In a Bright Land Forum formatting - I've tried replacing most indents with a newline. Part I: Spoiler : In a bright land, in a white city, in a dark room a great emperor sits on a gold throne, still. Eyes of eagle-sharpness that can can look from every Mark, from the eyes of disciples, can with even greater ease look inward and long ago. To a long ago where there lay another bright land, another white city, and the throne of another great emperor. He closes his eyes, and remembers. The one who currently used the name Lareth sat up in the cart at sunrise. He was high enough in the foothills to see the plains stretch beneath him as if warmed and waked by the sun. And he was sharp sighted enough to see a herd move in the far distance. Cattle, of course. But he was sure his last mission was successful. The new wizards were uncertain of their power and more uncertain about the emperor's purposes. He could sympathize. Lareth himself wasn't entirely easy with his role. He knew he was violating the Compact's spirit even if he arguably abided by its rules. But his Lord assured him he wouldn't be caught, and despite everything he'd still accept his Lord's word. They had suffered the greatest possible abandonment, and his work must be done for Creation's salvation. So as Lareth he'd gone to the wizards... and merely asked questions. Could they bring greater prosperity to the plains? As a stock man (which was how he presented himself) he wanted to know if the wizards could improve his stock. Could they make the horses faster, stronger? Could they make the cattle fatter, hardier? He'd been so earnest that they'd laughed, and told him Of course. He'd pretended anger and told them they misunderstood. He could breed faster horses, fatter cattle. All without magic. And so could the Hippus. Probably better, truth be told. What could they do that was different, with their airs and their special knowledge and their magic? Could they do better than the Horselords? Make an ox as fast as a horse? A horse as hardy as a bull... a horse that could fly? Now that would be useful. And that had caught their imaginations. Of course. It was a worthy task. It would feed more people and allow them to work harder, move faster. It would give the Patrians comfort while also making the empire stronger. One of the wizards looked disturbed, but the others were themselves comforted. They knew then that what the emperor offered was power, and it could make a better future. They knew the emperor could be trusted, for he and they! - acted with good intentions. So there would be changling beasts on the plains... for a better future. It wasn't long before the cart stopped at a temple to Sirona. Ironic. Lareth hopped to the muddy road. A cold breeze ran down it, escaping the mountains, and he acted glad for his sheltering cloak. He gave the driver a few coins and hurried through the door of an inn beside the temple. The roof was low, and while ducking beams he spotted his target. She sat alone at a table against the far wall. He knew she'd been here for several days. She'd meant to leave with a south-bound caravan but had been deceived about its route. So here she'd waited for him, unknowing of their appointment. Eating well of the inn's food, he was sure, but feeding mostly on her doubts. Lareth skirted the near wall and took the table furthest from the bar. He didn't want to call attention to himself. Their conversation should be private and uninterrupted. How to begin it, though, was a problem. She looked skittish. Breakfast and a drink, my lord, or just drink? Lareth looked up at the serving girl, and smiled. She dropped her laden tray with a tremendous clatter and every eye in the inn turned to his table. So much for obscurity. Blushing, stammering and apologizing excessively, the girl reloaded her tray. Thankfully the mugs and plates had been empty. Exerting a little influence to calm the girl, he introduced himself and ordered some soup as gently as he could. Feeling sorry for her he spread that influence over the rest of the room. Otherwise she'd be mocked. It was a little risky, but maybe it'd calm his target, too. However he decided to approach her, that'd probably help. He'd just taken his soup from the girl, who was blushing again, when a woman spoke behind him. Laroth? He turned. Excuse me? Laroth! No... His target. Younger than he'd thought. However much he might have calmed her earlier she was now agitated and confused. Lareth stood , pulling back a chair for her, and guided her into it. Hello! I'm sorry, what's wrong? Here, please sit down. She gasped a few breaths and said, No, I'm sorry. I thought you were someone else. He sat down himself. Well, let me make it three apologies between us: I'm sorry if I've upset you. She shook her head. My fault. It's just that you sound like him, and what was your name...? Lareth. Lareth, yes. It's much like his. Laroth's, I mean. An easy mistake to make then. You look like him too. He laughed nervously. It's uncanny, really. Lareth smiled with her, to put her at ease. But he was sure she was right. His Lord had provided his name for this foray. As for his voice and appearance... He knew well that what seemed coincidence generally wasn't. Not if a god was involved. Not that you could ever be sure which god. Not anymore. Instead he said, Please, let me make up for fate's jest. Share my table. I've been on the road for days and would appreciate conversation before I move on. My mule and I have exhausted all topics of mutual interest. She laughed delightedly at his joke, despite herself. Lareth didn't flatter himself, people always laughed his jokes. But he was glad she was at his table, his way apparently already prepared by his Lord, and that he could get this over with. He'd heard of Laroth, and what he'd heard he didn't like. While Lareth's ability to anticipate the future was nothing like his Lord's, or his Lord's peers, he could guess how his mission would shape the future for this woman. Nevertheless, he'd see it done. Have you had breakfast yet? No? He waved the attentive server to him. Allow me to offer you some of this fine soup. While I wash the road's dust from my throat tell me what you're doing here. She slumped in her chair, nursing the soup, and gradually he drew her out. She must have wanted someone to talk to, it wasn't hard. Her name was Tejia, and her lover was indeed the itinerant holy man Laroth. He was starting to make a name for himself by preaching of the god Temeluchus. A being with whom Lareth was not acquainted. Tejia wouldn't denounce Laroth, but it was obvious to Lareth she knew the preacher insincere, at best. Finally he volunteered some advice: Tejia, what you both face is a crisis of faith. Yes, she said. I think I am. I'm sorry, I said you both face a crisis of faith. He's clearly performing a valuable service to Patria, to the whole world, by his preaching. Yet you sense he has doubts. Strong, doubts, yes? Yes. She nodded uncertainly. But you know his message is right, don't you. He made it a statement, which left her little choice. Yes. This time her nod was emphatic. So you must strengthen his faith. Not everyone has equal gifts, Tejia. I'm sure you know this, but in this case I think while Laroth has a great gift for speaking, you have a greater gift for faith. Take it as a testament to his teaching that you have learned so well. But now, having learned... Tejia straightened in her chair and interrupted him. Yes! My faith can strengthen his. Very good! Lareth looked at her encouragingly, but it was hardly needed. She smiled beatifically. Not only was I feeling bad about doubting Laroth, but I wondered how I could contribute. Just being his... just being with him didn't seem enough. But I can serve Temeluchus, too! I can really help people see the truth. Lareth returned her smile. Exactly. Thank you! Her smile grew even brighter. I should have seen this before. Lareth shrugged depreciatively, and she finished. No, really. I did lack faith. But the heart will find a way if you've good intentions. Lareth's gaze flickered, just for an instant. He'd placed the barb and twisted this woman as his Lord wished. Probably to twist this Laroth in turn. And who knew after that? He didn't know why his Lord wanted this, but suspected the hand of the Hidden Queen. He knew she'd made certain offers to his Lord, and she'd been very active of late. But how active? Tejia last remark pained him, and he wondered if someone wanted a barb in him. In a bright land in a white city, in a dark room he feels that pain anew. Such is the memory of his kind that the past may be relived as a sort of dream. This keeps both hatreds and loves, hurts and kindnesses, fresh and immune to the passage of time. Whether this makes for greater wisdom or greater folly the emperor does not know. But the dreaming is hard to resist. He believes it makes Sabathiel weak, but gives Cassiel strength. For himself he knows there's a special danger. Eyes of eagle-sharpness that can look from every Mark, from the eyes of disciples, can with even greater ease look inward and long ago. But how deeply can they see? What do they miss, and what is hidden with ill intent? He is the Angel of Good Intentions, and those he can always see, can always twist. Believing they pursue the good, men may be led very far from their chosen path. Yet to ill intentions, to deception, he's just as blind as any other being. Maybe more blind. His eyes open, he watches motes of dust play within a sunbeam now piercing the hall. It looks so real. Fully in the present again, he no longer dreams. Part II: Spoiler : In a bright land, in a white city, in a dark room a great emperor sits on his gold throne, plotting. He can feel his adopted people, alive in any significant sense, thriving and free on the face of Erebus. The barbarians to the south and east would fall soon enough, and emissaries were on their way from the nations to the north. They would be dealt with. And then west, to the sea, and through the Sidar. Fools. The silent ones thought they revered Arawn. All they really worship is their idea of that dark god. Not only is he different from what they imagine, he might be more different than they can imagine. God of the Underworld, yes, but only warden of the Dreamlands. What is a god who cedes power and authority at every chance? Who's own chosen realm is a riot of freedom, rotting around him? Life, and Death. Absolute freedom and complete confinement. God of beginnings and endings. Neither light nor dark. The Gray One. He remembered the passage of that oppressive aura, and pressing himself tight against the dark stone. Fear spikes through him and he shifts on his throne. His bodyguards, circling the chamber, stir in turn, every woman's weapon glinting red and silver. The Sidar were right about his color, at least. Brighter than the night, but infinitely deeper. Gray. The emperor shudders, as if bitten by the cold he can never feel. The Hidden Queen had her secrets, but they could be revealed. The Gray One might be unknowable. I know who you are, though you do not. Her. How could she be his spawn? Sure compassion... and her brother raging anger. Maybe the twins were just the knowable portions of the God, exiled into the deciphered world. He knew his thoughts went in circles. They always did when he thought of his most successful mission. His Lord had never cloaked him better. Yet it hadn't been enough. Thinking was not the way through. The eyes of memory can never see aright in the dreamlands, only the eyes of dreams. Lights scattered over her black mantle like the stars, and following her through the twisting passages was like spinning up into a night sky that had suddenly abandoned Erebus for the void. Disoriented and lost beyond recovery should she betray him, Rahserat, the fallen Angel of Good Intentions, could only endure as the Hidden Queen guided him down the paths only she knew. Finally she halted by a doorway formed of three large bluestones, the horizontal one marked with an eye and a hand. This is the one, she whispered. Give me the password. My Lord bade me tell you only after I stood safe and free within the Underworld. This is the one. The Death God will know if I enter his realm. Give me the password. I'm sorry, my lady, but I carry my Lord's trust. Don't mock me, Rahserat. Never. But I have been given this, Rahserat produced a small yellow vial. I will destroy it when I stand in Arawn's kingdom. The knowledge you want to be released to you then. So. Her whisper was so soft he had to lean forward to catch her words. And if you do not I will consider your Lord, and you, to have betrayed me. The angel said nothing. He'd been warned against speaking to her more than was absolutely necessary. He merely bowed. She hissed, and gestured at the doorway. He stepped through it. After that it was hard to put things in chronological order. Later he wondered if his own realm drove the Death God insane. Where a human found infinite freedom, bounded only by his own mind and preconceptions, what would the unbounded mind of a god find? It was hard enough being an angel. But he did his master's bidding, working for the downfall of the One and a better world beyond. First he used the vial. Then, cloaked as one of the angels appropriate to this place, Rahserat moved through the dreamlands. He persuaded, he tempted, he cajoled. He ministered to the souls, always playing off their better nature and always guiding them back toward ambition. This kingdom of the most uncaring god was naturally a place of stillness, where the unguided dead lost themselves. And though he did not specifically direct their re-awakened ambitions that could too easily invite scrutiny - he knew where striving would necessarily lead them: The new center of the dreamlands, the anti-deity Laroth. That Spirit master collected the newly aware dead into an army. An army to challenge the reigning Death God. Even if Laroth was doomed, his plotting weakened Arawn's hold over the underworld and especially his angels. If the grandiose plan succeeded Rahserat didn't know if Laroth would be any better an ally for his Lord than the Hidden Queen. But it would remove a god who stood with the One. Rahserat avoided the Forsaken Palace, Arawn's seldom-occupied center of power. Yet as he moved among that god's angels some show of participating in their increasingly disorganized and apathetically pursued work had to be maintained. Thus at times he walked the basalt and chalk halls, trapped for days, sometimes longer, in elaborate games of etiquette and influence. The dead-eyed black-and-white patterned angels that formed the palace guard and inner-administration, called phantoms, were unwaveringly loyal to the Grey One. Every other angel was suspect. Rahserat had to play a careful game both with those of certain loyalty and with those who might be Laroth's minions. But his Lord's cloak, his assumed identity, always held. Or, really, lack of identity. He started thinking of himself as the Other Angel. Never Rahserat. Never the angel he spoke to, or one that angel had just seen or spoken with. Always someone else. The Other Angel. Even when he escaped the Palace a feeling of self-alienation didn't leave him. Mirrors began haunting him. Usually empty, but sometimes they showed Laroth. Even Basium, whose thundering could sometimes be heard throughout the underworld, at least by an angel, would be clever enough to understand. What did Rahserat do so differently from Laroth? Both twisted the spirit or soul out of true, both always using something within the spirit or soul to do so. Laroth did so for personal gain, while Rahserat helped topple empires for his Lord, and thus for all of creation. But still the mirrors haunted. Rather than spinning a dream he could inhabit Rahserat felt he was unraveling himself, weaving a new Rahserat. One who took souls supposedly safe within the underworld and drove them on. Hell, the great machine that was Agares' greatest triumph, now reached here. Thanks to Rahserat. It was better than utter destruction, but the world would pay a great price to withstand the One. Even with angelic memory he couldn't know when it happened, on which sortie into the Palace it occurred. But while transversing a black stone gallery above the entrance hall Rahserat felt the arrival of the Death God. There was a pull, or a calling. Maybe it was what mortality felt like? But it was irresistible, and all eyes went to the Twilight Portal. A guard of phantoms assembled along the wide, descending stairway from the great doors. Their black and white ribbons hung limp, stirring only when they turned, as one, to face the Portal. Two were already by the doors and pulling on the great rings, swinging wide the doors and revealing the Grey One. Stern and aloof, he loomed in the open doorway like a thundercloud. Fine clothes, with both tunic and pants of a rich, thick cloth. But everything only in shades of grey. Pale silver from the lining and jet rings on the hands were the only adornments. And, like a cloud, he dimmed light in his presence. The phantoms at the doors prostrated themselves. Uncaring, the Death God passed them and descended the stairway. Each phantom going to one knee as he strode by. A wave of ribbons in absolute hues fooled the eye, blending and seeming still even as they rippled with the sudden motion. So flanked by motionless movement, by black and white mixed to grey, by the bowed heads of servants utterly loyal and completely unacknowledged, Arawn entered his palace. Rahserat should have fled when he first felt the god. He had no wish to test his masks against the Grey One himself. But Arawn could never be avoided indefinitely. And Arawn was already walking up the gallery. The illicit angel pressed himself into an alcove carved directly from the basalt. Fighting an urge to run Rahserat went to his knees, bowing toward the walkway, and then went still. The footsteps of the Death God and his retinue were the only sounds, and they were coming closer. Then they were before him, and died away. Hearing nothing, knowing Arawn stood before him, Rahserat looked up. Who are you? Suddenly unable to see, the god's demand hit Rahserat like a hammer blow. Was this how Iaegus fell? The angel felt like he might be crushed, caught between the god's pull and the need to escape. He choked back a damning response and concentrated on his Lord's precept. When Arawn turned his head Rahserat could see again. The god spoke to someone beside him. It hardly matters. Give him to your brother. Whatever's necessary should be done. Yes, Arawn. I will see to what's needed. The god walked on, leaving Rahserat with an angel of female aspect. Pale, with long hair utterly black, and wearing pure white. She looked after the god until that one, never glancing back or even to the side, had turned a corner. Then she beckoned Rahserat with a gesture. Stand. No, she wasn't an angel. She possessed too strong an aura. An archangel. A pair of phantoms waited at her side, one with a spear and one with chains. You may go. This one is no threat to me. You, she gestured to Rahserat again. You will come with me. The phantoms followed their god, and Gyra suddenly took Rahserat's face in her hands, seizing him with her eyes. I will not give you to my brother. I will not even see you driven from this place. For you have work to do. Her eyes blazed, lit by something Rahserat thought he'd seen before, but had long since forgotten. You see, little angel, I know who you are, though you do not. Gyra took him from the Forsaken Palace and to her own places on the edge of the underworld. She showed him many things. Though it was properly in the keeping of her brother, she showed him an unguarded and secret way into Erebus: The Ivory Gate. She showed him better ways to bend others to his will. She could wield compassion like a knife, a knife she gave to him. She took him into her home and introduced him to her daughter, and he though she said nothing he thought he saw a father beyond the daughter: A one-handed man with stars for eyes. And never did she remonstrate with him for his deceptions, for sending more souls on to fallen Spirit master, one who he knew she worked to stop. All of this surprised him. Especially the daughter, Korinna. But nothing shocked him like the false Laroth. They stood on a cliff somehow high above the dreamlands. Arawn made this place, to more easily survey his domain. My brother cares for other things and never came here, and Arawn comes here seldom now. But still, we shouldn't linger. I have something to show you, then a place for us to go. Come and see. He stepped to the edge and looked where she pointed. There, she said. Use your eyes, angel, and look upon the false new kingdom! It was subtle, but a part of the dreamland, the inhabited underworld, seemed organized. It flowed like the rest, but some dreams stayed apart, mixing only among each other. Reading the flow for pattern, Rahserat looked for that pattern's source. There a center. A huge hall, like an ivory vault. Mortals of all sorts at its walls and in the center a man with a mirrored crown. The would-be god, Laroth. Gyra touched his shoulder and Rahserat's gaze was torn from the distance. Then the archangel's pointing finger commanded his attention in a new direction. There he spied another seed of order within the dreamland's chaos. Another pattern. This one was smaller, and even more subtle. Furtive might have been a better word. At its center another hall, empty this time. But there was another throne. And on this throne... You look upon the new false kingdom, Rahserat. Now: Come and see. Gyra took Rahserat's hand, effortlessly lifting him with her as she rose above the cliff. Then, moving them in her own manner across the dreamland, Rahserat suddenly stood before the second throne. And the second Laroth. The features were the same, and the crown. But rather than empty pits a cloth band of arterial red covered the eyes. Rahserat turned his puzzled face toward the archangel. Another Laroth? Gyra nodded. A false one. Most of the souls you stir come to him. Especially the Patrians. Pelemoc, for example, is already here. But who is he? He is what the mirrors show you. Yourself. Even angels build from dreams here. That's why Arawn has taken them from the angels at the palace. And maybe why... She shook her head, midnight tresses covering her face for a moment, clearly changing her mind about what she'd been about to say. Continuing, she said And this is your dream. Or nightmare, I don't know. But this is what you thought you might be. Just like Laroth, but of course you'd rather not just feed his power. Here is your own power base. Souls have been gathering here just as they have around Laroth's throne. But the false Laroth, unlike the other, is completely your creature. He holds the souls here in trust. He will commend them to you, to do with as you will. Let them join Laroth, or swear to your god. Or you may keep them for yourself. This is an extravagant power you let him... let me possess. Even if it's far less than Laroth's. You oppose him, why do you aid me? I told you, angel, I know who you are. She refused to explain what she meant, as always, but made Rahserat and herself visible, then introduced him to the false Laroth. The Other Angel. Just as she'd said, the dream-formed Laroth accepted Rahserat as his Lord without the slightest hesitation. He obeyed Rahserat in everything. Laroth summoned some of the lords of men he'd already gathered, introducing Rahserat as their Emperor. Pelemoc indeed was among them, as was Melante. More, the false Laroth told him, would be with him soon. And there were. The false Laroth could do the work he'd been sent for, and better. He suspected Gyra had a hand in his formation, but that was another subject on which she would not comment. Eventually Rahserat realized he wasn't needed, and should leave. Esus might not want the souls to go to the real Laroth if there were other options. And, if nothing else, they could be sold or traded to the hopeful usurper. His Lord knew the price of everything. Rahserat bade the false Laroth to send him a portion of the souls he snared. His Lord might find an immediate use for them, and they'd act as proof. His Lord was not trusting. Furthermore, Gyra offered him a secret way out of the underworld. The ways of the Hidden Queen were almost impossible to find, and dangerous even then. With his mission fulfilled Rahserat had planned seeking passage from Basium. One way or another. But that choleric archangel might see past his masks just as Arawn had. Gyra's charge was entrance to the underworld, but she knew of a few ways out. The Ivory Gate was one. Finally, most importantly, she had a favor to ask of him. I want you to foster my daughter. Rahserat was sure he'd come to understand mortals far more since he'd arrived in the underworld. He'd had to act more furtively than ever before. He'd learned fear. He'd been discovered by one who stood to him as he stood to mortals. He'd learned defeat. And he, far older than most mortals could even comprehend, had been subjected to one surprise after another. This was another. You want me to take Korinna? Yes. She can't stay here. Despite my efforts she cannot... grow here. Erebus would be better for her. And she can open the Ivory Gate for you. She will go ahead, and is mortal enough to find it from the other side. It's the sure way.