Le’tara the Bold was brooding over a quiet sunrise, the first rays of his patron piercing through the lifting fog and alighting upon the top of his tower, right where he was standing. He found it soothing to meditate on these moments, reflected in the symbolism of his own caste mark. Truly, his place in the world was to bring the light of the sun into dark places, just like right now. The spires of the great craftsman city of Denandsor lay before him, the weather supernaturally manipulated by a few of the many wonders lying beneath the city, so perhaps the fog and the sun’s rays piercing through it were no accident, but a gentle reminder of his own place in the world. Whoever was reminding him, whether it was a thoughtful Twilight artificer or fate itself, he was grateful for it.
“AHH! My friend, there you are!” Le’tara’s reverie was punctured by the abrupt exclamation of a very familiar voice. Into his field of view popped the thin, bespectacled face of Virrulus Kenubris, or “VK,” one of the great Twilight craftsmen and philosophers of Denandsor. Le’tara’s nerves were far too steady to reveal any flinch or displeasure, and he regarded VK with mild interest, noting his disheveled robes as a bit of a contrast to his own trim uniform.
“Hello, VK, how are you this fine dawn?”
“I am racked with deep thoughts,” VK said almost to himself, pacing and gesticulating wildly. Le’tara peered more closely at his circle-mate, seeing the beginning signs of sleep deprivation, and groaned inwardly. VK was never tempted to late nights except when struggling with some herculaean puzzle, the likes of which normally resulted in adventures of the most extravagant kind. Le’tara was quite through with extravagant adventures, but he and VK drew the Second Breath together, over two thousand years ago, and they were too closely linked for Le’tara to ignore his friend’s new plight, whatever it might be.
Le’tara shifted slightly, let out an audible sigh, and focused on his friend intently. “Let’s have it, old friend. What’s going on?”
VK stopped mid-pace and spared a small smile for his friend. “Forgive me, Le’tara. I have been grappling with a question of the utmost philosophical importance. I have been seeking the nature of indestructibility.”
Le’tara blinked in surprise. Then he chuckled. “Well that’s interesting. What have you got so far?”
“I’m glad you asked,” VK crowed, almost grasping at the air with his long, bony fingers. “I have identified several key rules to isolating indestructibility. First, consider: which do you believe may lie farther along the path towards indestructibility: one stone on the ground, or three stacked atop each other?”
Le’tara realized that VK was unconsciously adopting his symposium lecture style, so he resolved to play along. “I don’t know, I never thought of it before. Perhaps three stones are stronger than one?”
“Ah HA! You might think so, but in fact, you will find it is much easier to topple three stones than one. This meditation led me to my first rule: simplicity.”
Le’tara mused on this briefly. “You mean, the more moving parts you have, the more ways you can go wrong?”
“Precisely! Let us consider Maral Kade’s Warstrider, Brilliant Grasp. It may seem to be indestructible, but in fact, it requires constant maintenance and risks total failure if exposed to a dampening field or a sufficient electrical surge, things that your run-of-the-mill rock wouldn’t even notice!”
“Fair enough,” Le’tara responded cautiously, “But I expect that the rock would shatter against Brilliant Grasp, and not the other way around.”
“Indeed,” VK said, effortlessly flowing into this new thought. “Thus was revealed the second rule for indestructibility: power. The more power is needed to make something, the more power must be in the thing seeking to unmake it. The stone is quite simple, but lacks the sheer power of construction of the magical materials. Any pickaxe could chip a rock off the mountain face. An ingot of orichalcum the size of Brilliant Grasp would be much closer to that infinitely far-off point of indestructibility.”
“Okay, so simplify, and power. What else?”
“Well then I mused on living things, and how they seem to recover from damage rather than become unmade. For something to be completely indestructible one might consider only that if the object grew back, it could withstand much greater punishment.”
“Now you’re contradicting yourself,” Le’tara said, knowing it would only amuse his friend to seem to be challenged. “If you want to add more things, doesn’t that seem to violate your first rule of simplification?”
“Quite true,” VK conceded. “But they are in fact complementary rules. Every moving part that is unnecessary must be removed, so as not to be a weak point, and every moving part that is necessary must be made redundant, so as not to be made a weak point. My three rules for indestructibility: simplification, power, and redundancy. Ha HA!” And VK jumped about still clutching at the air.
“Okay,” Le’tara said slowly. “So what brought all this up?”
VK suddenly halted and whirled to Le’tara intently. “Well, it seems Queen High-And-Mighty Merela herself set forth the decree that I and I alone shall have the honor of designing a new defense system for Denandsor, since we seem to be directly in some kind of criminality ley line that funnels disreputable forces directly down our valley and you keep having to come stop them yourself.”
Le’tara’s heart sank. It was in fact quite true that shady organizations often found a home in the city of disorganized geniuses and that Le’tara had been dispatched twice in the last decade to come clean them out himself, but of course he always jumped on these assignments to get away from the ugly politics of the Deliberative and come see his inventive friend. It seemed his friend was now suffering the consequences of his own choices.
“I’m sure ‘indestructible’ was just a hyperbolic descriptor, VK. Just design something fancy and turn the plans over to her for construction.”
“NONSENSE!” VK roared with startling fury, his anima banner suddenly blazing. “The Queen of all Creation has charged me with this sacred task and I will not shirk it in the slightest!”
Le’tara was stunned at how serious his friend was, and was at a total loss for words. After a moment, VK seemed to calm down, and he bowed his head to his friend. “Forgive me, Le’tara. I am stressed by this assignment and I do not wish to bring shame to my circle with any perceived lack of vigor.”
Le’tara approached and clapped VK on the shoulder. “Don’t worry, buddy. Why don’t you take a nap and then the answers may start coming to you.”
VK nodded, his head rolling down for a moment, and one long sigh escaped his lips. Le’tara regarded him with some concern, and then out of nowhere, VK’s head snapped up, his eyes wide. “OF COURSE!”
Candlejack the Wise reached the doorway before him, steadied his nerves, tapped on the door twice, slowly opened it. Inside the horrendously cluttered office sat Miralun, High Craftsman of Denandsor, who was having one of his better days, specifically, he was wearing pants.
“Enter, Candlejack,” Miralun muttered, not looking up from his table. Candlejack closed the door behind him and slowly approached, still concerned about Miralun’s temper. As he approached he could begin to see magitech circuitry designs on the pages, but Miralun flipped them over before he could see clearly.
“Candlejack, I got your message, what did you want to discuss?”
“I wanted to talk about your proposal for the Denandsor defense system,” Candlejack said evenly, trying (and probably failing) not to betray his anxiety. Miralun chuckled quietly to himself, peering up through his tangled black hair at the clean-cut fellow Twilight before him.
“Indeed, I thought that might be it. That or your incessant requests for additional personnel for your research projects.”
“I’m not thinking about that right now,” Candlejack pushed aside that topic, trying to stay on course. “I am wondering what benefit there would be to adding Soulfire gem resonators to the primary cores of the defense automata. Everyone else seemed to assume I would know why, so I thought I would take it on myself to ask what the hell you’re doing.”
“Ah yes, hell. One of them anyway,” Miralun mused to himself. “I have seen many hells in my time, Candlejack, but I believe you have seen one that I haven’t, is this not true?”
Candlejack’s even stare seemed only to confirm Miralun’s statement and he chuckled. “In truth I see why everyone assumes you know why they’re being added, since you were the one who discovered these wondrous devices. Soulfire crystals, ah! If you must know, they have a resonance frequency which I am in need of.”
“The resonance frequency of the human soul,” Candlejack said, keeping most of the accusation out of his voice.
“Yes indeed. Very handy that you discovered that,” Miralun said smugly. “In point of fact, I don’t trust the other Solars, I don’t trust our Dragon-Blooded lieutenants, and I really don’t trust you! Not sure why I should bother to explain it if you aren’t smart enough to figure it out.”
Candlejack sighed, stared at the ceiling for a moment, then realized the hint was in Miralun’s trust issues, which seem to have run rampant in his fourth millennium of life.
“Ah, of course,” Candlejack said. “You’re training humans loyal only to you to operate the automata from within. The resonance crystals will let you attune to their consciousness when you’re wearing the Crown of the Craft-King so you can direct them remotely, and the autoregenerative functionality of the automata means those people will also regenerate when inside them. Making the human as unkillable as the machine he’s in.”
“Not too many things are less killable than solid orichalcum after all,” Miralun said smugly. “I do pity poor Virrulus. Always the mortal thaumaturge first, always solving problems in such mundane fashion. Are we not Solar Exalted? Is the impossible not possible for us?”
“One would think you could show your predecessor some gratitude for all the hard work he put into these magnificent automata,” Candlejack said with only the slightest tinge of irritation. “And besides, he designed them to stand up even to the Exalted, for whom, as you just pointed out, the impossible is possible.”
“True, true,” Miralun said, not noticing Candlejack’s fuming. “I have benefited from his hard work.”
“Where is the Crown now?” Candlejack said, peering around the room. Miralun smirked.
“Ha! Confirming once again that you are not trustworthy. In point of fact, I have broken it into three pieces. The centerpiece sits in the command center of the defenses, and the left bridge remains with my trusted mortal lieutenant. The right bridge sits in that box,” which he indicated was on a shelf behind him with a jerk of his thumb.
Candlejack peered over at it, strolling closer. “It has your seal I see.”
“Of course,” Miralun mumbled crossly. “None but the one bearing my Exaltation may open it, lest they be disintegrated. I fear the Dragon-blooded may soon turn on us, Candlejack, and I will not allow them to wield the Golden Army against us.”
“They already have,” Candlejack said solemnly. Miralun blinked and turned quizzically to look at Candlejack again, only he wasn’t there. In his place stood Crimson Flowers, Chosen of Mars, who gently reached into Miralun’s chest and pulled his heart out.
Lieutenant Norota Marika jerked at the sound of her name being screeched and whirled to see her commander, Daimyo Karal Riza, storming towards her with two other Lieutenants in tow. Marika managed to stifle a cough as they approached, summoning her strength to stand at attention.
“Sir, I still haven’t heard back from the West Quarter Commander—”
“Forget about that now,” Riza said brusquely. “I have decided that the city is lost and thus am about to gamble everything on its ancient past.”
“Sir, I don’t understand,” Marika stammered, looking back and forth between Riza’s determined face and Patan and Kikka’s decidedly terrified faces.
“It appears we all four are likely infected, and it is true that the disease spares neither the Exalted nor the mortal. We are all dead soldiers walking. Understood?”
All three lieutenants recognized Riza’s favorite expression and gave his favorite reply: a snap-to-attention-salute and a loud “SIR YES SIR!”
“Excellent. Since we are all doomed anyway, we must each attend to the future, for the hope of the few who survive this dreadful contagion. I am going with Kikka immediately to the Forbidden Vaults, in search of an artifact that may possibly be able to put a stop to this contagion. The anathema of ancient times had access to wondrous sorceries that could possibly stop this pestilence, and between the two of us there’s a chance we may be able to stop it.”
“Understood, sir,” Marika said curtly.
“It is hypothetically possible that during this attempt I may detonate a weapon of mass destruction. Therefore I am charging you with taking the Case of Command away from this place.”
“Sir, I don’t understand.”
Normally Riza hated explaining himself but this time he seemed moved to clue his subordinates in on the meaning of their last orders. “It’s quite simple, Marika. The legendary Golden Army is said to be indestructible, which means even if the city is leveled there is a chance the army could remain. An army ripe for the taking.”
Understanding immediately dawned on Marika. “Yes sir, I will take the Case of Command, including the centerpiece of the Crown of the Craft-King, directly to the nearest surviving authority.”
“Very good,” Riza said, pausing briefly to cough up a clot of blood. “Patan will be taking the left bridge as well, but he is charged with concealing it in a location known only to the Shogunate. We have already sent an encrypted message with its coordinates.”
“Sir, what if no one receives it?”
“If anyone is to survive this horror, they will eventually reclaim the Shogunate capital and find the message. Any worthy Prince of Earth will be able to discern its location and protect it from any encroaching anathema.”
“What of the third piece?” Marika asked.
“I will be stowing it in the Forbidden Vault so that if the worst should happen, the box will be destroyed. There’s a chance its contents will survive since the box is so sturdy, and then surviving Dragon-blooded will finally control the Golden Army as is our right.”
“Sir, High Command’s orders are—“
“Enough! Time is wasting. You have your orders,” Riza turned on his heel and marched away, with Kikka still in tow. Patan and Marika stayed behind, glancing at each other.
“This is most likely it, isn’t it Marika,” Patan said after a moment, his brow heavy with resignation.
“Yes,” Marika said solemnly. “Though if the city is destroyed, it will be over for me last.”
“And if the Daimyo does find a cure…” Patan said, suddenly unable to finish his thought. He looked at Marika awkwardly, but she just smiled at him. “We’re dead soldiers walking. Understood?”
Patan smiled. “Sir, yes sir.”
And in the next moment, the winds around Marika picked up, and she was gone, leaping over the high walls of the city in a single bound.
“Here it is,” Samea said proudly, holding up the box from a pile of debris. Seemingly a simple wooden jewelry box with an ornate seal on the top, both she and her companion knew it was actually quite nearly indestructible, and also lethal for anyone to open except for one individual somewhere on the face of Creation.
“At last,” the Bull of the North said, drawn to the box with such excitement his hands were shaking. “We only need this, bring anything else you want but this is the true prize.”
“Of course,” Samea said with equal excitement. Then she hesitated. “We have the second piece also, but what about the centerpiece? Surely the All-Seeing Eye has it by now.”
“Makarios insisted that Kalani kept it even from the All-Seeing Eye when she came into possession of it.”
“Then it is the Iselsi who have it still,” Samea said, thoughtfully. “Once we get the bridge out of this box, we can use those to track the centerpiece?”
“Harold believes so,” The Bull said slowly, “And the Iselsi are not beyond our reach.”
“I hope you’re right,” Samea said, cradling the deadly box in her arms. “We’re going to take a lot of risks just to get this box open.”
“To reclaim the whole of Creation, I would open a thousand of these boxes,” The Bull said, his eyes shining. “Now let’s get out of here. I’m getting a little skittish.”
Samea looked around at the wreckage of centuries of masterpieces strewn around. All this glory, and the only piece they had come for was a key to an unstoppable engine of war.
“We must rebuild it all,” she murmured to herself. The Bull either didn’t hear or didn’t care what she said, and she soon turned and walked after him back into the night.