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Shadowsbane (Read 3rd)

02 Jul 2011, 03:03

This is NOT Exalted by the book. I take lots and lots of creative license with this story. Perhaps I should say that it's Exalted-Inspired with some Exalted terminology and concepts. It's about Indiana Jones... an "archaeologist".


Shadowsbane, Part 1:

“A fine little circus you've got down here.” A voice remarked casually.

I turned slowly at the sound of those words, suppressing the overwhelming desire I felt to sock whoever was making fun of Team Firewander right in the teeth. When I did see the arrogant jerk, my temper cooled somewhat.

A hothead and a fighter I may be... but I am not an idiot.

The voice I'd heard belonged to a youngish Immaculate monk, probably an Air Aspect Dragonblood judging by the frosty color of his skin and the absolutely nauseating aura of pretentiousness that surrounded him. Of course, being the rightful Enlightened Princes of the Earth, Dragonbloods can get a little nasty around ordinary mortals like myself. Namely, they're liable to kill you if you make yourself too much of a nuisance.

o be fair, Team Firewander wasn't really at its best. Bruja, our “Purveyor of Brute Force” was picking her teeth with a knife clearly “made for killin' folk” while Little Fox, our resident Djala had just let loose a belch that absolutely boggled the mind and was scratching himself obscenely. Since it was insufferably cold on site, our Southerner Mehmed and consummate pretty boy Kasashi were crouched together over a kerosene lamp warming their hands. They were both dressed in more layers of clothing than I had in my entire wardrobe and looked supremely pathetic. Kasashi in particular hated Nexus's winter weather... which consisted of rain, more rain, and grey slush the consistency of old porridge sloughing off rooftops.

That being said, we all probably smelled like a pack of wet dogs.

Though he scoffed at the lot of us archaeologists, I could tell that the Dragonblood was a little intimidated by the sheer scale of the ruins he'd just entered into. The ceiling was a full twenty feet above our heads and both it and the floor were inlaid with steel tracks etched with arcane patterns in different kinds of jade and orichalcum. Of course, the tracks themselves paled in comparison to the enormous construct that hung still partially suspended from the upper track, glowering at all of us as we worked. It was made to look like a dragon and when we succeeded in clearing the rubble from around it, we expected that the craft would be more than fifty feet long, a perfectly preserved piece of engineering more than 1,500 years old.

“You, noble monk, have just set foot upon the legendary Whispering Serpent. We call that ugly bugger 'Fluffy”.” Little Fox jerked his thumb at the construct, though no one had asked for his input. The Dragonblood gave him a very condescending look, which didn't particularly surprise me. Fox wasn't known for his manners and didn't give a rat's ass what most Immaculates thought of him, particularly since they were generally complacent with the idea of his people remaining enslaved.

Mehmed gestured to the marks on the wall. “The Whispering Serpent is... well, it is like a tunnel for transportation. There are these great machines which fix themselves to the tracks you see on the floor and the ceiling over there and they...”

Of course, that was when the ground started shaking. Fox glanced at me, obviously concerned.

“I'm sure it's quite fascinating, but I am here on much more important matters.” The Dragonblood snorted, dismissing him. “What was that just now? A tremor?”

“A small earthquake.” I replied casually, as if it was nothing to be worried about. “People say that they're caused by all of the explosives we use excavating.”

“And you don't believe that?” The Dragonblood pressed, reading me effortlessly.

“Nothing we've ever used is strong enough to rock the city's foundation. We'd have no permits if it was. Personally, I think it's fae. We are halfway under Firewander after all.” I watched for the Dragonblood's response.

He didn't try to lecture me about meddling in fae business or trying to put myself in a position higher than the one I was born into. The Dragonblood looked honestly concerned, and that worried me.

“Do all of these ruins date from the Shogunate Era?” He wondered, pausing for a moment. It sounded a bit like he thought he was asking a legitimate question. The fact that he'd mistaken ruins from the High First Age for Shogunate Era ones surprised me.

I laughed despite myself. “If you think they were building stuff like Fluffy here during The Shogunate you are sadly mistaken! Nexus is thousands of years old, but built predominantly on a foundation of Gray River sediment. The original city has sunk hundreds of feet below what's now street level. There are Shogunate and Contagion Era ruins under every building in the Market District but down here is where the real fun is. Palaces of great golden demon-gods, doors you can't open with any amount of explosives, traps everywhere and all kinds of toy boxes full of ancient goodies.” I gestured to The Whispering Serpent.

“Of course, the tremors are worse in this part of the undercity than they are anywhere else. You can scarcely feel them above ground, that's how far down we are/ I'm sure you saw the Tomb of Night before you came in here. What you probably don't realise is that tomb was built on top of a building that was once taller than The Guild Hall. One of the first entrances to The Whispering Serpent was uncovered by an idiot kid poking around The Tomb of Singing Blades. A couple of monks found the way in when they came to clean up his body.” I paused, noticing two more Immaculates clumsily working their way down the narrow ladder which lead down from the Shogunate Era dig two stories above us.

“Just who are you anyway?” I demanded, turning to the Dragonblood with my hands on my hips.

He didn't yell at me, though he definitely narrowed his eyes. My crew stared in shock, unable to believe that I'd just addressed a Dragonblood like I would any other intruder on our site. Of course, if our visitor had been any ordinary Immaculate monk, he would have certainly beaten me within an inch of my life for insulting him. As it was, his reaction... or lack thereof, told me everything I'd wanted to know about his identity.

I started feeling a little sick to my stomach, knowing that I was about to begin what would have to be the cleverest misdirection I'd ever organised.

We'd been caught.

“My name is Summer Storm and I've been sent by Dean Peleps of your University.” The Dragonblood replied coolly, not even raising his voice. “Take me to your supervisor at once.”

“Well, Summer.” I smirked. From the looks of him, he surely went by “Storm”... but I wasn't in the mood to be cooperative, considering that I was about to lose my career and probably wind up back in jail. “I am the supervisor.”

“You are?” He frowned, surveying all of my tools hanging off of my belt and bandoleer. His eyes stopped for a moment on the pair of fine old firewands I wore holstered on my hips.

“Yup. Name's Sapphire.” I nodded, gesturing to my crew. “And these fine folks you see here are the red-headed stepchildren of The University of Nexus's Archaeological Department – colloquially known as “Team Firewander”. Bruja, Fox, Mehmed and Kasashi.” Each of them looked up at the sound of their names. If they were wondering why I hadn't mentioned Val, who was technically my supervisor, they didn't say anything.

“Oh.” The Dragonblood smiled slightly. “Dean Peleps warned me about you. Where's Professor Valen Basileca?”

“Val is working in the next section up ahead. I'll take you to him.” I offered, not at all surprised that Dean Peleps Nyubo had warned the Immaculates to steer clear of me. I was well aware that my “controversial” opinions and casual disregard of authority would have gotten me expelled from The University long ago if the Department's most brilliant researcher did not stubbornly plead my case every time I came up for review. Val was a Fellow himself and a favorite of the University's most generous benefactor, the eclectic Master Adamant Quill who was one of the most powerful men in The Guild and also owned a substantial portion of Nexus's Market District.

I led Summer Storm and his lackeys through the series of finely-crafted doors that it had taken us months to blast open and then down the stairs into the main temple. Two more quakes followed, each a little stronger than the last. The Whispering Serpent track came to a stop before a glass atrium with patterns of the night sky etched in silver and gold above our heads. Before us was a massive marble white structure, easily eighty feet tall with a set of monstrous green brass doors. Like the doors of The Whispering Serpent's access corridor, they had been opened with the repeated and liberal use of powerful explosives.

“Neat, isn't it?” I smirked, noticing that Little Fox was following just behind the two silent Immaculates who had finally caught up with Summer Storm and myself. He had a wicked look in his beady little eyes and I motioned for him to get lost. The Djala caused almost as much trouble for Val as I did and I loved him for that, but I figured it wouldn't be wise to further test the patience of the Dragonblood I'd already been mocking, particularly since I wasn't going to lead him in to see our real treasure.

I could only hope that he already found me abrasive enough that he would not insist upon following me. “Wait here. I'll be right back.” I gestured to a pair of makeshift benches near the Whispering Serpent's track. “I'd take you in further, but it's a little hazardous. Especially with the tremors.”

That was a lie, but the Immaculates bought it... and their supervisor did seem to hate me as much as I hoped he might. I knew he'd be launching a formal complaint but I'd deal with that when I actually had to and not one moment before. The three monks stared up at the mesmerising star patterns that formed the ceiling of The Whispering Serpent's way-station and one of them gasped as the patterns suddenly began to move. As the Dragonblood examined the station's controls in bewilderment, I slipped through the brass doors into a very dark chamber, illuminated only by thirty-two panels of ever-shifting golden glyphs inscribed on pristine white marble. I smiled in satisfaction as I saw Val gnawing on his pencil, sitting on the foot of forty foot tall statue of solid orichalcum, a magical metal rarer and more valuable than gold.

The statue was of ancient God that had once reigned over even the Immaculate Dragons, a god called The Unconquered Sun. Excavating First Age sites all over Nexus, Val and I had run across him many times before. Usually he was depicted as a well-muscled, armoured man with four arms, stern and serious in a manner that commanded respect. The massive idol we had discovered in this underground temple was singularly unique, and not only because it was the largest we had ever seen.

As opposed to looking down upon his worshippers with a haughty, fatherly demeanour, the God had a very silly, endearing sort of smile on his face. Put simply, it was impossible not to like him, and all of the bits of his prayers which were inscribed on the surrounding walls only made him seem even more wonderfully benevolent. Thought the worship of the Unconquered Sun during the High First Age had been omnipresent, whoever had built the temple that Val and I had been working diligently in had captured something very rare in monumental architecture, a sense of pure, genuine faith.

“The Big Guy” as we called him was Team Firewander's secret. We'd known about it him almost six months and it was getting more and more difficult not to reveal our spectacular find to The University. Fox and Kasashi were getting particularly impatient, hoping for better pay... but Val and I had other priorities. There were thousands of ever-changing inscriptions on the walls surrounding the ancient God, and once his existence was revealed, it would only be a matter of time before The Guild swooped in and arranged to have him melted him down for the exorbitant price his orichalcum body would fetch.

The ground shook beneath my feet.

The sooner we were out of our current dig site, the better too... because if the Immaculate Order knew that Val and I had actually translated ancient historical and religious texts that they hadn't had the opportunity to "edit", they would certainly seize all of our notes and probably execute the both of us. Providing, of course... that neither the earthquakes nor the fae happened to kill us first.

Of course, I'd known that I was dancing with death from the moment that Summer Storm and his companions had first arrived. There'd been rumors around The University for months about a trio of emotionless Immaculates grilling certain Fellows to find evidence of religious “backsliding” within the teaching and research staff. I had expected an inquiry myself, given my reputation as a troublemaker, but I hadn't expected Summer Storm to come all the way down to our dig site, the heart of our heretical knowledge-gathering machine.

Naturally, trying to dismiss the Immaculates outright would only have caused trouble for us. Though I was sure that my crew and I could have taken out the two junior monks on our own turf, we definitely couldn't fight a Dragonblood... and if we gave any sign of resistance, that would have given The University reason to launch a full-scale investigation, which could only end badly for Team Firewander.

Pretending that nothing was amiss and behaving as my usual sarcastic self was the only option. Raised by a god-blooded prostitute who ran a teahouse full of black-market dealings and did a brisk trade in thamaturgy on the side, I'd learned from an early age how to lie flawlessly under pressure. The only thing that really made me nervous was knowing that Fox would never be able to keep his mouth shut if he was brought before Dean Peleps.

I'd been standing over Val for more than a minute when he finally noticed me. He pushed his glasses back up on his crooked nose and grinned.

See, I've known Val all my life. When we were children, our parents forbade us from playing together, which was perhaps why we became the best of friends. Val's father was an extremely wealthy member of The Guild who sold my mother the teas that she brewed only for her very best customers. Val and I were told that we were from different worlds, but I'd never been one to accept limitations and Val never lorded over anyone. He had a sort of insufferable sweetness to him, which sometimes makes me jealous of his adorable little wife. Although we are almost exactly the same age, he looks older than I do. A lifetime spent in libraries and fussing around in ancient ruins has given him a sort of stooping posture and a pale cast to his skin. His silvery hair is always a mess, coming loose from the ribbon he uses to tie it and his eyes have such thick, permanent dark circles that some of his students at The University have taken to calling him “Professor Badger”. Personally, I've always considered him more of a ferret. One minute he's stern and serious, the next he's bounding around gibbering and clapping like a child in a room full of toys.

“Sapphire!” Val exclaimed, in fine "ferret" form. “Finally! I could use your help!” His eyes drifted towards the ledge that surrounded the entire main chamber about twenty feet above the floor. There were sets of inscriptions far above ground level that had once been accessible via a set of moving marble steps, but since neither of us possessed the Essence to activate the ancient machine, our preferred method of recording them was for me to climb up the wall and recite aloud to Val so he could write down the information. We were both fluent in Old Realm so the process went fairly quickly... but as we had learned over our tenure at the site, the inscriptions were subject to change without warning. Although I spoke Old Realm with less effort than Val did, since my mother had been a God-blood, his penmanship was beautiful and mine looked like a dozen bent nails driven into paper. “The inscriptions have all changed again! Could you climb up to the first panel on the west wall and start for me there?”

“I could.” I replied, speaking in Old Realm just in case one of the monks happened to be listening. Although it was possible that one or more of them knew the ancient tongue, it wasn't terribly likely. The Immaculate Order had little use for the small, insignificant Gods that were everywhere in the world, insisting that they be given their due feast days and no attention at any other time. Naturally, most people continued to provide for the Gods who looked after them, citing that it made more sense to thank your local cattle goddess who'd show up in person to bless your herds rather than the distant Dragons who'd put their “Enlightened” offspring in position to oppress the rest of us eternally.

“Except that you know, with three Immaculates waiting outside... it might not be a good idea for me to start reciting prayers to our lovely demon-god here. They'll think we're Anathema.” I finished, using the Immaculate Order's more-popular name for the Exalted of The Unconquered Sun, incredibly powerful beings suffused with divine sparks that had once ruled all of Creation. They, not the Dragonblooded of the Shogunate, were the builders of all the treasures that we unearthed.

What exactly “Anathema” ought to be called was a subject of much contention amongst the Team Firewander. Mehmed was a dyed-in-the wool Hundred Gods Heretic but he'd been an soldier once and virtually every curse word he had in his repertoire was "bloody, explicative, demon something". Bruja, heavily entrenched in her own particular tribal superstitions referred to the Anathema with an Icewalker word that I could barely pronounce while Fox, who actively hated Dragonbloods referred to anyone that gave them trouble as “the good guys”. Of course, Kasashi paid lip service to the Dragons like Val and I did... as everyone officially employed by The University was required to... but as the three of us were true students of history, we were likewise disinclined to let religious propaganda get in the way of solid research.

“Anathema? As opposed to run-of-the-mill heretics?” Val laughed slightly, though I could tell that the news I had just delivered did not sit well with him. Either that, or he was observed with the tremors which had started up yet again.

“You and I are far too spectacular to be ordinary heretics!” I retorted. Val picked up his notes and quickly put them back inside his satchel.

“Well, let's not keep our fine company waiting!” He proclaimed, his voice absolutely dripping with sarcasm. The two of us linked arms and marched out to meet Summer Storm and his companions.

“Professor Valen Basileca, I presume?” The Dragonblooded observed. He did not seem impressed by Val's permanently-flustered, disorganized appearance or the gratuitous amount of cheap sepia ink that stained his fingertips and clothing.

“I'm afraid you have me at a disadvantage.” Val admitted.

“My name is Summer Storm. I have been sent to evaluate the integrity of your Team Firewander. As you've doubtless heard, there have been whispers of anarchic behaviour and heresy amongst certain members of the Department of Archaeology. My companions and I have been tasked by your Dean Peleps to root out such... undesirables.” He explained.

“Well, my team may be a bit “rough around the edges” but they're good folk. We dig mostly under Firewander, you understand, so sometimes we run into patches of Wyld or beasts of one kind or another. Not to mention the tremors. They've been getting worse lately and there's no telling when a big one will tear out the very ground beneath our feet ” Val explained. “Hence the deportment of my crew. In the past ten years, a dozen researchers have been killed on this portion of The Whispering Serpent alone. Sapphire and I currently have only one graduate student and that's Kasashi. The other three you met are all mercenaries. They're here to kill fae if we run into any and do most of the heavy lifting. Well, except for Fox. To be honest, I don't know why we hired him.”

“Entertainment value.” I replied with a smirk. Fox had been my personal pick and I lost no opportunity to remind Val of that fact. He was smarter than the other three combined and reminded me a bit of myself. “And you know, if we are attacked maybe he'll hold off the fair folk with one of those roundabout stories of his, like he did last time?”

Val laughed at the memory. The Immaculates looked confused.

“That's something else which confuses me. If there are fae and earthquakes, not to mention Anathema traps... why are you mortals down here?” The Dragonblood pressed.

“We're cheaper to hire than you Enlightened folks.” I replied without thinking.

“Sapphire, that's enough!” Val scolded me. “For the most part, sir, we're salvaging magical materials. The oldest ruins have the greatest quantities of them.”

“Surely some of these things are better left alone?” It was the first that one of the other monks had spoken, and the look that Summer Storm gave him was absolutely paralysing. His murderous gaze was broken only barely by yet another earthquake. I'd lost count of how many there had been. A lot, probably. More than there ever had been on days or months previous. They were getting worse. Building up to... something, I didn't know what.

“The University doesn't think so. And might I add, The Heptagram is in agreement with The University on that account. They purchase most of our salvage.” Val informed the Dragonblood, who looked somewhat subdued upon hearing that we were at least marginally employed by The Realm's most exclusive school of sorcery to supply their students with a good quantity of magical materials necessary for crafting artifacts and weapons, like the white jade staff that he carried himself.

“All the same.” The Dragonblood replied. “It is necessary that we speak with the members of your crew.”

“Well, then let's go speak with them! I'm sure that you very busy gentlemen have much more important things to do than waste your time fussing around down here with the likes of us!” Val began to head back in the direction of Fluffy, obviously eager to get Summer Storm a solid distance away from the temple and The Big Guy.

“Oh no, not so fast!” Summer Storm interrupted him. He stopped just inside the first door. “We want to talk to each of them individually. In a civilised environment.”

“What do you mean by civilised environment?” I frowned.

“At the University. Where we may open and close doors instead of blowing them from their frames with explosives? Where we may sit in chairs instead of on piles of rubble? Where we may breathe air which does not reek of mold and urine?” The Dragonblood paused, waiting for Val to respond.

“Well, Mehmed and Kasashi are probably freezing to death anyway.” Val sighed in defeat. “I was hoping to work until sunset, but I suppose we could call it a day.”

“Yourself and your extraordinarily rude assistant are not needed, Professor Basileca. Dean Peleps has personally vouched for your character. It is the integrity of your... hirelings that is of concern to us.” Summer Storm finished. “We'll take them all with us.”

“And bring them back?” Val hazarded a guess. “I've paid them partially in advance, you understand? Due to the hazardous nature of the job.”

“Everything will be settled by tomorrow.” The Dragonblood said. But the way he spoke that word made it sound more like a well-rehearsed lie.

“Very well. Though I will warn you, if you think Sapphire is bad, Little Fox is worse. The both of them were raised in the very worst part of this city and they've no respect for anyone or anything. Fox doesn't mean what he says... well, honestly I suspect that he does, but he was denied a proper education and well... you must have some sympathy for the poor and ignorant?” Val rambled.

“You are a Professor, are you not?" Summer Storm turned to Val with a scowl. "Master Basileca, it would be advisable for you to stop excusing the behavior of your charges and begin educating them. You will find that not all of my peers are as... forgiving as I am."

Without another word, the Dragonblood swooped past the both of us, followed closely by his men.

“So, are we really calling it a night?” I suggested.

“Of course not.” Val replied, his eyes fixed on the darkness that the three Immaculates had vanished into. “We're working until they throw us out of here. Besides, I've got to show you the door that I found!” He whispered.

“Door?” I immediately covered my mouth, hoping no one had heard my expression of shock. Every door we'd encountered so far had required a pile of explosives to get through and probably more time than we had left, but it was hard not to be enthusiastic about another new room, another glimpse 1,500 years into a world that was almost too beautiful to imagine.

Once we could hear the sounds of everyone climbing up the later, Val and I dove back into the temple. While he scribbled in his notes and murmured about where he'd left off, I snuck into his bag and found the two peaches that his wife usually stowed with his research... one for each of us to eat as we worked. As kind as Lily was, it wasn't difficult to see why Val was so loyal to her.

Not that he hadn't had... other “offers”.

Resolving to be somewhat less of a bastard in my future lives, I set the two peaches in front of The Unconquered Sun and quickly mumbled one of his prayers that I'd memorised from reading the walls of his temple over and over again.

“What are you doing?” Val demanded.

“Nothing.” I lied, moving to the left just a little so that I was standing in front of the peaches I'd taken out of his pack.

“Talking to "The Big Guy" again?” Val laughed slightly. “I thought you didn't have any use for Gods?”

“Well, we both know that Immaculate Philosophy is basically bunk. Any archaeologist can tell you that, and most Gods aren't worth the incense you've got to burn to get their attention.” I replied.

“Most Gods?” Val laughed again.

“Burning Feather is easy enough to find, at least around Harlotry.” I remarked, naming my own grandmother... better known as “The Goddess of Intoxicants” who had often nursed her own ferocious hangovers at my mother's tea house. “This is different.” I finished, knowing I probably sounded as defensive as I felt.

“Oh yes, this is serious heresy! Because you mean it, don't you, Sapphire? You've grown attached to this place.” Val rolled his eyes. “Is that why you're leaving this great golden demon our lunch?”

“I don't know.” I muttered. “It seems like the right thing to do. You said so yourself. The tremors are becoming more frequent, there's still the fae and now we've got no crew and those Immaculates breathing down our necks. We're finished here. We can only pray we're not also finished at The University. I don't want to go look for a real job.”

“And you think old Sol Invictus will protect us from those over-zealous Immaculates, Dean Peleps and all of the pretentious fellows of the University?” Val sighed.

Together, he and I both stared up at the God.

“I dunno.” I paused. “A God like that might protect you from anything.”
Last edited by emerald viper on 28 Oct 2011, 23:33, edited 1 time in total.
 
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Re: Shadowsbane (Part 1)

02 Jul 2011, 03:16

Pfft, I don't care if it's canonical or not, this was terribly fun to read and I must see more. :dance:
Text in red is modvoice.

(11:18:32 PM) Xanti: The Bronze Faction does not care about your stupid anathema feefees.

This signature was foretold... BY GYROMANCY.
 
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Re: Shadowsbane (Part 1)

08 Jul 2011, 19:11

Shadowsbane - Part 2
(Again, let it be known that this story is not remotely canon.) Without further adieu, here is where we left our characters:

“I dunno.” I paused. “A god like that might protect you from anything.”


Val laughed. “Including lawyers, fair folk and all the fiends of Malfeas, eh?”

Clearly amused by my silly confession, he sauntered around behind the enormous idol and I followed him. Val stared up at the inscription on the slab of stone that made up the sun god's throne with his hands on his hips. It was one of the few that changed frequently, almost too fast to watch. Val studied it for a moment, his fingertips hovering a few inches away from the glittering lines of gold that ran through the flawless white marble.

"So where's this door of yours, Val?" I wondered, anxiously tapping my foot. At first I wasn't sure what he was waiting for, but then I saw the pattern myself.

"I never was, am always to be,
No one ever saw me, nor ever will,
And yet I am the confidence of all,
To live and breathe on this terrestrial ball..."


Oh!" I exclaimed. "It's a riddle! I know this one! The answer, it's..."

Before I said "tomorrow", the glyphs lined up precisely in the order that I had expected they would. Already ahead of me, Val pressed the correct glyph firmly with his thumb. The rest of the glyphs stopped moving, and behind us I heard a strange sound. The wall which had appeared seamless had opened with little more than a whisper, revealing a beautiful orichalcum door covered in what appeared to be living roses. The white blossoms were flawless, despite being hidden from light for so many centuries. Either they were artificial or there was some serious sorcery involved in their preservation.

"See the door now?” Val smirked, gesturing up to the inscription that he had asked me to read to him earlier, the first one on the west wall. I noticed that it had stopped moving also. Apparently Val was really onto something. “Now get up there and read me that panel, third section, followed by the third panel, second section!”

I sighed in defeat and put my right foot in the crack of the wall, seizing the nearest handhold I could, an irregularly shaped brick with barely enough space for me to dig my fingers in above it. Another two holds of similar size and I was on the first ledge. I studied the panel for a moment. It had not changed since the last time I'd read it, so I recited it quickly, almost completely from memory.

“You see many stars at night in the sky but find them not when the sun rises; can you say that there are no stars in the heaven of day? So, O man! Because you behold not God in the days of your ignorance, say not that there is no God.”


The sheer poetry of the piece was intoxicating. The long-dead priest who had composed the passage had clearly possessed a flare for the dramatic. If performing such a thing publicly wasn't likely to get me hanged, I would have jumped on the opportunity to do so... just so that everyone in Nexus could have the opportunity to hear those beautiful words.

While I'd never aspired to my mother's chosen profession, I did like to perform whenever I got the chance.

“Slow down!” Val ordered, furiously scribbling in his notebook.

“Complain, complain! We don't have all day, Val! It's probably almost dark already. If we're here too late, someone will come back looking for us!” I protested.

“You try writing Old Realm characters as fast as you speak, omitting, of course, your atrocious accent!” He groaned. Ignoring his teasing, I leapt over to the ledge in front of the third panel, slipping just a little as a small tremor rocked the temple. “Oh, do be careful!” Val winced.

“Want to switch places?” I taunted, looking down on him.

“Don't be ridiculous. Your handwriting is illegible! I'd call it chicken scratch, but a chicken couldn't read it!” He replied.

“Don't be stupid, Val! I'm perfectly fine! This is why you bring me on these excursions of yours, remember? I'm here to climb because you can't.” I put my hands on my hips and waltzed backwards and forwards along the ledge. Val was more nervous about heights than I was, and it was always funny to watch him squirm a little.

“I could get up there!” He protested.

“Eventually!” I teased. Though my mother had considered reading a relatively “useless” skill, she had diligently put me in dance lessons from the time I'd been able to walk. I pulled my scarf off of my neck and tied it over my nose like a veil, adding a few turns and overblown gestures to demonstrate how comfortable I was standing on that six-inch ledge more than twenty feet above the ground.

“Stop goofing off!” Val groaned. “Don't bother reading the whole bit. What's the fifth word in the second section?”

“Fate.” I replied.

“Right.” Val returned to his “door” and pressed the glyph for "stars" followed by the glyph for "fate". The door immediately slid open with an audible hiss, revealing a staircase. Rose vines curled up the steps, and a faint white-gold light illuminated the way up.

“Wow. I guess we won't need any more dynamite.” I stared in disbelief as I climbed back down to the floor. Val waited for me at the foot of the stairs.

“Going up?” He teased and then started up the steps.

Without hesitation, I bounded after him. We'd made our way up about four or five flights of stairs when we reached another orichalcum door. I immediately went for the handful of explosive charges I still had on my person.

Val stopped me. “I've got this, remember?”

He watched the door as he had the wall we had passed through and waited for a series of glyphs to line up. This time, the one he pressed read “compassion” and “courage”.

“How did you crack the code?” I wondered.

“It just came to me.” Val admitted with a shrug. “I sensed there was something to it from the first time we noticed the inscriptions moving. And while you were occupied with those Immaculates, I sorted out what it was. The last part eludes me, however. But there's one more character I'm not seeing.”

He studied the pattern again. The doors had not budged after he selected the glyph for courage, but that glowing glyph was holding steady while the rest continued to shift and change.

Seeing a glyph I recognized, I immediately pushed it without considering the possible consequences of my rash action. The orichalcum door began to open slowly, with the sound of a great number of locking mechanisms churning inside of it.

Val stared at me in disbelief. I smiled slightly, noticing that I'd impulsively selected the glyph for “patience”.

“It came to me.” I informed him. As the last lock disengaged and the door rolled open, Val and I stared in awe at the room we had discovered. The walls were lined in white marble columns veined with gold and a faint glittering of energy above our heads showed the presence of some kind of arcane net designed to hold up thousands of tons of dirt that had almost fallen into what appeared to be an exquisite little garden with a stone well at its center.

Hedges of moon-white roses and lilies lined the walls and a little curling path of silvery granite made a circle around the well. The ceiling was low enough that the medium-sized fruit trees were almost touching it. There were a dozen of them, all in need of pruning, appearing to thrive despite the absence of sunlight and the amount of time that had surely passed since they had been sealed inside the vault that Val and I had just opened.

“How is this possible? There's no sun, there's scarcely any water... it doesn't feel like the Wyld has intruded into this place!” Val wondered incredulously, dunking under the boughs of a fruit laden pear tree.

“Um, my bet is on that thing. It must be some kind of First Age device.” I pointed to the well. It radiated light and the air churned around it, like a stormcloud in the moment before a lightning strike. “Who knows how long it's been running? There's definitely a lot of power in this place. What if we've found the real source of the tremors?” I wondered. As if to confirm my guess, a massive tremor shook the floor beneath our feet. It was worse than any I had felt before, knocking me clear into Val, who also fell on his rear end.

“Ok, so the device is working, yes... but what exactly is it doing?” Val whispered, awed.

“Keeping the plants alive? Val, how should I know? I've never seen anything like it before! Maybe we'd better go get those Immaculates.” I paused, biting my lip.

“They'll never let us down here again if they see this!” Val protested. “They'll steal all our research!”

“I know... but you said so yourself, Val. The tremors are liable to kill someone.” I sighed heavily in defeat. “I hate the thought of giving this place up as much as you do, but if this machine the cause of all the shaking... what if it stops working? What if it's already failing? What if it stops doing whatever it's been doing for the past 1,500 years?”

We stared at one another in silence. Val chewed on his pencil.

“Honestly, it might be worth sacrificing our careers to get it turned off.” I sighed in defeat.

“We have careers? You mean to say, outside of being unwanted stepchildren of 3rd rate University and harborers of heretics and anarchists?” Val exclaimed. Being sarcastic was his way of saying that he saw my point and was with me, even if he didn't particularly like the conclusion I'd arrived at.

“I won't pretend I like this, but you're right. We can't use Essence and that must be how this thing is controlled.” Val paused as he noticed that I had taken several steps closer to the well. “Sapphire, stay back!” He reprimanded.

“I won't touch it!” I protested. “I just want to look inside!”

If Val said something more, I didn't hear him.

The light pouring from the well made it almost impossible for me to get close enough to see whatever was glowing so powerfully, but as I stood there for a moment amid all of the tremendous rumbling that had started up again, I began to make out the shape of a woman in the water of the well. It was not my own face, which Val most often described as “obstinate”... but that of a staggeringly beautiful blond woman with eerie green eyes and a strange symbol burning on her forehead.

There was someone inside the well, someone looking back at me... but what was more terrifying still was that I knew that stranger! I knew that woman and remembered her with terrifying clarity, as if I had seen her more times than I could possibly count. A deep sense of dread welled up in the pit of my stomach as her pale hand reached for me, breaking the flickering surface of the well! When her fingertips brushed my own, an invisible force caught me by the throat. Attempting to fight the ancient sorcery, I instinctively put both of my hands down on the stone sides of the well. Pain racked my body and I collapsed to my knees. I caught a reek of something burning and suspected it was probably my own skin. My palms were seared black where I'd touched the well. I was convinced for a heartbeat that I was about to die... but I couldn't bring myself to stand.

Only Val seizing my arm and wrenching it nearly out of my shoulder socket saved me. The rumbling was uncontrollable and all around us, the lines of energy that had held up the crumbled ceiling were flickering and fading, causing huge chunks of stone to come crashing down on us.

“Run!” Val ordered.

While usually I was faster than my old friend, my feet moved like they were weighted down with lead and my head still throbbed uncontrollably. Val was a few steps ahead of me when the staircase collapsed and managed to escape past the first door before it fell out of its frame and tumbled past us with a sound like a thunder. Trying to evade the falling door, I slammed into the wall and knocked the wind out of myself. Still, I had very little time to wonder about the condition of my ribs or my still-bleeding, burned hands. With no stairs left in front of me, I stared in horror at the twenty foot gap between the spot where I stood and the remainder of the staircase, a pit black as pitch and similarly immeasurable. Val stared up at me. He was shouting "No!" but I couldn't hear him, not over the roar of the collapsing rubble.

I jumped without hesitation, leaping from one piece of stone to the next as they teetered and fell in front of me. Shogunate Era machines from the excavation to the east of us came crashing through the wall opposite of the entry to the temple. Piece of marble the size of rickshaws rained down from above and Val caught my eye just once before a massive boulder forced him out the temple doors and back in the direction of The Whispering Serpent. I was sure that he hadn't been crushed, but there was no way he could make it back to me, not once that exit was blocked. I dove after the only exit myself, hoping to make it through before the falling rubble closed it permanently.

I'd never taken such a risky leap before, more than forty feet between myself and the ground. I prayed that I would land in a manner that didn't kill me. Not breaking any bones would be impossible. Of course, the moment I threw myself headlong into oblivion, the well behind me exploded in a world-shattering burst of light.

I should have died then. These days, people say that I was lucky. But it wasn't luck that saved me.

It was an act of God.
 
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Re: Shadowsbane (Part 1)

13 Jul 2011, 22:17

It was an act of God.

One moment I was falling like a stone, pummeled by a shower of dirt and rubble too thick to see through, and the next I caught a faint glimpse of a human figure, reaching out for me. I lunged for my rescuer with all of the strength that I possessed, not knowing if I was entrusting my life to Val or to the monstrous green-eyed woman who'd tried to kill me when I touched the well. I gritted my teeth, closed my eyes and prayed.

A thrill raced through me as I caught hold of a cool metal surface, smooth to the touch but not slippery enough that I couldn't grasp it. I didn't know what I'd seized upon at first, but whatever it was, it was stable. I was still wincing from the impact of falling rubble and holding my breath so as not to swallow worlds worth of dirt, but I wasn't fast approaching the death anymore.

At first I didn't even consider what I'd caught hold of or why it was so warm and clean when everything else was as cold and foul as the muck of the Gray River. I was too glad not to be falling. The floor still rumbled somewhat, but everything that could collapse in on me had already done so. Against all odds, I was still alive.

Far above my head I could see the hole that had formed... not more than ten feet across, but from the looks of things... right through the Shogunate excavation site all the way up into the middle of Market Street. The sun had just set and the stars were peeking out. It should have been dark, with all of our lamps smoldering under tons of rubble... but a beautiful whitish light filled the temple.

Of course, most everyone with any sense had run away from the site of the earthquake, but once the tremors stopped completely, it wouldn't be long before curiosity drew them back to look at the damage. I'd have to move quickly if I didn't want to be caught before I could help Val.

Fortunately, I had that light. It was like nothing I'd ever seen before, and everywhere I looked, the shadows where Val had feared that Wyld-mutated monsters might be hiding were obliterated. The ancient inscriptions flickered with life and the temple looked bigger and more spectacular than ever before.

Feeling the building strain in my wrists, I took a deep breath and swung my legs up so that I could sit instead of dangling in midair. When I saw what it was that I'd seized upon, the thing that had saved me from certain death, I stared in shock.

I was in the hands of The Unconquered Sun.

The God was holding me up with that same smug little smile on his face and the light that I saw all around me was bleeding from my own skin. Even if I hadn't spent the last fifteen years of my life traipsing around First Age ruins, I would have known what had happened to me.

In the words of the Immaculates, I'd become Anathema, a baneful, child-eating, village-burning demon. If I'd still believed anything that my mother had painstakingly drilled into my head, I would have gone running for the nearest temple and begged for someone to swiftly execute me. But it had been a long time since I'd last subscribed to her twisted philosophy. Grandmother Burning Feather had always said that she was completely mad, and though I didn't really care for her either... she did have a habit of calling things as she saw them, regardless of who she was liable to offend.

Really, I'd spent too many hours buried in books and basking in the grandeur of First Age ruins to believe for more than a heartbeat that Solars were monsters. If anything, I'd begun to see them as precisely the opposite. And now that I was one, well... I had no idea what to think!

I'd never held any hope of Exaltation. Though many of my mother's clients were Dragonblooded, the man she'd claimed was my father was an insignificant mercenary from Chiarascuro, only notable in that my mother had loved him somewhat, at least in her own way. By graduating from The University I'd escaped the life of a whore, and in heading Team Firewander I'd found the opportunity to do all three of the things I loved best. I could learn secrets, hunt monsters and help out some of the people that society routinely crapped on. It was the most I'd ever wished for.

And suddenly there was more.

Terrified as I had been only moments before, I couldn't bring myself to yell for Val. If he was on the other side of the wall that had collapsed, he wouldn't be able to hear me anyway... and standing in full view of the street for too long glowing like I was would be something akin to signing my own death warrant.

When I eased myself down from the palm of the God's hand, the ground wasn't shaking as ferociously as it had been... or maybe it was, but my feet nevertheless found a safe path through all of the rubble with unnatural ease. I saw the well still flickering faintly and something in the back of my mind told me exactly what I had to do. I leap effortlessly over the collapsed portion of the staircase and made my way through the ruined garden to the well, which could no longer force me away. I put both of my hands on the searing hot stones and told the machine to stop.

The green-eyed lady didn't appear, but in the well I saw my own reflection... an empty circle of glowing white light branded right between my eyes. According to the Immaculates, that meant I was one of The Wretched, the worst kind of rogue imaginable.

Despite how new and uneasy I still felt, and despite the fact that I was terrified that Val was dead and I didn't know what I was doing at all... I smiled slightly. Of course, I knew what The Wretched had been called in ancient times... names that were only marginally less damning.

Hidden Suns. Iron Wolves. Night Caste.

Yeah, “The Big Guy” apparently knew me pretty well.

I focused again on the well and I put something that came out of myself into the stone... Essence, I guessed it was, but I'd never consciously used it before. I was surprised at how easy it was, nothing at all like my mother had described the rigorous training she undertook in order to work even the simplest thamaturgy. With only my touch and my will to control it, the well flared brightly again and then went dark. For the first time since our excavations began, the ground beneath my feet felt solid and stable. No more tremors, never again!

If the power had departed me then, I think I would have been thankful... but if anything, the light around me had grown even brighter. Trying to smother it with my mind, I discovered I could mute the glow somewhat. It would have to be enough.

Without considering how impossible the feat I was about to attempt should have been, I leapt back into the hands of the Unconquered Sun. Val had often commented that I had been “starved for affection” as a child, caught between my angry and demanding mother and my itinerant grandmother, who like most Gods viewed the world with a degree of indifference, because nothing in it could really affect her. The only person who'd ever hugged me with any sort of regularity was Val's wife Lily, and that always made me uncomfortable considering the way I felt about her husband. In the presence of that great golden idol, I felt blessed. Loved, maybe.

All of Creation could call me a demon, but I would never believe that I was one. I'd been chosen. A handful of prayers and two peaches had somehow endeared me to the most powerful God in existence.

And now... I was Exalted. It was a lot to stomach all at once.

With another tremendous leap, I landed effortlessly on my feet in the middle of Market Street. I'd have to go back around and try to reach Val through the main excavation site, or, failing that... through the ventilation that we'd installed. No one could see me, most especially none of the young Immaculates who were currently interrogating our assistants. When Dean Peleps had assigned the monks to us, Val had promised that they wouldn't find any heretics on Team Firewander. He'd meant those words too, when he'd spoken them less than an hour ago.

But since then... everything had changed.

Words really can't describe what that first Essence-fueled run felt like. I understood immediately how the Dragonbloods had developed their notions of Enlightened superiority. I was trying to stay focused as I fled down Market Street, dodging anyone who caught a glimpse of me and ignoring the exclamations of shock and awe that I heard. Some mercenaries stumbled after me waving swords and shouting, but they were too slow to stop me, possessed as I was with the thought of getting around to Val. I literally flew from rooftop to rooftop, flaring like a magnesium torch and gathering a following of confused followers.

Most of them didn't seem to know what they were looking at.

I didn't care what Val would think when he saw me. I had to make sure that he wasn't bleeding out somewhere, or crushed under a ton of rubble. I'd never be able to forgive myself if I'd gotten him killed. He'd told me not to touch the well, and I hadn't listened!

Even as I clenched my feet and fought back tears, I couldn't contain the feeling that was welling up inside of me, stronger and stronger as I leapt from rooftop to rooftop. Running like that was the most wonderful, exhilarating feeling I had ever imagined! If I'd been a good acrobat before, I was brilliant one then! My instincts were sharper than they had ever been. Any fear I'd ever had of crashing to my death had dissipated like morning dew. I could not fall. With every step I took, I felt as I had in the presence of the God... as if I was being held up by something so much bigger than myself. Even flying didn't seem impossible. If I hadn't been on a mission to find Val, I knew that I would have kept running forever.

I landed effortlessly on my feet before The Tomb of Night. The guards, drunk probably, didn't even notice as I landed behind them and slid down the first ladder into the Shogunate-Era excavation. There were no other archaeologists working... they'd either left for the night or fled from the tremors. While I'd never liked either of the crews who above us, seeing what had become of their gear caused me to whisper a few choice words under my breath and double my speed back to The Whispering Serpent. I don't think I touched the ladder down to our site and I landed on the remains of one of our kerosene lanterns with an audible crunch. It didn't surprise me to see that Fluffy had fallen from the ceiling and was almost completely buried in blocks of marble. The thought of having to dig the construct free all over again was frustrating... but it wasn't until I looked in the direction of the Temple that my spirits really sank.

There was no way through. If Val hadn't made it all the way back to the ladder... and there was no way that he could have, he was trapped somewhere in between.

I slowly sank to the ground, evaluating my small supply of tools and explosives... nothing that could clear the rubble in front of me. I had nothing to make any kind of offering, but one of Val's notebooks was sitting near my foot and I did have a flint always kept close at hand. Taking one of my chisels, I struck a spark and lit the paper on fire, reciting the prayer that was written on it in Val's beautiful calligraphy. He'd be furious with me for destroying his notes, but as I spoke those words, I knew I'd never forget them. I could copy them from memory back into his book in my chicken-scratch if need be... as soon as we were both safely away from the site.

“I don't know if you're still listening to me.” I whispered to the Unconquered Sun. “But my friend is in there and he is going to die if I can't get through. I don't care what happens to me after this. Do whatever you want with me. Just help me save Val.”

That was when I heard it... the faint sound of scratching nearby. I jumped up in shock, immediately drawing my firewands which were suddenly glowing with golden light. I'd always suspected that the weapons had some fine magic in them that I'd never been able to unlock and I knew it for certain then. Still fearing to be seen, I dodged behind Fluffy and hoped that I wasn't dealing with Immaculates or fae.

“Come out at once!” I ordered. “I am armed and I will shoot you, but only if you try to hide from me!”
Those words had a certain force behind them, a familiarity that I had not expected. A strange thought occurred to me.

Righteous Devil Style.

I'd studied dance for years at my mother's insistence and had had learned to shoot in order to spite her, but martial arts were foreign to me... or at least they should have been. Yet somehow my body knew how to move. The positions weren't as comfortable as they would be with regular practice, but they were familiar, almost instinctual. I did not doubt that I was remembering something from very long ago, a different lifetime!

You see, the Immaculates claim that all of us have lived before, and that if we're good and complacent we'll be reborn into better circumstances and eventually as one of The Dragonblooded. Of course, since virtually no one remembers their past lives, one can never tell if one is actually moving towards Enlightenment or not. As the daughter of a prostitute, I never figured I had any way to go but up... at least not until I stood on the tracks of The Whispering Serpent and started remembering that I had been Exalted before! In my past life I'd been what I was now! Was that why I'd always been so drawn to archaeology?

“...Sapphire?” It was Val's voice I heard, though I didn't see him. He sounded shaky, but he was alive!

“Val!” I exclaimed.

“No, don't come any closer!” He ordered. I turned to see him anyway, but he hid from me behind a boulder.

“Listen, Val... I know what this must look like but you know me, and you know, all of our research? I'm not going to hurt you!” I pleaded.

I could see his foot sticking out a bit, so I knew where he was hiding. I came out from behind Fluffy, holstered my firewands and slowly climbed over the rubble towards him.

“I said stay back!” Val snapped, a strain in his voice I had never heard before. I froze.

“I'm your friend, Val. Your best friend!” I protested.

“I know. And that's why you need to get out of here. I don't want to hurt you!” He whispered feebily.

“Hurt me?” I blinked in surprise. “Val, you've never been able to land a punch on anyone! Not once in your life! And I ought to know, because I've dragged you home from every fight you've ever been in!”

Val hesitated. “Do you promise not to panic?” He whispered.

“I won’t panic, Val. C'mon out.” I sighed heavily.

“I can't!” Val protested.

“Then I'm coming in there after you!” I replied without hesitation. Val covered his face as I landed on my feet directly behind him. “Don't look at me!” He cried. “I'm a monster!”

“Are you glowing?” I wondered incredulously.

Sure enough, there was a nebulous aura of silver flickering around him and the dark circles that usually surrounded his eyes were more obvious than ever before, almost giving him the look of a black mask, like a badger... or a ferret?

“I told you!” He snapped, his voice breaking into a sound that was definitely not a human one, almost a snarl. “Stay away from...”

He didn't finish his sentence. The moment he actually looked at me, his jaw dropped and he leapt to his feet, wrapping me in a bone-crushing hug and sniffling as I'd never known him to do. Val was always a lot more emotional than I was, but I couldn't remember him ever crying on my shoulder before, not even when we were children.

“Um, Val? I sill have a neck you know, and you’re breaking it.” I laughed slightly, mostly to conceal my own apprehension. What were the odds of two Anathema being born or reborn, whichever it was... so close to one another, and at the same time? And yet I'd always known that the two of us were connected somehow, on a deep, unknowable level.

We sat for a moment in silence and stared at one another.

“So what do we do now that we really are... A.... Anathema?” Val stuttered.

I laughed slightly. “Honestly, Val… you don’t believe we've been possessed by demons, do you? Think about all of our research! The hell with out research, how do you feel?”

He smiled slightly. “Surprisingly good, considering that I’ve just had a building fall on me. Really good, actually… better than I’ve felt in years.” He admitted.

“That's because it's not a curse. It's a gift.” I informed him.

“Are you preaching at me?” Val wondered.

“Take it however you want.” I replied. “When the sun comes up, I am going to buy a whole bushel of peaches!”

“Our research!” Val grabbed me by the shoulders and shook me furiously. “Gods, do you have any idea what this means? We’ll be able to do ten times, a hundred times more than we’ve ever dreamt of!”

“Yeah, uh... Val? Even if our crew didn't confess about the statue, someone's going to see him in the morning. The quake was so bad that the street collapsed. There's a ten foot hole in it right above the big guy's head... that's how I got out.” I informed him. “And if we're not fired outright for hiding our find, we’re still going to have to cut the number of papers we publish in half.”

Val’s face fell. “What? Why?”

“Val.” I sighed. “Need I remind you that you and I are both glowing?”

“Oh.” He observed. “Oh dear. You’re right, of course. How silly of me. I simply thought that it would be so wonderful if we could actually fix The Whispering Serpent, excavating it is one thing, but could you imagine what it would be like to have it running again, to repair the dams and have the city all lit up at night? I don’t see why we couldn’t try. These things were built to last forever.” He put his hand on the cold stone and stared at the tracks crisscrossing over our heads. I put my arm over his shoulder and he sighed in defeat.

“I can’t help it!” He admitted. “I have big ideas, you know that! And... and they're bigger now! They're so much bigger! I simply can't explain!”

“And I’m not saying that I don't understand you completely.” I replied, smiling slightly as the spark returned to his eyes. “I’m just saying that we need to be careful, and before we do anything else, we need to get you to Emerald Viper.”

“Emerald Viper?” Val stared at me with his jaw dropped as if I’d just suggested he jump off a building into the Gray River. He never left the University except to go home or to our dig site. He knew about Emerald Viper... everyone in Nexus did. Aside from my mother, she was the most dangerous whore in Harlotry, and she also had ties to every mercenary company in the city. “Didn't she try to poison your mother? And didn't your mother set her wardrobe on fire?”

“No, mother poisoned Viper. Unsuccessfully. And it was Viper who set mother's kimonos on fire. But that wasn't where it began. The two of them have been feuding longer than I've been alive. It's not easy to get Viper completely alone, but we can do it. I'll call in some favors.” I admitted. Though I was ashamed to admit it, even after becoming employed full-time by The University, I hadn't cut ties with the whores and drug peddlers I'd been raised around. “I may not always like it, but I'm still Three Pearl's daughter. And the granddaughter of Burning Feather. That gets you places in Harlotry.”

“So why don't we go to see your mother instead?” Val wondered.

“Because I like her marginally less than Viper, and because if she wasn't a whore she'd be an Immaculate monk. Also, there's also a certain rumor about Viper which I happen to know to be true.” I admitted.

Val raised an eyebrow in my direction. “You don’t mean that she’s…”

“Oh yes.” I smirked. “She’s a Lunar, my friend... just like you. She'll be able to help us. And she will, for the right price. Which I think I can afford.”

“I suppose I should have guessed.” Val laughed slightly. “You know, Rose calls her “the scary snake lady”?”

Rose was the younger of Val's two daughters, just about ten. “Smart girl.” I smiled slightly.

Val’s face fell. “Oh, the girls! Lily.” He sat down on the railing of the whisper bridge and stared at the street. “I can't... I can't go home like this!” He whispered helplessly. “Can it be reversed, do you think?”

“No. No, that's not even a question! Val, don't you understand?” I demanded. “This was always meant to happen to us. We've been Chosen! Now we can do everything we've ever wanted to! The Whispering Serpent is just the beginning!”

“Sapphire. I... I can't handle this right now. To be honest, I'm not sure why you can... and it is scaring me somewhat. I agree that we need to get out of here before someone comes looking for us. But we can't be seen or we'll have Immaculates on our heads in a heartbeat. If Viper can help us, that's where we need to go.” He glanced towards the ladder.

We waited until neither of us were glowing. In silence we made our way up a few ladders and through a section of The Whispering Serpent that had not been buried by the quake. A staircase halfway consumed by boulders let us out just under a famous First Age bridge that stretched across the Grand Canal from the Theatre District into the north end of Harlotry. Val glanced in the direction of the Yellow River, north to the section of town where he lived, and then stopped to examine the architecture where we stood. Of course, very few people understood why the structure was called “The Bridge of Whispers”... because very few people knew about The Whispering Serpent that had once run everywhere under Nexus and perhaps as far away as Great Forks or Lookshy. Val touched the remnants of glyphs carved into the stone. It was difficult to tell what he was thinking. He seemed torn between wanting to run home and wanting to test the power he'd been given.

I felt like an absolute scoundrel. I'd never wished anything bad on Val's wife, but I'd often been jealous of her. Val could never dream of doing anything that might hurt Lily, and because I knew that, I avoided admitting how much I truly cared for him. I'd never understood his temperance. Just like my grandmother, I was the sort of person who went after who or whatever they wanted, consequences be damned! Of course, the one thing I knew I could never have was what I'd always wanted most. I wanted Val to look at me as he always looked at Lily, as if I were a decent person rather than his brash, unapologetic pet hellion with an itchy trigger finger, a criminal record and a list of about eighty demerits for every conceivable University-related misbehavior.

For the first time ever, it was just Val and me, freed by destiny from The University and our families and the whole world, given the opportunity to zealously pursue our mutual passion, the restoration of the world as it had once been. Finally we could travel together, maybe to Gem or one of the other places I'd only read about.

It was what I'd always wanted, only now I wanted nothing more than to give Val his life back. I was afraid of what he'd become without his little circle of stability. I'd always secretly suspected such a thing, but I could see it in his face then, ugly and true as it was. No matter how hard I tried, I would never be good enough for the both of us.

“What about Lily and your girls?” I wondered uneasily. Val turned slowly to face me, his face cold and emotionless. Even when I thought he'd been crushed to death in the quake, I had not been as afraid for him as I was at that moment. Though I often teased Val for being too intellectual and physically frail, it was his soft heart that had always seemed fragile to me. But as our eyes met, I could see it hardening like a piece of flint. “We could get them a message from you? Tell them that you’re alive? Maybe arrange for them to move to... wherever we find ourselves?” I suggested.

“No.” Val took a deep breath. “They'll be safer if they think I'm dead. Let's just go.”
 
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Re: Shadowsbane (Part 1)

13 Jul 2011, 23:26

Poor Val. :( I'm really liking where this is going, though.

I also really like that Exaltation feels so natural to your character, as if it's just a natural extension of something that was already there. Oh look, the entire manse is collapsing the stonework around my head, of course I'm going to jump to avoid getting crushed. Hey, I'm glowing! :night:
Text in red is modvoice.

(11:18:32 PM) Xanti: The Bronze Faction does not care about your stupid anathema feefees.

This signature was foretold... BY GYROMANCY.
 
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Re: Shadowsbane (Part 1)

16 Jul 2011, 03:25

Part 4:

“No.” Val took a deep breath. “They'll be safer if they think I'm dead. Let's just go.”

Val followed me through the streets of Harlotry like a little lost sheep expecting a wolf around every corner. Not that he was wrong to be paranoid. When I caught sight of some of Chao Gongfang's boys watching him with interest, I made sure to give them a warning glare, my fingertips brushing my firewands to remind the thieves that I was armed, and that the “easy mark” passing through their territory was under the protection of a local. They quickly disappeared.

Granted, if anyone did happen to tangle with Val, they'd probably be getting a lot more than they bargained for, especially considering how jumpy he was... but my friend was clearly out of his element.

So were Gongfang's lackeys, technically speaking. They weren't supposed to be operating south of the Bridge of Whispers, but since the reigning slumlord of Tellnaught was murdered a few months back, it'd become obvious that old boundaries were being re-negotiated. In any case, I really preferred to avoid any potential fights. I needed to save the little energy that I still had for negotiating with Viper.

“C'mon, Val!” I chided him, elbowing him in the ribs. “You're acting like you've never been down in Harlotry before”

“I haven't!” He admitted. “Well, never on the streets at night, anyway! I don't remember this neighborhood being so bad when we were children.” He remarked.

“Oh, believe me... it was worse!” I rolled my eyes and sighed heavily, pausing for a moment in the middle of the street with my hands on my hips. “Harlotry is the real reason they call this city “The River Harlot's legs”. Anything you want and everything you don't, you can find it on the east bank of the Gray River. You probably never noticed how nasty it is because time around here runs the opposite of the rest of the city. When the sun goes down, that's when the work day begins! And we, my friend, are here bright an' early! You want the grand tour? I know all the sordid stories!”

Val didn't respond. He squinted through a cloud of rising sewer-smoke at the chains of red paper lanterns that criss-crossed the narrow cobbled streets just over our heads. They illuminated the signs of the better brothels, but they didn't make too much light. Marks being able to see more than three feet ahead would have annoyed the whores and the muggers equally.

As fate would have it, Val's moment of hesitation placed him directly in the path of the door to The Drunk Duck Inn, quite possibly the worst establishment in the whole of Nexus. The building itself smelled like a pigsty baked in the sun and its regulars were noticeably more pungent... but even Bloody Bill, the one-eyed proprietor, had certain standards.

“Get out of here, you mad cow!” He bellowed, throwing an old woman out the doors. It would have seemed like cruelty to anyone who didn't know better, and likely, that's what Val probably thought it was until the victim of the bartender's assault rose to her feet, cussing and spitting through what little remained of her blackened teeth.

“Are you all right?” Val wondered uneasily.

“Nice man!” The old woman beamed. Val grimaced, smelling her breath. “Help poor Old Bagsy, yes?” She offered him her wrinkled hand and he helped her to her feet. “Good man! Bagsy very grateful. Very, very!” She babbled, quickly making a move away from him... before he could notice what I'd already seen. For sure, my senses were a lot sharper than ever before, but at the same time, it didn't take a genius to figure out that anyone playing helpless in Harlotry was a con artist, a thief... or both.

As it was, I even recognised the old bitch.

“Not so fast, Coinbags!” I warned. The old woman's victorious grin soured as she turned and caught sight of me. “Give him back his money.”

“What money? Poor Bagsy have no money! Husband die! Old Bagsy work hard, work hands to bone!” She protested.

“Oh, I've seen you work those hands!” I reached for my firewand and she gave an exasperated sigh. Spitting on the ground again, something too foul and black to recognize, Coinbags turned back to Val and reluctantly returned his pilfered purse.

“Now scram, Bagsy! Get!” I ordered.

The old bitch hissed at me like a feral fey thing and then loped off with an agility that made her apparent advanced age look somewhat suspicious. While I didn't doubt that she was old... I'd never been convinced that she was really human to begin with.

“She robbed me!” Val gasped.

“Yeah, that's Bagsy for you.” I snorted. “Just be glad she wasn't propositioning you at the same time.”

“Sapphire!” Val protested, raising his voice loud enough that someone must have heard him, even inside of The Drunk Duck.

“Sapphire? Sapphire!” A familiar voice exclaimed. I looked up just in time to witness Honeysuckle throwing open the shutters of his room on the second floor of The An-Tang Princess, which was across the street. Honey was well-named. His skin was the color of cinnamon and his long hair carried a luxurious golden sheen that perfectly complemented his amber eyes, flawless complexion and aquiline features. In short, he was one of those beautiful boys who made every woman jealous... especially since he openly preferred men.

I was generally not in the market for company of Honeysuckle's quality myself, but like I've said before... being born and raised in Harlotry does come with certain “advantages”.

Of course, to make his sudden appearance all the more memorable and shocking for Val, Honey was dressed in nothing save for a pale lavender scarf... tied around his neck.

Honey's present client, an older Dragonblooded man blinked owlishly in the sudden light from the street, obviously surprised by the neglectful behavior of his very highly paid whore.

“Aww, sweet Honey!” I laughed, reaching out as if to hug him from where I stood on the street. “I haven't seen you in forever and a day!”

“Oh, I know!” He gasped melodramatically. “I am feeling so neglected I may swoon! I miss my wild woman! Why don't you come up for a romp, eh?”

He leaned over his windowsill and made an asinine little kissing face.

“You've got a client, Honey.” I reminded him. “And I am a poor academic. You know I can't afford you, sweet-cheeks!”

“Bagsy discount? For nice lady?” He suggested with a feigned southern accent, notably meant to imitate one of Harlotry's most infamous streetwalkers, Empty Coinbags... the same ancient prostitute that had just pickpocketed Val outside of the Drunk Duck.

“Oh no, We've already had one run-in with ol' Bagsy tonight!” I laughed. “I just chased her off.”

“Ick, ick ick!” Honey grimaced, hopping in little circles and flapping his hands furiously as if he would shake off the invisible traces of filth that simply hearing the name “Bagsy” conjured for him. After a moment's prancing, he turned back to me – cured, it seemed.

“Are you sure you don't want to come up and play, dearheart? I promise I won't bite. Unless you want me to that is.” He grinned mischievously.

It was an old, old game between us. Though he'd been nearly silent for most of our walk from the dig site, I saw the faintest smile on Val's lips. In light of everything that had happened to us, I suppose it was nice for him to see that some things would never change.

That was when Honey's client decided that he'd had enough. “The sonova bitch left!” Honey gasped in mock horror. “That little pencil-dick! He didn't even pay me!”

“How unthinkably cruel!” I laughed.

Honey pouted for a dramatic moment and then slipped on the white kimono that hung on his bedpost. “Well, I suppose I must get back to work then! But if you're not available sweet, however shall I keep myself busy?”

“As if anyone could resist you! Goodnight, my love!” I bowed dramatically and Honeysuckle returned the favor, giggling like a hyena.

“I suppose his bark is worse than his bite?” Val remarked dryly as we crossed a small pedestrian bridge over the canal.

“Oh no. Honeysuckle can get a good scream out of an Immaculate monk.” I replied.

That was when we finally reached our destination, Emerald Viper's house of ill repute. Aside from my mother's “teahouse”, it was the largest building in Harlotry, three stories tall with two dozen rooms, a parlor for games and even a little stage adjacent to the bar where dancers and itinerant bards would sometimes perform... on the nights when Viper wasn't shocking the pants off her regulars herself with her fire-eating and other “exotic” talents.

Strictly speaking, there were three kinds of brothels in Harlotry, the cheap and nasty ones like The Drunk Duck, the expensive and classy ones like The An-Tang Princess and my mother's Three Pearls Teahouse... and the ones that simply defied all imagination. Viper's establishment was that third kind.

In addition to being huge, the building was also ostentatious in every possible way, with red and gold columns and green shutters that only drew a little attention away from the black tiled roof that was done up in the style of an Imperial palace. A magnificent sign illuminated with brilliant green gaslights hung over the double doors which were thrown open, allowing patrons to stagger in or out at will.

A half dozen Realm soldiers were hanging around in the middle of the street, apparently placing bets on whether or not one a certain prostitute could take the pants off of one of their prudish friends with her teeth. Watching the calm, confidant expression on the girl's face as the soldiers argued all around her, I suspected she was about to make a lot of money.

Val stared at the sign over our heads in absolute horror. “Does that sign say what I think it says?” He whispered.

“Yup.” I laughed. “Welcome to Anathema's!”

“How does this place stay in business?” Val whispered, pointing at another girl nearby who was covered in silver body paint. A little pair of false wings were fastened to her back, and she was sitting on the lap of a huge soldier who had a very silly looking paper crown on his head.

“A very particular clientele. Rich, perverse jerks with exotic fetishes, mostly. About half of the regulars are Imperial Army, waiting to ship out to someplace or another.” I explained. “This place is blacklisted, so of course it's incredibly popular.”

“But...” Val began.

I could guess what he was about to say.

“It's all theatrics. All of these young Realm kids want to kill themselves some demons. They want to be big, stinkin' heroes.” I informed him as a gold painted whore with rabbit ears danced past us, leading another very drunk soldier up the stairs. “And here, for the right amount of coin, they can get themselves a princess to save from some horrible fiend... or a little trussed up “Anathema” who'll beg and plead and call them “daddy”. You know, if they're into that kind of thing.” I sighed. “There aren't any real monsters here... just girls with cat ears and fluffy tails and pretty little golden boys in chainmail loincloths.”

“Except for... Viper?” Val supplied, very quietly. “You say she's... how do you know that, anyway?”

I noticed that he avoided saying the word “Lunar”, but I suspected that even his little evasion was somewhat better than saying “Anathema”. Not for the first time, I bit down on my lip in frustration. How was it that Val... of all people, did not seem to understand that what had happened to us was a good thing?

“Well, that's easy.” I replied, a little more sharply than I'd intended to. “I slept with her.”

Val blanched and tripped his way up the steps. He would have fallen flat on his nose in the doorway if I hadn't caught him by the back of his shirt and helped him to his feet.

The two of us were filthy, but that wasn't unusual for Anathema's. As I'd explained to Val, most of the regulars were Realm soldiers looking for a wild night at one of the most notorious blacklisted establishments in Nexus. The rest were river pirates, about two steps up in social standing from the usual crowd at The Drunk Duck. Two Dragonbloods, obviously the officers of the men we'd seen carousing outside turned to stare at us where we stood darkening the doorway. I pointed at Val and pantomimed “drinking too much” and the Dragonbloods laughed, returning to their mahjong game.

I noticed with amusement that the man who appeared to be losing had acquired a dozen silver and gold circles painted on his face, presumably “targets” to punish him for betting beyond his means. Beyond that, I really didn't have an opportunity to take in the scene, at least not before a girl in a flimsy white silk garment that did absolutely nothing to conceal any of her generous curves came skipping in our direction.

Like Honeysuckle, Kitten was a whore I knew well. She stopped before Val with a little dancer-pounce and adjusted the furry black cat ears that were attached to her headband.

“Oh, meeeeeoooow!” Kitten gushed, draping herself all over him. “Hello, scrumptious! Say, would you like to tie me up and make me your prisoner?”

Val turned absolutely as red as a beet and I swore I could see smoke pouring out of his ears. Though he took my usual teasing in stride, it was obvious that the more-accomplished whores were breaking his composure. Granted, he was under and awful lot of pressure to begin with.

An uncomfortable thought occurred to me. Shouldn't I have felt the same? Why was I so comfortable with the idea of being – truly Anathema? If my mother or anyone from the University ever discovered what had happened to me... there'd be no place in Creation that I could hide.

That thought was a little sobering.

“Leave him be, Kitten.” I sighed. “We need to see Viper.”

“Well, the Mistress is busy.” Kitten lied... and not very well. I didn't begrudge her that. It was her job to dissuade anyone who asked to see her boss. Part of the reason that Anathema's was still in business was because no one seemed to be able to deliver a court orders to its proprietress.

“We'll wait.” I replied, guiding Val to a table near the back. He sat down and sighed in relief, blushing slightly as Sei Shonagon brought us some warm sake. Sei was one of Viper's more sophisticated ladies, and while Honeysuckle and Kitten had nearly sent Val running for the river, I suspected I might convince him to let Sei give him a good massage.

Val's twitchiness was making me nervous. A little alcohol would be a good start to calming him down. All things considered, I could definitely use a drink myself.

The sake was cheap, but it didn't make me feel like I was inhaling paint fumes – and we hadn't paid for it, so I said nothing about our hostess's hospitality... or lack thereof.

Before I realized what I was doing, I had finished off most of a bottle. Val toyed with his first cup which had long since gone cold.

“So, what are you thinking?” I asked him.

“I don't know.” He admitted. “This place, everything about it...”

“Harlotry is a sewer, Val. What you see here is all the life these people have. They don't think further ahead than the end of the night. Most of them can't read and can't do any figuring unless it's the price of a new kimono or a keg of ale. I came to the University because I wanted a better life. Granted, if I need to play “one of the girls”... I can do it. It's in my blood. It would be stupid to pretend that I don't know this place like I do.” I paused. “But I'd rather be out digging with you. Always.”

“Digging is what got us into this mess.” Val remarked.

“Thinking is what got us into this mess, Val. Plenty of people dig who don't have brains! Like Fox!” I laughed, and then realized belatedly that I had no idea where Little Fox, Kasashi, Mehmed and Bruja actually were. If everything had gone impossibly well, they were probably back at the barracks laughing off the whole interrogation, but somehow I doubted that was the case. Especially in light of what had happened with the exploding well.

“I hope the team's alright.” Val paused.

“They're tough!” I punched him in the shoulder. “C'mon, Val... you know that no man – not even a great Enlightened Dragonblood can withstand the power of Fox's belching! Bruja will kill em' all while they're gagging on the fumes, Mehmed will part out their bodies for jade and Kasashi will write a song about it!”

Val smiled. “A song?”

“What's wrong with that?” I demanded.

“Well, Kasashi has never struck me as the musical type. Perhaps it would be a great epic poem instead?”He suggested with a smirk. “Nay, even the might of the Elemental Dragons cannot withstand this noxious fury! We had better leave now... in a hurry!”

“Val, you can write better poetry than that!” I groaned.

“Of course I can! I was trying to sound like a student! To be fair, I've never actually read any of Kasashi's work, but do you remember those papers we graded last fall for Professor Grace?” Val asked. “I think we decided on an award for the most innovative spelling of “traditional”? T-e-r-d-i-s-h-i-n-a-l?”

“Bleh! Don't remind me!” I laughed despite myself.

Val was tentatively peeking out of his shell, and I was all too glad for that. In the dim light of the bar, the indistinct black shadow around his eyes drew my attention just as it had when I first saw it. It was proof that I hadn't imagined everything the two of us had just gone through.

We really were changed... but were we different?

After a few minutes of joking and reminiscing, Val waved for Sei who refilled our sake. He'd finally finished his first cup and poured himself a second when the warmed bottle arrived. I was about to have another myself, probably my fifth, when Kitten came scurrying up to our table.

“Okay, so the Mistress wants to know why you're here.” Kitten whispered. “Don't start staring over my shoulder, but she's in the pantry right now. And she might meet with you, if she thinks you're not wasting her time.”

“Good. Nice to see that we're finally getting somewhere.” I replied, ignoring Kitten's warning not to look behind her. As I saw it, anyone who didn't already know that Viper took special visitors in her pantry wouldn't figure that out from one patron briefly glancing in the direction of the kitchen, maybe wondering when her food might be ready.

“Tell Viper that my friend Val here is thinking about getting a tattoo.” I paused, waiting for Kitten to absorb the message as I'd intended it. Viper's true nature was no secret to most of her employees, and Kitten was no exception. She stared at Val who sighed heavily and nodded, burying his face in his hands. Kitten's mouth widened into an “o” and she quickly raced into the kitchen without another word.

About five minutes later, Kitten returned, looking more than a little frazzled. “The Mistress will see you now.” She said to Val.

Val stood slowly and glanced briefly in my direction before following Kitten into the kitchen. I went after the two of them myself and found myself staring at the half-open pantry door as if it were a gateway into another world. In a sense, it was.

I hadn't been lying to Val about my relationship with Viper, I'd just neglected to mention how one-sided it had really been. Though Viper treated her people well enough, she did have a sort of patronizing attitude towards all of them, an attitude which I'd noticed also carried over to me. Then again, according to her own reckoning she was more than three hundred years old... which I supposed gave her the right to act superior to the rest of us “little mortals” who lived out our whole lives in what was nothing more than a lazy weekend from her perspective.

Really, I had no idea how long Lunars could live, although I knew that it was longer than Dragonblooded, and they lived six or seven times longer than ordinary people did.

And as for Solars...

I instinctively touched my own forehead at the thought.

I loved the thought of being a hero, but actually living forever? Was I immortal now? Or if not... so close to it that one day counting years would just seem silly? If I didn't do anything fatally stupid, would I be just like Viper, three hundred years from now... surrounded by throngs of ignorant, adoring fans and a small contingent of loyal servants who knew just enough to be terribly afraid of me?

I suddenly felt sick to my stomach.

“Come in, Val.” Viper said, her voice soft like velvet, just as I remembered it. Usually she was brash and nasty, but when she had the proper motivation she could be very seductive.

Val didn't even glance in my direction for approval. He just sort of slipped into the pantry.

“The Mistress said she'd see your friend. She didn't say she'd see you.” Kitten stopped me just inside of the kitchen.

I ignored her and started to follow Val.

“Stay out of this, Sapphire!” Viper's voice warned from just beyond the doorway. I couldn't see her where she sat. “I know you think you know what's going on, but you have no idea!”

“No idea?” I snapped. “I brought him here!”

“Damnit, don't make me throw you out!” Viper warned.

Still grumbling to myself, I went back into the bar and say down at the same table Val and I had been sitting at before. I put a finger in my sake and stirred it for a moment.

Val was my best friend! He wouldn't even have known to look for Viper if I hadn't brought him through her front door. I didn't see how there was anything that she could have to tell him that I couldn't know!

A sweet, rank smell that I recognized immediately stung my nostrils. There was someone sitting across from me, but it wasn't Val or Kitten. A tendril of opium smoke rolling out from a cracked green glass pipe and a smile of cherry red lips and purposefully blackened teeth, like an old Realm prostitute caught my attention first. That is to say... nothing else of the person sitting across from me was actually visible, save for that wicked smile.

See, that's the thing about Gods. You never know when they're around because you can't see them until they want you to.

Very slowly, languorously, the God phased into visibility.

First came her hands. Gold and silver rings adorned every one of her mummy-white fingers and her long nails curled almost twice over themselves. Then came her many kimonos... red, green and gold, each layer as garish as the exterior of Viper's brothel and embroidered with inhuman precision.

An elaborate antiquated hairstyle formed itself before my eyes, feathers of chartreuse, cinnamon and cornflower blue growing out of nothingness along with locks of silver-frosted black hair. Little flames danced at the tips of each feather and loose tendril of hair, creating an elegant if somewhat bizarre picture.

Last but not least, a body and a head, both heavily powdered and reeking of opium layered with perfume filled out the ostentatious costume sitting across from me. The Goddess's face would have looked younger than my own, except for the fact that her eyes were ancient and mismatched, one the color of the last embers of a dying fire and the other as green as absinthe and twice as hypnotic.

Burning Feather, The Goddess of Intoxicants... my grandmother, smirked at me.

“No more for you, poppet!” She scolded, slapping my hand away from my sake and finishing the cup.

“I'm hardly drunk!” I protested.

“Nor should you be! No descendant of mine loses her wits after a single bottle of sake!” She retorted. “Though I suppose you've a right to mourn your impending dismissal from The University?”

I snorted but didn't dignify that barbed comment with a response.

“Or is it... something else that weighs so heavily on your pretty little head?” She taunted, drawing a very distinct circle in the sake that Val had spilled on the table earlier with one of her claws.

I felt the blood freeze in my veins. She knew? Did that mean that... all Gods would know? If that was the case, I'd never succeed in hiding from my mother's thamaturgy! Maybe I had a lot more to learn about being Exalted than I'd previously thought.

“I would have told you.” I finished lamely. “But you already know.”

“Of course I already know, poppet! But tell me all the same!”

And so I told her everything that had happened all day from when the Immaculates had come onto our dig site up in the late afternoon until Kitten had thrown me out of the kitchen only moments before she appeared. I tried not to sound too starry-eyed as I described my run across the rooftops but found that I could conceal nothing when my grandmother asked me if the Unconquered Sun had spoken to me.

He hadn't... not with words anyway. But at the same time, he had.

I cried as I hadn't cried in years, rubbing my nose raw and red on the dirty sleeve of my shirt.

“I'm starting to think that maybe I don't know anything. I definitely don't know what he wants me to do!” I admitted finally. “But I'm going to do it! Whatever it is, I have to do it! Do you know what it's like to owe somebody your life? It's like that but...even worse! Better? I don't know which!”

For a long while we sat in silence, facing one another.

“I would keep this a secret from your mother, were I you.” My grandmother remarked. That bit of advice didn't surprise me. The relationship that my grandmother had with my mother made my relationship with her seem friendly by comparison. As far back as I could remember, their fights had always revolved around one of two things... either my mother avoiding something my grandmother wanted her to do, or my grandmother purposefully withholding something that my mother wanted in order to goad her into doing that something she'd been avoiding.

Still, I was a little surprised that she'd taken the news so well.

“You're not upset?” I wondered uneasily.

“Upset? Why in all Creation should I be upset with you, poppet? Upset is what I was when your mother developed a taste for Immaculate philosophy and encouraged her patrons to stop sending me offerings!” My grandmother laughed. She took both of my hands in her own and smiled slightly. “Honoured is what I am today. Finally, one of my daughters has made good!”

Even though I knew very well that she didn't like to be touched, I literally leapt up from my seat and hugged my grandmother in the most awkward way possible, my face pressed up to her obi.

To my absolute shock, she actually hugged me back... if only for a moment. Careful not to scratch me with her long clawlike nails, she patted me on the head.

“Alright, that's enough hugging!” My grandmother brushed me away, not forcefully, but I still stumbled a bit. “Can't have you smelling like opium when your beau comes out!”

“Val is not my beau, grandmother.” I sighed in defeat, knowing I'd never convince her otherwise.

“All the same.” She took my chin and kissed me on the forehead as she hadn't done since I was a little child.

“WHAT?!” Viper's voice roared from the adjoining room, loud enough that everyone in the bar stopped what they were doing and stared. There was a sound like a herd of elephants fast approaching and with a force that nearly tore her door from its hinges, Viper came barrelling out of her “office”.

To put it bluntly, Viper is no small woman. What she lacks in height, she makes up for in sheer brute strength and force of personality. Originally from a small island in the far southwest, she has skin the color of dark chocolate and shoulder-length black hair that she regularly braids with twenty pounds worth of glass beads. She wears her own weight in gold jewellery but her preference for clothing is usually none at all... or as little as she can get away with. Viper appeared that evening in a very flattering orange silk ensemble that left very little of her body to the imagination. Her snakelike eyes would have appeared to be a wild pox, or some sort of clever illusion to anyone who didn't know that they were as real as the intricate moonsilver tattoos that were very visible on both her arms and legs.

While I didn't care for Viper the way that I cared for Val, we did have a bit of a history and my earlier meeting with Honeysuckle had only served to remind me of how long it had been since I'd had a bed to share with anyone. If Viper decided to take advantage of me, I was just drunk enough that she'd probably get whatever she wanted and I'd get nothing out of the equation. I cursed my own stupidity and hoped that I could still make the best of things for Val's sake.

Viper stood with her hands on her hips and gave me her absolute look-of-death, which sent Sei dodging behind the bar and Kitten running for cover. I had a pretty good guess as to what Val had told her and was suddenly glad that my grandmother had finished drinking my sake for me, before I could have used it to further impair my negotiating skills.

“Sapphire Indari! In the pantry! NOW!” Viper ordered.

“I'll have my eye on you, poppet.” My grandmother whispered in my ear. With a wink, she vanished.

Wiping my tear-streaked face with a bar towel, I composed myself and followed Viper into the back.
 
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Re: Shadowsbane (Part 1)

16 Jul 2011, 12:05

Oh dear. I hope Viper isn't too hard on her (or it's just for show!).
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Re: Shadowsbane (Part 1)

03 Sep 2011, 05:05

oh neat


will there ever be a part 2?
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Re: Shadowsbane (Part 1)

05 Sep 2011, 09:34

Some things may change in this continuation. Bear with me, I've had a few ideas:
_________________________________________________________________________________

I tried not to react badly to Viper's sudden demand but a good number of people stared at me anyway.

Very slowly I followed Kitten into the kitchen. I hesitated a moment in front of the open doors to Viper's pantry. With two dozen rooms in her business, she could have used any one that she liked as an office, but she seemed to prefer being somewhere without windows where prying eyes wouldn't be able to catch sight of something that they shouldn't. I suspected Viper also liked being within spitting distance of her winecellar.

It was her habit to work even later than most of her girls and if she was upstairs she probably had to request someone to bring her another bottle or two on most nights just before dawn.

As it was, I didn't get more than two steps into the dark pantry before Kitten closed the door behind me. Viper seized me by the neck. I only recognized her from her perfume and for a heartbeat I thought that she was about to kill me – not that I could guess the reason why.

But then she whirled me around and our lips met in a kiss that would have shucked the pants right off an Immaculate monk. Like most everyone raised in Harlotry I'd fooled around with both girls and boys since puberty but my preference was definitely for men. That didn't make Viper any easier to resist. As damned good as she was, anyone would have kissed her back.

Even if they hadn't been drinking.

When she released me from her ferocious embrace, I staggered into the wall.

“Well!” I took a deep breath. “Not what I was expecting, but...”

“Sit down, fool!” Viper ordered, plopping herself on top of her overcrowded desk and shoving a chair in my direction with her foot. The bells on her wrists and ankles jingled. I did as she ordered and she leaned forward to stare at me with a smug smile on her face. With her chin in her hands and her elbows on her knees, her generous assets were very difficult to ignore.

“Ahem?” Val cleared his throat. I hadn't even noticed that he was still in the room.

I composed myself as much as I could which was not very easy considering that Viper looked hotter than the green flames of Malfeas in the candlelight. More to the point, she'd already managed to completely unlace my shirt.

She dangled the lace under my nose with a mischievous smirk. “Couldn't help myself, darling.” She admitted. I tried to take the lace back from her but she quickly pulled it away from me.

“Oh no-no-no! Show me!” She taunted.

I didn't have to ask what she wanted to see. With a heavy sigh, I called up the mark on my brow. A whitish light tinged with gold filled the little room and Viper inched towards me with a childish expression on her face, reaching out in my direction as if she had to touch me to be sure that what she was seeing was real.

She jumped back like she'd been bitten by a snake when her nimble fingers brushed my caste mark.

“Luna's great big tits!” She exclaimed. “You are a Solar!”

“I'm guessing that Val told you?” I hazarded a guess.

“Yes, and I didn't believe him.” Viper replied. “I've only known you since you were born, dear! I can't tell you how shocked I am that I never guessed!”

“Viper, this all happened only a few hours ago.” I admitted.

“Oh no. Exaltation isn't like that! You're born for it. It's your fate. You're only a Solar now because you were always meant to be one!” She informed me. “To be honest, Sapphire... this mess you're in is way beyond my expertise! I've been with the Seneshals since the Solars started returning... I suspect it's been more than a century now.” She sighed heavily. “But in all that time I've only gotten to know a handful of Solars – mostly young ones who were lost and confused..”

“But you've met Solars? Other Solars?” Saying those words felt strange to me.

“About six or seven I should think. They pass through this city sometimes but they almost never stay.” She admitted.

“Six or seven? So few? In a century?” I blinked in disbelief.

Viper sighed heavily. “There were never very many Solars in Creation, dear – only three hundred, and I don't doubt that not all of them have reincarnated. Which is probably why it surprises me that you were right under my nose! You know I was beginning to wonder if I really believed all that Sun-King dogma that Silvermane and Heartsblood are always spewing. “When the Lawgivers come back and Creation is ours again!” She snorted, doing a very good impression of the old barbarian who often stopped by Anathema's to pump her for information.

I'd suspected that he was also a Lunar but Viper had never before confirmed that fact.

“But you! All that attitude you're full of? You're going to be spectacular!” She brushed my hair out of my face and kissed me again. “I have so many things I want to do to you right now.” She whispered in my ear.

Val blushed absolutely scarlet. I doubted I looked much better myself.

I sighed heavily. “Viper, look... I'm doing okay right now. Can you help Val first?”

She nodded, seeming a little disappointed that I wasn't still melting like wax in her presence. I did recognized the spark of defiance in her eyes, however. Viper did not take “no” for an answer, and if she got the impression that her basic seduction techniques were not working, she'd only improve her game.

I didn't fool myself into thinking I'd actually resist her if I were her prey, but I could try to keep things businesslike as long as possible and hopefully get a promise or two out of her.

Manipulative as she often was, Viper always kept her promises.

“We need to get him to Grandmother Spider. You can find her outside of Chiarascuro in a little town called Alhazin.” Viper explained. “I'll arrange for the two of you to head south with my buddy Gray Whiskers. He sails as far as Lookshy and then he'll set you up with a caravan. Someone you can trust. We've got people all over Creation. You just need to know where to look for them.”

“Grandmother Spider?” Val echoed, considering the name.

“She's a crazy old bat and Luna knows that she hates me. Spider's Silver Pact through and through and thinks us Seneshals are nonsense but she's your best bet for tattooing. Your caste will be fixed with no strings attached, which is more than I can say for most of the other No Moons I know.” Viper paused. “Spider's last protege turned Chimera and now she treats her work like a community service – which it bloody well ought to be, considering the mess that the Casteless cause. I do dearly wish sometimes that the No Moons would just teach the rest of us how to work that damned sorcery of theirs. We'd all be better off.” Viper finished.

“A Chimera?” I wondered uneasily.

“Bad news. That's why we Lunars have tattoos.” Viper explained. The moonsilver tattoos she wore were usually almost invisible and covered her whole body... but when she chose to, she could fill them with Essence just as I illuminated my own caste mark.

With her caste mark, a crescent moon burning on her brow and so many hundreds of silver spirals racing across her dark skin, Viper appeared even more beautiful than she usually did. Her tattoos were applied with a prescision that certainly looked like a Goddess's handiwork. “The Wyld is in us – and it'll change us or kill us if it's not properly contained. Shapeshifting is great for the body.” She pulled aside her sheer orange skirt to show off her very toned legs. “But it can wreck havoc on your mind.” She added, making the universal symbol for crazy and poking herself several times in the head.

Viper took Val by the chin and examined him. He didn't pull away from her but he was obviously extremely uncomfortable. “Helluva Tell you've got there. It's going to be hard to hide.” She remarked, licking one of her fingers and trying to wipe away the dark ferret mask that surrounded his eyes. Her attempt at cleaning his face didn't work. The shadow around his eyes was obviously there to stay.

“What's a Tell?” Val wondered, though he asked that question almost as if he thought that it was a rhetorical one.

“This.” Viper replied, flicking her forked snake tongue in his face. It wasn't readily apparent when she spoke, but I'd learned years ago that was only because Viper had gotten very good at concealing her true nature with a plethora of Charms that made her appear normal in polite company. “An aspect of your spirit form is always with you. You can learn to hide it just as you can learn to hide your tattoos, but both are sure fire way of being recognized as a Lunar. Solars are lucky bastards. So long as they don't burn any Essence, they look just like everyone else.”

“And if they do?” I suggested.

“Oh, you'll find that out soon enough!” Viper teased. “Anyway, it's definitely best if the both of you get out of this city as soon as possible. If you ever want to come back, you're going to need to be spending your formative years elsewhere.”

“We're not children!” I glared at her, not liking her tone at all.

Viper put her hands on her hips. “You are now. You've got a helluva road ahead of you. You don't even realize what you don't know yet. I'll contact Gray Whiskers and you'll meet him over by the Nighthammer docks first thing tomorrow. He's a good man. And wherever you end up... if you're ever in really deep trouble, look for a symbol like this.”

She took a piece of charcoal and drew an angular stylized butterfly on it. I knew I'd seen the design she drew before. It was etched in the glass of the second floor windows of Anathema's.

“There are shelters for Exalts in almost every city in Creation and this place is one of them. The organization that finances them all is called Chrysalis. Go in where you see the sign of the butterfly and order “the best sake in the house” with one more cup than you need for however many people you're traveling with. Someone will eventually come and that will be your contact.” Viper explained. “You already know one of the passwords – if you're a Lunar, you say you “are thinking about getting a tattoo.” And if you're a Solar, you need to tell whoever brings your sake that you “get terrible headaches every day.”

“What?” I eyed her suspiciously. “How does that make any sense?”

“You don't understand it yet, but you will. Also, listen very closely for anyone playing Windswept Rhapsody songs.” Viper advised.

“Rhapsody songs?” Val wondered uneasily. “But you hear those everywhere! Isn't she supposed to be some sort of legendary bard?”

“Not legendary. Rhapsody is real. She's a Zenith Caste and one of the first Solars to return... just about a century ago now. You'll probably get to meet her one of these days – she always comes to Nexus around Calibration time.” Viper supplied. “Rhapsody and Seven Devils Clever are Chrysalis's main girls. They travel to all of safe houses to check up on them and ask the rest of us if there's anything we need. They've both been with the organization since it was started and they're probably the only ones in Creation who knows who the head of Chrysalis actually is. Personally, I don't give a damn that “he”... or “she” has never asked me to join “the inner circle” and get the lowdown. As long as Chrysalis is helping Exalts, I'll keep their sign in my window. If you want to know more about Chrysalis, ask Whiskers when you meet him. Clever Devil was his mentor when he first Exalted and she took him on the road with her and taught him everything he needed to know to do her job if he ever had to.”

“How long will it take us to get to Chiarascuro and back?” I wondered.

“Probably eight months.” Viper admitted. “I wouldn't stay gone for less than that anyway.”

Val looked ready to say something. The expression on his face made it very obvious that he was worried about Lily and his girls.

“Stay here for the night.” Viper volunteered.

“I am very tired.” Val admitted.

“I bet you are.” Viper nodded, helping him to his feet. “It gets easier.” She reassured him.
Kitten took hold of Val's hand and he disappeared out the door.

I watched Viper for a moment. The expression on her face was very troubling, and I knew what she was thinking.

“It doesn't get easier, does it?” I whispered.

“No, it doesn't.” She sighed in defeat. “In fact... it's about to get a lot worse.”
 
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emerald viper
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Title: Changing Moon
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Re: Shadowsbane (Part 1)

07 Sep 2011, 23:52

The following morning Val and I went to meet Gray Whiskers. The streets of Nighthammer were even more crowded than usual, thanks to some sort of accident at The Foundry where almost all of the District's residents worked. Rumors had it that fae were involved. It was furthest outside of Firewander that their activities had ever been reported, but I didn't doubt that they were to blame - particularly since the roof of the building had been blown completely off but somehow the windows were undamaged.

Also, the smoke that was pouring from the wreckage was not black or white or any conventional color... but a bizarre, faintly luminescent pink.

Though I was curious as to what had really happened and knew more than a few locals that I could probably milk for information, I did see how pale and nervous Val looked. According to Viper, the fact that Val had exalted under Firewander in such close proximity to enormous amounts of Wyld energy was something to be concerned about. He needed to be kept away from any kind of fae activity until he was tattooed if he didn't want to risk contracting some awful pox. To that end, Whiskers was our man.

I'd never actually met Gray Whiskers before, though I'd heard about him in passing. Like most of the folks who frequented Harlotry's dozens of brothels, he was a traveling merchant – originally from Great Forks. Whiskers did not like to stay put for more than a few weeks at a time and I always managed to “just miss him” at Anathema's.

I hadn't known that he was a Lunar either... only that Viper was very fond of him. In the perilously short time that I'd been Exalted myself, I'd discovered that most of the people she was especially fond of were actually Exalts. I wondered a bit what that meant for our relationship but decided not to press the issue.

When Val and I did finally find Gray Whiskers – I had to admit that he was impossible not to recognise by description alone. Whiskers was a tiny little man scarcely bigger than the average Djala, and almost doll-like in his proportions. He had an awful lot of hair on his head that stuck out in all directions and an impressive moustache, both a silvery color that almost blended into his very pale skin. He very strongly resembled an Air-Aspect Dragonblood of good breeding... but his black eyes and very pointed nose made him look a bit more like a mouse.

Whiskers made up for what he lacked in physical presence by dressing ostentatiously in very fine clothing, mostly red, silver and blue. When Val and I found him he was sitting on top of a stack of shipping crates swinging his legs like a child while his crew loaded his ship behind him and whistling a popular Eastern folk tune called “The Goblin's Ball”.

The name of Whisker's ship was “Bright Future”. It was small and very colorful just like its captain. I smiled slightly. Viper had promised that I would like Whiskers and I already did. He looked like a figure from a children's story and I was very eager to ask him more about Chrysalis.

According to Viper, Whiskers was what longtime members of Chrysalis generally referred to as a “worm herder”. Basically, his job was to help ferry young and confused Exalts like Val and myself into the hands of more experienced Solars and Lunars who would train them to become full-fledged members of Chrysalis. Theoretically, when the day came that enough “worms” were wrapped up and waiting... we would all “come out of our cocoons” and change the world.

It sounded like an awful lot of bullshit to me, but I knew that I wasn't in a position to be picky.

Val stared at Gray Whiskers for a solid five minutes, obviously ruminating over our predicament. Since dawn he'd been glancing over his shoulder as if he was considering running away but couldn't decide where to go.

“Hang on, Val.” I nudged him, tucked in his shirt and made sure his satchel was tied closed. “There ya go!”

He gave me a very strange look, as if he couldn't fathom why I'd decided to put him back together and make him look a little bit respectable when we were approaching someone who could have easily passed for a typical river pirate.

That was when Whiskers noticed us. He hopped down from his perch. “Can I help you?” He asked innocuously – as if he possibly suspected that we were the passengers he was waiting for. “You look lost.”

“Actually, we are trying to find a ship.” Val reached into his pocket and produced a piece of folded paper that Viper had written out for the two of us, a short letter of introduction as if we really needed one.

Whiskers perused the letter momentarily and grinned. “Heh. Well, you've found it! Right this way!” He bowed dramatically. “I'm the captain, so it please you. The name's Whiskers - no calling me "Captain" or any such nonsense... and this beauty is The Bright Future.” He gestured to his ship. “You have very good timing. We were just about to depart.”

Val hesitated, staring at the gangplank.

“Come aboard!” Whiskers offered cordially.

Val did not move.

“Damnit, Val! The University is throwing us out and there Immaculates everywhere waiting to arrest us! You've got to get out of here!” I hissed. “What is it now?”

He sighed heavily. “Lily.” He finished. “I can see what kind of mess we're in and I know the girls would be safer if I just disappeared but... I can't! I can't leave them like this!”

“Then tell them you'll be back! Write a note. I know a kid who lives around here who can take it to your house without being seen.” I paused.

“We can't wait too long.” Whiskers interrupted. Without turning his head at all, he motioned in the direction of the Foundry. A gaggle of Immaculate monks had just arrived. They stared at the pink smoke in disbelief.

“I can't just write! Not a time like this! It would come out sounding like an obituary!” Val protested, clearly not seeing what Whiskers and I had both noticed.

“So write later. Chrysalis can get messages around, right?” I asked Whiskers.

“Absolutely.” He nodded.

“Sapphire, I...” Val began.

He didn't get to finish.

A handful of monks skirted very close to us. I dunked my head and Whiskers suddenly hugged Val. I thought at first that it was just to shut him up, but then I saw the genuine concern etched on his face. Val blinked in surprise.

“Luna as my witness, I know exactly what you're going through.” Whiskers whispered. “I'd love to tell you what happened to me once upon a time... but we have to go now.If you end up on trial, you'll be outed, you'll be executed and your family will be punished for hiding you. You're one of us now. We'll look out for you. And your family too”

Val nodded slowly. I made a mental note to thank Viper for choosing someone who obviously understood Val's troubling situation. We were in good hands.

That was when I saw the same Immaculates that had interrupted our dig approaching. In the lead was Summer Storm.

“Damnit!” I swore. “Get out of here now!” I ordered Val, and before he could protest, Gray Whiskers grabbed his arm. They ran up the gangplank onto his ship and dove behind a pair of crates on deck. Really, Whiskers "dove" and Val only "fell" but the result was basically the same... they were hidden before anyone got close enough to see them. Gray Whiskers motioned for his crew to begin preparations to set sail and they did as he ordered without behaving as though something had gone wrong. The ship began to pull away from the dock despite the fact that I was still on the dock.

Val strained in Whisker's grasp and tried to wave for me but at least he had the good sense not to yell my name. I was certain that Viper had warned Whiskers that Val was the one who really needed looking after. She knew that I'd been born and raised on the street. Before I'd entered the University and become an “archaeologist” I'd made my living for years as a smuggler and gun-for-hire, dodging the authorities and shooting anything that moved in a particularly hostile manner. I could take care of myself and someone had to see Val safely to Chiarascuro, even if I couldn't make the journey with him.

I shuddered at the thought of being in the position he was in. I wasn't sure that I would feel blessed myself if I'd been gifted with a power that threatened to eat me from the inside out. It was pretty horrific to imagine.

I took cover myself as Summer Storm came charging in my direction, drew my firewands and checked my ammunition. The pouch that I usually stored a good supply of alchemical shells in was completely empty! Usually I was too sharp to wind up getting pickpocketed... but I'd been so worried about Val that I'd let my own guard down!

I cursed under my breath. I knew that I wasn't really without ammunition, but the same part of my brain that had given me the phrase “Righteous Devil Style” had also warned me that jumping into a gunfight only armed with Essence would be a pretty quick route to discovering what Viper had meant when she'd promised I would soon “find out” what happened to Solars who burned too much of their own energy.

Noticing a faint flicker of white gold beginning around my hands as I focused on what I was about to do next, I expected it would be kind of like throwing a lit match into a bucket of kerosene.

Following Summer Storm were his two young subordinates and a much older monk who looked somewhat annoyed at having to be out walking the streets. The elder monk looked like he might be a Earth Aspect Dragonblood. That would be trouble. Fortunately, he seemed more annoyed with Summer Storm than anything else. The fact that he was distracted already made him an easy mark.

“They were just here!” Summer Storm snarled. “I swear to you, I just saw them both!”

“Control yourself, Storm... they're obviously not here now!” The elder monk snorted, not seeming convinced by Summer Storm's declaration. “You there! We're looking for a pair of heretics from The University. They caused that earthquake yesterday in Firewander.”

“I haven't seen any professors around here, Milord.” The man they'd seized for questioning looked like a typical ironworker and was obviously a little nervous being stuck between two Immaculates.

“They don't look like respectable academics! That's what I've been trying to tell you, master! They look like a pair of unwashed vagrants covered in ink and lamp oil!” Summer Storm interrupted his companion. He unrolled a piece of paper with a pair of crude drawings on it that bore a rather unfortunate likeness to Val and myself. “Here!”

The ironworker studied the paper.

“The first is a man, forty years old... somewhat effeminate looking with silver hair and glasses. The second is a woman, probably thirty-five. Long black hair, blue eyes and a large mole right here. She carries a pair of firewands and talks very loud.” Summer Storm explained.

“Oh. Milord, I think the man you're describing just got on a ship.” The ironworker replied.

“North or Southbound?” Summer Storm demanded.

“I... how should I know?” The ironworker stammered. “Milord, I don't know which ship it was!”

“Go at once to the port authority! Tell them to stop every ship leaving the Nighthammer Pool!” The elder Immaculate ordered. One of the younger monks bowed to him and took off running. Before he could get far enough to relay his master's orders, I decided that a distraction was in order. I didn't want to shoot anyone if I could avoid it, but I couldn't let the monks find Val either.

Gritting my teeth, I fired two shots of Essence into the stack of crates right in front of the running monk.

The crates exploded with a force that would have made ordinary shells look like the smoke bombs I'd played with as a child and the monk was blown off of his feet. He didn't move for a solid minute, but he didn't look dead either. I pulled my hood up over my face and stood.

“Hey monk!” I shouted at Summer Storm. “I'm over here! Come and get me!”

In case he hadn't gotten the picture, I fired another shot... taking his idiotic straw hat right off of his head.

That was when panic set in.

Using the frantic crowd to my advantage, I ran like my life depended on it in the direction of the Foundry. I had one plan for losing the monks pursuing me and it involved taking my chances with the fae that were apparently everywhere under the city. Like most of the oldest buildings in Nexus, the foundation of Nighthammer's chief ironworks was built atop First Age ruins, specifically an ancient tomb that radiated enormous amounts of heat even after being buried for more than 1,500 years.

I knew enough about Nexus's underbelly to lose anyone who followed me below the streets and if my experience with the exploding well in The Unconquered Sun's temple had taught me anything, it was that First Age ruins were notably more friendly to Solars than mere mortals – or Dragonbloods for that matter.

The monks charged after me... all of them, including the one that had been ordered to relay the message to the port authorities. I ignored the barricade around the Foundry and dodged several sword blows from the mercenaries guarding the building's entrance as I dove through the first window I saw on the ground floor. The mercenaries did succeeded in stopping the monks who pursued me, if only until the two Dragonblooded ordered them to stand down.

Summer Storm kicked open the Foundry's main doors and his underlings coughed as the four of them entered into the still-smoky interior, the elder monk in the lead.

I watched them search for me from a hidden perch in the ceiling just above their heads. I wasn't sure which of the dozen doors in the burning Foundry actually lead down to the First Age ruins below. Fortunately, while I decided on my next move I was close enough to an open window that I could discreetly poke my nose out and take a few breaths of fresh air. The two mortal monks couldn't press forward very far beyond the Foundry's entrance and even the Dragonbloods looked ill from the noxious pink smoke. With my cloak covering my nose and mouth, I felt reasonably well myself. I waited.

When I was fairly confident that I wasn't being watched, I made a beeline a door in the far corner of the Foundry underneath the main staircase. I wasn't sure if it was a broom closet or a basement entrance but the flames were rising higher and I couldn't keep hiding where I was.

I landed effortlessly on my feet, wrapped my right hand in my cloak to open the door and covered my face, just in case more fire was waiting for me down below. A burst of cool air that smelled like the filth of the Gray River assaulted my senses and confirmed my suspicions. I'd found the way down.

I slipped into the darkness and then stopped and listened for anyone who might have followed me.

I couldn't hear a heartbeat. When I was sure that I was alone, I sighed in relief and called up my caste mark, surveying my surroundings. There was a pool of greenish water that might or might not lead out into the river, some kind of ancient corroded siphon pump, a small bridge made from a single slab of cement and two doors, one to the east and one to the west.

I picked the first. Truthfully, I was more than a little nervous about going into a ruin without Val and Team Firewander backing me up... but as I saw it, I didn't have a whole lot of other options.

The door I'd chosen led me down a long, narrow staircase of a distinctly familiar design. As I descended I ran my hands along the walls, almost hearing voices behind me.

It was impossibly long ago and my friends and I were arguing about something – about the stairs being “broken” which made very little sense from my perspective because they seemed stable enough as we were walking on them.

I glanced over my shoulder to see the two that I was talking with, a small woman with red hair and a very pointed nose – and a tall, very good-looking blonde man with the most striking blue eyes I'd ever seen. Both were dressed in very fine exotic clothing and marked as I was with a brand of light on their brows. The woman's was in the shape of a setting sun and the man's was the opposite, a rising sun. Twilight and Dawn
.

But what was even more shocking than seeing those two briefly standing on the stairs behind me was the fact that I recognized them both immediately. The woman was Perfect Mechanical Soul and the man was Alexander Demiurgos, better known as “Faeslayer”... the king of Nexus.

From my years working in First Age ruins, I knew both of those names well but I'd never consciously considered what Nexus's ancient rulers had actually looked like. I'd always envisioned them as giant marble or orichalcum statues, never as human beings.

Were Solars human at all?

It was a troubling thought to consider. My head still swam with the vision of Perfect and Alexander. Though I was fairly certain I'd been hallucinating on the stairs, I could not deny that the two of them were unquestionably real, and that the place I was descending into was somewhere I'd been before, in a past life that I was slowly starting to remember.

At the end of the staircase there was a large round room of classic First Age design, a stunning space that I knew Val would spend many long hours describing with glowing praise. Such precise geometrical symmetry, such perfect masonry... for an aficionado of architecture it was impossible not to love.

And for any historian, it was even more alluring. Long, intricate inscriptions and celestial designs in orichalcum and moonsilver covered the walls and in the center of the room there was a massive marble table surrounded by five stone chairs, each one marked with the symbol of one of the five Solar castes.

I was absolutely certain that I'd set foot in the room before though I couldn't comprehend what it had been used for. Everything about it made me suspect some sort of secret meeting space – anything for official business would have surely had windows to let in the light of the sun.

In way, the darkness of that important room seemed very appropriate. Something told me that it was meant to reflect the very mantra of the Night Caste... that the Unconquered Sun was at work even when he couldn't be seen. Without consciously deciding to do so, I discovered that I'd sat down in a chair.

My chair.

I could envision Perfect and Alexander sitting across from me, and I sensed that the other two chairs were occupied as well, although for some reason I couldn't see the faces of the man and the woman who sat in them. We all put our hands into the center of the table and poured our Essence into it, causing the patterns on the walls around us to change and shift... unlocking something – I didn't know what. A sphere of multi-colored light rose from the center of the table, the most beautiful and terrifying thing I'd ever seen.


Returning to the present was like getting struck in the face with a brick. My hands burned as they had when I'd put them on the hidden well and I gasped for breath and fell to the ground, suddenly burning like a torch and in more pain than I could comprehend. If I hadn't fallen from my seat, I got the distinct impression that the table – or whatever it was hiding would have killed me outright.

I couldn't hope to control it alone. The five of us had set it in motion, and only the five of us could turn it off.

Whatever “it” was – it was bad. It was as bad as the well in Firewander and then even worse! Everything strange that I'd seen so far had been only symptoms of a much deeper and more virulent plague. There was something very wrong beneath the streets of Nexus, connecting the fae, the Unconquered Sun, the original rulers of Nexus... and some terrifying green-eyed woman who had tried to kill me once and would probably do so again.

One word pounded like thunder in my mind.

Circle. I needed my Circle for this.

Staggering to my feet, I searched the round room for an exit and realized that there wasn't one. I had no choice but to head back up the stairs and try the other door in the Foundry's basement. I could only hope that the fire was still burning like mad upstairs and keeping people out of the building. I felt like I'd been fumbling in the dark for hours and I hadn't gotten nearly as far away as I'd hoped to.

I staggered halfway back up the steps and leaned against the wall for a moment, catching my breath. When I felt well enough to continue I discovered that something held my hand to the wall. I gritted my teeth and pulled away with more force, which tore open the burns on my palms that were still in the process of healing. Something else caught hold of my hair and gave my braid a sharp tug. I felt like there were snakes wrapping around my ankles and almost lost my balance, very nearly tumbling headfirst back down the stairs.

I heard a faint tittering sound and I felt my heart skip a beat.

Fae.

There were more than a dozen of them surrounding me and I hadn't even noticed! They were like shadows on the walls, invisible until they chose to show off their impressive teeth and glowing yellow eyes. Malicious little claws poked and prodded me, leaving sharp red burns wherever they caught my skin. Clearly, the beasts were coming in for the kill.

I shot at the first of them and then remembered that I was expending Essence every time I used my firewands. The blaze already burning around me literally doubled in size. If I hadn't been four stories underground, I didn't doubt that I would have been highly visible to someone on the east bank of the Gray River even if I were standing on the west bank myself.

Pulling up my hood and closing my cloak tight around me, I raced up the rest of the stairs with my head tucked down and hordes of those little monsters flying after me. There were a lot more than a dozen at any rate.

When I burst through the door and entered back into the basement of the Foundry, I cursed as I very nearly ran headlong into Summer Storm. With my black cloak concealing my face, circled by that flock of vicious fae creatures and blazing like a torch... I had a pretty good idea of what I probably looked like.

“Anathema!” Summer Storm gasped in horror. Despite his tough facade, he was piss-scared then. Which was fine, because with all those evil little fae trying to eat my skin off... I was pretty damn terrified myself.

I didn't wait for Summer Storm to recognize me or the fae to decide that they were tired of playing with their intended meal. I fired a hail of Essence at the fae that were swarming him. A couple of my shots came in so close to his head that he was forced to duck for cover and avert his eyes – but I was aiming at the monsters, not the monk.

I jumped clear over Summer Storm and landed on my feet behind him, just a few inches away from the westbound door. I tried to open it but it refused to budge. I realized belatedly that it was no ordinary door but one of the First Age kind that Val and I had so often opened with dynamite.

A faint memory sparked in the back of my mind and I instinctively laid my hands on the door as I'd laid my hands on the exploding well that had threatened to destroy half of Nexus.

The door opened as I gave it a small amount of Essence but it refused to close as easily. With Summer Storm still screaming and the fae still swarming behind me, I ran and jumped as far as I could, landing on something that immediately collapsed under my weight, the arm of some sort of enormous machine. I fell for an impossibly long time surrounded by manic fae laughter, hit something hard and lost consciousness in a flash of red.

I might have thought that I was dead on impact except that I could hear a woman's soothing voice singing a tune that I hadn't heard in a long while, a lullaby that I remembered only vaguely from my childhood. Even bleeding as I was with more broken bones than I could count, I felt peaceful as I heard that voice and felt cold, impossibly skillful hands making short work of my various wounds. I couldn't see who it was that had decided to save my life, but I was certain that we were connected somehow.

“Nighttime has come,
Gone is the sun,
Dreams are spun,
Stars come out, one by one.
Oyasumi, hush my love,
Oyasumi, hush my love,
Oyasumi, hush my love,
Hush, hush, hush.

Oyasumi, close your eyes,
Oyasumi, close your eyes,
Oyasumi, close your eyes,
Sleep, sleep, sleep.

Oyasumi, dream of me,
Oyasumi, dream of me,
Oyasumi, dream of me,
Dream, dream, dream..."


“Sapphire, wake up!”
 
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webkilla
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Re: Shadowsbane (Part 1)

08 Sep 2011, 03:02

damnit viper

you're doing it again - I want more!!!
I have a webcomic: http://psitech.comicgen.com - Its kinda like exalted, except more furry, more fanservice, more fun, more sci-fi.
- may contain people being called "bob"
 
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emerald viper
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Re: Shadowsbane (Part 1)

10 Sep 2011, 22:00

“Sapphire, wake up!”

Another familiar voice ordered – this one belonging to a man.

I sat up immediately and hit my head very hard on a metal bar that I realised was the bottom rung of a ladder. When my vision cleared I couldn't see who'd woken me but there were still fae all around. I guessed they'd been quibbling over which one of them got to eat me and I was only too glad that someone had woke me up before I became lunch. The fae hissed and scattered as I drew my firewands.

“Get back!” I ordered, firing a warning shot.

I wasn't glowing any more. I was on some kind of drifting metal barge and the ladder I'd hit my head on was illuminated by a few rays of sunlight, probably coming from the surface. I climbed it and found another door that I could lay my hand on and open with the tiniest expenditure of Essence.

I blinked in surprise as I discovered that I'd come out of the base of a statue in Mercenary's Square, within spitting distance of The Divine Peach. The Peach was my favourite restaurant, a little dive that specialized in all kinds of decadent deserts. I'd been stopping by there at least once a month for most of my life and I'd never even guessed that there was anything more to the statue in the square than what met the eye. Clearly, I knew a lot less about Nexus than I thought I did. But what really surprised me was how late it was.

It had been mid-morning when Val and I had met with Gray Whiskers. I must have been unconscious for ten hours or more. The sun was already setting!

I thought about going back to Anathema's. Viper wouldn't be very happy about what had happened at the docks but I expected that she'd be glad to see me in one piece anyway. I was also still toying with the pros and cons of sharing her bed. I ordered a little cup of The Peach's signature flavored ice, poured a liberal amount of cream into it and debated washing my dessert down with sake... but I didn't have the money for a decent bottle.

Like indulging in alcohol and sweets, thinking about sex was comforting to me. It allowed me to forget that I was in very real danger simply because I existed and because for some incomprehensible reason the Unconquered Sun had decided that he wanted me for one of his own. The idea of spending a few days lounging around Anathema's recuperating from whatever Viper planned to do to me was a sorely tempting one.

I waited at The Divine Peach until after closing time and said a little prayer as I watched the sun go down. I'd spent most of the day running for my life but somehow I wasn't exhausted in the least. While I knew that it was idiotic to go back to the University with Immaculates still poking about everywhere... but I couldn't go home either.

I'd had a reasonable house in Firewander until the Wyld had overrun the district four years ago and since then I'd lived with my mother. I thought again about my grandmother's advice and decided not to set foot anywhere near Harlotry. I'd be too easy to find there. Every whore in town knew me.

They also knew enough to lie for me, especially where the authorities were concerned... but that didn't mean that they wouldn't accidentally disclose some information if they were being cornered by a Dragonblood who could use Charms or even brute force to get what he wanted.

I was sure that word of what Val and I had uncovered had spread, but I still hadn't seen any of our team, despite the fact that I'd been lounging outside for several hours. Since both Bruja and Mehmed were mercenaries before we'd hired them as archaeological assistants – I expected that if they weren't already in prison they would claiming immunity from the pending investigation at the Mercenary's Guild Office across the street from The Peach.

No such luck. I didn't catch a glimpse of either of them.

With Val gone and the crew in shambles, I felt more alone than I ever had in my life. Despite how stupid I knew that I was being, I went back to the University very close to midnight. Surprisingly enough, no one was guarding the doors of the history building. As I slowly stepped out onto the third floor I could hear the sounds of snoring nearby. I'd expected a soldier or two or even a few Immaculates, but what met my eyes as I turned the corner was the sight of Little Fox leaning against the wall with his head titled back and his mouth wide open, making enough noise for a sleeping dragon.

Or maybe a cow in season.

He didn't wake up as I approached him, even though I was wearing wooden heeled boots on a stone floor. I studied the Djala with a slight smile. He was maybe sixty pounds and barely taller than four foot, but he had a lot of attitude crammed into his tiny frame. Val and I often joked that was the reason for his outrageous farts and belches... not to mention his absolutely horrific snoring. Still, I was very glad to see that at least one member of Team Firewander had escaped unscathed.

Not that I was surprised. Bruja and Mehmed may have been mercenaries and Kasashi a precocious University student... but Fox had grown up in Harlotry just as I had and his idea of “gainful employment” had once been picking pockets.

“Hey, Little Fox! Close your mouth! The monks can hear you snoring, and your breath is killing flies!” I whispered in his ear.

He woke with a start and scrambled to his feet. “Sapphire! I thought you were dead!” He exclaimed, hugging me around the waist. It was as high as he could reach, and although he wasn't particularly strong his enthusiasm did almost knock me off my feet.

“I almost was.” I admitted.

“Where's the Boss?” Fox demanded.

“I was hoping you knew.” I lied.

Despite what Val had decided, I didn't have the heart to report him dead. I was prepared to take the responsibility for everything that had happened myself. If the University's little hellion had hidden something dangerous and caused an explosion... people would understand that. They would have to absolve Val from any wrongdoing and simply berate him for being stupid enough to hire a God-blooded harlot whose grandmother was directly responsible for every idiotic thing anyone had ever done while drunk.

I could use the same family connections that I'd tried to deny in order to get into the University to make myself look responsible for the whole awful mess. I wanted Val's life toy be waiting for him when he came back to Nexus. There was no sense in trying to preserve my own reputation. I'd never had one worth protecting anyway.

“Where's everyone else?” I wondered.

“Kasashi's still being grilled by the Immaculates. I think they want him expelled from the University. Apparently he's got some “unorthodox ideas”. Fox rolled his eyes.

“And they let you go?” I eyed him suspiciously. “You're even more of a heretic than I am!”

“Yeah, but I'm not officially employed by the University - just by you and the Boss!” He reminded me. “And Kasashi... he has a surname! I mean, he's Nellens Kasashi! He may be as mortal as the rest of us, but his mother's a Dragonblood! He's got a standard to uphold. I'm a Djala! It's kinda like being a house cat. I can sit in plain sight and everyone still talks about me like I'm not even in the room! You know what I heard one of those monks say? “Don't waste your time interrogating the spottie! They're too stupid to know better!” Fox snorted.

“Well, that's a load of lies!” I agreed. “You're smarter than anyone I know! Well, except for Val.” I added.

“Val is smarter than all of us put together. He's probably already out of the city by now.” Fox admitted. “Sapphire, the whole Department of Archaeology is being questioned now and the dig site is getting completely bricked off. The authorities say it's too dangerous. We're all out of a job. Indefinitely... probably permanently.”

“As much as I hate to admit it, I've got to agree with them. Someone is liable to get killed with the way things are right now. Did you see what happened to Market Street?” I pressed.

Fox nodded solemnly. “It's already worse than that. Four people were killed yesterday when the ceiling caved in on the Shogunate-Era site. No one we liked, but...”

“No one deserves to die like that either.” I finished. It was a sobering thought. “This is out of our hands now. We should probably pack up our stuff and get it out of here as soon as possible.”

I surveyed the room and Fox followed my gaze with a supportive nod.

Aside from the dig site, Val's office served as Team Firewander's base of operations. Though we usually preferred to sit and discuss business at The Divine Peach when necessary, we did need somewhere to store our gear... which mostly consisted of tools, ropes, explosives... and about two hundred of Val's precious notebooks.

“You're not going to wait for the Boss?” Fox wondered.

“He's not coming.” I admitted.

“But if he's not dead... then where is he?” Fox demanded.

“I don't know.” I admitted. That was the truth.

Not at all satisfied with my answer, Fox turned to look out the window.

“I'm going to go get Mehmed.” He told me, making a few steps toward the door.

I stopped him. “Before you go, I want the whole team to meet tomorrow. Kasashi too if he's not in jail. They'll probably know to look for us at The Peach by then, so let's go to the Golden Doubloon instead. That's down in Harlotry by my mother's tea house.” I explained. “The usual time.”

“Mehmed and I were waiting for you at the usual time today, but you never came.” Fox paused.

“I know.” I sighed in defeat.

“For what it's worth I still think we ought to find the Boss before we do anything.” Fox informed me.

I didn't respond, watching the door long after Fox had snorted at me in disapproval and vanished like a ghost. What could I have said?

Though it would have been smart to leave right away, I didn't know if I'd ever set foot on University grounds ever again... and it was a little unsettling thinking of how I was about to leave behind the place that had been so much a part of my life. I guessed in some small way I was finally feeling some tiny speck of the emotion that had torn Val apart so viciously earlier.

I opened the window and held out my hands in the rain, splashing some water that ran off the gutters on my face. It was cleaner than the drinking water in most of the city and it did help me wake up a little as I began involuntarily nodding off. I didn't want to pass out like I'd found Fox in case someone came looking for me. With a sigh, I closed the window and helped myself to the tea on Val's desk.

It was old tea, two days or more... but I'd drank worse. I had a smoke and picked up a dog-eared book entitled “Culture and Society in the High First Age”. The huge volume was Val's permanently unfinished magnum opus, a work that he'd only managed to publish in its least scandalous form – which was why it had so many notes and revisions jammed into its pages.

I couldn't find a match to strike for a lamp and so I sat with my back to the street. Even the light from the dormitories across the courtyard was not enough to see the table of contents.

Then I scoffed at myself. I had the only light I'd ever need again and as I'd discovered when I'd tussled with the fae under the Foundry... it couldn't be taken from me. I drew the curtains closed and willed up my caste mark. In its soft, faintly golden light I lost myself in an essay Val had folded into his chapter on tombs and monuments, one that I had never read before.

The essay was a gorgeous and scandalous piece about how so many monuments had been constructed to Solar heroes even after the Dragonblooded had lead their great revolt. Val actually suggested that it was as if the Dragonbloods knew they had done something horrible. He described as “desecration, like painting a temple with blood.”

It was heretical as all hell. I absolutely loved it and hoped that I'd have the opportunity to tell Val how right he was about everything.

If I'd learned anything at all in the perilously short time that I'd been Exalted... it was that Solars were not evil. I couldn't even begin to quell the tremendous sense of purpose I felt welling up inside of me. It was like nothing I'd ever known before. I wanted to do every kind of good that I possibly could.

When I remembered how I had felt in the hands of the Unconquered Sun, I was certain that was what he was asking for was nothing less than the transformation of the whole world... back to the way it had been so many centuries ago. But resurrecting the glory of the First Age wouldn't be as simple as rebuilding ruins and learning how to work ancient devices.

People had changed. They'd become cowardly and complacent. They did whatever they were told and were afraid to think for themselves or ask questions!

That had to change too.

I put Val's book down not long after opening it and guessed I'd probably never pick it up again. Maybe it was the knowledge that the descriptions were not all that they could be and that so much of the information was blatantly incorrect, despite the fact that Val was the smartest person I'd ever known and definitely much brighter than me.

But then again, what did I really know about Solars anyway?

I studied my own reflection in the glass of the window and momentarily flared the mark on my brow.

Yup... that was it.

Really, I didn't feel like a different person and I'd never been inclined to believe the Immaculate Order's propaganda. And yet at the same time... where had all the stories about super-beings and monsters come from? As I saw it, I was neither a hero or a villain. I felt more like a child telling my mother I didn't want to grow up to be a whore and getting smacked across the face because what was good enough for everyone else in my family ought to be good enough for me too.

Before I'd ever known what archeology was I'd had a very strong desire to learn how to shoot a firewand but my mother had always insisted that being a caravan guard was no profession for a woman. My next ambition had been to join a theater troupe and that one I'd followed through on, making it as far as Great Forks and then back again... not bad for being just barely sixteen years old.

It had been a helluva year for a child and a torturous experience for my mother although my grandmother had kept a close eye on me and reported back to her the entire time.

As I reminisced of my old theatre days walking the slack rope and performing trick shots with my first awkward firewands, I could not resist the opportunity to balance on one of the benches that sat against the far wall of Val's office. I shoved the table out of the way and moved it to the center of the room, finding my balance easy and especially strong. I did a handstand and a walk-over with no pinch of protest from my muscles. It was obvious that I was healing impossibly quickly.

I considered leaving Nexus for a time, imagining that some theatre company would be only too glad to pick me up. I was a reasonably good acrobat and a damned good shot - I could probably double as a caravan guard in a pinch, Not that I really wanted to leave Nexus. Since I'd forced Val away against his will, I felt that the least I could do would be to stay behind until he made it back and look after Lily and his girls.

I've no idea what time it actually was when Fox returned with Mehmed and Bruja... but it must have been very nearly dawn. I heard Bruja very quietly knocking on the door that I'd locked and glanced out the window to see a wagon tucked in between two overgrown bushes in the courtyard below. I didn't doubt that the very small cloaked figure that stood guard over it was Fox. With nothing more than a grunt to declare her intentions, Bruja threw a pack on the table before me. Mehmed surveyed Val's books and immediately began seizing the most controversial ones.

“If we can sell it before the sun comes up, pack it!” She ordered.

“We can sell everything here. Take it all to Bloody Bill at The Drunk Duck Inn. He can fence anything, no matter how hot it is.” I informed her. “But we won't get nearly what it's worth!”

“The value doesn't matter.” Mehmed shook his head heavily. “Everything controversial needs to be removed now. The Department of Archaeology has been officially disbanded. The Immaculate Order be here in the morning to make a heresy case against all of us. They are rounding up professors to put before an official Inquisition.” He paused. “It is not only for our own sake that we must be certain that they do not find Professor Val's notes.”

“Gods, this keeps getting worse and worse! Do they honestly think we caused that earthquake? We've been complaining about those tremors forever!” I sighed in defeat.

“It is no longer simply about the quake.” Mehmed shook his head heavily. “Apparently someone saw an Anathema jump out of the hole on Market Street. And again today, a monk ran afoul of one in the Nighthammer District.”

“Shit!” I cursed, jumping right out of my skin. I guessed that many people had seen me when I'd gone running to find Val, but I'd never imagined what might happen if they'd actually connected the Essence-bleeding apparition that had been leaping across rooftops with the wreck of our excavation site.

And the fact that Summer Storm had somehow escaped from the fae under the Foundry?

It made me wish that I would have killed him when I had the chance. “That's bad news.” I grimaced.

Apparently not one of Team Firewander seemed to think that “Anathema” meant me or Val.. and that was a good thing. Not that I didn't trust my friends – but “Anathema” was synonymous with “demon” and even if most all of our people were heretics of one stripe or another, I was pretty sure that Kasashi thought Solars were totally extinct while Mehmed considered them largely mythical and somewhat godlike.

“Less talking, more working!” Bruja grunted, elbowing Mehmed who bowed courteously to the gruff Icewalker.

I helped the two of them pack and load everything we could into a wagon Mehmed had found for us. I didn't know where he'd take all of Val's research, our most expensive tools and some of our more exciting finds – but if anyone could hide a six foot piece of orichalcum in a chicken shed... Mehmed could do it.

After wishing everyone luck and begging them to be careful, I went back to Val's office and made it look like we hadn't emptied it out. When I'd finished reshelving the books, I suddenly sensed a presence behind me. Immediately on my guard, I reached for my firewands... but I didn't actually draw them.

When I turned around to see who it was that had caught me, I found myself face to face with a tall figure in a pristine white cloak and ivory mask. Even if I hadn't lived in Nexus all my life, I would have known who he was from the stories alone.

It was The Emissary himself.

I stared. It was all I could do.

“Sapphire Indari?” He asked. His voice was not at all like I'd expected. Sounded very smooth and human, which was a shock considering his alien appearance.

“Emissary?” I whispered uneasily.

“Yes.” He nodded.

“What do you want?” I wondered uneasily.

“Nothing.” He replied without hesitation. “I've only come to tell you that you must get out of here at once. Someone saw your friends loading that wagon in the courtyard and they've gone to fetch the authorities.”

“Well that's no good. Though I'm not sure why you're helping me.” I admitted.

“I want to help you.” The Emissary replied. “Must there be a reason?”

“Are you kidding? You're The Emissary! You never speak to anyone! Some people don't even think you're real!” I protested.

“All of that is changing right now.” He replied.

“Why now?” I pressed.

“Because you've come back!” He replied.

“I don't understand!” I protested.

“In this lifetime you are Sapphire Indari, the daughter of Three Pearls Radiant and the granddaughter of the Goddess whom some call “Our Lady of Perpetual Indulgence”. This alone makes you a notable personage in my city and I have always followed your exploits with great interest, even before I knew who you truly were.” The Emissary paused. “As you must surely know, this is not the first time that you have lived. Once, you were called Shadowsbane. All of the dark things in Creation would run from you. You were a great force for good.”

I took a deep breath and considered all that he had said but did not bother to protest.

“Sapphire, you know that you are Exalted of the Night Caste and Chosen of the Unconquered Sun. I know you know it! But what you don't know yet - is that this is the first time you've returned to Creation in 1,500 years!” He informed me. “And let me tell you, that is a tremendously long time to wait for someone! I was getting very annoyed!”

“Oh. ” I observed, suddenly understanding what he'd meant before. The name Shadowsbane sounded distinctly familiar to me, though I couldn't remember when I'd ever used it before. “You know I'm...”

It was common knowledge that the Emissary himself was at least seven hundred and fifty years old, but records became incomplete during the time of the Contagion so how much older he was – nobody actually knew. As our conversation went on, I was definitely beginning to wonder about his age myself.

“Of course I know! Now it's time for you to go... those monks will be here any minute! Do your best to lie low... not that should I have to tell you that! And rest assured... I'll be keeping an eye on you!” He informed me and disappeared into the night.

I knew a warning when I heard one. I lost no time in getting the hell out of the University, and hid myself in the kitchen of The Drunk Duck until the sun came up. Then I went across the street to The Princess where I snuck upstairs and slipped into Honeysuckle's bed. He was fast asleep and looked perfectly divine as he was. I didn't even consider waking him.

When I finally woke, Honey was gone and I discovered that he'd braided all of my hair while I was asleep and put so much ochre in it that I was sure it would stay auburn for weeks. There was no note or explanation for what he had done... but then again, I hadn't given him one either.

I stared at my reflection. I looked like a completely different person.

I suspected that Honey had already heard what was happening to everyone affiliated with the University and though I knew I'd eventually have to spend hours combing the kinks out of my hair so that it would flatten out the way that I liked it... it was nice to know that the people I'd sworn off when I left Harlotry for the University were completely willing to take me back under their wing – just as if I'd never left home at all. A small glass of sake sitting untouched on Honeysuckle's windowsill caught my eye and I smiled despite myself.

No monks or soldiers would ever find me.

It wasn't just The Emissary that they'd have to contend with if they dared.
I was also under my grandmother's protection.
 
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Re: Shadowsbane (Part 1)

13 Sep 2011, 22:31

Two years passed relatively uneventfully. Truthfully, in comparison to the time I'd spent working for the University they were rather hectic, but I soon discovered that one of the benefits of being Exalted was that I could accomplish tasks that I normally would have divided up amongst five or six people all by myself with time to spare.

At first I didn't have enough money to keep paying Team Firewander full-time but Mehmed, Bruja. Kasashi and Fox were good as gold anyway. They hired themselves out for other jobs locally and quickly came running back whenever I found something interesting. After about a year of working as a city guard, Bruja took a position as a caravan guide and began the long trek north to her homeland. Similarly employed, Mehmed went south to visit his family.

Kasashi's mother cut him off financially after the University scandal and when he wasn't in my employ, he was reduced to working at a lousy little noodle shop near Mercenary Square.

Fox stayed with me almost constantly. I suspected that he didn't care if I paid him or not.

The mess at the University turned out to be quite extraordinary. Four "heretical" professors were sentenced to long prison terms, three were executed and two others had mysteriously turned up dead before they could be brought to court. The Immaculate Order zealously prosecuted everyone they could, but they never laid their hands on me... mostly because the University wasn't sure if I was alive or dead.

Sapphire Indari had vanished quietly into the night. Everywhere except for on the streets of Harlotry - I was known as "Shadowsbane"... and more than a few folks were eager to get their hands on me. I had adopted the name that the Emissary had called me by – it felt like my own, and it was better than constantly being referred to as “Sapphire The Heretic” or “Sapphire, Three Pearls Radiant's Irresponsible Daughter”. As I saw it, I was still nominally an archaeologist with an overblown sense of social responsibility, but from the perspective of most of Harlotry's denizens, my usual business made me look an awful lot like a diminutive version of The Emissary himself – a mysterious and terrifyingly powerful guardian of the streets.

I funneled many letters to Val through Viper and eventually confessed to Team Firewander that Val was in hiding which didn't surprise any of them. Bruja couldn't write, but Kasashi passed me several letters for Val as well. Fox added jokes and tidbits of gossip to my letters which I painstakingly scribbled in Old Realm. Val never responded to any of us.

What shocked me even more was that Val made no attempt to get in contact with Lily or his daughters either. I figured it was his place to tell them whatever he wanted to, though whenever I ran into Lily I found myself almost confessing everything.

After the Department of Archaeology was officially disbanded and the last of Val's salary spent, Lily and girls moved out of their house into the cheaper neighbourhood of Glassmaker's Row. It was a little better than Harlotry, generally speaking... but not much.

Lily tried her hand at baking, painting and tailoring but she couldn't manage to make a living with any of her talents and her family wasn't able to send her more than it cost to cover her rent. Tamika, Val's oldest daughter was fifteen and eager to help her mother however she could. Rose, the younger, about twelve years old was quiet and reclusive. She very seldom spoke and was often ill. When she contracted the nasty waterborn sickness that the slums of Nexus were so prone to, everyone thought that she would die. I sent Val a flurry of letters regarding his daughter's condition, all of which Gray Whiskers assured me that he had delivered.

With the help of a local doctor who volunteered his services when Lily couldn't pay, Rose eventually recovered. But her poor mother, who'd worked her hands to the bone for her daughter's sake had grown very weak and eventually succumbed to the plague herself. I wrote Val again when Lily died.

He didn't respond.

Since their mother's only relatives were old and hardly in the position to care for them, Tamika and Rose came to live with me. Or rather, since I was still sleeping in a different bed almost every night... I took them to live with my mother.

I put off moving the girls until Lily was buried and Val still hadn't sent a response about what he wanted for his daughters. I hadn't seen my mother more than once or twice since I'd Exalted and my grandmother visited me almost weekly, always pointing out that my mother had been nagging her to know what I was up to. There was no way I could explain what I was doing or why Rose and Tamika couldn't simply stay with me without telling her the truth.

It took all the courage I could muster to face my mother in addition to some encouragement from Viper who'd expressed her sympathy for my situation in the form of a gift. It was a piece of ancient black silk, a shroud cloth from a Solar tomb capable of concealing my caste mark provided that I didn't burn too much Essence while I wore it. Combined with my ability to mute my own anima, it made me the stealthiest thing on the street and I adored it.

What I didn't like was Viper's implication that if I confessed what had really happened to my mother, I would probably have to start running for my life. Then again, the two of them had never gotten along, poisonings and wardrobe fires being just some of the ways they'd demonstrated their undying hatred for one another in the past.

I left the girls in the sitting room of my mother's teahouse with Keiko, the house's oldest and best-behaved whore. Tamika was at the age where she was particularly vulnerable to all the glamour that she saw around Harlotry... failing to realize, of course, that the girl in the lovely golden kimono on the balcony of the An-Tang Princess didn't own any of her finery and probably earned significantly less than what she needed to survive. Prostitution was a business that thrived on illusion. The raw bones of the business were very different than its gilded exterior.

Of course, my mother's “teahouse” with its high-class clientele was gilded both inside and out.

I stood in the hall for ten solid minutes before mustering up the courage I needed to disturb my mother in her office. It made me smug to think that I was leaving a pair of dirty boot prints on my mother's outrageously expensive Sijanese rug. Then I opened the door - not at all surprised to see my mother working in her usual manner.

That is to say... she was balancing accounts.

People often comment how similar we look. Like my mother, I'm somewhat petite... but I'm about a foot taller than she is and my hair is all black while hers is peppered with feathers that occasionally smoke or burn when she gets angry, just like my grandmother's. She dresses ostentatiously by any standards, preferring strands of pearls and pale pastel colors which make her skin look almost as frosty as her personality. Her mismatched eyes, one blue and one green, never seem to look in the same direction, which is perhaps unsurprising since my mother is a consummate multi-tasker. Even when I was a child, she never summoned me to be scolded unless she had a massive pile of receipts that she could sort through at the same time.

When I entered she was sitting cross-legged on a mound of purple satin pillows, sipping her tea. With the aid of a Charm, both of her arms moved with bizarre fluidity, making her appear to have six or eight limbs. She wrote up accounts with one hand, made notes with the other, drank her tea with the first and dipped her pen with the second – somehow looking absolutely serene in that flurry of motion.

“What do you want?” She asked me, sounding very annoyed. She didn't even glance in my direction.

“I've barely seen you in two years and that's how you say hello?” I demanded.

“You only come to see me when you want something.” She reminded me, not looking up to face me but wagging a disapproving finger in my direction. “Why should I bother with formalities?”

“All right. I'll get to the point then. I have two girls with me. They're fifteen and twelve years old, quiet and well-behaved.” I paused. “I want you to take them in.”

“Absolutely not!” My mother snorted.

“Mother, you know what I think of your ability to raise children! I wouldn't have brought them here if they had anywhere else to go! Don't you even want to know why I came to you?” I demanded.

“It's irrelevant. I'm not a charity, child!” She snapped.

“And I'm not a child! You always do this! I also wasn't asking for handouts but you didn't let me get that far! Tamika and Rose have nowhere to go. Their mother is dead, their father's gone and they've got no money at all. I'd take care of them myself but I don't even sleep in the same place every night. They're good girls and they won't steal from you! Keiko tells me you've fired Constance for “borrowing” jewellery again. Hire Tamika in her place and let Rose help in the kitchen. She's a hard worker and she can bake. You won't even have to pay either of them wages – they just need food and beds.” I finished.

It was a deal that any whorehouse in Harlotry would have seized upon immediately. Realistically, I could have taken Tamika and Rose to Viper's or The Princess and gotten them a better deal... but only turning them over to my mother would ensure that they wouldn't be expected to take on any “other” responsibilities as they came of age. I wanted to protect Val's girls from becoming whores however I could – and though my mother did run a brothel, she also insisted that all of her working girls had years of dance lessons and were conversant in High Realm. As she often professed, anything less would reflect poorly upon her.

Though both Tamika and Rose were well-educated at their mother's insistence, they were raised like typical middle-class merchants which meant that by my mother's standards they were horrifically uncultured “un-trainable provincial trash”. The way I saw it, that was a good thing. The fact that they were both somewhat plain and ordinary-looking was also to their benefit.

My mother was about to refuse when both she and I caught a distinct whiff of opium. We glanced at one another momentarily, knowing that things were really about to start spiraling downhill. In her typical languorous fashion, my grandmother appeared sitting across from my mother who gave her an absolutely horrific glare.

“Take the girls, Three Pearls!” My grandmother ordered.

“Mother.” My mother sneered. “This is none of your business!”

“Oh, but it is – daughter-of-mine!” My grandmother retorted. “Now will you stop being such a self-centered spiteful cow and actually listen to your daughter for once! This is a good deal for you and you know it!”

“Where are these girls of yours?” My mother demanded, twitching slightly at my grandmother's rather harsh appraisal of her own character.

“Downstairs with Keiko. If they don't do exactly what you say, I'll get them out of here in a day.” I promised.

“They can stay.” My mother gritted her teeth slightly, for the first time in my memory ignoring my grandmother and staring directly at me instead. “Provided that they work.”

“They'll work. They'll work their butts off. I'll send them up right away.” I replied, turning to leave. “And for what it's worth... thank you.”

“Sapphire?” My mother interrupted me. I slowly turned to face her. “There's something different about you.”

“There's not, really.” I replied. And like an idiot... I bowed slightly to my grandmother and momentarily let down my guard.

In a heartbeat my mother was right on me, her bladed fan out of her kimono, completely unfolded and about two inches away from my throat. My mother was a practitioner of Dreaming Pearl Courtesan Style, a deadly martial art that I'd never possessed the necessary subtlety – or the Essence for. Having been a Solar for more than two years myself, I didn't have the problem of lacking the ability to wield Essence any longer... but Dreaming Pearl wasn't exactly my cup of tea. Without thinking about how bad my reaction would look, I drew one of my firewands and deftly parried her fan.

I didn't bother loading the gun, which made my action seem even more bizarre - any trained gunslinger would have gone for their shells even before their weapon was clear of its holster. But I'd more or less stopped wasting my money on alchemical ammunition a long time ago. With some useful advice from my friend The Emissary, I'd also gotten so good at Righteous Devil Style that I sometimes used its more powerful Charms without thinking.

We stood for a moment and stared in silence at one another.

“Are you trying to kill me?” I demanded.

“I should ask you the same!” My mother retorted.

“You struck first!” I reminded her.

“You dodged my question!” She replied, unfolding her second fan with perfect fluid precision. I drew my second firewand faster than she was able to sweep at me and shot it out of her hand.

“That's enough! Can't we ever talk like civilized people?” I sighed heavily, not daring to holster my firewands. I couldn't be sure that she wouldn't try to attack me again.

Like I've said before... my mother and I have that sort of relationship.

“Righteous Devil Style.” She observed, smiling slightly. “That's no ordinary martial art. I take it that you've finally come to understand the importance of what I always tried to teach you?”

“If you mean sitting for hours contemplating my navel and the absolute perfection of the Dragons... no, not so much.” I paused.

“You didn't tell her?” My grandmother gasped.

I almost dropped both of my firewands at her reaction. “You told me not to tell her!” I argued over my shoulder, not daring to turn my back on my mother.

“I didn't think you'd keep it a secret this long!” My grandmother replied.

“What have you been hiding from me?” My mother demanded, her hands on her hips... still clutching one of her deadly fans. I somewhat expected her to throw it at me once I said the words that were stuck in my throat.

As it was. I couldn't mangle up any sort of explanation and so I did the only thing that really came naturally to me. I holstered my firewands, removed the shroud cloth I wore tied around my head and illuminated my caste mark.

My mother didn't say anything. She only made a noise like a strangled frog, pointed at me with a shaking hand and then fainted dead away.

My grandmother glided over to where she lay unconscious on the floor. “I suspected that might happen.” She admitted with a mischievous smirk.

“I'm getting out of here now.” I replied. “I think mother had better have some time to stew this over before we try to talk again. You'll look out for Val's girls, won't you? They don't know that I'm a Solar and it'd probably be better if they don't find out. Give mother some incentive to keep her mouth shut.”

“Oh, I absolutely shall! This is really too delightful!” My grandmother promised, glancing down at my mother who still hadn't moved. “Take care of yourself, poppet. I'll be watching you!”

I went downstairs to check on Tamika and Rose before I left them in my mother's hands. They looked comfortable enough with Keiko and she seemed pleased with Rose's ability to sew if a little disturbed by the girl's silence. Rose hadn't spoken a word since her mother died and I really had no way of knowing if or when she'd ever speak again.

“You girls can stay here. You're going to have to work, but you're going to be maids – not whores.” I informed them.

“We aren't whores, we're Seamstresses!” Keiko corrected me.

“Keep telling yourself that.” I snorted.

“I'm not afraid of work.” Tamika vowed.

Rose nodded in agreement.

“Good girls.” I smiled slightly. “Your mother would be proud of you. And if my mother acts like a monster or you need anything... just get a little bit of wine or sake and say a prayer to Burning Feather. My grandmother's promised to look out for you too. Your father wants you safe.” I said before I thought better of myself. Tamika noticed my little slip-up.

“He is alive then?” She pressed. Rose blinked in surprise and almost seemed ready to speak, but all that escaped her was a harsh squeaking sound.

I didn't say yes or no, but I didn't have to.

“We always thought he was.” Tamika admitted, speaking for herself and her sister. “And I understand why he ran when the Immaculate Order started threatening everyone from the University. Some Realm soldiers broke into our house, you know, and they said that father was a heretic and that he should be executed. They probably would have killed us all if they would have found him at home. But that was years ago! Why has he never come back?”

“I can't tell you that. You'll just be in danger if you know the whole story.” I replied, though I wanted desperately to explain everything. Since Val hadn't responded once to any of my letters... I realistically didn't know if he'd ever return, or even if he was still alive. All I had to go on was Viper's promise that Val was fine and I didn't want to get the girl's hopes up. “But he's trying to protect you. You're his whole world. Nothing is more important to him.”

“We know that.” Tamika nodded, wiping tears from her eyes. “Our mother knew it too. It was the last thing she ever said to us.”

“Hold onto that.” I advised. “It's an important thing to remember.”

Without looking back I left the teahouse and made it only about three blocks down the street when I felt my legs going out from under me. I leaned against a street sign and slowly slid down to sit on the ground.

“Damnit, Val!” I cursed, wiping my nose on my sleeve when I could no longer hold back the tears I'd been trying to swallow. There were a few people on the street so early in the evening and most of them avoided looking at me. The rest probably figured that I was too drunk for my own good.

Part of me I wished I was. There was nothing I hated more than feeling completely helpless.

I went looking for Honeysuckle as soon as the sun went down. When I spent time with Viper, it was very difficult to avoid talking about Val or other things that were secret, such as the subject of my own nature. With Viper I could be a Solar... but I was always a Solar. And I had discovered in the years since my Exaltation that sometimes I really didn't want to be one.

I was well aware of all the good I'd done with the power I possessed. The streets were safer than they had ever been after dark and the people I looked out for... whores, middling merchants, the poor and anyone who'd been shafted by the University were marginally better off, surviving where they might have been starving. I was bone tired almost every day... and I smiled just a little whenever I remembered what Viper had told me was the Chrysalis “code” for Solar Exalt.

“I have a terrible headache every day.”


Oh, did I ever!

I had to constantly remind myself that I had to do something besides work on organizing folks for their own benefit, steal from the wealthy to fund my “improvement” projects and beat up overly opportunistic thugs and thieves for the sake of their would-be victims. If a particularly heinous crime had been committed... it was known all around Nexus that the best person to call was “Shadowsbane” who could be found most evenings lounging around the bar at The An-Tang Princess. Truthfully, I liked the sake at Anathema's somewhat better and Viper's prices for food and entertainment were far more reasonable The An-Tang Princess but being close to Honey did not leave me feeling so much like an outsider, like someone who didn't even belong in the world that everyone else inhabited.

Despite his silly demeanour, that boy had a heart big enough to cuddle the whole world.

But on the night that I needed him most, right after Lily's death... my Honey was gone, out at a party with one of his wealthy clients.

I went to sit on a favourite rooftop of mine instead. It must have been close to sunrise when The Emissary found me there.

Since he'd come to speak with me in Val's office only two days after the earthquake I'd seen him more times than I could count. We were as close as two people probably could be when one had never seen the other's face.

“You look like you've been drug through Malfeas.” He informed me.

“I feel like it too.” I replied with a heavy sigh. “I don't know how long I can keep this up.”

“Taking care of Val's problems?” He suggested.

“That's not even fair!” I protested. “There's probably a damned good reason he's never responded to any of my letters!”

“What if there isn't?” The Emissary pressed. “What if he's just moved on?”

“Val isn't like that. You wouldn't say that if you knew him!” I argued.

“Don't you want to move on yourself?” The Emissary asked.

“And do what, exactly?” I demanded. “The same thing I've done here somewhere else? No, actually. I prefer to keep building off of all of the bloody work I've already put in! At least here in Nexus I've got people that I know I can trust!” I sighed.

“Besides, I can't exactly leave Val's girls with my mother if I'm not close enough to pull them out of that hellhole on a moment's notice. My grandmother says she's looking after them, but that could change tonight or tomorrow or whenever she gets bored. Like most Gods, she's got the attention span of a mayfly and her own agenda – which is completely independent of what anyone else needs and always takes priority!” I rolled my eyes, thinking of how she'd interrupted the fight between my mother and I earlier.

“That's not a very nice thing to say.” The Emissary informed me.

“It's true.” I replied. He did not protest.

“Why do you take it upon yourself to fix everyone's problems?” The Emissary demanded.

“Why do you stand by and do nothing?” I retorted.

“You think I do nothing?” He laughed at me. “I rule this whole city!”

“And that's the easiest job in Creation!” I reminded him. “This city rules itself!”

It was an old conversation between the two of us, but my companion did not cackle over my response as he usually did.

“It does, more or less. But that doesn't mean I sit on my hands and do nothing at all. Right now I'm having trouble with the fae.” He informed me, suddenly serious. “I try to keep the Wyld contained inside of Firewander, but sometimes I can't. And the less the fair folk are willing to cooperate, the harder my job becomes!”

“That's no good.” I grimaced. “If the fae start spreading out into the city – in more places than just the underground... we're both going to be busier than usual.”

I tried to make light about what he had said, but I was a little shocked. It was the first time the Emissary had ever confessed to any kind of weakness. We sat in silence for a few moments and watched the stars.

“You know, I sometimes wondered if you were invulnerable.” I admitted.

“Why would you think that?” He asked.

“Because I never see your face. Because you never tell me anything about yourself. You just listen to me complain about how tired I am and how I don't understand people anymore!” I sighed in defeat.

“Did you ever understand people?” The Emissary asked.

“I thought I did.” I replied. “Once upon a time anyway.”

“Once upon a time, I thought so too.” He sighed heavily and sat down beside me.

Again, I couldn't think of anything to say. We just sat, and after the sun went down completely, he put his arm around me. It felt very strange and stiff at first, like maybe he didn't know how to hold someone at all.

I wondered, and not for the first time... if The Emissary and I had more in common than he was willing to admit.

Sometime in the early hours of the morning I must have dozed off. When I awoke, I was alone. There was a note slipped into my pocket, just one line written in beautiful Old Realm. I almost slipped off the roof when I read it.

I have a terrible headache every day.

Was the Emissary a Solar himself?

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