There was nothing in the world but darkness.
The darkness crept up on the room, enshrouding it until there was no room at all, only the grasping shadows. It became a tangible, oppressive thing, and the senators of the Deliberative screamed and gabbled and froze in terror as the faintest edges of it lapped around them. A few stood firm, their animas flickering light as candles guttering in a wind, but they were in the minority. Someone spoke â€“ Fokuf did not see whom. â€œWhat is this?â€
â€œWelcome, my loyal subjects.â€ The voice of the Empress was tinted with madness. â€œThis is the retribution of your sins. You lie within a prison of your own making, in the heart of the Ebon Dragon. Welcome to Malfeas.â€
There was a mumur of fear, and she laughed again. â€œYou thought you were so cunning, so manipulative. For centuries, I tried to balance your cruelty and greed and obsessions in the name of the Realm. You wore me down to nothing, until I was merely an extension of your own greed.â€
â€œNonsense, Mother.â€ Mnemon's voice was contemptuous, and she stepped forwards through the formless dark. â€œIf our Realm was cruel, it was shaped in your own image.â€
â€œPerhaps. So long ago, now.â€ The Empress shrugged. â€œI have been paid the wages of my sins. For five years, I saw. I saw everything that the Primordials had been forced to suffer by you, you and your masters. The Exalted bound us within our own bones, and tortured our souls for their own safety. They built a world where evil begets evil, down through the centuries.â€ Her eyes were swallowed by shadows, and a deep, dark whisper sat behind her voice.
â€œWho are you?â€ V'Neef tried to keep her voice as firm as her sister's. â€œYou are speaking through our mother's body, but she was born in the days of the Shogunate.â€
â€œI am the Empress, the Shadowed Phoenix, you stupid girl!â€ The Empress laughed again. â€œI am the Conduit of the Ebon Dragon, and he speaks with my voice. I see his mind, and his memories. I know.â€ Her voice lowered again, as the Deliberative listened in transfixed horror. â€œHow we laughed, when you rose up again, and bound the Solars in chains, just as they bound us. It seemed fitting, them within their jade prison. And through it, we saw a way. A way to have our revenge. It took millenia â€“ but we succeeded. We broke your little prison. We stole Solar Exaltations and consecrated them to the Yozi. And we ruined you, just as you ruined us.â€ She gestured with a grim smile, and the shadows began to press inwards. Senators froze in horror or fled towards each other, pushing away from the enfolding darkness. â€œAnd now each of you will see what I saw. Here, in Malfeas, you will become one with the Ebon Dragon, and when the greatest heroes of the Realm return, one by one, to destroy it, all will understand that there can be no escape from the will of the Yozi.â€
â€œI object. I haven't given you permission to do anything to them.â€
Everyone in the room turned as Fokuf, sitting quietly on a bench of shadows, stood. Even the shadows themselves paused, as the Ebon Dragon studied this presumptuous mortal. The Empress laughed, and Fokuf heard one senator mutter, a bit too loud, â€œFigures he would be the first to snap.â€
The shadows gathered voice, a hissing sound that filled the ears of all who heard it. â€œAnd who are you, to grant permission to the Yozi? Little man, you are nothing.â€
â€œOn the contrary.â€ Fokuf smiled easily. â€œI am the Regent of the Scarlet Dynasty, until such time as the Deliberative sees fit to name an Empress or formally restore the prior one to the throne â€“ and I really don't think that they will be restoring her, incidentally.â€ He cracked his neck, strolling along the pathways of darkness unerringly. â€œAs such, every member of the Deliberative is one of my subjects, and they are all. With. Me.â€
The Dragon laughed, a thousand shadows carrying the voice of decay and repressed anger, given an outlet at last. â€œThen you will be the first to see the truth.â€ Shadows, black on black, broke from the whole to dive at Fokuf, tear at his body and soul and drive him into madness.
â€œI said no.â€ And with that, Fokuf let the Charms concealing his Essence fall. He let his anima burst forth, its golden light pushing back the shadows on all sides, as the depths screamed in thwarted rage and the Empress stood in shock and anger. â€œDo I need to remind you that the Demon Courts swore oaths with the Solar Exalted? That you may not harm a member of my entourage when we visit your domain? You brought us here, Dragon of Shadows. The oaths of negotiation hold true.â€
â€œImpossible!â€ The Empress spit out the words, stepping backwards from the brilliant auras of Fokuf's banner. â€œYou are a mortal! No one of importance!â€
â€œIt suited me to be seen as such. But this is too much.â€ Fokuf's eyes went hard. â€œYou have violated the oaths sworn on your name already, Dragon. You have entered Creation, and you have taken its peoples back with you. I ask you, how?â€
â€œThe Conduit.â€ It was Mnemon, and not the Empress, who spoke. She was smiling now, now that the ruse had been revealed. â€œAn Exalt calls forth the Yozi, and thus forms a loophole in their sorcerous oaths. Very cunning â€“ but not enough. We knew you were coming, Phoenix. And now we see the truth. The Realm will be united against you.â€
â€œThat's right.â€ Fokuf carefully arranged Essence into his voice. This was the critical moment. If this didn't work â€“ well, it wouldn't be awful, but it wouldn't be the plan. â€œEveryone knows who you really are, so why don't you just go ahead and send us home. Unless you'd like to negotiate another surrender. You Yozi are pretty good at that.â€
â€œSurrender to you, you little worm?!â€ The Empress's voice was a scream. â€œYou have nothing! You rely on the Anathema for protection again? You are children playing at power, and no one will save you!â€ She gestured, and the shadows began to enwrap her, even as the chambers of the Deliberative faded into being around the senators. â€œWe cannot take you now, but I can and will do so another time. None of you will be safe. We care not for your little Realm â€“ all of Creation belongs to the Yozi! I will be a shadow on your reign, Solar!â€
Fokuf coughed lightly. â€œDrama queen.â€
The Empress roared with even greater anger â€œYou will be the first one I kill, Fokuf! As long as you live, I will not stop hunting you, and when I bring you to my master, the rest shall follow!â€
Fokuf moved like lightning. Before anyone could react, he reached forwards and took the Empress's hand, the golden light flaring off him forming into a large sheephound that laid its nose at the point of contact. More light glittered at that point, fading into the shadows around him. â€œI hear your oath, Empress, and seal it. So long as I live, I will be the one that you hunt â€“ and you won't be able to hunt the others. Good luck with that.â€ He grinned impishly, and the Ebon Dragon roared again as it realized what its Conduit had committed to in a moment of rage.
And with that, she was gone, and the room was silent. Slowly, everyone's faces turned towards Fokuf, who shook his head resignedly and looked around the room.
â€œWell, that was interesting. I'm sure you have a lot of questions. Shall we get started on answering them?â€