Instead of longing, their hearts were scoured as by bitter sand: it was the loss of getting where you had been going, but the going had gone for so long through the twisted ways of Creation that on arriving, you no longer desired what you found; not exactly. The girl who had hidden herself away inside the Eunuch had become someone who could not live just for herself, just for love – even of a prince and princess; whose heart had grown to love Creation more than her own desires, and thus, was doomed to go unfulfilled into suffering, as all great hearts do.
The excruciating distance between what is, what was, and what is desired ended in a wide wheel of a cavern beneath the earth. The beetle’s eyelight settled on bodies stacked like cordwood. They were wrapped in linen cerements, folded in an ancient burial style for the honored. Their feet were painted according to their Terrestrial Exaltation. They had been lain under an enormous cloth-of-gold that preserved them from the interference of time. Onyx and Sanction unwrapped some of them, gingerly, investigating. They seemed to be a flesh and bone textbook on the many natural and supernatural ways that Exalts can be made to die.
In the light of a tiny dragonfly that burned with a heady multicolored glow from wings and antennae, Chain wandered toward a glimmer in the dark. The light chilled him, carrying a memory of the Fae Gossamer terror beneath the earth in the Naughty Little Thing’s woods.
The light was an Orichalcum door marked with concentric circles of the 5 castes of the Solar Anathema. The doors soaked up the dragonfly light and burned of their own accord. As Chain came closer, a creature of burnished brass formed out of the substance of light and shadow. It stood in an archetypal sigil of warning, encoded in all languages descended from the original text of the gods. Chain, or the green-eyed fear inside of him took the warning.
Back together, they circumnavigated the chamber. They found a gateway into Heaven made of living Chalcedony. It regretfully informed them that all paths into Heaven had been sealed by the Mandate of Heaven. It provided no further interaction, even as Sanction’s voice broke. Sanction returned to SEGL’s light and along with Grayn, formed a body for his clodhopper friend, James, out of pieces of limestone and a couple of pure Jasper stones for eyes.
Behind a set of strategic defenses entirely excellent in makeup and entirely naturally-seeming even to Onyx, the two Dragon-blooded found a vast basalt door marked with golden calligrpahy in many languages, all saying a version of:
Beyond this Portal lie all the dangers of Creation.
Chain’s nose bled in the sucking dryness of the cavern.
When they convened like mourners at the partially-deconstructed pile of bodies, the small creature told them of 2 chambers secreted away: a murder bolt above the entrance, and the Chamber of the Beacon. This beacon was the heart of a statue of the Maiden of Serenity casually crushing a tentacled Yozi woman beneath one slippered foot.
They took the Beacon.
Returning to SEGL and the Beetle, they were visited by the Spirit of Murder, returned from the halls of Heaven where it had evidently done some investigating, and perhaps been murdered several times (in ways that didn’t quite stick).
The one Sanction had been, the great Murderer that felled the Solar Exalted – or at least gave the sanction for their doom – could not contain the guilt of the Fall of Wonders. The Maiden of Endings refused to take him, and so she watched as he threw himself from the walls of Yushan, and crashed into….
How remarkable this Murderer would be among his fellows…how…Exalted. How grateful he was to the one who had Judged. Sanction would give the thing one last and terrible gift. He produced a knife. He stabbed in as the Murder Spirit leaned forward. The thing reached with black frozen-fire-fingers and pulled the old man’s elbow up and in. The thing gurgled and sighed.
The leather apron fell to the floor. The dark shadow fell and slowly vanished, leaving behind only a soft sigh, as of great happiness.
They crossed the cavern in silence.
Sanction activated the Portal. From the other side, it would need a specific ritual or a key to get back. Thy passed through into the desert heat, fully into Creation, ignoring the warning they had been given.
SEGL wondered how they would return this time, but she was not worried.
It was a camp of the wounded and the yet-to-be-wounded, barricaded inside a simple cave (no sign of the portal from the rock wall they came in through). The ravishing Hasan Arun appeared to invect Clarion Jet back the way she had came – wherever that was, and whatever for. She simply could not be in this place. Should not be. Must not be.
A group of eccentric desert nomads that had been trading partners of Aj-Aran for time out of mind had come with a flurry of their strange messages to parlay in the desert. Because there had been troubles in the desert, and it was thought the “Silver People” might know something -or even be responsible- Hasan Shamir devised a new honoring ceremony for them, and Hasan Arun set out to meet these itinerate traders with a company of crack swordsmen, archers and a troupe of dancers from the militia.
They were met with betrayal, insult, and pre-planned attack. They were routed, and retreated into an ancient storage cavern used long ago when Aj-Aran’s reach had been larger in Creation. They barricaded themselves in. They had tried messengers, runners, parley. All had been met with baffling violence and a chanting of the Princess’ name.
Now they were reforming, planning for a final, desperate attempt to escape or to die with honor.
Sanction used his voice again, burning the walls with his shadow as it stretched into a dark angel or a teetering set of burning scales. The Cloudwalker he summoned set off quickly with a terse plea for support from the Princess to Aj-Aran.
As it turned out, Sanction had learned, at some point, the flag language of the Silver People (who it turned out actually called themselves the “White People” for some important reason Sanction could not articulate). He apologized for any rudeness. He brokered a meeting.
The first problem seemed to be that the Princess’ name had an unfortunate similarity to an unpleasant word in the language of the Silver People.
The main problem, as was gradually and fully explained by the 2 leaders of the White People, Ash Father and Moon Maid, was that blue-tattooed barbarians following a figure that “Burned White like the Moon” had been slowly and steadily harrasing, and then exterminating the White People. The troops assembled around the low hills outside the cave constituted the remainder of their kind. Just under a thousand were left, and some children hidden with “Friends in the desert” – but too few.
The Shining General wanted from them some kind of artifact they did not possess, and had kidnapped their leader, called Pale Step. He was driving the White People this way, and they had come to their ancient allies, the Bitter Salt, for aid, for allies, for war.
Locked out of the Cavern of the Gate of Heaven somewhere below them, no key, unable to open it, Sanction called forth his little friend James, this time with precious stones sent from Aj-Aran in advance of the call for help by Sanito Mundum. James would go and ask Second Efficient Gathering of Loam to meet them back in the caverns under the City of Thorns.
Then, armed with horses, they decided to split up, and to split the forces of the White People and Aj-Aran.
The wounded would go south, toward the river, around to the walled edges of Aj-Aran. They would take what horses weren’t taken by the Princess.
Chain would go with the main body of the Aj-Aran army straight for the City, flanked by the Silver People.
Onyx went with her love and elite officers of her guard. It felt like fleeing.
Sanction and Grayn stayed behind to summon elementals and the dead. Then to wait in harm’s way posing as investigators from the Endless Caravan to meet the oncoming tide of a Barbarian army. The backup plan was that Grayn thought he could push Sanction and himself into the Underworld to escape, but that would mean a difficult return to Creation….
The dead verified the Silver People’s report of the barbarians: a few thousand blue-tattooed barbarians, moving at speed with camels and horses across the desert.
In a hastily-erected yet beautiful tent, the two heroes met the massively-muscled and tattooed leader of the Barbarians. He was incurious and lewd, stroking his pale cat.
Eventually the cat jumped down and turned back into the Lunar man he was – taller and more frightening than the barbarian, whom he dismissed. They talked. The Lunar was trying to right a wrong done to his beloved Solar lord. 1000 years is a long time to pursue a goal while one is mad. The Lunar, whom they had apparently failed to kill in the madness following Sanction’s deployment of the Pollen of Adamanjor, wasn’t getting along with Grayn or seeing eye to eye with the plans of the dead man. At Sanction’s advice, Grayn excused himself to the Underworld. The Lunar, unable to wring the key out of the Pale leader of the White People, was going to try and get into the tomb the characters had found. Failing that, he was going to carry out his plan to activate a part of the First Age Realm Defense Grid to free the remaining Solar Souls from their imprisonment.
Clarion and Chain and Sanction met in the caverns under Aj-Aran. Onyx bore some wounds from a barbarian ambush of the wounded along the river. Most of the wounded had survived. In the light of the 2nd sun burning in the night above the Bitter Salt, they went underground. They left the Thorns, and its prince and princess to their fate.
Armed with two Beacons, SEGL Transitioned them across the South, and under the Sea of Grass, beneath a city broken by the fall of the Solars.
They arrived in a vast series of broken halls. High arches framed the space. Ruined pieces of statuary and broken planters littered the floors. Staggered staircases led down toward the awful green fire in the depths.
There were furious, if mangled automata guarding the gates, which Sanction managed to open after the automata fell to pieces under their onslaught and stayed that way, a reminder of the Guardian demon in Haven.
Inside was a massive chamber, whose bottom was filled with a boiling pool, vomiting and belching up toward the precipitous, tiny bridge suspended on its vast spindles, jutting out into the center of the room. It terminated at a squat cube structure vomiting green fire from its many windows, feeding the growing vortex of black smoke and green light opening under the roof of the cavern.
There were more automata on the bridge, clambering up from underneath them, trying to hurl them into the doom below. They gathered wounds and spent their power. Chain’s eyes were a green burning with the fire ahead, and he was sweating as though in a heavy rain.
The Boar Knight came out to meet them, the metal of the cube’s portal behind him beginning to fluouresce with an undersea light. The automata with him were even larger and more awful, and had clearly survived the Age of Wonders much more intact. They lit off one of their weapons, which managed to take a chunk out of the First Age structure of the bridge.
Sanction stepped forward and cried out something in the oldest language of Creation. His dark shadow with its fiery scales rose up around him like a judge, and its presence was, for the first time, comforting to Clarion – though it reassured her that he was not her father.
The water beneath them boiled and exploded, so full of might already from the Essence of the deep Manse and whatever horror was brewing within the Manufactorum, that it was nearly sentient. Whatever insults Sanction cried out, the water took umbrage. It exploded into the room as jets of boiling water, as steam hot enough to scorch stone, as vast, punishing hands.
The substance of the bridge curled around Sanction and Clarion like a fist, hardening itself against the tumult without. Water gathered around Chain like a boiling shield. There was screaming and destruction.
Before Clarion smothered in the dark, the fist unwound itself back into the remnants of the bridge. The automata had been swept away. The boar knight was impaled on a spike, boiled beyond recognition.
The doors of the manufactorum were sealed again, and the fire had gone out. There was vast pulse and the storm of corrupted Essence above the manufactorum unleashed itself silently through the Elsewhere, and dwindled.
But all was not complete. The water still boiling around Chain was sea-green… as were its eyes. It separated from him, blushing with hatred. “Clear Eyed Adjutant of the Multitude of Hosts!” it cried out, approaching Sanction. “This is your fault! All your fault!” It spat in all directions, dangerous as water has always been. Sanction gave ground, but the bridge was narrow, and the way ahead broken.
“You knew they would just reincarnate, so you sentenced them not only to death, but to the Jade Prison that you had constructed with Secrets! There are a thousand things you could have done, but once the souls had all been harvested, you consigned them to the depths of the Sea…for all time!” The voice was a hiss of steam, “You left them there, and you doomed us to guard them. But Secrets have a way of getting out, don’t they? And the Emptiness beneath the world found them in their prison, and has been burrowing ….”
Chain fell to one knee, and the soul of the man he had been carrying wavered in its watery embodiment.
“And then you abandoned your place of judgement to become…. this,” it spat.
It cocked a head, “They are calling, now, my brother and sisters. I think I will not reach them, but I will try. Perhaps we will meet again….” and the thing that had lived within Chain fell away, and down and down.
Clarion who had been Onyx but was no longer, helped Chain and Sanction back across the bridge.
SEGL was waiting, anxious at last.