Myuzephyr walked through the sacred forest that bore her name, as she was wont to do. Many stories were told to try and explain why a god of the Air and Wind would favor such an earthy, seemingly enclosed environment. The truth was, the ancient trees of the Woods were ideally arranged to encourage constant breezes, and the winds carried messages only Myuzephyr could hear.
Myuzephyr hadn’t come to listen to airborne gossip this day, but just to enjoy a moment of solitude before the impending conflict could dominate all her attention. The wind swirled around her graceful form, whispering pointlessly, until an errant breeze swept in from the center of the woods bearing an unexpected message: Intruder at the Avatar’s Grove.
“What?” Myuzephyr said, tensing. “How were they not found earlier?” Even the foresters of Arb Cedon and Burik were not welcome past a certain distance into the Woods, and the winds should have come crying the moment any but an Avatar crossed the line. Someone who could reach the Grove at the forest’s heart without being detected could not be left to any demimortal’s justice, so Myuzephyr spread her wings and zipped off to the Grove.
When she neared the Grove, Myuzephyr alighted and crept forward on silent feet. The intruder was standing near one of the entrances to the grotto, her back to the forest. Myuzephyr paused and studied the woman for a moment, for she was incredibly odd. She wore a shirt and pants cut in a style the Eternal One had never seen and the air around her felt disturbed, as if unsure of her presence. The strangest thing about this intruder, however, was that her ordinary-looking, if untamed, brown hair was somehow her most striking feature.
“You stand on forbidden ground,” Myuzephyr said in a harsh tone that echoed off the trees. The intruder’s shoulders jerked slightly, but then the woman’s posture relaxed.
“Oh, I know,” the woman said, not turning around, “but I couldn’t think of a better way to attract a god’s immediate attention than a little trespassing. Am I addressing Fair Myuzephyr herself, or a proxy?”
“I am Myuzephyr,” the Eternal One said. “Turn around and explain yourself. I won’t smite you for looking at me.” The strange woman let out a bold little laugh, and turned around. Myuzephyr bristled at the laugh, but kept her temper in check. When she got a good look at the woman’s face, however, she took a step back and gasped, eliciting a confused look from the intruder.
“Something the matter?” the woman asked.
Myuzephyr recovered her balance and, scowling, held her hand out to one side. Swirling wind gathered in and congealed into a yellow staff crowned with a stone carved to resemble a tornado and a pair of spreading gold wings. “What are you doing here?” Myuzephyr asked. “Come to stick your nose where it doesn’t belong again?”
“Again?” the woman asked, brow furrowed, “Have we met before?”
Myuzephyr swung her staff, sending a warning gust of wind at the woman. “Take a closer look,” she said, “and tell me you don’t see a familiar face. I remember you all too well, you and your friends injecting yourselves into our business without a by-your-leave, and you daring to lecture me about using magic. What did you call yourself then? Ah, right. Gale.”
The woman’s eyes widened in surprise, and then she sighed and rolled her eyes. “Eternities and half an eternity,” she said. “Our paths cross a second time and you still hold on to an insignificant grievance? I’m impressed you recognize me though,” she continued with a smile. “We only met the one time, and we weren’t wearing these faces then.”
Myuzephyr snorted. “Seems no matter the world or the circumstances, our faces will be the same.” She pointed her staff at the woman she called Gale. “Now, I’ll tell you this only once: you’re neither wanted nor welcome here!”
“That,” the woman said, her features displaying not a hint of fear, “depends entirely on who you ask.”
“Begone!” Myuzephyr cried, unleashing a twisting funnel of wind from the end of her staff right at the intruder. The wind kicked up the forest floor into a blinding screen of dirt, leaves, needles, and other detritus and tore branches from trees as it passed.
When the dust settled, the woman was still standing where she had been, unruffled and now holding onto a long sword anchored in the earth. “I did not come here to fight, Myuzephyr,” she said, “and I won’t be provoked further than this.” She pulled the sword out of the ground and rested the blade against her shoulder. “I came only to seek information, and what I’ve found is, I think, an interesting lead. Thank you.”
The woman turned away, and Myuzephyr shouted, “Don’t take another step!”
The woman merely glanced over her shoulder at the Eternal One. “Very well,” she said, “as you will.” She took the sword in both hands and held it with the blade pointed skyward. “By the way,” she said, “I go by Meki now. New world, new role, you understand.” Her sword suddenly glinted with light, and in the next instant she was gone.
Luke returned home from a training session with Pyros to find a summons to join with the Alliance army by Saltan Lake. The summons said that the army planned to move out to try and secure the key routes to the south as soon as the Avatars had given their input on the strategies, so Luke packed quickly and set out. The sooner the army of darkness was defeated, the sooner Luke and Zhu Li would have space to properly settle into their roles.
The army was set up in three distinct camps along the side of the lake, one each for the armies of the most powerful kingdoms in northern Vulpran: Burik, Ars Cedon, and Wutan. Sentries from all three armies patrolled the collective perimeter, and Luke had to pass three checkpoints where he had to present the summons and state a code in order to enter the Burik camp. Familiar with the layout from years of studying under military tutors, Luke started to make his way to the command tent, only to be intercepted by a decurion and informed that his father was waiting for him near the training fields.
King Lucio was speaking to a soldier armed with a spear, and both glanced over as Luke approached. “Ah, there he is now, “King Lucio said. “Good day, my son.”
“The light of Luminox favors us, Your Highness,” Luke said formally with a bow, as the soldier’s presence precluded a more intimate greeting.
“Avatar Zhu Li should be joining us soon,” the King said, looking around. Luke looked as well and spotted Zhu Li Ahn approaching the field from the Wutan camp. Zhu Li spotted him a second later, and hurried around the edge of the field to join the group.
“Gaimadre’s blessing, King Lucio,” Zhu Li said as she approached.
“Thank you, Avatar,” King Lucio said. “Now, the initial strategy meeting isn’t for another hour yet, but there’s a matter of business for you two right now: your Honor Guard.”
“Honor Guard?” Zhu Li asked, confused. “Your Highness, do you truly believe we need protection here, in the allied camp?”
“It’s tradition, Zhu Li,” Luke said.
King Lucio smiled. “My son is right,” he said, “and apparently wiser about it than I was on my first campaign as Avatar of Luminox.”
“Oh!” Zhu Li exclaimed, blushing. “You… My apologies, I forgot the mantle of Luminox’s Avatar can pass before the King’s death.”
“It usually does, Avatar Zhu Li,” King Lucio said. “It takes some pressure off of old shoulders and eases the next generation into their responsibility. Now, the Honor Guard. As Luke said, tradition demands each Avatar have at least one person guard them during war, and it’s best to establish that before any fighting looms. The position is usually just ceremonial, but for a pair of fresh, untrained Avatars like yourselves, I’ve taken the liberty of looking for Guards who can actually fight.”
“We are not ‘untrained,’ Your Highness,” Zhu Li protested. “We have mastered the Waypoints, and I can control-” she froze suddenly as she felt something sharp gently press against the back of her neck. Luke took a startled step back, and his hand flew to his sword as he realized a figure dressed in Burik armor was suddenly behind Zhu Li holding a spear to the young Avatar’s neck. Luke looked to his father and the soldier, but neither seemed perturbed. In fact, the soldier had a smug smile on his face.
“Control the Earth, I’d guess you were about to say, Avatar?” the soldier behind Zhu Li said in a feminine voice. “Perhaps you can, but you lack control over your perceptions and tongue.” She lifted the spear from Zhu Li’s neck and walked around to stand next to the first soldier, and Luke realized the two were virtually identical aside from their sex. “If I had evil intent,” the woman said, “you’d already be dead.”
“Who… you d-dare,” Zhu Li stammered, trying to appear angry through her fearful shuddering.
“She was merely proving a point,” King Lucio said, “as arranged. Luke, Zhu Li Ahn, meet Alum and Lumna, your Honor Guards. I’ll let you sort who goes with whom.”
The two young Avatars started walking back from the training fields and toward the logistics center of the camp. Alum and Lumna followed, guarding their backs. “So, Lumna,” Zhu Li Ahn said, “do you greet all the people you protect by sticking a spear in their back?”
“Well,” Alum said, “Considering that you two are our first-ever bodyguard assignments… I suppose the answer has to be ‘yes’.” Luke and Zhu Li both stopped and looked back in surprise, just in time to see Lumna give a grinning Alum a swat upside the head.
“This is your first time as Honor Guard?” Luke asked. “Well, I’m impressed you managed to earn this position, but also a bit concerned.”
Lumna gave the Avatars a modest smile. “His Majesty, King Lucio, intended to assign two Honor Guards for each of you, but my brother’s and my skills impressed him enough that he felt confident we could handle the job alone. So to speak.”
Luke frowned, and resumed walking. “I trust my father’s judgment,” he said, “but I must say I’m surprised I’ve never heard of a pair so skilled as soldiers. Where do you hail from?”
“Quite… quite far from here,” Lumna said.
“Do be specific, please,” Zhu Li said. “I doubt there’s anyplace on Vulpran that Avatar Luke and I put together won’t have heard of.”
“Nohpon,” Alum responded quickly. “Little island, far to the east.”
“And within Wutan’s sphere of influence,” Zhu Li said, stopping cold and turning to face the soldier with her arms crossed. “So what are you two doing in the armor of Burik’s soldiers? And come to think of it,” she added, “you don’t look much like folks from the Eastern regions in general, and your names are not Nohrin.”
Alum and Lumna exchanged a look. “Sharp eyes on this one, sis,” Alum said.
“With an overly suspicious mind behind them, though,” Lumna said. She gave Zhu Li a smile and explained, “Alum and I are wanderers, rootless seekers of knowledge; Nohpon was where we were living just before this war broke out.”
“We signed up with Burik, though,” Alum said, “mostly because we like the look of the armor. No offense intended to the Wutan style, Avatar Zhu Li.”
Zhu Li gave the pair a long, measuring look. “No offense taken,” she said at last.
The chief logistician had wasted no time in setting up a private tent for Luke to use, and so it wasn’t long before the two Avatars and their honor guard arrived at the unofficial line between the sleeping area of the officers and royalty. Luke walked in to inspect the furnishings the logistics crew had provided, and was rather surprised when Zhu Li slipped into the tent behind him. “Something the matter?” Luke asked.
“It’s those two guards,” Zhu Li answered in a low voice. “Something about them doesn’t-”
All of a sudden, the tent was filled with golden light. Luke and Zhu Li looked toward the source and fell to their knees when they saw the bright, indescribable features of Luminox. “Luke,” the Eternal One said in grave tones, “and Zhu Li Ahn. I have a task of utmost importance to give you.”
“A task?” Luke asked. “Master, the allied armies have gathered to combat Vanastos’s, uh, ‘threat’ to the land. I know this is partly just playacting, but what else of importance could be happening right now? All the forces of Darkness should be gathering to the Pyrad about now, shouldn’t they?”
Luminox’s inscrutable face gave off an impression of grimness. “A short while ago,” he said, “Myuzephyr’s sacred space was intruded upon, and Myuzephyr herself attacked. It was no mere mortal who committed this crime, nor any agent of Vanastos acting outside their bounds. Fair Myuzephyr claims the attacker… the Intruder, is someone she knows from before the beginning of Vulpran.”
“Before Vulpran?” Zhu Li exclaimed. “How is that possible?”
“We are Eternal, Avatar,” Luminox said sharply. “Time as you understand it has little meaning to us. There was a time before time, before even the coming together of the Eternal Ones, and this Intruder is from that time. Myuzephyr suspects that they’re not alone, either. Fuegalio, Mortave, and Gaimadre agree on that point: there may be four of these Intruders in all, and their very presence threatens to upset the balance of our world. They must be found and expelled from Vulpran, but the events began by the unsealing of Vanastos’s forces can’t be delayed or set aside at this point.” Luminox pointed at the two young Avatars. “As the two newest Avatars, you would the least missed by the army. The other Avatars and King Lucio can cover for your absence while you undertake the task of finding the Intruders and bringing their identities to my attention.”
Luke bowed his head. “I serve your will, Master Luminox,” he said, “but, how shall we go about this?”
“Travel to the realm of souls,” Luminox said, “and ask Sage Mortave to loan you his helmet. It can see through illusion, and will reveal an Intruder’s true form when you gaze upon them. By the time you have retrieved the helmet, Gaimadre and her demimortals should have an idea of where the Intruders are most likely to be. As you travel, though, keep your ears open for rumors of strange happenings. Is your duty clear, Avatars?”
Luke and Zhu Li both bowed and said, “Yes, Master Luminox.”
“Then go,” Luminox said, “immediately.” He disappeared from sight, taking the golden light with him.
After the awe of standing in a god’s presence had faded enough to permit speech, Zhu Li whispered, “I’ll go fetch some traveling supplies, and we’ll meet at the east side of camp. Please try to lose your bodyguard before then.”
“For what reason?” Luke asked.
“I don’t care,” Zhu Li muttered, “just get rid of him.” She gestured with a hand and stepped through a Waypoint.
“That’s not what I meant,” Luke tried to hiss out before the portal closed behind Zhu Li, but she was gone before the second word escaped his lips. “Strange girl,” Luke grumbled, shaking his head as he turned his attention to assembling his marching gear. As he worked, he thought over Zhu Li’s request and concluded it would be easier to comply than deal with her surliness toward the Honor Guard. He wrote out a short letter to his father explaining the quest Luminox had just given to Luke, intending to have Alum deliver it and give Luke an opening to slip away. Once everything was ready, he stuck his head out of the tent door to see that Alum and Lumna were standing guard where the Avatars had left them, and the twins seemed to be engaged in some sort of game that involved out various hand signs at each other. Luke cleared his throat to get their attention, and they abandoned their game immediately. “Lumna,” Luke said, “I’m afraid Zhu Li has slipped away from me. She’s probably going back to her own tent in the Wutan camp.”
Lumna cast a sideways glance at her brother and held up a finger. “That’s one, brother,” she said, and then ran off toward the Wutan camp.
“One what?” Luke asked Alum.
“One point, “Alum answered. “Lumna guessed Avatar Ahn might try to ditch us. Was almost a certainty, but I couldn’t not take the bet. Sibling things, you know?” He shrugged and gave Luke a small smile.
“I… see,” Luke said. He held out the letter to Alum and said, “See that this gets to my father right away.”
“Your highness,” Alum said, giving Luke a flat look, “I’m a bodyguard, not a messenger.”
“I’m not going anywhere,” Luke lied smoothly. Alum frowned at the letter, but took it when Luke shoved it insistently into his hand and ducked back into the tent. Luke waited until he heard footsteps going away from the tent, peeked out to double-check that Alum was leaving, and then grabbed his gear and left ,going the opposite direction as the guard. “Sorry Alum,” Luke muttered, “you seem like a fine fellow, but this is no job for you.”
Finding Zhu Li Ahn outside the camps proved to be an easier task than Luke had feared given the vagueness of “meet at the east side of camp.” The Avatar of Gaimadre was sitting on the lee side of a hill that was being employed as a sentry point, and the soldiers on duty there pointed her out to Luke before he had to ask. “Ready to go?” Zhu Li asked. Luke nodded. “Good,” Zhu Li said, “now… how do we reach the realm of souls?”
Luke started to answer, but another voice cut in. “Dying is the usual means, but I understand that’s usually a one-way trip.” Luke and Zhu Li turned toward the voice and saw Alum and Lumna standing at the crest of the hill, spears in hand and marching packs on their backs. “For those of us who’d rather keep our heartbeats,” Alum continued as he and Lumna approached, “I believe the stories say something about an inaccessible hidden cavern on the unclimbable side of a mountain in the untamed jungles to the southeast?”
Zhu Li glared at Luke. “I told you to get rid of them,” she hissed.
“I tried,” Luke replied with a helpless shrug.
Zhu Li rolled her eyes and moved her glare to Alum and Lumna. “You’re both dismissed,” she said. “Avatar Luke and I are leaving the army for important business.”
Lumna smirked. “Yes, a grand quest from Luminox himself to seek out some threat even greater than Vanastos’s army.” Luke and Zhu Li’s mouths fell open, and Lumna’s smirk grew larger. “You think we didn’t overhear that?” she asked. “Tent fabric is rather terrible at suppressing sound, and not that great at hiding the glow of a god suddenly appearing inside.”
“Dismiss us as your honor guard if you want,” Alum said, “but we’re coming anyway. This sounds like a unique opportunity for adventure, and four people in a group makes for a safer journey than just two.”
Luke put a calming hand on Zhu Li’s shoulder. “She has a point,” he said, and then leaned in close to whisper, “besides, if they overheard our conversation with Lord Luminox, then they probably heard my comment about ‘playacting.’ We can’t let them out of our sight until we know how much they’ve figured out.”
Zhu Li glowered, but raised a hand in acquiescence. “Very well,” she said, “you two can come along with us.”
“Wonderful,” Alum said, rubbing his hands together. “So, what’s our route?”
Seated upon his throne deep in the caverns below the earth, Vanastos frowned over a an image that floated upon the surface of a large basin of tainted water. “Georgan’s army has not moved from the Sole Relent in the last several days,” he said, looking up at the arch-demon Azelroth, who stood on the other side of the basin. “What is the delay?”
Azelroth held his hands out, palms upward as he shrugged. “The army hasn’t reached the ideal size for the campaign to properly begin,” he said. “The men of the desert hide too well for the press gangs to find, so we are sorely lacking for expendable infantry.”
“Do we not have necromancers to make up for the lack with zombies?” Vanastos asked.
“I’m afraid not,” Azeleroth said with a pained look. “That particular dark art has been in sharp decline since the last war. I intended to alert you to the need to create and distribute new grimoires, but…”
“But Georgan happened,” Vanastos said. With an angry growl, he kicked the basin over. “This is unacceptable!” he shouted. “We can’t let the allied forces cut their teeth on our actual demons in the first battle!”
“Master,” Azeleroth said, bowing, “we may need to consider a naval approach after all.”
Vanastos growled and sat back. “Our general isn’t a sailor by any definition,” he said, “but… you may be right. Go see if we can muster the resources.” Azelroth bowed deeper and left the throne room. When the arch-demon was gone, Vanastos slumped in his seat and put a hand over his eyes. “How did I let this happen?” he grumbled. “Everything’s off its timing and out of balance.”
“Oh my,” a voice purring with charm said, “heavy is the head that wears the crown, indeed.” Vanastos sat up suddenly, startled, and looked around for the source of the voice. “Although,” the voice continued, “I’m not sure if you are wearing a crown, Emperor.”
“Who’s there?” Vanastos demanded to know. In answer, a woman stepped out of the shadows by the door. Her skin was impossibly dark, her long hair seemed suffused with starlight, and her blue gown fluttered lightly in its own personal breeze. Vanastos stared at her slack-jawed for a second before remembering himself. “How did you get in here?” he asked.
“A lady has her ways, Sire,” the woman said coyly, approaching the throne.
“Come no farther,” Vanastos commanded, and the woman obliged. “I will grant a measure of respect that you managed to come stand before me,” he said, “but if you came seeking my blessing, I’m afraid you’re too late. I’ve already chosen my champion for this war against the Eternal Ones.”
The woman rolled her teal eyes and scoffed. “You mean that sun-addled and half-insane boy playing at being a general in Pyrad’s Sole Relent?” she asked. “It would be more than a miracle if he survived his first clash with the enemy, let alone won this campaign of yours.”
Vanastos leaned forward slightly, feeling inspired by the woman’s confidence in spite of himself. “Do you think you could do the job better?” he asked.
The woman laughed. “Think? I know I could. But you have guessed wrong about my purpose in coming here, oh Emperor. I have no interest in the petty and pointless cycle of war on the mortal plane. What I’m here for, Vanastos, is to get to know you better.”
Vanastos blinked several times as he tried to make sense of that statement. At length, he said, “I… am not accustomed to being propositioned by my worshippers.”
The woman’s amusement vanished in an instant, and her hair started to spread out behind her as her face went hard. “You presume Noctus, Queen Stellanyx of the Decline, worships you? Insolent!” She dissolved into a mass of shadows that charged toward Vanastos. As Vanastos lifted a hand to blast the darkness away, he was struck with the impression that the attack was like that of a stampede of horses. Before Vanastos could complete his attack, though, the charging darkness suddenly shot up to the ceiling and came back down to hover near his right ear. “Forgive my temper,” the shadow said in the woman’s voice. “Clearly, you haven’t a clue who I am or what my being here means. Let us trade information: you answer my questions, and I’ll unravel the mystery of my identity. Deal?”