Read part 3 below the break.
A furtive-looking Imp demon slipped through the repaired door to Vanastos's throne room and crawled across the floor to the throne, interrupting Azelroth in the middle of a sentence. The squat, cat-headed, bat-winged arch-demon struck the Imp a bone-shattering kick for its impertinence, but the little creature refused to flinch. “Pardonsss I beg, Emperor and Lords,” the Imp hissed, “but report on thiss I musst: the impatiencce of Georgan the sssupplicant, contained it cannot be any longer.”
Centau, the ugliest of the lot with an ox-like head and sickly-yellow torso grafted to the body of an oversized and mange-ridden wolf, grunted. “Well, if he can’t endure a little waiting,” he said, “then he’s not worth our time after all, I say.”
“Pardonsss I beg, again,” the Imp said, “but by Mortal reckonsss, three daysss hass Gerogan among usss been. The Gate he now triesss to break.”
Vansatos stood up from his throne, brushed the prostrated Imp aside with an armored foot, and sighed. “And so ends our stalling for time,” he grumbled. “But I think we can buy another day or two. Azelroth, muster the rank and the vile. Centau, check our ritual reserves and prepare to send out a Dark Call. Capra, come with me; we’re going to give our supplicant some unwelcome news.”
Goat-headed Capra followed its master through the twisted caverns to the gates that permitted passage in from the Valley of Myasmou but no passage out. Georgan was leaning against those gates, breathing heavily from whatever exertion he’d just put forth trying to force the gates open.
“You are wasting your strength, Champion,” Vanastos said. “Even my power alone cannot breach the seals on our prison.”
“The Darkness has marched upon the face of Vulpran before,” Georgan said. “How was that brought about if the gates can never be opened?”
Vanastos glowered at the man. “You would already know the answer, had you not been so hasty and presumptuous in coming here without my summons.” Georgan’s eyes slowly grew wide, and then he dropped his gaze with muttered apologies. Vanastos reached over the man’s head and touched the gates with the back of his gauntleted hand. A burst of hissing, crackling sparks erupted from the gates, pushing Vanastos’s hand away, and Georgan leaped for cover. “As you see,” Vanastos said casually, “demons cannot touch the gates, while you were able to. A mortal’s hand is needed to overcome the seal, but you do not possess enough Dark power within you to do so. Therefore, you, Georgan, require a demon Familiar to provide the power.” He pointed to Capra, whose three eyes widened in surprise. “Capra will be that Familiar,” Vanastos declared.
“Lord Vanastos!” Capra and Gerogan both exclaimed in tones of protest.
Vanastos grinned at them both, and his brimstone eyes glowed brighter. “Remember, Capra, he did defeat you in battle,” the Dark Emperor said. “Surely that means he has the capacity to channel your power without being consumed.” Capra and Georgan exchanged glances, and when they looked back at Vanastos he was already walking away. “My word on this is final,” Vanastos warned as he rounded a corner, “so I will not stand for any complaints!”
Georgan cast another glance at Capra. “He’s punishing one of us, isn’t he?” he asked. Capra just snorted.
The streets of Burik were packed with people. Banners of white cloth bordered in gold or green embroidered with pictures of wheat and fruit hung from every building along with ribbons in a rainbow of colors and garlands of wildflowers. Booths for games of chance and vendors of sweetmeats were set up anywhere space could be found except on the grand boulevard leading to the city’s temple hill. The crowd was making its way to the edges of the boulevard, but the distractions of the booths and the sheer number of bodies kept the migration to a slow crawl. Most of the buildings lining the boulevard had been thrown open to allow some of the public onto the flat roofs for a better view, but the buildings closest to the hill stayed locked and their roofs empty.
Yet, upon one of the barren rooftops a woman with untamed hair stood, looking down at the sea of bodies with a slight, confused frown. The crunch of boots on the roof’s sanded surface caused her to look up from her observations long enough to acknowledge the arrival of a man with green eyes.
“What can you tell me, Meki?” the man asked.
“Probably nothing you couldn’t deduce from looking yourself, Tamule,” Meki sighed.
“Truth?” Tamule said in surprise. He looked over as much of the city as he could see. “A major festival or some other important event is going on,” he said. “There are more people gathered than I think could reasonably live in this city, even accounting for the homeless and transients.” He nodded toward the temples on the hill. “It’s probably a religious ceremony of some kind, given the space set aside for a procession up to that hill.” He looked to the other end of the boulevard and pointed with a nod. “Yes, that certainly looks like a small parade building its momentum down there.”
Meki looked and saw a square formation of men in matching military uniforms marching in step down the boulevard. Behind the soldiers came a slightly smaller formation of men and women dressed in robes and wearing a variety of large headdresses. Following that was a chariot carrying two people, too far away to see clearly just yet.
“I just thought of something a simple look may not tell you,” Meki said, looking back at Tamule.
“Do tell,” Tamule said with a gentle smile.
“There’s not a person in this city that doesn’t already know exactly what’s happening here,” Meki replied, “and because that knowledge is so common, it’s impossible to ask about it. As varied as these people may look, as different as their lands may seem, everyone seems to share one thing in common: their religion. I cannot be the curious outsider seeking information, because what I need to ask about is what everyone should already know.”
Tamule’s smile faded away. “Well,” he said, “that’s a botherment.”
The day of the Investment ceremonies for the new Avatars of Luminox and Gaimadre had finally arrived, and for the first time in four days, Luke du Burik actually felt like he was in control of life again. There was an irony to that feeling, since the Investment ceremony didn’t call for him to do much besides stand in a chariot to be paraded down Temple Road, climb the stairs to the courtyard between the six temples to the Eternal Ones, and then stand around more while priests made speeches and garbed Luke and the new Avatar of Gaimadre in their ceremonial robes of office. It had to be the comfortable familiarity with religious ceremony that had Luke feeling at ease.
As the parade began and the chariot master nudged the horses into motion, Luke’s eyes drifted to the young woman standing next to him. She was about his age, had the goldish skin, smooth, tiny nose, and dark, narrow eyes of the eastern regions, and was wearing a green dress with a deceptively plain cut for the expensive silk it was made from. She held herself stiffly with her hands clasped in front of her and her mouth in a firm, unbent line as she stared straight ahead. As Luke’s gaze lingered on her, trying to discern if she was feeling nervous, her eyes suddenly snapped over to meet his. “What are you staring at?” she asked.
“I… uh,” Luke sputtered.
The Avatar of Gaimadre turned to the Crown Prince of Burik with a disapproving frown. “Let me guess,” she said, “surprised by my outfit, right? I bet you were expecting me to show up naked, like one of those over-sexed girl-priests that serve Gaimadre out in the wilds around here. In my country, such displays are-”
“They’re considered too obscene! I know!” Luke cut in frantically. The girl blinked in surprise. “Burik doesn’t permit that manner of worship in our cities either,” Luke continued in a more collected manner. “That’s why you only see those girls ‘out in the wilds,’ if at all. No, I was just trying to read your mood. This is a major milestone in our lives, after all.”
The girl’s cheeks flushed and she dropped her gaze. “Oh, my apologies,” she said. “I shouldn’t have paid so much heed to the stories, but Avatar Tyla always seemed to have something to say on the subject and…” She shook her head. “Now I’m near to babbling.” She raised her head and held out a hand to Luke. “Let us start over. I’m Zhu Li Ahn.”
“Luke,” Luke said, grasping the girl’s hand lightly.
“It’s an honor to meet you, your highness,” Zhu Li said, smiling.
Luke smiled back. “Hey, save the title for when I’m doing official state business,” he said. “As Avatars, we’re equals, and doubly so because we’re both new to this, so just call me Luke.”
“As you wish,” Zhu Li replied. She then turned away and started waving to the cheering crowd on the right side of the street. Taking the hint, Luke turned to his left and acknowledged the crowd on that side.
“By the way,” Luke said after a couple minutes, “have you been told about… the problem in the southwest yet, Zhu Li?”
“The southwest?” Zhu Li asked, glancing at Luke for a moment. “Oh. The Pyrad. Yes, Tyla and Gaimadre warned me I’d have to learn my duties and powers fast.”
Luke let out a small sigh of relief that he didn’t have to break the bad news to the girl and focused his attention back on the people who’d come from every corner of Vulpran to see the new Avatars. He swept his attention up to the rooftops to give the spectators with higher vantages some attention, and faltered for a second when he spotted a pair of figures on a roof near the base of the hill. “Zhu Li,” he hissed, glancing her way to make sure he had her attention.
“What?” Zhu Li asked.
Luke turned back to point at the roof, only to see it was now empty. Blinking a few times in confusion, he said, “I… I could have sworn I just saw Fuegalio and Myuzephyr on one of the roofs.”
Zhu Li gave Luke a strange look. “Why would the Eternal Ones be down here, among the common masses? They have us to bridge the gap between the mortal and divine.”
“I know,” Luke said, “but I swear I saw them.” He eyed the vacant roof again, and then shrugged. “Ah, maybe it was just a couple who happen to resemble Myuzephyr and Fuegalio a little, and the distance played tricks with my eyes.”“Most likely,” Zhu Li Ahn agreed.