Previous Thread was here: >>160219 Should probably read that first.
Oh hey, I'm back. I'd like to give an excuse like last time to do with murderous flora but nothing like that really happened this time. Just crushing amounts of procrastination.
In my efforts to master the true art of procrastination, I journeyed into the deepest Australian deserts. There I found an ancient Aborigine master and though I had no permission, I studied under him. I took a seat beside him and opened my mind to all kinds of astral bullshit as I sought the true center of procrastination itself only, in a heartwarming and moralistic ending, to find that I had held the power within myself all along. When I next opened my eyes from my dream quest, over four months had passed.
So in other words, don't blame me for the delay, blame the Dreamtime.
In all seriousness though, this isn't going to happen again. We're getting close to done and I refuse to let this story fall into the void.
I haven't actually finished the huge flashback wall 'o text but I was convinced (read: yelled at) by an author who will go unnamed to post what I had as just the first part, in order to assure readers that I haven't died or gotten into more accidents.
So oohrah, let's go! I'm pretty sure that I mess up some tenses quite spectacularly because I wrote it up in a day and didn't proofread my shitty writing but fuck it I'm back and I don't even care.
[X] Oh screw it. You said you would tell them everything. Even if it’s a terrible violation of privacy.
To back down now would only look like insincere backpedalling, as if you had something heinous to hide. And you do, albeit of a different nature than Eiki likely suspects. Even if you and Komachi were able to shift it to a different method, it still wouldn’t look good for you. Your account would forever be questioned and doubted. At least this way they’ll be certain that they get nothing but the truth from you, quite uncharacteristically so.
It would certainly fall under the purview of an unpleasant truth though, so this lies more within your purview than most.
“Oh, what the hell,” you say, giving yourself a tired air. “Let’s just get on with it, Eiki. Particularly since it’s what you’ve been planning to do this entire time. You blitzed through those questions far too quickly.”
Komachi stops talking, her mouth pressed in a firm line. The Yama makes no reaction as she replies. “Of course. This was only ever going to end one way.”
Not bloody likely. You could still run, you could still escape. Nothing can constrain you if you do not wish to be held. No need whatsoever to sit through your private history being aired. You could just get up and leave right now. Yes.
You stay seated.
“I guess I did promise to tell you everything. Feel free to start violating my past when you wish.”
She returns the mirror to its original position, its surface reflecting images long gone. Despite your permission, Komachi still looks troubled.
“Don’t you remember the last time you tried this?”
Her objections are waved away.
“That happening again is statistically unlikely. Now enough faffing about. We’ve wasted far too much time already. I hope you’re ready, this is going to be a deep one.”
The mirror flashes, images beginning to form. You feel a queasy feeling in your stomach. All of your work, it may be sabotaged now.
“Just let me say, that the Nash you’ll see is not me. Not anymore. That Nash is younger, lesser…in so many ways.”
Will they hate you?
The view in the mirror gets clearer, until you can nearly hear the clawstrider’s low groan, nearly smell the smoke. And then you can, as the reflection becomes reality.
The house amongst the trees was there waiting for you, just as it was every day as you ran down the road. Judging by how the sun sank low in the sky, you were late. You had spent too much time with your friends in town, roughhousing and playing tricks on the other boys.
You don’t wake Rex from his slumber as you approach the house. He’d just been fed by the looks of it and would likely sleep for a good long time if uninterrupted. An exotic breed of reptile supposedly derived from the clawstriders, Rex had served as your father’s mount back during his travels and had retired when he had.
You open the door to find your father roasting meat over the fire, his back to the door. He doesn’t look up, even though he must have heard you come in. No greetings, no accusations of being late either. Not that you really expected either. He’s never seemed to worry about you or acknowledge you to any great deal. The two of you often exchange only a few sentences a day.
Looking back from your current perspective, you’re not sure if this is an expression of quiet confidence or merely parental neglect.
For a retired man, he’s not very old. Only the far edges of his wild green hair are touched by grey. He used to be a wandering priest, working freelance for a wide variety of gods and spirits. His nomadic nature eventually landed him a job with the Guild, as a voyageur, a man who would comb the wild places for exotic and dangerous ingredients of great value. He had often vanished into the wilderness for prolonged periods of time, alone save for Rex.
It had been the last of those trips that he had returned bearing a child in his arms. That had been when he had given up the nomadic life for good, accepting a permanent contract with the god of a small town and settling down.
“Nashar. We shall be entertaining a guest tonight.”
Your father often had guests, most of them old friends from his former life. Benevolent Hearth, the local god governing the nearby town, made regular visits. Some guests had only ever visited once, stopping by as their travels took them past an old friend. Minor gods, elemental spirits, Beastmen from the edges of the world, fellow thaumaturges and adventurers and so on.
During those times it’s as if he was a different man, happy and talkative. Many of them make a great show of making a fuss of you. Even if it was to just to be polite to your father, you always enjoyed it and took part in the conversations as much as you were able to. If nothing else, it let you see a different side to your father. A side that you never saw when the two of you were alone. The one exception to this was Merchant Prince Tsurim, your father’s old Guild contact. He was far more important than any number of minor deities and you were always forbidden to take part or listen in on those meetings.
The visitor tonight was nothing exciting, a dreary old rain spirit that was following the path of its chosen cloud. He tousles your hair roughly with his clawed hand, accidentally breaking the skin. You cringe but make no other outward reaction as you feel a trickle of blood begin to run down your scalp. He doesn’t seem to notice.
“Beautiful hair,” the god hisses awkwardly, his beak making his speech stilted. “ Like sunlight. Not like your ragged green mop.”
Your father smiles self-depreciatingly. “My hair is nothing more than a sign that our ancestors spent far too long on the Eastern Threshold. Nashar has been very lucky to have taken after his mother in that regard.”
Your eyes light up as he mentions your mother. You were still at that age where you romanticised the woman your father had met on the far edge of Creation, imagining her to be some important and mysterious figure. A god of the distant Threshold perhaps, a Dragonblooded exile or a deceitful fairy (though even then you didn’t think the last too likely. Your father never had fae visitors nor did he speak of them aside from the horrific fairytales he used to try to lull you to sleep with, only to usually have the opposite effect). It will be years from now before you figure out that she had just been some whore in a Threshold town and it will be incredibly disappointing.
Your father sees your reaction and immediately steers the conversation away before you can say anything.
“And how are your children these days, Unki?”
“Numerous. I am beginning to regret certain decisions I have made.”
“Don’t look at me like that mate, I told you that making it so that every woman who was touched by your rain got pregnant was a bad idea. And you didn’t bloody listen.”
“I was drunk! And now the Storm Chief wants me to pay child support or he’ll punish me for dishonouring the rest of the Roanon rain pantheon! For all of them! Do you know how much even a single Godblood costs to keep!" They keep breaking things!”
You have to hold back laughter at the god’s obvious distress. Your father refills Unki’s glass before poking a long stick of incense into the fire, the smell calming the rain spirit somewhat.
“And now we arrive at the real reason you’ve unhitched your cloud from its usual moor, hmmm? Why don’t you take a long drink and tell me everything…”
“Aww look, I had no idea you were so cute, Nash! Look at those widdle eyes!”
“Good grief, can we just skip to the horrifying parts? Komachi is getting weird.”
“Agreed. This is interesting but irrelevant. I have a fast-forward button on this thing somewhere…”
You were fifteen when you returned home from town only to hear Rex’s screams. You’re walking with a jaunty hop to your step, having just returned from a very good day indeed. You had had the afternoon free from your apprenticeship to the local carpenter and had spent it back with your old gang. You had caught the tailor’s boy out alone and had had a little fun with him, taking care to only do it in ways that didn’t leave marks. Nobody believed him afterwards either since the young wag was known to be an incurable liar and you were one of the most upstanding and well-liked youths in town. Knowing a good target when you see it, you took the time to spread a few nasty rumours as well. He didn’t have very many friends already and now he’ll probably have none.
All this happiness vanished as you rounded the bend and saw Rex butting his head against the door, his tiny arms scrabbling against the wall futilely. He was screaming. You run to the front door and swing it open, afraid of what you might see.
Inside your father is dead. He’s lying peacefully in bed, smiling peacefully. He could have been sleeping but something in you just immediately knows he is far too still. You drag the blanket off of him and start to inspect him for wounds, your actions automatic. He has suffered no injury of any visible kind. It looks as if he just… stopped.
You walk outside and sit down for a while. It’s strange. You don’t feel sad. At least, not the sadness you always thought you were supposed to feel. You just felt empty. Rex is still crying out and you find yourself wondering vaguely how the hell that damn lizard knew. Was it just animal intuition?
By the time you look up again, it is well into the night. You sit there for a bit longer before you haul the corpse out of the house and burn it. After the fire has burned down to ashes and Rex has fallen into a fitful sleep, you walk back inside the house, carefully lock the door and go to sleep.
When you wake up, everything is as it was the night before. It didn’t turn out to be a dream or some other phantasm. You feel as if you should be crying or some other appropriate showing of emotion as you gather the bone remnants and ashes up and throw them into the forest.
You walk into town shortly after and visit the local shrine in order to inform Benevolent Hearth on your father’s death. He doesn’t take it well. In a different situation you might have been able to draw at least some amusement from his inelegant sorrow but you can’t help but to sympathise a little.
Having a personal connection, you decide, rather ruins the fun.
Still, you see little recourse than simply continuing to get on with your life. It’s what he would have wanted. You are able to live off of Benevolent Hearth’s donations for a week before he visited.
After a week the house is beginning to get filthy. Without your father to constantly renew the bindings, the thaumaturgy keeping the house so incredibly clean and warding nature out have failed. Already the natural world is attempting to reclaim the place and you can do little to stop it.
Come the morning, you open the door to find an unusual man waiting on the other side, perched atop the doorstep. He’s an old man, with thick white hair and brown leathery skin. Between the outfit of dark silk and the truly outrageous amount of gold and silver jewellery that lurked underneath it, you could safely say that what he’s casually wearing is easily worth more than twice that of everything you own.
One of his hands is clasped around a long wooden pipe, the other scratching Rex under his chin, the lizard crooning softly.
“…Can I help you?”
“I doubt it. I’ve come to pay my respect to Roshen, boy. Came as soon as I heard.”
“Of course. Right this way.”
Another one of father’s visitors. Of course. You don’t recognise him but he seems familiar. You take him back around the house to the collection of gargantuan trees behind it.
“I committed his remains to the forest. There’s nothing left to see.”
The man nods slowly.
“Aye. It’s how he would have wanted it. Rosh loved himself some forests. More than he ever loved people, I’d think. But you’d know all about that wouldn’t you?”
You don’t actually say anything, such is your surprise. While you were not taking an overt part in it, you’re absolutely certain that the mourning process is about honouring the dead, rather than pointing out his general inability to connect with his own son. The man sees this and chuckles.
“If I’m not allowed to say it, I don’t know who is. I’m his boss, after all. And Roshen was never able to talk to people right, not actual mortal people. The fact he was able to rut out a kid with a broad somewhere never ceases to amaze.”
Only then does your mind catch up with the situation and you realise who the man is. You hastily bow.
“Ah! I’m sorry sir!”
Merchant Prince Tsurim laughs his old head off at your consternation.
“No worries. Took your time, though. I was told you were more observant than that. But I suppose there are extenuating circumstances. You can just call me Tsurim though. None of this ‘sir’ nonsense.”
He sees your confusion and continues.
“Let me guess, you’re wondering where the rest of my retinue is? It is well known, after all, that us Guild princes never leave home without a company of mercenaries, a few small gods and a harem of slave girls! Hah!”
He laughs. You do not.
“A little bit, yeah.”
“Not for this business. Roshen was a friend. I only brought a few discreet friends and they’re waiting back in town. Shockingly dangerous of me, I know. But still…there are some things a man has to do alone.”
The two of you stand there for a little while longer in silence as the pungent smell of his pipe slowly fills the air. He takes a sidelong glance at you.
“And what are you going to do now boy?”
“I work with the carpenter a little.”
“Hooo…That won’t do. That won’t do at all.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Nothing. To let a lad like you wither away in the middle of bumfuck nowhere would be a crime. Say, if you ever somehow find yourself in Nexus, which is just a little way down the south road from here just saying, you seek me out. I’ll find you a job somewhere. It’s the least I could do for your pa.”
“Nexus? I’ve never been to the big city before!”
“Yeah, I guess I’m wrong. It’d be the wrong place for you. Better for you to stay here. Become a carpenter.”
With those words he steps back on the path and begins to walk away. Just before he rounds the bend and goes out of vision, he turns back and says something you can barely hear.
“See you soon!”
You sigh. How frustrating. You hate people who act as if they’ve gotten you all figured out. It’s even worse when they might be right.
It was only later that day that you realised with the sudden shock that this was the first time you had ever heard your father’s name.
“I left the next day. As if I could stay satisfied with what I had when I had that dangled in front of me! You know, looking back on it, Tsurim was a much better judge of character than even he realised, even if he did just feel obligated.”
“I don’t recall this judgement having a commentary track. Both of you can be quiet from now on, that’s an order! Let’s speed this up.”
It has been nearly ten years since you left your home for Nexus. You can still remember it clearly. You had travelled with Rex, riding the lizard in his final trip. You know that it was his final trip because you sold him to an abattoir shortly after you arrived in the city. No turning back.
Besides, where were you going to keep him?
Tsurim had put you to work as an assistant counter in a moneylending business he owned. You didn’t stay in this position for very long as an innate talent of yours revealed yourself. You had never experienced it with your life at home but the shine of wealth, the gleam of coins, be they jade or silver or any other kind, had a language all of their own to you. You memorised the stock values, all the ways anything can be traded or sold. It called out to you in a way nothing had and you knew then that you had found your true calling. You had your own business and a full Guild membership by when you were twenty.
As if you had come into your natural environment, you blossomed in Nexus. You took to city life easily, your already existing skill at deceit being honed and sharpened by the backstabbing festerpit that was Guild politics. You had to beat back more than a few predators that had seen your youth as vulnerability and Tsurim had refused to help. You had the choice of either drowning or learning how to swim all at once. Sure you had made some fumbling amateurish mistakes along the way but never the same one twice, which was more than what you could say about the bumbling fools that thought themselves your competitors.
By the age of twenty-five, you had expanded beyond a mere single business. Snapping up contracts with several high-profile suppliers and voyageurs allowed you to become the supplier for a not insignificant number of alchemist shops, apothecaries and drug houses. And there should be no stopping there. Soon you’ll be able to buy out some of your smaller suppliers entirely, ensuring they did no business with anyone but you. Doing that would also allow you to expand more into the slave trade as the picking fields are near-universally crewed with them.
And that was just your legal income. You had, of late, acquired a second business, with a rather shady kind of clientele. And by that you mean they are literally shades. You are doing business with a certain kind of ghost, the kind that the Guild disapproves of. The Timeless Order of Manacle and Coin.
The Timeless Order of Manacle and Coin is the Guild’s Underworld counterpart, albeit far older and nearly as rapacious. The Order has a predatory fascination with the Guildsmen, their slavers eagerly awaiting below to greet newly-dead Guildsmen with chains and the eternal slavery of the Underworld. And even if they don’t, one must still contend with the fact that the Guild is a greedy monstrosity that has spread its arms all over Creation, destroying nations, enslaving millions, exploiting and raping entire cultures all for nothing but pure material gain. The Underworld is full of ghosts waiting for vengeance upon any unhappy Guildsman that dies unprepared.
It is fear of such a fate occurring that drives many Guildsmen to take risks and become as rich as possible. Not all can be motivated by such a pure love of wealth as you, you suppose. Provided you are rich enough when you die, you can enter the Underworld prepared with a legion of grave goods provided for your funereal. Ethereal riches, memories of better times, sacrificed slaves, effigies that are inactive in Creation but gain life and purpose in the Underworld…a huge variety of treasures! Passing over to the Underworld with such wealth, a Guildsman is mostly guaranteed to join the Timeless Order as one holding the chains, rather than in them.
The idea that they would pass on straight to Lethe without forming a ghost was inconceivable. Any true Guildsmen would hang onto the world out of sheer greed if nothing else.
A few years ago you were approached by a woman named Mari, who claimed to represent one of the ghosts who made up the Timeless Order. Mari was alive but was a Ghostblood, the product of a union between living and dead. She had tried to seduce you at first but you had rebuffed her. You had come to have known many women in your time at Nexus but you had little desire at the time to lie with a Half-Dead, even if she hadn’t been obviously attempting to manipulate you.
Once her credentials had been proven however, you found yourself being given a very lucrative source of money. Her patron would be willing to pay you (and an unknown amount of others who were also part of the network) huge amounts of jade for discreetly performing a few simple jobs whenever called.
You were to ensure that certain minor Guildsmen entered the Underworld helpless and alone. Strategic denial of grave goods to ensure that they were…well, you never learned what would happen to them but you could hazard a good guess. Funerary sabotage. You were unable to resist adding your own touch either. Though they would have nothing else, you always made sure that the fools were put to rest with two silver coins, one under each eyelid. An act of vanity, it connected your various pieces of work in a matter you found highly satisfying. You got the idea from an old practice that had been performed in your old hometown, a practice that honoured peasants but left the rich with nothing.
At first the reactions of close loved ones and family filled you with hesitation. You were doing this purely to serve yourself and you were never under any illusions about what would happen to those wretched ghosts but still…seeing their grief made you halt, if only for a little.
You soon got over that.
In time, you found yourself finding a perverse pleasure in witnessing their reactions. It felt good. It was like the old petty bullying you had done as a child, a million times over. Something about their pain, their tears, caused a thrill to run through you. In a way, you had always held back your urges before, out of fear of reprisal if nothing else. But this was secret, this was safe. You were doing what you wanted and nobody was stopping you. It was the first time the darkness within you had ever been fed in such a way and it felt wonderful. Did this make you depraved? Almost certainly. Did it make you a bad person? You didn’t think so but you supposed you weren’t the most unbiased judge.
It was a revelation.
You’re beginning to find yourself tempted to beyond what you are currently doing in order to more fully explore and experiment with these pleasures. At times you find yourself distracted from your usual work as you imagine what it would be like to take it further, to use the knife in your belt…
What would it be like, to take a more direct role?
But for now you restrain yourself. It would be dangerous to go any further for now. You are not yet so rich that you are above the consequences that could result. And you must admit, are afraid of crossing a line that you haven’t yet touched.
But that could change soon. Your rate of expansion as an aspiring drug baron, while impressive, is not good enough, you decide. What you can touch, you should grasp. What you can grasp, you should seize. No holding back. What was the point of fully learning how to walk before you started to run?
What you are planning is nothing short of fraud on quite a large scale. You have already begun laying the groundwork, having used your web of contacts to eventually get the ear of a shady bureaucracy spirit willing to lend his magical aid to counterfeit. After the hefty bribe needed to secure his help, you find yourself in possession of all the paperwork indicating the ownership of a lucrative new plantation that does not in fact exist. The deed is not made out to you, oh no, but a trusted patsy when it inevitably gets traced.
All you will have to do is gather investors who are eager to take part in this new short-term high-reward banquet. The first would be a hard sell you’ll probably have to be there in person in order to soothe their doubts with some quick manipulation. Under a different name and identity of course. Once the first investors buy in, talk will slowly make its way round and draw in more willing to invest. This will establish a rolling fund of money slowly sloshing its way through the system, as you pay off the earlier investors with the money that you got paid by later investors.
Such a scheme is of course entirely unsustainable. Once it peaks you plan to take the money and run, in a manner of speaking. You will not actually be going anywhere but the stolen coin will eventually circulate its way through a series of out-of-town banks and business before slowly trickling its way back to you in small successive amounts. The man who supposedly owns the false plantations will vanish entirely.
You trust the man who is being your patsy for this and can only respect him to be willing to take the danger. That said, the idea of sharing your wealth is unfortunate, as is being ratted out later. Once it is all done, he will disappear without a trace.
This cannot possibly fail.
“I’m actually a little embarrassed for my past self. Far too over-confident with so much to learn…It was ambitious but hopelessly rickety.”
“This is starting to get increasingly fucked up.”
“Shut up! No more warnings!”
You idly slide a bead around the abacus as you calculate just how much you stand to walk away from this. If this is successful, combined with your ever-lucrative funerary sabotage and legal operations, you ought to be filthy rich. Admittedly you would be filthy rich in the sense that you couldn’t ever spend more than a fraction of it at a time in order to avoid raising suspicion but it’s just the idea of being rich that appeals to you.
Wrapped in your golden dream of ever-increasing fraudulent investments, you barely even notice when the door is kicked open. You dive behind your desk anyway only to get grabbed roughly and dragged out. You kick out at the burly man who’s grabbed you but he just endures it and punches you in the face.
You’re pulled up from the ground and slammed into your chair, blood streaming down your face. This isn’t right. Where are your guards?
“Your security has decided to take a little break, Mr Nashar. Search everywhere.”
The speaker is a bearded man standing in the doorway. In front of him are three men, each one of them enormous piles of muscle. Two of them have already started ripping through your stuff while the third just stand behind you menacingly.
You spit out the blood.
“What the fuck is going on here! I demand to know!”
The bearded man nods and the man behind you punches you in the gut, causing you to bend double.
“Consider yourself lucky we don’t cut our tongue. Did you really think you’d get away with this? That nobody would notice?”
Oh gods. Oh gods. Act calm, act natural, act calm, act natural…
You can’t say anything. Your mouth refuses to move, frozen by fear. Sweat joins the blood in pouring down your lips. Your accuser advances, causing you to cringe back into the chair.
“Got hired to investigate that little plantation of yours. Guess what else we found?”
He holds his hands open in front of your face. A silver coin is in each one. No no no no nonononono. They couldn’t have figured that one out. No.
“Did you think this was some kind of fucking game? Leaving behind little smug clues? You’re nowhere near as smart as you think you are!”
You get punched in the face again. And again. You slump off your chair, unable to think. You try to crawl away but a boot to the chest puts an end to that quickly.
“Bag him. He has an appointment to keep.”
A bag is dragged over your barely conscious head. You barely feel the ropes go around your body…until they tighten them, a sudden spike of pain. One of them grabs you by the upper body and drags you out the door.
As everything goes dark, the only thing you can think of was how quick it had all been. Just a few seconds to go from being on top of the world to having it all ruined around you.
A splash of water on your face wakes you up, gasping and coughing. You are in an unfamiliar room, your limbs chained to sockets in the floor. The rough stone floor is deathly cold. The darkness is absolute; you cannot see anything. A gag is shoved into your mouth, nearly choking you.
A flare of light blinds you for a moment as the bearded man from earlier ignites a brazier. He chuckles, a cold and cruel sound. As you discern the purpose of the room, it strikes you that you may have found a kindred spirit. How horrifying.
“They’re still deciding your punishment. Rest assured, it’ll be severe. My bet’s on a long painful death followed by a pauper’s burial. Let your masters have you for eternity. But first, I figure I better prepare you for it. Wouldn’t want you to miss the same courtesy you gave to everyone else, after all.”
Two silver coins glint in the darkness. He drops them into a cup, which he grasps with a pair of long-handled tongs before dumping it into the brazier.
No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No.
Your mind is still barely functioning. Everything still feels sluggish. But there’s more than enough to spend the time waiting with raw unadulterated fear. He lifts the cup out, removing the two brightly burning coins with the tongs. You can smell them. You can smell them.
You start to thrash as he draws near but he plants his foot on your chest. You try to twist your head away but he kneels down and grabs you by the neck. You can’t scream, you can’t breathe. Without delaying further, he pushes one into your left socket and businesslike, pushes the second into your right.
Mercifully, you pass out immediately.
You slowly come to your senses, waking up in drifting tides of pain, a new wave of agony coursing through you. Oh god oh gods oh gods. The room was dark before but now you can’t see anything at all. You’ll never see anything again.
Your hands scrabble uselessly on the stone floor as you claw at it like a madman. New spikes of pain appear as you tear your fingernails open. Anything to keep them from going to your face, to the smouldering ruin that must be there. To your…to your eyes. You shudder, dragging out great wracking sobs as the pain grows too much to bear. For a time, the ability to think leaves you.
You’ve always lived a fairly healthy and soft life. Never have you felt pain like this before.
Eventually the pain recedes to being merely torturous, allowing you to slowly gather your thoughts as you sit there alone, chained in the darkness. This is no respite as it merely allows for a whole different form of pain. The realisation of just how thoroughly everything in your life, everything you ever dreamed of, had been crushed.
You had not truly lived until you came to Nexus, til you joined the Guild. Your life with your father was nothing but the life of a shadow. These last ten years had been the greatest in your short life. It couldn’t end like this. You had thought yourself destined to go far, to take your ranks among the Merchant Princes and go beyond them. This future had been assured. It had all seemed so certain. And what, to be washed away in a single moment of greed outstripping sense? To have lost it all when your reach surpassed your grasp? You knew what likely awaited you in the Underworld. The Order would happily enslave you, force you into eternal servitude. To toil away in ghostly chains as your identity slowly erodes into nothing. And that was the best outcome. There were always the soulforges, those hideous places where the souls of the dead were forged and trapped into soulsteel. They say that those forged into soulsteel are still perfectly conscious for the rest of all time, unable to scream. That couldn’t happen. Not to you!
You let loose a piteous wail as you writhe blindly in your chains, unable to strike out, unable to even see your own devastation.
“I-It’s not fair! Let me out let me out let me out let me out! Why? Why!" IT’S NOT FAAAAAAAAIIIIIIR!!”
“I’m glad you feel that way~”
You scramble backwards, your body tensing in animalistic fear. You are not alone. Something is here with you. How long had they been here with you, the charred wrecks of your eyes unable to see them? You put your back against the wall and hug your hands around your chest, as if to ward off the unseen voice. You’ve never felt so helpless.
“My, you’re a twitchy one aren’t you? I’m not here to hurt you, Nashar. Oh yes, I know your name~”
“Who are you?”
Your voice comes out in a grating squeal.
“My name is Cailiphraxus, born of Makarios, he who was born of Erembour, he who was born of the Ultimate Darkness. I am here to help you.”
One of those names lights a fire in your sluggish thoughts.
“…You’re a demon.”
“Mmmm yes. I have watched you, Nashar~. Your soul has blazed so much brighter than the others. There is no doubt that you are special, unique. A perfect recipient of the gift I carry.”
Something reaches out and strokes your cheek. You recoil, slamming your head painfully against the wall. There were too many fingers.
“A beautiful flame like you deserves a better fate than this. Wouldn’t you agree?”
Can it help you? Is it even real? Perhaps this is all just one more cruel dream before your end. You speak despite these doubts, barely even guiding the words that tumble from your mouth.
“Please,” you beg. “Please spare me. I’ll do anything. Just get me away from here!”
“Oh my~”, the voice seems more amused than anything else. “Would you see the world burn, its people brought to heel? I know you have people that you could call ‘friends’. Business associates, the men who you smoke with every week, the merchant prince who has taken you in, the women that you fuck…Would you let them die, for the sake of this power?”
“I’ll fucking kill them myself if I have to! I don’t care about them! Get me out of here and I’ll kill them all if that’s what you want!”
Mocking laughter fills the cell.
“Yesss. You and I truly are destined to be united forever, Nashar~”
You hear a strange ripping noise before a thick layer of gnarled flesh wraps around your body like a macabre blanket. Before you can scream, it swims over your face and fills your mouth. You struggle feebly but all that does is force the cocoon to tighten, the flesh of your bindings and your own beginning to overlap and mix together. The agony of your eyes vanishes to be replaced by a searing pain boring into your chest. Your soul creaks in protest before slowly being pried open, green fire and a terrible darkness pouring inside.
“Dream now, sweet fool. Dream and leave your humanity behind~”
You dream but you do not remember what you see. This is probably for the best.
You can’t move. You spasm slightly, the meat enclosing you flexing with you. The line dividing you and it has well and truly blurred beyond all recognition. But despite that, you can feel parts of it sloughing away, layer after layer slowly unpeeling. You push your arms outward, feeling the flesh around you stretch and tear. Your fingers push into the outer shell, a gnarled skin that feels almost like wood. It falls apart at your touch, light assaulting your eyes as you struggle your way out of the cocoon.
Light? You can see! You can see! You push your way out entirely, taking your first hesitant step outside. You are no longer in the cell. This room has wooden walls and a wooden floor. It is empty and has the look of a room that had been very dusty not so long ago but had recently been ineptly cleaned.
Behind you is a quivering man-sized lump of flesh and wood, a gaping hole ripped in it. Gruesome birth fluids were slowly leaking out and puddling around its base. The chrysalis from where you had been born anew.
The first thing that strikes you is the feeling of power. It’s nothing you can see or hear but it’s there all the same, a supreme feeling of grace and strength that you’d never felt before. As if there was a slow flame enveloping your body and soul, burning away weakness and leaving behind a wellspring of raw power.
”Can you feel your Essence, Nashar?” You can hear Cailiphraxus’ voice but you can’t see the demon anywhere. You are alone in the room.
“Yesss. Essence is the basic building block of everything that exists or ever will. We are all formed from whorls in the pattern. Yours, which was once as sessile and pathetic as any mortal human, has been ignited~”
“…You’ll have to explain to me how all this works later. Are you trying to tell me that by accepting, I’ve gained your powers?”
All you get in response is frenzied laughter.
“This is neither my Essence nor my power ~ you hold within you a shard of something far greater. You are a warlock, an Infernal Exalt!”
You crinkle your brow.
“An Exalt? You mean…you mean like a Dragonblooded?”
The legendary potency of the Dragonblooded is known throughout the Realm and beyond it. Kids back in your village had used to exchange Dragonblood stories, absurd tales of the more famous Exalts, back before the disappearance of the Scarlet Empress. Had this deal made you granted that level of power? It feels absurd.
“No, you should be far more powerful than those fools. Yours is a glory that has not touched Creation for millennia. Perhaps you are familiar with the term Anathema~”
“Is that what I am?”
You should have thought of that sooner. You even made a bargain with a demon!
“Well no, you’re not. We should really wait ‘til you get to the Brass City before we try to explain this in detail.”
“Yeah, where am I now? And where are you?”
“I arranged for a group of cultists to lead a raid on where you were being held and to escort your Chrysalis Grotesque to a place where you could finish your transformation in peace. As for me Nashar, I am inside of you~”
“Oh what the fuck.”
“My physical body was turned inside out to form your Chrysalis. In the process we merged and became one. I shall now act us your Unwoven Coadjutor, an eternal companion on your journey. All of this at the price at only a few small mutations~”
Eugh. Somehow you could tell it was abusing tildes. You could just feel it. There had to be a way to get this guy to shut up. But the more focussed parts of your mind leapt to Cailiphraxus’ last words.
“Very minor ones! You got off quite lucky. I was expecting you to have started growing bark on your skin, to be honest~”
You pat yourself down, inspecting your body. You’re quite naked as your clothes didn’t seem to have survived the transformation process. You don’t find any heinous disfigurements. If anything your body seems to have been…perfected, for lack of a better term. Small imperfections and asymmetries are smoothed away, scars, moles and marks having disappeared entirely. You had never been what you would call fat but any excess weight and softness has been entirely burned off, leaving only muscle behind. You’ve definitely gotten taller though you can’t guess just how much.
Your hands though…you have six fingers. That’s definitely new. Each of your fingers feels slightly too long as well, as if they’re just beyond the normal proportions.
“The total sum of mutations you gained from me personally is an extra finger on each hand and to have them slightly lengthened beyond normal human measurements. Your extra height might be one as well, I was quite lanky. The rest is just what being an Exalt does for you. Really, you’ve been very lucky~”
You feel your face and find nothing unusual. You admit to having been slightly worried that your regained vision had coincided with a hideous eye mutation but it all seemed regular enough.
The door creaks open as a strange man steps through. An older fellow wrapped in dark robes, he drops to his knees in when he sees you.
“Oh glorious Master,” he croaks. “You have awakened! How may I serve you?”
You stare at the prostrate man for a few puzzled moments before you piece together something that Cailiphraxus had told you. Yozi cultists. For all your feelings of newfound power, you feel a little at a loss. You don’t have a single clue what a Yozi cult does or what their members are like. This moment of indecision extends uncomfortably long and threatens to break your hastily-erected confidence that is the only thing from separating you from going into shock about how drastically everything has suddenly changed.
“Don’t worry. Just act commanding and he will follow your every command~”
The unheard voice of your Unwoven Coadjutor is like a mental slap to the face, walking you through something you should have easily been able to think of. Like a child. Irritating. Irritating but ultimately useful.
“And what is your name, my most loyal servant?”
The cultist presses himself deeper into the floor somehow at your words.
“I am Hoya, my lord, Hoya Dreli. Please come through, I can clothe you and feed you, if that is your desire. We have a mule ready for consumption-”
An icy tone of disdain creeps into your voice, causing the misfortunate cultist to cringe.
“There are no other animals in immediate reach. If you…if you need something grander, there are lesser cultists who would gladly give their lives to the cause…”
“Hoya here knows virtually nothing about demons or you,” you hear Cailiphraxus cackle. “That he is the leader of the Dark Brothers is only because the rest are even more clueless. They think to dabble in forbidden thaumaturgy to settle petty grudges and mindless rebellion. They offer far more brawn than they do brain, which is what made them suited for retrieving you.”
You nod and step over the cultist’s prone form, causing him to shudder and pull back reflexively.
“Food and garb can wait. I wish to see the forces you have arrayed at your command.”
“Er…Well there’s only me and Uin here right now. There are two score others I swear, but they are not in headquarters. We weren’t expecting you to wake so early!”
The last was said in a panicked rush, as if expecting you to take umbrage.
Hoya brings a bearded youth wearing similar robes. He bows immediately but in a far less fawning and shameless manner than Hoya. You decide that you like Uin more than the cult leader already.
Hoya is still rambling.
“…and if you find that for your liking, may I suggest a likely target for your first strike? I know many, many places that deserve your wrath, though I would not dare to presume…”
He was finally facing you. He was a balding but still stocky man, his face plump and covered in a light sheen of sweat. A petty little face for a petty little man. He was keeping a thin mask of subservience on but under it you could see a crude delight in imagining your ‘wrath’ falling upon the places and people he mentioned. You doubt that any of them were any great enemy of whatever agenda demons had and more personal dislikes and hatreds born of his own heart.
Was this seriously why he had become a cultist and invoked something he had absolutely no understanding of? To get revenge for a thousand petty enemies? It was odd, but you could see right through him. Not that his deception was a great one but it was almost as if your eyes tracked and detected his crude attempt at manipulation without conscious effort.
As he rambles on, you stare at that piggy little face. Disgusting. If you could just rip it off…
Long-buried desires begin to rise up within you. How long had you wondered what it would be like? Nobody would miss this repulsive fool. How could somebody so flawed, so weak, so transparently ugly think to use you? You remember what you had thought back in that cell. You thought you had had a destiny of greatness ahead of you and in fact, you might very well still have. This was your story and you wouldn’t permit such a parasite to mar it.
“Rise Hoya Dreli. You have served the Yozi’s well. I would bestow a blessing upon you.”
His greedy little eyes lit up as you raise your arm, pressing your hand to his forehead. You can feel the Essence stir within your palm, responding to your desire. Despite the feeling of power, you find yourself pausing for a moment. What you are planning to do, you have never done to anyone else before. Not through direct action anyway. Here was a line that once you crossed, you would never be able to undo. And then he opened his toadying mouth and eliminated all respect you had for his wellbeing.
“Thank you thank you thank you my lord thank you so much I am deeply in your deb-”
His head ignites in a flash of green flame around your hand. You feel your hand sink in deeper, melting through his skull. He doesn’t even have time to scream before he collapses, his head a burned ruin that only vaguely resembled a human face.
This is the first time you’ve ever killed a man. A person’s life cut short by your direct actions. This is a line not meant to be casually cost, an act that should inspire disgust or fear. You don’t feel anything but a vague sense of relief.
And a terrible, exhilarating thrill.
Your introversion is cut short by a wordless shout as Uin leaps to his feet, drawing a curved dagger from his robe. Madness in his eyes, he lunges at you. He does so with extraordinary speed, suggesting of being a soldier of some sort. The edge of the blade is already brushing up against your skin before you start moving. There should be absolutely no way with the knife so close that you would be able to move aside.
But you do, stepping around it as if it was the easiest thing in the world. Uin stares in horror as you reappear from the shadows suddenly surrounding you. You grab him by the throat with both hands but do not burn him, instead some instinct guiding you to squeeze tightly until he stops resisting. You let him slide to the floor. You pick up his knife and draw the obsidian edge across his throat. The cut is messy and ragged. Blood gets everywhere.
“Oh, I couldn’t have found a better match. You’re quite rare, you know~”
“Indeed. More mortals care about the sanctity of life than you would think. Finding someone more to my own tastes can be difficult~”
“…It feels good. It shouldn’t but it does. Seeing people in misfortune has always made me happy but I thought that just made me a jerk. I’m not sure what to think.”
“If it makes it any consolation, you’ve already trafficked in fates worse than death. This shouldn’t be much of a step up. You’re taking this whole business quite well, in fact.”
“I’m just putting the inevitable shock off for now. I’m sure I’ll collapse into a huddle any moment now,” you say glibly as you start exploring the measly ‘headquarters’. You stop by a window and look out at the city. Its night-time but you can see out as clearly as if it was noon. In fact, now that you think about it you haven’t really noticed any significant darkness or shade inside your room either and it’s not as if it was well-lit, quite the opposite.
“You already have some Charms. Green Sun Nimbus Flare, Bloodless Murk Evasion and now Witness to Darkness. I’ll explain them more later~”
You don’t reply as you suddenly catch glimpse of a much more interesting sight in the window. It takes you a moment before you recognise your own face. It’s still you but it’s better in just about every way. As if everything that blemished your looks had been removed and what remained had been redone in a better light. You had always been good-looking but now you were…
You feel entranced and nearly forget to breathe. Your heart catches, as if you had just fallen in love at first sight. And you suppose, in a way, you had.
The demon was still talking but you tune him out. You suddenly feel back in control. Your life had been pushed from its course for a brief and terrifying time but now, now everything was back on track. What it had put you through had in the end, only made you stronger. What money you had lost you could easily regain and more beside. And what’s more, you could finally give in, you could finally indulge. You had the power to do so. And nobody can stop you.
Not even Cailiphraxus. He’s been manipulating you and quite easily too. There are no doubt all kinds of strings attached to this. But you can see it now. And there is no reason to tell him this. If him thinking of you as his tool was the price of power, you would gladly play the fool.
“…and oh that’s interesting. That mutation isn’t from me. I guess some of your injuries must have carried through the metamorphosis. A little reminder!”
Puzzled, you look back at your reflection. Now that you have gotten used to your own image, you see the shine reflected back. Stepping closer to the window, you open your eyes as wide as you can.
There is no doubt. Evidently you had not walked away from your encounter with the torturer as unscarred as you thought. Your eyes still work perfectly well, better than before, the change appearing to be entirely aesthetic. Perhaps some combination of the silver melding with you in the cocoon and one of your first Charms being one that directly affected your eyes? It doesn’t look bad. In fact, it’s really quite fetching.
Your pupils had disappeared and your now blank irises had expanded, flattened and changed to a bright metallic silver colour. It was as if you saw the world through two shining silver coins.
Two days later, you sit in a state of dazed shock. You are alone in an incredibly luxorious townhouse that is now apparently yours. It’s decadent to excess. Drink, drugs, sex, all of it in a mindblowing variety of different forms made available to you. If you had any doubts about whether this was truly happening to you or if it was just some final death-dream, the events of the past days had well and truly dispelled them.
Though you had certainly been glib enough during your initial transformation, the tremendous shock of it is beginning to settle in. The Yozi were real. You had seen their tremendous jouten form, spoken to the fallen creators of the universe themselves. The words of Malfeas had been titanically loud and full of a brutish regal force, bending you at the knees at no decision of your own. Cecelyne had no deigned to speak to you but even the contemptous silence of the infinite expanses of the Endless Desert had been enough. Adorjan…the less you thought of Adorjan, the better. She Who Lives In Her Name had spoken the most though she had said the least. Out of all of the demon princes you had met in your terrifying whirlwind of an experience she might be the one you detest most, though you cannot yet explain why. The Ebon Dragon, the ‘Caste Yozi’ of both you and all other Fiend Caste Infernals, had made you physically ill with nothing but his presence and his words. Vile and despicable and celebrating it, forced to revel in it, for he had nothing but emptiness behind that mask. He may be the Yozi you understand the most.
Those five were the five Yozi who had created the Infernals from stolen Exaltations, the five who had opened their own native Charmsets to newborn Infernal Exalts to learn. There were many others of which you knew little and one other besides that, who had come to you (or perhaps more truthfully, you had been drawn to) when you lay weeping upon the shores of the first night, crying from the sight of such majestic, such awe-inspiring, such broken beings. She had spoken to you with soft words and comforts and at your weakest, had granted you a gift that you would never repay. You had always gone through life with a certain amount of arrogance and never before had you been so completely broken down, so completely humbled than you were at those spiteful shores.
The Ebon Dragon might be your Caste Yozi but you had been stolen away in act of spite by an age-old enemy before twenty-five hours had passed. Your Patron Yozi was not even a true Reclamation Yozi but the infinite acidic ocean of Hell herself, Kimbery.
The second day (if there was really any distinction, the Green Sun of Ligier shone everywhere in all layers of Malfeas and never stopped, the only darkness being the shroud that the Ebon Dragon spreads in his wake) had also passed in a blur, though a significantly less traumatic one. You were introduced to your new place of lodging, a townhouse in one of the finest districts of the Brass City. You saw one thousand and one different types of First Circle Demons, scores upon scores of Second Circle Demons and a smattering of Third Circles, and learned to distinguish between the three. The Yozi, though broken and ruined, were vast and could not be contained within any small number of souls, a complex hierarchy of independent subsouls necessary to contain their grandeur. The Third Circle Demons were but refractions of their Yozi, albeit independent and capable of free will. Even though they were one-step removed from the Yozi, the Third Circles were still too metaphysically large to be contained in a single soul, each Third Circle having a large amount of Second Circle Demons spawned from them. While each Third and Second Circle Demon was unique, the First Circle Demons were formed in species, each race of First Circle artificially created to fulfil a role.
The sheer variety of life in the Demon City was mind-boggling, to say the least. You had tried to explore for a few hours before realising how truly pointless that was. You could travel for a thousand years in Hell and never see all of its wonders, such is it’s size. And what wonders there were!
As an Infernal Exalt, even if you were still new, you had the privileges and ranking similar to that of an Unquestionable, a status in demonic law usually only reserved for Third Circle Demons and up. You could go wherever you wished. And everywhere you went was music and beauty. It was a desperate music and raw alien beauty but it was inspiring all the same. Great belltowers of basalt and brass that constantly rang out in a tune far beyond what even the greatest of mortal composers could ever make, a waterfall stretching hundreds of thousands of miles across filled with liquid crystal and living words, a terrifying library bigger than any you had ever seen fashioned entirely from glass, a bazaar that sold dreams and bought nightmares…
And to think you had once thought of Nexus with pride. It might have been a big city by mortal standards but compared to the Brass City, it was less than nothing. No city in Creation could possibly compare. Malfeas, infinite in both size and scope, was without a doubt the single greatest city in all possible dimensions, from the center of the Underworld to the farflung fairy dreams of the Wyld.
It provoked a sense of almost innocent awe in you. No matter what happened from here, you would never regret accepting Cailphraxus’ offer and becoming an Infernal. Just being able to see Hell for a day was worth it.
Speaking of Cailiphraxus, he had been talking in your head nearly nonstop, acting as your guide. Near the end of the second day, he directed you to a hidden chamber. Few Infernals will ever be allowed to see this, he claimed, as most would be disgusted and afraid. He thought that you were the kind of man that could see it and not be bothered in the slightest however, so he guided you to the origin point of all Infernal Exaltations.
You looked at the thing for a few minutes before closing the door and leaving. A sobering reminder perhaps, of what the Yozi would do to all humanity if they but even had the smallest chance to do so. And that far from everything in Hell was beautiful. You wouldn’t do anything about it though. No help. No aid. Cailiphraxus had expected you to not only refrain from helping it but to also have enjoyed the sight. Your Coadjutor had misjudged you. You know you aren’t exactly a paragon of morality but this was beyond even your eccentric tastes. You acknowledged the horror of the Phylactery Womb and then put it far out of your mind.
This was accomplished fairly easily with the aid of the various kinds of liquor available. You started off with something called bonewine and quickly moved up to an unearthly cocktail distilled from the liquid dreams of Hegra. You had a Kimbery Charm that stopped poisons but at some point it either lost its effect or you lowered it willingly because you got well and truly shitfaced before inviting some of the more human looking demons (and a few who weren’t) up to your chambers.
That was last night. Your morning so far has consisted of waking up, clearing out the neomahs from your bedroom, wincing at the anuhle and telling the decanthrope that s/he can come back any time baby.
You have spent the last hour or so just sitting in this hopelessly opulent house as the sheer magnitude of how much your life has changed settled in. You grab a half-empty discarded bottle of …something and chug it down in one go. This does nothing to clear your head. You look for another bottle only to get interrupted by the sound of bell. This would be nothing new in Malfeas as there was always music being performed in every street to a point where it was almost omnipresent save that this one seems to be coming from inside your house.
You run down the four flights of stairs that separate your chambers from the lowest floor of your house to find a bell ringing beside the huge silver doors that lead outside. You unlock them and push them open a crack.
“I know I asked but I didn’t think you’d be back so quickly, sugartits. I hope you brought all of them this time.”
A large six-legged lizard crawls in. “Not who you were expecting, my lord?” s/he says sardonically.
“Not quite, no. I was expecting a decanthrope with a rocking hot body. Several of them in fact. State your business.”
“Very well my lord. My name is Vrastiras, a lowly Amphelisa at your service.”
“Something’s not right,” Cailiphraxus hisses in your ear. “Amphelisae are a breed of unintelligent beasts. They cannot talk or reason.”
“You may have noticed my deviations from the majority of my people,” Vrastiras continued. “I have no explanation for it beyond simply being a cut above. I have come to offer my services as a mentor.”
“I understand that my lord Nashar is newly arrived. Perhaps you would like a guide, one who is also educated in virtually every field of artifice and magic.”
“Noooo. I’m already your guide~”
You were ready to show the lizard the door but Cailiphraxus’s obvious displeasure makes you reconsider.
“I would like to become a full-time member of your staff, perhaps as a mentor figure of some kind. Despite what some might consider to be natural disadvantages I am currently one of the few surviving First Circle Scholars and-”
“Wait.” That term pings a memory of something you learned in passing from the day before.
“You’re one of the First Circle Demons who can use Sorcery?”
Vrastiras nods proudly.
“Emerald Circle only, alas but I am educated in how the Sapphire Circle works and would be both able and willing to teach you if you would take me on.”
“I heard you guys were pretty rare.”
“We are! You will not find another offer like this, I’m afraid. Quite unique.”
“More specifically, I heard you guys are pretty rare because a certain Third Circle Demon despises your attempt to buck Cecelyne’s law and hunts you down constantly. So I’m thinking that this is less an attempt to spread knowledge and gain fame and privilege as a member of my retinue and more of a desperate way to save your ass by hiding behind mine. Am I right?”
Vrastiras look around shiftily, clearly having not expected to be seen through so quickly.
“Well that sounds good to me and my Coadjutor absolutely hates it, which is pretty entertaining. I’ll gladly take you on…as my familiar.”
“What? I am clearly more of a mentor role that-”
“Giving such a lofty role to a First Circle demon? I think not. I don’t want to look like an imbecile. And if I’m not mistaken Vrastiras, you have absolutely nowhere else to go. You can be my demonic familiar and like it or so help me, you are going straight back out that door! Understood?”
Looking absolutely confused and lost at the turnabout in the conversation, the poor demon can only bow it’s head.
You put your arm around the lizard, settling in uncomfortably close.
“Share with me your wise secrets, familiar.”
You look at the other two people sharing the pagoda with you apprehensively. Vrastiras had told you that you, while being one of the very first Infernals ever created, were still not entirely alone in your condition. There were ten Exaltations for each of the five Infernal Castes, allowing for a maximum number of fifty Infernals existing at any given time. Even at full capacity, your kind would be the rarest form of Exalt in all history.
So working together with each other was probably a necessity. Faint and dormant memories from the last host of your Exaltation, many centuries ago before it had been twisted and turned inside out, told you that forming into ‘Circles’ was a natural behaviour. A perfect Circle would be a group of five, each member covering a different Caste. You are not so lucky.
You get two other Infernals. A semi-Circle you suppose. The first of them, an exceedingly pale young woman wearing some kind of ceremonial dress, sat in the chair (more like a throne) provided for her, though she did not do so as indolently as you. She locks eyes with you and under that fey gaze, you are the first to look away. The second is a large muscular man with red hair. He remains standing, his head titled in the slightest form of respect possible, his expression betraying nothing but disgust.
Vrastiras had told you of them. Extli and Yahahautl. They were both from the same tribe in the deep South-East, a group of matriarchal sun-worshippers with difficult to pronounce names. Extli had been part of ruling class of priestesses, spending her entire life ritually untouched by the sun, hidden away in her temple. Yahahautl had been part of her bodyguard who had dreamed of something greater. With Extli’s help, he had secretly studied the devices left behind by the sunfolk who had once ruled their kind in mythic ages past, something that would have gotten him castrated and executed if it was every discovered. And when Extli attempted to free herself from her gilded prison, it was loyal Yahahautl who had aided her, striking down his brothers-in-arms to serve his lady’s whims.
It had all been a very valiant and romantic effort of course, but this had helped little when they succeeded and found themselves lost in the deadly jungles. They wandered for day after hopeless day and their own success would have killed them if it wasn’t for the pair of demons drawn to their plight. They had Exalted together as Scourge and Defiler.
And that leaves you, who is very much the proverbial third wheel in this little group. You pressed your hands together in a steeple.
“Shall we just get down straight to business?”
“Yes. We need a partner.”
It is Extli who replies, her voice barely above a whisper. You have to convince yourself to meet her gaze again. There is something decidedly strange about her, a queasy insanity in her stare. Yahahautl was more comfortable to contemplate; he just seems to resent you immensely.
“So I heard. A little six-legged bird told me. But for what?”
“To kill the leader of the Yereghazi Sultanate and to scatter his holdings to dust. The dissolution of the Sultanate would throw the surrounding states into chaos and destabilise the situation in that part of the Circin coast even more than it already is!”
“To fulfil my Urge.”
Ah. Cailiphraxus had told you what that strange desire alien to your own thoughts was. The Yozi were incapable of actually controlling an Infernal directly or even giving one orders that they have to follow. What they did instead was implant an Urge into every Exaltation, a desire that would lead to a result favourable to the Yozi’s plans. You yourself have a yearning desire to painfully humiliate and torture members of the Celestial Bureaucracy, which was interesting but you had been ignoring it in favour of doing whatever the hell you want to do. It wouldn’t surprise you if that Urge remained unfulfilled forever.
“I see. And what’s in it for me?”
“Yereghazi sits on a modest stockpile of First Age technology and wealth. You are free to take what…or who…you wish.”
You nod, putting on a mask of contemplation.
“I was picturing a more…long-term relationship. Though I imagine that is contingent on our success with Yereghazi?”
She nods, aping your movements.
“I’ll fill you in on the details later but the largest obstacle has to be their patron deity. A shapeshifting animal god. I think it’s a Lunar.”
You don’t really, you’re still getting up to speed on all these different types of Exalts.
“How strong are they?”
“It arrived recently and I doubt it’s really that powerful. But it’s still stronger than we currently are. And with it is the Sultanate’s claim to fame, Niyayatai. It’s a strange behemoth, a godblooded siaka with the gift of air.”
You think about this for a moment.
“So…giant semi-divine shark capable of land movement?”
“Yes. Unlike the Lunar who we could avoid, confrontation with Niyayatai is inevitable. Leave that for me to worry about though.”
“Let me get this straight. Our first mission together is to topple the ruler of a country, fighting off whatever legion of guards he has at his disposal as well as his demigod shark while avoiding the attentions of a Celestial Exalt of hopefully low but ultimately unconfirmed power?”
“Sounds interesting, I’m in.”
She claps her hands together and laughs. She rises from her throne and prepares to leave, the preliminary discussions apparently done. Yahahautl walks back with her, scowling.
“Nothing to say, big guy?”
He stops, looking thunderous. When Extli leaves, he stays and approaches you.
“I have little to say to the likes of you,” he speaks in surprisingly eloquent Riverspeak. “I do not understand Extli’s trust in you”
“The likes of me?”
“You don’t think I haven’t learned anything about you, Nashar? A soft spoiled merchant is less than useful. All you’ll do is endanger us all.”
You fight back your urge to stand up and remain where you are? Don’t let this fool know when he’s touched a nerve. You settle for raising a single eyebrow.
“And that makes me soft? Do you think I somehow lucked into my job? Everything I had in life I earned with my own hands! I built myself from nothing only to have it stolen from me by a bunch of jealous fools, with only half a thought to rub between them! I was tortured for my ‘crimes’ all because of nothing but a twisted pack morality, a group of rats claiming to care for their fellows but all only truly fearing for their own souls! What have you done, Yahahautl? Besides killing your brothers in the name of a madwomen’s quest and then getting lost and nearly starving in the jungle?”
For a moment the Defiler looks like he’s actually going to attack you and you tense up. But he just twists his face in a sneer and backs off.
“You can insult me all you wish but don’t you dare talk about Extli. You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
He stalks out, leaving you alone in the pagoda. What an odd pair, you muse. This little job promises to be quite interesting indeed. Nothing you can’t handle though, surely.
“What the fuck! What the fuck! Motherfucking SHARKS! Motherfucking sharks!”
You run full pelt through the palace as the room behind you is obliterated in a flash of blue lightning, Niyayatai smashing her way through the walls in your direction.
“Lightning! Why the fuck does it breathe lightning!”
You slide under the closing portcullis and hit the wall of the small courtyard, it’s once beautiful gardens now sadly aflame, much like the rest of the palace. Extli and Yahahautl are waiting for you, standing amidst the corpses of the royal guardsmen. You toss the severed head you were holding over to Extli. She catches the remains of Sultan Nheran by one of his braids.
“Excuse me dear leader,” you nonchalantly say as the portcullis behind you explodes in an eye-searing blast. “When we went over the details of this, you neglected to mention that the land-siaka could breathe lightning.”
The huge shark bursts through the wall behind you, enormous teeth catching nothing but your shadow as you backflip back onto its head. It bucks you off a moment later and you hit the ground rolling, smearing yourself all over with the blood that was covering the ground as you do so.
Really quite inconsiderate of those guards to bleed so much, this was a new tunic! Now it’ll never wash out. You kick one of the corpses as you get to your feet.
“I admit, I did not foresee this,” Extli says as the godblooded shark’s glowing eyes focus on her. “I’ll handle this. Yaha, you and Nash poison the wells while I’m busy.”
Yahahautl reluctantly pulls back, glowering at the idea of being paired with you. You can’t say you’re enthused either but who else is going to do it? It’s just the three of you here after all.
The two of you pull open the door and run into one of the many secret passageways hidden within the palace. This one happens to lead down deep underground towards the old reservoir that feeds much of the city’s water supply. Yahahautl is hefting two large sacks behind him, something he had helped concoct himself. That should sow enough chaos in the aftermath to fit Extli’s desires.
“I’m not particularly to be with your wondrous company either, you know.”
You speak out in the darkness in response to his wordless rebuke.
“Also, Yaha? I suppose a pet-name is suitable for a leashed dog.”
“I have no desire to exchange insults with you, Nash. Besides, I cannot insult you anymore than your own existence already does.”
“Ooh, I’m stung. Please do not lance me any further on your rapier wit, Yaha, or I might endanger the mission by collapsing in laughter.”
“That’s a lot of words to use in admitting you have no proper answer.”
“I’m trying to focus on the directions Extli gave us. One of us has to do it and I’d prefer if it wasn’t you, given your…abilities.”
“What are you implying?”
“I’m implying that if your sterling navigation works the way it’s done in the past, we’ll probably end up lost in the jungle. Yes, I know that the closest jungle is hundreds of miles away but trust me Yaha, I have full faith that you will find a way.”
“That happened once. Once. And I wasn’t even giving the directions, it was-”
He cuts himself off and stops as the two of you round a darkened corner. You keep walking.
“What’s the matter, Yaha? Does that leash around your neck stop you from speaking ill of her? You are so whipaaaargh!”
There ceases to be ground beneath your feet as you unknowingly walk over the edge, falling into the reservoir. Your surface almost immediately, spluttering incoherently. Yahahautl’s laughter echoes through the cavern as you drag yourself out of the water and back onto the pathway.
“That’s why I stopped, Nash. Can’t you see in the dark?”
“I can see in the dark perfectly. I…I just wasn’t looking down, damn it.”
His only response to this is to laugh harder. It’s so infectious that in the end you can’t help but join in as you clamber to your feet, dripping wet.
You make a sweeping gesture towards the huge underground lake.
“I think we can safely say that I found the reservoir!”
“Thank the sun we had you keeping watch of the directions for us.”
The two of you look seriously out at the lake before dissolving back into laughter again. Because of this it takes you a little while to see the ripples flowing through the water. Almost too late.
You leap to your feet and push Yahahautl out of the way as a dark shape erupts from the water at him, all flashing scales and teeth. It smashes into the wall, gouging the stone with its claws. It looks like some kind of bizarre combination of man and fish, its claws and fangs long and silver. A silver aura filled with half-glimpsed imagery radiates from its body and the sign of a full moon is illuminated upon the creature’s brow.
Lunar Exalt. Judging by his look and his already inflamed anima, the Lunar is nowhere near his peak. He’s already been spending energy and Essence on something else before he had arrived. But still, shitshitshitshitshitshitshitshit… You very much doubt that an established Lunar already in warform requires too many motes to tear apart two newborn Infernals. All you have left is hope that Extli’s intel about the Lunar’s supposedly limited abilities was true.
Considering that Extli had not predicted the somewhat important ability of Niyayatai to shoot fucking lightning, your faith is rapidly dwindling.
Nevertheless you pull out a knife and throw it at the Lunar. It bounces off the Lunar’s skin, doing nothing. It lunges at you, forcing you to spend your already low Essence supply for your Perfect dodge. Yahahautl pulls out his sword and charges forward, cutting the Lunar’s chest open! Brackish blood oozes slowly out of the wound.
Yahahautl backs away, as shocked as you are. No perfect defence? Was this guy really mote-tapped that badly? The wound quickly stops bleeding however, fixing itself back together in seconds.
“The two of you are lucky indeed that that I was occupied elsewhere. But though the time may be late upon my arrival, I still have more than enough to kill two whelps!”
“Holy shit you sound like such a tool.”
The Lunar charges at you but Yahahautl steps into the way, the Lunar’s attack bouncing off his skin with a spray of sparks as he engages his own perfect parry. His caste mark opens on his brow and his anima sparks as he pushes the Lunar back with nothing but force of will. Small attacks of invisible telekinetic force strike the fishman, most of them having no effect. Those that do strike small wounds only and they regenerate almost immediately. Nearly all of the Lunar’s attacks strike true and though he might not have any Essence left to augment them, Yahahautl is still forced to spend Essence defending lest he die instantly.
Since you already exhausted most of your Essence killing the sultan and evading the giant land shark, you can’t really help much. You don’t have any particularly useful combat charms and if you got close up, you would only have one more dodge in you before the Lunar would be able to disembowel you at leisure.
Yes, best to hang back really, even if Yahahautl is likely to die because of this. Especially if Yahahautl is likely to die because of this. You start to slowly back away down the corridor, getting ready to run and abandon him.
But then as the Lunar lunges forward in an attempted bite around your companion’s midsection, dragging his teeth along Yahahautl’s temporarily invulnerable torso, you have an idea. A glorious beautiful idea, one even better than leaving Yahahautl to die horribly.
You pick up one of the two sacks Yahahautl dropped, the ones filled with the powder intended for the reservoir. If he truly has no motes left to power his Charms, then taking him by surprise actually becomes possible. You lurch forward as silently as possible, hefting the sack with both hands.
Fuck, how had he held two of these?
The Lunar shakes off his attacks and advances, his toothy maw opening wider than what should be physically possible. Just as he charges forward, you muster the last of your energy and leap into his way, holding the sack in front of you like a shield. Something tears your arm open as you stagger backwards, hurling yourself out of the way as the Lunar bites down on the sack, bursting it open.
Powder spills everywhere as the Moonchosen accidentally ingests enough poison to depopulate a village. He stands there soundless for a moment before falling backwards into the water with a keening wail.
You fall against the wall, clutching your bleeding arm. You sit there in pain for nearly a minute before a hand grabs you by the shoulders and helps you up. Yahahautl pulls a roll of bandages out of his coat but you wave him off.
“It’ll heal by itself if you give it enough time, let’s just finish what we came here to do.”
You go to push the other sack into the water but Yahahautl stops you.
“…You may have just saved my life back there, Nashar.”
“Oh, it was nothing.”
Well not really but you know where he’s going with this and it would be best to play friendly if you wanted to hook him along.
“No it wasn’t. Especially since I thought you might have gone and left me to die.”
You look at him sharply, clearly hurt by the implication.
“I would never do that to a fellow of my Circle, Yaha.”
“I’m sorry…I’ve misjudged you. You saved my life and for that, there is no gratitude great enough.”
He holds out his arm and after a moment you hold out yours, grabbing his in the forearm grasp greeting that you know many Southeastern people favor. He does the same, briefly pulling you into a brief and vaguely awkward half-hug as well.
“Back home, it was said that any man who saves another’s life in battle is as a brother. You are welcome to our Circle for as long as you wish, friend.”
“…Awesome. It was pretty lucky that the Lunar didn’t have an anti-poison charm, huh?”
“He would have killed us both if he did, even mote-tapped.”
“Yeah, I was fairly useless in that fight. I really need to learn some combat Charms beyond Nimbus Flare, I’m pretty sure that out of the three of us I’m the least help in a combat situation. Though I guess in light of recent events, I’ll probably want to get a poison defence first.”
The two of you laugh, more from happiness from just being alive than any real humour. Yahahautl rips open the second sack and pours the brown powder into the lake as you gingerly sweep the spilled grains from the bitten open pack into the water.
“What is this stuff anyway?”
“I didn’t alter it much. It’s a powdered form of a rare stinging plant that grows in Malfeas, incredibly toxic on its own. Normally costs a mint but I actually found a bunch on my first day when I nearly jumped into a patch on accident. I treated it with Vitriol.”
You let out a low whistle.
“Ouch. I don’t envy the fine people of Yereghazi. How much potency did we lose with what was possibly the most underwhelming Exalt fight in history?”
“Couldn’t say. I packed extra anyway. Diluted through the reservoir, it should still be enough to wreak some havoc. Vomiting, boils, diarrhoea, death in the extreme cases. There’ll be more than a few deaths.”
You resist the urge to giggle, thinking about the pain that so many people were about to go through. If only you could see it! But you keep silent on that part. No need for him to learn about that side of you just yet.
“Than our work here is done, isn’t it? Take it from me Yaha, it’s not worth dwelling on that sort of stuff. We’ve advanced the cause of the Yozi today.”
Yahahautl looks at you strangely.
“Is that really a good thing?”
“Eh? What do you mean?”
“I don’t know if doing their work is in our best interests. They hate all Exalts, including us. Extli venerates them so I haven’t spoken about it but…”
“Woah there, first of all, you really need to get a life outside of her. I mean, goddamn, you’re an Exalt too aren’t you? Secondly, no shit it’s not in our best interests. I’m pretty sure the Yozi don’t care at all what happens to me. And when I first met them a few days ago, they awed the shit out of me. But now that I’ve had time to think about it, they’re not truly magnificent. What defines a Yozi is being a loser. It’s why they’re all deformed and imprisoned. They can huff and puff all they want but they have no real control over us. If I wanted to leave Hell forever tomorrow, I could. But I won’t because Hell is really, really amazing. We have the good life there. Drinks, drugs and all the demon hookers we could possibly want! The only thing I don’t have right now is money, or at least not enough of it. And I have a plan to use Malfeas to help turn that around.”
You wave your arm out at the poisoned reservoir.
“None of this stuff really bothers me and as long as I make enough money and still manage to get my ass out in time, I don’t really give a fuck about what those asshole demon gods want to do to the rest of the Creation.”
“All for what? Money?”
“Fuck yeah. Wealth has basically been my prime motivator since I left home. Everything I’ve done, every step that lead to this path, has all been for it.”
Well, wealth and self-preservation.
“You need to get whatever you can from them, I say. So yes, I plan to stay with the Yozi for as long as it is profitable.”
“How long is that going to be?”
“Maybe forever? I don’t exactly plan on actually helping them with the Reclamation. Do a bit of lip service with occasional missions like this one but mostly spend my time doing what I want to do. Tell me you don’t feel the same way.”
You can see the gears turning in his head. You know he likely already has at least one project that’s caught his interest and that his interest in actually doing the Yozi’s bidding begins and ends with what is needed to get in Extli’s pants. It’s almost sad that someone so supposedly smart could be so transparent
“Welllll, I do have some projects that have caught my interest. And as long as I do what Extli wa…what was that?”
You choke back the laughter and keep your straightest face possible.
“Nothing, Yaha. You know what, I think this could be the start of a beautiful friendship.”
The stench of blood fills the darkened room. Blood and shit. You wrinkle your nose as you enter. You’re going to have to figure out a way to stop that last one. It’s just not proper. You come here to relax, after all.
A small group of people are in the corner. Refugees from the area around the palace that you ‘rescued’. There is no light here. You can see them but they can’t see you. Maybe you should get a light in here when you’re having fun. Letting them see might be better than just letting them hear…
“You see? I barely have any idea how to go about doing this! Lights or no lights? Which ones?”
“Patience, young master. Mastery of your chosen art will take time and practice. You’ll find your own preference, trust me~”
“Well since you, rather disturbingly I might add, seem to know a great deal more on this subject than I do, why don’t you teach me?”
You drag one of them onto the table in the middle of the room and after a moment of thought, light a torch with green flame so she can see. She’s gagged unfortunately but you suppose one must sacrifice some of his enjoyment for necessity.
“I can teach you the basic techniques but in my opinion, you won’t truly come into your own until you experiment~”
“Well I must admit to being curious…”
“Gooooood. You should be willing to always improvise and try out new things. Curiosity is the only reason you should ever need, the best possible reason.”[/i]
Hmmm. You like the sound of that; you’ll have to remember that one. You rifle around through your box until you find one you haven’t tried yet. You don’t even know what it does.
“Improvise? I guess I can do that.”
You don’t get back to the motel in the neighbouring city until much later that night. Already there is news on the street about the crisis of Verenghazi, much of it blown completely out of proportion. You’re relatively certain that a ten-armed leech god from the South had not descended upon the citystate, riding a chariot of iron and basalt. Nor was there a great wailing and gnashing of teeth as the great palace collapsed within itself by pure mystical force. You were pretty sure that the palace had eventually collapsed because it had been on fire and also because of the enraged land-siaka smashing its way through every wall it found.
It’s all fairly flattering though.
You kick open the doors to your rented apartments to find Extli and Yahahautl already lounging there.
“Oh hey Extli, you survived. Good to hear.”
“Yahahautl already told me of your own success. Well done on that, by the way.”
You meet her gaze again and this time, you don’t look away.
“Yeah, it sure was weird how that Lunar was exhausted and nearly completely empty. It sure was weird how I found out that a certain Second Circle Demon had been wrecking his way through the outer edges of his territory, prompting that Lunar to exhaust himself fighting it before he could fight us. Sure. Was. Weird.”
“I made arrangements. I think you’ll find there are quite a few Second Circles willing to get in an Infernal’s good graces before she becomes truly powerful. I had to do it, sun forbid that at least one approached this job with a brain.”
You look away and mutter something unintelligible. Truth be told you were too busy putting the final touches on your plan to turn your connection to Malfeas into cold hard jade.
“What happened to the fish, by the way?”
“It was difficult but I tamed it in the end. Siaka respect strength?”
“Well no, not really. But they respect mine.”
Translation: She’d used some kind of funky Charm for it. Does Adorjan even have anything for taming animals? You don’t have a bloody clue.
“Nash, would you like to stay and drink with us?”
Yahahautl speaks up while Extli is still in the room for once. You recognise this for what it is. It’s an invitation to truly become part of their group, to cease being the outside third wheel in the circle. You should have said yes, you really should have. But it was a long day and you were so tired…
“No thanks, maybe later. I’m going to get some sleep. Night!”
You shuffle down the apartment’s hallway to your private rooms. You’d had an opportunity to look at them before and they’d been pretty fucking nice. Not as good as your house back in Malfeas but still a damn sight better than your old lodgings when you had been Nash, the pathetic mortal merchant. Their greatest feature first and foremost was almost certainly the transparent roof, spun from the fine crystal that dulled and smeared the starlight into amazing patterns. Not to mention that the room was so big you could fit a-
You swing open the doors and step inside. A few seconds later you walk out of the room, shutting the doors firmly behind you.
“There appears to be a giant shark in my motel room.”
“Well, I needed a place to put Niyayatai after I tamed her.”
Her lips tweak just barely.
“And I called on it not being in my quarters. So the only logical conclusion left was to stuff her in yours for the time being.”
Yaha is significantly worse at holding back a smile then Extli is.
“How did you even get it in there…ah. The crystal roof.”
“Indeed. Smashed it open and pushed her in from above.”
“We’re not planning on actually paying tomorrow when we leave right?”
“Not at all.”
“Excellent. In that case, I think I’ll have that drink with you guys after all.”
You pull up a seat as Yahahautl pours out a glass of the local red wine. It tasted terrible but only you seemed to notice. Extli and Yahahautl were smiling as if they’d never tasted proper wine. Which you suppose, given their backgrounds, they hadn’t. Savages.
And you know what? The terrible palate barely seemed to matter. The lights are low, booze is flowing freely and you have the company of two people that you don’t hate at all. The three of you toast the destruction of the Sultanate together, you smile together, you laugh together.
You drain the terrible vintage dry and slam the glass down for a refill as the night grows older. No, you think. This isn’t so bad.
Friggin awesome. I love the storytelling, and seeing some of Nash's wickedness in play is a great contrast to how he is now.
The only complain I have is that you don't go over the actual introduction to Malfeas. Each new infernal gets a tremendous parade in their honor, and the Althing Infernal meets up to greet the new guy and make friends/manipulate him.
Would've been cool, although if Nash is one of the first infernals then I can see the Althing not existing yet.
I can't wait to see Shikieki's reaction to the Yozi. Honestly, I was half-expecting the Ebon Dragon to look at the watchers through the mirror, because it's a Yozi they're spying on, even through time and memory.
>>167235 Speaking of, just how old is Nash? Not sure if this was covered in another topic and I missed it, but I'm curious. Given unlike most exalts the infernals get a much shorter lifespan before they just keel over from age.
>>167261 That's correct, I have NOT read old english tales telling of human men who committed human sins and went into hermitage to atone for them.
But that doesn't matter because Nash isn't a normal human and hasn't done human evil. He's an exalt, has committed heinous atrocities beyond belief and reveled in them, and done so in the service of a being that would make Satan step back for the foulness.
Redemption needs to fit the crime. If your crime is a murder of passion, then maybe hermitage equaling imprisonment would be reasonable. If your crime is the agonizing death of an entire city and the gruesome torture of the survivors, you're gonna need to do a bit more than hide out in the mountains for a bit.
>>167287 I guess it's kind of like the Hippocratic Oath that doctors used to take (and many still do, although it's more of a tradition than a serious oath).
You know, "if I can't heal, I shall at least do no harm" and all that.
So the first step is to simply stop doing evil. And if that means hiding in a cave until people forget you so you can start doing good without a lynchmob appearing every time, then so be it.
I mean, this one Solar actively hunted him down, even though he was trying to hide. Imagine if Nash had been walking around in the open, instead.
>>167477 I felt that went kinda quick myself. IMO an infernal wouldn't really start to wonder things until he's got a decade or two under his belt, and/or fucked up and got Limit'd or thrashed by a Yozi.
I wonder if they'll consider Nash a monster too horrible to let live, or see the potential he has for redemption as a force for good.
Although he'd have to really re-work his charmset to do much good.
>>167477 There's a difference between idly badmouthing someone among friends and saying "hey, you guys. Yeah, you who are made of pure hatred and have lots of minions with superpowers who also hate everything, and also demons, and insane cultists everywhere and... You get the idea.
Yeah, you. FUCK YOU! I'M LEAVING!" and giving Cecelyne the finger on the way out.