Ascending Fire 13 – There and back again
The ship ride back was quiet. I think everyone was preoccupied with their bruised feelings over what happened in Volivat. Dasadi left us on the fourth day to retrace his steps and investigate what had happened to him that left him with no memory in the middle of the Dreaming sea. I was kind of sad to see him go.
As the boat made to Dock in Champoor we heard the jangling chords of a guitar and a Light male voice singing. Aster rushed to the prow and furiously started to wave. The source proved to be tall lean man maybe in his 30’s with red hair of a middling length serenading the boat from the landing. An acquaintance of Aster’s? A lover maybe? I tried to ignore the sudden swell of annoyance at this trite overly saccharine display as Aster lept ashore to throw herself into his arms.
Introductions were made and he was introduced as Litaka Aster’s teacher. Aster chatted with him non-stop all the way to Rising Sun House as I kept to the rear and stayed quiet. I could see why a young girl might be drawn to him. He was handsome, spoke with a smooth easy going charm and had this sense of being very comfortable with his place in creation. He was drawing the odd look from the girls and women he passed on the street. Saiten seemed drawn in by him too.
I don’t trust him.
We were actually quite far off from Rising Sun House when Broken Wall’s handiwork became apparent. A new tower soared out of the slums of Champoor like an alabaster beacon. It’s sides were decorated with sigils and statues dedicated to what I now recognize as the Unconquered Sun. Seeing it made my stomach tighten, goose flesh rippling over my skin as I followed the others through the gates. Why did it have to be a temple?
Chaoxi met us outside and told us that Broken Walls was aloft in his tower but would be down soon. She just finished giving us a quick overview of the expansions made in our absence when Broken Walls popped his head over the tower and told us he would be down immediately.
We all headed inside and introductions for Litaka were made. Broken Walls asked how our exploits in Volivat had gone and I think given our lackluster response it was plain that we were disheartened. Saiten gave Broken Walls the broad strokes of what had happened as Aster put in a few details. I was mostly silent. Seeing Broken Walls again was… odd. I was so angry at him when I left but in the light of everything that’s happened it all seems dim and distant. It was uncomfortable particularly when Litaka began weighing in with his opinions and observations on Saiten’s story. I excused myself to help Chaoxi in the kitchen before I was tempted to speak my mind to that presumptuous ass.
I was glad to see Chaoxi again. I chopped carrots for her and unloaded what was first and foremost on my mind: Pekahan Aniyani’s strange ability to see through my disguises and about the strange case of mistaken identity. She didn’t seem particularly concerned and told me that if my power came from being a solar then there are things out there that can see through that power. That was disconcerting to think of but it made sense. I have become overconfident in my ability to hide in plain sight. I must not fully rely on it if I am looking to challenge greater powers. Chaoxi gave me a friendly pat on the shoulder and told me not to let it get under my skin. Easier said than done.
After dinner Aster’s teacher went to fetch a bottle of wine which gave us a chance to fill in Broken Walls and Chaoxi on some of the more Anathema-centric aspects of what had happened. They for their part told us that things had been mostly quiet for them. Litaka reappeared with his bottle of wine and I retreated into my room to read and eavesdrop. Aster regailed her teacher with a toned down tale of our exploits though she was careful not to tell him much about me.
Ascending Fire 14 – Party plans.
In the morning I awoke to find food waiting for me on the table with a note in an unfamiliar hand. It was cold, probably freshly made a few hours ago. I was debating whether I would eat it when Broken Walls came by and asked about whether we gave Aster a birthday present. I told him we had not, it had slipped my mind while we were in Volivat to give her a belated gift. Too preoccupied. Broken Walls asked me about some advice for a gift immediately turning to grandiose options. A new wing for her clinic or a pasture for her cow.
While I’m sure she would appreciate those things I began to wonder if maybe Broken Wall’s doesn’t realize how troubling it can be to be the recipient of such overwhelming generosity. I told him we should think of something smaller, more personal, maybe something nice for her to wear. I could practically see the wheels in his head grind to a stop. It was plain he idea how to go about selecting women’s clothing and that his own choice of apparel was largely influenced by Chaoxi. I swear there are times they seem to give the impression of being an old married couple. We arranged to go shopping for a gift in the afternoon after Broken Walls spent some time meditating at the top of his tower.
I changed into Aster’s form and met him in the courtyard. He seemed a bit put off by me using her shape and asked if it was entirely necessary. I had to explain that it was. How else was I to find something that would fit her perfectly and compliment her skin tone and hair color? I was committed to finding her a dress that was nothing less than perfect. Besides, the chances we would actually meet Aster were relatively slim.
It took two hours before we found Aster’s dress. I managed to find a silk light spring green with a design of delicate pink asters and lush leaves picked out with metallic pale gold in the styles favoured by the girls of the inner city. The shopkeep recommended a tailor who pinned it to fit leaving a bit of allowance for Aster’s chain mail undergarments. I picked out a few little matching accessories to compliment the outfit. Not expensive but stylish. Broken Walls seemed a bit put out at not having much input on the gift itself but brightened a bit when I asked him if he was willing to make a box for the gift.
It was then we started conjecture towards what sort of party we should throw Aster. Fortitude being somewhat of a grim place Broken Walls had never been to a birthday celebration and was only aware of birthday custom in a sort of academic sense. I was accustomed to them but hated the lavish and hedonistic galas the butterfly court threw for it’s patrons. In the end Broken Walls arranged the food and footed the bill and I arranged for a troupe of acrobats and musicians I knew from the Winter Meet’s Wind theater to perform. Aster seemed overwhelmed and delighted. She wasn’t in the least put out that the meal only had three courses and a handful of guests.
It was the most enjoyable party I have ever attended by far.
Ascending Fire 21 – Two steps forward, one step back
It was time to reacquaint myself with Champoor. I had not gotten far when I walked past an open door and witnessed a man beating a woman bloody. She was screaming for help and I felt my blood run cold. A crumbling waterbarrel’s rusting ring provided me with a makeshift blunt chakaram and I went to work. The man as it turns out really wasn’t prepared to beat someone who fights back. He lay unconscious on the floor of his hovel as the woman looked at me with tortured fear in her eyes. She was afraid of him coming after her.
It is a hard thing trying to imagine the sort of person I wish to become. Aster believes in a kind of redemption and forgiveness that I don’t. Saiten believes that being a good person and saving people from an immediate threat is what being a hero is all about and that is enough for him. I fully believe what they do is important but it is also woefully incomplete. I’ve always wanted to change things for the better but I think that maybe it is not possible unless you’re willing to compete with an element the world would truly be better off without.
I beheaded the man.
The woman packed up and left in a hurry without looking back. The shack was a dismal place bare of all but the most basic furnishings. It took me awhile to bury the body in the dirt floor getting fairly filthy in the process. The dirt handily stuck to the blood on my clothes not that it matters in Champoor. Here everyone is filthy and every third person in the crowd had a few bloodstains on their clothes. I guessed according to the anarchistic rule of “might makes right” that the city runs on this shack now belonged to me.
I went about my business but the day was hardly half over when I practically ran into a man with fresh blood dripping from his hands not half an alleyway away from a man whose life was draining rapidly into the gutter. I apprehended the killer and weighed my options of what to do with him. Given the answers to my questions he was a common thug who had killed the man for his money. I watched a young boy kneel by the dead man and start to sob and asked myself not for the first time why the muggers here are so quick to escalate to murder.
I felt a little resentful towards the killer. I would like to not have to do something I would have to keep a secret from the others but I don’t see many other options. If I beat up and left him on the street he would probably just go off to kill again. He didn’t exactly seem remorseful, rather I got the impression that he thought very little about what he did and just existed on some sort of murderous animal instinct. If I let him go I would be responsible in part for the people he hurt wouldn’t I? There isn’t exactly any authority to dump him on that would stop him from just picking up where he left off. Maybe he could be more than a waste if his brutality could be channeled to some useful end.
We had a bit of a chat in my new shack. I told him that I would be willing to let his transgressions temporarily slide if he co-operated with me and joined a workforce for Kadu and reported on their activities. I admit I had very little leverage on him since I barely knew anything about him and was ill equipped to keep him prisoner. I had the feeling that this wouldn’t work but perhaps he could be threatened into staying put. Sure enough the next day he had fled. I’ll have to keep an eye out for him in the future.
Rising Sun House was quiet that week. Aster was off to study with her teacher and Saiten and Broken Walls went off on some errand for a few days. I pondered a little about how to really start making a difference in this place. My attempt with the overly aggressive mugger may not have been successful but it did give me an idea. If I am to make a difference here I need to look beyond operating on my own. I need to start looking for people who stood out. The gossip mongers and the people who get around and most importantly those who are desperate and needed help.
I will not be Pekahan Aniyani. The people I rally must not be forced to do what I ask because they fear me. The ambitions of the others are too slow. Broken Walls has created a little bubble where people can feel safer. His influence grows but it is far too limited to what he builds and owns. It is hard to remember at times but he is an old man, patient in a way that mortals can’t afford to be. That isn’t enough for me. I will find those who need protection and I will offer it freely. If they wish to show their gratitude I will give them opportunity but I will not solicit. I have always thought I had no place consorting with good people but I think maybe that was misguided. Maybe I need to start getting to know them better so I can offer consequences to those who try and grind them down.
It is time to start expanding my horizons.
I took the form of a young pickpocket and put forward a proposal to a few youngsters who were doing their best to become proper foists. I told them there was a gang they could join who would protect them with no strings attached and no greedy thief lords who skimmed off their take or beat them if they didn’t earn. If anyone tried to mess with them they only needed to leave a strip of red cloth or ribbon tied around a post in Shortshank square and in the evening someone would come by their den to listen and make their problems go away. Some were wary but a few signed on. I secured a place for them to stay and left fuel and food there. I would check back on them later.
I met with a few other people in the inner city. I checked back with the girls who remembered Pearl and got some mostly useless gossip about the Fire social season and started looking to get acquainted with people in multiple walks of life. Prostitutes, gamblers, players, shopkeepers, barkeeps, beggars – I wanted to start understanding Champoor better from all it’s angles and even though I was not truthful with the people I met about who I really was I found their company surprisingly pleasant.
In the evenings Aster checked in on me and we practiced music together. I let slip I wasn’t much comfortable living in Rising Sun House. I meant it when I said I didn’t want to be a member of this business but I do not relish establishing those boundaries with Broken Walls. He seems to think that I should march in step to his tune, as though being a Solar makes me bound to follow him and I cannot suffer that. Aster still thinks well of him. I think he is overbearing in the extreme, but he is the only other Solar I know who has few reservations about getting his hands dirty and I can’t deny that this place is safer than any place I might hole up in. I must think on the matter.
I discovered that Broken Wall’s tower was a quiet spot that nobody used after dark. I could light a candle and lean up against the cold stone and just try to untangle my thoughts. It was so much easier before. I never really worried about the implications of what I did coming back to bite me. In Volivat I tried not to overstep what Aster and Saiten were comfortable with and since they were almost always looking on I didn’t have anything to hide. Here I am free to use my judgement and I know that if they were aware of what that judgement entails they would be horrified. The last thing I want is to tarnish their shining, unrealistic ideals. We need people like them to show others there is good in the world.
So that is where I stand. Keeping secrets builds a wall between the others and I but staying within the limits of what they would be happy with will not change Champoor. I regret that I must always stay at arms length but perhaps it is enough. I continue to struggle to fit pieces together that do not align and wonder how, if at all, I can make them work.
Ascending Fire 28 – Contact
I spent my second week back mostly amoungst my new charges. Broken Walls has started some sort of joint project with Aster to create an adjoining market next to the compound and Saiten went off somewhere to “train without all these distractions” whatever that means. I came back in the evenings but I barely saw my fellows much. Aster’s teacher was still hanging about so I did my best not to be underfoot. The man makes me feel acutely the gulf between myself and other people. Would I have become like him if I hadn’t been spirited away? Comfortable in my identity and not frozen in a state somewhere in-between forms. Cocooning myself in a safe but isolating barrier between myself and the rest of creation.
Aster still speaks to me during the night. She tells me about her family. She misses them though she knows she can’t return. I can relate. She keeps her distance, trying not to ask too many questions about my past. I told Broken Walls but with him I was matter of fact and vague in a way I know Aster won’t stop at. She deserves honesty but I how do I even broach the topic of why I am not the person I should have been?
The small group I have accumulated is growing. As Nack and Mei I learned their names and their stories. Some had parents they were trying to help and did not stay in the humble dwelling that I provided while others had fled their families or had simply been abandoned to fend for themselves because their people couldn’t feed them. Many of them were wary about someone sticking up for them and asking nothing in return but when no one ever appeared asking for their earnings and the concerns they whispered through the knothole in the back of the shed in the final hour before dusk were addressed the next day they began to relax. I didn’t kill any of the thief lords but I did my best to leave behind examples of what happened if they messed with one of the children under my care.
As Mei and the mysterious voice from the other side of the wall I informed the growing number of children that there were a few rules if they wanted to remain under protection. They could not bully or steal from their den mates. They would offer no prayers to Silgar and they would not seek to do violence. They were pickpockets, not thugs or murderers. I was clear that to be anything else would mean the one who listens to the whispers would grow deaf to their words and they would be on their own.
I have been making a few friends with some of the older beggars on the other side of the wall and found a bookshop with an excellent selection. Most of the more interesting volumes are more pricey than I can easily afford but the owner’s grandmother has taken a shine to me. A few days ago she invited me for tea and we talked about the Edda of Ieyasu. It was one of Peony’s favorite books and I remember them fondly. I made plans to come visit her again next week. Maybe I will talk to Aster about where to obtain some good tea.
Resplendant Fire 7 – Thin Blood
It was satisfying to watch the bruises slowly fade from the skins of the children who were no longer under the thumb of a bully. Which is why a few days later when I encountered a few adults beating one of my charges on the street I was furious. I thrashed them until they could hardly move and sliced off the first joint of their right hand pinky finger as I told them in a low hiss that was the price for messing with “The Whisper’s” kids. I had just walked away when I ran into a man who had mugged someone in the Champoori fashion of skipping the part where they demand money and going straight into slipping a knife into a vital organ or two.
There was nothing for it. I killed him. As I did it I felt as though I lay another brick in the wall between myself and my more idealistic allies but I couldn’t let him go. Around the corner I met two more murderers working in tandem. I killed them as well. I spiked their lifeless corpses upright to a wall and as an afterthought used their blood to write out a message. “Knock it off.”
There is something wrong with the murderers here. It isn’t just that they are endemic, it is how inhuman they are. There is no apparent guilt or reason for their violence. They say it is because someone had something they wanted killing people to take it isn’t necessary. Yes this place has no oversight and authority to deter violence so these people operate with impunity but the more I saw it the more I felt it was wrong. Not in the moral sense but in an unnatural one. Almost as if something had hollowed these people out. Turning a corner I saw a silver knife on the top of a crate. It immediately struck me as a sort of ceremonial weapon and I became more certain of what I was dealing with. I took the knife with me and wasn’t entirely surprised when I turned the next corner and found another man trying to free his knife from someone’s intestines. I bound him swiftly and towed him into an alley to talk.
I asked the man why he had killed someone and got the same answer they all give. He wanted to steal their money. I was about to ask him why he didn’t just beat them up when a voice whispered in my ear “You should probably kill him.” I inhaled slowly, willing myself to see the world through a different lens. My vision wavered, the colors becoming more saturated The shadows deeper and darker. I saw something take shape that I had heard descriptions of but never seen. It was pretty much as I imagined it from Chaoxi’s description. Pale birdlike face, human shaped but too thin in places and hands that dripped blood. My heart quickened, I knew one day I would face this thing, I expected it. The game I was about to play was the most dangerous I have ever attempted but high risk was offset by potential reward. I felt a rush of adrenaline. The board was set, time to take the first move.
“And you are?”
It didn’t seem prepared for me to turn and look it square in the face. It recovered quickly and introduced itself as “a murder spirit” The way it spoke it didn’t seem like it was the only one and maybe not at the top of the pecking order. It told me I “did good work” and applauded my use of disguises. It offered to arrange a meeting with someone in his connection, someone I shared something in common with. I can’t say I understood what he meant. My first thought went to another identity spinner. The trussed up man in front of me must have thought I had lost my mind and was talking to myself until the spirit materialized. Once the murderer saw the spirit he began to scream and cry so I gagged him. It appears this man was not a conscious agent of this spirit but was maybe influenced by it somehow. I agreed to meet with this mystery person and set up a place and time the following day.
The creature, seeming pleased with itself rubbed it’s bloody hands together and stared expectantly at the man in front of me. I waved it off and it shuffled a few steps further back. I gave it a look and it took a few further steps. I gave it a glare and it made it’s way out of the alley, pausing to wave as it rounded the corner. It sounded quite cheerful as it bid me adieu and that it looked forward to working with me. Turning toward the gagged murderer who was now fighting his bonds and frothing at the mouth I grew queasy. I doubt that he was fully responsible for his penchant for stabbing but there was no way to snap him out of it. Knowing I was being watched I needed to play my part convincingly. I looked at the man in the eye and though my stomach turned with distaste at the idea he might not deserve what was coming the only outward expression I allowed myself was a little sigh.
“Well, this is awkward.” I said as I sunk the knife into his temple.
I headed back to Rising Sun house and checking about me to make sure I was not being followed by something others couldn’t see I made for Broken Wall’s tower. He was there, kneeling as if in prayer, his eyes closed. I coughed to get his attention and he asked me what I wanted. I was apprehensive. My dealings with Broken Walls have ranged widely and have been mostly to my pain. He cares for Aster and Saiten and they trust him which means he is more or less an inevitable fixture of my present if not my future and I believe he least thinks of me as an ally. I know we are not entirely on the same page but I needed help. It was time to see if I can trust him.
I asked him what his plans for a justice system were. His answer didn’t inspire me with confidence that there would be one on the horizon any time soon. The logistics of it are more complicated than I think either of us are fully equipped for at present. I think the thought of locking people up might not sit well with him given the time he has spent in a cage. I wasn’t sure work details were the lesser evil. The citizens here lack for paid work. Little good will come from undermining what little work exists here with indentured labour. This didn’t make me feel better. I have so few options in dealing with these murderous husks of human beings. Beating them up and leaving them bleeding is useless. It won’t be consistent enough to deter them from just picking up where they left off. Maiming them is an option but I admit it is one that I don’t find savoury. Killing them definitely stops them from killing again but I find myself conflicted. Certain people deserve what is coming for them but these people are driven by desperation and probably some spiritual influence eroding them away from the inside. I can’t just chuck them into a hole for later. Prisons require guards, food, cells and more. No easy fix.
I narrowly accused Broken Wall’s vision of being too small. Confined to only what he builds with his own two hands as the conversation turned to why I was bringing this up. I hesitated. It is time to start putting some cards on the table. I told him about the murder spirit. As I expected he caught on as to why I may have drawn this spirit’s attention but he didn’t reprimand me. Instead he asked if I needed backup. I was actually somewhat pleased he was willing to back me up but I told him no, I can’t risk it. If this thing discovers I am playing it for information then I am cat meat. I can see these spirits but I can’t touch them yet. All the power is in my enemy’s court. I instead left him with one request should I perish : Find and destroy the Radius. This may have confused him. I let him know about where and when I was meeting my contact. It is nice to know he will be keeping an eye out for any sign I am in trouble but I in all likelihood if it all goes south I will be dead before anyone can reach me.