As we continue the roundup of our final scenes, we return to two characters you haven't seen in a while.
Several Days Ago
The flickering firelight cast shadows on the wall, shadows that twisted and danced in time to a rhythm born of hate and pain. The walls themselves were reduced to rubble, the ceiling above broken over most of the room, as the woman sat on the ground in the ruins of what had been the mighty city of the Lap, dust trailing through her fingers.
â€œMay I join you?â€ He spoke humbly, bowing his head as he approached from the right. The shadows coiled towards him for a moment, then went still.
â€œCould I stop you?â€ She did not look up. â€œI could break every bone in your body before you could blink, little man, but I feel that wouldnâ€™t dissuade you.â€
â€œNow, thatâ€™s not fair. I have quite a lot of combat skills, you know. I think I could probably blink at least three or four times.â€ Shrugging, Thetram Nash pushed aside the door still leaning halfheartedly in its frame, and took a seat carefully on a ruined outcropping that had once been a load-bearing stone wall. He raised his hands in supplication, reaching to find a miraculously undamaged teapot in the rubble. â€œI have tea, if you will take it.â€
â€œHmph.â€ The brush of a hand sent the teapot crashing to the floor â€“ Nash reached out with his foot, hooking the handle, a moment before it could shatter. â€œClearly you are aware of my oath. Do not flaunt it, or I will attempt to torture you for the information I seek. It might be unlikely that you have it, but the chance will allow me to hurt you very badly.â€
â€œYou donâ€™t have the calm grace that I remember, Empress of All.â€ Nash bowed his head again. â€œThe Empress I once saw on her throne kept her threats veiled.â€
â€œThe Empress you once saw is dead, and I have risen in her place. It is a habit I have.â€ Leaning back, the Shadow Phoenix regarded her unwelcome visitor thoughtfully, and he watched her in return. Even now, disheveled and listless, a tattered red cloak curled tight around her ebon robes, he could see hints of the beauty and power that had captivated thousands, built an empire, and held the world by the throat for seven hundred years. Tainted she might be, but the former Scarlet Empress had lost none of her power. â€œYou are a Sidereal.â€
â€œGuilty as charged. And you are waiting for Tepet Fokuf to return.â€ Pulling two cups out of his sleeves, Nash set about pouring tea, sending warmth into the cups with a whispered word. â€œItâ€™s a good plan. He left from here, he will surely return this way. You can sit and rest without endangering your oath, and none of those who fought over this city have been willing to face you.â€
â€œWhat do you want?â€ The Empress took one of the cups cautiously. â€œIf you have come here to mock me, I would advise against it. The only reason you are still intact enough for speech is that this task of waiting is proving tedious.â€
â€œI did not, Empress. I came to talk. Think of it as a chance to win a convert, although I admit I donâ€™t find it likely. I came to try and understand why the greatest hero Creation has ever known sided with the Yozi against her children.â€
â€œBecause I am the greatest hero Creation has ever known.â€ The Empress took a sip of the tea, and paused appreciatively. â€œA Dusat blend.â€
â€œIt has always been my favorite of the Shadowed Coast blends. Nellens Dusat remains a paragon in the field.â€
â€œShe still lives, then? That is good. I always liked her.â€ The Empress sipped from the tea. â€œShe sent me the first blend every year, long after it was politically needed. Courting my favor, Iâ€™m sure, but a kind gesture.â€ She took another sip. â€œI would have expected politics to have destroyed her by now.â€
â€œQuite a lot of people like her tea. Anyone that moved against her would have found an unlikely alliance rising to destroy them.â€ Nash smiled faintly. â€œIt is the way of the Realm.â€
â€œThe way of the Realm is to praise you for your sins and destroy you for your virtues.â€ The Empress set her tea down. â€œI suppose it makes sense that they would protect her for their own vices.â€
â€œYou have a low opinion of the Dynasty you forged.â€
â€œI forged it in error. By the time I saw what I had created, it was too late to undo the damage.â€ The Empress sat back reflectively. â€œI tried, I suppose, with Vâ€™Neef. But the seeds had been planted centuries before. And in the end, there is only so much that one can do when working with the tainted weapons of the gods.â€
â€œBut if that is so, then this plan is doomed as well.â€ Nash calmly collected the Empressâ€™s teacup. â€œYou are using the Exalted as the centerpiece of your current plan, and if they were unfit before, they will be unfit forever.â€
â€œIs that what you believe?â€ The Empress chuckled. Nash raised an eyebrow.
â€œOf course. Exaltations are inviolable. The Yozi cannot change their basic natures.â€ But even as he spoke the words that he knew to be true, Nash was considering, hesistating.
For a moment, it looked like the Empress was about to rise, to strike. Then she sighed. â€œIt doesnâ€™t matter anymore. Sacheverell deceived me and destroyed my children, and that Solar unmade my vengeance. I was to have been the greatest of the Conduits, leading an entire empire against my enemies, visiting pain and vengeance upon all of the world. Instead, I am the least of them, left to lurk in the remains of this city because those who control it donâ€™t consider me worth their effort.â€ She laughed wryly. â€œA fitting end, I suppose, for one who never deserved her power.â€
â€œGreat Empress, that hardly seemsâ€¦â€
â€œGo.â€ The Empress waved a hand. â€œBefore my better judgment overcomes me, and I remove another one of Gaiaâ€™s curs from the world. Thank you for the tea, Master Sidereal, and leave me to my wait.â€
â€œVery well, Empress.â€ Nash rose, bowing low. â€œPerhaps we will meet again.â€
â€œIf we do, it will most likely be as enemies. Leave me. Go annoy someone else.â€
Nash bowed again, and respectfully backed away from the room. The shadows on the wall launched into a frenzy, reaching to strike after him, to tear him apart, and she still them with a thought. She felt the nature of her link strain for a moment, as the Ebon Dragonâ€™s desire to destroy swept through her, and she shrugged it off. â€œIt might have been nice to make him suffer, yes. A pleasant distraction. But then, he did bring us tea. And I can sense doubts within him, a deep uncertainty. He may yet prove more damaging to Gaiaâ€™s cause than I could ever be.â€
The shadows were not convinced, but they went still. She was still a part of their master.