Please, don't cry if you hate the changes! Nothing is gone for good!
I still have the old versions of these stories, but I am uploading the second drafts with formatting and grammar corrections. I am not sure if all of the changes improve the story or not. I like some parts of this story much better now, so I hope you will too.
My reason for updating these old stories is in response to comments and criticism. Also, I have been writing lots of subsequent stories and want to keep the continuity as clean as possible from beginning to end. I really do appreciate critiques and I am sorry about inconsistency with American and British spelling. I am working on using only American spelling.
Thanks for reading, and I PROMISE I will finish Heaven Sent Sword! (It has turned into such a pain to write, but it should get a nice epic ending with Sidereal, Dragonblood, and mortal heroes instead of Solars). I am not going to lie, I usually like the Solars better. ^_^
- Emerald Viper
Chapter 1 – Master Ilumio
I was lying on the ground underneath a hay wagon in an undignified position when I first caught sight of The Scarlet Legion. Rumors traveled like wildfire across the countryside, so I was not precisely surprised to see a large number of Imperial soldiers. I stared at them anyway. It had been five years since I'd last witnessed Scarlets in action and I'd almost forgotten how impressive they always looked. It was as if they were about to fearlessly charge an army of demons at any moment, even when they were only climbing a little hill.
Barely wide enough for a cart, the old mountain road that the soldiers traveled led from the Imperial City all the way to the Abbey of Mela. Of the many bastions of the Immaculate Order, the Abbey of Mela is the most remote, located atop the single highest point of the Blessed Isle... or at least the highest point that anyone has ever managed to build something on. Word had it that Dragonlord Cathak Chiron and his Scarlets were bringing an important gift for Abbot Manu. Curious by nature, I'd volunteered my services in the nearby village of Smoke for the past three days, hoping to see the great Dragonlord whom some swore would soon take the throne.
I scrambled to my feet as The Scarlets approached and bowed appropriately when they stopped. I knew immediately which one of them was Dragonlord Chiron, although I had never actually met him. He was a middle-aged Fire-Aspect whose exceptional poise made it very obvious that he was always on important business.
Riding at the Dragonlord's left was an ugly bureaucrat with a round face and a long hooked nose. He wore a tiny pair of dark glasses and the simple black robes of a middle-level government official. I thought I recognized him, and so I bowed very low, hoping he had not gotten a good look at my face. In the past, I'd had more than a little trouble with the law, and although I could no longer be prosecuted for my "crimes", I was not in a hurry to be slandered and abused again.
"You, monk! How far is it to The Abbey of Mela? I used to know the distance, but I've not been there in many years." Dragonlord Chiron addressed me with some annoyance in his voice. I brushed the road dirt from my clothes and attempted to compose myself.
That was when I noticed one of my ratchets had fallen out of my tool chest and was picking up momentum rolling down the hill. I stopped it with my foot, bounced it up into the air, and caught it behind my back. It was no great feat, just a simple mathematical calculation and an efficient application of martial arts training... but from the startled expression on Dragonlord Chiron's face, I gathered that what I had just done looked quite impossible.
"You're very near, Dragonlord." I admitted, pretending I had done nothing clever at all. "In fact, you will see it when you clear the top of this hill, milord."
There was a lot of whispering going on. More than a few of the Dragonlord's soldiers were apparently impressed by my little trick. The ugly bureaucrat laughed, and Dragonlord Chiron turned to him with a frown. "Something funny, Iron Lotus?"
"Did you see how he saved his little tool? Milord, this must be the monk that all the peasants were talking about! The one who can fix anything?" Iron Lotus replied, fanning himself. He seemed to do that incessantly and it was an annoying habit. He adjusted his sunglasses and yawned, looking a bit like a lazy opium addict or a highly paid whore. The longer I stared at Iron Lotus, the more I became convinced that he and I had met before... and under circumstances that I did not wish to repeat.
"Is he now?" Dragonlord Chiron evaluated me with a suspicious glare. "What is your name, monk?"
"The peasants call me Recluse, Dragonlord. After the spider." I replied. Truthfully, I didn't mind my nickname. If anything, I wore it as a badge of pride. It had been very difficult to win the trust of the mountain clans, particularly since I've never been very good with words. Fortunately, one thing the locals did seem to appreciate a steady hand and a good knowledge of engineering. My little projects all over the highlands had done wonders for The Abbey of Mela's reputation. Daimyos who'd never done anything but rob monks in the past were expressing a genuine interest in Immaculate Philosophy, particularly if adopting it would get them better bridges and more effective weapons. Though I was generally opposed to violence myself, I was not too naïve to realize why the local warlords all liked my marble-shooting toys.
"Recluse? But that's not your given name, surely?" Dragonlord Chiron observed. "You're too pale to be one of these highland barbarians and your High Realm is very good. The best I've heard in this provincial backwater."
"My parents were merchants in the Imperial City, Dragonlord. I had an excellent education." I admitted truthfully. "But I am only a humble monk."
"Ahah! I knew I recognized you! You're Veritas Ilumio!" Iron Lotus exclaimed.
My face burned and I gritted my teeth as he called me out. Once I would have acknowledged my extremely flamboyant given name with pride... but it had been five years since I was publicly disgraced and I truthfully desired to put the past behind me. Remembering the life I'd once lead was far too painful.
"Dragonlord, this monk was once the premier jeweler of The Imperial City!" Iron Lotus continued. "Everything he touched was absolutely exquisite! I seem to remember that commanded exorbitant prices for his work... not that I imagine he did much of it himself, not with a dozen servants in that villa of his. He lived like a Dynast!"
I wanted to protest, but I knew that it would be futile to do so. My trial had degenerated into a public circus and the few people who even remembered my name associated it with cheating. Even after five years, nothing stung more harshly than the accusation that I'd exploited the talents of others. Like any artist, I had been attached to my work. I'd never copied, and the thought of stealing something outright was even more inconceivable to me.
"Reduced to fixing wagons, are we? I suppose you have finally learned that nothing but misfortune awaits those who do not respect their true place in the Perfected Hierarchy!" Iron Lotus laughed.
It was impossible for me not to scowl at him. There was something in the way that he seized hold of my past, tore it up and threw it out for everyone to see that made me want to strangle him with incredible passion. Worse still, he didn't appear to be a Dragonblood... which meant most likely that he was what I had once been, simply a skilled mortal servant of very high standing. How could he say such things to me, if he were a mere mortal himself? Didn't he know how precarious his own position was?
"So you are the infamous tinker whom my dear friend Manu put his neck out for?" Dragonlord Chiron observed. "I had a very different picture of you in my mind."
"Oh, he was once an extravagant dresser!" Iron Lotus explained. "All those blues and golds, like some kind of exotic bird! And he had the most remarkable pocket watch! Such a genius he thought he was! Certain ignorant folks were in the habit of treating him as they would an Exalt. And this depraved little monkey allowed it! Encouraged it, even!"
"I did no such thing!" I protested, speaking out of turn.
"Iron Lotus, that's enough! Before you lecture others on their place, you would do well to consider your own!" Dragonlord Chiron scolded, slapping Lotus roughly on the back of the head.
"But of course, milord. You'll not hear another peep out of me!" Iron Lotus coughed and bowed his head slightly, adjusting his sunglasses that he had very nearly lost. That was when I recognized him. Of course, the last time I'd actually seen the man, he'd had shorter hair and a mustache... and had gone by the name "Quick-Clawed Raven". Prior to that, he'd come to see me at my home, dressed like a Sijanese exorcist with a fine necklace that he wanted me to repair. He'd introduced himself as "Himitsu" and promised me an exorbitant reward for what seemed a trifling task. And of course, it was that damned necklace which had lead to my expulsion from the Imperial City and my former profession.
Whoever he was, he was very good. He'd looked like a completely different person each time our paths had crossed before. Perhaps I never would have caught him at all, but his eyes were singularly unforgettable. They were still so a dark a purple as to appear almost black, and flecked with bits of silver that reminded me of stars in the night sky. When someone thoroughly ruins your life, you take great pains to remember what that person looks like. I'd drawn a sketch of him on the wall while I was in prison and pitched rocks at it to pass the time.
Gritting my teeth, I walked directly up to Himitsu and punched him squarely in the face. In his moment of surprise, I seized him by his belt and threw him off of his horse. Had he been a Dragonblood, I would have certainly been killed for such a rash action, but with him a mortal servant and myself a just slightly Enlightened monk... we stood on fairly equal footing. If anything, I held a slight physical advantage, having spent the better part of the last five years studying martial arts intensively.
"What is the meaning of this?" Dragonlord Chiron demanded.
"Why don't you explain, Iron Lotus? Or should I say... Himitsu?" I demanded. Himitsu blanched at the sound of that name and stumbled away from me, his eyes sparking with fury behind his stupid little sunglasses. I was proud to see that I'd bent them beyond repair.
"Monk, that's enough!" Dragonlord Chiron scolded me as though I were a child, which I had gathered was his preferred manner of talking to anyone who was not a Dragonblood.
"Dragonlord, that servant of yours is a villain! He's the reason I'm here, reliant on the charity of Abbot Manu!" I explained, taking care not to speak poorly of my benefactor. "He framed me for theft and almost caused me to lose my hands!"
"Nonsense! Iron Lotus has served me faithfully for..." Dragonlord Chiron paused. "That's odd. I... can't remember when I hired him." The expression on his face soured immediately as he realized that he might have been deceived himself.
"Dragonlord, he's not who you think! He has some sort of foul power that makes him seem familiar, even to strangers! Yes, his name might be Iron Lotus and he may be your servant, but it is just as likely that he is Quick-Clawed Raven working for House Ledaal or an exorcist called Himitsu from Sijan." I finished. "If you would heed the advice of this humble monk, I would not trust him at all."
An expression that was part shock and part fury washed over the Dragonlord's face as he turned very slowly to face his retainer. "Who are you? What have you done to me?" Dragonlord Chiron snarled. It was obvious that he'd tested my words with a Charm and found them to be true. Of course, it is very foolish to attempt to deceive a Dragonblood. The Essence that they possess, the divine energy which sets them apart from mere mortals and grants them their tremendous power and long lives also gives them ways of discerning if they are being lied to.
Some of the Scarlets immediately went for their swords. For a moment I was certain that Himitsu had reached the end of his rope, and that gave me tremendous, smug satisfaction. But then everyone froze. They hesitated for some reason.
I felt a twitch in the air myself. What had just happened?
"Oh, Paradox!" Himitsu cursed, probably the most unusual oath that I'd ever heard uttered before.
Fast as lighting, he bolted for the trees. The Scarlets who were mounted galloped after him, but I had a sneaking suspicion they wouldn't be able to catch him. Though I still had a burning desire to beat him to death myself, I didn't dare run off, not with the watchful eye of Abbot Manu suddenly upon me.
My years of training as a monk had made me particularly sensitive to the presence of my master, who liked to view my work. He had a strong interest in seeing how things went together and came apart but not much dexterity when it came to tiny or delicate things. If he hadn't taken the path of a monk, I suspected he would have liked to have been a tinker of some sort, of course, too lowly of a profession for any Exalted Prince of the Earth.
Abbot Manu had obviously come out to see what the commotion was out on the road and must have arrived right when I'd thrown Himitsu from his horse. He looked extraordinarily displeased. As a rule, the old Air-Aspect was as even-tempered as Dragonbloods ever were, but he was particularly sensitive about his mortal monks behaving offensively in the presence of their Enlightened superiors. More importantly, I did still owe him the use of my hands.
But that didn't matter. If I knew one thing with certainty, it was that Himitsu was already long gone. Clearly, his greatest power lay in his ability to disappear! At very least, no one had been able to find him on the day of my trial. For the life of me, I did not understand what the scoundrel was doing! He'd already ended my career and almost ended my life! What more did he want from me?
I had a sinking suspicion that I would soon find out.
I said nothing as Abbot Manu embraced Dragonlord Chiron. The Scarlets proceeded up the Abbey where they would all spend the next several days refreshing their fighting spirit. A few of their number still combed the forest looking for Himitsu, but the rest rode on quietly as their leader instructed them to, not defiling the sanctity of the monastery with cursing, shouting, or too loud laughter. They were magnificent, the most disciplined soldiers in Creation.
Himitsu was only one man, and he had no weapons or provisions. Everyone seemed confident that he would not survive long once all the local daimyos were alerted to his presence. Dragonlord Chiron seemed certain that he would be caught before sundown. Abbot Manu nevertheless sent out messengers to the closest two warlords, Lord Okafune of Smoke and Lady Tsubushima of the Snow Owl Clan, warning them that there could be a traitor to the Realm in their midst. Though Abbot Manu did not say as much, I suspected that he also sent along a bit of jade to speed along the search.
After the proper letters were written and some of my brother monks sent out to deliver them, most everyone gathered in the main hall for our evening meal. Only Dragonlord Chiron, his two bodyguards and Abbot Manu lingered in the courtyard, sitting by the well and discussing something that seemed very serious. I'd been scrubbing the floor as slowly and carefully as possible, wanting to hear as much as I could of their conversation. Even after the bell for services rang, I continued to work.
"Recluse?" Abbot Manu summoned me.
I put aside my scrub brush and stood. "Yes, Abbot Manu? Should I go now?"
"No. But come closer. I don't want to raise my voice." He replied.
I did as I was told and stared in confusion as Dragonlord Chiron's bodyguards brought forward a black lacquered chest, beautifully detailed in gold. Abbot Manu's mysterious gift. Of course! "That is very fine lacquer. A lovely gift for our noble Abbot." I said. I did not bother to explain that I was an authority on such things. It was obvious that Dragonlord Chiron already knew.
"Sit down." Dragonlord Chiron ordered. "The rumors are somewhat misleading, I fear. What I have brought here is no gift for Abbot Manu. It is a terrible treasure that I have unearthed and it is for your eyes only."
"You brought it here for me?" I blinked in surprised.
"Yes, monk Recluse. Or should I say... Master Ilumio?" Dragonlord Chiron smiled slightly.
I said nothing in response. It was thoroughly inappropriate for anyone, even a Dragonlord, to ask a monk to reconsider the life that he had forsworn with his vows. The strange thing was, Abbot Manu did not seem displeased. If anything, the little spark in his eyes seemed to suggest that he was proud to show off the human curiosity he'd collected five years ago.
"I saw the wedding bands that you made for Sesus Nakira. I thought for certain that they were the work of a sorcerer. I didn't believe that mortal hands could possess such dexterity." Dragonlord Chiron admitted.
"Now you honor me too much, Dragonlord." I bowed when I spoke so that he would not see me smile. I remembered the rings that he'd spoken of very well. They'd taken me months to complete.
"I am not a man who wastes time or money. I would not have brought this chest all the way here if I did not believe that there was some chance, however slim, that you could accomplish the task that I am about to lay before you." He paused. "Inside this chest is an ancient artifact. It has troubled me since I uncovered it near Lookshy during the war. I have never found anyone who can tell me what it is. But very recently, my friend wrote me a letter." He paused. "Mela had sent him a dream, and in his dream he saw me giving this chest to you. So now I am curious to learn what happens next."
"My lord, I know nothing at all about artifacts." I hesitated. "Surely, one of your Enlightened brethren..."
"Oh, there are many who would kill to get their hands upon this, that I know! But I want to see it repaired, you understand? I don't want to turn it over The Heptagram and never learn what it might have been!" He explained. "I also take my honored friend's suggestions very seriously." He gestured to Abbot Manu. "I suppose I need not tell you that he has great faith in your skill."
The three of us all sat in silence for a moment.
"Might I see it?"I wondered, my fingertips trailing a few inches above the perfect lacquer.
"By all means!" He nodded.
Taking a deep breath and steeling myself for whatever jumbled, incomprehensible mess I might behold, I opened the chest. Wrapped in a crumbling piece of ancient white silk was a device unlike anything I'd ever imagined. I stared in awe. It took every ounce of resolve I possessed for me to close my mouth so that I did not look like a gasping fish. Words would not come to me. I picked up the first piece of the artifact, a flawless ivory mask, so heavy it might have been made of stone. Nevertheless, I lifted it from its resting place, held it an arm's length and studied it for a moment. I got the distinct impression that it was also studying me.
Abbot Manu seemed very surprised, perhaps because the prophetic dream Mela had sent him was actually playing out.
As far as I could tell, what lay inside the box was a raiment of some kind. The mask was clearly meant to attach to a small golden piece which looked like a soldier's gorget. That piece connected to the large chest plate, and the chest plate connected to the back plate, but there were infinitely more pieces! Ten five foot long "tendrils", each about an inch in diameter, made of articulated white jade and moonsilver lay coiled together in the bottom of the casket. Whatever fabric the thing had been wrapped in had long since disintegrated, revealing a spiderweb-like lattice of gossamer threads, even more gold and more silver! Whatever it was, it was a prince's ransom in rare metals!
Seeing that I was utterly speechless, Dragonlord Chiron laughed. "I imagine I must have looked just as shocked as you are now when I first laid eyes upon that thing." He admitted. "Take all the time you need, and tell me if you learn anything." He replied. "Also, this might help." He reached into the folds of his coat and offered me an egg-sized white hearthstone. It flickered faintly as I touched it.
I picked up the section of the device that was clearly meant to be the hearthstone setting, surprised at how heavy it felt. Small as it was, it had the weight of a brick, and when I bit the gold to test its quality, I nearly chipped my tooth.
It took me a moment to realize what I was actually looking at. There wasn't a stitch of ordinary metal anywhere on the device. It was crafted solely of magical materials! What I'd mistaken for gold at first was in fact, pure orichalcum! I'd never touched the legendary metal before and could not stop myself from reacting like a fool. "Do you realize what this is?" I demanded, forgetting my place once again.
"Can you fix it?" Dragonlord Chiron asked, completely ignoring my question.
"Fix it!" I blinked in shocked. "I haven't the foggiest idea what it's supposed to do!"
"I wish I knew myself. That's why I brought it here. Though I will admit, I have been sorely tempted to take apart for the jade and the gold." He paused. "Don't think of helping yourself to any of those broken pieces!" He added.
"I would never steal... did you say gold?" I blinked at him in surprise. I'd thought when he'd dismissed me before that he actually had some idea of what the artifact really was. But if he didn't even recognize the material that made up its components..."Milord, surely you..." I decided to hold my tongue. Criticizing the Dragonlord's intelligence was probably not a very good idea.
"What? He raised an eyebrow in my direction.
"It's not gold, milord. It's orichalcum. It may look delicate, but it's twice as heavy as lead and harder than steel. I'm surprised you didn't guess that already, lugging this casket around." I explained. "Milord, no one crafts orichalcum like this, not since the age of the Anathema." I explained, referring to the terrible golden demons that had ruled all of Creation more than 1,500 years ago.
"Anathema?" Abbot Manu murmured.
Though no one liked to admit it, since the disappearance of the Scarlet Empress forty years ago, there had been many more sightings of Anathema than ever before. Abbot Manu speculated that the Dragons were displeased with the backstabbing and character assassination currently taking place in the contest for the Scarlet throne. Heretics whispered that the Anathema were returning to reclaim the world which had been stolen from them.
I sighed heavily in defeat. "As much as I would love to fix this for you, I don't even know where to begin! And this is all magical material! It needs Essence to be worked!"
"So? You're Enlightened for a mortal, aren't you?" He pressed. "Use your own."
"It won't be enough." I told him truthfully, bowing my head.
"It will be enough to get you started." He replied.
I said nothing in response to that. Since I had come to the Abbey, I had trained and meditated diligently so that I might unlock whatever little Essence I possessed and learn to utilize it. I don't know what I'd imagined before I finally succeeded in tapping my own life force, but the results of my efforts were dismal and heartbreaking.
True, I had cleared a tremendous hurdle in touching my Essence at all... most mortals never did, but it still frustrated me that manipulating it was so murderously difficult. My Essence was clumsy and weak. Working with it was like working with cold hands.
Raised in a relatively liberal merchant household, I'd never gave much thought to the Perfected Hierarchy before I'd involuntarily entered the Immaculate Order. I'd scoffed at the idea that the Dragonblooded were my inherent superiors until I'd succeeded in unlocking my own feeble Essence. That was when I realized that the Immaculates were right and that I was wrong. Essence was the key to everything, the lifeblood of all Creation and it was only natural that whoever wielded it should be the masters and the rest of us their servants. Put simply, there was nothing that enough of it could not do.
"As I've already explained, I have my reasons for bringing this device to you." Dragonlord Chiron replied. I was beginning to suspect that those reasons were less than honorable, and that perhaps the Dragonlord was not the fine, upstanding Dynast that he wanted everyone to believe that he was. "You should be grateful that someone still believes you have skills at all! Think of this as an opportunity to prove to me that you are indeed a great artist and not merely a thief. I am prepared to give a substantial donation to the temple for your pains." He casually remarked.
Abbot Manu heard those words, even if he had miraculously managed to ignore the rest of our conversation. "He will do it." He replied on my behalf.
"I'll try." I sighed in defeat. "But I am only human, milord."
"I understand that you have limitations." Dragonlord Chiron nodded. He motioned for his bodyguards to pick up the chest and turned to leave the room.
"As do you, Enlightened master." I smiled slightly despite myself.
"What was that?" Dragonlord Chiron frowned. For a moment I thought he'd actually heard me. My heart skipped a beat. Every so often, my reckless tongue still escaped me.
"Nothing, milord." I replied... and left myself.
The Dragonlord's two bodyguards who'd brought the lacquered chest into the Abbey followed me with it all the way up six flights of stairs to the tiny tower room that served as my workshop. The ceiling was barely tall enough for me to stand up straight and when the three of us together lifted the heavy device up onto my worktable, it made both the table and the floor groan. The bodyguards left without saying anything at all.
Immediately, I put on my glasses and went for my tools.
Technically, a monk is not supposed to keep the trappings of his previous life but the Abbot had given me sanctuary specifically for my unique skills and so had been obliged to let me keep a good set of tools uniquely suited to the practice of my trade. I chose my smallest pair of watch pliers and the finest screwdrivers I had, hoping they would be delicate enough for the exciting challenge of working on a magical artifact.
Once I was sure I had everything in order, I opened the casket and stared at the device.
It did not take me very long to discover why it was in pieces. It was definitely broken.
The part of the gorget which connected to the hearthstone socket was burned black and there was a long crack in the back plate that attached the spiderweb cloak. A nasty black tarnish had devoured most of the surface of the orichalcum. I removed it meticulously with polish and a small amount of Essence, smiling despite myself at the way the metal glowed golden in the sunlight.
Truly, it was as beautiful as the stories said.
In any case, a simple mortal monk did not refuse the orders of a Dynast. And despite my current position, I knew that I was still an unparalleled master of my trade. The consequences of making a mistake while working on a magical artifact were potentially devastating. It was better that I should undertake the task myself, and not leave it to some amateur who would surely blow himself to bits.
The damaged part of the device seemed like the easiest piece to remove, so that was where I began my work. Inside was a vision of glorious complexity that far exceeded the most brilliant watch I had ever disassembled. Simply exploring the heartstrings of such an artifact sent a thrill coursing through me. Working on watches had always been one of my favorite tasks. Sometimes I'd enjoyed it so much that I forgot to charge for my service. Really, there was nothing I loved more that the meticulous process of taking something apart and discovering how it worked. Not for the first time, I lamented my current position. Low-ranking monks such as myself were expected to spend most of their time gardening or cleaning. I hadn't done fine work in far too long, and I felt unforgivably clumsy. Nevertheless, I'd had more opportunity to ply my trade within the walls of the monastery than I would have had in prison with no hands.
"Well now, aren't you beautiful?" I whispered. The delicate gears fluttered under my breath like tiny butterflies. Though some might think it strange, I've always talked to my projects as I work on them. Although I know they can't hear me, I've never been able to shake the feeling that if they could, they might appreciate hearing a few comforting words as I subjected them to painful repairs.
Taking a sick thing like that, something almost complex enough to be alive.. and bringing it back from the verge of death reminded me a bit of my first childhood ambition, to study medicine. An apprenticeship to a family friend who was a jeweller was the best that my staunchly middle class parents could arrange, however. I never begrudged them that. The trade did suit me. And if I had become a surgeon, perhaps I never would have run afoul of House Mnemon and been sent to the Abbey where I had finally unlocked the secret of the very thing that separated mere mortals from the illustrious Dragonblooded.
Essence. The project that lay before me would have been impossible without it! Every piece needed a gentle touch and a small amount of Essence before it would allow itself to be worked. Just taking the central section apart took me the entirety of my first working day.
And yet I plodded steadily forward, undeterred.
I lost track of the time as I worked and rudely dismissed the novice who called me for evening prayers, not wanting to break my rare and beautiful focus. I worked all night and into the morning, stopping only for the occasional drink of water, more paper to make notes, and sharpened pencils.
Dragonlord Chiron came to my door several times and peered inside but never spoke to me. It was clear that whatever I was working on was far more important than anyone could know. Confident after two days of ceaseless tinkering that I could unravel the device's secrets, I continued to work like a man possessed.
Inside of the chest plate, I'd discovered a mechanism clearly designed to handle different types of Essence. When I tested the device with a mote of my own, the needle had wobbled only slightly, and I recognized the ancient symbols for the five elemental Dragons not far from the bottom of the gauge.
The shocking thing was how many higher settings there were, nine of them in all! The device had obviously been made to handle unthinkably huge quantities of Essence, far more than even five or ten Dragonbloods could bring to bear! And if my assumptions were correct, then the radiant sun next to the number "9" near the top told me everything I needed to know.
Whatever it was, it had last been used by one of the Anathema.
Of course, all the while I worked I still felt that insistent nagging in the back of my mind that the scoundrel Himitsu was still at large. I still couldn't comprehend why he'd seen it fit to draw me into this mess with Dragonlord Chiron and whatever demon he'd disturbed. I didn't believe for a heartbeat that such a treasure would have been handed over willingly. They must have slain the Anathema, or found him dead already and robbed him. Either way, that meant trouble. I wouldn't deny that Anathema justly needed killing before they burned villages to the ground or ate babies or whatever other unthinkable things they usually did, but just thinking of what might happen to our quiet monastery if Dragonlord Chiron had not thoroughly finished off the demon he'd robbed made me feel sick.
For lack of a better way to explain it, the device had a very personal feel to its construction. It was obviously a labor of love. It would not have been surrendered without a fight, and never abandoned. It was frightfully complex and I had precious little time to learn everything I could about it.
And so I kept working.
After three solid days with little more than a crust of bread to fill my stomach, I discovered a tiny filament of unidentifiable silvery metal, almost like spider's silk blocking one of the channels that the hearthstone was supposed to fuel. Everything else I'd examined seemed to be in working order, and so I decided that it was time to introduce some more power and see what happened next.
I took the hearthstone that Dragonlord Chiron had given me from my cache of parts and held it up to the light. It was exquisite. No mortal hands could have given it such a beautiful, precise cut.
I adjusted my lenses to their highest magnification and picked up my smallest, most precise pliers, connecting the nearly invisible slot in the back of the stone into the hearthstone socket. A smoky flicker of feeble white Essence coursed through the entire device. The energy I'd poured into it diligently over the last three days had been enough to cause it to accept the stone. Of course, I had nothing left myself, but I was confident that I had done the impossible!
I'd fixed a First Age artifact!
With my work complete I should have immediately called for Abbot Manu or Dragonlord Chiron, but I was struck by a sudden selfish desire. Perhaps I was already burning the very fringes of my soul, but I wondered recklessly if I dared use the last of my Essence to wake my long-suffering patient so that she could see who it was that had fixed her.
I put my fingertips on the draw points around the central hearthstone. At first I gave only a little Essence, but the device greedily drank it up and so I gave more, ignoring the lightheaded feeling that had come over me.
"I see you're not picky." I smiled slightly as I drew away. "Any Essence is good Essence, eh? No surprise there. You must be positively starving."
Of course, the device said nothing, though I swore I saw her nod slightly. Her tendrils made her look like a very large spider.
I've always rather liked spiders. I would save them from my mother's broom and put them in the garden when I was a child so that I could admire the webs they built.
"I'm very honored that you would choose to let me fix you. You've been most cooperative." I paused. "But I do dearly wish I had some idea of what you were meant for before I turn you over to... well, the person that owns you now."
The device slumped slightly, looked exhausted. The Essence I had fed her was faintly flickering and filmy white, reminding me of my weakness. I was toying with something built by monsters more powerful than the Gods and I wasn't even a Dragonblood! I was a fool!
But I needed to finish what I'd begun for reasons I couldn't explain. Dragonlord Chiron and Abbot Manu were the least of my worries. The device looked so utterly pathetic that I felt as though I'd killed her. It hurt to admit that I had failed. I'd never been so frustrated in my life! I was on the verge of throwing all of my tools out the window and cursing all the Dragons at the top of my lungs.
Then I saw what was wrong. My patient was faltering, not because I couldn't save her, but because I'd made a simple mistake! Just as the sun began to set outside my window, its fleeting rays caught the fine orichalcum needle of the device's internal gauge. For some reason it had turned itself completely to the left, back to the setting intended to handle the tremendously powerful Essence of one of the Anathema.
I took my smallest pliers and carefully brought it down to its lowest mark, for mortal Essence. Without hesitation, I poured everything I had left into the device, not caring that Abbot Manu would probably find me unconscious on the floor in the morning. My body began to feel clumsy and heavy. I cursed in Rivertongue under my breath, something I hadn't done in years. It was the native language of my parents, and though they always spoke High Realm in public to appear properly sophisticated, there were some words in Rivertongue which conveyed frustration and disappointment like no others. Life in the Scavenger Lands was harsh by any standards, and its people were always dreaming of greener pastures.
I was being impatient, but I knew that I didn't have the time to wait until my own inner Essence stores recovered. I paused for a moment to meditate and tried to quell the burning desire I felt to finish what I had started. My attempts to compose myself failed spectacularly. I was not willing to admit defeat! Not caring how dangerous my obsession had become, I put my hands back on the draw points and fed the device the very last dregs of my Essence. My vision went dark. I would have passed out and cracked the back of my head on the floor if my stool hadn't been set so close to where I stood that I stumbled into it and fell forward into my work table instead. Barely eating and not sleeping for days had taken too much out of me!
I thought for a moment that my heart was failing and I was about to die, but then I felt a sudden clearing in my mind. As when I'd first awakened my Essence, I touched upon a wellspring of power I'd never known before. The difference was, this power wasn't a faint spark barely bright enough to catch my inner eye. It was a source so vast and potent that I could not believe it was within me! I'd been looking for a cup of water and had nearly fallen into an ocean!
I had no choice. I had to seize onto what I had found and it draw it out. And so I reached further into the core of my being than I had ever reached before, to a place beyond any meditation. A thousand strange images poured through my head like a raging flood, leaving in their path not wreckage... but a new kind of clarity. I'd been expecting pain and hoping for a breakthrough, but nothing like what I was experiencing.
I'd been transfigured! I'd been broken all of my life and suddenly... I was fixed!
Or no... there'd never been anything wrong with me before! What I struggled against was nothing more than the typical, inefficient, superfluous junk that slowed down every mortal! I hadn't realized how worthless it all was, how cluttered my mind had been until it was suddenly wiped clean and sorted so neatly! I wasn't just fixed! I was perfect! I was better than I'd ever been!
Has I gone completely mad?
Was madness supposed to be so profoundly liberating?
I stood up straight and put my hands firmly on the device, at once understanding it in all of its horrifying complexity and knowing instinctively what I needed to do. Like a lord issuing orders to a servant, I told the device to activate. Fiery golden light flowed through it like blood through veins, illuminating patterns and symbols that had been invisible to the naked eye. It burned like a falling star.
I did stagger into my stool then, staring up in awe at the device which had begun to rise up into the air under its own power, bleeding an aura of blue, crimson and gold. The empty eyes of the ivory mask were burning white and the expressionless face twitched in a surprisingly human manner. My patient evaluated me with obvious intelligence and I realized that I had severely underestimated her sophistication.
She was a construct! A living artifact! I'd only heard legends about such things. No one credible had ever seen one! They'd all been destroyed with their demon masters in the ancient battles that had given birth to the Shogunate which had preceded the Realm.
I cursed again in Rivertongue. It was all I could do.
And then I saw my own hands. Flickers of the same gorgeous Essence that radiated from the device raced between my fingers. I could mold it effortlessly and I intuitively understood how it flowed as I never had before. I took a very deep breath and exhaled slowly. The aura of energy around me rippled and expanded, like the surface of a pond disturbed by a pebble. Even after so long without food or sleep, my mind was as sharp as a scalpel blade and my hands were steady.
Of course, that was when I turned in the direction of my door. My mother had willed me a good-sized mirror that I sometimes used to improve the light while I worked, and it was hidden near my closet to prevent the other monks from jabbering too much about my wealth of distracting worldly possessions.
I never paid much attention to it except when I needed light. I'd taken great pains with my appearance when I still worked in the capital where people cared about such things... but after I'd given up all of my fine clothes and shaved my head, I'd stopped caring how I looked. At that moment, however, I found myself utterly paralyzed by sight of my reflection.
I stared in horror at the brand between my eyes, a glowing half circle like the sun falling over the horizon. It was the same golden color as the tiny orichalcum gears that still laid scattered across the surface of my work table and the ambient ripple of oranges, reds and white-hot blues that flickered around my fingertips when I so much as thought of Essence made the horrible truth all the more obvious. I'd madly embraced some unimaginable power that had reached out to me in my desperation and never once considered what it might be. How could I have been so blind?
I'd become Anathema!
"Veritas! Open up immediately!" Abbot Manu ordered, pounding on my door. I could hear the sound of a dozen other monks and more than a few of Dragonlord Chiron's soldiers running up the stairs and I did not wait for them to break my door down. I grabbed my tools and seized the device, wrapping it around me like a cloak. The gorget automatically snapped around my neck and held fast. Heavy as it had been before, it weighed nothing then, and fit perfectly and comfortably over my shoulders. The sensation of the ivory mask falling over my face was shockingly familiar to me, but I had no time to think about such things.
Demon or not, I didn't want to die!
The last thing I saw as I jumped for my notes was the face of Dragonlord Chiron. Just as his daiklave brought my door crashing down, he caught sight of me and stared with his jaw dropped, not as if he'd seen a demon... but as if he'd seen a ghost.
My door was blocked. That meant there was only one way out. Not caring that I was more than five hundred feet from the ground, I leapt out my window, shattering all the glass. As I fell from the top story of the monastery towards the river in the valley far below, and insistent voice whispered in my ear what I needed to do.
I don't know how I understood the instructions I received because I'm certain they weren't in High Realm, Rivertongue, or any language that I thought I knew. Still clutching my precious tools and notes, the device's spider-like tendrils flailing all around me, I made a sign with my hands and spoke a single, earthshaking word. As I uttered it, the world exploded into light all around me. When I tried to understand what had become of my body, I saw only a flock of brilliantly colored little songbirds.
Not knowing what else to do, I flew in the direction of the setting sun.