Sunday 31 December 2017

Exalted - Undying Fury of Creation

We'd been sent to the Hold of White Idols to find out why the farming community had stopped sending tithe to, or even communicating with, the Realm. We were warned there was known Anathema activity in the area, so we (or at least, I) assumed the place had been attacked by a maddened Lunar like the one we'd fought with Raging Tiger - or otherwise destroyed in a manner the Realm would blame on Anathema.

I knew the Realm wasn't perfect; I knew the Immaculate Faith were wrong (maliciously or ignorantly) about Anathema; I knew that the political in-fighting tied the Empress's hands; I knew other Houses were behind the attack on Derren's Ford (the evidence we'd gathered so far suggested our mother's House, Ledall - perhaps to cleanse the dishonour caused by her eloping like that - supported by Pellips, the House our brother had joined on being Chosen). I knew all that, but I still believed in the intrinsic goodness, the rightness of the Realm, and I couldn't see how anyone with ties to the Realm could betray or ignore the Realm unless they were Bad People. (I'm sure that sounds terribly naïve to you, but I was still in my teens.)

So as we made our way to the settlement proper, I was surprised to see the fields were well-tended and prospering. The people we saw looked healthy and in good spirits - but stared hostilely at us as we passed. Hostility aside, it reminded Kito and I of our early childhood. 

Kito wanted to be circumspect - to go in with no more than couple of our unit and scout the place out, but I was still filled with that feeling of righteousness and I overruled him. We marched to the front gate in full armour. I anticipated we'd be let in, have a pleasant discussion filled with apologies on their part, probably be fed a nice meal, maybe help out with any Anathema issue they may have, and be on our way, with everyone happy.

Instead, we were met with barred gates and jeers from atop the walls. This made me angry, and I demanded we be let in. They refused, pointing bows at us. From their stance and draw, it looked as though they'd had minimal training. I demanded again, in the name of the Realm, knowing they couldn't ignore that...

They could, and did, and told us they'd fire if we didn't leave.

We didn't leave.

Kito somehow got himself in the way just in time to take the arrow that was coming for me, and our unit leapt or scaled the walls to start fighting. They broke through the gates and entered - experienced soldiers against barely-trained civilians. It was a massacre. Kito and I entered the settlement, hoping to regain order and stop the bloodshed. We were jumped by a group who wouldn't listen - we were soon fighting for our lives. These farmers would rather fight to their deaths (and the deaths of those around them) than bow to the Realm again.

Kito and I got separated in the chaos. As I ran down an empty main street, movement caught my eye in the alley to the side. A man was crouched over a young girl. His long, dark hair was braided with silver bells, his skin tan. Simple robes showed a well-muscled figure - he was at least as beautiful to look at as the Emissary, and radiated great danger. I thought, at first, he was killing the child - a crazed Lunar taking the opportunity to enact more carnage - but then saw he was closing her eyes, laying her to rest: the wound that cut her nearly in two had come from a Realm blade. I wanted to throw up.

He looked up at me, hazel eyes seeming to find mine even through the visor of my helmet. A wave of vertigo flashed through me in that instant, and in it I saw the full horror of what the Realm could be, and for the first time felt no fear that I might become Anathema, no ambiguity or conflict: for the first time, I actively wanted to be so, to be marked apart from the Realm.

A deep, rumbling voice came from him. A single word: "Run."

I did, fleeing through the nearest house to find another building that had been ransacked but not destroyed. I tucked myself between an overturned table and the wall. I knew I needed to find Kito and our unit and get out of here or we'd all die - we all deserved to die, for what we'd done, but I wasn't ready to just yet - but first I needed to call in the cavalry. I summoned an Infallible Messenger to go to the Emissary: "Please help. We're in real danger. We're at the Hold of White Idols and there's an Anathema here who's really angry and hates the Realm and I understand why."

I could hear the Anathema tearing through the buildings, looking for us. I went to find Kito ready to try face him down - I pulled him away, but he resisted, sword drawn, ready to be killed to buy the rest of us time to escape. For all I thought he was a fool, my heart swelled with pride for the bravery of my brother. The Emissary arrived then, so quickly after I'd called for him it seemed impossible, until we saw Hak leaning through some sliding doors in the road. He called for us all to enter, and Kito and I made sure all of our unit were through before running through ourselves - Kito last, still ready to sacrifice himself if needed. The Anathema was charging for him even as the Emissary tried to get in the way. Hak slid the paper doors shut behind us, as claws ripped through. 

All was quiet. The room we were in looked like a waiting room; Hak reopened the doors to show a corridor and led us along it. At the end of the tunnel stood a pair of giant lions made of what looked like gold. One turned to Hak and greeted him in a friendly manner. The other raised a paw in respect, and we passed. I was impressed and wanted to befriend them too, but Hak said they would rip me to shreds if I came here without him.

The place we were in now was stunningly beautiful, rolling fields and meadows, lakes, flying boats...  He'd brought us to his home in Yu-Shen. 

We ate and he gave Kito and I each an outfit made of some strange material; mine is a beautiful red and black dress that still fits and is still the finest outfit I own. He explained to us that he was the leader of the Celestial Bureaucracy (a phrase I still don't entirely understand), but that he was on a sabatical - a very long sabatical, that was drawing to a close, and when it did, he wouldn't be able to spend so much time with us, because he would be returning to work when the end of the world came.

He wanted to show us something, so took us (all of us) in his flying boat to see the Bureaucracy in action. I felt sorriest for our Immaculate Monk, for all I now hated her faith. She looked uncomfortable, almost to the point of fear and nausea. 

Various bureaucrats greeted Hak with varying degrees of respect - some seemed very pleased to see him, asking about his sabatical and whether it was over, and others were as blunt as propriety would let them be. Seems Heaven is no less political than the Realm. Moreso, likely, as they have more power here.

Hak brought Kito and I to a room, asking the others to wait outside. He explained to us inside that the Anathema we'd seen was known as the Undying Fury of Creation, but he hadn't always been called that: his name was originally Soul of a Poet, and he'd written beautiful poetry with his Solar mate. As Hak spoke, we saw life-sized moving images of a much more peaceful (though no less beautiful) Undying Fury of Creation, walking with an obscured figure. Hak explained that Solars and Lunars were created as pairs and that there is a bond between them that the Lunar can sense - hence their designation of Steward. Undying Fury's bond with his mate is particularly strong, and when his mate was killed his anger and thirst for vengeance was such that he became the Undying Fury of Creation. The images changed to show the other figure lying in bed in a pool of red, red blood, and Undying Fury hacking apart the Dragon-bloods responsible. 

We returned to where our unit waited. Hak wanted to know where we wanted to go now. 

"Back," I said. Everyone else - even Kito - balked, but I was adament: we had to go back to the Hold of White Idols and apologise. 

"He'll kill us," Kito pointed out.

I shrugged, "then he'll kill us. It was my decision that caused this," I felt bitter saying it, because the unit had attacked against my wishes, "so if he needs blood now I'll try make sure it's only mine." I wanted to add that we deserved it, but somehow in knowing we deserved it I also felt I might not be killed - and I knew we had to apologise, even if it meant our deaths. Somethings are more important.

It was agreed, though not everyone was happy about it. Hak transported us back to a forest near the settlement. We could see light blazing as the two powerful beings continued to fight - they'd both channelled so much peripheral essence therough themselves the effects could be seen for miles. We walked by the fields, now destroyed, with bodies scattered in a way that reminded me uncomfortably of Derren's Ford. 

Hak made us walk slowly, seeing the state of the blazing banners and the essence flows. He timed it well; we entered the settlement as they both reached exhaustion point. Neither was expecting to see us; the Emissary went to send us back and Undying Fury of Creation snarled, but neither had anything left to threaten or defend us with: the time we'd spent in Yu-Shen translated to about 3 days here, and they'd fought continuously. Both were bloodied, but neither seemed in immediate danger of death.

I glanced at the Emissary as I stepped forward to stand before Undying Fury of Creation. I saw surprise flicker across the latter's face as I bowed my head and apologised, profusely. He asked who I was, and I introduced myself as Taji, scrutinising his reaction as I explained that I was told I would also be Dawn's Dancing Butterfly - and the same as I introduced Kito with Resplendent Blade Resonating Eternal tagged on. There was no response to the names. I'm not sure why I thought there might be, but I wanted him to know.

The Emissary and Undying Fury were too exhausted for much more conversation then, so we made camp away from the destruction and left them to sleep.

Our unit were understandably surprised by the revelation Kito and I thought we might become Anathema. Rhianon and Elinor started preparing soup while Kito and I explained about the Fey and the Seer. It was difficult for them to take in; Cathak Cainan told us they were part of the Wild Hunt (or had been until now). I felt uncomfortable to have been paired with the Wild Hunt - and ambivalent feeling, laced with relief they'd chosen to support us. Rey wasn't happy at all, telling us the Wild Hunt had killed her Solar mother. The unit - or Cainan at least, as their spokesman - were contrite.

Kito and I told them about Derren's Ford to explain why I didn't entirely trust the Realm. Ledall Sven didn't think his House could have been behind it: they wouldn't do that to one of their own. I thought he was just defending them, until it was pointed out more likely another House had mascaraded as Ledall and Pellips, most likely Mnemon, whose head had been betrothed to Daddy before he met Mum. The Emissary joined us during this conversation, accepting soup from Rhianon gladly, and agreeing with the conclusion. Undying Fury of Creation didn't speak, just glared at us - but did take the bowel of soup I gave him, and ate the refill as fast. 

We had to decide what to do - what to tell the Realm. I thought we could say it was haunted or poisoned or something, to keep them away. As we talked, the Emissary remembered a rather macabre thing he could do: animate the bodies so they would continue to work the fields, but not respond to anything. He could also rebuild the settlement. It was horrid, but would mean anyone coming to investigate in the future was likely to accept our story. There was nothing we could do to hide how much essence had been spent in the area, but hoped it would be explained by anyone who could sense it as being why the people here seemed alive but not.

I don't think the Undying Fury of Creation hated us when we left. I don't think he liked us, but I don't think he saw us as being as bad as the rest of the Realm.