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Exaltation Stories

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  • Exaltation Stories

    It seems like an inevitability that, whenever a writer ends up working on a story about a character they came up with for Exalted, the circumstances of that Exaltation are the first choice to reach for.

    For my part, I noticed that I had four Solar characters that I'd be putting together once I had the new corebook - almost an entire circle - so I figured I'd create another and make it a full set.

    ...and then I started wondering why I should wait...

    "In one dimension I find existence, in two I find life, but in three, I find freedom."
    -- Foreman Domai, Cadet Induction Ceremony, Mission Year 2216

    She’d always had sharp eyes, the sharpest anyone in the village had ever seen. She could pick out a goat on the slope of the mountain across the valley, or identify which fox was taking which route towards the cavy pens, or count the petals of a blossom from across the high meadow.

    She loved to look up and watch the birds - the hummingbirds flitting between flowers, the flycatchers darting after their pray, the slow graceful circles and arcs of the eagles and lammergeiers soaring on the mountain updrafts.

    Dreaming of how it would feel to fly, free of the chains of the stony slopes.

    Her mother, of course, beat her whenever she caught her looking up and out with that look in her eyes; people who thought like that tended to walk out along the edge of the Razor Rock and try, and none of them had ever walked away. Certainly her cousin hadn’t.

    She couldn’t blame her mother for being scared, and she knew very well that, dream as she might, she couldn’t fly…

    But she still dreamed.

    Now, secure in the knowledge that it was the wrong time of day for wolves and the wrong time of year for eagles, she lay back on the huge, sun-warmed boulder at the top of the highest meadow with her poncho spread on top of her for warmth and her arms crossed beneath her head while the alpaca grazed and she stared up into the blue infinity of the summer sky.

    The flaw was there, a linked scatter of dark dots, blurred even to her eyes by distance, high above the highest cirrus clouds.

    “Sisa!” a treble voice called, setting the livestock to bleating. “Elder sister!”

    She sat up and looked over at the notch where the path up the cliffside came out into the meadow as her little brother scrambled into view. “Capac?” she asked. “What’s happened?”

    “Exalts!” he gasped, and hauled himself upright to wave his hands so excitedly his poncho fluttered around his body even in the still between gusts. “Five of them, and lots of bearers and they’re at the village and they want to talk to everybody so the headman says to bring the stock in and hurry!”

    She felt her own eyes go wide, and she had to shake her head sharply to clear the startlement from it enough to whistle the three sharp tones. The herd stopped where it grazed, furry heads coming up from their grass and swiveling to look at her with ears erect and alert, and when she repeated the whistle most of them began to drift together, clustering under the rock into a fluffy, irritated mass of wool.

    A few animals, highly placed in the herd heirarchy or just hungrier than their siblings, stubbornly kept grazing, and she slipped the poncho back on properly over her dress and hopped off of the boulder. “Help me get them gathered up,” she ordered her brother, and between the two of them only a little chasing was needed to guide the reluctant alpacas back into the herd.

    The boy started down the path first, leaving the animals to follow single-file down the narrow, twisting ledge and her to bring up the rear, descending the thousand yards or so to the hollow that sheltered the village, overlooking the tumbling white waters of the river and the crops terraced along the valley floor, the late spring flowers and shoots bright against the dark stones and earth.

    When they got to the village, and had shuffled the herd into the enclosure - hemmed in by dry-stone walls - set aside for it, their fellow villagers had all gathered around the common square, which was full of porters and packbeasts and, despite what Capac had promised, only three Exalts, all dressed in jade armor of one design or another over clothes of finely ornamented silk, already stained and battered by the dust of their climb up from the foothills.

    The leader had hair of shining gold and brilliant scarlet eyes, and he lay back in a sling chair with casual ease, his legs stretched out under the table that groaned - figuratively, it was stone - with the best feast the village could put out on such short notice. The Headman perched uncomfortably on another chair - Sisa knew he had to have been ordered into the seat, or that would have been an unforgivable insult - and was talking to him at length. From the gestures, describing one pass or another, so the Dragonbloods would be moving on.

    The other two were both women, one so massive that she’d settled cross-legged on the stony ground to put the table at the right height. Her cloud-white hair was cut to hang only to her jaw, her shoulders, under the jade plate that shrouded them along with the rest of her figure, were as broad as any field laborer’s, and her stunningly lovely face was set in an expression whose utterly disinterested blankness could only be both habitual and deliberate. She ate without so much as a glance at the conversation happening only a few feet from her.

    The last of the three seemed to fade into the background next to the vibrancy and sheer presence of her companions, a pretty, quiet woman with long green hair and pupil-less green eyes who would obviously rather have been elsewhere, even as she politely thanked Hipa for bringing her a mug.

    Corralling Capac from running to gawk by means of a firm hand hanging onto his collar, she threaded through the crowd to slide in between her brother and his wife and their mother. “Why are they here?” she asked, since the noble visitors were obviously genuine Exalted.

    “They’re-” her mother started to say, before one of the Headman’s sons ran up.

    “Mother Hapac, where- Sisa! Come on, the Exaltations want you!

    “Me?!” she blurted, too shocked to be more coherent. But he gestured furiously, so she went, running with her poncho flying and her sandals slapping the ground.

    “Ah!” the headman said as she pounded up. “Here she is. Great Lord, this is Hapac Sisa. Her mother is one of our finest weavers, but she herself has the sharpest eyes our village has seen in living memory. If you wish keen mortal eyes to supplement your own holy ones, you wish for Sisa.”

    The leader hummed meditatively, scarlet eyes seeming to glitter like sunlight scattering off of dark water in the brightness of the daylight as he studied her for several long, terrifying moments before he smiled and waved her towards one of the rocks placed to serve as stools for the permanent table. “I’m not going to smite you, so relax. I am Cathak Tunenke, and my lovely compatriots are V’neef Setaket-” the green woman “-and Anjei Sachie-” the large one “-and we’ve been sent by the Heptagram to examine a ruin that’s said to lie in this area.”

    “A… ruin?” she repeated dumbly, then realized: “The Wind Temple!”

    “Hm?” Lady Anjei said, looking mildly interested.

    The Headman gave her a scorching look, which she returned impudently. Did he really think he could lie about that to an Exalt? When Lord Cathak leaned forward to rest his elbows on the table and prop his prominent chin on his interlaced fingers, she turned to give him her full attention. She’d be married out of the village anyway, and the Headman had no way of affecting where.

    “Tell me what’s said about this temple,” he ordered her.

    “What’s said is that the Singing Eagle, a great god of the winds, accepts offerings and tribute there, and that he can protect travelers and destroy the wicked. But the way there is…” carefully, Sisa explained the route up the river and over the glacier to the stony ridge that led up the to the mountain, and then the climb to the temple itself.

    “Sisa, you know that the way is forbidden to-” the Headman started, but she interrupted.

    “I haven’t! I just climbed the Five Stones hill and traced the route!”

    “What you just described can’t be less than two hundred li,” Lady V’neef pointed out sceptically. “You say you saw everything you just described by looking from…”

    “Five Stones is perhaps a hundred and seventy-five li as the eagle flies,” the Headman said, “but, reckless and disrespectful as she may be, the girl’s eyes are keen enough to make good her boasts.”

    She didn’t stick her tongue out at him, but it was a near thing.


    Iä! Iä! Moe fthagn!

  • #2

    The ice clinging to the razor ridge of naked stone crunched under her sandals, flurries of snow drifting up in the thin, cutting breeze to brush against where her leggings vanished into her foot-wraps.

    She’d never been this high before. The air was painfully clear, and the mountains were laid out ragged below the great peak on all sides, marching north and south in rows like a snowshark’s teeth. To east and west, in the distance, she could see the land lower and smooth into rolling plains, and beyond those either more mountains or - in the most distant west - a blue-grey flatness she knew must be the ‘sea’ she’d heard of, enough water to drown the entire mountain range - the entire world she’d known.

    To the south, snow-flanked as it rose above the cloud-layers that hid the horizon like a man wading ankle-deep in a stream, was a mountain that dwarfed any she had imagined, a perfect cone of ice and white stone that seemed like it must be a world in itself.

    “When I was a little girl,” Lady V’neef’s voice said, tone just as awed as she felt, “my birth mother took me on a pilgrimage to the highest mortal temple, to pray to the Immaculate Dragons to intercede for my Exaltation. I was only six, and mostly I spent the trip thinking how hard it was to climb all that way… but I’ll never forget the view.”

    Still tongue-tied, Sisa nodded, and the Lady smiled at her before gesturing her into motion again. Only a few more minutes were necessary to reach the last crest before the final stretch and bring the Temple into view.

    Its foundations were square and clean-cut, seeming to emerge from the stone of the peak like the rock had just drifted up like snow and been frozen in place in a thaw. The walls rose in clean stone broken by slitted windows until most of them broke into a level of platforms or courtyards, while others rose higher in towers larger than any home in her village and one soared like a gravestone to end in a jagged, broken tip. The place had obviously seen better days - the larger windows of the towers were empty, and the tiled roofs were ragged, and snow and ice drifted in the courtyards, but it was still the largest building she had ever seen.

    “Hmm,” Lord Cathak said, speaking loudly to be heard over the whistle of the wind that whipped snow up the slopes to feather hundreds of yards in the air downwind of the crest of the ridge. “Obviously abandoned… the lensing effects described from the tower will be gone, along with the secondary heating effects from the windows… but most of the manse seems to be functional.”

    They went inside, Sisa scrambling up the rocks to let down a line that the three Exalts could use to first climb then lift up all four of their packs.

    “How long has this been undisturbed?” Lady V’neef asked, trailing one gloved finger along the rim of the snow-scattered shelf holding scroll after scroll of ancient knowledge.”

    “Since the Usurpation, and the fall of the Anathema,” Lord Cathak said, his voice hushed in the shelter of the building.

    “Hey,” Lady Anjei said from deeper inside, making Sisa and the two Exalts alike turn to look. “Stairs.”

    Lord Cathak plunged up them in an excited rush, and, trading glances, the others followed, leaving their packs in the lee spaces of the entrance room for the time being. The tight, spiralling stairs were lit by luminous crystals in their walls, and drifted with fine powdery snow so that they left deep footprints with every riser.

    The platform they emerged on had a pillar rising from each corner of the square tower to support the cupola roof above them, framing great diamond windows whose shattered glass let the shrieking wind cut through. Lord Cathak was hovering over the narrow altar at the center, running his now ungloved hands across its carvings and talking excitedly to himself in a language Sisa didn’t speak.

    After a few moments of this, Lady V’neef started and repeated one recurring phrase in the tone of an alarmed question - before brilliant white light swallowed all four of them, leaving the line of curious porters on the stairs below behind.


    Iä! Iä! Moe fthagn!


    • #3

      When Sisa looked up from throwing up - the trip had been… strange - at the sudden tension in Lady Anjei’s taciturn tones and the fury in Lady V’neef’s tirade, she saw the tableau:

      Lord Cathak, great square chin marred by a trickle of blood from a cut lip, standing by a fallen body with a strange glyph burning red on his forehead and a small object in his hand.

      Lady Anjei, looming a handspan over him in a ready combat stance, beautiful face as blank as ever.

      Lady V’neef, standing a little farther away with her bow in her hands, an expression of tearful betrayal on her face as she screamed furiously at him.

      Anathema had marks on their forehead, Sisa remembered. But weren’t the Dragonblooded supposed to be pure? Had he just been pretending to be one when he was a demon all along? Could they do that?

      “Stop!” someone cried, crystalline words falling in the ear in a language Sisa knew she shouldn’t have been able to speak but still somehow understood perfectly, “You can’t fight, you have to leave! Before He comes!”

      She spun to look at the voice - the transparent ghost of a beautiful girl with short dark hair, dressed in strange and ornate clothes that were nothing like either the weavings of her village or the robes of the Exalted.

      There was a sound of flapping wings, and she looked around wildly, taking in the area around them - the platform they stood on floated at the center of a great ring of polished stone a thousand yards across, covered with beautiful buildings and wildly overgrown parks. Two rings of eight smaller ‘islands’ each surrounded the ring, with their own occupants, and all were linked by narrow paths of beautiful white stone.

      Along the inner edge of the ring rose five immense towers, even greater than the… manse? ...on the mountaintop, which had already been the tallest building Sisa had ever seen, and from one of them swooped a black, winged figure that landed on the courtyard with a crunch.

      It was humanoid but never human, towering three times the height of a man and far broader, wrought of black metal and darkened leather, with wings big enough to span the entire platform, and it paused for a moment as it landed, bending its fly-like head to consider Lord Cathak with one luminous, plate-shaped eye.

      He addressed a short sentence to it in yet another language Sisa didn’t speak, and its eyes went red as it shrieked like the worst winter storm had become as loud as a thunderbolt, and was in the grip of a killing rage besides, before slamming one clawed hand down with enough force to crush the flagstones to dust where he had been standing when it started the motion.

      Standing ten feet away without crossing any of the intervening space - she had not blinked - he said a single word that tone alone translated and then switched back to Skytongue. “Setaket, take the girl and go into the city! Find the control chamber, a hearthstone - something to turn this off! Sachie and I will keep it busy and you can kill me later!

      Bastard,” the Lady hissed, and glanced at Sisa - who was already sprinting for one of the bridges leading away from the platform - before she started off in the same direction.

      It took them only a few minutes to cross the bridge and turn along one of the broad, vine-covered boulevards towards the nearest of the great towers, but several more, slowed by the overgrowth, to reach the building itself. It occurred to her, leaning against a pillar before the entrance trying desperately to catch her breath against the stitch in her side, that the air here was far warmer than it had been on the mountaintop, and thicker as well.

      Even though the glances she’d caught over the railings of the walkways showed how even the highest ordinary mountains were far below them, and the peak of the great mountain to the south seemingly the same height.

      Beside her, Lady V’neef had collapsed to her knees, gasping even harder despite the force of her Exaltation supporting her; Sisa supposed that the Lady didn’t have to climb to the grazing meadows every day of the summer.

      After a few moments and the pain starting to fade from her ribs, she stepped into the tower, looking around the splendid room that had been filled by beautiful ornament and graceful statuary, but which was now dominated by great trees that had long since overgrown their planters.

      Carefully, she stepped inside, looking for, well, anything. Stairs, more crystals or markings, something.

      What she found, when the tile under her feet slipped off of the root that had pushed it free and then balanced it precariously, was a hole in the floor.

      She screamed as she fell, and heard Lady V’neef scream also.

      On the one hand, it felt kind of nice to know that one of the great ones would concern herself with her life.

      On the other, she really wished she could help, that none of them would have to die because of that… Him.

      And then, without warning, she felt strong arms - four strong arms - catch her and lower her to the ground in the suddenly well-lit cavernous room below the one above.

      Set on her shaky feet, she turned and found herself looking into the bared abdominal muscles of a towering man who looked down on her with stern eyes - then smiled. “Watch that first step,” he said. “There. Safe. Now…

      Something in his gaze changed, and made her straighten respectfully as he rested one of his four hands gently upon her shoulder. “Arise, My Child, and embrace the glory that is your birthright. Know that I am the Unconquered Sun, and that, long ages after their sins forced me to withdraw my favor from your predecessors, I have once more looked upon Creation, and found you worthy of Exaltation. Rise above the evils of the world, and show all that look upon you that they may do the same, and you will make me proud.

      “...I will,” she promised, around her choked throat.

      He smiled down at her and ruffled her hair with another hand, and then she was alone.

      She looked around at the room for the first time, and saw that it had only three walls, and was practically barren compared to the splendor above. The ceiling was broken by protruding taproots, and great chunks of it had come loose and tumbled to the formerly clear floor, some of them crushing or damaging the chamber’s occupants.

      One of the most intact of those crouched on feet wheeled like a child’s toy perhaps ten yards in front of her. It was two and a half times that length from its crow-beak nose to the trailing tips of its two knife-blades that formed the ‘feathers’ of its scissor tail. At its ‘shoulders’, great slanted scoops opened at the front of the barrels that seemed to form most of its after body, while at the rear, where the base of the tail lay, metal panels were arranged like the petals of a tubular flower, opening towards the rear.

      It had four great wings, also things of solid metal like its tails and the blade of a sword or daiklave, two, the longer, at the top of its shoulders and angled ever so faintly up and back, and the other, shorter pair with their bases at the bottom of those scoops and angled faintly forwards and more noticeably down, so that their tips almost brushed the floor.

      Just forward of its shoulders, atop the long narrow nose, was a soap-bubble of clear glass.

      Instinctively, Sisa dashed towards it, slapping one palm into the spot - there - that she could just barely reach that triggered it to drop the narrow ladder of handholds she needed to scramble up to the canopy. Another control made that slide smoothly back and let her swing easily over the lip of the cavity beneath to drop into the more forward of the two deeply cushioned seats within.

      For a moment, she could only sit there, completely confused and overwhelmed, like a little girl sitting down beneath her mother’s loom for the first time, and then the same instinct-memory that had moved her since her Exaltation drove her to lean forward and up to fit her hands to the two vertical handles - sticks - that would have been positioned for easy reach if she’d been about half again her height and twice her weight and push a careful pulse of essence through them.

      The blank panel of instruments and lenses before her came alive with light, even as the seat squirmed beneath her, sliding up beneath her and lifting her until she seemed to perch atop the control space rather than within it, the handles coming with her and settling themselves perfectly while pedals introduced themselves gently to her sandaled feet.

      Something, some unspoken cue, made her look up, to see Lady V’neef looking down at her through the hole in the ceiling she’d fallen through. The look in her eyes was heartbreaking.

      Sisa made herself look away and hit the canopy close. It wasn’t the Lady’s fault she and the other Exalted didn’t know that they were acting on knowledge that had changed, and she wished she could have explained… but she knew she’d have to settle for saving them.

      “Let’s hope I can manage this,” she muttered to herself as she spun the engines up.

      “Even Nemesis can’t beat Him,” another voice - the ghost’s voice - said unexpectedly from behind her, making her twist around in her chair in shock to find it - her - sitting behind her. The transparent features were grim, but with a hint of something not unlike hope. “But… You can distract him while the others get away, and outrun him once they have. He won’t go far from here. You’ll all be safe.”

      “...Can you convince them to run while I buy them time?” Sisa asked, astonished at how conversationally her own words came out.

      The ghost’s eyes were firm. “I can.”

      And then she - it? - was gone.

      Sisa twisted back and reached to draw the seat’s restraints over herself.


      Iä! Iä! Moe fthagn!


      • #4

        Blasting out of the landing deck on three pillars of flame, she burst out into sunlight with a shock like jumping into a summer swimming hole, pointing the nose straight at the arrival platform. She saw Him, looming over Lady Anjei with wings spread downwards like a striking hawk and talons outstretched, saw the Lady shift, lifting one foot and slamming it down like a wrestler so that a cloud of dust and chips of shattered stone exploded outward like the splash of water away from a rock thrown in a pond, scarlet lightning dancing and racing along the wave front like thunder through the leading edges of a storm front.

        The wind of stone caught His wings and body and lifted Him off of his feet momentarily - a moment that was abruptly filled by blood-red light and a dozen blurred, almost flickering duplicates of Lord Cathak’s body, swinging and striking at His body and joints with savage intensity and eerie, perfectly synchronized timing until His loss of balance became a reel.

        A moment after that, Lady Anjei threw herself forward, her shoulder catching Him somewhere around the figurative belt and - impossibly, even for an Exalt, even for one of her towering inches - turning the reel into a stagger that she helped along with first a sweeping jab from her trailing hand and then a fierce blow from the same hand that crackled with dust and lightning of its own.

        He staggered one more step, two, then seemed to recover - before Lord Cathak appeared again, this time singularly, with his feet set and leaning all his strength into the one palm set against His hip. For almost a full second they seemed to freeze like that, even the dust scattered across His wings by Lady Anjei pausing in mid-puff, and then time restarted and He was flung away, tumbling off of the platform like a rat kicked by a man with another ear-splitting shriek of rage.

        Seeing Him spread His wings and catch Himself in the air, far away from those she was trying to protect, Sisa recognized the best cue she was going to get. Settled the crosshairs on His body.

        And, distance rapidly closing…

        ...pulled the trigger.

        The lightning reached out, painfully brilliant even through the suddenly-darkened glass of the canopy, and played across His form, leaving him twitching helplessly as she shot by, almost close enough to reach out and touch the sparks crawling along His body before she was past and pulling up to avoid the buildings on the far side of the ring.

        Her speed built and built, and almost before she knew it she was past the outer islands and free into the open sky. She glanced over her shoulder - saw the rapidly onrushing black blur - and yanked on the controls hard, one hand standing Nemesis on its tail and the other opening the engines all the way. She went straight up as He slashed by below her, acceleration fighting to drive the air from her lungs as if Lady Anjei had sat on her chest, except without the redeeming view.

        Below her, He shrieked a third time, and as she twisted Nemesis over on its back to dive again she looked ‘up’ to see Him rushing at her with all Creation behind Him. She watched Him come as she brought her nose around towards him, gauging the moments, first to feed essence to the Bronze Dragon Eggs, one-two-three-four, and then to twist the control sticks, spiraling her craft around His reaching talons even as the Dragons - rudimentary constructs of literal molten bronze, summoned and given shape and motion and limited intelligence by her essence and the magics of the Eggs - trailed in her wake with their own contrails of smoke and burning slag to wrap themselves around His body and engulf him with first their flames and rending fangs and talons and then - as they inevitably cooled enough to begin to solidify and disrupt the pattern of their essence - shattering into explosions of razor-edged and white-hot shards of metal fit to shred all but solid stone.

        Of course, the Lightning Ballista hit even harder, so she didn’t expect the strike to do more than delay Him. Glancing over her shoulder again, she saw Him emerge from the cloud of shrapnel and smoke essentially unharmed, great batwings working powerfully as He dove in her wake.

        Down, down, down, plummeting through the sky until the first, highest peaks rose above her, until the clouds whipped past, then… She flipped Nemesis end for end for a moment, pointing tail at earth and nose at sky, releasing four more Dragons in a snap shot at His oncoming form but reserving most of her attention for the all-out effort of all three engines and all four splayed wings and every spread airbrake to bleed off as much of that deadly speed as she could, as she dared.

        The Dragons failed again, and she let Nemesis fall over on its side so that the engines could shove her sideways, twisting around His raking claws as she shot off down the valley. Another bellow of rage as He barreled straight into the glacier covering the valley floor in an impact that sent great sheets and blocks of ice the size of any home in her village tumbling and spinning away also shook the snow from the mountainsides all across the valley, great sheets of it avalanching down every slope with an immense roar of infuriated spirits.

        She glanced behind her to see Him plunge once more out of the instant blizzard, snow-laden vortices shedding from His wingtips with every beat of His pinions, glanced ahead to fit herself through the narrow gap of the pass to the next valley, behind again to target, and fed her essence to Nemesis’s third and last weapon.

        Each of the Brass Hawk Nests was slightly smaller than a Bronze Dragon Egg, and they spawned much the same sort of molten-metal construct - but rather than a single serpentine Dragon, each Nest gave birth to a half dozen Hawks. Even put together a Nest’s worth of Hawks could not equal the damage done by a single Dragon… but there were far more of them, and they were far more agile.

        Agile enough to reverse direction and fly back behind her from where she had launched them, and to fit themselves into the cracks and crevices around the great stone pillars that gave the valley gap she’d flown through its fangs. As He came on, the standing stones fell and tumbled, crashing down into His flight path and on top of Him in an explosion of dust and another outraged shriek.

        Sisa didn’t fool herself into thinking that the stones would kill Him, or even that He would be unable to dig His way out, but it would take Him a while, and with a lighter heart she turned back towards the city above the clouds.

        Orbiting slowly above the open center of the city, she could look down and see the arrival platform - empty.

        And then not empty, the ghost turning her face up towards the circling aircraft and waving one arm in a wave that was happy - reassuring.

        Telling her that the Ladies and Lord had escaped, and would live.

        Sisa smiled and pulled up, pointing Nemesis’s nose at the noonday sun and - finally - allowing herself to simply fly.

        Iä! Iä! Moe fthagn!


        • #5
          A good read and interesting character man, thanks


          • #6
            Yay, I gotta comment!~


            Yeah. Hapac Sisa, and her origin story, basically evolved out of a lot of heavy repeat cycling of the theme from Ace Combat Zero and the Liberation of Gracemaria track off the Ace Combat 6 soundtrack, so in a lot of ways she's literally set up to be an Ace Combat protagonist. Immense, war-shaping destruction to her enemies, a focus on 'mounted' combat, an incredible inspiration to her allies, and, within herself, a passionate concern for her friends. Once I realized that I'd need an antagonist to show off her schtick, I looked around a little for an excuse to throw another jet fighter at her for a while before realizing that a crazed automaton - a thinly veiled version of Bioshock Infinite's Songbird - was actually a really good fit and would neatly explain why she hadn't brought anything else out of whatever ruin she'd found her darling in.

            Her personality, her background and dreams, more or less evolved as I was writing the piece. I love it when that happens.

            Cathak Tunenke - and yes, that actually is his real name - is of course a Sidereal, a Battles, charged with evaluating an old First Age ruin that was lost track of in the meantime. I came up with him for another story, a good while back, which showed him about two-hundred-fifty years ago as a callow young student whose jealousy of the romantic relationship between the story's main character and his Sifu prevented them from building a long-term relationship. The style he was using against 'Him' wasn't a canon one, but an invention of mine called Ruby Race of Ages - 'Bullet Time Fu' as I mentally tag it, since it focuses on slowing and speeding up time locally. Now that he's learned to be a little less stereotypically the hot-headed Fire Aspect, he's a mensch, which is why he and his Sifu are on speaking terms again.

            Anjei Sachie is based off my main City of Heroes character. You can see her using [Brute.SuperStrength.FootStomp] against 'Him', along with a charging combo pretty much pulled out of her Create-a-Soul Soul Calibur incarnation. The Exalted version is an Air Aspect born into a Fire aspected house and 'gifted' with such natural strength and mass that her trainers pretty much threw up their hands and decided that training her as an Earth Dragon stylist was the only recourse. Tongue-tied by vicious childhood taunting in a family that relies on Social Combat almost to the exclusion of anything and everything else, she's not a happy person.

            V'neef Setaket, of course, is a canon character, from the 2e comics. She shows up as a bit-extra in the Wyld Hunt, gets no character development outside of her RPG writeup at the end of the collected book, and dies. I felt that this was a shame, given that said write-up makes it clear she was fairly nice, and a waste of a good character design, so I appropriated her away from her appointment in Chiaroscuro and in to something she'd have a chance of surviving. You may feel free to apply headcanon that Kidale survived that encounter as a result, as well.

            Iä! Iä! Moe fthagn!


            • #7
              This goes under my favorites.

              I used to know things. Forbidden things.


              • #8
                Yay again. ^_^

                So, since my usual chatlines aren't responding and I want to get started while I have a day off, which of the Eclipse, Twilight, and Dawn's stories would you folks like to see first? I have the Night's already written - posted it on the old boards - and I'm kind of keeping it in reserve in case I get really blocked with one of the others.

                Iä! Iä! Moe fthagn!


                • #9
                  So, I'm curious. Are people interested in seeing my (not terribly crunch-savvy) attempts at cooking these girls up for actual play, as well as their stories? 'Cause having Anathema makes those far too easy to mock up.

                  Also, seriously. This 'a line return is not a line return' nonsense is going to get intolerably old, real fast.

                  Information, the first principle of warfare, must form the foundation of all your efforts. Know, of course, thine enemy. But in knowing him, do not forget above all to know thyself. The commander who embraces this totality of battle shall win, even with inferior force.
                  - Spartan Battle Manual

                  Carefully, Gentle Feather laid down her pen and began to stretch and massage the aching fingers that had held it. Carefully sealing her inkwell, she pushed her chair back and stretched, turning her face up towards the skylight that illuminated the copyist’s cell. With the last of her assigned passage neatly completed and the ink drying on the racks, she could go back to practicing for her real duty.

                  She didn’t have any illusions that copying was unimportant or make-work. The half-million codices and scrolls kept by the Order were cared for as well as the Order’s thaumaturgists could manage, but parchment and ink aged and wore out and had to be recopied, and most of the Order’s funds came from producing duplicates for sale. It was just that she knew very well that the Order had a lot of initiates and layfolk with sharp eyes and clear handwriting, and very few who could master the motions of the martial arts to defend the library and the Order, far less who had her own speed and strength and endurance.

                  Which was, of course, why she’d gotten the copying duty this time - as a punishment for ‘chattering at one of her betters’.

                  Like she could help it if a thaumaturgical initiate stepped between her and the friend she was actually talking to.

                  The copyist’s cell she’d been working in lay on one side of a narrow cross-hallway in the Old Barracks, lit in daytime by large windows at both ends and at night by a single carefully-fireproofed lantern, hung from the ceiling where the small hall met the main one. The windows, like the skylights, were modern glass, blown and spun in the Manufactory to replace the First Age crystal that had been looted - traded - centuries ago to preserve the books of the collection from the Realm’s subjugation mission.

                  Not that many of the Well-Learned or the Best-Learned liked to think about the role having their own fighting force ready to defend the Library had had in convincing the Realm to just cart off the windows rather than the Archives themselves.

                  Feather plunged headlong down the corridor, slippered feet thumping on the unevenly woven rug - initiate work placed to insulate the chill of the Old Barracks’ stone floors, rather than to decorate - and all but making the matching wall hangings rustle in the wind of her passage.

                  She plunged down the spiraling stone steps and out into the roofed walkways ringing the great courtyard, dodging around a cluster of Well-Learned initiates, several of them nursing injured digits from their craft work, slowing to a brisk walk to bow to a Best-Learned prior who, mind on either some thaumaturgic ritual or his lunch, simply waved her on, and then speeding back up to a sprint before skidding to a full halt outside the practice hall door.

                  That, she opened quietly and stepped inside with a discreet bow. The master - the Least Learned Man himself, gestured acknowledgement and permission to proceed without breaking his conversation with the Best-Learned elder that he was talking with while the students ran forms.

                  Gentle Feather hurried to the end of the line, paused to gauge the form the others were doing and where they were in it, then set her feet and picked up the next stage flawlessly, unconscious of her superior’s eye on her.

                  The Order of Memory was an anomaly; a monastic community within a Realm satrapy but outside the Immaculate Order that had managed not to be wiped out by forgoing all formal prayer - but then, the Order’s mission had always been in its books, rather than its patron deity, and the Abbots and all precedent agreed that sharing copies of those was permissible to preserve the whole.

                  All three of the suborders, of course, studied history, languages, culture and the classics of philosophy, as well as the very basics of each other’s fields, but beyond that the Best-Learned were occultists and alchemists and thaumaturgists and astrologers, the Well-Learned were craftsmen and artists, and the Least-Learned were performers, physicians, athletes, and - like Feather herself - martial artists.

                  After several hours more of practice, the Least Learned Man dismissed the junior members of his sub-order and called the usual specialist group - those initiates and acolytes who had the most potential to go far in their respective fields - in for more intensive instruction from the higher masters of their disciplines.

                  And then, to Feather’s deep shock, the Man gestured to her to follow him.

                  Embarrassingly, she squealed a little in sheer glee. Fortunately, the others present simply hid their smiles and pretended not to have heard.

                  Iä! Iä! Moe fthagn!


                  • #10
                    Feather watched interestedly as the Man carefully wrapped the yards-long prayer strip, soaked in its anointed oils, around her arm and hand, binding the individual fingers and securely sheathing her arms up to the elbows and her legs up to the knees. The smell of the oil was distinctive, actinic and harsh, unfamiliar and strong enough to make her sneeze, but even her short lifetime had been spent almost entirely in discipline and obedience, so she sat without fidget or complaint while her superior worked.

                    The only indication of her boredom was the mental energy she spent on craning her neck to try and decipher the writing on the strips. It seemed to repeat the same sutra over and over, cycling between dozens of languages she’d never seen or heard of before with each word and repetition, so the puzzle was to identify the rare occasional word she did recognize, assign it its place in the prayer, and then try and link widely separated occurrences together to decipher the whole.

                    She didn’t actually have it by the time the Least Learned Man had finished preparing her, but she’d gotten most of the basics as he stepped back and the four attendants stepped forward to sprinkle new and additional oils on her feet and hands with prayers in mystic tongues.

                    “So what do I need to do?” she asked the Man. “I mean, I can pick out a word or two in each repetition on the strips so I can tell it’s an allegience thing and probably to our patron god but I hadn’t known that one of his titles had anything to do with Speech but why tangle it up between each of the times rather than just making it readable and- Ow!”

                    The second layer of oils had started to burn painfully, like acid soaking through the prayer strips. “What - this hurts!” Feather protested, holding her hands up as vivid violet flames sprang out of the oil-soaked cloth and began spreading rapidly, agonizingly, across the fabric.

                    “Swear allegiance to our great Lady, Elloge, the Sphere of Speech, and the pain will stop,” the Least Learned Man promised, writing swimming to the surface of his exposed skin like poisonous bruises that crawled and shifted like an infestation of vermin. “She will adopt you, she will uplift you, she will transform you.”

                    “...akuma…” Gentle Feather choked out, in the instant before the pain mounted too far and she collapsed to the floor screaming.

                    Akuma, former humans and Exalts who had sold their souls, their free will, to the monstrous Yozi, once-builders of Creation, now imprisoned in a hell of their own flesh. Enemies of all that was human and decent in the world, civilized and barbarian alike…

                    ...and the Least Learned Man, one of the four highest members of the Order of Memory, was counted among their number.

                    If it wasn’t already, the Order of Memory was perilously close to become a tool of the Yozi, turning knowledge and preservation and education into corruption and evil. There had to be a way to stop that.

                    “Stubborn girl,” she heard the man say as she thought. “Well, bury the body.” There had to be some way, Feather begged fate desperately, some key, that would let her save the library…

                    The pain stopped with a suddenness that was almost its own form of agony, even as the room was flooded by golden light, and a feeling of singing potency welled up within her, like when she was in the zone of a martial form right after warming up, only a hundred times more so.

                    Golden light, sudden strength, audible dismay from the demon-cultists surrounding her… Exaltation, subclass Solar, Feather’s training whispered to her, processing the possible from the impossible.

                    “Don’t bury me,” she whispered into the floor, and then pushed herself up on her hands. “I’m not yet dead.”

                    The Man’s furious kick made her stomach ache, made her almost retch - triggered the long years of training and drove her to flip herself upright and into a ready stance facing him.

                    For a long moment, they stared at each other, her watching the center of his chest for any movement, him the same save that every few moments his eyes flicked up to the symbol - of what caste, she wondered? - shining on her brow.

                    Then she lunged, bare feet sliding across the woven mats of the floor as she stepped forward, trying to cross inside his reach - and got blown off her feet and through the wall behind her to tumble most of the way across the training hall by the searing bolt of raw mystic energy he tossed at her chest.

                    A piece of broken off plaster tumbled to earth from the top of the ragged hole as she looked back at him, and then he was coming after her and she was dashing out into the main courtyard.

                    Iä! Iä! Moe fthagn!


                    • #11
                      Gentle Feather wasn’t afraid of the fight, and as far as the quality of the ground went, the training hall would have been just as good as the courtyard. Her reasoning had to do with information - the courtyard could be seen from every part of the the Order’s complex, and every single member of the Order would be able to see her battle against the Least Learned Man, be able to see exactly what the both of them were.

                      If the Order wasn’t completely lost, if most of the Initiates and Novices, the Acolytes and Brothers and Priors, if the Abbot or any of the other Learned Men were their own, then they would see what the Least Learned Man had become, they would know to root out the corruption, even if it meant transferring the archives to the Immaculate Order and accepting that separate Memory was at an end.

                      And if the Order was lost, if only the lowest orders, the Initiates and her fellow Novices, were uncorrupted, then she needed to know that.

                      “I’m going to trap your hungry ghost for a thousand ages,” the Least Learned Man snarled as he strode out of the portico and dropped, cat-lithe, to the flagstones of the courtyard.

                      “Don’t bury me,” she repeated, raising her hands into position and marveling at the way they now seemed to be spun of flashing lines of liquid gold that glittered madly in the spring sunshine. “I’m not yet dead.”

                      The Man threw another blast of fury at her; she hurdled it easily, leaping the entire distance between them in a golden flash and dropping a falling axe kick at his head. He stepped aside, punched - she caught it on one arm and deflected even as the kick landed into the ground and shattered the flagstones and the earth beneath them like brittle demonstration boards - punched again - she ducked, just taking advantage of her diminutive height and build - punched a third time - she caught it on one shoulder, just soaking up the impact and feeling the eager grin that always accompanied the feeling that she was doing her best bubble to the surface - and then her feet were set under her again and she threw a punch of her own, one that he moved to block only to discover that it carried enough essence to blast a ring-shaped golden shockwave out from the point of impact and crack the bones of his arm even as the blow knocked him staggering backwards.

                      Watching him skid to a halt, Feather smirked and set her feet again, and let her stance drop, sliding almost to her knees as she slammed her strong-side’s fist into the flagstone underneath her. It splintered in a puff of golden dust, so explosively that the flagstone next to it followed suit a split-second later, and then the one beyond that in a firecracker bang-bang-bang chain reaction so quick that her enemy barely had time to realize that it was coming straight towards him.

                      The Least Learned Man emerged from the dust and explosions scratched and bleeding in a dozen places, with blasphemous words bleeding off of his skin along with the blood in unclean colors, and threw himself through the air at her with a howl of frustrated rage. At the top of his arc, the bleeding words burst into more purple flames, and he came down at her like a poisoned comet.

                      It was genuinely intimidating, but Feather simply took a breath and launched herself up to meet him, spinning as she went until one foot could reach up ahead of her body and smack him in the face, make both of them pause in mid-air… So that the second hit of the butterfly kick could swat him straight down to waste his energy in making the largest crater in the courtyard yet.

                      She landed just outside of his reach - saw him rush in, pushed his roundhouse aside with one upraised forearm…

                      ...and felt the motions settle into her bones as exactly right as she readied her counterblow. Feet set so firmly that their golden soles and toes sank a half-inch into the stone paving. Torso twisted so that the blocking shoulder was towards him, striking arm curled in close to the trailing side.

                      Stabilize with the leading foot, push with the trailing, all the strength of waist and back heaving together as the arm uncoiled in an arc that was almost straight and didn’t end ‘til a third of its own distance behind the Man’s body.

                      Flames and trails of golden dust erupted around her fist, leaving a shining trail behind the blow as it flew, and when it hit, lesser golden shock-rings erupted in sympathy around her own wrist and the point on his back immediately behind where the blow had actually landed, along with an eruption of more golden dust, as though she had punched the water out of a jar, but so fierce it tore a fan-shaped swathe out of the already badly mussed ground of the courtyard, just as the primary shock-ring rolled out and out and out until its aftermath bisected the entire courtyard and marched up the faces of the buildings on either side.

                      The akuma’s body went flying and tumbled to a stop like a rag doll, and did not rise.

                      Gentle Feather stood looking at him for a long, long moment, then sighed and straightened out of her fighting crouch, looking down at the hand that had struck the blow and marveling how, shining gold or not, it still felt so normal.

                      After a moment, she looked up, and saw the Abbot of the Order approaching her. She bowed, as the Novice she… had been. He bowed back, as to a senior Exalt. “I don’t know if there are any other Akuma among us, or why he chose to claim me,” she admitted.

                      The Abbot - an Earth Aspect with some centuries on her - nodded fractionally. “I will discover,” he said. “For the present, though you have proved yourself worthy of his position and title-”

                      She felt her eyes go wide, and pointed at her own nose in a wordless ‘me?!’, but he kept speaking, “-you know that you cannot stay.”

                      Gentle Feather nodded. “The Immaculates would destroy everything we work for to get at me. I will go on Search… and you’ll repudiate me. You have to.”

                      “...Thank you for understanding. I cannot bless you publicly, Least Learned Man. I am sorry.”

                      She grinned, and waved it off with one glittering hand. “Just ‘cause something’s not said doesn’t mean it’s not said,” she said, and stepped back to bow to him again. “Until again, Elder.”

                      “Until again, Child.”

                      Iä! Iä! Moe fthagn!


                      • #12
                        These are glorious.


                        • #13
                          Thank you!

                          Next up is the Eclipse, and hoo boy, will she be having a bad day.

                          Iä! Iä! Moe fthagn!


                          • #14
                            The wicked have told me of things that delight them, but not such things as your law has to tell.

                            -- Saint Augustine,
                            "Confessions", Datalinks

                            Now really, the man lying on the warehouse’s roof beam asked himself, where had his sense gone? He was a clerk, a paper-pusher - or an entertainer, or a lover - certainly not any kind of fighter or agent of the Eye! He’d nearly broken his neck scrambling up here in the first place, and he still had no idea how he was going to get down safely. If he hadn’t worn what was already his worst set of robes, he’d certainly have ruined his clothes, and as it was he’d already doubled his stain-and-tear count.

                            Below him, doing their rounds, two of the guards chatted.

                            “You hear about that Blackhelm?”

                            “The Hand takes care of the Blackhelms.”

                            “This one wouldn’t listen,” the first guard told the second.


                            “Blew the Hand off completely, going on about how somebody’d ‘stolen’ the money he got us.”

                            “With the Hand’s seals on it?”

                            “Well,” the first guard laughed, “If the numbers didn’t add up, somebody had to’ve!”

                            “Hey,” the second said, more seriously, “It can’t be stolen if it belongs to the Master.”

                            Their literal eavesdropper could hear the first one’s cheerful admonition to ‘lighten up’ fade into inaudibility as they turned a corner, and he began inching his way along the beam again, and since he happened to be the person the two criminals had been discussing, added a completely new verse to the litany of his own foolishness.

                            In fact, of course, he was no more a Blackhelm, a member of the Realm’s uniformed police force, than he was one of the Eye’s mysterious secret policemen.

                            His name was Mokkou Tau, and what he was was a clerk. True, he worked with the police, tallying the fine details of the law and sorting through records to track down embezzlement and money laundering, but he had neither arrest powers, nor the faintest athletic aptitude for anything that took more exertion than going to bed.

                            Which was, again, why he was a fool. A fool once over for sticking his neck out by poking at records he oughtn’t’ve had access to, twice a fool for bringing what he’d found up publicly rather than passing it through the backchannel he had access to, three times a fool for not giving up when his superior, the Prefect of the city, ordered him to, four times for heading into the city’s worst district to investigate personally, five times for trying to sneak in after he saw the place guarded rather than turning back, six times for thinking that he could manage to climb out of sight, seven times for actually doing it, eight times for still not turning back when he realized he was dealing with a demon cult rather than a simple group of criminals, and now nine times a fool for trusting the very head of the cult he’d found to deal with the matter if presented with the proper evidence.

                            So why did he keep going? Glory? Duty? Stubborness? Even the desire to impress a beautiful woman?

                            The last, at least, he could dismiss as a factor - the only bed he had any particular designs on belonged to the admittedly stunning Sesus Denerid Yuuka, and he had a standing invitation.

                            As always, the thought conjured memories that made him smile in fond remembrance.

                            It couldn’t be glory. What proper bureaucrat wanted to get noticed?

                            Stubbornness would fit; he’d had to own that flaw to the world often enough, but...

                            If the Eye knew about the cult, then in the Empress’s absence, they would report it to...

                            The Prefect. His leadership of the cult subverted the entire local security apparatus. Yuuka wasn’t ‘local’, she just lived here, so she’d be able to use the information he was gathering... as long as he didn’t get his own idiot self killed building her the ironclad case she’d need to poke her nose in. Without that tip, the cult would be able to operate for years without being caught, and every possible consequence of that that he thought of was worse than the last.

                            No, it was his duty to be here, all five Dragons damn it from Hell to Heaven.

                            By this point, he had edged past the top of the last partition between the converted warehouse’s entrance corridors and the blasphemous shrine at its center, and could look down onto the cult’s worship of...

                            ...A demon. Well, he’d expected that, but this one wasn’t one of the few types he could have recognized from experience or description. And, from the false Prefect’s subservient attitude towards the creatures, it wasn’t any mere First Circle, but one of the named subsouls of the bound Yozi.

                            Tau considered the fang-tipped tendrils that served the hermaphroditic being in place of hair, and the way they caressed the flesh of the handwaiters that came forward to offer it a robe, and tried very hard not to be noticed by the flame-cored gaze that swept the adoring ‘congregation.’

                            ‘Merciful Mela, patron of scouts,’ he prayed, pressing his cheek into the wood of the beam and making himself as small as he could, ‘I know I’m not one of yours, but spare me that... and if you will not, at least let my death point justice at this forsaken house.’

                            Eventually, as the ceremony below began to disintegrate into a Cynis-grade revel, Tau worked up his courage to start inching forward along the beam towards the nearest crossbeam. Once he go there he’d be able to turn and escape out of the ventilation gaps around the eaves... It could work, there was even a platform where the beams met, so he’d be able to make the turn without being forced to lean out into the light.

                            And taking the chance of plummeting the fifteen yards to his death, of course.

                            Except that, when he reached it, the platform proved to be no workman’s convenience, but the hiding place of a strongbox.

                            Given the proportion of entry theft cases that crossed his desk daily involving attics and rafters, Tau was easily able to conclude that none of the cult’s members were career thieves or police, who’d have known better than to use a position so obvious and difficult to guard.

                            Carefully, he shimmied over to the chest; he’d only intended to examine it for markings, but the lock fell open at a touch, with a click that seemed to echo like thunder to his fear-sharpened ears.

                            He froze for a long moment, waiting for fire, for acid, for arrows or the shouts of alarm.

                            None came.

                            Slowly, carefully, silently, he let out the breath terror had sucked into his lungs, then eased the chest’s lid open and began going through the contents.

                            Land deeds, Blackhelm records, ledgers, geomantic diagrams with annotations in Old Realm... The papers he sorted with practiced glances, folded, and rewrapped in their waterproof oilcloth before tucking them away in his robes. The money and sculptures he left, except for the obvious - and unidentifiable, since he was no thaumaturge - hearthstone.

                            Then he eased the chest back closed and started down the crossbeam.

                            It was time to go.

                            For a few minutes, as he inched his way out of the building and dangled by his fingertips to begin creeping down the empty scaffold-holes of the outer wall, he dared to fool himself that things would actually turn out to be that easy.

                            And then he turned the corner and found himself face to face with a guard patrol. For a long moment, he and the scale of Blackhelms stared at each other with uncomprehending minds and sinking stomachs, and then the leader went bone-white behind her helmet, drew a deep breath, and shrieked “HERESY!” at the top of her lungs.

                            “Pasiap’s hairy dangling...” Tau swore under his breath as he spun on his heel and started running.

                            The Blackhelms followed, shouting and waving their cudgels.

                            Three blocks later, gasping with a stitch in his side and his pursuers ten steps closer than they had been, Tau realized he was pounding up to the entrance of the cult’s warehouse and added another count of poor planning to his list of his own idiocies.

                            Then the shirtless boytoys - and as a man who’d had more than one patrician lady comment on his own ‘qualifications’, Tau felt free to identify the type - who’d been fawning over the demon stepped out of the door, swinging great steel tulwars with more enthusiasm than skill. Both of them had great, infected-looking welts seaming and crisscrossing their flagrantly muscled torsos.

                            Tau swore again, more wearily, and swerved down a different side street. At first, he had no idea how doing so would do anything more than delay the inevitable, but then - gasping and blinking away the sweat pouring into his eyes - he spotted a canal ahead.

                            And, just like the moment when a merchant’s records started showing their flaws, the plan he needed unfolded in its entirety, right behind his eyes.

                            With his chest heaving to give him the air he needed, he couldn’t take a deep breath, but he forced himself to speed up slightly anyway, then threw himself to the ground and rolled over the edge of the canal to fall the three yards to the thoroughly foul water’s surface.

                            Ordinarily, of course, he’d promptly have floated back to the surface like some well-darned, rather soiled fabric flower, lifted by his own buoyancy and the air trapped in his robes, but that wouldn’t have suited his plans. Instead he put his head down and kicked his way along under the water, feeling for the opening his memory of the charts he’d seen of the city water system told him should be right... about... there.

                            By this point, his lungs were burning and spots of color were beginning to dance before his eyes, but sliding into the pipe and then moving along with one fingertip dragging along the slimy roof until, after what felt like the proverbial eternity, the roof of the channel opened away and his fingertips felt air.

                            It took a considerable exercise of will to surface without gasping loudly enough to be heard, but he managed it, and then consulted the map in his head and set off, trying not to think about what he was swimming through.

                            Iä! Iä! Moe fthagn!


                            • #15
                              She was, Sesus Denerid Yuuka admitted to herself, a touch off her game. Professionally, as the most skilled and effective of the many interrogators employed by the Realm, who might be expected to maintain her calm and composure in the face of any circumstance - that woman did not fear, she inspired fear, the Ultimate Sadistic Creature the mere whisper of which kept the enemies of the Realm awake in their beds at night.

                              Personally, of course, a dragonblooded lady of thirty-six years, possessed of splendid estates and endowments, the finest social training and schooling, and a regularity of form and feature to be the envy of any salon need not concern herself with the well-being of any individual mortal citizen, be he ever so comely or talented.

                              And yet, here she was, pacing agitatedly across her apartment’s expensive rug, frantically worried about the fate of a lover who had probably been nowhere near the Anathema when she -

                              A thump from another room made her whirl around, snatching her powerbow from its rest with an essence-animated anima vine then stiffening the ‘living’ string into a nocked arrow.

                              When the intruder poked their head around that doorway, he gave her a sheepish smile as the bottom dropped out of her world.

                              “Sorry for sneaking in,” Tau said, “and sorry for the mess, but I’ve had a day like no other.”

                              Soft-approach questioning was often more effective than hostility, experience told her, provided that a suitable emotional connection could be built. The fact that they had been lovers for nearly a year would serve admirably.

                              “Involving swimming in a sewer?” she asked, with just the right balance of concern and waspishness to persuade him that things were just as normal. If he hadn’t seen...

                              “Actually, yes,” was the surprising - and, charm-verified, truthful - answer as she laid aside the bow.

                              “What... no, let’s get you clean.”

                              And she hustled him into her bath and began cleaning, ignoring - as she always would have - his efforts to protest the fussing, and asking questions as she did so. Willingly, he spilled the entire story - the accounts, the Prefect, the warehouse, the demon, the guards, the chase.

                              “I imagine you did a lot of praying,” she observed, and he laughed wryly in that way she loved.

                              “Mostly along the lines of ‘Mela, don’t let them see me’ and ‘Dana’ad, don’t let them catch me.’”

                              There was a note of evasion in his voice. “And?”

                              He chuckled. “Nothing past you... one or two to Her Majesty.”

                              Prayer to any corporeal ruler, be she ever so Exalted or enlightened, was a violation of the Immaculate Order, but...

                              “Not to the Sun, then?” she prompted, watching as intensely as she dared.

                              “The Sun?” Honest surprise. “No, although having the patron of virtue take a hand wouldn’t have hurt. Didn’t think of it.”

                              Oh, Tau... Grief closed her throat for a moment. Why couldn’t he have been lying?


                              “There was a sighting reported of an Anathema,” Yuuka told the man she loved, and realized with a deep-seated frisson of horror that not only were the words a warning, but one her conscience was clean about. “One of the Wretched.”

                              “Oh hells,” Tau murmured, chiseled naked shoulders tensing again under her hands. “If they have one of those then I might have led it-”

                              “The description,” she continued, “was of a beautiful woman in shabby robes, with long silver hair.”

                              From the way he stopped, went tense and completely and utterly still, she could tell he understood. “Could I...” he whispered, after a long, horrified silence, “borrow a mirror?”

                              Wordlessly, she exerted her essence again, and let him see the empty ring of golden light for himself.

                              “I didn’t make any deals,” he pleaded to their reflections.

                              “I know,” she soothed, burying her face in his neck, despite the smell still clinging to him.

                              “I don’t want to, to hurt anyone.”

                              “I know.”

                              “I just wanted to do what I should.”

                              “I know.”

                              Neither of them said anything for a long time. Then Tau asked, “Can you at least... make it quick?”

                              This, Yuuka realized, was why the Anathema were dangerous - because the best and most convincing liar was one who himself believed. “No,” she said.

                              “...All right.”

                              “Because not even the cult saw you clearly. They have, no one has, any idea who that female Wretched was.”

                              Tau spun in her arms and pushed her away to arm’s lenth, his face a picture of horror. “Yuuka, I’m-”

                              “You’re Tau!” she interrupted. “That hasn’t changed! I hurt everyone else, I won’t let myself hurt you, too!”

                              He stared at her.

                              “You’re not any better a liar,” she continued. “Not good enough to fool me. You haven’t changed. I don’t know if a clean Exaltation somehow survived when the Anathema fell, or if I’m just... just damned alongside, but...”

                              His beautiful features softened, and he leaned down to kiss her. “Thank you,” he whispered, “for your faith in me.”

                              Iä! Iä! Moe fthagn!