By popular (okay, one person’s) request, this chapter goes right after The Bull and the Tigress. Continue reading
Kami steadied his nerves as he reached the door. Hunter was at his side and felt his hesitation, so he dared a word of comfort: “Remember, he is strong but so are we.” Kami nodded and opened the door, revealing a rather modest study featuring a diverse library of books and a desk lit by a tall candle. Behind the desk was the figure with a shadow that stretched outwards for thousands of miles: Yurgen Kaneko, the Bull of the North.
“Ah, Kami, and Hunter, please come in,” the Bull said politely, rising from his seat. “I was just catching up on some reading. Grab any chair.” There were several of differing levels of comfort around. Kami picked one that was simple but well-made, while Hunter continued standing. The Bull nodded politely to both as he sat down again. Hunter toyed with the idea of hanging from the ceiling – both for a new vantage and to unsettle his host – but he decided against it… for now.
“So, Kami, I’m sure you have many questions for me that Richard wasn’t able to answer and I will be happy to answer them all, but first I want to thank you both for coming. I hope you have been treated well so far.”
“Yes indeed,” Kami said, removing the carrier from his back and letting Jacob out for some fresh air. Hunter noted a flicker of interest in Jacob from the Bull that he didn’t really care for but he didn’t say anything immediately.
“So, I’m sure you both hunger for knowledge. Permit me to satisfy your cravings.”
“Very well,” Hunter said, smoothly stepping in as Kami was distracted by Jacob stretching his legs. “First off, Richard said something about the Golden Army. What is it? And why do you need Kami, when Richard claims a dozen Solars now ally themselves with you, at least one of whom I’m sure has Kami’s technical expertise.”
“Excellent, Hunter, cutting right to the heart of the matter,” The Bull said with a calm smile. He was clearly anticipating this line of questioning. “The Golden Army is the primary defense force of the city of Denandsor. The automata you see broken in the streets or malfunctioning in their patrols of the city, of course, are not part of the Golden Army, and we know this because of two simple facts. First, the Golden Army is composed of seventy by seventy warstrider-sized automata composed of pure orichalcum, totally indestructible and incapable of malfunction. Second, they have automatic defense programming, but to accomplish anything more than basic functions, they must be controlled by the one wearing the Crown of the Craft-King.”
With that, The Bull pulled two strips of orichalcum from his pockets and snapped them together. They formed a circlet that seemed to fit cleanly on one’s head. He held this up for all three (Jacob included) to see.
“This is the base of the Crown of the Craft-King. With this, a clever craftsman can make alterations to the Golden Army, because by itself it authorizes you to access the Central Mainframe. But it’s still missing the centerpiece. Once we have the centerpiece, the wearer will be able to command the Golden Army remotely.”
“I see,” Kami said slowly. “May I?” He reached out, and The Bull nodded as he handed the crown over. Kami started looking it over carefully while The Bull continued talking.
“Modifying the Central Mainframe is important, because right now the Golden Army cannot leave the city of Denandsor, but I believe with some modifications they can become completely mobile. But Harold and Zeke, two of my allies from the Rathess Empire, are currently working on that. I need Kami for other reasons.”
“Reasons, plural?” Hunter asked with a hint of surprise. The Bull nodded.
“Indeed. First, the Central Mainframe’s Originator has been modified to include Soulfire crystals around a human-sized space in the center. Any changes made to the Originator propagate out to the entire Golden Army, which means all the automata of the Golden Army also have these same modifications. We don’t know why but we suspect that each automaton of the Golden Army can now house a living human inside. Whether the human can gain control of it or merely sustains it with his soul, we’re not sure, but we need Kami to figure it out, and also figure out whether any modifications need to happen to the human inside. There is no greater expert on magical technology, occult sciences, and biology anywhere in Creation.”
“Well, actually the Doctor—“ Kami started but The Bull cut him off with “That sticks around at least.”
Hunter and Kami glanced at each other, shrugged, and nodded.
“Secondly, Kami, I want your help in finding the centerpiece of the Crown of the Craft-King. We have a source that informs us that it’s currently in the possession of the Iselsi outcastes hiding from the Realm, but we couldn’t get anything better than that. Supposedly the base of the crown can be used to track the centerpiece but we don’t know how so we want you to figure that out. We also know that you have a much more extensive network of contacts than we do. Surely you can get some help from them.”
Kami nodded slowly as he handed the base of the crown back to The Bull. He had already deduced how to use the base of the crown as a scanner to locate the centerpiece but it would only work when within a few miles, and he also had a guess as to why the soulfire crystals were implanted into the automata, but after what had happened last time he was asked to build an army, he was less forthcoming with the answers immediately.
“Well, Yurgen,” Kami said after a moment’s thought, “I understand now what you’re asking of me, and I would like a little time to consider and consult with my friends. I have my own requests if I am to undertake these missions for you, but I want to think those through more carefully before sharing those with you.”
The Bull of the North nodded gravely. “Take all the time you need, Kami. Time is not of the essence because nothing can proceed without you right now. All I ask is that when you consider this, you think of all the lives we could save together with this army.”
Hunter raised an eyebrow. “I can’t remember the last life-saving army I saw.”
The Bull scoffed slightly. “As a fellow artist of death, I’m sure you realize that to save often means to kill. Think! The Wyld Hunt would flee before us. The armies of the Wyld would be meaningless, the First and Forsaken’s entire force swept away like sand on the beach, and people could finally live in peace! You could even return someday to the Neck with Jacob, when this is all over. That’s all I ask. Consider it please.”
Kami nodded and picked up Jacob in his arms. Kami and Hunter then left the way they came.
“So?” Hunter asked after they were down the hallway. “What do you think?”
“I was about to ask you the same thing. I know I could do all the things he asked of me, but I don’t know yet if I should.”
Hunter nodded. “He’s hiding things, certainly, and that army sounds like it would be immensely powerful, if it’s a bunch of orichalcum warstriders with an unkillable human inside each one. But he’s right: the army would solve a lot of our problems.”
Kami nodded. The image of Fred, his friend who had died in his arms after being deceived by Oneiros and turned to a hideous mutant, flashed through his mind. What would Fred say? Canna’s son, Phineas’s family, they were back in Wavecrest, vulnerable to piracy because most of the Wavecrest fleet was still making war on the Skullstone Archipelago. The images of the ordinary civilians he had seen over the last few years stuck with him as well: the people of Langri-Sha, Kamak, and the Gemstone Islands. All these people were counting on him to save them. What would have happened if Scars had begun mass-producing Daleks? Or if the Infernal Exalted had gotten a hold of that wretched wedding bell now sitting in Yu-Shan? Could they still?
Kami sighed. “I’ll sleep on it and we can discuss it in the morning.”
“Are we sleeping soon?” Jacob asked, yawning suddenly.
“Yes, it’s your bedtime Jacob,” Kami replied almost automatically.
“Oh, okay. Uncle Kami?”
“What did that man want?”
Kami sighed. “He wanted my help with a project.”
“Oh, okay I guess I’ll get used to it here.”
“What do you mean?” Kami asked, puzzled.
“You like to help people, Uncle Kami.”
Hunter shot Kami and Jacob a wry smile but said nothing. Kami blinked, stammered, then let it drop. “I guess so.”
[Debbie and Eli are invited to suggest their next course of action.]
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.
Set a few months prior to In The Shadow of the Bull, concurrent with the close of Tides of Fortune.
The sun was just rising in the East, long thin rays of light peeking over the distant tree-covered hills, as a speck of blue flame grew out of the sky and finally coalesced into a pillar of blue flame that reached down to the ground and exploded in a sudden rush of air. In the next instant, the blue fire was gone, and two living legends were standing in the grassy field, near the foot of a tall forested hill.
“This is the place?” Asked the elder of the two, though physically a mere slip of a girl, barely 17 and wearing no armor, no weapons, and not a lot of clothing besides.
“It matches everything Richard passed on, it must be the place,” Replied the younger of the two, though a physically imposing man appearing about 70 years in age. He had drawn his Second Breath a number of years after the girl, but a lifetime of mortal experience made him a natural leader.
“What else did Richard say?” Asked Samea, peering up at the hill with some uncertainty.
“Not a lot, but I expect I will be quite a while. When I’m done I’ll send a butterfly to you. You have other parts of the plan to set in motion while I’m here.”
“Of course. What if Lookshy catches on?”
“Well with that Pearl of theirs in action, they probably have already. This does concern the Underworld, after all. Now that we’re within reach of their strike squadrons we’ll have to assume that not having fire and death raining down on us counts as tacit approval.”
Samea nodded. “Well alright then. Good luck.”
She coalesced pure shining essence into her hands, focused it, then conjured a bright silver chariot and hopped on nimbly. In another moment she had bolted away into the sky, leaving glittery contrails behind her.
Yurgen Kaneko, the Bull of the North, watched her go impassively, then turned and started hiking up the hill.
The journey really didn’t take him as long as he expected. In less than an hour he was at the top of this hill and not even winded. Around the next copse of trees he spied a set of buildings that must have been his destination. In his path, however, sat a tortoiseshell cat watching him patiently. He slowed as he approached, and the cat did not even blink, to say nothing of moving. Yurgen reached the cat and slowed further, then finally stood stock-still. He stared at the cat with his unflinching gaze, and the cat, poised as all cats are, gazed back.
So they stared at each other continuously. Yurgen had never lost a staring contest before, but this cat was certainly a worthy opponent. Minutes stretched to hours, the sun set, rose again, set again, and still the two stared at each other. Yurgen knew he was being tested in some way. Of course, this cat posed no threat, he could easily swat her aside, but this mission was diplomacy of the greatest importance. If he could tolerate accidental offense he would have sent his emissary, Fear-Eater, but there was no room for error here. So they stared.
Yurgen could feel hunger and exhaustion slowly pushing at him like ocean tides against a glacier, but he stood as tall and as cold as any glacier, and eventually stubbornness consumed him. He would do this the right way no matter how long he was supposed to do it for.
On the morning of the fourth day, just as sunlight was again peeking over the same hills it had peeked over for three previous mornings, the cat blinked, yawned, and slinked off to find something to eat. Yurgen couldn’t believe it, he didn’t even register for a moment what had happened. He stretched, finding himself aching, and was for a brief moment very dizzy. When he refocused his eyes, there she was in front of him. The Tiger Lady. Narula.
“I must say, we don’t get many visitors who treat the three-day ordeal as a staring contest.”
Yurgen was as poised as any cat, but staring into Narula’s unflinching eyes reminded him why he had come.
“Narula. I am pleased to meet you.”
“Likewise. Do I know you?”
“We’ve never met directly, but I’ve heard many stories from my associate, Richard.”
Recognition flickered in Narula’s eyes. “I am assuming then that you are Yurgen Kaneko, the Bull of the North, in person.”
Yurgen nodded curtly. “The same.”
“What brings you here to my humble dojo then?” Narula asked suspiciously.
Yurgen bowed. “I can see you are suspicious of my arrival here. If anything, this only reinforces my perception that you are a very modest person. Surely enough stories have been told of the Golden Tiger who trains mortals to best Dragon-chosen to merit a visit from the great Bull of the North.”
Narula nodded slowly. “Fair enough. Come in, we can chat over breakfast.”
Yurgen’s stony face probably didn’t betray any relief, but Narula smirked slightly anyway.
The two of them strolled around past several training students who gawked for just a few moments, and into the dining hall. They sat down on opposite sides of rough-hewn benches and were quickly passed crude bowls with eggs and oatmeal.
“So,” Narula said between mouthfuls of oatmeal, “You must have some particular purpose here.”
“I do,” Yurgen said solemnly. “I wanted to meet you in the flesh.”
“You wanted to feel me out for something,” Narula said with an even stare.
“Of course. I have an emissary, an Eclipse I can send for just feeling someone out. But if you agree to what I propose we will be putting our lives in each others’ hands.”
Narula’s gaze was steely. “Really. You do realize, it’s not just my life you’re asking me to risk. I work here to train mortals, God-blooded and Dragon-blooded in the martial arts–and we have no need of riches, equipment, territory, anything. What plans do you have that would merit risking not just myself, but my students’ teacher, and the homes and families they go on to defend after studying here?”
Yurgen stared Narula down for a long moment, then said slowly, “The Mask of Winters is regenerating.”
Narula flinched like she’d been flicked in the nose. Then she scowled.
“That one’s for free, Narula. A fair warning from one child of the Dawn to another.”
Narula’s face became a stony mask again. After a moment Yurgen continued.
“My colleagues and I are assembling a force of the most powerful Exalted for a mission to move against the Lover Clad in the Raiment of Tears. As the only living Solar who has been trained by the Sidereals, I want you on this mission.”
Narula scoffed. “You’re expecting a repeat of the Battle of Lookshy and the Mask of Winters’ defeat? You think I have another victory like that just up my sleeve? One of my very best friends died in that fight, and it was just luck and timing that I didn’t join him. The Mask of Winters was more powerful than the entirety of the forces arrayed against him, the sorcerer who fixed that can never cast that spell again, and now you’re telling me that after all that, he isn’t even permanently dead. So it sounds to me like you’re concocting a fool’s errand”
“You disappoint me, Narula,” Yurgen said evenly. “You defeated the Mask of Winters by playing on his weakness: his vanity. You of all people should know Deathlords cannot be defeated by military might but only by their own strength. Isn’t that the first lesson any martial artist learns? We intend to do the same against the Lover, and I don’t mean we aim to destroy her.”
“What then?” Narula groused.
“Soon, my associate Nalla Bloodaxe is going to “defect” to the Lover. We will monitor his progress and conceal his true thoughts from her. And when the time is right, we intend to take something from her. We also hope to steal other information, like how it can be that the Mask of Winters will return. So there is quite a payoff for you.”
Narula pondered this for a while. Yurgen said nothing, knowing he had made his most persuasive case possible.
Eventually Narula tapped the table lightly. “I’ll go. But I will not go alone. I’m bringing my friend, Howling Stripes with me.”
Yurgen raised his palms and smiled. “The more the merrier.”
“When is this?” Narula asked.
“Well since we have you on board now we can move ahead with plan A. I will return in three week’s time, give or take, and we’ll get started.”
“Agreed,” Narula said. She stood. “That gives me three weeks to get Shale Digger up to snuff to teach classes all by herself.” She strode off without even a goodbye, but as Yurgen watched her go, he noticed the cat was back, standing on the table next to him, watching him intently.
It was a short trip back down the hill and a short butterfly message to Samea, and soon she appeared before him in a blue flash of flame. As she started conjuring another blue pillar of fire, Yurgen couldn’t help but spare a glance back up the hill.
“I assume she’s on board?”
“Indeed,” Yurgen said, thoughtfully as time and space suddenly stretched. A moment later, they were back in the frozen wastes of the North.
“You didn’t tell her about the Golden Army, I assume?”
“Of course not,” Yurgen said gruffly. “She doesn’t need to know.”
“You’re not worried she’ll leak info to the Sidereals, are you?”
“Not directly, but they’re watching her, I’m sure of it. I can smell their spiderweb looped all around that hill.”
Samea nodded. “You’re taking a risk including her then, aren’t you?”
“This entire enterprise is a risk. The payoff, as you well know, is worth risking everything.”
- Yurgen Kaneko, the Bull of the North. A Dawn caste Solar who has created an empire and attracted many Exalted to his cause. Is slowly but surely becoming convinced of his own divine right to rule.
- Samea. A Zenith caste Solar and mighty Sorceress who once took Yurgen under her wing but now answers to his leadership.
- Kami the Healer. A Twilight caste Solar who has reached the pinnacle of scientific prowess for one so young. Has already developed a cure for a totally incurable disease and has built artifacts of his own design. Always accompanied by his young nephew Jacob.
- Narula the Tigress. A Dawn caste Solar and the only living Solar who has learned from a Sidereal master. Runs a very unremarkable dojo in the Hundred Kingdoms.
- Richard. A Night caste Solar with a cocky streak a mile wide who now serves as emissary and thief for the Bull of the North.
- Verrance, Descending Violet Whisper. A Chosen of Endings with a lot of experience in the North and a fair amount with the Bull of the North as well. Mistrustful, secretive, and generally a typical Sidereal.
- Arqubis. A Twilight caste Solar and accomplished Necromancer who has taken residence in the Shadowland of Thorns.
- Nalla Bloodaxe. A Night caste Solar who serves the Bull of the North without question, going so far as to allow himself to be seduced by the Lover Clad in the Raiment of Tears.
- Howling Stripes. A Wolf totem Full Moon Lunar a full three hundred years old, who first met Narula and Arqubis and pummeled them into submission while hoping for a good fight. Now runs as Narula’s ally.
- Zeke. A Twilight caste Solar with great mechanical skill who has been loaned from his home Empire of Rathess to the Bull of the North as a gesture of goodwill and a contribution towards a secret plan.
- Yvonne. A Raksha of the Southeast who has come with Zeke to offer her diplomatic services to aid the Bull’s schemes.