Nightingale Jasper was sleeping, so he did not notice Mahi-Sura stir in her blankets; he did not see her walk to the fire and Dellano Rift beside it; he did not hear the words that they exchanged. Nightingale Jasper was sleeping, and in his sleep, he dreamed.
In the dream, night is falling swiftly over the flight of stairs ascending a ziggurat of dark stone. He drifts with Allandra through its gardens, sparring, spear clashing against spear. Essence outlines their movements, splashing cold night blossoms with red and silver light. A rain of lotus petals obscures his motion as Judgment strikes Allandra's spear from her hands. She stops. He stops. She speaks: "Beloved, that was a beautiful technique. You must teach it to me someday." She smiles.
"Someday, I will." He eyes her veil. "When you drop your veil to me, I will show you the most secret magics of ghosts and gods; I will tell you of promises and oaths to which only earth and sky were witness." He stands in tree branches, glorious, unopposed.
The spear is in her hand. It is a celebration of light. It reaches for him. The discussion is over; the battle has begun again.
A dark figure stands at the foot of dark stairs.
In the dream, vines hang from an alabaster balcony. He sits there, beside his dark-bearded brother. They drink and discuss. "I do not think that you should have sworn that oath, brother." His brother is not drinking as much as he seems to be.
"It was not my decision to make; the Ravens Alighting Hill is not to be trifled with, and it was threatening something truly worthy. Trust me, it has sworn more than it knows, and I have promised less than it believes." He lifts his goblet of wine to the brightening sky, salutes, and downs it all. The other man grunts.
Two dark figures beckon from the foot of dark stairs.
In the dream, a rainbow-haired maiden dances with an old man. Sunlight crowns them in lavender and gold. Beneath their feet, stars whirl beneath obsidian; Essence dancing with them, under the costly stone of the floor. He watches them, envies their unfettered joy. Allandra is not like that; she is full of wonder and beauty, but she nurses some secret darkness, and sorrow mars her splendor.
Four dark figures climb dark stairs.
He is torn apart; the dream unravels around him. Whirling darkness parts to give him a glimpse of the dark ziggurat, with five lights circling its beacon spire. He is the centre light, the lotus of fire enfolding the sun.
In another man's dream, swords whirled through the air, inscribing elegant mathematical curves. Other curves flew from their points, underscored in Essence: accelerations, velocities, patterns describing the canonical parries and counters, filling his vision with acid-green lace.
"Jasper, wake up." It was Mahi-Sura. "You'll sleep through breakfast."
"No I won't. Leave me alone."
"Jasper, what time is it?"
Jasper, despite himself, filled his eyes with power and looked into the sky. He sat up immediately. "Ashes! Why didn't you tell me it was so late! We have to be going!" He looked around. "Where's Rift?"
"Eat this. Dellano's getting water. The pheasant should be done soon." She handed him half of a melon, filled with deep green, juicy flesh. "Jasper, I know that the spear means a lot to you. Be careful." He bit into the melon by way of a reply.
"Now if you'll excuse me, I have my own hunting to do." Waves of scales enfolded her, like a lily opening in reverse. The black-and-silver python disappeared into the trees, and Jasper's skin crawled with the thought of it.
Dust and Iron knelt to tie his shoe. He had much to do, and he couldn't be caught doing any of it. He took a deep breath, steadying himself. Then he plunged his hand into a tree to pull out strands of viridian light. He tied the threads of Destiny into the emerald on his belt, and walked towards Great Forks, hoping that the cypress destiny would conceal him and his business. When the travellers' caravan drove by without so much as a second glance, he sighed with relief and went on his way.
Warden of Jade was growing impatient. His contact was late for the meeting, and this road had far too much traffic. Not a good sign. He absently braided strips of leather - his horse needed new reins - while he watched the passing of hours.
Finally, the trees shifted strangely, and Warden looked up from his work; branches shone too real, too green, before dissolving into a young man in green surcoat and dark robes. "You are the Warden of Jade?" The man held a large scroll; even rolled up, it was at least as long as his arm.
"I am." He pulled back the cuff of his sleeve to reveal a green jade hand, articulated with starmetal wires.
"Memory of Storms sends her greeting, and a message: beware the flower of lake and sky." Dust and Iron shifted his weight uncomfortably. He could feel it; this meeting was about to go wrong. The wind murmured in the trees. Essence hummed in his mind.
"You are the Dust and Iron Historian." The Warden stood and dusted himself off; sitting tended to get one dirty.
"I and no other." He brandished the scroll; green symbols spilled out in assent.
"I must apologize. You see, I am not who you think I am." Colorless fire limned the Warden's hands; with one strike, he broke Dust and Iron's name.
Soon they were all picking their way through the forest, following a trail that Dellano's party had marked several days before. It led eventually to an unassuming clearing ringed by trees dark with ivy, where Rift called a halt. "Jasper, this is where we found the spear."
"There isn't anything here."
"Yes, there is." Rift grasped a branch of the tree he was leaning on, and twisted it. The ivy on the trees curled away from their sides, revealing a ring of doors. "Tombs of the ancient Anathema, every one of them. There are necropoli like this scattered all over the countryside, most better-hidden than this."
Mahi-Sura quirked an eyebrow at him.
"Did I say Anathema again? Sorry, Exalted."
"Which one had the spear?" Jasper was examining the doors. Each had a short inscription in Old Realm, and a few had stylized, carven Caste marks. None of the markings held any meaning for him. He pried at one of the doors, to no avail.
Dellano was holding a live bird which he had caught earlier in the day. He cut its throat and allowed its blood to flow into the carvings of a door inscribed with the constellation of the Mask. The door creaked and groaned, and he threw the bird into the woods. "Come inside with me." Grasping the carvings, he slid the door aside, revealing a glass-windowed hallway looking out onto snowy fields; at its end stood a second door. Jasper stopped to wonder, but then Mahi-Sura pushed him impatiently and he hurried forward to the end of the hall. The three Exalted entered the room at the end of it - a roofless circular chamber with five segmented windows, each depicting five constellations of the night sky. The floor was icy and treacherous, and weapons fallen from racks on the walls gleamed dangerously beneath layers of snow. "It's a lot of work chipping the weapons out of the ice here, and it gets cold and uncomfortable fast, so we take it slow. This is only the second tome we have been able to open... the others..." Dellano caught himself.
In the center of the room was a featureless black cube a bit taller than a man. Jasper rapped on it with his knuckles. "What's this?"
"It's probably the tomb itself. I'm surprised that we're seemingly the first to rob this place - there were almost no traps, and it's completely littered with treasures. Look at this!" He lifted a handful of snow and held it for a moment in his hand to melt the ice away. Three white jade coins were revealed, each graven with a different image. One of them began to glow in the Dragonblood's hand, and he dropped them in surprise.
"This is the tomb of an assassin or a swordsmith," Mahi-Sura observed. "Look at this kindjal; it is the finest of its kind I have ever seen." The little dagger's surface rippled in shades of silvery-green, and towards its edges, it flickered with more subtle and arcane lights. She weighted it in her hand for a moment, then tossed it casually at a wall. It stuck there as if it had been thrown with profound force. "Very nice, Dellano Rift."
The two men nodded agreement; then Jasper's expression changed. "Well, this isn't my tomb, that's for certain. And I made that spear. This is the tomb of the monster that killed me." He yelled down the hallway, "Bring a ladder!"
"Jasper, what are you doing?"
"I'm going to look upon the face that killed me."
Dellano's men dragged in a ladder soon enough, and Jasper climbed up to the top of the stone cube. "There's something written here!" He brushed off the snow with his sleeve, to reveal more carvings in the tongue of men long dead. Somehow, he knew: it was a declaration, and what followed was a list of names, a list of killings. He couldn't read them, but from one word, meaning flew unbidden, unwanted, into his mind: Judgement.
He turned his face away in disgust, then forced himself to look again, to perhaps find a way to open the tomb. Rift and Mahi-Sura had climbed up by this time, and he sat down on a dry corner to allow them room to examine. "Well now, this is quite the find. Dellano, you should have spoken to me at once."
"What are you talking about, Mahi?"
"Do you know anyone else who can read the ancient language of the Realm? I, the Chronicler of Thunders, have rendered judgement upon all these, as Heaven commands me and the Maiden employs me... I do not think this is a tomb, Dellano, and I think someone other than us has used it very recently."
"Look at the windows; they are clean of dust and ice; the weapons are unrusted and arranged."
"Any fledgeling sorcerer could make that so, for a thousand years of forgetting."
"Feel the place with your body of light. Essence does not maintain this place."
"Then we'd better be getting out, quick."
Dirt and Iron resumed his journey, upset. No one else had been so rude to him. Who did this Warden of Jade think he was?
The temple district was a hopeless tangle of streets, interrupted by shrines great and small. Dirt and Iron swore, then remembered: he had a serpentine path. Taking the stone python from his pocket, he gazed into its eyes until they opened, shining with brassy light. He whispered a name to it, then dropped it onto the dirt; it burrowed down, and serpentine tiles began to appear at the Sidereal's feet. He followed the path to Khentkheti's doorstep.
Khentkheti of Leaves had an imposing temple, of costly alabaster dyed soft green. It was the shape of a papyrus grove; the drooping outer leaves covered winding corridors interrupted by slender, light-carrying stems. In the center was a clearing, a pool, and a god.
It was unusual for the papyrus god to be in residence here, but Dirt and Iron was unsurprised. He was always unsurprised. Khentkheti, the great wicker crocodile, lolled in his water; fruit and flower offerings rolled about in his fretted belly.
"Dust an-" Khentkheti began.
"-Dirt and Iron, at your service, Wise Khentkheti," he interrupted.
"What happened to you? You look like someone left you out in the rain."
"The Warden of Jade has betrayed us."
"And he broke your name and your spirit! Hohoho, that is delicious. And what a name you reassembled! Dirt and Iron, you are like a mine! Tell me, what gems can I unearth from your heart?"
"Only those that the Chronicler has first exposed, O holy Khentkheti."
"And what might those be?"
"She only says this: 'beware the flower of lake and sky.' I do not know what it means; that gem you must cut and polish yourself."
"It is not your place to speak to a god thus, O forbidding leaf of the ivy-covered manse."
"I apologize. The Chronicler sent me here to speak with you; what would she have you say?"
"The mountain of jade and the black river are your first concern."
Dirt and Iron nodded, dropped a handful of tiger lilies (coated with gold dust, of course) into the pool, and went on his way.
Weighted down with a fresh load of treasures, the three returned to Great Forks and the Scavenger's Rise. Jasper and Mahi-Sura lagged behind the group, discussing. "So, what are we going to do now?" asked Jasper.
"I left a clue inside the cache," Mahi-Sura replied. "Our assassin will follow us and find us, and we will speak with him."
"We will what?""
"We will lay our trap and wait."
"This 'Chronicler of Thunders' has an impressive list of victims. I think I recognized some of those names." Jasper made a face. "I think some of those names sounded familiar."
"Of course they did. Who has not heard of Seven Hymns Princess or Jubilant Willow? Heroes of the Golden Age of Exalted and men."
"What are you getting at?"
"For a person to have killed such titans and lived to this day, that person would have to be an immortal or a god, or live on and remember himself through tens of incarnations! It is ridiculous." Mahi-Sura seemed sure of her conclusion.
"Or a very, very bad sign."
"Nevertheless, we will be prepared. Once we and Rift have parted ways, you can come to my shop and I will show you what I have planned."