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emerald viper
Essence 2
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Title: Changing Moon
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Heaven Sent (Read 4th)

27 Sep 2011, 00:55

Chapter 1 - Heaven-Sent

Heaven-Sent Munno was working at his forge. It was his custom to take up his hammer in the late afternoon, just as it was his custom to rise before dawn and have a single cup of unsweetened tea as the first rays of morning sunlight cleared the eastern slope of the mountain that he lived on. Munno's days were far more regimented than those of any common farmer, though that was what he styled himself as. His neighbors, who were few and far between considered him to be very strange and every one of them guessed that he had been a soldier in his youth. They knew him as Munno, perhaps because he had never given thought to an alias, but none of them seemed to guess that he was in fact the legendary mortal swordsman who had slain the demon Iyutha in the year that The Scarlet Empress had vanished.

Though Munno was more than fifty years old and age had not been kind to him, he still cut quite an impressive figure. I tried to pretend that I did not know him as well as I did, lest my master suspect that I was up to something. As usual, it was very difficult for me not to regard him as an old friend. Every time I saw Munno, I was reminded of how how he had once stepped in and laid out a pair of thugs who'd attempted to relieve a helpless noble lady of her purse. Nor could I forget all of the mornings we'd spent together whenever I was posing as a traveler simply seeking shelter for the night. Regardless of what face I wore, Munno always offered me a bed, tea, rice and whatever else he happened to have. After I had rested, we would sit together enjoying the sunrise and talking about his goats and his fields before I went on my way. But each and every time we met, I was a stranger to him. It was becoming very difficult for me to remember that.

Munno was an intimidating man, more than six feet tall and built in a manner that suggested that he was as fast as he was strong. He had a profile chiseled from granite; a strong jaw, a very square nose and deep set dark eyes. Munno wore his silver-streaked hair in a tight braid down his back and was dressed only in his well-worn hakama. The scars of innumerable battles criss-crossed his arms and his chest.

And yet there was something irresistibly attractive about the way that he worked so diligently at his forge. In his retirement, the great Munno had achieved something that many monks strove for. He was truly at peace. I would have much preferred to have a cup of tea with him and ask him innocent questions about the weather and the hunting near his little preserve as I usually did... but I did not have that luxury. I was no longer assigned to Munno. I was assigned to my master.

The live oaks which surrounded Munno's humble cottage were thick with orange butterflies. The sunlight painted the trees with a faint golden luster and the air smelled strongly of woodsmoke and iron. With each resounding blow of Munno's hammer, the butterflies fluttered and then settled again. They were part of his perfect rhythm, his lovely little world. As usual, I envied him intensely. When I could afford to step away from my work, I had it in mind to find a little mountainside cottage like Munno's... but I somewhat doubted that my request for sabbatical would be approved any time soon.

At present, I knew only that it was necessary for my master to find Munno, and that my master must somehow convince him to return to the world he had forsworn when his wife and children were killed by the same horrible sorcerer who had summoned the demon Iyutha to lay waste to the Hundred Kingdoms. It seemed wrong to draw one such as Munno who had already given so much and suffered so terribly away from the simple, serene existence he had cultivated... but as it is often said, the Heavens work in mysterious ways and sometimes Fate is a complex thing.

Munno did not seem to notice us as we approached – or rather, he gave no sign that he did. My master, Tepet Genji watched him with a critical eye but said nothing. Not that he usually made any sort of conversation with me. As I was a “mere mortal”, my personal opinions were altogether irrelevant.

“Excuse me.” My master said, much louder than necessary. He had a tendency to puff himself up when he was nervous, which meant that he usually came off as haughty. Like all of his breed, he was a bit arrogant but not quite as bad as he sounded. He trotted his horse up to Munno's forge. Munno did not even glance in his direction. His long experience on battlefields throughout the Realm had taught him one painful lesson. Those ordained by the Dragons to become rulers of men were often dangerously detached from the mortals whose sweat and blood they had built their empire upon.

An Aspect of Wood, my master was of an excellent Dragon bloodline himself. In every way he resembled a Prince of the Earth, from the faintly green hue of his skin and the dusting of scales on his neck to the piny scent that surrounded him and convinced Munno's hordes of butterflies that he was in fact, a tree. They sometimes alighted on his head and he swatted them away as if they were biting flies or something similarly noxious.

I smiled despite myself every time a butterfly escaped his attention... but made certain not to laugh out loud lest he demand what I found so funny. There were two on top of his head when he approached Munno. They made him look much less authoritative than he was pretending to be.

Normally my master was more patient and pleasant, but we had just come from a meeting with his father who was a very powerful and disagreeable man. Tepet Iwazo was a provincial governor with a string of unfortunate marriages and two dozen children, most of which were chosen by the Dragons and currently fighting over their petty inheritances. Iwazo, a military man, considered his youngest son Genji to be a monumental failure in every conceivable way, largely because the younger Wood-Aspect preferred to focus his talents on calligraphy and games of Gateway rather than political manoeuvring for the sake of his House. Though far from incompetent, Genji lacked ambition and was disinclined to stab anyone he didn't have to. As Tepet Iwazo saw it – such “apathy” was unforgivable.

“Excuse me. You there, smith! Do you know where I can find Heaven-Sent Munno?” My master inquired.

“I don't know who you're talking about.” Munno replied. The look on his face said everything. In Munno's eyes, my master was yet another young Dynast, of the same sort that had recently been springing up all over the Hundred Kingdoms like mushrooms after a monsoon. It was no secret that they were all looking for Munno, vainly hoping that he would forge for them another Heaven-Sent Sword.

But what Munno did not know yet was the horrible news that had come all the way from An-Teng. Some fool had summoned his old enemy Iyutha again... and now everyone who held stock anywhere in the South was looking for a way to be rid of her. The demon was a force to be reckoned with and clearly, whoever had brought her into Creation was up to no good.

“Of course you do. Heaven-Sent Munno forged the greatest sword ever made by mortal hands. He used it to slay the demon Iyutha and the bring down the Warlord Phaestus who once ruled these lands with an iron fist. Then he vanished. Retired, some say. I've been told that he lives near here.” My master pressed.

“He does.” Munno replied.

“And yet you don't know where?” My master paused.

“Munno doesn't like visitors.” Munno replied. “I'm sure that you've been told that also.”

“I have. And it distresses me because I must find him.” My master continued.

“Well, you won't.” Munno continued working.

“Will you stop that insufferable clanging and at least hear me out?” My master snapped.

Munno set down his hammer as if it were made of glass, but it still made a sound like a brick when it hit his anvil. The butterflies on my master's head scattered and he finally noticed them. He looked painfully embarrassed as he realized that they had obviously been sitting in his hair for some time. I laughed aloud despite myself.

He scowled at me. “Control yourself, Kit! You sound like a damned hyena!” He ordered.

I bowed very low in my seat, almost kissing my mare's neck so that he would not see that I was still grinning. Munno watched me with some interest. I felt a little uncomfortable twinge that made me wonder if knew that I'd been following his simple, mundane exploits for some time.

I suspected that he might recognize me as Kit Waylay, the no-account drifter that he sometimes bumped into when he purchased necessities for his humble farm in the nearest town of Three Roads. If he did remember seeing me before, his powers of perception were astounding. Still, I wasn't worried about being identified as Kit - that was the alias I'd given my current master. But if Munno had any suspicion, however faint, that I was not actually the boy that I was currently playing... then things might become troublesome.

“I'm listening.” Munno said.

My master surveyed Munno's work with genuine interest. He was a connoisseur of good craftsmanship, particularly quality steel. It was one of the reasons that I'd chosen him in the first place. “Kit, come hold my horse.” He ordered, dismounting.

“Yes, my lord.” I meekly obliged. His gelding sniffed my mare and rubbed his nose on my leg. The effect that my master had on butterflies was something akin to the effect that I usually had on horses myself. They were always convinced that I was something like a hay bale or another horse, meant to be nibbled. Not that I minded. Generally speaking, I prefer the company of animals to that of most people.

My master ignored me, not even looking at my face. As usual, I was beneath his notice. He thought he knew everything, Exalted as he was... but he was too blinded by his own sense of self-importance to realize that the great Heaven-Sent Munno that he and all of his fellow Princes of the Earth had so fervently sought was currently standing right in front of him.

My master sighed heavily, probably guessing that he had best get straight to the point if he expected any sort of answer at all from the man that he was questioning. Without his horse underneath him, my master was significantly shorter than Munno, his shoulders not half as broad. Despite being a Dragonblood, he looked very small and vulnerable in Munno's shadow and indeed he was. Though my master had studied martial arts like any Dynast, he'd only barely scraped his way through his obligatory physical training. His real talent was for sorcery, which was only to his benefit when he was standing a good distance away from his opponent and behind something.

“I must find Munno because all of the astrologers say that only Munno can forge another Heaven-Sent Sword.” My master explained. “Someone has summoned the demon he once slew and it must be killed again.”

“Munno doesn't make swords any more.” Munno replied. “And he's too old to kill demons. Besides, astrologers are all liars. They'll tell you anything you want to hear if you pay them enough.”

I twitched a little at Munno's callous comment. Personally, I placed a good amount of faith in the stars. Of course, if I'd ever had cause to tell him how I used astrology, I knew he would never believe me.

“Hm. So you believe you're immune to Fate? That's very arrogant of you.” My master snorted. “Is there no way that I can convince you that I speak the truth? Surely others have already come this way looking for Munno! And as you must know, we Princes of the Earth have a tremendous number of responsibilities! We don't make a habit of traveling so far from civilization on an idle whim! This situation is very serious and getting worse as we speak! Iyutha is ruthless and whoever has turned her loose must be as bad as Phaestus ever was – or even worse.”

Munno considered everything that my master had said. I could see the wheels in his head turning very slowly but with tremendous force – like a mill grinding grain to flour. He was a man of few words but they were almost always well-chosen ones.

The only thing about him that I really found infuriating was his stubborn refusal to believe that anything in all of Creation could possibly be attributed to Fate. That bit about astrologers being liars didn't sit particularly well with me either.

“All right.” Munno sighed heavily. “Come inside and tell me what's happened. And then we'll see if Munno will help you.”

“You won't regret this.” My master smiled slightly, perhaps just a little arrogantly. He already thought he'd succeeded where so many others had failed, crediting his own charisma and persistence rather than the bevy of carefully crafted astrological aids that I had set upon the both of us before we came within ten miles of Munno's cabin.

I knew that it was important that Tepet Genji take all of the credit for finding and retrieving Munno and I tried not to get too upset about the fact that I was risking my own hide by using what my other identities knew about Munno to manipulate him in my current guise. The only thing more difficult than deceiving Munno was impressing him – and I had to ensure that my master would succeed in doing both without drawing any attention to myself.

I turned our horses loose where Munno instructed and for a few minutes I actually set to work cleaning our tack as my master had ordered. Later, I knew I'd be scolded for not doing a very good job on the leather, but presently it was more important for me to listen in on my master's conversation with Munno than to pretend to be a good servant.

I hid myself cleverly on the roof of the barn, a vantage point which allowed me a good view of Munno's kitchen through his only window. I could see him and my master seated at his table, a pot of tea between the two of them. It would have been impossible to make out what they were saying or even to read their lips from such a distance... if I were only what I appeared to be.

Of course, neither Munno nor my master suspected that I was anything more than an obnoxious slip of a boy with some meager horse-sense and a good sense of direction.

Among other things, I am an exceptional actor.

While I hadn't heard the beginning of Munno's conversation with my master, it wasn't difficult for me to figure out what had happened. Not as stupid as he sometimes appeared to be, Tepet Genji had obviously guessed that Munno was... well, Munno!

“I said I couldn't reforge the sword, not that I wouldn't”." Munno protested. “I've been trying to explain and you're not listening! I did not forge the Heaven-Sent sword alone. An old man helped me. I never saw him again and I never knew his name. But he did something to that sword – something I could never duplicate. It was as the stories say... not a thing of this world.”

A familiar chime caught my attention and I turned around just in time to catch the appearance of a little ornate box. It sat in midair and looked so outrageously out of place hovering above Munno's barn that anyone who saw it would have certainly suspected that there was some kind of fae trick involved.

Nothing could have been further from the truth – but explaining that the hovering box was actually the method by which agents of Fate retrieved their orders while they were at work in Creation sounded even more absurd. Most people, like Munno, did not understand how powerful Fate was and would be shocked and horrified to learn that there were hundreds of Gods and others like me in the employ of the Bureau of Destiny – who regularly pretended to be their friends for the sole purpose of manipulating their lives to some degree or another.

I quickly opened my box and seized the scroll inside – new orders from my superiors. Two small objects were also in my box... a shard of steel and a little vial of something that looked like perfume. The moment I took them out, the box itself vanished.

When I read my new orders, I smiled at first. Then I felt a knot rise up in my stomach and swallowed a few curse words. My superiors wanted me to get rid of Tepet Genji in the most thoroughly humiliating manner that I could possibly have devised. I was supposed to drug him and leave him in the forest where he would wake up several hours later completely covered in butterflies.

The shard of steel was another matter. It was a piece of Munno's Heaven-Sent Sword and was on loan from the Convention on Deathlords, a powerful organization that I had no desire to run afoul of. After leaving my master to the butterflies, I was to give the sword shard to Munno and then tell him the most terrifying thing I had ever told anyone in my life – the absolute truth about who I was and who I worked for.

But it was the signature on my orders that really caused my heart to start pounding.

I was working for Oversight.

Put simply, no one in Heaven knew who or what Oversight was... aside from indisputable proof that even those of us who regularly operated “behind the scenes” of Creation were not really in control of anything at all.

I sat on the roof of Munno's barn for a full ten minutes before it occurred to me that I should probably get down before someone inquired as to how I'd gotten up there. My orders vanished after I had committed them to memory and I put the vial and the shard of the Heaven-Sent sword into my purse.

I'd just started to busy myself combing our horses when my master emerged from Munno's house. He looked extremely cross, which I'd suspected and he actually hit me when he saw that I hadn't scrubbed even half of the soap off of his saddle. If I'd been as weak as I appeared to be, he would have definitely given me a good bruise. As it was, I had a bit more incentive to leave him for the butterflies.

I waited until my master and I reached the road and then I “remembered” belatedly that I hadn't refilled our water. I ignored Tepet Genji's curses and quickly excused myself to go draw a bucket from Munno's well. When I was sure that I was alone, I emptied the contents of my little vial into my master's waterskin. It didn't smell particularly strong, but I knew better than to doubt the drug's potency. While it must have been very difficult to brew up an undetectable sleeping draught that would knock out a Wood-Aspect, whenever Oversight was involved in something, it was best to do as they requested and trust that Fate was on your side.

I did notice that Munno was following me as I galloped back in the direction of my irate master. He was damned stealthy for being as big as he was. I wondered momentarily what he'd seen and suspected that he'd caught me putting something into Tepet Genji's water. Keeping to the trees, he followed the both of us as we rode, not seeming to tire at all, despite keeping pace with a pair of good horses.

My master berated me for more than twenty minutes before the tonic I'd fed him finally kicked in and he slumped forward mid-sentence, nearly falling off his horse. I caught him and deposited him on the ground, propping him up against a tree where he wouldn't be liable to choke himself to death if whatever I'd given him made him sick. A butterfly almost immediately landed on his nose.

Still watching me like a stalking wolf, Munno emerged from tree cover. He was holding a big stick as if it were a nodachi, presumably to defend himself.

“He's not dead.” I informed him, suspecting that he was probably worried about what I had done to my master. “Just sleeping.”

With my orders in mind, I slowly turned around and dropped my Resplendent Destiny. Really, I didn't look any different without it – not by my own reckoning at any rate, but the supernatural effect that caused Munno to perceive me as a dirty teenage boy instantly dissipated. Munno had never seen my real face before and I was somewhat curious to see what he would think. It had been a very, very long time since I'd been in Creation as myself and the feeling was liberating. I stood slowly and drew my swords from concealment.

Tepet Genji would have been even greener than usual – green with envy if he had seen the weapons I'd secretly been carrying on my person since our first meeting. I'd taken great pains to hide them well. The twin blades called “Thought” and “Memory” were my treasures, several thousand years old and inherited through a long line of my predecessors.

“You're a girl?” Munno blinked in surprise.

“Technically, I'm a woman. That's a girl of a certain age or more.” I retorted, a little annoyed by his reaction.

“I won't fight a woman.” He put down his stick.

“Oh, don't start with that patronizing patriarchal nonsense! I don't want you to kill me! I just want to see if you're still any good with a blade. Here!” I offered, tossing him one of my own swords.

“I haven't picked up a sword in years.” Munno admitted, staring at Memory. I hadn't considered which I was offering him, but when I did notice, it seemed painfully appropriate. And yet he didn't turn down the weapon. I suspected he couldn't endure the sight of something so fine lying on the ground.

“Gods, these swords are heavy! Heavier than solid jade.” He mused, drawing the blade a few inches from its sheath.”Good balance though. But you're so small!”

“I'm a lot stronger than I look.” I replied, striking at him. He parried my blow with some effort but very good speed. Despite his argument that he would not fight me, he followed through with a decent enough counter. I parried in return.

“So I've noticed.” He observed, noticing the I could wield Thought with the ease of a light Tai Chi sword. “Who are you?” He pressed.

“Presently? I'm Tepet Genji's servant.” I smirked.

“I see. But he's no one of consequence. You, on the other hand... it is you who came looking for me?” Munno hazarded a guess.

“Well, Genji is obviously not going to be killing Iyutha. He thinks he is, but... he's no warrior.” I remarked, jerking my thumb at the Dragonblood who was still snoring, blissfully unconscious after the cordial that I'd given him. When he woke he'd surely be furious, but by the time he did, there was a good chance that Munno and I would be far enough ahead of him not to care. “Not like you are.” I informed Munno.

“I wish I could help you, but I'm not as young as I was. And as I told your master, I did not forge the Heaven-Sent Sword alone. The man who helped me is probably long dead and I don't know why that weapon was able to slay the demon or if it is even possible to make another like it.” Munno shook his head heavily.

“You won't even try?” I pressed.

“I don't have the strength to fail.” He replied.

“Then don't fail.” I replied, reaching into my purse and producing the unusual sliver of steel that had come with my orders from Oversight. Munno clearly recognized it immediately and swore under his breath as he caught it in his hands. He swore again as he looked up and noticed that I was surrounded in a faint aura of blue light.

Munno stared at me, obviously bewildered by what he had just seen. I'd never seen him so completely thrown off guard. Then again, it was a rare day indeed that any mortal got to hear what I was about to say. “My name is Estelle and I am a Chosen of Serenity. I know you don't know what that means yet, but I work for something called The Bureau of Destiny and I've been watching you for a long time. It's really quite complicated. I promise I'll explain everything that I can but basically... I've been sent by Heaven to help you. Forge the sword. Kill the demon. Save the world.”

For a long while we stood facing one another in silence... and then Munno did something I had never seen him do.

He smiled.
Last edited by emerald viper on 28 Oct 2011, 23:35, edited 2 times in total.
 
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emerald viper
Essence 2
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Posts: 86
Joined: 03 Aug 2010, 20:03
Title: Changing Moon
Exalt: Lunar
Fighting Style: Dodge Charms
Location: Texas
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Re: Heaven Sent

01 Oct 2011, 01:46

Forge the Sword - Munno

I set my goats loose near the property of Hiram Lao, and made a trail of corn down the road until I reached the house of Widow Beech that I suspected my chickens and hogs would gladly follow. It was very early in the morning when Estelle and I passed Mayor Soba's barn so I did not wake him.

The Mayor of the small town of Green River had been the first to welcome me to my home and though we had not always gotten along very well, only he knew who I truly was and the story of why I wanted to hide myself somewhere that my many thousands of adoring “followers” could not hope to find me. At first I had traveled incessantly, but over the years I had discovered that doing so had only added to my legend – as new stories spread like wildfire anywhere that “Heaven-Sent” Munno happened to appear.

Was it a fault of mine that I could not ignore those who needed help?

I had paid the very greatest price for my desire to be a hero, and nothing I could do would ever change that. My wife and my son, the two greatest treasures of my life had both been dead for more than twenty years.

I left a note tacked to Mayor Soba's front door that said I was going away. I told him that I had taken my mules with me and that he could help himself to anything my fields or garden might produce, provided that he give a good portion of whatever he gleaned to Widow Beech. I would have left my land in the care of the Widow herself who lived several miles closer to me, but I suspected the labor would be too much for her and her daughters – at least Soba had three strong sons who could help with the additional work. I did not think to remind Mayor Soba to leave me enough rice for next spring. Although my strange companion had said nothing on the matter, I suspected that I would not be coming home.

It was just as well. For many years, I had thought that I wished to die in peace, alone on my mountaintop... but Estelle's arrival had kindled something inside of me that I had thought was burned to ashes long ago. I could feel the onset of old age already and before it slowed me as it had slowed Widow Beech, I wanted to have one last journey. Packing a good quantity of rice, water and dried meat for Estelle and myself, I felt as I had when I had first strapped on the Heaven-Sent sword and gone to slay Iyutha.

Without my fabled weapon, I did not expect that I could kill the demon. But I was not afraid to try.

I was more afraid of my new traveling companion than I was of Iyutha.

I had never heard of something called “The Bureau of Destiny” before and the blue light that Estelle sometimes radiated definitely set me on edge. I was not entirely certain that she wasn't a demon herself, but her smile seemed so very genuine. And the more we talked as we rode, the more I felt as if I had known her for many years. I supposed my willingness to trust her had something to do with the fact that I was not quite old enough to be immune to a woman's charms, which she possessed in abundance. I wondered briefly how I had ever mistaken her for a boy... but then my eyes came to rest upon her peculiar swords.

Clearly, she was much more than she seemed and could likely convince me of anything she so chose.

“So where are we going?” I asked Estelle after we had ridden for several hours. It had not occurred to me to do anything more than follow after her and make sure that my undisciplined mules kept pace with her high-spirited little mare. At my insistence, she had left Tepet Genji's gelding tied to a tree near her unfortunate master. Whenever Tepet Genji finally rose from his drug-addled stupor, he would at least have the means to make it back to civilization. That put the two of us in more danger if he happened to be angry, but I felt confident in trusting Estelle.

That strange confidence was as worrying as it was reassuring. Generally speaking, I do not trust in Fate. And if my companion was to be believed – she was one of its very agents.

“West.” Estelle replied, as if I couldn't have guessed as much with the sun beating down on our backs. “You say you don't know how the Heaven-Sent sword was forged. So we'll start by looking for someone who can tell us. You've still got the shard, right?”

I nodded and tapped my medicine pouch. It was a good luck charm that a friend of mine had made for me. Like most of my friends, the burly Icewalker that I had known only as “Ox” was long dead... but I could think of no better vessel for a fragment of the Heaven-Sent sword. Ox would have believed in the quest that I had accepted, even if everyone else might think it madness - the last smoky pipe dreams of an adventurer long past his prime.

“But why West?” I wondered.

“Nexus! Lookshy!” Estelle proclaimed. “Experts on swords and mercenaries galore! Someone is bound to know.”

“But you don't know exactly where we're headed?” I pressed. “And you work for Heaven?”

Estelle sighed heavily. “Munno, before we go any further, let's get one thing straight. Yes, I work for Heaven... but that doesn't mean I'm omnipotent! There are plenty of things that I don't know, usually because my superiors haven't decided that I need to. You were a mercenary for a long time... you know how it goes. As of right now, I've been given permission to share information with you that most mortals are never parley to – but I honestly don't know why. Not yet, anyway. When there's something more that I can tell you, I will.”

I considered that promise, and for a few hours more we rode on in silence. My mind was churning with all of the questions that I wanted to ask my guide, but I couldn't find the words to speak. Instead, I watched the forest around us and observed all of the telltale signs of autumn approaching.

“Well, what do you know about the Heaven-Sent sword?” I asked finally.

“Very important individuals are interested in seeing it re-forged. And if it is re-forged, it'll kill Iyutha. That's all.” Estelle admitted. “To be honest, I don't even know that you'll be the one to wield it. No one's said that as such. It's just what my gut tells me.”

I thought for a moment about how to best explain. “I think it is necessary that I go with you, or I would have sent you away. But I am not sure how helpful I can be. I blindfolded myself while the sword was being finished - I was told to, and I was desperate for help no matter where it came from. I may have looked the part of a "young warrior" - but I was only fifteen years old when I killed Iyutha. These days the bards say that I jumped so high it looked as though I'd been Chosen by Mela.” I smiled slightly, thinking of the most recent rendition I'd heard of my now-famous tale. “Perhaps it was a mercy that I never Exalted. My life has been eventful enough these past thirty-five years. With a Dragon's grace, who knows what sort of trouble I might have gotten into?”

Estelle chuckled. “I thought the same thing once.” She admitted.

“How old are you?” I wondered, before I remembered that it was a somewhat impertinent question to ask a woman.

“Eight hundred and fifty-six... seven?” She replied without hesitation – raising an eyebrow in my direction as if she suspected I could give her the correct answer. “But that's barely middle age for a Sidereal! They still consider me a young hellion around the Cerulean Lute. Of course, that's not liable to change. Most Sidereals are found when they're very young and raised in Yu-Shan. I was almost sixteen when they finally caught up to me, living in a Freehold not far from Halta. I didn't remember a time when I hadn't served the fae. It's a bit hard to imagine now, but I honestly thought I was a goblin myself. That didn't go over well within the Bureau. Certain people thought I could never be trained. That I was too "tainted" to be a Chosen of Serenity.”

I had learned that “Sidereal” and “Chosen of Serenity” were both names for what Estelle was, but as I had never heard either of them spoken before, I had very little idea of what either term meant. I suspected I would learn soon enough.

Estelle continued. “Generally speaking, I'm not a big fan of fair folk, but being raised in the Freehold of The Green Lord did have some advantages. The Green Lord's been fighting The Red Queen and The Alabaster Duchess since... well, forever! I started learning to wield as sword right after I started walking. By the time I was taken to Yu-Shan I'd survived three major wars and knew more about surviving in the Eastern Bordermarches than a Chosen of Battles five centuries my senior. But I'd never seen a book before. I couldn't read or write at all, I couldn't dress myself respectfully, I didn't know what a fork was used for...” She sighed heavily. “I caused a whole lot of misery for a lot of folks who were very used to things being the way they were and got myself in awful trouble punching the Goddess Lwaxana on my first day in Heaven. My Sifu was arguing with the head of the Convention on the Wyld who wanted to throw me out of Yu-Shan up until the moment I Exalted. Then they had to keep me.” She finished with a conspiratorial wink.

“That's the maddest thing I've ever heard.” I replied, genuinely impressed. “So you are an Exalt then, like a Dragonblood? Where exactly do you... “Sidereals” fit into the Perfected Hierarchy?” The word sounded very strange to me as I spoke it.

“Nowhere.” Estelle replied. “We're outside of it.”

“But nothing is...” I began.

“And that's exactly what they want you to think!” Estelle cut me off. “Now you may not like this at all, but there's another thing you ought to know if you're traveling with me. We don't trust the Immaculate Order. At all.”

“We don't?” I frowned.

“See these swords of mine? You remember how heavy they were?” She pressed.

I nodded.

“They're heavy because the blades are edged in Starmetal. It's nasty. Very efficient for killing stuff that's nominally outside of Fate – like Fae. Starmetal is made out of dead Gods and Sidereals who've stepped out of line one too many times. Like any bureaucracy, Heaven's got factions... and my faction is a bit unpopular.” Estelle explained. “So if I don't want to get myself in a position where I'll be audited and forged into a nice carafe or something like that, we steer clear of the Immaculate Order. There are some folks running with a Wyld Hunt right now who are definitely gunning for me.”

“Oh.” I observed, though I was a little uncomfortable hearing such a thing. “Are you...”

“Am I what?” She raised an eyebrow in my direction. “Anathema?”

I did not respond. Estelle laughed.

“Well, technically I could be... because I'm not a Dragonblood. But then again, I couldn't be. Because “Anathema” aren't real.” Estelle replied.

“But...” I did not get to protest. I wanted to argue that I had seen an Anathema once before – if only from a distance. Not that anyone could have missed that pillar of gold fire rising up into the sky.

“Solars exist!” Estelle clarified. “Anathema are bullshit. They're bogeymen created by the Immaculate Order to keep you from seeing the truth.”

“Which is?” I prompted, a little afraid to hear her answer.

“That Solars are no different than Dragonbloods or Lunars or Sidereals like me... or mortals like you.” Estelle explained. “Some are good, some are bad.”

“But... they're so powerful!” I argued. I didn't see how anyone could possibly possess such power without being beholden to some kind of demon.

“Yes.” Estelle nodded. “Which is exactly why they tend to be really good or really bad. Think about it, Munno! If you had the power to kill a thousand demons with one blow of your sword... wouldn't that make you pretty dangerous to the average mortal?”

“Beyond dangerous.” I replied.

“And if you were that dangerous, some people might suggest that Creation would be better off if you were destroyed. Because of what you might do.” Estelle continued.

“Of course!” I agreed.

“But then... what if the demons that you could have easily killed suddenly reared their ugly heads... then what? We can't just go around killing everyone strong enough to change the world!" Estelle demanded. "What happens to Creation when the forces of darkness rise up and there are no great heroes left?”

“You settle for little heroes?” I replied. “Or retired ones?” I gestured to myself.

Estelle laughed.

It was many months later after too many small adventures to recount that Estelle and I came to the place where we had learned the Heaven-Sent sword could be forged. Hidden in the forests south of Nexus was a great manse that had once been the secret workshop of a terrible Anathema that Estelle referred to as “The Perfect”... though not to be confused with the ruler of Paragon.

From Estelle's perspective, I gathered that Perfect, the long-dead Anathema was one of the most awful beings ever to have walked the face of Creation, not because Estelle disliked "Solars"... but because “Perfect” had a seething hatred for Sidereals and worse still, a flawless method of identifying them even when they traveled under what Estelle referred to as “Resplendent Destinies”.

I had learned in our time together that creating such Destinies was one of Estelle's three chief skills – the other two being her swordsmanship and her ability to effortlessly ride any horse ever foaled, no matter how disagreeable or green. Resplendent Destinies were somehow connected to her peculiar version of astrology and they allowed her to quite literally “be” whoever she needed to be in any given situation. She would approach someone and address them as an old friend, suddenly gaining their trust and cooperation. It was a little unsettling to witness the first few times, but I could not deny the usefulness of her peculiar talent when we two were traveling together with no money at all.

It took us several days of hard riding south to reach the doors of the demon's manse. They were a full twenty feet tall and looked as though they hadn't been moved in centuries.

“So how do we get in?” I wondered uneasily, staring at enormous bronze door. It was corroded as green as the vines that had almost completely consumed it and looked impossible to open.

Estelle and I glanced at one another and then gave a good charge, the both of us throwing all our weight into the door. I rammed into it with my shoulder, relying on brute strength rather than finesse while she launched herself into a dramatic flying kick that made her look more like a dancer than a martial artist.

The door immediately gave way.

I fell and slid a few feet across a cold marble floor. Estelle landed on top of me. She was not very heavy, but the hilt of one of her swords caught me between the ribs as she rolled over backwards and I groaned.

I'd never imagined a place anything like the one we had entered into. The ceiling rose impossibly high over our heads and there were several enormous contraptions that looked like ships rigged to the ceiling above our heads. The walls were lined with thousands of books and the space was littered with all kinds of strange tools and half-finished projects, not to mention enormous stacks of paper and a pillar comprised of broken pencils that had actually begun to grow into a living tree! A tiny mechanical spider scurried away from my hand, as expressive in its movements as a living creature.

Very slowly, I brushed myself off and then helped Estelle to her feet. She stared just over my shoulder with her jaw dropped and her eyes very wide. I turned to see what she saw and felt my own pulse quicken.

There was a man standing behind us, dressed all in white with his arms folded across his chest and a grave expression on his face. He wore a very impressive pair of gloves crafted of golden metal and an impossibly intricate pendant around his neck that held a glimmering stone the color of liquid sunlight. The stranger was almost as tall as I was and a good fifteen years younger with a shock of red hair and a short, carefully maintained beard. I could picture him mingling effortlessly with the sorts of lesser nobles I had known in my younger years and would have guessed that he was some sort of well-to-do merchant, dealing in something luxurious like gems or silks.

Of course, the golden mark burning on his brow was another matter entirely.

As the Immaculate Order would name him, he was one of the Unclean, the very worst sorcerers ever to have lived. The Anathema stared at the two of us without speaking a word. Estelle and I hadn't just staggered our way into a demon's lair! The monster she had feared was at home – and from the looks of things, extremely annoyed!

I took a few steps back and reached for my own blade. It was not a very good sword, but I'd acquired it honestly and it had served me well in our travels.

“Now, now! That would be unthinkably stupid!” The Anathema reprimanded me. He turned slowly to face Estelle with an even more paralyzing glare. “Another Sidereal. Why am I not surprised? What do you want?”

“We're looking for a way to forge a very specific sword.” Estelle replied without hesitation. Though I was more inclined to plead ignorance and look for the nearest exit, Estelle had evidentially come to the conclusion that the awe-inspiring skills of the Unclean were probably exactly what we needed to enlist when it came to reforging the Heaven-Sent sword. I wasn't very happy about working with a demon myself, but I could not find the strength to protest, not with the Anathema staring me down.

Despite everything that Estelle had told me about the “truth” behind the Immaculate Order. I was still convinced that “Solars” like the one whose manse we'd just invaded were far too dangerous to be left roaming throughout Creation.

“Here is a piece of it.” I reached for my medicine pouch and produced the fragment for the demon's inspection. He stepped uncomfortably close to me and seized the steel from my grasp with terrifying dexterity. After evaluating the fragment of the Heaven-Sent sword for a moment, he surveyed me and then Estelle with a kind of focus that made me feel a bit like a moth in a glass jar.

“All right. I'm intrigued.” The Anathema smirked.

Estelle very quickly explained our story and to my surprise, the demon offered to forge the sword for us without any charge at all. He was very amused to learn that I was “The Munno” of all of the legends and confessed that he'd enjoyed the stories of my adventures when he was a child.

I could not imagine the intimidating Anathema as a child – but I said nothing. He didn't ask us to swear servitude to him or anything similarly wicked in exchange for the Heaven-Sent sword – he professed that he simply wished to “see if it could be done”. Giving us a place to sit on one of his work tables and a few cups of over-steeped tea, he set to work at once.

Watching the Anathema at his furnace was awe-inspiring. I had trained as a smith for as long as I had trained as a soldier, so I had a good idea of how swords were usually forged, but the demon's art did nothing if it did not completely lay all of my preconceived notions about blacksmithing to waste. I understood immediately why my mysterious aid who had helped me forge the first Heaven-Send sword had asked me to leave the room as he finished the blade. I would have been too terrified ever to wield it if I had seen him working as the Anathema did, surrounded by a corona of golden fire like the very sun.

It was hours before the weapon was done – ten or more, but it still seemed a very short time to produce something of such agonising beauty and complexity. Though I had not described the appearance of the first sword to the demon, he had captured it perfectly. It was exactly as I remembered it.

I reached for it hesitantly.

“To be honest, I doubt you can pick it up.” The Anathema snorted derisively. “I could've made you a different blade, you know. One more suited to your... limitations.”

“\But this is the sword that will kill the demon?” I pressed. “This is the sword that we need?”

The Anathema nodded. “It's identical in every way to the shard you gave me. A very complex magical alloy. Nigh impossible to duplicate. To be honest, I don't think anyone besides me could have done it.”

“You're very confident in your own work.” Estelle observed.

“You know who I am, Sidereal. You don't think I have a right to be?” The Anathema smirked.

I reached for the Heaven-Sent sword and tried to lift it. It was impossibly heavy. Not to be deterred, I put both hands firmly on the weapon's hilt and gritted my teeth. At first the sword would not move, but then I managed to find its balance.

For a moment I held the blade aloft, the strain burning through every muscle in my body. Even the Anathema looked impressed. I had lifted the sword, which was more than he had believed I could do... but I would never be able to wield it.

It fell from my grasp with a sound like a thunderclap and stuck itself, point first into the marble floor.

With an ease that made me absolutely furious, the Anathema drew the sword he had forged up from his stone floor and held it aloft in one hand, considering it for a moment.

“Perfect! You can wield the sword!” Estelle exclaimed. “Come with us!”

“I could.” The Anathema replied. “But I'm not meant to. This sword is for Heaven-Sent Munno.”

“It is beyond me.” I swallowed my pride. “I'm not as strong as I once was.”

“Then become stronger.” He replied. He took a length of white cloth, the same beautiful fabric that made up his own cloak and used it to wrap the blade three or four times, making a kind of sling that I could wear to carry the impossible blade on my back.

I accepted the tremendous burden wordlessly. Arguing with the Anathema would get me nowhere. More importantly, he was right. I thought back to my earliest days of learning the sword under my father's watchful eye.

It was true, I could not wield the great weapon that he had made for me. But it would take us months to travel from Nexus to An-Tang where Iyutha had last been seen.

I would train. I would train until my hands bled, and then I would train more. And I would overcome my weakness. I had a demon to kill.

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