Exalted: The Sun Also Rises

The Guardians of Three Oaks, part 5

Smoldering Cinder floated in a quiet void, sequestered from the world. She sat with her legs folded underneath her and her palms pressed together, in the middle of an empty space with only her faithful daiklave for company. The sheathed blade lay a foot or so in front of her, just inside the most acute range of her awareness, as she concentrated. At the edge of the void were five flames, each a different color; today her thoughts were centered on the green flame, the one which represented Makoto, the concept of honesty. It was a complex virtue in her philosophy: the lowest level, Li, involved being upfront with one’s words and actions; Yi sat at the middle level, and encompassed doing what was moral and equitable; and the highest level, Ren, espoused treating everyone, even your lessers and enemies, as you would wish your superiors to treat you.

Contemplating the nature of Makoto was always particularly interesting, but Cinder couldn’t help feeling a bit hypocritical doing so every now and again. After all, she was keeping a very big secret from everyone but her two fellow Guardians and Ibis. Honestly, at times she was concerned that she was violating Ren outright. What always convinced her to maintain her silence was the fact that her secret wouldn’t really change much – though it might draw unwanted attention to the valley were it to become common knowledge, the fact remained that Ibis herself was already plenty of reason for enemies to find their way to Three Oaks. Luckily, they didn’t see many visitors from more than a few miles away, and the people of the valley were quite happy to stay mum about their resident Solar when an outsider did show. So if she was actually mistaken in her interpretation of Ren, and would eventually incur an honor-debt for her actions, she would pay it gladly, if the dishonor meant keeping the valley even a little safer.

As her meditation came to an end, Cinder drew in one long breath, closed her eyes, and relaxed her entire body. The flames winked out silently, and the void faded, starting with her immediate surroundings and spreading out until she was once again part of the world. The roar of the falls under which she sat finally intruded on her ears, but she paid it just as little mind as the frigid water coursing down her body and soaking through her thick haori completely. That loose outer robe was the only clothing she wore, but it was still a burden – rather than actually shield her body at all, the extra weight from the material absorbing the water and clinging to her skin forced her to concentrate even more fully to maintain her calm. It was just one of many meditation techniques the mikos of Three Oaks had to practice; in fact, her true purpose for being at the falls today was training the next round of candidates. Three girls were with her this time, and as they had only recently begun the training, she had permitted them the luxury of practicing without their own haoris for the time being.

Finally opening her eyes, Cinder held her pose for the moment, but glanced around at her pupils, seated abreast to either side of her. Each of them hailed from one of the individual villages below the mountain they were on, and they all showed considerable promise. Lilica Brightmoon already knew the basic rituals forwards and backwards, and Iori Catstail, though the youngest at barely more than ten, could enter the dreamscape and speak with the local minor gods with the skill of a priestess twice her age. But the student who had shown the greatest progress was Temari Yula; seated immediately to Cinder’s left, the fair-haired teen managed a good imitation of a miko’s calm, the only chink in her appearance being the occasional shiver of her bare shoulders under the water’s constant assault. Beyond that, she was the image of patience and focus. The other two would make fine Watchers over the central great oaks of their respective villages, but Cinder was secretly expecting Temari to eventually become Soaring Ibis’s immediate subordinate. She wouldn’t be surprised if the girl gained an elemental Aspect of her own, given a few more years of training.

“Alright, my students,” Cinder finally spoke, reaching over to lift Ivory Blaze Dancer out of the water and getting to her feet. “I’m returning to the village for a bit. Continue the usual routine until I return.” The last bit wasn’t necessary; she knew these three would see to themselves just fine, and as she spoke, they nodded in unison, Iori sneezing quietly but maintaining her seated pose. With a nod, Cinder strode out of the pool, and headed for the bank to fetch her clothes.

A few minutes later found Cinder walking through the streets of South Oak, her hands tucked into her sleeves as she went. The sky was a bit overcast today, but it was still a pleasant day, and many villagers were out enjoying the weather. They greeted her with respectful nods and warm smiles as they passed, but otherwise left her to her own devices, and she theirs. She had grown up over in West Oak, but any child of one village was treated as a child of all three, and so she felt equally at home wherever she went. It was a good feeling, that; not the sort of thing she had experienced while wandering Creation.

Turning her view southward, her gaze fell on the towering boughs of Great South, the village’s giant central oak. It was enormous, even compared to the grand trees of the surrounding forests, easily catching the eye from almost three miles distant. Matsuri-Ono told the people that, before he had regained his physical form, those central oaks had been his symbols in the world, his protective instincts made manifest. While in the presence of one, it was hard to believe otherwise – they each were shrines of no small regard, and though they couldn’t compare to the powers of the Wyld Barrier, they still radiated an aura of calm and serenity that Cinder found bordered on the intoxicating. She normally would have gone to spend some time in reflection underneath Great South’s limbs, but she instead kept on her course traveling through the village proper. Meditation had taken up the better part of her day so far; she could do some more walking.

As she made her way through the busier parts of South Oak, she ran into Cerulean Wake. That wasn’t unusual; this time of day, if he wasn’t training on Lake Noamin or atop the Mountain of Storms, he was often milling about the shops of one of the villages. This time, he was engaged in a lively conversation with a man Cinder didn’t recognize. The fellow was rotund, grimy, short, and more than a little bald for his age, and dressed in the clothes of one of the river barbarians who wandered the forest some miles away from the valley. They would occasionally see one or two of them around the valley, usually trading for supplies, but this one just seemed to be enjoying a sumptuous meal in addition to chatting with the Guardian. As they were obviously busy – and Cinder very nearly winced at how disgusting it was to watch the man eat, chewing with his gap-toothed mouth open and propelling tiny flecks of food every so often – she decided against going over, and instead just continued on her way.

Eventually, as she was about to return to the mountaintop, she noticed Lilac sitting by himself on one of the village clearings, a small pot in front of him emitting steam. Heading his direction, she waved and gave a respectful bow once she reached him. “Mind if I join you?”

“Not at all,” he replied, setting out a cup for her as well as himself. “You’re always welcome, Lady Guardian.”

Sitting across from him, Cinder waited for him to pour her a cup of dark aromatic tea, and accepted it graciously, taking a sip and relaxing. “Another lazy day for all of us, hm?”

“Certainly seems to be the case. Just the way I like it.”

“And I as well.” Cinder studied him for a moment, then let her eyes wander away again. Ibis felt that Lilac was always a little guarded, and she wasn’t wrong. Cinder knew quite well that the Wood Aspect had his secrets, and that he had gone to great lengths to bury those secrets and find a different life. Eight years he had been in the valley, and still their first meeting was still etched immutably into her mind.

When he had first shown up, too clean and well-spoken to be just some random vagrant, “Realm spy” had been at the top of her list of suspicions. The other people of the valley had kept a polite distance when dealing with him – what little news they did receive of the world was clear on the fact that any place that still worshiped Sol Invictus was viewed as hostile by the Realm – but Cinder had made it a point to meet him personally as soon as possible. When he agreed to a friendly sparring match, she had gotten a good look beneath the surface, and was quite thoroughly surprised at what she had found. Wake had at first given her funny looks when she told him she had seen all she needed to to trust him, but it was true: this man was not in the least their enemy. Now, years later, he was part of their family, even if he was occasionally obscure and vague enough to exasperate even her.

“You look deep in thought,” Lilac said, his pleasant voice interrupting her reverie.

“Just reminding myself how much I prefer peace.”

Lilac grinned a bit. “You mean even ‘Serene Edge’ herself doesn’t miss the time we spent battling Fair Folk hordes every other week?”

“You tell me, ‘Flowering Requiem,’” Cinder replied with a wry smirk. “Would you rather be knee-deep in whatever passes for hobgoblin entrails, or sitting right here enjoying tea with a fighter who thinks she’s still a miko?”

Laughing quietly, Lilac took a sip from his own cup, shaking his head. “Naturally, the latter. I don’t particularly miss that nickname of mine, either. What was it they called Wake?”


“Certainly evocative, if a bit over-the-top.” Lilac smiled nostalgically into his cup, and then lifted his eyes back to Cinder. “Those were rough times, but they do serve to make the present that much sweeter. I’m glad I found my way here.”

Cinder nodded, smiled back, and looked up at the sky. “And we’re glad to have you, my friend. Always.”

River Rat stood in the middle of the impressive camp, his wide-brimmed hat held in his hands. That meant his bald pate was exposed to the oh-so-hateful Eastern sun – Sol Invictus could choke on a whole boatload of gator nards, so far as he was concerned – but he didn’t want to risk disrespecting his employers, who might emerge from that central pavilion any moment now. And it would stink more to have to sweep his hat off and deal with the sudden heat than to just get used to it over a few minutes.

Finally, there was motion in the doorway of the tent, and a statuesque woman with short, deep red hair strode out. Her formal military cloak, lined with bright crimson, covered most of her frame, but River Rat could still get an eyeful of the shapely figure underneath. Her eyes fell on him, too, and when they did, she groaned in disappointment and shook her head. “Great, the Sewer Rat. What’s wrong, run out of holes to crawl up into?”

River Rat laughed, gave several short bows, and tried to avoid openly gritting his teeth. He enjoyed looking, but god how he detested that woman. “Fine day, Grace. And it’s ‘River Rat,’ but the joke wasn’t lost on me. Quite entertaining, if I may say so.”

“Can it, vermin.” Walking over to him, she stopped once she was just close enough to loom – which wasn’t difficult, as she already had well more than a head and shoulders in height on him, so towering wasn’t a problem – and frowned in disdain. “Don’t forget that I can’t stand you; your very presence makes me physically sick to my stomach, you little deviant. Asalis might think you’re worth keeping around, but if you so much as look at me crosswise, I’ll give you the closest shave you’ve ever had.” The quiet sound of metal being drawn accompanied her last few words, and by the end of it she held one of her curved red blades to his neck, the jade pressed close to his throat. “And by the looks of it,” she whispered, “you could certainly use one.”

“That’s enough, Karanya.” Another woman’s voice spoke from the area of the tent, and when River Rat’s eyes darted over – he didn’t dare move his head at the moment – he saw two more figures emerging from the pavilion, both in cloaks of the same style as Karanya’s. One was a thin, leanly-muscled man with disheveled blond hair and cold blue eyes, who took one look at him and then let his gaze just pass right over, as if River Rat’s existence had less than a moment’s worth. The other was a woman not quite as tall as Karanya, and she looked just old enough to be River Rat’s mother, had she been mortal. But there was no frailty to her appearance; she carried herself with an air of dangerous authority, with her dark blue hair swept back and fastened tightly, and a look in her eyes that said she was used to having command.

Karanya withdrew her weapon, sheathing it back at her waist, and spun on her heel. “Always spoiling my fun, Naratis. But I suppose I can wait a little longer to cut something.” And with that, the woman moved on into the camp, and out of view.

“Bitch,” River Rat muttered to himself, now that he could stop holding his breath. Then he turned to Naratis and bowed deeply and respectfully. “A thousand thanks, Commander Iselsi!”

Naratis gave a half-smile as she approached, her partner heading off in the same direction as Karanya, and waved a hand dismissively. “Not at all. I apologize for the behavior of my colleague. She gets…difficult…while on a mission. Though,” she began in a lower voice, “you might be better served refraining from trying to catch a glimpse inside her tent while she’s asleep, hm?”

River Rat turned bright red, and nearly dropped his hat. “Y-Yes, Commander. I’ll keep that in mind.”

“Anyway, Asalis awaits your briefing. I expect I’ll speak to you again before we set out.” Giving a nod, Naratis strode off as well, her blue-lined cloak billowing behind her booted feet as she went.

Once she was gone, River Rat took a moment to puff himself up, and then entered the pavilion, walking through the doorway with a careful combination of respect and swagger. On the other side were two men. The first was roughly the size of a mountain, nearly as wide, and balder than River Rat himself. He could have been a statue for all the motion he made; even his eyes could have been topaz gems in a bronze face. The other was not nearly so gigantic or physically imposing, but he didn’t need to be – his presence alone could have filled the tent, and then some. Standing on the other side of a large central map table, the man was dark, weathered, and ancient, with wrinkles that looked very much like the bark of an old tree stump. But where Naratis’s eyes said she was used to being in command, this man’s entire bearing said he was used to being obeyed. And feared. That was Cynis Inora Asalis, leader of this Wyld Hunt.

“Greetings, Agent Rat.” Asalis’s aged croak even sounded as if he were speaking through a hollow log. “Do you have anything to report?”

River Rat swept into a low bow, practically putting his forehead to the floor. “Only that the target and her accomplices are all still in the valley, Eminence.”

“Have you managed to locate the source of their Wyld Barrier?”

“Not yet, Eminence. Though I have narrowed down the location to a few potential spots.”

Asalis raised a hand to his chin, and stood still in thought for a long moment. He was so motionless that suddenly River Rat felt as if he were the only living being in the room. “It would serve us well to know where that is before we strike; they may try and bring the Barrier down once the battle begins, as a means of keeping us busy while they make their escape. This Anathema scum has enslaved our cousins; I would scarce put it past her to have allies among the Fae, despite this ruse of ‘maintaining the barrier.’” As it was clear that the man was thinking aloud rather than soliciting a response, River Rat remained silent. “However, I feel that is an acceptable risk. We must strike now, before they become aware of our presence.”

“Should you require this humble servant’s aid, Eminence, I would gladly assist however possible,” River Rat kept his eyes lowered as he spoke.

Shaking his head once, Asalis raised one hand. “You have already done us a great service, Agent. I fear, however, that you cannot aid us further without putting yourself at undue risk. We shall move tomorrow morning, but I would like you to stay behind with the camp and await our return.”

“As you command, Eminence.” Taking Asalis’s nod in response as dismissal, River Rat turned and shuffled out of the pavilion.

Once he was back outside, he stood back to his full height, and replaced his hat. Another day, another job well done for the River Rat. Which meant another big, fat payday in the very near future. He could almost smell the perfume of his favorite Realm bordello already. “Just one more day,” he said to himself, rubbing his grimy hands together. “Just one more day.”

The bright blue glow of her eyes fading, Soaring Ibis removed her hand from the translucent cube in front of her. Inside was a perfect sphere, just larger than an apple and slightly pink in coloration. She hadn’t taken this experiment of hers out of storage much since its creation a couple of weeks prior; for various reasons, it needed to stay in its Elsewhere pocket until the time was right to use it. But she had to perform certain tests occasionally, to ensure it would suit her needs appropriately.

This time, the testing wasn’t for her own curiosity or benefit. Instead, she was demonstrating for the lithe woman who sat across the chamber from her. Her companion was bald, with violet skin covered in piercings and tattoos, but smooth and flawless. Eyes like dark gemstones watched the sphere as it floated in suspended animation, and the fingers of one hand drummed her opposite bicep as she held her arms crossed under her breasts. After a long moment, she nodded once, and lifted her eyes to look at Ibis. “Yes…I think this will do nicely. The preservation has worked without a hitch. Are you sure you would not rather use this now, Soaring Ibis?”

Ibis shook her head in response, and gave a quiet sigh, smiling a bit wistfully. “Yes, Tixia, I’m sure. I would like to, very much, but…there are just too many pressing matters. But soon, though. Very soon.”

Standing up, Tixia let her view linger on Ibis for a few moments, and then nodded again. “Very well. I look forward to working with you, I believe it will be an interesting project. Give my regards to the other two; I expect to meet them soon.” Giving a long sweep across her body with one hand, she dipped her head in farewell, and then was gone in an instant.

Long moments passed after the woman departed. Ibis spent those moments studying the sphere inside its cube; she had since dismissed her diagnostic vision, so her eyes were back to their usual hue, but she wasn’t looking for anything this time, just dwelling on the future. She seemed to do that a lot, these days – spending inordinate amounts of time thinking and worrying about the future, instead of letting herself be absorbed into the moment. Was that inherently part of her Exaltation, something that all Solars experienced? Or was it simply that the knowledge she could live for centuries, or even millenia, had gotten her thinking about life and destiny in entirely different ways?

Another sigh escaped her lips, and she closed her eyes. There was no way she was going to sort all of this out right away. She probably wouldn’t have it sorted out in another year, or another decade, really; it was just part-and-parcel of who she had become. Leaving mortality behind certainly did come with its own set of problems, but balanced against the life she was now able to lead, it was a small price to pay.

Looking back at the sphere again, she brought her hands together and reworked the sorcery that placed the cube into its protective hiding place once more. She had driven herself crazy over this issue plenty enough for one day. Time to do some of that “living in the moment” and forget the rest for a while.

The sun had not yet risen, but the camp had been awake and alive for several hours already. River Rat hated being up so early, but he wanted to see his commanders off properly. Also, it never hurt to make one more good impression before the time came to dole out potential bonuses. So he hid his yawns as best he could, and made his way through the camp to the clearing out on the edge where the others would already be meeting.

When he arrived, he saw the ranks of soldiers and monks who had been brought along standing at attention. They numbered around two hundred fifty; only twenty or so were actual Terrestrials, but even the regulars were mortals trained to the pinnacle of Realm military skill. Every one of them was motionless before the imposing form of Commander Cynis Inora Asalis, decked out in his green jade combat armor as he paced a long path between his soldiers and his four lieutenants. Somehow, that ancient voice resonated throughout the clearing in perfect clarity, even to River Rat’s half-asleep ears; he was obviously on the tail end of a speech.

“…came here to continue a task handed down to us from our ancestors, a task that this entire world depends very seriously on us to accomplish. So never forget that when I say we have a solemn, holy duty, you should take those words to heart.”

More preaching. Asalis refrained from such most of the time, but River Rat knew what a devout believer he was in the Immaculate Faith, and from time-to-time, when he got especially geared-up for a mission, it was inevitable that there would be some rhetoric.

“Reports suggest that three of our brethren – three! – have been taken in by this blasphemous harlot. She clearly has the entire valley under her sway, so do not trust these people. They will likely try and stand in our way. We cannot allow them to do so; attempt to frighten them into submission, but do not waste your time or risk your own lives attempting to preserve theirs. Should you run across the three Outcaste fools, remember to lead them to us, according to the plan. It would be preferable to reason with them, but I fear they will likely be beyond that. Though you should feel free to make use of the locals as bait to draw them out.”

River Rat’s eyes ran down the line of Commander Asalis’s team as he continued with his speech. All the way to the left, the perpetually uninterested and unimpressed Jeresh Tirva Nehor, his blue eyes every bit as aloof and detached as they had been when River Rat had seen him at the pavilion. To his left, the mountainous Ragara Ryotheras, looking very much like a white jade obelisk with crossed arms now that he had donned his cloak. Next down the line, the pleasing form of Sesus Natasus Karanya. But he couldn’t even take a moment to ogle her; she stared daggers at him when she saw him looking over, and he could have sworn she would have burst him into hateful flame had her commander not been standing right there. At the end of the line was Iselsi Cherak Naratis, the only other member of the team that River Rat actually liked besides Asalis himself. Actually, she was probably the only one he liked – Asalis had always been kind to him, but the old man had a chilling streak to him when it came to matters of the Hunt that unnerved even River Rat, and spoke to some deep-seated misanthropic tendencies. When Naratis caught his look, she just nodded once, barely perceptibly, and then returned to listening to Asalis.

“One final reminder: if you see the Anathema, do not engage. Send up the signal, and then regroup at the meeting point. Are there any questions?” When silence greeted him, Asalis nodded his head once. “Good. Remember, we only get one shot at this. Now move out!” The commander raised his arm, and there was a rush of motion as the green-clad Terrestrial elites vanished into the forest, moving so quickly that River Rat had no hope at all of seeing them go. The remaining soldiers split off into teams and moved into the foliage quickly after, and finally Asalis and his team stepped into a rift in the air, vanishing in the blink of an eye. Just a couple minutes later, River Rat and the few non-combat personnel who had shown up stood there alone.

Reaching into his belt pouch, River Rat fished out a piece of sourthorn root, and began chewing on it. The others returned to the camp proper, but he had nothing to do for the time being, so he just stayed in place, enjoying the bitter bite of the root. It was nice and quiet again, but part of him wanted to go and watch the battle. From a good distance, of course – he knew quite well what chance he had of surviving any sort of altercation involving that demolition squad. But after a few minutes, he decided against it, and turned to walk back into the camp. Risking getting your head knocked off in a battle wasn’t part of the Rat’s role. He was just fine leaving that to someone else.

A pleasant breeze rustled the leaves of the bamboo forest as Cinder strode towards the peak of the Mountain of Dreams. This far on the wayward side of the mountain, she was outside the reach of the Wyld Barrier, but it had been many years since she had been worried to venture out of the relative safety of the barrier’s reach. After all, Argus had a wide reach, but even fully restored, he could not possibly be aware of everything that happened around the valley. It was important for someone to occasionally patrol the very edge for potential threats – and there was also the fact that these forests were equally beautiful, and equally deserving of being admired.

Her enjoyment of the scene was spoiled by the sudden presences that popped into her awareness. Stopping with one foot forward, she took a glance over her shoulder, moving her head only a couple of inches. “You may as well come out, and tell me why you’ve been following me.”

A single figure in full-body clothing that matched the green of the leaves stepped out of the shadows. “Smoldering Cinder?”


“I wish to speak with the chief miko of the valley.”

“I’m sure you can find her at the main shrine of South Oak. Why seek me out?”

“I have heard you have…dealings with her.”

“You can say that. And your friends?”

“They’re here for protection. We have heard you’re dangerous.”

“Only to those who wish harm on the valley. Who are you?”

“I’m afraid I can’t say.”

“Then I must insist you shake my hand before I let you stroll into South Oak.”

The figure narrowed his eyes, and carefully approached Cinder. He offered his hand, and she took it. The expression on his masked face froze, but Cinder knew that was just a trick of her heightened perception. Images flooded her mind immediately, images of a great temple atop an impressively tall mountain, of an army of warriors being directed by jade-clad commanders, of the banner of the Realm flying over military encampments.

It happened in a flash like it always did, little more than a split-second, but when her perception returned to normal, she could tell that the man had noticed her little trick. His eyes narrowed at the same time that his hand twitched and began reaching for his sleeve, but it was likely just meant as a diversion for his allies, as six kunai came flying from the bamboo. She leaped back quickly as they landed in the grass underfoot, and managed to draw Ivory Blaze Dancer out of its sheath just enough to parry the first man’s incoming ninjato. The strike was fast, and might very well have severed her left arm at the shoulder had it connected.

“Drop your weapon and stand down, and no harm will come to you,” spoke her adversary, his grip on his short blade steady and unwavering. “You are not the one we’ve come for.”

“I’m afraid I can’t do that. You’ve come from the Realm to bring violence against us.” As she spoke, Cinder saw the forms of several figures dart away through the bamboo, off towards South Oak. “You have no business here. You should leave now before it becomes too late.”

The man narrowed his eyes again, and a second later the air around him started to whip up; Cinder could feel the hairs on her arms begin to raise, and sparks leaped across the space between them, at first just static but growing stronger and more visible quickly. “Then you’ve sealed your own death sentence.” Two of his comrades emerged from the bamboo, one glowing a deep bronze with skin that looked like armor and the other shining with an emerald aura, a fusillade of sharpened bamboo poles floating in a threatening formation around him. “In the name of the Scarlet Empress!” they intoned in unison.

Cinder disengaged from the Air Aspect in front of her with a bounding leap, replaced her blade fully into her scabbard with a click while still in the air, and then set her feet and prepared to draw again as she landed. She didn’t want to fight other Dragontouched, but they were clearly going to leave her little choice. “The lot of you won’t keep me from going to aid the village for long, you know.”

“We’ll see about that,” the Air Aspect replied. And then, with a joint battle cry, the three rushed her….

“I don’t know who you are,” said Cerulean Wake as he ducked a thrown kusari-gama, which embedded itself into the wall of the nearby flower shop, “but I really don’t recommend this course of action.”

“Silence!” The lanky fellow who had thrown the sickle gave it a yank and pulled it back, then spun it in a slow circle as his allies formed up for another series of attacks. “Where is she?”

“I’m not sure who you mean. Maybe-!” Wake pivoted just in time to avoid a nasty cut to the cheek as the other end of that weapon came sailing at him. This guy was good – most people who attempted to use kusari-gamas in that fashion just left themselves horrendously open to attack, but he had complete command of his surroundings. It wasn’t often that Wake met a mortal martial artist who could hold his own against him. Let alone six.

Speaking of the others, before he even had time to regain his footing after that sideways maneuver, the five other warriors came crashing in on him from all sides. He parried and shifted, spun and bobbed around their blows, and in the middle of a handspring swept his legs into the revolving motion of Deepwater Vortex to force them back and give himself some breathing space. Springing back up onto his feet, he took a wide stance, and cast his eyes around at his attackers. “Fighting ain’t gonna’ jog my memory, but it will keep me entertained for a long while. Can’t we just do that instead?”

“Enough messing around with this fool,” spoke a new voice off to one side, accompanied by a muffled scream. When Wake turned his head in that direction he saw a stockier man with a serrated knife held to the throat of a young girl from the village. “I’m sure this little beauty will be more than happy to lead us where we want to go. Come along, won’t you, darling?”

Hey! Let her go!” Before the protests were even out of Wake’s mouth, the new arrival had darted off with his hostage, while the other six harried Wake another few seconds before following suit. Cursing low under his breath, Wake leaped to give chase, bounding through the rapidly-emptying streets.

The main map of the valley of Three Oaks covered the entirety of the crystal screens in Argus’s chamber. Clusters of yellow dots filled areas of the map around the circle that designated the reach of the Wyld Barrier, and numerous smaller images were overlaid on top of the map, showing people clad in dark green and black clothing, carrying weapons and heading for the villages. Some of them were fighting – at least two showed Cerulean Wake engaged in a running battle with six of them, chasing a seventh who held a young girl captive, while Cinder was displayed in another, fighting through one of the bamboo forests at the valley’s edge. Soaring Ibis’s first instinct had been to run out to give them aid, but they had run through this scenario more than once in training. Where she was most needed right now was right here, assessing their foes and preparing a response. As she watched, some of the dots turned green, while those that remained became a deep bronze color.

“How many Exaltations have we verified now, Argus?” she asked aloud.

“Twenty-two, Soaring Ibis. All Terrestrial Exalts.” Argus’s androgynous voice responded, but the animating intelligence did not appear on the screen. “The remaining essence patterns are all mortals.”

Ibis bit her thumb, then chewed on the nail pensively. That was quite a force, by anyone’s estimation, but why were the Terrestrials avoiding the fight, by and large? They had to know that humans stood little chance against Cerulean Wake or Smoldering Cinder for long. The whole thing stank to high heaven, but she couldn’t take action just yet. She had to keep an eye on the situation and trust her allies to handle themselves. “Continue to monitor them, Argus. Notify me the moment something changes.”

“Of course, Ibis.”

The thorn-covered vine lashed about like a thrashing tendril, catching two more of the warriors before retreating to Lilac at Dusk’s hand. The poison inside of the thorns took effect immediately; whereas other Terrestrials would have still been able to move under its influence, regular humans lost even the ability to stand. Sure enough, the two collapsed onto the ground, conscious and able to speak, but now completely immobile, like their four comrades. Now, they were down to one, a stout claw-wielding man who suddenly looked very, very nervous.

“I know the rest of you can hear me, so let’s try this again,” Lilac spoke, narrowing his eyes as his vine whip twitched like an angry cat’s tail. “I know you’re with a Wyld Hunt. Where are the Exalted?”

“To hell with you and your questions, Outcaste,” the last active warrior sneered. “We have nothing to say to a traitor.”

Lilac glanced around at the other fighters. Each of them stared him straight in the eye and showed the same look of solid defiance. He was certain he could have made any one of them talk, but that would cost precious time – time that he couldn’t afford at the moment. So with one more look at the last standing warrior, he gave his whip a loud crack, swung it in a wide arc, and struck once again. It quickly covered the distance between them like a shot arrow, and caught his opponent in the thigh before he could dodge. With a muffled shout of pain, the man fell to both knees, and then dropped his claw. Lilac didn’t wait another moment; taking only the briefest of motions to gather his whip again, he dashed out of the clearing and back towards the villages. They had attacked him close to his house – it couldn’t have been a serious attempt at eliminating him, as these people clearly had intelligence on the valley, and none of the Exalted who had come to the region were there. Someone was calling him out, and he had a very good idea of whom.

When Iselsi Cherak Naratis opened her eyes again, all she could see around herself and her comrades was…gray. Gray everywhere, as far as her eyes could perceive. Of course, distance as well, in a place like this, could be nearly impossible to gauge. She knew of Elsewhere quite well – she had studied it thoroughly in her youth, and had trained often in an Elsewhere pocket separated from the rest of her barracks – but that had never really dampened the sheer eeriness of the place. Infinite and immeasurable, and yet so empty and quiet.

Her allies did little to break that silence. Blond Nehor was quite pointedly ignoring everyone, his blue eyes focused on some distant point, and Ryotheras stood his usual vigil just a few steps away, arms crossed and only the slightest of deep breathing drifting to Naratis’s ears. Commander Asalis, too, seemed more a feature of the landscape than a living being at the moment, seated in a meditative pose only a pace from Ryotheras. That was usually the case with him; most people found the commander’s stillness in repose a bit unnerving, and Naratis had to admit that, from time-to-time, he creeped her out a little. But it was less intentional than simply an outward manifestation of the man’s inner calm. Like the peace of an experienced headsman.

Karanya paced a short distance away, prowling like a hunting cat. The warrior’s shoes clicked on something, though there was only the most bare-bones impression of a solid floor in this place. “I tire of waiting; are we to spend the entire day hiding away from the fight?” she spoke in caustic tones.

“We hide if it gives us the advantage in the Hunt, Karanya,” Commander Asalis spoke without opening his eyes. “We hide, we sneak, we crawl on our bellies, we do whatever is necessary to ensnare our prey. As does any hunter serious about her work. Do you disagree?”

Karanya looked chastened, but Naratis knew that was not their commander’s intention. In his mind, he was not countering her opinion: he was simply speaking an obvious truth that she was too anxious to observe. Even so, the red-haired shikari muted her protests, and went back to pacing silently. Naratis just shook her head slightly – the tall woman was incredibly skilled, but she lacked patience, and the value of subtlety was often lost on her. In her youth, Naratis would have probably agreed with her, but many years at this job had changed her views considerably. If I had my way, I wouldn’t even be bringing such mercurial youngsters along on Hunts for another few decades, at least. She eyed Nehor as well for a moment, seeing that he was still staring off into space, and sighed. But they’ve proven themselves, not only in training but in actual Hunts. I can’t very well stand in their way, especially with Asalis and the others chomping at the bit for new talent.

Naratis drew in a deep breath, and let it out slowly. Why had things changed so much since the early days? Or had she been the one to change, even more than she had realized? It seemed so long ago, now, since she and Asalis had been idealistic young soldiers in the Order, aspiring to become elite shikari. It had all seemed so simple, then. But they had lost so many allies, so many friends, in the fight to destroy the Anathema. And now, they were resorting to using Exalts who were practically still children to fight these battles, in lands that were far away from their own, against opponents they had never even met. It was bad enough to see so many mortals willing to throw themselves into such a meat grinder; the Exalted were supposed to be meant for much greater things.

The Elsewhere pocket rumbled with the sensation of distant thunder, and Asalis opened his eyes. “We have arrived. Prepare to engage the enemy.” His voice was not much different from that thunder, and the look in his eyes supplied the lightning. This seemed like the only time she saw that anymore.

Getting to her feet, Naratis cleared her mind. This was not the time for such thoughts. Whatever her concerns, one thing had not changed in all of these years: the Anathema were the enemy. They always would be.

Though he kept pace easily with the soldier who had taken Arana hostage, Cerulean Wake was so harried by the other soldiers that he wasn’t able to close the distance without putting the girl in danger. But he could tell they were more interested in leading him somewhere than in actually causing harm to their hostage, so though it galled him to do so, he played along, trying to avoid grinding his teeth too hard while battling through their barrages. Finally, they headed straight into South Oak, making a beeline for the giant oak at the center, Great South, the largest of the Great Oaks. Wake frowned and made an annoyed sound through his teeth, then followed.

When they stopped only a couple hundred feet from Great South, Wake noticed that they were not alone. The telltale whisper of Ivory Blaze Dancer, followed by the sight of a different soldier flying through the air and smacking against the branches of a smaller oak, announced the arrival of Smoldering Cinder, and a split-second later, Lilac at Dusk walked silently out of the foliage, vine whip coiled at his belt. Other warriors in the same style of clothing as the ones Wake had been chasing entered the area as well, more than two dozen of them, and surrounded the one that had taken Arana captive.

“Well, this is all…awful,” Wake spoke with a frown as he watched the invaders carefully. “Who are you people, and what do you want with-”

Cutting off as a black circle appeared in the sky in the middle of what had looked like a low-hanging cloud bank – something that was otherwise quite normal to see this high up in the mountains – Wake’s eyes grew wide as the circle stretched out horizontally into a jagged line, like the maw of some giant void creature dwelling in the space between dimensions. As the line then opened vertically – adding to the “mouth” impression – he could make out the shapes of five individuals standing inside, wrapped in matching cloaks of a military fashion. Even at that distance, he could make out the power that radiated from them…and the killing intent, the cold premeditation of a seasoned predator. Their eyes glanced about at Wake and his two comrades, and for a moment, he could have sworn he saw pity in them. Of course, most of them also seemed to view the villagers who were being herded off to the sides in small but visible groups with disdain.

Wake let his eyes dart over to Cinder, who just nodded once, and then to Lilac. Arana wasn’t the only hostage now; as the invaders continued trickling into the area, they pushed more and more of the valley’s residents into clumps here and there, some actually bound with rope, though most were just kept in place by the obvious threat of violence. There were far too many of those villagers present – the attack had been incredibly quick and unexpected, but even then, more should have been able to escape to safety. It didn’t take much for him to realize that someone must have been spying on them, to have been able to so effectively cut off the people’s escape route. Either way, he and his comrades couldn’t make a move now, with so many innocents around. They would have to proceed very carefully.

“Soaring Ibis,” came Argus’s voice throughout the central chamber again, “I have detected five new Essence patterns directly over South Oak.”

“What?!” Ibis worked her fingers quickly over the access panel, circling the area of the grid where the new dots had appeared suddenly out of the blue. “How is that possible?”

“I am detecting the presence of a large Elsewhere entrance growing from the center of that location.”

An Elsewhere pocket opening that high up? They had to have shrunk the entrance to nearly nothing for Argus to have missed it. Ibis remained silent, waiting for the five yellow dots to change color. Out of the corner of her eyes, she saw Cinder, Lilac, and Wake converge near the Great Oak, and the villagers who were being rounded up, silently praying that the ones she couldn’t see were safe.

Argus’s voice pulled her attention back, as all five dots turned a bright red. “Essence patterns analyzed. All five are Terrestrial Exalted, S-Class.”

Shikari. Ibis suddenly felt very cold in her chest. The Wyld Hunt is here. Leaping up from her seat, Ibis called out as she spun over its arm and landed on the floor. “Take care of things here, Argus! I’m going!”

“Soaring Ibis, I must protest. You-”

“I can’t, Argus.” She clenched both hands into fists. “I can’t sit back and watch this. They’ll need me out there, and we all know it.” Looking up at the ceiling of the chamber, she sighed. “I’m sorry to do this, but I have to go.” Not waiting for a response, she dashed out of the room, making a beeline for South Oak.

“People of Three Oaks!” boomed the voice of the aged man in the center of the invaders, from his perch high in the air. Even augmented by Essence, there was the hint of a croak to the sound, but that somehow made it even more intimidating. “The Wyld Hunt has come to free you from the presence of the Anathema woman, and your enslavement to the worship of the Unconquered Sun. Give us her location, and we shall forgive the rest of you your…indiscretions…and leave you in peace.”

Cinder narrowed her eyes at the man, fighting the itch to put her hand on Ivory Blaze Dancer’s hilt. If he expected a bunch of wide-eyed yokels, he would be sorely disappointed; the folk of Three Oaks were disconnected from the rest of Creation, but they understood quite well his accusations, and the nature of the Wyld Hunt. Which meant that they understood that the Realm had no claim here, and that this was a bald-faced act of aggression. Her eyes very momentarily caught Lilac’s, but he just shook his head barely imperceptibly. He knew at least one of these people personally, but it hadn’t been the memories of his she had viewed that told her that. They would have to make a move soon, but not just yet. She drew her mouth into a thin line as she felt Ibis approaching, but couldn’t very well object. This wasn’t going to be an easy fight.

“We don’t know what you’re talking about, so get the hell out of our valley!” bellowed old one-eyed Ichigoya, while shaking his fist at the five. “We never done nothing to the Realm!” One of the assembled soldiers – there were at least two hundred of them now, both visible and skulking in the shadows, by Cinder’s count – took his mancatcher to Ichigoya, forcing the weathered man down onto the ground and pinning his arms at his sides while barking at him to be silent.

The green-clad man in the center locked his icy gaze on Ichigoya, who actually cringed a little despite staring back defiantly, and then cast his eyes back out in a sweeping arc across the other groups. “Do the rest of you feel the same? Will no one put aside your personal feelings to do what you know you should?”

“What these people should do is none of your concern,” said Cerulean Wake, his anger only barely contained. “I don’t care what authority you have in the Realm, this is not the Realm. You have no business coming here in force and making any demands of us.”

“The hunting of demons respects no boundaries and makes no exceptions, Cousin. But instead of a demand, allow me to offer a bargain.” The green-clad leader took a few steps forward, and looked down directly at Wake. “Turn over the Solar Anathema, come to the Realm with us, and you three Dragon-blooded will be raised nobility. Not only that, bring along as many of your people as you wish. You have no need to fear us, and if the remainder wish to stay here and continue their heathen worship, they may. We ask only that you not stand in our way.”

Wake spat, and glared a tempest up at the older man. “Keep your offers, and your so-called honors. I am a Guardian of the valley of Three Oaks, and you are intruders bringing war. Get out of my valley, or be thrown out: it’s your call.”

The older man was silent for a long moment, his eyes analyzing Wake. Despite his imperious manner, there didn’t seem to be much arrogance to the man’s attitude; he simply viewed the three Terrestrials before him as as one might the victims of a terminal illness. At least, that was how he saw her and Wake. When his eyes scanned across Lilac, there was something different there: a strong sense of disapproval. The sort that you had to know someone well to feel. He said nothing to her comrade, though, and Lilac only looked back at him, his jaw set firmly.

Finally, the man raised one hand and gestured dismissively. “Dispose of all of them. This entire place has been too corrupted.” The command was followed by the remaining Dragon-blooded elites leaping into action and rushing in teams at Cinder, Wake, and Lilac, while the soldiers that had been hiding in the brush charged out to reinforce the other mortals.

Cinder cursed under her breath, and prepared for the onslaught, but noticed that the five in the air stayed put. Small favors, I suppose…

But just as she was about to draw her daiklave, there was a flash of light in the air across from the five invaders. When the momentary flash faded, she saw figures floating there. At the flanks were a dark-skinned woman with bells in her hair seated atop a gigantic crescent-moon blade, and a man with a tattooed torso, a wolf’s muzzle, and great snowy wings. Between them was Soaring Ibis, her bow already formed and her body awash in pure light, the image of a giant bird with a curved beak spreading its wings behind her, and Matsuri-Ono perched on her shoulder, one tiny fist raised menacingly. Cinder had felt the spike in Ibis’s emotions, but hadn’t felt her moving their way; she had really come full-tilt. And from the look on her face, she had come for blood.

The leader of the invaders turned back around slowly, and regarded Ibis with eyes that were suddenly very, very deadly. “Soaring Ibis, I presume?”

“You presume correctly. And who are you?”

“Cynis Inora Asalis. I’m glad you could show. Come to protect your pets?”

“I’ve come to stop your senseless violence. Will you not quit this battle and leave these people in peace?”

“While your kind exists,” Asalis said while pointing to her, “there can be no peace. You will die.”

Sparing a moment to lock eyes with Wake, then Lilac, and finally over to Cinder, Ibis looked back at the older man, and brought her hand to her bow. “Then let’s be about it.”

The Guardians of Three Oaks, part 4
A little more smut here at the very beginning, but then back to business.

The next morning, Ibis awoke feeling happy and refreshed. Cinder still snoozed across from her with her head against Wake’s chest, so Ibis just lay there and enjoyed the intimacy of being with them. When Wake stirred and opened his eyes, he smiled, gave her a tender kiss, and then buried his face into her hair. Cinder roused with a yawn not long after, and rubbed her eyes. “Good morning, lovebirds.”

Ibis giggled, and Wake tapped Cinder’s nose lightly. “Good morning. Sleep well?”

“Mm-hmm.” Cinder sat up and stretched. “But I want to get some practice done before I head to the springs. You two go ahead, and I’ll meet you in a few.”

Not long after, Ibis and Wake sat relaxing in one of the valley’s numerous hot springs. After the energetic night, it was nice just relaxing with him, sitting side-by-side with the water level just over her breasts. Wake massaged her shoulders and left little kisses along her neck and ears, making her smile and laugh, and every so often she reached up to fiddle with his aqua curls. Of course, he eventually shifted her over to a higher rock, and worked himself inside of her, but even then, he moved steadily, unhurried and methodical as he held her up in his arms. Her eyes locked onto his as she supported herself upright, and she panted openly at their lovemaking, drawing her toes along the backs of his legs and keeping her thighs spread open for him.

As her excitement neared a fever pitch, she placed a hand on his chest, and wrapped his love around her heart and mind. It cradled her like the calm waters at the bottom of Lake Noamin, a feeling every bit as strong as Cinder’s fiery heart, but also just as unique and tailored for Wake. Just as perfect. He rested his face against her neck and pulled her hips more firmly towards his, driving deep into her and then practically moaning right into her ear as he orgasmed. The warmth of his ecstasy pushed her over the edge, and she rubbed her breasts against him as her body shook, her breathing limited to eager gasps.

When Cinder arrived minutes later, they were still arm-in-arm, sharing each others’ warmth and exchanging loving kisses. The other woman let slip the tiniest of sly grins – Ibis wagered that her delay had been quite intentional – and spent a few moments sitting on the bank washing her legs and feet to let the two finish cuddling. They finally broke apart, and Wake moved to say hello; this time by bending her over the bank, hiking her robe up over her hips, and plunging into her completely. Ibis couldn’t hold back a laugh at the look of surprise, likely only partially feigned, on Cinder’s face. Nonetheless, the woman didn’t fight Wake’s aggressiveness, her eyes lidding in a sultry manner as his hands clutched her hips and his arousal disappeared inside her. She visibly bit her lip to hold back her cries as Wake eagerly rammed her from behind, but she gave that up not long in, and even began howling in lust, clawing the stone under her hands. Cinder begged for more, forcing her rump back against him, and she got what she asked for, right up until he arched toward her and seized up, groaning out. She shuddered noticeably, made a sound that was part mewl, part throaty moan, and leaned forward onto her breasts when her peak passed.

Wake finally pulled away from her, and once she had discarded her robe and turned to sit down, he claimed her torso with both arms and nibbled her lower lip with a growl. “That was for last night.”

“Oh my. But Wake,” Cinder replied with a smirk. “I ride you until you nearly break, you respond by mounting me like a jungle cat, and call that punishment? How many more decades before you figure out my evil scheme?”

“Hush, you.” He pulled her into a deep kiss, she bit the tip of his nose afterward with a quiet snarl and then they both came to sit with Ibis, who was quite relaxed by that point.

The rest of their visit was mostly tame. Mostly. Emerging from the springs, they ran into Lilac, who was waiting leisurely with his arms crossed. The man took one look at them, clearly noticed the several bite marks on either side of Wake’s neck, and gave an amused grin. “Well, someone had a pleasant morning.”

“Hey, protecting these ladies is a full-time job,” Wake replied. “I have to be with them as much as possible, ready to jump onto or behind them at a moment’s notice.”

“Don’t you mean ‘in front of’ them?”

“I know what I said.”

“Uh-huh.” Lilac laughed quietly. “Well, I need to borrow Ibis for a bit to help me with my essence converter. You’re all welcome to come along as well, but you’ll likely get bored. Especially you, Wake.”

As Ibis walked over to Lilac, Wake looked thoughtful, then shrugged. “I’ll probably go bug Sifu for a while instead. I should at least do a little work today.”

“I’ll be at the shrine,” Cinder chimed in. “So I’ll see you all later.”

Ibis looked up to Lilac and nodded. “Alright then. Shall we?”

Lilac’s home was a short walk away, out at the edge of a thicker area of forest. Though a small structure, it would have been easily visible from nearby, if not for the immense flowering vines that hung dozens if not hundreds of feet down from the surrounding treetops to create an obscuring curtain. Behind the vines, there were scores more towering plants in myriad colors, clearly not forced into the organization of any garden yet still seeming to grow around the house instead of over or under it, almost as if they were conscious of the house itself.

Around the back of the house, Lilac and Ibis tinkered away on a small device no larger than a wash bin. She did most of the actual work; though he had learned the ins and outs of the converter’s functioning, Lilac preferred to just watch Ibis and stay out of her way. It was always an interesting experience – she was so intuitive and affective, yet once that switch flipped, she was all logic and structure. A miko scientist; fascinating, indeed.

“I think I’ve found why your arctic deepblooms are wilting.” Ibis leaned up from the converter, her sleeves rolled up to her shoulders, and pinned her hair back again. “There was a minor error in the chilling mechanism’s relay, but it should be easy to finish smoking out.”

“I very much appreciate the help.” Lilac watched with a silent smile as she returned to work. She had really grown up in those eight years. Gone was the gangly, often clumsy girl he had first met, replaced by a graceful, stunning young woman as poised and dignified as Smoldering Cinder. The outside world desperately needed her spark – he knew that better than most. But there were still too many enemies, and they were still not ready to fight them. So he would keep her here, and safe, as long as he could. He wasn’t officially a Guardian, but he had his own oaths to keep.

Ibis finished up a few minutes later, sliding the finely-detailed pieces of the essence converter back into place and then lowering the device back into the earth. A moment later, there was a pulse of rainbow light as it came back online, and then a section of Lilac’s plants, giant ice-blue bell-shaped blossoms that had started looking forlorn, began to recover immediately. “Ah, excellent! Exactly what they needed,” the man said with a smile.

“I can never believe how pretty your plants are.” Ibis walked over to one of the blossoms, dwarfed by its fifteen-foot petals, and touched it gently. “Where did you find these again?”

“A few days north of a Northern city named Whitewall. They grow far out on the frozen plains, but normally reach maybe two feet in height. The East is, of course, far more fertile.”

“And you’re the best gardener anywhere,” Ibis said with a grin.

Laughing, Lilac shook his head. “I just have certain advantages. You should see the flowers I’m engineering for the birth of your and Wake’s first child.”

She punched him playfully in the shoulder. “You know that’s a long way off! We’re not even trying yet, nor is Cinder.”

“Perhaps,” he said with a sly smile. “But I like to think ahead.” Even as he spoke, he could see a thoughtful look enter her eyes, and her hands fidgeted with her skirts around her belly.

“What about you?” she asked shortly after. “You’d make a great father. Why aren’t you finding yourself someone special?”

He raised one hand and wagged a finger in response. “In due time, Ibis. For the foreseeable future, I’ve simply too much work.”

“Of course,” she said with a slight roll of her eyes. “You should take more time for yourself. You’re not officially a Guardian, yet you work harder than any of us, and you always rush to our aid when we need you.” Turning from the deepblooms, she clasped her hands behind her back and tilted her head, giving him a cute look. "Eight years, and still so enigmatic. Are you ever going to tell me why you’re really here in the valley?”


She pouted slightly in response. “You always say that! Maybe I should use my scary Anathema powers to make you talk.” Waving her hands in the air and making spooky noises, Ibis made herself look so ridiculous that Lilac had to chuckle.

“Well, in that case, I’m here for your smiling face and sense of humor, Lady Songstress.”

She giggled and shook her head. “Uh-huh. Well I suppose I can let that do for now. But I’m keeping an eye on you, fella’.” Crossing to him, she narrowed her eyes, and then tapped him on the nose with a light “boop!” before turning and scampering off. “Heading to visit some folks, see you later!”

“Until then.” Waving, he watched her go with another smile, then turned back to his vast wild gardens. So very much work to do….

There were no two ways about it: Cerulean Wake was antsy. He had resisted the urge to just head straight to his sifu’s home on the Mountain of Elders. But as he wandered through the streets of his home village, his mind was entirely elsewhere. Fighting Ravinius hadn’t quieted the little voice in his mind. True, these days, the Cataphract raksha was more nuisance than threat, unless only one of the Guardians could respond, and thus the faerie only pinged Wake’s senses weakly. But the uneasiness had been strong and persistent, and was even now a dull thrumming in his awareness. Something was still coming.

Gradually, he found himself at Lake Noamin again. Clasping the blue gem of the magatama around his neck, he focused on the black jade beads around it and closed his eyes. When he reopened them, the tranquil surface of the lake was alive with activity normally obscured from his vision. The forms of spirits and tiny elementals danced and cavorted above and just below the surface, creating the impression that the lake itself was a huge creature, constantly jittering and fidgeting. After a moment, a larger form broke the surface, and sunlight scattered in rainbow hues, as if through a prism, off of a serpent slightly longer than a man was tall, with iridescent scales. It swam casually to the shore, and rose up to its full height once it reached Wake. “Ah, Wavestrider,” the spirit said lazily, yawning openly. “I sensed your arrival. You wished to speak with me?”

“Yes, Jorudo. Thank you for answering.”

“It was…no trouble,” Jorudo responded around another large yawn. “I was simply napping. I will gladly hear you out, young one.” The serpent coiled himself atop the water, shook his head as if trying to clear it, and then trained his solid aquamarine eyes on the Water Aspect.

Wake took a deep breath. Matsuri-Ono was god of the valley, but Jorudo held dominion over the lake. The two had both been freed from debilitating essence drain when Ibis had repaired Argus, and were old friends. But while Matsuri-Ono took a very active role in the valley’s life, viewing himself as a protective father, Jorudo was far more “hands-off” in his approach, preferring to get involved only when the lake itself was affected. Wake would have called him “lazy,” but perhaps “exceedingly patient” was better. He couldn’t complain, though – Jorudo had formed an excellent rapport with him, and was nearly always willing to listen, even when Wake himself felt he was being too worrisome. “My inner sea is turbulent, Joru-jii.”

“Your inner sea is always turbulent, water child.”

Wake sighed a bit. “I suppose you’re right.”

“I do not mean that in insult. You compare yourself to the flameborne Smoldering Cinder unfairly. She is measured and temperate, a fire that burns slowly and carefully, because that is where her strengths lie. You are not a slow-burning flame. You are water itself – quick to shift, quick to adapt, and never truly contained. That is where your strengths lie, young one. Your Songstress has need of those, as well.”

Standing in silence for a few moments, Wake turned that over in his mind. “You already knew why I came to see you when I called, didn’t you?”

“You have lived close to my domain, as an enlightened soul of my own nature, for more than seven decades. Lake Noamin’s waters resonate with the spirits of all in the valley, but yours is a waterfall among babbling streams.” The serpentine face became something very close to a grin. “So yes, I knew. Do not burden yourself with worry, Wavestrider. No storm lasts forever, and a captain always dwelling on the next one misses the joy of the voyage.”

Wake smiled, then gave him a deep bow. “As always, thank you for your wisdom, Joru-jii. You’ve been a great help.”

“You always have my ear, young one. Come back whenever you need to.” Turning back towards the lake, Jorudo’s form slid under the surface without disturbing it, and moments later the other spirit beings faded from view as well, as Wake ceased concentrating on his necklace. Turning to leave, he glanced at the water one more time, then headed back towards the villages, the water god’s words still playing in his mind.

Pushing through yet another tangle of thick foliage, River Rat mopped his forehead with a filthy rag, and surveyed the landscape stretching out before him. Trees, verdant, ancient, and colossal, surrounded his vantage point and continued on as far as the eye could see. He hated the East so very, very much. It was all obscene overgrowth and backwards hamlets and predators just looking to gobble up a fat little morsel like himself. And it was always so damn hot! The Far East was the worst. It didn’t matter that he had been born there – the whole stinkin’ direction was a blight compared to the perfect jewel that was the Blessed Isle.

Ah, the Realm. Now there was a fine place. River Rat had never been handsome, or strong, or fit, or intelligent, or talented in any real fashion. But, by the Empress, he could damn well do as he was told, and that sort could always find a place in the Realm. Dining with a Dragontouched courtesan beat endless nights of gator stew hands-down, even if it did mean he was broke most of the time. Luckily, the Rat knew where to find the lucrative jobs, which was how he got the inside line to his current employer in the first place.

Say what you would about the Immaculate Order, but those wild-eyed bastards often compensated their help handsomely. While working for the higher muckety-mucks, he could drink the good stuff and eat his fill every single night. Whether he had any use for their religion was irrelevant. It had its down sides – like being assigned back to this stinking pit – but he knew it would wind up being worth his while.

So as he had dutifully done for months, River Rat peered through the paired viewing lenses he possessed, looking out over the treeline. They were on loan from his employers, and fascinating things which let him see easily for miles. He didn’t understand how they worked; all he knew was that they would reveal what he was seeking. Chewing a knot of sourthorn root – the succulent was one of the few things he did like about the East – he scanned back and forth, keeping his eyes peeled.

Despite his diligence, he very nearly missed it. As he shifted his view away from a gently sloping mountain, he caught the slightest shimmer in the air through his lenses. Pressing a button on the side, he activated the higher-power setting that fed off of ambient essence, and watched as a translucent glow shone in his heightened senses, touching that mountain and continuing into the distance for miles. River Rat’s jaw dropped, his chaw nearly tumbling from his gap-toothed mouth. Then he started dancing a jig. It lasted for a full minute before he finally settled down, marked the location on his map, and touched his earpiece. “Master! Agent Rat reporting in!”

“Acknowledged, Agent Rat,” spoke a coarse voice over the channel. “What have you to report?”

“I’ve found, it, Eminence. The Wyld Barrier we’ve been seeking!”

“Are you certain?” The voice grew excited, but was still a croak.

“Completely, Eminence.”

A long pause followed, then the voice resumed. “Very good, Agent. Hold position: we move to join you before nightfall. Field Command out.”

As the link faded, River Rat began to shuffle and caper again. Soon – very soon – this assignment would be over, and he would return to the Isle. Yep, working for the Wyld Hunt wasn’t so bad. Not at all.

The Guardians of Three Oaks, part 3
A more intimate look at the relationship between Ibis and her Guardians(yes, "intimate" means "explicit" this time 'round).

As Soaring Ibis walked through the comfortable valley night, she started to sweat. It had nothing to do with the weather – the air was crisp without being cold, and the cut of her kimono kept her body at a breezy temperature. No, the cause of her sudden fluster was something else entirely: a bundle of emotions radiating from the house she neared. The Songstress was powerfully empathic, but it was a sense she could turn off with most people fairly trivially. Not so around her Guardians; the strong attachment she held to them had quite nearly bonded them even before her Exaltation, and had only grown after she had created the shared awareness charm that linked them. It was a wondrous power, but it could be…inconvenient…at times.

Which was why, as she arrived at the door of the house she shared with Cinder and Wake, her face and neck were flushed, and she was very nearly panting. The awareness, and effect on her own emotions, grew stronger with proximity, and especially intense emotions. This close, she could easily feel what was going on inside; she was just glad it was late enough that she was alone outside. But she wouldn’t be alone much longer.

Sliding the door open, she heard a long, lustful groan in Cinder’s voice carry down the hall, and felt a long shudder of satisfaction up her own spine. She stepped out of her shoes, and padded toward the bedroom on quiet feet, her heart racing. Cinder was ablaze inside, and her excitement was contagious. Wake was equally charged, but she forced that awareness away for a bit longer. She could hold herself back while feeling Cinder thanks to their shared gender – for reasons she couldn’t explain, it was easier to make room in her mind for the emotions of another woman. Letting Wake in in such a state would make her lose control, though, and she had to be ready before doing that.

Entering the bedroom, she could quite clearly see Wake on top of Cinder. The light of the nighttime sky reflected from small collectors she had designed, and cast Wake’s back in pale illumination. The lean muscles under his skin tensed and relaxed as he thrust into Cinder, and her knees stayed tight around his waist, forcing him more fully against her on each push. Even with the windows open, the air in the room was thick with the scents of sweat and intimacy, and each time Wake rocked forward, their hips met with a loud smack, causing Cinder to continually gasp and moan out her enjoyment.

Ibis was certain they noticed her arrival, but they naturally kept going, and she made no move to stop them. Removing her obi, she shed the layers of her clothing as she moved to a water basin across the room, and used the cool water to wipe down her face, neck, arms, and legs. When she finished, she approached her two companions and lay on her side near Cinder, watching. Her sempai lay back on a pile of cushions, her dark hair fanned out beneath her, arching her back in time with her partner’s movements. Wake’s arms were braced around her sides, while her own looped under his armpits so she could grip his shoulder blades. They were both slick with sweat, and Ibis licked her lips as she watched them enjoy each other. Wake pulled himself closer, Cinder rolled her hips excitedly, and her cries kicked up in intensity as her lover sped up his motions.

Now Ibis opened her mind to Wake’s emotions, and suddenly she felt it all. He was nearing a release, and Ibis enjoyed every delicious second as he coaxed Cinder closer and closer as well, leaning down to lick and suck on her neck as he drove her into the cushions. They climaxed practically in unison, Cinder tightening her thighs and keeping him buried in her, and Ibis nearly joined them, just from the emotional rush. Wake gasped, and rocked his hips steadily against Cinder’s for a long moment, then finally lifted up off of her after a kiss, the woman’s full breasts heaving as she caught her breath.

Before he could work himself out of Cinder, Ibis leaned over and kissed her deeply. Her sempai reached up to bury a hand in her hair, and only let it drop again after a long, wet kiss, closing her eyes and relaxing back against the cushions. “You’re late, kohai.”

“I’m here now, sempai,” Ibis said with a playful smile. “And now you’re warmed up.”

“You can say that again,” Wake commented between deep breaths, sitting up close by. “I think she actually tried to break my hip earlier.”

“Then maybe I should finish the job.” Ibis pushed him over onto his back, and climbed atop his legs, growling sensually. “If you’re no longer fit enough to handle Cinder-sempai, then you clearly need some practice.” Straddling his lap, she stroked him with a hand and one thigh, wantonly preparing him for herself. He let her do as she pleased, looking up to her and moving his hands to her breasts, squeezing them gently as their eyes met and lingered on each other. Ibis let her eyes lid a bit in enjoyment shortly after, and eventually lifted her hips, pulling his arousal to her and slipping him into her body. Even with her excitement, he was still a snug fit, and it was a few moments before her hips came to rest against his lap again.

Wake had been one of her first lovers; she could still remember the night several summers before her Exaltation when the Water Aspect had been in a particularly amorous mood, and claimed her for the first time. She still occasionally blushed when recalling the things they had done in the hot springs that night. But there was no meek blushing tonight. Taking a moment to enjoy the full sensation he gave her, she leaned forward to brace her hands on his chest, and began riding him, bucking her hips eagerly on top of his own. She was in better spirits after clearing her mind and working on Argus, but she was still wound-up, and being able to just let loose was exactly what she needed. So as her motions were met by Wake’s own beneath her, Ibis tossed her head and let the last of her restraint ebb away. Wake’s hands gradually left her breasts, tracing a path along her sides and down to rest on her hips, and he moaned low in his throat as her body swallowed him in each time, pulling her down and lifting his hips up to meet hers. The awareness of his desire for her washed over her anew; she drank it in hungrily, and worked herself on and off of him, raking her nails down his chest and crying out in need.

A few minutes of riding later, she saw Cinder move in her periphery, and then the other woman’s hand seized her chin gently, turning her head so that their lips met in another deep kiss. When Cinder pulled away, Ibis panted out, then whimpered quietly as she felt something else propelling her hips shortly after. Cinder had slid around behind her, and now the woman’s hands were on Ibis’s hips, causing her to pump Wake even harder. In response, she leaned forward and accepted her sempai’s direction, shifting her hands from Wake’s chest to the cushions around his head as her breasts swayed and brushed along his skin.

As Wake neared another release, Ibis’s pulse quickened; she desperately needed one as well, and with Wake’s hungry pumping, and Cinder pressing her breasts to Ibis’s back in-between fondling her, she knew she was getting close, too. He got there first; his body seized up underneath her as he gasped, and she moaned in delight as he throbbed inside of her, his hands gripping her thighs firmly. She wasn’t far behind, and before he finished his release, her body clamped down hard around him, and she tossed her head high, crying out in satisfaction as she shuddered from head to toe.

Long moments passed before she was able to move again. Easing Wake out of her body, she lowered herself to the cushions at his side, and lay on her back, letting her thighs fall open. Cinder crawled over and began first licking, then suckling, her nipple, and Wake joined in on her other one a moment later, until she was rubbing both of their heads and moaning softly. The break was relaxing, and she closed her eyes and smiled. But she didn’t get long to rest. Cinder shifted so that she was sitting near Ibis’s head after a bit, and leaned down to pin her kohai’s wrists against the cushions. Wake slid between Ibis’s thighs, and she gasped, hooking her ankles together behind his back as he started in on her again. Her head swam in the intimacy, and she gave herself over fully to them again, losing herself in the enjoyment until her body tumbled into orgasm again. But Wake still wasn’t finished; as soon as she came back down, he rolled her over, pulled her up onto her hands and knees, and mounted her eagerly, sending her right back into excited pants as Cinder sat back for a while and watched with a pleased smile on her face. Wake was rougher this time, and Ibis arched and purred at the treatment, leaning forward to nip gently at Cinder’s breasts whenever she could, but otherwise letting her body flow with Wake’s pace.

He finally finished with her some long while, and several climaxes between them, later. As Wake leaned up off of her back and slipped out of her slowly, she rocked forward onto her elbows, and took a long moment to just breathe. Her arms were tired, her hips were sore, and she was nearly hoarse, but her body swam in euphoric satisfaction, and she sighed in deep fulfillment. Cinder pulled her close after a bit and shared another kiss with her, then smoothed out the cushions and lay down with her. Wake followed suit shortly after, nestling in on Cinder’s other side, and in a few minutes Ibis drifted off to sleep to the rhythmic sounds of her lovers’ breathing.

Despite the relaxed atmosphere – and the full-body exhaustion – she didn’t sleep for long. A familiar sensation returned to the fore of her mind, and she awoke while the moon was still high in the sky. Cinder had rolled over to cuddle more with Wake, so Ibis decided to go ahead and get up for a little while. She knew better than to try and get back to sleep while in this particular mindset. Reaching for her juban, she wrapped the light robe around her frame, and opened the side door leading to the inner garden of the house, stepping out onto the wooden walk and into the night.

The only sounds that greeted her footsteps were the chirping of insects and the quiet bubbling of the pond’s small waterfall. Sitting on the walkway at the garden’s edge, Ibis dangled her legs over the side, looked up at the moon, and sighed. Through that large, nearly full moon, she could feel someone calling out to her. It was like the bond she had with Wake and Cinder, but it was something far older, and more visceral. And this person could be anywhere on Creation. She had come to know this feeling well since it had started a year before; it was the pull of her Lunar bond.

“I thought I might find you here,” came Cinder’s voice down the walkway a few minutes later. Unlike Ibis, she had not bothered with clothes; as she moved, her skin shone in the pale light, and the sinuous grace of her curves caught Ibis’s eye with each step. She was radiantly beautiful. Whenever Ibis had heard stories of the valor, noble bearing, and general mien of the first Dragon-Bloods during the Primordial War, she had pictured them as looking like Cinder and Wake. They made her heart leap, and sometimes, they were all that kept her from abandoning her wits. “Is it the call again?”

“It is. It’s almost as if I can hear her out there, tonight.”

“Do you think she’s close?” Cinder asked as she came to sit by Ibis.

“It’s hard to say. She’s still…indistinct, too vague to pinpoint. As if something is shielding her from my awareness. But if I had to guess, I’d say no, she’s not close.”

Cinder nodded, then sat in silence. She knew quite well that one of Ibis’s biggest reasons for wanting to travel was to find her Lunar. For someone as emotionally perceptive as Ibis, being separated from one of her soul mates was torture, even though they had never met. Usually, she could bury that longing somewhere deep. But on some nights, when the moon was just right, it nearly consumed her. Cinder knew these things, but she never pushed Ibis to stop thinking about them. She would just sit with her until they went away. Ibis couldn’t have asked for a better pick-me-up.

“I’m alright,” Ibis finally spoke again. “Thank you for being here.”

Smiling comfortingly, Cinder nodded. “It’s no trouble. I wanted to be here, so I’m here. Wake would have too, I’m sure, but I think we completely sapped his energy tonight.”

Ibis laughed, and smiled brightly. “That’s what happens when he tries to out-drink Lilac. But I love him anyway, the goof. And you, as well.”

Cinder smiled again, and placed her hands on Ibis’s. “And we both love you. Dearly.”

Leaning over to her, Ibis rested her head against Cinder’s chest, just listening to the other woman’s heartbeat for a while. When she raised her head again, she looked into Cinder’s deep indigo eyes, and kissed her passionately. As if on cue, Cinder’s emotions forced their way back into Ibis’s awareness, and the Songstress nearly gasped at how overwhelming they were. This was an important, maybe the most important, reason why she could avoid becoming obsessed with her Lunar bond. Cinder was composed and serene as any candle on the outside, but inside she was a raging inferno, all life and energy and passion. Ibis thought that anyone who watched her and Wake should have seen it; they seemed starkly different, but they were both creatures of true exuberance and elan, and the love they shared was intense. Just a taste of her own portion of that love was enough to keep Ibis’s other longing at bay. When she felt it all….

Cinder’s hand went to the band holding Ibis’s hair up, and a moment later her locks were freed from the tail, tumbling down around her shoulders. Ibis nipped the other woman’s nose affectionately, and then lowered her head, trailing a path down Cinder’s neck and breasts with her lips. She continued on down, and when she reached Cinder’s navel, she slid off of the walkway to the grass in front of it, then knelt and kissed Cinder’s knee, easing her legs open and nibbling on her thighs playfully. Obliging her silent request, Cinder kept her hand in Ibis’s hair, but tilted back a bit as her kohai’s lips approached her pelvis. Ibis nuzzled her nose teasingly against the dark patch of hair immediately between Cinder’s thighs, and then dropped lower, settling her hands on her partner’s legs. Her tongue slipped out to rub lightly on Cinder’s clitoris, and she smiled as she felt Cinder’s fingers fist in her hair. She gradually coaxed it from hiding, and gently sucked on the little nub for a bit, drawing an excited, husky moan from Cinder’s throat.

Ibis then moved her tongue to Cinder’s slick warmth, and lapped along it a few times slowly. Wake’s taste immediately hit her as well, and she felt a lustful jolt in her own body, gripping Cinder’s legs and plunging her tongue inside her deeply as her lover rubbed the back of her head in encouragement, and grew increasingly quick and shallow with her breathing. When her sempai slammed her free hand against the wooden walkway loudly and began to quiver in release, Ibis rode the dual surges of Cinder’s physical finish and emotional rush, then cleaned her up with lips and tongue, finally raising back up and rubbing her cheek to Cinder’s stomach.

The other woman sat stroking Ibis’s other cheek for a long while, then lifted her fully to her feet again. But that turned out to be only so she could playfully push Ibis onto her back into the grass. Laughing happily, Ibis watched as Cinder sauntered down the nearby steps, hips swaying, and walked over to her , dropping to her hands and knees and crawling towards her like a hunting cat. “Your turn, kohai.”

“I’m all yours, sempai,” Ibis purred, her heart leaping into her throat.

Continuing her steady prowl, Cinder came to loom over Ibis, and lowered to fasten her lips to the younger woman’s neck. They then traveled to Ibis’s chin, cheeks, collarbone, shoulders, breasts, stomach, on and on until her skin was flushed in arousal. When Cinder’s eyes cut to below her waist, Ibis parted her thighs and very nearly whined out in anticipation. The other woman smiled and wrapped her arms around Ibis’s thighs, her thick dark locks dangling to tickle Ibis’s skin as she lowered to taste her heat. Cooing in pleasure, Ibis braced herself on her elbows, her juban falling away from her frame, and closed her eyes as she felt Cinder’s tongue go to work on her. It sent hypnotic tingles up and down her back as it danced inside her, and every time its warm touch slipped out to brush her sensitive nub, she arched her body, raising her breasts and feeling the cool air on her nipples.

It wasn’t long before her voice broke out into an eager moan of ecstasy, and she bucked some as an orgasm swept through her, collapsing into the grass afterward and panting heavily. Giving her a long, deep kiss that kept their tongues wrestling for a while, Cinder held her close for a bit, then helped her to her feet. They held hands warmly as they returned to the bedroom, and lay down on either side of Wake a few moments later. Even in sleep, his arms closed around their bodies, and they both looped an arm over his chest, nuzzling against him and drifting back to sleep. The call was once again quiet in Ibis’s mind, and for now, that would do. It would do.

The Guardians of Three Oaks, part 2

It didn’t take long for the villagers of Three Oaks to return to their normal routines. After all, part of life in the valley was the knowledge that the Wyld could come calling at any time. For many generations, the people had practiced their evacuation processes, both in drills and in live usage. So once Soaring Ibis and the others returned, and deactivated the warning sirens, it was back to business as usual in the valley. Families went about with their laughing children, aged seniors sat back to their stones and mid-day snacks, and everything resumed as if nothing untoward had happened.

But not for Ibis and her friends. After performing a cursory check of the village’s perimeter, they headed for the shrine atop the hill, and went into one of the central chambers, closing the doors behind them. The four of them took seats on the floor around the low table at the back, and Lilac drew in a deep breath, but then spoke right up. “So, as stated before, the news of my trip is…unfortunate. I’m afraid that the world outside has not improved much since the last pilgrimage I made.”

Soaring Ibis folded her hands on the table in front of her – she could have really used a cup of tea, but it could wait for a while. “I had a feeling you might say something like that, Lilac. How far did you go this time?”

“Not quite as far to the borders as we live here, but close. It really didn’t matter. Creation is not in good shape. And I don’t quite like what I’m seeing from the Realm. The Wyld Hunt is ramping up again; they’re devoting an alarming amount of time and energy to hunting for Solars and Lunars, and the Scarlet Empress’s hold only grows stronger with each passing day. She’s a crafty one, and a deadly foe in more ways than I can count. We just have to hope she keeps her eyes focused on the Threshold and continues to leave the rest of the world be.”

Cerulean Wake closed his hands into fists, and clenched his jaw visibly. “Again, this ‘Empress’ and her Realm. How readily the rest of the world abandoned the old ways. How can they continue to be so foolish?”

“It’s their religion,” Smoldering Cinder responded evenly. “This ‘Immaculate Faith.’ We’ve only heard little bits and pieces of it all the way out here, but as you start nearing the Realm, it’s everywhere.” Cinder was the only other one among their group – in fact, the only other person in the valley, so far as any of them knew – who had ventured west enough to even remotely approach the Threshold. In fact, she had taken one such journey not long after meeting Lilac, accompanying him for several months away from Three Oaks before returning. She never talked much about what she saw there, but Ibis didn’t need to hear. The ebb and flow of Cinder’s emotions, deep underneath the surface where everyone but Ibis was largely unable to perceive, whenever she started talking about the Realm and its reach spoke volumes. “It seems fairly innocuous at first, even positive, when you listen to how they speak about emulating the virtues of their heroes, and just attempting to live good lives. But then their talk of the ‘Anathema’ begins, and it just devolves into vitriol.”

“Unfortunately, Cinder has the right of it,” Lilac said while shaking his head. “The world is still only slowly recovering from the Contagion, if it ever truly recovers at all. Even discounting the fear of Solars and Lunars, there’s still the Wyld, and any number of other potential threats, to keep people afraid. Supposing not everyone truly accepts the philosophies of the Realm, so long as they remain one of the few powers able to stabilize the regions they claim, we’re still not going to see many people willing to go against them. Which means that I still can’t recommend leaving Three Oaks, even for a very short period of time.”

Wake sighed heavily, and Ibis shared his disappointment even without letting herself actually share it. She had a number of reasons for wanting to see the world outside of Three Oaks – one very persistent reason that she felt tugging at her even now – but many more reasons to stay. The Wyld attacks were not going to just cease, after all. And then there were the day-to-day tasks of the shrine proper. She could leave them to some of the other priestesses in the valley, since there were other shrines, but she couldn’t justify it, given everything else Lilac had said. “Then it’s decided. We defer the issue of my traveling away from the valley for at least three more months. Thank you very much for filling us in, Lilac.”

Giving a slight bow, Lilac dipped his head respectfully as well. “I only wish I had better news for you, Ibis. I know how important this is to you.”

“It is, but fulfilling my obligations is more important to me. I can’t leave others to do my work in such an environment, and I most certainly can’t ask my guardians to risk their lives for me so irresponsibly.” She did feel Wake’s surge of emotion that time, and looked up at him just as he started to open his mouth. He caught the expression on her face that said “we’re finished discussing this for now,” and looked down, embarrassed, for all the world as if she had just verbally scolded him. “Anyway, enough weighty talk for now. You’ve just arrived back – we should be out celebrating your return.”

Wake’s embarrassment vanished, and he stood up. “I agree. I’m going to Kagari’s to see if we can use the party room. No ’but’s’, Lilac. You’re drinking with us, and that’s that.”

“Very well,” the taller man said with a quiet laugh. “But don’t forget, I tried to warn you.”

Kagari Minomiyo was a middle-aged matron who ran one of the oldest restaurants in the valley. She and Cerulean Wake had been friends for decades, and it was no secret that she saved most of her best booze for his requests. So when Wake had mentioned “going to Kagari’s,” Cinder was well-aware of what sort of night they were all in for. When they arrived at the expansive one-story structure on the other side of the lake, Kagari was waiting for them, looking ever the professional with her brown tresses pulled back into a tight bun and clad in a saffron dress that was both simple and subtly elegant. She bowed deeply, and gave a welcoming smile. “Welcome back, Cerulean Wake. So you managed to talk them into joining you after all.”

“Yep. Our itinerant friend is back, so of course we have to do something special,” Wake said with a nod of his head towards Lilac.”

“A pleasure as always, Minomiyo-san,” Lilac spoke with a nod of greeting.

“Likewise. It’s good to have you back in the valley again. I’ve been working on a few special mixtures for you all for some time, so it’s perfect that you stopped by today.” Gesturing to two of her daughters, who stood nearby with trays held at the ready, she turned towards one of the side hallways. “If you’ll follow me? I’ve got your usual room already set up.”

Leading them out of the main room of her restaurant, Kagari continued on down that hallway to a series of private dining chambers. Stopping at the third, she slid the door open and stood aside so they could enter. Two low tables sat parallel in the center of the room, with plenty of space for a group twice their size, and cushions in the red and white colors of the restaurant sat in three neat piles. The tables were already set up with over a dozen bottles of differing sizes and shapes, and Wake was the first one over, avidly examining each before opening them and taking a long whiff of their contents. “Oh, wow. I can’t even place most of these.”

“That was the intention,” Kagari said with a self-satisfied grin. “Ayame and Yui will see to you, but feel free to let me know as well should you need anything.” With that, the woman gave another bow, and then departed, leaving the group to their merriment.

The routine was more or less the same. Soaring Ibis poured the first drinks for the four of them, and they drank to Three Oaks, to good friends, to family, to honor, and to whatever else Wake could come up with before he grew impatient. A pot of hot water arrived just as they were finishing their first toast, so Ibis then poured the three of them another round before giving herself a smaller portion and setting some tea aside to steep while she watched the others. Cinder and Wake tried a cup of every bottle on the table, pouring for each other, while Lilac picked one or two he liked the most and sipped away idly. It was routine, but a good routine.

After about two hours of relaxing and socializing, Wake stood up and issued his usual challenge. “Lilac at Dusk!” he said with a dramatic point at his seated target. “You. Me. Drinking contest. Now.”

Ibis laughed into her teacup, but Cinder maintained her smooth-faced equilibrium. She was only a little tipsy, whatever the shoulder of her kimono seemed to think, but Wake had emptied at least three more bottles than her by this point, so he had to be much farther along. Did he really think he had a chance to beat Lilac? Didn’t he always think he could? She would have a good chuckle about it, but it was better saved for after the fact, when she could add a well-prepared verbal barb with it. As soon as she finished this current bottle to give her some inspiration.

“As you wish,” Lilac said with a slight hint of a smirk. “I leave the choice of drink up to you.”

Narrowing his eyes, Wake’s face suddenly grew very serious and focused. He stood very still for a long moment, silently, and then reached over towards the cluster of half-empty bottles on the table, snagging one by the neck and hefting it over his head. “Number Six!”

Ayame and Yui, waiting by the doorway, had been watching the scene in rapt attention, and when Wake called out his choice, they scurried out of the room, returning later with several trays bearing more bottles identical to his selection. Wake shifted so that he and Lilac were on opposite sides of their table from each other, and the girls unloaded their trays, settling the bottles into neat rows and formally pouring the first cups of dark liquor.

“Interesting choice,” Lilac said as he studied Wake. “I would have thought you’d go with something slightly more bitter this time.”

“I’m just full of surprises,” Wake responded with a toothy grin. “Are you ready?”

“As always.”

The contest began with the two raising their cups in salute, Lilac’s expression smooth and impassive while Wake’s was intense and confident, and then they were off. One cup down, then two, then four, then seven, without either of them so much as slowing down. Five bottles went bone-dry, and still, every time, both Wake and Lilac lowered their cups and tapped the table for another. Cinder was moderately impressed by the time the first tray was empty, but she knew it wouldn’t last too much longer. Wake might have been holding strong, but she could tell he was nearing his last legs, while Lilac looked as fresh-faced as he always did, save for the slightest flush to his cheeks. The dark-haired man’s progression of challenges also gave away just how he was doing: at the start, he had been “Let’s do this!” and “You look a little flushed there, Lilac,” but at the start of the second tray, he had started missing a few words here and there, and as that tray too emptied, he could do little more than grunt before tossing his cup back.

Finally, midway through the third tray of bottles, Wake took a few seconds longer to finish his cup, and slowly lowered it to the table. Lilac had already downed his, and sat with a half-grin across the table, drumming his fingers quietly on the surface as he raised an eyebrow. “Shall we have another?”

“I thi…er…think,” Wake started, measuring each word carefully, “…that I’m…done. Well…” His eyes started to droop mid-sentence, and he attempted to snap back to attention. “…played.”

Ibis giggled openly, and Cinder cracked a smile, tugging the shoulder of her robe up yet again. She fished for something to say – she had been thinking this whole time and was still very much alert, of course – but just shook her head after a moment, and took another sip from the rose-scented liquor she had been steadily working through for an hour. “You never learn.”

You never…learn,” Wake retorted peevishly, leaning forward against his spot on the table and propping his arms up. “One of these days…I’ll get ya’, Lilac. Honest.” Kagari’s daughters cleared the bottles away, visibly trying not to laugh, but Wake hardly seemed to notice. The grin on his face, and the droop of his eyelids, said quite plainly that he was in his happy place at the moment.

“I’m sure you will, old friend.” Lilac took one more drink for good measure, and then nodded respectfully to the serving girls. “Thank you very much for putting up with our requests, as always.”

“It’s our pleasure, Lilac-dono,” replied short-haired Yui with a faint blush. “It’s always enjoyable having you and your friends here.”

Standing up from his spot, slowly to avoid disturbing the now-snoozing Wake, Lilac reached into the small pouch tied at his belt and stepped over to the two of them. “Though it’s appreciated, still, take this for your trouble.” He pressed a coin into each of their palms, and gave a slight wave of his free hand. A moment later, a green flower bloomed in Yui’s hair just above her left ear, while another of a deep crimson color appeared in Ayame’s hair. They bowed deeply, and Yui turned as red as a beet before scurrying off with a tray full of bottles, her sister following at a more normal pace.

Lilac turned back to the group then, and laughed quietly when he saw Wake all-but-sprawled out over the table. “As much fun as this has been, perhaps we should call it for now? Much longer and I fear Cerulean Wake will be impossible to move.”

Cinder finished off the last of her drink, and cleared her throat a bit, steadily getting to her feet. “True enough. I’ll take him back to the house.” She knelt down, and after a moment of effort, managed to get a shoulder under Wake’s, the other guardian still clearly half-asleep as she got him to his feet. “What of the two of you?”

“I think I’d just like to take a walk in the forest for a bit,” Lilac mused. “I’ve missed how things are this time of night around here.”

“And I think I’ll go check on the machine.” Ibis set her teacup down, and stood, brushing off her skirts several times before raising back up.

“Very well,” Cinder said with a nod. “Don’t stay out too late, Ibis – I was thinking we could hit the springs in the morning. I’ll likely see you tomorrow, Lilac. Rest well.” Nodding to each of them, Cinder got Wake walking, and led him out of the room. “Come on, sleepyhead. You can nap once we get back to the house.”

Descending the last of the stone stairs beneath the shrine’s hill, Ibis placed her hand to the smooth door in front of her, and closed her eyes. Her forehead shone with her setting sun mark, and the door opened, retracting into the ceiling and revealing the chamber beyond. The circular room was immense, as large as two or three amphitheaters across, and its wall space was dominated by smooth crystalline panels that stretched from about waist height nearly to the ceiling more than three dozen feet up. In the center of it all was a throne-like chair, made of some smooth stone and looking very uncomfortable to the naked eye. The chair was Ibis’s destination; as she walked over and sat down, the featureless stone contoured to fit her body shape, complete with armrests, a horizontal panel with scores of sigils and runes scattered across its surface rose to waist level from the floor, and the great crystalline surface against the wall came alive with light, as an androgynous voice resonated through the chamber. “Welcome back, Soaring Ibis.”

This was perhaps the single most important place in the entire valley, and indeed the real treasure that Ibis and the others were tasked with guarding: the essence computer known as Argus. Millenia prior, Argus had been only one of a class of First Age devices built for maintaining the borders of Creation. Indeed, at the time of its construction, it had been only a relay point for other essence computers – the Wyld had not been at Three Oaks’s doorstep, back then. But as the encroachment following the Usurpation had continued, a lone Solar whose name was lost to history had re-purposed it to generate its own Wyld Barrier, thus giving the people of Three Oaks a fighting chance.

It had not always been so, however. Though the original Solar left Argus in stable condition, the actual operation of the system was beyond the capabilities of any mortal thaumaturge who had ever lived in the valley. They could perform maintenance and very basic diagnostics, but they had to leave it on automatic mode or else risk a catastrophic shutdown that would leave them completely exposed to the Fair Folk. And as century after century passed, the barrier had grown more and more in need of complete restoration.

In fact, by the time the young Songstress-in-training Soaring Ibis reached teenage, there was talk of the entire valley abandoning the system to seek new lives elsewhere. Though it still held, the barrier had started to slip occasionally, which meant that not only could Fair Folk of sufficient power push their way across, but now the occasional hobgoblin horde could just pass through unobstructed. The fact that the blood of the Dragons was still strong in the valley had been the only thing saving the people from being regularly harvested by the Fae – even during the Contagion, there had usually been one or two Dragon-Blooded heroes who spent their lives in training to keep the valley safe from Wyld threats. Even though the current guardians, Smoldering Cinder and Cerulean Wake, were joined by a third by the time Ibis was fifteen, Lilac at Dusk, the attacks had become frequent enough that everyone was worried the valley might not survive much longer.

Then the day had come, four years later, when everything changed. Not one, but five raksha, along with a veritable army of hobgoblins and Wyld mutants, had managed to force the ailing barrier to drop. Wake, Cinder, and Lilac quickly responded, and were keeping the invaders at bay, but everyone knew it was just a matter of time before their defenses fell entirely. Ibis had been performing offerings at the shrine that day, going through the last of her training under Cinder’s direction; and when her sempai had grown more dire than she had ever witnessed, grabbed her sword, and rushed out of the shrine, Ibis knew it was bad. Exiting the shrine to look down into the valley, she could see the people moving about, unhurried and orderly, but with an almost palpable feeling of dread thick in the air.

Ibis knew she should evacuate with the others, but out of the corner of her eye she noticed a lone figure heading for the staircase underneath the shrine’s hill. It was White-Spotted Owl, the boy a couple of years her junior who was the valley’s best thaumaturge. She had talked with Owl many times – they shared similar interests, as Ibis dabbled in the theories of thaumaturgical arts herself, but never had the time to truly pursue them with her Songstress training. Which was why she understood the look of abject horror on the young man’s face as he made for Argus’s control chamber. He had told her how little any of them, himself included, understood of the computer’s workings; he knew that he was likely wasting his chance to get away by trying to give it one last shot. But he was going, anyway. And in that moment, Ibis decided that she had to go, as well.

Following behind as best she could – he was in a mad dash – she got to the chamber a few moments after him, and arrived just in time to see him place his hand on a panel she had never seen before, on the side of a pedestal that had risen next to the control chair. Before she could speak, Owl’s eyes suddenly went wide, a golden light emanating from the panel, and for a moment he looked almost euphoric, despite the red warning flashes on every screen in the chamber and the alert tones. But then the light became burning, and his expression changed from epiphany to tortured agony, as the light immolated him and turned him into little more than a pile of ashes on the floor. Ibis stood frozen in shock, and screamed, dropping to her knees, the sound echoing throughout the chamber. Her heartbeat pounded in her own ears, and all she could think about was Cinder, Wake, and Lilac, throwing themselves against the tide to give the people above one last shot. On top of that, one of her good friends had just died right in front of her eyes, doing the only thing he could. The warning lights and sirens became oppressive, mocking, a countdown signaling the end of her life as she knew it. How many prisoners would the Fae take? Would they leave anyone behind at all? What could any of them do, now?

A few long seconds passed. Seconds that felt like days, years. In the middle of it all, in the face of the greatest despair young Ibis had ever known, something else joined the litany of thoughts in her mind: a song. It was a wordless song, one that may have had lyrics many centuries ago, but which carried with it some very definite feelings: hope, determination, resolve. Though there were no words, the melody started out mild and meek, uncertain, almost desperate, but grew stronger, more confident, more alive as one sang it. She knew it well; it had been one of the first songs she had ever learned in her duties. Some people thought it was from the Contagion, a lullaby parents sang to their stricken children in the hopes they might pull through, while others believed it may have dated all the way back to the First Age, perhaps starting as a battle hymn for the first Solars as they marched against the Primordials. Whatever the source, it was exactly what Ibis needed to hear, and so she sang it.

As the notes wafted through the chamber, reflecting off of the crystal, the alerts seemed to drift away. The Wyld forces became a distant concern. Even the loss of her friend suddenly took a backseat in her mind. She looked up at the screens, and over at the raised panel in front of the central seat – how many times had she tagged along with Owl, trying to learn what she could, only to sit stymied and confused, feeling as if there was just something vital she had been lacking? But she went anyway, sat in the chair, and studied the symbols on the panel one more time. And that was when everything clicked.

At first, she was too shocked to move. She had known Old Realm for some time, and yet still all of this had made no sense. But now, as she looked down at the panel, she understood. Finally, she understood. Pressing a sequence in with her fingertips, she dismissed the pedestal at the side; it was an overflow mechanism designed to give the user as much raw input as possible, but it was never designed for a human mind to handle. She sorely wished Owl had waited even another minute before trying something so desperate, but there was no time to worry about that. Her fingers continued moving, and much smaller analogues of the wall-mounted crystal panels popped up into view just a couple of feet from her chair, while their larger cousins began to clear their warning messages. Seconds passed, and then the large panels displayed views of the valley from multiple angles, with several views of each of her three friends out in the field. They appeared to still be going strong, but the numbers were still very much in their enemies’ favor. But once again, no time.

Ibis’s hands moved as if she were possessed, pulling up reports of the village’s perimeter and locations of all of the villagers, gliding along the images in front of her to shrink, expand, and swipe them away as necessary, and so on. All the while, she sang, barely able to contain her own voice. It all made sense; she could barely even believe it had been beyond her grasp, now. Once she had the monitoring systems up and online, she dropped into a lower layer of protocols, searching for the reasons the barrier was not responding. The damage turned out to be far worse than even she or Owl had realized; minor inefficiencies in the work-around the previous Solar had made to get the system quickly switched over had accumulated like a logical rust in its workings, to the point where it was so overburdened just maintaining itself that it couldn’t exercise its full function. The raksha pushing against it in such concerted force had overwhelmed what little resiliency remained, and to get it all back up and running, she would have to clear the morass. Which she set about doing in short order.

As she worked at blinding speed, Ibis could sense a presence awakening in the chamber. It was almost like the feeling she got while meditating in the shrine, or at the borders of Lake Noamin – both locations were the seats of local gods, but those gods no longer communicated with the people of the valley very often, having lost most of their power over time. At least, that was what the prevailing theories had been, but Ibis suddenly knew better. The problem with the system was far more than just a logical block; it had put such a burden on the essence lines of the area that the gods were literally too continually drained of their vitality to manifest. When she had cleared some of the quagmire, the presence in the chamber suddenly popped fully into her awareness, and a voice spoke up, weaving underneath her song without disturbing it.

“Hello, Soaring Ibis. I am called Argus.” As the voice spoke, an image of a sun-dark man with three faces and an eye in each palm appeared on the central screen, translucent as if overlaid by her viewing screens.

“An animating intelligence!” Ibis felt a leap of excitement in her chest at seeing one of the many things she had only ever read about in books, but stayed focused on her task.

The man nodded. “Correct. I am the spirit entrusted with this system. Thank you for rousing me, I have been in fugue for quite some time.”

“I’m glad to help, but I’m currently in a bind. The Fair Folk are attacking my home, and I’m trying to restore the Wyld Barrier. Can you help me with that?”

Argus dipped his head respectfully. “Of course. It is my pleasure to assist an Arrow of Heaven.”

Ibis blinked in confusion. Arrow of Heaven? What was he talking about? But then she noticed the light. Where was it coming from? Looking around quickly, she suddenly realized that she was the source of the light. She had scarcely noticed anything outside of the screens and panels she had furiously been working away on, but now that she had a moment, it became clear that she was radiating with her own light. And a glimpse at her own reflection revealed the golden mark of a setting sun on her forehead. In that moment, she knew herself for who she truly was: a Twilight Solar of the Unconquered Sun.

Furrowing her brow in concentration, she shook herself back to the present, and looked back up at the image of Argus. “Then lend me as much of your power as you can, Argus. Let’s save the valley, together.”

“By all means, Soaring Ibis.”

With Argus’s help, getting the rest of the system up and online was a breeze. Ibis descended on the rest of the backed-up protocols relentlessly, and quickly cobbled together repairs for the function of the Wyld Barrier. When she reactivated it, all of her screens flickered for a brief moment, and then the repulsion began. Hobgoblins dropped like rag dolls in her images, melted away, or exploded outright, while the four remaining raksha pulsed with eldritch light and froze momentarily in their tracks. Not waiting for some sign of what had happened, Cinder beheaded one of them on the spot, while both Lilac and Wake returned to the offensive. She didn’t need to watch the rest, and so she just collapsed back into her chair, the weight of the past few minutes crashing down on her suddenly, and let out a deep breath. “We did it…we actually did it.”

“Would you like me to handle what remains of the restoration effort?” Argus chimed in without reappearing.

“Yes, please, Argus. I think I’d like to just sit here for a while….”

“It’s good to be back, Argus,” Ibis said as her mind returned to the present. She still remembered that day four years ago as if it had just happened. Only one of the raksha had survived that battle, the one they knew now as Ravinius the Relentless, and things had changed for the valley. With the barrier up and working at full efficiency again, none of the weaker Fae could even get close. Only Ravinius was strong enough to slip through, and only with a group not even a fraction the size of the one that had assaulted that fateful day. Which meant that, for the first time in a long time, the people of Three Oaks could live without true fear. Even with her promotion to Chief Miko of the shrine, and the development of her Twilight powers, it had been a halcyon four years.

Another voice interrupted her thoughts, one different from Argus’s but no less familiar by now. “You have that distant look again,” spoke a voice from next to her ear. It belonged to a figure no more than four inches tall, one that looked like a small clay statue of an armored man. “What troubles you this night?”

“Ah, it’s nothing, Matsuri-Ono. I’m just reflecting.”

The little man crossed his arms and gave her a stern look. “Come now, you can tell ol’ Matsuri-Ono. Is it that Cerulean Wake? You would tell me if he were picking on my favorite songstress, yes?”

Ibis smiled. “I promise.”

“Well then. Let’s have it.” The little god sat down on her shoulder, and his arms remained crossed. “The spirits said you were down here, and we all know you only work on Argus this late if something severe is on your mind.” In this form, one would hardly think that Matsuri-Ono was the god of the entire valley. When Ibis had Exalted and restored Argus to full functionality, Matsuri-Ono had been freed of the essence drain and regained his ability to manifest. But he and Ibis had known each other far longer than that. She had been sensitive to spirits since childhood, and even though she had never been able to see the valley god in the waking world, she had met him while dreamwalking before she even realized she possessed that gift. They quickly became the best of friends, and he had taken it upon himself to serve as a guardian and father figure for the young orphan as she grew up. None of that changed with her Exaltation; if anything, they had become a more effective team, now that he could reappear materially in the world. As well as a more active confidant. “You know me too well to think I will simply leave you be without a fight, Little Bird.”

Nodding, Ibis gave a quiet sigh, and looked back up at the crystal screen of Argus’s chamber. “To be honest, I’m worried, Matsuri-sama. You knew that Lilac at Dusk returned today?”

“I did. I rode along on his shoulder very briefly when he was heading towards the scene of your battle.”

“He didn’t have very good news for us. Apparently, the outside world is only becoming worse as time goes on.”

Matsuri-Ono nodded gravely. “Indeed, I have heard much the same from my friends who have visited from time-to-time. Neither the world of gods nor the world of mortals is in a desirable state at present.”

“And yet here I sit, cloistered in my own valley,” Ibis began with a wry smile, “letting my guardians protect me when I’m better-equipped to deal with the danger than most.”

Small bursts of steam left the ears of the valley god’s helmet, complete with a tiny whistle, and he frowned. “Fishfeathers! You do not hide from the danger, Little Bird, any more than Smoldering Cinder or Cerulean Wake. You have important work here in the valley, and many people under your protection. I wish to help the world as much as you, but we must start somewhere. And I will not support you putting yourself at undue risk any more than your Shrine Guardians will.”

Ibis hung her head slightly. She knew he was right, of course. If she did leave the valley, she didn’t even know where she would begin fixing the problems that Lilac and Cinder had told her about in the outside world. She had reached a keen level of understanding of her own powers in four years, but she still needed more time, and much more training, before she could even think of going up against the Realm. Also, she had to be able to leave Three Oaks in a state where it wouldn’t be in danger, and though she had made some important advances in that regard as of late, once again, she needed more time. It seemed there was never enough of that particular commodity.

“At any rate,” Matsuri-Ono continued a moment later, in a softer tone. “I did not come to browbeat you. You have a good head on your shoulders, and I know you will continue to make wise decisions. When the time comes where you feel it truly necessary to leave, I and the others who stay behind will continue to support you.” He drew himself up a bit further, gaining maybe half an inch in height, and lifted his head proudly. “So sayeth Matsuri-Ono, Warlord of the Three Oaks court!”

That drew a wide smile from Ibis. There was still one other thing that prodded the back of her mind, but it was something she had grown quite accustomed to silencing. It would return, but for now, she could let it go. “You always know just what to say, Matsuri-sama. Would you mind sticking around for at least a few more minutes? I’d like to look over a few things in Argus’s third-level subroutines, and I would appreciate the extra pair of eyes.”

The little god swelled with pride, and made an excited clicking sound from his helmet. “Of course! I’m here to help, Little Bird.”

Stretching her arms for a moment, Ibis reached around behind her head and lifted her hair up into a high horsetail, tying it securely and then leaning forward a bit in her chair. She raised her hands up, and two images appeared before her, views of the valley from different angles far above ground-level. As she rotated, expanded, and shifted the images, she viewed the essence patterns before her, and let her mind slip into maintenance mode. Argus’s original functions had been restored, and he was running at full efficiency now, but there was so much more that could be done with his systems. If she could puzzle out how to apply some of his auxiliary features to the defense and monitoring of the valley’s perimeters, she might actually have a feasible method of seeing to the safety of her home from external threats once she had begun her travels. Just sitting there, working away with her old friend occasionally giving her some advice from her shoulder, she just let the beautiful complexity of Argus’s systems wash over her mind, as entrancing as any tapestry and every bit as intricate as one of her songs. How had she ever lived without this sort of complete and utter mental immersion in something so challenging?

Before Ibis realized it, several hours had passed. Her work was interesting, but she was starting to feel antsy from having sat in that chair for so long. And she had told Cinder she wouldn’t stay out too late. So disengaging Matsuri-Ono’s tiny sleeping form from her shoulder, and setting him down onto the central panel of the chamber, she switched Argus’s non-essential systems over into standby mode, bid the animating intelligence a good night, and left the recesses of the hill’s warrens. The night was cool, but pleasantly so, and though she was still a little on-edge, overall she felt better. It was time to return home.

The Guardians of Three Oaks

Cerulean Wake crossed his arms in front of his chest, leaning back against a wall and trying to keep from appearing impatient. He was nearing his ninetieth nameday, but the village elders of Three Oaks still teased him for his youthful appearance. As if it were his fault that his Exaltation meant he still looked like a fresh-faced boy of barely more than twenty, and not the experienced shrine-guardian he had become over the decades. With aqua hair that curled ostentatiously no matter how tightly he pulled it back and the soft, subtle facial structure of his mother rather than the stark, chiseled chin of his father, he couldn’t really blame them for thinking of him as a boy still. But their jibes that he was still a restless youth were entirely unfounded, and he could prove them otherwise. If his charge would ever get her butt in gear, of course.

As the minutes drew on, Cerulean found himself pacing. His bare feet were practically silent against the sturdy, ancient wood of the floor, but his footfalls still sounded like drumbeats in his own ears, drumbeats that grew more urgent and insistent as time passed. He wasn’t at all anxious, so why did he feel so on-edge? It must have been his training earlier that morning. He felt like he had hit a wall in his progress, and that meant nearly everything else registered as secondary until he broke through it. His first instinct had been to return to his sifu, Seven Vaulting Staves, but the old man had said the same thing he always said: “You mastered my style twenty years ago. There is nothing you have yet to learn that I can teach you.” All while undoubtedly hiding a grin behind that teacup of his. It wasn’t that Cerulean suspected his mentor of holding out on him, but he did always refuse to spar with him when these blocks hit. Even just one or two days of instruction, and….

No. That was his frustration talking; he knew better. A shrine-guardian couldn’t spend his life looking to his elders for answers. At some point, it was important for him to push through his obstacles with his own willpower. That was why he was so antsy. Except, whenever his warrior’s spirit got like that, it always meant trouble was on the way. It might be two days or two months, but something was brewing, and he needed to be ready for it.

Forcing himself to stop pacing and settle into a seated position in the center of the floor, he drew in a few deep breaths, placing his palms at rest against each other and closing his eyes. “Focus, but do not fixate,” wrote the First Age philosopher and martial artist Whispering Leaves. Cerulean had read every one of her books – well, every one that had survived, anyway – cover-to-cover, and he had always thought her one of the most quietly brilliant minds who had ever lived. There was no need to fret; come what may, he would be ready. That was his duty.

Finally finding himself in a state of balance once more, Cerulean got back to his feet and walked over to the sliding door where he had been keeping his restless vigil. He didn’t hear anything from the other side, so he slipped off the pendant he wore – a deep blue magatama jewel – and hung it on a peg next to the door. Then he turned and walked out of the small room, opening a different door and stepping out to the wooden exterior flooring of the shrine, sliding right into his shoes. It was a beautiful day outside, the sort of day that made him feel more alive. “Control the rudder of your own boat,” went another of Whispering Leaves’s mantras, “and let the river flow as it may.” He would not rush her; Soaring Ibis would find him when she was ready. Until then, he would make good use of his time.

Lighting the last remaining sticks of incense, the priestess sat back on her heels once more and clapped three times, a loud echoing sound that filled the entire chamber as she closed her eyes and meditated. This particular ritual was always the longest of the month, but she was just about finished. Which was good, as even she was starting to wish she could go a little faster. Cerulean Wake would likely be beside himself with restlessness. Still, it was one of her many duties, and as the chief steward of the Three Oaks shrine, it wouldn’t do for her to give less than her utmost attention to them. Even if they were occasionally a little dry and lengthy.

Giving the prayer beads on her left bracelet a slight shake, so that the Eye of K’un Lao now faced toward the heavens instead of the earth, she formed the Four Seals of the Outward Winds, and then chanted the last series of incantations as she opened her eyes, each of the four votive candles positioned around her winking out in a steady cadence. North…west…south…east. Spreading her arms wide, she then gave one more loud clap, a sound that rang of closure and finality, and with one great whoosh of air that snuffed out the last embers of the incense and caused her obsidian hair to fly up like a whipped blanket, the room was suddenly quiet and still again. Quiet and still, and also unquestionably serene. It was finished: the nature gods of Three Oaks had been properly honored, which meant her duties were over for the day. Smoldering Cinder would be proud of her; she had taught Soaring Ibis everything she knew before taking up different pursuits, and though she still occasionally scolded her for letting her mind wander at times, the woman couldn’t hide her approval. But then, Soaring Ibis had always felt that Cinder couldn’t hide much from her.

Letting out a quiet sigh, the priestess gave her arms a long stretch that she then carried out through her shoulders, upper back, and ribcage. She had been performing that ritual since childhood, and yet she still had not figured out a way to avoid a bit of stiffness after kneeling over for so long. That was supposed to have ceased those several years ago; she chalked it up to a classic case of mind over matter. But that would get better once she got out of the shrine for a bit and out into fresh air – it always did. The copy of Machines of the First Age that Cerulean had let her borrow practically called out to her from its resting place in her shoulder pack outside the closed door, but she had other obligations to see to. And, besides, she could easily convince him to let her spend some time reading later on, maybe under her favorite tree.

And so she quickly packed up her materials, storing them away for morning prayers, her mind idling for a bit as she wrapped everything up. Once she finished, she brushed her hands along her wide red skirts, and then quickly hurried out of the chamber, scooping up her pack as she closed the sliding doors and making her way to the second set of doors. She nearly bolted off into a dash once she had those closed as well, but she caught sight of something hanging on the peg by the doorway and stopped. Cerulean’s magatama dangled from its leather cord, the crystalline surface catching the light streaming in from the windows and reflecting it in myriad directions. Closing her hand around it, the priestess lifted it from the peg, and smiled to herself. She had been right; her guardian was as restless as ever, it seemed. But she knew where to find him, so she looped the cord around her right wrist and left the shrine.

Stepping out into the clear summer day, she paused for a brief moment atop the hill where the shrine was located. The village of Three Oaks and its environs spread out before her. It was a small place, tucked away into some remote hills in the East far from the Blessed Isle, Nexus, or anything resembling a city. Even so, from atop her hill, the valley seemed to fill the world, an ocean of trees with the occasional building tall enough to peek up like the caps of scattered islands. The sound of wood clacking against wood drew her out of admiring the view, and she broke out into a run down the hill, her midnight tresses trailing behind in the cool breeze.

Cerulean Wake spun his practice staff over his head, eying his opponent warily. Across from him, just out of three steps’ distance away, stood Smoldering Cinder, the shrine’s other guardian and his most frequent training partner. A hair taller than Cerulean Wake, she carried herself with the casual, deadly grace of a hunting cat, and was known throughout the valley for her skill with a blade. It was hard to think that she had ever been only a priestess; even in routine, mundane practice with a training shinai, she looked as focused and serious as if she had been born with sword in hand. The honed calm that settled over her when she took a battle stance unnerved some folk who watched her, but Cerulean Wake had always envied her that stillness, even when they had been children.

“Ready whenever you are.”

Her even tone scattered his thoughts, and he came back to the moment at hand, studying her stance carefully. With the usual crimson headband holding her dark hair back away from her face, and her red skirts seemingly untouched by the dust of the practice ground, she looked as if she had literally just stepped out of the shrine. He was still pretty fresh himself, but he was jumbled and anxious on the inside, while she looked as stable as a statue. Why did it always seem as if she had no holes in her defense at all? Because she doesn’t, he wryly told himself. I don’t ever want to see the day where she fights me with her real blade. Drawing in a deep breath, Cerulean Wake settled back into the preliminary stance of his Crashing Wave form, his staff held behind his right flank while his left arm and leg slowly swept in the opposite direction. Though part of a combat form, the stance was meant more for promoting deep, even breathing and clearing one’s mind. He would need that before going on the offensive.

In fact, he was in the middle of just such a breath when Cinder suddenly flashed from her position to immediately in his face, her shinai barely more than a foot from his ribs. He hadn’t been expecting such a fierce attack during a pause, but he still reflexively swung his staff out in that direction, wood striking against wood as he pivoted with the force of the strike. He changed his grip on his weapon and continued on into one of the derivative steps of Crashing Wave, Breaker at Dawn. Cinder sidestepped the arcing sweep of his staff and attempted to strike him across the top of his chest, but he flipped backwards out of the way, and continued on through several handsprings until he had put some distance between them. She closed the distance in two rapid steps, and their sparring match resumed.

When their back-and-forth ended some minutes later, Cerulean Wake braced himself on his staff like a walking stick, breathing heavily. His entire body ached – particularly his ribs and back – but he had given as well as he had gotten. Cinder tried not to let it show, but she was also huffing and puffing, and her robe above the waist had slipped open a bit to reveal a glimpse of the sarashi underneath. It was difficult enough for her to keep her bosom restrained, anyway; with how forcefully they had been sparring, her cloth binding was starting to look more than a little tattered.

“You fought well,” she spoke suddenly, “but you’re frustrated about something.”

Cerulean Wake winced. “You could tell?”

Cinder relaxed her stance finally, and shook her head. “I could see the restlessness in your motions; you were practically screaming it the entire time we fought. But it’s more than that. You haven’t been sleeping well, and your sifu has been particularly evasive as of late.”

He felt his face flush at that, and scrubbed a hand through his hair. “Damn, I guess I really have been transparent, huh?”

“I wouldn’t exactly say that.” Walking over to the practice rack, Cinder put her shinai back in its place, and took a moment to retie the knot of her long headband, gathering her long, crimson-streaked hair in a more orderly fashion again. “But I know you too well by now to miss something like that. What’s going on?”

“I can’t put a finger on it. It’s just…I feel like I’ve hit a plateau.”

“Your ’warrior’s intuition’ acting up again?” She said it with only the hint of a smile, which helped to soften the sarcasm. “I’m kidding. I do believe you, Cerulean Wake. But I think you’re worrying too much.”

“But Cinder, you know as well as I do that this almost definitely means we’re soon to see a big fight.”

“I do. And we’ll handle it, just like we always have.” Finishing with her knot, Cinder nodded once, as if the matter were entirely decided. Looking at her resolute expression, it was all-too-tempting for Cerulean Wake to believe it so. “It won’t do any of us any good to fret about an indefinite future. Better for you to calm yourself and deal with the present.”

“You should know better than to argue that point with him, Cinder.” Cerulean Wake turned, and there was Soaring Ibis, a quiet smile on her face as she regarded the two in their conversation. “Wake’s an incorrigible worrywart. You should have seen how he was pacing around up at the shrine.”

“You’re late,” Cerulean Wake said after clearing his throat abruptly. “And I wasn’t pacing. I was simply waiting for a certain priestess to finish the rituals she should have been about earlier in the morning.”

“Uh-huh. You should know by now that my schedule is different. I can’t start the offerings as early as Cinder did because of my other responsibilities, silly.”

“It’s true,” Cinder chimed in as she crossed her arms underneath her breasts. “I was never a Songstress, so I could afford to get an earlier start on the day. Cerulean Wake is just sore that his mental state kept him from putting up a good showing against me today.”

“Suddenly, I find myself feeling much better,” he responded with narrowed eyes. “Care to go for another round?”

Now who’s the one holding us up?” Soaring Ibis said with a laugh, stepping in between the two and looking up at him teasingly. “Did you forget where we should be going? That wouldn’t make you a very responsible guardian, you know.”

Turning slightly, he flushed in embarrassment. Of course he hadn’t forgotten her schedule – it had just slipped his mind for the tiniest fraction of a second, naturally. “Alright, alright. It can wait for later.” As he finished turning towards the practice rack, he felt someone leap onto his back, and Soaring Ibis’s arms wrapped themselves around his neck, his magatama dangling from her wrist. He raised a hand to lay fingertips gently against that wrist as she hugged him from behind, and as she slid off again, letting the pendant fall into his hand, he set his staff on the rack and then reached up to loop his pendant back over his head. “So, Cinder, are you coming right away, or should we expect you later?”

“I’ll be just a few minutes behind you,” the other woman replied, tucking her hands into her sleeves. “Don’t dawdle on the way, and don’t wait up for me, Soaring Ibis. I expect you to go ahead and start if I’m a little late.”

“Of course, sempai.” Schooling her face to the image of perfect propriety – she was good at that, at least when she was around Cinder – Soaring Ibis gave a deep bow, and then promptly grabbed Cerulean Wake’s hand, tugging him her direction as she turned to head towards the village. “Now come on, Wake!”

Catching a quick glimpse of Cinder’s tight-lipped but serene expression, as well as the slightest hint of what looked to be amusement, Cerulean Wake followed behind Soaring Ibis, his fingers locking snugly with hers as he couldn’t help smiling himself. “Okay, take it easy. I’m right behind you.”

The waters of Lake Noamin reflected the late morning sun as if the entire surface were made of millions of glittering jewels. A flock of wading birds stood in a small adjoining pool, their high-pitched calls sounding every so often and mingling with the other sounds of nature, all part of the same song that Cerulean Wake had grown familiar with all of his life. As he sat on the largest rock of a formation by a small grove at the lake’s edge, he closed his eyes and leaned his head back, breathing in the scents that surrounded him. Cherry blossoms. Crisp, cool water. Fresh bread baking somewhere nearby. It was all so very serene that it was a little hard for him to notice the small crowd of people who had gathered a short distance away – their voices were just an underlying accompaniment to the song.

But then suddenly, the melody took a different – but no less familiar and wondrous – turn. As he listened, it became a voice, a beautiful soprano tessitura that moved through the air like a needle and thread, piecing together the myriad sounds around him into a functional whole. Wake smiled, and opened his eyes, turning towards the direction of the voice. In the midst of a semi-circle of people, from weathered old Ichigoya who had seen more decades than anyone could count, to the Sun Mi Yo triplets who were barely taller than the grass around the lake, stood Soaring Ibis. Well, she didn’t exactly “stand” – she spun in slow circles and danced with sinuous grace, her wide sleeves making flowing lines in the air. And none of it appeared to interfere in the slightest with the dulcet tones that left her lips.

“…I am the sky and the dawn and the sun. I bring you the morning, I bring you the sun….”

As she danced, Ibis’s voice rose and fell, cavorted and sailed, moving many times more dynamically than even her fluid steps.

“…I give light to the world, I give sight to your eyes….”

How many times had Wake heard that song? And, yet, even though it was her favorite of the hundreds – or thousands – of songs she knew, Ibis always sang this one a little differently each time. Wake certainly never tired of it.

“From the first of all time, until time is undone…” Ibis spun again, and as her dark locks swung away from her face, she caught Wake’s eyes with her own, and her smile lit up even more. “Forever, and ever, and ever and ever….”

The song continued on, and more people gradually joined the crowd. Including Cinder, who seemed to just pop up one moment next to him.

“Careful, Wake,” she said in her sly manner, “you’re gawking.”

“And you don’t like what you see?” he responded with a smirk.

“I’m here to watch my kohai perform.”

“That doesn’t answer the question in the slightest.”

Ibis finished that song, and went through five more of varying tempos and rhythms. She sang about the sky, the trees and flowers, the waters and woods which provided them such beauty and bounty. But mostly, she sang of the sun, of its life-giving warmth, and of the boundless love at its center, the heart of Sol Invictus. This hadn’t been a formal ritual, but she was still a Songstress of the Unconquered Sun, and the people of Three Oaks had passed down many, many songs about their chief deity throughout the years.

As the notes of her last song trailed off, Ibis bowed deeply, and over two hundred pairs of hands burst into loud applause. She blushed and smiled brightly, then went through greeting anyone she encountered until she reached Wake and Cinder. She leaned up and kissed Wake on the tip of his nose, and then did the same to Cinder, who actually blushed very faintly. “So, what now, my guardians?”

“We could go for a dip,” Wake offered.

“You always want to swim,” responded Cinder.

Wake shrugged. “I like water, and I like seeing you two naked. Should I apologize?”

Ibis laughed out loud before covering her own mouth, then grinned widely at Cinder, who looked as if she’d just swallowed a toad. “I think he got you that time, Cin.”

“Rubbish,” the other woman said, her face tinged pink. “He simply doesn’t know how to-”

A loud warning siren interrupted her, and all three of them immediately snapped to awareness. They knew that siren well, as did everyone else in the valley. The villagers were already departing, grouping together into orderly units. “Looks like my intuition was right,” Wake said bitterly. “They’re coming from the south this time.”

“Well, it has been some months,” Cinder said as she checked the sword at her waist. “We’re about due.”

“Miko Ibis,” spoke a young woman who stood nearby. Her husband had nearly been taken the last time this happened. “Please, you and your guardians be careful.”

“We will, Gladiolus,” Ibis replied, putting her hands reassuringly on the woman’s. “Get to safety, and give Whispering Hare my regards.” As Gladiolus left with the others, Ibis turned back to her companions, her expression serious. “To the Wyld Barrier?”

The pack of disfigured mutants quickly sped through the forest, ignoring any signs of trails and making a beeline for the settlements ahead. They were a motley, heterogeneous bunch – once something at least trivially similar to men, their already grotesque features had been distorted still further by constant proximity to the Wyld. Many had extra legs, or arms protruding from their torsos at odd angles, or tusks that had grown from simple prominent teeth into hulking monstrosities that stretched up past their eyes to the their hairlines. And those were the tamer of the mutations. Yes, they were revolting, disgusting creatures, but even this lot had their uses. It was a shame they lacked the forced of will to penetrate the barrier on their own. But that also meant they could not steal all of the fun for themselves.

Their master was dimly aware of their location, but he followed at a much more unhurried pace, striding along with his hobgoblin servants attending. They too were abhorrent, with patchy, leathery skin and eyes that were far too large and misshapen, but at least they were true creatures of the infinite chaos. They were acceptable accompaniment, and could even be trusted with very minor tasks. If one could adapt to the stench of their barbaric raw meat diets.

Ignoring them all, the figure leading them, tall and slender as a willow with luxurious unbound silver hair, stared off into the forest, focusing. They would come – they always responded to his playtime invitations. When he heard the first mutants cry out in pain, he smiled cruelly. They had arrived.

A second later, there were more howls, and then a man in blue tumbled into the clearing through the air, landing in a perfect combat stance and wearing a severe expression. “Ravinius,” he bit off with loathing as he clenched his fists. “So it is you.”

“Of course it’s me, Cerulean Wake,” the silver Noble responded, reaching into thin air and forming his long-handled axe. “You’d better have brought the others. I’d hate to have wasted a trip.”

His axe solidified just in time to parry a red streak of light, and then Ravinius was looking right at Smoldering Cinder from merely inches away, her red jade daiklave pushing against one of the two half-moon blades of his weapon. “He did, naturally.”

“Excellent.” Ravinius forced her back with a mighty push, and summoned his full armor with a thought, leathery green scales interspersed with actual emeralds flowing onto his skin. “With two of you here, I may actually get a workout.” The serpent-headed hobgoblins quickly leaped to the assault, mobbing Cerulean Wake and coming to flank Smoldering Cinder, and an all-out melee ensued, with Ravinius bringing his axe to bear against Smoldering Cinder’s vicious swordplay. Occasionally, he had to chase Cerulean wake off, but for the most part the boy was kept busy by the hobgoblins, his weaving and bobbing fighting style keeping him mostly unharmed. That was good; Ravinius fully intended on killing him personally soon enough.

Before the fight could truly intensify, though, and just as Ravinius was warming up, a bright arc of lightning struck the ground to block him from rushing Smoldering Cinder. He looked up, and smirked. “Well, the princess herself joins us.”

A few dozen feet up above them, Soaring Ibis stood in midair, a coiled band on her wrist still crackling with electricity. “How many times must we have this fight, Ravinius?”

“Until I’ve removed your heart from that pretty chest of yours.” He chanted a short incantation, and black flames began to seethe from and surround his body. “Come on down! The more the merrier!”

Letting the coil on her wrist fade, Soaring Ibis held out her right hand, a bright blue disk appearing before it. The disk became two concentric rings, and twin crosses divided the rings like spokes, creating a pattern like a spider web that began to rotate. At the same time, she began to glow with a brilliant azure light, and a symbol appeared on her forehead, the setting sun of the Twilight Caste. A moment later, she grasped the junction of those crosses with her right hand, and halted the pattern’s motion. Her left hand moved to the web, and then she drew it back, forming a spirit arrow of the same color as the light pouring from her body. When she released, a barrage of such arrows left the elaborate spirit bow, raining down towards Ravinius just as Smoldering Cinder appeared behind him.

He caught enough of the ground with a wide swing of his axe to throw protective chunks of earth in the path of the arrows, and deflected the other woman’s attack as he spun, returning to the offensive against Smoldering Cinder even as her Solar companion blinked in and out of focus, loosing arrows each time before vanishing and reappearing elsewhere. Lesser creatures would have been intimidated by the odds – his horde of hobgoblins and mutants were really little more than distraction, naturally – but Ravinius hadn’t earned his nickname “the Relentless” for nothing. Indeed, this was where he was most at home, dancing with the massive heft of his axe among worthy foes with hardly a thought to anything else. Smoldering Cinder moved to block one of his powerful sweeping swings, then thought better of it at the last moment and phased out of the way, to which he responded by slamming the blade down into the earth and using the momentum to hurl himself into a kick that met Cerulean Wake’s, sending the boy flying some distance away just as Soaring Ibis reappeared barely a pace away, launching another wave of arrows from that bow of hers and forcing Ravinius on the defensive. Yes, given the dreadful ennui of everyday life in the staid, inflexible Creation, fighting the Exalted was a breath of fresh air. And if Ravinius actually managed to drag away a couple of villagers for later entertainment, that would just be a bonus. The oblivious Exalts would just show up and rescue them, anyway, which meant even more fun.

But a few minutes later, the fun came to an end. Just as he had managed to put Smoldering Cinder back on the defensive for a bit, Ravinius noticed a long vine twitch to life in his peripheral vision, and shunted himself some distance away as the plant grew thorns the size of caltrops and lashed at his previous location like a whip. Several more times he had to perform such an evasive maneuver, until he was perched atop a rock outcropping on the other end of the clearing, axe braced over his shoulder as he surveyed the scene in front of him. Soaring Ibis reappeared next to Smoldering Cinder, her bow held low but quite ready to fire again, while the other woman had replaced her daiklave, Ivory Blaze Dancer, back into its sheath in preparation for another iai maneuver. Ten of his hobgoblins collapsed in a neat ring away from Cerulean Wake, who stood at the center in the low pose of his Undercurrent’s Fury form. And the other hobgoblins Ravinius had brought, scattered about the clearing in various states of unconscious or entirely broken, were starting to be covered with ivy that rapidly grew up from the forest floor, as another figure walked into the clearing. This one was a tall man, nearly as tall as Ravinius himself, with sharp, refined features, long orange locks that traveled to his lower back, and blossoms growing above his temples, but a ruthless cast to his expression at the moment. His perfection was nearly on-par with Ravinius’s own; it was a shame he was still one of these limited creatures.

“I believe you’ve had enough fun for one day, Ravinius,” the man spoke as he approached. “You’re clearly outmatched. Withdraw.”

“Always a pleasure, Lilac at Dusk. I had wondered where you were hiding.” Glancing around at the other Exalts, and at the remains of his servants, Ravinius sighed in disappointment and shook his head. “I had hoped to continue for a while, but seeing as how you’ve gone and broken all of my toys, I suppose I should retreat. ‘He who fights and runs away,’ and all that.” Enhancing the flames at his feet, Ravinius melted away from the ground-up, casting the center of his Essence in a random direction away from Three Oaks. He knew they wouldn’t chase him – they were largely too “honorable” to attack a retreating opponent. All except for Lilac at Dusk; Ravinius did keep an eye on him until he was finished dissipating. Enough fun for one day? Perhaps. But there was always another day.

Soaring Ibis let out a deep breath as the last of Ravinius’s form melted away into goo. That bothered her every time she saw it, but she imagined that was part of the reason why he always did it. She really wished he wouldn’t attack the village, even if he rarely got close enough to actually pose a threat over the past year or so, but it was apparently all part of some game he was intent on playing. Fair Folk – who could even begin to understand them? The important thing was that he seemed to be satisfied if he could get a good fight out of them, so at least there was that. She put him out of her mind quickly, though. After all, Lilac at Dusk had returned! Turning to the tall man, Ibis bowed deeply, and smiled. “You returned just in time.”

Laughing quietly, he gave her a respectful dip of the head. “Nonsense. You more than had the situation in hand. But I appreciate the thought, Lady Songstress.” In his white suit with gold trim, Lilac didn’t look at all as if he had been on a long journey. But he had always been unpredictable and mysterious, ever since that day he had first shown up in Three Oaks when Ibis had been just a teenager. She had still been studying under Cinder back then, and her sempai had been suspicious of the outsider – after all, what sort of person willingly traveled so far from the civilization and safety of the new Realm to a place so close to the Wyld? But after fighting him once, Cinder had claimed she had seen all she needed to know about the man in order to trust him. So Ibis had decided to trust him, too, even if he seemed a little too guarded for her to ever feel as close to him as to the shrine’s – and more accurately now, her – guardians.

That didn’t stop her from crossing the intervening space and hugging him around his torso, though. “Regardless, it’s good to have you back. Things just aren’t the same here without you around.”

He stroked the top of her head in a brotherly fashion. “And it’s good to be back. But I’m afraid the news I have isn’t very good. We should return to the village and let everyone know the attack is over.”

Ibis nodded, and looked to Cinder and Wake. “I agree.”

“I don’t particularly care for sticking around here,” Wake said with a sour look at the ivy-covered hobgoblins. “If not for your plants, Lilac, I don’t know how we’d ever get the stink of hobgoblin out of the ground after they show up. You’re a lifesaver.”

Cinder just nodded her agreement, and with that the group turned away from the battleground and made for Three Oaks, large flowers sprouting from the ground to cover the dissolution of their fallen foes.

Session 39: Reunited
In which our Heroes are together once more--and one of them must face his mortal life

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The Actual Play is in Critical Condition

boop boop boop boop beeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeep flatline
Declare the time of death…1:30pm…21st of May. pulls white sheet over adventure logs

Session 38: The Choice
In which the Circle stands united once more and must stand against a new darkness

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Session 37: Brass and Fire
In which our Heroes continue to search for Snapdragon through the worst reaches of Hell

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