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....
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...
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.
He says one thing only: "We have arrived."
Under the endless light of a red sun, a monster stirs.
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....
Overhead, the constellation of the Crane rises through the inky revenant sky.
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.
Miles and miles it crawls, the canyon it leaves filled with rotting flesh and dying behemoth-maggots, and it approaches the city.
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.
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.
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.
And so began the assault upon Lookshy.
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. 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.
A dot appears on the horizon, and the mutable world seems to swirl around it, but still those looking on do not move.
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. And still the dot on the horizon grows nearer, the landscape spinning and twisting like wet paint under amateurish hands around it.
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.
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.
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.
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...
And in the other, utterly comprehensible, is but a small, brass horn.
Thus it was that the Second Herald came at last to Creation.
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. The hand places it in a matching recess, in a panel of blackest jade, and it clicks into place.
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.
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.
The Realm of the Dragon-Blooded is hidden from the world -- and the world from the Realm.
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. 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.
His other hand strays to his pocket, where two objects rest. 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....
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. Elari, he thinks. I am sorry.
The metal bird clacks its wings together and runs one hand over the uneven black marks that line its body with impatience. 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.
"Quiet, all of you," he says, quietly himself. "Let's go."
In the city of Chanta, a finely dressed man waits in a large room, as the prisoners are brought in. There are ten of them, he notices; none of them are older than twenty. They attacked a group of soldiers, the guard bearing the prisoners in informs him. They were freedom fighters.
I see, says the finely dressed man. There is only one thing to be done here, of course, but he takes his time in doing it.
When he is done, nine of the prisoners are dead, and the last is set free, to wander upon the treetop streets of Chanta. The finely dressed man is not concerned that anything the remaining prisoner will do will cause him any problem. He smiles.
But three hours later, as the sun hangs eclipsed in the sky, that man stalks through the Haltan jungle in very different clothes, naught but thin pelts and animal skins protecting him from the elements. He runs quickly, dashing through the trees with a practiced ease, and he does not stop to look at anything he passes.
One hour later, he arrives at his destination, an unassuming copse of trees. As he walks, he shifts, changes; where the man stood a moment ago, now there is only a brilliant silver wolf, its eyes filled with cruel intelligence. It pads across the grove, towards the far side. There is something there, the only sign that humans have ever set foot here; a weathered stick juts out of the earth, and two others are lashed across it with vines. And from those sticks, two things hang: a moonsilver necklace of beads, and a single, grey hawk feather.
The wolf sits unmoving before the monument for several minutes, betraying nothing by his actions. And then, as a great cloud passes out from in front of the ecliptic sun, the wolf -- the man -- lets out a chilling howl.
In the halls of the Labyrinthine Cascade, a group of servants stop to chat. Their masters are away, and the dark fate that faces the world is far away from their sights... they stop to discuss what such people often do: the secret liasions and petty rivalries between their kind, the new goods for sale in the City, their plans for upcoming festivals... their innocent laughter echoes through the hall.
When they split apart, some time later, they go back to their duties... all but one, who wends his way through the twisty corridors into the servant quarters, and opens a door silently. Zahara has not had reason to set foot in the servant quarters since they were completed, so she would not know that while the servants live several to a room, in family groups or youth dormitories, only one bed sits in this room.
Though Cerin sees all that surrounds him, his seeking eyes slide carefully around around the Greater Sigils of the Rose, so he does not see the things scattered within: elaborate essence charts of the Cascade and its rulers; records of troop deployments; small items of clothing belonging to the Solars; three silver cords, one still knotted twice; scraps of paper with strange sigils upon them, and notes in every color; a silver cudgel, blood dried upon it from a single impact; strange crystalline objects and abstract statues of brass and iron and tiny planetariums that map the sky; and a single, purple nightshade.
The servant moves to a closet, and throws it wide. He begins to remove his servant attire, his drab uniform and a false beard... and in that closet hang many other accoutrements: tiny pots of metallic facepaint and sheets of lizard scales, with leather straps; mons of Realm houses and sigils of Dragon-Blood rank; soldier's insignias and cheap iron weapons and boots; masks of many descriptions and bowls of sticks and earth and water and incense; fine silk robes and home-sewn outfits... and in one corner, a suit of heavy, orichalcum armor; dark makeup and face putty; a golden spear, wrought in the shape of a rising flame -- and a stuffed horse head upon a stick, like a toy a child might play with.
The servant, dressed now only in simple red robes, sits down and looks at one of his sky-readers, and as the sun falls behind the moon, he begins to laugh.
In the heavenly city of Yu-Shan, past the grand parks and glorious buildings and beautiful orchards, in the very center, lies the Jade Pleasure Dome, which none enter except when bidden; and the Swords of Truth stand, unassailable, at every entrance.
Within its heart is the vast Seraglio... Amidst the extraordinary lounges, the fountains filled with celestial fish and the self-replenishing banquet tables, the mirrors of scrying and the chambers of visitation...
There are thirteen thrones in the Seraglio, and one smaller seat of honor besides. Six sit in one corner. Until recently, they were covered in a tarp of blackest night; but now, they are uncovered once again. Five of them, and the seat of honor, are sat together now... five maidens of infinite youth and glory, clad in bright colors; and one ancient, wizened but strong, each part of her body seeming to sing in its own unique voice, clad in brown and grey... and amidst them, shimmering scraps of white and blue fabric, singed and torn and bloodied but still beautiful, hundreds in number, each with its own texture and shape...
At the center of the Seraglio are the Games. A vast circular table wrought in jade, like a vast, low goblet; the four directions called out at its edges, and filling it... an opalescent liquid that seems to flow and move and change to anything at all at the whim of those seated about it -- though that is just the pale shadow cast by unimaginable greatness upon mortal eyes.
In the last two thrones, east and west, sit the remaining two, clad in their finest regalia that glint and reflect the light cast across the table by the other... each sits as if lost in thought, as thousands upon thousands of possibilities play out in ghostly form across the fluid table, as each considers the results of innumerable possible maneuvers and approaches.
The Moon smiles. It is a vicious smile, and bares her canines. At her neck is a string of silver beads, each shifting and changing at every moment. She fingers it in a gesture that some might take as innocent, but the other recognizes the intention it carries.
Though a greater purpose motivates this activity, the moon has always looked upon it but as amusement. She licks her lips with vigor, and reaches for a goblet of ambrosia.
The Sun hrms loudly. He looks at his own possibilities with a dissatisfied air. Perhaps he makes a face as well, but a featureless golden mask hides it from the world.
At his belt hangs a sack that was once full to the brim with coin, and he jangles what little remains within it now idly with one hand, while another -- heavily bandaged and swollen -- hangs uncertainly over the board. And somewhere deep within that liquid, somewhere -- anywhere -- is a single spot of nothingness, but no matter how many options he gazes at, no matter how many times he tries, after thousands of years he still cannot find it. The Sun sighs as the the Moon eagerly drinks from her cup, and stares at the board one last time. His last two hands cross in thought and he ponders for a long, drawn-out moment before proceeding.
With his wounded hand, the Sun makes his move.
A golden disc, two concentric, hollow circles carved upon its face, is swallowed up into The Fivescore Realization of Truth; and deep within the manse, great energies are redirected, channelled, and they begin to flow through it...
On the frozen Northern wyld-border, a great, empty palace of ice and blue-flame begins to glow from within... In the south, five volcanoes begin to belch out greenish-blue smoke as the magma flows beneath them realign... Across the face of Creation, distant manses and geomantic relays that have lain dormant for millennia spring once more into life.
There is a great pause, as the energies that build around the border of Creation stretch taut and struggle vainly for release, until, suddenly... they break free, and like a tidal wave, the crush of reality rushes outwards from the border, sweeping away the taint of chaos in its wake, and leaving lands long-gone -- asleep for years upon years -- in place.
Outwards, unabated, the wave rushes, through forests and mountains and stranger things besides; outwards it rushes, until upon the borders where once Solar geometers marked the edge of all reality, it reaches its ebb.
In the far north, the great crystalline nation of On-Ram spins once more amidst the Empty Sky, and as the sun shines upon it once again, it begins to ponder a long series of new developments that have come to its attention....
In the east, the city of Era'vina waits expectantly, for much in their fate is hung upon what occurs in the world in this five days. In one house, a woman, radiantly luminescent and sad, looks out the window at the familiar twisting, purple sky... but as she looks, a great wave of Essence washes over it, and the black sky of Calibration takes its place. She looks out to the West, and wonders at what will happen next...
About the distant border of the world, they shine into being: the lost spheres, Incarna who have lain dormant for an Age of mankind, and their light falls down upon the world.
Upon the Blessed Isle, a woman fights a war. It is a dirty war, an unhappy one: but it is what she was born to do. Somewhere, deep within her soul, a tiny rose bush blossoms into a great tree. She opens her eyes, as Essence cascades over her skin, as an empty vessel that has sat within her for so long suddenly fills up again....
And then she pushes her troops onward again.
In the halls of the Labyrinthine Cascade, all is quiet at first glance, for those who live there have gone.
But in one meeting hall, a quiet gathering has been called. The messenger came an hour ago, and already, they have gathered.
Ahoram is there, and Shining, and others... newer faces, but all clad together in the red and gold uniform of the Resplendent Sabres, and Serenal, grinning proudly at their head. And after a moment, the one they wait for arrives: a girl -- or a woman... her hair back, in a grand and glorious suit of Orichalcum armor that shines brilliantly, and a great lion's head at her neck.
She lifts up the Eventide gently and smiles, before speaking: "Alright, everyone. It's time to go."
Space opens. There are a thousand screams, and then, silence.
In the depths of the Auric Temple, a red-clad hand -- a different one -- clutches a gold disc, sunburst cut across its face. It rubs the design once, with great familiarity, and then, it sets the seal into the black jade panel.
In Lord's Crossing, the citizens sleep an uneasy sleep. War tears at their homeland, and darkness envelops the daytime -- but at least sleep promises a brief respite, they hope.
It is the last sleep they will ever know.
Throughout the city, they bloom: ten thousand vicious rose bushes, their branches and vines of jagged iron, their thorns as sharp as any blade. They bloom, and they grow -- snaking through doors and windows, over roads and under hedges, and at their tips, every man, woman and child, every mortal and Exalt and every bird and beast, perishes in an instant. As blood runs into the streets of the town, and a thousand more screams fill the air, already the necrotic Essence begins to seep around every corner. Within a minute, it is done: no soul still breathes in the once-grand city, and the geomantic heart of Lord's Crossing plunges like a thunderbolt into the netherworld. He might smile within the armor, though it is hard to be sure: an observer would only see the First and Forsaken Lion begin to march his troops into the city.
And back within the Manse, the owner of the red-clad hand smiles -- and behind her, four others in black nod as well.
Across the many-faceted shape of Creation, the twelve worlds united together around a seed planted millennia ago, the beauteous home built by ancient exiles... something moves. Tiny tendrils of light, like a thousand passageways, run between the worlds... Those who wrought them once spent five hundred years drawing them from world to world, their intricate web defined by ancient mathematics lost to the world. They have hung there, linking and uniting those worlds, for thousands of years more, and not a thing disturbed them.
Then there is one movement, and they tear away like spider silk and float out into the void.
A passage, the lights of the night sky shaping its path, hangs today between Xara and Elysion, a perfect line in the emptiness. One who walks through it sees an astonishing sight: it is said by some that the stars that shine brilliantly within are all those that could not fit in the night sky, that the silver lines that draw them together across the path are the dreams of the first being to dream.
And then: it cracks. Lines of Essence beyond the understanding of any living being bend and divert; the stars crash out into the darkness, wink, and go out.
The Seven Leagues of the Looking Glass lie between and within all of Creation, a secret known only to a select few... the infinite white sea stretches out under an uncovered blue sky and an always-brilliant sun, and a warm spring breeze flits through. But then an ill wind kicks up and, for the first time, clouds darken the sky... and as tsunami gales rip through the peaceful space, one by one the beautiful white flowers turn blood red.
It is Calibration, and the grandest event in all of existence, the Carnival of Meeting, is in full swing.
In the Thousand-Mile City, the Gods of Creation fill the streets and plazas, as this time alone has been set aside since the dawning of the world... for meeting and remeeting, for wheeling and dealing, for love and hate and trust and betrayal. Great banquet tables are filled with foods that do not exist, while fountains bubble with tonic of ambrosia; fires of every color dance through the sky while improbable jugglers and ethereal actors slip through the streets.
Where a year ago the atmosphere was ebulliently festive, filled with possibility, today the party is more muted. Before, whatever petty schemes the Gods played upon one another, they at least were all united in overall purpose; but it was only some of the Gods -- the strongest perhaps, or the most cruel, or simply the least loyal -- who received the invitations to join the Red Lily at the Carnival held but a mere year ago. And as the Lily War has grown heated, the Gods have matched it; and those who are not a part have not forgiven the strongarm efforts of those who are. Violence is impossible at the Carnival, of course, but nothing prevents dagger-eyes across tables or threatening notes under suite doors.
So the Gods dine and drink and watch the entertainments, but with a wary eye and a paranoid heart.
In the Hall of Entrance, a single golden lion sits, performing as always his duties with unerring dedication, though today there is a sadness in his eyes. This late, there is little to his stewardship; no one arrives late to the Carnival of Meeting, and it is not the sort of party from which one stumbles home drunk. So it is only this lion who notices when something changes, when the Essence that flows through the gates seeps away and they grow dark.There is a moment of surprise, of concern. The Lion rises, and examines the gates thoroughly; his great golden paws tap out the codes that control the rings, and his golden eyes stare through the empty rings into nothing.
Do I go to report this now? the lion thinks, briefly.
He scratches at his mane with one back paw -- his undignified action unseen by any -- while he thinks quite dilligently on the matter. In ten minutes, he has come to a conclusion.
..when the gods are already on edge? And cause rioting in the streets of heaven? No. He sits down upon his paws and sighs a great, catty sigh.
The end of Calibration will be a time to remember, he thinks, an understatement of heavenly proportions. But for now, the purpose of his stewardship suddenly irrelevant, the lion settles down comfortably upon the jade tiles, sets down his great maned head, and naps.
In the nation of Varang, along the southern coast of the Inland Sea, all that matters are the stars under which you are born.
In the capital of Yane, the very streets are a chart of the skies. The Constellational Barracks ring the Twelve Houses of Planar Alignment at the border of the city, and within that run hundreds of earthen paths that align with the heavens, the opalescent and faintly glowing starstones moved by the astrosavants born when Jupiter sits amidst the Treasure Trove. Tonight is the third night of Calibration... but not just any Calibration. As the Sun fell behind the moon, the astrologers of Yane began to gather in the center of the city, in the Court of the Sun, for the event that was about to unfurl.
The moon-hidden Sol bears a unique role in Varangian astrology; those born while the light of the sun is hidden from view take on a different destiny, their reading adjusted in a hundred ways to account for the great reversal. Just such an eclipse would already provide cause to gather. But today, the Triniti Draconis align about the Sun; an alignment that has not taken place in two thousand, four hundred, and eighty-seven years...
At the center of the city, in the Courtyard of Sun and Moon, a thick crowd waits expectantly. At their center, a nervous woman lies atop a stone slab, seven imposing figures surrounding her. She tries to relax and focus on the task at hand. Ten minutes later, it is done, and the high priest of the city lifts an infant above his head. The lights of torches glint off of the child's golden skin, and upon her sternum, a mark: a golden serpent and a black one, entwined with one another.
The high priest speaks: "The chosen child has come to us at last."
In the swirling fabric of the Tapestry, outside the borders of Meru, is something: a being. Once, he was called Esara-o, and Nijan, and twenty-seven other names, and he was an artisan, loved beyond all others in his world, a master of expressions never dreamed by any other. When his people were driven from their home, he rallied them and drew them across a great desert, and stood proudly as they made a new home together. Then he was cast down by his grandchildren, twisted and staked and chained and left hanging in eternal torment. Now he bears one title alone: Malfeas, the Demon City.
Deep within his form lie those who were his companions, once. Like a shadow across the Green Sun is the one once known as Nyx, called by humans the Ebon Dragon. When they crossed the Tapestry in Exile, Malfeas was a great leader; Nyx was a child. He grew to adulthood in the Tapestry, away from Osa, his home... apart from all things that gave shape to the Ka. As such, he was always... different than the others; he never took on the morals and beliefs of his kin, and filled his mind instead with near-animal cunning. His cousins feared him, found him upsetting... but they tasked him with their escape
Nyx had chiseled at a point in the Demon City for five thousand years, undaunted, mindless, like a feral infant. Malfeas had groaned, shifted with the pain, but he had continued on. Today, as he knew he would, he struck through... and a hole, no larger than a pin, opens between Malfeas and the rushing, churning Wyld beyond. In but a moment, the ebon smoke that is Nyx begins to pass through that hole, corroding and burning it, and Malfeas bucks and moans in pain anew... and then, he is through.
And the firmament shakes. For Nyx huddled, trapped, in his prison; but he also lay astride Creation, tangled in its branches and gnawing on its roots... And as he flows out beyond his prison, his body writhes, his jaw snaps, his eyes burn.
The world shakes, in preparation for his arrival.
The city of Chiaroscuro was glorious, once -- the greatest port in all of the South, its brilliant towers rising up fifty stories from the earth, gleaming in red and gold and green, the Adamant Towers of Glory jutting into the clear azure sky and casting their iridescent light down upon the white desert dunes and the Inland Sea. Twenty million people once lived within its borders, and every passenger who embarked for points south passed through its vast port.
Now, only one-twentieth of that lives within, and the city of old is swallowed up by new buildings, squat and ugly besides the astonishing glass towers; salt runs through the streets to imprison the ghosts and mercenaries walk the borders to keep out the barbarians. But it is still glorious in its own way, a jewel of the Second Age, a magnificent reminder that not all beauty in the world is lost.
What those one million citizens do not see, what no salt or mercenary company can keep out, is what is... underneath.
The knot of tunnels that runs beneath Chiaroscuro was once known as Hezed, a primary access into the Underways, in a more civilized time. Today, its gates are shut and lost, and the elaborate mosaics and flame-arts that decorate its length are darkened. At its heart, in the Hall of First Earth, there is a creature... its tendrils numerous and uncountable, and from each, the terrifying remnants of bodies... an ear, two fingers, a tiny foot... And at their center, a single, lidless red eye...
And around it swarms an innumerable brood, dark and jagged; they crawl over its limbs and scratch at the walls and cut one another, not for pleasure or purpose but solely by existing, and for each that dies five more are born in that dark space under the world.
It is almost time.