The Brotherhood of Virtue
The Elemental Court of Kalimshah
I looked away from Keemia, not daring to meet her eyes, waiting on her reaction to the Raksha’s word. But the reaction never came; she arranged treatment to Shadow Edge and herself as if nothing had happened. Instead they talked about the other things the raksha had said. Shadow Edge asked about The All Seeing Eye, The Deliberative’s enforcement unit. I gave them a short description and pointed out that Janira had briefly been a part of it. It was hard to say if the Raksha had lied or not about the fate of Sang Nila Utama, but it at least seemed as though it believed it to be true. Keemia was hesitant to trust it, pointing out that it was clearly a liar, looking at me.
Shadow Edge who already knew parts of my shameful past was about to correct her so that I did not have to, tell her that it had been right, tell her that I really was…”a General “ Keemia interrupted my friend, with a look that would brook no opposition, then turned to me. “That is what you have been for thousands of years. That is who you are still, a General”. She…knew, she knew and she didn’t care. That was not how she saw me; those few decades did not need to define me.
She pointedly changed topics and instead asked questions about the past, about Takeshi. I suspected that she did so for my benefit more so than her own, but I told her, about his origins, about some of his achievements and of my time with him. She…told me it sounded like we had fun. She had used the term we, she had never referred to Takeshi as anything other than a stranger, someone unrelated to her, but now… . I realized somewhere in the back of my mind, that that was probably again another thing she said for my benefit rather than her own, but I did not mind or care. More so than any other time since before my death did I truly feel as though I was accepted, that I was among friends. That I wasn’t alone. Words cannot fully express the gratitude and love I felt for her during that moment. Truly, it was good to be among friends again.
Several hours passed as I shared stories with Keemia until finally a light shone from outside, Mughal Vishanti, an Ifrit In service of Lord Aryabatha had seen the flares of our animas and come to investigate. He had been fighting the raksha’s minions, culling them to prevent them from doing too much damage and was grateful to hear that we had killed one. Her “brother-husband” had returned to the wyld after her death, and with both of their presences gone, the raksha’s influence in the region had waned significantly. He warned us about staying in the cathedral, that it would draw the Pale Mistress’ ire, but I assured him as well as my friends that we would all be safe thanks to Friend Keemia’s presence. He relaxed and approached Shadow Edge instead. They began talking about archery and it seemed he had something he might teach my friend and so I let them have their lessons in peace, while the rest of us settled down to sleep. I worried that the Raksha’s words and the reopened wounds that came with it would make it difficult to sleep, but I noticed to my surprise that I was as calm as I had been for a long time, and so I drifted off to sleep, thanking my friend for once again comforting me with his words.
The night went by without further incident, and we set forth early the next day with Mughal showing us the way. This continued for a few more days before we finally stood beneath the foot of Kalimshah. There we dressed in formalwear as well as jewelry gifted to us by Keemia and then climbed the slopes until finally it’s gates stood open before us. Nothing I had seen in creation so far, reminded me as much of the splendor of the first age. The design was different to most of what I remembered, but the grandeur of it spoke of the wonders that had survived the Usurpation.
We met Ramandas, a sturdy looking Ifrit guarding the gate with his enormous warhammer. Dignified Friend Keemia approached him with her caste showing, and we immediately gained entrance. Lord Aryabatha would see us that evening, until then we were free to relax as we pleased. Ramandas escorted us to the guest quarter, where we met with the two Dragon-Blooded; Ragara Soras Hira, the satrap’s envoy and an arrogant Fire aspect called Aranda. I sat across from the Fire aspect and Keemia the sorceress and Shadow Edge…sat down next to them.
The Fire aspect wore a tattoo of a slain lunar, clearly proud of killing one of heaven’s chosen. Both myself and Keemia made it clear where we stood regarding them and their purpose, but Shadow Edge surprised me by seemingly liking the fire aspect. I would have thought he, if anybody would have reacted to his boasting, yet it did not seem to faze him. Perhaps my cunning friend simply hid his distaste for diplomatic reasons, still it surprised me. After we had made our positions clear, we settled down. Shadow Edge would go and continue his training with Mughal and so Shadow Edge left his servant to take care of our rooms. Myself, Keemia and Brilliant Veil meanwhile went to find Mumtaz Mahal, the master of The Dreaming Pearl Courtesan Style. Ramandas showed us to her door, but seemed curiously reluctant to do so, but my friend was near her goal and I would support her.
We entered a strange room, with smoke and mirrors, large pieces of silk ran down the ceiling which felt uncomfortably intimate to the touch. Finally we saw a woman, dancing within a flame. The flame and smoke hid most of her features but it was clear we had found Mumtaz Mahal. Keemia approached her, and asked to be trained. The Master forced Keemia to humble herself before her, and I had to control myself not to intervene. Still I reminded myself that this was Keemia’s choice. Keemia asked me to leave, for her sake as well as my own. The training was going to become very intimate. I did and explained that I would wait outside, she only needed to call for me should she need me.
I left her, but not before the door closed behind us did I realize that no sound escaped that room, I wouldn’t be able to hear my friend should she call for me. Ramandas explained further that few people leave Mumtaz Mahal’s training alive, and those that do are…changed. He warned me that he suspected Mumtaz Mahal to be a raksha, she was born within the Wyld and as such was different from his kind. I…didn’t know. Had I risked my friend’s life, her very soul, by suggesting that she seek this creature out? No, I had to believe that my friend would endure. Still, I had to make sure I was prepared should she call for me. I sent one of the Flame ducks to find my Trusted Friend Shadow Edge, and ask him to come and help keep an eye, or perhaps ear on her.
It was strange, it took far longer than I expected for my friend to come. Finally, sometime later the Flame Duck returned alone. She told me that he would keep his senses on Keemia while training. Once again I was awed by my friend’s impressive senses and focus, to be able to monitor his friend during training despite whatever strange working that had been made on the room. Relieved I turned to Brilliant Veil who had kept mostly in the background during this. I told her we would begin her training and her response was that she was still exhausted after the day’s journey and so would prefer to deal with the “boring” stuff now. I was impressed. It was subtle, but she had grown during this last month, she was no longer the child who began doing pushups, in the middle of the jungle, ignoring her fatigue. She had learned to conserve her strength, good. I had hoped for such a result, and along with the conditioning and reflexes the jungle would have taught her, she should be ready to progress in her training.
We spoke of the nature of leadership and it seemed as though she had finally begun realizing the importance intelligence. She claimed that that was why I was my friends leader, not because I was the strongest, but because I was the smartest. Her high praise flattered me, but explained I was not our leader, that duty fell on Galatea. But she questioned this, I should not wait for Galatea to lead me or to find and save me. I should be out there looking for and saving her. My pupil had indeed grown. Still, there was no way for me to find her as I didn’t know where she was. All I knew was that sooner or later, I would find her.
I began teaching her in the fields of study I knew her father favored, largely quizzing her to see what she already knew and correcting her as we went on. We covered several fields, from history, philosophy and mathematics. She was better versed that I first thought and we began to make progress when Noble Friend Shadow Edge came running. He hurriedly ran up to us, and began banging on the door. But nothing happened and Ramandas had long since returned to his duties. He explained that Keemia was no longer in the room. At first that didn’t worry me, since she would not have been able to have gone far, until my friend shared that it had been roughly an hour since he last checked up on her.
For the first time I felt anger, no, disappointment, towards my friend. He had lied to me, he had prioritized his own training despite me having warned him about the danger Keemia had been in, and still was. There was no time to speak on this however, as one of Mumtaz Mahal’s attendees opened the door. She explained that the Keemia we knew did not exist at the moment, that she was being…unraveled, unmade as part of the initiation, and disturbing her now would be dangerous. I had heard about the theory from Pearl, but I didn’t know enough about it to help her if that was the case. All I knew that it indeed would be critical that we didn’t disturb her. All we could do was to have faith in her; that she…and her mind would return to us.
Shadow Edge left to continue his training, not noticeably concerned that Keemia might well be struggling for her very existence. I did not say anything, but it wound me to see my friend act so nonchalantly about something this serious. Was it because of their feud? Was he simply hiding it, and if so, why hide it from me?
I returned to my tutelage though my heart was not into it. Ramandas came to ask me if he should reschedule our meeting with Lord Aryabatha. I told him no, I had to believe in my friend’s success and that she would be punctual as always. She would be fine. An hourglass was brought in to help us keep the time. And all the while the sand ran down, I kept telling myself that she would show up any minute now, any moment now the doors would open and my friend would be by my side again. I kept thinking that, telling myself over and over, only to notice that the sand had already run dry. Ramandas carefully asked me if he should take me to Lord Aryabatha, but I refused. She would be there, any minute now. But the minutes went by, and she still did not show up. But she would, she had to, SHE HAD TO!
Slowly the door behind me opened, and a calm sensuous tone asked? “Am I late?” I didn’t turn around right away, first I forced myself to ease my expression, to calm my nerves, only then did I turn to greet her. She was…different, I could not pinpoint what had changed, her movement? Her posture? Her confidence? I’m sure it was all of it and more, but it was Keemia, that was all that mattered.
Ramandas led us to Lord Aryabatha’s room where Shadow Edge was waiting for us. Ramandas spoke the word and the door opened. We three went in, leaving Brilliant Veil in his care. The room seemed larger on the inside than outside , with walls of flame surrounding it. Lord Aryabatha waited for us, seated on his throne. He told us we were late, which Keemia effortlessly deflected, again with a confidence I had not seen in her before, pointing out that after so many centuries, what where a few extra minutes. The answer seemed to please him and so we introduced ourselves. Keemia introduced herself as the reincarnation of Takeshi, which surprised me, even more so than the fact that The Ifrit Lord remembered her, all of us, seemingly fondly. I sadly did not remember him, he must have been quite young during the time of the usurpation, but I explained that I too remembered the first age as well as his kind’s hand in our downfall. I told him that I had not come for vengeance or in anger for his kind’s part in it, on the contrary, he, more than most beings in Creation should be aware of how the world had been lessened since the Usurpation. He If anybody should know that Creation needed us.
He nodded and once again pointed out that we were late. He explained that the Solar’s had failed the Ifrit’s trial, but they had tested us, assuming that we would rise up again as we were supposed to. They too had been betrayed. We continued our talk and explained the specifics about why we had come to see him. Keemia asked about her ancestors trade routes, and I about our concern regarding the Dragon Blooded. He told us that the Dragon Blooded had come to seek the Ifrit’s aid for the sake of Adorned With Wisdom As A Sapphire, where a plague had run rampant, killing its inhabitants and…raising them back as undead. Keemia in particular reacted to this news, that is where her family lived. I too wondered about Pearl, it sounded like something even she would need help with.
Lord Aryabatha turned to me and asked what we would ask of him. All I asked was for him and his people to continue to do their duty, to stand as vanguard against the wyld, and leave Creation to us. He seemed to consider this. The previous Solars had failed their test in his view, and so too would we need to be tested. He wanted to test us, one by one, to tust our righteousness, and should any of us fail, they would be killed. I lost my temper, but tried to constrain myself as I was still a guest. I asked him who he was to be the final arbiter of the righteousness of the Solar Exalted. I knew my friends virtue better than any test could. He thought on this, and then suggested this: our test would be to travel to Adorned With Wisdom As A Sapphire and aid the Dragon Blooded to stop the plague. That way he could focus his forces on combatting the Raksha and he would uphold his promise to the Dragon Blooded to send aid. I wondered how well we would be able to work alongside these Dragon Blooded, but we all agreed it was important, something we likely would have had to do even if Lord Aryabatha hadn’t asked us.
It would be a long trip and we would need to prepare, Keemia and Shadow Edge would need to finish their training, and he would need to convince the Dragon Blooded to agree to the arrangement. With that in mind we left him, but he asked to have a private meeting with each of us during our stay here. We left the room concerned, but with renewed purpose, we had a new threat that needed our attention. The undead were once again appearing, just like Pearl feared they might, and it would require our united might and focus to push them back. There could be no distractions…
Dreams of a Happily Ever After
As we exited Lord Aryabatha’s chambers I finally had a chance to ask Keemia how she was doing and what had happened to her. She calmly explained that she had been fully initiated into the style, it had been taxing for her but she did not regret doing it. We continued our talk and I only idly noticed the two Dragon-Blooded walking past us to see Lord Aryabatha. But Shadow Edge did and he followed them with a concerned look in his eyes. We continued to the guest quarter, Keemia continuing her explanation of her martial arts style and its philosophy. The conversation seemed to rekindle some tension between my friends which worried me, but what came afterwards was even worse.
Shadow Edge told us that he had overheard the Dragon-Blooded talking about a legion marching on the Solar to the east. My heart froze, a legion was marching on Galatea. It would be impossible to guess where and when they would strike, we needed more information. Keemia arranged for the thief, Noor Jahan who had told Lord Aryabatha’s about the solar, to join us. She introduced herself and told us what she knew of the solar, a man called Odenathus, king of Khwarezmi, a small city-state near Gem to the east. He was a capable strategist, leading a group of talented cavalrymen who should be able to easily keep their distance from the legion marching on them. I took a moment to process everything; once again she showcased her leadership but this time as a military man….Man. She was a man this reincarnation. I admit my heart sunk somewhat at that, it was perhaps petty or even foolish of me to think like that. To be disheartened by not being able to hold her the way I had always wanted all those years. Then again, if it came down to it, I had laid with men before, and even though those were painful memories, perhaps if it was with Galatea…
I shook myself out of my foolish daydreaming, this was not the time for such things. Still, it surprised me. For the first time since..after Gao did I think of holding someone without feeling nauseated and scared. But…it wasn’t time for that. Noor Jahan had begun talking about thieving with Noble Friend Shadow Edge, and while I did not mean to be rude to my friend, i forcefully turned the conversation back to Galatea. She told me that the legion, led by a fire aspect had left from Ashurpan a few weeks ago, but it was impossible to make an accurate guess as to how long it would take for them to cross the desert, it might take them a few more weeks, or they might have already arrived…
As Noor Jahan pointed out, Odenathus would know the area and would easily be able to keep his distance and hide from the legion but… I knew that should the Dragon Blooded decide to attack her city, Odenathus would not abandon her people. They would be able to draw her out, and they would be able to kill her…
I…would be too late. Walking there, even with Shadow Edge’s amazing abilities to guide us, we would likely be too late. And besides…again, Galatea would not want us to save her at the expense of the people of Adorned With Wisdom As A Sapphire. We…had a duty to protect Creation. Shadow Edge suggested that we split up, but both me and Keemia had to talk him out of it, he would be the only one able to cross the mountains and deserts to reach her, and we would need him to bring us across the jungle and even then it would likely take us several months to reach Adorned With Wisdom As A Sapphire. And even if he did go, and somehow reached her in time, we would be sending him to fight against one of the Realm’s Legions. I could never ask him to do that, though it broke my heart we had to focus on the task at hand.
Both Keemia and Shadow Edge tried to comfort me, telling me we would go back for her afterwards, and that she might be able to keep herself hidden, that the Realm would think twice about attacking one of Gem’s tributaries. Perhaps it was due to my own state of mind, but it did not seem as though they themselves believed that we would be able to save her. They were merely being considerate of my feelings. I was grateful but was unable to try and reassure my friends in kind.
It was getting late and my friends were heading to bed. There was little hope of me sleeping with these thoughts filling my head so I decided to head towards the library. Thoughtful Friend Keemia volunteered to come with me and keep my company. I was grateful, I felt that I had grown closer to her during our travels, or perhaps it was more accurate to say that she had grown closer to me. She was seeking out my company more often and was willing to share stories about herself. I was grateful for all of this, especially her compassion, but she needed her rest. Both her body and spirit had undergone serious strain during her training and she needed her sleep to recover. Shadow Edge meanwhile had agreed to a trial from Noor Jahan and so would be busy, but assured me that he would come for me should I call for him. And with that, I left my friends and went to the library.
It was an impressive area, perhaps more so than any other place I had seen in Kalimsha, or in An-Teng for that matter. But it wasn’t because of the inherent beauty of the design of the place, it was because I understood what it contained; thousands of years’ worth of knowledge. It had been lessened of course, as seemingly all things had been since our fall. The raksha invasion had ravaged the original court long ago and much had been lost, but still…
I met with the librarian, Azam Shah, at the far end of the library. He had heard I had been given permission to study it’s texts but seemed otherwise uninterested in helping me navigate the library. He, like most of his kin seemed to want to test me before acknowledging me and wanted me to recite First Age Poetry for him, presumably to prove that I was a true scholar. I could not help but smile, despite my sour mood. It was clear by the librarian’s attitude that he did not expect me to be know about such things. But I remembered Takeshi, and as such I remembered his poetry. One could not remember one without the other.
I recited one that had always resonated strongly with me, one he wrote about our brotherhood, of our friendship and love for one another. About how we would never abandon our friends and our values… The room fell silent again after I had finished, until finally the librarian spoke up, in an almost reverent tone: “a Takeshi!”. The Librarian knew about my friend and had stored many of his texts within the library. Pride and joy swelled within me, it was a great comfort to know that Takeshi had in some ways lived on, immortalized in his texts. I silently swore to myself that I would redouble my efforts and ensure that his texts would once again spread across Creation.
After the librarian learned that I had been a friend and member of his brotherhood he became noticeably excited and we talked about his work, including the joint projects with him and Tlazol. I noted that he never quite recovered from his loss and at that the librarian reacted, telling me of a text Takeshi supposedly had not even shown to us at the time. He reverently presented me an old scroll case and I began reading.
Oh Takeshi, I had known of your pain, but I fear I never understood the true depths of it. He wrote of the pain of being left behind, of remembering the one he loved. Of knowing that a part of her would be reborn, but that it wouldn’t be her. That while he would still remember their love, their fights and arguments, their triumphs and failures…she would only remember echoes of it, if that. Tears began streaming down my cheeks as I kept reading, which quickly grew into loud sobbing. I knew that it was unbecoming of one of The Sun’s Chosen but I did not care, his pain and my own seemed to blend into one, and all I could do was to cry uncontrollably like a small child. I understood his pain, likely far better than even Gao did back then…
The librarian was understanding and left me alone, not showing any signs that he had noticed my grief, despite my sobs echoing through the library. After some time, I couldn’t say how long, I finally managed to collect myself and began working on what I had originally come there for. I began reading up on maps, especially those of the south, trying to determine where Galatea would be and how long it would take for the legion to get there. I knew it didn’t serve much purpose, but I had to do something. A few hours in, one of the Flame Ducks approached me, telling me that Lord Aryabatha wanted to see me.
I wrapped things up, volunteering to help add any missing texts from my friend that I could, and then returned to Aryabatha’s throne room. He was staring intently into a fire as I entered, looking troubled, and for the first time since I met him; old. Not old in the same way as humans, his age did not seem to have weakened him in any way, likely it was the opposite. No, it was the weariness of a man who had been carrying a burden for so long that he would have trouble remembering a time without it. Our absence had put a pressure on him and his court far greater than his kind was supposed to handle.
He spoke to me about heaven, how he felt they had abandoned him and his kind. To the point he viewed them as enemies rather than allies. I told him of Sol Invictus’ aid, of The Golden Lord and how there were still those amongst the Sidereals who still served Creation. He wanted to know more about them, he remembered a time before they shattered the sky but like me, most of the dealings with their kind had grown blurry and vague, hidden. I explained that I could only speak in broad terms, I had promised my teacher to be careful with her secrets. I told him of their two factions and their petty squabbles with bureaucracy as their weapon of choice. He was disgruntled at it, but explained he was more interested in how I answered him rather than what I actually said. As with most things concerning his kind, it was a test. A test to measure my loyalty to my teacher as well as my worthiness.
He gestured towards his throne. It was an artifact of great power, allowing, or perhaps forcing it’s wielder to see Creation and its secrets, even that of sorcery. It would be able to initiate me to the Sapphire Circle and with it all its power. He wanted me to take that power as a way for him to defy the heavens who had forsaken him. There was a long silence and just as I was about to answer, Shadow Edge’s voice came from the door. My friend was acting strangely, he explained that he wanted to ask Lord Aryabatha something but as it seemed as though he had come at a bad time he would come back later. It did not take Lord Aryabatha long to realize that my friend had robbed him as part of Noor Jahan’s test and he was not pleased. He sent my friend off but didn’t bother trying to take back what had been stolen from him. He did not seem to be angry, merely disappointed.
I tried to explain my friends reasoning as best I could but quickly the subject was brought back to the throne. The powers of Celestial Circle sorcery was mine to take, I simply had to seize it. “You are not ready”, my teacher’s common phrase echoed in my ears. Perhaps that was true, I remembered what could be done with such power, the incredible wonders as well as the nightmare inspiring horrors one could create with such power. I thought of Takeshi and I thought of Sang Nila Utama. I thought of Gao’s dislike and distrust for sorcery, a sentiment I still shared even now and something the actions of the Ash Prophet had done little to lessen. I also thought of Janira, with a moonsilver arrow plunged through her throat, of Clear Sky, Abraxas… and of Galatea. I had lacked the power necessary to save my friends once, this time I would not shy away from it. I knew the dangers associated with sorcery and I would embrace them, I would be able to handle its powers, I would be ready. I had to be.
I agreed and sat down on the throne. My consciousness flew upwards almost immediately, gazing down on Creation much like, I imagined, The Incarna themselves might look upon it. I could sense the powers of the Sapphire Circle within my grasp and in the distance, still far out of my reach, the Adamant Circle. Aryabatha had warned me that the throne’s influences would try and distract me and as I began focusing my attention towards the Elemental Pole of Fire, were I instinctively knew I had to go I noticed the desert of the south in the corner of my eye. I would be able to find out for certain, I could find out about Galatea and the legion. To hell with power, I had to go to her. I turned away from the destination and shifted my attention on the south. Faintly at the back of my consciousness, I felt my body slowly being burnt as a result, but it was not important. I looked down on the desert and I saw the army, and they were marching directly towards Khwarezmi. They would be there shortly. Time flew strangely where I was, perhaps it showed me something that was happening now, something that was about to happen or something that had already happened, but all I knew was that it confirmed it, Galatea was in danger.
That was all the information I could gleam from it and even more reason to seek power so again I shifted my attention towards my goal and again my attention was drawn elsewhere. Towards the east laid Galatea’s village, just like it was the first time I visited her. I knew that it was a lie, that it was fake but I went there anyway. Again I was aware of my body being charred back in the throne but it didn’t matter because in front of me stood Galatea, just like I remembered her. She was waiting for me, smiling, wanting me to sit and relax with her. Words were not enough to express the emotions surging through me. I examined myself and I was no longer Rakios, he had been burnt away and now all that remained was Gao, standing before the woman he loved, had always loved and always would. I knew that I could stay there with her, hidden away from the politics of the Deliberative and the Sidereals. We could be together, have children…be happy.
But it was a lie. I knew that, I knew that staying with her would mean dying, that the thousands of years of joy and satisfaction would be nothing more than a dream created by the throne while my body was being unmade by it. But did that really matter? The experience would be real, the happiness, pleasures and memories, they would all feel real if I only let go.
But doing so would mean abandoning my friends. It would mean abandoning a Creation that needed me and that I had sworn to make better and it would mean abandoning Galatea. I briefly cupped Galatea’s cheek in mine (gods, to touch her again), even though I knew that the woman standing in front of me was not real, I wanted to assure her that I had not forgotten her. I would find her and I would save her. She just needed to wait a little longer.
With that I turned and left her, despite hearing her calling after me, pleading me not to go. I thought that I knew pain before that moment. I was a fool. I turned my gaze back to the Elemental Pole of Fire and ignored any further temptations made by the throne. There was nothing more it could tempt me with that I had not already turned my back on. And no sooner had I thought that before I stood in front of the pole and with it came an understanding so basic yet so fundamental, so primordial that it shook me to my very core, and my essence reverberated with it.
I opened my eyes. I was back in the throne room. The sun stood proudly at its Zenith, I had been gone for some time. It took a while to familiarize myself with being back in my body…my body. It had been marred with severe burn marks everywhere the throne had touched me. But it did not matter. Not because I didn’t feel the pain, far from it. Whatever magic had shielded me from the pain had long since passed. It didn’t matter because I had been successful and had gotten one step closer towards being able to protect my friends, Creation and I prayed; Galatea.
2 + 1