Fate and the Iron Tiger Part 1

Fate and the Iron Tiger PART 1

An Exalted Tale by Dr. Bender

Tetsu, an itinerant con artist, can't believe his luck when a chance encounter lands him with more wealth than he knows what to do with. Little does he know that his luck will draw him into a diabolical plot to unweave the Loom of Fate!

This story takes place in the world of Exalted as presented in the roleplaying game of the same name by White Wolf. Prior knowledge of this universe is not required.

Fate and the Iron Tiger PART I
An Exalted Tale by Dr. Bender

Prologue

In the beginning there was Not Time. In this space without space, infinite and infinitesimal, the Shinma were birthed by the existence of existence itself. This is certainly confusing but none the less true. The Shinma were merely concepts or perhaps the personifications of concepts but it was their will which defined the shape of reality and the formation of the primal chaos known as the Wyld.

From the Wyld came the Primordials, the haughty and jealous beings that sculpted Creation to provide themselves with a safe haven in the tempest. So that they could retire to their games, they created the Gods to watch over Creation and guard their backs from their eternal enemies, the Raksha. Other, lesser, beings were created to serve the Gods in turn and even smaller beings to serve the servants but the Gods did not take well to slavery.

After untold years, the foremost of the Gods hatched a plan to usurp creation from their masters. Unable to go against the Primordials directly, the strongest empowered mortals with a small portion of their divine essence making each an army unto themselves. The Elemental Dragons empowered the Dragonblooded, the weakest but most numerous of the Exalted; the Five Maidens of Fate empowered the Sidereals with the ability to sway destiny itself to their cause; Luna imparted her mercurial essence to a chosen few and the Unconquered Sun, greatest of all, created the Solar Exalted to rule over all the rest.

Their rebellion was costly but ultimately successful. After maiming and imprisoning those former masters that they did not kill outright, the Gods left Creation in the hands of their chosen and took up the Games of Divinity in the Primordials’ stead. The Solar Exalted forged what future generations know as the First Age, a time of peace, prosperity and decadence.

No-one ever expected that the seeds of the Solar’s downfall had been planted with the dying breath of the Primordials. Unknown to all, as the slain creators descended into the Underworld they placed upon their murderers a great curse. Forever more would the Exalted be men and women of great deeds and great flaws, sinking ever deeper into their own insanity.

Fearing for the future of Creation and driven by their own curse, the Sidereal Exalted conspired with the Dragonblooded to overthrow the increasingly erratic Solars. This rebellion, the Usurpation, was also ultimately successful and the Sidereals entrapped the Solar Exaltations in a cage deep beneath the western oceans, never to be unleashed again onto the world. The Lunars, bereft of their Solar partners, fled to the edge of Creation and into the Wyld, harried by armies uncounted. Thus ended the First Age.

The Dragonblooded were numerous but ultimately weaker than the Solars, unable to match the peerless skill of their former masters. First Age technology withered and died, reducing mortals to a more medieval existence as jealous enemies caught the scent of blood. While disease was rife throughout the era of the Shogunate, their effects paled against the plague future generations would come to know as The Great Contagion. Once the disease had run its course, the Sidereals, Gods and Dragonblooded estimated that a mere ten percent of all life in Creation had managed to survive.

It was at Creation’s weakest moment that the Raksha struck from the Wyld. The death toll of the Balorian Crusade was miniscule compared to that caused by The Great Contagion but it was a serious blow none the less. The Wyld re-claimed vast tracts of shaped reality, shrinking Creation by no less than half its size. Just when all seemed lost, a single Dragonblood managed to penetrate the Imperial Manse, a First Age weapon of unimaginable power, and used it to drive the Raksha back.

This exceptional Dragonblood claimed rulership of what remained of the Shogunate and, with the backing of the Sidereals, re-forged the remains of civilization into the nation known as The Realm. She called herself The Scarlet Empress and her rule has stood firm against all challenges for more than seven hundred years.

Today, the Immaculate Order teaches that the Solar and Lunar Exalted are demons that possess men and women of great strength but weak character. As the puppet religion of the Realm and the Sidereals, the Order harried the Lunars back into the Wyld at every opportunity and kept order amongst the Little Gods. It also spreads the worship of the Dragonblooded as the chosen rulers of Creation, beings with the divine right to rule in the God’s stead. Even though the relics of the First Age endure, most mortals spit upon those who once freed them from slavery to the Primordials, calling them Anathema. As generations passed, there was no-one left who remembered the glories that were lost and the memories of the Solars who had come before were trapped with their Exaltations, unable to prove their detractors wrong.

That is, until their cage was broken…

- Excerpt from the Journals of Lytek, God of Exaltation.

Chapter 1

Try to imagine Creation as a bubble. This is not strictly speaking true but does well enough for our purposes. Inside this bubble is a vast land, the boundaries of which are defined by the four elemental poles. In the frozen north lies the Elemental Pole of Air; beyond the western oceans lies the Elemental Pole of Water; past the deserts of the south you would discover the Elemental Pole of Fire and amidst the giant forests of the east is the Elemental Pole of Wood. Binding these four poles together is the Elemental Pole of Earth which stands at the centre of Creation on the Blessed Isle.

Only the Gods and the fallen Primordials know how deep the earth and oceans go or how high above mortal heads the sky rises. Despite this, the Unconquered Sun still manages to rise and fall during the day while Luna shows her face alongside the constellations of the Maidens of Fate in the night sky but the all other stars shine for mortals great and small. Every one of these stars represents the destiny of a mortal, some shining brighter than others but each all too easily snuffed out.

Under the stars of the east, Cathak Markul was afraid that the time for the end of his star had come, though he wouldn’t have couched the metaphor in the same way. Markul felt the heat of a burning fortress at his back as he crawled through the mud, the sound of the battle behind him reverberating through his bones. The tall stone towers of Andual Redoubt had been many things to the young Dragonblood but what pained his heart the most was the loss of the place he called home.

He turned to look over his shoulder as it seemed that the stern grey walls roared in agony even as the earth itself shook underneath him from the forces that had been unleashed. Pillars of flame roared from windows high above as the spires beyond the fifty foot high wall between Markul and the battle beyond were illuminated by flashes of raw power.

Paradoxically, the countryside around the fortress was deathly still. Tall mountains rose sharply on either side of the fortress which had been built to straddle the river that flowed through the valley from the north. Illuminated starkly by Luna’s waxing light, the forest beyond the clearing that ringed the fort cast deep shadows under the canopy. Recent rains and run-off had reduced the grassy, leaf-strewn, dirt into muddy slush that Markul cursed silently with every movement as he dragged himself along, desperate to get out of the clearing that surrounded the fort and into the cover of the trees.

Mindful that the enemy could be lurking in any shadow, Markul’s eyes constantly darted left and right, searching for the slightest flicker of movement but found none. He forced himself to squash a faint hope that the foolish Immaculates had neglected to post sentries to catch anyone attempting to escape as he was, reminding himself to assume the worst. Beyond the short, rocky, slope that led up to his destination, he imagined an army waiting for him in the darkness and gripped the hilt of his enormous green jade alloy Daiklave tighter than he had before, forcing renewed strength back into his limbs through sheer will. He ignored the burning in his every muscle along with a myriad of cuts, scrapes and bruises as he climbed the green lamellar armour of his ancestor clattering painfully loud to his ears against the bare rock.

A blinding flash caused him to look back again as he reached the treeline just in time to catch the sight of the main tower toppling over as if it had been bumped by a giant’s elbow, seeming to fall ever so slowly just as a second tower was sheered in half by a blade of brilliant energy. The deafening noise of the collapse was like the roar of a Behemoth, spewing great clouds of mud and dust into the air. Markul didn’t waste time gawking, he scrambled to his feet and ran, forSakeng caution for speed in his desire to get as far away from the horror of that battle as possible. Seconds later, he felt small chunks of gravel clatter against his helmet as they rained from the sky, sounding much like a hailstorm as the debris found the earth once more.

The trees flashed by as he sprinted past, dodging trunks and shafts of moonlight in his haste, his miscellaneous complaints forgotten with the rush of adrenaline as he enhanced his body with a carefully controlled flush of Essence, power granted to him by his birthright. Despite his speed, he maintained his vigilance, keeping one eye out for enemies at all times while the other plotted his course. He didn’t slow until the sound of battle faded into the distance and all was silent except for the usual sounds of the wood.

Checking his surroundings, having patrolled this area many times before, he made sure of his bearings and continued on to the rock he knew to mark the grave of an ancient ruin whose foundations had long been buried under roots and soil. Once there, he came upon, as promised, a dark brown horse with a white patch over its right shoulder tied to a tree, thankfully safe. Ambushing Immaculate monks weren’t the only threat the forest could hold and Markul spared a prayer of thanks to the Unconquered Sun for such good fortune before mounting the steed and ordering it into a dead run.

Only then, with the reins in his hands and the wind in his hair, did Markul allow himself to relax his guard slightly. This wasn’t necessarily his undoing; perhaps even if he had been rested and alert he would never have seen the attack that pierced his heart.

That night, however, one of the sky’s brightest stars faded and died as Cathak Markul slumped in his saddle.

#

Creation isn’t the only solid bubble floating in the Wyld. Connected to Creation via many gates is Yu Shan, City of the Gods. Though the greatest city of all is dominated by the Jade Pleasure Dome in which Incarnae such as the Unconquered Sun busy themselves with the Games of Divinity, the city also houses the much more humble and practical offices of the Celestial Bureaucracy, though even the most humble hovel in Yu Shan would be counted a palatial mansion anywhere else. The most important of these offices, perhaps the most important building in all Creation, is the Lotus Dome. This simple, immense, dome is most important for its sole purpose: housing the Loom of Fate.

While the exterior of the Lotus Dome is an unassuming white, the interior is a dark, shadowy, place. Tall pillars support spiral staircases and walkways that interweave through the silvery luminescent threads of the Loom to provide access for the Keepers of Fate, otherwise known as the Sidereal Exalted, the members of the Bureau of Destiny. Every thread in the Loom is a mortal destiny, it is said that even the stars in the sky are merely reflections of these threads. Together, the threads form the Tapestry of Creation; the past, present and future all intertwined in the endless dance of life.

Dexterously scuttling though the threads were the Pattern Spiders, eight-legged spirit constructs created for the sole purpose of tending to the Loom. Despite the best efforts of the Gods, the Tapestry is constantly being woven and re-woven by the actions of mortals and immortals. The threads can become tangled and snarled, creating errors in the flow of casualty. A man standing on a roof may watch himself fall to his own death before the Pattern Spiders are able to fix the snarl, in which case the man may watch his own death fade from existence or fade from existence himself. Fortunately, such events are rare unless the use of Essence is involved.

All of this was known to the two young Sidereals that occupied one of the lower balconies that looked out onto a tiny section of the Tapestry, though just this small piece dwarfed them the way humanity towers over ants. Shining Feather, Chosen of Serenity, swept the long blue silk sleeve of his robe over his shoulder and out of the way of his brush hand. He sat at a small portable desk, facing the loom as he transcribed the Bureau’s work orders from the vernacular framework into more elegant formal calligraphy. By contrast, Focused Rage, Chosen of Battles, paced impatiently with his hands clasped behind his back. Despite the heavy material of his scarlet buff jacket, an armoured longcoat made of tough leather reinforced with metal plates; his movements were so intense that the hem still managed to swish at every sharp turn. Shining Feather ignored him, gently dipping the tip of his brush into his inkwell before returning it to the paper.

“I don’t know why you insist on wasting our time here,” Rage complained in his trademark low, threatening, growl.

Shining Feather shook off his partner’s vitriolic demeanour as a matter of course, replying in calm, soothing, tones. “If you believe that I am wasting your time, feel free to remove yourself from my presence.”

As always, Rage proved just as adept at ignoring his partner’s reasoned arguments as Feather was able to look past his impatience. “I just don’t understand how you can tarry here when there’s important work to be done!”

“As I have told you many times, you’re the kind of man who throws himself passionately into any cause,” Feather answered, “but men like you only ever see the big picture. You are quite willing to let the little details take care of themselves, which only causes more problems in the future.”

“And if we left everything up to you, we’d bury ourselves in the details and never get anything done!” Rage scoffed, though he did manage to stop pacing long enough to stride to the railing and gaze upon the Tapestry as it unfolded around them in every direction. “Seriously, you could send those orders from any corner of Creation. Why do it here? Do you enjoy the thrill of toying with the fates of mortals? Does every brush stroke signify the flash of the executioner’s blade as you consign some insignificant worm to a bitter and pointless end?”

“Are you sure it was Mars who picked you? Or did purple clash too much with your hair?”

Rage self-consciously touched his spiky blonde locks for a moment before getting the joke, which only made him angrier. “Yeah, well, you’d look better dodging questions in green.”

Feather had to sigh at his partner’s lack of creativity. Both of them had referenced the colours of their fellow Sidereals who had been chosen by the Maiden of Endings and the Maiden of Secrets, Purple and Green respectively. “If you must know, I do it here because I like Pattern Spiders.”

“Huh?”

“The Pattern Spiders like my calligraphy. Good calligraphy is, in fact, the only thing, as far as anyone can tell, that they enjoy. We might read the Loom of Fate and direct them towards manipulating desired outcomes but it is the Pattern Spiders who take care of all the details. Up is still up and down is still down thanks to the Pattern Spiders but not a single one has had so much as a coffee break since the beginning of the First Age. If something so simple as my calligraphy can ease their burden for even a moment then I count my time well spent.”

Rage snorted derisively. “Yeah, should have known, you’re just the sort of sap who likes to thank his front door for opening every morning even if all the evidence would indicate that doors don’t have feelings.”

“Then maybe we should track down the God of Doors and ask…” Shining Feather trailed off in mid sentence.

“Ask what?” Rage chuckled. “Oh great and mighty opener and closer of ways, does yonder portal mind if I avail upon it to allow egress or should I use the window instead?”

“Shush,” Feather snapped, cocking his head to one side, “can you hear that?”

“Hear wha…”

Rage paused as he followed his companion’s gaze down to the pot of ink on the table and the shiny black surface of the liquid within. It rippled like a miniature ocean, shuddering with growing intensity as Rage became aware of a low hum that was quickly increasing in volume. Both men covered their ears as the sound grew into an ear-piercing shriek, a sudden gale whipped up their robes and thrust them both into the central pillar with jarring force. Feather’s desk tumbled over the edge, leaving spattered black trail in its wake as it took his calligraphy set with it. The iron railings even began to bend under the pressure, the sound of screeching metal drowned out by the howl of the Loom.

Then it was all over just as fast as it had come and the two Sidereals fell unceremoniously on their faces. Both groaned and squirmed as the ringing in their ears began to subside.

“What in Malfeas’ name was that?” Feather shouted as he struggled to rise.

“What?” Rage shouted back. “I’m still deaf as a doorjamb!”

“And about as smart,” Feather muttered under his breath.

“I said I still can’t hear either,” Rage yelled, oblivious to Feather’s snide remark.

Feather pulled himself to his feet using the pillar for support and shook his head vigorously to try to get the world to stop spinning. When he finally looked up he thought that the sight before him was an illusion, a trick played by his bruised and battered mind. It wasn’t until he heard his companion breathlessly utter a prayer to the Five Maidens that he knew for sure that what he was seeing was real.

The Tapestry beyond their lookout had unravelled like a ball of yarn attacked by kittens. Threads of destiny were tangled and snarled in a single chaotic knot the size of a house, the collective fate of an entire kingdom ruined and unreadable. Pattern Spiders descended on the anomaly like an army of ants and began picking at the edges in their indomitable patience and tenacity but their efforts seemed feeble compared to the overwhelming task before them.

“What, Rage?” Feather asked in breathless awe. “What in all Creation could have done this?”

#

“As far as we can ascertain, Master Kejak,” Mekrem Saladin, Chosen of Secrets, reported as he and his superior walked side by side though the marble halls of the Heptagram, the most prestigious academy of magic in all the Realm, “the catastrophic reverberation occurred when someone with a particularly important Destiny was killed by an extremely powerful essence working. Information on the victim has been sealed by Lady Jupiter and the only thing we know for sure about the attacker was that he or she is outside the purview of Fate.”

Chejop Kejak frowned as he considered the new twist in events. Though old, his staff of office was merely a prop he used to give the impression of authority and, perhaps, frailty to those inclined to underestimate the elderly but he found its impact on the floor vaguely satisfying after the news of this new annoyance. “Have you spoken to Nara-O?”

Nara-O, the God of Secrets Only One Person Knows, was the head of the Division of Secrets. A macabre figure swathed in bandages, the whispering god was a mere step down the hierarchy from the Incarnae, his ability to know any secret kept by a single person ensuring that any plot against his position was doomed to failure.

“Yes, Master. Whoever the perpetrator is, he must have accomplices somewhere. Nara-O knew nothing.”

“I don’t know if I should feel comforted that one person alone couldn’t disrupt our plans to this extent or horrified that a group of beings has access to such power.”

“What worries me the most is that the perpetrator knew exactly who to strike at precisely the worst time. I am loathe to consider the option but we must concede that there might be a traitor in our own ranks.”

“It wouldn’t be the first time, my old friend,” Kejak smiled, vaguely remembering meeting a young Saladin for the first time over two millennia ago. “Fortunately, it’s not our problem.”

“Sifu?” Saladin queried using a more personal honorific, such was his surprise.

“There’s no need for Oversight to be directly involved. Dump this mess onto the Convention of Essence Wielders but keep an eye on the situation. Ura is an idealist but I would never question her competence. Dealing with this will get them out from under our feet for a little while. If it turns out that a Solar was responsible, however, we need to be poised to blow the whole incident open. Or to help if the situation is worse than any of us suspect.”

Saladin nodded in agreement. “It will be done, Master.”

Chapter 2

The fertile East of Creation is divided into many segments by rivers that one must sail across for an entire day before catching sight of the opposite bank. It should be noted that, despite Creation being mostly flat, the God of the Horizon ensures that the view of any single mortal is limited. After all, the Unconquered Sun needs a horizon to rise above and descend beneath, the reason for which is known only to the Gods themselves.

These great rivers branch off from the Yanaze, the great inlet that feeds the mouth of the Inland Sea that surrounds the Blessed Isle. Travelling east along the Yanaze, upstream, one would eventually come to a fork from which the Yanaze branches off into the Yellow and Grey Rivers as well as the great city of Nexus. Following the Yellow River northeast, after more than a month’s travel by foot, you would find that it turned to the east once more past the city of Great Forks. Continuing on another month and a half after passing the Rolling River tributary you could continue on east along the Yellow River past the Maruto River. Yet another two months of constant travel would place you on the Mist Isle at the mouth of the Rock River, a tributary much smaller than the others mentioned previously and yet no less important for the shipments of ore and other raw materials that supply the uncounted petty kingdoms that straddle the banks of this immense river system. This is about as far as most folk would consider travelling as beyond this point, the idea of governance, civilization and even solid form is generally considered optional.

If one were to travel on foot for about a week to the northeast of Mist Island, into the region known to the Realm as the Hundred Kingdoms, you may discover a particular tree. This tree grows on the edge of a small gully half way up a steep, forest-covered, hill. If you were also perceptive enough, you might notice that someone had moved several branches between the gaps in the roots in order to construct a makeshift shelter. If you then peered through the branches you would find an itinerant man wearing a dirty grey peasant’s robe with rough, swarthy, skin and the calloused hands and feet of a wanderer, huddled in the dry patch under the tree as the countryside was lashed by wind and rain.

Tetsu, the wanderer, had no idea that the sudden storm that had driven him into his meagre shelter was not an entirely natural occurrence; unusual, certainly, but not out of the ordinary. Indeed, there was little evidence that something was gravely amiss throughout the entire kingdom. A bird flew backwards through the forest, unobserved, until it was caught in a giant spider’s web and eaten. A door that had been nailed shut and boarded over would have opened into the far city of Chiaroscuro in the South, if anyone could bother to open it. An honest businessman received a shock when he discovered that he had been embezzling millions of Dinars from his employers for years while being unable to remember stealing a single Bit. Fate works in subtle ways to ensure that only a few ever notice something amiss and that those few will never be believed. Thus, being ignorant of what had transpired, Tetsu slept.

Until he was woken by the hoof beats of a runaway warhorse.

Starting awake, only his quick thinking prevented him from crying out as the distinctive sounds of at least one warrior rapidly approached. There was a momentous thud as the beast’s hooves landed hard on the soil overhead, showering Tetsu with dirt before continuing its descent down what was practically a cliff.

Easing himself onto the balls of his feet, Tetsu peered out through the branches that concealed his sleeping place. To his alarm, he immediately saw that the rider had fallen but his foot had stuck in the stirrups, his armoured body bouncing across the ground. He winced as the limp form was finally dislodged from the terrified stallion as it hit a rock with a resounding crack that echoed through the valley even as the horse continued to bolt downhill. Luck, however, wasn’t with the animal as it tripped at the base of the gorge and fell head first into the unyielding dirt.

For a full ten minutes, Tetsu remained perfectly still as he stared at the scene, waiting for the rider’s friends to come and retrieve the body. However, nobody came and there was no sound except the patter of rain drops and the occasional agonized whinny of the horse.

It wasn’t long before greed overcame Tetsu’s caution as he decided to forsake his hiding place and creep over to the rider’s body and check to see if it had anything valuable. Years of wandering the wilderness had taught him at least the basics of how to tread silently and the rain just made it that much easier. Creeping through the wet grass, remaining crouched for the most part, Tetsu had to wince at the sight that greeted him.

The body looked boneless; every limb splayed out at the wrong angle like the man had been wrung out between the hands of a giant then casually discarded without thought. It was also equally obvious that the fall hadn’t killed him. The swordsman wore green lamellar armour with a matching green jade Daiklave strapped to his back but his chest plate looked as if something had exploded beneath it, hollowing out the man’s chest. Tetsu almost jumped out of his skin when the piece of meat on the ground that hardly looked human coughed, spattering blood onto the grass.

“Help me,” it rasped, twitching slightly.

Tetsu checked to make sure the sun was actually up and he hadn’t been suddenly sucked into the Wyld or some insane shadowland while he’d been sleeping. Kneeling carefully next to the body, he looked over the man’s wounds again and winced. “I’m sorry but… you shouldn’t even be alive.”

“Sustaining myself… with Essence,” the soldier gasped, pausing between words for fits of agony, “but it… won’t… last.”

“Can I do anything for you?”

He tried to shake his head but only twitched. “No… thank you.”

“Don’t thank me,” Tetsu sighed, “once you’re dead I’ll probably strip your body and sell it all to pay for my next meal. So don’t thank me.”

“Honourless bandit!” The Dragonblood spat through clenched teeth.

Tetsu scowled. “Yeah, yeah. And you’ve never extorted money from a vassal, raped a woman in war or stabbed an enemy in the back, I’m sure.”

It was hard to tell if the soldier winced in pain from his injuries or Tetsu’s words. “Then what are you?” The soldier asked. “Just a wanderer? Or a hungry ghost sent to haunt my dying breaths?”

“For a while there, I thought you were the hungry ghost,” Tetsu snorted. “It seems that I’m the guy who’s going to make your last moments in this incarnation as comfortable as possible before I bury you and put your name over the grave. If you don’t want your epitaph to read ‘I died a bloody fool’ you might want to be polite.”

“You’re right,” the soldier sighed, “I know I’m dying, no help for it. The least I can do is bequeath to you everything I’m carrying for a good burial. After all, I have no heir.”

“What name do you want on your marker?”

“Cathak Markul, Exiled Dragon Lord of Wood. That is all; I have no right to brag over my… achievements.”

Tetsu looked down at the mass of blackened meat that used to be Markul’s chest. “Do you know who killed you?”

“No,” Markul said simply. The Dragonblood stared up at the sky for a moment, lost in his own thoughts. “Do you believe in evil?”

“Evil is defined by action,” Tetsu shrugged, “we are what we do. A Dragon Lord killed my family.”

“I’m sorry,” Markul sighed, “what’s your name?”

“Tetsu.”

“I’m sorry, Tetsu. A few years ago, I might have done that and more. I certainly did worse.”

“Why were you exiled?”

It must have hurt but Markul smiled. “I couldn’t kill a child. I refused to destroy one of the Anathema. She’s safe now.”

Tetsu didn’t want to explain himself but Markul had answered his question, so he felt obligated. Hard to refuse a dying man anything, even a Dragon Lord. “My father was a smith. We lived in the northwest, close to the sea. When I was fourteen, a lord bought an estate on the hill above us for his summer house. Our homes were spoiling his view, so he ordered us out. My father was a respected artisan, so my parents went to beg the lord to reconsider. He sent their heads back in a basket. I ran away before...”

Feeling something on his leg, Tetsu looked down to discover Markul’s hand gripping his thigh.

“When I was growing up,” Markul gasped, tears streaming down his cheeks from pain and sorrow, “I never thought of my clan as evil, no matter what we did we were justified as the defenders of Creation. I was wrong, forgive me… please…”

“You didn’t kill…”

Tetsu paused as the last breath of life left the soldier’s body and he wilted into death, eyes wide open.

“…them. But I forgive you.”

He reached up and closed Markul’s eyes.

Wasting no more time, Tetsu said a short, inept, prayer for the man’s soul before searching his belt pouches for valuables. Hefting Markul’s coin purse, Tetsu had to whistle appreciatively as he estimated that he was now the proud owner of fourty-seven silver Dinars, a small fortune by the standards of anyone but a Dragonblood. Quickly thrusting the pouch into the inner pocket of his robe, he turned to pry the Daiklave, a sword that was taller and almost as wide as he was, out from under the body. It came out with surprising ease since whatever had gouged Markul’s chest out had also torn the strap that held the sheath in place. The last thing to come off the rider were his boots which were slightly too small for Tetsu but better than going barefoot on the wet, freezing, ground.

Tetsu had a singular strength to his well-muscled and wiry form, a body earned through years of hard labour drifting from town to town. He’d even been known to have swung a mean stick or rod of iron, being at least passing familiar with the art of thuggishly beating someone senseless. The Daiklave, however, was almost as much as he could lift with two hands. Also, the weapon was so tip heavy that swinging the blade in anger was simply unthinkable. Looking down at the relatively scrawny Dragonblood, Tetsu had to shake his head. He accepted the fact that Dragonbloods were just better than normal folk but that didn’t mean he had to like it. He kept the blade sheathed but discarded the useless leather strap, resolving to replace it at the first opportunity.

After satisfying himself that there was nothing left on the rider’s body that was of any value to him, Tetsu dragged the body under the tree where he’d spent the night and buried the exile there in a shallow grave. On the tree above, he carved the epitaph: ‘Cathak Markul, Dragon Lord of Wood, Saviour of Children’.

With his promise completed, Tetsu hefted the Daiklave over his shoulder and proceeded down the hill at a leisurely pace, humming a tune from his childhood. Unlike his master, the horse was mercifully dead, its neck broken.

“Well, aren’t you a sorry sight?” He asked the dead horse rhetorically as he moved to retrieve the saddlebags and redistribute their contents. After several attempts at dislodging the bag that had landed underneath the horse, Tetsu scowled in frustration. “Stupid horse,” he commented, “why’d you have to go and fall on your side? Some of us have to outlast you; you should have been more thoughtful.”

The dead horse wasn’t paying attention, however, so he consoled himself with looting the other saddlebag. The moment his eyes alighted on the box of trail rations, his stomach groaned loudly but he pushed all thoughts of food aside for later so that he could be well away in case anyone did happen by. The bottle of Sake beneath it was even more tempting but Tetsu set it aside to be enjoyed later. The last item caused him to grin, a rich green silk robe embroidered with gold dragons neatly folded inside its own leather bag.

As he slung his new possessions over his shoulder with delight, Tetsu’s good mood died when he discovered that the horse’s open eyes seemed to be staring at him. “What?” He asked the horse, self-consciously adjusting the weight of the Daiklave on his shoulder. “It’s not like your master needs all this anymore. He’s probably a new little baby resting in his mother’s arms right now, sucking on her breast like a prince, so don’t go looking at me like that.”

The horse just continued to stare.

“And I’d do something for you if I could,” Tetsu shrugged, emphasizing the weight of the Daiklave, “but look how big you are! I can’t afford to waste the energy on you. I have to think about my own survival, you know. Speaking of which, your blood will probably start attracting predators soon, so I need to be going.”

Turning his back on the horse, Tetsu stalked away in a huff. After a few steps, he stopped and turned around to see the horse one last time. “But look on the bright side;” he said with a reassuring smile, “they’ll know how to finish you off. They’ve lots of practice.” Then, with a final wave, he turned away and hurried off as fast as he could.

Hiking through the wilderness of the far east was not a task for the unprepared or the incautious, as Tetsu was well aware. Sometimes speed, however, was preferable to stealth so he tried to cut a reasonable compromise as he followed the valley using an abandoned trail halfway up the side of the tall hill in the shadow on the eastern side, continuing his journey north through the rain. Despite his good fortune, which put a spring in his step as he walked, Tetsu couldn’t help but feel a feint twinge of self-disgust but he shoved the feeling aside and kept on walking without so much as a pause. He also crushed the little voice inside his head that was screaming in joy at the modest riches he now possessed. No amount of money was going to help him if he allowed himself to be killed before he had a chance to spend it.

After several hours hike, he decided to climb up the hill and check out the lay of the land. The grey clouds overhead mostly blocked out the sun, allowing only scattered patches of daylight through to the forest below. Something seemed to be burning far to the southeast several valleys over, the gloom between two tall mountains on the horizon suffused with orange light. Ignoring a mystery he’d probably never know the answer to, Tetsu turned back to the northeast where he discovered a far more welcome sight. Rice patties clung to the sides of a hill in the distance, filled with decent folk toiling in the fields while dreaming of a night of gambling before returning home blind drunk to rape their eldest daughter in front of the other sixteen children. Tetsu resolved to save the daughters of the town by depriving the farmers of all their money before they managed to drink themselves into an amorous stupor, pausing only to retrieve a rice ball from his newly acquired provisions to eat as he walked.

The God of Safe Journeys proved to be watching over him as he managed to avoid any major obstacles such as marauding barbarians or opportunistic bandits. Indeed, considering the troubles he’d encountered to the South, this land seemed quite peaceful. To make matters even easier, the forest was rife with game trails, making the hardest part of the hike keeping to the right heading. A day’s travel, however, found Tetsu walking down a white gravel path that parallelled the swiftly moving river that ran between the rice patties and eventually into the town proper.

As Tetsu rounded the last bend in the river, he expected a little hamlet nestled atop a hill with a tall wooden palisade for protection complete with gate guards he’d have to talk his way through before proceeding inside. He didn’t expect a large town with high stone walls that straddled the river complete with docks and a temple high on a mountain beyond that glinted red and gold even in such diffuse light. The town wasn’t opulent by any stretch of the imagination, nor were there any Old Realm marvels to stun visitors with amazement, but the ivy covered walls and clean cobbled streets had the kind of rustic charm that could only be obtained by concerted effort on the part of the inhabitants. Even as he approached what appeared to be an idyllic river village, however, he couldn’t help but feel unsettled.

Strolling through the gates, Tetsu’s vague sense of unease magnified. That there was no guard on watch so close to the boardermarches to challenge a wandering vagrant wearing boots too rich for the rest of his apparel was startling (besides, Tetsu had been looking forward to haggling over the bribe) but the lack of people on the streets at sundown was the most disturbing. It also didn’t help that the buildings were all wrong. Further up the slopes were larger houses and estates for the more wealthy alongside a few normal-looking houses but near the river was a warren of tiny, one room, shacks that Tetsu would have called hovels if not for the pristine brickwork and immaculately pruned hedges. He was beginning to think he’d wandered into the domain of a Raksha as he strode toward the centre of town. He paused at the familiar sound of carousing coming from what actually looked like the town’s only real tavern in the central square.

He didn’t get within ten paces before a man in black scholar’s robes was hurled out the door into the street. He rolled several feet before coming to rest in the gutter. Tetsu froze in place as three men stalked out of the bar, all armed. They wore loose-fitting tunics and pants made of the same white cotton with yellow boarders around the neck and hemline. They even wore the same light brown sandals. The man in the lead had a short sword sheathed at his belt while the other two only wore daggers.

The lead thug drew his blade as the scholar prostrated himself at his feet, begging forgiveness. “We told you to stay away from the temple, sa?” The punk addressed his rhetorical question to the scholar in riverspeak. “We told you, you could go into the temple when you had enough money to pay for it, sa?” He then punctuated his point by kicking the scholar in the teeth hard enough to flip the scrawny, middle aged, man over, glasses flying off into the nearby canal.

The scholar came to just in time to see the thug poised over him to deliver the killing blow with the shortsword and began screaming. It was the last sight of his life as the blade came down, sliding between his ribs, piercing his lungs and heart. Blood spurted with the scholar’s last ragged gasps, spattering the pristine white of the thug’s pants. Without mercy, the thug twisted the blade, ending the scholar’s life before spitting on his corpse in disgust. “Bastard son of a whore,” the punk swore as he leant over the dead man to relieve him of his purse, “that’s for my cleaning bill.” To add insult to injury, he kicked the body once before turning back to his laughing friends, bowing like a courtier to thunderous applause. Several dogs slinked out of a nearby alley to sniff at the corpse’s fingers.

Tetsu felt like he’d been caught in the open with his pants down around his ankles standing there, looking for all the world like he was armed to the teeth with a weapon worth a petty king’s ransom. He also realized, as the lead thug glanced in his direction while cleaning his blade, that fast talk alone wasn’t going to get him out of this one. The fires of avarice were kindled in the thug’s eyes as they stared at the Daiklave resting on Tetsu’s shoulder, a weapon no ordinary man could ever hope to wield.

“Soooooo,” the head punk called out as if he were considering what to do while he cleaned his blade. “What do we have here?”

“It’s customary to give your name first,” Tetsu said calmly, deciding to play it cool.

The punk scowled. “I am Bonzo of the White Crane Dojo, disciple of White Crane and Undersheriff of River’s Bend.”

“My name is Tetsu,” he nodded gravely, trying to buy more time to get his story straight in his head. “I’m a wanderer, nothing more.”

One of Bonzo’s subordinates took a step forward and whistled appreciatively as he eyed the Daiklave, incidentally placing himself on Tetsu’s left while the other minion approached from the right. “Nice blade you have there.”

Deciding that surprise was his only possible advantage, Tetsu gave the man on his left a swift kick between his legs before he could move on to the intimidation phase of his extortion racket. As he fell to his knees, clutching at his groin as if trying to figure out how far his genitalia had been shoved into his abdomen, Tetsu wasted no time following the first blow with a knee to the face. There was no time to watch the first casualty fall, however, as the second minion drew his dagger and leapt forward, holding it underhand high over his head with the intent to stab down amateurishly with the momentum of his charge.

Unfortunately for the minion, he was too far away to blindside Tetsu before the wanderer was ready to move. Grasping the hilt of the Daiklave solidly with both hands, Tetsu heaved downward with all his considerable strength. Built for those few enlightened beings such as the Dragon Lords of the Realm, a mortal had no hope of wielding a Daiklave in combat. Tetsu, however, didn’t so much ‘wield’ the Daiklave as catapult the enormously heavy length of jadesteel at his opponent, using the sword as a leaver and his shoulder as a fulcrum. There was a moment frozen in time as Tetsu watched his attacker’s eyes widen in surprise before he ran head first into the flat of the blade. He was slapped down in an instant when the sheer force of the blow crushed him into the cobblestones. The resulting gargling pile of flesh was noticeably thinner under the blade than it had been.

Deciding that there are times when one needs to show lenience and times when one needs to drive their point home, Tetsu let go of the hilt of the Daiklave and stepped up onto the blade. His weight forced more gargled screams out of the body beneath, which subsided much quicker than they might have otherwise. The whole time, Tetsu locked eyes with Bonzo. The petty murderer looked as if he was about to swallow his own tongue in fright. All in all, Tetsu found the experience very satisfying. The next move was up to Bonzo, however, and while Tetsu would have laid a bet that the Undersheriff was a coward, he still had a short sword while the best Tetsu could muster was his old travel knife. Fortunately, Bonzo affirmed Tetsu’s suspicions as he backed away, the point of his short sword trembling between them. Once he’d gotten far enough away, or perhaps gathered enough courage, the Undersheriff turned and ran like the Yozis themselves were on his heels.

Tetsu scratched the back of his head as he wondered exactly how much trouble he’d just bought himself into. Now, he realized, he’d just committed himself to playing the part of a mercenary, a role he didn’t have the skills to fake convincingly. On the other hand, he didn’t have the energy to run far enough to escape the law that might be come after him for the Daiklave that still lay on the ground. Turning his head to peer through the tavern door, he saw several faces for a fleeting moment before they disappeared behind the doorframe as if his gaze alone could have struck them dead.

Amused by the villager’s antics, Tetsu felt a twinge in his back as he stepped down and retrieved the Daiklave. He had a feeling that he was going to regret that first blow in the morning. The man underneath was crushed, bubbles of blood pouring from his mouth. The other punk had a broken nose and was still unconscious, though Tetsu felt no relief that he’d only killed one man. The scholar, of course, was long gone. Looking up at the sky, Tetsu noticed that the sun was slowly setting, and orange tinge creeping up from the horizon. Turning back to the tavern door, he called out. “If I were you, I’d bury this scholar before dark. He may think twice before eating your faces!” Then, shouldering the Daiklave once more, Tetsu strode off and left the villagers to clean up the mess.

Chapter 3

Seeing her in person, Shining Feather found it hard to believe that Ayesha Ura was his elder by more than a millennium. The chocolate-skinned young woman didn’t look like she was out of her twenties, with large eyes, tender lips and curly black hair kept short aside from the corkscrew bangs that hung down the sides of her heart-shaped face. Her body was the product of constant martial arts practice, refined to perfection in all ways. Even the yellow dress she wore, the colour of the Chosen of Journeys, matched her skin perfectly while her jewellery, including the ring in her lower lip, was made of gold.

While lesser men might have allowed themselves to be lulled into a false sense of security dealing with an attractive woman as a superior, Feather worked hard to maintain his focus. He just wished he could say the same for his ever impetuous partner, who was busy fidgeting and scuffing his feet like a schoolboy while obviously trying not to look at her and simultaneously trying not to be disrespectful. It was like watching a leprous whale with aspirations of being a dancer attempt to do a jig without the prerequisite of having legs. Mistress Ura, as leader of the Gold Faction, was as far above them both as the celestial bodies in the sky. Probably further, Feather amended the thought as he glanced outside, since we can see the Jade Pleasure Dome from here.

More surprising than the audience itself was the setting. Mistress Ura’s estate was a large residence as befitted her station in the Celestial Bureaucracy and large parts of the mansion were set aside for formal affairs but being welcome in a superior’s richly appointed living room was another matter altogether. Most Sidereal affairs were conducted in an office with the superior giving orders from across a vast desk to bowing novices. Actually being asked to sit down as if the three of them could talk as equals was almost scandalous.

“Pleased to meet you, Shining Feather,” Mistress Ura greeted with a genuine smile, “your Sifu speaks highly of you.”

Feather bowed his head. “I only hope that I can live up to his example, Mistress.”

“And Focused Rage,” she smiled with what seemed to be genuine affection as she addressed Feather’s partner, “about whom I have heard so much.”

“Y-yes, Mistress,” Rage stuttered slightly, blushing almost red enough to match his buff jacket and looking down to avoid her eyes.

“You’ll have to forgive my partner,” Feather said, not clenching his teeth with effort, “but his skills do not involve the use of his tongue.”

She cocked her head to one side, looking for all the world like an ingenuous girl asking a simple and irrelevant question. “Tell me, Rage, how many martial arts styles have you mastered?”

“Four, Mistress,” Rage answered, relaxing a little, “two terrestrial, one celestial and one sidereal art.”

“So many for one so young,” she complimented. Rage blushed harder but kept quiet as she turned to Feather. “And yourself?”

“I regret that I have only mastered two,” Feather answered.

“Yes,” Mistress Ura said with a knowing smile, showing perfect white teeth, “yet one of those is the Quicksilver Hand of Dreams Style.”

Feather simply bowed his head in acknowledgement.

“So,” she continued, “the two of you are warriors of some note. Tell me how came you to be assigned calligraphy duty?”

Rage almost choked on his own tongue in surprise at the sudden change in the conversation. Feather took a drink of water to buy himself enough time to think of what to say. “We… had an unfortunate exchange of views with a former superior.”

“Master Sheong Wei?”

“Yes. It was thought that the addition of calligraphic duties would teach us the value of patience and experience.”

“I’m told that Master Wei voices his support for Master Kejak’s policies.”

“Master Wei would take a deep breath when Master Kejak breaks wind and praise the scent,” Rage murmured.

There was a moment of stunned silence before Mistress Ura threw her head back and laughed before reaching over to pat Rage on the cheek. “You’re cute, dear, but very young. If you want to survive in our world, you need to learn some decorum.”

“I’m a man of action, Mistress,” Rage sighed, “I leave the pretty words to my partner. He leaves bashing skulls together to me. I’m an inelegant blunt instrument but at least I can cut to the heart of the matter.”

“I think you mean ‘hit it on the head’,” Feather commented. “Blunt objects can’t cut anything.”

“Whatever,” Rage shrugged, “we all know what I mean.”

Mistress Ura looked at Feather in askance.

“I think I’m the reincarnation of Desus,” Feather answered the unspoken question, “this is my punishment.”

Rage rolled his eyes while the two politicians shared a chuckle at his expense.

“You’re very right, though, Rage,” she said finally after the levity had passed, “we should get down to business. The destinies of several kingdoms near Greyfalls have been knotted together like a ball of string thrown into the Forest of Cats and the job of straightening everything out has fallen upon the Convention of Essence Wielders. My department, however, is overloaded with the task of tracking the Solar Exalted. We’re also looking for new agents and, since you experienced the effects of the phenomenon first hand, you are in a unique position to understand and track its source. If you could handle this mess for us, I’m sure we could find you both a new position where your talents will be better appreciated. What do you think?”

#

An hour later, Rage watched his friend finish off the last drop of a whole glass of celestial wine and pour himself another as they sat in a private room of The Boisterous Satrap, one of the more popular feasthalls in Yu Shan. The sounds of carousing could be heard faintly though the door as several members of the Court of Seasons arrived to liven up the party. The usually sober and collected Feather finished off the second glass before smashing it against the wall.

“So, my blunt and inexperienced ass tells me that you’re unhappy,” Rage observed dryly.

“Actually, I’m just fortifying myself for the onerous task of explaining to you what just happened since I know for a fact that it went over your head.” Feather said with exaggerated patience.

“Yeah, I have to admit, your enthusiastic acceptance of the mission and all the gushing about how it was such an honour threw me a bit.”

“Ok, let me make things clear. Up until now, we have remained independent of the two major factions in the Bureau of Destiny. We were too young and inexperienced for the elders of the Bronze Faction and not idealistic enough for the Gold Faction, so we continued to languish in obscurity doing menial jobs that none of the self respecting Sidereals want.”

“Sure. So, enlighten me, what’s so bad about moving up in the world? We should be celebrating!”

Feather gritted his teeth. “Perhaps you haven’t noticed but we’re now in the middle of the biggest disaster in the history of the Loom since the Breaking of the Mask! And that was an accident! And we, you and I, will be held directly responsible for the outcome. I don’t know about you but the only solution I can see right now is an enormous natural disaster, like a war or a plague, so we can eliminate enough threads that the Pattern Spiders have something to work with. I’m sure that the Terrestrial Gods of the area won’t mind us decimating their worshippers, not to mention the Celestial Gods who also receive prayers.”

“You really think we could do a war?” The Chosen of Battles asked like a delighted child who’d just been promised a new toy.

“A plague would be quicker and more effective,” Feather sighed, “but I’m not finished. If the idea of mass murder doesn’t faze you, how about the death of someone closer to home: us. We are going to have to make a choice here, you and I, depending on how we handle the situation. If our solution favours the Gold Faction, even by accident, we will be inducted into their ranks and make ourselves choice targets for elimination by the Bronze…”

“Oh, come on,” Rage scoffed, “you know as well as I do that Sidereals don’t kill each other. We may have our disagreements but we’re all brothers and sisters together, for better or worse!”

The glare Feather shot in his direction could have curdled milk. “You seriously can’t be that naive. No Sidereal has ever killed another face to face without ratification from the Elders, no. No, when we want to kill each other, we arrange unfortunate and plausibly deniable accidents. But don’t worry yourself; I’m sure the deaths of the leaders of the Gold Faction right before the Usurpation were just a coincidence and Chejop Kejak didn’t order some of his closest friends utterly destroyed.”

Feather felt slightly guilty looking at his friend’s face as the realization dawned. Rage’s expression made him look like a child lost in Rakshastan holding his dead puppy while being laughed at by a Fair Folk court. Retrieving the bottle of celestial wine, Feather poured him a glass. Once the first one was gone, he poured him another.

“So,” Rage finally asked solemnly, “what do we do?”

“I don’t know,” Feather sighed, “I’ve been wracking my brain since we left Mistress Ura’s. We don’t know what power could have done this, we have no leads on who used it, we don’t even know precisely where. We don’t even have a victim.”

Rage sighed, poured himself a third glass but began to nurse it rather than quaff it down like the last two. “If this was a war, I’d know what to do.”

“Oh?”

“If you need to kill a spider, burn its web,” Rage quoted an obscure treatise on strategy from memory. “If your quarry is hiding in a forest, you can set fire to the forest.”

“What do you do if he’s hiding in the mountains? You can’t burn a mountain.” Feather questioned, obliquely interested in the line of thought.

“Well, the point isn’t to destroy the terrain, it’s luring the enemy into the open,” Rage explained, “you don’t have to burn down the forest, just set a fire and wait for the smoke to drive them out. If you can’t drive them out, draw them out by offering something they can’t pass up. Way back in the Old Realm, the Solar general Shining Gold Spear tricked the barbarian king Gegflurt out of his castle by offering her hand in marriage…”

Feather suddenly shot out of his seat as if his idea had crept up and kicked him in the seat of his pants. “That’s it!”

“But I’m too young to be married!” Rage protested.

Feather ignored him, grabbed Rage by the arm and dragged him out of the bar and into the street. Yu Shan was a bustling metropolis the size of the Blessed Isle in Creation, at least a thousand miles long and five hundred wide, so the Chosen of Serenity hailed a ‘flying cart’, a small howdah on the back of a giant bird the size of an elephant. “Bureau of Destiny, please, Division of Serenity,” Feather told the handler, “official business of the Bureau of Destiny.”

The driver nodded and urged their mount to take to the skies. Feather was surprised at how smooth the ride was and made a mental note to get his sky riding licence.

“Uh, Feather,” Rage goggled at his companion, “should we really be putting something like this on expenses rather than our own chits?”

“My friend,” Feather said a little too loudly so he was sure the handler could hear him, “we are on a mission of vital importance to the Bureau! Why, our investigation could determine the Fate of the entire East! I don’t think our superiors will begrudge us some pocket change.”

“But…”

“Besides,” Feather interrupted, “we can use this time to decide on the best plan of attack. I think a war would be a little hard to arrange, a plague would solve the problem with far greater alacrity. Maybe we could even get a sample of the Great Contagion. That would certainly do the trick. Though, come to think of it, that might be a little too indiscriminate. What about a natural disaster? Or several! A famine would be good, if tricky to pull off in the fertile East. Maybe some floods? Oh, I know, why don’t we set off a chain of volcanos? That would probably kill enough people to…”

Feather was cut short by his partner slapped a hand over his mouth. Rage was looking a bit wild-eyed as he glanced meaningfully between Feather and the driver. “Shut up! We can talk about it later! No more wine for you!”

The rest of the ride was conducted in silence while Feather pretended to be slightly drunk and a bit put out by his companion’s harsh words. Once they were standing outside the Division of Secrets and the sky cart was well and truly gone, he dropped the act. “Perfect, Rage,” he slapped his companion on the back, “well played! Come on, we have an appointment to get to.”

Rage watched his partner stride off for several steps before following, thoroughly confused. “We were acting? What appointment? Where in the name of all the Incarnae are you taking us?”

“Don’t worry and just follow my lead,” Feather instructed as they approached the secretarial god at the front desk. She looked bored and was busy picking imaginary dirt out from under her nails. “Greetings,” Feather said, bowing formally, “I am Agent Shining Feather and this is my partner, Focused Rage. We need to see Uvanavu immediately. We apologize but it is a matter of great importance.”

“Great importance,” Rage echoed in agreement.

“Do you have an appointment?” The secretary questioned with severe disinterest.

“No but as I said, we need to see him immediately.”

“Sorry, Feather,” she answered by rote, “but Uvanavu is a very busy god with great responsibility over the order of all Creation and his time is in great demand. The Division of Serenity hopes to bring you joy, peace and love in the near future.”

Feather wasn’t bothered by the lie itself, he was more put out by how blatant the lie was. Uvanavu’s work load had been cut down from one hundred percent to ten by the Great Contagion. On the other hand he felt slightly grateful as it absolved him of the guilt of what he was about to do. “All right,” he sighed theatrically, “I guess we’ll just have to unleash the plague, then. Thanks for your time.”

The secretary almost jumped out of her chair. “Plague! What plague?”

“Well, we’ve got this big mess to deal with in the East, so we were just about to pop over to see Wayang about touching off a horrendously lethal disease to clear the weeds, so to speak…”

“Ok! Ok,” the secretary sat back down and started scribbling a note. Once that was done she rung a small bell that summoned a tiny messenger god that looked like a cross between a humming bird and a flying beetle with a rainbow-coloured carapace. She attached her message to one of its legs and sent it on its way. “Go on up,” she said with a fake smile, “I’m sure he can make time for a Chosen of Serenity.”

Feather gave her a fake smile right back as he passed by her desk. “Thank you for your assistance.”

“Yeah, uh, thanks,” Rage added.

The gods outside Uvanavu’s office were experts at looking busy and wasting time when there wasn’t really enough for any of them to do. The Department of Health was a hotbed of intrigue and politics inside the Division of Serenity, which was itself infamous for in-fighting, precisely because the gods that belonged to it had far too much free time. Feather couldn’t help but despise and pity them at the same time. On one hand, the Department of Health could make everyone in Creation far happier than might be strictly speaking healthy for the population while, on the other hand, they had to strike a balance with the Division of Endings. It was a sad fact that the gods had all the power and yet none at the same time. In that light, Feather couldn’t begrudge them their bitterness.

Lost in thought as he stepped through Uvanavu’s office door, the glass that struck the doorjamb next to his head came as a surprise. Standing behind his ornately carved desk that had been inlayed with striking patterns of gold and platinum, the God of Health was red in the face and shouting before Rage could get the door closed behind them.

“What, by the souls of all the Yozis, do you two think you’re playing at?” Uvanavu demanded. “We’re only just starting to recover from the Great Contagion and you want to knock down a quarter of what’s left? The quarter, by the way, that happens to be feeding most of the other three?”

“Well,” Rage injected hesitantly, “it’s more like a fifth if you count the Blessed Isle.”

Uvanavu glowered at him. As a seven foot tall, muscled, giant of a god only two steps down in the hierarchy of the Division of Serenity from Venus herself, Uvanavu knew how to glower threateningly.

“Actually, it seems that you have been misinformed,” Feather clarified, diverting the god’s ire onto himself, “we’re not considering the wholesale destruction of the entire East, just the Hundred Kingdoms area south of Greyfalls.”

“It’s full of rivers, you blithering idiot!” Uvanavu shouted. “Sailors will spread any disease that infectious all the way to Nexus! You could turn everything east of the Yanaze into a Shadowland!”

“Hmmmm,” Feather considered, “true that. What about a localized famine or some natural disasters? The people left would be much fitter after running from an erupting volcano.”

“I can guarantee that a major offensive would make them tough,” Rage added, trying to be helpful, “Greyfalls has been chomping at the bit for years.”

The god finally had enough, slamming his fists down on the table. Beyond anger, his rage reduced his voice to a low hiss. “If you do this, know that I will ensure the misery of your children and your children’s children. I will visit upon your families such vengeance that the poets of the future will write epic tragedies about the fate that you inflicted upon them. The two of you, however, will envy their torturous lives as you look up upon Creation from your posts in the Underworld.”

“I take it you’re not in favour of the idea?” Feather asked ingenuously.

“GET OUT!”

Back on the street, Rage stared at his partner like he’d been exposed to the Wyld and grown seven extra heads. It didn’t help that Feather was whistling a merry tune and looking pleased with himself. “What, by Malfeas, did we just do?”

“My friend,” Feather grinned as he put one arm over Rage’s shoulders while they walked through the crowded streets, “we just struck the first blow against our enemy.”

“Oh… how?”

“You made me realize that we’d had everything backwards,” Feather explained, “the attack on the Loom isn’t our enemies’ real attack, it’s his smoke screen. They’re hiding out in the tangles of destiny to obscure what they are really up to. What they’re doing right now, as we speak. And to do what has been done, they must know the workings of Fate. It’s even possible that the perpetrator is a Sidereal.”

Rage blinked. “Wow, you’re right, I hadn’t even thought of that.”

“So, you see, it would make sense that the enemy is keeping tabs on Yu Shan. Even if they don’t have connections in the city, they’ll be paying close attention to the Terrestrial Gods. What I just did, my friend, was set the fire to smoke the spider out of his web.”

Realization dawned on Rage again. “Oh! I see! Every god from the smallest bush to the tallest mountain are going to be running around like chickens with their heads cut off, thinking we’re about to start a small apocalypse in their courtyard, adding even more confusion to the situation. The enemy will either tip their hand because they’re forced to by the confusion or because it’s the perfect time for them to act!”

“Precisely,” Feather encouraged his politically inept companion, “but right now, we have to get moving.”

“So we can be there to crush the bad guys when they make their move?”

“No, so we’re out of Yu Shan before those rumours I planted reach the gods of the Division of Endings and they track us down to find out why we’re about to destroy half of Creation and forgot to invite them to the party.”

Rage thought about the implications of that for a moment before he started running.

#

Deep inside the Loom, Asra Firstborn descended onto the enormous knot that ninety percent of her children had been diverted from their usual duties to fix. Her annoyance at the disruption was palpable and infected the mood of her children, the Pattern Spiders, as they gathered around her.

“Mother,” one of them addressed her in the Spider’s toneless voice, “this unit has discovered the lynchpin of the disruption. If it could be removed, we estimate the time allocation for the task to be reduced by eighty percent or allow us to reduce manpower to one fifth of the current workforce and maintain the same timescale.”

“Show me,” Asra answered in the same toneless voice. They led her around the ball of tangled destinies, clinging to the threads like the spiders they were modelled after, until they reached a single thread that seemed slightly brighter than those around it as it entered the tangle.

“Here,” the Pattern Spider pointed it out, “this thread runs through the centre of the knot. When the core destiny of this area was destroyed, the other threads were pulled towards this, the next strongest, thread. May I have your authorization to facilitate the eventual termination of this thread?”

“Permission granted,” Asra Firstborn proclaimed, “proceed.”

Shuffling around to get a better position, the Pattern Spider reared back on its hind legs before striking down, sinking its fangs into the thread and poisoning its future.

Chapter 4

Tetsu couldn’t seem to scratch the itch in the middle of his back as he stopped in front of a house with a sign stuck over the door that read ‘Room and Board’ in Riverspeak. Giving up, he knocked on the frame of the rice paper door three times before someone answered, drawn to the flickering light of a warm fire that seeped through the barrier. The light was fading, the sun long since disappeared behind the surrounding mountains, and Tetsu wanted to be indoors before it became fully dark.

“Go away!” The feeble voice of an elderly man answered.

“The sign here says ‘Room and Board’,” Tetsu rebutted.

“Congratulations on learning to read. Now go bother someone else, we’re full up!”

“Old man,” Tetsu sighed, rolling his eyes, “there’s a cobweb on this door. Nobody’s opened it all day.”

The door snapped open sharply, revealing an old, bent, man just as crotchety in person as he’d sounded through the door. His face was so leathery and wrinkled he’d given up shaving and allowed his white hair to grow, though he kept the stubble in check and his clothes were a simple, grey, peasant’s tunic and matching pants bound with rope. Despite his advanced years, he was still spry enough to poke his nose in Tetsu’s face to see it through squinting eyes. He took one look at the sword and grunted. “All right, you can come in,” he admitted grudgingly, “as long as you aren’t a ghost and have money.”

Tetsu dropped a silver coin into the old man’s hand and stepped through the door as he was allowed inside. The inside was half hostel and half home. The entrance led straight to a foyer that looked like a peasant’s living room with the floor covered in straw mats and kneeling cushions laid around a low table. The fire took central place in the middle of the room with a normal kitchen behind a slatted wall through which could be seen various foodstuffs hanging from the ceiling. Another door seemed to separate the sleeping quarters and Tetsu hoped that there was another fire there to warm guests.

Apart from the old man, another strange figure sat against a bench looking bored. It was definitely a man, its limbs were too thick, its body too straight and its jaw too wide to be a woman. It seemed, however, that he was trying far too hard to look like a woman. He was wearing a bright, frilly, dress that had been patched badly from a great many tears and rips. The ‘corset’, if any tailor would call it that, was nowhere near tight enough to actually alter his waistline and whatever he had stuffed down the front to simulate breasts was far too large and hard to give a convincing impression. He had shaved his legs and seemed to think he was showing them off alluringly. On top of all that, the make-up he’d used had been applied thickly without the benefit of a mirror and his hair was tangled and matted from lack of brushing.

The old man just pretended the male prostitute wasn’t there as he stomped though to the kitchen and Tetsu decided that was the best idea, so he concentrated on getting the Daiklave through the door without knocking holes in the wall or destroying anything he’d have to pay for. Once it was inside, finding a place for it was another task. He eventually left it leaning in a corner with the blade pointed down and towards the wall so that nobody would accidentally lose a limb brushing against it. He also removed the saddlebag from his shoulder and laid it underneath where it would be out of the way. The prostitute pouted at him the whole time but he continued to ignore it.

With all that done, Tetsu sank into a cushion at the low table, relief coursing though his aching limbs. The wall was close behind him, so he leant back against it and closed his eyes. “Old man,” Tetsu called out, “rice and sake!”

“Yes, yes,” the grumpy old man called back, “keep your pants on.”

The prostitute stopped making eyes at Tetsu for a moment to glare in the old man’s direction. “Quit killing the mood you old bastard!”

The old man turned and spat on the floor in his direction. “You think anyone who could afford a sword like that would spend the night with an idiot like you?”

He pouted and gave the old man a one-fingered salute. The old man went back to cooking the rice with an ironic grin as he chuckled under his breath. “So what about it, stranger,” the prostitute readdressed Tetsu, stretching himself out in another attempt at being alluring, “care for some fun?”

Tetsu could help but notice the scar that peeked out from under the prostitute’s robe as it slipped down his shoulder further than he had probably intended. “Who hurt you?”

Slightly startled, the prostitute pulled his robe back up to cover it. “Nobody,” he said, avoiding Tetsu’s gaze, “some clients just like it rough. If you’re interested, it costs extra.”

The old man interrupted them by stomping into the room with a bottle of sake, three bowls of rice and two cups all of which he carelessly dropped onto the low table before sitting and helping himself to the rice. Tetsu couldn’t help but grin. “You have a strange sense of hospitality, Elder.”

“The faster I drive you away, the faster I can get back to my peace and quiet,” the old man snapped, spraying grains of rice onto the table. Turning his ire onto the prostitute, the old man thrust one of the sake cups at him before he could reach for his bowl of rice. “Well? If you want to dress like a harlot, the least you can do is pour our guest’s drink like one.”

The prostitute complied sullenly but Tetsu had to admit he handled the cup and bottle with natural grace. Watching the movements closely, however, he saw that the back of the prostitute’s hands and wrists were also crossed with old scars alongside a few healing welts. Accepting the drink with a nod, Tetsu took a sip and immediately felt calmer as the familiar burn of the rice wine slid down his throat. Closing his eyes, he savoured the taste, wringing every drop of pleasure out of each morsel. It burned but it was the fire of a hot bath in the winter, a cleansing fire to clear the underbrush of the forest to make way for new life. Quickly finishing the first cup, he placed it down on the table and allowed the prostitute to pour him another.

“Excellent sake,” Tetsu complimented.

The old man’s face split in a wide grin that showed off several gaps in his teeth. “You really like it? It’s an old family recipe…”

“The sake’s shit,” the prostitute scoffed, interrupting the old man’s tirade, “you’ve been on the road too long, stranger. The old bastard’s piss could floor an elephant.”

“Shut up you evil bitch and keep filling his glass,” the old man snapped, “I don’t care if your rice goes cold.”

“You’re wrong,” Tetsu asserted after finishing his second cup, “this sake tastes like the mountains, the rivers and the sky. If you can’t handle its pleasures then that’s your weakness, not the sake’s.”

The prostitute stared at Tetsu in astonishment as he took a sip from his third cup without yet having touched his rice. “Old man,” Tetsu broached, “are you his pimp?”

The old man turned and spat on the floor. “Do I look like I can afford to keep a freeloading layabout like him around?”

“Ha! I’m the only reason you get any customers at all,” the prostitute snickered.

“And they only buy my sake so they can forget their time with you,” the old man countered.

“If you’re not his pimp,” Tetsu interjected before they could start a real argument, “who is and why would they allow clients to scar him?”

“Ugh,” the old man sighed, “I can see you really are new here, stranger. I’d keep your nose out of local business and walk out of town at first light.”

“Is that a threat?”

“No,” the old man sighed, “just a warning. This town is cursed and the last thing we need is another fool with a sword.”

Tetsu spared a glance at his daiklave. “You mean like Bonzo?”

“Gah!” The old man turned and spat on the floor again. “His midwife should have strangled the little worm in human form while it was still in the crib.”

Tetsu finished off his third cup of sake and motioned for the prostitute to pour him another. “I met him for less than five minutes and I share your feelings already.”

The old man scowled. “Bonzo works for White Crane, Sifu of the White Crane Dojo. He’s also the Sheriff of River’s Bend and supplies guards to the caravans trying to bypass Rock River and Greyfall’s tolls.”

“And the Satrap puts up with it?”

“Heh, the Satrap,” the old man chuckled. “Greyfalls is a long way from the Realm and someone needs to mine the ore from these mountains. Also, not everything that comes out of this town is entirely legal but Dragonbloods like their luxuries. Red Wolf and Sanejin keep our neighbours quiet with liberal bribes and Guild connections. Red Wolf farms lotus in the mountains and runs the brothels and gambling… including this one.” The old man nodded toward the prostitute before continuing. “He’s also the Sifu of the Red Wolf Dojo and was White Crane’s friend and business partner not so long ago but the two of them had a falling out over the cost of bribes to customs inspectors. Both of them started vying for attention from the Guild then White Crane started stealing contraband from the caravans he was supposed to be guarding to sell for himself. Now the town is a battleground.”

“What about this ‘Sanejin’?”

“The God of River’s Bend,” the old man explained, “took up in the temple when I was only a boy. Since then, I’ve watched this town’s slow descent into Malfeas. He’s everyone’s friend and no-one’s. He supports neither side in the conflict but keeps the ore flowing and the customs inspectors compliant.”

“If things are as bad as you say, how does he keep the workers from rioting?” Tetsu asked.

“Stay for a while,” a voice said from outside, enunciating clearly in calm, deadly, tones. The door slid open, revealing a man wearing a fine white silk robe embroidered with fighting cranes. His platinum hair was tied up in an elaborate top knot with silver chains that draped down over his light blue surcoat. Bonzo closed the door behind them both as they invited themselves in, the old man and the prostitute rushed to bow at his feet. “We’re holding an execution in the morning,” White Crane informed them, keeping his eyes on Tetsu, “you should watch.”

Tetsu shrugged and sipped his sake. “Maybe if I’m not busy sleeping. Executions give me indigestion.”

Silence hung in the air for a moment before White Crane’s solemn frown broke into a wide, snake-like, smile. The smile seemed more threatening than his soft, utterly clam, voice. “Perhaps that’s a symptom of a guilty conscience. Bonzo, please remove Menji-san and the whore.”

The old man, Menji, and the prostitute didn’t need much encouragement to scuttle into the back room. White Crane sat with almost unnatural grace opposite Tetsu while Bonzo retrieved a cup for his master. The underling didn’t even bother to spare Tetsu a glance.

“Your sword is as magnificent as Bonzo informed me,” White Crane complimented as he nursed his sake, sipping small amounts at a time through his thin lips.

Tetsu considered the effeminate, pale-skinned, man for a while. The distant stare of the martial arts master’s ice blue eyes was disquieting and his manner unreadable. “Have you come about the man I killed?”

“No,” White Crane replied. “Bonzo is a fool. He should have known better than to challenge the man who could carry that sword.”

“Sensei!” Bonzo protested, prostrating himself.

“Be silent while your betters are talking, cretin.” White Crane brushed off his subordinate with dispassionate tranquillity.

“Then why are you here?” Tetsu asked, trying to stall for time enough to come up with a plan. White Crane was a master of the martial arts who had awakened himself to the flow of essence throughout Creation. Comparably, he was an annoying gnat.

“Men like us are rare in this backwater,” White Crane explained, “I would pay handsomely for your assistance and even supply a letter of recommendation to the Guild.”

“How much?” Tetsu asked, scratching his chin as if he were contemplating the offer.

“One siu a day plus room and board. I can even give you real Sake rather than this horse piss.” White Crane punctuated his insult by dashing his cup onto the floor, though his voice never rose above its usual serene monotone.

“That is a tempting offer,” Tetsu replied truthfully, one siu could feed a family for a week, “but I’ll have to decline. I’m expecting an offer from Red Wolf tomorrow.”

White Crane smiled again. “Red Wolf is a brute, a cheat and a criminal. Even if he offers you more, which is doubtful, you will never live to collect your reward.”

Tetsu nodded and slapped his thigh. “That may be, but I must at least hear his offer before I can make a decision. I will, naturally, inform you of his bid so you can make a counter offer.”

“Very well,” White Crane bowed politely before he stood and swept from the room, hardly pausing to allow Bonzo to open the door for him to leave. Once the obsequious student had closed the door again, Tetsu poured himself another cup of sake and quaffed it in one gulp to calm his nerves. “It’s all right; you can both come out now. They’re gone.”

Old man Menji and the prostitute crept back in as if White Crane were hiding in a dark corner waiting to surprise them. Menji walked sullenly into the kitchen to get a brush and pan then began to pick up the fragments of the sake cup that were scattered across the floor. The prostitute took the opportunity to wolf down his bowl of cold rice.

“I don’t know who you are,” Menji sighed, “but you play a dangerous game, stranger.”

“Usually, I prefer dice,” Tetsu sighed, trying to disguise his fear with glibness between mouthfuls. He just prayed that neither of his hosts could see his knees shaking.

“If I had your young legs, I’d be running for the mountains right now.”

“That wouldn’t be smart,” Tetsu sighed, “if I’m no use to him, White Crane would hunt me down to take my sword. I’d be outnumbered and they know the land better than I do. A sword, even such a large and pretty sword, can only do so much.”

Menji sighed mournfully as he stood, the final pieces of the cup gathered up in his pan. “Then you’re already as trapped here as the rest of us. I’ll pray for you, stranger.”

“My name’s Tetsu,” Tetsu called out after the old man as he left to dispose of the trash, “and don’t be praying to Sanejin for me. If this is how he lets his town run amok, I don’t need his kind of help.”

“You haven’t seen the half of it,” the prostitute sighed, a note of hopelessness in his voice, “and I can’t explain it. Watch the execution tomorrow, you’ll understand then.”

“I’ve seen executions before,” Tetsu said, shrugging.

“Not like these,” the prostitute shook his head, “but you won’t believe it until you see it. No sane person would accept the truth until they saw it with their own eyes.”

“That’s the Unconquered Sun’s own truth,” Menji agreed mournfully as he returned to the table, “Sanejin has turned us into animals. Even White Crane and Red Wolf are nothing but dogs fighting over scraps from his table. The rest of us are rats scurrying for the crumbs that fall loose.”

Tetsu had to wonder what sort of bad karma Menji had accumulated in his past lives when there was a knock at the door just as the old man had finally gotten comfortable. “What by Malfeas’ searing green sun do you want?” Menji swore, determined not to move unless he had to. The visitor, however, merely knocked again, more insistently, without answering. Cursing like a Linatha pirate, the old man staggered to his feet again and stomped over to his front door. “I’ve had my fill of guests today! We’re closed! Come back in the morning!”

The visitor simply knocked a third time. Tetsu began to feel a vague sense of unease.

The old man threw open the door, drew in a deep breath to begin cussing out the visitor… and froze, still as a statue. His blood drained from his face, leaving him pasty white as he stumbled back on numb legs before falling to the floor. Such was his fright that he continued to crawl backwards, unable to take his eyes off the apparition that stepped into the room.

The murdered scholar was looking worse for having been buried. Dry earth dripped from his long black robes like rain from a dark cloud. The blood on his face and robes had congealed but the wound still seeped, wet and red. The ghost ignored old man Menji and the prostitute that was staring at it with wide-eyed incomprehension and turned to fix its baleful gaze on Tetsu.

“I didn’t think ghosts were supposed to smell so atrocious,” Tetsu observed, wrinkling his nose as he poured himself another sake, “if you’re here to eat my face, Inkfinger, get on with it. You missed Bonzo by a few minutes; if you run you could catch up to him.”

The ghost turned away from Tetsu and bowed to Menji, who looked like he might keel over at any moment. “Please accept my apologies for the intrusion. I promise that I have no intention of harming anyone while in your place of residence.”

“So prim and proper,” Tetsu scoffed, “the dead are supposed to take their frustrations out on the living!”

“I wouldn’t expect a wild boar like you to understand,” the scholar snapped bitterly at Tetsu as he took a seat at the table, the prostitute skittering into a corner as far away as possible, “in three nights I will rise as a mindless ravaging ghost but until that time I will comport myself as I have always done so that I may enter my next incarnation with a clear conscience.”

“Bah. If I ever rise again, I’m going to make the most of it. Sake?” Tetsu offered the bottle to the ghost.

“Thank you,” the ghost bowed quickly before taking the bottle, “and perhaps some rice to help me concentrate?”

“Have the old man’s, he can get some more.”

“You are very generous with other people’s possessions,” the ghost scolded even as he picked up the chopsticks and started eating.

“Nonsense! If people didn’t want me to have something, they wouldn’t put it in a position where I could acquire it so easily. From my perspective, everyone is a philanthropist. I just don’t give them a chance to besmirch their own honour by proving me wrong.”

“Very witty but I think you’ve had too much sake.”

“Inkfinger, if you’re not going to eat my face, please do me the courtesy of not boring me with lectures on the evils of fermented beverages. I take it from the state of your robes that the villagers did actually bury you like I suggested.”

“Oh yes,” the ghost nodded, “they even forced the local priest to babble a eulogy at high speed, though they only managed a shallow grave. For future reference, the trick of burying a corpse face down doesn’t work. I may have left my flesh behind but even I can tell when I’m lying on my stomach. If you don’t mind me saying so, you seem awfully calm even considering the sake.”

“If you were here to kill me, you could have torn through the door and ripped my throat out with your teeth before I even knew you were there,” Tetsu reasoned, “but instead you came to the door and knocked. That probably means you have something to ask me, so spill it so I can get some sleep in a proper bed, Inkfinger.”

“Blunt but I can’t fault your logic. Before I get to the real question, however, why did you just stand by and let Bonzo slaughter me?”

Tetsu shrugged. “A man needs to take care of himself and what is his. It’s not my job to save every helpless fool that crosses my path; I have enough trouble keeping my head on my own neck.”

“I see. You’re selfish.”

“But still alive.”

The scholar sighed. “I guess I can’t refute that. The world from your perspective must be a bleak place.”

“Anyone who believes otherwise is wilfully blind. Now, what’s your real question?”

The scholar paused for a moment to collect his thoughts before speaking. “Before I ask that question, I feel I should explain myself so that you fully understand what I must ask of you. My name is Yun Fasai and I am… was a simple scholar seeking patronage while earning a living doing odd jobs here and there in my travels. Several months ago, I came into this town in a caravan heading south from Greyfalls with my wife, Omeki. If I’d had even the slightest hint of what goes on in this town, I would have insisted that she stay in Greyfalls.”

“Red Wolf kidnapped her?” Tetsu asked, his interest piqued by the prospect of gaining some solid facts.

The scholar shook his head sadly. “You must not have seen enough of the village to notice yet. Didn’t you wonder that this establishment’s sole harlot is a man?”

Tetsu shrugged. “There are plenty of rent boys if you look hard enough.”

“True but nowhere else are they the majority, let alone the only type. Here in the lower town, however, there are no women; none at all.”

“I… it’s true,” the prostitute stammered in answer to Tetsu’s questioning look.

“There are no women because Sanejin, The Pristine Boyar of Vanity, seduces them all to his side,” Yun continued, a catch in his voice giving away the fact that he was close to tears. “He stole my Omeki’s heart with a single glance and she went to him willingly, as if all our years together meant nothing to her. In return for her love, he gave her eternal youth and beauty. She serves him now, along with any man able to pay for her time, as a temple whore. When I asked to see her, they told me that I’d have to pay like any other man. May the Incarnae help me but I did. I gathered everything we’d ever owned, sold our clothes, lied, cheated and stole just to get one more night at her side. At first she seemed to recognize me but insisted that she was happier than she’d ever been in her life and that I should forget about her and move on. But I couldn’t. Eventually she forgot about me completely, treating me like any other stranger, just another face in the crowd of lustful men. When my money ran out I fell into despair. I snuck around outside the high wall around the temple, climbing trees to try to sneak a peek at her. When I grew too tired, I begged at the side of the road, counting on the pity of passers by to favour me with enough money for one more night with the love of my life. When I became too annoying, Bonzo and his thugs would beat me, threaten to kill me, but I didn’t care. Several of Sanejin’s customers would brag to me that they’d paid double for her attentions, knowing that I was in the gutter outside. Some would tell me how good she was, describing what they’d done to her in excruciating detail. Others would beat me, claiming that I had neglected my husbandly duties in not teaching her how to properly pleasure a man. I didn’t care about the beatings but it became obvious that my begging wasn’t getting me anywhere, so I took to gambling what little I could scrounge together.”

“Then one day, Bonzo walks into the tavern, kicks you out on your ass and skewers you because you’ve become bad for business,” Tetsu finished the story for him.

“As you say,” the ghost confirmed sullenly.

Tetsu turned over his cup, spilling the last sip onto the floor and slamming the rim down hard onto the tabletop. “Well here I was thinking that if I could get through your smell, your lectures and the sight of your gaping chest wound then nothing you could do would put me off my sake. Now you turn my stomach, Inkfinger. Go kill Bonzo so I can get drunk in peace.”

“What was I supposed to do?” The scholar questioned rhetorically, scowling with indignation. “I have no skill in fighting. Even if I trained all my life I might never achieve enlightenment, let alone become powerful enough to challenge a god. Even if I thought Greyfalls might be inclined to start a war with the Hundred Kingdoms over one insignificant scholar’s wife, Sanejin keeps the Lords well bribed. Besides, she was happier without me, if I really loved her how could I destroy that happiness?”

“Then move on with your life, don’t mope around whining about your misfortunes.”

“You’ve never been in love.”

“Thank whatever God cares for small mercies. So what’s the point of that pathetic sob story?”

The scholar bowed his head formally once before pushing himself back from the table so that he had enough room to lower his forehead to the floor and kowtow properly. “Prince of the Earth, I humbly beseech you. So that my soul may rest peacefully in my next incarnation, please honour your blade and the name of House Cathak by destroying the cruel god Sanejin and restoring rightful order to this village. Let no other suffer the fate that was visited upon me in the name of the Scarlet Empress and the Immaculate Order.”

Adrenaline hit Tetsu’s tired body hard, suddenly cutting through the murky haze induced by the sake. Thinking at impossible speed, he turned and spat on the floor to buy himself time to think of a reply to worm his way out of the tenuous position he suddenly found himself in. In the end he settled on a half lie, which in his experience was the best kind of lie. “What makes you think I’m a Dragonblood let alone a Dynast? There are plenty of warriors in this world; even those with enlightened Essence are relatively common compared to the Lords. I’m just like any other.”

“My Lord, House Nellens may have built my homeland but House Cathak protects it,” Inkfinger explained, “and one of the areas I have studied in the course of my duties is the artifice of the swordsmith. By the design of your blade I can tell that it is of Cathak origin, probably forged for a Lord of Wood. Your ability to drink the old man’s sake, one sip of which could fell a Tyrant Lizard, barely intoxicates you. If you are not a Dynast, my lord, then I appeal to your honour and the greater duty of protecting Creation in the name of the Elemental Dragons.”

Tetsu sighed, trying to work out another believable lie. Unfortunately, old man Menji took the sound to be an affirmation of the accusation and crawled forward on his hands and knees, side eyes brimming with hopeful tears. “Y-you mean you really are a Dragon Lord?” Before Tetsu could even open his mouth to answer the question, Menji was on the floor next to the ghost, his terror completely forgotten. “Please, Lord Tetsu, I beg of you as an elder of this village, please save us!”

The prostitute, looking more confused than sincere, fell in beside them to voice his support of their pleas.

Tetsu ground his teeth in frustration, caught by his own ridiculously clever disguise, his greed, his lack of foresight and the annoying twinge of compassion he felt for the plight of these poor, downtrodden, whelps. “All right! Gods blast you; I’ll do what I can!”

Their thanks was effusive and extremely embarrassing. Tetsu did his best to ignore it, grabbing the bottle of sake for himself and slowly draining it one cup at a time.

Chapter 5

Tetsu woke the next morning to the sound of the old man slamming the shutters open. Rays of grim grey twilight stabbed his brain through his eyes as he stirred on his straw mat. “Damn you to the city of the Green Sun, old man.”

Menji grunted. “By law, all shops have to open up early on the morning of an execution.”

Yawning and stretching, Tetsu used the table to pull himself up into a sitting position. A crowd was gathering outside, downtrodden men whispering in uncharacteristically hushed voices around a raised dais in the middle of the square, upon which stood a set of stocks, open and ready for its next victim. White Crane ran his fingers gingerly over the wood and iron, following the curves of the device of torture as if it were a woman. His men made a perimeter around the dais, keeping the crowd off the steps and forming a clear path to the door of a fortified building. A quick scan of the crowd told him that what the old man and the whore had said was true; there wasn’t a single girl or woman in sight.

“I can’t watch this,” Menji whispered, shame and disgust etched into his face as he slinked away, “I will be in the back room.”

Curious, Tetsu stood to lean out the window, wondering what sort of punishment could be so horrifying that even a tough old bastard like Menji couldn’t stomach watching.

White Crane raised his hand to call for silence. “Men of River’s Bend,” he shouted, “Nyrium Sekim has been found guilty of dereliction of duty. There is only one punishment in this town and only one law. You will work for the betterment of the community… one way or the other. Bring in the prisoner!”

The door to the jailhouse slammed open as four men dragged a fifth, kicking and screaming, into the open air. It took one man to hold each limb as the prisoner thrashed like a caged beast. The crowd looked on in silence. No food was thrown, no jeers or insults, it had to be the strangest execution that Tetsu had ever seen. The guards forced the prisoner onto his knees while the four of them held his arms behind his back. White Crane calmly produced a bamboo canteen from inside his robe and held it aloft to deafening silence. Bonzo stepped up behind the prisoner and forced his head back as White Crane approached, uncorking the bamboo container as he did.

The prisoner was frantic but the guards held him fast. Bonzo planted his palm against the man’s forehead and put his weight behind holding the prisoner’s head back as he tried to force a metal ring in the prisoner’s mouth. Impatient, White Crane gave the kneeling man a barehanded slap that dazed him for a moment so that Bonzo could complete the task. The Undersheriff pinched the prisoner’s nose while White Crane forced him to drink, yet still the man struggled hopelessly, forcing his body not to swallow. In the end, however, it was either swallow or stop breathing; instinct took control and several loud gulps sealed his fate.

The guards let go and all the fight seemed to flow out of the prisoner as he slumped to the floor. Tetsu blinked, his mind trying to process the sight his eyes were transmitting to his brain and failing. The prisoner’s distant form shrank as it writhed on the podium even as his screams changed to a higher pitch and his hair spilled out over the ground. The prostitute whimpered in the corner of the room, his eyes screwed shut as the prisoner’s cries were drowned out by the roar of the crowd. White Crane’s militia let them lose to swarm up the podium like ravenous dogs after a bone.

Something broke inside Tetsu at the sight of the salivating mob of men attempting to clamber over each other in desperation. The part of him that broke, however, was not a hot rage that burned like fire and died just as quickly, it was a cold, hard, inevitable promise. His face showed no emotion as White Crane turned to show Tetsu the smirk on his face, giving the wanderer a jovial wave before departing with Bonzo in tow.

“Did what I just saw actually happen?” Tetsu asked nobody in particular.

“I told you,” Menji called mournfully from the other room, “there are no people left here; only whipped dogs.”

Tetsu felt his fingernails bite into the palms of his hands as the rape continued, the militia in white milling about the mob, waiting. His skin felt hot and his heart pumped furiously, yet he held himself as still as a statue, watching every moment, turning it over in his mind to try to comprehend the depravity it represented. Finally, Tetsu recovered from the horror and shook his head in disgust. “Old man, where can I find a dice game in this town?”

There was a pause for a moment before Menji stormed out from the back room. “DICE! YOU SEE THAT TRAVESTY AND ALL YOU CAN THINK OF IS DICE?!?”

Barely controlling himself, Tetsu grabbed the front of the old man’s jacket and lifted slightly to make his point. “If I ponder upon the state of this evil place a moment longer, I may decide that the only recourse is to burn it to ashes and send everyone screaming into the pits of Malfeas. I need to put some space between myself and this… abomination. Dice. Now.”

Puffing a little, Menji gasped. “High town. Red Wolf’s mansion’s on the outskirts. Painted red; can’t miss it.”

Tetsu let the man go, regretting his actions even as he stormed out of the inn without apologizing. Striding away from the square like a rampaging Tyrant Lizard, the wanderer was halfway across town before he even noticed his surroundings, the screams far behind him. His back began to ache as the adrenaline left his body, injured from his desperate gambit with the impractical sword that now rested across his shoulders, weighing him down as he climbed the stairs to high town.

The character of River’s Bend changed on the higher tier. In the valley below, the town square and ramshackle hovels hugged the river as it snaked through the lowest point of the valley. The higher one ascended the mountain towards Sanejin’s Temple at the summit, the more affluent the houses appeared until full blown villas and pleasure complexes surmounted all else. Tetsu spied the clan symbols of several Dynast families on the walls and banners of the mansions high above, though House Cynis seemed to predominate, which was no surprise to Tetsu. The Cynis had their dirty claws in every brothel, pleasure house and slave market even remotely connected to the Realm. Unsurprisingly, Tetsu noted that while the Great Houses were well represented, the Immaculate Order was nowhere to be seen.

The people that moved through the streets were cleaner and better dressed than those in the valley but their eyes had the same haunted look as they scurried about like mice, fearful of their own shadows. They moved around Tetsu as if he were a rock in the middle of a stream, failing to comment on his alarming appearance. Continuing down the street, Tetsu considered starting a fight just to take his anger out on something and clear his head but a sight came into view as he rounded a corner that gave him a better target.

Red Wolf’s mansion was hard to miss. Painted bright red with incandescently white rice paper doors and pitch black floorboards, the sprawling complex seemed to glow in the sun. At the apex of the front arch were embossed letters of gold leaf that clearly proclaimed the owner’s name. In contrast to White Crane’s militia, the two guards that stood by were a ragged couple that didn’t bother with proper uniforms but wore a red and gold bandanna to signify their allegiance. Tetsu felt a slow, nasty, smile spread across his face as he stepped towards them, his knuckles itching.

“HALT!” The dimwit on the left cried out, noticing Tetsu first. When Tetsu failed to obey, they both drew daggers from behind their backs. “I said HALT!”

Tetsu made a production of yawning as he slowed down, stopping only a few feet away. “Calm down. I’m here to gamble.”

The one on the right seemed to have a more nervous disposition than his compatriot as he eyed the Daiklave on Tetsu’s shoulders with undisguised fear, sweat trickling from his brow. “N-no gambling here; move along.”

“Eh?” Tetsu scoffed, managing a scowl at the same time. “I have real money if that’s what you’re worried about.”

The one with more spine spat at Tetsu’s feet. “No weapons allowed inside.”

Snorting, Tetsu hoisted the daiklave off his shoulders and buried the point into the dirt so he could lean on it. Both of the guards jumped as the weight seemed to shake the earth under their feet. “Well, that’s not very fair is it?” Tetsu observed, leaning against the daiklave nonchalantly. “If the two of you can have your weapons, why can’t I?”

The guards glanced at each other. “Well,” the spineless one started to answer, then couldn’t figure out what to say, “because!”

“Red Wolf’s orders,” the other one snapped.

“Oh? Who was the last person who handed over their weapons, huh?” Tetsu questioned the bold one, snorting derisively.

The braver one started looking a bit more unsure of himself. “Uh… we’ve never…”

Tetsu shook his head and tutted. “Red Wolf won’t like that one bit. Not one bit at all.”

The spineless one’s eyes widened. “Y-you know Sensei?”

“I’m looking for a Scholar,” Tetsu growled, holding one hand up, “he’s about so tall, hails from Greyfalls. Long thin goatee, black hair, built like a sapling.” Tetsu caught the look of recognition in their faces as he’d calculated. The Inkfinger had gambled at Red Wolf’s. “Where is he? SPEAK!”

The spineless one fell to his knees, stuttering rapidly as he kowtowed. “I-I-I don’t know! He hasn’t come today! P-please, you’re welcome to wait for him! Please spare me, Prince of the Earth!” The braver one took a few steps back as Tetsu shouldered the Daiklave, keeping it balanced with one hand. Unimpeded, he stepped through the gate without glancing back, confident that the guards had been sufficiently cowed.

Feeling impressed with his improvised performance at the gate, Tetsu quickly got back into character as an effeminate man in a red silk robe half ran out of the mansion to meet him, bowing constantly as he effused. “Welcome oh humble Prince of the Earth, our house is honoured with your presence. May I take your shoes? You must have travelled many leagues, o great enlightened master!”

Impatient, Tetsu the Dragonlord kicked the servant when he knelt to untie his boots, sending the hapless man sprawling into a shrubbery. Clomping up the wooden stairs without pause, tracking road-dirt along with him as he threw open the sliding doors, Tetsu stomped inside. He was met by the fearful stares of two dozen men who knelt on mats around a low table with piles of chips in front of them along with another who wore nothing above his belt and held a cup and dice in his hands. Wiping his nose on his sleeve, Tetsu kicked off his boots and strode forward, casually dropping the Daiklave nearby. “I’ll buy in,” Tetsu announced, producing a money pouch, “ten silver Dinars.”

The gamblers muttered as Tetsu threw the silver onto the table in front of the dealer and forced them to make room for him. They were mostly middle or lower class, all male, but at least they’d had a bath in the last day. Tetsu absently tried to remember exactly when he’d had his last bath, or at least the last time it had rained on him but couldn’t. The man on his right felt forced to pinch his nose while the one on the left looked to be on the verge of vomiting right there on the table. Tetsu smiled as he raked in the chips that the dealer pushed across to him, noticing the man’s quick hand signal to wave off what was certainly more guards observing from shadowed corners or behind secret doors.

“Bet!” The dealer proclaimed, getting back to business, holding up the two dice between the fingers of his left hand and showing the inside of the cup to the gamblers in his right. Tetsu screwed up his face as if he was indecisive as the others made their bets on evens or odds. “Bet?” The dealer finally queried Tetsu who’d failed to bet.

Tetsu shook his head. “The magic isn’t in this round.”

Shrugging, the dealer threw the dice into the cup and started them spinning inside with a practiced move. Tetsu noted which gamblers leant forward in anticipation and which sat back to hide their nervousness. The dealer finally slammed the cup down on the table, then slowly pulled it away to reveal the dice, a four and a two. “EVEN!”

There were cheers and scowls as the dealer collected and reallocated wins and losses, adding several chips to the house pile. Tetsu watched the man’s hands as he moved, eyes narrowing as the dealer raised the cup and dice for examination. “Bet!”

Smirking, Tetsu pushed all of his chips forward. “Odd.”

The other gamblers whispered and muttered amongst themselves, amazed at what appeared to be either courage or recklessness. “Sure?” The dealer asked as a courtesy against such a large bet. Tetsu nodded. “I feel the magic in this one.”

Surreptitiously, the dealer glanced over Tetsu’s shoulder at the curtain behind that swayed gently in the breeze. Whatever he saw must have been positive because he left Tetsu’s bet in the pool while taking the other bets. Some went in with Tetsu, some against depending on their whim. Tetsu merely smiled as the dealer threw his dice into the cup and set them spinning. The dealer left them spinning for a few more turns than last time, heightening the tension and playing the crowd for all he was worth. Finally, he slammed the cup down.

Tetsu moved with the dealer, rolling forward onto his knees and slamming his clenched fist down on the back of the man’s hand like a hammer. The dealer screamed as his bones crunched under the force of the blow but Tetsu pinned him there, letting him struggle like a fish on the end of a hook. Gamblers cried out in alarm, both from the shock of Tetsu’s blow and the sudden appearance of men in red headbands that seemed to spring from every nook and cranny in the room, swords drawn.

“WAIT!” Tetsu commanded in such a thunderous voice that even Red Wolf’s soldiers hesitated and froze. Silence descended. Slowly, Tetsu lifted the dealer’s hand. A single dice dropped from his palm, bounced off the cup and skittered across the table, landing on a three. Holding the man’s broken hand in the iron grasp of his right hand, Tetsu lifted the cup with his left, revealing a four and a six.

“The man sitting three places to the left of the dealer is the house’s accomplice,” Tetsu explained, “he lost the last bet on purpose to hand you the chip that contained the loaded dice. One of the original dice will always roll even, the other is normal. One of the dice your accomplice passed you will always roll even, the other odd, so you only have to swap a single dice to control the outcome. The normal dice is in the fold of skin between the palm and thumb of your left hand. Well executed, if uninspired.”

Allowing the dealer have his hand back as he stood, the man clutching the shattered mass of flesh and bone to his chest, Tetsu sighed and held up his hand to about chest height. “You gentlemen wouldn’t happen to know a scholar by any chance? About so tall, long goatee, black hair?” He asked, quickly counting nine guards, ten and a half if he included the dealer and his accomplice. The gamblers froze where they lay at the shock of the guard’s sudden arrival and the show of naked steel, yet all of them were too greedy to abandon their chits.

For a long moment, everyone stood still. Surrounded by guards, Tetsu kept his hands out in the open in an effort to keep them calm while he considered his options. Depending on how skilled Red Wold’s bully boys were, he might be able to take one hostage but it was doubtful the rest would care enough not to slice through one of their own. He certainly couldn’t fight his way out and was well aware that he’d have to berate himself for biting off more than he could chew in one sitting later. The only asset he had left was his overinflated reputation and a talent for fast talking, which he resolved to put to good use.

“If we do this, someone will certainly die,” Tetsu said in a clam level tone, purposefully forgetting to mention that the person certain to die was himself. “Nullify the last throw, give all of us our money back and I’ll leave peacefully.”

The silence that followed was interrupted by a slow clap from the doorway. Turning to see the new arrival, Tetsu discovered a tall sightly overweight man with a bald head and a long beard who wore a long red robe with gold wolves embroidered along the hem and a simple thick rope belt clenching it at his waist. Behind him were six more guards, including the two from the front gate. “Well played,” Red Wolf congratulated Tetsu, grinning widely as he continued to clap. “Men, be so good as to take the dealer and his crony out and disembowel them, please, then pay back the rest of these layabouts and kick them into the street. Prince of the Earth, would you be so kind as to take a drink with me?”

Bowing gracefully, Tetsu allowed Red Wolf to escort him into a corridor while the guards got to work, the screams of the dealer and his accomplice were cut off as the door closed behind them. “Don’t worry about your belongings,” Red Wolf mollified when he noticed Tetsu glancing back, “my men know to care for my guest’s apparel. Of course, I don’t think any of them will be able to lift that sword of yours.”

Tetsu grunted in reply, not trusting that his nerves wouldn’t make their way into his voice. His host continued to smile peacefully as they walked, content in silence just as much as he was with words. Entering the atrium, Tetsu had to marvel at the beauty of Red Wolf’s grounds. Carp frolicked in a shallow pond fed by a slender stream that wound its way through bare rock from the mountain above while bamboo trees provided natural shade. Red Wolf led him to a pagoda constructed over the pond itself, connected to the water by numerous stepping stones, where a young girl dressed in a long red kimono was waiting by a low table with Sake.

“I was told all the womenfolk served Sanejin,” Tetsu commented as he sat down. Red Wolf chuckled as he followed suit on the other side of the square table. “He’s good, isn’t he? A gift from a Guildsman I did a favour for, a courtesan from the exotic southern city of Chiaroscuro. Mamo has served my Sake for close to five years now, raised as a girl in all ways. Mute, though, doesn’t speak a word. His loyalty, however, is without question.”

Looking at Mamo, Tetsu couldn’t fathom how the thirteen year old could be anything but a girl and wondered if he’d been made a eunuch by the Guild slavers. Tetsu wondered that all the town’s sad stories hadn’t buried the place long ago and nodded gratefully as his Sake was poured. “I assume that you are Red Wolf,” Tetsu greeted.

“As I would assume that you are the newcomer, Tetsu the Wanderer,” Red Wolf countered, his peaceful smile failing to waver for even a moment.

“News travels fast in this town,” Tetsu commented.

“People are like carp in a pond, the wise fisherman reads the movement of the water and casts his line to the most auspicious spot,” Red Wolf answered cryptically. “Then again, your arrival was more like a stone hurled at the surface.”

“Discretion’s never been my strong point,” Tetsu acknowledged, snorting derisively at himself. Together, they picked up their cups and drained them before placing them upside down on the table before them.

“Pity,” Red Wolf said with a sigh, “I was hoping you were an Immaculate spy.”

Tetsu raised one eyebrow. “I would have thought that would be the last person you hoped to see.”

“Not at all! Why, an Immaculate might rather liven things up a bit around here. An honest one, of course, if such a thing exists in Creation.”

“I thought Sanejin must have had an abbot bought off somewhere with all the Dynast mansions in town.”

Red Wolf smirked. “Oh, the Dynasts don’t want the Immaculates poking their noses in this place either. They don’t want anyone to know exactly what they get up to in Sanejin’s Temple. It’s bad enough to make a Cynis blush.”

Tetsu chuckled. “By the way, White Crane made me a job offer last night.”

“Oh? And what did you say?” Red Wolf inquired, his smile not wavering in the slightest.

“I told him it was only fair to let you make a counter-offer.”

“You saw the execution this morning, didn’t you? I promise I’ll only kill you rather than turn you into one of Sanejin’s sluts when I win,” Red Wolf said, his smile wider but the words completely sincere.

Tetsu couldn’t help but laugh. “That’s a good argument for joining you, I’ll give you that. You’re that confident of winning, with or without my help?”

“White Crane is a fool,” Red Wolf said, waving his hand in the air as if shooing a bothersome fly, “far too impressed by titles. Ever since Sanejin made him Sheriff he’s been strutting around like a Dynast… no offense.”

“I’m not a Dynast, so none taken.”

“I haven’t given up on you being a spy yet. Where was I? Oh, yes, the Sheriff. Honestly, it’s only a matter of time before Sanejin or the Guild catches him with his hand in the paybox like I did. Likely, Sanejin will gain a new bride soon after.”

“I heard the two of you had a falling out?” Tetsu inquired.

“What’s the old saying? Two tigers cannot live on the same mountain? Something like that.”

Nodding, Tetsu turned his cup over for Mamo to refill. Red Wolf followed suit. “Honestly, I’d rather stay out of this fight,” Tetsu admitted, “civil wars are so messy.”

“Then why not stay out of it?”

They drained their cups again together, placing them back on the table upside down.

“Because if I don’t take a side, both of you will be after me,” Tetsu chuckled, “on the other hand if I pick one of you, I only have to worry about the other one being out of my sight.”

Red Wolf chuckled. “A most dire quandary, I’ll admit. Though, if you’ll forgive me, there might be a third solution that you haven’t considered.”

“Oh?” Tetsu asked, genuinely curious but half suspecting what was about to come next.

“Work for us both. Promise your support to one when the time comes, join the other then double cross the one that seems to have the upper hand at the first opportunity.”

Tetsu shook his head. “My dear Red Wolf, I have to applaud your cunning. Unfortunately, I’ve got too much common sense to play such a game. After all, you already suspect me and White Crane isn’t fool enough to fall for such a ruse. No, that course of action was the first one I discarded. Now, make me a higher offer than one siu a day plus room and board so I can delay my employment to White Crane.”

Red Wolf raised one eyebrow. “Why would I do that?”

“Oh, we both know why. If you make an offer, White Crane has to come up with a counter-offer. Then I get to delay further by getting your counter-offer in return. You may be confident of victory but one less obstacle in your way never hurts. And it’s not like stalling my employment will cost you anything. We both win… assuming your confidence wasn’t just an idle boast.” Tetsu spoke the last sentence with a wry smile on his face.

“Ha! I like your style, Dragonlord. Very well, four siu plus room and board; I think you’ll find that White Crane has to struggle a bit to match that offer.”

Nodding, Tetsu scratched his chin considering the situation. “I see, you still control the lotus trade and your Guild contacts.”

Red Wolf nodded, matching Tetsu’s wry smirk.

Sighing, Tetsu rose to his feet. “Well, since our business is concluded, I will take my leave. I’m sure you have more pressing matters to attend to.”

“I thank you. I hope you return again soon,” Red Wolf said, standing to escort his guest out, “hopefully we’ll have a better game to play by then.”

Chapter 6

Tetsu ignored the ache in his legs as he continued up the slope that weaved up the mountain like a snake. Other travellers paid for rickshaws, particularly those who were deep in their cups and still boisterous after a day of roistering. Some may have been Dragon Lords, most however were merchants and bureaucrats, and none of them were interested in a vagabond outcaste trudging up a hill.

The temple gate dwarfed the pedestrians passing through it, easily thirty foot tall and almost twenty wide, composed of cyclopean blocks of granite with bright silver writing inlaid up each side that Tetsu couldn’t read. Tetsu paused as he looked up at the gate, marvelling at the sheer scale of the building as he scratched the stubble on his chin.

“You! Outcaste!” One of the guards, a man wearing the uniform of the White Crane School, barked at Tetsu. “Push off! This place isn’t open to the likes of you.”

Tetsu absently wondered what it was with guards in this town that made them think barking at even an Outcaste was conducive to continued good health. Smiling ironically, Tetsu took a few steps up the slope towards the man until it was obvious how far he towered over him. “Greetings,” Tetsu said cordially, still smiling, “you haven’t seen a scholar recently by any chance? About five feet tall, black moustache and beard?”

The second guard laughed. “Yun? Yeah, we know Yun. What’s he to ya?”

“Ah, nothing really,” Tetsu said as he reached into his tattered robe to scratch his chest hair, “I heard he had a pretty wife in here.”

“Ha! Yeah, that’s right,” the first guard affirmed with a grin, “done her a few times myself!”

“Pathetic old man used to beg here,” the second confirmed, “until White Crane ordered us to kick his ass down the mountain if he ever turned up again.”

Tetsu chuckled along with them. “Yeah, must be hard pimping women when there’s someone reminding all the customers what disgusting wretches they are.”

It took a moment for the guards to realize what Tetsu had just said. Both glared daggers at him. “Hey! You watch your mouth!”

“And you know there’s only one thing that disgusts me more,” Tetsu continued, “pathetic dogs that beat up poor scholars.”

Rage made the guard’s first blow sloppy, just as Tetsu had planned. Taking the punch on the chin without blinking, Tetsu grabbed the front of the first guard’s robe and casually tossed him over the edge of the cliff. His scream was cut short by the crunch of bone against rock. The second stood stunned for a moment too long, allowing Tetsu to grasp his throat with ease, his startled cry strangled off into a low gurgle. The man’s eyes bulged as Tetsu drove him to his knees with one hand.

“Oh, don’t look at me like that,” Tetsu complained, “it makes you look like a horse I met on the road yesterday. I liked that horse.”

“Please,” the guard croaked, using up precious air with every syllable, “I don’t want to die.”

“Well, here’s the problem,” Tetsu said as he snapped the guard’s neck, “you don’t deserve what you want.”

Tetsu turned back to the gate after kicking the guard’s corpse over the cliff to join his partner’s shattered body far below, a plethora of rickshaw drivers, house servants and waiting customers staring at him in stunned silence. Passing the line, he was greeted by a gorgeous woman with long dark brown tresses that curled about her waist, otherwise wearing nothing but a light gauzy robe that practically left her perfect curves in plain view. The customer at the head of the line stepped aside for Tetsu hastily, knees shaking from fear.

“Welcome to the Palace of Eternal Pleasure,” the temple prostitute greeted, bowing deeply, “the Great God Sanejin, Pristine Boyar of Vanity, welcomes the Dragon Lord into his house and offers to you all the blessings that lie within.”

It was Tetsu’s turn to stare. The woman bowing before him wasn’t merely beautiful. She was perfect. Her skin was creamy, smooth and without a single blemish. Her hair seemed to shine in the light, flowing like liquid chocolate over her shoulders. Her face was so delicate and lovely that Tetsu’s palm ached to stroke her cheek so that he could stare into her deep brown eyes. Her body offered a plethora of other delights, ripe for the picking. It took every ounce of willpower he had to control the sudden onrush of lust. “I desire a shave and a bath,” Tetsu growled, gritting his teeth from the effort, “in whichever order is the most convenient. I have money.”

“Of course, Lord,” the prostitute said calmly, “please follow me.”

It was hard for Tetsu to take in the Palace of Eternal Pleasure with the distraction of the temple prostitutes rear wiggling in front of him. He wasn’t prepared for the sight that greeted him inside the walls of the compound, however, or the excess to which the occupants were enjoying the luxuries on offer. The compound was circular, surrounded by a high, thick, wall. Four giant circular foundations flanked each of the cardinal directions on the wall upon which rested tall pagodas, each appearing to have been carved from a single monolithic block of green stone. Inside, the buildings and walkways were built on stilts over a giant, steaming, hot spring that made clothes unbearably warm and damp enough to cling to the bodies underneath.

The temple prostitute led Tetsu past several small, circular, buildings that, from the sounds Tetsu could hear, acted as private feast halls. Such buildings surrounded the temple courtyard that was more a giant, circular, communal bath surrounded by a single walkway with others branching out to provide access to the rest of the buildings as well as the four enormous gates that stood at each cardinal direction. Nearly a dozen men and women frolicked in the bath, indulging in various vices that weren’t too embarrassing to be committed in plain sight. Everything from drugs to fine food seemed readily available, one elderly gentleman that Tetsu noticed was busily licking pomegranate pulp from the chest of one of the temple whores, a dusky-skinned woman at least as beautiful as his guide who was making dutiful cooing noises. Noticing his gaze, the prostitute gave Tetsu a sly, conspiratorial, wink that made him chuckle before turning to follow his guide once more.

She stopped at a large, circular, door that had been painted the same purple as the gate, turned to him and bowed her head submissively. “My Lord, please enter this private room and avail yourself of the facilities. I have been told to cater to your every desire, free of charge.”

Tetsu raised one eyebrow. “Sanejin was expecting me?”

“Master Sanejin hoped you would visit us,” the whore explained, keeping her head bowed, “he left instructions to care for you should you arrive unannounced. If I am not your type, I can call another to attend to you if that is your wish.”

Snorting in response, Tetsu kicked the heavy door open and stepped through, easing the daiklave down so the tip wouldn’t scrape against the ceiling. He had to admit, he was starting to get used to it being there. “I don’t have a type,” Tetsu muttered. The room beyond the doors was another large circle, another circular bath resting at one end so that the walkway around it formed a crescent. Alcoves off the main room provided the other necessities; mirrors, beds, silk robes, grooming supplies and even cosmetics for female guests.

She smiled. “Then I would be happy to attend to you,” she said, entering behind him and closing the door. “What does the mighty Dragon Lord desire?”

Tetsu wondered what he could get away with without being poisoned, stabbed or otherwise done away with. “The mighty Dragon Lord desires a shave and a bath. Also, go put one of those silk robes on.”

She blinked in surprise. “If my Lord would prefer the company of the same sex, we have several highly trained male courtiers of the finest stock from…”

“No, no, no,” Tetsu interrupted, rolling his eyes, “you’re just a bit distracting… dressed like that.” Thinking about it, Tetsu couldn’t stop his eyes from roaming down her body. The dampness of the mist outside made the gauze cling to her like an invisible skin.

His answer made her giggle, her hand straying to her full lips as if she were embarrassed, a move that just made her cuter and more desirable. “Of course, my Lord, anything to please you,” she said, slipping in a barely noticeable emphasis on the ‘please’ as she sashayed into the wardrobe to select a garment.

Several ways that she could please him forcibly bubbled up into Tetsu’s mind from his subconscious. With great effort, he battered his libido back into submission, a task made more difficult by the fact that he had to undress while doing so. Leaving his sword resting on a wall nearby, he stepped into an alcove that had a basin of steaming water and a bucket contained a wash cloth and soap and began to bathe, a luxury he hadn’t been able to properly indulge for years. Kneeling at the basin, he set the soap and cloth aside and dipped the bucket in the water before pouring it over his head, allowing the hot liquid to roll down his body like a miniature waterfall.

Opening his eyes, he found the whore leaning against the entrance to the alcove wearing a long yellow silk robe embroidered with silver dragons. The collar was wrapped around her slender shoulders rather than up around her neck, managing to display and accentuate her soft flesh rather than conceal it. Though the rest of her body was at least covered, the curve of her waist, hips and legs were still visible through the silk. It was an improvement for Tetsu’s mental state but not by much.

“How long has it been since you’ve bathed?” She inquired, sounding genuinely interested.

Tetsu considered his answer. “I can’t remember,” he said truthfully, dropping the cloth into the basin to soak while he lathered his body with the soap. “Mostly I wash off in fresh water or rain… and then, only when fate permits. I expect if this soap had a mouth, it would be screaming right now.”

His jest made her giggle again. Stepping forward, she knelt behind him and lent over to retrieve the wash cloth, pressing her breasts against his back to do so. “Here, let me wash your back,” she whispered, pulling back to apply the hot cloth. Tetsu let her, though his lust and paranoia warred within him, he didn’t have the heart to rebuke her. He didn’t turn around either, suspecting that she’d gotten soap suds on herself deliberately to provoke him into allowing her to go naked, a situation that would probably be the death of him.

“You have many scars,” she observed, tracing the ones on his back through the cloth.

“Life on the road is hard,” he answered, “and it creates hard men.”

She chuckled knowingly. “Well, all girls like bad boys, you know.”

“Not as much as they like rich men, though,” Tetsu answered sarcastically.

Her ministrations paused for a moment before she continued. “Oh? Is that what you think of this place?”

“I’ve yet to see a reason not to.”

“Yes,” she chuckled, “I’ll admit it looks bad. But it’s not what it looks like; this is a place of compassion and love.”

Tetsu glanced at her over his shoulder, partly to show the disbelief on his face. “Love?”

“Master Sanejin loves all of Creation,” she explained, “and every being in it. As his bride, it is my duty to spread his love as far as I can so that other beings can feel a fragment of the adoration that I hold for Him.”

“At least as far as those who can afford it,” Tetsu countered.

“We have to eat,” she said with a sigh, “and maintain the temple. The rest of the money goes to Master Sanejin’s great works as he paves the way to a brighter future.”

He turned away so that she wouldn’t see the frown on his face. He recognized the note of belief in her voice, the utter conviction that lay beneath her words. It disturbed him on some deep level, a part of himself that he’d never encountered before and barely understood. “I witnessed an execution this morning,” Tetsu countered, leaving the rest unsaid.

“Yes, such things are… unfortunate,” she said with deep regret. “Our new sister is healing and we are doing everything in our power to help her.”

“Why allow it at all?” Tetsu asked, growling the question.

“I… am not permitted to say. If you have the opportunity, ask Master Sanejin.”

Tetsu blinked. “You know, I’ve never met a God before; spirits from time to time sure but never a proper God. What’s he like?”

“Master Sanejin is the most sublime being in Creation,” she answered with utter devotion, “the day I first saw him changed my life and gave me purpose. He set me free.”

He felt his frown deepen. Sanejin was surrounded by Dragonbloods from Greyfalls, his temple and the people within it a spit in the eye of the Immaculate Order and yet it still endured. Until that moment, Tetsu hadn’t really understood how far from civilization he really was. The town wore the trappings like a cloak to disguise the barbarism that lay beneath. Even though he had never been one for religion of any persuasion, at least the Immaculates kept the peace. “You wouldn’t happen to know a scholar called Yun by any chance?”

“No,” she answered emotionlessly as she continued to scrub the dirt off his arms and shoulders, “is there any reason I should?”

“No,” Tetsu chuckled mirthlessly, “I guess it’d be too much of a co-incidence for you to be his wife. I watched the Undersheriff murder him yesterday.”

She paused again. “Why would the Undersheriff do such a thing?”

“He was hanging around, making a nuisance of himself. Gambled his way into debts he couldn’t pay; the usual.”

“That doesn’t make sense,” she argued, “White Crane has the Water of Infinite Perfection, there’s no need for anyone to die!”

“Maybe even a worm like Bonzo felt a small pang of pity,” Tetsu conjectured, “a wasn’t able to send the man off to an… execution.”

Tetsu heard the wet slap of the washcloth hitting the floor behind him. “I’m sorry,” the whore apologized, “I… I have to go!” With that, she fled from the room, clutching the robe about her.

“Just as I thought,” Tetsu said to himself as he continued bathing himself. The door opened again just as he finished rinsing himself off. The woman that entered was tall, almost as tall as Tetsu, and athletic. Curly red hair spilled over her left shoulder in a style more popular in the North, a wave concealing that side of her heart-shaped face. She was also naked from the waist up, her only article of clothing a plain white cotton loincloth that barely concealed anything below the waist either.

“Master Sanejin sends his deepest apologies,” she said in greeting, “please forgive Anako for her lapse. I am Reni, Master Sanejin sent me as her replacement.”

“Funny,” Tetsu said as he stood up, conscious of the effect she was having on his manhood, “I thought her name was Omeki.”

Reni shrugged, a move designed to draw his eye to her bare assets, which she displayed for him shamelessly. “Many of us take a new name when we enter Master Sanejin’s service. What would you desire of me, my Lord?”

“Wait for me in the bath,” Tetsu ordered, “I’m going to shave before I join you.”

“I would be happy to groom you if you like, my Lord.”

“No,” he declined, “I don’t trust anyone with a razor at my throat but me. I’ll only be a few minutes.”

He turned away from her as she disrobed, ducking into the alcove with the mirror. He heard her enter the bath, splashing around a little as he shaved and absently wondered what he was going to do with her. Tetsu the Dragon Lord would screw her brains out. Tetsu the Fragile Mortal Wanderer wasn’t sure that was a good idea as much as he wanted to. Glancing out at the girl as she enjoyed the hot water, Tetsu mused that she was as different to ‘Anako’ as night to day. Whatever power Sanejin’s strange potion had, he surmised that it must enhance what already exists in a person rather than transform the victim completely. Anako was the sort of woman that exemplified maidenhood, she appeared to be a girl of marriageable age who would make a good wife and bare healthy children, a softer beauty that made a man feel protective. Reni was the opposite, a wild rose with thorns, bold and adventurous.

Taking his time shaving to buy time to think, Tetsu became sure that Sanejin was testing him. He had to assume that the God would know about his encounter with Bonzo and the death of Yun and thus send Omeki to gage his reaction. Assuming this was true, Tetsu extrapolated that by recognising Anako as Omeki, he’d proven himself astute if not a bit paranoid. So the next question was: how did he want to appear to Sanejin now? Looking out at the girl who stood with her back to him as she brushed out her damp hair while rivulets of clear water traced the arch of her back, Tetsu sighed with longing.

“Unfortunately,” he whispered to himself, “this is a sacrifice that I’ll just have to endure.”

#

Reni screamed with Tetsu’s every thrust, her broad shoulders braced against the edge of the pool with her legs wrapped around his waist. He grasped her hips tightly to prevent her slipping as he pistoned inside her, gripped tightly by her welcoming body. The water lapped against the edge of the bath, agitated by their lovemaking. Tetsu barely noticed the door open, all his concentration on holding himself back. “One… second…” he managed to grunt, determined not to be interrupted.

Finally, Reni let out a howl of ecstasy as her back arched; the muscles in her whole body spasming in release. Tetsu let himself go a moment later, thrusting deep as he came. Sated, he allowed himself to drift back into the water, leaving Reni to rest on one of the steps as she came down from her orgasm, eyes closed and breathing heavily.

“Well done,” the newcomer applauded as he stepped to the edge of the pool, “it takes a real man to tame Reni like that.”

Looking up, Tetsu had to blink at the man that stood above him. His skin was pale and hairless, almost like a woman’s. His face was also quite feminine, sharp angle and a wide jaw the only part betraying masculinity. The hard, muscular, body below it, however, could never be mistaken for a woman’s, with broad shoulders almost comically too large for his hips and abdominal muscles that could be used as a washing board. His lower half was covered with baggy black silk pants clinched at the ankle, though he was barefoot, with a red silk cloth embroidered with black dragons breathing golden flames wrapped around his arms and waist that trailed along behind him. He also wore his lustrous black hair long enough that the tip below where it was bound together tickled the ground behind him, a gold ribbon woven through it in elaborate patterns that held the strands in shape. Tetsu inclined his head in thanks. “That’s quite a compliment coming from a God.”

Nodding in affirmation of Tetsu’s assumption, Sanejin knelt beside Reni and stroked her cheek in affection. Smiling, she opened her eyes to look up at him with adoration. “Sorry, my love,” she apologized in a voice that shouldn’t be used with a man that she hadn’t made love to moments before, “it’ll be a little while before I can stand.”

“It’s ok,” the God whispered lovingly to her, “rest easy. I’m very pleased with you.”

She smiled in contentment at his words and nuzzled his hand.

Tetsu coughed, suddenly feeling uncomfortable. “If you two would like to be alone…”

“Nonsense,” Sanejin interrupted, flashing Tetsu a gracious smile, “I’m here to discuss business with you. I hope you found my bride satisfactory?”

“To say yes would be an understatement,” Tetsu complimented truthfully, if a little uncomfortably. “Frankly, I didn’t expect you to come yourself, though.”

Sanejin grinned, looking for all the world like a little boy with his hand in the cookie jar. “I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to meet the Outcaste that has White Crane and Red Wolf in such a flap now, could I? I’m especially impressed… particularly considering it’s all a great big con.”

Tetsu froze. “A con?” He asked ingenuously, his first instinct to feign ignorance.

“Oh, come now,” Sanejin admonished, “I knew you were mortal the second I stepped through the door. Personally, I think that just makes your accomplishments even more impressive. Red Wolf and White Crane have been messaging me all day trying to get me to pledge my support if they can get the mysterious Outcaste on their side.”

“And Red Wolf said he didn’t need me,” Tetsu said, pouting, “I’m hurt.”

“Courageous,” Sanejin complimented, “but I’m sure I don’t have to point out to you that you’re in an awful lot of trouble right now. A little grovelling wouldn’t go astray.”

“Eh? May I remind you that I just fucked one on the most beautiful women I’ve ever met?” Tetsu asked rhetorically, sinking back against the opposite edge of the pool. “I’m filled with too much smug satisfaction to be worried about anything at the moment.”

That made Sanejin throw his had back and laugh, full and deep. Wiping the tears from his eyes, the God crossed his legs to sit more comfortably at the edge of the pool without getting his clothes wet. “You amuse me. All right, you’ve called my bluff. I’m not about to tattle-tail on you… what gave me away?”

“If you were going to get rid of me, I’d already be dead,” Tetsu observed, shrugging, outwardly calm while his mind raced ahead trying to work out a bluff to get him out alive and with his manhood intact. “The moment you stepped through that door, you’d have obliterated me. Of course, it’s a good thing for both of us that you didn’t.”

Sanejin raised one perfect eyebrow. “Oh?”

“If the people who hired me don’t hear back, they might assume the worst,” Tetsu lied smoothly.

“Sooooo, you’re a spy?” Sanejin asked, leaning forward.

“Right now,” Tetsu grunted, “usually I prefer quicker, dirtier, jobs like killing bandits. I should have known this job payed too much when I accepted the contract but I needed the coin.”

“Then, since you’re telling me this, I assume you’re not here to spy on me,” Sanejin observed, “so who hired you?”

“A Guild merchant who paid me in freshly printed Realm script. At first I thought it was a bluff, one side trying to cast suspicion off onto the other. Looking at this town, I’m willing to think both of them have a stake in finding out what’s going on down here. I was instructed to take a ship downriver and walk into town from the south to help divert suspicion too. My employer said that he was concerned that the infighting between White Crane and Red Wolf was getting out of hand, disrupting business. If Greyfalls has a hand in this, though, I’m betting they’re worried the fighting will attract the wrong kind of attention. Bribed officials can only turn a blind eye to so much.”

“If what you say is true, why wouldn’t they send some of their own to investigate?” Sanejin asked persistently.

“I can only assume they’re short on Dragon Lords,” Tetsu answered, scratching his ear, “they don’t grow on trees after all. Besides, someone might notice that they’re missing. Then again, maybe I’m just expendable.”

“Nice story,” Sanejin complimented again, chuckling, “unfortunately, it doesn’t explain the sword.”

Tetsu rolled his eyes and slapped his forehead. “Ugh. I told them I couldn’t fool a God.”

“Not at all, you were doing so well.”

“Only because most of it was the truth,” Tetsu lied, knowing that Senejin would never believe the real truth. “All right, look, I’m an agent for Greyfalls. House Cynis is worried about the Lotus supply and they wanted me to get this trouble between Red Wolf and White Crane sorted out one way or the other. If I fail, it’s no skin of their noses. The sword’s some sort of victory prize they’ve kept hidden, so losing it’s not that big a blow either. I figured if it all went wrong I’d run west and trade it for passage but after I got here I realized that I was stuck; there’s just too many people in this town waiting to knife me in the back. Speaking of which, are you going to turn me in to White Crane or what?”

“Now why in all under Heaven would I do that?” Sanejin asked incredulously.

“I figured you’d noticed that you’re a couple of guards short. White Crane’s your favourite isn’t he?”

“Favourite? I despise the man,” Sanejin scoffed.

Tetsu cocked his head to one side. “What?”

“I think you’ve got the wrong end of the stick here,” Sanejin said with a sigh, “I’m not the one in charge.”

Not believing what he was hearing, Tetsu slapped the side of his head to see if his ears cleared out. “I’m sorry, I don’t think I heard you correctly. I was told you were the God in this town.”

“A God, yes,” Sanejin admitted bitterly, “I’m also a prisoner, a patsy and a figurehead. I had everything I wanted before the Guild discovered the mineral wealth in these mountains. Then one day White Crane and Red Wolf saunter into town and start running the place, threatening to slaughter my worshippers and call in the Immaculates. I’m not a god of war, I was forced to bargain. Now my Brides are treated like whores instead of divine conduits and my town is a Malfean cyst on the face of Creation, not that your Dynast masters care one whit about that.”

Scratching his chin, Tetsu considered what he was hearing. Sanejin was either a master dissembler crying innocent or an honest God caught in a bad situation. Tetsu was willing to bet that the truth was somewhere in between. “You’re right that the Dynasts don’t care. That doesn’t mean that I don’t care. I’m a mortal, I don’t like to see my people suffer. I have one question; they say that you ensnare women on first sight with your power. Is that true?”

“I can,” Sanejin freely admitted, “but it’s a power I have to choose to wield. Before White Crane made me promise to deliver the Water of Infinite Perfection to be used as he saw fit, it was only used by those who were willing. These days, I use my power on those who have been traumatized by the change forced upon them in order to heal them and keep them out of the clutches of the Guild. Any woman who I don’t claim is shipped west to be trained in Guild brothels and sold into slavery, I like to think that I am the lesser of the two evils.”

“What about Omeki?”

Sanejin sighed deeply. “By the ancient law of this town, anyone who asks to drink of the Water of Infinite Perfection must be allowed to do so. Omeki came to the temple and asked to drink because she was dissatisfied with her marriage and feared that Red Wolf wanted her for himself. Rightly so as it turns out, he’s one of Anako’s best customers. Of course, if Red Wolf hadn’t gotten to her, White Crane would have. They’re out of control, accosting a scholar. If the Immaculates notice, they’ll be in more trouble than I will, not to mention the Great Houses and the Guild.”

“Did you try to help Yun?”

“Indeed I did, I felt so sorry for the man. I paid for some of his visits to Anako at first before she asked me to stop… more correctly, I arranged for some money to fall into his hands. It wasn’t unil he refused a drink from the Water of Infinite Perfection that I understood the real problem. He loved her enough to beg in the street for her return but not enough to sacrifice everything for her.”

“That’s… asking a lot from a man.”

“I accept nothing less than perfection,” Sanejin shrugged, “it’s what I am. If Yun was in love with Omeki, he would have sacrificed anything to be with her but what he was really in love with was she did for him. Such selfishness can only bring on a tragic end.”

“Harsh but probably true,” Tetsu admitted, not wanting to anger the God. “So, what happens now?”

“Now?” Sanejin repeated the question, rolling it around on his tongue. “Well, that depends. If you are who you say you are, then perhaps we have goals in common. Even if you’re lying, I’m sure you’re smart enough to understand the threat I pose to you personally. Either way I think we can work together, you’ve certainly proved your competency. If I allow you to leave unharmed, what’s your next step?”

“White Crane,” Tetsu answered honestly. “I saw Red Wolf this morning and got him to make a counter-offer for my services. I came here to buy some time to think about what to do next, as well as get a proper bath and maybe an opportunity to talk to you. What we really need to do is eliminate both of them at once then fill the power gap with someone a bit less excitable and a bit more controllable. Unless you have a better idea, I’ll go to White Crane and offer to join Red Wolf to betray him at an opportune moment. Once I’m on his side, Red Wolf will start to move against White Crane. Instead, I’ll stab both of them in the back. You pick their successor, someone you trust to run the place as ethically as possible without pissing off Greyfalls or the Guild. Everyone’s happy.”

“Interesting plan,” Sanejin said, scratching his chin, “do you really think you can pull it off?”

“The way I see it, if I can’t pull it off, I’m dead. If I run, I’m dead. If I don’t do what I say, you’ll know I was lying about the whole thing and I’m dead. If I succeed… maybe I get to live a bit longer. You risk nothing by letting me leave and stand to gain quite a bit. It’s the best sort of deal for you, unfortunately for me it’s what I’m stuck with.”

“I was right,” Sanejin smiled as he stood, “I do like you. Help yourself to some real clothing, on the house, you’re free to go when you wish.”

“What do we tell Red Wolf and White Crane about my time here?”

“Tell them we talked and you tried to get me to make you an offer for your services but refused you outright,” Sanejin explained, “since it’s been made clear to me that local politics is none of my business and I have no need of mercenaries when they’re around. By the way, this temple is neutral ground. I will brook no violence inside the gates... no matter how amusing it might be to watch you hurl people over cliffs.”

“Sorry,” Tetsu apologized, though he was chuckling at the same time, “they really pissed me off.”

Sanejin smirked. “I hope you’ll visit us again soon.”

After the God left, Tetsu rose out of the water and left Reni to recover in the pool, bundling his old clothes into a hamper that he wrapped around the hilt of the Daiklave and putting on fresh green robes and sandals from the wardrobe. Feeling like a new man, he strode confidently from the room, holding his head high as he passed the merrymakers who pointedly ignored him and back out on the path down the mountain.

Only the most astute of observers would note that his knees were shaking the entire time.

#

Somewhere on a lonely road some distance south of River’s Bend, two grown men and a little girl prayed at a makeshift grave under a tree with a simple inscription on the trunk. The little girl prayed bravely even though tears were rolling down her cheek and her voice was breaking from grief. Finishing their prayers quickly, the men turned from the grave and left the little girl to say her goodbyes.

The first man, a reedy figure in a heavy yellow robe with sleeves almost half again as long as his arms, produced a canteen and handed it to the second. The second man, obviously a warrior of some skill, accepted it with one large muscular hand and took a swig. Gulping, he nodded in thanks as he handed it back. “Whoever buried him walked north from here,” the warrior observed, scratching the back of his head, “you sure it wasn’t the same person who killed him?”

“Positive,” the smaller man answered, adjusting his glasses. “So soon after casting a spell like that, the killer’s going to leave a miasma behind like a bad smell everywhere he or she goes, maybe for months. When we find them, I’ll know.”

“Good,” the warrior said, glancing back over his shoulder at the sobbing little girl kneeling in the grass, “I want their heads.”

Chapter 7

The sun was setting on a ridge overlooking River’s Bend as Focused Rage fell lightly on his feet from a small dust devil that dissipated above him. Shining Feather fell gently to earth as his spell dissolved, though he looked a bit haggard from the concentration used to maintain the effect for the full eight hours of travel. The closest gate to and from Yu-Shan had been far to the south, forcing expedience over stealth.

Shining Feather surveyed the valley below, taking in the town as a whole before looking for details. “Dynasts?” He said with some surprise, pointing out the banners flying atop some of the larger mansions near the top of the hill to his compatriot. “What’s Greyfalls doing this close to the Hundred Kingdoms?”

“Come on, Feather, nobody cares about anything that goes on this close to the Boardermarches and Rock River’s a stone’s throw away for a Lunar. If Greyfalls wants to take a chunk out of the Hundred Kingdoms, this would be a good place to start.”

“You know, Rage, sometimes you surprise me,” Feather admitted. “The geomancy of this area is… powerful. Notice the architecture of the temple on top of the hill? The paint’s new, not to mention garish, but carving like that hasn’t been replicated since the First Age. What’s the bet there’s a manse under there?”

“No bet. Let’s go in, check the lay of the land,” Rage suggested, eager to get started.

This time, Feather agreed. “We stay quiet, no big damn hero moments, ok?”

Rage nodded before leaping off the cliff. Feather followed, the two Sidereals leaping silently from treetop to treetop, the lightness of their footfalls and quiet rush of wind from their passage not even disturbing the birds. The sun sank below the ridge, plunging the valley into darkness just as the companions reached the rooftops, allowing them to flit from building to building unseen. Occasionally, one would call a halt to eavesdrop on an innocuous conversation, at other times they’d have to wait for small groups to pass by before they could continue. They paused to take stock once they’d reached the main square, nesting between chimneys where the casual observer couldn’t spot them.

“Feather,” Rage whispered, “have you seen any women yet?”

“No,” Feather answered, “and it disturbs me.”

“There’s something wrong with this place,” Rage said, shivering, “I just can’t put my finger on it. Know what I mean?”

Feather frowned. He knew his companion wasn’t as skilled at debate or as intelligent but he trusted Rage’s instincts, indeed, he’d bet his life on them. “No, I can’t feel it. Describe it to me.”

“I don’t know, it’s like… it’s like a bad smell hanging in the air but it’s not the slums. It’s almost like a shadowland but not the same as that either. It feels… oily, like my skin’s coated in it and I’ll never be able to get it off.”

“Malfean?”

“I don’t know. I’ve never felt like this. Maybe it’s an effect of the loom being all screwed up…”

Feather didn’t want to shush his companion but something was happening in the square below, so he held up his hand for silence. A tall man in a white robe embroidered with blue cranes fighting over a silver fish led six men in white and yellow uniforms from a nearby alley across the square towards an old, ramshackle, inn. The leader threw the thin rice paper door aside and stormed into the place a moment before the screaming and shouting started.

“Maybe we should get closer?” Rage suggested.

“Yes,” Feather agreed, “but remember, no heroics.”

Rage clenched his teeth but he nodded agreement and the two padded silently across the rooftops. Faces sometimes appeared at surrounding windows to stare hopelessly at the spectacle but nobody came out or raised a voice to challenge what was going on. Settling on a closer rooftop with a better view, the two Sidereals listened closely.

“I don’ know where he is!” An old man’s voice cried out. “H-he left here, fuming with rage after the execution! I-I thought he might kill someone!”

“Where did he go?” A younger voice demanded an answer, the type of voice cultured by years of giving orders and expecting them to be followed.

“I-I can’t be sure, he didn’t say!” The old man wailed.

“CUT HIM!”

“NO! STOP! I re-remember. He asked where he could find a dice game in town…”

Rage tapped Feather on the shoulder and pointed down the street. Following the direction his partner indicated with his eyes, Feather spotted a large, muscular, man in a fine green robe with a matching Daiklave striding towards the inn. He paused for a moment, finally close enough to hear the commotion, before striding a bit faster toward the shouts and screams.

“…I told him where he could find Red Wolf and… and… and he hasn’t been back! I swear to you, he hasn’t been back!”

“Red Wolf,” the younger voice spat just as the man in the green robe arrived at the door.

“Sorry I’m late,” the man in green jibed from where he stood in the doorway, “I didn’t realize we had an appointment.”

“Lucky,” the leader in white rejoined, “I almost thought Red Wolf had made you an offer you couldn’t refuse.”

The man in green dropped the daiklave off his shoulders before stepping inside and discarding the weapon with a casual toss. The impact on the floor of the hut made the walls shake. Rage whistled appreciatively and Feather had to remind him to stay quiet.

“I stopped in to Sanejin’s on the way back,” the man in green explained, “I thought it was only fair to give him a chance as well. Old man! Sake! Now!”

“Y-yes… sake… yes… Kano, go out back and wash your face.”

There was a bit of movement inside as people took seats, got drinks and dropped money on the tables. After a few moments, a sobbing boy no more than twenty years old stumbled into the alley from the back of the inn and washed his face in a rain basin.

“Whore?” Rage whispered, noticing the boy’s clothing.

“Male whore,” Feather answered, “I can’t imagine this place is so low rent they can’t afford to keep a woman unless we’ve just uncovered the only primarily homosexual mining town in the East.”

“No way,” Rage sniffed, “this place isn’t that fabulous.”

Feather had to stifle a laugh just as the meeting below got back to business.

“So, you met with Red Wolf and Sanejin?” The voice of the man in white asked.

“Not at the same time,” the man in green scoffed. “Red Wolf quadrupled your offer.”

There was some muttering among the men at the tables.

“Unfortunate,” the man in white said, sounding disheartened, “I can’t meet that price.”

“Yes, he mentioned that.”

“And Sanejin?”

“At first he said that he had no interest in local politics and this matter was between you and Red Wolf. But then, he also said that he entrusts you with the Water of Infinite Perfection and anyone who could bring a quick resolution to the issue would be well compensated.”

Feather looked at his partner in askance. Rage shrugged. Even more interested now, Feather got up into a crouch and slowly crept closer. A quick, silent, jump put him on the roof of the inn where he could lean slightly over the edge above the window and hear everything.

“I see,” the man in white murmured, considering the situation.

“Red Wolf knows you can’t meet his offer. When I show up tomorrow morning, he’ll hire me on then strike as soon as possible. You can lay a trap and when he’s at his most vulnerable, I’ll stab him in the back. All you’ll have to do is cleanup.”

“Then what’s to stop you from double crossing me?”

“Oh, come on,” the man in green admonished, his scowl clear in his voice, “I get Sanejin’s gratitude if I help you. More to the point, you keep that filthy water of yours away from me. Also, I get your gratitude once you’re running the show around here. If you want more, though, look at it this way. When the time comes, I’ll have to pick one of you to double cross. You’ll be the one springing the trap and I won’t know when, how or where you’ll be coming from. If I double cross you, you can put an arrow right between my shoulderblades and I’ll probably never see it coming.”

“Heh, you have a point. Tetsu, I may just be starting to like you.”

“Don’t, I might brush up well but I’m still a foul smelling barbarian at heart.”

Tetsu’s jest caused a chuckle amongst those gathered. There was some noise as the men in white stood.

“Very well,” the man in white finally agreed, “I will leave to make preparations. If you can stall Red Wolf for a day, it would be better.”

“I’ll try,” Tetsu agreed, “if I can I’ll get a message to warn you. Red Wolf might have a trick or two up his sleeve.”

“Thank you. Sleep well, Tetsu.”

“And you, White Crane.”

It took a few minutes for White Crane and his militia to file out of the inn. Rage gave Feather a beckoning motion to call him back but Feather raised his hand to show he was staying put.

“My Lord,” the old man addressed Tetsu once White Crane’s men were out of earshot, “thank you. I thought we were dead or worse.”

“Sorry I wasn’t here sooner.”

“So White Crane will win then?” The old man asked, a note of desperation in his voice. “By the most holy, it will be worse than before. This town is lost.”

“Eh? Now you’re jumping to conclusions, old man.”

“What? But you said… and White Crane said… and you were both… just now…”

“It’s called a lie, Menji,” Tetsu growled, “Sanejin doesn’t favour either side and he isn’t offering a reward either.”

There was a long pause. “Then,” the old man stuttered, “you’re siding with Red Wolf?”

“Jumping to conclusions again,” Tetsu said, sighing in forced patience, “like frogs from Lilly pad to Lilly pad. I’m not on anyone’s side.”

“Then… Sanejin?”

“Won’t lift a finger,” Tetsu grunted, “says White Crane and Red Wolf are threatening to kill his worshippers if he gets involved. I don’t know if what he says is trustworthy… and I don’t trust anyone. All the same, if Red Wolf and White Crane kill each other he’ll be happy. The trick is how to do it without getting stuck in between them. Now be silent and keep the sake coming. I need to think.”

Feather stood and rejoined his partner, silently signalling that they should retreat back into the forest to watch. Alighting in the branches of a tall tree with a good view of the town, they came to rest.

“All right, what did we find out?” Rage asked.

“We’ve got four players in local politics,” Feather summarized, “Sanejin, the local god; White Crane and Red Wolf, who seem to be rivals, probably competing dojos; and Tetsu, someone trying to pass themselves off as an Outcaste.”

“Huh? I thought he was an Outcaste.”

Feather shook his head. “I checked, he’s mortal.”

“A mortal who can throw around a Daiklave like that? Impressive. What’s his stake then?”

“I’m not sure. Maybe he’s just an opportunist, maybe he’s a pawn for one of the major players. It doesn’t sound like he’s fond of any of the other three, though, even if they are all bidding for his services. You’d think a god would recognize that he wasn’t Exalted at all, however…”

“Maybe he’s our culprit or working for them at least.”

“Possible, I can’t rule it out. Whoever he is, he’ll probably get himself killed playing all three factions at once. Still, what does a turf war between rival militia and a knot in the Loom have in common? It’s not the sort of thing you go to so much trouble to hide.”

“Hey, you were the one who planted those rumours back in Yu-Shan. It sounds to me like someone’s starting a war. Sure, it looks small now but you know better than I do how these things can blossom in the most unlikely places. It’s just a turf war at the moment but if someone important gets killed in the crossfire, there’ll be hell to pay.”

“A war between the Hundred Kingdoms and Greyfalls? That’s certainly a plot worthy of concealment from the Bureau of Destiny. Still, it seems somehow… petty.”

“You’d be surprised how many wars have started for petty reasons.”

“Actually, no, I don’t think I would. It’s a good starting hypothesis but I get the feeling that there’s more behind it. We don’t want to lock ourselves into a mode of thinking quite yet, we’ve only got the first few pieces of the puzzle.”

“You’re right,” Rage acknowledged. “What’s our next step, then?”

“Sleep first but come morning I want you on reconnaissance, see if you can spot anything suspicious and get the lay of the land. I’m going to follow our new friend, Tetsu. I don’t know what his game is yet but something tells me he’s up to no good.”

#

Sipping the old man’s Sake, Tetsu mused by the diffuse light of the flickering lantern flame. Alone amongst the deep shadows that wavered in the light, he frowned at the deeply oppressive air that seemed to press in from all directions. He paused in the middle of his next sip, a strange ache pulsing in his chest. Dropping his cup, he ripped open his robe in time to see two fleshy orbs expanding behind his nipples…

Tetsu started awake, halfway to his feet before discovering that the room was dark and empty. Clutching his chest, he found it flat and hard as normal. Rubbing his nose and sniffling, a horrible and entirely familiar smell reached his nostrils. “Come in, Inkfinger,” Tetsu whispered, sinking back into his corner of the room, “I guess you’re the one who stinks now.”

The rice paper door slid open quietly, the dead scholar padding in still dripping graveyard earth. The ghost sat, barely visible in the ambient moonlight. “Pardon my intrusion so late in the evening. If I might beg your indulgence, my Lord, are you any closer to resolving this matter?”

“I’ve been negotiating all day,” Tetsu explained, “they’re a cagy bunch. I’ve got some questions for you, though.”

“Oh?”

“I met your wife.”

Tetsu watched Inkfinger’s shadow stiffen. “What did you do?” The ghost asked, almost accusatory.

“Not what you’re thinking, though she tried. She was quite upset when I told her you were dead.”

There was a long silence. “But she said… she didn’t remember me.”

“Play acting,” Tetsu grunted. “She wanted you to forget about her and move on. Of course, I suspect you’d have been murdered on the road anyway. Still, Sanejin’s worried that your death will attract the Immaculates and they’ll come to burn the whole place down.”

“Do you think so?” Inkfinger asked brightly, obviously enjoying the prospect.

“No, the Dynasts will make sure the Immaculates don’t cause a scandal. I’ve got two questions for you, Inkfinger. Sanejin said that he offered to let you drink the Water of Infinite Perfection, is that true?”

Inkfinger nodded sadly. “He did. But I couldn’t do it. What good could come of being with my wife is I wasn’t… whole?”

Tetsu shrugged. “I don’t care to judge. Life as Sanejin’s brainless pet? I’d rather die myself. Second question; are you sure that Sanejin is in cahoots with White Crane and Red Wolf?”

“Why ask that?” Inkfinger returned a question, sounding confused.

“Sanejin claims that Red Wolf and White Crane are threatening his worshippers, forcing concessions from him in the name of Greyfalls and the Guild. How does that sit with you?”

Inkfinger considered the question for a while before answering. “It’s… possible. Usually it’s the job of the Immaculates to bully… er… censure local gods. A couple of two-bit enlightened mortals wouldn’t be as effective but they could do the job. It’s hard to believe a couple of nitwits like those two could pull something like that off but if they have secret backing from the Guild or Greyfalls anything’s possible.”

“Hmmm… I don’t trust Sanejin but I can’t help but feel like there’s someone else pulling the strings around here. Something doesn’t add up.” Tetsu said, deliberately leaving out Cathak Markul’s death. The wanderer didn’t believe in coincidences, there was a connection between Markul and River’s Bend that he couldn’t see yet.

“Well, I have a piece of information that might be relevant,” Inkfinger said, leaning a forward a little. “During the day, I strayed into the Underworld. As you can imagine, there’s a lot of restless spirits in this town’s graveyard, so the two realms are particularly close. You can imagine my surprise when I discovered that there’s a regular migration of ghosts moving north at the moment. I took a risk questioning a particularly talkative decapitated gentleman who told me that a circle of Immaculates is making trouble down south searching for a small group of Anathema. If that’s true, they’re probably heading east into the Boardermarches. If what you say is true, however, and Anathema have made their lair near River’s Bend… who knows what they’re capable of? Corrupting the town and the Dragon Lords that come here… it’s not so far fetched.”

“Maybe not and it’d explain why everyone’s so on edge. Still, I was thinking of the Guild or Greyfalls agents, they’re bad enough without dragging Anathema into it.”

“It might be nothing anyway,” Inkfinger admitted, “a coincidence.”

Tetsu bit his lip, thinking again about Cathak Markul. An Anathema could certainly kill a Dragonblood in a way that made his chest explode if even half of the stories about them were true. In his youth he’d heard an old man tell a story of a man who had been killed by an Anathema in such a way that he didn’t realize he was dead until he’d turned into a Hungry Ghost on the third night and devoured his own family. Thinking about it, he couldn’t help but stare at Inkfinger’s shadowy form and wonder.

“How are you feeling, Inkfinger?” Tetsu asked.

“Cold,” Inkfinger said simply. “I didn’t know the dead could feel fear but I’m scared. Bonzo’s circled his room in White Crane’s mansion with salt and refuses to step an inch outside of it at night until I’ve been destroyed. That’s where I was earlier tonight, seeing if I had a chance.”

“I wondered why he wasn’t here earlier. How did he know you’re coming for him?”

“Oh, after I left here last night I snuck into his room through a window and tried to strangle him in his sleep. The little bastard’s a light sleeper, woke up just as I was about to wrap my fingers around his neck and started to scream. I fled before White Crane showed up, barely got away.”

Tetsu grunted. “Amazing he came to the execution this morning. Pardon my curiosity but what’s your next move?”

“Well, I was thinking about that on the way here,” Inkfinger admitted. “They’re a bit busy at the moment, rushing around for some reason, so I thought I’d set fire to the dojo. These accidents happen so easily when tensions are so high. Maybe I’ll douse Bonzo in lamp oil first. The more I think on it, the more I realize how much he deserves to suffer before he dies. I’m not sure I really want to end him anymore, a slow and agonizing death is what he deserves, a small taste of what it’s like to fade away as your lifeblood seeps from the wound in your chest.”

Frowning, Tetsu scratched the back of his neck. “I know he did you wrong, my friend, but you’ll have to pardon me when I say that your grip on basic compassion is slipping. I know you can’t let him live but your soul will rest easier if you just kill him.”

“Perhaps you’re right,” Inkfinger considered, sighing. “But then again… you’ve been here a day. While you were whoring half of that day away, I was huddled in a tiny graveyard, listening to the stories of the other lost souls bound to the cursed place. Before that, I was gambling and begging in the streets here, watching and listening. The villagers tell stories of the mines when they get drunk. The poverty, the disease, the miasma of despair in old town is palpable in the world of the spirits. Everyone is a stranger in this village, no-one is trusted.”

“Yet Menji and Kano practically threw themselves at my feet,” Tetsu scoffed as he scratched his chin.

“Menji’s so old, the horror of death no longer troubles him. Still, I think he’d like to see this village free before he dies. Then a Dragon Lord walks through his door, a demigod exalted beyond all other mortals. He probably prayed every night for an Immaculate monk but an Outcaste vagabond would do in a pinch.”

“Are you trying to insult me, Inkfinger?” Tetsu queried, smirking in disbelief.

“Just stating facts,” the ghost shrugged. “But then again, maybe I’m angry with you for bathing and sleeping with a sublimely perfect woman while I’m dripping dirt and courting maggots. So, now that you’ve stirred the political situation into a sandstorm what’s your next move?”

“I’ll be joining Red Wolf,” Tetsu muttered, “and selling him out to White Crane. Then I’ll sell them both out to Sanejin. Depending on what Sanejin does, I’ll sell him out to the other two. If that doesn’t start a war of mutual destruction then we’re all doomed.”

Inkfinger snorted. “I take it back. Chances are you’ll be skinned alive by tomorrow morning. A man deserves one afternoon of paradise before going to the grave.” With that, the ghost lurched to his feet unsteadily. “Pardon me for departing so soon but I have an errand that must be completed before dawn.”

“Inkfinger,” Tetsu cautioned, feeling as if something were amiss in the dead scholar’s voice, “don’t overextend yourself.”

The ghost paused at the door for a moment. “Worry about yourself. At least I have a proper plan. Oh, by the way, you look uglier clean shaven.”

Tetsu chuckled at Inkfinger’s back before the door closed. Quietly, he prayed the ghostly scholar wasn’t about to do anything rash. Unable to prevent whatever he was planning, however, the wanderer lay back down in his corner of the room and eventually fell asleep.

#

Shining Feather was struck by how ugly Tetsu was in the daylight as the false Dragonblood stepped out of the inn followed closely by Kano, the boy in women’s clothing. Tetsu was in fact so ugly that Feather wondered if eating utensils screamed when the man brought them to his face. It was particularly striking since the man possessed other features that were particularly striking, such as his great height and barely restrained muscularity. Fate had, however, chosen for him to look like a monster rather than a hero. Picking up his roll of sticks, Feather resumed his role of old woodsman as he followed his two marks, close enough to listen but far enough away not to be noticed.

“I don’t know why you need me,” Kano grumbled, trying to make his voice higher pitched but only managing to sound like a warbling teenager.

“Quit your grumbling,” Tetsu snapped, “you’re only coming along with me as a favour to Menji, it’s only a matter of time before Low Town turns into a battlefield. Sun knows why the old fart cares for you so much.”

Kano bit his lip. Feather made a mental note that there may be a deeper connection between the boy and his supposed employer but filed the information away for later. It wasn’t until they reached the bridge that spanned the wide river to connect the town with the road eastward that they spoke again. “So… where are we going?” Kano asked. “Red Wolf’s is the other way, up the mountains.”

“I know that,” Tetsu admonished, “there’s something I have to see first.”

Feather turned south while Tetsu and Kano turned north after crossing the bridge and walked until they were out of sight before leaping into the trees and doubling back after them. The Sidereal caught sight of their probable destination ahead just as he caught up with them, a sight that distracted him enough that he almost fumbled his last jump. Kano walked nervously behind Tetsu as they approached the small stone building ahead, leaving an ever greater distance between himself and the fake Dragonblood. Tetsu finally stopped at a wooden arch that marked the edge of the clearing around the high stone walls that surrounded the building.

Mere feet away from Tetsu, the grass that grew along the sides of the road withered away into tufts of brown, dry, fronds before disappearing altogether. The moist, rich, earth became grey and lifeless. Trees became blackened, twisted and gnarled though most lay hollow on the ground. The inscription over the locked and barred gate read simply ‘Shanku Toyo Graveyard’, probably in reference to an ancient township that might have existed where River’s Bend now stood in some bygone era. From his perch, Feather could see that the temple beyond the walls was ancient and crumbling. Freshly dug graves lay close to the gate, a testament to the casualty rate in River’s Bend and the carelessness with which the townsfolk buried their dead.

Tetsu knelt, staring intently at the gate without crossing the ten feet. Feather considered the moral to be brave just to risk standing that close. Following his gaze, the Sidereal noticed the same thing Tetsu must have seen. Someone had salted the path and the area around the gate, probably the last time someone had needed to be buried. Someone else had come since and swept the path clean, however. The false Dragonblood picked up a pinch of the white grit and brought it to his lips, probably to confirm his suspicions. Standing, Tetsu spat into the bushes before stalking away, walking fast without running.

The implications worried Shining Feather, his brain working as he followed them back into town, ducking into an alley to assume a disguise as a peddler before resuming his persuit. The state of the graveyard meant that things were much more dire in River’s Bend than they appeared. Someone disturbing the salt meant to ward away the undead that might rise from their graves was even more troublesome, even frightening. More curiously, Feather wondered, what had led Tetsu to investigate the graveyard in the first place?

Another piece of the puzzle had fallen into position and Feather didn’t like the picture that was starting to form.

#

Tetsu could feel his frown beginning to etch itself permanently into his face as they approached Red Wolf’s mansion a good half hour after fleeing from the graveyard. He no longer had any doubts that someone else was helping Inkfinger, someone the scholar didn’t see fit to mention. More confusing was the fact that in a town like River’s Bend, the ghosts of all those done in by foul play didn’t pour through the gates to take vengeance on the living. He was so engrossed in his thoughts that he didn’t notice the guard blocking his way until he bumped into the man’s spear.

“I said halt,” the guard, a different one than from the day before, commanded. His face was bandaged so that only his eyes and mouth were showing. His partner looked bored, examining his nails.

Grabbing the spear, Tetsu used it to pull the guard off balance, stumbling towards him and into range. The guard’s nose gave a satisfying crunch as Tetsu crushed it with his forehead, knocking the man to the ground. Kano jumped back, swearing frightened oaths as the injured guard started screaming in agony. The other guard stared as if Tetsu was some sort of hallucination, blinking as if to clear some grit out of the corner of his eye. Confident of his ability to deal with any one of Red Wolf’s guards either alone or in pairs, Tetsu scowled at the man that was still standing. “Red Wolf is expecting me,” he said simply. The guard stared at him blankly for a while before nodding his head.

Tetsu felt smug as he approached the mansion with Kano scrambling behind. “W-what was that?” Kano squeaked the question, obviously panicked.

“Establishing a pecking order,” Tetsu informed, shrugging his broad shoulders, “violence is the language they understand. Riverspeak for thugs.”

“Aren’t you scared they’ll all gang up on you?” Kano asked as they both kicked off their shoes before entering the foyer.

“Nah. Pack animals know if they get wounded, the others will eat them instead,” Tetsu said, sniffing in disgust. The gamblers were back, paying too much attention to the dice to notice that Tetsu had returned, though they most likely would never associate the clean Dragon Lord with the grubby wanderer that had been in the day before. One of the servants minced over to them, bowing profusely. “Honourable Dragon Lord, Master Red Wolf humbly requests your presence upstairs.”

Nodding, Tetsu couldn’t help but be impressed with the man’s obsequious grovelling as he followed him up to the first floor. Passing through several screen doors, each opened and closed for them, Tetsu and Kano found Red Wolf admiring the view over the valley, attended closely by the ever silent Mamo. “Tetsu, my friend,” the enlightened martial artist greeted warmly, “please, sit.”

“Thank you,” Tetsu said as he sat, laying the Daiklave down next to him. “You didn’t leave orders with the guards at the front gate. I had to wound one.”

Red Wolf shrugged. “They’re stupid but cheap. I assume you’re here because White Crane couldn’t match my offer?”

“Correct. Does the offer still stand?”

“It’d seem petty of me to hire you for less now, wouldn’t it?” Red Wolf asked rhetorically, smirking. “Besides, with you on my side this will all be over by tomorrow morning.”

“So you plan to attack tonight, huh?” Tetsu questioned, scratching the small amount of stubble that had grown on his chin overnight.

“Indeed,” Red Wolf answered, taking a sip of some green tea that Mamo held out for him. “Hello, Kano. How is your father?”

Kano bowed, keeping his eyes down. “Cranky as ever, sir.”

Tetsu snorted. “Menji’s your father? That explains a few things.”

“You don’t seem to be the type that would become enamoured of a whore like Kano,” Red Wolf observed, “why bring him?”

“Didn’t,” Tetsu muttered, shrugging. “Menji kicked him out, probably because he thinks Low Town’s about to become a warzone. I’d take it as a favour if you’d let him serve me during my stay here.”

Red Wolf chuckled. “Why not? It’s been far too long hasn’t it, Kano?”

“Five or six years, sir,” Kano said tonelessly without looking up.

“Oh, have you met Mamo?” Red Wolf inquired, still smirking. “I acquired him right after you left, if I remember correctly.”

“We’ve met,” Kano admitted, “once.”

“Oh, good, I hate repeating formal introductions. So, Tetsu, how is my old friend White Crane?”

“Confident,” Tetsu said. “His position with Sanejin makes him bold. He also claims to have some sort of secret weapon.”

Red Wolf snorted. “Of course he does. How did he react when he discovered that you wouldn’t be fighting alongside him?”

“Typically unimaginative, first with threats, then he tried to bribe me to turn traitor like you suggested. I had to impress on him that giving me a reason to do your job for you without pay was a bad idea. Then I explained patiently that stabbing people in the back is bad business sense, especially when those people have contacts in the Guild.”

Nodding gravely, Red Wolf sighed in a half-hearted attempt at theatrics. “White Crane was a competent partner and a worthy adversary. Some people just can’t help spoiling a good thing by grasping for more.”

“Heh,” Tetsu chuckled, shaking his head. “That joke was terrible. Your mood’s too serious today, what’s gone wrong?”

“White Crane has been fortifying his Dojo all night, gathering every able bodied man and pressing them into service under the threat of the Water of Eternal Perfection. Someone knocked over a lantern and started a small fire but it was doused before it got out of control. They’ll be prepared for an attack.”

“You’ve got spies watching the dojo,” Tetsu nodded, “good. I assume you had spies watching me as well?”

Red Wolf smirked. “One of them is sitting next to you.”

Tetsu glanced at Kano who didn’t even twitch. “Everything Tetsu has told you is the truth, Master,” Kano lied smoothly. The wanderer breathed an inward sigh of relief.

“Good to know that there are still honest men to be found, even in this town,” Red Wolf complimented.

“So what’s the plan?” Tetsu asked, cutting to the heart of the matter.

“I have men hiding in the mountains. They’ll approach the White Crane dojo from the south while we attack from the north, smoke them out if we have to. Maybe I won’t even have to call out my secret weapon. One on one, White Crane’s men have the edge in training and discipline. We rely on numbers, only engaging small groups.”

“Assuming they all scatter themselves around nicely for us,” Tetsu murmured.

“Well, that’s why I’ve hired you to break the stalemate,” Red Wolf explained, grinning. “I’m counting on our abilities to neutralize White Crane as quickly as possible. No gloating, no revenge speeches, no prisoners. I’ve set aside a room for you to stay in. Please take advantage of the time you have to rest and prepare, we attack tonight.”

#

Sitting cross-legged on the roof above, Shining Feather listened as Tetsu and Kano closed the door behind them. Red Wolf seemed to take his own advice, sipping tea without speaking as he stared out over the valley below, keeping further council to the halls of his own mind. Absently, Feather wished he could read minds the way he could read the threads of Fate, just for the sake of convenience. Probably for the best, Feather mused to himself, my brain’s cluttered enough with my own thoughts.

Considering the situation, Feather couldn’t help but feel like the guest that had arrived late to the party and missed the joke everyone was twittering at. Red Wolf and White Crane were relatively easy to understand, organizations like theirs provided local muscle to organizations all over Creation. A remote mining town on the edge between the Hundred Kindoms and the Realm was their natural breeding ground. Sanejin, a local god playing fast and loose with the rules and getting stuck between the major players was also an eighth-bit a dozen. The one person that Feather couldn’t fathom was Tetsu, a mortal posing as a wandering Outcaste, a smooth talker with great strength intent on playing all the other sides against themselves.

There was no doubt in Feather’s mind that Tetsu was the odd one out in the equation. He was also remarkable in his seeming disregard for his own safety. Either the man was suicidal or thought he had some kind of divine protection. It was the second possibility that worried the Chosen of Serenity in that it might possibly be true. If that was the case, which would explain much about the situation Feather found himself in, then it was probable that Tetsu was the pawn of the real enemy, whether he knew it himself or not.

The Sidereal’s thoughts were interrupted when the door opened below to allow a heavily breathing man entry. Feather leant over the edge of the roof to peek inside the room in time to see Red Wolf accept a message from a grovelling servant that looked as if the hounds of Malfeas had chased him into the room. Red Wolf quickly unbound the letter and held it up for inspection as if the servant’s state of duress were a casual occurrence, though Feather silently thanked whatever small god was responsible that he was in a position to read the letter over the enlightened mortal’s shoulder. He was particularly grateful when Red Wolf set the letter alight with the small oil burner that was keeping his pot of herbal tea warm before dropping it into a ceramic bowl.

“Dismissed,” Red Wolf said, waving away the servant with a flick of his wrist. Once the servant was gone, he turned to Mamo. “Love, I’m expecting visitors. Please make the proper arrangements.”

Mamo bowed without a word and left swiftly. Feather frowned as he pulled himself back up onto the roof slowly and quietly before he was seen. The contents of the letter changed everything… again! Cursing as he stood, Feather glared up at the mountain and the glowing orb of the Daystar high in the sky above it.

Pawns are just pawns, Feather concluded, whatever the enemy’s intention is, their plan can be thwarted by removing the pieces from the game. Callous as it may seem, eliminating these mortal’s strands of fate can only help untangle the knot in the Loom.

With that thought, Feather leapt into the trees again, running with all speed to find his partner. They had much to prepare for and time was running short.

#

Deeper into the mountains south of River’s Bend, a Raiton’s call was answered by the warning note of a Stryx. Satisfied, the warrior moved the boulder that was concealing the mouth of their cave away to allow his returning scholarly compatriot inside, moving it back into place behind them.

“Where is she?” The yellow-robed scholar asked, glancing at the empty beds of the makeshift camp.

“Taking a bath,” the warrior answered with a shrug, “we found some hot springs deeper in. What did you discover?”

The scholar took a seat before speaking, wringing his hands. “We can’t take her into town. The stench of evil is palpable all around the place and I’ve seen slave pens with better living conditions. On top of that, the local god is running a brothel for the rich and powerful out of his temple on top of the mountain, including Dragonbloods.”

The warrior frowned. “Greyfalls shouldn’t reach this far southwest.”

“Technically, this is a border region,” the scholar informed, “nobody cares enough about River’s Bend to press the territorial issue and the local god plays all sides. Politics gets a bit nebulous out here.”

Nodding, the warrior poured his companion a cup of water and handed it to him. “I’ll take our little princess east to take refuge with the Silver Pact, then. Will you be all right on your own for a bit?”

“We’re too close to delay any further,” the scholar agreed, “I can feel it.”

Chapter 8

When Tetsu opened his eyes, he discovered that the sun was lowering itself below the ridge of the mountains to the west. An empty Sake bottle lay on a tray next to him as he sat on the straw mat floor in a back room of Red Wolf’s mansion. The Daiklave sat next to him, the handle in easy reach. Everything seemed quiet and still except for the breeze outside and the distant trickle of water. Far too quiet and still, he observed. Kano was nowhere to be seen.

Standing, he picked up the Cathak Markul’s Daiklave and rested it across his shoulder before thrusting open the sliding door to the room. He was greeted by the sight of a dozen of Red Wolf’s ruffians staring silently back at him, swords still sheathed at their hips. “So? Is it time to attack yet?” Tetsu asked testily.

The men continued to stare, silently at the ready.

Glancing at each of their faces, noting that more had covered the hallways, Tetsu scowled. “Where’s Kano?”

Again, they didn’t answer. Tetsu stepped forward slowly to gage their reaction but they merely retreated a step, cautiously maintaining the space between them just out of reach of the Daiklave. Moving slowly forward, Tetsu kept the alarm off his face as Red Wolf’s men backed away while others moved in behind him, flowing around him as if he were at the centre of a bubble in a pond. A quick stamp of his foot caused them all to jump and grasp the hilts of their swords but no-one drew. Smirking, Tetsu walked towards the light coming from the central pagoda as the sky darkened overhead.

Red Wolf’s men waited at the bridge while Tetsu crossed. There was no need for them to follow so closely when they could all rush across and mob him at any time. Tetsu tried to keep his knees from shaking as he walked, the boards of the bridge creaking underfoot. As he crested the low rise and was able to see what was happening inside the pagoda, his stomach sank to the soles of his feet.

Kano was whimpering where Bonzo held him on his knees, the short sword that had killed Scholar Yun pressed against the prostitute’s throat. Thirteen members of the White Crane Dojo stood along the walls of the Pagoda, standing at attention. Unlike the ones he had fought before, these looked to be some of White Crane’s most skilled disciples. In the centre of the Pagoda, Red Wolf and White Crane sat next to each other at the low table facing Tetsu. The former sipped green tea while the latter hadn’t touched the Sake before him. Mamo sat behind Red Wolf, head bowed like a good handmaid.

Tetsu’s mind raced furiously as he stepped into the room, automatic adherence to his Outcaste Dragon Lord persona putting a casual smirk on his face. “So, I take it White Crane’s already won and we’ve capitulated?” He asked Red Wolf flippantly. The enlightened master’s retort was a hurled cup of scalding green tea that Tetsu narrowly avoided by tilting his head. The ceramic cup shattered against the doorframe behind him and Tetsu absently noted that either Red Wolf had intended to miss or thrown weapons weren’t his specialty.

“Now is not the time for jokes,” Red Wolf said seriously, placing his now empty hands in his lap. “You’re surrounded, we have your friend hostage and I don’t think you can defeat the two of us, even with that toy of yours.”

“I thought you said this wasn’t the time for jokes?” Tetsu asked, chuckling. Bravado had worked so far, he figured, why stop now? “Seriously, what do you think you’re doing cornering me here? I thought the two of you were smart enough to finish whatever charade you were pulling before stabbing me in the back.”

White Crane’s eyes narrowed. “You’re bluffing,” he accused. “There’s no way you knew that we were still working together!”

“Eh, some of the idiots you hired messed up,” Tetsu answered, wiggling his finger in his ear as if trying to dislodge a bothersome piece of wax. “I recognized the guy guarding the gate this morning as the guy whose nose I’d crushed when Bonzo killed the Scholar the other day. They’ve been trading duties behind your back.”

Mamo produced a pipe at an obscure signal from Red Wolf and lit the tobacco inside before handing it to him. He took a puff on it before speaking. “I see; we were a little careless too. You must have known, however, that we’d see right through you since we were sharing information. Why stay?”

“Honestly, I didn’t know what game you were playing,” Tetsu shrugged. “I’m not sure what you stand to gain by such an elaborate farce. Figured I’d sit back and see where the chips fell. Besides, both of you hired me to kill the other one. Just because you’re working together doesn’t mean the deal’s not still on the table.”

It was subtle but Tetsu noticed the slight shift in both of their sitting positions. They might be working together but trust was still an issue between them. It reminded Tetsu of an old saying, absence makes the heart suspicious. He knew if it came to blows both he and Kano were dead.

“I trust White Crane with my life,” Red Wolf lied convincingly. “I demand to know who you’re working for.”

Tetsu smirked. “Haven’t you guessed already? I’m a spy for the Immaculate Order.”

There was a moment of perfect silence as the wind whistled through the trees outside.

#

Feather and Rage turned to look at each other, hovering over a piece of paper that showed a perfect picture of the inside of the Pagoda, watching the whole proceedings. It was a useful charm Feather had created himself for such occasions that linked the fate of two pieces of paper together, allowing both light and sound to transfer from one to the other.

“Immaculates?” Rage asked his partner.

“I didn’t think the Immaculates would reach this far,” Feather said, gnawing his lower lip, “maybe it’s a move by Oversight to take control of the situation.”

#

Tetsu threw his head back and laughed. “Just kidding! Oh, the look on your faces…”

Somewhere in the distance, out of sight and mind, two Sidereals slapped themselves on the forehead.

Red Wolf leapt to his feet, purple-faced. “This isn’t a laughing matter,” he shouted, snapping his pipe in two.

“Partner,” White Crane said, raising his voice, “don’t let him goad you into something rash. Tetsu, you know that I have no qualms about ordering the death of your friend, Kano, here.”

“The same way you ordered the death of Scholar Yun?” Tetsu inquired.

White Crane blinked. “Who’s Scholar Yun?”

“Oh, I see,” Tetsu mused, scratching his chin, “Bonzo didn’t tell you that we met while he was killing a Scholar from Greyfalls? Interesting.”

“Bonzo?” White Crane asked.

“He’s lying,” Bonzo spat. “He heard about the ghost that’s been harassing me and he’s fabricating something to save his own hide!”

Tetsu raised his eyebrows. “And he denies it? Very interesting. I saw Bonzo kill a Scholar from Greyfalls with that very blade the day I walked into town. If you don’t believe me, ask the guard whose nose I broke again this morning.”

“You’re trying to evade my partner’s question,” White Crane observed. “Bonzo’s poor judgement in victims has no bearing on the situation.”

“Very well,” Tetsu shrugged, trying to come up with something fast, “I work for Greyfalls. Your public spat’s been bad for business, making both the Guild and Greyfalls nervous. I was asked to resolve the matter one way or the other.”

There was a long pause before White Crane spoke. “Do we believe him, partner?”

Red Wolf sank back into his seat and scratched his chin, casually tossing his broken pipe onto the table to smoulder. “It’s possible.”

“All right, I told you my line, you tell me yours, why are you two pretending you’re fighting each other? Simple embezzlement seems rather stupid.”

White Crane gave Red Wolf a curt nod. “We’re not embezzling,” Red Wolf admitted, scowling. “We’re trying not to appear too strong.”

Tetsu blinked. “I’m sorry?”

“The White Crane Dojo controls the town, the mines and legal trade,” Red Wolf explained, “the Red Wolf Dojo controls the Lotus plantations, slaves and flow of black market goods. The Guild cannot abide any other organization having such a level of control. The merchants plotted to split us apart but rather than foil the plan, we went along with it to maintain the status quo. We pretended to be in competition with each other and lowered our commission. Since then, trade volume has increased so that we now earn more than we ever did. Occasionally we stage raids and fights or pay off a desperate merchant to lose a worthless cargo to keep up appearances.”

“Of course,” White Crane murmured, “now that you know all of that, we can’t let you live.”

“Tisk,” Tetsu admonished, shaking his head. “We all know that if you attempt to kill me I might die but if I do I’ll certainly kill most of your retainers or maybe even the two of you. Besides, I couldn’t care less who runs this town as long as my superiors get what they want. We can end this without bloodshed.”

#

“Are you sure he’s not really a Dragonblood?” Rage asked.

Feather nodded. “If I hadn’t seen it for myself, I’d be doubting it right now. He’s no Godblood and he’s not enlightened either; just very, very, cunning.”

“Shall we start then?”

“Not yet, I want to see how it plays out.”

#

The big problem as Tetsu saw it was getting Kano away from Bonzo. He lifted the Daiklave off his shoulder and drove it into the floor point first, piercing both the straw mat and the boards underneath. Resting his hand on the hilt, he continued his oratory. “I’d also like to point out that if I don’t report back to my superiors other Dragon Lords will come asking questions. Even if you survive, you won’t last the month. Let us continue our negotiations in good faith, there’s no need for hostages.”

“Kano lied to me,” Red Wolf muttered, “I demand his life as forfeit.”

“If Kano hadn’t lied for me, I would have strangled you and handed the keys to the town over to White Crane,” Tetsu lied. “Besides, I’ve grown used to him. How much would you sell him for?”

It seemed to Tetsu that Red Wolf’s ears pricked up like his namesake’s at the mention of money. “What would you pay? He’s a good lad with excellent skills…”

“He’s a no-good layabout who’s ‘excellent skills’ can’t get him a date in a town full of desperate men,” Tetsu countered. “Six Dinars.”

“Twelve,” Red Wolf bargained. “Not an ounce less.”

“Nine,” Tetsu answered.

Red Wolf waved his hand. “Bonzo, kill him.”

“All right!” Tetsu interrupted Bonzo a moment before the tip pierced Kano’s shivering neck. “Twelve it is, you thief, but only because I don’t need to watch another man die.” Tetsu threw the silver onto the floor and breathed a sigh of relief when Bonzo let Kano scramble to the opposite corner of the eight-sided Pagoda past Tetsu’s bare feet. At Red Wolf’s command, Bonzo picked up the coins and placed them on the desk for Red Wolf to pocket in the sleeve of his robe.

“Now that our business is over with,” Red Wolf continued, “let’s assume that you’re not bluffing. What is it that you’re proposing, exactly?”

“Don’t you think it’s strange that in a powder keg like this town, it seems like someone keeps lighting fires?” Tetsu asked seriously. “It’s almost like someone wants this place to explode. Have either of you ever felt that?”

Red Wolf and White Crane glanced at each other. “You’re suggesting a conspiracy?” White Crane asked.

“Indeed. I don’t know who’s behind him but I know who really attempted to set you at each other’s throats and then made it look like the Guild was responsible when his plan failed. It’s the same man who’s been selling you out to Sanejin and disturbing the salt ring around the graveyard, hoping that a horde of hungry ghosts would devour the town. It is in fact the same man who knew full well that the two of you were still working together yet exaggerated reports of your animosity to the Guild. I rather think that murdering a Scholar from Greyfalls right in front of me was a stroke of luck rather than planning, however… right, Bonzo?”

#

“But… but… that’s all a lie, right?” Rage asked his partner. “It makes sense but it’s a complete and utter fib, right?”

“A total fabrication,” Feather confirmed, admiration clear in his voice.

#

Tetsu couldn’t help but feel smug as Red Wolf and White Crane turned to glare at Bonzo, who was suddenly pasty white.

“B-but…” Bonzo stammered, unable to form words without blood in his brain.

“Don’t try to lie, Bonzo,” Tetsu rebuked. “I saw your tracks in the salt at the graveyard only the stunt backfired since it merely unleashed the hungry ghost of the man YOU killed! You hoped to unite the White Crane and Red Wolf dojos under your own banner and usurp control of the militia here in River’s Bend. Scholar Yun was killed to force me to act against Red Wolf and White Crane.”

White Crane stood with the perfect grace of one of the enlightened and grabbed the collar of Bonzo’s robe.

“I-I didn’t!” Bonzo protested in a squeaky voice.

“YOU were the one who discovered the Guild’s plot to frame me!” White Crane accused. “I see it all now; you were right under my nose this whole time! It was Sanejin, wasn’t it! He put you up to this! That petty Little God has had it in for us ever since we stole his little town from him!”

It came as a surprise to Tetsu when Bonzo gave his master a hopelessly guilty look. So he HAS been ratting to Sanejin, Tetsu concluded. He filed the information away for future reference and pulled his Daiklave out of the floor. “Well, then, if the two of you don’t mind I have a report to write.”

“WAIT!” Red Wolf ordered, glaring at Tetsu. Tetsu paused in mid-stride, slowly turning so that his knees didn’t suddenly give out. Red Wolf stepped around the table and walked slowly towards Tetsu, only stopping when they were at arm’s length.

“Here,” the enlightened master said, fishing Tetsu’s money out from the sleeve of his robe. “You’ve done us a great service revealing the real traitor in our ranks. I’ve suspected Bonzo for a long time but your evidence confirms my suspicions. Take your slave and journey safely.”

#

“What evidence?!?” Rage exclaimed. “He didn’t produce anything!”

“All he needed to do was link the hungry ghost attacks, the betrayal by the guild and hint at a link to their common enemy, Sanejin, to come up with on their own,” Feather explained, wonder in his voice, “and top it off with the threat of death, either by his own hands or at the hands of the Dragon Lords of Greyfalls ready to avenge him. Wolf and Crane want to believe him, he’s just handed them a reprieve from the spectre of death and someone to blame their misfortunes on. Also, his delivery was worthy of the courts of Yu Shan. And remember, they really do think he’s a Dragon Lord, a Prince of the Earth, a true god amongst mortals. Probably also helps that they think he’s too big and ugly to lie to them that well. Truly a feat worthy of legend, remind me to compose a sonnet.”

#

I’m going to live.

Those four little words ran through Tetsu’s mind over and over as he accepted the coins with a smile. “I will let all of Greyfalls know of the generosity of Red Wolf and White Crane. Kano, come, we’ll drop in to see your father before we depart for Greyfalls.”

Kano scrambled out from his corner and took his place behind Tetsu as he strode heroically to the door of the Pagoda. At the threshold, he turned with a theatrical flourish, careful not to hit Kano with the flat of the Daiklave. White Crane pushed Bonzo toward his guards, who restrained the Undersheriff expertly. Facing Tetsu, the two enlightened masters bowed in respect. Still smiling, Tetsu returned the gesture. Feeling impish, he waved to Bonzo. “Good luck, Bonzo. I doubt we’ll be seeing each other again… or maybe I will, at Sanejin’s!”

Tetsu chuckled, his elation coursing though his body like a drug. He’d won, he’d completely bamboozled them. He and Kano were going to walk away and never come back. He’d tell the Immaculate Order everything that was going on and they’d raze the hateful town to the ground and burn away the taint. He couldn’t help it when his chuckle became a laugh, the feeling of raw power surging through his muscles, veins and limbs. He felt lighter than air, as if he could do anything as long as he put his mind to it. He was so busy laughing in his euphoria that he didn’t notice the yellow glow around him as a golden symbol faded into existence on his forehead, a disc enclosed in a circle. When he finally opened his eyes again, he only had a moment to wonder why everyone was staring at him, bubble-eyed like fish.

“ANATHEMA!!!”

#

“ANATHEMA!!!” Rage and Feather screamed in unison along with the image of Red Wolf, White Crane, Bonzo and the militia of both dojos. The word ‘panic’ was not sufficient to describe the adrenaline-fuelled pounding in their chests. Pandemonium reigned as everyone drew their swords, screaming at the tops of their lungs.

It was Anathema, the enemy, devils wearing human skin that brought Creation to its knees through their madness. The Sidereals knew them by another name: The Solar Exalted, former masters of all, deposed by the Bronze Faction after they went insane at the end of the First Age. The shining host, graced above all by the Unconquered Sun himself, destroyers of the ancient and terrible Primordials, their number a mere three hundred souls. Yet one Solar could slay a host of Demons alone and unaided, perhaps even with his bare hands.

All and none of these facts boiled into the minds of those watching as Tetsu turned to look behind him. “Anathema?!? Where!” He shouted in surprise only to find a horrified Kano staring at his face, lit by a bright yellow light. Lifting his hand, the false Dragon Lord touched the mark on his forehead, noticing the golden light on his palm. As realization struck him, he muttered the first oath that came to mind.

“Oh, shit.”

Feather grabbed his partner by the neck and practically hurled him down the slope toward Red Wolf’s mansion. “GO! NOW!” To his credit, Rage hesitated for only a moment before leaping off, a sudden fire burning in his eyes. Reaching into his robe, Feather pulled the prayer strip he’d prepared and tried to subsume his rising panic as he muttered the sutra of the spell. Shouting out the climax of the incantation, Feather slapped the burning prayer strip onto the bare earth before him, the mountain shuddering as if the slap had shaken it down to be bedrock.

The earth split open at Feather’s feet, swallowing the prayer strip as it was consumed by green flame. Rocks and dirt broke away from the mountainside, tumbling down cliffs toward the bright red building below. Trees whipped around him as the mountain convulsed, clouds of dust billowing as the landslide began its terrible descent.

#

Tetsu felt the presence of White Crane’s disciple behind him with a kind of sixth sense that he’d never experienced before. His hand moved reflexively, gripping his Daiklave as he span, whipping the blade around in a wide arc as if it were as light as a feather. Blood sprayed across his face as the man’s head was severed from his body, a look of surprise frozen on his face. The new Solar didn’t even notice that his blow had passed through the wall of a Pagoda, including two of the supporting columns, until the wall collapsed, pulling the tower over as it toppled towards them and the group of militia that skidded to a halt halfway across the bridge, halting their charge. The tower groaned before deciding to topple over in earnest.

Grabbing Kano, Tetsu jumped into the shallow pond and ran as best he could through knee-deep water. The prostitute screamed like a little girl as the tower crushed half of Red Wolf’s mansion underneath it, throwing dust and debris into the air that rained down all around them. In moments, fire flickered from the ruins, scattered candles and toppled lanterns setting paper walls and wooden beams ablaze.

“ANATHEMA!!!”

Turning around to see where the new battlecry was coming from, Tetsu saw several of Red Wolf’s hired thugs leap into the water from the side opposite to where the Pagoda had fallen. Tetsu used his height to his advantage, moving quickly through the water with his longer legs where the shorter men could not. Unfortunately, a few got wise to his advantage and started to run around the pond instead, intent on intercepting him as he got out of the water. He proved to be faster, leaping out of the water just as the militia charged, chopping blades held high overhead.

Dropping Kano, Tetsu sliced through the first three men with a single swipe of his blade, casting both halves of their bodies into the water. The fourth tried to stop himself but his momentum was too great. Tetsu slapped his blade aside and punched him in the face with the Daiklave’s hilt; the unfortunate man span to the ground, spitting blood and teeth.

A moment later, a great booming noise greater than the impact of the Pagoda preceded a ripple in the earth. The militiamen were thrown off their feet as the ground itself roiled. Waves from the pond disgorged fish by the dozen, soaking Tetsu, Kano and anyone else close to the edge. A distant rumble grew steadily louder as fist-sized rocks started to rain from the night sky.

“RUN!” Tetsu yelled, grabbing Kano and hoisting him over his shoulder as he took his own advice, powerful legs pumping as the feral part of his brain took over, screaming at him to flee. The feint screams of the men behind him were quickly drowned out by the rumble of stones tumbling down the mountain. Larger boulders thudded into the earth ahead, some felling the ornamental trees of Red Wolf’s garden. Glancing over his shoulder, he saw a wall of rock hit the fallen Pagoda like a wave against a ship, picking the felled structure up and dashing it against the ground, dousing the flames as well like a hand from Heaven. A blast of air and dust hurled Tetsu off his feet and through a rice paper door with Kano still over his shoulder as they tumbled across a stone floor.

Rolling to one side of the door as the wave of earth hit the building, Tetsu pulled Kano out of the way before they were crushed. Thick wooden beams bent and buckled all around them under the assault, rice paper doors shredded in moments. A boulder ripped off the roof above their heads as it arced out over the cliff, probably destined to impact somewhere in Low Town. The wave slowed as it engulfed the building, finally losing momentum. Finally it surged to a halt, though small rocks still bounced and rattled across from the remains of the roof and walls.

A cloud of brown dust obscured vision in all directions in the silence that followed, making it hard to breathe. “Don’t open your eyes,” Tetsu warned, Kano huddled against his chest. Tetsu noted that the dust didn’t irritate his eyes the way it ought to and stood, trying to peer through the muddy fog. We were lucky, Tetsu realized when he noticed pieces of the Pagoda mixed in with dirt and splinters, the rest of the mansion took the brunt of the landslide. For the second time that night, he felt like the luckiest man alive. The feeling dropped away as the ground lurched with a crack that echoed down the valley.

Later, Tetsu would note that Red Wolf’s mansion had sat on a giant plate of bedrock. The impact of the Pagoda had shattered it along a fault line that followed along the line of the cliff several yards away. The added weight of the dirt and rock displaced to the edge caused it to break away and slide down the mountainside like a raft on a tsunami, slowly at first yet steadily gaining speed. After the sudden lurching sensation and crack of the titanic rock splitting, loose gravel began to roll over the edge of the cliff as the floor shifted, creating a second miniature landslide just before the bedrock itself began its descent.

“Hold on!” Tetsu ordered, picking Kano up with his left hand hand, his Daiklave still held tightly in his right fist, and forced him to wrap his arms around a sturdy pillar that had once supported the roof and now stuck up into the air like a mast.

“ANATHEMA!”

Tetsu blinked, wondering if he was imagining the same battle cry as before. Looking up, he saw a shadow in the dust as it settled despite the new disturbance, the movement of the smaller stones seeming to drag the dust along with it. Sudden wind whipped at the figure’s clothing, long white hair flowing like silk. His robes were dripping brown dust the same as Tetsu’s, though the figure wore white to Tetsu’s green.

White Crane beckoned Tetsu, blood dripping from the side of his head. His sleeves and robe were torn and dirty, spots of blood visible in several places. Even though the ground lurched and heaved, the enlightened master retained his balance. “Anathema,” White Crane addressed him in a voice loud enough to carry over the groans of the earth, “I am here to tear your blasphemous lips from your face!”

#

Feather stood atop an ancient tree that was still waving in the air like a sapling in a gale. The movement would have dislodged any normal man and sent them hurtling through the air like a stone from a catapult but for one of the Exalted, such a feat was meaningless. Watching as White Crane approached Tetsu in the distance, he scanned the devastation for signs of his partner.

Most of the militia were dead, buried under tons of rock and earth. Some had been torn apart and crushed by falling rocks. Only a handful of them still moved near the edges of the landslide, those fast enough and smart enough to run to one side to avoid the cascade. Even many of those hadn’t reacted quickly enough.

He was about to say a prayer for the dead when a flash of red caught his eye in the treeline. It wasn’t Rage, however. Red Wolf paused for a moment against a tree, gasping for breath and coughing up dust before stumbling into the darkness after taking one last look back at the ruins of everything he’d built. Feather could see even at that distance, as brief as that glimpse had been, that Red Wolf’s face was covered in blood. A moment later, the enlightened mortal stumbled into the darkness of the woods.

The Sidereal turned his attention back to Tetsu and White Crane as they squared off, the ground they were standing on slowly slipping down the mountainside.

#

Dirt and gravel poured around Tetsu’s feet like water as he slid carefully down the slope of the moving platform. He kept one eye on White Crane, who stood as still as a rock in a stream, while the other measured his distance from Kano. He stopped once the male prostitute was well outside the reach of his Daiklave and turned his full attention to the enemy before him. He turned the tip of the Daiklave to point low behind him as he took one step forward, concealing the true length of the blade as well as his intention, his right hand high up the hilt with the left resting on the pommel. The bedrock plate they were standing on suddenly shifted, slamming into the slope and spraying a cloud of dust that engulfed the platform.

Tetsu moved, guided by his new sixth sense despite lack of sight. Grasping with his left hand, he swept the blade into a horizontal arc that blew the dust away with its sheer power. White Crane, however mortal, was not a foe to be underestimated. As the white-robed figure burst from the cloud of dust, his hand tapped the flat of the Daiklave at the apex of its slash, launching himself into a backflip high overhead. Tetsu looked up as his blade swung wide, held only by his left hand, leaving him open to the downward hammer blow from the enlightened master’s heel.

Unable to avoid damage completely, Tetsu ducked his head to one side, taking the blow on the solid muscle of his broad shoulder. Crane landed lightly on one foot, a smirk clear on his face. Snarling in rage and pain, the Solar wiped the smirk off his enemy’s face with a punch to his inner thigh using his free right fist, then a second to the chest, forcing Crane to backpedal while Tetsu recovered his stance. Raising both hands over his head, Tetsu grasped the hilt with both hands and took a long step forward as he brought the blade down in a stroke resembling lightning in speed and power.

White Crane casually stepped aside, allowing the blade to embed itself in the stone. The impact caused the platform to bounce, dislodging boulders from the mountain side that tumbled after them in their descent as the earth parted before them like the bow wave of a ship. “Too slow,” Crane commented, unleashing a spinning back kick that Tetsu ducked easily only to switch easily into a scissor kick that took the Solar in the face.

Stumbling backwards, Tetsu barely blocked a high punch, catching it with his upraised arm and answering the blow by slamming the hilt of his Daiklave into Crane’s stomach. Turning the blade, he slashed upward with only one hand, forcing his opponent to cartwheel backward, white silk flashing in the moonlight. Stepping forward, Tetsu grasped the hilt with both hands, delivering a more measured downward slash. Springing lightly to his feet, Tetsu barely had time to gasp in alarm as White Crane reversed his momentum smoothly, leaping under his guard and locking his hands around the hilt of the Daiklave.

For several moments, they struggled to control the blade. Clouds of dust swirled around them as the platform sped down the mountain, lurching wildly as it crushed trees and small unoccupied buildings along the way. Kano screamed as he hung on for dear life, his eyes screwed shut. White Crane was nimble and skilled but Tetsu made up for his relative inexperience with raw strength and stamina. Suddenly, Crane smiled, twisting his hands around using the hilt of the Daiklave to control his opponent. Spinning end over end, Tetsu’s back slammed into the stone, spatters of blood spraying from his mouth. Leaping atop his fallen adversary, White Crane put all of his weight on the flat of Tetsu’s Daiklave, pressing it into his chest and pushing the edge slowly up under the wanderer’s chin. Looking back, Tetsu saw the edge of the platform just behind his head, the mountainside flying by. Both men growled from the strain, seemingly equally matched.

Desperate, Tetsu spat into his enemy’s eye. Crane flinched and Tetsu used the distraction to kick his feet into the man’s already injured stomach, knocking the wind out of him and thrusting him away. Rolling in mid air, White Crane landed on his feet, dust spraying in his wake as he slid several feet backwards, clutching his stomach. Tetsu leapt to his feet, noting with a glance that the platform was rapidly heading towards a rock shelf beyond which was nothing but open air and a long plunge into the river below. Following his gaze, White Crane noticed their mutual problem. They both only had enough time for one last decisive strike. Breathing deeply, trying to remain calm, Tetsu lifted his Daiklave to his shoulder pointing upward, both hands firmly on the hilt. White Crane shifted his low stance before leaping forward with lightning ferocity, his arm pulled back to deliver a straight-hand slash to Tetsu’s throat as the final blow.

Turning slightly, Tetsu let go of the blade with his right hand and caught White Crane’s wrist a mere hair’s breadth before the brutal strike could connect. Simultaneously, he slashed downward with the Daiklave in his left hand, removing Crane’s foot just above the ankle. There was no time to register the look on his enemy’s face as Tetsu twisted Crane’s arm into a lock, turning to rest the enlightened master’s elbow on his shoulder before levering him over the side of the platform and breaking the arm in the process. White Crane’s cadaver tumbled down the mountainside moments later like a boneless sack of meat.

“TETSU!” Kano screamed moments before the platform struck the rock ledge. Its momentum carried it onward, lifting the back end into the air and threatening to catapult them over the cliff.

Tetsu’s body matched the speed of his thought. Pure fear sped the essence flows in his limbs, heightening his abilities to superhuman levels. Spinning, watching the world lurch in slow motion, Tetsu effortlessly ran up the slope of the platform that was rapidly becoming vertical as Kano hung over a hundred foot drop into water. The prostitute’s sweaty hands slipped from the pillar just as Tetsu grabbed him under the crook of his sword-arm, successfully keeping the blade’s cutting edge away from them both. The Solar used his momentum, grasping the pillar to swing up and over the lip of the platform, giving it a kick on the way down to make sure it fell over the edge before landing lightly on his feet.

The impact of the platform sprayed water into the air so high that droplets spattered Tetsu’s back. Kano sank to his knees as the symbol on the wanderer’s forehead slowly faded, plunging them both into darkness broken only by the blue light of the sickle-moon far above.

“Are you all right?” Tetsu asked, his face concealed by shadow but concern evident in his voice. Kano drew breath to reply but never had the chance to form a word.

A flash of red and it was over, leaving a crimson after-image momentarily burned into Kano’s retina. Tetsu saw a streak of red a moment before it happened, lifting his Daiklave up to ward off a blow most immortals couldn’t discern with the naked eye yet the Solar somehow sensed without truly knowing.

Unfortunately, his keen insight didn’t save him.

Tetsu saw blood, his own blood, spray into the air before the pain reached his mind. He felt bones snap and cleave apart along with flesh and muscle. His right hand, the one still holding his Daiklave upright, buzzed painfully. Then the blade, the Daiklave that had once belonged to Cathak Markul, fell into two pieces, the jadesteel blade split neatly in two with the precision of a surgeon’s scapel through flesh.

Focused Rage held his Starmetal Reaper Daiklave, a slender dark blue blade decorated with rubies, at the end of his stroke. He stood perfectly still without a glance at Tetsu, knowing every detail of the injury that he’d just inflicted. Tetsu’s heart thumped for the first time after Rage’s stroke and bloody foam sprayed from the Solar’s lips as he stumbled backward into empty air.

“TETSU! NO!” Kano screamed. He didn’t think, his body moving of its own accord as he grabbed Tetsu’s wrist and allowed himself to be pulled over with him. They fell into darkness, a splash far below signifying their final fate.

Rage sent his Daiklave back to Elsewhere, the blade disappearing in a crimson flash of light. He breathed in the scent of the breeze, noting the odour of disturbed earth with the slight tang of blood.

“You took your time,” Feather observed, scowling as he landed next to his partner.

“Better if it looked like an accident,” Rage sniffed. “Though I’m glad it turned out the way it did. These Solars aren’t everything they’re made out to be, I was expecting more. A shame, really.”

Feather snorted, stepping up to look over the edge, finding nothing to be seen. “He was newly exalted and had no idea what he was really capable of yet. Lucky… and unlucky at the same time,” Feather commented, chewing his lower lip. “Are you sure he’s dead?”

“Please, don’t insult me,” Rage growled. “My cut pierced his lungs and cleaved deeply into his rib cage. I only missed his heart because the Jadesteel threw my aim off a little. He’s bleeding, badly, and he fell into the river. Even if my cut and the fall didn’t kill him, both of which are well capable on their own, he’ll bleed out in minutes.”

Swearing several oaths involving the cursed green sun of Malfeas, Feather paced, fuming at himself for losing sight of the big picture in his panic. “This is a total cluster fuck,” he swore.

Rage shrugged. “What’s the problem? We thinned out the pawns, now we can concentrate on what’s left. Heck, we’ve even gone and killed a Solar! Heck of a notch for my belt, even if it was only a baby one.”

Feather resisted the urge to slap himself in the forehead and instead settled for rubbing his temples to ease his anxiety. “Rage, do you remember who sent us here?”

“I’m not that dumb,” Rage growled, “Mistress Ura, head of the Convocation of Essence Workers. What’s the big deal?”

“And the Convocation of Essence Workers is the pubic face of what faction?”

“Well, the gooool… oh,” Rage said, eyes widening as the full realization of what he’d just done came over him. “Oh. We’re in a lot of trouble aren’t we?”

Shining Feather could only nod mutely, the irony that the two of them were standing on the edge of a cliff not lost on him.

#

Bonzo ran as if the River of All Torments were lapping at his heels, his heart pounding. Though the tremors had stopped, it was as if he could still feel the earth moving under his feet. Panic and the adrenaline that came with it could only push him to a certain point, however, pain wracking every part of his body. Looking back, he saw the cloud of dust that followed the Anathema’s trail of destruction rolling slowly down the mountain.

Not paying attention to where he was going his foot caught on a root that lay concealed by the darkness, causing him to fall flat on his face. Stunned and exhausted, the Undersheriff lay still for a moment as he wondered why the world had stopped moving past in a blur of motion. Rolling over, he decided that further movement was a bad idea and fell limp staring up at the night sky through the branches of the trees above.

“You know,” a deep, unearthly, voice intoned from the shadows, “the irony of the position we find ourselves in is not lost on me.”

Startled, a second wave of adrenaline hit Bonzo’s system, enabling him to scramble backwards a foot across the rocky ground in a scramble of panicked but fairly ineffective motion. The last of his strength ebbed in a moment, tired limbs falling useless despite his desire to escape. Gasping for breath, Bonzo looked up to find a dark figure in scholar’s robes standing in the shadow of a tree, black robes flapping in the breeze. His face was concealed by the darkness, almost as if the ghost were emerging from it.

“You know, Undersheriff,” Inkfinger rasped, “I never imagined that I would get this lucky. My fortunes seem to have turned... you wouldn’t happen to know a good place for a dice game would you?”

The Undersheriff tried to move but his arms and legs simply refused to do more than scrape listlessly in the dirt. “Stay… back…” Bonzo gasped, short of breath.

“Stay back? How about please don’t kill me? Why don’t you threaten me with revenge from beyond the grave? Honestly, I don’t remember being this pathetic when our roles were reversed.”

“I’m… sorry…”

There was a short moment of silence before Inkfinger lifted his head back and gave off a peal of hideous laugher. “Sorry?” The dead scholar asked incredulously. “SORRY? You’re the one lying in the dirt begging for your life and you’re sorry NOW?” The ghost stepped forward into the moonlight, revealing the shrunken, grey, skin of his lipless face as he loomed over his victim. “You don’t get to be sorry,” Inkfinger whispered, “not tonight. Not for the rest of your life.”

“Please,” Bonzo begged, “don’t kill me. White Crane ordered me to… I didn’t have a choice.”

“Liar!” Inkfinger accused, kneeling by Bonzo’s head. “I’m not stupid. Not as stupid as you at least. I know who your real masters are and why you’ve betrayed Creation itself for your own greed but, you know, I don’t really care. I never wanted anything more than a peaceful life with my loving bride by my side. Let me confess something to you, Bonzo, the first night I rose from the dead I really wanted to kill you with all my heart.”

The Undersheriff stared up at the moving corpse above him, eyes wide with tears streaming down his face.

“But then I spent a day in the Underworld. Believe me, Bonzo, it’s the sort of experience that changes you. You might not believe it but the Underworld is a lot like Creation, eerily so really; darker, yes, but not dissimilar. The strong prey on the weak, the cunning eek out their death like a parasite on society and the underclass are the usual zombie-like peons. It was while I was down there, in the true darkness, that I had an epiphany. I hate you, Bonzo. I hate you so much that killing you isn’t enough for me.”

The ghost moved faster than anything living could muster, grasping Bonzo’s throat in one bony hand but only squeezing hard enough to cause him pain. “I’m not going to kill you, Bonzo,” Inkfinger rasped, “I’m going to make you SUFFER.”

Inkfinger forced Bonzo’s head back as the Undersheriff screamed and struggled. Snarling, the ghost shifted so that one leg pinned his victim’s arm while the other rested on Bonzo’s chest, making it harder for him to move. Grave dirt dripped onto Bonzo as Inkfinger leant over him, pulling a bamboo flask out of his sleeve. Bonzo froze at the sight of it, all to familiar with the contents. “Oh, so you do recognize this,” Inkfinger chuckled, swirling the Water of Infinite Perfection for dramatic effect. “I got it from your boss’ room after I lit the fire last night. I guess he didn’t tell anyone that his trump card was missing. There’s not much left, honestly, but just enough I think for one last sip.”

Bonzo tried to clamp his lips together and hold his breath as Inkfinger popped the lid but the bamboo container was thick enough that the ghost was able to slap the opening over the Undersherrif’s mouth, pressing it down hard enough to keep it sealed by the skin. Bony fingers pinched Bonzo’s nose, cutting off his air supply.

The Undersheriff struggled, holding his breath until he was purple in the face and thrashed in a vein effort to knock the flask away. The vengeful ghost laughed as his victim struggled futilely, savouring the moment. Finally, Bonzo’s body betrayed him, forcing a gasp for precious air that sealed his fate.

The dead scholar wasn’t expecting the sudden thrash that almost managed to throw him off Bonzo’s prone form as his body began to change, invigorated by the sudden surge of essence. His screams rose in pitch as his body shrank, flesh softening into graceful curves. Bones crackled as his feet shrank inside his shoes, the sound moving up to his knees before intensifying as his hips ripened. Strong shoulders lost their girth along with his thick waistline as the new woman’s breasts grew out from her chest. Inkfinger licked his naked teeth as her face reformed like clay under a master sculptor’s fingertips, becoming heart-shaped and lovely with full lips, a pert little nose and large, soulful, almond eyes. She lifted her tiny hands in front of her face, watching her nails grow as dark brown hair slithered across the ground behind her head, stretching out from her scalp. She whimpered, unable to fully comprehend the alien sensations of her new form.

“What’s the matter, dear?” Inkfinger mocked. “Missing something?”

Lashing out, the scholar’s head rocked back from the impact of Bonzo’s open-handed slap, rotting flesh tearing away where her nails raked his cheek. She screamed, trying to crawl out from under him but the ghost felt no pain, no regret and no forgiveness. Grabbing her hands, Inkfinger forced them up behind her head, leering as he looked into her eyes with their faces inches apart. A maggot dropped onto her cheek and she flinched as it wriggled, tears flowing freely but too horrified to even scream.

“Now don’t be that way dear,” the ghost sighed theatrically, “why don’t we… kiss and make up?”

Bonzo found her breath, her scream muffled as Inkfinger’s tongue slid into her mouth.

#

The pattern spider rubbed his crystal fangs constantly in agitation as he approached Asra Firstborn. “Mother,” he addressed her, bowing awkwardly in haste, “I regret that the venom has failed! The thread Exalted unexpectedly and something has nullified the poison! Nearly a hundred peripheral threads have been erased so we are making some progress but the Solar’s thread continues to vex us.”

Turning around so that all six wise eyes could view the knot in the loom below, Asra Firstborn could plainly see the glowing golden thread far below them. The knot was smaller now, though still abominably large. Her children were slowly unwinding the tangle of fates and countering the detrimental effects on casualty with practiced ease, however. It was the untidiness of it all that annoyed her. “Exaltation does not inhibit the venom,” Asra explained, dredging up almost forgotten memories of a bygone era, “I sense the hand of the Unconquered Sun in this.”

Her nameless child cocked his head to one side curiously. “I have no memory of him interfering before.”

“You would not,” Asra stated flatly. “It is unlike him. If it is his will, however, then it cannot be thwarted. However, if the Solar’s death can be arranged less directly… my child, I have a message for you to deliver; to the Bureau of Endings.”



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