Anathema (Part 2)
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.
Anathema Is Such a NASTY Word
I roused to the smell of something rank being forced under my nose. I pushed it away, but it came back. “No more!” I shook my head into full wakening. I looked up to see Master Adan bending over me with a phial of smelling salts in his hand.
“Well, you’re finally up,” he said in a noticeably different tone and timbre than I’m used to hearing from him. “So, what do you remember?”
I stretched my memory back, which was still a little fuzzy. “Well… we attacked the Bear Emperor’s temple…”
I rummaged around, remembering bit by bit, prodded by Master Adan. He asked about the Bear Emperor’s hearthstone, and I told him that I gave it to Bop. Then I remembered going back to the fight with the Bear Emperor- “And then… Adlynn finally fell… and I…”
I looked at him, desperate for answers. “I Exalted?” Master Adan nodded. “Really?” my heart skipped a beat. “I EXALTED? Finally? Which Elemental Aspect?”
“No, you didn’t Exalt to an Elemental Aspect. You are not one of the Terrestrial Exalted.”
“What?” He handed me a mirror. I looked in it. I saw my face. On my brow was a glowing circle, an empty ring. I knew it immediately. It was the sign of the Wretched. It was the sign of the Anathema. “What kind of sick, vicious trick…” I rubbed at the mark with my hand, but nothing came off.
“Oh, there have been tricks aplenty, but that’s not one of them. You are now one of the Solar Exalted, the Chosen of the Sun.”
“SOLAR Exalted? A Sun Devil? But I made no devil’s pact!”
“That’s not how it happens.” Master Adan paused. “Well, there’s no use for it. An item by item explanation would take too long. The best way to get you to understand what has happened to you, and what you’ve fallen into, you are going to have to sit and listen to a rather LONG story.” He brought over a comfy chair, poured himself a cup of wine, and made himself comfortable.
“To understand what’s happened, you must learn the Secret, True History of Creation. It’s not the history that the Immaculate Order taught you. Indeed, if anyone found out that you knew this history, you’d be targeted for death. Of course, you’re targeted for death anyway, so what of it?
“Anyway, do not believe what THEY tell you. The History they taught you is 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 Creation is a place that needs their rule, and that their truth and their law is the only truth and law. Open your mind, and understand. 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.
“Excuse me,” I cut in, “the history lesson?”
“Ah, yes. In the beginning-”
“‘In the beginning’? Oh, Daana’d’s Dewy Breath, this is going to take a while.”
“You’re going to have to learn to swear by another deity, Rennar. Your service is claimed. Yes, ‘In the Beginning’. In the beginning, all was chaos. Before Creation, all was raw, unfocused, unapplied Essence, in a constant state of roiling furor. It was pure, untrammeled potential in all ways in a constant state of flux, without form or constancy. But, within this chaos, were the Primordials, beings of stability. Whether they were created from the chaos, or they predated it, or they were created at the same time, who knows? Perhaps, no one can know. However, they were the first made things.
“However, the Wyld, the personification of the raw chaos, could not abide the Primordials, and they fought constantly with the Wyld and its spawn, the Fair Folk, for their very existences.
“In timeless time, the Primoridals sought to create a refuge from the constant attacks by the Wyld. So, using only thought and will - which were the only things that they really had - they took the Essence, they gave it form and substance, and formed it into a haven. And so, Creation was made for the Primordials, so they could play the Games of Divinity.”
“The Games of Divinity? And what are those?”
“I do not know. No one knows. It may merely be a poetic analogy to the distance and distraction that the Powers That Be tend to be prone to. However, for all I know, all of Creation - the Blessed Isle, the Realm, the Threshold, the Scavenger Lands, the Border Marches, all five elemental poles, all of it - were created by disinterested beings for the sole purpose of having a place to play silly games.”
“So, do these ‘Games of Divinity’ use balls or tiles?”
“Neither. They use dice.”
“Of course I am. The Games of Divinity are an issue so far beyond us, as to be irrelevant.” Master Adan soothed his throat with a sip of wine. “At any rate, as Creation settled into its patterns, the Primordials found that it was too large and too complex a structure to leave to itself. So, they created the Gods, great and small, Celestial and Terrestrial, to oversee and run the place so that the Fair Folk, who continually found ways in, would not disturb them as they played the Games of Divinity. And so things went on, for a timeless while.”
“And then?” I prompted.
“And then, something happened. Precisely what happened, and why it happened, is something that we may never know. However the gist of it is, that the Gods grew dissatisfied with the situation, and decided to revolt against the Primordials.”
“Why? According to you, these Primordials MADE the Gods, and Creation itself!”
Master Adan spared me a sere look. “Didn’t I just SAY that we may never know exactly WHAT or WHY it happened? I don’t know! There is a tradition that says that the gods said among themselves, ‘let us overthrow our masters, so that we may play the Games of Divinity ourselves’. But that’s a bit trite, even for gods. There is the fact that the Primordials made the gods as their slaves, and slaves are seldom happy as such, especially when they are aware enough to know that they are slaves. And, indeed, it may even be that ‘revolt’ is purely a human term for what happened. Now, complicating this is the fact that we know that two Primordials sided with the Gods: Gaia, Mother Earth, the living spirit of Creation itself, and a rather mysterious entity called Authochton, about whom, I’m afraid that I know nothing, except for its name and that it was a Primordial.
“Now, the Gods were slaves, bound by geasa that were written into the very fabric of their beings. They couldn’t attack their masters. At least, not directly. The greater Gods, the Unconquered Sun, Luna, the Five Maidens, and Gaia’s first children, the five Elemental Dragons-”
“So, there ARE five Elemental Dragons?” I asked, looking for some ground on which to settle my thoughts, “I thought that you said that the history of the Immaculate Order was a lie.”
“It is. It’s not ALL a lie; just some very important points and the vast majority of the ramifications of those lies. Besides, there’s a school of thought that says that the five Elemental Dragons are less Gaia’s children, than five of her seven souls. She’s a Primordial, remember, and Primordials are so vast, so great that they need more than one soul to encompass their being.
“At any rate, the greater Gods, who’ve I’ve just named for you, split off parts of their Essence and formed them into immortal shards, and imbued these shards into living mortal humans. The state of being host to one of these shards is called ‘Exaltation’.”
“Yes, you have been imbued with a fragment, a spark of the Immortal Essence of the Unconquered Sun. His power flows through you and grants you the power to do all the things that you did in the Bear Emperor’s cave. The Solar Exalts were the Unconquered Sun’s generals, champions, wizards, diplomats and spies. And so did Luna, the Five Maidens, and the Five Elemental Dragons choose their champions. At first, the Exalts were merely the deputies of the Great Gods in running Creation and fighting off the depredations of the Fair Folk. However, when they grew into their power, the Gods sent them against the Primordials themselves.
“The Primordials were taken completely by surprise, not because they were stupid, but merely because it was totally unprecedented and inconceivable. The Primordial War was devastating beyond imagination as the Exalts and their allies warred against the Primordials and their loyalists. We lack a context for how vast and long this war was. But, in the end, the Exalted won, and the Primordials were forced to agree to pacts that were written into the very fabric of their beings. They were to be imprisoned outside of Creation, but not out in the Wyld. They were to be contained within the body of one of their own, the greatest of them, by the name of Malfeas. They, their surviving components, their partisans and spawn have since become the Yozi.”
“Demons. However, even those bindings were too flimsy to keep beings of the Primordials’ scope imprisoned. The Primordials were killed, or at least parts of them were as close to killed as beings of that magnitude can be.”
“The Gods they --- killed their own masters?”
Master Adan sighed and shook his head. “Please, remember, we are speaking of things far beyond the mortal sphere in very human terms. On some level, you’re thinking of the Gods and the Primordials as people - big, powerful people, but people. They’re not. They are… Primordial. They don’t have the same dimension and perspective that we do. To us, the least of them would be colossal and monstrous. The moment that the Exalts rose up against the Primordials, it was all or nothing. And, this happened aeons ago.”
Master Adan sighed, sipped his wine and began again. “Those Primordials - or parts of them - that would die were cast down into the Lethe, to be absorbed into the fabric of Creation. But they wouldn’t, and in the process, the Underworld was created. And then…”
“And then, the Celestial Gods ascended to Yu-Shan, the City of the Gods, presumably to play the Games of Divinity, and appointed the Exalts their deputies to rule Creation.
“Now begins what we Solars call the ‘First Age’, though the Immaculate Order rather reluctantly refer to it as the ‘Old Realm’.”
“And the ‘First Age’ was a Golden Age,” I said sarcastically, “where wonders abounded, glorious adventure was constantly in the offing, Justice always prevailed, there was no hunger, sickness or want, children respected their elders, servants were efficient and obedient, no one lied, and there were really great breakfasts.”
Master Adan glared at me severely. “You have had a very bad few days, so I will overlook that. Of course not. It WAS a Golden Age, but even golden ages aren’t perfect. Spirits and Little Gods were petty, greedy and grasping, always searching for worship beyond their due. Rather like the Mountain God who is the father of the Bear Emperor, who uses his son as the focus of an illicit cult. There were, as always, brigands, thieves, and corrupt merchants and officials who needed to be reminded of the common good. There were mortals, spirits and even Little Gods who were secret partisans of the Yozis, who sought to free them from the corpse-prison of Malfeas. And always, there are the Raksha, the Fair Folk, who seek to rip Creation entire apart and eat it.
“BUT, as you said, it was a Golden Age, full of wonders. The Solar Exalted and their allies built cities and ships and other wonders, beside which the Great Tower of Keldon is a triviality. They mastered the arts of wielding Essence through both sorcery and engineering. And, yes, there was peace and plenty, and by and large, there was justice.”
“I feel an ‘And Then’ coming,” I said dryly.
Master Adan nodded sadly. “And Then. And then, fat and complacent with Success and Power, we - the Solar Exalted - grew arrogant, selfish and cruel. We lost sight of the fact that we did not rule Creation for our own good, but rather we ruled for Creation’s good. We warred among ourselves, fighting for power and prestige, not justice. We grew extravagant and indulgent. We wreaked vicious and bloody vengeance, not for Justice, but simply because someone stood against us.
“In time, we forged our own destruction. Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun, may be distant and disinterested, but he isn’t blind. He saw our sins, and eventually grew disgusted with us. He turned his back on us. If he had not turned his back on us, what happened next would not, indeed could not, have happened.”
“And so, we finally get to that ‘And Then’.”
“And then, our servants, the Terrestrial Exalted, what you know as the Dragon-Blooded, grew fearful for the sake of Creation itself. Their Solar masters were turning into monsters before their eyes, and the Lunar Exalted couldn’t do anything to stop it. So, they rose up in rebellion, killing many of the most powerful of their Solar masters as they could in one night. Even so, the destruction, the devastation was horrible. In a near-repeat of the Primordial War, the Dragon-Bloods overthrew their masters, for maybe the same reasons. Once they understood that their servants were turning on them the Solar and Lunar Exalts fought as best they could. The Terrestrials focused all their efforts on putting down the Solar Exalted, so the Lunars were able to escape past the confines of civilization, and hid in the Wyld Marches, where many of them remain to this day.”
I held up my hand. “Hold on - is this… the Dragons’ Uprising against the Anathema?”
“From the other side’s point of view, yes.”
“But you said-”
“That the Immaculate Order’s version of History was a lie? Yes, it is. And as with the best lies, it has large slabs of fact, taken out of order and perspective, twisted slightly, and given a liberal candy coating in certain distasteful areas.
“So begins the era known to you as The Shogunate, when the Terrestrial Exalted tried to step into their masters’ stolen boots and rule Creation as best they could. However, while they were more than human, they lacked the reflexive excellence and insight of the Solars. They could run the factory-cathedrals, but they build not anew. They could build wonders that were scaled down reflections of Solar glory, but the best they could do was copy.
“Mind you, even after the last battles of the Usurpation, the Solar Exalted continued to plague the Shogunate. Members of the Twilight and Night castes pestered them for centuries. So, to deal with this ongoing threat, the Shogunate formed the Wyld Hunt, expert trackers and killers of Solar Exalted, backed by sorcerers and legions of crack mortal troops. They used Astrology and Geomancy and other divinations to send out the teams of the Wyld Hunt to ferret out the Exalted wherever they could find them. In order to justify this to the mortals, and to validate their own claim to rule, they cobbled together the Immaculate Faith, which teaches that the Dragonbloods are spiritually advanced beings, and that all other Exalteds are monsters that must be killed for the good of all.”
“Maybe.” I gave Master Adan a hard look. “And is it true that spiteful Solars created the Contagion that killed millions, ripped open holes to the Underworld, threw open the gates of Creation to the Fair Folk and ended the Shogunate?”
“No. It happened, I admit, but it wasn’t the Solars as a whole, or even to the best of my knowledge, a Solar acting on his own. By the time of the Contagion, the Wyld Hunt had harried down all of the Solars who had been alive at the time of the Usurpation out of existence, and they hounded those few who emerged in the interim.”
“Few? I thought that the Anat- er, the Solar Exalted had been abandoned by their… patron.”
“Yes, we had. By and large, the Unconquered Sun kept his shards of glory from returning to Creation. But every so often one or two returned anyway.
“At any rate, the sum and substance of the rest of the history that the Order taught you is as accurate as any history approved by a seated authority can be. The Contagion, the collapse of the Shogunate, the now-nameless Dragonblooded officer who entered the Imperial Manse and turned its First Age weapons on the Raksha and the rising dead, the founding of the Scarlet Empire - it’s more or less true, under a thick layer of varnish. With one major addition - it seems that the Unconquered Sun has forgiven us. The Solar Exalted are returning to Creation in ever greater numbers.”
“I see. And how do you know this special, secret history?”
Master Adan leaned forward with a puckish grin on his face and a twinkle in his eye. A circle, like mine, only with the top hemisphere full of gold, appeared on his brow. “How do you THINK?”
I gasped, “You’re one of the Unclean!” I instinctively reached for a weapon.
“And you’re one of the Wretched,” he returned wryly.
I started to say something, thought better of it, reached for a goblet and held it out for a drink.
Master Adan filled my goblet with the air of someone who’s won an argument, hands down. “Unclean, Wretched- what say we give ourselves our proper names?” He poured himself another drink. “The reason for the specific names - Wretched, Unclean, Blasphemous, and so on - is that the Solar Exaltation occurs in five distinct castes, or patterns. These Castes are named for the phases of the Sun as it crosses the sky.
“First, the Sun fights back the darkness at Dawn. And so, the Dawn Caste are the fighters. Theirs is the praxis of confrontation and conflict. They are warriors, generals and martial artists without peer. They fight… well, whatever needs fighting.
“Next, the Sun illuminates the world at its Zenith. And so, the Zenith Caste are those who illuminate the world with wisdom and inspiration. Theirs is the praxis of inspiration and endurance. They are leaders, poets and mystics. And most of all, they are all the Priests of the Unconquered Sun, bringing his magnificent light to the benighted people. They are the ones that give people the strength to overcome their own enemies.
“As the Sun holds back the night come twilight, so does the Twilight Caste hold back ignorance and the dwellers in darkness, and enlighten the ignorant through wisdom and learning of a more rational bent. Ours is the praxis of learning and reason, and most importantly, the intelligent use of that learning and reason. We aren’t just scholars - we’re Creation’s greatest sorcerers, engineers and detectives. We are the ones that show people rational ways to achieve their goals.
“When the Sun disappears at Night, he does not die. No, he is there, unseen and watching. As criminals, conspirators and foul spirits emerge from their dark havens, you of the Night Caste are there watching for them. Watching and waiting for the proper moment to strike. Yours is the praxis of cunning and guile. You are the hunters, the detectives, the spies, and if need be, the assassins. You defend Creation by looking where others cannot - or simply will not.
“When the Sun is in Eclipse, he meets with the Moon and the Stars, and the entire panoply of Heaven can be seen in the day. And so the Eclipse Caste brings the powerful together and unites them in harmony. Theirs is the praxis of communication and reconciliation. The Eclipse are the diplomats, couriers, arbitrators and negotiators of the Sun, bringing people together. They serve Creation by fostering peace and understanding between people.”
I looked him in the eye, trying to wrap my head around all of this. “Aaannnddd... I’m one of these ‘Night Caste’, right? So, under all the pretty words, basically the Unconquered Sun expects me to be his assassin for him?”
For a second, I thought that Master Adan was going to throw his cup at me. “What you do with your power, young Kaellis Rennar, is entirely up to you.”
“You’re telling me that the Unconquered Sun just up and gave me these marvelous powers, and doesn’t want anything for them?”
Master Adan rubbed his eyes.“It doesn’t quite work that way, Rennar. The Unconquered Sun chose to Exalt you, because you have the raw potential for greatness. Not goodness, but greatness. Not all good people are great, nor are all great people good, though there are some people who are both great AND good. And far too many who are neither great nor good. If goodness were the trait that the exaltation chooses, then the Exalted probably wouldn’t have triumphed over the Primordials; on the other hand, we wouldn’t have fallen into decadence and excess, either.”
I felt my eyes cross in confusion. “So, what DOES the Unconquered Sun want from me?”
Master Adan drained his cup and filled it again. “He wants you to be great, Rennar. He wants you to go out and DO great things, without him telling you what to do.” He leaned forward. “Think of it this way: if Sol Invictus wanted drones, he would have exalted ants or bees. He didn’t. He exalted US. So, there’s no great plan. We just go out, find something that needs to be done, and we do it. Sol Invictus knows, there’s enough that needs doing.”
“I see…” Actually, I didn’t but I needed something to say. “Well then, what are YOU doing, that’s so confoundedly great?”
Master Adan smirked, “Well, I admit, at the moment, for the most part, I’m laying low and preparing myself for greater things. However, I DO have a dream, a great vision, which serves as a framework for everything that I do!”
“To restore the glories of the First Age!” Master Adan stood up and gestured about the room.
I knew that I was in for it now, so I sat up and looked around. I was on a cot set against the wall of a large circular domed room. A light that was reflected by the dome lit the room. The place was crowed with stacks of… well, I would call it junk, but most of it was too clean and too carefully arranged to call junk. I had no idea as to what most of it was, but it had the definite look of Old Realm artifacts that I’ve seen.
“Before I was exalted by the Unconquered Sun, I was what is popularly known as a ‘Scavenger Lord’. I-”
“Excuse me, but by ‘Scavenger Lord’, do you mean that you were a minor noble in one of the ‘Scavenger Lands’, or that you were one of those people who goes crawling through Old Realm ruins, looking for treasure and bits of ancient technology?”
“The latter. I was born and bred into the trade, as was my father and his father before him. Or, at least we think that he was my grandfather - there were stories…” Master Adan waved that aside. “I grew up crawling through ruins, helping decipher cryptic messages, looking for clues, and disabling traps. And, like my father before me, I was and still am, fascinated by relics of the First Age.” He looked around sadly at his collection of knick-knacks. “We have lost so much. And not just us of the Solar Exalted. All of Creation is lessened. We once built buildings that reached to the skies. We built vessels that flew through the skies like great birds.”
He let out a gusty sigh. “Now, we’re like the impoverished descendants of a rich and powerful ruler, rattling around a great castle that’s rotting and falling apart, wearing the shabby cast-off clothes of our ancestors, and basking in the fading glory of someone else’s deeds.”
He gave me a stark look. “I want to regain those glories. I want to build new cities that will honor the gods. I want to build weapons that will drive the Fair Folk back into the Wyld. I want to find ways of sealing off the Shadowlands from the Underworld, and erasing their stain from Creation.”
“So, you want to return to the First Age.”
Master Adan gave a bleak chuckle. “Only fools and old men want to return to a bygone age, imagining them as paradises and forgetting all the troubles and woes they had. No, I want to create a new golden age.” He sat down and helped himself to a long slug of wine. “But, in the mean time, I’ll settle for learning the lost secrets of the First Age, and maybe fixing a few of the repairable wonders left from that age.”
That lead to a digression into some of the malfunctioning wonders that we’d seen in our travels, with Master Adan taking notes of what I’d learned about the hydrodynamic systems of Allusyoan. Then I fixed him with a steady gaze. “And so - why are you here, in Keldon? Did you come here to study the Great Tower, or is there more to it?”
Master Adan chuckled. “Yes, you really ARE of the Night caste, aren’t you? You suspect that I had something to do with the Black Dragons’ vandalism and the killing of that Vallare girl. For the record, while I am involved in all this, I had nothing to do with Vallare Thyrelle’s killing. And believe me, I’m just as interested in finding her killers as you are. I perceive something… dark behind that, something far darker than the search for the Underground Palace.
“Actually, I’m playing several very involved hands at the moment. I came to Keldon to search for the Underground Palace. The Palace would be a perfect place for me to set up shop: it’s a fully installed Manse, so well hidden that even I haven’t been able to find it yet, and it was the base for the Mirror of Serene Reflection. AND best of all, it houses a treasure beyond compare: The Lantern of Emerald Flame, an intelligent, self-aware repository of First Age lore.
“As I quietly searched for the Underground Palace, I became aware of the Cult of the Bear Emperor.”
I smiled slowly. “Ah, I knew that there had to be a reason that you were being so helpful, beyond your ‘duty to the Realm’.
“How clever of you,” Master Adan said wryly. “During my research of the geomancy of this region, I was approached by a small group of Lunar Exalted. They had similar designs, as regards a smaller, more sylvan demesne out in the hills, and we traded information for a while. Then, a few months ago, they came to me with news. It seems that Luna had exalted the son of a local forester. But before they could approach the boy, the Bear Emperor’s Claws recruited him. They realized that the Bear Emperor had no real interest in helping the boy master the power within him, and he certainly wouldn’t tolerate anyone within the cult that might supplant him. It was obvious from the beginning that the Bear Emperor intended to somehow steal some measure of the boy’s Lunar power.
“In exchange for a piece of information that would be crucial in my search for the Underground Palace, I agreed to help. You see, this mysterious orichalcum object that you, the Emperor and the Black Dragons have been playing ‘hot potato’ with,” he held up the object in question, “is a device that allows beings to communicate over long distances. When the Underground Palace’s hearthstone is set in it, the crown that that piece is the center of allows the wearer to communicate with the Lantern of Emerald Flame. It seems that the Lantern has been advising the Bear Emperor on issues of tactics, strategy and policy for years.
“When the Black Dragons came along and started their noisy efforts to find the Palace, I decided to turn all that energy to more useful ends. I dropped a few hints in the right ears that the Bear Emperor’s crown was the key to finding the Palace, and pointed out a few of the members of the cult that would be the most susceptible to the Black Dragon’s methods.”
Things started to fit together in my head. “So, you were the one that informed the Bear cult that we’d taken your communications device from the Black Dragon.” My eyes narrowed. “Why?”
Master Adan shrugged. “I had to get inside the White Temple to search for the boy, before the proper time for the Bear Emperor’s intended blood ritual. I knew that I could talk you and your Dragon-blooded friends into taking me inside, and I had several plans for getting the boy out. Including, but not limited to, the water elemental that I used to get both him and YOU out safely.”
“Yes, you probably don’t remember it, as you were rather exhausted from fighting your friends - you really can’t go about just using Essence in that off the cuff way, it’s terribly wasteful. You must learn the proper forms to - sorry, I’m off on a tangent. Some time ago, I summoned and bound a water elemental to a Cselene contract. Once I was inside the White Temple, and within its protective wards, I was able to call that elemental to me. I had it collect you and the Lunar boy, and bring you here through the river and underground channels that let out into a well in one of this place’s chambers.”
I looked around. “By the way, what IS this place?”
“We’re under Jade Hill, in one of the more inaccessible parts of the ‘tomb complex’.”
“I thought that you said that Jade Hill was a decoy, built to distract would-be tomb robbers from disturbing the true Underground Palace.”
“It is. But I needed a place to work where I wouldn’t be bothered. You see, this part of the decoy complex is separated from the outside world by a very tricky set of locks and traps. So, the people who wouldn’t know that Jade Hill is a decoy wouldn’t be able to get past the traps, and the people who could get past the traps know better than to bother. Besides,” he waved at the dome, “while it was designed as a solution-less puzzle, this room was designed along First Age principles by Dragon-blooded sages who studied under the Mirror of Serene Reflection himself. It acts as a focus for essence, and it is impervious to both scryings and dowsings. I can do all the workings that I want in here, and not even the best dowser that the Dynasty has can find me. It took a little doing, but this room is now a perfect place for some of my workings. And, you can’t beat the rent,” he chuckled, “it’s FREE.”
Master Adan leaned forward. “Now, to the real question, Kaellis Rennar - what will YOU be doing with your suddenly vastly extended life?”
I sat back. I could feel the puzzlement setting on my own face. “To tell you the truth… I don’t know! I was reasonably happy, riding along with Adlynn, playing at being the wandering knight-errant. But I always knew that eventually it would be over, and she and I would be called back home. And then I’d go work for the family at something.”
“But now, the only thing waiting for you back on the Blessed Isle is sure death,” he said quietly.
“Well, I suppose that I could be the ‘wandering adventurer’, only for real,” I mused, “without the Kaellis family funding me. As you said, there’s no shortage of things that need to be dealt with.” Even as I spoke, I started to remember things that should have been dealt with, which Ad and I had passed by, as it wasn’t in the Realm’s best interests to do so. But the Realm’s best interests weren’t my concern anymore…
“Well!” Master Adan said cheerily, “It seems that we’re in a position to help each other!”
“Yes! You need a little time to figure out what you’re going to do, and to learn how to use your new gifts without exhausting yourself. And I could a hand finding the Underground Palace, and coping with what’s left of the Black Dragons. I’ll help you get on your feet, and you’ll help me find the Underground Palace. And, maybe along the way, we’ll actually do some good, such as finding out who Vallare Thyrelle’s killer was, and why she had to die like that.”
He reached out his hand. “Do we have a deal?”
I reached out my hand, but held back at the last. “Is this one of those Deceiver’s Bargains, where I must serve you or lose my soul? Remember, the bargain is forfeit if you lie.”
Surprisingly, Master Adan chuckled. “Yes, those things do exist. But a Divine Contract can only be sealed by one of the Eclipse caste. No, this is a simple agreement between equals.” He reached out his hand again, a mild smile on his face.
I paused, shrugged and took his hand. We shook. I waited. No bells rang, no thunder roared, and no lost souls moaned. There wasn’t even an ominous gust of breeze.
“Anti-climactic, isn’t it?” he smirked.
“Well!” I let out a deep gusty breath, “Now what?”
“Now,” Master Adan said with asperity, “we finish part of what I went into the White Temple to accomplish in the first place! You see, part of the reason that I suggested that ploy with the communicator, was so that you’d give me the hearthstone, so I could use the arcane link to find it. But, SOMEONE foisted off on me one half of a twin-gem,” he held up the ‘hearthstone’ that I’d given him to use, “relying on the arcane link with the OTHER false gem in the communicator!”
I grinned widely and spread my hands helplessly, “What can I say? You weren’t being nearly as subtle as you thought you were! You were obviously playing your own hand, so WHY would I just HAND you a Hearthstone?”
Master Adan let out let out an exasperated sigh and rubbed his face with his hand. “A good point. So, where did you hide it?
“It’s… aahhh... hidden in our rooms at the hostel, in the Great Tower.”
Master Adan gave me a bleak look. “Is there any chance that you hid it in a place where I could sneak it out with a casual visit?”
He gave his head a grudging shake. “Of course not.” He looked upwards. “Don’t you EVER make ANYTHING easy?”
“Oh, it’s easy enough,” I replied. “I just have to go in and get it.”
He reached over and rapped his knuckles on my forehead. “You’re not a privileged scion of the Dynasty anymore, boy! You’re an Anathema! A Fugitive! You can’t just walk in and expect to be greeted with open arms! Even the charwomen would be up in arms against you!”
“I KNOW that,” I replied pettishly. “I wasn’t expecting to walk in the front door. But, there are other ways to get into the Bower of Resplendent Azure Welcome.”
“And how will you find them? You can’t very well go looking for them; the Satrap’s Watch is turning over every rock and examining every twig, looking for the horrible Anathema that’s arisen in Kellesval. Not to mention, there’s a reward for any sort of information, so every spy, snitch, diviner and geomancer will be looking sharp for you.”
“So, who needs to FIND a way in?” I settled back and smiled that smile that I used to drive Isegris mad. “I spotted two possible ways in my first day here, and I spotted three more when we expecting a visit from the Black Dragons.”
“And which of them will you use?”
“None. Too Easy. What’s the point of putting up with all the travails of being a Solar Exalt, if you can’t have a little FUN being one as well?”
Master Adan let out a victorious ‘HAH!’ and touched his goblet to mine. “Now, THAT is why I went to all the trouble of dragging your backside out of the White Temple!” But then he looked at me seriously over the rim of his goblet. “And is getting the hearthstone the only reason that you want to visit the Bower of Resplendent Azure Welcome?”
“Well, I’ll probably take advantage of the opportunity to pick up a few of my clothes, definitely my favorite pair of boots, there’s a scroll that I haven’t finished, not to mention a rather large sack of money squirreled away in my room-”
“And what about the fair Adlynn?”
“Adlynn? Dan- er, Sol Invictus, there’s a reunion I’d rather avoid!”
“Really?” Master Adan raised an arch eyebrow.
“Well, when young Adlynn finally came to after the drubbing that the Bear Emperor gave her, she was shocked, grief-stricken even, to hear what had happened to you.”
“We’re Dynasts. The entire family will be horrified to hear that I’d gone *ahem!* ‘Anathema’.” I paused and realized, “Both Adlynn and Randrel will be bound by family honor to hunt me down and kill me!”
“Really? When I visited them yesterday-”
“You’ve been unconscious for three days. Besides the beating that you took, you also almost completely exhausted yourself. As I was saying, when I visited the Bower of Resplendent Azure Welcome yesterday, your cousin Randrel was sullen, your friend Mykiros was grim, and that Isegris wastrel was frothing at the mouth. But Adlynn was openly weeping, and had been for hours.” He leaned closer. “Tell me- is there more than… familial affection that I detect there?”
I took a deep breath and let it out. “Adan, she’s not just my cousin, our fathers are brothers. We were raised together. She’s my very best friend, closer to me than my own sister.”
“How close?” he asked with an amused undertone to his voice.
“Master Adan, when I see Adlynn with my mind’s eye, I see a vibrant, lovely young woman, whom any young gallant would be only too glad to chase. But, when I see her with my heart’s eye, I see a seven-year old girl who tried to climb to the very top of the highest tree in the province, and needed my help to get down without calling for the Aunties.” I sighed, “It set the tone for the rest of our lives. Until now.”
“And what does Adlynn see with HER heart’s eye?”
I smiled sadly. “To be honest, I rather think that she sees an overgrown sheepdog that she grew up with, that got mauled protecting her from a bear.”
Master Adan gave a philosophical sigh, “If you say so.”
“Master Adan, we both had romantic flings, in and out of school, and the worst that either’s given the other was the odd poke in the ribs about it.” He gave me a wise smile and said nothing.
Be Careful When Choosing Your Friends
There was a low moan from somewhere in the room. “And it seems that my other rescued one has returned to us.”
“‘Other rescued one’?”
“The Lunar. The boy that was about to be sacrificed, and who turned into a bear?”
“Yes, our Lunar colleagues haven’t had a chance to come and collect him. I’d better get over there, and be there for him, when he wakes up.”
He let me get dressed in a borrowed cotton tunic, leather trousers, and a pair of boots that almost fit. Then he led me through the tangle of miscellany, to where the boy I’d last seen as a large brown bear-man was laying strapped into a reinforced wooden framework that held him at a 50-degree angle, neither laying down or standing up. Lying next to the framework, gnawing on what looked like the remains of a sheep’s haunch, was a large - and I do mean LARGE - black dog. The dog scented me, and clambered to its overlarge paws. I startled slightly when I recognized it – an Omen Dog. Omen Dogs are to dogs and wolves what Sabertooth cats are to housecats and lynxes. A lone Omen Dog can take down a small horse; packs of them have been known to raid small caravans. Its smooth black fur fit snugly over a broad long frame, which stood four feet at the shoulder. The broad-muzzled, short-eared head looked up at me, but not by much. The Omen Dog looked at me intently, but it made no overt move.
“Now, now, Yarlik!” Master Adan tutted, “is that any way to treat an honored guest?” he reached over and scratched the monster-dog between the ears. I tentatively held my hand forth, and Yarklik snuffled at it, and then all around the rest of me. “Yes,” Master Adan said paternally, “I know that he smells like Dragonblood, but trust me, that will fade in time.”
Yarlik wurfed, walked back to where he’d been, and lay down, but he kept looking at me with an ‘I’ll believe it when I see it’ air.
“I found him as a pup, after his mother was killed,” Master Adan explained with a scratch between the dog’s ears. He leaned over and said softly, “Took the fingers off of a friend of mine with his milk teeth.”
Master Adan walked over to the frame, checked that the thick metal-reinforced wooden struts were sound, and then lifted one of the boy’s eyes. “Almost awake. He was in a bad way when I got back - do you have any idea as to what happened to him?”
“Last I saw of him, I’d used that panic-scent that you gave me to snap him out of a Micomicon-daze. He was a bear-man, going toe-to-toe with the Bear Emperor and four Bear’s Claws, and giving them all a run for their money.”
Master Adan hummed, poked the boy and said, “If he had the slightest knowledge of his real power, he wouldn’t have given them a run for their money - he would have run all over them. Probably why the Emperor didn’t recruit him for his Claws - eventually the boy would have wised up and taken control of the cult away from him.”
Master Adan fished around under his robe and produced a small phial that he opened under the boy’s nose. The boy reacted and struggled to wakefulness. Then he came to and became aware that he was bound, hand and foot. “What IS this?” he shouted as he started to struggle.
“Before I answer that,” Master Adan began with a firm, tutorial voice, “let me tell you something about yourself. About two months ago, under the Full Moon, you were out in the woods, and you were attacked by a group of trooping fairies, possibly a group of hobgoblins or a few cataphracts, but not a noble. One of them twisted the roots of a tree so that it entwined about your legs, but you managed to tear out of it. Despite the fact that the best you had at hand was a wood axe, if that, you managed to drive them off. But you could tell that they were going to return. It was late at night, and they’d managed to get you so turned around that you were lost, though you’d grown up in the woods. You could hear the Raksha sounding the woods for you, and you decided to make them pay for your life in their own blood.
“But instead of a fae, you were visited by a glorious figure, you couldn’t be sure if it was a grand lady, or a beautiful boy, all dressed in silver and pearl. This personage commended you for your courage and skill in defeating the Fey. She also told you that your time puttering around in the woods was over, and that it was time for you to dare to do great things. Then she touched you, and your entire world changed. You became flooded with power, power of a sort that you didn’t understand and couldn’t control.
“You feared that you were turning into a monster, so you fled your father’s house. The Bear Emperor’s Claws found you in the woods, and told you that you were destined to serve the Emperor as his greatest warrior. They gave you things to drink, and you dreamed of great deeds. And then, you suddenly woke up, stretched over a sacrificial altar, with the Bear Emperor standing over you, with a silver knife in his hand.” Master Adan paused. “So, did I get anything wrong?”
“How did you know?” the boy whispered in near awe.
“The Silver Lady was a manifestation of Luna, the Incarna of the Moon. She drafted you into her service as an Exalted of the Moon. There are other servants of the Moon in this area, and they have been looking for you. The Gods aren’t over-solicitous of their Chosen, and it falls to us who have served and learned, to instruct the new-chosen, such as yourself.”
“You serve the Silver Lady?”
“Not directly. We serve another power. But I’ve entered into an agreement with your Elders, to bring you to them, so you can be properly instructed.”
“Instructed?” the boy tensed. “They’ll teach me?”
“How can you serve Luna’s Glory, if you don’t know how?”
“Why do you have me trussed up like this?”
“Out of respect for your power. This is my home, and I’d hate to have it destroyed by a Lunar Exalt trying to escape before he heard my offer.”
“So,” I said stepping forward, “can we trust you to mind your-”
“ANATHEMA!” the boy gasped, looking at my face, but over my eyes. Is that glowing ring still there?
“Yes, he is Anathema, one of the Solar Exalted,” Master Adan jumped in with that firm tutorial voice again, “even as YOU are Anathema, as one of Luna’s Exalted.”
The boy was still edgy. The Immaculates have done a good job of spreading fear of the ‘Anathema’ hereabouts, if not instilling a love of the Dragon-bloods. “I’ll tell you what,” I offered, then paused, “By the way, what’s your name?”
He hesitated. “Arrek,” he said, cautiously. “Arrek, son of Thyrvald, the Forest-warder.”
“Very well, Arrek Thyrvaldson, I am Kaellis Rennar. I offer you a Deceiver’s Bargain: we will release you from those restraints, except when your power begins to run away from you, give you food and drink, and we will deliver you to other Lunar Exalts, who will train you. You, in return, will behave as a civilized guest in Master Adan’s - that’s him, by the way - in his house, not run away, listen to us and generally give us the benefit of a doubt. Those are the terms - do you accept?”
Arrek looked at me with even more doubtful eyes, but he slowly reached out his hand as best he could, what with the restraints. I took his hand and shook it. “Well, what were you expecting? Ringing bells, roaring thunder, the moaning of lost souls? A breeze blowing, where there shouldn’t be any, maybe?”
We un-strapped Arrek, and let him work the kinks out. As he stretched, and tried to make up his mind about Yarlik on the floor (and vice-versa), Master Adan leaned over and said softly, “You DO know that as a Night caste, you can’t seal a ‘Deceiver’s Bargain’, don’t you?”
“Yes,” I muttered back, “but HE doesn’t know that.”
Once Arrek was dressed, I discovered why Master Adan always ate so much when he had visited us at the Bower of Resplendent Azure Welcome. He had no servants, and he himself was of the ‘chop it up and throw it in a pot to stew’ school of cooking. Over his bowl, Master Adan asked, “So, Arrek, what are the local traditions, as regards the ‘ghost-owl’ called the Strix?”
Arrek bolted down the chunk of meat that he’d been gnawing on, and thought. “Well, it depends. Town-folk think that Strixes hunt hobgoblins and hungry ghosts and stuff like that. But some backwoods folk say that they’s bad luck. And some say that it’s a little of this and a little of that, and a lot harder to pin down for sure.”
Arrek rather reminded me of Peleps Yarso, who I had studied with at the Cloister of Wisdom. Yarso was as big as Nog, but he had the patience to sit and listen and learn. He wasn’t very quick at picking things up, but he kept at it, and he learned a lot more than I did in the long run. Yarso never exalted, but he took vows with the Immaculate Order. “Why are you interested in Strixes, Master Adan?” I asked.
“Because, there are reports that one has suddenly decided to roost in Keldon, specifically on Jade Hill, near where my secret door to this part of the complex is hidden. Arrek, you may not know this, but despite, or maybe because of its reputation for being over the Underground Palace, Jade Hill is a neighborhood that’s popular with the newly rich and merchant families that settle in Keldon. My secret entrance is hidden in a cluster of shops, and my unwitting neighbors can’t afford the sort of reputation that having a Bad Luck bird might bring them.
“I’ve heard that a few of the local shopkeepers have made complaints to the Watch. It’s possible that the Captain of the Watch might conflate the reports of the Strix and the emergence of an ‘Anathema’, and send troops to search the area. Even if they don’t find anything, there will be far and away too much attention paid to where I hide.”
“What’s the Strix doing, Master?” Arrek asked.
“‘Master Adan’,” he corrected, “I’m not your master; your only mistress is the Moon. ‘Master Adan’ acknowledges my status, without implying submission. As for the Strix, well, that’s the interesting thing. It seems to be searching for something.”
I asked, “Is it possible that it’s something that the Bear Emperor or the Grand Master of the Black Dragons sent, looking for one of us, or maybe the communicator?”
Master Adan chewed on the possibility. “It could be, the timing’s right. Strixes are woodland creatures by habit, which suggests the Bear Emperor.”
“What?” I yelped, “He got AWAY?”
“The Dragonbloods were busy chasing you about, and the Emperor does know all the ins and outs of that cavern complex.” Master Adan continued, “however, while the Inner Circle of the Bear Cult mostly got away, the greater part of their organization didn’t. The Satrap’s Watch is still rooting around the countryside for them, leaving searching for you to the Dragonbloods and the Imperial Legion. Still, the Emperor has better things to keep him busy, other than sending things to find us.
“Which suggests that it’s the Black Dragons, using something that would imply that the Bear Cult’s behind it.”
“Do you want us to go up to the surface and do something about it?” I asked. “Kill it or just shoo it off?”
Master Adan shook his head. “It’s more complicated than that. First, going to the surface is more easily said than done.” He walked over to his primary study desk and carried back a folded piece of paper. When he handed it to me, it turned out to be a Wanted poster, with a likeness of me that managed to be accurate while making me seem like a threat to the general welfare. The Satrap was offering a reward of five thousand dinars, and relief from taxation for the claimant’s family for an entire year.
“Well,” I said stiffly, “I suppose that this is where I make the joke about it being nice to be wanted...”
“And that circle on your forehead won’t make it any easier,” Master Adan pointed out. “It should fade in a few days, but we’re still going to have to find you some way of moving and acting, without raising a call for the Watch.
“Also, I was going to suggest that you go and shoo it back into the forests, but as you point out, there is a material chance that there’s more to it than a mere inconvenience. I suggest that you find out where this thing lairs and see if you can find out what it’s up to. Don’t kill it; if someone did send it for some reason, that will only tell them that someone has something to hide on Jade Hill.”
I sat down and thought it over for a bit. Then I broke out in a smile. “Well! It’s not really all that difficult! First, Strixes only hunt at night, so I’ll just go out at night. And that’s not great hardship for one of the Night caste! Second, if I can’t show my face, then I’ll just have to seem to be someone who has a valid reason for hiding his face!”
Arrek and I dressed in Black Dragon stealth silks and wore the dragon-masks. Yes, Master Adan had managed to keep a few Black Dragon suits for some reason. He seems to be something of a packrat. The beauty of it was that the Watch, who would have been hunting the Black Dragons, was out in the woods, tracking down the Bear Cult, and the Dragonbloods and Imperial Legion weren’t really all that interested in capturing any Black Dragons at the moment. They were too busy hunting Anathema, before the Wyld Hunt got here. It almost broke my heart to do so, but I blackened my beautiful orichalcum bracers with soot.
Master Adan had arranged a smaller version of the elevating gondolas in the Great Tower, which took us from deep in the bowels of Jade Hill to a recessed niche off an alley in a clutch of shops. Looking around for any late-night passers-by, I asked Master Adan, “So, where do you keep your camouflage rooms?”
“You mean, you don’t rent a couple of rooms, so that people don’t wonder why a person who doesn’t live around here keeps walking into and out of this alley?”
Master Adan chewed on this. “Do you think that I should?”
“Well, it would be useful for maintaining your cover as a harmless scholar, instead of an enigma. A couple of cheap rooms, preferably in the worst part of the building, some shoddy furniture, a few artfully scattered bits of clothing, a few piles of dog-eared scrolls and books, maybe a few empty bottles of rank wine, if you want to cultivate a reputation as a drunkard.”
“A reputation as a drunkard…” Master Adan mused, his eyes sparkling, “Irascible, barely tolerable - let alone respectable - irresponsible, prone to disappearing without answers for days, if not weeks at end.” He was smiling as he put the artistic touches on the mise-en-scene.
As Master Adan was mulling over how to handle my suggestion, Arrek and I scrambled out of the niche into the shadows. To give Master Adan his due, the alcove to his gondola is ideally situated to sneaking in and out of unnoticed. Being the son of a forest warden, Arrek is pretty good at climbing and jumping and sneaking, but he doesn’t really have a feel for the city. I made sure that I led him over ridges and beams that could hold his weight. My Eagle’s Claw chain made for a perfect way of getting across wide gaps between the roofs.
As Master Adan had said, Jade Hill was a neighborhood favored by the newly rich and those inclined to make shows of their wealth. The fashion of the last few centuries was ornamental towers. Very HIGH ornamental towers. To spot the Strix when it showed itself, I’d need to be as high as I could get. The highest spot on Jade Hill was the bell tower of the new Tor’Alde house. Of course, the Tor’Alde’s family honor demanded that their townhouse have defenses befitting an important family, with the requisite enemies. Of course, the Tor’Aldes are pretentious bourgeois whose real priority with those defenses was to impress their pretentious bourgeois neighbors. The elaborate spike-work on their walls looked impressive, but it barely slowed us down.
We got to the top of the bell-tower unseen, and Arrek had the presence of mind to muffle the bells. Better that the Tor’Aldes send someone up to see what happened to the bells, on the off chance that they actually rang them while we were up there. Then, we settled in and waited. After waiting for a bit in silence, Arrek started, “Lord Rennar-”
“Just ‘Rennar’, Arrek; I was never a Dragon Lord.”
“Well, then, Rennar, how is this Strix keeping itself hidden? From what Master Adan said, people have only seen it in fits and starts. A Strix is a huge bird, with a wingspan of over ten cubits. They’ve been known to carry off travelers! Not very well-fed travelers, but still! How does a bird that size hide itself?”
I raised my eyebrows, not that Arrek could see them through the mask that I was wearing. “Blazing good question! That a forest hunter would move its grounds to the city, completely bypassing thousands of acres of farmland that would be vastly better hunting, we could attribute to it being magically controlled. But hiding something that big? Well, now we have to follow it to where it roosts, if nothing else, than to find out how it’s pulling this off!”
A few hours later, Arrek gave me a poke. Off to the south and southwest, some distance away, there was a flurry of large lambent white wings. Wordlessly, I snapped my Eagle Claw chain to the nearest lower prominence and we were off. For some reason, the bird seemed to ‘flare’ for short periods of time, and then disappear.
I lost some time stopping and helping Arrek when his foot slipped once or twice, but we managed to gain some ground on it. The Strix seemed to be looking for something, stopping every so often to check its trail, and then bursting from cover for short flights. Finally, we managed to catch up with it. There was something off about the wings and the head and the way that it flew…
Then suddenly it veered around and flew straight at me. I had a sense of huge white wings and…
“Bop?” Master Adan asked incredulously. “That clever little mospid of yours? Wasn’t she mottled brown before, instead of this lovely pale white?”
Bop chirruped in recognition of her name, and then chirred in pleased acceptance of Master Adan’s praise.
“Yes indeed,” I said as I lovingly stroked Bop’s head with a feather, “this is the fearsome Strix that’s been upsetting Jade Hill. It seems you forgot to include her in your emergency rescue, and she’s been looking for me ever since.” Bop gave Master Adan an angry squeak when she realized that he’d left her behind.
“Sol’s Glory, she understood that!”
Bop agreed with a smug chirr.
“Well, that explains a lot,” Master Adan purred.
“Bop, it seems, is your familiar.”
“She is?” I asked, genuinely confused, “but I don’t remember binding her to a familiar’s compact. And that doesn’t explain that being able to shift into a full-grown Strix.”
“You ‘bound’ her at the same time that you attuned those bracers and that chain. You had them all on you when you exalted. Now there are charms that you can use to bind a familiar, as I used when I decided that Yarlik here would be my companion.” Master Adan rubbed the broad spot between Yarlik’s ears. “But you bound Bop as a part of your exaltation. That means that the bond between you is especially powerful. Bop was included as part and parcel of your exaltation and shares some of your power. She has Essence of her own, and she wasn’t shifting - she was displaying your anima banner.”
“A Lawbringer’s anima banner is rather like a Dragonblood’s elemental aspect manifestation. When you use Essence in great amounts, your caste mark shines - remember, it was supposed to be a sign of pride! - you glow, and occasionally you will manifest some totemic symbol of your greater self. When you exalted at the White Temple, you displayed a glowing ghostly white Strix. So, when Bop appeared to be a Strix, she was displaying your totemic banner.”
“But what was she doing that required her to use that much essence?”
‘Looking for you, dummy’, Bop squawked. Besides, didn’t it make sense? After all, she WAS a magnificent forest hunter, worshipped and feared by all, wasn’t she? She raised her crest and spread her wings - all two feet of them - to further demonstrate her glory.
Her motion called to my attention something that I’d attached to her talon and long since forgotten. I reached over and untied the Emperor’s Pearl. “And, Master Adan, what about THIS?”
The pearl blazed incandescent glory in my hand. Its light reflected in Master Adan’s eyes. “Oh, No…”
The house belonged to a family of merchants that had gone bag, baggage and entourage west to Sijan, to bury the family matriarch. The family factor was leasing the estate to the Black Dragons without their knowledge, and keeping the profits for himself. That minor bit of treachery would come back to haunt him. Currently, all 214 surviving members of the cult in Keldon were kneeling, ranks on ranks, in the courtyard in the middle of the house, facing a mirror, and Akassk Nay’shyk, the chapter’s Grand Master.
Akassk Nay’shyk watched the sundial with an intensity that masked his inner nervousness. Every one of them was tense. After a good beginning in Keldon, things had gone increasingly bad. They were at a point where they had to concede failure to their divine master. Akassk had lobbied long and hard for this opportunity to form his own chapter. It was particularly galling for him to admit his failure. However, he took some small solace in having the honor to accept the failure by himself, and not sharing out the blame on his subordinates. If the divine master ordered him drawn and quartered for his failure, he could at least take the trivial comfort of saving 200 of his comrades from following him into the Underworld.
Then, the hour was right, and the master would be available for supplications. Akassk knelt in front of the mirror, poured the purest water available into a large black bowl, and drowned a rat in a sack in it. Then he rang the silver cymbals and waited.
The reflection in the mirror wavered and swirled, there was a sound of rushing water, and the smell of a river. Suddenly the face of the mirror was filled with the visage of Ussh’urr’ussh, the Black Dragon of the Blue River, Under-Magistrate in charge of trade for the Spirit Court of the Dark Teak Forest, and Drowner of the Unworthy. “Great Ussh’urr’ussh, we, the humble adherents of your Keldon chapter crave an audience.”
“You have good news, Akassk Nay’shyk?” asked a voice that was as unto the rushing of a great river at its highest tide. “Have you found the Underground Palace? Have you humbled the Bear Emperor? Do you have the bureaucracy of Keldon in your pocket?”
Spread prostrate before the mirror, Akassk admitted, “No, Great One. Almost the exact opposite. We had a string of early successes, including coercing a traitor within the Bear Emperor’s ranks who brought us a great treasure, which would have expedited our search for the Underground Palace. But in the last week, we have suffered great losses. Some unknown factor corrupted our dowsings for the purpose of killing a girl, no doubt to set the local authorities against us. Our site for dowsing the location of the Underground Palace has been discovered, and the local authorities no doubt have been alerted. Our first headquarters was also uncovered, the treasure was taken from us, and even our cache of operating capital was stolen. We tried to turn this to our advantage, and sent a team of ninjas into the White Temple of the Bear Emperor, hoping to recover the treasure. However, that too was a failure, and your champion, Yarryn Bre’vre, was killed. To compound matters, it has come to light that the driving force behind these reversals was a Solar Exalt who was masquerading as one of a group of callow young Dragonbloods. We have learned that he was also the one who killed Yarryn Bre’vre, and took the blessed chain weapon as his own.
“However, the issue is not yet settled. The Bear Emperor has also suffered major setbacks, including the loss of his White Temple and his champion, Roaring Thunder. The Satrap’s forces harry his people in the countryside, and the Imperial Legion is hard at work hunting down the Solar Exalted. While there are individual Dragonbloods trying to hunt our forces in Keldon, they are individuals, and their efforts are clumsy and arrogant.
“The men and women who serve you here have performed beyond my meager example. They can serve you better, perhaps under a more competent leader.” Arrask lowered his head and covered it with his hands. “I await your decision as to how to proceed.”
“The Solar Exalt - What of him? What caste is he?”
“The Solar is one of the Wretched, great one, a wearer of the empty ring. He has gone into hiding since being forced to show his true nature at the White Temple.”
For a long moment, the only sound to be heard was the rushing of water. “Night Caste. He could be anywhere, doing anything. Worse, he could be the advance guard of a True Circle.” There was another pause, as if the river itself were ruminating. “Arrask Nay’shyk, how many of the faithful with you still live?”
“214, and they are all here, awaiting your orders, Great One.”
“Then stand, and be proud, Arrask Nay’shyk! You have gone onto perilous ground, done battle with the Chosen of the Sun, and come out with your forces mostly intact. Yarryn Bre’vre will be missed, but warriors die, and he died facing the greatest of foes!
“However, the game becomes too risky with the addition of this new player. News of a Solar Exalt in Keldon will bring the Wyld Hunt there, and other Solars, and even worse things still. The Fair Folk of the Frabjous Tulge Court may rise up, just to see what this Nightbringer does. You are too far from home, your pockets are empty, and you have suffered great losses. It is time for you to come home, Arrask Nay’shyk. The river rises, only to fall; the river falls, only to rise yet again. You will have another chance to create a new chapter for the faith, but it will be in another place, where the opposition is more acceptable.
“Arrask Nay’shyk, ready your forces to remove completely from Keldon. Make preparations for the Eddying Tide of the Everflowing River.”
“As you command, Great One, so it shall be.” Arrask stood, and there was a knot of worry still in his stomach. Despite his divine master’s words, he had still failed. He had failed in the face of the Anathema, who set the Scarlet Empire abuzz with panic at their very mention, but still, he had failed. However, he took some comfort in the fact that his lower digestive tract was still in place to be knotted, and not strewn across the floor.
Akassk Nay’shyk had his hands full keeping the packing effort moving smoothly. “By the dripping claws of the dragon! Asrith, where is that fool Larsk Uu’ela?”
Asrith Den’lon bowed deeply before her superior. “Grand Master, the seneschal has gone to meet with his contact within the Satrap’s government. He hopes that this contact will confirm that the Imperial Legion is still concentrating its efforts on locating the Wretched, and not us.”
Akassk gazed appreciatively over Asrith’s lithe form, but brought his mind to the task at hand. “Is this contact worth leaving his appointed duties?”
“He says that this is the contact that warned us of the Watch’s attack, just before it happened. Master, Uu’ela may have lost us our cache of funds, but he did get more people out than could be reasonably expected, given the short warning.”
Akassk nodded. “True, well-”
Then Larsk Uu’ela pushed his way through the bustling crowd and bowed before the Grand Master. “Grand Master! I rejoice to inform you that the task of investigating us has befallen a minor sergeant of the Legion, who at this very minute is prowling the slopshops of the slums, searching for the Anathema.”
“Well, I should hope so!” Akassk huffed. “Still, do we have enough time? We only have three hours!”
“Three hours? But I checked the time as I was out. That water clock is two hours fast. Also, I dropped by a few herb shops and purchased the rarer ingredients for a Brew of Pelagic Sustenance. If we all drink this before beginning the rite of the Eddying Tide of the Everflowing River, then the Divine Master will have to spend less energy shielding us from drowning and the cold. With over two hundred of us, I think that that trifle will sit well with the Divine Master.”
Akassk nodded. “A worthy thought, Uu’ela. Since you appear to be familiar with the concoction, get to the kitchens and make up enough of it as you can. Asrith, lend him all the assistance that he needs.”
Asrith Den’lon was the chapter’s mistress of seduction and poisons. She helped Larsk Uu’ela prepare the brew, but she didn’t appreciate being subservient to him in this technical matter. And she definitely didn’t appreciate the minor physical liberties that he took during the preparation. However, she as a trim young beauty, and she was used to men trying. She simply didn’t appreciate not being able to do anything about it.
When the gong announcing the hour rang, Akassk Nay’shyk walked from his quarters to the courtyard with all due ceremony. Asrith Den’lon met him at the door to the courtyard with a bowl of the Brew of Pelagic Sustenance. As he downed the brew, Asrith said, “The Chapter is assembled in the courtyard. Uu’ela has positioned everyone in their proper places for the rite of passage. All that is needed is for you to contact the Divine Master, and begin.”
“Excellent,” Akassk murmured. “Disgrace seems to bring out the best in Larsk.” He sighed, “I only hope that it will bring out the best in me, as well.” Akassk mounted the stair in front of the mirror and looked out at the assembled throng. Then he stopped short. “Hold! What idiocy is THIS? Uu’ela, this is NOT the proper arrangement for the rite of the Eddying Tide of the Everflowing River!”
Larsk Uu’ela stepped forward, “But it IS the proper arrangement.” As everyone watched, Uu’ela spoke a word that was unspeakable, and sketched a blasphemy in the air. "And you aren’t going anywhere.”
Suddenly, everyone in the house, except Larsk Uu’ela, felt a deep cold spread through their entire body. They could see, hear, think and fear, but they couldn’t move a muscle other than their eyes. Larsk wrestled Asrith off to the side, and then Akassk into place at the end of one of the lines of the diagram. Then he brought in four children, bound and gagged, and placed them in their proper places. That done, he produced from his sleeve a dagger of dark metal that seemed to flicker with wraith-like faces that moaned. He recited something in Old Realm, and beginning at one end of the diagram, he began carving glyphs for each of the 216 Unforgivable Offenses deeply into the stomachs of his chapter-mates. And still, even as they bled to death, the ‘Black Dragons’ couldn’t move; they stood stock still in place as their blood flowed over the courtyard floor. For hours, Larsk Uu’ela worked hard, carving blasphemy after blasphemy into the entrails of the people who were supposed to be his family. He finished with Akassk Nay’shyk who glared at him not with fear, but with unfettered rage. Larsk Uu’ela carved the glyph for ‘Incompetent but Vicious Despot’ into his stomach.
Soulsteel knife in his off hand, Larsk Uu’ela walked over to where Asrith stood unmoving, except for the tears flowing from her eyes. “I had the foresight to bring four more, to fill all 216 spaces,” Larsk said, his free hand caressing Asrith’s breast. “You can survive. If you agree to be mine.”
The tears stopped flowing, and Asrith’s eyes grew steely. And Larsk knew that if she lived, she would give him the grisliest and most painful death that she could imagine. And her imagination was vast and lively. “So be it,” he spat, and he carved the glyph for ‘Deceitful Whore’ in her belly.
But Asrith was the 217th person so killed, and she was in the wrong place. This error would come back to haunt Larsk Uu’ela.
As he felt his life draining away, Akassk Nay’shyk called out to his god. And, since Ussh’urr’ussh did hold Akassk in some esteem, it heard him. Faithful minions are harder to come by than it might seem. So Ussh’urr’ussh peered through the mirror into the courtyard. It saw its faithful minions die, and even through the mirror, it smelled the abattoir stench. It knew that another player was making its move in the game. Shutting the eye within the mirror as Asrith Den’lon died, Ussh’urr’ussh settled within its own coils to meditate. There had to be revenge for this atrocity. And even beyond revenge, which its cold draconian nature demanded, there was a matter of keeping this player from profiting even more. And yes, there was even a way to turn this vile setback to a minor profit of its own…
Larsk Uu’ela walked into the center of the configuration, and paused. He didn’t want to do this. He hadn’t wanted to do any of it. He’d come to Ussh’urr’ussh of his own free will. That could not be said of the beings that he served now. He opened his tunic and cut shallowly into his own chest, carving the glyph for ‘Craven Traitor’. When the entire courtyard was awash in blood, Larsk Uu’ela raised his arms and began an ululating chant, which carried the ring of jackals baying. The chant took the better part of an hour, but finally, a current began to swirl in the blood, and then a whirlpool, and finally a vortex.
The vortex echoed with the wail of lost souls, and figures began to step out. Some were riding. Some walked. Some scurried with too many legs - or were they arms? But worst of all was the high jarring giggles that drowned out the more wholesome sound of anguish.
I held the pearl and gave Master Adan a questioning look. “So, I got the Bear Emperor’s hearthstone away from him. How is this a bad thing?”
Master Adan rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Rennar, that hearthstone is rather like Bop, those bracers and that chain; you attuned them all to yourself when you exalted. The bond created when you attune something to yourself when you exalt is very powerful. Not only do you control the power of the Manse-”
“I control a Manse?” I asked, overwhelmed. On the Blessed Isle, Families control Manses, or chapters of the Immaculate Order, or the Thousand Scales. Individuals didn’t control Manses, power blocs did.
“YES, you control the power of the White Temple. That’s the problem. Hakkukuth will definitely want the temple back-”
“Hakkukuth? Who’s he?”
“The mountain-god who’s the father of the Bear Emperor. He is also god of the mountain that is the father of the foothill the White Temple is set. Since the temple is practically inside HIS Mountain, I think that you’ll agree that he’ll want control of it back. And, since he’s one of the Nine Serpent Brothers-”
“Nine Serpent Brothers?”
“There are nine major mountains in the range known as the Snake’s Back, and there are nine gods for each mountain. Collectively, they are the Nine Serpent Brothers.”
“But if he’s a serpent god, how can he have a son who’s the Bear Emperor?”
“As an individual, Hakkukuth takes the form of a Bear, so his son is the Bear Emperor.”
“But… he’s also a serpent brother?”
“Such are the subtleties of Divine culture at the Terrestrial level.” Master Adan raised a wry eyebrow. “Or would you care to discuss the vagaries of Immaculate Doctrine?”
“Master Adan,” Arrek interrupted, “true, the mountain-god will be angry, but then, he’d be angry at the loss of face suffered by his son anyway. Yet you willing engineered much of that loss of face yourself. Why do your fear his wrath NOW?”
Master Adan nodded approvingly at Arrek. “I don’t, particularly. Putting arrogant Little Gods in their proper place is part of what the Exalted - Solar, Lunar, and Terrestrial - were created to do in the first place. Either Rennar or I individually could have given Hakkukuth a run for his money; together, we could run rings around the igneous ignoramus. No, Arrek, the problem is your patrons. You see, rescuing you from the Bear Emperor was only a part of my agreement with them. A goodwill gesture, if you will.”
“Wait a minute,” I said, remembering furiously, “if I recall, you said something about these Lunars having designs on a smaller manse out in the foothills.”
“Smaller, only in terms of physical space,” Master Adan said with a nod. Impressive - as I recall, the White Temple was hardly a shack or a hole in the ground. The Underground Palace must be HUGE! “The White Temple was originally a temple dedicated to the glory of Gaia herself. As such, it is very powerful. I have no idea as to what powers that hearthstone you have there might possess. My agreement with the Lunars was that I would support their efforts to gain the White Temple, and they would support my efforts to gain the Underground Palace. Once we had each gained control of our places of power, we would meet to work out how best to serve the needs of the people and spirits of Kellesval.”
I looked at the Pearl. “So, you want me to just hand this over, and the White Temple as well, to these three Lunars?”
“No.” Master Adan strummed his fingers on a cabinet top. “That’s the problem. I can’t ask you to give up that hearthstone or the White Temple, for the simple reason that you CAN’T give up either of them. The bond that you created when you exalted is too great. For better or for worse, the White Temple is YOUR Manse, for as long as you live.”
“Them as has, gets,” Arrek muttered discontentedly. “You get God-gold weapons, a fine magic bird, and a grand temple. What did I get when *I* exalted? A chill from a night out in the wood.”
“Yes,” I drawled back, “I also lost my friends, my family, my fortune, and now every Dragonblood in the extended Realm is after my head on a platter! The Wyld Hunt not only knows that I’m an ‘Anathema’, but they can call on lifelong friends, who know more about me than I know myself, to help them!”
“Hmm… Maybe,” Arrek allowed, “But I still see a rich lord, complaining about having to give up some of his riches.”
“He can’t give up the White Temple,” Master Adan pointed out, “that’s the problem.”
“As you say, Great Lord,” Arrek said with a bow. Master Adan’s face went hard, and Yarlik, picking up his master’s mood, rose to his feet and growled.
“For the record,” I cut in before it could get any nastier, “I am willing to meet with these three Lunar lords, and try to come to some equitable arrangement. Preferably one that doesn’t involve beheading or disemboweling. So, when can you arrange such a meeting?”
Master Adan made an indistinct noise. “That… may be a bit easier said than done. Relations between the Chosens of the Sun and Moon have been rather… strained… since the Usurpation. Indeed, I agreed to enter into this relationship of mutual support largely as a way to help improve relations. The three Lunars who are interested in the White Temple are far more tolerant of civilization in general than the majority of their kind. By supporting them and helping them gain the White Temple, I was hoping to bolster their position in the Silver Pact. My main asset so far has been complete straightforwardness and plain dealing. This… complication… could sour the deal. Which would be a bad thing, all around.” He paced about a bit. “Well, there’s no use for it - I’m just going to have to call in a professional, and hope that she’s available.”
“A professional what?”
Master Adan smiled bleakly. “A professional wheedler.”
The Joy of Running into Old Friends
While Master Adan was coping with his delicate negotiations, I still had my own end of a deal to hold up. To be specific, I had to get the hearthstone to the Underground Palace out from the Great Tower, while it was still there to get. And, while I was at it, maybe pick up some of my own clothing, and some money. Just because you’re a mighty Champion of the Sun doesn’t mean that you get out of paying for lunch.
Now, in a cheap romance, I would have waited for the dark of the moon, scaled the walls with naught but my fingertips, passed into the Bower of Resplendent Azure Welcome and slipped the hearthstone out of Isegris’ sleeping fingers, while seducing a winsome chambermaid.
Which sounds like a lot of fun. Why can’t I live in a cheap romance?
I once had the opportunity to have a long chat with the best burglar in Chiaroscuro, just before he was hanged. The measure of his skill might be measured by the fact that even with Adlynn, a dragon of the wind, and myself on his heels, the only reason that we caught him was that his accomplice cut the rope that he was climbing, as to get away himself. Shurakses told me that people put far too much emphasis on getting IN; a good burglar concentrates on having ways of getting OUT. With his wisdom in my ears, I poured a little wine into the dust, just in case Shurakses was thirsty down in the Underworld, and went shopping for ways out of the Great Tower.
Everyone expects a burglar to break in, in the middle of the night. But then, if I did what people expected me to do, then I’d be a factor for my family’s portage business, back in Juche. I managed to acquire several layers of clothing (don’t ask), and I went into the Great Tower in the middle of the morning, tagging along at the end of the line of the change of the Watch guard, dressed as one of the Watch. Which was how I got past the first gate. I split off from the line, and shed my first layer of disguise. Under the Watchman’s outfit, I was dressed as a porter for the Bower of Resplendent Azure Welcome. So dressed, I spent the day doing trivial errands, learning the lay of the place from a different perspective than a guest’s, and making several little preparations, most of which are still there, waiting for me.
Towards the middle of the afternoon, I found a nice little niche, and doubtless like hundreds of porters before me, used it to take a refreshing nap. When I slept myself out, I whiled away the remaining hours practicing one of the Essence control meditations that Master Adan had shown me.
Then the appointed hour arrived and all that. Carrying a load, I made my way up to the Bower of Content Umber Repose, where the service staff stayed. Security for that bower was almost nil, so I strode in as if I lived there. From the topmost level of the bower, I made my way to the bower’s outer shell. Looking down from the Bower of Content Umber Repose, I saw that several lights were still on in the Bower of Resplendent Azure Welcome. Not that I was in a hurry. The load that I’d managed to hide my face behind were several coils of silk rope. With the silk rope, I managed to swing over to the Bower of Sublime Emerald Vigilance, where the Tower’s contingent of the Watch resides, and I continued to make my preparations. Among those preparations included dropping down to just outside one of the windows, and fixing the latch so that it would seem to close when it would remain open.
In time, the lights went down and things quieted down. I allowed for the usual oh-I-forgot-somethings, and waited for about an hour for people to get down to the serious business of falling asleep. Finally, that special hush fell, when the people in a place are really asleep. I stripped out of my porter’s uniform to reveal the Black Dragon stealth blacks underneath, and finally dropped down to the Bower of Resplendent Azure Welcome.
I let myself in through that trick window that I’d prepared and listened intently. Yes, I heard the soft hush that suggested low regular breathing, which suggested that people were indeed sleeping. First, I checked all the spots where there could be a hidden layer-in-wait.
Then I went into my room, where I found my clothes all neatly rolled up, as if waiting to be taken down and loaded for traveling. They even had my daiklave, which they’d brought back from the White Temple, where I’d had to leave it in the gut of a real Black Dragon ninja. How considerate of them.
I checked at the very bottom of the pile. Yes, there it was, a spring-loaded trap, set to go off when someone removed the weight. This must have been Randrel’s idea. Neither Esrak or Mykiros would have come up with anything that dim, Isegris nor Nog wouldn’t have bothered, and Adlynn wouldn’t have been that calculating. Still, he does try.
Come to think of it, Randrel is my size, and we share the same size in boots. I mean, I’m not going to wear anything that could be used to track me by scent or some such. Besides, Randrel can afford better clothing that I can, and I have always admired his choices in tailors.
I made up a bundle of clothes and boots, and yes, one of Randrel’s pouches of cash. After all, they ‘confiscated’ my share of the loot, so I might as well get SOME of it back. And, from the pouches that I took, it seems that Randrel was dipping a bit more deeply into the common funds than he strictly speaking should. A pouch of dinars, a pouch of obols, and a pouch of gems! I know that Isegris and Nog spend theirs on wine, women and gambling; I wonder what Randrel spends his on. Then I went onto the next item on my shopping agenda.
Now, this one, I was having some problems with, conscience-wise. Master Adan was very interested in getting his hands on Adlynn’s bolt of dreamsilk. He said that it had special properties. But still, it was Adlynn’s, and she was looking forward to having more gowns made from it, once she got back to the Imperial City. Not to mention, it was long, thick and heavy. I carefully bent the bolt around the ‘frame’ of my pack and made certain that it was still balanced. Then, I made the mistake of leaning over and checking on Adlynn.
Oh dear, it was obvious that she’d been crying. I hate it when Adlynn cries.
Feeling like a complete and utter rat, I hurried back over to Randrel’s room, for the real reason for my visit. Yes, there it was, the Black Dragon tapestry that Randrel had taken as a souvenir for his mother, Aunt Shellis, and there, in the eye of the dragon, was-
The hearthstone that ‘Kiros and I… Mykiros. Yes, he would remember the hearthstone, even after all the to-do. Yes, he would figure that I’d try to come here after such a treasure. But… he wouldn’t just take it and pocket it, or, Sol Invictus forfend, hand it over to either the Satrap or the Abbot. No, he’d take it in front of Randrel, because Randrel’s his best friend. And if Randrel knew, then everyone knew, because Drel would make a big noise about it. There would be a big discussion as to who would keep custody of it and there’d be shouting and accusations. And they’d settle on a ‘let’s ALL keep an eye on it’ solution. They’d hide it where everyone could see it, and keep track of it, but where it wouldn’t be obvious, if you didn’t know where it was.
I paused and tapped my fingers on Randrel’s tapestry. Yes, it would be hidden out in plain sight. I could probably find it, IF I didn’t have six sleeping dragons to worry about. Master Adan probably knows a charm or essence technique or something for finding hidden things, but I don’t know it. Yet. Something that would show me…
I smiled. Well, I’d have to get that first face-to-face confrontation with my old comrades over with eventually. It might as well serve a good purpose. Of course, only a fool faces six dragonbloods with weapons in their hands. There’s a trick that our daiklave instructors used to pull on us, where they’d loosen the bindings on the hilt so that it would slip free from the blade’s tang if you gave it a good swing. I did that to everyone’s daiklave and did little things like wiring their backup weapons into their scabbards, or stuffing socks into Esrak’s slamfist gauntlets, or hiding Adlynn’s war fans and chakram. While I was in Nog’s room, it turned out that his laundry had just returned, so I picked up a few new shirts, some trousers, and a pair of boots that looked like they might fit, for Arrek.
Now, of the lot of them, the two that really worried me were Esrak and Mykiros. While we Celestial Exalts may be more powerful individually, the thing about the Dragonbloods is that they can combine their power to use it more efficiently. If the six or even five of them managed to combine their powers, they could squash me. But, that will only happen if Esrak or Mykiros are there to remind them of that. If I can get Isegris or Nog to start the fight first, I should be able to keep bouncing them off of each other. When I was in Mykiros’ room, I blew some Micomicon dust into his face; he’ll be sleeping until morning.
But that wouldn’t work on a Wood Dragon like Esrak. I realized that Esrak wouldn’t try to use his daiklave in cramped quarters like the Bower, but I still rigged his blade, just in case. Stopping him wasn’t really an option - shy of slitting his throat while he slept and I’m not ready to go there just yet, thank you very much - so, I’d have to settle for slowing him down.
Esrak is a very disciplined and methodical man. He sleeps with his slamfist gauntlets laid out beside him and a pair of slippers beside his bed, so that he can be out of bed, armed, shod and ready for almost anything, all in one fluid move. Of course, if you know that, you can use it against him.
First, I carefully tied a blindfold over his eyes. Then I tied a full wine sack to his right wrist, to throw him off balance. I moved his gauntlets, which were still stuffed with socks. I put his boots where his gauntlets should have been. I moved his slippers and sprinkled where they had been with very sharp caltrops. And as the capper, I strung a thin but strong wire across the lower part of his doorsill. As I surveyed my work, I suppressed a chuckle. What’s the point of being the Sun’s Champion, if you can’t have a little fun doing it, now and again?
That done, I had to figure out how to stir my former comrades, in a way that wouldn’t be too obvious. Well, of course! They were kind enough to set a trap for me; it would be rude to not fall for it!
Securing my load for when I’d have to be moving quickly, I returned to ‘my room’ and jerked my daiklave from the pile. The slender line connected to the blade tripped the trap, which set off the most awful clattering nose. The old ‘pile-of-pots’ trap. Now I knew that Randrel had to be the one who set it.
Immediately, the lights went up, and I strode into the main room, to the point where they could all see me, but I had the widest possible angle of access. I heard sounds of scuffling in all the rooms, and the sound of loud cursing from Esrak’s room. Adlynn appeared in her doorway first, empty- handed. She just gasped.
Then Isegris and Randrel showed up in their doorways, daiklaves in hand, and Nog showed, hefting his goremaul. Before Esrak could show up and add a note of reason to the situation, I said chipperly, “Well done, Randrel! I had the devil’s own time finding THIS!” I dramatically held up the paste ‘stone’ that I was going to leave in the dragon’s eye.
Reflexively they all looked at a bit of carved work high on the wall. Yes, there it was, winking out from a set of paste insets, the large triangular green stone. Obvious, if you knew where to look. <Snatch!> Before they could react - or, worse, think - I lashed out with my Eagle Claw chain and took the stone from its setting. “Well, it’s been lovely, and I’d love to stay and chat, but I really must be going.”
Of course, Isegris wasn’t having any of it. “You filthy PIG!” he came at me, swinging his daiklave, which slipped out from its bindings and went flying, embedding itself in a far wall. This threw him badly off-balance, so I ducked under his swing and threw him into Randrel.
Seeing his brother go down so ignominiously, Nog let out a roar and came charging at me with his goremaul. He swung it at me, and just as the goremaul went past the crest of the arc of the swing, the big block of jade carved into the shape of a bull’s head came loose (I’d undone the restraining bolt), and it went flying. It hit Esrak squarely in the chest as he staggered into the frame of his doorway. I really wish that I could say that I’d planned that.
Randrel pushed Isegris off of him and came at me, but he was quick enough to pull up short when he felt his daiklave start to slip. He tried to turn it into a series of smaller whirling strokes, but he lost control of the momentum, and I sent him sprawling with a kick. Isegris was right behind him with his two shoklaves - still in their sheaths. As he looked dumbfounded at the useless swords, I used my Eagle Claw chain to take them away from him, and then knock him off his feet.
Despite the flying hammerhead in the chest, Esrak was still full of beans. “Avaunt Anathema!” he said in a ‘lead actor in a historical drama declaiming the main speech’ voice, “Surrender now, and be cleansed!”
“‘Avaunt Anathema’?” I asked plaintively, as I pulled the dragon mask up from my face. “Are you KIDDING, Esrak?”
“Oh, let’s see you be so flip in the face of THIS!” He reached into a wickerwork basket and pulled out a rather woebegone looking puppy of maybe seven moons old, with shaggy black fur all over except for two large white spots over its eyes. Through the white spots large soulful, mismatched eyes goggled at me.
Now, if I remember correctly, in some parts of the Threshold, there’s a tale that a black dog with white spots over its eyes can repel some kinds of Anathema. But still, “Really, Esrak, I expect better of you! It’s a puppy! What’s it going to do, WET me?” Then, as if on cue… “I’m not cleaning that up.”
Recovering from being thrown, Isegris shouted, “HAH! Let’s see what THIS does!” He held a carved wooden cinquefoil of the Five Elemental Dragons in front of him. Oh, another charm against the Anathema, and just as effective as the black dog; I snapped a punch right through the center of the cinquefoil, and popped Isegris right in the nose.
“Well then!” Randrel reached into his robes and pulled out a sprig of mistletoe. “Let’s see how your unholy power does against THIS!”
I looked at him blankly, and tapped my toe. “Randrel, if you try to use this as an excuse to kiss me, I’m gonna slug you.”
Apparently the boys had been on a shopping spree. Nog - of all people! - snatched a scroll from a shelf and pulled it wide open. “BEHOLD! The Prescribed Blossom of Ages! The most sacred of Immaculate Texts! Let’s see your Solar wiles prevail against the Written Word of Resolute Truth!”
I gently took the scroll from his hands. He was so shocked that he didn’t even offer a token resistance. “I’m impressed, Nog! The Prescribed Blossom of Ages. First quality linen, excellent calligraphy, sealed as approved by the Abbot himself! Mind if I borrow this? I’ve been meaning to look these passages over, and see if I can find any loopholes. It should come in very handy.” I snapped out with the scroll, using one post as a handle and the other as a flail to smack Esrak, Randrel and Isegris in the head. “See? Very useful!”
I wound the scroll back up with a single twist of my hand. “Well, once again, it’s been lovely, we really should get together again and talk about old times. BUT-” I used Nog’s head as post to vault over him and get to the window that I’d come in.
Which, I couldn’t get out through anymore. I’d barely managed to squeeze through, coming in. There was no way that I’d get through it, with all the things that I had strapped to my back, including Adlynn’s bolt of dreamsilk. And even if I were willing to let go of my swag, Isegris and the others certainly weren’t going to give me the time to get shuck of it. Randrel rushed me from behind, and my backpack kept him from gaining any hold, so I flipped him over my back into the bathtub, and made my way back into the central area. This is why you arrange for more than one way out; I could go out the balcony from Adlynn’s room and use exit plan #2.
Of course, one of the reasons that I was willing to use my clever little ploy of waking up my erstwhile friends, was that I was certain that they’d restrain their use of their Dragon-blooded power charms, for fear of destroying the apartment. Once again, Isegris succeeded at failing to grasp the obvious. He had his Fire Aspect manifestation up at full blaze, and he was leaving big burning footprints in the carpet. He launched a rapid-fire barrage of Fire Dragon Style punches at me, which I parried with my bracers.
Well, he wants to show off his Terrestrial Exalted power, does he? So be it! I called up my own Solar power, charged my feet with it, and planted a kick squarely in the center of his chest. Not only didn’t I get burned, but I sent Isegris sailing into the standing aquarium.
“I’m sorry that it has to be like this, Rennar,” I heard from behind me. Mykiros was standing in the doorway of his bedroom, still in his nightshirt. I thought that I’d put him to sleep with the Micomicon. Maybe he saw another drug-trap coming, and made himself immune to it somehow? He held up a slender tube, capped and filigreed with red jade. “The finger-bones of the Immaculate monk-sage Inajajaru, who stood alone against the Anathema Sun-Withers-The-Crops, are in this reliquary. Your Sun-Devil power can’t stand against these relics of that holy man.”
I gave a heavy sigh. “‘Kiros, you KNOW that you always get gypped at those ‘special shrines’! Even if they DID have a relic like that, even if the relic WAS real, and even if the bones really DID have some sort of special power, what makes you think that they’d SELL something like that, at prices that you could afford?”
I reached out to take the reliquary from him, but my jibe died in my throat as I neared it. There was something about those little bits of bone that sucked my power right out of me, and left me feeling cold and drained. Esrak gave a brusque cry of victory and said, "That’s it, Mykiros! Ram that thing down his throat!”
Okay, this wasn’t fun anymore. I scrambled back from the damned thing, and suddenly, I found that wooden dragon cinquefoil of Isegris’, which hadn’t worked. Well, it might not work for him, let’s see how it works for me! I threw the cinquefoil as a chakram and knocked the reliquary out of Kiros’ hand.
Like idiots, they all scrambled to get it. I took advantage of their distraction to head for Adlynn’s room and exit plan #2. But as I rushed up, Adlynn wouldn’t budge from her place in the doorway. She looked up at me with huge, tragic, tear-stained blue eyes and whispered, “Rennar?”
Oh, Hell. I’d sooner strangle a basketful of kittens than hit Adlynn. I spun about, and headed for the main balcony, and exit plan #3. Unfortunately, as soon as I got to the screen, I could see that there were at least 12 members of the Watch standing there in chain mail, with pikes at ready. Now, normally, I could have just piled on through them, only worrying about them slowing me down. But after those damned finger-bones, I doubt that I could do that anymore. I was running on pure panic by this time.
So, to the hallway, and exit plan #4!
I was halfway there, when I heard sounds in the hallway, which suggested that there were more Watchmen in the hall.
So much for exit plan #4. Next time, I must remember to create an exit plant #5. Time to improvise.
Somehow, Isegris had managed to get his daiklave rebound, and he had it at the ready. “STAND BACK!” he roared. “The scum is MINE!”
The others cleared the area, and I drew my own, merely steel daiklave. I knew that my orichalcum Eagle Claw chain was more than a match for his jadesteel daiklave, as were my orichalcum claws. But, it was important to me that I beat Isegris, face to face, blade to blade.
We traded a few blows, before Isegris lost his temper again, and charged with his daiklave in the ‘Stoking Bonfire Style’, which I barely managed to parry and stung my hands with the shock of it.
I didn’t have a lot of Essence to waste, so I needed to take care of Isegris quickly. Every daiklave is made special for the dragonblood to wield it, and each Exalt has a lot of say in how it’s designed. You can tell a lot about the Exalt by his blade; Isegris’ daiklave is very much in the ‘flickering flame’ school of design, which does say a lot about him. Particularly, there’s the fact that he chose style over substance, to wit there’s a part of the blade where the style makes the blade too thin. Using those strange senses that I now have, I examined the very structure of the daiklave and found a spot where the essence that held the whole thing together was weak in the same place where the design was weak.
I charged my own daiklave with what Solar essence that I could spare, and struck at that point on his blade with all my might. Isegris thought that he was parrying, but instead brought the weak point right into my blade’s arc of transit. The red jadesteel of his daiklave shattered like brittle glass, sending shards all over the place.
Isegris stared at what was left of his daiklave, thunderstruck and grief-stricken. “You broke my sword,” he said softly.
Then he looked at me, awe giving way to anger. “You BROKE my Sword!” He said more forcefully.
“Well, it wasn’t like you were ever really any good with it.”
“YOU! BROKE! MY! SWORD!”
“Don’t take it so hard, Isegris,” I said consolingly. “After all, all I did was symbolically emasculate you.”
Isegris let out a scream of mindless rage and charged at me. I barely managed to get under him and throw him into Mykiros, who had that damned reliquary again.
With the only thing that I really had to worry about out of play for a moment, I improvised for all that I was worth. I grabbed the black-and-white puppy and chucked it in Adlynn’s general direction. Adlynn reflexively jumped to grab and save the pup, finally allowing me to get past her, and into her room. Adlynn - or, more likely Randrel - had put a thick locked bar over her window.
Time to improvise again!
Nog was standing in the doorway, his fixed goremaul in his hands, and the fire of rage in his eyes. Perfect.
“Oh, Nog?” I said lightly. Then I pulled out The Prescribed Blossom of Ages and blew my nose on it.
Nog goggled at the blasphemy, let out a yell and charged me. I sidestepped, and Nog charged right through the wall next to the window. Did I mention that that window opened out through the outer shell of the bower? Not what I was planning, but still damned useful.
I heard Nog scream as he dropped, and a splash as he landed in one of those large lakes in front of the Tower. I leaned out the hole and called, “Thanks, Nog! I can take it from here!” I took hold of one of the silk ropes that I’d spent so much time preparing, and swung over to the Bower of Sublime Emerald Vigilance. As I said, the Bower of Sublime Emerald Vigilance is where the Tower’s contingent of the Watch normally operates out of, and right now, I’d say that it’s the only place in the Tower that’s empty of the Watch. I proceeded to continue with the rest of exit plan #2.
I stripped out of my Black Dragon stealth silks, and pulled them onto a makeshift dummy. Then I put on my counterfeit Watch uniform, and strung the dummy onto another line that I’d prepared. Then I yelled, “YOU THERE! STOP IN THE NAME OF THE SATRAP!” I waited a three-count, and sent the dummy sliding. “STOP HIM! He’s getting away!”
Then I charged out into the hallway, until I met with a few ‘fellow’ Watchmen, and I informed them in loud, carrying words that the Wretched had made his escape on a sliding rope. This was already echoing through the hallways, so we all boiled down the stairs, through the main entrance, and out into the streets. If anyone wondered what I was doing with an overstuffed pack on my back, they were too excited and focused to say anything. Once again, I allowed myself to be passed until I was bringing up the rear, and then I slipped unnoticed into the shadows of the streets of Keldon.
I had retreated far from the Great Tower, and was resting on a rooftop, when I noticed something. There was a… something… on my daiklave. It wasn’t anything normally visible; I think that I only saw it, as I’d Exalted. It was like the barest whisper of a spider’s line, trailing off the hilt of my sword, and leading off into the night. I waved my hand through the ghostly cord, and it barely even wavered.
I paused, and considered it. A Dragon Knight’s Daiklave is supposed to be a sacred thing, a symbol of might, prowess, skill and honor. Even before you exalt, a child of the Dynasty is supposed to spend hours drilling with the shoklave, and then, only after mastering that, do they spend more hours drilling with the daiklave. There is a powerful mystic bond between a Dragon Knight and his blade. Perhaps, someone’s playing a subtler game? They expect me to break into my friends’ suite and make off with my cherished daiklave, so they arrange for this quiet treachery, with me leaving a trail for them to find me.
No, this isn’t Mykiros’ ploy; it’s just not his style. And it’s not Esrak either, or he wouldn’t have pulled that idiot gambit with the pup. Yes, there’s another player in this game, and I don’t know who it is. Yet.
As I pondered what to do, a refuse wagon came rumbling through the wee hours, picking up the trash left out by every household back door. I looked at my daiklave. There was one way that I knew of removing this magical trail that I was leaving behind. And I certainly didn’t want to risk revealing the location of Master Adan’s lair under Jade Hill. With a regret only slightly less than one might feel at chopping off one’s own leg to escape a trap, I threw my precious daiklave into the huge heap of filth. As the refuse wagon rumbled off into the morning hours, I mused bitterly over the symbolism of what I’d done.
“A reliquary of finger bones?” Master Adan asked as he carefully fit the hearthstone into the communicator. He chuckled, “Oh, I’d have given good money to see your friend Mykiros’ face when-”
“No, Master Adan,” I corrected him, “the reliquary, whatever it was, it had some sort of virtue in it. When I tried to take it from Mykiros, it… drained me of much of my Essence.”
“You’re joking,” he replied in a flat voice, as much question as statement.
“No, my jokes are actually funny,” I replied. “Whatever that thing was, it was deadly serious.”
Master Adan gave me a querying look. “Finger-bones?”
“The finger-bones of Inajajaru, some monk-sage who apparently went up against a Solar alone.”
“Did he win?”
“I have no idea. Never heard of him before, or this Sun-Withers-the-Crops. And I took fifth honors at the Cloister of Wisdom. This is bad, if they have something that can sap my Essence that way.”
“Not to worry,” Master Adan said as a calculating look spread across his face. “I can teach you a charm that should protect you. But I’m more interested in where your friend Mykiros found such a nasty little talisman.”
“Well, he didn’t have it before, so he must have picked it up as a precaution, like Esrak picking up that dog.”
Master Adan broke down snickering. “I think that your friend Esrak is showing his roots. Well,” he took a deep breath, “I’ll drop in and offer my condolences; maybe I’ll pick up a clue as to where Mykiros got that interesting reliquary.”
“Don’t get too acquisitive,” I warned him. “I almost lost everything, because you were so interested in Adlynn’s bolt of dreamsilk.”
“Are you sure that it wasn’t because of all of the rest of that junk that you insisted on taking with you?”
“Can you blame me?” I asked as I adjusted the fit on the fine gray silk shirt of Randrel’s that I was wearing. Maybe that’s what he spends all that money on, expensive tailoring. “By the way, what exactly is such a much about that dreamsilk?”
Master Adan raised an eyebrow. “You mean, you don’t know?”
“Would I put myself in the way of another lecture, if I did?”
He turned from the communicator. “Rennar, exactly where did you and Adlynn get your hands on that dreamsilk?”
“Well, as Mykiros told you, Ad and I were in Deornel, and there was a bit of business with a lesser Fae Lord named Azaten. Short form, we caught him in a conflict of oaths, and wrangled that dreamsilk out of him. We were expecting maybe a couple of yards of it, but he insisted on an entire bolt. Given Fae humor, we’ve been avoiding doing too much with it. Adlynn had that gown made over my very loud protests.”
Master Adan nodded sagely. “The point, more likely, is less Fae humor than Fae honor. Or, more accurately, Face. This Azaten figured that making a display out of giving you a reward for defeating him, which was far out of proportion to the feat, elevated him. After all, if the ransom for Azaten is an entire bolt of dreamsilk, then Azaten must be a magnificent lord indeed, no?”
“That makes no sense.”
“It makes Fae sense. Dreamsilk is a stable form of Gossamer, which is itself a stabilized form of Essence. In the hands of a Fae crafter, Dreamsilk can be woven into almost anything, and it will keep its form, unlike most things produced by the glamour-smith’s art.”
It started to make a bit of sense. “So… when we used that dreamsilk for bandages and the Dragonbloods used healing charms…”
“The dreamsilk merged with your flesh, making it whole again. Effective, if rather wasteful.”
I raised an eyebrow. “And what do you plan to do with the dreamsilk now?”
“Haven’t completely made up my mind,” he admitted. “Still, it does open new possibilities… But, in the meantime…” He closed his eyes, muttered a mantra to himself and his fingers danced in a mudra. His aura flared, and formed gold traces in a complex pattern of circles, triangles, rectangles and lines, on a deep violet background. The caste mark on his forehead lit brightly. “Lantern of Emerald Flame, attend! I am Master Haldjar Adan NiAmvas, Solar Exalt of the Twilight Caste! Speak to me!”
A clear, level, toneless voice came from the communicator.
*I greet you, Prince of the Earth*
“You are the Lantern of Emerald Flame?”
“For years, you have given lore and advice to the Bear Emperor, who is not of the Exalted; will you give me accurate lore and truthful advice?”
*It is the reason that I was created*
“You haven’t answered my question. Will you give me accurate lore and truthful advice: Yes or No?”
Master Adan and the Lantern went at it back and forth for a while. Despite its answer, I got the impression that the Lantern didn’t particularly trust Master Adan. Perhaps the Lantern felt some loyalty to the Bear Emperor. Or, maybe there was something about those extra pieces that Adlynn and I left in among the Micomicon that would have made dealing with it easier. After about an hour of that, Arrek had stopped listening in, and was going over a scroll that Master Adan would help him with his basic literacy skills. I decided that it was time to go back up top, and get a few things.
“Arrek, I’m going shopping. I’ll sell a few of these gemstones, they’re not doing me any good as they are, and pick up a few things. Will you need anything?”
He handed me the pair of Nog’s boots that I’d brought. “Take these to a cobbler and get them lengthened and widened a bit. Oh, and would you get me an honest shirt? This one of your friends that you brought me makes me feel like a pimp. Oh, and unless you enjoy being taken for a Dynast Lord, you might look into a few decent shirts for yourself.” I rather get the impression that Arrek’s idea of ‘honest and decent’ equates to homespun and itchy. Still, he did have a point. I really should invest in some clothes that wouldn’t raise eyebrows in some of the places that I’d have to be dealing in.
Criminals Are A Superstitious And Cowardly Lot
I let Bop fly free once I was out of the alley. Being underground that much isn’t good for either one of us. It was good to have the clear open blue sky above us again - or, in this case, the smoke-choked sky as briefly glimpsed through over the roofs and the narrow streets. While I hadn’t as much experience at dealing with it as Isegris, who seems to be more at home in the gutter than in the parlor, I have dealt with the shadier side of the Law.
The trick to selling gemstones such as I had to offer, was to find a buyer who was poor enough to not look too carefully at who was selling, but respectable enough to not think that slitting his vendor’s throat was a good way to cut his overhead. A good rule of thumb is to look for a jeweler who makes a production out of being wealthy; it generally means that he’s just getting by, and wants to attract common trade, who would be impressed by such things. A jeweler who caters to the noble and truly wealthy will make a production of being understated and ‘simple but well turned out’.
The jeweler that I chose had his shop on the fringe of a respectable neighborhood, but just around the corner from a more hardscrabble part of town. He had gilded wooden trim on his storefront, there was gaudy colored glass in his windows, and a magnificent pole stood beside his door, proclaiming his wares. He also had an extremely complex lock on his very thick, very sturdy door. And when I saw that he had thick iron shutters for those colorful windows, I knew that I had my man.
Indeed, as I rang his bell and he walked in, I knew that I’d found the place. My patrician’s eye ticked off all the little signs of a person who wanted to make a production of affluence, but had neither the money nor taste to really pull it off. As he settled his mantle (old fur, starting to molt, most probably second or third hand), and set his cap (sham velvet), he made sure that I saw the rings on his fingers (plated gold, set with paste gems, apprentice craftsmanship). Another trick to this sort of thing is to never spill the gems out on the counter, as you see actors in cheap romances doing. If he knows that you have many, the jeweler will make noises about a flooded market. No, you lay them on the counter one at a time, starting with your least gem, and making sure that you get a good price for it.
I’d brought out my third gem, a lovely sapphire, which Mylian the jeweler was slandering, when the door opened, and a rather rough-clad fellow came in without bothering to scrape the mud off of his feet. “I’ll be with you in a moment, Narquis,” the jeweler said snappishly, and then set a price that was only parsimonious, not miserly. I bartered him up to what constituted only an obscene profit for him, and shook hands on that. Then, noticing that Narquis hadn’t hung around to pawn whatever he’d probably stolen, I brought out the ruby.
At the end of the deal, having no doubt provided Mylian’s children and grandchildren with their fortunes, I left his shop with a full purse of dinars. Mylian was beginning to close up shop, probably to get these stones to another jewel merchant and replenish his operating capital. Then, I noticed that the tenor of the street had changed. It was still morning, and the streets should be full of vendors and women going about their errands before the afternoon heat set in. But instead, all the women and trades people were conspicuously absent; only small groups of three to five men in rough clothing were lounging about here and there. By some coincidence, they were placed almost exactly to give optimum coverage of the street without crowding each other or being too far spread out.
As I walked down the street, the clusters began to move in a rather uninspired attempt to not show their hand. Oh please, I saw their hand before it was even dealt! I stopped by the poor idiot who thought that it would be clever to play at being a ‘crippled beggar’ (never place yourself in a position where you have to sit on your own leg), and said a few cooing words of solace. Making at rummaging around for a piece of coin that was small enough, I waited for my pursuers to get just close enough and-
Using the ’beggar’s’ head as a step, I vaulted over the heads of the clods ‘sneaking up’ behind me, and I landed on the heads of the clods sneaking up behind them. I tread carefully on their pates for a bit, while they were still wrapping those pointy things around the fact that I wasn’t just going to sit around and be captured. I whipped out my Eagle Claw chain, and knocked the oafs who were now coming at a run off their pins.
With something vaguely resembling a clear field, I ran like a shot back to Mylian’s shop. The bit of leather that I’d jammed the lock with had done the trick, and I managed to plow through Mylian’s nice thick door. I slammed the door shut, and was reaching up to secure the lock, when I heard a disturbing set of clicks behind me. I quickly turned my head, just to be sure, and saw Mylian pointing a cocked pair of Chiaroscuran cavalry fire pieces at me.Well, it wasn’t like I hadn’t figured out that Mylian did a sideline as fence…
I jumped forward and down, leaving the door free. The mob burst through the door just as Mylian fired one of the pieces. The tongue of flame forced all of them to the ground. “Mylian, you fool! It’s HIM! The Sun Devil! The one that the reward poster says there’s a five thousand dinar reward for!”
Mylian kept the firepiece up, and said, “Let me turn him in, and I’ll let you keep the dinars!”
“How many of the dinars?”
“ALL of the dinars!” Clever man, Mylian. If it were known that he had that much money in the house, his own clientele would rip the place apart. But, not having to pay taxes for a year was worth twice that much money, and no one would begrudge him it; he might even sleaze out a way to stretch it out for a few months. The notoriety of having captured me wouldn’t hurt him any, either. “Besides, would any of YOU want to be seen before a magistrate, demanding money?”
Then Bop swooped through the door, and knocked the firepiece out of Mylian’s hand. I leapt over the counter and was immediately on top of Mylian, and had him out cold before he could get to the firepiece. I scooped up the firepiece and clambered up the narrow stairs with the mob hot on my heels. I kept going up the stairs until the sloping roof told me that I was at the attic. I fired the piece down the stairs and dropped it. I brushed the panic-stricken old lady aside and crashed through the window, out onto the roof.
Master Fist-of-Insight (which shatters the nut of ignorance) always told us students at the Cloister, “Always take the battle onto ground that suits you over your enemy. If you have greater numbers, force the enemy into open ground; if you have fewer numbers, draw the enemy into tight quarters.” So, I took the chase onto the roofs of Keldon. I was quick and in top shape, and most of my pursuers were merely big and ruthless.
I discovered that if I tried, I could see through Bop’s eyes, so I had a tactical advantage there. The chase went on through the afternoon and into the dusk, with me leading the thugs of Keldon on a merry chase. The streets were littered with dead and injured men that I’d never laid a hand on; they just kept falling, either from their own clumsiness or that of the oaf behind them. However, they had the advantage of sheer numbers. No matter how many fell from the roof or just gave up from exhaustion, there were always more ready to take up the chase, fresh and feisty.
As dusk gave way to evening, I was bone tired and running out of places to run to. One crowd of them had me cornered on a roof, with nowhere to jump to, even if I had the energy. Sensing that, the end of the hunt was nigh, they gathered themselves for the kill. I popped the claws from my bracers, and decided to take as many of the rabble with me as I could. Then, out of the dark, Bop swooped down, manifesting her (my? our?) ‘Ghost-Owl’ totem, and swept them off the roof like rats. Then she wheeled about and carried me from that roof into the night.
She put me down, dwindled back down to a mere mospid and settled into my arms exhausted, poor brave little thing. I settled myself into a niche in the shadows, and listened to the mob raven itself mad, looking for me. “Oh,” I gasped into the night, “that was bloody humiliating! What do those rats care for a Solar Exalted? To them, I’m just some noble fallen from grace. I’ll need a disguise, if I’m to get anything done. And not just a disguise, but a disguise that will give me an edge, as well.” I watched a few figures clumsily prowl the rooftops. “Thugs like that are a superstitious and cowardly lot. I’ll need a disguise that inspires fear in them.” Then, a bunch of the thugs broke and ran from one niche that they were exploring. An owl flew out, chasing them from its nest.
“That’s IT!” I cried, “It’s an omen! I shall become… A STRIX!”
“A Strix,” Master Adan said in a flat voice. “You’re going to go out, dressed as a Strix.”
“No, not all the time,” I hedged, “I’ll wear more conventional disguises when I have to do things like buy a new shirt.” I tugged at the tatters of the fine shirt that I’d left with.
“You could have spared yourself a lot of trouble, if you’d just put on a false mustache or nose,” Master Adan said dryly. Then he gave me a hard look. “Are you serious about this?”
“Master Adan, there’s something going on out there. We’ve got to find the Black Dragons, and what’s left of the Bear cult. And there’s something else going on here; you know it and I know it. I can’t go out there and be effective, if every blackguard and footpad in Keldon thinks that he and his bullyboys can hunt me down like a rabbit. They’re not afraid of Kaellis Rennar, the noble boy fallen from grace; then I’ll give them something to be afraid of: a ghost-owl come to hunt THEM like rats!”
“And precisely what do you want ME to do?”
“Well, I was thinking an owl-cloak.”
“Yes, a long draping cape that suggests owls wings, with a hood that suggests a horned owls head.”
“And why can’t you get a tailor in Keldon to make this for you?”
“Because, no tailor in Keldon knows how to work dreamsilk. I’m seeing a cloak that will let me blend into the shadows when I want to, but suddenly be very obvious and impressive - when I so wish. Maybe, you can work some charm into it that will let me fly?”
“Fly?” Master Adan mused, “No, true flight is out of the question. But, perhaps…” He went for a tablet and stylus, and I knew that I had him where he was most vulnerable.
Silently, Larsk Uu’ela cursed the day that he met that woman, twice cursed the woman herself, and thrice cursed himself for being a fool and letting her seal that pact with him. He’d wanted to excel, to be wealthy, to be beloved of Ussh’urr’ussh, to eclipse Akassk Nay’shyk, to be Master of the Keldon chapter, and to have the love of Asrith Den’lon. Instead of excelling, he had fallen to depths viler than he ever could have imagined. Instead of being beloved by the great river dragon, he was the despised pawn of darkness. Instead of eclipsing Akassk Nay’shyk, he’d only survived him. Instead of being the Master of a chapter of top-water fighters, he was the ‘Master’ of a crew of shambling corpses. He had Asrith Den’lon, but only her cold body. Even the wealth that they’d given him was tainted. He shifted the bag of obols in his hands. They were jade, all right, but they were white jade, of a purity that had never come from any mine. He’d heard things about the Underworld, and how they spun ghost jade from the spirits of the dead. Even as he held it, he imagined - or did he only imagine it? - low muffled moaning coming from the pieces. He heard that in the Underworld, they used ghost jade to build everything: walls, floors, pots. They’d paid him in bricks. Worse, with chips from bricks. He’d probably wind up haunting anyone that he paid with the accursed things.
What did they want with him now? He walked up to the tall, shaven-headed Deathknight dressed in the long draping coat, who was supervising the living minions as they loaded the bodies of the Black Dragons onto pallets, to try and find out. But before he could say anything, another of the Deathknights - knight, hah! More like a stripling girl dressed in little more than a one-shouldered hunting tunic and archer’s gear, with overdone bethorned gauntlets of some dark metal that reached up to the shoulders of both arms - cut him off. But there was something about the redheaded alabaster-skinned beauty that forbore pushing her aside. “Well, Physicker, now that you finally have your fiendish devise up and running, what ARE you going to do with these?” she asked the first Deathknight.
In a chilly monotone, the Physicker with the Cure for All Disease said, “In many ways, the Walking Dead make for excellent foot troops. However, they have several shortcomings. Decay makes them soft and interferes with motor control, and it creates a distinct odor. This odor has significant uses on the battlefield, but in a covert operation such as this, it sadly tips our hand.”
“Ah,” said the girl with a minxish grin, “but isn’t decay and the passage of spirit completely freed from flesh our entire crusade?”
“True, Thorn of the Crypt Rose,” the Physicker replied, completely oblivious to Crypt Rose’s teasing, “however, sacrifices must be made on the immediate level to further the greater cause. My devise will freeze the bodies, preserving their material integrity.”
There was a high pitched giggling from the large, piston-driven machine that the pallet was being pushed to. “Oh, from sloppy, smelly walking corpses to stiff, unmoving corpsicles!” The Madcap Juggler of Skulls perched atop the machine, one of his trademark skulls in hand. “What’s that, Persifin?” The Juggler put the skull to an ear and attended, as if listening to a whispering child, “Yes, indeed, SUCH an improvement!” Then, he clutched his side in a giggle-fit.
The mockery was totally lost on the Physicker, if indeed, he was susceptible to such things. As he loaded bodies onto the hopper of the machine, he droned, “My process dries the bodies as well as freezes them, creating a state of semi-elastic mummification. They will be stable, while maintaining most of their physical ability.” He loaded bottles of chemical preparations into slots and started up a flywheel. The contraption rattled into motion. Pistons on the top of the device went up and down, jostling the Juggler until he was thrown to the floor.
As the devise chugged along, a short, pudgy man wearing the funereal robes of a nobleman walked on, followed closely by a taller, much more athletic man with the dress and mien of an Immaculate monk. The shorter man stopped, set his folded soulsteel parasol to the floor as to strike a pose, and glared at the devise. “Noisy thing,” he grunted. “Well, does the damn-fool thing WORK?”
“Signs are encouraging, General,” the Physicker said dispassionately. “However, we just started the first unit; it will take at least an hour before we have any material proof.”
“Well, in case it does, select a body for Captain Mardo Nexcken, and graft that hand of his onto it.”
Suddenly Asrith’s body jerked up. “Now, now, my general,” a man’s grating voice rasped out of her mouth, and a sly malice lit her features. “After all, our paid traitor has yet to be fully paid for his invaluable services!” Larsk Uu’ela’s flesh crawled as Asrith’s body slinked over to him and draped over him. He pulled away as a finger almost caressed his cheek, and his gorge began to rise as Asrith’s full, dead lips pursed to kiss him.
“Your Excellency!” Larsk squeaked as he pulled away from Asrith’s corpse’s embrace, “I would not give you poor service for such generosity! There are things that you must know!” His mind raced for such information that would keep him valuable to these unthings.
“Oh?” the General grunted, annoyed at the distraction, “Like WHAT?”
“Keldon is not a safe nor easy place to operate these days! Ussh’urr’ussh was in the process of withdrawing what remained of his forces, when I made them available to you! I used his attempts to withdraw them as a pretext to assemble them in the proper manner to bring you here!”
“How clever of you,” the General grated. Then the General grew interested. “Now, precisely WHY would your soggy superior decide to pull out?”
“As I said, Great One,” Larsk gasped, clutching at this straw with everything that he had, “things have gone badly here in Keldon of late. First, a group of adventuring Dynasts from the Blessed Isle came…”
“Dragonbloods,” the General made a dismissive noise, “So what?”
“We tried to set them against the Bear Cult-”
“Of course you did. Nice to hear that the Grail of Bitter Gall is still up to snuff.”
“But even as the Prince’s forces broke the power of the Cult, it turned out that one of the Dynasts was a Solar Anathema in disguise! He broke the Bear Emperor, escaped from the Prince’s forces, and has been running amok in Keldon!”
“WHAT?” The General screeched, “A SOLAR EXALT? HERE? NOW?” The General was by far the shortest person there, but he dominated the room by his force of presence. He mastered himself with visible effort. Even so, his jowls quivered and his long, beak-like nose shook with the effort.
Larsk Uu’ela fell to the ground and covered his head. “Excellency, I had nothing to do with bringing the Wretched One here! And I knew that you should know!”
“‘Wretched one’?” the General grated. “Night Caste. Of all the WORST possible chances, for an operation like this! We need secrecy! With any of the other ones, we could hide until the Wyld Hunt drove them away! But a Night Caste... he’ll be there, using our own blessed darkness against us! And if you know… then the local Dragonbloods are in an uproar, the Imperial Legion is scouring the streets, and someone’s no doubt called for the Wyld Hunt!”
The General in Command of the Monstrous Regiment of Crows thrashed his parasol about, giving orders. “Kurov! Send your pets to watch the walls!” Spindly things that were neither altogether men nor spiders scurried to obey. “Ardran! Set a guard! Unspoken Mystery! Assume that the Nightbringer is already here! Go! Find him!” The tall ascetic gave a curt bow, and was gone like the wind. “Crypt Rose! Search the walls and then the immediate neighborhood!” The hunter-girl all but disappeared in a puff of smoke. “Juggler! Assume that this location is already compromised! Find me an immediate alternative locale, and then I want you to find me an option of at least eight alternative bases of operations!”
“Yeah, yeah, such a fuss over one mewling Solar...” The Juggler sneered. He held up one of his skulls and it squeaked, “Brave, brave General without fear, or peer, or leer, or beer…”
“Get going,” the General snarled. The Juggler got himself up, dusted himself off and loped off, but one of the skulls was on his shoulder looking back at the General and laughing. The General turned to Asrith’s form. “Captain Mardo, I want you to use that lissome body to its best application, and use it to go and fetch here the Grail of Bitter Gall. Let’s hear what she knows. Physicker! Get your contraption running, and improve as many of these bodies as you can, in the time allowed. Major Rokgra,” a living, if quite pale man snapped to attention, “this place is no longer safe. Pack everything for immediate transport, the Black Dragons’ things as well as ours. Once that’s done, I want a detail cleaning this place up. I don’t want ANY TRACES of our presence left here! If necessary, lap up all this blood WITH YOUR TONGUE! Am I understood?” The Major saluted and left.
Then the General looked down at Larsk Uu’ela. “And as for YOU… Tell me things…”
From where she was hidden, the shade of Asrith Den’lon watched her own body, ridden by… something else, search for a dress that wasn’t befouled with her own blood and filth. The glyph for ‘deceitful whore’ burned dully in the belly of her ghostly form. A Solar Exalt. A Dagger of Heaven. One who could find these ghastly scum, and give her justice. Yes, now she had hope. If only she could find him, before her higher self parted from her bestial soul, and all that was left of her was a thing that hungered for the blood and flesh of the living…