As the tale of the Exalted Continues

Piper's Journal 34

Unfinished Business

Descending Earth 21

The trail led us northwards. Following the Bonesider track was simple due to the sheer size of the beast but our entourage could only move so fast. We camped the night and picked up the trail in the morning and at mid day came across the place where the great beast had shed it’s flesh. Giant fetters lay amidst the rotten soup of innards encircled by the tracks and traces of the Bonesider host. In the slurry of mud and trampled greenery traces of partial boot prints from an unknown individual could be glimpsed however try as I might the scents were not strong enough to pick out. I’m not sure if I could have picked out much anyway given the appalling stench of the literal mounds of viscera. We opted to continue following the tracks of the beast that lead into the clearing. They had dragged some sort of game animal to lure it there. We traced the tracks until we noticed something strange.

The sky to the south was growing dark. A massive storm building. Bounding to the canopy I scrutinized the darkening clouds. Something wasn’t right. Bands of essence flashed like lightning stirring up a giant thunderhead. I bit my lip. The power was building directly over Rising Falls .

Consulting with my colleagues we agreed that the town was most likely in danger. We ordered the soldiers to find their way back without us as we’d be going on ahead. Saiten scooped Aster into his arms and we ran.

Most of us, myself included, normally walk through the world with a inflated sense of our own resilience. We brush seemingly light objects from our path without much thought but that is a conceit. We ourselves are fleeting shadows. Casting to the side my complacence I became insubstantial, treading the leafy tops of foliage and letting their sturdy forms cushion my footfalls and their springy fronds propel me forward. The stalwart stalks barely bent beneath my weight. Saiten instead embodied the opposing stance and punched through objects that many would not consider insubstantial. Splintered remnants of trees fell like deadly arrows into the calm.

What differences there are between Saiten and I became gradually apparent. Saiten was tireless. He could power on in this wild sprint virtually all day if need be but by the second hour I was wearing out. Muscles burned like hot brands pressed to skin as I forced power through them. Essense popped like sparks in a trail behind me. By the time we reached the outskirts of town my body trembled from exertion and my lungs screamed for oxygen. Saiten lept to survey the town from a higher vantage prompting a frightened squeal from Aster who still rode on his back and reported that all seemed quiet.

Falling to my hands and knees my lungs hungered, desperate for air. I pleaded with Saiten to at least go cautiously, grabbing a handful of his cape as he made to stride past. He paid me no heed and strode on dragging me unceremoniously in the dirt. I gulped lungfuls of cold air scented with petricor, coughing as I huddled on the ground a moment. A wretched pauper asking for a pittance and being denied even a second glance.

I don’t know why I bothered.

Saiten set Aster down and the two of them waltzed into town bold as brass. Every instinct screamed at me that this was wrong and some other sense. A bitterness. Behind them I kept out of sight my uneasiness growing. With a rumble the clouds broke showering us with rain so cold it stung, soaking us to our skins in seconds. There was something off about the sound of the drops. Pausing I placed my hand on one of the buildings feeling the impacts of drops like beats upon the skin of a drum stretched tight to bursting. In contact with the surface I could more easily pick out the pattern concealed beneath the roar of the rain. Hoofbeats… No… death.

Doors slammed open admitting armed men into the street as a break in the clouds swelled and a massive metal monstrosity plummeted to earth with a deafening crash. I coiled my exhausted muscles and jumped as the ground rippled from the impact. I ducked out of sight on a tiled rooftop and stole a shuddering breath. Opening my senses to the symphony of raindrop impacts I let each one’s sound paint a picture of the moment in the dull thump of water on flesh, the sharp hiss of water on metal and the roar of the water converging and flowing off the jade hide of a massive centaur-like Warstrider. Cavalry thundered, closing ranks to cut off our escape as armed monks swarmed onto the streets.

This would be the Wyld hunt, the foes that even Broken Walls feared. Slamming power into the wet clothing that plastered my skin I heard Saiten roar from the square up ahead “This is it, get ready, we’re doing this!”

My mouth went dry as paper looking up at the towering war machine and the approaching army. Of course he’d fight it. Saiten doesn’t run. Not from anything no matter how outmatched he may seem. My voice cracked with terror as I screamed a plea “Run! Get back to the forest!” Keeping out of sight of the men below I ran to meet them, hoping against hope they would come to their senses so I could cover their retreat.

Aster began to sing in a voice that made the hair on the back of my neck stand straight up. Petals of Aster’s light drifted down as Saiten’s power exploded into the form of a massive fist decimating the foot soldiers numbers. Saiten threw series of sharp blows almost too fast for the eye to follow transforming flesh and blood opponents into deadly missiles. Those he hit wouldn’t have suffered long. They practically vaporized from the impact.

The Warstrider charged with incredible speed closing the gap as Aster turned and retreated. The cavalry would be on Saiten in seconds. I tore ceramic roof-tiles from their moorings and dabbing small threads of my power onto them threw them with a sharp twist. The spinning tiles cut through the air with a hissing sound beheading the trio of mounted warriors who were riding Saiten down as he dodged the giant lancetip of the Warstrider, fire flaring from his fists.

Aster was falling back, but Saiten stood his ground.

Given his penchant for risk I’d assessed the likely possibility that I’d witness Saiten die one day. I’d been steeling myself for a blow so when the time came I’d mitigate the damage of his loss. As time went on I cared for him less and less. I am not ambivalent to his fate just already resigned to it.

Perhaps if I believed in my cause I’d be willing to go down swinging. To take as many of the bastards down with me… But I don’t. These people are my enemies because they are scared of us and from what I’ve seen they have good cause to fear what we can do. Somewhere deep down I even acknowledge guilt for preserving my own life at such cost yet here I am armed with clay rooftiles against the pinnacle of weaponry so I could, what, perish in a suicide charge alongside Saiten in a symbolic but futile act of brotherly solidarity? Even if by some miracle we survived this would only happen again… another time another place, another deadly risk met with boisterous enthusiasm.

I was done. There was no winning this game, just accepting the terms of our loss. Saiten would have his fight and with any luck buy Aster and I at most a few seconds. As a chance it wasn’t much but as a parting gift it was invaluable. Turning on my heel I fled, clinging to each moment of precious life as I shed any pretense of pride, fellowship and bravery.

It’s stupid isn’t it? What reason would I cling to life for? My ideals are not high minded enough for me to fool myself with the delusion that it absolves me of my sins. Love is forever beyond me and I haven’t even much of a gift for friendship. A mere handful of people will mourn me. My life has held little joy in it and there were times when death might have been a merciful out.. but I’d persevered. I dragged myself out of despair time and again out of pure spite and malice because this life, even when it’s the only thing I have, is mine. I’ll not throw it away.

Yeah. I am despicable. You want heroism? You’re looking in the wrong place.

I could feel the Warstrider gaining ground as I put on a burst of speed. It was heading my way. That was it then, Saiten was probably dead and I’d be next in line at the gates of hell. With any luck Aster would use what little time I could afford in tangling with the thing to hide or run away-

My heart hammered in my chest, racing to fulfill it’s quota of beats before the finishing blow would force it forever still. This was it then, the death by betrayal and negligence I always had coming. I had been right to be wary of friendship, the intoxicant that imperils judgement and leaves one an addict forever hurting for their next fix.

I am so very angry and it doesn’t matter at all. There is no one left to care…

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