Anathema (Part 4)
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.
The Last Laugh
“You brought a Hungry Ghost into the house,” Arrek said with a ‘You Idiot!’ tone of voice.
“Well, the hungry part is well-collared,” I defended my actions, “and the rest of her wants revenge on people that I think that we can agree are up to no good. AND she’s entered into an oath to help us. Besides, if anyone has the right to yell at me, it’s Master Adan.”
“Yes,” Arrek nodded, “but he’s not here. He’s out trying to find that thing that you say sapped your strength and SOMEONE should yell at you for this!”
Asrith was floating over the ersatz yasal crystal, looking around at Master Adan’s place. *Is THIS the Underground Palace?*
“Sorry, sweetheart, just an incredible replica that our genial host is allowing us to stay in.” I paused. “By the way, it’s well past sun-up - why haven’t you returned to the netherworld?”
Asrith gave a wide ‘who knows?’ shrug. *I am a ghost. Therefore, I am a spirit, and as I am bound into this crystal, I am not free to go where and when I normally would.*
“Oh. Sorry about that.”
*Saaa… I am not complaining! Better here than in the Netherworld, hiding among my brothers and sisters, in chains! At least here, I can avenge our shameful betrayal and murders!*
“You’re… not going to start doing that thing where the murdered ghost starts wailing and ranting on and on about vengeance and what she’s going to do to her murderer, are you?” Arrek asked. Asrith answered by merely composing herself quietly in a genteel manner. “By the way,” Arrek leaned forward curiously, “as one who’s actually BEEN there… what IS the underworld like?”
Asrith furrowed her ectoplasmic brow. *Well, it’s not the placid place of gentle repose, surrounded by one’s ancestors and bygone loved ones, as those who burn incense and paper money for their ancestors would have it. Nor is it the place of savage monsters and unending turmoil, for which the only respite is the return to the cycle of rebirth, life and death, as the River Dragon teaches. However it IS a terrible place… well… what I’ve seen of it.* She looked at our dissatisfied expressions with a moue. *Well, I HAVE only been dead for four days…*
“There IS that, Arrek,” I pointed out. “Can’t expect the lady to get the whole lay of the land in only four days.”
*And, I’ve been spending most of my time among the chained shades of my compatriots, dodging the dishonored dead who serve our murderer’s master!*
“Hold it…” I held up a wearied hand, “you mean that bit about your brothers and sisters being in chains wasn’t just poetic license?”
*No, they are kept all together in the land of the Dead, prevented from seeking the river of Lethe and rebirth, while their bodies serve the Deathlord, here in the land of the Living*
“And what about YOUR body, Asrith?”
*My mortal form now serves as a vessel for a spirit servant of the Deathlord, one who leaps from one dead body to another, like a man changing shirts or horses*
“In other words, a Nemissary.” I paused and chewed this over for a bit. “Asrith, would you know your own body by sight?”
*By sight? Why would I need to see it? I can feel it, moving around by another’s will, even now!*
Arrek and I shared one of those ‘Ah-HAH!’ looks, and traded grins.
“They’re expecting us to either track them from the scene of your last encounter, or for this lovely vision of bygone femininity to show us to where they were last camped out…” I started.
“BUT, if she knows where her body is…” Arrek continued, “then she can lead us THERE, instead of where the ambush will be. And from the looks of her, they’d scarcely waste such a resource throwing it into a battle.”
“So we can find their NEW base, while all their heavy hitters are waiting for us at their ambush at their old base.”
“And, let’s face it, all the good stuff, things we’ll need to sort out what they’re up to and so on, will be moved to the new base, as a matter of simple security. We’ll be able to pick the bramble where the thorns are thinnest and the berries the juiciest.” Arrek beamed a country boy smile at the thought of a handful of brambleberries.
“Exactly! Arrek, you’re starting to think like me.”
“GAH! The things I endure, in Luna’s service!”
Master Adan bustled into the chamber lugging in a large iron bucket. “Well, are you two layabouts still loafing about and trying to sweet-talk the young lady, or are you ready to do some actual work?”
“Champing at the bit, Adan,” I replied, “and pawing at the ground! We even have found some work that sounds like it’s worth doing.”
“Proof that the Age of Wonders has not passed,” Adan returned dryly. I told him of Asrith’s knowledge of the whereabouts of her purloined body. “A nemissary. A dark wraith that moves from dead body to dead body, possessing and animating them. I thought as much.”
“Oh? You’ve dealt with them before?”
“Once, before I exalted. And believe me, up to the point when I exalted, it was the most memorable five minutes of my life.”
“Really? What did you do?”
“I was mortal then, what do you think I did when I ran into a nemissary? I RAN, and it was a race between me and two dear colleagues to see who was last. Brevnor beat me by three paces, and I still don’t blame him in the least.”
“And the other one?”
Adan reached over and poured the dregs of a warm cup of wine into the dust, a libation for the third chap that he and Brevnor beat by paces. “Now, from what little as I saw of this doo-dad as I fished it out of the barrel, and into this bucket, I’d say that you are very lucky that the young lady saw fit to lend her assistance, Rennar. Even through this water and this iron bucket, I had to rest three times getting it here. Rennar, there’s a box in that cupboard; get it. Arrek, get those tongs and be ready to fish the damn thing out and get it in that box as quickly as you can. As for me, I’ll be standing over there when you do it.”
Arrek fished out the ‘reliquary’ and I slammed the lid closed the second that it was in the box. Arrek looked at me, with the sweat of exertion on his face. “You WORE that?”
I nodded heavily. “Longest damned four minutes of my life.”
“You may actually be tough, rich boy.”
Master Adan put the box away in a very thick chest. “Well. Death knights. You say that they had one of your people under their rotting thumbs, dear lady?” Asrith nodded. “Well, that explains quite a bit about the Black Dragons’ activities.”
“So, what are they after, Adan?”
“Another batch after the Underground Palace? What do they want with it?”
Adan gave me a ‘don’t be any denser than you absolutely have to’ glower. “If they control the Underground Palace, they could conceivably open a proper portal to the Netherworld, turning Keldon into a Shadowland, like Thorns.”
“Well, of course,” I said facetiously, “the Mask of Winters takes a major living city as his own personal domain, and now ALL the Death Lords simply have to have one of their own!”
“What?” Arrek asked bewildered. Oh yes, country boy.
The word about Thorns probably hasn’t reached out here, or at least not down to the woodsy types. “The city of Thorns, far to the west of here, was overwhelmed some years ago by a Death Lord named the ‘Mask of Winters’. The city was betrayed from within, and overnight the entire city went from a vital living city to a necropolis ruled by the restless dead.”
“An entire city?” Arrek asked with a sick voice. “They killed everyone?”
“No, that would have been one thing. But there are still people living in Thorns. I rather think that the Dead like lording it over the Quick. Now the Mask of Winters has set up a puppet court of ghosts and zombies that rule Thorns, while he goes riding about the country on the back of a huge corpse the size of a hillside. Several hillsides. Thorns was a major city and an ally of the Realm. Only the fact that the Scarlet Empress has disappeared, and the Dynasty is tearing itself apart trying to decide who will take her place has kept the Ten Thousand Dragons from taking the city back from the Dead. If another city falls as Thorns did, even a backwater like Keldon, then it will mean that it will be even harder for the Realm to get rid of the Shadowlands once they’ve decided things.”
“Nice to see that there’s something that I don’t have to explain to you,” Adan remarked sulkily as he poured the water from the bucket into some alchemical vessels.
“Adan, what are you up to with that?”
“The water that shielded me from the effects of that accursed reliquary.”
“Because, if I’m right, I may have an idea as to what is in that thing.”
“And what excites your suspicion, oh Wise One?”
“I think that whatever’s in that thing was directly exposed to some form of pure Oblivion. Entropy as a pure force in Creation - or, more accurately, the Netherworld, which isn’t technically part of Creation. The very presence of that stuff would suck Essence out of a rock.”
“Then why was that Dragonblood not affected by it?” Arrek asked.
“When Birdseed-for-brains over there went to steal back your hearthstone, he said that his old friend used a talisman very much like that to set him on his heels. If what’s in there is poison to anything of Creation, why didn’t the Dragonlord feel any discomfort in using it? And if he’s as powerful and subtle as Rennar says, why didn’t he sense that it was malignant?”
Adan paused. “Good question, Arrek,” he admitted. “Damned good question.” Adan mused over that and then asked, “Well, what is this ‘good work’ that you’re so eager to be about?” We spelled out for him Asrith’s knowledge of where her physical body was. “And what are you thinking?”
“I’m thinking that anything that we might find in that crypt would be at the very best misleading, going on cursed with magicks most foul,” I responded. “Further, I’m thinking that if I were the captain of these rotting horrors, and I knew that a crafty Solar Exalt of the Night Caste - bear in mind, Arrek, that he knows nothing of you or Master Adan, so he knows not to fear you - that I would have my maps and charts and scrolls and other such informative matters all in one place, where I could keep track of them. I’d make sure that this one place was somewhere far from where I could be sure that the Night Caste knew to look, as I ringed that trapped place with a circle of guards, as to convince the Dark Eye of the Unconquered Sun that the decoy was precious beyond measure. Expendable troops, of course, there only to make the challenge seem credible, and possibly to either slow down or tire the Dagger of the Sun, as the real threats, my Death Knights, brought themselves to bear.” A foxy grin crossed my face. “As a matter of fact, I’d probably deploy all my troops to close the trap, the second that I knew that it was sprung. Why, I’d even go myself, just to make sure. Why I’d even leave all my most valuable documents with only a token guard…” I trailed off suggestively.
“I’m NOT wandering into any trap for you,” Arrek said mulishly.
“You completely mistake me, Arrek, Stout Fellow!” I assured him. “WHY would I risk your hide, when there are people almost as tough as you are, far better armed, vastly more stupid and gullible, and infinitely more expendable? Say, my old ‘friend’ Isegris and his mutton-wit brother, Nog?”
“You’d send your own friends to near-certain doom?” Arrek asked, aghast.
“Friends? No, I said Isegris and Nog, who were companions only in the most liberal use of the word, and never friends. Well, maybe Nog, but he heeds Isegris as a dog heeds his master.”
“A worthy plan,” Adan said as he worked over his stove. “Pity there’s a fatal flaw.”
“Remember that deadly reliquary that your friend Mykiros used against you? Unless I miss my guess, that reliquary is a potent artifact designed to filter the Abyssal forces that it contains, and to permit those energies to escape only in the presence - and in the precise direction - of a Solar Exalt. Brave Mykiros could only have received that reliquary, directly or indirectly, from a Death Knight. And that Death Knight will no doubt be watching your friends for any signs of you. If you feed them word of that trap in the Necropolis, the Death Knight will know of it, and warn his captain.”
“THAT,” I said with careful dignity, “is why I chose Isegris and Nog. Give them half a night to put away a tun of wine each, and let them get scent of me, and they’ll be off like a pack of hounds after a bleeding hare. As they will be in one of the filthiest dives in Keldon - I’ll make sure of it - when they catch the whiff, our elusive Death Knight will know nothing of it, until after the dust has settled.
“Indeed,” I paused to wash my throat with some wine, “the only problem at the moment is how to frame it so that it’s not TOO bloody obvious.”
I needn’t have worried about being too obvious. Isegris never gave my ‘sleazy beggar’ disguise so much as a second glance. He just dropped a couple of bits of green copper in my bowl, and he and Nog were off like those two harriers.
As tempting as it was to follow them and watch those two get ripped apart, Arrek, Asrith and I had actual work to do. I paid a messenger to deliver a note to Mykiros, Randrel and the rest ‘from Isegris’, telling them of their intent to storm the necropolis. After all, Nog is a decent sort and sending just him and Isegris into that meat-grinder by themselves would only tip off the Death Knights that I was onto their ploy. Between my erstwhile comrades in arms and the Imperial Legion (likewise alerted to ‘strange doings in the graveyard’, mostly likely the work of the Anathema), the Death Knights would have their hands full. In addition, the power elite of Keldon would be made aware of the Rot-Spawn’s presence, so all in all it was a good move on the part of the lad from Juche.
According to Asrith, the Death Knights had relocated to a slaughterhouse near the West Gate. They seem to like places where lots of killing and dying take place; I must remember that, in case I ever have to deal with these things again. I must give the unliving horrors their due - the slaughterhouse was an inspired choice. The reek of the blood mixed pungently with the odor of the offal, and the tinge of excrement all added together to create an overwhelming stench that would keep anything with a living nose who had anything better to do well away. Or kill it. Apropos, given their bias.
Asrith, Arrek and I huddled together to plan our strategy.
Larsk Uu’ela hugged the sack of white jade obols to his chest as he walked numbly through the slaughterhouse. It was heavy and cold, but it gave him some cold mercy from his suffering. Not anything like comfort, but a numbness that was really the very best that he could expect, given the circumstances. Indeed, the only reason that he didn’t dare the Death Knights to kill him was that they might take it for a desire to enlist in their cause and enslave his ghost to their purpose. Even death was no escape from these fiends. At least the place was empty, and he didn’t have to endure the contempt that is a traitor’s due, even to those he had sold his honor. The only horrors there were his memories - and the smell.
In a moment of oft-repeated maudlin, he staggered over to the dead but necromantically maintained body of the lovely Asrith Den’lon, to look into her face and think pleasant thoughts of what might have been.
Then he stopped short and dropped his sack of traitor’s jade. The shade of Asrith Den’lon wafted over her body, the sigil for ‘deceitful whore’ carved into her midsection and dripping blood. “What do you want?” he sobbed. “You shouldn’t be here! You are bound down in the underworld, serving the death lords!”
“As I am,” Asrith said in whispering tones of pure hate. “I am sent here by those who hold both our chains. I bring you dire tidings. The ambush at the necropolis has gone awry, and the Imperial Legion is clashing with our forces. Our masters apply themselves to the task of maintaining the charade, but the Nightbringer is still alive and un-caged. The leader must assume that the Solar is using the trap as a diversion for a ploy of his own. We are instructed to move the most sensitive documents from this place to the next safe house.”
“I was not instructed. I assume that our masters trust that you figure out which ones they mean, seeing as your miserable HIDE would be forfeit if you mistook!” Asrith’s eyes glowed red with restrained rage.
“I… I am not sure…” Larsk paused, a moment of uncomfortable familiarity coming over him.
“Yes...” Asrith hissed with vicious elation, “DEFY our masters’ orders!” Her face went skeletal and demonic. “Please DO!”
Larsk Uu’ela slipped on the ghost jade obols that had spilled from his sack in his haste to do the Deathlord’s bidding. Fortunately, the Abyssals hadn’t exactly been overburdened with paperwork. Every document, scroll and map that they had made up a bulging armload, but he was still able to gather up everything in a few minutes. “I know that you’re-” he started to say to Asrith. But she was nowhere to be seen. He stood there among the blood and filth all by himself, holding all the vital documents, left there to ferry them to the next safehouse all by himself, and be responsible for anything that happened on the way there all by himself.
He didn’t even get out the door. He was knocked nearly unconscious by a blow from behind. Dazed he looked up from the floor and saw a figure of pale wings and a terrifying owl visage. Larsk cringed as the horrible figure bent downwards, but his attacker merely picked up the dropped diplomas and scroll cases with a satisfied chuckle.
As Larsk tried to scramble to stop the thief, a maniacal tittering cackle echoed through the abattoir. A pale golden skull flew out of nowhere and exploded in a blinding flare of light. As the owl-man blinked to get the spots out of his eyes, the skull floated through the air, back into the hand of the Madcap Juggler of Skulls. “Tsk, tsk, Bright Knight,” the Juggler mocked. “You’re repeating yourself. But then, your patron is just as tediously predictable. Up at dawn, walking the same old path every single day, and to bed with the chickens. How CAN you bear such monotony? Don’t worry, I know JUST how to liven things up!” With that, the Juggler threw the darkling skull, which let out a spine-chilling scream as it flew at the Night Caste.
Rennar let the scroll tubes and diplomas drop as he lashed out with his orichalcum claws, pinning the oncoming skull with two of them in the eye sockets. Still, the skull snapped viciously at him. Rennar sprinted past a hanging side of rotting beef and shoved the skull into a cavity.
“Oh, Good Sir?” The Juggler called out with mock courtesy as he dropped to straddle the fallen documents, “I do believe that you DROPPED something?” He reached out a hand towards the side of beef. He waited. “Saurunil? Are you pouting?” he called at the skull inside the beef. “Oh bother, you’re stuck…”
He half-started, like a child playing Tag, almost about to make a run for Home and looking for ‘It’. Then he committed to his run, and sure enough, there was a flickering flutter of pale cloth running for a better position. With a victorious cackle he threw the moonsilver and orichalcum skulls, not so much to hit as to keep the Solar busy. He got to the side of beef and pulled out the slime-encrusted skull. “My, my, my, milord Kaellis, you ARE light on your feet! Quick as a ghost, I’d say! Really, the old ‘follow the fluttering cloak’ trick! You’re a Solar Exalted! You’re supposed to be a challenge!” He pointed the skull at the place where ‘Rennar’ was supposed to have taken cover. “And as for YOU, little girl, I think that Daddy’s going to have to spank you…” He hummed out a merry children’s rhyme, and the darkness with in the mouth of the skull grew darker still.
From the hiding place, the pale cloaked figure rose up and wafted silently towards the Juggler. ”My, my, my, Milord Kaellis!” he goaded, “You’re going to let your wispy confederate be chewed up by the Beckoning Call of Oblivion? How ruthless! I do approve… Ah well, Snackee Time!” he sang.
But the pale figure didn’t disappear down the skull’s maw, down into the very pit of Oblivion. Instead, a very material hand shot out from under the cloak, took the Juggler by the throat and slammed him into the floor. This was repeated a few times, and then the Juggler was thrown with great force into the wall. “oooo…. Good One!” The Juggler grunted. Then the Juggler barely managed to avoid being struck by his own juggling skulls as they embedded themselves in the wall where parts of his body had just been. “HEY! Those things are EXPENSIVE, y’know!”
Kaellis came charging at the Juggler, who gathered up his skulls with a sweep of his hand and danced out of the way. The Juggler threw the skulls for effect, and swept up an armload of jade obols from Larsk’s blood money that had spilled out on the floor. Kaellis was just standing there, which simply HAD to be a ploy. The Juggler tossed the white jade coins, tapping into the moliated bits and pieces of ghosts that were trapped within them, turning the coins into ectoplasmic projectiles that hissed with spectral energy. The coins tracked a path of wraithly vitriol across the wall, following where the shadows suggested Kaellis was going.
But the white-cloaked figure of Kaellis still stood there, out in the open, not moving.
‘A decoy’, the Madcap sniffed to himself, ‘a mewling novice’s trick.’ The Madcap Juggler of Skulls rattled and shook the slaughterhouse with white jade and metal skulls, trying to cover every possible inch of the abattoir and ruining the place in the process, as Larsk Uu’ela cowered and sobbed on the ground. Jerking his head around unpredictably, hoping to catch the elusive owl-solar in motion, the Juggler moved to the one place where he was sure that he could guard his back - the decoy. He caught a flicker of motion off to the side, gripped ‘Eobar’, the orichalcum skull, and made ready to throw. But his pitch was thrown off badly when a powerful arm snaked around his neck, pulling him into a strangle hold. “What?” the Juggler choked out, “You stood STILL through all that? GOOD ONE!”
The Juggler drew on preternatural strength, grounded himself and threw the owl-man over his shoulder. But Kaellis turned the throw against him, and launched the Juggler at the wall again. This time, Kaellis was on the Juggler immediately, pinning the scrawny man to the wall off the ground with one forearm across this throat. The Juggler grinned, and the three skulls hopped over to him, one on each shoulder and one perched on his head. As one they opened their mouths and pools of swirling darkness started to form in them. Kaellis propped a fist under the Juggler’s chin, and two claws shot out, one on each side of the Juggler’s long thin harlequin face.
The Madcap looked at each of the razor-sharp spurs on either side of his face, looked past Kaellis and shouted, “WELL? What are you waiting for? Grab them, you dolt!”
Kaellis turned around just in time to see Larsk Uu’ela scrambling to pick up the last of the documents that had been spilled on the floor. As he reflexively reacted, the Juggler let fly with the Choking Pools of Stygian Wrath that he’d prepared in each of the four mouths. Kaellis went sprawling, but recovered quickly and turned the darkness to his own advantage, despite the staggering chill. The Juggler threw Persifin, Saurunil and Eobar around to no effect. The Choking Pool was drawing hard on his reserves of energy, and when he felt a set of claws gouge large gashes in the back of his chest, he knew that it was time to leave. He dropped a very mundane smoke bomb, clambered up to the rafters, and left through one of the venting windows.
Abyssal essence doesn’t lend itself easily to healing, but it can offer some respite from pain. The Juggler bound his wounds, and went looking for the paid traitor. He found Larsk Uu’ela only a block away from the slaughterhouse, carrying the body of Asrith Den’lon over his shoulder. The Madcap looked at the former Black Dragon and said in an atypically reasonable and lucid voice, “You went back for the body of a dead bimbo?” he barked a laugh and added in a salacious leer, “I LIKE that!” He reached out, grabbed Larsk by the collar, pulled him up to his own face and snarled, “And where are the maps and documents, lover-boy?”
Larsk had hidden them in a barrel a few streets over. The Juggler carried Asrith’s body for the turncoat as he pulled the folios and scroll tubes out. “What’s this?” Uu’ela asked as he pulled one of the tubes out and examined it. “The balance is all wrong…”
The Juggler’s eyes popped wide open and he shouted, “NO, YOU FOOL! DON’T-” It was too late. Larsk popped open the tube lid, which touched off the spark that lit the firepowder within the tube, which detonated the chemicals further down the tube, which exploded, which blew Larsk Uu’ela to his richly deserved fate, and set off the other tubes in the barrel. The tubes in the barrel exploded with a lusty roar and set off the hidden packet of firepowder that was strapped under the dress that Asrith’s body was wearing, which in turn immediately reduced her body to ashes.
The Juggler was thrown back a good hundred feet, burned, battered and blackened by the blast. He struggled to sit up, and looked up into the foul, smoke-choked night sky. He let off a howling laugh and bellowed, “ANOTHER GOOD ONE! We’re really having fun NOW!” His mad cackling filled the night as he staggered off into the shadows.
Asrith smiled a feline smile of mixed relief, triumph and revenge. She sighed, “My body is no more, and my brothers and sisters in chains should have enough freedom to deal with Larsk Uu’ela when he arrives in the underworld. You are as good as your word, Lawbringer.”
“You are too kind, gracious lady,” I said with my best courtier’s bow (the owl cape was oddly well suited for it). “And in return, your ploy with the firedust was inspired. And Arrek, in the years to come, you can brag that you managed to hide in the darkness from a Knight of Darkness! An amazing feat for someone of your size!”
Arrek pulled down the dark mask covering the lower part of his face. “That won’t be what I brag about - it’ll be not spilling my lunch all over that slaughterhouse floor! You just love dragging me into one disgusting stench after another, don’t you? And why did you grab that bag of coins the back- stabber was carrying? Didn’t we have enough to carry?”
“Arrek, m’boy, I have found in this life that there are three things you should always grab when the opportunity presents itself fairly - a chance to eat, a chance to learn something new, and money. Because you never know when you’ll need to miss a meal, buy your way out of something, or to know something. And, usually, when you need it, you really NEED it!”
Arrek was sniffing at the air, something I found very odd, considering his opinion of city air. “You may actually have a point, rich boy. And speaking of that, I think I may have a way of washing the smell of blood off those coins.” He departed hurriedly, and forthwith discovered the first thing that he approved of in Keldon - a bakery.
The Circular File of Destiny
High on a plane far above the Imperial Mountain at the very center of the Blessed Isle - and therefore, Creation - is Yu Shan, the City of the Gods. Yu Shan is home to the fabled Games of Divinity, the Greater Celestial Incarnae, the lesser Celestial Gods, the Sidereal Exalted - and the most persnickety bureaucrats in all Creation.
When Azure Rose of the Glittering Tide exalted as one of the Sidereal Exalted, she’d expected to become a subtle manipulator of events, a tweaker of the threads of the Loom of Fate, an unseen hand guiding the flow of events for peoples, nations, and even empires.
Instead, she was a glorified errand girl for a bottom-rung manager, who seemed to regard her as a convenient shelf to stash matters that he didn’t want cluttering up his desk. Rows of Celestial Lions watched her as she entered the Celestial City from her latest three-month assignment in the rolling steppes that separated the frozen north from the more moderate (but not much) southerly lands. Nomads. It just had to be nomads that she had to steer. Worse, she was convinced that she had gone through three months of eating dust, steppe-rats and prairie onions just because the Guild had paid some sort of bribe to her immediate superior, Croup Miter.
Azure Rose hurried through the gleaming streets of the City Divine. She’d only been exalted for eight years, and already the city’s allure was palling under the stress that she was under. She made her way through the maze that was the Bureau of Fate, to the Division of Humanity, the Forbidding Manse of Ivy, the College of the Guardians, and the Office of Tracing and Tasking.
She had been there for almost seven years, and she still had no idea exactly WHAT the Office of Tracing and Tasking did. She moved the peg next to her ideogram, signifying that she was no longer traveling, and picked her way past the rows of desks with bottom-rung Celestial godlings hard at work to her desk. The Office of Tracing and Tasking was always cramped and always busy. And yet, none of the godlings that worked there were completely sure as to what they were supposed to be doing. She shed the thick, clumsy, stiff, urine-caked, reeking goatskin outer-coat, boots and cap that had served her so well for the past season and put on the sleek, lightweight silky robe and cap, and demure sandals, that would do in the Celestial City. She reached into her desk, pulled out her cup, blew the dust off, and readied herself for her first taste of Amrita tea in three months.
Head held high, she marched over to the minor goddess in charge of the urn and held out her chit and her empty cup. The goddess looked at the chit and said in a weary voice that was all-too used to getting guff, “Sorry, your subscription’s used up.”
“WHAT?” Azure Rose gasped, “But I paid my subscription in full just before I left! I have three months’ worth of Amrita tea coming to me! What happened to it?”
“That’s what happened to it,” The goddess jerked her head in the direction of an approaching authority figure.
The boss himself, Croup Miter walked up and held out his cup. The goddess poured out a cupful. “Put it on her chit,” he said absently. He took a presumptuous sip of tea and glared at her. “And where have YOU been?”
“On the Ylthari steppe, as ordered,” Azure Rose returned as she dug around in her purse for a coin that would be accepted in Yu Shan.
“What? You should have cleared up that matter months ago!”
“Hello? They’re Nomads? They MOVE? A LOT?”
“SO? You are a Chosen of the Maiden of Travel! Then you travel.”
“True, but I’m a Chosen of the Maiden of Travel from the WEST! I can make a boat dance a jig through a storm, but I don’t know anything about riding animals!”
“That’s no excuse for dragging your heels. SO, did you get the job done?”
“Yes, yes, the Aghessai goat-nomads won’t be getting their Magna Khan any time soon. At least that kid won’t be going into the ‘sacred grove’ and coming out with the wyld mutations that would let him become the Magna Khan. Still, their relations with the northern Hundred Kingdoms is still sketchy enough that they’re pretty ripe for anyone with the balls to lead them and the other horse nomads into a war. If a Lunar Exalt, or Maidens Forbid, a SOLAR were to come along-”
“That’s not your concern anymore,” Croup Miter sniffed. “Write up the report in triplicate and have it on my desk by sundown. And where are you on the Keldon matter?”
“Keldon matter? What Keldon matter?”
“The Keldon matter that I assigned to you two months ago?”
“Two months ago, I was still on the rolling steppe, trying to learn how to ride a pony,” Azure reminded him.
“Oh, don’t play the martyr! All that you had to do was use the ‘Unfailing Shadow’ technique, and you would have pulled along behind the nomads by the threads of destiny!”
“Which I would have done, IF I had KNOWN that such a technique even existed!” Azure snarled, “And when am I going to get that Mentor that I’m supposed to be attached to? Or get anything even vaguely resembling real training?”
“Experience is the best training,” Croup Miter proclaimed. In her imagination, Azure heard the thump of a stamp as he said it. She swore that he had a line of stamps in his head, just for the tired excuses that he used. ‘You’re not trained for that.’ *Stamp!* ‘Experience in the best training.’ *Stamp!* ‘Those who need to know, know.’ *Stamp!* ‘That’s no excuse for ignorance.’ *Stamp!* ‘You should have used your own initiative’ *Stamp!* ‘You didn’t have the authority.’ *Stamp!* ‘Sacrifices have to be made.’ *Stamp!* ‘These things take time.’ *Stamp!* ‘Time is precious, and shouldn’t be wasted’. *Stamp!* And, most galling of all, ‘That’s a secret.’ “Well?” he demanded superciliously, “What about that Keldon matter?”
“What Keldon matter?” Then she remembered what he’d just said. “Oh. How can I report on it, if I haven’t even SEEN it?”
“That’s no excuse for incompetence.” *Stamp!* Croup Miter sipped his Amrita tea and wafted back into his office.
Azure Rose paid out her coins and got her cup of Amrita team. ‘Oh, take out a subscription, it’s cheaper in the long run!’ feh! Sipping the sweet brew from the petals of the trees that grow the Peaches of Immortality, Azure felt herself restored as she returned to her desk. She performed the ‘Systematic Understanding of Everything’ charm and focused herself for seeing what Croup Miter was about. Focused, centered, serene and confident, she looked at her ‘in’ box.
And all her focus, center, serenity and confidence fled like a cat that had had a bucket of cold water dumped on it.
There was a small mountain of folios, scrolls and bundles of notes heaped there, some of which had been squashed by the weight.
To her great relief, most of it was simply things from the desks of others, put there as they needed the space. But still, there were, one, two, three, four, five - Mercury’s Blistering Bunions! - SIX! Six cases that had been assigned to her while she was out! She didn’t even know what most of them were! Flipping through the scrolls, she tried to find the one marked ‘Keldon’ - Illyrin? Where in the face of wide Creation was Illyrin? - feh, another one was something to do with an obnoxious spirit setting up yet ANOTHER cult to itself. Like there weren’t a thousand of those.
Ah! Keldon! She unrolled the scroll, and took a deep draught of her Amrita tea-
-and almost sprayed it all over the scroll.
A SOLAR EXALT? They wanted her to screw with a SOLAR EXALT? Ack! She read further. He was a Night Caste? And he trained with Dragonbloods? ICK! Maybe he had a glaring ‘tragic flaw’, those always got the Anathema in the stories she’d grown up with… Oh, Maiden of Journeys! There’s ANOTHER ONE? And she’s supposed to keep them from finding some major manse?
Azure Rose picked up the scroll and marched through the cramped aisles between the desks and to the doors of Croup Miter’s office. Azure paused as she burst through the doors; she’d never been inside Croup Miter’s office before. You were only supposed to go in there, in an utter crisis.
Croup Miter’s office was at least as big as the rest of the Office of Tracing and Tasking put together.
The echoing chamber was filled only with a few shelves and bookcases at the back, a small decorative shrub, a brazier with a tea pot on it and Croup Miter’s desk. Which was empty. The window had a lovely view of a park with a lake surrounded by trees in bloom. “What do you think you’re DOING, coming into my office without permission?” Croup Miter thundered.
“What do YOU think you’re doing?” Azure thundered back. “LOOK at this! You’re sending me after not one, but TWO Solar Exalts? And a Night Caste and a Twilight Caste, to boot! I haven’t even completed my training yet, and you’re sending me after two of the slipperiest beings in Creation?”
“Citing lack of experience is no excuse for cowardice,” her superior said repressively.
“Cowardice? Please! This is a job for a Chosen of Secrets, or a Chosen of Endings! Or at least, someone who knows what they are DOING?”
The fringe of hair around Croup Miter’s balding head bristled, and he gave a disgruntled ‘harumph!’ “WELL! Since you admit that you are too incompetent to handle this by yourself, special measures must be taken!” He pulled a strip of paper from his desk, dipped a pen in some ink, and wrote out a charm on it. He sealed the charm with a stamp *stamp!* Then with a negligible flip, he tossed the charm at Azure Rose. The strip of paper hit her square in the forehead, draping down in front of her eyes. Azure managed to pull the strip out from in front of her eyes with some effort, and looked at it. She couldn’t make out what it said; his calligraphy was atrocious. “This charm will allow you to contact me at any time. At least, when I’m physically in the office. THIS office. At this desk. When I’m not busy. Or with an important visitor. Or Busy. Or taking tea. Or dealing with an important matter. Or Busy. Well? What are you waiting for?”
Azure Rose gazed in undisguised loathing at her superior, but realized that burying an axe - which she didn’t happen to have on her - in his glistening naked pate wouldn’t make things any better. She tucked the charm and the scroll under her arm and made her way out of Croup Miter’s cavernous office.
“Oh,” he called after her, “don’t forget to renew your subscription.”
“Only a half a bag of jade obols?” Master Adan said. “Rennar, you’re slipping.”
“But we brought pastries as well!” Arrek said through a mouth full of honeyhorn.
“True, true,” Adan allowed as he took a bite of apricot roll. “A very… interesting… lot of documents our necrotic friends seem to have collected together. A geomantic map of Keldon and environs, and very detailed charts and calculations, as expected. But, a map of the sewers? A treatise on the goddess of diseases that kill rats, and all her children? A dissection of the Courts of Spirits within and without Keldon, including the Raksha court? A VERY detailed description of the power structure of the Cult of the Bear Emperor, who they’re paying off, and their preferred methods? A listing of funerary services and their personnel - well, that’s to be expected, I supposed. Cost estimates for the purchase of large amounts of various chemicals. Blueprints for the Great Tower. A schedule and notes for the various festivals, holy days, galas and major social events of the Calibration season. Details for a war strider. A demonology listing 67 different Demons of the Second Circle, their protocols and purviews, and the most effective tactics for summoning them. Plans for a Shogunate era digging machine. Names and descriptions of all the Dragonbloods and Patrician families in the area. Notes for some sort of essence-working device. A formula for some sort of alchemical perfume. A compilation of children’s nursery rhymes. A roster of blackmail…”
“Well?” I asked.
“Well, this is the part in the play where you sit bolt upright, slap yourself on the brow and proclaim, ‘Of COURSE! How could I have been so Blind? It’s SO OBVIOUS!’ So, what are the nefarious fiends up to?”
“Haven’t a clew.”
“But you have all their plans!”
“Which don’t conveniently include timetables or lists of things to do, or spell out their precise motivation, or any of the usual ‘Third Act’ developments.”
“Dashed inconsiderate of them, considering what we went through,” I sniffed, taking a drink of wine.
Adan poked at the various papers for a while, grumbled over the layout of the sewers, ground his teeth and finally picked up the book of nursery rhymes. “Why in Malfeas would they be studying nursery rhymes?” He let out a loud blustering breath of annoyance and threw down the book. He stood and pulled on his good ‘going visiting’ robe.
“And where are you off to?”
“I’m not doing anything useful here, so I might as well go and call on your friends,” he replied as he fitted his cap on. “Maybe ask if there are any new developments as regards the fate of ‘the poor, unfortunate Kaellis Rennar’. If nothing else, it should be interesting to see if those two clotheads that you sent to the necropolis survived, and what the rest of them make of the incident.”
The Bower of Resplendent Azure Welcome looked more like a hospital. Besides the ‘Knights Errant’, all of whom were bandaged, there were several fighting men, all bearing signs of having been in a deadly battle, laying on couches and stretched out on cots. Isegris and Adlynn were loudly bickering over something.
“Excuse me, but has there been a WAR that I somehow managed to fail to notice?” Master Adan poked his head in the door, viewing the scene with curiosity.
“Don’t blame yourself,” Mykiros said, cradling his head. “It was a small, very quiet war.” He waved Adan into the suite. “There was an… incident… last night. Isegris and Nog went off chasing a report that Rennar had been seen in the Necropolis, and they ran into something that wasn’t Rennar.”
“YES IT WAS!” Isegris snapped, turning his attention to Mykiros and Adan. “It had that bloody sneaky double-dealing mortal worm’s name written all over it!”
Esrak told Isegris not to be stupid, Adlynn refused to allow them to slice up her dreamsilk gown for bandages, Mykiros pointed out that Rennar hadn’t been Anathema long enough to learn necromancy, Randrel said something stupid about maybe Rennar having sold his soul earlier, and from there, it became almost impossible to follow a single track of conversation. They nattered at each other for a while like a pack of overgrown children - superhumanly powerful children who hadn’t had to mind their manners in a while.
Then the door to the bower opened, and Lady Bel’Yal trooped in with a tray of medicines and bandages, followed by Lady Syresse and a few other local patrician ladies. Lady Bel’Yal called for attention and quelled the squabbling like a governess come to mind her charges. Lady Syresse and the others went to cleanse the warriors’ wounds, and Lady Bel’Yal checked a poultice on a major gash on Isegris’ biceps. “My lady,” Adan bowed humbly before Lady Bel’Yal. I understand that you have the Satrap’s ear.”
“And so much more,” she replied with a roguish grin.
“What is the Prince’s view of what happened in the Necropolis?”
“Well, no matter what people say, Avrall doesn’t tell me everything that troubles him, so I don’t know what his view of the matter is. But, from what I pick up in the hallways, the Commanders of the Legion and the City Watch are agreed that the Mock Dragons are resorting to necromancy to bolster their ranks in the street, as they await reinforcements from wherever it is they come from. There was a report a few weeks ago, of a funeral procession, a minor lord, along with grave goods and the prepared bodies of a small troop of soldiers and servants and so on to accompany him in the afterlife. They were on their way to Sijan, awaiting a riverboat westward. But there’s no report of that party leaving on the riverboat, and we’ve no idea as to where they might have gotten to.”
Adan nodded, as if in agreement. There was no need to inform anyone that he had better information. And a funeral procession would be an effective way of moving an army of the undead around unnoticed. The westerly city of Sijan did a brisk business in burying the dead in a style that ensured that the clients’ ghosts got a decent chance of holding onto their grave goods down in the Netherworld. Adan thought that it was a stupid notion - the only thing that burying perfectly good things in the ground ensured was grave robbers. But, as a scavenger lord, he was more than half grave robber anyway, so he quietly encouraged the practice.
“It was that eye-pecking raiton Rennar,” Isegris snarled as the new poultice stung against his wound.
“Isegris, there was no trace of him!” Mykiros moaned.
“It doesn’t matter!” Isegris snarled, “I know his smell! The whole thing just reeked of him and his ‘oh, I’m so rutting clever’ tricks! He’s probably trying to get the mock dragons under his thumb, and this was his way of setting us against them.”
“We were already against them, remember?” Randrel said wearily, tearing his attention from the fair Aurlaine to quiet the noise.
“And THAT was mostly his doing, remember?” Isegris shouted back.
“He was still mortal then!” Adlynn said, jumping to her cousin’s defense.
“Oh? How do we know that?” Isegris countered. “He’s of the Empty Circle, one of the Wretched! He could have sold his name months, no YEARS ago, and been sneaking along, serving his filthy anathema masters, even as he rode with us, laughing at us behind our backs!” Isegris’ eyes narrowed, “Now that I come to think of it, precisely how DID you manage to survive that harrowing adventure with Lord Azaten? The one before Randrel and Mykiros caught up with you, let alone Nog and me? The one that you love to regale us with?”
Adlynn stiffened and looked like she’d bitten into a very sour apple. “Are you suggesting something?” It went downhill very quickly from there, with various sorts of threats, especially chucking Isegris and Nog out, and letting them pay their own way.
Lady Bel’Yal managed to shush them again, but Isegris was still game. “NO! I am NOT letting you trivialize what’s happening here! We are faced with one of the ANATHEMA! We know him better than anyone else! It is our SACRED DUTY to track him down and rip the foul festering cancer that is his burning Sun’s heart and cleanse all trace of him from this land! Even if you cowards aren’t up to it, I AM! I swear a sacred oath by Hsieh’s burning heart that I will KILL him and everyone who stands with him! I swear it by the Dragon’s Blood that flows through my veins! I swear it by my own name! As I so swear it, SO SHALL IT BE!” As Isegris shouted his vow, he flared his elemental essence banner, and the doors to the bower’s common garden blew open with a howling wind.
And Master Adan had the distinct impression that a minor joke of his own had just been nastily thrown back in his face.
“And THEN the idiot- what was his name again?” the Madcap Juggler of Skulls asked, his memory lacking.
“If you’re referring to the idiot that I think you are, ‘Larsk U’uela’,” the Physicker With the Cure For All Ills answered in his trademark monotone, not looking up from the patch of skin that he was sewing onto the Juggler’s face.
“Anyway, then the idiot opens up the tube ANYWAY, and *BOOM!* it sets off a firedust trap! It blows him, his bitch, and an entire barrel full of tubes of firedust - don’t ask me where he got that much - and ME halfway to Thorns! It blew HIM all the way to the Netherworld.” The Juggler grinned and giggled. “Now, I ask you - was that a thoughtful gift, or what? I mean, I thought that this was going to be a boring business trip, everything done by the numbers. But now, it looks like there might be a few giggles along the way!” He threw his head back and laughed like a hyena.
“If you don’t stop moving your mouth that way, I can’t keep this seam even, and you’ll suffer from facial distortion,” the Physicker said as he made each stitch with painstaking care. “I do not understand why you insist on this insistent japery and foolishness.”
“Ah, but you didn’t behold the wonder that I did, when I underwent the dark rebirth,” the Juggler snickered.
“Well, you have to understand that I didn’t really GET it at first, but then, when I understood what it really meant, THEN I got the joke. Y’see, it all has to do with the Games of Divinity.”
“The alleged ‘games’ that the Primordials fashioned Creation to play,” the Physicker prompted.
“Exactly. The Primordials. Now, THINK about the Primordials for a moment. Primordials, who are as far above mere Celestial Gods as Celestial Gods are beyond Terrestrial Gods, and so on and so on, until you get to tax collectors. The Primordials, the ones who fashioned Creation itself, and the Gods, Celestial and Terrestrial, and the whole shebang. Now, tell me, the Primordials, who are so vast and mysterious and powerful and all-knowing… HOW could they not know that the Gods would turn on them? HOW could mere Gods and Exalts manage to defeat such things? Simple. They didn’t. The reason that the Untrammeled Idiot and all those turned on the Primordials, it that they were supposed to. It wasn’t a revolution. It was the End Game to the Games of Divinity.
“The Gods and the Exalted were supposed to turn on their masters and kill them. Because the Games of the Divinity had run their course, and it was time to go onto other things. What those things would be, I have no idea. The Gods and Exalts and what-all were supposed to kill the Primordials. Which would have killed Gaia, which would have destroyed Creation. A wonderfully elegant ‘mop up’ to the whole messy affair.
“But the Primordials, being Primordials, built Gaia too well. She had too much of a passion to survive and spew yet more life out across herself. She kept the Uncomprehending Goon, and the Starry Whores and her amorphous slut lover Luna, from finishing the job as they were supposed to. Instead, they just maimed the Primordials, sending those crippled parts that still wanted to go on into Malfeas, and flushing the rest down into what became the Netherworld.”
“So, you blame Gaia for everything?”
The Juggler snickered, “No, you see, there’s the real joke. That was my vision. You see, I saw a huge chicken with five monstrous heads. The five heads twisted their necks together and bit off each other at the neck,” the Juggler started sniggering. “The chicken started running around, flapping its wings and stumbling all over the place!” The Juggler guffawed. “Don’t you SEE? The Chicken is Gaia, with her five Elemental Dragon souls! Gaia, beloved Mother Earth, Spirit of Creation, originator of all life - IS A DEAD CHICKEN, RUNNING AROUND WITH ITS HEAD CUT OFF!” he threw his head back and roared. “Don’t you see? The Games of Divinity are finished! It’s OVER! But Gaia’s just too big and too dumb to realize that she’s already DEAD! Everything, the Scarlet Dynasty, the Hundred Kingdoms, the Threshold, all of it is just the flapping of a colossal chicken with its head cut off!” He rolled on his back, kicking his heels up in the air. “Now tell me that that’s not funny!”
The Juggler threw his head back and howled like a hyena. He crowed until he felt something rip. “I told you to be careful of those stitches,” the Physicker remarked.
The Juggler snatched up a looking glass to look at himself. The stitches holding the stretches of skin at one side of his mouth had ripped open in a curving arc, as though one side of his face was split in a permanent smile. “LOOK AT ME!” the Juggler howled. “I’m deformed! I’m hideous!” He stopped, took another look and said in a calm, lucid voice, “Y’know, this isn’t a bad look for me. Y’think that maybe you fix it like this, but with big ol’ leather sutures?”
The Physicker regarded the Juggler for a moment. “I see. I find the world a mass of sickness, fever and corruption, which I forsake for the pristine serenity of Oblivion. You, however, find the world a bad joke, and mock it mercilessly, stripping away Creation’s pretenses and frauds, showing how ridiculous it is. I thought that maybe you secretly yearned for the pleasures and distractions of life. But no, you use the gauds and merriments of the world to show it up as the bad farce that it is. You are indeed a worthy servant of Oblivion.”
“Yeah, yeah, whatever floats your boat. Just stitch up the cheek, okay?”
After the Physicker had stabilized the ripped cheek with the grotesque leather straps as the Juggler requested, the Madcap walked around working his jaw. As he did, he noticed a row of necromantic constructs. They were identical, with freeze-dried muscles carefully reattached to a skeleton that was reinforced with bits of metal, wood or leather here and there, all of them cunningly concealed by a new layer of necromantically preserved skin, which would allow the construct to pass for living under casual scrutiny. “What’s this?” He asked, “Don’t tell me that you’ve forsaken those adorable little scuttly spider-things that you put so much effort into?”
“It’s a project for the General. Just the simple basics for now - a superior thanosomatic with the tacit potential for unremarkable speech and swift reflexes. The General was working on the particulars when we lost the Slaughterhouse.”
“What’s it for?”
“Maybe he’s building a replacement for you,” purred a feminine voice that wafted out of the darkness. The Thorn of the Crypt Rose prowled out from a patch of shadows.
“And WHY would the General need to replace his ONLY stealth operative?” the Juggler rejoined facetiously. “OH! I’m sorry - his only competent stealth operative?”
“After that debacle in the Slaughterhouse, I wouldn’t be so cocky, if I were you.”
“Oh, you’re just jealous of my winning smile…” the Juggler jibed. “At least I had the wits to realize that the canny Kaellis just might spot the small army that our beloved General had set out for him, and set a trap that actually worked!”
“Oh?” The Crypt Rose arched a sculpted eyebrow. “It was your cunning plan to get your teeth kicked in and lose our most valuable assets?”
“NO,” the Juggler chided her, “our most valuable asset was the reliquary of Scrapings of the Labyrinth, which YOU left behind when you went scampering off, leaving Kaellis alone, thinking that he wouldn’t find a way to escape after you just left him there.”
“AFTER I beat him to the ground and had him bound hand and foot, with the very reliquary that you were SO worried about on his chest, sucking the very breath from his lungs!” Crypt Rose countered.
“Ah, there you all are,” the General growled from the doorway. “I knew that all I had to do was follow the sound of childish bickering, and it would lead me right to you.” He walked into the laboratory, with Unspoken Mystery silently at his heels. “Well, Physicker, how goes the work?”
“I was working on the fifth one, when the Juggler came in, needing work.”
“So I see…” The General peered at the Juggler’s face. “A new look, I note. It suits you.” He returned his attention to the Physicker. “And how are those freeze-dried things that your clattering contraption has been making?”
“A few mishaps, but nothing worth any real concern. With the proper covering, they should pass well enough for the living. Of course, if even a scrap of them should fall in combat, the ruse will be exposed.”
The General grinned. “No. It will only go into its next stage.” He snickered a hooting chortle through his brass pipe. “Well then! Finish up seven of them, and make sure that the hands are fitted for that contraption of Captain Mardo’s – you know how… attached he is to it!” he chortled at his own play on words, but let that fade when even the Juggler met it with chilly silence. “Anyway! Finish them up, and then get to work on the big project. Crypt Rose, you are to give up trying to track down the Solar and concentrate on getting the Physicker here the raw materials that he needs.”
“What?” The Thorn of the Crypt Rose bleated, “Give up the hunt? But that oaf Kaellis has all our plans!”
“Oh, we’re not giving up on the hunt,” the General assured her. “The Juggler will keep looking for him. And as for the maps and records and such, well, the Grail of Bitter Gall got those for us in the first place, she can get second copies just as well.”
“But Kaellis knows our plans!” The Thorn shrieked in frustration. “He knows everything that we’re going to be doing! Everything that we try, he’ll be there, no doubt with an entire Wing of Imperial Legions on his heels! And he’ll keep doing it, until even the Grail can’t come up with excuses for the Satrap and his hired idiots! We’ve got to re-think everything!”
The General chuckled and tapped the Thorn on top of the head with his brass pipe. “Now, now, not to worry your pretty little head,” he said in what he probably thought was a suave and sophisticated way. “I planned for something like this, when I first realized that a Night Caste had entered the picture. You see, the key to victory is to use your enemy’s strengths against them. The Iron Wolf is on our trail? So, I will keep his nose so busy that he won’t see the trap that he’s following it into.”
“The plans that Kaellis found are bogus?” Crypt Rose said, a note of immense respect entering her voice. “You WANTED him to get a hold of them?”
The General deflated a touch. “err… No. I’m not THAT devious or oblique. Rather, my basic strategy is to assume that inevitably the Solar will find traces of us and begin to piece this and that together. And THAT is the trap!”
“He will apply all that cunning and determination to figuring out what they all mean, putting them all together this way and that, worrying at them until they begin to form a picture that will spell out my Grand Plan. And that is the trap. You see, he - like YOU - will assume that all the pieces that he finds will fit together. But they won’t. Because I don’t have a Grand Plan! Rather, I have twelve separate lesser plans that have little to do with each other, but all get me closer to what I want - the Underground Palace. If the oh-so-fearsome Strix hunts down one of my plans and ruins it, so what? I’ve got eleven more already running. Even as he’s whittling away at the plans I’ve already laid, I’m coming up with more, even as we speak. And, Win, Lose or Draw, they all get me a little closer to the Underground Palace. And every time that he extends himself to stop us, he exposes himself to the Imperial Legion. With every *ahem!* ‘victory’ that doesn’t win anything, he’ll try that much harder to figure out what we’re doing. With any luck, the frustration will drive him mad. His weakness is that he has to win every time; our strength is that we only have to win ONCE.”
Riddle Me This
Azure Rose was torn between relief and disappointment. She’d gone through a great deal of bother getting to Keldon in ways that the Solars wouldn’t be aware of her coming. She’d taken even greater caution in laying out a delicate, non-perceivable web of essence to lead her to the fearsome Night Caste, so she could figure out what in the name of Mercury she was going to do about him. And then, just as she was on his trail - and thanking the Maiden for the gifts of travel - the big bad Solar Exalted goes and falls into a trap.
At the moment, Kaellis Rennar and his nameless companion (for some reason, despite a horrible track record, Solars seemed to pick up companions like a boat picks up barnacles) were tied hand and foot upside down to a giant pendulum. A particularly manic lesser Fae of some sort was holding a passel of local children captive in a clock tower. Rennar and his confederate had crept into the tower unnoticed, but then the ally had gone and blown it for them by falling for a particularly silly trap. The spring-trap knocked the both of them all over the tower like a skattle-ball, and wound up with the both of them tied up like caterpillars in cocoons.
The fey was tall and lanky, with a cheerfully ugly face that was all brow and nose and chin. He was dressed in the garish style of a carnival magician who was either color-blind or simply utterly tasteless. He was describing in lurid detail precisely how his ridiculously overcomplicated death trap was going to kill Kaellis and his friend. “-and THEN the block of ice will melt, causing the block of stone to fall from the teeter-board-”
Kaellis let out a loud, attention-gathering yawn from behind his owl-mask. “Excuse me, but will you hurry this UP, and get to the interesting part?”
The manic grin slipped off the fey’s face. “Very well, HOW would I make this riveting dissertation more to your approval, pray tell?”
“Well, you’re the Rhymer, you could at least say it in verse.”
but this clock, a shock
is too terse
the block, the stock, the lock
would not converse
So I must stick to mere commerce
but to mock, not stalk, or even walk,
that would be even worse!”
“Oh, spare me,” the large man at Kaellis’ side groaned. “Just cut the rope and end it, but at least no more dreadful poetry!”
The fey bridled with artistic outrage, but Kaellis cut in, “I have to agree with my confrere, Rhymer. You owe us better.” Before the Rhymer could start nattering again, he added, “You owe us a contest!”
“A contest?” the Rhymer asked, suddenly as interested as a small child offered a game.
“With wagers and stratagems?”
“With wily gambits and cheating?”
“No cheating?” the Rhymer asked in the tone of a child whose treat is just a muffin when a sweet was expected.
“Of course no cheating,” Kaellis returned. “How can the stakes be high, if there’s no chance of losing?”
“An excellent point, man of fame,” the fey admitted. “And exactly what then, is the game?”
“This cannot be! You’re making this too easy for me.”
“Where would the glory be for ME, if I didn’t beat you at your own game?”
“You ARE a sportsman. What’s the wager, then?”
“What else? Everyone imprisoned in this tower goes free.”
“What? I went to all this trouble for these tots, and you would have me go home with not?”
“AH, but you won’t go back empty handed?”
“And what will you give me if you win, to ease aching emptiness within?”
“A story. Win, lose or draw, you go back with a GREAT story.”
The Rhymer brightened considerably. “We simply MUST do this more often.”
“AH-AH!” Kaellis cut in. “The riddles MUST have a real answer, which is known by the riddle-maker beforehand. AND, the answerer gets credit for a near-hit.”
“POOH!” the Rhymer exploded and plopped down on his butt. “My bubble’s burst. Well then, it’s your game, you go first.”
“Do we have a deal?” Kaellis insisted. “If I can ask a riddle that you can’t answer, I, my friend, the children, and anyone else in this tower that I don’t know about are free of you. If you can ask a riddle that we can’t answer, we go with you to your lord freely.”
“Yes, yes, yes, go on, go on, make me guess!”
Kalleis paused, considered, and then recited:
And a long tail which she let fly;
And every time she went over a gap,
She left a bit of her tail in a trap.”
The Rhymer mulled it over for a moment and then said with a gloat, “Your opening ploy is all too feeble; Old Mother Twitchett is a needle.”
“You got me,” Kaellis admitted with a sigh. “Your turn.”
The Rhymer grinned and prattled off:
To tie two tups to two tall trees,
To frighten the terrible Thomas a Tattamus!
Tell me how many T's there are in all THAT!”
Kaellis hesitated, and Azure Rose had the distinct sense that he was repeating the riddle under his breath and counting furiously. His large companion with the scarf-mask elbowed him into silence. “Two! You’re not asking how many Ts are in the entire riddle, just in the word ‘That’!”
The Rhymer made a moue and said, “WELL, if I’m battling BOTH of you boobs, you’d best be the boy to bandy your blither to befuddle me.”
The large man paused, as if realizing that he’d stepped into someone else’s fight. “Well then:
With one leg in his lap;
In comes four legs
And runs away with one leg;
Up jumps two legs,
Catches up three legs,
Throws it after four legs,
And makes him drop one leg.”
The Rhymer tapped his chin. “A worthy effort. Let’s see… Two legs is a man and three legs is a stool. Four legs could be anything, but if it’s running after a One leg then Four legs is a dog, and One Leg is a leg of mutton.”
“I had a cat and a leg of chicken in mind,” Arrek said, “but by the rules agreed on, you’re close enough to win. Your turn.”
The Rhymer rocked back on his folded legs and considered. Then he had it, and leaned forward avidly.
upon a red hill,
Now they tramp,
now they champ,
now they stand still.”
“Teeth,” Arrek said in the voice of one who heard that bit as a child. “My turn:
Lined with a skin as soft as silk,
Within a fountain crystal clear,
A golden apple doth appear.
No doors there are to this stronghold,
Yet thieves break in and steal the gold.”
The Rhymer worried on that one for a bit. Then he grinned and said, “An Egg. Let’s see if you can wrap your mind around this one:
All of diff’rent Voice and Features,
One of us in Glass is set,
One of us you’ll find in Jet,
T’other you may see in Tin,
And the fourth a Box within,
If the fifth you should pursue
It can never fly from you.’”
The large man paused, his eyes darting to and fro. Then Kaellis cut him off. “They’re vowels. The A is in glass, the E is in jet, the I is in tin, the O is in box and you can’t write the word ‘you’ without the letter U.” The Rhymer grumped but allowed the victory. Kaellis took charge:
literate, but no scholar he;
no mouth, yet he clearly speaks.
If you know him, you are wise.”
The Rhymer grinned. “You envy my shining toy, so you would steal my cunning ploy, and use it as your own, my boy! You would do me one better, so you take my vowels and use them to write your LETTER. Let’s see, it’s gotten a trifle stuffy and academic…
I rummage around but it’s bare
I pull out my hand and there’s nothing but air
What have I got in my pocket?’”
“A hole,” The large man hanging upside down said with a note of ‘not that old groaner’. “Well then! Try THIS on for size!
The bottom rung touches the water.
The distance between rungs is 20 cm and the length of the ladder is 180 cm.
The tide is rising at the rate of 15 cm each hour.
When will the water reach the seventh rung from the top?’
The Rhymer blinked. “That’s not a riddle!”
“Of course it is! It’s a question with an answer. So, answer it!”
“But that’s LOGIC! That’s CHEATING!”
“Of course it’s logic; it’s ALL logic,” the large man insisted.
The Rhymer fussed and worried about the numbers, working on his fingers, then taking off his shoes to use his toes, then fiddling with the designs on his surcoat, manipulating them to calculate the factors. He was obviously making a hash of it, when one of the children in the cages, a small pinch-faced boy shouted out, “Two hours and forty minutes! If there are 20 centimeters between each rung, and the ladder is 180 cm long, then there are nine rungs. The water has two rungs to rise, which are 20 cm each, so that’s 40 cm. If the water rises 15 centimeters in an hour-” the boy was beaten silent by his cage-mates before he could finish.
“THANK you, wise savant,” gloated the Rhymer. “Two hours, forty minutes.”
“WRONG.” said Kaellis.
“WHAT?” bleated the Rhymer, his jaw literally dropping to the floor.
“The water will reach the seventh rung when the boat sinks. Otherwise, the boat will rise with the tide, and the seventh rung will remain dry.”
“He’s quite right, you know,” the burly man said. “You lose three times - first, you couldn’t answer my riddle, and second, he could.”
“And how did I lose a third time?”
“You listened to a toffee-nosed little know-it-all.”
The Rhymer wiped the egg off his face and had a fine old-fashioned temper tantrum, stomping around the place, venting his rage in angry words. Then he stopped and beamed. “Well! That WAS fun! We simply MUST do this again!” He snapped his fingers, and the ropes fell away from Kaellis and his companion, and the doors to the cages sprang open. As for the Rhymer, he turned into a large, livid-green frog and hopped up to a window, and was well away.
Azure Rose gave the two men full marks for coping with the fey, and she was more than a little relieved that she hadn’t had to extend herself to get the children away from the Raksha. But then, full marks for them meant more work for her. The two men took their sweet time getting the children back to their mothers, and faded into the shadows as soon as the last of the little ones was at least safe in the house of one of the other captives. Then, they abruptly shifted gears and were up the walls and over the roofs like shadows fleeing the rising sun. If Azure Rose hadn’t been a Chosen of the Maiden of Journeys, there would have been no way that she could have kept up with them.
As it was, Azure Rose was heaving for breath as the two large, exceedingly fit young men ran from rooftop to rooftop, leaping over the (thankfully) narrow streets with single bounds. Even the ‘Unswerving Juggernaut Principle’ wasn’t up to keeping her going. Only the fact that as one of the Chosen of the Maidens, she was not directly tied to the Threads of Fate as everyone and everything else in Creation was, kept the two sharp-eared and sharp-eyed men from noticing her. She was about to throw up when she used one of the few Sidereal charms that she actually knew - the ‘Bright Pebble Catches the Mockingbird’s Eye Distraction’; and, on cue, Kaellis decided to take a break. He ducked in and out of a wine shop and shared a bottle with his large companion. As they took a few drinks from the bottle, Azure Rose raled over the side of the roof until she got her second wind.
Just as Azure Rose got her wind back, Kaellis looked around and said, “Why did we stop for this bottle?”
“Seemed like a good idea at the time,” his friend replied. They shrugged, tossed the bottle off the side of the roof and continued. With a muted snarl, Azure Rose was after them again. She followed them to a cramped cluster of shops on an affluent, upscale but not wealthy section of town. The two rolled around a small fountain, revealing a cunningly hidden niche. She ducked in immediately after them, and found herself in the ridiculous position of being squeezed into a small gondola that lowered. She was cheek and jowl with her two adversaries and only her arcane concealment kept them from noticing her. Even so, as they exited the gondola, the other man turned to Kaellis and said, “Have you put on weight or something?”
Kaellis struck a light, and Azure Rose found that they were in a cramped passage that had the chill damp that she associated with being well underground. Kaellis took off his owl-mask and the other man pulled the dark mask that hid his face as well. Kaellis was young, pleasant-featured and reasonably attractive, with the good-humored and forthright mien that truly devious people favor. He was dark blonde with clean-shaven features, and he could have been any one of countless upper-crust young bucks that litter the cities of the Realm and Scavenger Lands. While she was hardly swooning, Azure Rose felt a pang of annoyance. It would be hard to really do an efficient hatchet job on someone who looked like the romantic lead’s best friend in a melodrama.
Given his size, Azure had rather presumed that the companion was older than Kaellis, but he turned out to be younger by maybe five years or so. He was stocky of build and feature, with dark hair and eyes, and his cheeks were even cleaner of beard than Kaellis’. While Kaellis had the build and moves of someone who trains regularly and studies the martial arts, the younger man had the bulk and slower movements of someone who worked for a living.
Stretching their limbs, they loped down the corridor past a number of frightening statues that seemed to leap out the darkness at you. They ignored the figures until Kaellis reached into the mouth of one particularly gruesome hell-beast, and there was the sound of a metallic click. An irregular patch of mortared stonework pushed forward and swung open, and Azure was barely able to slip in with the two men before the door closed again.
They went down a shorter tunnel, which suddenly opened up into a large domed open space that was lit by an unseen light that used the dome to reflect into the rest of the space. The place was a warehouse of strange and exotic looking things stored on shelves or by themselves, with bookcases and piles of crates all over the place. There was an obvious living area with cots and tables and a rough cooking stove. One area had been cleared away to make room for a wide frame that had bits and pieces of paper stuck to it to make a piecemeal map. The center was full, and more bits of map radiated out from that mass. A tall, slender, dusky skinned man with the hawkish features that Azure associated with the South was carefully affixing another sheet to the composite map. He finished and turned to look at the door. “Ah! Rennar! Arrek! Did you learn anything interesting?”
Azure Rose wondered who this man was. She’d rather assumed that the largish youth was the Twilight Caste Solar that the report had mentioned. But if he was, who was this man? The report hadn’t mentioned any faithful family retainers.
“Yes,” Kaellis replied, “That I really do need to read up on my riddles.”
“The children were being kidnapped by a lesser fae, and I had to resort to riddles to get the better of it. Fortunately, as I’ve said on many occasions, the fae have the imaginations of parrots, and Arrek here knew all the local favorites. But I think that our friend the Poetaster liked the experience, and he’ll be back. He may even have better riddles next time.”
The retainer (?) blinked and asked, “A Fae? In Keldon?”
“Why not? You’re within spitting distance of that Wyld just to the north; marauding dream-thieves should be a pestiferous nuisance.” Kaellis paused and considered. “It could be that with scum like Tatifar selling children to them, the fae simply haven’t needed to come personally into town. But then, when did things like practicality and common sense ever occur to the Good Neighbors? Come to think of it, I haven’t noticed any of the usual signs against the fae around town. With a Wyld that close, I’d think that the place would be swamped with charms and wards against them, but it’s not. Why is that, Adan?”
The man, ‘Adan’ was apparently his name, was closely studying his piecemeal map. Kaellis got Adan’s attention and repeated his question. “Oh, there are measures against the Fae, Rennar. The thing is, they’re so effective that people here in the city haven’t needed any personal wards against the fae. There are nasties enough here in Keldon, but we haven’t needed to shoo off goblins and bogeys.” He checked his large map, decided that it didn’t have what he wanted yet and went scurrying through a mass of papers. With a look of some surprise, he found what he was looking for in a pile that had been set to the side. “Interesting…” he murmured. He pulled out one very large scroll and unrolled it to reveal a map. “This map of the city’s ley lines- it includes the steles that define the boundary between Keldon and the Freehold of the Frabjous Tulge.”
“The Freehold of the Frabjous Tulge. The wyld where our good friend Sudra Lananshee came from. The Fey don’t create Manses, they create ‘Freeholds’, which are the Raksha version of Manses, only instead of clarifying the flow of Essence through the land, they use the node of essence to merrily rip the laws of Creation asunder - within the narrow confines of their Freehold. They’re more comfortable in places where two and two equal five instead of four, because there’s two twos and an ‘and’, than they are in Creation, where by definition a square can have only four corners.”
“So, there’s a line of steles that stand between Keldon and the Good Neighbor’s happy little madhouse,” the large youth, Arrek, stated. “Then how did that tongue-twisting twit the Rhymer get through them?”
“THAT was what I was wondering about,” Adan replied as he poured over the map. “But NOW I am wondering why a group of Death Knights just happen to have the very map that includes them.”
‘Death Knights?’ Azure thought to herself, her mind seizing up in panic. ‘DEATH KNIGHTS are tangled up in this mess TOO?’
Adan peered closer at the map. “And littered up said map with calculations that appear to center around determining which of the stele is the ‘keystone’ to the protective arrangement.”
Azure Rose didn’t hear that, or much else of the conversation that followed. She was too wrapped up in the realization that she didn’t just have a Night Caste Solar Exalt AND a Twilight Caste AND whatever in Malfeas this ‘Arrek’ was AND fey to deal with, she had to cope with DEATH KNIGHTS! Solar Exalts might be some of the most powerful entities in Creation, but they were part and parcel of the Loom of Fate, they were woven into the very fabric of reality. The Raksha were living snarls in that fabric, but they existed within the Loom all the same. But Death Knights? No stars shone down in the Underworld, and the Deathlords’ chosen lieutenants were not bound by the threads of fate. She wasn’t even sure if her Sidereal magic would work on a Death Knight!
Azure was snapped out of her funk by the sound of something snuffling near her. She turned and spotted a large dark hound that looked almost like - MERCURY’S ACHING FEET, IT WAS! - what the Malfeas was an Omen Hound doing there? Azure froze and prayed that the huge beast didn’t smell her fear. Once, back on the Ylthari steppe, she’d lost an entire week keeping up with the Aghessai because a pack of Omen Hounds had caught wind of her. She’d seen the horrid beasts rip apart the only pony that she could ever stomach, as she hid in the concealment of the foulest smelling weeds possible.
The Omen Hound definitely had her scent. Her Sidereal arcane concealment was still working, but the accursed cur still had her scent. He was snuffling around with an all-too-canine determination, bound and set on finding out what this new smell was. With her luck, it was some residual funk from that never-sufficiently bedamned urine-caked sheepskin jacket that she’d had to put up with for months. The irony that she, a servant of fate, was about to be unmasked by a beast named ‘Omen’ failed to amuse her.
Azure gingerly climbed up one of the shelves, and with the utmost quiet moved around from one shelf to another, trying to lose the Omen Hound’s nose. Then, the Maidens being, after all, on HER side, a stroke of luck befell her as the one of the younger men decided that it was time for them to leave. She was able to slip through the door like a breeze, and she was well down the corridor when she realized that she had absolutely NO idea as to what those three were up to. And she had no idea as to how she could get back in that chamber with that accursed hound in there. The foul cur had her scent, and Mercury hadn’t exalted her to wind up as an Omen Dog’s lunch.
Curiouser and Curiouser
I swear, if it isn’t one thing in this job it’s another! Arrek and I had just gotten back from saving several children from a mad fey (or is that redundant?), and now we have to go out and bustle out and find the hole that he squeezed into town through. No wonder the Solars of the First Age went toxic - they went mad from overwork! As I changed into my ‘Lord Ble’Knee Parsifal’ outfit, Master Adan was busy at his laboratory, rushing through something that probably would have been better off taking its own sweet time. I was practicing my supercilious gawp and languid slouch in a mirror, and contemplating some modish idiocy or another to complete the image, maybe a facial tattoo or sleeves that drag on the ground? Which is harder than it sounds, coming up with anything really idiotic enough. Sol’s Blistering Blazes, how does Isegris DO it?
Arrek was getting into his ‘Bosthar’ act with the requisite look of fretful care, when Adan walked up with two wineskins. “Here! This might be useful.”
“Adan, I appreciate a cool cup of wine after a fight but-”
“It’s not for drinking! I distilled some of the water that I’ve been using to keep that nasty ‘reliquary’ thing that the death-knight girl draped around your neck. I infused it with dust from those ghost jade obols that you brought in, and some Micomicon.”
“That’s nice. The point being?”
“Well, I was hoping that if you face another death knight, you might splash some on any soulsteel that they might be carrying.”
“Soulsteel?” Arrek asked.
“Soulsteel is one of the five magical metals,” Adan explained in his best pedantic manner. “It’s formed of the spirits of the dead, combined with certain unknown minerals.”
Arrek nodded, filing it away for future use. “Very well. And how will this concoction affect the soulsteel in any way that helps us?”
“Well, I don’t really know. Though, now that I think about it, if you splashed it on people who recognize you, they might forget they saw you. Or, if you sprinkle it over your path, it might confuse anyone trying to follow you by your essence trail.”
“In other words, you have no idea as to what it’ll do, but you want us to splash it about, on the off chance that it will do something.”
Master Adan pulled himself up stiffly. “We only learn, when we experiment.” Then, something was worrying Yarlick, Adan’s Omen Dog, so he have us a couple of tools made of cold iron, a hammer and a crowbar, things that wouldn’t raise any eyebrows but still leave a nasty dent in whatever we used them on, and sent us on our way. For some reason, getting out again into the open air was more of a relief than it usually was; it was intolerably cramped and claustrophobic for some reason. As ‘Lord Ble’Knee Parsifal’, I bought some artistic supplies, hired a dogcart, and badgered the gate watch for some suggestions for vistas to inspire the soul and promulgate (blither, blither, blither). The Guard was all to glad too see the last of us, and nobody would be asking any fool questions as to why ‘Bosthar’ and I were doing odd things with strings and protractors near the stele that formed the warding against the Wyld to the north.
The steles were wonderful examples of Old Realm craftsmanship. Even after Sol alone knows how long, the only sign that they hadn’t been finished last week was the growth of moss and ivy at their bases. They were thirty-cubit tall hexagonal columns of grayish blue stone, maybe four or five cubits thick at the base, with inscriptions all over it, including a large bas-relief glyph in Old Realm that faced northward. It was a perfect example of the sort of subtle wonder that louts like Isegris ignored because they weren’t shiny, or they didn’t make things explode.
Arrek and I used a copy of the map that the Abyssals had used to check the steles. There were chalk marks, and other signs that someone was doing some sort of calculations with the stones. As we got to the stele which was the most commented about on the map, Arrek noticed something. “The moss on this stone is dead.” He pulled the moss down, to reveal marks. “These are rope marks. Someone’s wrapped very thick ropes around these stones, I’d say thirteen times, and pulled at them in this direction,” he indicated the southern direction. “The ground shows some sign of breaking. They peeled up the sod on that side, did some digging, and replaced the sod.”
“Of course,” I said. “They did things right back in the Old Realm. They wouldn’t just set these things here, flush against the ground. Anything this important, they’d sink the stone into the ground. At least one-third of the steles are underground, maybe even half.”
“More like two-thirds,” came an unfamiliar silky voice from the north.
Arrek and I snapped around as one, seeing the speaker ride out of the woods - not from being concealed within the trees, but IN the very fabric of the copse itself - bringing all his friends with him. He rode a glorious golden griffin, and he was no doubt the very warrior ideal of a Raksha lord, tricked out all in sapphire glass plate armor, his perfect leonine face perfectly accented by a perfect scar of the perfect length and angle. His skin was a golden fur, and his hair was a mane that was also a flame. By his side a huge elegant glass sword hung in the air wreathed in blue fire, and in his hand was an overlong yet graceful glass lance, from which a glorious pennant snapped in the breeze. In his train were sixteen leonine warriors, all in blue glass armor, carrying blue glass shields and blue glass spears, the tips of which glittered artfully in the summer sun. Off to one side rode a Fae lady in deep red with black trim, her long trailing hair a drifting mass of autumn leaves. She rode a large red fox, and eight champion goblins clad in deadwood armor marched behind her. Behind her, riding a large white bear, was an old man whose hoarfrost beard and eyebrows couldn’t easily be told from the hoarfrost trim of his black cloak. Four soldiers in icy armor marched at his back. Next was a winged lady clad in only in a stormcloud, and her hair and wings were falls of dreary rain. She rode a swan and two soggy frog-warriors tramped after her. And bringing up the train on foot was an androgynous figure draped all over in flowers, which had but one meager servant. Well, from what I understood, the Frabjous Tulge was a small Freehold, in a rather dreary part of the Threshold. How many nobles could they have? “But then, you pukeling toads of Keldon always did-”
“I DO hate to interrupt,” letting it be known by my tone that I was all too glad to be so rude, “but since it’s obvious that the only reason that you all are still over THERE is that no matter how much they’ve tugged at it, this tooth is still squarely set in its jaw. So, you can’t get over HERE. That being said, I still think that it’s bad luck to tempt fate by baiting a bear in so fragile a cage. So, we’ll be taking our leave of you delightful fiends.”
But as Arrek and I turned to leave before any of that crew thought of anything, a dark figure dropped from the very top of the stele which it hadn’t occurred to us to check. My blunder. I’m the one who’s supposed to think of things like that.
The man was shaved bald, in excellent physical trim, and dressed like an Immaculate monk. Well, except for the fact that he was dressed all in shades of red and black, and his devotional beads were small skulls. He landed with silent grace and walked over to a fallen branch, which he pointedly stepped on, making a loud snap. He then walked with incredibly measured grace and assumed a kata in what I was suddenly very aware was the perfect place to counter any and all attempts to leave the glade- except through the Raksha, of course.
I stiffened slightly on recognition of the way that this man walked. I’d only seen one other person walk that way. Master Wooden Shoe, a 200-plus year old Immaculate of the Way of Dana’ad. Master Wooden Shoe taught martial arts at the Cloister of Wisdom, and it was said that he hadn’t used a Dragonblooded charm in combat in a hundred years, as it distracted him from the purity of the art. They called him ‘Wooden Shoe’, because he had to wear them, so people wouldn’t keep blundering into him. The nameless dark monk shifted his kata to that of patient readiness, and a mark like eight rays radiating from a dot appeared on his forehead.
And then the mark ran with a trickle of blood.
The man stood there with iron certainty. He would stand. We would die. He had considered every conceivable move that we could make, and he had the perfect countermove for each and every one of them. He was in complete control of the situation, and he had decided that we would die.
All that was left was the killing.
To be honest, I don’t remember running. I have no idea as to how I got through that line of Rakshas and goblins. All that I know is that one minute I was looking down the business end of a messy ending, and the next I was running for my life through the woods, with the line of steles many leagues behind me. Between those two points, my mind was a frozen mass of fear.
Azure Rose watched in open-mouthed amazement as both Kaellis and his companion (Arrek? Bosthar? Was it Arrek Bosthar, or Bosthar Arrek? She wasn’t sure) smashed through the line of assembled Raksha and goblins, scattering them like skittle-pins. Not wanting to lose sight of them (or be trapped with sets of the two sorts of beings in Creation most likely to notice her), Azure immediately set out after Kaellis and Bosthar. More running! Didn’t these idiots ever walk anywhere?
Bosthar was bigger, heavier, and all-around slower than Kaellis, so she ran after him, figuring that the stout fool would somehow know how to find the skinny fool. Bosthar plowed through the woods like, well, a plow, leaving a path that was so marked that Azure was able to find him even after she lost sight of him. She was gasping for air again when she caught up with him. Bosthar was breathing hard as well, and kneeling on the ground, but Azure didn’t get the impression that he was trying to catch his breath. He was hunched over, his hands flat on the ground, and his face was clenched in pain? Anger? Shame? He was breathing heavily and trembling and snarling. The trembling became a twitching and spasming, and his shirt stretched tight across his torso. He jerked furiously, snarling and growling and snorting. He raised his face to the sky in a rictus of agony, the veins on the side of his face bulging through his skin. His shirt started to tear, and then the fit began to subside. Bosthar rode out the attack and slumped down on the ground, exhausted. Azure wondered what was happening with him, but wasn’t really in a position to ask.
After a bit, Bosthar got his wind back and got down to figuring out where he was. He did a few things that struck Azure as probably being very woodsy and survival-wise. Not that she was a judge of it. Bosthar’s calculations were interrupted when a white mospid flew down and chirruped at him. Bosthar asked the bird about its master, and it seemed to respond intelligently, if not precisely intelligibly. Bosthar set off in a purposeful stride, the mospid leading the way.
Maybe a half-hour or so later, Bosthar found Kaellis crouched down low, peering through a bramble at something. Kaellis noted Bosthar’s approach though the large boy scarcely made a noise, and held up a hand for silence. He gestured Bosthar closer, and pointed through the bramble. Not wanting to chance looking over their shoulders, Azure popped her head up over the bramble, but all there was to see was still more bramble, shrubs and the beginnings of a fen. Risking the peek, Azure looked through the bramble. Through the bramble, there was a large clearing and maybe fifty paces or so from the bramble rose a huge glorious white tree with silver leaves that couldn’t seem to make up its mind whether it was an oak or a cozy country house or a grand castle. The tree was huge, at least a hundred cubits around the trunk, and it rose up from its projecting roots to a magnificent height, sending large branches out in all directions. There was a large portcullis with turreted towers on either side as guards. Eccentric windows, inset, gabled and bay, poked out of the tree, and there were a couple of balconies, and even a few chimneys.
Eyes ready to pop, Azure pulled back and looked back over the hedgerow. There was no bizarre tree, only a prosaic glade. Looking back through the bramble, there was the titan oak again. “Are you sure?” she picked up Bosthar asking.
“As sure as you can be about anything to do with the Grey Neighbors,” Kaellis answered.
Curiosity piqued even further, Azure looked through the hedge to get a look at what they were talking about. A few yards from the portcullis was a sort of ‘gazebo’ formed by six white poplar saplings whose branches wove together to form an onion dome over the housed ‘display’. Inside the ‘gazebo’, a furious battle was silently being waged. Two armed figures, one in golden armor with a sword and shield, the other in silver armor with a great axe, fought desperately against a luridly white dragon with black claws that breathed a torrent of water on them. Even as the warriors killed the white dragon, the water turned into a green dragon that clawed at them with sodden talons and breathed flowers at them. “And the flowers turn into a dragon of flowers that breathes pollen on them, which turns into a blue dragon that breathes fire on them.”
“And it goes on and on?” Bosthar asked. “Always the same?”
“Not always the same - the tactics are different each time, but the sequence is always the same. Now, watch this, this is what really settled it for me.” The blue dragon breathed flame, but the flame lingered for a moment. A small black dragon, about the size of a whippet emerged from the fire and sprang, sinking its teeth into the silver warrior. The silver warrior cried out in pain and fell to one knee, even as the fire coalesced into a lurid red dragon with black claws that breathed frost on the warriors. The frost became the white dragon, and the cycle renewed.
“Well then… what’s that little black dragon, and what’s it got to do with the others that’s so important?” Bosthar asked.
Kaellis grinned. “Well, if I’m right - and I admit, I could be wrong, we ARE talking about the People of Peace, after all - that’s Calibration.”
“Yes, the other five are the five Seasons- Air, Water, Earth, Fire, and Wood.”
“Y’mean, Winter, Showers, Flowers, Summer and Fall?”
“If that’s what they’re called in these parts. And the little nasty black thing is Calibration, which is right between Fire and Wood- or, Summer and Fall, if you must.” Bosthar looked at Kaellis. “Well, it’s only five days long, it’s not that great a beast, you must admit.”
“And why’s the seasons so important to them?”
“Well, Arrek-” The boy’s name was Arrek, then? How embarrassing for Azure. She was glad that she hadn’t written any reports. “- think about the procession of nobles back at the steles. First comes the lord in blue. What time of year is it?”
“Summer, which is the season of Fire, which the blue dragon breathes, which gives birth to-”
“Autumn,” Arrek said, catching on. “The time of fiery leaves, which gives birth to Winter and winter snows, which give birth to Showers… It’s a court of the seasons.”
“Yes. I think that the rulers of the freehold only rule for three months and then give up all their power to their successor. Remember the Flower Lord- or whatever- only had one retainer, just enough to keep up the pretense of being a lord.”
Arrek gave Kaellis a glare. “Fascinating. And how’s this important to US?”
Kaellis pulled back his sleeve to display an orichalcum bracer. “Take a look.” Azure craned her neck to get a glimpse. The gazebo was reflected in Kaellis’ bracer, but the dragons weren’t. Instead, there were two figures in armor wrapped up in coils of wood. “Tell me, Arrek. Do you recall any legends of brave young warriors who went out to face the Good Neighbors on their own ground?”
Arrek nodded, never taking his eyes from the scene of mock combat. “Aye. A mort of ‘em. None of ‘em ever end with the brave young clotheads comin’ back. Don’t recall any about Solar warriors, or Lunars, neither.”
“Well, I think that we can blame the Immaculates for that. Any legends of Solar or Lunar bravery probably got hijacked and Dragonbloods neatly inserted for moral safety.” Kaellis waited for a moment and said, “Arrek, don’t pretend that you don’t want that axe. It’s a Grand Grimcleaver, or I’m the Scarlet Empress. And it’s moon-dev- er, Moon-metal, or whatever they call it, the Moon’s metal to the Sun’s orichalcum. Your hands are just itching to hold it.”
“It’s a trap.”
“Of COURSE it’s a trap!” Kaellis grinned. “That just makes it more fun!”
“You think stepping into a trap is FUN?”
“No, I think that beating a trap is fun! Besides, it makes a better story this way! What will you say when those Lunar Elders ask you what you did to deserve that wonderful silvery weapon? ‘Oh, I took it off an old dead guy.’ Or, ‘I beat six fairy dragons, and lopped off all six heads with it’?”
“I hate it when you make sense.” Arrek said with beetled brows.
“I’ve been studying this, and Calibration is the weak point.”
“All the other seasons blend seamlessly into each other, with the dragon birthing the next one with its breath. There’s no way to break the cycle. Except for Calibration. It’s sort of a hiccup in the system, popping up and preventing Summer’s flame from maturing into Fall. If we can nail Calibration, then we break the cycle.”
“But Calibration’s likely to be as deadly as any of the rest!” Arrek pointed out. “Three months worth of nasty are crammed into five days! Ghosts walk, the rules grow fuzzy, the gods are busy tying up loose ends before the year ends, the doors between the worlds are ajar, demons walk out of Hell, and people have big parties so they can keep an eye out for each other.”
“Or an eye ON each other, by Imperial rules,” Kaellis sighed. “You’re right, but it’s the only chink in the cycle.”
‘Yer right, yer right,” Arrek sighed, “but how’re we supposed to-” then something seemed to click in his head. “Be right back.”
About a half-hour later, Arrek came back worrying at some bark with a knife, and carrying branches under his arms. “What are you about?”
“Old backcountry measures against the ‘Shy Ones’,” Arrek jerked a head at the big tree. “Rowan branches over the doors and windows, and braids of birch bark to bind the shutters. From what I’ve heard, the ‘Tender Lords’ won’t deign to look at rowan or birch, so it’s not that they can’t pass through it, it’s that they won’t see what’s on the other side.” Arrek smiled savagely. “Well, it’s one way to have a nasty fight on their front porch without them getting curious.”
“I think that the local Lords are probably still out there, looking for us, not thinking to look on their front porch,” Kaellis pointed out. “But, as my Aunt Shallis is fond of saying, ‘it couldn’t hurt’.”
Kaellis helped arrange the wards around the gazebo, and poured a circle of the water that Master Adan had loaded them down with, around the wards. “It couldn’t hurt.”
That done, Kaellis readied the cold iron crowbar. Arrek tapped the cold iron hammer into the palm of his hand. “This would probably be a lot easier with one of those weapons in there.”
“You go for the axe, I’ll go for the shield. They can only attack one at a time. I’ll keep them off you, you whack their heads off, until we get to Calibration.”
“THAT, we nail with the cold iron,” Arrek said in agreement. Together, they waited through several cycles of the combat until they had the moment when the blue dragon reared back timed. The blue dragon spewed fire, and the small black dragonet of Calibration sprang into being. “NOW!”
They sprang forward, and pounced on the little dragonet, but they were a second too late. It sank its fangs into the leg of the Solar warrior, and was gone. The Autumn Dragon came into being, born of the Summer Dragon’s flame. Kaellis managed to prize the shield from the wood’s grasp just in time to block a maw full of thorny fangs. Alas, the Grimcleaver wasn’t being as cooperative, and Arrek had to settle for bashing in a few fangs with his cold iron hammer. Kaellis and Arrek danced thrashed away at the dragon and did manage to kill it, but not before it breathed a blizzard on them. Kaellis bashed away at the Winter Dragon as Arrek wrestled the Grimcleaver free.
They battled their way through the cycle, and Kaellis readied himself for the Summer Dragon’s flaming breath. But the Summer Dragon seemed to be bound and determined to outlast its allotted time and wouldn’t gout fire. It snapped and lashed out with its talons. It wrapped itself around Arrek and squeezed him in constricting coils. But as it crushed his ribs, it broke the winesack at his side, spilling Master Adan’s concoction over its scales.
The scales immediately ran like a chalk drawing being rained on. Arrek took advantage of the dragon’s reaction by lopping its head off with the Grimcleaver. Alas, that didn’t stop it from gushing out flame. Still, the Calibration dragonet sort of staggered out of the flames, and was a sitting duck for Kaellis to pin it to the ground with the crowbar. Arrek cut its head off with the clinical precision of beheading a chicken for dinner. The two relaxed, and were taken off their guard when the Autumn Dragon formed from the fire. “Arrek, I think that I’ve got it!” he popped the cork from his wineskin and squirted some of the corrupted water into the dragon’s maw. The dragon puckered up its face as though it had drunk sewage instead of Cynis wine, and its vivid colors faded. “Let it breathe, Arrek. We just have to get through one more cycle…”
Arrek let the Autumn Dragon breathe its frost and then took its head. The next four dragons reacted to the tainted water the same way, and when it came forth, the Calibration dragonet was more like a struggling newt than a darting lizard. Kaellis pinned it to the ground again, this time using his orichalcum claws. Arrek raised the Grimcleaver to behead it, but Kaellis snapped, “NO! We don’t kill this one! That will just start the cycle all over again. The Autumn Dragon can’t come into being while the Calibration Dragon exists. So, let’s see how long that fire can hold itself in potential… The Wyld isn’t noted for its patience…”
Then a strange sort of tension lapsed, and the fire lost its dragon-in-the- making form. It latched onto the gazebo and set the shelter ablaze. In the cage of Kaellis’ claws, the Calibration dragonet withered into nothingness, its allotted time squandered.
“It’s on fire!” Arrek yelped. “Let’s get them out of there!” Between them, he and Kaellis freed the two skeletons from the wooden coils that had held them for centuries, and dragged them out of the burning gazebo.
Kaellis turned to look at the Freehold tree, expecting to see gawping Raksha looking in horror as their memorial burned. Instead, there was one minor goblin standing at a window, sipping at a cup of tea, admiring whatever insane view that window afforded. Apparently it was literally incapable of seeing what was right in front of it. Kaellis closed his eyes and shuddered. Then he was back at the job at hand. “Let’s strip the bodies, and put them back in the fire.”
“We just got them OUT of the fire.”
“We need their equipage. But, let’s be honest here - the best that we can do for them is a funeral pyre. Or are we going to drag two mummies back to Keldon?” Arrek muttered something about Luna not exalting him to be a grave robber, but quickly removed everything from the Solar, as Kaellis stripped the Lunar.
When the gear was collected, Arrek and Kaellis placed the withered corpses on the Solar’s cloak and pitched them into the fire. The fire was real enough to catch the cloak on fire, and as it was Fire Descending, the wood that had held the two skeletons was dry enough to catch fire. It made for a suitable pyre, and Kaellis and Arrek assumed pious stances. “My Lord Unconquered Sun, my Lady Luna, please accept the last mortal traces of your servants… whoever they were. I know that it’s late, and rather hasty, but better late than never.” That hurried duty done, they treated their wounds as best they could and picked up the bundles. “Arrek, do you have any idea of what those two’s names were?”
“Nary a clew. There’s a lesson in the fleeting nature of glory there, I think. Hold on, there’s a plaque over there, maybe it says.” Together they walked over to the obsidian slab that was just in front of the gazebo. Azure was about to peek over the two men’s shoulders - just for accuracy in her report, you understand - when the ground opened up under Kaellis and his companion, and they fell from sight. Azure just barely managed to keep from falling in. But even as her foot fell to where the hole had been, the ground closed up again, as if the hole had never been there.