Chronicler of Thunders spoke, seemingly detached from the room around her, “I do not know to whom or what you refer, Nightingale Jasper, and I do not care. You are condemned. I am prepared to execute the sentence.”
An unfamiliar man in traveling clothes stepped out from behind her. An emerald hung from his belt, and his shoe was untied.
“As a recognized member of the Celestial Bureaucracy in service to the Maidens and the Bureau of Destiny, I duly witness that sentence has been pronounced and may commence.”
Dirt and Iron could not be tense while standing before these two horrified Exalts, for he knew the outcome of this battle and had nothing to fear, but he could not remain still. He had moved through the Loom’s warp and weft with sublime confidence, like a great Prince of the Earth wading through a hot spring, but Dirt and Iron was still… troubled. Even as the strands of fate had entwined more and more tightly around this particular fate, and the desired resolution became more and more certain, the Maiden’s servant merely felt less and less comfortable. Now, as the Chosen of the Celestines prepared for battle, and the hum of Essence grew into a crackling din, a question unexpectedly popped into Dust and Iron’s mind: shouldn’t he be better prepared for this skirmish?
A seed of doubt, now fully sown, sprouted and bloomed within the Sidereal.
Jasper could not think, nor truly see, hear, feel, or taste. He could not handle the flood of images besieging him; in the room before him, he saw his love, his destroyer, his purpose and his downfall, while in his mind he saw Judgment, its point hidden deep between two of his ribs and its shaft coated in his blood. The room spun madly around him, and he felt ill. He shut his eyes painfully, suddenly becoming aware of the tears streaming down his face.
“Our time has passed, beloved.” Allandra’s voice echoed in Jasper’s ears like bronze chime on a cold morning. Her veil covered her face, a vermillion gloam faded behind her, staining the evening sky blood red, just like the smoky ruins of the Shining Ziggurat below. A chill crawled through Jasper’s body. He could no longer feel the pain of Judgment lodged with in his chest.
“Please,” he whispered. Something trickled down his cheeks; he did not think it was a tear.
Allandra knelt beside him, and brushed his cheek with her thumb. “You have suffered merciless Judgment. You should know above all others that there is nothing I could do for you now.” Lifting his chin with her hands, she kissed him lightly through the veil. She leaned in close and whispered in his ear, “Our time has passed.”
She rose then, and stood above his failing body. She smeared Jasper’s blood along the shaft and waited for him to die. The stars began to appear behind her; night was coming, and a half circle of gold blazed against a violet sky.
He tasted copper on his tongue and swallowed. “Please,” he rasped again. “You made a promise once. Lower your veil.”
“As you wish,” she replied coldly. She stepped back from him, her body now a dark silhouette against the sun. She reached behind her head and untied her veil.
Opening his eyes again, Jasper clutched madly at his chest, grasping for a spear that was not there.
Mahi-Sura hissed protectively, stepping between the intruders and Jasper, even as he collapsed to the floor. The two women stared at and through each other; Mahi-Sura concentrating intently on the unwavering eyes of this intruder and Chronicler of Thunders in turn gazing almost casually into her opponent’s lifeless eyes, even as dark irides turned yellow and the round pupils stretched into slender diamonds.
“You will not harm him,” Mahi-Sura hissed. “By my blood, my life, and by Luna’s favor I swear it.” She moved her hands together, as if to pray, and a glowing ball of red ochre swirled into existence between.
Chronicler of Thunders smirked impishly beneath her veil. Carnal passions for blood and flesh stewed within her in a most confusing way. She should not feel such strong desire in the kill, and she ought not feel such outrage at the presence of a woman beside her target. She passed the spear from one hand to the other, glanced at the writhing, weeping, howling body of her damned target and felt sadness. This would be too easy. Killing this… slattern… might be a relishable challenge.
“You should not make promises you cannot keep snake… woman...” The shrouded warrior’s voice trailed off and her shoulders slumped. Jasper screeched like a banshee.
“I know better than to make promises to you that I cannot keep, beloved.” Allandra stood atop the Shining Ziggurat. Nearby in the floral gardens, violet clovers of Dame’s Rocket glistened with evening dew. “Now please, leave me.”
“I can’t do that. I won’t do that.” Jasper stared at her as she leaned, palms down, against the granite planter. Tissue-thin scarves covered her head as it hung low between the silks draped across her shoulders. This was not right. This was not fair. No man or god should ever be made to feel pain like this. “I am blessed by the First Among Gods. I cannot be dismissed so casually, even by you.” A searing wrath was welling up inside of him as he spoke. He could not bite his tongue any longer.
Allandra did not move, but spoke loudly, forcefully. “Go. Now. Before you break both our hearts.”
Jasper choked the white-hot thoughts down into his throat and swallowed. Slowly he shrank away, leaving Allandra alone with the sweet scent of night blooms.
Raising her head, she regarded the heavens. So often she read the stars for portents and omens. Tonight, the whole house of Journeys was descending, and it seemed as if the Ewer was following in close pursuit. Only the stars of Rising Smoke and the constellation Haywain rose to replace them, offering a dim hope amidst a sky of misfortune.
Chronicler of Thunders snapped to attention. The Lunar had finished casting her spell, and the ball of red energy had disappeared. Rouge glyphs shone on her hands. Infuriated by her loss of focus, she lunged straight for the sorcerer, arms pulling the spear through a tight arc from above her right shoulder down towards Mahi-Sura’s heart. With serpentine speed and burst of violet and silver Essence, the No Moon sprang forth as well, passing just over Chronicler of Thunder’s forward knee and just below the falling spearhead. It seemed, for a moment that somehow Mahi-Sura might leap entirely through a space no larger two feet square and that Chronicler of Thunders might driver the spear into her own thigh, but the ancient Exalt struck true, driving ten inches of steel through the back of Mahi-Sura’s knee.
A loud howl echoed against the stone walls of the apartment as Mahi-Sura tumbled to the floor, spear embedded deeply in her broken, bleeding knee. Dirt and Iron shifted his weight as he leaned against the splintered door frame.
“Enough of this. She is not your target. Kill the Solar, Mistress.” Dirt and Iron swallowed hard. He was not taken to assuming such a belligerent tone with creatures that could kill him with a word.
Chronicler of Thunders eyed him silently, and moved towards her fallen prey. Mahi-Sura hissed in pain and tried to pounded the granite with a closed fist. As the veiled woman stood above her, Mahi-Sura stretched a crimson hand towards an orichalcum-embroidered boot; things had not gone to plan, but there was still hope. Just as she was about to unleash the spell on Chronicler of Thunders, the room exploded with azure light. Most of the furniture caught fire, and Mahi-Sura and Dirt and Iron were momentarily blinded.
“You are a fool to think you can defeat me with sorcery,” Chronicler of Thunders, now bathed in blazing amethyst, boasted. “I admire your bravado, though.” She twisted the spear free of Mahi-Sura’s knee and turned towards Jasper’s scorched, thrashing body.
Something brushed against Dirt and Iron’s shoulder, and a voice whispered in his ear. “You might want to take a look at this.” The historian lurched about suddenly. A man in cream colored robes and leather sandals was holding a scroll in one hand and a ruby-encrusted chain of soulsteel in the other. He pushed the scroll into Dirt and Iron’s chest.
The Sidereal historian hadn’t anticipated this. “What is the meaning of this?” he stammered. “I c-could kill you where you stand, Warden of Jade.”
Warden of Jade smiled. “But you won’t. And you’re not going to kill that Solar.”
Dirt and Iron clutched he scroll to his chest. “You cannot stop me. I carry a divine mandate.”
Warden of Jade playfully stroked his chin. “Regardless, you and your cohort will cease immediately. You are being audited Dirt and Iron. I recommend returning to Yu-Shan directly.”
“I do not believe you. Audits are presented by the censors themselves.”
“Customarily, yes. But Scarlet Dragon of Vermeil Heavens does not deign to leave the Celestial City at this time. I come in his stead. It’s all there in the petition.” Warden of Jade nodded at the young Sidereal and strode past him towards the Chronicler of Thunders. “As for you,” he said, “I insist that you stop immediately.”
The Solar was standing above Jasper, staring at Judgment as it lay against a scorched divan, seemingly unaware of Warden of Jade’s approach. Just as she reached out for her lost prize, Warden of Jade grasped Chronicler of Thunders by her radiant shoulder. Instantly, she froze in place, paralyzed with her arm outstretched towards Judgment. Warden of Jade sauntered over and picked the artifact up, sidestepping Jasper, who had suddenly leapt towards him in a frenzy.
“You killed her! You killed her! You killed her!” Jasper’s shouts dissolved into a incomprehensible frothing speech as bloodlust consumed him.
Warden of Jade grinned smugly and effortlessly dodged the Eclipse’s uncontrolled assaults. “Yes, but only for a little while,” he quipped.
Dirt and Iron stood dumbstruck. “I do not understand!” he shouted. “This does not fit any plans for fate that I know! What are you trying to accomplish!”
Warden of Jade responded without looking at the Sidereal. “Nothing. Nothing at all.”
A plump man with pale skin squatted next to a planter of half-charred roses, listening.
There were people-things. They were loud. And there was burning. It hurt.
Detective Lieutenant Pepo sighed. Plants never made good witnesses, and these were too weak and shocked to help. Across the room, his partner took a statement from the notably irate realtor. Detective Pepo could smell the spent Essence lingering in the air, but he had no clue who spent it or why.
Pepo’s partner walked over. “The realtor tells me that he just sold the apartment today, to a… Nightingale Jasper… today, and he moved in alone. Looked young, blonde hair, blue or grey eyes, non-descript. Had a woman with him, possibly a God-Blood. Dark-skinned, dark-hair, dark eyes. Wears heavy make up, and ‘eye-catching’ jewelry, possibly Haltan-made. Any luck with the crime scene?”
Pepo picked up a piece of the splintered door. “Not much. Looks like someone bashed in the door, maybe blew it open with firedust. There’s a bloodstain on the floor, but no trail. My guess is that the fires were caused by some sort of explosion near the stain.”
“Don’t think so. Looks magical.”
Lieutenant Ilid whistled. “Guess somebody had fun. Should I start canvassing the neighborhood?”
“No. I want you to head out to Scavenger’s Rise.” The rotund man waved a jaundiced hand towards the crates of unpacked goods. “This Nightingale character’s a scavenger.”
Ilid nodded. “Dellano Rift came in from a big dig about a week ago. Caused a bit of ruckus. Most of the goods were wrapped. Some people reported seeing a spear, though.”
Pepo stared at his partner.
Ilid swallowed. “A little bird told me.”
“Fine. See if you can’t find that bird again. And talk to Dellano.”
“Think he’s involved?”
“He might be a Dragon-Blood, but I don’t think he was here. Earth-Aspects don’t normally cause fires. But he might know the woman. I imagine she’d have gotten those earrings out on the Rise. I’ll work the neighbors.”
“Roger.” Detective Ilid walked out of the apartment. Pepo listened thoughtfully to his partner’s rapid footsteps echo down the stairs. Looking around the apartment one last time, the Detective waddled out of the apartment, down the stairs, and out of the building.
The street was conspicuously empty. People were scared by the explosions. They wouldn’t be forthright. Down one alley, he spied a fountain surrounding a date tree. Dozens of little candles surrounded it, and it was doubtlessly a minor local shrine. There mar or may not be Little God there, who may or may not have seen anything, and may or may not be willing to talk. It was a long shot, but people probably wouldn’t be talkative until after evening services in the temples.
Someone was standing in shadows halfway along the alley. A green-skinned woman with hair of cornstalk stepped halfway into view.
Detective Pepo frowned as he approached. “Lady of the Winter Squash. What do you want?”
“That’s hardly an appropriate tone for speaking to...” the Elemental glanced around the alley, ensuring their privacy, “your mother.”
Pepo rolled his bulbous green eyes. “I said, ‘What do you want,’ Milady.”
“Nightingale Jasper. I owe him a favor.”
“I am not about to spoil an investigation for you.”
The Squash Goddess folded her arms. “I know what you tell people, and even if you act like him, you do not entirely take after that stuck-up ass of god-blood you call a father. You might not like being a Squash Spirit’s son, but you still owe me.”
Detective Pepo cursed under his breath and stared at the dusty ground.
“Dirt and Iron, I thank you for your prompt appearance.”
“You are welcome, Scarlet Dragon of Vermeil Heavens, most honorable Censor of the glorious Celestial Bureaucracy, devout eradicator of despicable corruption, virtuous-“
“You will speak to me as ‘Your Grace’ and you will do so with a minimum of flattery. We have much to discuss, and I do not have the time or disposition to be coerced with pretty words.”
“Yes, Your Grace.” Dirt and Iron sat in a windowless room that appeared to be carved from a solid block of granite the size of a small cathedral. In truth, the room had been chiseled from Quintessence, as had the mahogany desk and the emery pulpit that served as the Elemental Dragon’s bench.
“Now then. This is a general audit, and you are not being accused of any offense, and need not concern yourself with building a defense. However, I have been alerted, through a number of channels, of some questionable policies and procedures regarding your interaction with certain High-Essence beings in creation. I believe it best to start at the beginning.”
“The beginning, Your Grace?”
“Yes, the beginning. Describe for me the circumstances that led to your current relationship with the Solar Exalt known as…” The censor paused to read a scroll. “Chronicler of Thunders in this age, and as Allandra in the previous one.”
“Well, I am only recently acquainted with the Chronicler of Thunders, Your Grace, as my years are not counted until after the Great Contagion. I-”
“Then I recommend you begin earlier.”
“Very well, Your Grace. But I must warn you that this story moves in Circles, and that certain facts I can not certify as absolutely true, as I can only recall that which has been told to me and only in the manner in which it was told.”
“Very well. The story of The Chronicler of Thunders begins with a betrayal. It seems that ‘Allandra’ was terribly wronged during the reign of the Children of the Sun by her lover and circle-mate, who today has reincarnated as Nightingale Jasper.” Dirt and Iron inhaled deeply. “Your Grace, with all due respect to the court and its proceedings, may I humbly request a pitcher of water?”
The Censor stared down at him. He uncoiled his crimson body and was instantly wreathed in sputtering flame. The deity rang a tiny silver bell with a serpentine claw. Immediately, a ten foot obsidian door behind Dirt and Iron opened immediately. Turning around, Maiden’s Servant saw a cherub wing in with an amethyst pitcher and chalice and noticed the scribe spirit in the corner for the first time.
As he slowly sipped the chilled water, Dirt and Iron thought of Warden of Jade… who could he be working for? What strings could he be pulling?
“May we continue, Dirt and Iron?”
“As you wish, Your Grace.” Dirt and Iron set the chalice down. Warden of Jade… Mistress Chronicler of Thunders… Nightingale Jasper… they would all have to wait. Dirt and Iron would be indisposed for quite some time.
“Let me guess.” Detective Pepo was sweating profusely beneath the date tree, doubled over the fountain in the shade. Detective Ilid rolled his eyes behind his back. “Jasper and the woman hobbled out to the rise where they were met by Rift, who promptly threw together a caravan and left town.”
Pepo’s partner forced his jaw to remain shut, despite the stunning insight. Pepo was good, but he was never this good.
“Where the hell did you hear that?”
Pepo did not turn around. Instead he leaned forward and placed one hand on the fountain’s rim. With the other he lit one candle from another and offered a silent prayer to the Gods of Great Forks.
“On the vine.”