alsoquin The seasonless days, the time of death and rebirth, the inevitable turning of the cycle of the year and pivot for the cycle of the age.
alsoquin The sun has sunk below the horizon on the last day of Realm Year 769, and when it rises again in but a few scant hours, it will be covered, hidden...
alsoquin So it is now that the world hangs in the balance.
Thirteen stands in the great courtyard of the Cascade, looking down at a pair of saplings that come up to just below his shoulders. In one hand dangles a glass of water laden with Essence.
Thirteen bends slightly, splashing the water along the roots of the trees, and runs his hand along their branches. In the tangles of their roots, he finds recorded his first meeting with the Circle.
Thirteen Along the trunks, their travels are encoded in every twist and roughness of the living bark. He recapitulates his journeys, until his hand comes to the top of the trees, where in the green leaves and tiny white flowers, he finds the strategy he has so long sought, for the battle to come.
Thirteen "It is a little tree," he murmurs. "Not quite to the standards of the Wassiranu."
Thirteen "But it will grow, in time."
Thirteen turns and opens the french doors, stepping into the war room to greet his fellow Solars.
Thirteen "Good morning. Are you prepared?"
Lucent walks in an impossible regalia of woven adamant. The greatest treasure of the Kashaen, reforged by an old friend. Scenes of the past play, reflected with every step, smiles and sorrow to all the rest of the Circle. All the cascade had seen reflected with every step. All leading up to today. And with every step, the reflection of Lucent on the Adamant becomes less and less broken. Broken promises will be whole today.
Lucent Brass and gold woven together around his arms, on his sleeves. The Seal of the Ember King is hidden on his arm, the coronal silent. No great displays, no lights. He steps in front of Thirteen, and finally his own reflection, discussing with Zahara before he left, is whole. "I am."
Imrama In full parade polish, Imrama stands beside his new chair. He has attached a short, thin prayer strip to his coat, beside Askaru's war medals. On it is written a poem begining "The promise of a noble heart is mightier than any death, and the cause of many more beside."
Imrama "I hear the call, and am ready to answer it, General."
Zahara is clad in the somber colors of the past weeks, but new designs of red crawl their way across the contours of the cloak, speaking of darkness and defeat, but hidden beneath the obvious is love, strength, salvation, and the trials of the heart. She draws her hood up, and nods. "It begins, whether or not we are ready." She smiles a little. "I had thought this day would never come."
Lucent "It seemed too far, it came too quickly." Lucent nods, not nervous at all... just resigned. He had finished shaping his soul into that of a champion the last moment of last night... and he was not whole until now. On the nick of time, always. "So, are we all here? Where is Phoenix?"
Thirteen "I sent her to accompany the Roseblack. It is necessary for a Solar to be visible and present on her march, that the Dragon-Blooded may know that she dominates us and has us bent to her will."
Zahara "Hm. I see."
Lucent "That is very much you, yes. Especially on the choice." He smiles to Thirteen.
Lucent "So. What is the plan?"
Thirteen "I will tell you all as we proceed to the Gate. We must arrive at our destination and disable the Gate we use before the assault begins, as the Gate we are using to travel to the Manse is the only Gate on the list we have not yet deactivated."
Lucent smiles to Zahara now, almost like if one could hold another's hand and squeeze warmly with but a glance... and then begins to step out. "Then, let us go. If you have your plan... the time to idle is over. Any more preparation will just make us nervous. It is Calibration. It is time."
Zahara makes sure that the Cascade is secured, and then leads the way to the gates
Thirteen Thirteen begins to lecture as he proceeds. "The plan is simple enough. We will proceed to the Imperial Manse and conceal ourselves within, in wait for Lai and the Seals."
Thirteen "Lai, thinking us deranged and no threat, will assault the Realm with his forces, breaking through their troops to allow him and his cronies to reach the Manse while his men subdue the Dragon-Bloods."
Thirteen "At this time we will spring our trap. While we intercept Lai, Tepet Ejava will lead the Army of the Sunlands against the unexpecting forces of the Red Lily, assisted by Phoenix of Ashes."
Thirteen "As a great hero of the Dragon-Blooded, the resistance will rally to her side, and together they will make hay of Lai's army, while we deal with him directly, and the reinforcements he expects through the Gates find themselves stymied."
Thirteen "Are there any questions?"
alsoquin As the Solars walk, they can watch the strange twilight sweep over the land. The sun has barely begun to creep over the horizon, and already, the disc of the moon cuts into it, an impingement that will grow even tighter as they each rise into the sky.
alsoquin And those who squint carefully can pick out three stars -- brighter than those around them -- that seem to be moving, too... sliding into their places to ring the eclipsed sun.
Zahara draws her cloak a little closer as she watches the stars, but forges on.
alsoquin The gate -- familiar and well-travelled -- looms up in front of the Solars.
Imrama looks up at the sky and gives a resigned smile. "Can you feel it, Empress? Our rare hour approaches. The warriors, priests and savants have theirs every day, and half of life belongs to the Nights. Now comes our time, rarest of all."
Zahara "I have been through many Calibrations, but never have I looked upon one with such dread... or such hope. But this is our time, and we will use it well."
Zahara activates the gate and steps through warily
alsoquin Zahara steps through into a lost, back alley, deep in the heart of the Imperial City. Far above, the black and red clouds that have obscured the sky over the Blessed Isle for months roil and churn like an angry sea, and a smell like cloves and bitter oranges is on the air.
alsoquin The city seems quiet for a place wracked by civil war.
Zahara waits for her companions to step through as well, murmuring "It's too quiet."
Zahara turns "You know this will attract a lot of attention right?"
Lucent steps through, pondering "No war? No Calibration festivities?"
Imrama "I have never seen a sky like this. I hope that I never shall again."
Zahara nods to Imrama, "We will soon find the source of it."
Thirteen "We will simply have to be as surreptitious as we can."
Lucent looks up at the sky... and shivers
Zahara "Mhm. Well, here we go." She withdraws the spell cord, from the folds of her cloak, and stands astride the great Gateway, murmuring the words, even though they are caught up in the cord already. With a sharp pull, the pent up energy is released with a blinding flash - possibly the first time Thirteen's been blinded rather than blind.
alsoquin The rush of brilliant Essence rushes out and settles over the gate with a hiss and a chime, and when the light dies down, the chaotic, jagged vortex that hangs amidst the gate makes it clear that the spell has worked.
Zahara lets out a long breath
Zahara "Come on, let's get going."
Lucent walks close to Zahara
alsoquin The Imperial City is a strange place, a metropolis of glorious, ancient architecture intermingled closely with the latest construction.
alsoquin Impeccable golden structures sit nestled between those of brick and mortar, clay and wood; the elaborate geometric patterns that once were defined by the city's gold-paved roads are lost under rubble, or covered over with new construction.
alsoquin Only narrow walkways, most partially obscured overhead by balconies, awnings, or other unusual construction from higher stories, run through most of the city; passage for carts and yeddim is limited to a few main avenues.
alsoquin Rising up at the center of the Imperial City stands the structure -- the Imperial Manse.
alsoquin Almost a city unto itself, the vast structure rises nearly one hundred feet from the earth, and sprawls out five times that or more to every side. Its shape from above is like a square, its sides filed away in the sharp-edged approximation of concave arcs; and atop, a smaller capstone, itself twenty feet in height and perhaps two hundred across.
alsoquin Its walls stand, featureless and smooth, the great yellow-jade-striated blocks of quarried sandstone fit together with the precision of a better age.
alsoquin Around it, for perhaps fifty yards in every direction, is the Imperial Courtyard -- a plain, cobbled area that stands in contrast to the busy, crowded feel of every other part of the city.
alsoquin The Solars are coming at it from the west, and a great door, carved with the single Old Realm character for the direction, stands before them.
Thirteen "I wonder where the guards have gone."
Thirteen "I suppose we must find out."
Zahara "Indeed. I shall be angry if there is no one here to fight."
Lucent looks around to try to find... someone. Anyone. "The greatest treasure in Creation, and there is nothing to protect it? No one? They have all left?" ::... I am pretty sure this is a trap.::
alsoquin Zahara turns her attentions to the Essence in the air around them, the subtle vibrations and tiniest motes of light... and something... something is wrong. Some sort of blanket of Essence hangs over the courtyard, hiding, distorting...
Zahara holds her arm out, blocking the others, ::Lucent, you were right. Something is here.::
alsoquin Thirteen looks into matters for himself, training his brand new eyes to the task. The same distortions and discontinuities that Zahara sees, he sees as well... but he is able to trace them together, find the knot of Essence where they join together... the spot where the enchantment is centered.
Lucent ::This is the center of the world, today. If there is no one here... it is because something is keeping them away. Because someone has already taken them.:: The coronal shines. It is alive... but it will not leap out of Lucent. Not yet. His skin becomes as diamond, still looking like skin... but too smooth, and shining on the light.
Zahara ::They are here, but hidden.::
Thirteen ::Not for long.::
Thirteen opens his hand, and a blossom of red-gold light leaps forth from it towards the tangled Essence.
alsoquin The knot of Essence shatters and breaks as Thirteen strikes precisely at it, unravelling the enchantment utterly.
alsoquin Around the courtyard, with a great suddenness, more than fifty Realm soldiers appear -- and collapse to the ground, their bodies rent and torn, their eyes exploded, their blood splashing out on the pavement as their rapidly cooling bodies collapse...
alsoquin And by the walls of the manse: eight Ijarati, Demons of the First Circle -- great scythe-clawed insect-bear warriors -- make a sudden buzzing noise at their revelation, and raise their razor wings in challenge.
Thirteen "Most reassuring."
Zahara realizes suddenly she feels.. sorry for them?
Lucent The Coronal explodes about Lucent, and he begins to step foward. "I do not know about you." Mars shines, so, so bright. "But I spent the whole damn week spoiling for a good fight."
Thirteen "Then I am sorry that you will be disappointed."
Thirteen calmly flips through Wei Dan's demonic dossiers as he twirls his spear, warming up his muscles.
Imrama ::Any caveates or provisos before we send these beasts back to hell, Thirteen?::
Thirteen ::Try to look impressive, in case we are being observed.::
Thirteen spreads his hands, and eight searing twilight javelins appear. With a casual wave, he sends them soaring at the demons.
alsoquin Thirteen's bolts strike into the creatures, cutting a few down and sending sticky, black ichor spraying onto the walls of the manse.
Zahara throws the War Bell into the air (though she does not need to even touch it), and as it falls it rings twice in quick succession, coming to a stop a scant inch above her outstretched fingertips
alsoquin The peal of the bell tears through the air -- and the creatures of darkness -- and they begin to double over, perfectly matching the guards they slew so recently...
Zahara ::Hmph. First Circles. Hardly worth bothering.::
Thirteen ::Shall we?::
Zahara ::Either your plan worked extremely well, or this is simply a warning bell to them.:: She surveys the courtyard carefully before proceeding.
Imrama draws his guns, and a second set of arms formed of transluscent lightning extend from his shoulders, also wielding guns. "Let us find out."
alsoquin In the sky above, the black clouds still churn... but somewhere far above that, the moon slides further and further over the disc of the sun... and as the Solars approach the gateway, it begins to slide open, soundlessly.
Lucent ::Favor the latter. We have underestimated our opponents too often.:: He walks accross the open gate, taking the lead of the other Solars. If something came for them, it had to strike at him first. ::This time, assume they have anything at their disposal. And think of a way to deal with the worst possible thing they might have.::
Thirteen ::We attempted that, but Cerin escaped nonetheless.::
Zahara taps her collar significantly, ::They will likely use essence deprivation as a tactic against us, if possible. Yet they should not have had access to the Manse before this. Still, I am wary. Fighting as a mortal is depressing.::
alsoquin Lucent is the first to step across the threshold of the Manse, into the hallway of polished stone that lies within... and as he does, a hot breath whispers in his ear: "Murderers."
Lucent ::... 'Murderers'. Glimpse just said that to me.::
Lucent ::There are Murderers within the Manse?::
Zahara ::Or are we the murderers?::
Imrama As he enters the manse, Imrama begins to glow, and then shine, and then burn with blinding intensity. He takes a half step into the air, and is wrapped in a private tornado. Lightning and thunder break around him and clockwork birds made of sunbeam alight on his shoulders. ::That is certainly what we are, to many.::
Thirteen ::To him, I am sure we are.::
Zahara ::Yes, of course... and we have killed many in our current lives. But why now?::
Thirteen ::We approach the instrument of his destruction.::
Lucent ::He would not warn us of ourselve... oh, damnit. SOLARS are, pehaps?::
Zahara ::Well. Let's find out.:: She moves forward, cautiously, inspecting the walls and floors for the signs of a trap.
alsoquin The hallway is polished like the outside of the manse, and gold filigree runs up and down it, and characters -- litanies of characters, like repeating mantras, each time a little different, running up and down the walls...
alsoquin Zahara looks around, and here -- where they stand -- apears to be clear... but doors block the hallway no more than ten feet in each direction, and the architecture of the manse seems to block all further glimpses.
alsoquin In the deep south, among the dunes of the Black Lion Desert, three hundred miles of pure black volcanic sand stretch out under the darkening sky. As they have for thousands of years, the dunes lie there, unmoving, unshifting, serene. Until, one moment, there is....
alsoquin A LIGHT.
alsoquin A spark, like brilliant white lightning, shines in the center of the desert. For twelve hours, without cease, it burns, a spot in a vast field of black, and it is... growing, until at the end of that time, it stretches out to cover five hundred yards...
alsoquin And then, that sand, suffused with brilliant Essence, begins to rise up, to shape itself, into the form of a vast, abstract face, its eyes glittering red, its mouth agape; and through it, a group of eleven: ten men, and one other: a tall mass of jagged plates, black metal with the sheen of wan ghostlight, with joints that scream as he walks.
alsoquin He says one thing only: "We have arrived."
alsoquin Under the endless light of a red sun, a monster stirs.
alsoquin On a white-grass-clad hill, the twisted reflection of the Alabaster Cliffs, the Slayer of Nations dreams in a deathly sleep, dreams of crush and bone and ruin....
alsoquin Overhead, the constellation of the Crane rises through the inky revenant sky.
alsoquin At once, one great arm stiffens, rotten god-muscle growing taut with the memory of ligaments long since ground to dust, and it lifts... and the great hand falls, gouging a wound in the hill... and then, with a horrifying sound that would drive any man to madness, it tenses again, and pulls that great rotting body across the land... out of the red light, and into the black -- out of the reflection, and into the source.
alsoquin Miles and miles it crawls, the canyon it leaves filled with rotting flesh and dying behemoth-maggots, and it approaches the city.
alsoquin The gnats swarm out from the city to halt its progress, but they are gnats; it does not stop even to brush them away, and they fall under its inevitable progress.
alsoquin Things greater than gnats come next, but it is the Slayer of Nations, and today is not its dying day; it gives them, too, no heed. Great bolts of light and cosmic energies and great missiles fly through the air about its head, but it does not notice. It simply continues, unabated: one great, cadaverous hand in front of another.
alsoquin And then, the great hand falls once more -- but instead of upon soft meadow, great stone walls are crushed beneath. And from within the Blight of Aeons, atop the great creature's back, they usher forth -- the shades of the dead, tens and hundreds and thousands, streaming down the Juggernaut's arms and into the city.
alsoquin And so began the assault upon Lookshy.
alsoquin At the southeastern edge of Meru, where scrubland brush of burning stones and lionskin rises up from the undulating earth, where the raksha make their homes and mortals do not tread, all is as it should be.
alsoquin Then, in the distance, a horn call sounds out, and as one, the faeries and animals and trees and stones look up towards whence it comes in frozen terror.
alsoquin A dot appears on the horizon, and the mutable world seems to swirl around it, but still those looking on do not move.
alsoquin Then the second horn call echos out, and those frozen in place feel their faces, their appearances in the world, stripped from them by the single, clarion note... Where stood faeries and animals and trees, now just undistinguished shapes.
alsoquin And still the dot on the horizon grows nearer, the landscape spinning and twisting like wet paint under amateurish hands around it.
alsoquin An hour goes by, or two, and the horn rings out again, a higher note, more shrill and piercing... And all who hear it feel their senses stripped away, all knowledge of the world outside torn into shreds and cast into the void.
alsoquin The passage of time cannot be reckoned now. The landscape bends and twists like a reflection torn by choppy water, but no one is there to see it. The frozen raksha, creatures of possibility, take their first sickening taste of oblivion.
alsoquin Then, in the emptiness, the black void of sense, the horn rings out once more, and it is the last thing any will hear, as the formless shapes that stand frozen there shatter and break at the sound... and all around them, sky becomes earth and earth sky and even the lax rules of Rakshastan are broken without a thought.
alsoquin And at the center, immutable amidst the chaos, he stands, indescribable: grand horns of infinite fractal majesty; eyes as big as oceans but small as gnats, yellow as the sun and blue as the moon; taut skin painted in infinite whorls of crimson and citrine and azure, of colors unknown in Creation; in one great hand, a simple staff, gnarled and twisted like the landscape, that seems to extend infinitely in every direction...
alsoquin And in the other, utterly comprehensible, is but a small, brass horn.
alsoquin Thus it was that the Second Herald came at last to Creation.
alsoquin The two doors stand at the ends of the hallway, but...
alsoquin Something... is on the air. To the left... a little...
Zahara draws the edge of her daiklave through a set of the filigreed syllables thoughtfully, "You may as well show yourself." She notes aloud.
Lucent walks to the door on the left... and throws Mars on it to burst it open!
alsoquin Zahara speaks, but nothing happens -- no voice speaks out, no subtle shifting of Essence to reveal the stealthy motions of a hidden predator... well, until Luc smashes down the door, at least.
alsoquin Beyond, there's another chamber, the walls little different from where they are... but on one wall hangs the source of the disturbance.
alsoquin A black sphere of metal hangs upon the ceiling, and bolts of black energy crackle constantly out of it, towards the wall, where a figure hangs, suspended on a great metallic blade that juts out....
Zahara steps behind Luc to see what the source of the light is.
alsoquin The figure's clothes -- the remnants of a Shogunate uniform -- are tattered and singed with centuries of wear, his flesh is withered and scarred, and his face is like a warped, broken skull... but on his forehead, the brilliant symbol of the Dawn caste shines.
Zahara curses softly. "How long?"
Zahara extends her vision and studies the sphere, before approaching.
alsoquin The piteous creature's flesh still twitches from the powerful Essence that still flows through his body, and a faint, horrible burble seems to come fro deep within his chest.
Lucent "He... Thirteen, Zahara... he is... is he... dead?"
Imrama 's face grows ashen and he casts about wildly for how to extract the poor soul from its predicament
Zahara shakes her head, "No, Lucent. No, he is not."
Thirteen kneels next to the body, running his hand calmly along the injuries and wounds it bears.
alsoquin Looking at the sphere, Zahara can only marvel at the geomantic brilliance of the designers of this manse.... the amount of Essence Zahara thought would flow through a masterwork manse is what this building can channel into this singular device.
Imrama "Arathi! My brother we will free you." Imrama looks genuinely lost as to how he can help.
Zahara "Don't touch it yet. There is enormous power within it, and to destroy it may destroy the entire manse."
Thirteen "We must speak with him."
Zahara looks to see if the device is specifically tied to the man, the blade, or if it is actively looking to strike at others
Thirteen "We must learn why he has been imprisoned here."
Imrama looks forlorn at his sense of inefficacy. "Arathi Rugado - can you speak?"
alsoquin If the poor creature is able to speak in response to Imrama's words, it does not do so.
Lucent steps close to Imrama, looking sadly at this Arathi. "What they have done to our kin..."
Zahara stands still, feeling the flows of the Manse around her, strong and throbbing with power, though not welcoming. She watches the way they thread through the walls, from the smallest trickles to the raging torrent of power that focuses itself on the device before her. She follows the flows down to the man - if he can still be called such, and her stomach twists as she sees what it is doing to him.
alsoquin Zahara can see, after a closer examination, that the blade he hangs upon was actually driven through him, into the wall... The bolts of deadly, warping essence that flow into him do not seem to be at any risk of striking any of the new arrivals.
Thirteen ::Before we free him, we must know what he did to merit such a punishment.::
alsoquin The device itself seems to be managed by the strings of characters written upon the wall -- somehow the arrangement of gold letters upon the stone manipulates the Essence of the device towards its target.
Zahara ::He will be in no condition to fight us. I would imagine he triggered the trap meant for... well, us. Or any others.::
Lucent ::... Thirteen. Whatever it is, did not merit that. And we have been hunted and killed for millennia now, you think he did anything to deserve it? Just look at that! Just look at him!::
Imrama ::He is our brother, Thirteen, as I believe I do not need to remind you. And there is no crime that could warrant such a punishment.::
alsoquin Thirteen notes internally that something interesting is definitely about to happen.
Thirteen "Be prepared."
Thirteen ::We have priorities at this moment that may not include this man's well-being. He has hung here for thousands of years. He can hang for a few more hours while we save the world.::
Zahara brings her sword up in a defensive stance, ::He may be able to help.::
alsoquin Almost precisely ten seconds after Thirteen speaks, the manse seems to shake.... and for an instant, there is a brilliant light that seems to come from everywhere around... then, nothing.
alsoquin A red-gloved hand reaches down, and in it, a disc of polished gold, with a hollow circle carved into it in the most perfect of geometries.
alsoquin The hand places it in a matching recess, in a panel of blackest jade, and it clicks into place.
alsoquin Far above head, the ominous black and red storm clouds that have hung over the Blessed Isle for months begin to spin and whirl, churning and spinning downwards, down to hang in great, unbroken sheets around the borders of the vast island.
alsoquin From the roof of the Imperial Manse, the sky becomes utterly visible, the sun's vanishing glow playing upon its roof as the stars begin to poke through into sight; but looking out to the side, all that one can see is the great, unbroken walls of red and black.
alsoquin The Realm of the Dragon-Blooded is hidden from the world -- and the world from the Realm.
alsoquin Arathi moans -- the first thing remotely resembling a vocal sound that's come out of him yet -- as the manse shakes.
Lucent "Zahara? What is happening?"
alsoquin Those with Essence senses can tell quite clearly that the Manse's Essence has been massively drawn upon for... some effect, but little more --
alsoquin it only serves to emphasize that the capacity of this building outstrips that of other manses like a Solar compared to a fly.
Thirteen ::As I was saying, Zahara, he may be able to hurt as well. Let me see.::
Zahara "The stars are aligning. The Eclipse is covering the Sun. Plans are being set into motion... plans that require the strength of this Manse. We really must take over this manse when we have the chance."
Thirteen ::Can you interrupt the flows of Essence into him?::
Phoenix There is a patter of little feet as Phoenix appears behind Lucent. Evidently, omen weather ranks above the Roseblack in her list of priorities.
Thirteen sighs as Phoenix appears. "As always, Phoenix, your dedication and willingness to obey orders is a source of constant amazement to me."
Zahara ::I suspect so... give me a moment.:: She walks to the wall, and studies the symbols for several moments. Finding the right sequence of sigils on the walls, she touches them, twisting the essence into a new pattern, moving down the wall deliberately, and urging the energy of the device into dormance
Lucent ::... I could almost think you ordered her to be away from us so she would be with us. Almost.::
Lucent looks over his shoulder at Phoenix. "Hello, there. Just in time."
Phoenix pats Thirteen on the head, or tries to. "I aim to please!"
Thirteen "You miss."
Zahara looks up after activating the last of the sigils, nonplussed. "Ah, hello Phoenix. Was the Roseblack's crusade too boring?"
alsoquin The sphere flashes a little brighter for a moment, but then -- the Essence begins to subside...
Imrama actually manages a smile for Phoenix. "It is good to see you."
alsoquin After a few moments, it fades, and Arathi, still twitching, is free from seven hundred and sixty-nine years of torment.
Zahara walks over to the man, grasps the blade, and yanks it from the wall
Zahara "Welcome back to life, Arathi, was it?"
alsoquin The Solar moans again and his face spasms, but he still does not speak
Lucent "Hello, Arathi. It is alright now, Sword of Heaven. You are safe with us."
alsoquin There's something in the man's face as he stares at the Solars who have rescued him. It is.... terror?
Zahara twines one of the Bonds around him lightly, and exerts her will. A feeling of peace descends upon him. "Calm down," she urges.
Thirteen "Keep in mind when Lucent calls your current position safe that he is the Zenith."
Phoenix takes in the scene. "That is a most unhappy-looking man. Sir, may I assist?"
Lucent "Can you talk?" Lucent asks, stepping foward, his face as if he felt the man's pain.
Lucent "If you cannot... just nod. My friend here can fix that, I am sure."
Thirteen spits on his fingers and rubs the man's throat and face vigorously, repairing any lingering injuries caused by the deadly Essence.
Phoenix "Oh by the way, Thirteen, you might be interested to know that there is a wall of supernatural clouds encircling the Blessed Isle."
Phoenix "It seems like the sort of thing you take interest in."
Thirteen "Has the Roseblack and our army entered in time?"
Phoenix "They have. I only left them heartbeats ago."
alsoquin Tentatively, and clearly with significant pain -- though, in likelihood, relatively far less than he has been in for these many years -- the man manages to cough up the beginnings of a croaked, faint word..."A...A...Anathe..."
Zahara stares at the man, "Oh my. He doesn't know."
Imrama "No, he clearly does not. I would guess from his name that he was born well after we had faded from the world."
Thirteen "Naturally. He was easier for the Empress to use as a catspaw if he was unaware."
Lucent "Anathema, yes, that is what they call us. But we are not that. I guess they never told you... but you are a child of the sun. One of the rightful rulers of this world. One of the champions that hold the best and brightest of humanity."
alsoquin Arathi looks deeply confused at the words that the strange people are speaking to him...
alsoquin The joy at hearing human speech again, and at feeling the cessation of that unimaginable pain, is crossed with the certainty he has descended to the deepest bowels of Hell....
Thirteen "We are Anathema, and we are Creation's only hope. And so are you."
Zahara smiles down at him, "Today is a dark day, but you bring hope. I cannot promise you safety today, but if you wish to join us, I will do my best to protect you."
alsoquin His eyes widen at the surge of info that is encoded in Thirteen's words. Deep-seated habits and the words of a mortal lifetime long ago war against what has been said, but in the face of rescue they are forced to surrender... and after a moment he awkwardly attempts to push himself up a little on the wall. "Wa... wa... wat...."
Zahara looks over at Thirteen with annoyance, "Did you do that thing again?"
Thirteen "Solve our problems?"
Lucent "... you did not try to give the poor, confused person all the knowledge of history, right?"
Imrama produces a flask, and offers Arathi a drink.
Thirteen "I did not try, Lucent. I succeeded."
Zahara "Honestly, Thirteen, the man hasn't had a conversation in ages. Please distribute information in smaller chunks in the future. And do not tell everyone everything. "
Thirteen "I tell people what it is needful for them to know, using the time I have available to me."
Lucent covers his face on his palm. "... oh joy. Thirteen, ask before doing... such things."
alsoquin Arathi moves suddenly to grab greedily at the flask, and as he begins to gulp its contents his eyes start to roll back in his head from the sheer pleasure of tasting water again.
Thirteen "Why? Knowledge harms nobody."
Zahara "Now is not the time for this discussion." She smiles grimly.
Phoenix digs around in her sleeves and finds a squashed bun and some wrinkly peaches for the man.
Thirteen "Arathi. We must know what happened when you entered the Manse. And perhaps what year it was."
Lucent is about to answer to 13... but follows Zahara, and only dismisses his words with a smile
alsoquin Arathi takes the food Phoenix provides and gulps it down as well, clearly wincing at both the chewing and the swallowing but clearly not caring. Only when he has devoured the last peach and washed it down with the last of the water does he pause to speak again.
alsoquin "We... it was... 492. The... fair folk had... come through the borders, and... everyone was dying... the disease... we came to stop it..."
Zahara gives lucent a grateful smile, and listens to Arathi's tale.
alsoquin "The sphere... it appeared and Essence came out... at all of us... and something came over me... warm and powerful..."
alsoquin "All of a sudden I was able to... stop it, hold back the Essence." Some kind of primitive pride shines in his eyes, but it goes out when he speaks again: "Then she... she stabbed me."
Zahara "That ability to hold the Essence off is a gift from the Unconquered Sun, give or take. Who was it that stabbed you?"
alsoquin "Our commander..."
Zahara "She didn't happen to be a Earth Aspect did she?"
Thirteen "Did you happen to notice a small golden disc at any point during this relatively unhappy adventure?"
alsoquin "Y... yes. With a sunburst on it. She... she bought it when we were stationed in the West." He seems confused at the fact that this is somehow relevant.
Thirteen "She bought it."
Thirteen "From whom?"
Zahara "What was her name, your commander?"
alsoquin "A... a travelling merchant... he said it had been dredged up from the bottom of the sea. Surkha said somehow she'd felt... compelled... to buy it." There's a definite sense of anger when he speaks the name.
Thirteen "It certainly seemed to have served her well."
Thirteen "Well, Arathi, you may take pride in the knowledge that you were instrumental in the saving of Creation from the Fair Folk."
Thirteen "Stay, and you may see it happen again, with slightly different antagonists."
Zahara "We must do so again. Would you prefer to wait here, or tag along... a bit behind us?"
alsoquin The man nods. "I..." he stops for a second. "Everyone I ever knew is dead." He stops and rolls that around in his mind for a moment. "I will... wait for you."
Thirteen "Not everyone."
Thirteen "I rather suspect that Surkha, at least, is still alive, in some sense."
alsoquin The man nods slowly.
Phoenix takes the man's hand. "Are you sure? I do not wish to leave you here alone."
alsoquin "I... I am sure." He looks at the broken blade that lies beside him. "I will be fine."
Lucent "We will be back soon, Arathi. And then... you will have a new world, and a new life, to be part of."
Zahara releases him from the bonds, and the feeling of secure peace fades, though the reassurances of the Solars linger.
Imrama "As you wish Arathi - you after seven centuries you are entitled to choose your own path. Here," Imrama hands Arathi a small, worn, leatherbound volume. "Something to pass the time: one of my favorites."
Thirteen "I recommend that you pledge fealty to me and to the Army of the Sunlands."
Phoenix gives Thirteen a funny look. "Be well, brave soldier."
alsoquin The man gingerly takes the novel -- perhaps expressing slight surprise at its suggestive title -- and then looks up at Thirteen. "I... pledge such fealty. It would appear we are... cousins."
Thirteen "If you prefer. I use the term 'brothers,' myself."
Thirteen "Be well, Arathi."
Imrama seals the oath.
Thirteen "Shall we?"
Zahara watches Imrama seal the oath, not entirely sure what to think about this. First, Thirteen is the one to offer it, and then Imrama seals it. Hm. Where has her mind been?
Zahara "We should continue," is all she says.
Lucent steps out of the room... and strikes out the door to the right!
Imrama "Arathi, my friend, I have one more question for you. When Surkha stabbed and betrayed you, do you remember which door she left this room through?"
alsoquin "She... kept on. That way." He points in the opposite direction of where the Solars entered.
Zahara "Luc? What are you doing back there?"
Lucent "Opening the other door?"
Thirteen rolls his eyes, and opens the next door.
Imrama ::We have a possible lead, Lucent. Back this way.::
Lucent ::We should go this way. Trust me.::
Zahara ::Why what's over there?::
Thirteen ::Trust you?::
Lucent ::Just a feeling. That it is this way!::
Lucent ::Yes. Trust me. Remember my promise.::
Zahara doubles back to see where Lucent is heading
Zahara ::You know, that is only half reassuring::
Phoenix follows Zahara. "Um Zee, where are we going?"
Zahara "I'm not sure, but Lucent says he has a feeling about the direction we should go in. Thirteen similarly has a feeling about which direction we should go in, however."
Lucent "This way. Trust me, I know where to go." He opens the beaten door, and steps through, hoping they are with him.
alsoquin Thirteen stands and gazes into another hallway, bending along the outside walls of the manse -- but ending in a different door, of thick, black jade, with images of stylized water carved upon -- while Zahara and Luc open up a similar hallway, but ending in the standard sandstone door, on the opposite side.
Phoenix "Boys are such rubbish. You take the small one." Phoenix heads back over to where Thirteen is.
Imrama turns to follow Phoenix. "General?"
Zahara ::We cannot split up.::
Thirteen ::Then come back.:: Thirteen starts down the hall.
Zahara rolls her eyes.
Lucent ::Thirteen. Come here. Please.::
Imrama "It's never easy." Imrama divides himself into two bodies, one to follow Phoenix, the other to follow Thirteen.
alsoquin No sooner does Thirteen enter the hallway than a slight sound of air moving begins, and he is once again prepared for a surprise.
Thirteen ::Something is happening here.::
Zahara ::Ah, well. Good luck with that.::
alsoquin From tiny, almost microscopic slits that run along the wall, great, invisible blades of air whip out with immense speed, moving to carefully filet Thirteen into small, convenient pieces.
Thirteen ::Never mind.::
Lucent "He will survive and meet us up there, do not worry." Lucent says, nodding to Zahara and Imrama... and a little sad Phoenix is with Thirteen, not with him.
Thirteen continues walking forward, allowing the blades to slice through his body and tear him into thousands of pieces, which neatly rejoin as he proceeds down the corridor.
alsoquin Lucent's path does not seem to be similarly trapped, and they walk on to the sandstone door.
alsoquin Meanwhile, the air's threat apparently abated, Thirteen stares at the watery jade door.
Thirteen knocks experimentally.
Lucent walks up to the door... and tries to push it open.
alsoquin A slightly distorted sound -- like knocking on the glass at the aquarium -- emerges back to Thirteen.
Imrama The Imrama nearest to him addresses Lucent. "Have you been inside the Auric Temple before, my friend?"
alsoquin Meanwhile, Luc pushes his door open -- and the latest hallway ends, quite clearly, with a door marked with the glyph for the sound "Te," clearly placed upon the design known as the Map of Worlds
Lucent nods to Imrama "Yes."
Zahara raises a brow. "Hm."
Lucent sings to it a First Age Poem that ends each apostrophe with its sound
alsoquin Softly, quietly, the door in front of Lucent slides to one side, and the room within -- completely unlit -- beckons the Solars onward.
Lucent steps foward, calling the Mercury orb to light it on its impatient light.
alsoquin As Imrama gazes in, his glasses cutting through the darkness, he sees... it is a simple room, the walls painted in neutral shades with the outlines of buildings and trees pushing back into the distance... in the center, a pedestal stands, with an object on it:
alsoquin like a spiralling shell crossed with a tree branch, a single hollow spiral that spins off into other spirals that they themselves do the same, onto infinity... and around the base of the pedestal, written "Many From One, One From Many."
Phoenix hasn't stopped staring at Imrama for several moments now. "How did you do that?"
Zahara steps forward, following Lucent, fascinated by the mystery of him.
Imrama "In times of great need, certain leading figures in among the Celestial an Terrestrial gods are entrusted with the capacity to be in several places at once. This is among the gifts my father has entrusted to me."
Thirteen knocks again, harder, bending all his attention towards divining what lies beyond the door before him.
alsoquin There is a feeling, when Zahara steps in, like weightlessness, levity... but also like being underwater, or... dissolving INTO water... and... did Luc always have red sands blowing in a strong wind behind him? did he always have that long beard?
alsoquin And why did Imrama have those stars falling around his head, or that green tendril sinuously crawling up his leg?
alsoquin Luc is similarly surprised by the cup overflowing that hangs behind Zahara's head, or the wounded and bandaged forest animals that run around her legs....
alsoquin Meanwhile, Thirteen takes another crack at his door, and he hears something like a bubbling sound and a loud "clang" this time.
Zahara looks askance at her two companions, and looks down at herself, searchingly, "Lucent, what is going on?"
Lucent "I... we are seeing the truth. We are seeing us." He smiles, watching Zahara... pleased.
Thirteen casts his eyes around the hallway, looking for something useful.
alsoquin More sigils line the walls, between the vicious air traps upon the walls.
Lucent "In a way, at least. It is... highly artistic." He looks at himself... but of course, he does not see a thing. And Imrama... he gulps as he watches Imrama. "Hmmm. Well, now..."
Zahara frowns, not seeing anything unusual about herself, "Blowing red sands and a fine beard," she notes, "Stars about your head, and a rather odd tendril climbing up your leg, but, I see nothing unusual when I look at myself."
Thirteen frowns, and reaches out with his spear to scratch a few oh so necessary lines in the sigils.
Lucent "Compassion. An overflowing cup and bandaged animals. Are you sure you are not the reincarnation of Alahwi, Zahara?"
Zahara snorts, "No, the reincarnation of the inestimably kind and generous, yet mysterious Talmuda."
alsoquin The air slits in the wall suddenly begin blowing, quite forcefully (but not sharply), in the opposite direction, directly at the black jade door.
Thirteen throws open the door.
Lucent "Either way... you are a regular saint." Lucent says... and with a smile, keeps walking foward.
Thirteen ::Zahara. Before you allow Lucent to do what he wishes, find out what it is he wishes to do. I am trusting you, as we cannot trust him.::
Zahara "Oh, yes, clearly." she says wryly.
alsoquin A vast wall of water -- crystal-clear and beautiful -- is beat back almost instantly by the gusts of air from Thirteen's hallway, revealing the route into the center of the room, where a tall pillar of black jade winds its way from ceiling to floor.
Zahara ::If you wished to watch over what he does, you should have come this way. I trust him enough to find out what he wants to show me. ::
alsoquin Rare, iridescent koi swim through the wall of water that still surrounds much of the room, their vast butterfly fins lazily cutting through the water, seemingly unconcerned about all the ruckus.
Thirteen ::Zahara. Does it not concern you that he has an agenda he refuses to share with us, for fear that we will prevent him from carrying it out?::
Zahara ::It rather fascinates me. ::
alsoquin Luc passes out of the mysterious plane's room, not through the main door, but rather the smaller one, carefully concealed at one side... and a stairway runs upwards behind it.
Thirteen walks up to the pillar.
alsoquin Outside the manse, near the shore of the Blessed Isle, a man stands, his face bearing a look of displeasure, his thin red sword gripped tight in his hand.
alsoquin His companions argue. The lizard berates the great dumb god-beast with a cruel grin. The man with the jade eye stands far back from the black shadow, which crosses all four of its arms at him in anger.
alsoquin His other hand strays to his pocket, where two objects rest.
alsoquin He runs his hand over the golden disc for a moment, feeling the half-filled circle design on it with each of his fingertips in turn....
alsoquin But after a moment, his hand moves to the other object.... The tiny key, the fire opal set into it seeming to crackle and warm his fingers at the touch.
alsoquin Elari, he thinks. I am sorry.
alsoquin Elari, he thinks. I am sorry.
alsoquin The metal bird clacks its wings together and runs one hand over the uneven black marks that line its body with impatience.
alsoquin The man in red fingers the key for a second longer, and then he holds it tight for a moment -- tight enough to draw blood.
alsoquin "Quiet, all of you," he says, quietly himself.
alsoquin "Let's go."