Descending Wood 21 — Morning
Crowds had already gathered by the time we arrived at the Plane. The building was in shambles, which was unusual since Volivat architecture can best be described as “sturdy”. A stunned serving man outside told us Sermon, our quarry, was somewhere underneath the almost entirely intact back wall in the space that had once been a kitchen. With only a whisper of a mention that she should get help from the crowd Aster understood implicitly what was required and went to work. In a trice there were enough brawny looking Volivat natives and myself ringed around the collapsed wall with Saiten, our veins bulging as we struggled with the heavy slab. >/p>
Well, “We” struggled. Saiten did more than struggle.
I heard the rock splintering a little under Saiten’s fingers as he bore down on the heavy stone. I hoped the sound wouldn’t have seemed out of place to mortal ears. As a ruse I think it worked well. Distributing the responsibility for performing an impossible feat does tend to make a spectacle somewhat plausible. The crowd cheered as the slab was leaned up against another building and Aster leapt into action to heal the injured barkeep. I sent his waiter running for water and clean linen bandages to get him out of the way and knelt beside Sermon, hoping to give the appearance of assisting as I went through the man’s pockets. I didn’t get far before Aster stopped me with a few admonishments.
It is a little frustrating that once she has taken someone into her care she brooks no interference but having been on the receiving end of those attentions I guess I shouldn’t complain. She told me that I might “injure” Sermon further by going through his pockets which I tried not to take to mean she thought me ham handed. It is ludicrous to think I could have harmed him by picking his pockets so I think she just takes issue with me going through his things. After my unseemly display yesterday I hesitated over pushing things too far and retreated to make use of the time to dig about in the rubble for anything that might be a clue. I reaffirmed that excavation is not my strong suit but that is the extent of revelations I was able to unearth.
Under Aster’s administrations it wasn’t long before Sermon came to. Just like everyone else who has run afoul of this damnable creature he couldn’t answer our questions. He told us that it left a message : “we have one more trial to face back where we began” and refused to talk further. With Aster advocating for his safety should he overstep his bounds while under the threat of this creature I was unable to pursue the line of questioning much further.
The notion we were being tested didn’t sit well. Particularly since whatever was pulling the strings regards ordinary mortals as disposable. If the prisoners it put in our path were just a test then it had torn through prison guards like rice paper simply because they were in the way of what it wanted. I have heard of nobles who test the edges of their new weapons on the bodies of criminals. Perhaps a similar mentality is at play.
We called back Saiten who insisted we go digging for survivors in the rubble. I told him he needn’t bother. Anyone beneath that heap was dead if they were even there at all. Saiten, in the grip of his passion for being a hero wouldn’t give it up that easily and argued that I couldn’t know that since “I wasn’t a doctor”. I reminded him that I didn’t have to be because it is common knowledge that living humans have heartbeats and I would be able to hear if they existed in that silent rubble heap. He just looked at me “You can hear that well?” he asked me surprised. I stared at him a moment as I considered bringing up the numerous occasions I have demonstrated this ability and settled on “Yes.” I don’t believe Saiten is terribly clearheaded about things when he believes he has people to save.
Turning recent events over in our collective minds we returned to the Clansman’s Respite for a more private conversation over our next move and to tie up loose ends. To our surprise we arrived there just as Dasadi turned the corner. I had relegated Aster and Saiten’s hopes of his possible survival to the realm of wishful thinking but there he was. Looking definitely the worse for wear but undeniably alive. He explained later that when he is in mortal danger he can call upon his power to save him but that it pulls him to a place not of his choosing. This time he had ended up on the top of the tower in the middle of the city. He had needed to ask for help to get down and the story he gave by explanation of what happened is sort of a mix of the truth and lies with the ratio heavily relying on lies. Since he dropped some names of clans here but was vague on specifics it should take some time for the authorities to fully discredit his story but in a tightly knit community like this the fact he had lied would eventually come to light. Maybe this explains something about how he ended up in the middle of the Dreaming Sea… and why his cover stories are somewhat lacking. I am beginning to think lying isn’t his forte.A comfort.
Dasadi was starved from a night and day spent on atop a tower so we talked as we picked at massive slabs of roast yedam that Saiten brought from the kitchen downstairs. We covered what we’ve learned and tried to establish a reasonable course of action deciding to retrace some of the places we had visited as we made our way across the city. I wanted to visit the book stores again to try and understand what, if anything, a stryx signifies. It could be nothing but if I had an organization and decided to name it “the Tiger Conglomerate” then the image I might try to project is one of wild and dangerous power. “Rathouse” before we knew they were the patrons of a rat God conveyed underlying context of cunning, treacherous and illicit behaviors through similar connotation. Given the attack on the prison had to do with a beast that had feathers there might there be more to this choice than just picking a random bird of prey. Dasadi didn’t know much on the subject of stryxs’ and the bookstores of the city were clustered a little ways past the Steamkettle which was one of the places we looked to retrace our steps.
Nearest to us was the fish market so it seemed reasonable to check back with Harold of Seafoam since he had sent us Playton’s way. No such luck. He had nothing to add to our investigation but another bag of his seasoned krillifish which I must admit are growing on me. I had only picked at the grilled yedam as it was tough and I had wondered at how long it had been dead given that Volivat is in the middle of the sea and not exactly pasture adjacent. We were heading toward the bookstores when oily black smoke on the horizon drew our notice. It seems the Steamkettle was on fire. Indeed there has been a run of inconvenient events following the inns and taverns we’ve frequented since we first came here. Fancy that.
On arrival the bucket brigade had already started ferrying water to the building. I am no expert but it appeared a lost cause. The stone outer structure might be fine. Crumbling mortar isn’t a big issue here since entire sides of buildings seem to be hewn from single slabs of rock. The internal guts of the building however were wood and were going up fast. Voices in the crowd cried that Chellia raised by Valkiden was somewhere still inside and Saiten dove into action without a further thought stopping only to soak his leathers before barreling into the building. It occurred to me that the Steamkettle was a large place and he could use my help in pinpointing her location. I grabbed a bucket and poured it over myself, chasing the water with a wash of power feeling it mingle with the wet fibers.
Saiten barreled ahead using his leather cloak to protect him from the hungry flames. Seconds after I entered the building water was already steaming from my clothes that were both spun from and channeling my power. I could tell the minute protection provided from soaked garments wouldn’t last long. Following Saiten was foolhardy, nothing would be served from both of us burning to a crisp when all Saiten needed from me was direction. I yelled at him to head for the Wood (east) side of the building and headed back outside circling the building and using my sash to scale the building next to it. I bounded into a window nearest the sound of Chellia’s weak coughing. If Saiten for some reason couldn’t reach her, I would.
I needn’t have bothered. The moment my feet touched the floor of the Steamkettle upper floor I felt it reverberate from a noise that I now recognized very well. The sound of Saiten’s fist hitting what belatedly could be described as a wall. Poking my head out of the window I saw Saiten jump down from the second story, bending his knees to absorb the fall, unaware the cobbles beneath his feet had split in half. I hopped down after him. Aster and Dasadi raced around the side of the building at our call as we propped Chellia up against a wall. Chellia coughed as she thanked Saiten and told us that her instructions were to lead the people who rescued her to another place to receive answers to our questions. She was unwilling to tell us anything much about who had given her instructions except for something we hadn’t heard before. A pronoun : “She”
There was something about Chellia’s mannerisms that irked me. We had met too many people in this city who followed their instructions like sheep herded by dogs. Why do they offer so little resistance? Mayhap a life living in this secretive society that shunned outsiders weakened their citizen’s sense of indignation at being coerced against their will? In the beginning I had admired Volivat’s orderly nature but now I found myself questioning it’s cost. Was this a result of a life of obligatory obedience to authority or was this a more supernatural effect caused by this creature? Either way it left a bad taste in my mouth.
We followed Chellia through many twisting and turning streets until we arrived at a large building. Checking it from the outside I did my best to pick apart the sounds of life within listening to the sounds of hearts big and small and the overlap of breathing that plucks the smallest sounds from the throat. I estimated there were more than twenty but less than fifty people within and not a one of them spoke. A rustling clicking noise from above told me there were creatures of some sort on the story above. None of this was encouraging.
We weighed a number of options ranging from sneaking in to burning the house down before settling on going through the front door. Whatever it was had lured us here said it did so to give us answers. If we approached this from the wrong angle it was possible there were hostages inside we might endanger. It seemed in keeping with this creature’s style. Saiten and I were both indignant at being forced to play this game at the cost of mortal life and safety, Aster was concerned at the danger not complying posed to Chellia and Dasadi seemed to be willing to do whatever we decided. There was nothing for it. We walked in through the front door and waited for the trap to snap shut.
The interior was dark and as our eyes adjusted we saw there were thirty people of different ages and genders gathered there. Above on the railings of a second story a bunch of birds with four legs and golden beaks watched expectantly. Stryx I guessed. A girl, maybe 5 or 6, spoke up. “My father is an evil man.” She stated. I looked about trying to discern if one of the assembled might be the one she referred to when the next one spoke, an old man who referred to himself as " Pekahan Aniyani, Daughter of Ma-ha Suchi". Alright, new set of options, was this possession? I glanced sidelong at Dasadi who looked as clueless as I was. The next of the group stepped forward and addressed me as “Aria of the Sighing Leaves” which made me feel momentarily queasy.
They can see through my disguises but still think I am somebody else?
I was disturbed at the notion that this thing could see through my power and had enough time to pose a question to myself over whether I had some sort of tell before I interrupted myself mid-thought. Of course I have a tell. I have an almost ethereally beautiful woman and a man who dresses like an escaped circus act who travel with me. Not to mention the late edition of a career exorcist who looks as though he were coated in chalk and left on an unattended roasting spit too long. I knew it been watching us. It might be able to notice the hallmarks of another like itself but it could just be as simple as the company I keep. It wouldn’t take a genius looking for someone like me to keep watch over my known associates. If I were them I would probably notice the fourth person they traveled with changed every so often.
Saiten addressed the crowd with his indignation at being used but they didn’t seem to notice , they were intent on delivering their message like a chorus of players soldiering on through a crowd of hecklers.The monologue went on explaining the process of hooking Saiten’s attentions, masquerading in the form of a Playton and seeding the notions of the fictional Stryx Syndicate around the Dreaming Sea to lure us here. That much I had theorized. I was angry. I wanted more than this little stage play. I wanted to see who was responsible and I wanted them to explain to me why they believed this little act would do anything but incense me. Above all I wanted them to pay. The act plowed gamely on explaining that we had passed it’s test but we were no where near strong enough to take on Ma-ha Suchi.
I think that put Saiten’s back up.
Their message delivered the assembly fell silent an stared fixedly at the floor. I went over to an old man and forced him to look me in the eye. The man looked at me with fear in his eyes but wouldn’t reply to anything I asked. The five year old girl was just as forthcoming as the old man. Were they possessed or had they just been forced to memorize each part of this message? Either way this was a puppet show and the puppeteer couldn’t be far off. It had to be somewhere near, were I in it’s place I would want to observe how my message was received. Saiten ascended to the second story where he grabbed one of the birds by the neck as he addressed it. It behaved as any tamed bird grabbed thus might react and tried to defend itself but drew no ire from the rest of the flock. I searched the top floor finding the trappings of a lived in space. A library, mostly histories and stage plays drew my attentions briefly.
Stage plays. This thing has a taste for theatrics doesn’t it? Maybe it fancies itself a player hence the assembly of human and animal props on this dimly lit stage. What was the purpose of this display? A show of force? Likely it was just to hide itself in their ranks to observe how we might react. If she had wanted my help then she has made a grave miscalculation in using these people. I do not feel particularly inclined to help. In fact I feel much more inclined to put something sharp in her brain and give it a good hard twist.
I weighed our options in front of Chellia and the assembled chorus of actors. I theorized the stryx above us were likely there to descend the moment we were gone and gobble this collective of sheep leaving no witnesses. Aster of course objected to us slaughtering innocent birds before they had proven themselves a threat. It is possible they are just more unwitting toys of this Pekahan but where I pitied the people caught in this spider web I felt no more for these birds than I had about Silgar’s rats. Dasadi was our best option against destroying these airborne vermin but as he was quick to point out he could kill everything in the room but not half of the things in that room. Chellia didn’t take the information of us killing everything in the room well. Hardly out of the ordinary. I assumed she was beginning to wonder if her supernatural puppetmaster or us posed her the greatest threat.
We agreed to leave and see how it played out as I would be able to tell if the birds twitched so much as a feather after we left. I held the door for Chellia as she was the last out when she grabbed the door and slammed it, engaging the lock. I didn’t have time to swear. I leapt out of the way before Saiten gripped the doorknob and pulled hard sending the door flying. I snagged an airborne hinge pin that flew neatly past my head and plunged inside. Chellia was gone. The Stryx were fleeing out a hole in the ceiling and the assembled citizens cowered wordlessly. I dropped the hinge pin in disgust noting a similar look of anger on Saiten’s face. “Next time”, I told my companions “We kill the birds.”
On the way back Dasadi told us all he knew about Ma-ha Suchi. It wasn’t much to go on. He is reportedly a “Lunar” another type of exalt that Dasadi knows depressingly little about. “Lunar” means it probably has something to do with the moon which is at least something to go by. I know practically nothing about even my own patron deity but maybe Chaoxi knows something about Lunars. I also nicked a double armful of books from the library of the “Stryx Syndicate” they might be meaningless but best case scenario they have something relevant within and worse case I at least have something to distract me on the boat ride back to Champoor. I have a fondness for books. Reading is soothing.
We left Volivat for our ship, Saiten and I simmering with rage. It was comforting to not be the only one maddened by this turn of events. He and I really are alike where it counts.The voyage should also give me time to mull over some new and disturbing thoughts – uncomfortable parallels between myself and this adversary. This creature and I are two players of the same game. We differ, but is it simply a matter of experience? Might endless years of living as I have not one day lead to that callous disregard of mortal life? I have spent the last five years not really paying much heed to where I was going. I have just grabbed hold of one job and let it lead me to the next. Is this monster to serve as some sort of morality tale of what happens when my grip on being human frays too far?
Then there are other things. More obscure, like finding a pattern where it doesn’t really exist when your eyes unfocus. Things I hope are just figments of an overactive imagination. when I met Shalrina she seemed acutely aware that the names I gave her were falsehoods which she refused to use. “Very well, the only real difference between a name and a lie is a name is given to you by someone whereas a lie is something you fabricate for yourself. If you will not give me your name then I will name. Hmm…How about Piper of the Whispering Radius? I think it suits.” she had said with that indecipherable grin. I hadn’t questioned it as I had thought her mad as a hatter at the time. The memory had sprung into my head unbidden the moment Broken Walls asked my name and I had used it. I had never really adopted the last bit of the epithet Shalrina gave me but it’s still there in my memory. I may never have used it outside Shalrina’s shop but it is still a silent part of what I increasingly think of as my name. Now I wonder. “Aria of the Sighing Leaves” and “Piper of the Whispering Radius” don’t seem very far off. Could Shalrina be wrapped up in this somehow?
Aster asked me my thoughts and I admitted that I thought I did have some sort of connection to me. When she asked my reasons I told her of the other connection that was on my mind. Pekahan had an affinity with birds and took the shape of a giant feathered beast. I confessed that I had been born a wyld mutation… wings. I know it’s a tenuous connection at best but it is one that makes me feel like I am truly looking at a distorted reflection of myself… Maybe it made the choice to adopt the shape of a feathered beast for just that reason.
Aster looked shocked at the news that I was wyldtouched. I can’t say I blame her. I wondered if the others believed that mutations were a sign of moral failings. For all I know it might be true, my own moral failings are not insignificant. If Aster did have misgivings she kept them to herself. Saiten, overhearing asked me if my wings had resembled stryx wings. I was surprised he was so matter of fact about it but then Saiten is matter of fact about everything. Dasadi was diplomatic about being privy to this information and said nothing.
We left Volivat as soon as the last of our crew was aboard for the night. I stayed up to watch the city receded into the distance. I am troubled but that is not new. In the past two months my solitary existence has been challenged and my mind and heart were pulling me in two separate directions. It was driving me mad. I remembered too well how people I cared for had been used to control me in the past and I never wanted to have that happen again but five years of the alternative is a slow death of sorts. I think I always accepted I would die on one of my hunts. That I would just press on to challenge after challenge until somebody caught me. Preferably when I was too old to have much more to get out of life. But what if there isn’t an end? I had never considered that I could go on forever. I don’t think I can handle a forever as I was.
It isn’t perfect. The pace at which I move has quickened to keep step with people who throw caution to the wind and I need to evolve to keep up. I can’t run away. Where would I go? Back to years, decades, centuries where I have no one I trust to speak to? My life has changed for the better even if those changes make it a little shorter. Maybe it took seeing the shadow of the sort of monster I might become to really bring everything into perspective.