Deep in their shielded headquarters, behind layer after layer of protective wards and artifacts and spells and charms, the Faction Councils of the Sidereals were discussing what just might be the worst-kept secret in the universe – the Celestial Exalted.
The fact that young Charles had apparently doubled their number by accident while experimenting with gates to alternate creations was arguably more secret – but almost everyone in Yu-Shan with any interest was already aware of that too. The habits of centuries were hard to overcome though.
Secrecy it was.
The “surely no one will mind if I turn the universe upside down as long as I make sure that they know that it was an accident!” attitude was disturbing! Having their numbers doubled up would be incredibly useful – at least once the newbies were trained – but another creation could contain pretty much anything imaginable and quite a few things that weren’t! Yes, Charles had said that he was laying off for the moment, but that would be so useful in so MANY ways…
On the other hand, while trying to take that resource away from a primordial – or was at least the blatant equivalent of one – was not an attractive option, there really didn’t seem to be any need to try; the boy was more than willing to help with almost anything! That made him – and it – a prime resource to exploit – and that exploitation had to be planned for carefully.
On the other hand… it might well just be a matter of who could speak with him first! Their information on him… all said that he’d give EVERYONE what they wanted if he could! They had to get to him before their factional rivals could…
Preferably, through secret and subtle manipulations that the boy would never even realize were happening! However hard that was to combine with high speed and the child’s tendencies towards honesty!
With their elders currently tied in knots by THAT little paradox several very VERY junior faction members took it up on themselves to simply call.
Mr Montague was first – albeit not by much – followed by Almata Sandovar (of the Silver Faction) and young Harold (Charles’s half-caste Sidereal friend from school).
Fortunately, while being in multiple locations at once while outside of Aden was proving mildly awkward, being in multiple locations at once inside Aden was a lot easier – and that let him talk to several people at once.
Mr. Montague was somewhere that was… definitely not on Earth, although he had taken steps to hide that on his end. Still, the illusion was easy enough to pierce – revealing a gas giant close in the background.
(Mr. Montague) “Hello Charles! It’s been a while. Got a moment?”
Anything for a diversion from considering the will-one kids!
(Mr. Montague) “Sifu Blossom wanted to talk to you again. So do some of my other sifus. We were going to arrange a meeting in Yu-Shan, but since they were having a meeting on – well, you can see where I am, right?”
(Charles) “Ur… near a gas giant? There are lots of those though!”
(Mr. Montague) “I was going to give directions if you accepted.”
Charles was glad to agree – and Mr Montague cheerily provided a set of interstellar coordinates, most appropriate for use with Mirror-Shattering Method, but easily enough applied to Charles’s methods of travel.
(Mr. Montague) “Sure you have the time for this… or do you have something under your hat?”
(Charles) “Oh, there are a couple of ways to do gates!”
That was one of the opportunities that Mr. Montague had been waiting for… This time he had plenty of analytical equipment available.
(Mr. Montague) “Well! I’ve got to see this. Mind demonstrating?”
Charles… usually used a Wyld Stunt if he was in a hurry. If he had a minute he could retarget a manse gate – first from Aden and then to where he wanted to go – or he could just build a manse with one in it. The easiest way was, of course, to have his quasi-Raksha do a pair of coupled Wyld gates – one to where he was and one to where he wanted to be – but anyone could block him from arriving that way with any kind of anti-wyld effect or by spending a point of willpower.
He went with the retargeted manse gate: it was slower, but more reliable.
Mr. Montague went with every kind of analysis he could think of – and found (as was almost always true with Charles) incredibly skilled thaumaturgy, which was being used to provide fine control for geomancy – in this case rerouting an interstellar manse gate, although tracing the gate went… outside of fate. MOST impressive – and it did explain some things.
Mr. Montague was in a cramped, but nice, hotel room. The aesthetic was definitely not Earthly though; from the lack of color it looked like whoever had decorated it was either over or under sensitive to it. From the view of the gas giant out the window… probably a moonlet.
A quick probe showed it to be… indeed a moonlet, barren and with no atmosphere. The window was protected by a thaumaturgic ward; evidently the owners saw no sense in taking chances when one puncture could cause the air to leak!
(Charles, absently) “Huh… Why a barren place? Those are no fun at all!”
(Mr. Montague) “Wow, that’s fast! I’m honestly jealous… and it was best for everyone to get here! Besides… in a few hours, we’ll be able to see the big storm on Mannix. Until then, I’ve got to take you to the meeting. One moment while I put on my disguise.”
(Charles) “Being barren makes it easier?”
(Mr. Montague) “I’d rather not get into it, but there was an argument over meeting places. Mannix 9 has some of the best security in this part of space-and Sifu had an assignment here.”
Charles was feeling out the local geomancy… the place was less than a hundred miles across… It still had SOME potential, but not enough for more than one waypoints worth of demesnes, if that… There was a minor (frozen, in pretty arches and spirals) rank-1 air demesne about fifty miles off and a minor artifact boosting the local gravity enough to make things comfortable. The local geomancy was especially weak because most of the interior was liquid water – not enough structure there to generate much essence!
Charles… had an impulse to wrap the place up in an air-retaining ward, do some terraforming, upgrade the demesne, anchor the ward to it, and make it a nice place to be… but refrained for the moment. Besides, that demesne WAS awfully weak; the place was big enough to generate a little more power than that even WITH the liquid interior. Too much essence draining into those weak interplanetary and interstellar dragon lines perhaps? But he hadn’t been having that problem with the new planets…
Ah; the drain hit moons, moonlets and asteroids pretty hard, since most of their links went into space. Sort of a critical mass situation. Big planets, like Earth, had enough dragon lines to allow feedback and internal circulation. This place… not so much and the liquid mass didn’t help a bit. Oh well! To the meeting!
Mr. Montague promptly used a bit of illusion to adopt some alien features – so Charles did as well (a greenish skin tone and Mr Spock ears); he didn’t want to upset people – and, judging from Mr. Montague, funny ears and a change in skin tone would suffice.
He spotted several aliens as they head over: four-armed and eyed-golden beings much like the Bronze Faction Chosen of Journeys he met before, a scaled species with catlike features, and a fishy creature in a life support suit. That was neat!
Mr. Montague groaned a bit internally. Was it some sort of magical compulsion? You could always tell a first time spacer from earth; they ALWAYS went for the “Spock” look at some point! OK, so there really were plenty of “aliens” who were that close to the human norm – but it was still kind of disappointing when none of them turned out to be especially alien.
The security at the conference room was indeed excellent; while it didn’t approach the level of Yu-Shan, it was obvious that thaumaturgy was in MUCH more common use outside of Earth.
The meeting was in a conference room tucked away near the hotel-space station’s center… The room was understated, but elegant. Inside were Blossom of Blissful Dreams, an older, lithe man in violet, and a younger-looking woman with red eyes and a designer suit – and Mr. Montague dropped his disguise.
Well, that had hardly been worth bothering with a disguise in the first place!
Charles dropped his, and cheerily waved hello!
(Blossom) “It’s good to see you again, Charles!”
(Charles) “And nice to see you too! Do you need something?”
(Blossom) “Well… we won’t waste your time.”
There were introductions. The man in violet was Shadows of the Coming Dawn (Hmm! Wasn’t that Demien’s sifu?). The woman was Sorina Chisaru, Chosen of Battles, who was training Rachel before all that trouble with Deva Cutter.
(Blossom) “I wanted to ask you about two things today. First, the number of Sidereals doubled recently, and I heard you were responsible. (She shook her head.) And this was an accident?”
(Charles) “Well, yes… I was experimenting with alternate-creation gates, and a batch were still hanging around in the nearly-destroyed creation I was looking at! I really wasn’t expecting that; I would have thought that they would have wandered off into infinity long ago even if the destruction of the sponsoring Incarnae hadn’t rendered them vulnerable to millennia hanging suspended in the deep wyld. So I’ve been mostly leaving alternate creations alone for the moment; adding features to our universe at random can really complicate things!”
There were some SERIOUSLY forced smiles. The child was… being awfully blithe about such things!
(Shadows) “That is good. We have experienced… complications with the new Exalts. Since you were the one who released them into our Creation, we thought you would be the best one to ask.”
(Chisaru, rubbing her left temple) “On that note… what was this place like? If there are any threats that could come through, we need to know.”
(Charles) “Oh, it was a version of Creation that fell to the Balorean Crusade; the Dragon Kings had been warned of an oncoming disaster – the Great Contagion – by a Deathlord who felt that he or she owed them some old debt and had created a pocket dimension and retired to it. Without them contributing to the defense, the Wyld onslaught had come too far before the Scarlet Empress tried to use the defense grid; it detonated and destroyed the elemental pole of earth instead of destroying the Raksha. Balor forced the gates of Yu-Shan, the geomantic collapse and the loss of creation destroyed the Incarnae, and – in the end – all that was left was a few little pockets in Elsewhere that even the Raksha couldn’t care less about. I was looking for Dragon Kings at the time, but opening a gate there and letting a few people stay there apparently attracted the Exaltations – and when I opened the gate again, they all came through! There’s nothing much else besides the Dragon Kings left there though, so that shouldn’t be a problem!”
(Chisaru) “I see. So, according to you, the worst already happened. Any way you could help us send a team there, to investigate? It would be instructional in case the Deathlords try to do that to a portion of our universe.”
Hmm. And a strong possibility for where Rachel was when she was out of dimension. She’d have to ask about that some time… the girl was a capable fighter.
(Charles) “Well, it is the Dragon Kings realm, and they don’t like Sidereal Exalts or the Dragon-Blooded too much… They kind of think that they share some of the blame for the destruction of their universe. Humans and God Bloods and Lunars and so on are just fine though!”
(Shadows) “We might have to send in a squad of near-mortals, then. It will take some time to arrange the expedition, but if you are willing to open a gate, we will let you know when it is ready.”
(Charles) “OK! I’ll check with the Dragon Kings; it IS their universe now after all!”
The Sidereals sighed, almost in unison. That wasn’t as discreet as they would like to be, but it wasn’t a particularly big restriction to impose on access to another universe and whatever else it might contain. After all, if the exaltations had survived, presumably many other indestructible items had as well…
(Shadows) “Very well then. Now, about those complications. Our new comrades have caused a bit of a mixup in the filing system.”
(Charles) “Well… they weren’t really supposed to be here I suppose!”
Apparently the Sidereals actually numbered their Exaltations and those of the Solars: 1-20 for the Journeys, 21-40 for Serenity, and so on. Solars went by sets of 60, of course – and considering that most of them were no longer Solars at the moment, the numbering was not currently continuous. Lunar castes were too mercurial for anything but a numeric designation – and they didn’t know if the Nocturnals could be numbered yet, so they’d been going by which Sidereal was bonded with them – and that was actually where the problem was.
(Shadows) “This part of the issue is not major, but it is bothersome. Take young Mr. Montague’s partner Vaal, for instance. He has a metaphysical tie to the boy, and the boy to him. The trouble is that there is also an Exalt from your batch of Sidereals with a tie to him – and she is a Harbinger, like myself.”
(Charles) “Oh dear! there may be interactive energy flows!”
(Montague) “If I may speak, Sifu.” (They nodded) “Sometimes I hear that Sidereal’s thoughts through him. Nothing too bad so far – she’s in academy, how could there be? – but it is annoying. Do you have any ideas on what that might be Charles? I’m wondering if he’s developing a Charm somehow, but if he is, he needs to work on it some more!”
(Charles) “Hm. I suspect that that’s just a poorly-controlled communications link… I suppose I could try making something!”
He whipped up a selection of “Rings of Mental Privacy” – very minor artifacts, only meant to help keep surface thoughts from leaking over links when you didn’t mean for them to leak – using several different approaches so that Mr. Montague could see which one worked best!
Mr. Montague – who had gone to refill the Sifu’s coffee (they’d brought their own from Yu-Shan) appreciated that! While it was nice to get an occasional review of the stuff he learned in the academy, it really was annoying otherwise. He’d definitely let Charles know if they worked or not; he loved testing out new artifacts!
(Shadows) “We must monitor our peers and the new Exalts for more interactions. The issues have been interactions like Mr. Montague’s so far, but Essence is nothing if not unpredictable.”
(Charles) “Well, I hope that it’s nothing major!”
(Blossom) “I suppose we will see! I certainly hope not – it’s… comforting to have those bonds. And that ties into my second request! How would you feel about helping us nurture people like Rachel and Aikiko?”
(Charles) “There’s nothing at all wrong with that! People need taking care of! At least sometimes…”
(Chisaru) “Heh. If I’m reading you take on it correctly, you want them to be strong, like I do. Since you were so helpful with Rachel’s foulup… we were wondering if you’d be willing to keep them in Aden. This would require that you let us set up training facilities there-but from what I know of its properties, training injuries would be nonexistent. If not… we can work something out, I’m sure.”
(Charles) “Oh! Well, I can certainly set up a training facility! It will take a little expanding over the ones that are already there for higher-level stuff, but that’s pretty easy… And they can spar with the Kickhaha a bit; they tend to like a bit of rough-and-tumble!”
(Blossom) “Would you also be willing to let them use the entryways to Yu-Shan? It would be easier on the instructors, and make networking with gods more discreet. We would have restrictions, of course, but that is a necessity.”
(Charles) “Well, I can set them up with a few private ones if that will help!”
(Blossom blinked, then smiled) “Wonderful!”
Wow. That was an awful lot of help, in exchange for… well, nothing much. Sure, it got him counted as an ally and a resource… but he could have gotten himself considered invaluable with a lot less work than THAT. His obliging nature was at LEAST as strong as she’d heard… Still, they didn’t want to push things TOO far.
(Blossom) “Now if we cloaked this from our colleagues with reservations, would that bother you?”
(Charles) “Well, lots of people want to keep some things private; as long as it’s not hurting anyone there’s nothing wrong with that!”
(Shadows, looking vaguely guilty) “I’m glad to hear that. In any case, we must watch over the Solars. I would rather not risk any more like Miss Aikiko, Miss Reku, or Master Windhiam were.”
The Arnmalassaris incident… and the resulting Cauldron-Born – was still not clearly understood – but if there was one thing they surely did not need, it was more wyld-warped Exalted!
(Chisaru) “We’ll work on means of stopping that, sir. After all, if we have them in one place, we can give them countermeasures.”
Chisaru carefully didn’t say it, but it was hard to think of an effective countermeasure against foolhardiness though. Although… on reconsideration… it was a lot easier to see how Charles had survived Arnmalassaris! A “mortal thaumaturgist” indeed! The boy was just so… amiable that he somehow managed to never have to USE those incredible resources for anything but giving stuff away! If he hadn’t fallen asleep in front of someone – and gotten probed – they might STILL think he was just a god-blood!
(Charles, with concern) “Did something happen to Aikiko? Last I heard she was doing just fine!”
(Shadows) “Well, we lost contact with her since Rachel attacked that Jorgensen woman. Our field agents have been attempting to contact her, but… she is a Night Caste, and living up to the name. I would track her down myself, but my schedule barely allowed this meeting, much less chasing a Solar.”
(Charles) “Hm! She’s been around several times… I think she’s on some sort of mission!”
(Chisaru) “Let her know we want to talk the next time you see her. We aren’t mad about it. Hell, from some of the reports, she may well have saved us from a political incident.”
After all… the girl had stopped Rachel from finishing Astrid off, even if she had been in disguise at the time!
(Charles) “OK! Hm. That reminds me… I never did find out if there were any more booby-trapped artifacts floating around!”
(Shadows) “I had heard of a few at my division. It would take some favors, but I could provide you access. It is most worrying!”
(Charles) “Oh. Well, I could certainly try to analyze them… I’m not sure that there’s any good general process for finding them though!”
(Chisaru) “Scouring the abandoned regions and slums with mortal agents, mostly. That seems to be where most of them are.”
(Charles, with some surprise) “Just left lying around for people to find? That’s… weird. An awful lot of them could wind up in the possession of people who couldn’t even use them, or didn’t know that they were important that way.”
(Chisaru) “Yeah, I know. I’m not sure why someone would do that at random. I’ve got my people on it, but they haven’t been lucky enough to find someone actually dropping the blasted things!”
(Charles) “Huh! I will have to think about a way to look into it!”
(Chisaru, throwing her hands up in exasperation.) “And while we DO have your analysis – the Bronzers gave that up handily – whoever’s doing it is good at covering their tracks. If you could help us, I’d appreciate it.”
(Charles) “I’ll try!”
(Blossom) “Well, now that we’ve gotten our answers (and gotten even more help than anticipated!), is there anything you need from us?”
It was hard to imagine him really needing anything, but just in case – and favors were standard Celestial practice.
(Charles) “Uhm… There was something I noticed… Was anyone being sick? That’s not really supposed to happen to Exalts, but I saw some signs of that even before the new Exaltations arrived.”
(Blossom) “How so? It’s true that we don’t get sick, but we certainly feel stress.”
(Chisaru, with some startlement… what they could do for him was… provide more problems? Presumably to fix?) “Yeah… hits the youngest of us the hardest. Speaking of that, how have your hands been, Sasa?”
(Mr. Montague, blushing) “Uh… not too bad lately!”
(Chisaru) “Uh huh. I hope not – I was thinking of microgravity training while you were between missions.”
(Charles) “Only stress? Well, maybe something can be done to reduce that.”
(Chisaru) “I gave him some of my aspirin, but even the Celestial stuff doesn’t seem to help.”
(Charles, speculatively) “I think it needs to be more fundamental!”
(Mr. Montague) “With all due respect, Sifu, I’m fine! I’m sure once all the Exaltations are settled in, it will stop.”
The elder Sidereals – guessing at just how likely THAT was – just looked at each other. Even Charles could pick up on the attitude!
(Blossom) “We’re just concerned. That isn’t supposed to happen – and in any case, that’s a bad thing for an artificer. I’m sure Charles would agree.”
(Charles) “Definitely! It will need fixing! (Sadly) So many things do…”
(Shadows) “I agree…” (To Blossom) “Is that all you wanted to ask him, my dear? We have gone long enough already, and destiny will not wait for us.”
(Blossom) “I believe so! It was good to speak with you again, Charles. Unless you have another accident, I believe we will next meet in Aden, when the training facilities are ready.”
(Charles) “OK! It shouldn’t take very long!”
(Chisaru) “Well, let us know. It’ll take us time to recruit instructors, but we know you’ll have the facilities up in no time.”
The elders departed for the mission, leaving Mr. Montague…
(Montague) “Well, I guess it’s time for me to try out Mirror-Shattering Method. Er, unless you wanted to take me back with you.”
(Charles) “Well, I can jump you wherever you need to go! And it’s quicker!”
(Mr. Montague) “You’re too nice, Charles! Thanks! I can get another mission in faster… Maybe see Vaal and the wife too.”
(Charles) “Well why not? I think you need to relax more!”
Mr. Montague slapped Charles on the back – although not too hard; he looked so fragile that it was hard to remember that he was probably ANYTHING but.
The Orrery was quite busy these days – it gave out a lot more than the Quintessence fountain dole, to be sure – but Charles had a LOT of places to check on now and there were more people wanting to talk to him. Almata Sandovar (of the Silver Faction)… was actually already there. It WAS known as Charles’s residence after all.
(Charles) “Oh, hello!”
(Almata) “Good day, Charles. And hello Mr. Montague! Surprising to see one such as yourself outside the high-end districts; business with young Charles, I assume.”
(Montague) “Just visiting! See you later, ma’am!”
Mr Montague got out rather hurriedly – before the Chosen of Secrets attempted to pick his brain.
(Almata) “Charles, were you planning any trips to space soon?”
(Charles) “At least one! I have to visit the far end of the universe!”
(Almata) “I see… you seemed like a smart boy the last time we spoke, so I’m sure you’re preparing quite well.”
(Charles) “I hope so!”
(Almata) “Could you tell me what you are doing?”
(Charles) “I was picking up something for Gaia!”
Almata seemed quite legitimately surprised at THAT. That certainly wasn’t the “normal” sort of mission!
(Almata) “Let’s see what you’re packing on your craft, then. That sounds dangerous!”
(Charles) “Uhm… Well mostly I was taking me along, and the Tsunami, because she hasn’t gotten out much…”
(Almata) “And other cargo?”
(Chrles) “Well, as long as I’m there everybody is really.”
(Almata) “Hmm… of course, the world-body. In that case… I would have the factories in there produce a good deal of salt, holy water, and the like. I understand your security is good, but just in case.”
(Almata) “And if you see any black ships heading your way, and they’re not hailing you, you need to run. I can provide a list of some good places to hide near the border of Creation, if you like…”
Letting the Abyssals get their hands on Charles… would be a potential disaster!
(Charles) “Why not? The people in those ships usually aren’t at all nice!”
Almata provided the list… several asteroid boltholes run by the Bureau of Destiny, a few Lunar demesne-outposts, and one alien world close to the Empirical Galaxy.
(Almata) “Then you have some idea of the threat. That was more than I expected, to be honest. Have you had run-ins with them before?”
(Charles, very sadly) “Once!”
(Almata) “I see… I won’t pry. They can be quite vicious. Be careful out there. My associates and I are curious to see how this turns out.”
(Charles) “Well, nicely I hope!”
(Almata, nodding) “As do I… now what are you doing here? It appears that you are trying to beat the Bronze at their own game.”
(Charles) “A test really! But it seems the abandoned districts and deiphages are more complicated than a simple economic failure!”
(Almata) “Really now? Well, gods normally don’t eat their own without some provocation. I’ve always been curious about why that was. In academy, they said it was due to domain loss, but I’ve never believed it was that simple.”
(Charles) “It’s related to the geomantic conflict! The changes that were made to allow normal gods to operate comfortably here conflict withthe original geomancy – and the deep levels of that are indestructibly built into the foundations of Yu-Shan; Domain loss simply opens a god up to that conflict for some reason – perhaps an early precaution against gods with no business here hanging around in Yu-Shan. That needs fixing too!”
(Almata raised an eyebrow at that.) “Er… be careful who you tell that to. Say that to the wrong gods and you could be in trouble.”
(Charles) “Oh, it wouldn’t be much of a fix if it didn’t work for EVERYBODY!”
(Almata) “Such things are found in the Record of First Days. Not even we Oracles are allowed to read that without clearance. Still, good luck with that. The approval process would be MURDER.”
(Charles) “Oh well! Most things can just be figured out if you look at them closely enough!”
(Almata) “And then you’d have to organize the work crews unless you had some trick. You DO have one right? (She smiled) “Goodness knows we could use the fix. It would make everyone’s life much easier.”
(Charles) “Oh lots!”
(Almata) “Well, I hope your journey goes as you plan… and that nobody interferes with this. We could use more independent charity efforts around here. As for me, I have some business with a coworker. I will see you later-and let me know when you start that fix.”
(Charles) “I will!”
Almata departed – although she looked back with some concern before she got into her aerial rickshaw though – but that passed, and she left. Vast power, innocence, helpfulness, more information than he had any right to have, and a tendency to meddle. Concern… was justified – but it could have been much worse! The boy was pretty responsible at least!
Having to hold back on some of her information… was regrettable, but it just wasn’t the time – and her job (sadly) did require that she keep a good deal back.
Charles knew that much, and considered it quite all right. After all, No one EVER told him everything – which just meant that he had to talk to lots of people and assemble bits!
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