Fate and the Iron Tiger PART 5

Tetsuko.jpgFate and the Iron Tiger PART 5
An Exalted Tale By Dr. Bender

Facing a peculiar set of altered circumstances, Tetsu wakes find that she now has to contend with her Lunar captors, fellow inmate Solars and a ravenous horde of the living dead. Unfortunately, all of them want to get closer to her...

Fate and the Iron Tiger Part 5
By Dr. Bender

Chapter 17

Kano squirmed on the floor a little when she felt something wet tickle her ankle. Barely awake, she kicked lazily to batter the slimy feeling away, to no avail. Her frustration eventually woke her completely, eyes fluttering open as she tried to remember where she was, recognizing only that the surface she was lying on was cold, hard and exceedingly uncomfortable. It was night outside and the room was quiet and deserted, white and gold robes scattered across the floor along with other objects that her brain refused to understand.

Pushing herself upright, she couldn’t help but noticed how floppy her robe was. Looking down, she stared in confusion at how inexplicably strange her hands looked, the next thought crossing her mind being that she’d accidently put her false breasts on out of habit for some reason. All that fled from consideration when the slimy feeling slithered up her leg.

Squealing, Kano was too distracted to notice how high pitched her voice was as she grabbed for the thick, worm-like, thing that was making its way up the inside of her trouser leg. It was so slippery and squishy that her fingers couldn’t gain any purchase on it though the cloth, even as it crept up her inner thigh towards her crotch. She screamed when the head of the thing bumped something she couldn’t describe between her legs, her back arching sharply as a shock of pleasure ripped through her nerves.

All thought was driven from her mind as the thing wiggled its way inside her, making her squirm in ecstasy. She started to moan as her womb began to pulse with light, the glow getting brighter and brighter as her pleasure built to a crescendo. With one final scream, her body burst in a blaze of holy light.

#

“Misari!” Agani called out as she picked her way across the torch-lit rubble. “What in the name of the Dragons…”

“Four Anathema!” Misari protested, tearing herself away from the engineers that were raising Undefeatable Blossom of Mercy out of the pit. “FOUR! Two of them started tearing up the town out of nowhere; their skill was like nothing I’d ever seen before!”

Agani paused. “You faced four Anathema alone and lived?”

The Air caste pouted. “You make it sound more glorious than it was. At first it was only two Anathema and they were fighting each other. I was going to let one of them kill the other then finish off whoever was left but then they got serious and their attacks started knocking down buildings, so I powered up Undefeatable Blossom to take the fight to them. They seemed to have used up much of their power and retreated when I arrived on the battlefield but one made a cowardly strike against the other from behind then TWO MORE showed up to retrieve their fallen comrade. One of them shot boulders at me like arrows!”

Surveying the carnage around her, Agani shook her head. “It looks like you held off a siege… no, there isn’t time for this. Delani’s ordered you to go to her, we found an underwater manse she wants you to look at. I’m to relieve you and send some engineers and manpower to build an outpost. We had our own Anathema problem.”

After listening to Agani’s description of Tetsu’s escape from the sandbank, Misari shook her head mournfully. “Such evil power… if only the Anathema could harness it for the good of Creation rather than destruction.”

“Don’t let Hathor hear you say something like that,” Agani chuckled.

Misari rolled her eyes. “True, she is humourless when it comes to matters of faith. Sometimes I wonder if the gods are mad, making me fall for an Earth caste… but enough of that. Promise me you won’t be a hero, Agani, if whatever dispute they had is resolved, each of the Anathema displayed such skill that I doubt any one of us is a match for them.”

“And die before Delani orders it? I wouldn’t dare!” Agani quipped. “Don’t worry, I have Sarro with me and I doubt you’ll be very long.”

Nodding, Misari glanced back in worry at her warstrider. “You’ll take good care of Undefeatable Blossom, won’t you? I hate leaving him like this…”

Agani rolled her eyes. “Don’t worry; I’ll make sure he’s tucked into bed.”

Comforted, Misari bowed in thanks before stalking off to make preparations for her journey. Watching her, Agani sighed, wondering how the dependable, practical and otherwise solid Hathor ever took up with the flighty, obsessive and rather strange Air caste. Her musings were interrupted when one of her captains approached her and bowed respectfully.

“Dragonlord,” he intoned formally, “only seven deaths amongst the Legion confirmed so far, however thirty seven civilians have been pulled from the wreckage. The work crews are asking to form a detail to bury them properly in the morning.”

Agani frowned. “Request denied, pile the bodies of the civilians into a pit and burn them, our men are to be sent back to Greyfalls on the next ship.”

The captain hesitated. “Ma’am, the local priest is worried that their ghosts will rise to cause trouble.”

“Preposterous,” Agani dismissed, “any fool could handle the ghosts of these peons. Make it clear that anyone who voices protest at my orders will join the conflagration.”

“Yes ma’am,” he answered, bowing a little deeper before departing to carry out his orders.

Walking a short way down the street, Agani stopped in front of Menji’s inn, tapping her chin in thought as she surveyed the damage. Motioning for one of her officers to attend to her, she bit her lower lip thoughtfully as she considered the possibilities. “Find the peddler that used to stay here,” she ordered, “ask the peasants if they’ve seen him in the last few days. Offer a reward if you have to or beat the information out of them, I want that peddler found.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

#

“OW!” Aten complained, yanking his sore hand away after Valdis had rapped him across the knuckles with the soup ladle that had just been in the pot over the fire. “Gods, woman! Are you trying to kill me?”

“No touching when you can’t make good on your promises,” she scolded, waving the ladle at him threateningly. “Now, drink your Rockodile soup before it gets cold.”

Aten frowned at the brown-grey sludge in his bowl. “What in the name of the god of improvised cooking is a Rockodile anyway?”

“Don’t ask,” Kamaria answered, “just drink up, it’s good for healing. You’ll have to try Valdis’ Wolf-In-Sheep’s-Clothing tenderloins sometime.”

Dubious, Aten took a sip and made a face. “Actually, I don’t think I’m hungry.”

Valdis gave him a look that made him take another drink much to Kamaria’s amusement.

The cave they were staying in was small but well concealed. Rather than a fire, Kamaria’s knowledge of Sorcery had provided them with hot stones with which to boil water and keep the Solar warm while he ministered to himself. The wound had stopped bleeding long ago but it would be another day before he’d be able to leave the cave under his own power. Valdis seemed to have taken him under her wing for a reason Kamaria didn’t quite understand. Despite her protests, the raven Lunar seemed to be paying him far too much attention, though she insisted when they were alone that the attraction wasn’t sexual and more of a sisterly interest.

Quickly finishing her own bowl of Rockodile soup before she could taste it, Kamaria stood and stretched. “I’m going for another scout around town,” she announced before slipping out of the cave and quickly taking owl form.

Flying high, she could tell that something was wrong the moment she saw the red-orange glow of fires from Low Town. Swooping closer, she hooted in alarm as she took in the devastation, whole buildings collapsed and others damaged by large boulders, some of the wooden structures even still on fire despite the efforts of the townsfolk. Bodies were being piled in a mass grave across the bridge outside of town, oil and torches ready to immolate the dead.

Circling, she spied more localized chaos in the Temple atop the hill as the whores seemed to be running around aimlessly as if none of them knew what to do. Even more disturbing was the hole someone had ripped open in the outer wall facing west over the ruins of Makota City. By contrast, High Town seemed deserted, hardly a light on in any window. Deciding that it was too risky to go for a closer look, Kamaria flew back to the cave, transforming into her true form before slipping inside.

“Chaos,” she reported simply, “Low Town looks like it was attacked by an army and Menji’s Inn’s been destroyed. Also, someone’s knocked part of the Temple’s western wall down, everyone’s scurrying about like ants after the nest’s been kicked.”

“Steaming piles of Yeddim dung,” Aten swore, screwing his eyes shut. “It’s Ogren. Lift me up, we have to go looking for him.”

Valdis put her foot on his chest, pinning him down. “No movement, it can wait one more day.”

He winced. “No it can’t. That much damage, it has to be Ogren, he sent me to scout ahead. Something must have happened for him to come looking for me now and… well, you saw what he’s capable of when Messia’s not around.”

“Very well,” Kamaria sighed, “the two of you stay here; I’ll search for this Ogren to let him know where you are. Maybe I’ll be able to find Tetsu and see what he has to say about all this.”

“Don’t trust him,” Aten warned.

“Ogren or Tetsu?”

“Tetsu,” Aten said. A moment later he frowned. “Come to think of it, watch Ogren too but he’ll be ok once I bring him up to speed. I know he could have killed me and didn’t but Tetsu still stinks of dark powers no matter what he claims. Be careful how far you allow him into our confidence.”

His words made Kamaria frown as she left the cave again, neither confirming or denying whether she’d adhere to Aten’s suggestion.

#

“Help me get him onto the table!” Edge ordered, gently rolling the unconscious Rage onto his stomach on the carpet of Feather and Tetsu’s room at the Temple.

“What? Oh, right,” Feather nodded, snapping out of her concerned reverie to lend her a hand. Once he was on the table, Edge got to work in earnest.

“Bastard,” Edge swore as she worked. “Attacking after agreeing to disengage.”

“Interesting sentiment coming from an assassin,” Feather observed.

“I don’t declare formal duels first,” Edge muttered darkly. “Are you sure we’re not going to be disturbed here?”

“Only by Tetsu,” Feather sighed with worry, “and I can handle him but he should have been back here by now.”

“You know I’m here to kill him, right?” Edge admitted. “The Pattern Spiders want him dead.”

“But you’re not going to start anything until Rage is fixed,” Feather said, “because you’re a better doctor than I am. Also, we need Tetsu for our investigation, until we know who’s behind the snarl there’s no point in killing him.”

“How are you going to explain Rage and I? I know I said we needed better facilities but you’re taking a risk blowing our cover like this.”

“Like I said, I can handle Tetsu,” Feather answered, omitting the fact that she was prepared to ‘handle’ both Edge and Rage if it came down to the wire. One plan even included using Cash and Murder Games to seduce Edge, though that too was a risk. She glanced over her shoulder when she heard a commotion in the hallway and her worry intensified. “I better see what’s going on out there and get some answers. If Tetsu returns, just tell him you’re friends of mine and I can explain everything.”

Edge nodded dubiously which was good enough for Feather. The hallways were chaos. Girls screamed and squealed as the madames fought amongst themselves for control. Quickly breaking up a couple that were pulling each other’s hair like schoolgirls, Feather forced them apart to get their attention. “What by the seven celestial whores is going on here?” Feather demanded. “Where’s Sanejin?”

One of the women put her hands on her ample hips. “Who do you think you are you….” Her tirade was cut off suddenly when she found herself sitting on the floor, slightly stunned, her left cheek stinging painfully. “Who hit me?” She wondered aloud, not thinking straight.

Grabbing the other one by the robe, Feather manhandled her easily. “If I have to ask again, I swear the bruises will show,” she threatened the whimpering girl.

“S-Sanejin,” she stuttered, “Sanejin tricked Tetsu and performed the ritual.”

“WHAT?!?” Feather screeched. Enraged, she lifted the madame off her feet and pinned her against the wall. “What ritual?”

“Sanejin wanted a Solar wife,” she squeaked. “He’d worked out a method for giving his chosen one the perfect body using the power of the temple. He tricked Tetsu into some sort of divine deal and breaking his oath to make sure it would work and it did! At first… Tetsu went mad and did… something unspeakable to Sanejin before she went berserk and started killing people.”

Feather felt the blood drain from her face. “Where is Tetsu now?”

“I don’t know,” she wimpered, crying, “she broke down a wall and ran off into the wilderness.”

Growling with pure hatred, Feather tossed the girl aside and stormed down the hall with deadly purpose and implacable intensity. As she passed the warring madames, she put them in their place with casual ease, slowly restoring order. Walking into the kitchens, she noted that it was even more of a battleground, there was hardly a sack of food that wasn’t spilled over the floor. Scanning the room, she quickly found the head cook huddled behind some crates of vegetables with her staff. “You,” Feather pointed at her, “I’m in charge here now. Stand up.”

Reluctantly getting to her feet, the head chef bowed. “Ma’am? I don’t think I’ve seen you before.”

“Irrelevant since I’m the only woman in this whole temple with the sense the gods gave the common dog,” she snapped, though it was actually a lie. The Primordials created dogs, not the gods, though mortals remained largely ignorant of the fact. “You’re the head chef; you know everything that goes on in this place. Where is Sanejin now and who’s taking care of the customers?”

“Sanejin was moved to his throne room,” she answered quickly. “The dragonbloods were all poisoned as Sanejin ordered.”

“POISONED?”

“Not fatally!” She reassured quickly. “We just slipped them a very powerful sedative that Sanejin had imported… along with the Water of Eternal Perfection…”

Feather put her hand on her forehead and counted to ten before saying anything more. “I need to see a bottle of the sedative. And I need to know where these dragonbloods are.”

The head chef handed her a bottle. “Most of them are in the dining hall, they were toasting some fallen comrades.”

Pulling the cork, Feather sniffed what remained of the liquid inside before replacing it. “Malfean… this is getting worse and worse… clean up this pig sty. If anyone gives you trouble, I’ll be in the throne room.”

Striding out, Feather made a bee line for the throne room. Throwing open the main doors, she found the cavernous hall empty except for the being slumped in his throne. Sanejin had seen better days. His skin was grey and desiccated, shrunk until he was nothing but a husk of skin and bone. He wheezed with every breath, bony hands clutching the golden blanket someone had wrapped around him. Even his hair had turned white and stringy, falling freely from his scalp.

“Sanejin, Boyar of Pristine Vanity,” Feather greeted as she strode towards him, “I am Shining Feather, Agent of the Cerulean Lute of Harmony. You’re under arrest on suspicion of treason against Yu Shan and the Celestial Bureaucracy.”

“Yes, yes,” he hissed impatiently, “only a matter of time before you finally approached me.” He paused to cough up a lungful of black bile, leaning over the arm of his chair to spit it out. “I have terms for my surrender.”

“I don’t think you’re in any shape to be making bargains,” Feather scoffed.

He smiled a wicked little smile. “On the contrary, I may have lost my office and… much else besides. But I know things you’ll be interested to hear… particularly about the snarl in the Loom of Fate.”

Feather raised her eyebrows. “How do you know about that at all living out in this backwater?”

“I still have friends in Yu Shan,” he wheezed, “you’d be amazed how much business one can do with the right connections out here in the Threshold. More importantly, I daresay you’re desperate to know what I have to tell you, so let’s cut to the chase. I want a new appointment in the Cerulean Lute of Harmony and a full pardon for my crimes, both past and current.”

“The Celestial Bureaucracy, not to mention the Pattern Spiders, will want to see justice done to the perpetrators.”

“They can live with the disappointment in my case,” Sanejin sneered. “Besides, I was coerced. I only did what I had to in order to survive, if you’d been a bit quicker coming to me much of this pain could have been spared.”

“I’ll have to square it with Yaogin…”

“You mean Livinia and Uvanavu,” Sanejin chuckled, naming the Goddess of Prostitution as well as the God of Health, the two de-facto rulers of the Department of Serenity. Yaogin was the nominal head of the department but he spent his days in a drug induced stupor. “Tell Livinia I’m calling in the favour she owes me. And tell Uvanavu… hello from me.”

Frowning, Feather crossed her arms over her chest. “All right but in return I want a gesture of good faith. What have you done with Tetsu?”

At the mention of the name, Sanejin broke into a fit of coughing. “I… improved… him… I rendered him into a vision of perfection, a bride worthy of me. Something went wrong… something I hadn’t planned… there’s something in this manse, something impossible.”

“Did you see where he… she went?”

He shook his head, pointing towards the room behind the throne. “I was in pain but… I saw the hole in the wall. Downstairs, the main altar room, you can’t miss it.”

Leaving the dying god to his punishment, Feather descended the stairs down to the altar room. There were white and gold robes scattered everywhere, some torches had been knocked from the walls. Two features caught Feather’s eye but one was so amazing that it dominated her attention to the point where she almost stepped on Red Wolf’s corpse where it still lay on the floor. Off to one side of the altar rested a jade egg the size of a donkey. Rhythmic pulses of light revealed a shadowy humanoid form curled up inside, floating peacefully.

Looking first at the egg, then at the wall, Feather wandered over to the hole but kept one eye on the egg until she was looking out over the edge of the cliff outside. It was pitch black, only the stars and the moon providing scant light, the forest far below dark and silent. She knew better than to think that Tetsu had met her end plummeting to her death, her Solar charms would have prevented that outcome. Still, she was somewhere out there in the wilderness, alone, confused maybe even suicidal. It made Feather’s heart ache that she wasn’t there for her.

Feather’s thoughts were interrupted when the jade egg started to crack. As she watched, the form inside braced itself against the inner walls and pushed with its legs and back, slowly breaking the rock from the inside. One final push shattered the top, pieces falling away as the form inside broke free.

She was beautiful, approaching the beauty of Venus herself much like Sanejin once had. At least seven feet tall she was also large and athletic, though not overly so on the surface. Her legs were long, her hips wide and her waistline almost impossibly slender. To top it off, her golden hair fell over large breasts that would leave most men drooling over her like idiots. Even Feather felt the pull of physical attraction to the girl, though she forced the feeling aside immediately.

“Feather?” the woman breathed the question in a lyrical voice made for song. Looking down at herself, still standing in the egg, her jaw dropped. “I-I’m…”

“You know me?” Feather asked suspiciously, subconsciously readying herself for a fight.

“What? By the gods, I’m… Feather it’s me… it’s me, Kano!”

Chapter 18

Moaning, Tetsu slowly opened her eyes, noticing the wooden beams and ceiling over her head. She was lying in a soft bed with clean sheets, something she hadn’t done since she left Nexus. Lifting her hand out from under the sheet, she stared at the perfect, slender, digits as she wondered if this was all a dream. Bringing the strange hand to her face, she traced the lines of familiar scars that no longer existed, feeling only smooth skin under her fingertips.

“Finally awake,” Kamaria observed wryly from her seat beside the bed.

Trying to sit up, Tetsu suddenly realized that she was naked under the sheets, so she held the blanket to her chest as she rose. She also tried to ignore the twin obstructions on her chest as she did so. “W-what…” she paused, noting how soft her voice was. “What happened? Where are we?”

“As to your first question, that’s what we were hoping you could tell us,” Kamaria answered. “In the case of the second, this is Earth Rakes Sky Aerie, the fortress of Elder Adra Bloodmoon. We’re a few hundred miles south south-east of River’s Bend.”

Wiping her eyes, Tetsu shook her head, feeling her long hair brush against her back. “No… we’d be far too close to the Wyld.”

“Close to the edge actually,” Kamaria shrugged, “the Aerie’s protected from the effects, so don’t fret any. You’ve been asleep for about a day, I’m sorry but I was forced to render you unconscious, you were wild and babbling. Do you remember?”

Tetsu shook her head, half her attention on Kamaria while her eyes wandered down the outline of the strange form under the sheets.

“All right, then let’s start with the basics. I’m Kamaria Clearwater and you would be…”

Looking up at her, Tetsu stared for a few moments before bursting into laughter, falling back down onto the pillow as she chortled. Kamaria sighed and moved to stand up before Tetsu reached out to grab her wrist. “No, wait, I’m sorry. You already know me, Kamaria Clearwater, I’m Tetsu.”

“Tetsu?” Kamaria asked in disbelief.

Concentrating, Tetsu made her caste mark glow on her forehead. “Unless you think there are two Eclipse caste solars in River’s Bend at the same time…”

She slumped back into her chair. “Maybe you better tell me what happened after we parted ways the day before yesterday.”

After a long sigh, Tetsu began the long story of her betrayal without referencing the Gnomon by name. “Then he dumped the cage into the water and me along with it,” Tetsu said when she got to the meeting with Dancer On The Threshold. “I held my breath and escaped the cage but… it was like a bad dream where you’re being chased but the corridor you’re in never ends, the shaft kept growing longer until everything melted away and I found myself swimming in a fuzzy grey mist. When I realized I could breathe, I landed on what I thought was a platform amid the clouds… was that the Wyld?”

“The Wyld can appear as anything, it can also be bent to your will,” Kamaria informed her. “What you describe sounds like a Freehold, a bubble of the Wyld trapped in Creation. It’s possible that a powerful manse could have a secret door to such an area… but I have to ask, how did you escape?”

“I don’t know. There was a… spirit of some sort. She called herself Dancer On The Threshold…”

Kamaria drew in a sharp breath. “Inhumanly beautiful? Dark skinned, wears silver livery like a southern dancer?”

“That’s her, she… told me things I didn’t understand. I asked her how I could escape but she only spoke in riddles…”

“Can you remember exactly what she said?”

Tetsu nodded. “I’m sure I can but I told you it didn’t make sense.”

“Never mind that, we’ll have to go over your meeting in detail later. What did she do then?”

Sitting up again, Tetsu drew her legs up to her chest and hugged them, shivering at the memory. “She… ate me. Then I remember being warm and feeling safe… next thing I remember vaguely is crawling out of the altar pool back at the temple. All I could think of was making Sanejin suffer for what he’d done and when it was over… I guess I snapped, I vaguely remember running but not much else.”

“I found you knocking down trees with your fists,” Kamaria added, “you were ranting incoherently… but I guess after everything that happened, a mental breakdown is perfectly understandable, I don’t know how my own sanity would fare in the same circumstances. After incapacitating you so that could couldn’t hurt yourself, I found Aten’s friend Ogren and Valdis and I flew you all back to the Aerie.”

“Ogren? Another Solar?”

“Dawn caste, a warrior,” Kamaria said with some distaste. “I don’t know what to make of him yet but Elder Bloodmoon trusts him. We also have a young Zenith caste staying here, which makes you a Night caste shy of a full Circle.”

Tetsu tried to grunt but her voice wasn’t suited to it, so it came out as more of a squeak. “I’m really not used to relying on others.”

“What you do is your own business,” Kamaria shrugged. “I have to go inform the Elder that you’re awake, she’ll want to speak to you I’m sure. You might want to spend the time until then… acquainting yourself with your new body. Believe me; I know how disconcerting changing shape can be the first time. If it’s any consolation, it is a remarkable improvement.”

Groaning, Tetsu held her face in her hands. “Thank you for the effort but… please… just leave me alone for a while.”

Nodding, Kamaria left and closed the door, though Tetsu heard the distinctive sound of an iron bar falling into place. Checking her surroundings, she realized that she was in a cell, though at least it was more spacious and better appointed than any cell she’d ever been in. There was even a mirror in the corner that drew her curiosity.

Pulling the sheet around herself, she got up easily on her feet, marvelling at the ease with which her body moved and reflexively found its own balance. Walking up to one side of the mirror, Tetsu leant across to peer in at herself then immediately pulled herself back, clapping one hand over her open mouth. Looking back into the mirror confirmed her worst nightmare.

The girl in the mirror was the sort of rare beauty kings started wars over. Perfectly formed from head to toe, the bedsheet made her look like she was ready to pose for an artist’s masterpiece. Her skin, hair and eyes just made her all the more exotic and alluring, the jewel in the crown of any harem.

Again she brought her hands to her face, still feeling the ghost of her old scars. Turning her head, she allowed her fingers to stray down her slender neck, pausing at the edge of the bedsheet just below her collar bone. “Damn it,” she swore, turning away from the mirror again. She turned so fast that her hair fell over her face; making her growl in consternation as she futilely tried to get it out of the way. Snarling in frustration, she lashed out at the mirror, her fist cracking the pane without so much as a scratch.

She was so distracted that she didn’t notice that she was being watched for a few moments. Glancing at the door, Tetsu spied a little girl with fiery red hair peeking through the peephole at her. They stared at each other for a long time before Tetsu broke the silence. “Come to stare at the freak show, kid?”

She frowned. “I think you look very pretty,” she answered in a matter of fact tone.

Snorting, Tetsu tried to slump back down on the bed but couldn’t throw herself out of balance and ended up sitting stiffly. “I’m… tell me something I don’t know, kid,” she sighed, shaking her head.

“I’m Messia,” she introduced herself, “what’s your name?”

“Tsu… Tetsu. Wait, you’re Messia? I’ve heard of you, you’re the Zenith caste!”

“And you’re the new Eclipse caste,” Messia beamed, “it’ll be nice to have another girl around to help me keep the boys in line. I swear, they can’t do anything by themselves! Aten gets hurt an Ogren’s back after a day or two empty handed… well, except for you. I don’t know why they wanted to leave me behind, I’m a Solar too after all.”

Tetsu frowned. “There’s a lot of soldiers at River’s Bend right now.”

“I can handle myself,” the little girl protested, “Ogren’s been teaching me martial arts and Aten’s been teaching me sorcery. I can take on a few dragonbloods.”

Knowing it was futile arguing with the little girl, Tetsu changed the subject. “What style has he been teaching you?”

“Oh, only Solar Hero Style,” she sighed, “he’s also trying to teach me some charm called ‘Swallowing the Lotus Root’ that’s supposed to make Terrestrial styles easier to learn but I don’t get it. Why learn Terrestrial styles at all if Celestial ones are so much better? Hey! We should spar sometime!”

An image of using her Dark Messiah style on the little girl popped into Tetsu’s head unbidden. It wasn’t a pretty image but she couldn’t think of a way to let the girl down gently. “Maybe once I’m out of here and the Elder’s finished with me, ok?”

“Sure! It’ll be great to fight someone new, the Lunars mostly just humour me when I challenge them, they don’t take me seriously at all. Don’t worry about Elder Bloodmoon, though, she’s really nice…”

A sound from further down the hallway interrupted her when she glanced over her shoulder to look. “I better go,” she whispered, “I wasn’t supposed to come talk to you. But don’t worry, the Unconquered Sun is watching over us.”

She slipped away so suddenly and quietly that the former child sneak thief in Tetsu couldn’t help but be impressed. There was no time for nostalgia, however, as the door was unbarred, swinging open to reveal a tall older woman with slight wrinkles around her eyes and stripes of grey in her dark brown hair. Kamaria followed behind her at a respectful distance, closing the door behind them as the older woman appraised Tetsu with penetrating eyes.

“You would be Elder Bloodmoon,” Tetsu assumed.

“And you are Tetsu, the self-styled wandering hero of River’s Bend,” the elder muttered. “But at least that spares us some tedious introductions. Kamaria tells me that you saw Dancer On The Threshold, what’s more she’s responsible for your current circumstances.”

“That’s right.”

“Do you have any idea of whom you speak?” Adra snapped, glaring down at Tetsu.

“Not a clue, just that Kamaria thinks what she said to me is important,” Tetsu shrugged. “All I know is that she was crazy and talked in riddles and enigmas.”

“Oh, you think that now,” the elder muttered as she started to pace. “And yes, she is crazy. Crazy, inconstant, enigmatic and unknowable; the moment you think you’ve got a handle on her she slips through your fingers. The real question is what she wants with you and why. She can do as she pleases, of course, but not all of my peers will see it that way.”

Tetsu shook her head, blowing a few more stray hairs out of her face yet again. “I don’t get it, what was so important about this ‘Dancer’? Other than how she made me like this…”

“Of course, you’re still largely ignorant of celestial politics,” Adra sighed, quickly waving off Tetsu’s protests. “Never mind, I shouldn’t have expected otherwise, the Immaculate Philosophy suppresses much of the reality of things. Besides, Dancer On The Threshold is a lesser known aspect, certainly not as famous as The Two-Faced Bride or The Walker At The Crossroads. You are one of the few individuals outside of the Lunar exalted to have conversed with Luna, a member of the Incarnae and one of the ultimate sovereigns of all Creation.”

Shocked, Tetsu rose to her feet. “WHAT? What was she doing there? Why would she do… this?!?”

Adra shook her head. “What part of unknowable do you not get? Luna does things for her own reasons but one thing is clear: you have been favoured beyond all measure by our goddess. As I said, some Lunars will see the folly of trying to make the goddess conform to our standards of behaviour, others won’t be so charitable. You were lucky to fall into my hands, others would see you as a liar or a threat. As for your transformation, it is my experience that Luna brings chaos but not without reason. You have been favoured by two of the Incarnae, Tetsu, count your blessings.”

“I think I was meant to find you,” Kamaria said, scratching the back of her neck thoughtfully. “Our ability to shapeshift is a blessing from Luna but at the same time such mutability poses questions about the nature of identity. Elder, I’d be happy to oversee Tetsu’s tutelage.”

“Hmmm… if you think you know what you’re letting yourself in for,” Adra shrugged. “Tetsu, would you accept Kamaria as a guide and overseer during your stay here? I’d rather not keep you locked up but I can’t guarantee your safety here at the Aerie.”

“I don’t get it, aren’t you the one in charge here?” Tetsu asked.

Adra threw her head back and laughed. “Oh, I am the Elder here but you’ll discover quickly that Lunar relations are a mixture of individual responsibility, mutual respect and domination. My support lends you some measure of protection but you’ll have to see to your own defence.”

Strangely, the sentiment made Tetsu smile. “Actually… that’s the best thing I’ve heard in weeks.”

“Well, good,” Adra said with a smirk that held volumes about her opinion of overconfident youth. “I expect I’ll see you later then, if you’ll excuse me.”

Once the Elder was gone, Kamria lifted Tetsu’s chin speculatively, brushing the new woman’s hair back. “First, we should get this hair out of the way. Lots of male trueform Lunars have trouble with that the first time they shift genders. Then we’ll find something simple and comfortable for you to wear.”

The first lessons were short and simple, allowing Tetsu to acclimatize easily. Kamaria helped tie back Tetsu’s hair into a ponytail a few times before making her do it herself. Tetsu surprised herself at being a fast learner despite her irritation at the whole process as well as Kamaria’s insistence that she should wait a while before deciding to cut it. Clothes were simpler because Kamaria selected exclusively plain, loose, training garments that consisted of a white tunic with voluminous sleeves and a black cloth belt over floppy black pants that were clinched at the ankle. Underwear was more difficult, though they eventually found a set that fit, but Tetsu was forced to go barefoot due to a shortage of socks.

Immediately upon stepping outside Tetsu’s cell, she gasped in wonder. Beyond the short hallway that led to similar empty cells was a wooden balcony that looked out over the fortress that perched at the very peak of a mountain that stood higher than the clouds. Several airships were moored to docking bays far below, floating serenely despite the harsh winds. They were standing on one of several towers, each with their own balconies from which bird-beastmen and people of the air would dive from to unfurl their wings and soar gracefully to the courtyards below.

The capabilities of the native inhabitants made the architecture of the fortress strange. Most were obviously capable of flight, so there were few stairways since the flying people could simply hop over obstacles in their path or ascend on their own terms. Tetsu noticed a few travellers who would grow wings then promptly retract them on command, making a mental note that there were a few Lunars amongst the sparse crowds. Mostly they trained, drilling in the use of weapons and armour, sparring or performing martial arts katas.

“What is this place?” Tetsu asked breathlessly as she looked out over the scene.

“The Solars might have disappeared for fifteen hundred years but threats like the Raksha didn’t disappear with you,” Kamaria explained. “Here at the very edge of Creation, we Lunars have been standing vigil in your absence. The Silver Pact operates many of these sorts of fortresses, though none are quite the same as the others. Earth Rakes Sky Aerie is a stronghold for many of the factions within the Pact, though mainly the Swords of Luna and the Crossroads Society.”

“The who?”

Kamaria took a deep breath, leaning against the banister next to Tetsu. “As Elder Bloodmoon explained, we Lunars are highly individualistic. Each of us is our own nation unto ourselves, who we are and what we believe is very important to each of us. The Silver Pact gives us a sense of cohesion but beyond that we are free to do as we will… unless a dominant will enforces its dictates upon us but that’s all part of the cut and thrust of Lunar politics. Within the Pact there are groups of like-minded Lunars who do what their conscience dictates to defend Creation from threats within and without. The Swords of Luna concentrate on eradicating enemies from without, mostly the Raksha. They stage raids on Raksha strongholds in the Wyld, taking the fight to the enemy, so the Aerie is a natural base of operations for them. Conversely, the Crossroads Society is the protector of knowledge, particularly sorcery. Adra Bloodmoon is a respected member who often accepts apprentices and several of her apprentices also teach others here.”

“But there are other factions here?”

“The Wardens of Gaia and the Sun King Seneschals,” Kamaria sighed. “The Wardens aren’t much of a problem here but their faction’s split in two directions, moderates and fanatics. At the core, the Wardens want to integrate human civilization with the ways of nature but half of them take a measured approach attempting to weld the two competing forces into a harmonious union while the other simply wants to level every city and reduce humans to barbarism. The latter group are the ones who actually live up to the Immaculate descriptions of the Anathema. Conversely, the Sun King Seneschals… it’s embarrassing to admit this to a Solar but they believe that our rightful place is in support of you. Usually they stay away from the Aerie but the presence of three of you in the area, now four, means that a substantial number are likely to arrive any day to test you.”

Tetsu blinked. “Test us? What sort of test?”

Kamaria shook her head and stood up straight. “I will not speak of it, it’s too embarrassing. Suffice to say that you need not fear, they will merely wish to meet you once and that should be the end of their curiosity. I suggest you not let their flattery go to your head, however, and remain cautious of them no matter how tempting an offer they may make to you. Come on, Valdis is with the others, they’ll want to see you.”

Following Kamaria downstairs, Tetsu couldn’t help but notice that everyone they passed turned to stare at her, even the eagle beastmen who cocked their heads to one side curiously in the manner of birds. Reaching a smaller, out of the way, courtyard, Tetsu immediately recognized Valdis, Aten and the little girl Messia who had visited her earlier. She assumed that the brown-haired, muscular man who was busy cleaning and sharpening a series of blades was Ogren. They were all watching Messia spar with and eagle beastman who appeared to be getting his ass kicked despite being armed with a spear.

Pouting indignantly, Messia’s robes swirled around her as she launched a series of backspin kicks that slowly whittled down the spear, snapping off about a foot of the polearm with each blow. The beastman counterattacked by attempting to strike the side of her head with the butt, though Messia blocked it easily with her forearm before toppling her opponent with a leg sweep and finishing him with an downward axe kick that stopped an inch before it would have crushed his throat.

The audience clapped politely but Messia just seemed more irritated as she helped the beastman to his feet. “Come on, Cheepchik, you let me win that time.”

“I say, young mistress, you’ve gotten hold of the wrong end of the stick,” Cheepchik protested as he rose to his talons.

“Everyone,” Kamria interrupted, calling their attention, “our friend is awake.”

Tetsu was more worried about what she was going to tell them all than she was embarrassed to be standing in front of Valdis and Aten. When they all looked towards her, she took careful note of their reactions. Aten was the easiest to read, since his tongue practically lolled out of his mouth like a slavering hound, gross enough that Tetsu seriously considered wounding him again. Valdis was more subtle about it, she had a speculative look on her face but gnawed lightly on the tip of her little finger, betraying her inner thoughts. Cheepchik cocked his head to one side in that strange manner that the eagle beastmen had of curious consideration which Tetsu took for interest. Last amongst the adults, Ogren simply stared with cold, calculating, eyes as if he were evaluating her worth on the open market.

Messia, of course, skipped over enthusiastically and beamed up at Tetsu with guileless innocence. “Hi, I’m Messia, would you spar with me?”

Tetsu hesitated, not quite knowing how to deal with the girl. “I… don’t think that’s a good idea.”

“I’m sure Tetsu would love to spar with you,” Ogren called out, his eyes still cold and emotionless. “A martial artist should always be ready to accept a challenge… unless our new princess is afraid of breaking a nail.”

Male, scarred, Tetsu would have gotten in his face, or at least made a snide remark of his own. Beautiful female Tetsu simply frowned, having no idea how she was supposed to respond. “I wouldn’t want to hurt the girl…”

“HEY!” Messia protested, glaring with her hands on her hips, looking imperiously miffed. “I may be young but I’m a fellow martial artist and a Solar, I don’t want you to take it easy on me!”

“Well said,” Ogren encouraged, smirking, “after all, one can’t learn without adversity.”

It took every ounce of will for Tetsu to remain calm and not stalk over and slap the man. “If you’re both going to push me into this, fine,” Tetsu answered evenly. “What are the rules?”

Kamaria was about to answer but Ogren spoke over her. “Submission,” he answered, “you both fight until one yields.”

“Ogren?” Aten questioned him but was only answered with a curt wave.

“Now that’s my kind of fight!” Messia giggled, pretend-cracking her knuckles.

Tetsu glanced down at Messia then up at Ogren before returning her gaze down to Messia. “Are you sure you want me not to hold back?”

“Yes! I’m sick of not being taken seriously! I’ve been training hard, I know I’m no match for Ogren yet but I can take you! Come on, it’ll be fun!”

“All right then,” Tetsu answered, resigned.

Kamria grabbed Tetsu’s shoulder to stop her for a moment while Messia returned to the sparring circle. “You’re going to take it easy on her, right?” the lunar whispered.

“That’s not what she wants,” Tetsu replied, shaking off the hand but glancing meaningfully at Ogren where only Kamaria could see. Moving to the circle, Tetsu took a deep, cleansing, breath as her opponent stretched. They both bowed, Messia took up a basic fighting stance while Tetsu remained at ease when Kamaria gave them the mark.

Grinning, Messia immediately jumped to launch a snap kick at Tetsu’s face. The Eclipse leant backwards to avoid the blow and simply punched the girl in the chest, knocking her out of the air. She let out a short, sharp, screech of pain as she writhed on the paved stone floor of the courtyard.

Aten shot to his feet and only took a single step before Ogren stopped him with a short bark. “Aten! Don’t interfere.”

“Are you mad?” Aten snapped back.

“I’m not finished yet!” Messia growled, slowly regaining her feet. “Stay out of this, Aten! I can do it!”

Aten looked on helplessly as the little girl took up another fighting stance. Tetsu couldn’t help but pity him in that moment, unable to save someone partly from herself. “You don’t need to push yourself like this, Messia,” Tetsu told her sadly, seeing something of her old self at that age.

“Shut up,” she snapped, “this is what I wanted. I was holding back because I thought you were new. Now I don’t have to take it easy on you.”

Messia started with a series of punches that were well executed but lacked substance, though she made up for it with passion. Blocking a few but simply accepting several punches and kicks, Tetsu’s return kick to the girl’s stomach knocked her back several yards until she landed flat on her face.

“This is ridiculous,” Kamaria snarled.

Valdis shook her head in disagreement with her lover. “If the girl wants to learn to fight, this had to happen sometime.”

“Oh, come on!” Aten snapped. “She’s not even thirteen yet!”

“I killed my first man when I was seven,” Ogren answered calmly as he continued to sharpen one of his throwing knives. “Tetsu here learned to fight on the streets, probably not much older than I was. If Messia wants to survive against the dragonblooded she needs to be prepared, unfortunately there are skills that can’t be imparted by a teacher.”

Tetsu watched as Messia slowly rose to her feet. “In a real fight you’d already be dead,” she told the girl as a matter of fact. “A dragonblood would have ended your existence at the end of a sword or spear while you were writhing on the ground. Your enthusiasm is good but don’t be so quick to grow up.”

“Shut up,” Messia shouted, taking up another fighting stance, though it obviously pained her to stand. “This is a fight to submission; it’s not over yet.”

“You don’t have to do this,” Tetsu begged her.

“Yes, she does,” Ogren disagreed, “when it comes down to the wire both of us know that simple tenacity will get you through.”

“That works on the streets, not in a dojo,” Tetsu rebutted. “It’s a sacrifice that nobody should have to make.”

Messia finally caught her breath and charged, screaming, her right fist glowing with golden energy as she pulled it back to strike. Stepping to one side, Tetsu gave her a swift tap to the back of the neck that made her fall onto the stonework again.

Cheepchik uttered a few bird-like clicks that Tetsu took as an admonishment. “That was unnecessary.”

“No, this is unnecessary,” Tetsu commented, placing her foot on Messia’s back as the girl tried to stand again, forcing her down.

“Hey! Get off!” Messia shouted.

“Not until you acknowledge defeat,” Tetsu commented, “I’m sick of hurting you already.”

As much as Messia strained, she simply wasn’t strong enough to rise. “I won’t quit! There has to be a way!”

“There isn’t one,” Tetsu answered her unspoken question. “Some problems can’t be solved by throwing yourself at them. It takes forethought, planning and effort to achieve some goals. Take a deep breath, accept your loss now and let Aten treat your wounds. Learn from this and become stronger.”

Ogren snorted. “Messia…”

“Perhaps, Ogren,” Tetsu interrupted, “if you’re going to spit poison in her ear from the sidelines you’d rather take her place?”

Staring at her, Ogren slowly stood, setting his weapons aside. “I don’t think that’s a good idea,” he said, throwing Tetsu’s own words back in her face.

Tetsu raised her eyebrow. “Afraid to break a nail, princess?”

He grinned. “Messia, let Aten look at your injuries.”

The little girl sputtered. “But I…”

“No arguments.”

Aten picked Messia up and moved her to one side of the courtyard, unrolling a medicine pack from his belt while the girl kept her eyes intently on Tetsu and Ogren as they faced off. “Best of three bouts,” Tetsu insisted, “first touch wins. No charms.”

Nodding, Ogren took his place, the two of them bowed formally and took their fighting stances. For a few seconds they just stared at each other, looking for an opening. When Ogren finally struck, his fist was like lightning, the move suddenly springing from nowhere. Somehow, Tetsu was faster, leaning to one side so that the blow brushed past her hair and tapping him lightly on the ribs.

“Touch!” Kamaria shouted, acting as judge for the round. “Advantage Tetsu.”

Ogren’s brow furrowed. “How did you even see that attack?”

“Don’t flatter yourself,” Tetsu taunted, “it wasn’t that fast. Besides, I saw your shoulder tense just before you threw the punch.”

“I forfeit,” he declared with a self satisfied smirk on his face as he turned away from her. “Well played, Tetsuko.”

Tetsu glared at his back as he packed up his blades and swaggered away until he was out of sight. “Ignore him,” Kamaria muttered, “you’ll just encourage him otherwise.”

“Maybe,” Tetsu muttered, turning away… to find Aten glaring at her from mere inches away. “Oh, you. How is Messia?”

His glare softened for a moment before hardening again. “I put her to sleep. She’ll be fully healed by the time she wakes. Now my question, what in the name of…”

“She asked for a proper challenge, I gave her a proper challenge.”

“SHE’S TWELVE!” he shouted. “You could have held back!”

“I did,” Tetsu shrugged, “she’s not dead.”

Valdis put a hand on his shoulder. “Aten, I know you hate seeing Messia suffer but this was good for her. You and Ogren coddle her too much; if she wants to fight she needs to know pain in order to survive.”

“But she’s… she’s…”

Tetsu put her hands on her hips. “Aten, is your problem that she’s hurt or that I hurt a girl?”

“A little girl,” he scowled, putting emphasis in the ‘little’. All three women slapped themselves on the forehead. “What?” he demanded as he faced their looks.

“Ok, Aten, that’s kind of sweet,” Kamaria explained patiently, “but we don’t need your protection and Messia doesn’t need you holding her back. If I’d seen this before I might have stretched the rules of hospitality and accepted Messia’s challenge myself.”

He gave all three of them a dark look. “You don’t have to beat the tar out of a new student to teach them martial arts.”

“Aten,” Tetsu sighed, “when I first arrived in Nexus as an orphan, a girl beat the tar out of me for stealing a bread roll. I was younger than Messia and the girl in question was a little older than me but I’d been working in my father’s forge for years. She still kicked my ass because she’d been training in the local dojo. I saw her spar in that dojo and believe me; she received no quarter for being a girl. In fact, I’ve seen many dojos in my time and none of them have such a misogynistic policy. I don’t like it either but she needed that beating and more importantly, if you want to be angry at someone, be angry at Ogren for pushing me into it.”

He blinked, stupidly. “Ogren? Wait, what?”

Valdis shook her head. “So smart in some areas, so dumb in others. Come on, Aten, I’ll explain it to you while we tuck Messia into bed.”

Despite his protests, Valdis dragged him away to tend to the little Zenith who was sleeping peacefully in the shade. “Your block was impressive, by the way,” Kamaria said, as they watched them depart with Cheepchik. “I doubt I could have blocked Ogren’s attack.”

“Cheepchik’s there to kill Messia if Aten or Ogren misbehave,” Tetsu observed, changing the subject, “she’s your hostage.”

“Were we that obvious?” Kamaria asked, scratching her neck in embarrassment.

“No, I just know how these things work. It’s a smart play, they both obviously place much value on her.”

“Honestly, I doubt Cheekchik will have the heart to go through with it,” Kamaria sighed. “Messia certainly knows how to inspire love and devotion, though it’s so artless I doubt she actually knows she’s doing it. She’s going to be a terror in a few years.”

“She’s rather impressive now,” Tetsu grumbled.

“Come on,” Kamaria chuckled, “let’s get you acquainted with the rest of the Aerie.”

#

“THIS IS PREPOSTEROUS!” Nellens Rapik screeched, slamming her fists down on the table. Unfortunately, her voice wasn’t as suited to bellowing as it had once been and her impact did little more than rattle a few glasses. The brunette’s slender frame just wasn’t built for grand displays of physical strength and the way the collar of her rope kept slipping over one shoulder whenever she moved her arms ruined her intended effect.

Surrounding her were a score of formerly male dragonbloods, now beautiful ladies in the prime of youth. Had he still been male, Feather would have been tempted to work her way through each of them in turn. Privately, she admitted to herself that she was still tempted but her worry for Tetsu and her desire to return to her lover’s side overrode her base instincts. “I’m sorry Lady Nellens,” Feather apologized with a polite bow, “but this is the judgement of the Celestial Bureaucracy. There is no cure for the Waters of Eternal Perfection, Sanejin has been arrested for the crime and punished to the full extent of the law. I understand that this places you at great inconvenience…”

“WE ARE NOT WOMEN!” Rapik screeched. “How can you expect us to live like this?”

“As an official auditor I am prepared to smooth your transition into your new life by submitting the appropriate changes to your fates. I would like to point out that your compatriots who were born female are also going through some adjustment…”

“They were deliriously happy!” one of the others, a fire caste with scarlet hair and a deep red blush to her skin snapped.

Feather took a deep breath, wondering if she’d really been this obnoxious to deal with. “Former gentlemen, I feel I must point out to you the folly of your current line of thought. There is NO CURE. If you can accept that and move on with your lives, it will be better for everyone, yourselves and those around you. Many of you have been rejuvenated to the prime of life, you now have a great many years ahead of you and even a chance to re-do your lives. If any amongst you can tell me that you have no regrets then I will point out a liar. Moreover, what exactly is your problem with being women? You are the Chosen, next to that your gender is meaningless.”

An blonde, athletic, Earth caste stood up and did a much better job of slamming her hands down on the table than Rapik had. “Well, I for one aren’t too keen on the idea of giving birth for the continuation of my bloodline! I have done my duty to the Realm several times over already!”

Feather scowled. “So you were quite willing to inflict such a condition but aren’t willing to contribute in kind? You disgust me and should feel ashamed.”

“If cooler heads might be allowed to prevail,” one of the air castes interrupted before tempers could boil over into open conflict, “doesn’t such a profound manipulation of essence disrupt the plan Fate has for each of us? I would have thought restoring that would be the Celestial Bureaucracy’s priority.”

“While the Terrestrial Exalted are indeed important to the divine plan,” Feather said, trying to soften the blow she was about to give to their egos, “fate is also adaptable. Changes occur all the time, every time one of you uses essence to manipulate the world around you in fact. It may be that this change has improved the plan. As I said, I will be working to smooth this transition over for you all. If you want my suggestion, go into seclusion and meditate for a while. Try to calm yourselves and consider your new place in Creation and the good that may come of the position you find yourselves in. I understand that you are angry and frightened for the future, you are staring into the abyss of the unknown. However, it is not as bad as you think.”

Livid, Rapik swept her hands across her end of the large dining table, scattering glasses, plates and assorted fruits across the room, forcing her compatriots to jump back out of the way. “I WILL NOT ACCEPT THIS! I REFUSE! I WISH I’D DIED WITH THE OTHERS, NOT TO HAVE TO UNDERGO THIS SHAME!” she shouted, on the verge of tears before storming out, practically battering down the doors that were in her way.

“Well,” Feather sighed, “with that outburst, I must apologize but I have to excuse myself. There is much work to be done. Don’t worry, I will be talking this over with each of you, I suggest that you retire to consider the issue in private. Good evening.”

Walking sedately out of the room as the dragonbloods burst into an angry hubbub, she waited until she was out of sight before running up the stairs to the second floor. Finding her way to the battlements, she leant over to spy Rapik storming down the hill, clutching her oversized robe to stop it from falling off. Summoning her bow and quiver from Elsewhere, she selected a very special arrow and fired it down at the disgruntled Wood caste. When the arrow hit her back, it disappeared without leaving so much as a mark, though she yelped and turned around looking for whatever had hit her. Finding nothing, however, she continued down the hill towards High Town and, Feather mused, her inevitable doom.

“What are you smiling at?” Kano asked as she approached, her colourful white, orange, blue and gold robe depicting carp swimming in a serene pool as it fluttered in the breeze.

“Oh, just another job well done,” Feather said, still grinning wickedly. “I’m done with the dragonbloods for now, how are you coping?”

Kano grinned. “You know what? I could get used to this. Sanejin was an idiot; he had paradise in his grasp but couldn’t see the wood for the trees.”

“That’s what pride and ambition does to us all,” Feather agreed with a sigh. “Aside from having a bevy of gorgeous whores at your beck and call, though…”

“I’m fine,” Kano insisted, stretching as she took a deep breath. “In fact, I’m not just fine, I’m better than I ever was in my entire life. I mean, some things are scary if I think about them too much, like the prayers.”

Feather raised an eyebrow. “You’re the goddess of vanity but you find prayers disturbing? You know, you’re the first being in all Creation that’s ever said that, I think, why don’t you lay your reasoning out for me.”

“Ok,” she said, taking a deep breath. “Vanity isn’t the same as beauty but it’s a close second, the way I figure it. Sanejin must have received these sorts of prayers too I guess but I find they’re… superficial. A few minutes ago, I got a prayer from a girl in the west who wanted a more petite nose. That’s what they’re mostly like, better nose, larger breasts, bigger penises, sculpted abs, ears, lips, eyes, unfortunate warts, zits that appear just before major ceremonies… and I get them from EVERYWHERE. That’s the other problem, I’ve never even dreamed of seeing the West and now I’m getting prayers from people who live on islands! Oh but the worst are the prayers that wish ugliness on other people, or for someone’s children to beat someone else’s children at some game. I was kind of perturbed by the one who wanted a deformed baby to die because it was ruining the family’s reputation… you know, vanity’s not really a very nice purview. I’m trying to look at it as helping to beautify Creation but people will do some really ugly things just to keep up appearances.”

Feather sighed, nibbling her lip. “You know Kano, it’s actually refreshing to hear you say that. Most gods don’t really think about what they mean to Creation, it’s all just a big game. You shame me too because I used to think the same way.”

Kano’s gaze was uncomfortably penetrating. “But now you’re going to be a mother.”

Lacing her fingers together to stop herself from fidgeting, Feather nodded. “They’re going to take her away from me, Kano. The moment she’s weaned, they’ll take her away to begin her training. I might be able to see her but more likely they’ll forbid any contact in order to keep her from forming any attachments. Tetsu will never see her, at least not until she’s older... and by then she might not even know either of us.”

“Joining the Convention of Essence Wielders will help you in that respect,” Kano suggested, “you will have strong support to keep you involved with your own child. If we can rally more support for you, which I think we can, nobody will be able to prevent it.”

“I… wait, we?” Feather asked, her eyebrow raised.

“Don’t look at me like that, I’ve been thinking a lot about this. There’s no way the Celestial Bureaucracy will let me stay here, what Sanejin was doing was highly illegal. I’ll be ordered to resume his duties in Yu Shan where I can be kept under someone’s thumb.”

“That’s… remarkably well reasoned. Who are you and what have you done with Kano?”

She laughed. “What? I’ve been watching my father for years, though I didn’t understand what I was watching at the time. Then I saw Tetsu in action, now you… you know, I know why the Sidereals like keeping their secrets. If mortals knew what was really going on, they’d be much harder to control. You know, I think I really get Tetsu now. I didn’t really understand most of the things he did, I’m not sure he really understood them himself but I think deep down he knew that Creation didn’t work the way we’re told it works.”

“Don’t talk about him… her in the past tense,” Feather scolded. “Just because I can’t find her doesn’t mean she’s dead. She’ll come back, I know she will.”

“I didn’t mean… no, you’re right, I’m sorry,” Kano apologized, patting Feather on the shoulder. “Tetsu’s a survivor. She’ll adapt and come back for you, I know she will.”

Nodding, Feather held back her tears. “All we can do for now is wait for a decision on Sanejin’s offer and try to stop these idiot dragonbloods from doing anything rash. Have you looked in on Rage?”

“He’s stable,” Kano answered, “which is more than I can say for your friend Edge.”

“Acquaintance,” Feather corrected. “And as much as I like Rage, he’s chosen his side too. They create a problem that doesn’t offer an easy solution.”

“We could dose them with the Water of Eternal Perfection and get Tetsu to seduce them.”

Feather gave the goddess a flat look.

“Just kidding!” she said, grinning broadly.

#

Wincing, Bonzo carefully switched the baby in her arms over to her other breast, vaguely annoyed at the whole process. She still felt queasy and weak from the birth and her ill health wasn’t being helped by a general lack of sleep or having to change her little girl’s diaper amongst the thousand other things Sarro was having her do to build her strength. Worst was her worry over the little girl in her arms, the way she coughed and wheezed on occasion as well as the unnatural pallor of her skin.

Sometimes she wanted to ditch the little maggot, or considered drowning it in the washing tub… but then she looked down into her daughter’s cute little eyes and all those thoughts would fly away. “I think you’re going to drive mommy insane,” she told her daughter, tickling her chin. The little girl actually giggled back at her.

Walking over to the door, she made sure she was covered before opening the door and sticking her head out, finding the guard whose helmet she had vomited in on watch outside. “I’m sorry but do you think you could come in and watch her for a minute while I do my exercises?”

He looked a little shocked for a moment before answering. “Uh, yes ma’am, it should be all right as long as you let me answer the door.”

Agreeing quickly, she let him close the door behind him when he entered. “I’m sorry for vomiting in your helmet before… I’m sorry; I don’t even know your name.”

“Dieter,” he answered crisply like he was on parade, “Private Dieter Nesh, ma’am.”

Nodding in thanks, she set the baby into her cot with a kiss before moving onto the exercise matt. Dieter stood beside the cot and let the baby grasp his finger as she considered the man curiously. “What’s her name?” he asked.

Busy stretching, it took Bonzo a moment to register the question. “Oh, Tricia.”

“No second name?”

“I don’t have one,” Bonzo admitted, “my mother was one of the temple prostitutes and no man ever admitted to being my father. I was raised in Low Town.”

“I didn’t think there were any women in Low Town before?”

Her heart lurched. “No, I, er…”

“I’m sorry, ma’am,” he apologized, “I shouldn’t ask you any questions, forget I said anything.”

“No… right, well, see that you don’t ask any more stupid questions, then… I need to do my exercises anyway,” she snapped, turning away from him.

“Yes, ma’am,” he answered with the same crisp tone of dutiful acceptance.

As she exercised in silence, Bonzo couldn’t help but look over her shoulder every now and again to watch him play with Tricia. He was making her daughter giggle with funny faces that also brought a smile to Bonzo’s lips despite herself. There was something about the armoured man that made her curious, a nebulous attraction she didn’t understand but couldn’t deny. Concentrating on her exercises, she tried to put it out of her mind… but her eyes kept wandering back.

#

“Where in all of Malfeas is everyone?” Nellens Rapik asked the empty streets rhetorically as he stormed through High Town. She hated her new voice, it was just impossible to get a low growl out of it. Barging through the gates of the Nellens mansion, she was shocked to find the courtyard deserted and in disarray. Throwing open the main doors, not a single servant answered her call, not even when she rang the bell for assistance.

Marching down into the kitchen, swearing that they would all pay for the indignities she’d suffered, she found the servant’s quarters empty, stripped of all their worldly possessions and much of the food emptied from the pantry. Utterly confused, she climbed back up the stairs, shouting for anyone to give her an explanation, when she found the living quarters in worse shape. Furniture was gone, statues and paintings missing, precious metals and gems pried from anything that was too heavy to move.

Panicking, Rapik bolted up the stairs to her personal chambers only to stare in horror at the state of disarray it had been left in. Anything that was easy to lift had been pilfered, though she breathed a sigh of relief when she found that they’d failed to open the paychest. Her artefact weapons had also been left behind thanks to their size which was a small consolation.

“Hello,” a young male voice called out from the floor below, “is anyone there?”

Storming back out of her room and down the steps, Rapik stalked down the corridor towards the entry hall, turned the last corner and ran straight into the armoured chest of a young dragonblood. Staggering back, she held her nose with her eyes screwed shut, dazed for a moment.

“Oh, milady, I’m so sorry,” he apologized profusely, gently touching her elbows in concern, “I didn’t realize you were coming the other way. Are you all right?”

“LISTEN YOU CLUM….” She broke off when she opened her eyes and looked up at his face. He was a young Wood caste of good breeding, the dark green of his hair along with the slightly green tinge of his skin showing his good stock for all to see. It brought out his puppy-like baby blue eyes. He had the strength of a born warrior in his hands, though he held her arms so gently it made her heart ache. After a moment, she realized she was staring and quickly looked away. “I mean… you should watch where you’re going… yes… uh…”

He smiled, making her weak in the knees. “I’m just glad you’re all right, for a moment I thought I might have broken your nose. I’m Iselsi Mithras, are you new here?”

Rapik caught herself smiling back at him and forced her mouth back under control for a moment before the smile returned, like his boyish grin was infectious. Feeling a little dizzy, she rubbed her forehead as her brain tried to process his question. “No… I mean yes, I… I mean, I’m here to visit my uncle, Nellens Rapik,” she lied, to embarrassed to admit what had transpired in the temple. “It’s the furnace still running? Why is it so hot in here?”

He looked confused. “What to you mean, it’s freezing… maybe you should sit down.”

She let him lead her by the hand into the dining room and picked up a chair for her to sit on. While he did, she found herself staring at his behind, which she absently judged to me quite firm and pleasing to the eye… shaking her head, she slumped into the chair he’d offered and squeezed her eyes shut, trying to get a grip on herself. Even then, however, there was no escape, the image of those soulful blue eyes burned into her brain, making her stomach flutter. “I’m sorry, I don’t know what’s come over me,” she apologized.

“No, it’s my fault, you must have taken a nastier bump to your head than I thought,” he said. “So you’re Nellens Rapik’s niece?”

Rapik felt her pulse start to rise from her sudden panic, trying to think fast. “Yes… sorry, I forgot to introduce myself properly, I’m Nellens Kira. My mother sent me out here thinking that some time on the threshold would, you know, be good experience or something.”

“You too? My mother sent me out here thinking I could find a suitable wife,” he muttered.

She stared at him again, realizing that she was staring but unable to look away. Everything about him was fascinating, particularly when he looked sad and lost like he did. “It’s hard when people force you into things you don’t want to do,” she observed.

“Well, it’s not that I wouldn’t like to marry someone,” he admitted, “I mean, we have our duty to the Realm after all. Call me a hopeless romantic but I’d prefer to marry someone I can really care about rather than feel chained to a loveless marriage.”

Gasping a little, Rapik quickly disguised the embarrassing noise by turning it into a cough. “I… I know exactly what you mean,” she breathed, wincing as her nipples poked into her clothing. “Look, ah… what are you doing here? Do you know where all the servants have gone?”

“Oh,” he nodded, shaking his head, “yes, forgive me. Parts of Low Town were destroyed in a fight with some Anathema while most of the dragonblooded in town were out trying to hunt one down. All the mortals in High Town have fled, taking whatever wasn’t nailed down with them. Some of them got back yesterday though they were too late to stop the panic but the men are still in the temple apparently… typical, really, the town is falling down around their heads and all they can think of is whores… though I don’t know what the girls were drinking while they were out hunting… or maybe my own ordeal just opened my eyes to the beauty I’d missed before. Anyway, the Cynis mansion is the only one still operating at full capacity, Tia and the rest are there organizing themselves. They wanted to go after the servants but Agani, that’s the second in command of the Legion forces here in River’s bend, has declared martial law and ordered all dragonbloods to remain on standby.”

“Then, why are you here?”

He scratched the back of his head. “Uh… too many women ordering me about, I had to get away for a bit before they drove me crazy so I took a walk. Then I heard your voice and figured you might need my help… I’m so sorry about running into you like that by the way.”

She smiled at him, reaching out to pat his hand comfortingly. “Don’t worry about it.”

#

Tossing and turning in her bed, Tetsu simply couldn’t sleep despite spending the whole afternoon touring a mere fraction of the Aerie. The enormity of the fortress was almost incomprehensible, extending down the mountain as well as underground. Armies of winged folk, flights of aerial cavalry and a small fleet of airships stood ready at all times to repel a Raksha invasion at the behest of the Swords of Luna. It was the most impressive and fantastic sight that Tetsu had ever seen, though it wasn’t excitement that was keeping her awake.

Getting up, she paced for a while, trying to work off her energy. An hour later, she felt as sprightly as ever and flopped back onto the bed in defeat, her mind wandering to memories of the past. The feel of Feather’s smooth skin under his fingertips, her strangely knowing smile, the taste of her lips…

Feeling uncomfortable, Tetsu looked down to find her nipples visible through her robe. “Just great,” she muttered, crossing her arms over her chest. Squirming a little, she tried to think of something else but kept drawing a blank. It was hard not to think about the girl she’d seen in the mirror and how that image equated with her own body. Her hips and butt made lying down strange, though not uncomfortable, and it was hard to ignore the breasts since they preceded her wherever she went and jiggled a little with every movement. Curious, she gently touched the bumps on her chest, pressing a little harder when she didn’t feel anything. Jumping suddenly when she felt a sudden jolt of pleasure wash across her skin, she quickly sat on her hands, glancing around the room with wide eyes like a scared kitten.

Needing a distraction, any distraction, Tetsu got up and stormed out of her room, determined to find something to do even if it killed her.

Chapter 19

“What in the all Creation is going on here?” Valdis asked in awe at the scene in Tetsu’s bedroom.

What had once been horribly plain furniture was now carved and decorated with intricate designs that interwove the moon, the sun, roses, birds and humanoid wolves. The bed was covered in tools while the table and floor was strewn with bits and pieces of scrap metal. On the table and sideboard where the fruits of the new woman’s labour, scores of tiny machines that walked, hopped, skipped and spun without any obvious mechanism. Mobiles hung from the ceiling, constantly spinning as little machine creatures flapped and orbited around each other.

Tetsu herself had torn the sleeves of her robe off to allow more freedom of movement and, Valdis suspected, for raw materials. Her hair had been expertly braided and bound with several pieces of unique jewellery. Several ornate bangles and bands also hung from he wrists along with a few necklaces. She was focused on shaping what looked to be a peg for her latest creation on the table, which Valdis couldn’t identify.

“Couldn’t sleep,” Tetsu answered her cheerfully, “your smith was generous to lend me some off-cuts.”

“I… see… I think. You’ve been at this all night? Where the heck did you learn to make things like this?”

Shooting to her feet, Tetsu glared at her. “I DON’T KNOW!”

Valdis took step back. “Woah… ok, Tetsu, we have to talk about this little thing us women like to call menstruation…”

Tetsu slapped herself on the forehead. “No, that’s ok, I know what menstruation is and this isn’t it. I’m sorry, I’ve been wracking my brain trying to work out how I know these things but I just… do it. I mean, I hit a problem and just mull it over a bit and the next thing I know, I’ve got the perfect solution! So I just kept going and going and going.”

“Are you sure you’re ok?” Valdis asked with concern plain in her voice.

“Actually, I feel brilliant. No sleep at all and I’m not even tired, frankly I’d be more scared if I didn’t feel so good. Besides, I think I improved the value of your furniture by about a thousand percent. If I ever need to fund a revolution, I’m opening a furniture store. Was there something you wanted to see me about?”

“Well, it’s dawn,” Valdis informed her, “and since I didn’t get a chance to speak with you yesterday, I thought we could have a bath.”

“A bath?” Tetsu repeated, suddenly looking frazzled. Glancing down at the oily stains on her hands and fingers, she sighed. “Yes, you’re right, I guess I need one.”

“Well, don’t sound so thrilled about it,” Valdis laughed, “come on, let’s get that jewellery off you and grab you a bathrobe.”

Tetsu had seen the baths during the tour Kamaria had given her the day before but they still impressed her. First Age plumbing apparently drew water from deep under the mountain, warmed and purified it for use, after which it was purified again to be returned to the earth. Beyond that, the dark marble walls and carvings of maidens cavorting with fish were lavish and exquisite, bright silver fittings and plaques also provided pleasing decoration as water spilled endlessly into the pools from high above like natural waterfalls. Soft light was provided by the roof overhead which glowed white, yet another wonder of the First Age.

The only problem was that there was no such thing as a private washing area. Though the baths were deserted other than the two of them, Tetsu still felt self conscious as she pulled her hair loose with her robe still on while Valdis quickly disrobed and got down to business. The Lunar wasn’t the most beautiful woman Tetsu had ever seen, Feather alone had several points in her favour and she had to admit that her own body far exceeded Valdis’ in attractiveness. But the Lunar did have that same quality that had first attracted Tetsu’s eye to Feather, the same lithe athleticism and earthy, practical, air that supplemented their natural grace.

Shaking herself, Tetsu turned away from her as she reluctantly disrobed, trying not to look at herself as she considered how she was going to wash without touching anything below the neck. Of course, now she couldn’t think of a single solution.

“You shouldn’t be so shy,” Valdis commented, “you might just be the most beautiful woman in all Creation, not counting the Incarnae.”

Tetsu felt her face go red. “That’s not very comforting,” she grumbled, pushing her own curiosity about her new body aside.

“I’m not trying to tease you, Tetsu,” she said earnestly, “you’re going to hear it a lot, you might as well get used to it. In fact, if you don’t face it things could go very badly for you.”

“I don’t know… how to act,” Tetsu admitted, huffing in frustration as she continued to disrobe. “It’s hard to explain. I… knew how to be scar-faced Tetsu. I knew how to be Tetsu the Wanderer too. I don’t know how to be… this.”

Valdis stopped soaping up her skin for a moment as she considered her companion. “Kamaria’s right, you do sound like a young Lunar. Changing shape comes naturally to us but different forms can present some interesting challenges and pose questions about personal identity. I know what you’re trying to say, it’s like you’ve been wearing some old and familiar masks, roles that you fall into easily. Now you have a totally new mask that makes people act strange around you. Suddenly people are looking at you differently and you don’t know what’s going on in their heads.”

Tetsu blinked, turning around to look at the woman as if seeing her for the first time. “Actually, yes, I feel that way all the time. But then sometimes I know exactly what they’re thinking when they look at me.”

“And that’s my point; you’re going to have to accept that you’re attractive if you’re going to deal with that. I remember the first time I took male form things were similar. I had trouble walking comfortably, so I walked bow legged.” She paused to laugh at the memory for a moment before continuing. “So come on, you might as well start soaping up so we can wash off and get in the pool.”

After a long dissertation on washing long hair and the proper care of a female body, Tetsu was glad to get under one of the waterfalls to rinse herself off, particularly after Valdis insisted that they wash each other’s backs. Though, she did have to admit to herself that the whole process was very relaxing. Sinking into the bathing pool, Tetsu sighed contentedly as the warmth sank into her muscles, forcing them to relax.

“I could get addicted to this,” Tetsu commented as Valdis entered the water, spreading out her arms along the edge of the pool.

Valdis grinned, slipping up to her neck in the water. “I figured this would be good for you. Kamaria told me you weren’t… acclimatising too well. When I saw you surrounded by all those toys, I thought you’d gone crazy.”

“Ok, I admit, it was a little crazy,” Tetsu shrugged. “I’m not used to staying awake for nearly twenty four hours without so much as a yawn… besides, I needed to keep my hands busy.”

“Oh?” Valdis asked, smelling blood. “And exactly what did you have to keep your hands from doing, hmmm?”

“No, it’s not like that!” Tetsu protested. After a short pause, she sighed, blushing deep red. “Ok, maybe it is a little like that. I can’t look in the mirror, I can’t look down and every time I touch myself I’m afraid something might explode… not that I’ve tried touching myself like that… not that I want to, just casually… you know what I mean.”

Nodding, Valdis swam a little closer. “So you haven’t tried touching yourself like that?”

Tetsu made a face. “Of course not!”

“Why not?”

Confused, Tetsu’s brain tried to come up with an answer and failed her yet again. “Because… it’s not… I’m not… and it… maybe if… no, I don’t… I mean, I just can’t! It’s… it’s not right.”

“Why not, it’s your body,” Valdis told her, pulling herself up to sit on the step next to Tetsu. “The first time I changed into a male form, I did and I’m glad I did too. It opened up a whole new world of experience to me; honestly I kind of pity the Lunars who can’t bring themselves to learn the Knack. Not to mention all the mortals who’ll never now how the other gender thinks and feels.”

“Maybe,” Tetsu said, though her tone sounded more like it was a refusal as she looked away. The sudden feel of Valdis’ hand on her thigh made Tetsu jump and shiver at the same time, surprise mixed with pleasure and relief making her gasp. “Wh-what are you doing?”

Leaning in close, Valdis closed the remaining distance between them, warm, soft, skin brushing gently together. “Just relax,” she whispered, “go with it for a little while. Trust me; you won’t want me to stop.”

The way her hand felt as it slid up her body under the water, Tetsu believed her. Leaning back against the edge of the pool, she tried to gather the will to say no but all of her protests came out in little, incoherent, gasps. Valdis’ lips on her neck made Tetsu’s thighs clench together as she balled her hands into fists, electric sensation crawling down her spine. When the hand reached her breast, she squeaked as the Lunar’s damp thumb massaged her erect nipple, the brief moment of shocking pleasure that she’d felt before extended into a long wave of ecstasy.

“Gods!” Tetsu gasped, feeling a strange ache building between her legs.

“You’re very sensitive for a woman,” Valdis commented as she continued her ministrations, “no wonder; it must have been quite frightening.”

Moaning as Valdis’ lips worked their way down her body; Tetsu felt a moment of loss and anger as she pulled away. “No, don’t stop, I’m fine…”

“Trust me,” Valdis said with a wicked grin, several slits like fish gills suddenly opening along the sides of her neck as she pushed Tetsu’s thighs apart before slipping completely under the water. It took a moment for Tetsu’s pleasure-numbed mind to consider what she might be intending but the moment it occurred to her, something else happened.

Tetsu’s back arched and her eyes rolled back into her head as a gush of warm water was blown between her legs, turning her bones to jelly. It was all she could do to clutch the edge of the pool and breathe as she rode the wave of bliss that rolled through her, burning all thoughts and worries away. By the time Valdis rose from the water, the Solar was nothing but a quivering heap, pleasured beyond sensibility.

Licking her lips as she looked down at the most beautiful woman she’d ever laid eyes on, Valdis’ body began to harden. Her breasts shrank as her pectoral muscles bulged and flexed, her areolas shrinking to tight buds. As her hips shrank, her shoulders broadened and her waist became thicker, muscles rippling under her skin. The smooth lines of her face became slightly more angular with a broader jawline and slightly heavier eyebrows. Most significantly, her clitoris thickened, extending from underneath her hood as a scrotum bloomed from the slit underneath, large balls dropping into the sack of skin from inside her.

Stretching, Valdis stroked the hard member that jutted out from his hips like a flag pole, looking down at Tetsu as her naked breasts rose and fell with her deep, heaving, breaths. “Kamaria taught me that move,” he whispered as he bent over her, his hands reaching under the water to caress her thighs, “it’s a thing the merfolk do.” She shuddered again when he licked her nipple with his long, prehensile, tongue, sliding her feet up and down his legs as she moaned.

“Gods, yes,” Tetsu gasped, one hand rubbing her other breast while the other slid down her stomach, “please, more.”

Not one to disappoint a lady, Valdis teased her lower lips with the tip of his member before pushing it inside, making her gasp and shudder all over again even as he moaned a little himself. “Oh… oh, yes, you feel so good,” he grunted, hardly able to control himself as her body accepted him completely.

As he moved, Valdis realized that there was something very different about this woman, beyond merely her sublime appearance. Every one of his thrusts made him shudder in near-orgasm, her inner walls massaging him expertly. Just when he thought he was about to orgasm, her outer lips would clamp down like a vice, delaying him for just long enough to continue. Beyond though or care, not even conscious of what she was doing, Tetsu rode him enthusiastically. Her legs wrapped around his waist to prevent him from leaving as she met his thrusts with her own, every inch of her alight as her mind transcended to a state of epiphany. Their mutual climax brought both of them screaming to the edge of sweet oblivion before Valdis collapsed on top of her.

Consciousness returned slowly, though Tetsu struggled to remain basking in the afterglow. A craving that had been nagging at the back of her mind since first waking up in the Aerie was finally satisfied and nothing else seemed to matter, even when she looked down to find a strange man’s face nestled between her breasts. Sliding her fingers through his hair, she squirmed a little as she remembered the feel of him between her legs…

Suddenly it all struck her all at once. Screaming, she kicked him off of her, sending Valdis flying across the pool with her obscene strength. Standing up, she stalked him through the water with a murderous glint in her eye, wishing she had something sharp handy as he rose coughing and spluttering from the water.

“Ok, ok, wait a minute Tetsu,” he said, holding his hands out to ward her off, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it to go that far…”

He dodged out of the way of her punch, which shattered one of the marble tiles behind where he’d been standing.

“Yes, I know,” he continued, backing away as she pulled her arm out of the wall, “it was a bad idea, I’m sorry, I was just trying to help.”

“You!” Tetsu growled like she was possessed by a demon, striding forward as if the water was nothing.

In his fright, he backed into the steps of the pool and tripped, grunting as he landed on his tailbone. The hesitation was all she needed to pounce, grabbing his neck as she stood over him, pulling her fist back for a telling blow…

She stopped. Several expressions crossed her face from hatred and anger to fear and disgust. Her muscles trembled from the tension she was holding in check. Finally, she let him go and stepped away, climbing out of the bath and walking numbly over to collect her bathrobe. Leaving him there, gasping for breath, Tetsu dried herself off before wrapping the garment around her and leaving, wanting to be anywhere else.

Kamaria was sitting on her bed when she returned to her room, looking concerned as she walked in. “I thought I was going to teach you about clothes today… but I’m gad you decided to take a bath…”

“Valdis came and took me down,” Tetsu said flatly, hugging her shoulders, “we had sex.”

It took a moment for what she said to register. “Wait, what?” Kamaria asked. “You had sex with Valdis? My Valdis?”

Tetsu winced at the Lunar’s possessive use of ‘my’. “We were in the bath, I was all relaxed, she started… then the next thing I knew…”

Rubbing her forehead, Kamaria groaned. “I swear I’m going to kill her, please tell me it was consensual.”

“I believe my exact words were ‘gods yes, please more’,” Tetsu gulped, blushing from head to toe.

“Not death, then,” Kamaria declared, her eyes narrow, “just a severe beating.”

Shaking her head, Tetsu cleared off part of her bed to sit down, slumping. “It’s not her fault; I’m as much to blame. It felt really good and I just didn’t want it to end, I needed it so bad… is that what normal girls feel like?”

Kamria frowned. “Something tells me you felt it a lot more strongly than most girls.”

“So I’m not just a woman, I’m a nymphomaniac,” Tetsu stated in a dead monotone.

Putting her arm over Tetsu’s shoulder, Kamaria hugged her. “Valdis is an idiot who can’t resist either a beautiful woman or a handsome man. Truthfully, I should have seen this coming and put a stop to it, there was no way she was going to leave you alone.”

“I just… can’t hate him… her… whatever,” Tetsu confessed, squirming a little. “My skin’s still tingling.”

“And what do you think about that?”

Her brow furrowed as she pondered the question for a few moments. “I used to like girls,” she said, slowly working her way through the question in her mind. “But that felt… better. Maybe it’s just the way Luna made me but… now that it’s over, I kind of miss it. I mean, I know it’s supposed to hurt the first time but it didn’t hurt at all. I just don’t know what to think, I’m so confused.”

Sighing, Kamaria held her for a long time as she considered what to say. “You remind me of myself when I was an adolescent girl and I dare say just about every girl goes through something like this, usually before they have sex though. What am I doing, why does this feel good, how should I feel about this… I thought for a long time about those same questions and I don’t think I really found a satisfactory answer until after I exalted. What I came to realize, Tetsu, is that appearances have power. I saw that in you the first time we met, the way you used your scars as a barrier between yourself and the world. I’ve worn the face of a monster and used it the same way but then I’ve also taken the role of a courtesan and learned to wield another kind of power.”

“You’re saying this is about survival,” Tetsu surmised.

“I’m saying that this is a trial. You either learn from it and grow stronger or wither and die. Luna may be chaotic but she abhors torture and seeing everything that you’ve done just in a day I can’t help but think she’s made you far stronger than any new exalt has a right to be. She wouldn’t have given you these gifts if she didn’t have faith in you.”

Looking down at her hands, Tetsu flexed them as she silently considered Kamaria’s words. Turning back to the Lunar with dry eyes, she nodded. “I think it’s time we talked about clothes.”

Smiling, Kamaria ran her finger’s through Tetsu’s long hair. “That a girl.”

#

“Due to the extraordinary circumstances surrounding this situation, it has been decided that Shining Feather will not be immediately recalled to Yu Shan,” Uvanavu explained. “Moreover, Kano, the new Pristine Boyar of Vanity, will also remain until this situation is resolved. We have also agreed to acquiesce to Sanejin’s demands… and you can tell that pompous dung beetle ball that plenty of us, including myself, are just dying to get our hands on him.”

“If you can tell us, what was he exiled for?” Feather asked.

“Conspiring with the Yozis,” Uvanavu muttered as if the words themselves were distasteful. “He betrayed the Incarnae and everything we fought for against the Primordials… not that there was any proof that he did so willingly. That’s what earned him exile rather than swift annihilation.”

“Does that mean the Yozis could be involved now?” Kano asked nervously.

“Doubtful,” Feather answered, shaking her head, “they need to work through a cult or sorcerer just to gain access to Creation. They could have taught someone the charm that killed Cathak Markul and snarled the Loom but then who used the charm? Sanejin’s out, I doubt he could learn a charm like that. No, our prime suspects are still either the Solars or the Abyssals. My bet’s on the Abyssals.”

“By the way, Ura pulled a few favours with the Division of Secrets in reference to this ‘Iron Tiger’,” Uvanavu said. “While we weren’t able to dig up what it might be, we did come up with a name: The Resplendent Iron Tiger That Swallows the Sun.”

“Well that sounds remarkably ominous,” Feather muttered to herself.

“Indeed. I’ll expect another report tomorrow,” the god said as his image faded away.

Quickly walking into the next room with Kano close behind her, Feather pulled a chair out from under the central table in Sanejin’s private dining room and sat, motioning for Kano to sit next to her. Across from that table, what remained of Sanejin still wheezed, blackened skin now pulled taught over bone. “Your new appointment has been approved; now tell us what you know.”

“Assign my new appointment first,” he rasped the demand.

“No,” Feather refused. “If you don’t feel like sharing your information with us then the deal is off. I suppose I could say that I don’t trust you to tell us anything after you receive your reward but the truth is I just don’t like you. So talk.”

He groaned, weakly clutching the arms of his chair. “Very well,” he finally agreed. “After my exile a bit over a millennia ago, I came here because I knew of this place from before the Usurpation. I knew the legends and I knew the power that had been lost. The Lunars were still hiding out in the Wyld, so I was able to take this manse with relative ease despite local troublemakers like Menji stirring up the populace.”

“Did you order Menji’s death?”

“No,” he answered, slowly shaking his head. “Menji was clever but he lacked power, I had no reason to kill him. Bloodshed is only useful when it serves to prove a point; anything else is a waste of resources. Also, Menji knew more about the Trove than I did so I stood to profit by keeping an eye on him. On top of that, I had my hands full finding out what I could about the Trove and trying to piece together its location. Eventually, I gave up, without a major breakthrough nobody was going to crack the mystery, though I knew from the histories that the Gnomon had to be the key.

Instead, I concentrated on building my little empire. Back then, River’s Bend was a simple fishing village and a few outlying farms built by the few inhabitants of Makota City that were too stubborn to move to greener pastures. Using the Water of Eternal Perfection to start a brothel was my own ingenious idea and based on that alone I turned that little village into a resort town for the new dragonblooded nobility… a venture that was not only profitable but had a fortuitous side effect.”

“Fortuitous how?”

“Silver was rolling in,” Sanejin explained, “but I needed something more if I was ever going to achieve my ultimate goal of carving my own nation out here in the East. The Trove was lost, I’d resigned myself to that, but instead I set my sights on breeding my own army.”

“The maiden tea is just for show? You let your girls get pregnant on the off chance that a few of them will exalt?”

“More precisely, I kept the maiden tea for when my girls serviced a mortal and made them drink another herb that greatly increases their fertility for when they lie with the exalted,” he said, smiling, “in fact, most of the ‘maiden tea’ in the temple has been replaced with this second drug for convenience, so that the dragonbloods don’t get suspicious.”

Feather thought about the maiden tea she’d drank just after making love to Tetsu for the first time and her stomach sank, though her face remained impassive. “So you started breeding an army of Terrestrial exalted, yet you’d given up on the Trove?”

“The Oracle forged three keys to open the Trove,” Sanejin snarled, “and the location of the lock cannot be found without the Gnomon. All of these things were lost to the mists of time, the Oracle’s lieutenants fled to the far corners of Creation to keep the keys safe. Instead, I used the Trove as a distraction from my own activities.”

“And yet, I don’t see an army of Terrestrials knocking down our door to rescue you,” Feather observed, “what went wrong?”

“I’m getting to that. Two things went catastrophically wrong at about the same time: The Guild and Kano’s mother, Lilias Seki. I was running a successful resort brothel catering to the nobility of Greyfalls, naturally the Guild wanted their cut so they started putting me under pressure, threatening to expose me to the Immaculates. We played a game of cat and mouse for years and then the young Lilias Seki was orphaned and Menji took her in. When she fell in love and Menji played along with her affections to the point where they were eventually married, I knew I’d been given a chance to hold something he valued hostage.”

“This isn’t news,” Kano muttered darkly.

“It gets better. I quickly discovered that going after Lilias alone didn’t push Menji’s buttons. Once Kano was born, however, I was able to coerce her away from Menji’s side by threatening her son. She took Kano’s place, eventually giving birth to your half brother, Mamo.”

Kano’s jaw dropped but she quickly covered her open mouth with her hand. “Mamo’s my brother? Why didn’t he tell me…”

“I doubt Mamo feels much for anything or anyone anymore,” Sanejin continued. “I lost what little hold I’d gained on your father with Lilias’ death so naturally I replaced her with you. Not that it availed me anything, Menji stubbornly refused to so much as lift a finger for me no matter what I threatened. While this was happening, Red Wolf and White Crane began to terrorize the village as bandits on behest of the Guild. With them came the agents of the All-Seeing Eye, the Realm’s secret police who wanted to stick their noses into everyone’s business. Of the two threats, the All-Seeing Eye was easier to nullify, their attempts at infiltrating the village half hearted at best. The Guild and their patsies were another matter; they were just too well funded to get rid of, so I started paying them off. Eventually they moved in and I was stuck with them. By happenstance, I learned that Red Wolf had a fondness for young boys, so I was able to palm Kano here off on him and eventually Mamo when Kano got too old…”

“Again with the history lesson everyone knows,” Kano snarled.

“Here’s the part you don’t know. Two years ago, Mamo tried to assassinate Red Wolf, White Crane and I by strapping pouches of explosive powder stolen from the mines to his chest. Fortunately for us the device was flawed and failed to detonate; Red Wolf beat him severely and had him thrown in a cell to await his sadistic tortures. When we returned to him the next day, instead of Mamo lying on the floor, we found what appeared to be a gigantic seed made of opal or perhaps obsidian. We didn’t understand what we were baring witness to and I doubt those two fools ever did grasp the full extent of it. The shell was impervious to any blandishment but when I came back five days later, it had been shattered from the inside and left empty.

Later, Mamo told me that as he lay in that cell, he was visited by a shadow in the shape of a man. That shadow offered him power. Naturally, being my son, he accepted without question. In that moment the shadow merged with him, forming the cocoon around him from its own essence to protect them as they melded together. Mamo became something far more than mortal.”

Feather rolled her eyes. “It doesn’t sound like your ususal Akuma pact but the result of Yozi meddling is always the same.”

“Not this time,” Sanejin disagreed, “when Mamo returned he was no longer the boy he’d been before… that was months later. In the meantime, I’d managed to leverage the enlightened mortals into an alliance against the Guild, who we were convinced I had a hand in providing Mamo with the explosive power and perhaps his escape. It turned out to be a boon since I was able to play my enemies off of one another constantly. When Mamo returned I was shocked.

With him came the attention of someone whom I have never met, though I suspect Mamo truly works alone for his mysterious ‘patrons’ as he calls them. Of course, I know the stench of the Yozis when I smell it, or at least one of their cults. His power, however, was simply awe inspiring. One meeting with Red Wolf had the fool eating out of the palm of his hand. I’ll be frank with you, I was scared of Mamo. Within a year, he’d co-opted all my business interests, leaving me alive only to manage the operation. Then he used Red Wolf and White Crane to subjugate Low Town in order to provide him with a steady stream of women, forcing me to control them with my power so they’d become obedient whores.”

“You were doing that before,” Kano argued.

“Not to the scale where I’d stripped Low Town of every female,” he countered. “I fought to give the lower class males what little access to breeding stock I could swing in order to keep the population stable and under control. Mamo wanted more potential terrestrials, that’s all he cares about.”

“Still not seeing why we’re not being invaded by an army of dragonblooded right now,” Feather muttered.

Scowling, Sanejin struggled to lean forward. “Mamo doesn’t care about me or even this operation. I’ve been building this army slowly for hundreds of years; he has the army he needs, this temple is no longer of use to him. Besides, the little runt hasn’t been right in the head since his change and he answers to other masters with mad plots of their own. He keeps the children out of sight somewhere in the tunnels under Makota City, there’s a training facility there. I can’t give you the exact location, he relocates the site from time to time but I can tell you where to start looking. More importantly, I have to urge you not to underestimate what Mamo has become. I’ve encountered Akuma before and Mamo’s powers are far beyond those pathetic puppets…”

“I’m sorry,” Kano interrupted, “but are we talking about the same Mamo?”

“He only allows a few people to see his other side,” Sanejin smirked, “in fact, as far as I know I was his only confidante. Red Wolf thought he was in charge but Mamo had her domesticated and he didn’t even know it. He is insidious, cunning and utterly devoid of compassion, I’d examine your conversations with him carefully for hidden subtext and agendas. Particularly you, Kano, his former half-brother; perverting and destroying you would have been a game to him but now he’d want you for different pursuits. Ever since he returned, he’s been obsessed with finding a woman he can wed. In fact, I thought to placate and distract him with one of my girls but he uses them up and discards them the moment they fail to live up to his standards. Of course, that’s where I got the idea of creating my own perfect bride, so perhaps his madness is even infectious.”

“Speaking of which, Tetsu went to investigate something before you…” Kano’s trailed off as Sanejin interrupted her question by producing what appeared to be a golden sundial from thin air, dropping it onto the table with a grunt of effort.

“This is the Gnomon,” he explained, “Tetsu retrieved it. I tricked him into giving an oath to me that he wouldn’t hand it over to anyone who would use it for their own ends… I didn’t intend to myself but I would have handed it over to Mamo, I took advantage of his weakness to subdue him. It’s said that the Gnomon can find anything that the user desires but from what I can see it does nothing. I don’t know how to activate it.”

Picking the artefact up, Feather turned it over in her hands. “Well, at least this gives us a lead. Naturally, you’re still confined to quarters until this whole situation is resolved and we escort you back to Yu Shan. I’ll also expect you to be available for further questioning at any time.”

“What about my new appointment?” he asked, anxiousness plain in his voice.

Feather smirked, producing a scroll from the sleeve of her robe. “Well, Uvanavu and I discussed the vacancies in the Department of Health and really there’s only one available of a high enough station…”

Looking down as the Sidereal unfurled the scroll for him, he scowled. “No, that is not acceptable.”

“Can I see?” Kano asked politely as she took the scroll and read it over. A grin broke out on her face. “Oh, that is just perfect for you, Saneya,” she teased.

“Unacceptable!” Sanejin snapped. “Find another appointment.”

“The next highest vacancy would be ‘God of Human Excrement Disposal’,” Feather said with false regret, “I hear in his last incarnation, he was depicted as licking human colons clean.”

Shuddering, Sanejin looked lost and indecisive, horror in his eyes as they darted back and forth between Feather and the scroll.

“Well, then, why don’t you mull it over for a while?” Feather suggested, picking up the Gnomon and turning her back on him. “Let me know when you’re ready…”

“NO! Wait… I’ll sign,” he sighed, giving up. “Hand me the pen.”

#

It was hard for Tetsu not to fidget with her new robe as she waited to be called in to Adra Bloodmoon’s throne room. The outfit Kamaria had helped her select for the occasion was purple silk with gold trim and silver embroidery, the predominant colour contrasting well with her skin while the silver and gold provided harmonizing influences. It was fastened around her waist by a wide black Obi decorated with a spray of light blue flowers along with a cascade of red ribbons at her hip. More red ribbons bound her hair in a high ponytail, though the tips of her flowing locks still reached her waistline.

They’d learned quickly that matching her eye colour was futile, since it changed depending on her mood. In the end, it was decided that the application of simple dark kohl to her eyelids would draw attention to the oddity combined with traditional crimson lipstick. It was basic but Tetsu felt she understood the reasoning behind her choices, which was a good start.

She couldn’t help that her thoughts kept wondering back to her time with Valdis in the bathhouse, which made her skin tingle every time. Any notion of self disgust was drowned under a tsunami of curiosity and desire. Saying that she didn’t want to feel that way again would be a lie.

“You’re frowning again,” Kamaria pointed out to her.

“I just… can’t help thinking about Valdis,” she admitted. “I don’t want to but…”

“Try to put it from your mind for now,” Kamaria suggested tenderly, “the body wills what it wills but it’s up to the mind to master the body. Not that I’m saying you should become chaste, far from it, just that you need time to get used to the idea.”

Nodding absently, Tetsu tried to shunt those thoughts aside but it was hard when there were nothing else to think or do while they waited. “What do women talk about amongst themselves?”

Kamaria chuckled. “I may not be the best judge of that but in my experience, usually relationships, sex, clothes and food. If they share an occupation or hobby, it will come up. That’s amongst mortals, of course, dragonblooded women aren’t distinct from the males, all they talk about is rank and politics. Amongst the Lunars, well, gender is a matter of personal preference.”

Tetsu’s brow furrowed. “How do you deal with that? Most societies I’ve ever encountered have a fairly strict interpretation of gender roles.”

“We’re strongly individualistic as I told you before, so we define ourselves and our appearance according to our own whims. For some, gender is important as they identify themselves strongly one way or the other. For others, like Valdis, gender has nothing to do with who we are, just how we choose to express ourselves. Personally, I identify with being feminine more strongly and Valdis seems to prefer female shape which suits us both.”

“So how did you and Valdis meet?”

Kamaria grinned. “Trying to talk relationships?”

Blushing, Tetsu scratched the back of her neck. “I’m trying not to think about this morning.”

She was about to say more when the door opened and a winged human male wearing scholar’s robes opened the door and motioned for them. “Elder Bloodmoon has summoned you.”

Getting up, Tetsu took several deep breaths as Kamaria took her elbow and led her inside. The throne room wasn’t as grandiose as she was expecting, in fact the plain stonework lacked the opulence of even the Aerie’s own baths. In fact, the austerity of the room lent it an air of authority and honesty that Tetsu had found to be absent in most governing bodies. Tiered rows of empty chairs flanked either side of the floor, which led from the main doors to the throne at the other end in which the Elder sat. Part way up the steps that led to the throne stood a tall, muscular, man whose tanned skin contrasted well with his silver tattoos. Tetsu snarled inwardly at herself when his lantern jaw and proudly defiant gaze made her stomach flutter.

“Elder Bloodmoon,” Kamaria greeted with a respectful bow. “Tetsu, allow me to introduce Madrin Alfar, Admiral of the Wing of Silver Fire. Admiral, this is Tetsu, Eclipse Caste of the Solar Exalted.”

“Admiral,” Tetsu greeted with a polite bow.

“Tetsu,” the Admiral responded with a slight inclination of his head. “I’m told that you may have discovered a cache of First Age weaponry to the northwest.”

“On the contrary,” Tetsu replied cagily, “I’ve merely found indications and uncovered rumours, I cannot vouch for their veracity.”

“Even so, I demand that you share with us everything you know,” he stated intensely, “with such an arsenal, the Swords of Luna could secure the entirety of the East from the Raksha, maybe even strike at the Opal Court and take back Thorns from Mask of Winters.

“Elder?” Kamaria asked, looking up at her mentor.

“The Admiral has agreed that the temple and surrounding lands would be best kept by the Crossroads Society,” Adra answered, “an I agree that such weapons would be best placed in the hands of the Swords of Luna.”

“We cannot allow either Greyfalls or the Deathlords to gain this power,” Madrin expounded, “only the Silver Pact has the wisdom and foresight to use it responsibly.”

“I doubt anyone has the qualities to use the Oracle’s Trove responsibly,” Tetsu retorted. “Tell me, after you pacify the Raksha and Thorns, what then? Destroy Greyfalls? Conquer the Blessed Isle? If you’re an Admiral, I must assume that you answer to someone, can you guarantee their motivations as well? If not you, what about your eventual successor? There are far too many variables for anyone to claim ‘wisdom’ in this matter and the consequences are far too dire. Why can’t any of you see that letting sleeping dragons lie may be the best course of action?”

“As long as it exists, the discovery of the Trove is inevitable. Would you prefer it to fall into the hands of the Realm so they can destroy all the progress we’ve made over the last thousand years? The time of you Solars is long past, maybe in a few hundred years you’ll be able to make yourselves useful but right now you would be well advised to stay out of our way.”

“Damn it, there are civilians in River’s Bend!” Tetsu protested. “You’re talking about starting a war!”

“If it’s a choice between a handful of mortals or the entire East, I will pick the entire East,” he replied.

Tetsu was about to retort when a scuffle at the main doors caught everyone’s attention. “Ma’am, I must protest!” the winged man in the scholar’s robe shouted as he was pushed aside by a petite young woman who was only as tall as his shoulders. She was slender but walked with sinuous grace, barely covered by a set of moonsilver jewellery that consisted of a halter, loincloth, bracers, anklets and a tiara inset with gemstones. Her hair was jet black and loose, tickling her bare ankles as she walked; her skin light gold and her dark, alluring, eyes upturned in the corners. Her silver tattoos curled around her body like entwined serpents, matching the way she moved perfectly. Quailing slightly as she stalked towards her, Tetsu braced herself and glared back as the girl’s literally reptilian eyes fixed her in place.

The last thing Tetsu expected her to do was pounce, darting forward like a striking cobra, the girl’s arms were suddenly clutching Tetsu’s back as their lips met. Stunned, the Solar froze with indecision as a long, forked, tongue darted into her mouth, not even knowing where she should place her hands. Pulling away, the girl smiled beatifically, enraptured as she rested her head on Tetsu’s shoulder. “My love,” she whispered, “I’ve finally found you. I swear I’ll never let you go.”

“Wh… wha… wha…” Tetsu gasped, trying to formulate a sentence.

Blushing furiously like every other Lunar in the room, Elder Bloodmoon coughed to draw attention. “Tetsu, allow me to present Pensri Cascabel, a Lunar of the Changing Moon caste and member of the Sun King Seneschals.”

“And, as it turns out,” Pensri sighed joyously as she snuggled against Tetsu’s chest, “your Lunar mate.”

“Lunar… mate?” Tetsu asked, wild eyed.

Kamaria grimaced. “It’s not like you’re betrothed or anything…”

“Yet,” Pensri interjected.

“…but when Solar and Lunar exaltations were created our incarnae… paired us together so that we would always have at least one boon companion to ground us in reality.”

Pensri pulled away but kept her hand possessively on Tetsu’s wrist. “What these stick-in-the-muds aren’t saying is that it was Luna’s will that we serve and guide our mates as part of our divine responsibility to protect Creation.”

“Luna please preserve us,” Kamaria swore, rubbing her forehead and blushing furiously.

“Oh, I think she knows what she’s doing, Kamaria,” Pensri bubbled, “I told you she led me here and look where we are now.”

“Wait,” Tetsu said, confounded, “if we’re ‘mated’, shouldn’t I feel something?”

“That’s not how it works,” Adra muttered bitterly.

“Only the Lunar feels the connection,” Pensri explained, “it’s like the idea of destined lovers finding one another, you meet ‘the one’ and it just clicks that this is who you’re supposed to devote yourself to forever. If you think I’m lying, there are certain charms that can use our bond for certain benefits…”

“Like Lunar Taming Leash?” Madrin asked sarcastically.

Pensri snarled at him. “Unlike SOME Lunars, she will never need to use that on me because I know where my loyalties lie!”

“Woah, there,” Tetsu comforted, putting her hand on the girl’s shoulder, “I don’t want to start a fight. Maybe we’d be better off continuing this conversation another time?”

Madrin looked like he was about to say something but Adra cut him off. “You’re right, this isn’t the time for an interrogation. We can return to this topic tomorrow, once all of us have had a chance to cool down.”

The Admiral obviously didn’t like it but bowed to Adra’s seniority. Pensri grasped Tetsu’s arm like she was glued to it, walking side by side with the Solar as Kamaria led them out. “Could you please let go of me for a bit,” Tetsu begged, not knowing how to deal with her.

“No,” she refused, snuggling closer with a wicked smile on her face.

“I thought Sun King Seneschals were supposed to obey their Solar masters,” Kamaria commented in a flat tone.

“We’re supposed to do what’s best for them,” Pensri explained patiently, “and what’s best for her right now if for me to stay by her side.”

“I don’t know you,” Tetsu protested.

“All the more reason for me to stay close so we can get to know each other,” she said cheerfully. “We’re going to be together a long time, so it’ll be good to get a head start.”

“Do you even know Tetsu’s name?” Kamaria asked, exasperated.

“I do now!”

When they reached Tetsu’s room, Pensri finally let go and jumped inside, fascinated by the little machines Tetsu had built the night before which still moved under their own power. Turning to Kamaria, Tetsu gave her a long suffering sigh. “I better talk to her, if you have something else to do…”

“I’ll give you some privacy,” Kamaria agreed, patting Tetsu on the shoulder. “Good luck.”

Watching her leave, Tetsu waited until she was out of sight before closing the door and throwing the bolt. Quickly making her way outside, she made a bee line for the stairs down only to jump halfway out of her skin to find Pensri glaring at Tetsu with her hands on her hips when the Solar turned the corner. “What do you think you’re doing?” the Lunar asked with justified indignation.

“I… look, I don’t know you,” Tetsu explained patiently, putting her hands on her own hips. “I don’t know if you’re legitimate, crazy or some sort of spy.”

“So you thought you’d lock me in your room then what? That totally doesn’t make any sense unless…”

“Unless what?” Tetsu asked when the girl trailed off.

“Well, unless you were planning to escape from the Aerie… what were you and Madrin talking about anyway?”

Scratching the back of her neck, Tetsu realised that the girl standing in front of him was too smart for her own good. “Well, it seems I might know something about a cache of First Age weapons which the Swords of Luna would like to get their hands on.”

She frowned. “But those belong to the Solar that stashed them away… he or she will be coming back for them now, they don’t belong to the Lunars.”

“I don’t particularly care who they belong to,” Tetsu muttered, “but it seems to me, whoever gets their hands on them will be dead set on starting a war that could tear apart the East. I’m not going to allow that to happen.”

“Right,” she nodded, “then we need to find your Solar friends and get you all out of here before Madrin does something he’ll regret. Come on, they’re in the courtyard.”

Blinking stupidly, having never actually had anyone who could keep up with her thought processes at all, Tetsu followed as Pensri dragged her helplessly along. When they reached the courtyard, they found all the Solars gathered there again, though this time Messia was busy punching a manikin with focussed determination while Cheekchik stood watching her.

“Tetsu,” Aten greeted curtly from his seat next to Ogren, “who’s the new Lunar?”

Pensri bowed to him. “Hi, I’m Pensri Cascabel, Tetsu’s Lunar mate, pleased to meet you.”

Walking over to Cheekchik, Tetsu smiled disarmingly at him. “Hi, Cheepchik, I just wanted to apologize to you.”

He cocked his eagle-head to once side, curious. “What for, dear lady.”

Striking with blinding speed, her finger hit his pressure point precisely, rendering him unconscious. Catching him, she eased his body to the ground. “About that,” she sighed, turning to the rest of the group. “I hate to push you all but we have to leave. Right now.”

Ogren stood up and started sheathing all his weapons. “Who started the war?”

“No war yet,” Tetsu sighed, “but the Swords of Luna know about the Oracle’s Trove, they’re calling first dibs. I don’t know about you guys but I’m not prepared to face an Elder, at least three Lunars and an entire fleet all at once.”

“What about her?” Ogren asked, pointing his thumb at Pensri.

“I’m on her side,” Pensri said, pointing at Tetsu.

“You know the old adage about keeping your friends close,” Tetsu sighed.

“If we’re going to escape, we’ll need this,” Aten said, producing a scroll from his sleeve and presenting it to Tetsu. Unrolling it, the Eclipse quickly scanned the document. “I, Adra Bloodmoon, hereby authorize the barer of this document,” Tetsu read aloud. “Wait, this is a requisition order for an airship.”

“Always have an exit strategy,” Aten said, shrugging.

“What harbourmaster is going to look at this, take one look at us and just hand over an airship?”

Half an hour later, Ogren surreptitiously dropped a handful of jade Obols into the harbourmaster’s hand, thanked the winged man and boarded their new ship as Tetsu looked on from the railing aghast. “Seriously, you call this a fortress?”

Ogren chuckled as he pulled in the gang plank and cast off. “No, I call this the civilian base of a private army. They talk a great deal and have lots of fighting experience against Wyld beasts and Raksha but frankly they know bugger all about how real armies operate. On top of that, they’ve got no idea how real pirates operate either, speaking of which I have to take the helm.”

Watching the Dawn caste stride off, grinning like a schoolboy with a new toy, Tetsu turned back to watch as the space between the airship and the dock grew larger by the second. “This is far too easy,” she muttered to herself.

Pensri leant against the railing next to her. “That’s because Valdis and Kamaria are hiding behind the barrels over there in mouse form.”

Tetsu blinked. “What?”

“You think I’m the only person that could work out your next move?”

Glancing over her shoulder at the barrels but couldn’t see anything. “Are you sure?”

“Regular mice don’t have black feathers on their heads when you’re really looking at them,” Pensri chuckled. “Don’t worry, they won’t be working for Madrin; this smells like Elder Bloodmoon’s gambit.”

“Bloodmoon?” Tetsu whispered. “Why would Bloodmoon even let us steal the airship?”

“She’s Crossroads Society,” Pensri said as if that explained everything. “Loops within loops, wheels within wheels; never say anything with one word when ten will do and make sure you’ve got an ace in your back pocket just in case. Also, next time you run into an Elder that’s been around almost since the Usurpation, always assume they’re three steps ahead of you in every direction. Madrin doesn’t seem to have learnt that one, bless his heart, Adra’s got him on a short leash and he doesn’t even know it. I’m hungry, I’m going to see what sort of food they’ve got on this crate.”

Staring at the girl as she walked away, Tetsu had to wonder exactly how deep she was sinking and if anyone was around to throw her a rope.

#

As the wagon pulled up to the front door, the madame of Red Wolf Brothel stormed out to meet it. “What by all of Malfeas are you doing here? We’re not expecting another delivery for days!”

Stepping out of the back, Anko smiled. “Please don’t fret, Sasha, we’ve just got a new girl for you.”

“But I’m full up, I couldn’t possibly…”

The madame paused when the girl stepped out of the wagon. She was well rounded and buxom, the wet dream of most men, her slightly transparent robe showing that she was naked underneath. She kept her eyes downcast with black hair cascading down her back. She looked like a goddess or spirit in mortal form, the dirt of the road refusing to cling to her bare feet.

“This is Saneya,” Anko introduced her, “the Resplendent Receptacle of Earthly Ambrosia. Say hello to your new mistress, Saneya.”

“Hello, mistress,” Saneya curtsied, “I am a naughty girl who deserves to be spanked.”

“Oh yes,” the madame said, considering her. “Yes, I definitely think I can make room for you.”

Chapter 20

Tetsu’s meditation was interrupted the next morning when someone grabbed her shoulder and shook, rocking her back and fourth on her crossed legs. Slowly opening her eyes, she found Messia glaring at her, kneeling so that they could face each other eye to eye. “Train me!” the little girl demanded.

Groaning, Tetsu rubbed her temples and turned away from the girl. “No.”

“Why not?” she asked petulantly.

“Look, I don’t have anything to teach you. Go pester Ogren or Aten.”

“Ogren’s busy piloting the ship,” she informed Tetsu, crossing her arms over her chest, “and Aten’s tinkering in the hold. Besides, I want you to train me.”

“What about Pensri?”

Messia raised one eyebrow. “The naked snake lady?”

No matter how hard Tetsu tried, she couldn’t fault the girl’s description. “She knows far more about martial arts and training than I do.”

“But I can trust you not to coddle me.”

“Messia, you don’t want to know how to fight the way I fight,” Tetsu said with a grimace. “Besides, I’ve never done any formal training, everything I know either comes from practical experience or sorcery!”

“I don’t care,” she said, “train me!”

“All right! Gods!” Tetsu sighed in exasperation. “You want training? Fine, come with me.”

Leading her outside like an eager puppy, Tetsu grabbed an apple from the cabin table as she passed by, taking a bite out of it and chewing as she talked. “All right, what are the four qualities that a martial artist needs to train?”

That seemed to stump the girl. “Ah… punches… kicks… charms…”

“Not even on the right track!” Tetsu groaned, holding up four fingers, noticing that Ogren was taking an interest from his position at the helm. “Power, Finesse, Stamina and Skill are the basic components, when you think about it Charms only enhance those four tenants.”

“Oh,” Messia said, not really sure if she was learning anything useful.

“Power is easy to understand,” Tetsu explained, “raw strength means you hit harder. Finesse comprises things like speed, co-ordination and flexibility. The faster you are, the better you’re not only able to hit but to avoid blows. Stamina keeps you in the fight and finally you need the skill to know where to hit and how to hit. Does that make sense?”

Messia nodded dubiously. “Seems fairly obvious though.”

“Yet you couldn’t answer me a second ago,” Tetsu observed wryly. “Well, since we’ve laid out the ground rules, where are you weakest?”

She sneered. “Hey! I’m not weak!”

Tetsu raised her eyebrows. “Really? And here I thought you were the one asking for training?”

“What I need to learn is, like, killer Charms that let me throw lightning or something,” Messia answered, throwing open hand blows as she mimicked zapping bad guys.

Sighing, Tetsu kicked the girl’s feet out from under her and watched as she bounced across the deck on her ass.

“OW! Hey, what was that for?”

“Being a little idiot,” Tetsu answered frankly. “You know how to throw a few punches but they have no bite to them. You are fast but not exceptionally so. You also can’t take a hit and your technique is sloppy. You can’t even begin to learn Charms like the ones you’re talking about with knowing the basics first.”

“I wasn’t ready that time,” she protested, taking up a proper combat stance.

Tetsu swept her legs out from under her again.

“That hurts!” she complained, rubbing her butt as she got back up off the deck.

“You think a dragonblood’s going to stop and wait for you to get back on your feet?”

She pouted. “No.”

“Then perhaps we can get started on improving your physical fitness before we both die of old age?”

The exercise regime Tetsu outlined for the little girl was gruelling. Runs around the perimeter of the ship up and down steps punctuated by holding certain stances and supplemented by sit-ups and weight training. Sore muscles and cramps were treated with massage and Tetsu even instituted a new diet for Messia to follow.

Watching Messia with one eye, she walked up to the railing next to the help where Ogren worked to keep them on course, intent on at least gauging the Dawn caste’s mood. “It’s hard to believe giant eagles move faster than these airships,” she commented.

“Ah but they can’t carry anywhere near the firepower,” Ogren grinned, “which is why Madrin hasn’t sent his flying cavalry ahead to try and stop us. Fortunately we’ll have plenty of valleys to hide in around River’s Bend when his fleet arrives.”

“You think he’ll attack in full force, then?” Tetsu asked sombrely.

“It’s inevitable,” he sighed, “as the Solar once said to his Lunar mate: we really screwed the pooch this time. I’m hoping we can get the Lunar Fleet and the Legion to fight it out for control then we’ll mop up the survivors.”

“You’re talking about an all out war in River’s Bend, what about the people?”

Ogren looked surprised. “You mean the mortals? This is war, Tetsu, the mortals will do what they always do: run or die. They were doomed the moment the Oracle decided to hide his Trove.”

“Speaking of which, how did you find out about the Trove?”

“Ask the little girl you’re running ragged all over my ship,” Ogren smirked, “she’s the reincarnation of the Oracle.”

Blinking, Tetsu looked back down at where Messia was diligently counting out her sit-ups. “Messia? I thought the Oracle was a man?”

“He was,” Ogren chuckled. “Of course, Messia isn’t the Oracle; she just has some of his memories. Like locking away some of the most powerful weapons of war the First Age ever devised behind a gate that requires three unusual keys. We had one, the other two we expected to be able to trace once we reached the ruins.”

“Why do you want the Trove?” Tetsu asked, trying to read his body language without overtly looking at him. “Messia’s too young to reclaim whatever’s left of the Oracle’s empire and you don’t have an army.”

“You’d be amazed how easy armies can be to come by,” he shrugged. “Show you can get things done and that you’re generous with rewards and men will follow you into Malfeas itself. As for my own interest, look around you. The Realm is too busy fighting amongst themselves to care for Creation, the Threshold has devolved into barbarism, Deathlords are on the march…. Creation is headed straight down the privy of Oblivion. We need a new Solar Empire and it’s up to us to do it.”

“If we were doing such a bang up job, why’d we get overthrown in the first place?”

“That’s politics,” Ogren sneered. “Maybe the old Solars overreached themselves, maybe they did fall to their own hubris. Maybe the dragonbloods just wanted more power for themselves and seized the main chance. I’m betting on all of the above but that doesn’t matter. We won’t make the same mistakes this time.”

“Well, I can’t fault your confidence,” Tetsu sighed. “So if you had one of the keys to the Trove, that implies you lost it.”

“That was what I was hoping to talk to you about. Cathak Markul had it.”

It took a moment for Tetsu to put it together. “His daiklave,” she said.

“About a week ago, maybe a bit longer, we’d taken shelter in an old redoubt,” he explained, “that’s where the Wyld Hunt caught up with us. Markul was a good fighter but he was outclassed, so I had him run with the daiklave in one direction while Aten and I created a diversion. We were supposed to meet up in River’s Bend but you can imagine our surprise when we follow his trail to discover a grave marker. Nice epitaph, by the way, if I pass on before you I hope you’d do me the honour of writing mine.”

Tetsu nodded absently. “I was sleeping under a tree when his horse rode by, dragging him along. It’d run itself to death in panic. He had a strange wound in his ches; we only had a few moments to talk about his regrets before he passed on. I promised to bury him in return for his worldly possessions.”

“What were you doing under a tree?”

“I’d stowed away on a ship bound for Greyfalls and was caught, forced to swim ashore. What were you doing that caught the attention of the Wyld Hunt?”

“Well, that’s a long story we’ll have to share another time,” he answered with a chuckle. “Right now I need to know where that daiklave is.”

“I lost it when I fell off a cliff,” Tetsu lied smoothly. “As far as I know, it’s at the bottom of the river under an avalanche.”

“Compared to conquering River’s Bend, that seems like a simple prospect,” Ogren mused, undeterred. “You know, I like you, Tetsu. You’d be a great addition to the crew.”

Raising her eyebrow, Tetsu looked at him over her shoulder. “And I thought we weren’t getting along.”

“Not at all, you have many traits I admire and I’m not talking about your body,” he said, cutting off Tetsu’s indignant response. “I knew we had a lot in common when you refused to pull your punches against Messia yesterday and from what Aten’s told me, you understand the meaning of obligation. I admire that.”

Pausing for a moment to adjust the wheel to take into account a sudden gust of wind, he continued. “Back before I exalted, I was a pirate captain. My crew plied the northwestern ocean until we accrued a debt we couldn’t hope to pay without taking an impossible risk. Being an overconfident idiot, I planned a raid on the Blessed Isle itself. I even managed to con an entire fleet of pirates to come with me. We were caught in an ambush by a group of dragonbloods and trapped inside their own walls, separated from our ship. I took one look at the men I had left, crossed swords with them and vowed to take as many of the curs with us to the next life.”

“And you exalted during the charge,” Tetsu surmised.

“I was the only survivor of my entire crew,” Ogren admitted, his tone wistful. “I don’t know how many men I left dead or severely wounded on the path to the harbour. Then I swam to my ship, dodging arrows and artillery before sailing it single handed out to sea. Of course, I was chased and eventually sunk. Everyone thought I was dead which suited me fine but I made sure what treasure I’d managed to keep aside was distributed to the families of the men that were with me in that final charge. After my business was done, I stole a small schooner and sailed south to Chiroscuro then eventually I got sick of the desert and started for the East.

But there’s another point to that story which is why I brought it up. We all thought we were going to die on the charge back to the harbour but still I wanted to leave my mark. I wanted the dragonbloods to remember the name of the mortal that dared and almost won. We’d hit their towns so fast that the civilians had barely enough time to either hide or evacuate and the area we were occupying included a school for noble children who might one day grow up to be dragonbloods. The students and their teachers were hiding in the basement.”

A chill ran down Tetsu’s spine as she realized where this was going.

“The guards had vats of boiling pitch on the walls so I had them emptied into the school, particularly the stairs down. Then we set it on fire,” Ogren explained impassively as if he was describing the weather. “Of course, I haven’t told Messia that story. I haven’t even told Aten, he’s a brilliant scholar and doctor but very naíve, but the moment I saw you fight Messia without remorse I knew you would understand. What’s more, I’ve been waiting for someone like you, someone who can set emotion aside to do what must be done. I know my weaknesses, I am a warrior, I can command the loyalty of men and wage war but I have no skill when it comes to operating a stable government. As an Eclipse, you can fill that role.”

“In your new ‘Solar Empire’?”

“The Oracle’s Trove is just the first step,” Ogren explained. “As long as the Realm mires itself in this civil war, we can unite the Hundred Kingdoms, even take Greyfalls as our capital.”

“Impossible,” Tetsu denied, “if any ‘Anathema’ gained that much power, the dragonbloods would set aside their differences and come after us.”

“Ignoring the fact that we’d have dragonbloods of our own, they wouldn’t stand a chance against the Iron Tiger.”

“Aten mentioned something about that before.”

Grinning, Ogren tied off the helm so he could join her at the rail. “Messia told us about it. A year or so ago she was still having nightmares about the Usurpation, specifically the ritual he’d used to send the arsenal… somewhere, Aten has theories about that but even he’s not quite sure where. The point is she specifically remembers The Resplendent Iron Tiger That Swallows the Sun. In the First Age, the most powerful weapon systems in Creation were, in descending order: The Daystar, The Silver Chair, The Realm Defence Grid and fourth the Titan-class battle fortress. The first two are the personal vehicles of the Unconquered Sun and Luna respectively, also known to us mortals as The Sun and The Moon. The Realm Defence Grid every schoolchild knows about only with the Scarlet Empress gone nobody can control it. The Resplendent Iron Tiger That Swallows the Sun is a Titan-class battle fortress, a flying fortress the size of an entire city whose main gun can level mountains.”

Shocked, Tetsu stared at him. “So that’s what everyone’s after?”

“Messia assures me that it was in perfect working condition when she sent it through the gate,” Ogren said, grinning wide enough that he reminded Tetsu of a slavering wolf. “It was built to be the Oracle’s ultimate war machine; it includes its own automated cathedral-factory, a fleet of flying warships, power armour, essence cannons, warstriders, even a built-in reality engine that allows it to travel freely through the Wyld.”

“It sounds too good to be true.”

“Even if half of what Messia says is accurate, it’s a force to be reckoned with,” Ogren rebutted. “Warfare and piracy are very similar in practice; the only difference is that in war you’ve got to hold on to what you take. We start by annihilating a few cities out of hand; revolutionaries tired of chafing under the Realm’s influence will flock to our banner. Once we conquer Greyfalls, we execute the older generation of dragonbloods and raise the younger ones to be loyal to us. I came close to sacking a town on the Blessed Isle back when I was mortal; just think what I could do now with my own army of exalted soldiers equipped with the most powerful weapons ever devised.”

“You know, Ogren, I think I like you too,” Tetsu lied with a smile, desperately holding her revulsion down as she patted his hand. “We’ll have to talk about this again… after we find the Iron Tiger.” She caught him watching her back as she walked away, or more specifically his eyes were caught by something lower than her back. Retreating back into her cabin, she leant against the closed door and shuddered, feeling like there were bugs crawling over her skin.

“Pleasant morning with Messia?” Pensri asked innocently from where she lounged in Tetsu’s bed.

Tetsu glared at her. “If you want to lie about, use your own bed.”

Slipping her legs out from under the blankets to sit up, the Lunar gave her a sly smile. “I figure you ought to get used to how I smell,” she said, stretching to show off her lithe curves, which Tetsu couldn’t help but admit were sooooo tempting. The way she moved made the Solar want to trace the lines of her tattoos with her fingertips…. Shaking herself, Tetsu turned away so she could concentrate on getting such ideas out of her head.

“Perhaps you’d prefer me in male form?” Pensri inquired teasingly.

Memories of her time with Valdis made Tetsu’s knees weak. “My preferences have nothing to do with it,” Tetsu snapped, “I’ve only known you for one day!”

She nodded soberly. “You’re right, I’m sorry. It’s easy for me to forget that, I’ve been waiting to meet you for what feels like my entire life. Of course, I never imagined you’d be so charming and beautiful.”

“You don’t even know me,” Tetsu pointed out, “how can you just show up and throw yourself into my life like this?”

She shrugged. “I honestly don’t understand your problem with it. Of course I can understand that your trust issues, that’s all sensible and rational, but being your Lunar mate is my karma. The fact is that my love and devotion to you is written into my soul and I not only accept that fact but glory in it. Perhaps it’s because I was raised in a caste system where it is believed that the gods themselves decree one’s place in society from the moment of birth that I’m more accepting of my place than you easterners. Don’t think I didn’t see the faces Elder Bloodmoon and the others made in our presence.”

“Kamaria didn’t seem to have a high opinion of the Sun King Seneschals.”

Pensri laughed. “No, the other factions in the Silver Pact don’t. Don’t get me wrong, I have every respect for the Crossroads Society and the Swords of Luna but on one hand we have the librarians who horde all the useful knowledge for themselves and on the other we have the warriors who are so busy watching the horizon that they miss what’s happening underfoot. In my personal opinion all sides share the blame for the Usurpation equally. The Solars became corrupt but the Lunars failed to curtail them and the Sidereals and the Dragonblooded didn’t try very hard at all. What did our laziness get us? The Great Contagion, the Balorian Crusade, Ghosts and Demons knocking on the gates.”

“What I don’t get about the whole story is they the Unconquered Sun didn’t do anything about it,” Tetsu mused, sinking into a chair. “If we were redeemable as you say, one word from him could have halted the whole affair in its tracks.”

“I think being an Incarnae is complicated,” Pensri sighed. “I’m not saying that they are incomprehensible… well, except for Luna but she’s impossibility made manifest. I think the real issue is that the Unconquered Sun is perfection incarnate, the core of his being is invincibility. By giving the Solar exalted part of his power that perfection is transferred; how can perfection face perfection and be certain of any outcome? The perfect answer is that you don’t play that game, you bide your time until a winning situation for everyone proposes itself.”

Tetsu shook her head. “If I’m your example of perfection, Pensri, then I’m afraid Creation is in a lot of trouble.”

The Lunar batted her eyelashes. “Perhaps you haven’t looked in the mirror lately, darling, but you’re not exactly going to be able to pass for a mere mortal with those looks. Once glance at you and whole orders of Immaculate monks will break their vows.”

Feeling uncomfortable, Tetsu hugged herself. “This… this body isn’t mine. If you knew the old me you wouldn’t say that.”

“Then I merely think that someone unlocked a potential in you that was there in the beginning,” Pensri suggested, smiling enigmatically. “Beauty is a blessing that often goes remarkably unappreciated by those who have it. Whatever was gifted to you, however, goes far beyond simple physical appearances; I would dare to say you’ve been exalted twice if such a thing was possible.”

“Let me see; scared, vulnerable, out of my depth and sinking fast, deeply embarrassed, confused… you’re right that does sound like my exaltation,” Tetsu quipped.

“Humility becomes you,” Pensri said fondly. “Far too many Solars are far too impressed with themselves.”

“If you keep flattering me like that, it might go to my head.”

“Well, there’s such a thing as being too humble,” Pensri rebutted.

“You know, I think there’s only one other woman in the world that can keep up with me the way you do,” Tetsu said wistfully.

Pensri raised her eyebrow. “That doesn’t sound like a passing acquaintance. Do I smell the blood of a rival?”

“Well, she was my girlfriend before,” Tetsu sighed.

The Lunar’s eyes narrowed. “Then I’ll eat her heart and take her form so you have something to remember her by.”

Tetsu raised her finger. “No, bad Lunar.”

Pouting, Pensri hopped onto her feet and glided over to stroke Tetsu’s chin. “I am yours,” she whispered, “I can and will be anyone and everything you desire. Of course if it is your desire that I keep this… other woman alive then I will obey. If she is unworthy of you, however, make no mistake, I will excise her influence on your life as neatly as a surgeon clears dead flesh from a wound.”

“And here you’ve been throwing around the word obedient so much I thought you considered yourself my slave.”

She smiled. “The fun parts of being a slave at least. On the other hand, sometimes one has to make sacrifices for those they love, even those they refuse to make for themselves.”

Both of them jumped when the cabin door suddenly slammed open. Standing in the doorway was little Messia, puffing and wheezing. “I finished,” she gasped, stumbling inside. After a moment, she looked up at them and her eyes narrowed. “Hey! What are you two doing?”

“Oh, us?” Pensri asked innocently while Tetsu blushed. “I’m just trying to seduce Tetsu, that’s all.”

Tetsu tried to say something but almost choked on her own tongue.

“Really?” Messia asked; her demeanour suddenly brightening as the news gave her a second wind. “Oh! Oh! Can you teach me to seduce people, Pensri?”

Her question only made Tetsu choke more.

“I don’t know,” Pensri mused, holding her chin as she looked Messia over. “You really want to take lessons from the ‘naked snake lady’? Besides, you’re going to have to grow some curves first…”

“Hey! I’ll have you know a Guild slaver once offered Ogren a whole Talent for me!” Messia protested before the ‘naked snake lady’ part penetrated her awareness and she was suddenly overtaken by nerves. “Oh, wait, you heard me call you that?”

Pensri laughed. “Did you know that giant snakes sometimes sneak into people’s houses and swallow children whole?”

Messia gulped. “Sorry… wait a minute, that means you were spying on Tetsu!”

“Only for her own safety!” Pensri protested, grabbing hold of Tetsu possessively.

“Oh, so really you’re an obsessive naked stalker snake lady!”

Snapping a little, Pensri pounced, grabbing the little girl’s hair. “Why you little…”

Whatever she was about to say was cut off when Messia, wincing from having her hair clutched so tightly, grabbed the ends of Pensri’s long locks and pulled hard. Tetsu simply rested her forehead in her palm as their squabbling turned into an all-out brawl. Furniture was overturned and pottery smashed as the Zenith was chased around the room by Pensri in the form of a giant constrictor snake. When Aten finally opened the door, he found Tetsu still sitting impassively as Pensri clutched the little girl in her coils while she cried ‘uncle’ over and over.

“What in the name of the Third Circle?” he asked, flabbergasted.

Changing back, Pensri stood up and dusted herself off. “Just messing about, Aten, don’t get your apron in a knot.”

Tetsu couldn’t help but smirk since Aten was still wearing his workman’s smock which included a heavy apron marred by several scorch marks. “Oh, very funny,” Aten muttered as he helped Messia onto her feet.

“Oh, Uncle Aten,” Messia said brightly, despite being a little blue in the face a moment before, “Pensri’s going to teach me seduction! Isn’t that awesome!”

Aten gave Pensri a flat look.

“Hey! I never agreed to that!” Pensri protested. “I am NOT teaching a twelve year old girl to seduce people! Not that she has anything to seduce anyone with…”

“Oh yeah? Well I’ve got bigger breasts than you already, flat chest!” Messia declared indignantly.

Working in tandem, Aten grabbed Messia while Tetsu subdued Pensri, separating them before they could start again. “That’s enough of that, both of you,” Tetsu snapped.

“Tetsuuuuu,” Pensri pleaded, looking up at her with large, kitten-like, eyes, “you don’t think I’m flat chested do you?”

Smacking herself on the side of her head with her palm, Tetsu sighed deeply. “No Pensri, I think you’re perfectly proportioned…”

She trailed off as Pensri’s gaze dropped down to Tetsu’s chest and the rather generous protrusions that were hard to miss even restrained as they were by the Solar’s high-collared robe. Suddenly turning to stalk outside, she practically kicked down the door as she stormed out, muttering darkly to herself. Shaking her head, Tetsu pointed at Messia. “As for you, if you’re this lively you can work off the rest of your energy cleaning the room you helped destroy!”

“What?!?” Messia exclaimed.

“You goaded Pensri into attacking you,” Tetsu explained mercilessly. “I’m going to get some air again, when I get back this place had better be spotless.”

“You heard her, Messia,” Aten affirmed sternly. Defeated, Messia got to work while the two other Solars stepped outside. “You’d make a great mother, Tetsu,” Aten jibed under his breath.

“Keep that up and I’ll serve you your own testicles,” Tetsu growled.

“Sorry, is it that time of the month already?”

“Did you want something or did you just come up to try to annoy me to death?”

“A little bit of both,” he quipped, “but right now I’m in the mood for the former. I have a gift for you.”

Raising her eyebrows, Tetsu scoffed. “You have a gift for me?”

“Look, I’m sorry I thought you killed Markul,” he apologized quickly, as if he felt it would hurt less that way. “I admit, proximity to his body so soon after the attack may have made the aura… ‘rub off’ on you for lack of a better term. He was my friend; surely you can understand my reaction.”

“I can understand it but I can’t condone it,” Tetsu stated flatly. “We came close to killing each other because you jumped the gun…”

“I know,” he interrupted. Tetsu’s eyes bulged when he produced a set of orihalcum trinkets from the sleeves of his robe. “We found these in the cellar of an abandoned monastery a few years ago. They were broken and I had them stashed away for when I got a spare moment. They’re not really my style and you need some extra protection, so I fixed them for you.”

Tetsu opened and shut her mouth several times as she considered what to say, taking them out of his hands. “I… thanks… I guess… I mean, I’m sorry, I don’t know what to say. What do they do?”

“Well, these four pieces are called Discreet Essence Armour,” he explained, pointing out the anklets and bracelets. “Together, they sheathe the wearer in protective essence during combat. It draws on your essence to activate but lasts as long as danger persists and works like real, tangible, armour only it doesn’t restrict movement at all, meaning it can be used with martial arts that aren’t compatible with physical armour. This particular set is heavily customized, I think they also act as Heathstone Bracers, so they should also improve your reflexes and help you strike harder. The fifth piece matches the rest but acts as an artefact we call a ‘Collar of Dawn’s Cleansing Light’. Basically a vanity item, it’ll keep you and your clothing clean and well presented no matter what. In addition it provides some protection against disease and poisons.”

Tetsu’s eyes bulged as she turned the pieces over in her hands. Between the value of the orihalcum and their magical properties, she was holding a veritable fortune in her hands and he was acting like it was nothing. “I’m not sure what to say,” she said, flustered, “I can’t remember the last time someone actually just gave me something.”

Blushing profusely, Aten turned away from her and coughed lightly into his hand. “No need to say anything just put them on. Uh… they should also, um, keep you at a comfortable temperature and protect your feet should you have occasion to be, er, barefoot. Oh, and you’ll have to attune them to your essence but the commitment should be minimal.”

Hesitantly, Tetsu slipped the jewellery around her wrists and ankles, carefully locking them into place before slipping the collar around her neck. She couldn’t help but note that the bright gold matched her skin tone perfectly as they reshaped themselves to a comfortable fit. The artefacts glowed for a moment as she attuned to them, fuelling their abilities by allowing them to draw a tiny trickle of essence from her reserves constantly. The effect on her appearance was immediate; small wrinkles in her clothes immediately smoothed out, her hair straightened as if it had been meticulously combed and even her nails were perfectly shaped, manicured and polished.

Worried that they weren’t going to fit for a moment, Tetsu quickly found that the delicate but surprisingly strong pieces of jewellery constricted themselves comfortably around her limbs. “Is there supposed to be a gem here?” she asked, pointing at the empty settings on the bracers.

“They’re hearthstone settings,” Aten explained, “when you find one that you can attune to, you can place it in one of the sockets to gain its benefits. Hearthstones are created naturally inside a manse, they convey special powers and allow enlightened individuals to draw upon the essence of the demesne they’re linked to over any distance, recharging your reserves. Sorry but hearthstones aren’t the sorts of things one just leaves lying around and even if you find one, you have to visit its manse to attune to it.”

Impulsively, Tetsu gave him a quick kiss on the cheek before she knew what she was doing which only made them both blush even harder. Pensri, on the other hand, glowered at them from the far railing, gnawing her lower lip in consternation.

“You’re welcome,” he replied, grinning boyishly. “Please be aware, I take payment from pretty ladies in the form of sexual favours…”

He got his payment in the form of an open-handed slap that left a red imprint on his cheek.

#

Darkness descended quickly over Private Leng as he watched the sun sink below the ridge of the western mountains behind the temple high above. Turning back around before his sergeant spotted him lollygagging; he scanned the opposite shore of the river again from his position atop the bridge. The torches were already lit, keeping the path over the river illuminated but leaving the forested region beyond in surprisingly impenetrable darkness for so early in the evening.

As time passed the shadows only grew darker but despite himself he couldn’t help thinking that there was something more sinister lurking beyond. Unable to shake off the feeling, every movement of so much of a leaf made him jumpier until he had to tell himself each time that it was just an animal or the wind. As the sky darkened, the stabled horses far behind him became more restless, whinnying as they struggled against their confinement much to the stablehand’s chagrin.

It wasn’t until the bushes started to move in earnest that he realized it wasn’t his imagination. There were things moving under the boughs of the trees. As they shambled into the open, he screamed in horror as the masses of rotting flesh dragged themselves towards the river unafraid of the current.

“UNDEAD!” Private Leng screamed, running for his life. “THE DEAD ARE COMING! THE DEAD ARE COMING!”

#

Entering after politely knocking on the door, Destined Edge looked like a bedraggled kitten as she dragged herself into Sanejin’s former study where Feather was busy pouring through his things. Most of the books that had been on the shelves were piled on the floor while parchments and scrolls were left leaning against the wall. The Chosen of Serenity herself was bent over the Gnomon as she compared it to a diagram on a scroll she’d rolled out underneath it, held in place with heavy glass paperweights. Next to the Gnomon was Sanejin’s hearthstone, its feint glow illuminating the flickering shadows with a cool, pale, radiance.

“Any new leads?” Edge enquired.

“Some,” Feather answered shortly, “how’s Rage?”

Edge took a deep, calming, breath. “He still hasn’t woken yet. There’s no permanent internal damage but it will take time for him to heal.”

“Time we don’t have,” Feather said with regret. “The Gnomon is the key to this whole mess, I’m sure of it. Our true enemy won’t be able to allow us to keep possession of it, we could spirit it away to Yu Shan at any time.”

“Why haven’t we then?”

Feather bit her lower lip. The truth was that she’d been debating whether or not to skip out on her responsibilities and use it to find Tetsu but she couldn’t admit that to Edge. “Our goal is to resolve the snarl in the Loom. We can use the Gnomon to flush out the perpetrator.”

“Why not fire it up and ask it to point us in the right direction?”

“Because this thing is dangerous,” Feather explained. “The Gnomon can place anyone on the path to anything they desire but it doesn’t guarantee the safety of that path. Our enemy knows the nature of the Gnomon; we’d be walking into a trap.”

“If you say so,” Edge tacitly agreed. “So, what did you need me for?”

It took a moment for the question to sink into Feather’s brain as she forced herself to set her worry for Tetsu aside. “What? Sorry, I didn’t send for you.”

“Yes you did, you sent one of the whores down to…”

Reaching the same conclusion at the same time, both Sidereals bolted out the door, Feather only a few paces behind as she stuffed the Gnomon in one pocket and the temple’s hearthstone in the other. “I SCANNED HER!” Edge screamed in rage as she sprinted through the corridors. Barging through the door to Feather and Tetsu’s former chambers, she skidded to a halt as they found the room empty. Turning on Feather, Edge was about to grab the woman’s collar and force her to use the Gnomon but to her surprise Feather was already inserting the hearthstone into the socket.

Activating the Gnomon was somewhat anticlimactic. There was a brief flicker of essence before an unnatural point of golden light began orbiting the device, casting a shadow across the Gnomon. “Gnomon,” Feather addressed the device formally in the language of the First Age, “where is our partner, the Sidereal of Battles known as Focused Rage?”

The mote of light stopped spinning abruptly, the shadow pointing back through the door they’d entered. Moments later they were running again with Feather in the lead following the Gnomon’s directions as they weaved through rooms and corridors. Finally entering the main hall, Feather stopped so abruptly that Edge almost bowled her over in her haste.

Before them on the other side of the circular room, Mamo stood at the edge of the hole Tetsu had ripped through the outer wall. He held Rage’s limp body over his shoulder with ease, even smiling as he waved to the girls in greeting. “Welcome, ladies, you’re a little late but I guess that’s a woman’s prerogative.”

Edge took a step forward but Feather held out an arm to stop her.

“Very wise,” Mamo complimented, “I’d hate to have to let him go after all the trouble I went to steal him away.”

“Bastard!” Edge swore. “How did you get past me?”

“Well, well, well, the much vaunted knowledge of the Sidereals isn’t up to much, is it?” he asked rhetorically, chuckling to himself. “Actually, I think I’ll leave you to your agonizing suspense. All you need to know is that I’ve been watching you all ever since you arrived in River’s Bend. Your amateurish games have proven amusing to us but it’s almost time for the final round. The Abyssal is making her move as we speak but her interference is now as irrelevant as the dragonbloods.”

“What do you want?” Feather asked, cutting to the heart of the matter.

His grin widened. “Wealth, fame, power, Creation, a good woman to settle down with… what does any man want? Right now, however, we want the four keys to the Oracle’s Trove.”

Feather’s eyes narrowed. “Sanejin told us there were three keys.”

Mamo laughed. “Father was cunning and manipulative but he was also lazy and never very good at research. There are four keys, two of which are in your possession at this very moment. The Gnomon, the hearthstone, the sword of the Oracle’s last loyal Dragonlord that was used to take the ancient Solar’s life and finally the Oracle’s own exaltation, reborn into the world. Bring me the final pieces of the puzzle and your friend will be released unmolested. Betray us and… well, let’s just say being molested will be the least of her concerns.”

To emphasize his point, Mamo gently patted Rage’s ass, making Feather’s skin crawl. “Don’t,” Feather whispered to Edge in warning as the Chosen of Endings secretly removed a thin throwing needle from her belt behind her back. “He chose his position too carefully for it to be that simple.”

Cursing the fact that she was right, Edge put the needle away. Moments later there was a distinct buzzing sound that grew steadily louder as if a giant insect was approaching the hole from the outside. “Ah, that would be my ride,” Mamo said, taking note of the noise. “Best of luck, we expect to see both of you very soon.”

He waved goodbye as a giant demon-wasp landed on the wall behind him, its many legs straddling the hole in the wall. It picked him up with its long foremost arms and deposited him in its back before launching into the air at hellacious speed, disappearing into the night.

“GODS DAMN IT!” Edge shouted, smashing her fist into the wall hard enough to break one of the stone bricks. Turning on Feather, she held out her hand. “Give me the Gnomon!” she demanded.

Watching her warily, Feather shook her head. “You’re not thinking clearly, Edge.”

“You think I didn’t see the look in his eyes? Rage is in the hands of a monster wearing the shape of a man!”

“He’ll be expecting you to follow him,” Feather explained in exasperation, “if you chase after him now you’d be playing right into his hands.”

“But if we find the other keys to the Trove and hand them over to him we’re playing right into his hands anyway!”

“Of course! That’s what good strategy is, building situations where no matter what anyone does, you win. Rage taught me that.”

“Then what do you suggest?” Edge asked, folding her arms across her chest. “Sacrifice Rage and send the Gnomon back to Yu Shan for the good of Creation?”

“No,” Feather answered flatly. “You may think you’re the only one who cares about Rage but he’s been my partner and my friend for years. Look, there’s no way Mamo won’t try to screw us over no matter what we do…”

She was interrupted when Kano threw open one of the doors on the balcony above. “There you are,” the goddess observed with visible relief, “come quickly, an army of zombies is attacking Low Town!”

#

Legionnaires stood shoulder to shoulder as the horde of wet, rotting, corpses broke upon their shields. Improvised barricades cluttered the streets to provide defensible positions for the men as the tide of hungry dead mostly took the path of least resistance in their desire to taste the flesh of the living. Such was their desperation, however, that the back ranks were beginning to tear down the weaker ramshackle structures as the press of bodies slowly pushed the Legionnaires back.

The civilians, including the whores, were still evacuating to High Town where engineers were busy constructing new fortifications. Archers rained flaming arrows down onto the ranks of the dead as they emerged from the river or attempted to cross the bridge but their effect was minimal. The catapults and the fire from the cannons of the airship known as The Daring Princess was far more effective at thinning them out, enough that the ground forces had a chance. Her sister ship, The Dashing Prince, was flying north at full speed to retrieve Delani and the others.

Agani’s palms itched as she watched the men aboard the ships docked in the harbour fight for their lives, cut off from the shore as they were swarmed under. Standing atop the bras pyramid as the hidden legs that unfolded from the base of the great machine moved it slowly away from the front lines, she cursed her inability to help as the men who died joined the ranks of the enemy moments later. Hathor’s unfinished defences had been designed to repel a mortal army, not an endless stream of the unfeeling dead.

“Ready the essence cannon,” Agani ordered the gunners, “we’ll provide covering fire while the Legion pulls back across the square.”

The chief gunner nodded before shouting orders over the clatter of the mechanical beast while the lantern-bearer signalled the order to fall back with a series of coloured flashes of light. The Legion broke into a disciplined retreat as the Daring Princess and the brass pyramid swept the banks of the river clean with beams of disintegrating essence, though the volley drained the reserves of both weapons which wouldn’t be able to fire again for some time while they recharged.

Firing the essence cannons was also the pre-arranged signal for Sarro to lead the local dragonbloods on a charge into the square to buy the retreating forces more breathing space so they could take position at the top of the cliff. Though none alone were as skilled as a single member of her sworn sisterhood, Agani had to admit that each was still a force in their own right as they cleaned up the remaining zombies on their side of the river. Then, when the next wave emerged from the water, they retreated back up to High Town even as the brass pyramid climbed the nearly vertical slope, far out of the reach of the enemy.

Shivering as the stars seemed to flicker for a moment, Agani felt a wave of dark energy sweep the battlefield. As she watched, the corpses that had been felled twitched and writhed, slowly rising back to their feet if they could or simply crawling onward if they were able. “Fire at will,” Agani ordered quietly, “and pray we can last long enough to see this through.”

Chapter 21

Tetsu couldn’t believe what she was seeing as she stared out over the bow of the ship. River’s Bend was burning, the red glow of the fires clearly visible over the crests of the mountains that still lay between them and the river valley. As Ogren steered the ship west and they passed over the valley, the fires could be seen clearly in the distance. Aten pulled an extendable telescope from one of the his robe’s many secret pockets and put it to his right eye for a better look.

“The Legion’s retreated to High Town,” he informed everyone. “They’re using the cliff as a natural barrier… its hard to see what they’re actually fighting, too much smoke. Could be goblins or the walking dead, though I’d put good money down on the walking dead. I hate to say I told you so, Tetsu, but…”

“I can only follow my own conscience, Aten, that’s all any of us can do,” Tetsu said remorsefully. “Though I admit, I seem to be failing to read people’s intentions as well as I should lately.”

“No time for self flagellation,” Ogren muttered, “the Legion can handle one little zombie horde with only a single deathknight. If anything, the distraction will let us get into the temple unnoticed.”

“I hate to ask but does anyone have a plan?” Pensri enquired.

Aten and Ogren looked at each other. “Actually, we generally make it up as we go along,” Aten admitted in all seriousness, “it’s worked out for the best so far.”

Brushing off the urge to slap him again, Tetsu put her hands on her hips as she frowned at them both. “Yes, ask Cathak Markul how well that’s worked for you.”

“Fair point,” Ogren admitted. “All right, what did you have in mind?”

Stroking her chin, Tetsu was tempted to just grab Feather and run but her cursed morality bit that idea in the ass. “Usually I’d get you to hide the airship so I could scout around for intelligence but I’m sick of playing these games. We can’t allow another player to buy into the game, so whoever’s attacking River’s Bend needs to be dealt with once and for all. I say we hit them from the rear, level Shanku Toyo Graveyard if we have to.”

Aten frowned. “We could just let them annihilate each other,” he observed, “it’s not like we owe the Legion any favours.”

“The dragonbloods are just pawns,” Tetsu explained herself. “They’re clueless, fumbling in the dark. By the time they work out what’s really going on, we’ll be long gone.”

“But we don’t even know where the keys are,” he pointed out.

“I do,” Tetsu replied smugly, “all I have to do is drop into the Temple to pick them up but do you really want Ullah breathing down our necks the rest of the way? She won’t be expecting a sneak attack; we can eliminate the threat right now on our own terms.”

Ogren and Aten looked at each other for a moment, unsure of what to think.

“Oh for the sake of the gods,” Tetsu swore. “You get to drop bombs on everything!”

“I’ll plot a course,” Ogren told Aten, sporting a wide grin. “You get the ordinance ready.”

Pensri sighed. “Boys!”

#

“This is desperation,” Feather muttered to Kano and Edge as they surveyed the battle from the temple battlements. “Ullah has no idea what’s really going on so she’s going to burn everything down and sort out the ashes later.”

“Ullah?” Edge asked, confused.

“The local Deathknight,” Feather explained.

“You don’t think she’s in league with Mamo?” Kano asked.

“If she was, why attack the town? It’s not like Mamo needed a distraction. Besides, the Deathlords are only out for themselves and they certainly don’t play well with others, even the Yozis. I see our dragonbloods have joined the fight already, what about Saneya and the girls at the other brothel?”

“Evacuated long before Low Town started burning,” Kano reported, “they’re holed up in one of the empty mansions.”

“I don’t quite understand what’s going on but I do know that it’s irrelevant,” Edge interjected, “we need to concentrate on finding Rage and getting him back.”

“Without giving up the Gnomon,” Feather added.

Kano blinked. “Wait, Rage has been kidnapped?!?”

Pinching the bridge of her nose, Feather groaned.

#

“Gentlemen,” Agani teased the all-female troop of dragonbloods before her, earning herself a collective dark stare from the crowd. “Thank you for your efforts in the battle thus far, it’s inspiring to see that despite adversity, my kinsmen no matter how distantly related will rise to any challenge. I look forward to toasting our victory with you… but first there’s a small matter of winning. Our scouts have reported that the enemy is mustering siege breakers in the forest across the river, therefore I must ask you to disperse yourselves at regular intervals along the lines to help counteract the threat.”

The highest ranking woman, who appeared to be a maiden barely out of the Academy, kicked them into action and went about the details of deployment, leaving Agani free for her next order of business. Using her telescope, she scanned the northern valley for signs of Delani and the second airship but vision was entirely blocked by a wall of smoke. The walking dead were being held off at the stairs were the horde was bottlenecked, though the northern flank was starting to come under pressure as the sea of rotting flesh sought the easiest path. In the distance across the river, through the smoke, she could see the shadows of lumbering hulks slowly striding across the bridge.

“Too close,” she mumbled to herself. Turning on her heel, she handed the telescope to her staff officer before placing her hands on her hips. The chief engineer shouted orders at his men as they hauled on long ropes. Pulleys and gears whirred and clicked as the cradle slowly rose into the air, pulling her personal Warstrider upright. The red enamel came alive in the firelight, orange flames dancing in the reflection provided by the perfectly polished armour plates.

Wrath of the Righteous Dragon was as close to the perfect engine of war as the finest artisans of the Realm could craft, decades of work in design and construction and a survivor of centuries of service. Agani didn’t quite get as gooey on the inside as Misari did over her precious Blossom but she couldn’t deny her attraction to the raw power the Dragon represented. His sleek majesty belied the strength bound to his limbs, encased in hardened jadesteel plates.

“Ma’am,” the chief engineer greeted her with a short salute, “just a few preliminary checks left, he won’t be long.”

“Pray that you’re fast enough, Chief,” Agani replied, glancing over her shoulder towards the stairway, “for all out sakes.”

#

“Missstresss,” Ajah Kuld hissed through lipless fangs, “the vanguard of the Grajira class necrobeasts has reached the far bank of the river.”

Reclining on a divan stitched together from children’s skin, Ullah fanned her face with a soulsteel warfan that resembled a bat’s wing. Her slaves clung to the legs as the howdah atop the undead tyrant lizard rocked with its every earthshaking step. Inkfinger had one hand wrapped around the balcony rail nearby for stability, though he handled the jarring gait of the beast with more grace than an ordinary ghost.

Outside they could see nothing but trees to the sides, a mountain at their backs and a wall of smoke to the fore punctuated by the occasional flash of essence beam weapons. If not for Ajah Kuld’s necromancy, they would have no idea what was going on beyond the wall of ash rising into the night sky before them. He wore a robe composed of long, black, leather strips that hung from a heavy iron neck brace. The emaciated form underneath was scantly clothed in shroud fragments pinned to his skin with long needles.

“Excellent,” Ullah complimented graciously, “as soon as the formation is fully deployed, I want the Shardbats in the air.”

“Yesss, misstresss,” he giggled with glee as he caressed the Obsidian Skull of Shar Agoth. The artefact allowed him to directly control the vast horde at his disposal. “Wait,” he paused mid-cackle, suddenly serious, “something is flying towards us from the south east…”

Inkfinger half stumbled across the deck to take a look. Bracing himself against a column as he pulled a contraption that appeared to be an eagle’s eye set inside a mechanical frame from his robe, pressing it to his right eye socket. “An airship, mistress,” he informed the Midnight Caste, “I don’t recognize the markings or design, definitely not a Legion vessel.”

Bored, Ullah sighed. “Are they signalling their intens…”

She was interrupted when the forest behind them exploded, fire blooming like a row of flowers amongst the second wave of zombies shambling towards the front. Shanku Toyo graveyard was obliterated, nothing but a field of ash and blackened stumps left in the wake of the bombing. Shoving Inkfinger aside, Ullah took his place at the railing, though her unnatural dexterity allowed her to stand without support. “That’s no Realm ship… I don’t know how he got his hands on a warship but I smell Tetsu’s mark on this. Ajah! Launch the Shardbats! I have a new target for them.”

#

“Yeah! Take that, Creatures of Darkness!” Messia cheered, shaking her fist at the army far below.

“That should ease the pressure on the Legion,” Aten said, his arms folded inside the sleeves of his robe, “but all we’ve done is give them a fighting chance.”

“That’s more than they deserve,” Ogren muttered.

“Too easy,” Tetsu whispered to herself, nervously wringing her hands as she scanned the trees far below.

“Ouch,” Pensri winced, suddenly covering her ears for no apparent reason, “anyone else hear that?”

Looking around, Aten shrugged. “Hear wha…”

Interrupted when the canopy below was shattered by the rising bodies of a thousand giant bats festooned with bone spikes, Aten hit the deck as the riders cast barbed javelins at the balloon over their heads. Tetsu yanked Messia out of the line of fire, shielding the little girl with her own body as the projectiles glanced off the armoured shell, falling down around them like raindrops.

“MAN THE CANNONS!” Ogren ordered, battering javelins aside as he steered the ship hard to starboard.

“Messia, inside!” Tetsu ordered as she watched a detachment of the bat riders peel off from the main group while the main body flew west toward the battle.

“I can help!” the little girl protested as Tetsu pushed her into the cabin.

“You want to help? Protect the cabin. Much easier to fight when you’re not dodging javelins,” Tetsu informed her as she slammed the door shut and barred it.

As the bats began to overtake the airship, Tetsu got a better look at the beasts. Jagged ridges of bone protruded from thick, scaly, skin and fur in an unholy parody of life, stitched together from what must have been hundreds of corpses. The rider’s flesh was obviously necrotic, peeling away from muscle and bone between riveted armour plates. “Pensri? What in all of…”

“I don’t know,” the Lunar interrupted, knowing exactly what her mate was about to ask.

The ship’s ordinance wasn’t as advanced as the Legion’s warships but the spectacle of the broadside cannons unleashing their fury was grand enough. Spinning chains shredded flesh and bone, ripping several of the beasts to pieces in a thunderous roar. Everyone on deck had to cover their ears as the bats screeched in response, the whole airship vibrating as planks burst from the inside and rivets popped out of place. One attempted to savage the balloon but Ogren blasted it out of the air with a bolt of light from his sword before it could do any real damage.

Tetsu and Pensri were more than occupied when the remaining three landed heavily on the hull, clawing their way onto the deck over the railing. Instead of throwing their javelins again, the riders slashed at the ropes and cables that helped secure the balloon safely in place. The last of the beasts alighted on the stern, taking advantage of Ogren’s momentary weakness to batter him aside, sending the wheel spinning. Lurching violently, they all felt the keel graze the top of the mountain as they climbed into the sky. Unfortunately, they all had more pressing matters to worry about.

Acting solely by reflex, Tetsu grabbed the head of the nearest bat and twisted, tearing it clean off. The riders were barely able to scream in alarm as the limp body slid over the edge, dragging them to oblivion. Meanwhile, Pensri pulled an ornate moonsilver seven section staff out of Elsewhere, spinning it over her head as she twirled into action. Several amazingly precise whip-like strikes opened long gashes in another of the beast’s wings, slicing through muscle like butter. The rider’s retaliation earned him a second death she parried and retaliated, driving the tip through his noseless face and through the back of his skull.

Nursing his wounded right arm, Ogren was forced to fence his opponent with his left hand, though this slight handicap availed his enemy little. Snarling in triumph as he managed to hook Ogren’s sword, the rider was startled when the Dawn Caste dragged him down out of the saddle and stuffed him into the maw of his own mount. The beast’s wings were severed and its head rolling across the deck before Ogren took control of the helm once more.

Snatching her foe’s javelin from his limp fingers, Pensri leapt atop another of the beasts as it tried to attack Tetsu from behind, piercing the shoulderblade and pinning it in place. The rider drew a sword that was more like a long meat cleaver from his hip and slashed at her, barely missing the tip of her nose as she arched her body backward. Whipping forward with her whole body, she immobilized his sword arm with her left hand and struck his ribs, neck and face with a series of blinding strikes with her fingertips. Stunned, he put up little resistance when she snapped his neck, deftly rolled off the enraged beast before it could throw her off.

The last of the riders spurred his giant bat forward, leaping at Tetsu with its fanged maw agape. For her part, Tetsu couldn’t understand why they seemed to be moving so slowly. To her perceptions, she had all the time to pull her fist back, line up the shot, summon her essence and strike at precisely the right moment. Smashing her fist into the beast’s nose, the blow drove its thick skull back into its torso, the thick spine snapping in half. Catapulted over her head, the rider hit the starboard rail, crumpling into a lifeless heap. “What?” she gasped, eyes bulging as she stared at her hands.

“Remind me not to challenge you to arm wrestling,” Pensri commented, finishing off the last bat by driving both sharp ends of her seven section staff into the back of the beast’s neck.

“Enough! We have a real problem here,” Ogren shouted as he struggled with the wheel.

The trapdoor to the hold suddenly burst open as Aten emerged, looking pale. “Ogren! We’ve ripped away half the keel, the rudder’s gone and the starboard stabilizer’s locked! We can’t turn!”

“I noticed!” Ogren barked. “We’re out of control! If anyone can fly, now’s the time to…”

A sudden groan of stressed timber followed by a gut-wrenching crunch from below decks pulled them sharply to port, the nose tipping downward as the airship started gaining speed with the force of gravity behind it. They grabbed on to anything nearby as the slope of the mountain slid into view before them.

“Abandon ship!” Ogren ordered, frantically trying to regain control.

“Messia!” Tetsu called, running over to the cabin door and tearing the iron bar out of the wood in her haste to throw open the door. There was a gaping hole in the back of the cabin but Messia threw herself into Tetsu’s arms, crying. Picking the girl up, Tetsu kept running with Pensri hot on her heels as they leapt out of the ship through the hole in the stern just as the aft hit the mountainside.

Heat blasted their backs as the airship exploded, the destroyed engines igniting the hull, the balloon above it and the stores of gunpowder belowdecks. Shifting in mid air, Pensri took the form of a giant flying lizard that Tetsu couldn’t name, her talons ripping through the back of the Eclipse Caste’s robe as she unfurled her wings to arrest their descent. Steering deftly through the trees, she set them down lightly on a rock shelf before landing herself, breathing heavily. “Note to self,” Pensri said, her voice sounding strange coming from a beaked lizard, “don’t underestimate an undead army.”

“Did anyone see Aten and Ogren?” Tetsu asked, turning around as she scanned the sky for any sign of their companions.

“We’re here,” Aten muttered, stumbling through the trees while supporting Ogren’s injured arm, “our landing wasn’t quite as elegant but we’re alive. Ogren, sit on that rock, I have to look at that arm right now.”

Muttering, Ogren did as he was told. After a quick examination, Aten decided he had to clean the wound with a special solution he produced by mixing some powder with a cup of water which seemed to cause Ogren quite a bit of pain. “Bloody underworld scum,” Aten swore as he worked, “not content to slice and dice you, they just love their poisons and diseases. So we bought the Legion some breathing space at the cost of our ship. Good call.”

“Do you want to be fighting those things all the way to the temple?” Tetsu asked pointedly. “I’m no fan of the Legion but they’re the lesser of two evils.”

“Enough,” Ogren ordered. “All that matters now is getting across the river and infiltrating the temple.”

Tetsu scowled. “That’s a bit short sighted, isn’t it?”

All of the assembled Exalts stared at her.

“Those THINGS are an abomination!” Tetsu protested vehemently. “Ullah wants the Oracle’s Trove just as much as we do, if we let her have her way now she might just be breathing down our necks tomorrow.”

“If you really do have the three keys, the Iron Tiger could be ours by morning!” Ogren growled.

“At what cost?” Tetsu rebutted. “There are men and women out there fighting for Creation! They may be my enemy but that does not mean I can stand idly by while they sacrifice themselves for the good of the land!”

Standing, Ogren glared at her, enraged. “WE ARE THE GOOD OF THE LAND!” he roared. “We are the Chosen, it is our place to rule over Creation. Once we have the Iron Tiger, NOTHING in Creation can prevent us from forging an eternal empire. Generations hence will shower those men with blessings for the sacrifice they make today.”

“You don’t have the right…”

“I HAVE THE MANDATE OF THE UNCONQUERED SUN!” Ogren bellowed. “WE ARE THE TRUE PRINCES OF THE EARTH! IT IS MY RIGHT TO EXPEND THEIR LIVES AS I SEE FIT!”

“You do not rule me,” Tetsu stated flatly, unimpressed. “I’m going to kill Ullah. Anyone who wishes to help is free to come with me.”

“It’s a stupid move,” Aten said, shaking his head.

“Maybe,” Tetsu shrugged, “but at least I’ll be able to sleep peacefully knowing that I tried.”

Pensri fell in beside Tetsu, showing her mute support. Then Messia stood up and took a few steps towards her before Ogren barked. “NO, Messia,” he snapped, “you’re too important to risk on such a foolish mission.”

“But she’s right,” Messia whimpered, plagued with indecision, “they’re Creatures of Darkness, the Unconquered Sun condemns them.”

“He’s right in this case, Messia,” Tetsu told her, “stay with them, they’ll keep you safe. You’re not ready to fight Ullah.”

“You’ve only been Exalted a week,” Ogren scoffed, “what makes you think you’re ready?”

“Ullah’s continued survival is my mistake,” Tetsu answered as she turned to climb the mountain, “it is my responsibility to rectify it.”

#

Roul Meng, Captain of the Dashing Princess, swore like a pirate as he pried the lifeless fingers of the helmsman off the ship’s wheel. The scene on the deck was chaos as the vile creatures boarding his ship slaughtered his men, seemingly every inch slippery with blood and gore. His men had made a good accounting of themselves, several giant carcasses littering the deck, but the beasts seemed to be without number, pressing in from all sides.

“HOLD!” He shouted encouragement to what men remained, several at his back fending off the attackers with long spears. “HOLD THE DOGS! I’M TAKING THEM WITH US TO THE GATES OF MALFEAS!”

Pushing forward on the wheel, the airship lurched nose down as the captain aimed for the row of brutes that slowly approached the front lines. There was no time for anyone to jump, even the bats clinging to the hull didn’t have a chance to escape before they struck, impaling one of the juggernauts before crashing into the ground.

#

“May your next incarnation bring you peace, Captain,” Agani whispered, saluting the officer’s sacrifice as the Daring Princess went up in flames.

Wrath of the Righteous Dragon gripped his Grand Daiklave firmly in response to her emotion as she strode forward with renewed determination. The Warstrider mimicked her movements thanks to the strings of essence that connected her limbs to the machine, piloting it in a manner akin to puppeteering. Raising the Daiklave, she channelled her fiery essence through his frame, a bolt of fire lashing out at the closest siege beast through the essence lens in the Daiklave’s hilt. Still reeling from the explosion of the Dashing Princess, the beast never saw its final death as the beam sliced it in two.

“Any time now, Delani,” Agani whispered, sweating from worry as the siege beasts charged and the giant bat cavalry swooped down from the sky.

#

Skipping from branch to branch, Tetsu and Pensri quickly caught up with the undead Tyrant Lizard that lurched forward at the rear of the armies of the Underworld. Praying that they had gone unnoticed, Tetsu leapt onto the tail as it whipped from side to side, balancing the great beast, running up the spiny ridge towards the howdah on its back. Wasting no time, she vaulted the railing, landing on her feet in front of a shocked audience that included Ullah, Inkfinger, two slaves and a strange ghost clutching an obsidian skull.

“Ah, Tetsu,” Ullah greeted warmly, fanning herself without so much as a glance over her shoulder, “so good of you to drop in.”

“Tetsu?!?” Inkfinger asked incredulously, empty eyesockets staring.

“Inkfinger,” Tetsu greeted with distain. “You’ve looked better.”

“I like your new look,” Ullah complimented, gracefully sliding off her divan. “It suits you much better, I think.”

“This wasn’t my choice…”

“No but I wonder if the choice had been offered if you wouldn’t have taken it anyway,” Ullah mused, glancing over her shoulder with her fan concealing everything but her eyes. “I saw through that hard shell of yours the moment you opened your eyes. You wore your scars like armour to protect the softer side of your soul. Now that side of yourself has been laid bare for all to see and it has made you… vulnerable.”

Tetsu chuckled. “Trying to attack my confidence? Ullah, the only reason we’re talking right now is that you owe me the answer to a single question. After that, I know there’s no way this can be resolved peacefully.”

“Do you really imagine that I taught you enough of Dark Messiah Style that you can hurt me?”

“I’ve learnt new tricks since then. My question is: why did you fish me out of the river?”

“Ah, yes, my masters were quite angry with me for nursing you back to health,” Ullah admitted, “but I managed to convince them that you would be of far greater use as an ally than as a corpse. I still hold that to be true.”

“I would never join you!” Tetsu snarled.

“On the contrary, now that you’re here… it’s inevitable.”

Tetsu dropped to her knees with unnatural speed as Ullah’s war fan sliced through the air where her neck had been moments before, flying in a graceful, circular, arc before returning to the Deathknight’s hand. Using the divan as cover, Tetsu kicked the back rest to launch it forward, forcing Ullah to skip backwards and scattering the slaves chained to it in the process. Suddenly yanked off his feet from behind, Inkfinger screamed as Pensri pulled him over the edge of the howdah, letting him fall to the forest floor. The Lunar’s seven section staff lashed out for the ghost with the obsidian skull but Ullah caught the tip of the weapon with her free hand.

A bright flash of essence nearly blinded the rest of the combatants as Tetsu called upon her essence. The brilliant white aura exploded into a complex halo of nine interlinked circles orbiting a single disc edged in gold whose light fluctuated like the flare of the sun. White energy writhed across her skin as she leapt forward, her fist striking with the force of a thunderbolt. The impact with Ullah’s face produced a shockwave strong enough to tear the howdah apart, blowing off the roof and reducing the balustrades to kindling. The ghost necromancer, slaves and Pensri were pitched off the back of the Tyrant Lizard whole Ullah was hurled away, rocketing over the undead lizard’s head like a meteor before hitting the earth with enough force to make a crater in the ground.

Shocked at her own strength, Tetsu barely managed to retain her focus enough to chase after her target, leaping off the back of the wild beast and sprinting through the trees. The sound of Ullah’s laughter echoed around her as the Deathknight rose to her feet, half the flesh on her face torn away by the blow revealing white bone as dark blood dripped from the grotesque wound. Rearing back, her grin split her face in half as she unleashed an eardrum-shattering scream. Tetsu ran straight into the wall of sound which knocked her off her feet, reverberations in the air tearing her robe as the treetrunks around her burst from the inside. Managing to land on her feet, she slid along the ground several feet before coming to a halt, leaving a long furrow along the ground in her wake.

Ullah strode out of the crater, her gait stuttering unnaturally between fast and slow steps as her teeth elongated into jagged fangs, still cackling insanely as she approached. “That actually hurt,” she commented before biting into her wrist, dark clouds of twisted essence gathering around her as blood slithered from the wound, forming a long crimson whip that coiled itself on the ground beside her. “It’s a great pity but if you will not join me willingly, you must be broken!”

Trying to dodge the first stroke from the lash, Tetsu was a little too slow. The whip burned through her sleeve, the boiling blood opening a gash in her shoulder and sent a bolt of pure pain through her veins, forcing a scream from her lips. The magic of her bracers kicked in, immediately sheathing her in a field of protective white essence that absorbed some of the blow but failed to block it completely. Rolling back out of reach of the successive blows, Ullah forced her into a steady retreat, advancing to keep the Solar within reach.

Snarling, Tetsu grabbed the whip, counting on the sheathe of essence to protect her as she coiled it around her wrist and yanked Ullah off her feet. Not sparing herself a breath of relief as her armour resisted the blood’s baleful effects, she turned and ran, dragging the Deathknight several yards across the rocky ground before flinging her into the air. Spinning uncontrollably, Ullah arrested her flight by grabbing onto a branch as she passed by, catapulting herself back towards Tetsu feet first.

Spinning out of the way, Tetsu was forced to take Ullah’s second blow, a spinning back kick, on her injured shoulder. Grabbing the Deathknight’s robe, Tetsu pushed as she kicked Ullah’s feet out from under her. What she didn’t expect was her enemy’s hair to suddenly come to life, yanking her down on top of Ullah as it tangled itself around her arms and legs. Tetsu gritted her teeth as the strands began to squeeze.

“Usually I prefer to be on top,” Ullah whispered into Tetsu’s ear intimately as her clawed hands slipped through the tears in the Solar’s shredded robe.

She didn’t get very far. Growling through clenched teeth, Tetsu hammered her forehead into the bridge of Ullah’s nose. Tearing herself away from the dazed Deathknight, ripping Ullah’s hair apart in the process, Tetsu eschewed elegance to beat her enemy with her fists. Regaining her wits, Ullah drove her claws at Tetsu’s face, forcing the Solar to grab her wrists which left an opening for the Deathknight to plant her foot on Tetsu’s chest to thrust her away.

“No more games,” Ullah declared, black lightning arcing between her fingertips as she rose into the air. Storm clouds of dark essence with leering, demonic, faces roiling inside gathered around her as the Midnight Caste’s anima banner manifested in all its unholy glory. The dark gems on the black amulet around Ullah’s neck seemed to draw in the black lightning, glowing a cold purple as it absorbed the Deathknight’s essence.

Moving faster than her shadow once more, Tetsu barely dodged the stroke of dark energy that leapt from Ullah’s amulet. The bolt’s impact left a smoking hole in the ground behind her. Taking cover behind a tree, Tetsu was hurled away when Ullah’s second bolt shattered the trunk, sending splinters in all directions. The Solar was doubly thankful for Aten’s gift when the wooden shards bounced harmlessly off her essence shield.

Catching the falling log on her shoulder, Tetsu’s essence surged through her arms as she pitched it back at the Deathknight. Caught off guard, Ullah was knocked out of the air, driven into the earth as the log fell on top of her. The black lightning flickered and died as she wailed and thrashed, though try as she might she was simply too weak to budge the treetrunk on top of her. Approaching cautiously as the Midnight Caste hissed like a cut snake, Tetsu managed to grab her free claw and pin it under her knee before grabbing Ullah’s throat to get the Deathknight’s full attention.

“Who are your masters?” Tetsu demanded.

Ullah laughed weakly. “Darling, you could have just asked. I serve the Deathlord known as the Lover, as will you one day.”

“Not today,” Tetsu spat. “What was your purpose in killing Cathak Markul?”

“I didn’t kill him,” Ullah denied, Tetsu’s grip making her choke out the words, “I just… took… the opportunity…”

Pushing away with a snarl, Tetsu stepped back out of reach. “What opportunity?”

Breathing easier, Ullah sighed. “Markul had an important destiny, when he died prematurely the threads of his fate were unravelled in the Loom. It tangled the fate of this area up so badly that the Sidereals can’t read what’s happening here, I was sent to investigate and turn it to my mistress’ advantage.”

“That’s all Markul was? A smoke screen?”

“Don’t look at me like that, I didn’t kill him… not that I wouldn’t have if I’d had the opportunity. Besides, if not for the snarl they’d have sent the Wyld Hunt after you by now. Enough playing around, darling, let me up. It was fun but the novelty’s wearing off.”

Tetsu snorted. “You take me for a complete idiot?”

“Come now, I know we don’t really want to kill each other. Your potential makes you more valuable to me as an ally than a corpse and you know that I can escape from under this log anyway, just like I escaped from your Lunar friends. Also, I’m willing to offer you… compensations…”

It took Tetsu such an effort of will to throw off the sudden lustful compulsions that assaulted her body and mind that she was driven to her knees, panting breathlessly. “Damn you!” Tetsu swore, grabbing a large rock and lifting it over her head. The Deathknight’s body melted away as she brought it down where Ullah’s face had been grinning at her, impacting with nothing but a dark, bloody, liquid that spattered her face. The pool was quickly absorbed into the ground moments later, disappearing without a trace.

Tetsu’s scream of frustration and anger was drowned out by the fall of the Tyrant Lizard’s body to the ground, stitches breaking open from the force of the fall to spill large maggots from the corpse. Hopping lighting off the head of the felled beast, carrying the obsidian skull in her hand, Pensri skipped happily over to Tetsu, grinning from ear to ear. “Sorry, those three were a real handful,” she apologized, holding out the obsidian skull. “Here, I’m not strong enough to smash it.”

With her rage suddenly given an appropriate focus, Tetsu snatched the obsidian skull from her grip. Considering for a moment, the Eclipse hurled the baleful orb high into the air, keeping one eye on it as it descended before leaping into the air and striking it with a flying kick that shattered it into a thousand pieces.

#

Planting the foot of Wrath of the Righteous Dragon on the dead siege beast’s shoulder, Agani pulled the daiklave from the beast’s chest with a powerful heave of its mechanical limbs. The Dragon was as scraped and dented as the pilot inside was tired and battleworn. Sweating profusely from her exertions in the pilot’s cocoon, the Fire Caste surveyed the battlefield around her through the sensor goggles connected to the Dragon’s eyepiece. The stairs had held, mercifully, as the Brass Pyramids had held off the main thrust of the attack. The outlying mansions hadn’t been so lucky, many of them destroyed as the local dragonbloods led the Legion in running battles while the fell bat cavalry swooped down on them from above.

The sudden screech of a thousand voices that filled the air around her nearly drove the mortals around her to collapse. Zombies staggered and fell like puppets with their strings cut as the magic animating them oozed from their orifices like smoke. The spined bats fell from the sky in a bizarre rain, spattering the mountainside with gore. Wailing and clutching their heads, only the siege beasts remained, momentarily distracted before being driven into a pain-fueled rage as they tore into everything around them.

“DEFENDERS OF THE LINE!” Agani called for the attention of the soldiers around her, her voice enhanced by the Dragon’s external speakers. “REINFORCE THE OTHERS! FOR THE REALM AND THE DRAGONS!”

Her battlecry was echoed as the men as they followed her lead, lust for vengeance tempered with the desire to aid their battle brothers as they charged heedless towards the raging monsters. Agani cleaved the first of the siege beasts in two from behind before she was noticed by the rest but a second beast charge through one of the mansions, shrugging brick and mortar aside as it grabbed her pauldrons, toppling the warstrider. When it hammered its fists into the Dragon’s armoured shell, Agani could hear the wail of crumpling metal with every blow.

As quickly as it had struck, it was blown to pieces by a blast of essence from above. Shoving what remained of it off of her, Agani looked up and grinned when she saw the Dashing Prince, only a little worse for wear, blasting the siege beasts on all sides. “IT’S ABOUT TIME!” Agani called out, waving in thanks.

Jumping from the railing to slide down a nearby rooftop before landing elegantly on the ground, Hathor hefted her gigantic Grand Goremaul over her shoulder and waved back, returning the grin that could be heard in Agani’s voice. “Sorry we’re late, ran into some of these bat-bastards…”

Another siege beast came stomping down the street, a score of men chasing after it with hooked nets, trying to tangle its feet so that the spearmen could finish it off. Stepping into the path of the beast, Hathor casually scratched her nose before leaping into the air and crushing its skull with a single overhead blow, skipping down the bone-plated back before landing casually on the ground again. “As I was saying,” Hathor continued, “looks like you had your hands full here.”

“DID YOU FIND THE NECROMANCER?” Agani asked, thankful that the conversation allowed her some rest.

“Not us,” Hathor answered dubiously, “we thought it was you or Sarro. Nevermind, we have a battle to finish, sister, we best be to it.”

Lifting the Dragon’s daiklave again, Agani followed the Earth Caste with renewed fire burning in her veins. “INDEED.”

#

Dark ichors sprayed from the beast’s punctured eyeball as Kira and Mithras grasped the pommel of the blade, putting their full weight onto it hoping the pierce its brain. The men of the Legion wrestled with limbs caught in nets as spearmen sought chinks in the bony plates that covered it, searching for other vital organs. Eventually, it made only a few final weak thrashes before lying still, leaving the dragonbloods on top of it gasping for breath.

Falling back to the ground, the two sat next to each other, panting breathlessly. After a few moments, they shared a smile which soon became a grins before blossoming into joyful laughter. Relief washed over them as they watched the last of the beasts also fall and the cheers of the victorious were raised to thank the heavens for their continued survival. Slowly standing to raise his voice and sword to join the cries, Mithras helped Kira to her feet.

“You know,” Mithras said, “I think…”

Wasting no words, Kira grabbed his collar, raised herself to the tips of her toes and silenced him with a long, passionate, kiss.

#

Looking across the river, Pensri slid her arm around Tetsu’s waist and rested her head on the Solar’s shoulder as they listened to the feint cries of the Legion echoing throughout the valley. “We did good, didn’t we?” the Lunar asked, looking to her mate for reassurance.

“Better the Legion than the dead,” Tetsu answered dryly. “Or maybe the demon we know than the demon we don’t, either way.”

Placing her hands on Tetsu’s shoulder, Pensri turned her around to look up into her eyes. “You did the right thing when you didn’t have to,” she complimented, “that makes you a real hero.”

“Flattery won’t get you anywhere,” Tetsu answered seriously, though she couldn’t help the slight twitch in the corner of her mouth or deny the pleasure Pensri’s body evoked pressed against her.

“Oh? But it got me close enough to do this,” Pensri whispered, leaning in for a kiss.

“Ahem,” a new voice interrupted a moment before their lips met. Looking back, Pensri and Tetsu found themselves looking down the length of a moonsilver daiklave as Valdis glared at them from the treeline. “Get your hands off her, harlot, I claimed Tetsu first.”



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