The 7th Day of Resplendent Wood, 769
The first person to see sunlight touch the peak of the Imperial Mountain was an Abyssal.
Fervent Dissent of the Grave's Embrace watched the first ignition of golden radiance in the sky ahead and below. At this altitude, the air clinging to the shell of Creation was thin indeed and it took Essence for most to survive comfortably. Dissent felt uncomfortable for a wholly different reason. It was a metaphysical oversimplification to say the Underworld was truly under Creation. That said, in a very real way, no place in all of Creation was further away from the yawning Mouth of the Void that lay in the bottommost place of existence. Dissent was a Day Caste Abyssal, forged as a weapon by the First and Forsaken Lion to bring the Void to every living thing. His kind had never been meant to come here.
Which was precisely why he'd come.
The heat of Sol Invictus' first punishing rays scalded his skin as they did every morning now. Over the past year since he'd come to this peak, the pain had grown with every passing day. Even as he purified himself from the powers of death, the Resonance of the Underworld rose within him, saturating his flesh until even sunlight alone could hurt him. Dissent bore the pain, though, and refused to use his Essence to combat the effect.
Instead, Fervent Dissent knelt before the Sun, dressed only in a simple set of white bleached-wool pants. A morning breeze tousled his short coal-black hair as he drew strength from the Seat of Pasiap itself through meditation. The Immaculate Temple of Ivory Resplendence lay below this summit, a mighty Manse that could still focus only a fraction of the true power of Essence here. Dissent could feel the excess surrounding him, a colossal force that cascaded off the top of the Imperial Mountain and threatened to engulf him as well.
It hurt. It hurt more with every passing day as he let the endless tides of life wash against the death that'd settled into his soul the day he'd Exalted as an Abyssal. And yet he endured.
"Good morning, my love."
Fervent Dissent's eyes were closed against the twin majesty of Sun and Earth but he smiled despite himself at the sound of that voice. He didn't need to see her to drink in her beauty. He also didn't need to see her, or even recognize her voice to know who she was. Dissent was the oldest, most skilled Day Caste in Creation. Only one woman could approach him here without triggering his reflexive Charms.
"Did you sleep well?" he asked, gentle in ways new to him.
"Wonderfully. Am I bothering you?"
"Never," Dissent said, rising and opening his eyes to look at his wife.
They couldn't be more different. Dissent towered over her, more than 7' feet tall and packed with muscle like a wall of solid granite. He'd studied the Earth Dragon style for countless years as an Immaculate and Pasipa's discipline had built his body into something that, coupled with his height, left peasants wondering if he was part of the Deathwatch. Dissent's flawless Dynastic pallor had lightened further to an almost pure ivory shade, even as his hair had descended into hues of midnight. As for his eyes, they were a colorless grey, like an overcast sky thinking of rain but wishing for sunlight.
He'd be handsome if not for the soulsteel. Shirtless, the Enthralled Chains were obvious as the hideous metal shackled him from neck to ankle. They'd been a gift of He Who Holds in Thrall and, rather than constraining him, the Enthralled Chains made Dissent's strength unmatched and his body nearly imperishable to any weapon. As for his hands, they were wrought wholly of soulsteel now and they creaked when he used them. Only a heavy robe could hide what he'd been made to be; the Fulcrum Hammer, the instrument of Creation's doom.
Heart-Wrought Silver by contrast was made in the image of the Moon who'd Exalted her. Not especially tall, the Lunar's head didn't quite come to his chest. Her skin and hair were a wondrous silver, thanks to a childhood accident. During a Calibration Festival, the Goddess of Intoxicants had tricked a girl named Cynis Sari into drinking the Final Taste; a concoction made of equal parts Ambrosia, Lavender Waters of Renewal and pure heroin. Its purpose was to make things perfect...and she was the only mortal to ever survive it, thanks to her unexpected Exaltation. She was also the Silver Agent, Luna's ambassador to the Bureau of Fate, and the only known Waxing Moon Caste alive.
In her last life, she'd been named the Golden Dragon and more secretly the Timeless Rainbow. In this life, she was Heart-Wrought Silver. His Lunar Mate. His wife.
She stepped up the rocky ground of the Seat of Pasiap, careful not to slip on the ice that perpetually clung to it at this rarified elevation. Her soft silver-gray scholar's robes made soft swishes as she came to a stop in front of him. As usual, Heart-Wrought Silver wore a green silk veil tucked into a hood, concealing her face behind a gold embossed butterfly print on the front. It kept her warm but it also concealed her silvery skin and unnatural beauty that the Final Taste had left on her body forever.
"Still no Resonance eruption?" she asked.
"No," Dissent said with a deep sigh. "The pain is greater than ever but it's still contained. Perhaps you're right. Perhaps being here confines it."
"Or maybe it feels so painful because the Seat of Pasiap is drowning the death out of your body."
"That was my original theory but now I'm not so sure." Dissent said, tearing his eyes away from her with effort.
Once, he'd been an Immaculate Monk who'd used a special artifact called the Ghost Knife of Thiokol to steal the blood of an Earth-Aspect, Exalting himself in the process. He'd lived more than 150 years before that Exaltation was stripped from him. In all of that time, he'd been comfortably celibate. This woman was a distraction as much as she was a source of strength. He couldn't deny he loved her but that didn't mean he knew what to do with her.
"Matthias, have faith."
Even after 425 days without incident, the use of his name made the Abyssal flinch. The Fervent Dissent of the Grave's Embrace had received his title after sacrificing his name to the Void. Answering to it now angered the Neverborn as much as anything he'd done in the last year.
"I'm trying," he said at last.
"It's working, Matthias. The prayers, the rituals of purification, taking up the clothes of the living, answering to your name. Making love to me." Heart-Wrought Silver said the last in an embarrassed half-whisper, even though they were alone up here.
"Sari." Dissent turned and took her by the arms. If only he could feel the warm life of her body. Almost 20 years ago, Mnemon Matthias had failed to unlock the pinnacle of the Earth Dragon Style, revealing that his Terrestrial Exaltation had been false. 7 years ago, the Wyld Hunt caught the renegade Immaculate, used their own Ghost Knife of Thiokol given to them by secret Immaculate Masters he now knew to be Sidereals, and stripped the power from him. Then they'd shipped him from the Blessed Isle to the South, severed his hands and left him to die in a place where his blood couldn't pollute their homeland. The First and Forsaken Lion found him on the cusp of death and Exalted him, the first Abyssal ever. And when he'd sacrificed his name, the Neverborn gave him soulsteel hands to replace what he'd lost.
They made him mighty in battle but robbed him of the ability to feel...or to touch with any tenderness. He'd never mourned that cost before. But then he'd never had a wife before either.
"Sari, no one's more hopeful than I am. You've given me reason to keep trying. But I also know how I feel. Everything I've done hasn't removed the sliver of Oblivion inside me. It's contained it but I still feel all of that dark power there."
"I'm with you," Heart-Wrought Silver said, slipping into his embrace, her slim body feeling almost as hot as the blistering sun against his grave-cold skin.
"I just don't know what I'm doing wrong," Dissent whispered to her.
"You're thinking like a Snake-Blood."
Abyssal and Lunar came apart then and braced for battle. Dissent assumed the 37th Stance of Pasiap, the knuckles of his soulsteel hands popping like tortured piano strings as he clenched them. Moonsilver chains launched from the sleeves of the Waxing Moon's robes. Both ends wrapped around the arms of their visitor. Secrecy was paramount, after all. The Seat of Pasiap saw few visitors in this time of uncertainty but they were both unmistakably Anathema. Since Dissent's program of purging himself of the Abyssal taint depended on him staying here, retreat was not an option.
But retreat was the only sane option when facing the Princess Magnificent with Lips of Coral and Robes of Black Feathers. The Deathlord wasn't any taller than Heart-Wrought Silver but her feet barely touched the ground. Her regalia was legendary with its the cloak of raiton feathers glittering blackly in the light of the Unconquered Sun. Her magnificent green silk formal gown was made of brocade, soulsteel straps and pure lethal will. It lent the Solar Ghost an air of authoritative might. The Deathlord's hands rested on the haft of her downward-turned Umbrella of Discord, a hideous assemblage of soulsteel and skin that she'd made when she'd been Taking Chances, Inspector of the Night.
Fervent Dissent now carried the Shard of Exaltation once wielded by the Princess Magnificent. In a way, she was what he'd been. She was also one of his chief tutors in the arts of Sorcery, Necromancy...and of love. Out of devotion, he'd won her freedom from the First and Forsaken Lion and unleashed her on the world almost two years ago. If only he'd known then what he knew now.
Beside him, Dissent heard his Lunar Mate gasp, "Navia?"
"There was a time when my face invoked fear in a million mortals in a row before I found even one who didn't know it," the Deathlord said sharply. Her green eyes were crisscrossed in a lattice of black necrotic energy and were blacker still with her ire. "Now, despite the broken Constellation of the Mask, people keep mistaking me for my daughter. This is unacceptable."
"I've got her!" Heart-Wrought Silver shouted, gripping her moonsilver chains tightly. "Strike!"
"Let's not be tedious about this," the Princess said, suddenly smirking. She made no move to escape. "You're well trained in the myriad combat arts of Luna as well as...is that a Sidereal style I see in your nascent anima? As for my sweet Hammer, his Void-Circle prowess in Necromancy to say nothing of his Sorcery or his mastery of the Earth Dragon Style makes him a formidable opponent. You're both stronger than you were a year ago, thanks to your meditations here. It's possible the two of you together could defeat me in combat. But again, you think like the Snake-Bloods you both descended from."
"What are you talking about, Sifu?" Dissent asked, laying a calming hand on his Lunar Mate's shoulder.
"Better," the Princess said, nodding at this choice of title. "These cleansings you do; they are useless. Only Snake-Bloods can truly benefit from prayers, rituals, all of those little things you've wasted your time on. You were a Solar once, Dissent. You aren't a Monk. You are a weapon. Exaltation is given to those who will use it. Retreating up here to deny the Void's power denies the Sun's power as well. If there is truly Redemption for you, it lies in taking up your Essence and wielding it as it was originally meant to."
Both Exalts stared at the Deathlord, stunned into momentary silence.
"If that's true, that information can only help me," Dissent said at last. "Why tell me this?"
"Is that what you think I'm doing? Helping you? Oh you silly man. I offer you direction knowing it will do you no good. You have no time to put this knowledge to use. The Destiny of the Fulcrum Hammer is upon you."
"You have no idea how Destiny works then," Heart Wrought Silver said, Moonsilver chains gripped in her hands. Dissent remembered the first time he'd met the Lunar. Then, those chains had delivered star-flecked essence into his body, chaining him in shackles of his own strength. Now he could feel the same steely will that had once sought his death rising to defend him instead. "I'm the Golden Dragon, the Silver Agent of Luna. Trust me, I'm well aware of how Essence can override Destiny. Matthias is his own man, not your weapon."
"Pardon me, Dragon is it? Ms. Cynis? Or do you prefer Mrs. Mnemon? You're mistaken. It's true that Essence can deny the workings of the Loom of Fate...but Dissent's Destiny is written on the stars of the Underworld. Not even Essence can deny the inevitability of death."
"But Prophecy can," Dissent said. "I may be the Fulcrum Hammer but there is another."
"Oh yes," the Princess Magnificent snickered. "The Pivot Child Prophecy. Heaven and Hell alike give testimony to its fulfillment of the Pivot Child Prophecy, just as both are marked everlastingly by it. It was meant to be a counter to you, however. The Maidens concealed their champion so well but, in the end, They made the mistake of allowing her to chart her own course. That course led the Child far from these shores and now nothing stands between Creation and Oblivion. As of today, both Prophecies find their fulfillment."
"Today?" Dissent laughed loudly. "Ya'moire could have bent me to her will in a day but not you."
A flicker of black malice passed over the Princess Magnificent's face at the reminder, or maybe at the mention of the First Age Zenith he remembered loving helplessly when he'd been her. "I don't need to break you, you fool," the Deathlord hissed. "You've already done everything we need you to. A year ago, you left the Imperial City to come here. You are an Avatar of the Void and you took it upon yourself to trek to the very heart of Creation's life and Essence. Simply standing here incites Resonance as the magnitude of the Elemental Pole of Earth rages against your Shard. But then you've forsaken the trappings of death. You've married your Lunar Mate. You lie with her nightly. You even answer when she whispers the name you surrendered to the Neverborn in exchange for Their grace. But all of these sins pale against your greatest mistake, Inspector; you have not taken a single life in a year."
"Because I have a choice," Dissent said. "And I choose this. If the Neverborn strike through me, so be it. I will not be made a murderer for fear of worse happening if I don't. And you're mistaken, Sifu. I haven't had an eruption in a year. Whether it's this place or my discipline, I've denied the power of death so long as I remain here."
"In denying it, you've served it. In abandoning your Destiny, you've followed it. Don't you understand how Resonance works? It's not simply the displeasure of the Neverborn. It's a reaction from the death-aspected essence of your Shard to those things inimical to it. It is a way to vent the resulting dissonance in your shard's internal architecture, bringing harmony once more by releasing it at the expense of life. You've denied that release but doing so only concentrates it."
As she spoke, Dissent suddenly felt...different.
The grinding radiance of the Sun eased, stepping from pain to merely uncomfortable. A wind picked up, soothing him until he saw his Lunar Mate shiver in her robes. Then Heart-Wrought Silver gasped slightly and looked up at him in panic.
"I can't breathe...Dissent, I can't breathe any Essence!"
"But I can," Dissent said, looking steadily at the Princess Magnificent. "What have you done?"
"I haven't done anything," the Deathlord said, smiling. "I've only witnessed your accomplishment. You've done what no other Abyssal could do, you see. Resonance build up past a certain point is agonizing. At your rate of accumulation, most Deathknights would have snapped and killed someone inside of a week just to manage the pain. Of course, an Abyssal who was a disciple of Pasiap naturally has a higher threshold of suffering. In the end, though, no other Abyssal in the world could have endured this necessary year...because no other Abyssal genuinely believes they deserve to suffer as much as you do."
She laughed contemptuously at him. "Through you, at last we have victory. Everyone else has failed. The Dowager with her Great Contagion. The First and Forsaken Lion's plot with the Fair Folk. The Mask of Winters believed that driving Chen Minxia into becoming the Cerise Sun and killing her would kill Malfeas and every Yozi trapped within him. All of their plots couldn't produce enough death, though, not even killing every Yozi. They made the mistake of bringing the Void into Creation where its power is diminished. But an Abyssal is different. With imperishable Shards, they can accumulate the Void through Resonance infinitely until there's more Void in one man than in a whole Yozi and all their Souls. Until its unleashed, strategically, making my sweet Hammer's desire for Redemption the very thing that murders the world."
The ground shook, hard enough that Dissent nearly lost his footing. An earthquake? All the way up here?
"What's happening?" Heart-Wrought Silver cried out and they watched together as the darkening skies plunged into the filmy shroud of the Underworld.
"As one Prophecy came to pass, so does the other," Dissent said, feeling numb with horror. "I've delivered existence to darkness after all."
Deathlord, Deathknight and the Silver Agent watched silently as a year's worth of accumulated Resonance tore open the veil between life and death, forcing them into the Underworld...along with the entire Imperial Mountain.