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"The Game"

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The Ruins of an Age [Nov. 3rd, 2015|12:38 pm]
"The Game"

[Current Location |The slopes of the Imperial Mountain]
[Character Mood |pensivepensive]

The Mountain was as smooth as glass for miles in every direction. It was so smooth that Ruby could see her reflection, dimly, as she looked down at her sandals. Burnished blond hair. The slightly upturned eyes of a Riverlander, but with the carmine hue of House Leothis. A mouth given to smiles, whether at a joke from a Circlemate or in the heat of battle.

But there was something else there. Something almost the same, but not. Onyx-black hair, long and wavy. A cross-shaped scar below her left eye. The same red eyes, but haunted and suspicious. The face she had seen in her dreams, since that night in the Nexus alleyway where golden light had blazed from her brow and she knew she would have to run or die. For a moment, she thought it looked back at her, but she was the first one to break and look away. She glanced at her companion, most of whom were also contemplating their reflections except for two. Pathian was warily watching Stanewald, and Stanewald was staring at the top of the mountain.

Ruby wasn't entirely how Stanewald had managed it, but they were nearly at the summit now. The demon would lead them through crevices in the rock that opened onto caves higher up, or descend down valleys that emptied onto places miles above where they had started. They had been travelling across the expanse of glass for almost a day now, and it had slowed even their Essence-enhanced climbing prowess. The sun was setting in the west, glittering faintly on the ocean that Ruby knew was hundreds of miles away but was still barely visible in the distance.

The piercing cry of a hawk alerted them to Aesir's return as he dropped a mountain goat into the center of the group and his form blurred back to human. Without a word, he can began to skin and butcher it with his bare hands, claws forming and retracting as necessary and blood sluicing off his skin without leaving a mark. She watched him for a moment and then turned away as she heard a step on the rock to find herself face to face with Cherry.

"Meru that was," Cherry said.

Another perfect day, with no clouds to separate the sun from His chosen, but it was Calibration so the sun and moon were both in the sky. The feast, broken by pain. The massed legions of the Dragon-Blooded Host, banners flapping in the wind, arrayed in rank upon rank. The battle in the square, weaponless, unprotected, with that terrible feeling of rage burning in her heart. Blood, pouring in streams down her body as Hayako stood over her, reaching for her forehead. Darkness.

Ruby shook her head to clear the memories. She looked at Cherry, and thought of how little she really knew of the Zenith. They had been travelling together for months, but Cherry had spoken little of herself, and she almost always retreated behind a mask when she interacted with...well, with anyone. She seemed to absolutely believe that the Solar Exalted would make Creation what it had been again, and so convinced of the righteousness of her cause. But how much of that was true? Ruby could remember enough of the past that she knew simply recreating it was no guarantee that this time, things would be better.

"Who were you, Cherry-san?" she asked.

"It doesn't matter," Cherry replied. "What matters is-"

But Ruby wasn't going to settle for that. "It matters," she said, quietly but firmly. "Do not tell me that you don't see the past in your dreams. Do not tell me that you don't look at your past life and try to imagine what you could do right. None of us are immune to the call to take up where we left off. I know."

Cherry looked at her steadily, but one hand crept up to her hair and slowly began to tangle some of the strands. For a moment, Ruby thought that the mask would come down again and she'd get another speech about the glorious destiny of the Solar Exalted, but then Cherry looked away. "My name was Mihari, and I was an inquisitor for the Deliberative. Even in the Age of Dreams, there were those who turned to the Primordials for power. Cultists. Akuma. I hunted them down, for the glory of the Unconquered Sun. But what can you do when the corrupt are your peers and all law is based on consensus? What does a censure from the Deliberative matter to those who no longer acknowledge its authority?"

She looked back into Ruby's eyes. "You know how it was, Ruby-san. We could have united to destroy the corruption among our number, but no one wanted to propose it for fear that they would be next. And so K'tula's experiments went unchecked, and Dreams of Beauty openly moved his seat of power to Malfeas, and the Calibration feast decayed to a shadow of its former purpose, and nothing was done."

"I remember," Ruby replied. She thought of her own domain, and the absolute obedience she had demanded from her subjects. She had run it like a military camp, with military punishments, all preparing for a war that, when it had come, had taken her by surprise, far from home, without her weapons and armor. All that suffering, and for what?

"We cannot simply refound the Deliberative and declare our work done," Cherry continued. "It may work now, when the Silver Pact and the Chosen of the Maidens are a check on our power. But in time, when no one in Creation can rival us, what then?"

What then? Ruby didn't know. She herself didn't have an answer for what they would do when they had overthrown the Realm...if that was even the goal anymore. When she had met her Circlemates, following her dreams as they led her ever-deeper into the East, she told them about the Realm and the Anathema, with the memories of the bandages she had swathed her face in during her travels still fresh. It wasn't right, they had decided. They had the power, and now they would do something about it. In time, with the dreams guiding their thoughts, their goal turned to restoring the Deliberative, and returning things to the Age of Dreams, and now to stop the catastrophe that they knew was coming. But it was always reactive, and Cherry was right. How could they take their inspiration from the past but prevent its mistakes?

"I don't know," Ruby admitted.

Cherry slowly pulled her fingers through her hair. "I don't either. The Illuminated say that with the guidance of the Chosen of the Maidens, this time will be different. And maybe they are right." She turned and looked up the slope at the summit. The sun had set, and the stars were blocked out by the glow of the Mountain. This close, the dragon tracks were faintly visible to the naked eye. "But how will we know until it is too late?"

Ruby followed her gaze, and did not reply.
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Unexpected Help [Jun. 30th, 2015|03:23 pm]
"The Game"

[Current Location |The Moonpaths]
[Character Mood |surprisedsurprised]

Domaru Mikoshi, daimyo of Lookshy, awoke suddenly in his tent as his Essence alerted him to a change in his surroundings. He quickly cast his gaze around the room, looking especially in the full-length mirror he had installed in the corner, but there was nothing visibly out of the ordinary even in the Essence patterns. He slowly reached under his blankets for the daiklave he had in the corner and summoned up a wind to carry his voice.

"Kachie? Have you seen anything?"

"On my way, Daimyo-sama," came the immediate reply as he heard movement outside.

He looked around again, and this time he saw movement near the head of his bed. He started up, but as he brought up the daiklave and invoked the power of Sextes Jylis into it, he heard a squeak, and something brushed his face.


There was mist all around him, and while the ground seemed firm there was nothing beneath his feet, only more of the curling mist lit by a faint silver glow. High above, visible still despite the constant mist, was the brilliant disc of the moon, a dozen times larger than he had ever seen it, filling the arc of the sky with its immensity.

Standing across from him was a tall, olive-skinned man with silver tattoos coving most of his body. He was wearing only a kilt and light sandals, with silver arm-rings carved in the shape of twining serpents on his upper arms, and a silver circlet kept his shoulder-length black hair out of his face. There was something odd about his mouth, and as Mikoshi tried to determine what it was that seemed off about it, he remembered the man's name.

"Alaethis," he said in Old Realm.

The man grinned, and now Mikoshi was sure his canines were much longer than they originally seemed and wondered how he had ever missed it. "You should count yourself honored, Mikoshi-san. There are few who are not Children of the Moon or agents of Chaos who have been privileged to see the moonpaths." Before Mikoshi could comment, he continued, "I will be brief, as even here where time is stretched we do not have long. I know your guard is on the way, and I would have her find your chamber empty."

"What is it you would discuss with us?" Mikoshi asked, using the Old Realm pronouns for one with authority speaking for their demesne. Alaethis might not be willing to grant him the proper forms of address--he didn't remember the Lunar's exact age, but he knew that Zen-chan had told him that he was older than the Realm--but he certainly wouldn't refrain from using them himself.

"Only this--that you have more allies than you know. Not all of the Silver Pact are pleased with the conduct of the Wolf with Red Roses," Alaethis smiled briefly, as though at some private joke, "nor do we have any wish to see Great Forks cast down in ruin. You will have aid unlooked for. And should all go as planned, you will have no need to use your-" He used a word that Mikoshi did not know, but that he could easily tell from context.

"We thank you for your aid," he replied, "and we shall endeavor to do all we can to make it unnecessary."

"I'm sure." Alaethis glanced upward at the moon and frowned slightly. "I have no more time, even here, and I would not raise any more suspicion. And remember that if I could find my way through your camp to your tent without raising the alarm, Ma-Ha-Suchi could as well. It is no longer his style, but if pressed he may resort to subterfuge. You should redouble your guard, daimyo." Before Mikoshi could reply, Alaethis clapped his hands, and the mist boiled up from beneath his feet between them until all he could see was a silver glow.


Kachie burst through the door into his tent as his daiklaive came up, and he barely noticed the mouse that scurried away underneath the tent flaps.

"Daimyo-sama, did you-"

Mikoshi shook his head. "A dream, perhaps," he said. "I wish that my nights would be-"

"Daimyo-sama! The enemy approaches!"

He heard the shout from outside and the sound of running footsteps, and he threw a look back to his bed as the young man burst into the tent. With a sigh, Mikoshi reached out and pulled in the Essence from the grass beneath the tent and the trees that dotted the camp, wiping away his fatigue and the aches in his muscles. When he opened his eyes, he felt as thought he had slept late in a feather bed after a hot bath and a good meal, and he looked at the soldier with a calm expression that caused the young man to relax, just a bit, before he realized who he was talking to and stood up arrow-straight.

"Show me," Mikoshi said, and walked out of the tent.
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She Who Surmounted the Omphalos [May. 27th, 2015|04:22 pm]
"The Game"

[Current Location |The slopes of the Imperial Mountain]
[Character Mood |surprisedsurprised]

One step in front of the other.

She had been walking for days, but her goal was almost in sight. She could see it now, in the light that grew on the horizon, the only thing visible other than the empty black sky and the endless expanse of silver sand. The sound of footsteps on stone had drawn her forth, and she found a doorway between the layers and slipped through into the desert. Soon she would stand on Creation's soil once again.

Soon she would be able to dance.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Zenleigha looked down at her boots with a frown. She had gotten new ones that night in Lookshy when Mikoshi took her out for Shogunate cuisine, and with the memories of eating raw fish and dancing she could remember buying a new outfit fit for the consort of a daimyo--though usually she thought of it as the other way around--but after three weeks of climbing the Imperial Mountain, they were in no more condition to wear to a ball. By the time they reached the peak, they very well might be rags. She could only hope that whatever salary Hayako had attached to her sinecure would allow her to buy a new pair.

With Elegant Cherryblossom's aid they only had to stop once every few days, and when he wasn't at Glory's side Aesir spent much of the climb in the body of a mountain goat, testing the surface and finding an easy path for them to ascend. It was still hard going, and the top of the Mountain did not look any closer than it had the moment that they had appeared on its slopes.

She looked back up in time to see Aesir's body warp and flow as it turned from a goat back into a man, and he raised one hand and hunkered down below a rock. She quickly followed suit, looking up the slope to see what he was hiding from. She thought it might be a group of pilgrims attempting the ascent--there had already been two groups they had to avoid, since among them only Cherry spoke any of the Realm's languages, and then only the tongue of the Dynasts--but she certainly wasn't expecting what she saw.

Someone was dancing on the slopes of the Mountain.

Try as she might, she couldn't make out what it was. Its body was all light and shadow, blurring between movements brightening and darkening by turns, but its dance was the crashing fury of the avalanche, the stillness of the bedrock of Creation, and the soaring majesty of the Mountain itself. The dancer floated just above the rock and danced in the sun, and it was one of the most beautiful things Zenleigha had ever seen.

She wasn’t sure how long she stood watching the dance, but it wasn't until she felt the ground vibrate slightly beneath her feet and heard the sound of cracking rock that she came back to herself. She leapt backward as her Essence screamed its warning and a boulder-sized chunk of rock crashed onto the ground where she had stood.

She snatched Promise-Keeper and Dream-Weaver from their sheaths at her belt, but Pathian was already moving. He leapt high into the air over a shower of stones, his hands filling with a blazing white-gold glow. As he he spun head over heels, he brought his arm down and a bolt of light flew towards the dancer. It doubled, quadrupled, multiplied itself dozens of times as it crossed the space between them until a searing rain of white fire scoured the rock of the Mountain, leaving it smoking and charred.

"'Ware!" Ruby yelled as her sword came to her hand, and Zenleigha called on her Essence and opened her inner eyes to the world of the dragon tracks. The brilliant glow at the top of the Mountain washed out part of the daylight, but she could see the dancer in the air, crouching intangibly on blackened spot where Pathian's strike had hit.

Before Ruby or Aesir could cross the distance to the spirit, Cherry shouted. It wasn't quite Old Realm, and Zenleigha couldn't make it out, but the very sound of the word seemed to fill the earth and sky, resounding off the rocks and filling her ears. As it rang out, the dancer screamed and materialized again, her body wracked with golden lightning as she collapsed to the rock of the Mountain.

The Demon-Wracking Shout! Shining Star yelled in her mind. How does she know that? Who taught her that?

Zenleigh ignored her for a moment, drawing closer to the dancer. She was ivory-white, with a pair of spiraling horns and flowing white hair that cascaded all around her, still standing slightly on end as the lightning continued its dance. She wore a rough cloak of animal skin over a tunic of fine white silk, and even collapsed, she was hovering very slightly off the ground.

As Zenleigha took all that in, an image came unbidden to her mind. Of a desert, underneath the black sun of Calibration, and of her--of Shining Star--standing on a rock above the sands and chanting ancient words as the sand rumbled and the ground spilled away into a bottomless chasm filled with secrets. And suddenly, she knew who the dancer was.

"Stanewald bar sem Munaxes," she said.

"A demon?" Pathian asked, reaching for the chakrams at his belt as he did so. "Why is it here?"

Your ascension called me, the demon said, and I came to dance.

Its voice was as smooth as marble, with a slight ring to it. Zenleigha's vision shimmered slightly in its wake, and for a moment she caught a glimpse of verdigris and vitriol before she banished her Essence sight. As it left her, so too did her clear vision of Stanewald, and now she looked down only on a whitish blur that made her eyes ache to look at.

"We should send her back," Pathian said, his chakrams in his hands.

"No," Ruby replied as she hefted her sword, "we should destroy her."

The white shadow looked up at Answerer and seemed to shrink away, but before Ruby could strike, Cherry intervened, "No, Ruby-san. We can use her."

All eyes turned to her, Zenleigha's included. Shining Star's voice had descended into a babble of names, only a fraction of which Zenleigha recognized, but she had grown adept at pushing that voice into a corner of her mind when she needed to. She called up that discipline now and said, "Cherry-san, demons are treacherous, and unbound demons triply so. How can we trust it?"

Cherry took a breath. "Under the terms of the Primordial War Accords and the Mandate of Heaven, the subsidiary souls of the Primordials are subject to the dominion of the Exalted. How long have we spent in climbing the Mountain, Zenleigha-san? How much more time can we devote to it? It has climbed the Mountain once before, and it can stay in Creation as long as it is in service to the Exalted." She turned to the demon. "Is that acceptable, demon? Would you lead us for the chance to climb the Mountain again?"

The blur shifted slightly, and Zenleigha wished she could see its face clearly, but after a moment the words came. I would.

Ruby looked doubtfully at Zenleigha, and she thought a moment. She had wrested the knowledge of how to banish demons from Shining Star in one of her long moments of lucidity, and she was positive that if a confrontation came between Stanewald and the circle they could easily win. Look how easily they had already defeated it. But if it rose against them in treachery, what damage could it do?

But Cherry was right as well. Three weeks when they only had a few months before something terrible would happen. They could ill-afford the time that climbing the rest of the Mountain would take, and if Stanewald knew the shortcuts, they could use them.

She nodded. "We accept," she said, and she saw Ruby banish Answerer Elsewhere and Pathian put his chakrams back, though she did not miss the small frown that crossed his face as he did so. She would need to talk with them all about her reasoning, she knew.

And she and Cherry would need to have words.
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Expeditionary Force Twelve Crystal Shadow [May. 7th, 2015|03:02 pm]
"The Game"

[Current Location |The Patropolis of Ot]
[Character Mood |scaredscared]

"What's it like?" Coszcatl asked. He took another sip of the Blood of the Maker as Yolotli frowned.

"It's..." She shook her head. "I can't even describe it. It's so quiet, but it's loud on your eyes. And it's all organic."

"Organic?" He envisioned flesh and sinew corridors, conduits carrying pumping red blood with the Creationborn fastening themselves on them like gremlins, and shuddered. "All of it?"

"All of it that I saw. And it's empty. There are no tunnels. There are no cities. It's just...empty."

"I don't understand."

"No one does who hasn't been through the Seal," Yolotli replied. "That's why the higher-ups have been sending so many through to do a shift there. I talked to Litz, who went with the first expeditions led by Eternally Vigilant Bell. I've just been at the base camp, but he's been further into Creation. They fought some kind of animals, and found a native group of humans, but they were as primitive as Reach exiles and-" Her voice lowered. "-none of them had soulgems."

Coszcatl's hands unconsciously went to his forehead, and he brought them down with a jerk when he realized what he had done. "Do they even have souls?"

She glared at him "How am I supposed to tell that? I'm no Conductor. Leave that up to the Sodalities and just do your tasks."

He got a chance to do just that four days later, when his number came up and he was called to go through the Seal. At Wood Shift, he and the others who had been called reported to the central mustering hall of Ot, where Consistently Optimal Solution gave them the terms of their service. They would pass through the Seal into Creation and lead a scouting mission away from the base camp that Yugash had set up. They would be gone at least ten shifts, and possibly more, but the reward for finding the first deposit of the Five Magical Materials had still gone unclaimed and, with the Great Maker's blessing, they could be the first to claim it.

They formed up into lines and headed up the elevators, passing through boxes and boxes of supplies destined for the base camp and members of the Populat going about their numerous tasks, and finally reached the top. Halfway up the elevator, Coszcatl felt a strange tingling sensation, like he had touched a low-power conduit, and he immediately brought his hands up to his chest, palms inward, in the Luminor-mandated safety procedure until he realized that it couldn't possibly be a broken conduit and sheepishly lowered them. It was small comfort that several other members of the expedition were doing the same thing, with similar expressions.

A wind blew through the Patropolis's mouth as the elevator opened, bearing a hundred unfamiliar scents. One of the expedition started sneezed, the sudden noise filling the room and bringing a spate of nervous laughter until Consistently Optimal Solution looked back at them and strode forward toward the brilliant blue that Coszcatl could see through open mouth.

As he crossed the threshold, he stared. Yolotli had said no corridors, and that it was organic, and he had no idea what to expect, but it wasn't there. Strange strands of greenish wire poked in profusion from the floor, waving slightly in the breeze. He could see some larger versions in the distance, close to the walls of the base camp, and above him there was...there was.


Nothing at all, just a searing blue emptiness that seemed to pull at him with a blazing lamp at its heart. The floor seemed scant protection from it. He tried to look away, but its light was everywhere, and he shut his eyes and reached out the walls that had surrounded him all his life for protection and came away grasping only air. His head swam as he stumbled forward, his boots sinking an inch into the floor and he suddenly realized that that was no protection either. Nothing here was solid. There was no escape, except-

Coszcatl collapsed to the dirt of Creation in a dead faint.
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Toward a mutual understanding [May. 5th, 2015|12:29 pm]
"The Game"

[Current Location |The slopes of the Imperial Mountain]
[Character Mood |worriedworried]

They had been climbing without food, water, or sleep for a week, and the Mountain seemed just as high as ever.

Elegant Cherryblossom had kept them going for days, sustaining their flagging strength when they could not do it themselves, feeding them with the fervor of the Unconquered Sun. But they could only survive on faith for so long, and they had stopped near a pool in the hollow of the Mountain's slopes to let Aesir and Pathian hunt for food.

Reflection of Their Glory Undimmed took a sip of the water from the cool mountain stream that flowed into the pool, doing her best not to show any emotion. The voices at the bottom of her soul murmured fitfully as the water hit her parched throat, but did not wake, and as she stood up she permitted herself a grateful sigh. She turned back toward the pool and the others. Zenleigha was sitting by the side of the pool and staring at the water, Ruby had taken the chance at rest to bathe after days of walking over broken dust and rocky crags, and Elegant Cherryblossom was standing at the source of the stream by the foot of the pool, watching her with slightly narrowed eyes.

Glory swallowed against a throat that was suddenly dry and climbed the short path back down to the pool.

"Is something wrong, Cherry-san?" she asked.

Cherry closed her eyes for a moment, and she seemed to be considering something. The back of Glory's hands itched, and they twitched slightly toward the claw-like forms of the Hungry Ghost, but the moment passed and Cherry simply said, "I would know of your past."

It was not the answer she was expecting, and it took her a moment to recover her poise. For a moment she thought of lying, but the Walker in Darkness had told her that the Solar Exalted were capable of piercing deception and seeing past any evasions to the heart of the matter. She was not as adept at oration as Alabaster Chimes in the Shadowed Cathedral was, and she was sure that if she lied her, Elegant Cherryblossom would never trust her again.

So she told the truth. She told Cherry of her childhood in Whitewall, the daughter of a merchant prince of the Guild. She spoke of accompanying her father's caravans on the Whitewall road, and of playing tag with Aesir in the snowdrifts when the city closed for the long Northern winter. Her voice caught when she spoke of the Fair Folk calling her from the road, but she closed her eyes and continued. How she had become lost in the storm and been unable to find the road, and how she had wandered for what seemed like hours in an endless white haze, and how when she could move no more and had lain down to die, a voice had come to her and offered her another chance, and she seized it and made the creatures of the Wyld pay for what they had done.

She described the trip from the North to the Ebon Spires of Pyrron and kneeling before the Walker in Darkness, and how he had raised her up as one of his chief necromancers and she had learned the powers of Oblivion at his feet--though elsewhere, as even the Black Exaltation was no proof against the life-sapping miasma of the Ebon Spires of Pyrron. She described how the Walker in Darkness had left his deathknights mostly to their own devices, as his fortress was unsuitable for their habitation. When she talked about making walking war machines for the Walker in Darkness's plans to conquer Great Forks, she saw Cherry's eyes narrow, but she had no choice now, so lowered her gaze to the Mountain and continued.

How Alabaster Chimes in the Shadowed Cathedral had asked her to accompany him on his own travels with the circle, and how she had fallen in love with Endless Chase on the way. How she had told Endless Chase of the Walker in Darkness's hold on her, and how they had conspired together to travel to the Underworld and, with a plant from the bottom of the Sea of Shadows, she had taken him through the Ebon Spires of Pyrron to the Well of the Void in Stygia.

"The rest you know," she said.

Elegant Cherryblossom stared at her for a long time. Glory struggled to control her breathing as she saw over her shoulder that Ruby was watching them with concern on her face, and even Zen had glanced up from her contemplation. She thought about saying something, anything to break the sudden silence, and had just opened her mouth to ask Cherry about her own life when the Solar suddenly spoke.

"I apologize for my earlier rudeness to you, Glory-san," Cherry said. An errant gust of wind blew a strand of pink hair in her eyes, and Glory watched as her hand brushed it away, then followed her other hand to her heart as Cherry curled them both into fists and bowed. "I had not understood that you were under duress. No one should be chained." Her eyes blazed, and Glory was no longer entirely sure that Cherry was talking to her. "It is one of the mistakes we made in the past, and when we retake our rightful place under Heaven it shall not happen again. No one should own another, not in body and especially not in soul. Such things are abomination."

"I chose this," Glory said, her voice sounding small in the face of Cherry's faith.

"You did not understand your choice," Cherry proclaimed, but Glory knew she did not quite understand.

"If I had another choice," Glory continued, "I would do it again. For the opportunity to meet Chase-kun, and Aesir-kun, and choose my own fate. I was in bondage for a time, but now my destiny is my own."

"Almost your own," Cherry said as the last light of the setting sun vanished behind the Mountain, and as it did, the whispers began in Glory's mind. "You are not yet free."

Cherry was right. Glory could remember the Shadowland in the heart of Lookshy that had taken Solar magic to cleanse, brought about by the anger of the Neverborn so long denied as she celebrated Calibration in Heaven. The trail of devastation she had left as she traveled ever-Southward in response to Aesir's message. Her soul was her own now, but there was a door opening into it, and until that door closed, there was still one chain binding her.

"I will be," Glory said fiercely. "I will be."
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The climb begins [May. 4th, 2015|11:51 am]
"The Game"

[Current Location |The slopes of the Imperial Mountain]
[Character Mood |nervousnervous]

The Mountain towered above them, filling the sky, extending all along the horizon and falling away for miles and miles behind them. The slopes gradually leveled out, becoming smaller ranges and valleys before turning into fertile fields of rice and barley and towns and villages filled with peasants and finally sinking beneath the waves of the Inner Sea. The entirety of the Blessed Isle was, in its way, the foothills of the Pillar of Creation.

With the eyes of a hawk, Aesir could see the spires of the Imperial City far to the east, silhouetted against the rising sun.

They had questioned the Jadeborn, and the Conclave had told them that there were no gateways to Heaven within their territory, but that there was one at the summit of Meru and that they could lead them to the tunnels to the surface. Zen had told them that there was no need, and furthermore that they were under her direct orders not to inform the Realm that the Solar Exalted had visited the Mountain Folk. Aesir had smelled violence in the air, and his hands had gone halfway to talons before the Jadeborn had bowed his head and indicated that her wishes would be followed.

Zen had led them to a small side room and asked them all to hold hands, and after a moment where she seemed lost deep in thought, she started chanting. Colored lights had surrounded them, folding up and over the group, until they were yanked backways and stood blinking in the sunlight on the slopes of the tallest mountain any of them had ever seen.

They had been climbing ever since. Aesir led them since he was most comfortable in the wilderness, but in truth there was little need of guidance. The gate they sought was at the top of the Mountain, so they traveled ever upward, moving as quickly as they could without being conspicuous. Zenleigha's sorcery had almost certain already brought enough attention to them if anyone had been paying attention, and there may be a Wyld Hunt assembling to combat the threat of the Anathema in the heart of the Realm. He was not particularly worried, at least for the moment--he remembered the Wyld Hunt in Nexus, even as he knew that it had been another life--but even if they managed to defeat the first force, there would be another. And another. And another. The Realm was as fragile as ice in the South and the Houses were a hairsbreadth from open war, but Anathema on the Imperial Mountain would be the one thing to unite them and bring down their combined fury once again.

Glory was walking next to him, and a part of him was surprised at her ability to keep up. He remembered Arisia clambering around the hot springs of Whitewall and racing him through the streets on summer days, but the Reflection of Their Glory Undimmed seemed almost like Arisia's shadow, pale in the sunlight, only half in this world. But when she spoke, he could tell she was the same girl he had known.

"How tall is the Mountain?" she asked.

He looked upward and thought back to his lessons at the feet of the Silver Pact. "No one living knows," he answered. "Ameru-kami perhaps, but in his madness he speaks to no one. The Lunar Exalted have never been able to measure its heights. The Mountain resists it."

"But the Mountain is the anchor of Creation," she said, looking at him with the wide-open gaze that always made his heart beat faster. "The Elemental Pole of Earth. It must have a fixed size. Surely in the First Age they knew."

Aesir looked back behind him at the others. Zenleigha was alone, looking carefully at the ground as she climbed, followed by Elegant Cherryblossom and Ruby. Elegant Cherryblossom was more animated than he had seen her, making repeated gestures as she talked, and Ruby seemed to be listening with interest, and Aesir momentarily thought about listening in--Cherry mostly kept to herself, and he was curious what it was that had her so excited, but Glory would probably be able to tell. Below them all was Pathian, keeping up the rear and continuously glancing over his shoulder.

"Maybe they did," he said. "Maybe it's something else that has been lost. Wouldn't that be a tragedy?" He grinned. "The Empress made sure everything was measured and filed and stamped and taxed, but she didn't even know how big the Realm really is."

She didn't smile. She was staring at the top of the mountain with her brow furrowed and a small frown. "The Mountain is glowing," she whispered.

Aesir followed her gaze as his eyes warped, extending part of themselves Elsewhere. His vision heightened as the air caught fire with lines of Essence, flowing ever upward to the top of the Mountain. And from the top, a giant fountain, blotting out the fading stars.

"What will we find there?" Glory asked, half to herself. Aesir could find no words to reply.
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The Seer [Feb. 20th, 2015|10:34 am]
"The Game"

[Current Location |Urvar, the capital of the Jadeborn]
[Character Mood |rushedrushed]

The Jadeborn had escorted them to the transit disc and activated it. It hadn't been at all what Zenleigha had expected. She had thought it would have been similar to the Houses of Doors, or the speaking disc that Ruby had used in her conference with the Conclave, but it was a vehicle. A flat disc, twenty paces across, that formed a glowing dome over it and hurtled down a tunnel as soon as the group had stepped on board.

There had been one harrowing moment where Zen was sure that the Jadeborn had found some way to execute them. The lights had failed, and Zen's Essence-enhanced senses had warned her of danger and she set her anima alight, the green and gold light had revealed a rock fall blocking the tunnel ahead. They barely had time to react--Zen only had time to throw her hands up, her mortal instincts taking over in the absence of any Essence to aid her--when they had passed through the rock fall as though it wasn't even there, and Zen had heard a soft voice laughing insanely in the back of her mind. She had done her best to ignore it, and the remaining hours of the trip were spent mostly in silence.

When they arrived in Urvar, they were escorted through tunnels and galleries, past fantastic temples carved from the living rock and on bridges over vast chasms where the lights continued down as far as they could see. They passed thousands of Jadeborn, standing guard or performing tasks. Most of them were short and squat, sometimes almost as broad as they were tall in their heavy jade armor, but occasionally they would pass one that seemed carved from marble and ruby and emerald and onyx, like the Conclave or the detachment commander who had provided their passage to the heart of the Jadeborn empire.

The Conclave did not meet with them, but a representative did, and she tasked a group of Jadeborn warriors to continue escorting them down a series of stairs, past multiple gates guarded by pairs of Jadeborn, and through many corridors. The guards refused to answer all queries, and Zen realized when they used handsigns to communicate with each other that they were deaf, as were the guards of the last two pairs of doors they passed. They finally arrived in a small room with a door set in one wall and a jade grill covering a window. The guards that had led them there bowed, gestured to the door and then to a lever next to the entrance, and then withdrew from the room, closing the door they had come in behind them.

Between two moments, Pathian was there where he had previously been not. He prowled around the room, looking at cracks in floor and the bare walls, and finally nodded his head. "It's safe."

Elegant Cherryblossom opened her mouth to speak, but she stopped as a low, ragged laughter echoed through the small room from the open grill. It died away into chuckling barely loud enough to be heard, but that continued long after it seemed like the person making the sound should have run out of breath. Zen looked at Ruby and Ruby looked at her, and after a moment, Zen dropped one hand to Dream-Weaver, took a few steps forward, and looked into the grill.

The room was barely ten feet square and dimly lit by flickering crystals set in the walls, and for a moment Zen couldn't see anything. When her eyes adjusted to the gloom, she saw a heap crumpled in the corner making a kind of low purring sound. She narrowed her eyes, searching for the flows of Essence that constantly traveled through the bodies of all living things, and paused when she found them. They were odd, halting in some places, flowing too quickly in others, with narrow lines stretching off through the walls of the cell into some unimaginable distance. As she watched, the flows all reversed for a moment, and as they resumed their normal flow, the heap lifted its--her--head and stared straight into Zen's eyes.

"His finger touches the world, but you have taken the wrong road," she said in slightly-accented Old Realm.

"What road is right?" Zen asked.

"All streams lead to the river, and the river flows to the sea." The figure stood up, revealing that she was one of the tall, statuesque Jadeborn like those in the Conclave, but her crystalline hair was matted, her chalcedony skin was scratched and dirty, and her eyes--her eyes were mad swirls of color that changed as Zen looked at them, and were staring at her with an intensity that she would once have found unnerving. "Follow the river back to its source."

She heard Glory murmuring something to Aesir, but she did her best to concentrate on the Seer, looking for any clue she could use. She noticed what looked like the remains of a mon on the Seer's clothing, but before she could say anything the Seer continued. "The rivers of Gaia flow through her body. Sometimes they form pools. Sometimes there is a rock, leaving ripples that travel far downstream. Follow the ripples back to the source, Mother-of-None."

"I-" Zen stopped herself. There was no point in fighting that battle. "Who will guide us?"

"Blossom knows."

"Blossom-chan?" Pathian said. "We could have asked her?"

"If she is in Yu-Shan, we have no way of contacting her," Ruby pointed out.

"Hayako-san," Cherry said. "We need to contact Hayako-san."

Zen let the others talk. They were right, and it would be the first thing she did when the conversation was finished, but she had one more question. "How long do we have?"

The Seer moved so quickly that Zen only saw her cross the distance because of the Essence enhancing her sight, and only the lack of warning from her intution prevented her from stepping backward. "In five days' darkness the Dragon and the Phoenix will wed!" she shrieked. "The Children of the Dragons march to war! Seek his aid and that of the shrike, and unsheath the Sword of Creation!" Then she collapsed in a heap again and that low laughter started once again.

"Until Calibration? Not long," Cherry said grimly.

Zen turned back to the group. "There is no time to waste," she said. "We need to ask if the Jadeborn have a gate to Yu-Shan. I have legitimate employment there--I will speak with Hayako-san, and we will learn where Blossom-chan is. Then we will take the gate there."

There was a score of nods from around the room. Glory looked doubtful, but she didn't say anything, and after a moment Zen nodded back at them. "Let's go," she said, and pulled the lever on the other end of the room.
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Meanwhile, in the Scavenger Lands... [Nov. 12th, 2014|12:54 pm]
"The Game"

[Current Location |encamped north of the Ebon Spires of Pyrron]
[Character Mood |worriedworried]

"How many of them did you say there were, Chumyo?" Domaru Mikoshi asked.

"Almost three-quarters of a million," said Maheka Takahashi, Chumyo of the Seventh Legion. He pointed at the elaborate map of the River Confederacy that spread across the carved table in the daimyo's tent. "Ma-Ha-Suchi recruited a large part of his army on his march through Chaya. Reports from our agents indicate that he would offer any defeated enemy the option of joining his army or being killed, often through being eaten alive by his beastmen. Most of the conquered joined his army and he's been using them as fodder.

"Furthermore, he somehow managed to convince several of the Arczekhi tribes to work together with his other constituent forces. He's feeding them at least with the conscripts who fail to show courage in battle. Dragons know how he's getting enough food for everyone else. We've sent some of the People of the Air to scout behind his lines and the country is a wasteland. I'm not sure Chaya will ever be able to recover, though Yushoto-daijin-" he nodded briefly across the table "-may be able to tell you more once the immediate threat passes."

Mikoshi looked at the shocked faces around the table. Well they should be so surprised--Lookshy alone only had fifty thousand troops, and the auxiliaries provided by the other countries in the River Confederacy only brought that up to perhaps a hundred thousand. The remaining First Age infrastructure Lookshy could supply acted as a force multiplier, but by that much?

Well, he was the Daimyo of Lookshy. This was his responsibility.

"We defeated the Mask of Winters," he said in the silence. "This is one Anathema." He thought, but did not point out, that they had the assistance of multiple Anathema themselves in that battle. "Kenji-san, we have the advantage of picking a battle site. Where would you say is the best location to meet them in battle?

His secretary of defense tapped the map just south of Great Forks. "Here, where the Rolling River bends Wood-ward. With his army on the Wood side of the river, Ma-Ha-Suchi will need to find a way to cross somehow. If we put our camp a few days travel Air and harass his marches with Dragon Armor teams and light attack flitters, we'll slow him down enough to construct proper fortifications outside Great Forks."

At this Four Dawns, a priest of Talespinner, broke in, "Outside? Why must we fight them near Great Forks at all?

"We need to meet them in a defensive position," Kenji explained, "that will prevent them from bringing their superior numbers to bear. Otherwise they'll be able to flank us on both sides."

The representate of the Marukani Alliance objected, noting that her cavalry would be useless on the far side of the river, and other members of the Confederacy of Rivers voiced their own concerns. Mikoshi let his secretariat take over fielding the questions, and by the time the meeting was adjourned over two hours later, he thought that maybe he would get them to come around. Nothing specifically had been decided, but if he had to, the Daimyo of Lookshy had the authority under the Confederate charter to overrule the other members in situations of collective defense.

There was still something he needed to learn, however.

He caught Takahashi and Kenji's eyes and as the last of the others left the tent, said in a low voice, "What's your real opinion, Takahashi-kun?"

The Chumyo shook his head. "We will be overwhelmed, Daimyo-sama, barring a miracle from the Dragons. Maybe the old Seventh Legion could have stood against this threat, but the blood of the Dragons runs too thin in us."

Mikoshi nodded. He had suspected as much, but wanted it confirmed before he made his decision. "Very well. As Daimyo of Lookshy, by the authority vested in my office by the Shogun of Creation, I authorize the unsealing of the Inauspicious Vaults. Access code Air-Wood-Fire-Fire-Wood-Water-Fire-Earth-Earth-Air-Water-Wood."

"Heard and witnessed," Kenji and Takahashi said simultaneously, placing hands over their hearts. Mikoshi reached out to the two other Dragon-Blooded, and they clasped hands and closed their eyes. They'd need to work together to boost the message to the governor of Lookshy and make sure the weapons got here in time.
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A private discussion [Nov. 7th, 2014|03:52 pm]
"The Game"

[Current Location |A meeting room at the district command]
[Character Mood |discontentdiscontent]

"I don't trust them," Pathian said.

"You don't trust anyone," Zen pointed out.

"Except you."

She nodded. "Except us."

Elegant Cherryblossom watched them banter, doing her best to keep her face expressionless. They were gathered in a battle planning room somewhere in the Jadeborn fortress. Perfected Artistry had escorted them here after Ruby returned from the speaking disc and asked for a place where the Princes of the Earth could speak privately, and the Jadeborn had said that they needed time to calibrate the transit discs anyway and led them to this room. After the door had closed, Pathian had stepped through it and told them what he had found--dozens of armories, hundreds of the small warriors in jade armor with their odd weaponry, practicing drills over and over with an almost-mechanical precision. It reminded Cherry of the training camp at the Sequestered Tabernacle , where she had been taken after the Cult of the Illuminated found her.

"I don't think it's an unreasonable concern," Pathian continued. "Artistry-san said that Urvar is their capital city. We will be in the center of their realm, alone, without the capacity to call for aid."

"I hardly think we need it," Aesir said. "Six Chosen? We can fight our way out if needs be."

Zen drummed her bark-brown fingers on the stone table. "It will not be necessary," she said softly. "They cannot harm us. The Geas forbids it."

"How do you know this, Zen-san?" Cherry asked. She knew the honorific set her apart from the others, who all used the familiar Old Realm addresses with each other, but she knew that she was an outsider here. She had fought beside them at the Well of Oblivion and traveled for weeks through the deserts of the South, but the others had known each other for years. Pathian and Zenleigha had even grown up in the same village, as had Aesir and the...the woman that called herself Reflection of Their Glory Undimmed. Those ties could not be forged in a few weeks. "The Copper Spiders are seekers of hidden knowledge, but you have had no time for research."

Zen met her gaze evenly, but Cherry did not look away. It was the sacred duty of the Pillars of the Sun to act as the moral compass and guide for their Circle, and even if she did not have the ties of past lives binding her to the people in the room, they were her companions now. She listened carefully to the currents of Essence in the room, feeling their harmony, listening for any discord, as she waited.

"The libraries at Lookshy are extensive," Zen replied, "and we spent several months there. There was time for a great deal of learning."


It was faint, but it was there. Zenleigha wasn't lying--not entirely--but there was something very important she was leaving out. For a brief moment, Cherry considered forcing the issue with her. Revealing that she knew something was missing, and asking what was so important that Zen would consider hiding it from her Circlemates. Did she not want to tell Reflection of Their Glory Undimmed? Cherry wouldn't blame her after their time traveling through the Labyrinth, but she had picked up some of the Circle's dynamics while she had traveled with them and thought that unlikely. For reasons she could not fathom, they treated Reflection of Their Glory Undimmed as one of their own.

She could faintly remember the Solar Deliberative meeting, like looking at an image through water. I have spoken with the Unconquered Sun, the Hierophant had said, and He agrees. But he had lied. She knew it, in her bones, without needing the aid of her Charms at all. It was the last time she had attended a meeting of the Deliberative.

All these thoughts flashed through Cherry's mind and she realized she couldn't say anything. Not yet. She didn't have the authority she needed to to call Zen out in front of the others, but she would need to talk to Zen alone. She couldn't let the rot take root. Not again.

Instead, she simply nodded. "I bow to your wisdom, Zen-san." She carefully watched Zenleigha's face for any sign that the Easterner had divined her thoughts, but there was nothing. Just a measured glance before she turned away as Aesir spoke.

"If they cannot harm us, then we should make haste," he said.

"Not all threats are physical," Reflection of Their Glory Undimmed said, her voice barely audible. The burns on her skin were gone now, thanks to Zen's ministering touch, but Cherry could tell she was remembering something worse than the Jadeborn weapon that had greeted them on their exit from the Labyrinth.

"We can handle it together," Ruby said firmly. "We are Chosen."

There were nods all around at that, Cherry among them. Only Reflection of Their Glory Undimmed looked uncertain, but she said nothing, and after a moment of silence Pathian said, "Go to the transit disc. I'll follow behind you. They won't see me." He waited a moment for a response and, when there was none, turned on his heel and strode out through the closed door.

"Will he be able to follow us?" Reflection of Their Glory Undimmed asked. "They must have defenses here against infiltrators."

"Against the things that dwell in the darkness," Zen said. "Not one of the Chosen. He will come."

There was a moment of silence before the door opened and everyone turned to look. Perfected Artistry stood there, framed in the unwavering light of the crystals on the walls, with a group of the smaller Jadeborn soldiers behind her.

"Your transport is ready, Princes of the Earth," she said.
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The Meeting with the Conclave [Nov. 6th, 2014|03:42 pm]
"The Game"

[Current Location |The borders of the Jadeborn Empire]
[Character Mood |rushedrushed]

The room was enormous, its walls and ceiling lost in shadows as Dancing Ruby Wings walked on the faintly-litten path. It glowed with each step, in an opalescent sheen, until it spread out into a circle surrounding a jade dais slightly inset into the floor. It must be the speaking ring that Perfected Artistry had spoken of, and Ruby took a moment to gather her thoughts. Then she stepped onto the ring.

Almost immediately, the room flooded with light. The ring had not changed, but the floor spreading out from it was now carved with an incredibly intricate series of circles and lines and variable shapes. Ahead of her, almost four paces across, was the circular glyph of the Imperial Mountain--Meru-that-was, the Pillar of Creation. And standing on that glyph were three Jadeborn, each of them appearing as though carved of gems and polished onyx and alabaster.

"I am Immanent Design, First Speaker of the Jadeborn," said the female in the middle. Her eyes glinted like sapphires as she appraised Ruby frankly before indicating the figures to either side. "These are Untold Heart and Bronze. What business do you have with the Council?"

Ruby took a breath and closed her eyes briefly, concentrating on the Essence flowing through her veins. For a moment, the entire room was washed out with brilliant golden light. A incandescent pillar surged around her, burning with solar fire, and a crimson-winged bird spread its wings and reared its head back to let out a soundless cry. Then it was gone.

"I am Dancing Ruby Wings of the Dawn," she said in the now seemingly-shadowed room. "We seek the Great Maker."

Immanent Design lowered her hand from her eyes. "As do we, Ruby-sama. As do we."

"We were told that you had knowledge of His whereabouts."

"He is long gone from Creation, o Prince of the Earth." Immanent Design replied. "We have had no word of since the early days after the War. We have been busy with our own affairs."

"Not so busy that you would not eagerly look forward to His return, I think," Ruby pointed out.

"Of course not," said Bronze. "If we had any concrete news of Him, you can be sure that we would pursue it."

Ruby's brow creased slightly. There had been a slight hesitation before "concrete." "We are fully capable of searching ourselves," she said. "If any rumor has reached your ears-"

"We are isolated here, under the Mountain," Untold Heart cut in smoothly. "Little news out of the world above comes to us, and most of that from the Realm. They have their own troubles there, since the Empress vanished."

"We have our own troubles that require our attention," added Bronze.

"We are sorry we cannot aid you any further, Ruby-sama," Immanent Design said firmly. "Should you find anything in your search, we hope that you will inform us."

Ruby sighed. Zenleigha had warned her that it might come to this, and had also told her of a way to get around their recalcitrance. Normally, she would have acknowledged their reluctance and returned to consult with the others, but she had heard the stories Glory told them of events they had missed. They were running out of time. She drew herself up to her full height and unleashed her anima, letting its blazing light fill the room. "I am a Prince of the Earth, and under the terms of the Great Geas laid on you by the Solar Deliberative, I order you to tell me what you know."

The light faded away, casting the faces of the shocked Conclave into shadows. Bronze was staring at her with something very close to open hatred. Immanent Design's mouth worked soundlessly, and it was Untold Heart who finally spoke. "Who told you-" His voice cut off as he shook his head.

"That is not important," Ruby said. A part of her--a large part--hated herself for what she was doing. The Mountain Folk had been bound by a Deliberative new to its power and fearful of their artifice and ability. Her Circle meant to reforge the Deliberative again, and her first act was to tear open old wounds. In the normal course of events, she would have consulted with the others after the refusal, seeking a way to earn the Jadeborn's trust. They would need their help against the threats that were coming.

But they had already lost months to traveling. There was no time.

There was a moment of silence before Immanent Design spoke. "There...have been signs. Whispers among the rocks. If you wish anything more concrete, you must consult with the Seers of the Warped Pattern."

There was something odd in the way she said it. The sentence had been in the formal grammar, but the last few words had been in the vulgar address, and Ruby could have sworn that there was a spark of fear in the Jadeborn's sapphire eyes. "We shall do so," Ruby replied.

"Come to Urvar, Prince of the Earth," said Immanent Design. "You will have your audience."

Ruby nodded and stepped backward off the dais. The room, the Conclave, and the intricate design all faded into blackness, and as she walked back the way she had come, the lights, two by two, went out behind her.
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