through the city, but they’re not weakening the flow to this tower.”
“No,” I shook my head. “They’re strengthening it.”
“What?” Randrel and Isegris asked, equally confused. “WHY would they strengthen the tower?”
“Because they’re after bigger game than simple - or not so simple - sabotage. Do you know what Sthallen Kesros’ claim to fame is?”
“From what I heard,” Esrak said, “he was a simple scholar, who made a hand-to-mouth existence teaching the quality.”
“He is. Scholars, even respected specialists in their fields, aren’t exactly overpaid. Sthallen Kesros is an expert in the field of Geomancy, particularly the nuances of the fields in and around Keldon.” I pulled one scroll from the pile and produced it. “And, he is the foremost authority on the Underground Palace.”
Isegris and Randrel glowered at me, but Nog just bleated, “But I thought that you said that the Underground Palace was just a scam for the rubes!”
“No, I said that the Underground Palace is real enough. It’s just that it’s been lost for so long, that most people think that it’s a fairy tale.”
The scholar stepped forward. “Allow me to explain, Exalted Dragons. I am Master Haldjar Adan. I was conferring with Master Kesros, when he was attacked.”
“You mean, you were there? You saw who did it?” Adlynn asked.
“No, Master Kesros and I have been conferring for several weeks now. His attackers took him as he was out doing some errands. However, his attackers made a fatal error.”
“They let him see their faces?”
“No, they asked specific questions that relate, however obliquely, to the Underground Palace. They asked about specific points and specific markers-”
“So, what you’re saying is that they’re doing this to find this Underground Palace,” Mykiros summed up. “Exactly what does finding this place have to do with moving the ley lines of Keldon around, and murdering little girls?”
Master Adan smiled and raised a finger, as if to illustrate a point. “Because, the key to finding the Underground Palace is to use geomancy to find it.”
“What are you talking about?” Adlynn asked, “Everyone knows where the Underground Palace is! It’s under Jade Hill, everyone knows that!”
Master Adan smiled the smile of a teacher about to correct a bright but errant pupil. “No. You see the fabled complex that lies under Jade Hill is naught but a decoy, to mislead those who would plunder the riches of the Underground Palace, and perhaps unleash the guardian demons set there during the Uprising of the Righteous. Now, ask yourself, why would anyone build a palace underground, when an aboveground palace would be both more salubrious and would make a statement as to their power?
“The answer is that the Mirror of Serene Reflection was a powerful wizard and a puissant artificer. He was also aware that the Rule of the Anathema was coming to an end, and he grew ever more fearful of the wrath of those that he had misruled. He built his new palace well underground, under multiple layers of traps, misleading passages, and demon sentinels. However, this didn’t keep the Knights of the Dragons’ Blood from penetrating his defenses and laying him low. They built a tomb for him in his own keep, and set his own defenses to keep anyone else from disturbing his unholy repose. However, they knew the greed of mortals, and decided that extra layers of protection were needed. They destroyed the entrances to the Underground Palace, and built a ‘tomb’ within Jade Hill, to mislead treasure seekers. They peppered the false tomb with traps and guardian demons. But most cunningly, they also placed meaningless signs and riddles without answers all about the place, to both confuse treasure seekers, and to give the impression that, if they could unravel a puzzle that in truth had no solution, that they could find the Underground Palace.”
Esrak raised an unimpressed eyebrow. “And why did they go to all that trouble, when they could have just collapsed the entire palace, and trapped the unholy monster under a half-mile or so of rock?”
Master Adan bowed his head, recognizing the point. “Because the Underground Palace is a Manse, the keystone of the Demesne, the web of Essence that keeps the Tower of Keldon standing. If they destroyed the Underground Palace, then they would have had to destroy the Great Tower, and they knew that the common folk of Keldon needed the tower. And it is meet that they spared the Tower, for during the Great Contagion, the Tower was all that stood between this entire region and the ravening hordes of the Wyld.”
“Well then!” Randrel said brightly, “Then it should be easy to find this ‘Underground Palace’, now that we know that Jade Hill is just a decoy! If the Tower is the center of the surface portion of the Palace, then the entrance is either in the Tower, or we can use geomancy to find the entrances that are outside the Tower.”
Master Adan nodded, “Logical. Incorrect, but logical.” Randrel bridled at that, but Master Adan hurried on to his point. “The Mirror of Serene Reflection was far too wary and cunning to do anything so obvious. While the Tower IS part of the Palace’s Essence matrix, it’s hardly the lynchpin of it. No, it’s merely the surface portion of a vast underground complex. There may have been a passage from the Tower to the main body of the Palace, but it was destroyed by the Dragons of the Shogunate.”
Esrak spotted the real thrust of all of this. “So, the whole point of all this is, that there’s no easy way of finding the Underground Palace, and the Black Dragons are shoring up the geomantic lines of force around Keldon, so that they can dowse the location of an entrance.”
“Well stated, Exalted Sir.” Master Adan obviously had years of experience in dealing with Dragonbloods.
Mykrios gave an approving grin. “And you two have been busy factoring out where the Black Dragons will strike next.”
I grinned back at him. “Better. We’ve figured out where the Black Dragons are operating from.”
Master Adan picked up a geomantic map of the city and carried it out to the railing. “Given the juxtaposition of the mountain-” he pointed at the peak called the Bear’s Head off to the west, “the river-” he pointed to the south. “The Tower-” he pointed at our feet. “The locations that were altered, and the sequence in which they were altered,” he jabbed fingers in the direction where the tragedies had happened, “The most likely place where a skilled geomancer would have performed the dowsings necessary would have been…” He paused and pointed in a southeast-by-east direction, “There.”
‘There’ turned out to be a posh, Patrician-class neighborhood that had fallen on hard times. Master Adan was less concerned with the disrepair that the buildings had fallen to, or the mean class of rabble that had moved into a once respectable area, than he was with the state of the lines of force. “Disgraceful,” he tutted as he observed his dowsing compass, “simply disgraceful. Why, I ask you, do people insist on spending small fortunes to build great houses, only to place them in almost exactly the perfect place to mess everything up? So, the Lady of the House doesn’t want to wake up with the morning sun in her eyes! So what? Does she have to insist that the entire house be built along an axis that will draw malign influences into the place? So this family doesn’t like that family next door! Does that mean that they have to put up a wall that will stifle the flow of water-aspected Essence? Look at this place! For the lack of any discernable foresight, these people have befouled their own nests, and given their great homes over to the rats and hungry ghosts!”
Then Master Adan all but threw down his compass in exasperation. “To blazes with it! How am I supposed to find the best location for dowsing, with all this inauspicious interference?”
Isegris smirked, “Well, it was a stupid idea to begin with. I mean, how are our Sinister Masterminds supposed to augur the lines of force from around here, if this ‘interference’ is so bad, as you say it is?”
I snapped my fingers. “Once again, Isegris, you put your finger on the very pulse of the issue! Master Adan, instead of seeking out a point of clear and then gazing out into the murk as it were, might not the Black Dragons have sought out the absolute worst spot of interference, and then look out into the clear?”
Master Adan stopped and thought it over. “Yes, yes, that might work. It would be tricky, but once you had the innate dissonance of the locale mapped, you could even use that dissonance to your advantage! And the ‘murk’, as you put it, would make it exponentially more difficult for other dowsers to find them.” He started re-calibrating his dowsing compass. “Now, how to figure out where the point of optimum dissonance is.”
“Not a bother,” I said, “we have just the two men for the job! Nog! Isegris! Go, find the meanest dive around, and find out where the nastiest, most haunted and unluckiest place in the neighborhood is!”
The nastiest, most haunted and most unlucky place was, or at least, had been at one time the grandest estate in that part of Keldon. Viewed from the street, it had the tragedy of a ruined beauty, the despair of a great lady reduced to penury by leprosy, and the unsettling quality of a pretty child with hungry eyes. According to Nog and Isegris, local legend had that the house had a long history, starting with the wealthy Patrician family that had built it. But the family’s fortunes soon withered after the building of the house, and there were rumors of inbreeding, insanity, debauchery, murder and worse. The family of the house - and the rest of the neighborhood - experienced a dive in fortune. The house became a school for boys of good family, which closed after a rash of inexplicable murders. Then it became a school for artists, which produced more insanity and drug abuse than art. Then it became a bagnio with a history of orgies where there were hushed up murders. Then it was turned into a rooming house that catered to the worst of an increasingly bad neighborhood. Then it was turned into a hospital for those whom other healers wouldn’t touch - it was rumored that the doctor who ran it did a brisk sideline in vivisection and necromancy. And, for the past few decades, it had lain empty, a great sucking maw which drew in all the auspicious influences of the area and swallowed them whole. Local opinion held that it was the most haunted and blighted place in quite possibly the nastiest part of Keldon.
“Why haven’t they sent in a team of exorcists?” Adlynn asked, looking through the wrought iron fence at the architectural abomination.
“They did,” Master Adan said wryly. “Several times. The first few thought that they’d done their jobs. But the malevolence just kept coming back. The next few that tried it came back thanking the Dragons for their souls. And the next few just didn’t come back at all.”
“Well then, why don’t they just BURN the place down to the ground?” Isegris snarled.
“Why would anyone build a house that grand, on a spot that blighted?” Mykiros asked bewildered.
“Most likely, because they hired a cheap geomancer,” Master Adan replied. “He only did a superficial dowsing of the area, and on the surface this site probably seemed quite auspicious. However, I suspect that deeper, there was a reservoir of intense malignant influence. Some minor tragedy, one that could have been cleansed with effort and time, occurred in the house, and it resonated with the well of sorrows below, bringing the miasma to the surface.”
I gave Master Adan a sideways look. “And what could produce THAT much ill fortune?”
Master Adan shrugged. “Well, you can’t just be rid of ill influence. The Anathema that built the Underground Palace had to divert the dissonance that his Demesne creates SOMEWHERE, no?”
Esrak gave Master Adan a measuring gaze. “You think that the house is over the Underground Palace?”
“I think that the Underground Palace stretches out for miles, large chambers stretched out with furlongs between them, to keep the bedrock from being over-weakened. However, I do think that this place is right over the, *ahem!* ‘cesspit’.”
“But a cesspit is an important part of an estate,” Mykiros pointed out. “Not a pleasant one, but an important one. And you think that the Black Dragons are using it as the lynchpin of their attempts to find the Palace?”
Master Adan gave Mykiros a dry, yet strictly respectful look. “Why else would I be loitering around this slum?”
Adlynn was peering intently through the bars of the gate. “What are those little stone piles?” Like several of the other estates in the area, the blighted mansion was surrounded by wide gardened area, which was probably even larger out by the back, and the garden was isolated from the outside by tall stone walls. But where the other estates’ gardens had been put to some more productive use - if only as rubbish heaps - the blighted mansion’s gardens had been allowed to run to weeds. Still, as Adlynn pointed out, here and there, there were conical piles of stones, about as high as a man’s waist.
Master Adan peered through the gate. After a moment’s reflection, he said, “Cairns.”
“Yes, my guess is that they’re there to protect the remains of the hungry ghosts, so that while the ghost’s ectoplasmic corpus is destroyed when the sun rises, the bones aren’t. That way, the next night, the ghost can rise again.”
“What makes you think that there are hungry ghosts?” Nog asked nervously.
“That.” Master Adan pointed at the dozens of wards and charms against ghosts and such that festooned the walls and gate of the estate. They were either burned into scraps of cheap wood or scrawled in charcoal directly onto the wall. “That.” He pointed at the pair of large stone ‘Strix’, or ‘Ghost Owl’ statues lasted to the tops of the gateposts; they faced inwards, not outwards. “And that.” He pointed at the line of salt that was laid into a groove at the doorsill of the gate. “Salt is expensive, and the people of this slum are poor. But not even the vilest, poorest, or most stupid among them would dare take so much as a spoonful from that groove. If any is washed away in the rain, it’s replaced, regardless of the cost.”
“Why would anyone encourage hungry ghosts?” Adlynn asked, scandalized. A hungry ghost is a plague on any town that has them. To intentionally inflict them on one’s neighbors? Horror!
“Cheaper than feeding guard dogs,” Master Adan shrugged.
“Where would they find the remains of a hungry ghost, just to use as a sentry?” I asked, already guessing the answer.
“Simplest thing in the world - they make them.” Yes, that was the answer that I was dreading.
“Well,” Randrel said girding himself, “There’s nothing to do, but do it.”
“OR,” Esrak said in a calm rumble, “we can split out into smaller, less noticeable groups, and try to see if there’s a way in, that doesn’t involve all but bringing along a banging drum. For instance, if these Black Dragons are using the Underworld’s Outhouse over there to perform their dowsings, then they don’t want people knowing that they’re there. How do they get in and out, without the riff-raff selling them out to the Bear Emperor?”
Esrak’s suggestion turned up that there were several ways into the house that were perfect for getting in unseen. And just as perfect for setting traps. There weren’t any cairns in the back garden, where the weeds had been cleared away. Which suggested that the Black Dragons had cleared them to prevent anyone sneaking in unseen and had a watch on it at all times.
It seemed that we’d have to bulldoze our way in through a rain of arrows, when Bop showed us the way. I was looking for her, and finally spotted her, perching on what appeared to be thin air. The ‘thin air’ turned out to be a thick wire strung out between the blighted mansion and a tenement that had the ill fortune to stand next to it. On the roof of that tenement was a long board with securing eyelets. The board was old and weather beaten; whoever had used this last had done so a long time ago. There was some rot on the board, but it should hold up under our weight. If we went one at a time, and Nog went last.
We went in well after sundown. Nog was weighed down carrying Master Adan’s geomancy gear, as the Master himself was carrying a full set of Warding charms, prayer slips, cleansing essences, a satchel full of rock salt, and a staff that he claimed would be able to strike intangible beings. Seeing that the window that the wire led to had been boarded up, I went first and carefully pried it open. Can’t leave that sort of quiet business to Dragons, now can you?
Once Nog was in with Master Adan’s we quietly spread out in three teams and canvassed the house. Then we gathered in the interior courtyard of the house. “Well, this is another mare’s nest that you’ve set us after, Rennar!” Isegris snapped. “Where are your deadly legions of Black Dragons, eh?”
“Oh, for the love of Daana’d, will you open your eyes, Isegris?” Mykiros snapped back. “Look around you!” He gestured at the fountain, which had been turned into a giant, very complex geomancy compass. A large sundial had been erected in one corner of the courtyard. “What were you expecting, legions of Black Dragon fanatics marching around in armor, Black Dragon tapestries hanging from every wall, and the evil mastermind squatting on an obscene throne in the east parlor?”
“Welllll… Yes! I mean, that’s how these things are supposed to work, aren’t they?”
“Isegris, who in their right mind would actually live in a place like this?” Randrel explained patiently. And his point was patently clear - even if the hungry ghosts in the outer yards were kept out of the house proper, the place was cold, and dank, and dreary, and absolutely reeked of ill-auspice even without them. “They just come here when they’re going to do one of their dowsings.”
“So.” Isegris grumped, “All this, just to find an empty house. I mean, the entire POINT of all of this was to find these Black Dragons with their armor around their ankles! How are we supposed to find them now, eh?”
“Simple,” Master Adan murmured as he studied one of the charts in the chamber off the courtyard, “we ring for service.”
On Master Adan’s suggestion, we carefully sealed off all but three of the secret entrances, and then just as carefully set off the traps in one of those three. And then we set to watch the last two.
We wanted to be able to observe them for a bit before we struck. Get an idea of their numbers, weapons, leadership and so on. Good basic strategy thinking. Besides, in checking the place out, they might make sure of some hidey-hole that we hadn’t found. It’s worked before. Of course, while the rest of us are reasonable at the hide-and-don’t-get-spotted thing, Nog’s never been very good at it, and Isegris lacks the patience. Not to mention when he’s excited, he glows in the dark. So, we created little nests for them in separate piles of gear that they could get out of quickly. All that they had to do would be wait for the right sounds and come out swinging.
We’d barely gotten ropes on top of the tarp over where Isegris was stashed, when Esrak, who was watching the eastern entrance gave the low whistle that was his signal. Well, that was quick! We melted into our chosen niches and lowered our breathing as to be inaudible.
The man who came in was not what I was expecting, nor were the men who flowed into the room like a brown tide. I’d expected the leader to be impressive, but in a more fluid, graceful… well, draconian way. The man who was obviously the leader was impressive, but he exuded power of a blunter, more obvious sort. He looked like a cliff that had separated from the mountain and decided to take a walk. He had to bend his head and angle his shoulders to get through the door. His skin was brown, his head was squarish, and there was enough rippling muscle tissue peeking through his razor-studded harness for three men. He wore a set of grand bracers of some dull-golden metal, and obvious iron-reinforced boots. But it was what he and the rest of his men wore around their shoulders that threw me: they were wearing bearskins, complete with the heads attached as hoods.
The bear cultists went through the building, checking everything methodically. I was watching their progress closely, when Bop, who had been perched out of sight on the roof, suddenly flew down to where I was. The bear cultists stopped suddenly, startled by the unexplained movement. But I sent Bop back out to the roof, so they wouldn’t come looking. They saw Bop flying out, relaxed and went back to their search.
And then I saw what had flushed Bop. Up on the roof, laying as flush against the eaves as they could, were several men in close-fitting dark clothing. With dragon-masks over their faces. One of them was prowling along the edge of the roof, slowly twirling a long slender matte-golden metal chain with what looked like an open eagle’s claw at the end. He was peering intently down into the courtyard, biding his time, gathering his force.
Finally, one of the bear cultists was in the right place, and his companions were all looking in the wrong places. The chainman sent the eagle claw down and caught the bear cultist with it. It got him right in the neck and snapped it cleanly. Two confederates helped the chainman haul their catch up double-quick, and his body was out of sight, all in one smooth move, before anyone noticed anything. Except for a brisk *snap!*, like a dry twig, the bear cultist never made a sound.
The chainman sidled along the edge of the roof, picked his marks carefully, and removed two more of them. Then, he had his fourth victim selected and was picking up momentum with his chain. I admit it; I envied that man that chain. It stretched to attack, and contracted to draw the catch up. It was an artifact, or I’m the Bull of the North. Looking at it, I just knew that I had to have it.
Huddled above me in the niche, Adlynn produced one of her chakrams. I silently stopped her, and handed her a sticky piece of semi-soft preserved meat. Adlynn grinned with comprehension and took the meat-bit. Keeping her eye dead on the chainman and his swing, Adlynn took aim and quietly wrapped some wind around the meat. Just as the killer sent his weapon down to break the next cultist’s neck, Adlynn threw the meat.
The eagle-claw got its victim and almost broke his neck. But Adlynn’s meat-missile hit the chainman at just the right time, with exactly enough force to completely screw with his balance. The chain didn’t break the cultist’s neck, and the chain-ninja lost his footing and fell.
The cultist came down with a thump and a scream. The chainman landed silently on his feet. But the game of silent killing was over. Both dragon-cultist and bear-cultist bared their steel, and the real killing began.
It would have been nice, if we could have just stayed where we were hidden and let them slaughter each other, then come out and interrogate the battered and maimed survivors. But the world doesn’t work that way. At the first sound of steel meeting steel as the dragon-ninjas dropped down to meet the bear-cultists, Isegris all but exploded - no, come to think of it, he DID literally explode out of his pile, daiklave stretched out. “Well, it’s ABOUT TIME!” he thundered.
Nog was a heartbeat behind his brother, his goremaul out and swinging. It struck me that I might finally be rid of Isegris, if I could convince the others to keep out of the fight. I had no doubts that Nog would survive; a literal dragon could eat Nog, pass him through and he’d still walk away from it. But Adlynn wasn’t about to be left out of a fight like this one. She spread her war fans and dived into the thick of it.
The chainman sent his weapon at the big leader of the bear-cultists. The big man parried the eagle claw with one bracer and grabbed the chain with the other one. The chainman allowed himself be pulled forward, but pulled a short sword as he did. With a jerk of his forearm, dull golden claws sprang forth from the big man’s free gauntlet, and he parried the short sword.
Nog was happy, squishing nasty cultists of either stripe, but Isegris had bigger game in view. “YOU!” He roared, pointing at the big man, “You are MINE!” Then he gave a more literal roar and charged at the big man. The chainman disengaged his eagle-claw chain, and deferred to Embers-for-Brains with a snide bow. The big man parried the daiklave with his claws and gave Isegris a resounding kick to the ribs with his iron boot. The boot rang out against Isegris’ breastplate and sent him reeling. He paused to get some air back into his lungs, which was more than the big man was willing to allow him. The big man gave Isegris a sweeping kick to the jaw, as he was down on one knee.
I don’t think that Isegris is really used to coping with opponents who can actually fight.
The big man laid into the side of Isegris’ face, which would have opened up any mortal’s head clean open, but only sent him reeling. The big man followed up by knocking Isegris’ daiklave out of his hand, and sending it flying across the courtyard. He kept up the barrage on Isegris with a rain of blows that would probably have reduced a good-sized boulder to rubble.
Isegris slumped to the floor and tried to collect his wits enough to use one of his Dragonblooded charms to get back into the fight. I rather doubt that the Bear Champion had any intention of giving him that opportunity. No, a swift kick to the head, and Isegris was out for the night.
Fortunately for Isegris, he’s never ticked off Randrel the way that he’s ticked me off. Randrel came at the Champion with his two hooked swords, spinning in the ‘Whirlpool of Rage’ technique. Normally, the ‘Whirlpool of Rage’ technique is for coping with five or more skilled mortal antagonists operating in concert. But, it can be used against a superior opponent, if you’re willing to spend the Essence to do it. Randrel was a whirlwind of steel, his blades cutting deeply into the Champion.
The Champion turned Randrel’s ploy against him by accepting the gouge into his arm and grabbing Randrel in a big hug. He kept spinning, and the Champions’ razor-studded harness ripped those parts of his flesh that weren’t protected by armor to shreds
However, as Randrel dropped, he did have a victory of sorts. One of his hook-swords snagged onto the clasp holding the Champion’s bear-cloak on and ripped it off.
The Champion wavered for a moment, seemed to blur, and grew. When he came back into focus, he had grown a few inches, the shape of his head and forearms was different, and he had fur. His head and hands were those of a bear. He seemed to realize what had happened, and he curled a lip and growled at us.
A chill even worse than the thought of hungry ghosts crept over all of us. But Nog, of all people, summed it up for us all: “ANATHEMA!” Nog left off fighting the lesser cultists and charged at the Moon-Devil with his goremaul cocked over his shoulder. To give Nog his just due, he did much better than either Isegris or Randrel had. Not that he hit the Champion more than they did, but he lasted longer, as he was using the ‘Impervious Skin of Stone Meditation’ technique. I had been waxing poetic when I described Isegris and the Champion as being like stone mountains; Nog literally WAS as unto a stone wall. Nog lasted longer than either Isegris or Randrel, and wound up hitting the Champion more than either of them as a result.
Even so, the Champion wore him down. Nog’s skin would have turned steel, but the Champion’s claws weren’t horn or even steel - the dull-golden metal was Orichalcum, the sun-devil’s metal, and it was harder than steel. And so, it cut into Nog’s hide, whittling away at him until he too fell.
Now, it strikes me that you may get the idea that we were all standing about, watching this combat of champions. We weren’t. The Black Dragons’ champion had left just after Isegris and the Bear Champion started going at it, and the rest of his men followed suit to let the Bear’s Claws and us sort out our differences between us. But that left a force of about fourteen or so well-trained fighting men.
Adlynn got rid of the three bear-cultists who were covering her with a ‘Slashing Whirlwind Spin’, and started at the Bear Champion. “NO!” I shouted, throwing the idiot who was charging at me into the blindside of a companion of his who was trying to blindside Esrak, “He’s MINE!” I finished rummaging through Master Adan’s box of tricks and advanced on the Champion, flourishing my own tiger claws.
“Well, little Demi-god, what Dragonblood tricks do you have to show me?” the Champion asked in a gravely growl.
“No Demi-god, Man-Bear,” I said looking him straight in the eye. “Just a man. But plenty of tricks.” I opened up with a bag full of Banishing Powder right in his face. And since Banishing Powder involves a lot of powdered salt, it didn’t do his eyes much good. Still, he was good enough to block my claw strike. He wasn’t good enough to see me slap the ‘Immaculate Prayer of Divine Censure’ onto the top of his fuzzy head. The ‘Immaculate Prayer of Divine Censure’ is usually used to weaken Hungry Ghosts by isolating the ghostly manifestation from their remains, thus cutting them off from their source of power. I don’t know if it will work against a Moon-Anathema, but if he was just a beast-man channeling magics from his god-patron, it would work.
I slashed across his biceps, and raised blood, which was as much as Randrel had done with a Dragonblooded charm. The beastman seemed to realize this and went on the defensive. Even with salt in his eyes and his magic tricks turned off, he was still a formidable foe. He was a beastman with the blood of the moon-devils flowing in his barely human veins. He was much taller than I was, and undoubtedly stronger.
What he wasn’t, was a better claw fighter than I was. I had studied the Tiger Claw as part of the Immaculate Water Dragon fighting style. He was just applying his instincts to the artificial claws strapped to the back of his hands. In keeping with Daana’d’s way of fighting, I would use his own strengths against him. I feinted with my right claw, and he broke the curving ends of my steel claws with his Orichalcum claws - and he almost broke my forearm in the bargain. But that gave me the opening to send my fighting chain right at his head. He, of course, parried the chain and tried to pull me off my feet with it. Which was exactly what I wanted. I let go of the chain, and he almost pulled himself off balance. His legs were spread wide to set himself, and as his arms were busy coping with the unexpectedly free chain, I ducked between his legs. With the set that was still intact, I sunk my claws into the back of his knee, hamstringing him. The tendons in his knee, which were already taut with the strain of keeping his great bulk upright, gave out, and he fell to the floor with a bellow. He put both hands on the floor, trying to get back up, which gave me my perfect opening. I opened his throat with my claws, and as he clutched at the blood spurting out, I drove the damaged - but now quite straight - claws on my right hand into his eyes.
The Man-Bear wasn’t quite dead, so I drew my daiklave and sent him to his god.
The next morning, Isegris staggered out of his room in our suite back at the Tower, looking like he’d had a heavy night. “What happened?” he muttered to those of us enjoying a late breakfast.
“Weeelllll… let’s see-” Mykiros warmed up, “yesterday we tracked the villains down to their lair in a particularly seedy part of town and laid a trap for them. Unfort-”
“I KNOW that part!” Isegris snapped, “What happened after that overgrown turd- hauler kicked me in the teeth?”
“Well, you went beddy-bye for a while - by the way, how are the teeth this morning?”
“I’ll live, thank you very much.” Then he gave me a hard look. “And what are YOU doing?”
“Oh, me?” I answered innocently, “Just polishing the wonderful Orichalcum Tiger Gauntlet that I took off the Man-Bear that almost fed you your molars.”
“Oh, right, that happened after he tucked you in for the night,” Adlynn said lightly. “It turned out that the big fellow who was leading the bear cultists was a bear beastman.”
Isegris shook his head. “Beastman? Impossible! He was human!” Isegris’ eyes went wide, “You mean I fought an anathema?”
“That’s what we thought at first,” Master Adan said between mouthfuls of rice. “But it turned out that the clasp that he used for his cloak was a Moonsilver talisman that allowed him to pass as a human. No, he was just a beastman.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t say that he was JUST a beastman,” Esrak gently reproved Master Adan. “Give the monstrosity his due; he was a SUPERIOR beastman, and most likely the Bear Emperor’s own champion.”
“Hold on,” Isegris said, “if YOU killed this ‘Man-Bear’, why is HE polishing those claws as if they were heirlooms passed down from his grandfather?”
“Because,” I said, barely able to restrain myself, “HE didn’t kill the Man-Bear, *I* did!”
Isegris slumped down onto a seat, picked up a cup and held it out for some tea. “YOU killed the thing that almost caved in my jaw?”
“AND, put Randrel and Nog down for the count, as well!” Adlynn added brightly.
“They’re still in their rooms, recovering,” Master Adan explained. “They were both rather badly cut up, but between youth, dragon blood, the judicious use of healing charms, and those remarkable bandages, they should be up in a while - by the way, Lady Adlynn, I’ve been meaning to ask you, what ARE those bandages made of?”
“Dreamsilk,” Adlynn responded matter-of-factly.
“She and Rennar were in Deornel,” Mykiros explained, “before Randrel and I caught up with them. A bit of fuss and bother with some *ahem!* ‘Gray Neighbors’. Rennar managed to arm-twist an entire bolt of dreamsilk out of a minor Fae lord.”
“An… entire… BOLT… of dreamsilk…?” Master Adan sputtered, as nearly close to speechlessness as I’ve ever seen him come.
“Oh, Yes!” Adlynn almost squealed, “Enough for four or five gowns!” Then she glowered at the rest of us. “Or, at least there WOULD BE, if these louts wouldn’t insist on cutting up my cloth for their bandages! I had to have one dress made up way out here instead of in the Imperial City, while there was still material left!” She finished with a sniff and a sip of her tea, the very image of Aunt Shallis.
“Excuse me, Lady Adlynn,” Master Adan leaned forward intently, “but exactly how much of this bolt is left?” Suddenly, it occurred to me that aside from the fact that Sthallen Kesros held him in some esteem, that we didn’t really know that much about Master Haldjar Adan. It also struck me that Sthallen Kesros was the sort of lonely bookworm who would hold anyone who sat through one of his diatribes in some esteem.
“Oh, I’d say enough for one or two dresses more,” Adlynn said, glad to have someone to talk about such things with.
“That’s absolutely FASCINATING,” Isegris snarled, “but you still haven’t answered as to why the SQUIRE took the first prize, and *I*, who almost got my JAW broken, got nothing!”
“You know the rule, Isegris,” Mykiros reproved him, “the one that kills the big nasty gets first claim to the spoils.”
“Remember?” I prodded, “That’s how you got that wonderful belt that you’re so proud of?” I paused, as if suddenly remembering, “Oh, yes, that is, you were so proud of it, before you lost it at dice…” I tutted sadly.
“Besides, Isegris!” Esrak said heartily, “It’s not like you’re getting nothing!” he tossed Isegris a bag. “Two-hundred and six dinars!”
“Two hundred and six dinars?” A hundred dinars are about what an honest clerk or artisan would make in a year.
“It’s your share of the reward.”
“There’s a standing 100 dinar a head reward for members of the Bears’ Claws, and there was a 250 dinar reward for Roaring Thunder.”
“They paid off on the reward already?”
“Lady Bel’Yal was very pleased, and expedited the pay-off.”
“Lady Bel’Yal,” Isegris said, “the ah…” He held two hands before his chest, “who’s so chummy with the Satrap.” Isegris looked at the sack of coin in his hand, and then at the Orichalcum treasures that I was polishing, and then at the sack of coin again. I could see him mentally calculating how much roistering he could do with two hundred dinars. He reached over and stuffed some hashed root in his mouth. “So. All this, and we still can’t go to Vallare Syresse and tell her that we’ve captured her sister’s killers.”
“Not quite,” Adlynn corrected him. “Bop did her little party trick.” From her perch, Bop chirruped in acknowledgement.
“Excuse me?” Master Adan asked, “‘Party trick’?”
“Oh, it’s a useful little something that Rennar and Bop worked out between themselves,” Mykiros explained. “Bop knows that if she shows us where the bad people who took the sweet meats that we throw at them go, she’ll get even more sweet meat.” Mykiros threw Bop some meat by way of explanation, which she bolted down happily.
“When I tripped up that man with the chain,” Adlynn said, “I got him with a piece of sticky meat. Bop followed him. And while you men were getting those three sides of meat back here, I followed Bop to where the Black Dragons are really staying.”
Isegris leaned back and grinned. “So, we go in some time after sundown, and-”
Esrak shook his head. “No, we go in during their lunch.”
“Lunch?” Isegris yelped, “But that’s the middle of the day! Whoever heard of a secret raid in the middle of the day?”
Esrak stood firm. “It’s not going to be a secret raid. I talked with the Captain of the Watch and the Imperial Legion Commander. We’re going in with a full squadron of the Legion, and as many Watchmen as the Captain can spare.”
“The WATCH?” Isegris almost screamed, “Are you INSANE? They’ll steal everything worth looting, the second that our eyes are anywhere else! It’ll be like trying to harvest a field after a swarm of locusts has come through!”
“Isegris,” Adlynn said coolly, “I tracked the Black Dragons back to the headquarters of Malvran’s Own Free Rangers, a company of mercenaries that mostly hires out to guard merchants out of Keldon. It’s headquartered about a half-mile from the blighted mansion, and has a running canal between them.”
“You think that this Malvran has hired out to these Black Dragons, whoever they are?”
“We can’t be sure. I did ask around, and the neighbors say that the Free Rangers were on the downward spiral for the last year. Then their fortunes seemed to turn about a month or so ago, and they had money coming in and money to spend.” Adlynn leaned in significantly. “And, from what I’ve heard, the neighbors are seeing less and less of the old regulars. Squads are riding out ‘on assignment’, and they haven’t come back yet.”
I could see Isegris adding two and two together in his head, and coming up with some whole number. “They’re rotating Malvran’s people out, and their people in.”
“And so,” Esrak said sagely, “they set up a small fighting force that can practice and drill in the open, in the heart of Keldon, without raising any eyebrows.”
“Malvran’s Free Rangers fields a force of 250 men and horses,” I told Isegris. “Assuming that the Black Dragons have replaced most of the Free Rangers, we’re talking about a force of between 150 to 200 trained fighting men, possibly more. They can post open guards without calling attention to themselves, they’re wary of the Bear Cult, and after last night, they’re expecting something. Trying something clever out of a cheap romance is out of the question. We do it openly, with the Legion, the Watch and any local Dragonbloods that we can talk into it, and at least one sorcerer. We squash them flat. We go in quickly, with the troops being told where to go as they’re on the move, so no one can slip away and warn them. Or, to warn the Bear Emperor’s people, so they can try and foul it up somehow.”
“And we’re supposed to get the Legion and Watch to go along with this, TODAY?”
“The orders have already been cut. It’s a done deal.”
Isegris looked aggrieved, as he usually did when he wasn’t riding roughshod over someone. “Well, why did you bother waiting for me to get up? You obviously have everything well in hand.”
I grinned at him. “We needed you to wake up Nog. Daana’d knows, I’d never do anything that dangerous!”
The cover for the force’s approach was a funeral procession. Isegris glowered at the farce. Who would be so stupid as to be fooled by a noble procession that just happened to wend through a bad part of town at High Noon? Isegris just knew that this was that idiot Rennar’s idea. It had that ‘I’m so clever, but really so ineffectual’ feel to it that he associated with the mortal worm. And come to think of it, where had the worm gotten himself to? “Adlynn! Where’s your squire? This circus is his idea, he should have to suffer along with the rest of us!”
Adlynn just gave him a smug grin. “Oh, he’s holding up his end, don’t you worry.” Which, of course, only made the gnawing in Isegris’ gut grow to draconic proportions.
Larsk Uu’ela was senior enough that he was the personage of authority in the dining hall when the message came in. He calmly read the message, but almost spat out his dumpling soup when the significance of it registered. ”Ussh’urr’ussh’s Blood!” he snapped and stood. “ATTENTION! We have been found out! The City Watch is on the march to arrest us! I want Claws One, Two, Four and Seven on the walls! Don’t show yourself until they’ve committed to the attack! Everyone else, follow the emergency decamping procedure!”
As the Black Dragons scrambled about following those orders, two men in black stealth silks and dragon masks hurried into the hall and approached Larsk with brisk bows. “Honored One, we bring an urgent message from the Master! This place has been found out-”
“I KNOW that, idiot!”
“We are to escort you and the treasure to rendezvous with the Master.”
“Good, then I needn’t inform the Grand Master of this. Will we meet him in Kelfaris, as agreed?”
“The Grand Master said nothing of Kelfaris. He said that you would know the proper place.”
Larsk nodded. That was the proper response. Messengers and escorts wouldn’t be told vital information like that. He waved away the two men who would have escorted him, and set them about other chores. “Come this way.” Larsk strode purposefully to the Grand Master’s office. As he walked, he pulled two rings, one from each hand, and joined them together so that they formed a composite key. He used the key to open a secret cache in the paneling of the office wall, and pulled out a large elaborately carved iron bound chest. “Take those drapery cords there, and use them as handles.”
The three men wrestled the heavy box into a storage room. Larsk pulled two more rings from his fingers to produce another key and opened another secret panel. This one led down into the sewers. Larsk held the lantern and led the two men through the sewers. At last, he found the carving of the spider that he was looking for, and put two of the rings that he’d already used together in another way. He fit the key into the spider, and forced the reluctant lock to open. Short shelves popped out of recesses in the stone, forming a crude hidden ladder. Larsk told one of the servants to stay with the box and the other to go up the ladder with him.
The ladder lead up into a livery stable. Larks pointed to the block and tackle, which was lowered down the hole. The servant who had stayed with the box hooked it up with the tackle and used the rope to help haul up the box, even as he climbed up the ladder. Finally, the box was safe. Larsk took a moment to gather his breath-
-just as one of the ‘servants’ swung the box right into his mid-section. His companion quickly finished the job with a cudgel.
When the Black Dragon functionary went down, I checked his pulse. “He’s fine,” I told Mykiros. “Mind you, when he wakes up, he’ll probably wish that we’d slit his throat.”
“True,” Mykiros said as he slipped his dragon-mask off, “but that would be tacky.” As Mykiros saddled up some horses, I took the oh-so-clever rings off the functionary’s fingers, and a few other things.
“What about this?” I held up a bag of coins.
“Leave it. The poor fellow’s going to have a hard enough time of it as it is.”
“Well!” Isegris said as they all walked into our suite, “Where were YOU two, while we were slogging through that bee-hive? That mess was all YOUR idea, anyway!”
“Well, WE were busy helping the seneschal of the Black Dragons do a little moving.”
“We pulled a variation on the old ‘the house is on fire, let me help you move the family jewels’ trick,” Mykiros explained.
“You just walked in,” Randrel said, itching at his bandages.
“What?” I objected, “Two wealthy young merchants, looking for guards for a caravan through the wicked wilderness? What sort of mercenary troop would they be, if they just turned us away at the door?”
“Of course, the commander of the watch was at luncheon, so we had to wait,” Mykiros continued.
“Shocking breach of business etiquette,” I sniffed, “having lunch at lunchtime! What IS the world coming to?”
“So we took advantage of that to change into the stealth blacks and dragon masks that we took off two of those fallen ninjas, and were about to raise the alarm-”
“WHAT?” Nog yelped, “You sicced the entire house on us?”
“Actually, we didn’t have to,” I said as I produced the slip of paper that I took from the seneschal. “Someone beat us to it. Quite convenient, in a way.”
“I’m glad that YOU think so!”
“It’s much easier to find your pigeon, when he stands up and starts giving out just the orders that you want.”
Isegris plopped down on a couch and glowered, “Well, I’m glad that YOU two were having such a good time! WE didn’t even get a good fight! The ‘Black Dragons’ - Dragons, HAH! - they scattered like cockroaches! And what they didn’t cart off, the Watch confiscated! By the time they were finished, the only thing worth walking off with was a sausage! And Nog got that,” Isegris finished, scowling at his brother.
“What?” Nog bleated, “I was HUNGRY!”
“Oh, I don’t know about nothing,” Randrel breezed, “I picked up a lovely silk tapestry with a black dragon design. I’ll send it home to Mother, so she won’t complain as much when we get home.”
“Oh,” Isegris sneered, “you picked up a souvenir for Mother! What a sweet boy you are!” He reached over for a bottle and poured himself a drink. “I don’t see as where we’re any better off than we were before.”
“What?” I asked, “Two hundred dinars isn’t enough for you?”
“I am a Dragon Lord of the Realm! Two hundred dinars should barely cover the costs of my robes!”
“Well then! We’ll have to see what the Black Dragons were really trying to hide! Then maybe you can afford shoes, as well!” I leaned over and shouted, “Master Adan! How is that lock coming along?”
Master Adan was squinting at the lock on the huge chest through a complex optical headset arrangement. “Just a moment! I think that I have… Yes!” Then a slender needle jabbed out of the lock, barely missing Master Adan’s hand by a gnat’s breath. “Let me try those rings again…”
We wandered over en masse to the table where Master Adan was trying to open the box that we’d taken from the Black Dragon seneschal. Now, neither Mykiros nor I are weaklings, and it had almost wiped out both of us dragging that box through the sewers. It came up to half-past my thighs, was half-again that in width, and twice the width in length. It was decorated with elaborate carvings of dragons frolicking in a river setting, all done in a hard dark wood, and bound in iron. “Well, what is it?” Isegris asked wryly, “The Scarlet Empress’ makeup kit?”
Master Adan threw down the rings that we’d taken from the seneschal, and gave up in disgust. “Five rings, three settings, and I’ve tried EVERY combination! The only answer is that this ‘Grand Master’ of yours must have a key that they need to open this box.”
“But wouldn’t the seneschal have a key to open it?” Adlynn asked.
“All that means,” Esrak pointed out, “is that this isn’t the petty cash box.”
“Of course not,” Isegris griped. “The Captain of the Watch got THAT.”
Master Adan snarled at the lock. “Still, there MUST be a way to open that thing!”
Isegris raised a finger, a look of serene competence on his face. “Allow me.” Master Adan took away from the table, to allow Isegris to try. With a single fluid stroke, Isegris unsheathed his daiklave, and set to strike the lock with it.
“NO!” Master Adan stopped him. “I’m sure that I can open this lock, if you’ll all just… let me handle this alone.”
“Why alone?” I asked.
“Well, I wasn’t always a bookworm, my son. I have certain… secret techniques that I’m not comfortable sharing.”
Nog shrugged widely, “So what? What’s he going to do, run off with it under his robe?”
Master Adan shooed us out of the room, and when he called us back a few minutes later, the lock was open, and the sage was looking insufferably pleased with himself.
We carefully opened the trunk. The box was separated into two compartments. In one compartment were large sacks, and smaller wooden boxes. In the other compartment were more small wooden boxes and some clothing. Esrak pulled out one of the sacks and hefted it, giving an expert listen. “Silver. Dinars. And about sixty pounds of them, by my guess.” He picked up another sack and similarly hefted it. His face split into a wide grin. “Jade! Obols!” Jade is in value to silver, at the rate of eight silver to one jade. The boxes were full of bars of silver and jade, and there was also a box full of loose gemstones.
Master Adan went through the other compartment, which was nowhere nearly as financially rewarding. Indeed, most of the boxes were empty. But the robes were of the finest black silk, and a few of the boxes were full of alchemical powders and ointments. "My guess is that most of these boxes were full of ritual magical tools, and this ‘Grand Master’ that the seneschal spoke of was using them somewhere else. I might be able to guess what they were, by the shape of the recesses for holding them in the boxes, but it would just be guessing. Hold on, this ‘compartment’ is just another box within the trunk…”
Master Adan lifted up the box to reveal what appeared to be a gray felt lining. Esrak lifted up the box holding the moneybags, revealing more of the same sheet of felt. I reached in and pulled back the felt, revealing a flat slab of creamy white jade that filled the length and breadth of the trunk. Indeed, the trunk had probably been built, just to house that slab of jade. The slab was perfectly smooth, except for the eight panels that were carved into it, and the seals of the Imperial Mint carved into each panel. “It’s a Talent,” Randrel croaked. “A Jade Talent.” Talents of jade are the largest unit of money in the Realm, both in size and value. They aren’t even used to buy things. Most people never actually SEE a jade talent in their lives. The things are used for accounting and taxation purposes, for amounts of exchange that are so huge that anything else would be too cumbersome. A very wealthy man, a merchant prince might earn the value of four or five Talents in a year. Those eight carved panels constituted more money in one place than any of us had ever seen before in our lives.
Master Adan looked at the side of the trunk. “That thing is too tall. How many of those things are IN there?”
Cautiously lifting the talent, we revealed first another talent of black jade, then another of red jade, then one of blue jade, and a final, fifth talent of creamy green jade. FIVE TALENTS. As one, we all sort of slumped down, realizing how MUCH money we now had possession of.
“Oh, we are in SO MUCH trouble!” Esrak groaned.
“How do you see THAT?” Nog asked, “With that much money, we could BUY the Threshold!”
“THAT,” Esrak waved a hand at the stack of pure monetary might, “is just enough money to start up a ton of trouble, but not enough to buy our way out of it. If it gets out that we have these things, even the Satrap will be sending people for us.”
“Especially the Satrap,” Master Adan mused.
“Because that’s his bribe.”
“Think about it. Five talents of jade, one for each elemental dragon, in their signature color. WHY would the Black Dragons bring this much money along with them?”
“For bribes,” I said, seeing what he was about.
“Precisely. And who is the final voice of what passes for justice in these parts?”
“The Satrap,” I said, playing the part of Master Adan’s star pupil for the benefit of the ‘class’. “And it would take about this much to buy off what they’re doing, should they ever get caught. However,” I took off on another angle, “the Satrap doesn’t know about this. They haven’t bought him off yet.”
“Are you sure about that, young Master Rennar?” Master Adan asked. “They could have shown the Satrap the talents, and said something along the lines of ‘let us be about our business, and you can have these when we’re done’.”
I shook my head. “No. If Avrall knew that they had these, he’d just quietly track them down and take it from them, probably using the excuse that they’d stolen Treasury property or some such. Besides, Avrall set us on them.”
“Which only argues that he did it as to seem that HE wasn’t behind it.”
I saw Master Adan’s point, but I still didn’t agree. “No, whatever this is about, it’s not money. The way that the Satrap, the Bear Emperor, and the Black Dragons are charging about doesn’t suggest money. Or at least, not five talents worth of it. People like the Prince and the Bear Emperor can always get more money like that. No, they’re after something larger, something with real power.” I looked at Esrak. “You said something about a ‘crown’. Care to enlighten us?”
Esrak shrugged. “There was some talk that the renegade had somehow made off with the Bear Emperor’s crown.”
Master Adan made a dismissive sound. “It means nothing, boy. Idle chatter by people guessing at things they know nothing about. The material point here is that this chest was the Black Dragons' ‘treasure’ as you put it, and the only thing of any worth here is money. IF, and I remind you that it’s only an if, this hypothetical renegade did steal something of power from the Bear Emperor, there’s nothing that says that he got it to the Black Dragons. Indeed, this much money suggests that they were prepared to pay a handsome price for something, but they never got the chance to.”
“OR,” things came to my mind and started fitting together, “they needed the talents to show to said renegade, and when he DID show up, they paid him with a dagger in the ear. But if they didn’t put it in here…” I rapped the inside of the trunk lid, truly expecting it to be solid wood. But, there was the hollow sound. “Oh, I don’t BELIEVE this! I’m losing all respect for these people!”
I poked around the interior of the lid until I found the sliding parts, which released the panel. Hidden in a recess under the panel was something wrapped in coarse cloth. “Well, it doesn’t look like a crown…” Adlynn reached in and pulled it out. What she unwrapped was a vaguely pentagonal piece of pale golden metal that might indeed be orichalcum, elaborately worked with bits of jade, soulsteel, starmetal and moonsilver. Two of the sides of the piece were crenellated in what looked like dovetails. But the remarkable thing about it was the large triangular green stone set in the very middle. I suspected, but Adlynn immediately confirmed it. “ooohhh… a Hearthstone…”
“Indeed,” Esrak grunted, “now THAT is something that the Black Dragons would kill over.”
As usual, Esrak knew whereof he spoke. Despite appearances, a hearthstone isn’t a physical stone, even a precious stone. Indeed, from what I’ve heard the fabled Immortality Stone is just black. Yes, I’ve also heard that you can see a rainbow sheen if you look real hard, but so what? The point is, it’s not a piece of rock, it’s a piece of solid magic. At least, that’s how I understand it. The thing is, they’re powerful. The Immortality Stone makes the Exalt who wears it… well, immortal. They can die, but neither age nor disease will touch them as long as they have it. And, hearthstones tap into the flow of Essence, so an Exalt recharges their power more quickly.
And, they can power items of magical power. Like this one, here. Whatever it is.
“Well, Master Adan… it’s unlikely that anyone’s going to conveniently explain exactly what this IS, or why everyone’s so interested in it. Care to hazard an explanation?” I beamed in earnest curiosity.
Master Adan gave me a sere look of un-amusement. “Hearthstones are created within a Manse, which is the structure that stabilizes an entire Demesne. Hearthstones allow the master of the Demesne to remain in contact with his Manse at all times, and to tap into that power. When someone attunes a hearthstone, they become the master of that Manse and Demesne. To become the master of a Demesne is to control the Essence of an area. Also, even if you haven’t attuned the Hearthstone, which can only be done within the Manse where it was created…”
“Will you sum UP already?” Isegris yelled, Heshiesh bless him.
Master Adan sighed. “My guess is that this hearthstone was created in the Underground Palace. With the proper tools, a hearthstone can lead one straight to the place where it draws its power.”
“Sooooo… whoever has this stone, can find the Underground Palace?”
“Not directly. It wouldn’t tell them where the physical entrances were, or how to get past the traps or wards.”
“But it would be a huge help in dowsing the locations of the entrances.”
I got up and started pacing. “And what does the thing that it’s set in do?”
He picked it up and turned it around. “I’m not sure. I am relatively certain that this isn’t a complete device. These,” he indicated the ‘dovetails’, “suggest that this has at least two more components. And as the hearthstone is unattuned, well, I can’t even observe its incomplete functioning.”
“So,” Esrak said through steepled hands, “what we have are three possibilities. Either they want it for the hearthstone, as to find and take possession of the Underground Palace, and all that entails. Or, they want the device, whatever it is, and the hearthstone is irrelevant, and may have nothing at all to do with the Underground Palace. OR, one party wants the hearthstone, and the other the device, for completely different reasons, but they’re not so inclined as to split up the set.”
“Thank you, Esrak,” Randrel said with snide sarcasm, “now it all makes sense.”
For once, Isegris and I were in perfect agreement - having that much money demanded celebration. And by further mutual - if unspoken - agreement, Isegris went his way, and I frequented cantinas that actually had standards. And, amazing all who knew us, we also agreed that standing a guard in our quarters was rather like standing on the balcony and announcing to the world that we were the ones that deprived the Black Dragons of five talents of jade. We settled for placing the chest in Adlynn’s room and placing Isegris’ dog, Chig, on guard. Chig is mean enough to attack anyone that he doesn’t know who’ll come into the room. Tscha, if anything, I was rather worried about Adlynn.
Eschira waited as the Dragonblood went for his seventh climax of the night. If he’d had any technique or regard for his partner, it might have been a night of pleasurable memories. As it was, all that she’d remember about this night was soreness between the legs, a trial borne for her love of the Bear Emperor. Even the sound of her own mock giggling was beginning to get on her nerves. Finally the redheaded demigod grunted, gave her his dubious ‘gift’, and rolled over, already half-asleep. Just like any normal man. Eschira silently thanked the Bear Emperor and his father, and waited for him to go completely to sleep. When his breathing was even and regular, she slipped out of the sticky sheets and hurried to clean herself.
When she had the last of him out of her, she went about her appointed task. She took her two dangling pendant earrings from her ears and soaked them in brandy. When they were soft, she used an improvised mortar to grind them to paste and a cloth to soak up as much of the wine as she could. She turned one of the scarves from her hair into a breathing mask, and carried the paste into the common room. There, as was promised, a large brazier was filling the entire suite with the scent of incense. Eschira threw a jot of brandy onto the flame to perk it up, and then added the paste. The paste burned, producing a powerful smoke that mingled with the scent already permeating the suite. Eschira stepped out of the suite into the clean air of the bower, but made sure to close the sliding door behind her. She kneeled and said a prayer to the Bear Emperor, both to keep track of the time, and to keep her mind on her task. The Micomicon smoke presented a powerful temptation to her.
When her prayer was finished, she made sure of her alchemically treated breathing mask, and went back inside. The entire suite was redolent with the smell of Micomicon smoke. She carefully searched each room until she found the chest in the room of the only female in their group, most likely as it was the best protected room in the suite, even though she was a Dragonblood. And even then, they had put a large, rather nasty looking hound with a broad muzzle on guard. The dog even growled and snapped in his drugged sleep. Having found the chest, Eschira opened the door to the balcony wide open and let the rooms air out. She lit two candles and set them close together outside. Then she sat and waited.
After a few minutes, there was a light tapping at the door. Still, with her scarf over her mouth and nose, she hurried to the door and opened it. Four men dressed as porters for the hospice of the Bower of Resplendent Azure Welcome were waiting with similar breathing masks. Eschira beckoned them in and wordlessly led them to the chest. They carefully moved the snarling cur and arranged carrying ropes. Three of the men carried the chest, as Eschira and the fourth opened doors and moved inconvenient furniture to speed things along.
They were almost at the door to the outside hallway when a voice spoke, “Such service! But really, you needn’t bother! We won’t be checking out for a while. So, put it right back where you found it.” Spinning around, Eschira spotted one of the Dragonblood’s companions, a tall, supple older man whose dark hair and mustache were beginning to turn a shade of green. He was only dressed in his sleeping shirt, but he was already in a fighting stance.
Almost by sheer reflex, Eschira reached into her hair and threw a handful of drugged needles into the man. Ba’Selig Esrak looked scornfully at the needles embedded in his arm. “Dear girl, don’t you know better than to use drugs on a Dragon of Wood?”
With a shout, he launched into the ‘porters’ before they could get their weapons clear of their sleeves. Eschira ducked past them through the door. The ‘porters’ were obviously well trained fighters, and they made much better use of the close quarters than Esrak did. But dragon blood will tell, and he put them down, one by one. As he was in the process of taking out the last one, the chest suddenly jerked as if coming to life, clattered about the hall, and knocked Esrak off his feet on its way out the door. Esrak kipped up to his feet and rushed to the door. He saw the trunk being clumsily pulled along by a rope, just before it swung around a corner. He almost was out the door after it, when a hand laid on his shoulder and pulled him in.
“You LET them get away with the trunk?” Isegris screeched. Well, can’t really blame him. He, Nog, Randrel and Adlynn were still all a little fuzzy and hung over from the Micomicon smoke. Not that Chig was any better for it, either. Looking at their washed out features, I gave a silent thanks to Daana’d that I’d given Bop and myself an antitoxin to Micomicon drugs before I went to bed last night. Mykiros and Esrak took their immunity to vegetable toxins as their divine right as Exalts of the Wood Dragon.
“Of course we did,” Mykiros said smoothly.
“Oh, Heshiesh’s Blaze, is this another one of Rennar’s fool tricks?”
“Actually, we worked it out together.”
“You LET them take the MONEY?”
“Oh, don’t be ridiculous,” I said, “we hid it in the safest place that we could think of. Nog’s room.”
“Why is my room the safest place?” Nog asked.
“Because no one would dare to dig through your dirty laundry.” I looked at Mykiros. “So, who will we get to dig those bags out, before housekeeping works up the nerve to deal with it?”
“The bags? What about the talents?”
“Well,” I smirked, “Let’s just say that I doubt that even the Scarlet Empress herself ever ate on as expensive a breakfast table.” I rapped my knuckles on the table we were eating on.
Randrel lifted the tablecloth and blanched. “Very well, what about the hearthstone? And the orichalcum whatever-it-was?”
“Well, the orichalcum whatever-it-was is still inside its niche in the trunk. But as for the hearthstone, well, it’s hidden somewhere in the suite.”
Randrel snarled, “You know, Rennar, you’re making a lot of very important decisions all on your own here. What exactly are you up to with this?”
Mykiros cleared his throat significantly. “FIRST, Rennar and I thrashed this out between us. Second, Rennar and I went in to the Black Dragons’ stronghold all by ourselves and secured that box. If we really wanted to, we could make a case that we, he and I that is, are actually the only ones with a clear claim to what was in that trunk. We’re not going to,” he shouted down Isegris and Esrak’s enraged cries, “but we could, if we wanted to. Third, the money and the hearthstone are still here; only a fancy gewgaw that we don’t actually know really does anything has gone missing. Fourth and lastly, we did it, as we are keeping our eyes on the goal that we set out on in the first place!”
“Namely, finding Vallare Thyrelle’s killers,” I finished for him.
“Then why did you keep me from catching them last night?” Esrak grated. I think that he was angrier about being kept out of the know than anything else.
“I think that I’ll let Master Adan handle that question,” Mykiros waved at the sage, who was helping himself to breakfast.
“What are you doing here?” Isegris crotcheted.
“Answering questions,” Master Adan replied as he lifted the tablecloth and looked at the huge jade talent. “And being grievously underpaid for doing so, at that.” He chewed a bit and continued. “The reason, Lord Esrak, that Lord Mykiros prevented you from capturing the burglars, is that we have every wish that the trunk make it to the Grand Master of the Black Dragons.”
“Oh, Pesiap’s ivory fangs, it’s that trick that they pulled in Deornel again,” Nog moaned, his hand covering his head. “The Fey are one thing, but do you honestly think that these Black Dragons won’t notice a dripping perfume bottle? Especially after how you tracked them down yesterday? Hey, and won’t they notice that you took the money out? I mean, each of those sacks weigh about a hundred pounds! And each of those talents weighs about seventy pounds, I mean, won’t they notice that?”
“We filled the trunk with a few hundred pounds of ballast,” I answered. “And we didn’t use the perfume bottle trick this time. Master Adan?”
Master Adan cleared his throat. “We must assume that the orichalcum device was once powered by the hearthstone.”
“Oh?” Randrel asked dryly, “REALLY?”
Master Adan ignored Randrel’s gibe. “As such, there is a magical connection between them, as with the Manse. As we said yesterday, you can use a hearthstone to dowse the location of a Manse. There are enchantments that I know that will allow us to use the hearthstone to dowse the location of the devise that was its setting.”
“Which is currently either in the possession of, or being carried with all due dispatch TO the Grand Master of the Black Dragons,” Esrak put it all together.
“Well, that WAS the idea,” I admitted.
“There’s a problem?” Randrel asked, with a touch of dread in his voice.
“More a complication,” Mykiros said. “You see, the people that sneaked in here last night weren’t Black Dragons. They were Bear Cult.”
“When we turned them over to the Watch, it turned out that the idiots that Esrak brained were Bear Cult, not Black Dragon.”
“But how would the Bear Emperor even know about the trunk? The only people who knew about it were the Black Dragons and us! And the false dragons could only guess that we were the ones who cut their purse,” Esrak pointed out.
I nodded. “Indeed. How? I admit it; they completely surprised me. I was expecting some variant of Micomicon bloom, but I was expecting the Black Dragons to use it, in order to keep throwing suspicion on the Bear Emperor. I didn’t expect the Emperor to even know about it. Either the Emperor has a much better intelligence network that we thought, or the Grand Master is playing games.”
“You’re over-thinking this again!” Isegris snapped. “What does it matter, whether the Bear Buffoon or the Mock Dragons have it? They’re both heretics and outlaws, and they need to be dealt with, for the good of the Realm!”
“And what about finding Vallare Thyrelle’s murderers?”
“I think that we can agree that Thyrelle’s killers are either the Bears or the Mock Dragons. It’s simple; we take BOTH of them out. Like I said, they’re both heretics and outlaws. If anything, it works out better this way - we have the Mock Dragons’ operating capital, so they’re half-crippled, and we don’t have to worry about them as we tear the heart out of the Bear Emperor. Once the Emperor is out of the picture, the Satrap can concentrate on ferreting out the False Dragons. Justice is served, the Realm is safe, and we can finally get to Threebridge and some decent entertainments.”
Isegris can be a complete clot-head at times, but he does have a way of getting to the heart of a matter. I looked at Mykiros, who shrugged, and said, “Well, even Isegris has a valid point every so often.”
Not even Isegris was rash enough to think that we could storm the Bear Emperor’s stronghold, just the seven of us. We put the cash in the safekeeping of House Ragara’s local factor, and entrusted the five jade talents to the one personage in the region whose good name was more important to him than five jade talents- namely, the abbot of the local monastery of the Immaculate Order. The abbot wrote out Letters of Deposit for each of our shares, sealed them, and arranged for their delivery to Juche. Aunt Shallis is used to only hearing from us when we need money; I do hope the shock won’t be too wearing on her. Then we went to try and convince Prince Avrall that we could, in fact, find the stronghold of the Bear Emperor.
Fortunately, what with having killed the Bear Emperor’s champion and flushing out the nest of False Dragons, our credit with the Satrap was rather high at the moment. Prince Avrall wanted to rouse his entire force and send it at the Bear Emperor. But, the Imperial Legion commander, Cathak Arben, pointed out that by the time they could properly muster and array their forces, the Bear Emperor would have found yet another way to slip out of their grasp.
So, we found ourselves in the middle of a force consisting of two companies of Imperial Legionnaires, a company of City Watch, a squadron of horse mercenaries who rode as forward scouts, six Dragonbloods, and one War Strider that sounded like it was badly in need of proper maintenance. The five younger Dragonbloods, I noted, were connected to House Tepet, the Prince’s patron house. The elder Dragon Lord obviously manifested the aspect of elemental wood. Daana’d’s Breath, he looked like a patriarch oak that decided to go for a gallop. Mykiros and the others were riding with the Dragonbloods, while Adlynn and I were riding in an enclosed carriage with Master Adan and his geomancy gear.
I was becoming mildly nauseous with the jerking motion and the enclosed space, and needed something to take my mind off the rocking. “So, Master Adan - do you have any theories as to what sort of defenses the Bear Emperor will have?”
“The mind boggles,” Master Adan muttered. “The Bear Emperor is a God-blood who has taken control of a Terrestrial Manse. Even if his devotees abandon him, which I doubt, he’ll be able to summon quite deadly magics.”
“God-blood?” Adlyn chirped, “Manse? When did you find out about that?”
“Oh, months ago.”
“Why didn’t you say anything?”
“You didn’t ask.”
“Hold on,” I objected, things clicking into place, “if you knew that the Bear Emperor’s stronghold was a manse, why wouldn’t you suspect that the hearthstone in his crown was to the Underground Palace, and not the Emperor’s Manse?”
Master Adan looked up from his calculations and gave me a cross look. “Because he IS attuned to his Manse. The hearthstone in his ‘crown’ was un-attuned. Also, the Bear Emperor would immediately be able to find the hearthstone to his manse, and not have to waste time sending people asking fool questions. Also, the Emperor obviously has used some manner of enchantment to hide the White Temple.”
“His Manse. I have been researching this area for a while, you know. The White Temple remains hidden, which means that the enchantments that hide it are still in place, ergo, the Emperor is still attuned to his Manse, and its hearthstone. Ergo, the hearthstone in our possession is not the one formed by the White Temple.” With that, Master Adan pointedly returned to his instruments and calculations.
“Well!” I forced myself to brighten up, “At least there’s some good news! Now, we know the Bear Emperor’s weakness! If we get his hearthstone away from him, we’ll cut off his contact with all the Essence from the Manse, which he’s no doubt come to rely on. Most, if not all of his magical defenses will fall, and well, the Dragonbloods will be able to cope with the rest.”
Master Adan looked up from his calculations, and gave me a severe look. “You call that knowing his weakness? My boy that’s like saying, ‘I know the giant’s weakness! If I somehow lop off his head, he will die’. The problem with that plan is that it relies on you somehow getting a hearthstone away from a God-blood in his own place of power.”
“Well, of course!” Adlynn chirped, “That’s the entire point! What’s the point of having epic adventures, if you don’t do something EPIC?”
Master Adan gave me a questioning look, and I nodded that, indeed, Adlynn really did think like that.
Master Adan was putting the finishing strokes on the second pendant, when there was a rapping on the roof of the carriage. I shoved my head through the drapes. Mykiros looked down at me from his horse. “The forward scouts report a gathering of forces in a clearing about three miles from here in that direction.”
I looked at Master Adan. “According to our expert, the White Temple is in that direction,” I pointed in another direction.
“That’s what they call the Emperor’s Manse.”
“Yes, where else WOULD a God-blood with his own cult set up housekeeping? Do try to keep up, ‘Kiros!”
“Ssaahhh… So, we go with Esrak’s plan. Is Master Adan finished?”
As if in response, Master Adan split the second pendant in half, and handed me the two halves. “Slight modification. If the White Temple is a Manse, then it’s shielded by concealing magic. Bop would get lost just as surely as anyone. When I touch this to the Temple’s hearthstone, you’ll be able to use this,” I handed Mykiros one of the halves, “to see through the illusions.”
“How will I know when you’ve touched the hearthstone?”
“You’ll know. Alternately, you should be able to use this to find Adlynn, if we don’t manage to touch the hearthstone.”
‘Kiros took the talisman, and as per Esrak’s plan, Adlynn and I slipped out of the carriage without waiting for it to stop. She and I would use Master Adan’s first talisman to find our way to the White Temple. The rest of our force would proceed to face the Bear Cultists so dramatically making a stand, way off in the wrong direction. They would most likely never actually engage the Satrap’s forces. The moment that the Legion moved into formation, the brigands would melt into the forest, to draw the Legion even further away from the Temple. If Cathak Arben fell for it, the brigands would stretch our forces out as much as they could, and then the Bear Emperor would send his real forces to crush the legionnaires. But Cathak Arben comes from a long line of tacticians and strategists; and now he knows that the real threat comes from another direction. I’ll leave the tactics to the tactician. My job was to get into the White Temple with Adlynn, and keep her focused on her job.
The thing about most magical defenses is that they aren’t solid walls of force. Rather, the easiest and most effective defense, especially for a hidden site like the White Temple, is to confuse the senses of people so they don’t see it, and get lost if they go looking for it. So, there won’t be a wall or anything, just some sort of maze to get lost in. Of course, if this is a temple, there also needs to be ways that the faithful can get in. So, there are landmarks that the ‘faithful’ will know to watch for, that will be stable in all the confusion.
OR, you could have a magical pendulum, which will just keep swinging in the right direction, no matter what sort of confusion you throw out there. Adlynn was the one with active Essence, not me, so she was the one leading the way. Or, at least, the pendulum led the way, and I followed her following the pendulum. We exited the carriage right as it was passing a thick copse of trees, and we stayed as well hidden as we could. There’s nothing quite so embarrassing as being the stealthy scouts that everyone knows is coming.
As soon as we were well away from the attack group, and reasonably sure that we weren’t being watched, we changed clothing. We changed into the clothing of two of the ‘Bear’s Claws’ that we’d killed at the Blighted Mansion. It stood to reason that once we got in, no one would question one of the Bear Emperor’s enforcers. Besides, they were the only disguises that we had. “Rennar,” Adlynn whined, “this bearskin cape reeks!”
“Why don’t you douse it with perfume? After all, NO ONE would suspect a vicious killer who smelled of lilacs, now would they?”
“Rennar, there’s something moving in these boots!”
“Yes, and they SHOULD be your feet!”
I pushed a complaining Adlynn in the general direction of the pendulum’s swing, and she eventually got into character. That is, assuming that the Bear’s Claws are habitually sullen and moping.
As we pushed on, the woods became thicker, and a dense fog rose up. And then the nature of the defense became clear - the fog swirled about as if it had a will of its own. Shapes that my eye could only half make out moved in unpredictable ways, just off to this side or that. There were whispers and unexplained sounds, and odd smells. And there was the constant nagging feeling that we were going the wrong way…
Oh, give me a break! Like we haven’t seen THIS before!
We plowed on through the mist, following the swing of the pendulum. It was only when we were well and truly within the mist, that it occurred to me that we were putting our complete faith in a talisman that had just been crafted by a man that I didn’t completely trust.
I was beginning to have severe doubts about Master Adan, when I saw a stable shape in the mist. I stopped Adlynn and pointed it out. As we peered through the murk, we finally made out the form of a crouching three-headed bear. It was a warding sentry statue. There were probably others, a line of them encircling the entire area. If we passed between them, someone in the White Temple would know of it. Well, I was agreeably impressed; someone on the other side was doing their jobs.
Of course, the reason that Adlynn and I were sent in - other than the fact that Isegris wouldn’t mind seeing my head on a pike - is that we know a few tricks ourselves. I produced a slip with the ‘Prayer of Unchallenged Passage’. Adlynn wrapped some of her wind around it and deposited it on the brow of the middle head of the statue. We walked a hundred yards or so over, and as expected, we found another warding sentry. Another prayer slip and the Emperor’s sentries were as blind as stone.
A hundred yards beyond the sentries, the mist started to clear, but the trees started getting… odd… Instead of being nicely irregular as trees are supposed to, with branches bowed by either own weight, they started flowing upward in graceful and lovely but unnatural ways, and the spacing of both the limbs and the trees themselves was too regular. We started darting from arboreal aberration to arboreal aberration as they became more widely spaced.
Then we finally made sight of the White Temple. It was a tall graceful structure, with several tiers of white colonnades, which stood at the end of a long pool. The pool fed water from a waterfall into the series of fountains on either side of it and from there to a tributary of the river. In stark contrast to the idyllic setting were the people gathered on the wide green between the tower and the waterfall.
In bits and patches, there were huddled groups of what looked like peasants and villagers, not quite champing at the bit, but grimly willing to do what they had to for the Bear Emperor. They didn’t worry me. If anything, I felt a bit sorry for them. Simple folk shouldn’t have to suffer for the ambitions of people like the Bear Emperor, God-blood or no. The ones that worried me were the trim columns of infantry in regular armor, and the lines of infantry. Adlynn leaned over, trying to get a better sense of them. “Odd, the Bear Emperor didn’t sound like the sort that trained and drilled regular troops. He struck me as more the ‘arm the rabble’ sort.”
“Me too,” I admitted, “but Lady Bel’Yal did say something about the Emperor’s trade in Micomicon drugs paying for mercenaries. Those are probably the mercenaries that he could whistle to attention on such short notice.”
Adlynn hummed speculatively. “I wonder if any of those cavalry are Malvran’s Free Rangers.”
“If they are, then remind me to never hire Malvran. No matter how it settles out, Malvran’s playing too fine and subtle a game for my tastes.”
Adlynn smirked, “Oh, that’s rich, coming from YOU.”
“I know where my real loyalties lie,” I said primly, “and I never waver from them. Treachery is a fool’s game, and Malvran doesn’t seem to know that. The only honorable reason to turn on your liege is if HE turns on you FIRST.”
Adlynn smiled and patted me on the shoulder. “Master Silk-Scroll-Of-Sublime-Sayings back at the Cloister would approve.” Then she turned her attention to the assembled hoard again. “Do you think that those three war striders actually WORK?”
I gave them a look-over as best I could from that distance. “Hard to say. They don’t look in the best shape. But then, neither does Prince Avrall’s.” Then I saw something that didn’t sit right. “Daana’d’s Breath, is that war strider in the middle made of wood?”
“Can you even make a war strider out of wood?” Adlynn asked incredulously. “Maybe it doesn’t really work, it’s just there to buck up the levees’ morale. Or, maybe it’s a decoy to distract the Dragonbloods when they come charging in.”
“No, Adlynn, that doesn’t work,” I said, calculating furiously, “first, they don’t know that the Prince’s forces will ever be able to find the temple. Besides, look at them. They’re not forming defensive ranks, they’re getting into deployment formations. They’re waiting for the decoy force to scatter the Prince’s line, and then they’ll attack the isolated groups in force. A war strider that doesn’t move can’t improve the troops’ morale.” I paused and thought. “However, you might be right - if they can get that wooden thing to move, it might serve as a decoy in the field for the Prince’s war strider and the Dragonbloods. I’d hate to be the poor sod driving the fool thing, though.”
Adlynn had gotten bored by my speculation and was looking at the tower. “That’s a rather small temple, don’t you think?”
I looked at the tower, and I had to agree with her. It was maybe thirty cubits across by sixty high. It might make a nice chapel, but hardly a temple. Then I noticed the pendulum in Adlynn’s hand. It wasn’t swinging in the tower’s direction. Rather it was swinging more towards the waterfall. “True. See over there? Sticking out of the waterfall? Those two covered bridges? That thing over there is probably just part of the Manse’s geomantic system. The temple itself is behind the waterfall.”
“Behind the waterfall?”
“Well, of course! Where would a Bear Emperor lair, except in a cave?”
As we were speculating, I noticed that the ones running around among the waiting forces who were wearing bear cloaks seemed to be acting as proctors, keeping order and passing along messages. The Bear’s Claws were probably acting on the orders of the priesthood or the Bear Emperor himself. Which meant that in these cloaks, we could go almost anywhere, as long as we looked like we knew what we were doing. I gave Bop the chirring noise that she knew meant to stay put until I blew her whistle, and sent her up into the trees. Then Adlynn and I set our heads low, and went bustling out of the woods, just quick enough to suggest a hurry, but no so quickly as to catch anyone’s eye.
It worked well enough; people tend to see what they expect to see, and in this tense situation, they expected to see Bear Claws bustling about taking care of business. We bustled through one of the covered bridges without being challenged. I noticed that the bridges had been cobbled on top of some other mechanism, which allowed the bridges to be drawn back behind the waterfall. Well, wading through several hundred pounds of falling water would put any invader at a distinct disadvantage. Still, I briefly wondered as to what the original purpose of the mechanism was.
Behind the waterfall was a shallow cave that was unremarkable, save for two large carved stone bears at either side of the passage. But a hundred yards beyond that, the cave widened up into a cavern for which the term ‘magnificent’ would be a tragic understatement. The cavern loomed up hundreds of cubits into the bowels of the mountain, and stalactites and stalagmites met to form long slender columns that were too symmetrical and harmonious to be natural. Dominating the front of the cavern was a fountain designed in tribute to the Five Elemental Dragons. Beyond the dragon-fountain was a huge open flame that appeared to issue from a hole in the cavern floor, with nary a smudge of soot nearby. The flames lit the entire cavern, yet somehow it didn’t make the huge chamber oppressively hot. And at the very end of the chamber was an immense stone bear’s head, flanked by two more large stone bears. Arranged in front of the huge bear-head were arcing rows of rugs.
While most of the surface of the floor and walls were, indeed, black, it wasn’t hard to see why this place was called ‘the White Temple’. The pillars, the railings, the sills, and the detailing around the edges were all covered in a glorious nacreous white substance. But most impressive were the stark pearly-white-and-matte-black frescoes that were all over the walls and the vaulting ceilings. The frescoes showed heroic scenes of warriors, priests and sorcerers fighting off horrific monsters, and building magnificent palaces. The dancing light of the eternal fire gave what would have otherwise been flat black-and-white iridescent colors, and made still figures move with strange hypnotic grace.
Here and there, small waterfalls flowed into channels along the side of the chamber. And there were staircases of white stone that led up to doorways, no doubt with corridors behind them that led deeper into the mountain. And, most of all, there were people. There were shabbily dressed peasants taking their places on the rugs in front of the great stone bear head. There were people in what looked like working clothes, going about very practical everyday chores involving wheelbarrows and carts of things. There were men in brown robes wearing the bearskin cloaks going about this errand or that. Some of them were waving censers around the area in front of the great bear head, apparently purifying it for some ritual. And, of course, there were men in Bear’s Claws uniforms.
But there were also a number of lovely healthy-looking young girls walking around who were of an age where they’d either be working their parents’ farm or fending off suitors. They wore long draping white gowns with gold trim, and several of them wore golden bits of jewelry. Their purpose seemed to be to go about, keeping up morale. They’d wander about, talking with this person, comforting that person, and generally keeping the tense atmosphere from getting too bad.
Adlynn gave me a jerk on the elbow, and walked purposefully towards one of the temple virgins, as I took them to be. Keeping her bear-hood low and shadowed, Adlynn told the maiden, “Come with us. You are needed.”
The girl seemed to have no worries about having done anything wrong. Her conscience was clean - aside from serving in the temple of a heretical and subversive cult, of course.
Adlynn evaded the girl’s questions until we were well into one of the side corridors and out of sight. “It’s about the Micomicon.”
“Weeelllll…” the girl started, confused, “isn’t the Micomicon over in THAT direction?”
Adlynn caught the Temple Virgin squarely in the midsection with a sideways kick that knocked the girl off her feet, and the wind out of her lungs. “The Micomicon is over there – good to know.”
As the girl gasped for breath, I held a phial of a sleeping vapor under her nose and she went out like a light.
We dragged the poor thing into what appeared to be some sort of storage room. I stood guard as Adlynn changed her Bear's Claw outfit for a Temple Virgin outfit. She came out of the room looking much more feminine and appearing to be much relieved. “Adlynn, are you sure that’s a good idea? I mean, you’re in the temple of a heretical cult that’s about to be under attack, and looks like it’s warming up for a MAJOR ritual; a temple virgin might not be the best thing to be, right about now.”
Adlynn looked down at her outfit. “But it’s so cute!”
“And how are you going to hide THESE?” I handed her the war-fans.
“Why hide?” She just tucked the fans into the belt of her gown and, I have to admit, they didn’t look that out of place. “Still, you’ll probably have to hold onto this,” she handed me her daiklave. Have you ever tried walking around with TWO great big thundering swords, without looking conspicuous? I mean, one’s hard enough!
We looked around to make sure that we hadn’t been noticed. Hordes of bloodthirsty Bear’s Claws weren’t coming for us, so we started moving. “So, we’re in. Where do we go now?”
“I’d say that we keep following the pendulum. We might as well get the whatever-it-is back, and who knows? We might find something else worth keeping as well.”
“Rennar, do you ever stop thinking about finding money?”
“Truly spoken like someone who knows that her mother will keep sending her money when she’s broke.”
We followed the pendulum back through the corridor, across the central chamber, up one of the other staircases, and down a corridor. And then Adlynn stopped, and started to worry her lower lip. “What’s the matter, Ad?”
“Well, the whatever-it-is is off in this direction, but I can feel an incredible power off in that direction.”
I thought it over for a bit. “We’d best take the second way. We don’t really NEED the whatzit, but we definitely need to know of anything powerful enough to raise your hackles from this far.”
We bowed our way through two rather lax and undermanned checkpoints, and found the third one completely unguarded. “Must have moved the regular guards out to the strike force outside,” I muttered. Then we stepped into the room that was the source of Adlynn’s feeling.
It was white.
It wasn’t just white, it was blinding white, it was featureless white, a white that devoured form and space, and left a sense of a boundless eternity of white. You looked at it and you wondered if your eyes were still working. “What is this place?” Adlynn whispered as her eyes tried to adjust to the aching emptiness of the all-consuming whiteness.
“I think this is the Hearth of the Manse,” I said. “The focal point of all the Manse’s energies, and it’s where the hearthstone was formed.”
“Where’s the hearthstone?”
“No such luck this time, Ad,” I said. “If the Bear Emperor doesn’t wear it on him full time, then he doesn’t deserve to be any kind of ruler.”
“Any chance we can use this to track where the Emperor himself is?”
“Not necessary.” Drawing on memories of visits to Manses back on the Blessed Isle during my time at the Cloister, I moved towards the very center of the room. The only clues that I had within the mark-less, bearing-less expanse of white were the four doors that marked the North, West, South and Eastern points. I finally found the ‘plate’ that the hearthstone forms on, and laid my half of the talisman that Master Adan had made for us. The talisman glowed faintly, and I pulled away to the door where Adlynn waited for me.
Master Adan sat stewing in his carriage. Waiting around for someone else to be competent is always one of the hardest things in any military operation. Cathak Arben had stopped them a good mile away from where Master Adan had estimated the White Temple might be. The Bear Emperor’s diversionary force was still waiting for them, and most likely had the good sense to not attack. The hardest part was for the men to stay sharp when there was no immediate objective in sight. There was the temptation to start making camp, even a stopover camp, and start to relax.
Then, he heard a cry from Varas Mykiros. “It’s done! They’ve done it! The t- our objective is THAT way!” Young Varas held up Master Adan’s talisman, which was glowing lustily.
Cathak Arben shouted for the men to snap to attention and get going, the horses started moving, and the whole shebang was en route. Finally, Master Adan muttered to himself. Now, if he could only trust these arrogant Dragonbloods to play their roles for a change…
I waited until we were well past the checkpoints until I let out a deep breath of relief. “Mission Accomplished. Right about now, the Prince’s forces should have gotten off their backsides, and are moving towards the soon-to-be very confused strike force.” I let out a satisfied grunt. “Heh. Let’s see how their wooden giant fools a real war strider. I just hope that the Prince’s strider doesn’t break down in transit.”
“So, what do we do NOW?”
“Now, we get OUT of here, while the getting’s good.”
“What about all that noise about snapping up the Bear Emperor’s hearthstone?”
“Ad, do you know where the Bear Emperor IS, right at this moment?”
“Neither do I, and looking for him on the very off chance of taking his hearthstone definitely falls into the category of pushing our luck.”
“What about the golden thing?”
“Ad, anything we get now will strictly be gravy.”
“Ren, how do we know that that thing isn’t some sort of weapon that could take out half the Prince’s force in a single blast?”
“It doesn’t have its hearthstone, remember? We removed it.”
“And that stops them from putting another hearthstone, one that’s attuned to someone, in it, HOW?” Adlynn insisted. “And what if the other parts that it’s connected to DO have hearthstones? After all, the both the Bear Emperor and the Grand Master of the Black Dragons wanted that thing very badly.”
Well, when Adlynn has a point, she does have a point.
So, we went trailing off in search of the golden whatzit. Well, it wasn’t like the Bear Emperor wouldn’t have his paws too full to do anything about us, in a little while. The Bear cultists were so busy with their preparations that the hardest part was setting the proper tone of calm hurry, while not being too obvious about the pendulum.
The pendulum led us to a large ornate moon gate of that pearly material, all done in a twining vine motif. Strung in front of the gate was a curtain of green silk cables with white cotton tassels strung along their length. Beyond the moon gate was another huge cavern, with more of those black-and-white frescoes. The cavern was dominated by a huge tree that grew to the very top of the more than hundred cubit high roof. But as impressive as all that was, what really caught my notice was the smell. “Micomicon!”
I pulled Adlynn back out of the room, and handed her one of the alchemically treated facecloths that we’d taken from the fallen Bear’s Claws. I allowed Adlynn to sneeze the Micomicon out of her sinuses, and we went back in.
Now that we had the leisure, we noticed that the cultists were exploiting the power within this room to benefit their Micomicon trade. They'd strung cables from the tree in the center, radiating out to the edges of the chamber. Dangling from these cables were slightly thinner cords. At first, it seemed that the cords were acting as trellises for some flowering vine with very thick and lumpy stems. The vines had large, dark green, heart-shaped leaves, and thorns and large bellflower blossoms of a color that reminded me of drowned corpses for some reason. But as we got closer, I could see that the ‘lumps’ were people tied to the cord. It couldn’t have been comfortable, dangling there like that, but their faces were slack and twitching, as if in some pleasurable dream. The vines were growing on the victim’s bodies, sending tendrils into the bodies through the skin and the open orifices. Some sick intuition told me that the flowers were feeding on the dreams and passions of the people they nested on.
There were a few people - three men in work clothes, a man in brown robes and a girl in temple virgin’s whites - still tending the blooms in masks similar to the ones we were wearing. The girl was climbing a knotted rope next to the cords, and carefully knocking pollen from one of the bellflowers into a silk sack. There were four people in wooden stocks by the walls. A fifth man in what appeared to be a nightshirt was carried from an open stock by two of the men in work clothes. They carried him to the base of one of the cords. They left him there, and shinnied up one of the knotted ropes next to each cord. They carefully disconnected the vines from the third person up the cable from the bottom, delicately pulling each tendril from the body, making sure not to break any tendril thicker than a fine thread. When the vine was finally free, they let the body drop like a sack of wet meal.
As they dropped to collect the replacement, Adlynn strode forward, briskly clapping her hands for attention. “Please! Our Lord has sent for his treasure! Now!”
The man in priest’s robes stepped forward. “What? Now? Why would our lord ask for it now?”
“Our Lord didn’t feel it necessary to tell me, and I didn’t ask. Why are YOU asking?” Ah, yes - when dealing with fanatics, always question their faith before they can question yours. I assumed a position behind Adlynn, as if lending the suggestion of force to her implied authority.
The priest in brown bowed, and gestured to the workmen, who dropped their tasks. As one they turned to the tree, and walked to a large cabinet set against the trunk. The priest and the maiden each produced a key and opened the cabinet. The four workmen struggled to pull out the pallet on which sat a large granite statue of a kneeling man. On the head of the statue of the kneeling man was a golden headpiece. The central piece, which lay over the brow, I immediately recognized as the orichalcum piece that we’d come here for.
I flickered my eyes at Adlynn, and she at me, and we both knew exactly what we had to do. As the workmen were still struggling with the statue, Adlynn and I each pulled the mask from the priest and the maiden. Adlynn threw the maiden into the workmen, upsetting the pallet so that the statue tipped over and pinned one of the workmen. I just settled for piling a fist into the priest’s midsection, taking him by surprise and knocking the wind out of him.
Adlynn and I made quick work of the workmen, snatching the masks from their faces as they were scrambling to their feet, and keeping them busy as the Micomicon fumes sent them into benumbed stupor.
Adlynn took a pause to breathe, and then looked at the statue. “Why would they keep this thing here, if it’s the Bear Emperor’s great treasure?”
“Well, from the looks of this place, I’d say that it’s a sub-node of the Manse’s geomantic outlay, probably attuned to the element of Wood. They use the energy of this place to help grow the Micomicon, so maybe they’re trying to keep this thing as charged as they can without the hearthstone. Besides, this way, the Micomicon safeguards the thing as well.” I examined the headset on the statue. “Well, this explains why the renegade only took this part - the rest of the headset is too clumsy to smuggle out unnoticed, so he just detached the part with the hearthstone.” I pulled the brow-piece from the rest of it, and tucked it into one of the many pouches on my belt.
“What about taking a few more pieces? I mean, they ARE Orichalcum…”
Before Adlynn could continue, I felt something strike the back of my neck. I jerked my head forward just quickly enough for the talons of the Eagle Claw to latch onto the fur of my bear cape instead of my neck. Following the cape as it fluttered up into the support cables radiating out from the tree, I spotted a team of dark-clad figures squatted there. “Nice dodge,” came a dry voice in River-speak, with a Forest-tongue accent. “Still, you did help us deal with those fools, so we’ll make this quick and painless.” He gestured minutely, and each of the Dragon-ninjas threw throwing irons.
I ducked behind Adlynn, who deflected the irons with the winds of her aspect manifestation. Then Adlynn used those winds to skip up the ropes to where the ninjas were. As I looked up, I saw that three of the ninjas had decided not to deal with Adlynn, seeing as how I was the one that had what they wanted. They dropped from a good hundred cubits high, depending on their skill and my body to cushion their landing. Waiting until the last moment, I unsheathed my daiklave and let the first ninja impale himself on it.
Of course, the fool took my blade with him as he slumped on the floor. I barely had time to throw his companion into the third ninja, before I had a chance to unsheathe Adlynn’s daiklave. But, once I had it out, I was able to send them to their final judgment in four strokes.
The Chain-man was keeping Adlynn busy, so another team of ninjas dropped down the cords for me. These ones had the good sense not to try me on the floor, but stayed on the ropes and threw throwing irons at me. The cords were too thick and heavy to shake them loose, so I had to crawl up into the vines to take the fight to them. I managed to use the bodies to shield me from the thrown irons. Yes, I know, I know, but it’s not like they actually felt them!
Finally, the ninjas ran out of things to throw, and they unsheathed their own steel. They thought that their shorter blades would have the advantage on the ropes. Idiots. I got above them, and used my great clumsy blade to sever the rope. They managed to land properly, but that didn’t save them from several hundred pounds of rope, vine and blissfully dreaming body.
Then, as I was watching one of them stagger out from under the pile, I was hit from above. I was knocked off the rope, and had to drop Adlynn’s daiklave in order to latch back onto the rope enough to drop safely to the ground. I immediately went for Adlynn’s daiklave on the ground, but just as my fingers were almost on the hilt, the Eagle Claw snatched it out from my grasp. The chain-ninja pulled it into his hands and struck a pose.
Now, daiklaves are swords, the way that tigers are cats. They are much bigger and far more deadly. They are huge things, which are longer and thicker than any other sword. Most mortals can’t even lift them, let alone fight with them. Most Dragonbloods that use them do so because the blades are attuned to their auras, and the magic makes them light enough to use effectively. A mortal who uses a daiklave can only expect to do so at a huge disadvantage. I trained with the damned things for years before I could do anything more than flail away clumsily with them. The ninja didn’t have that training.
On the other hand, I didn’t have my fighting chain, and with a daiklave’s reach, getting close enough to use my claws would be suicide. We started pacing in circles around each other. I was waiting for him to get tired, he was waiting for something else. I saw my own daiklave, still buried in that one ninja’s body. That was what he was waiting for. I calculated my chances of waiting this idiot out before Adlynn or some bystander-
Then I kicked myself for being an idiot. I sidled up to where the bear-cloak that had been snatched off of me had fallen and picked it up. Then I stopped, and held up one finger. The chain-man looked at me, puzzled. I took a deep breath and screamed at the top of my lungs, “INTRUDERS! INTRUDERS IN THE MICOMICON!” Then I turned and ran out of the room as fast as I could, screaming my lungs out.
I pelted down the corridor, and managed to attract the attention of a group of Bears’ Claws. “Intruders!” I shouted, breathing hard, “The Micomicon! The Treasure! They killed everyone!” Daana’d must have been looking over my shoulder just then, because just when I would have had to say something lucid, the chain-ninja and a few of his surviving dragon-ninjas appeared around the corner in hot pursuit.
I drew a sword from one of the Claws’ scabbard and turned to face the ninjas. “ATTACK!” I screamed and ran at the intruders. The Claws shouted and followed me into battle. They followed with such fervor that they caught up with me and passed me. And the second that the last of them passed me, I stopped, turned my back on the ensuing fight, and calmly walked away.
Just as I was about to turn the corner and put all that nastiness behind me, I heard a somewhat familiar “HYAH!” I turned just in time to see the golden Eagle Claw chain come right at me. I ducked around the corner, just as the Eagle Claw gouged out the corner.
The Prince’s force didn’t catch the Bear cultists by surprise. No, worse, they were in the middle of changing to a proper defensive position when the five young hotspurs came charging through the woods as if the defensive mists weren’t even there. The Fire Dragon had the presence of mind to leap off his steed before manifesting his fire aspect, but past that, he was little more than a screaming vortex of fire and destruction.
I have to admit what happened next was entirely my fault. As much as he loves to foul me up, even Isegris couldn’t have set me up any better than I did myself. And it happened simply because I got lost. And, yes, I was being chased by a very dangerous man with a top-of-the-line weapon, and while I still didn't know what this Orichalcum thing in my belt did, I knew that letting the Black Dragons have it was a bad idea. So, while it would have been much smarter to keep this fight just between us, and get out of here quietly, I was running through a corridor and suddenly found myself in the wide main chamber. While I paused to get my bearings for a bit, I resisted the urge to slow down to an inconspicuous trot. I ran down the staircase as quickly as I could, subtlety be damned.
Yes, I did the worst thing possible by looking over my shoulder, but it saved my neck. The chain-master came running onto the landing and sent the Eagle Claw at me, and only the fact that I saw it at the last moment kept me alive. Of course, the poor sod that I’d just shouldered aside wasn’t anywhere as happy about it as I was - he practically had his heart clawed out.
I think that I’d angered the chain-ninja. Instead of ducking back into the corridors, rejoining his comrades and focusing on getting themselves out of there alive, he kept after me. And I’ll give him this - he was fast. Indeed, I may have picked a fight with a renegade Dragonblood. He was that fast. There was no elemental aspect, but what did that mean in wide Creation? He was all over the place, using that magnificent Eagle Claw chain to swing from landing to landing, getting just ahead of me so that he could send the claw at me from another direction, while staying away from the roused cultists.
I managed to collect myself enough to realize that he was herding me. He wanted a quick clean kill in a place where he could get away from the cultists after getting the dingus out of my belt. And that meant that he had to bag me precisely under where he was braced, so that the chain would do most of the work of hauling me up. I let him head me off two more times, and paused precisely where he wanted me to pause. I made myself not look up, and more than anything, felt the Eagle Claw come down. I stepped back a bit and let the chain hit the floor right in front of me. I stepped onto the Claw and grabbed the chain. Either I’d drag him down here or-
He lifted me up, more out of reflex than anything. I didn’t give him a chance to recover; I rammed my fist into his face, just as I released the retracted claws. The claws went through his eyes, gouging out his brain. If I’m not careful, that may become my trademark.
I pulled my claws from his head and quickly cleaned them. I gathered up that wonderful chain, and made to escape, when I was stopped dead in my tracks. By applause.
I looked around and the cultists were cheering me. Then it hit me, that I was the heroic Bear’s Claw who’d defeated the deadly scout of the forces that were trying to attack them. If I were fool enough to hang around, they’d probably buy me a drink or ten.
Bunches of Bear’s Claws showed up, a day late and a dinar short. They were trying to sort it all out, and with all the excitement it hadn’t registered in their minds that I wasn’t anyone they knew. Of course, the dust mask from the Micomicon room helped. If anything, I got the distinct impression that I was quickly being tagged with the label ‘hero’. A group of brown priests walked up, headed by a tall, brawny fellow whose robes were silk, not cotton, had a bear-cloak that was white, not brown, and was carrying an elaborate staff. Only a high priest can get away with spending that much church money on himself.
He looked at the dead ninja and at the Eagle Claw chain in my hands. Feeling the pressure, I bowed my head and handed the chain to the Bear Priest. Well, if nothing, I could always take it off his dead body in an hour or so.
It turned out that I didn’t need to. The Bear Priest pushed my offering back at me, and closed my hand around it. The hero of the moment is paid for his courage, and all that. Then he turned to the onlookers. “And so, the Satrap’s spy dies! And so shall the Satrap’s paid murderers!” The faithful gave the expected cheer, and they went about whatever they were doing with a lighter heart.
You know, I was starting to feel bad about what we’re going to do to these people. If they weren’t kidnapping people and feeding them to strange unnatural plants, I’d feel like absolute scum.
“Come,” the Bear Priest said, “you have earned a place of honor in the great rite.”
There were a few claps on my back, and the priest trailed off. I was pushed along, as to suggest that I should follow.
That was NOT what I had in mind.
The Prince’s war strider had locked up at the end of a long swing, and was now swinging its huge warsword clumsily by twisting its entire midsection. Even so, it was keeping the mercenary cavalry at bay by simply denying them lines to charge in. Lord Cynis Dyabis, the hoary old Wood-dragon, was having a right jolly old time dismembering the animated wooden ‘war strider’.
Master Adan watched the proceedings with dyspeptic antipathy. The Bear’s forces weren’t trying to destroy the Prince’s - they were holding them off, slowing the Dragonbloods down, while not really putting themselves at risk. That meant that the Bear Emperor had another trick up his furry sleeve. And it worried Master Adan that he might know what that trick was.
There was a trumpet call that resounded within the cave complex. There was a few minutes’ wait, as everyone who was still at some task or another put their work aside and hurried to the prayer rugs in front of the great bear’s head.
I found myself standing in a line with four of ‘my fellow’ Bear’s Claws holding a long flaming brand, providing backup to the Bear Priest. I managed to spot Adlynn, standing in a white line with the ‘other’ Temple Virgins. She was peering intently at the Bear’s Claws, and finally spotted me, looking at her. We nodded with a complete mutual understanding as to how fucked we were.
When all the prayer rugs were full, and most of the main cavern was full of standing attendees, the Priest gave a gesture, and a huge hanging brass gong was sounded. The Bear Priest started up with the usual ‘brothers and sisters’ bit. There seems to be something in the clerical mindset that prevents them from using one word, if ten will do. He reminded them of the hardships that they had undergone, the depredations of the Satrap, the corruption of the Realm and all the usual subversive claptrap. He regaled them with tales of how the Bear Emperor had come to free them from the tyranny of the Satrap, and praised their steadfastness in adversity. He announced that the Bear Emperor had lured the Prince’s forces to the very doorstep of the White Temple, where he would show them, the Satrap and all of Creation, the true power of the Bear Cult.
Nice bit of double-talk, turning a surprise attack into falling for a trap.
“NOW is the Time! NOW, we strike! NOW, we destroy those who would destroy US!”
There was a sound of grinding stone, and the huge stone bear head opened its mouth wide, the jaw becoming a stair that led up to a huge throne. The throne was huge, and made of polished white marble in the shape of a bear’s head, and it would have dwarfed any normal man. But the man sitting on the throne dwarfed it. He was huge, a mountain of a man, and he seemed to have been hewed from a side of granite. He wore a gold circlet on his head, some gold bracers, white fur boots, a white loincloth, and a white capelet clasped by a gold brooch set with a pearl gem that burned with power.
The Bear Emperor. I’d rather hoped to avoid this meeting.
He stood, raised an elaborately worked scepter, and accepted the adulation of his worshippers. Beside him, grinning foolishly, was a large young man, little more than an overgrown boy really, dressed only in a white tabard. The lad looked like the sort who was the biggest, strongest farm-boy in the region. I got the impression that he didn’t really know what was going on.
The Bear Emperor stepped slowly down the tooth-steps, making a production of being completely in charge of the situation. The boy followed numbly.
The Bear Priest snapped his fingers, and the Claws put their torches into recessed sockets and gathered around the large boy. I followed suit as best I could, and put myself right behind the boy, which seemed to be the right thing. I looked at the boy’s face, and it hit me - he was drugged. They were going to sacrifice him, and they needed him smiling and happy as he went to the altar - come to think of it, the tip of the stone bear’s tongue rose up to form what would make an excellent sacrificial altar.
Thinking furiously, I went over my options. The Bear Emperor is up to something, something nasty. Whatever it is, it involves sacrificing this poor fool. They’re probably using a particularly potent distillate of Micomicon to keep him quiet. From what Master Adan told us, most products of Micomicon produce blissful euphoric dreams of heroism and great romance. The Fey are supposed to adore Micomicon addicts. Hold on - there’s also a distillate of Micomicon that induces a near-berserk state, in which the user knows no fear, and spends his body mercilessly doing idiotically ‘heroic’ things. The Bear’s Claws are known to use the stuff, which was why Master Adan insisted that I carry a counter-agent that, when inhaled by someone under the influence of Micomicon, alters the dream state to one of nightmare.
Well, the idea was to use it on it on any doped up berserks, but it should confuse things enough to get something going…
The ‘other’ Bear’s Claws seized the boy by his arms and legs. I grabbed his neck. As we lugged the boy down to the altar, I used my free hand to rummage around in the various pockets on my belt for the phial of nightmare agent. However, I’ve been in situations like this before, rummaging around in my belt for just the right thing, and I’ve learned to place things in a proper order. As we laid the boy down, I managed to get the phial into the hand that was closest to his nose.
Then, someone ran in, and gibbered that the Satrap’s forces were mauling the defenders. The Bear Emperor stopped posturing for the crowd, held his scepter up on high and started shouting out something that I think was Old Realm.
The Satrap’s forces were beginning to muster to make a coordinated strike against the sloppily formed defenders. Then, two large moss-covered boulders that flanked the field shuddered, and uncurled to reveal themselves as huge carved stone bears. They gave screaming growls and lumbered into the flanks of the surprised attackers.
As everyone was watching the Emperor do whatever it was that he was doing, I popped the phial open, and waved the fumes under the boy’s nose. He startled slightly, but only a slight stiffness in his limbs betrayed the fact that he wasn’t blissful anymore.
The Emperor finished and set aside his scepter. The high priest offered him a ‘dagger’ that would have been a full-sized sword for any normal man. The Emperor took the dagger and turned to the altar. He raised the dagger on high, letting the light from the eternal flame play on the shining steel of the blade. The boy gave a gasp, that only I, who had my ear next to his mouth, heard.
Then the Emperor was about to plunge the dagger into the boy. The boy hadn’t panicked yet, and I was trying to figure out what I was going to do, now that this ploy had come up a cropper. Then the Emperor stopped and looked dead at me. “Those bracers. Those are Roaring Thunder’s bracers. WHO ARE YOU? HOW DID YOU GET ROARING THUNDER’S CLAWS?” By that last bit, the Bear Emperor was in his full awesome majesty, and I was beginning to wonder what I was going to do with my afterlife.
But it was just the spur that the boy needed. He screamed, and I released his head. Good thing, or I wouldn’t have any arms right now. The boy went all blurry, and he almost doubled in size and he lunged for the Bear Emperor, scattering the large burly Bear’s Claws who held his arms like they were dolls. Suddenly, there was a huge Man-Bear clawing away at the Bear Emperor. The Bear’s Claws lost a moment dragging their jaws on the floor at the change, but they were on him in an instant.
Well, half of life is making the most of the chances that drop into your lap. I made to join my ‘brothers’ but instead of attacking the Bear-Devil - if the boy was actually a Moon Anathema - I went straight at the Bear Emperor. I threw a handful of Banishing Dust (remarkably useful stuff) into his face, and took the opportunity to tear that pearl clasp off of his cloak.
If I was right, this was his hearthstone, I got it away from him against all odds, and there was only one more little item of power of his that I have to worry about. I tumbled away from them, and slashed at the lesser brown priest, who was cradling the Emperor’s scepter in his arms. The congregation was trying to make up its mob-mind what to do about this blasphemy. But in the middle of them, I spotted Adlynn struggling through to get to me. “Ad! The Fire!” And I chucked the scepter in her direction.
Adlynn caught the scepter on the fly, and spun around using it as a mace. She did quite nicely with that, and managed to get close enough to the ‘eternal flame’ to chuck the scepter into it. She pulled her fans from her belt, and started giving those peasants that were trying to grab her what-for. I popped the claws from my gauntlets and fought my way towards her. “Don’t you hate it, when parties get out of control?” I asked lightly.
“Oh, this is disgraceful!” Adlynn bantered back, “Remind me to be washing my hair the night of their next do!”
Looking over, I saw the High Priest and a few Bear’s Claws struggling through the panicked mass in our direction. “Oh, it looks like the Major Domo is coming to ask if we have our invitations.”
“Well, it’s been fun, but let’s be off, before we’re asked to leave!” Adlynn did her ‘Slashing Whirlwind Spin’ to blaze a trail out of the chamber, and I was as close on her heels as the razor edges of her war-fans allowed. We lit up a staircase and disappeared down the first corridor we could find.
“Did you manage to get the Emperor’s hearthstone?” Adlynn asked as we pelted down the hallway. Wordlessly, I held up the glowing pearl. “Oooo…” Adlynn breathed, “You hit the Jackpot, Ren!”
“Maybe I can talk them into awarding it to you or Mykiros.”
“What? But you-”
“I’m a mortal. Hearthstones, especially ones this powerful, are for Exalts and God-bloods, not mortals.”
Before we could say anymore, an enraged group of bear-priests caught up with us. “Go, Ren! Keep the stone out of the Emperor’s hands!” As much as I hated to admit it, for once, Adlynn was talking sense, and I ran as quickly as I could.
And promptly got lost again.
Then I felt a breeze of fresh air. Well, there had to be openings to the surface somewhere in this place, and that meant at least a chance of getting out of here. I followed the breeze through an ever-narrowing passage until I found a window that opened to free air. And I looked down to see the steep face of a cliff, with forest about a hundred cubits below.
I snarled with frustration. Or, maybe the solution to my problems had dropped in my lap! I let myself breathe for a moment, and then pulled the blunt whistle from my belt. I rested for a few minutes, occasionally blowing the whistle again. Finally Bop found me. I tied the pearl to her leg and sent her off to find someone she knew.
Well! Duty done, I was free to return to the party. Finding the central chamber again was easy. All that I had to do was cock an ear, and listen for the sounds of screaming.
Mykiros passed through the waterfall as if it weren’t there, shielding Randrel from its effects with one hand and Master Adan with the other. Pointing at the retracted bridge he said simply, “Figure out how to work that thing, and send it for the others.” Hearing a grating stone-on-stone noise both Mykiros and Randrel drew their daiklaves. “We’d help, but we have our own chores to deal with just now.”
When I got back to the main cavern, there was a lot of… interesting… wreckage. Somehow, the two big stone bears that had flanked the Emperor’s trick throne had moved, and were in rubble all over the place. The throne itself was also wrecked, with the top half torn off and thrown. There was blood and dead bodies all over the place, and a few bodies that had gotten thrown into the ‘eternal flame’, which made quite a stink, I can tell you! There were only a few people standing: the Bear Emperor, holding his scepter again which still looked red hot, a couple of very ragged-looking Bear’s Claws, two bear priests, the High Priest - and Adlynn.
Ad was still moving and staying out of harm’s way, but she was definitely moving with more thought than planning, which just isn’t like Adlynn. That is, unless she’s getting tired. I charged down the stairs, and carved out the back ribs of one of the Bear Claws. And from there, it got rather fuzzy. Both Ad and I had been fighting for a while, and I was only human…
It took Master Adan no time in sending the bridge through the waterfall. As soon as the Dragonbloods came streaming through, he went off to take care of his own mission. He passed Randrel and Mykiros as they each finished off the animated stone bear that had been battering them about.
I had taken out the two Bear’s Claws, and one of the priests, when the Bear Emperor finally managed to put Adlynn down. He raised his red-hot scepter over his head to deliver the killing blow.
Somehow, Bop flew in and flew at the Bear Emperor’s face, throwing the Man-God off balance. The Emperor swatted Bop like a fly, sending her, half-broken at my feet. Despite the fact that the Bear Priest was still on my flank, I bent and picked up poor, brave little Bop and flew at the Emperor on my own, my claws reaching for him.
Suddenly, the room became brighter somehow. The light reflected off the nacreous frescoes on the wall, and they became more than just alive. They flooded me with their light and filled me, and made me more. Suddenly, the great heroes of the past were whispering their stories and telling me that the Age of Glory was not over, but merely sleeping. One figure, a large muscular man with four arms, his hands carrying a lance, a shining shield, a laurel and a horn each, looked down at me. He was no mere Little God, he was FAR beyond that, beyond anything I’d even supposed could be. He was bright, he was magnificent, he was everything we want our parents to be, but they can’t, being only mortal. It was like suddenly having the Scarlet Empress pop through your front door and start talking about your bright future. I wanted, I NEEDED to be better - for him. He weighed me in the balance, and did not find me wanting. And suddenly, I was more alive than I’d ever been before in my life.
The Bear Emperor was moving in slow motion, and even with one hand full, I sliced one hand off his arm, sending the scepter flying. Bop flew from the crook of my arm, and she grew into a huge glorious white-winged bird, awesome in her majesty and mystery.
Master Adan sagged at the entrance to the central cavern. He watched as young Kaellis Rennar erupted in a corona of Solar glory, an awe-inspiring burst of light, a manifestation of a Ghost-Owl, and a sudden sense of a sea change in the tides of battle. “Oh, Sol Invictus, not now…”
But it was too late, even as Kaellis Rennar tore into the tall figure that must have been the Bear Emperor, Kaellis Shuylese Randrel, Varas Mykiros, Mordrese Isegris & Nog, Ba’Selig Esrak and two other Dragonbloods who had been charging in all stopped dead in their tracks. They watched as Rennar sent the towering Bear Emperor reeling, and cut into the remaining Bear Priests with claws that glowed like the sun. As one, Kaellis Randrel, Mordrese Isegris and Ba’Selig Esrak bellowed, “ANATHEMA!!”
As one, all seven Dragon Knights charged into the light of Solar glory, with destruction their only thought.
Peevishly, Master Adan looked upwards and muttered, “Don’t you EVER make ANYTHING easy?” And, once again, his notion was reinforced that somewhere in the Bureau of Destiny, there was someone with a particularly vile sense of humor.
Suddenly, it went from an ecstatic dream of victory to a confused nightmare. I’d just sent the High Priest running, when there was a spine-chilling scream of ‘ANATHEMA!!’ I turned in time to see Isegris, Nog, Esrak, Randrel, two Dragonbloods that I remembered from the mustering of the forces, and of all people, Mykiros, all charging straight at ME. They had daiklaves drawn and murder was written on their faces in bold lettering. I flowed among and through their blows, like soup through the tines of a fork. “What are you DOING?” I asked desperately.
“DIE!” Isegris grated through clenched teeth, “DIE, you Unclean Traitor to the Realm!” Well, at least Isegris was making as much sense as he ever did.
I whirled my Eagle Claw chain about and cleared them from their feet. I barely noticed that the chain, which had seemed so heavy and cumbersome before, was now as light and spry as a silk strand. But they were right back on their feet and at me. I whipped the Eagle Claw up to one of the railings up on high, and hauled myself up to one of the higher landings. That didn’t slow them down a lot. Isegris was fully ablaze in Fire Aspect manifestation, and he hopped after me like a grasshopper.
As more Dragonbloods and men poured into the cavern, Master Adan quietly sidled off to a place where the spray from the waterfall concealed him. Perfect. He could have done a complete and proper summoning from here and not be observed. Not that he had the time, or needed to. Reaching under his cloak into a harness that had even more pockets and tricks than Kaellis Rennar’s belt did, Master Adan found and produced a stopped flask. He poured the flask into the water, and muttered something. As he spoke, a glowing sign formed on his forehead, a circle, like the one that he’d seen flashing for all the world to see on Rennar’s brow, only the upper half was filled in. When he finished, he re-stopped the flask and tucked it away. Then he irritably waited. “Come on, come on - it’s not like you actually have to MOVE through anything…”
Then a bizarre figure rose up out of the water and bowed. It was barely humanoid, with webbed feet, a pale gray hairless body, two arms with vaguely human fingers, two octopoid tentacles, and a crested head that was equal parts frog and fish. It crossed its arms and tentacles in front of its chest and bowed in obeisance.
“It’s about time you got here. Listen carefully. There are three Celestial Exalted within this cavern complex. Two are Solar Exalts, one is a Lunar Exalt; I am one of the Solar Exalts. You are to find the Lunar Exalt and the other Solar Exalt, and convey them to the place where I first summoned and bound you. They are quite likely exhausted, or injured, or both. Listen carefully. You are to find them as quietly and stealthily as you can. You are to take them, whether they will or not, and convey them without further injury. You are not to allow them to be hurt, or to be drowned, or to be frozen, or in any other way allow them to die or come to harm. When you acquire them, you are to remove them from this place as quickly as you can, while still keeping them safe. You are to take them as quickly as you can to the place where I first summoned and bound you, while still keeping them safe. If you attempt to wriggle the wording of this order as to allow you to harm or lose either or both of them, know that I will send you to the Elemental Pole of Air. You will spend the rest of your period of service to me there, frozen into immobility! Do you understand?” The odd figure nodded. “Then go!”
The Ondanir water elemental stood immobile for a moment, and then suddenly its head split in two. The two heads pulled away from each other and it literally tore in two, with each having one arm and one tentacle. That done, each moved in an opposite direction, melting into the flow of water as it went. “Well, that’s ONE way to do it, I guess,” Master Adan mused.
As Esrak swung his daiklave at me, I pulled the bear-cloak and dust-mask from my head. “Dammit all, Esrak, it’s ME!” Esrak paused, and looked carefully at me. If anything, he seemed to get even angrier with me. Isegris has called me a coward on more than one occasion, for running away from a fight that I knew I couldn’t win. I prefer to think of it as discrete valor.
I managed to confuse them and lost them for a while. But wouldn’t you know it, just when I had them well and lost, I ran headfirst – literally - into Nog. After that, it became something of a blur of pounding and pain.
They had the Anathema cornered on one of the landings, next to one of the cascading waterfalls. He was reeling, and they had him surrounded. Carefully, they closed in. “I always knew that there was something wrong about you,” Isegris exulted. “And now, it’s over.” He set to aim his blade at Rennar’s throat.
But his aim went wild when a long snakelike thing whipped out of the water and pulled the Anathema into the water. The Knights-Errant rushed to the railing, and briefly saw a blur in the water, as Rennar was washed out of the cavern and out of sight.
I was wet, and I felt a sense of rushing through the water. It was dark and cold, with a few fleeting flashes of light, and I wondered if this was the Underworld. I also wondered what I’d done to anger Mykiros. I mean, Isegris was no surprise, but Mykiros?
After a bit of that, there was a sudden rising sensation, and I felt myself land forcefully on something hard. Still, it was soft enough to let me sleep.