As the tale of the Exalted Continues

Piper's Journal 33

Descending Earth 18


Thick viscous slime smelling of rotten meat and coated in bone grit saturated my clothing and stained Saiten’s yellow leathers the speckled brown of a decaying banana. A reminder how I had grievously underestimated my destructive capability in what could prove a fatal error. Aster hovered anxiously checking us for scratches. I did my best to grip my fear in hand. If we were already doomed there wasn’t much I could do about it.

Spurred to urgency from Aster’s insistence that we clean off quickly we cast about for some indication of where the Bonesiders had come from. At first blush the topsoil on the beast’s claws was the only thing that seemed out of place. The soil smelt distinctly different than the forest’s terrain. Dasadi called over his hound who sniffed the soil and declared it had crystalline elements. “Like a cave?” Dasadi asked the beast. The dog did not reply.

We made our way back to Rising Falls with all haste. The ichor by this time had already begun to dry and was beginning to itch. Aster made the arrangements to clean us off in a pit dug next to the bathhouse demanding that we wash ourselves with a special herb concoction to neutralize the contaminants before a vigorous scrub in the hotspring. She prepared my batch first. The mixture had a fresh scent that reminded me somewhat of mint. Where it touched the bonesider residue it fizzed into small white foamy bubbles which instilled me with some confidence that it had beneficial effect. My clothes I left in a graceless pile, they would need to be burned anyway.

After adjourning to the baths I carefully scrubbed what remained away taking with it every trace of the powders and waxes that made up my disguise. Forgoing a relaxing soak in favor of a quick rinse I donned one of the inn’s yukata and headed back to my room drying off with the fluffy inn towels in preparation to re-don the practical elements of my disguise. The maids were in the process of airing the rooms and had thrown the doors of the rooms and even the closets open. My haste to regain privacy did not stop me from noting something that brought me to a halt outside Dasadi’s room.

Dasadi’s kit sat in his closet with his locked journal on top. A quick glance around proved no one was watching as I slipped out of the hall. Trespassing into Dasadi’s closet I pulled the door slightly shut to disguise my presence and pried splinters from the beams with my fingernails to serve as pick and torsion wrench. The lock snapped willingly open after barely a touch and I set it to the side. Skimming the first entry my skin prickled.

Were the journal’s contents to be believed Dasadi played a role in the downfall of Zingma’s tree and was complicit in the spreading of the puppeteer’s plague. One did not need to read far at all before he was admitting his collaboration with both Javier of Unfallen Snow and Ma-ha-suchi. Later entries seemed to imply he had not intended to meet us and had indeed lost a few weeks of his memories before we pulled him from the sea and the most current entry mentioned that he’d received instructions to lead us to some sort of cave.

The journal itself seemed authentic, and true to the book’s providence the ink had run on the entries written before Dasadi’s rescue at sea making them barely legible. It even smelled like Dasadi -and only Dasadi – which would have made it damnable evidence… but I checked my natural inclination to believe the worst.

Placing everything back exactly as I found it I left the room and asked the maid who was cleaning one of the rooms nearby about the inn’s cleaning regimen and found that the inn’s staff air the rooms this way unerringly every day.

Sentiment does not color my assessment here. Dasadi’s aloof nature and his reticence to share the details of his actions don’t just lend credibility to the words penned in his diary they also do not endear him to me in a general sense. We are barely acquaintances and if he is truly the one who penned these pages in earnest then I would not feel conflicted killing him. No it was the box’s placement that tugged at my sense of caution. For it to be there it had to have been conveyed to that spot covertly which means either someone other than Dasadi placed it there for him to pick up or Dasadi had it with him the entire time somehow. The latter is a possible option. Dasadi is a sorcerer and hepotentially could possess the skill to conceal things box beyond our ability to perceive it.

So two simple options for how the box got there but here’s the rub. Say I had the ability to conceal the box unerringly so no one could see it – why would I opt to forgo that flawless security and risk leaving it unconcealed in an unlocked closet? On the flipside, if I were dead dropping something to an agent I would have little reason to leave a damning bit of written evidence handily explaining my schemes on top like a plum atop a bowl of rice. Yes incompetence or dumb luck could be a factor but the whole affair has an element of being too staged for my liking.

As for the journal itself I have certainly seen it before. The only thing is I never opened it. In fact I have never seen a proper sample of Dasadi’s written hand. If Dasadi did write down our misadventures in Volivat and someone had stolen the original as Dasadi claimed it would be possible to transcribe an altered copy that used details from the original to make it seem legitimate. As for the smell – I can fake that and I’ve got a notion there’s someone else I know who might be able to manage the same trick.

Someone is jerking us around like a fish on a line but who is it?

Dasadi?
Javier of Unfallen Snow?
Ma-Ha-Suchi?
Pekahan?

Is it paranoid to believe that Pekahan is wrapped up in this somehow? She went so far as to sow rumours of a fake slave trading syndicate across the Dreaming Sea just to hook Saiten into her little game. She also seemed unusually taken with me… obsessed possibly. Come to think of it in her shoes I wouldn’t have given up at the first sign of disinterest… I would follow my targets back when they felt safely rid of me so I could observe them when their guard was down…

Now here is a thought to make me break into a cold sweat : What if she never left us?

This problem was too big to assume I could handle it myself. Pulling Aster aside for a private word I laid out the problem in it’s entirety. After she heard me out she asked to see the journal and the box. I agreed and asked in turn if I could get something from her healer’s kit that dried clear that had a distinctive scent. She supplied me with a vaguely clear liquid with a faint bitter smell and the two of us went back to the box.

Aster leafed through the journal as I carefully spread the diluted tincture on the handles of the kit’s drawers and the straps by which it would be picked it up as well as on the items Dasadi might try and take with him. I reasoned that if he came into contact with the kit and tried to keep it’s existence a secret I’d smell traces of the decoction on him. We also argued in whispers about our course of action. Aster wished to confront Dasadi but I favored caution. If Dasadi was fast enough on his feet he’d simply claim the box had been planted in his room and we’d have no way to prove his story wasn’t false. We’d have a harder time catching him in a lie once Dasadi was on his guard. Better to not let him know we’re on to him and see what he does. She also expressed a desire to inform Saiten of Desadi’s possible duplicity. I talked her out of it. Saiten has never demonstrated the least aptitude for covert behavior… moreover he seems too stubborn to listen to my thoughts on such matters which has made me less inclined to request his help a minute before it becomes necessary.

Aster and I decided to seek out the others to chart our course of action and we had just collected Saiten when Zhwoi hailed us wearing a concerned expression. He told us a courier had arrived baring a missive and Zwhoi had supplied Dasadi his office to read it in private. When Dasadi did not reemerge from the office he had investigated and found Dasadi had vanished.

We cast about the office for clues to explain his disappearance. I found the ashes of what I guessed was the message in the center of the office near the desk but as far as my nose could tell Dasadi’s scent terminated in the middle of the office. He didn’t flee out the open window. To my senses it was if he disappeared…

An open window and a burnt letter. In Volivat Dasadi had burst into flames to avoid a blow that would have killed him. Could he have been lured into the office with a note so he could be ambushed? It’s also possible that he vanished because he’d been informed we were onto him. I wish I knew more about how his fire worked. Given that the places he’s reappeared are places he’d been unable to rescue himself from I somehow doubt he has much control over where he reappears. There must be something that governs the location outside of his control since in Volivat he appeared far from where he’d disappeared but while in the cave he kept reappearing in the same place he’d left. Provided he has dissolved into his flames we haven’t the least idea where he will reappear.

The timing makes sense for a setup. Dasadi disappears so odds are we’d check his room out of concern and would discover his kit and journal. It’s not definitive but I am beginning to favor the notion that Dasadi has been framed. I believe it likely that our meeting was engineered because he would eventually lead us here of his own volition though he needn’t necessarily be a willing or informed participant to act as pawn in our enemy’s game. Problem for our adversaries – in dealing with the dead he is perhaps our greatest specialist. At some point he might have become more of a liability than an asset now that he’s lead us close enough to our intended destination.

It is still possible he is the man who penned this journal I just am not sure of it.

We decided to try and track down Aiphee. She had put us on the track of the bonesiders with a story no-one else in the town could corroborate making her the most likely to be operating against us. If Dasadi were operating against us the two are most likely collaborators.

We approached the river goddess Alabaster Dawn to establish Aiphee’s reputation and a description of her tree. When the Goddess saw us she treated us with deference and offered us a pearl cup which she said would purify any liquid placed inside into fresh clean water. We were taken aback with her sudden show of respect and when we commented on it she mentioned Zwhoi had told her of our identity.

Enlightenment hit like a lightning bolt. A memory of Chaoxi leaning on a kitchen counter shortly after our return to Volivat when I expressed my concerns about Pekahan. “Your disguises aren’t infallible,” She had said “there are ways to figure out what you are.”I discovered in part what she meant after studying the spirits of Gisig’s alley. Gods are entitled to know the nature of those who fall under their jurisdiction. After we had bathed in the hots pring Zwhoi could sense who what we were because he was the Hot spring’s deity.

In any other context I might be less than pleased to have my identity established so but here was a way I could out any unwanted Lunars from our company. I just needed a god to play along.

Our inquiry established Aiphee’s trustworthy reputation and with gratitude for the goddess’s help we went to meet the spirit of the tree.

Aiphee’s tree was a gnarled, maybe a century or two old. Paying her a visit she did not seem particularly pleased to see us. Gone was the simpering act she had put on for Dasadi. When told of his suspicious disappearance she didn’t seem particularly broken up. Rather is seems she cared nothing in the slightest about his fate. I wouldn’t have expected her to mourn him like her nearest and dearest but I did expect some concern at least for her own welfare. If someone went missing after I covertly supplied potentially dangerous information I would be concerned for my own skin at least. At least I might have expected her to double down on her plea for assistance as Desadi was the only one who had agreed to her request to save the children.

But here she was- uncooperative and annoyed at fielding our questions.

I spoke to her in Old Realm as Aster and Saiten stood by. A glance at my companion’s blank looks made me remember that to those who can’t see the immaterial I appear to be carrying on a casual conversation with fixtures of the landscape. My conversation with Aiphee irked me. She did display some remorse when she mentioned the missing children children but overall I got a sense that she gotten what she needed from Desadi, something that we couldn’t give her…

Something didn’t smell right. I’d bet her little performance with Desadi was staged. The missing children are probably real but maybe they are being used as leverage to get Aiphee to stage a little play for our benefit. In Volivat we’d been fed a steady stream of scared little human breadcrumbs in various forms of trouble to lead us onward and I’m beginning to get the feeling that’s what’s happening here as well.

The prospect of being manipulated puts me in a foul mood.

I decided to put a little pressure on, if she had needed us to believe there were children so we’d go rushing off to save them then her lukewarm reception wasn’t supporting that aim. I switched to Riverspeak to tell Saiten and Aster that she was of no help, that she obviously cared nothing for Desadi and that I thoroughly doubted that there were any children in need of saving in the first place. I would have wagered anything that this tree spirit understood Riverspeak and when she blushed deep blue with rage and huffily stormed back into her tree I could hardly suppress a smile. So much for caring about the poor little children who used to play in her branches. Off her script Aiphee didn’t seem to give two sheckles what happened to those kids over her own scorched pride.

Like clockwork Aster started applying her charm to coax the spirit out of her tree and the angered sprite demanded that I leave before she would speak. I happily retreated to eavesdropping distance and listened as they spoke. Not once did Aiphee attempt to help or reiterate what she told Desadi even after my companions pledged to get the children back. She seemed rather more like she just wished we would all just go away.

Aiphee’s probably a decent tree spirit but I think the townfolk would do better to save their prayers for someone with an actual heart and not just a guilty conscience.

Back at the inn we settled down for the night. A cup of sake did little to untangle the knot I’d been handed but it at least made my concerns less oppressive. Pekahan, even the prospect of her, scares me. My forms, even the ones infallible against my fellow Solars are useless as cover against her while I in return am blind to her presence. She has shown she will go to enormous effort to toy with us. Now, if the journal is to be believed we’re on our way into the grasp of her father Ma-ha-Suchi to what? Kill him? Join him? To die by his hand?

I guess in the end it really doesn’t matter what end we are being manipulated since the lives of innocent children are being used as leverage. Even if I could talk Aster and Saiten into doing so I can’t abandon children in peril to this fate.

I need to figure out how to disrupt the game. Maybe it is to disrupt their expectations and turn our backs on this folly and see how they react and what lengths they will go to to keep us on track.

h3. Descending Earth 19




In the morning I spoke with Zhwoi about the possibility of vetting Dasadi should he return. I hoped he would at least be willing to inform us if he was a lunar masquerading about in disguise but the innkeep made it clear that he was a neutral party. He seemed intent that he not garner a reputation for spilling the secrets of anyone who bathed in his springs to just anyone who asked, even guests who might count on the warning for their safety in his damn Ryokan. Apparently gossiping to local River Goddesses doesn’t count as a breach of discretion. Hypocrite.

I didn’t press the issue. Zwhoi is quick to affirm the stance of “Not my circus, not my monkey”. I can understand operating as a neutral party in one’s self interest even if it makes me angry. Doubtless he just wants nothing to do with us to save his own skin should things go south. An unwilling ally is as likely to turn on us for causing them strife. Besides it’s not entirely discounted he didn’t help lure Dasadi into an assassination. He was the last one to see him before he disappeared

I crossed paths with Saiten on my way out. His morning routine of lifting the heaviest things at hand had him rearranging the inn’s rock garden. The poor elderly gardener following along behind fretted and did his best to minimize the damages but Saiten has no eye for arranging rock gardens and is likely to just leave the stones randomly placed with no ascetic principle once he becomes bored. I left them to it. It occurs that faking Saiten’s identity at least has significant challenges attached.

Finding Aster was simple, she was at the top of the waterfall singing a song to greet the day. I waited to let her finish. The notes she sang were so clear they rang through the air like the sounds pulled from the rims of brass prayer bowls. The resonating quality was calming and I would need calm. I am not at all calm.

As I saw it we could either wait here and hope Dasadi would emerge but I didn’t place much faith on that happening. If Dasadi were our enemy we’d be potentially better off without him, if our enemies understood where he would reappear than they might just take him hostage and we’d be losing time we might better spend on following a trail that was going cold. If he were our friend and could return on his own then he had the resources to catch up quickly. His dog could track us and the beast is large enough for him to ride. We’d be moving slower due to our compliment of soldiers anyway.

After speaking with Aster and then Saiten we opted to gather our people and follow the Bonesider’s trail. We left Wilson behind to act as a messenger on the off chance that Dasadi returned to the hot spring. The soft duty would be good for his spirits and he won’t spoil our approach with possible quacks from his shoe.

If someone has been keeping close then chances are good they have been keeping tabs on us by blending in with our guards. It would be ideal if I could find a way to make sure everyone is as loyal as they’d like us to think they are…

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