The noon sun beat upon his shoulders as Jasper stared at his companion, watching her sniff the ground before her. Every so often, he noticed a forked tongue flick from her barely open mouth. She had been doing this now for the better part of five minutes, and the lack of action and conversation was getting to him.
“Hey, you found anything yet, Mahi-Sura?” he asked, interrupting the silence. The only response she showed was to roll her eyes. Another minute passed. She put her lips to the ground in the middle of the path, stood, and licked them with her slender tongue. She then moved a few paces south-east. Sniff, flick, kiss, and lick. She rose again, nodded to herself, and licked the last of the dirt from her lips, her strange black tongue changing back to its more familiar shape and color.
“The outcaste is good,” she said after spitting to clear the road dust from her mouth. “Almost good enough.” She turned to face the south-east again, though before she had the opportunity to speak she heard Jasper’s response.
“What are you trying to say, Oh Great Daughter of Luna? That a mighty Lunar is having a difficult time tracking a measly Terrestrial?” he spoke in a tone of mock-astonishment. His face was even more comical, eyes wide and mouth gaping. He just barely managed to dodge to the side enough to still get pegged with the stone she threw at him.
They both laughed as he rubbed his cheek. After their humor had passed, she pointed to the south-east, off the path. The trees here weren’t so dense that the beasts Dellano had rented couldn’t pass, though it would definitely hinder their progress. Jasper started to cheer up, a thought arising in his mind that would take quite a lot to quash. Yesterday may have been the day, all right, but today, today was definitely The Day!
Mahi-Sura started to walk to the edge of the road. Before crossing the line that separated it from the wilderness beyond, she told Jasper exactly the words he wanted to hear. “Dellano passed this way no more than four hours ago. His skills with hiding his trail are good, but he also forgot to hide when he moved off the path. If we move quickly enough, we can probably catch him by nightfall.”
Jasper let the tiniest amount of essence slide through his mind as he gazed briefly at the sun. “So that gives us eight and a quarter hours then,” he told her, knowing that his sense of time was perfect. Without waiting for approval, he started to lead his horse into the brush when Mahi-Sura stopped him.
“We can’t take the hose through here. She might be fine for a little while, but if the ground gets any worse,“ she gestured to the roots littering the ground around the trees here, “then she’ll have a real problem.”
“You’re right,” he confirmed, “the poor thing is likely to throw a shoe or catch a leg on one a root. It’s a shame, too, she seems a good horse, and I paid good silver for her just this morning.” Jasper might not be very good at surviving for long on his own, but he did know horses. He cheered himself up with a thought that always sat well with him and a memory from the previous day, “Well, it’s only money, and it grows on vines.”
Mahi-Sura raised an eyebrow. “What’s that now?” she said, a befuddled expressions crossing her face for an instant.
He laughed at her confusion at his inside joke. “Never mind, Mahi-Sura. Let’s just let the beast go and be on our way. She’ll probably find her way back to Great Forks without too much trouble.” He dismounted and began to empty the packs and remove the saddle and bridle from the horse. Mahi-Sura came up to him and helped by taking some of their supplies, shifting them to her pack and satchel.
“Are you sure we should just send the beast back, Jasper? We can take it with us, in a manner of speaking.” Jasper shuddered at this. Of all the oddities about Mahi-Sura, and of her entire kind, based upon what she had told him, the way they acquired the various shapes they could take bothered him the most.
She noticed his brief shaking and laughed. “Still squeamish, Jasper? I though you’d have moved past that. Fine, I see you don’t wish any harm to the animal anyway. Let's get moving, then. Dellano’s team has quite a head start.”
Slinging his pack over one shoulder and his spear over the other, he nodded, following her through the forest at a speed that would make most journeymen jealous.
Nightfall caught up with them just as the tracks from Dellano’s group began to show on the ground again. Whatever concealment methods the man had used had either worn off, or he had simply stopped using them. The path they followed had led first east, then to the southeast for a few miles. After another scouting and investigation period, the path they followed turned almost due west, as though they had traveled for the better part of the day in the wrong direction. Jasper couldn’t tell the reason, though it hardly mattered to him. He just wanted to catch up with the small caravan.
“Why do you think they’re headed back west, Mahi-Sura?” he asked her as she unrolled her sleeping bag. “And what in the Malfeans do you think you’re doing?” he nearly shouted, but caught himself just in time, calming the tone of his voice to attract less attention, if anyone should happen to be listning.
She sighed, shook her head, and laid herself on top of the bag before answering him. “I thought you were bright enough to realize when someone is setting up camp,” she said calmly, he kohl-lined eyes shut.
He dropped his things in a fluster. “We can’t stop now! Dellano can’t be far away. We need to catch him!”
She sighed, and sat up, leaning her elbows on the ground. “And we will, but we need to get some rest first. Dellano is still going to be out there in the morning, and I guarantee that he’ll welcome our intrusion more in the light of day than in a nighttime ambush. Get some sleep, Jasper.”
He knew she was right even before she was finished. Frustrated, he sat down and began to unroll his own sleeping bag. Fine, if she wants to wait until tomorrow, then we’ll wait. Anyway, he still had to think a plan through to get what he wanted from Dellano. Jasper had a few ideas, though none seemed concrete enough to work on a man as stubborn as Dellano always seemed to be. Anyway, there was going to be plenty of time in the morning, so Jasper let himself leave the planning for then.
He is here again, at the Ziggurat. It is a rare kind of day, this day, and he feels joy that it has come. It is the last day of the beginning of the new year, and as he looks to the sky he can just manage to see the moon falling into place before the light of the Unconquered Sun himself.
It was a rare thing to see an Eclipse, and felt special. Each of his brethren, his friends, family, and lover, was given the sight of the times that they were blessed with. But today, even though his allies shared in its glory, today is The Day, today is his day.
His lover stands next to him, her arms wrapped tightly around one of his. As he stares to the ever darkening orb of light, she stretches up and kisses his shoulder, neck, and cheek, her silken veil sliding easily over his skin. The veil is a nice change. Her scarves, though soft, often made it hard to see the profile of her face, and it is a lovely profile.
He looks down, into her eyes. In them he sees both the reflection of the coming event and his own caste mark glowing. He can feel the power of each the sun itself and his own anima flowing, both into and out of him, causing the mark to glow with fervor equal to the crescent of light that escaped from each side of the moon in the sky above.
Looking behind him, he sees his brothers and his other sister, each conceding the day to him, a rare event in and of itself. Though it was his right to, there was little that could make him turn his lover away from his side.
He resists looking up again, instead laying a gentile kiss on the veil over Allandra’s lips. He stays that way until the light around him fades, up until the light of the sun begins to wane. As much as he liked gazing into the eyes of his lover, he would not abandon his patron.
Swiftly tilting his head, he stares directly at the veiled sun, and cries his love for all the world that rested in that righteous shadow. “Glory to the Unconquered Sun!”
He listens to his Circle mates repeat his praise. He feels the power that has been granted to him flow, building behind the mark he bore, and finally feeling it rip from his body in the most beautiful, sweet rush of serenity. The visage of a sun shrouded by a lotus blossom erupts from all around him as his full Anima Banner reveals itself to the sky above. He smiles.
Today everything is good. Today everything is how it should be. Today, this day. The Day.
Jasper sat up abruptly. The morning was just beginning, and he felt as awake as he ever had. The dream that had visited him the previous night stuck out in his mind, and he fought to remember each detail. Of all that had happened while he slept, he could hold onto the only name that had arisen. Allandra, one of the most beautiful names he had ever heard. Shaking himself free from the lingering effect of sleep, he rose to see Mahi-Sura standing, looking to the west. No sense in wasting the day over a very, very pleasant dream, he thought.
“Good morning, late sleeper,” she said without turning. Her gear was packed, and her spear was in hand, “We got closer to Dellano’s crew than we though. They’re only a few miles off and they’re still sleeping. It looks like Dellano himself has been up all night, and it doesn’t look like he’s tired. No doubt he’s using a Terrestrial Charm of some sort.”
He stood, stretching the mild stiffness from his limbs. Sleeping on the ground always seemed to make him stiff. “Took the liberty of scouting, I see.” He gathered his things and picked up his own spear, setting the butt on the ground and leaning against the shaft. “Well, let's get moving,” he said as he pulled a chink of jerky from one of the pouches in his travel bag.
They trekked off, mostly in silence for the first few minutes. Once Jasper had finished with his meager breakfast, Mahi-Sura brought up the topic that he really didn’t want to hear. “So what do you plan to do when we find Dellano and his men?”
Shaking his head, “Not quite sure yet. What do you think?” he asked plainly.
“Not this time, Jasper. These are your dreams we're chasing. You get to make the decisions. I’m just here as support.”
He laughed, noticing her sincere lack of initiative. “Well, I have an idea, but I’m not sure you’re going to like it.”
Her eyebrow lifted, making the kohl lining on her eye seem that much thicker.
“Dimmit, the hell do I pay you lot for? Hup’ho all, it’s time to be off!” Dellano stormed around the makeshift camp his men had set up. A little weariness in his eyes was the only down side to skipping sleep for the night. A yawn almost slipped past his lips, “Damn mortals. If this gear wasn’t so important…”
He channeled a bit of the Essence stored within himself through his muscles and head. The mild drowsiness subsided immediately, and he felt as though he could go a full day longer without either sleep or the use of his powers again. “Pretend there are rats on your heels, men! I want to be moving ten minutes ago!” he shouted with a snarl, his beaded hair and beard swinging around his head.
One of the mortals traveling with him approached him, and whispered something into his ear. Dellano nodded, and grabbed the reins of the lead ox, pulling hard enough not just to pull the beasts head up from the foliage it was eating, but to cause the poor creature to take a hasty stumbling step. Two of the other humans in the group grabbed the reins of the other two beast of burden and coaxed them to move in a similar, if not so extreme, manner.
Meanwhile, Jasper and Mahi-Sura watched from a niche in a rather large bush. “What do you think, Mahi, five men and Dellano himself?”
“If you’re thinking of fighting him, you shouldn’t worry. I’m sure he’s good, but no Dragonling under two centuries should be able to take either of us. His men are nothing, I could drop them all in the first seconds. Dellano would be backed into a corner pretty…” She was cut off as the sound of a wounded ox came through the bushes.
"Careful, men! Oxen don't scream for no reason!" Dellano warned, his voice filled with skepticism. Dellano’s men panicked, letting go of the reigns and drawing weapons, preparing the best they could to face the worst that could come.
“The hell is happening out there, Mahi? I can’t see!” His words became meaningless to her as a faint laughter, sounding as that of young children at play, began to waft in from the woods around.
One of the men jerked, dropping his weapon in the process, his eyes shining and his mouth gaping wide in a smile of pure delight. “It’s them!” he cried, tears streaming down his face. “The lovely ones! They have come to take us to their palace of joy!”
Dellano screamed at the man, though he knew it was too late to save him. Mortals fell all too easily into the thrall of the Fair Folk, and Dellano knew that he would become a liability. “I’m not about to have this happen here!” he shouted, pulling back a fist. “Sorry, Greenbrow, you’ll thank me in the next life for this!” His hand flew forward, striking the glamour controlled man in the neck. A sickly crunching noise followed, and the body fell to the ground, limp and lifeless.
“That’s enough. Stay back, Wyldlings. You have no business with us here. Let us on our way and you shall not pay the price.” Dellano sounded as serious as Jasper had ever heard him. He did not shout, nor did his voice sound harsh in any way. He merely spoke in a voice filled with such certainty that even Jasper, who was fairly sure he was well hidden, felt intimidated.
After a moment the laughter stopped, and from the forest, like a gentle mist rolling, came a singular figure, tall, white of skin and gold of hair. The creature looked beautiful to Jasper in a way that no mortal ever could. The creature's face seemed as though it was male, though its body was shaped like that of a young woman.
“I thought not, Prince of the Earth. We had come for the things you carried and the men you traveled amongst. You gave them all to us and we let you go with your beasts.” Though it spoke, the even smile the thing wore never changed. Its mouth definitely opened, though the lips did not move.
Mahi-Sura poked Jasper in the ribs, shaking him out of a mild daze. “Jasper,” she whispered, “they know we are here. I’m not sure why the thing seems to be ignoring us though.”
“Are you sure? It hasn’t so much as looked our way.”
“How could they not? They’re all around this place. At least a dozen of them,” she replied, her eyes narrow, searching through the trees.
He looked around for a moment, but could see nothing. Slowly, he responded, “Let’s just see how Dellano plays this out. If we need to, we can step in and help.” She nodded her consent.
The Noble looked down at the dead man, lying next to one of the oxen, his sword laying at his side. “You had already taken from us one that we had already claimed as ours, Prince. We were generous, though; we had not held it against you. That is why we did not take you as well.”
“You speak as though things have already laid themselves out, Wyldling. I’m sure you should re-evaluate the situation.”
The beautiful creature laughed again, and as it spoke, its expression turned from beautiful to twisted and horrid, anger and malice coming with the words, almost tangible enough to feel on the skin. “Stupid Dragon-Blood! One may speak past when the future is certain. You have one more chance to relinquish what you have. We shall even be kind enough to spare the two that hid in the bushes.”
Dellano looked around, counting heads. Confusion showed in his eyes, though the rest of his features betrayed nothing.
Mahi-Sura looked Jasper in the face. “Now?” she suggested.
He nodded. “Yeah, now!”
Both of them leaped from their hiding place at the same time. Jasper came to rest as soon as he was free, his spear in hand, though not held up to fight. Mahi-Sura landed in a crouch, her own weapon held ready for the throw.
Dellano’s eyes flashed at them, and he shouted at them, his usual gruffness back in its fullest, “Damn you Nightingale! You should…”
“…have stayed hidden, even though they knew where we were,” Jasper finished, cutting him off and keeping Rift from revealing too much. “Yes, I know. They would have spared me then, but damn it all! I want the share you promised me for negotiating once we got to Nexus! That’s my only chance to make it big!”
Dellano had seemed to get the point, and had shut his mouth, though his glaring eyes still felt as though they were drilling into Jasper's mind. He shook the feeling off, and turned his head to face the Fair Folk Noble who had nearly been forgotten in the last few chaotic seconds.
“Dear noble, I wish for nothing more than to barter with you. Let us work out a deal more suitable for all of us.” Jasper put on his very best smile. “To talk and to make a deal, that is all we wish.”
The Noble’s face changed back to what it had previously looked like, a masculine face that any woman would desire. “We listen, mortal, so long as it is fun.” The smile came back to the creature’s face.
Jasper nodded, and walked closer to the Fair Folk. “You have already expressed your desire for everything here, save the oxen, Dellano, my companion and myself. This is too much, though we are prepared to give you more than we would like to part with.”
The creature on the other end of the bargain began to pace back and forth for a bit. When it came to rest, this time mere inches from Jasper, it spoke again. “What is to stop us from killing you all, or at least the Dragon, and taking everything? This idea appeals to us. We could take the other mortals and you two, and then live with fat guts for some time.”
Mahi-Sura set her spear butt down, sensing a bit of what Jasper had planned up. “Careful, Jasper, the Folk are good at their dealings.”
Jasper beckoned Dellano to come closer. He turned to face the man, keeping his face out of sight of the Fair Folk Noble. He managed to sneak a quick wink at Rift, hoping that he got the message to trust him. “Well, how about we go with something else,” Jasper told the Noble as he turned to face the creature again. “We, Dellano and I, will agree to give you all you have claimed earlier. The only stipulation that we request in addition to our lives is a promise that you will not follow us or seek us out again.”
Dellano shouted protest, “The hell are you doing, Jasper! You can’t…”
“Dellano, shut up! Unless you see another way out of this that will work out better, just keep quiet and agree.” Jasper turned back to the creature they were dealing with. “Now, do we have a deal? You get all that you have claimed, Dellano pays me what I want when this is over, and the survivors go on in their own way, you go yours, and leave us be?”
The creature’s eyes narrowed. He looked to be sizing Jasper up for a moment, and then answered. “We are in agreement. We find that dealing is far more fun than taking, in any matter. You have our word that it shall be as agreed”
Jasper looked at Dellano. Though this part wasn’t strictly necessary at this point, he hoped with all his might that Dellano would go along with the deal. “Dellano?” he asked, extending a hand out to be clasped by both Dellano and the noble.
After a moment, each of Jasper’s targets reached out and placed their hands on his. Dellano answered him then, “I will agree and do as I must. The dealers here leave me with little choice.”
“Yes! I win!” Jasper shouted, letting the essence he had been preparing go. The torrent flew around each of the three participants in a whirlwind of golden light. None of the participants could move their hands as the soaring Essence circled around each of them. As soon as the display had begun, it ended.
Jasper let go of the other two and started to dance around. He jumped and clapped and shouted his happiness for all to hear. The noble and Dellano both merely stared at him, eyes wide, gaping at the disc ringed by a golden halo showing on his forehead.
“I don’t know why you laugh, Solar of the Eclipse. You have merely sealed a deal that was in our favor.” The thing’s face contorted again, showing this time the creature’s greed. “Now,” the thing sneered, “give us what is ours.” Laughter came from the rest of the woods, the same childlike giggling.
Jasper smiled, and nodded. “Yes, yes, of course.” He walked away for a moment, and with a little effort, lifted the body of the dead man, and lugged it over to the Noble. “Here you are, sir, all that you have claimed.”
Dellano looked shocked. As he should, thought Jasper, he just saw someone he knew use the power of the Anathema.
The beast reared back, claws growing from it’s delicate fingers. “Damn you, Solar! We’ll kill you all!” The thing nearly launched itself at Jasper.
“Careful! You know what will happen if you don’t let us go. You agreed to that as well!”
The creature stopped in mid stride. Its form once more took the appearance that was less frightening, though no less imposing. “You…you have the best of me, Prince. We shall do as agreed.” It picked up the corpse lying in front of it, effortlessly with a single hand, and began to walk away. “You had better pray for you friend here. He may be dead, but he can still pay enough for all of you.”
Jasper kept his smile. “I will pray to the Unconquered Sun for him. Hopefully his soul will pass on in peace.”
Jasper looked over at Mahi-Sura. She smiled warmly at him. “Well done, Jasper. You have done well.”
Jasper was just walking back to clasp arms with her when a rumbling voice accompanied by slight tremors in the ground arose. “Nightingale Jasper, we have a lot to talk about."
“So you thought we were no more than a couple of God-Bloods?” Mahi-Sura stared through the fire at them.
It was still morning, though the day was beginning to warm. Dellano had managed to track down the three subordinates who had run off when they found the chance while Jasper kept the Noble’s attention. The fourth, the man that had whispered to Dellano, stayed behind, figuring that he was safer with a Dragon-Blood around than he was in a forest full of Fair Folk. Despite his reassurances, the men all seemed to be nervous.
He looked at the Lunar. Her silver scales were plain and open, as were her tattoos, now that she had decided to cease hiding her nature.
“Yes,” his gruff voice said. “There are many that can do little tricks with Essence in Great Forks. It is hard to tell if any may be Anathema in hiding or not.” He grabbed one of the sticks with roasting squirrels on it from the fire. Tearing a little chunk from it with his teeth, he began to chew.
“We prefer the terms Chosen of the Sun and Moon, respectively,” Jasper told him, his mild frustration with the man showing just a little. “And I would hope that we showed that we are not as evil as the Immaculate Order says we are.”
Dellano gave a single laugh, deep in tone, almost as if it were deprived of humor. “I don’t have any love for the Order myself. I was in it once, and I know that their methods and beliefs are faulty.” His eyes grew distant. “It is hard to believe that you are in the right when you are sent to kill a young girl, just because she has a mark on her head. She couldn’t have been more than fifteen years, yet they wanted me to…” He said the words as though he were recounting an old war scene. As though the memory made him speak the words. He shook his head to clear the past. “Though that is none of your concern.”
Mahi-Sura and Jasper looked at each other, wondering what to do. Jasper looked up at Dellano, and almost felt bad for the man. “There is something we still need to deal with, Dellano.”
Dellano nodded at the sound of his name. “That’s right, Jasper, I remember the words of the deal well enough. I owe you whatever you ask. If I had known what you were, there would have been no way that I would agree to such a bargain, but here we are, and I have heard enough tales of what will happen if I break my end. Name what you want.”
Jasper smiled, his whole body shaking with the though of what his success had brought him. “I want the spear, Dellano. It’s mine anyway, in a way.”
“Bah, fine, it’s yours…” He was interrupted. Jasper cut in just before Dellano could finish his sentence. “And,” he said, “I want you to take me to where you found it. And to where you found the rest of your current haul.”
Dellano looked at him, blinked once, and told him, “Fine. It’s done. You can have your spear, and I’ll show you the path to the place that I found my current stock.”
Jasper grinned, it seemed, from ear to ear. He ran his hands through his sandy hair as he darted to the ox that was carrying the long package he sought. Pulling the cords tying it to the beast, the whole thing dropped. He pulled the cloth from it, and stared for a moment at the beauty he saw. The golden tip shone at him without a speck of tarnish. The light that made it through the canopy of leaves above glinted off the blade like a ray through cloudy skies.
The mahogany shaft looked pristine, as though no sign of age or wear had seen it, even though he knew it to be ancient. Letters were etched into the entire length, in both starmetal and jade. Though he could not read Old Realm, the text flew into his mind in an instant.
Through silk and satin
Through life and loss
A wind pays homage
Here I emboss
Shining lights of dawning rays
Golden noon shall ever run
Ebon sky of night above
Copper shades of setting sun
The last to fill my open heart
The last to match my shielded light
Beauty seen each eve by man
A beauty shines through every night
The name flashed though his mind again, Allandra. Rubbing his hand first along his face, he crouched down, and reached with his free hand for the spear. He picked it up with a single hand. The thing felt exceedingly heavy for a single instant, then it lifted as though it weighed less than the spear he had brought with him.
Turning it over, he saw the word engraved on the spearhead. Once again, it was in Old Realm, but he still knew what the word meant. Judgment.
He turned his companions, and for the first time, they saw Nightingale Jasper cry.
In the dream, and he knows it is a dream, he cannot see his Circlemates near him. The hordes of creatures pouring from the tunnel ways are large, and almost as black as the night itself. He feels no surprise that he cannot see his companions. The creatures are large and strong, though he knows they are no match for Judgment’s edge. The weapon glows brighter after each beast it kills, taking a bit of their unholy energies and turning them against the next.
He hears a cry, a woman’s voice ringing out in the background, though this is no cry of pain or anguish. This is the cry Allandra uses when casting some of her spells. He is prepared, however, turning in time to spin his weapon fast enough to stop the obsidian shards from cutting him. His enemies, unarmed as they are, are no match for the obsidian death that chases them back into the mouth of the cave from which they came.
He quickly launches Judgment at the roof of the cave, throwing it with the might of the Unconquered Sun behind it, watching it crack and shatter the stone above the cave mouth. The stone crumbles, falling in large boulders and fine pebbles. He watches the collapse finish; the cave mouth is sealed behind many tons of rock. Judgment is nowhere to be seen, though his bond with the weapon lets him know it is merely buried. He lets a mote of energy pass through his hand and his soul, and the spear is back in his hand. No matter how far he throws it, it always finds its way back to him.
He is back in the Ziggurat. The night is upon him, and Allandra is back in his bed, sleeping off the battle. She spent much of her energy on her sorcery, and she needs the sleep to fully recover. He, however, is wide awake. How these creatures came to be, he cound not say. Through all of his fury, they showed no fear, each as mindless as the stone they were now trapped behind.
He told the miners that they were not to dig down that deep ever again, even at the cost of the jade deposits they had found there. They did not want to listen. With a little coersion, however, he made sure each would be too frightened to go anywhere near the cave again.
He knows that the creatures will find their way back up some day. The stone that sealed the mouth of that cave is no real obstacle, and the beasts will either claw their way out of it, or find a new way up.
Well, that’s what Justice is for. That's what his entire Circle is for.