Anathema (Part 6)
by Bek D Corbin
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.
To The Victor Goes The Spoiled
“You told them that you were your friend, Isegris?”
I shook my head and waggled a finger in contradiction. “No, to be exact, I said that ‘they can blame all their woes on Lord Mordrese Isegris, Dragon Lord of the Blessed Isle’. I never said that I was Isegris, or that they should blame him, or even that he was involved in any way shape or form! Just that they can blame him; they have my express permission to do so. And, all things being equal, I’d rather that the concerted rancor of the Frabjous Tulge be directed in Isegris’ direction. And as the Side-Chancellor wasted no time in swearing eternal vengeance against ‘Lord Mordrese Isegris’, THAT is the direction in which the Good Neighbors’ considerable wrath will be spent.”
“A nicely turned phrase,” our lovely guest allowed me. We had guests. Several of them, in fact. While Arrek and I were away, that ‘professional wheedler’ that Master Adan sent for had arrived. Her name was Lady Danya Equimittere, and she was originally from some island off the southwestern coast of the mainland which I admit I’d never heard of before. She was traveling with an entourage of five girls, but they were definitely hand maidens while she was the noblewoman. They were five lovely young girls, but she was a WOMAN, and a wonder of one at that. She was tall, athletic, strapping and well-made, with classic features framed by lustrous, waving black hair that cascaded down to her shoulders. And yes, she was just the sort of woman to make a man say things like ‘lustrous’ and ‘cascading’ with a straight face. She had a rare combination of true beauty and commanding presence, harnessed by an obviously sharp mind and a quiet sense of personal dignity that probably went a long way in her career as a diplomat. Even Isegris would have a hard time dismissing her as a giddy play-toy.
“Still, it’s a horrible thing to do to a friend,” said Nasha, one of Lady Danya’s entourage, a cuddlesome plump thing with a merry face who probably made an art of being underestimated.
“I fear that I must disagree, my dear,” Adan said as he sorted through all the stuff that we dragged back from the Freehold. “Besides being both a passionate supporter of the Realm, and the sort of Dragonblood that tavern tales are told of, Lord Isegris has sworn oaths both sacred — and, I fear, otherwise — to kill Rennar. While undeniably extreme, Rennar’s ploy of setting the local Raksha at Lord Isegris was a good one, which keeps two enemies at each other’s throats, instead of ours.” He pulled out one of the suits of jadesteel lamellar armor. “Well! This is much better! After your poor showing at the slaughterhouse, I was worried that your nose for loot was growing numb. It will need some repairs before it can be used or resold, but still.”
He examined a jadesteel Dire Lance that had been broken into four pieces. “Some of this will take more repairing than others.”
“You see, Arrek? SOME people appreciate my talents!” I called over to where Arrek was enjoying a drink while ogling our fair visitors. “What? You didn’t get enough back at the Freehold? Come to think of it, exactly HOW IS IT that you’re here at all? You can’t leave a fairy glade after you eat fairy food, and you put away enough to feed an army!”
Arrek chuckled as he finished his drink. “Ah, I will cherish the look on your face when I walked through that door for as long as I live. The looks on the Fey’s faces were surely delights, but the look on YOUR FACE was priceless!” He roared with laughter at the memory. “Served you right for grabbing everything what wasn’t nailed down!”
I played along with him. “Very funny. Now how did you pull it off?”
“Simple.” He reached into one of the packs and pulled out his tankard. “Being sensible chaps — not smart enough to stay out of a fairy castle, but sharp enough to not go unwarded — the men whose stuff we snaffled took cold iron along with ’em. And they were smart enough not to double up their loads, so they had useful stuff, like hammers and crowbars and tankards—” he hefted the tankard, “—and knives and forks and skillets made of it. And this too.” He turned the tankard upside down and a piece of black metal fell out of it. “The skillet that I used as a plate, the knife and fork I cut the meat with, the tankard that I drank from; were all made of cold iron. I put this piece in my mouth and blocked anything from getting in. Of course, by the time that any piece of fairy food got TO my mouth it was so weak that one touch of this piece was enough to render it into nothing.”
“Hold on,” I said, getting his point, “then, when you fed that ‘special cut’ to the Side-Chancellor, you threw the skillet in with the meat… and—”
“And he ate ten pounds of cold iron, instead of twenty pounds of fairy fluff,” Arrek said with a grin.
I snickered, and then broke out laughing, and wound up slapping my hand on the table in approval. “Well done! Bloody well done!” I started applauding, and the others joined in.
Arrek stood and took a bow. When we finished applauding, Adan just said, “You’re both just lucky that the REAL Raksha were out gallivanting, and you only had to cope with the lesser Fey. If one of the Nobles had been there, it would have been a very different story.”
Marella, another one of Lady Danya’s girls, asked, “But I don’t get what the Fey were so angry about? Why did they go and swear eternal vengeance, just because Arrek beat the Side-Chancellor in an eating contest?”
“Oh, it’s because My Lord Stickyfingers over there had to go and steal their ‘Great Treasure’,” Arrek finished with a snort.
“Now Arrek, I know it looks bad, but I had my reasons.”
“Yes, your reason was that you thought the ‘Great Treasure’ was a great honking big jewel or mystic artifact or some such!”
“NO,” I gently corrected him, “my intention was strictly to get OUT of that madhouse as quickly and safely as possible.” Arrek speared me with a ‘pull the other one, it’s got bells on’ look. “Look, we were stuck in the Freehold with only a dubious map and that idiot candleholder as guides. I needed a big dramatic reason for the candleholder-feyling to lead us OUT of there. The thing about stealing a great treasure is that half the drama lies in ESCAPING with the treasure. There’s no way that the candleholder would have passed up on anything that theatrical.”
“Oh? It didn’t stop the flickering little git from shooting his fool mouth off at every chance.”
“Well, that’s the Fey for you. Look, if we’d gone sneaking around looking for a way out, then we would have just bounced around from one random encounter to another and never found a thing, let alone a way out! We’d still be there, up to our eyebrows in some inane Raksha intrigue or another. My way, there was a context that eventually required us to LEAVE.”
Lady Danya raised an exquisite eyebrow in inquisition. “Why did this ‘Side-Chancellor’ swear vengeance against YOU, Rennar — or at least against this ‘Isegris’ — and not Arrek? After all, Arrek had just beat him.”
I smiled what I hoped was a charmingly roguish smile. “I think that THIS had something to do with it.” I produced one of the crystal eggs with a bit of sleight-of-hand. “Or this.” I brought out another egg, and then another and then another, and finished by producing the fifth egg and juggling them.
“WHERE did you get THOSE?” Adan gasped. I tossed one to him, and started playing catch with Arrek using them. Adan explained to the ladies the significance of the eggs. “But how did you get them? You said that all the Nobles were out riding after a mare’s nest!”
“Well, they must not have felt like carrying their hearts around on their chests, let alone their sleeves,” I breezed. “They decided to hide them out in plain sight, in the Freehold’s hearth fire.”
I spelled out how the common room was arranged and how I snagged the five eggs while Arrek was keeping the commoners busy. Adan blanched and rushed to a rack of scrolls. Marella and Lucine scampered to help him. “Look for a scroll with a silver ribbon, a white wax seal, and a black handle with crystal grips!” he told them as he scrambled through the works. “No, globular crystal grips!” They searched frantically for a few minutes, until Lucine found what he was looking for. Adan pulled through the scroll as he walked back to us, Marella and Lucine helping by turning the two rolls of the scroll as he scanned through the contents.
“AH! Here it is!” he proclaimed. “‘The beating heart of a Raksha Freehold within the boundaries of Creation is the ‘Bone Fire’. The ‘bone fire’ is a towering pyre of silvery fire—’ You said that the fire was silvery?”
“And it glittered.”
“‘—that possesses the concentrated transformative power of the Wyld, which is protected from the stifling power of Creation by the Freehold, even as the Freehold is kept fluid within Creation by the power of the Bone Fire’.” He hurriedly read more. “‘To assume sovereignty over the Freehold, a Raksha noble places his or her crystalline heart within the Bone Fire, becoming in essence the living heart and spirit of the Freehold. While his egg is in the bone fire, the Freehold is little more than an extension of the Lord’s will’.”
“But there were FIVE eggs cooking in the fire,” Arrek objected.
“‘There can be only one Lord or Lady of a Freehold at any one time’,” Adan continued. “‘If more than one egg is place in the bone fire at one time, then some manner of scheme or cycle for the transfer of power and the schedule of that power must be agreed upon’.”
“Like the turn of the seasons,” Arrek suggested.
“Then… what happens if all the lordly eggs that were bound into the bonefire are removed?” Lady Danya asked with a speculative gleam in her blue eyes.
“Well… I imagine… that the bond is cut, especially if the eggs were removed from the Freehold entire,” Adan guessed, holding up one of the eggs and looking at it with wonder.
“Raksha have been known to take over Demenses and Manses, and rip them apart to create Freeholds,” Danya said. “What can be done can be undone. If there is no Lord or Lady to direct the will of the Freehold, then there is no direction, and the chaos implicit in the Wyld turns against itself.”
“Well then!” Arrek took one of the eggs, laid it on the table and hefted his tankard as to smash it. “Let’s scramble some eggs! The fewer fairy lords about, the better!”
“NO!” Lady Danya, Master Adan and I shouted as one.
“Not in MY HOUSE!” Adan yelled. “Sol alone knows what would happen!”
“We can USE those!” I yelled.
“USE them?” Danya asked, “We NEED them!”
“For what?” Arrek asked, taken aback by our reactions.
Danya gathered her calm about her. “Good friend Adan invited me here to help resolve your problem with the Lunar Elders. Adan agreed to help them acquire a manse in the area in exchange for help in finding the Underground Palace, support in acquiring it, and alliance afterwards. Young Rennar’s bonding with the White Temple makes that problematic. If the Freehold of the Frabjous Tulge can be stabilized into a demesne or manse, that would go a LONG way towards providing a solution to our problem. If the Lunars can turn the Freehold into a Lunar demesne, then Adan’s agreement with them can still hold. If anything, I think that I can argue convincingly that the Frabjous Tulge is a better choice for them than the White Temple. They can build a new demesne to suit themselves. The locals will stay away for fear of the Good Neighbors. If anything, the lack of Fey presence will be regarded as an improvement by the local peasants. And the Tulge lacks the White Temple’s bothersome entanglements regarding the Bear Emperor and the Satrap.” Danya leaned back, a satisfied smirk on her face, and took a sip of wine. “I can sell this.”
“But… wouldn’t smashing these eggs and destroying the Fey Nobles help that?” Arrek asked.
“If the eggs are destroyed and the Nobles are destroyed with them — and I’m not sure that that’s entirely correct,” Adan said, “then another noble would simply take their place. But if the disenfranchised rulers are still there, then they will most likely keep any ambitious nobles from claiming the bone fire. They’ll most likely stay right by that fire, and not go out ravaging the countryside, which suits me right down to the ground. And with THESE…” Adan held up one of the eggs. “We have the Raksha rulers right in the palms of our hands. Or claws as the case may be,” he finished with a nod to Lady Danya. He took out the cold iron box containing Sudra Lananshee’s effects, and explained how the Focusing Lens and the World Egg worked.
“You’re offering these to the Lunars?”
“I must show good faith. The more that I can help the Lunars claim the Freehold, the better faith I show, given that I can’t keep my original promise.”
“In that case,” I pulled out the Book of Rules and set it on the table. “I think that I’ll throw this into the pot.” I explained about the Book of Rules and the blue jade ‘prayer card’ that I had tucked inside it.
Master Adan pulled it over and started flipping through the pages. Lady Danya nodded and said, “Very good! I take it that this is the ‘Great Treasure’ that friend Arrek mentioned?”
Arrek chuckled and said, “No, the ‘Great Treasure’ was a song. The Last Song that the Primordial Ouramas sang just as the Exalted were about to hand him his vast cosmic ASS. And very touching, it was.”
Adan stopped flipping through the Book of Rules’ pages as though stung by a viper. “They wrote down Ouramas’ Last Song?”
“No, they literally captured it, and kept it in a bell jar so that it could keep replaying itself over and over. The Fairy Lords no doubt dropping by now and again, and shedding a graceful tear over its poignancy,” I said.
“Are you telling me. That the Fey have. Ouramas’ Last Song. Captured in that Freehold?” Adan sputtered.
“It’s just a SONG.”
“Ouramas was a PRIMORDIAL LORD! Even his FARTS had more power and cosmic significance than a Revered Elder Immaculate Monk on the Fifth Coil of study!” Adan snarled. “And that was his LAST SONG, before his souls were eternally sundered, and he couldn’t SING again!”
“Which would explain why the Kellesvalli haven’t been able to get rid of their ‘Good Neighbors’,” Lady Danya opined. “And it may even be the reason why the Tower of Keldon was built. The Raksha have been feeding on that Song, giving their efforts power.”
“But Ouramas sang it just before he got gutted, or whatever you Solars did to him,” Arrek objected. “That was the Primordial War, at the beginning of TIME!”
“Not quite.” Adan corrected him as he rummaged around in his scrolls again.
“Close enough! It was before the dawn of the First Age! How many hundreds of thousands of years have the Chaos Spawn been nibbling away at the power of that song? The candleholder said that Sylkashith, the Falcon of the Moonlit Wind — whoever in Luna’s name THAT was — caught it and kept it, which suggests that this Sylkashith was a Raksha of some sort. And the Nightmare Brood aren’t the sort to hold off on tearing big bleeding chunks out of something that juicy. And judging from the armor and weapons that the Lunar and Solar warriors were carrying, that Freehold’s been there since the First Age. The Raksha have been gnawing away at that song like mice for how many thousands of years? How powerful can it BE?”
“Powerful,” Adan insisted as he brought yet another scroll to the table. “Admittedly, a shadow of what it once was, but quite powerful. And, more to the point, it’s probably the keystone of the architecture of the Freehold.”
“I thought that the bonefire was the keystone.”
“No, at least in this circumstance, I think that the bonefire is the engine that drives the Freehold, while the Song is what gives it form and cohesion.”
“OR, at the very least, it’s so important to the rhythm and structure of the Freehold that knowing the Song would be crucial to restructuring the fabric of the demesne,” I pointed out.
“Excellent point,” Lady Danya allowed me. “How much of the song did you hear?”
“All of it. Three times.”
Adan perked up. “How much of it do you remember?”
“Bits and pieces,” I confessed. “But then, Music was never my forte.”
“I remember all of it,” Arrek said.
“You do?” Adan scrambled for a pen and paper. Arrek started to sing, but Adan shouted, “NO! Don’t SING it! Just… tell me… bits and pieces of it. I’ll write them down, and then put them in the proper order. If you sang it, you might capture the attention of Ouramas, or one of its lesser souls or fragments. And this close to Calibration? Schaaa… that could be disastrous!”
“How… convenient…” Lady Danya murmured as she sipped some wine. “Young Rennar manages to exalt within the White Temple, preventing the Lunar Envoys from gaining it from the Bear Emperor. But luckily, Adan rescues a young Lunar exalt, who said envoys are eager to recruit to the Silver Pact. Together, the new Solar and Lunar face not only an entire squadron of trooping Raksha nobles and their retinues, but a Death Knight. Fleeing the scene, Rennar conveniently finds the Freehold, First Age arms and armor, enough jade loot to choke a dragon and that marvelous card. Then he manages to find the Book of Rules for the Freehold. Then, they find the Last Song, which gives young Arrek power over the Freehold. Then, just as they’re about to escape the scene, Rennar conveniently sees the Soul-Eggs of the Frabjous Tulge’s five rulers. All of which would be invaluable in wresting control of the Frabjous Tulge away from the Five Seasonal Rulers. All less than ten days before the start of Calibration, which would be the perfect time to launch an attack on the Frabjous Tulge. And ten days is the perfect amount of time to call more Lunar warriors to commit to the attack.” Her face went cold and her blue eyes went hard. “I don’t believe it. It’s too convenient. Someone’s playing games with us.”
“What do you MEAN, they got away?” Azure Rose screamed into the window in the very air that showed her the blandly scowling visage of her superior, Croup Miter. “I SAW them fall into a trap that obviously lead into a Raksha freehold! Mercury’s Aching Feet, I even slapped them with the most powerful charm I know, the ‘The Ill Winds Blowing Sutra’! They should have been fated to run into the most dangerous situations in the immediate area whenever physically possible! I thought that I had them when that cavalcade of Fey Nobles rode up! And then that Death Knight — that reminds me! There are Death Knights here! We have to DO something!”
“And that is what I have contacted you to discuss.”
“Thank the Maidens! You’re going to send someone to deal with the Death Knights?”
“No, I was speaking of your inane and reckless use of the ‘Ill Winds Blowing Sutra’.”
“WHAT? Are you INSANE? There are DEATH KNIGHTS here!”
“Death Knights are NOT your concern! Your brief is to prevent that Solar from finding that Undercover Palanquin—”
“Are you CORRECTING me?” Croup Miter bristled. “Your brief is to prevent the Solars from finding the Undercover Palanquin, NOT to waste time with Death Knights! And your wanton disregard for the proper use of the ‘Ill Winds Blowing Sutra’ has absolutely mangled the weave of Fate Threads in that area! Indeed, your misuse of that technique probably SAVED him!”
“What are you talking about?”
“The Ill Winds only permits for the subject to run into a potential hazard ONCE! And, it’s such a minor charm that the subject can take rational precautions against foreseeable complications!”
Azure Rose groaned and massaged her forehead. “So, Kaellis could only run into those Raksha Nobles ONCE! And the Sutra prevented them from knowing about Kaellis and his friend in the Freehold, because if they knew, they’d hurry to the Freehold and face him TWICE! And with the ‘Rewards for facing a Peril’ consequence of the Ill Wind…”
“Precisely. Currently, you’ve tangled that fool Solar’s fate up in so many other Bureau of Destiny projects in that area, that the only way to untangle it may be to completely remove him from the area.”
“You’re KIDDING! But ‘Ill Winds Blowing’ is only a 2nd Tier charm! Even I know it! How could anything that puny mess up the Fate Threads that badly?”
“I don’t know,” Croup Miter said repressively. “Yet somehow you managed. Now take responsibility and get him OUT of there!”
“Where am I supposed to send him?”
“As far away as possible!”
“But if he’s FATED to be HERE, won’t that—”
“JUST… send him away long enough for responsible, competent agents to clean up the MESS that your incompetent bungling has made of this!”
“What? When you dropped this on me, I said that I couldn’t handle this!”
“Just find a way to remove him from the situation. The Exalts at the Loom of Fate say that this Kellar Rennis is the lynchpin of the snarl. Pull him from the tangle, and the rest should follow. And how are your other assignments progressing?”
“Other Assignments? I’m up to my chin in scorpions with THIS assignment!”
“That’s no excuse for lollygagging.” *Stamp!* “FIND a way to cope with them! And… this is very important…”
“Why didn’t you renew your subscription to the Amrita tea fund?”
We thrashed it about for a bit, and we agreed that parties unknown had had a hand in Arrek’s and my little adventure. As Adan said, “I’ve learned from bitter experience that ‘unknown benefactors’ always have ulterior motives.”
“But how could anyone direct our movements that way?” I asked. “Arrek only went to the Freehold because Bop led him to me, and I was only there out of pure blind LUCK! Who could arrange that? Let alone what happened INSIDE the Freehold?”
“I see your point, Rennar,” Danya said. “But I’ve seen this sort of thing before; events were developing definitely in one direction, and then — shazam! — they suddenly hared off on a completely different tangent. Sometimes things just… dropped out of the sky, and others, it was like we were being herded by some unseen hand. It doesn’t happen often, Sol Be Praised! But it does happen.”
“But what would this unseen hand have to gain by leading us to these things?” Arrek asked, summing it up nicely.
“Taking the power of the Ouramas’ Last Song out of the Chaos Spawn’s hands, and putting them into the hands of the Lunars, for one,” Adan pointed out.
We knocked the idea around some more, but we pretty much came to the conclusion that we didn’t have enough real information. All we could really do was keep our eyes open the next time this mysterious ‘benefactor’ pulled anything.
That having been settled, we finally got down to the fun stuff: the LOOT!
Arrek and I agreed that for simplicity’s sake, he’d get the stuff that the Lunar had worn, and I’d get the Solar’s gear. The other things, we’d quibble over.
The big toys were, of course, the weapons. Arrek had become quite fond of his Grand Grimcleaver, which presented a problem in that he didn’t really know how to use it. He swung it around like a big wood axe, which was an insult to such a finely crafted weapon. I showed Arrek the elementary Immaculate centering katas that I’d learned at the Cloister and the basic two-handed drill. “But I’m Exalted!” Arrek complained, “And it’s already bonded to me! Why go through all this?”
“Arrek, melee combat is all about balance, controlling your arcs of transit, keeping control of your weapon, and above all else, knowing where everyone and everything within your sphere of contact is,” I recited the Cloister practice drill. I even unwittingly started to mimic Master Refreshing Breeze. “Enemies will not stand still and let you hack at them like a tree-trunk. If you are balanced, missing your enemy merely means that you don’t hit him. If you are unbalanced, then missing your enemy means that you over-swing and have to regain control of your weapon, giving your enemy all the time in the world to pick and choose precisely where to hurt you.”
Lady Danya leaned forward with a wry smile on her lips, interrupting my riveting dissertation. “Tell me, friend Rennar; Good friend Adan says that you are adept with the Daiklave, but you are only recently Exalted… How is it that a mortal, even one raised and trained among Dragonbloods, can wield, let alone master the Daiklave?”
I wilted a bit and gave a pained smile. “Well… to be honest…”
“Honesty is crucial,” she prompted like an elder auntie.
“I never actually mastered the daiklave.”
“Then what was all that noise about getting your daiklave back?”
“Well, that wasn’t technically a daiklave,” I admitted. “It was one of the steel practice swords that they use for training young dragonbloods before their families arrange for the creation of their daiklave, with a sharpened edge. They have strategic parts of the blade excavated, especially towards the tip, to make the blade lighter. Mind you, I did master the forms, but swinging a heavy sword around in katas is one thing, and using them in battle is another. And in practice bouts, we always use wooden *ahem!* ‘daiklaves’, which are so light that they’re almost as light as an attuned weapon.”
“So you never actually used that thing in combat,” Arrek said with wry irony.
“No, I used it many times,” I said with wounded dignity. “I just made a point of making two or three strikes and then conveniently ‘losing’ it in the body of whoever or whatever was trying to kill me. Then I’d switch to either my chain or claws. Those I have mastered.”
Arrek raised a bushy eyebrow. “So, you’re talking through your hat with all this ‘arcs of contact, spheres of balance, and controlling the transit’ drivel.”
“It’s ‘arcs of transit, maintaining balance, and spheres of contact’,” I corrected him. “And, NO, that’s all valid Immaculate practice drill. And it works, especially the parts about maintaining balance for two-handed strikes. I may not be a master, but I know that part very well.”
“My sword may have been lightened, but it was still big and HEAVY. I used it as a greatsword, and swung it with both hands. Which presents its own problems.” I walked over to where my pile of loot was. I pulled the Solar Exalt’s weapon and unsheathed it. “This is a Reaver Daiklave. I trained with a Common Daiklave patterned sword, with an extra-long handle for double-handed maneuvering. This is a Reaver Daiklave. Please note the slender, curved blade. This weapon has very different dynamics than a Common Daiklave, not the least of which is its handle is only designed for a single-handed grip.”
“Why are you complaining, Rich Boy?”
“Because I don’t have the training to use this!”
“You trained with a normal sword, didn’t you? Or did you insist on a Daiklave only, thinking that it would impress the dragons so much that they’d exalt you?”
“YES, I trained with a normal sword! Normal sword forms won’t WORK with this sword! This daiklave is almost a cubit longer than a normal sword, the optimum striking plane is different, and the balance is completely different!”
“Well, at least you can use that shield with it.” Adan pointed out.
“I never really used a shield, let alone an orichalcum one, in combat before,” I said weakly, realizing how much I was whining. The whining stopped when I attuned the shield to my essence. The eagle on the boss flexed its wings and gave out a rattling ear-piercing shriek, and then it erupted in a flare of bright white light that flooded the entire chamber. When the dots finally faded from my eyes, I clutched the shield to me and said, “MINE!”
The armor that went with the shield followed the eagle motif. The helmet was made in the form of a raptor’s head, rising up directly into two spread wings that swept along the sides of the head. It was a little small for me, and I couldn’t sense any real magic in it, but I had the impression that it had some virtue to protect the wearer from that dazzling lightburst. After all, what was the point of that, if the wielder was stumbling around eyeless along with his enemies? “I’m torn,” I admitted. “On one hand, I suspect that the shield won’t be anywhere near as useful without the helmet. On the other hand — Ladies, my apologies — it’s a tad girly for my tastes.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Arrek said with a snide grin. “I’d say that it and the rest of that armor suit you perfectly.”
“What? I don’t see anything—” I picked up the breastplate. “—wrong…” My words trailed off as I suddenly noticed that the breastplate was horrifically aptly named, as it had a magnificent pair of bumps on the front. “The solar hero was a woman?”
“And why not?” Lady Danya said as Arrek thumped the table laughing at me, “Especially seeing as her Lunar mate was MALE?”
“Lunar MATE?” Arrek and I asked as one.
“Yes, of course,” Adan said in a matter-of-fact ‘why are you so taken aback by this?’ tone of voice. “In the First Age, it was commonplace for Solar and Lunar Exalts to marry, to form a perfect union between rulers. These unions were so close, so binding that the union is said to last beyond the veil of death, linking Solar and Lunar essences in marriage in incarnation after incarnation.” Adan paused and mused. “While I only have the vaguest memories of my past incarnations, I do admit that I’m rather curious as to what my Lunar mate might be like.”
“And it is all too fitting that the Solar Warrior woman and her Lunar mate went to face the Raksha side-by-side, and died defending each other,” Danya finished with an oratory flourish.
Arrek and I glanced at each other and shared a revulsed shudder.
Pointedly setting the breastplate and attendant pieces aside, I examined the powerbow that had been in the quiver with eight orichalcum arrows. I’d actually been looking forward to that. So, naturally, the bow was broken in three places. I looked pleadingly at Adan, and he said that he’d get around to fixing it. Eventually.
The buckle that held the Solar heroine’s gird was very interesting. Even Adan admitted that he’d never seen anything quite like it. “Well, there’s nothing for it, Rennar,” he summed up, handing the gewgaw to me. “You’ll just have to expend a little essence, attune it, and see what it does.”
I rankled a bit at having to be the lab rat, but I could tell that Arrek was just waiting for me to balk, so he could rag me about it. I sighed and focused my essence, which I was increasingly aware was finite, into the arrangement of crystal and magical metals. “Wait,” I said, “there’s something inside the arrangement. It’s some sort of least godling… or a magical essence construct of some sort. It has no real form… wait…” I called the least godling, or whatever it was, from the buckle. And suddenly, I was looking at myself. From two different angles. I looked at myself studying myself.
“Oh, Sweet Luna, now there’s TWO of them,” Arrek grunted.
“Interesting…” Adan said as he examined me/him/us. He poked the other one with a finger, and it slipped right through. Which, I can tell you, was a very interesting experience. “It has form, but no substance. Can you manipulate it?”
“It’s… sort of like being in two places at once,” I said. “I see what it sees, hear what it hears, smell what it smells, feel what it feels, but I have a definite sense that I’m the real me, and the other is an extension.”
As an experiment, Adan strung a thread between the backs of two chairs. My doppelganger climbed up the chair and walked across the thread as though it were a narrow plank. “Interesting…” Adan said. “You could use this as a decoy, a scout or a spy.”
“Yeesss…” I agreed, “The sneaky potentials just march up and announce themselves, don’t they?” The other bits were a bracelet called a ‘Resplendent Personal Assistant’ that did things like know the direction of the Pole of Earth at the very center of all Creation, the exact minute of the day. At least the Resplendent Personal Assistants that I’d encountered on the Blessed Isle did; this one also recorded spoken messages and captured images. Noting that it contained messages and images from the First Age, Adan looked at it and drooled. As he’d been my good host and ally, and saved my skin back in the White Temple when I really needed it, I gave him the Assistant. I also gave Lady Danya the magical grooming aid called the ‘Collar of Dawn’s Cleansing Light’. There was another bracelet that Adan told me was a device for storing peripheral essence, which I could use to tuck away the spare mote of essence for later use. Given the way that I was committing essence to the things I’d found, I’d need that energy, so I kept that one for myself. There was also a segmented ball of the five magical metals, heavily biased toward white jade, about the size of a peach, which Adan admitted he had no idea as to what it did. It went on one of Adan’s shelves, for that day when he didn’t have anything else to occupy his mind. Given his schedule, I don’t expect to see it any time soon.
That left a handful of stones. Four of them were dull listless pebbles that Adan guessed were what was left of Hearthstones whose Manses had ‘run dry’ or been suborned by another manse or in some other way been cut off from their source. “Still,” I said, holding up the two hearthstones that were definitely active, “an embarrassment of riches.” One was a lurid red stone that was bisected by a thin black ‘cat’s-eye’ streak, set in a red jade setting, and the other was a pale yellowish stone. As I held it up, the yellow stone caught Arrek’s eye. “Here,” I said, handing him the hearthstone.
“Don’t try to buy me, Rich Boy,” Arrek growled, “I can’t be bought.”
“How so ‘buy’?” I asked. “As I said, an embarrassment of riches. Besides, you earned it. That ploy with the eating contest and the cold iron? Inspired! Besides, this is a moonstone, or I’m the Roseblack. It wouldn’t be right for me to have it, while you have none.”
Arrek took the stone, and shifted his eyes from it to me and back, trying to settle in his mind what it really meant. Finally, he accepted it, and settled it into the socket in his Grimcleaver.
“Now THIS,” I said, holding up the red stone, “is obviously a Fire-aspected stone. I wonder what powers it gives?”
“Or not,” Lady Danya said wryly. “If that’s what I think it is, you’ve given away a true hearthstone for a false one.”
“Oh? I can sense the magic within it.”
“Oh, I didn’t say that it had no power, merely that it wasn’t a hearthstone, with a manse attached. Give it here.” I handed her the stone, and she cupped it between her hands. After she finished a brief sutra, she stood and stepped well away from anything. Then she erupted in a sheath of flame. While everyone else reacted, Lady Danya stood there serene and unharmed. “This the browstone of a Desert Basilisk,” she said over the muted sound of the flames. “The Desert Basilisk is a strange creature that roams the sands of the South, hunting anything and everything that moves to eat. Each has a stone like this on their brow. Some brave soul cut this stone out and mounted it. It’s a nice trinket, and a nasty surprise, but it won’t help you regain your essence, as a proper hearthstone would.”
She reclaimed her essence, and tossed the Basilisk stone to me. Arrek gave me a look that suggested ‘Don’t even think about asking for this moonstone back’, which I returned with a look that said that I was hurt that he even thought it.
“Still,” I said looking at the browstone, “it strikes me that you could easily mistake this for a Fire Aspect’s elemental manifestation.” I grinned. “There are worse places to hide, than among a pack of Dragonbloods.”
“A nice idea, but you’d have to wait until your Dynast friends moved on,” Danya pointed out. “And if what friend Adan said about this Isegris making a binding vow, that’s not likely to happen any time soon.”
“Not necessarily…” Adan said. “There are charms and even artifacts that would allow Rennar to assume a new face and even a new voice…”
“You’re talking about an Ivory Mask?”
“I’ve read of such things.”
“But have you ever seen of such things?”
“I’ve heard of such things, from colleagues.”
“And do they know what they have?”
“They know they have an enigma.”
“And what will they want?”
“Scavenger lords have a tendency to trade items in groups, as to conceal intent and perceived value. I think that I should be able to clear out a few things from my inventory, in exchange for the mask — and a few other things.”
“And how long will this take?”
“Long enough to take care of other matters first.” We others listened to Adan and Danya go back and for about this for a while.
“Still, there IS a problem,” I admitted. “Namely, that if I’m to pass myself off as a Fire Aspected Dynast, I’d be expected to know the Fire Dragon style of sword-fighting. And the Fire Dragon style is both new to me, and quite honestly, doesn’t fit with my personal style of bladecraft.”
“What did you study?”
“Water Dragon style, with a touch of Five Dragons, oh, and I helped my cousin Adlynn practice her Air Dragon katas as well.”
“Air Dragon?” Adan asked, “Doesn’t Air Dragon include shield in its forms?”
“Yes, but practice drills aren’t combat.”
“True… but if it’ll get you out of my house…” Adan plucked the Basilisk stone from my hand and hurried over to one of his work benches, where he started assembling materials, including the Bear Champion’s moonsilver amulet, and the bag of white jade obols.
“You’re throwing me out already?” I asked plaintively.
“Well, HE is going off with the Lunars, as soon as we’ve smoothed all that over,” Adan pointed at Arrek. “And they’ve their own quarters,” he indicated Lady Danya and her entourage. “Rennar, I’m willing to put up with you for as long as it takes, but I’m not used to sharing my quarters, and having this many Exalts in one place makes me nervous. Just practice those Air Dragon katas, and see how many of them you actually remember.”
Seeing a sticky situation, Nasha cleared her throat and said, “So, Arrek, you change into a bull?”
“No…” he shook his head, not getting her point, “I change into a bear.”
“Then… why does your armor have horns and bull images?”
“Why would a Lunar Exalt, a skinwalker, wear armor in the first place?” Arrek huffed. “Why spend all that money buying something that only gets in the way?”
“Simple,” Adan said, not lifting his eyes from his task. “The armor shifts with its wearer.”
“No, try it on and change into a bear.”
Arrek hemmed a bit, as if changing was a fine and private thing, but Danya wheedled him into it (she really IS very good at that sort of thing), and I helped him into the chain and plate. “I’m going to look a proper fool,” he grumbled. “A bear wearing auroch horns…” He let out a loud growl that turned into roar, and turned first into a towering man-bear, and then into a large bear. But the armor didn’t hamper him in the least. It flowed and adapted to each form. And more. The horns and bull’s-head ornaments on the helmet, shoulder-plates, and breast-plate flowed into a growling bear design, and the ‘hooves’ of the greaves and vambraces took on bearclaw design.
Arrek shifted back into a human and the changes remained in the armor. “It fits perfectly!” he said, moving about. “Before… it was like moving around wrapped up in chains! But now! I’ve worn shirts that slowed me down more!” He took off the helmet. “And Look! No horns! HA-HAH!”
“Arrek,” I asked, peering at him, “when did your eyebrows get so bushy?”
“Eyebrows?” he asked, beetling the furry shrubs over his eyes.
“They weren’t like that before?”
“Like a hairy snake crawled across your face and died. You don’t just have bushy eyebrows, you have a unibrow.”
“What?” he looked at his reflection in his Grimcleaver blade. “When did THAT happen?”
“That was MY question.”
Neither Master Adan nor Lady Danya had any notion as to the significance of Arrek’s eyebrows, so we set it aside until we could set the mystery at the feet of the Lunar Elders. Along with the riddle as to the significance of the remarkable boots that the Lunar hero had been wearing, or the strange leather mask that was worked with threads of the five magical metals. The hearthstone bracers and the long powerbow were obvious enough. Pity the longbow was broken.
As for the Raksha eggs, the Book of Rules and the ‘prayer card’, which Adan called a ‘Writ of Resolute Definition’, it was generally agreed that it was best for all if the Lunar Elders got that. “For one thing,” Danya pointed out, “they’ll probably be a lot more amenable to letting you keep that Moonsilver axe and armor, and the hearthstone and the other things, if you tell them about it right after you present all this to them.”
“Why would there be a problem with my keeping my axe and armor?” Arrek asked. “After all, it’s MINE!”
“Not by the Silver Pact’s way of doing things.”
“WHAT?” Arrek bleated.
“Part of the reason why Master Adan asked me, beyond my negotiating skills, is that I have dealt with the Silver Pact before. The Silver Pact believes that the excesses of the First Age are due to the corrupting influences of Civilization. They think that Civilization makes men weak, lazy, ignorant and timid. They like to make the comparison of crafty, scrappy wild sheep, as opposed to their complaisant domesticated counterparts. They have adopted the Barbarian Credo, which they believe makes them stronger, more self-reliant, more cunning, and more honorable.”
“Are you telling me that a bunch of barbarians scraping out a living on the ragged edges of Creation sat down around a fire and hammered out a cogent philosophy?” I asked with a skeptical raised eyebrow.
“No, I’m saying that a bunch of Lunar philosophers sat around a fire somewhere at the ragged edges of Creation and hammered out a philosophy based on what they perceived as the ennobling effects of near-constant conflict upon the humans and beast-men living there,” Danya said. “I’m not saying that the Silver Pact is a pack of savages, but under all their refinements, Lunar society has the basic dynamics of a pack of wolves.”
“You mean, they’ll just take them away from me?” Arrek asked.
“What if I don’t LET them?”
“Ironically, they’ll respect you more if you do that, than if you just hand it over meekly. And then they’ll beat you bloody, take it all anyway, and say that it’s theirs because you were too weak to keep it. And so, the best weapons and armor go to the best warriors, as is the way of the Silver Pact.” Lady Danya lifted her cup in a toast, as though to say, ‘and that is the way of the world, young bear’.
“Of course…” I hedged, “there always IS the small matter of exactly HOW you go about it.”
“What d’you mean?” Arrek looked at me suspiciously.
“WELL, if they don’t ASK about the armor and other stuff, who’s to tell them? AND, even with all the Lunar bravos backing them up, they’ll still need US to guide them into the Freehold, no?”
“‘Us’?” Danya asked.
“Well, of course I’m going with them!” I said. “After all we’ve been through, do you honestly think that I’d send Arrek into a place where I wouldn’t go myself?” Arrek gave me a ‘who are YOU?’ glare. “After all, even with a thousand Lunar warriors at your back, TWO guides are always better than ONE.”
“NO,” Danya said definitively. “Lunars are very touchy about Solars these days. By the ways of the Silver Pact, for the Lunars to claim the Frabjous Tulge, they have to do it themselves, without Solar assistance.”
“It would be a gracious gesture,” I offered, “considering that I accidentally made the White Temple unavailable to them.”
“It would be best to avoid that matter all together,” Danya insisted. “Just stay OUT of it.”
Very well, I admit it. I pouted a bit, and Arrek’s superior smirk didn’t help it any. “Well! At any rate, back to what we were talking about… Arrek, just don’t tell them about the armor. Then, when you offer to guide them through the Freehold, tell them that you picked up a few things in the Freehold and you want to keep them. They’ll agree to it. You get them to accept a Deceiver’s bar—”
“WHAT?” Danya snapped.
“—an Eclipse’s Bond on it. THEN you trot out the armor and axe. They’ll steam about it at first, but I think they’ll respect you for it.”
“And then the first Lunar warrior who isn’t bound by that pact will beat the pine tar out of me and take them,” Arrek pouted.
“Then you’d better start on those drills I showed you. If you’re going to get mugged, then you’d best make a decent showing as you get pounded.”
Meetings by Moonlight
By means too arcane to bother relating, Lady Danya arranged for us to meet with the Lunar elders. So, just a week before Calibration, we Solars and Arrek were standing on a hillside a few leagues outside Keldon at midnight. Just as I was about to say something about going to look for them, a large tiger strolled out of the woods. The tiger was wearing armor. The tiger looked us over with the off-hand curiosity of cats. Then it casually walked over to the other side of the bluff and gave a roar. A very, VERY large snake slithered out from another direction, and a large raven flew down. As one, they sort of melted from their animal forms into human seemings, with the tiger’s armor changing to fit her new form, and cloaks appearing out of nowhere for the snake and raven. The raven stepped forward and said in polished tones, “Master Adan. I see that you have liberated the sel-chana, as promised. But what complications are there, that you should involve others in our dealings?”
Master Adan introduced me and explained about the complications that my Exaltations entailed. “So, our alliance is just so much dust in the wind,” the raven said, giving me the evil eye.
That was Lady Danya’s cue to step forward. She primly took command of the discussion, pointing out that the Lunars had ventured nothing so far, and had already gained their youngling. They could only profit further from listening to her. She opened with the offer of the Frabjous Tulge, and numerated the advantages of taking that instead of the White Temple, the foremost being the glory in taking the Tulge, as opposed to grubby commerce in simply accepting the White Temple. Bit by bit, she led the Lunars to the conclusion that suited us. That she nailed each point down by presenting a new treasure to assist the Lunars in taking the Tulge, helped. The Raven’s eyes glittered with acquisitive greed as the Sidhe eggs and tools were laid out before him. “You offer us much… you seek to BUY our loyalty?”
“Hardly. Master Adan made a deal with you in good faith. Fate, leaning that way even in the best of times, decided that it wouldn’t be simple. As we understand the Silver Pact, your folk will have to take the brunt of capturing the Frabjous Tulge and re-working it into a Lunar demesne. We offer these tools to make that daunting task possible, by way of recompense. You gain a powerful foothold in Kellesval. Even if you choose not to enter into an alliance with Master Adan and Lord Rennar, Lunars will make far better neighbors than the Fair Folk.” The raven reached forward, but Danya pulled back. “We offer these things on the condition that you agree to take the Frabjous Tulge.”
“Why wouldn’t we?”
“I could imagine that there might be some sort of cheap glory in relating how you took these things and left Kellesval, laughing at the craven Solar lords, who give treasures with trembling hands, seeking to ransom off the wrath of the Silver Pact.”
“These gauds are the price of our alliance?”
“No, we give you these wonders so you can claim the Frabjous Tulge. Once you possess the Tulge, we will hammer out the details of any alliance as a meeting between equals.”
The raven conferred with the other two in whispers for a moment. Then he stepped forward. In a proclamation-issuing tone of voice, he said, “We accept that the assignment of the White Temple to Lord Rennar is the will of Heaven. Who are we to challenge the will of Heaven? We also accept that the Wyldling Freehold is an acceptable alternative for the unavailable manse, and we agree to the terms for the gift of the tools. However, the addition of another Solar demesne in Kellseval changes the terms of the alliance that we discussed with Master Adan. Lord Rennar must be brought into the alliance, and the specific terms of obligation must be set and agreed on.”
In other words, the diplomat wants more meetings and negotiations. Creation reels. To a diplomat the solution to everything is more negotiations, just as to a physicker, the cure for everything is more expensive drugs, and to a general, the resolution can always be found in raising more troops.
I saw the right moment and seized it. Stepping forward, I said, “I offer one more thing. Not a gift, but a loan, to help you take the Freehold.” I took the Pearl from my clasp. I explained the nature of my hearthstone, and how it reacted to free essence and wyld nature. “With this, you should have a much easier time dealing with the bone fire and putting it to good use.”
The raven paused, but the fire of greed was large in his eyes. I could almost hear him justifying taking it as his own, in his own mind. “And what do you want for this magnificent boon?” he asked scornfully.
“Merely a formal oath, sealed by Lady Danya here, that you, your companions, and all the warriors that you call to take the Freehold, will respect that this hearthstone is MINE. Also, you and all of them will respect that Arrek and I went into the Freehold earlier and managed to escape with a significant amount of loot. Arrek and I settled on a division of the spoils of that between us. I don’t want some Lunar warrior coming to me and saying that as a brave of whatever you wind up calling that demesne, he is owed this trinket or that bauble that I took out earlier. Arrek respects my claim, as I respect his. All that I ask of you is that you honor that agreement as well.” The raven conferred with his cronies again, but they agreed to the pact. It turned out that the raven was named, as Master Adan said, Tangos, though he named himself ‘Wings Above The Storm’ as well, and identified himself as being of the Changing Moon caste, whatever that signified. The Snake Lunar was named Kiriyan, or ‘Watches The River’, and he hailed himself as a Sage of the No Moon. The Tiger-woman was Yi’An or ‘Eyes of Fire’, and she was a Warrior of the Full Moon. And so they swore themselves.
When the pact was sealed, Yi’An said that gathering the warriors for the assault would take at least eight days, with at least another day to cope with thrashing out the touchier points of precedence and status and so forth. She told Arrek that being sel-chana, or a novice, but also being the guide and the one who knew Ouramas’ Dirge already, might needlessly complicate the sorting-out process. He was to stay with Master Adan until the pecking order had been sorted out.
After the three melted back into the night, and we were well into the outskirts of Keldon, Lady Danya congratulated Arrek. “On what?”
“On keeping your armor and hearthstone.”
“Why? I haven’t fought my first battle over them yet.”
“And you have a good while to practice for that first fight, cubling,” she said with a smile.
“Oh?” he said gloomily. “The second that I show up carrying my Grimcleaver, the first fight will be to see who fights me first. It’ll probably add a week to the sorting-out process, as it floats its way up to the top of the pecking order, with one fight after another. After all, I can’t expect the great warriors to stoop to beating up a sel-chana.” I could tell that he was grieving more at the certainty of losing his moonsilver great axe than the idea of being beaten half to death.
“They won’t. Yi’An won’t let them,” Danya said smugly.
“She’s oath-bound not to,” Danya said with a grin. “Think about the wording of Rennar’s oath.”
Arrek mulled it over. Then he got it. “They agreed to honor my and Rennar’s pact about the loot from the Freehold. He made it sound like they were honoring his title to the loot, but they were also agreeing to honor MY claim to what I took out as well.”
“Exactly,” Danya said smugly. “Now, remember to make it sound like you’re pouncing on the chance wording of what Rennar said. That way, they won’t see it as a Solar meddling in Lunar affairs, and they’ll respect you more for it. Lunars respect cunning.” She paused and considered. “They won’t LIKE it, but they’ll respect it.”
Arrek looked at me suspiciously. “You meant to do that. Why?” I gave him a sneaky smile and the question nagged at him all the way back to Jade Hill.
“This is a Hearthstone Compass,” Master Adan held up one of the bits from his stock of odds and ends. It was a thick flat disk of black jade that just fit within the palm of his hand, with five concentric floating rings of the different magical metals inset. “It’s used to locate the direction of the nearest manse.” He flipped it over and removed the base, revealing a small cache. “But, it has another, less well-known use. Arrek, might I borrow your hearthstone for a moment?”
Cautiously, suspiciously, possessively, Arrek took the moonstone from the setting in his grimcleaver. “Why do you want it?”
Adan placed the stone in the recess in the compass. “As you’ve no doubt picked up by now, merely having a hearthstone in your possession doesn’t give you control of a manse, or even the use of the powers of the hearthstone. You have to take the hearthstone to the hearth of the manse and attune it in order to do that. But, even if it isn’t attuned to its bearer, there still is a mystic link between the hearth and the stone. With the stone set in this cache, we can now know the direction and general distance that the manse is from where we are. Once we triangulate the vectors from at least three different locations, we should know exactly where your hearthstone’s generating manse happens to be.”
I took a look at the compass and made a note of the direction and vector. Checking one of Adan’s smaller maps, I said, “That may not be quite the mathematics problem that you were expecting, Adan.”
“Well, looking at this map of the city, one possibility just sort of jumps out and takes you by the eye.”
I went over to Adan’s larger piecemeal map and pointed at one place that was the nexus of several adjusted ley lines. “According to this, the vector that the compass gives goes right through the Immaculate Abbey of the Serene Blossom of Profound Inspiration.”
“Which is… the seat of the Prelate of the Immaculate Faith in these parts, a training ground for Immaculate Monks, AND the nexus of several major ley lines…” Master Adan buried his face in his hand, and then looked heavenward. “DON’T YOU EVER MAKE ANYTHING EASY?”
I looked at Arrek. “Well, Old Bear, it’s your call. After all, you don’t have to attune that hearthstone. Mind you, if you DO, you’ll gain access to greater essence, whatever magical powers that hearthstone has, and your Grand Grimcleaver will be that much more effective in your hands while the stone is set in it. Oh, and you’ll be undermining the Immaculate Abbey’s essence works, which no doubt tap into the essence of what is, after all, by right of your possessing that stone, YOUR manse. Of course, if you DO decide to attune the manse, you’ll be facing the mystic and martial might of an Immaculate training center. A minor, provincial one, but still an Immaculate training center, with just under a hundred devout Immaculate monks of varying degrees of training, ranging from boys whose heads are still itching from being shaved to the Masters who train the elder students who train the boys, all of whom would regard killing a Moon Anathema as the high point of their careers.” I finished by sitting on the edge of the table, taking up a goblet of wine and looking at Arrek with a curious ‘Well?’ expression.
Arrek looked taken aback. “A HUNDRED Immaculates?”
“Oh, they’re not all Revered Masters. Certainly not way out here. And the vast majority of them are mortal. Adan, any information about the local abbey?”
“One hundred and twenty sworn monks, thirty postulants, most of whom are attached to the scriptorium and hospital. A security force of 30 sworn monks, who work part-time at either the scriptorium or hospital, six of whom are Dragonblooded, 12 of whom have had their essence awakened by meditation. Five martial arts teachers on their third coil of study, all Dragon-blooded, with artifact weapons. No sorcerers, but they do have several very good thaumaturges and geomancers.”
I paused. “You’ve researched this.”
“I’ve managed to stay alive through a very eventful life, by knowing as much about the area I’m heading into as I possibly can.”
“You have a map of the Abbey? Oh, what am I saying, of course you have a map of the Abbey!”
Arrek narrowed his eyes at me. “Why is this so important to you, Rich Boy?”
“Arrek! You misjudge me!” I protested. “That is YOUR manse, by right of your possession of that hearthstone! You have a RIGHT to it! Of course, in order for you to find the hearth of the demesne, you’ll need someone to create a distraction for you.”
“And you’re volunteering?”
“And who better? And, while I’m there, what better distraction than to break into the Treasurer’s office, maybe the Abbot’s office? And while I’m there, what would it hurt to pick up a few mementos, hmmm?”
“Oh, I don’t know… say… five jade talents?”
“Five jade talents?” Arrek and Dayna said as one. “Why would there be five jade talents at the monastery?” Danya continued on her own.
Master Adan related the story of how Mykiros and I ‘liberated’ the talents from the Black Dragons, and entrusted them to the Abbot. “Snaffling that much money would neatly answer any questions as to why mysterious figures risked breaking into the monastery,” I pointed out. “And, even someone as slippery as I would have a hard time lugging that much jade out unseen. So, I go in and make a ruckus. If I get cornered, I simply drop the talents, and make my way out empty handed. If not, I’m five talents richer. And, while I’m there, I might as well rifle the Abbot’s office for any interesting documents that he might have laying about.”
“Not to mention any other money or magical talismans that he might have under lock and key,” Arrek said with a lift of a furry eyebrow.
“Arrek, what IS this aversion that you have with my acquiring the means to better pursue our mutual agenda?”
“Thieving is thieving.”
“Oh? I don’t see you sniffing out the surviving family of the owner of that Grimcleaver, as to pass along their heritage to his kin.”
“Arrek, you make it sound like I sneak into the houses of the poor in the middle of the night and steal the bread that keeps them from starvation! What I am proposing to do is to diminish the resources that our enemies, who would gleefully parade BOTH our heads around the town on pikes, can use against us, while enhancing our ability to be effective in Keldon. We’re taking weapons away from them, so we can use them.”
“You’re not talking about taking weapons, you’re talking about MONEY,” Arrek insisted mulishly.
“Money IS a weapon,” I counter-insisted. “A purse full of jade is more deadly than a hundred swords, because it will buy a hundred swords and a hundred men to use them.”
“True, but it’s stealing from the Immaculate Order.”
I took a deep draught of wine and asked, “So! Arrek! When are you going to give the Abbot that hearthstone?”
“Why would I do a daft thing like that?” he retorted, bewildered.
“Why not? It’s the Abbot’s property.”
“The Monastery is sitting right on top of the manse that that hearthstone is the key to. The Monastery’s magical defenses and all its other magical works use the essence of that manse. The manse is the keystone of the entire Monastery in fact. The Abbot is the head of the Monastery, so, therefore, as the representative of the Immaculate Faith in Keldon, he is the master of that manse. Therefore, that hearthstone is HIS property. If the Abbot had that hearthstone, he could attune it, and his monks could use the magic of the manse far more efficiently. Therefore you are keeping the Abbot’s lawful property from him. In order to maintain for yourself the standards of lawful behavior that you expect of ME, you are obligated to return that hearthstone to the Abbot.” I took another swig of wine and fixed Arrek with my eyes. “I’m sure that the Silver Pact will be very impressed with your honesty and humble obedience to the Immaculate Faith.”
“But… but that’s DIFFERENT!” Arrek looked at Lady Danya and Master Adan.
“Don’t look to me,” Lady Danya demurred. “The Immaculate Faith wages unceasing and merciless war against both Solar and Lunar alike. Therefore, the terms of war apply. And raiding the resources of an enemy is an old and honored tactic.”
“And don’t look to me to back you on this,” Adan said, not looking up from his project. “At least Rennar has been providing for his room and board.” He raised his head from his work and said, “Boy, we’re not on the playground anymore. Playground rules don’t apply anymore. The Aunties won’t come and clout us about the ears and tell us to be good children when things get rough. Of all the things that we’ll have to do, in order to stay alive, let alone do anything more worthy of our Solar patron, taking a few baubles from the shavepates will be the least of it. When we go in to cover your attuning that hearthstone, the odds are that we’ll have to kill a few men and women who’ve done nothing worse than suck up the theological swill that is the Immaculate Doctrine.” Adan fixed Arrek with a hawk-like gaze. “Luna did not exalt you to be timid.”
As Arrek reeled from that, Lady Danya interceded. “Good friend Adan, you are too harsh on the boy. He has scruples. Let him enjoy them, while the Silver Pact lets him keep them.”
“Just don’t let those scruples get in the way, while I’m sneaking around that Monastery in the dark,” Adan grumbled.
“And why would you be sneaking around in the dark?” I asked.
“Because I’m going along with you,” he said matter-of-factly. “The library that’s attached to that scriptorium has an entire room full of scrolls and codices that I’ve been itching to get my hands on. And the pharmacy of that hospital has some rare minerals and herbs that I’d like to add to my stores.”
“And you, Lady Danya?”
She smiled coquettishly. “Well, I would rather like to take a look through the Abbot’s correspondence. It would be nice to know what the Immaculate Order has been telling him. And vice-versa.”
Arrek pouted, beetling his furry eyebrows. I patted him on the shoulder. “Don’t worry Old Bear, it’s still your show. Just tack all the rest of it onto your story when you brag to the other Lunars about how you tweaked the Dragonbloods’ noses, as an afterthought. ‘I totally undermined the Immaculate Faith in Keldon and earned an item of true power. Oh, and the Solars ran around, picking up crumbs’. Something like that.”
Arrek’s furry brows picked up. “Hold on… If I attune that manse to myself, the rattlebeads will know it immediately, and they’ve got those geomancers that you were talking about… how could they NOT find us?”
“Marella? Lucine?” Adan instructed off-handedly. “The pine book case, on the third or fourth shelf from the bottom, you should find a codex bound in stiff dark red leather with the Old Realm glyph for ‘fountain’ on the cover. Would you find it, please?”
Marella brought over the book, which Adan instructed her to give to Arrek. “That is Cynis Ofeja’s treatise on the basic principles of manse construction. About thirty pages in, you’ll find a screaming bird illustration. That’s the template that the Immaculate Abbey of the Serene Blossom of Profound Inspiration was built upon. Two pages after that, you’ll find Ofeja’s description of how such a template can be subverted, and the measures that can be taken to prevent just such subversion. Measures that, of which at least one was undone as a stopgap measure some years ago, which the monks never got around to shoring up again.”
I arched an inquiring eyebrow at Adan. “You’ve been studying the Abbey’s ley line foundation?”
“Didn’t I say that there are scrolls and codices in their library that I’ve been meaning to acquire?”
‘There once was a maiden… who got hung out to twist in the wind by her tea-filching superior, who never even bothered to read any of the reports that he insisted that she send in, written in triplicate, with her spelling, punctuation and grammar all perfect.’
Sidereal charms are often written up in the form of fanciful tales full of allegory, which begin with ‘once there was a maiden’. To while away the hours as she watched the niche that led to the Solar’s lair, Azure Rose had taken to spinning just such tales, in the half-hearted hopes of contriving a charm that would spin a loophole for her, and a noose for Croup Miter.
She was in the middle of one particularly gruesome fate for the former Median Eastern God of Bureaucratic Seals (as Croup Miter had been once), when the niche opened up and one of Kaellis’ retinue, Adan, (who may or may not have been the described Twilight Solar) poked his head out, stepped out a bit, made sure that the coast was clear, and started acting drunk. He staggered slightly halfway down the alley, and then tapped the bottle that he was ‘hiding’ three times against the bricks. Kaellis, in that ‘idiot patrician’ outfit of his, walked out, assumed a pose and gestured for someone to follow. Arrek, wearing his flunky outfit and carrying a large parcel followed. Kaellis arrogantly led Arrek out of the alleyway and arrogantly summoned a rickshaw. Wondering what Kaellis was up to, Azure Rose hopped onto the back of the rickshaw with the parcel, and off they went.
Kaellis hired a horse and buggy at a livery stable and secured the bundle carefully, being very fussy with it. Then Arrek drove the buggy off, leaving Kaellis behind. Not sure which of them to follow, Azure Rose decided that Kaellis was the one that she’d been commissioned to deal with, not Arrek, so it was his business that concerned her. Kaellis strolled off, the very picture of a patrician idler with more money than responsibilities going out into the early evening in search of diversions. Somehow, despite appearing to have less direction than a dandelion seed on the wind, Kaellis made good time getting to the southern gate of the Abbey of the Serene Blossom of Profound Inspiration, where he made a silent mockery of the Immaculate Faith’s doctrine by imbibing the wares of a street wine vendor.
A few moments later, Kaellis’ friend, Adan the scholar, made a similar pilgrimage to one of the lower-order stalls, partaking of some throat varnish. Several minutes later, the buggy driven by Arrek came up to the gate. It was carrying an aristocratic looking woman and two giddy looking hand maidens in the back seat, and the package on the very back was leaking a trail of pale dust that blended into the road. One of the handmaidens got out and rang for the gatekeeper, who was surprised at an unexpected visit that late. As the lady spoke to the gatekeeper, Kaellis walked up and engaged the lady in a disjointed comedy of errors and manners and mistaken identities. As the gatekeeper tried to sort out the misunderstanding, Kaellis’ friend Adan simply strolled past the gate without so much as a by-your-leave, and ducked into the woods just inside the walls. Once Adan was hidden in the wood, Kaellis broke off the farce, and made as if he was walking away in a huff. But instead, he merely circled around the buggy just out of the gatekeeper’s eye, made his way past the keeper without being seen, and was in the woods as well.
Once the gates were closed, Kaellis and Adan emerged from the woods, now wearing stealth blacks. They followed the barely perceptible trail of dust on the road up to the abbey proper. Kaellis tied off the bag of powder and removed it from the buggy. Then he drew his owl cloak and mask from under the rear seat of the buggy. Pulling them on, he sketched a salute to Adan, and they each went their own way. Azure Rose gave a mute snarl of annoyance and trudged after Kaellis again.
The trail of dust trick worked wonderfully. Technically, by being allowed in by the gatekeeper, Arrek and Danya were welcome, so their presence wouldn’t raise any alarms from the mystic wards that protected the abbey. The trail of dust left behind by the buggy was an obscuration of the lines of definition, and by walking along the trail of dust, Adan and I didn’t cross any lines of definition, and so no alarms went up. At least, no alarms would go up until Arrek had had a chance to attune his hearthstone.
Adan had his agenda, and I had mine. And mine included a very large chest full of jade talents. Mind you, there’s no way that I can actually spend those talents, but I imagine that we’ll find ways of making them useful. If nothing else, they’ll make for breakfast tables with social cachet to spare.
The Abbey of the Serene Blossom of Profound Inspiration was like the Cloister of Wisdom, writ small and shabby. The Immaculate Faith is an aniconic faith, and as such tends to avoid the statues, figures and images that dress up most buildings. The emphasis is on clean, elegant lines that don’t distract the eye. Which can be quite annoying if you’re trying to blend into the woodwork. But, on the other hand, it can be a boon when you’re looking for secret passages. When we’d turned the talents over to the Abbey, the Abbot had had us take the chest to the Prior’s office and leave it there. I hadn’t noticed any detail of armed monks removing it from the Prior’s office, so I’m betting that Brother Prior has a secret vault with an entrance hidden somewhere in his office.
A quick search of the office didn’t turn up any doors hidden behind wall hangings or shelves or any of the usual places. Rather, Brother Prior — or more likely one of his distant predecessors in the office — had solved the problem with commendable simplicity and effectiveness. There was a trap door hidden under the carpet by his desk. The trap door was so heavy that it probably would have taken two monks to open it. Of course, those limitations don’t really apply to me anymore. Of course, I think that I may have hurt myself opening the damned thing, but I knew that this ‘Solar Champion’ job was going to be dangerous when I took it.
Well, one treasury looks remarkably like another, so I won’t bother describing it. I found the chest with the five — sorry, eight — talents, and risked more severe bodily injury getting it up those stairs. And, despite the weight issues, I almost injured myself getting bars and shekels and mina of jade up those stairs, as well as a few bags of obols. There was a box full of jade scrip; they weren’t worth anywhere near as much as the real jade, but I could actually spend the damned things, and they were a lot lighter, so I took that. I was severely disappointed in the Prior; you’d think that he’d store some of the abbey’s more valuable enchanted items down with the cash. But, no such luck. It looks as though Master Adan’s going to have to be satisfied with the scrolls that he cribs from the archives — and being richer than the satrap.
I spotted Tavis and Esbra, the two ‘handmaidens’ that Lady Danya had brought along with her on her ‘visit’ to the Abbot, sneaking out of his office. “Did you find anything?”
They jumped and squeaked a bit, (honestly, I didn’t think that I was THAT quiet), and when they collected themselves, Esbra said, “We found some correspondence, but we can’t make anything of it. The Lady will have to look at it to see if it means anything.”
“And no doubt the Abbot is hanging on her every word,” I sighed. “Go, tell her to come and take a look at it, once I set off the alarm. Let her know that it’ll take a bit — I want Arrek to have as much time as he needs, and Master Adan will need time to pick through the archives as well.”
“How will we know the signal for her to come?”
“Oh, believe me, you’ll know… And while you lot are here, you can pick this stuff up and move it to your buggy.” I moved the chest near the front door of the building and arranged it so that it would look like an end table in the dark. I had them go get the correspondence, and tucked it in the chest with all the jade.
“Where are you going?” Tavis whispered as I turned to go.
“The Thaumaturges’ labs. There weren’t any artifacts down in the treasury, so that’s where they’d probably keep them. That, and any notes regarding their scryings for us. Ta!”
Getting into the Thaumaturges’ lab was significantly harder than getting into the Abbey at large. But then, it would, and if it wasn’t then it wouldn’t be as much fun. Figuring out the keying sequence was amusing, but not particularly taxing. They used a rather provincial variant of a mnemonic that we were taught back in the Cloister of Wisdom. Still, for all that, I was impressed by what I found inside. No First Age or even Shogunate Age treasures, but rather a sign that the Dynasty had not lost the ability to build wonders. The center of the Geomancy chamber was filled by a huge apparatus made up of twelve large jade-metal rings that turned and pivoted on turntables and hinges, which were worked with traces of all five magical metals, and inscribed with prayers to the Five Elemental Dragons. It was a larger, more sophisticated, and no doubt more powerful, sensitive and accurate version of the compasses that Geomancers use. Looking at the clockwork controls, my hands itched at all the amusing ways that I could completely baffle any future attempts to use this to divine our whereabouts.
Azure Rose quirked her mouth with annoyance. Really! The Immaculates were supposed to be more formidable than this! Admittedly, they’d taken the precaution of setting a variety of traps, just in case some saboteur or thief tried to do anything to the Geomantic Compass, but each and every one of them was worked into the protective warding circle that surrounded the entire apparatus. It only took three walk-arounds, without even expending any essence, for Kaellis to figure which segment was trapped, what the trap was, whether he wanted any part of the trap for something else, and how to disarm the trap. He snaffled the gas canister for himself, he disconnected the air-tube to the ear-splitting whistle, and then he disarmed the poisoned needle-caster, the ‘monster’ puppet, and the spinning top of doom. And, then he found the minute line of orichalcum that led from the circle to the large, rather ominous urn over the door. Barely pausing to visit one of the other Thaumaturgical labs, Kaellis returned with a hammer, a chisel, and a phial of salt. He carved a break in the line of orichalcum and filled the gap with salt. Then he checked the other segments and dealt with the lesser traps in turn. As Kaellis was busy with this, Azure Rose sniffed with disdain. Really! Solars were supposed to be paragons of excellence! But Kaellis’ ‘fix’ on the demon or elemental trap was crude going on shoddy. Why he hadn’t even bothered to pack in the salt! The merest breeze could blow away the salt. She blew on the powdered salt, just to prove it to herself. And that gouge in the orichalcum line! Why, almost anything could bridge that gap! She proved it so with a simple wad of spit (well charged with essence). Still, maybe young Kaellis simply needed an object lesson in the consequences of shoddy workmanship…
I checked the last segment and made sure that I hadn’t missed anything. Not bad for a provincial monastery. Still, it was rather a given thing that a desperate Anathema such as myself would try to destroy the Faith’s great instrument for sniffing me out. But as what’s sauce for the goose is gravy for the gander, it struck me that this great honking thing could be better put to use sniffing out Death Knights. I pulled my hearthstone from its pocket and set it into the proper socket. As the circles began to spin, it occurred to me that while I knew how to use a basic Geomantic Compass, this was several magnitudes more complex that I was familiar with. Master Adan would have a much better idea as to how to use this thing properly. He’d also have better ideas as how to find Death Knights with it, and while we’re on the topic, how to crock this thing to our best advantage. I pulled the yasal crystal from another pocket. “Asrith, sweetheart?”
*No, I don’t know how to use anything even like this.* she responded pettishly.
“I wasn’t going to ask you to. But, would you be a dear, and go and find Master Adan? I want to see if we can find where our darkling friends have moved shop, before I take a sledgehammer to this.”
She gave a vengeful chuckle of understanding, and was gone like the night wind.
Using my basic knowledge of how such instrumentation works (very basic), I warmed the compass up, putting it through its paces and got the rings up to their full speed. But then I caught a whiff of a pungent smell that made me think of burning oil. No… not oil… acid… And it wasn’t coming from the compass… no, I followed my nose. There, up on the wall, I spotted a line of tracks on the wall… no, not ON the wall, IN the wall, burned in acid. Crouching along the wall, only a few feet away from me was a long lizard-like form, gathering itself to pounce.
It didn’t give me any chance to get a good look at it. It gave a shriek like metal being torn and jumped. I had a vague sense of a head like a vulture and a pair of talon-like fore claws. Not that I just stood there, examining it. As it launched itself, I ducked behind the control console and looked around frantically for something, anything that I could use to deal with that thing. My chain is too flexible, it could use that against me. My claws require immediate fighting, and I have no intention of getting any closer to that thing than I absolutely have no. My Reaper Dailklave and shield would be perfect for this — but I left them back at Jade Hill, because I couldn’t hide them in this outfit!
I was scrambling across the floor, when I noticed the segments on the circle surrounding the compass. The… quadruped… for want of a better name — and NO, I don’t know all the names of all the denizens of Malfeas, I have better things to do!—came bounding at me, and I managed to kick it over me as it attacked, sending it sprawling. I lashed out with my chain, but I didn’t target the demon. I hit the wooden chock that I’d jammed the trap on that segment with. The steel blade came slashing up, and nailed the demon on its forequarters, cutting it badly. The blade would have crippled a mortal. But this was a demon, the spawn of the Yozis; it was barely nicked. Still, it gave me time to get to the next segment. I kicked out the chock holding back the needle-caster. Not that the needles would hurt the demon very much, let alone the poison. No, again, I was buying time. I kicked out more chocks, unleashing the three spinning tops of doom, which came sliding up out of their niches under the segments, imparting power to their whirling engines, and extending the razor-sharp bronze blades, all in one quick, efficient move. I sent the tops at the demon with flicks of my chain. The demon tore the bronze mechanisms apart, taking marginal damage in return. But, yet again, that wasn’t the plan. Dismantling the tops would keep the demon busy while I made sure of my real plan.
The demon finished wrecking the last top, and prowled in my direction warily. It had taken enough damage that it was hurt and cautious, and it eyed the segments around me, in case yet another surprise came popping up out of the ground.
Which was the wrong place to look; my surprise came dropping down from the ceiling. I tripped the trigger with my foot. With a lusty — if artificial — roar, the large bronze ‘demon-spider’ came down on top of the real demon and latched onto it with its metallic legs, and then hauled it up into the air, as it was designed to. However, it wasn’t designed to suddenly pivot and throw itself and its prey into the madly whirling hoops of the Geomantic Compass. I pulled that off by pulling on the counterweights and balance beam that the marionette dangled from. The massive, speeding blades tore the bronze spider and quadruped demon and themselves apart with a horrible ear-splitting crashing, tearing, grinding noise, as splinters of bronze, iron, and jade alloy hoops went flying in every direction. I ducked for cover from the shrapnel and acidic ichor. The poor initiate who arrived at the door just in time to see the whole thing go boom wasn’t so lucky. A long curving lath of blue jade-alloy cut him in two, and none-too neatly.
As soon as bits and pieces stopped flying about the chamber, I scrambled over to the control console and fetched my hearthstone. Ah well, it looks like we won’t be using that compass to find the Death Knights after all.
I heard the sounds of footfalls and confused voices in the hallway. Ah well, there isn’t any real need for me to be quiet anyway. I might as well give Arrek the best distraction that I can. I slipped over to the console and retrieved my pearl from the compass control. While I was there, I pulled my ‘Strix’ cloak and mask out from the pockets of the Black Dragon ninja outfit where I’d tucked them, and picked out a decoy box from the litter.
Well, the entire point here is to create a distraction for Arrek, so there’s no point in being quiet. I took a deep breath and let out a deep loud eerie mocking laugh that echoed in the gloom of the huge compass chamber. I rose up from behind the console, my arms stretched high and wide, making the most of my cape and let the monks gathered at the door get a good look at me.
The monks gathered at the door flinched gratifyingly. So I decided to give them a real thrill and rushed at them. I knocked the lit rushes from their hands, and from there, it became a confusion of shouting and shadows and thrashing around. Which suited me perfectly and I had a wonderful time, but, alas, the poor monks didn’t enjoy the experience half as much as I did.
I rushed out of the building and onto the grounds. I whistled for Bop and she came down and rested on my shoulders. She informed me that Arrek was in the middle of attuning his hearthstone, and Lady Danya was managing the Abbot trying to get her to safety in the emergency. “So, more noise is needed. Which direction?” Upon Bop’s direction, I scampered up the outside of the wall and onto the roof. I let the wind capture my cloak and make it flutter, so that the only way that any searchers could fail to spot me was if they were steadfastly looking in the wrong direction. They, of course, caught sight of me and were after me like a pack of hounds after a fox. But hounds wouldn’t have tripped over each other the way the monks did.
The hounds would have been quieter, too.
I gave them a merry chase for the better part of an hour, and had tons of fun with lights and shadows and sounds and strings and surprises. But even the merriest of sport gets tired after a while. I called forth the little not-quite-a-god resting in my belt buckle and set it forth in my form, to teach the good monks a rousing lesson in the limitations of their training and technique.
Once the phantasm had led the mass of coursing Immaculates well away from me, I emerged from my cover and walked casually towards the gate. All this running around had given me a thirst, and I thought that I might try the wares of one of the wine-sellers who might still have a stall open near the gate. But not the one I visited earlier; his ‘special distilling technique’ probably had something to do with passing it through the urinary tract of a diseased camel.
I was shaking the memory of the taste of the tonsil varnish from my head, when I noticed that my path was blocked. Sitting on a rock, very peacefully biding his time, was an elder monk. However, instead of being infirm, he rather demonstrated the point that with Dragonbloods, the older members are the ones that you really have to worry about. He looked like someone had draped a white robe over a granite statue. “Ah… Good, even, revered elder…” I said, trying to be as suave as you can with a large (if empty) box on your shoulder. “Pray tell, how do you come to be here?”
“Pesiap teaches that speed is not everything. Why chase after a rabbit, if you know where its hole is?”
Of course, he’s an Earth Dragon. He would be. Earth Dragons are always the ones that you have to worry about. Fire dragons? They’re big, they’re loud, they’re flashy, and they’re violent, but they’re so all over the place that you can get them to ‹heh› burn themselves out with the right provocation. Air Dragons? They’re fast, they’re furious, and Sol knows, they tend to be smarter than Fire Dragons, but, using Adlynn as an example, they tend to rush into things without thinking. Wood Dragons? They’re more stable than Air Dragons, but if you work them right, you can ensnare them in their own branches, as it were. Water Dragons? Yes, nasty. Yes, devious. Yes, dangerous. And, no, I’m not saying that just because I looked the Dana’ad back at the Cloister. But Water Dragons tend to recede before aggression reflexively, and try to use that force against their opponents. A wary opponent knows how to stay out of water that’s above his head.
But Earth Dragons? The Earth endures. Pesiap, the Immaculate Dragon of the Earth, teaches his emulators to both to endure and to think carefully. The Earth moves slowly, but very deliberately. Once an Earth Dragon gets going, it’s damned hard to stop him. They don’t stop until they’ve done what they set out to do, no matter what you throw at them.
Of course, the trick is them getting started. Hefting the decoy box up on my shoulder, I leapt up to the bough of a nearby tree—
—and was promptly knocked back down by something that hit me in the side like a stone hammer. As I staggered, something else hit me on the jaw and almost knocked me out. I reflexively shifted the box, and accidentally deflected what turned out to be a small rock the size of my thumb. Looking at the Earth Immaculate, I saw him make a brief snap of his hand, and I barely managed to put the box between me and another pummeling rock. I ducked behind that tree, but I immediately saw what the monk’s plan was. He didn’t need to catch up with me. All that he had to do was keep me in one place, while more dragonbloods came to help him finish me.
I’ll give Stonehammer his due; it’s a nicely planned trap. He’s got an almost unlimited supply of ammunition, and I’ll bet that even if I do manage to get past all that to take him on up close, he’s even deadlier in one-on-one. So, I’ll give the Dragonblood this one and seek better methods of escape. On my order, Bop came swooping down as the huge ghostly white strix, and in the half-a-breath that Stonehammer was distracted, I slipped out from the cover of that tree and was well away.
Nicely done, Stonehammer! But it takes more than that to cage a Nightwolf! I was off into the shadowy woods that were my own special province, slipping noiselessly through the darkness, a night wind for all that anyone noticed—
—that is, until I ran right into yet another Dragonblood. She grappled at me with a bit more skill than I reasonably think I actually have, and she was practically rooted to the spot, so I couldn’t use my superior strength. So, I leveraged the box into her hands. She reflexively accepted the box, and before it could register with her how light it was, I popped my claws to make her drop it. I trimmed the Wood Aspect’s shrubs for a bit, picked up the box again and was off again.
And then I ran into a fog bank that was so thick that even Bop couldn’t make out what was going on from above, which struck me as odd, given the hour and season.
Azure Rose had been raised to think of Dragonbloods as an effete corps of impudent snobs who hid behind slum-recruited legions and inherited First Age warships, as they demanded tribute from hard-working islanders. But she had to admit that this crew of Dragonblooded Immaculates was making good on their countrymen’s boasts. The Water Dragon had Kaellis lost in a thick bank of fog, and the Air and Wood aspected monks were doing an excellent job of keeping him off balance as they waited for the Earth aspect to catch up with them. She may just be able to put paid to Kaellis, so she could concentrate on Adan, and put this whole Keldon matter behind her. The only flaw in their plan was the blazing light that the Fire-aspected sorcerer was generating by drawing characters in flaming essence in the air, especially with that ‘nimbus’ frame strapped to his back which flickered and flashed with power, focusing and drawing essence more efficiently.
But then the Earth-aspect came chugging up, and the brutalizing started up in deadly earnest. Azure Rose leaned in and watched with intent curiosity as the five Dragonbloods did that essence sharing thing that was supposed to be such hot stuff. And, given them their due, it was living up to the hullabaloo. Individually, or even in a group, Kaellis could have ripped the Immaculates apart, if he weren’t so intent on simply escaping. They tossed the pooled essence around from each to each, keeping him off balance and hitting him where he was least expecting it. His movements were getting slower and he was staggering.
Then, suddenly, on a cue from the Fire-aspect sorcerer, the other four Immaculates all pulled away from Kaellis and withdrew a good ten meters from him, all clustering behind the big Earth-aspect. As Kaellis reeled from the pounding that he got, the sorcerer completed the diagram he was drawing in the air, and inserted a golden lantern into it. The flame inside the lantern drew into an eagle-sized bird of flame. The sorcerer stuck his red jade staff, which was worked with all five of the magical metals, and drew the eagle out. The eagle spread its wings as though to fly and gave out a shrill scream. But, just as the sorcerer raised the staff, a dark figure appeared behind him and stuck a dagger into his back, ignoring the blazing nimbus frame. The sorcerer gasped when he should have given the trigger word. The assailant withdrew the dagger and slit the sorcerer’s throat, taking the staff with the other hand. As the sorcerer clutched his throat and fell, the assailant gave the trigger word, and the fire-eagle rose up into the air with a scream and came down on the clustered Immaculates — rather pointedly on the far side of the big Earth-aspect from Kaellis. The Brilliant Raptor struck the four Immaculates in a torturous wave of traumatic essence, scourging their bodies, and then exploded in a ball of flame, sending them sprawling.
Kaellis had managed to collect himself, and he sprang on the Earth-aspect as both the most dangerous of the five and the most likely to be unharmed. The big monk wasn’t unharmed, but Kaellis didn’t let that slow his hand as he tore into the Immaculate with his claws. As soon as the Earth-aspect was safely dead, Kaellis moved on to the Water-aspect who was struggling to her feet. After he ended it by ending the Wood-aspect’s suffering, he staggered over to where the other man was looting the body of the sorcerer. “Thank you, Adan. By the way, how did you happen to conveniently know that I was in trouble?”
Adan unstrapped the nimbus from the sorcerer’s back and disassembled the components. “You can thank the young lady.” He gestured to where the ghostly figure of a lovely young woman hovered and gave a demure bow. “But, as long as I’m here, get that box that you’re lugging around. All the noise that you’ve been raising has distracted the monks so much that I managed to extract so many drugs and minerals from the pharmacy that I don’t have the means to carry the scrolls and codices from the library.” Adan dumped the sorcerer’s nimbus frame, lantern and staff into the box, and said, “Well? You’ve rested long enough! Come, before the monks find where I stashed the scrolls!” Kaellis let out a martyred sigh, shouldered the now-heavier box and staggered after Adan.
As she watched them stroll off into the darkness, Azure Rose made a tight moue of annoyance and let out a miffed snort. So close! Well, she simply would have to get her hands dirty, getting rid of Kaellis.
Dropping the Ball
Arrek was smug and amused at the sight of my bruises. “My, my, look at you! Really, you are such a troublemaker! Picking fights with poor, peace-loving monks! Why I went in there, was friendly and minded my manners, and took care of my chore without so much as a cross word!”
“You’re slipping, Rennar,” Adan said as he daubed an astringent into my cuts and scrapes. “Normally, you’d have walked out of there with at least the Scarlet Empress’ toothbrush or some other such awe-striking artifact tucked into your socks. This time, you were the only one to walk out empty handed.”
“I would have done better,” I grated out through clenched teeth, “but I was covering for someone else.” I finished with an icy glare at Arrek, who was sitting back, admiring his hearthstone in its setting in his Grand Grimcleaver. “And what? Wasn’t a small fortune in silver, jade and scrip, let alone EIGHT talents of jade enough for you? Sol’s Blazes, Adan, greed does not suit you.”
“Lady Danya brought out the money,” He maintained.
“Which I found and passed along to her. By the way,” I steered the conversation over in Danya’s more supportive direction, “have you looked over that correspondence that Tavis and Esbra were in a pother about?”
“Some,” she said from the chaise-lounge where she was going over just those letters. “And while the correspondence itself is quite tedious, there’s an interesting tale being told by the honorifics.”
“Honorifics?” Arrek asked, bushy eyebrows held high.
“Yes, the not-strictly called for titles, obediences, terms, introductions and so forth that appear at the beginning and ending of every missive. From what I’m reading, the abbot has been pleading for something for a short period of time with the frontier branch of the Office of Harmony and Stability in Uncertain Climes—”
“The WHAT?” Arrek asked.
“The Wyld Hunt,” Lady Danya, Master Adan and I responded as one.
“Anyway, my lord the Abbot has been pleading for something for some time, and the honorifics offered by both sides have become rather pointed, but in this one, the missive from the Office to the Abbot became smug and congratulatory.”
“Oh, Sol help us all…” Adan groaned. “They’re sending the Wyld Hunt. And not just a team of greenling shikari, but veterans, probably with a troop of mortal soldiers backing them up.”
“That’s my reading,” Danya agreed. “Interesting thing… from a few of these, I got the impression that the Wyld Hunt had already sent someone, and they were rather annoyed that the Abbot was still sending them letters.”
“How quickly are these letters traveling?” I asked. “I’ve only been Exalted for a few weeks now, and the nearest Chapterhouse of the Hunt is way up north!”
“Quickly,” Danya replied sourly. “When monsters are ravaging the land, you can’t afford to waste time sending a rider on horseback. These letters were written on the very thin, very lightweight paper that they use when sending messages by magical automatons.” She peered at the paper. “Which also explains the tight cramped script.”
“The Wyld Hunt has been hard pressed by the Scarlet Empress’ disappearance,” I said, drawing on my personal experiences on the Blessed Isle. “Imperial Legions are few and far between, and House Legions are being called back to the Blessed Isle, to bolster the Great Houses’ positions. The masters of the Hunt would first send spies to make a quiet assessment of the situation. He’d take weeks, making sure. But instead, they’re sending troops already. What does that imply?”
“They sent their spy,” Danya guessed. “And he immediately dropped out of sight, so they know that the situation is dire.”
“He asked the wrong questions in the wrong quarters,” Adan surmised. “And our necrotic friends ATE him. Whoever they send, they’ll be nasty.”
“How long do we have?” Tirza asked, sounding worried.
“They won’t arrive until Calibration is over,” Danya said. “Traveling during Calibration is always a bad idea, and arriving in a city where one of the Anathema is known to be at work during Calibration would be disastrous, as they’d most likely be landing in the middle of something very nasty with no idea as to what it was. They’ll wait until Calibration is over, travel, and send more spies ahead, or at least wait for some word from the Abbot.”
“Excellent point,” Adan said, abandoning his ministrations to my wounds. He walked over to the pot, where one of Lady Danya’s handmaidens (Nasha, I think) had taken mercy on us and cooked something far better than one of his creations, and helped himself to the ragout. After chewing on it for a bit, he said, “We have a bit before we have to worry about the Wyld Hunt. In the mean time, we have to contrive a means of keeping the Death Knights busy on the night that the Lunars will be attacking the Frabjous Tulge. I can’t think of anything right off that they’d do that might interfere with that, but we know that there are at least three of them, and leaving them to their own devices during Calibration is a recipe for disaster. Arrek, which night did your Lunar Elders set for the attack?”
“Well, they were very vague about it,” Arrek said, probably glossing over the fact that as a ‘sel-chana’, which I think means ‘newest rookie’ or something along those lines, the elders weren’t telling him that much. “They’re talking about doing it on the First Night, figuring that the Dragonbloods will be too busy at the Festival of X’un Den Kel to be out and about.”
“What’s X’un Den Kel?” I asked.
“WHO,” Arrek replied smugly. “X’un Den Kel is the ‘City Father’, the patron god of the city of Keldon. X’un Den Kel is apparently very devout within the Immaculate Faith. She gets TWO festivals a year, one at the onset of Calibration and another all for herself on the cusp of Showers and Flowers.”
“Her?” Esbra asked, “The ‘city FATHER’ is female?”
“The term ‘Father’ is an honorific,” Master Adan explained. “However, there is something that we’ll have to look into, comes the morning. Namely, how the rest of Keldon is going to react to the news that the Monastery is suddenly without funds, and that five Dragonblooded monks were killed during the burglary.”
“Including a sorcerer, who you said wouldn’t be there,” I pointed out.
“Ah, yes,” Adan replied dryly. “How remiss of me to not detect an addition to the Monastery’s ranks, who they no doubt kept the utmost secret. And did you really have to kill them all, Rennar?”
“Killing the Wood aspect was a mercy,” I defended myself. “That fire manifestation that you lobbed at them — and NO, I’m not blaming you for that, you saved my hide, and I am indeed grateful — burned her so badly that I simply saved her from a long, lingering and very painful death with a quick and merciful one. And as for the other three, well, they saw YOU Adan. The Satrap’s frothing at the mouth at the news of ONE Solar Exalt in his bailiwick. Sol alone knows how he and the rest of the local Dynasts would react at the news of TWO.”
Adan nodded. “True enough. And it’s not as though they were going to simply scold you for trespassing or anything. As we said before we went in, we are more or less at war with the Immaculate Order. Not that that will make the furor in town any less.”
Lady Danya sighed, “Well, there’s nothing for it. We’ll simply have to speak with our respective sources tomorrow and see what this dredges to the surface.”
“Sources?” Adan asked. “You already have sources of information in Keldon?”
“Of course I do!” she replied. “Keldon is one of the furthest reaches of the Dynasty in the East, and what happens here impacts on the balance of power between the Hundred Kingdoms and Grayfalls. Why Keldon may very well become a key position in the security — or fall — of the Realm’s reach.” She gave a roguish smile. “Or, at least, it WILL be, once I get through here.”
“I think that it says something, that the Abbot, the Satrap and the average dynast in Keldon are all more interested in the money that Rennar stole, than they were in the thirty monks he allegedly murdered,” Lady Danya said the next day.
“I don’t know whether to be offended, as to they think that I’m that murderous,” I sniffed, “or complimented, as that they think that I’m that deadly.”
“I think that it’s a matter that the dead are dead — or, at least as dead as our necrotic ‘friends’ will let them be — while the money is still a factor in play,” Adan theorized. “Besides the five talents that Rennar and his friends exchanged at the monastery, we — or, as far as they know, Rennar — walked out with a large chunk of the monastery’s operating funds. The local Dynasts must be wondering if this was simply an extravagant theft, or a canny strike at the local status quo. And if the latter, they wonder at what other power maneuvers he is planning. The petty will be hiding away their money as best they can, and the greater will be wondering what effect his development is having on the lower quarters.”
“Yes,” Danya agreed. “The Satrap’s, one presumes unspoken, agreement with the Bear Emperor gave a voice and direction to local dissatisfaction, while not actually proving a threat to the power structure. But now that the fearsome Strix has proven that he can not only hide from the Satrap’s forces, but he can wing his way in and out of the stronghold of the Immaculate Faith, might not those same forces of dissatisfaction look his way, in another light?”
“What are you saying, Danya?” I asked.
“I’m saying that we have to plan for the future, not merely for our own sakes, but for the sakes of the mortals, and even of Creation Entire. The Scarlet Empress has disappeared. The Realm is a covered pot of civil war and rebellion. The Threshold is bled dry to fund that civil war, even as the Dynasty withdraws legions to protect them. Barbarians are rising at the edges of civilization. The Bull of the North is rumored to be one of the Sun’s Chosen, but for all that, he’s still a frost-bitten barbarian! Shadowlands pop up like mushrooms all over Creation! The Fair Folk look on all this and laugh and compose rapturous odes to Conquest and Rapine as they polish their swords!
“Keldon is not quite the end of the road in these parts, but it’s close, AND it’s the only place in these parts that has anything even LIKE the Great Tower. The forces of Chaos will most likely follow the river when they finally strike. Only the Great Tower would so much as slow them down. BUT, if that fool Seles Avrall is still in charge here when that happens, the Great Tower will only be useful as a landmark for people fleeing for their lives, and maybe as a final redoubt for the so-called ‘quality’ of Keldon. Sol knows, it won’t be any good as a defense, let alone as a weapon, because no one really knows how it works!
“To acquire the Underground Palace is to regain the Great Tower! To regain the Great Tower is to ensure the effectiveness of the Tower’s defenses, whatever they are! To ensure the defenses is to keep guard along the river, against whatever threats may come up — or down — it! In doing so, we safeguard Civilization in this little plot of Creation! And in doing so, we keep our sacred troth with the Unconquered Sun, and prove his luminous wisdom in choosing us!
“But, to do this, we must gain a power base here in Keldon. When we have the power to act as we must, we can both find the Underground Palace and eliminate the threat of the Death Knights. Friend Rennar, you of the Night Caste are at home, scuttling about in shadows, operating in secret. But Friend Adan and I are not of the night! We were meant to shine openly, bringing the gifts of wisdom and harmony to all! Too long have the people of Kellesval languished under the treacle lies of the Immaculate Faith! In these days of darkness, they NEED the nourishing rays of the SUN!” Danya finished her oration with a beseeching gesture.
Adan, Arrek and I all shared silent looks, and then on unspoken agreement, we began a studied, polite ‘patting the child on her head for performing the recital properly’ applause. “Nicely delivered.”
“Stirring performance. I was moved, truly I was.”
“It could have used a few pleas for truth, honor, decency and motherhood, I thought.”
Danya glowered at us sourly. “A touch of theatrical artifice on my part doesn’t change the truth of my arguments.”
“Lady Danya, what precisely were you doing, when my message found you?” Adan asked with a suspicious lift of one eyebrow.
“I was mediating a dispute between the city-state of Avesthal and the Dynastic outpost of Velbier, over the disposition of a First Age canal and set of locks.”
“The Locks at Beth-Tymaat?” I responded. “I went through those on my trip down this way. That waterway is regarded as a vital part of the Realm’s hold over that part of the river. Losing the Locks at Beth-Tymaat would hamstring the Legion’s ability to project force down the river, and hamper supply to Grayfalls.” I took in the looks that Danya’s handmaidens were giving each other. “But then… maybe that was the whole idea? Adan, have you heard anything about Avesthal taking the Locks at Beth-Tymaat?”
“Nooo…” he drawled in answer. “And that would definitely be a topic of much discussion.” He gave Danya a raking glance. “And you arrived very quickly after I sent for you. Someone of your stature, involved in such delicate negotiations… You started up a war between Avesthal and Velbier, but you couldn’t make it stick, could you? I’ll wager that my message was heaven-sent for you, as you were already in a frying pan, and you were looking for a place to run to that wasn’t on fire.”
“I was trying to give the Hundred Kingdoms a point of leverage over the Realm,” Danya sniffed defensively. “Sol knows, they need one.”
“Schah, why be shy about it?” Arrek said candidly. “I never had any love for the Dynasty. Luna’s Smile, the only reason why I went to the Bear Emperor, was that he’s been promising to get the taxman’s boot off of our necks for as long as anyone could remember. If you stirred up the Avesti to bite the Legions, then good for you!”
“And while I was a loyal subject of the Scarlet Empress before I exalted, I now serve the Unconquered Sun,” I pointed out. “Beyond a concern for the effect on the common folk who get caught in the crunch, the Dynasty’s misfortune is my good fortune.”
“I’ll allow that gathering a power base is a good idea in the long run,” Adan said, “but first things first. FIRST, we deal with the Wyld Hunt when it comes a-calling. Then we beat the Death Knights to the Underground Palace. When I control the Underground Palace, we can use the Lantern of Emerald Flame and the other resources there against the Death Knights, and get those players off the field. THEN we apply ourselves against the Satrapy. Trying to gain a power base afore time would only delay and dilute our efforts, and expose us to the Legion, the Satrap, the Bear Emperor or Death Knights.”
“Can’t we do both at the same time?” Nasha asked around a mouth full of almonds. “Say, you steal the money they’re collecting to make up for the funds that we — or, at least, Lord Rennar — stole from the monastery last night? We heard that the Abbot went bleating to the Prince that he needs funds to run the monastery. The Prince loaned the Abbot the funds, but they’re holding a fundraising party during Calibration to make up the funds.”
“Very good, Nasha!” Lady Danya cooed. Nasha beamed with gratification. “Stealing those funds would be a master stroke! It would create the impression that Lord Rennar was waging some sort of vendetta upon either the Immaculate Faith or the Satrapy. That would change the way that the Legions, and later the Wyld Hunt conducts its searches for Lord Rennar. They’ll be assuming that he’ll be busily gathering allies and resources, while we’re looking for the Death Knights and the Underground Palace.” She gave a wicked grin and chuckled. “Sol’s Glory, they’ll be trying to find traitors and rebels so hard that they’ll wind up creating revolutionaries!”
“And the money itself won’t hurt,” Master Adan commented dryly.
“And the Satrap will have to bear the expense of underwriting the monastery, which will have interesting repercussions,” I pointed out. “He’ll have to make some show to demonstrate that he’s still in charge. And, given how our necrotic friends have been acting, they’ll definitely try to take advantage of that somehow. If we time it properly, we might be able to arrange for them to expose themselves. Then, let them try to do anything while THEY have to hide from the Wyld Hunt! What’s the matter, Adan?”
Master Adan was worrying his lower lip. “While Damsel Nasha’s idea is still a good one, it’s never a good idea to assume that your opponents are idiots; we have to assume that both the Death Knights and the Dynasts realize that the fund-raiser is an excellent opportunity for Rennar.”
“Well of course!” I sniffed. “They’ll arrange a trap; it wouldn’t be FUN otherwise.”
“Even when your friend Mykiros brings out that nasty reliquary, the one containing the fingerbones of that mysterious Immaculate monk, the one that almost laid you low?”
I felt the smug smile on my face wash away like a chalk drawing in the rain. “An excellent point, as always, Master Adan.” I explained to Lady Danya and her girls about my experience with Mykiros and his mysterious ‘reliquary’.
“Interesting…” Lady Danya murmured. “It appears that the Death Knights have some sort of access to your former friends and companions. Are you sure that this ‘reliquary’ is really that powerful?”
“We captured a similar device directly from one of the Death Knights,” I told her. “We keep it in a special warded bucket full of water. Adan’s been getting strange and interesting alchemical affects from the water that it’s kept in.”
“But your friend Mykiros suffered no ill effects?”
“None that I could tell. Nor did anyone else, for that matter.”
“Well then. There must be something about that reliquary that somehow only directs its enervating emanations at the Solar Exalted, while leaving mortals and Terrestrials unaffected. Exactly HOW that works, I have no idea, but then natural philosophy never was my forte. I think that it goes without saying that we have to get that reliquary away from Lord Mikiros. If only so that it can’t be used as a weapon against any of us, but also so we can learn its ways and secrets. Who knows how many of these things those Death Knights have? Indeed, they might be a key element in the Death Knights’ plans.” Danya paused. “That reliquary may be even more valuable to us than the money. We NEED to get into that party.”
The Festival of X’un Den Kel was a lavish and gala affair. But then, with two festivals a year, when most gods merely got one a year if that, X’un Den Kel took giving parties seriously. Her shrine was a large affair, going back to the Shogunate, with a large vaulting domed chamber with galleries three stories high ringing the chamber and a large fountain in the center of the floor. Musicians played on the top gallery, filling the chamber with light music without interfering with the glittering celebration below. This year, the Shrine was acting as the host for the effort to help the Abbey of the Serene Blossom of Profound Inspiration, to recoup the funds stolen by a mysterious party who will go nameless. The Festivals of X’un Den Kel were always lavish affairs, even in lean years, and well, Patrician or Dynast, no one who was anyone could afford to not be seen as supporting the Immaculate Faith. The ‘suggested donation’ was a shekel per person, preferably in jade. X’un Den Kel received the ‘donations’ in person, manifesting her form to accept the discrete pouches of obols or shekel slabs wrapped in silk with gracious thanks before handing the money over to the Prior, who deposited the money in one of several large iron cases, which were prominently on display. In her manifested form, X’un Den Kel was a gracious lady of indeterminate years, at least a well-born Patrician, possibly a Dragonblood — until you took in her four graceful arms, or her nine large limpid eyes, five of which circled her head, and four of which were on the palms of her hands.
Nasha was overdressed for the affair in the style of an ambitious but unrefined social climber who was simply thrilled to death to be invited to a party of the local elite. I was dressed in the over-refined way of an effete fop who is secretly delighted that he actually had a date to such an affair, even a slightly uncouth date. Together, we were THAT ‘who invited THEM?’ couple that’s at almost every revel worth mentioning. We presented ourselves to the goddess with suitable faux pas, presented two pouches of obols (suggesting that we didn’t have the connections for proper shekels), tried to ingratiate ourselves a touch too much, and being neatly classified, were dismissed. We went on to the refreshment board and set about as though trying to figure out how to mingle to our best advantage. Nasha looked back at X’un Den Kel. “With that many eyes, she can’t miss much. I wonder how so much can go on in her city that she’s not aware of?”
“X’un Den Kel is devout within the Immaculate Faith, and knows her place,” I drawled in suitably insipid tones. “If she looked too hard, she might see things that the Satrap or Abbot might not want her to see. And if she looked around for the dreadful Solar Devil, then it might occur to the Satrap or Abbot that she CAN see things they’d she rather not. Why, they might penalize her by taking away one of her festivals, and that would be a shame, for everyone.”
“I wonder why she can’t sense you here?”
“She could… IF I wasn’t a Nightbringer. And Lady Danya and Master Adan have their own ways of handling that.” Lady Danya was off in another section, holding court with Esbra standing at her back, and a local patrician whose name I never bothered to learn holding her arm. How she managed to wrangle our invitations, I’m not sure, but given that this is her bailiwick, I doubt that bribes were involved. Master Adan was standing near the drinks table, breaking in his ‘habitual drunkard’ role, with Danya’s girl, Marella, playing the embarrassed ingénue stuck with the awkward chaperone. Arrek was nowhere to be found, of course. This was his big night, for which the raid on the monastery was only the rehearsal. We’d sent him off at sunset with all the mawkish tendresse of sending one’s child off to their first academy. Even as we spoke, Arrek was leading a force of Lunar warriors against the Freehold of the Frabjous Tulge. Well, guiding them at any rate. From what Danya says, the Moon Mad are too proud and prickly to let a mere cub lead them, despite the fact that he actually knows the way.
With my luck, the Raksha have already skinned him and put his pelt in front of their fireplace. And just after I got him halfway housebroken.
“You see that couple that Master Adan and Marella are talking to?” I pointed out one little scene. “The chap is my cousin, Randrel. The redhead is Vallare Syresse, a local patrician demoiselle, whose little sister’s death got me into all of this. Odd, usually, where Randrel is, Mykiros isn’t far behind. Ah, there he is. Hmmm… trust ‘Kiros to hook up with a local dragonblood lass.”
“Oh, she isn’t a Dragonblood,” Nasha sniffed. “That green hair came out of a bottle.”
“Oh? Well, she still wears it well… Just a second…” I peered through a quizzing glass, making out that I was checking out Kiros’ cosmetically-enhanced partner. “Yes! Nasha, you see that red tube that’s dangling from his belt by a cord? It’s white jade, overlaid with red jade filigree.”
“That’s the reliquary that’s got you all so worried?”
“The very one. You have the copy?”
“Yes,” she hefted her purse. “Exactly how do you plan to get it away from him?”
“I’m not exactly sure,” I admitted. “That depends largely on the cunning plans laid by the others.”
“Oh, let’s see… Randrel, Isegris, Esrak, the Satrap, the Abbot, X’un Den Kel, the Commander of the Legion, the Captain of the Watch, and of course, any private Dragonbloods or Patricians who want the glory of bringing down the Anathema.” I pointed out Isegris, Prince Avrall, and the Abbot. Esrak was holding Adlynn’s arm in a way that suggested that he was less her escort than her minder. “For instance, please note the large and burly nature of the wait-staff.”
Nasha whipped out her fan and let out a high-pitched laugh that drew too much attention, which quickly faded. She fluttered her fan and snapped it shut. I barely noticed flurries of action from Esbra and Marella, which suggested some private code. “Esbra says that Lady Danya has noticed this, and she notes that it’s significant that the donations were specifically to be in the form of jade, and it’s kept in those conveniently portable chests.”
“No doubt that the chests are weighted to make them even heavier,” I opined. “I also note that one of the chests is closed. Someone probably has a nasty surprise tucked away inside it.”
Nasha fluttered her fan again, waited and watched covertly, and then said, “Marella says that Master Adan spotted crossbows hidden away up in the third gallery. And Esbra says that Lady Danya has sent Tavis and Lucine to deal with the crossbows.”
“And thank Sol for that!” I said superciliously. “Don’t know WHY they had things like that laying about. Someone might get hurt! Maybe even ME!” I took a sip of the… well… average wine (better than most dos like this, but hardly an exceptional vintage) and took in the party. “Oh dear, I definitely think that Randrel has a cunning plan up his sleeve.”
“Yes, Drel fancies himself a laughing daredevil, but to be honest, he doesn’t really have the verve for it. Mind you, he has a nasty streak at times. It’s the Wood Dragon in him. He also fancies himself the leader, but he doesn’t really have the verve for that either. Might be the cause of that nasty streak. Anyway, every so often, he tries to show off with some convoluted plan, and he can’t help but gloat a bit, just as he is now. Of course, the fact that he’s showing off for a fair young thing like Vallere Syresse doesn’t help.”
“Any idea as to what it will be?”
“Well, knowing Drel, it will almost be clever. Almost.”
Then, almost as if in answer, a figure in a pale white cloak and an owl mask let out a loud hooting call from the second tier and leaped to the dance floor in a dramatic drop, causing the partygoers to clear away from him. There was a brief eerie silence, followed by the faintest sound of steel scraping against steel. Then another figure in an owl cloak and mask dropped down near him. Then two more ‘owls’ dropped, seemingly from nowhere. Then three more. Then five more. At a total of twelve, they gathered in a formation before the stunned multitude and assumed uniform poses with arms stretched out holding their owl cloak out as if spread wings. Then on some unseen cue, the musicians started up a sprightly air, and the ‘owls’ began a mincing dance, whirling about, making the most of their ‘wings’. The audience gave a relieved murmur of laughter and applauded the performance. Each of the ‘Strixes’ broke in turn from the chorus of whirling and hooting ‘owls’ and gave off a bit of a very insulting patter-song. Well, insulting to ME, at least.
“Well, it looks like you underestimated your friend Randrel,” Nasha said wryly. “This is actually clever.”
“It IS clever,” I agreed. “But it’s not Randrel. I see the Abbot’s hand in this.”
“Those ‘dancers’ are Immaculate Monks. See their foot-bindings? Those aren’t dancer’s bindings, they’re the sort that the monks use for kicking practice. And the claws they’re wearing are very real, very sharp weapons. And there are twelve of them. I remember Master Adan saying that twelve of the local monks had been ‘enlightened’. Odds are, they feel honor-bound to avenge the five dragonbloods I killed the other day.”
“It sounds better than ‘looking for revenge’. Though, getting the money we stole would probably be good too, from their point of view.”
“This is your show,” Nasha said lightly, taking in the show. “What do you want to do?”
“I can take a little ribbing,” I said. “Sol knows, I’ve had so much experience at it. Just… let the good brothers finish their number, and see how long it takes us to prod someone into doing something stupid, trying to prod me to do something stupid.”
The monks were leading up to some sort of big climax, and were doing high vaulting leaps with the cloaks spread wide on the downside of the arc. One of them leapt very high, seemed to hang there for a moment, and then a curved, three-bladed weapon suddenly planted itself in his chest with a *thunk!* He fell like a bag of wet rice on the floor, and if the throwing iron hadn’t killed him, the fall definitely had.
The assembled throng looked to where the knife had come from. Leaning out from the balcony on the third tier was another, far more sinister figure in owl cloak and mask. With a single fluid, sinister move he drew fanned three objects that swung open into three-bladed throwing irons with an ominous click. He threw the irons at the monks below, who dodged them easily. “You DARE to MOCK the STRYX, the Sun-Ordained Master of the NIGHT?” he thundered in an ominous voice. “Traitorous FOOLS! Prepare to learn in full measure WHY your kind so rightly FEARS the Wrath of the Unconquered Sun!”
I leaned over and whispered into Nasha’s ear (she had wrapped herself around me in mock fright), “Is that supposed to be ME?”
“Uncanny portrayal,” Nasha whispered back. “It’s like you’re in two places at once!”
The Mock Stryx fell in among the owl-dancers. The Immaculates formed into two groups of five, with the eleventh one dragging the body of the slain twelfth off the floor. As the monks circled my impostor in their faux-dragon circle, the wait-staff showed their true colors, circling them all with shields and lowered spears. Which turned out to not be the best of ideas, as the Mock-Strix whirled about and impaled three of the monks on the watchmen’s spears with a single move. The Commander of the Legion gave a shrieking blow of a whistle, and a full company of the Legion, in full armor with weapons, boiled in and surrounded them all, even the watchmen. Then I kicked myself for being an idiot.
I pulled Nasha, who was watching the battle raptly (along with everyone else) along and told her to signal Danya and Adan. “Why?”
“Merely keeping my eyes on the true prize,” I responded looking around. When Adan got to me, I asked, “You were closest to the wine all night, did you see where they put the wine casks, once they were empty?”
“Yes,” Adan said, not seeing my point. “Why?”
I pointed at the iron cases containing the donation jade. “Well, it would be obvious to be toting iron trunks around, now wouldn’t it?”
“And dragging casks of wine out of a near-riot wouldn’t?”
“So, who takes them OUT? We just put them back in the wine cellar, and retrieve them later, when everyone’s gone home.”
Danya had lost her escort in the confusion, but found her way over to us. “Very clever — but how are we supposed to lade up the casks with jade, without anyone noticing?”
“They’re all too busy watching the mayhem,” I pointed out. “We spread a tablecloth over the donation cases, and as they’re too distracted, as long as no one actually sees us shifting the jade, they’ll never put one and one together and get two.”
Danya looked at Adan. “It works. Everyone’s so wrapped up in the fight that they’re not paying attention. Nasha — Tavis and Lucine are dressed as serving girls. Tell them to drape a cloth over the trunks, and when we’re done, to wheelbarrow the casks back to the wine cellar. Nobody ever asks why servants do things, the patricians are too busy screaming even to notice, and the real servants have no doubt gone for cover. Nasha, if it looks like anyone is paying too much attention to Tavis and Lucine holding the drape, use your own best judgment. And your judgment had better be better than it was that time in Gem.”
And so, without the use of Solar charms or artifacts or sorcery, Lady Danya, Master Adan and I stole a little over three talents worth of jade, literally out from under the nose of the Satrap, the Abbot, the Commander of the Imperial Legion, and the Captain of the City Watch.
Tavis and Lucine didn’t even move the casks that far; they just moved the casks a few yards, as moving casks of wine through that crowd just might be suspicious. Yes, I know, holding up a cloth in front of trunks full of cash wasn’t suspicious, but moving wine through a frantic crowd would be. I’ve seen worse paradoxes in Creation on a good day.
Three Solars make for fast work, but by the time that we were done and the sheet came down, all twelve of the owl-dancer monks were gruesomely dead or near it, fifteen watchmen were dead or incapacitated, and the legionaries were getting chewed up like a bone in Isegris’ dog’s jaws. And, if anything, my impostor was only getting warmed up.
It’s times like these that really do remind you as to WHY mortals are so afraid of the Exalted. Nasha was watching the crowd, rather than the fight. “So,” she said sotto voce, “do we settle for all the jade, or are we still going for the reliquary thing?”
“Well,” I said, racking my brain, “pragmatism says that we get while the getting’s good. I mean, that impostor is mostly likely one of the death knights. And he’s killing a bunch of people who are sworn to kill me. Either they kill him, or he kills them. Where’s the downside?” I let out a martyred sigh. “Still, that death knight’s doing this for some reason, and it can’t be good for us. Or Keldon. Or the rest of Creation. And we might as well see if we can get that damned reliquary away from Mykiros.”
“And how do you suggest we do this?”
“We hold back, and see what the play-actor’s up to.”
“Why are the Dragonbloods just holding back and letting their men get slaughtered?” Lucine asked with pity, mixed with horror and revulsion.
“Standard Wyld Hunt procedure,” Adan said clinically. “First, they send in the foot soldiers, and let the Anathema burn up as much essence handling them as possible. Watch his moves and techniques. When he tires out, the real Shikari move in. Of course, normally Solars only whale the tar out of the foot soldiers. Lunars can get this bloody, but the Hunt uses different techniques for Lunars. It doesn’t normally get this bloody, with Solars.” He looked around. “The fact that they’re doing this, implies that there’s something about this shrine that they think will keep that false ‘Strix’ from simply leaving, once he starts getting tired.”
“X’un Den Kel,” Danya guessed. “It’s her shrine. Maybe they’re expecting her to keep that idiot in here, while they wait for the right moment to grab all the glory.”
“I think that Randrel is getting ready to make his move,” I said, looking about for him. “He’s nowhere to be seen, and Mykiros looks like he’s getting ready to jump into a pool of cold water.”
And, sure enough, there was a pale blur and another figure leapt up to the banister of the first gallery. “HALT foul IMPOSTOR! You face no mere mortal NOW, but the one, true herald of the Unconquered Sun in Keldon, the STRIX!”
“And, I was right,” I sighed. “It was almost clever. I wonder if he talked it over with Mykiros beforehand, and ‘Kiros just couldn’t talk him out of it.” The first False Strix jumped up after Randrel, and they had a big dramatic fight, leaping from banisters on one side of the festival chamber to the other, slashing at each other with their claws. I wondered how long it would take Randrel to figure out that the ‘Strix’ he was fighting wasn’t me, if only by the fact that he wasn’t fighting with my trademark orichalcum claws. I never found out. The first False Strix threw Randrel down to the floor and was about to gut the poor fool when Mykiros finally made his play.
‘Kiros sprang at the victor and wrapped the cord of his reliquary around the impostor’s throat, draping the deadly cylinder over his chest. “THERE! It ENDS, Rennar. It ends now.” Such force. My, my, I wonder what I did to upset ‘Kiros?
The impostor threw ‘Kiros off him, but started to scream and thrash about, clutching at the reliquary, as if trying to get it off, but not able to remove it. A few Dragonbloods broke off from the crowd, drawing weapons that they shouldn’t strictly have had on them. Isegris was foremost among them, his two shoklaves out and ready. “Finally, Rennar,” he gloated, “we put you in your proper place: roasting in Malfeas with the rest of your filthy kind!”
But unfortunately, the sticky question as to who got to strike the killing blow came up, they squabbled, and the Mock Strix cleared his throat politely. “Pardon,” he said in a voice that was strangely familiar, but I couldn’t peg, “if I might contribute something? HAH!” He reversed the hold that Mykiros had on him and threw ‘Kiros into the mass of amateur shikari.
‘Kiros struggled up from the mass of tangled bodies and blurted out, “HOW?” in a totally baffled tone. “The reliquary?”
The false Strix undraped the reliquary from around his throat and held it up. “This?”
“But… it weakened you?” ‘Kiros objected.
“And you BELIEVED me?” the false Strix gave out a rattling, mocking laugh, and I just knew that it had to be the Juggler under that owl mask. He casually tossed the reliquary in among the huddled crowds. The Dragonbloods managed to scrape together enough common cause to jump on the Juggler en masse. As the Juggler struggled for a moment, eight watchmen struggled forth, carrying four large rope nets, which they threw over the tangled mass of exaltation.
As the Juggler and the dragonbloods broke through the netting to free themselves, Prince Seles Avrall stepped forward, uncoiling a long silvery looped cable, reinforced at intervals by bands of jade worked with characters of orichalcum, starmetal and soulsteel. At his side was X’un Den Kel, carrying a blue jadesteel Dire Lance. The Satrap started twirling the loop at the end of the cable as a lariat, and waited for his cue. Then the Juggler sliced through the heavy rope netting with his claws and squeezed himself through the gap in the snare. Just as the Juggler was halfway out of the snare, Prince Avrall threw the loop of the lariat around him, bound his arms to his side and tightened the loop. As the Juggler struggled, Prince Avrall proclaimed to the masses, “This is the Fivefold Hand of Inexorable Justice! It was forged by the Fifteen Noble Dragonbloods who slew the Mirror of Severe Reflection to contain the Unclean’s sundevil power!” He handed the end of the cable to X’un Den Kel, who handed him back the Dire Lance. “And THIS is the Inexorable Arm of Righteous Justice, the weapon that ended the Mirror of Severe Reflection’s reign of mad terror! As it ended the Mirror of Severe Reflection, so shall it end you, ye Wretched, so—”
“Excuse me,” the Juggler interrupted, “but can you just get ON with this? I DO have other commitments tonight, First Night and all, you know…” Then he dropped two phials of something that broke and released the densest, foulest, most nose-raping, eye-numbing vapor that I have ever known. It was even worse than Nog’s socks.
Someone, I suspect an Air Aspect, did something that cleared the air, but by the time that I could see, the Juggler was free of the Fivefold Hand — oh, forget that, the rope, and he had disarmed the Satrap, and had him down on the ground with the Dire Lance at his throat. “Now, as for YOU…” He leered at X’un Den Kel through the owl-mask.
Was the Juggler insane enough to kill the City Father of Keldon?
On the weight of our one short meeting, I felt entitled to give a ringing YES! Seeing this amusing little escapade going very bad very quickly, I rushed over to where the trunks of tribute were, grabbed the one that we hadn’t emptied, as we were sure that it was filled with a trap, as it had already been closed and locked when we arrived, as opposed to the others, which had been open, displaying the largess of the previous guests. If a mysterious figure in an owl-cloak were to try and simply run in and snatch one of the trunks, odds were that he’d grab the one that was already closed, as not to waste time. A perfect place for some fiendish device or another. I grabbed it, made a production of exerting myself under its weight and staggered over to the grim tableau. “NO!” I bleated like an over-indulged, if terrified wastrel, “Not X’un Den Kel! HERE! This is what you came for, isn’t it? TAKE IT! Take it and Go!” I shoved the trunk into the Juggler’s arms. While he was a Death Knight — whatever in Creation Death Knights really ARE — and at least my equal in physical prowess, the trunk was VERY heavy and I did manage to catch him by surprise. Reflexively, he dropped the lance and took the trunk, and staggered back from the unbalanced weight, taking his foot off of Prince Avrall’s throat.
I think that I actually caught the Juggler flat-footed with that one. He paused, not sure exactly what to do. He had what he was supposed to be there for — whatever he was really for, I still had no idea, and I was curious as to what he’d pull out of his hat. Mykiros, Randrell, Isegris and the other dragonbloods extracted themselves from the netting, and on X’un Den Kel’s order, three water elementals rose up from the fountain on the Juggler’s other side. The Juggler shifted, and I could swear that I heard him chuckle under his mask. He chucked the trunk at the large Wood Aspect who was next to Isegris, and reached under his cloak and threw something that reduced one of the water elementals to a big wet smear, all in one fluid move. Seeing him reach under his cloak again, I reflexively dove under the cloth that was still covering the empty trunks, and ducked into one of the trunks and closed the lid. I barely caught sight of Adan and Danya doing likewise. But then, I do get the impression that despite their airs, both Adan and Danya are hard-bitten survivors. I did a twenty-count, and opened the lid again. There was another foul odor in the air, but one that bespoke more of failed hospitals and forgotten graveyards than a fetid sewer.
As I peeked out from the cloth, I saw the Juggler, iron trunk on his shoulder, somehow riding a chandelier up near the roof, rocking it back and forth, and then cutting the rope suspending it with a throwing iron, sending both the chandelier and himself crashing through one of the large glass windows. People on the ground were choking and retching, ladies were swooning, dragonbloods were joining up in rough bands of five, and Prince Avrall was back on his feet, brandishing his lance and rallying his men. “AFTER THAT SCUM! Bring me his HEAD!” And with that, every man with any pretense at all to any kind of heroism — and a fair number of dragonblooded women — all charged for the door to join the chase. Fortunately, ‘Lord Ble’knee Parsifal’ was far too, ah, um, *ahem!*, er, ‘WISE’ (yes, that’s it, WISE!) to leave his lady unescorted and unprotected with a caped maniac running about.
Attaching myself like a limpet to Nasha’s side, I said in a clear, carrying voice, “Well, Poppet, let’s look at the bright side… the scoundrel at least left the FOOD!” I steered Nasha in the direction of the buffet.
As Nasha made a production of being silently humiliated by my cowardice, the suddenly female-heavy throng burst into a fevered hum of feminine speculation. X’un Den Kel clapped all four her hands (how she did that without hurting the eyes in the palms of her hands, I’ll never know), and called for attention. She assured them all that everything was well in hand, that the Satrap had even more guards outside, and the Commander of the Imperial Legion had an entire division ready and waiting for just such an eventuality. She ordered the doors closed and barred, and the windows shuttered. “THERE!” she said with the air of a governess with too many skittish charges, “No one can get in, unless we let them in.”
“True enough,” came a resonant voice from one of the upper galleries. “But then, that also means that none of you can get OUT, as well.” Darkling figures rappelled down from the third tier, all swaddled up in greasy brown fur cloaks with rat’s head hoods that hid their faces entirely. Their leader also wore a fur cloak, but he wore his cloak open displaying a battered and ill-used black jade reinforced breastplate, and white silk shirt with lace at the cuffs, that had probably once been very fine, but was now greasy, shabby and patched. Sewn on top of his hood was a rather ramshackle looking wood crown with obvious paste jewels. “You’ve been a naughty girl, X’un Den Kel,” he said as he made his way towards her. “So the Rat King has come to steal your presents and gobble up all the goodies.”
“What ARE you talking about? I am X’UN DEN KEL, the patron goddess of this city! How dare you, you grubby little bandit? Get OUT, and leave these good people alone!”
“Good people?” The ‘Rat King’ sneered. “I see no ‘good people’ here, only the sluts of the Dragon Lords, yourself first and foremost among whores, X’un Den Kel. The good people of Keldon are nowhere near here! They are huddling in corners, cold, hungry and afraid, hiding from wandering bogeys, because their ‘Father’ YOU — is too busy dancing attendance upon the Dynasts who keep Keldon — indeed, all of Kellesval! — under their jaded boots!”
“Oh, Merciful Dragons,” one woman, well into her middle age by the sound of her voice, groaned. “It’s worse than a bandit. He’s a rabble rouser.”
“Rabble, says you?” the Rat King roared. “YOU are the rabble! What do any of YOU do to earn your riches? What do any of you—”
“Well, for one thing, we don’t sit still when pretentious thieves with more brass than real steel come sneaking in the back door,” I recognized Adlynn’s voice. Ad herself came stalking out of the crowd in her under-chemise, both of her war fans spread and ready to wreck havoc.
“You wore THAT to this party?” The Rat King mocked her.
“I didn’t want ruin my lovely gown with your blood,” she returned, striking a pose with her fans. “I’ve been wanting to wear it for months, and it would be a shame if it was ruined — say by rubbing up against that cheesy outfit that you have on.” Inspired by Ad’s example, two Dragonblooded matrons advanced, both bearing improvised weaponry.
“Something’s wrong here,” Lady Danya whispered in my ear. “Why isn’t X’un Den Kel doing anything? She’s a goddess! A pack of mortal thugs shouldn’t even be able to sneer in her direction, let alone threaten her!” The tension was broken as Adlynn gave out a war cry and charged at the Rat King. Her two compatriots tore into the other rat-thugs, Adlynn leaped at the Rat-King in her ‘Graceful Mospid Swoop’ and almost connected. But, as Ad committed to her dive, the Rat King’s right arm lashed out, stretched a good eight cubits, and caught her square in the chest, sending her crashing to the floor.
“Nasha, did you remember to stash my owl mask and cloak anywhere in that voluminous assemblage you’re wearing?” I whispered into her ear.
“Are you sure that’s a good idea?” she whispered back.
“No,” I whispered in return, “but I’d never forgive myself if I just stood by and let Adlynn get mauled without doing anything. Old Habits, that sort of thing.”
Nasha dug my Strix gear out of her rig and snuck them to me. I ducked under the buffet table, pulled them on and I was about to make my big entrance, when I noticed three women dressed as X’un Den Kel’s shrine maidens, unconscious, and bound and gagged.
Why would anyone attack X’un Den Kel’s priestesses?
I paused to wonder at that for a bit, but I was brought back to the immediate crisis by the sound of a loud crash and several screams. I clambered past the trussed-up shrine maidens, went out the back of the buffet, scrambled up the side of the gallery and hung over the central chamber to get a better look. The doughtier patrician ladies were mixing it up with the rat thugs, and to give them their due, they were holding their own, given that they outnumbered the Thugs 8-to-1. Adlynn and four dragon-blooded females were fighting the Rat King, and not doing anywhere as well. Only Adlynn was armed, and the Rat King had either an artifact-level dark metal gauntlet or clockwork prosthetic arm that was tricked out in every way conceivable. It had long tiger-claws that extended, it had a long saber-blade that slid out, it had a whirling buzz-saw blade, it had a long needle that shot out and looked like it injected something nasty, it had a series of short blades along the side of the forearm, and occasionally, it crackled with energy. But most impressively, it telescoped out a good fifteen cubits, and appeared to hit with the power of a runaway bull. Fortunately for the ladies, it didn’t seem to be designed to extend with any of the blades out, or that energy display going. Adan was probably drooling at the thought of taking that thing apart and finding out how it works.
The Rat King had Adlynn down with her fans thrown from her, and was raising his fist for a smash that looked as though it might do her some real damage. I sent my Eagle Claw down and snatched Adlynn up off the floor, just as the fist came down like a hammer, shattering the floor tile where Ad had been. I hauled her up to me, and the chamber went deathly silent. I felt every eye on me. And, forgive me dear reader, but I couldn’t help it. I said, “I thought I smelled a rat.”
I stepped away from the balcony and floated down to the floor, just in front of the Rat King. I set Adlynn down near her fans, and gave the Rat King the look that the Discipline Brother gives the dorm bully when he’s been caught pushing the first years around. “What is this?” I asked the room. “I don’t remember anything about this being a costume party!”
“Ren?” Adlynn whispered. “Is that YOU?”
“YES,” I answered as I popped the claws from my bracers, emphasizing the fact that the Mock Strix had used normal, fixed steel tiger claws.
“What do you want here, Strix?” The Rat King snarled. “We had a bargain—”
“Don’t insult me, Gutter Raider,” I snarled back. “That idiot who just left here, leaving these women to your tender mercies, has nothing to do with me, and we both know it. If you’d just come here for the jade, I’d have said, ‘Go, and spend it in good health’. But you’re here to harm these ladies, and the Goddess as well, and don’t lie that you’re not. Now, pack up your bullies and scurry back into the gutters, with your tails between your legs. You’re a rat, and I’m an owl: ask yourself who’s higher on the food chain?”
“There’s NOTHING lower than YOU, Rennar!” came from high up by the shattered window. Looking up, I saw Isegris standing on the third floor banister. “I knew that you’d double back to help your scummy accomplice! All I had to do was wait for you!”
“In other words, you just stood by and watched, while a bunch of innocent women were almost slaughtered, you posturing OAF!” I shot back, finally able to give Isegris a sample of the truth that I’ve had to keep to myself for years.
Isegris ignited his Fire Anima Banner with a shout, and dropped to the floor, where he managed to light into both me and the Rat King at the same time. Well, I can’t fault Isegris for a lack of courage. A lack of brains, a lack of conscience, a lack of principles, a lack of kindness, and most of the other virtues, but not a lack of courage. Mind you, he’s a living illustration of the point that courage is the virtue of the vicious.
“Isegris!” Adelynn snapped, “He’s NOT the Strix who was here before! His claws! They’re the claws that Rennar took from the Bear Champion! The other Strix had plain steel claws!” Amazing that Ad would be the one to pick up on that.
“So! What!” Isegris grunted, “I’m still going to KILL the Wretched bastard!” Alas, another of Isegris’ ‘virtues’ — pure, bullheaded obstinacy. Still, he does rather have the point that I AM one of the Anathema, with all that entails. Adlynn stood there, her fans in her hands, obviously at her wits’ end over what to do. Normally, she’d just ask me for any ideas, but just at the moment, that would rather be committing treason.
Then, over Adlynn’s shoulder, I saw something that sent my blood running cold. X’un Den Kel was being bustled off by three of her shrine maidens.
But X’un Den Kel only HAD three shrine maidens. And I saw them hogtied under a table. “AD!” I yelled, “X’un Den Kel! She’s in danger!”
“What?” Ad yelled back, “But she’s a GOD! How could she be in danger?”
“I don’t KNOW!” I yelled back. “But those AREN’T her priestesses! Don’t ask me HOW I know, I just KNOW! GO!” Adlynn nodded her understanding — what there was of it — and turned. She used her Anima Banner and leapt over the crowd to the door that X’un Den Kel had been hustled off through.
‘There is something seriously wrong here,’ Azure Rose of the Glittering Tide thought to herself. ‘I’m an enigmatic Sidereal Exalted. I’m supposed to be the unseen hand guiding events. So, why is it that I always seem to be the last one to know what’s going on?’ She had no idea as to what that nonsense with the other Strix was about, this ‘Rat King’ came completely out of nowhere, and now the Dragon Lady running around in her scanties was leaping after the local City Father, who was being escorted to safety, for some reason that only Kaellis seemed to understand. Well, more answers were likely to be found with the She-Dragon and the City Father than in watching those three pound away at each other. She followed as Kaellis Adlynn tried the door that X’un Ken Del had been hurried through. It had been bolted from the other side. Incensed, Adlynn tried to break down the door a couple of times. Azure gave her a little help on the third try, using a minor charm that allowed Adlynn to luckily find the weakest spot on the door. Adlynn went sprawling into the room beyond.
Azure felt something as she passed into the chamber past the door, something cold, sticky and oppressive. X’un Den Kel’s shrine maidens weren’t acting in a very reverent manner. They each were wearing blank expressionless white masks with only eyeholes over their faces. Two of them were binding the goddess’ arms, two each, with thick rune-carved staves. Prayer slips that held no semblance of holiness covered three of the goddess’ five eyes on her head. A cloth covered with marks painted in blood gagged her mouth. The third unholy priestess was distracted from her task, which apparently involved doing something to X’un Den Kel with the nasty black metal clockwork thing, a rotating drill-like device with multiple concentric rings of saw-blade, cutting-knife and grasping claw. The dark priestess paused, surprised at Adlynn’s noisy entrance. But she recovered quickly, and brandished the drill as a weapon. Azure also got the unnerving impression from the false priestess’ stance and glances, that she could see Azure.
That was not good. For a novice Sidereal, the invisibility granted by her existence outside the weave of fate is her greatest asset. Well, neither the drawers-clad she-warrior or the other two mock priestesses were registering her presence, so Azure sidled out to one side and drew her dagger, forcing a flanking maneuver on the dark priestess. Unfortunately, the dragon-girl’s lack of awareness of her also worked against them both, as Adlynn didn’t use that flanking to her best advantage, and indeed, that caused her to completely misjudge the priestess’ moves, and she lost one of her war fans in the struggle.
Still, the girl did monopolize the dark priestess’ attention, giving Azure the opening to come around the blind side of the goddess’ captors, and slide her dagger between the ribs of one of them. As that one reacted and tried to save herself as Azure broke three ribs to get at her heart, X’un Den Kel was finally able to act to free herself. Now having the leverage, she lifted the other priestess off her feet and dashed her to the ground. Using both of the staves that they’d bound her with, X’un Den Kel beat the arrogant mortal mercilessly.
Azure looked to see how the dragon-lady was doing with the dark priestess. The priestess was doing a decent job of keeping the dragonblood off balance. So, she plucked the spell-slips that blinded X’un Den Kel from her eyes, and let the goddess wreak savage vengeance upon the false priestess from behind. Surprisingly, X’un Den Kel seemed limited to simple physical attack, but given that she was physically divine as well, she drummed a mighty tattoo into the dark priestess’ back.
Realizing that she couldn’t get any answers from the dark priestess without her giving away her presence, Azure slipped back out the door, in case Kaellis and the other two idiots were more enlightening.
The fight seemed to have ranged all over the party chamber in Azure’s brief absence, and currently the three of them were ranging up in the upper galleries. Then Kaellis held the Rat King long enough for the blazing idiot — Isegris, Azure thought his name was — to tackle them both, sending them all flying into the air of the upper chamber. Kaellis managed to separate himself from the two others, and glided gently to the ground. Isegris landed on top of the Rat King, who amazingly seemed only a touch battered by the landing. With a grunt, Isegris pulled the Rat King up and grappled him into a shoulder lock, leveraging the arms out uselessly. “HAH! I’ve got your partner, Rennar!”
“Partner?” Kaellis echoed. “Has it escaped your notice that we’ve just spent the better part of five minutes vigorously trying to KILL each other?”
“Please!” Isegris snarled. “You just happen to show up when he’s threatening the women. You’ve done better, Rennar. Of course, you’re in this together!”
“You know, Isegris, I’ve always thought that you were just stupid…” Kaelis drawled. “Now, I’m starting to worry about your sanity.”
“Stupid, am I?” Isegris sneered. “Well, here’s the situation, clever boy. I’ve got your partner between the two of us. You can’t get at me, unless you go through him. So, either you admit that this gutter scraping is your partner, or you go through him, revealing yourself as the treacherous wretch I know you are to all your other sewer-dropping allies.”
Azure could feel Kaellis grin through the owl-mask. “OR, I could simply LEAVE, as these good ladies have more than taken care of the Rat King’s minions. So, YOU either let the Rat King go, abandoning your only victory for this whole night’s work, or you hold onto him and watch me leave.” Kaellis twiddled his fingers goodbye and started swinging his golden claw-chain.
“I’LL BREAK HIM, RENNAR!” Isegris roared, shifting his grapple to an elbow hold, pinning the Rat King’s arms against his side, and putting the bandit in a position where Isegris could dislocate his shoulder.
“NO, ISEGRIS YOU IDIOT! Not THAT hold!” Kaellis shouted, too late. There was a strange mechanical sounding roar, and blades popped out of the Rat King’s gauntlet, ripping at Isegris’ elbow where it was pressed against the metal. Isegris screamed as the moving blades ripped at the flesh of his arm, and literally sawed his arm off at the elbow. Isegris released the other arm, and the Rat King stepped out of his grasp as Isegris clutched at his amputated arm. Then he used his clockwork arm to rise back up into the galleries as Kaellis came to the dragonblood’s assistance. Kaellis made a tourniquet of Isegris’ belt at the elbow, and then, rage in his every move, he swung his chain up into the rafters, and went to hunt the Rat King with no competition slowing him down.
Azure snarled. More Running!
The Rat King dropped from the upper window down into the elaborate ornamental gardens abutting X’un Den Kel’s shrine, with Kaellis close on his heels. When Azure managed to catch up to them, Kaellis was cutting into the Rat King with gusto — and his claws. Strangely, the Rat King seemed more interested in crawling one cubit further than in saving his life. He passed from one enclosed garden into the next. Then the Rat King slumped and seemed to give up the fight. But his arm didn’t. Instead, it detached from his shoulder and slithered snake-like on the ground into a bed of flowers. Kaellis was distracted from following it by the rest of the Rat King’s body dissolving with an acidic hiss into a nasty pile of corruption that killed the grass beneath it, and stained the ground beneath that.
Kaellis stepped away, astonishment and confusion apparent in his every movement. ‘At last,’ Azure thought, ‘someone who’s as confused as I am.’
Then the Rat King, seemly restored and remade anew, leapt out of the bed of flowers, and the battle was on again. The Rat King fought with renewed fury, while Kaellis was far more defensive — and studied — this time. This time, Kaellis didn’t strike at the Rat King’s head or body, but rather concentrated on his legs, crippling him with slashes at his knees. When he had the Rat King’s legs amputated, he bound the bandit’s arms against his chest with that orachalcum chain. Then he pulled the rat-mask off, revealing the shriveled, desiccated face of a dead man, with his eyes glazed over with varnish and his lips stitched together with leather by a fine hand. “Of course,” Kaellis muttered. “Now, the only question is how do I keep you from—” whatever Kaellis was going to keep the zombie from doing, it was foiled as the revenant dissolved in another pile of nauseating goo. The black metal arm slithered off again, and prevented Kaellis from capturing it by shocking him when he tried to grab it. It snaked off into another bed of flowers, and another Rat King leapt out, eager to join battle.
Kaellis beat the Rat King again, and two more times, taking more than his fair share of pounding in the process. But, against tradition, the fourth time seemed to be the charm, and the clockwork arm didn’t move anymore. “Thank SOL!” Kaellis groaned as he bent to pick up the arm. “I managed to end it before it lead me into whatever… trap… it… had… set…”
As Kaellis’ words trailed off, Azure looked to where his owl mask was looking. Chill panic clenched her gut as she recognized the Death Monk who’d sent Kaellis and his friend Bosthar (no… Arrek, she had to keep that straight) fleeing through an entire line of Raksha nobles, and into the Frabjous Tulge. Hoping that he had somehow managed to lose sight of her, Azure immediately ducked into a bed of flowers, only to find it occupied! What? Three MORE unaccounted-for factors?
The three, a woman, a young man, and a much larger man were all intently watching the tableau between Kaellis and the Death Monk through the curtain of leaves.
The Death Monk moved with all the clangorous din of a shadow passing over silk through the shrine’s elaborate garden, moving to what suddenly struck Azure as the absolute perfect spot from which to turn the elegant brick-wall enclosed garden into a slaughterhouse. The monk centered himself, and suddenly all the energy in the enclosure flowed in and through him, subtly under his control. Kaellis bucked up. “We meet again, Reverend Sir. But, be warned! For, this time, I have mastered a technique that you have NO DEFENSE against! I have no wish to use it, but, if you force me to, I will have no choice. Let me pass, or prepare to experience it first-hand!”
The Death Monk met that obvious bluff with the silent disdain it warranted. Kaellis flourished his owl-cloak, and somehow there were two of him, standing side-by-side, claws out, and they tensed as to strike. The Death Monk shifted his stance in an ever-so minor way, but otherwise met this complication with his same icy dispassion. Then the two Owl Solars suddenly leapt up, and used the bricks of the walls of the garden to gain enough purchase in an attempt to go over the walls. The Death Monk tore two cobblestones from the path and threw them at both targets in a single fluid move, and knocked both from their trajectories. In a trice, the monk relocated to another spot in the garden, this one just as perfected situated to dominate the garden, and this time he had two bricks in his hands, lest Kaellis try the same trick again. And, indeed, Kaellis (Kaellises?) jumped again, but instead of going for the wall, the second that the bricks left the Monk’s hands, they adjusted their trajectories and went straight for the Monk. One Owl covered for the other, took the hit and went down as the second one scored a hit on the monk’s ribs. The Monk immediately countered with a flurry of snap-kicks that sent Kaellis rolling. Kaellis rolled back up to a stand, and somehow there were two of them again, both hunched over in a manner that suggested that Kaellis had still gotten the worst of the encounter.
The Kaellises split again and paced away from each other, apparently trying to achieve some manner of flanking maneuver. Then one of the Kaellises lashed out with his eagle chain, while the other tossed something lumpish just a tick later. The monk deflected the chain and the bag with a single flicker of his hand that scattered both the chain and the pouch. The pouch erupted in a glittering white powder that billowed around the monk. Immediately, both Kaellises charged at the monk, claws out. There were flashes within the cloud, and the cloud exploded, throwing one Kaellis out. As the cloud settled in a glittering rain of sparkles, the Death Monk still stood, burned, battered, and scalded, his robes in scorched tatters, and an obvious gash on his right knee. He teetered ever so slightly, but maintained his stance.
From behind his mask, Kaellis snickered in victory. “Dear, dear, dear… you really don’t like that stuff, DO you? Good thing I’ve got more of it… No more deathly charms for you, my bucko. No, you’ll have to win this fight on just your skill.”
Then the Death Monk did something that frightened the Azure Rose of the Glittering Tide more than anything she’d seen in her all her (admittedly few) years. He smiled.
Kaellis split into two again. One leapt high up in a vaulting arc. The other charged straight at the monk. The jumping one threw another pouch down, but the monk smoothly evaded it as he threw a flurry of punches into the charging Kaellis, that caused that one to disappear. The real Kaellis came down on the monk’s back side, just missing both sides of his neck, leaving two sets of gashes down his back. The monk responded with a mule back-kick that sent Kaellis sprawling again. Kaellis rolled back to his stance again, and sent his eagle chain against the monk. The monk intercepted the chain in midflight and pulled Kaellis to him with a single jerk of the chain. Kaellis managed to swipe at the monk with his claws and got in several very good blows, but none of them were killing blows. On the other hand, it appeared that the monk was picking and choosing his blows for their most devastating effect, and each time that he landed a blow, there was a wet, squishing, crunching noise, and Kaellis didn’t seem to move as quickly afterwards. After several of these blows, Kaellis managed to get close enough to the dropped pouch that he was able to kick it up to where he could slice it open. Another cloud of glittering white showered over both of them, followed quickly by another flashing explosion.
Kaellis rolled out of the cloud just before the explosion hit, and managed to use the force to send him rolling like a ball even further. He created yet another double that stood and assumed a defiant posture, even as he crawled into the very flowerbed that concealed Azure and her three unwitting companions. Kaellis looked at the three of them agog and then collapsed, unconscious.
“Get his mask and cloak,” the big redheaded man whispered as he dragged Kaellis’ body entirely into the flowerbed. His companions did as they were told, and the big man hurriedly shrugged into the mask and cloak, and took a look at his claws and chain before crawling out of the flowerbed, wheezing and making sick, injured noises.
The Death Monk came striding out of the remnants of the conflagration, a grim vision of vengeance, his robes tattered and barely maintaining his modesty, his face a set scowl of barely contained rage, and the sunburst mark on his brow bleeding as profusely as the real wounds that crisscrossed his body.
The Newcomer affected a panicked scramble as he hurriedly crawled in the opposite direction. The Death Monk advanced unhurried, ignored the decoy, collected himself and made a vaulting leap up, aiming for a downward stomp on the spine that would most likely cripple the supine figure. The monk’s foot sank a good three fingerspans into the ground as the Newcomer shifted his back at the last tick, grappled the leg with one hand and sank a dagger into the side of the knee with the other.
Still, the monk made no sound. Wheezing and raling, the Newcomer made as if to escape through the gate of the garden. The Death Monk hobbled as best he could to intercept the Newcomer, aimed a killing blow to the back of his target’s head, and barely missed, but received a broken striking arm in return. Cradling his arm to his chest, the Death Monk carefully considered the scrambling ‘Strix’ figure, and blended into the shadows.
Adan, Lady Danya, Esbra and Marella finished their chore without being spotted. Adan fiddled with the setting, trying to make absolutely sure that everything was perfect, until Danya shooed him off. That done, they slid down from the utmost roof of the Great Tower unseen, and changed from their drab working clothes to grander clothes, ones suitable for visiting. “Are you sure this is a good idea?” Marella asked.
“If Rennar is to have any chance of surviving, we must make the effort,” Adan replied.
“Not this, going down and talking with those dragonbloods,” Marella corrected him.
“We gained access to the tower by claiming acquaintance with the Knights Errant,” Adan said carefully. “It would be unwise to known to be in the tower without legitimate business.”
“Besides,” Danya said, adjusting the fit of her gown, “this way we can find out what the local quality, such as it is, is thinking.”
Once they were presentable, they took the elevating gondola down from the plaza at the top of the tower down to the Bower of Resplendent Azure Welcome. The Mordrese brothers’ servant, Chos, answered the door, and took them to where Randrel was seated with Mykiros and Adlynn.
“Greetings,” Adan said smoothly. “I am, as you no doubt remember, Master Haldjar Adan, the scholar. This is the Domna Troijian, and her protégé Sansemarak Cassan. Oh, and her maid. We have come to pay our respects to the noble heroes of last night’s events, and to inquire after your friend’s recovery.”
“Charmed, Ladies,” Adlynn said brusquely, with the air of one interrupted from an argument. “Exactly which noble heroes were you speaking of, Master Adan?” she asked with a snide smile. “The ones who went haring off like nose-dead hounds after the WRONG bird, or the one who is apparently under the diabolical spell of a cunning anathema?”
“Excuse me?” Master Adan said, not needing to feign confusion.
“Adlynn,” Randrel hissed, “not in front of strangers!”
“It seems that my brother and his companions have assigned themselves as the custodians of my spiritual welfare,” Adlynn addressed Lady Danya and her handmaidens grandly. “On account that I have been somehow mysteriously mentally ensnared by a diabolical sun-devil — OR,” she raised her voice and glared daggers at her companions, “I’m the only one here with the WITS to realize that there’s something seriously WRONG going on here! Rennar is supposed to be possessed by some sort of horrific demonic THING, yet last night he came in at the last minute to rescue me from that Rat King bandit! If he was the black-hearted monster intent on destroying all of Creation, WHY would he do a thing like that?”
“Force of habit?” Mykiros said lightly.
“Oh, and YOU’RE one to talk?” Adlynn shot back. “You, his friend, who’re supposed to be so bloody clever and competent, yet you didn’t notice that the ‘Strix’ you were haring after was wearing STEEL claws, instead of those sun-metal claws that he earned from the Bear Emperor’s beastman champion!”
“Well, how was I supposed to notice that?” Mykiros said defensively. “Whatever he was, he moved — and fought — like one of the Anathema. Truth, the only good I had from all that was the relief that this blessed reliquary still has virtue against Rennar!” He brought up the red-and-white reliquary and held it, as though receiving some comfort from it. “The impostor obviously isn’t an anathema, so the fingerbones in this wouldn’t affect him.”
Adlynn slumped back on the couch and gave a loud groan, “You don’t KNOW that! We don’t really know anything about what happened last night, except for the fact — which you lot seem to be bound and determined to IGNORE — that there are things going on in this town that we don’t know about. Who was that impostor Strix? WHAT was he? What did he have to do with that ‘Rat King’ idiot? And what’s a ‘Rat King’ anyway?”
Adan diffidently cleared his throat. “Well, the ‘rat king’ is a local folklore bogey that parents use to discipline their children. They say if the child is naughty, that the Rat King will steal into the house on gift-giving days, and steal all the naughty child’s treats and presents.”
Adlynn gave Adan a ‘what are you blithering about?’ look. “All that I’m saying, is that we don’t really know what went on last night! Or at all, really! Mela’s Thundering Breath, we don’t even know that Ren really became an Anathema!”
“Not an Anathema?” Esrak grated, joining the conversation. “What do you call what happened in the White Temple?”
“I don’t know,” Adlynn admitted. “Do YOU know what it was? You say that it was a Solar Exaltation — how do you know? We were fighting the Bear Emperor, getting the better of him, and then there was a big flare of light, and you start screaming like a stuck pig about ‘Anathema’ and start trying to kill MY COUSIN! Do you know what a Solar Exaltation looks like? I don’t, but I’m not too proud to admit it! You know? HOW do you know?”
“What about the Sign of the Wretched on his forehead?” Randrel asked with asperity.
“WHAT sign of the Wretched on his forehead?” Adlynn shot back. “Did YOU see any signs of the wretched on Ren’s forehead? Or were you simply too busy trying to kill him? I didn’t see any sign of the Wretched!”
“Well then, what was that entire big light display?” Mykiros demanded.
“Who knows?” Adlynn responded. “Maybe it was one more of the Bear Emperor’s ploys? After all, one second, he has a wing of Dragonbloods united against him, then there’s this big unexpected development, and suddenly all of his enemies are trying to kill the man who had just had him on the ropes! There was the Bear Emperor, that Bear-Devil thing that he tried to sacrifice, his scepter-mace, and that Pearl hearthstone and so many things going on, it could have been anything! And then Ren gets pulled into the water by that water-thing, which no one STILL has any idea where it came from or what it was about. And then the Bear Emperor mysteriously disappears, not just from the temple, but from the entire Kellesval scene, just as this mysterious Strix comes out of nowhere! And who connected this ‘Strix’ with Rennar, anyway? And on what evidence?”
“Well, if he wasn’t an Anathema, then WHY did Rennar break in here and steal not only the hearthstone, but everything ELSE worth taking?” Randrel yelled. “Including some of my best shirts and a pair of boots that I’m still paying for!”
“Because he needed the money?” Adlynn answered in the tone of one explaining the obvious to a lackwit. “How is he supposed to eat? Get a job? When you lot have a five thousand dinar reward out for him? And, to be honest, the money he took is worth far less than the amount than was his fair share of the talents we recovered — that he was largely to credit for!”
“Talents that he stole BACK from the monastery,” Mykiros grumbled. “Killing five monks in the process, and beggaring the monastery outright! Dana’ad’s dewy breath, he’s the richest man in Keldon right at the moment!”
“We don’t know that,” Adlynn said pettishly. “It could have been the Black Dragons. After all, before that fiasco at the White Temple, they were laying low and looking for some way of getting around the Satrap’s watch. Then you lot start yapping about an Anathema running around, and offering rewards. What would YOU do, if you were the Master of the Mock Dragons? Hiss sinisterly to yourself, ‘there is a dangerous Anathema in the environs; we’d best slither off into the grass while the slithering’s good’? Or would you chuckle to yourself, ‘I’ve found a perfect patsy; I can do anything, and blame it on the Wretched! Time to recover my lost talents’? And what about the Bear Emperor? What have HE and his flea-bitten followers been doing all this time? And WHERE did those undead things that we fought at the necropolis come from? And WHO was that ‘Rat King’ oaf, and what does he have to do with all this? And WHAT were those traitor priestesses trying to do to X’un Den Kel?”
“Excuse me?” Adan cut in. “I understood that the goddess had been attacked, but there were so many incredible stories floating about… what actually happened?”
“According to Adlynn,” Esrak said clinically, “three women dressed as shrine maidens to X’un Den Kel led the goddess away from the fight and into a room that had been specially warded with obscene sigils painted in blood at all six points, and bound by blasphemous prayer slips. One of them was allegedly—”
“‘Allegedly’?” Adlynn sneered, “You know, Esrak, for someone who’s living on MY tab, you are acting every inch the lord of this manor!”
“—was reportedly attacking X’un Den Kel with THIS.” Esrak held up a vicious-looking black metal instrument. Twisting a knob at one end, and a circle of blades began to spin. With an adjustment and a push, another inset circle of blades pushed out from the first, suggesting a coring action. And with a third adjustment, a claw sprang out and made a clutching action. “Exactly WHAT it was for, we have no idea.”
“YOU have no idea,” Adlynn said sourly. “I, on the other hand, have plenty of ideas, but nobody’s listening to me, as I’m contaminated and mad and have to be kept on a leash, lest I run amok and hurt small children and bureaucrats.”
“Well, if you hadn’t insisted on DISGRACING the family, running around in your underwear—” Randrel cut in.
“I DIDN’T WANT TO GET MY BEAUTIFUL GOWN ALL RIPPED APART AND BLOODY!”
It had degenerated into bickering, so Lady Danya called a porter to bring in a tea tray, and applying the tones and attitudes of a strict but kindly governess, used the manners of the tea ceremony to impose decorum back on the setting. Adlynn, Mykiros, and Randrel responded to the ploy, which had probably been drummed into them back when they were unexalted children, who still had to answer to the aunties. Danya gulled Esrak into trying to follow along with the intricate protocols of the ceremony, reducing him to a graceless outsider, a status that he obviously felt keenly. Danya guided them through the steps and Marella prompted them with small talk and inconsequentialities, until, if not amity, then at least civility reigned in the bower. “Ah, I knew that I was forgetting something,” Lady Danya said. “We also came to ask after the valiant and tragic Fire Lord Isegris. Any news of his recovery?”
Adlynn lifted a lip in a sneer. “Isegris? They have that idiot up in the hospital wing of this place… what do they call it? Oh yes, the Bower of Tranquil Ivory Restoration. And it’s the first really resplendent night of repose that I’ve had in this azure bower.”
“Adlynn!” Randrel gasped, shocked and embarrassed. “Isegris is our FRIEND!”
“Since when?” Adlynn responded with naked candor. “Since he cheated Ren out of his fair chance at Exalting with honor, back at the Academy? Or since he almost KILLED you at the Cloister of Wisdom, during that night exercise? Or since he cornered me into a niche during my second year at the Cloister and tried to rape me?”
“WHAT?” Randrel gasped, scandalized. “That never happened!”
“Yes it did, and you know it,” Adlynn responded with brutal honesty. “And the only reason that he didn’t succeed was that Ren pulled him off and bloodied his nose for him. You two,” she gave Randrel and Mykiros an icy glare, “knew all about it, but you were too afraid of him to do anything about it. Mela’s cooling breeze, *I* didn’t ask those two louts to latch onto us, back at Great Forks.” She shot another withering glare at Randrel.
“Well, what could I do? Two sons of the Dynasty, at all ends, way out in the Threshold? My honor…”
“Your honor, MY purse,” Adlynn grumbled as she took a sip of tea. “You could have told those two mooches to go prove themselves worthy of their inheritance by going out and DOING something to earn their way! We WERE having a good time out here until those two came along and started mucking everything up on MY obol!”
Mykiros gave Adlynn a measuring look. “When did you get so hardnosed? Or so concerned with money?”
“Since the person who we HAD to handle that, who kept Isegris in line, and made sure that we had enough money to cover our bills, got declared an enemy of Creation! One of the Wretched, who can corrupt even the purest soul with the merest touch, yet whose skin burst from the slightest touch of sunlight!” Adlynn blinked and mused. “You know, I never did understand that… If he’s been possessed by some sort of sun devil, wouldn’t a Wretched be healed by the rays of the sun or something?”
“Adlynn!” Randrel gasped, “You’re questioning Immaculate DOCTRINE now?”
“No, I’m not,” Adlynn returned pettishly. “I’m merely pointing out a seeming discrepancy in commonly accepted folklore. Mela knows, it wouldn’t be the first time that an incorrect notion has crept into the common lore.”
“So, you’re saying that Rennar is an INNOCENT pawn in all this?” Esrak demanded.
“NO, I’m saying that I don’t know what’s going on, and neither do you, or for that matter, nor does Prince Avrall, or anyone ELSE! Something strange is going on in Keldon, and even X’un Den Kel, the GOD of this city, is at wits end! Everyone’s charging around, this way and that, screaming about an anathema, while Legions of Undead, and Rat-Thugs and Black Dragons and Bear Cultists are free to go unchallenged!”
“By the way,” Marella cut in, “what does X’un Den Kel say happened last night?”
“No one knows,” Mykiros replied. “She’s shut herself up in her sanctum, and refuses to come out until Calibration’s over.”
“PLEASE!” Adlynn shouted, “All that I’m saying is can we at least make a concerted effort to find out what is going ON? Who are these Rat Thugs? Where did they come from? Are they connected to either the Black Dragons or the Bear Cult? If not, what is the Bear Emperor doing, and where have the Black Dragons gone? And WHO was that false Strix, who went to such troubles to smear Ren’s good name?”
“And, while we’re at it, exactly what was THIS all about?” Mykiros mused, toying with the claw-thing.
“Most likely,” Esrak ventured, “he was some confederate of Rennar’s, trying to defuse the suspicion towards Rennar by playing at being a slanderous impostor, and giving Rennar the chance to play the big hero.”
“Yes, Ren never could pass up the chance to show us up and make a spectacle of how skillful and clever he was.” Randrel agreed.
“OH!” Adlynn sputtered, “That is the most, ridiculous, convoluted, illogical piece of circular reasoning that I’ve ever heard! ‘Oh, Ren must be a villain, because he did something that must be villainous, because he’s a VILLAIN! When he was tussling with that false Strix, he spotted the bogus maidens making off with X’un Den Kel, and sent ME off to stop it! WHY would he go through all the problems of arranging something like that, just to make ME look good? Why, so that I could plead for his innocence?”
“Actually,” Mykiros drawled, “Rennar could easily have come up something with that oblique, even before he became an Anathema.”
Adlynn barely managed to stifle a shriek of frustration.
Lady Danya tactfully changed the topic-again — back to Isegris, and asked if they’d paid him a call in the Bower of Tranquil Ivory Restoration. When the Dragonbloods admitted, rather shame-faced, that they hadn’t, she played her ‘disappointed governess’ card again, and pointed out that it would be genteel to visit the man at his sickbed, as he had fallen so gallantly. Adlynn grumped that at least this time, Isegris had one less hand to try and grope her with. They trooped en masse to the elevating gondola and rose the two flights to the level where the Bower of Tranquil Ivory Restoration was, and presented themselves to the matron on duty.
Nog was waiting fretfully on a bench, looking as though he hadn’t had any sleep all night, his good reveling clothes limp and wrinkled. Adlynn offered some genuine sympathy for Nog, if she tactfully glossed over any concern for his brother. “They say that he lost a lot of blood,” he said dully. “His arm is a total loss. Whatever Rennar did to him, it totally ruined the bone and blood vessels and nerves… or something like that.” Nog looked at Adlynn with worshipful eyes. “They said if you hadn’t put a tourniquet on his arm, he could have bled out and died, Fire Dragon or not.”
Adlynn shifted uncomfortably under the unwarranted praise. “Well, Nog… what can I say? Anyone there would have done the same…”
“So… what are they going to do about his arm?” Esrak asked.
“Well, the Prince says that since he lost his arm fighting an anathema, while the rest of us were off chasing after shadows, that they’ll gift him with one of those clockwork arms, but they gotta make sure that it’s safe first.”
“Yeah, they got this doctor, he says that he can fix it on Ise’s arm, but he’s gotta make sure that it’s safe.”
Then Prince Avrall’s ‘special friend’ Lady Bel’yal came up. “Good news, Lord Mordrese! The doctor has examined the arm, and says that there were a few… taints… connected with the prosthesis, but he’s found them all and cleansed them from the device. He’s ready to begin the procedure.” As the lady paid a few respects to Adlynn and the others, a tall pale, bald man of gloomy aspect in a long surgeon’s gown wheeled a table with a black metallic arm on it past them. Adlynn suppressed a shudder as she recognized the arm as that belonging to the ‘Rat King’.
If I Won, Why Do I Hurt So Much?
I slowly came to awareness, and was acutely aware at every step that it was a bad idea. I’ve been in pain before. I can deal with pain. The pain didn’t frighten me. It was the general physical sense of something very, very wrong inside that scared me. Once I got past that, I had a sense that I was upright, but stretched out spread-eagle. I had a sudden sense of being in one of those bad melodramas where the hero wakes up chained to a prison wall, and the villain of the piece warns him that his sufferings have only begun. But instead of the leering face of a gloating threshold robber baron, when my eyes fluttered open, I looking into the mournful face of Arrek. “Are you alright, Rich Boy?”
“I hurt,” I bleated weakly. “But it’s what doesn’t hurt that scares the snot out of me.” Instead of jumping on the ‘snot’ comment like a starving dog on a meaty bone, Arrek just told me that everything would be all right. Sweet Merciful SOL, Arrek doesn’t have the heart to ratsass me! I am SO screwed!
Master Adan bustled up. “There’s good news! First of all, your friend Adlynn managed to save X’un Den Kel from a particularly nasty — if not yet quite clear — fate. AND, in all the chaos, we managed to recover not only your friend Mykiros’ deadly ‘reliquary’ and replace it with our copy, but Nasha managed to snaffle the Fivefold Hand of Inexorable Justice!”
“That moonsilver lasso thing that the Prince tried to capture your doppelganger with. And I suspect that the only reason that Prince Avrall isn’t raising the roof over its disappearance is that he’s embarrassed that he ran off, leaving a priceless piece of First Age craftsmanship lying on the floor like that. AND, Tavis and Lucine managed to get the kegs with the stolen jade out without a hitch! We’ve picked up that Avrall’s let slip that somehow the mysterious Strix managed to wing off with the donated jade, but he’s willing to absorb the expense of funding the Abbey this time.”
“You mean, he’s willing for the peasants who pay the taxes to absorb the expense,” Lady Danya growled from where she was sitting.
“Don’t dance around it all day, Adan,” I groaned. “How bad is it?”
“Nowhere NEAR as bad as we thought it was at first!” he said with forced brightness. “Lady Danya confirms that her experiences, along with what she’s seen of Solar, Lunar and Terrestrial Exalted, suggests that our exaltations both make us tougher, far more resistant do damage than frail mortals, AND we heal more completely, covering completely in two or three days from wounds and trauma that would cripple a mortal. And, we’ve contrived this ingenious device, combining the Sorcerer’s Nimbus that we, ah, ‘obtained’ from that Fire Aspect Immaculate, and a black mirror that we’ve managed to stick on top of the Great Tower. The sympathetic action of the mirror with the nimbus is suffusing you with the healing rays of the sun, even as we speak. By the way, that’s what you’re strapped to at the moment.”
“Oh, thank SOL!” I breathed, immensely relieved. “How long was I out? How long has it been?”
“It’s the Fourth DAY of Calibration,” Arrek said carefully.
“FOURTH DAY!” I gasped, ice in my heart. According to Adan, I should have been healed by now! Or, at the very least, I’d be further on the road to recovery by now! No, don’t panic, Rennar, you’re alive, and one of the things about the Solar Exalted that the Immaculates taught that actually made sense was that they were very hard to kill. This made sense, we were empowered by the Unconquered Sun, and he’s very big on built to last.
“Rennar, I was a Scavenger Lord, a jumped-up grave robber, before the Unconquered Sun called me to service, I’m not a Doctor!” Adan admitted. “I have a rough, rule-of-thumb knowledge of healing and chirurgery, but at this level, I’m just guessing! But the very fact that you’re alive and awake is good! After all, I’ve recovered from some very serious wounds after being Exalted, as has Lady Danya. After all, who says that these ‘Death Knights’ can overcome the power of the Unconquered Sun? Rennar, no one’s calling you an invalid, so don’t start thinking of yourself in those terms.”
“AH! THE INVALID IS FINALLY AWAKE!” What burgeoning confidence that I could muster was rattled by a loud, booming masculine voice that seemed to be ridiculously happy to be declaring me a cripple. A tall, brawny man with curling ginger hair and beard, wearing a reinforced breastplate with a sunburst design on the boss and a red cape draping from the paldrons, strode forward and regarded me, grinning, with his fists akimbo. “WELL, IT’S ABOUT TIME!” He bellowed jovially.
“Alcide, Indoor Voice,” Adan said in a tried voice. “We’re underground, in a domed chamber with acoustics that reflect everything you say back at us.”
“Who are you?” I asked dryly, “And are you aware that there’s a speck of greens stuck between your right bicuspid and incisor?”
The cheap plank-stage theater hero laughed uproariously and regaled me, “I am Alcide Kaljor Elkandor, and I am the man you owe your life!”
“Excuse me, but right at the moment, I’m not quite sure whether that’s something that I should thank you for, or rip out your tongue in retaliation.”
“Oh, don’t worry, I won’t hold that against you!” he said cheerily. “Obviously it’s the pain of those crippling wounds. Nasty business, dealing with Abyssals. They have charms to mortify the flesh and fester wounds even as they form.”
“Abyssals?” I asked.
“I think he means ‘Death Knights’,” Arrek said.
“Indeed,” the country-fair play’s notion of a great hero continued, “you are lucky to be as racked, ruined and crippled as you are, given the caliber of foeman that you foolishly chose to tackle.”
“Chose?” I echoed, “I spent every tick trying to get OUT of there, but he kept cutting me off, every time I made a move!”
“He was brave but foolish, to take on one of the Bloody Sun—”
“Hello? I’m still HERE…”
“Only a true Chosen of the Unconquered Sun should have undertaken such a daunting task—”
“It may have skipped your attention, but Chosen of the Unconquered Sun are pretty thick on the ground, right at the moment.”
“Such a sad, wrecked, ravaged fate is truly tragic…” he continued, all but moving to the forestage to address the audience, “BUT! Fear NOT! For I shall take up your sword and defend Keldon in your place!”
“Touch my sword, and crippled or not, I’ll rip your head off and shove it up your ass,” I snarled.
“Of course, I’ll need a place of operations,” he said holding up my Pearl hearthstone. “Relinquish this hearthstone to me, so that I might make its manse my Fortress. Maybe I’ll set you up in a chamber so that you can still contribute in some small way. After all, just because you are paralyzed, unable to move, it doesn’t mean that you can’t use your mind in my service.”
“Your… service…?” I said, feeling a twitching at the corner of my mouth.
“There is a problem with that, Alcide,” Adan pointed out. He explained about how the Pearl was bound to me, and how we’d had problems with that regarding the Lunars.
“Hrrmmm…” the ‘Great Hero’ hummed, annoyed at having to wait for what he seemed to already regard as his rightful property. “Well, I guess that I’ll just have to make do with this.” He picked up my shield, the one that I earned fighting the six seasonal dragons, and haven’t had a chance to use in actual combat.
“Excuse me? What makes you think that you’ve got any right to that shield?” I objected.
“What?” He asked, baffled that I would even so much as quibble, “It’s designed for one of the Dawn Caste! See? It has the sunburst emblem on its boss! And it’s a shield, an instrument for a warrior, not an assassin or _spy_ of the Night Caste! Besides, it’s not like you’re going to have a lot of use for it, confined to a bed for the rest of your life.” I felt that twitch on the corner of my mouth go into high gear, and I was about to rip out of Adan’s healing contrivance and hand this lout his head, when he added, “After all, you can’t give me that pearl, and you do owe me something for saving your life.”
That knocked me down a peg or two. Oh. Right. He saved my life. I don’t remember a lot about the last few moments of the fight, but despite all my tricks, the Death Monk was hard on my trail. “Well… you may be right about that, Elkandor…” I admitted. “After all, I do owe you something, if you killed the man who crippled me.”
One of Elkandor’s companions, a trim dark-haired, sleek-featured woman in the smart dress of a cosmopolitan of the Hundred Kingdoms, made an embarrassed noise, “Weeelll…” she hedged, “Alcide didn’t exactly kill him…”
“So… you crippled him?” the ‘great hero’ looked a bit off his normal hale humor. “You just maimed him then? Took off one of his arms or legs, maybe? Blinded him? Though, I don’t really see how that would slow someone like him down very much…”
“Not quite…” Elkandor hedged. “However, I did drive him off, and left him with a few wounds that he won’t forget soon!” He finished off with his habitual bravado.
“YOU WHAT?” I shrieked, struggling against my bonds. “You didn’t kill him? He’s still out there, in one piece? The deadliest thing on two legs that I’ve ever even seen, including many centuries-old Immaculate Masters on their fourth coil of study, is still walking around? I wound him, blast him halfway to Thorns with that powdered Raksha dust, mark him up in ways that would have crippled a mortal, all after fighting a dragonblooded knight AND a nemissary — FOUR TIMES! — while you just hung around and WATCHED. Then, after he CRIPPLES me, you come in and try to steal the glory! But you can’t even do THAT! Yet You have the unmitigated GALL to come in here, making noises like the Conquering Hero, and laying claim to MY goods?”
“Now, now,” he tutted me, “Don’t get yourself all upset…”
“What?” I sneered, “Afraid that I’ll work myself into a fit and die, cheating you of the chance of quietly euthanizing me for my pearl? Well TOO LATE! I do formally bequeath my Pearl, my armor and all my goods to Arrek Thyrvaldson. Arrek, you may have been a pain in my backside, but at least you never stabbed me there!”
Elkandor bridled at that — Marvels never cease! Something actually got through that thick skull of his! — but Lady Danya got between us. “Good Friend Alcide, while I do accept that you DID save Friend Rennar’s life, he does have the point that he did most of the hard fighting by himself, when a helping hand would have been most welcome — not to mention, would have probably spared him the woeful beating that he took. I am not saying that your ploy of disguising yourself as Friend Rennar, and shamming as though grievously injured wasn’t an inspired gambit—”
“He what?” I bleated.
“AND, it did save you from just such a beating yourself, but still! It’s hardly the heroic battle that you suggest. Indeed, it’s more a stratagem worthy of, oh, say, the Night Caste.” That took some of the wind out of his sails. “And Friend Rennar does have the point that while a cunning bit of play-acting, it doesn’t quite merit such glittering rewards. Still, we are grateful for your assistance in saving his life, and we offer you a place here in Keldon.” She paused and gave him a wintery smile. “Provided that you recognize that Good Friend Adan has precedence here. He has laid claim to the Underground Palace, and when we find it, he will attune the crystal to the manse. Or do you intend to claim the Palace by dint of conquest?” She tilted her chin up and arched an eyebrow at him.
Elkandor reddened in the face and started to make some furious objection, when he became aware of Yarlick’s low growl. And the fact that Arrek had shifted his position to where he could lay his hands on his Grand Grimcleaver quickly. And that Master Adan had sidled his way over to one of his shelves, where there was a wide option of particularly nasty contrivances easily at hand. And that Nasha had placed herself next to Lady Danya’s armory, especially to the very large and very sharp Dire Lance, where she could no doubt easily toss it to the lady herself. Asrith coiled above her yasal crystal haven and assumed a very nasty skeletal visage. Even Bop was looking like she was eagerly anticipating ripping a big chunk out of him. His look of wary reluctance melted into a wide beaming smile. “You mistake me, Great Lady,” he said, all warm charm. “I was, I admit, a mite forward. It is my nature and my curse. I am not normally one to hold back, but rather to charge forth and let happen what may.”
“Unless there’s a chance the other guy’s tougher than you, and you could get hurt,” I sniped.
“That… was MY idea,” the other of Elkandor’s companions, a red-headed youth who looked like he should have been serving an apprenticeship somewhere, said in an embarrassed tone. “We’d just come in to Keldon, and we weren’t sure what was going on. Just my luck, the one time he listens to me, is the time he shouldn’t have.”
“Nonsense!” Elkandor pulled the youth to his side in a crushing manly one-armed hug. “Arlsen here has saved my hide more than once, by being there when I’d charged into something without thinking! But mayhaps we have been going it alone, just the three of us, for too long. Maybe we can work more justice with this league of yours, than as a lone champion.” He spared me a dismissing glance. “And I see that you have an opening.”
He was moving in. With my luck, he’d insist on moving in with Master Adan, and just shelve me somewhere in the back, and forget all about me. If the Solar Exalted of the First Age were anything like Elkandor, then I have nothing but sympathy and support for the Dragonbloods of the Usurpation.
“May be none o’ my business, as the Silver Pact is making arrangements for me to be branded,” Arrek said firmly, “but as the only one here who actually GREW UP hereabouts, I think that gettin’ Rich Boy here off that rack and back on his feet should be first on yer list. He may only have the brains of a coddled rich boy, but he’s sneaky, and he’s got the minimal sense to listen afore he goes jumping in. The Wyld Hunt’s comin’, and they’ve been known to blast towns that they thought was hidin’ Anathema, right down to the ground, as to flush ’em out. And after what the Death Knights — and who else would it be?-almost did to X’un Den Kel, the folks of Keldon might cheer as the Hunt blew down their own houses!”
But before Arrek could comment further, Master Adan slapped his forehead and shouted, “X’UN DEN KEL!”
Eagerly, I ignored my bonds, leaned forward and asked, “A Third Act development?”
Adan waved my comment aside. “Almost. It isn’t all suddenly clear to me, all coming together in a crystal clear revelation, or any of that melodramatic claptrap. But one thing does rise out of the morass, shining with significance. X’un Den Kel is the patron spirit of the city of Keldon, whose existence goes clear back to the First Age. City Fathers like X’un Den Kel may not be omnipresent or omniscient within their domains, but she must know the whereabouts to the entrance to the Underground Palace! It’s UNDER the city! The Mirror of Serene Reflection had to have consulted X’un Den Kel when he built it!”
“I’ll lay you odds that she knows exactly where it is,” I grumped. “How else would she have been able to betray the Mirror of Serene Reflection to the Dragonblood Uprising? And, as Arrek said, she is apparently VERY devout within the Immaculate Faith.”
“The Mirror of Serene Reflection must have laid some sort of proscription on X’un Den Kel to keep the secrets of the Underground Palace a secret, as a matter of course,” Lady Danya theorized. “Even those Solars who were still in their right minds at the end of the First Age were paranoid as a matter of simple security.”
“Then the Dragonbloods found a loophole in her proscription, and used her to gain access to the Underground Palace,” Arrek joined in.
“Which puts the Death Knights’ interests in the Spirit Courts of Kellesval, and the schedule of Calibration festivities in a new light,” Master Adan said, going through the pile of documents looking for those bits. “If they can put a collar on the City Father, and break her to their will, then not only is the Underground Palace all but theirs, but the future of Keldon entire is bleak.” Adan turned and looked speculatively at Arrek. “How gregarious is X’un Den Kel? Some City Fathers, such as the Syndics of Whitewall, are everyday figures in their domains. Others hold themselves aloof, watching the events in their city unseen and unnoticed until they make some sort of overt play. What of X’un Den Kel?”
Arrek mulled it over for a bit. “X’un Den Kel looks after her own, but she plays up to the local Dynasts as much as she can, without coming right out and licking their boots. I’d say that her first concern, as is proper for a City Father, is for Keldon’s welfare. Then, I’d say that it was for all the fancy high culture things. They say that Keldon used to be the big place for learnin’ and music and culture and sech, back in the First Age and Shogunate, and X’un Den Kel took the Contagion turnin’ Keldon into a backwater something fierce. She throws great parties, though.”
“But X’un Den Kel doesn’t make an everyday habit of being seen out and about in the city,” Adan mused. “Which makes her a prime target for the Death Knights, or Abyssals, or whatever they’re called. They could do something to her to bring her to heel, and nobody would know for weeks, maybe even seasons. And by that time, they could have pried the secret of the Underground Palace out of her. But… what does that have to do with RATS? The map of the sewers could have something to do with rats, but why do they need the plans to a warstrider?”
“Master Adan, with all due respect,” Alkandor’s dark-haired female associate, Lozelain started, “this is a shadow war, and unfortunately, the enemy has managed to, ah, incapacitate your resident expert in shadow warfare,” she gave a nod in my direction. “Information is our primary weapon. We have to know as more about them than they know about us. From what we learned on our way into Keldon, most people only know about one Solar, namely Lord Kaellis over there.”
“From the way they acted at X’un Den Kel’s festival, the Death Knights also only know about Rennar,” Adan pointed out. “But we know that there are at least four Death Knights in Keldon: the Huntress, the Juggler, the Death Monk, and I detect a subtle hint of a fourth, a manipulator, whose hand I think I see in the Prince’s actions and the lack of others realizing that there are death knights among them.”
“As for the manipulator,” Lady Danya stepped in, “I have my suspicions as to Lady Bel’Yal, the Prince’s, ah, ‘good friend’. Also, there was something about that chiurgeon, the one that she had graft that abominable metal arm onto that Isegris oaf, that set my teeth on edge.”
“Still, we need to know even more,” Lyzelain maintained. “We need to know exactly what’s going on, all over Keldon, as soon as it happens. And, we need to find it out in ways that won’t lead either the death knights or the Legion into our parlor.”
“The Bear Emperor,” I groaned.
“What about him?” Arrek asked gruffly.
“In short form, what Lady Lozelain is saying is that we need a spy network. The Bear Emperor already has one. And, we have the Death Knights’ notes on the Bear Emperor’s network in Keldon, so finding him shouldn’t be that hard.”
“But the Bear Emperor—”
“Lost his main base of operations, a load of worshippers and money, and all his paid mercenaries,” I cut Adan off. “And after the attack on his temple, his old sort-of-the-establishment truce with the Satrapy is well over with. So, he needs to make new allies. And we can be either very good allies, or enemies who could finish him. Lady Danya, take my Strix mask and cloak, and root out the Bear Emperor, posing as me. Make a deal with him, one he’d be wise not to refuse. Take Arrek with you. Even if he doesn’t say anything, Arrek brings force, guilt and the threat of Lunar reprisals to the table. Past that, I’d be an apprentice lecturing a Grand Master.”
“Good of you to realize that, Rennar,” Danya said with a snip.
Elkandor let out one of his boisterous laughs and clapped me on the shoulder. “HAH! SEE! You CAN contribute after all! Even confined to a cripple’s bed, that twisty mind of yours can still serve the greater good! Keep thinking like that!” Then, having petted the little crippled boy on the head, he proceeded to try and take over the mission to co-opt the Bear Emperor from Lady Danya. But Danya wasn’t having any of that, and he was playing on her field by her rules. I think that it might have been a first for him. I watched them thrash it out for a couple of hours, and added comments where I could. Frustrating doesn’t even begin to describe it. It was bad enough being shut out back when I was traveling with Adlynn and the others; then, at least I could move and DO things on my own! Now, my only real contribution was my advice, which, again, was blithely ignored.
They worked out their plan, which should have worked, as long as they had someone to sit on Elkandor and didn’t let him muck it up too badly. As they started to set out I asked Adan, “Hold on, can you leave Asrith? I need to talk to her; maybe she remembers some bit of herb lore that might help.”
“I’m sorry, Rennar,” Adan said, and I could just feel the doors shutting. In the back of his mind, he was figuring out where he could shelve me, along with the rest of his broken knickknacks that weren’t any use anymore. “But we’re going to need her ability to move about unseen, now that we don’t have you to fill that role.”
“Well then… could you at least leave the Lantern near me, where I can talk to it?”
“The Lantern? You mean, the device that the Bear Emperor used to communicate with it? Why? It hasn’t exactly been forthcoming.”
“Because,” I snarled, “I have no intention of being stuck in this thing, or in an invalid’s bed, or anything else! That persnickety BOX has a cure for this, I can smell it! You may not have gotten any answers out of it, but by SOL, I will! I’ll get the answers I need, if I have to drag them out through pure doggedness!” Adan gave me the wary look of acquiescence that you give those on the razor’s edge of madness, and placed the ‘Lantern’ on a crate near me and left us to go to it. He left Tavis, one of Lady Danya’s handmaidens and Bop to look after us.
My first hour or so with the lantern was as unproductive as frustrating as it had been for Master Adan. But I had something going for me that Adan didn’t: the specter of Sesus Nagezzer, ‘the Slug’. Sesus Nagezzer is something of a quiet, whispered legend back on the Blessed Isle. He is a Dragonblood, but he is an Exalt of whom the only legends that he will inspire will be those of debauchery and corruption. He was a Wood Aspect military officer who was lamed in one leg in an action, beyond the ability of the charms of the Terrestrial Exalted to restore. He degenerated into an obese disgusting lump of flesh, and has built a small discreet empire of vice and corruption around himself. I had the dubious honor of attending a party at his family seat, the Throne of Roses. I shall never forget the sight of Sesus Nagezzer lying on a couch, watching the orgy that he was hosting. He was a mountain of flabby flesh draped in gorgeous cloth that did nothing to decorate his hideous green lard. He had watched the decadence through a drugged haze, and alternated taking long draws on his water pipe and absently groping one of two exquisite youths of uncertain gender. The very memory leaves me with a sense of a slug crawling over my skin; the idea of becoming anything LIKE him gives me a sensation of slugs crawling around in my guts. With the image of Sesus Nagezzar prodding me on, I turned my full attentions upon the Lantern of Emerald Flame, and set out to see whose gaze would wither who — the Emerald Flame or the Unconquered Sun.
Azure watched as ‘Master Adan’, or whatever his name really was lead the others out of the large chamber, and thanked Mercury that he took the Omen Dog with him. Her scent had gone unnoticed among the sheer number of new smells that the dog had to cope with, so she’d been able to listen in on the developments. Mercury’s Blistering Bunions, FOUR Solar Exalts! Still, she might have made something of it, if Kaellis had only had the simple common sense to DIE! The threads of fate in this region were tangled around Kaellis; without him, the three other Solars might actually serve a useful purpose in keeping the Death Knights from taking over, a neat balance of terror, with both keeping each other from taking over the Underground Palace. Kaellis was the Night Caste, the hunter, the seeker, the one most likely to actually find the Palace. If he’d simply died, the Solars and Death Knights would have come to a stalemate, and probably eventually gone on to more profitable endeavors. But NO, he’d held on and survived, if bedridden for the rest of his life. Not that he seemed to be willing to let THAT slow him down any.
But, if anything, from the way that he was worrying that artificial intellect through that gold plate thing, his furious efforts might actually wear down the Lantern of Emerald Flame over time, and it would give him his cure, AND the Underground Palace, if only to shut him up!
Croup Miter’s direct orders were to remove Kaellis Rennar from Keldon’s environs. There was no way that she could do that, if he was stuck to that frame like a butterfly in someone’s collection. She was at a deadlock — in order to get him out of Keldon, she’d have to find some way of curing him, making him mobile, and give him a compelling reason to leave, without alerting him or the other Solars as to her existence. She thought briefly about giving him some clue as to the existence of a cure, far, far away from Keldon; but no, there was no way that he’d travel all that distance in a sick bed. They’d just send someone else, which would only complicate the matter even worse. She paced around the chamber, looking over the various bits and pieces that the Twilight Caste had collected over the years. She examined one of Master Adan’s side projects — in keeping with the stereotype of his caste, Adan was addicted to multitasking — something that had to do with sections from a demonology text, the handwritten lyrics to a song, a collection of jade tiles the size of game pieces carved into Old Realm glyphs, and notes on an attempt to reverse-engineer a summoning into a ward against someone called Ouramos.
Her problem was that there were too many variables at work, too many things going on — many of them in this room! — and too many things that she needed to know that she didn’t. She let out a long cleansing breath and began the Systematic Understanding of Everything charm. As the threads of fate spread out from her, she began to understand Adan’s ‘filing system’, and learned much about the nature of the things he kept. Then an idea struck her. With a little tweaking, she could cast a version of the Systematic Understanding of Everything charm on the Lantern of Emerald Flame, and set IT the task of healing Kaellis and sending him far and away. And then her eyes fell on the orichalcum armor that matched the screaming eagle shield that Kaellis and the Dawn Caste had been bickering over. The last piece clicked into place, and she set to work.
Once, there was a maiden who got someone else to do her dirty work for her…
I’d been quibbling with the Lantern over trivialities for the better part of two hours, when suddenly the Lantern seemed to pause, as if in sudden realization.
*Actually, given the time of year, and the materials at hand, I believe that I can formulate a solution to TWO of your problems!*
“TWO problems? Do you mean that you have some way of being rid of the Death Knights, or that you’ve figured out some way of allowing yourself to tell us the location of the Underground Palace?”
*Neither. I referred to the problem of the artifact armor that you wish to be able to use, but cannot*
From there, the Lantern went into prolonged spiel of such dense technical jargon that even Master Whetstone, back at the Cloister, would have just sat there, gawping in incomprehension. Finally, I just gave in. “Whatever! Fine! Let’s just DO IT!”
On the Lantern’s direction, Tavis laid out a circle of jade tiles, each about the size of a Gateway piece and carved in the forms of Old Realm glyphs on the floor in front of the rack that I was stretched out on, paying special attention to the directions of the compass that the tiles were laid out in and their sequence. Nine more tiles were laid out in a square between me and the circle. Inside the circle, Tavis laid out the orchicalcum refinforced breastplate and its matching helmet, greaves and vambraces. She poured some apricot brandy into an oil lamp and lit it within an arrangement of three cat skulls. Then she poured wine vinegar into a silver chalice and threw three rotten eggs into the center of the arrangement. Then, on my order, she played a flute, as I sang snatches of the Last Song of Ouramos the Primordial, as I’d heard it back in the treasure room of the Freehold of the Frabjous Tulge.
As the lights dimmed within the already gloomy chamber, Azure Rose reached over and quickly reversed one tile from the nine that separated Kaellis from the summoning circle.
As Kaellis sang, a bubbling appeared in the very air within the circle, and for a moment, it was as if acid was burning a hole within the very fabric of reality. The air discolored and bubbled and twisted and distorted, and finally liquefied and ran down to the stone floor, where it puddled together. Then the putrid mass rose up to form a strange, disjointed figure that was more or less humanoid — if you were very liberal about your use of the term. It was long and rangy and there was a sense of multiple limbs under a drape of dingy canvas, and it had a long narrow head that wasn’t strictly connected to its body — or anything else. Large, saucer eyes glittered at Kaellis over a knife blade of a nose, which was over a mustache — or barbells — or antennae — over a manic grin of spraddle teeth. It studied the tiles and giggled and rearranged the tiles. The Lantern instructed Tavis to rearrange the tiles in another way. The demon — after all, with that stench of vitriol that permeated the chamber, what else could it be? — giggled again and reset the tiles in a new arrangement. This went back and forth for about an hour and a half, and then the Lantern said:
*The Terms are Set! Agree to the terms!*
“Agree?” Kaellis bleated, suddenly realizing what the Lantern had gotten him into.
Before Kaellis could object, the tile circle parted, and the demon melted from its form as a (more or less) humanoid, and became a buzzing mass of insects, that swarmed out of the circle in Kaellis’ direction, carrying the armor along with it. As Tavis screamed and frantically scrambled away from the circle, and Bop futilely hissed and screamed at the pests, they climbed over Kaellis’ bound form and devoured it. They chewed up every scrap of him, leaving nothing in the nimbus frame. Then the engorged throng moved back into the circle, where they climbed into a mound. The mound melted away, leaving behind, laying in the middle of the circle, a form clad in the perfectly fitting orichalcum armor.
You Did WHAT?
And I’m not exaggerating; even those little bones in my ears hurt.
As I struggled to full awakening, I heard someone talking intently to me. I finally managed to force my eyes open, and looked into Master Adan’s worried face. “Rennar? Is that YOU?”
“SOL, I hope so! I wouldn’t wish this on anybody! Well, maybe on Isegris…”
“How do you feel?” he asked keenly.
“Like I was dipped in acid, eaten alive, chewed up into a paste and spit out again.”
Adan helped me to my feet, but I couldn’t stand. Sitting down heavily, I asked, “What HAPPENED?”
“You don’t remember?”
Bop settled on my shoulder, which helped me to get my bearings. “I… I was… questioning the Lantern… It said that it had an idea as to how it could solve both my problems in one function. I said that it could refit the orichalcum armor that I won at the Frabjous Tulge to fit me.”
Adan gave me a pained look. “You might want to re-think that a bit…”
“What? It had Tavis and me go through this ceremony… tiles, skulls, cheap wine, rotten eggs, a snatch of that song… And then…” and then the memory clicked into place. “We summoned up a demon… I knew that it was some sort of summoning, but I thought that it was going to be an elemental of some sort, maybe of Wood… I thought that the Lantern was going to ask it some questions… But it summoned up a Demon! And… and it bargained, using the tiles… and… and… and it ATE me! Why am I still here?”
“Well,” Adan said, picking and choosing his words carefully, “as near as I can figure it without speaking with the Lantern, the demon literally chewed you up and spat you out, in a form that fit the armor.”
“Fit… the armor…? But the armor’s for a woman!”
I looked down at the breastplate that I was wearing, which was suddenly, horribly, all too aptly named… wait, I’ve already done that line, haven’t I? I rapped my knuckles on the breastplate, and Malfeas take me, if I couldn’t tell that I was filling them! My mind went white for a moment, and only my link with Bop helped bring me back. I heard Adan’s voice. “Rennar? Rennar? Are you IN there?”
“I’m back! I’m back! Adan… am I… FEMALE?”
Gingerly holding the word back through clenched teeth, Adan finally let slip, “Yes.” He let that hang there for a moment, and then said, “Of course, I haven’t examined you under that armor, yet, but, at least on the surface, you are a very beautiful woman in an absolutely magnificent first prime.”
“Adan… now, please, believe me, I’m NOT fishing for a compliment here, I’m just asking for your objective opinion… you say that I’m beautiful… HOW beautiful?”
With that same clenched grin, Adan weighed his words again and said, “You could stand next to Lady Danya and not suffer by comparison.”
I groaned and fell back on the couch. Bop comforted me. After a bit, Master Adan handed me a hand mirror. And damn me, if Adan wasn’t right on the money. The face in the mirror was that of a warrior goddess, with clean patrician lines, strong enough to respect, but delicate enough to be lovely. “This… is… ME?” I asked, and the vision in the mirror mimicked my motions. I took a deep breath, and then a realization occurred to me — “I hurt!”
“Yes, well, from what Tavis said before I gave her the sedative—”
“No, I mean, I hurt, even where I was numb before!”
Adan started saying, “Well, yes, but…” then it hit him. “YOU’RE NOT CRIPPLED ANYMORE!”
The realization was like a splash of cold water, waking me up completely. I stood up and walked around. It’s amazing how GOOD being able to do that again feels, even through the pain, which was receding to a dull overall ache. “YES! Now, all we have to do is summon up that demon again, and have him do this again, only this time, he makes me look like ME again, and make the armor fit the hard way! The hard way for him, that is, this IS the hard way for me. What’s the matter, Adan?”
Master Adan had one of those, ‘Wait a minute, something’s wrong’ looks. “Rennar, I didn’t know that you knew Sorcery.”
“That’s because I don’t.”
“Then how did you summon up the demon?”
“I didn’t,” I admitted. “It was that stupid Lantern. I didn’t even realize what was happening, until it was too late!”
Adan looked confused and concerned in equal measures. “Then how did you subdue the demon?”
“Rennar, I’m a Scavenger Lord, and I’ve only mastered enough sorcery for a few minor spells and conjurations, but I do remember enough from my previous incarnations who WERE Master Sorcerers, that I know that demons do NOT serve the Solar Exalted out of love for our patron. There are two ways that I’m aware of to get demons to obey you: the first is to construct a cage for the demon, which it enters as it is summoned. Then the summoner and demon enter into a fierce battle of wills, in which the summoner, Exalted or mortal, batters the demon into submitting to their will.”
“There was… nothing… even vaguely like that.”
“The second way is to enter into a negotiation, and the demon agrees to the service, in exchange for something in return.”
“Something… in return?” I asked with an unfortunate squeak. “Such AS?”
“I-eeeyyyeee’m not sure.”
“WAIT!” I said, suddenly remembering. “The Lantern told me that the terms were set, and to agree. But I just said ‘Agree?’, as a question, not agreeing. But the Demon went ahead anyway. Does that mean that I don’t have to uphold whatever terms the demon set?”
Adan worried his lip. “I don’t know… I doubt it though. It’s too easy an out, too obvious. The fact that the demon delivered may put the seal on the deal. We’ll have to ask Danya. But, at least we know that the Lantern knows the terms that it set.”
“Tavis didn’t follow what was set?” I asked.
“Tavis is still hiding in the back, sedated.” Adan said. “She saw you eaten alive by a demon. She had almost as bad a shock as you did.”
When the rest got back, it was exceedingly awkward, what with Adan’s Omen Dog familiar giving me dirty looks as though I’d stunk up his lair with demonic ichor vapors on purpose, and Lady Danya’s handmaidens all trying very hard to hide their amusement at my plight.
Arrek shook his head, having the good grace to stifle the laugh of equal parts relief and amusement that I saw on his lips. “Really! I can’t leave you alone for a terce without you stumbling into something!”
“Were you THAT desperate, that you summoned a demon?” Arlsen, Elkandor’s redheaded sidekick, asked aghast.
“I might have been, if I’d thought of it,” I admitted. “But I didn’t. Instead, THAT THING,” I pointed at the golden ‘speaker’ that the Lantern proper spoke to us through, “comes up with this, and before I know it I’m field rations for an army of ants!”
*I affected an elegant solution to two problems simultaneously* the Lantern all but sniffed pettishly. *I fail to see why you are so displeased with the results*
“HELLO? You fed me to a DEMON? And turned me into a WOMAN?”
*And you are healed completely, your armor fits you perfectly, and I have even contrived an impenetrable disguise, which I understood was a considerable problem for you*
“You cut a deal with a DEMON,” Lady Danya said sourly. “The repercussions of this development are staggering!”
*Then you are easily staggered, Princess of the Crowned Sun,* the Lantern replied smugly. *The Demon’s negotiations were stiff, but I persevered and prevailed. I brought it down to most reasonable terms*
“Oh, now I KNOW you were sold a bag of magic beans,” Danya groaned. “What were the terms?”
*Quite reasonable,* the Lantern assured us. *The Nightbringer merely has to provide the Demon, one Cialvaddalli, the Artist of Molten Time, a Demon of the Second Circle and appendage of Benezet, the Gardener of Identities, who is a soul of Oramus, the Wings of the Cleansing Wind, with a living sample of the Tears of Ashes Lilly*
“The Tears of Ashes Lilly?” Master Adan echoed. “I never even heard of it, let alone know where viable samples can be found!”
*The Tears of Ashes Lilly were created in the First Age by the Twilight Solar Nebushazaar in his manse of the Garden of Semiramis at Bethacceram. It has been almost a thousand years since I was informed of any developments regarding the Garden of Semiramis, but I’m certain that the Iron Wolf will have no problem in arranging a sample, one way or another*
“And WHERE is Bethacceram?” I asked, massaging my forehead.
The Lantern gave several directions, woefully to the east, citing several allegedly major cities, none of which I’d ever heard of. But Master Adan had. “Illyrin? You say that the Garden of Semiramis is east of Illyrin?”
*Yes, many leagues east of the City of Brass Towers*
Adan rubbed his eyes. “Illyrin is a lost city, believed lost to the Wyld during the Great Contagion. No one has heard any word of it in over five hundred years. And many good men have died looking for it.”
*Contagion? Why would an epidemic cause an entire city to be lost?*
“This was no mere disease,” Adan grated out. “It was a necromantic plague created by the Death Lords. It killed nine out of ten mortals who contracted it. The mind-numbing number of casualties allowed the Death Lords, their knights and legions to break free of the Underworld, and come charging through Creation. The Fair Folk broke through and added to the chaos, causing the fall of the Shogunate, and eventually the rise of the Scarlet Empress and her dynasty.”
*What? When did this happen? The Shogunate fell? And who is this ‘Scarlet Empress’ that you speak of?*
I let out a mournful moan and buried my head in my hands. “If Illyrin is lost to the Wyld, then so is the Garden of Semiramis! The Tears of Ashes Lilly doesn’t EXIST anymore!” But I perked up when I realized, “Which means that the condition is impossible! And as I recall my lessons from the Cloister, a demon can’t demand something that can’t be done as a payment!”
Lady Danya patted me on the shoulder with a pained look on her shoulder. “Actually, dear, all that it means is that the Artist of Molten Time knows that the Tears of Ashes Lilly still exists, just in some lost, otherwise unknown and most likely hard to reach and terribly dangerous place. The prohibition is, as I recall, that the price must be not be impossible to meet — so difficult as to be a hair’s breadth from impossible, but not completely impossible. Lantern! What terms did you set for defaulting on the deal?”
*Default? Why would I set any terms for a default?*
A look of mixed panic, horror and disgust spread over Danya’s exquisite features. “You didn’t set any terms for a default?”
*Why would I? It was a simple matter that a Solar Exalt should have been able to perform, easily within the time allotted.*
“YOU DIDN’T SET ANY DEFAULT PRICE?” I screeched, “WITH A DEMON?”
But Danya saw the true horror. “What do you mean… ‘the time allotted’?”
*By the agreement, the Princess of the Hidden Sun has a year and a day to meet the service provider’s price.*
“A YEAR AND A DAY?”
I sat down and cradled my head in my hands as the realization exactly how badly I’d been burned sank in. I felt someone sit down beside me. “I know it looks bad,” Elkandor said gently. “It always does. But the thing to do when it looks absolutely hopeless is to remember that even if the odds are a million to one against you, you’ve still got that one chance. Then TAKE that one chance and run with it! You were chosen by the Unconquered Sun, just because you CAN make million-to-one long shots pay off! By definition, it isn’t impossible, so it CAN be done! And, even if you don’t find the rare blossom, I ask you: which is better, to set out and find the flower one second too late, or to wait shivering here for a year and a day for the devil to come and drag you under?”
I saw his point, and I was just thinking that maybe I’d misjudged Elkandor, when he draped an arm across my shoulder. “And, might I add, that maybe you shouldn’t think of your new gender as handicap. I could show you that there are joys that only a woman can know…” He reached down and caressed the exposed parts of my skin.
My eyes popped open, I popped the claws from my bracers, and my mind went blank again.
Azure watched with detached amusement as the Solar entourage tried valiantly to prevent Kaellis from gelding Elkandor with her claws. Arrek had grown to his greatest size and was thrown like a rag doll. Elkandor’s friend Arlen was apparently also a Lunar, but of the Turtle totem. He had also grown to a large size, with scales, a middling shell and large saucer eyes, and tried to come between Kaellis and Elkandor, with as much success. Adan was futilely trying to talk sense into Kaellis, and his fearsome Omen Dog was wisely hiding under a table. Kaellis herself was screaming at the top of her lungs about the horrors that she’d perpetrate upon Elkandor’s body, starting with emasculation, and proceeding downward at a rapid speed. Elkandor had managed to wrap his head around the fact that his life was in dire peril, and was fighting as you’d expect one of the Dawn Caste to, but every time that Elkandor mounted anything like a reasonable defense, Kaellis disappeared and changed the terms of conflict.
Kaellis scattered the others, and got Elkandor down on the ground without any leverage. With a savage grin on her lovely features, Kaellis raised one arm and aimed to part the Hero of the Dawn from his favorite body part. Then suddenly, a silvery coil of cable looped around Kaellis, throwing her off balance. With a jerk, Lady Danya pulled Kaellis off her mark and looped more of the length of the cable around her, binding her arms to her side, and effectively hogtying her. Arrek tackled Kaellis, knocking her to the ground. Arlen, Adan and then the others all joined in dogpile that barely managed to keep Kaellis pinned as Elkandor scrambled to safety. As Kaellis grunted out savage threats against Elkandor’s hide, manhood, flesh and general welfare, Arlen and then Arrek assisted Lady Danya in securing her against a stout marble statue with the moonsilver lariat. Giving a gusty breath, Lady Danya said, “There! The Fivefold Hand of Inexorable — oh, skip it, the ROPE — should hold her, at least until she recovers her wits. It seems to dampen her ability to use essence, probably what it was designed for in the first place, from what Prince Avrall said.”
Elkandor gawped, ashen-faced at Kaellis as she snarled mindlessly at him, trying to get at him even through the argent coils. “THAT! That was the most horrifying, vicious, blood-thirsty attack that I have ever SEEN!” he gasped.
“And you know what?” Arrek snarled, breathing heavily. “You had it COMING!”
Muting a satisfied chuckle, Azure Rose made her unnoticed exit from the chamber under Jade Hill and made her way to the modest rooms that she had taken in Keldon. Whistling a merry tune, she attached the stamped charm slip to the meager mirror in her room, and set about writing her report in triplicate, double and triple checking her grammar, spelling and calligraphy with a light heart. Or, at least until she did, until the end of the last copy of the report, when her wrist started cramping. So, she pulled the old ‘smudged ink’ scam on the very last of it. She was blotting it out when a note of celestial purity sang out from the mirror, and a glittering mist passed over the pane of glass. The blandly disapproving visage of Croup Miter gazed back at her. “You answered so quickly?” she dissembled. “The ink’s barely dry! Here’s my report, be careful of the copy on the bottom.” She handed him the reports through the mirror.
“Why are you handing me this?” he asked with asperity, looking at the mess the ink was making on his hand. Why, he’d just handled paperwork! That’s what underlings were for!
“Who else would I hand them in to? I’ve just wrapped up the Kaellis matter, and I really do need to be getting over to Threebridge to handle the matter there.”
“Why aren’t you handing this over to Gibbori or Rajsuram?”
“Who are Gibbori or Rajsuram?”
“They are the COMPETENT agents of this office, whom I have sent to Keldon to clean up the MESS that YOUR incompetence has made of the weave of fate there. Where are they, they should have taken your report?”
“If they’d taken my report, I wouldn’t have it here, and I’d know who they were,” Azure said reasonably.
“Don’t be ridiculous!” Croup Miter snapped. “Of course they’re there! I sent them!”
“Good to hear it!” Azure said brightly. “So, of course, having taken care of my end of this, I’d best be off to Threebridge, to be out from under their feet.”
“What do you mean, ‘you’ve taken care of your end’?” her nominal superior asked suspiciously.
“I did as you ordered! I arranged for Kaellis Rennar to have a crushing emergency that requires him — or her, now *snicker* — to leave Keldon for at least a year.”
“Explain…” Croup Miter growled, his pointed fringe of hair bristling.
Azure spelled out her gambit. “So, I figure that this Kaellis is the one most likely to find the Undergr — er, Undercover Palanquin, which is why I’m here in the first place, because the Bronze Faction doesn’t want that manse reactivated for some reason. But, if he’s gone for a year, then the odds are that the conditions that would lead him to find the Palanquin will have passed; that is, if he doesn’t simply move on to something else. These Solars do have a habit of tripping over things, and well, I’m guessing that whatever he runs into in the mean time will keep him from returning to Keldon. And, in the mean time, there are three Solars who don’t have a very good chance of finding the Pala — er, — quin, who’ll still keep the Death Knights from finding it. Elegant, no?”
But Croup Miter’s image in the mirror was turning beet red. “Are. You. Telling. Me. That. You. Caused. A SOLAR ESSENCE. To fall. Into. The Hands. Of a. DEMON?”
“No! Okay, there’s a chance that Kaellis might fail to fulfill the terms of the pact, but he didn’t really agree to it, and as there’s no Eclipse Pact on it, there’s no way for the demon to enforce it. It’ll be pissed at him, but nothing really major.”
“The only reason that a demon capable of such effect would make such a bargain, was that it was fully capable of enforcing the pact,” Croup Miter snarled. “Indeed, whether or not the demon IS capable of collecting Kellar Rennis’ Solar Essence, the very fact that it became an issue would irrevocably tarnish the good name of this office! My chances of PROMOTION are at stake! You are to ensure that Kelvar Rendris gets that demon whatever it contracted for, without a hitch! That is the ONLY way that this will never come to light! This is your highest priority!” *Stamp!*
“What about my other hanging cases?”
“They are also your highest priority!” *Stamp!*
“How can I give FIVE cases my highest priority?”
“FIND a way!” *Stamp!*
As the mirror went blank — or given that it had previously reflected Croup Miter, blanker — Azure Rose mused that she was witness to the birth of two new stamps. That did not bode well for anyone.
She didn’t bother to mute her snarl of frustration. She’d managed to make more work for herself! Now she had to nursemaid a Solar Exalt to pay off a demon, on a deal that SHE created! She let out a blustery breath of exasperation. Well, she just hoped that Gibbori and Rajsuram, whoever they were, were able to handle things.
The General in Command of the Monstrous Regiment of Crows sat in ease in a grand house, one that had once been a gracious home, then 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. Most recently, it had been a scrying base for the Black Dragons, whose minions provided the undead animated corpses that did the fetching and carrying.
The General took a deep draft of wine from the skull of a minor celestial god, and found it good. That lingering touch of divinity gave the wine a special something. The General held out the skull for some more wine, and the Grail of Bitter Gall poured with practiced grace. The General was halfway through that skull-full when the Physicker with the Cure for All Ills approached. “Well? Did the other one, whatever his name was, contradict anything that Rajsuram had to say?”
“No,” the Physicker answered in his trademark hollow voice. “His name was Gibbori, if that’s really important. He was a minor functionary, as was the one whose skull you’re quaffing from, both of them working for the Bureau of Destiny. He was sent here to untangle an unforeseen and troublesome snag in the Tapestry of Fate.”
“The Tapestry of Fate?” the General grunted, pausing to muse over the implications. “With the Wyld Hunt showing up, this does not bode well for our efforts. Did helpful Gibbori give any indication as to what the snarl in the threads of fate involved?”
“Indeed, yes. He confided that the lynchpin of the entire snarl was one Kellar Rennis.”
“Kellar Rennis? He wouldn’t have meant Kaellis Rennar, would he?”
“Possibly. But he was quite convinced that the person that he meant was ‘Kellar Rennis’. I questioned him quite closely on the matter.”
“You are nothing if not methodical and thorough, good Physicker,” the General sighed. “This is not good. If Kaellis is tangled up in the thread of fate, then every turn and event will somehow conspire not only to keep him in Keldon, but alive and well, too.”
“Not necessarily,” the Physicker corrected him. “According to Gibbori, he and Rajsuram were sent to unravel the knot created by another functionary of their office in Keldon.”
“That must be the other girl I saw watching as the Keallis girl, Adlynn, foiled our attempts at cutting out X’un Den Kel’s heart,” the Grail of Bitter Gall whispered as she poured more wine into the General skull-cup.
“However, this agent has been removed from her post in Keldon by her superior, and given the sole duty of removing Kellar Rennis from Keldon, as to remove the lynchpin, freeing the threads of fate, so that Gibbori and Rajsuram could restore their proper weave.”
“Really?” the General asked, rolling the word out for effect. “How much does the Bureau of Destiny know, regarding our activities here? Just because we exist outside the weave of fate, doesn’t mean that they might not know our every move. Still, they can’t know much, or they wouldn’t have sent only three agents do deal with us, those two losses and a rank incompetent.”
“According to Gibbori, his superior mentioned that Ivory Rose, the novice who was sent first, made some panicked excuses, which the superior disregarded out of hand.”
“EXCELLENT!” the General gloated, handing his pipe to the Thorn of the Crypt Rose to be packed and lit. “Were you able to recover any other bits and pieces from those two?” As the Physicker detailed the uses for the divine ichor, eyes, hearts, bones, teeth and so on of minor celestial gods in his various projects, the General paid him only the most passing attention. “Excellent, you do not disappoint, good Physicker. Well then, this Ivory Rose has been tasked with removing the Ironwolf from Keldon, eh? Besides getting the Strix out of our hair, his departure would free up the tangle in the skein of fate, a state that we can exploit to our dark desire, as we are the only ones now who know of it. And, as the Solar Exalted do seem to gather fate entanglements like a clean suit draws cat hairs to it, it seems only likely that Kaellis would drag several of those entanglements along with him, including most likely the Wyld Hunt. Hmmm… you know, it strikes me that removing Kaellis from Keldon would be a daunting task for a novice, especially one of proven lack of mettle. What say we give poor, besieged Ivory Rose some assistance in her errand?”
The Madcap Juggler of Skulls perked up, and started waving his hand and going, “Oooh-oooh-oooh! Me-Me-ME!” like a slow student who finally knows the answer to a teacher’s question.
“Oh?” the General gave the Juggler the cold fish eye. “And why should I give YOU the job? It would most likely involve playing hide and seek out in the wilderness, which would suit the Thorn here, much better than you.” The Thorn of the Crypt Rose gave the Juggler a smug smirk of triumph.
“Ah, but you put your finger on the very pulse of my point!” The Juggler tossed his skulls up into the air, tumbled to a stand, caught the skulls on the fly and started tossing them negligently. “The lissome Crypt Rose is every inch the sly, stealthy huntress; witness the way that she caught those two without raising so much as a ripple in the affairs of the city. But this is not a mission that calls for such patient stealth and low profile actions; no, rather it calls for SHOWMANSHIP!” The Juggler rolled the skulls down one arm, across his shoulders and onto the other arm, all in one fluid motion, and set them back to juggling. “Which is MY métier. This calls for large, splashy showy atrocities — all committed in the Strix’s likeness and name, of course — that will bring Kaellis and the Wyld Hunt, the Legion, and every would be hero for leagues around running at breakneck speed! Besides,” the Juggler sidled up to the General’s side and whispered sotto voce, “who would you rather have wiggling around this place in a huntress’ shift? HER?” he indicated the Crypt Rose, “Or me? I’d do it too, you know I would.”
The General gave a revulsed shudder at the mental image of the Juggler in a huntress’ shift and said, “Excellent reasoning, spry Juggler! I entrust you with the mission to decoy Kaellis out of Keldon.”
The Juggler gave an elated squee, pulled the General to his feet and gave him a big kiss. “And I didn’t get YOU anything for Calibration,” he drawled in mock contrition.
The General shoved the Juggler away and wiped his mouth on his sleeve. “From what we learned from those Dynasty spies, the Wyld Hunt will be in Keldon as soon as Calibration is over. We can’t take for granted that they’ll go charging after Kaellis, even if we give them a way of tracking the Juggler. And we can’t just eliminate them indiscriminately; that would bring down the wrath of every Legion in the Threshold. They’d just burn Keldon to the ground, and kill everything that crawled out of the ashes. SO! We need a way of making sure that the Wyld Hunt will go chasing off after Kaellis, frothing at the mouth for blood! Grail of Bitter Gall! Use your influence with the Satrap to study the Shikari. I’ve noticed that in tight-knit outfits such as the Wyld Hunt has to be, there’s always one person who plays the peacemaker and keeps the team functioning smoothly. Abyss knows, I wish that I had one here. Sutra of the Unspoken Mystery! Go with the Grail of Bitter Gall. Attend on her, unseen by others. When she tells you who to kill, do it dressed in one of those owl-cloaks that seems to be all the rage these days. Kill him or her in plain sight of other Shikari. I know that you prefer to kill in an elegant, artistically understated way, but please… kill our sacrifice in a big, bloody, nasty, painful, humiliating way. Ask yourself, ‘what would the Juggler do?’ Leave no trace that it was anyone other than Kaellis who did the foul deed. If the other Shikari get in the way, hurt them, but do not kill or cripple them; we want them to be able to chase after Kaellis.
“So,” the General summed up, “we have the Juggler leading Kaellis on a wild goose chase, the Wyld Hunt hard on Kaellis’ heels, and this Ivory Rose clearing the path for him.” The General sat down with the air of one who has accomplished much. “And so, we are finally rid of the Night Caste, and we can set about our true task here.” He paused and considered. “Physicker, do you think that there’s anything in what Gibbori and Rajsuram said about a ‘Covert Palanquin’ that’s supposed to be around here somewhere?”
There we were, out in the dead of night on the Last Night of Calibration. It was Calibration, when the rules don’t hold, and the worlds are closer than normal, and the walls between then thinner. Ghosts walk freely, the Fair Folk run amok, demons slip through the cracks of Malfeas, and it has a history of being a time of tragedy and misfortune. If we hadn’t been one of the most powerful collections of beings in the immediate area, I would have been afraid to go out. As it was, I was hoping for some bogey or creepy-crawly to jump us, so I would have something to vent my spleen on. I’d spent most of the day tied up to that stupid statue, scaring the wits out of Lady Danya’s handmaidens, and I still felt as skretchy as though someone had put itching powder in my underwear.
We stood at the appointed place for a little over an hour, when the huge snake slithered into the clearing, and the introductory rigmarole began again. Yi’An, the Tiger-lunar glared at me, and asked Arrek, “Sel-Chana, WHY do you bring a Dragonblood to this meeting?”
“I am not a Dragonblood,” I said in a carefully controlled voice. “I am Kaellis Rennar. And this is the reason we called this meeting.”
I let Adan handle the explanation as to what happened, and the demon’s price. Tangos, the Raven Lunar quietly snickered to himself. My hand flashed out, grabbed Tangos by the cloak and pulled him close to my face, as the claws on the other hand popped out. “Go ahead,” I hissed into his face. “LAUGH. It won’t be the first time I’ve had to eat crow.”
Yi’An pried us apart, but for some reason, probably Lunar etiquette, I think that she silently approved of my reaction. Kiriyan, the Snake lunar asked, “And what of this Dragonblood regalia you wear?”
Adan took that over that part of the explanation. “It was our intention to have Lord Rennar infiltrate the local Dynasts under the cover of being a stray Dragon Lord, once his friends had left the scene. Towards this end, I worked a couple of interesting projects, using ghost jade, powdered petrified Raksha, Fey jewels, Oblivion-tainted water, a few Jadesteel weapons that were beyond repair, a Desert Basilisk’s eye, a moonsilver talisman, and a few other odds and ends that I had lying about. The artifact orichalcum armor that Lord Rennar won from the Frabjous Tulge, I’ve overlaid with a coating that makes it appear to be either blue or white jade. Besides concealing the Sun Metal, the coating has the property of mending itself, if not the metal beneath it, and disappearing when so willed. I’m rather proud of the process. I started with some ghost jade that—”
“Good Friend Adan?” Lady Danya asked with a pained voice. “Later?”
Adan cleared his throat abashed and continued. “Lord Rennar’s Eagle Claw chain, which he is understandably fond of, is regrettably distinctive and associated with him. But I’ve managed to conceal it, while managing to repair an otherwise wrecked short powerbow, by conjoining them in Elsewhere in such a way that it is either the Eagle Claw chain or the powerbow, but never both at once, as one aspect is Elsewhere.”
“And lastly, I took a Desert Basilisk’s eye, one of the pearly essence concretions that grow in the White Temple, and a moonsilver talisman that the Bear Emperor’s Champion, Roaring Thunder, used to appear as a normal human, and joined them to form a false hearthstone. This false hearthstone will cause Lord Rennar’s essence banner to appear as an Air Aspect elemental display, namely that of rolling lightning.
“With these, Lord, or, for the time being, Lady Rennar will be able to pass herself off as a wandering Dynast, and mingle with the Wyld Hunt, who you’ve no doubt heard will be arriving.”
“Yes, tomorrow,” Yi’An said sourly. “Fascinating. And what has this to do with US?”
I stepped forward. “Master Adan told you of my unasked, unwanted and unwitting pact with the demon who did this to me. As a result, I have to leave to seek out this ‘Tears of Ashes Lilly’, which is in the Garden of Semiramis, which is near Bethacceram, which is near Illyrin, none of which I’ve ever heard of before. First, I come to tell you that I have to leave, but I regard our alliance as still holding true. I’m not running out on you, I’m just keeping my word to the Artist of Molten Time, curse his google eyes. Second, we have to introduce another Solar Exalt who has entered our company.”
At this introduction, Alkandor bulled his way forward and made familiar with the Lunars, and we had to all but drag him back into place by his ear.
“Third,” I resumed, giving Alkandor the devil’s eye, “none of us here have ever heard of the Tears of Ashes Lilly, or the Garden of Semiramis, OR Bethacceram OR Illyrin. Wise Watches-The-River, do YOU know anything about any of those, or know anyone we can speak to who would know of them?”
Over Tangos’ squawked objections, Watches-The-River, or Kiriyan, answered the question. “No, I do not. However, I have heard of Illyrin, which is said to have been lost to the Unshaping in the wake of the Great Contagion. And I have heard that Illyrin was a great center of learning and lore in the East during the First Age and well into the Shogunate. I do not know where Illyrin is. But I do know of a great repository of knowledge known as the Mokkan. When the Chosen of Luna first retreated to the furthest reaches of Creation, the No Moon caste took what texts as they could carry with them. Paper is delicate and not well suited to the rigors of the Far Reaches, so the books and scrolls were transcribed onto sturdy slats of wood. At first the wooden records were kept in one place, but between the Wyld Hunt and the depredations of the Raksha, keeping such wisdom in one static place was unwise. So, largely, the Chosen of the Moon prefer to keep their lore in the safest and most portable of troves — their minds. But still, the written records are passed along by a special caravan, which moves in a huge circle around the rim of Creation, going from East to North, across the seas to the West, back to land and the South, crosses the deserts and into the savannahs, and returns to the East, stopping at places where moots are held. It is a rite of passage for scholars to travel with the caravan for a complete twelve-year circuit of Creation. At each moot, local scholars both study and add to the sum of knowledge, so besides the original wooden slats, there are texts on every conceivable recording medium.
“As Fate as would have it, the Mokkan is in the easterly arc of its circuit. If the whereabouts of the Tears of Ashes Lilly or any of the rest of it is to be found anywhere, it would be found in the Mokkan. And, if the Mokkan holds no records of them, then the local scholars who gathered at the moot to honor the Mokkan would most likely know of Illyrin.”
“The Mokkan?” Adan murmured, his eyes alight with intellectual greed. But Lady Danya pulled him back and went to work. After a couple of hours of wrangling with Tangos, Lady Danya and he had hammered out a basic agreement. Tangos would give me a safeguard, a token that would designate me as an honored guest of the Lunars at the Mokkan, a letter of introduction that should suffice where the token wouldn’t, and a set of cryptic clues that should allow me to track down the Mokkan once I found the first traces of its track. In return, I would gull the Wyld Hunt into haring off after me, and get them as far away from Kellesval as I could. I would take Arrek with me to the Mokkan, where he would undergo some sort of initiation and have his caste set, whatever that meant. In addition, I would allow the Lunars to use the White Temple as a base for the duration of my absence, and allow them to collect the pearl essence tokens that the Temple created for as long as I was away. Tangos wanted Adan to throw in a bunch of the tricks that he’d come up with, but that quickly devolved into a bunch of horse trading between Adan and Kiriyan.
Then, suddenly, it was all agreed and sealed on, and we parted for our respective lairs, with Arrek returning with us. “Well,” I sighed as the three Lunar elders disappeared in the distance, “now we have two obstacles to overcome. First, I have to find a way of gaining the Wyld Hunt’s trust. And second, we have to come up with a reason for the Hunt to think that the Strix is leaving Keldon.”
“You catch your rabbit, afore you skin it, Rich Boy,” Arrek said. “First, we get you back in with your buddies, without them catching on to anything.” He let out a martyred groan. “And I have to go with you. This means that I have to put up with even MORE spoiled whining Dynasty brats!”
The Importance of First Impressions
The plaza at the top of the Great Tower had originally been designed as a mooring station and loading dock for airships. But no airships had visited Keldon in over three hundred years. The plaza had become a favorite venue for soirees among Keldon’s elite. And, indeed, the very cream of Keldon society was gathered on the plaza, carefully arrayed in etiquette-dictated ranks surrounding Prince Avrall, with Lady Bel’Yal close enough to denote her favor, but removed enough to indicate her unofficial status. They all watched five airships, one resembling a large flying manta ray, two resembling metallic orcas, and the flanking two being but mere flying machines, most likely Shogunate designs, approach the tower from on high. Four of the airships towed airbarges with large cars hanging from them. The five airships docked circling the plaza, and men in the livery of the Wyld Hunt boiled out of the ships to help the gondolas of the dirigibles. From the ‘mouth’ of the manta ship strode a group of men and women. One could have been used as the very living embodiment of the Wyld Hunt. He was tall, athletic and he wore a minor fortune in red jadesteel in a suit of superheavy plate armor with the comfort and ease that he might have with a light robe of silk. While his hair was a black that contrasted well with the flushed red that showed the purity of his breeding, it was cut short in a severe, no nonsense way that stated ‘soldier’ without shouting it. An obvious jadesteel replacement for his left eye accentuated his stern demeanor. He strode briskly to Prince Avrall, and cut the Prince’s welcoming speech short with an equally brisk, “What are all these people doing here?”
As Prince Avrall started to sputter at this breach of decorum, another of the Shikari came forward and muttered aside, “I thought that it was understood that I’d handle these things.” He smiled broadly at the Prince, “What my commander here was trying to say, in his own dour way, is that while we appreciate the show of support that you’re giving us, in fact, you’re putting these good people in danger, and slowing us down from unloading our equipment at the same time. We will confer with you and your commanders, of course, but right now, we need to get our men and equipment off the ships before the Anathema decides to make a preemptive strike on them, especially the airbarges. It HAS happened before, good Satrap. If you wish, I’ll be happy to take the burden of telling the assembled throng that necessity must trump decorum, yet again.” Avrall gave him a relieved nod, and the Shikari addressed the throng, with a winning smile and a glad voice, he thanked them all, for their show of ringing support and loyalty to the Realm. And, while he would love to make a show of the Hunt’s martial power, the harsh facts of the matter were against it. The Wyld Hunt would make its show of power when it mattered most — when they brought down the Anathema that had plagued their lives of late.
It took a little more persuading, but the dignitaries parted, with the exception of the Prince and his guards, and a few of the tower’s functionaries. First, the Shikari got all their men off and then proceeded to unload weapons and gear. The Prince watched, interested but not amazed, until they unloaded their steeds.
The steeds were all of different colors and each had their unique traits. Their rough conformation was like of horses, only they were definitely reptilian, with ophidian heads, long flexible necks, and long serpentine tails. Their hind legs were like the hooves of a horse, but their forelegs were more like the talons of raptors. They each had their own kinds of horns on their heads, and long snakelike tongues flickered out. They stood taller than a man at the shoulder, and they each had saddles, but none of them had bridles in their obviously carnivorous mouths.
“What in the name of Mela Unfurled are those?”
“These,” said the mission commander of the Wyld Hunt with obvious pride and a softening of his habitually hard countenance, “are Sirrush, or dragon-horses. They are mounts being bred for the Dragonblooded members of the Hunt, and if they are successful, they may begin to form cavalry units with them. They were bred from godblooded horses that mated with lesser dragons, until they got this. Besides their obvious advantages over horses, Sirrush are immune to the elemental banner of their rider. There are artifacts that protect a mount from a dragonblood’s manifestation, but these beauties don’t need such fripperies.” The commander stepped up to the red sirrush and there was an atypically tender moment as they communed. Once they were finished, the sirrushes’ grooms started arranging them for transport down the gondolas to the surface.
“No bridles?” the Prince asked, never taking his eyes from the magnificent beasts, his gaze locked in open admiration and greed.
“Bridles aren’t necessary,” the commander said. “We are bound together, as familiar and master. Mushushu knows exactly what I intend, and shares my thoughts and perceptions, even as I share her both pains and her joys in running and the kill.”
The Prince let out a martyred sigh. “You have blessed and cursed me in equal measure, Commander,” he said mournfully. “On one hand, my life is enriched by seeing such magnificent creatures myself. On the other hand, I must go through my life knowing that such splendor exists, but I will never know it firsthand. By the time that these have bred to the point where a mere satrap such as myself could own one, I will be well beyond my riding years.” Avrall finished with a sigh of resignation.
The other, more socially inclined Shikari looked on as the last of the necessary equipment was unloaded onto the dock. “Well! Necessity has been appeased, so now we can return to decorum. Prince Tepet Seles Avrall, permit me to introduce Commander Cathak Necklen, our field commander.” The Satrap and Commander gave each other brief formal bows.
“Next is our esteemed elder statesman and sorcerer, and widely regarded as the finest geomancer of this age, Ledall Trycin.” Ledall Trycin glowered at the Prince in a way that suggested that he was far too old to take such posturing seriously. And he was old, even for a Dragonblood. Indeed, he was the ‘turtle’ kind of old man, hairless, chinless, toothless and sexless, an impression that was only helped by the greenish blue tinge of his skin and the ‘shell’ hauberk that he wore over his robes. He was thin, almost emaciated, but there was nothing decrepit or frail about him. His stance was steady and firm, and his gaze displayed the iron will that had kept him going for so many years. At his back were two hulking Erymanthoi, the large brutal demons known as ‘the Blood Apes’, who hung on his every gesture and word.
“With age honored, then we should regard faith, so I introduce the Honored Iselsi Aeryn.” The Prince bowed to the female monk. By the use of the title ‘honored’ and the blue woven wool belt that she wore to secure her unbleached linen robes, he knew that despite her seeming youth, she was on the Third Coil of study, and was equal in rank within the Immaculate Order to the Abbot of the monastery. And he knew that she must be held in high esteem by both the Order and the Wyld Hunt to be allowed to keep the family name of the disgraced former Great House of Iselsi. She was trim and lithe, and despite her delicate beauty, she wore her shaved head with the easy confidence of one who has totally forsaken vanity. The Honored Iselsi Aeryn bowed deeply, almost an instruction on how to combine grace with humility.
“Next, neither last nor least — she’d pound me into the ground if I tried that — I present Ragara Sthena.” House Ragara was said to be favored by the Earth Dragon, and if anything, Sthena exemplified, almost caricatured, that aspect. She was tall, broad and brawny, with only a certain delicacy of face, prodigious breasts and a set of hips that could have given birth to full-grown bulls to indicate that she was female. Her breeding showed to the point where she may have run into questions that she was human. Her skin was grayish, with a sense of granite to it, and her hair was as unto shelves of slate. She wore a suit of gleaming white jadesteel superheavy plate with ease, and carried a matching tetsubo club as a horseman might carry a riding crop. Yet, for all that, she was not ponderous. She moved with an easy grace and her footsteps were light and silent. The Prince bowed, and had the uneasy sense of prostrating himself before an outland idol of war and fertility.
“And finally, my own humble self,” the dragonblood in green said with a rakish smile. “I am Nellens Derwand Cleven, a hunter of the Wyld Hunt.” Nellens Cleven was clearly a man who was used to being liked. His smile was practiced and easy. He was handsome, but in a slightly roughhewn, very approachable way. The only sign of any dragonblood breeding in him was the tinge of green in his hair and beard. Prince Avrall found himself liking the man, even as he immediately identified him as a glib manipulator. But then, as a man whose job was to keep many fractious people working together smoothly, he understood and appreciated the smooth art that Nellens Cleven brought to that job — even as he didn’t trust the man.
Prince Avrall responded to Nellens Cleven’s informality by casting ceremony to the wind and inviting them down to their quarters in the Bower of Diligent Scarlet Valor, where the entire bower was reserved for their use. Once the dragonbloods and their officers were secured in their quarters, Cathak Nevros walked out to the very tip of the Bower balcony, but he didn’t look down upon Keldon. Rather, he watched as the vulnerable airbarges lifted off from the dock and rose up into the air, well out of danger. The airships without airbags weren’t as vulnerable, and they were required to expend costly fuel, so they remained moored at the tower. When the last of the airbarges was safe, Nevros rejoined his team along with the Prince. “So, what can you tell me about the Anathema?”
The Prince had the City Watch Commander, who had the written report give the briefing. The Watch and Legion Commanders reported their unit’s tactics and operations against the Solar. After listening to the Commanders as they read the written report, Nevros asked, “You say that this Kaellis Rennar’s exposure as a Solar was witnessed by only the six stray Dragonbloods that had been traveling with him?”
“No,” said the Legion Commander. “It was confirmed by seven captured Bear Emperor Cult members, and by an itinerant scholar named Master Haljor Adan. Three of the cult members have been hanged, and Master Adan is still in Keldon.” He handed them more written reports. “Testaments given by the hanged cultists, under close examination, under drugs, and under torture. The details of their precise involvement with the Bear Emperor Cult vary from suspect to suspect, and from one method of inquiry to another, but the details of the exposure are remarkably consistent.”
Nellens Cleven was looking at one of the reports. “You say that the six Dynasts were old friends of Kaellis, and it looks like two of them are his brother and sister?”
“No, both of them are his cousins, though they are brother and sister to each other. And one of the Dragonbloods isn’t a Dynast, but an Outcaste. We’re not exactly sure how he became connected with them.”
“Kaellis?” the Honorable Iselsi Aeryn asked, taking the Commander’s measure even as she asked it. “Which Great House is the Kaellis family aligned with?”
“None,” the Commander, who was of a Patrician family aligned with House Cathak. “As I understand it, the Kaellis family is one of those Patrician families that claim to be one of the Thousand Gentes of the Shogunate, and make noises about old Dragonblood roots, but aren’t securely connected to any one of the Great Houses. As such, they can’t afford to commit their children that do exalt to an alliance to a Great House that might lose out in the power struggles for control of the throne. So, they send these young dragons out here to the Threshold, ostensibly to let them gain practical experience out here, but really to keep them out of the crossfire.”
“And, so that they can be recalled at an expedient moment,” Sthena rumbled.
“The Varas boy, Mykiros, is in a similar situation. I’m not sure about the two Mordrese boys, though.”
“Oh? Why?” Cleven’s question was silently answered by a look on the Commander’s face that suggested that he thought the two Mordrese scions would have been better off ‘studying’ at the Palace of the Tamed Storm (a notorious ‘school’ for ‘recalcitrant’ young dragonbloods that was more prison than academy) than out on the Threshold. “Oh. And what of this… Ba’Selig Esrak?” Cleven ended with a questioning tone that suggested that he was wondering as much about the proper pronunciation of the name as he was about the man.
“Outcaste,” the Commander of the Watch summed up dismissively. “No alliances, no school, no Legion, no friends, no connections, no money; and looking for as much of any of the above as he can arrange without going around kissing people’s boots. The Kaellis girl is making noises about the rest of that lot idling about with her wanderjahr money, so my Lord Ba’Selig is most likely keeping an eye out for new opportunities.”
“Bring them to us,” Nevros said. “One at a time. Separate them, quietly, and don’t let any one of them know that the others are to speak to us, or have spoken with us. And, don’t let them know that they are about to speak with us, until they arrive here. The entire point here is surprise. They mustn’t have a chance to think over what they’re to tell us, not alone, and most decidedly not in groups.” Lady Bel’Yal and the Watch Commander bowed and exited.
A few minutes later, Syresse brought Kaellis Schuylese Adlynn into the bower’s officers’ quarters and stepped off to the side, removing herself from the conversation. Adlynn was taken by surprise for a moment. Then she collected herself and assumed the posture of confidence mixed with respect for reasonable authority that she used when called before the family elders. With a slight upwards tilt of her chin, she projected an image of the proud young dragonblood knight errant, assured in her prowess and righteousness. What the Shikari commanders saw was a lovely young woman, a little too pretty and delicate for most people to really take seriously as a warrior, who spent too much time on her long golden hair. Her oval face showed some signs of recent strain, but no real signs that the harsher facts of life had had that much real impact on her, and her large round blue eyes betrayed a touch of fear behind her attempt at appearing brave. “And this concerns?” Adlynn asked in the imperious tone that she copied from her mother when she was trying to hold her own with matrons of the Great Houses.
“You are Kaellis Schuylese Adlynn?” Nevros asked officiously.
“You know that I am.”
Nevros started to bridle at Adlynn’s perceived impudence, but Aeryn shushed him with the merest gesture. “We are the Wyld Hunt. We have been summoned to guard this city from the predations of one of the Anathema, who we are told is your cousin, Kaellis Manvel Rennar.”
“I don’t know that,” Adlynn said simply.
“His exposure was witnessed by several, including people who knew him not at all and had no quarrel with him, your own brother Randrel… and yourself,” Aeryn said simply.
“NO,” Adlynn said as if at a debate class at the Cloister, “I saw a strange light show, I saw the Bear Emperor try to destroy Rennar, I saw Ren slice one of the Bear Emperor’s hands off, I saw some strange bird of light, and then my idiot brother and his friends all went off their heads, screaming about Anathemas.”
“And what would YOU say it was?”
“I have no idea,” the girl said frankly. “Nor does Randral, or Mykiros, or Esrak, nor the oaf Isegris either, no matter what they say. And neither do you. The only ones who might know are Rennar and the Bear Emperor; Ren can’t say, and the Bear Emperor won’t.”
“Well, what could it be, but the Withering Sun claiming poor Rennar’s soul as one of his own?”
“The mind boggles,” Adlynn answered stiffly. “We were in the temple and manse of a godblood who was using strange, unknown magics, Ren interrupted a sacrifice, and there was that stupid Micomican powder all over the place. For all I know, the whole thing was a Micomicon hallucination that we all had! I mean, think about it! One moment, we were a united force, inside the White Temple, all taking on the Bear Emperor’s forces and pounding them into the ground, with Ren, a mortal, going toe-to-toe with the Bear Emperor himself — without his hearthstone, which was mostly Ren’s doing! — and holding his own! In a minute, we would have reunited, with all the Dragonbloods in one place, and we really would have mopped up the place! But then, in one fell move, we’re not attacking the Bear Emperor, as we were supposed to, but instead Ren’s being jumped by his friends, and the Bear Emperor just disappears into the woodwork, as do most of his priests and cult leadership. How convenient for him! And what was that nonsense with that bizarre water-thing that dragged him off? What was that supposed to be?”
“He could have summoned it, to affect an escape,” Ledall Trycin said with his husky croaking voice.
“HOW? Ren doesn’t know any sorcery! Well, he studied some at the Cloister, but he never underwent the initiation! And you’re telling me that the Anathema can cast major conjuries off the cuff in the middle of combat, while they’re reeling from being attacked from all sides?”
“You make a compelling argument,” Nellens Cleven said gently. “But what of his actions since then? He broke into the Bower of Restful — whatever it’s called. What happened then?”
Prompted on by the Honorable Iselsi Aeryn and Nellens Cleven, Adlynn told them about what happened at their rooms that night, then about the incident in the Necropolis, then the incident at X’un Den Kel’s party, and then she wound up spending well over an hour telling them about almost every adventure that she and Ren had had since leaving the Blessed Isle. She started with their troubles in Paragon, then Chiaroscuro, then Yane, then Celeren, then Lookshy, then Nexus, then Great Forks, the Tomb of the Forgotten Scholar, their adventures against Lord Azaten, the Necromancer Redeye, the bandit chief Vorlas Verlenson, and the mad hostel-keeper and his hideous pet. She finished up with Rennar’s major contributions to their efforts against the Black Dragons and the Bear Emperor. “So, you see, Ren could never turn against the Realm! I remember clearly, he once told me, ‘I know where my real loyalties lie, and I never waver from them. The only honorable reason to turn on your liege is if HE turns on you FIRST’.”
“But what if he was taken by the Conquering Sun?” the Honorable Aeryn asked gently. “Then his loyalty would be to that plague upon Creation.”
“If he’s been turned into some sort of vicious fiend, then why didn’t he just run me down, when he broke into the bower to get the hearthstone?” Adlynn demanded. “He could have killed me in cold blood, but instead, he turned and almost got killed before he tricked Nog into giving him his way out! And why did he come to my rescue at X’un Den Kel’s party? And why did he send me to rescue X’un Den Kel? I never saw any of that coming, I only did that because I still trust Ren implicitly. Why would he care that a bunch of Patrician ladies were in danger from that Rat King character? And WHO is the Rat King anyway, and where does he fit into any of this?”
“It may be,” the Honorable Aeryn said carefully, “that your friend Rennar is not truly an Anathema, but rather possessed by some unclean spirit that serves the Withering Sun as the Wretched do. If so, then Rennar is fighting the possession with every ounce of willpower that he possesses, which your tales tell me is considerable. If this is so, then he may be saved by capturing him and driving the unwholesome devil from him.”
“You can do this?” Adlynn gushed with incredible relief.
“There will, of course, be troubles afterwards,” the Honorable Aeryn said. “The Satrap will mostly likely at least try to hold him responsible for the theft of the Monastery’s funds, and even if that turns out to be the acts of, say, the Black Dragons, there will be a lingering stigma attached to his being possessed.”
Adlynn let out a rude dismissive sound. “Oh that? Please! If I know Rennar, he’ll find some way of twisting it to his advantage.”
After Adlynn left by herself, Cleven turned to the Honorable Aeryn and smiled. “Nicely done! Kaellis obvious still has some feeling for his cousin, and she’ll move heaven and earth to get him to believe that we can save him. Her sincerity probably won’t get him to surrender himself, but it should slow him down and conflict him enough for us to do what has to be done. You handled her wonderfully.”
“She is a frightened child, looking for guidance,” Aeryn said serenely. “It is the duty of the Immaculate Order to provide guidance.”
“The girl is deluded, as regards her cousin, of course,” Trycine added in his trademark whispered croak. “But there is one point where she is quite correct. The aquatic creature that affected Kaellis’ escape in the Bear Temple is not explained. We know that Kaellis was not Exalted before that, as his exaltation was clearly shown by our order’s geomancers at these coordinates on that date. Therefore, it is impossible that Kaellis summoned it. Also, there is the question of the zombies in the necropolis, and the ‘Rat King’ at the First Night party. They are unexplained, and therefore, they are dangerous.”
“Excellent point, Trycin,” Nevros said, far more at ease than he was with people outside this tight-knit circle. “The obvious answer is that he has gained allies, someone who saw their opportunity to add a Solar Exalt to their assets when he manifested in the middle of the battle.”
“There were three parties there, which we know of,” Sthena added. “The Satrap’s men and these ‘Knights Errant’,” she said ‘Knights Errant’ with an amused sneer, as if saying the same about a group of preteens running around with wooden swords, “the Bear Emperor and his gulls, and these ‘Black Dragons’ who we think were behind the death of the Vallere girl, the one who was bled like a pig. Neither the Bear Emperor nor his priests would extend themselves to save him, nor were they in any position to do so. This leaves the Black Dragon ninjas. Ninjas never go in anywhere, especially not into a godblood’s temple, without having a secured way out. That elemental, or whatever it was, could very well have been an escape measure, one of several they had, if they were any good at all.”
“And these ‘Black Dragons’ haven’t been heard from since,” Cleven pointed out. “And what are the odds that the Black Dragons simply decided that it was too dangerous and pulled out, only to be replaced by some sinister organization that has somehow managed to go unnoticed?”
“What were the Black Dragons up to?” Aeryn asked, “Did they ever find out?”
“At the time, our brave young knights errant thought that the Mock Dragons, as they termed them, were trying to rewrite the flow of essence through the city,” Trycin said, looking at the written report. “Slipshod thinking, but there might have been something to it.”
“Especially since it seems that the, ah ‘Strix’ has taken another tack,” Cleven said. “Besides stealing the five talents that he entrusted to the Abbot back — probably returning his allies’ money to them — and the replacement money that mysteriously disappeared during the First Night ball, the Strix attacked a local landlord and moneylender called Tatifar Brunneg. He broke into Ser Tatifar’s house and stole his cash reserve and accounts books. He spread a rumor that Ser Tatifar had somehow been breaking into his tenants’ houses, stealing their children and selling them to the Fair Folk in a Wyld near here. He doled out a small fortune in yen and siu to the slum dwellers, and made a production of destroying Tatifar’s account books. Tatifar was found by a mob in his house, and had to be rescued by the City Watch. Tatifar claimed that ‘the Strix’ had forced gemstones down his gullet.”
“What does this Tatifar say about the claims that he was stealing children and selling them to the Fey?”
“You’d have to ask his ghost, if it walks; he was found with his stomach cut open and robbed.”
“The point being,” Sthena said, getting the conversation back on track, “is that this ‘Strix’, whom even Lady Adlynn admits is Kaellis Rennar, seems to be making ‘Romantic Outlaw’ moves with an eye toward undermining the Realm. He arranged to seem to rescue the local City Father while making off with the funds that the monastery needs. And attacking landlords is a sure way of getting popular fast.”
“Handing out his money helps,” the Honorable Aeryn sniped.
“So, it seems that the Black Dragons have a political agenda, possibly to displace the Realm from Keldon and replace it with control from one of the Hundred Kingdoms. Why?”
“The Confederacy of Rivers has been trying to dislodge Grayfalls ever since the Empress’ throne went cold.”
“The Tower,” Trycin said with the finality of a judge sending down a death sentence. “The Great Tower is the only thing in Keldon worth the effort. Come with me.” Trycin took them out of the chamber, out into the plaza surrounding the pool in the center. He led them to the very edge that overlooked the city. “Keldon is well away from the river, but the height of the Tower gives it a vantage of the entire river for miles. This isn’t a particularly strategic stretch of the river, but this vantage point does cover the entire river. The Great Tower is supposed to be some sort of weapon against the Fair Folk that hasn’t been used since the Shogunate. If this weapon projects damage at a range, then it could choke river traffic, and prevent Grayfalls from being supplied or reinforced by river. Not a mortal blow against Satrap Kitono by itself, but a very effective flanking movement, especially if sprung on a river borne reinforcement fleet. Anything powerful enough to be a bulwark against the Raksha would be devastating to a river fleet.”
Nevros looked out on the river and pondered. “A definite possibility, Trycin. And one that can’t be overlooked. We will look for other possibilities, but this is our prime consideration.” He started for the officers’ quarters, and gestured for the rest to follow him. “Well, let’s see if the rest of these ‘Knights Errant’ can be anywhere near as useful as Lady Adlynn was.”
Several hours later, Esrak left the bower. “I thought that that was supposed to have been a hostile interrogation, not a job interview,” Cleven sneered. “He did everything except ask what our beginning salaries were.”
“I think that Ser Ba’Selig is worried that the children have grown tired of him, and he’s looking for a new berth,” Sthena said dryly. “Still, that means that he’ll be trying to impress us with how he handles Kaellis.”
Nevros gave an annoyed grunt. “Well, there’s no reason to not let him try. Let him pull some big splashy stunt to lure Kaellis into a trap, let Kaellis escape the trap, and then come in and do it right.”
“If he’s half as clever as he likes to think he is under that ‘bluff veteran act’, he’ll use that Mordrese idiot,” Trycin grunted. “That whelp is the sort of raging moron that sullies the name of Hsieh. The Varas boy and Kaellis’ cousin, Randrel, seem to be sound enough for their age, but this Isegris makes me despair for the younger generation.”
“Personally, I think that Lord Randrel was more concerned for his family’s reputation than he was for his sister’s spiritual wellbeing,” the Honorable Aeryn said dryly. “He pleaded just a tad too loudly and a bit too long that his sister wasn’t under any sort of unclean influence from Kaellis. I think that his commitment for bagging Kaellis will be mostly a matter of clearing the Kaellis name and protecting his family.”
“Can you blame him?” Sthena asked. “The political games back home are getting nasty enough for the Great Houses; the Patricians must be sweating acid over each development. This could be an excuse for some greedy rival or neighbor to disenfranchise the entire house, unless he is prominently mentioned in the dispatch regarding his cousin’s death. No, Kaellis Randrel’s passion is just as real as Mordrese Isegris’, and a lot more honest and dependable. I say we keep Kaellis Randrel and Varas Mykiros close at hand, but rid ourselves of the Mordrese brothers and that leech Ba’Selig as quickly as possible.”
“Oh?” teased the Honorable Aeryn with a wry smile in Sthena’s direction. “I thought that the younger one, Nogaras, was rather sweet on you.” Sthena huffed. She made no secret of the fact that she found the rituals of romance annoying, and she regarded herself as having already done her breeding duty to her family and the Realm by bearing two daughters, whom she never saw.
“How can you be so cruel, Sthena?” Cleven twitted her. “Look at the boy! Most women must be like porcelain dolls to him! How can you deny the poor wandering hillside the mysteries of love?”
“Enough of that,” Nevros said gruffly, seeing Sthena chafing under the teasing. “We will allow these ‘Knights Errant’ to join in our efforts. We can use their familiarity with the target, and if they’re talking to us, then we’ll know what idiocy they’re planning. Better to have them in the tent, pissing out, than outside the tent, pissing in.”
“Agreed,” Trycin croaked. “Let these ‘Knights Errant’ hammer out a plan with the connivance of the local Watch and let them put it into action, as a sop to their pride. Study the plan, and spot the flaw; it should be glaring with those louts. Have foot soldiers ready in airbarges to swoop down and perform a holding action on the Wretched as we move in to take him down.”
“It has value,” Sthena said, “but I dislike having foot troops vulnerable in airbarges over a city, and moving them in airships means that they’d be too few to be effective.”
“Facing one of the Wretched in a city is folly,” Cleven said, citing a well-regarded essay on the Five Castes of the Anathema. “We need to get him out of a setting that favors him. But from what his cousins and companions tell us, Kaellis is too canny to be moved out of Keldon. But, what if we can arrange for whatever bait that Ba’Selig and Lord Randral come up with to be deployed in Kelfaris, rather than in Keldon proper? Kelfaris is mostly docks and piers and warehouses — if it comes down to it, we can torch the whole lot and drive him out of whatever gutter he takes refuge in. It’s all wood, which can be easily replaced, and we can use the fire to steer him. And the foot troops can be moved into position more safely in longboats.”
Cathak Nevros was the commander of that unit of the Hunt, but he was a firm believer in the ability of the Chosen of the Dragons to combine their power together in a perfectly elementally matched grouping, each adding its own special virtue, until they were greater than the sum of their parts. A lone dragonblood had little chance against an Anathema, but five in unison could overcome one. Together, Nevros and his Sworn Brotherhood had proven that repeatedly. He led, but he also listened. He joined in with the sharing of ideas and tactics and insights, but as he was the leader, he reserved for himself to decide when they had the desired strategy. They argued, bickered, joked, teased, cajoled, debated and shared, as families were supposed to, but Nevros’s family never had, in truth. It pleased him, when they were able to come up with a winning strategy without his having to choose one over the others. As they made the final adjustments to their plan, he ordered, “Make sure that the Winglords and Talonlords understand the basics of our plan; they need to know. But not the Fanglords, or the Legion, or the Watch, let alone those scapegrace ‘Knights Errant’. Trycin, Cleven, there is no such thing as a perfect plan; this is a good plan, but good plans have failed before. I want both of you taking this Kaellis’ measure as we execute this plan; we’ll need those insights, if this plan goes south. Remember what old Ragara Vesrin used to say—”
“No operation is a failure, if you learn how to succeed from it,” Trycin quoted his old friend and commander from memory.
Master Haldjar Adan wobbled slightly as he juggled the scrolls and folded paper box of spiced stew that that he was carrying to get the key into its lock. He looked stupidly at the door as it swung open. He peered into the cramped shabby room suspiciously, clutching his scrolls to himself defensively. “Hello?” he called timidly.
“Come in and close the door,” said a husky guttural whisper that was no less commanding for being barely heard. Master Adan did so, closing the door behind him, without letting go of his deathly grip on what he was carrying. He stared with barely restrained panic at the three people seated with fastidious care in his squalid room. He gulped and asked in the most respectful tone he could manage without groveling, “Good Even, Most Exalted Masters. Please excuse the condition of the room, but the landlady—”
“—expects to be paid for housekeeping, on top of getting her rent,” the Honorable Aeryn said wryly.
Master Adan decided that groveling was the safest course after all and went down on his knees. “Forgive me Most Exalted Ones! Why have you honored this filthy hovel I call home?”
“We are the Wyld Hunt, and we are here with the full power and Majesty of the Scarlet Throne behind us,” Nellens Cleven said with more force than was normally his wont. “You have information. You will give it to us.”
“Of course, Great Ones!” Adan quavered. “But… exactly what information do you need?” It was at this time that the bottle that he’d been hiding among his scrolls slipped out and dropped to the floor with a clatter.
“You call yourself a scholar,” Ledall Trycin said dryly. “Where did you study?” Adan replied that he’d studied in Nexus and then Great Forks. Adan and Trycin exchanged the names of schools and scholars and masters in both Nexus and Great Forks, both noteworthy centers of learning and lore. “And why did you come to Keldon?” Master Adan stammered out a tale of misfortune and jealous rivals, artfully constructed to cover over the implications, quite likely from Adan’s own guilt, that his misfortunes were due to a tendency to seek relief from stress and despair in the bottle. After a few per forma questions as to Adan’s fortunes in Keldon, Trycin asked, “Why did you seek out Sthallen Kesros?”
“Why wouldn’t I?” Adan responded. “Sthallen Kesros is a most accomplished scholar, and—” Adan rambled on, making minor admissions as to mooching off Sthallen Kesros’ client list and dinner table, as well as his wine cabinet.
Trycin raised his hand for silence. Adan stopped as though a cork had been shoved in his mouth. “You were present at the incident in the White Temple, where Kaellis Rennar showed his true colors.”
“What can you tell us about the incident?”
“Well, young Lord Varas Mykiros or one of his compeers—”
“We want YOUR impressions of the incident,” the Honorable Aeryn said coldly. Adan went into a hyper-detailed description of the incident, from his recruitment by Kaellis Rennar to the Solar’s mysterious abduction by the water creature. At this point, the Honorable Aeryn stopped him cold. “This creature. Was it natural?”
“Well, Natural Philosophy is not my métier, but all in all, I’d say not.”
“A water elemental?”
“From its appearance and behavior under the circumstances? Almost definitely.”
“Well, it was mostly octopoid in configuration, but from the bluish patterns that I saw, which mimic certain river octopi that I’ve seen for sale in the fish markets, I’d say that it was a possibility.”
“Is there any chance that Kaellis summoned it to achieve his escape?”
“No. Even if the elemental had been summoned beforehand and kept in reserve for an emergency, Kaellis could only have done so if he had been an Anathema beforehand, and his Ex — er, Dark Exaltation seemed to be a genuine surprise to him.”
“How can you be sure that it had been a surprise to him?”
“Because, if he had already sold his name to the Dark Sun, then he would have known his abilities and not needed to summon the squid-thing to save him, he could have played any of a number of gambits that would have at least allowed him to escape, if not triumph, without expending the resource that the elemental comprises,” Adan finished with the triumphant elan of a student winning a school debate. Then he wilted slightly, as he realized who he had ‘triumphed’ against. “Of course, I could be wrong…” he vacillated.
“What was your impression of your dragonblooded clients?” Nellens Cleven asked evenly, ignoring Adan’s wavering.
“Oh, excellent young people! They give me hope for the future of the Realm, may it last for a hundred thousand years more!” the Honorable Aeryn quashed him with a frosty glare, as though to say, ‘stop talking bosh!’ In a lower, defeated, confessional tone, Adan amended himself, “Their parents were very wise to send them abroad, where they could learn the harsh realities of life, without the comforts or lethal politics of the Blessed Isle just at the moment. Lord Mykiros is arguably the best of the lot, and he’s every inch the naïve naif, just waiting for cruel realities to smash his ideals to bits. Lady Adlynn is a blithe spirit, with only the loss of Rennar to add any tragedy to the country-fair play that has been her life to date. Lord Randrel is a backwoods squire playing at being a knight errant. Lord Nogare — ach, NOG is loyal if stupid dog, walking on its hind legs. This humble mortal can only wonder at what Pesiap was getting at when he chose Nog. Lord Esrak is a mooch, living off Lady Adlynn’s purse, and playing at being the ‘wiser older friend’, even as he keeps a sharp eye out for any new opportunities. You’d do well to count your cash every time Esrak gets anywhere near your wallet. And Isegris! He was a complete waste of Elemental power, even before he lost his arm! A bully, a wastrel, a roisterer, a lout of the lowest order… And he’s turned actively vicious since he lost his arm!” Then Adan wilted again, realizing that he’d just insulted SIX of the Dragonblooded Host.
“Your estimation matches our own,” Ledall Trycin rasped as comfortingly as he could. “With that to commend your judgment, what is your estimation of Keallis Rennar?”
Adan worried his lower lip for a moment. “While I was as shocked as anyone at the moment when Rennar was taken by the Dark Sun, in retrospect, I can see that it would be obvious that he would turn out that way. He was prideful, sorely prideful, indeed a material lesson in the sin of vaulting pride. He was sharp, indeed too sharp by half, with none of the humility to keep it in check. He didn’t merely ride with the young dragonbloods, he rode as one of them, despite being a mere mortal. He was crafty and cunning, and he used that wit and guile to keep up with the others, when he didn’t pretend to lead them. He had no respect for the natural order of things, and sought to prove himself everyone’s better. He usurped Lord Randral’s leadership of the group, and lead Lady Adlynn around by the nose. He openly insulted both Nog and Lord Isegris, and I wouldn’t be surprised if his jealous sabotage was a large reason for Isegris’ foul disposition.
“BUT! But I will grant him this: Rennar’s pride led him to excel, at combat, at letters and arts, at athletics, if only to prove himself as good as his betters. Had he a scrap of humility or conscience, his studies at the Cloister of Wisdom could have made him an exemplary monk of the Immaculate Order. As it is, he is a danger to us all, and he is crafty enough to hide where you least expect it, and pop out of nowhere to tweak your nose — or far worse. Aside from his pride, I would say that his most telling trait is his greed. He never missed an opportunity to add to his purse or collection of treasures. Witness his treacherous theft of the talents from the local monastery. If there’s an opportunity to pick up something of value, he’ll be there figuring out how to winkle it out of its rightful owner. Indeed, I’ve had to move most of my own irreplaceable texts, lest he take—”
The Honorable Aeryn interrupted him. “What would you say were his feelings toward his cousin, Adlynn? Or the others of his group?”
Adan worried his lower lip again. “I’d say that he genuinely cares for Lady Adlynn. In precisely what way he cares, I dare not guess. But still, I’d say that he has a genuine concern for her wellbeing. He was close enough with Mykiros, and he gave Randrel some due as his cousin. The others? I think that he would have been happier without them.”
Trycin nodded. “Sound enough.” He removed some papers from his robes. “You are familiar with the geomantic outlay of Keldon, are you not?”
“Well, I have some skill with the lines of power, Exalted Sage, but nowhere near that of your own!” Adan puffed, “Your skill is renowned! Yo—”
“True, but I’m not familiar with the layout of this city,” Trycin cut him off, “and you are. And the geomancers of the monastery are still bewailing the loss of that overbuilt rattletrap of theirs. We of the Wyld Hunt have our own compasses and gear, but our dowsings will require that we send a remote sympathetic probe—”
“A… remote… sympathetic… probe…?” Adan asked, bewildered.
“A secondary geomantic compass,” Trycin explained. “Mounted on a cart and moved through the area. The secondary compass is synchronized with the main, stationary compass, and by reading the dissonances between the two as the remote probe passes through the ley lines of the city, we can gain a more precise, more accurate reading.”
“I knew that there were theories about such things, and rumors of such things in the Old Realm, but I had no idea that the secrets of such a precise synchronization had been achieved,” Adan mused.
“It is a recent experimental prototype, one that is still rather twitchy and unproven. We know that Kaellis is worried about geomancers dowsing the location of his lair, by the fact that he went to such risks to destroy the great compass at the monastery, so we are focusing on that to find him. However, as I said, the probe is a prototype, and rolling it through the streets puts it at risk. This makes a thorough, methodical, brute force street-by-street analysis of the city too dangerous. By the time that we had less than ten percent of the city mapped, Kaellis would have destroyed the probe. So, we’re going to use a single route that will hit most of the important coordinates in the least amount of time, without actually running the probe through the streets with charging horses. Therefore, we need the location of those disruptive flows of essence that would cause the probe to foul, requiring that the wagon be stopped and the compass realigned, which would add hours to the search.”
For three hours, Trycin and Adan poured over the maps and charts of Keldon, tracing the various rivers and eddies and pools of essence, and the positions of both the functional and nonfunctional stele placed about the city. When Trycin had a satisfactory geomantic map of the city, he thanked Master Adan for his assistance, and quietly slipped the impoverished scholar a jade shekel wrapped in silk. Master Adan slipped the bar of jade into his sleeve, and enquired as to whether the Hunt might not need his services on a regular basis. The Honorable Aeryn cut him off with a terse dismissal, and the three dragonbloods made their escape from the squalid hovel. Adan watched the three leave, and then noted as the five stealth agents that had been watching over them left one at a time.
Rennar stepped out of a shadow, her strix cloak making her seem like an ethereal visitation. “Pride?” Rennar asked in a pained tone, “Vanity? Why does everyone take for granted that I’m this colossal mountain of EGO?”
Adan ignored the jibe, looking at the shekel that Trycin had passed him. “It’s a trap, of course. The only question is whose trap?”
“It’s Randrel’s,” Rennar sniffed. “It’s just the sort of thing that he’d cook up, like that second Mock Strix. Mykiros probably has some refinement or backup plan that he hopes will save it.”
“Then the real question is why were our Exalted Lords of the Hunt asking all those questions?” Adan asked.
“What better bait for someone they know to be full of pride and arrogance,” Rennar snipped, “than an obvious trap, which is bait for a better trap?”
“True enough, an egomaniac such as yourself could hardly help but rise to the bait.”
“Are you sure that he believed you? An elder of the Wyld Hunt would have charms to make sure of a suspect’s answers.”
“Of course they do. And he was using one. It came in very handy, for convincing him of my honesty with a counter-charm of my own. Well, at least I’m going to eat well tonight.”
“You’re going to spend that entire shekel on food?”
“Don’t be ridiculous!” Adan sniffed. “I’m going to spend the money that I get selling the information to every snitch and gossip broker in Keldon on the food and wine. After all, that IS why Master Ledall gave me this money, and why the Honorable Iselsi pointedly told me that there wouldn’t be any more.” Adan paused. “You know, I’m going to have to leave the bottles to a better class of rotgut lying about.”
SNAP! Went the Trap
The wagon started quietly and utterly without ceremony at one of the service entrances to the Great Tower. It was an unmarked, enclosed wagon pulled by an ox, just one of hundreds that came to and left the Great Tower every day on some business or another. Other than the driver and the two lazy-looking attendants, the wagon was unguarded. The wagon took off just as the sun was beginning its downward descent towards the Pole of Water. The wagon moved slowly, and was only noteworthy in the flow of traffic by the fact that one of the attendants was carefully reading a map and would every so often open a box on the driver’s bench, make a note of something on a piece of paper, and either tell the driver to go forward or turn some way. The going was made even slower when for some reason that attendant made the driver stop, and he would crawl inside for several minutes. After those lapses, he would crawl back out and the wagon would begin again. Twice, runners caught up to the wagon and gave the attendant reading the map a message. Each time, the attendant would mutter a curse, and make major revisions to his sheet of paper, and the wagon would turn around a few hundred yards and turn in another direction.
The sun was well past the horizon, and night had firmly settled across Creation, when the wagon finally poked its roundabout way out of Keldon proper, down the grade, through the common grazing green, and, after a brief stop for whatever that attendant was doing inside the wage, and then into Kelfaris, the riverport district of Keldon. Kelfaris was an iffy place at best even during the day, so the attendants stopped to light lanterns and place them on the corners of the wagon. But when the attendant with the map finished with the lanterns, the driver was nowhere to be seen. “Jirjen?” the attendant called out, but there was no answer. The attendant took one of the lanterns from the ledge of the wagon and looked around. “Drobbler? Drobbler, I think that something’s happened to Jirjen. Drobbler? Drobbler, what happened to the lanterns on your side? Drobbler, this isn’t funny…” Feeling the darkness and strange silence of the river port drawing around him, the attendant reached for a polearm tucked behind the bench of the wagon. But a pale, vaguely avian blur streaked out of the darkness at him, snatched him off his feet and bore him into the darkness, from which he never returned.
The figure in the owl cloak loomed out of the shadows and climbed up onto the bench of the wagon, taking one of the lanterns with him. He opened up the hatch to the interior of the wagon and threw the lantern in with such force that it broke the lantern, setting the interior on fire. But instead of bursting into flames, the wagon literally burst apart at the seams instead. “HAH! Got you NOW, Rennar!” Isegris exulted at the top of his lungs, “Let’s see you weasel your way out of THIS!” he yelled, brandishing his shoklaves as the rest of the Knights Errant circled around the cloaked figure.
“Don’t try to talk him to death, idiot,” Nellens Cleven muttered from a rooftop as he lit a signal arrow and shot it into the air, “just get on with it and KILL him, if you can.”
The Knights Errant were used to fighting as a group, but they weren’t used to fighting a single opponent, and it showed. Mykiros was the only one using a daiklave, because they were all too aware of the fact that they’d be fighting in very close quarters, and they could only afford one weapon with a very wide arc, and he was the best man with his daiklave. Esrak and Nog were using their fists (slamfist, in Esrak’s case), Randrel was using his paired hook swords and Isegris was using his shoklaves. Their plan was for Randrel and Isegris to keep Rennar busy facing them as Mykiros carved his back out with the Daiklave from behind, and Esrak and Nog kept him off balance from the sides.
It didn’t go that way.
Ignoring Randrel and Isegris’ feints, the caped figure ducked under Mykiros’ swing as though he’d received a formal declaration of intent from ‘Kiros, and scooped up Esrak, using the man’s own attempts at grappling to lift him. He threw Esrak into Randrel and Isegris, tripped Mykiros’ legs out from under him, and accepted a punch in the jaw as the price of ignoring Nog. Nog suddenly found himself the only man standing against the Strix, so, lacking any better idea, he decided to buy the others a little time by grappling him.
The Strix slipped out of Nog’s grasp as though he was greased, and turned Nog into a gymnastics horse that he used to pummel the Knights Errant with sweeping acrobatic kicks as they tried to get up. Then the Strix used Nog’s own efforts to struggle out of that situation to throw him on top of Isegris, and swept under Mykiros’ next daiklave swing, latched onto Mykiros’ guiding hand and used the force of his own swing to dislocate his arm. As Mykiros withdrew from the fight cradling his sword arm, the others surrounded the Strix again, but at more of a distance, those that had one drawing their daiklaves. Unfortunately, all this meant was that they kept conflicting with each other, and the Strix was able to use their blades to foul the others. Despite all their best efforts, they just couldn’t connect with him, and they were all taking a considerable bashing in return.
“Oh, this is bloody pathetic…” Cleven moaned as he watched from his perch, bow at ready, arrow nocked, and string half-drawn. Then his mood lifted considerably as the soft sound of a hunting horn could be heard over the sound of battle, and another, lower-pitched one could be heard. “Finally,” he said with a smirk. He drew the bow, aimed carefully, and let fly at the arcane looking device that was installed in the middle of the wagon. The bow hit the large dial on the central cylinder, which was not in fact a dial, but rather a release button. When the button was hit, the arms of the ‘compass’ started to spin wildly, spraying a combination of a sleeping gas and a truly vile musk that spread all over the wagon and the brawling combatants. “Let’s see you try to hide NOW, clever boy…” Cleven muttered. Then he pulled a horn from his belt and let out an ear-rattling blast.
On their cue, two wings of City Watchmen charged into position from their hiding places, which they had moved to from the Kelfaris barracks on the first signal arrow. When the fetid fog dispersed, one of the dragonbloods was passed out and another was on his knees, gagging and retching from the stench. The two Wood Aspects and the Fire Aspect were still on their feet, and the Fire Lord had his anima banner up and blazing. The Anathema was still up and unfazed, and was posed in a balanced one-footed stance, most of his postured hidden by that damned owl-cloak. Esrak swung his daiklave at Strix with a roar, which the Wretched One trapped between two hands as he kicked out with his free foot at Randrel, catching the other Wood Lord off-guard. As Strix slowly leveraged the daiklave blade out of Esrak’s grasp, Isegris grabbed the chamberpot that the six had used during their hours-long ordeal inside the cramped wagon interior, and chucked it at Strix with his new metallic arm. “Here, Rennar! I thought of YOU every time I used it!” But, strangely, when he threw the stinking chamber pot, the metallic arm stretched out a good ten feet. “Oh… so THAT’S how he did that…” Isegris said with an evil grin. He retracted the arm, took better aim and launched another strike at the Strix. Strix was taken by enough surprise that Isegris was able to knock him off Esrak, freeing the other dragonblood’s daiklave.
This gave Esrak and Randrel a chance to recover and surround the Strix again. Only this time, Randrel and Esrak were cooperating to set the Strix up for another telescoping fist strike from Isegris. Isegris focused more of his flaming elemental banner into the arm, making it red hot. Then, waiting for the right moment, he threw an incandescent red fist squarely at the Strix.
The Strix sidestepped the searing fist, and with a hiss, as of scalding flesh, trapped it between his side and arm. With a twist and lift that leveraged Isegris off his feet, the Strix used him to batter Esrak and Randrel. The three dragonbloods tried to get back into position to try it again, but the Strix kept dancing around, throwing them off balance and turning their futile strikes against each other, making a mockery of the three.
With a grunt of annoyance, Cleven looked to the skies, and then blew a signal call on the horn. At the cue, the City Watchmen let out a mighty shout and charged en masse at the Strix. The Strix’s only show of concern was to strap on a pair of tiger claws and wait for the oncoming swarm. Just as the Watchmen were about to come crashing down on him, the Strix made a vaulting leap upwards and came down in their midst, scattering those he didn’t maim, and confusing the momentum of the throng. The Strix leapt up and repeated this several times, turning the disciplined fighting force into a milling mob by turning its own momentum against itself.
Up on the rooftop, Cleven wondered why the Strix wasn’t using the chaos as an opening to escape. The Wretched preferred evasion and attacking from surprise to straight-up confrontation. All of their tactics depended on Kaellis trying to escape overwhelming forces, not mowing them down like wheat. Then he heard another horn sound, and he knew that the Hunt’s foot troops were in position. Looking up into the sky, he finally saw the Hunt’s forces pulling into proper formation. Well, the City Watch had performed as well as they could be expected to, admirably even. It was time to end their suffering, and for the Wyld Hunt to take over. He fired a signal arrow, and prepared his part of the maneuver.
He lit two batons on fire, and keeping one eye on the Strix doing incredible (and very painful looking) things to the City Watch and the other eye on the skies, he guided two stealthy airships into position. He held the two firebrands at cross for a moment, feeling the essence for just the exact right moment, and then brought them sweeping down crosswise in the signal.
The two warstriders dropped with as much lack of stealth as the airships had displayed in getting them into position. The boxy wooden ‘shoes’ that had been constructed around the warstriders’ ‘legs’ absorbed much of the impact of the landing by being crushed even more completely than the wooden houses they were dropped on. The two staggered out of the wreckage of the buildings and made themselves known. They were only Common Warstriders, but they were still Warstriders, 18 Imperial Cubit high metallic giants that dominated any battlefield in ways that only the Exalted and behemoths could match. They walked out of the wreckage of the buildings as the City Watch either gawped, or (in the more mindful ones) dragged the stunned, maimed or dead away from the Strix, who crouched, seeming to be taking in the new situation and weighing his options. Cleven helped the Strix make up his mind by firing one of his special (and sadly, very expensive) arrows into the wagon that had held the Knights Errant. The arrow struck and the special firepowder bulb at the tip ignited and exploded, and the explosion mixed with what was left of the propellant of the tracking mix sprayer, which resulted in a very satisfying fireball that knocked the Strix off his pins for a second.
Predictably, the Strix made a vaulting leap for one of the wrecked buildings, hoping to wriggle into the wrack and be out of reach of both the huge suits of armor and the archer. Cleven beat him to the punch by sending another arrow into the Anathema’s intended destination the moment he knew which way the Strix was going to go. The arrow exploded, not as spectacularly as the first, but enough to set the dry wood of what was left of the ramshackle building on fire. Even the Anathema didn’t dare try his luck inside a ruined and burning building. He hopped out of the ruin the second that he landed and immediately ran for a tangle of flimsy buildings, hoping again that his speed and agility would make him too hard for either the Warstriders or the archer to hit. They knew that too, and didn’t bother. The nearer Warstrider lashed out at the Strix’s destination, not the man, and reduced the building to an equally inflammable mess of timber and splinters. He turned mere seconds before one of Cleven’s arrows turned the wreckage into an inferno.
The Wyld Hunt’s regular foot troops trotted in, double time to their positions in two shield walls three ranks deep, with tower shields and long polearms with spearpoints and sharp hooks. This freed up the City Watch to scramble for waterbuckets and sandbags, to keep the fires under control. Cleven let out another herding arrow, thinking to himself, ‘Come on, Kaellis, go where you have to go. There’s no rat hole for you this time. Don’t make us destroy any more houses than we absolutely have to.’
The Warstriders wrecked three more buildings, and Cleven torched two of them, getting the Strix into position. The two diagonal shield walls with their forest of entangling hooks hemmed him in, the two Warstriders kept him on the ground, and Cleven herded him in the right direction with arrow fire.
Then the Strix broke and headed for the common green at a full charge. Cleven chuckled to himself as he raced across the rooftops to keep up with the action. He reminded himself of the classic remark from the great Shogunate Age Shikari, Eraven Ullaso, ‘You can never really know where the Wretched are, so you must know where they must GO, and be there first’.
The Kelfaris common green was a large irregular oval sward with a few trees just beginning to enter their autumn reds, a few stele mostly stripped of their orichalcum markings, and a stream flowing down from Keldon proper that dripped into a trough, all set against a very steep cliff some thirty feet high. The Strix hoped to use the mix of stele and tree to confuse the Warstriders and clamber up the cliff up to Keldon, where he could disappear in the tangle of houses and alleys.
He raced across the green and made his way halfway up the cliff side, when a flurry of chakram appeared out from one of the trees, and knocked him from the hillside. The second that he hit the ground, Ledall Trycin stepped from his concealment in the shadow of one of the stele and threw a tangle of paper strips with prayers written on them, proclaiming as loudly as his ruined voice could manage, “RAIN DISPELS THE DROUGHT!” The paper strips flew like a volley of arrows at the Strix, and wrapped themselves fast around him, creating a cocoon of glowing characters.
The Strix immediately reduced the binding to confetti with his steel talons, but this gave Cathak Nevros the chance that he needed as he charged out from his place of cover, his red daiklave glowing with fire, even as Ragara Sthena charged from her place, eerily silent for her prodigious bulk. The Strix tried the trick where he gulled his two attackers into colliding with each other by leaping over Nevros’s head, but instead, Sthena merely caught Nevros, and used their momentum to spin him around and all but threw him at the Strix. Even as the Strix was coming to earth, Trycin made a gesture with his hands and cried out, “RAIN MUDDIES THE EARTH!”
The Bolt of Elemental Power (revised) hit the ground a scant breath before the Strix’s feet hit the ground, and turned the packed sward into a slippery morass that he slipped and fell in, incapable of finding any traction. The Strix lashed out with a fighting chain, wrapped one end around Sthena’s arm and pulled himself out of the puddle with a wrench. Sthena tried to take control of the chain, but the Strix only used her efforts to swing himself into Trycin, sending the ancient Exalt flying, his latest magical effort foiled.
The Honorable Aeryn was up in the branches of one of the trees, trying to figure out a way of using her paired Infinite Jade Chakrams to give her brothers (figurative) some sort of support, when suddenly, Cleven was there, where he couldn’t have been before. “They need someone with speed, Beautiful,” Cleven said wryly. “Do you know anyone who fits the bill?”
“Idiot,” she chided him with an easy grin, even as she vaulted from the safety of the branches. She knew from faith and experience that Cleven was taking over her position as fire overwatch. He’d keep the Wretched One from ranging too far afield. Now, the Dance of the Five Avenging Dragons could truly begin.
Trycin, incensed by his drubbing, sent a Bolt of Elemental Power (basic) at the Strix, barely missing Nevros, but hitting the Strix and knocking him into Sthena’s waiting grasp. With a grunt of savage satisfaction, she wrapped her arms around him in a spine-snapping grapple, but he wriggled out of her clutches by climbing out of his cloak. He hopped up on her shoulders and brought his hands down on her ears, ‘popping’ them in a way that her stony skin couldn’t absorb. He unwrapped his fighting chain from Sthena’s arm with a fluid motion and spun it over his head, sending it at Nevros, catching Nevros’s daiklave in the chain. Just as he was about to jerk the daiklave from Nevros’s hands, Aeryn landed on his shoulders, sending him sprawling from his perch on Sthena. Aeryn landed in a fighting crouch, chakram poised and announced, “The Dance Is Begun!”
From his perch in the tree, Cleven let off a flight of arrows that made the Strix dance. As the Strix evaded the arrows, Trycin created another puddle, under his feet. Aeryn closed on the Strix, and force a whirling dance of evasion on him. As they whirled around each other, spinning around madly, Aeryn created many more of the phantom chakrams from her two Infinite Jade Chakrams, which whirled around with them. Nevros created a fire under them, which bore them aloft. Trycin added some of his water to Nevros’s fire, and a gust of steam, guided by Aeryn’s chakrams, threw the Strix high into the air. Sthena stepped, feather-light onto the very tip of Nevros’s daiklave and was thrown up into the air like an arrow on a trajectory with the Strix.
Now, had the ‘Dance of the Five Avenging Dragons’ played itself out as it had in the past, the Anathema would have been so dazed and disoriented that Sthena would have caught him in midair, grappled him into a shoulder-dislodging hold, and bore him down so that he landed head-first into the ground with her, suddenly MUCH heavier, on his back, using him to absorb the majority of the impact. Then, if his neck wasn’t broken, she would have heaved him up off his feet, exposing him first to a murderous flight of arrows from Cleven, then a disemboweling stroke from Nevros’s daiklave, and then, if needed, Trycin would drown him with a sphere of water over his mouth.
It was a deadly combination.
It didn’t work out that way. The Strix nimbly evaded Sthena and managed to throw her somehow, throwing her return arc off badly, and rode her back downwards. She crashed through the tree that Cleven was hiding in, startling him badly. Cleven was so shaken, that he lost all sense of the Strix and was badly surprised when the Strix darted inside his zone of defense, took his powerbow from him and turned it into a garrote, strangling Cleven with his own bowstring. As Cleven scrambled to pull the jade knife from his belt, as to cut the bowstring, the Strix clinically cut away the armor from Cleven’s torso, inserted the tines of his tiger claws into Cleven’s belly, and made a double-handed motion that disemboweled Cleven, drawing his intestines out, all in a single effort.
As Cleven’s screams filled the common green, the Strix looped Cleven’s large intestine around his neck, looped the small intestine to the bough they were standing on, and sent the dying dragonblood into the air. Cleven jerked spasmodically as his body dangled from a noose of his own innards.
Sthena screamed in realization as to what had happened, as blood from Cleven’s wounds sprayed over her. Then she screamed again, as the Strix dropped his head down from the branches and rammed knuckles into her eyes, in a move that would have permanently blinded anyone who wasn’t a dragonblood with several uses of the Ox-Body Mediation. She screamed and clutched at her eyes and thrashed around.
Sworn Brotherhoods are tricky things. On one hand, they greatly help Dragonbloods in coordinating and combining their charms and attacks. It also made them keenly aware of each other and how the other was. It was a bond closer even than family (especially in the case of Dynasts, given their chilly and formal family politics). They felt Cleven’s agonies and shock and terror and shame as their own, and his hideous death ripped through them as though their own guts had been torn out. Aeryn gasped in horror and Nevros was struck dumb at the sight of their brother hanging by his own guts, and even cold Trycin was moved to tears. With those tears at seeing yet another shikari die horribly at the hands of the Anathema in his eyes, Trycin shrieked, “Get him! Don’t let him get away! TEAR HIM APART!” Six Erymanthoi manifested from the invisible and immaterial state that Trycin had forced them to assume, roared infernal glee at the prospect of carnage, and charged.
The first Erymanthoi, the one to reach the Strix first, had its heart ripped out in an almost casual gesture. He sent his other hand up through the soft under-palate of the second one’s jaw, and shattered its skull from below. He made the fourth one choke on the third Erymanthoi’s head. The fifth one actually managed to swing at the Strix before he took control of the arm and used it momentum to leverage himself behind it and snap its snipe. He considered the last Erymanthoi, who was studying him in turn, and killed it by shattering each and every joint in its body with a flurry of lightning fast crane-beak strikes. As the Erymanthoi howled in pain, the Strix hefted it over his head and threw it at Ledall Trycin, who was preparing another set of spell slips.
Knocked out of his shock, Cathak Nevros let out an enraged war shriek and went at the Strix with his daiklave, putting every spark of essence that he had into an elaborate patterns of feints and herding strikes that should have ended with Nevros taking the Wretched’s head clean off his shoulders. Instead, the Strix stepped through the weave of blade-strikes as though walking through a party, and used Nevros’s own momentum to throw him to the ground and dislocate his shoulder in one move. The Strix was aiming a killing strike at the base of Nevros’s skull when Aeryn sent another double-flight of chakram at him. The Strix leapt to a distance some ten feet from Aeryn, with Nevros struggling to get up between them. Aeryn and the Strix regarded each other for a long tense moment, and then they leapt at each other, striking at each other in midflight, he using his tiger claws, she using her chakram as Wind-Fire Wheels. They landed, and with barely a pause, they each reversed and leapt again, each hoping to beat the other to the arc, as to have the force of the downward slope on their side, but again meeting in the very center. They leapt three more times, Aeryn landing with bloody gashes in both her robes and skin, the Strix with a few gashes as well. In the fifth exchange, the Strix accepted long nasty gashes along his legs to wrap those legs around Aeryn’s neck and almost break that neck blunting both their momentums in mid-arc. Aeryn managed to break free of his hold and land on her feet, but there were long bleeding gashes along her legs that made standing almost an impossibility. She staggered to a stance over Nevros’s struggling body, glared ferocious defiance at the Strix, and held up her chakram.
The Strix saluted her with his claws and poised to begin his killing strike. Then an arrow appeared, as if out of nowhere, wreathed in lightning, and planted itself in the Strix’s side, shocking him out of his focus. Aeryn and the Strix turned to track the path of the arrow. There, breaking through a line of terrified onlookers was a young female archer, sheathed in crackling lightning, armored in a blue-and-white reinforced breastplate with matching bracers and hawkswing helmet, a short powerbow in one hand, and a brace of arrows ready in the other hand for quick firing. At her side was a large, rather oafish looking fellow with big bushy eyebrows in rude country leathers. “Halt Anathema!” the woman ordered in the tones of the Blessed Isle’s northern shore. “Your evil ends NOW!”
She let fly with a volley of arrows that forced the Strix away from Aeryn and Nevros. Then she paused, and the Strix centered himself and gave the ‘bring it’ gesture. She let fly with another volley of arrows, which he parried easily. She let fly again, this time charging the arrows with lightning, which he also parried. She handed her bow off to her squire, who handed her a Dire Lance in exchange. The Strix centered himself again, his back to one of the steles. But instead of charging, she stuck it in the ground at an angle towards the Strix. Then she reached out to her squire, who slipped a matching blue-and-white jade round shield with a screaming bird design on the boss onto her arm as she pulled a reaver daiklave from its sheath on her back. She balanced herself and launched in a vaulting leap at the Strix, adding the swing of her daiklave to the leap. The Strix met her in mid-flight, as he had with the Honorable Aeryn, easily evaded her strike and did something that severed the shield from its straps and sent it flying from her arm down to the ground. The girl finished her strike as she landed, sending sparks flying as her daiklave cut into the stele before her. She immediately turned and leaped with a sharp cry. The Strix lost the briefest of moments evading the grounded Dire Lance, and was forced to spin and leap, disarming the girl of the daiklave on the return flight, sending it to bury itself tip first in the ground between the two points. This time, when the girl landed, she pulled the Dire Lance from its posting in the ground and turned to face the Strix with it in hand. The Strix landed and centered himself again.
Then the stele fell on his head, almost cracking it open.
The girl’s blow had sliced the stele on a slant, and his landing dislodged it. Obviously putting all of his essence into staying alert, the Strix laboriously levered the stele up off his head with both arms. The stone pillar lifted just as the Dire Lance, wreathed in lightning, planted itself squarely in his heart. The Strix reflexively grabbed the shaft of the Dire Lance — and dropped the stele back on his head. This time, he merely shrugged the stele off to one side and concentrated on pulled the Dire Lance from his chest. He was so focused on this, that only the ear-splitting sound of a war cry broke his concentration enough for him to look up as the lady dragon in blue-and-white ran past him, swinging her daiklave at his head.
The passing stroke seemed to do nothing. The Strix turned, the Dire Lance still embedded in his chest, and smiled his wintery death grin at the girl who stood, daiklave ready, to face him again. He assumed a kata—
—and the jerk of the kata caused his head to come tumbling from his shoulders.
Black blood geysered up from his severed neck, splattering everything around it, but the body didn’t fall. Rather, Dire Lance still securely impaled in its chest, the Strix’s body went through a macabre dance of katas, running through the motions that had been drilled into it in life, like a headless chicken might run around on pure reflex. Finally, the blood stopped spurting and the headless body stopped, and assumed one final stance of martial readiness. Warily, the girl approached and cautiously pulled the Dire Lance from the standing corpse’s chest. The corpse didn’t fall. With a breath of wonder, the girl looked at the lance’s tip. Then she remembered herself, and turned to face the members of the Wyld Hunt, who gathered together. She removed her helmet. Long waves of golden hair spilled to her shoulders as she revealed a long, clean, refined face of extraordinary beauty, with a straight nose, full lips, delicate cheekbones and large sloe storm-gray eyes. She bowed, as an ensign before his general. “Forgive me for interrupting, Noble Shikari,” she said carefully. “I am Skysyn ArDaris Dajia, of Chanos Prefecture. I do hope that I haven’t spoiled some advanced tactic of yours.”
“There is no need for apologies, young lady,” Trycin said as he helped Aeryn and Nevros to their feet, and helped Nevros pop his shoulder back into its socket. “Rather, we applaud your bravery, resource and timing, and gladly grant you the honors for dispatching this horror that has haunted this city of late. Well done, my dear, very well done.”
“You might want to hold off on those congratulations,” Kaellis Schuylese Adlynn said dryly from where she stood, looking at the severed head. “This isn’t Rennar.”