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Some notes on the Cradle aftermath...


MOB

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A revelation in the vaults

As the storm clouds of conflict gathered over Prax, the Sun Dome leadership made their preparations for the uncertain times ahead.

Still wrapped in his golden cloak, Count Invictus oversaw the muster of the Templars. With Lord Bakchos in disgrace at Pent Ridge, he would personally lead the First Square.

Lord Belvani persuaded the Count that he should go to the Paps for a last-ditch attempt to come to terms with the nomads. The Light Captain promised that, come what may, he would see Invictus and the Templars at Moonbroth oasis. But rather than head to the Paps on foot or zebra, Belvani quietly went first to the Old Sun Dome. He had a swifter means of travel in mind, and a detour to make.

As Guardian of Sun County, Vega Goldbreath was in charge of the local defenses. After despatching her deputy and protege the Light Lady Yolanda to the eastern borders, she went to confer with the Guardians of the Four Directions.

These are the great spirits who defend the Sun Dome Temple itself, and in times of mortal threat their role is scare away the sendings of nomad shamans or other discorporate entities. Mere mortals though could commune with them via the hexomino in the temple vaults*, and Vega wanted to be assured that the Sun Dome's magical defenses were solid.

The martial spirits said with pride they were ready to face all threats, and solicitously asked the Light Lady if they should be released to scour the temple boundaries again? This was curious – rarely if ever would all four Guardians be sent away from the temple building at the same time. But Vega learned from the spirits that this had happened not once but twice of late, most recently on the very morning Count Invictus had returned hale and well again.

"Who ordered this?" she asked, and was disquieted to learn it was the count himself.

Vega went straight to the treasury. There, back sitting in its rightful place among Duke Raus's other valuables was the Wand of the Seven Phases!

It was once said, perhaps uncharitably, that the late Count Solanthos loved the correct forms of legality almost as much as he despised the concept of justice. No so with Lady Vega Goldbreath. As a woman making her way in a cult of men, for her Truth was always paramount, and form must always be backed by substance. Why did Invictus say nothing of this while she condemned the baboon as a thief? Had an injustice been done, and even worse, at her hands? She did not want to be responsible for a judgement displeasing to Yelmalio.

When the current crisis was over, Vega Goldbreath resolved to get the bottom of this.

*this cube-shaped artefact, a gift of Ernalda to her husband-protector, is made of multiple intersecting parts. It is so-called because it has six-sides.

Few remember that, in an interesting mythological parallel with Umath's Camp of Orlanthi legend, the Sun Dome Temple too originally had Six Spirit Gurdians.

The hexomino sits directly below the high altar and helps power and coordinate the temple's magical defenses. One of the few treasures that survive in the new temple from the Old Sun Dome, it was rescued from the desecrated site in pieces but no one knew how to reassemble it until Feshoaar, Soul of Light, came down from heaven to give the Sun People guidance. Even then it is apparent not all of the hexomino's powers were able to be restored properly.

Cult Secret: the hexomino has six faces but seven parts.

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Edited by MOB
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"BEG THE COUNT TO PLUCK OUT YOUR EYES RATHER THAN SEND YOU TO PENT RIDGE." - SUN DOMER ADAGE

Still not comprehending what had befallen him at the Sun Dome Meeting House, Melo Yelo had been joined to a chained coffle of prisoners and marched away.

The baboon later learned from one of the other prisoners – a dour farmer from Cornspot who'd been illegally growing dummy* until his neighbours ratted him out – that they were headed to that terrible place of stinging salt and punishment out in Vulture's Country, Pent Ridge. That was the dark place Lord Belvani took him to before, where he'd been unnerved by the strange old light priest and frightened by his monstrous dragonewt.

What had he done to so disappoint the rune masters of the Sun Dome?

Cornspot said he was lucky – through his contacts in the dummy trade he'd called in a favour, and he'd been promised his time out there would be served in the Dawn detail; a cushy assignment working on the surface, maybe in the cookhouse. He'd never have to go into the mines. But Melo Yelo? Cornspot simply shook his head and sighed.

Having picked up more convicts in a winding route through the Sun Dome breadbasket, a week later the chain gang was trudging through the arid badlands of Vulture's Country. Now they were but a few hours from Pent Ridge. Prisoners and guards alike were parched, but they shuffled on with the promise of mugs of water – barely drinkable for the overseers, almost brackish for the criminals – and bowls of steaming date mush if they got to the prison by nightfall.

With Yelm low in the sky, Cornspot next to Melo Yelo gave a dry croak of alarm and pointed to the direction they'd come from. Framed by the setting sun, flying low towards them was a great winged wyrm! Melo Yelo's spirits rose when he saw the Light Captain Lord Belvani was on its back.

With a mighty flap of its wings, Windwhistler landed before the column. Without dismounting Belvani gestured to the startled guards that he wanted to talk the condemned criminal Melo Yelo.

*hazia

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DOME ABOVE, BROTHER

Melo Yelo was unchained, and with a mild kick from an overseer, scampered expectantly over the golden Light Son perched on the back of the wyrm. Had the Sun Folk realised their mistake? Was he now to be forgiven?

They spoke for a short while, and then Lord Belvani pointed back at the coffle of prisoners. With a look of resignation, the baboon slunk back to the line.

"I'm in great haste", Belvani told the guards. "This prisoner has been singled out for Dark detail punishment but is under my protection – see to it he is delivered to the mines the moment you arrive at Pent Ridge. Believe me, there are geases you can't even imagine if you fail me in this".

With that the great wyrm rose into the air and headed back towards the setting sun.

When Melo Yelo returned to the chain-gang Cornspot next to him whistled, drawing in breath. "Dark detail means once you go in, you never come out, not until your time is done... If you live that long." Looking side-to-side, he pulled out something hidden in his beard and passed it surreptitiously to Melo Yelo. It was a small package, wrapped in leaves.

"Daystar rules inside the tunnels, I've heard nothing goes on without his say-so. Give him this choice dummy as an offering and maybe you'll get on his good side. No take it, I insist," Cornspot said. "I know what you did for us all at Angle Fort even if those Goldbirds at the Sun Dome don't seem to appreciate it."

The rest of the way Melo Yelo heard more about this Daystar.

Cornspot said years ago, back when he was a kid, Daystar was a high-up in the temple hierarchy, official custodian of the Old Sun Dome, a light priest. "Great buddies with the old count too – everyone sure loved the dummy back then, though folks won't talk about that these days. Anyway, when the new count came in Daystar was on the outs, and got sent here. Things were pretty wild in the Summer of Love, but he apparently got up to some real hinky stuff. Who knows why Solanthos didn't just poke out his eyes and stick him in a tower?"

Such fear the overseers had for Lord Belvani's wrath that Melo Yelo was not even given a chance to take a drink when they arrived at Pent Ridge, shortly after sundown. "Dome Above, Brother!", called out Cornspot, giving a hopeful sign of encouragement as the baboon was deposited at the yawning mouth of the mine and roughly prodded in with the butt of a spear.

But this was the first time a Sun Domer had called him "brother", and although very frightened, Melo Yelo was also as happy as he'd ever been.

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A MESSAGE DELIVERED

With Cornspot's shout of encouragement still ringing in his ears, Melo Yelo lowered the faceplate of his magic helmet. Twin beams of light shot forth from the eyes, illuminating deep into the tunnel.

The baboon didn't understand the message Lord Belvani tasked him with delivering to Daystar, or what the Light Captain was doing consorting with the strange light priest. But Belvani put his trust in him: he was a Light Sun of the Sun Dome, after all, so Melo Yelo resolved to diligently carry out his mission.

What the baboon tried to put out of his mind was what would happen to himself afterwards though? Belvani didn't say. But Melo Yelo trusted in Yelmalio. He knew his calling.

It was deep, deep in mines that Melo Yelo found Daystar again. This time, in an open cavern full of pillars and bulbs and domes of salt. Everything was streaked and stained from the smoke of braziers and lamps burning the substance known locally as black gold, but the ceiling was illuminated by some sort of light spell, giving the whole space a sickly yellowish glow.

This is where the wretched Dark detail had their camp. It was cold down here, and Melo Yelo could see them dotted about the space, huddled around their small stoves. There were errant Sun Domers, outcaste Praxians, downcast adventurer types, and by herself away from the others, a young woman in rags stacking human skulls into a small pyramid. She eyed him for a moment and then looked away with disinterest.

The middle of the chamber there rose into a mound. Sitting cross-legged atop it on a beautiful silken rug was Daystar, the old man he and Belvani had met in the tunnels before. The priest was smoking a long-handled hookah pipe, sending gouts of yellowish smoke up to the faintly glowing roof of the chamber. Standing with crossed arms behind him, as motionless as a statue but for the gently swaying tip of its tail, was the monstrous dragonewt. By them, a pair of naked trollkin with ears cropped and noses slit operated the winch of a crudely built-well.

A bucket of water came up, and Daystar gestured towards one of the braziers. Someone detached themselves from the group and approached the priest. Melo Yelo thought he looked like one of those jeering Storm Bullies from the Bison Tribe who'd teased and tormented him in times past. But when he got to the mound he bowed low and then prostrated fully, literally propelling himself the last part of the way on his belly. After liberally kissing Daystar's feet he was allowed to fill up a large waterskin and return to his group. The trollkin released the rope again and the bucket clattered down the shaft until there was a distant splash. They began the process of slowly winding the rope up again.

The baboon came to the mound. He was uncertain if he was supposed to get on his knees - was this how you approached a Light Priest? He did not have to find an answer because when Daystar noticed him he threw down his pipe and sprung up, almost running down the slope to him.

"And so what does your master say?" Daystar asked eagerly, with a hungry gleam in his eye.

Melo Yelo hesitated. He wanted to say the word right. He'd gone over and over it in his head, ever since Belvani quickly told him, seated on the wyrm's back.

"Well? Well?," urged the priest.

"Ourobor," said Melo Yelo hesitantly. Yes, that was the word, Ourobor. He said it again: "Ourobor -"

"- Oossssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssss," hissed the Dragonewt from top of the mound.

Daystar smiled, revealing yellowing mottled teeth. He licked his lips. The baboon noticed that the end of his tongue was split.

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Edited by MOB
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THE MIDNIGHT EXPRESS

Daystar turned and said something to the dragonewt, a series of sibilant incomprehensible spits and hisses formed with his curiously split tongue. Silently, the great reptile came down from the mound and joined them.

The priest then called to the lone figure at her brazier, "Forgotten! To my treasury we must go". The woman put down the skull she was holding and went to stand sullenly at the opening of a tunnel close by her bivouac.

The priest indicated to Melo Yelo he should come with them. They followed the woman a short distance into the passage and then stopped. Another hundred paces or so ahead the excavation abruptly ended; the beams of the baboon's helmet picked out a jumbled collection of boxes, crates and jars stacked there.

Daystar waved impatiently at woman Forgotten. From around her neck she removed two leather thongs. She handed one to the dragonewt, which put it around its thick wrist, and the other to Melo Yelo. Threaded with hair, on each of these thongs was a tarnished silver coin and a finger bone that had been flensed of its flesh.

"Go, help The Midnight Express," said Daystar to the baboon, "Don't worry, Forgotten's little baubles will protect you."

Melo Yelo went down the tunnel with the oddly-named dragonewt. After they'd gone only a dozen steps they were suddenly assailed by a swarm of moaning ghosts, erupting from recesses in the walls. When Melo Yelo shone his light he saw each of these culverts contained a severed human head. They were packed in tightly with salt, and their preserved leathery faces had gaping mouths as if shouting out in horror or perhaps surprise.

Having been bought up among shamans, the baboon recoiled in terror as the mad spirits assailed him. The Midnight Express simply ignored the ghosts and kept walking, and soon Melo Yelo understood they could not harm either of them.

"Yes, yes," said Daystar impatiently, gesturing to him to hurry up.

With only one arm, Melo Yelo was in fact not of much help when they came to Daystar's stash of valuables. But the dragonewt knew what it was looking for. It took some time, for whatever it was seemed to be near the very bottom of the pile.

Daystar's treasury contained all manner of preserved foodstuffs, barrels of salted mock pork, amphorae of oil and wine, an assortment of trade goods, and more. As he helped drag boxes out of the way, Melo Yelo noticed that several were filled with the same packet of wrapped leaves that Cornspot had given him. He remembered his human friend's advice, and reminded himself he needed to give Daystar his offering when the moment presented itself.

Eventually The Midnight Express found what it was looking for: a very large, very heavy wooden box. Even it grunted with effort lifting the box clear.

The dragonewt carried the box back to where Daystar was waiting expectantly, once again completely ignoring the ghosts. Melo Yelo followed behind and did his best to ignore the evil spirits too. He found it helped by keeping his gaze away from the alcoves.

The Midnight Express set the box down before the priest and handed his leather necklace back to the woman. Forgotten snapped her fingers at Melo Yelo, demanding his too. He handed the talisman over and, with a look of bored contempt, she abruptly turned and left.

Daystar hissed and spat excitedly at the dragonewt. The box had been nailed shut, but with relative ease The Midnight Express wrenched off the lid. Daystar pounced and started removing handfuls of old, dried straw. With a cry of elation he then drew out something wrapped in a cloth: it was a strange looking dagger, gleaming dully but very, very sharp. It was made of stone. The old priest smiled, and once again licked his lips with tips of his split tongue.

And there was still another object in the box, far heavier. Wide-eyed and eager, Daystar nodded, and with another grunt the dragonewt began lifting it out.

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A SUN DOME PALLADIUM

***

Everyone in Sun County knows there is a legendary object in the temple vaults that guarantees the sanctity of the Sun Dome. They take great comfort from the fact that, despite all the vicissitudes and indignities they the people suffered in the Solitude of Testing, the Great Temple itself has never fallen.

This cube-shaped artefact, a gift of Ernalda to Yelmalio, her husband-protector, is the hexomino. Inside it resides the Temple's defending Spirit Guardians.

When the Sun Domers purged themselves of draconic influences in the aftermath of the Dragonkill War(1100 ST), they abandoned their old temple and built a new one. Answering their prayers, Yelmalio sent the Sun Folk the great spirit Feshoaar to dwell in the altar of the freshly-consecrated Sun Dome.

In an interesting mythological parallel with Umath's Camp of Orlanthi legend, Sun County too originally had Six Spirit Guardians – north, south, east, west, above and below, one for each face of the hexomino.

The legend is Feshoaar subjected the original Spirit Guardians to Yelm's cleansing fire and found that of the six, five emerged from the flames pure. Together, they righteously drove away the sixth, the Guardian of Above, whose draconic urges were too deeply ingrained. They were then to be bound again into the hexomino, which Feshoaar had commanded the people to retrieve from the deconsecrated temple where it lay broken in pieces.

But the truth is only five of the hexomino's seven parts were recovered intact from the Old Sun Dome.

The Guardian of Above's part simply could not be found. Successive Custodians of the Old Sun Dome fruitlessly searched for the missing piece for many years afterwards, until it gradually passed from memory.

The part associated with the Guardian of Below had been smashed into many pieces by the furious mob as they desecrated the temple.

When reassembling the hexomino, the Mostali who helped the Sun Folk construct the new temple did what they could to put together the Guardian of Below's broken fragments.

As befit its ties to the earth, the Guardian of Below had a feminine aspect. It served to defend the temple from subterranean attack and, by extension, from trolls and other Darkness creatures. Several hundred years ago during the horrors of the Solitude of Testing, its piece in the hexomino shattered to dust defending the temple against rampaging Uz. The aggregate the Mostali had used to repair it was obviously inferior.*

The people of Sun County's faith in the hexomino remains rock solid. But they might be disquieted to know that two of its components – that of the banished and forgotten Guardian of Above and now equally forgotten Guardian of Below – are today mere dummy parts. Unlike the genuine pieces that were fashioned from matter taken from the very Sky Dome itself, these replacements are of baser stone. They in fact have no special properties whatsoever, other than helping the hexomino retain its Earth rune cube shape. Hector the Wise hopes that is enough.

This particular knowledge remains a deep cult secret.

***

From the box, the Midnight Express lifted out a solid, heavy object. It looked something like a large "⅃ "-shaped block, deep blue in colour with shimmering flecks of white.

Melo Yelo was nonplussed.

"A part of the Sky Dome, praise Yelmalio!," explained Daystar, though this didn't help the baboon's understanding at all. "Come, we must prepare."

"Prepare for what?" thought the baboon uneasily, as he followed the strange light priest back into the chamber.

 

*The Light Guide at the time was a member of the Goldbreath family and he swept up the broken remains of that piece and gathered what psychical remnants he could of the Guardian of Below's annihilated spirit. With these fragments he fashioned a magical artefact which became a family heirloom. It is now worn by Lady Vega Goldbreath (it's her Protection-10 matrix, see Sun County p.13).

The 'Guardian of Below' continued on, this time as a new cult rank, the leader of an elite band of troll-killers. As the troll threat abated, the position evolved into that of the more general 'Guardian of Sun County', the leader of the militia: this is Vega's current position in the temple hierarchy. She is the first such Goldbreath to hold the rank.

[Just reiterating that the Light Lady Vega, a female rune lord of Yelmalio, wearing her family heirloom, is the first Goldbreath to hold the rank of *Guardian* of Sun County. Hmmmm]

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SMOKE, SMOKE, SMOKE

From Daystar's treasury they returned to the priest's place of prominence in the center of the large cavern. There, to Melo Yelo's great relief, he was at last able to have something to drink.

The wooden bucket from the well was thoroughly crusted in salt, but Daystar still urged him to partake. The baboon was initially hesitant, but found that the water tasted cold and pure. It was then that he noticed the inside of the bucket was lined with a lustrous deep green metal: did that somehow remove the salt from the water?

Meanwhile Daystar fussed with the block, getting The Midnight Express to set it on his rug so the jutting part stuck out to the left: ⅃.

When it was positioned to his satisfaction Daystar placed the stone knife on top of it then sat down, cross-legged. The dragonewt took up its position behind him. One of the mutilated trollkin methodically went about setting up his hookah pipe again, while the other visited one of the prisoners' braziers, returning with a scuttle of hot coals.

Melo Yelo was unsure what to do next. He'd given Lord Belvani's message to the priest, but could he now take his leave? Then he remembered Cornspot's gift packet. This he deferentially offered to Daystar, who took it and chuckled. By the priest's side was a small basket, full of the same wrapped packets. He carelessly tossed in Melo Yelo's offering and picked up his pipe.

"Come sit, join me now," he said to the baboon, "While we await your master we must smoke, smoke, smoke seven days."

Seven days? thought Melo Yelo.

Daystar must have seen his consternation because his voice raised to a higher pitch and with a wide-eyed gleam he said, "Yes, we must smoke until we see the Sun and find the Dragon. In our minds we will do the Dance of Pure Being. We must smoke, smoke, smoke to attain Utuma!"

One of the silent trollkin unwrapped a packet of leaves from the basket and smeared its contents into the bowl of the hookah. The other solemnly took the long-handled pipe from the priest. It then began to suck in and puff prodigiously. When smoke was literally coming out of the slits where its ears had been, it gravely handed the fully-primed pipe back to Daystar, and withdrew.

The priest took a tremendous puff of his own, then handed the pipe to Melo Yelo.

Cautiously, the baboon took a puff. Although he'd never used a hookah pipe before, he'd already recognised the taste and smell of the smoke: the baboon shamans used this stuff too, to help commune with the spirits. What the Sun Dome folk called "dummy", the humans up in Pavis knew as hazia. His baboon kin had their own name for it, and simply threw the dried plants on a fire. Everyone in the troupe sitting around was encouraged to breathe in deeply. Eventually you would see your ancestors, sitting there with you.

"O" said Daystar.

"O" said The Midnight Express.

The priest looked expectantly at Melo Yelo. "O?" he said hesitantly, and Daystar nodded, seemingly satisfied. The baboon politely took another puff and handed the pipe back to the priest.

Melo Yelo began to feel his mind open, but the mood was broken by a voice calling out from the bottom of the slope. It was one of the prisoners, one of the down-on-their-luck adventurer types. He was there on his knees. "Oh mighty and worshipful Daystar," he called out, "Your honour, we must come to get our daily water."

"Pah, begone with you!", said Daystar, waving him away. And then took another puff and said "O".

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AN UNSUNG HERO

The smoke made Daystar garrulous, though most of his talk was the distant Sun: how its beating heart was growing louder, its lustrous wings, its shining scales; all this he described in loving detail.

At odd times that seemed to have no regular cadence he would stop to chant, and The Midnight Express would repeat it, and then they'd expect Melo Yelo to follow. At some point – when the baboon did not know, as proper time began to drift away from him – Daystar started chanting "OU".

"OU" chanted Daystar. "There is no other that knoweth thee save thy Light Priests, thou hast made them wise. In thy designs and in thy might."

Although the priest was declaiming in Firespeech, somehow Melo Yelo wasn't surprised he understood perfectly.

As the haiza opened his mind Melo Yelo thought back to when he was first drawn to the Golden Light of the Sun Dome, and how simple it seemed then. There were clearly more sides to Yelmalio than he knew, or even imagined.

He now realised his eyes were first opened at the Cradle. There the baboon was an unsung hero, the only Sun Domer (if he could call himself that) who made it onto the deck.

The Harpoon had shot gigantic chained arrows into the sides of the great boat, and Lord Invictus had ordered his Templars to clamber up the chains. Not one of them had made it to the top – trying to balance while fending off the defenders' furious rain of missiles and magic proved impossible, even for the elite of the Sun Dome's best regiments. But with his powerful arms (he had two then, he thought wistfully), Melo Yelo had swung up to the top on the underside the chain, avoiding being a target.

When he leapt onto the bulwark, the baboon was astounded to see facing him on the deck a warrior in the distinctive panoply of a Yelmalion Light Son. He was clearly one of the defenders, and by the state of his amour and weapons had seen much action. Melo Yelo was temporarily dumbstruck and confused by the sight, and his opponent took the advantage to give him a great shove with his shield. The baboon fell tumbling into the water, and soon after the Sun Dome attack on the Cradle was called off.

At enormous cost Lord Invictus had achieved nothing, and despite Count Solanthos's boasts to Governor Sor Eel, the Cradle escaped free. Melo Yelo's wasn't the only act of conspicuous bravery that day, but there were no accolades offered to anyone by the humiliated Sun Dome leadership, let alone a baboon hanger-on that everyone laughed at and treated with pitiful scorn or (at most) amused contempt.

As the silent trollkin added yet more hazia to the bowl of the hookah, Melo Yelo noticed a gaggle of Dark Detail prisoners had gathered at the foot of the mound. They were all on their knees.

"OU" chanted Daystar. "Dawning, glittering, going afar and returning, all eyes see before them..."

"Oh mighty Daystar, we beseech you, we must have our water!", they cried.

Through the smoke Daystar looked like he had been on the cusp of something when this interruption broke his concentration. He gave an exasperated hiss to The Midnight Express. The dragonewt roared and a made a mighty leap off the mound, landing right in the midst of the prisoners and scattering them in all directions. When it returned to take up the position behind the priest, several of the unfortunate inmates lay dead. The others had fled back to their places, some badly hurt.

"OU" chanted Daystar.

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Edited by MOB
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THE WHITE BULL IS COMING

"OUR" chanted Daystar.

How long Melo Yelo had been here sitting on the rug he couldn't remember because his mind and perhaps his spirit had gone free.

He soared out like a vrok hawk over the Sun Dome lands, chasing the rising Sun.

In his vision he saw the Sun Dome Temple and Vega Goldbreath, the Light Lady who condemned him. She was in the very same Meeting Chamber. Spread on a table before her was an assortment of maps outlining the Sun County defenses and detailed reports about troop movements and supplies. Candles low on their wicks showed she'd been up all night, and her face was creased with fatigue and worry.

Suddenly the Light Lady looked up, and it was like she was staring at him straight in the eye. There was a look of doubt on Lady Vega's face, and to Melo Yelo hopefully a sense of resolution that things were not right and she must put them so.

"OUR" chanted The Midnight Express.

The baboon's spirit then travelled out onto the plains of Prax. Everywhere he could see nomads on the move, kicking up vast dust clouds, all converging on a single spot in distance. Curious, he made to go there, but first he saw the Paps.

It was high noon, and Lord Belvani was in earnest council with a strange assortment of people: some were native Praxians but others were foreigners. Their leader seemed to be a youngish man with a distinctive white bull tattoo on his torso; he'd noticed that marking on many of the nomads too as he'd swept past them.

At the leader's side was another Yelmalion: to his surprise Melo Yelo realised it was the Light Son who had bested him on the Cradle! He wanted to swoop in for a closer look when Lord Belvani caught his eye. It was almost like he nodded at him, as if everything was right, and to carry on with the Plan. But what was the plan?

And then he soared to where the nomads were converging: it was the oasis of Moonbroth, famed for its geysers and its mystic oracle. He'd travelled through there once, long ago, on the way to the Monkey Ruins, but the place of pilgrimage no longer resembled what he remembered. The site was now a fortified camp of the Lunars and surrounding the oasis were vast concentric fields of caltrops, stretching in a perimeter thousands of paces out from the center. These vicious spikes were a total surprise to the Praxians when the Lunar Empire defeated them here years ago, but would they have the same impact now?

Marching along a complicated pathway through the caltrops were the glittering Sun Dome Templars, answering the command of the Lunar governor. At the head of the parade was Count Invictus, walking proud but with his baboon arm concealed in his cloak. Melo Yelo wanted to put his spirit before him too, but try as he might Invictus would not give him his eye.

"OUR" chanted Melo Yelo, as he felt his spirit return to the chamber deep under Pent Ridge.

The Count took his Templars on, leading them towards Moonbroth and the setting Sun.

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THE SOURCE OF YOUR IGNOMINY

"OUR", chanted Daystar.
 
Oh living Yelm, born in the Sky every day,
He begat his august son,
Yelmalio, Son of Sun,
Who wears the mantle of his father's beauty.
 
"Can you see it?," Daystar cried excitedly, pointing at the swirling yellowish smoke at the roof of the cavern. Through the haze Melo Yelo did see a vision of a resplendent ball of light. And flying around it in a swirling pattern was a wyrm - something like Windwhistler, but golden and more majestic, more divine.
 
"When Solanthos cast me down here they cursed me. My geas is if I am exposed to Yelm's Light, I will burn. But that is only thissssss body," Daystar said with a hiss. "And now your master has told me the Spirit of Above has returned in material form. I have its stone; it took me many years of searching in the Old Sun Dome, and years still to smuggle the stone here.
 
"But if I sacrifice myself on its stone will I be reborn inside it, the Guardian of Above's body will be mine. And then I will be free!"
 
Melo Yelo was still looking at the ceiling. Perhaps old priest's rheumy eyes were not not as keen as the baboon's, for Melo Yelo was sure the great flying wyrm had a golden armoured rider on its back. Who was that?
 
"And you, you my friend must do utuma with me: for your service the Sun Dragon shall surely decree you will be reborn a most splendid man," said Daystar complacently, taking a great draw on the pipe.
 
As more smoke billowed to the ceiling Melo Yelo saw a vision of the Yelmalion he could be: the very visage of his fabled helm, and whole perfect human body too, made flesh.
 
But Melo Yelo didn't want to be human. He still wanted to be the best Yelmalion he could, but he wanted to stay a baboon. For that's what he was.
 
But they will never accept you.
 
Now Daystar was in his head.
 
Look how they've treated you. Belittled your heroism, ignored your bravery. Kept silent when they were the guilty ones.
 
And with that Melo Yelo's spirit went soaring again, out over the plains to Moonbroth. On the way he could see a thousand campfires, with followers of the White Bull from almost every tribe. They were chanting and dancing of how on the morrow they would sweep the Lunar Empire out of their sacred homeland forever.
 
He passed through the great circle of defenses around the oasis. The soldiers on watch nervously looked out at the campfires and could even hear the singing, but their officers complacently assured them they were safe behind their massive fields of caltrops.
 
Next he was in a well-appointed tent. The panoply of its owner rested on a stand: it was gold, but the gold was tarnished, and there was no vambrace for the left arm.
 
Lying in the cot asleep was Count Invictus, still wrapped in his golden cloak, still concealing his left arm.
 
Sssee him there, he's the sssourccce of your pain, why they laugh at you, why they mock. The source of your ignominy, he who turned away after all you had done, all you have sssacrificed, hissed the voice in his head.
 
Invictus shifted restlessly in his sleep and the cloak slipped loose. His baboon arm, given freely to him by Melo Yelo at the Painted Wall so he could contain Daga with his own, was revealed.
 
"OURO", chanted Daystar.

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Edited by MOB
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IT IS TIME TO DANCE...

"OURO", chanted Daystar.

Melo Yelo blinked and shook himself awake. He was back in the cavern surrounded by a fug of yellow smoke. He was unclear on where he'd been. His arm ached - his missing left arm that is. What had just happened?

The priest handed him the pipe and waved at the ceiling. "It is done. The time of the Dragon Sun draws closer, the time for utuma! We must continue to smoke, smoke, smoke, and our spirits, yours and mine, will dream the Dance of Pure Being," he said.

"OUROB" said the Midnight Express.

This was the first time the dragonewt had changed the chant.

"The sublime moment of Creation will soon be upon us!" Daystar exclaimed. "Belvani offered me no release from this dark pit. Pah! He only wanted me to confirm what he already suspected was true. Oh how he will be surprised when I assume the form of his precious Guardian of Above!"

Melo Yelo wasn't clear what was going on, but he was certain this was not part of Lord Belvani's plan.

The old priest's eyes glistened. "When you prostrate yourselves before the Sun Dragon will be the moment I shall eat him, and you, you reborn can lead the Sun Folk under the watch of my slitted eye!" He cackled maniacally.

Daystar reached for the stone knife. "Come," he said to Melo Yelo, "It is time to Dance..." One of his trollkin servants was tugging at his sleeve.

Throughout this smoking ritual, Daystar had blithely tuned out the piteous pleas of the Dark Detail prisoners as their croaking for water grew ever fainter. For this interruption he gave the trollkin a positively murderous look.

But his servant glumly pointed to the basket by his side: it was empty! The other trollkin was already smearing the last remaining package of hazia into the bowl of the hookah.

"Aieee!", screamed Daystar. He turned in wide-eyed panic to The Midnight Express and spoke urgently with spits and hisses. In his mind, Melo Yelo could understood what was being said: "Go at once to my Treasury, we must have more hazia! Bring it, bring it all, the moment of utuma is almost upon us!"

The Midnight Express strode over to the entrance that led to Daystar's store of goods. The woman Forgotten got up from her resting spot and went through into the tunnel with the dragonewt.

A few moments later a deep-throated roar erupted from the tunnel. Then Forgotten came out of the tunnel again, with a smirk on her face. In her hand she was twirling one of her tarnished silver and finger bone necklaces. What she'd done was given the protective talisman to the dragonewt, and then palmed it. He was now in spirit combat with two dozen gibbering Mad Head ghosts.

Forgotten's reappearance swinging her amulet must have been a signal to the other desperately thirsty inmates. Those still capable sprung from their places and immediately charged up the mound crying out hoarsely. Daystar's trollkin servants, silent until now, fled with high-pitched squeals.

It took a moment or two for Daystar to comprehend what was happening. He reacted in furious indignation and screamed with spittle-flecked rage. Then, taking a deep breath, he prepared to unleash powerful magic. But before he could do so, he was caught from behind. Forgotten had looped one of her leather thongs around his neck and started strangling him.

The hookah pipe was knocked flying in the rush of the prisoners, but they ignored Melo Yelo and the priest in their haste to get to the well.

A fight erupted over the bucket. Meanwhile, Daystar tried to make a few futile jabs behind him with the stone knife, but Forgotten had garrotted many victims before. He then came up with a new idea: Daystar turned the knife around and prepared to pierce himself in the heart! He was still over the stone, and perhaps if he killed himself before he was strangled, he would yet have his chance of being reborn in the Guardian of Above.

But Melo Yelo blocked the knife as Daystar attempted plunged it into his chest. It was incredibly sharp and went straight though the baboon's palm. The pain was terrible yet he gripped it with his fingers and wrenched the blade away.

It was time to leave this strange and ghastly place. The Guardian of Above's block was far too heavy for Melo Yelo to carry, especially with only one arm, but the baboon fled into the darkness with the stone knife still stuck through his hand. He left the fracas in Daystar's cavern behind him and looked for a way to the surface.

1564296580_MadHeadGhost.png.8dcb9f0416cfb3d5be16e6dd90ff6857.png

 

 

 

Edited by MOB
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MUTTON BIRD PUDDING

Baboon feet are almost as good as hands, and as soon as Melo Yelo got clear of Daystar's cavern he removed the stone knife from his palm. His healing magic deftly sealed it up, but the presence of so much salt made the injury still sting dreadfully nevertheless. Activating his fabled helmet, he headed for the surface.

When he reached the upper galleries he found Dusk Detail inmates hard at work, chipping and cutting away at the salt under flickering black gold lamps. Melo Yelo had lost all track of time down with the Dark Detail, but this must mean it was daytime outside: the Duskers always returned to the surface to sleep.

He was wondering how he might get past the the Templar guards at the mine's entrance when someone called out to him: it was Cornspot!

His human friend explained that his cushy job in the Dawn Detail, which wouldn't have seen him enter the mines at all, blew up on his second day. Cornspot got involved in a fight. The head of the cookhouse was the morokanth known as Mock Pork. One of the few non-humans imprisoned here, she'd been sentenced for illegally enslaving Sun Dome Folk.

Even in a Sun Dome prison Yelmalio's dietary geases are meant to be respected and Cornspot noticed Mock Pork slopping the same mutton bird pudding into everyone's bowl, whether they were allowed to eat bird meat or not.

"We fought, I lost," Cornspot said ruefully. "Then they busted me down to the Dusk Detail and told me to mind my own business what goes on in the cookhouse."

Since then Cornspot had been labouring in the mines with the other unfortunates, but had earned some kudos by saying he knew the hero of Angle Fort. Like him, the inmates appreciated what Melo Yelo had done for their starving families, even if the Sun Dome leadership seemingly did not.

Cornspot devised a cunning plan to get the baboon to the outside. "But what then?" he wondered, and Melo Yelo didn't really have an answer; Yelmalio would provide, he hoped. The mine site had no walls – didn't need them being so far out in hostile territory – but the baboon at least knew how to survive in Vulture's Country where Sun Folk farmers would not. He also thought he'd be able to avoid the Sable braves Cornspot said were always lurking about. They earned a bounty for any scalps they took of prisoners stupid enough to make a break for it.

Mining at Pent Ridge is difficult and dangerous. The poor diet, stifling heat, and impossible quotas help to make accidents commonplace. Cornspot got Melo Yelo out by faking an accident. He and some comrades carried the baboon out wrapped in a sheet, saying the prisoner had been grievously injured in a tunnel collapse. These happened frequently enough because the lack of wood meant few tunnels can be properly braced, and cave-ins are a constant hazard. The indifferent guards at the mine entrance saw enough to note the latest casualty had indeed lost an arm and waved them through to the infirmary tent.

Outside it was noon, and the prisoners all squinted in the glare. Crossing the bare plain to the encampment shimmering in the distance, Cornspot muttered "What now?". Before Melo Yelo could answer, a shadow passed over them all.

With a great flap of its wings, the wyrm Windwhistler landed a short distance in front of them. On its back was a resplendent golden warrior, who dismounted.

The prisoners dropped the baboon in surprise. He sprung to his feet. Through the heat haze Melo Yelo thought this must be Lord Belvani, come to rescue!

But as the warrior approached he realised no, it wasn't the Light Captain at all: no, it was the Light Son who bested him at the Cradle, and who he saw in his vision at the Paps.

The warrior stood before them and took off his helmet. He was a handsome man with a sandy beard. He told them, "My name is Rurik Runespear, Companion of Argrath White Bull. I am here to find the baboon Melo Yelo."

853989947_RurikRunespear.png.792fbae7c6ed15a2a0cc3d9bfd280fc9.png

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SECOND MOONBROTH

"A great battle was fought at Moonbroth this very morning, " said Rurik Runespear. "I have come to you from there in Count Belvani's place."

Count Belvani? wondered Melo Yelo, Cornspot and the others.

"Yes, he is your count now," said Rurik, seeing their confused looks. "He arrived at the oasis on Windwhistler just before the dawn. Belvani went to Count Invictus's command tent to report and made a shocking discovery: the count was lying in his cot stone dead!" He shook his head sadly. "It was like he had choked on something in his sleep: his hand was around his throat. In his other hand, his human hand, he was holding this."

He passed what he had to the baboon. It was a brass lid, tied with a red ribbon.

"Count Belvani wanted me to show it to you - he thinks this is the magic stopper for Daga's Brass Jar. Where did he get it, and why didn't he use it, that is the question?"

Unfortunately, this was a mystery Melo Yelo couldn't help with. He'd given his arm to Invictus at the Painted Wall so the baboon shaman could seal with jar with Invictus's own; they certainly had no stopper then.

"Lord Belvani immediately assumed command of the Sun Dome forces. Caltrops had defeated the nomads in the first battle at Moonbroth, and the Lunars were supremely self-confident about the vast field they'd surrounded Moonbroth with. See here."

The Light Son scratched in the dirt a plan of the battle site; in his spirit travels from deep in Daystar's Cavern, Melo Yelo had already seen this same series of fiendish concentric rings around the oasis.

"The fields of caltrops had but four ways in, one at each cardinal point. But their pathways led in zig-zagging ways to the centre, so nomads could not charge straight through.

"The Sun Dome Templars were deployed here, at the West Gate," Rurik said, pointing to one of the four openings in the field of caltrops. "The phalanx was to form a shield wall across the opening, a living gate if you will. There were similar shield walls across the other gateways, but this was the most important because it was by far the widest: the caravans for Dragon Pass leave from here.

"At their final council of war Belvani said it would be an honour for Sun Dome Templars to deploy in this position. Banaryos, the Lunar general in charge, recognised that this was the most critical point. He wanted instead to deploy his best soldiers there, the Silver Shields. But the Governor overrode him."

Rurik laughed. "Because Banaryos confirmed that this is where the most casualties were likely to take place, Halcyon decided why waste his own troops when there were loyal allies willing to spill their own blood on the Lunar Empire's behalf?"

He shrugged. "The attack came soon after dawn. Little did the Lunars anticipate the size and fury of the tremendous horde that descended on the oasis, or that they would be led by Jaldon Goldentooth himself!

At that name Cornspot and the other prisoners gasped.

"Combined assaults were made on all four gates. Here," he said, pointing the South Gate, "the Impala Nation showered the Lunars with rains of arrows. At the East Gate, the Bolos and the Ostriches made their hit-and-run attacks, while at the South, the morokanth captured most of a last convoy trying to break out and escape back to Pavis. Sadly, the governor was one of the few that got away.

"But by far the greatest number descended on the West Gate. Almost the entire Rhino tribe in the lead, followed Bison, High Llamas and more. Lined up against them was the shield wall and pikes of the Sun Dome, brothers locked together – a magnificent sight!"

He sketched how the nomad host converged on this one point.

"And truly, I believe that first wave of nomad cavalry would have crashed and broke against them." He laughed again. "But they did not. Mere seconds before contact the shield wall disengaged. Our templars stepped aside in perfect formation. Such nerve, such discipline, oh it was a wonder to behold!"

Rurik sketched some more on the ground. "The nomads poured in through the gap but straight ahead of them lay a bend in the pathway through the caltrops. There would be no way a horde charging at such speed would be able to turn in time, with thousands more pushing behind them."

Here his eyes shone. "At this very moment the roiling clouds suddenly drew apart, bathing the battlefield in Yelm's radiance. A barrage of Sun Spears blew a straight road through to the heart of the oasis!"

"The Sun Dome Templars stood silently by as the nomads poured in. Quickly, the Lunar rout became a massacre, but the only Sun Domer to fall at Moonbroth was Count Invictus himself.

"After the victory your Lord Belvani proclaimed himself Count, and was acclaimed so by his Templars. He immediately announced Sun County would make a pact with my lord Argrath White Bull, who was already preparing to lead his victorious Praxians against Pavis."

"How will the nomads hope to take Pavis?", Cornspot asked in disbelief, "They know nothing about siegecraft – even our village walls keep them out."

"Count Belvani promised Argrath that proof of the Sun Dome's fidelity would be shown before the walls of Pavis," said Rurik, "And that is why I am here."

By F. Mitchell, Department of History, United States Military Academy - http://www.au.af.mil/au/awc/awcgate/gabrmetz/gabr0066.htm, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=498246

 

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EMBRACE THE SUN DRAGON

"My lord Argrath is the White Bull, but one of his other titles is Dragonlord," said Rurik Runespear. "And so Count Belvani has decreed that veneration of the Sun Dragon will resume in Sun County, an aspect of the Yelmalio cult that has been lost for centuries.

"The Sun Dragon's return was presaged by Windwhistler the Wyrm. Argrath's mystic insight helped us understand it is none other than a living avatar of the Sun Dome Temple's long-lost Guardian of Above.

"To mark this new dawn, Windwhistler gave gave a rapturous flyby over the battlefield, trailing the Sun Dome banner, now stitched with a golden dragon. A sight to behold! Count Belvani then sent us here to find you".

He looked at Melo Yelo and saw the handle of the stone knife sticking out his dilly bag. "Pass me the blade, the utuma, that is what we have come here for."

The Light Son took the blade and returned to Windwhistler. He gestured for Melo Yelo and the others to follow, but only Cornspot hesitantly joined the baboon in coming forward; the fear of dragons and dragon-kind was long ingrained in the Sun Folk, and they were scared of this sight.

"Ourobo," said Rurik Runespear earnestly to Windwhistler, and then he bowed.

"Ouroborrrrrrrrrrr," trilled the wyrm in the reply, and rolled over on to its back.

Rurik ran the tip of the blade along Windwhistler's knarled and mottled scales until he found a spot close to its head.

Melo Yelo and Cornspot gasped as Rurik plunged the stone knife into Windwhistler's hide and began slitting its belly open, slicing a long way down its tail.

But where they expected to see spurting blood and viscera there was none – instead, inside the cut they could see a whitish shape moving and pulsing.

"Windwhistler dances the Dance of Being," said Rurik, returning the knife to Melo Yelo. By now a crowd had gathered to see this wonder, prisoners and guards alike, all keeping a fearful distance though.

After some minutes the white shape slowly emerged and uncoiled; it was Windwhistler refreshed, new and nascent! The wyrm's scales looked soft and were a flawless, unblemished white.

It took many minutes for Windwhistler to twist and shrug itself out of its old skin. Eventually, laboriously, it came free and then the new wyrm lay flat on the ground beside its old self, panting deeply.

"Ourobor," said Rurik.

The recovering wyrm lay basking in the sun. As it absorbed Yelm's life-giving radiance it slowly swelled to its new true size, and as they hardened its scales began to take on a dazzling a golden hue. Finally, the transformation was complete. Windwhistler lifted its huge head, opened its jaws with a great yawn, and stretched out its new enormous wings. Many in the crowd ran away terrified.

"Melo Yelo," the baboon heard in his head, "Father Yelm sees all, and for what you have done, for what you have sacrificed, the Sun Dragon bestows this boon. Take your knife and go to my old skin. Cut a long strip and get your liegeman to wrap it on your shoulder where you gave up your arm".

By "liegeman" Windwhistler must have meant Cornspot, thought Melo Yelo, so he got him to assist as instructed. Although Windwhistler's old skin was thick and leathery, the utuma knife cut through it with ease.

"Your liegeman may cut a strip too to make a jerkin," Windwhistler continued in his head and if a wyrm could smile that's what it did, "For I'm sure danger abounds when following the likes of you."

Cornspot dutifully cut several strips of skin, enough to make himself a decent hauberk. When he finished he handed the blade back to Melo Yelo, who almost dropped it in surprise when he realised he'd reached out to take it with his left hand, from the arm he did not have. The wyrm skin wrapped around his shoulder had transformed: the new arm was baboon-like, but there were scales under the fur.

"You'll need to step back," said Rurik, though he stayed where he was.

Windwhistler shook and began to change colour again, this time a fiery red colour. The wyrm radiated intense heat - so hot, its old skin erupted in flame.

"Ouroboro," said both Rurik, seemingly unaffected, and Windwhistler. Very quickly, the old wyrm skin was little more than ash.

"Ouroboros," they said, though Windwhistler's hiss went on and on until his old body was completely consumed. The heat then died away and the great wyrm resumed its golden colour.

"We must go back to Pavis now Melo Yelo, the Count awaits us," said Rurik. "You and your 'liegeman,' he nodded to Cornspot and also smiled, "are welcome to come too: there's plenty of room on the back of the Golden Wyrm, the new Windwhistler."

Cornspot was happy to do anything to get out of Pent Ridge, and was all ready to jump on board the wyrm's back. Before he could do so a voice called out: hurrying across the bare ground from the encampment was a group of Yelmalion soldiers. As they drew closer it was clear they weren't templars but militia; farmers on temporary duty, a long way out from home.

"Halt!" they cried officiously, "We are the Militia from Sandheart. Sent here by command of Lady Vega, Guardian of the Sun Dome. We are to escort the baboon Melo Yelo back to the Sun Dome Temple. This is the order for his immediate release." For want of anyone better to give it to, they handed the warrant to Rurik Runespear.

"It seems they already think better of you at the Sun Dome," the Light Son said to Melo Yelo. "Go with your friend and prepare the way for the triumphant return of Count Invictus. Tell Lady Vega we'll be back when our business is finished outside the walls of Pavis.

"Tell her we return embracing the Sun Dragon."

***

Here I must suspend this Sun County saga for the time being. It's been fun, but I've been been posting every day since June 9th and after 48 days straight I really need to take a break for a bit! But I'll return with the second part of the saga - The Time of Two Counts - later this year.

In the mean time I will go back through these parts and tie them all together as one continuous narrative. (I also have a scenario to finish for Jon Webb's wonderful Sandheart series... he's been very patient.)

Cheers, and thanks for everyone's kind comments, MOB.

 

Sun Dragon.png

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