Fate and the Iron Tiger Part 2

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

In a little village on the edge of the map, heroic Sidereals Focused Rage and Shining Feather probe deeper into the mystery of the Snarl of Fate, infiltrating the luxurious Temple of Eternal Perfection after purging Creation of the villainous Anathma Tetsu.

This preview has been sanctioned by Chejop Kejak.

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

Chapter 9

There are times when it’s great to be a Sidereal, Shining Feather thought as he spread his arms out wide along the rim of the bath. Masquerading as a wealthy Dragonblood playboy in a manse full of spectacularly beautiful temple prostitutes was one of those times. In a time of stress, the Chosen of Serenity gravitated towards what he was used to: unbridled decadence. It would have been perfect except for the niggling worry in the back of his mind that, despite all appearances, something was very wrong with the place.

The throne room of Sanejin, the Pristine Boyar of Vanity, wasn’t the largest that Feather had ever seen but it certainly ranked as one of the most opulent. The dome above was inlayed with mother of pearl tiles so that there appeared to be a shimmering blue-green sky above. Pale blue-grey tiles depicted the moon in various phases in addition to the crescent-shaped baths that ringed the central audience platform in the centre. Feather had hired one of these most expensive and prestigious private baths especially so that he could watch the comings and goings of Sanejin himself, who made a show of brooding on his throne while one of his girls fed him grapes.

A whole day had passed since the disaster at the mansion and River’s Bend actually seemed more peaceful without White Crane’s thugs patrolling the streets. Red Wolf had fortified himself inside the former White Crane Dojo, seemingly intent on recouping his losses and collecting what forces remained to him. The locals of Old Town had taken it upon themselves to mete out some rough justice on the worst offenders of the old regime, making those that remained paranoid and reclusive. A bigger threat to public order, however, was the small power struggles that broke out amongst the mining gangs, particularly around the local drinking holes. Some of the larger business owners had even started to make their own bids to replace White Crane as Sheriff in the absence of any word from Red Wolf.

High Town was abuzz with the rumour that an Anathema had hurled Red Wolf’s mansion into the river with his bare hands, giving several of the younger Dragonbloods an excuse to form impromptu hunting parties to go gallivanting about in the surrounding wilderness. House guards kept the rabble out of High Town and maintained order in the streets but other than that it was business as usual for the upper class.

Sanejin, however, brooded on his throne, visibly discontent despite the elimination of at least one of his rivals. Feather had considered confronting him directly yet felt that tipping his hand so early before gaining true measure of the god would be a mistake. Despite their small gains, both he and Rage were in dire need of information, so the pair had fallen back into a familiar pattern of spying as they waited for a new opportunity to present itself. Feather kept one eye on Sanejin in plain sight while Rage watched over Red Wolf from the shadows. It was only a matter of time before the true conspirators revealed themselves.

Feather was broken out of his reverie as a slender foot broke the surface of the water next to him, followed by a gloriously shapely leg. He took in every inch of her as she sank down into the bath, from her smooth thighs past her rounded hips and slender waist to the glorious swell of her breast. Her negligee was transparent and obviously made to get wet, leaving nothing to the imagination as she curled up against him like a cat, blonde hair brushing his chest. “Hello,” she purred seductively, lovely blue eyes framed by dark eye shadow, “I’m Ullah. You looked lonely sitting here by yourself.”

He put his arm around her shoulders reflexively and fell into character. “A man can only give so much, Ullah,” he said, leering at her cleavage, “you girls have sucked me dry.”

She put on a mock expression of contrariness. “Well, perhaps I should see what I can do to speed your recovery, my lord.”

Unfortunately for Feather, the door to the throne room burst open just as he was about to get better acquainted with Ullah. The only being in the whole room that didn’t jump halfway out of their skin was Sanejin himself, who maintained an air of aloof boredom as five female Dragonbloods stormed into the room at the head of a column of Greyfalls soldiers who snapped to attention as they came to a halt, their bootsteps ringing through the chamber. Despite the distraction of having Ullah in his arms, Feather’s keen mind immediately focused on the five women at the head of the small army, memorizing each of them in turn.

At the fore was a lady of obviously noble breeding wearing a flowing black robe with long sleeves and wavy blue trim over loose black silk pants that were clinched at the ankle, with her feet protected by soft black slippers. Flowery silver designs provided attractive accentuating patterns across her whole wardrobe. Her long, lustrous, black hair was tied up in a long ponytail that would probably trail behind her like a bridal train if she let it down. Her stance bore the confidence and grace of a practiced martial artist and her manner was that of a princess trained for diplomacy. She bore an aura of command that made her seem taller than her five-foot-eight frame; all four of her companions were at least a few inches taller yet failed to project the same presence. Feather pinned her as a Water Caste, highly placed amongst House Cynis according to the design of her robes.

Behind the Water Caste to her right walked a slender woman in blue with platinum blonde hair done up in intricate braids that framed her head like a halo. Where the first was dark, she was predominantly light, her robe depicting white blossoms falling in a breeze across a clear sky. She walked in light brown sandals and her robe lacked sleeves, revealing white bandages that bound her torso above the golden Obi that clinched her waist. Her arms remained mostly bare except for a pair of white jade bracelets and she wore two Blue Jade Chakrams at her hip. She might as well have had ‘Air Caste’ stamped on the back of her robe, Feather noted.

Next to her was a Fire Caste in deep red armour who seemed to be smirking at a joke inside her own head. Her short, spiky, hair was unnaturally black with red stripes and orange highlights. Her eye shadow and lipstick matched her hair, tracing designs that looked disturbingly like war paint on what would have been an otherwise cute visage. She walked in her armour with ease, a black cloak and loin cloth trimmed with red characters flapping with her every brisk step. Two red jade short daiklaves crossed her back, ready at a moment’s notice.

The last two were the tallest of the group, one by a wide margin. The tallest walked behind the skinny Air Caste, her exact opposite in many ways. Curvacious and athletic, the woman rested a gigantic Grand Goremaul on one pauldron as if it weighed less than nothing. She also wore heavy plate armour enamelled white with gold trim. Her cloak was a deep blue that matched jade of her Goremaul all of which made her auburn hair all the more striking. She held a helmet tucked under her left arm and marched like a soldier, naturally falling in step with the men behind her. Feather noted that she was certainly Earth Caste.

Finally, as Feather surmised, a Wood Caste completed the circle of Dragon Lords but she cut no less striking a figure. Her outfit was, in fact, quite a bit more brazen than the other four and seemed to have been composed with more of a mind to displaying the body that lay beneath it. Like the Air Caste she had short sleeves on her green robe but unlike the Air Caste who’s robe reached down to her ankles, the Wood Caste wore a loin cloth that exposed her legs up to the hip. Her arms were bound in black bandages with leather gloves over the top, matching sandals hugging her calves. A bow was slung across her back and a black headband held her dark brown hair away from her doe-like eyes.

“Sanejin, Pristine Boyar of Vanity,” the Water Caste addressed at the top of her lungs as the intruders came to a halt. “By the order of the Satrap of Greyfalls, I hereby declare the town of River’s Bend to be part of the Realm and subject to the Empress’ law.”

“Cynis Delani,” Sanejin stated in a tone somewhere between exasperation and annoyance. “What are you doing?”

“Annexing River’s Bend,” Delani answered smugly. The Air Caste produced a document and handed it to her. “As you can see, my orders bare the seal of the Satrap and my men are currently securing the streets. You are now standing in the seventh municipality of the Satrapy of Greyfalls. If you co-operate we’ll let you keep the temple. It’s the least we can do after everything you’ve made possible.”

“I thought we agreed…”

“Plans change,” Delani interrupted, “we agreed not to act as long as you secured trade and kept the local dogs on a leash. Instead your town is in disarray and the people are muttering about Anathema, yet you do nothing!”

“I told them I needed TIME!” Sanejin barked, getting to his feet and stomping down the steps to address the Dragon Bloods on level ground. Feather was impressed; it was certainly a bold move for a relatively minor God.

“Well it seems we ran out of patience,” Delani said calmly, shrugging. The Air Caste produced another document and handed it to her. “By the way, we have a letter for you from the Guild factol in Greyfalls.”

Sanejin blinked, accepting the letter almost numbly. He didn’t open it, almost as if he already knew what it said. His shoulders slumped slightly. “I guess that’s it then. It’ll mean war with the Hundred Kingdoms, you know. All you had to do was exercise a modicum of patience.”

“Relax, Sanejin,” she advised smugly, “don’t worry your pretty little head about it; we’ll take care of everything from here on. We’ll be busy setting up your new government at the Cynis mansion, if we need you we’ll summon you. Let’s go.”

With that, they left Sanejin glaring after them as they marched out as quickly as they had entered. The Fire Caste couldn’t help but glance back over her shoulder and blow him a mocking kiss. The god crushed the letter in his fist as the door closed behind them, growling with rage as he stormed out of the throne room through the door that Feather assumed led to his personal quarters.

Sitting back in astonishment at the unforseen development, Feather had to wonder if it was a move by the Bronze Faction. If it was, it seemed a bit foolhardy to risk the Realm’s bastion in the Threshold over one little village and a relatively minor disruption of fate. Discarding the idea, he found it more likely that this was yet another move by the unseen manipulator trying to re-establish his political smoke screen.

“Well, that was something,” Feather murmured, getting into character again, “say, doll, why don’t we take this els…”

He stopped mid sentence when he turned to find the tub next to him empty.

Feather didn’t have to feign embarrassment as he quickly extricated himself from the empty bathtub and made his way through the hallways to his room, needing time to think alone. He was thinking so furiously that he didn’t feel the presence of another person in his room until the door was shut and bolted. After a tense moment, he breathed a sigh of relief when Rage dropped down from the rafters. “You really need to warn me before you do that,” Feather admonished, “the last thing we need right now is a friendly fire incident.”

“Sorry,” Rage acknowledged, “I was in a rush. What was Greyfalls’ ultimatum?”

“They’re annexing River’s Bend, plain and simple. What’s happening out in the city?”

“The soldiers are still pouring in. The vanguard arrived by fast ship, the river’s as twisted as sheep’s intestines so they’ve probably been hiding in tributaries waiting for an opportune moment. They secured Old Town and joined forces with the house guards in High Town. The rest started marching into town less than ten minutes ago. It’s a well co-ordinated occupation; I expect the quarry stone for the new fortifications to arrive tomorrow. What’s the name of the Dragonblood general?”

Feather blinked, unused to his partner sounding competent. “Er… Cynis Delani. Why?”

Rage retrieved an arcane deck of cards from his belt and started flipping through them, giving his partner a genuine smile. “Half the art of warfare is knowing your enemies, in fact there’s whole areas of study devoted to analysing the psychology and theory of various battle-leaders through the ages. The Division of Battles keeps detailed records of all of them, though our records of those with a Destiny are naturally more detailed. Here we are, Cynis Delani, currently Dragonlord of the 4th Dragon of the 23rd Imperial Legion under General Cathak Kitono. A bright young star exiled to the ass end of the Realm because her superiors believed her to be a political threat, which is indeed true.”

“Impressive,” Feather complimented. “So that’s 500 troops?”

“450 infantry,” Rage corrected his partner’s terminology, “plus 50 cavalry organized into two Scales of 25; not standard for the Legions but out here they prefer more versatile forces. In addition, she’s managed to wrangle her circle-mates into positions under her command along with the provision of 5 Warstriders and 2 airships. Kitono’s throwing one of his best and brightest at the situation here. She’s studied tactics, strategy and diplomacy on the Blessed Isle, spent a few years training with the Immaculate Order but was recalled due to the untimely death of her older brother before proving her worth against the forces of the Mask of Winters. Fearing that they had another Roseblack in the making on their hands, her superiors had her transferred with all haste to her current dead-end post in the 23rd. They’ve underestimated her ambition, I fear, if she’s thrown her lot in with Kitono’s expansionist visions.”

“What about the other four?”

“The Air Caste is Odyne Misari, a lost egg discovered and adopted in adolescence by a Patrician house and delivered to House Cynis, though unusually not adopted by the Great House due to complicated succession politics. Met Cynis Delani about this time and joined her in study with the Immaculates, along with her lover Cathak Hathor, and left when Delani was recalled to the Blessed Isle despite some pressure to take up holy orders. While Delani was off defending Realm territory near Thorns, her family packed Misari off to the Heptagram where she also excelled. Delani and Hathor requested that she be transferred with them to Greyfalls, a commission she happily accepted. The files describe her as quiet, cold and calculating but definitely not leadership material. She prefers to leave that sort of thing to either her lover or Delani. She’s been placed in nominal command of the Dragon’s airships, though she relies on the competency of her two hand-picked captains and holds herself aloof from the crew.

Cathak Hathor, Cynis Delani’s second in command since their days in the South West. Gregarious, competent, well liked by those under her command, Hathor is known for both her martial prowess as well as her dissertations on philosophical thought and poetry; quite possibly the perfect second in command if not for the rebellious streak and a mild drinking problem.. Followed Delani into military service to escape an arranged marriage and fell for Odyne Misari while training with the two at the immaculate temple. When Delani was forcibly transferred, she used her family contacts to put a good word in with Cathak Kitono. She leads the 1st Cavalry Scale of the 4th Dragon in battle as well as being Winglord of the 1st Wing.

Speaking of which, we come to Cathak Agani, a Fire Caste to which the stereotypes most certainly apply. She’s the Winglord of the 2nd Wing of the 4th Dragon and leads the 2nd Cavalry Scale much like her distant cousin Hathor. Unlike Hathor, she’s a glory hound with self-control issues and a famous temper, which made her a black sheep after she almost gutted one of her suitors due to an inappropriate comment. She also happens to be the only member of the circle to have mastered an Immaculate Martial Art, however, and she’s a highly decorated officer. She was assigned to Delani by Kitono in the hopes that the Water Caste could control his wayward niece’s excesses, which seems to have worked. What nobody suspects is that she’s a member of the All-Seeing Eye responsible for several assassinations.”

“Charming,” Feather muttered, “and the last?”

“Skadi Sarro, Wood Caste. I don’t have too much on her because she’s not a formal member of the Legion’s hierarchy but I’d make an informed guess that she’s a scout, sniper, tracker and black operations type. A lost egg like Misari born to a peasant family in the hinterlands north of Greyfalls, she exalted at an early age but was adopted and trained by a renegade Dragonblood. When she grew older, she and her foster father apparently had a falling out that proved lethal to him. She presented herself in Greyfalls not long after and the Satrap was only too grateful to welcome a Dragonblood without political ties to one of the Great Houses into the fold.”

“Sounds like a formidable bunch,” Feather mused.

“Cathak Kitono’s making his play to begin the expansion of Greyfalls,” Rage surmised, “I wouldn’t expect him to send anything less than his best. If he can hand Greyfalls a new district south of the Lesser Rock River, the Realm might just take his ideas of conquering the Scavenger Lands seriously. On the other hand, he’s acting without orders.”

“Without the Scarlet Empress, orders don’t mean much anymore,” Feather asserted.

“So what? Cathak Kitono is our shadowy manipulator?”

Feather shook his head. “If there were a Terrestrial Exalt who could master Celestial Circle Sorcery without the Mantle of Brigid, Chejop Kejak would be certain to let everyone know it. Besides, I’m not sure Celestial level sorcery would be enough to screw up the Loom so badly. I think we’re looking at Solar Circle Sorcery, Sidereal Martial Arts, First Age Technology or some sort of Primordial Charm.”

“So our prime suspects are Anathema?” Rage asked.

“I fear so,” Feather replied, scratching his chin. “I think Cathak Kitono has fallen into a trap. The Scavenger Lands won’t put up with Greyfalls throwing its weight around. If Nexus and Lookshy see this as the thin end of the wedge, they’ll make a counter-move. Right now, however, this puts River’s Bend effectively under martial law, which will make it that much harder for us to track down the real enemy. On the other hand, they’re going to have the same problems progressing with their own agenda.”

“You don’t think this move could be unrelated? Cathak Kitono might be seizing the opportunity as it presented itself.”

“The problem is the timing; one whole day to move an entire Dragon into town from Greyfalls? Not possible, even for a full circle of Dragonbloods. They were waiting, so someone tipped them off that things were coming to a head. It’s also a lot of manpower to put behind annexing a fairly trivial patch of dirt. No, our mysterious manipulator is playing another stalling game.”

“All right,” Rage said, nodding in agreement, “so what’s our counter-move?”

“We need information and we need it faster than before,” Feather concluded. “Sanejin’s going to be busy with the occupation, so I’m going to take the opportunity to sneak into the underground chambers and have a look around. I’ll need you to keep one eye on the Dragonbloods while you look for any signs of Anathema. Speaking of which, you might want to sniff about Shanku Toyo Graveyard, the place gave me a bad vibe.”

They clasped hands for a moment, wishing each other the luck of the star maidens before Rage leapt out of the high window through which he had entered. With nothing to do but wait, Feather sank into his bed and relaxed in preparation for the trials ahead.

#

High above River’s Bend, a large Raiton soared unnoticed among the clouds. Its keen eyes watched the soldiers pour into town from the north, more ships winding their way through the mountains from the east. Military engineers were already busy unloading five enormous covered wagons from the ships at dock, teams of horses pulling them slowly into the town square. Civilians huddled indoors, nowhere to be seen. A flash of colour caught the bird’s eye, drawing attention to a procession soldiers marching down the hillside from the Temple led by five figures on horseback. Curious, it swooped down to alight on a nearby tree and watched as the Dragonlord general and her four cohorts passed underneath.

“Trust a petty god to hog the good view,” the large one in white enamelled heavy plate armour commented as she gazed at the mountain sunset.

“I’ll set aside one of the towers just for you, Hathor,” the woman in black at the head of the column quipped.

“Well,” Hathor replied, giving the lady in white and blue at her side a meaningful look, “maybe not just for me.”

The white-haired air caste smiled back coyly.

“Get a room you two,” the fast-tempered fire caste snapped. “What are we going to do about Sanejin? You know he’s not going to sit still for this, Delani,” she said, addressing the woman at the head of the column.

“I’d be perfectly happy to handle him if you like,” the wood caste offered, placing particular emphasis on the word ‘handle’.

“Sanejin would eat you alive, Sarro,” Delani rebuked, “I’ll deal with him personally.”

Sarro chuckled. “Well, well, it seems our glorious leader’s already taking the lion’s share of the spoils.”

“Have some respect, hedonist,” Hathor growled, though her tone was reproving rather than aggressive, “we need you focussed on the task at hand, not besotted by wonton revelry.”

“Pity,” the wood caste lamented, pouting. “By the way, there’s a mortal woman hiding in the bushes up ahead. Should I fetch her?”

The dragonbloods concealed their surprise admirably. “I didn’t think there were any women in River’s Bend except whores and dragonbloods,” Hathor muttered.

“Then let’s see which one we have on our hands,” Delani said, giving Sarro a curt nod.

The wood caste hopped up onto the back of her steed and pounced, somersaulting deftly through the branches and startling the Raiton that perched there, causing it to flit to another branch. Moments later, there was a startled screech as the dragonblood kicked a pretty brown-haired woman onto the road, her loose-fitting robe falling open to reveal her bruised and battered body. She would have been beautiful except that she was covered in dirt with twigs and leaves infesting her tangled hair along with a large purple bruise on her cheek.

The dragonbloods surveyed the tattered wreck that cried at their feet as they called the column to a halt. Hathor glared at the girl’s injuries and dismounted, kneeling beside Sarro. “Delani, she’s been raped,” the earth caste reported. Reaching out tenderly, she moved the girl’s hair out of her eyes.

“It’s all right; we’re not going to hurt you.” Sarro said softly, trying to reassure the girl. “Take a deep breath. Can you tell us your name?”

She tried to hold back her sobs, hiccoughing with such force that it made the onlooker’s lungs ache in sympathy. “Bonzo,” she croaked.

The Dragon Lords collectively blinked. “Bonzo,” Hathor repeated, “as in Undersherrif Bonzo, subordinate to White Crane?”

She nodded, gasping. “Please, water.”

“Not too much at once,” Sarro advised, handing the girl her flask.

Nodding, Bonzo took several small sips before continuing. “The Anathema… it summoned a ghost to chase me down. It was fast, knocked me down. It had some of the water and…”

Bonzo paused as fresh sobs wracked her body, tears leaving streaks in the mud on her face.

“It’s ok, breathe,” Sarro mollified, “what do you mean it had ‘the water’.”

It took a while for Bonzo to speak again and even then it was in halting gasps. “The Water of… Eternal Perfection. Sanejin’s… it made me like this. Ghost stole it… from White Crane. We used it to keep… the men… in line. I changed and it… it…”

She wasn’t able to finish, bursting into wails of despair. Sarro hugged her, letting the girl cry into her shoulder. Hathor grimaced in disgust; the fire caste scowled, gripping the reins with white knuckled force and the air caste was on the verge of sympathetic tears. Delani, however, maintained her mask of cool composure, pausing only to take stock of the development and devising their best course of action before speaking. “Sarro,” she ordered, “take her back to the mansion and look after her. She’s not to leave under any circumstances and by the five dragons; nobody is to breathe a word about her existence. Am I understood?”

Sarro nodded, easily cradling the sobbing girl in her arms using her essence to strengthen her limbs. The wood caste rode ahead with Bonzo curled up against her chest, appearing equal parts determined and angry.

“I know she’s our best healer,” Hathor said as she watched them leave, “but I feel I must voice my objection to giving a transformed rape victim over to the hedonist.”

Delani rolled her eyes. “Objection noted but you’re not giving Sarro enough credit. As a Cynis, however, I’m flattered you think a morsel like that would be safer with me.”

The other three dragonbloods shared a look as Delani spurred her horse into a walk, laughing at her own joke. Their leader had their loyalty, respect and love without question.

But sometimes she scared the shit out of them.

#

“I said I was COMING!” Menji shouted over the repeated polite taps on his door as he shuffled to open it. Instead of politely sliding the door across, however, he shoved the sliding door with enough force that the sharp ‘crack’ as it collided with the frame echoed from the nearby buildings.

The old man found himself looking up at a young, blonde, man with a large straw pack on his back dressed in a simple white tunic and trousers with dirty straw sandals on his feet. He smiled beatifically and his smooth, easy, tone would have lulled less grouchy men into a false sense of security and trust. “Hello, elder,” he greeted, “I’m sorry to disturb your morning but I arrived in town earlier today to peddle my wears and now the nice soldiers won’t let me leave. Would it be all right if I availed myself of one of your rooms for a few nights?”

“NO!” Menji snapped, slamming the door shut in the peddler’s face before shuffling back to his rice cooker. After a few moments of silence, the incessant polite knocking started again. “I SAID NO!” Menji shouted but the knocking continued unabated. Stomping back to the door, Menji snapped it open again. “ARE YOU DEAF I SAID…”

The old man’s tirade stalled when he noticed what the peddler was holding up in front of his face. They were just sandals, simple, plain, honest, sandals made of wood and thread. The quality of their make, however, was exquisite in their practical beauty. The weave of the threads made for tough, strong straps that were also soft like kitten fur against the skin. Indentations had been sanded into the upper sole so that it would hold any size of foot with maximum comfort while providing the best support, cushioned with supple leather. The underside was scored with a complex pattern that would provide grip and the straps were tied in an impossible-looking knot that didn’t seem to have an end, never breaking unless the sole did first. They were, to put it succinctly, perfect sandals.

“I don’t have any money, elder,” the peddler explained apologetically, “but I’m willing to trade this pair of sandals for my lodgings if you are amenable.”

“Yes,” Menji said in awe-stricken agreement, staring at the shoes as he took them from the peddler. “Please, come inside young man.”

Still smiling, the peddler stepped into the dark shadows of Menji’s house, closing the door behind him.

#

“Mistress Ura,” Mouth of Ashes, God of the Last Bite, greeted the Chosen of Journeys with a polite bow as they passed each other outside the Bathhouse of Venus, “it is a pleasure to see you again; I hope you are well.”

Ura returned his respectful bow and favoured the god with a friendly smile. “As well as can be expected, unfortunately I was here on business rather than pleasure.”

He nodded. “Indeed, most unfortunate. I apologize for interrupting you but I just wanted to see if you had heard the news. Master Wayang had me relay some new orders to Destined Edge directing her to join Shining Feather and Focused Rage in some backwater town called River’s Bend. I mean honestly, I can’t imagine a situation that might require the attentions of three experienced Siderials, can you?”

“I’m sure Master Wayang merely wants to expedite the solution,” Ura answered, “but thank you for bringing the matter to my attention.”

“Not at all, I’ll see you at Uvanavu’s on the tenday,” he said, quickly moving on.

“Indeed,” Ura called cheerfully back, “should be quite the party.”

Continuing on her way, Ura made sure she was well out of sight of the friendly god before breaking from her stately stroll into a brisk walk.

#

Cynis Delani was annoyed rather than perturbed when she noticed Nellens Rapik’s banner flying below hers over the Cynis mansion, indicating that the officious buffoon was waiting for her arrival. A ration alighted atop it, prompting Delani to say a silent prayer to the god of birds, hoping it would relieve itself on its perch. Hathor noticed her frown and lent over to whisper as they rode through the gate. “Problem?” She asked.

“Annoyance,” Delani replied in the same sotto voice. “Why don’t you take Misari and start organizing the construction while Agani and I clip some wings?”

Hathor nodded, signalling for her air caste lover to ride with her as she wheeled her horse to ride out again. Misari followed close behind, the quiet girl looking eager to begin the real work. Agani spurred her mount next to her commander’s so that the two of them would arrive at the main house shoulder to shoulder.

The servants wisely remained silent as they ran up to take the dragonblood’s mounts back to their stables, the soldiers quickly dispersing at Delani’s signal. Her officers led well and she trusted their judgement implicitly, so she was happy to allow them to organize details like guard rotations and lodgings, thinking nothing of it as she strode into her new abode.

The Cynis mansion was one of the largest in River’s Bend, built as a private retreat for some of the more debauched elders of the Great House that resided in Greyfalls. It was well appointed with all the creature comforts a noble could require from orgy-sized beds to an enormous bath that could be heated by a furnace in the basement. The walls were composed of gigantic marble blocks that mimicked the pleasure houses of the First Age and the furnishings and fittings were all of decadent quality. It wasn’t the house of a soldier but Delani was all too happy to take advantage of what pleasures came her way.

“Mistress,” the house master greeted Delani as she entered, bowing low in subservience. “Lady Sarro has taken your guest to the northeast chamber on the third floor and has ordered various medicines as well as a bath. Lord Rapik is awaiting your presence in the lounge.”

The two dragonbloods didn’t even break stride, footsteps echoing as they turned down the corridor that led to the lounge and thrusting open the gilded double doors as if they had the temerity to bar their mistress’ way. The room beyond was as lavishly furnished as the rest of the house, with a large circular pit surrounding a giant brazier that would provide enough warmth for the whole room on a cold winter’s night. Around the pit sat various tables, divans, lounges and other assorted pieces of furniture for the comfort of guests, parties and the inevitable orgies that characterized noble society. The balcony at the far end of the room overlooked River’s Bend, providing a spectacular view of the river valley marred only by the presence of the Low Town by the river itself.

Like the view, Delani couldn’t help but think that her room was marred by Nellens Rapik’s presence, the only difference being that she could fix Low Town. A distant relative to the Satrap of Greyfalls, Nellens Rapik was an old, gaunt, wood caste dragonblood that had dedicated his life to service in the Thousand Scales, the bureaucratic arm of the Realm. His hair and beard were chalk white to match his patchy pale skin, neither of which were flattered by his deep green robes embroidered with a rigid pattern of white and gold squares. The elder dragonblood lounged in a chair that sat next to a table bedecked with fresh fruit that the bureaucrat was busy helping himself to. Also on the table was a large goblet of fine wine which Delani correctly surmised was from her own cellar.

“I don’t remember sending for you, Rapik,” Delani said dismissively as she stormed up to the table.

“Indeed you didn’t, little dragon,” Rapik replied gracefully with just a slight patronizing tone, “but I thought I’d save you the trouble of sending a messenger after you got back from talking with Sanejin.”

“And why would I do a thing like that?” Delani asked, gesturing for a servant to bring her a chair rather than getting it herself, a move designed to emphasize who was the mistress of the house. Agani remained standing, crossing her arms to add to the weight of her heavily armed presence. “I’m under direct orders from General Kitono, the Thousand Scales has no authority over me.”

“Actually, dear, I’m here on vacation,” he informed, giving them his most disarming smile, “and honestly I would love nothing more than to get back to my rest and relaxation. However, your little manoeuvre this morning is worrying the other vacationing lords. We had a little get-together earlier and they asked me to be their official representative to the 23rd Legion. Unfortunately, I felt that I couldn’t decline in the face of their faith in my abilities. Also, as the most senior political officer currently residing in River’s Bend I feel that it is my duty to guide the war effort until a firm chain of command can be established.”

“Well, well, well,” Agani chuckled, “look at the balls on you, old man.”

“River’s Bend is now under military control,” Delani informed him coldly, “you have no authority here, Rapik.”

Rapik lifted his goblet to salute them. “Then perhaps I should see what the Satrap has to say about this incursion. I don’t believe I’ve seen an official declaration of war against the Hundred Kingdoms cross my desk.”

“Well, for that to happen the Realm would have to recognize the sovereignty of River’s Bend, which we don’t,” Delani pointed out. “This is just one tiny town on the edge of nowhere; I doubt Lookshy or Nexus will so much as bat an eye.”

“Or they could see it as the thin end of the wedge,” Rapik argued.

“Hmmm, you know, Rapik, you might be right,” Delani mused, making a show of it. “But I think it might be wise to send another letter to Sister Cloud Hands. I’m sure the Immaculate Order would be ecstatic with all the good work you and your friends have been doing down here, civilizing the wilds.”

That suggestion made Rapik sweat a little. “Actually, Lady Delani, I think I now see the merits of your original point. There isn’t any reason to mire this affair in political bickering. If we work together, I’m sure the Empress’ Legions and her Thousand Scales can accomplish anything for the glory of her name.”

Delani relaxed a little. “I’m glad we could come to an understanding, elder. I would have disliked ordering your execution.”

Unseen far above, the ration took to wing from its perch on the rim of the skylight, soaring up into the clouds once more.

#

“I… it… he didn’t…” Bonzo said in shuddering breaths, not having to fake distress. She could still taste the scholar’s fetid tongue in her mouth; feel his bony hand on her skin. The slightest reminder made her shudder and Lady Sarro’s ointment combined with the warm herbal bath was making the myriad cuts and abrasions over her body sting. It also didn’t help that the dragonblood was partly naked, the sight of the noble lady’s breasts causing strange reactions in her new form.

“What didn’t he do, dear?” Sarro asked gently, wiping the girl’s back gently with a sponge.

“He… he was between my legs but he didn’t… we both had all our clothes on,” she said, struggling with the incredulous concept that she was now a woman vulnerable to such things combined with her ignorance of the proper words to express herself.

“So you don’t think you were raped?” Sarro asked, probing the new girl’s attitude.

She nodded hesitantly.

“Bonzo,” Sarro sighed, “you don’t have to consummate a union with a woman to call such a thing rape. That you were forced is enough.”

Bonzo mulled that one over while Sarro massaged her shoulders, slowly relaxing. A comforting warmth spread from her stomach as she slipped into a pleasurable trance, though she couldn’t get the image of the dragonblood slipping into the bath with her out of her mind.

“Bonzo, can you hear me?” Sarro asked in a reassuring, gentle, quiet voice.

“Yes,” Bonzo replied huskily.

“You feel calm and safe and relaxed. You know that nothing can hurt you as long as you’re here with me, don’t you?”

“Yes, Sarro.”

Smiling, Sarro reached around and gave Bonzo’s erect nipple a short stroke, causing an immediate shudder of ecstasy. “Good girl,” Sarro praised her. “Now I’m going to ask you some questions and as long as you tell the truth you will be rewarded but if you’ll lie to me I’ll leave and you won’t be safe anymore. Do you understand?”

“I don’t want you to leave,” Bonzo said weakly.

“You have nothing to fear as long as you tell the absolute truth,” Sarro comforted the new girl, “do you understand?”

“Yes.”

Sarro reached around again, giving her charge’s most sensitive areas another caress, provoking a moan of pure delight. “Very good,” she encouraged. “Now I want you to tell me everything from the very beginning, starting with your recruitment into the All-Seeing Eye.”

#

The ration found Focused Rage cleaning and honing his blades amongst a tangle of chimneys on the rooves of lower town, trying to channel his nervous energy into something constructive as he kept one eye on the occupying forces. Hathor and Misari could be seen in the main square a few hundred feet away as they drafted villagers into the labour force that would transform River’s Bend into a fortified city. Rage had to give the earth caste commander her due; she’d managed to wrangle the crowd without too many object lessons in discipline. While Hathor did the hands-on work; Misari concentrated on the blueprints and planning.

The only problem was that the fortifications would take weeks to build and Rage felt both impatient and worried. For starters, he wasn’t the patient ‘watch and learn’ type, he was a man of action suited to solving problems with blades and force of arms. On the other hand, he was worried about Feather’s foray into the depths of the Temple high above, his gaze straying to the mountain on occasion as he muttered silent prayers to the Maidens for his partner’s safety.

His vantage point kept three other places of interest in sight: Menji’s Inn, the White Crane Dojo and the Graveyard across the river. Of course, nothing interesting was happening at any of those locations either. Menji had an unremarkable new lodger who watched the proceedings in the town square with the interest of a gawping tourist while trying to sell shoes to passers by. The militia had fortified the Dojo and remained in hiding, with members only venturing out to purchase supplies and practice weapon drills. It was little surprise that the Legion soldiers completely ignored them as the professionals usually viewed militias as a step above bandits (a view that the White Crane Dojo entirely justified). Red Wolf himself was nowhere to be seen, if Rage hadn’t spied Mamo on a few occasions he would have thought that the petty tyrant had fled the town entirely. Finally, the Graveyard was dark, still and (appropriately) dead, the sedate sway of branches in the wind the only detectable movement. Absently, Rage wished he would spot an errant hungry ghost just to alleviate the boredom of the day.

So it was, without an enemy to cross swords with, the Sidereal sat and polished; as twitchy as a racehorse waiting for the off. Hours passed, the sun sinking lower on the horizon and, to his frustration nothing changed.

As the light finally started to fade, the raiton took wing, catching an updraft to lift itself high into the sky. Soaring high over the mountains, the black-feathered bird avoided the clouds as it tracked the landmarks below, searching for its point of origin. At last, it swooped down through the canopy, aiming for the rocky edge of a freshwater pool far below.

It alighted just as a green-skinned woman broke through the surface of the still water, her long blue hair floating in the water behind her like a bride’s veil as she approached the edge. Her skin was covered in whirling patterns of silver that brought to mind both the winding currents of the rivers of Creation and the flow of blood through the veins of her body. She was naked, the beauty of her tattooed, athletic, form on display for all to see. That she was built for a life underwater was not in doubt, her shoulders slightly broader than her hips and membranes stretched between her fingers and toes. Her ears were also pointed and her eyes almost completely black, adapted to the depths of the ocean were light was scarce.

The raiton changed, growing from the size of a cat into the form of a young human woman clad in a short black robe that matched the colour of both her former feathers and tousled hair. She kept her hair short and didn’t bother to comb, almost giving the impression that the feathers in it had fallen there and gotten stuck rather than actually growing from her scalp. Her pale skin was also tattooed in silver, sharp slashes from which stylized swirls dripped like blood from wounds caused by a great beast.

While the two girls were about the same height, the brunette was slender where the river-goddess was curved. They both possessed a kind of savage beauty, however, that marked them as similar beings, their bodies honed into instruments of predation.

The mer-woman gazed into the other girl’s eyes for a moment, conveying an insistent need that would not be denied before their lips met, bodies pressed together as they shared themselves without reservation. Hands confidently caressed all the familiar, comfortable, places as their tongues slid gently across one another, affirming the passion that existed between them. Reluctantly pulling away, the mer-woman stroked her lover’s cheek, moving an errant strand of hair out of her face. “I missed you,” she whispered huskily.

The raiton-girl rolled her eyes as she wrapped her legs around the other woman’s waist. “I was only gone a few hours, you’re such a needy bitch.”

“We’ll see who’s begging for more tonight,” the green-skinned lady said as she smirked. “What’s going on in town?”

“It’s crawling with Dragonbloods, mortal soldiers, Gods, Sidereals and I think I spotted Aten boarding in with old Menji.”

The mer-woman scowled before spitting, looking as if someone had just placed a slice of lemon in her mouth. “At least that means we have a base of operations, even if we have to keep slime like Aten on a short leash.”

“Oh, Aten’s not so bad,” the other girl said wistfully

“Then I better be sure to remind you how much better I am,” the mer-woman promised with some heat. “So what do you think? Do we do the camp follower thing again?”

The brunette shook her head. “No women in lower town, we’d attract too much attention. Actually, we’d probably be so busy as prostitutes that we wouldn’t have time for anything else, they’re a rather desperate bunch.”

“Ugh,” the mer-woman grimaced, “male forms then.”

“Don’t worry, dear heart,” the brunette comforted, pulling the other woman closer, “I’m sure I can find some way to make the chore… easier.”

And as the sun fell below the horizon, she set herself to the task.

#

It was with great reluctance that Feather extracted himself from the bed he was sharing with three stunningly beautiful, unconscious, women. As one of the Chosen of Serenity, he lamented having to use his Venus-given gift of lovemaking so crudely yet, if he played his cards right, he could convince the girls that they’d been with him all night, providing an airtight alibi if anything went wrong. Free from the sweaty tangle, he washed to reduce the musky residue of sex before dressing in a simple dark blue-grey robe that would aid in stealth while not appearing out of the ordinary for a genuine dragonblood guest of the brothel if he were spotted. Finally, he braided his jet black hair up in an elaborate weave that hugged his scalp before covering it with a veil that matched the colour of his robes and, more importantly, obscured his face without being remarkable socially. Most hedonists, dragonblooded and mortal alike, would attend a masked orgy at any brothel at least once so masks and other contrivances weren’t uncommon.

Slipping out into the deserted hallways, the vast majority of the staff and guests busy with their nightly festivities, Feather slipped from shadow to shadow unseen. Moving through the deserted throne room to the curtains that concealed the private area behind the throne itself, Feather listened for several moments before peeking through. To his surprise there was nothing more than a few divans, tables with make-up boxes and mirrors, wardrobes and a spiral staircase worked in stone that led down with no guards anywhere.

The Sidereal moved quickly yet cautiously down the steps, not wanting to run into anyone coming up the other way, allowing himself a short sigh of relief as he exited the stairwell at the back of a balcony that overlooked a large antechamber. Crouching, he made his way over to the balustrade, still surprised at the lack of guards, and peeked through the elegantly carved marble slats at the scene below.

The room was perfectly round with vaulting that extended the elegant sweeping curve or the room to the ceiling overhead. The balcony he was kneeling on led to flights of stairs to the left and right along with wooden doors that Feather surmised led to the staff areas for the brothel. Another hallway led from the chamber directly beneath the spiral staircase on the next level down with a large silver door standing directly opposite, the intricate engraving upon it depicting Luna herself hunting Raksha in the depths of the Wyld. Braziers on the walls provided light and heat, the flickering flames illuminating the rough-hewn circular block at the centre of the room. The top had been carved into a shallow basin that had been filled with clear water, the still surface reflecting the firelight perfectly.

The figure sitting on the block, running the tips of his fingers across the water, made Feather wish he’d spent more time studying stealth charms than he had socializing in Yu Shan. Sanejin gazed at the reflection of the fire as it rippled, seemingly waiting for something. Praying to Venus that the God wasn’t about to blow his cover, Feather kept as still as possible to see what would happen next.

Minutes crawled along like hours before footsteps could be heard coming from the hallway below. Sanejin stood and adjusted the sleeves of his robe, wiping away the tiny droplets on his fingertips. “Ah, Mamo,” the god greeted someone Feather couldn’t see because of the balcony, “he didn’t give you any trouble I trust?”

There was a momentary scuffle before a red-robed figure was flung into Feather’s field of vision, landing in a heap at Sanejin’s bare feet. A second figure followed, dressed in rich black cloth, that was barely as tall as the god’s waistline. Voluminous robes concealed Mamo from Feather’s vantage point, so he was unable to make out any details.

“Far too easy,” Mamo replied, his voice slightly higher pitched than one would expect even from a boy yet too low to be a girl’s in Feather’s estimation.

Sanejin sighed theatrically as he turned the bound and gagged man in ragged red robes onto his back with one foot. “Red Wolf, I am so disappointed,” the god chastised. “I have lived in these hills for a millennia, did you really think I didn’t know about the canals?”

Red Wolf whimpered pathetically, more a whipped dog than a wolf.

Kneeling, the god addressed his captive in an easy, conversational, tone. “I survived The Great Contagion in this house. I fought off Raksha when they were banging at my gate. Long ago, I played the game of diplomacy in Yu Shan; your feeble games are like watching children playing with their own faeces. Though, I have to admit, you had me over a barrel for a while there, though there was no way it could last. All I had to do was wait for you to make a mistake and look, this is where we find ourselves now. Of course, you’re not here for anything as petty as revenge, you are beneath my personal attention and I would have been quite happy to leave the culmination of your fate to Mamo here, except for one thing. Red Wolf, you have been given two singular honours. The first was the honour of witnessing the Exaltation of one of the Solar Exalted, Chosen of the Unconquered Sun and a true Prince of the Earth. And that has brought you the honour of being worth MY personal time.”

The god grabbed the front of Red Wolf’s robe and hauled the mortal up as he stood casually with one hand. Sanejin towered over Red Wolf, looking directly into his eyes. Mamo produced a knife from one sleeve and cut their prisoner’s gag away as the god continued.

“I only have one question for you,” Sanejin informed, his voice lowered threateningly. “Where is the one known as Tetsu?”

“I… I don’t know,” Red Wolf squeaked as soon as he could find his voice.

Sanejin glared and when he spoke his voice held the threat of a burgeoning storm. “I warn you, dog, I don’t have the luxury of time… or perhaps you would prefer the moniker of Red Bitch?”

Feather had to admire the god’s interrogation technique. Less sophisticated inquisitors would have felt the need to produce a knife after threatening to emasculate someone.

“NO! No-no,” Red Wolf stuttered, panic causing his entire body to jitter, the god’s steady arm the only thing holding him upright. “I-I don’t know where he is n-now, t-the last I saw of him h-he was fighting White Crane as they slid down the mountain towards the river, I swear! I sent men t-to look for them but all they found was pieces of White Crane. He was with Kano, the whore I kept at Menji’s place b-but none of my contacts has seen either of them since. If they’re smart, they’re probably miles away by now.”

“Your words stink of truth,” Sanejin said, scowling as he tossed the man casually to one side. “Mamo, I need Tetsu brought back to us with all possible haste. Kennel this dog; I’ll deal with him when I get back.”

Mamo bowed in acknowledgement as Sanejin strode past and down the hallway under the balcony before he spurred Red Wolf off the floor with several kicks, wrangling the grown man with ease that suggested supernatural might. Feather thanked Venus that neither of them were heading to the throne room above as he descended the stairs. The hallway where Sanejin and Mamo had gone was also white marble, reflecting the warm light of the torches that were placed in silver sconces at regular intervals to suffuse everything in an even orange glow.

Deciding that following either of the conspirators wasn’t the wisest course, Feather examined the enormous silver doors to see if he could open them silently. It was only then that he noticed that the doors, while possessing handles to turn, seemed to have no hinges at all. Taking a quick glance behind him, he mustered his courage to grasp one of the handles and pull. It swung open easily, the edge that would normally be fixed to the doorframe by hinges bending easily. Slipping inside, Feather watched the door slowly move back into place. Checking the door with his aura sight, he noticed that the essence of the door changed when he touched it, making it more flexible, similar to the way Daiklaves become lighter and more balanced in the hands of the Exalted.

Marvelling at the wonder, Feather turned down the rough hewn corridor that he found beyond, descending ponderously uneven steps. Hewn rock quickly gave way to natural cave formations with the sole exception of the stairs, which had been roughly carved into bare rock. Primitive paintings covered the walls and ceiling, depicting myriad scenes of beastmen and shapeshifting Lunar Exalted hunting strange beasts. Very occasionally they were joined by golden warriors that radiated light or a strange mercurial silver being that seemed to drive everything around it into chaos. The galleries were lit by glowing blue lichen that seemed to thrive in the damp, humid, environment, making the cave appear to be bathed in moonlight. The further he descended, the greater the sensation of power in the air, tingling across every inch of the Sidereal’s skin.

The stairs ended at one last, enormous, gallery, the splendour of which took Feather’s breath away. The chamber could have been mistaken as a completely natural occurrence except for the fact that it was almost spherical, or perhaps slightly egg-shaped. At the base was a glowing circular pool that provided the only light source for the room and was perhaps the real source of the lichen’s luminescent properties. The walls and ceiling of the cave were covered with forged moonsilver runes that squirmed and writhed like living things as droplets of water condensed and dripped down the cold stone, causing the light to dance weirdly through the misty air. While he couldn’t read all of the runes, he did recognize the first age inscription that surrounded the pool.

May all who wish drink freely without sanction, it read. Strangely, Feather noted that the inscription had been written in the accusatory, making the phrase an order rather than an invitation. Curious, he walked down the last few steps and knelt by the side of the pool as he invoked his aura sight. What he saw left him without a doubt that he was in the heart of the manse, the hearthroom. Of course, the hearthstone that would give the one attuned to the manse mystical powers was long gone, probably in Sanejin’s possession.

Running his fingers through the cool water, Feather noted that it seemed cool and clear, the light issuing fourth from unfathomable depths, the bottom of the pool completely obscured from view. Cupping his hands, he brought a small amount up to his face and sniffed, detecting nothing but particularly fresh, clean, water despite the essence that suffused the liquid. Feeling a little dry, he took a small sip before dropping the rest back into the pool, savouring the cold, clean, sweet taste for a few moments. He felt revitalized as he hopped back to his feet, lighter than air with a fresh spring in his step as he turned away to leave the room behind and begin his search for answers anew.

Feather stopped a few feet from the cave mouth, reaching up to scratch the back of his head. A tiny ‘ow’ of pain escaped his lips as his nails dug in with unexpected sharpness. Looking at his hand, it took a moment for him to notice. He didn’t remember his nails being so long and, indeed, as he stared at the he found that he was not mistaken in his conclusion. They were growing. As the itch spread across his scalp and his braids seemed to loosen, it left him not doubt that his hair was growing as well.

He might have shrugged it off and continued on his way, pausing only to fix his hair as it continued to grow, except for the strange feeling that seemed to crawl up the tips of his fingers. Eyes bulging, Feather bit his lip to stop himself from screaming as his fingers began to shrink, becoming more slender while the fine hair on the back of his palms receded. He gaped in soundless horror as they shrank to match the feminine digits, even as the minor blemishes and wrinkles faded away leaving perfect, smooth, skin.

A sudden, sharp, pain in his stomach made him clamp one of his tiny hands over his mouth, emphasizing just how different they were by feel, as he sank to one knee. When his wrist and forearms started to change, the hair on his arms disappearing first, Feather began to feel the same sensation in his toes and feet moments before his soft slippers began to feel loose. More worryingly, he could feel the belt that clinched his robe together loosen as the hem of the pants he was wearing underneath started to slide down his waist.

The change shrank his shoulders to the point where he couldn’t help but let the collar slip down his now slender arms. The pain in his stomach soon gave way to a pulsing warmth that seemed to match his heartbeat, flowing throughout his body with the rush blood in his veins. There was little doubt left in his mind what was happening to him as the two different sensations mingled inside his torso, concentrating on his groin, chest and hips.

The first orgasm hit him out of the blue, bowling him over onto his side as spasms of pleasure wracked his body. Each wave brought several gradual changes. His hips and butt expanded slightly; his penis hardened and shrank while his testicles pulled up into his abdomen and two mounds of flesh inflated under the skin of his chest. His nipples expanded, aching to be touched as they rubbed against the cloth of his shirt. Feather couldn’t help but moan as the last orgasm split his scrotum open, the tender flesh retracting to form a puffy mound around the pink slit that now took residence in his crotch. It wasn’t until the new girl was back to her full senses, breathing hard and doused with sweat, that she felt the last vestiges of the strange sensation fade from the tip of her nose and cheeks.

Feather covered her mouth with both hands as she lay on the floor but this time she couldn’t help but scream.

Chapter 10

Basking in the high sun, Tetsu slid her hands down her own body, luxuriating in the feel of her silky bronze skin. Naked aside from thin gold chains around her waist and neck, the solar reclined on a divan inside the Palace of Eternal Pleasure, attended by several temple prostitutes who cooled her with gentle waves of palm leaf fans and offered a variety of fruit platters. She smiled when her husband’s hand came to rest on her thigh, opening her eyes to gaze lovingly on his face.

Sanejin smiled down at her as their eyes met, his hand straying higher up her thigh as he leant over to take her lips. She kissed back, eagerly accepting his tongue inside her mouth while his fingers teased the cleft between her legs. She gave herself to him willingly, overcome by love and lust in equal measure, and in no time at all she found her gorgeous legs wrapped around his hips, moaning in coital bliss. She begged for him to come, wanting nothing more than for his seed to take root in her womb as her ecstasy built to a thunderous climax that shattered reality like glass.

Tetsu the Wanderer lurched upright, throwing off the blanket that covered him as his hand grasped his crotch in panic. It was with some relief that he found himself male and whole, aside from the bandage the squeezed his chest. He almost jumped when a slender, feminine, hand grasped his shoulder. His eyes followed the supple arm that was attached to it to a set of slender shoulders, up a swan-like neck to the face of a queen crowned with long golden blonde hair, concern etched into her beautiful features.

“You shouldn’t exert yourself, Tetsu,” she advised in a patient, motherly, voice that managed to be sultry and provocative at the same time, “your wound is still mending.”

He let her push him back down into the bed, figuring that if she wanted him dead she had ample opportunity to kill him while he was unconscious.

“Hey boss,” Kano greeted, smiling as he slid over to Tetu’s side on his knees, “good to have you back.”

“I’m too ugly to die,” Tetsu quipped, though his voice was a little strained from the tightness of the bandage. “How long was I out?”

“A little more than a day,” the woman supplied, “usually my remedies don’t take this long but you were grievously wounded.”

“This is Ullah,” Kano introduced, “she was waiting when I pulled you out of the river.”

Tetsu frowned. “That’s a remarkable… coincidence.”

She snorted. After a moment, a shining yellow circle appeared on her brow. “There are no coincidences; I was led to where I could find you by the will of the Unconquered Sun. To properly introduce myself, I am Ullah, Solar Exalted of the Zenith Caste. From what Kano tells me, you are Tetsu, a newly exalted of the Eclipse Caste. I believe that the Unconquered Sun sent me to teach you your new role in Creation and set you on your path.”

“Solar Exalted?” Tetsu asked incredulously. “Lady, I may be an idiot but I know the sign of the Blasphemous when I see it. If you helped save me just to preach me to death, put me out of my misery and go sell your snake oil somewhere else.”

“Coming from one of the Decievers, that’s rather ironic,” Ullah observed with a sarcastic smirk.

“I’m not an Anathma, or whatever you called me,” Tetsu said stubbornly. “I have no sudden cravings for the souls of the innocent, skinning babies alive doesn’t hold any real appeal to me right now… heck, I don’t think I could work up the energy to so much as kick a puppy at the moment, or even throw one. Frankly, destroying Creation sounds a bit too much like work… besides; it’s where I keep my stuff.”

“The hard way it is, then,” Ullah observed, still smiling as she produced a mirror and held it up in front of his face. “Just humour me for a moment. I want you to concentrate on your brow. You’ll feel a kind of pulling sensation that’s a bit hard to explain since you’re unfamiliar with drawing on your essence as yet, just follow it where it leads and relax.”

Chuckling, Tetsu shook his head. “All right, all right, I’ll humour a woman of your beauty just this once, but…”

He stopped in the middle of his sentence just as he concentrated his attention on his brow. There was something there, something that didn’t really exist yet he could still feel at the same time. It pulled and curiosity couldn’t help but make him push in an ephemeral sense that he didn’t understand. In moments, two concentric circles shone on his brow, the inner circle full while the outer circle surrounding it was empty. It was the mark of a Deciever, one of the Anathema of the Immaculate faith.

“Ok,” Tetsu said with a gulp. “How do I know this isn’t some sort of illusion?”

Ullah nodded. “I’d be worried if you accepted everything I said on face value. If it was an illusion, I would be in control of it, would you agree?”

Tetsu nodded.

“Then extinguish your caste mark and re-light it randomly. I can go to another room if you think I can read your expression or thoughts…”

“Not necessary,” Tetsu whispered as his caste mark flared, then went out, then flared to life again, “I can feel it drawing on my… on the… it’s like a pool of energy inside me…”

“That would be your essence,” she informed him, “exalted of all types use it to power their abilities, along with mortal sorcerers and enlightened martial artists. Through meditation and contemplation, you will be able to expand that pool of energy. Its levels are finite, though it regenerates over time.”

“All right,” Tetsu said with a gulp. “Maybe I’ll listen to your pitch after all.”

She beamed. “Very good, we’ve still got a few hours while your chest heals anyway and we have a lot to get through. Kano, why don’t you get us something to eat?”

Nodding, the former prostitute hopped to his feet and exited through one of the screen doors, closing it behind him.

“So,” Tetsu broached after an uncomfortable silence, “he’s not about to deep fry some babies for us, is he?”

Ullah rolled her eyes. “No, Tetsu, babies are not on the menu. You might as well take everything the Immaculate Order has ever said about the so-called ‘Anathema’ and pitch it out of a high window. We’re not evil or demonic by nature unless we were before our exaltation. We are the Chosen, gifted with a shard of power from one of the Incarnae, in our cases by the Unconquered Sun. We are people that he has deemed worthy due to our consummate skill of baring part of his own perfection and wielding it as his champions in Creation. We are the Solar Exalted, similar to the Dragonblooded in that we are mortals enhanced by the power of greater beings but dissimilar in that this power is not passed down through bloodlines. We are chosen purely based on our greatness or our potential greatness. At some point, a candidate makes a choice to face impossible odds at the peril of their own lives and in making that choice they are empowered and succeed where all others would fail.”

“So, when I stood my ground against Red Wolf and White Crane,” Tetsu concluded, “I passed some sort of divine test?”

“You’re forgetting that you were surrounded by an army of militiamen,” Ullah added, “and what’s more, you talked your way out by Kano’s account. Solar Exaltations are also divided into five Castes that cover different types of heroism. Dawn Castes are warriors; they excel at might of arms and warfare. Night Castes are spies without peer. Members of the Twilight Caste are inventors, responsible for many of the wonders of the First Age. I am a Zenith Caste, one of the priests of the Unconquered Sun, greatest of the Incarnae. Last but never least is the Eclipse Caste, diplomats capable of forging nations and waging peace. You might have the body of a fighter but you solve problems with a golden tongue, the Unconquered Sun values that ability as much as skill in combat.”

“All right… then what does the Unconquered Sun expect me to do? What’s his angle?”

“It doesn’t work like that,” Ullah said with a weary chuckle, “though sometimes I wish it did. It might be nice if he passed down orders and all we had to do was have faith that he knew what was going on. We are entirely self-directed agents… he might give us hints or suggestions through visions on occasion, though mostly it’s more along the lines of pep talks and encouragement. I wasn’t under any compulsion to meet you at the river’s edge, in fact I had no idea why he’d find that particular spot so interesting, but I’ve found that following his advice reaps the best rewards. On the other hand, I’ve got a direct line to him as a Zenith, other castes don’t have to deal with visitations so much. Now, if you’d like to know his motivation for creating us, that’s a much longer and more involved answer.”

“Like you said, we’ve got hours.”

Ullah nodded, taking a deep breath and closing her eyes to compose herself. “The story begins before the First Age when Creation was ruled by the Primordials. The Primordials built Creation as a buffer against their enemies in the Wyld and created the gods to serve them. The greatest of the gods were the Incarnae: The Unconquered Sun, Luna and the Five Maidens, gifted with power equal to the Primordials but placed in subservience as their ultimate weapons against the Raksha. The Incarnae, however, desired what all sentient beings desire: freedom. So it was that the Incarnae joined forces with two of the marginalized Primordials to plot rebellion.

The Incarnae and the rest of the gods were bound so that none of them could attack a Primordial. In conclave, the rebels decided that they would create weapons that would fight the Primordials on their behalf. The end result were the exaltations we know today. The Unconquered Sun has his Solars, Luna has Lunar Exalted, the Maidens of Fate have the Sidereals and Gaia took a different path in empowering the Terrestrial Exalted or Dragonblooded.”

“Wait,” Tetsu interrupted, “you said there were two Primordials; if Gaia was one, who was the other?”

“Autocthon,” Ullah answered, “the Great Maker. As far as I know, he never did create his own Exalted, though I wouldn’t know why. He was the weakest of the Primordials and joined in the rebellion because he was bullied. Legends say that he was never quite right to begin with, so that may have something to do with it too.”

Tetsu nodded. “All right, please continue.”

“Each type of Exalted was divided into Castes, much in the way that you’d divide armies into specialist squads. There were three hundred Solars and Lunars, one hundred or so Sidereals and countless Terrestrials, who were made to be perfect soldiers just as Solars were made to be perfect generals. Lunars are Creation’s staunchest defenders, each Lunar Exaltation was linked to a Solar’s in a spiritual bond that goes beyond natural conceptions of love in order to keep us firmly planted in practicality. The Sidereals managed Fate and advised the Solars in the most auspicious courses of action, earning them the nickname of ‘viziers’. Most records of the war with the Primordials are lost so I can’t give you any details but the upshot was that we won, they lost. The Primordials were maimed and transformed into the beings we now know as the Yozis, imprisoned in Malfeas and bound into servitude. The Exalted went on to pacify Creation and build the utopia of the First Age.”

“Yeah… I’m waiting for you to say ‘but’,” Tetsu informed dryly.

“But,” Ullah rewarded, “it didn’t last. Perhaps it couldn’t have lasted. We became mad with hubris, left high ideals behind and began to abuse Creation to the point where we might have destroyed it. It took millennia by all accounts but perhaps our fall was simply inevitable. After the war, the Incarnae retired to the Games of Divinity which their Primordial masters had once banned them from participating in, leaving Creation in our hands. Our pride eventually became arrogance, decadence and conceit, our actions disgusting the Unconquered Sun so much that he turned away from us. This allowed the Sidereals, who were afraid that we were on the verge of destroying Creation, to manipulate the Terrestrials into siding with them in rebellion. They called it the Usurpation and together they killed every single Solar, caged our exaltations so that they would not be passed on to a new generation of heroes and exiled the Lunars into the Wyld. History was re-written and the Terrestrials inherited Creation as the puppet rulers of the Sidereals. Of course, things rapidly fell apart. The Dragonblooded could never hope to replace us, they don’t have anywhere near our skill at, well, anything, so Creation lurched from disaster to disaster like a drunken teenager. The Great Contagion led to the Balorian Crusade and when the dust settled, we have the Realm we know today that relies on an absent Empress in order to work. Somehow, the Solar Exaltations were released once more into the world and our numbers have been slowly growing despite the Dragonblood’s attempts to destroy us. We may be more skilled but their numbers are practically limitless so we run, we hide and we do what we can from behind the scenes.”

“I see,” Tetsu said noncommittally.

Ullah smiled. “Like I said, I don’t expect you to believe everything I say, I’m confident that you’ll find the truth yourself soon enough. Just do yourself a favour and take my warnings about the Dragonblooded and the Sidereals to heart, you’ll live longer.”

“Actually, I believe most of it, or rather I believe you believe it,” Tetsu informed truthfully, “I’ve always had a knack for reading people and your story’s so unbelievable that it just might be true. The real question is how you know all that? If the Immaculates are suppressing the true history of the world, hypothetically, what makes you so certain of what you claim?”

Considering her answer, she shifted from a kneeling position into a more comfortable recline against the wall with her legs crossed at the ankles. “In my youth, I ran across a group that called themselves ‘The Illuminated’…”

“I know them,” Tetsu interrupted, “ran into them all the time down in Nexus howling a bunch of rot from street corners about ‘shining golden ones’ that would rid the world of poverty and disease and…”

An uncomfortable realization suddenly dawned on Tetsu.

“Yes, they’ve got missionary chapters all over the Scavenger Lands with one eye out for new recruits and the other eye out for loose Solars to drag into the net. The Illuminated are one of the more public faces of the Cult of the Illuminated and yes their dogma is based on the return of the Solars as the rightful rulers of Creation. Of course, it’s just another Sidereal front. You see, not all of the Sidereals see eye to eye on every issue, or perhaps any issue. Up until the Usurpation, they were divided in opinion over whether or not to go through with it; naturally, the side that did won by ruthlessly slaughtering anyone in their way, including brother Sidereals. Memories of such a betrayal die hard within the future hosts of their exaltations, though they lost a lot of ground politically without any Solars around to back up their cause. When the Solars started to come back about five years ago, they built the Cult up as a support group to shelter young Solars from the Wyld Hunt. I was recruited soon after I exalted but I discovered how the Sidereals that are on our side really think of Solars. To the leaders behind the Cult, we’re just more powerful Dragonbloods made to dance as they pull our strings.”

Tetsu’s mind, however, had gone off on a tangent. “Five years ago? I suppose it’s not a coincidence that…”

“…it is about the same time that the Scarlet Empress disappeared,” Ullah finished for him. “And no, I have absolutely no idea what happened to her. As far as I can tell, nobody knows what happened to her.”

At that point, Kano returned with rice and some cold meat along with a jug of water. Tetsu waited for Ullah and Kano to drink before he had a sip, however, the dream still vivid in his mind. “So what’s our next move?” Kano asked enthusiastically.

“Move?” Tetsu asked, slightly perplexed.

Ullah sighed. “We hadn’t gotten around to current events. Greyfalls invaded River’s Bend yesterday morning. There’s a small army pressing the citizens of low town into service fortifying the city led by a circle of five female dragonbloods. They waltzed into Sanejin’s throne room and handed him an ultimatum, they’ve got him by the balls and he knows it. Oh, and there’s some Sidereals in town. I met one spying on Sanejin when I slipped into the brothel and I doubt he was the one that wounded you, which puts at least two in the general vicinity of River’s Bend, which is unusual.”

“Doesn’t make any sense,” Tetsu grumbled, “starting a war with the Confederacy of Rivers is idiotic.”

“What’s the problem?” Kano asked with a shrug. “The dragonbloods have practically owned River’s Bend since before I was born. What’s the problem with making it official?”

Tetsu groaned. “Kano, there’s a world of difference between a few well juiced old farts having it off with some whores and an army camped on your lawn. All Lookshy has to do is divert a contingent down from Nasaru Redoubt, I doubt whatever Greyfalls can muster here will last a few minutes.”

“Lookshy?” Kano asked.

“The Confederacy’s military arm,” Ullah supplied, “they were an old Shogunate Legion that refused to recognize the rule of the Scarlet Empress in the wake of the Balorian Crusade. They’re one of the few armies that have managed to maintain their stockpile of First Age weaponry. The Realm’s tried to conquer the Scavenger Lands a few times but between the gorilla warfare of militias supported by Lookshy’s war machine and external threats to Creation, they’ve never been able to keep a grip on anything they take.”

“I can’t believe you don’t know what Lookshy is,” Tetsu grumbled.

Kano tore a strip of cold meat to shreds between his teeth. “Maybe it’s because I was too busy getting ass raped by Red Wolf to go to school.”

Tetsu sighed. “Speaking of, what’s Red Wolf doing in all of this?”

“Nothing,” Ullah shrugged, “as far as anyone knows, he’s holed up in the old White Crane Dojo and hasn’t come out yet. Personally, I’m willing to bet he’s got some sort of bolt hole in there and is running for the horizon as we speak.”

“You know,” Tetsu mused, “that sounds like a good idea.”

“WHAT?!?!” Kano spluttered.

“Look, kid, River’s Bend is a lost cause,” Tetsu grumbled, knowing what he had to say wasn’t going to sit well. “It’s only a matter of time before Lookshy swoops in and levels the place. Even if that wasn’t true, or they’ve got some plan to appease the Confederacy that will work, look at our assets. We’ve got you, a former child prostitute. We’ve got me, a fledgling Anathema or whatever that has no idea how to use his powers and who has been close to death once already. Ullah, no offence intended, but you could be the Scarlet Empress for all I know. I’m grateful to you for saving my life, so I’m assuming you have the best of intentions but even there, you have to admit the two of us are dead weight in this situation. I barely took out an enlightened mortal, five highly trained dragonblooded soldiers is seriously out of my league.”

“I agree,” Ullah nodded, “right now you’re not much use to me. But I can train you to fight and Kano knows the ground. You’ll be fully healed by sundown, so our enemies only have another day of grace. If we can drive out the dragonbloods, Lookshy will have no reason to invade. Greyfalls will write the whole thing off as a bad investment and blame all their ills on the Anathema as usual. Besides, there’s something more going on around here than just a territorial dispute. We’ve got Ma-Ha-Suchi to the north, the Mask of Winters to the south and the Raksha in the far east, all of which would just love to exploit a crack in Creation’s defences.”

Tetsu groaned. “First dragonlords, now you want me to go up against other Anathema?”

“If we don’t, who will?”

Kano nodded in agreement.

Grimacing, Tetsu sat up slowly. “Look, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t do anything, I’m saying that we shouldn’t pick this fight. Like these Sidereals you were talking about, it’s not in their interest to let the situation get out of hand, let them fix it.”

“How do we know they’re not behind it?” Ullah asked. “River’s Bend might be the sacrificial piece in a much larger game. It’s not like they care if people suffer and die in the process, they all get reincarnated anyway right?”

“Ugh,” Tetsu grunted, “why in all the hells did I have to get saddled with two bleeding hearts? We can’t do any good if we’re dead.”

Enraged, Kano stood up and hurled his bowl against the wall, scattering rice and shards of pottery across the room. “You might not care,” Kano shouted, “but I do! I still have a father in low town! You don’t want to help, fine, do whatever you want. I’m going to save my father!” With that, he stormed out and snapped the screen door shut behind him.

“Why me?” Tetsu asked rhetorically, groaning.

“I think we already covered that part,” Ullah quipped.

“By the way, do you ever have any weird dreams?” Tetsu asked, broaching the subject carefully.

“All the time,” Ullah replied, “it’s usually how the memories of our past lives express themselves. Of course, they get mixed up with actual dreams a lot, which can make for some very weird situations. What did you dream about?”

Inwardly, Tetsu breathed a sigh of relief. “Forget it, it was nothing. I need some fresh air.”

Ullah nodded. “You should be fine as long as you don’t exert yourself. Need a hand up?”

“No,” Tetsu refused, raising himself slowly to his feet.

She looked impressed. “Would you like some company? Keep you out of trouble?”

“Won’t say no,” Tetsu mumbled, hobbling to the screen door that led outside while Ullah followed behind.

The view that greeted Tetsu was a shock. He found himself looking out over hundreds of gravestones, some freshly dug, others old and overgrown. The walls were different from the inside but there was no mistaking them. “Shanku Toyo Graveyard,” Tetsu whispered, “you live here?”

“Shadowlands keep us hidden from Sidereals,” Ullah explained, “and I fill in time suppressing the unquiet dead.”

“So you must know Inkfinger?”

“In passing,” she admitted, “I agreed to let him hunt down his murderer at night, seemed like the decent thing to do.”

“Yeah, with any luck, Bonzo’s rotting in an unmarked grave somewhere,” Tetsu spat as he walked down the veranda, using the railing for support. “How far does the shadowland extend? I’d like to take a look at the city.”

“I can do you one better if you think you can handle some stairs.”

He nodded and let her lead him down a twisting path through the graves to a set of stairs that abutted a watchtower on the north western corner of the wall. “As far as I can tell, this was a small fort during the shogunate,” Ullah explained, “abandoned during the Balorian Crusade. I used to come up here for the river view but it looks like we’ll have to station someone here to watch troop movements now.”

Ascending the staircase was painful but Tetsu endured, taking one step at a time with Ullah supporting one arm. Breathing heavily when they finally arrived, he leant against the balustrade and looked out across the river that sparkled orange in the new dawn light. The docks were crowded with ships, more arriving just as other were leaving. New ships unloaded large stone blocks onto logs that were dragged away by teams of men and horses while Legion soldiers patrolled the banks. In the distance, he could see tall wooden scaffolding being erected against the mountain to connect a series of lifts and pulleys that would move the stone up the mountain.

“Wow,” Tetsu said, impressed, “they got all that done in just a day?”

“Exalted management and organizational skills, military engineers and a little persuasion, take a look,” she explained, handing him a telescopic eyepiece that she retrieved literally from thin air.

Tetsu made a mental note to get her to teach him that trick, it could make stealing things much easier. He forgot all about Exalted miracles (or Anathema heresies), however, when he looked through the eyepiece at the scene across the river. Interspersed through the workers were men with coiled whips who would occasionally whip the more complacent workers when the mood struck them. When one of them collapsed, the overseers would drag them out of the way and dump them, moaning incoherently.

“They’re feeding them an alchemical concoction that increases their stamina,” Ullah explained. “Unfortunately it causes some of them to work themselves close to death. A lot of the workers volunteered just to get out of the mines then discovered that they weren’t going to be paid for their service. When they tried to leave, several of them were killed.”

“That’s not the dragonblood’s style,” Tetsu noted. “They’re Guild men in uniform.”

“I think they’re trying to save their sorcery for more important jobs,” Ullah surmised, “their resources must be limited, there’s only five hundred proper soldiers on the field.”

Tetsu growled.

“You have a problem with the Guild?”

“I did most of my growing up in a poorhouse on the streets of Nexus,” Tetsu grunted, “I ran there after my parents were killed to escape Guild slavers. They couldn’t touch me after that but I saw far too much of the skin trade while I was there.”

“Nexus, huh?” Ullah prompted, intrigued. “Is that where you learnt the gift of the gab?”

“Yeah,” Tetsu admitted. “I ran my first scam there. Nexus runs on trade and trade runs on a loose network of contacts and paperwork. I got a group of kids together and ran messages for a small fee. There’s a little known statute that states that a messenger has the right to refill his canteen with water after delivering a message. The rich folk of Nexus have to import fresh water because the briny sludge that passes for water in the slums is shit. I’d run around between delivery points with a barrel, collecting fresh water from my runners after every job and organizing them so that no single one would visit the same place the same day, then went down and sold it down in the slums. The servants take care of little matters like water distribution, so we never got caught.”

“Why’d you stop?” She asked, curious.

“I moved on to bigger scams. The golden rule of Nexus is that you can get away with almost anything as long as you don’t restrict trade and don’t build up an army inside the city limits, which leaves you a lot of leeway. Most con men in Nexus make the mistake of becoming merchants; it’s the sort of game where only the big fish need apply. Instead, I ran scams that facilitated business, like gambling clubs, entertainment, sports… events that the rich and famous could go to in order to show off and make contacts, even if they lost a little money in the process. As a rule, I kept myself on the small to middle tier; the big boys play too rough and I was content with what I had. It all fell apart because my competition got a little too greedy and corralled all the gladiators in the arena fights. The Emissary decided that one hundred or so trained killers constituted an army and ordered him to unload all of his assets. He argued. The Emissary hung him from a flag pole by his intestines and turned the arena into kindling. When the dust cleared, I was the only one left to fill the power vacuum and the vultures descended to tear me apart. I brokered everything I had for a place on a fast ship to Great Forks and I’ve been running east ever since.”

“That must be a hard life.”

“But at least I’m free,” Tetsu muttered, watching another load of stone arrive at the docks. They stood there for an hour in silence, water lapping against the shore in the distance and the wind rustling the leaves overhead. Finally, Tetsu came to a decision.

“Ullah,” he broached, “what would your training involve?”

#

Leaning against the lip of the communal bath opposite her commander, Sarro stretched out her legs in the deep pool and relaxed. “According to Bonzo, he was approached by recruiters for the All-Seeing Eye soon after joining the White Crane Dojo. They set up several situations to help him rise through the ranks and in return he did a few odd jobs for them and provided information on Red Wolf and White Crane’s movements, playing the two of them off against each other and the Guild. It gets interesting around the time Red Wolf and White Crane set up a scam to make it look like they were at war in a complicated ploy to appease the Guild and Bonzo’s handler cut all ties with him… or maybe he was cut, who knows? Either way, he didn’t receive any orders for a few months then out of the blue he got a mission to kill a scholar called Yun and make it look like White Crane had ordered it. Of course, we already know that Yun was also an agent, which begs the question why would the Eye start eliminating their own agents? Either Yun had gone rogue or Bonzo was being used by someone impersonating the Eye. Of course, as we now know, the whole situation blew way out of proportion due to a series of highly implausible events, so implausible in fact that I doubt that any of them were co-incidence. Also, Yun’s partner remains a loose end in all this, though I’m betting he or she tangled with Sanejin and lost. Yun seemed to be covering the other angles.”

Delani nodded as Sarro broke down the problem, soaping down her long legs. “The important thing is that we can use the threat of Bonzo’s testimony against Sanejin, the Guild and the likes of Nellens Rapik as long as we can keep her alive. If word of the Water of Eternal Perfection and what they were doing with it reaches Greyfalls, the scandal could bring down House Nellens.”

“I agree,” Sarro said. “What’s the word from the others?”

“They left early. Hathor and Misari wanted to make sure the shift change went off without any issues and Agani went off on one of her surprise inspections. Honestly, I think she was going a little stir crazy, you know how Fire Castes can be.”

They were interrupted by a polite knock on the door before the Majordomo entered, his eyes downcast. “Excuse me, milady, but Sanejin, the Boyar of Pristine Vanity, requests and audience.”

“Then I guess I better see him,” Delani muttered, standing to pour cold water over her legs to wash them off, “entertain him in the lounge, I will be out in a few minutes.”

“Yes, milady,” he confirmed before exiting discreetly.

The water caste took a quick dip in the warm pool before drying off quickly with a towel and slipping into a sheer silk robe of blue with embroidered silver dragons. Sarro had to suppress a giggle. “Please tell me you’re not going to see him just wearing that?”

Delani smirked back as she exited. “You’re right; I need a flower in my hair.”

She composed herself as she walked through the halls to the lounge, taking a deep breath before stepping confidently through the doors. “Sanejin, so nice of you to drop by.”

The god stood as she approached and bowed, keeping his composure despite the fact that she was practically naked. “A pleasure as always, Lady Delani,” he greeted gracefully.

“And you are as charming as ever,” she returned the compliment before sitting so her companion could do the same. “Now, what are you here for?”

He chuckled. “Blunt and to the point, I like it. Actually, I am here to offer you a gift. I have around a hundred girls who are… extraneous to the smooth running of my establishment. I’m happy to offer their services to you and your men free of charge.”

“One hundred beautiful women, Sanejin? That’s quite a gift.”

“On the understanding that you give them back,” Sanejin quipped with a smile. “The morale of your men, and of course my good standing with Greyfalls, are of paramount importance to me. I apologize if I offended you on our last meeting but you came as a bit of a shock.”

“No offence taken, I did drop a bit of a bombshell on you, didn’t I?”

“Quite so,” Sanejin agreed. “I’m still surprised that Kitono would make such a move. Nasaru Redoubt is only a stone’s throw away; it will take quite the diplomat to get the Confederation of Rivers to back off.”

“Hopefully it won’t get to that, if we can make River’s Bend into a strong enough fortress by the time Lookshy decides to strike, we can make any attack too expensive to contemplate. River’s Bend doesn’t have any real strategic importance to anyone but Greyfalls, General Kitono’s goal is to prove that it can be done. Even if we can’t conquer the surrounding kingdoms, River’s Bend makes a nice advance outpost.”

Sanejin plucked a grape from the bowl on the table before them and rolled it between his fingers. “You know, I wonder if you’ve considered personally what will happen if it all doesn’t go according to plan?”

Sitting back in her chair, Delani steepled her fingers and crossed her legs. “How do you mean?”

“Far be it for me to speculate on the worst possible scenario for yourself and your friends but it seems to me that if something does go wrong before you can get the fortifications completed, it might be in Kitono’s best interests to leave you out to dry.”

“Was that a threat, Sanejin, or do you doubt my abilities?”

He held up his hands. “Neither, I’m just speculating as an example. Plenty of other things could go wrong, Kitono’s gambit could be discovered by house Nellens and the Thousand Scales could order you to pull out, at which point your career would be in tatters. I only mention it out of a sense of gallantry, even if it’s neither looked for nor asked of, since I have a personal aversion to seeing beautiful, capable, women thrown to the wolves.”

“Interesting as speculation but pointless, we will have the defences ready before it becomes an issue.”

“Even with an Anathema on the loose? I admire your confidence. In either case, I might be in a position to help you.”

“How so?”

“I’m pursuing a line of inquiry that might get Lookshy to back off entirely, however I thought I’d broach the possibility, in case the worst comes to the worst, of you seceding from Greyfalls entirely.”

Delani gave him a stony look. “Are you suggesting that I betray my Empress?”

“An Empress in abstentia,” Sanejin pointed out, “the Realm isn’t really ruled by anyone at the moment is it? Kitono would never have been able to send you here if the Scarlet Empress was on the throne after all. But no, I’m not suggesting you betray the Realm at all. After all, there’s nothing to say that the Scavenger Lands isn’t large enough for two Ream tributary Satrapies is there? Particularly one so small as River’s Bend.”

“I see, you’re suggesting I betray General Kitono and Greyfalls.”

“Only if they stab you in the back first,” he shrugged, “but I am merely putting up the possibility as an option of last resort. What you do is, of course, entirely up to you, I only ask that you heed my words. Now, to change the subject, I have something else to offer you, something more tangible than advice.”

“Go on,” Delani prompted, her voice flinty.

“It occurs to me that I have offered your men a great gift to ease the burden of lonely nights and yet you and your sisters may not be inclined to partake of it. What I can offer to all of you, however, is much more valuable. Tell me, do you know why the Immaculate Order frowns on fraternization between Dragon Lords and the Gods?”

“So that we keep the bloodlines pure and produce superior children that will exalt,” Delani answered by rote, “everyone knows that.”

“Yes, that’s what they say. It happens that it is not only a lie but it is a lie with a concealed agenda. The real reason is that children of the union of Gods and Dragon Lords always exalt.”

Delani snorted. “Oh, come now, that’s patently not the case. If it were, the eugenics program would be forcing us to copulate with deities rather than each other. Why, we’d conquer all of Creation in only a few generations.”

“Which is exactly why nobody in power wants it to happen,” Sanejin retorted shrewdly. “Consider what would happen if every province of the Realm was filled with Dragonbloods. How would it be governed? How would those in power maintain control? I am loathe to admit it but my brothers and sisters are a petty lot, what would stop them from tearing Creation apart in wars between legions of dragonblooded children? The Realm only works because, like the First Age before it, there was a powerful oligarchy at the helm that held all the power with an iron fist.”

For several minutes they sat in silence as Delani started at him. Sanejin waited patiently, popping the grape into his mouth and chewing slowly.

“Are you suggesting what I think you’re suggesting?” Delani asked, incredulous.

“Just putting the offer on the table before I leave,” Sanejin replied, standing and bowing, “just consider it, Delani. All of your children, guaranteed to exalt. Please, pass the offer on to the rest of your circle. I hope you have a productive day.”

He bowed again before the Majordomo led him out, leaving Delani to sit stunned in her chair, staring into space.

#

Stepping crisply down the line of men standing at attention, Cathak Agani gave each of them a once over with her steely gaze. Finally, she came to the officer at the end of the line and nodded. “At ease, men.”

They snapped a precise salute and stood at rest. Their officer saluted as she turned her attention to him as protocol demanded. “Ma’am,” he greeted informally.

She gave him the once over too, noting an anomaly. “Nice boots, Sergeant, very nice boots indeed.”

“Thank you, ma’am,” he replied, wincing.

“In fact, I don’t think they’re imperial issue footwear at all, are they?”

His men were well disciplined; none of them so much as snickered.

“No, ma’am, I purchased them off a pedlar in low town, ma’am.”

“Purchased? I see,” Agani said knowingly. “Well, there’s no article saying that an officer doesn’t have the right to upgrade his equipment.”

“No, ma’am,” he said with some relief.

“I want to see them. Take them off.”

The Sergeant paused for a moment, trying to think of something to say but he couldn’t raise any objections, so he complied. Removing his left boot, he stood on one leg and held the boot out for inspection.

“Both boots, Sergeant,” Agani commanded.

He seemed to be in visible pain as he lowered his sock-clad foot onto the muddy ground, removed the other boot and placed his dry foot in the mud as well, presenting both boots for inspection.

Agani looked them over and couldn’t hide how impressed she was. The boots were exquisite. “Tell me, Sergeant, where did you… purchase… these boots?”

“From the pedlar in the run down inn over there, ma’am,” he answered, pointing at a decrepit building at the edge of the square.

Nodding, she saluted him. “Thank you, Sergeant. It seems your socks have gotten wet, you have permission to bathe. Dismissed.”

“Ma’am,” he saluted back before organizing his men so that he could was and change his socks. Taking her leave of them, Agani sauntered casually over to the old inn and rapped on the tattered rice paper screen door. An old man opened it a few minutes later, bowing obsequiously.

“Lady, you honour my humble establishment. Please enter and sit down,” he greeted with all possible hospitality.

She wasn’t impressed with the room when she stepped inside. The corners were filthy, the kitchen needed scrubbing and the stench of spilt sake was tangible in the air but it was typical fare for a slum. Three men sat at the tables, staring at each other. One was obviously the humbled pedlar, blonde and handsome despite his well worn clothes. He wore a smile that seemed stamped into his face, much like the statue of a benevolent god. The other two patrons looked a little sour, both dressed in robes common to high town. Both had short dark hair and looked similar enough to be brothers.

“Pardon me, am I interrupting something?” Agani asked, looking for a place to sit that wouldn’t soil her pants but unable to.

“Not at all,” one of the brothers said, “we’re just here to purchase some boots, milady.”

“What a coincidence,” she said, placing one foot on the table in front of the pedlar, “I’m here for exactly the same reason.”

#

Rage vaulted one final copse of trees before landing in the clearing he and Feather had designated as an emergency meeting point. He was going so fast that he had to bound several steps to slow himself down. “Feather?”

A rustling in the bushes made Rage drop into a combat crouch, pulling a bow and arrow out of Elsewhere and aiming it at the offending bush. “I know you’re there, come out now!”

Nothing happened. The bush was still again and Rage couldn’t feel so much as the whisper of a presence anywhere. Something white caught his eye on a stump next to the bush, so he crab walked, staying low to the ground, over to it. It was a piece of paper with writing on it that had been rendered in Feather’s hand.

Focused Rage, it read, I have had an accident while I was in the Temple. Please do not shoot me until I have had a chance to explain. I am waiting behind the bush to your right. Last night, I had an encounter inside the manse with an environmental hazard…

“It has altered my gender?” Rage read out loud, incredulously. “Do you seriously expect me to swallow that?”

It pains me to admit, the letter continued, but I am now female. I am also bound to say, objectively, that I am quite attractive.

“Ok, that does sound like something Feather would write,” Rage muttered.

Furthermore, I believe this is how Sanejin has access to so many beautiful women to act as temple prostitutes. He uses this water to create them. Please, I beg you Rage, for the friendship we share. I have had a harrowing night both recovering from such a traumatic transformation and worrying myself to death over how to deal with your reaction. I know this sounds impossible but I swear by the Five Maidens that it is the absolute truth. I await your mercy, take whatever precaution you feel necessary and call me out once you are ready.

He licked his lips, thinking profusely, trying to see what sort of angle anyone could possibly see to gain in such a wild story. Turning his complete attention to the indicated bush, he held his arrow cocked firmly in place. “All right, whoever you are, I’ve read your letter. Come out where I can see you.”

The bushes rustled as branches parted slowly. First, two soft and dainty hands appeared, almost swallowed up by the too-long sleeves of a man’s dark blue robe. They were followed by slender arms that were likewise hard to make out in the voluminous attire. Rage couldn’t fail to notice, however, the feminine body that followed, shapely enough that it would have stood out swathed in nothing but a burlap sack. The lady’s heart-shaped face, so breathtaking that Rage’s mind automatically appended a noble title to it, was perfect, inset with almond-shaped cobalt blue eyes that were almost hypnotic in their allure. Her hair was the colour of ink and spilled down her back like water, her skin was a perfect pale eastern shade, unblemished.

“All right,” Rage said, trying not to let his nervousness into his voice, “I don’t know what your game is but you can’t be Shining Feather.”

She held out her hands out palm first and spoke in a musical voice. “Rage, I know this seems crazy but I really am Shining Feather. Please, don’t kill me.”

“How by the Green Sun do you think you can prove to me you are who you say you are?” Rage shouted.

“Ask me a question,” Feather implored, “I’ll answer anything you ask.”

“How do I know you’re not some sort of shapeshifting demon that sucked out all of Feather’s memories?” Rage demanded, on the verge of letting the arrow fly.

Feather paused, her mouth opening and closing several times as she tried to come up with an answer. “Ok, you know, I think it’s a good indication of how stupidly paranoid my life has made me that I can’t think of a single way to refute that.”

Staring at her, Rage lowered the bow. “Feather? That’s really you? How in all the names of Malfeas…”

He trailed off when he noticed the tears welling up in her eyes, followed by sobs as all the tension of the last night flowed out of her. Reaching out automatically, he pulled her into an embrace, letting her cry into his shoulder as she clutched his back. Feather let him comfort her, holding onto him as if he were the only rock of sanity in a sea of chaos. He held her until her sobs died down; stroking her hair as he whispered to her that everything would be all right.

They were interrupted by the sound of someone clearing their throat. Together, they turned to look for the source of the sound, finding a short woman in a simple purple robe glaring at them with amber eyes. She was cute rather than beautiful, petite and slender with small breasts. Her red hair was tied up into a high ponytail that swept down to her shoulders by a long length of black ribbon that matched the colour of the bracers and belt that clinched her wrists, ankles and waist.

“Rage, darling,” Destined Edge growled at her boyfriend. “You have some explaining to do.”

#

Though the Fate of the River’s Bend was still tangled up like a bowel of pasta, reality was in danger of being sundered by another threat in Shanku Toyo Graveyard; the threat of Tetsu’s expletives tearing a hole into the wyld. The eclipse case leapt out of the circle where he and Ullah sat cross-legged and hopped around rubbing the palms of his hands together as if they had just been dipped in something oily.

“What in the name of all the Yozi’s genitalia was THAT!?!” He shouted, feeling dirty all over.

“Ravaging Blow is your first step on the path of the Dark Messiah Style,” Ullah explained calmly. “Given your physique and the brutality of your preferred methods, this is the best supernatural martial art I know to compliment your fighting style. It is of the Celestial circle and very powerful, if brutal and violent in the extreme. You are learning martial arts, however, and martial arts is the study of doing violence upon another. I know you understand the benefits that a reputation for extreme force can lend to any negotiation.”

Tetsu shivered. “Where did you learn it?”

“I was taught the form during my time with the Illuminated. Sidereals are consummate martial artists that have always studied the forms of their enemies, the so-called Anathema. It was deemed appropriate by the gold faction to pass our arts back to us on our return. Are you ready to continue? We still have much work to do.”

Kano watched from his perch on the veranda, picking at a bowl of rice with his fingers. “I knew you were nothing but a big softy, Tetsu,” he mocked, “oooh, I think we should just run away. Oh, nooooo, I don’t want to hurt anyone…”

Growling, Tetsu’s hands balled up into fists as he glared at the mortal, allowing his rage-stained essence to fill his hand. A casual back-handed strike shattered the three-inch thick tombstone next to him, turning a good portion of the solid rock to dust. Tetsu looked at his hand, wiggling the fingers while Kano gaped. There wasn’t as much as a mark on his knuckles. Ullah looked pleased with herself.

“Right,” Tetsu said, stepping back into the circle and sitting back down, placing his palms on Ullah’s, “I’m ready for the next lesson now.”

Nodding, Ullah intoned the words of the spell yet again and strange motes of light began to flow between them, emerging from her forehead and shooting into Tetsu’s. Kano watched, fascinated by the display of magic, and prayed to all the gods in Heaven that he might be exalted one day.

#

Pausing in the doorway, to a chamber deep below his temple, Sanejin watched as three of his larger brides manhandled one of Red Wolf’s militiamen into one of the many restraining chairs that dotted the cavernous room. Once he was held completely immobile, legs spread, they forced a scissor-like device with a screw mechanism between his teeth that gradually forced his mouth open. Above each chair waited a hanging waterskin with a hose at the bottom that ended in a simple valve. Other devices waited on a nearby table with which to initiate their new sisters.

“Father,” a gorgeous woman with honey blonde hair greeted him. He smiled and kissed her tenderly on the lips. “Meria, I trust they’ll all be ready for tonight?”

“Yes, father, our new sisters are adapting well to their lessons. We left that last one untouched as instructed.”

“Excellent, be sure that I’m not interrupted,” he ordered, stroking her cheek fondly before moving on. The god watched as one of the militiamen strained against his bonds, back arching as new breasts bloomed large on his chest. Another was screaming in pleasure as her sisters inducted her into his service with erotic kisses and probing tongues. Similar sights surrounded him on all sides as more of his former repressors were dragged from cages and strapped into their chairs even as others were led meekly upstairs to continue their training. Eventually, the god arrived at a cell door, wooden with a single shuttered window. Opening it, he slipped into the dark alcove inside that was lit only by a tiny window high above.

“Sorry I couldn’t give you a ring side seat, old boy,” Sanejin drawled, towering over a horrified Red Wolf as the screams of the men, women and men becoming women echoed in the tiny chamber. “Believe me, it’s a wild party out there.”

“Come to gloat?” Red Wolf asked, misery clear in his voice. “Come to see me broken? Well get your fill! Look at me! Laugh! Mock me if you will! Kill me if you must to sate your desire for vengeance, I haven’t the heart to live.”

Sanejin clapped, circling the man as he wallowed on the floor at his feet. “Bravo, a very pretty speech. Unfortunately, I’m not quite done with you yet.”

He struck from behind, grabbing Red Wolf’s chin and forcing his head back, jamming one knee into his back to hold him in place. The god’s strength was indomitable, forcing open Red Wolf’s jaw with one hand as the other pulled a vial of water from his sleeve and poured it into the mortal’s mouth, quickly snapping it shut and closing off his airways to force him to swallow.

The enlightened mortal quivered on the ground as the changes overtook him. Hair grew out in waves, lightening to a bright auburn shade while his skin softened, deepening to a light mocha shade. Cheekbones became more pronounced as his jaw slimmed, making him attractively impish. Though he slimmed down, he remained tall and athletic, though his waist contracted significantly, his butt and chest made up for the loss of weight. When the transformation was done, he was looking down at a beautifully curvaceous and exotic woman with child-baring hips and ample breasts.

Kneeling, he pushed her onto her back and smiled, she looked extremely cute with her eyes screwed up and her face skrinched up the way it was. “Come on, Wolfie, open those eyes and greet the world.”

Squeaking pathetically, she shook her head.

“Have it your way,” he purred, sliding one hand down the collar of her now ill-fitting robe, sliding his fingers down until he had her breast in his hand. She gasped when he squeezed, her eyelids fluttering involuntarily. A single brush of his thumb across her nipple made them fly open, gasping at the pleasurable sensation that arced down her nerves. The moment their eyes me, she was lost, horror and defiance fading to be replaced by overwhelming devotion and love. She wrapped her arms around his neck as he kissed her, pulling open her robe so that she could press her naked body against him as their tongues danced together and they lost themselves in the passion of the moment.

She worshiped him for hours on the floor of the cell, wanting nothing more than to please him for the rest of her life.

Chapter 11

The sun was high in the sky by the time Bonzo stirred, tangled up in the bedsheets. She felt miserable, like she’d just arrived back from a three day hike in the mountains despite sleeping half the day away and her head ached. She regretted sitting up almost immediately, acidic bile burning the back of her throat as her vision swam.

She managed to get to her feet and shamble across the room, slipping clumsily into a cotton robe that had been left folded over the back of a chair. She almost stumbled when she opened the door but a guard caught her elbow and held her upright. “Woah there, miss,” he said, “forgive me but you don’t look so good. Maybe you should lie down again.”

Bonzo shook her head, leaning against him for support. “Bathroom,” she groaned, “or get me a bucket.”

“Oh,” he said stupidly, looking up and down the hallway in a state of mild panic.

She got one warning contraction before her stomach decided to empty its contents. Fortunately, she was able to snatch the guard’s helmet off his head before she retched.

#

The last of the leaders of the 4th Dragon of the 23rd Legion looked quite pleased with herself as she strode confidently across the tiled floor towards the table where the rest of them waited patiently. Cathak Agani pulled out her customary seat from the table on Delani’s left and twirled, plopping into the chair and swinging her booted feet up onto the table, crossing them at the ankle as she rested the back of her head in her laced fingers. The others couldn’t help but feel their eyes drawn to her shiny new bright red boots, curiosity quickly turning into envy.

“Nice boots,” Hathor commented.

“Aren’t they?” Agani gushed. “I got them from a pedlar down in low town, seems he’s been bribing officers to keep him out of the work gangs with new boots. Considering his workmanship, though, I can’t fault their judgement; such talent shouldn’t go to waste. Now, did I miss anything?”

“No, we were waiting for you,” Delani mumbled, still running over her encounter with Sanejin in her head. “How is the construction progressing?”

Misari shrugged. “We’re still on schedule, though I’ll be much happier when the airships arrive. No casualties amongst the workforce so far but I fear it’s just a matter of time before one of the slavers pushes them too far.”

“I’m keeping them on a tight leash,” Hathor added, “we’ll meet our deadlines.”

“Patrols report no movement on the outskirts,” Agani injected, “looks like we’ve gotten away with it so far. Of course, the closest villages know to give River’s Bend a wide berth, so visitors should be few and far between.”

“Hmmm,” Delani mused. “I’m afraid that Sarro and I are going to have to ruin the good news. It seems that the assets the All-Seeing Eye had in place to watch the political situation here were isolated and tricked into turning on one another. Normally I wouldn’t be too concerned with the misfortunes of spies except that the lynchpin of our entire plan hinges on the speed of construction. A single saboteur could destroy everything we’re working toward.”

“We have the town locked down,” Hathor stated, “though as Misari says, I’ll be happier once the airships arrive. Until then, there’s not much more we can do other than be on guard and ready to react. Personally, my major concern is the Anathema; it could be anywhere by now.”

“Assuming it survived the landslide,” Sarro said.

“We must assume it did,” Delani interjected. “Never underestimate an Anathema’s power. All of us have to be ready to fight it at any time. If you do encounter the Anathema, your standing orders are to disengage and call for help. I will not tolerate heroics, even if it is only a Deciever. The five of us will confront it together and together we will share in the glory in the name of the 23rd Legion.”

They all nodded sagely but Delani doubted their sincerity. The head of an Anathema was too great a trophy to pass up despite the danger and her officers were impetuous. Sighing inwardly, she said a silent prayer in hope that her fears were unfounded and the creature was indeed destroyed. “Now, there is one last item that we need to cover,” she continued, steeling herself against the storm that she was sure would follow. “Do any of you know of children born of the union of Gods and the Exalted?”

“Aside from me?” Sarro asked. Her four peers turned to stare at her. “What? Didn’t you know my mother was a Forest Nymph?”

“No but it explains a lot,” Hathor grumbled.

Delani considered how she was going to phrase her next question for a moment before deciding to dive right in. “I’ve heard a rumour that children of Gods and the Dragonblooded will always exalt. Is that true?”

She wasn’t very surprised when her question provoked a reaction from each of her circlemates. Hathor snorted derisively, Agani’s eyes narrowed, Sarro looked perplexed and Misari’s eyebrow twitched, which was her equivalent of a mental breakdown.

Sarro took a deep breath before answering. “Not all of them…”

Delani breathed a sigh of relief.

“…the ones that become Anathema don’t exalt as Dragonlords, from what I understand, but yes the rest always do. I thought everyone knew that.”

“Bite your tongue, Outcaste,” Hathor hissed. “You’re edging dangerously close to heresy.”

Sarro looked taken aback. “I didn’t mean to cause offence, it’s just a fact. Mother was always disappointed that I wouldn’t ever be able to follow in her footsteps and ascend the though the ranks of the Elemental Courts.”

“It’s not heresy, per se,” Agani said, interrupting Hathor before she tried shouting the rest down, “the Order doesn’t forbid dalliances with the divinities, particularly when you consider the possible ramifications of denying a Celestial God. Marriage has been sanctioned if the couple is well connected politically; I seem to remember a bit of a scandal involving twin sisters that became Anathema in the Thorns area just after we lost the city who were the product of such a union. Of course, the Goddess in question crushed the up swell of resentment that followed.”

Everyone was stunned when Misari raised her hand, the usually placid girl hardly ever speaking unless she was asked a direct question. “If I may, Delani, what prompted you to ask?” The air caste queried in her usual soft spoken manner.

“Sanejin,” Delani answered. “He offered to help us fulfil our duty to the Realm by providing heirs that are guaranteed to exalt.”

Hathor slumped back into her chair, her face echoing the other girl’s stunned expressions. Misari gripped the earth caste’s hand tightly, looking for the mutual reassurance of avowed lovers. Despite the fact that the two were inseparable, the Realm’s eugenics program ensured that they were also engaged to two, no doubt worthy, men with whom they were expected (or rather ordered) to procreate.

“True or not, Sanejin must be working some sort of angle with an offer like that,” Agani posited. “It’s the sort of offer that falls into the ‘too good to be true’ category.”

“Further, it’s the sort of offer we can’t refuse,” Hathor whispered. “When my elder sister didn’t exalt, she was forced into an arranged marriage with a drunken northern barbarian that had her garrotted when she became infertile after miscarrying her first child. If you think for a moment I’ll allow any of my children to suffer the same fate, you’re sadly mistaken.”

Standing, Delani circled her chair, resting both hands on the back both to lend weight to her words and provide her some cover if the next step didn’t go as well as she hoped it would. “We have to consider all the possible outcomes of this endeavour. Even if we succeed in holding River’s Bend, it’s likely that Lookshy will put us under siege. I fear that in his eagerness, General Kitono has blundered. Naturally, I will follow his orders to the letter as a loyal servant of the Realm and yet I also have a duty to the Realm beyond loyalty to my superior. It was understood from the very beginning that any hope for true victory here would rely on successful diplomacy... on the other hand I also fear that we’ve been used as an excuse for General Kitono to start the war he’s been perusing politically for years. We have been promised reinforcements if Lookshy attacks… what happens if those reinforcements become politically inconvenient?”

Sarro shook her head. “Surely too much has been committed to this action to simply let it wither on the vine? Besides, we were specifically ordered not to look into the Great House’s dealings in River’s Bend to prevent a scandal, if Lookshy pacifies the territory the Confederation might even be able to influence the succession.”

“It might not even get that far, House Cathak’s investment in River’s Bend is relatively minor,” Agani mused. “If Kitono broke the scandal himself, however, he might get enough support to depose the Satrap and take control of Greyfalls. Compared to that victory, I think the loss of a few hundred mortal soldiers and a handful of Dragonbloods would be deemed minor. Most of the Lords that visit Sanejin’s palace are members of the Thousand Scales, not warriors that Kitono respects. And you’ll pardon me for saying this, but two of us are Outcastes and I have disgraced myself once already, so his real net loss is two officers.”

Agani kept the fact that Delani’s ambition was well known in the 23rd Legion and that Kitono might not mind if she were to die in the field to herself. Just because she left it unspoken, however, didn’t mean that the possibility was lost on her peers.

“Which means that the survival of the 6th Dragon, the fate of Greyfalls and the ascendancy of the Realm in the East might just be decided in this room, right now,” Delani intoned, trying to led as much gravitas to her voice as possible. “After thinking it through, I feel that this is the only scenario that makes sense. Military victory here is only viable in the short term; the best we can hope for is that diplomacy stalls our withdrawal for a decade or two. Political victory gains Cathak Kitono the largest Satrapy in the East, if not Creation. Kitono is, however, the only beneficiary of such a victory, not matter how much he might justify it to himself. The fall of a Great House is not in the best interests of the Realm in such a volatile environment, with threats looming from all sides. Moreover, even if we complete the fortifications, how long can we really stand against Lookshy’s Shogunate era arsenal? I doubt Kitono expects us to; in fact breaking the scandal might be easier if we were eliminated from the picture. What I propose to you all galls me but it might be the only way to defend the 6th Dragon and the Realm from ourselves. I propose that we secede from Greyfalls and make River’s Bend a satellite city-state with the complicity of House Nellens. By becoming part of the Confederation of Rivers, we can prevent Lookshy from crushing us like a bug and proceed to expand our territory. With Sanejin’s aid, the nation we build could field enough dragonblooded warriors to conquer the Scavenger Lands in the name of the Empress. What say you all?”

Silence stretched as each of them considered their answers. Sarro was the first to speak, shrugging. “I’m an Outcaste anyway, if it all goes horribly wrong I can always go back home. On the other hand, I like the idea of being a queen, I’m in.”

Hathor looked to Misari, who gave her a short nod. “We’re in,” Hathor mumbled. “I don’t like betraying my House, even for a moment, but as long as we ultimately serve the Empress and Misari and I can be together I will do whatever I must. I trust you, commander.”

“Sounds like fun,” Agani quipped, remaining relaxed with her feet on the table, “I’m in, particularly if it means I don’t have to listen to the orders of incompetent old farts anymore.”

“Then the decision is unanimous,” Delani stated with grim finality.

#

“Darling,” Focused Rage, Chosen of Battles, master of warfare and a swordsman without peer begged from his position hanging upside down from one foot tied to a high tree branch, “can we please discuss this? It’s really not what you think.”

Destined Edge, Chosen of Endings, glared menacingly as she tied off the rope that was holding her boyfriend aloft, remaining frighteningly silent. Feeling self-conscious, Feather crossed her arms over her prominent chest and tried desperately to stop blushing like a virgin caught having it away in a hayloft by her father. She opened her mouth to speak in her partner’s defence several times but couldn’t formulate a sentence that would exonerate them. They’d never met before, after all, though Rage had spoken of her on occasion, but Feather knew with absolute certainty that she would never believe who she really was.

Finishing the complex knot that would hold her lover in place, Edge span to face Feather, levelling an accusatory finger in the Chosen of Serenity’s direction. “Shining Feather! Forgive me for not introducing myself earlier.”

Feather blinked. “What? You know who I am?”

“Naturally, you are currently the only other member of my dear Rage’s circle and, according to him, his best friend.”

“Oh, thank the Maidens,” Feather rejoiced, breathing a sigh of relief, “and here I was thinking that I’d never be able to explain myself.”

“No explanation necessary,” Edge said, flicking her long ponytail over her shoulder dismissively, “my Rage would be quite the catch for any woman, so your attraction is understandable. I would have insisted on meeting you much earlier than this except my wayward lover assured me that you were a man.”

Silence stretched as Feather stared at the other woman incredulously. Rage held his face in his hands and prayed. “You thought…”

“Yes I know,” Edge cut feather off with an annoying, high pitched, laugh, “I hardly believe any man could have such an effeminate name but when your chosen one swears upon the heavens, a dutiful fiancée should be inclined to believe him, don’t you agree? Foolish and romantic of me, I know.”

“Effeminate?” Feather repeated in disbelief, feeling her eyebrow start to twitch.

“Of course! Could you imagine what a man with such a name would be like? A real sissy, I bet, just an ineffectual mother’s boy!”

“Ineffectual?” She repeated again through gritted teeth.

“Indeed, probably neutered at birth. As you are a woman, however, I cannot forgive this transgression. Focused Rage is MINE. Our fates are entwined and I am ready to prove it on the field of battle at a moment’s notice. I acknowledge that you may lay as strong a claim to him as my own but I will NEVER relinquish him willingly. You have won the first round in this romantic triangle but I vow here and now that I will steal him back from your libidinous temptations and take him once more unto my bosom!”

“Honey,” Rage interjected, trying to diffuse the situation as he watched Feather’s face grow darker with every word from his fiancée’s lips, “I wasn’t lying. Feather was a man until this morning; he got turned into a woman against his will!”

“HA!” Edge snapped. “You would say anything to appease me! But really, you ought to come up with a much more believable story than that, you debased ruffian! I have punishments in mind for you that would make Desus cringe! To think you would run off to the far corners of creation with this common floozy!”

“Common… floozy?” Feather whispered. From his vantage point, Rage couldn’t tell if it was just a trick of the light or if the Chosen of Serenity’s eyes were really glowing in anger a moment before she screamed. “FLOOZY!?! Why don’t you go slit your wrists, you death-obsessed, flat-chested slut! Everyone in Yu Shan knows you spread your legs for Five Days Darkness when you got drunk last Calibration!”

Edge looked panicked. “Th-that’s a LIE! A thrice-damned dirty LIE! I lost a bet with Plentethemon! Venus spiked my drink! It was a Lunar shapechanged to look like me anyway, honest!”

“Besides,” Feather continued, slipping a fan out of her sleeve and opening it dramatically as she sashayed over to Edge, “why would Rage go for a sapling like you when he could have the willow in full bloom?”

“FEATHER!” Rage protested at full volume.

He was too late. The girl’s eyes locked, Feather looking down on Edge over her deceptively delicate war fan as they shared their sudden mutual hatred through the medium of eye contact. Things got serious when the sigils of their exaltations started to glow on their foreheads, their opposing essences flaring out into spectral images behind them. Feather’s anima, a sapphire noblewoman with an enormous brush, snarled at the shrouded violet figure whose tattered robes fluttered in a spectral breeze.

Before things could get serious, Rage summoned his Daiklave from Elsewhere and cut the rope holding his foot. Before so much as gravity could assert itself, however, two more ropes appeared out of nowhere to bind one hand and foot. Cutting another caused four more to ensnare all his limbs, immobilizing him. “In the name of everything that’s holy, will the two of you stop behaving like teen… wait… you slept with Five Days Darkness?”

Edge’s anima was suddenly sucked back into her as she blushed in shame. “Honey,” she said gently as she turned around, using a mollifying tone, “you know how those parties get once the gods of the four seasons go into full swing. Besides, I still think someone used Cash and Murder Games on me.” She glared over her shoulder at Feather.

“Don’t look at me like that,” Feather scoffed, “I didn’t do it.”

“But it’s a Serenity charm! Besides, maybe you were trying to embarrass me to get rid of the competition!”

“Oh, please, like I’d be threatened by a pipsqueak like you.”

“ENOUGH!” Rage ordered, which was hard to pull off bound upside down by his arms and legs. “Honey, he may not be acting like it right now but he was really a man this morning. He was investigating a manse that must have some sort of essence twisting side effect, you can see for yourself if you want. Feather… what in all the names of Malfeas! You’re acting like a spoilt Dynast bitch!”

Feather turned away in a huff. “She insulted me first.”

“Oh, yeah?” Edge snarled, turning on her boyfriend. “What was she doing in your arms then? Explain that.”

“Oh, come on Edge, he’d just been transformed against his will, I’d come in a hair’s breadth of shooting her. When the tension broke, she started crying and I was just so shocked… it seemed like the thing to do. Now can you please nullify your charm so I can get down from here?”

Removing a hairpin, Edge threw it at the knot she’d made to tether Rage to the ground, severing the rope and embedding the sliver or metal an inch into the tree behind it. Freed, Rage flipped over in mid air and landed lightly on his feet. “Thank you, dear, by the way nice trick.”

She turned away from him. “Don’t think you’re out of the doghouse yet.”

“Oh, for the love of… darling, I understand the whole thing with Five Day’s Darkness, really. Calibration parties do get wild, godlings and exalted play fast and loose with people’s free will when they’re not inebriated and it’s not like we’ve taken a vow of chastity or anything. All I did was hug a scared friend, that’s all.”

“Humph!” Edge rebuked eloquently, turning her nose up at him.

Rage started rubbing his eyes, feeling a headache coming on. “And Feather… could you please explain to me exactly what was going through your head?”

Feather scowled. “She started it. Besides, even though there isn’t anything between us, she thought she could steal you from me.”

“What?” Rage asked, shaking his head in disbelief.

“I don’t care who she thinks she is; nobody just waltzes in thinking they can take things they think are mine, even if they’re not mine. It sets a bad precedent.”

Edge looked thoughtful. “Oh, that actually makes a lot of sense.”

Holding his face in his hands once more, Rage despaired. “Is there something about breasts that make people crazy?” When he looked back up, they were both glaring at him. “What?”

#

“Time for a break, I think,” Ullah observed dryly, staring up at the sky from where she’d collapsed after finishing the last lesson. Tetsu was in worse shape, curled up just outside the circle, groaning. “Kano, could you please bring me the jars from the closet in the main room? There’s a few of them and they are fragile, so be careful and make several trips.”

Nodding, Kano scampered inside, returning a minute later holding two clay pots with a perplexed look on his face. “They look more like urns than pots.”

“They are urns,” Ullah confirmed, “just put them down next to me.”

Complying nervously, Kano backed away hastily. “They’re not… dangerous, right? I mean, aren’t they supposed to be in the ground or something?”

Ullah shook her head. “Don’t worry, there aren’t any ghosts attached to these remains. They do, however, allow me to store essence for emergencies. Three more should do it, Kano, if you please.”

Kano left as Ullah placed her hand on one of the urns, drawing out a strange blue aura that crawled up her arm and into her body. Once the stored essence was depleted, she moved onto the next urn, gradually replenishing her strength.

“This is the easy way?” Tetsu complained. “My skull feels like its splitting open.”

“Less easy than it is fast,” Ullah corrected, “it’d take months to train you without using sorcery and you need to be brought up to speed as quickly as possible. Let me be clear, however, what I’m teaching you isn’t about to make you invincible; powerful, certainly, but there’s a lot of beings out there that have been at this much longer than you have, especially the Sidereals.”

“I’m used to being the underdog,” Tetsu replied, “it’s when I’m at my most dangerous.”

“Pardon?”

“The problem with having power is that it makes things more complicated than they should be. Sure, if an enemy rushes in headlong at you it’s a simple matter to crush them like a bug. That’s where the problem starts and where idiotic bullies all over Creation make their first mistake. It’s why you hear all the whinging about fair fights when you’ve got them squirming on the end of your hook. Oh, come out into the open where I have the advantage and can win easily… it just shows how pathetic they really are on the inside. When your tools are limited it forces you to make the most of everything you have. Assuming a certain level of competency, this leads to the formulation of tighter, better, plans. Every battle I’ve ever won, everything I’ve ever earned for myself, can be attributed to this one axiom. I don’t need a sledgehammer when a needle will do the same job.”

“So what do you do if the enemy has both power and finesse?”

“Pray they can’t run faster than you.”

After a moment, Ullah burst into laughter. “At least it’s good to know our current methods meet with your approval. It seems like all I’ve been doing for the last five years is running and hiding.”

“I thought you said we were the most powerful of the Exalted? Surely after five years of training you’d be a match for these Sidereals?”

“Sidereals live for thousands of years, a few still remember the Usurpation and the height of the First Age. They still have access to our technology and they can control Fate itself. If that wasn’t bad enough, every single one is a peerless martial artist and they control both the Dragonblooded and the Realm. Five years? We’ll need at least five hundred to even compete on that level.”

“Wait, if they control Fate, how do we even stand a chance? They’d have to know everything that’s going to happen, wouldn’t they?”

“From what I understand, it’s not quite that simple. To manipulate fate, the Sidereals have to read and interpret the Loom, which is constantly changing as the gods, attendant spirits and the Sidereals tinker to better bring about their goals. In addition, essence workings and charms alter the Loom, often necessitating corrections by the Pattern Spiders that tend to it. Shadowlands and the Wyld also exist outside of Fate, so there are blank spots that can’t be seen. Raksha and Ghosts also aren’t bound by Fate, so their actions in Creation disrupt the Loom. That’s why I keep to Shadowlands like this place or even Wyld zones, they can’t find us here.”

“Unless, of course, they come to look for themselves,” a new voice observed, echoing strangely through the graveyard.

Tetsu immediately jumped to his feet, automatically assuming a stance that was at once new yet familiar, ingrained in his psyche by Ullah’s sorcery. “Show yourself and state your intentions!”

After a moment, Mamo hopped up onto the nearby wall from the other side, holding his hands out from his body in a peaceful gesture. “If I wanted to attack you, I wouldn’t have announced myself like that. Though I have to admit, it took me all morning to find you. Anathema must be like socks, always in the last place you look.”

Sitting up and crossing her legs, Ullah remained nonchalant and relaxed. “Is this the one who attacked you, Tetsu?”

“No,” he replied, shaking his head without letting his eyes off Mamo. “I’ve met this one before, though, he’s Red Wolf’s boy-toy, Mamo.”

“Not any more,” Mamo informed, hopping down to engage them on equal terms, “Master Sanejin no longer needs me to fulfil that role, Red Wolf is long gone.”

Ullah raised one eyebrow. “So you’re Sanejin’s spy?”

“I guess you could call me that,” Mamo mused, “though I prefer to think of myself as father’s right hand man.”

“Sanejin’s your father?” Tetsu asked, his eyes narrowing. “And he gave you over to a pervert?”

Mamo waved Tetsu’s comment away as if it were a bothersome fly. “Everyone’s a whore, Tetsu, what really matters is what we sell ourselves for. Father needed someone he could trust to watch Red Wolf and I am the only person in Creation whose loyalty to him is assured. I went to Red Wolf willingly, knowing exactly what was in store. It wasn’t always unpleasant; as I’m sure Kano there will agree.”

Risking a glance over his shoulder, Tetsu saw Kano standing in the doorway behind him trying to juggle three urns at once while glaring hatefully at their visitor.

“Kano,” Ullah said in a commanding tone, “bring those over here and put them down next to me. You will not drop them.”

Deciding wisely not to test the implied threat in Ullah’s voice, Kano turned away from his nemesis in a huff and did as ordered.

“If it’s any consolation, I did hate Red Wolf; lording over those weaker than him, grovelling to the more powerful. If it hadn’t been for Kano and I, others would have suffered more. Most of all, I loathed the way he treated my father, forcing him to do such horrible things. However, vengeance is sweet and we have you to thank for his ruin, Tetsu.”

“Me?” Tetsu asked, blinking.

“Of course,” Mamo affirmed, smiling, “don’t forget, I watched you demolish Red Wolf’s mansion, fend off more than a hundred men and slay White Crane; and all that after talking them out of killing you and pinning the blame for everything on Bonzo. I was also honoured to witness your exaltation, father was quite jealous.”

“I would have thought that sort of thing would make the gods nervous.”

“Some. The Solar Exalted still have many friends in Yu Shan and beyond, my father included.” Mamo crossed his slender arms and leant against one of the tombstones, relaxed as if he were on an afternoon’s stroll. “Gods are, by nature, immortal. The Terrestrial Gods chafe under the Immaculate Order and the Celestial Gods have never forgiven the Sidereals for the Usurpation and all the misery that followed after. The Unconquered Sun is all but forgotten along with the glories of the First Age. Creation is beset by dangers on all sides. We need every Solar, now more than ever. I am here to make you an offer of protection under my father’s wing. The Palace of Eternal Perfection can hide you from the Sidereals and provide you anything you require. In sort, Prince of the Earth, will you stand and fight with us?”

“You’re going after the dragonblooded?” Tetsu asked, caught off guard.

“Obliquely, yes. Father bowed to petty tyrants before, Delani and her circle are no different, or maybe worse. General Cathak Kitono is trying to start another war with the Hundred Kingdoms for reasons we can’t fathom. The Legion will be accepting tribute in the form of women starting tonight, women father feels beholden to save from a life of meaningless servitude.”

“Women Sanejin whores off anyway,” Tetsu snorted.

“Please, don’t mistake grudging necessity for willingness. We hate what the temple has become. Our house was once a place of unfettered love and willing devotion. We are but shadows of what was lost to tyranny but you have given us a chance to reclaim our pride! Please, Tetsu, you’re our only hope.”

Straightening up, Tetsu spat at the ground. “So your daft idea is to hide me from the dragonblooded in the middle of a brothel full of dragonblooded? Are you insane?”

“There’s a fine line between genius and insanity,” Mamo countered. “You are the only real threat to taking River’s Bend; everyone with their ears to the ground knows it. Unlike Red Wolf, you’re still in town, which means something. The Legion is busy right now but you can mark my words that their patrols will fan out ever wider and a shadowland like this will look mighty suspicious. Why not hide in the very last place they’ll look for you? All we ask is that you give us a chance to earn your trust.”

A long silence stretched out as Tetsu stared down at the smaller, more effeminate, man. Resolute, neither of them was willing to move or speak while Kano had no idea how to interject without looking awkward and Ullah simply remained unconcerned and aloof. Finally, Mamo took a step back, nodding cautiously before hopping back over the wall and out of sight.

Kano breathed a sigh of relief. “What the hell was that all about?”

“Neither of us had any more to say,” Tetsu answered with a shrug, “he made his pitch, now it’s down to us to make a decision. Personally, I was done talking.”

“Oh, I see,” Kano mused, “I’m glad we’re not accepting his offer, kid gives me the creeps.”

“What are you talking about? We’re moving into the Palace of Eternal Perfection tonight.”

Feeling a headache starting to come on, Kano rubbed his temples. “I thought you said that we’d have to be insane to hide in the middle of the enemy camp?”

“Never appear too eager. Besides, I believe there’s a charming eastern expression about being crazy like a fox. Not only do we have a nice base of operations in the temple that’s central to the action, Mamo was right in that it’ll be the last place they look for Anathema. As an added bonus, we get to keep a close eye on Sanejin at the same time.”

“Do you really trust Sanejin not to spike your water?” Ullah interjected.

“What would he gain from that?” Tetsu countered, shivering as the memory of his nightmare came to the fore. “He’s already got a small army of concubines and besides, if the Dragonbloods catch us with him it would mean his head. On top of that, Mamo was being straight with us as far as I could tell, or at least not totally dishonest.”

“That just means that Mamo believes what he said, Sanejin could have lied to him,” Ullah rebutted. “On the other hand, we have too much to gain to refuse the invitation.”

“We?” Tetsu asked pointedly.

“Well, not me personally,” Ullah answered with a shrug. “I have my own lines of enquiry to pursue and we’d just get in each other’s way anyhow. And if it turns out that Sanejin isn’t being straight with us, you’ll have somewhere to run.”

“Your own lines of enquiry?” Tetsu probed.

Ullah shrugged again. “I’ve developed links to the Confederacy of Rivers over the last few years. If I can get in touch with my contacts I might be able to prevent Lookshy from acting precipitously. All that can wait until tomorrow, however. We still have lessons to finish.”

Sighing, Tetsu nodded and sat back down in the circle, steeling himself against the rigors to come.

#

“No fever?” Sarro asked, placing her hand on Bonzo’s forehead.

“I… feel a little warm,” Bonzo admitted but neglected to mention that it was Sarro’s presence that was making her flushed. The wood caste was all woman, athletic and curvaceous from near constant training, her skin tanned yet still soft. Beside her, Bonso felt like a toothpick, her new body beautiful yet tender. It was hard for her not to think about Sarro and everything they’d done together the night before when the dragonblood wasn’t around, with her so close it was all Bonzo could do to keep her legs together.

“Give me your wrist,” Sarro ordered. Bonzo complied willingly, allowing the woman to press her thumb down firmly on the vein. Bonzo felt her heart skip a beat when Sarro suddenly frowned. “And you say you’ve been nauseous all morning, are there any other symptoms?”

“Just a bit tired and hungry,” Bonzo admitted, “even though I can’t seem to keep anything down.”

Sarro’s frown deepened, worrying Bonzo still further. “Lie down on the couch and open your robe.”

Blushing furiously, Bonzo glanced at the guards at the entrance. “Uh, right now?”

“Not for that,” Sarro said, chuckling, “I want to check your stomach.”

Disappointed, Bonzo did as instructed, though Sarro smirked at the girl’s disheartened look. The dragonblood admired Bonzo’s body as she lay bare before her, allowing her hands to glide over the milky white skin a little more than was necessary as she did her duty as a medic. “Tell me if this hurts,” she instructed as her fingers probed Bonzo’s flat abdomen. Jumping slightly, Bonzo hissed almost immediately. “Pain?” Sarro enquired.

“No,” Bonzo said, shivering, “it… it was like something twitched.”

Frowning again, Sarro moved her hands up Bonzo’s body and prodded her breast.

“OW! HEY!” Bonzo protested, flinching as she batted Sarro’s hand away, quickly crossing her arms to shield herself from further probes, her face scarlet. “That really hurt! Don’t poke them that hard!”

“I didn’t poke them hard at all,” Sarro muttered. Reaching out, she pulled Bonzo’s arms apart and pulled her robe back into place before taking the girl’s hands in hers. “I don’t know how to tell you this, Bonzo. I know you were a man not two days ago, so this is going to come as a shock.”

Bonzo gulped. “Wh-what? D-did I catch something when that… that… corpse…”

“In a manner of speaking,” Sarro sighed, internally debating the wisdom of what she was about to tell the new girl. “Ghosts are known to have their own magic, much like the dragonblooded. It’s one of the reasons they pose such a threat to the Realm and Creation as a whole, though they are nowhere near as powerful as the Anathema on the whole. Dear, one of those charms allows a ghost to make a girl pregnant without sexual intercourse.”

Blinking stupidly, Bonzo’s brain refused to put two and two together to get the answer four. It was almost as if what Sarro was saying was so impossible that logic and reason rebelled against itself to prevent her from realizing what was being said.

“Bonzo,” Sara said directly, “you’re pregnant.”

As the direct statement of face cut its way through Bonzo’s state of denial, she slowly shook her head in defiance. “No. No I’m not. I can’t be. I can’t be. I can’t be.”

Pulling Bonzo into her arms, Sarro gripped the girl tightly as her words degenerated into tears and wailing sobs.

#

“As you may have heard already, Sanejin is supplying us with entertainment,” Agani said, addressing her officers from the command tent in the middle of Low Town. There were a few shared smiles and some murmurs of eagerness amongst the crowd in response. “Yes, I know it’s all very exciting but we can’t let the god’s decadence lull us into complacency. Furthermore, we are only being supplied with around a hundred camp followers, which means there won’t be enough to go around every night. To this end, I’ve constructed a roster so that we can rotate all the men through efficiently. In addition, I want it clear that I’ll be punishing the slightest infraction of discipline with suspension of leave.”

The Dragonlord paused to allow that to sink into her audience, meeting several gazes until she felt that the seriousness of her threat had sunk in before softening her voice. “I’m sure we will all appreciate some relaxation in these troubled times, of course. However, we cannot tolerate lax behaviour. Until the walls are constructed, we are still vulnerable. I expect the very best from you all.”

“Ma’am,” one of the officers interrupted, “where will Sanejin’s… temple maidens be secured?”

“They’re taking residence in the White Crane Dojo, by all accounts the former occupants slipped away before we gained total control of the city. The building is well inside our perimeter, so regular patrols should be sufficient.”

A female officer raised her hand. “Not that I’m adverse to a little fun but are all of Sanejin’s whores female? Pardon my bluntness but I prefer masculine company.”

“Can I volunteer?” Another male officer quipped, earning a few chuckles.

“It is my understanding that Sanejin employs a few male prostitutes and that a limited number of them will be made available,” Agani explained, “though you might want to reserve judgement until you’ve seen some of the women. Say what you will about him but the god certainly has exquisite taste. Until then, I need you all to follow Lady Hathor’s instructions to the letter, we cannot afford any delay. Am I understood?”

“Yes, ma’am,” they answered in unison.

“Outstanding, you’re all dismissed.”

#

Scratching the back of his head, Menji watched as the strange trio that occupied his table stared at each other without saying a word as they had all morning. The pedlar had the same saintly smile on his face, though he’d been holding onto the expression for so long it now made him look like a cat that had fallen into a tub of cream. The brothers were equally strange, though both of their reactions were different. The one on the left gave the pedlar a constant flat stare, giving the impression that he was unimpressed. The other glared intensely across the table, becoming more agitated as the day wore on. The only time any of them spoke was to ask for more sake when their bottle was empty, which was enough to keep Menji from throwing them all out.

When lunch rolled around, Menji patiently cooked the rice, heaping it into a large bowl and placing it on the table between the silent guests along with empty bowls and a set of chopsticks to go with each. Once they started eating, the old man sat with them and grunted. “You three are going to spoil my appetite,” he grumbled, wiggling his toes in his lovely new sandals to try and comfort himself. They ignored him, continuing to stare at each other.

Growling at their disrespect, he scooped some of the rice into an empty bowl and chewed on the rubbery grains excessively. “If you’re going to fight, take it somewhere else, I don’t need a bunch of Exalted tearing up my place of business.”

It took a moment for what he said to sink in. Slowly, all three faces turned to stare at him, though each now wore an identical expression of disbelief.

“Oh, NOW you pay attention to the decrepit old man,” Menji snarled, turning to spit onto the floor. “I wondered how long it would take for the vultures to start circling, though I have to admit you’re here a few days ahead of my estimates.”

“What makes you think we’re dragonbloods?” The brother closest to Menji, the one that had been glaring, demanded.

“I don’t think you’re dragon lords at all, Lunar,” Menji answered calmly, “you’ve got a few feathers in your hair, so don’t bother denying it. Your companion’s nails are also blue.”

Recovering from his surprise quickly, the pedlar resumed his beatific smile. “I’m sorry, sir, but I’m not a Lunar at all.”

“That’s because you’re a Solar,” Menji stated plainly, “these two have been trying to gauge your strength all morning to figure out if they can take you down because they think you’re here to claim the manse on top of the hill. Now, I don’t particularly care why you’re here but if you all are going to fight, I’ll kindly ask you to take it elsewhere and leave an old man in peace.”

Stunned, the pedlar turned to look back at the brothers as Menji took up his bowl again and continued to eat. “Is that what the two of you are really after?”

They glanced at each other before nodding in unison. “Yes,” the calmer one admitted.

The pedlar breathed a sigh of relief. “Thank the Unconquered Sun. As far as I’m concerned you can have the manse, that’s not why I’m here at all.”

The tension in the room faded all at once as everyone relaxed. The three young Exalted hid their embarrassment by taking up their own bowls and eating the chewy rice in silence for a time. When they were finally sated, the angrier brother decided to speak.

“I am Valdis Eyebiter,” he introduced himself, “and this is my companion Kamaria Clearwater. Pardon the deception but these are not our true forms.”

The pedlar nodded. “Aten Drassilson, Twilight Caste. It is fortuitous that we have crossed paths, my companions have sought shelter with the Silver Pact.”

The lunars glanced at each other. “With which elder?” Kamaria asked.

“Adra Bloodmoon, she claims territory across Rock River.”

Valdis nodded. “We know Elder Bloodmoon, though we feared you spoke of Ma-Ha-Suchi. While he is a respected elder, outsiders would not be welcome in his fortress.”

“Yes, Adra warned us that he had quite a violent reputation even amongst his peers, though he’s already notorious in Greyfalls and the Hundred Kingdoms. We’ve been giving him a lot of latitude. I take it that means you aren’t working for him?”

“Much honour would go to a circle that reclaimed a lunar manse for the Silver Pact,” Kamaria explained, “this manse, however, is particularly sacred. Before we change the topic to something I have a burning curiosity about, what are your own intentions if you’re not here to claim the manse for yourself?”

“I’m looking for someone,” Aten said seriously. “Several days ago, a friend of my circle was killed with some kind of sorcery, a spell so foul that it polluted the essence of everything it touched. After his death, however, someone looted and buried his corpse. I tracked this man here to River’s Bend and intended to begin searching in earnest today… until the two of you turned up.”

“This man wouldn’t happen to have taken a green jadesteel daiklave by any chance?” Menji asked.

Aten turned to stare at the old man again in astonishment.

“Heh, I thought so. The man you’re looking for is called Tetsu and I’d take it as a favour if you leave him in one piece. He walked right on into this town pretending to be a dragonblood, throwing that daiklave around like child’s toy. Three days later he’d cut this town’s problems in half, quite literally, before exalting as an Eclipse Caste. Never thought I’d see the likes of that again.”

“Which brings me to my burning question,” Kamaria growled, “who the hell are you, old man? And how, by the goddess, do you know all of this?”

“My name is Menji,” he answered, “and I am the true City Father of River’s Bend.”

#

Far away in a clearing outside of town, two women sipped tea around a campfire while their male companion nursed a black eye. He glared at his formerly male friend every now and again with his other eye, grumbling under his breath as Edge fussed over applying ointment to the wound.

“What?” Feather snapped at him from her seat on an old tree stump.

“Sorry, dear,” Edge apologized before giving her lover the bad news, “but all things considered you did kind of deserve that.”

Rage winced as the petite redhead applied the stinging ointment. “All right,” he grumbled, “we’ve got more important things to discuss anyway. Not that I’m not glad to see you, Edge, but what in the name of the Green Sun are you doing here?”

“I’m here to kill the new Solar, of course,” Edge answered in a slight huff, “or did the local exaltation completely slip your notice?”

“We were there,” he rebutted, “and I’m afraid you’re too late, I killed him myself.”

Pausing in her ministrations for a quick chuckle, she shook her head. “Sorry, darling, but that’s where you’re wrong. He’s still alive and, believe me, the pattern spiders are pissed.”

Rage scoffed. “Honey, I cleaved his ribcage almost in half, I missed his heart by a hair’s breadth. Even Solars don’t survive that, particularly not immediately after exalting.”

“Sorry, Edge, but I have to agree with him,” Feather added, “I’ve never known Rage to claim a kill he didn’t earn.”

“Be that as it may, the Solar’s fate strand is still intact, despite the spider’s best efforts to eliminate it,” Edge informed them. “I think you better factor that into your calculations. Are you sure you were striking the Solar and not an illusion or some sort of fake?”

“There wasn’t any time for anything like that,” Rage denied, scowling. “Either this Solar is the toughest son of a whore I’ve ever met or he’s had help, maybe a bit of both. If he is still alive, though, the smooth tongued snake is going to be trouble.”

“He might be gifted but he’s an amateur,” Feather said, dismissing the possibility, “I can handle Tetsu the Wanderer.”

Rage frowned. “Feather, it’s not that I doubt your abilities but, in case you haven’t noticed, you’re not the person you were yesterday. I don’t know much about dissembling but it seems to me that you’re, if you’ll pardon my honest assessment, an astonishingly gorgeous woman.”

“Yes, I kind of noticed that,” Feather quipped sarcastically, “what’s your point?”

“I think what Rage is trying to say is that you’ve drastically changed the fundamental social dynamic that you’re going to have to exploit if you want to match wits with an Anathema,” Edge answered for her floundering boyfriend. “Or to be precise, you’re not used to being a girl yet. I take it this Tetsu is rather persuasive. What’s he like?”

“He’s a contradiction,” Feather answered. “He’s over six feet tall and all muscle, the kind of body you only get from hard labour. He’s also ugly as sin, probably from being punched in the face one two many times as a kid. He looks like a brainless thug and that’s where he blindsides you, behind that mask rests one of the most cunning minds I’ve ever had the pleasure of witnessing in action. He’s dangerous enough without charms, I dread what might happen if he gains power. Oh, and by the way, I’m NOT going to get used to being a girl at all because I’m going to find a cure for this even if I have to wring Sanejin’s neck to get it.”

“But you accept that while you are in this form, you’re not going to be at one hundred percent effectiveness?” Rage asked pointedly.

Feather waved the observation away. “You’re acting like we’ve never had to disguise ourselves as women before.”

“I think this qualifies as being a bit more drastic than putting on a wig and a dress,” Rage observed.

Edge stared at him speculatively. “You two really did that?”

“We had to infiltrate a southern satrap’s pleasure palace a while back,” Rage explained, “only three types of people allowed: the satrap, his women and the eunuch guards. Somehow I didn’t think you’d appreciate what I’d have to go through with the third option.”

Chuckling, she leaned in and kissed him much to Feather’s discomfort. “You two want some privacy?” Feather queried, reminding them that they had an audience. Watching them be intimate with each other was causing things to happen to her new body that she really didn’t want to think about and she let her annoyance show through her voice. “I could go solve the fate-shattering mystery while you two relieve your sexual tension.”

Groaning, Rage pulled away. “I thought the Chosen of Serenity were supposed to promote that sort of thing.”

“Usually I wouldn’t say anything but we really do need to discuss what our next move is.”

Annoyed at the interruption, Edge slid onto the fallen log next to Rage, using the moment she needed to adjust her robe to compose herself. “I think it’s obvious, Feather has to go back undercover at the brothel while Rage and I hunt down the Solar.”

Feather spluttered. “In case you missed it, I’m no longer exactly equipped to play the Dragonblood in the hen house. Not that there aren’t any female terrestrials enjoying the pleasures on offer but they’re remarkable enough to be noticed.”

“Which is why you’ll disguise yourself as one of the whores,” Edge proposed, her voice dripping with sweet venom.

“Hmmm,” Rage mused, scratching his chin. “You know, it’s got potential. We need someone to keep an eye on Sanejin and the brothel to make sure Tetsu, or whoever screwed up the Loom, isn’t hiding there.”

“You’re both insane!” Feather shouted, rage propelling her to her feet. “If you think I’m going to spread my legs for some rutting boar of a dragonlord, you’re out of your tiny minds!”

“Oh, calm down,” Edge rebuked, “nobody said anything about you having to actually perform sexual services. Sanejin has how many whores in his employ? One hundred? Two? If you keep your wits about you I’m sure you’ll be able to avoid any unpleasant duties. Besides, you’ll be able to move around freely, unnoticed.”

“Humph,” Feather grumbled, crossing her arms as she sat back down and pouted.

“I know you don’t want to hear this, Feather, but what she’s saying makes a lot of sense,” Rage said gently, glancing at his girlfriend as he dreaded her reaction to what he was going to say next. “I accept that I’m not the undercover type and I hate to say this but Edge wouldn’t be able to blend in like you could.”

Edge sighed. “Unfortunately, I have to agree. I doubt Sanejin is wise enough to employ petite women. Besides, you’re now immune to whatever turned you into this.”

Biting back a caustic reply, Feather sighed. She wasn’t about to admit to them that she drank essence-charged water from a lunar manse, it’d make her look like the idiot she felt like. “I fell into a pool of water in a chamber under the temple,” Feather explained, “I don’t know if it just works by contact or not, I might have got some in my mouth, so watch what you drink.”

“Does that mean you’ll go back to the brothel?” Rage enquired.

“Humph,” Feather grumped, “I don’t really have any choice, do I?”

Far away, deep in the Underworld on the edge of Oblivion itself, the Neverborn chortled with insane glee as the Great Curse claimed another victory.

#

“Pregnant?” Delani asked rhetorically, shock overcoming her usual composure.

“Without a doubt,” Sarro confirmed, “furthermore, the baby is developing at unnatural speed, she’ll be showing by morning.”

“This complicates things,” the water caste mused, neatly folding one final letter before sealing the paper with wax and setting it to one side on her desk, “is she in any danger?”

“Physically, I can keep her healthy and bring the baby to term,” Sarro reassured before delivering the bad news, “mentally, however, she’s not prepared to be a mother. Keeping her sane through the ordeal might be challenging.”

“Sarro, we will still need her to testify against Sanejin if something goes wrong. I don’t care if she’s having a baby or passing jade talents, you will do everything in your power to keep her whole. Am I understood?”

Sarro frowned. “I appreciate that Bonzo is important to our cause but I have to question the ethics of…”

“Ethics be DAMNED,” Delani interrupted, slamming her palm down on the table to emphasize her point. “I placed Bonzo’s continued wellbeing in your charge and you will do EVERYTHING in your power to ensure her complete health and fitness. Besides, a child will give us another bargaining chip to ensure her cooperation.”

Standing, Sarro leaned over the table. “Making her answer questions was one thing, Delani, mind raping her into wanting to bare a child by her rapist is… disgusting and amoral.”

Rising to meet her subordinate at eye level, Delani spoke with deadly calm. “We don’t always have the luxury of following the dictates of conscience. My only goal is to keep our men alive and I will do anything to ensure that outcome. Sacrificing Bonzo’s free will may seem harsh but it will benefit everyone in the long run, even Bonzo.”

“You can’t ask me to do this,” Sarro said, her eyes narrowing.

“I’m not asking you, no. I’m ordering you to do it, under my divine right as Dragonlord of the 4th Dragon of the 23rd Legion, given to me by the Scarlet Empress. Unless you wish to break with the circle, Sarro, it is your duty to comply with my orders.”

Taking a deep breath, Sara backed down. “It wasn’t my intention to challenge your authority. However, I must protest against such a course of action on moral grounds.”

“Your protest is noted,” Delani said, remaining implacable, “I hope that salves your conscience so that you can do what must be done.”

“If that is how you feel, I will do it,” Sarro sighed, “but you know it’s not right, Delani.”

Sitting back down, the commander sighed. “My friend, I disrupt the lives of thousands of men and women every day. Any one of these innocent looking letters that rest on my desk could mean riches or ruin for any number of strangers that I will never know, just as we are unknowingly directed by forces outside of ourselves. We must all snatch what freedom we can from the jaws of necessity. Bonzo will do the same.”

“And what if someone had power over you? Would you wish them to enforce their will on you in such away?”

“Likely, they have already,” Delani snorted. “In such a case, I can only hope that such a one has my best interests at heart, as we do with Bonzo. Or are you suggesting that being reduced to a drooling shell is preferable to acceptance of her new place in Creation?”

“No,” Sarro admitted. “Don’t worry, I will do as ordered.”

“Good,” Delani said, relaxing. “For what it’s worth, I’m sorry it has to be this way.”

“As am I,” Sarro sighed as she turned and left, “as am I.”

#

“All that’s Maiden Tea?” Misari asked her lover as she continued to pour over the plans for their future city, glancing at the shipment that had just arrived at the White Crane Dojo through the window in their tent. A line of servants were passing crates from the back of several wagons into the storehouse, working quickly and efficiently under the watchful gaze of the overseers.

“I hear there’ll be over a hundred girls available each night,” Hathor informed absently as she watched another shipment of rock pull into the docks through the door flap. “They’ll probably need enough to sterilize the all of Greyfalls over the course of a week.”

Misari chuckled. “That may be a slight exaggeration.” A sudden thought made the air caste frown. “Hathor, are you really all right with what Delani is planning?”

“I would have said something if I wasn’t,” Hathor reassured her. “I made an oath to the Scarlet Throne to protect and preserve the Realm at any cost. If we serve the Realm better with Delani as the Satrap of a city state rather than a Dragonlord of the 23rd Legion, so be it. She’s earned my trust a thousand times over.”

“I see,” Misari said noncommittally.

Hathor chuckled. “Don’t worry so much, dear, Delani has yet to steer me astray.”

“It’s not that,” Misari sighed, putting the plans to one side so she could concentrate fully, “honestly, I find the idea of sharing each other with anyone, let alone a god, repugnant.”

“I don’t like it either,” Hathor admitted, “I wouldn’t have capitulated on that point if you hadn’t given me the nod. Are you having second thoughts?”

“No, we have a duty to ensure the continuity of our line. It’s just… regret.”

Allowing the door flap to fall shut, Hathor strode over to her lover and kissed her cheek affectionately. “I know but as Delani is so fond of saying, we must all bow to necessity. Believe me; the thought of sharing you with anyone makes me want to smash things.”

“Sometimes I wish we could run away and just be together,” Misari said regretfully, “as stupid as such a sentiment is.”

Hathor leant in and gave her a proper kiss before smiling down at her. “I know, dear. It’s stupid and sentimental of you and I love you for it.”

Smiling contentedly, Misari pulled her back down to do a more through job.

Chapter 12

Waiting had always been the hardest part for Tetsu in his own experience. Caught in the moment of danger he was in his element, capable of adapting and conquering or failing and running depending on the will of the gods. The hours leading up to those moments, however, were pure torture. He tried to keep still as Ullah unwound the bandages from his chest, pleased that he was close to a full recovery in only a few days. Tetsu kept one eye on the sky as the light faded with the sunset through the whole procedure, eager to get back into the thick of things. Kano laid out a simple tunic and robe borrowed from Ullah’s closet of disguises which, thankfully, included some more masculine garments.

Most of all, Tetsu was disturbed by the newfound power he held at his fingertips. Sometimes he’d catch himself staring at his hands, knowing full well what they were now capable of. The Dark Messiah Style was aptly named, drawing on the power of the Underworld to turn its master into an avatar of death. It was power the likes of which he’d never experienced and the fact that he had earned it so easily was frightening.

“Thank you for your help,” Tetsu whispered as Ullah probed the fading scar on his chest.

“I’m sure you’ll repay my troubles one day,” she acknowledged. “Until then, do me a favour and keep yourself in one piece.”

“I wish I could guarantee that,” he answered. “I feel like such a fool putting myself in the middle of this yet again.”

“The world is shaped by the will of adventurous fools,” Ullah preached, “and the Unconquered Sun smiles on the righteous ones that think of more than their own gain. You’re a Solar now, Tetsu, it’s time you started trusting yourself.”

“Well, that’s a slippery slope if I ever saw one,” he muttered.

Chuckling, Ullah kissed his cheek. “Well, maybe just trust yourself a little more. Everything you do now speaks to who you are as a man. It’s time to honour yourself.”

Nodding, he discarded the remains of his bandages, stood and allowed Ullah to help him dress with almost ritualistic formality. When they were done, he and Kano shared a nod of affirmation as they steeled themselves for the work to come. Stepping outside together, Ullah escorted them to the water’s edge where a small boat was waiting, concealed in the reeds. They set out across the river as the shadow of the mountains darkened, casting a shroud over the water, taking turns at the oars. They moved in silence, unwilling to risk that the slightest noise would alert the soldiers on the bridge in the distance despite the fact that the chance was exceedingly remote. Once he and Kano were on dry land, Tetsu bid Ullah a silent farewell before watching the woman row back towards the opposite shore, leaving them on their own.

“You know this town better than I do,” Tetsu whispered into Kano’s ear as they squatted below the rim of the riverbank, “where do we go?”

“They light braziers around the outskirts at night,” Kano informed him, “and they’ve been building makeshift walls for the last three days with anything they can get their hands on. We’re also not likely to get past the docks with all the ships in port overnight. That leaves the tunnels.”

Tetsu blinked. “Tunnels? You mean like sewers?”

“No,” Kano shook his head, “we don’t have anything like that. But there are really old tunnels that run from the river right up to the temple. Father told me they’d been there for as long as anyone can remember, the miners sometimes find new ones as well. Usually they just seal them back up; they say the tunnels are haunted.”

“Well, why should they be any different to the rest of this place,” Tetsu muttered. “How do we get in?”

Kano peeked over the lip of the bank for a second to get his bearings then pointed towards town. “That way, there’s an entrance under the docks.”

Tetsu allowed Kano to lead him along the bank, concentrating on the thin path that was dimly illuminated in the quickly fading light. Patrols passed them by several times, the stomp of feet marching in unison sending small showers of dirt down over their heads. “You got a plan for how we’re going to see down there?”

Smiling, Kano patted the satchel that hung over his shoulders. “Way ahead of you, boss,” he whispered back.

The hole that Kano led them to was perfectly square, large stone blocks only slightly weathered from the movement of the water over countless years. A channel dipped down into the river along the middle of the floor, leaving two thin walkways. Kano urged Tetsu into the tunnel a short way before producing a torch, flint and tinder from his satchel, quickly lighting it. “Come on,” he said, moving quickly along with the torch aloft, “we should get away from the entrance before someone spots us.”

Agreeing with a simple nod, Tetsu followed. The tunnel would have been perfectly smooth and flat if not for the accumulated dirt and debris that caked the walkways. Dirt, rocks and branches that had washed in with high tides crawled with rats and insects while Kano’s torch parted curtains of spiderwebs from their path. The water surged below them with the languid movements of the river behind them, a strange breeze alternately brushing their faces and their backs, almost as if they were in the mouth of a gigantic sea creature of legend.

“Wait,” Kano warned, holding up his free hand to halt Tetsu, “do you see that up ahead?”

Peering over Kano’s shoulder, Tetsu saw it; a light, faintly glimmering up ahead. “You have more torches?”

Kano nodded.

“Get as close as you can then throw the torch in the water. I’ll scout ahead from that point.”

The former prostitute showed his agreement by continuing ahead. They came within ten feet of the light before he discarded the torch, Tetsu taking the lead through the last few cobwebs before emerging into a large chamber that he surmised lay under low town. The room was enormous, easily fifty feet high and perhaps twice as wide, extending off into the darkness like a giant’s canal. Multiple channels like the one they’d emerged from could be seen along the waterline, feeding water into the artificial river. Most remarkably, a ship with a paddle wheel was tethered to a stone dock a hundred feet away, fires still smouldering in lanterns on the deck.

“By the gods,” Kano breathed in awe, “I had no idea. If I’m right, we should be underneath the White Crane Dojo. No wonder Red Wolf shut himself up in here; he was planning on running with everything that wasn’t nailed down.”

“Come on, let’s take a look,” Tetsu said, leading the way up some stairs to the wider walkway that ran along the wall towards the ship. It became clear as they approached that something had happened. Equipment lay scattered all over the platform and the deck as if a few hundred men had fled the scene all at once. Weapons also lay scattered about, unbloodied, along with the occasional sandal and bowl. Kneeling, Tetsu picked up a discarded canteen and sniffed what remained of the water inside before running his fingertips over the dried puddle beneath it. “Poison,” he noted, “see the little crystals along the edge here? Someone drugged them…”

Picking up one of the swords that lay on the ground, Kano nodded, tracing the design of a wolf’s head on the hilt. “Red Wolf’s militia for certain; what the hell happened here?”

“Mamo happened,” Tetsu surmised, “he said that Red Wolf was no longer a problem. He was so certain because he made sure of it. The ten jade talent question is, where are they all now?”

After a long pause, they turned to look at each other, both certain that they knew the answer but unwilling to vocalize it.

“No,” Kano denied, “he wouldn’t turn them all… would he?”

“I don’t know whether the idea is more shocking than the fact I might agree with it,” Tetsu sighed, “it makes one hell of a statement to the next yahoos that ride into town thinking they own the place.”

“That doesn’t make it right.”

“No it doesn’t but right and wrong isn’t as important as your ability to enforce the laws you choose to abide by. Take it from a brat that grew up in Nexus, kid, without people like the Emissary enforcing the laws; society isn’t worth a yeddim fart in a stiff wind. Sometimes that means making examples of people who cross you.”

Tetsu could tell that the idea didn’t sit well with Kano, which was probably to the boy’s credit. Standing up, he took note of the iron bound wooden door that likely led up to the surface before hopping across the gap to the deck of the paddle wheel ship to search the crew’s quarters and the hold below.

“Nothing,” the solar sighed upon his return, finding Kano sitting on several sacks of grain, “just more refuse. Mamo must have had help, no way he looted a whole ship and carted off nearly a hundred men without a small army behind him. That puts another mystery player on the board and I don’t like surprises.”

“Maybe he used the ship?” Kano suggested.

“Then why bring it back? Assuming there’s another dock like this one under the temple… does this canal even run in that direction?”

“Sure, we’ve been heading due east since we left the river, the canal should run right under High Town and the temple. Gods know how you’d get all the way up there, though, must be one hell of a flight of stairs.”

“More likely some sort of first age contraption, I wonder if…”

The eclipse caste was interrupted as the ship suddenly lurched, as if something huge and heavy had struck the bow under the water. Thrown off his feet as various bits of debris showered the room, Tetsu grabbed the rail before he was cast into the dark, rippling, water below. Kano jumped to his feet with a stunned cry, jumping several steps backward when the hull impacted against the dock. As the ship came to a halt, a low, deep, growl reverberated down the chamber, terrifying in the intensity of pure malice the horrible sound carved into their souls.

“Kano,” Tetsu called in a hushed voice, “get the door!”

It only took a moment for the order to penetrate the mortal’s brain before he turned and ran as fast as he could. Rolling to his feet, Tetsu leapt onto the dock moments before the ship lurched again, thrown around like a child’s bath toy. Luckily for the two travellers, Kano threw the door open with ease, slamming it shut behind his partner before the two continued to run up the stairs, bursting through the trapdoor overhead without heed to what was on the other side and finally falling prone on the other side, breathing hard.

“What… under the green sun… was that?” Kano demanded, gasping for breath.

“I was about to ask you the same thing,” Tetsu whispered hoarsely, his mouth dry. Regaining his senses, he eased the trapdoor closed gently and checked their surroundings. They were in a basement that looked much like any other, filled with food and other supplies. Curious, he opened one of the boxes and sniffed the contents. “Maiden tea,” he declared, putting the box back down, “looks like Sanejin’s bribing the army with a few whores.”

“Great,” Kano hissed, “do we take our chances with the underground beast or a mansion full of horny soldiers?”

“I don’t know about you but I’ll take the horny soldiers,” Tetsu muttered. “Look, they’re going to be so besotted with the women they’ll hardly notice a couple of servants sneaking through. Just don’t think about where Sanejin got the women.”

“Too late, genius,” Kano quipped as Tetsu helped him to his feet.

“Just… follow me.”

A single flight of wooden stairs led them to a busy corridor full of beautiful young maidens dashing about laden with trays of food and strong drink. The sounds of the kitchen dominated the room to the right while the sounds of carousing rose and fell like waves from their left. In the midst of it all, the madam was attempting to impose her will on the chaos, snapping orders at wild-eyed girls that were barely able to keep up with the pace.

Tetsu would later blame the bounty of tender flesh being paraded before him for the momentary pause that led the madam’s sharp blue eyes to notice them. “Musicians,” she snapped like she was levelling a death sentence upon them, “second floor, third door on the left; instruments are waiting. Move, you’re late already!”

“Yes madam!” Tetsu answered, bowing quickly before moving left towards the stairwell.

“Please tell me you know how to play,” Kano whispered once they were away from her.

“Of course I can play,” Tetsu scoffed, “but we’re going to hop out a window instead.”

“Oh, clever,” Kano approved.

A difference noise greeted them as they ascended. The cries of young women being soundly violated by rough fighting men (and likely a few fighting women) filled the hallways, rice paper doors being no barrier to noise of any sort. “Gods,” Kano swore under his breath, slowly turning green with disgust. Hardening himself against the horror, Tetsu continued down the hall until he found a room that was quiet, ushering Kano inside before shutting the door behind them.

He didn’t notice the naked girl sitting on the bed looking up at them imploringly with wide, frightened, eyes until she spoke. “How may I serve you, masters?” She asked meekly.

For a moment, Tetsu was tempted. She was naked and lovely, young and nervous like a virgin. Waves of tawny hair curled over her shoulders, the colour matching perfectly with her bright green eyes and creamy skin. The moment of temptation passed, however, and he pushed Kano towards the window. “Just be quiet and don’t tell anyone we were here.”

Rather than appearing relieved as Tetsu expected, the girl cast her eyes down in disappointment. “Do I not please you?”

Curious, Tetsu knelt beside the girl. “You used to be one of Red Wolf’s militia, didn’t you?”

“Tetsu!” Kano protested over his shoulder as he opened the window. “We have to go!”

The girl’s face shot up in fright but she nodded. Tetsu held up his hand to calm his friend as he questioned her. “Do you truly want this?”

She nodded more enthusiastically this time. “After they made me drink the water they… did things to me; such wonderful, terrible, things!” She shifted on the bed, pressing herself against him. “Please, I need you so badly…”

Reflex took over. Tetsu’s finger shot up, tapping the girl on the side of the neck at a single precise point. A moment later, she crumpled back onto the bed, sleeping soundly.

“Holy shit!” Kano swore. “Ullah teach you that?”

Blinking, Tetsu stood, staring at his finger. “No, that she didn’t teach me but I’m not about to look a gift in the mouth. Come on, it’s past time we left.”

Climbing deftly down the outside of the building and jumping a few feet to the back wall that surrounded the mansion, the two fugitives quickly found themselves traversing the empty back alleys of Low Town as they made their way up the mountain. Kano deftly navigated the labyrinth of buildings, avoiding every guard and patrol with ease until they came to the cliff that separation the two districts. With the stairs heavily guarded, they were forced to climb the natural rock formations in the dark, though the light of the gibbous moon helped.

High Town was harder to traverse, with ordered streets and high walls surrounding every compound. Patrols and guards were less frequent, however, so the duo were able to flit between the dark shadows cast by the moon and avoid notice. After a short debate, they decided that the road up to the mountain’s peak was a better path than climbing up to the temple through the underbrush in the dark and began the long ascent to the temple. Their luck held, reaching the top without any incident more exciting than the caw of a nearby Raiton.

A single figure leant against the open and unbarred gate, smiling with what seemed to be genuine enthusiasm. “Excellent,” Mamo greeted, bowing deeply as they approached, “I wasn’t sure you’d accept our invitation, Prince of the Earth.”

“Just Tetsu, please, and I’d rather continue this conversation inside away from prying eyes.”

“Of course, allow me to take you to Sanejin at once, he’ll be delighted to see you again.”

Mamo led them through the gate and down the nearest servant’s entrance, staying well away from the main buildings that were full of dragonblooded that would eagerly skin them all alive just for being seen together much to Tetsu’s relief. Kano followed just behind him, taking on the position and manner of a servant just as they’d discussed before leaving the graveyard. Tetsu ran through the usual greetings and responses as they traversed the hallways, mentally preparing himself for the battle of words that lay ahead. Finally, they came to a balcony that arced around the second floor of an enormous circular room. Sanejin waited below them, standing beside a circular altar with a strange indentation that dominated the centre of the lower floor. The god wore rich gold vestments, his long hair patted immaculately, held in a strange looping pattern around the back of his head by a long, golden, pin tipped with a ruby. He looked fit to greet royalty, positively glowing in the torchlight.

“Father,” Mamo greeted, laying the formality on thick, “I have the honour to bring you the one known as Tetsu, a true Prince of the Earth.”

Sanejin grinned impulsively as they descended the stairs to meet him, kneeling at Tetsu’s feet much to the wanderer’s surprise and astonishment. “Lord Tetsu,” the god greeted formally, keeping his eyes lowered, “mortal language cannot express my relief at your reappearance in this world. For thousands of years, I have been waiting to pledge my loyalty to the solar exalted once more, since before my exile at the hands of your persecutors. As long as my existence is inviolate, know that you have a place under the roof of my house.”

It wasn’t what Tetsu was expecting. For the third time in a single night, Tetsu was surprised and it wasn’t getting any easier to accept with practice. “Please, don’t kneel,” Tetsu begged, embarrassed at the show of fealty, “I’d much rather be greeted as a comrade rather than by a title I haven’t yet earned.”

Sanejin was still smiling as he rose to his feet, still a head taller than Tetsu. “Most wise, if you don’t mind me saying so, Tetsu. I must say, I never entertained the most remote notion that you’d return to me as one of the solar exalted after our last meeting.”

Tetsu chuckled. “At the time, I honestly thought if you ever saw me again, I’d have been chopped into bloody chunks and scattered across the mountainside.”

Returning a seemingly genuine chuckle of his own, Sanejin motioned for Tetsu to walk beside him as they continued their conversation. “If it would please you, I’ve had the kitchens prepare a private feast in honour of your arrival. We can speak further of the matters that trouble my town as we dine. By the way, Mamo mentioned that you were with a woman earlier this afternoon, if I might enquire as to her identity.”

“Out of respect for her wishes, Sanejin, I can’t divulge her name,” Tetsu replied, “she had pressing business to the west and merely paused in her journey to help me recover from the wounds I received in the battle with White Crane. During that recovery, she merely recounted an alarming version of ancient history and taught me a few tricks.”

“I see,” Sanejin mused as they passed through a set of double doors that led deeper into the underground complex and followed a long corridor that ran under the baths above. “I trust she covered the basics of the rebellion of the Incarnae and the First Age as well as the Usurpation.”

“She mentioned those, yes,” Tetsu admitted, “though it all seems a bit fanciful.”

“The legends don’t do the solar exalted justice,” Sanejin answered, “believe me, I was there. I witnessed it all, the overthrow of the Primordials, the rise of the First Age under the rule of the solar exalted and their eventual fall to betrayal at the hands of the Sidereals and their Terrestrial pawns. Though, I haven’t been able to return to Yu Shan since soon after the Breaking of the Mask so my knowledge of current events is spotty at best.”

“The Breaking of the Mask?” Tetsu enquired, curious.

“Yes, Heaven wasn’t exactly thrilled that the Sidereals took it upon themselves to restructure Creation, even if the Solars were going a bit mad. They had a mandate to rule from the Unconquered Sun himself, after all, that was never officially rescinded even if he made his displeasure with them known. In order to avoid prosecution, they maimed one of their own Incarnae in such a way that their involvement could never be proven by anyone, ever. After that, everyone knew the Sidereals were guilty but no-one could prove it, so they got away with it. When I protested at the highest levels of the celestial bureaucracy of the injustice that was being perpetrated right under our noses, I was exiled for my troubles. Since then, I’ve waited patiently, building a base of power with which to aid the solar exalted once they returned to us. And now, you are here and the millennia of hardship I have endured has turned out to be worth every moment.”

For his part, Tetsu didn’t know what to think about any of it and he was starting to feel the metaphorical waters rising over his head. Cast into the realm of gods and demons against enemies who commanded nations and twisted reality itself to their whim was starting to overwhelm him, yet he maintained his impassive mask, accented by a vaguely curious streak that he didn’t have to feign. He silently cursed Ullah for talking him into what he was doing, then cursed himself for letting her manipulate him into the position he found himself in. He set all such thoughts aside as they entered a private dining room dominated by a circular table laden with plates of steaming meat, baked vegetables and delicacies from all five poles of Creation. The sight and smell of the banquet almost made Tetsu forget how much danger he was in.

“Tell me, Tetsu, have you ever seen such a feast?” Sanejin asked, proud of the impression he was obviously making on the bemused solar.

“No,” Tetsu answered, allowing his awe to slip into his voice, “your hospitality is without question the most bountiful and gracious I have ever received.”

“Then please, sit,” the god offered, pulling out a chair for Tetsu next to his own. “Would you prefer wine or water with your meal?”

“Wine!” Tetsu and Kano both replied in unison.

Sanejin chuckled. “Please, Mamo, if you would sample the carafe of water to reassure our guests that it is not our intention to have them join my wives?”

Nodding, Mamo poured himself a glass and drank confidently without result before taking his own seat at his father’s right hand.

“See? Please don’t apologize, I’d be suspicious too if our positions were reversed. Of course, I am duty bound to offer any visitor a sip of the Water of Eternal Perfection if they wish to imbibe it willingly,” Sanejin offered with a self depreciating smile.

“Thank you but I’m afraid we’ll have to decline,” Tetsu said, smirking back. “We ran into one of your new recruits on the way here, by the way. Does the water really make its victims crave sexual relations?”

Sighing, Sanejin speared some meat with his fork and ladled it onto his plate. “A mere decade ago, I would have protested against your description of my wives as victims. Unfortunately, that no longer holds true. The answer, however, is yes; the water afflicts many changes on those who drink it, the change of gender merely being among the most profound amongst men. While it makes one beautiful, it also increases the body’s natural appetites, sometimes to the point where it will become the woman’s all consuming passion.”

“And you used it against what remained of Red Wolf’s militia in revenge for they way they abused you,” Tetsu pressed the point, eager to put the god on the back foot.

“You don’t disappoint me, Tetsu,” Sanejin admitted, crestfallen. “It wasn’t just revenge I was seeking, however, at least not merely for myself. Many men and women in my town have been raped to death in White Crane’s so-called executions. Those men helped. They abetted and indulged their petty power games, caring for nothing but their own pleasure. Now they know the suffering they inflicted on others. More practically, their fate serves our interests in keeping the legion distracted and placated while we plot our next move against Greyfalls. Please believe me when I say that I find the necessity distasteful.”

“Don’t misunderstand me,” Tetsu sighed, “I approve, as much as that fact disgusts me. If I may ask, what happened to Red Wolf?”

“She’s too dangerous to have roaming about but unfortunately she’s also too valuable to kill,” Sanejin shrugged. “I’m keeping her under lock and key for now.”

Glancing at Kano, it was hard for Tetsu to tell how he felt about this development. They boy had a far away look in his eye and wore a deep frown. The solar could only imagine the conflicting notions Kano was dealing with, caught between the need for revenge against the man who had ruined his childhood and the basic human decency that prevented him from condoning the transformation of another against their will. The lines between good and evil were starting to blur for him, a rite of passage that Tetsu had passed through long ago at a much younger age.

Casting such analysis aside for later, Tetsu returned to the conversation at hand, eating judiciously as Mamo filled everyone’s wine glass from the same bottle. “Very wise, she may yet prove useful. I for one would like to question her about her guild contacts and the smuggling ring she was operating. However, as they say in the west, we have bigger fish to fry.”

“Yes, the 4th Dragon of the 23rd Legion,” Sanejin surmised Tetsu’s concerns correctly, “led by Dragonlord Cynis Delani. Yet another clandestine attempt by Cathak Kitono to start a war with the Confederation of Rivers.”

“Is he mad?” Tetsu asked sincerely. “The Realm has tried subjugating the Hundred Kingdoms before without success and that was when the Scarlet Empress was on the throne. Starting something with the succession war going on seems foolish.”

“Kitono is an ambitious man, acting with surprising restraint,” Sanejin informed. “If I am correct about his motives, what I believe he is doing is more bread loaf tactics, taking small slices of territory at a time. If his gambit succeeds, he’s gained House Cathak a bargaining chip in the succession wars and his own foothold in the political arena of Greyfalls. If it fails, he cuts the 4th Dragon loose and denies all involvement with their activities. He loses some resources that will take time to recover but nothing that he cannot live without.”

“Callous,” Tetsu judged, “does this Cynis Delani understand that?”

“I might have mentioned something to that effect earlier,” Sanejin said, grinning ear to ear. “Delani’s a competent enough leader and diplomat not to realize the consequences of failure, I just don’t think she quite understood how alone she was out here. Delani is the sort of officer that takes loyalty to her subordinates seriously; sometimes she fails to see that her superiors don’t share her sense of responsibility.”

“Sounds like a good woman.”

“Certainly, this is why I’m handling the situation with some delicacy. I’d rather not see her or her circle sacrificed on the altar of political expediency. On the other hand, I have no doubt she’d have us all killed if she so much as suspected we were even sitting at this table together. I’d much rather make her an ally, if fate permits.”

Tetsu whistled appreciatively. “Ambitious. But you seem to have everything well in hand, then, what could a god of your stature possibly need me around for?”

“Aside from my desire to see the Solar Exalted rise to power once more or to aid a potential friend in need?” Sanejin asked pointedly.

“Frankly, yes,” Tetsu answered. “Simply having me here right now is too great a risk for you not to have some idea of how to employ my skills. Besides, I wouldn’t feel right accepting your hospitality without compensating you for your trouble, assuming that I will accept it. I haven’t decided yet.”

Sanejin put down his cutlery and wiped his mouth with a napkin. “To answer your question fully, I need to show you something. Mamo, if you don’t mind entertaining Kano for a moment?”

Rising from his seat, Tetsu gave Kano a reassuring pat on the shoulder before following the god through a side door and, surprisingly, into the open air. A short balcony stretched across the cliff on the other side of the mountain from the town, showing off a vast range of peaks and rivers covered in trees with a light dusting of snow. The view was breathtaking but nothing otherwise out of the ordinary.

“The Makota mountain range,” Sanejin introduced, sweeping his hand across the vista before pointing out the tallest peak that rose far above them in the distance, “dominated by Mount Makota. In the First Age, this entire region was holy ground. If you cleared away the forest you would see the remains of thousands of buildings.”

“So? The Hundred Kingdoms is lousy with ruins,” Tetsu said, shrugging.

“How many of those ruins are reputed to have seen the death of a Primordial?” Sanejin asked in return, chuckling. “How many have felt the personal touch of the Incarnae? Pilgrims would travel here from every elemental pole just to stand in the footsteps of the greatest of the gods and bask in their place of victory. Most amazing of all, the pinnacle of Mount Makota was blessed with the presence of the Oracle of the Unconquered Sun himself, who ruled benevolently across a long line of incarnations until his death during the Usurpation more than a millennium ago. That’s just some of the highlights of the region’s history; we don’t have all night for me to enthuse over legends. Unfortunately, most of the histories are lost. What wasn’t pilfered by thieves after the Usurpation was wiped out by the Great Contageon. Even the scavenger lords leave this place alone, to my knowledge. At least none of them come through River’s Bend.”

“So? If there was anything to find out here, it would have been found already. What’s the angle here?”

“There are layers of conspiracies at work here, my friend. Things I don’t even confide to Mamo. The scavenger lords don’t search these ruins because they’ve been stripped bare; they avoid these ruins because of what is hinted at in the histories. It is said that the Oracle escaped the first wave of assassins during the Usurpation but concluded that he was living on borrowed time. In order to deny the Dragonblooded the spoils of war, he buried his most powerful artefacts somewhere under these mountains, including war machines of unsurpassed power. In one last act of defiance, he took his own life, going so far as to lock away his own memories so that even his ghost could not betray him. Naturally, the Sidereals and the Dragonblooded searched but concluded that the so-called Oracle’s Trove was hidden with arts beyond their skill if it in fact existed at all. Most of those in power prefer that those secrets remain buried but occasionally an ambitious group will attempt to uncover it.”

“So you think this invasion is really a cover? While the Dragonbloods are ‘building fortifications’ they’ll really be searching for this cache?”

“I know that most of the strange occurrences in this town can be linked to the Oracle’s Trove,” Sanejin muttered bitterly. “Kitono’s patsies are merely the latest faction to throw their helms into the ring. The Guild, the All-Seeing Eye, the Confederacy of Rivers, Lunars, other gods and spirits… I’ve seen so many invisible hands attempting to control the events of this region that keeping track of them even stretches my capacity, though I admit that my own interest is not entirely altruistic. With the Oracle’s weapons, I could have offered you an army of unsurpassed might. We could unite the Savenger Lands and re-take the Blessed Isle, returning Creation to its rightful rulers. I remember a time when Creation was twice the size it is today, Tetsu, a time where there was no poverty or disease in a nation where even the meanest citizen was clothed, fed and sheltered. The Realm isn’t even a shadow of that nation; it’s a wailing ghost waiting to be sucked into Oblivion.”

“Well, I don’t know about ghosts, gods or nations,” Tetsu said, leaning over the railing to take in the magnificent view, “and right now, I’m content to let the past lie. At the very least, however, if there is an Oracle’s Trove, allowing it to fall into the wrong hands strikes me as a bad idea.”

“Then our interests in this matter align,” Sanejin said, smiling. “But it is getting late and you have likely had a gruelling journey up the mountain. I have had quarters prepared for you and your companion in case you wished to stay.”

“That would be agreeable,” Tetsu accepted.

“Excellent. If you’ll pardon me, I will leave you in the hands of my daughter, Maeria.” Clapping his hands sharply twice, the door inside opened as the Pristine Boyar’s daughter sashayed into the room.

The wisps of purple gauze that she wore barely maintained her modesty, leaving most of her skin bare and the natural beauty of her form in plain sight. She moved with a sinuous grace that made it appear that her curvaceous body was slithering towards him in the manner of a snake rather than walking with two legs. Honey blonde hair floated around her in the breeze, framing her ice blue eyes. She bowed gracefully before Tetsu, smiling beatifically. “Prince of the Earth, it would be my honour to escort you.”

Tetsu shared a short bow with Sanejin before allowing the woman to take him away. He quickly discovered that the tunnels under the temple were surprisingly twisted and illogical, the only landmarks being the many circular stairways that led to the floor above. It didn’t help that Maeria was distracting him with the entirety of her form, every step a cornucopia of sensual promise, rounded and soft in all the right places.

“So, where is my companion, Kano?” Tetsu asked as they walked, trying to keep his focus.

“Your servant and Brother Mamo are reminiscing in Mamo’s private chambers. He sent word to tell you not to worry about him and that he will meet you in the morning.” Noticing his frown, Maeria’s smile widened. “Do not fret about your friend. I vouch that he is safe and will remain so. We have no intention of harming either of you, just the opposite in fact.”

“Forgive an old cynic’s paranoia,” Tetsu grumbled, “but I’ll be reserving my judgement for a while yet.”

“Perfectly understandable,” she answered cheerfully, “trust must be earned and we are willing to do so. I don’t think you’re so old, however.”

“Humph,” Tetsu growled. “Don’t think I’m so easily swayed by flattery as the senile Lords debauching their time away in the halls above.”

“I meant no offence,” she apologized, her surprise seemingly genuine. “I believe you are a man of few years and much experience but that doesn’t make you old. Or perhaps you think your face should disgust me because you are not handsome?”

Shaking his head, Tetsu couldn’t help but chuckle. “You admit that?”

She slowed, surprising him by turning on her heel as she came to a halt, forcing him to stop barely a foot away from her. “I think your shell has seen many rough years and shows the scars and strength of hard living but I also know that the Unconquered Sun has found you worthy. It pains me that other women may have mistreated you because they couldn’t know what lay beneath the mask.”

Tetsu breathed in sharply as she raised her hand up to stroke the scar that ran along his cheek, a memento from a gang member on the streets of Nexus. When she stepped closer, he couldn’t deny the sudden surge of lust that shook him as he stared down into her eyes, soft pink lips slightly parted to offer the sweetest temptation. To his surprise, she raised herself up onto the tips of her toes and planted a delicate kiss on his cheek. Then, abruptly, she turned back around and continued down the hall, leading him forward dumbly by the hand.

“But we mustn’t dawdle,” she insisted, practically dragging him along, “my sisters are dying to meet you!”

Suddenly, as he wondered why in the names of all the Yozis he was allowing this girl to drag him around, Tetsu was sure he was getting out of his depth. Staring at her back, however, he honestly wondered if it would be so bad to drown.

#

Mamo’s presence made Kano distinctly uncomfortable. It wasn’t just their shared history andalry or the fact that Mamo insisted on draping one arm around his waist in a distinctly overly friendly gesture as they walked, something about the way the boy talked unnerved him. He looked so girlish that Kano wasn’t sure that he really was male, the only hint being that his voice was slightly too deep for a female. He seemed to switch mannerisms on the fly, using masculine and feminine gestures alternately, usually at the most inappropriate times. Kano couldn’t help but feel that his nervousness and dislike was showing, though Mamo didn’t seem to notice as he rambled about anything and everything that came into his head.

“Here we are, darling,” he finally said as they came to an iron bound door in an otherwise nondescript corridor, “I think you’ll like the present I’ve been keeping for you.”

“Er… present?” Kano asked, trying to think of a way to get back Tetsu and a nice warm bed while Mamo fiddled with the large ring of keys that he pulled from under his robe.

“No, no, don’t want to spoil it,” Mamo teased, selecting the correct key and opening the portal on the first try.

The room beyond made Kano’s skin crawl. The octagonal chamber was obviously reserved for the sort of clients who liked pain, either giving or receiving depending on tastes. The walls covered in devices that could induce pleasure, pain or both from the most simplistic of whips, dildos and ropes to more complex mechanical devices that would take some knowledge to use for their intended purposes. In the centre of the room, shackled by the wrists to a chain that hung from the ceiling and blindfolded, stood a beautiful woman with bright red hair that contrasted with her dark skin. She was naked and exposed but otherwise it appeared that she hadn’t been mistreated.

Yet, Kano inwardly added as he watched his rival stalk around the perimeter of the room, sizing her up like cattle hung for the butcher. Shocked, Kano watched from the doorway, unable to tear his eyes from the scene.

“Mamo?” She called, a strange mix of panic and longing clear in her voice.

Finally approaching her, Mamo, slid his hand over her buttocks, grabbing a handful of flesh hard enough to make her squirm in his grip. “It’s me, my sweet. I hope you don’t mind but I brought an old friend. Kano, it is my great pleasure to present to you Red Bitch. You remember Kano, don’t you, Bitch?”

“Kano? No!” Red Bitch gasped in horror, momentarily struggling against her chains.

Mamo put a stop to that immediately, grabbing one of her nipples and twisting viciously. “Did I tell you that you could speak?” He screamed the question, suddenly enraged.

“No! No master, I’m sorry!”

“Better,” Mamo sighed, calming almost as quickly. Turning to look at Kano, he smiled. “Come on in, darling, she’s so eager to get reacquainted.”

Staring at the girl suffering in Mamo’s grip, Kano felt something cold and dispassionate well up from the depths of his soul. Slowly stepping forward, he entered the room and gently closed the door behind him.



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