Chejop Kejak was preoccupied as he strode through the halls of the Manse Of Forbidding Ivy towards his personal office. Attempting to limit the expansion of the Bull of the North, controlling the spiral towards war taking place between Gem and Paragon, directing the Realmâ€¦ there were days that he simply wanted to throw it all down and retire. Of course, he could not, but the thought was gradually becoming a quiet dream at night â€“ one that he imagined he would take with him to the grave, still working to protect the world.
So when he reached for his office door, and it swung open of its own volition, he was already framing a suitably sharp and humbling reprimand for whatever unfortunate Exalt or deity had dared to enter without his presence. The words died on his lips as he looked over the office itself.
Mercury, her hand still holding the door, bowed her head in a gesture of respect. Sitting cross-legged on his desk, Venus gave him a much less formal wink and wave. Jupiter merely nodded slightly, standing off to one side. Saturn and Mars, standing shoulder to shoulder in front of him, bowed.
Covering his shock, Kejak bowed back, to each in turn. The Five Maidens were standing in his office. All of them. At the same time. He racked his brain, imagining what might draw such personal attention of the current situations, and drew a blank. After a moment, he broke the silence. â€œMy ladies. To what do I owe the honour?â€
â€œA storm is coming.â€ Mercuryâ€™s voice was soft and sad. She looked upwards. â€œThe ages turn. It begins today.â€
Kejak frowned thoughtfully. â€œWhat manner of storm?â€
â€œWe may not say.â€ Jupiter shrugged slightly. â€œBe prepared. A secret is to be revealed, dark and terrible.â€
Mars and Venus chimed in, in unison. â€œTo war it leads, and to alliance. Your hand will point the way.â€
Finally, Saturn stepped forwards, her voice a whisper promising the end of all things, so soft that Kejak had to strain to hear it. â€œThe Bronze or Gold must fall today.â€
Kejakâ€™s breath caught in his throat. â€œWhy?â€
â€œYou will see.â€ As Jupiter spoke, the Maidens filed one by one from the room. Kejak bowed again as they left, until only Jupiter remained. â€œYou have a choice, Kejak. Both paths lead to ruin. Choose well. Choose wisely.â€
And then she was gone.
Kejak sank into his desk, thinking furiously. The Bronze or Gold must fall? That was as ominous as he could imagine, but he couldnâ€™t see how it would be his choice. Heâ€™d been trying to convince those Gold Faction fools to abandon their cause for years, now.
A knock came on the door, urgent and quick. He almost dismissed it, but caught him, and spoke. â€œCome in.â€
The door opened once more, and Harakken Cyrus entered. Kejak looked up sharply as he spoke, his voice filled with pain. â€œKejak. Twice-Breathing Millia is dead. Murdered.â€
â€œHow?â€ Chejop Kejak had spent millennia watching the Loom, and guiding destiny. Now, as Cyrus spoke, he felt its jaws closing around him, the jaws of the storm.
â€œA dagger thrust to the back, and one to the heart. Starmetal. Within her office in Yu-Shan.â€
â€œA Sidereal?â€ Kejak couldnâ€™t hide his disbelief.
â€œA member of the Gold Faction. I donâ€™t know who.â€
â€œImpossible!â€ Kejak shook his head, rubbing his brow. â€œThere are laws, rules. And Millia â€“ she is a child. She is barely a member of our faction at all. For what reason â€“ â€
By way of answer, Cyrus reached into his robes and withdrew a thick stack of scrolls, which he dropped onto the desk. â€œMillia was researching the Iselsi for me â€“ my own duties have kept me occupied, as you know. She discovered something I had missed â€“ astrological occlusion.â€ He paused, swallowed. â€œShe traced it. Discovered that the Gold Faction has been using connections within the Iselsi to smuggle Solars out of the Realm. The Iselsi themselves had no idea â€“ they believed it was Realm spies.â€
Kejakâ€™s jaw clenched, and he reached to look over the scrolls. Those bastards. But Cyrusâ€™s next words drove the breath from him.
â€œTheyâ€™ve established training camps, Kejak. Organized Solars into Circles and taught mortals to worship them â€“ as before.â€
â€œNo.â€ He couldnâ€™t speak the word, only shape it. As he looked over the scrolls, increasing horrified, Cyrus simply nodded. â€œHow many? How many Solars have they gathered?â€
â€œAt least seventy.â€ Kejak sank back in his chair, and Cyrus took a breath. â€œAnd thatâ€™s not the worst of it. They have also stolen Lunars. And allowed an Abyssal entrance.â€
â€œThose idiots.â€ Kejak looked over the scroll, unseeing. â€œTheyâ€™ll rouse the fury of the Pact. Theyâ€™ll hand their organization to the Deathlords.â€ He looked up. Now he understood. No matter what his course of action, it would lead to ruin. There were only two choices now.
Surrender, or war.
Cyrusâ€™s voice was filled with need. â€œKejak, what do we do?â€
Chejop Kejak stood, his voice firming. â€œI want three strike teams assembled within an hour. I want a member of the Inner Circle on each of them, along with six more Sidereals who are extremely combat-capable and completely reliable. I want as many gods and elementals as we can trust absolutely, and no one else.â€ He looked through the wall, seeing the future unfold. â€œIn one hour, I will use my sorcery to send a message to every Sidereal in Creation. These training camps will be destroyed. Every Solar present at them will be killed. The Gold Faction will back away from them, and allow this to happen.â€
â€œAnd if they do not?â€ Cyrus was too diplomatic to say â€˜whenâ€™.
Kejakâ€™s face hardened. â€œAnyone who fights alongside the Solars at those camps will be declared a traitor to the Bureau and an enemy of Creation.â€
For a few moments, Cyrus could not respond. Kejakâ€™s voice softened. â€œThis madness must end, Cyrus. We must stop it.â€
â€œOf course. I will pass the word.â€ Hanging his head, Cyrus turned and left the room. Kejak watched him go, feeling his world collapsing beneath him. For all that he had known this day might come, he had prayed that it never would.
As he walked out from the office, Cyrus kept his face schooled in a mask of sorrow. In truth, it took less effort than he had imagined. There was no joy in his victory.
He turned a corner, and found himself face to face with the Five Maidens.
â€œYou have destroyed everything.â€ Saturnâ€™s voice held the accusation that the others showed on their faces.
â€œAnd you can do nothing.â€ Cyrus let his rage and hurt boil forwards, glancing around to ensure their solitude â€“ although he had known it must be absolute for the Maidens to confront him thus. â€œYou are forbidden from harming the Primordials or their servants, nor may you take actions to interfere in the Competition.â€ His eyes bored into them. â€œYour day is done, betrayers. The world will return to its rightful destiny.â€
â€œThe game is not yet played.â€ Jupiterâ€™s voice held sorrow, but also a hint of that insufferable smugness.
â€œBelieve me, Maiden. Not even you can escape Sacheverallâ€™s weavings.â€ Cyrus pushed roughly past the Maidens, walking down the hallway. â€œEnjoy your final weeks as the rulers of Creation, because the storm is coming. And when it arrives, it will wash your filth away.â€