The 7th Day of Resplendent Wood, 769 in the Year of Our Empress
...the blasted slopes of Mount Meru. More than a thousand years ago, the broken oricalcum buildings of Greater Meru shattered against the ground when her Sorcery failed. But now Tempest stood where Nocturne Iridescence once had and she knew a similar despair.
She held a broken Relentless Tyranny in her arms, resting his head on her lap. The massive bulk of the Infernal Lunar was a maze of black hide and green stripes liberally streaked with his blood. As her tears fell on his rent skin, the Deadly Beastman Transformation faded away to reveal the battered war-torn form of Padrick Ganan. An Age ago, they'd been husband and wife. He still wore her ring...and now she wore his.
"I'm sorry," he said, his voice a hoarse whisper from the battering he'd taken. "I didn't want to leave you."
"I tried, my tiger, I tried." Tempest's tears continued, decorating his face with a far kinder wetness than the red blood that stained everything. "I'm sorry I couldn't save you. I tried."
"But you did save me," he said. His eyes gleamed lustrously under the red-streaked sky. And then the gleam left them, followed by any life in his eyes. Tempest's grief tore through her and she screamed her defiance at the sky, clutching her dead husband to her chest...
Tempest woke with a scream caught in her throat. Her body shook once in reaction, spilling a stack of spellbooks to the floor of her research library. The Twilight Caste's nightgown clung to her soft, slender body and she pushed her thick blue hair away from her face as she gasped for air.
That dream again. That damned dream. Ever since she'd seen it, the image haunted her. She'd ignore it if the first time hadn't been when she stood before the Loom of Fate after the climax of their battle with E'lial, the same day her Circle had saved the Unconquered Sun from murder.
The great expanse of E'lial's library was silent, except for the fast throbbing of her heart. Endless rows of bookcases laden with forgotten lore stretched into the distance. This place occupied only one room of the deceased Sidereal's mansion but the room itself had vastly more space than it should. Tempest had almost figured out how her Circle's old mentor had done it too.
Instead, the Twilight Caste left her research texts and notes behind. In the last year, her Circle had made this mansion their home, their base of operations. Right now, she knew she needed advice from one of them.
Tempest met their Dawn Caste at the front door. Tepet Tadrana was better known as the Autumn Ruin, the Forsaken who'd annihilated the towns of Serenity and Selent a few years ago. Much had changed for the small, violent black-skinned Solar. Not the least of it being the fact that she was coming in through the window. ...from above, not below.
"Wait, Tadrana, did you just land on that window?" Tempest asked.
"Uh huh," the Autumn Ruin agreed as she hopped inside and closed the window pane. "Elated Fury gave me a tip on some Lintha smuggling off of Arjuf. Turns out he was right. So I sank three of their ships. I let the fourth one go to send the message that I don't tolerate that shit on my Isle."
"Tadrana, you do realize there's a Wyld Hunt? Those Dragon-Blooded in all of the armor, waving all those swords, who all want to kill you?"
The Autumn Ruin's white teeth gleamed all the more brightly against her black skin. "The Wyld Hunt showed up but I told them to back the fuck off and they did. Of course, I had just polished off those ships and maybe they heard about how Deled couldn't take me. There were only four of them. Poor bitches were probably scared shitless that I'd polish them off for desert. Maybe someday they'll figure out we're on the same side."
"So, you were really in Arjuf last night?"
"Yeah. Flew all night to get home. Athletics Charms."
"Still, from Arjuf?"
"I told you, Athletics Charms."
"Aren't you afraid Elated Fury is using you?" Tempest said, switching away from a subject that obviously was headed nowhere. "I know he's your Lunar Mate but he is the head of the Silver Crescent Society. Given he runs the only criminal organization the All-Seeing Eye's never shut down, he just might have an ulterior motive."
"And?" The Autumn Ruin snorted, put her hands on her narrow hips and said, "I'm not worried. Two reasons. One, he knows how nice I am when he's nice. I scratch my wolf's furry tummy, he scratches something else. Two, he knows I will beat the fucking shit out of him if he abuses my trust."
Tempest wisely smiled and nodded. She'd be the first to admit she didn't really get their relationship. It wasn't exactly romantic or friendly. More like two alpha wolves that knew and respected the other's territory. It didn't mean the Autumn Ruin was right. Or that she wasn't deceived.
The Twilight Caste left the yawning Dawn Caste behind and headed into the main hallway. E'lial's ubiquitous furnishings still filled the walls and floorspace. There were so many couches, they turned the mansion's spacious corridors into walkways. It was all E'lial's fault, of course. Their Sidereal mentor had the habit of throwing lavish parties and filling the mansion with Dynasts looking for a good time. Someone might have worked up the motivation to get rid of them but there were so many and a person could still get by if they didn't mind a little unnecessary navigation.
Besides, these days the couches were more likely to hold a sleeping cultist than a Dynast.
The Children of the Sun were all adherents to the teachings of the Circle's Zenith Caste, Iselsi Yezenjen. Her peculiar blending of the Immaculate Philosophy and divinely inspired visions of what the Sun wanted had caught on despite the best efforts of her former religion to stomp them out. The whole thing rubbed the Twilight Caste the wrong way but religion in general did. Not that she minded religious people. She just didn't like it when they expected her to be.
"Valeena, what are you doing awake?"
Tempest, who'd been born Cynis Valeena, stiffened at the name she rarely used. Then she recognized who'd said it and relaxed. A little.
Just off the grand stairway was a small study. The cozy book-filled room boasted a small table set before an expansive window that offered an amazing view of the mansion's well-manicured lawns. Two cups of rather aromatic coffee steamed in the early dawn light, each held by a man and woman watching the sun rise. They were relative newcomers to the Circle's mansion but no one had gainsaid Yezenjen when she brought them after the apocalyptic events of the True Soul War a few months ago, not even Tempest.
For one thing, the man was Se'ville. They'd been Circlemates in another Age and that bond remained even if their Circle already had the Eclipse Caste, Sesus Doyle. Of course, in this life Se'ville was now Iselsi Jatel, a former All-Seeing Eye operative, just as Nocturne Iridescence had become Cynis Valeena, the dutiful daughter and chief alchemist of her household.
"What are you doing awake?" she asked.
"Couldn't sleep," Jatel said. He shrugged. "Nightmares. Besides, A'sey-um, Rena wanted company."
Rena was not a Solar. Instead, the black-haired woman seemed to be a Water-Aspect who'd been a prisoner of the Ebon Dragon for years. There was some slight resemblance between Rena and Yezenjen, Tempest thought. Relatives? She could only guess for Rena was a remarkably private woman who said little and spent her time doing little but working miracles with the mansion's gardens.
There'd been several name slips but for once Tempest didn't mind Yezenjen and Jatel keeping a secret. The scars on the Dragon-Blooded's soul were too deep for the compassionate Twilight to disturb. Tempest had made it her life's work to free slaves and prisoners. She couldn't deny solace to two who so desperately needed it.
"I don't suppose either of you have seen Doyle, have you?" Tempest asked.
"I think he said he'd be back today from his business trip," Jatel said. "Something about First Age law and the Forbidding Manse of Ivy. I decided against asking."
Tempest snorted. "Probably best. I suppose that means...Yezenjen." She sighed. "You know if she's up?"
"If she is, she hasn't left her suite upstairs," Jatel said. "She's probably praying, given the hour."
"Probably. Thanks. Hope you two get some sleep when you can."
"Thank you," Rena said, her High Realm slightly accented, almost archaic in enunciation. The Water Aspect smiled wanly. "Make sure you knock first."
"...right, I'll see you later."
Tempest shook her head as she left the study and padded barefoot in her nightgown up the cold marble staircase. With Sesus Doyle out, Yezenjen was the only one who she could go to for perspective. Truthfully, prophetic dreams were more the priestly ex-Immaculate Monk's province than Doyle's. The Eclipse was her best friend, at this point, though. Given Doyle was the First Eclipse and had never been part of any Circle in any Age, it said something about her ambivalent relationship with her own.
Still, Yezenjen had always tried her best. It wasn't the Zenith's fault for being horribly uptight. Sometimes Tempest missed Yezenjen's Lunar Mate. She had very little in common with Sesus Kestrel but the Changing Moon had been remarkably level-headed and a good influence on her Solar. Though given Kestrel was married to someone else, very likely little happened in private.
Tempest smirked. Maybe too bad. Yezenjen definitely needed some relaxing.
She reached the ex-Monk's room and pushed open the double doors without bothering to knock. Whatever Rena thought, the truth was that Yezenjen liked to pray on the balcony. There was no way the sometimes oblivious Zenith would hear a knock from outside.
Tempest walked in and immediately regretted it. Yezenjen was not on the balcony, not alone and most definitely not praying. Not unless the Sun acknowledged prayers that consisted of "Oh Gods!" and moans.
Despite her hasty retreat, Tempest's eyes burned with an indelible image; Yezenjen, spread-eagled. The Zenith's head was thrown back, her limbs arching against restraints of golden hair. Kestrel knelt between her Mate's parted legs with her long blonde tresses somehow animate and wrapped around the Zenith's wrists and ankles. Finally, the look on Yezenjen's face as horrified shame and impending orgasm hit simultaneously.
Shutting the double doors, Tempest took a moment in the halls to process what she'd seen. Then she started to walk. Tempest made it halfway to the stairs when the doors to Yezenjen's bedroom burst open.
"I see I caught you at a bad time," Tempest said, still walking away so her Circlemate couldn't see her snicker.
"I have to say I'm surprised. Isn't Kes married? I guess some Bonds are stronger than a promise. I never thought you'd go for a marrie-"
Yezenjen caught up with her, then caught her arm and spun her around. The pale Zenith's face was flushed from much more than running. Her shoulder-length red hair was a mass of bedroom curls. Wrapped in a hastily donned but very modest bathrobe, the normally restrained Monk had that undeniable freshly-fucked look that Tempest had never expected, or wanted, to see on her Circle's erstwhile leader.
Then Kestrel joined them. The Lunar was larger in every dimension by comparison, at least in height, hips, bust and outright muscle tone. There was little question of it given she hadn't bothered to put anything on. Her normally braided blonde hair was loose and drifted like a blonde flag behind her, slowly settling into a floor-length fountain. It moved almost as if the hair were under water. Kestrel had never shown such talents before...but then she'd never had prehensile hair before either.
Several things clicked at once. This Kestrel lacked the Moonsilver tattoos every Lunar wore as a protection from the Wyld. Her eyes were the exact shade of brilliant emerald Yezenjen's were, not Kestrel's normally soft blue. Then there was the absolute lack of recognition in the other woman's face. It all led to one conclusion.
"Yezenjen...who is this?"
"I'm the Jessed Falcon," the Kestrel look-alike said.
"Great, she talks. Can she put clothes on too?"
Yezenjen managed a new shade of pink as she struggled for composure. "Falcon..."
The Jessed Falcon stretched and was suddenly clad neck to toe in form-fitting white leather. It looked as lethal as it did sexy. Dressed, Tempest finally realized that the fluid grace in the copy's every movement was that of a master martial artist. It was one more difference between the thing before her and the woman Falcon resembled. Kestrel had always favored the bow after all.
"Why do you try so hard to leave?" the Jessed Falcon asked.
"Excuse me?" Tempest said.
"I was made to come home. But you're making yourself an exile, always running away from it. You've found a place that loves and accepts you but you're always rejecting it, pushing it away. Why is the family you've found here so frightening? What are you scared of?"
"Falcon, this isn't the time or place," Yezenjen said, finally regaining a measure of her usual serenity.
"You mind telling me what that is?" Tempest said, pointing angrily at the leather-clad lookalike of Kestrel. "Because I know what it's not. And I don't know why the hell you're sleeping with it."
"I'm the Defining Soul of the Cerise Sun," the Jessed Falcon said, tilting her head exactly the way Kestrel always had.
"Whoa, you're sleeping with Demons now?" Tempest laughed at Yezenjen and didn't bother to hide the contempt in her voice.
"I'm a Kensei," the Second Circle Soul said, looking as annoyed as the Twilight Caste felt. At the other's blank look, the Jessed Falcon added, "One of the Devas of Praefierce. We're the Kensei, we're not Demons. And I'm my own woman, thanks."
"Did you seriously just say that? You're a fragment of a crazy Dawn Caste, you're just some fiction of what she thinks her wife is like. Though the love triangle this little pairing suggests just cements that I came to the wrong place for advice. I had that dream again, Yezenjen," Tempest said, turning to the Zenith. "The one where Padriack dies. I know it means something but I should have figured going to you meant-"
Error: Connection was dropped by remote host.
"What was that?" the Jessed Falcon asked, looking around.
"It came from...the Hearthstone..."
Yezenjen reached around her neck, pulled off an oricalcum chain and reached into her bathrobe to draw forth the Heart of the Realm. It was a gorgeous smoky quartz crystal that shone like a sunrise, presently set in a Hearthstone Amulet for safekeeping. Tempest had seen it several times but she'd never seen the chaotic whirl of golden light playing across its surface.
Trying to reestablish remote connection...
"What's happening?" Yezenjen asked, staring in horrified fascination at the Hearthstone. She touched it against her forehead, closed her eyes and grimaced. "Something's wrong. I'm..."
Remote host not responding: the physical connection has been lost.
Tempest stopped listening to either of them. Instead, she reached out and touched the Heart of the Realm. Like Yezenjen, she'd attuned to the Imperial Manse a year ago when they'd entered it to keep its powers out of the hands of the Sidereals. That bitch Iselsi Navia had wound up with the Heart of the Realm anyway but relinquished it months ago to her daughter during the True Soul War. Now, Tempest could reach out through the Hearthstone's senses with the same efficacy that Yezenjen, Navia and the Scarlet Empress before them could.
What she found stole the breath from her lungs.
Confirmed: Remote host not responding: the physical connection has been lost. Sword of Creation is offline. Realm Defense Grid status: Inactive.
The words were strangely worded by contemporary speech but made perfect sense in Old Realm. Something had severed the connection between the Imperial Manse and the Realm Defense Grid centralized and powered in the Imperial Mountain. All of Creation's War Manse defenses were coordinated from the Sword of Creation. It remained the one true weapon of hope against any invasion of this world.
More than that, the Imperial Mountain was also the Elemental Pole of Earth. Tempest didn't care about the religious nonsense surrounding Pasiap but she knew one thing; that Elemental Pole was critical to Creation's essence architecture. It began and ordered the dragon lines across Creation. From it, Creation existed. As long as the Imperial Mountain stood, the Wyld could never find a lasting, permanent foothold. It certainly couldn't extinguish this one persistent spark of pure stability in the midst of the chaos.
Tempest looked through a hallway window at the empty western horizon where the Imperial Mountain had always dominated. She trembled. Then, the Twilight Caste steeled her face and, for once, nodded in agreement as Yezenjen said, "Righteous justice will deliver the Imperial Mountain and those responsible for its theft into our hands. Come, Tempest; together we'll find it."