Midnight Rose idly wondered if there was anything that could make the cloudless day even better. She smiled at the Sun as his gaze warmed her sharp features and fair skin while the gentle spring breeze of the month of Ascending Wood kept her comfortably cool. The light wind tousled the ruffles on her white silk shirt as well as her mane of fiery red hair as she lay leisurely upon a small grassy hill that overlooked a wide, shallow valley. She took a drag from the smoking pipe pressed between her lips and watched the trails of light gray tobacco smoke curl into tight spirals above the pipeâ€™s black jade bowl.
Her jacket was neatly folded and tucked under her head like a pillow. It was a formal garment with bright yellow braided cords lining the shoulders and above the left breast, styled after the dress uniforms of Dragon-Blooded officers during the days of the Shogunate. Its shades of reds, orange and black matched the cleanly pressed cavalry pants that she wore. Her riding boots and socks sat nearby, allowing her to freely flex her toes against the soothing breeze.
The distant sounds of clashing metal and blaring trumpets drew her attention to the base of the valley, which quickly became a battlefield. They were the rebel army of a small and generally unknown realm in the Hundred Kingdoms called Corrast and they opposed the forces of the little kingdomâ€™s royal family. Elements of the nobility had sought to depose the Corrasian king, which was successful despite her efforts due the machinations of a pair of Outcaste Dragon-Blooded. She managed to save the heir to the throne however and even convinced him to raise an army to retake the throne, after she had dealt with the two wayward Princes of Earth of course.
The pair had been barely worth the effort to End. There was never any challenge in the petty struggles here, nothing to test her skill, and nothing to garner promotion-worthy accomplishments since most of her duties revolved around keeping the Hundred Kingdoms region splintered and bickering. The thought of it all left a bitter taste in her mouth, which she covered up with another puff of her pipe, intent on enjoying the approaching festivities. All that was left now was to reunify the country, which will happen in exactly twenty six minutes.
She rolled onto her side and shifted the sheathed rapier hanging on her belt to a more comfortable position. With one fist tucked under her chin, the other resting lightly on her hip she surveyed the increasingly chaotic battle with a critical eye. The princeâ€™s forces were outnumbered three to one, but consisted of most of the kingdomâ€™s brightest generals and elite troops. The same could not be said for the usurper army, which had already committed several tactical errors that made Rose chew on her pipe in disapproval as she watched the events unfold like a tome of anthologies.
She saw a great warrior whom she had subtly arranged to be crippled by the end of the battle, but he will live on to teach the spoiled daughter of a nobleman honor, duty, and perhaps even love. Not her style really, but it was a small favor to a colleague. She saw the dark ambitions of one man ended by an archerâ€™s lucky shot, and another manâ€™s equally malicious intentions realized at the end of a cavalry charge. The general of the usurper army will fall to poor troop coordination and the royal heirâ€™s knight will give his life in exchange for the life of his charge. The valley was like a grand orchestra with hundreds of destinies vying for dominance, for the chance to exist like notes on a piece of sheet music, reaching out to be played and slowing building towards a roaring crescendo.
Under Roseâ€™s starry-eyed gaze the threads of every single man and woman in the valley rose up like great stalks of wheat. Some where darker, while others were lighter, some deeply tangled; others intertwining only briefly before separating once more, but all shimmered and swayed under some unseen force that reminded her of the Loom of Fate in design if not in scope. As soldiers died by the dozen, their threads snapped cleanly and sped up to Yu-Shan to be spooled up by the Pattern Spiders, who then transported them to the Bureau of Humanity, where their lives would be documented for all eternity.
The deep bellow of a horn echoed from the far end of the valley. It heralded the arrival of a third army, one from Yorgstad, Corrastâ€™s none-too-friendly neighbor from the north, seeking to lay claim to the young princeâ€™s kingdom in its moment of weakness. It had taken a surprising amount of manipulation and a handful of resplendent destinies to goad Corrastâ€™s traditional enemy to war, but the end result was worth the effort. A smile curved Midnight Roseâ€™s ruby lips as messengers raced across the field bearing calls for truce and cooperation against a common foe and with it, the seeds of a reformed kingdom. She took a long drag from her pipe, savored it for several moments and exhaled slowly.
The perfect day.
A day that was regretfully disturbed a moment later when a small wooden box materialized in front of the lounging woman. It looked like an ornate lantern complete with a transparent panel that opened on its own. Rose saw a neatly rolled up scroll within, held shut by a thin seal of charcoal colored wax. She frowned and blew an annoyed puff at the container that blocked her view. The smoke curled around the opening and seeped into the box. It did not care for her disrespect and began emitting an insistent clanging, like a dozen large wind-chimes during a storm, which made her groan with exasperation.
â€œAll right, all right, already,â€ she said testily and snatched the scroll with her free hand. She rolled the pipe to the corner of her mouth with her tongue and broke the seal with a flick of her thumb. The wooden box disappeared a breath later but Rose did not notice it go for her red, star-filled eyes were too busy scanning the lines on the scroll. The din of battle was all but forgotten for the moment.
Date: Tenth Day of Ascending Wood, 766 RY
To: Midnight Rose
From: Convention of Oversight
Mission Parameters: You are to deal with moderate disturbance number AY183004536-411. Direct intervention is prohibited as of this time.
Mission Profile: Solar Exaltation has been predicted to occur near the kingdom of Corrast in the Hundred Kingdoms region. Extrapolations from the Bureau of Journeys indicate that the target will arrive in the regionâ€™s capital in a weekâ€™s time. The target must not be allowed to remain within previously mentioned kingdom after the 24th of Ascending Wood. Direct involvement is not acceptable. Nine Terrestrial candidates have been selected for outlined mission to be utilized at the agentâ€™s discretion.
Likelihood of Lunar interference: High
Likelihood of Fae interference: Minimal
Likelihood of miscellaneous interference: Low
Midnight Rose looked over the names provided, making small smoke rings for each one she mentally noted as useful. She had ruled out four of the names immediately due to being too far and too spread out to make the deadline. Two of the remaining five were young and inexperienced, as well as being Outcastes but she made note of them regardless as even a whelp could prove pivotal in the right circumstances.
â€œA Solar eh?â€ she mused absentminded at the sheet of paper when she had finished and peered around it to take stock of the battle below. The rebel and loyalist armies of Corrast had already arrayed themselves into professional lines as the invading forces closed in. Trumpets mingled with horns and drums, filling the air with well-timed beats that reinforced mortal morale. Already the threads of so many were becoming intertwined, like the designs on a tapestry beginning to take shape.
Yet the sight did not bring a smile to her statuesque face. Something did not ring quite right to her; Oversight usually does not concern itself with exaltations. But missions from the Convention of Oversight cannot be faked, nor can they be safely ignored.
When she had committed the mission and the names to memory she tossed the scroll aside without a second thought. The paper caught hold of the wind for a moment and fluttered about before it vaporized in a puff of white odorless smoke. â€œThere goes my day off,â€ she muttered apathetically, sat up and stretched, letting out a small groan of pleasure as her back popped pleasantly.
The Sidereal stood and threw on her jacket, then smoothed the wrinkles with her hands before turning to her footwear. As she laced up her boots, she spared another glance towards the melee that determined the fate of a little known and unimportant nation. The battle lines were close now, so close that skirmishes broke out between the more impetuous elements on both sides. Runners, who now carried battle orders, scurried across the valley like ants in search for crumbs. Units of horsemen sped down the lines, hoping to flank the enemy when the battle is joined. Then Corrasian infantry smashed into Yorgstan axemen and threads were cut short in earnest.
Properly dressed, Rose slid her rapier back into place, hanging horizontally and lopsided just below the small of her back. She then swept her hands outwards and made the Sign of the Horseman that summoned a bubble of wood essence into being. The twisting energies cast an alien green glow over the small hill. It contrasted sharply with the crimson aura that originated from the ancient sign of Mars that now shined prominently on her brow.
A moment later the bubble collapsed and coalesced into the form of a powerful green stallion with a snow white mane and tail, which swished excitedly from side to side. It snorted loudly and watched her with dark mahogany colored eyes. They held the light of a living creature but she knew that it was nothing more than an automaton, a construct composed of summoned essence. Nonetheless the great horse, saddled and ready, stamped anxiously as it always did as Midnight Rose approached, eager to fulfill its purpose. It kneeled low for her, though it was not necessary as she easily lifted herself onto the saddle. The horse then rose to its full height and tossed its mane anxiously.
With her hands on the reins she urged the horse into a gallop, sending them southwestward towards a modest village near Corrastâ€™s southern border. The battle in the valley continued unabated as the she rode away, the clattering of steel and the screams of the dying rose up in one glorious and continuous roar but it no longer interested her.
She knew how it would end.
On the outskirts of a quaint little village a couple days south of where the Chosen of Battlesâ€™ day had been spoiled, Master Ragara Hektor strode silently across his empty dojo. His bare feet pressed like stone slabs against the woven straw mats that covered the floors as he surveyed the room with a proud smile. Twenty years worth of mortal students have passed through the doors of his dojo and they have left more enlightened and stronger than they will ever understand. He could almost hear the chorus of shouts that punctuated each strike, almost feel the subtle ripples of essence as a group of men and women struck as one, moving in perfect unison.
The sun had begun to set. It cast a reddish orange glow through the thin paper windows and the open sliding door that marked the dojoâ€™s main entrance. The air was still and serene, broken only by the rhythmic thump of the bamboo water fountain outside. Hektor closed his eyes drank deeply from the tranquility, letting the cooling breeze wash over his simple black and white gi and dark gray, granite-like skin.
A sudden shout from outside ended his meditations. It sounded like his apprentice Mnemon Zieg and came from the front gates of the dojoâ€™s courtyard. It was unlike him to cause such a racket, which quickened the martial artistâ€™s step. He moved swiftly out the dojo and into the wide, sand filled training grounds that was the courtyard of the Lotus of White Petals dojo. The sky was a bright shade of sunset with the moon already present in the opposite horizon. Many of the students have gone to barracks by now, leaving only his pupil and a handful of teenagers watching the front. Those same children were nowhere to be found when he arrived.
He spotted Mnemon Ziegâ€™s fit figure under the high arch that separated the low wood and plaster walls that encircled the dojo grounds. He was a strong and young Dragon-Blooded, who had traveled with him for many years as his student and friend. They traveled the Threshold together, seeking out the Anathema and aiding in the Wyld Hunts. But with the disappearance of their Empress things began to change. The demons were cropping up everywhere and the Great Houses never saw fit to lift a finger without the Empressâ€™ word. The Hunts have been few and far between as Anathema continued to grow stronger with each passing day.
The thought irked the Immaculateâ€™s stony heart as he approached the gate. He had built this dojo, this place of strength and enlightenment far in the East to spread the Immaculate teachings to the simple people that lived here, so far from the Blessed Isle and so close to the depredations of the Fae and other dangers. Now however, it felt more like an escape from the politics and the indecision that had spread like a disease among his peers. Not even the Order was doing much to curb the Anathema threat. It fell to him and his apprentice to insure the lives and souls of the peasantry.
â€œSifu,â€ Zieg said to Hektor as he neared. In his discipleâ€™s arms was the pitiful form of an old man. His hair was gray, thin and sparse, leaving much of the top of his head bald. Liver spots dotted his wrinkled, parchment-like skin that stretched across limbs that were little more than bones. The man was dressed in the threadbare clothes of a beggar and panted wheezing breaths from a mouth that lacked a number of teeth. It appeared as though he had traveled hard and from a great distance, an amazing feat for a mortal so old.
What struck Ragara Hektor was not the old manâ€™s feat of strength and stamina, but his rain cloud colored eyes, which shined with a vigor that hinted towards a great will and determination. Those eyes felt like hooks to the old Dragon-Blooded when they found him and he found that he could not dismiss the man for a good-for-nothing so easily.
Ragara Hektor stopped when he arrived next to his apprentice, who was aiding the old man to his unsteady feet. â€œWhat happened to him?â€ he asked. His voice was calm and even, which contrasted with the anxiousness that tinged the voice of Mnemon Zieg when he replied.
â€œI am not sure, Sifu. I was ensuring that the courtyard was swept by the beginning students when this man stumbled into the gates. I sent them to find the village healer,â€ he paused to glance at the old man who seemed to be able to stand only because of the support Ziegâ€™s arm provided. â€œHe was babbling something about demons until you arrived.â€
â€œMaster Ragara Hektor!â€ the old man suddenly sputtered and pushed himself from the young Dragon-Blooded, prostrating himself before the Earth Aspect. â€œOh Prince of Earth, you must help my family!â€
Ragara Hektor ignored the mostly masked look of disgust on his apprenticeâ€™s face and stared down upon the frail looking frame of the old man, whose head was only inches from his feet. â€œCan you stand old man? Begging is unbecoming, even of mortal men,â€ he said and waited patiently for the old man struggle back to his feet. â€œWhat is your name, gray one?â€ he asked and ignored how the old man trembled before him.
â€œYagi, Lord Dragon,â€ the old man said. â€œMy name is Yagi.â€
â€œYagi. Tell me what has troubled you and your family?â€
â€œIt was Anathema, my lord! Anathema!â€ the old man exclaimed, momentarily forgetting his fear. To Hektor, the manâ€™s eyes looked almost crazed. â€œYou must help me, Lord Dragon!â€
â€œSifu,â€ Zieg spoke out, a distasteful grimace still on his face, â€œSurely this manâ€™s mind is not well. Shall we wait for the village healer to arrive?â€
â€œWhat of this Anathema, Yagi?â€ Hektor pressed, his apprenticeâ€™s words unheeded. â€œHow do you know that it is an Anathema? Speak quickly, old man, for if one of their kind does stalk the lands of the Hundred Kingdoms then these are dark times indeed.â€
â€œIt glowed with the stolen light of the Sun, my lord! And its words compelled even the most pious and resolute to bend to its whims. I will never forget its voice, both wondrous and terrible,â€ the old man scratched at his barren scalp as though he could tear the memories from his mind, his dirty fingers digging into his skin until it drew blood. â€œPlease, it said that it makes way for Corrast, to turn its people into slaves to serve its desires. There is no one else I can turn to. Please save us, Prince of Earth!â€
â€œWho did it possess? Describe this fortunate soul to me.â€
â€œForgive me, Lord Dragon, but I do not remember,â€ Yagi said miserably. â€œThe light blinded my feeble eyes and I remember little of my encounter with the demon! Forgive me! Forgive me!â€ He then fell to the ground in a heap, his bony frame curling like an infant and crying out hoarsely for aid. It was then Hektorâ€™s composure cracked.
â€œEnough!â€ Hektor rumbled and yanked the man from the dust. â€œControl yourself,â€ he ordered the old man, his face only an inch away from Yagiâ€™s. The old manâ€™s feet dangled around the height of the Immaculateâ€™s knees. When the old man finally calmed down, Hektor shoved him towards Zieg. â€œSee to him while I gather the more advanced students. We must move out immediately if we are to find the Anathema before it can destroy anymore lives.â€
â€œPraise the Dragons,â€ Yagi cried out and lurched forward, but Zieg kept the old man standing.
â€œBut Sifu,â€ Zieg objected with one hand firmly planted on the old manâ€™s shoulder, â€œFor all we know this man is crazed. Perhaps we should send someone to Corrast and verify this manâ€™s word.â€
Hektor shook his head firmly and with a determination that stymied further debate. â€œIf it is truly an Anathema, then we have no time to waste. Every moment we allow it to live is more time it has to do its demonic work,â€ he said. His voice was steady once more like the granite that his skin took after but Zieg detected the barely contained excitement simmering underneath. â€œThis is the true purpose of our training, and of this dojo, my apprentice. Creation calls upon us to perform our duty, and we shall not hesitate. We shall not waver in our beliefs or in our righteous cause.â€
The conviction in his sifuâ€™s words removed any doubt from Ziegâ€™s mind. Pride straightened his posture and strengthened his voice, â€œI understand, Sifu. We will fulfill our solemn duty and may the Immaculate Dragons guide us to victory!â€
Master Ragara Hektor nodded once then turned away from the courtyard gates towards the dojo barracks. He considered what had to be done before they departed and there was much to do even as the twilight gave way to the darkness of the evening. The Anathema was dangerous foe, and his students must be prepared to battle for not only the lives of the innocent, but for their very own as well. The Immaculate martial artist strode purposefully across the sandy courtyard, his steps sending minute trembles through the grains like the rumble of an earthquake.
He will rouse the might of the Lotus of White Petals and with it; wipe the demonic taint from the face of Creation once more.
The dojo of the Lotus of White Petals that night was quieter than usual and Yagi lay silently on the cot that was provided for him. The healer, matronly woman had announced to him that he was dehydrated but in a fine bit of health shortly after her arrival with the students Zieg had sent out, and then promptly left for the village immediately after.
The tiny room Yagi found himself in was offered to him for the night. It was plain and bare, which fit the overall look of the dojo. Only a sliding door made of light wood and paper relieved the blankness in any form. The white walls were dulled with time but the wood floors were clean and gleamed a bit from the moonlight that filtered in through the door. The old manâ€™s breathing was steady, an improvement since his encounter with the master of this place, though his throat continued to sound like wind-filled burrow.
Ragara Hektor had summoned the entirety of his advanced mortal students, twenty men strong, and had even sent word out to some of his former non-exalted apprentices to join him in the Wyld Hunt. An impressive mobilization as far as this place was concerned. In truth however, his Hunt was a petty affair, composed of only two Dragon-Blooded, the master included, which was a far cry from the grandeur of past expeditions.
They were gone now. Hektor had ignored his apprentice Ziegâ€™s suggestion that they wait until first light just as Yagi had predicted. He smiled at a job well-done and sat up feeling his old joints creaking in protest. His hand moved towards his vest but stopped halfway when he made the upsetting realization that he did not have a breast pocket and let his hand drop to his side with a scratchy chuckle. The die has been cast and his part in this was over for now. He stood and took a step towards the thin sliding door.
The hallway outside was empty and dark, so nobody noticed how the paper door leading to Yagiâ€™s quarters was momentarily filled with crimson light. There was nobody there to see the beams of scarlet radiance that slipped through the cracks around the edges. Nor did anyone notice the pretty young woman with the fiery mane enter the hall from that very same door. What they did notice was the faint odor of tobacco smoke the following morning, which began a series of bunk searches to see who had smuggled such contraband into the dojoâ€™s clean and regimented walls.