Descending Fire 9
The trail we followed took us through hilly plains with grass tall as a man’s thigh. Taller than I as I had chosen to inhabit a light and compact form – a girl from my pickpockets named Gwee. Saiten probably didn’t even register the extra weight as Gwee was woefully underfed and somewhere between four and five years of age. I am not sure he appreciated the effort. Compacting my form so small increases the discomfort of changing size by multitudes. Theoretically I may be capable of assuming the role of an infant but I can’t think of a practical reason I’d ever want to risk the agony of compressing to such diminutive proportions and there is something repulsive in the prospect of re-experiencing infancy.
We were an hour off the the road when I heard something I normally associated with Broken Walls- the faint series of gentle metallic clicks of armour plates gently connecting. The wind shifted and for an instant I could smell the musky scent of a human, the tang of polished steel, wax, leather, oil and horse. It took moments to pinpoint the source my nose and ears told me was near.
A lookout and his mount.
Our spy had ridden right past him. Was this a rondevous gone wrong or something else? I hopped down from Saiten’s back and easily disappeared into the grass but bright yellow and red is impractical camouflage for any terrain. One snapped stick under foot and the lookout immediately spotted Saiten. He had just enough time to swear, jump astride his horse, and cry “Die Anathema scum!” before he was knocked cold By Saiten’s red gloved fist.
The horse surged forward without it’s rider but Saiten, thinking quickly, grabbed the reins and plowed the poor creature’s nose into the ground. Pretty sure that’s a prime example of how not to calm a horse but it’s certainly effective at stopping one in it’s tracks.
I took on a rushed facsimile of the man’s appearance and waited to see if anyone came out to investigate the noise. All was still. Had the lookout not been posted here when Wonders of Forsaken Dreams had passed by? No, I could tell be the scent of hours old stale urine nearby he’d obviously been here for some time. It could be a missed connection but the spy had obviously headed right past him without slowing down.
We resumed the trail until we came across another set of lookouts, this time with a bell suspended between two posts. After my recent experience with Akkimu I’ve come to realize I have never been thankful that a bell has rung for virtually any reason whatsoever. Though I was aware this particular object was likely mundane and served as a simple alarm I felt an odd irrational aversion to it that set me immediately on edge.
The wind carried the sound of and smell of something over two dozen men and mounts just over the next hill. My heart sank. With a sense of impending dread I informed Saiten of what I heard and he predictably wanted to go rushing in to take them out.
I found myself in the cursed position of arguing in whispers trying to talk him out of it. He asked me outright if it would be a challenge and I immediately recognized at that point that it would be quite frankly impossible to stay his hand. He attempted to goad me into joining him in this action by trying to appeal to my desire to remain undiscovered by the wyld hunt like a child begging for a sweet.
My chronic lack of sleep was making me insensible. I knew I wasn’t up to scratch trying to talk sense into the senseless and the sheer contemplation of the attempt made me only more weary. Had I felt it worth uttering I might have informed him I harbour no delusions that the wyld hunt is unware I exist. If the turncoat Chijiwa hasn’t told them outright then surely the bloody play they are STILL performing on off nights at the Winter Meets Wind is a significant tip off that they are dealing with four Solars. Lest we all festering well forget, Indebted Blood of Fire was only polishing off the Wyld hunt’s observations!
I can only come to the conclusion that Saiten thinks I am fanatically paranoid of having my identity discovered. Granted, a persecution complex would not be a far-fetched assumption given my behaviour. Hell, paranoia might even be merited given that these people aim to hunt me like a dangerous animal so I can’t exactly fault anyone for jumping to that conclusion. The general benefit of being more difficult to target and the tactical benefit of operating unchecked has undoubtedly reinforced my habits but… is not it’s source.
Discovering my power was a liberty beyond anything I thought possible. Being anyone I wanted to be I could erase everything and start over afresh time and again and sample aspects of life that I would never have been entitled to. Wrapped in a comfortable barrier between myself and the world I could view it as an outsider might and from that distance I took nothing personally. After a while however going back to how I was before felt uncomfortably like weakness… or perhaps more aptly nakedness.
I really don’t have much to fear from people discovering who I was. Almost all those who could recognize my morning form are dead or have no reason to be anywhere near Champoor. I could walk down the street completely secure with absolute certainty I was just another forgettable face in the crowd, virtually on par with any one of my disguises yet no amount of certainty impacts that feeling of exposure. I should be glad. The vast majority of humanity have their physicality and their identity welded together but for me that simply isn’t the case anymore. I have no true face and if not for a bit of divine meddling I wouldn’t have a true name either, just a succession of meaningless aliases.
Though so much has happened it has only been a few months since I have begun consorting with people who know me and not just aspects of the empty shells I construct. Whatever Saiten and the others may think, they have accommodated my peculiarities rather well and thus correcting the misconception may not be entirely necessary. It may not even be wise if they should attempt to leverage a supposed fear of discovery to try and wheedle me to do something stupid Like Saiten was attempting.
The whole ordeal with the military camp boiled down to a moral dilemma. If I passively allowed Saiten to take on this risk alone there was a high likelihood I’d be doing the equivalent of handing a suicidal man a knife. I carry enough guilt without adding “what might have been avoided” to the pyre. On the flip-side, in joining him I would be reaffirming his troubling belief that I will continually be depended on to be dragged wholesale into his every reckless action. That is something I absolutely do not wish to perpetuate.
If things cool off I intend to speak with Chaoxi and Broken Walls about this. Maybe they can talk some sense into him. In the moment however they weren’t around to help. I acknowledged the camp was a problem that needed dealing with but there were a lot of variables at play. If we did attack and they chose to scatter then even Saiten would be hard pressed to chase every last one down. If there was a dragonblood present up there or even some half decent archers we would be at a significant disadvantage.
Part of the problem with talking Saiten down from anything is that it is unwise to mention complicating factors. I strongly suspect he just sees them as some sort of trial to be overcome. His near boundless belief in his own ability is something we don’t share. He’s good at bludgeoning things to a pulp, granted, but he’s unreliable when facing foes who spread themselves thinly and the fact he doesn’t invest in thicker armour doesn’t help matters. As for myself, in almost every conflict wherein I’ve faced superior numbers I’ve been on the back foot, staying alive but not doing much damage. It is a good thing I don’t seem to pick up scars anymore except for particularly grievous wounds as I would have collected at least one to mark every large battle I have faced since meeting the others.
What I really wanted to do in the moment was find a nice hardwood tree to knock my head against and scream : “GODS DAMN IT ALL, WHY ME?! Aster can talk Saiten out of madness, Broken Walls can stroll through a battlefield like he’s going for a bloody picnic lunch and Chaoxi probably already has a plan and all the components needed to enact it in her BLOODY RUCKSACK!!!”
This inclination wasn’t helpful.
No matter which way you sliced it, an attack was a gamble. We might be decently matched or it could go just as easily go horribly sideways. Frustrated with my reluctance, Saiten exasperatingly asked “Well, how would you deal with them?!” It was then I realized that I didn’t need to be suckered into this game, he could play mine. I try not to gamble with odds I haven’t personally rigged and I had the means to tip those odds in our favor and wouldn’t you know it, in an almost Chaoxi-ish move I had packed for the occasion. Saiten, with an obvious measure of disappointment, accepted my plan.
I took the form of a ragged young boy and spirited into camp. The guards were alert but were dulled by a watch spent with little of interest to fill the empty hours before sunrise. The camp itself was too large for them to effectively patrol. While there was somewhere around thirty or so men the camp was large enough for an army several times it’s size. If I had to guess this was just some sort of advance provisional force who were there to set up the camp ahead of time. Doing it this way probably makes some kind of strategic sense but I’m willing to bet these dogsbodies were probably sent ahead so those with rank could avoid doing anything so inglorious as set up a tent.
The cooks already had stew on the boil for the morning’s breakfast in the mess tent though it was at the stage where it was little more than lumpy broth. Fortunately before I had left Champoor I had asked Aster to prepare me a large measure of sleeping drought. The stuff is one of the most common drugs healers brew for surgical purposes and handy in a pinch. These drugs are however potentially dangerous since they can be variable in their ratio of volume to potency and Aster hadn’t time to divide it into safe doses.
The three cooks prepared the morning’s meal with the slow methodical motions of people who have made a dish so many times that they did so half-asleep. I moved slowly so as not to catch their attention and dusted all of the drug into the pot with a prayer that the stew’s thickness would disguise any bitterness the herbal concoction had. The dose was hopefully enough. Too little and it may only make them sluggish for a time. Overdo and I’d be explaining to Aster how I killed unwitting soldiers with her concoction. There are many worse ways to die than a painless slip into oblivion caused by too potent a sedative but I doubt that would give Aster much solace.
Slipping back to where Saiten waited I froze like a rabbit in the long grass. The breeze carried Chaoxi’s whisper, sounding for all Creation like she was speaking directly in my ear. She informed me that Broken Walls and herself were camped just past the inn. They weren’t far and there were some hours yet til sunrise and the time when the men would be taking their breakfast. I told Saiten I would go fetch our allies back to help us deal with the camp. Patience and prudence are not amongst Saiten’s virtues so I didn’t dally. I couldn’t fully trust that he wouldn’t find some pretext to attack the camp in my absence so assured that I had least done all I could do within reason I wasted no time running for help.
Once beyond the sentry line I broke into a sprint. It is a rare occasion that I let my power channel this course. It eased the strain on the muscles in my legs and flowed into the ground like lightning striking the earth. It has always been impossible to dampen the essence that flares and sparkles like silvery gold and violet stardust in my trail betraying to the world that I am not mortal but thus empowered I rival Saiten for speed. This was the very first of the strange powers that I developed and I wonder if it is perhaps for that reason that it continues to lack the subtlety of the ones I developed later.
Broken Walls was standing watch when I raced into camp though if he was surprised by my sudden appearance or my uncharacteristically showy entrance he didn’t show it. Relaying the brief version of events while Chaoxi packed up the camp Broken Walls quizzed me on the factors at play. He seemed to want my opinion on what action to take, perhaps as a means of showing support but I for one was happy to hand over the reins of the whole situation. Let’s face it, Saiten will not and probably never will listen to me as he does Broken Walls and I am not the person who knows best how to ambush an enemy camp.
After we ditched the wagon I lead Chaoxi and Broken Walls back to where Saiten was waiting. Broken Walls gauged from experience that the camp would be having breakfast as the sun was just peaking over the horizon so we positioned ourselves around all sides of the camp to cut off possible escapes. It wasn’t needed. We saw just one soldier, staggering to remain upright before collapsing in a heap in the dust. The others were collapsed at whatever tasks they had been about shortly after ingesting their drugged breakfast. “ALL OF THEM?!” Saiten shouted. He sounded distressed by this, pity I didn’t feel particularly sympathetic.
Saiten’s yell flushed the one late riser out of his tent to investigate. Poor Wonders of Forsaken Dreams regarded us for an instant, the blood rapidly draining from his face as what had transpired dawned on him. “Oh shi-” was all he had time to say before Saiten flashed forward and delivered a rabbit punch that temporarily relieved Wonders of Forsaken Dreams of comprehending his immediate problem.
Broken Walls secured the captives by pulling their weapons through his fingers to blunt the edges before tying the temporarily supple metal around their wrists like it was rope. Leaving them under Saiten’s eye we investigated the tent Forsaken Dreams had come from finding it to be the sort of tent you would expect of someone of great means to inhabit. A map of Champoor was sprawled on the table and the locations of the holdings allied with Rising Sun were circled on it. So too was a large property outside of town which had something written by it in High Realm script. Everything about the tent smacked of wealth and privilege. Feather mattresses, expensive incense and wine of superior quality. Chaoxi poured me a glass and I dulled my senses back to a mortal standard after taking the first sip. Being able to experience food with my improved palate is interesting but tasting it’s every fault and the ghosts of the human hands that played a part in it’s creation is like noticing a slightly off-key instrument in an ensemble – Once it’s noticed it is all you hear.
Broken Walls used the large table in the center of the tent as materials to fashion a large prison wagon and secured the thirty-odd soldiers inside and tossed the feather mattress on top as a spoil of war. I for one didn’t wait for permission and sunk down on the fluffy mattress and dozed.
It was a brief respite. I awoke a little over an hour later to find we hadn’t moved. I rubbed a hand over my face and winced as stubble scrapped my hand. It’s been days since I properly washed or shaved. My power gives me the semblance of cleanliness when I affect a new form but the illusion of cleanliness is not actual cleanliness. I quickly put on the face of Featherweight which at least erased the rank smell of sweat, dust and horses from my skin. First thing when I get back to Rising Sun I’m going to have a proper bath and rest.
I hopped down, eyeing the dozy captives. They were a little out of it still but most had come around and glared at me with hate. Broken Walls waved me over and told me that he had questioned Forsaken Dreams who had identified that they were part of a force that was planning to take part in an ambush that was to take place at the gala.
Were they indeed? While Broken Walls does not immediately see this as cause to believe the Heart family was in on the plan I am not so sure. They had gone out of their way to invite “Mists of Ruby Skies” and get all four anathema in one place. They foster trash like Glorious Ass of Sorcerous Treachery who might have used the tournament as a cover to bring a living weapon into the city to use against us. Broken Wall’s unshakable good faith has it that they would not risk the collateral of having such an attack happen on their property but who is to say they wouldn’t be handsomely rewarded and compensated by Prassaud interests for any damages incurred?
Removing Rising Sun and the upset caused on a near weekly basis to the status quo since our arrival would be reason enough to go through with such a plan and if we survived they could plead they knew nothing. Were I in their shoes allying with the Wyld hunt could seem the best chance of nipping the problem in the bud while keeping their own hands clean. Perhaps I should arrange some misfortunes for the Heart family to keep them occupied for awhile…
In a way I’m relieved. I figured the gala was a trap and I am not disappointed. On the flip side it looks like I’ll be going to fight an all out war on the field with seasoned Anathema killers. General Strife’s Flawless Depths of Clan Suya, Nara – an air aspect who had been there the day all of us first met and Gorel Kawa “the Granite Crow” a relative of Chaoxi’s who I believe poses a not insignificant threat.
Broken Walls also handily wrung from our captive spy the names of their targets and more distantly interesting what they call us. Anathema Broken Walls, Traitor to the Realm Chaoxi Kawa, Saiten the Fallen, “The Lady of the Golden Voice” and the Anathema known as the “Void Being”. Not “Mists of Ruby Skies”, no alias at all… just “The Void Being”.
I will hand it to the wyld hunt, they are eloquent in their acrimony. “Void Being” manages to be both something of a dehumanizing slur and a contradiction. A “void” is an emptiness or, in legal terms, a rendering of something worthless or invalid. At it’s plainest meaning it references that strange darkness I was shrouded in during the battle of Akkimu but it can also handily be interpreted as “Empty Creature” or “Invalid Person” telling me something about what sort of consideration they have for me. It’s rather on the nose for someone who shifts between identities leaving little clue as to their proper identity.
We left Chaoxi and Saiten at the camp and returned to Champoor with the captives in tow. I slept all the way back to the city on the top of the prison cart that Broken Walls hitched behind a team of horses. There is much to do and I would need to be in top form.