Fate and the Iron Tiger PART 4

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

Pieces of the mystery surrounding River's Bend begin to fall into place as Tetsu is forced to decide who to trust and Feather begins to deal with her newfound feelings. But as a murderous new warrior walks into town, the only certainty that fate has to offer is suffering...

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

Chapter 15

Leaning against the parapet, Tetsu shook his head in disbelief as he stared out over River’s Bend. The town was overshadowed by the two enormous airships hovering in the sky above, suspended by their gigantic hot air balloons and bristling with weapons. Hanging from the gondolas were two strange brass pyramids while a third was being rolled into the town square from a newly arrived supply ship.

“My friends,” Sanejin addressed them, “the stakes have been raised.”

“What in the name of heaven are those?” Kano gasped.

“If I were to hazard a guess, some sort of device that can detect the flow of essence,” Tetsu assumed, “with three of them and a map of the area, they could triangulate the exact position of anything that seems suspicious. That way, they know exactly where to look for the trove.”

Sanejin blinked. “Wait, they’re just treasure hunters? All that talk of annexing River’s Bend and going rogue…”

“…is all a lie, yes,” Tetsu confirmed. “They’ll probably claim that it’s some form of defensive device to use against a possible invasion from Lookshy, which will give the airships an excuse to ‘go out on patrol’. Has anyone thought to use geomancy to find the trove, Sanejin?”

“Of course they have,” the god scoffed, “though nowhere near this scale. Who knows? They might actually find something.”

“Then they might have just forced our hand,” Tetsu sighed regretfully. “Sanejin, we may have to enter the game and find the trove first, if only to keep it out of the hands of the Realm. If it comes to that, can I still count on your support?”

“Tetsu, I’ve spent a thousand years trying to keep that secret buried. Besides, even if they find it, the Oracle wouldn’t just leave his treasure unguarded. There has to be another way.”

Tetsu scowled in frustration. “Why is it that I’m starting to get the feeling that everyone in this entire town knows more about this Treasure than they’re letting on? The Realm would NOT send this much manpower, invest this much into an operation, unless they were sure of a result. Sanejin, you say you’ve been guarding the Trove for a millennium, are you honestly telling me that you’ve never even looked for it?”

“I swear that I have not sought out the Oracle’s Trove,” Sanejin intoned.

Tetsu couldn’t tell if it was a lie or not. “All right, I’ll accept your word on that for now. You have to know at least what it is, though. The Scavenger Lands are full of First Age ruins, lost artefacts are rediscovered all the time. What exactly about this particular legend has everyone so up in arms?”

Sanejin sighed. “Pardon me, sometimes it’s easy to forget that others aren’t so intimately acquainted with history as I am.” Turning, he held out his hand towards the tallest mountain across the western valley in the distance. “Mount Makota. During the Primordial War, that mountain was one of the forward staging areas in the fight against the creators. Legend has it that one of their number fell in this very valley. It remained a military base throughout the First Age with an entire city built to support it, all under the auspices of the Oracle of the Unconquered Sun. Then, right before the Usurpation, the Oracle disbanded his armies and retreated to his personal meditation chambers. When the assassins arrived they found the city deserted, the forges destroyed and the arsenal simply gone. When the Oracle was found still sitting quietly in his meditation chambers, he refused to speak a word before they executed him.”

“So you’re not talking about a few First Age trinkets here,” Tetsu surmised, “the Oracle’s Trove is enough First Age weaponry to rival the forces of Lookshy.”

“Or exceed it,” Sanejin explained, “more than a thousand years of use without the benefit of Solar maintenance is starting to take its toll on Looskhy’s assets. I suspect that the Oracle shifted his arsenal into Elsewhere, a kind of storage area outside of Creation where time is suspended. If that’s the case then once it’s returned to Creation it would sill be in perfect working order.”

“So whoever possesses the Trove could theoretically conquer the Scavenger Lands?”

“Historical references claim that the Oracle’s armies could realistically conquer Malfeas, should the need arise. Of course, it would be of little use to anyone without an army to equip.”

“Greyfalls could secure the East, maybe even place a new Empress on the throne,” Tetsu concluded.

“Indeed,” Sanejin agreed, “perhaps for another thousand years. I understand that might seem like a long time for a mortal but to the gods it represents nothing more than a drop in the bucket. Once the Oracle returns, we’ll have a real chance of reforging the golden age of prosperity and securing Creation against its enemies once and for all!”

“So your interest is merely safeguarding the trove for the Oracle’s return? If you have so much faith in this Oracle’s prowess after more than a millennium, why fret over the efforts of these Dragonbloods now?”

Sanejin scratched the back of his neck as he shifted uncomfortably. “Well, while the Solars knew the art of permanence, they obviously weren’t able to apply it to all their designs, the ruins of the once great city of Makota are proof of that. I’ve no doubt that whatever device hides the Trove will keep it concealed but Makota was a large city with many secrets. The truth is, I have been suppressing most of the Scavenger Lords that attempt to search these ruins, just in case they stumble across something significant or, Maidens forbid, information that could point someone to the Trove!”

Tetsu crossed his arms over his chest. “Define ‘suppressed’ for me.”

“Some I invited here for a night of frivolity before being added to my harem,” the god sighed regretfully. “Others I would send on wild goose chases or, in extreme circumstances, down into the tunnels to their inevitable death. The forest is dangerous enough the further you get from the river but the tunnels below are lousy with wyld mutants and other dangers. There’s even a legend that a piece of the Yozi that was tamed here still stalks the dark halls.”

Not wanting to contemplate the beast that he and Kano had encountered a scant few nights ago, Tetsu refused to get side tracked. “No, you talk in generalizations and seek to muddy the waters but there is something specific that you don’t want found. If my experience with Solar past life memories is typical, the Oracle would have to consider that the heir to his exaltation may not even remember his legacy, let alone the way to find it. Also, don’t think I haven’t considered that you made this Temple your base of operations for a good reason. In fact, as far as I can tell, this is the only intact structure left that existed back then. For all I know, the Trove could be right below our feet this very instant.”

Sanejin bowed. “Never let it be said that you disappointed me, Tetsu, you do your exaltation justice. Yes, this temple is important but merely as a smaller piece of a much larger puzzle. I’m sorry, you are quite right; I have been holding something back. I know that you have been trying to gage my motivations since your arrival so I’m sure you’ll understand that I have also been searching for yours. To share my secrets with you, however, I need more than your word. I need an Eclipse Oath.”

“An Eclipse Oath,” Tetsu repeated, frowning.

“I swear that I will share with you fully everything I know about the Oracle’s Trove without censorship or omission if in return you swear not to seek out the Trove for your own personal gain, nor pass those secrets on or use them to benefit those who do seek the Trove for any other reason than to allow it to pass into the hands of its rightful owner, the barer of the exaltation of the Oracle of the Unconquered Sun.”

“So the real question is whether I trust in your sincerity,” Tetsu mused.

“From my perspective, this is the ultimate test of character for both of us,” Sanejin smirked. “After all, you may decide that a little bad luck is worth the potential gain and seek out the Trove for yourself or use it to broker a deal with the Dragonbloods.”

The god extended his hand and Tetsu stared at it for several moments as he considered his options. Finally, the Eclipse Caste accepted the handshake and nodded. “I so swear.”

There was a momentary flash of yellow light from his brow as the pact was sealed.

“Good,” Sanejin smiled, “now let us cast the dice.”

“Kano,” Tetsu murmured over his shoulders, “I’m sorry but you can’t be privy to this.”

“What?” Kano protested. “You don’t trust me?”

“More to the point, mortal,” Sanejin said in a low, deadly, tone, “I don’t trust you. Your friend is merely pre-empting my insistence.”

Gulping, Kano nodded and quickly scurried down the stairs.

“When I first arrived at the Temple, I searched it thoroughly for any clues as to the location of the Trove with the intent to keep the information so that I could place the Oracle on the path to his inheritance,” Sanejin explained, keeping his voice low. “I did discover a clue. The Oracle wasn’t alone during his meditation before the Usurpation, in fact he kept his two closest allies with him at all times. The first was the City Father of Makota, an old and powerful god at the time. The second was the Oracle’s Lunar Mate, Sheska, once the mistress of this very temple.”

Sanejin let go of Tetsu’s hand and returned to the battlements to watch the airships as they began to turn, one towards the Northwest, the other facing Southwest. “The writings she left behind mentioned that the Oracle had ordered her to flee rather than face what he considered certain death if she stayed by his side. She also mentioned that before they left his presence, he had given them each a gift. To Sheska, he gave the Hearthstone of this very Manse, an artefact that could give an Exalted certain magical abilities once attuned to her essence or able to power another device if they so wished. She didn’t mention the gift that he’d given to the City Father but I recalled a piece of trivia that he used that same Hearthstone to power his most famous artefact, the Gnomon.”

“The logical conclusion being that this Gnomon was the other gift,” Tetsu surmised.

“In light of the disappearance of the Trove and the Gnomon’s power, absolutely,” Sanejin insisted. “It was said that the Gnomon could direct its user to any goal, even into the depths of the Wyld or upon more esoteric paths such as ‘destiny’ or ‘enlightenment’. If anything could find the Oracle’s Trove no matter how well hidden, it would be the Gnomon. Since there is absolutely no record of the City Father of Makota using the Gnomon after the Usurpation, nor any claim by the Sidereals that it fell into their possession, I despaired because I was forced to conclude that only this particular Hearthstone could power the Gnomon and Sheska claimed to have taken it with her into the depths of the Wyld where she and the surviving Lunars were forced to exile themselves. The odds that the hearthstone was lost to the infinite were far too likely and I feared that my goal was impossible.”

“I’m guessing that there’s an ‘until’ waiting to be expressed after this pause.”

Sanejin grinned. “Until the temple was occupied by Raksha during the Balorian Crusade; a time I count as amongst the darkest of my long immortal life. I was taken hostage as a bargaining chip against the Shogunate whilst they interrogated me about the personal lives of the Dragonbloods arrayed against them. The Raksha do love their juicy gossip as well as a good story, so I managed to carve myself out a niche in their court as a kind of jester. At the same time, I managed to trick the leader into revealing to me why he’d taken the temple rather than levelling the place. It told me that, unbeknownst to me, the temple holds a piece of the Wyld deep down under the Well of Eternal Perfection, an oasis for their kind in the midst of what he called ‘the blasphemy of shape’.”

“How’d you get out of that one?”

“Luck. The Raksha that used the Well as a refuge started disappearing. One day the leader himself enters but doesn’t emerge. Days later, one of his honour guard drags himself out of the water clutching a set of moonsilver bracers, babbling that the Silver Death was about to emerge and destroy them all. I swear there wasn’t a Raksha within miles of the Temple minutes later, all that was left was myself, what remained of my poor, ravished, harem and that set of moonsilver bracers left behind in the panic.”

Pulling up his sleeves, the god revealed a set of elegant silver bracers on his forearms. Tetsu noted that not only was the workmanship exquisite but the material seemed perfectly flexible, distorting to maintain their close fit as Sanejin’s prominent muscles shifted under his skin. There also didn’t seem to be any hinge or lock, as if the metal could simply be donned like tight cloth. Most spectacular was the gem inset near the wrist of his left arm, a faintly luminescent opaque white oval stone of exquisite beauty.

“I found the hearthstone inset on the bracers,” Sanejin continued. “At first I thought the notion that it was THE hearthstone of this very manse to be preposterous but, hoping against hope, I attempted to attune the stone to myself anyway. Much to my own incredulity, it worked. At first I thought it to be a sign from the Incarnae but in my long years here, I have come up with a more plausible theory. Shaska would have known that her chances of survival were slim, but she wanted everyone to believe that she’d taken the hearthstone with her into the Wyld to prevent all but the most foolhardy of seekers. Instead, she throws the bracers along with the hearthstone into the well where few would think to seek it out.”

“That’s… quite impressive, actually,” Tetsu admitted. “So you have the hearthstone, all that remains is for someone to recover this ‘Gnomon’ and the location of the Trove is no longer completely safe.”

“I am the logical one to interrogate about the artefact; I live in the Manse of the hearthstone that can power it after all. If the Dragonbloods discover it, I’m sure I couldn’t hold out against them. Particularly since I suspect that they are just pawns for the Sidereals, this could be a play to end the civil cold war that’s crippling the Realm at the moment. They do so hate it when their toys break.”

Tetsu looked out over River’s Band and watched the soldiers march though the streets as crowds gawked at the spectacle above. The brass pyramid on the ground was swarming with men, like ants over a busy hive. Even worse he could see more ships sailing towards them from upriver. “I believe those may be reinforcements,” Tetsu pointed the vessels out to his companion. “I’m sorry, my friend, but I think sabotage is out of the question. I barely escaped from them last night; my skill at stealth isn’t a match for that mess. Even if I could infiltrate the pyramid, it would take me too long to stop them from mapping most of the valley, and I might only slow them down anyway. Like it or not, they have won this round, we can’t risk so much for so little potential… gain…”

As his words trailed off, Tetsu squinted at a patch of trees across the river which he thought had moved moments ago. He blinked at a feint flash of light from beyond the treeline before one of the tall pines slowly toppled out of sight. “Can you see that?” Tetsu asked, pointing at the dust cloud that wafted up from the impact site. “That’s the graveyard, if I remember right.”

Sanejin turned his head and squinted at the area. “Yes, I see, there’s a fight going on over there. By the Incarnae!” He gasped suddenly.

“What?” Tetsu asked urgently, unable to make anything out at all, no matter how hard he squinted.

“There’s something… big over there,” the god whispered in wonderment, “Tetsu, I haven’t seen anything like this since the Usurpation.”

“I’m sorry, I need to go,” Tetsu said, turning to stride briskly towards the steps, “my friend may need help.”

“Wait,” Sanejin said, grasping Tetsu’s shoulder. “I can get you there much faster.”

#

Several minutes earlier, Aten knelt at the gate of Shanku Toyo Graveyard and touched his fingertips to the line of white powder before bringing them to his lips. “Salt,” he informed his companions, “and lots of it. The villagers must be very serious about keeping the dead trapped here.”

His companions had foregone their assumed shapes once they were all safely on the other side of the river, revealing their true forms to be gorgeous warrior-maidens much to Aten’s surprise and delight. Valdis Eyebiter was a lithe, pale, petite beauty whose small frame belied the athletic strength of her body. Somehow, she still managed to be the more intimidating of the two, the sharp slashes of her barely visible silver tattoos combined with her aggressive stance, wild hair and piercing glare to give her an intimidating presence. Comparably, Karmaria was like a serene pool next to her. The tall woman had a muscular build borne of a childhood spent under the waves, her blue hair and gills betraying her heritage as one of the merfolk. Her silver tattoos reminded Aten of underwater currents, particularly set on the cool green background of her flesh.

When it came to armaments, both Lunars also had completely opposite styles. Kamaria was unarmed but wore a suit of light moonsilver armour that Aten knew would be surprisingly effective despite all the skin it was showing off. Moonsilver armour had a way of flowing to where it was needed most during a fight, while remaining light and supple in order not to inhibit the wearer’s movements. Valdis, on the other hand, wore only a simple loose black tunic belted firmly around round the waist. At her back, however, she carried a set of sickle-like sharpened throwing blades and had a moonsilver daiklave that was almost bigger than she was sheathed over her back.

Aten himself retained his loose traveller’s robe, though he’d left his peddler’s backpack at Menji’s. His Orihalcum short sword was kept out of sight in the concealed sheath under his robe but he otherwise remained unarmoured. “Anyone else have a bad feeing about this place?”

Valdis sniffed. “The air is thick with death, perhaps it would be wiser for one of us to scout ahead…”

Kamaria interrupted her by taking a long stride forward and thrusting open the gates with both hands. “I think it’s too late for the stealthy approach,” she commented over her shoulder as she took the lead.

“We’ll talk about this later,” Valdis warned, walking behind her lover as she scanned the courtyard with Aten bringing up the rear.

The graveyard earth was grey and lifeless, supporting nothing by dry, brown, weeds and hollow, twisted, stumps. Grave markers were scattered haphazardly everywhere around the main building which was in a state of severe disrepair. The slightest gust blew up small clouds of dust as the muted light of the sun beat down on them oppressively from above.

“We’re right on the edge of the Shadowland,” Aten observed. “Coming here during the day was a good call.”

As they approached the temple at the centre of the yard, the front doors slowly slid open as if to welcome them inside. Once the warriors were sure no undead were about to pour from the darkness, they continued up the creaky wooden steps until they stood at the threshold.

Inside was an incongruous sight to the rest of the compound. The room beyond seemed to be in good repair with walls patched and seamlessly painted over, new straw matts on the floor and even a well-kept shrine inset into the wall opposite the main door. In front of the shrine, a beautiful blonde woman in a simple white cotton robe sat on a red and gold silk cushion, smiling up at them.

“Greetings,” she said calmly, “my name is Ullah, Zenith Caste Solar. I was wondering how long it would take before you decided to investigate this place.”

Aten was about to take a step forward when Valdis thust her arm out to bar his way. “You’ll have to pardon my companions,” he apologized, “but I’m sure you’ll understand our need to certify your claim.”

“Of course,” she agreed easily. After a moment, her caste mark flared to life, the golden disc of the Zenith caste glowing warmly on her brow.

“Satisfied, girls?” Aten asken impatiently.

“Aten,” Kamaria stated flatly, not taking her eye off of Ullah for a moment, “both of us are several hundred years your senior. So would you kindly shut up and let us handle this?”

“Would you ladies care to share your aged wisdom with me, then?” Aten inquired with strained patience.

Wordlessly, Valdis held a small silver hand mirror out to him that suddenly appeared in her hand.

“Thanks but my hair’s always perfect.” He quipped.

She clicked her teeth together in a very birdlike gesture of disapproval. “Look at her reflection in the mirror.”

Shrugging, Aten indulged her by taking the mirror and angling it so that the room came into view. What he saw almost made him drop the artefact. “HOLY SUN ON A CRUTCH!” he swore, managing to grab the frame before it hit the floor.

In the mirror the room wasn’t just simply decayed. The mats were old and stained with an unnatural oily black liquid. Where the paint on the walls was cracked and peeling, dark vapour poured into the room, pooling in shadowy corners that seemed to resist penetration by natural light. The shrine wasn’t a wholesome place of reverence for the gods of reincarnation; it was a mockery composed of human bone, blood and rotting flesh.

In the middle of the blasphemy knelt the woman who called herself Ullah. She was still beautiful but her skin was pale as alabaster, paler even than the transparent white burial shroud she draped herself in. In contrast to the original golden blonde of her hair, the vision in the mirror showed long, inky black, locks that seemed to slither across the ground, moving of their own accord. Red eyes burned deep within bruise-coloured eyesockets as purple lips peeled back over a maw of needle-like fangs. Most disturbing was the empty black disc of her caste mark which bled like unholy stigmata, the trickle of crimson fluid running down the side of her nose, around the corner of her lips to drip from her chin onto her ample breast.

When Aten looked up, he was horrified to see that the vision in the mirror had been made real. Ullah’s grin became a full-throated laugh as she wiped the drops of blood from her chest and teasingly tested the taste of it with the tip of her tongue. “Mmmm, salty,” she commented in a salaciously husky voice, leaning back to spread her legs provocatively, “perhaps you beasts would care to trifle with me a while? It does get so lonely out here during the day, all by myself.”

For a moment, Aten felt the oppressive urge to cross that short distance and slake his sudden lust in her body. Horror and disgust drove the unnatural impulse from his mind, however, as he shook off her spell, noting that the Lunars did the same as their beautiful faces contorted into snarls of rage. “Irresistable Succubus Style,” Aten sneered, naming the unholy charm the death-witch had attempted to ensnare them with, “you’ll have to do better than that, corpse queen!”

“My, my, such a mouth,” Ullah laughed, “you girls aught to muzzle your pet before he bites off more than he can chew… come to think of it, that is kind of ironic, isn’t it?”

Kamaria scowled. “You may want to censure yourself. Do I have to point out that you are outnumbered and in broad daylight? We know your kind and your tricks; do not think us so easily diverted from our cause. What is your business here in River’s Bend?”

She threw her head back and cackled as the wind suddenly whipped around them, like a giant suddenly expelling a deep breath. Dark, unintelligible, whispers seemed to leak from the walls as she floated upright, rising without elegantly without the aid of her claw-tipped fingers. Aten covered his mouth as the wind brought with it the stench of death and the screams of tortured souls. Blood started to drip from the walls as the very earth shuddered in anger around them.

The death witch’s laugh was suddenly cut short by a low growl as she glared at them, her seething hate a palpable force as some unknowable presence flickered within her caste mark, watching them. “You dare to make demands of me?” She asked, her voice unnaturally resonant. “I am The Bride Who Sleeps In Ashes, your desires are meaningless to me!”

Glaring back with equal intensity, Kamaria levelled her finger at the Deathknight as her caste mark, an empty silver circle, sprang to life on her brow. “I am Kamaria Clearwater, Chosen of Luna, one of the sacred protectors of her beloved Creation. You are the invader here, answer me or crawl back to the abyss that spawned you.”

“I spit on your insane goddess!” Ullah blasphemed. “The blood of traitors will salt this land before we drag you screaming into the peaceful embrace of Oblivion!”

“Aten,” Valdis called the Solar’s attention as the witch faced off against the mer-woman, one glowing bright silver while shadows wafted from the other like smoke. “Step back,” the raven-lunar ordered, dropping into a combat crouch as one hand resten on the hilt of her daiklave while the other reached for her knives, “you’re in our way.”

Grudgingly stepping back into the light, Aten drew his short sword and prepared himself. Unfortunately, none of them noticed the witch’s hair creeping across the floor until it was far too late. Aten screamed as the strands coiled about his ankles and whipped him off his feet, pulling him inside and attempting to bash his face against the wall before hurling him into the ceiling. He was able to react to the first blow, shielding himself with his arms which unfortunately tore his sword from his grasp as it was embedded in the wall but the second impact as his back hit the heavy wooden beams wracked him with pain.

Valdis leapt over the head of her lover, drew her daiklave and slashed, cutting straight through the strands of hair holding Aten aloft before landing ready behind the witch. The Solar fell but retained the presence of mind to roll with the fall and remove himself as an obstacle in the fight before Kamaria charged, her hands growing into gigantic reptilian claws as she attacked.

Ullah laughed as her form blurred upwards, her assailant’s claws passing through her body as if she didn’t exist. Landing on all fours on the ceiling, she hissed down at them from above as she rested there against the law of gravity. Her hair re-grew in an instant, lashing out like a thousand-tailed scourge to batter Valdis aside, knocking the Lunar off her feet.

Screaming in rage, Kamaria grew, her flesh and bones creaking and crackling as bone and muscle expanded. Sharp scales broke through her skin as her face contorted into a bestial muzzle and saurian fangs burst from her gums. A tail grew out from the base of her spine as her feet lengthened into digitigrade hindquarters. Reaching up, the Deathknight tried to skitter away on her back across the ceiling but the Lunar managed to pin her down and get a good grip, tearing her away and flinging her through the crumbling western wall.

Rolling through the dirt amidst an explosion of debris, Ullah came to a halt twenty feet from the gaping hole in the side of the building, still cackling manically as she pushed herself to her feet. A guttural roar from the darkness inside shook the building to its foundations before Kamaria leapt into the light. Her beast-form was terrifying, at least fifteen feet long from nose to the tip of her tail, armoured with thick green scales baring the same swirling silver tattoos of her human form, she appeared to be nothing less than a fierce River Dragon, a naturally occurring giant predator from the darkest corners of the East. She even still wore her moonsilver armour, the bright metal plates reshaping themselves to fit her radically different shape.

The Deathknight still laughed as the dragon stalked towards her, as high at the shoulder as she was tall. The wind clawed at Ullah’s shroud and whipped up the dust around her as she rose back to her full height, bleeding from scores of tiny cuts all over her body. She continued to laugh, as if her wounds were not only meaningless but welcome. “How exquisite,” Ullah taunted, licking her lips, “it considers itself the apex predator here, doesn’t it Ullah? DIE!”

Suddenly raging, the Deathknight reached out as black lightning arced from her fingertips. Scales blackened as the vile energy ravished Kamaria’s flesh, the great dragon roaring in pain as she recoiled from the onslaught.

Her small victory didn’t last long. Valdis’ crescent throwing knives glittered in the light as they cut through the air like a deadly wind, their owner charging in right behind. Breaking off her assault, Ullah dodged the first two blades with a backflip before slipping between the next two blades with a horizontal cartwheel. She couldn’t completely escape from the last as it grazed the left side of her hip before Validis was upon her. The Lunar cried out in frustration when Ullah casually slapped her sword stroke aside with her bare hands.

Quickly recovering, Kamaria’s great footsteps shook the earth as she turned to pounce on her enemy, long claws outstretched and ready to tear the Deathknight apart. Working with her lover in perfect synchronicity, Valdis span, dropping to one knee as she slashed horizontally at Ullah from the opposite direction, hoping to catch her off guard. Laughing hysterically, Ullah arched her back over Valdis’ blow, standing on her hands as she pulled her legs up over her body to avoid the stroke entirely before uncoiling like a spring into a two heel kick that hit Kamaria squarely under her saurian jaw. The blow had enough force to topple the Lunar even in beast form end over end over the outer wall, spinning out of control until she smashed into one of the trees beyond, shattering the trunk. Both Valdis and Ullah were forced to dodge the falling log in opposite directions, granting both a temporary reprieve from the fight. The treetrunk was massive enough that the stone wall crumbled as it came crashing down, flinging debris in all directions.

Ullah was still chortling when a bolt of golden light punched a hole through he chest, silencing her. Blinking, she paused to look down at the smoking wound, her ribs clearly visible in the blackened mass of her internal organs. Seemingly puzzled, she prodded the burnt flesh with her fingertips as her eyes traced the path of the bolt to its source. Aten stood defiantly in the courtyard, sunlight gleaming from his golden short sword as he levelled the tip in her direction, the half-sun mark of the Twilight caste blazing on his forehead.

After a moment of stunned disbelief, Ullah threw her head back and laughed. “OH! I’d forgotten about you, little Twilight. Why don’t you go play somewhere else? The adults are still busy.”

Moving with such speed that she was a mere blur, Valdis interposed herself between them, her daiklave held in a defensive stance. She did, however, position herself so that Aten still had a clear line of sight so he could fire off another Blazing Solar Bolt. The fallen tree shook as Kamaria clambered through the gap in the wall that it had created hissing at the Deathknight menacingly.

“We have the advantage here, Child of Silence,” Aten replied, addressing the Midnight caste with a formal title, “you have proven your skill but you cannot match all three of us under the light of day. Explain your presence here in River’s Bend and we may allow you to retreat to the Underworld to lick your wounds.”

Ullah’s chuckle grated on Aten’s nerves. “You may think yourself clever, Aten Drassilson,” the Deathknight hissed, “but the Neverborn know. They whisper to me of Ogren Gunnar’s schemes and poor, sweet, little Messia. Of course, you don’t know how much she misses her mother, do you? You’re never there to comfort her when she cries under the covers late at night… but do not fear, little Twilight, when you are dead, I will be the mother she never had…”

“Lies,” Aten growled, glaring down the length of his blade as his caste mark burned, “you will never lay a hand on her, witch. Nor will you live to see the Iron Tiger in all its resplendent glory! She’s too dangerous to allow her to live, we kill her.”

Valdis grinned wickedly, crouching low into a more aggressive stance. “You’re more useful than you look, Aten. Both of you back off, I have this one.”

“Was that a challenge, sapling?” Ullah sneered. “Exactly what part of this encounter so far leads you to believe that you are a match for me alone?”

“If you’re that confident then this shouldn’t be a problem for you,” Valdis retorted, retaining her mocking grin.

“Well, if you are so keen to die,” Ullah accepted the challenge with a vicious grin of her own. Widening her stance, what remained of her shroud fell from her right shoulder off the bloody ruin of her breast as small arcs of black lighting flickered between her fingertips even as the malevolent nimbus spread across her whole body, her eyes igniting with the same dark radiance. Spreading her arms as the black smoke wafting from her skin swirled into a black vortex filled with what appeared to be naked, writhing bodies in the darkness. Deep in the eye of that vortex, something moved, as if a vast, hate-filled, intelligence was watching from beyond. Ullah rose into the air, bolts of black power scorching the ground and shattering grave markers around her as she hovered a yard over the unclean earth.

Taking a deep breath, a full circle of silver light faded into existence on Valdis’ forehead as she focused on channelling her essence. Her whole body began to glow with a soft silver light as she stood steady against the Deathknight’s unnatural aura. “Bring it, bitch!”

Sweeping her hands together, Ullah unleashed a barrage of crackling black bolts from her eyes and fingertips, each composed of a multitude of amorphous screaming black faces shuddering in torment. Valdis stood calmly as she watched her annihilation baring down on her, only acting in the last possible instant. The Lunar’s silver aura suddenly flared, a giant silver raven emerging from her back and spreading its wings in defiance of the enemy. Howling in fury, her daiklave exploded into a brilliant burst of silver light as she struck the abyssal energy with the mirror-like flat of her blade, turning it back on its master.

Ullah barely had time to gape before her own attack knocked her from the air, her impact shattering a thick gravestone before rolling to a halt face down in the dry dirt. The wind suddenly died down to a gentle breeze and the sunlight seemed a little brighter, as if a cloud had finally passed overhead.

“Is she dead?” Aten asked, trying not to gape at the magnificence if Valdis’ anima banner.

“I’m about to make sure,” Valdis replied, keeping her guard up as she walked over to the Deathknight’s prone form. As she approached, Ullah started to move sluggishly, wheezing out a wet, ragged, chuckle. Growling, in frustration, Valdis changed the grip on her daiklave, raising it up with the point turned downward as she prepared to deal the final blow. “Prepare yourself for the peace of oblivion.”

When Ullah flopped over, her skin had returned to a healthy blush and the caste mark glowing with holy golden light. Straw coloured strands of hair flowed about her bruised and battered body, her wholesome robes bloodied and ripped. “This isn’t the endgame yet,” she whispered before raising her voice to plead with someone Valdis couldn’t see. “Tetsu! Help me, please help me!”

Aten and Kamaria turned their heads, following Ullah’s gaze to where Tetsu was standing at the gap in the wall atop the fallen trunk. The Eclipse caste was dripping wet, soaked right though like he’d just taken a dip in the river fully clothed. “Stop!” Tetsu commanded, his words holding an air of supreme and undeniable authority. “I cannot allow you to kill that woman!”

“YOU!” Aten shouted, pointing at Tetsu in accusation. “You’re the misbegotten bastard that killed my friend! I should have known you’d be in league with this witch, come down here so we can settle this once and for all!”

“Oh, you’re the thief from last night,” Tetsu observed, folding his arms across his broad chest. “If you hadn’t attacked me unprovoked, the situation might have worked out for the both of us you know. Thanks for the maps, by the way, they were very helpful.”

“Aten?” Valdis asked, not taking her eyes off of Ullah.

“This changes nothing,” the twilight answered, “kill her so we can focus on this one.”

“NO!” Tetsu shouted. “She saved my life! Pardon my ignorance of how to address you, great lady, I have no idea who or what you might be but I’m honour bound to aid the woman you’re menacing… or avenge her death should it come to that and I won’t even let your pet dragon stop me.”

“This dragon is no pet,” Kamaria growled, her deep draconic voice reverberating through Tetsu’s bones.

Tetsu fought to keep his cool, thankful that his robe was long enough to conceal that his knees were shaking. “I beg your pardon again; I meant no offence by my foolish assumption. If you would please spare her, I would take it as a great personal favour.”

“Why are you hesitating?” Aten demanded incredulously. “He killed Cathak Markul!”

“I swear I did not kill Cathak Markul!” Tetsu shouted over Aten. “Your companion is making a mistake. I don’t know what evidence he could possibly have that links me to the dragonblood’s death but I merely buried him, I had no part in his slaying.”

“Liar!” Aten accused. “The stench of your unholy sorcery still lingers upon you!”

“Kamaria?” Valdis asked, asking for her partner’s council with only that one word.

“There’s something not right about this one,” the dragon muttered, glaring at Tetsu, “but he seems to be speaking the truth as he sees it. Tell me, scarred one, do you know that this woman you wish to save is a twisted mockery of our kind, a scion of the evil powers of the Underworld who seeks nothing less than the dissolution of all Creation?”

“That’s a lie!” Ullah cried out, a convincing note of terror in her voice.

“If you don’t believe us, look inside,” Kamaria shrugged, “the proof is there for all to see, writ in bone and blood. If she did indeed save your life then it was only a trick to extract payment from you later, or perhaps lure you into the vile service of her masters.”

“Her guilt is of no matter,” Tetsu answered. “She saved my life; I owe her a debt of gratitude. I will repay it one way or the other.”

“I can’t believe you’re entertaining this idiot,” Aten growled, shaking with rage. “Fine! I’ll settle this myself!”

Bursting into motion, Aten charged up the tree trunk, his sword raised high over his head with murder in his eyes. Tetsu unfolded his arms and stood in the face of the Twilight’s battle cry, ready to receive the first blow. As the blade came down, he blocked it by catching Aten’s wrist with his left forearm before grabbing it with is hand, stopping him in his tracks. A sharp twist turned Aten’s arm around more than a hundred and eighty degrees, snapping bones in several places and dislocating his shoulder. Tetsu drove the point home by inserting two fingers into his opponent’s stomach, penetrating garments and flesh effortlessly.

Aten’s screams of pain distracted Valdis enough that she forgot herself for a single moment and glanced in his direction. When she looked back, Ullah was melting into a bloody mass that slowly sank into the earth. “I’ll see you soon,” the Deathknight taunted before she disappeared, leaving nothing but a strangely well defined crack in the earth behind her.

Valdis’ strike came far too late but she felt the tip of her blade hit something hard just beneath the soil. She cried out in frustration, cutting a long sweep of her blade through the air to blow away the dirt, revealing a gigantic stone slab inlaid with golden runes written in ancient First Age script. The slab was cracked in half, the fracture following the same line that Ullah had left in her escape. “Damn it! She’s gone!”

Tetsu gently lowered Aten to the ground as the Twilight growled in pain, clutching his wound with his working left hand as the other flopped almost bonelessly out of his control. “I’m sorry,” Tetsu apologized, opening his robe to show off the scar on his chest, “she brought me here to heal me, if it hadn’t been for her I would have died. My assailant was a man in red that moved with unnatural speed, I trust you’re not friends of his?”

Stomping her foot in frustration, Valdis turned and levelled her daiklave at him. “You have no idea what you have done! I had one of the deadliest threats to Creation on the tip of my blade! If it wasn’t my own carelessness that allowed her to escape, I’d end you right now!”

“Calm yourself, Valdis,” Kamaria sighed, “you can’t blame this male for following his conscience, even if it is sorely misguided. After all, either of us might have done the same. Of course, I’m sure that such an honourable man understands that his debt now belongs to us.”

Tetsu winced. “Don’t worry, I take your point. I’m sorry that your friend forced me to wound him so severely.”

“I recognize the nature of those injuries,” Valdis muttered as she approached, kneeling to examine Aten but keeping hold of her daiklave. “You know the Dark Messiah Style just as Aten here said, are you indeed yet another Deathknight?”

“That depends on what a Deathknight is,” Tetsu answered with a shrug, consciously igniting his caste mark. “They tell me I’m an ‘Eclipse’ of the Solar Exalted. Around here, most people call me Tetsu the Wanderer.”

Valdis retrieved the small silver mirror from Aten and checked Tetsu’s reflection, finally sheathing her daiklave after seeing that he was at least what he appeared to be. “He tells the truth but Aten requires aid…”

“I’ll be all right,” Aten gasped, “he missed… major organs… on purpose. I’ll need clean water and… time to heal myself.”

“I’m sorry,” Tetsu apologized to him again, “you didn’t leave me much of a choice.”

“Shut up! Eclipse or not, you still reek of dark magic. Once I heal, I’ll have questions for you and your answers better be good.”

“We can’t drag him back to town,” Valdis observed. “I saw a cave near here earlier, we can take him there.”

Shrinking back into human form while Tetsu watched, his eyes bulging out of his head, Kamaria nodded and slung Aten over her shoulders as gently as possible. “We part ways for now,” she told Tetsu in a level tone, “but there is much we must discuss. Do you know the ruined mansion south of High Town?”

“Better than I’d like,” Tetsu replie with a frown.

“Meet us there at dawn, tomorrow morning. I give you my word that no harm shall befall you as long as you answer us honestly and mean us no harm in return.”

Tetsu held out his hand to her. “I’m willing to give you my word that I will honour the rules of parley and meet with you at dawn tomorrow if you will do the same under a sanctified oath.”

Kamaria smiled. “I like the way you think, Tetsu the Wanderer,” she said, taking his hand. They glowed with a feint golden light as the pact was sealed before she spoke again. “I am Kamaria Clearwater, Lunar Exalted of the No Moon caste. I look forward to our talk, may Luna guide your steps until then.”

Watching them walk away, a thought suddenly struck Tetsu. “Wait, do you know about the airships?”

Pausing, Kamaria turned back to look at him. “What airships?”

#

Considering the difficulties of the morning as a whole so far, Tetsu wasn’t sure which was the most annoying. Sanejin somehow teleporting him into the air over the river and forcing him to swim to dry land was irritating. Having to swim back across because he couldn’t chance the blockade across the bridge just poured salt in the wound. Looking inside the Graveyard’s main building and discovering the atrocity inside had shocked him to the core, moreso because he still couldn’t bring himself to believe that Ullah was responsible for them. Being forced to steal some clothes that had been hung out in someone’s back yard because he couldn’t wait for his own to dry so that he could sneak through the backstreets without leaving a trail of water behind him was simply infuriating.

The violence he’d done to Aten surprised him, all the more because he knew the man was at least as skilled as White Crane had been. At the very least, he considered what Ullah had taught him to be brutally effective and if she was as evil as the Lunars had suggested, the implications for saving him were unpleasant in the least. After everything that had happened, there was only one place he even considered he could go to stop and think, no matter how foolish and dangerous it was.

After an hour of skulking about, dodging patrols, Tetsu slowly slid the back door of Menji’s house open so that he could slip inside, closing it behind him with equal care. The building was dark and quiet; he couldn’t even hear Menji shuffling around in the front room. Stepping over the sleeping pallets on the floor, he opened the door opposite and peeked through, making sure there wasn’t anyone drinking at the table before calling out in a harsh whisper. “Menji? Old man, it’s me, Tetsu…”

There wasn’t anyone at the table and Menji was nowhere to be seen. Slipping though the door, Tetsu walked across the room to peek into the kitchen. “Old man, we need to talk…”

Of all the things he expected to see, Menji lying on the kitchen floor in a pool of his own blood, wheezing weakly as bloody froth leaked from the side of his mouth was last in Tetsu’s mind. In less than a moment, Tetsu found himself kneeling at Menji’s side, raising the old man’s head onto his knee without any memory of crossing the intervening distance. “Gods!” Tetsu hissed, seeing the patch of blood on Menji’s robe around a neat stab wound that would have struck close to his heart. “Old man, talk to me! Who did this?”

Menji’s hands were shaking but he managed to grasp Tetsu’s borrowed robe with surprising strength. “Secret,” the old man gurgled, talking with great effort, “secret compartment… under table…”

“What? Menji, you’re not making sense.”

The old man smirked before coughing up a gout of blood. “Dying…”

“Nonsense,” Tetsu growled, “you’re too nasty to die, you stubborn old bastard. The gods will kick you out before you reincarnate.”

That actually made him laugh, though each shudder seemed to make him weaker. “Sorry… not… mortal…”

As Tetsu watched, he started to fade away. Desperate, he grabbed Menji’s face, turning it so that their gazes locked. “Menji! Who did this?”

“Red…” Menji sighed with his last breath.

Holding the corpse of his friend in his arms, Tetsu tried to wipe his tears away but they kept rolling down his cheeks. “Please, not you too, old man, not you. I don’t know who else to trust.”

It was a long time before Tetsu could force himself to let go of the corpse. Ignoring the bloodstains on his clothes, he picked up a bottle of Sake from the shelf in the kitchen, half-crawled over to the low table, sat in his usual place in the corner and poured himself a cup. After several shots, he took a deep breath and sighed.

“Your Sake’s even sweeter than usual today, old man,” he informed the body in the kitchen, “I’m sorry to impose on you like this but I really need to talk. Don’t worry, I’ll check on your secret compartment in a bit, as soon as I finish this bottle.”

Savouring his second gulp, Tetsu considered what he wanted to say as he poured his third. “I’ll be honest with you, my friend; I don’t know what to think about anything anymore. Women who wield giant swords with glowing silver birds, shapeshifting dragons, mystical illusions, gods who turn men into whores, dragonblooded generals with airships… it’s all way out of my league. Then as soon as I think I know something, someone yanks the rug out from under my feet.”

Looking over at the body, Tetsu ignored another tear as it fell down his face and continued to drink. “Like it or not, though, I can’t just wash my hands of it and leave, especially not now. So the key is not to let the set dressing fool me. At the core, this whole thing is about power, like everything is. The only difference between here and the streets of Nexus is a matter of scale. You were killed because you knew something about the Oracle’s Trove. If you weren’t mortal, what did that make you? A god? An Elemental? I wonder if you ever told Kano… are you even his real father? No, that’s a distraction, the important thing is why you were killed, now of all times.”

“Red, you said. Could be anyone or anything, maybe you didn’t even hear me right or maybe you were talking about something else. Whoever almost killed me wore red, though… if I ever find that man I’ll have to ask him. Anyway, I’ve been twisting this whole mess around in my head trying to figure it out but nothing seems to be taking shape. I know you didn’t like Sanejin and I have to admit, I find it hard to believe that two enlightened mortals had him over a barrel. But he seems so sincere, which means he’s either telling the truth and is just that ruthless or he’s a good enough liar that I can’t catch him… either way terrifies me.”

“So far, we have Sanejin who claims to be on the side of this Oracle, the Dragonbloods supported by Greyfalls, the Man in Red who I feel had his own motives and myself who likes to think he represents the people stuck in the middle. And now these Lunars… I guess I’ll find out what they want tomorrow morning. Oh and Ullah, someone else I need to have a word with. If these Lunars were right and she works for the Underworld, then most likely they’re making their own play for the Trove. Oh, I almost forgot, this ‘Aten’ that was working with the Lunars knew Cathak Markul. What am I up to, seven possible sides to this conflict?”

“Here’s a Jade Talent question: Why did the man in red try to kill me? Red Wolf was being run by the Guild but with him out of the picture it looks like they’ve thrown in with Greyfalls. The Trove could have sold for… who knows how much, particularly if they’d spaced out sales and marked them as rare finds. Inferior to that but much safer is doing what they’re good at: supplying the army that finds the Trove and begging trade concessions from the victor. Besides, none of the remaining players strike me as their type of henchmen. Was the Man in Red one of these ‘Sidereals’ that Sanejin keeps mentioning? If they’re running the show, they’d either need to control the Trove or keep it hidden; maybe that’s my unseen angle in all of this. Maybe he’s here to oppose Ullah.”

“Aten, though, I think he’s my key to figuring out what’s really going on. When Ullah was taunting him, he said something to her about an ‘Iron Tiger’. What would a metal cat have to do with anything? Is it a statue, maybe a key to the Trove? Or is it part of the Trove, some artefact or weapon maybe? If so, what makes it so valuable? Or do those questions really matter? I don’t need to know what it is and why to stop them from finding it… unless it’s not a weapon at all. That’s a possibility, it could be almost anything. So yes, I need to know what an ‘Iron Tiger’ is so I can decide what oaths I should keep. More than anything else, I need to find out what Aten’s motives are and the friends he keeps.”

“Gods, this Sake is good, old man,” Tetsu complimented the body in the kitchen, “it really clears my head. I’m going to miss it.”

Placing the empty Sake bottle on the floor, Tetsu gently turned over the table to get it out of the way before lifting up the straw mats on the floor. It took him a few minutes to find the loose floorboard and pry it out of position, finding a small enclosed space that contained a large leather bundle and a watertight scroll case with the name ‘Kano’ written on the lid. Putting the scroll case aside, Tetsu unwrapped the bundle to find a familiar green jadesteel daiklave, sundered in half midway up the blade.

“Now, how in all of Malfeas did you get your hands on this, old man?” Tetsu breathed in disbelief. “And what’s more, why?”

Fortune smiled on him when he found a peddler’s backpack in the back room. Inside were several robes, so he borrowed one to replace his bloody stolen clothes along with a nice set of boots that fit him perfectly and even massaged his feet as he walked. He had to compensate for the small size of the robe by leaving the chest open and tying up the sleeves to conceal how short they were. Shoving the dirty clothes in the backpack along with the scroll case and tying the leather bundle with the broken daiklave to the side, he shouldered the burden as part of his new disguise and exited through the back door after saying a short apology to Menji’s spirit for being unable to bury him properly.

The journey up the hill was arduous with the burden on his back but uneventful, the soldiers posted at every corner paying him no mind as they did with the rest of the servants going about their daily business. The airships were long gone and life for the regular people had returned to a semblance of normalcy. Workers in Low Town were now either employed building the fortifications around the city and repairing roads or serving the occupiers in a menial capacity. High Town too was buzzing with activity, many of the colourful banners that had adorned the walls of the mansions now gone.

Finally arriving at the Temple, Tetsu was shocked to find Sanejin waiting for him at the gates, seemingly calm with his arms folded inside his sleeves. “Well met, almighty one,” Tetsu greeted as if he were the peddler he seemed to be, “might your customers be interested in my wares? I’ll happily pay you a percentage…”

“No need for the act,” Sanejin interrupted, “we’ve had hardly any customers all day and they’re too busy to care. What happened?”

“Downstairs,” Tetsu suggested.

Nodding, the god lead Tetsu to the nearest stairwell and the two of them descended into the lower levels. At the base of the stairs, Tetsu dropped the backpack to the floor, grabbed the neck of Sanejin’s robe and shoved him against the wall.

“Did you kill Menji?” Tetsu demanded, looking the god right in the eye.

Sanejin glanced off to one side before answering. “Who is Menji?”

Tetsu slammed him against the wall again, to little visible effect. “So I can catch you in a lie! Menji, the old man that runs a small boarding house near the town square, claimed not to be mortal before dying from a stab wound to the chest…”

“All right, all right,” Sanejin sighed, holding up his hands. “I’m sorry, I promised to keep his nature a secret. No, I didn’t kill Menji. We didn’t much like each other but I had no reason to have him killed.”

“You had EVERY reason to have him killed,” Tetsu insisted, “he knew something about the Oracle’s Trove. Something I’d bet he wasn’t willing to share with you!”

“Which is precisely why I didn’t want him dead! How was the new Oracle going to claim his birthright if the old bastard knew something about the Trove that couldn’t be discovered by some other means? Menji was the City Father of River’s Bend, the son of the City Father of Makota! I didn’t tell you before because I was sworn not to tell anyone!”

“All right,” Tetsu sighed, letting go, “if you both wanted the same thing, why didn’t the two of you get along?”

Sanejin smoothed out his robe before speaking. “Territory,” he explained, “when I moved in, he was the only god in town and received the majority share of the worship. Once I started to build this place into something more than a mining town in the middle of nowhere, people started to turn to me for spiritual guidance and enlightenment. Now I live in this Temple and he ‘lived’ in Low Town, taking what crumbs of worship he could from the disaffected and desperate. We haven’t talked for a few hundred years.”

“But you trusted him to keep the secret of the Compass?”

“With his life, if necessary. From the sound of things that was an accurate assessment.”

Tetsu grunted. “Any more slips of memory or omissions you’d like to get off your chest before we continue?”

Sanejin sighed. “There’s a small matter of Menji’s wife. It was before Red Wolf and White Crane’s time, she came to me while she was pregnant, begging for sanctuary. I took her in no questions asked and she drank the Water of Eternal Perfection after she gave birth. We became close after that and eventually she also gave birth to my son, Mamo. Once he was weaned, I sent Kano back to live with his father.”

“What happened to Menji’s wife?”

“She died in childbirth,” Sanejin said, shrugging. “Now, perhaps you would care to elaborate on the morning’s events?”

Tetsu left out much of the detail of what happened at the graveyard, other than his friend who might have been some sort of death-worshipper had been fighting with a group baring silver tattoos, though he described the slab Ullah had retreated through in detail. In describing Menji’s death, he left out the secret compartment and what it had contained.

“Disturbing,” Sanejin mused, his face serious. “The women you describe with silver tattoos sound like Lunar Exalted, the Chosen of Luna, and members of the Silver Pact to boot. I’ve had occasion to deal with their kind once or twice since the Usurpation, they seem to think this Temple belongs to them because it’s a lunar manse. The other is more serious, I’ve heard rumours of them from my contacts in Yu Shan. They call themselves Abyssal Exalted and they serve Deathlords like the Mask of Whispers in Thorns. If she is, that would mean the Deathlords themselves have taken an interest in the Trove, which only makes our job that much more difficult. At least they slowed her down.”

“She was the one that saved my life after I fell from the cliff,” Tetsu sighed, “I really don’t want to consider that she really wants to destroy Creation.”

“True evil always wears a beautiful mask, Tetsu,” Sanejin comforted him with a pat on the shoulder, “when you’ve lived as long as I have, you’ll fail to be surprised at any betrayal great or small. You look weary; I suggest you get some sleep now so we may attack this new problem with renewed vigour in the morning.”

“Yes,” Tetsu agreed, nodding absently, “that would be for the best… but I need to tell Kano that his father’s dead first.”

Kano was doing his job chatting with some of the whores that were usually too busy with clients to talk to him. Pulling him into an empty side-room after making his excuses, Tetsu sat him in a chair before giving him the news. The boy was completely silent after the first sentence, seeming to listen but never responding. He continued to stare at Tetsu when the Solar placed the scroll case on the table in front of him. Tetsu told him that his father was sorry, lied when he told him that his last thought was that Kano should have the contents of the scroll. Then he left, adding that if the scroll contained anything important, that he needed to see it before closing the door and finally leaving Kano to his grief.

Tetsu’s room was a welcome sight, though not as welcome as the sight of Feather when she emerged from the study nook. Her robe was open at the neck, hugging her slender shoulders and leaving her pale skin bare above the breast, inviting his eyes toward her cleavage. Below that, a soft belt was clinched around her waist with the hem high enough to leave most of her supple legs bare. Her grace of movement was what moved him, however, along with the curious mixture of beauty and practicality that she offered. Subconsciously he mused that she exemplified the difference between a dancer and a martial artist, the ethereal beauty of art versus the earthly beauty of purpose.

He was broken out of his trace by her embrace as she skipped across the room and hurled herself into his arms in an instant. Tetsu’s surprise was only exceeded when she suddenly pulled away and slapped him across the face. “Where have you been?” Feather demanded. “I’ve been worried sick about you all day!”

“I… there was an emergency,” he answered, too shocked to make anything up.

“And you didn’t even stop to think to tell me before you went gallivanting off?” She scolded, her glare cutting him like a knife. “Or even change your clothes? Where the heck did you get these robes anyway? They don’t even fit you! I…”

Taking her shoulders, he silenced her with a kiss on the lips. When he pulled away, she simply stared at him dreamily. “I’m sorry,” he apologized, trying to pour all his sincerity into his eyes as he gazed into her deep blue orbs, “I had to leave quickly and there was no time to tell you about it. Please, Feather, I’m tired and hungry. Someone who I thought was a friend might have betrayed me, another is now dead, murdered, and I just had to deliver his last words to his son. I’ll tell you everything but right now, all I want to do is hold you tight and kiss you.”

He set to doing just that and she responded with enthusiasm, practically melting into his arms. His hands wandered up her thighs under the hem of her robe as he grasped her smooth, perfectly rounded, butt, making her moan into his mouth. Realizing that she wasn’t wearing undergarments, he quickly undid his belt and allowed his pants to fall to the floor before picking her up and pressing her against the wall.

She clutched his shoulders as he lowered her onto his shaft, keeping her thighs wide open and controlling her descent with his hands. She shuddered in ecstasy as he moved inside her, crying out with increasing urgency at the peak of every thrust. Eventually, he let her wrap her legs around his waist and control the pace as she became more and more insistent while his hands exposed and worshipped her breasts.

Looking up into her face at the moment of her climax, for a moment Tetsu thought he saw a flicker of golden light in her eyes before she screamed but his own orgasm came moments later and the vision was lost. When it was over, he carried her limp form over to the bed and gently laid his goddess down on the soft mattress before sliding in next to her and promptly falling asleep.

#

The two soldiers flanking the doorway snapped to attention as Cathak Agani entered the control room of the Brass Pyramid, stepping up to the central console where her companions waited. The console itself was little more than a shallow triangular sandbox but the way the sands shifted and flowed inside betrayed the fact that it was no child’s playpen. Misari, the Air Caste member of their Sword Sisterhood, poured over the revelations within while the others watched patiently.

“Any news as yet?” Agani asked her superior in a low voice.

Delani shook her head. “Nothing significant; blockages in the Northeast Dragon Line have made the region’s essence flows chaotic as predicted. What news from High Town?”

“Most of the local Dragonbloods are scouring the forests trying to chase out the Anathema,” Agani muttered, “but lack of success has eroded their focus. It’s more of a generalized hunting expedition now. The fortifications are proceeding on schedule and the slaver assured me that our workforce will be in shape by the time we have a site to excavate. Oh and there’s been some reports of some sort of disturbance at the graveyard this morning but the scouts I sent reported that the site is quiet now, if disturbing.”

“Good,” Delani scowled, “I tire of trivial distractions. We must focus on obtaining the Trove, at this point nothing else matters.”

“What happens after that? Settle down with Sanejin and pump out a bunch of kids?”

Delani gave her a look. “You were just as tempted,” she observed. “Children that would be guaranteed to exalt… it’s amazing that it’s not standard practive.”

“At the expense of the purity of our bloodline,” Agani pointed out.

“And just how many of us are so pure anyway?” Delani asked pointedly.

Misari cleared her throat, calling for attention without looking away from her calculations. “Please forgive me for interrupting your conversation, ladies, but if you’re going to talk please take it outside so that I can concentrate?”

“I need to leave anyway,” Sarro interrupted, “I think Banko may be close to giving birth.”

“How is her health considering the greatly accelerated gestation?” Delani asked in cold, clinical, terms.

“Remarkably well, considering the nature of the baby,” Sarro answered. “I believe the remarkably fast growth is a combination of a side effect of the Water of Eternal Perfection compounded by the child’s ghost-blood...”

“Fascinating,” Delani interrupted, “you may attend to her and watch after the household. I will keep you updated.”

Nodding, the wood caste strode out the door on her long legs. Stepping up to the sandbox, Delani looked down at the flowing sands, chaotically swirling like a stormy sea. “Can you truly divine anything from this mess?” she asked the air caste.

“Absolutely,” Misari replied with confidence, “it looks bad… in fact if this were a living city it would need to be flattened and rebuilt from scratch. But the patterns of the old city are still there underneath. We’ll find the Trove, it’s only a matter of time.”

#

“Do you think the Anathema killed him?” Rage asked as his girlfriend checked the old man’s body. The day had been spent searching every square foot around the Cynis mansion re-acquiring the Anathema’s trail. The arduous search, however, had born fruit, leading them right back to the doss house he and Feather had discovered on their first night here. Coming back here had been a shock but not a surprise, the Chosen of Mars was still mentally kicking himself for not thinking to check this place sooner.

“Hard to say,” Edge answered, carefully checking the wound, “whatever did kill him was not a natural blade. Whoever wielded it also wanted him to suffer a long, agonizing, death. They purposefully missed his heart but the surrounding area is… inflamed. Know of any weapons that would burn and poison a body at the same time?”

He shook his head. “That’s a new one on me… perhaps a Demon? Or something of the Underworld? Not that we can discount some unique Solar invention, of course.”

“Possibly, this god is long dead in any case,” she sighed, pulling herself away from the corpse. “Which would explain why this place was such an epicentre of activity despite outward appearances. If I were a betting girl, however, I’d lay even odds that this is our Anathema’s doing, covering his tracks after being discovered last night.”

“So our trail goes cold?” Rage muttered, “bloody incompetent Dragonbloods!”

“Anything in that secret compartment?”

Rage shook his head again. “Empty… do you think he was killed for whatever he was hiding in there?”

“Likely but I wouldn’t assume anything, darling,” Edge sighed. “Whatever we’ve stepped in here is far more complex than it first appears. Greyfalls is expending too much effort on this backwards little town, Anathema are snooping around, Little Gods are dying… honestly, I expected to get here and discover some idiot Scavenger Lord messing with a First Age artefact or maybe some rogue Sidereal trying to put a fast one over on Heaven.”

“Feather seemed to think there was something more sinister going on from the start,” Rage mused.

Edge shrugged. “Maybe her instincts are better than mine.”

“His instincts,” Rage corrected.

Edge giggled. “She’s not a ‘he’ right now.”

Frowning, Rage flopped onto the floor. “I’ve been thinking, maybe sending Feather into the whorehouse alone in his condition wasn’t the best idea.”

“Oh, she’s a big girl, she can take care of herself,” Edge scoffed. “You said yourself that it wouldn’t be the first time one of you had gone undercover as the opposite sex.”

He sighed. “I guess you’re right. So, what’s the plan now?”

Edge stared at the body for a while before answering. “I have an idea. First thing we need to do is find a shovel…”

#

Rolling over to shift the weight of her gravid belly off her back, Tetsu draped her arm across Sanejin’s muscular chest while the other probed the bulge of her abdomen. She noted with some chagrin that she was huge and wondered how her love managed to put up with her for so long. On the other hand, she felt eager to get it over with, the novelty of the pregnancy having paled months ago.

Feeling mischievous, she licked her lips as she gazed down over her god’s beautiful nakedness, her eyes alighting hungrily on the member between his legs. Slowly shifting so as not to wake him, she rose up onto her hands and knees and took him into her mouth, savouring his taste as she rand her tongue over the head. He moaned when she kissed the tip, quickly waking as he hardened in her mouth. He looked both amused and wistfully adoring as he looked down at her, making her heart beat a little faster.

A sudden sharp pain as something tightened in her nether regions made her stop and gasp for air. Sanejin asked her what was wrong but another wave of pain as that same something tightened harder inside her rolled through her. Soon she was lying on her back with her head in Sanejin’s lap as the contractions continued, clutching his hand tight as she pushed, trying to force their baby out of her. With one final, body-clenching, squeeze, she felt herself split apart as their daughter came into the world…

Bolting upright, it took Tetsu a moment to realize where he was. His heart was racing and he was drenched with sweat, the phantom pains between his legs an unpleasant reminder of the dream. The light filtering through the high window was weak enough that he could tell it was getting dark outside.

“Tetsu!” Feather called to him, grasping his shoulder as she pressed herself against his back. “Tetsu, it was just a dream.”

Taking a deep breath, he rubbed his face and forced himself to calm down. “I’m sorry, I keep having these… dreams. Vivid dreams…. Sanejin says they might be memories from the previous bearers of my exaltation.”

She pulled him back down into her embrace and cuddled against his side, wrapping one of her legs around his. “What do you dream about?”

He shook his head. “No, you don’t want to know and I’m too embarrassed to say. If they are memories, they’re the memories of a dead person; I’d rather leave them to rest.”

It was obvious she didn’t like the answer but she accepted it. “All right, why don’t you tell me what was so urgent you had to run off without telling me?”

Sighing, he took another deep breath and told her everything. At first he didn’t mean to tell her all of it without omitting important details but soon he found himself explaining things that he didn’t have to explain, detailing his innermost thoughts and expressing his fears. It started with little things here and there until it started coming out of his mouth in a torrent and he was unable to stop it, unburdening himself like he never had with anyone before. When he was done, he felt strangely lighter, as if talking it out had purged something he hadn’t realized was gnawing at him.

“Wow,” Feather whispered, sounding like she didn’t know what else to say, “so what are you going to do now?”

Smirking, he watched her eyes widen with surprise as he rolled on top of her. She gasped as he penetrated her slowly, savouring every sensation. He enjoyed making her writhe underneath him, gifting her with climax after climax as he held himself in check. When she started thrusting her own hips insistently, he held onto her as he rolled over, allowing her to set the pace of their lovemaking as she bounced atop his rod. Overcome by a wild, sexual, frenzy, Feather gyrated with complete abandon until Tetsu climaxed hours later, promptly collapsing on top of him immediately after.

Tetsu blinked only to discover himself waking to a dimly lit sky as Creation prepared to greet the dawn. Extricating himself carefully from Feather’s embrace, she sighed longingly in her sleep when he kissed her cheek and whispered words of endearment into her ear. Reluctantly leaving her intoxicating beauty before it would tempt him to linger, he doused himself with cold water before creeping from their chambers and out to his appointed meeting with Kamaria.

The ruins of Red Wolf’s mansion amazed Tetsu as he surveyed the wreckage in the twilight. Half of the grounds were buried under the landslide, most of the rest had been crushed under the falling tower or had literally fallen off the edge of the cliff. Looking over the edge of the precipice where he, Kano and White Crane had fallen, he saw that the forest had almost been scraped clean by the passage of falling rock. It was hard to believe he’d even managed to stand upright as he sated down the long slope to where it plunged steeply down into the river far below.

“Unpleasant memories?”

Looking around, Tetsu blinked when he discovered Kamaria sitting on a boulder only a few feet away. “How did you manage to get that close to me?” He asked, his sudden apprehension about the whole meeting elevating his pulse.

“Trade secret,” Kamaria answered unhelpfully.

Sitting on a boulder a few feet from her, Tetsu kept his hands in plain sight. “How is Aten?”

“Stroppy and acting like a child,” Kamaria sighed. “Valdis is coddling him like a mother hen but his wounds are mending, in fact the bones in his arm have already healed. The stomach injury prevents him from moving much, however.”

“Hopefully I’ll get a chance to properly apologize for that,” Tetsu said. “He and I need to have a talk about Cathak Markul.”

“You say you only buried his friend?”

“He came upon me mostly dead from a terrible wound in his chest, being dragged by his horse. The wound was mortal, so I asked his last wishes and buried his body, taking his valuables as an agreed upon payment so that his spirit could pass on peacefully.”

Kamaria tisked. “A pretty way to describe robbing the dead.”

“He had no more need of worldly goods,” Tetsu shrugged, “and his belongings bought me more trouble than I bargained for. His blade was sundered and fell over the edge of that cliff down there when I received what should have been a mortal wound at the hands of a man wearing red.”

“Yes, Menji told us the story of your Exaltation.”

Tetsu’s eyebrows raised. “Did you kill him?”

She blinked, her eyes widening for a moment. “Menji’s dead?” She asked, seemingly shocked.

“I discovered his body after returning from the graveyard,” he informed her.

“I swear that he was alive when we left the inn yesterday morning. No we didn’t return yesterday at all, we’d holed up in the cave to tend to Aten’s wounds.”

“His breast had been pierced by a blade,” Tetsu informed her, “it looked as if the blade had been red hot, perhaps even coated in some sort of caustic substance.”

Kamaria got up and started to pace, nibbling her knuckles. “I don’t know of a weapon or charm that would inflict such damage but it sounds dire. Maybe Ullah didn’t slip back into the Underworld or one of the Dragonbloods discovered him? I’ll assume for the sake of this conversation that you didn’t kill him.”

“Yes, I’ll return that courtesy,” Tetsu agreed. “It’s a mystery with few clues. Before he died, the only clue he gave me was the word ‘red’.”

She paused in mid step. “This man in red who wounded you?”

“Possibly,” Tetsu shrugged. “Maybe a fire caste dragonblood or just an assassin in red, or maybe he was talking about something else entirely. Who knows? The real question I think we have for each other is what are we doing in River’s Bend?”

Sitting back down, Kamaria gracefully crossed her legs. “Yes, you’re right of course. Mysteries can wait. So, who should go first?”

“I will because my story’s very simple,” Tetsu sighed. “Menji convinced me to help the people of River’s Bend, at the time I assumed he thought I was a rogue dragonblood but in hindsight he probably thought I was a convenient patsy. I Exalted in my attempt but was pitched off this cliff for my trouble. Ullah rescued me and I decided, partly with her urging, to continue to try to help the people of low town.”

She raised an eyebrow at him. “You’re a philanthropist?”

Tetsu laughed and shook his head. “Not at all, I’ve been a swindler and a cheat, a thief and a thug. I’ve even tried a little banditry in desperate times. But my entire life up until I arrived in this town was marked by desperation. I never really had a real choice with what to do with my life, I simply stumbled from place to place, my actions defined by the world around me. When I arrived at River’s Bend and after I exalted, I realized that I wanted something more. All my life, I’ve watched the strong oppress the weak. Now I have the power to do something about it.”

“So your concern is the people of low town?” Kamaria asked rhetorically, nodding in understanding. “But how do you plan to ease their burden? If it wasn’t the dragonbloods it would be this Sanejin who rules from on high or the Guild or any of a dozen local powers.”

“Red Wolf and White Crane broke their spirit,” Tetsu explained. “Getting rid of them was a good first step but if Greyfalls makes a stand here, the town will become a battlefield. If that happens, River’s Bend will suffer; anything is superior to that outcome.”

After a moment of silence to consider her words, Kamaria took a breath to speak. “Valdis and I are here to retake the Lunar Manse at the top of this mountain. It is sacred to our people and we wish to see it restored to a place of veneration.”

“Someone told me you might be ‘Lunar Exalted’,” Tetsu broached. “What does that mean exactly?”

“Plainly, we are the Chosen of the Moon in the way that you are the Chosen of the Sun,” she explained. “The goddess Luna exalted us to protect her beloved Creation and serve as companions to keep Solars like yourself grounded in reality. That second duty hasn’t been relevant since the Usurpation, however, years of exile have changed us from what you may remember from your previous incarnations and new Solars haven’t appeared until recent times. Currently, we have turned our efforts to forming a perfect mortal society that can sustain itself without catastrophes like the Balorian Crusade.”

“Well,” Tetsu sighed, “it doesn’t seem like you’ve had much success.”

She shrugged. “The problem is getting people to agree on what makes a better society,” she admitted. “Not to mention we Lunars highly prise individual freedoms. Each Lunar tries to develop their own nation where possible to see if their theories stand up in practice. Unfortunately, not all of us are up to the task, mistakes are made. But we keep trying, what else can we do? Tell me, do you desire to rule River’s Bend?”

Snorting, Tetsu shook his head. “Me, rule? No. My father used to tell me that people need to solve their own problems or those problems will never really be solved. Once the lords stop fighting over the place and I know things will remain as peaceful as they’re ever going to be, I’ll leave too. Besides, the village would be in more danger if I stuck around, the Immaculates would level the place.”

“Wise of you,” Kamaria complimented cautiously. “Our goal here is to retake the manse on top of this mountain. You would know it as ‘The Palace of Eternal Pefection’ but we know it by another name: ‘The Crescent Bower of Luna’s Grace’. It has been blessed with our goddess’ presence on a number of occasions and remains a holy place to us, particularly important since it is accessible to us here on the Threshold. Sanejin has kept it from us since our return from the Wyld but our elders sensed that he has been weakened by recent events. In addition, they have concerns about this region and wished us to scout for some nebulous danger they were unable to explain fully to us. Between the Legion and the presence of a Deathknight, I have to say there is certainly something going on here.”

“You’ll have to explain what a Deathknight is in a moment but I think I can fill in that piece of the puzzle for you if in exchange you tell me what you know of Aten and his friends. The dragonbloods are looking for a cache of first age arms known as the Oracle’s Trove. If you would believe the stories, it’s less of a cache and more of an arsenal, enough to conquer large parts of the East or end the civil war in the Realm if one has an army large enough for the job. Before you ask, I’ve made a vow not to exploit that possible treasure for my own gain; local interests are actively suppressing any information about it just in case it happens to be true. The previous owner, apparently, is supposed to return for their toys.”

Kamria rolled her eyes. “As if a new exalt, even a Solar, would have the wisdom to wield such power, if it indeed exists at all. I have to admit, I’m several hundred years old and even I wouldn’t trust myself, let alone some of my elders. Such power in the wrong hands… speaking of which, the Deathknights are something new. About the time you Solars started to reappear, these agents of the Deathlords also began to pop up. They’re powerful lieutenants for those fell beings, sent on the most dangerous missions. They seem to be some sort of mockery of Creation’s exalted, mirroring us in many ways. Most of those encountered work towards the Deathlord’s ultimate goal: the destruction of life. Ullah appeared to be what they call a ‘Midnight caste’, their version of a Zenith able to twist the minds of men to the worship of the dead. Do not trust her, whatever she did she was simply using you.”

“And Aten?”

She sighed. “We’ve spied on his group before. Aten Drassilson and Ogren Gunnar, accompanied by a little girl called only Messia. Aten is a Twilight caste, one of the thinkers of the solar exalted, hailing from the East but further to the southwest inside the Realm. Ogren was apparently a pirate raider from the Northwest who fled east from the Immaculates and a Dawn caste solar. Messia is an unknown; we believe they picked her up somewhere in their travels together more recently. They’ve been roaming the East for a few decades, fought some Lunars, made friends with others. The Wyld Hunt has been chasing them for years without success.”

“How does Cathak Markul fit in with them?”

Kamaria shrugged. “Unimportant in the scheme of things, he joined up about the same time as Messia but next to two solars he’s little more than an errand boy. The reason we were spying on their circle was Ogren. Aten’s a notorious womanizer, his motivations are easy to read. Ogren, however, has been making noises about conquering the entire Realm and from that I’ve heard, he just might be skilled enough at the arts of war to pull it off in a few centuries. Ogren’s a warlord, plain and simple, if he hears about this Trove… actually, come to think of it, that explains Aten’s presence in River’s Bend. He said that Ogren and Messia had taken refuge with one of our elders, Ogren must have sent him to scout ahead.”

Tetsu bit his lower lip. “At least we don’t have to worry about him for a little while. I have no interest in preventing you from claiming the Temple unless you have an interest in preventing me from completing my oath and ensuring that the Trove remains secret until such time as the rightful owner arrives to claim it.”

“I would rather see the Trove remain hidden for all time,” Kamaria replied, “but I’m willing to ally myself with you on this matter and Valdis will also honour my word. I promise not to breathe a word of your mission to Aten. Creation needs warriors right now, not more warmongers.”

“Thank you for that, Kamaria,” Tetsu said, standing and holding out his hand to clasp.

Kamaria stood and took the offered hand, shaking it firmly. Tetsu was amazed to discover that she could look him in the eye without tilting her head. “And thank you for the information. I hope our next meeting can be under more pleasant circumstances.”

“I’m glad to be working with you,” Tetsu answered honestly. “By the way, I’m staying in the Temple as a guest of Sanejin. I promise not to tell him about your mission as well.”

“I know,” she answered with a mysterious smirk before changing into a bird and flying away.

“So that’s how she does it,” Tetsu grumbled as he turned to walk back up the mountain.

#

“Push, Bonzo!” Sarro shouted over the woman’s screams.

The baby was huge, Bonzo’s stomach so distended that she’d been bedridden for the last day. Her face had a hollow, drawn, look about it and her skin had an unhealthy white pallor as she strained in the throes of birth.

The Wood caste was worried. Bonzo’s skin was cold and clammy to the touch, her body weak from the strain the unnatural baby had put on her system. The exertions of birth were just making her weaker as it progressed, enough that she had risked inducing the birth. The biggest problem were the guardsmen who were flailing about the room trying to follow her orders but panicking and tripping each other up. The one who’s helmet still smelt of vomit had his face screwed up in pain as Bonzo gripped his hand, the girl squeezing it so hard that Sarro could swear she heard it pop several times.

“Almost there,” Sarro breathed when she saw the head, cradling it as the child emerged from her mother and began to wail. Quickly severing the umbilical cord, she placed the pale, dark-haired, little girl in her crib before returning to tend the panting mother as she gasped weakly on the bed, close to death.

Then, with the ordeal over, the guard who had held her hand fainted.

#

“The Dragon Line still runs strongly through the valley,” Misari explained to the gathering of her compatriots inside the brass pyramid as they stood around the triangular sandbox in the command room. The sand was moving, showing the currents and eddies of the valley’s geomantic flows, allowing her to divine their nature. She pointed to the strongest current that ran from the northeast to the southwest towards the Blessed Isle. “And you can see how it affects the currents around it. The factory-cathedral that history tells us once stood on Mount Makota is gone but Oracle’s temple, known in those times as The Pinnacle Beyond Perfection, still sits atop the summit. Since we still have the records from when it was ransacked after the Usurpation however, I think we can discount it for now along with Sanejin’s Lunar manse.”

“If we’re discounting those, I assume you have found other places to look?” Delani inquired, even her patience strained.

“More by inference than actual discovery,” Misari continued, pointing to another area in the valley where the essence flows swirled around continuously. “That is a new demesne, I can’t tell you what aspect just yet but I’m certain it was formed after the Usurpation. Unfortunately, that pretty much discounts it from being a place of interest in our search but from what I can see, it has formed over the course of centuries as the bleed off from the dragon line settled with the decay of Makota City into more natural terrain. We know that demesnes are more common along the Dragon Line, so this doesn’t come as a surprise. What is surprising is this region over here.”

She pointed to an area of chaos, through which the essence rippled like a stormy sea. “That isn’t natural; either something’s interfering with the brass pyramids or, more likely, something in that area is disturbing the essence flows. Now, I don’t think it’s a manse or demesne, a demesne doesn’t do that and if you want to build a manse so that it doesn’t show up on a geomantic scan, you make it blend into the background, not throw up a smoke screen. No, something is disturbing the essence flows of this entire area. We’ll need to form a search party to comb the area for clues.”

“Agani,” Delani said, turning to her second in command, “go to high town, get Sarro and find me a local guide. Hathor, I want you to hand pick our best men and prepare them for the expedition. Misari, I’m leaving you in charge of our forces here. Ladies, we’re off to find ourselves some treasure…”

#

Pacing back and forth across the room, Feather blistered the air with a constant string of curses. Yet again her ire was directed at the no-good, lying, cheating, thieving, ruthless, noble, loving, sensitive, courageous, self-sacrificing…

She paused to tear her hair out when even trying to curse the man turned her thoughts to almost worshipful pride. He was a thief and a swindler but those character flaws just made him more endearing to her. Tetsu wasn’t anything like the mad Solars she’d read about in the history books during her training in Yu Shan; just a man trying to cope with enormous power and responsibility, a man who didn’t want to rule and just wanted to make Creation a better place. Forced to sit down as she went weak in the knees, she couldn’t help but remember the wonderful night they’d spent together. Memories of his touch made her pulse race and her skin tingle; her heart ached at his absence.

“What in the name of all the gods is wrong with me?” She asked herself, holding her face in her slender hands. She’d been angry with him for leaving without telling her again but at least she knew he was going to meet the Lunar at dawn. Feather had considered following him but she’d woken too late and she also knew that Tetsu would tell her everything as soon as he returned. She also considered sneaking out to let Rage and Edge in on everything she’d learned but… she hadn’t. Instead, she’d decided to have a bath, dress and wait for Tetsu to get back.

Absently, she wondered why she’d picked such an alluring outfit anyway. The gauzy blue silk robe with white and gold carp enhance her skin tone as well as her eyes and hair but left nothing to the imagination. The upper half twined around her body, held up only by the back of her neck, leaving cleavage and midriff exposed. The lower half was only joined by several silver clasps on her hips so that the skirt would expose more of her than it concealed as she moved. It was totally ludicrous but for some reason she was wearing it anyway along with a small amount of make-up and perfume. In fact, looking at her reflection in the mirror, she’d even felt the desire to get herself pierced in several places.

As she calmed herself, she resumed pacing, this time foregoing the swearing. She smiled when she noted that the dress did show her body off expertly, which she quickly justified as part of her cover in the whore house. Feather did, however, ignore the small voice from the back of her mind that protested that it was merely a justification.

“All right, think Feather,” she admonished herself. “There’s something seriously wrong with this whole picture. Several days ago, you were a man, remember? A man with a mission. We have a Deathknight knocking on the door, Terrestrials who might be playing right into their hands and a bunch of Solars and Lunars stirring everything up. No wonder destiny in this area is so screwed up…”

She paused, stopping in her tracks as she thought of Tetsu again. “All right, I have to admit not all of the Solars are that bad. In fact Tetsu could be a real asset with the proper guidance…”

Feather found herself considering her situation with Tetsu. She was a Sidereal, he was a Solar, her kind had imprisoned his exaltation over a millennia ago. By all rights, she should hand him over to Rage and Edge but… she realized she couldn’t do it. It wasn’t just that she didn’t want to do it, it would be such a waste of potential. Sitting down again, she crossed her legs and took a deep breath, closing her eyes so that she could cogitate the thought with a clear head.

It didn’t take long for her to have an epiphany. “Ayesha Ura is right,” she whispered, opening her eyes. Everyone knew that her group was working in secret to aid the new Solars, now she understood why. The Usurpation had been a mistake, an overreaction to the Sidereal’s own failures to properly guide the Solars along with the course of Creation; a cover-up of monumental scale. If there were more like Tetsu, genuinely fighting for a better Creation rather than themselves, then they could be the Sidereal’s most potent allies.

“Tetsu would understand,” Feather told herself as she stared into space. “If he knew what I know, saw what I’d seen, he’d understand why what we do is so important, so essential. Together we could fix Creation…”

If they let you work together, her subconscious remarked sarcastically, which they won’t. Unfortunately, Feather’s conscious mind had to concur, which led to another realization. “Not unless it’s my job,” she told herself, a half-baked plan formulating in her head.

She internally admonished herself for being a foolhardy idiot even as she got up and knelt on the floor to begin the first stage of her plan. Clasping her hands together, she made several significant symbols, chanting to focus her mind on the task. “Great Uvanavu, your humble servant Shining Feather seeks an audience. Hear my plea, Great Uvanavu, and answer in the name of the Five Elements, the stars and the Maidens.”

Opening her eyes, Feather found herself staring at a ghostly image of Uvanavu standing before her, which made her fall back on her ass in surprise. “Sir! I, er, didn’t expect you to manifest in person…”

“Feather?” The god blinked, staring. After a moment, however, he shook his head and quickly composed himself. “Pardon me, we’d been informed of your plight but I hadn’t expected you to be so… excuse me, I know you probably don’t want compliments on your appearance right now.”

Despite his words, Feather’s heart did flutter at the compliment. For a god like Uvanavu who was so close to Venus, for him to remark on one’s beauty was quite extraordinary. “I… thank you, sir, I’ll take that in the spirit in which it’s meant. May I also apologize for my deception last time we met, I was merely trying to stir up the courts to make it harder for my enemy to hide.”

Uvanavu stared at her. “Who are you and what have you done with Shining Feather? No, jokes aside, I discovered your true intent shortly after you left my office, though I had to do a lot of placating with the Department of Endings just to stop them from following you, though I was unable to prevent them from sending Edge instead.”

“Yes, I think you can tell them that she conveyed their dismay,” Feather muttered, remembering the fight. “Was it she who reported my disposition to Yu Shan?”

“Actually no,” the god answered, looking pained. “But that business can wait. Why did you call?”

Feather took a deep breath dreading the reaction to the next question. “Considering my action in deceiving you, along with my need to seek a cure for my condition, I was wondering if I could humbly request a transfer to the Convention of Essence Wielders.”

He raised his eyebrows. “You want to be placed under the command of Ayesha Ura?”

It was a question that held more weight in Sidereal politics than it seemed. Joining the Convention of Essence Wielders now was, for practical purposes, proclaiming her new allegiance. “I know you sympathize with many of her goals, Uvanavu,” Feather explained, “and after encountering a Solar for the first time, I find much merit in your point of view that I’d never understood before.”

The god looked troubled. “You know that Destined Edge cleaves to the policies of the Chair of the Capital Convention,” he said, using Chejop Kejack’s formal title, “and your friend Rage has no problems associating with her.”

“Rage will have to make his own decision,” Feather sighed with deep regret, “but I must do what I feel is right.”

“All right,” Uvanavu finally said after consideration, “I’ll broach the subject and start the paperwork. In the meantime, we need to talk about your mission and you specifically. I told you that we were not informed of your encounter with the Water of Eternal Perfection… and yes, we know about the water. No, yesterday I received a missive from the Division of Secrets… about you, tangentially.”

Feather couldn’t hide her surprise. “But I don’t have any secrets… well, not any secrets that the Division of Secrets could think would have any baring on my mission…”

“It’s not that sort of missive,” Uvanavu explained. “In fact, usually I’d be jumping for joy at this news. I’m sorry I’m leading into this slowly but the news is going to be quite a shock, I’m afraid. I’ll leave it up to you, do you want me to ease you into this or tell you right out?”

“I’m not sure my nerves could stand it right now,” Feather scowled, wiping her brow. “Ease me into it.”

“Very well, there’s a discussion going on right now about whether or not to recall you from your mission…”

“No!” Feather immediately protested, her thoughts immediately turning to Tetsu. “I can’t go, I need hi… I mean I need to see this mission through, we’re so close to a breakthrough!”

Uvanavu held up his hand to calm her. “The reason we’re discussing recalling you to Yu Shan is that the message that was released from the Division of Secrets indicates that a baby was recently conceived that will one day inherit the exaltation of a Siderial. We want you to bring her back to safety.”

“Here in the whorehouse?” Feather asked, wringing her hands together. “There are hundreds of girls here; it could be any of them, not to mention the ones down in low town…”

“We know exactly who she is,” Uvanavu interrupted, looking down at Feather pointedly, “that’s why we’re thinking about recalling you.”

Even though he’d practically stated it outright, it took a few moments for Feather’s brain to piece together the clues. When she did, her eyes widened, almost as if she were begging Uvanavu to not make it so. Then her gaze went down to her traitorous midriff. Could she feel something there, moving? “No,” she whispered, her hands clutching her stomach, “no, no, no, no, no. No! I can’t be… I had some maiden tea yesterday, it should still…”

He shook his head. “According to the note from the Division of Secrets, you conceived this morning. Because of the nature of her destiny, you are ordered NOT to terminate your pregnancy. She is to be raised here on Yu Shan under the finest tutors so that she can grow into her responsibilities. It is so rare in these times that we get such warning of a Sidereal birth; we cannot afford to waste the opportunity. I’m sure you understand.”

Feather didn’t ask permission to sit, she just did. If Uvanavu was offended, he didn’t comment on it. “I… do they know who the father is?”

“No,” Uvanavu shrugged, “and they don’t particularly care. He will have no part in her childhood anyway.”

That stung Feather for reasons she couldn’t fathom. “He’s the Solar I was spying on.”

Shocked, the god broke into an uncharacteristic fit of coughs. “What the devil was going though your mind, Feather?”

“I don’t know!” She protested, close to tears. “I had him right under my thumb! I was in charge, the goal was simple. But the more I learned about him, the more I came to know him as a person, I realized what good he could do for Creation! He’s not interested in power, he just wants to make things better for people! Isn’t that what we all want? Offering him my body just seemed natural, after all I’m supposed to be a whore; it’s all part of the role, nothing I haven’t done before…”

She paused again when she noticed that Uvanavu had a strangely knowing grin on his face. “What?” she asked.

“You’re in love with him,” he observed.

It was Feather’s turn to splutter. “I am NOT in love with him! That’s absurd!”

Uvanavu rolled his eyes. “Joybringers, you spend most of your days bringing couples together but every time one of you falls in love, suddenly the sky is falling! Tell me, do you find yourself constantly thinking about him? Do you feel his absence as well as his presence? Do you find yourself excusing his flaws, even admiring them…”

“I’m not in love,” Feather protested with far less vehemence and a lot more doubt and insecurity. “I can’t be in love, I’m… I should be a man.”

“Feather, for most gods I can say as a whole we don’t really understand gender,” Uvanavu admitted, “I think I do more than most but that’s part of my job. But I will say, knowing what I do and having lived many human lives as both genders, perhaps you should consider that your current form is what you make of it. If you really have found love with this Solar then you court tragedy but if this love has blessed you not only with a child of great importance but a sense of purpose in joining the Convention of Essence Wielders… I think deep down you know what you must do. I’ll recommend that you stay on this mission to the end but I expect another update in the next forty eight hours.”

As he faded out of existence, Feather was left staring at the floor, speechless.

#

Knocking of Kano’s door, Tetsu entered his room to find the boy half asleep at his desk, still reading the note from his father. “Kano,” he said to call attention to himself, “is there anything you have to tell me?”

The former prostitute turned to look at him, his eyes rimmed with black. “When I was much younger, before Red Wolf kidnapped me, my father used to take me swimming in the river,” he explained. “North of town there’s a small lake just off the edge of the river, dad called it our secret place and told me not to tell anyone about it. Honestly, I’d forgotten it even existed until today. He left it up to me whether to tell you or not, said he trusted my judgement.”

“Thank you, Kano, I appreciate your trust,” Tetsu answered with a sigh. “I’m not sure if I deserve it but I appreciate it.”

“So we’re going to the lake,” Kano said, half standing before Tetsu placed his hand on the god-blood’s shoulder.

“No,” Tetsu admonished, “I’m going to the lake. It’s far too dangerous for you to come with me.”

Kano shrugged off his hand and stood up. “I can fight.”

“All right then,” Tetsu sighed again with regret for what he was about to do, “hit me.”

“What?” Kano asked, blinking stupidly.

“Prove to me you can fight and you can come. Hit me.”

Frowning, Kano balled up his fists tentatively and lashed out half-heartedly. All business, Tetsu grabbed his arm, twisted it and kicked him in the stomach with a fraction of his full force, sending Kano to the ground gasping for breath. “You didn’t even really try that time,” Tetsu observed, “don’t think I’ll hold back on this just because we’re friends. If you don’t try to hurt me, you’re not going to get anywhere.”

“Shut up,” Kano gasped, climbing up his desk to get back on his feet, “I won against Inkfinger.”

“You won against a scholar who probably had less fighting experience than you,” Tetsu noted, “even if he is a ghost. You father hid something in that lake, Kano, something that will have guardians. Those guardians won’t give a crap that you’re his son; they’ll rip you to pieces given half a chance. If you want to come, you need to prove you’re an asset rather than a liability. So hit me if you can.”

Growling, Kano’s next punch was more serious but even before his exaltation, Tetsu would have blocked it easily. The life of a whore just didn’t build the required upper arm strength that back-breaking labour and street fighting did. But the punch was a serious attempt and Tetsu respected that, so he responded in kind. Kano didn’t even see the punch that knocked him several feet into the wall and left him sprawled face first on the floor, hardly able to move.

“Kano, I’m not doing this to torture you,” Tetsu explained, feeling awful inside but not letting it show, “I’m just trying to get through your thick skull. You aren’t ready for this yet. By Malfeas, I don’t know if my skills are up to the task. On the other hand, I’m expendable and you’re not, so it’s my job to go.”

“You’re not expendable,” Kano gasped, “I am. Even if I die, at least I can say that I tried to make a difference.”

“You’re the only other person who knows the location of the lake,” Tetsu replied, “that makes you more important than you know. If I fail, you have to place the next person you trust on the path until someone succeeds. If you don’t then your father will have spent his life for nothing.”

Kano growled again and eased himself into a sitting position. “All right, I’ll trust you this time but if you don’t come back I’m going to piss on your ghost.”

“Believe me,” Tetsu muttered as he walked out, “if I don’t come back, what you do to me will be paradise compared to what Feather will.”

Returning to his chambers, Tetsu found the aforementioned subject of his affections waiting for him with her hands crossed over her chest and glaring at him evilly. “Darling,” he greeted tentatively, trying to kiss her on the lips but getting her cheek. “I’m sorry, I thought you’d know I went to meet Kamaria.”

She held her perfect hand up in front of his face. “Never mind that you left without telling me again. I’ve been worried sick all morning… again!”

“I’m sorry,” he apologized, taking her hand so he could massage it, “I didn’t mean to make you worry about me but you have to accept that what I’m doing is dangerous.”

Feather was obviously fighting her instincts to stay mad at him. “Stop that,” she ordered, glancing down at the hand he was rubbing.

“Ok,” he said, pulling her close so that he could kiss her on the lips. She fought for a moment but melted into him as the shock wore off.

“I hate you,” she told him between lingering kisses. “You’re secretive, mysterious, stubborn, overprotective, stupid…”

“But I still love you,” he admitted when she paused to search for more adjectives.

She looked at him like he’d just slapped her in the face. “I… I love you too,” she whispered quickly, hurling herself into his arms and sobbing.

“Feather,” he said gently, stroking her hair, “is something wrong?”

“No! No,” she refuted, pushing away from him too quickly and patting tears out of her eyes, “just nerves, or… hormones maybe. I’m sorry, I shouldn’t be so clingy…”

He smiled. “I like how you cling to me.”

Feather smiled back at him but gave him a playful punch on the shoulder that had a surprising amount of weight behind it. “Believe it or not, I’m not looking for a protector big guy. I can handle myself.”

“I know,” Tetsu answered simply, “but I have to go somewhere again today and I can’t tell you where.”

Her smile faded immediately. “Why? What did Kamaria have to say?”

“Just that she’s here to take over this temple and that Aten and his friend Ogren are probably looking for the Trove too. But I have a lead on where the Gnomon is and I’m going after it.”

Folding her arms over her chest again, Feather resume glaring at him. “Then I’m coming with you.”

Tetsu huffed in frustration. “Darling, I’ve just been through this with Kano. You are not coming with me into a probable death trap. I have no idea what I’ll find down there!”

“I’m not just going to let you wander off to your doom either,” Feather insisted. “You even said to me last night, you’re walking a fine line between disasters. Besides, I can’t think of a better place for this Gnomon thing than the bottom of a death trap. Let the dragonbloods die over it, not you.”

“And if they succeed and they get the Gnomon and that leads them to the Trove,” Tetsu said helplessly, allowing Feather to follow his unspoken logic. “Feather, I have to do this. And I need you of all people to believe I can do it, that I’m coming home. Because I’m coming home.”

Feeling herself choke up, Feather gulped. “Why?”

“Because I’m not going to let anything keep us apart,” he swore as he grasped her shoulders, “not the dragonbloods, not the Realm, not even the hordes of Malfeas or the Incarnae themselves. No matter what happens from this moment on you can count on one thing. I’m coming back for you.”

He kissed her again as she stood stunned then let her go before turning to walk out the door. “I’ll see you soon,” she whispered after him, staring longingly at the closed door that he left behind.

Chapter 16

“Halt!” V’neef Segoku ordered as he pulled up his horse in front of the stranger, his loud voice echoing through the forest. “State your name and intention, stranger.”

The traveller before him stood on a small, winding, trail that led through the valley to river’s bend. His cloak was heavy grey wool and he had the hood up but beneath it was easy for the trained eye of a dragonblood to spot the telltale hints of bulky armour under the fabric. The man’s build was also impressive, broad shouldered with a thick chest, used to training with weapons. Of course, he also wore a large blade on his back, not the size of a daiklave but still impressive for a mortal to carry.

Behind Segoku, his friends Peleps Kadan and Ledaal Tooke also pulled up their horses, the group’s household guards falling in behind them. “What have you caught here, V’neef?” Tooke asked as he looked down on the figure. “Some mortal mercenary?”

“Maybe a bandit,” Kadan suggested in his extremely deep voice, hefting the jadesteel bludgeon that the dragonblooded knew as a Goremaul over his shoulder.

“Nice boots,” the warrior complimented in a calm, confidant voice as he surveyed Kadan’s footwear. “Did you happen to purchase those boots from a wandering peddler?”

Kadan growled in outrage, showing the hot blood of a fire caste. “Do you presume to question your betters, mortal?”

“I’m looking for the peddler who made those boots,” the warrior explained without apology. “I’d heard he was staying in River’s Bend. Is that where you purchased them?”

“He’s got guts,” Tooke chuckled while Segoku sputtered with rage.

“No, I think he’s just stupid,” Kadan commented.

“I’ve been dying to test my new blade,” Segoku muttered, drawing a red jadesteel reaper daiklave from the sheathe on his horse before dismounting. “You should feel honoured that my blade will take its first taste of blood from your corpse, stranger.”

The stranger stood peacefully as Segoku raised the blade over his head, screaming an unearthly battlecry as his anima blazed to life. The red jadesteel left a burning arc through the air as it scythed down, intent on bisecting the warrior from crown to groin. A moment before it struck, the stranger flowed into action, drawing his own blade with a movement so fast that and observer could miss it in a blink.

Segoku stood frozen, his blade hanging over the stranger’s head m mere hair’s breadth from his skin. “Segoku?” Tooke pressed, worry creeping into the water caste’s voice. As if he’d heard him, Segoku turned to face them, moving the blade away from the stranger before his arms fell like a puppet whose strings had been cut. Kadan and Tooke saw that the fire caste’s eyes were empty and lifeless moments before two long wounds opened across his neck and stomach bleeding almost reluctantly as if even the corpse didn’t believe it was dead. Then it fell on its face, lifeless. The stranger had drawn and stuck two blows that not even Segoku had seen.

Kadan reacted first, spurring his horse forward as he swung his goremaul through the air over his head, leaving a trail of fallen branches in his wake. The stranger somersaulted over his first blow, striking as he landed to cleave the legs off of his horse. Rolling with the fall, Kadan kept his grip on his weapon and immediately span to swing again at his foe. This time spinning under the goremaul, the stranger’s thrust pierced Kadan through the eye, the tip neatly sliding through his brain.

The stranger caught the arrow that Tooke shot from his bow in mid air, leaving the final dragonblood gaping at his adversary. “Anathema!” Tooke cried out as the stranger started walking towards him with grim determination, looking to the men behind that looked ready to bolt. “Cowards!” Tooke cursed, then, loosing a string of arrows at his approaching death. The stranger battered them aside with both his arm and his blade casually as if the dragonblood’s skill meant nothing. Tooke drew his sword too late; the stranger flicked his clumsy stroke aside, vaulted over the horse and left the dragonblood’s corpse to fall out of the saddle in one direction while his head flew off into the bushes the other way.

Glaring at the guards from under his hood, the stranger growled. “You were no use to your masters, cowards like you are a waste of the air we breathe. Die.”

As the guards wheeled their horses to flee, the stranger pulled a score of throwing blades from under his robes, held between his fingers ten to each hand. Unleashing the entire volley in a single double-handed throw, the blades streaked through the air like angry hornets, smashing through all obstacles in their path. The guards fell one by one, most collapsing from their saddles with a blade piercing a vital organ. Others were clutched wounds that gushed blood, the blades having opened arteries so that they would bleed out rather than face a quick, painless, death. The last remaining guard thought that he alone had escaped just before a tree fell on him, crushing both him and his horse.

Once all was still and the forest was serene one again, the stranger continued along the dirt track, picking his way though bodies and puddles of blood.

#

“There you are,” Feather said to her partner as she alighted next to him on a tree branch, “what are you doing up here?”

Rage pointed to Menji’s inn. “We tracked the Solar back here to the old man’s place. We found him dead inside yesterday so Edge has taken his place. When the Solar returns, we spring the trap. You finally got away from the temple, huh? Find out anything?”

“Maybe too much,” Feather muttered, half to herself. “Before I tell you about it I need to ask you something, Rage. What do you really think about the Usurpation? I’m not sure we every really talked about it before.”

He shrugged. “I don’t think about the Usurpation other than battle strategies and tactics. It was a brilliantly executed coup, considering the nature of the enemy…”

“No, I’m asking you if you think it was morally right,” Feather interrupted.

“I don’t think about morals, Feather,” he shrugged, “I’m a weapon, point me at what you want killed and I kill it. The moment you start asking why your target needs to die, you’re on a slippery slope. Why does anyone need to die? Why do we even have a Division of Endings? Or Battle? By the way, what in all the gods are you wearing? Is that make-up?”

She was still wearing the dress she’d chosen to greet Tetsu in when he returned to their room. Feather noted that she was starting to like it… even if she needed jewellery to set if off just right. “Rage, things have changed. I’ve changed, even in the last few days since I saw you last.”

He snorted, keeping his eyes on Menji’s. “I told you those boobs really are making you crazy.”

She scowled at him. “I’m pregnant and the Division of Secrets says she’s going to grow up to be a Sidereal.”

He didn’t react for a moment until what she’d actually said sank in. “WHAT?!?” He hissed, clamping down on his own mouth to prevent himself from shouting. “Feather, what in all the stars in the sky were you doing to get yourself pregnant?”

Feather rolled her eyes. “Funnily enough, what every other woman does to get herself pregnant. Rage, I was in a whorehouse! It didn’t occur to you for one moment that I might not be able to get out of having sex at least once?”

“Actually, I thought you were good enough to talk your way out of it,” he grumbled, “now look where we are. Dare I ask who the father is?”

“Nobody important,” Feather lied smoothly, “but I’ve been ordered to keep it, so I have to. I’m probably going to be recalled to Yu Shan until the birth.”

Rage looked pained. “They’re going to split us up, they’ll have to. I’ll probably be reassigned to Edge.”

Nodding, it still hurt Feather that he was right and their partnership was ending. He just didn’t know the full extent of it. “I concur. I’ve also requested a transfer to the Convention of Essence Wielders.”

“Wait, what?” Rage asked, shaking his head as if to clear it. “I thought you despised faction politics?”

“I’ve been thinking about it a lot over the last few days,” she admitted truthfully. “And I’m starting to think that Ayesha Ura might be right about a lot of things. Did we really do everything we could to save the Solars? Did we even try? The Contagion and the Balorian Crusade can be laid at our feet, we are ultimately responsible.”

“The Solars were mad,” Rage scoffed, “their own Incarnae turned away from them. There might have been nothing in the odds but the facts were clear, I think we did the right thing. Nobody could have known the repercussions and there’s nothing to say that the Solars themselves wouldn’t have wrecked Creation on their own.”

“Then I guess now we know where each of us really stands,” Feather whispered, holding back tears.

“Yeah,” Rage sighed, turning his eyes back down to Menji’s inn, “I guess we do.” After a long pause, he shrugged. “But I still say it’s those boobs making you crazy.”

#

The lake was a serene pool caught between the river and a wrinkle in the mountainside. The shifting sediment drifting downstream with the current had formed a sandbar, cutting the lake off from the rest of the river. It was small but Tetsu could tell from the dark colouration that it was deep. Surveying the terrain from his position on the mountainside, having walked along the top all the way from the Temple, the Eclipse caste noted the rock ledge that hung over the western edge of the water.

Descending to the edge of the water, Tetsu removed his shoes on the sandbar, keeping one eye on the water to see if he could spot anything moving below. Spying nothing, he pulled his arms out from the sleeves of his robe to give his arms more mobility, made sure his belt was secure and finally dived in.

Finding the water surprisingly clean and clear, it didn’t take Tetsu long to discover the mouth of the cave in the side of the mountain, a ragged gap full of stalagmites and stalactites that reminded him of teeth. Surfacing to take a breath, he made sure his lungs were full before diving back down with the intent of swimming through to the caverns beyond. Noting that there was a current that moved in and out of the cave mouth like the shallow breath of a giant beast, Tetsu had to drag himself through the maze of natural rock formations that almost blocked the entrance, his lungs aching a little more with every interminable moment. He almost thought he’d been trapped when he reached what looked to be a wall of sand before him until he looked up and noticed the surface of the water over his head.

Climbing upward, Tetsu emerged into an immense cavern illuminated by glowing blue fungus that grew from cracks in the walls. The sand underfoot quickly gave way to damp, cold, rock but Tetsu barely noticed his feet. His attention was taken by the giant statue that took up the entire wall opposite the natural pool, a massive idol depicting a regal-looking four-armed giant carrying an object of obvious significance in each hand. These objects were a spear, a shield, a horn and a laurel branch. The statue straddled a stone doorway with no visible hinges or seams. Emblazoned on the door was the full golden circle of the Zenith caste with first age writing around it.

Walking up to the door, Tetsu shook his head, wishing he’d brought Feather along after all. “What are you trying to tell me?” he mused out loud in consternation.

“By the four virtues shall the supplicant be tested,” a harsh, feminine, whisper echoed through the chamber in answer, making him jump. “Valour, Compassion, Temperance and Conviction, only the worthy soul will pass under the gaze of the Unconquered Sun and triumph.”

Looking around, Tetsu still couldn’t see anything, even in the shadows of the cavernous ceiling. “What are you, creature? Do you guard this place?”

“Gatekeeper, guardian, tour guide and test, I am the rhyme that knows riddles best, tread carefully, dear, lest you die like the rest!” the invisible speaker answered in a mocking sing-song voice.

“What are you?” Tetsu demanded, whirling around to see if he could catch the owner of the voice unawares. “Spirit? Demon? Fae?”

“Is it not in the mood to play games?” the voice asked, giggling. “It’s going to be very upset if that’s true, if it wants the prize.”

“You mean the Gnomon?”

The voice hissed, suddenly sounding more serious. “So it knows about the Gnomon but that won’t help it pass the test. Only the most virtuous and capable seeker will be proven worthy of the Gnomon.”

“So, if you’re the gatekeeper then I have to get through you to proceed?”

“It is a smart one, yes it is. To open the door, we require a correct answer to a single question. If you answer incorrectly, we get to devour you… and we are so very hungry.”

“I hate spirits,” Tetsu muttered under his breath before giving his reply. “All right, ask your question.”

“Very well… but also understand, if you cannot answer you may choose to leave this place, never to return.”

“I told you to ask the damn question!”

The spirit giggled gleefully. “Very well, just remember that your fate is now on your own head. Tell us, oh wise one, what is the average number of hairs on a Yeddim’s back?”

Screwing his eyes shut for a moment, Tetsu shook his head. “That question’s PREPOSTEROUS! Even a scholar with a great depth of knowledge couldn’t answer that question!”

“Of course not!” the disembodied voice laughed. “And if we thought they could, we’d ask another impossible question. After all, we are so very hungry.”

“So the real first test is the ability to solve an impossible problem,” Tetsu mumbled to himself, trying to focus. Turning back to face the stature that seemed to be glaring down at him expectantly, the solar scowled back. “I’m thinking,” he told it firmly.

Moments later an idea struck him. Walking over to the door, he tapped the stonework with his knuckles, eyes narrowing speculatively.

“Well?” the voice asked impatiently. “Either give me an answer so that I can eat you or give up and go home there’s no point in…”

Pulling back his fist, Tetsu lashed out at the door with full force, breaking the foot thick block of stone into several large chunks, creating a man-sized hole to the next room. Brushing the dust off himself, he smiled as he stepped through to the first challenge while the voice protested lamely behind him, whining like a spoiled child. “You can’t do that! That’s cheating! Come on, come back here and answer the queeeestion…”

Ignoring the jibes, Tetsu surveyed the room of the second test. It wasn’t a pretty sight, the floor was composed of metal plates with stone pillars rising up through gaps to the ceiling. Steam was occasionally vented through holes in the plates, filling the room with stinging mist. Condensation dripped back down from high above only to sizzle on and evaporate once again on the floor. He heat in the room would have forced a less hardened man to turn back even as the steam seared Tetsu’s eyes and lungs. Across from the doorway was another door, this time rendered in metal just as hot to the touch as the plates on the floor. In front of it on a stone dais, however, was a lever. Unfortunately, the lever was also composed of bare steel but, to Tetsu’s devious mind, that didn’t matter since it was leaning in his direction.

Picking up one of the chunks of the doorway he’d broken down, Tetsu hefted it onto his shoulder and took careful aim before pitching it across the room. It took a second throw to get his hand in and a third to finally peg the level, flipping it and opening the door to the next chamber. Backing out of the room to get some space, he took a running jump over the burning metal, rolling across the stone dais and through the arch to the next test. The steam burned like the fires of Malfeas but Tetsu thanked the gods that the damage was comparably minimal compared to what he might have suffered traversing the test honestly.

The second room made Tetsu’s eyes bulge. In the centre of the simple stone chamber was a platform suspended by chains. The chains led through two loops in the ceiling to a giant, rectangular, block of iron that, if lowered, would block the archway to the next room. Counterbalancing the iron block on the platform was a pile of what appeared to be gold ingots arranged into a neat pyramid. On closer inspection, however, Tetsu rejected this obvious assessment. The lustre of the ingots was too bright, in fact they almost glowed with their own inner light, revealing their true nature as Orihalcum, one of the legendary celestial metals of near incalculable value.

The only part of the room more curious to Tetsu apart from the Orihalcum was that there was no door to the next room, just an open archway. As much as it pained him to leave such wealth behind, prudence needed to be satisfied, so he pulled himself away from the treasure to inspect the next room.

Compared to the previous room, the third was disappointing. Again a featureless stone room except for one object, a kneeling statue of a woman holding out her hands as if begging for alms. Unfortunately, there was a door beyond this statue again composed of thick metal just like the second door. Examining the statue, it only took him a moment to divine its purpose as he calculated that the outstretched hands would perfectly hold one of the Orihalcum ingots from the previous room.

“Oh no,” he told the statue seriously, “if you think you’re getting even one of those ingots…”

He trailed off as he considered the problem. Returning to the previous room, he confirmed his suspicions by removing a single ingot without effect then watching the counterweight slowly descend if he even so much as took some of the weight off the second, though it returned to the original position once he stopped. “Why didn’t you bring Feather you idiot?” Tetsu chastised himself. “Feather and Kano… I mean, seriously, who doesn’t bring friends to the scary deathtrap, honestly…”

Quickly eliminating the idea of tunnelling between areas due to time constraints, it took a while for Tetsu to work out his strategy. In fact, he only achieved his epiphany when he stopped looking for complex answers. Returning to the steam room, he retrieved the three stone blocks that he’d pitched at the lever and placed them on the platform with the ingots. Carefully removing each ingot so that he was sure the counterweight wouldn’t descend, not trusting that another trap wouldn’t trigger if it did, he threw them one at a time back out through the entrance. Having successfully stolen the loot, he returned to the statue, broke off its head and placed it in its hands, the weight causing the arms to descend slightly and the door beyond to open.

Stepping through, Tetsu found himself in a large room yet trapped inside a long, steel, cage that reached from the open doorway behind him to the closed doorway opposite. In the middle was another lever in the floor and outside of the cage there were valves in the floor and ceiling that gave Tetsu a chill down his spine, particularly since water was dripping from the ones overhead. Even before he grasped the lever, he knew what was about to happen but that didn’t make his situation any less terrifying as he pulled the switch.

Even knowing it was going to happen, Tetsu jumped when the door behind him snapped shut. When the valves overhead opened and water started gushing into the room, he also couldn’t help it when his heart began to race. Staring at the lever as the water level rose over his ankles, he wondered if pushing the lever back would empty the room or if that would just make the situation worse somehow. That thought led him to consider what would be worse than being trapped in a room slowly filling with water which his evil imagination quickly supplied. Unleashing a horde of man-eating fish small enough to get through the bars would, for example, be worse. That idea alone stayed his hand as he continued to take deep breaths for as long as he could.

Staying calm as the surface of the water crept up his legs was a battle. By contrast, when the water finally rose over the height of the cage, Tetsu found simply having to hold his breath fairly serene. At least until his lungs started to ache. The temptation to pull the lever again made his limbs ache as he clung to the cage to keep himself steady, part of him begging for release even if it would only be the peace of death while the other shouted that fatalistic part of himself down. Two things kept him from pulling the lever: his certainty that whoever built the trap wouldn’t want the new Oracle to die so ignominiously and the memory of Feather’s face before he’d left her mere hours ago.

This time, failure was not an option and there was no way to cheat. When spots started to swim before his eyes, Tetsu screwed them shut. When his hands started to feel numb, he let himself float in the water, keeping his mouth sealed firmly shut. Just when he thought he was about to pass out, he heard something click, the sound reverberating weirdly through the water. Opening his eyes, Tetsu saw both doors burst open, a cold current hitting him like a hammer blow in the chest as he was swept back out the way he’d come.

Buffeted against the edge of the archways, Tetsu felt joy at his first breath of air despite the pain as the water flung him between the legs of the four-armed statue into the natural cavern, coughing and sputtering as he rolled across the floor. The water level eventually forced him onto his knees, though it stopped when it reached a foot deep, warmed in the quenching of the steam-filled room.

“Looks like you failed then,” the voice taunted him, “such a pity.”

“I didn’t fail,” Tetsu growled, flopping onto his back.

“You don’t look like you have the Gnomon,” it observed mockingly.

“Four tests of virtue, that’s what you said. Eduring pain to reach your goals takes conviction, the ability to set wealth aside shows temperance and giving what little you have away is compassionate. On top of all that, I’d say standing in a room as it fills with water takes a great deal of valour, if I’d failed the test I’d be dead.”

“And at exactly what point did you set that wealth aside or give anything away?”

“Temperance and compassion is one thing, stupidity is another,” Tetsu answered. “Those traps were mechanical in nature, if amazingly simplistic. Besides, I saw behind the last door, there was nothing there but iron bars, just a duct for the water to gush through and push me back here, so don’t talk to me about failure or fairness, all those tests were nothing but a waste of time!”

“Maybe you’d like me to serve the Gnomon to you on a silver platter?” the voice asked archly.

“Go shove your head up your invisible ass,” Tetsu suggested, hauling himself back to his feet. The voice was mercifully silent as he retrieved the Orihalcium ingots and piled them up on a rock near the edge of the pool, ready for when he decide to leave. Turning over the tests in his mind as he worked, he tried to look for the angles.

Tetsu’s mouth twisted into a smile when he had his second epiphany of the day. Looking back up at the statue, his smile only broadened. “Four traps, four virtues, four arms of the statue. The spear for valour, the shield for temperance, the branch for compassion and the horn for conviction… in other words, in the order of the traps I just encountered: conviction, temperance, compassion and valour. Horn, shield, branch and spear!”

“It’s not going to work,” the voice answered half-heartedly even as Tetsu began to climb the statue’s legs and up onto the torso where he could easily reach all of the arms. He knew he had it right when the hand holding the horn twisted easily, clicking into place. Once all four had been switched in order, Tetsu was forced to hold onto the statue’s waist as the ground shook from a low rumble deep within the earth. After a moment, a perfect square of the rock floor at the base of the statue rose up, allowing the water to drain down into a pit that was already mostly flooded.

Tetsu groaned. “More water? Why did it have to be water?”

The head of the statue he was clinging to suddenly looked down on him and grinned evilly. “All the better to drown you in,” it answered in the same tone as the voice.

#

“What the hell was that?” Iselsi Mithras demanded in a panicked voice from his position on his belly with his hands over his head. Despite being their local guide, and apparently a skilled hunter, Mithras was the only dragonblood who hadn’t managed to retain his feet while the earth shook. Fortunately his horse prove to be of better stock, a little twitchy but remaining steady.

Delani put her hands on her hips indignantly as her men picked themselves up off the ground, her own horse as steady and nonchalant as she was. “An earthquake? Hathor?”

The Earth caste knelt and placed her hand on the rock underneath her feet. “I don’t think so, it didn’t feel right.”

“On your feet!” Agani ordered the soldiers behind them. “And see to your mounts. Any man who gets left behind can be food for the claw striders for all I give a damn!”

Scanning the forest around them, it was hard for Delani to see anything at all. The trees had claimed what little was left of the city, which in most cases was little more than the occasional stone block or wall riddles by vines and roots. Their party was large enough that the beasts of the wild hadn’t disturbed them yet, though Sarro was scouting ahead to guide them around any larger dangers that might hinder their mission.

“Ma’am,” Sarro greeted, suddenly appearing from the woods as if she’d materialized out of the air, almost as if Delani’s thoughts had summoned her. “I think I’ve found the source of your essence disturbance.”

Moving as one, Delani and Agani followed her immediately while Hathor paused to pick Mithras up off the ground and rally the troops, leading their horses over the rough terrain. Sarro only guided them for a few minutes before they spotted where she was taking them, thanks to the geyser of blue energy that was shooting into the sky.

The emanation of what was unmistakably water essence shot up from a low dome-shaped structure that had mostly caved in a few centuries before. Several trees has taken residence, though all had apparently shied away from the geyser as they’d grown. The essence itself was being ejected through a bowel of polished jadesteel that appeared to be unmarred by the passage of time despite being partly covered by the collapsed stonework.

“Now I wish we’d brought Misari along,” Hathor commented once she and the men had caught up. “What the heck is this thing?”

“An essence vent,” Agani answered, taking off her helm so she could scratch her chin. “When you cap a demesne with a manse, there’s often some bleed off of unwanted energy that you have to get rid of safely into the environment. Usually a vent wouldn’t geyser like this but I bet the collapse of the structure around it is blocking the proper redistribution of the essence. A disruption this powerful would certainly account for the problems with this area’s essence flows, not to mention the general lack of wildlife.”

“Mithras?” Delani asked, prompting the young wood caste.

Mithras shrugged. “I’ve never seen this before; usually we don’t range this far north, though it’s true we follow the game trails. Lack of good hunting never really encouraged us to explore this far, not that we get more than a few hours away from town much.”

“Too hard to leave the gentle caress of Sanejin’s whores, huh?” Hathor teased.

“That and I’m about the youngest dragonblood in town,” Mithras added. “The older men, particularly those of the Thousand Scales, prefer their soft cushions to a saddle.”

“Disgraceful,” Delani sneered, “but irrelevant. If this is an essence vent then where is the manse it belongs to?”

Agani shrugged. “It could almost be anywhere… but if I had to make an educated guess, this is water aspected essence and there’s a river just over that mountain.”

Frowning, Delani closed her eyes as she searched her memory. “If I remember the lay of the land correctly, we passed a small lake on our way south from Greyfalls over that peak.”

“A hidden manse?” Hathor mused. “If the entrance is underwater, that could explain why nobody’s ever discovered it, even with a bunch of exalted practically camping on its front door.”

“Mithras,” Delani addressed their guide, “is there a trail that will get us to the river?”

He nodded. “A little further south but we’ll be able to ride.”

“Perfect, you’re with Sarro,” Delani ordered, “we mount up as soon as we’re able, I’d love to get this over with before nightfall.”

#

Throwing himself onto his back, Tetsu watch the statue’s spear sweep inches away from his nose before whipping his whole body into the air to avoid the second downward strike of the shield arm and over another sweeping blow delivered by the horn arm. Darting between the golem’s legs, two quick strikes of his anvil-like fists shattered chunks of rock from it’s right shin before he was forced to dodge out of the way of a vicious kick.

Spinning the spear into an underhand grip, the golem raised the shield to interpose it between them as it struck down, the blade biting deep into the rock floor as Tetsu danced around it. Trying to strike back, the Eclipse caste’s blows rang the shield like a gong, leaving dents in the metal with each strike. The bulwark held, however, as the colossus forced slowly towards the wall, hemming Tetsu in.

Seeing an opportunity, Tetsu jumped straight at the shield, kicking off from to grab the haft of the spear. Heaving with all the might in his arms, he span around the pole and launched himself upward, planting both heels in the monster’s face. Even as the golem reeled, it managed to tag him with the branch as he fell, knocking the wind out of him. Momentarily stunned, the next sight Tetsu saw was an enormous stone foot descending to squash him like a bug.

Leaping to his feet, he felt the power of his essence thrumming though bone and muscle as he took the weight of the blow on his shoulder, reaching up to grasp the foot with both arms as he was driven to his knees. Screamin in rage, pain and exertion, the Eclipse forced himself to his feet before throwing off the colossus’ leg, forcing it to teeter on the lip of the pool precariously. Not one to give up any advantage, Tetsu charged, ramming his shoulder into the left shin and finally smashing it to pieces, toppling the giant.

It tried to cushion the fall by driving the spear into the ground behind it and was partially successful, though chunks of it were scattered across the cave as a large crack opened across its chest. Thrashing madly to keep the solar at bay, it tried to leaver itself upright with two hands on the spear. Tetsu took another blow from its remaining leg which would have shattered the bones of any mortal man. The solar accepted the strike, blocking it with his entire body and counterstriking with a back spin kick that severed the offending limb at the top of the thigh.

Raising the now solid, leg-shaped, pillar over his head, Tetsu growled at his enemy. “I don’t care if I have to tear you apart piece by piece!” Striking down with his makeshift weapon, the colossus tried to block the blow with his two left arms but both limbs shattered under the impact, the lower right arm also snapping off at the shoulder when the rest of the torso fell on it. Running up the broken leg now that it pinned the golem’s chest to the ground, it reacted far too late with its remaining arm to stop Tetsu from decapitating it with a flying kick to the chin.

Breathing hard as his enemy finally crumbled to so much rock, Tetsu waited to catch his breath before peering down the water-filled shaft he’d managed to open before being attacked. Taking more deep breaths, he girded himself and leapt into the water, swimming down through the water. The shaft turned west abruptly before turning back on itself again to open out into another, air-filled, level of the complex.

“All right,” Tetsu commented as he dragged himself out of the water, “this is not what I was expecting.”

He was standing on the edge of an enormous, egg-shaped, room. The curved walls were made out of a metal that looked to be either copper or brass to Tetsu’s untrained eye, perfect and untarnished. Waterfalls flowed down channels in the walls to a pool far below him between vaulted pillars that ran vertically from the base to the apex. Large glowing crystals drifted in orbit around a giant silver eye that floated in the middle of the room. Glass tubes siphoned water from the pool at the bottom, drawing it upward through the ceiling. Small fish of various bright colours could be seen swimming inside, either ascending or descending depending on the flow of water in the tube. Dotted throughout the chamber were circular platforms with self-contained gardens, some connected to the walls while others were raised from the floor or attached to the ceiling by long pillars.

Emerging from the pool onto a balcony halfway up the side of the room, Tetsu could hardly believe his eyes. The view alone was spectacular but the technological and architectural achievement before him outstripped even that consideration. The room itself was without doubt a far greater treasure than any he could have imagined. The former con artist’s only regret was that it couldn’t fit in a sack.

The solar almost jumped out of his skin when a miniature version of the giant eye floating overhead suddenly zipped up to face him from under the balcony. “GODS! Don’t do that!”

“Retrieving cache data,” the eye replied in a soft feminine voice, the iris flashing blue as it spoke. “Welcome… field zone null equals Supplicant. Congratulations, you have successfully completed the Fourfold Enlightenment Exam. Welcome to the Serene Oasis That Rests in the Eye.”

“Terrific,” Tetsu snapped, “look, can you tell me where the Gnomon is?”

“My sensors indicate that there is a sixty eight percent chance that you are feeling the emotion of anger. My database recommends deep breathing exercises and meditation to alleviate stress.”

“Will that help me get my hands on the Gnomon?”

“Negative.”

“Then you can deal with it.”

“Personality surly type equals true seventy five percent. If you would care to take repast in the gardens, I would be happy to summon a hoverdisc for your convenience.”

“Just get on with it!” Tetsu demanded. “I’m here for the Gnomon and I don’t have time to play games.”

“As you wish. Downloading security protocol thirteen. There is a one hundred percent probability that you are a useless sack of meat and bones, prepare to die.”

Barely dodging the blue beam that lashed out from the construct’s pupil, Tetsu felt the shot rend the hem of his robe as he darted out of its path. A right uppercut knocked it into the air, spinning out of control to smash against the wall, yet just as the solar was about to celebrate a swarm of five more swooped down from above. Throwing caution to the wind, he leapt from the balcony moments before their eyebeams scorched the entire platform.

Tetsu crashed through the upper limbs of a tree before he caught himself on one of the lower branches. The eyes didn’t lose him for long but it was enough delay that he was able to grab hold of a passing crystal by the tips of his fingers, allowing it to carry him off away from his pursuers. But they proved damnably tenacious, searing eye beams slashing long marks across the crystal as they flew after him.

Noticing another crystal approaching from the opposite direction, he hopped over to it, the sudden change in direction catching the eyes by surprise. Holding on as tightly as he could, Tetsu whipped his body out, catching two of the machines with a scissor kick before they even had time to react. Glancing around the crystal for a moment, he saw the remaining three mill about in confusion for a moment before splitting up, one pursuing his crystal while the other two flew in the opposite direction around the giant eye. Cursing, Tetsu made a promise to the gods that if he survived this, he’d find someone to teach him some sort of ranged attack.

Noting that the remaining eye was between him and the next crystal, which followed the one he was riding in a closer orbit fifteen feet away, the Eclipse girded himself for his next move. Backflipping up onto the top of the crystal, he jumped, landing with his left foot on top of the eye while he jammed his right toe into the iris, smashing it. Using his momentum, Tetsu leapt yet again onto the next crystal, barely managing to grasp the smooth surface.

The remaining eyes finally rounded the their indolent big brother but were confused when they discovered that Tetsu wasn’t where they expected. Grinning, he quietly unhooked his belt and whipped it out from around his waist, allowing the buckle to fall freely as he grasped the opposite end. The eyes remained still in mid air, allowing the unoccupied crystal to pass them by as their gaze followed it, making sure their quarry wasn’t simply hiding on the other side. Tetsu struck from behind as his crystal passed by, the furthest taken with a lash of his belt while a swift kick dealt with the other, their pieces falling into the pool far below.

Taking a breather on top of the crystal, Tetsu took the time to replace his belt as he considered the path across the field of floating crystals. Traversing the crystals to the giant eye was a hard road that stretched the limits of the Solar’s athletic ability. Several of the smooth crystals had to be scaled so that he could ascend to the same level as the pupil of the giant eye. It was pure guesswork but it turned out that he’d guessed correctly when he found that it was indeed an open portal to a secret inner chamber inside.

The inner chamber sat inside what appeared to be a hollow sapphire of enormous size. Rather than having been cut from the gem, the chamber appeared perfectly natural, millions of tiny facets glittering in the light. A pedestal simply grew from the centre of the floor, vaguely reminding Tetsu of the core of an apple cut in half. Finaly, atop the pedestal itself, was a golden disc with elegant, sweeping, organic lines carved into the surface and a single triangle extruding from the upper surface.

“All this trouble for a portable sundial,” Tetsu grumbled as he carefully stepped across the room, “you better do your job as advertised.”

Bracing himself for whatever might happen next, Tetsu took the Gnomon in both hands, clenched his teeth and pulled, lifting the artefact easily.

For a moment, nothing happened.

Then another moment passed without the slightest noise or even hint of disaster.

When absolutely nothing happened by the minute mark, Tetsu allowed his muscles to unclench. “What? No poison gas? No killer golems? No rolling boulders, scything blades or word puzzles? You’re not even going to try to drown me again? Come on, where’s your spirit of adventure?”

The whole chamber suddenly moved, kicking Tetsu’s reflexes into action. Throwing himself to the floor as it lurched underneath him, he wrapped both arms around the pedestal with the Gnomon firmly in hand. “Damn it, me and my big mouth.”

As soon as it had started, however, the movement stopped. Glancing over his shoulder, Tetsu could see that they pupil of the eye was now aligned with the balcony he’d entered in. A strange bridge of blue energy arched across the empty space, inviting him to cross. Distrustful, Tetsu used his belt to make sure it was actually solid and safe to touch before setting foot on it. Finding it to be solid, his steps were slow and cautious as he crossed, not trusting that the ‘ground’ wouldn’t be pulled out from underneath him at any moment. Arriving safely on the balcony was more of a surprise than anything else that had happened to him all day.

Forcing himself not to question his good fortune, he made sure that the Gnomon was secured tightly in his belt before swimming back to the upper cavern. Finding his pile of Orihalcum ingots where he’d left them, he took off his robe and laid it out so that he could transfer the precious metal on top of it and wrap it up in a makeshift sack. Again making sure the Gnomon was secure in his belt, despite the fact that all he was wearing now was his underwear, Tetsu waded into the exit pool and began the arduous trek back to the open air.

Dragging the laden sack back into daylight would have been impossible for a man less accustomed to hard labour and pain. Finally, Tetsu emerged onto the sandbank, crawling as he thanked the Unconquered Sun from the bottom of his heart that he was still alive. The sun had passed its zenith but he was just happy to feel it on his face again and bathe in the holy radiance.

“Halt Anathema!” A familiar voice cried out from his right, which Tetsu noted would place the speaker between him and River’s Bend. “I know you now, scarred one!”

Turning his head, still on all fours in the sand, Tetsu smirked when he caught sight of Delani wearing full armour, looking so much more the hardened warrior than she did naked in the bath house. Not that she’d been soft exactly but somehow the woman had managed to hone her body to fighting perfection without sacrificing her figure. Reminiscences fled from his mind, however, when thirty or so archers stood up from their concealment in the bushes above the cliff face led by the Wood caste who also levelled her bow in his direction. Glancing upriver away from down, he saw that both the Earth and Fire caste dragonbloods blocked his escape by land. He was also willing to bet that if he made so much as a twitch in the direction of the river he’d be skewered full of arrows in his last heartbeat.

“Looks like your geomancy was useful for something after all,” Tetsu called back. “Have you seen a pair of boots around here?”

Agani held up his boots for him to see. “Looks like we have the same cobbler,” she commented, “I knew it had to be you, Anathema.”

Sighing, Tetsu shook his head. “Do you all really think finding the Oracle’s Trove is going to solve anything? Have any of you even bothered to stop and think about the people you dominate?”

“It is their duty, honour and destiny to serves us, vile one!” Hathor rebuked. “Don’t let this demon poison the air with his lies, General, let me kill him!”

“Before you die, Anathema, I would know your purpose here,” Delani explained herself, “tell me and we shall execute you mercifully.”

“Oh, that,” Tetsu chuckled, “I just popped into that death trap to retrieve the key to the Trove, of course. I could show you if you like, it’s right here bundled up in my robe. Just tell your goons to keep calm.”

“Nobody fires unless it’s on my order!” Delani shouted.

Nodding, Tetsu held his breath as he slowly climbed to his feet, making sure they could see his hands at all times. Lifting the makeshift sack one handed over his head, he let go so that the cloth unfurled as it fell to the ground as the ingots were scattered over the sand. Even dragonlords are still human, so the glint of gold in the sunlight caught every eye immediately. At the same time, Tetsu summoned his essence into his fist, concentrating it as he struck downward, punching the sandbar itself. Sand exploded into the air a moment before the sandbar collapsed. Water washed over the natural dam in a torrent as the soldiers shielded their eyes and Tetsu was sucked deep underwater and carried away by the current. Tumbling end over end, Tetsu cursed the loss of his ingots as he fought to right himself, searching the murky water for signs of the sunlight. Twisting around, he saw a shadow in the water a moment before it was upon him.

Delani grabbed his throat, moving fluidly underwater still in full armour as if she were one of the merfolk. Several swift kicks to his abdomen forced Tetsu to clamp one hand over his mouth to stop his breath from exploding out as he grapped with the warrior woman one armed. He had the advantage of strength but her preternatural freedom of movement allowed her to slip fro his grasp time and time again. Tetsu landed what would have been a telling blow on the side of her helmet that might have ended a fight on land yet hampered as he was by the weight of the liquid around him, it had hardly any affect at all.

He was seeing spots when Delani managed to wrap both hands around his throat, only his bulging muscles preventing her from crushing his windpipe. She also managed to wrap her legs around his chest to squeeze mercilessly, even as he tried to beat on her blue jadesteel breastplate. Nearly out of air, desperation only quickened his thoughts as it always did, that instinct to survive that had served him so well in the past kicking in.

Opening his fist, he grabbed the strap holding her breastplate on her shoulders and pulled her close, mashing his lips against hers. Shocked beyond recognition, Delani froze for a critical moment as her battle instincts failed her. Before her rage at his violation could kick in, Tetsu took a deep breath, sucking the air out of her lungs.

Kicking her away as she clutched her throat, pure venom in her gaze before her common sense kicked in and she swam for the surface, Tetsu resisted the urge to follow her and swam in the opposite direction for as long as he could before breaking the surface. When he finally emerged for air, he found himself well downstream of the lake and out of sight.

Sighing mournfully as he clambered ashore, Tetsu looked down at his mostly naked body to where the Gnomon still rested at his hip then up the tall mountain he’d have to climb in order to get back to the Temple. Shaking his head, he put all other concerns out of his mind and got to work.

#

Sputtering both from indignation and lack of breath, Cynis Delani cursed as she slid her elbow out of the river and onto the surface of the river. Evoking the gift of the water dragon, she hauled herself out of the river onto its rippling surface, treating the liquid as if it were completely solid. Taking a moment to collect herself, she ensured that she appeared calm even though her rage boiled in her veins as she walked steadily back to dry land where her soldiers were waiting for her.

“The beast fights like a demon,” she muttered to her sworn sisters as she approached, “he’s escaped downriver, probably halfway back to town already. Agani, take Sarro back to camp, I want the engineers back here before nightfall to set up an outpost. Relieve Misari and relay my orders that she’s to come here as well, we’re going to need her expertise… oh and you might as well take Mithras back with you.”

Nodding, Agani and Sarro ran off into the bushes to retrieve their horses obediently.

“Hathor, form a perimeter and wait for the reinforcements,” Delani ordered the Earth caste.

“Yes ma’am. May I ask what task you’re going to undertake?”

“Just a little scouting, my friend,” Delani answered, walking towards the lake. “Don’t worry; I’m not going to take any undue chances. I have an appointment with that Anathema; believe me I intend to keep it.”

One of the men shivered at her tone of voice. Hathor internally agreed with him but was glad that she hadn’t shown it.

#

The climb up the mountain left Tetsu even more bruised, battered and bleeding than he had been when he’d started as he limped towards the Temple entrance. He had cut his foot on a particularly sharp stone, leaving a cut that made every step even more painful than even the deep burn of exertion in his muscles. His ribs also hurt, though he didn’t think Delani had broken anything. When he saw Sanejin at the entrance looking concerned he couldn’t help but smile.

“Feather’s going to kill me when she sees this,” Tetsu commented to the god, putting a bold face on it. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you where I was going, believe me it was for the best.”

“Kano told me everything,” Sanejin replied, “but don’t hold it against him, I can be very persuasive. I take it you ran into trouble?”

“Someone seriously didn’t want the wrong person getting their hands on this thing,” Tetsu answered, patting the Gnomon. “As far as I can tell, it doesn’t do a blind thing but you don’t build a trap like that just for no reason… wait, scratch that, you’d have to be insane to build a trap like that for no reason. Not to mention I had four dragonbloods waiting for me when I got out of the place, so at least we know their strategy has some merit to it.”

“You don’t think I told them where you were?” Sanejin asked with some surprise.

“No, you’re in the clear on that score,” Tetsu answered, stumbling on as the god fell in beside him, “after all, I didn’t tell you where I was going when I left and the dragonbloods were travelworn. They’d left too early in the morning for you to have warned them, so you’re in the clear; I’ve been thinking that one over all the way back here. No, they were tracking a real lead, ergo their devices are working.”

Sanejin breathed a sigh of relief. “I’m glad to have earned some trust from you, Tetsu… I’m sorry but I’m positively going to burst if I don’t ask you this question, is that really the Gnomon?”

“I told you, I tried to make it work but it doesn’t do anything. It could be the Gnomon or some kind of fake.”

“Even so, I think it’s time that we put our partnership to the test, Tetsu,” the god pressed, holding out his hand.

Pausing mid stride, Tetsu turned to face the god slowly, taking a step back to put him at arm’s length. “I don’t think this is the right time…”

“Nonsense, this is the best time,” Sanejin interrupted. “We need to find out if we can trust each other. If you really don’t lust for power, Tetsu, prove it to me and hand over the Gnomon. Allow me to prove myself to you, please.”

Indecision gnawed at Tetsu’s gut. His usual instincts were useless; Sanejin seemed so sincere about protecting the Trove, though ruthless in his execution. With such power in his own hand now, however, the Solar began to wonder if he would do any less. Tetsu knew how far he could go to meet his goals, he’d killed before for the things he cared about and he would do it again. How much further would he go now that the stakes were so high?

Making his decision, he placed the Gnomon in Sanejin’s hand.

Something wrenched suddenly inside Tetsu, not a physical pain but somehow more ephemeral yet no less disturbing. Gasping, the sensation drove Tetsu to his knees as the world seemed to dim, the sunlight not quite as bright for a moment despite the absence of clouds. Looking up, the Solar found Sanejin grinning down at him, hefting the Gnomon in his fist.

“You son of a….” Tetsu groaned, unable to finish the insult.

“Good evening, my friend,” Sanejin answered before slamming the flat side of the Gnomon across Tetsu’s head, knocking him out cold.

#

“Who is it?” Edge called out courteously in her old man voice in answer to the knock on the door. “Please pardon the slowness of these old legs, master, I’ll get the door don’t you worry!”

Waiting a good amount of time before opening the door, Edge bowed profusely to the hooded traveller on her doorstep. “Please, come in! Come in! May I get you anything young man, Sake to wet your lips? A bed for the night and maybe a girl along with it?”

“Sake,” the stranger answered shortly, scanning the room as he entered, shutting the screen door behind him. “Do you have a peddler staying here with you, old man?”

Edge gave him a suspicious pause before answering while she gathered the special Sake she’d poisoned earlier. “What? No, sorry master, no peddlers here.”

“Strange,” the stranger shrugged, sitting down in the corner, “I was told I could meet my friend here.”

“Well, perhaps he hasn’t arrived yet,” Edge suggested as she placed the tray down on the table in front of him. “Here you are, please drink an enjoy!”

He watched Edge shuffle back to the kitchen without touching his bowl. “You have a tidy place here, old man. What might you be called?”

“I would be the humble Menji, young master,” Edge answered with a bow in his direction, “but please don’t trouble yourself with me, I’m of no consequence.”

“That’s interesting,” he said quietly, “my friend told me that he was going to wait here for me in his last message. He also told me that innkeeper Menji was a garrulous curmudgeon that hurled insults at everyone who so much as crossed his path.”

There was a moment of complete stillness as the two cool-headed warriors quickly assessed the situation. Each considered their relative positions, the space between them, their environment and the obstacles that might get in their way. Most important was the army practically camped on their doorstep who wouldn’t take kindly to the ringing of steel on steel.

Silent as an evening breeze, Edge pulled off her disguise in a twirl of cloth that blocked his line of sight as she threw her poison needles at his face. He drew in an instant, his flashing blade perfectly bisecting the table, the bottle of Sake and all four of her needles, his blade whispering like a straight razor through soft hair.

Edge felt her heart miss a beat as he disappeared from her view and suddenly reappeared right in front of her, so fast that even her highly trained awareness couldn’t track his movements. She barely managed to block the first stroke of his sword with her bare handed techniques and was forced back onto one foot when he lashed out with a low kick, taking the blow on her thigh. The sudden change of grip on his blade brought him out of her control, the shock of being so badly outmatched freezing her for a crucial moment as he punched her precisely in the solar plexus.

Knocked over, Edge cried out when she hit the corner of the kitchen bench, the tip of the stranger’s sword at her throat the moment she landed on the floor. “Sidereal,” the stranger growled, “I remember your kind.”

The stranger suddenly drew a golden Daiklave out of thin air just as Focused Rage landed in the main room, also simply appearing as if he’d dropped through the roof like a ghost. The Chosen of Mars took a step back in surprise when he found the tip pointing at his chest, drawing his own blue starmetal blade from Elsewhere reflexively. “Edge?” Rage asked softly, just loud enough for her to hear.

“Still alive,” Edge called softly back.

“You can tell your friend at the window to come in,” the stranger announced, “she might catch her death in that outfit.”

Feather gently opened the window and slipped inside, scowling. “Well, aren’t you clever.”

“Better to tell your friend on the floor that I can cut off the impulse to strike me before it reaches the base of her neck,” the stranger threatened.

“Edge,” Rage called out, “don’t be stupid.”

“Pot, kettle, black,” Edge muttered darkly.

“If you want to hunt Solars, you need to work on your close combat skills,” the stranger criticised, “you may know your charms but you lack basic understanding.”

“You’re being unfair,” Rage countered, “not every warrior can focus on skills directly related to battle. Edge’s talents like in other arenas.”

“I see, I guess Sidereals are not so different to us then,” the stranger nodded, “but I take it that you would be your kind’s equivalent of the Dawn caste?”

“I am Focused Rage, Chosen of Mars, Maiden of Battles,” Rage introduced himself with a sight incline of his head. “I am also a master of Scarlet Patterned Battlefield Style amongst many others.”

“Focused Rage,” the stranger repeated with a slight smile, “that’s catchy. How do you propose to solve our current dilemma, Focused Rage?”

“A duel,” Rage answered immediately. “Just the two of us, one on one, if my friends interfere and survive, I swear I’ll kill them myself.”

“Uh, Rage?” Feather asked, slightly scared at her friend’s tone of voice.

The stranger grinned. “That’s insane! I like you, Focused Rage. My name is Ogren Gunner, Dawn Caste Solar and Chosen of the Unconquered Sun. I accept the terms of our duel; do you wish to name a place and time?”

“Right now,” Rage answered.

The stranger had to stifle a laugh. “You want to fight in the middle of an armed encampment?”

“I find the novelty of the idea stimulating,” Rage replied. “After all, how often does one find an obstacle that will require more than a moment’s forethought?”

“Indeed,” Ogren answered eagerly.

“And you think breasts make people crazy,” Feather muttered.

“Feather, take Edge out the back to safety,” Rage ordered, “remember my word, if either of you interfere I’m sworn to kill you.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Feather said with a scowl, “as long as Ogren agrees to give us safe passage.”

Nodding, Ogren slid his sword back into it’s sheathe but kept his daiklave level. Wrapping her arms around Edge’s shoulders, Feather dragged her out the back door, leaving the boys as they faced off. Both warriors observed the rules of etiquette, lowering their blades to bow to their opponent, never lowering their eyes even for a moment. Calmly, each ran their bodies through a quick kata to loosen their muscles before facing each other in earnest. Ogren took a strong defensive stance as he sized up his opponent, legs spread with knees bent as he held the sword horizontally in both hands, the tip pointed at Rage. In answer, Rage took a step back with his own blade held diagonally so that the tip touched the floor behind him, conscious of both presenting the smallest possible target to his opponent’s possible thrust and the restrictions of the confined space on their oversized swords.

Ogren didn’t have any such qualms about destroying the house. His first blow whipped the blade back as he stepped forward, the edge cleaving through the floor as it swept upward in a full circle at Rage. The Sidereal turned the blade aside with his own short, sharp, strike, though it forced him to take a step backward. The Solar’s blow was so powerful that it cleaved through the roof, blowing wooden beams and tiles outwards over the surrounding streets. A second step forward saw Ogren take hold of the hilt of his daiklave in both hands to reverse the first attack into an overhead strike.

Forced to take the end of his daiklave in his opposite hands so that he could take the blow on the flat of the blade holding it over his head, Rage span to the left, turning the blade aside yet again as he unleashed a back spin kick that Ogren took on the shoulder with an amused grunt. Spinning back the other way, their blades crossed yet again sparks flying as metal scraped across metal, locked together in a test of strength. Glaring at each other intensely for a moment as both fighters gauged their opponent; it was Rage who finally broke away, skipping back out of reach.

Pressing the attack with a flurry of measured thrusts delivered at arm’s length, Ogren slowly continued to drive Rage backwards. Only the Sidereal’s brilliant control of his blade and quick reflexes saved him from a telling blow as he dodged and parried the blindingly fast series of blows, though even he was hard pressed to counter. Slashing upwards, Rage neatly sliced part of the damaged ceiling away, causing it to fall between them before jumping through the hole onto the roof. Rather than following him, Ogren began demolishing what remained of the house, piece by piece.

Realizing the futility of his ploy, Rage retreated, skipping up the cliff face behind the house that separated High Town from Low Town. Thrusting his daiklave into the rock, he stood on the hilt as he surveyed the damage below, noting the soldiers moving like ants in the surrounding streets, hemming them in. Undoing the buttons on his buff jacket, Rage discarded his armour as he channelled his peripheral essence. His caste mark flashed to life on his forehead as he cleared his mind, focusing on his body, his training and defeating the opponent.

Ogren charged through the back wall, shouldering it aside as if the barrier was meaningless to him. Running with blinding speed, the cliff face hardly gave him pause as he ran up the vertical surface, golden daiklave flashing in the sunlight. Breathing deeply, Rage gathered his essence into the air before his palms, weaving fate itself into his next blow before striking downwards, unleashing a near invisible bolt of force from his palm.

Smashed from the air, Ogren fought to control his descent as he was hurled into the ground far below, his impact causing the ground to shake. Rocks fell from the cliff face above as the Solar rose from the crater just in time to parry Rage’s blade as the Sidereal dropped down on him from above. “My turn,” Ogren growled, the sign of the Dawn caste blazing to life on his brow. Backflipping in place, the Solar’s heel hammered Rage high into the air. Disappearing and reappearing beside Rage in the air with a burst of golden light, Ogren’s daiklave struck like a thunderbolt.

Creation suddenly seemed to stretch around them as Ogren struck, Rage’s daiklave leaving a trail of scarlet essence as space itself warped to pulling out of the way of Ogren’s strike. Using the false momentum to kick off from the cliff face, Rage struck back, trading blows with the Solar as they both fell, the momentum of his blows carrying them both over Menji’s house. They landed easily on their feet despite the height of the fall, scattering the gaping soldiers in the street.

Snarling, Ogren slapped Rage into a wall with the flat of his blade, the Sidereal grimacing as his back took a hard impact, his body leaving a dent in the wall. But the Solar wasn’t finished, his caste mark flashing as a bolt of golden lightning arced from his blade. Rage acted by reflex, his whole body beginning to glow with scarlet energy that rippled like heat waves off of hot coals, his blade leaving the same trail of crimson as before as Creation seemed to stretch, sliding him to one side. The bolt of energy sliced straight through the building behind it and the one after that, leaving a line of destruction in its wake as the structures collapsed in on themelves.

Throwing his daiklave high into the air, Rage stepped between Fate, fading from view only to reappear on the roof of the building behind Ogren. Summoning his essence again, the Sidereal projected it from his palm with the same move he’d used to knock Ogren off the cliff. Unfortunately, Ogren wasn’t a slow learner, leaping to one side, the misaimed blow throwing a score of soldiers twenty feet down the road. Berating himself for his sloppy aim, Rage deftly caught his daiklave and calmly waited, casually knocking aside several arrows that were loosed his way by the audience.

Several of the mortal soldiers were also foolish enough to charge Ogren in the sudden lull. Gracing the first two idiots with a few missing limbs, he rammed his point home by grabbing the third and bodily hurling him at Rage, who neatly cleaved the soldier in half to prevent him from blocking Rage’s view of his opponent. Screaming with anger and frustration, the earth trembled under Ogren’s feet as his body glowed with bright essence that faded through yellow to a red tinge on the outside. The image of a skull surrounded by a halo of burning blades unfolded from his back, the blades swirling around him, tinged with the same bright essence stained with red.

Charging, Ogren held his blade with both hands as it crackled with his barely restrained energy. Rage set himself to accept the charge, calling on his own essence to aid him in the perfect counterstrike, smiling. Then, just as Ogren leapt into the air, he seemed to split into a hundred shadows of himself, striking from all directions. Rage hesitated for an instant, unable tell which image was real until the last moment. Ogren’s blade skipped from the edge of Rage’s, turning aside the fatal blow but not completely. Burning pain ripped through Rage as the tip of the golden daiklave sliced a long wound from his left hip right up to his right shoulder, blood spurting across his opponent. Trained reflexes asserted themselves as Rage flicked his own blade, slicing Ogren across the face, barely missing the Dawn caste’s right eye.

Both combatants rolled across the roof to avoid becoming entangled, springing onto their feet gracefully despite their injuries. Rage could feel the blood seeping from his wound, though Ogren had to keep one eye closed to prevent his own blood from seeping into it. Circling each other, stepping perfectly despite the incline of the slippery tiles, the warriors analysed each other for any weakness that could be exploited.

They paused when the earth started to shake again, the tiles of the roof clattering as each jolt shook the surrounding buildings to their foundations. Sparing a momentary glance over the rooftops, both combatants saw the gigantic machine that rose to its feet in the town square, clutching an enormous spear that dwarfed even their own oversized swords. Eighteen feet tall, the giant mechanical suit of white jadesteel armour was immediately recognizable to both Rage and Ogren as a warstrider, a rare warmachine still employed only by the Realm and Lookshy since the Usurpation.

“HALT ANATHEMA!” the warstrider ordered in an authoritative feminine voice, pointing at them with its free hand.

Ogren and Rage looked at each other. “Maybe we should postpone this for a more private venue,” Rage offered. “I was just about to suggest that,” Ogren replied, nodding. Breaking off, they both turned and ran in opposite directions.

“NO YOU DON’T!” the warstrider shouted indignantly, leaping forward to tear the buildings out from underneath them with a single horizontal swing of its spear.

Skipping across the airborne debris, Ogren span in the air and drew a set of throwing knives from under his cloak. The warstrider was glancing between them indecisively and he considered targeting several weak spots in the joints of the warmachine until he spied Rage hopping up the cliff face like a frog. “Happy landing,” the solar whispered as he cast the blades at his enemy.

Rage never saw them coming. The impact of all five blades in his back punched him against the rock wall, blood spurting from his mouth as he fell. He felt the rush of wind as the world darkened, his anima banner making him appear to be a falling star.

“Rage!” Edge called, spinning as she leapt from below to grab his limp form, arresting his fall as she landed on her feet with the Chosen of Battles in her arms.

Seeing Ogren run off the warstrider turned to face them as Edge tended to Rage’s wounds. “DIE, UNHOLY BEASTS!” it cursed, raising the spear over its head.

Landing between them, Feather drew the string back on her bow and launched an arrow at the warstrider’s chest. In flight, the arrow expanded and hardened into a giant boulder that slammed into the contraption’s breastplate, nearly knocking it over. The soldiers around it broke into a run as Feather unleashed more arrows and the skies around practically began raining boulders.

“Edge! We have to move him!” Feather shouted over her shoulder as she kept the enemy at bay, though even the boulders were hardly scratching the warstrider’s enamel. Nodding absently, Edge calmly finished staunching Rage’s wounds before whipping a prayer strip out from the sleeve of her robe, infusing it with her violet essence before wrapping it around her neck like a scarf. Picking her lover up, her form blurred as she ran into the bushes.

“VILE DOGS,” the warstrider cursed Feather as it battered more boulders aside. “REMEMBER THE NAME OF ODYNE MISARI AND HER WARSTRIDER, THE UNDEFEATABLE BLOSSOM OF MERCY AS YOU FLEE FROM US!”

Unruffled, Feather selected a different arrow from her quiver and fired it at the ground under the warstrider’s feet. Instead of turning into a boulder, the ground collapsed underneath it, the warmachine falling up to its chest as it grasped the ground around it for purchase.

“I WILL KILL YOU!” Odyne called at Feather’s back. “I SWEAR BY ALL UNDER HEAVEN THAT YOU’LL PAY FOR EVERY SCRATCH ON MY UNDEFEATALE BLOSSOM IN BLOOD!”

#

A sudden, sharp, stench made Tetsu flinch awake. As his eyes fluttered open, he took in the room around him slowly as his vision cleared. He recognized the circular hall where he’d first encountered Sanejin, just below the god’s throne room. The room had several doors and passageways leading away from it on two levels, though the balcony above only reached around half of the chamber before descending to the lower floor. He found himself inside a silver cage suspended over the altar-bowel in the centre of the room, though the bowl itself was now filled with water. Cloaked figures surrounded him wearing white and gold robes with golden masks. Sanejin alone stood out, not wearing a mask at all despite his similar yet more grand robe that included giant gold shoulderpads.

“Good to have you back with us, Tetsu,” Sanejin said as he pulled the small vial of alchemical stench away from the solar, “believe me; I do sincerely apologize for the inconvenience.”

“So it was all a lie?” Tetsu asked, still groggy. “You’ve really been looking for this Trove for over a thousand years?”

“Do I look like I have an army?” Sanejin chuckled, gesturing at the figures around him. “My girls are a great fuck but I’d hardly call them combat ready. No, Tetsu, I’m not actively looking for the Trove, though I know people who have offered me a lot for the discovery of its location. I’m happy to let the Trove slip through my fingers for a far greater prize: power. That’s what you are, my friend, raw power. When the Sidereals quailed before your hubris, they unwittingly dispensed that power to anyone with the strength of will to tame it. Now that you’ve returned, they want you under their yoke or destroyed… but the reality is that they’re far too late to this party.”

“What are you babbling about?” Tetsu snarled, pulling himself to his feet.

“You have no understanding,” Sanejin muttered, “I feel like I am explaining the world to a child who has just learnt to take its first steps. Of course, this is only natural, you need to be tutored, trained and… broken, I think is the term slavers used, but that sounds so vulgar. Tamed might be a better word. Returned Solars like you need guidance and a firm hand, you need to be controlled for the good of Creation.”

Grabbing the bars, Tetsu tried to bend them but even with all his strength they wouldn’t budge. “I will NEVER be a slave to ANYONE, Sanejin!”

“I know,” Sanejin replied fondly. “I’m not looking for another whore; you’re so much more valuable than that. You are graced with the blessing of the Unconquered Sun, treating you like common chattel would be disrespectful, which is why I’m going to take you as my bride.”

Tetsu felt the blood drain from his face as the full import of the mad god’s words sunk in. “And how are you planning on making me drink the water? If this was your plan all along, why not just spike my drink as you suggested before?”

“Again you think too small. The water would do the job but the change isn’t malleable or controllable, not to mention that a Solar might be able to resist the effect with the right charms. I’ve used the time I’ve been waiting for one such as you to design a perfect body to match the perfect soul and with the curse of breaking your oath on you there’s no way my plan can fail. Believe me; working out the details has been torturous. Besides, I knew who you really were the moment I discovered that you were an Eclipse caste. You’ve been dreaming about me, haven’t you, Tetsu? Dreams of the past…”

“NO!” Tetsu denied, reaching through the bars to try and strangle the god even though he was well out of reach. “I can see through your lies now! You put those dreams in my head somehow!”

Sanejin sighed. “Oh well, it was worth a try. I admit, I was trying to keep you off balance and distracted, at least that part worked. The hearthstone of this manse does indeed allow me to manipulate people’s dreams… but you can’t tell me that those dreams weren’t pleasant, I certainly enjoyed them.”

“I will see you regret this, Sanejin,” Tetsu threatened in a deadly calm voice, his rage transcending mere anger.

“Still feisty as ever?” Sanejin snarled. “Red Wolf, bring in Kano.”

The lower doors burst open at Sanejin’s command as Kano was forced through them by a gorgeous athletic redhead wearing the same robes as the others. The former prostitute was tied up but not gagged, though he wasn’t saying much other than pained shouts and growls as he struggled. Taking the mortal in hand, Sanejin struck his head on the side of the altar, knocking him senseless.

“Get your hands off him!” Tetsu demanded, trying to reach through the bars again.

“Why? This pathetic sack of meat is useless to me,” Sanejin shrugged. “At least as he is now…”

“I’m warning you,” Tetsu stated flatly, “don’t.”

Smiling in response, Sanejin shoved Kano’s face under the water and held it there as he kicked and struggled not to drink or breathe. Tetsu watched in horror as Kano’s shoulders started to shrink, the boy’s screams reverberating through the pool as he was remade. The bindings fell away as his body thinned but his struggles got weaker and weaker as he was deprived of air. Pulling the new girl from the water like a half-drowned kitten, Sanejin flung her limp body aside with contemptuous ease, leaving her crumpled on the floor breathing but unconscious.

“Kano! Kano! Gods, I’m so sorry!” Tetsu called out, struggling with the bars again with the same futile results.

“Don’t worry about this ‘Feather’ of yours,” Sanejin smiled, “I’ll assign her as one of your handmaidens along with Kano and Red Wolf here.”

Red Wolf pressed her body against Sanejin as the god embraced her, sliding her hand in wonder over the god’s muscular chest. “I know how you feel, I fought it too,” she sighed contentedly, “but I was wrong to fight it. Gods, Tetsu, you don’t know what it’s like being loved by Sanejin, how he can make this body feel…” She shuddered when he suddenly kissed her, several of the onlookers also moaning quietly in need as they stared. When he was finished, she just clung to him, panting heavily.

They were interrupted when a scantily clad girl crept in from one of the doors. “Sorry for the interruption, Sanejin, but the dragonbloods have returned from the hunt and they’re ordering women…”

“Now of all times,” Sanejin growled. “Fortunately, I won’t have to suffer them by morning. Serve them the water along with the sleeping draught, make sure the kitchen knows to use the proportions as I’ve instructed, they’ll know what that means.”

Nodding curtly, the girl ran out.

“It seems that I might be coming into an army of my own after all,” Sanejin mused as he stroked Red Wolf’s hair. “Shame, the deal has already been made. Girls, it’s time.”

Five of the girls stepped forward, slipping the masks off their faces. Each was staring blankly at Tetsu but the Solar recognized them all. “You remember my daughters, don’t you?” Sanejin asked teasingly. “Maera, born of my wife from the north; Tyria, east; Israfi, south; Pudanu, west and Bovina, centre. Five elemental poles represented in the circle, though just their sacrifice wouldn’t be enough. No, what I need is a link between us of blood…”

The daughters stepped up onto the rim of the altar, still staring blankly even as they disrobed. Each stood naked around Tetsu, except for a slender belt that hung loosely around their hips. He couldn’t help but notice that each of their stomachs were slightly fuller than when he’d seen them last, all of them in the first stages of pregnancy.

“That’s… this is…” Tetsu stuttered, holding onto the bars for support, unable to fathom the depths of depravity that were unfolding around him even as Sanejin’s daughters drew the daggers from their sheathes. “THIS IS MONSTROUS!” Tetsu declared, howling his condemnation to the sky. “INCARNAE! IF YOU’RE THERE PLEASE STOP THIS NOW!”

“Sorry, they’re not listening,” Sanejin mocked, “they’re all too busy playing their games.”

“Maeria, Israfi… one of you, please STOP!” Tetsu begged, though the girls didn’t seem to hear. He tried to reach for Maeria but had to pull back when she tried to slash his hand with her dagger, still staring blankly.

Tetsu shut his eyes before the plunged their daggers into their stomachs. Falling to their knees, they screamed in pain even as they wrenched the blades inside themselves, blood seeping into the water as it started to swirl and bubble. Staring down, Tetsu watched as the bottom faded away, leaving him hovering over a dark, watery, pit.

“See you soon, my love,” Sanejin teased. “Drop him.”

The cage fell with Tetsu still inside it as one of the girls pulled the lever that was holding it aloft, splashing water over the edge of the bowel across the floor as it began to sink. Tetsu cursed as he climbed the bars but there was no escape. Sanejin waved goodbye to him as he glared back, taking a deep breath before the bloody water flowed over his head.

Grappling with the bars, Tetsu found the lock and tried to force the door open, bracing himself on the bars opposite to kick at it with both feet. The eerie clang of the metal underwater made his skin crawl and his lungs and muscles ached for lack of air but desperation clawed at his sanity, instinct driving him to persist. When the lock finally surrendered, Tetsu was already tired and every cell in his body was screaming in agony but he pushed himself to swim through the door and pull himself upward.

Looking up, his vision was blurry with dark spots swimming before him but somehow there was nothing but a pinpoint of light far, far above. Even as he tried to climb the chain attached to the cage, he watched as the tunnel stretched itself even longer with every link he ascended. Finally, his fingers refused to work anymore and the chain slipped out of his hands.

He felt himself sink, the cage sliding past as it dissolved into nothingness, melting like butter in a hot pan. At the same time, the pinprick of light overhead seemed to expand until everything around him was consumed by a fuzzy grey nothingness. Tetsu could feel the will to hold his breath ebbing, instinct fighting to take over. Finally, it did.

Opening his mouth, to take a deep breath, Tetsu unexpectedly sucked in a lungful of air. Pure, fresh, air that smelt like pine trees and freshly baked bread. Moving his arms, he realized that he was floating and yet nothing resisted his movements like water would. Unfortunately, by the same token, he was also unable to really move because, though he could flail his limbs, they had nothing to take purchase on.

That changed when he landed on something soft. He felt the smooth, silky, texture of what he’d alighted on with his hands before turning over to look at it, gravity suddenly asserting itself. The surface he’d landed on was soft, smooth and bouncy like a mattress or cushion, dark as night and criss-crossed with swirling lines and little wrinkles. Around the platform were clouds that obscured vision, though when he dipped his hand over the edge he definitely could reach the ground if there even was one.

As he was staring out over the clouds, Tetsu saw something flicker on the horizon. Squinting as it came closer, he was eventually able to make out the form of a beautiful young woman with pitch black skin wearing a loincloth of diaphanous silver with matching streamers tied to her wrists. Her clothes trailed behind her as she danced across the clouds, picking her way nimbly on the tips of her toes as if the vapour were solid ground.

Backing away as she approached, Tetsu balled up his fists as she circled him. “What manner of creature are you?” He demanded. “Spirit? Fair Folk? Elemental?”

“Which would you prefer, Tetsu?” She asked enigmatically, not breaking a step.

“I couldn’t care less if you can get me out of this place.”

“The door is open, you have but to step through,” she answered.

“Great,” he sighed, rolling his eyes, as he turned in place trying to keep her in his sight. “So where’s the door?”

“Where you think it is,” she answered again, reaching out to fondly stroke his chin for a moment before pulling away. “But where do you think we are?”

He put his hands on his hips. “No idea… the wyld maybe...”

“In Creation there are lines, all lines are boarders, all boarders divide,” she whispered darkly, “people, places, things real and imagined are all separated by boarders. Those who cross boarders are truly blessed for they are able to step outside of themselves and explore the limits of the impossible.”

Shaking his head, Tetsu snorted. “That doesn’t make any sense, who are you?”

“I am known as Dancer On The Threshold.”

“Ok,” Tetsu sighed, forcing his impatience down. “Dancer, can you stop dancing for just one minute so I can talk to you without getting dizzy?”

“Not yet.”

“All right, then tell me how I can get out of here.”

“Even if you return to the place you once were, there is no going back,” she said, “only another step in your journey.”

“This is insane,” Tetsu muttered, “we’re in the Wyld aren’t we? The place Sanejin told me about where the Raksha could escape creation. Is this place even real?”

Reaching in again, Dancer answered him with a long gash across his forearm instead of a gentle caress. “Gods damn it!” Tetsu swore, grabbing the cut to stop the bleeding.

“Everywhere is real,” she said, “even if it’s only in your head.”

Staring at her, Tetsu likened her circling to the approach of a shark or vulture. “Are you here to torment me? Devour me?”

“Love you and hate you like a mother to her child,” she whispered. “I’ve watched you, Tetsu, for a long, long time. He got to you first, so I hate you in your glorious perfection… but I still love you as if you were my own child. You are blessed in your Calibration far more than you know and I will still have you.”

“I don’t understand a word you’re saying,” Tetsu shouted at her, “you must be a Raksha… or simply mad.”

“You know yourself that the madman is the king of the asylum,” she laughed, finally twirling to a halt. “You’re no stranger to chaos, Tetsu, you’ve dipped into that well to survive before. Let me share my madness with you, just a taste…”

She held out her hand to him palm facing upward. For a moment he thought she meant him to take it but then he saw that there was something in her hand. Leaning forward, he could make out two figures looking at each other on her palm, one a dark-skinned girl scantily clad in silver, the other…

His eyes widened when he recognized the scarred face, watching is own eyes widen as the realization that he was staring down at himself resting on the palm of the hand of the girl he was talking to. Tetsu felt his preconceptions slip away as his sanity was strained to the limit, absolutely nothing making any sense anymore.

The ground suddenly lurched as she lifted her hand up towards her mouth. Tetsu screamed when he saw Dancer’s giant face loom out of nowhere as the greyness parted like a veil of mist, her mouth gaping wide. With nothing to cling to, he slid down the heel of her palm and into her open maw, tumbling into darkness.

Dancer On The Threshold swallowed, smiling beatifically as she caressed her tummy. “Don’t worry, little Tsukiko,” she whispered it began to expand, her new child kicking as it grew within her, “mother will make it all better.”

#

“What is taking so long?” Sanejin fretted impatiently as he paced. They’d raised the chain only to find the cage gone, nothing but a solid piece of melted metal remaining at the end of the chain. The god was starting to get genuinely worried when bubbles suddenly broke the surface, followed by a slender, long-fingered hand.

The girl who pulled herself from the pool through the blood and corpses wasn’t exactly what Sanejin was expecting but he couldn’t help but appreciate her. Her skin tone sat between the golden tan of the eastern people and the dark shade of the south, contrasting with her bright silvery-white hair that trailed behind her in long waves. She had a youthful face with a mischievously knowing cast, as if she knew everything a woman of her age isn’t supposed to and gloried in the fact. Her large almond eyes seemed to change colour as she looked up from the floor at the god, shifting from deep blue to a hot purple as she bit her full lower lip.

When she fully emerged, it became clear that she wasn’t the usual product of the Water of Eternal Perfection, her beauty transcended mortal limits, even approaching Sanejin’s own perfection of form. Long limbed and tall, she was also lithe and athletic without sacrificing womanly curves. Rising with fluid grace, she glided forward gracefully as her large breasts heaved, staring at Sanejin with wide, unbelieving, eyes.

Smiling, Sanejin opened his arms to welcome her, wanting her body like no other woman in all his days. She pressed her body against his as their lips met and she gently parted her lips as his tongue slipped into her mouth. His hands roamed as she slid hers down his pants, finding his member and lovingly stroking the length.

“I want you,” she whispered into his ear as he kissed his way down her neck. “I want you dead.”

He stiffened when she grasped the base of his genitals, digging her sharp nails into his soft flesh. Sanejin tried to push her away but she was immovable, like her feet had joined with the rock floor underneath and her muscles interwoven with steel strands. Her visage was nothing but pitiless hatred as she twisted, tearing away the lump of flesh between his legs and casting it aside as he screamed in torment.

“Gods don’t bleed,” she observed as Sanejin fell into a heap on the ground, writhing in agony as his flesh warped and twisted. Scanning the crowd of girls around her who were staring in abject horror, she snarled. “Get away from me!”

“Tetsu?” Red Wolf asked tentatively, taking a step towards her from behind.

It was a mistake. Lashing out, Tetsu’s hand sliced neatly through the flesh and bone of Red Wolf’s neck, severing her head in a spurt of blood that spattered everything around it. “I SAID GET AWAY!” Tetsu cried out in a mixture of hatred and fear, her eyes wild. “GET AWAY FROM ME! YOU’RE ALL OUT TO GET ME! I SAID GET AWAY!”

The girls fled from her as she stumbled away from the screaming god, her fist shattering the temple wall as she fled, leaping out into the wilderness, screaming into the night.



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