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Edge of Underleaves

14 Nov 2014, 00:08

This story is posted on, but in the effort to potentially reach any readership I might have missed, I'm posting it here. Reviews of any kind are strongly encouraged.

This tale features dragon-blooded protagonists and is based, mechanistically, on Second Edition rules.

Edge of Underleaves

Chapter 1

Resplendent Air Five – RY 765

The spring sunshine was bright, and warmed armor plate, but it was not yet strong enough to completely banish early morning’s mild chill. A cutting breeze whipped in from shore, rustling up the life of bustling streets. Though mere minutes past dawn the city was already hurried and busy. A mad stream of commerce moving in every direction: poured down packed roads; over narrow bridges; and jumped up from the maze of canals below.

In many places the combination of rickshaws, carts, animals, and people meant a careful dance of motion and deference was necessary to pass through, especially on the wood and stone spans traversing broad canals. Too polite to push and shove, the public moved through a complex ritual of bows, admonishments, and unspoken probes of family status to determine the order of passage.

Only two entities bypassed this practice; the way opening well in advance of their motions: elephants; and dragon-blooded. On this morning Ragara Zuven was glad to be registered among the latter. Otherwise he would have been in for a long wait, for in the choreography of status as practiced by the Tengese foreigners ranked near the bottom, barely above the scorned dispossessed.

Rather than being forced to throw sharp elbows to take even one step over a bridge, the mass of humans and livestock parted at one sight of emerald eyes and wood-grain lined face. Zuven kept his hands near the hilts of his daiklaves all the same. His armor and weapons marked him out as a soldier, and there had been incidents recently. Though he knew he had no fear for assault, he would not have put it past a desperate youth to try and secure his fortune by snatching one of the jade blades.

He found the walk unpleasant. Cities remained foreign creatures to his senses. The rules of life were different here from those ingrained upon his muscles and bones; a game he did not know.

Now, he stepped into the center of it; the heart of the city, the royal district. A massive square surrounding the three-winged Palace of the Threefold Magnificence; it was actually considerably more open and accessible than the teaming merchant quarters that encompassed it. Business here moved in small clusters, nobles surrounded by a bevy of guards, each entourage a single unit, moving with swift deliberation. Common people did not tread upon these cobbles, steely gazes backed by hard iron kept even the curious and youthful away.

Gilded and polished, the grand palace gleamed in the morning sun, a shining beacon bearing symbols that subtly honored the ruling princes and their divine patron the Golden Lord. Even Zuven's eyes could spot the game being played out on those facades, skirting the edges of Immaculate objection. He found such understated artistic ploys irritating at best. It seemed such an exhausting conflict, and pointless.

Thankfully he had no need to brave the ostentatious and overly courteous halls of the palace. Business summoned him to a much more modest dwelling, in appearance at least. An elegant villa by any standard, though conspicuous by the absence of conformity with local style, it lay opposite the palace on the other side of the square. Stemming close to it, Zuven's skin prickled at the energy flowing out from the very stones.

The princes rule An-Teng, but the satrap rules the princes. So the garrison soldiers were wont to snicker behind the backs of the local people. Zuven was not so sure – the grand palace hardly resembled the residence of those who bowed down easily. He avoided voicing such concerns. Possessing ignorance of politics was a lesser sin compared to betraying the same among the dragon-blooded. Scars etched into his memory recalled that teaching.

It was with no small measure of trepidation that Zuven announced his presence to the guards and displayed the letter calling him to meet with the satrap. He'd never been inside this residence before, and until yesterday he'd been quite certain that aspect of his existence would remain true for years yet. Instead, in pursuit of a purpose he could not fathom, he had been called to meet with the highest authority in An-Teng. His stomach fluttered and he forcibly kept his eyes focused arrow-straight ahead.

The servant who guided Zuven through the elegantly decorated halls was not Tengese. Instead he bore the somewhat lighter and softer features of the Blessed Isle's southern coast. He, and the other staff, wore appropriate livery designating their affiliation with the Realm, but also a crest of pale ice crystal on a white and black field that Zuven supposed must be the satrap's personal sigil. Whether such private marks were allowed or legal bore down as a weight upon his mind, but he simply could not have said whether this was so. Regardless, it was not his place to raise an objection.

Many distractions lodged on tables and walls in those halls. Art, jewelry, rich food, and all the ostentation of incredible wealth clamoring to be noticed from every direction. Zuven had seen such things before on only a handful of occasions. He had to clamp his jaw shut and clench his neck to keep from ogling the riches.

Thankfully for the preservation of his reasoning ability the guide led him not to the satrap's main audience chamber but to a small, private dining room. There, at a table suitable for no more than six, he found the satrap. Seated, he was making his breakfast from a feast fit for kings.

After Zuven was ushered in the staff left quietly, leaving him alone with the satrap and a single serving-maid – one doubtless a lifelong slave trusted to be completely discrete.

His nerves tightened a notch further, heavy with knotted tension. Ragara Soras Jor1, Satrap of An-Teng for the Scarlet Empress, was a tall man with a sharp, forceful presence and an imperious face split by a strong nose. His mouth was hard and his black hair cut short, projecting concern for business alone. This contrasted only slightly with the fortune in gold and gems embroidered into his robes.

Jor looked up from his meal slowly and then very deliberately put down his utensils. He stared at the new arrival with an intensity of discerning assessment Zuven found oddly commendable.

“Ah,” Jor began. “Ragara Zuven. You are somewhat earlier than expected, but that is just as well.” His voice was highly cultured and carefully controlled. High Realm, all complex and fluid syllables, rolled off his tongue in the manner only a dynast born to it could conduct. “I would prefer to handle this swiftly.”

“My lord,” Zuven bowed his head deeply, with due deference to the satrap's rank and his senior position in their shared great house.

Jor made no move to stand, nor did he offer to have Zuven be seated, but this was expected. Thankfully, the younger dragon-blooded had eaten earlier, otherwise the temptation of the feast before him would have proven difficult to overcome. Standing, truthfully, was easier.

“I understand you hold the rank of Talonlord in the Twenty-First Legion,” The satrap's phrasing suggested such a position with of minimal account at best. “And that the legion was sponsored by House Peleps to undertake an expedition to reduce piracy in the Blue Islands2.”

“Yes lord,” Keeping his responses short served to avoid miss-communication and helped to hide Zuven's limited mastery of proper High Realm pronunciation.

“As you are no doubt aware, that expedition was indefinitely postponed due to the current crisis,” Jor avoided mentioning it, but even a street urchin could have divined his meaning. The disappearance of the Empress, now some three months official3, was surely the greatest crisis in a century, perhaps since the Great Contagion itself.

“Yes lord,” It was impossible for Zuven to completely conceal his glum disappointment at this. The Lintha pirates were already far too bold, and the lack of punishment would surely only worsen the problem. He had been eager to test his blades against them. Loitering in the City of the Steel Lotus was quickly chaffing.

“Word has come from the Deliberative,” Jor continued, glossing over the true import of the crisis with what was clearly a great deal of necessary practice. “They have finally determined to officially cancel the expedition.”

“Are we to return home?” The words escaped in eagerness from Zuven's mouth. Silently he cursed his idiocy for interrupting. He dropped his eyes to the floor, doing his best to show regret while remaining at attention.

A silent scowl split the satrap's face, but he made no audible mention of this breach of protocol. “The Deliberative has not chosen to recall your Fang. Instead, they have dissolved your command to local authorities.”

Something clicked over in Zuven's understanding. The local commander of the garrison was general Shuri the Scarlet of the Nineteenth Legion4, not the Satrap. He was being grabbed by the silken chord of politics, and without any idea to flee or means to dodge.

“There is always a need for the services of additional dynasts in the Threshold, and An-Teng is no exception,” Jor continued levelly. “General Shuri has agreed to detach you to a duty that falls under the aegis of my office, rather than that of the Legions proper.”

Dynastic politics was an alien field to Zuven, but he knew both that he was his unit's most junior officer and it's only Ragara member. Certainly both facts had influence over this meeting. Resisting the urge to clench a fist, he simply listened. Jor might be political, but he appeared dedicated to his work. However irregular the mission, it was certainly important.

“Tell me,” the satrap surprised the young dragon-blood with a direct question. “Do you know of Sesus Bian?”

Swallowing to buy a second to think, Zuven answered honestly. “No, lord.” It was a worried admission. His abrupt education had left many holes, and he could name only the most famous members of the dragon-blooded host.

“Hardly surprising,” If Jor felt any disappointment he hid it completely. “She is a member of the Bureau of Discerning Essence Managers5 and a scholar of modest renown. At the present she is recently arrived here in An-Teng with plans to launch an exploratory mission across the southern border.”

So far as Zuven knew, and he reckoned his grasp of local geography good, there was nothing much but jungle south of An-Teng.

“Though I have counseled against this undertaking at this particular time, she has insisted on going forward,” the satrap's face hardened with the displeasure of a man used to seeing his will taken as law. “And as the mission is small in scope it seems the Thousand Scales feels halting her not worthy of their attention.”
Jor looked up a Zuven, fixating him with midnight blue eyes. “I am assigning you to her expedition as an escort. I have already drawn up the directive.”

“Of course lord,” Any objection would be pointless. “But, what is the purpose of this mission?” He could see no reason to march into the jungle.

“Sesus Bian apparently has some design to study the local people,” the satrap's voice clearly conveyed his dismissal of this goal as ridiculous. “However, the bureau she reports to is searching for unclaimed manses and any artifacts of the previous age they may contain. Her record suggests a certain competence to the recovery of both.”

This made sense to the soldier's mind. The realm always needed more such resources.

Carefully Jor put his hands on the table, palms down. “Now then, I hope you understand that House Ragara, and myself, must not remain uninformed regarding any such discoveries dredged up from the jungle, nor can Houses Sesus be allowed to reap solely the accolades of a successful endeavor. You are to keep the lady scholar safe, but also to keep your eyes open. Am I understood?”

“Of course lord,” Zuven answered without hesitation, though the words tasted like bile. House Ragara did nothing for free. His adoption held just as many strings as any other business deal, and of jade rather than silver. “I am always mindful of my duties to family.”

“Excellent,” the slightest ghost of a smile broke across Jor's face. “I believe you may have a promising future, Talonlord.”

Fighting the churning flips of his stomach, Zuven could only bow.

Chapter 1 Notes
1. Ragara Soras Jor is a canonical character described in Compass of Terrestrial Directions: The South. His appearance, abilities, and personality, are modeled on the canon description.
2. The Blue Islands is a reference to the island chain located to the west of Bluehaven. As far as I can determine it has no official canon name so I have utilized this not particularly creative appellation instead.
3. This story is set in early RY 765, and is interpreted as being several months after the Council of the Empty Throne. Though the Empress has been gone for over a year this has only recently been made public.
4. I don't actually know which half-legion is assigned to An-Teng, but I don't believe this number is taken.
5. I have invented this Realm ministry. Its responsibility is geomancy in the Threshold.
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Re: Edge of Underleaves

14 Nov 2014, 00:10

Chapter 2

Resplendent Air Five – RY 765

Zuven was directed by a member of the satrap's staff to meet Sesus Bian at the residence of Sesus Alon Carina, a dragon-blooded merchant and artist who customarily spent her summers in the city. The villa in question lay just off the southern edge of the Royal District. The short walk to reach it was woefully insufficient to supply the soldier with the time necessary to grapple and comprehend the jarring turn he'd just been dealt.

Considering that this might be best – as the wise officer does not overly question the orders of his superiors without daring madness – he plunged ahead, announcing his presence to the doorman less than an hour after vacating the satrap's presence.

Met by the butler, Zuven was swiftly ushered within without so much as presenting his writ. Apparently there was only one reason a dragon-blooded visitor might seek out this house.

Though mostly under blankets for preservation, the villa resembled a miniature version of the satrap's abode. The only substantive difference was in the servants, who were Tengese, not Blessed Isle natives dragged thousands of leagues from their families, and in the art, which all presented a vision of Tengese life seated against dramatic local landscape backdrops.

It took only a moment to reach the library, where the house's temporary mistress had taken up occupancy. Zuven was all but pushed inside and immediately announced. He felt little welcomed.

“My lady, Ragara Zuven to see you.”

Zuven's initial glimpse of his new employer was of nothing but long black hair cascading down off burnished orange robes halfway to her hips. Granted the insight of immediacy, he saw the fabric she wore was the same as the satrap had borne, but this outfit, while of exquisite cut, was totally lacking in ornamentation.

At his arrival she turned and rose from her desk. The surface, revealed by this motion, was strew with a many-layered chaos of documents, books, and maps. “Thank you Sulat. That will be all.”

The butler's swift bow and subsequent departure went completely unnoticed. The solider was too busy staring.

Sesus Magel Bian was pretty, with a fine slender figure and pale white skin touched with a bluish shimmer. She had a small, pouty, mouth with reddish lips below a subdued, modest nose. It was her eyes that were truly remarkable. They were blazing bright blue, shining with the fire of a thousand perfect gemstones. The color was omnipresent there, covering all portions of the organ completely, iris, pupil, and white, only orbs of blue could be seen.

It was the dragon's blessing, but never before had he seen such a dramatic sign.

“Ragara Zuven?” Bian broke the spell by speaking. She had a pleasant, kind voice, one that conveyed gentle interest regardless of topic. “Welcome, I am Sesus Magel Bian. To what do I owe the pleasure?”

Suddenly adrift, Zuven defaulted to his military training. “Ragara Zuven, Talonlord of the Twenty-first Legion, reporting to you for duty, ma'am.” Out of habit he saluted, hand to his chest, before dropping back into parade rest, terribly embarrassed.

Bian smiled, the glimmer of her eyes laughing lightly.

“Of course,” she gestured to a chair by the window. “Do sit down, I expect we have several things to discuss.”

Feeling clumsy, Zuven did as he was bidden. The satrap had dispatched him as a pawn, and this woman clearly knew it. He wondered what she intended to do with him. He felt as powerless as the chair he sat upon.

Pulling her own seat out from behind the clutter of her desk, Bian sat near the window, where she could catch the most of the late morning sun. There was no fire lit in this room filled with hundreds of valuable books. When she turned to him at last she bore down with the full force of her incredible eyes. “So,” she began. “The satrap has sent a soldier to be his spy. No doubt he could find no one better. Still, this is promising. I can make use of soldiers. Far better than some fool dynast gallivanting about following dreams of adventure and glory.”

Struck into silence by this blunt deluge, Zuven prayed behind his eyes to all the gods that he'd kept his mouth closed.

Whether or not he'd managed that minimal salvage, his reaction did not go unnoticed. “Do I shock you?” Bian questioned. “Good. Most children of the houses hide their feelings so well it takes far too much shock to break them free. Tell me, now, the satrap did ask you to spy on me, correct?”

“Yes,” It seemed pointless to lie. Zuven knew well he had little talent for deception. His father had raised him to honesty in all things, and the battering since had only made such admonishments stronger.

“Well then,” Bian shrugged, a light motion of her shoulders, barely ruffling her robes at all. “Tell him what he wants to know.”

“But-,” Zuven stopped. He chose his next words deliberately. “Are you certain of this?”

A sharp intake of breath marked the lady's throat. “What I have planned is quite dangerous. The unsettled lands are far from forgiving. To complete this course we will need to gain each other's full trust. The satrap is a powerful man, and more importantly aware of all his capabilities and limits. I cannot stop you from serving him as a second master or him from learning what he believes he must know. Therefore I will simply remove the burden of deception between us.”

Without a word Zuven waited. Caught between competing duties he was adrift, currents pushing and pulling at once.

“However,” a devious smile broke across bright lips. “I think the satrap may have made a mistake.” Blue eyes focused hard, assessing down to the minute scale, narrow and hot. “Those eyebrows, that chin, and that nose never came from the Blessed Isle. You are local, born here in the southwest. The Banner Isles1 I believe.” She raised her head to a more familiar approach. “Yes?”

“Ytiran island,” the soldier answered. His memory swelled with the scent of sticky-soup vapors and the blanketing odor of latex on the trees. This time it did not seem so embarrassing to say.

“We can hold births in the Threshold in common then.” No shame marked this declaration. “For myself Aglea2, far to the east. An unremarkable place,” she added the last to counteract Zuven's obvious blank look.

“I doubt,” he answered carefully, but then with growing recklessness. “That we are very similar.” On the second sentence he switched his words, abandoning the fluid, formal structures of High Realm for the rapid, choppy, popping speech of Flametongue. He let the sorrow and regret out, filling his words there in a way he could not present in the formal phrasing of the dynast's language.

“Of course not,” Bian answered in the same tongue, pitch perfect and without any sign of difficulty in the transition. “But unlike the satrap, who would no doubt call it the natural order, I proclaim that tragedy.” She looked out the window, blue eyes gazing high above the city.

“Our right, and our duty, as those chose by the dragons is to rule Creation,” she spoke quietly, just above a whisper. “But we know so little of the land. How can we rule it so? I am not going south for dragon lines and jade relics, useful though they be. I am going for the learning, for the seeking, so those demands might be met.”

There was no hiding the genuine passion animating those words. Zuven was certain they were truth. Even so, his doubts were not quelled. “Is this the right time?”

“The brightest minds of the Heptagram and the most cunning spies of the All-Seeing Eye have failed to discern the cause behind the Empress' disappearance. Whatever the case, it is a power we do not understand.” The answer was cool, logical, and well-founded, but lacked conviction. “I doubt I will find that secret, but the act of searching, of devoting oneself to the discovery of answers, is just as important, or more important, than ever before.”

It was not in Zuven to agree, not completely. He would rather set his blades to scourging pirates in provision of her majesty's eventual return rather than wander the jungle. Yet regardless of his wishes Bian's passion was undeniable, and at the least she was taking action, rather than dithering as it seemed the far-off Deliberative had chosen. “I am your servant,” he answered the unspoken question.

With the clarity of duty revealed he found the tumbling gymnastics of his stomach quieted. His teachers might not have made of him a full Prince of the Earth, but they had made an officer willing to devote himself to the fulfillment of his orders.

“Don't be too content,” Bian smiled mysterious once more. “I will be asking you to endure a great deal of privation on this quest of mine, and I suspect we may come to grate upon each other’s' company in the course of time.”

Rubber-scented memories curled and twisted through the back of the soldier's mind. The average dynast's idea of privation was still incredible luxury to the youth he had been, and he was not yet a decade separated from that boy. He latched on instead to the second part of the statement. “What do you mean each other’s' company? I thought I would be leading a talon-strength force. Did you mean to bring a mere scale?”

“My original plan was a fang of well-trained mortal supporters,” Bian answered, sounding pleased that she had flummoxed his estimates. “However, since the satrap has seen fit to add a second one of the exalted to my endeavor I think I will cut that out as well. We will depart with you, me, and a pack animal, nothing more.”

This time Zuven's mouth did fall open. “But...” he was unable to muster anything more than this nebulous objection.

“I have explored alongside armies before,” Bian swooped down to crush the counter before it could be raised. “Their presence slows progress, is utterly impossible to hide in the jungle, and most significantly it inevitably colors all reactions quite terribly, ruining local engagement. A large group costs many times more and as a matter of defense merely provides a larger target. Besides, my ability to rapidly transport a group by calling the stormwinds is dramatically reduced with size.”

Even befuddled as he was Zuven caught the reference, it touched upon the ways of war, and he was sensitive to such things. “You are a sorcerer?”

Blue eyes blinked twice. “Yes,” she responded harshly, suddenly stiff. “There is great utility to the practice...” she stopped, trailing off before launching into a lecture that had clearly been given many times. “It does not matter why I chose sorcery. Is it a problem for you?”

Zuven had dealt with sorcery only in strictly governed combat exercises. He remained largely unresolved as to their existence. Most dynasts had few kind words for them, but then the same was true of him, and based solely on his birth. Bian appeared far less underhanded and conniving than the satrap, at the very least. “No.” He let the lone word encompass the totality of his answer.

“Good.” Taking the opportunity afforded by this break in conversation Bian stood and retrieved a sheaf of paper from her desk.

Studying her movement, Zuven observed two key things. First, he caught the unmistakable presence of chain links sliding about beneath her robes. There seemed to be no hindrance induced by the layer of metal so he assumed it must be jade.

Secondly, despite the relaxed setting of the villa, she wore a weapon hanging on a harness about her lower back. It was a strange device, two feet of curved metal and blue jade, carved with odd symbols and bearing a long edge. Thin and flattened, with a silk-wrap grip on one end, he supposed it was meant to be thrown or launched somehow, but the method escaped his imagination.

“Monsoon's Herald,” she remarked, running her fingertips along the marine-shaded edge. “An eastern weapon, a sky cutter. And yours?” An eyebrow lifted above those gemstones.

Pulling free one of the short daiklaves far enough to display the edge of green jade, Zuven responded in kind. “Descending Palms.”

“I shall endeavor to keep them clean,” A tinge of sadness touched Bian's words. “But I suspect any thirst they may need slaked will be met many times over.”

“I do not fear battle,” It was a hard truth, but easily spoken. “My place in the host is to bear these blades.” His instructors had admonished him in every course save one, the art of cutting.

Half-curious, half-sorrowful, blue eyes studied his face. “You are well trained, no doubt,” she noted. “But very young,” It was an odd statement from a woman he doubted was much more than twice his own age. “Have you faced true battle?”

Clenching his fingers once, Zuven forced himself to admit that it was a fair question. He was fresh from the House of Bells, on his first commission. He had classmates who had never spilled blood in anger and the desperation of struggle. He forced the rage that surfaced deep within back down. “When I was ten my father pressed a tapping knife into my hand,” the worlds started hot in his chest, but left his lips icy cold. “He told me it was time to stand with the men rather than hide with the children when bandits came.” Flametongue emphasis made the words searing. “The day I took my second breath I left five men dead, and one woman.”

“My interrogation was unseemly, and I regret it,” the apology was so unexpected it left Zuven poleaxed, and yet it was no lie. Bian's pale expression held the stiffness of sincerity. “Please forgive this lapse, I let my suspicions color my actions.”

“It is nothing. There is no quarrel,” the soldier muttered automatically, stunned by the lack of scorn. There had been neither the doubt of his Ragara patrons nor the mockery of his classmates. Something strange lurked hidden behind those frightful eyes, something he'd never seen before in one of his fellow dragon-blooded.

“Well then,” Bian raised her sheaf of paper and returned to her seat. “I have a list of travel supplies I believe we will need, as well as trade goods that are both compact and likely to interest the tribes to the south, though that involves more guesswork than I would prefer. Here, take a look.”

The list was written out in precise, narrow, High Realm calligraphy. Zuven read the language better than he spoke it, and had no trouble with this. It took only a quick glance through to gather that the sorceress was both serious about traveling light and had a good grasp of the necessities of jungle survival. He found he had only one significant sense. “Skip the marijuana and betel nut, local varieties will be preferred. Add more antivenin instead, there are never enough cures.”

“A good suggestion,” she acknowledged, watching carefully. “One other question has troubled me. There is no way to avoid bringing a pack beast, but the jungle is dangerous to all such creatures and I have found no good solution. I considered a claw strider, but they move poorly in muddy ground and are overly aggressive. Also, regrettably, expensive,” she glanced out to the window once more. “Yeddim are too large and too stupid. Perhaps a mule, or-.”

“Elephant,” Zuven interjected with force, surprised by his confidence. “There is no other good choice.”

This drew her head around, expression calculated. “Too heavy to carry in a stormwind,” she countered. “More importantly, they are not easily handled. Do you know the art?”

He did not, but he had seen enough of the Tengese practice to recognize that an adult elephant did indeed require a skilled handler. Even the exalted could not ignore the strength of such creatures. Despite these obstacles some sense of buried intuition said that any other animal would never survive the trials of the jungle.

An incident from earlier, flashing out from the myriad exotic images of the bazaar, struck him then. “Two days ago I saw something, a creature from one of the obscure Fire Isles3; an elephant the size of a boar.”

“Really?” Bian's eyes lit with inner fire. “How interesting. Do you remember where precisely?”

The skill of making a map of one's travels within one's skull had been considered essential at the House of Bells. “Yes.”

For a final time Bian glanced out the window. “Almost time for the midday meal,” she noted. “Care to talk a walk?”

Chapter 2 Notes
1. I have applied the term ‘Banner Isles’ to the cluster of islands slightly offshore and south of An-Teng on the Creation Map.
2. While this name is original, House Sesus is described as holding satrapies in the Far East in MoEP: Dragon-Blooded.
3. This name is a reference to the island group in the furthest southwest of Creation.
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Re: Edge of Underleaves

14 Nov 2014, 00:13

Chapter 3

Resplendent Air 8 – RY 765

Seeking the assurance of repetition to calm his nerves, Zuven checked the straps once again. Icil grunted in response, blasting a short squealing exhalation from his trunk; enough was enough.

Duly chastened, the dragon-blooded stopped, standing up again. He patted the little elephant’s head instead, seeking forgiveness. In return the gray-skinned beast offered a playful head-butt. Bracing, Zuven set his shoulder against the blow to avoid being tumbled over.

Though Icil rose only to the soldier’s shoulder, and Zuven was not a tall man – being several inches shorter than his sorceress companion – the elephant was over twice his mass and possessed a formidable, compact strength that compared favorably to the power of a similar-sized boar. The straight tusks protruding from his lower jaw might be short, but they were dagger-sharp and fully capable of deadly gores1.

Yet he had never pointed those tusks at his masters. Icil was well trained. The animal responded rapidly and willingly to a simple combination of hand gestures and whistles and had a wondrously willing, almost canine, disposition. Zuven had been amazed that such a beast was for sale – he knew well the value of elephants, and one of Icil’s size would be ideal in his island home. The cut-rate price had been equally astonishing.

Bian had provided a sharp, cutting explanation for that mystery. “Lintha booty, smuggled in.”

Despite her protestations that it was a useless effort, Zuven had acted on that suspicion. He’d questioned the wretched merchant fence for over an hour, catching him in four clear lies, received a clear-eyed confession to smuggling, and then hauled the man before a judge.

The judge had ordered the man to pay a five dinar five, pocketed the silver himself, made not a single annotation to the record, and done it all with Zuven watching. Seething at this open defiance of the Realm’s laws and any decent moral standard beyond that, the soldier had raised no objection when Bian had taken over. The sorceress had simply demanded the fence had over Icil for nothing, backed by the bold, but dubiously legal, threat to drag the man down to the docks and have him pressed into the Water Fleet as a galley rower if he failed to comply.

This had proven extremely effective.

No matter the outcome, the incident left Zuven burning with regret at the lost punitive expedition. The Lintha badly needed a few hundred essence cannons worth of justice. Why had the Empress left them all alone? The world was already crumbling.

A rustle of vellum sheets crinkled through the air behind the soldier. He turned to see Bian rising from the cobbles, rolling her maps up and placing them carefully into her satchel. He swallowed. She was finished studying her route.

Zuven’s teeth clenched. He was a soldier. It was a hard personal reminder. He could handle this, he resolved, banishing fear. “Are we ready?” he asked, running a hand along Icil’s back. He hoped to share courage with the elephant, the animal was no more likely to enjoy what was to come than the dragon-blood.

“Yes,” Bian was calm and smooth, unruffled. “We will head south along the shore, and then up the Compassionate River2 past the Domain of the Serpents who Walk as Men, stopping at the edge of the river’s navigable section. Tomorrow we can start the southern course overland through the uplands.”

It was a simple course she had determined, a rough L-shape passage that, thankfully, did not require travel through any forests. “Now then,” she cautioned, motioning them into position. “Stand ready, but do not get too close.”

Blue eyes to the sky, the sorceress raised her hands in the Invocation of Mela. Breathing in deeply, she shouted forth commands to the heavens in the vanished language of the First Age. Power gathered in her, channeled by strength of will and the bonds of ancient formulae written into the very fabric of Creation.

Wind began to blow, summoned from nowhere. It wrapped about them, tossing dust across the paving stones. Faster and faster it whipped, raising Bian’s hair up till it stood parallel to the ground, her voice growing stronger with each stanza. Swirling coils of air shimmered in their passage, blurring the world beyond.

Bian’s voice ascended to a final crescendo. The wind grasped sorceress, soldier, and elephant in a grip simultaneously soft as silk and strong as steel. It took them forth and lifted them from the pavement.

Power burst out from the sorceress; essence shooting free in a sweeping display of puissant force. Silver-blue ice crystals streamed from her body, whirling. They formed a complex, intricate pattern, repeating over again, larger and smaller but always the same, as if some strange ever-branching tree of celestial gems grew from every pore.

Gathered by the wind they rose up from the ground, twice the height of a man. Then, they began to move.

Tempests howled and churned, accelerating with the unrelenting fury of the elements. Blasting upwards, they moved faster and faster, till they outpaced even the grand soaring plunge of eagle’s wings. They dashed south of the city, running out in a blur of spray across the river before skimming into the swampy expanse of the Shore Lands beyond.

Shuddering, Zuven fought a persistent urge to vomit. Rather than watch, he draped an arm over Icil and closed his eyes. The elephant trembled beneath his touch, but made no outcries.

Soon, he opened his eyes again. The dust devil shielded them from wind, spray, and insects. Without vision the absence of sensation, held in the sky feeling nothing, was too much. Steeling himself, Zuven made his body watch the ground rush past. He tried to form a map in his head as they went, desperate to focus on something other than what was actually happening.

They sped out over salt marsh, around great fans of coastal mangroves, dashing across the countless fingers of water that made up the wide river deltas. Here and there they passed rice paddies and stilt-mounted villages of this salty, oft-flooded marshland.

Bian, surrounded by the frigid corona of her blazing anima, kept her face forward, guiding the stormwind at torrid speeds. She dodged and weaved around fishing boats and trade galleys, slipping past clusters of trees and huts.

Marveling at the intense focus this required, Zuven alternated between studying the sorceress and catching the astonished expressions of on-looking peasants as they blasted by. The blazing ice-blue whirlwind streaking across the land was surely a sight to behold. Water sprayed in all directions every time they skidded across choppy rivers and lakes, throwing up a rainbow-tinged film of salty liquid.

As time passed Zuven slowly felt his muscles relax. His eyes adjusted to rapid motion. The initial terror faded into a far more mundane ache. Even Icil slowly became accustomed to the rapid flight, though the little elephant shivered occasionally.

Noticing this, the solider discovered that it was not just nerves. It was cold. The stormwind sheltered them from rasping winds, but Bian’s anima poured out terrible, killing frost within that embrace. Moving deliberately and with great care, Zuven extracted his bedroll from a saddlebag and draped it over the elephant. This helped, and Icil’s discomfort quieted. In time, as the surging flow of essence dissipated and the sun rose high above, it actually grew warm.

They pressed on, further and further. Zuven watched the land rush by, fast as a diving falcon. He marveled at the vastness of Creation. In an hour they covered more ground than a swift horseman might make in a week. Then they did it again in the next.

At the end of the second hour Bian pointed the stormwind in line with the towers of a distant city. Guided by the map inside his skull Zuven knew this to be the port of Poro’s Scales3, on the edge of the delta of the Compassionate River. A place of little account, it was the southernmost of An-Teng’s cities.

Plunging down a tributary of the river, they passed through thick shipping traffic, skirting the city to the east. The river, wide and slow, drew them upstream. Each mile saw the trees on the distant banks grow higher and higher.

Paddies and villages of neat houses on stilts grew thick on the northern bank. By contrast the south was barren, only the occasional clump of structures breaking up the vastness of the forest. Orchards proved far more common. The nobility of An-Teng was far more willing to plant south of their borders than they were to allow peasants to settle there.

A pleasant looking land for the most part, but seen from the river it presented a certain sluggishness of development. Perhaps it was the distortion of the water, but Zuven suspected it was an echo of his schooling on the Blessed Isle. Compared to the heavily managed and geomantically-optimized alignments of those plantations anything else was bound to seem relaxed.

Some ways up the river, after over an hour’s passage, the architecture to the south changed. For a modest time, the soldier guessed no more than half an hour, the level of settlement on both sides of the river equalized. Yet, this came with an odd difference on the southern bank. The larger buildings there were different. They were Tengese in foundation, even an unschooled student such as Zuven could see this, but the style had been starkly altered once the walls were raised. In place of the traditional flowers, leaves, and orchids that blossomed as decorations all across the country, these homes sported strange and exotic motifs of fangs and scales.

The Domain of Serpents who Walk as Men, that was the name of this splinter principality. The people there rejected the Realm, and rumor on the streets and in the barracks spoke of strange customs and odd skin growths. The designs themselves were forbidding enough to Zuven’s eye. He had little love for snakes.

Whatever the truth behind that land, it was not a vast domain, and the stormwind soon left it behind, while An-Teng continued far inland. Leaving it behind meant the river narrowed, even as it increased in speed. Around them the landscape rose rapidly, spitting out strange stony crenellations and deep-cut valleys. On the southern bank the forest thinned, growing scrubby on the hillsides, and the plants grew unfamiliar to island-schooled eyes. The air itself carried change. It grew in crispness, losing some measure of the languid humidity that clung to the lowlands; though it remained terribly thick by the standards of the Blessed Isle.

Myriad tributaries broke away from the main fork of the river, but boat traffic never ceased. The shipping simply transitioned in type, accommodating the shallow depths and greater currents. Barges, flat-bottomed skiffs, and simple rafts came to predominate, the wide, square-prow riverboats of the Middle and Shore lands faded behind them.

Fallen branches, rushing whitecaps, and other hazards became to appear, first on the edges, but slowly filtering closer and closer to the center of the river. Bare-chested men poling their barges bore eagle-eyed gazes and grips of steel.

In time these hazards increased to the point that barge traffic could no longer find passage, only the narrow plank canoes were suitable. Here, at the beginning of the mountain foothills, a small town had grown up, tucked in to the northern bank. Rough in fashion, it was coated in a layer of pale dust, blown down from higher altitudes.

Bian slowed their advance as this settlement came into focus, pulling up from the river to avoid the cluster of barges lashed to ramshackle docks. Instead they churned through empty fields arrayed in rings around the narrow rampart of ramped earth and gravel. There, in a field of millet, just poking through the first green shoots, they came to a stop.

With strange, airy delicacy the whirlwind descended. The toes of the sorceress’ boots touched the ground. One heartbeat, and the whirlwind fell away, gone utterly. Only the ruffled topsoil revealed the echoes of its passage.

Bian stumbled a step or two, her balance taking a moment to reassert itself. The little elephant too, spun about dizzily, as if his instincts were unsure what followed. Zuven felt no such disconnection. The growing life in the field beneath his feet served to anchor him.

“Bobbing-Ore,” Bian gestured a robed sleeve in the direction of the town. “A mining and refining settlement. Home to some three thousand souls, if the official census is accurate. It ought to be, the Tengese are quite scrupulous about such matters.”

Most towns Zuven had seen in An-Teng were delicate looking, built out onto the edge of dynamic waterways, staring into the edge of change brought about by season rains. Not so this place, wrapped around a bend in the river and cut roughly into the hills. It had a stony solidity uncommon to the lower reaches, and stuck out of the forest and scrub surrounding it.

Looking upwards into the nearby hills his eyes caught bright lights, the furious fires of smelters working away beneath the shadows of the sun descending far behind, out over the distant ocean. Men labored continuously out on the docks, working in thick vests and bearing masks against the choking dust as they loaded piles of rock and ore onto barges. At a nearby gate, really no more than a break in the circling rampart, a group of children congregated, pointing and calling to each other over the new arrivals. An old woman was already moving among them, shooing them away from strangers.

Within the Realm, or even many of the better-known satrapies, the arrival of a pair of dragon-blooded to a town of such modest size would trigger a celebration, whether real or feigned. Here it was different. The Tengese ignored their foreign visitors with a deliberate casualness that bordered on the studious. Always they stopped one step short of giving offense, but no more.

Zuven found it tiresome. Too many dynasts seemed to spend their time subverting the feelings of everyone they met, he saw no reason for mortals to join in such foolishness.

“No point in trying to go further today,” Bian announced. She started in to the town, undeterred by the absence of welcome. “Zuven,” she requested. “Find a place for us for the night, and for Icil as well.”

Billeting their modest supplies presented little difficulty. Though Bobbing-Ore had a rough countenance, resembling the hills it huddling among, the ore was undeniable. With metal came wealth, and with wealth the Guild and its local competitors. There was surely at least one inn suitable for the better class of visitor. His preference, however, was to stay with the sorceress, and he said as much. “Where will you be?”

“I sent correspondence to a local alchemist,” she answered without acknowledging his worries, tossing her long hair to shake it free of dust. “I want to meet with him, see if there are any final refinements to make to the southern course.”

“And where is that to be?” Zuven pressed, expecting that he might at least catch up later. He did not like the looks they received as they entered the town proper. The distance the Satrap’s degrees might travel was not merely a function of miles, but of how many troops one had at one’s back. Blue gemstone eyes were troublesomely recognizable.

“The Blue-Etched Lily Plate,” a quick-step by the air aspect put separation between them. Bian’s longer legs meant that to catch up the soldier would have to break into a run. That, of course, would not do, so she had achieved her aim. At least, for the moment. He did not intend to be left behind for long.

“Come on Icil,” With a whistle Zuven brought the elephant up behind him. He received an agreeable grunt in return as the beast stretched stubby legs. As they walked the soldier saw with dark amusement that while he might draw dark glances, everyone had smiles for his tusked companion.

Icil trumpeted a grin with the foolish contentment of the innocent, and children laughed.

Zuven, unable to resist a soft smile of his own, hurried to find the merchant’s inn.

Chapter 3 Notes
1. Icil is a dwarf elephant. This is a real, albeit extinct, animal that was found on Mediterranean islands through the Pleistocene. Since Creation already includes mammoths, I see no reason why not to add their contemporaries.
2. The map in CofTD: The South shows the southern border of An-Teng is a river stretching from the Fire Mountains to the ocean. I have given it this name, after the canon Forest of Compassion, a jungle in central An-Teng.
3. I have invented this city, but a port in the area seems reasonable.
4. I have invented this town, but canon mentions mining as an important industry in the Highlands.
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Re: Edge of Underleaves

14 Nov 2014, 00:14

Chapter 4

Resplendent Air 9 RY 765

Cloud forest Bian called it; this high jungle of gnarled trees, pervasive mist, and deep, dark green. It was different from the steamy island landscapes of his youth, cooled by altitude and cleansed by swift-draining soils. In the absence of familiarity the soldier’s mind bred concern. He saw potential dangers everywhere.

Once across the Compassionate River and up the southern bank a walk of an hour took a man past field and orchard and over two sets of narrow hills. Bobbed-Ore receded swiftly to the rear, and soon the low, clinging, cloud-cover obscured even the smoky evidence of its industry. As simple as that, the influence of the Realm faded to nothing.

There were no roads. Narrow trails, too thin to permit even carts, formed the only paths. They were ill-maintained, strew with fallen branches and loose rocks. Animal tracks pressed into the damp soil.

Many of those clawed residues were deeply discouraging.

Bian’s plan, as announced, was simple. “We travel south, as straight as possible, taking the descent rather than the climb, until we reach the first major river. Then we follow it upstream until we reach the highland valleys. There we begin the search for inhabited settlements.”

They pressed ahead slowly. Though the dark and shadowed understory was sparse enough in most places to advance without cutting they were forced to move in single file. Zuven led, followed by Icil, with Bian keeping to the rear.

Flat ground was the exception. They pressed through a landscape of constant, continual up and down, carved by countless tiny streams and rivulets, most small enough to be crossed with a single step. Navigation was difficult at best; there were few clearings in the thick woods, and the sun remained shrouded save for rare peeks through the foliage. Zuven plotted his course with great care, tracking plant orientations and plotting landmarks in the way his father had taught him.

By the time they stopped for a midday meal, Bian had noticed. “You were schooled at the House of Bells,” she began, glancing at him curiously between mouthfuls of tough flatbread. “But you do not use the path-finding method as taught to our soldiers. I learned it, and it had other origins than your own.”

Having observed the sorceress in regular glances behind, Zuven had discerned that she was not without skill in wilderness lore. Her movements and carriage bore regular evidence to this training. Knowing this, lying would be pointless. Obfuscation remained viable. “There are no jungles on the Blessed Isle,” he answered coldly.

She pressed no further.

When noon came they did not stop long to eat. Having brought only trail food that needed no heat, it went quickly. Dry and chewy, the mixture of grains, dried fruit, and seaweed left Zuven parched. His glances at his canteen did not escape notice.

“I said water was not a worry,” she offered a slight smile, fiery eyes twinkling. “And it is not.” She reached into her robes, to one of several hidden pockets he’d learned she possessed, and drew forth a marble-sized jewel. Perfectly round, it was pale white, the pure color of fresh fallen snow.

They had stopped at a bend in a small stream. There was a pool there, a patch of still water the size of a modest table. Icil, in his amusement, had chosen to splash about within while munching down on the rich embankment growth.

At Bian’s direction the soldier shooed the elephant from his bath, getting him to lie down on the shore and accept pets to the head as he munched a few additional branches. When the water stilled Bian reached out over the murky, muddy expanse. Taking the jewel in a delicate grip between the tips of her index and middle fingers, she slowly drew down to the surface, touching it there.

A single droplet pulse passed through the pool.

In its wake everything went still as glass. A moment passed, and then the world seemed to exhale, and the pool rippled. Not from side to side, as with wind, but from top to bottom, flexing itself in some strange, muscled purging. At that moment all the detritus, grime, and murk vanished, spun away to some distant place beyond, leaving only crystal clear purity behind.

Bian drew her hand back. “The power of the freshwater pearl1 purifies completely,” she explained. “Drink quickly, and fill our skins, for it will not last as the stream mixes back in. Make certain Icil drinks his fill as well. He has less to fear than we, but I see no need to take risks.”

“Icil, come on,” Zuven snapped out the commands, drawing the elephant away from the patch of ferns he’d chosen as further repast. Once the long, flexible tip of the trunk touched the surface the animal needed no additional encouragement; he was a smart one, and recognized purity by smell, if not sight.

Zuven filled his waterskin, then drank it dry in swift gulps, barely pausing for air. He filled it again, and all their spares, watching as Bian conducted the same process. The sorceress did not drink quite so much, but the air-aspected had a reputation for needing little sustenance.

Physical needs met for the moment, they loaded the eager elephant up once more and headed onward.

Difficult as the terrain was, it was far from impassable to their small party. A larger group would have struggled to maintain line of march, and no wheels could ever have spanned the sharp, sloping hills nor navigated the thick layer of leaves and rot that coated every inch of floor. Icil bravely slogged through the underbrush, blessed with broad feet to mash his way and a wide head that butted aside small obstacles. Small though he was, the elephant made a journey a horse could not have achieved.

In the afternoon the lingering mist coalesced into a cold, dripping rain. Not powerful, it took some time for the canopy to soak through to the ground, but once it did visibility collapsed utterly. They could see only a handful of trees distant.

Wetness ruined progress. Coated with water, the fungal fibers that entwined the surface became slick as ice. Every step had to be supported by the full weight of the body, or risk a fall. The soldier made the adjustment instinctively, finding this way of walking second nature, something he had learned before he could truly recall; a property of himself he shared with the jungle beast who trailed his heels. Bian’s adjustment proved less elegant, and the sorceress moved with much energetic stomping and hopping about. Though it shattered her veneer of mystic serenity, she did not fall.

Their march extended until dusk, a full day’s travel, but Zuven suspected, and Bian confirmed, that they’d progressed only a handful and some miles. A significant river remained distant.

Zuven chose a tree-fall clearing for their campsite. Open, but defensible, he built a fire, counting on it to keep most beasts of the forest at bay. If seen the smoke would draw people, but they had passed the full day without observing signs of habitation.

“I suspect there is a buffer zone,” Bian answered when Zuven asked about it. “Building too close invites raiding, in both directions. The forest tribes, when they are present, are doubtless further south.”

“But there must be at least some trade,” The soldier protested. Even in the most impoverished and inaccessible areas there was always some exchange.

“My contact spoke of a group called the Zu-Jan,” blue eyes flashed. She gathered up kindling, searching for any bits that remained dry, as she spoke. Zuven did the same, though he kept one eye on the joyfully dining elephant wrapping his trunk about young shoots at the edge of the clearing. “They are reputed to live in the valleys of this region, and there are caravans that pass through once a season or so, but the precise route is known only to the Guild, and closely guarded.”

“Surely there are forest dwellers as well,” the land here would not accept crops, but there was food to be harvested, and warmth. Both traits inevitably drew men.

“Yes, they are called the Raekni, but it seems they are rare,” her mouth twisted about, an odd expression whose meaning could not be readily discerned. “I was also told, by three different men each with travel experience, that these upland woods are the domain of four-armed men with hair on their knees and elbows and mouths of spider fangs.”

“Wyld-taint?” There were many horrible stories of such monsters. The smaller, more isolated Banner Islands harbored such creatures, or so the elders had said. Zuven had been trained to fight through the deceitful traps and illusions of such beings – they were among the most ancient foes of the dragon-blooded host.

“It could be,” her agreement was courteous but tentative. “It could also be Beastmen, or even a band of particularly rowdy and corrupt elementals. All are trouble of course, merely varying by kind.”

True though this might be, Zuven suspected the sharp edge of green jade provided a universal solution.

Crouched beneath the torn and bent trunk of a once-mighty teak, Zuven managed to get the fire lit with difficulty. He was forced to bend nearly double into a small cleft in the wood to find a place where the incessant dripping had not penetrated. He built slowly thereafter, tending his blaze until it was bright and clear, later transplanting it to a more suitable space for camp. Periodically he added in clumps of pungent moss, scraped from tree trunks. It made the air smell foul, but insects retreated to distance.

When the coals built up at last he cooked up a simple mix of rice, pickled vegetables, and dried fish strips in their sole pot. It was fare utterly unsuited to the table of dynasts, and sorcerers especially, but Bian ate it without complaint or question. She spent her meal engrossed in the study of a thick tome, one of two heavy volumes bound in waterproof sharkskin she’d brought for the journey.

Pressed to courage by boredom, the soldier dared invoke conversation. “What text is that?” He couldn’t think of anything better to ask, and it seemed safe enough.

“A Record of Asset Deployments in the Southwestern Province,” Bian recited dryly. Clearly recognizing the insufficiency of this answer, continued. “It is the official report of an inspection tour conducted by Sidoren Takeri, the second in command of the Nineteenth Legion, holding this area under the Shogunate. In the course of my research it is the best resource regarding this territory I’ve managed to uncover.”

“But…” he stumbled into protest. “It must be at least eight centuries old.” He was half-incredulous, half-amazed by such a report. Bian’s was a copy, of course, but even that must be very valuable.

“True,” she scowled slightly beneath fierce blues. “But the Scarlet Dynasty has not seen fit to send any formal inquiries into this region. The Silent Crescent is considered below notice. Any information recorded by the Great Houses is privately held, as are the records of the Guild, which are doubtless the best. Any such information is surely deeply prejudiced in any case.”

“Takeri, at the least, was extremely thorough. Though the coordinate system she used can no longer be properly referenced, her observations are neat and perceptive, highly valuable. Critically, she records this land as almost totally without habitation. Apparently, during the demon reign of the Anathema this land was given to the monstrous reptile creatures known as Dragon Kings2. Consequently, the people of this region must have arrived subsequently, developing following the Contagion, and in isolation largely devoid of outside influence.”

Bian’s voice crackled with excitement, an unusual perturbation of her typical serenity. Zuven did not much share the emotion. This philosopher’s goal was too ephemeral for him to grasp. One particular piece, however, was missing. “The Satrap was worried you would find something to one-up him, some embarrassing lapse by House Ragara, but if no one lived here-“

“A swift deduction,” he’d drawn a smile from beneath glimmering eyes. “The Shogunate did not settle this land, but neither did they neglect obvious military resources. In those days skyships were abundant, allowing control of territory without ever standing on it. Terasi clearly states that the daimyo maintained twenty-two self-sufficient outposts in the lands between An-Teng and the Font of Mourning. Each of these was located at the site of a potent manse. According to my studies, in all the time since their loss during the Contagion, only five of these have been reclaimed3.”

Seventeen manses, each potentially a storehouse of Shogunate relics. Even if they had been mere frontier outposts to the great empire of the dragon-blooded, it was tantalizing to imagine the wonders that remained. Zuven could do the sums well enough to recognize that recovering even one intact manse justified the effort many times over.

The sums that failed to add up were those regarding why this sorceress, possessing the knowledge and power to seek out such treasures, was more interested in talking to rice-growing peasant sheltering in distant valleys. That world was so far from that of a dynast as to present an untranslatable gulf. Even bridged, what could be learned?

They did not linger in post-dinner wakefulness. Tucked into bedrolls under the fallen tree, the two dragon-blooded curled up against Icil, cheek to jowl with the warm flanks of the elephant. This proximity maximized the utility of the alarm talisman Bian set out.

Bian was an attractive woman, and not many years his senior to the soldier, but even pressed together in the inherent intimacy of a wilderness camp, Zuven felt no stirrings of arousal. Something eerie and frightful, a barrier of mind rather than flesh, kept them separated, beyond even the structures of inferior and superior. Though he could not have named this block, he found himself grateful for it. Affairs were dangerous and complicated, a game he had no desire to play.

Chapter 4 Notes
1. A Freshwater Pearl is a canon artifact described in Oadenal’s Codex.
2. This information is taken from DotFA. The statements regarding Shogunate deployment are my own.
3. Manse densities are based on estimates using Oadenal’s Codex and an approximation of the area in question using the Creation map. The sites in question are 3-5 dots but the overall area – roughly everything south of An-Teng, west of the Fire Mountains, and east of the Font of Mourning, is huge.
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Re: Edge of Underleaves

14 Nov 2014, 00:15

Chapter 5

Resplendent Air 10 RY 765

The next day began with rain, a slow dripping pummel that lasted all morning. They continued southward, both inured to this and blessed with artifact garments proof against waterlogging. Human trails vanished, and Zuven was forced to make old game trails their path. Searching for signs of habitation or any waterway navigable by a canoe, each step was brutal going. Thankfully, despite the early date it was merely cool, and their exertions provided ample warmth.

Though no match for the doggedness pounded into him by military training, Bian proved more durable than he might have expected. No pampered sorceress having every need catered too by demon slaves, she kept up gamely, surely as well if not better than any mortal soldier was likely to manage. Each hour left Zuven thankful for the mystic properties of jade, the weight of his armor never added any measure to his tiredness, feeling as light at the last step as the first. Steel would have been a torment in this place.

Zuven kept a close watch for the signs of settlement – hunter’s catches, forgotten bits of rope, abandoned foundations, any of the small evidence that might reveal the proximity of people. He knew they might have to depend on such feeble clues, in the dimness beneath soaked foliage, they could pass within a few hundred yards of a busy village and miss it completely.

It was a pity they could not travel the caravan trails that must exist. Those secret routes held by the Guild or their Tengese confederates would surely be flatter and open, at the very least the pounding feet of yeddim and elephants would open up the vegetation. The soldier suspected they were at the wrong elevation to stumble across such routes. Yeddim, being burly and immense, struggled with great heat and narrow passages, and were better suited to the rockier mountain routes. Elephants were of greater benefit in the lowlands, where a small team could portage boats from one sluggish river to the next.

Bian had agreed with these assessments, acknowledging that her route split the difference in part to avoid scrutiny by the Guild. She did not want to be confused with those merchants, and the often dark rumors that followed them, by those they met.

For many hours they found only the faintest of markings. Stone mounds, fading hunter blazes, and the occasional bent branch to feed foraging goat or buffalo, all old and untouched for at least a season, were all they wrangled from the gloom. Only on the descent from a high, scrub-laced hillock did they find something more, with puzzling abruptness.

Sometime before noon the rain halted, and as the sun rose high the land filled with the noises of life. Calling monkeys, screeching birds, and an endless cacophony of insect sounds filled the air. Mud slurped beneath every footfall.

Guiding Icil between tall trees, Zuven was startled to happen upon a wide swath broken through the woods, a ragged break formed from smashed vegetation and uprooted vines. Worriedly, he formed the suspicion that this marked the passageway of a tyrant lizard. Then, he found something unexpected.

A footprint.

It had been made by a limb covered with woven sandals. Deepest in the front, it marked toe-first motion – running.

“Bian!” Zuven’s call summoned the sorceress with urgency.

“Curious,” she squatted down loosely next to the impression, looking into the woods. “Can you track this trail?”

Overlaid upon terrain already damaged it would be difficult to isolate sign, but in this seeping, semi-fluid forest impressions could not long remain. It must be recent. “I can,” Zuven determined, projecting confidence. He had the power of the elemental dragons in his veins. It would be done.

“Do so then,” Enthusiasm flushed through her pale face. “I will follow with Icil.”

Rushing downhill, Zuven skipped from one scattered footprint to the next. Wide-spaced, each imprint was deep but ragged. A man in heedless flight down the slope was soon revealed.

Chased by a tyrant lizard? The soldier rejected the thought as soon as it struck him. The trail itself was several days old, it did not match. Terrible beasts of many stripes prowled the jungle, each able to provoke a man to panicked retreat.

He stumbled across another, different, print just as the sound of flowing water filtered up to his ears from a distance below.

It was the mark of a hand, far too large and stubby to be human, but eerily close in overall form. An ape, perhaps. Zuven knew of the great flesh-eaters men named Rapaces; though it was said they were found only on the coast.

Quickening his pace, he tracked and scrambled as fast as he dared.

The warbling churn of rushing water grew louder, signifying a stream of speed and potency. Soon the bright gap it cut through vegetation could be seen, though the liquid chute remained elusive.

Then the scream tore through the air.

A horrific sound, it bore witness to despair and pain beyond description. All at once Zuven’s blood quickened and his stomach soured.

The awful rending noise erupted from the riverbank. Head turning, the soldier moved to converge upon it, slashing a zigzag course down the slope. His daiklaves leaped into his hands, shining in the sunlight.

He burst free of the trees onto a narrow riverbank ledge of fallen leaves and loose, ragged grass. Turning to face upstream his eyes caught the source of the tortured outcry, now silenced.

A man crouched down, back to a tree stump. His eyes rolled back in his skull and blood trickled from his mouth. In the center of his chest there was a ragged, gaping hole, torn there by a hand the size of a human head. A hand that grasped the unfortunate soul’s still-beating heart in a furred, meaty, fist.

Tracking upward, Zuven’s gaze encompassed a broad and terrible creature. It was ape-like in outline, holding to the broad-shouldered, forward-facing knuckle-walking form of a gorilla, but half-again so large. Crimson fur, deep and full-colored, coated the frame. Unlike mortal apes its back sprouted a ragged fringe of spiked horns, some long as a man’s arm. The great mouth contained no flattened, leaf stripping teeth, only tearing, blood-stained fangs. Above those rending ivory barbs rested dark eyes projecting a hideous, cruel cunning that revealed in pain. Corrupt essence leaked out from every pore, filling the air with a twisted, oily pungency.

“Blood Ape,” Zuven named it. A foot soldier of the demon realm.

The demon bared long fangs. It took the heart in its hand and flipped the organ to its mouth. Crunching and slurping, it laughed, a deep, chest-borne bellow, as it consumed.

Not bothering with battle cries or other foolishness, Zuven advanced at a walk, straight blades of jade at each side, ready.

Roaring, the blood ape charged. A massive clawed paw rose up as the demon extended to full height, sweeping the limb across.

Silent and swift, Zuven stutter-stepped forward, left arm snapping high.

Green jade intersected with the massive cross, drawing a thin line of blood across the demon’s palm. Simian howls mixed with blood-curdling rage, drowning out the river’s wash.

Zuven did not stop. He felt the inhuman strength of the ape’s corded forearm muscles cascading into his frame. Moving with the flow of the downward strike, he let the beast’s power strengthen his lunge, carrying him faster and stronger than legs alone would spring as he jolted toward the barrel chest.

Reaching within, Zuven called upon the power of dragon’s blood, pulling forth the glorious essence of the elemental dragons. Energy burned down paths of taught muscles and rigid senses. The world became sharper, motions grew stronger, and the limits of the flesh were met and broadly surpassed by the fury of exaltation. Putting everything into the attack Zuven drew further, reaching for the strength of courage, the sanctioned power of righteous fury to strike down this beast, letting his whole body sing the song of battle in time with his essence.

Two and a half feet of exquisitely sharp green jade pierced through thick, leathery demon hide and taught muscle. Placed horizontal against the ground and held in a formidable, unyielding grip, the blade slid between the sentry bones of the ribcage to eviscerate lungs and pierce the cruel black demon heart.

Eyes wide with uncomprehending surprise, the demon gave a single, wheezing, grunt. It tried to reach up to swat away the man before it, but the great arms merely flailed once, weakly. Then the ape slid backwards, falling off the point of jade to slam hard upon the ground, eyes staring skyward.

It did not move again.

A wash of power spread out from Zuven, flickers of shimmering green and the sound of leaves crashing together in the wind. Echoes of rustling trees filled the air around him.

Ignoring this display, the soldier lined up both blades and swung them behind his head. With his full strength he launched an overhand blow that severed the demon’s head. This done, he wiped the foul vitriolic blood from his weapons using the red hide.

At the sound of footsteps Zuven turned his head, blades coming up, still possessed by the flow of battle. At the sight of Bian’s blue eyes and Icil’s warm-faced gray trunk he lowered them again.

“Erymanthoi,” the sorceress whispered. The soldier realized this must be the proper, mystical name for a blood ape. Blue eyes flashed as Bian descended, examining the corpse. “One strike, straight to the heart,” she breathed. “By the Empress, you truly do know what you’re doing with those, don’t you?”

“I possess few enough talents, but swordsmanship is one of them,” Zuven demurred. He took no pride in this. The ape had underestimated him, leaving itself open with its reckless attack, and it had not utilized the supernatural speed of spirit beings. It had fought for pleasure, Zuven had fought to kill. As always, that was deciding.

“Well…” Bian mulled. “Well struck at least. You have removed one menace from the face of Creation. I wonder,” she stepped over the corpse with some delicacy. “What brought it here?”

“It was after this man,” Zuven pulled the ruined body from the riverbank, setting it flat.

Studying the remains revealed a curious outfit. Complex, somewhat ornate robes in alternating white and black patterns. He carried a pack with trail gear and food, but also a smaller bag filled with herbs, incense, crystals, and a set of ornate metal tools. “A thaumaturge,” Zuven assessed. “Judging by the colors, probably an ancestor worshipper.”

“Hmm…” Bian probed at the man’s robes with her feet. “So, did he summon the Erymanthoi himself and lose control? Or did another set it upon him?”

Searching deeper, Zuven found a small sheaf of paper marked with dense, tight calligraphy tucked into the man’s waistband. The marks were similar in shape to the Flametongue-based script of his homeland, but beyond this he could make no sense of them. He passed the records over to Bian. “Can you read this?”

She grasped the delicate, hand-laid paper between her fingertips, holding it up to maximize light. “Yes,” she answered slowly. “This is a tribal dialect of the Suli people, who should occupy the region of the Fire Mountains to our east. However…” she turned the paper back and forth slowly. “It seems to be mostly names and locations, and it is difficult to tease forth meaning without a frame of reference. If your deduction that this man represents an ancestor cult,” the phrase was laden with distaste. “Then I believe this documents a circuit of villages, shrines, leaders, and ghosts that are all connected through some shared endeavor.” She leafed through all the pages rapidly. “Something called the Knotted, or possibly Gnarled, Stream. It could be a religious association or a thaumaturgy school.”

She rolled up the papers and added them to her satchel, binding them with a narrow chord. “When we stop again I will give it further study, but for now we have other concerns. These bodies will draw attention. We can leave the demon for the vultures, but we should bury this man and do what we can to propitiate his spirit.”

“We won’t be able to dig deep enough,” Zuven cautioned. He had an entrenching tool – he was a soldier – but it would not suffice to entomb a man in this mass of roots and muck.

“Then we shall have to find a dry patch and build a fire,” the sorceress decided. She kept her hands on Icil, holding the curious elephant back from the remains. “It is not ideal, but should prevent the marauding of a hungry ghost.”

Finding dry wood in the cloaking understory proved no easier than before. Zuven was forced to build another small fire for drying while he assembled logs one by one to the pyre. Bian helped to gather, and even Icil obligingly donated green stems he’d stripped of all leaves while foraging.

Though they had removed themselves to a small hillock to conduct the grim business, it was impossible to blot out the tearing and shrieking of the vultures as they greedily fed upon the fallen blood ape. Daring to look back as he carefully ministered to his blaze, Zuven was struck by a peculiar question. “Can such flesh sustain them? Or will it poison them?”

“The body of the Erymanthoi is real enough,” Bian dropped an armful of wood onto the growing pile. “Its contents would poison you or me, but rot is rot, and though demon vitriol is particularly potent it is not like to kill vultures or beetles. A somewhat less durable scavenger could well perish, but animals usually understand what they can and cannot consume.”

In the end logs proved both too rare and too soaked for a full bed, and beyond a base foundation they relied on bamboo and chopped lianas to fuel the blaze. It burned hot and well, and Bian stood by as the smoke rose and spoke Immaculat prayers commending the soul to Lethe and the next life. Doubtless they were not the benedictions of his people, but it was all that could be offered the deceased. Zuven might have known gods closer to home once, but upon that account House Ragara had truly managed to enforce deliberate forgetfulness.

“Such a pity,” Bian muttered when it was finished. “Anathema take the demons.”

Surprised, Zuven’s question spun forth off his tongue before his distracted mind could recall the impulse. “Don’t you summon demons?”

Blue eyes flashed with sudden fury. “I do not know that spell, nor will I ever learn it.” She snapped out each syllable. “The Yozis and their spawn were banished to Malfeas for good reason, and there they should remain. Nothing good comes of such tainted power.”

“I’m sorry,” Zuven rushed to apologize. He did not understand the anger – a tool was a tool, no matter how cruel – but he knew he was a fool for speaking in ignorance. “I regret my presumption.”

“Demon summoning carries a cost,” The rage had quieted, but she was yet jade. “In the end it will prove greater than the gains. Too many would sacrifice the future for the moment, would take a greater loss in secret than a small one publically. It is folly.”

Zuven nodded, sensing that any argument would be pointless.

“Well,” Bian sighed, breathing out over the coals. “We should move forward. Upriver I think. There must be people not far.”

“Right,” just as the sorceress did, the soldier wanted answers. He suspected, however, that they had wildly different questions.
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Re: Edge of Underleaves

14 Nov 2014, 00:16

Chapter 6

Resplendent Air 11 RY 765

In thick, trackless woods a river makes for a convenient path and doubles as a source of clean water. These useful traits were not unique to humans, other life found them equally enticing. The water might be only waist deep and the path a handful of yards wide, but the twists and turns held many surprises. Scrambling through the thick brush on the river bank meant inducing a steady stream of spooked birds, deer, and worse.

Most native predators had survival instincts too well-honed to challenge human interlopers. Two bears, one clouded leopard, and a trio of tree striders all fled at the approach of the dragon-blooded. The last left behind a half-eaten pangolin, a ruined mass of blood and matted scales. Overly curious, Icil tried to probe it with his trunk until Bian held him back.

Other beasts, lacking memory or reason and guided by instinct alone, were not dissuaded by clanking jade and loud outcries.

Utterly still, the ichneumon hunter evaded Zuven’s sight until he was directly beneath its perch. A dog-sized shape of smooth chitin and hard angles, its precision image froze in the mind with the same terrible clarity as the spear-length ovipostitor it bore, descending from the abdomen arrow-width and sharper than any barb fashioned by human hands.

Soundless, it plunged down, seeking a single, piercing impact.

Whistling warbles cut the air above, as a whirling slash of blue passed inches above Zuven’s skull. A flash of metal impacted the insect’s carapace with a cruel thwack, sending it to the ground in a twisted spiral, pale ichor seeping from beneath the wings.

In an eye blink Zuven snapped free his blades and plunged them into the fist-sized mirror-ball eyes of the wasp. He turned about as the spinning warble came again, whipping above to cross behind him to the waiting hands of Bian. With the smooth movement of easy expertise she caught the sky cutter and flicked the stain of hemolymph from it in a single motion.

“Miserable things, Wyld-birthed insectoids,” she muttered grimly. “Damn the Anathema for allowing them to breed in Creation.”

“Thank you,” Zuven bowed in gratitude, struggling to cover his embarrassment at failing to notice the threat.

He was rewarded with a shrug from the sorceress, who spun the jade boomerang once before returning it to her back. “There is, after all, a good reason for this marching order.” She stared forward, head moving back and forth, scanning deep into the forest. “We should be particularly cautious. Though they do not form packs, ichneumon hunters tend to congregate locally. There may well be more.”

Zuven nodded. He intended to up his vigilance to the hilt.

Before long they found further evidence of the hunters’ presence. It was not a pleasant occurrence.

“When fully grown the larva bursts free of the body in order to transition to its adult form,” Rambling, Bian struggled to avoid looking upon the ruined corpse.

At school Zuven had been forced to view drawings of demonic torture victims. This, somehow, was worse, but he forced his eyes to focus on the needs of the examination. The remains belonged to a male, clad in the wreckage of a simple tunic and pants, of thick, common fibers. There were no sandals or hat, essentials in this environment, and indicated as common wear by marks on feet and head. He suspected they’d been lost in flight.

“How long does it take for the larvae…” he paused, forcing the question through clenched teeth. “To…grow?”

“Three months,” Bian’s voice was flat, evidence of her great disgust.

“I think this man did not notice until too late for medicine and fled when his fellow villagers learned the truth,” Zuven conjectured. He let free a dribble of essence as he went over the body a second time, feeling the grace of Daan’a guide his eyes. It must be.

“The signs are only obvious at very late stages,” the sorceress noted. “And given the excruciating pain, he doubtless did not travel too far. We may be close to a village.”

The dead man had left no tracks, but cuts and scrapes to his shins suggested he’d run downstream through the water, perhaps even crudely swimming at points. Their path led in the opposite direction. Zuven followed the course of the river carefully, keeping both eyes open for deadly wasps.

Less than a mile distant the river split. The main flow continued to the east, upward towards the distant peaks of the Fire Mountains. A smaller tributary angled somewhat south, towards a large forested outcrop that towered above other local landmarks.

“Well, a puzzle,” Bian cast about, checking each direction.

Zuven, following her lead, did the same, but found little. “There are bits of rice and millet lodged in crevices in the rocks here, but they could have come from either direction.” Bits of grain fell from his hands as he swept them over the mossy stones. “Villages may well lie along both paths.” He suspected this, a patch of decent soil and cleared land would be enough.

“Well then, if we can find no clues in the patterns of nature, perhaps we can read them in a more rarefied sphere,” Bian moved to a patch of flat ground on the riverbank. Taking her knife, she cleared away a small circle of grass and weeds, leaving open ground. There she sat cross-legged, robes arranged modestly, in a carefully chosen precise posture.

With discrete, formalized gestures she took three tools from her belt pouch. Two she set aside for the present, leaving them at the edge of the circle she’d crafted. The third, a flat plate made from five blended metals and carved with eldritch signs, she placed between her knees.

Staring off, past the edge of the world, blue eyes burned with inner fire. The sorceress sat unmoving, silent. Slowly, pulsing in time with carefully regulated breathing, the plate began to spin. No wind blew upon it, or hand pushed it; it turned in response to imperceptible vibrations even Zuven’s dragon-blooded senses could not detect.

Faster and faster it churned, blurring before the eye and generating a low, metallic hum. The air about it pulsed and crackled, glowing pale blue with imminent charge.

Suddenly, without warning, Bian reached down and grasped the second of her tools, a double-sided crystal shaped as two arrowheads joined together and infused with lines of white and black jade spiraling through its heart. With a sharp, jarring motion she tossed the crystal onto the plate.

It bounced once, then again, spinning a single revolution in the air each time, until it struck the plate a fifth time. All motion ceased.

Zuven let out the breath he had not known he’d been holding.

Bian’s brilliant eyes blinked once. Lightning crackled across her hands as she grasped the compass plate firmly. “The hill beyond harbors a demense,” she proclaimed, staring out down the tributary through the cloud forest as if it had become vapor. “There will be people nearby.” Quickly returning her tools to their cloth embrace, she stood, smiling. “A few miles at most. We should be able to reach it by dusk.”

“This was not sorcery,” Zuven gently pulled Icil away from a feast of leafy vines. The elephant gave him a disappointed trunk smack before his usual jovial expression returned. Idly, the dragon-blooded rubbed the animals head. It brought forth a warm feeling.

“No,” Bian answered easily enough, hiding nothing. “Mere thaumaturgy, but in some ways more valuable. Come,” she pointed a hand upstream. “With luck tonight my find us sleeping in beds.”

It did not prove as simple as it sounded. Mere minutes after turning onto the new tributary the forest turned harsh. The undergrowth grew choked with reeds, bamboo, and strangler vines. Zuven was forced to cut and hack regularly, until his daiklaves grew coated with sap. He and Icil labored together to smash through stumps and the rotting remains of fallen banyans.

“The soil is fortified by the effluent of people upstream,” Bian proffered an explanation when the soldier questioned the shift. “But there is something else. Some influence centered on this river has generated this pattern. Something seeks to bar passage to these lands.”

“The demense?” He knew little of geomancy, but it seemed plausible.

“Dragon lines flow near us, and the essence they carry supports increased growth,” the sorceress agreed. “But this tangle of inaccessibility, that is different. Perhaps the local spirits have tried to wall this place off, though why they would do so escapes me. We should be watchful for further oddities, they may contain the answer.”

It was difficult to be mindful of this instruction while sliding, squeezing, and swinging their way through dense growth. All three travelers were soon caked in mud, and only Icil found that a tolerable state of affairs. Twice they had to stop and scrape off leeches acquired fording the stream. The alchemical ward Bian had applied to their clothes apparently did not encompass that particular breed of vermin.

“Horrid things,” Bian announced as she crushed a pair of black squiggles beneath her boots. “I do miss working on islands where they were nowhere to be found.”

“Fewer snakes too.” As if summoned by this quip, Zuven caught sight of a brownish, corded form slowly passing behind black leather soles. “Bian, you should very slowly step forward.” His hands fell to his daiklaves.”

Moving with deliberate care, the sorceress took one step, and then another. She was still as empty air. Behind her the snake slowly vanished beneath the undergrowth. In silence the dragon-blooded watched it go.

“As the vegetation seeks to bar our path, the land grows more dangerous in tandem,” dark suspicion undercut her words. “Is this targeted against us? Or is it simply all who are unwelcome? We shall soon find out.” She turned back upstream. “We should hasten our pace if we can. I do not want to stop before reaching the village, but marching in the dark is equally troubling.”

“Agreed,” Taking his daiklaves in hand, Zuven set green jade against leaf and sap. He was born of nature, and he refused to allow his core to impede him. Purposeful strides churned through the mud, leaving heavy imprints, but opening a path for elephant and sorceress.

As the sun descended far behind them to the distant west, human voices filtered through the twilight beneath the leaves.
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Re: Edge of Underleaves

14 Nov 2014, 00:19

Chapter 7

Resplendent Air 11 RY 765

Shrouded by dusk and the many-layered thickness of jungle foliage it was not possible to see far. Zuven scrambled into the lower branches at the advent of voices, searching for a revelatory glimpse. He saw only a general lessening of gloom – the mark of cleared area. If there were lights in the distance they remained hidden. This was not unexpected. Cooking fires were small things of smoke and carefully worked coals. Poor villages were not likely to waste precious oil on lamps.

Sentries, and there was surely some form of watch kept, would not bear torches.

Sound proved a better guide. Distant whispers were broken twice by sharp sounds in succession, the distinctive chopping of a blade against wood. Smell, too, carried important clues. The slow-burn of cooking meat circulated languidly through the humid air. Pork, the soldier reckoned. A common enough meat in these lands, which husbanded pigs easily enough, but also a luxury.

“This may be a local feast day,” he told the sorceress upon his descent.

“It is late enough to hope we shall interrupt only the drunken after-reverie,” Bian returned, agreeing. “But if not we shall have to make do. It is likely planting related. It is warmer here, so the seasons match. They are liable to have begun earlier.”

Planting was dictated by the patterns of rain, not heat, in these southern lands, but the monsoons tracked with warmth as well, so Zuven admitted privately that Bian could well be correct. “They will have dogs,” he cautioned. Nowhere did men live that canines did not follow. After an afternoon merging with the jungle floor they were likely proof against scent, but Icil reeked with the potent sweat of elephants and would surely be noticed.

“And we will let them find us,” the sorceress countered. “We are not planning an attack. We must approach openly, and in friendship.”

“And if they attack?” Isolated people were rarely without strange customs regarding outsiders, or so he’d been taught, and there was always the possibility of Wyld-taint.

“Then we defend ourselves,” it was a cold acknowledgement of the differences in power between the sides. “But it should not come to that.” Bian’s face was filled with stern confidence. Her body thrummed with forceful anticipation.

She turned to the soldier, reaching inside her robes and pulling free a small object. Once out, it nestled in her palm, the size of a large egg. A blue ovoid, translucent and pale as the sky, it was clear through, revealing a white-crystal lattice dancing about within. “You should take this.” She extended her arm. “By the dragons’ grace I can learn any tongue at a word, and know many already. I doubt you hold that charm, but this hearthstone will provide.”

Picking up the sphere between his fingers Zuven realized to his shame that he had not even considered this difficulty. “Thank you,” he placed the hearthstone in the empty right shoulder socket of his armor. He turned his head away, struggling to hide his embarrassment.

“Another reason for this smallest of parties,” Bian smiled wickedly. “A large group could never completely bridge the barrier.”

Turning, the sorceress looked north. “I do not think it wise to approach from the river, it is almost certainly sacred in some measure. Better to circle around north and approach from that direction, the way any Tengese traders would come.”

Agreeing with this strategy, Zuven led them in a wide wheel around the gap in the canopy. It took the better part of an hour. The fields they circled were somewhat extensive, covering almost the entirety of a relatively level section of landscape. He suspected there was a long, looping bend in the river’s path here. Even so, the village was not large. He guessed no more than two dozen households, perhaps a talon or so in people, all packed densely within their fields and paddies.

Passing this conjecture to Bian, the sorceress spun it one step further. “Too small,” she reasoned. “A village this size cannot persist in isolation. Something here denies the ordinary patterns of peasant life.”

“There could be other villages, on other small rivers,” Zuven countered, though he broadly agreed. “Narrow trails would be easily missed.” He doubted these people owned carts, or yeddim. They would use buffalo trains for transport, the altitude made elephants unlikely.

“No,” the sorceress brushed aside the mundane objections. “Too much essence has been channeled to obscure this place. I suspect the dragon lines have been bent around this demense. What I do not know is why. It is not defensive. The jungle is no place for armies, and only a fool would think a few tangling creepers and miserable worms would keep out the Raksha, or Beastmen.”

“Guild slavers?” There had been military exercises centered on protecting particular yeddim-caravan setups. Such lumbering beasts would have been halted by this forest. “Or a rival tribe?”

“Perhaps,” fiery blue eyes narrowed. “It could be, and it is always possible that we have simply entered the domain of a particularly oppressive local god. This is a land suited to Wood Kings, and they are harsh, but I will not leave this mystery to mere guesses.” She turned to Zuven. “Consider it your charge while visiting. Find out who it is these people fear so, and who guards them.”

The soldier nodded in agreement, but he felt little confidence. Surely such questions were Bian’s parlance. He would count it lucky if he avoided breaking the most hallowed taboos of this tribe.

Boundaries between jungle and field were abrupt, as much as such things could be, and marked by a black line across the ground. Charred soil, the mark of clearing by fire. It was a feature of agriculture familiar to the soldier. A handful of steps later, when they came up to strung posts bound with yams vines above raised soil ridges, the memories struck with goremaul force.

The smells were different, and yet the same. Absent sea wind was replaced by a cool mountain mist. Pork curled with potent spices, all blending into the universal pepper tinge that dominated through time. Stink from blood, refuse, and worms pervaded this localized concentration of humanity, nestled within unforgiving forest.

It was, terribly, a homecoming.

Dogs yipped, leaves rustled. Fires crackled. Above it all men and women chanted rhythmically. The nuance and cadence, the very sounds used to form words, were unfamiliar, a family of language separated from his native islands by the ruination of plague and eight centuries of drift, but essence wrapped his ears, parsing all words through the crystalline matrix extruded from a glacier-covered mountain thousands of leagues away. He understood everything.

It was a joyous chant, celebratory and infused with raucous, alcohol-boosted levity. Call and repeat, the pattern circled, alternating male-female-child. Joking comparisons of men with animals, women with food, it was lightly insulting. This game was likewise familiar to Zuven. He had to shake his whole body, forcing violent vibrations through the muscles, to break the spell.

This was not home. Ytiran was gone, never to return, a past lost to him; one never truly his to begin with. The jungle scents and sounds, the cooking and camaraderie, the villagers unbound, these were the vestiges of a different life. They belonged to a boy without a future, not to Ragara Zuven, exalted of Sextes Jylis.

He was a soldier of the Realm, in service of empire, family, and faith. Protect the honored savant. This was his charge. Everything else would be, must be, carved out and forgotten.

A hand pushed down, delicately but firmly, on his shoulder. “It can be strange to hear speech in that way at first. Do not worry, your ear will acclimate to it soon.”

Contact was comforting, as was shared concern. The coolly logical air aspect might fail to fully grasp the source of his discomfort, but she was not uncaring. Zuven swallowed once, rebuilding his focus, and then stepped forward.

Bian imposed her lithe frame in his path. “I will lead from this point,” she ordered, calm but absolute. “Watch my back and keep Icil in hand. I do not want him mauling any dogs, or children,” she amended darkly.

In An-Teng the elephant had drawn curious interest from countless street urchins, but his compact strength was more than their match. Even an idle loving blow from the trunk, a friendly gesture among his kin, could send an unprepared adult sprawling. Fearing nothing that did not tower over him, he could do far worse if moved to anger by aggression. His former owner had claimed the elephant had slain both bear and boar.

The soldier believed it, and took pebbly gray skin in hand, guiding him using the saddlebag straps.

The mounded ridges harboring growing yellow tubers were broken up by small patches of vegetables. A ragged wall of fruit trees marked a secondary barrier before they crossed to the edge of newly planted rice paddies. These flooded squares made a checkerboard pattern all the way to the river’s edge. Agriculture compact in its intensity, slaved to this small, tiny in truth, patch of fertile clearing. The demands of hungry mouths rested heavily upon it.

At first glance the setup resembled the paddy fields of An-Teng, but with each second a new discrepancy was added to the assessment, until the pile they formed became too great for the soldier to coherently process. The roots were the same, but the plant that had sprouted was wholly new.

It was at the edge of the fruit trees where they were at last met and challenged.
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Re: Edge of Underleaves

14 Nov 2014, 00:19

Chapter 8

Resplendent Air 11 RY 765

“Stop!” the word was clear in the growing darkness, and yet not. Strangely doubled-over by hearthstone magic, Zuven felt it quiver in his ears. Perhaps a more experienced user of the stone, an expert like Bian, would truly have heard the speech in twining tongues if they wished. He had no idea why anyone would desire to hear two languages at the same time.

Instead, he gave his skull a quick, clearing, shake.

A single man had spoken, middle-aged, with a sour look on a scarred face. He wore battered leathers, shaped into a semblance of armor, doubled strips over the vital areas. There was a spear in one hand. A large, angry dog growled from the end of a short chord held in the other.

Dark eyes beneath thin black hair were hard to read, but the soldier assessed by stance. This was a man trained. Not a professional, Zuven could have dropped him in three moves at most, but his hands knew the use of his weapon and his eyes lacked the hesitation of the un-blooded.

He made a second, far less welcome, discovery. His stomach was tied into knots as it did in the terrible moments awaiting battle. To his utter shock, he found he was completely unprepared. Nothing in his training adjusted for this situation, a peaceful meeting with local tribesmen. Without an army at his back the guidance of the Realm was useless. His youth, likewise, had been almost completely bereft of travel. He realized belatedly that he could not even fall upon the generally universal excuse of trade.

None of this mattered to Bian. “Ah, pleasant evening,” she greeted the sentry with outstretched hands, palms open to reveal the absence of weapons. “We have reached your village at long last. Apologies for the late hour, but the journey’s difficulty outstripped my estimations.” She spoke the native language with effortless ease, and yet somehow conceded none of her nobility in doing so. “We have come from far away, as emissaries and merchants. Would you escort us within? If at all possible, I should beg an audience with your chief. We carry gifts to share.”

It was a fine speech, but it seemed outwardly insufficient to pry open those hard eyes. Their foreign nature was so obvious, written in their clothes, their moves, and on skin itself, it surely betrayed them. Even if this man understood the nature of the dragon-blooded from legend they were more likely to be identified as evil spirits.

And yet, not one of Zuven’s suspicions made the slightest difference. At each word from the sorceress the sentry’s expression softened. By the time she mentioned gifts he was actually smiling. The soldier, had he not known otherwise, might have guessed he was meeting an old friend after a long absence, not total strangers.

“I will take you to the chief,” he motioned with his spear. “Follow.”

“One question,” Bian interjected before taking a step. “We have been unable to find good maps of this region, so I must confess to ignorance. If I may, by what name is this place known?”

“Siallcassi,” the guard replied, a single, slurped word that did not ring twice in Zuven’s ears.

To the soldier the evening that followed proved terribly strange. They were brought forward across compact rice paddies and through a cluster of thatched houses raised up on stilts. Oriented upstream to downstream, they stood lonely and wan. Each structure suffered the damage of weather, and looked on the edge of crumbling.

The villages had gathered together in an open expanse of packed earth between buildings. Solidified by the compaction of decades of tread, it resisted the mud everywhere save the very edge. Men, women, and children laughed, sang, and danced in a loose circle around a fire pit. The signs of roasted pig were everywhere, alongside vegetables, fruits, and spices.

Beside the fire, raised up on a pavilion of split logs, was a small shrine. An effigy of carved stone, it depicted a warrior in armor with spear in one hand and bow in the other. Zuven did not recognize the image or the style, but he did know it was not the Golden Lord of An-Teng. He had seen all the many representations of that deity.

Shortly he realized this shrine did not direct worship to any god at all. Burnt offerings had been placed at the base of the statue: food; herbs; and bits of carved wood. The man depicted in stone was mortal, not spirit, and long-dead. These people worshipped the ghosts of their ancestors.

An awful flip churned through the soldier’s stomach.

Bian must have made the connection, but she appear completely unperturbed. One hundred villagers rose up at their arrival, and she extended widespread hands and friendly words in every direction. Her interest in them and her pleasure at seeing the village was both infectious and unfeigned. It was a strange grace to observe in a dynast.

The official welcome of the chief, a grizzled man with many scars lining his face, followed shortly thereafter. Soon Bian was seated amongst the group, chatting back and forth in a rapid-fire discussion between the chief and a younger woman Zuven assumed was his wife. She occupied the attention of all without becoming the center. The festival continued unimpeded, having seamlessly made room for this unexpected dragon-blooded guest.

As full night descended the soldier was left outside the ring, only the little elephant for his company. Bian blended among the people, sitting, eating, laughing, and telling jokes and stories. He did not join their dinner. A dark-eyed child, shivering with unsteady nerves, brought him a bowl of stewed vegetables and roast pork, but otherwise he was ignored.

In time Zuven pulled away from the feast completely. The sentry, a man similarly held apart from the ceremonies, guided him to bed Icil down alongside their handful of buffalo. The gray-skinned animals were not divided by household. The chief owned them, or they might perhaps be held in common. Whoever was responsible, they were kept clean enough at least, and with forage laid out. After stripping off the saddlebags filled with valuables, Zuven held no qualms about leaving Icil among his fellow beasts of burden.

When he returned he discovered the festivities had run their course. People, many stumbling with drunkenness from too much rice wine, were slowly peeling off to seek their beds. Bian remained with the chief, the center of a small cluster of eminent villagers. It was only now that she motioned for his presence.

“This is Zuven,” she told the handful of leaders, conspicuously leaving out his house affiliation. “My bodyguard. I hope very much that you will extend your gracious hospitality to him, and that you find it within the scope of your generous natures to forgive any lapses of custom he may, in ignorance, commit.”

The soldier bowed deeply, bending at the waist. It was his best guess at the proper action.

No answer came from the chief, but the man seemed content. Zuven suspected he was far happier dealing with the visitor without arms.

“It has grown late,” Bian continued smoothly. “I hope we may speak again soon, and learn more of your village, but I should not let eagerness keep us from our beds.”

This was met with general agreement. The manner of their billeting, however, proved less satisfactory. The villagers lived, as people in such situations inevitably did, with large mixed families sharing households. At the chief’s invitation Bian was welcomed to his residence, by far the sturdiest and most comfortable of the dwellings. This graciousness was not extended to Zuven. There was apparently some greater issue in housing a foreign male compared to a female.

Caring little for social snubbing though he did, the soldier had every intention of remaining as close as possible to the sorceress. He could hardly play the bodyguard from halfway across the village.

It proved easy enough to reach a compromise. The chief roused one of his daughters from the house where she stayed with her husband. For the duration of the visit she would return to her father’s household, allowing Zuven a free space once the rest of the family shuffled about. The homes were adjacent, so the demands of security were satisfied alongside decorum.

The cramped house bedded nine in addition to the soldier, spanning three generations. He did not mind. The sounds and smells were intimately familiar to him, from the lingering food odor to the half-rotted blankets. The latter, however, he rolled up carefully and replaced with his bedroll. He might care little for the majority of the luxuries most dynasts considered their birthright, but lice-free bedding was an aspect of his elevated status he would never concede.

Sleep proved difficult to reach. He felt lost, drifting from place to place inside his mind. They had arrived, and Bian had people to study and mysteries to solve, but whatever the puzzle of this place the villagers themselves were resolutely ordinary. He felt useless, without a role in this phase of the expedition.

He could not do nothing. His eyes closed only upon the assumption of a determination to make his days useful and busy.
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Exalt: Dragon-Blooded
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Re: Edge of Underleaves

14 Nov 2014, 00:20

Chapter 9

Resplendent Air 12 RY 765

Deep in the shadow of the towering peaks of the Fire Mountains, dawn came late to these forests. The villagers were up well before the sun burst through the high shadows. Zuven awoke with them, rising in tandem with the family hosting him. In darkness he strapped on his arms and armor. He doubted he would need the jade lamellar, but he felt foolish without it. Even surrounded by the heat of the jungle, it brought him comfort to bear the panoply of war.

His first act was to very briefly check in on Bian. She was likewise awake, taking breakfast with the chief and the gnarled shaman. They exchanged no words. It was enough to know she was well.

He went looking after Icil next.

The village’s buffaloes, of which there were six in all, had to work just as hard as any of the residents. A man of about thirty, accompanied by a boy of twelve or thirteen Zuven presumed must be his son, was hitching up the team when the soldier arrived. Each buffalo was harnessed to a wooden yoke trailing ropes that dragged a modest-sized strip-sled of treated matting bordered by bamboo guides. A general purpose device for hauling loads, Zuven suspected they were on firewood duty.

“Nice beast you have,” the older man called out, pausing in between distributing piles of hay amongst him team. “Never seen one small like that. Thought he was a kid until I got a good look.” The villager had all the markings of a peasant’s brutal lot: missing teeth, parasite scars, smashed nails, and lost toes. His gait was bowed and bent, and he moved in the manner of an old man.

Zuven pushed down feelings of pity. It was not the will of the dragons that all men should be exalted, only that those who were so chosen act as befitted their station. Despite this justification, one backed by a decade of Immaculate effort, the struggles of these people struck him hard. He hoped the Bian’s work, strange though it seemed, would help them.

Seeking distraction, he asked the man the first question that popped into his head. “Did you have elephants here? Before?”

“No,” the herder shook his head sadly. “Too big for us, and they draw the Tyrants too.” This, tragically, made sense, the titanic lizards sought suitably sized prey for their palates and they were among a tiny spread of animals with the ability to bring down a full-grown elephant. “I saw some years ago, went downriver to trade with the Sen, for the Grandfeast.”

The soldier offered a supportive nod. An idea struck him. “Will you take Icil out with you?” He patted the broad gray head. “Let him forage? I can teach you the commands.”

“You can teach my boy,” he gestured to the skittish youth. “But only if I can get some work from him.”

It was a reasonable demand, but the soldier had to be careful. It would not do to let Icil become overly tired. They’d need him ready to run in case of crisis. He had not forgotten the strange borders of this place. “No harnesses and no hauling,” he compromised. “But he’s strong and can push and pull.” This drew a broad smile from beneath the flexible trunk. Zuven had seen Icil’s love for uprooting vines and mashing stumps firsthand. The compact creature thought it a fine game.

“Struck!” the villager agreed. He made a curious chopping gesture, snapping his right hand, fingers in blade alignment, down at his left wrist.

Uncertain, Zuven imitated the motion, drawing a cracked-toothed smile from the man and a nervous laugh from his son.

The soldier turned to the boy. Wisp-thin, the youth’s face was marred by a ragged burn scar surrounding his left eye. It was a deliberate imprint, holding to the profile of a knife blade. Some wound had been cauterized to leave that mark, probably an animal bite.

Withdrawing before the dragon-blood’s gaze, the teen had an obvious timid streak. Zuven came him no chance to prevaricate. Snapping out commands, he got the boy making the necessary signs to get Icil to follow in a few short minutes. Passing along such instruction was simple enough; he simply imitated the ways of his House of Bells drill masters.

Once confident that Icil would make it back at the end of the day, albeit considerably muddier, Zuven headed out to find Bian, and preferably his own breakfast. The latter proved easy enough to obtain. Those hosting him offered a mixture of mashed grains and vegetables from their communal pot. Hot and steaming it was oddly spiced to his palate but otherwise quite fortifying. He ate quickly, spurred both by military fashion and the needs of a student who must protect his meals from theft by his fellows, gulping down great mouthfuls.

The sorceress proved to be beyond his reach. He was met at the entrance to the chief’s home – which sported the village’s sole true door, all other portals were bared with hung reed blankets – by the principle wife. She claimed Bian was engaged in deep discussion with the chief and shaman and could not be interrupted. With some persuasion he managed to get the stubborn, matronly woman to let him have a quick, confirmatory look before being ushered out.

To be treated in such a way was unexpected. Every teacher had claimed that native people would either treat the dragon-blooded as gods, or draw blades on sight, and had quietly implied that worship was wholly appropriate. Even Bian had warned him to expect some measure of adoration. These villages, by contrast, seemed content to treat him as nothing more than a servant, albeit one attached to an important guest. Though it was an accurate perception, and elsewise quite comforting, sparring him the need to navigate the snares Bian was wading through, it was still very…odd.

Shortly after being shuttled out of the chief’s presence, Zuven found himself sitting in the center of the village with nothing to do. Unwilling to allow this defiance of his express desire to stand he determined to generate a task for himself. The duty to protect an expedition under no threat was empty, so he would seek out another.

It took only a moment’s thought to recognize that any threat to the two dragon-blooded was one likely to imperil the village as a whole. Considering this, Zuven sought out the sentry of the previous evening. He figured accompanying the man on his rounds would at least give him the lay of the land, and might, just possibly, offer some clue as to why it was so hostile.

Finding the man took some work. The villagers had poured out into their fields to begin the work of the day. They laid pipes, repaired small canals, and added walls to low terraces as they readied their fields for the long growing period of the rainy season, now just begun. Cats, dogs, and numerous chickens ran through the village grounds, occasionally chased by small children. These lesser creatures knew their boundaries well, and stayed within the circuit of the buildings. Pigs, by contrast, squealed and rolled in their eagerness to escape tight pens.

Heavy labor was dominated by men, accompanied by children of both genders. The women stayed close to their homes, engaged in a variety of small crafts: basket-making, weaving, and the all-important cooking.

Eventually an elderly woman, bent over a heavy brass pot, dented with the labor of decades, and with hands stained a dark rainbow of shades from exposure to herbal dyes, pointed the way.

Walking upstream through fields of cotton and hemp, it took Zuven a good half-hour to reach the sentry. In the process he discovered that, in addition to his responsibilities as a guard, he was also a trapper.

Accompanied by his cagey hound and a girl in her teens, he was working to set forearm-sized bamboo cages into a rocky brook. The target was unknown to Zuven. He guessed crayfish or some other small crustacean.

At the sound of footfalls the sentry stood, senses sharp. He turned to face the newcomer. In the morning light Zuven was able to get a better look at him. He was perhaps a few years past thirty, but his health seemed better than that of many other villagers. A patchwork of scars covered his arms and legs. Most were records stitched by tooth and claw, but the deep red whorl above the right knee had surely been made by an arrow. It was somewhat surprising that the man did not limp. Had he been treated by a thaumaturge?

Bow accompanied spear among the man’s weapons. The stubby crescent of wood was simple and short, and outfitted with arrows capped by stark white bone. Not designed for range, this compact implement was intended to kill animals between trees, though it would take little adjustment to make it a slayer of men.

The girl carried no spear, but bore a similar bow. She stared hard at Zuven, dark eyes set into a soft, pretty face cloaked by smooth black hair. Daughter, he guessed her relation.

“Lord,” the village’s guard offered a simple acknowledgement, but did not bow. Verboseness was not his way, and he bent back to his traps almost immediately.

“Zuven, please,” Bian had chosen humility, and to emulate the sorceress was his only guide in this place.

“Nong Aan Dae,” the man’s answer was strangely delayed, almost tired, as if his name were a thing barely recalled. “My daughter,” he swept his hand to indicate the young woman. “Nong Su Trie.”

Hearthstone magic did not translate names, leaving the soldier to stumble through odd vowel combinations and unfamiliar accents his ear had never learned. He could only hope for forgiveness when he mangled them.

“I had hoped,” Zuven struggled to find suitably diplomatic phrasing. “To come with you, today, on your rounds. To get a sense of the village, and the forest.”

Dae gave the dynast a wary look, one clearly discomforted. He turned his head away, uncertainty radiating from his frame. Zuven began to suspect this man’s posting, walking the edge of the village, was not entirely a matter of choice.

At length, after silence had stretched uncomfortably, he provided an answer. “You walk too loud.” His gave turned instead to his daughter. “Take him the other way. We will eat together at midday.” Hard eyes met the soldier’s. “Keep her safe.”

“My word on it,” Zuven saluted. The desperation in those eyes was aged, but still brutal in its depths. It told a story that required no questions.

Silence lingered after these words, filling the moment with a cruel, destructive dissolution. In the end Trie, despite her youth, would break it. “This way,” she pointed into the forest. Her voice was high, spritely, but not unpleasant for it.

As he turned to follow her, Zuven knew her father’s eyes pursued him.

The woods quickly wrapped about them. Though they were separated from the nearby fields by a matter of yards alone, the expanse of crops was visible only via differences in lighting. Foliage grew in incredibly thick.

Trie moved with light, delicate grace. Her form was slender, almost frightfully thin, the mark of a fearsome childhood. Small feet wrapped in woven reed sandals took quick, careful steps. She was not bushwhacking. The soldier could observe that there was a tiny, narrow path from point to point, a circuit formed out of layered footfalls and memory.

Father and daughter, a trail known only to family. He knew this, the tendrils of familiar memory wrapped around his vision. It struck hard then, the thrust of shame, the culpability for intrusion, violation of sacred trust. Dragon-blood made it so. For that reason, and no other, the trapper had peeled back the veil and revealed something known only to the sacred circle of his blood. Struck by this revelation Zuven pulled inward, feeling distant, separated from himself, tainted by cowardice.

Ragara Zuven was not the man he wished to be – not in this – but he could be no other. Pressed against his own ignorance, the burden of exaltation was crushing.

Trie turned back to him, and he caught fear in her broad, dark eyes.

Had she detected his growing tension? Zuven was unsure, but stumbled into an apology all the same. “It is nothing, please.”

Trepidation marred her pretty face. He sought to banish it. “What do you trap here?” It was a poor opening to conversation, but it was a familiar topic, one he felt comfortable discussing.

“Many things,” her answer began cautious. “It changes with the seasons. Crayfish and frogs are easiest, the shelled ones especially now, with the water low and rain just beginning. You saw the reed cages we use for those.”

“And larger game?” he probed, hoping in part to get a better idea of what lived in these verdant hills, so different from the steamy island jungles he knew well. “Mammals? Or lizards?”

“When the rains run high we can bait ant-traps for hedgehog and pangolin, and set snares for civet, marten, and mongoose,” as Zuven listened her enthusiasm grew. “When the rains break in late summer and the fires rise we set net traps for bats, but that takes many men.”

After this she dropped into silence, but Zuven felt a nagging sensation. There was a missing piece. He did not press, yet, and they walked quietly for a time, making the circuit as she pointed out different flowers and watched for animal sign. Slowly, they relaxed into each other’s company.

“You have another way of trapping, don’t you?” He asked as she glanced upon into the foliage of an elderly tree. Carefully phrased, he did his best to push with the lightest of touches. “Some secret method?”

She blushed slightly on ruddy cheeks. “Not a secret,” a light smile caressed her features. She raised an arm to the high branches. “But little used. There is a way to fashion arrow traps for monkeys, and other beasts of the trees, my father has taken even tree striders. But he will not teach me,” her expression quickly soured. “He fears too much.”

The only surviving child no doubt, the soldier recognized. All too common. The mother was gone as well, surely. Childbirth or plague most likely, though it made little difference. He longed for the power to stop such things, but he’d shown little talent for the medicinal arts, despite his blood. “Arrow traps,” he muttered idly, looking up through thick leaves. The veterans of the East talked of barbarians who walked from tree to tree, it might serve as a counter. “Sounds useful. Monkeys, hmm…”

“They taste very good,” she chuckled. “Fruity.”

“We had monkeys on the island where I grew up,” Zuven mused, remembering. “But not many, and only the nobles were allowed to hunt them. We could never have tasted such a rare prize.”

“But you are born of dragons!” she gasped, raising a hand over her mouth to cover her shock. “The ancient souls choose such men, and draw up lands for them.”

These words were discordant to the soldier’s ear. They were a piece of a puzzle whose outline he could only partly glimpse. Carefully he recited them repeatedly within his skull, forging them into memory. Trie had revealed something of importance, something Bian would know.

“It is somewhat different where I was born,” he did his best to be tactful.

“You came from far away then, you and the blue-eyed one?” Trie was possessed by the curiosity of the outward-looking, the grand vision of those shaped to walk the edge, and at need, step over it. “Beyond An-Teng? Over the mountains?”

“Further,” spurred on by her longing expression and rapturous intensity he found himself explaining, despite how foolish he thought he sounded. So they walked, and he talked of Ytiran Island, and also of the distant Blessed Isle. The stories of the seat of the Realm had a strange flavor upon his tongue. To Trie it was unreal, a place of legend she could not accept as properly part of Creation, the marvels of the First Age, even in remnant form, were beyond the limits of her imagination.

In manner fascinating and terrifying at once, watching Trie listen was to stare through a tilted mirror, a reflection of the person he had once been. Specifics might vary, climbing trees to set arrow traps rather than gather sticky latex, but their nature was common, shared in the forest, and the hardships.

Exaltation had not freed him, Zuven saw, not as he had once thought. It had remade him. He did not fully understand how, but he was not that youth, could never be him again. The hands grasping daiklave before digging tool belonged to another man, spawned of the dragons themselves.

Trie would not share that blessing, nor would any of the countless others whose life followed this story he had once sung. The Immaculates claimed an explanation, but their words rang hollow in his ears, festering instead. He could not call himself a god if it meant that all the others, differing only in ancestry, must be named unworthy.

He ached for a better truth.

Partway through the journey they met her father, stopping to make a brief meal. Thereafter Trie changed the pattern of their course, avoiding traps already set in place. They scouted further instead, looking for small game to fill the pot, or predator spoor.

Zuven saw, following her, that the snarling, hostile vegetation did not begin until they had moved some distance from the village. He asked the young woman about the strange barrier of green.

“I don’t know,” a hint of fear tinged her answer. “Five seasons ago the woods began to grow anew, thorn-coated. The ancestors though, they say it is safe, a blessing. Since it began we have seen no raiders, or sign of Spotclaws.”


“Savage creatures, leopard beasts who walk as men do,” she shivered with a fear no doubt universal among the villagers. “If they come, we must spot the claw marks on the trees quickly, and leave meat out as tribute, or they will take children. They kill the men who come from the north, the ones who ride yeddim and buy people.”

Beastmen, Zuven understood. Bian had mentioned reports of leopardmen attacks throughout the Silent Crescent. He had not known they were hostile to the Guild. It explained the shortage of trade goods among the villagers. Slavers garnished little sympathy from him – especially those who preyed upon free people who had committed no crime – but it was a poor lot that fell to the villagers as a consequence.

By mid-afternoon they’d completed the circuit, having each shared a brief portion of their respective worlds. Zuven found Trie’s company welcome. He felt drained of foul, soupy buildup. It had been long, so very long, since he had been treated as just another person. Genuine, casual contact was so rare in the world of dynasts, everyone constantly struggling to use everyone else. Even Bian saw him as a resource, a pair of ready hands and deadly blades, more than anything.

Duty-bound though he was by the blood of Sextes Jylis, the burden could be crushing. Even if only for an afternoon, it had been nice to drain away a portion of it. As Trie went off with her father, he watched her go with some regret.

He did not let it take hold too deeply. He agreed with the Immaculates on the duty demanded of the exalted. It was not a long pause before he set out to find Bian, determined that this time he would share the evening meal.
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Posts: 23
Joined: 22 Mar 2011, 01:13
Exalt: Dragon-Blooded
Fighting Style: Even Blade Style

Re: Edge of Underleaves

14 Nov 2014, 00:21

Chapter 10

Resplendent Air 12 RY 765

Following the conclusion of the evening meal the dragon-blooded pair met inside a shack deep in the rice paddies, away from thirsty ears. Bian had claimed immaculate prayers as an excuse, but devotion did not press upon them. Instead they shared a summary of what they had discovered so far, seeking to outline the mysteries, and chart a further course.

“So, the village of Siallcassi,” Bian began, speaking quickly. They could not remain isolated for long without arousing suspicion. “Its people are the Ngaen, and they are widespread in these forests, mostly in small villages like this. They worship local gods alongside their ancestors, but the latter have grown heavily dominant in living memory. The principal patron is a man named Sagae. He was a soldier, one who fought against a marauding Raksha band some four centuries ago and later led to the clearing of this place.”

“From the mythology I have begun to assemble,” Bian’s face was grasped by rapt interest. “I believe Sagae was either god-blooded or ghost-blooded, and was absolutely capable of wielding his personal essence. In accordance with the laws of the Ngaen, which they claim were laid down by a shogunate officer at their origin as a people, Sagae, as the one who cleared this settlement, gained ownership of all its lands. From him the title has been passed down to his descendants, culminating in the current chief. As Sagae was male the heritage passes from father to son. Had the origin been female it would pass mother to daughter.”

“So aside from the chief, the villagers own nothing?” This struck Zuven as oddly grim. Unable to own land, these people would be slaves in all but name, though his glimpses of their life did not make it seem so.

“Technically they retain all crafted personal possessions and heirlooms,” Bian’s answer was cautious, held in the uncertainty of informality. “But yes, they are legally serfs, though the systems of the Blessed Isle do not apply here. The community is quite cohesive. Marriages between the families are quite common, and as a result all the households pay homage to the same assembly of significant ancestors. However, it seems the ghosts hoard their worshippers and leaving the village is not allowed without the shaman’s dispensation. The only way new residents arrive or leave is through marriage exchanges with other Ngaen villages.”

“Sounds…complex…” Zuven muttered. He had grown up in a small tribe, but the influence of the Realm had weighed heavily even at a distance, and the movement of lives had been driven by what he now recognized as the demands of commerce, not religion.

“I have seen similar systems in the past,” the sorceress noted sourly. “Generally they are focused on the production of stability, often at the expense of innovation or growth. The greatest benefits accrue to the dead, who are static beings averse to change. The greatest hindrance on these people is the inability to start new settlements in stages. A leader must arise to convince a whole community to split and expand to a new site all at once. This is a rare event and a major limitation on their growth, though it does reduce failures.”

“Unless one of them exalts,” Zuven related what Trie had said, understanding it better now.

“A logical mechanism,” Bian nodded sagely. “Pushing a dragon-blood onto new land while also installing them as a chief prevents internal conflict and removes a threat to the local ghosts.” She offered Zuven a careful smile. “That is a useful piece. Knowing that helps explains the shaman’s antagonism towards my presence.”

Her stare hardened, eyes growing rigid and icy. “It does not, regrettably, explain the isolation of this place. I have learned that the move is recent,” she stressed this, obviously considering it important. “Previously there was a cycle of festivals, rotating with the seasons, and regular marriage exchanges, with nearby villages. These have ceased.”

“The change in the forest is also new,” Zuven confirmed. “Trie said the growth started five seasons ago.”

“Five seasons…” Bian leaned back, eyes distant, deep in thought. “Seasons are different to these people, not the celestial court, the wet and dry pattern. Five shifts…” Her body jolted upright, rigid and quivering. “That cannot be!”

“What?” Zuven tensed. He did not understand, but the sorceress was not given to panic.

She stared at him, blue eyes coming slowly into local focus. Awareness moved left to right across her face. “Of course, you do not know. The information was suppressed, though of course they could not keep it from racing through the Heptagram. Five seasons ago matches with Calibration, the Calibration of seven sixty-three.”

“When the Empress disappeared.”

“What?” Zuven had not known this. Calibration, of course, it was so obvious, and equally so why they had tried to hide it. Even so, fighting down the anger at this deception, he seized upon a gaping hole. “How could these people know this?” The Deliberative, it was claimed, had taken months to figure out the Empress was truly gone. These villagers, isolated as they were, would likely take a year to learn if the Blessed Isle itself vanished from the map.

“They cannot,” Bian agreed. “And neither local gods nor mid-rank ghosts should have learned the truth so swiftly.” Dark clouds gathered about her features. “This situation cannot be unique. Many villages, perhaps all the Ngaen, may have made changes. The orders must have come from some greater power.”

“A king?” The soldier guessed. A king might have a mortal sorcerer, perhaps contacts in the demon realm. “Or some regional god?” A powerful god, the Golden Lord perhaps, might have access to such privileged information.

“No,” Bian shook her head slowly. “The Ngaen have no kings, because a man can own only such land as he has cleared, which makes greater hierarchy impossible, and they have no patron deity.” Eyes narrowing, she adjusted her answer. “At least, not in Yu-Shan.”

Zuven did not fully understand ancestor worship. The itinerant monks who’d braved the island jungles had never managed to enforce their calendar, but they had burned the shrines to ghostly patrons. He did know that, just as the gods could meet in congress in Heaven, the dead had similar space in the Underworld. Some faraway ruler could compel these people, and they might never even know it was happening. “This shogunate officer?” Eight hundred years was a long time, and the combat instructors had claimed the dead grew stronger as the years passed.

“Possibly,” the sorceress admitted. Her voice had dropped to a low whisper. “But I fear worse. The Heptagram has eyes and ears in many places, including the Underworld. In that realm there are beings known as Deathlords, ghostly tyrants who rule vast kingdoms of lost souls and possess sorcery of great power. If there are any among the dead who could divine the disappearance of the Empress it would be they. There is some evidence to suggest they must know, the one who assaulted Thorns would not have dared with the Scarlet Throne filled, and he moved before the Deliberative made the announcement.”

Thorns was far, far from An-Teng, but word of that military disaster had burned like wildfire across the legions. Everyone knew of it now. “This is the hand of a Deathlord at work? Causing these Ngaen to wall themselves off from all others? But why?” It seemed utterly nonsensical. He could not fathom the motive.

“I cannot say,” There was weariness in this admission, and a momentary hint of shame, quickly banished. “But I cannot believe the answers will be found among the living in this village. The dead are buried in Stone Tree Grove, the demense atop the hill. The local ghosts must watch it carefully, and Sagae will be there. It is there we must seek out the answer.”

“I doubt he’ll be easily persuaded,” Zuven knew it intuitively. The ghost was the petty tyrant of this place. He would not willing surrender even the smallest portion of his mystery and power.

A nod came in response to this. “Yes, I expect we will have to use force. We must prepare in stages. I will work on the shaman. Given a few days, I can persuade him to take us there without a local escort. That way we can face the ghosts without spears at our back and with no need to spill innocent blood.”

“And how should I make ready?” The soldier refused to stand idly by while Bian took on all the work.

“For now, continue to learn the terrain and gain the people’s trust,” the sorceress suggested calmly. “I may also see if I can arrange for you to create a distraction.” She paused. “The chief was a warrior, once. He may be amenable to have you demonstrate your prowess before the villagers. Perhaps even let you run the men through simple drills for an afternoon.”

“Why?” Zuven had been trained in the art of instructing soldiers, it was part of any officer’s duties, but a few hours would not teach these people anything useful, and even if he could, he was not inclined to teach villagers skills to raid their neighbors.

“I desire a few hours away from prying eyes,” Bian’s explanation was carefully oblique. “It is easy enough to get the shaman drunk, the man already has a weakness for wine, but it is essential that no one in the village is able to observe.”

“To what end?” He could do it, but would not do so blindly.

Bian smiled, full of the stimulation of conspiracy. “To acquire some support. Something the dead will not expect.”

Sorcery, Zuven realized. Yet being able to lay an ambush was invaluable. “Alright,” he agreed. “I can attract attention.”

“Good,” she sealed it with this. Her expression changed immediately thereafter. “So,” she switched topics effortlessly. “How did matters progress with the young huntress?”

Bian’s phrasing was casual, but the soldier had learned enough in their short time together to recognize that calculations stood behind all her actions. “She was helpful,” he answered quickly, volunteering little.

“Are you attracted to her?” the sorceress could be ruthlessly blunt.

“I…” Yes, Trie was attractive, Zuven admitted privately. She might even be open to an assignation, he supposed, though he was rather inexperienced in such things. Regardless, he was on duty, and among foreigners, to even contemplate the idea seemed absurd.

“Sleep with her then,” blue eyes held cold light. “Each night. Take another girl if you wish, but no boys – the Ngaen frown on those relations. No more than two though, and on no account sleep with any of the chief’s daughters. Be wary, should you attempt to go to bed alone again one will certainly attempt to seduce you, the middle one most likely, she is the prettiest.”

The entire speech was delivered in flat, business-like tones. Bian could have been discussing fluctuations in barge traffic rates. Zuven froze, utterly stunned. He had been exposed to the frank attitude of dynasts regarding sexual matters in the past, but the frightfully mechanical nature of Bian’s assessment left him cold.

“If you manage to get whomever you take to your bed pregnant, so much the better,” Bian added, purely functional. “These people could use a Prince of the Earth among them.”

“Bastards require a stipend,” Ragara superiors had drilled that prohibition into him. Jade was a resource he did not possess.

“Only if they attempt to collect it, which the Ngaen will not,” the sorceress ignored the objection. Her resolve was firm. “Spread the blood of the dragons soldier, it is an important duty.”

“And you?” Anger stoked, Zuven’s retort was harsh.

Without effort, his strike was batted away. “I have two sons on the Blessed Isle,” there was no love, no concern in that voice. She could have said the same of horses, or orchards. “I imagine I will be bear a third child in a few more years. My husband is fond of children.”

Prior to this the sorceress had not mentioned marriage or offspring. The utter absence of passion in her voice felt wrong, twisted, to Zuven. Perhaps it was a thing of the children of Mela, to live in such a calculated way. He could not do so. It was one thing to marry without love, that was common, ordinary, but to care nothing for one’s children was alien to him. He felt a moment’s pity for Bian.

“These things protect me,” Bian concluded, clearly satisfied.

The soldier saw no real options to escape her suggestion, and agreed reluctantly and with ill grace.

They made final plans and returned in darkness to the center of the village. Zuven went to check on Icil, hoping to steady his nerves. The elephant rolled about in joyful contentment, the lolling buffalo already good friends. Such genuine happiness proved wondrously infectious.

When he rose and turned away, having gifted the bright-eyed animal with a palm-full of fruit, he discovered Trie standing behind him.

She was dressed in a tightly fitted sarong, stopping at the knees. Pure black, it was bound at the waist with a simple sash and split on the sides. The buttons rested, half-hidden, under her arms. Her hair had been shaped upwards, wrapped around a circular black hat. Where her work clothes had concealed, this ceremonial dress revealed a thin, womanly figure and set his heartbeat to furious speed.

The soldier had been thoroughly ambushed, but who had sprung this trap? Trie? Or her father? Faced with the lovely young woman, he quaked, needing to know she was open to what was offered.

She smiled softly, lighting her face beneath the moonlight, all dust and grime had been carefully washed away.

“Ah…” Zuven stumbled. It was not that he was inexperienced, his childhood had not been without furtive jungle trysts, and legion gatherings had been filled with courtesans aplenty, but this was different. They were not simply two people, they were a dragon-blooded child of Sextes Jylis and a peasant villager, a set of masks he desperately wished to throw into the river.

Trie approached slowly, taking measured, careful steps until she stood within arm’s reach.

Seeking to channel his impulses, Zuven sought to break through the frozen tableau. “Can we go to the river?” He suggested desperately.

“Yes,” Trie whispered fiercely. “So no one can see, no one can hear. This is mine.” Eyes twinkled with wicked intentions.

Wood grows, spreads, births new life. The blood of Sextes Jylis calls to the same in his children. Desire filled Zuven, a flood of emotion setting alight every nerve from head to toe. He reached out and wrapped an arm about Trie’s waist.

She threw herself against him and they ran, arm in arm, upstream.

There, beyond sight or sound of the village, surrounded by the splashes of jumping fish and the low chirping of crickets, they found a bed of soft grass.

In the hours that followed they found little sleep indeed.
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Re: Edge of Underleaves

14 Nov 2014, 00:22

Chapter 11

Resplendent Air 15 RY 765

It took Bian two more days to enact her plan. At noon she convinced the chief to watch Zuven perform a series of practice katas. Though the soldier was not much of a showman, afterwards the villagers were falling over themselves demanding lessons. Prepared with a selection of bamboo spears for the occasion, Zuven proceeded to run them ragged until dusk.

Much genial backslapping and grumbling congratulations followed, and each participant was given a metal bead in recognition of the event. This named them as Legion Auxiliary Reserves. It was almost complete fiction, the legions would never come here, but only to a point. The villagers could fight, if pressed; the demands of survival had taught them well. If supplied with decent equipment, a decent commander could rapidly shape a light infantry formation from the group.

Every house invited Zuven to join the evening meal, and he dutifully made the rounds from one pot to the next, taking a small portion each time. This ritual served to finally welcome him amongst the Ngaen. Later Trie would extend that welcome further with much enthusiasm.

The day after Bian found him early. It was time to visit the sacred hill, and the village dead.

Despite the sorceress’ attempts to stress urgency, the shaman was in no hurry. A bent-legged man with white hair and a bald pate, his eyes were dark and recessed, wise but also cunning. He had no apprentice, something Zuven had thought odd until he referred to his post as chosen of the ancestors. Initiation, it seemed, was conducted by the dead.

It took until almost midday to get ready, and then the man demanded to take his meal in the village, so the sun had already passed its peak by the time they finally departed. Skilled excuses were proffered from between cracked lips, and might have sufficed to cover a short delay, but the stalling was so excessive as to deny any attempt to conceal.

Bian chose to allow the man his dodges, even covering for the chaffing impatience Zuven failed to bury. Soon after they left the village behind a wave of trees, he heard the sorceress whisper in his ear.

“He intends a trap, after dark,” she announced, perfectly calm. “So ghosts may attack.”

These words were not spoken aloud. Bian walked beside the shaman, some ten steps back on the narrow trail up the hillside, but Zuven had heard them perfectly, carried by the wind to his ears.

He had suspected such a plan, but it was good to have confirmation, and to know the sorceress was forewarned.

Their path was circuitous, a slow ascent of many switchbacks toward the summit of the lonely promontory. At each turn there was a small stone panel raised on a stump. Each was carved with the visage of some ancestor of significance to the villagers, most centuries old. The shaman stopped at each and every one of these, taking the time to offer prayers and burn small offerings of woven reeds.

Bian watched it all impassively. Her blue eyes betrayed no sign that she knew aught was amiss. As they neared the summit she sent Zuven another message on the trembling winds. “There is surely a small shadowland near. The ghosts will move in swiftly. Be ready from an hour after nightfall.”

By the time they reached the end of the path the sun was setting. Long tongues of orange-tinged light crept through the trees. Shadows gathered everywhere, long and sharp.

When they finally saw the demense the view proved worth waiting for.

At first glance the forest spread out atop the wide, flat expanse of hilltop seemed ordinary, if oddly quiet. It was shaped just as the rest of the land, tall leafy trees with numerous epiphytes, clinging vines, and thick molted leaves strew across the floor, and colored accordingly. Peace reigned through the smooth, motionless understory, no insects in flight. Tingling threads of power, currents of gathered essence, sent a gentle tingling over Zuven’s skin.

Bian grasped the truth first. “It’s made of stone,” she whispered.

Staring outward, Zuven struggled to grasp this eerie reality. Instead, he relied upon other senses, striding forward to place a hand upon a bare patch of tree trunk.

The bark had the pattern and shaping of living growth, sculpted by the years of wind, rain, and sunlight, but beneath his fingertips it was cool, textured and solid. Stone. It resisted his skin in the manner of basalt, not bark, and failed to resonate with the wooded essence within him.

“It’s still growing,” Bian spoke quietly, standing next to him. “This demense is attuned to Pasiap, but it lacks power. This stony glaze has recast the nature of this forest, but not frozen it. Not permanent, slowed, growing at the pace of crystal.”

“Your insight is great Lady Bian,” the shaman noted. “Time slows in this place, preserving wonderfully.” He motioned them ahead. “Come, I must take you to greet the ancestors.”

At the center of the summit the undergrowth thinned. Great trees, eight in number, formed vigil in a rough circle, presiding over the heart of the demense. The concentration of essence had raised them to tremendous heights, towering over all those nearby. The sacred ancestors of the villagers had been laid amongst them.

Just as the plants, animals, and insects of this mysterious glade, they were cast in stone, glazed over. The bodies appeared true to life, as if death’s embrace had claimed them only a few days previous. All were attired finely, in a refined funerary style, white robes and full make-up. They were laid in the open, on biers of stone-wood from the forest.

“How unusual,” Bian reviewed the bodies, placed in a neat pattern of circular rows. There were only a few dozen, apparently this honor was reserved for special ancestors only, or perhaps merely those who left behind assertive ghosts. “I once saw a sculpture of a dynast, carved from wax. These are close to that in some sense, but far more permanent.”

Zuven thought the whole display vulgar and gruesome.

“The preservation lends strength to our sacred ancestors,” the shaman announced, devotion deep in his words. “It has kept the village strong. The wisdom of Sagae is great indeed.” He advanced further. “Come, his tomb awaits.”

Sagae lay at the very center of the grove, and the demense. Unlike the others, suspended uncovered, he had been placed atop a heavy stone vault, with posts upon the corner leading up to an incredibly fine casing of transparent quartz. Intricate carvings adorned every surface, lovingly polished and maintained. Rather than simple funerary robes he wore armor, a fine set of lamellar in a state of exquisite preservation. Forged of steel, not jade, it was a mortal’s defense. Zuven found the design familiar, though old. It was the uniform of an infantryman from the last decades of the Shogunate.

Even in death, Sagae possessed the carriage of a mighty warrior. He had died in his early middle years, his form unbent by the ravages of age. Armor obscured the killing wound, but Zuven suspected arrows had slain this man, likely poisoned. A grand sword, straight, broad and double-edged, suited to skilled moves, had been laid at his side, parallel to the right arm.

The soldier would have considered it a fine, fitting monument to a warrior who’d founded a village. It was spoiled for the dragon-blooded by knowing it served to host the ghostly existence of the dead man, a corruption that lingered over his memory and accomplishments.

For a time Bian peppered the shaman with questions. Each received a long-winded answer as the man carefully laid offerings before each of the bodies. By the time he knelt before Sagae, the honored founder saved for the finale, it was fully dark. Only pale moonlight guided their steps.

Bian moved behind the shaman as he laid the devotional carvings out. “Be ready,” she sent a last message to Zuven, setting the hum of battle to rising in his ears. “They surround us. Break south.”

Blue eyes pierced the night as she stood behind the village’s intercessor of the dead. “So,” her voice remained quite calm. “The trap is set. You may find, I fear, that you are mistaken as to who is springing it.”

The shaman began to turn, fear and puzzlement warring upon his face. An apology stumbled from his lips, half-formed.

Blue jade flashed. Bian’s sky cutter jumped free of her harness and slammed the man in the left temple. A cruel crack split the night. The elderly man tumbled senseless, falling atop the body of his ancestor.

Raw screams of pain and torment, unearthly and terrible, ripped through the chill air. Throughout the stone grove warriors appeared. Men and women sliding free of the darkness, solidifying from grisly haze. They bore arms and armor beneath while banners, and over terrible wounds. Empty pallor filled their faces, holes their eyes, and the edges of their bodies blurred and trembled in a wind that was not there. Carved with horrific symbols of death and malice, their armor was black iron, forged in the world below. Shields and axes of the same beat in time with their rage, grasped in bone claw hands.

One formed behind Zuven, axe raised in a brutal, overhead chop. She, for it was the effigy of a woman, stumbled in the next moment, daiklaves buried in her gut.

“Kill them! Do not let them escape!” A voice echoing with commands from long ago spoke from the center. Sagae, clad in a darkened, grayed-out version of his armor, blade in hand, strode forth from the darkness to stand atop his tomb.

Ice crystals burst free from Bian, a storm of chill, branching mathematics. She sprang, cresting high into the air, twisting as she vaulted and passing over Zuven’s head, clear by a full foot. The sky cutter spun out from her hand, slashing a bloody line across the chest of a ghost soldier before streaking back to her grasp.

Zuven exploded into combat. Axes, polearms, and shields formed a hedge about him. He danced and slithered through them, a bramble cutting through the encroachment. Daiklaves sang a brilliant keen of righteous rage with every contact, chipping and sapping the iron mined from the dark land below the living world.

Essence burst out of him as he invoked the grace of the dragons into the motion of his swords, again and again. Strikes plunged into tiny gaps in black plates, or pierced clean through, green jade biting deep into pallid flesh, tearing free. Whirling palm leaves, sun-bright in hue and carrying the scent of the seaside, spun about his frame, a tempest of sharp-sided lathes that slashed and swept in time with his deluge of strikes and parries.

Bian soared, her boomerang spinning in a vortex about her, casting aside axes and knives hurled into the path of her graceful pirouettes. She jumped from one stony branch to another, making mockery of the attempted encirclement.

For the soldier on the ground escaped proved far more troubled. The single step he’d gained by virtue of the sorceress’s preemptive strike loomed endless in the terrible maelstrom of death and dead surrounding him. Plunging ahead, the soldier pressed through the enemy, moving the storm with him, focusing his assault upon those who dared step into his path, blocking and parrying the rest.

Ghostly armament hacked at his defenses, but his swarming guard kept them at bay. The rare lucky strike that penetrated merely glanced away, warded by the potency of jade lamellar. Though he felt each blow against his muscled frame, he remained unbloodied.

Only so long as he stayed ahead, and his essence burned, but neither could last. Black iron blocked many blows, and even those strikes that bit down rarely served to stay the unloving warriors. Pain resided upon the dead in a fashion dissimilar to the living, and these were hard ghosts. Though their movements slowed and their faces twisted into a rictus of agony, the wounded did not withdraw and did not break.

No villager ghosts these, grasping spears in unsteady hands. This was a disciplined force, seasoned soldiers, hardened to war and fearing nothing to be struck free their shells. They pressed forward, refusing to yield a passage. A pair with shields screened the strikes of Bian’s sky cutter, the rest surrounded the palm-bladed warrior, closing an inexorable ring. A full scale, they stepped into gaps vacated as the fallen dissipated back to the Underworld, closing ranks behind grim eyes.

Palm leaves rose to towering heights and lashed with hurricane storm. All things within the sweep of Zuven’s blades were struck by the ripping and tearing of razor-edged green. Ghostly attackers blossomed with red lines across face, hands, and thighs as lethal essence barbs swept over them, the corona of his surging anima a soul-melting weapon of terrible fury. The soldier took little solace in this display. It heralded the last of his dragon-blooded potency, and though he had felled many, three full fangs of the enemy yet remained.

At last an axe slipped his guard completely, no supernatural speed present to whip a blade across its path. It arced down and glanced across jade plating, opening a stinging cut across the left forearm. With the very last of the essence within him, and a shout of righteous retort, Zuven slipped past a stroke from behind and ripped his blade through the ghost’s neck.

The axe, a stark red stain upon its terminus, fell slowly through the night air. Once, twice, the bloody blade spun, and then it hit the earth, iron-scented liquid touching first.

It sank.

Zuven blinked. Shock flashed across the expressions of ghost soldiers.

Bian, high above them all, threw back her head and let loose a single peal of cruel, terrible laughter. The sky reached down to mock. “At last!” she screamed, white crystals cascading from her body. “All conditions are met. End this farce!”

The ground writhed.

Fifteen ghostly warriors jerked into hapless panic as their footing vanished. Iron-shod black boots dropped ankle deep into something colorless and turbulent beneath.

Madness burst free.

An unending torrent of crawling, creeping, twitching things exploded from below. Many-legged frights with tittering fangs, snub-nosed masses of edged legs and writhing mandibles, fist-sized knots of worms contorting and dripping green, gray tendrils of weird sticky film – blind but guided, sucking, churning, piercing. The mind rebelled at the vision, the formless mass of subterranean hunger unleashed.

It surged up sunken legs, across black chainmail, under gauntlets, beneath helmets. Then it met the barrier of mortified skin, pressed, pushed, and plunged inside. Eating as it burrowed, countless tiny maws corkscrewing into ragged dead flesh, wretched excretions melting undead muscle, bone, and tissue into a gray-green mass feverishly lapped up by millions of padded, hair-coated palps.

Agony rang and echoed from ghostly throats, shaking leaves of stone.

The soldiers jerked and spasmed, wracked by terrible, nerve-searing fire. Some, strong-willed, tried to fight on, raising axes against the feasting morass underfoot, or the soldier before them. Crippled by wounds and buried in a well of pain, entwined by the binding tendrils of the feeders, they moved in slow, wretched fashion. Zuven slapped aside desperate strikes with ease and plunged deadly counters into exposed faces, slaughtering the dead. It seemed almost a mercy.

“What…is…this?” Sagae, standing atop his tomb, secure beyond the reach of the mauling, churning mass of death enveloping his allies, shouted out in impotent rage. “What have you done?”

Bian fixed him with a cold, satisfied smile beneath eyes of merciless ice. “All know and fear the great predators who stalk and consume the living. Few recall those who feast upon the dead, enforcing decay upon the fallen lives of Creation, insuring the cycle of being. Individually small, they are oft forgotten, but they are fearsome in form, eternal in hunger, and so very, very numerous. Just as the great trees have their kings, so too the under-dwellers, and the Endless-Fanged-Creeper is known to find the well-aged flesh of the underworld a delicacy, a fine vintage.”

Ghostly agony faded into weak moans, submerged beneath a horrid horde of crunching, slurping, squelching noises accompanying the slow descent of the remains into the ooze-like center of that mass of hungry forms. Black iron was spat back out, to sit en-slimed upon the stone grass, but no scrap of flesh was neglected as the swarm-thing, this mind-scaring elemental, brought its repast to conclusion.

Bian jumped down from her perch, floating feather-light by the grace of Mela. She landed in front of the ancestral ghost, and his remains.

Sagae’s form began to fade to shapelessness.

“Leaving so soon?” A dark eyebrow rose above furious blue orbs. “I have questions.”

“A pox take you!” the ghost spat.

Sky-cutter rose up, then fell, held in check a hair’s breadth from the stony face of the corpse at the sorceress’ feet.

The ancestor’s dissolution halted abruptly. “You wouldn’t,” he whispered, words tinged with unearthly fear.

“You, and all the others,” her words froze, colder than the icy power spilling from her flesh. “If you intend that I should preserve the existence of ghostly abominations that have conspired to have me slain, you had best intend to trade commensurate knowledge for the privilege.”

“But the village!” the protest and terror on the ghost’s face were unfeigned. “You’ll destroy them! They need our aid.”

Bian did not so much as flinch. “One village is irrelevant.”

“But you have made friends, been so gracious, you can’t-“

“An academic project, nothing more,” Crystalline and imperious, the sorceress remained completely unmoved. “The Ngaen are of interest; one village means nothing. Now,” she let the pause linger meaningfully. “Answers. Or I will raze these bodies and order this demense capped. Your villages can spend the next decade as slaves to its construction.”

“They’ll forge me into bricks!” It was a final, feeble, objection, filled with panic and loss. An edifice built up over hundreds of years tumbled down before the blue fire of Bian’s fury.

Zuven found his heart empty of sympathy for the wretch.

“That is inevitable, and has been since you began this absurd plot,” the reply was merciless. “Especially as you have just revealed you acted on another’s behalf. They will know you betrayed them. Who commanded this? Why isolate the village? Why dare an attack on visitors? On dragon-blooded? Why?”

“I don’t know why, I don’t!” Sagae, his noble bearing shattered, begged. He was not a warrior anymore, merely a lingering dead man. “General Hidemasa gave the orders, every village patron, seal it all away.”

“And who commands your shogunate officer?” Bian demanded, fires burning on, not nearly satisfied. “Who can force such a ghost to set his descendants upon the path to destruction?”

Sagae’s voice dropped so low as to be barely audible. Fear infected his armored frame, shaking visibly. “A deathknight,” he sobbed each word. “One of the Lion’s.”

“Why?” Bian repeated the demand.

“I don’t know, I just obeyed. I told Hidemasa when you arrived. He sent the legionnaires,” the man was quivering. “It was all I could do to keep command,” he begged desperately.

The pale face of the sorceress grew dark with formidable anger. “Enough,” she declared, disgust seeping into her words. “Flee now. If you run fast enough you might survive a little while. Know that your fellows shall no longer abuse the forest god of this place, your shaman will be carrying that message ere he wakes. If you care anything for your descendants I suggest you never, ever look back.”

Without hesitation, or daring to speak, Sagae faded from sight, dissipating into spectral form, flowing back towards whatever shadowland had let him loose before, running for the Underworld.

Only when the ghost was gone did Zuven dare approach the sorceress.

“Would you truly have sacrificed the villagers?” the question jumped free from him before he could call it back, though he cursed himself for a fool.

Blue eyes fixated on him, still burning, though their flames had receded. “I rarely offer threats idly.” She answered, harsh, but without visible anger. “One village would be a terrible sacrifice, but the ghost exaggerates his importance. Such things are hard to contemplate, difficult to countenance, but what he revealed was of incredible value.”

Zuven looked at her hard. In his reckoning the ghost had said little. Regardless, he could not, would not, accept such a sacrifice, not made merely to compel. The calculus was too cruel. It was not the soldier’s way. Perhaps, he admitted with a glance to the gathered darkness, this was a failure in him.

“Is your injury serious?” The harsh mask of the sorceress fell away, revealing a layer of genuine concern beneath.

Adrenalin fading, Zuven felt the pain and itching sting of the blow. It was not bad, a clean cut to the bone, but not chipping. They worked together to bind it. “Why didn’t you have the elemental attack at the start?” He shuddered, remembering the thing, now sunken into the earth and gone, though he wished to blot the sight from his memory. A reflection of some part of Creation though it was, it had been no less hideous than any demon.

“The contract I made was to fight from the first blood spilled,” she offered a half-smile to accompany this statement, a tiny suggestion of error. “I had rather expected that to occur earlier on.” Her eyes lingered on his daiklaves. “Ultimately, the fates were with us, for this proved to our advantage. Your blazing display gathered them all together. That was well, the soldiers would have revealed nothing, and might have silenced Sagae.”

“Who were they?” Zuven questioned. They had been professional troops, well-trained even by the standards of armies, certainly no kin of villager ghosts.

“The Legion Sanguinary,” it was an ominous answer, full of dark potential. “I will explain the rest as we descend. Lingering here serves no purpose.”

They heft the unconscious shaman between them and began the trek downward.
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Re: Edge of Underleaves

14 Nov 2014, 00:22

Chapter 12

Resplendent Air 16 RY 765

The tale spun by the sorceress was dark indeed, and it might well be blackest where she was forced to admit to frightful gaps in her knowledge. Tyrant rulers of the underworld, vast ghostly armies, death-twisted anathema, it was all difficult to believe, yet it had hacked into his arm not an hour before. He had already fought this unknown enemy he wished he never knew.

“Why do this?” Zuven could grasp the existence of these dark powers, but not their plan. “What purpose does it serve to isolate the villagers?”

“It prevents any coalition from forming, for one,” Bian began, speculating. “Worse, once sufficiently isolated, these villages could have been massacred, one by one, without anyone spreading the news.”

“Peppering the forest with shadowlands,” Zuven understood that aspect of killing, and its importance to undead armies.

“Yes,” the sorceress met this with grim agreement. “I suspect that might well have been the overall goal.”

It did not make for a pleasant future, especially not walking in the dark. “Can it be stopped?” Their actions might have saved this village, at least in part, but there were surely dozens more, perhaps hundreds, in similar straits.

“Yes,” This pronouncement spun the soldier’s head. Optimism was not a trait he associated with Bian. “It will not be easy,” she admitted. “But this move is dependent upon culture, and culture can be shifted if the proper levers can be found and the correct force applied. If we can grasp the motions of influence among the Ngaen, and any other afflicted in this way, then the shadow of the dead can be turned aside. We will need more information, and more local allies though,” She sighed briefly. “The Satrap will not muster any forces on behalf of these people, and the Thousand Scales cares only for a map of potential manses. Perhaps the Immaculate Order may be convinced to dispatch exorcists, though it will take considerable persuasion.”

This was not an encouraging follow-through.

“Our foolish shaman,” Bian groused at the weight of the slumbering old man. “Will tell me more. We have a long chat ahead. The chief is going to demand an explanation when we return. It figures to be a long night.”

Creeping down the path in silence for a time, Zuven’s mind returned to the monstrous elemental. “That thing you summoned,” he probed. “I’ve never heard of such a creature.”

“Wood lives,” she intoned. “The fundamental aspect of the element, different from all others, but this is a half-truth.” She smiled, but the movement failed to touch her eyes. “Wood also dies. The elementals of decay shepherd the transition back to earth, water, and the traces of the rest. Grim creatures, they have little love for their kin of leaf and fur, and less for men. Summoning binds them as well as any other, however, and their power is not to be denied, especially against the dead.”

“How did you learn of such a-“ He paused, biting down before he could say ‘monster,’ barely in time.

She answered anyway. “On the eastern slopes of the Summer Mountains lives a cohort of wretched outcasts, refuse pickers and gravediggers deemed unclean by their peers. They worship the decay spirits, calling on them for protection from the weird ghosts of the Bayou of Endless Regret. From the names they taught me I learned many summons. The Endless-Fanged-Creeper is powerful, cunning, and deviant, at the edge of what I would dare compel to service.”

This last was a considerable admission, and Zuven felt honored by the sorceress’ trust.

Forced to move slowly in darkness, and carrying the largely insensate shaman, it was almost morning when they returned to the village. To their surprise they found Trie and her father waiting for them at the terminus of the secret path. She smiled to see them. Her father’s expression was darker, and clouded.

“Did the chief say we would not return?” Zuven guessed. Anger rose in him, a desire to string up the shaman in the square for his cowardice and treachery.

“He said that you had brought danger to us,” the trapper turned sentry spoke slowly, chewing each word. “The ancestors were to persuade you to leave immediately.”

“Without our supplies, our elephant?” Zuven caught the blatant weakness of this contrived story instantly. “Your chief overestimates their persuasiveness.”

The man’s calloused hands held a spear, but he made no move to use it. “What happens next?”

This, the soldier did not know. An attempt had been made on the lives of two dragon-blooded. Though other men had wielded the blades, the chief had known, been complicit, though the ghosts had not been villagers. As a military matter the response would have been terrible, but he did not want to spill such copious blood. He’d had enough fighting for now.

Bian forestalled any plans he might have announced. “You will go and get the chief, Master Dae,” she instructed. “He is to come alone and unarmed, at once. If he does this, then we will talk, and a measure of restitution will be decided, as appropriate. If he does not, then my bodyguard will kill him, and I will summon an Ifrit and put this village to the torch.”

Dae rushed to obey. He knew better than to doubt those words.

Looking at Trie, now fearfully forced to contemplate the destruction of all she knew, Zuven could not keep silent. “Will the chief come?” He tried to hide the worry in his face. He did not think he succeeded.

“He will,” if Bian had any doubts she hid them completely. “His village is everything to him. He knows that even if I demand his life, which truthfully, I do not think necessary, his son will inherit.”

“What will we do then?” Any desire Zuven had felt to punish these people evaporated swiftly. Sagae had revealed that even he was a pawn, several steps removed from the true villain. These were below even that by measures. Yet the attack could not go unanswered.

“This fool,” she gestured to the shaman, waking but barely coherent. “And the chief will pay a visible price in humiliation and pain. Killing them only empowers the Deathlord. Destroying the dead is a better solution.”

Understanding dawned on the soldier. “You’re going to destroy Sagae’s remains,” he rambled. It was not certain, but such a move was likely to destroy the already weakened ghost. “But you promised-“

Bian shook her head. “I made no such oath. That fool was too panicked to extract one. A weakness of the dead, passions override logic.” She stared at him. “That one is doomed, the reach of the tyrants of the Underworld is limited in Creation, but boundless in the Underworld. If he can be shocked into Lethe, so much the better, the Deathlord will learn less of us that way.”

The chief did come, wheezing with the exertion of running full-tilt through humid air. At his arrival Zuven fell silent. Bian’s commands must ring absolute.

The veneer of friendship fell away from blue eyes. The full fury of the sorceress rose high above the treetops. Power burst from her in frigid waves as she openly invoked the majesty of the dragons to bolster command and oratory in brazen fashion.

In his wisdom, the village chieftain threw himself prostrate at her feet, begging for mercy.

Thus begun, the rest proved surprisingly simple.

That day, in the center of the village, the shaman and chief confessed on their knees to crimes gave and terrible. In the name of the Empress, and her great mercy, their lives were spared, but they were lashed to posts and endured twenty blows from Monsoon’s Herald.

Watching stone-faced, Zuven saw the blows were calculated to pain, not cripple, and he knew that had the sorceress wished it, she could have had him strike the blows, and beaten then to death. Thereafter they were forced, supported by their families, to make the hard climb back to the demense. There, before the sun fell, both men were forced through bounteous tears to shatter Sagae’s stone remains with hammers, and every villager took five strikes, until nothing but powder remained. The sorceress scattered this to the winds.

When it was done the local forest god, choosing his moment with excellent timing, chose to appear and reaffirm his protection and patronage of the villagers.

That night, after sleeping soundly, the sorceress dispatched messengers by spell, detailing these events to the Satrap and the Heptagram. She suspected the former would be ignored, but had hopes for the latter. Soon after, they made plans to leave.

Zuven had thought to return to An-Teng, but Bian surprised him once more. “We have made a potent enemy. Best for now to remain in the wilderness. Until we know more and can marshal great strength, we must rely on the unexpected as our shield.”

From the shaman’s effects she had unearthed a map speculating as to the location of Zu-Jan, Vai, and Suli settlements further upriver, into the mountain valleys. They made these their destination. It was imperative to determine if the pattern repeated.

In a combination of gratitude, fear, and penance, the villagers outfitted them generously with supplies.

Bian laid down orders before leaving, proscriptions for dealing with the dead in the future. Unlikely to last, they were an exercise in duty.

Zuven said goodbye to Trie.

Their final night together had been wild and vibrant. In the morning, she met him by the riverside.

“So you are leaving us,” she spoke softly. “To climb high peaks.”

“I follow the sorceress,” nerves tight, Zuven wondered what was to happen now. Assignations with locals made for boastful stories among soldiers, but his inexperience was telling. There was no question as to the course of action, it was only a matter of pain. “It is my duty.”

“I heard the stories from my father, and my grandmother, as a girl,” Trie’s voice was quiet, hiding her feelings beneath resolve. “I always thought the lives of Princes of the Earth were grand, so impossibly grand, but also lonesome. It seems those stories were true, and the mighty have few friends.”

“I have made one here, I hope,” Zuven tried to brush aside her words, for they cut deep and swift.

“Yes,” she smiled fiercely. “I will not forget.”

“Neither will I,” there would be others, he was certain, a repeating pattern, but this young woman would always have a special place in his memory. There would be no boasting. “Thank you, for everything.”

Quickly, she stole a final kiss, then turned away.

Nothing more was said. Zuven thought he ought to speak, to say anything, but the vastness of the moment caught him, sealing his throat and anchoring him in place. The woman who had been his lover, who might carry his child, turned into the trees and left his sight.

He went to load up Icil. The elephant’s easy smiles and playful trunk taps supplied a necessary, routine, comfort.

As they left, pushing back into the woodlands, already opening once more, Zuven was silent. Numbness settled onto him.

To his surprise, Bian spoke. “It is always difficult to leave.” Her eyes were focused forward, refusing to glance back. “So many little worlds, not one our home, only dipping in and out. Impoverished, primitive, heretical, they were all these things, and yet we cannot help but find love for them in ourselves. Creation must be tied together. In these dark days we will need all peoples, and as you saw, it will not be peaceful.” She looked upwards, staring at the aged trees. “Knowledge breeds wisdom in the seeker, and in the dragon-blooded, or so we must hope. With wisdom, we can minimize bloodshed.”

It was well said, but Zuven discovered he was unmoved.

“Perhaps,” Bian noted his melancholy. “There is a better measure. Had I brought mortal soldiers, they would have died upon blades of black iron, and I might well have been forced to flee. Those are lives saved by jade blades, and perhaps the whole of the village by extension. The eye of the First and Forsaken Lion is upon these lands, and that is an enemy who must be faced.”

Little worlds. All under threat. Zuven did not know what Bian’s grand scheme would produce, or if he would even recognize it, but he did know that his sword could only save when it was between innocents and evil.

That was enough to lengthen his stride.

It was time to march. There were battles ahead.


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