Erevel Without warning, the whirling smoke becomes sharp and defined, and five sinuous tendrils shoot out of the sky from every directions, seeking to impale Thirteen's hanging form.
Thirteen twirls his spear idly about himself, deflecting the tendrils.
Thirteen pushes off the rope and lunges toward Erevel, stretching the rope out behind him, spear poised to strike.
Erevel The sky roils and churns in response to Thirteen's strikes, the smoke and lightning rolling casually away from the spear with each thrust and swing; the flashes of dark, greyish Essence add a third color to the blue-white lightning and the brilliant aura of gold that surrounds the hanging Solar. (...)
Erevel .You seem to be tied up, the sky thinks to him, and with renewed ferocity the tendrils of smoke strike out at the Twilight.
Thirteen frowns, and a dim light struggles to emanate from him, through the darkness; the wisps of smoke that seek him lessen as they penetrate this glow, and his spear sends them away.
Thirteen .I believe I have heard something once about all smoke and no fire.
Thirteen gestures with his spear, and brilliant lines are left in its wake. With careful strokes, he seeks to divide and contain his adversary, spelling Erevel's name across his body.
Erevel Though Thirteen's strikes are powerful and precise, though his execution of the martial maneuvers is flawless, though he leans on his offense with the skill of a practiced warrior, they are no match for the Primordial's ultimately fluid bulk; wherever Thirteen's strikes go, that is precisely where the smoky dragon is not. (...)
Erevel The sky laughs, a cold laugh that nonetheless reverberates across the entirety of the plane, through the burning leaves below and up the Spire itself until Thirteen can feel it in the place where the rope meets his feet. (...)
Erevel Can you not appreciate the irony? You cannot defeat me for the same reason you cannot unite your people. You are tied up, laden down by reality, and your response is to strive against the bars of your cage. The smoke swirls menacingly, and Erevel's enormous face pulls in closer to Thirteen. (...)
Erevel But when a caged animal escapes, all it earns is a swift death at the hands of its captors. You should know, the creature says, and the reference to Nyx does not escape Thirteen's attention.
Thirteen When your cage is the world, you ought to have a care not to disturb it overmuch. Thirteen's hand clenches on his spear, and he makes one, exquisitely timed and prepared attack, at Erevel's hideous left eye.
Erevel does not move at all, allowing the spear to plunge directly into its target -- but from deep within the dark cloud, a single, almost unimaginably powerful bolt of lightning leaps out in a jagged arc, to connect with the tip of the Splinter of Wisdom. (...)
Erevel With cracks of its blue light shining out between the rapidly thickening smoke, the bolt flies up the handle of the spear, incinerating it, filling it with the hateful electricity of the hidden Primordial, as Thirteen feels the first jolt of its power seeking into his tightly-gripped hands.
Thirteen hisses and releases his weapon, spinning away and shaking his burned hands. A drop of sweat rolls down his inverted brow.
Erevel Whatever remains of the Splinter plunges into the burning canopy -- for it seems now that all the leaves as far as Thirteen can see are on fire -- and Erevel's eye stares directly into Thirteen's. (...)
Erevel Your strikes can cow me no more than your words could cow Zahara. Your kind has always spoken of their strength, but you strike from a position of weakness. Your eagerness to control, to set the terms for battle, has only led you to overreach. And the great toothy maw grins wider and draws closer.
Thirteen breathes heavily, his frame shaking. Then I will find another way. There is always another way.
Erevel That way is surrender. Accepting your failure. Knowing that your betters have triumphed over you. And with a single, fluid motion, Erevel's smoky head plunges towards Thirteen, jaws wide open to devour him.
Thirteen looks up, staring Erevel in the face as his doom comes towards him...and as the fires rage ever higher below them both, the roiling sirocco carries a single golden blossom from the smoldering branches of the Wasirru, upwards, and upwards, until it brushes gently against Thirteen's open hand, and his fingers close about it.
Thirteen reaches forward as if offering the bloom to Erevel, then draws it back, petals dancing an inch before his teeth, and brings it around as he turns, ending with it -- and he -- unharmed, somehow having slipped past the jaws.
Erevel shoots past with an incredible speed, the unimaginable power of his universe-spanning form nullified by the tiniest of motions, and in missing the Solar, instead swallows the Spire itself, the tip of the tree's vast spike bursting out through the top of the Primordial's smoky head with a sound exactly like that of crashing thunder. (...)
Erevel Thirteen feels the rope on which he was hung snap, and as he finds himself plunging towards the burning leaves before, he feels his senses grow distant and cloudy, like a more dramatic -- yet also more comfortable -- version of oxygen deprivation.
Thirteen holds tightly to the flower as he falls towards the conflagration.
Erevel Thirteen feels his vision dim, his hearing dull, even the feeling of intense heat upon his skin grow cooler as he falls, until finally he crashes into the canopy and the feeling is instead of plunging into deep, cool, dark water.
Erevel After a moment, Thirteen finds himself washed up, deposited on what seems to be a beach of black sands on the edge of an unimaginably vast black lake. The Wasirranu is nowhere to be seen.
Thirteen lies still for a few moments, then gets to his feet slowly, looking inland.
Erevel Occasional black rocks, lined with thin veins of gold, jut out from the otherwise featureless black sand; the sky above is black and empty itself. The only other sign of anything is a pale yellow glow that seems to originate from further inland.
Thirteen pauses, and carefully eats the flower, before beginning to head towards the glow.
Erevel As Thirteen walks, the sand slopes up for a ways, and the glow becomes somewhat brighter, but its source is hidden, until finally he crests upon the top of the dune and looks down below: (...)
Erevel There is a tiny city of black adobe, with many small huts surrounding a central building that is a palace in comparison -- and from within, a golden glow emenates that seems to light the entire crater in which the buildings sit.
Thirteen continues down into the city, heading directly towards the central building.
Erevel Though they are set into a simple, earthen wall, the vast double-doors to the building are grand and ornate, with hundreds of tiny golden flowers set in bas relief upon the black stone; they push open easily as Thirteen pushes on them, which leads him into an entrance hall utterly unlike what stands outside:
The room is filled with elegant silks of purple and blue and red and green, while six white-marble pillars hold burning flame braziers atop them; piles of earthly riches sit in the corners underneath elegant tapestries, suits of golden armor, and unusual abstract statuary. (...)
Two ethereal servitors -- like elegant desert nomads, drawn in golden lines in the air itself -- bow rather dramatically as Thirteen enters the room. "You have returned, saaah."
Thirteen "Please remind me who and where I am."
"You are the Prince of the Setting Sun, of course, saah." The two servitors trade off speaking, while mirroring one another's motions -- at the moment, they gesture towards another intricate set of doors in the back of the hall. "Your family awaits you, of course."
Thirteen "Of course." Thirteen's fingers twitch for a moment, then he breathes out, opens his hands and heads towards the rear doors.
When Thirteen pushes them open, it opens onto an elegant -- if somewhat overstated -- palace chamber: thrones line a central dais, while low circular tables and elegant fountains fill the outer space. What interests Thirteen more, however, are the inhabitants of this chamber: (...)
familiar yet unfamiliar, personages of intimate familiarity to Thirteen, as if through a funhouse mirror. (...)
In one corner, a familiar woman of olive complexion, shrouded in brilliant red feathers; after just a second, she catches fire and screams, only to step forward a moment later in blue feathers instead. (...)
On the other side, a man dressed entirely in clothing of red and black, mixed and matched to form a checkerboard jester's outfit. He wears a featureless mask of half red and half black; on the red side is scrawled a crude smile, and on the black side a crude frown. (...)
On one of the thrones sits a small child of no more than eight, but with a beard almost as long as he is tall; he sits in clothes far too large for him and holds a set of golden spheres that he juggles carelessly with one hand. (...)
And in the foremost throne, the most familiar of them: Zahara, looking much as she ever does in life, but clad in an unusually flashy evening gown and sitting with her legs swung over the arm of the throne, langorously swirling wine in a rather large and ornate cup.
Thirteen glances around, his face clearly expressing his wary confusion, then walks foward and bends his neck. "Hello, my siblings."
"Welcome back!!!," chibi-Luc says, leaping up from his chair, although without halting his juggling. "You've made everybody worried," Zahara says, in an utterly deadpan voice.
Thirteen "I am sorry. I had much to do, as ever."
"So we're good enough to hang around when you need someone to yell at, but when it's time for work you just trot right out the door, is that it?" Birds yells shrilly enough that she catches briefly on fire again.
Thirteen flinches a bit. "You were occupied in constructing the Deliberative, and I have no stomach for politics. Given our...strained relations...it seemed wiser to go alone."
Thirteen "Have you...do any of you feel...different?"
"Different?" says the patchwork Cerin. "Why would we feel.... different?" He laughs.
Thirteen "...it is no matter."
Thirteen "What has...occurred in my absence?"
"Well, we've all been hurt, frankly." Zahara stands up, letting her oddly revealing gown show off more of her brilliant golden tattoos. "Hurt by what's happened to us. Hurt that certain people didn't understand what it was like. Hurt that we couldn't all be one happy family." (...)
She casts a glance over to one of the tables on the side of the room, where two things sit: a black picture frame with two black roses set beneath it, holding a painting of a man in a bearskin, holding a fish as large as himself; and a ceramic jug of milk, with a picture of a young woman holding two swords drawn crudely on its side.
Thirteen "I know. I am sorry. We were fighting a war. In war there must be casualties."
Luc begins to cry, and Birds starts to pet his hair gently. "But we need to be strong together, don't we?" She looks at him with an oddly cold expression. "We're a family. We need to come together when something terrible happens."
Thirteen "Certainly, Birds. We must support each other in the dark times that we face so often."
Thirteen "Have I somehow failed to do so?"
"You lied!" she says, then suddenly pushes Luc away violently right before she bursts into flames again. The child is quiet for a moment, then begins crying even louder than before. (...)
"And you hurt my feelings," Zahara says, taking a sip of her cup. "When you gave that medal to him" -- she gestures off to a previously unseen corner of the room, where a man with a set of cardboard wings taped to his back stands, repeatedly polishing the Eclipse Seal pinned to his jacket and then admiring himself in the mirror -- (...)
"you just did it to hurt me! Don't say that wasn't true, because it WAS!" She then nods, self-assured in her own effective delivery of her very right opinion.
Thirteen "Birds, I have never lied to you, nor to any of you. Zahara...."
Thirteen "Perhaps I was angry. I felt, at the moment, that I had no-one near me I could trust. I was...I felt desperate."
Thirteen "I do not wish to hurt you."
"We've all been desperate," Cerin says. "But we need to move past that." (...)
Zahara swirls her cup again. "None of us are really proud of who we were," she says, and casts her eyes around the others present. "Maybe sometimes we can't get along, as who we were..." She has a distant look on her face.
Thirteen "Then we must become people who can."
Zahara nods. "We must become people who can," she repeats. "Are you ready?"
Thirteen "I am. What must I do?"
"Get on your knees," she says, and flashes a cruel, imperious smile that is quite familiar to Thirteen.
Thirteen frowns, and his fist clenches, and unclenches, and he slowly, carefully sinks to one knee before the Dreambreaker.
Zahara dips her finger in her cup, laughing, and dabs a spot
of the liquid within on Thirteen's forehead, before backing away and begininng to move her arms around in a rather dramatic and elaborate fashion -- but not putting down the cup. "Say goodbye, sparky!"
Thirteen follows Zahara's gestures for a few moments, brow furrowed, before it clears, and he closes his eyes. "Goodbye," he whispers.
Thirteen feels flames flicker around his feet, but somehow the heat is cleansing, refreshing -- not at all like normal flames. With a single gesture and shouted word, Zahara completes the spell, and the flames rush up his body as the others stand back, watching quietly.
Thirteen "We trust, or we die," Thirteen murmurs, "...or we find another way."
Thirteen "There is always another way."
The flames lick over Thirteen's body until they consume it utterly, and he feels himself slip away into unconsciousness. The last thing that he sees is Zahara's smile -- though whether it is cruel or kind is impossible to say.
After what feels like an incredibly long sleep, Spring re-awakens -- he finds himself lying on the floor in the same black palace, though the gaudy decorations are missing.
Spring gets slowly to his feet, looking down at himself. His formerly strikingly colored robes have become a saffron wrap with hints of gold, accompanied by dull grey leggings and heart-of-Wasirru sandals.
Spring looks at his hands, opening and closing them, then begins to walk with purpose towards the door.
One specific remnant of his past existence seems to have carried over into this new form: the signs of where the Splinter of Wisdom burned his hands during his trial are still visible upon his palms. (...)
Spring pushes the doors open and steps out onto the black plains, but where before an inky-black sky hung above, now it is reddish-brown, and he sees hanging in the sky nearby something that catches his opinion: a building like a gigantic indigo flower, a tarnished gold pillar rising up from its center.