Sam sat alone in the empty sanctum, still in a dazed state of disbelief. The reality was starting to set in that his personal life was gone. His friends and immediate family were almost certainly deceased by now, and if even the satrapy of Campesse was gone, who knew what other changes had transpired in the intervening years. It had been about 475 years, few Dragon-blooded lived that long, and many generations had come and gone in that time.
Time seemed to stretch out, as he was left alone with his thoughts. He barely noticed his surroundings once he had assessed them to be empty. He didn’t mind. He needed the time to adjust.
“TJ! There you are!”
TJ started and half-turned mid-stride to glance behind him. Castiel was running to catch up to him in the hallway of the Forbidding Manse of Ivy. TJ kept the involuntary eye-twitch out of his face, and he managed a polite nod, but kept walking. Castiel caught up to him and slowed to match his pace. TJ kept looking straight ahead.
“TJ, I am afraid I require your assistance.”
TJ arched an eyebrow, but didn’t avert his gaze from straight ahead. “My assistance? Certainly, though I’m curious why me.”
“I was assigned to the Pattern Realignment Event due for yesterday in sector 4881, near Gate 33. A thread of the Loom of Fate that had disappeared 475 years ago reemerged.”
TJ couldn’t help himself but glance over incredulously. “Whose thread?”
“Iselsi Samuel. Confirmed by Pattern Spider consultation. I relocated him to the safe house at the Darnex crossroads, but he needs some guidance.”
TJ smirked. “And this is why you need me?”
“Yes,” Castiel continued. “Protocol clearly dictates this case file now be moved to the Convention of Air, and can only properly be assigned to a neutral party on the Convention. You are the only member of the Convention of Air who I have not identified any partisan identification and thus can be trusted I believe to make good use of this man for the betterment of Creation.”
“You’ve been talking with your fellow Gold Faction members I see,” TJ said, bemused. Castiel didn’t bother to deny this assertion but responded evenly, “I see fit to collect information on all my peers.”
“Castiel, of all our peers on the Convention of Air, it is my humble opinion that you are the most impartial. Just because I don’t have a political axe to grind that you know of doesn’t make me more qualified than you, even though you’ve been coopted by the Gold Faction. I know they only think you’re a Goldie because you ran around with some Solars to complete your mission, but there’s no way you’re a true Gold patriot, and asking me to take this case proves it. What’s this really about?”
“I believe he may be of good use to you,” Castiel said. “For your new project perhaps.”
That finally got TJ’s attention. He stopped walking and his gaze was firmly fixed on his winged friend’s eyes. Then realizing that his reaction itself had been a tell, he sighed. “You can’t know anything about that, Castiel. That was a shot in the dark, wasn’t it?”
Castiel smiled. “We are both Chosen of Secrets, are we not? You have your secrets, and I have mine.” Castiel then bowed deeply and turned to walk away.
Justinian let him go. He turned and continued down the hallway, now failing to conceal a smirk.
So, Trajan, you complain about me putting a psychotic barbarian on your little team and expect me to just wait for everything to fail? I’ll do you one better. I’m going to keep tabs on him and everyone else on this team, and if you think you can reinvent the rise of the Solars with them, you might find you’re a little mistaken.
Sam had finally collected his thoughts. He had accepted when he joined the All-Seeing Eye that one false move that triggered a trap or tipped off an enemy could end it all in an instant. In his mind now, that had already happened, except that Fate had given him a second chance. He had a mulligan now, an opportunity to try again to be everything the Empress needed, and he had paid for his false move with his friends and family. Duty first, though, and he had no intention of failing again.
Suddenly Sam felt a presence in the room, despite no door creak announcing entry. He turned and saw a two-foot dragon, made all of bronze scales, reclining on the back of one of the couches. It looked over at him with glowing green eyes and made an expression which was probably a smile, though it could realistically have been a lot of other faces.
“Welcome, Samuel. I have been sent by Castiel to speak with you.”
Sam nodded curtly, trying not to let too much relief show. “Castiel said he would send you to update me. How may I call you?”
The dragon uncoiled himself and reared up. “You may call me Shumu. I am a messenger of Heaven and a Guardian of secrets. Ask me your questions first, so that I may know how to guide you into knowing this new world.”
Sam knew where to start immediately. “What’s happened to the Realm? Why is Campesse not a satrapy anymore? What’s going on?”
“Well,” Shumu said, his gaze solemn, “The Realm is in disrepair. It has been slowly crumbling for a long time, ever since House Iselsi was disgraced in fact.”
“Disgraced??” Sam was shocked. “That’s not possible, we’re one of the biggest houses!”
“Unfortunately, not long after you left, several young scions of House Iselsi attempted to assassinate the Empress. She took her revenge on the entire house, one brick at a time. Hardly anything is left of it now.”
Sam didn’t really believe in his house anymore, not since their politics got his favorite little sister killed. This was still a bitter pill to swallow, though, and he suddenly realized his house had still meant something to him, at least from having grown up in it.
“So now what? Was House Iselsi more important to the Empress than she realized?”
“Perhaps,” Shumu said. “But it’s hard to say now. The Empress has gone missing. No one’s seen hide nor hair of her in over eight years. The Realm is falling apart, and civil war looms for the right to replace her.”
Sam sighed and paced around the sanctum. Somehow he could feel it in his bones, that the Empress going missing would result in a total collapse of the once-great Realm.
“Who are the contenders? Descendants of the Empress I assume.”
Shumu listed the major contenders and their power bases. Sam was staggered to hear that Mnemon, one of the Empress’s daughters, was over 400 years old, yet was born after his time. Over the next hour, Sam picked the brain of this very knowledgeable spirit on the current state of Realm politics, becoming steadily more and more worried about how the civil war might go once it started. He didn’t have any immediate favorites for the throne (he felt he would have to meet them in person before making his judgment) but he certainly liked the Roseblack and also respected Cathak Cainan, as Sam knew of Cathak himself since he was from his own time.
Finally, once Sam felt he had as good an idea of Realm politics as he could get without being there in person, he asked Shumu, “What else should I know from the last few years?”
Shumu seemed to think for a moment. “Oh! Of course. I should tell you, the Anathema have returned in force.”
Sam jerked up, his chair going flying across the sanctum. “No wonder everyone’s going nuts! How bad is it?”
“Very,” Shumu said bluntly. “Young mortals all across Creation are receiving the golden touch in numbers not seen since the Usurpation. They all believe themselves heroes, but ultimately cause more problems than they solve.”
“Curses, as if Creation wasn’t falling apart enough on its own,” Sam said, pacing again. “They are making things worse, aren’t they?”
“Many do,” Shumu said. “But some have dedicated themselves to battling the monsters from outside of Creation. The dead walk now more than ever before, even claiming entire nations for themselves, and the Raksha and the Yozis grow more bold by the day.”
“Hmph,” Sam said crossly. “Wouldn’t it be better if we got the anathema to fight those monsters, it would take a lot of pressure off the Realm and maybe get them both killed off.”
A new voice rang out, “That is exactly the proposal I was about to make to you!”
Sam whirled, seeing a young man in a trench coat standing at the entrance to the sanctum.
“And just who are you?” Sam asked suspiciously.
“Sorry, I should have knocked. My name’s Justin,” the young man said as he entered. “I have a mission of great importance for both the Realm and for all of Creation, and I need someone with the guts to pit the anathema against the monsters from outside.”
Sam stared at ‘Justin’ suspiciously. “Sounds like an important job.”
“It is. It would require someone untraceable, someone who can take on different appearances and keep tabs on different peoples’ motivations. I think that can be you. What do you say?”
Sam continued staring.
“The Realm is crumbling,” Justin said solemnly. “You don’t want that and neither do I. Fate is unraveling around all of Creation, and this cleanup job can only be accomplished by Solar anathema. I need someone on the inside of this team who has Creation’s best interests at heart, and you and I both know that means keeping the Realm intact. What do you say?”
Sam pursed his lips. He took one long breath, then nodded. “Let me meet them.”
Justin nodded and guided Sam out the door. As he left, he winked at Shumu, who winked back.
Keep up with me now, Trajan.