Hua Zhao Yi disembarked from the crowded dragonboat and onto the pier, ignoring the throngs of gods, elementals, and other heavenly beings that pushed their way onboard the now vacant vessel on a busy Jupiterday morning. The day was as bright as Creationâ€™s noon, the Unconquered Sun clearly in the lead in the Games of Divinity, and the Golden Barque of the Heavens was barely aloft far in the eastern hemisphere of the Skydome that separated Yu-Shan from the nothingness beyond. The elder Sidereal quickly made his way past the crowds, leaving the canals and the busy streets that grew around them for the expansive ecological preserves that dominated the vast eastern portion of heavenly city.
It was not common for him to visit this part of the Lunargent Ecological Protectorate, a place that was paradoxically wild and untamed, yet meticulously observed and regulated, with every manner of habitat, plant, and creature imaginable. Thousands of species that once graced the lands of Creation now could only be found here, their original homes and kin long gone and extinct. His destination however, was not one of these wildlife refuges, but a small pagoda located not too far from the urban sprawl.
The building seemed almost out of place, as it had a quaint, almost rundown look about it. The many acres of immaculately manicured lawns that surrounded the properly, dotted with koi ponds, sand gardens, and meditative sculptures only made the contrast even more striking to his azure hued eyes. The smell of steamed and lightly fried delicacies assaulted his senses as he entered the grounds, and conjured memories over millennia old.
Of greater times, brighter times.
Perhaps too bright, he thought somewhat bitterly and nodded to the pretty-faced goddess that welcomed him as he entered the pagoda, an obscure restaurant called the Tranquil Commons of Half-Remembered Tastes.
He quickly spotted Chejop Kejak seated alone at a large round table with a broad, circular turntable in the center. The wizen founder and head of the Siderealâ€™s Bronze Fraction noticed him enter the restaurant as well, rose and motioned him over to his table.
â€œAh Yi, welcome,â€ Kejak greeted the new arrival warmly and bade him to sit. Zhao Yi was glad to see the old Sidereal as energetic as ever, dressed in his usual attire of stately robes of cobalt blue and grays. His friendâ€™s completely gray hair was kept long and tied back, and his beard was neatly trimmed. The ancient Sidereal was the very image of professionalism.
â€œYou look well, Kejak,â€ Zhao Yi replied in greeting as he relaxed into his seat to the left of the Chosen of Jupiter.
â€œAs well as can be expected, old friend,â€ answered the senior Chosen as he gestured at the table, and the arrangement of small woven baskets that contained a wide assortment of dishes unseen in Creation since the High First Age. â€œI took the liberty of ordering a few things before the others arrived. I hope you do not mind.â€
â€œOf course not,â€ Zhao Yi replied easily as he refilled Kejakâ€™s cup of tea before pouring himself one, â€œI wouldnâ€™t know where to start.â€
â€œIâ€™m told that the Rathess river prawns were in season at the preserve, so I asked for a couple baskets of dumplings for starters and some fried rice for later.â€
The Serenities raised a brow, â€œRathess prawns? Kejakâ€¦â€ he started to say but the older Sidereal cut him off with a kindly raised hand.
â€œAh Yi,â€ he said with a tired sigh, suddenly looking very old, â€œI know my time is short, and I have come to accept that. There are times where I even welcome it. A meal or two would not make any difference now. So you may scold me as my personal physician all you want later,â€ he added almost jokingly, â€œBut for now, let an old man enjoy his breakfast.â€
Zhao Yi looked at his friend and mentor for a long moment and then sighed with a wry smile, â€œWell then pass those phoenix talons over. I havenâ€™t had one in years.â€
Kejak laughed and clapped him on the shoulder, â€œGood man!â€ he said heartily and shifted the turntable so that the requested dish settled in front of the Chosen of Venus.
As he sampled the wonderfully marinated, perfectly steamed foot of an extinct fowl, Zhao Yi idly traded work stories and other bits of gossip that may or may not have an impact on their respective duties in heaven and Creation. The restaurant was empty save for a pair of fire elementals busing tables and the goddess hostess waiting at the door, all under the payroll of the Bureau of Destiny. The room itself was small, and cozy with only three much smaller tables besides theirs.
Zhao Yi discretely placed the bones of the birdâ€™s foot on the edge of his plate with his chopsticks. â€œItâ€™s become rather lonely here, over the years,â€ he commented then took a sip of tea.
There was a wan smile on Kejakâ€™s lips as he replied, â€œThat it has. Not everyone wants to be reminded of the past, especially now. And the younger generations, well they see little charm in a place like this. Iâ€™m told they think of this place as where the old farts like us come to play Maâ€™jan.â€ He paused a moment as one of the elementals placed two steaming baskets of dumplings on the table. As it left, Kejak plucked one delectable morsel from the pile with his chopsticks and placed it on his plate before he added one to Zhao Yiâ€™s as well. â€œIâ€™m glad you arrived before the others,â€ he said, his voice taking a more serious tone, â€œThere is something I want you to see.â€
The Chosen of Serenity hummed and set his cup down as Kejak pulled a large envelope from his robes and set it down between them on the table. The seal on the side marked it as a psychiatric record that required a level five clearance from the Forbidden Manse of Ivy archives. Zhao Yi glanced up from the document at the elder Sidereal for a moment then picked up the file and read heading.
Sagacious Tenet? His Sifuâ€™s successor. What is this aboutâ€¦?
The head of the Bronze Faction chewed his food in silence, studying the otherâ€™s expression and reaction as he read the enclosed documents.
Zhao Yi did not notice when Chejop Kejak, for once, refilled his juniorâ€™s tea cup.
â€œWhat the Hell happened here?â€ Midnight Rose said to no one in particular as she surveyed the grisly scene before her. Errant Venture, the Chosen of Journeys next to her looked as shocked as she did.
They had arrived to their destination on foot, a large clearing used by caravans to rest after a dayâ€™s journey, as Errant did not want to risk being spotted in the sky while on their cirrus skiff. The Sun was already nearing the horizon, bathing the world in an orange and red glow that only seemed to emphasize the massacre that had occurred.
Remnants of a battle littered the clearing that sheltered two wrecked wagon trains. Broken bodies, blood soaked earth, and shattered weapons and armor were the most dominate features. In a space more almost a hundred yards wide, she could see more blood and bits of flesh and bone than grass and dirt. Missing were the cries of the wounded, or any other noise for that matter, as though the crows and other scavenger animals shunned this place as well. Or were they slaughtered too?
The Chosen of Battles closed her eyes and breathed a sigh, even the air was choked with the stink of blood, and she could still feel over a hundred destinies suddenly cut short byâ€¦something. It was as if the threads just snapped on their own, which shortened the list of suspects considerably. If these people were killed by anyone native to Creation, then they would be able to see the clash of destinies. But there was no sudden intermingling of destinies, just frayed remnants, like torn pieces of fabric that were also quickly fading away.
Rose glanced at her partner, not chaperon; she amended with some irritation and said, â€œLooks like an extra-Tapestry incursion.â€
â€œYeah,â€ Errant agreed and tugged the fabric of his collar over his nose, muffling his voice somewhat, â€œNo sign of any locals making it out of this either.â€
The look of discomfort on the Journeysâ€™ face made her smirk. â€œLetâ€™s take a closer look,â€ Rose suggested immediately and stepped through the shrubbery into the clearing, â€œI didnâ€™t notice any mutinous intentions in the threads, but they are too far gone by now to rely on. Maybe the cause is a bit more mundane than our first assessment suggests.â€
â€œYou call that mundane?â€ the bandana wearing Sidereal asked as he pointed at one of the corpses with his free hand.
Rose looked in the direction he had indicated and her eyes narrowed. All signs pointed to the unfortunately victim had died very painfully. The body was missing an arm, and the remaining three limbs were contorted in a fashion that would have been impossible in life. The lamellar armor that he wore was rent in wide, jagged lines that suggested claws and teeth rather than weapons. But what caught the Battlesâ€™ attention was the melon-sized chunk missing from the manâ€™s torso. The flesh and bone around the hole appeared smooth, almost like polished marble. It was a wound that was too perfect to have been made by anything natural. Whatever had taken it, it had cut cleanly through both armor and bone, like some grotesque jigsaw puzzle.
â€œWhat couldâ€™ve made this?â€ Rose wondered aloud and crouched down to examine the body further. â€œAlmost looks like something took a bite out of this man.â€
â€œBeats me, but it looks like all the bodies are like this, or worse,â€ Errant replied, keeping his distance from the bodies.
The Chosen of Battles hummed thoughtfully and stuck her hand into her jacketâ€™s breast pocket, where her Elsewhere Cacheâ€™s access point was located. After a moment of fishing around the other-dimensional space, she withdrew a wooden swab and small white jade case, which she then used to handle and then deposit a sample of the suspicious tissue, swab and all, into the case. She shut the container and it sealed with a solid click before she tucked it back into her cache and stood.
â€œWhatâ€™cha got there?â€ Errant asked as he sauntered his way back to her, this time with his bandana tied firming over his nose and mouth.
Rose took one look at the man and choked on an amused laugh.
â€œWhat?â€ demanded the Chosen of Journeys. â€œThis place reeks!â€
She rolled her eyes and muttered something under her breath then said aloud, â€œYou look ridiculous.â€
â€œI stand by my reasons,â€ he retorted indignantly before shifting back to a more serious tone, â€œSo you found something?â€
â€œMaybe. I took a sample that I want analyzed by the Gaian-Genesis Interrogation Team back at the River Temple.â€
The Journeys raised a brow, â€œIâ€™m surprised you know what a GGIT even is considering the hacks you must be used to dealing with back west.â€
â€œFor a man who canâ€™t even stand the sight of a little gore, you talk way too much,â€ Rose said curtly and brushed past the Journeys to survey the rest of the clearing.
â€œThis is not a little gore,â€ Errant replied testily and followed her lead. â€œThe floor of a meat shop? Sure. An army infirmary after a battle? All right. This?â€ he waved a hand over the clearing, â€œThis is worse than Siakalâ€™s office after Calibration.â€
â€œIn the West, we have names for people who speak the name of the Goddess of Slaughter aloud. Idiots and dead men,â€ Rose replied with a hint of exasperation. He does have a point though, she admitted grimly, but ignored the Journeysâ€™ retorting quip.
The wagons that made up the two trains were all torn open as though they were paper toys. Splintered, blood soaked wood lay scattered all over the place, and the iron bars that made up the sides of the cars were just as twisted and broken. A Guild slave caravan then. A glance told her that even the prisoners were not spared. Dismembered limbs and other pieces of gore littered the wagons, once crammed with unfortunates destined for the slave markets of Great Forks, Nexus, and beyond. And there were still so few bodies.
She shook her head. Nothing seemed to make any sense. â€œFaeries couldnâ€™t have done this,â€ she said aloud. â€œThey wouldnâ€™t let so many souls go to waste by killing everyone. And thereâ€™s no way a Yozi cult in this region could summon a large enough Malfean incursion to overwhelm a Guild mercenary escort of this size.â€
Errant grunted in agreement, â€œAlso keep in mind that it hasnâ€™t been very long since the initial flare-up was reported. The culprits are probably still around.â€
â€œRight,â€ Rose nodded and rested her right hand on her sword, which hung just under the small of her back on a pair of loose straps connected to her belt. She regretted doing so the moment her skin touched the saberâ€™s cool leather bound grip. The sword hummed hungrily in her mind, excited by the blood that surrounded them. The Battles knew what it wanted but irately ignored the bladeâ€™s urges. â€œSpeaking of the flare-up,â€ she spoke up suddenly, â€œwe should find the source of it before we report back.â€
â€œProbably some poor sap that Exalted during this mess. Dunno if they made it out though, all things considered.â€
Rose made a noncommittal â€˜Nnhâ€™ and continued to pace across the clearing, taking in more of the scene. There were too few corpses to make up a packed slave caravan. And judging from what she had seen so far, she had an unpleasant hunch that the missing bodies were eaten byâ€¦something.
The thought was not new to the woman, since becoming somethingâ€™s lunch is a somewhat common occurrence in turbulent seas of the West thanks to the sheer number of sharks, their larger cousins the Siaka, Lintha pirates, and dozens more dangers that consider human flesh palatable. But the unsettling feeling of oddness that seemed to permeate the clearing like a thick fog continued to press down upon her. And probably her partner as well, she silently noted with a quick glance over her shoulder.
A part of her wished for whatever had done this to appear before them, so that she would be able to cut them up and-No, she thought firmly and let go of her sword. Her sword, Crimson Princess, was being unusually forceful. All the blood must be setting it off, she figured. She then blew a deep sigh to brush off the unwelcome distraction. There was work to be done.
â€œLooks like there was actually some resistance on the other side of the camp,â€ Errant Venture noted and pointed towards the head of the wagon trains, where a pair of massive, shaggy furred yeddim lay dead not too further out.
As the pair drew closer, they could see that the giant beasts had torn away from their harnesses in a panic with bits of heavy chains and wooden frames still draped over their hides. The lead wagons had apparently been toppled and roughly dragged a fair distance before the thick chains had finally given way. The draft animals themselves were in relatively good condition, for corpses at any rate. It seemed that whatever attacked the camp had only been interested in humans.
Deciding that there was nothing to be learned from the yeddim, Rose turned her attention to the overturned wagons, and noticed several burn marks on the sides. â€œOver here,â€ she called out to her partner and made her way over to one of the lead wagons. These were more like reinforced carriages rather than mobile stockades and served as the base of operations for the Guild agents in charge of the caravan. Plain, but sturdy planks of thick wood formed the walls and tops of the stocky wagon, with small portholes along the sides to provide some natural lighting. A bench lined the roof of the wagon on the forward end, where a driver would command the yeddim that pulled the train. With the wagon tossed on its side, the door at the rear of the wagon hung open; the interior merely a repeat of the slaughter outside on a smaller scale.
â€œFind something?â€ asked the Journeys, who followed Roseâ€™s gaze towards the burns that scored the now conveniently angled roof of the lead wagon. â€œOh great, more mysteries.â€
â€œThese look like essence weapon discharges.â€
â€œBurned right through at least two inches of solid oak too,â€ Errant noted as he stuck a finger into one of the holes. It was covered in soot when it was removed. â€œToo neat to have been made by a flame piece,â€ he surmised.
â€œPlasma tongue repeaters might do the trick,â€ Rose suggested as the man wiped his hands on his pant leg. â€œSo could certain charms.â€ She then rounded the derelict wagon, stepping over jagged shards of the yeddimâ€™s harness, and then promptly stopped in her tracks. â€œI think I found what mightâ€™ve caused all this. Or whatâ€™s left of it anyway.â€
As her partner followed her around the wreck, Rose stooped down and studied the strange vaguely humanoid shaped pile of ash that had caught her interest. The ash was not completely uniform, with slightly larger chunks of crystal that almost imperceptibly gleamed against the Sunâ€™s glow.
â€œCalcified Fae remains from the looks of it,â€ Errant said after a momentâ€™s glance.
Rose nodded and produced another sample kit from her cache. As she took a sample of the polished, milky white crystalline ash, â€œThis doesnâ€™t fit the Fae modus operandi though. They eat emotions and souls, not flesh and blood.â€
â€œGot a theory?â€
â€œA minor Faerie Court looking for new jollies Iâ€™m hoping. At worse this could be a new tactic the Bureauâ€™s never seen before. Hell, we donâ€™t even know if itâ€™s a Creation-based Court or something new from the Wyld.â€
â€œWeâ€™re pretty far in for it to be the latter.â€
â€œGood point. Anyway, I want this analyzed too. Dead Fae usually crystallize and crumble over a period of a week or two, but this one looks like itâ€™s turning to dust only after two or three days at most,â€ she explained and tucked the case away with the other one.
â€œThereâ€™s more over there too from the looks of it,â€ said the Journeys, who pointed towards the far end, where the clearing met the tree line. From her angle, she could see several small mounds that resembled the Fae remains she had examined. â€œLooks like another five or six piles of Faerie bits,â€ he noted and slowly meandered his way over to them.
Rose stood and straightened her shirt and jacket before following Errant over to the site. â€œMelaâ€™s tits,â€ she heard the man stammer as she approached. Curiosity piqued, she quickened her pace somewhat until she had caught up with him and looked over his shoulder towards whatever he was staring at. â€œWhatâ€™s so-â€
The piles of Fae corpses formed a rough semi circle about a dozen yards across. There looked to be more but they seemed to have been mostly blasted away by some kind of wind or force that originated from whatever was in the middle of the circle. The circle was an area of bleached grass, the blades pressed down against the earth in a perfect spiral pattern that resembled the inside of a woven basket.
In addition, Roseâ€™s star speckled eyes could see a gold tinged thread of destiny as it trailed off towards the west. When she glanced at her partner, it was clear that he saw it too.
â€œSolar?â€ Rose knew the answer to that question but asked anyway.
â€œI was afraid youâ€™d say that,â€ the Battle said dryly as Errant turned around and headed back into the center of the clearing. â€œHey! Whereâ€™re you going?â€
â€œWeâ€™re pulling out,â€ Errant answered, not missing a step, â€œOnce the higher ups have been appraised of the situation, theyâ€™ll send an extraction team to track down and insure that the Lawgiver whelp gets a proper upbringing.â€
â€œWait a second,â€ Rose snapped irately, â€œYou have a perfectly hot trail right here and you want to go home?â€
â€œIts protocol,â€ the Journeys explained with a simple shrug, â€œAn untrained agent, especially one that isnâ€™t handpicked to compliment the markâ€™s personality making contact with a nascent Lawgiver might botch things and make future negotiation and contact all but impossible. And thatâ€™s exactly what we donâ€™t want; especially with the huge increase in sightings over the past couple years.â€
â€œBut youâ€™re trained, arenâ€™t you?â€
Rose rubbed the bridge of her nose for a moment. How does anyone get anything done around here when theyâ€™re being hand held by headquarters? She grumbled silently. Heading back to the Temple so soon was the last thing she wanted to do. It was an easy enough matter to have a summoned elemental deliver the samples to the GGIT while they continued their investigation. Come on, think, think, think, she rushed herself for a plan and in a few moments an idea formed. â€œI wonder how much leverage does reeling in a Solar give toward promotions?â€ she mused aloud.
The other Siderealâ€™s stride shortened, â€œQuite a bit.â€
She smirked. Ah ha! â€œAnd how many have you brought into the fold?â€
Errant Venture then stopped completely and spun on his heel to face her. He then pulled his bandana off his nose and mouth with a finger and frowned at her, â€œJust what are you getting at, Princess?â€
Rose matched his steady stare, â€œYouâ€™re a competent agent. You get results. But with so many agents in this Direction, youâ€™re probably tied for promotion with several other candidates. Pull this off, and with that kinda achievement on your record youâ€™ll be a shoe-in for the next managerial spot for sure.â€
The Journeys broke their gaze and rubbed his chin, â€œAnd on the fast track to committee chair.â€
Easy there, dumbass. Not even Mercury works that fast, she thought dryly. One more little push and... â€œHe couldnâ€™t have gotten far,â€ and smiled outright when he nodded, not even looking in her direction.
â€œAll right!â€ Errant Venture said at last with an eager grin and pounded his palm with his fist. â€œWeâ€™ll follow the Lawgiverâ€™s trail and hit every village and town along the way. Weâ€™ll go as far as Great Forks if we have to!â€
â€œAll right!â€ Rose cheered with relief-fueled enthusiasm.
â€œLead the way!â€
â€œYou do know how to track, right?â€
Rose frowned and glared at the still grinning Journeys, â€œOf course.â€
Errant made a shooing gesture with his hands, â€œWell then, get going.â€ His expression then turned from anxious eagerness to a shrewd sidelong stare, â€œYouâ€™re the one who wanted to avoid all that paperwork, arenâ€™tcha?â€
Midnight Rose smirked and crossed her arms, â€œUseless bastard.â€
Her partner smirked in turn, â€œScheming wench.â€
Zhao Yi gently replaced the documents back into the envelope and rebound it with the attached string. Chelop Kejak set his chopsticks down and wordlessly took the report back when it was offered. The senior Siderealâ€™s eyes were sympathetic but firm, â€œIf it were possible, I would not have shown it to you, old friend. Unfortunately, it would seem that events are setting into motion. Events that we must prepare for, for the good of all that exists.â€
The Chosen of Serenity nodded once, centuries of training and practice kept the emotions boiling inside from making so much as a twitch appear on his handsome face. He reached for his cup and took a sip as his superior tucked the envelope back into his robes. It was then he noticed the substantial number of discarded prawn shells and evidence of other foods that he had expressly stricken from the elderâ€™s diet garnishing Kejakâ€™s plate, and mentally made a note to scold the most powerful man in heaven later.
â€œIt goes without saying, but your apprentice must not be made aware of the situation,â€ the Chosen of Secrets cautioned.
Zhao Yi nodded again, â€œIt goes without saying,â€ he repeated congenially.
Kejak smiled his approval just as the rest of the party began to arrive. Zhao Yi recognized them as the Bronze Factionâ€™s inner circle, most of them his own friends from an age long past. â€œKejak!â€ one of them exclaimed warmly, â€œHow rude of you to begin eating without us!â€
The ancient Sidereal laughed jovially in response, â€œIâ€™m afraid if I hadnâ€™t, Yi would have limited my repast to white rice and black tea.â€
They all shared a good laugh at Kejakâ€™s joke. Zhao Yi traded friendly jabs with the others as they settled in and the food began to arrive in earnest. The rest of the morning was thankfully pleasant and informative; a short time shared with dear friends and trusted colleagues with some of the most nostalgic fare that could be found in heaven. It was a shame then that everything he ate that morning seemed to turn to ash in his mouth.