We followed the Yanaze, the River of Tears and then the Silver River. For the first we had the help of a tug, for the second we could exploit the strange currents of the river that had once been used to drain the entire White Sea to enrich the North with a vast valley of fertile lands.
As we ascended the river, the monks meditated as Sweet Memory recited the ancient tale of the end of that age, reinforcing the group’s conviction by reminding of one of the most terrible atrocities that could be laid against the Golden Anathema.
Only a tenth of the Solar Exalted (not that she called them that) had survived the first, cataclysmic battle on Mount Meru. It had been a resounding triumph for the Usurpation, but the armies of the nascent Shogunate had been forced to spread out to hunt down the survivors and their remaining adherents.
One of those survivors had been confronted thousands of miles to the west of us, upon the great dam that divided the drained White Valley from the Great Western Ocean. As a last, vindictive act against those who had betrayed and abandoned him, the Solar Exalt had smashed open the dam. The result had been predictable, a torrent that had swept from one end of the North to the other, killing hundreds of millions. The waters hadn’t ended there, though. When they reached the River of Tears, they swept down and killed men and women as far away as the Yanaze.
With tales like that, it was hard to imagine how anyone would support the returning Solar Exalted, but that is to underestimate both their charisma and the resentment at the Realm’s exploitation of their satrapies. And individually, not all the Solars were such monsters.
Even if the final curse of Neverborn made that far more likely than not.
The story reminded me of uncomfortably of my own action in waking the Kukla. The tsunami that had resulted had probably been even more destructive. Granted that the victims would have died anyway as the Deathlords killed Creation, but that didn’t make killing them first a comfortable thought. Had there been a better way? We’d saved those we could, and since the portion of Creation we were carving away included parts of the White Sea, the wave likely hadn’t reached the River of Tears.
How different was what I had done from the deeds of that long-dead Solar? I slept poorly that night, examining my justifications. I could not change what I had done in that other life, but now that I had a second life, I did have some chance to do better. To be better.
I don’t plan to waste it.
The Silver River was the start of the Linowan territory and we transferred to their galleys, threading our way up the river and watching the skies. We knew that the Bull had managed to smuggle a cadre of his forces across the river, using sorcery to fly ships across hundreds of miles.
It was a great relief for me when we left the rivers behind at last and trekked across the embattled kingdom of Rokan-Jin to the Tepet headquarters at Carnelian Peak. We pushed the pace hard, even marching from sunrise to sunset over the five days of Calibration that marked the end of the year. For those four nights I accepted no arguments and took over the campfire, cooking rice, vegetables and – for those permitted it – fish into meals that would keep the group going.
Sweet Memory joked that some of the mortal monks kept walking solely for fear that if they fell behind, their meals would be eaten by the rest of us before they caught up. And then assigned me cooking duties for the rest of the trip.
The mountain city had swollen to more than double its usual population and legion camps stretched outside the walls, surrounded in turn by earthworks across the approaches to the city, providing an outer perimeter. I saw the standards of the Forty-Third Legion flying not far from the gate we approached long before I realised that the heavy barrier across the road wasn’t as much a gate as a section of wall lifted in and out of place by a warstrider stationed behind it.
The eighteen-foot machine was activated as Sweet Memory made account to the sentries for our presence. Twenty-four monks and one additional exalt were certainly welcome news, but unsurprisingly they wanted an officer to verify us before we were admitted – an infiltrator unit would be something of a forlorn hope, but the power of a Solar to persuade men to take suicidal risks was not to be underestimated and a few dozen men could cost lives, supplies and - worst of all for a campaign - time before they were killed
“Welcome to Carnelian Peak.” General Tepet Tilis Mallon’s aide bowed punctiliously to us, having confirmed our credential and ordered the gate opened. She was a Tepet as well, unsurprisingly, though not one I had met before or even heard much of so I guessed she was either fairly junior or just neither a spectacular success or failure. “General Arada is coordinating with our allies further north or he would greet you personally, I am sure.”
Her gaze scanned the two dozen monks in their neat, if somewhat travel-stained robes, and there was a flicker of bemusement as she saw me at the end. One of these new arrivals, she must be thinking, was not like the others.
Since I was about as likely to shave my head as I was to pass up a beef steak when I didn’t have to, my hair was growing back in and had got past the stage of mere fuzz. For some reason it was growing back in with light curls rather than the previous almost wiry shock of blonde hair. Probably it would straighten as it got longer, I supposed.
While I still had the Cloister robe, I was wearing it over trousers and a long, Linowan-style coat that I’d bought on the way north. It was considerably colder and wetter up here than the Blessed Isle, especially with autumn in full swing, and if the monks wanted to suffer for the sake of their oaths, that was their business. I wasn’t pledged to that except when I was at the Cloister of Wisdom.
“We’ll arrange quarters for you,” she continued. “The city temple is a little small but we can clear out a house near them.” Probably by turfing some of the Rokan-Jin inhabitants, I suspected.
“That won’t be necessary.” Sweet Memory gestured to the tents used by the Legion. “If you can spare us some tents we can camp alongside the soldiers. We will be fighting alongside them and ministering to their spiritual needs so there is no need for great distance between us.”
Lisara nodded slowly, evidently unconvinced. “I’ll arrange tents with the auxiliaries then.”
“If I may ask, where are the Fourth Dragon quartered?” I asked her. “I have a relative serving with them.”
The woman gave me a dubious look and then gestured towards one of the standards. “They had the night watch last night, so your kinsman will be off duty this evening,” she added.
“Thank you kindly.”
“Are you a professional shikari?” the officer enquired, clearly assuming me to be older than I actually was.
“A proven comrade,” offered Sweet Memory in explanation. “Alina volunteered to join our number after two Exalted scheduled to join us became unavailable.”
Lisara frowned at the mention, as if our smaller numbers were a personal slight. “And your kinsman?”
“Tepet Demarol Icole,” I answered.
“I thought I knew all the Dragon-Blooded in our ranks. Are you sure he is with our Legion?”
I shook my head. “Fang-sergeant Tepet Demarol Icole.” I stressed the rank. An Exalted officer would have been a Fanglord. “He’s my great-nephew.”
“Oh yes.” She plainly had no idea who he was. “By all means check on him if you wish.”
“I’ll take you up on that.” I gave Sweet Memory a nod. “If I could prevail on you to keep a space in one of your tents for me?”
“I think I’d insist on that,” she told me. “Arranging your own quarters probably wouldn’t go well.”
Fortunately, legion encampments are fairly standardised so I had no difficulty working out roughly where Icole’s fang would have their tent. Between that I only had to ask twice for directions before finding a tent with four men seated around a fire at the entrance, working on cleaning their armour. A standard legion field pot was waiting by the fire so I guessed that they would be making their dinner soon.
“Greetings, is this Tepet Demarol Icole’s fang?”
The men looked up at my approach. “It is,” the oldest of them confirmed. “Do you have business with one of us?”
I shrugged. “I just arrived and I thought I’d greet Icole since I haven’t seen him in a while. Is he here?”
Two of them looked at the tent but the oldest man shut them up with a glare. “The fang-sergeant is a little busy at the moment, but we can let him know you’re looking for him. Where would he go to find you?”
I arched an eyebrow. What was he doing, sowing wild oats in the tent with a local? Iyuki might be upset, she’d written about him in every letter we’d exchanged since she left for the Heptagram. “I see…” My drawl and smirk made it clear to the older man that I wasn’t fooled. “Well, if he has time for his maiden aunt, he can find me camped with the immaculate monks and the auxiliaries.”
“You’re his aunt!?” one of the younger soldiers exclaimed.
He got a nudge and a hiss of “She’s Exalted, you idiot,” from the man next to him. I would have thought the marble-like skin made that obvious.
“Well, great-aunt.” I raised my voice just enough to be carrying. “But who needs that sort of detail?”
The tent flap was flung back, and two heads of dark hair emerged almost as one. Icole’s pale eyes widened and his face flushed. The other head was also familiar, but much less expected.
“What are you doing here!?” Tepet Iyuki and I yelled at each other in unison.
“Dinner?” asked the loudmouth in a plaintive, hopeful voice. His comrade shut him up with a clip around the ear.
“Alina, why aren’t you at the Cloister of Wisdom?”
I shook my head. “I could ask you the same about the Heptagram.”
I must have missed that letter – then again, I’d been very busy this summer. “Congratulations.”
I meant that, by the way. The Heptagram offers seven years of classes but given about half the students fail the classes in a given year, quite a number wind up needing extra years to retake years. Four completed years is the minimum to graduate so for Iyuki to have spent only five years there was remarkable.
“What do you mean congratulations? Do your parents know you’re here?”
I thought about the letter that was still in my satchel. “Oh yes.”
“Hello Alina.” Icole tried to gather what was left of his dignity. “We were about to start dinner; would you like to join us?”
“Lady Iyuki is an excellent cook,” the older legionnaire offered.
I nodded. “We went to school together.” Then a thought struck me. “Iyuki, have you heard from your family lately?”
She shook her head. “I told them that I was taking a year to travel after graduating and flew across the Inland Sea from the Heptagram.”
She nodded and then realised what I was doing. “Alina, you’re in no position to lecture me. I’m a grown woman.”
“Then you should realise that you have no moral high ground about my being here.” I sighed heavily. “Icole, I need to borrow your tent for a moment. Thank you for the dinner invitation, I’ll be glad to accept but there’s something Iyuki needs to know.”
He exited, demonstrating to my relief that whatever he and Iyuki had been doing inside, he hadn’t taken his pants off for it.
“Alina, what is it that you can’t tell me here?” she asked me suspiciously.
I pulled her inside and set about the painful task of letting her know that one of our oldest friends from Root and Reed School was dead.
If Iyuki was subdued for the rest of the evening, I certainly didn’t blame her. She sat beside Icole, who ate with one hand, the other around her shoulders. None of his fang made any mention of this, eagerly digging into the food she prepared.
I did offer to help, but she preferred to remain busy, which was understandable under the circumstances. I could see that she’d made good use of my lessons and said as much.
“Wait, you taught Lady Iyuki to cook?” asked the loudmouth from earlier.
He got elbowed again.
“I just mean, I didn’t think dynasts would ever need to cook,” he tried to redress his gaffe. “And then I thought that Lady Iyuki was an exception…”
“It’s one of those things we should have some idea of,” I explained, digging into the rice and stewed meat (no one had mentioned what it was meat of, which suggested that I was better not asking). Iyuki had spiced it very lightly, but the real secret was that she’d stewed the meat until it was perfectly tender, and the juices enriched the broth. I might have gone with a slightly different mix of herbs but that does rather depend on what is available, and besides that is something of a matter of personal preference.
“And those who take to it tend to be very good indeed,” Icole added. “So why aren’t you at the Cloister, Alina?”
I looked at the soldiers listening and decided that some of the details might be better censored. I didn’t doubt that word of the Palace Sublime would spread through the dynasty but if the Immaculate Order felt that it slighted their reputation then they might react poorly to rumours spreading more widely. I didn’t see any need to burn that bridge yet.
“One of the Anathema struck at the detachment of monks coming to reinforce the army,” I explained selectively. “Several monks were wounded, so as I’m nearing mastery of Earth Dragon style, I volunteered to join the expedition.”
Icole’s brows drew together. “Nearing mastery? You mean you’ve grasped the form of the style; the way great-grandmother has Air Dragon style? I’m impressed! That’s incredibly fast progress.”
Under his arm, Iyuki paused in slowly spooning the broth to her mouth and set down her spoon in the bowl. She’d left the meat to pile up at the bottom and wiped her mouth delicately with a napkin she’d produced from her sleeve. “It does rather put my own graduation into perspective.”
I smiled slightly. Would it count as bragging to correct them? Well, perhaps a little, but also if I stayed and fought alongside them then it was best that they have an accurate idea of my capabilities… or at least as accurate as I dared to share. “I mean mastery, Icole. I executed the final technique before we left - not well, as I said, I’m only nearing mastery, but…”
Iyuki had been about to pick up her spoon but now she missed, her hand hitting the handle and sending it flipping up into the air. She caught it before it could hit the ground, but some of the broth sprayed onto her tunic. “You what?”
I shrugged slightly as if to say, ‘you heard me’.
“Alina, it took Ragara Myrrun seven years to master that style and that was the fastest ever. You’ve been studying for what, two years?”
The soldiers looked at us, then each other. “I take it that this is an accomplishment,” the oldest asked politely.
“Ragara Myrrun is an Immaculate Grand Master.” Icole sounded vaguely dumbstruck. “He might possibly be the finest martial artist the order has ever trained. And from the sounds of it, Alina is learning martial arts approximately twice as fast as he is. At that rate she could be a grandmaster in a single mortal lifetime.”
“I doubt that,” I offered depreciatingly – although I probably could do that. I just wouldn’t. The other Immaculate styles don’t really appeal to me, perhaps due to my elemental bias. And, as had been noted when I was only able to attend the Heaven-and-Earth Invitational as a guest rather than a participant, I practise the martial arts. I do not live them, the way a true martial artist does. I’ve met those who fall into the latter category, and I don’t begrudge them their choices, but they are not my choices.
Ragara Myrrun was driven to learn ever more powerful martial arts, to refine himself and his mastery to heights that were essentially unrivalled among the Terrestrial Exalted. To the point that he ultimately over-reached and killed himself. He did that because it was very much his life.
I’m not that committed. It does occur to me that he might find that a little annoying, if I do seem – at least from his perspective – to be even more talented. I should probably avoid giving him cause to think about that. After all, I’d already mastered the style once in my past life – doing so again was more like recovering from a life-changing injury than truly beginning afresh.
The soldiers seemed suitably impressed, but I shrugged. “Anyway, do you know if correspondence is making its way home, Icole? I should probably send something home as reassurance that I’ve arrived safely. You know how Opiha can worry, and I didn’t get a chance to send anything when I was passing through the Imperial City.”
The young officer shook his head in disbelief before telling me: “As long as you don’t include anything too specific, there’s a mail bag that’s taken down to Greyfalls every week or so. They will want to read your letter to make sure there’s no sensitive information that could fall into the wrong hands if the warbird carrying it is lost.”
“Has that happened?”
“No, but one of the pilots was wounded by an archer shortly after we arrived here.” Icole shrugged helplessly. “I think it’s safer now that the Bull’s forces have been forced further north, but there’s no point in taking chances.”
I nodded in agreement. “That makes sense. Could I borrow some writing material? Well, I say borrow…”
“There’s ink, paper and some brushes in the tent,” he confirmed. “I can requisition more so if you want to write more than one letter it’s fine.” He gave Iyuki a little nudge.
She swallowed the mouthful of meat and rice in her mouth. “You’re not being subtle, Icole. But I suppose that if Alina’s going to mention me then it’s better mother and Elder Jita hear from me that I’m here.”
I arched an eyebrow, not saying one way or another whether I would have mentioned her presence. If she wanted to assume that I would snitch then that was her lack. “It wouldn’t hurt for me to send two letters then.”
“Oh?” enquired Iyuki. “Who else will you be writing to? Your fiancé? I didn’t hear that things had moved forwards since you went to the Cloister, but I heard he seemed quite taken with you.”
I’m not sure what gave her that impression. “One letter to Opiha at home, one to Nalan and Emari at the Conservatory in the Imperial City.”
“Ah…” She seemed disappointed. Was this a side-effect of her getting on so well with Icole? Did she want everyone we know to also be in happy relationships? There are worse things to get invested in, I suppose, but I don’t really have any plans to move forward with that aspect of my life. At least until I get through adolescence and decide what – if anything – I’m looking for romantically.
“How about you two?” I pointed at she and Icole with my spoon. “Is this an elopement or are things moving forwards for you? I may have missed some letters since I didn’t know you’d graduated.” If she’d sent me a letter before leaving the Heptagram, I’d probably already been on a boat somewhere between the Blessed Isle and the Linowan lands.
Iyuki coloured slightly at the question but Icole tightened his arm around her shoulders somewhat possessively. “Grandfather’s negotiations went well,” he told me. “And your parents and Elder Jita have agreed in principle so we’ll hold the formal engagement ceremony once we return to the Blessed Isle.”
“Congratulations. That may be a while though,” I added.
“We’re aware.” Iyuki’s free arm snaked around Icole’s waist. “But even then, we’ll have to wait for marriage, my parents want me to complete formal training as a military sorcerer before we actually get married. I think they’re worried I might be distracted from my career.”
There were a number of Great Houses where the prospect that a Dragon-Blooded woman was more interested in her marriage than a career would be cause for quiet approval – that would likely presage many children to enrich the House’s bloodlines. But House Tepet wasn’t one of those houses, even in the less martial households.
And it wasn’t as if a huge number of Terrestrial Exalted managed to balance children and a very successful career. If anything, the Scarlet Empress seemed to mildly prefer promoting women to senior positions in the Thousand Scales and the Imperial Army. Not at the expense of competence or reliability, but if all other factors were equal…
“So, four or five years?”
“Yes, I doubt we’ll marry before you, since I wasn’t expecting you to leave the Cloister. Or will they take you back?”
“I’ll be carried on the books for at least the next school year,” I told her. “If I decide not to return at that point then I think the staff – as well as Demarol and Yrina – will be quite upset with me. That depends on how this campaign goes, of course.”
The soldiers chuckled at that. “It’s going to be a rotten winter,” the youngest of them said with an air of sagely wisdom. “Because the Wind Dancer will work us like mules. But the Anathema don’t stand a chance with four full legions present under his command. Come spring we’ll be marching south in triumph.”
Icole smiled proudly. “And now we have, dare I say, the Scarlet Dynasty’s next Immaculate Master so things will go even better.” He set down his spoon and picked a cup of the ale that had been poured out to accompany our meal. “Here’s to Tepet Demarol Alina!”
“To Lady Alina!” the four soldiers chorused, and they drained their cups. Iyuki sipped hers in a ladylike manner.
I barely let the ale touch my lips. “I hope to at least make myself useful.”
If I don’t then most of us will be dead by the time spring comes. I’d only read about the agonising retreat from Osak to Greyfalls, the broken legions bled white by skirmish and raid until at last Yurgen Kaneko had delivered the executioner-stroke to the Realm’s air of invincibility at the Battle of Futile Blood.
But I had fought enough campaigns, victorious or otherwise, to envisage it. And I had all too many faces to populate the fields of crow-bait that such a route would leave.
I was watching the sky when rumour raced ahead of a formal announcement through the encampment.
I wasn’t formally on watch, although some soldiers were. But while most soldiers had duties; and the commanders of the force were busy trying to read the minds of the Bull and his own officers. But I had no real responsibilities at the moment, and I had finished sewing the sutras into my bracers, leaving me time to think.
Unless things were drastically different from those that I remembered, the Scarlet Empress would have gone missing over Calibration. And those five days had seen the exaltation of several of my friends. Scattered across all of Creation – Rathess in the far south-east, Gem in the south-west, one on the island of Onyx in the Skullstone Archipelago of the north-west.
The closest was likely my own past self, and he’d be two thousand miles south of me, more or less. And that was just confusing. I was half-tempted to seek the young Dragon-Blood out and half-afraid that doing so would lead to some kind of explosion.
I’d broken Creation once, more or less intentionally. Twice would be a sign of a developing bad habit.
Hmm, no… actually one my friends had been in Greyfalls, hadn’t she? That was a bit nearer - a city in the far eastern extreme of the great river system of the East and one of the few Realm outposts in the region. The legions had marched north to the Linowan from there, wanting a base nearer than the Blessed Isle or a coastal satrapy, even if it meant a longer route.
Horns summoned the officers and Exalted of the legion together near the centre of the Forty-Third’s camp, with more distant horns letting us know that the other three legions (the Eighth, the Thirty-Eighth and the Forty-Second) were doing the same at various points around or inside the city walls.
It had been broadly agreed that Iyuki and I would accompany Icole’s fang, or rather that the five mortal soldiers would be charged with securing us. I think the Scale-lieutenant considered assigning one-fifth of his force to shepherding us well worth having a pair of Dragon-Blooded with him. There were around four hundred Terrestrial Exalted spread across the legions present but it wasn’t all that evenly distributed, so his scale was entirely mortal.
I dusted myself off and joined Icole and Iyuki as we walked towards the assembly point. It was almost like I was playing chaperone for them; although if I actually had been, I might have had to do something about their holding hands as they walked.
Purely innocently, of course. Icole simply didn’t want Iyuki being knocked over by some of the much larger soldiers, many of them wearing part or all of their armour, all thronging together.
He wasn’t holding my hand though. Suspicious!
No, seriously, I was happy for them. Almost as much as I was worried for them.
General Tepet Tilis Mallon was a very distant cousin, of course. And I had seen him once at father’s estate, although I doubt if he remembered me. I hadn’t been Exalted at the time so he would have had no reason to pay attention to me.
He stood on a crude platform made of heaped firewood and some planks across it, tied together with rope for added stability.
“Men and women of the legions!” he called out, a charm carrying his words across us without difficulty despite efforts by the wind to mask the sound. “We have secured our foothold here in Carnelian Peak, but the war is far from won. So far, we have fought only the allies and the proxies of our true enemy, for they fear to face our might!”
Closing one fist he swept the arm out. “To our north-east, there has been a victory at Krellin’s Ford. Four Dragons of our own Legion -” about two thousand troops, give or take “- fought half again their number under the leadership of the treacherous Outcaste, Mors Ialden.”
Treacherous was a strong word, but it probably wouldn’t be wise to say so. An outcaste – a Terrestrial born outside the Scarlet Dynasty – was almost by definition not a loyal citizen of the Realm, at least unless they chose to be later on. Mors Ialden was certainly a capable general though. While the other Solars Exalted who fought with the Bull of the North were certainly formidable, they were more capable individually than as commanders. In many ways – at least until they grew wiser – Ialden was the only real general we faced other than the Bull himself.
Mallon raised his fist. “We smashed his army and drove them back.”
Cheers rang out but I shook my head slowly. “And the other boot?” I murmured to myself.
“And now our enemy has shown themselves,” the general continued. “With one of his finest lieutenants in peril, the Anathema we hunt has sent one of his brethren to Ialden’s aid. In disrupting our pursuit, she has given away her location and presented us with the opportunity to destroy her.”
He turned and waved to the other officers on the platform with him.
Tepet Lisara stepped forwards. “As it is our soldiers who have unveiled the Anathema, General Arada has agreed that the Forty-Third shall serve as the vanguard for a force to hunt her down. We will be supported by his own Thirty-Eighth Legion and all the auxiliaries of both forces. Our enemies can field barely three thousand barbarians around their witch, but we shall march upon her with fifteen thousand.” The pale-skinned woman raised one hand. “All hail her imperial majesty, eternal glory to her legions!”
A roar of support went up from the gathered officers. The odds seemed overwhelmingly in our favour.
“It sounds good,” Icole told us reassuringly. “The enemy forces are less well equipped than we are and their logistics are poor. Even marching a much larger army, we should be able to catch up with them.”
And what then? I wondered sardonically. You’ve cornered a Solar Exalt, good going. But that’s not even half the battle. And there could be little doubt that this was Samea, who was undoubtedly defended by the Second Circle Demon she’d summoned.
Fifteen thousand soldiers could be much less than that, by the time the battle was over. Actually, it was probably much less than that already. After all, if the pursuit had been halted then they’d likely taken a bruising loss so the four Dragons already in the field were likely badly under strength now.
“All officers are to take stock of their readiness and equipment in expectation of departing tomorrow at dawn,” Lisara warned. “Our scouts will be moving out before sunset to scout our route. Any material deficiencies must be reported by sunset so that they can be rectified before we march. Dragonlords will conference at the General’s tent immediately to discuss the marching order.”
It was as professional as I remembered the Legions being. But right now, I’d put more money on the side with a tightly coordinated force of fast moving Exalted than that with the weight of mortal numbers on their side. Unfortunately, right now, that wasn’t the side I was on.
We entered the Ironthorn Forest like a vast serpent of steel and fire.
My expectations regarding the damage Samea must have done to the forces already engaged had been fully justified – barely half of the soldiers were still fit to fight. Exceptionally well-trained soldiers might have been able to sustain losses of a tenth before breaking – and the legions were certainly that, not to mention being far better equipped. But there were limits.
The Forty-Third Legion had committed tight ranks of men and women (mostly men, though there was no real barrier to a woman enlisting if she wished) in articulated plate armour or reinforced leather against a force of icewalkers and press-ganged easterners who considered leather and bone to be above average for protection. It was no real surprise that the initial battle at Krellin’s Ford had gone our way.
Samea’s counter had been a pair of Celestial Lions – guardian-spirits who were properly among the defenders of Yu Shan. Even they weren’t immune to the temptations that came with the slow malaise of the Celestial Bureaucracy and this pair had apparently found that their old loyalty to the Chosen of the Unconquered Sun made a compelling reason not to spend their time watching a barely used entrance to the heavens for a ‘paltry repayment’ in prayers by a largely uncaring Creation.
And she’d also cast a single spell that tore the heart out of the Second Dragon. When hundred-foot tendrils of molten stone burst from the ground and started flailing violently, discipline had failed and close packed ranks were something of a detriment.
Merely metal armour was no match for the claws of the lions or the heat of the spell known as the magma kraken.
“We’re being watched,” I warned Icole, trying not to obviously look up into the tree canopy above us.
The Haltan tribes made their homes in the great redwood forests north and east of the Linowan’s rivers, building villages among their branches and harvesting crops sometimes without ever setting foot on the ground – not impossible if you’re mainly hunting birds and growing fruit.
As a result, open battle on a field was something that they weren’t all that prepared for. The addition of the Bull’s icewalkers, a far more conventional force, and his ability to train hundreds and then thousands of drafted warriors from the kingdoms east of Rokan-Jin drastically changed the balance of power.
Even so, in purely mundane military might, the Legions possessed a decisive advantage and only superior magic had slowed them so far. General Arada was well on his way to relieving Rokan-Jin and had even secured a major foothold in the south of Ardaleth, a kingdom that had already allied with the Haltans.
But the trail left by Mors Ialden and Samea led into the dense trees of the Ironthorn forest and this was a battlefield that the Haltans must love.
“Stay with the force,” Icole told me firmly. “If they are laying an ambush here, scattering will let them pick us off one at a time. And even with an exaltation, you’re not proof against arrows.”
Actually, I doubted even a Haltan commando could do more than scratch me with their arrows. But those arrows might be poisoned and that could be more of an issue, so he had a point.
“I know, but we don’t just have our flanks to watch,” I told him. “Expect attacks from the trees as well. Someone’s up there.”
He tightened the chin-strap of his helmet. “We expected that. The legion’s sorcerers have a plan.”
Iyuki made a face. “I offered to join them.”
“It’s a matter of training,” he explained soothingly. “They all know each other and know what to expect. Until you have the same experience, it’s better for them to work together and for you to focus on handling more local issues. We’re glad to have you here.”
I clenched my fists and tried not to look up for the commandos. If there was a counter-ambush, great, but I doubted it would be that simple. We might have more sorcerers but Samea was good. In fact, until other Solars gained experience and started catching up, she was second only to some of the elder Exalted who had survived since the First Age.
And there weren’t very many of them. A handful of Lunar Exalted and scarcely more Sidereals. The one thing they had in common was that none of them were here and on our side.
When the attack came, it was sudden and there was as little warning as I’d feared. Among the trees it was hard to know what was happening to anyone except our own scale. Sight was constrained and the sounds were distorted and confused.
Fire blazed among the branches of the trees amongst us, spreading rapidly and lighting up the battlefield – alas also casting shadows that confused vision as much as the firelight helped.
From all around I could hear the clash of weapons, screams of anger and pain.
The scale-lieutenant had a better idea of what was going on, either better briefed or perhaps someone passed a message down the line. “Wheel right,” he ordered. “The enemy are hitting the column ahead of us, we’re going to hit their own flank.
With Iyuki and I surrounded by our five armoured escorts, the little force broke off, two others flanking us. I thought that perhaps the remaining two scales were linking us to the main column but I wasn’t sure.
The soldiers moved quickly – not running, but trotting briskly despite the armour. Above us I saw a fire elemental dancing through the branches, an inferno following it. Whether it did so at the behest of a friendly sorcerer or Samea I could not have guessed.
The screams ahead grew in pitch and then I saw a blaze of golden light cutting through the maze of trees, as if the sun was rising ahead of us.
“The anathema!” Iyuki hissed in a voice half terrified and half excited.
Samea, casting a spell, I guessed. For her anima to blaze up so swiftly she must be expending considerable essence and I don’t recall her being all that focused on charms suitable for battle.
I could not say that I knew her well, and she certainly liked me less. But she was far from the worst of the Solars I knew.
“Forwards!” ordered the scale-lieutenant and Icole broke from a trot into a measured run, the soldiers with him.
So, decision time. Would I fight Samea? For real?
I gritted my teeth. I had come here, knowing that to her I was just another Terrestrial Exalt, another soldier of the Scarlet Dynasty. She would try to kill me and if I stuck to half-measures she might easily succeed.
The demon first, I decided. Gervesin was too dangerous. I’d deal with him first and if Samea didn’t retreat… well, that would be it.
The scale-lieutenant drew his short sword. “Cha-” and then he screamed as a winged figure smashed into him and tore him apart, as easily as if he were a straw doll.
Oh, Mela and Daana’d, that was not Gervesin!
“Charge!” Icole half-shrieked, finishing the order for his superior, and his men obeyed. They were leaving the demon to myself and Iyuki, trusting us to stop it while they tried to deal with Samea.
Iyuki raised her hand in the Victory over Primordials Mudra, the gesture required of demon banishment.
“Don’t!” I snapped, getting between her and the clawed, winged beast. “That’s the Whim-of-the-Wind.”
Florivet, to use his proper name, favoured me with a fanged smile and a bow that belonged on some gallant courtier. “Beautiful ladies,” he greeted us. “I would sweep you away, but alas my queen of the day commands my dues.”
“Alina, what are you doing?” hissed Iyuki.
“He’s of the Second Circle,” I told her, locking my eyes on the owl-like eyes above that lupine face. “A soul of Orablis, who is himself a soul of Cecelyne. Your banishment spell won’t do a thing to him.”
“A scholar,” the demon congratulated me. “Are you perhaps an admirer?”
We’d met before, or would meet. He really was as relaxed as he seemed. Of course, at that time he’d seen what was coming for him and decided that he wasn’t minded to get stabbed to death (even if it would just mean he reformed in Malfeas) so he just sat back and let one of our Celestial sorcerers banish him.
Of course, firstly he’d been outnumbered by Celestial Exalted, not facing two young and presumably inexperienced Terrestrials. And secondly, he’d not been bound by a sorcerer at that time.
Yeah, this was going to suck.
There was an explosion of fire and earth from ahead of us, briefly eclipsing the light of Samea.
“Help Icole,” I ordered flatly. “This dance is mine.”
Florivet barked a laugh. “Please go ahead,” he offered Iyuki. “I cannot refuse your companion’s daring.” He even stepped aside to let her pass, moving closer to me as the sorceress gave me a worried look and then ran towards the battle.
“I’ll bring help,” she promised.
The demon grinned and I matched him. That wasn’t going to matter. We just had different reasons to believe that.
We circled each other, spiralling in on each other.
“Can you fly?” he asked me lightly. “The winds are magnificent among these trees, the fires drawing the currents more wildly than any I have seen in a hundred years.”
I shook my head. I had wings once, but making them now would be an expense far greater than what I’d already done just to make my bracers. Crimson Pentacle Blade style, I decided and flowed into that form as we closed. It was efficient and it was deadly.
It also had a hidden benefit and Florivet’s eyes widened appreciatively as chains of quartz and diamond formed around my torso and shins, wrapping themselves until it was as if I had a breastplate, backplate and greaves. Other chains interwove themselves with my bracers to add additional protection to my arms. Temporary essence constructs, but useful.
“The lady even dons gems for the occasion.”
I tilted my head. “One must dress for the moment.”
“Permit me to provide you with a bouquet.”
And then he leapt on me and I slid aside. Blood nearly flowered upon my chest as he struck with his claws but I whirled aside and as he tried a wing buffet, I caught hold of him and heaved him, pinions and all, against a tree.
Undaunted, the towering demon bounced back onto his feet. “Impressive, earthling. But I have seen your like before and I must regretfully tell you -”
I went right for him, cracking one knee with a spin kick and then severing a tendon in his arm with a slash of my hand as he recovered.
He staggered, then recovered and with a sweep of his wings hurled himself above me.
“I regret,” he continued, “That without the wind, you are unable to reach my level.”
I snapped my head side to side, feeling the muscles crackle and then lifted my right hand, beckoning him down with all four fingers. “I hear the wind. Now bring it to me.”
He touched his chest. “A lady after my own heart. If you linger in the underworld, perhaps I shall court your ghost in some shadowland nearby.”
And then he dove.
A parry would have been ridiculous – he out massed me three ton one – and a dodge would have just prolonged this. I had other problems to deal with!
So, I jumped up at him.
He was right. I was going for his heart.
One hand caught his wrist as he reached for me, and I used him as a pivot in mid-air to drive one of my feet against his sternum.
And in the instant of transition a golden aura rushed to life around my foot, warming the native white light of my anima banner.
The kick smashed through the bones over his chest and a firestorm of brilliant essence, barely distinguishable from that of the Solar still ahead of me tore through the Whim-of-the-Wind.
“Give Orablis my regards,” I told him coldly as I flipped backwards and away from him.
The incandescent signature of a Golden Janissary’s kill consumed him, blazing up on his throat and then his melting eyes as he disintegrated. Perhaps it was my imagination that the promise: “I shall,” hung in the air after him.
He was not dead, for the soul of a Primordial takes a great deal of killing, and the soul of that soul is still not easily slain. But he was gone from Creation and that would have to do for now.
Flames were spreading down the trees around me, sparks leaping from one to the next as I ran towards the light.
Sometimes tree branches were falling and some of those branches looked very much like people. I guessed that some of them were Haltan Commandos. I didn’t feel any particular need to check – if they somehow survived the fall then I figured they’d deserve a chance to run away.
The general inside me disagreed and was firmly told to shut the hell up. I wasn’t running this battle, I wasn’t even consulted, and thus I was free to make my own decisions about what to do and what not to do.
And right at the moment, I had some family to look out for.
The writhing tentacles of magma rising from the forest floor had turned the battlefield ahead of me into a horror scene. As I burst into view, I saw one of them was battering trees down – creating an area comparatively free from the threat of fiery death dropping on you with little warning but also making it almost impossible for the legionaries to form a coherent formation.
Little knots of men fought and died, Kaneko’s warriors winning where they could outflank the Tepet soldiers and find weak-spots in their armour, losing where the more disciplined soldiers were able to work in unison with each other.
As I reached one of the fallen, burning trees and ran along its trunk for lack of any clearer route, I saw one such victorious group of soldiers torn to shreds as another tentacle of magma simply smashed through them without pause.
A glitter of green, a hue I knew well and, in some sense, recognised as that which should belong to a friend, drew my eye to a brass spear that danced in the hands of a man in ragtag and bloodied finery.
I could admire the skill being employed but I would have rather the man wasn’t using it against my side, for he alone was standing between ten of the legionnaires who had forced themselves past the kraken and the fair-haired Solar sorceress.
Two of them died as I reached the end of the tree and leapt off, racing towards them.
The spear plunged through the throat of another soldier, his head tumbling from his shoulders and then plunged for another whose helm had the bracing that marked an officer.
There was a glitter of blue and the officer managed, barely, to throw himself aside.
Gervesin’s wielder flipped the spear in a move I knew well and almost eviscerated the man in the next exchange but at the last moment he caught the blade of the demon spear between the palms of his gauntleted hands, the blue erupting around him in a wild anima banner.
Had someone actually exalted right in the middle of this mess?
Dragons! He had!
Samea shouted an order and two glittering shapes leapt from behind her, sweeping aside the remaining legionnaires with uncaring ease. Lions, three yards tall at the shoulder, skin as gold as orichalcum.
Damn, I’d forgotten about the Celestial Lions!
There was a cry from beneath one of the fallen trees and a flock of black butterflies streamed into the tableau. Their wings were obsidian, and they tore the spear-wielder to ribbons in less time than it takes me to say it. The lions threw themselves into the path of the butterflies though, shielding Samea from harm.
One of the tentacles of the Magma Kraken slashed down, circling the tree from which the spell had been crafted, lifting it and battering it down again and again on whoever was beneath it.
The newly Exalted officer whirled and shrieked one word: “Iyuki!”
And then Gervesin’s shape blurred from spear to a man of southern ancestry, tattooed and pierced like the warrior of one of their spear cults, and seized Icole by his ankle, snapping him up and down against the ground.
The boy I remembered from my infancy shrieked briefly and then his leg snapped - bone breaking and flesh tearing free - just above the knee and he went flying into the burning forest.
I grabbed a spear from the limp hand of a fallen northern warrior and flung it across the clearing to catch Gervesin’s attention. He snatched it out of the air, but it distracted him from going after Icole.
Green fire consumed the simple weapon and reduced it to a lance of brass, a replica of the demon’s form as a weapon.
He thrust towards me although I was still far out of range, and a bolt of green flame leapt towards me. I threw myself onto the floor, beneath it, rolling onto my knees and pressed my forehead against the ground below me.
The Perfection of the Earth Body was more comfortable this time. After all these years, it took executing the charm correctly to show me just how borderline my execution of it at the Palace Sublime had been.
A shadow was the only warning I had before the tree that had presumably crushed Iyuki was dropped on me. I snapped my hand up and several tons of wood broke like a twig.
Gervesin stared at me with pupil-less eyes and then bowed his head respectfully and dropped into a formal stance.
I was on him almost before he could bring his spear back up.
“I -” Catch the spear against one bracer, driving it to the side.
“Do -” Kick to the ribs to catch his attention.
“Not -” Parry again, this time with the other bracer, sweeping the spearhead down so it went under my arms rather than through my guts.
“Have -” Shatter the spear at the midpoint with the edge of my hand
“Time -” Catch the lower half of the spear and jam it up under his jaw,
“For you!” My other hand rose like a hammer driving a nail and the brass shaft speared up through Gervesin’s head, piercing it from throat to crown.
He staggered backwards, but didn’t fall. He might have looked human, but he wasn’t remotely.
Then I seized hold of both ends of the spear shaft and yanked it out of his head laterally. His face burst open and sprayed me with vitriol but I didn’t care at that point.
The demon fell backwards to the floor, reforming into the shape of a lance as if he hoped that I would pick him up. I’m not actually that stupid, although I suppose he lost nothing by trying.
I brought my foot, once again surrounded by a warm golden glow, down upon the spear and snapped it as easily as I had the duplicate he’d wielded. The glow blazed along its length and consumed the weapon utterly.
“Are you a Solar?”
I looked up and saw Samea gazing at me, more curiously than afraid. “What?”
“You glow with the Sun’s light,” she told me. “And no mere Terrestrial could dismiss a demon of Gervesin’s calibre.”
One of the Celestial Lions shook his head. “She is a golden janissary,” he corrected the sorcerer. “A martial order, who hunt ghosts and demons. They’re not very good at it, but they are mostly mortals.”
You just saw me tear apart a Second Circle Demon, cat-face! “It’s nice to be recognised now and then,” I told him. “Do yourself a favour. Go back to your duties in Yu Shan.”
The lion laughed derisively. “Do you think I’m a demon to be dealt with so cavalierly?”
“No.” I walked towards them slowly. Catching my breath, while I had an instant. “I think you crawled like a dog when demons ruled the heavens, and begged for the Exalted to liberate you from them. And now you are taking sides in a battle between Exalted. If age brought wisdom, you would know better.”
Celestial Lions are old, powerful and technically incorruptible. They do often have tempers though and this one tried to bite my head off.
I went under him, landed a kick between his rear legs and was past him before he could recover. Which wouldn’t take long.
The second was cannier. He whirled and threw himself under Samea, trying to flee with the sorceress on his back.
If she’d co-operated then they might have made it, but she didn’t know what he was doing until it was too late, and he couldn’t reach any serious pace before I had her by the collar and dragged her back.
Every single tentacle of the kraken abandoned its current activity in favour of trying to get me, but she was sadly out of time.
I grabbed the Chosen of the Unconquered Sun by both ankles and whirled her like a giant hammer against the first Celestial Lion as he bounded vengefully after me, connecting their skulls with a mighty thump. And then I swung her up and over at the other.
He dodged but that just brought Samea against the floor with brutal force, and her head was moving fastest as it struck the ground.
In hindsight, I think she lost consciousness then or perhaps she died outright. I’m not sure but either way, the tentacles went wild. Probably the former. Samea was of the Zenith Caste and they are usually the more durable of the castes. I’m not quite sure since they are most usually considered the priests of the Unconquered Sun.
The use of a person as an improvised weapon is not part of most martial arts, although it’s a logical progression of wrestling techniques once you assume you’ll be facing multiple opponents and the path of the Red-Handed Courtesan – no, I didn’t make that up, that’s the name for the art practised in the pleasure quarters by workers who wish to defend themselves from their clients – is all about creative improvisation.
“Would you -”
I cut off the Celestial Lion (the smarter one) by bringing Samea around in a horizontal swing that connected her head with the side of his face. Some of the blood was hers, but I think he bit his tongue.
The other Celestial Lion roared, the sound echoing through the woods. A tactical error, since the sound broke what was left of the icewalkers morale. They’d already seen their worshipful leader getting waved around like a particularly badly designed chain mace, together with the kraken tentacles now being as dangerous to them as it was to the legionnaires fighting them.
Once one of them started running it started a flood of warriors following them. The legion pursued them, as much to get out of reach of the kraken as through a desire for vengeance. They moved in twos and threes, likely what was left of their fang-squads. None of them, sensibly, tried to do anything about the Celestial Lions.
“Give – her – back!” the Lion demanded, apparently thinking we were still at the point of negotiation.
I met his eyes, smiled and slammed Samea down, her head striking a root with enough force to split her flesh once more. And then I dropped to my knees beside her and jabbed down into her throat, my three middle fingers held together like a punch-dagger as I drove them through her jugular.
Samea of the Blackwater tribe bled out over my hand. I flicked some of the blood across their faces, deliberately.
“If the Unconquered Sun has an issue with my actions,” I told them coldly. “He can get all four of his hands off the Games of Divinity and talk about it. He has turned his face away for too long to expect his Chosen to receive unquestioning obedience. From now on, they – and he – will have to work for it.”
“You should not have done that,” he growled.
I smirked at him. “Could you have taken down Florivet? Could both of you together have defeated Gervesin?”
We all knew the answer was a resounding ‘probably not’. Celestial Lions are immortal deities, but they are also basically gate-guards. The two Second-Circle Demons are rather more than that. Even expelled from heaven, fate would favour them.
“Now you have something to report, excusing your absence from your positions.” I waved my bloody hand dismissively. “Shoo.”
They exchanged grim and bitter look. And then, with evident reluctance, they slunk away into the blazing inferno of the forest.
I sighed and went to look for Icole. Even losing a leg shouldn’t have killed him now that he was Exalted, so maybe I could save someone from this debacle. It was a good job the Lions had backed down. I was pretty much tapped for essence at that point.