If you are freaked out by the changes here, please read my note at the beginning of "Alexander the Great". I am trying to fix issues that readers have brought to my attention. Critique is appreciated.
- Emerald Viper
"Good. Now a little more to the left." I whispered, watching my student attempt to disarm a particularly complicated trap. Yurasu was sticking his tongue out as he worked, but I decided not to point out his little lapse of dignity. While I held my end of the rope taunt, he slowly moved the tumbler on the lock as I'd instructed him to.
It stubbornly refused to budge. Yurasu's hands were getting steadier with practice, but he was still no master when it came to delicate work and he was unfortunately reaching the age where he'd become convinced that no woman, and especially no "mere mortal" could possibly know better than he did.
"Don't force it, boy! Feel it." I coaxed him. "Left hand to the right, right hand to the left. Slowly now, nice and gentle!" I warned.
My student gritted his teeth, but he still managed to composed himself and finish the task he'd set to. When the trap disengaged harmlessly ahead of us, making a loud noise and spilling a load of rubble, Yurasu heaved an enormous sigh.
"Not bad." I surveyed his work with my hands on my hips and then deftly seized my lockpicks from his grasp.
"Not bad? You're never impressed, sifu!" He lamented.
"Do something impressive and I'll be impressed!" I retorted.
"Hey! Aren't I in charge here?" Yurasu demanded, though not without a smile on his face. Technically, he had been my "Enlightened Master" since the day he Exalted as an Aspect of Earth two years ago, but I had been his tutor for five years before that event and Yurasu at sixteen still had a tremendous amount of growing up to do.
"You'll surpass me in time, young master." I reassured him with no small amount of sarcasm in my voice. "But you haven't yet!"
I surveyed the empty corridor ahead of us. It looked suspiciously peaceful.
"There's another trap up ahead." I informed Yurasu, who blinked owlishly at me.
"How do you know that? It looks fine to me." He shrugged.
"That's why I'm certain it's trapped." I replied.
"Damned Anathema." Yurasu snorted. "Why did they have to make this place so hard to get into?" He demanded, carefully moving his torch around to see if any hidden wires might sparkle in the light.
"Oh, these aren't demon traps!" I laughed despite myself, dangling the key piece of our last endeavor. "This is a regular old mortal mess! According to my friend Gramercy, a dozen bandits were holing up in here last winter, using the history of this place to scare away the authorities." I clarified.
Yurasu looked at me doubtfully.
"If we find any demon traps, you'll know it. They're a sight more complicated than anything we've run across yet." I informed him. "Honestly, boy... you do know how to set a pole trap and a snare, don't you?"
"Well, most of what we've seen so far are variations of those kinds of traps. Trip wires and the like." I informed him. "Nothing arcane yet, thank the Dragons... and these "renovations" are fairly recent. Not more than a year or two old, judging by the growth of the ivy." I pointed to part of the wall where the plants had been hacked down and then poorly strung back together to hide yet another pole trap.
Still searching the corridor for any signs of trouble, Yurasu stumbled across something that caught his eye. Where the bandits had stupidly torn down another mess of ivy an ancient inscription was visible, carved into the stone.
"Hm. What've you got there, boy?" I asked, scrambling over the pile of rubble we'd created by disarming the last trap. My knees protested, but I refused to show any sign of weakness in front of Yurasu. If he didn't respect me, he wouldn't heed my warnings... and if he didn't heed my warnings there was a strong likelihood that both he and I would end up dead.
Though more than a few people have commented that I'm unusually spry for my age, things that I had once done with very little effort were becoming strenuous for me. Truthfully, I'd expected a bad back and bad knees to strike me down one day, especially after the adventures of my youth. What I feared more than anything else was the creep of arthritis that was beginning in my hands. Yurasu was almost grown and when he came into his own, I'd be released from my duties. But if I couldn't ply my trade, I couldn't find someone else to teach it to... and I knew that I wasn't nearly important enough to House Mnemon to earn any kind of pension. My only chance at a comfortable retirement was to see that Yurasu succeeded in doing something that none of his siblings could have possibly envisioned, recapturing The Scarlet Empress's long-lost sword from the gods-forsaken Anathema tomb that it had somehow landed in the heart of. That treasure would make both him... and myself a bit more important in certain circles, which made the treacherous hunt for it entirely worth the risk.
"I dunno." Yurasu admitted. "It's Old Realm." He muttered something under his breath, translating the first few glyphs with a grimace. Languages had never been his strong suit and I did not doubt that it would take him the better part of an hour to decipher what I could simply read, plain as day.
"It's a warning." I explained. "Beyond this point, no mortals."
Yurasu raised an eyebrow at me.
"Or Dragonbloods." I added, pointing to the glyph he'd been poking at.
"Damned Anathema." Yurasu snorted.
"Don't get cocky!" I warned him, tousling his hair. "Remember what I said about traps!" Finding the wire that I had suspected cleverly hidden between two floor tiles, I motioned for Yurasu to step back.
"All right, this one is mine." I informed him. With a slight smirk, I purposefully triggered the trap by tossing a large rock.
He scowled at me. "Why can't I just do it that way?" He demanded.
"Don't start whining, boy!" I replied. "I'm getting too old for this accursed business. One day you'll be tramping through hellholes like this all on your own and then you can disarm the traps however you like! Though you might want to consider what sort of message throwing rocks might send if there were bandits still camped in this ruin. Or demons!" I added, though I had never heard anyone credible tell of running into a living Anathema before.
"All right, point taken!" Yurasu sighed.
At the end of the corridor was a very large bronze door, corroded from the water which flooded the tomb we were currently trampling through every spring. Yurasu moved to open the door but I seized his sleeve.
"Not so fast!" I warned. Kneeling down despite my aching knees, I picked up a piece of crumbling cement and held it up for his examination.
"Cement?" He observed with surprise. "Someone was trying to seal this door closed?"
"Undoubtedly." I nodded. "They probably didn't give it enough time to dry before the water flooded back in. There's something beyond this door that the bandits weren't too keen on. We ought to be very careful from here on out."
Yurasu put his ear to the door. "There is something in there! I can hear it breathing." He exclaimed, his voice little more than a whisper. "But how did it survive in there for so long?"
"That's easy. It's either constructed, dead, demonic, or fae. Considering where we are, I'm betting on 'all of the above'." I replied.
Humming to myself, I took a pouch of chalk from my belt and made a very clean circle about six inches in front of the door.
"Thamaturgy?" Yurasu observed, a note of disdain in his voice. Like most Dragonblooded, he perceived the magical meddlings of mortals as an inferior art to sorcery, which was the purview of the Princes of the Earth.
"It may not be the equal of sorcery, but it can save your life in a pinch!" I warned him. Yurasu said nothing more but only watched intently as I finished my incantation.
Taking a spool of razor wire from the supplies I'd diligently prepared, I carefully sheared the bolts off of the door. Even with my pitiful mortal senses I could hear something breathing on the other side and I could only hope that my circle would be sufficient to stop whatever it was from mauling both of us. My student drew his sword and I set to the lock, which gave way with surprisingly little effort, probably because its internal components were corroded into green-tinged mush.
As soon as we were both clear of the path that the door was liable to fall into, and a good four feet away from my circle, I gave the loudest, shrillest whistle I could. With a sound like a thunderclap, the door came crashing down and an enormous, snarling amalgamation of magical materials landed directly in the center of my circle.
My petty magic flared with surprising force and the creature froze, its four paws firmly fixed to the ground. When it stopped moving, it looked a bit like a tiger with corded muscles of moonsilver, claws and teeth of orichalcum and some sort of blue-white fire filling it to the brim, making its empty eye sockets burn like foxfire.
"Dragons!" Yurasu whispered breathlessly. "What is that?"
"A construct." I observed, unfluttered. I'd run into every kind of fiend and fae in my adventuring days and there were few things living or dead that really scared me. "Never seen one so big before." I admitted truthfully. "No wonder they tried to cement it in."
"Well, we've got it trapped, right?" Yurasu pressed.
The creature snarled and attempted to lunge at him. I felt my circle quake, but it still managed to hold.
"For now." I took a deep breath. That was when I noticed that the monster was wearing some sort of golden collar around its neck. Coming as close to the beast as I dared, I was able to make out the Old Realm glyph for "obedience" and smiled despite our current predicament.
"Keep your eye peeled, boy." I advised, slipping into the room that had held the tiger construct. "This thing's a pet."
"A pet?" Yurasu echoed incredulously.
"It's got a collar on." I informed him and he nodded as he saw what I had already noticed. "That means we're looking for some sort of control mechanism. Probably an amulet or a ring."
"A control mechanism? But wouldn't it just obey its master?" Yurasu wondered.
"No, probably not." I informed him. "It's not a dog. It's some sort of very angry spirit wrapped up inside a metal shell. A demon built this thing, boy... probably some fifteen hundred years ago... and then bound it here eternally." The construct gave a low growl. "And as you can see, it's fairly well pissed off." I finished.
"Oh." Yurasu observed. He followed me into the room without a word of protest. He stared up in disbelief at the very impressive height of the ceiling and the piles of refuse and rubble that surrounded us. Every so often I caught a glimpse of gold or silver – a lost coin or a single bracelet, but whatever important treasures the construct had once been set to guard were long gone.
As awed as my student was by his first real "demon tomb", I didn't dare admit to him that I had thieved my way into subterranean labyrinths that were far more impressive.
"Is this it?" Yurasu wondered. He held up a little golden ring, covered in muck.
"Ahah! Excellent!" I exclaimed. All too late, I felt a sudden surge of energy and realized that my circle had collapsed.
"Yurasu, down!" I ordered, picking up the first piece of rubble that I could lay my hands on. My student dunked and lashed at the construct with his blade, but the monster was unbelievably fast and soon had him on the ground. The rocks I flung at it bounced harmlessly off of its armored carapace. I had to do something before it gutted the boy and so I did the only thing I could think of. Waving my hands in the air like a madwoman, I shouted at the beast in Old Realm.
"Hey, ugly! Over here!" The monster turned. "Yurasu, the ring!" I shouted as the beast came charging after me.
Scrambling to his feet, he slipped it over his finger and shouted a number of incoherent, mis-pronounced commands in Old Realm.
Of course, I'd known there was a possibility that neither of us would be able to use the device created by an Anathema to control the construct, but then again... I hadn't really expected the monster to break through my circle so quickly. Racking my brain for a solution, I seized upon one of the prayer strips I always kept tucked into my robe. The words that flowed from my tongue were very nearly alien to me. I knew a great number of prayers but for some reason my subconscious had seized upon one I had not used in many years, a plea to the God of the Sun for protection from things beyond the boundaries of Creation.
The prayer strip struck the construct with a sound like hot grease in a frying pan and the monster balked and stumbled. The light faded from its eyes and it collapsed. Yurasu slowly rose to his feet and came over to inspect the beast, observing my seared prayer strip glued firmly between its eyes.
"What did I tell you about Thamaturgy?" I laughed slightly, trying to underplay the enormous stroke of luck that I'd just hand.
Still shaking, I dug into my belongings and produced another small stack of prayer strips bound with a red ribbon. Yurasu took them without question, still watching the motionless monster as we continued on. When we reached another bronze door much like the one we had entered through, the boy actually got down on his knees and helped me to draw my circle of containment. With his help and more powerful Essence, I did not doubt that it would hold longer than my first circle had.
"Are you sure that my great-grandmother's sword is in here?" Yurasu asked, once again sticking his tongue out as he picked the lock on the door. It was a very difficult one with more than seven tumblers, but the way he mangled my good picks still made me struggle not to seize his ear as I had when he was very young and scold him for behaving like his namesake... like a stubborn rock.
Even before he had Exalted as an Aspect of Earth, his name had suited him. Despite his father's wishes that I train him in certain arts, my student's natural predisposition was to strike things first and attempt to sort them out later. Still, if Yurasu had been moderately less pigheaded... or perhaps if I had been a better teacher, he might have made a decent cracksman.
Often I had to remind myself that I was not teaching the boy to be a thief and certainly not a common housebreaker. Though I could never fully escape the stigma of my upbringing, I had accepted a pardon for my slew of past crimes. That was how I'd become Yurasu's teacher. My charge wouldn't be fending off hungry ghosts and running a loose cadre of small-time grifters on the streets of Chiarascuro. He was a Dynast, born to privilege and responsibility. House Mnemon would not suffer any thieves amongst its ranks, but someone well-versed in linguistics, lore, the occult, a fair bit of larceny and certain methods of killing could be very successful in Imperial politics.
I had high hopes for Yurasu despite his stubborness. Because he seemed so simple-minded, people would be inclined to underestimate him. Also, despite his infuriating habit of sticking out his tongue... he had succeeded in picking his clever lock.
"Yes, I'm sure. A little bird told me so." I replied.
Yurasu's hand stopped on the hilt of his sword. He hesitated. "Don't try to be funny." He ordered me. "Who told you where it was?"
"A friend of a friend." I replied, saying nothing. In truth, I had visited a disenfranchised member of House Ragara who was currently under "house arrest" in his lonely tower at The Heptagram, but explaining to Yurasu just how I'd gotten in there undetected was something I didn't feel comfortable with. Despite all that I had taught him about poisons, my student still had a tendency to balk at such dishonorable tactics. He would have been even more horrified to learn that I'd manipulated a well-respected sorcerer of House Mnemon by using his particular sexual perversions to my advantage.
Of course, before my unfortunate arrest so many years ago, I'd been regarded as the best in my profession for good reason. There wasn't a scoundrel in all Creation who could hold a candle to me. Being a true professional wasn't about knowing all of the tricks, it was about having the gall to use them to your best advantage.
"I know what they say about you, sifu." Yurasu paused. "You have a lot of secrets, don't you?"
"It's my job to have secrets, especially other people's. The more secrets I have, the easier it will be for me to make sure that House Mnemon keeps the Scarlet Throne. Particularly if they decide to put you on it." I added.
"They wouldn't!" Yurasu protested. "There are others more qualified."
"And more controversial!" I reminded him. "It doesn't matter how great of a warrior or sorcerer you are if you have great warriors and sorcerers supporting you. Your House. Some well-chosen allies. Good servants... even mortal ones. There's a saying where I come from that if you want to know the measure of a king, you ought to look first at his lowliest servant."
"Well, if you're the lowliest servant of House Mnemon, I guess I'm in good hands." Yurasu admitted, smiling slightly.
"Of course you are." I replied, unrolling a little bit of razor wire, in case something leapt out at us and missed landing in my circle.
Very carefully, Yurasu opened the next door. The room was pitch black and the light from our torches only barely illuminated the enormous machines within, all of them running at a good clip despite having been left untouched for more than a thousand years. Just what task they were accomplishing was a mystery... but nothing immediately tried to kill us, so I assumed we were relatively safe.
There was a familiar scent in the air that I had not smelled in a very long time, not since my last visit to Yurasu's grandmother, Mnemon. It wasn't smelting, but I couldn't place what it was... and the steam that rose from all of the enormous machines made it impossible to see more than five feet in any direction. I had a sinking feeling that it was something Malfean, but I wasn't about to tell Yurasu that I expected demons. In all liklihood, whatever had been summoned was either bound or had long since gone on its merry way.
"All clear?" I hissed.
"Looks that way." Yurasu nodded.
"Right. Let's sit and rest a spell then." I decided.
"Why?" My student demanded.
"I'm getting old, Yurasu." I sighed. "Not too many of these adventures left in me."
He looked annoyed but did not protest. I took a long drink from my waterskin and smiled slightly at the obstinate expression on my student's face.
"Nice job on that lock by the way. You're getting better." I informed him.
"I'm still not as good as you are, sifu." He admitted grudgingly.
"You've centuries ahead of you. You'll get there." I reassured him. He didn't seem comforted by my words, rather he stared at me as if I were a stranger to him.
"How old are you, sifu?" He asked. After our encounter with the construct, his new Exalted arrogance had dissipated and our relationship was much the same as it had been before he'd become a Prince of the Earth.
"Older than you, younger than your mother." I told him. Truthfully, I was fifty-four, but I knew why he was asking. My student wanted to know how many years he and I had left. That was something I didn't like to think about myself, and so I decided not to answer him directly.
Tired as I was, I almost didn't notice the sudden appearance of a large, black shadow looming over me. Yurasu's shocked expression and fishlike gaping caused me to slowly turn around. For something so impossibly huge, the construct had been absolutely silent in its approach. If the one we'd faced before was akin to a full grown tiger, the monster that we had stumbled upon us then was as large as a tall building. Before its white-fire eyes had opened, I'd seen it and mistaken it for one of the gargantuan rumbling machines.
The giant construct evaluated the two of us with interest and then reached out for me like a child about to seize a toy. Yurasu lunged to my defense before I could scold him for his stupidity and before either of us got in a good blow, we were both in construct's hands, dangling a hundred feet above a floor that ran with rivers of plasma.
Dislocating my shoulder in a particularly painful manner, I wormed my way free and jumped for the construct's shoulder. It swatted at me as if I were an insect it was trying to kill and I managed to dodge two fairly serious blows that would have doubtless sent me crashing to the floor and my inevitable death. Scrambling up the back of the monster's head, I noticed a brilliantly glowing spot where a blue hearthstone the size of a cooking pot was nestled. With no weapons on my person except for my trusty dagger, I threw caution to the wind and drove my blade into the socket, prying the hearthstone loose.
As its hearthstone fell crashing to the ground, the life left the construct and it started to teeter. Before I could reach him, Yurasu hurled his grappling hook to catch hold of the balcony we'd been on when we'd first come into the room. I very narrowly caught hold of his foot as I fell. Despite the strain in my joints, with the fear of death very fresh in my mind, my grip was quite solid.
My student looked down at me with a dumbfounded smile on his face. "Sifu!" He exclaimed.
"Climb, boy!" I told him.
After reaching the top himself, Yurasu leaned over the balcony and heaved me up with one hand. I stood on my own two feet for a moment, wavered, and then promptly passed out.
I don't know how long I was unconscious for, but it seemed like an eternity. My dreams were muddled and seemed to consist mostly of conflicting images of hunting in the forest, skulking my way through dungeons as I had in my youth, and having great, dramatic arguments with a man I could never see clearly, whose infuriating smirk left me with a burning desire to claw his eyes out. Then my dreams began making even less sense.
I found myself changing shape. I watched my fingers shorten into stubs, my nails lengthen into black claws and a thick coat of red and white fur spread out over my body. The change wasn't painful. Strangely enough, it seemed very natural to me, as if it were something I had always done. As if I had always been both a human and a fox. Curling my tail over my nose to ward against the cold, I settled down to sleep.
As a fox, I dreamt that I was stalking through rushes, following the strangled croaks of a dying waterfowl. Then I changed shape again and became the quick little plover, skimming above the lake and landing at the river's mouth. The mud was thick and deep and might have swallowed me, but suddenly I was an ancient white catfish, perfectly at home in the murky depths. The bottom of the lake held no mysteries for me. I saw something glint red and gold in the darkness... the hilt of the Scarlet Empress's sword. I knew I had found what I'd been searching for. Having no hands to seize upon the blade, I greedily swallowed it.
The first thing I noticed when I awoke was that we had found The Scarlet Empress's sword. The second thing I noticed was that Yurasu and I were both tied up.
There was a woman standing on a marble platform in front of us, gazing up at an enormous marble statue of a woman. Dressed in a mis-mash of odd, brightly-colored clothing, my first guess was that she was a Westerner – albeit one very far from home. Her hair was a mess of braids the color of cheap wine and a nice sword was resting on her hip. With how she'd managed to get the drop on Yurasu and myself, I suspected that she was a rogue of one stripe or another. That was good, it meant that I could probably reason with her.
But then our captor turned around to face the two of us and my hopes of some sort of peaceful reconciliation were utterly dashed. There was no mistaking the glowing brand of gold between her eyes. She was a Blasphemer, one of the very worst kinds of Anathema.
"Sonova bitch!" I swore out loud.
"Oh, finally! I was wondering when you'd wake up." The Anathema observed with a dazzling smile. The stories didn't do her breed justice, truthfully. She was every bit as alluring as I'd ever imagined one of the great golden demons could be, and I'd been tramping around in their monumental tombs for decades.
I felt an odd sort of kinship with her immediately, as if we were old, old friends. Suspecting that she'd used sorcery to bend my will, I bit down on my own lip and said nothing. Yurasu was gagged with a strip of cloth, presumably because of his failure to shut up. He stared at me hopefully and made dramatic head-jerk gestures at our captor. What I couldn't fathom, try as I might... was why we were not already dead. What use could an Anathema possibly have for a teenaged Dragonblood and an old mortal thief, simply too stubborn to die?
"Why I am I tied up?" I asked.
"Pandora's not here presently. And since this is her manse, I thought it would be best to let her decide what to do with you when she gets back." The Anathema replied. Whatever she said, it wasn't what she meant. She was being sarcastic for some reason. I noted also that the rope looped around my wrists was far from tight enough to keep me bound. Did the demon intend for me to escape, or was she simply ignorant of my skills? I decided to play her game in hopes of learning something useful.
"And when will this "Pandora" be returning?" I pressed.
"Dunno." She admitted. "Could be two days, could be two hundred years." She remarked casually. "I honestly don't know if she's reincarnated yet."
"So what are you doing here then?" I demanded.
"Same as you. Intruding." The Anathema replied. "Looking for that." She gestured to The Scarlet Empress's sword, its blade firmly set into the massive block of granite atop the marble platform.
"What do you want it for?" I wondered.
"I don't want it, actually. The Scarlet Empress wasn't much of a soldier when she started her career and it's a rather shitty old sword. I just want to make sure that it doesn't end up in the hands of someone who really shouldn't have it." The Anathema explained.
"Like one of The Empress's heirs?" I suggested sarcastically, gesturing to Yurasu.
"Like The Mask of Winters." The Anathema corrected. "He's starting a collection of swords if you haven't heard."
I felt all the blood in my veins freeze at the sound of the Deathlord's name. I remembered the fall of Thorns. The thought of what had happened there still gave me nightmares occasionally, and it had been more than forty years since the Scarlet Empress vanished.
"Why does the Mask of Winters want The Scarlet Empress's sword?" I whispered uneasily, certain that I didn't want to hear the demon's answer.
"To be honest, Clever Devil... I don't know." The Anathema admitted. "But there are definitely Yozi and Sidereals involved, so I can tell you already – whatever it is won't be pretty!"
Though the thought of Yozi worried me considerably and though the word "Sidereal" sent an uneasy nagging child racing down my spine, what startled me most was that the Anathema had called me by my name. I would have suspected that Yurasu had told her... and did not doubt that he would have, if it were a thing that he knew himself. But for his own protection, he'd never been told who his sifu truly was. Everyone in House Mnemon called me "sifu" and that was that. He stared at me wide-eyed, gnawing on the gag that the Anathema had shoved in his mouth. There were more than a few peasant legends about my exploits.
I did not bother to deny the demon's accusation. "How do you know me?" I demanded.
"Sun-in-Glory, you honestly don't remember?" The Anathema sighed. "Sam told me that you were using your old name and I'd hoped that... well, I'd hoped that meant you were still you. And you are still you, I think, in every way that matters. You look just the same. Or maybe I only think you look the same because I'm also partially outside of Fate. I wish Whisper were here. She's better at explaining this kind of thing than I am."
"I have no idea what you're talking about." I informed her.
"Luna will sort things out. She's right pissed, I hear. At least that's what Quill told me before I left Nexus." The Anathema replied.
It was troubling that the demon seemed to be casually referencing so many people I felt as if I should know. But what did the capricious Goddess of the Moon have to do with anything?
"Luna's going to fix you, Devil. It doesn't matter how many Conventions The Green Whore runs, she's got no business using a Charm like that on anyone! I'm sure she thinks she got away with it too. She must have forgotten that we've both been into The Well." The Anathema finished. "And that you and I are charged by the Incarnae themselves with much bigger fish to fry!"
Nothing she said made any more sense than what she'd explained previously. My sneaking suspicion was that the demon girl had confused me with someone else. I decided not to correct her. If she believed we were friends, that could only work to my benefit. What she had said about The Mask of Winters did stick in my mind, however. If he truly wanted the sword that was currently placed before us, what was preventing him from taking it?
As if in answer to my unspoken question, that was when the rumbling began. The shaking was so furious that it actually caused Yurasu's chair to tip over, leaving him struggling on his side with his head almost singed by the rivers of plasma that surrounded us. The Anathema put her foot under the seat of the chair and kicked him upright with impressive strength. She surveyed the rumbling above us with a concerned look on her face and then paled visibly as the bowl of cut flowers in front of the statue of The Unconquered Sun suddenly wilted and then turned black.
"I take it your master is here?" I observed.
"The Mask of Winters is not my master!" The Anathema spat. "He's my enemy and yours too!"
"Well, that I won't argue." I replied. "But as I see it, the lot of us stand a much better chance of escaping here if we work together. Untie my student."
"He'll try to kill me." The Anathema snorted with distaste.
"No, he won't." I replied. "Yurasu?"
He nodded readily.
"And it's as simple as that? I'm just supposed to trust your word that the two of you won't team up and try to stab me in the back?" The Anathema protested.
"You know who I am. Can I be trusted or not?" I replied.
The Anathema hesitated. "Yes, you can be trusted." She decided. Without another word of protest, she cut Yurasu free. Before she could come forward to take care of my bonds, I effortlessly slipped them. Yurasu seized his great-grandmother's sword from its resting place and I seized a heavy stick that I'd been eying since I woke.
The Anathema turned on me lightning fast, her blade cleaving through my improvised weapon, but not quickly enough to prevent me from dodging her attack and boxing her upside the head with my two pieces of stick. A blow such as the one I delivered would have rendered any normal man unconscious.
The Anathema only scowled.
I casually tossed the two pieces of my stick and grinned winningly. "Wrong answer." I informed her, as Yurasu came within striking distance. To my surprise, she effortlessly parried his blow, not with her sword but with the glittering orichalcum bracers she wore on her wrists. Disarming him with another swift motion, she deposited my student at my feet.
"That was sloppy!" The Anathema informed me, though not without a slight smile on her face.
"Did I say I was finished yet?" I retorted.
She yelped as she realized that I has dumped a small amount of chalk on her left foot in her moment of distraction and spoken the few words of Thamaturgy that would hold it fixed to the ground. The sound of footsteps drew nearer, and I could hear the clank of men in armor approaching. The air began to feel heavy like a shroud all around me and it reeked of death.
"Time to get out of here." I informed Yurasu. He picked up his great-grandmother's blade and I seized the Anathema's weapon myself. But the look she gave me as I almost left her for the Deathlord's legions made me wonder if I hadn't just made a very grave mistake. I led Yurasu a few hundred feet through the maze of machinery before I felt compelled to turn back.
"Damnit!" I muttered under my breath. "Keep going, boy." I ordered Yurasu. "I'll catch up with you."
"You're going back for the demon?" He wondered incredulously. "She'll kill you!"
"She could, but she won't." I informed him.
"How can you be so sure?" He demanded.
"I'm clever." I replied. I didn't wait for him to formulate a response. I took off running as fast as my legs would carry me.
When I reached the little temple where we'd left the Anathema pinned to the floor I was not surprised to see that some of the Deathlord's men had already arrived. They surrounded her on three sides, jeering and cackling but maintaining a good distance away from an idol of the Unconquered Sun whose usual bemused grin seemed to have taken on a darker cast, particularly as he considered the scum that had just entered his sanctuary. The creepy marble woman loomed over all of us. I wasn't sure who she was, but she looked awfully familiar, and I wondered if she wasn't the infamous "Pandora" herself.
The leader if the dead, a pale-faced, beautiful young man dressed in silver and black circled the Anathema like a vulture, seeming amused that she'd been snared by such a simple bit of Thamaturgy. I hid behind a pillar and watched in silence, debating whether or not to make a move. My wandering fingertips suddenly brushed upon something in the stone, a strange mark that looked like something carved by an animal's claws... but with precision and purpose. For the briefest of moments I felt as if I were about to lose consciousness again. Strange images swam in my mind and I could see myself making a similar mark on a tree with hands that were not my own.
In the corners of my mind, I could hear a quiet voice begging that I do something, anything! Though moments ago I'd been content to leave the demon to the damned, the thought of abandoning her turned my stomach then. What kind of monster was I? Hadn't I sworn once that I'd never allow something so horrible to happen ever again?
The trouble was, I couldn't precisely remember having sworn such an oath. I only felt it, the seriousness of it bearing down like weights of lead upon my soul from somewhere dark and buried deep. I gritted my teeth as the pale man approached the Anathema and took her by the neck. I did not know whether he would kill her in that moment or do something even more cruel and foul to her first, but I couldn't tolerate the sight of his hands on her.
I released my Thamaturgy with a single word and as the chalk blew up in the Deathknight's face, I came charging out from my hiding place, armed with nothing more than a length of razor wire and what felt like a decade's worth of pent-up fury. I slashed in every direction until I was breathless and covered in cold blood. Blows struck by the dead glanced harmlessly off of my skin as if I were wearing armor that could not be seen. Only the demon girl's steady hand on my shoulder kept me from charging the pale man and ripping him to ribbons.
My heart pounded furiously in my chest. What was happening to me? Had I gone rabid, like some kind of mad animal?
"This way!" The Anathema ordered. I followed her. I wanted to follow her.
I had been a leader most of my life, but for some reason I could not explain, I felt as if running two steps behind her, that mere slip of a girl, barely older than my student... was the safest place I could be.
"Stop!" Yurasu snarled, barring the path in front of us. Despite my orders, he'd doubled back after me.
"Idiot boy!" I scolded. "I told you to get out of here!"
"We can't go back the way we came in!" He informed me. "There are too many dead up there! More than we can take on... even the three of us." He admitted, observing that the Anathema had reclaimed her sword.
"Any other way out of here?" I suggested hopefully.
"There are too many traps." The Anathema protested.
"Oh, I think I can handle traps." I smiled perhaps a little maliciously, toying with my razor wire.
"She is the best." Yurasu admitted.
"I know that. But these are bad traps." The Anathema replied. "Um, and there's a killer construct. And a door that I don't know how to open." She finished.
"Would it be safer to face the army of undead chasing after us?" Yurasu demanded.
The Anathema paused. "Let's run." She decided.
"I can do a little something to slow our pursuers down." I considered the small amount of chalk left in my pouch and then dumped it onto the floor where we stood, making a very large, simple mandala that would trigger the moment any kind of dead thing came within fifty feet of it. It wouldn't do anything to hold them in place, but the liberal amount of salt I added to the mix would be a significant deterrent and the mandala itself would produce a blinding light when triggered, probably bright enough to send the Deathlord's minions into a panic. The Anathema observed my work and gave an appreciative whistle.
"Ooh! You are clever! And a devil!" She informed me.
"It is my name." I replied, smiling despite myself.
Though we were already a fair clip ahead of our pursuers when they stumbled into my Thamaturgy, the first of the Anathema's "bad traps" proved to be worthy of my full attention. At first I let Yurasu lead the way so that he wouldn't slow us down by keeping his distance from our still-glowing companion but when I began to feel that something was not quite right, I pushed him behind me and hesitated for a moment as we were about to enter into a seamless white marble corridor. Kneeling down, I drew a deep breath and then blew all the air out of my lungs. It scarcely disturbed the stillness of the place, but it was enough to trigger something.
"Uhoh." The Anathema paled.
I picked up a little rock and tossed it about three feet. There was a sound like a hissing snake and the faint but unmistakable scent of a certain oil that a old friend of mine had often used on his firewands.
"Down!" I ordered, seizing Yurasu's belt.
A sheet of blue fire filled the corridor, burning my little rock black and then evaporating into nothingness.
"Sifu, we can't go through that!" Yurasu protested. It was the first he'd said in some time. The realization that we were both in very far over our heads had doubtless occurred to him.
"There's no other way!" The Anathema protested.
"You said "bad traps"! In my book, that means traps with the potential to maim or kill! But that there? That is incineration! Which is, to put it nicely - insanity!" I pointed to the singed rock.
"Ugh! Damnit, Devil! This is your old school, isn't it?" The Anathema glared at me, her hands on her hips. I could not shake how familiar she seemed every time she spoke to me in that casual manner, as if we were old friends.
"My old school?" I echoed. Yurasu raised an eyebrow at the demon.
"Nevermind. Look, if you did set something like this up, how would you plan on getting around it?" The Anathema demanded.
I considered what she'd said for a moment, not wanting to admit that I was starting to feel a little more comfortable with this particular Anathema tomb than I should have, especially since we were currently being pursued by an army of the dead. "I'd have a way to disarm this thing from either side. Here." I decided, pushing Yurasu aside. As I'd suspected, hidden underneath an unobtrusive floor tile in the corner was a little gauge. As I tightened it closed with my bare hands, the hissing sound of the air and the smell of firewand oil began to fade.
"That's all?" The Anathema frowned.
"Something that deadly better be easy to shut off." I replied, trying to underplay what I had just done. For good measure, I casually tossed two more rocks to test my theory. The jets that had spewed fire before made one last valiant belch after the first rock and then only a slight puff of smoke on the second. I put the floor tile back in place.
"We'll also be able to turn it back on from the other side." I informed her. "That's what really makes something like this worth the effort to put in." Yurasu stared at me in disbelief as I stepped into the corridor and motioned for him to follow me.
Sure enough, on the other side of the corridor was an identical tile. I opened the gauge as wide as it would go. The sound of footsteps fast approaching warned me that we'd made our way through only just in time.
"Run, idiot!" I scolded Yurasu.
He didn't hesitate, although the Anathema had taken the lead. Where she was going I couldn't begin to guess... but the light that still radiated from the brand her brow made her easy to follow. After snaking effortlessly through a maze that would have made a faerie queen dizzy, she skidded to a stop before a very dangerous-looking stone bridge that crossed a burbling river of plasma.
Yurasu glanced hopefully in my direction.
"It's a puzzle." I informed him, surveying the pattern on the bridge. "Simple enough. Step on the correct stones and you cross safely. The wrong ones... and you fall in."
My student grimaced.
"So which are the correct ones?" The Anathema demanded.
"There's only one way to find out." Choosing a stone marked with the Old Realm character for "compassion" I stepped out onto the bridge.
"All right, boy... this is why I insisted that you learn Old Realm. The first one is compassion." I informed Yurasu. He nodded, watching me nervously as I chose my next mark. It was a bit of a jump to the stone marked "temperance" but I still managed to land soundly on my feet. "Ahah! The four virtues!" I exclaimed, seeing a stone further out marked "conviction".
"Ooh!" The Anathema exclaimed. "I got it!"
She followed me with the grace of a dancer, hopping effortlessly from one stone to the next all the way over to the opposite bank. Yurasu hesitated for a moment and then firmly planted his feet on the first "compassion" stone he saw. The roar of fire and a chorus of inhuman screams carried very well through the labrythine tunnels as some of our pursuers stumbled into the trap I'd re-set for them. Clearly distracted, Yurasu stepped just slightly too far to the left, overstepping the "temperance" stone I'd used. I saw what the character beneath his foot read only a moment too late. It was very similar to - but not the same as the other stone and could be taken to mean either "peace and quiet" or "a good cup of tea".
"Yurasu, no!" I shouted, not even considering how idiotic I probably sounded. "Wrong one!"
The section of the bridge beneath him immediately gave way. He barely caught himself and clung to the nearest swinging portion of the metal railing that remained intact with one hand, the other still clutching the hilt of his great-grandmother's sword. His legs dangled only a few feet above the burbling plasma. Leaping to a stone marked "valor"... the closest I could get to him, I tied my belt to the railing on the opposite side of the pit that my student had made.
If Yurasu could manage to get the sword in his grip up pointed in my direction, I could almost certainly catch hold of it. And if he pushed very hard off of the stone support pillar nearest to him, the loose railing could prove strong enough to put him back on the bridge. Of course, it would all have to be timed perfectly.
"See that pillar? Swing a little and kick off it. Try to put that blade up here in my hands!" I ordered, tearing the sleeves off of my shirt and wrapping the palms of my hands.
Yurasu gritted his teeth and did as I instructed. His first swing fell slightly short, but I still brushed my fingertips across the weapon's blade.
"All right. Now kick off as hard as you can and as soon as I've got your sword, let go with your other hand!" I ordered.
Yurasu gave another good push and swung slightly in my direction, but refused to let go. When the momentum of his swing started to carry him back, he let go of the sword instead. The weight of the red jade wasn't inconsiderable, but I had a decent enough grip on it that I didn't stumble and fall into the plasma when I was left holding the thing all by myself.
"Damnit, boy!" I rolled my eyes. "Now you're really going to have to jump! Come now, I'll catch you!"
"It's no use, sifu! You'll only fall in with me. You can't pull me up!" He protested. Technically, he was right about that. Even young as he was, Yurasu was a good foot taller than I was and probably weighed more than twice as much.
"Like hell I can't!" I retorted. "Damnit, demon! Get over here!" I ordered.
The Anathema leapt back to meet me, a very broad grin on her face. She stood on the temperance stone about three feet away and I tossed her The Scarlet Empress's sword. She set it down as if it were no great thing and came to stand beside me.
"The both of us can definitely haul you up!" I ordered Yurasu. "Now swing!"
I barely caught his hand as he came flying across the chasm and only the Anathema's hold on my legs kept me from toppling right after him as he'd suspected I might. When the three of us were all on solid ground again, Yurasu stared at me in disbelief.
"How did you do that?" He wondered incredulously.
"Tenacity." I replied. "But let's not waste any time."
I took the lead. Truthfully, I was beginning to wonder about the strange things that the Anathema had said when we first met her. Had she and I crossed paths before? More disturbingly still, did she know more about me than I wanted to admit? Since I'd regained consciousness after our battle with the enormous construct, I hadn't even noticed any pain in my knees. I'd stopped asking myself how I knew the nature of each trap we stumbled upon. I was perfectly willing to admit that my memory had become somewhat foggy with age, but I'd never really stopped to consider how many blank or incoherent pages I had in the book of my life, far too many for even a very good scoundrel such as myself.
I didn't know how far back our pursuers had fallen, but I doubted the shattered bridge would hold them up as long as the firetrap had. We navigated through another labyrinth, this time with myself in the lead and the Anathema skipping along on my heels, her brand still illuminating the path in front of me. Not that I needed light. I knew where I was going, somehow. The darkness wasn't a barrier to me. Like the fox in my peculiar dream, I was a creature of the night.
An explosion of pain shot through the back of my skull. I crumpled to my knees. For a moment I thought that I was dying, but then Rhapsody's arms were around me. Rhapsody? Where had I gotten that name from? I didn't know. The Anathema had never given either of us her name. And yet I knew that it was her I saw in my distant memory.
When my legs gave out from under me, she heaved me up from the ground as I'd heaved her up out of the sea and on to the deck of my rickety little fishing skiff so long ago.
In my memory of our meeting, her lungs had been full of water, but I knew how to get it out of her. Soon she was spitting and hacking at my feet. Her eyes grew wide in disbelief as she stared up at me, a mad, heretical word frozen on her lips.
But why would a demon call me Anathema?
That was when the pain dissipated and I slowly began to return to the present. I blinked several times, seeing Yurasu's blurry, obstinate face only a few inches away from my own. My ability to focus slowly returned, but I didn't really know how much time had passed. The three of us were tucked into a tiny little alcove not large enough to stand inside. A piece of old wood had been drug in front of our entrance and the only light inside came from Rhapsody's demon brand.
"I'm getting too old for this." I said for what felt like the hundredth time. Very slowly I sat up.
"Sam said there might be consequences." Rhapsody admitted, rubbing her nose. "I'm sorry, Devil, really I am... but Sun-in-Glory I came running when I heard you were in trouble... I came running all the way from Coral and oh, I never thought! I never thought that wench would get to you first or that she'd dare try to do something so unforgivable!" She sniffled, wiping what seemed to be a genuine tear from the corner of her eye. Her glowing mark had faded somewhat in the time that had passed and only flickered a little in the darkness. "And I know you don't know what I'm talking about because you've had a whole different life for these past seven years, but someone has hurt you and they are going to pay for it!"
Yurasu nodded in agreement. If he'd been torn about the Anathema's presence before, my second fainting spell seemed to have turned them into staunch allies.
After checking to be sure that the hall was clear, we slipped out of our hiding space. "All right. What's the plan?"
"Well, "Sid" is ahead of us now, so we're going to have to tread carefully. He'll probably lose a dozen zombies trying to sort out Pandora's exploding Go board, but he'll know we're headed for the exit. And if we don't want to fight him, which we don't, not with the condition you're in... we're going to have to take our chances with... it." Rhapsody explained.
I assumed by "Sid" she meant the pale-faced man who was pursuing us and I'd long since figured out that Pandora was the name of the Anathema whose tomb we were currently staggering through. "It?" I whispered uneasily.
"You know. The killer construct." She clarified. "This way!" She chirped, opening up a very nearly invisible door.
"You seem to know an awful lot about this place." I observed, following close behind her.
"As do you." She retorted. "But don't think too hard on that, dear! We can't have you fainting again!"
I twitched a little at Rhapsody's overly patronizing portrayal of my unusual condition. As I saw it, the only thing worse than being weak was someone noticing that I wasn't able to keep the pace. I considered swatting her with my tail for the insult. Tail?I didn't have a tail. Or at least, I didn't think I had a tail. The thought made me increasingly uneasy. Though it was not the sort of question I was prone to pondering over, I found myself wondering if I was truly human or not.
"So what's this construct we're looking for? If it's anything like the last one, I don't want anywhere near it!" Yurasu argued, probably a bit louder than he should have.
"Which was the last one you ran into?" Rhapsody wondered.
"The giant machine tender?" I supplied.
"Oh no. It's not that big. It's just..." Rhapsody began.
A greenish glob of something oozed down from the ceiling just in front of Yurasu and landed with a plop on his foot. He grimaced and shook it off.
"Disgusting?" I suggested, smiling a little despite myself. Rhapsody only rolled her eyes.
"You just wait til' you see it!" She warned ominously. "There are no words in any language that will ever do it justice, and I can say that with authority, my friends, because I am the most famous bard in Creation!"
"A bard, eh? Is that what got you into this mess? Go into a demon tomb looking for stories?" Yurasu suggested, not sounding at all convinced by her claim. Though he'd warmed up to Rhapsody somewhat, he clearly didn't trust her. Truthfully, I wasn't sure why I trusted her myself... but for some reason I did.
"Nah, you pick up good stories in bars!" Rhapsody laughed. "You pick up treasure in monster-infested hellholes like this one! Eh, Devil-dear?" She elbowed me and then realized what I was staring at.
The narrow corridor we were passing through opened up into another large workspace, but unlike the one that the bandits had pilfered through, the room we entered into then was very nearly pristine, a forge from the glory days of the First Age that looked like it had been abandoned only yesterday.
Yurasu whistled, clearly impressed. Not for the first time, I felt a strange sort of kinship with the ruins. I ran my fingertips slowly across a tabletop, picking up not the smallest particle of dust.
"Someone's been here recently. Everything's clean." I whispered fearfully, thinking we'd just stumbled into a trap.
"This is what you call clean? Yeeuuch!" Yurasu grimaced, shaking out his hand furiously. Apparently he'd found another repository of the same greenish ooze that had dripped on him before and had very nearly sat in it.
"No, Devil's right." Rhapsody leapt to my defense. "Someone has been here."
"And you know who?" I pressed, reading the expression on her face.
"Oversight." She said, as if the word was a curse. It made me feel cold to the bone.
With a heavy sigh, she sat down in a nearby chair and buried her face in her hands. I noticed that Yurasu was in the process of filling his pockets with interesting tidbits and decided not to begrudge him the one small boon he was liable to glean from our whole ordeal beyond the largely symbolic recovery of his great-grandmother's sword. After what felt like an excruciatingly long time, Rhapsody kicked her chair back and folded her hands behind her head.
The smile on her face suggested that she wasn't actually happy. I said nothing, though I was more frustrated than before by my own inability to sort out all the things that I was suddenly "remembering". As caught up in my own thoughts as I was, I barely noticed a something creeping towards us out of the dark. It barely made a sound, but its smell was altogether indescribable, like a dead animal left to rot days in the hot sun. And then it came into the light surrounding Rhapsody.
"Well, on the up side, if the Bureau of Destiny has already sent agents in here, then maybe we won't have to deal with..." Rhapsody trailed off into silence, noticing that I was staring with my jaw dropped in disbelief. It was all I could do. Looming over the chair she'd been so idly rocking was the most horrific monstrosity I'd ever had cause to imagine, a bloody mess of metals and flesh which seemed to be comprised of the decomposing remains of several different creatures, at least one toothy reptile, some sort of spiny sea animal, an embryonic pig, and what marginally resembled a human being. Its face was contorted into a permanent mask of agony.
Yurasu screamed like I'd never heard him scream before. Rhapsody flipped right out of her chair and had barely gone for her blade when the monster planted one of its mouldering appendages down on her chest, studying her momentarily with a wheezing, disjointed sort of laughing noise that made me feel even sicker than I'd felt when I'd first witnessed the abomination coming out of the dark.
Before I realized that I was about to do something truly insane, I drew my dagger, braced myself and charged the monster. I didn't have any salt or chalk left for Thamaturgy and I only belatedly remembered the prayer strips I still had stuffed inside my shirt where I couldn't reach them, not when both of my hands were busy trying to parry and dodge the monster's flailing limbs. A good solid blow from the beast caught me in the gut and sent me sliding into the wall. Yurasu hacked his way to my defense, but I barely even saw him.
My world had gone completely red. I didn't know where I was or what was happening to me.
First I'd been a thief and then an organizer of thieves, as I often liked to say "an all-around scoundrel" in Chiarascuro, the city of my birth. That much I remembered.
But then... something had happened. A simple heist had gone horribly awry and I had undertaken a dangerous rescue mission to retrieve some of my underlings. Any other villain of my stature probably would have left the kids to pay the price of their failure, but it wasn't in my nature to do something like that.
Despite being past my prime, I'd attached myself like a sand burr to the underside of the slave caravan and hidden for weeks within sight of my enemies, sleeping in the dunes and keeping company with the snakes and the foxes until I'd rescued all of my people... except for one, the youngest. The boy was an orphan, not more than eight years old. His ears were too big for his head and he had no proper name. I called him "Pup" at first but after I'd taught him how to bait and mislead dogs, he'd decided he ought to be named for "a clever-er animal". Hearing one of my underlings profess that I was "sharp, like a fox" - he then dubbed himself "Kit". And damn it all if I hadn't gotten attached to the little mongrel.
Kit would have been easy to spirit away, if the slavers had not become wary and suspicious after so many of their captives had mysteriously gone missing and several of their caravan guards had turned up dead with daggers in their backs or the cuts of razor wire across their throats.
My Kit was shot once before I ever picked him up and I was shot many more times than that, but somehow I found the strength to elude my pursuers and carry the boy for miles while bleeding out my own life's blood all over the desert. When I came within sight of the place where I'd led all the others, I bound Kit well enough that he could hobble to safety and prepared myself to die before I retreated one single step.
But I did not die.
Someone gave me wine. I looked at my own reflection in the red liquid as if I were looking at a stranger. I was used to being older and more experienced than any of the scoundrels around me... even excellent thieves seldom lived to retirement. And yet somehow, I had found myself under the wing of a woman infinitely cleverer than I was myself... full of secrets and odd little tricks, some of which I could scarcely wrap my mind around.
At the time, I hadn't known what a monster Pandora really was. Laughing Mask trusted her, and I trusted Mask. He and I... we were the same. Both dupes.
A familiar paw came to rest on my shoulder and a voice asked if I was ready. It was Laughing Mask. I'd been expecting a stranger. Knowing that I was in the hands of someone I loved, my fears dissipated. A peculiar, heady combination of pain and pleasure overwhelmed me as Mask took his up his finest needle and began to give me my first tattoo.
"What does it look like?" I asked him, though I knew I wasn't supposed to speak.
"It looks like Luna kissed you on the rump! Probably the only place she could get hold of, what with your squirming! Honestly, Devil, how old are you? Stay still!" Mask ordered, laughing. I couldn't see his face without turning my head, and I didn't want to move in any way that might muddle his important work. But I did smile despite myself.
I came back to my senses on my hands and knees in a puddle of gore with absolutely no recollection of what had happened. Rhapsody was standing over me and Yurasu was guarding the both of us, poking his blade several times at what was left of the horror that he seemed to have slain. It twitched sporadically and seemed to be dying, though even total dismemberment seemed insufficient to render it completely dead.
My head still pounding from everything I had seen, for the briefest of instants I thought that I saw a silver curl tattooed on the top of my left hand, gracefully joining with a stronger, thicker line that spiraled around my arm. And then it was gone.
"I'm all right!" I cursed under my breath as I tried to stand. Rhapsody propped me up.
"You're not all right." Yurasu informed me. "Sifu, there is something wrong with you."
"It's called being old. Can't run from armies of the dead and kill abominations like I used to." I replied, sounding far more sarcastic than I'd intended. Yurasu was right. Since we'd come into Pandora's box, I'd felt it. At first I'd brushed it off as typical jitters – a supposively inaccessible trapped demon tomb inspires a little fear in the heart of any scoundrel. But that first sense of paranoia and vague familiarity had faded. I was certain that I knew the place we had come to inside and out, or rather, that I had known it intimately in the life that I'd known Rhapsody, the one that had come back to me in disorienting flashes that always seemed to result in me waking up and wondering how much time had really passed.
I was beginning to believe that what I'd actually stumbled into was far more serious, and that the Scarlet Empress's long-lost sword hadn't been placed in such a peculiar resting place as a golden opportunity for my student... but as bait for me.
"Yurasu, go watch over by the door." Rhapsody ordered. "I'll get Clever Devil cleaned up."
As soon as my student turned away, Rhapsody stripped off the little blue hapi coat that she was wearing and used the white linen shirt she was had on underneath as a rag to wipe some of the blood off of my face. I stood there like a doll and let her fuss over me. It wasn't as if I had the strength to do anything else.
"How do I know you?" I asked her, hoping that I'd managed to mentally squeeze some of the emotion out of my voice before I spoke.
"We're sisters." Rhapsody told me, sighing over the condition of my shirt. Between Yurasu's near death experience at the puzzle bridge and my own recent bout with insanity, I was starting to look like a walking corpse myself.
"No we're not." I informed her. "I'm too old to be your sister."
"You're not, and yes we are." She replied, undeterred.
"Better keep wiping yourself off or we'll mistake you for one of Sid's dead minions." Rhapsody advised. She gave me her shirt and put her coat back on, buttoning it only halfway. If he hadn't already seen that she was Anathema, I didn't doubt that I would have caught Yurasu staring at Rhapsody, who casually wore that single article of boy's clothing in a way that would have made a prostitute blush.
"You're not going to tell me what's going on?" I demanded. "Why not?"
"Devil, you'd never believe me!" She retorted, turning on one heel.
"Damnit, Rhapsody!" I cursed out loud before I could stop myself.
Yurasu turned to me in confusion. Then he turned to Rhapsody. "Ping?" He wondered.
I gathered that "Ping" was the name that Rhapsody had given him, probably while I was unconscious. Really, there was no explaining how I'd come by the name Rhapsody myself... unless if everything I was remembering had actually happened.
Rhapsody stared at me in disbelief. Then her expression of shock became a smile and she looped herself around my neck, bouncing around gleefully. "I knew it! I knew it! It's coming all back to you, isn't it?" She pressed.
"If you mean, am I having skull-splitting visions of things that make no sense, then the answer is yes!" I replied, rubbing my temples. "Now I don't know what you've done to me, but I strongly suggest that you undo it before we go any further! I can't disarm traps for you if I can't see straight!"
Rhapsody's face fell. "I didn't do anything to you! I've just been trying to help!" She murmured, saying nothing. "I thought for certain that once Luna heard what had happened she would be absolutely furious! How could one of the Incarnae not care about some rogue fate-mangler undoing her very own work? And she's been ahead in the Games for so long now that... I thought that maybe a very, very well-written petition might just be enough. Sun-in-Glory, I gave away two undisclosed favors, and one of them to Adamant Quill! I've practically sold my soul to Oversight for the next five centuries to get them to man up on this and... well, damnit! I can't just out-with-it! This kind of thing has never been attempted before and no one knows what the consequences might be. I mean, we're playing with Adamant Circle Sorcery and Sidereal Martial Arts... among other things. Although just those two alone, that's pretty much a reality-detonating explosive right there."
I said nothing, still absolutely baffled by everything she had said. Yurasu only stared at me.
Not bothering to explain myself, I followed Rhapsody where she led, into yet another labyrinth. We walked for a good portion of an hour without speaking a word to each other, Yurasu still tagging along on my heels. I felt the nagging sensation that we were getting closer to something, but when I tried to guess where we needed to go next, the furious pounding in the back of my skull rose up again with new fervor.
Rhapsody paused to consider something written on the wall and that was when I heard it. Not the sound of voices or tramping footsteps, but the much subtler whisper of men dressed for battle standing motionless at attention as only an army of the dead possibly could.
There was a faint light coming from up ahead... natural light, it seemed. We'd found the exit.
Yurasu noticed where we were about a moment after I did. "The sun!" He exclaimed and very nearly started running.
"Open your ears, boy!" I put my hand in front of Yurasu. "Those ghouls have beaten us here!"
The three of us stared out from the darkness and listened. Though it was sorely tempting to crane my head out just slightly and get a reasonable count of how many of our enemies were still pursuing us, I decided that an estimate was better than the risk of being seen.
After ten minutes or so, I decided that we probably had fifteen or twenty dead left... and of course, their master "Sid". The odds were significantly turned against us. Yurasu was a good fighter and could handle five or so himself, but I didn't have any real appraisal of Rhapsody's skill beyond the fact that she was an Anathema and my instincts seemed to tell me to stay behind her. I knew better than to count myself in for the fight. In my current state it would be a blessing if I could even manage to remain conscious for most of it.
"How long are we going to wait?" Yurasu hissed.
Rhasody hesitated. "If we step out there, we'll be caught immediately." She whispered.
"They're not moving, they're only waiting for us! We can't hide in here forever." Yurasu retorted. "We've run as far as we can! The traps have cut down their numbers. We can take them now!"
"The boy's right. There's maybe twenty and we have surprise on our side. Yurasu will be able handle most of them and I think you can mop up the rest." I gestured to Rhapsody's sword. "It's now or never." I nodded, noticing how my student beamed as I informed Rhapsody of his prowess. "The exit's right ahead of us."
"I don't know what good it will do, honestly." Rhapsody admitted. "That door's un-openable."
"No door is un-openable!" I replied. "Now are you with me?"
Yurasu nodded readily. Rhapsody sighed.
"You're still you all right." She informed me.
"I'll take that as a complement." I replied. "Let's finish this."
Very quietly, I stepped out into the light. Rhapsody and Yurasu followed me. Neither of them made much more noise than I had, but that didn't matter.
We were standing on a balcony perhaps twelve feet above a little entry hall with a beautiful mosaic ceiling. A spiderweb of cracks in the stone let the sun from outside, but none of them looked promising enough to crawl through. The restless dead looked unsettled by their orders to remain where they were. They avoided the spots where the light burned brightly, a small concession to their otherwise perfect military poise. Below us were no fewer than twenty ghouls and the pale-faced man, the Deathknight that Rhapsody had called "Sid".
I suddenly knew what that silly, demeaning nickname was short for. Obsidian Heart of the Void.
He evaluated the three of us with his arms crossed and a smug expression on his face. Clearly, we were expected.
I stared right through the Deathknight. As terrifying as he'd seemed before, I couldn't even bring myself to look at him then.
He was standing in front of the most staggeringly complex, impossibly beautiful door that I had ever seen.
It was made of solid silver and engraved with every kind of animal imaginable all climbing and crawling around the branches and roots of an enormous old oak tree. A woman sat at the base of the tree with her hands outstretched and a serene smile on her face. All around her, the creatures moved and changed shape before my eyes, even at such a distance. One animal became another and all flowed together into the roots of the tree, then out again through the branches and back into the sky in the forms of birds and insects. I knew at once that what stood before me was not only a work of art but a masterwork of sorcerous locksmithing.
Rhapsody's "un-openable door" wasn't just any door. It was Luna's Menagerie!
As I considered the name of the ancient device in front of me, I knew that I'd pored over it before, countless times. I remembered it as I'd remembered Rhapsody and the firetrap and the construct... as something from another life. And I knew with a sick sort of certainty that I was looking at the ultimate puzzle... a puzzle that could take centuries to solve when I didn't even have a minute. A single coiling serpent, nearly invisible amongst the roots of the tree caught my eye. When it opened its mouth to swallow a darting mouse, it slowed for no more than a heartbeat and I saw the hidden mechanism within it, the secret key to cracking Luna's Menagerie.
Whatever the Deathknight had said first I missed entirely, but Yurasu's reaction jarred me out of my hypnotized state. As quiet and uncertain as he had been since our first tussle with the tiger construct, I'd almost forgotten how pigheaded he could be. The way he'd been clutching the hilt of his great-grandmother's sword since we'd retrieved the thing should have been a warning to me that the boy's Dragon blood was boiling up for a fight and now that he was afforded the opportunity to take the offensive, he was not about to run like prey.
With an incoherent roar, Yurasu leapt down from our perch and started tearing into ghouls left and right with a fury that would have made his illustrious ancestor very proud.
Rhapsody drew her blade and went for the Deathknight herself, dispatching the dead with an ease that made Yurasu's inexperience all the more obvious. Her apparent youth was clearly an illusion. When she ran her sword through someone, she stopped looking like a cheerful young girl and began to look like what I was beginning to suspect she truly was, an old, tired crusader driven by an unbreakable vow.
More than before, I wanted to be down there beside her, guarding her back. I worried for Yurasu holding his own against the ghouls, but he was nearly an adult and he barely needed his sifu.
While I suspected it was also true that Rhapsody didn't need me to protect her or teach her, I knew that she needed me for other reasons. Most of Creation was terrified of her and her soft heart just couldn't stand the strain of being reviled and feared when she was trying so desperately to do good.
It had never occurred to me to ask what had brought Rhapsody into Pandora's Box or why she'd felt it necessary to keep the Scarlet Empress's sword out of the hands of The Mask of Winters and his servants. I suspected that in a way, I'd always known the truth. That was why I'd felt so compelled not to leave her for the dead. Rhapsody was doing what she was always doing in one way or another. She was fulfilling her promise to the Unconquered Sun, the God she so often invoked. She was saving the whole world.
Still, I was all too painfully aware of how badly my last attempt at holding my own in a fight had gone. There was something buried in the back of my mind that had been screaming for release ever since I'd first drawn blood defending Rhapsody and it was definitely getting stronger. I suspected I'd probably knock myself senseless again if I started tearing into our enemies as I had before, like a mad fiend with my razor wire. More importantly, my dagger was a lousy weapon for dispatching armored ghouls and certainly no match for a sword.
I decided to take the revelation of the snake as a sign. I had to trust my companions to handle most of the ghouls and work on our exit.
A few ghouls attempted to stop me from reaching my destination, but I was ready for them. I dispatched the first two and let the third and fourth skewer each other. Kneeling down before Luna's Menagerie, I whispered the first few words of an old prayer that I'd heard my first teacher use when he fell into something far beyond his skill. It seemed only appropriate to ask Luna herself for a little help with the appropriately godly trap that had been named for her.
The serpent slithered within my grasp and I caught it by the head, just as I would have if it were a real snake. It struggled briefly and I pressed at the base of its jaw to force the creature to open is mouth. Then I began to work. I can't honestly say that I noticed the fight going on around me... that is, until my pick bumped into something strangely soft inside the mouth of the silver snake.
I poked hesitantly at the unusual obstruction and to my surprise, whatever it was grabbed hold of my pick, very nearly tearing it from my grasp. There was something alive inside the lock, something that definitely didn't belong in there!
A faint prick warned me that I'd been too hasty in trying to get after the wriggling thing. I grimaced as I saw that my mistake had caused a tiny poisoned needle to emerge from the fangs of the silver snake. It hadn't broken my skin, but it very well could have and might yet if I continued to let my frustrations get the better of me.
Rhapsody noticed my expression of shock. Yelling obscenities in Old Realm and warning the ghouls to stay back, she jumped to my aid. I noticed that she did a lot more shouting and insulting than actual killing, but I suspected that her words and the blazing brand on her brow were as effective a weapon as any.
"I've got this!" I told Rhapsody, pushing her slightly away from the door. "This lock might kill me for cracking it, but I know how to get it if I have to. This door will blow open like a hurricane and it will give you less than a minute to get out before it slams shut again and can't be opened for another five days!" I explained. "If I don't make it out of here, you need to get that boy to safety!" I nodded in the direction of Yurasu, who was still hacking his way through ghouls.
"Damnit, Devil... I'm supposed to leave you behind and take that Dragonblood?" Rhapsody protested. "I'd rather cut off my own arm!" She vowed.
"Yurasu is a good kid. Probably one of the best the Empire has." I informed her.
"He's still a Dragonblood." Rhapsody snorted with disdain. "One day he'll be just like the rest of them!"
"I wouldn't be so sure about that. Do you think he's going to forget this mess we've gotten ourselves into? Never! He has his whole life ahead of him and it starts now, with the three of us about to die and you fighting right beside him! Maybe he's been taught his whole life to hate your kind but you're the first he's ever met and you are proving that every damned thing he's ever heard about Anathema dead wrong!"
"And what about you?" Rhapsody pressed.
"I'm not important." I told her. "Remember what I said. When the door blows open, you've only got a minute."
"We can't get through all the ghouls that fast!" Rhapsody protested.
"I'll keep the rest of them off you." I replied without considering how I planned to do such a thing.
I turned my focus back to the door, the poisoned needle barely brushing the skin of my wrist but not breaking it as I seized the elusive, wiggling mechanism inside. I was a little disgusted but not entirely surprised to see that the thing that had consistently eluded my grasp was a tiny construct, made of silver and black metal meshed with the inside-out corpse of a mouse. Without hesitation, I crushed the little monster under my boot and set to work. My hands moved like lightning... I couldn't even recollect whether I had actually moved any of the tumblers of the lock or simply desired that the door in front of me would open.
I saw in the space of a heartbeat Rhapsody with her sword drawn and Yurasu about to behead another ghoul with his great-grandmother's blade. I saw the Deathknight too, standing a few paces behind his mindless minions and suddenly a solution occurred to me. It was so simple I was at a loss to guess how I'd failed to notice it before. As she'd promised to, Rhapsody would get Yurasu to safety. He could return to the Blessed Isle with the sword and become the pride of House Mnemon, not to mention a permanent thorn in the side of The Mask of Winters, which was a prospect too delightful not to imagine. And perhaps someday when he became old and gray, my student would tell his great-grandchildren about the last stand of Clever Devil.
Holding the last tumbler with one of my lockpicks, I reached into my shirt and produced the sweat-stained remnants of all of the prayer strips I'd prepared before Yurasu and I had begun our little adventure. I clenched them in my teeth and without hesitating for a moment, I opened the door.
The sound of the pressure changing was exactly as I'd anticipated it being, as if I'd suddenly opened wide the mouth of the Underworld... except that it was midday outside and the sun was shining brightly. The dead shrank away from the light, howling in terror. Though there weren't many left after Yurasu and Rhapsody had each taken their share, some of those that remained fled. The rest crowded around their master who said nothing but looked extraordinary displeased by my success.
"Go!" I ordered. Rhapsody seized Yurasu's arm and dove for the opening. I wrapped my section of razor wire around both of my hands until my palms bled.
As if demon-possessed, I went straight for the Deathknight, filling the air with a flurry of prayer strips and blood. The pale man's sword buried itself up to the hilt in my leg but I had also struck my intended mark. With all the strength I possessed, I drew my razor wire around his neck and pulled it tight. More blood flew everywhere. The undead scattered, howling in horror and the Deathknight got me again with his blade before he fell, gurgling at my feet. Just before he died, he gave me a new look... one of recognition.
Though I'd been a stranger to him when we'd first crossed paths, at that moment we were old foes again, and the fiend smiled slightly, despite the blood that flowed from his slashed throat, conceding his defeat. "Clever. Devil."
I collapsed to my knees, certain that I was about to breathe my last.
But then a hand came to rest on my shoulder. I didn't have the strength to turn and see who it was behind me, though I first I suspected that it was the demon girl who had not run far enough. If I'd learned nothing at all about Rhapsody, I'd learned that she was even more stubborn than Yurasu.
"Oh no, Clever Devil." A voice laughed, a voice that reminded me at once of my mother. "No dying for you! Not today!"
"I'm old." I protested weakly. "It's time."
"It's not time. Not yet!" The woman replied.
"And just who are you?" I demanded, turning to face the woman behind me.
When I did see her surrounded by a corona of silver light, I fell flat on my back. She was impossibly beautiful and at the same time I sensed that she was more frightfully intelligent and calculating than anyone I had ever known, even more clever than Pandora, which was what really left me in awe of her. Her eyes reflected things that there were no words for. They were as old as the stars in the sky. I did not doubt for an instant that she was a Goddess.
"I should think it would be obvious, daughter of mine." She replied with a mischievous smile. "I'm Luna."