â€œI donâ€™t like this.â€ Sesus Lahore glanced around the ruined balcony, looking over the ancient Solar portraits. â€œItâ€™s tooâ€¦ still.â€
â€œYou donâ€™t like anything that puts your skin in the slightest danger.â€ Tepet Lisaraâ€™s voice was filled with scorn as she glanced around with more interest. The two of them had been instant enemies upon meeting each other, and spending a week tramping through the snowy wastes of the Northeast had not improved their dispositions. Even in the height of summer, the area around this forsaken ruin was cold and dour, and the demon-blooded creatures that had decimated their army and left the four Dragon-Blooded practically the only survivors of this expedition had also forced them to camp inside this ancient ruin.
â€œIf you two could stop bickering for just one moment, we have a bigger problem.â€ Vâ€™Neef Mahina and Tepet Cassus, the last two survivors of the expedition, rejoined their companions. She nodded to Cassus as the two turned their attention to them, and sighed.
â€œI have good news and bad news. The good news â€“ I know where we are. Itâ€™s the Invisible Fortress.â€
â€œThat old legend? I doubt it.â€ Lahor scoffed, only to fall silent at Cassusâ€™s look. After a moment, he added tentatively, â€œThat was a Shogunate fortress, though. Not thisâ€¦ Anathema monstrosity.â€
â€œOzmandius Pal was the one who wrote the Invisible Fortress letters. Thatâ€™s his portrait.â€ Cassus gestured to it, and then shook his head. â€œBut thatâ€™s not the bad news. The bad news is we arenâ€™t alone. Someone beat us here.â€ Without waiting for a reply, he stepped into the next room to continue exploring.
There was a pause, and then Lisara swore, rounding on Lahore. â€œYou and your damned wendigo hunt! You just had toâ€¦â€
â€œEnough.â€ Mahina gritted her teeth to keep from screaming. â€œWe need to work together. If someone is here, thenâ€¦â€ They were cut off at a shout from the other room, and as one they dashed across. The room was empty, devoid of furnishings save for one of the ubiquitous mirrors that were found in every room, and there was no sign of Cassus. Mahina swallowed, calling out softly. â€œCassus?
Safely behind the glass, hiding unseen within the mirrorâ€™s reflection, Malakin Verr clutched the still faintly-struggling Dragon-Blood. â€œDo you see it, traitor?â€ The mirror hallway was tinted gold and green with his tainted castemark. â€œI returned to my lair, and found you despoiling it. They will rue that, though. Oh, yes. I left a message here, in another lifetime. This lair is sanctified to Biraszha Haisz, the Mirror Within The Mirror. And now I will have vengeance. I will hunt you one by one, and I will break you. Oh, yes. You will suffer as we suffered, and it will be beautifulâ€¦â€
The dust settled around the city of Lookshy, as the people looked around aghast. Karal Vienn staggered towards the ruins of the cityâ€™s great Academy and the armories beneath it. Grabbing a soldier, his face bloodied, he yelled over the roar from the pillars of fire bursting forth. â€œWhat happened?â€
â€œI donâ€™t know, sir! Someone murdered the guards and descended below the Manse, into the old factory-cathedral!â€ The soldier gestured wildly. â€œKaral Fire Orchid took a fang of Dragon Armors down after him. The last thing that we heard was a Wind-Carried Words. She said that â€œthe Conduit of Talavos was dead, but he overloaded the Manse.â€ She said to evacuate. It was only ten seconds later that this happened.
â€œDear gods above.â€ There was no trace of the great Manse that had stood above the old cathedral. The area of devastation, Vienn considered, must cover over a fifth of the city, including the airship hangars and the greatest armories. There was no telling what magical dangers were unleashed when so many devices were destroyed, and the former Manse still looked unstable enough for another, larger explosion to occur at any moment. He came to a decision, nodding slowly. â€œEvacuate the city.â€
â€œSir?â€ The soldier gaped at him.
â€œI know!â€ Vienn barked out the words. â€œBut we have no choice! Start the evacuation. Every person, any resources we can recover. We have to fall back until this settles.â€ He shook his head, still half in shock himself. â€œWhat dark times are befalling us nowâ€¦?â€
Raksi crept, in the form of a skittering spider, through the ruins of her throne room, staying hidden deep within the shadows. This upstart akuma thought that he could destroy the people of her city, and take her Book? She would show him. She would show everyone who mocked her, who believed that she was anything but the best, oh yes.
Her plot paused as she heard this supposed Conduit of Hegra speaking. Peering upwards, she saw a faint, wavering image sitting in the air before him â€“ some advanced form of Infallible Messenger, allowing extended communication at a long distance. Preparing herself for this ultimate spell shaping that she was planning, she listened silently.
â€œCytherea betrayed us, and led the Conduit of Kagami to his death.â€ The Lunar Conduit sighed and shook his head. Raksi rubbed her fangs together in anger. She had taken Kythan Seven Splendours in as a pupil, and he had betrayed her, turned to the Yozi for power. Unforgivable.
â€œUnfortunate.â€ The silky-smooth voice of the Scarlet Empress echoed across the link, and Raksi nodded thoughtfully. It was surprising that she was of the Yozi, but not entirely so. â€œWith Talavos lost in Lookshy, that leaves our alliance with only five supporters.â€
Kythan laughed. â€œFive is enough. I am coordinating with Oramus to control the East, and Biraszha Haisz controls the Invisible Fortress. With Gatanaris spreading unchallenged through the westâ€¦â€ He trailed off with a nasty grin. â€œCytherea is his only true opposition. She will pay for siding with Sacheverallâ€™s alliance against yours.â€
â€œI hope so. This Eclipse is proving hard to pin down.â€ The Empress paused. â€œSplendours, your Book appears to be glowing silver.â€
Kythan looked across at the Book of Three Circles, the prize he had won upon driving Raksi from Sperimen, was indeed glowing with a pale silver light. He did not think that was possible. Standing quickly, he searched the throne room, and his lip twisted. â€œRaksi. Old teacher, you should not have returned.â€
Raksi, still in her spider form, limbs twitching as she shifted her spell into its second stage, did not responde. Kythan shrugged, his own anima shining pale light to counter hers. â€œWhatever spell you think you are castingâ€¦â€ With a wave of his hand, he spoke the three words of a Sapphire Countermagic, sending it out to blanket the room. â€œIt will fail. Really. Did you think that you couldâ€¦â€ He trailed off as he realized that she was still shaping the spell, despite the field that should have caused it to wink out like a light. â€œWhat in theâ€¦â€
Raksi grinned triumphantly, chittering the last symbols of the Essence Inversion. It had taken her a great deal of effort to tattoo the Book of Three Circles, tying it irrevocably to her Essence, but she knew that it would be successful. Now, by sending her Essence through the Book, she would cast a spell more powerful than Kythan could counter. The most devastating magic she knew, and one that he had no way to avoid.
Kythan, staring at the book in horror, saw the runes burning on its cover, and he saw them waver as they strained to hold a power that a Lunar Essence was never meant to wield. â€œYou fool, Raksi! Youâ€™ll destroyâ€¦â€ He was cut off as the Book exploded violently.
The Conduit shielded himself as the waves of destructive Essence swept over Sperimen, collapsing its towers and instantly destroying anything and anyone within ten miles who could not defend themselves. He fell, as wave after wave buffeted him, crashing to the ground as the dust that was once a great city settled. Looking around desperately, he began to search for the Book, and for his mentor.
He found Raksiâ€™s skeleton, still glowing silver from the power she had tried to wield, but of the Book there was no sign.