- 1 Arc Two
- 2 Arc Three
- 3 Arc Four
Arc 2-2: The Glory of Maharesh
Wind of Swiftness
You gaze out on your latest project from the balcony, overseeing the work. While you could use your Exalted power to make this move along faster, it is good for the people of a place to take part in the glorification of their own homes. It gives them some sense of ownership over the final results – let this be a project that the people of Maharesh have done, with your help, rather than a project that one of the mighty Twilight Caste gifted them with.
Though it will one day run with foul water, the canals themselves are beautiful in the light. This is the central drop-point for the vast sewage system you have developed. No more shall these people dwell in their own filth, content to simply cast it aside out of their sight. Too often sickness and plague have struck this city, growing too fast because of your influence here.
So, you have turned aside from your own projects for a while and set your incredible learning to solving the problems facing Maharesh. This sewage system, specially designed to funnel wastewater through a series of arcanely crafted filters, until nothing remains except the clean, wholesome water, to deposit it into the river once more.
For months, your major domo and other servants have overseen the digging of the waste-canals beneath the city, aided by the elementals of the local water court, who were in danger of dying out because of the dramatic increase of sewage in the river. Now, their court is healthy once more, and they have sung your accolades.
Now, your vision shifts to the streets in the Harlotry. Streets whose ditches often run filthy with wastewater and on hot days, teem with insects. Strangely, the bouts of illness ebb and rise with these heated days, and the low-lying cough and fever that most people take to simply be a part of regular city life, you now recognize for what it is: the result of living too close to filth.
Arc 2-3: Funereal Grief
You stand there, blood drenching your hands. It gathers in your lowered palms and runs in thick gory rivulets from between your fingers, gathering on the priceless carpets under your feet. You look at her remains, the slaughter you have committed and clench your fists.
A slight noise draws your attention, and you turn to see two of your circle-mates, their faces wary, concerned, determined to do what they need to do in order to appease your wrath, but willing to defend themselves if it comes to it. You shake your head slightly and look back at the corpse on your bedroom floor.
“There was treachery being planned,” you say. Your circle-mates frown down at her corpse, and then at you, not entirely believing you. With good reason – it is a lie.
No one would believe that your devoted wife, Thiria, Exalted to the Dragon of Air, would plan to betray you, but it is easier to accept the lie from you.
You are, after all, a very paragon of virtue and righteousness. Your under-priests know this to be so, and your congregation considers this to be one of the fundamental truths of the world, like the rising of the sun and the falling of rain.
You wish you could remember what sparked your terrible rage, but you cannot. She is dead, this woman you vowed to love.
The funeral is immense, and all the city is draped in mourning white for it. You are resplendent in your gold and white vestments, an elaborate orichalcum mask of mourning – a duplicate of the mask of jade that Thiria’s body now wears – covers your face, and you wish you had the tears that it is meant to cover up.
She is dressed in the robes of state that she wore during your wedding, and clad in her jade armor. At her side is the mighty jade daiklaive Kathman-Renn, forged for her as a wedding gift by your Twilight circle-mate.
Your Eclipse circle-mate speaks a beautiful eulogy, upholding your marriage as the true joining of Heaven and Creation. You know that there are those in your Circle who disapproved of your love for what they considered to be a mere foot-soldier in the mighty Imperial Armies, but your circle hides it well. And who knows? Perhaps in the three hundred years since your wedding, they came to share some kind of affection after all. Perhaps they even stopped judging you for never taking a Lunar spouse.
Perhaps you should take one now.
After your circle-mate’s stirring words, no eyes were dry in the city, save yours. You bent to render the sacraments, the touch of precious oil crafted from the prayers of the faithful, the touch of the olive branch taken from the very palace gardens of the Unconquered Sun in Heaven, and then your kiss.
With the kiss, you immolate her corpse into pure, white ash, as you know is your Exalted duty. Her robes, armor and weapon will be laid to rest on the statue of her that your Twilight circle-mate is making, in the tomb in the Garden of Cold Blossoms, the garden cemetery where your circle have interred their loved ones over the centuries.
But still, rage prowls in your breast, and pride feeds it. You know that those two are the conspirators that slew your wife, and you try desperately to fight them back with a faith you think you lost a long time before.
You pray, and hope that you are still heard.
Arc 2-4: The Council of Deceit
You are seated at the head of the table. The table itself is a tiny replica of the Riverlands Province, where the Deliberative has determined most of your work should focus. You look down at the discs of stone that represent cities, and at the tiny orichalcum pyramids that represent Manses held by the Deliberative here. You look around the table at your senior operatives in the organization you have cultivated here: the Midnight Pavilion.
"Talk to me," you say, cradling Lionheart, your Essence-driven orichalcum flame tongue repeater, absent-mindedly cleaning it as your wife begins her report.
"Nothing worth mentioning in Dedansor, my love," she says, gesturing at the map with the long moonsilver nails that you know can grow into terrible rending talons in a moment's notice. "I suspect that the Twilight caste Everwatchful Righteous Star may be up to something strange, but…"
You interrupt her.
"But our directive isn't the watching of other Solars. We are here to guard Creation from incursions from beyond the Elemental Poles. I will pass that information on to the Deliberative, though – it may be worth checking out. Tarria?" You turn to the Dragon-blooded man clad in a buff jacket of black leather, reinforced by black jade.
"A curiosity, my lord. My spies in the city of Hollow suggest that there may be something curious at hand there. Sightings of demons have increased, and our agents among the apothecaries and rare goods dealers indicate that there has been an upswing in the materials used to summon demons. However, according to the Golden Registry, none of the Exalts in Hollow are demonologists."
You ponder, looking at the spot where Hollow rests at the crux of three rivers, and then nod your head. You turn to your wife.
"Imasha, I'd like you to return to Hollow with Tarria. If they are doing anything there, it is likely to be among the deep sewers," you say, applying golden pen to parchment. You spend a moment writing out an order in perfect form, and apply the seal of your ring to it, which affixes a brilliant golden ring in the shape of your castemark, with the sigil of your name in its center. You hand the form to Imasha.
"Take this. It is a levy order to Frightful Clamour, the god of rats there. He will make all of his resources available to you, and keep quiet about it. Tell him that you are on good terms with Old Nibbler in Jakarish if he gives you any cheek, and threaten to have him replaced if he doesn't immediately obey."
Imasha smiles that smile at you; the one that says that she knows you enjoy this a little too much. You wink at her in return. You then turn to Biharri, a junior Night caste put under your tutelage by the Deliberative for the course of her journeyman years.
You look at her, and she lowers her eyes, uncharacteristically.
"Well?" you say.
"I have… nothing to report, master," she says, meekly.
You snort and look at her.
"Pathetic. How long did you think you could get away with it?" you ask. She looks at you with some confusion.
"Get…away with it, master?" she asks meekly, obvious uncomfortable under your gaze.
In a blur, Lionheart roars, and the air is filled with bolts of burning solar agony. Biharri leaps to her feet and tries to dodge, but your aim is far too solid, and her abilities far less than yours.
You walk over to the corpse, as you watch the skin bubble and peel off, a layer of demonic flesh peeling away to reveal some poor fool possessed by one of the Mimic Demons, copying poor Bihari's form.
"Bastards," you mutter. Your entourage looks shocked, save for Imasha, whose enhanced senses must have picked it up as an imposter the minute she entered the room. They look to you, questioningly.
"Your orders still stand. Business needs looking to in Hollow. On the way out, please fetch a page and tell him to summon my Circle. Mimic Demons are in the service of the Targresh Beast, a Second Circle demon that is not to be trifled with alone. I will need their aid – we have a demonic infestation in Dolarith. That is all."
You and Imasha kiss, and then the room is empty. You allow yourself a moment of grief for poor Biharri. Then it is time to go.
Arc 3-1: Dealing with a Rebel
Five Color Shrike
On the cold snow plain in the North, eyes move out over the great army the Dawn Caste has gathered here. Troops look up at their powerful leader, a general and warrior of great power, as he looks upon them from the high hill, the Glorious Righteous Aegis on his arm. His helmet and breastplate are sun-golden and the fringe of feathers along the helmet are the white of eagles' wings.
The city below the army is sinful and ruled by tyrants; tyrants that must be overthrown. An army has been raised and trained exhaustively for months for just this purpose, and now righteousness will raise its terrible golden fist to smite the wicked below.
Suddenly, the snow begins to flurry around the gathered soldiers, as though winds were coming from all directions at once. The Dawn Caste looks around and then the terrible whine of Essence engines assails everyone's ears. All eyes turn upwards to see the Five Metal Shrike erupt from the snow-heavy clouds overhead.
You step out of the opened hatch, unfurling the glorious wings of pure golden essence that grant you flight. You descend like an angel of wrath, with the small blades known as the Celestial Pinions in your hands. They are the size of short daiklaives, and curved, shaped like the feathers of some terrible hunting raptor.
The arrows arc up towards you, and you cut them down in their flight, the Celestial Pinions flashing. In the heartbeat between the time that an archer can release his first arrow and release his second, you have thrown the Celestial Pinions, which split into a thousand-thousand slicing arcs of Essence, and his archers lie dead.
You land near him, catching the Celestial Pinions as they return to you, their golden surfaces pristine and bloodless. He draws his daiklaive and you eye the razored edge of his sharpened artifact shield.
"You shouldn't be here, Prince of the Morning," you tell him, using the only name the Deliberative knows him by.
"Begone from this place, and take the Five Metal Shrike with you," he says, lowering his gaze and assuming a battle stance. "My war here is righteous, and you and yours refuse to assist. Begone, I say."
"Prince of the Morning. In the name of the Solar Deliberative, I charge you with unlawful rebellion and raising an army against a peaceful city. Surrender now." Essence begins to trail along the points of your blade, outlining the perfect lines of defense for you in this battle.
"That won't happen," he says, his own blade sketching the same outlines around himself.
"Then, in the name of the Deliberative, I sentence your Exalting Shard to reassignment that it may better serve the Deliberative, Creation and the Unconquered Sun."
Arc 3-2: Ultimate Expression of Love
You have traveled far, and in myriad forms. In traveling, you invoked your most potent Charm – a Charm you know to now be lost to Luna's Chosen. Though you cannot recall what it is called, you know that when invoked, it shapechanges you into the most effective form for your purpose. You need not even retain that Heart's Blood within your totem-self – it is Luna's understanding that shapes your body to become what you most need it to be.
And so your travel across this land has been swift, wearing the forms of animals that time has forgotten or not yet known, wearing forms of creatures that the Primordials crafted and then destroyed. Short of the most powerful sorceries, few things in creation are capable of traveling as quickly as you are while this power in invoked, and you have used it well.
You are welcomed like a goddess into the August Court of the Five Stones, a mighty court of earth elementals in the Riverlands. You smile and permit them to treat you as such – little elementals do not understand the nuances of the Celestial Hierarchy, though they do their best to mimic its bureaucracies among themselves, like barbarian kings aping great emperors.
You are brought, in short order, before the Five Stone Lords themselves, great gemlords. They are the embodiments of the precious gemstones found throughout the Riverlands: opal, beryl, topaz, sapphire and onyx. They bow and scrape when you enter, bearing your mark of Exaltation upon your brow. They come down from their thrones and greet you personally, dismissing their courtiers – ostensibly to make your visit uncomplicated and your message secret, but also to keep their courtiers from seeing them toady to you.
You explain the reason why you have come, the plans that are now in motion and what role you wish for them to play in the upcoming struggle.
Though they are creatures of stone, they blanch. There is silence among them, as they commune in the unspoken words of stone to rock, and then they turn to face you.
"We are fearful, Chosen of Luna," the Topaz Lord says. "It is well known that you are married to one of the mighty Chosen of the Unconquered Sun. And yet, you ask us to rise up with you against him, and against his brethren, while the rest of the world rises up against the remainder of the Sun's Chosen. Do you not love your husband?"
You resist the urge to utterly destroy this impudent elemental, and to crumble their fine stone palace around their very ears, to slaughter every spirit within and leave this court as a crumbling hole in the ground unfit for even the pettiest of elementals to dwell in.
Instead, you close your eyes and do not weep.
"I love him more than anything in all of Creation and Heaven. I know the good man he once was, and I know the good he has wrought. I would die for him. But I also know the decadent creature he has become. I do not hate him, lords of elementals – I ask you to do this because I love him. And I cannot bear to see this jaded creature wear the face of my husband. He is the kind of monster my husband once fought, body and soul to destroy. But the years have turned him into what he once hated. Will you help me, or no?"
They confer once more, but you know their answer before they speak it.
"Yes. We will aid you, and we are sorry for the necessity of it. Tell us what we may do."
You outline the plan as a single tear trickles down your cheek, unnoticed by you, but not the elementals.
Arc 3-3: The Project
The hybroc lands smoothly on the roof of your tower, tucked far away from civilization. The monsters that haunt the lands around the tower are powerful, bred by your specialized programs, capable of – in small groups – taking out individual Exalts. They are capable of much more than that when the gods who are assigned to acting as the masters of these creatures possess them. Once the servants in the tower have secured the hybroc, you climb down from the howdah.
The doors that lead deeper into the tower swing open and the tall, beautifully robed form of Makara, your demon major domo, strides out into the sunlight. The neomah bows graciously and smiles to see you.
"My master. It brings me terrible joy to see you again – I pray that these three specimens meet your approval." You turn your attention to the creatures that accompany her. The first is a tall, elfin woman, with the beautiful pointed ears like some Fair Folk have, but the sway in her hips and the movements of her body are pure Creation: this is a creature built for the most perverse pleasures, and trained well for them. Makara sees your attention and smiles.
"This is the foremost example of the Gathmara, my master. They are built using Wyld principles, allowing them to slightly shift their appearance to match that which pleases their masters best. Once they have tasted of their master's flesh, their appearance evolves over the next few days or so – they can even wholly transform in gender to match their master's preference. Additionally, they are built to be incapable of feeling any pleasure that is not given to them by their bound master – and since they are grown to be sensation addicts, they will obsessively seek the approval and favor of their bound master."
You nod, admiring the neomah's cleverness in creation. Your eyes play over the next two, who seem to be connected somehow. Both of them have chalk-white flesh. The smaller of them is completely hairless, and its body is marked with small black circle-markings, and it is naked, bowed submissively at the feet of the second. The taller one, far more muscled is also chalk-white, with a full head of thick, mane-like hair, shaven at interesting angles to create a sinister shape for its face. Its flesh is likewise marked – this time in black stripes, like that of a tiger. It radiates malice in the way the smaller one radiates fear, and it is dressed in simple black leather, with a wicked, taloned gauntled on one hand. You follow the chain from the gauntlet and find that it ends around the neck of the smaller one.
"These are something of a symbiotic creation, my master. The Jikari are an aggressive race of creatures, with pointed teeth and a taste for blood and pain. They are created as per your requirements: they are exquisitely trained in all manner of sexual torture and the infliction of pleasure through agony. Unfortunately, their aggressions must be almost constantly channeled through activity, which made them poor servants for a harem. "However, it was then that I created your Djala, the smaller, weaker creature. These creatures are utterly submissive and willing to allow the most wicked of degradations that might cause other creatures to rebel, even out of simple survival instinct. These creatures have none. Additionally, the only sensation they can experience at all is pain. They don't necessarily find it pleasurable, but as with many living creatures, they come to crave even agony if the alternative is utter absence of sensation.
"You see, I designed them to manifest this trait at adolescence, so that they are always haunted by the old memory of pleasure, and seek it forever. The Jikari, of course, are more than willing to provide this sensation, which proves to be an outlet for both creatures. A single Jikari is well-fitted to between three and five Djala. They will make excellent gifts for those of your brethren who wish to emulate your great harems, my master."
She bows her head, then, and the three creatures follow suit, knowing that your approval is literally permission for them to continue to existing – indeed, for their entire race to continue existing.
You smile at Makara, and raise her chin in your hand, kissing her. She leans into you, breathless, as you pull away from her. You glance over your shoulder at the three creatures designed specifically to elicit sexual pleasure for men and women like you. You are great, epic creatures with lusts more than most mortals can encompass. It is fitting that entire races of beings be made for your pleasures.
Your hand slides beneath Makara's robes, and you touch her in those places that make her weak-kneed.
"I like their look, but before I give permission for them to continue existing, let us see how they perform in the bedchamber, shall we?"
She nods, biting her lower lip, as you pull your hand away. She ushers them through the door and you follow.
You've been anticipating this month for quite a while.
Arc 3-4: The Youngest Bull
You are terrified beyond the telling of it. Oh, you certainly grew up knowing what happened to those that the Sun Chose: The Solar Deliberative was notified of the occurrence, and shortly thereafter gods arrived to whisk the young Champion of the Sun away to his new life. One day to sit on the Solar Deliberative itself, but first, training.
The problem is, no one really seemed to know what happened after they took you away. Oh, you've known someone else who Exalted – Thira, from your village, had Exalted to Luna when she was diving for pearls off the cliffs near your home. You remember seeing the brilliant silver light that one evening. You saw the gods come shortly after that, and the young Lunar that everyone knew in your islands, who called himself Leviathan.
But this was different. Herald gods and celestial lions came first to look over the boy, and then the celestial chariot arrived, shining like the sun. It seemed made of orichalcum and it was decorated with the symbols of the Unconquered Sun. The woman who got out of the chariot looked positively normal among the gods and other spirits, but they bowed to her as she stepped out, and then her Caste Mark gleamed.
She took you away and taught you for one year at her Manse. Rose and Gold Seneschal was of the Twilight Caste, but she said that you were of the Zenith. She didn't teach you anything about being a Zenith – she taught you about the Zeniths, and the rest of the Deliberative. She also taught you about Heaven, and the First Days when the Primordials were thrown down. She taught you about the threats to Creation: the Fair Folk and the demons. Then, she took you to Heaven and you saw the streets of orichalcum filled with the glorious bustle of the gods going about their celestial duty. Each one of them was amazing to look upon, great and terrible and numinous and divine.
For three years, she taught you to read. She taught you history, lore, strategy, mathematics, occult sciences and all manner of things. She also taught you to wield Essence, to use your Charms and helped you to develop your understanding of your talents. Finally, in the final year of your tutelage, she taught you the history of your Exalting soul. You know the exploits and talents of every Exalt that has borne your Exaltation in the past, and you know that you shall share in their grand history. You pray that you are worthy of those heroes.
For some reason, you thought you would be with the Rose and Gold Seneschal (which was a title given to her by the Deliberative – it wasn't until recently that you learned her name was Mahare) until it was time for you to attend to duties given to you by the Deliberative. But it seems that you were wrong, for now she has taken you to the middle of Riverlands. Her chariot lands outside of the gigantic stepped pyramids of the Taurean Sanctuary – you are greeted by the winged bull statues that you know house gods meant to defend the Sanctuary.
She has told you that you have ended your apprenticeship with her. With her, you learned to be an adult, a scholar, an Exalt. Now, she says, you will learn to be a Zenith Caste, one of the priests of the Unconquered Sun.
"Remember," she says to you. "Forget what you assume about priests. You are now part of the most powerful order of priests in all Creation – the only god to whom you abase yourself is the Unconquered Sun, and the only gods to whom you bow are Luna and the Maidens. You are a priest of the god of heroes – you will not live out your life in a boring old temple, droning prayers and burning incense. You shall mete out righteousness with your blades, and when your voice is raised, gods and mortals both shall take notice. You are not simply a priest, little one – you are a priest-king of the Unconquered Sun, and all of Creation owes you fealty, but only if you remain righteous, and a hero of the people. Fail in this, and you become a tyrant. And if you become a Solar tyrant, the Five Metal Shrike shall come for you," she finishes with a smile, tweaking your nose slightly.
You turn, and the priests who greet you are dressed in white robes, trimmed in gold. Each of them bears a circlet of orichalcum and the oldest among them bears a crown to match his pectoral of orichalcum, both of which are set with Hearthstones. He smiles, and you feel the warmth of his attention wash over you, like basking in the noonday son.
"Come, Dulani," he says, extending a hand. "The initiation chambers await, and when we are done there, you shall be taken to Heaven to speak with our true mentor, the Righteous Bull-King, who is the god of Zeniths. There is much to do."
Arc 3-5: The Dark Pact
You are terrified of this place. You've hated it ever since you first came here. You stand within the center of the Cromlech Cinerary, a place of standing stones, each with nooks carved into them where sit urns. Each such urn contains the ashes of fallen heroes, the most glorious of the Solar Exalted, their bodies rendered down to holy white ash by the touch of the Zenith Caste.
You hate this place as much as you've hated any cemetery, especially since you know it is a shadowlands, one of those rare places where the Underworld and Creation collide. Oh, you know that the master of this place deliberately created, so that the ghosts of the Solars interred here may more easily pass into the afterlife, yet the fact that he create it doesn't allieviate your dislike of it. In fact, it only increases it.
This should demonstrate your willingness to do whatever it takes to accomplish your ends. The powers that the ancient Solar who resides here, the one everyone calls the Black Psychopomp for his duties and the color of his robes, are potent indeed, and you plan to see them put to use for your own Midnight Pavilion.
You remember laying in bed with your wife, her moonsilver talons running along your shoulder, as you described your daring plan to her.
"Think of it, my love," you told her. "Think of a spy network made up of ghosts, which can be nearly anywhere without being seen. Spies made up of those who can not only get nearly anywhere, but who can simply be called up to find out what they know. Why do I need to investigate someone when I can simply call up the ghosts of his parents, his enemies, his fallen allies, and they will tell me everything I need to know."
Her frown tells you what she thinks of the idea.
"Toying with the dead is wrong," she says simply.
Standing where you do now, it is hard to fault her that thought, in all honesty. You look around you and the Cromlech Cinerary stretches out forever, it seems, though the tall cathedral that is the Black Psychopomp's Manse towers over it all. And then he is there, the Twilight Caste who has delved this deeply into the powers of the dead, that he has learned to harness its Essence in the same fashion that a sorcerer can harness the Essence of Creation and Heaven. He looks down at you and smiles.
"Are you prepared?" he asks, gesturing towards the circle that is inset in the marble pavilion floor. It is similar to those summoning circles you have seen before, save where those are inlaid with jade and orichalcum, this is crafted of some strange black metal that he says is common among the heroes of the Underworld.
"I am," you say and walk to the center of the circle. The incantations will take several hours, but they are incantations that the last few months have seared into your mind. You know it, and when you speak them properly, with Essence, a ghost will hear you and obey.
Arc 3-6: Sorceress-Queen
Wind of Swiftness
You hate this feeling – this nervousness. It is unbecoming a queen such as yourself, and yet it is well warranted. It isn't every day that your city must act as host to the Censor of Imperialism, the Solar Deliberative's representative who ensures that no Solar who chooses to rule over an area of Creation endangers the effectiveness of the Deliberative's mission by becoming too engrossed in their own efforts to raise a nation that they cannot effectively defend Creation.
You know that your nation is considered controversial by some. You also know that it is considered highly advanced and worthy of emulation by others. Though nearly every small province of the Empire of Creation requires that its citizenry attend schooling, no one else makes a thorough occult education part of that agenda.
Most citizens here can identify the most common elementals and demons. The fields of your citizens aren't fenced, but warded – animals are kept out of orchards and fields through the use of wards, and herd animals are kept in by the same manner. Every house is connected to the great Essence grid that powers your city, providing it running water, heat and cold in turn, strengthening its walls and causing vibrant life to grow there. Every home is warded against diseases and unwanted spirits not by sorcerers paid absurd amounts of money, but by the members of that household. Every citizen here knows the correct forms of address for divinities and Exalts, and they know what gods and the Chosen are, rather than holding them in some kind of superstitious awe.
Which is, of course, part of the problem, you know. Oh, you have developed Charms that can turn the meanest peasant into a literate man in under a month, and techniques for awakening the Essence of mortals who have the talent before they see twenty years of age, but the most dangerous thing you have done here is give them the Truth. It is so damning.
But you know what is right. These people have everything, and you gave it to them, and you'll be damned if the Deliberative will take that away from you, just because your subjects don't fawn and fall down in worship of the Exalted and divinities when they appear. And why should they? You have seen plenty of less-than-enlightened behavior among the gods of Yu-Shan and the Exalted of Creation: they are not numinous beings worthy of awe. They are flawed. Impure. Imperfect. You don't expect worship because you know that it isn't right, and you'll be damned if you see your citizens extend worship to those that don't deserve it. Better they be armed with the Truth, over superstition.
And you intend to tell this Censor that, too. Damn them all. You have turned the temples of your city into places of art, places where your people can better understand the gods, not fall to their knees and worship like peasants groveling in the mud. And if the gods don't like it, then that is too damned bad. When they are creatures worthy of worship, they shall get it.
You find your ire growing within you, like a creature growing out of control. You have strived, for so long, you have sacrificed so much, to come as close to perfection as you may. And you know that you are a long, long way away from it — and your fellow Exalts and the gods of Heaven are no closer than you.
Let them bring you up on Celestial charges, then, if that makes them happy. You do your duties – better than most. You and your Circle have been called upon to defend Creation time and again; you have educated young Exalts in what it means to be a Solar, educating them in every nuance of knowledge and understanding before sending them to one of the Five Academies.
You have given much for Creation, and should the Deliberative try and penalize you for telling the Truth, for not encouraging superstition?
Then let them try.
Arc 3-7: The Bereaved
Five Color Shrike
You stand over the body of the Prince of Morning and look out over the hilltop, down into the valley where sits the barely-saved city of Silverfall, which he would have laid siege to. You look around you as you wipe the blood from the Celestial Pinions, and sheathe them on your back. His army has broken and fled, and the army of Silverfall have emerged from the gates to harry them.
Before you are aware of it, you are moving. The Celestial Pinions are in your hands and you have blocked the claw-slash of the terrible war-form of a powerful wolf-totemed Lunar. You leap back, your wings of solar light unfurling from your back and you hover in mid-air, appraising your foe.
The Lunar circles beneath you, watching you carefully. It stops, then, and looks down at the corpse of Prince of Morning. You land a distance away, respectfully. The Lunar shifts and falls to his knees, his once sure movements made jerky by sobs of grief, as he pulls the body of his beloved to his chest. He sits there, rocking back and forth, for several minutes, his only sound the choking sobs he cannot quite contain or quiet.
Then, he lifts his head skyward, to the cold sky overhead and screams into the night, and his scream turns into a howl that is answered by packs of wolves in the deeper wildernesses nearby. The Lunar's silver eyes come to rest on you as he gently places the body of his mate back on the ground and then rises.
"He was a criminal," you say, sheathing the Celestial Pinions once more. "He knew that he acted in defiance of the wisdom of the Solar Deliberative. He was warned, multiple times, and yet he still marched."
The Lunar only glowers and slowly circles you, his muscles quivering with rage and grief. He stops, however, when the city of Silverfall comes into view. You look upon it as well and look back to see the Lunar watching you.
"Do you know what lies within that city?" the Lunar asks.
"Innocents," you say grimly, your eyes narrowing. "Innocent men and women that would have died because your mate chose to march upon their city, because he had a quarrel with the master of that city."
"A quarrel?" the Lunar looks at you, his face aghast, shocked.
"Yes. The rivalry between Prince of Morning and the lord of Silverfall is well-known in the halls of the Deliberative," you say gently, not wishing to provoke the Lunar into battle.
"Is that how he paints it?" the Lunar asks quietly, his voice suddenly become silkly and deadly. "Is that how it looks from the lofty tower where you dwell, O Arbiter of the Chosen."
The Lunar smiles when you furrow your brow.
"Arbiter of the Chosen. Such a presumptuous title you Solars have chosen for an executioner. Arbiter of the Chosen. Do you see yourself as the equal of the Unconquered Sun, Arbiter of the Chosen. Do you truly believe you have the right to un-Choose those whom your God has Chosen? Such arrogance."
You narrow your eyes. You don't rise to the challenge, though – he is obviously attempting to goad you to combat, hoping you will strike first. He knows the penalty for attacking the Arbiter of the Chosen in the course of his sworn duties: forfeiture of Exaltation and life.
"Know this. The silken tongue of the one who rules that town has poisoned your mind. My beloved knew this Eclipse caste, fool. Knew him too well. He knew the perversions he practiced, and knew whence came his breeding programs."
"The personal lives and endeavors of the lord of Silverfall are not in question here, Lunar. He is a defender of Creation, and a speaker for Heaven…"
"No!" the Lunar shrieks, nearly at the top of his lungs. "You fucking idiot! Don't you see? That's just it – he has wormed his way into your precious, bloated bureaucracy, the leech that clings to the drained corpse of Heaven, and all the while he laughs."
You look at him questioningly, unsure what he is meaning to say.
"Akuma," the Lunar says and you blink in surprise, your face going grim before you can school your reaction. "Yes. Favored of the Yozis, now, is that Eclipse, infused with the brazen Essence of Malfeas. Do you think his breeding programs serve Heaven, or Malfeas?"
"His…his personal endeavors," you stutter, falling back the words of law that you adhere to, that you uphold, that you are the very champion of. "His personal endeavors are not in question…"
"They are," the Lunar says, interrupting you again. "You just are too blinded by the bureaucracy he winds about you like a shroud to see it."
The Lunar points down at Silverfall, where the sounds of merriment and celebration can be heard.
"That city is the home of one of the akuma, Arbiter of the Chosen. But you don't have the jurisdiction to investigate that, do you? You can only obey the directive of the Deliberative in this. My beloved reported that fact to your precious Deliberative, and at a party that evening, the akuma made sure to tell everyone how my beloved and he once shared a bed. They all had a good laugh over my beloved mooning over his lost Eclipse lover. They were sure he was now bitter because that damned akuma had kicked him from his bed, when in fact, the reverse is true. Prince of Morning discovered too much, and he fled. Now you have killed him, and stopped the justice he would have brought there.
"Do you think that city exists because the Eclipse – who despises mortals for their weakness, and won't even deign to bed them – do you think he chooses to be near them for any real reason? Calibration approaches, you fool, and the akuma has built up a city full of sacrifices for the demon-lord he intends to summon to do his bidding.
"Idiots. All of you. My beloved was willing to die to save those people, but you killed him uselessly. Because your strings are held by a bureaucracy that ends in the hands of an akuma. But I am finished here. Done. Save Creation on your own, Arbiter of the Chosen, for you shall have nothing but my enmity forever more. And if all of Creation is eaten by the Yozis, then I don't give a damn, because a Creation where a puppet such as you can cut down a hero such as my beloved is not worth saving."
He then spits at your feet, shifts into the form of a wolf and lopes off into the darkness. Leaving you, alone, with the Five Metal Shrike above you and the city of Silverfall below you.
Arc 3-8: Alone in Glory
"It is absolutely essential that you understand the danger you are in, my love," Makara said, gesturing emphatically. A creature of unholy passions, the neomah demon who was your consort was passionate in everything she did – including argue with you. "Something has happened, and I do not like it. You should not go there."
"Makara," you say reasonably, holding up your hands in a gesture for quiet. "Please. I cannot very well ignore a summons from the Hierophant of the Deliberative."
"You fool!" she nearly howled, almost foaming at the mouth. "Why can you not see that they plot against you and…"
And, as quickly as that, she was sprawling across the room, her hand clapped to the side of her face, where your hand had just struck her. From the floor, she looked up at your face, expecting to find only anger and fury there.
Instead, she found a thin, cruel smile on your lips.
"Oh, no," she whispered. "No, master, please. I didn't mean to speak so to you. Not to you, my lord." You watch as she crawls the distance across the chamber and takes your hand to her lips, kissing you, begging you to not be angry with her.
"I am not angry, Makara," you say soothingly. "You know that. You don't fear my anger – in fact, you enjoy it, degraded creature that you are. I am simply finished with this topic, Makara. But I'm not going to tell you to be silent, because I want you to give me an excuse to send you to the Antechamber in my absence."
She blanched, and her lower lip quivered, a sign of terrible fear. She hated the Antechamber you'd had created, which filled her with the burning Essence of the Unconquered Sun, inflicting horrific tortures and forcing her to relive the defeat of the Primordials over and again – as one of the Solar heroes. And because treachery is impossible in demons against their progenitors, she was forced to endure the terrible spiritual torments that the Yozis built into their servants that prevented them from even considering treachery. Over and over again, until she was a broken thing, left sobbing and unwhole.
You turned away from her as she schooled herself, then, continuing to kneel on the floor, her hands clasped in her lap, preventing herself from shaking, while she bit down on her lip, denying you that face that you love so much from her.
The face of terror. The face appropriate in those the Solars defeated and humiliated utterly. You smile thinly, taking pleasure in her terror and agony as you don your overcoat.
"Madhi," you call, and the small servant djala enters the room, bearing your pack for travel. You smile down at him and he lowers his eyes, grateful for your attention. You take the pack from him, look at him and then look back at Makara.
"I am leaving now, Makara," you say and she bows her head.
"Madhi, I want you to place Makara within the Antechamber."
You take a great deal of pleasure from both of their reactions. Makara looks up in shock, her jaw agape, as a sob escapes her lips as she begins to beg for your mercy. Madhi's terror almost completely matches hers, but his gaze is fixed on Makara – you know that there is no way the little djala could possibly force the demon into the Antechamber of his own power. Moreover, he knows it as well.
You look at both of them and are barely able to restrain laughing aloud.
"You both have a very simple mission. Makara must be in the Antechamber when I return. See to it." You turn on your heel and depart.
Your laughter rings through the small bedroom suite. In the bed next to you sits the beautiful Autumn Jasmine, another of the Eclipse caste, partaking of the excellent opium-like substance she purchased from the Fair Folk.
"Oh, their faces were classic, Jasmine. Simply to remember forever." She chokes slightly on the smoke because she is trying not to laugh, and that sets both of you off on more gales of laughter.
"Hierophant," she says in a husky voice, imitating one of those put on trial today. "I know that my actions were not those befitting someone who holds my position in the Deliberative, and were motivated by hasty and poor judgment. I beg the mercy of the Deliberative as a whole."
The two of you laugh again – she is a little too good at mimicking the overly-formal speech of the Arbiter of the Chosen, Radiant Hawk.
"And she didn't blink, did she?" you say, leaning back and wiping away tears that have coursed down your face. "Snatched his position and the grand Five Metal Shrike out from under him without even changing the pitch of her voice. I hear she is handing that duty over to her favorite protégée."
Jasmine nods and leans in close to nibble your ear.
"At least he didn't lose everything," she says, her breath smelling of flowers and woodsmoke. "He was just adjudged to be enacting his duty incorrectly, without following procedure. Cloak of Silence was judged to have exceeded his duties entirely, and without reason. He was stripped of everything, the poor dear. The Midnight Pavilion, all of those resources, his apprentices and subordinates. I hear that she even ordered for his Brotherhood of Dragon-Blooded to be reassigned elsewhere."
You chuckle slightly, because her tone seems to indicate that she finds this terribly humorous, as well, but it is half-hearted. It is difficult to believe that you were as successful as you were today. Or as cruel.
Oh, certainly, these two planned to kill him, based entirely on the ramblings of some grief-stricken Lunar looking to salvage his dead mate's honor, but still. You arranged for all of those judgments – after all, as the aggrieved party, the Hierophant took your opinion into consideration.
Your opinion, and Autumn Jasmine's. You look at her, and she is chuckling again, taking a sip of wine.
You suddenly get up out of the bed and begin to get dressed.
"What?" she asks, curiously.
"I should go. I need to return home."
"Before you go," she says, sitting up in bed. "Have you given any more thought to the things we talked about last time? You know that we could accomplish our ends that way."
You look at her, and she smiles that smile of hers. That damned smile. You turn away and shrug on your boots.
"I have," you admit. "And I'm not entire sure, yet. I think there are other ways of accomplishing those ends. Less…destructive ways."
You hold up your hand as she begins to protest, explaining – for the hundredth time, it seems – why her plan is the only one that will work.
"I'm sorry. I don't have the time right now, Jasmine. I left someone that I care a great deal about in a very…unpleasant situation. I am needed at home."
As you turn to leave, she smiles and whispers: "So quick to run home to the demon you love. It is only a small step for you, silly boy. To love a demon is to serve it."
Arc 3-9: Bliss in Gold and Silver
"Don't touch me," he says, scornfully. You pull your hand away, as though burned. "I'm not in the mood."
"I was unaware that my love for you depended on moods, husband," you say to Cloak of Silence as the two of you stand on the balcony overlooking the courtyard. You look up, and the Imperial Manse dominates the view – the very Imperial Manse the two of you spent the day in, dealing with the issues of this trial against Cloak of Silence and the Dawn-caste Radiant Hawk.
His face is a mask of stone – he has retreated from you again. He does this, betimes, and it often drives you to incredible fury. You feel that anger well in you, but you tamp it down. Now is not the time. It used to hurt you, until you recognized it for the selfishness that it was.
"I am sorry they ruled the way they did, beloved," you say, your voice caring. "I've already spoken with the elders of…"
"Stop it," he says, his voice telling you that he finds your prattle irksome and tiring. "It's over. There is nothing for me in Creation any longer."
"Nothing?" you say, your arched brow the only sign of your irritation. "Do I truly rank so lowly in your esteem, Cloak?"
He sighs then. Not recalcitrant – it is the sign of someone being plagued by an irritant that simply can't be dislodged. You feel that old, red anger welling up within you. You turn away from him then.
"Where are you going?" he says petulantly.
"Elsewhere. I am not going to stand here and be demeaned to my face because you had your worldly goods stripped from you. I had nothing to do with it, and I deserve better than that. But I also recognize that you need your time to sulk and pity yourself. So, when you are prepared to stop acting the part of a little boy, and come home and be a man to myself and our children, then feel free to do so. I shall be preparing us for the move."
"Ilisha," he calls to you, but the tone in his voice tells you that you are being overly emotional and illogical.
"Don't speak to me in this moment, Cloak. I have more important things to do." And then you leave.
You walk the streets of Heaven. To your left is a canal seemingly filled with a liquid that is like quicksilver, and boats move quickly past upon it. Above you, small clouds rush important gods and Exalts to important gatherings, and the streets of luminescent glass around you are filled with a hundred shuffling small gods, each tending to their duties or personal interests.
You look at the woman who stands next to you. She is dressed in the robes of the Bureau of Destiny, with a fine pectoral crafted of starmetal, into which are set two hearthstones. She looks at you with sympathy, and you realize that you are fighting back tears.
"I just don't know what to do, Juaya. He is my husband, and I love him terribly, but he isn't the same. He is obsessed with the Midnight Pavilion still, and it has been years since the Deliberative ordered it closed. He has even written a full manual on how it was run and operated."
"I thought he'd found other things to occupy his time," Juaya, whom you have long considered advisor, friend and mentor, says. "Hasn’t he taken up study of sorcery with Ozandus Pal?"
"Not sorcery," you shake your head, sighing. "Necromancy. Sorcery of the Underworld." The look on Juaya's face tells you that she'd suspected such, but wanted confirmation. "He used to be constantly on the vigil for dangers to Creation, Juaya. But the Deliberative broke him."
"I know," she says consolingly. The two of you stop and purchase small porcelain cups of tea, brewed from the night-blossoms that grow only in Luna's Gardens in Heaven. "I wish that I could do something there, but alas we cannot. The Celestial Bureaucracy has no say in how the Deliberative works, any more than the Deliberative has any say in how Heaven is run."
"He has talked about building a shadowlands," you say quietly, so that no one can overhear. Juaya glances at you in something like surprise, and something like fear. You look into her eyes, which show you the stars and are limned in the bright cerulean that marks the Chosen of Serenity. "He wants to build a place where the Underworld and Creation overlap. He says that he wants a grounds to study the nuances of necromancy, and wishes to build one near our home."
Juaya's face shows nothing but sadness. You'd never accept this kind of pity from anyone, but you know that she truly cares. She has been your friend since you first came to walk the streets of Heaven, brought here by the elders within the Silver Council centuries ago. She sighs with a great deal of sadness, and you see tears in her eyes, tears that are held back by her will alone.
"So much has changed, Ilisha," she says. She stops and then gestures, invoking the powers of the constellation of the Mask, preventing the two of you from being overheard or spied upon. "I think living among mortals drives them mad, Ilisha. The children of Luna are not fully human, and you allow yourselves to become something else. We remain in Heaven, among beings with long world-views, and the benefits of godly understanding. But the Solars, they dwell among humans. They cannot be separated from humanity, Ilisha, and I think it does something to them. What must it do to watch mortals you care about die, over and over, through the years? We have Heaven, which is ever-changing, but static and unchanging, in its way. You have the borders of the Wyld and the wildernesses, which are the same, in that way. But Solars have only one another, and us. Everything else around them changes, constantly."
"Do you think they become mad?" you whisper, not wanting to really know the answer to that.
"I think that the Unconquered Sun is harsh, and unforgiving of failings in his Chosen," she says, reaching out to run a hand through the silver lock of hair at your temple. "I think that the Solars bear all the weight of Creation – and indeed, of Heaven as well – upon their shoulders. And I think that, when all is said and done, they are still only human because they must be, to govern humans properly. You may become partially animal, and we may embrace the divine shard that Exalts us, but Solars must retain their humanity. And how can a human mind survive what they must?"
You try to choke back tears, and fail. You bury your face in your hands and try not to sob aloud. Juaya maneuvers the two of you into an unoccupied pavilion, secreted away from the rest of the park in which it stands.
"How has no one else noticed this, Juaya?" you ask her, once your voice is your own. The look on her face is quite grim when you say this, and you know that she knows something. "Tell me," you say, refusing to let her remain silent, as she usually does.
"We have…we have cast divinations, Ilisha. Not a year ago, the Five-score Brotherhood, we who are Chosen of the Maidens, we gathered together and pooled our power to see what lies ahead for Creation."
"What?" you say, shocked. Something of that size doesn't go unnoticed. "Why haven't I heard of this yet?"
"We haven't spoken of it publicly, for what we found was…too terrible to imagine," you gesture for her to continue, and she does, after some hesitation. "We have seen three possible futures. In the first, the Solars are left as they are, to their own devices. In this outcome, the Deliberative and the Realm slowly degenerate until the world itself is corrupted, becoming a world of darkness, until all has decayed and been destroyed. In the second, we try and reform the Solar Exalted, telling them of our concerns and fears, leading to Solars striking out against one another, each fearing that the other is corrupt, until Creation is shattered in a civil war, leaving only a splintered ruin, which the Fair Folk wash over like a wave. And in the third…"
You allow the silence to stretch between the two of you, until you urge her to continue.
"And in the third, the Solars are thrown down. The world loses the glory that it once had, and can never regain it. There is misery, yes, and war, yes, but Creation endures."
Then she looks into your eyes, and you suddenly understand what she is asking of you. You weep then, because you know what your answer must be.
A Choice in the Final Hour (Arc 4-1)
The feast goes on and on, interminably. How you despise these huge gatherings of the Solar Deliberative. You look around you, at the others gathered here. Here in this domed hall, gilded in gold, silver and jade, are seated the most powerful men and women in Heaven and Creation. The dining goes on, each course more spectacular and amazing than the one before it, though few of the gathered Exalted eat very much of it. Most of it goes into the kitchens to then later be distributed among the poor of the city.
The Exalted are extravagant, not wasteful.
Each of the present Celestial Exalted is permitted an attendant. Fortunately, the chamber isn't nearly as full as it might be, for many of the Sidereal Exalted are working diligently on fixing some problem they have discovered in the Loom of Fate. You sigh, knowing full well that this probably means that someone from the Deliberative will be dispatched to right the problem once they have identified what it is on the Loom.
The Loom tells much, but does less. Better to have an Exalt on hand than an Exalt at the Loom, really.
You aren't entirely sure when it happens, honestly. You know, however, that your last moment of normalcy is as you take the cup from Makara, whom you have chosen as your attendant at the evening's meal. Your hands touch and you smile at one another.
Then, she shrieks and is gone as overlapping spells are cast into the area. The brilliant radiance of Exalted sorcery betrays the nature of the magic, but they are quick – dramatically overlapping fields of Sapphire countermagic and banishments that rip apart a variety of enchantments and conjured creatures. Then, chaos breaks out.
It all happens much too quickly for you to accurately follow. You know that there is battle, for you can hear the screams of the wounded, and the screams of anger. Cries of betrayal resound, and suddenly the night is shattered by animas of all kinds. The roof above crumbles and explodes as celestial lions shatter it and leap into the fray below, and the visage of archers — gods, elementals, demons and Exalted of the stars and dragons — can be seen above, raining down death on the unarmed and unarmored.
Of course, very quickly, these lesser lights are eclipsed by the angry golden radiances of the Solar Exalted, many of whom pluck armor and weapons – not the advanced weapons they prefer, but archaic daiklaives and decorative weapons – from the nothingness of Elsewhere. But then treachery – the mates whom the Solars place at their backs for defense shift into their Lunar war forms and attack their mates. Some in anger, some in desperation, some in great grief.
Battle is joined by those with the lust for such. You, however, depart. Three Terrestrial Exalted rush you, clad in heavy jade armor and wielding elemental lenses build into their armors, but you flare your anima and one of them falls back in fear from you. In a breathtaking display of prowess, you are everywhere and nowhere, shifting quickly from a variety of martial arts stances the way a Lunar can shift through the forms of animals.
You strike the first red-clad Terrestrial Exalt with the fury of the Righteous Tiger Fist, and then follow with a devastating strike to his Essence-centers, igniting them from within. She screams and begins to burn with holy white fire from within. The second hesitates slightly when he sees the fate of his companion, and in that instance you are upon him, shifting into the forms of Five Holy Mountains style. Your fists are like boulders, denting and cracking the dragon armor he wears. His thorny, Wood-aspected anima tears at your flesh as he tries to ward your blows, but you shatter the arms that would block your attacks and pulp his organs within his body.
You keep moving, away from the fray. Suddenly there is battle around you, as a pair of Terrestrials aid a Sidereal in battling two Solars. The tide turns as you show – one of the Solars falls, slaughtered by a Lunar in a terrible crocodilian war form, while the eyes of one of the Terrestrials falls upon you. He shifts his attention to you, and you leap quickly, your motion sped by Essence and desperation, and he loses sight of you for just a moment.
In that time, you will his mind to find you not at all, and you disappear from his memory and knowledge permanently – you will know him if you see him again, for he will never be able to see you again, so thoroughly do you erase your presence. His attention goes elsewhere.
The wall in front of you crumbles, and you disperse into a thousand-thousand motes of golden power in the blink of an eye, avoiding being crushed as several others (most of them Terrestrial Exalts) are when the entire west wall, the wall that faces the courtyard, collapses.
Suddenly, you are facing an entire battalion of warstriders, who open fire into the melee with Essence cannons. Someone in the crowd raises a war cry and rallies his fellows. From your vantage, you can see that some of the Solars – through the use of martial Charms – have forged themselves into a wedge of golden power, and are quickly becoming the focal point around which the conflict is hewing. A dozen Terrestrials, a Lunar, sometimes even a Sidereal – someone dies for every Solar that is likewise killed, but the Solars are too few, and then the warstriders are among them.
You turn away and run down a corridor, only to find a Solar in a terrible fury. He is killing everything that comes into his path, servants as well as attackers, so you nimbly leap upwards, snatching up a handful of tapestry to pull yourself further into the air and sail in an arc around him. Your flight carries you to a balcony.
The air outside is a storm of Essence, and mortals flee the Imperial City. The battle has fallen into the streets, where warships wait to try and cut down those Solars who flee. The powerful magics of sorcery ravage the countryside and the city is devastated by Essence fires that consume not the physical fuel of wood and paper, but Essence itself, so that everything it touches becomes fuel. The stone, the metal, the flesh, the very air – all of it burns.
From your balcony, a sob finally escapes your lips. There is no where to go.
Then a hand touches your shoulder, and you start, to find Makara there.
"What?" you say, remembering seeing her torn apart and banished before your eyes.
"We have come for you," she says, and you can see that there is another presence there. You narrow your eyes suspiciously.
"We have come for you," she repeats. "Let us save you."
"You aren't Makara," you say, nearly hysterical.
"Incorrect, yet accurate," the voices reply, and you see Makara for the mask she is. "We are Makara, but we are also Berengiere, the Weaver of Voices, who is the mother of all neomah. And we are the Father of the Weaver, Ligier, who is a mad green sun in Hell."
"Gods," you mutter, realizing what has happened.
"But most of all," it says. "We are Malfeas, the Demon City. We offer you power, Eclipse, the power to avenge. The power to survive."
You take Makara's hand, and find yourself upon a desert, walking towards the Demon City.
Bringer of Storms (Arc 4-2)
Dawn of Another Day
The city is glorious and amazing, a miracle-working even in these days of the Solar Deliberative's Realm. The resplendent towers of glass, tall spires of sweeping crimson gleaming in the setting sun, stand above the city and its teeming millions of people. In the center is the massive golden Temple to the Unconquered Sun, which serves as the headquarters for the Circle of Crimson, the Solars and their entourage who govern this part of the Realm.
Then, without warning, storm clouds gather over the red sunset, covering the whole of the sky. Lightning flashes overhead, as eyes crane upwards to see what is causing this. The clouds came too quickly – even for the lands north of the Southern deserts as this city is, and there are whispers as it seems that things move behind the clouds.
Thunder sounds, and the rain begins to fall. Then, suddenly, there is a terrible flash of white-hot celestial lightning, which strikes the ground. No one is hurt, but everyone in the area runs for cover as thunder blasts the air. In the moment of silence, all eyes turn to the glass street where the lightning struck it. It smokes slightly, though it cannot really harm the material, which is harder than steel.
All eyes turn to the woman standing in the midst of the circle, where the lightning struck.
Your dark-hued skin seems to reflect the lightning in the skies above you. You are clad in the finest robes of deep black and gold, and you wear fine orichalcum handicrafts. Your hair is the deep red of a true Southerner, and your eyes are the yellow-gold of firelight reflected in amber. You smile then, and the mortals on the street immediately prostrate themselves. Their whispers are taken up, and soon all the city knows.
The Herald of the Storm. She has come.
With that single lightning stroke that brought you to Creation from Heaven, the storm overhead begins to dissipate, and by the time you have completed the walk to the Temple, you have gathered a train of followers, each desiring to ask you a question, or simply touch the hem of your cloak, but none dare draw near, for fear of the small arcs of lightning that play along your orichalcum crown, gauntlets and girdle.
You ascend the steps and look up, to find that the Circle of Crimson has gathered at the top of the stairs to formally welcome you. You turn then, and look out over the sea of mortals who have gathered.
"Peace be with you, people of the Glass City," you say, your voice carrying unnaturally far. "I am the Herald of the Storm, and I bring you glad tidings. Tend well to your fields and your herds, for this spring shall be fine and full of healthy rain. Heaven has blessed your fields this season, for there are hard times ahead that shall challenge you sorely. But know that you are the blessed of Heaven, and beloved of your Circle," you say with a gesture to the people at the top of the stairs above you.
Faces, suddenly filled with joy at this news, turn upwards to the lords of this city, who smile benevolently on their people. You bow then, and the mass of people bow quite low in return.
You ascend the stairs and greet the Crimson Circle, kissing the Zenith who is called Righteous Gauntlet. He smiles to see you again, and the six of you enter the tower.
"It has been arranged," you say, handing their Eclipse caste a scroll, sealed with the seal of the Celestial Monitors of the Seasons and Weather, the so-called Bureau of Seasons. "The Aerial Legion shall be given to you when the time comes for your confrontation with the terrible behemoth Argunval. The Sidereals have seen that he will attack your city, but cannot discover his whereabouts. I have arranged things, so make sure that when you call upon the Aerial Legion, it is for the true battle. I have…some influence in the Bureau, but even I cannot circumvent the proper order of Heaven for this."
The Dawn caste kneels in front of you and kisses your hand, thanking you. You smile down at him, and then at the rest of the Circle.
"This is my duty, friends. Now, let us discuss your strategy over a meal, shall we? Travel by the Gate of Lightning is always exhausting, and I could use some rest."
Last Flight (Arc 4-3)
Five Color Shrike
You stand on the uppermost balcony of the tower you call home now. Once, you had no home — the skies of Creation were your home, and you reveled in them there. It was lonely there, sometimes, but your duty kept you warm. That, and your one companion.
The Five Metal Shrike.
You glance up at the roof just above you. When you purchased this tower, years ago, calling it The Aerie, you purchased it because of its sturdy roof. You hired a fine Twilight to construct the landing platform there, the platform that connected you mentally to the Five Metal Shrike, even when you weren't in the great automaton-skyship. From where you stand, you should be able to see its great beak, home to one of the most devastating weapons — and yet, most powerful tool of peace — in all of Creation.
But it isn't there.
Grief threatens to overwhelm you once more, but you will not let them shed. You swallow them, and they track bitter wormwood down your throat.
It has been three years since the Deliberative. Three years since you were brought before it, tried for overstepping your bounds of duty. You remember your clandestine meetings with Thrice Blossoming Carnage, the Lunar mate of Prince of Morning, the Dawn Caste who would have marched on the Eclipse caste known as the Argent Steward.
Thrice Blossoming Carnage had named him akuma, and you simply couldn't shake that. So, you found an ally — one whose duty it was to find such things. You feared that Thrice Blossoming Carnage might be right, and Cloak of Silence aided you, ferreting out the secrets of the Argent Steward.
Oh, the things you found. Sites of sacrifice to the Yozis, clear indication of demons not only being summoned into Creation, but being given a mandate to run free and work the will of their masters there. The creation of new life not just to sate jaded lusts, but for…other reasons. One kind of creature even acted as a perfect vessel for demonic power, designed to try and overthrow the normal limitations of demonkind; once it was possessed, the demon was free to do as it chose. It wasn't perfected, but you couldn't allow it to be.
Cloak of Silence, yourself and Thrice Blossoming Carnage made a choice. You couldn’t take it to the Deliberative — Argent Steward had powerful friends in the Deliberative. Even if they found against him, he'd be warned. He could act.
So, the three of you tried to take action against him. Unfortunately, your ploy was discovered. Argent Steward was clever, of course. He has servants among the Midnight Pavilion who kept him appraised of Cloak of Silence's goals, and the information leaked.
Instead of a trial for the akuma Argent Steward, it was a trial for the three of you. Thrice Blossoming Carnage never showed up, and the Lunars claimed they were seeking him, but you know for a fact that some of them respected his dedication to his mate and his refusal to play by Solar rules.
Your fellows did not extend to you the same admiration. Cloak of Silence was tried, and stripped of rulership of the Midnight Pavilion, half his Manses in Creation and he was forbidden to ever enter Heaven. He was removed from his standing as a representative of the Solar Deliberative, forced into retirement, and his household scattered. Most of it went to his hated rival, another Night Caste called Unending Duty.
Your life was similarly destroyed. You were stripped of the title of Arbiter of the Chosen. Most damning of all, the Five Metal Shrike was remanded to the new Arbiter of the Chosen as the means by which he might accomplish his duties, and your attunement and mental link with the intellect of the automaton-airship were broken, against your will. You, too, were sent into involuntary retirement.
Three years. Three years of loneliness, solitude. Three years of pity and avoidance. Those who once loved you had abandoned you; those who once hated you mocked you, for this was a far worse vengeance on you then any they could have engineered.
In a flurry of motion, you are in the air, leaping off the balcony. Those on the street below see your golden anima flare, and they are accustomed to this — you often take flight from this balcony.
But something is wrong.
In midair, you let fly Pinion and Talon, pausing almost imperceptibly in midair, your anima — the image in which you had the Five Metal Shrike crafted — seeming to keep you aloft for a moment. Then, they twinkle in the sunlight and arc back to your hand.
You do not catch them; instead, you open wide your arms, welcoming them like a lover.
Screams sound from below as the arcs of blood leap from your body in the wake of Pinion and Talon's passage. You fall then and everything is black. Your wings of light are gone — now, only wings of deep crimson liquid stain the cobblestones of your courtyard, spattered outward.
Only these mark where the Radiant Hawk has fallen, and moves no more.
Your life changes in an instant. One moment, you are a simple lad in the north, living in one of the villages beneath the floating city of Arumkaheia, where all the people have wings. Something strange has happened, and suddenly there are demons in your village.
How can this be? Demons?
Suddenly, though, you do not care any longer, for your brow glows golden and white-hot in the early morning hours, and you snatch up your father's sword. In the coming weeks, the Solar Deliberative will come for you, you who were once the young man Frostwing. Now, though, in this moment, you are a newly Exalted Dawn Caste, and there are demons to slay.
Thus, the cycle continues.
Haunting the Halls (Arc 4-4)
Your breath comes hard and fast. You've sat in one place for too long, relied too much on your Essence to keep you alive. The sorcerous food is beginning to fail to nourish you anymore — you are forced to eat it like a glutton, consuming enough food to host a lavish feast for twenty, just to gain simple sustenance every week or so.
The halls around you are dark. They were made to remain ever-alight. Someone is doing this deliberately. The hackles on your neck rise, and fear claws at your gut as though it were trapped within and trying to get out. The whisper of robes woven of marble catches your attention, and you dive into the alcove behind the statue.
He comes, then. That one. You cannot seem to recall his name, though it is at the tip of your tongue, but you know it is him. The upstart. The youngest of you. You hide well, your breath becoming shadow. He passes in front of the alcove, his movements slow and sure.
He wears that horrible mask, the one with two faces: one glorious and one horrifying. It is showing his horrifying face right now, and you can smell blood. He passes by, his motion a mere whisper less than a full arm's length from you. You could reach out and touch him, if you chose, but the thought of doing that sends panic scurrying up and down your spine.
When you are sure he is past, you slip out, watching in the direction he left. You stand still, making sure he is gone. You are still standing there, lost in your paranoia and fear, when the lights slowly rise.
You glance behind you, out of reflex, and then double-take when you see the secret doorway hanging open, a thin trickle of blood seeping from it. You carefully walk toward it and look inside.
Arvika Chas lies dead within, slaughtered horribly. Her caste mark still burns on her forehead — being a priestess of the Unconquered Sun did not save her. The Unconquered Sun has forsaken you all. There is no hope left. Arvika lies dead, and you realize that she'll never again play her flute, that animals will never again gather near her just to hear her play.
The world seems darker and more joyless somehow.
Suddenly, you are aware of a presence. You glance up, back out in the hallway, and he is standing there, much too close for your comfort. He is still wearing that mask, but his visage is the beautiful one.
It still fills you with dread, and you leap backward, raising your staff against him. Within it is contained a trio of elementals, bound to aid the wonder perform terrible miracles. With but a thought, you might invoke earthquakes, rains of fire and other terrible displays. You raise it and feel your Essence slip into its pattern.
But before you can use it, he utters a single word. You don't even really hear the word, but your artifact certainly does. The word is like rust to it; it is like the tread of a thousand mammoths all at once. Your hand is split and cut, so quickly does the staff warp and twist itself unto destruction.
You stare at the smoking ruins of its twisted mess on the floor between you. So complete was the destruction that the elementals inside were snuffed utterly. You look at him in horror and confusion.
"I was there," he says simply, his voice echoing hollowly behind the mask. "At the Convocation of the Upheld Majesty, my friend. Oh, I was but an apprentice to my master at that time, who helped them devise the wondrous patterns of Essence, who helped them instill those Patterns of the Final Word within the plans of countless wonders, within the very Essence flows of ten thousand of the Manses of Creation."
Your heart grows chill as he bows mockingly.
"I know the word that shatters wonders. I know the spell that causes Essence to eat itself. I know the working that the luminaries of the Twilight Caste instilled into the terrible weapons of Creation, lest they ever be turned against us. And I intend to use it, as soon as I can depart this place."
He turns then, and begins to walk away from you. He pauses at the doorway that will take him out of your presence, though, and turns slightly, so that you can see half of the fearful face, and half of the wonderful one.
"But I cannot leave this place until everyone here is dead. Do not weep, though, O Black Psychopomp. Out of respect for our friendship, I shall kill you last."
With that, he is gone.
The Procession (Arc 4-5)
You stand at the heights of the temple, on the roof, where the Great Altar to the Unconquered Sun sits. It is not an altar of offerings, however; this is the Altar of the Glorious, the bier upon which the heroic dead are placed before being interred in the Necropolis. You stand atop the Pyramid of the Setting Sun: the temple where the dead are prepared for entombment, the heroes celebrated, and their memories put to rest. You look out over the gathering — there are many Dragon Kings here, but others have come from far away as well, to celebrate the life of Radiant Hawk.
Your words to the gathering are perfunctory. The ritual words of celebration to a hero, without any of the warmth of genuine feeling. You know that the former Arbiter of the Chosen was shamed, and though you'd met him before, you did not know him. You also know that in death he has shamed himself, divesting himself of his Exaltation through suicide. And though some of the Dragon-Blooded consider suicide to be the ultimate means by which one can expunge his own guilt, it is not so among the Solar Exalted.
There is only shame in the act.
You lead the processional, his bier carried by his golden-armored soldiers. Others follow behind, their caste marks burning on their brow. Cloak of Silence is here, his compatriot in shame and dishonor. Mahare is here, as well — though they are not of the same circle, they had been lovers, once. The wife of the Argent Steward, the Lunar named Ilisha, is here as well, on his behalf. The Herald of the Storm is here as well, though you know that her presence is purely out of professional courtesy; they worked closely together in the completion of their duties.
You watch as he is entombed, the lions bidden to watch over his tomb, along with all the others here. You guide the processional past the outer tombs once more, and there it breaks up. His soldiers take up their place outside of its gates, mourning for the traditional month; appropriate for the soldiers who served one of the Solar Exalted. You, however, return to the greatest temple in the city, where your quarters are for your time here.
Arriving in the ample chambers, you see the small round artifact, crafted of starmetal and lined with orichalcum circuitry, gleaming. You take up the Prayer Transceiver Module and press it to the throat of your vestments, activating it. You utter the prayer to Taru-Kul, the Goddess of Missives, who serves Heaven and the Deliberative by passing messages among those who possess one of these modules.
"Hail, Dulani, Chosen of the Sun," her voice sounds in your hearing, though it makes no actual sound. "I am entrusted with two missives, both addressed to you personally. Shall I speak them?"
"Do so," you say, paying only half attention, as you begin to gather up your things.
"The first is from the Speaker of the Deliberative. He bids you return to the Taurean Sanctuary as quickly as you are able, for three new Zenith castes have been brought there."
"I understand," you say, picking up the scrolls you originally used to first scribe the Four Sutras of Dulani, the pathways by which the Zenith might prove themselves worthy of speaking to the Unconquered Sun, and communing with him properly. "What is the second?"
"The Thundering Bull sends his regards, and wishes to meet with you today, if you have the time. He shall be arriving after the funeral, at the Rathess Gate."
"Thank you, Taru-Kul. I am grateful for your aid. A thousand blessings," you say, as her presence fades from your mind. You look down at the scrolls in your hand, close your eyes, and seek a presence that you know exists, floating in Elsewhere. With a vast expenditure of Essence, you summon the jade cache egg. It appears on your bed, and with a gesture, opens. You place the scrolls in your hands there, along with a handful of other personal belongings
You walk out into the Great Gallery of the Pyramid of the Sun, where the workmen are putting the finishing touches on the wall etchings relaying the Four Sutras of Dulani. You nod to the young Zenith caste overseeing the work, and he bows deeply in your direction. You have a vague memory of training him in the arts of war and priesthood.
On the Great Causeway, you meet the Thundering Bull, the great golden minotaur-like god, who carries a great and terrible orichalcum grand goremaul in one mighty fist. You smile, then, remembering your early days, when you were so intimidated by his presence, as he taught you the Golden Bull Style of martial arts — which he is god of. But he is not smiling when you clasp his arm.
"What is wrong, my friend?" you ask him. He leans in and speaks lowly.
"We must go somewhere to talk, my friend. There are rumors around Heaven right now. Terrible rumors."