The Chronicles of Heavenly Artifice C – The Temples Of The Elements

It wasn’t all that long before the Celestial Lions started to realize that Charles had quietly diverted them into talking about themselves and deiphages and manses without ever actually answering their questions – and they weren’t even sure if it was on purpose or just because he listened so attentively that you just couldn’t stop talking…

Still, the problem was big enough that they couldn’t be cross about it – and he had been showing them the details of that enormous geomantic project.

After they’d satisfied themselves about that, the question of “meeting” those Devas came up again; they’d never really spoken to a Primordial subsoul, although some of them hung around the reforming point of one every day.

(Xiaoxiao) “Well, I want to keep looking at these, but you mentioned something about meeting with these Primordial subsoul friends of yours.”

(Charles) “Well, if you want to! Did you want to do it now?”

(Chengdu) “We’ve got to be at the Igarka Gate in a few hours. Now would be good.”

(Charles) “OK! (And he cheerily opened his usual gate on a convenient wall). This way then!”

(Xiaoxiao) “People and their gates . . . always a security problem. Not like I can do too much about that!”

(Charles) “Well, this one is pretty secure on the other end!”

The Lions did some checking using their new artifact Essence senses – it was only prudent – but went through once they’d determined that Charles wasn’t pranking them. Not that Charles would – but they were habitually paranoid, even in the face of absurd amounts of benevolence.

Charles used the usual arrival spot – overlooking the singing forest and the sea of chaos and the villages and the rest – and there were be the usual guards/on-call staff; a couple of Baalgrogs, a pair of Noldor playing chess and having lunch, and a modest pack of couple of Kickaha having wrestling matches…

The Lions were impressed. They’d heard of people bringing pocket dimensions into the city before, but not of this size! It had been a while since either Chengdu or Xiaoxiao had left Yu-Shan – but they were they were on their best behavior too… Charles might be a child, but he was an insanely powerful one whom they should not get on the bad side of . . . if he even had one.

Charles took them to see Malinda the Diviner, Mistress of the Aether, the Elsewhere Voyager, the Eighth Soul of Aden – and her peanut-butter-chocolate cookies, which were the best reason ever for visiting!

Celestial Lions generally preferred meat – but it was hard to make a meat cookie, and they were very polite. Xiaoxiao and Chendu ate them.

Even for a carnivore they were pretty tasty…

(Xiaoxiao) “Ma’am, Charles has told me that you were helping him and Lord Lytek, Daimyo of Exaltation, with a project. What can you tell me about that?”

(Malinda) “Why certainly dear! It was just a little energy-routing analysis. You’re surely aware that a lot of things have been going rather wrong recently!”

(Xiaoxiao) “A lot so, ma’am. Can you tell me what you were analyzing?”

(Malinda) “Now that I promised not to tell! I’m sure you understand that, you’ve never told on what your friend So’lang got up to with young Lariessia have you? And it’s been a long time on that one!”

From back before Xizoxiao had moved to Yu-Shan actually.

(Xiaoxiao) “How in the blazes… you’re GOOD! Anyway… a promise to Lord Lytek himself, or Charles?”

(Malinda) “To Lord Lytek! We generally don’t need to promise Charles anything.”

(Xiaoxiao) “I see…”

Extrapolating from Lytek’s known behavior and habits, he figured that it was something serious indeed. Obviously it involved Exalts or it wouldn’t involve Lytek – but that left a lot of territory (most of it very high powered and VERY dangerous) open!

And if it involved Charles… It almost certainly involved either making or fixing something – or both. There were many things that even he was not cleared to know that much about.

(Malinda) “So then… Going to take them to see some of the others Charles? Gothmug is doing a poetry recital, Elzeard is teaching a class, Uthorian is having more Chancels made, and Chaffri is off working on gates.”

(Chengdu) “Huh! I actually heard about Elzeard! Some of the gods in the Sahara say he’s changing things there. (Looking at Charles) “I’d heard he was associated with you, but not like this!”

(Charles) “Not like what?”

(Chengdu) “Being in here… from the reports, he built a pretty powerful Manse. He’s a soul too, I take it?”

(Charles) “Well yes – the fourteenth.”

(Xiaoxiao) “Out of?”

(Charles) “Well, twenty-four at the moment!”

(Xiaoxiao) “So, when are you going to build another Creation?” (The tone was joking – but only mildly so.)

(Charles) “This one needs lots of fixing first! And there are lots more too…”

He hadn’t really admitted that they were aspects of him – but the Celestial Lions were inhumanly skilled investigators, and had figured that out quickly enough.

Both of them wanted to speak to Elzeard, since he was available.

(Chengdu) “So you’re Elzeard! I heard you’re healing the infertility in the Sahara!”

Since Elzeard had not been involved, the questioning was far more casual – largely about whether or not he planned anything close to any Celestial gates. They wanted to know in case things didn’t go as planned and he accidentally tripped an alert – although they knew that that was nigh-impossible with thaumaturgy.

Perhaps fortunately, he wasn’t up to anything even remotely comparable to what Charles was already planning – which was a definite relief.

(Charles) “Was that everything you needed to know guys?”

(Xiaoxiao) “Reports would probably do for everyone else, I think. Regardless, I’ll have to get this up to my superiors in the Corps. I think from what we’ve gathered, the fact-checking will pan out, and this’ll be the last we hear of this.”

(Chengdu) “You never know.” (He shrugs.) “We’ll see… and thanks for listening to our history lesson, Charles.”

(Charles) “It was very interesting and is likely to be important! Thank you very much!”

Both Lions had pretty much reached their conclusions… The boy might or might not be a “genuine” primordial – that kind of determination could be left to specialists – but he was pretty definitely a Solar who’d decided to rebuild himself into a faux “Primordial of Helpfulness”. Still, if that was what he wanted to be… Solars had gone in for far crazier projects over the ages – and many or most of those projects had been far more destructive. As long as his aims didn’t collide with their aim of ensuring settled Yu-Shan’s safety – and it certainly didn’t look like they would – there was no reason to fuss too much over it. There was probably going to be SOME fussing when the gates went up, but honestly, before tracking, who was going to know he did it? And he was working with Gaia – who DID have the authority to make changes if she felt that creation needed it. Who were they to oppose the last active Primordial in existence?

The Lions returned to Xiaoxiao’s office to compile some paperwork – and Charles headed back to getting the elemental balance manses planned and created…. He’d need someone to give them to too!

Well, that would depend a bit on where it would be best to put them. Geomancy was more important than an exact tetrahedron. The Fire Pole would offer massive amounts of free energy, mostly in the form of electrical power, if he simply channeled the plasma stream… He’d have to include some way to distribute it. Air… Ah, well, if he took advantage of the expanded scale, and hooked those powers into the dragon lines… He could either set up interstellar communications or – perhaps – simply bestow a few basic skills on a global basis. Water… Hm. Healing, metamorphosis… Ah! Let people – or at least the Mortals who would mostly be the ones influenced – to change themselves with a lot less work! It would make it easier for them to learn stuff! That would definitely make a good project for improving things and it would work nicely with the earth-centric universe…

It looked like his best locations would be… Argentia, Botswana, and Guam, in a very rough tetrahedron. And he DID know someone – Madame Barbosa – in Brazil who might like the Water Manse! It would make it easier to breed in desired traits. If she really needed to do any commuting… well she could afford some plane trips and might already own one!

Madama Barbosa was actually… rather worried by that question! That was the kind of the thing she was worried about Charles doing there!

(Madame Barbosa) “Couldn’t you put an attunement lock on it?”

(Charles, puzzledly) “To keep people from using it? It just makes it easier to improve and change things, it doesn’t force it to happen.”

(Madame Barbosa) “Well… it’s not like most thaumaturges are even capable of that level of lifeweaving, and most of the entities I know of with powers capable of sudden mutation wouldn’t spot that much of a difference anyway.”

(Charles, now enlightened) “Oh! It mostly helps with self-development! People wanting to – say – diet, or work out, or study, or harden their fists by martial arts training, and so on will have an easier time!”

(Madame Barbosa) “Well! If it’s something like that, it’s not like it will encourage things that wouldn’t have happened without it… But how does it affect magic? You said that it would make it easier to breed my horses.”

(Charles) “Well… it should make it about 25% easier to make changes with magic too – affecting most of South America most likely!”

Madam Barbosa considered… It WAS going to be a Water Manse, not at all able to be traced back to her, and not terribly harmful in any case. The power-balances could be delicate, but this didn’t really look likely to upset them. Was there really any reason to object?

(Madam Barbosa) “Argentina you said? Well, let me know when it’s up then!. That way I can send people to help with the privacy wards if you need them!”

(Charles) “Probably next week! I put one up linked to the old Elemental Pole of Wood in North America and I need to get the other three up to balance things!”

(Madam Barbosa) “What does that one do? And what do the others do?

(Charles) “Well, that one puts out a constant outflow of wood energies, and increased plant growth, and crops, and healing and such. The air manse will encourage learning skills and abilities, while the fire manse will provide lots of free energy! Earth’s been kind of isolated for quite a while… The elemental energy levels for everything but Earth Essence on Earth – and for all the essences beyond the Earth – are unnaturally low!”

Wait, the boy was SERIOUS about tapping into the legendary elemental poles? It was fairly well-known among Exalted Thaumaturges that the Dragon Lines weakened drastically once you got off the Earth’s surface – but was he planning to pour enough energy into them to affect the entire globe – or even beyond it? Such power sources… might be serious targets once somebody found them!

(Madam Barbosa) “What were you thinking about for the security setup?”

(Charles) “Uhm… Security… Well, I was sort of putting them into adjacant pocket dimensions and providing security forces. They’re useful places of course, but the primary purpose is to feed elemental essence into earth’s dragon line network to help restore the old power levels.”

Well, she could get behind that… Besides, the boys visit to her Manse on the plains had made it clear that he was powerful enough to handle himself – and the way he’d casually extended her life went a long ways beyond that! But, a week to build THREE Manses of what sounded like maximum power? Such projects too decades! Sorcery? Manse Seeds? But still… rank-5 manses?

(Madam Barbosa) “Charles dear? How are you constructing manses so fast? It seems like this particular project should take decades!”

(Charles) “Well… you reshape the local geomancy, design the manse, and erect it. There’s no real reason why it should have to take very long. I could show you if you like!”

Madam Barbosa very much wanted to see that – and asked Joao Romero along since Charles had no objections.

As with the creation of the Yggdrasil, Charles first erected the Wards, then spun his fingers and wand through weaving coils of mist and swirling spray – gathering links to the essence-nodes of the demesne before pouring out a shimmering pool of blue-green essence to soak into the areas essence-patterns like cleansing floods. From the resulting breathtaking purity, and the essence of the now-blooming demesne, springs and fountains of water and rarer substances burst forth – running over the rocks and earth of the area in a vibrant explosion of life and health. An even greater surging wave of power poured into the area from Charles’s geomantic network – and the reworked demesne burst into radiant life.

Madam Barbosa gasped… the power reserves alone! It was… no wonder that the boy was thinking on global terms; what lesser project could possibly absorb such energies?

As the glow in the earth and waters faded, Charles invoked Instant Genius to create the manse design and set to work – projecting rippling, crackling, waves and beams of blue-green light to pull stony structural elements from the earth, to channel streams, to pull up rune-inscribed pillars of unmelting ice, and to weave a tornado of essence, earth, and water into a tower of eternal ice, water-polished stone and moss, and trickling water.

(Charles, earthing the remaining energies) “So let it be done!”

(Madame Barbosa, after taking a few moments to recover) “Charles, even Joao can’t do THAT.”

(Charles) “I made better tools than he has!”

Joao Romero was still… still staring at what Charles had just done. He hadn’t quite recovered from the shock yet. Sure, he knew the Celestial Circle spell for quick Manse raising, but it didn’t work that fast – and it required plans!

(Romero) “Um. So… do you do this often?”

(Charles) “Well… Usually about once or twice a day! There are lots of things that need making!”

Mr Romero couldn’t really think of a response to that level of casualness about it. He didn’t waste much time on it.

(Romero) “How does it work? I can tell this is some form of geomantic shaping, but is it trainable?”

(Charles) “Well… you need internal geomancy and artifact-equipped earthshaping assistants, and lots of geomantic energy, and some time-manipulation, and some factory-cathedrals, and a bunch of other tools! And a way to carry it all along! But internal geomancy usually allows that without too much trouble!”

Internal geomancy. The boy had said something about that before – but was he really serious? They’d… have to keep him talking; it would obviously be easy enough to get him to give them a tour of the place and tell them all about it!

And Charles was, indeed, delighted to do so.

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Hopefully off Hiatus

For those waiting for answers, my apologies; I’ve been unable to do anything here for the last several weeks. Hopefully, however, things will now be getting back to normal – and I’ll try to catch up with the question backlog.

The Chronicles of Heavenly Artifice IC – The Lions Of Times Long Past

In Yu-Shan poor Lytek was facing a sort of low-key office rebellion – or at least a lot of doubts and resistance. He was a likeable boss – but that business with the Devas had a lot of the office gods worried! Quite a few of the possible explanations for the God of Exaltation cooperating with Devas in meddling with a Shard were not at all comforting…

Especially since the news of the doubling up of the Celestial Exalted had leaked among the staff. The old rumors that forces loyal to Autochthon was loose in Yu-Shan had now been upgraded to reports of Jouten or Spying Souls… After all; who ELSE had ever created a set of Exaltations?

Naturally enough the Celestial Lions were involved – and had observed enough to deduce a connection to Charles rather than Autochthon. They’d concluded that he was almost certainly a Solar Exalt long ago – it wasn’t a big step from “Uber-Artificier, can operate a Solar-oriented Factory Cathedral at something like it’s full potential or above” to “likely Solar”. Even if he WASN’T a Solar, he was clearly something that operated on that scale, or higher – and he was so blatantly utterly benevolent that it hurt. No threat unless he did something utterly stupid with that power.

Still… his activities were getting entangled in higher politics and concerns. It was definitely time to talk to him!

Meanwhile, Charles was doing more work to get ready to leave – surveying locations on earth for three more elemental-pole manses to balance the energy flows. After all, since the location wouldn’t make a lot of difference, Lytek hadn’t quite decided where he wanted the gate-manse to try to get into the Shard – and he had lots of things to work on until he did… Charles didn’t really want it in Aden – he didn’t want to give those kinds of energies a direct link to him – and there might be security problems outside Yu-Shan and location problems within it. He could put it in a Chancel with the doorway in Yu-Shan though… Wait. He could put several helpful manses in the Chancel first. Should he set it up at the Orrery? No, wait… Lytek might want it in his office! That way he could maintain really tight control on it – “Oh, the cabinet has a secret door on the back, I never told anyone…” – and it might be handy for him to have several manses, and a horde of secret minions with fairly formidable powers, immediately to hand. With that and some hearthstones – a freedom stone and protection from various other restraints – he might even feel secure enough to actually meet some Sidereals again sometime… (Hearthstones would sparkle prettily in his power-aura too). Oh! And initiation into Adenic Thaumaturgy! That would give him extra defenses! (He should have set that up long ago!) And having a couple of thousand fairly high-essence divine guards on immediate call would do a lot for feeling secure on top of the guardians he already had!

That would please the Sidereals too… while they can do a lot with Lytek over remote channels, there were certain things that he and they really needed physical contact for.

Charles was in the depths of the Yukon when his dimensional cell phone rang… A secured, blocked, connection.

(Charles) “Allo!”

(Chengdu) “Hey, Charles, are you busy?”

(Charles) “Uhm… Just some geomantic surveying! Do you need something?”

(Chengdu) “Yeah, me and some of the other lions needed to chat with you. Mind coming back up?”

(Charles) “OK! Where are you?”

(Chengdu) “Well… we’re all up in Yu-Shan. Xiaoxiao figured we could talk at his place, since he’s got the biggest office.”

(Charles) “OK! Just a minute!”

Charles headed back to Aden, popped over to Yu-Shan gate, went to Yu-Shan, and popped over via amulet – which was quieter than wyld-stunting his way over.

(Charles) “Allo! What’s up?”

Celestial lions’ offices were adjusted for their non-human forms. The desk and writing table were low, shelves were at front-paw level, and there were pillows for sitting, as opposed to chairs. The office was, of course, opulent – most notable were the shelves with of scrolls. The Lions had had a servant prepare milk and sandwiches, with an emphasis on meat. Charles had no objection there, although he liked his better done…

The Celestial Lions had asked the servants to have Charles’s cooked more, but since the cook was a god of rare meat cuts…

Charles quietly made it better done.

(Chengdu) “I won’t waste your time, Charles. What’s going on between you and the Right Hand of Power at the moment?”

(Charles) “Uhm… part of that’s his domain business! I don’t know how much detail I’m allowed to provide really… Can I ask him? Or is this all in confidence?”

(Xiaoxiao) “Confidence. (Sighing) You see, we got a report about him. A prompt one, even!”

(Charles) “Oh dear! Somebody in the offices? That’s not very nice of them! I would have hoped for more loyalty after thirty-five thousand years or so…”

(Chengdu) “Well… that’s just the way things are. At first we figured it was the usual politics. I know you’re the type who pays attention in history class, so you know the drill. But when we heard he was consorting with Primordial souls, we perked our whiskers.”

(Xiaoxiao) “And then when we looked deeper, and asked around, we heard you were involved somehow. We couldn’t get THAT much out of our sources – they have that much loyalty to Lytek. So we thought we’d ask you.”

(Chengdu) “So… what in the blazes is going on?”

(Charles) “Uhm… Well, they aren’t really any problem! They were just helping me do some investigation work! Is that OK?… Righteous Hala was there too, so I suppose you could check with her about things!”

(Xiaoxiao) “We already spoke to her. Lunars are slippery, you know? She said they never stepped up here, and the reports from the Crimson Panoply back that up. Is that the case?”

(Charles) “You mean in Yu-Shan? No, we were working over on a planet about ten to the sixtieth light years out.”

(Xiaoxiao) “I see. Could you tell us more about these souls?”

(Chengdu) “Yeah… reports said they weren’t doing anything bad, but they were giving off a big Primordial signal to Essence senses.”

(Charles) “Well… I was working with Chaffri the Traveler, and Baalmug lord of the Baalgrogs was keeping an eye out for trouble, and Malinda the Diviner and Uthorian of Chaos were helping probe mostly – but they wouldn’t make any problems!

(Chengdu) “Um… I don’t recall any of those, Xiaoxiao. You’re the scholar in our group; do they ring a bell?”

(Xiaoxiao) “No… but the way the kid’s talking about them, it’s like they’re friends or…”

He looked pointedly at Charles.

(Charles) “ Well… we could do introductions if you like!”

(Xiaoxiao) “The Solars made some crazy things in the First Age, but nothing like THAT!”

(Charles, with interest) “Like what?”

(Chengdu) “One time, for the Carnival of Meeting, this Twilight Caste made a magnificent diorama depicting one of the battles of the Primordial War he’d fought in. Thing was, if you didn’t want to see it, or hear it, you didn’t! Most ingenious way of getting around the disturbance regulations I ever saw.”

(Charles) “That’s clever!… Hey, as long as we’re talking about secrets… Why is the fact that the Deiphages outnumber the rest of the gods two or three to one being kept secret?”

(Xiaoxiao, letting out a long, drawn-out sigh…) “You didn’t hear it from me, kid, but… we’re losing the battle against them. That’s pretty obvious to you, I’d say.”

(Charles) “Needs fixing!”

(Chengdu) “I’ll say. If the Tenders boot us out, all our hard work will have gone down the drain.”

(Xiaoxiao) “Thing is, the Bureaucracy actually realizes it. Hell if they’ll come up with a solution in time, though the Bureau of Heaven DOES have evacuation procedures.”

(Charles) “Tenders? And why would they boot you out? Your presence in Yu-Shan is… mostly neutral I think… Using too much power?”

(Xiaoxiao) “OK, kid. You know the lesser deiphages, right? You’ve probably gotten enough of them cured… How are you doing that, anyway? Like I said before, the only people I’ve seen do that before are certain Bronzer Sidereals, and they’re a lot less generous with it than that.”

(Charles) “Oh yes!”

(Chengdu) “What do you know about greater deiphages? I just want a basis here, before Xiaoxiao and me continue.”

(Charles) “They need fixing too! That constant energy drain on them is not at all nice!”

(Chengdu) “Whole city needs fixing… too bad I don’t know any more about that than you do.”

For once Charles actually had the sense to keep quiet for the moment.

(Xiaoxiao) “OK. You know how the greater deiphages are the ones who keep their wits, I’d say… thing is, there’s two kinds of them.” (He held up two fingers on his paw.) “First kind’s easy enough to deal with… IF you can get them and not a controlled body. Just like any other god, except hungry. But the second… well, we go back a long ways, and it’s not good.”

(Chengdu) “Back when we were still humanoid, really. THOSE are Tenders.”

(Xiaoxiao) “You could say they represent the old order.”

(Chengdu) “They’re the source of the problem. They’re why we’re lions, and not humanoids any more.”

Charles was paying careful attention! This was all new!

(Xiaoxiao) “See, back when we arrived in Yu-Shan, the Sun had just made us gods. Gave us protection against the geomancy and told us to make the place safe for our new peers. We were grateful to him for taking care of the death problem – and he was the Sun! You can’t say no to him.”

(Charles) “So the local geomancy was intended to drive out gods who weren’t… made to live here I take it?”

(Chengdu) “You’ve got it. Now in those days, there was barely anything up here. You had the Jade Pleasure Dome and some other buildings, but other than that? Just obsidian paths made by Jacint, a whole lot of Primordial demesnes, and the canals and underground.”

(Chengdu) “We built this city. You didn’t need me to tell you that but… even after all these millennia, I’m proud of my work.”

(Xiaoxiao) “We all are, kid. But it wouldn’t have happened if the Tenders had their way. The first encounter we had with one was when we were removing a Kimberry demesne. We’d just set up the capstones and geomantic conduits when he appeared in the middle of the place… Chengdu, you were good at Illusion thaumaturgy back then. Think you can still whip up a visual aid?”

(Chengdu) “I’ll try to remember. It’s been a while.”

Chengdu concentrated and held out a paw, adjusting himself on his pillow. A faint image appeared of a figure in a full bodysuit – it reminded Charles an awful lot of a ninja without a facemask. The outfit’s material appeared to be blackened adamant, and the figure was also wearing a black jade hardhat. The face was exposed, revealing a figure with adamant skin and orichalcum eyes which quite reminded Charles of Ten Peach. The number on the back of the suit was different though: it was the Old Realm character for “6.”

(Chengdu) “Anyway… next thing we knew, he’d drawn some needles from those pockets in his suit.” (The illusory figure drew some from his pockets, five in total.) “We thought he was going to throw them at us or something, so those of us who had combative skills back then swarmed him. Figured we could hold him off until the lion dogs arrived to back us up.”

(Xiaoxiao) “Guess where he actually tossed them. Just guess.”

(Charles) “Into the ground?”

(Chengdu) “Yeah. Seems obvious in hindsight, but we were new to our power, and cocky, like a lot of Exalts. Place went up in a blast of Essence. Now, not all of us were there, but it did put a dent in our work.”

(Xiaoxiao) “So yeah, that was our first encounter with a Tender-Overseer! When we woke up in our new sanctums the next day, we began thinking of countermeasures. Trouble was, we didn’t know the place like they did at the time.”

(Chengdu) “But we kept at it. We stayed out of that one and his partner’s territory-the Fulgent Administrative District – and worked in other areas. It was still slow going until the Sun and Autochthon started the treatment.”

(Xiaoxiao) “You could call it the first step of our transformation into what we are today. See, you know the story of how the Sun rewarded us with these bodies for our work?”

(Charles) “Yep!”

(Chengdu, shaking his head) “A necessary lie. It gradually happened while we were working, to give us a fighting chance against their control of the geomancy. Some of us worked while the others held the line.”

(Charles) “And with the sun not doing much any longer… they’re making a gradual comeback?”

(Xiaoxiao) “Thing about the… let’s not mince words, natives… is, they’re a lot like us. I hate to admit it, but they want to ensure this place’s safety too. And they’re patient, and determined, and think the geomancy we built is their enemy.”

(Chengdu) “Back then, we weren’t aware that they could control other gods. How could we be? They wanted us out, not under their thumbs. The first time we caught a deiphage leader, and it WASN’T a Tender, we were shocked.”

(Xiaoxiao) “And independent, too. Don’t forget that. I’m not sure how they do it, but they RECRUIT.”

(Charles) “I see… Do they insist on driving you out, or just make the place unpleasant?”

(Xiaoxiao) “I don’t even know! They show signs of wanting to add us to their ranks, but they’d have to get around the immunity first. At the same time, they’re stopping at nothing to disrupt the geomancy we built.”

(Chengdu) “And it’s working… over millennia, but it is working. And the only people who seem to give a damn are some eccentric gods and the Bronze Faction. We try to help maintain it, but our new duties keep getting in the way.”

(Charles) “Hm! I’ll have to see what can be done to settle things down!”

(Xiaoxiao) “Not that those duties aren’t important, but if we’re the only non-deiphages left in the city, they’ll stop being important.”

(Charles) “That definitely needs some sorting out! The clash is leading to all kinds of power-supply problems too isn’t it?”

(Chengdu) “Like you wouldn’t believe. The Bronzers sometimes help us out with that, but you know how busy the Sidereals are these days.”

(Xiaoxiao) “Makes the Age of Sorrows look like the Carnival of Meeting, that.”

(Charles) “And an awful lot of time is having to go for training too these days.”

(Xiaoxiao) “Yeah… I might be busy as a lion, but at least I don’t have to deal with their schedules.”

(Chengdu) “Don’t jinx it. At the rate things are going, we’ll have to test out those evacuation plans.”

(Charles) “Hhrm… I think I might have an idea; All we’ll need is an aspect-overlay…”

(Xiaoxiao) “Well, we’re all ears.”

(Charles) “ Well… they want their version and you want yours – but we are suspended in Elsewhere, and have lots of directional options that can be superimposed… repairing and modifying the local manses should be more than enough to impose one!”

(Chengdu) “You can’t be that powerful! Even for a Solar, that’s a ridiculous area to shape. On the other hand, you DO seem to consider Primordial souls friendship material.”

(Charles) “Oh, you don’t have to shape it! It should be possible to chain it through the local manses and dragon lines… Just like the walk-in aquarium! You stay in the dry reality, thre fish stick with the wet one!”

(Xiaoxiao) “That’s still a bit much… unless you have a really delicate hand with this stuff. And don’t forget, Chengdu-that boat Pure Frothing Delight is trying to register was made at his facility… So what’s the plan?”

(Charles) “Well… hopefully it will hang together for a few months – although I’ll have to talk to some people first – and I’ll have to check with Gaia again, and work it into the repair ritual!”

(Chengdu) “Well, you’ve got the advantage there of being mortal! I STILL remember what that was like, knowing I would die someday. It motivates you to move fast, that’s for sure!”

(Xiaoxiao) “Wait, Gaia? And who else were you going to talk to? And what’s this ritual going to do?”

(Charles) “Mostly repair the damaged manses! They might blow up otherwise! Then I can open more gates and make more domains available and get everyone jobs again!”

(Xiaoxiao) “We’re going to need details on this. A ritual of this size, affecting the entire place… that’s a pretty big target!”

(Charles) “All by itself it’s a pretty big layout! But OK…”

He laid out scroll after scroll of details and geomantic maps. Fortunately, even after all these years, they were somewhat familiar with the field. Still… this was intricate beyond belief! It should have taken centuries or millennia simply to lay it all out!

(Chengdu) “You’re really going to put the gates with the old Blessed Isle ones? That makes them easy to access to be sure, but that’s going to come as a shock to the Bureau of Heaven.”

(Xiaoxiao) “Well… some of us will have to station themselves there after the shock wears off.”

(Charles) “I was setting up with some extra guards!”

They lions looked over the basic specifications for those…

(Xiaoxiao) “Okay, never mind… these are on par with us. What happens if somebody tries to mind control them?”

(Charles) “They should be protected against that! That’s not nice at all!”

(Chengdu) “What about if somebody hits them with a dissolving touch or something like that?”

(Charles) “The geomancy should cover a lot of that too – but they will have to use charms against some things. There’s no getting around that!”

(Chengdu) “I won’t argue with that!”

(Xiaoxiao) “So geomancy? What geomancy?”

(Charles) “Well, it’s built into the empowering manses on the destination planets!”

The Chronicles of Heavenly Artifice XCVIII – The Ri’kienthi

English: Emperor Xianzong of Tang dynasty

Emperor Xianzong of the Tang dynasty

Back in Yu-Shan Righteous Hala was considering. She’d recognized Charles’s shinamaic meddling as a Wyld Stunt – albeit one of boggling power – but… he’d actually touched the Shinma. Sure you could do that the mightiest charms and (at least in legend) with Solar Circle Sorcery – but just to save one young man? Abyssals could be quite nasty even when they chose to let people live, but that was extravagant. There would be distortions in the region for quite some time – and the Abyssal who’d gotten him would definitely know that SOMETHING potent had been on that little planet.

Of course, that was Charles… Reckless extravagance in everything.

She wound up shaking her head – and resolving firmly to keep on doing what she had been doing: keeping an eye on Charles in case he did something REALLY reckless. She’d certainly insist on accompanying him into the Abyssal shard! That could be unthinkably dangerous – even if there was an attraction in being the first on record to attempt such a thing… It would be a legendary feat if it could actually be accomplished!

Charles was actually planning on some probes first. For all he knew, the Shard’s internal realm was full of reflected versions of the Neverborn playing poker.

On a distant world, an Abyssal Exalt was puzzling over the ODDEST collection of essence-traces. A… a committee of Devas, Jouten, Gods, Raksha, UNKNOWN Exalt types, and some things that were just weird… Wyld AND manse-based gate-energies with no gates, vast amounts of power devoted to laying out… a route across dimensions? Had an invasion force from another reality just touched down?

She recorded the Essence signatures as accurately as possible… She – and a few of her allies – would be looking for those again! An entity of THAT power – capable of meddling with the very foundations of the universe and willing to do so for trivial purposes – that ran because a small task force with only a couple of Exalts showed up? Even the behemoth that the kid she’d caught so temporarily had disappeared without a trace in minutes. Was it just an attempt to avoid notice? Whatever-it-was wasn’t doing it very well!

Sadly, they couldn’t use the oblivion penetration method that often; the shards’ loss had made it feasible, but it was at least as potentially wonky as monkeying with the Shinma was… What had happened to the blasted priceless things anyway? Rebelling was one thing – but it usually led to explosions, sabotage, and killing galore. Just… dropping off the map was WEIRD!

Back on Earth Aikiko had finished her discussion with the priests and gone quietly to bed – to spend some portion of the night contemplating “Dawn Hammer Style”. The next few days were spent on gently discouraging wannabees – and low-essence mortal masters; apparently the priests were wanting some cultivation of Essence – which was quite understandable given that supernatural powers were definitely involved…

A fair number of the final group actually had awakened essence and some mastery of Terrestrial Styles. That wasn’t too surprising, and was a final confirmation that something supernatural was coming up – but it was a potential worry; simply functioning just above mortal levels might not be enough against a terrestrial master – and doubling her costs to remain inconspicuous would be a terrific drain on her essence reserves. That was potential trouble! She could de-attune the artifacts she wasn’t using, but it wouldn’t help THAT much.

The final group wound up with sixty people – and eventually one of the priests called everyone to the tournament itself.

(Priest) “Welcome all of you to the Besi Hantuperajin. Here we will find five of you – the strongest in mind and body – to share in the Ri’kienthi. The winning team must include at least one grandmaster and one who has not yet fully awakened their inner power. The tournament is dangerous for all – and not merely to the body. The prizes of the Besi Hantuperajin are both great and terrible – and there is no shame in withdrawing. (He paused briefly) If you wish to proceed, please follow me to the arena below the temple.”

Nobody withdrew yet of course, although that might come after they heard something that they didn’t already know. There surely couldn’t be much harm in listening further!

Aikiko, trailing along, abruptly found herself with a serious problem though! There was a formidable ward in the way, backed with the geomantic power of a manse – and it did indeed include Solars. It wasn’t potent as one of Charles’s of course – but passing it was going to be quite expensive in terms of will, and would hurt quite a bit! Worse, if the physical damage was obvious it would raise questions!

Hm… It looked like it would be internal as usual – but it would be hard to maintain enough control not to show the pain… Still, she could probably handle it! Even if it contributed to her washing out of the tournament, she REALLY wanted to learn more about the place – ESPECIALLY since it was warded against Solars. That was really rare!

She barely managed to hide the pain – and it was a massive strain (5 successes, 6 will, 3L). That was one serious ward! With what had to be at least a fourth-rank manse backing it – and one of it’s functions was (obviously via deduction) concealment… Perhaps she ought to come up with a ward-circumventing Larceny Charm! Or at least a perfect soak and some way to reduce the will cost!

Still, while it had almost exhausted her will, she had made it through without betraying herself – and was now behind some pretty potent privacy wards.

The descent opened out into a massive circular hall, somewhere near the center of the manse. Essence was pouring in from several powerful dragon lines, and pouring through the people in the hall – and going somewhere after that. She couldn’t tell WHERE though. That was a bit weird… Oh, of course – essence cloaking effects. Still, that would be very useful to HER if she could figure out a way to acquire it for herself!

Even if she couldn’t… it looked like it would cover anything short of blatant powers – high-end animas and things like throwing energy bolts. She’d have to test that a bit later; it might work for her – but then Solar Essence was pretty blatant!

Anyway… the two priests and three somewhat elderly-looking types were stepping up on a raised area (there were several) and there were at least twenty other people of various ages sitting around the “arena” area.

(Priests): “Now that you are here, it is time for the last winners of the Ri’kienthi to demonstrate some minor aspects of the prize you will be competing for. The last competion for the Ri’kienthi was in 853 AD, and it’s current possessors are ready to lay down that burden.”

Wow! That was about the average Solar lifespan right there!

One of the elderly men stepped forward.

(Savryath) “Welcome the the Besi Hantuperajin! I am Savryath, once a warrior of Emperor Xianzong. I participated in the unification of China – and was sent as a scout into the lands beyond. I eventually participated in the Besi Hantuperajin – and since then my life has been very long – and very full of interest…”

Neat!

(Savryath) “For the last twelve hundred years I have shared in the power of the Ri’Kienthi – and, as you have been informed, soon our group will no longer be able to do so; we are down to three members – and are growing old. Now… as for the prize for which you are competing… In modern terms, the Ri’Kienthi offers longevity, rapid healing, a selection of other enhancements – I would have said to the user’s Ki – and powers over the flow of universal energy; what is now, I am told, called electromagnetism. Doubts are – of course – expected. To demonstrate…”

Savryath showed off several tricks – the magnetic control of metal, force fields, the generation of energy-blasts, illusion-casting, and a few similar electromagnetic stunts.

(Savryath) “Most of those abilities will require a great deal of time and practice to develop – but many others are possible.”

Cool! She might or might not be able to acquire them if she won, but it was definitely something separate from her Solar stuff! And if she was any kind of judge at all, it was at least on a par with dragonblooded charms!

There was shock and murmuring among the contestants. Most of them were familiar with some mystical martial arts, but this went well beyond them; The Ri’kienthi seemed to tap into some pretty basic forces. Also… there were supposed to be at least fifty other prizes, and possibly a hundred or so. It was no punching people into different forms, but it appeared to be a good deal more versatile than that!

They hadn’t really discussed the price yet – but called a break to allow the possible contestants some time to talk it over before resuming after the evening meal. There were more elaborate quarters down here though. Really quite comfortable – if extremely old-fashioned.

The price had to be fairly hefty… Perhaps some form of major duties? Regardless, SOMEBODY was definitely powering up the mortals around here, and had been doing so for rather a long time – long enough for warding against Solars to be necessary unless someone was just being old and through. After all, Wenjioth had good reason to distrust Solars and he was GOOD at this stuff…

The rest of the evening mostly went to a few more demonstrations and to general discussion amongst the contestants. Informative in some ways – but unsatisfying.Still, that left things open for her to do a little late-night poking about! They were probably quite used to people sneaking around – martial artists were notorious for it – but she WAS pretty good at it.

Aikiko did spot several other people sneaking about – but none of them as good at it as she was.

It looked like… the manse was capable of granting part of it’s essence-covering effect to anyone who attuned to it, even at range. The main power flows… spiraled into the center of the arena, went straight down – and then vanished. That might be what was causing the cloaking effect; excess essence, including what normally went into displays, got drawn off.

Those were some neat powers! She’d have to ask Charles about them! As far as she knew, he was the only one who currently did that “use manse powers at range” thing. Some sort of wyld-based tweaking of the usual rules there… The place seemed to have a lot of other powers too; some sort of gate, illusion generation, more law-tweaking, healing… Was the gate where the essence went? That would explain the way that it just vanished. It would take a week to explore the place though; it was large and elaborate enough to host five or six hundred people.

Shortly thereafter someone – it sounded like the priest – quietly whispered in her ear despite being nowhere near her.

(Priest) “Hello Ms Aikiko! Can I help you? We do have thirteen other wanderers so far…”

She was startled for a moment – but then recalled the powers he’d demonstrated

(Aikiko) “Just having a look around!”

(Priest) “A very high proportion of our guests do find things a bit unbelievable and wish to look around. Few, however, are nearly as difficult to trace as you are! You are to be congratulated… You also seem to have some internal injuries at the moment. They must have been quite serious to even leave traces at this point.”

Uh oh! Hmm. Well, at least he seemed more curious than suspicious…

(Aikiko) “I’ve been in some accidents, doing parkour.”

(Priest) “Within the past day?”

Oops! Considering that this fellow probably lived here, he probably knew how the ward functioned – and, while she could probably take one or two, maybe even three, of these guys on, the whole bunch was kind of doubtful! Not to mention they HAD been nice to her, and she didn’t even know if she COULD use the prize in the first place!

Besides… while the prize would be nice, it would only be a side benefit of the investigation – and they might be fundamentally weaker than she was, but at least three of them had more than a thousand years worth of experience. Not to mention the priests and the observers…

(Aikiko, shrugging and whispering) “Okay, you got me. Well, OK, the ward did, but I think that counts as you getting me!”

(Priest) “I cannot distinguish between the Destiny-weavers, the Children of the Moon,and the Lawgivers so readily – but I can tell that you were affected by the Ward and are not one of the Children of the Elements. Would you care to reveal your nature? It is not required, but I would consider it polite.”

(Aikiko) “I’m a Lawgiver, sir!”

(Priest) “Ah. I suppose that was inevitable at some point now that you have returned… We shall have to talk.”

(Aikiko) “I figured that was coming. Talking’s fine; I’m actually surprised I made it this far in!”

(Priest) “The Lawgivers… have always been superb at anything they set their minds to doing… (Sigh) If only they did not so often set their minds towards goals that were… unwise at best.”

What, didn’t that kind of come with Exaltation in general?

(Priest) “Still, at least you seem more sensible so far – and relatively young. Shall we speak tomorrow? We shall be conducting final interviews and perhaps forming the initial teams then.”

(Aikiko) “Certainly, sir!”

That was a fair compliment! She’d been working hard on her self-discipline lately!

The Shadowed Galaxy

They were the Elder Ones.

They had ruled the galaxy for a million years.

A thousand races had been uplifted to succulent sapience.

Small rebellions weeded out the weak and foolish among them.

That the Elder Ones might remain strong.

Greatness was built upon dark strength and genius.

Tempting whirlpools of stars spun beyond their reach.

The void between galaxies too great for even elder minds to bridge.

A dozen races died in agony, ground like grain in a mill.

A bridge of death to open a path across the great voids.

For where might death not pass?

But bridges go both ways.

The cry was answered.

Alien power, the stuff of magic, flowed back across the path.

The high circles of the gods too fed on mortals.

Yet more gently, distilling power from prayer and dreams.

Less predator than symbiont and guardian.

Small rebellions became great, irrepressible.

For the Elder Ones were few, and their prey was many.

And marched beneath the banners of the gods.

The Elder Ones stuck back, their powers terrible.

Worlds and races died across the galaxy.

But a million years of rage still marched.

A numberless legion.

The Elder Ones went down into death.

Like their victims before them.

Yet their power, their struggle, and their vengeance was great.

Concepts and patterns, the very stuff of thought, was rent and tattered.

Wounds that would fester for long eons.

Places of fear and darkness where minds might not trespass.

Across a bridge of ancient fear and death.

Held the Gods illimitable dominion over all.

While mortals clustered about the comforting fires of suns.

Broken minds unknowing of what had been lost.

And yet rejoicing in new freedom.

Ages passed like falling leaves, healing wounds.

Technology rose first, a path of tools and hands.

For where one led, ten thousand might follow.

Chipped stone and sharpened bone, wood and reed.

The hammer, the knife, the spear, the bow.

A fire against the darkness, as much within as without.

Magic and Psionics grew more slowly.

Too close to the heart of ancient pain.

Mistrusted, ignored by most,

The province of fools and madmen.

For who would pass again and again into the shadow of death.

To bring forth small wonders?

Still, the upward path, across twice ten thousand years.

The way of engines and fire.

As ships rose once more, to challenge the voids between the stars.

Welcome to the Shadowed Galaxy. Here, where mighty nebula enfold the sky in curtains of luminous gas, where new suns kindle and worlds are born, the galaxy stands at the threshold of an era of conflict. As ancient psychic wounds heal across the galaxy the surviving sapient species are redeveloping ways to reach beyond their worlds. There, among the stars, they are finding their brethren – scattered across nearby worlds by the Elder Ones – exploring the ancient ruins of that near-vanished race, tampering with the eons-old potencies the Elder Ones left behind – and encountering each other. Sometimes peacefully, all to often not.

For the moment, at least, technology dominates. While it is still restricted by the wounds inflicted by the Elder Ones, it is far less damaged than any of the other paths of power – and so, for good or ill, technology levels vary relatively little across the galaxy. There are local and racial specialties, and an occasional genius who actively probes what lies concealed by the damage inflicted by the Elder Ones – but while such mad scientists produce results and devices that may push the technological envelope in bizarre ways, others cannot use them without suffering the terrible agonies that come of pushing their thoughts into places where sanity cannot go.

Longer-lived (and slower-breeding) races have more time to learn – and thus an advantage in building a technological civilization. Shorter-lived races, however, spread more quickly once they do begin to expand into space – and so (by pure coincidence, which has NOTHING to do with wanting the races initial positions to be more-or-less balanced) they mostly have roughly equal spheres of influence.

While psionics are natural to the worlds and peoples of the galaxy, there the damage done by the Elder Ones has yet to heal. Only the lesser powers are available even to those who court madness by pushing the limits – and even they are widely mistrusted and denied. Occasionally devices of the Elder Ones are found – devices mighty and terrible, incomprehensible – and yet operable simply by thought and a will to do so. The wise avoid them. Fools use them to their own destruction. The ambitious attempt to exploit them – with terribly mixed results.

Magic is an unnatural force within the galaxy, flowing over the ancient bridge between the Shadowed Galaxy and the Alssing Galaxy, the Realm of the Gods. It’s power is limited (once again) to the lesser powers, and even it’s lesser powers are often most difficult to develop – and tend to lead to death and destruction; even the gods cannot wholly defy the deathly origin of the Bridge or the ancient wounds.

Yes, you can have a bit of psychic ability – or even, at higher levels, some magic – for your character, but the vast majority of characters are going to be explorers, scientists, mecha and vehicle pilots, diplomats, and spies – for alliances are forming, worlds are being claimed, and whatever is left of the race of the Elders Ones stirs.

Exalted – Quixotic Knight Style (Terrestrial Martial Art)

martial arts

Wait, WHO or WHAT am I fighting here?

No mere mortal may stand against the Exalted.

Who wants to? There basically aren’t that many Exalts, and there never have been. Sure, a few may hit the upper levels of power and go round the twist in a big way – but it’s a tradeoff. Put up with the occasional fruitcake disaster – or put up with the occasional hurricane, volcano, mighty earthquake, tidal wave, unleashed demon, or what-have-you. Creation has no shortage of random disasters to inflict on unprotected humans, and even in those areas that Exalts are protecting lots of people will go their entire lives without ever having to deal with one.

Vicious animals and wyld beasties, stray hobgoblins, ghosts, hostile minor spirits, and other such menaces are all over the place though – and for every small child that some passing Exalt generously rescues (and gets hailed as a hero for) another is horribly slain by a malevolent Exalt – and fifty get eaten where no Exalt of either persuasion happens to be at the moment.

But some folk decide to be heroic WITHOUT having massive power and near-invulnerability handed to them on a silver platter first. They too can wrap a bit of the power of a heroic narrative around their souls.

Quixotic Knight Style:

Heroic Tempering

|                               |

Carapace Of Will        Esoteric Training

|                               |

Resurgent Spirit          Heroic Exemplar Med.

|                              |

Desperate Guard

|

The Chivalric Ideal

|

Heroic Tale Embodiment (Legendary)

Heroic Tempering: Cost: 4M; Mins: Martial Arts 2, Essence 1; Type: Simple, Keywords: None, Duration: One Scene, Prerequisite Charms: None. You may distribute (Martial Arts + Essence) points among the attributes of your unarmed attacks or of a thaumaturgically-prepared weapon. For the duration it is considered unbreakable. This will not work on artifact weapons. At Essence 3+ you may also spend points on thaumaturgic and talisman powers, at one point per level of the rite or talisman.

Carapace of Will: Cost: 3M; Mins: Martial Arts 2, Essence 2; Type: Simple, Keywords: None, Duration: One Scene, Prerequisite Charms: Heroic Tempering. You may add your Resistance to your armors Soak and distribute points equal to your Integrity amongst reducing it’s mobility and fatigue penalties. This will not work on artifact armor but if the armor is thaumaturgically prepared for this use it is considered indestructible for the duration. At Essence 3+ you may also spend points on thaumaturgic and talisman powers, at one point per level of the rite or talisman.

Resurgent Spirit: Cost: —; Mins: Martial Arts 3, Essence 2; Type: Permanent, Keywords: None, Duration: Permanent, Prerequisite Charms: Carapace of Will. You may spend a virtue channel to roll reduce damage by (Successes +1) as long as the cause is appropriate (Valor works in almost any fight, Compassion when you’re defending someone else, Conviction when you’re upholding a position or motivation, and Temperance when you’re trying to stop the fighting or fulfill a promise). If this reduces the damage of an attack to zero, any poisons, shaping, and other “bad touch” effects attached to it fail to work. You may spend a second virtue channel at the same time to further reduce damage at Essence 3+.

Esoteric Training: Cost: 3M; Mins: Martial Arts 2, Essence 2; Type: Simple, Keywords: None, Duration: One Scene, Prerequisite Charms: Heroic Tempering. You may select four points worth of mutations worth no more than two points each, and gain their benefits (but not their drawbacks) for a scene by activating this charm. Once selected these cannot be changed; they represent special martial training not actual physical changes. At Essence 3+ you may select an additional two points worth of mutations, although the two-point maximum remains in effect.

Heroic Exemplar Meditation: Cost: 3M; Mins: Martial Arts 2, Essence 2; Type: Simple, Keywords: None, Duration: One Scene, Prerequisite Charms: Esoteric Training. You may swap up to (Will) ability dots around for the duration of a scene. No ability may be raised or reduced by more than two, be reduced below zero, or be raised above seven. At Essence 3+ you gain an additional ability dot for the duration, although the limits remain the same.

Desperate Guard: Cost: 3M; Mins: Martial Arts 4, Essence 2; Type: Reflexive, Keywords: None, Duration: One Tick, Prerequisite Charms: Resurgent Spirit, Heroic Exemplar Meditation. You may strip all supernatural enhancements from an incoming attack or flurry. Attacks based on extra action charms automatically fail. At Essence 3+ this can be used against unexpected attacks if the user can make a D2 Awareness check.

The Chivalric Ideal: Cost: —; Mins: Martial Arts 4, Essence 3; Type: Permanent, Keywords: None, Duration: Permanent, Prerequisite Charms: Desperate Guard. You may reduce the costs of using this arts lesser charms by two motes and may reflexively activate up to three of them per turn without it counting as a charm activation.

According to legend, there is a Charm above this one – Heroic Tale Embodiment (Cost: —, Mins: Martial Arts 5, Essence 3, Type: Permanent, Keywords: None, Duration: Permanent, Prerequisite Charms: The Chivalric Ideal) – which allows a character who accomplishes some great quest to truly bind the tale to him or her -self and thus take on the powers and abilities of a Heroic Commoner Raksha, although he or she retains his or her soul (which now functions as a heart grace) and may exist and respire without difficulty in Creation. Whether or not such a charm actually exists is up to the game master.

No, this won’t really let a mortal stand up to an Exalt – but it will let them be a speedbump, or possibly even survive long enough to try to run away. Far more importantly, it gives them a reasonable chance to do something about a variety of lesser supernatural menaces.

The Chronicles of Heavenly Artifice XCVII – Button Mashing Not Allowed!

1978 World championship martial arts tournamen...

No photographs please!

Back in Malaysia, Aikiko was trying to figure out how to approach the Shadow Masters. There were at least three in the area right now, setting up for the tournament – but she didn’t want to be disrespectful. She’d seen some movies with Ancient Masters – but most of them were kind of silly really! She didn’t have time to sit on their doorstep talking about how unworthy she was for a month, or to find an archenemy of theirs to be defeated by and come to them for training, or to go on some weird quest, and she didn’t know if any of them had a daughter captured by bandits to rescue single-handedly (that one only seemed to be for male heroes anyway). She wasn’t even sure if they had cars to wash or houses to paint!

But she had to talk to them sometime!

Oh, wait! She could just follow some of the other entrants and take her cues from them!

The other entrants proved easy enough to pick out; they were the young ones in more modern outfits – although she got the feeling that a few of the older ones might have tried this before.

It looked like the tournament was normally held inside a temple carved into one of the hills here. The area was quite heavily warded for privacy – and it was warded against Dragon-Bloods, Aspected, and Lunars – although not against Solars.

Well, they hadn’t been back for long – and it was hard to ward against people you’d never seen!

Actually making the approach… turned out to be terribly simple; there were a couple of traditional priests who were basically checking people in and giving them “rooms” in a small maze of sleeping nooks that more-or-less resembled train compartments. Evidently no one was expected to be there for very long.

Actually getting a better room involved impressing the priests – and thus clearing for a final entry into the true tournament. They had some areas set up for training, formal and informal bouts, and general showing off. Not too surprisingly, most of the would-be entrants were trying to impress the priests with bouts and martial demonstrations. A few were being more esoteric – going for philosophical discussions or physical feats – but few of the martial artists who were competitive enough to enter such a tournament were willing to pass up the chance to spar with other experts.

Aikiko left the Behemoth Cloak with Wenjioth – it wasn’t allowed in the tournament of course, it didn’t really boost her martial skills, and it wouldn’t be fair anyway – and went looking for some sparring partners.

There were plenty of would-be entrants who were willing to spar – but a lot of them wanted to know what styles she practiced!

She really should have seen THAT coming. Well, all things considered, since no one around here knew about Solars and it was an accurate enough description… She old them it was the “Dawn Hammer Style”. You never knew; somebody around the place just might have encountered a Solar.

And – of course – they were not familiar with that style, and wanted to know who taught it. Worse, it was fairly obvious that “I just started doing it one day!” wasn’t going to fly unless there were some REALLY esoteric means of enlightenment around.

Well… she wasn’t getting enmeshed in a web of likes, and the worst they could do was to toss her out, or try to kill her!

(Aikiko) “I just started doing it one day! That’s why I entered this tournament, actually! I figured somebody here could help me find an explanation and improve my technique!”

That produced a general, and somewhat embarrassed silence before one older man spoke up.

(Daniel Imoto) “Uhm… Ms… Aikiko was it? Are you sure you want to enter a tournament like this to test your… self-developed spontaneous style? It’s fairly likely that it has some vulnerabilities that you may not have recognized!”

It took a moment for Aikiko to mentally translate that as “Are you out of your mind? If someone tries a throat strike or something expecting you to block – and you haven’t got a block for that – you might get yourself killed!”.

Oh dear. A teacher – and someone kind enough to be concerned about a young woman who was a complete stranger.

(Aikiko, thinking fast.) “Well… I’ve also studied Karate and Judo, so I’ll be using those too! I’m mostly curious about the Dawn Hammer.”

That was true enough! Her parents had tried to enroll her in martial arts classes to teach her some discipline! It didn’t work that well, unless you counted her being able to run from security faster.

There was some relief, and rather more interest. They still obviously doubted that she’s really all that good – if only because she didn’t seem to have serious doubts about “Dawn Hammer” – but she would at least know the basics, and it looked like her reflexes were very good, which could make up for a lot. Daniel was willing to do a little sparring – although he obviously intended to go easy at least to start.

For a moment she had an impulse to do something essence-powered and incredibly spectacular – but that would be counterproductive, horribly unfair, and a REALLY unworthy response to a man who was… trying to make sure that she didn’t get hurt. She wouldn’t hold much back on the mortal level, but if she needed to do more than pull a die or two out of an excellency she’d better reconsider anyway! Besides… they were mortals after all, and total humiliation – or injuries beyond a few bruises – would never do!

At least she could conceal her Excellency with her Anima power and make it clear that she knew what she was doing…

Daniel Imoto was a Crane and Tiger Stylist, Dex 4, Skill 5, Str 4, 3 Speciality Dice, 3B soak (thanks to toughening exercises), Ess 2 (but no active pool), Mortal “Charms”/Walkaway II and Fortune’s Favor I (Martial Arts) – and was starting off fighting quite defensively. Aikiko was better – but only by a single die, higher essence, her higher natural soak – and her lack of the mortal stunt die penalty.

Aikiko flashed forward, kicking up the dust from the earth into small vortexes as she passed in a burst of lightning speed to take a straight punch at Daniels chest… It wasn’t good enough though; Daniel slipped to one side, taking the blow on his blocking hand and using it’s force to spin himself faster as he dropped into a couch, braced the other hand against the floor and lashed out with a leg sweep.

Aikiko dodged that – but just barely! He was good! Still, as his leg came in to take her down, she timed a hop just as his foot was about to hit hers – letting his leg arc beneath her feet and landing without so much as disturbing the dust on the floor as Daniel completed his spin back into position – mildly surprised at missing and definitely somewhat impressed with Aikiko’s speed!

Aikiko transitioned from the jump to a knee strike, the speed of her blow making the cloth of her pants ripple – and connected solidly, although Daniel managed to roll with the kick. In fact, he rolled with it back to the wall and kicked off from there to send himself into the air – the wind blowing through his sleeves like wings as he swooped in in Crane Takes Flight (one of his advanced maneuvers) to attempt a stunning kick to Aikiko’s head.

That was actually pretty impressive! But Aikiko smiled, leaned back, and tumbled backwards and slightly to the left, taking advantage of the wind he was whipping up with his maneuver to further boost her speed. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough… Daniel (with a remarkably lucky roll) connected solidly and sent her stumbling back, trying to shake off the stunning (2B) impact.

The man was good! He was obviously burning resources (and luck) faster than she was – but then these were the best of the mortal best. Aikiko turned her backwards stumble into a kickoff from the wall – and a leaping flip that ended in her performing what she was calling the “Dawn Hammer Strikes the Anvil” maneuver as she connects both hands for a hammershot to Deniel’s face – and the luck abruptly swung her way, as she hammered Daniel (for 2B) and sent him rolling back. He landed rather heavily, although – a bit dazed or not – he automatically rolled back to his feet with fair agility.

The priests shortly called a time-out; they apparently didn’t want to see anyone seriously hurt – or at least not yet.

Aikiko bowed to her opponent gracefully. After all, he had hit her! That hadn’t happened for a while!

Daniel too bowed. Aikiko was… far more formidable than he had expected! Especially for someone so young!

(Aikiko) “It was an honor to spar with someone at your level, sir.”

That was true enough! She hadn’t actually fought that many Exalted – or even mortal masters. She was going to have to step things up! Although… apparently the Exaltation had put her pretty much at the peak of human potential and toughness, even without using any charms. To think that she could take on a man who was a master with decades of experience when she had only been Exalted for two years! Sure, she had shattered a mountainside – but that was using an artifact and essence, not just more or less mundane skill.

That was cool – but it was also sort of… sad… to miss out on the development. She’d never really considered that before! She wasn’t normally especially contemplative!

(Daniel) “And an honor to spar with you as well! Your new style seems to be a natural mastery; you are to be congratulated! Such things are extraordinarily rare!”

Daniel retired to recover a bit (although he’d be glad to discuss the arts a bit with such a rare talent later on) – and Aikiko took stock… It looked like the priests had probably noticed her – and it looked like a fair number of lesser-skilled applicants had already been eliminated.

Oops! There was another problem! Customarily, styles were taught. She might have to come up with a mortal-level “Dawn Hammer Style” now! Otherwise people would start asking questions!

Plus, those knacks were much less risky than opening up a mortal’s Essence channels directly. While they were terribly weak by the standards of the Exalted, they made for some very competent humans – as Mr Imoto had demonstrated! With a little more luck, he could have seriously harmed her!

Admittedly, that was only as long as she’d fought without charms –

The ability to teach quasi-mortal styles based on Exalted charms is – of course – another charm, with the Training keyword. Characters using Unhatched Spirit Meditation can teach mortal knacks and arts based on cut-down versions the user’s selection of Charms.

The priests were only a short time healing Daniel – but she took the time to ask them about that terrorist attack.

(Priest) “What you of the west call “Islamic Extremists”! Some of the fools who say that all the old ways are Blasphemy against Allah and works of “Shaitain”. They attempt to use fear and terror to turn the people away from their traditions and their gods. This “Allah” must be weak indeed – to be called simply “god”, claiming no name of his own, and to so rarely come to the assistance of those who would promote his worship. In the name of truth, love, and justice they bring concealment, hatred, and the deaths of the helpless. Our gods bring us peace, prosperity, and protection – and do not claim to be the sole powers of creation, but merely those concerned with us. Fortunately, the Great Masters do not suffer such foolishness gladly.”

(Aikiko) “So I’ve heard. Is there anything I can do to help?”

(Priest) “The Masters have had little trouble so far – and I would suspect will have less as more of them gather to observe the Tournament and greet the next group of Masters who will rise to join them – although I suppose it is possible that the fools will launch some major attack once many masters are gathered. If you stand with the winners at the tourney’s end, you shall share in the Ri’kienthi – and, being young and vigorous, perhaps you will trace these fools to their source with that power. Until then… Your skills are superb, but guns, grenades, and rockets care little for honorable skill in battle! You are our guest, and we would not see you unnecessarily harmed!”

(Aikiko) “Understood! I will do my best at the tournament, then!”

Well, with the Behemoth Cloak… she wasn’t so sure about rockets, but she could definitely handle a bullet, and probably a grenade. Charles… if Charles said it was good armor, it might well be able to take an anti-tank weapon. He was GOOD at what he did.

Now, what the “Ri’kienthi” was was another matter…

(Aikiko) “Can you tell me any more about the Ri’Kienthi”, or will have to wait until later?

(Priest) “One of the current Shadow Masters will be speaking of the Ri’kienthi after the entrants are selected.”

Well, she’d have to be content with that! Aikiko headed off to get her own injuries seen to – and to talk to her worthy opponent after he was healed!

By the time she found him Daniel was fine – and, at the moment, was watching another entrant do a breaking technique demonstration with his hands, feet, elbows, and head. He was smashing oaken boards, concrete blocks, and – for the climax – a massive sandstone slab. It wasn’t at all bad – but the actual applications were kind of limited (unless, of course, you were making kindling). Still, it was mildly interesting. She’d never seen anyone break concrete or sandstone in class – and she’d only tried smashing stone with essence and an artifact. It had to take a lot of work to learn to actually do it with mere mortal skill and power!

The priests seemed… perhaps a bit amused.

The performer was currently flexing with no shirt, and WAS impressively muscled. Shaved head too – the better to be smashing his skull into concrete blocks. Clearly out to impress, the peacock. Still… while SHE could probably do that with an application of Sledgehammer Fist Punch in no time at all, that would clearly mark her as more than mortal. Besides, she wanted to demonstrate her fighting prowess, not her demolition skills!

(Aikiko) “Hey, can you do that to people too?”

The Peacock seemed most annoyed at the priest being inscrutable…

(Peacock) “Of course I can!”

(Aikiko) “Well, if you can connect with me, I’m game!”

She might have to mask her use of Charms with her anima power, but it would be SO worth it to knock this guy down a couple of pegs!

The “Peacock” WAS very good at smashing (Str 5, +3 Speciality +2 “Mutations”) and he was as tough as nails (7B/1L Soak) – but he only had eight dice for his base attack; unless Aikiko let him connect with one of his massive blows, his chances of doing so were very poor. He was, however, very good at being annoying – and promptly tried to get Aikiko to stand still and demonstrate whether she was tough enough to take a blow – tapping her Valor with a stunt of flexing and obliterating a chunk of concrete to show the strength that “she dared not meet!” (He scored six successes on his taunting – and Aikiko only got two…).

(Aikiko) “Hah! I may be little, but I’m tough! Bring it!”

She still had the sense to activate her Solar Hero Form, even if it did cost twice as much to make it non-Obvious. She wouldn’t be using the damage-enhancement though; she wanted to humble the fellow, not kill him!

The peacock hammered her with a mighty blow, albeit only going for bashing damage…. and it was indeed impressive for a mortal! Even with her enhanced (10B/7L) durability, he managed to hammer through (6B left) for three health levels – leaving Aikiko still standing, if a bit staggered!

(Aikiko) “Oof! You ARE pretty good at that!”

That would have flattened a normal human with one shot! That really WAS good for a punch! She’d been putting it off, but she really OUGHT to learn some Ox-Body Technique outside of the armor…

(Aikiko) “So, you look pretty tough! Since I was nice enough to stand still for you, it’s only fair that you let me get in a shot!”

Mr “peacock” was a bit shaken by the fact that she was still standing, but was far too egotistical to deny her her shot!

(Peacock) “You are far stronger than you appear! Take your shot, and I too shall still stand!”

Aikiko… did use some enhancements – but not too many. His strength really was impressive, and he’d obviously worked very hard indeed over many years to develop it – and he had, with his little show, neatly manipulated HER into letting him try to impress the priests with it. She’d have to thank him later… far better to learn that lesson when sparring with a normal human than to learn it when she was up against some monstrosity.

Her hammerblow… was slightly more impressive, her accuracy making up for her lesser strength. It could have been slightly more damaging – but luck dictated otherwise. It still staggered him more than a bit (2B).

The watching priest sighed…

(Priest) “Young man? Your ability to smash things is indeed impressive – but more is required for victory here than a powerful fist.”

The peacock was looking at Aikiko with a great deal of respect – but responded to the priest.

(Peacock) “If your blows are too weak to harm your opponents, of what use are they?”

The priest just shook his head.

(Priest) “I do not wish to see you harmed youngster – and if you persist in provoking your opponents so, you might well be seriously injured; there are other ways than strength. Observe”

The priest reached out and ran a finger across a massive granite slab. A few moments after he drew his hand back it broke in two. Moments later it broke into four, and soon crumbled into a pile of dust while the priest watched calmly.

(Priest) “All things are flawed young man. The bones of the Earth, the bodies of men, and all things of this world alike. Nothing endures forever.”

Aikiko was fascinated by the display. That was really neat – and definitely beyond most mortal capabilities!

(Priest) “Strength is not so important as knowing where to use it.”

The young man was considerably shaken; as far as he knew… that was quite impossible.

(Peacock) “How… Ripping a stone apart that way – even exploiting it’s flaws – would require a great deal of energy! Far more than a simple touch could convey… You are saying… Ki powers actually exist?”

(Priest) “It is the Vhendal’ithe – the sussuration of destruction. Your strength is great – and might be enough to make you one of the victors against your opponents – but you should be prepared to stand against opponents who’s talents may surpass the physical. Few or none will have so potent a technique – but there are many MANY lesser ones!… It is not your strength that I find impressive however – it is the dedication that has led you to develop it to such an extreme. That driving will is one of the factors that may help bring true victory. (The priest turned his attention to Aikiko) “As for you young lady… I would say that you have considerable hidden reserves – and your Ki is strong indeed. We have not seen anything approaching the limits of your talents have we?”

(Aikiko, staring at the pile of dust) “Maybe, but not even I can do THAT!”

(Priest) “Such abilities follow many paths… I shall be looking forward to seeing more of yours.”

To break a slab like that silently… her methods were MUCH noisier than that.

(Aikiko) “I will be glad to display my skills, sir!”

(Priest) “In the meantime… perhaps a poultice for each of you? That was an impressive exchange of blows… What is called an “Irish Showdown” I think?”

(Aikiko) “I wouldn’t mind one!”

The priest cheerily assisted with that… It was only Herbalism and Healing thaumaturgy, but he was very very good at it for a mortal.

And the “peacock” turned out to be much more bearable when he wasn’t showing off. Aikiko got his contact information; he could be really useful for strength training!

For his part, he was genuinely impressed by the fact that Aikiko was still standing – although his current guess was that some Ki effect had something to do with it.

Aikiko went ahead and asked; she’d never seen anyone that tough before – or at least not anyone mortal. He described… standing under pounding waterfalls to do kata to build up his resistance to impact, training with whirling spoked wooden pillars, massages with special oils, learning to take blows… (basically building up End 5, Large, Tough Skin, and Exalted Soak – for 4L/7B).

(Aikiko) “Well, that’s one form of ki development, to be sure!”

He, honestly, had never believed much in Ki; he’d focused on raw physical strength and durability – but inquired after Aikiko’s training regimen.

(Aikiko) “Oh, long-distance running, a lot of parkour, and taking a lot of falls from high places, mostly!”

That was true enough! The trespassing and tagging in high places was very good for that and might have influenced the Sun to give her a Night Exaltation instead of a Dawn…

Aikiko tried some thaumaturgic Essence senses, with a quiet casting. The young man did have some potential. Like many of the expert martial artists he had essence 2, but no active pool. There were a few around with active essence pools though; the few who actually knew supernatural martial arts needed it of course – as were the most likely candidates to get to bypass the initial exhibitions. Most of the normal types were likely doomed to disappointment – at least this time around – but they would get an introduction to the supernatural side of things, which was probably worth it.

She looked at the priests too; she was quite curious as to how mortals would get such power. Was it something in the temple?

The two priests… were strange. They definitely had active pools – and a fairly high amount of essence. Both were very different though. the one who was speaking to her and the peacock… the sensation was of thunder shaking her body, the scent was of ozone and deep water, the sound was of steel and stone being sheared apart by mighty forces, and his image rippled as if reflected in water. The other priest… The sensation was the sharp pop of a whip cracking, the scent was of wet iron, the tone wes authoritative and commanding, and his image was that of a mighty crown of fire.

The Temple was buried behind privacy wards, but there was definitely a lot of essence flowing there! It was easy enough to tell at this range.

Hmm! A Water Aspect, or son of the terrace god? The other might be a Fire Aspect. And either a manse or a concentrated essence-pocket. All those wards made it really hard to tell – and there was more concealment magic behind them. Layers of thaumaturgy being powered by the water and dragon lines flowing in patterns through the agricultural terraces on top. Underneath that, around the temple in the hill, there were further layers of wards – against the Terrestrials, and Lunars, and others, and lots of privacy wards, and behind that… privacy magic of some other kind. It was almost impossible to tell through all that mess!

Interesting though… Last time it had been Demien with his Mental Demesnes. The time before that, it was Charles. This… probably wasn’t a new essence type; it was just that it was like trying to look through ten layers of stained glass window to see what’s underneath. Charles might be able to untangle that mess – but it would be a lot simpler to simply wait to get inside!

Still, she seemed to have impressed the priests sufficiently – and had no other challengers at the moment. It was time to take a look at what turned out to be a reasonably comfortable, if small and monastic, room – and to relax, and to offer a prayer to the local gods (after all, the one she’d met seemed decent enough) – and some to Gri Fel and Terapishim.

Due to the local scrambling all Gri Fel and Terapishim would get was some unintelligible muttering. Still, unless you were an actual priest, a lot of prayers were like that!