Because of the festival surrounding the Investment ceremonies, Burik’s famed Librarium- a sprawling, windowless complex filled with the collected wisdom of the ages copied into scrolls and codices - stood empty and locked against theft. The lanterns which normally burned bright inside protective cages of wire had been put out since nobody would be around to watch for errant embers and sparks.
Yet, some candles sat glowing upon a table for the benefit of a man and woman whose faces mirrored one another and wore matching pale blue robes of a scholarly cut. They sat across from each other, not speaking as they read the books piled around them with delight.
The sound of footsteps broke the silence, and the paired scholars looked up from their reading. The frowns that briefly marred their features faded when they saw and recognized the identity of the interruption. “Ah, Tamule and Meki,” the man said. “So, you come to our house of knowledge at last.”
“You were expecting us?” Tamule asked.
“Not you so much, Tamule,” the woman said. “In fact, you’re back sooner than we thought.”
“Meki, on the other hand,” the man said with a teasing smile, “we figured you’d have crawled to us empty-handed before now. So, it evens out, I suppose.”
Meki gave the scholars a mild glare. “Alum, Lumna, you knew I wasn’t going to find any information?”
“Know?” Alum, the male scholar said. “No. we didn’t know.” Meki growled and grabbed Alum by the front of his robe. “Whoa now!” Alum exclaimed.
“Be gentle, Meki,” Luman said calmly. “You know he’s just toying. We didn’t know for sure you’d come up empty on the streets, but we did guess it might happen.”
Meki released Alum and jabbed a warning finger in his face before turning to Lumna and calmly asking, “And how’d you come to that guess?”
“The only books we’ve found regarding the basics of Vulpran’s history and society are geared toward little children,” Alum said. “Perhaps if you were a precocious little girl, people would’ve answered your questions without thought.” Meki cast a glance at him, and then sighed and grabbed an empty chair to sit in. “how about you, Tamule?” Alum asked. “How’d your journey go?”
“I learned one thing,” Tamule said, taking a chair for himself, “our target is definitely not of a Dark disposition, so it can’t be the local devil or boogeyman or whatever. I have Noctus’s assurance on that.”
Alum frowned and his eyes slid to a stack of books at one end of the table. “Well,” he said, “there’s a whole line of research wasted then.” He stood up, hefted the stack off the table, and started to carry it away.
“Hold on,” Lumna said, putting a hand on her brother’s arm. “If he is not our enemy, then perhaps he could be useful. Perhaps even an ally.”
“I doubt that,” Alum said, “but…” He set the books back down and took his seat again. “It is too early to close off possible avenues, I suppose.” He looked at Tamule and Meki, who were giving him their full attention. “The people of Vulpran, without exception, worship seven immortal beings they call the Eternal Ones. Well, officially there are only six Eternal Ones, but they are opposed by a seventh, evil entity named Vanastos.”
“That name sounds... oddly familiar,” Tamule murmured.
Alum nodded slightly. “His epitaphs include ‘the Emperor of Darkness’ and ‘Master of Demons.’ According to the mythos, when Vulpran was created Vanastos had a falling out with the other Eternal Ones, particularly Luminox who is his elemental opposite, and was sealed beneath the earth as punishment. Ever since, Vanastos has made numerous attempts to break free, unleashing hordes of demons that wage war against mortals and try to lay siege to the mountain where the Eternal Ones live. It’s become a cycle that occurs at least once a generation.” Alum shrugged. “Lumna and I were figuring that the constant warfare was arresting the people’s abilities to progress, but if Vanastos isn’t our Intruder…”
“He’s likely still part of the system,” Meki said. “Still, as the outsider element… How do we reach him?”
Lumna produced a rolled-up map and unrolled it onto the table. “Everything points to here,” she said, placing a finger on the southwest of the continent. “The Pyrad desert is said to hold the entrance to Vanastos’ prison, inside some valley of poison gas, which only the most evil of men have the ability to endure.”
A high, regal laugh rang through the air, and the night-skinned Noctus emerged from Tamule’s shadow. “I think that by ‘evil’ they mean learned in the magic of Darkness,” Noctus said. “So be it,” she said with a toss of her starry hair, “I will approach this Vanastos and charm him into giving us the information we need.” She started to fade away, but Tamule caught her lightly by the upper arm.
“Hold a second, oh Night Queen,” Tamule said, “let’s decide everyone’s next moves before we separate again.” Noctus nodded and folded her hands demurely. “Ok, Alum, Lumna,” Tamule said, “any other leads you’ve discovered?”
“The Eternal Ones have a palace at the lone peak of Mount Ethury, just outside this city,” Lumna said, “but there are a couple of the gods known to have secondary homes. Sage Mortave, the god of death, rules his own afterlife space, and Myuzephyr of the Winds is occasionally seen in an ancient sacred forest. And, there are the Avatars to consider,” she added after a moment, “the six men and women chosen to act as the bridge between mortals and the gods. They’d probably be privy to secrets that the average priest isn’t, and may be more… approachable than the Eternal Ones.”
“And the city’s out in force right now to witness the investment of two new Avatars,” Meki said, tapping her chin.
Tamule looked around the table, and then stood up. “I think that gives enough for each of us to do,” he said. The others all nodded in agreement, and Tamule gave Noctus a pat on the shoulder. “Go ply your trade, Noctus,” he said. The shadow-woman grinned with a wicked glint in her teal eyes and sank into the shadows. The group stood up, snuffed the candles, and followed Tamule out of the library. Out on the empty street, Tamule opened his mouth to speak again, when suddenly the ground shook.
I strongly suspect, Luke thought distractedly, that without Zhu Li to step on my foot, I would be asleep on my feet right now. The Ceremony of Investment, as it turns out, involved a great deal of recitation and speech-making by the priests - and the High Priests of Luminox and Gaimadre seemed be competing for time - and not a whole lot for the new Avatars to do besides stand around, have robes and various symbols of office draped across their shoulders and arms, and look like there wasn’t anything else they’d rather be doing. Zhu Li Ahn either really did think that way, or she was far better at faking it than Luke was. She’d stepped on his toes surreptitiously but painfully three times already to keep him from nodding off, and he’d yet to catch her so much as blinking too slowly. Wonder if she’ll teach me her secret, Luke thought.
All of a sudden, Zhu Li’s eyes went wide and she gripped Luke’s arm tightly. Luke cocked an eyebrow at her, but before he could give the girl her well-deserved teasing, she asked, “Does the Earth move often in this country?”
“No,” Luke said, quirking his eyebrow a little higher.
Zhu Li frowned down at her feet and then looked at Luke, tightening her grip on his arm. “I think something’s wrong, then.”
With a mighty cry that channeled days of frustration and rage, Georgan drove the palms of his hands into the Gate that stood between him leading Vanastos's army to surface of the world. Dark purple energy rippled out from his hands across the surface of the Gate, and then faded away. The Archdemon Capra, leaning against the wall, let out an amused snort. “Do you never tire of failing to live up to your boasts?” Capra asked. Georgan leveled a glare at the goat-headed demon. “Come now,” Capra said boredly, “you’ve been striking the Gate for hours on end without leaving so much as a crack in them.”
Georgan’s glare turned into an evil grin. “What do you call this then?” he asked, pointing to the spot he’d just struck. Capra straightened up and came over to look. His three eyes fell instantly at a long, straight crack that ran up almost the entire height of the gate. “I’ll admit it has taken more time than I wanted,” Georgan said smugly, “but I have accomplished that with just a fraction of the power you can lend me. Now, give me all that I can handle, and this Gate will fall.”
Capra gave the man an appraising look. “You ask for ‘all that you can handle’?” he rumbled. “You have a spark of wisdom under all that arrogance after all, mortal. Very well.” he laid a hand on Georgan’s shoulder, the physical contact permitting a large flow of dark power from the demon into the cultist. “Strike true with my power, Chosen of Vanastos.”
Cracking his knuckles and grinning with glee, Georgan approached the Gate, gathered the power into his hands, and then delivered one last, decisive blow to the warded stone.
The collapse of the Gate, formed and strengthened again and again over the centuries by divine powers to seal the Darkness away from the surface of Vulpran, could not occur unnoticed, particularly when caused by the focusing of the incredible power of an Archdemon. The blow that cracked the Gate sent a tremor through the land so faint that only those sensitive to the Earth’s natural rhythms could sense it. The following blow, which flung the Gate open wide, sent forth a quake that none could ignore, and the Dark magic that had been bottled up in Vanasot’s domain spilled forth as a great column of purple light visible from all corners of the continent.
In Burik, the quake struck just as the High Priest of Luminox finished his praises of the Eternal Ones for providing for the safety of the people and locking Vanastos away where his evil power could not corrupt innocent hearts. The shaking of the ground was so intense that most of the crowd were thrown off their feet. Luke, forewarned by Zhu Li, was one of the few to remain standing, and as soon as the quaking ended and the purple light began to fade, he ran to the front of the stage, hauling Zhu Li behind him. Regardless of the interrupted formalities, he and Zhu Li were Avatars and had a clear duty to respond to this crisis.
Vanastos said there would be trouble sooner than I’d like, Luke thought, looking at the crowd as it approached the verge of panic, but I thought that meant a matter of weeks at worst.
“What are we doing?” Zhu Li asked.
“Our jobs,” Luke answered simply. “Follow my lead.” He raised a hand, palm tuned down and fingers slightly bent, a symbol of dispensing wisdom that was widely recognized in Burik as a call for attention. The message spread quickly through the crowd, and the worried murmurs faded to a mere whisper at the fringes as all eyes turned to the Crown Prince. “Heed me, my people,” Luke said. “Though I am but newly invested as Avatar of Luminox, I know what these signs portend: The Dark Emperor Vanastos, enemy of all living, has broken free from his imprisonment.” Cries swept through the crowd, and Luke threw his hand up again to quell the cries. “Yes, this is terrible news,” he said, “but it is nothing Vulpran has not faced before. It will take time for Vanastos to organize his forces and lead them out of the Pyrad Desert. We have time to prepare, to muster the armies of Vurik even as our neighbors must be mustering theirs. We will be strong, and we will face the Darkness with courage and faith in the Eternal Ones. Though Avatar Zhu Li Ahn and I are inexperienced, there are four other Avatars who can lead and train us, and we will not be hesitant to go to them. Let us waste no more time; all who live in the shadow of Mount Ethury, I call on you to serve. Muster our army, and I shall meet you on the battlefield!”
A cheer started somewhere in the crowd and quickly spread until the entire temple hill rang with the cries of a people banishing their fear by uniting behind a common goal. Luke took a step back, and the crowd took that as a signal to begin mobilizing. As the people left the hill, Luke looked to Zhu Li Ahn and found her staring at him in amazement. “You handled that so well,” she said.
Luke shrugged. “I’m the Crown Prince of Burik,” he said, “this isn’t my first time making a speech. And it’s not like that,” he waved vaguely to the southwest, “was completely unexpected.”
“But, it still happened so suddenly,” Zhu Li said, “and we haven’t even started learning to control our gifts yet.”“That’s true,” Luke said, “but regardless of when it happens, there’s only one response to Vanastos’s army rising: go out and stop it. Now, come on,” he took Zhu Li’s hand gently in his own, “my father’s generals can handle the business of mustering the army, but you and I need to go find one of the other Avatars to start teaching us our gifts. I think Pyros would be the best choice; he’s more of a warrior than the rest.” Zhu Li nodded and let herself be led away from the platform.