Chapter 3: Well Met by Mischance
Resplendent Wood 14th, RY 768
Lireal Vendra was not a fan of the ground. Born and raised high in the trees, the prospect of spending one's entire life moving across a single fixed plane was mind-numbing to the supremely athletic scholar. As a young teen, the attractively fine-boned girl had been named a Verd Brachi, or "tree skimmer" in the native tongue of the reclusive People of the Forest. One of their ambassadors had spotted Lireal sprinting along a taut vine only a couple of inches wide, a hundred feet above the Haltan capitol's central tree-platform. The ambassador had declared it no mean feat even for one born to the Tribes of the Titan Trees. High praise, coming from one whose people had, legend said, been shaped by mighty magics during the Age of Splendors to thrive in the miles-high trees of the uttermost East. Lireal's mother, one of Chanta's most accomplished alchemist-healers, and the Guardswoman who'd apprehended her hadn't shared the ambassador's esteem for her skill and daring. The adolescent had been condemned to a solid six months of initially dreary herb grinding with mortar-and-pestle. A punishment which had, ironically enough, begun the young woman's lifetime love affair with thaumaturgy and the supernatural in general. Not that her more scholastic pursuits had ever dimmed her passion for skimming through the forest she so adored.
The memories brought a smile to the face of the bronze-skinned, emerald haired young woman with eyes the color of malachite. They heartened her, as she took a deep breath and finally stepped down from the branch-path into the city of Kajeth. When no terrible calamity beset her, Lireal let out the breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding, and then laughed at her own foolishness. Her ebullient laughter garnered the attention of two Marukani men passing by, but the beautiful young woman simply favored them with a Yozis-may-care smile that left the middle-aged merchants in bleached-white riding leathers flustered and self-conscious. As she moved off, Lireal's keen ears brought a snippet of the pair's resuming conversation to her. What she heard made her stop and strain to hear more.
"...Council of Entities, the Guild, and the rest of Nexus is in an uproar over it. Rumor is, several Councillors even begged, but the Emissary refused to budge. Didn't tell them when, or even if, he/she/It would return. The Guild's recalled as many Factors as they can for an emergency meeting. I hear Altiss, Karal Rashida, and Furious Storm-Breaker's caravans have already left the city. Rashida even broke contract with his largest supplier of age-staving cordial. He was in such a hurry to leave, he didn't wait to accept delivery of the latest shipment" the taller of the pair said. Noticing Lireal's less-than-subtle eavesdropping, he called out "Hope you aren't headed to Nexus, tree-damsel. The city's volatile as a firedust shipment before a thunderstorm right now. No place for a young woman making her first foray into the Confederation of Rivers, certainly." Then, having done his good deed for the year, the horse-lord motioned to his slightly younger companion to follow and continued on his way. Lireal was rather discomfited by what she'd heard. Nexus had indeed been her intended destination. The city possessed facilities and resources she desperately needed to succeed in her aims. Fortunately, extensive research had made it clear there was an alternative. Determined, she set off into the city to secure passage to it.
Unlike other Haltan cities, much of Kajeth had been built in the "conventional" ground-based fashion common throughout Creation. The reason for this was simple: Kajeth was the means by which the geographically and militarily isolated arboreal nation connected commercially with the rest of the East and points beyond. Prior to the city's founding, two factors had conspired to deny the tree-dwelling country the capacity to export its many valuable goods and natural resources. The first was Halta's treaty with the Fair Folk who occupied the country. In exchange for making their above-ground settlements off-limits, the Haltans had ceded the forest floor to the Fae as their rightful hunting grounds. For obvious reasons, this prohibited traveling anywhere the branch-paths (natural and created) didn't reach. Since the great redwoods grew less and less numerous as one proceeded south towards the rest of the Scavenger Lands, the restrictions on southward travel became total at a certain point. The rivers were safe from Faerie depredations, but travel by river ran afoul of the second contributing factor: Linowan. These aggressive boat-dwellers were the Haltans eternal enemies, and they controlled all the major waterways which flowed south into the confluence of rivers that gave the Confederation lands their name. Linowan river pirates would gleefully burn alive any Haltan they could capture, so deep did the hatred between the two peoples run. For their part, Haltans fed captured Linowans to their Fair Folk allies. With the Fae controlling the ground, and the Linowans controlling the waterways, Halta had been cut off.
Until the Haltans had discovered the headwaters of the Rock River. The Rock's existence had been no secret to the East's more southerly city-states. Extensive iron mining operations had long used the river to convey barges of iron ore downstream to the foundries of Nexus, but Halta had come to knowledge of the river's course late. Well south and east of Linowan lands, and over fifty miles south of the southernmost limits of Fair Folk territory. The Rock River had presented the Haltans with a potential solution to their commercial woes. If they were brave enough to make the huge financial gamble involved. Kajeth was the child of the Haltans' wager, and it had brought its parent previously undreamt-of wealth. The same waterway that transported the iron barges now saw massive shipments of rare medicines made from herbs available nowhere else. Haltan ironwood and steelsilk were always in great demand. Secret breeding techniques produced the famously intelligent san-horses coveted by the Marukani horse-lords in their quest to breed the perfect equine. Then, as if all Halta had to offer the outside world itself weren't enough, the great Haslanti League of Creation's far North had seen the advantage to be gained by partnering with the Haltans to create a wider market for their own unique goods. Haslanti feather-steel and never-melting ice arrived in northernmost Halta by airship, and then traveled by branch-path caravans to southernmost Kajeth. Where the goods were then sold and distributed throughout the East and points beyond.
The result was a trading locus which had rapidly grown to become a city of nearly one hundred thousand souls. A figure which did not take into account Kajeth's thirty thousand annual visitors. It was deference to foreign sensibilities which had informed the decision-making of the city's builders. Lireal hurried through the Foreign Quarter that housed the many resident and visiting merchants in its various complexes, inns, hostels and even taverns with rented rooms. Still, she couldn't help noticing things which gave her pause. The abundance of Guard patrols and the tension of the soldiers that made up those patrols, for one thing. The furtive, almost fearful expressions on the faces of merchants she passed for another. The four years since the Bull of the North's icewalkers had destroyed the Tepet legions and those Linowans who'd marched with them had been filled with an uneasy peace. Every Haltan knew that much and more besides. Halta had marched with the Bull, and the veterans of the battles who'd seen the Roka-Jin allies of the Linowan all but exterminated during the rout and massacre of the Realm's finest shuddered when they told of it. Though many cried that now was the time to finish the Linowans once and for all, the young woman had heard just as many others quietly note how easily total devastation seemed to fell entire nations in sudden holocausts these days. To this day, no one knew what had killed every man, woman and child in the city of Fallen Lapis. Lireal had suffered the same sense of waiting with nerves taut and breath bated as all her countrymen. Yet what she was seeing now was different. The immediacy of the expectations she sensed bothered and unnerved her more than she cared to admit, even to herself.
It took nearly three hours of brisk walking for the young woman to cross through the Foreign and Merchant Quarters to reach Kajeth's southern gate, and it was well into mid-afternoon by then. Lireal felt her hopes of finding a departing caravan she could book passage with as far as the river sink as she was waved through the gate by a nervous-looking young man in the green and brown buff coat of Halta's Guard. The left-most half of the great campground which began a hundred yards short of the city gate was used as a mustering ground for out-bound pack trains and caravans, Lireal had learned by inquiring with a passing guards-woman. That portion of the caravansary was deserted, with only two exceptions.
The first was a large, four-wheeled cart being hitched to a pair of unusually tall horses. One obviously impatient trader oversaw the loading of the cart with frequent shouts at the two teamsters loading the cart concerning some delay he'd experienced, as a lone private guard with a scarred face and pale white hair lounged nearby smoking a pipe. Watching lumber, nails, tins of grease and other sundries being loaded, Lireal quickly realized the reason for the merchant's anger. He was one of those who made his living supplying repair materials to the long-distance caravans. "The rapid exodus of the Guild caravans must have caught him unprepared, so they left without him" Lireal silently concluded. She felt a little sympathy for the man, but more for his employees. She'd been raised to believe employers were responsible for the well-being of those in their pay. Making others work harder and faster now, because the man hadn't the foresight to give the appropriate orders earlier didn't sit well with her. Yet it also reminded her to tend to her own affairs.
The other group looked more promising. They had a plainly fashioned yet sturdy-looking passenger carriage in addition to a large yeddim-drawn wagon, for one thing. Four men were loading heavy-looking crates into the wagon when Lireal walked over. She waited for a break in their labors, and then inquired as to their destination. The three younger men ignored the inquiry in favor of each digging out a small rawhide pouch. The contents of which the trio were quickly munching on with obvious relish, and loud crunching sounds. As the oldest of the men turned to answer her, the slight; lithe woman noticed each of the young men shared an unusually distinct trait. The right eye of each man was a strangely compelling iridescent swirl of colors. Their left eyes, on the other hand, were all the same dark green as that shared by the older man now facing her. The oddity gave Lireal a chill, but she ignored it in favor of focusing on the man in front of her.
"My boys and I ferry passengers interested in booking passage on the river-boat Vagrant Wanderer down to the bend in the 'Rock where she moors once a week. Unfortunately, it doesn't look like we've enough interested passengers to make the four day round-trip profitable this week, miss. I'm sorry if you were looking for a ride, but one fare doesn't even pay for the fodder the horses and yeddim will consume. What we make selling odds and ends to the Vagrant's captain and crew doesn't justify the trip without the fares" the tall, slim man explained with what sounded like genuine regret in his voice.
Lireal digested this statement, then inquired in a careful tone "How many passengers do you need to make the trip worthwhile, and how much is the individual travel-fare?"
The man's reply was immediate. "Four passengers is our minimum, at five dinars each, so twenty dinars to make the trip miss. Fare includes breakfast and dinner, but that's part of the problem. We buy food wholesale at an agreed-upon rate. Enough to feed me, my boys, and our fares. If I laid in the usual amount at the usual price, I'd take a significant loss in spoilage, miss. So you see, much as I'd like to oblige you, we can't help you unless three more passengers show up right swiftly. You could tell me where you'll be lodging for the next couple of weeks, if you like. I'm sure we'll have enough folks interested in making the trip by the time the Vagrant Wanderer is ready to make its next run downriver" he said.
"That won't be necessary...I'm sorry, I didn't get your name, sir. I'll pay you three and a half obols jade, if we can leave within the hour. Would that be enough to make it worth your while to forego other passengers and take the loss in spoilage?" Lireal asked.
For a moment the man seemed lost for words. Then, he turned to his three still-eating sons and shouted "Racing Cloud! Get your ass to the butcher's, greengrocer's, and back here right quick, you hear me? Driving Rain, Russet Fox, get the carriage cleaned and lay in the firewood. Move it boys, we've got a fare!" Turning back to Lireal, he mimed doffing a nonexistent cap and replied "It's Stooping Direhawk, m'lady, and that will more than do. For three and a half obols, you have my word we'll see you to the Vagrant Wanderer, and even wait with you, if she's running a couple days behind schedule or got a late start from the ore-loading camps. You'll come to no harm, traveling with me and my boys, my word before Caltia." With that said, he hurried off to direct his sons, who for their part seemed rather sullen and much less enthused than their father as they returned to work.
True to his word, Stooping Direhawk had the small venture stocked and ready to depart in less than an hour. Taking a seat inside the carriage alone, Lireal found the plainly-fashioned passenger conveyance simple, yet well-cushioned against the many bumps of the roughly cobbled road. Much of the day was already gone, but the paired horses pulled the carriage along at a respectable clip since the older man had made the almost last-minute decision to rent out the yeddim and wagon he wouldn't need this trip to the butcher's shop he dealt with. As a consequence, the young woman found herself sharing the carriage interior with Stooping Direhawk's oldest and middle sons, Driving Rain and Russet Fox. The youngest rode beside his father, armed with a cranked crossbow to discourage the odd highwayman. It didn't take long for Lireal to become uncomfortable alone with the pair, as they silently stared at her with the occasional brief speculative expression interspersed among the unnerving stares. By the time Stooping Direhawk stopped the carriage for the night, she was beginning to wonder if traveling alone with four men she didn't know had really been the wisest decision. When the older man courteously opened the carriage door for her, the young woman nearly shot from the cabin. Leaving the kindly man looking a tad bewildered as she walked off some distance away from the carriage to stand with her arms wrapped round herself. Guessing the problem after a moment, the man gave his sons a hard look, but they simply shrugged and climbed out silently to set about setting camp with their brother.
Despite the bright silver circle overhead, the dark of the night seemed to close in around the small campfire burning a few feet from the carriage. Stooping Direhawk had eventually come to tell her he'd laid out a sleeping roll beside the fire for her, but Lireal was far too anxious to sleep. Still, she felt foolish standing out in the darkness, creepy trio notwithstanding. Resolved to face up to them, the young women walked back into camp and set on one of the logs which had been pulled close to the fire. The eyes of the young men quickly fastened on her once more, but she resolutely put them out of her mind and turned toward their father. "How far is it to the river bend where the boat moors, sir?" she inquired. Glancing over at his sons, the man's eyes hardened momentarily before his expression softened in empathy as he turned back her way.
"Well, it's about sixty miles from city gate to the mooring-post. We generally make that in four and a half days, but that's with the pace of the yeddim drawing the wagon slowing us down. I reckon it'll only take us about three more days to get there with just the coach. We'll beat the Vagrant Wanderer there by at least a day. Maybe more if the Guild's problems trigger a work-stoppage among the ore-loaders. That won't last long, if it happens at all. The soldiers out of Greyfalls won't brook work stoppages. Once they crack a few heads and hang the ringleaders, that'll be that, and the Wanderer will be along with its hold full as always. I know how ugly that must sound to you, but each man working in those camps earned a noose lootin, rapin, and killing. Each man chose, of his own free will, to give ten years at hard labor hauling iron ore to barges like the Vagrant Wanderer in order to escape the noose. They've no right to harm the livelihoods of honest men, who harmed none earnin an honest living, by stopping work they promised to do in exchange for their worthless lives" Stooping Direhawk explained, his voice a touch impassioned, as he ran the fingers of his off-hand through brown hair which had started receding. Lireal nodded agreement, but privately she wondered how impartial the judges who'd heard each man's case were when the wealthy owners of the mines and investors in the ore-shipping concerns could wield considerable influence to ensure they always had enough free labor. Sensing her continued disquiet concerning his sons uncharacteristic behavior towards her, the middle-aged man struggled to stay awake. Yet he'd spent the hottest part of the day with the sun beating down on him, and was soon forced to say his goodnights and retreat to his bedroll.
At first, the three young men gave little sign they'd even noticed their patriarch retire. Huddled in a triangle around the fire, for a change they hardly looked at her. As they continued glaring at each other, Lireal felt her nerves drawing tighter and tighter as the night wore on. Out of the corner of her eye, she watched as first Racing Cloud, then Russet Fox cease glaring and incline their heads to their elder brother, Driving Rain. It was he who finally turned to look at her, and he who casually stated "Girl, I do not believe you are as oblivious as you pretend, nor a great enough fool to fail to know what we want. Submit, surrender your jade, do not fight us as we use you, and you may yet live to repent the poor judgment that lead you here. Otherwise the river will take its turn with your corpse when we are finished. Decide. Now" Driving Rain said, both eyes swirling iridescent pools in the yellow-gold of the fire's light as he rose and came toward her at a leisurely pace.
That was when Stooping Direhawk sat up in his bedroll with the crossbow in his hands, and put a bolt in Driving Rain's kneecap. As his son collapsed with an enraged yowl of agony and the others rushed their father, he shouted "They've gone mad! Run for the trees and keep the moon on your left girl!" He slammed the spent crossbow into Russet Fox's belly with his next breath, but then Racing Cloud bowled him over with a drawn knife in hand. Lireal's shock at the unfolding tableu had only lasted a couple seconds, but by the time she snapped out of it and began moving to help the man, his son was already rising with his knife dripping blood. A single glance made it clear Racing Cloud had just become a patricide.
Furious and weeping, Lireal raced for the trees, as behind her the hobbled Driving Rain shouted "Get her! If she gets away, she'll have the Monitors down on us in hours!"
The treeline opposite the river hadn't seemed very far away, but as Lireal ran it became clear the trees didn't thicken appreciably for some distance. Behind, she could hear the two men struggling to overtake her in the darkness, but from their frequent cursing guessed they were neither as accustomed to long runs as she was, or as adept at avoiding obstacles that could trip one up with their feet. Still, she didn't slacken her pace until she came upon the first truly large redwood looming before and above her. The moon seemed to be shining down with particular intensity on this particular tree, as if marking it out.
That was good enough for Lireal, who didn't even break stride as she reached the venerable redwood. It wasn't remotely as big as the giants of home, but she decided it would serve her purposes. One moment she was running along the ground, and the next she was running straight up the side of the tree as if gravity was a mere guideline. Ten strides brought her to the first large branch running perpendicular to the ground, about twenty feet above it. Crouching down on it, she willed a throwing knife comprised of shadows, essence and light into her hand with Spirit Weapons, sharpened her eyesight in the darkness of night to razor-sharp clarity with Unsurpassed Sight Discipline, and then waited.
It wasn't long before she saw the youngest of the twisted brothers. Racing Cloud dashed up, then stopped to rest, bent forward with his hands on his knees and breathing heavily some twenty feet from her tree. The furious Solar took aim, and with a well-practiced flick of her wrist, sent the blade flying. The slender essence-blade sunk deep into the center of the man's back, just above the waist. Collapsing with an inarticulate cry of pain, the murderer and would-be rapist pitched forward onto his belly heavily. Lireal counted off five more minutes silently, but when Russet Fox didn't appear she finally climbed down easily and strode over to the fallen man. Breath ragged and legs obviously paralyzed by the knife buried in his lower spine, blood trickled from the right corner of the muscular, dark-haired young man's mouth. Stepping into his restricted field of view with another conjured essence-blade in hand, Lireal angrily demanded "WHY?!! You murdered your own father! For what? For a few hundred obols and the opportunity to participate in gang-rape? I'd have given you the money, rather than see a good man like your father die. You could've had every whore from Kajeth to Great Forks. So...WHY?"
To her shock and consternation, the crippled man laughed. "You ask me why, but your words are the very answer you seek. For all your power, you are a weakling. The Law demands the submission of the weak before the strong. Give up your wealth, to save a man you'd just met? Your weakness sickens me, even more than my own. Go away God-blood. Let me die, as I deserve, for falling prey to a weakling like you. I see the world for what it truly is, now. In time, all the weaklings like you will be the slaves of the strong. It's the Law, and the Law is everything. There is nothing you can do to change that" Racing Cloud answered, his diatribe ending in wracking, bloody coughs.
Lireal was horrified by the man's evident madness and evil. Momentarily lost in that horror, she nearly missed stealthy footsteps times to coincide with the downed man's loud coughing. She spun on the ball of her right foot, intending to put the knife in her hand to good use, but a silvery shape fell into her field of vision atop the man she recognized as Russet Fox. Her breath hitched as long, razor-sharp silver claws flashed in the moonlight-nimbus which surrounded the newcomer. Long ribbons of shocking crimson spurted from the doomed man's shredded throat, as the claws slashed through it. The young would-be rapist collapsed, the newcomer turned in her direction, and Lireal was suddenly somewhere else...someone else, as their eyes met.
The Old One had been patient and clever. Lurking in the Primal Chaos since the deaths and defeat of its brethren, the Old One had completely remade itself. Every element of its overall form and its subsidiary deva souls unsuited to combat and conflict had been abandoned. Each particle of its being was now optimized for a single purpose. Exacting vengeance on the Exalted Host, by the destruction of their works, and by the annihilation of those beings they defended. For centuries, the Exalted had turned their attention outward into the Wyld, and most of the Host's military might was now far afield. The Old One recognized Creation's vulnerability, and realized the time to act had come.
The Mirror Oasis of Jaezzredal was only a fraction the size of Chiaroscuro, but the refinery city of the deep South was still home to more than a hundred thousand people. It was scoured from Creation in an instant by the Primordial's fury. The Dragon Blooded garrison of Pal-Shiear, three hundred and fifty miles to the northeast had been forewarned by the destruction of Jaezzredal hours earlier, but when the desert sands rose and morphed into a blizzard of razor-sharp blades, they were obliterated all the same. The Old One and its forces then tried to cross the Summer Mountains, but Seven Hymns Princess and her Faerie lover stymied its eastern advance with innumerable magical deceits.
Then it simply vanished. Only to reappear a week later, and three hundred fifty miles south of Rathess itself. Yellow Terror Dragon's Lunar mate Fair Xiulan had cautioned her husband against leading their six divisions too far afield, concerned about leaving Deheleshen and the rest of Hungry Dragon Prefecture defenseless. That caution now saved the Cradle of Man from extinction. Still, their army was at least a week's forced march from investing Khryal south of the Dragon King metropolis. Moving tens of thousands of soldiers across a thousand miles of woods and rivers in the two days they had before the Primordial bypassed the satellite fortress was not beyond the arts of two veterans of the Great War, but it would have meant spending the very strength Yellow Terror Dragon and Fair Xiulan needed to blunt the oncoming horror's first and most terrible surge.
The elders of Gens Teryk were the children and grandchildren of heroes. They'd been raised on their parents' tales of the Great Wars horrors, and each had read the confidential journals of their Gens founders when they were chosen for leadership positions in their bloodline. The eleven Terrestrials could well envision the atrocity to come if the army failed to invest Khryal ahead of the enemy. No Celestial ordered it, because such an order was wholly unnecessary. They poured out their lives, and gave wings of fire to the soldiers' feet. Although a thousand-mile swath of the East burned behind them, Khryal was invested and the ancient engines of the Rathess Pentacle fully awakened. The ancient gift of Ignis Divine to the Dragon King faithful, the Pentacle raised a great dome of essence over the city not easily broken.
Cheated of the slaughter it had anticipated, the enraged Primordial fell upon the Khryal redoubt with terrible fury. Its devas, Xexalliz the Captain In Crimson, and Melisyll, the Vizier of Razors dueled with Yellow Terror Dragon and Fair Xiulan atop the redoubt's highest tower, as the devas' host fought Dragon Blooded defenders to seize the walls. Yellow Terror Dragon fell at long last, but in falling cast down the Captain and a quarter of his host with him. Mad with grief, Fair Xiulan had devoured the Vizier, and then vanished.
Watching the battle from afar as her forces marched, Glenaella knew fear. She knew her duty, but she'd never commanded soldiers in anger against anything more than a Raksha warband stupid enough to trespass in their small tributary. She wasn't afraid of dying, for what Chosen feared death? No, the basis of the Twilight's terror was much more basic. She was afraid of failing. Failing the Dragon Kings, who'd already sacrificed more than she could comprehend to see the world made sane. Failing the Dragon Blooded defenders, who refused to yield even in the face of their lord's fall and their queen's disgrace. Failing the millions of men, women and children huddled in Rathess praying for deliverance. Now, that fear sought to paralyze her.
As if sensing her thoughts, Khyzin turned, placed one of his strong callused hands to her cheek, and murmured "Leadership is about more than tactics and life-taking, my love. The embattled divisions at Khryal already have experienced commanders for that. What they need right now is hope. You can give them that, beloved, as you give it to me every day. They need to be able to hope that help is coming, and that they have not been forgotten. Merela's forces crossed the sea only a day behind us, and Bright Shattered Ice is with her. She's called Jacint forth somehow, despite Calibration being months away, and even now the Prince Upon the Tower fashions a Straight Track for Merela's forces. Gens Teryk only needs to hold for two days. What are two days to the likes of you? In defense of the defenseless, I would wager you could hold Khryal yourself for two days. All they need is heart, and you have more than enough of that for all of them. Now, go and give it to them." Khyzin was a short, but muscularly compact man. Yet in that moment, he'd seemed a giant to her. His vibrant blue eyes, so intense and shining with unbreakable faith in her...It had made the fear evaporate, like dewdrops in the morning's light.
So she'd gone, and so she had given the defenders hope and heart. Yet she'd never forgotten it was her mate who'd first given it to her.
Lireal blinked, and then blinked again, as the vision abruptly resolved back into the present. Gone was the short and heavily muscled older man with eyes the color of a Northern glacier. In his place stood a tall, blood-spattered figure with green hair and bronze skin that hinted at mixed Haltan blood like hers. His eyes were as silver as the filled circle of his caste-mark, but they possessed the same blistering intensity as those of the man her predecessor had obviously known so well. The young woman found herself wondering if this Lunar warrior was any more Khyzin than she was Glenaella, but then realized she'd been completely oblivious and missed what the man was saying. Embarrassed, she tuned back in, just in time to hear him repeat his question for the third time.
"Are there any more of them?" he asked in a dangerous growl. When she nodded, he waited patiently, until Lireal realized belatedly he was waiting for her to continue.
"There's one more back at the campsite, about a mile beyond the tree-line to the southwest. He's...he has a crossbow bolt in his kneecap. His...their father shot him, trying to protect me, and they...They murdered him for it" she explained, struggling to keep her voice level. The man nodded once, then changed before her eyes into a great, emerald-maned forest lion of the furthermost East and bounded away.
Once he was gone, Lireal turned back to the man on the ground. Straddling the paralyzed man, the Solar leaned forward and clasped a handful of straight, light-green hair with her free hand. The patricide tried to remain stoic, but when she jerked his head far enough back to bring the knife in her other hand into view, Racing Cloud began desperately struggling against her surprisingly strong grip. "I could slit your throat from ear to ear, Racing Cloud. You'd feel colder than you've ever felt in your life. Alternatively, I could haul you back to Kajeth in your father's carriage. I imagine the magistrate would judge your polluted soul should go to feed one of Lord Slulura's Faeries. I don't have any first-hand experience with the subject, but I imagine having one's immortal soul devoured is probably just about the worst fate one could face" Lireal whispered harshly into Racing Cloud's ear, as the man continued his futile struggling.
Releasing him so suddenly his struggling caused him to face-plant, the angry Solar was careful to stay out of reach, as she rose and walked back around in front of her captive. "I'm not going to do either of those things, Racing Cloud. I'm too weak, remember? Unfortunately, that also means I'm too weak to bury Russet Fox over there. Now, Russet Fox died quite violently. Between that and his lack of burial, I'd say there is a very, very good chance he'll be coming back as a ghost" the beautiful young Exalt explained in a clinical, detached tone.
"Russet Fox is going to be hungry, you Yozis-damned piece of filth!" Lireal hissed, then hocked and spat on the man, before turning and stalking off to retrace her steps.
Following the scent of the two men back to the campsite was trivial for Davion. Near the still-burning campfire, he found the body of an older man just as the Solar had described, but the campsite was otherwise deserted. Criss-crossing it, his keen nose quickly discerned the scent of the missing attacker...and the man's blood. Following the intermittent blood-trail lead him perhaps ten yards from the fire, to a place where the grass was smashed down in a broad swath and wheel-ruts had cut gashes in the soil beside the road. The evidence painted a picture of panicked flight for the Lunar. With an angry chuff, he enacted Furious Hound's Pursuit. Between the Charm and the gift of all Full Moons, the chase would be a short one.
Several minutes after returning to the dying campfire, Lireal spotted the still-glowing Lunar drive the carriage round the bend in the road. Approximately fifteen minutes later, he pulled the horse-drawn conveyance to a stop beside the campsite and rejoined her. Eyeing him nervously, the analytical portion of her mind noted "He must have stopped at the river to wash of the...blood."
"Is he dead?" she blurted out, louder than she intended. A frighteningly hard expression momentarily crossed the young-looking man's angular yet attractive features at her question. The iron-hard look vanished as quickly as it came. Replaced by an almost puzzled, questioning look she didn't understand. Shaking his head as if to clear it, he paused, perhaps deciding how to frame his answer Lireal thought.
"He won't ever threaten anyone else. Though I apologize if my intervention was unwelcome. I've heard my elders speak about the compulsion to defend one's Solar, but I must confess I didn't believe the impulse would be so...visceral. I saw that piece of human detritus slipping up behind you with that stick, and the urge to rend the life from him seized me like a terrier taking hold of a rat. My apologies once more, where are my manners? I'm Davion Chance, Ikth-ya Wyld Wraith, to my fellow Chosen of Luna. As you can see, I'm one of the Bloody Huntress's warriors. May I have your name?" Davion politely answered and inquired in a very formal manner.
"It's Lireal...Lireal Vendra. I'm Twilight-caste, wait..how did you know I was a Solar?" she asked.
"I wouldn't have, had you been any other Solar. The instant I saw you, I felt the pull on my Exaltation. Our shards were made in pairs, and since it's the Lunar bonded to the Solar, the Lunar mate can always recognize ahem, their Solar. It's natural law, essentially. How the Great Maker, Autochthon, designed our Exaltations at the behest of our respective deities" Davion replied evenly.
Lireal seemed to digest that for a moment, then looked over at the body of the dead man lying near the dying fire. When she spoke, her lilting contralto voice was full of regret.
"I saw a great deal of death during my four years as a healer in the Republic's Guard. Yet I still froze when that piece of filth came at his father with a knife. It was just for an instant, but an instant was all it took for Stooping Direhawk to die. Die trying to protect someone Exalted to protect people just like him. How do I save Creation, when I couldn't save one good man?"
"First, the violence and death found in military conflict have precious little to do with the sudden violence of crime. While you were serving, you were trained to anticipate the potential for trouble while you were on duty. Yes, trouble could come while you were off-duty, but I'm betting it didn't for you, did it?" When Lireal nodded confirmation, Davion continued with "This sort of sudden violence..it isn't something training prepares you for. That kind of preparation only comes with experience, and I'm guessing you're something of a loner. You'd have had to be, to conceal your Exaltation as a Solar for any length of time in Halta. Second, being an Exalt actually predisposes you to the expectation that violence will be done to you instead of others. Living with the awareness you've been marked out for violence by the Realm and its Immaculate Philosophy simply does that to you, and it's something that again, takes practice to overcome. Finally, for all the power that comes with being one of the Exalted, we're still human. We make mistakes, just like anyone else. What's important is what you do about it going forward. It's a terrible tragedy, but you will honor this man best simply by working to ensure the next time it happens you'll do better" Davion responded, watching his listener carefully.
Lireal remained silent for some time, as she gave the more experienced Exalt's words her full consideration. The sadness and pain clouding her features gradually lessened, but continued haunting her dark green eyes, as she asked "Could you,..I mean, would you mind helping me bury him? I know taking his body back to the city would raise too many questions, but I can't just leave him for the raitons. He..Stooping Direhawk swore by Caltia the Eternal I'd be safe in his and his sons' company. He died keeping that oath, and deserves more than a shallow grave by the side of the road."
"Of course, Lireal. Men willing to shed the blood of kin, in defense of an innocent, are all-too-rare in Creation. Umm...I, I don't mean to sound grisly, but considering the circumstances, Stooping Direhawk's soul may not move on to Lethe immediately. We should provide some grave goods. Some jade or silver, I know just enough about the Art of the Dead to carve him a few effigy-guards, and...well..." Davion paused, trying to gauge how his listener was receiving his words, and then plunged on. "I think we should sacrifice the horses, and then burn them and the carriage in his name!" the Lunar blurted. Lireal's eyes widened in surprise momentarily, but then the Solar nodded emphatic agreement.
The full moon hung low in the sky by the time everything was prepared. There was a brief flash of silver, then the horses collapsed with their throats cut. Taking that as her signal, Lireal began to weave sorcery. Golden essence hung suspended between her gesturing hands, growing brighter and brighter with each passing moment. Finally, an eagle of white and ruby flames streaked from her outstretched hands. Its piercing cry of victory pierced the silent night, an instant before it struck the carriage and exploded in a towering inferno of white fire. In moments, the pyre consisting of the righteous man's remains, horses, carriage, wealth and prepared effigies was a blaze a dozen yards high.
Walking over to stand beside the grieving Solar, together the pair watched the pyre burn in silence. The sorcery used ensured the blaze didn't last long. When the last of the magical flames died away to reveal only a patch of white ash thirty feet across, Davion finally spoke in a low, soft voice. "We've done all we can, Lireal. You were headed somewhere before this, by the looks of things. May I ask where?"
Only a single sniffle betraying her feelings, Lireal shook herself and replied "Originally, I'd planned to go to Nexus, but when I arrived in Kajeth I heard the Emissary has left the city. My research indicated Great Forks was my next best choice to improve my grasp of sorcery, so I'd decided to book passage on a river-boat there. I'd hired Stooping Direhawk to take me to meet it. Now, I don't know."
"Why go to Great Forks, when you can just go to your Manse?" Davion asked.
"I don't have a Manse. My family may be wealthy, but they definitely aren't that wealthy, Davion" Lireal replied, a tinge of frustration entering her voice.
"Of course you have a Manse, or rather your predecessor did. I'll admit, Omega won't tell me where it is, geographically speaking, but that's no problem. Will you allow me to take you there?" Davion responded with a wry smile and twinkle in his silver eyes.
Lireal simply gaped at him.