Resplendent Fire 23 – After the battle
The march to Black Quarter took place some hours after midday. We halved our forces in an attempt to converge on expected resistance once we got to the bell with Chaoxi and I split between the two halves to provide support. Being able to see spirits who may attempt to blindside us makes Chaoxi and I somewhat of a commodity. Our forces were bolstered by a mobs of Mauk’s followers lead by a grizzled old man who was introduced to me as Tik. Unexpectedly we arrived at the bell tower seeing no sign of our adversary.
In a matter of minutes we located the freshly disturbed earth from Broken Wall’s last visit here and unleashing his uncanny ability to dig once again Broken Walls laid bare the stone structure he had described. Caving in the stone ceiling of the underground structure Saiten and Broken Walls made to jump down into the darkness before I stopped them. If they could see the horror invisible to them they might not have been so willing to cast themselves into the pit. To my eyes the spirits of the dead were packed tightly together like a solid mass of naked human flesh. They reached out for us but once exposed to Champoor’s watery sunlight they recoiled as though burned.
After I explained this to the others Aster came forward and called light to the necklace she wore which was so bright it caused the spirits dissolve into vapour in it’s wake. I am not sure if it was her power that made such light or simply the nature of the pendant but words cannot express how thankful I was at being spared the ordeal of wading through the amassed spirits of the dead. I am not sure what sort of effect they might have had on us if any but being able to see them while pushing on would have been a horror in itself.
Leaving Chaoxi to command the Rising Sun forces at the entrance we entered the catacomb. Like cities who follow the tradition of periodically emptying their graveyards it was a vault of the dry bones of Champoor’s centuries of dead arrayed in careful stacks. I have been in something of it’s ilk once before as the outlaws of Nexus make use of the miles of interconnected catacombs there to evade authorities. They are intrinsically dangerous places even without murder goddesses baring a grudge. I wouldn’t have put it past Akkimu to just collapse the place on our heads. Broken Walls opted to take Mauk’s forces with us mostly so that they would not desert us for sheer boredom sake and plunged into the depths.
The catacombs were punctuated with rooms where the bodies of the dead are processed, mummified and transformed into the masked spirits we saw roaming the street. Coming across a vast cavern of these mummies we ordered the members of Mauk’s forces to start passing the dried husks of completed hosts up to the surface to burn on a pyre before the sun set. The deeper we plunged thicker the miasma of mold, rot and bone dust grew. After I got a lungful of the stuff I learned that my new propensity for smell has also enhanced my ability to taste as well. Before I would have been aware of dust as just tasteless grit but now it possessed flavour. The result of this revelation was that I coughed and retched to the point where my allies began to show concern for my welfare.
Descending further we began to get the idea that the shape of the place was an inverted pyramid. Each new level seemed to be smaller than the one before. Reaching it’s narrowest point Broken Walls opened a door to reveal a giant silver snake which lunged at him with fangs the length of my arm. Meeting a formidable surface in Dauntless The snake recoiled to strike again as Saiten and I slipped past into the room. Saiten delivered a blow which rang in the enclosed space like a cacophony of metal pots sliding and crashing. The dazed snake fell in a mass of coils. I lunged forward angling an attack at it’s eye sockets with a hairpin but it was like hitting a temple bell with a chopstick. I couldn’t even scratch it. The snake, shaking itself back to sense, lunged again but Saiten made quick work of it with his glowing fists clad in Dauntless supplied by Mauk and in seconds the snake clattered to the floor with a clang, a massive dent in it’s side.
Once the strange automaton lay still we pried open it’s mouth to investigate a light source within and saw a patch of blue sky which we judged to be the entrance to Akkimu’s domain. We dragged the limp snake to the surface depositing it before our armies and prepared to invade. After sending Broken Walls and Saiten through to investigate we received the all clear and marched our forces through the snake’s mouth.
There was a curious sensation of shifting gravity as we walked over the lip of a sort of well set in the ground and emerged on a vast plain of bare earth. A Ziggurat loomed impressively in the distance fassoned with the enemy troupe’s ranks. At the top Akkimu waited ringed by her honor guard and flanked by two bell wielding priestesses. Once the last of our number passed through the portal the snake’s mouth snapped shut sealing us inside. It was clear there would be no retreat from this fight nor quarter given. Surprisingly this did not bother me. In the past I have taken a rather dim view of chivalry, militaristic bravado and honor. Such things I counted as foolish adherence to principles of vanity. Tricks to rook the gullible into spending their lives for somebody’s cause. A year ago had a prophet told me I would be standing on a battlefield willing to die alongside people who held these virtues aloft I would have called him a fool and laughed myself to stitches. But here I was, placing my wager and choosing to stand for one unwavering principle : That not one more life would be sacrificed to this Goddess before I forfeit my own.
I blame Aster. She’s been a terrible influence.
Our army charged across the plain, our followers giving rise to a war cry that was on my own lips before I was conscious of what I was doing. Staying in Broken Wall’s shadow I charged with the front rank. “Get to the Priestesses!” Broken Walls ordered me, I glanced up through the ranks of our enemies to the ring of guards around two bell bearers in the back rank and dismissed all consideration of attempting to cut them down. I would not be content with dealing with mortal flunkies whatever their purpose. I am aware this is hubris but in the heat of the moment it was hard not to indulge. Masked warriors set their blades against us as we plowed into the front line. They angled their silver knives at us but Broken Walls and I moved fluidly together like partners in a dance. The points of their weapons skittered uselessly on his shield and armour and found no purchase in either of us. I heard the chime of silver bells as I stepped out of Broken Wall’s shadow to whip a chain of linked necklaces and bracelets I had prepared earlier at eye level. I sent a burst of essence through the delicate chain which caught in the flawed quartz, topaz, garnet and amethysts I had spun. The carefully prepared stones exploded like a chain of fireworks sending tiny crystals peppering my enemies faces. It did little to harm them but served as an adequate distraction for Saiten who plowed in and decimated their number with a punch that blazed with light. A massive image of a fist wrought in light flew into the air before him flattening the ranks of enemies before him and the sky blazed.
The punch opened the path to Akkimu through the ranks of her warriors. She was a grotesque creature. Pale as a maggot, covered in a tracery of tattooed patterns and clothed in afterimages of herself draped like translucent veils. Her limbs were long and thin and her face was attractive in the same disconcerting fashion as a three day old corpse of a beautiful woman. She moved with all the staccato grace of a spider. As her mortal attendants were scattered by Saiten’s punch he pressed his advantage and flashed forward like a bolt of blazing lightning leveling a tremendous blow at her. Unbelievably he stopped short and fell at her feet. There was no time to be concerned for his welfare as the followers of Mauk surged forward through the gap and beat at Akkimu with their cudgels. She stepped over Saiten as she fended them off but the sheer press of their numbers seemed to overwhelm her enough that she made no effort to finish off our friend.
I heard the sounds of pitched battle behind us and dimly acknowledged that the spirits of the host had risen to attack our line from the rear. Broken Walls and I plowed onward and I felt the unison between us break as he surged forward, hammering at Akkimu with his sword before disengaging and putting Akkimu between us. I whipped my chain forward noting with pleasure as the twisted settings thrown open by the exploding stones snared her arm leaving shallow scratches in her flesh which oozed black as I used my momentum to slide beneath the legs of both her and Broken Walls twisting her arm and setting her off balance. Freeing my whip I snapped it up to wrap around my hands in a cats cradle I used to parry the grasping talons of the spirits that had formed at Broken Wall’s back. The Goddess attempted to back away but neither Broken Walls or myself would permit her to leave.
Akkimu shrieked and one of her priests, taking the cue, plunged a knife into her belly which seemed to fill Akkimu with new resolve. The Goddess lashed out at Broken Walls who lit his caste mark defiantly and withstood the blow as though it was nothing. Saiten rose to his feet and with his blazing fists landed blows on Akkimu who, almost unbelievably, bent double beneath the force of his punch but held firm. The Goddess reeled, flowing like water around Broken Walls she reached for me. A vision of a phantom hand reaching for me clouded my thoughts but I mentally brushed it aside. I offered it a glacial surface where my every fiber refused to yield a single foothold to my hated enemy. I leapt back spitting in the face of the Goddess who shrieked her rage and pressed forward with uncanny speed. I lashed out with my chain, wrapping it around Broken Wall’s arm to help me keep my feet as I backpedaled and swung wide from her attack. Again she swiped for me and I banished her influence from my mind. Suddenly I became aware of a faint refrain of that imagined music in the clear space where thought and emotion had sealed itself into perfect suspension. It took me half a second to realize that the music I heard was real.
Muscles pulled at my back sending me sailing into the open space between Broken Walls and Saiten. I glanced back and froze. Wings, or rather the ghostly image of them in shades of dusty violet and silvery gold, were at my back, my ears were full of the joyous ballad that beat the very air as the fires around me formed into a kaleidoscope of brilliant black and violet butterflies. The music cresendoed and I felt the Radius vibrate where it was bound to my arm between elbow and shoulder as it began to play itself. The discordant harmony performed by this duet of phantom flutes rent the air and the floating peaceful butterflies convulsed midair and blanched to become the palest gold.
Silkmoths. Rather specifically the yamamai silk moths which my mother’s family had cultivated for generations. I had loved watching their caterpillars, collecting their cocoons and seeing them be so artfully re-spun into the fabrics my father wove. Seeing them again was like seeing an old friend even as they swarmed about me and set on my feathers to devour them like oak leaves. There was no pain but my sense of my wings faded as pale gold bones clattered to the ground with the dry sound like wood. They were not finished. Surging forward they devoured the seeming of me leaving behind not my morning form but a void dotted with small points of light.
There was no time to marvel at this transformation. Akkimu pursued me, slashing at my form with her knives and screaming her rage. I felt rather than saw the daggers bite through the layers of my power laden clothes to sink into my flesh. The wounds inflicted seared with agony and I screamed in pain in a voice was alien even to me. It didn’t even seem like a true sound but rather a delusion that came from my own fevered imagination. Broken Wall’s stepped between us, his voice ringing like thunder, condemning Akkimu for her sins as his golden army gathered around us. Javelins of golden light pierced Akkimu through as his sword came down like an executioner’s blow severing her head. Her form held for only a moment before it crumbled to dust leaving nothing behind. The army of the host halted in their tracks as though the hand that puppeteered them fell slack.
The rest of the battle was almost an afterthought.
In the end enough of Mauk’s people heeded Broken Wall’s orders to leave one of Akkimu’s priests and a handful of her soldiers alive. I finished off a bloody handed murder spirit which hounded Aster and Chaoxi who seemed to have been hard pressed. Aster was robed in the white fire of her essence which cast prismatic rainbows through the whirling water that orbited Chaoxi. They looked like a pair of goddesses. They gave me a wide berth and I didn’t blame them. Moths still fluttered around me as though I were a flame and my form was suffused with a darkness that felt bone deep. To me it felt gentle and warm, a summer evening at peace, but I know I probably looked like something from the realm of chaos. I saw fear in the eyes of those I passed.
Broken Walls fled from the field through the mouth of the snake to attend some urgent business he did not pause to explain while Chaoxi took charge and ordered a contingent from Rising Sun house to enter Akkimu’s temple. Within minutes they started ferrying forth gold, ingots of strange metals and chased silver mirrors while Saiten focused his efforts on cracking the stones of Akkimu’s ziggurat with only his fists.
I made no effort to avail myself of the treasures of Akkimu or even join Saiten in dismantling Akkimu’s temple. Walking over to where the golden bones of my wings still lay scattered I stooped and picked up the left radius. I felt the real radius disappear from it’s bindings and though the bone I held had no holes when I held it to my lips I could play it as though it did. Altering the disharmonious counterpoint that sounded so sour and melancholy I improvised a duet with the strange sourceless flute that played on in an unbroken stream. It was as if I knew the melody better than I knew my own name and playing the harmony was as simple as breathing. It changed the song from something discordant and haunting to something beautiful. With a final sustained note the ballad ended and the darkness that clothed me began to fade exposing once again the form of Mists of Ruby Skies. Aster bandaged my wounds but asked nothing further than if I was alright. I did not offer much in reply. I felt like I was enclosed in a sort of glass bubble. Serene in a way I had not felt since I was a child.
Mauk arrived through the gate and set his great cudgel to Akkimu’s temple. He is quite impressive in size and his blows echoed across the plain. Broken Walls lead a discussion about how best to damage Akkimu’s realm but I left shortly after he began to put his plan into practice. I didn’t doubt that the job would be done.
I found a crumbling tower a short distance away and watched our surviving forces stock a great bonfire with the bones of Akkimu’s temple and the mummified remains of the host. It burned hot and fast throwing a great black cloud into the night sky. Every now and them I would make notice of the solemn gathering of spirits who watched the relics of the Goddess that held the city hostage at night burn as over ten thousand souls were freed from their bonds. They were not jubilant in watching us destroy the legacy of this ancient spirit. They were probably afraid of what this meant.
As I leaned against the spire’s crumbling rough bricks humming a snatchet of song I couldn’t help but feel I had fulfilled some sort of unspoken promise. I was possessed by a conviction that whatever eventually becomes of me, whatever I have been or have done, I will always have this. It isn’t atonement. What has happened can never be paid for or undone but I do have the power to alter the course of the future for the better. Watching the stars slowly fade to the dawn I reflected on all the decisions I had made and read them like a musical score. It stretched from the past through the present and into a strange dimly lit future that I could almost grasp the shape of. A gentle warmth and with it a sense of belonging and purpose permeated my being as I did so making me feel gloriously alive. The shame and pain of the past have not gone away but it is diminishing somewhat with the addition of things to weigh against it. Let tomorrow come.
I will be waiting for it.