Sunday, 18 February 2018

Exalted - Prison Break

We'd come to Nexus after promising the Empress that we'd avoid its ruler, the mysterious, ambiguous Emissary, yet now we were waking up in the White Tower, in rooms adjacent to his observatory. In the morning, we had a hurried, subdued breakfast, then he put his hands our shoulders and ...

We were transported to the middle of a forest, about a half hour walk from the camp were our mother and the younger two of our elder siblings were held. The Emissary talked some more as we walked, particularly about the golden room we'd seen in the flashback? vision? the day before. He told us it was a place called "the Deliberative" and finding it was vital. The intensity in his tone impressed the importance of his words on me.

We fell quiet as we reached the camp. It was better defended than we'd expected; I was glad Kito and the Abbess had talked me out of coming here when we were children. We'd have died. We hung back a bit and watched, trying to figure out which of the makeshift buildings held our family. Armed guards patrolled the palisade wall, 9 carrying large artifact weapons. 

The Emissary pushed us back into the trees, then his shadow detached itself from him and flittered into the town. The Emissary took a bowl of water and spoke over it, a language that sounded like an older version of Old Realm. The water shimmered and cleared to show the world through the eyes of the shadow. The palisade wall was much thicker than it had appeared from a distance, and likewise the buildings were sturdy and well built, just cleverly disguised. There were far more guards inside, but no more carrying artifact weapons or otherwise looking like Dynasts. There seemed to be about 40 slaves - I recognised a neighbour from Derren's Ford. Kito nudged me when he spotted our brother Han in a building, then Mum and Yee being led from another. The guard leading them was one armed with a pair of daiklaves, like Kito's - Daddy's - but a different style. The Emissary was similarly scrutinising the view, and sighed, telling us this looked to him like a Realm prison camp, the kind of place they kept their most dangerous prisoners. This complicated things, but the bruises on Mum, Han and Yee showed they'd been beaten and we couldn't leave them, even if it risked freeing real criminals. The Emissary nodded and told us to stay out of the way if combat broke out.

Kito hung back a bit as we approached the pallisade. I climbed over as quietly as I could, masking my frustration as Kito simply jumped over and landed quietly ahead of me with a grin. Ever since we'd stumbled into that Wyld patch, he'd been faster and could jump further. Aggravating as it could be, I'd developed near-perfect night vision at the same time, and that had its own uses. 

We crept forward round a corner to see Mum and Yee being led into a building. Han was nearby too, about 20 yards from us. Of more concern was the guard, standing there, staring right at us. He shouted a warning, and the Emissary summoned a load of writhing streams of magma, tentacles that lashed at the guards, decimating them but leaving no marks at all on ground or buildings they touched.

There was a blink, and the Emissary appeared next to a guard, crushing his throat. A Dynast, a Dragon-blood, and his fingers went right through the gorget, through the flesh. I was shocked and excited - I better understood why the Realm feared Anathema so (it's one thing to hear how dangerous something is, but to see it is something else), and if the Emissary was right and my fate was to become Anathema also, well, it was reassuring to see how powerful I could become.

Yellow light flashed from the building holding Mum and Yee and a group of guards ran at the Emissary together, maybe hoping to overwhelm him. He barely moved, yet was never in the way of a blow - each swing or punch from a guard landing instead on another guard, until one did manage to nick the side of the Emissary's robes. The Emissary turned to him and punched so hard a shockwave shattered the back of the guard's jade armour. The guard flew through the air, through other guards running in to the fray, through buildings, the palisade, into the forest. It was enough to remind Kito and I why we were there, and we jumped to action. Kito ran to Han, and I ran to the building Mum and Yee were led to. The magma tentacles cleared me a path across the battlefield, flipping guards up and dropping them in my wake. An arrow flew towards me, but as I saw it, a guard was yanked over to take the hit. I'll admit to a smirk: these people had, if not themselves destroyed the home of my childhood, at least held my family here, and I was enjoying seeing revenge on them.

I looked back to see the last guard, looking to be a Dynast of House Mnemen, split herself into a 1,000 mirror images, all of which surrounded the Emissary. He worked with the tentacles to box the images into corner while casting - I'd never seen anything like it, and again paused to watch as the Emissary snapped his fingers and balls of silver light burnt from the stomachs of the images, burning them up in a column of light that reached the sky. I stared, and could see Kito the other side of the fight doing the same.

And then the Emissary took off his mask, the one he'd told us he couldn't, or the people hunting him would know he was alive. It was like he was standing between me and the brightest light; Kito, stood opposite, later told me the same. We couldn't make out what he said to the Dynast who'd created those images, but his voice had changed, no longer distorted by the mask. His posture was straighter, too; he stood with a new freedom. He looked young, sorrowful and serene, yet cold and distant - and impossibly beautiful. His opponent seemed to adopt many stances all at once. Her hands grew claws; her skin hardened with a golden sheen; she flickered. I knew it wouldn't be enough. 

I dived into the building where Mum and Yee were delighted to see me. They huddled in a corner with three others, who were less prepared to take my word it would be safe to leave. I was tempted to leave them behind, but I knew Kito wouldn't be happy if I did, so I cajoled and begged, until one spoke in the Emissary's maskless voice, warning me Kito was heading the wrong way. I ducked back out of the hut and, spotting my twin, threw a stone at his back to get his attention. 

As I looked, the last warrior seemed to be getting the better of the Emissary, but I suspected he was holding something back, waiting for us to get clear. Kito ran past them to join us with a group he'd rescued; by the time he reached me, Mum, Yee and those with them were out of the hut and we raced for the palisade wall together. There was no way we could climb with so many in poor condition, so Kito stopped to prepare a Blazing Raptor. It gave me a chance to greet my other brother; Han seemed surprised by everything going on (not least Kito's demonstration of sorcery) - but he recognised us and that was what mattered to me.

I looked back at the Emissary as he started to glow even brighter. He was surrounded by an image of himself, even larger; the constellations, sun and moon moved through the image and he blazed. A rift in space opened around him, making me think of an eye, with the Emissary a pupil. He vanished as it closed, only to reappear a long second later with four arms and so beautiful I can barely bare to watch. The other was now clearly outmatched, and knew it. 

Kito's raptor exploded through the palisade, and I looked away long enough to hurry everyone through. When I looked back, the fight was too weird for me to follow - the things that were happening made so little sense I couldn't take them in. I heard the Emissary ask for her surrender. I heard her shout "Never!", then feint and, as the Emissary responded to it, her body crumbled and another, phantasmic copy of herself leapt through a gate in reality.

The Emissary's 4-armed form shattered and he was just a man again (the most beautiful man I'd ever seen, but just a man). He scooped his mask from where it fell to the ground, destroyed the camp with a click of his fingers, and walked to us, holding the mask. Those with us were transfixed.

"It's unfortunate the Vizier escaped," he said as he reached us.

My mind twisted as it tried to follow his words and remember what I had just seen. It was an uncomfortable feeling; I found I couldn't remember much of the fight even before it got weird, nor more about the opponent than that I think it was female.

We talked with the people we'd rescued - mostly Dragon-bloods. Their Essence had been drained by something in the camp, preventing them mounting their own escape. Now they were free, it should start to come back. They would go to Nexus, except Han, Yee and Mum, who would come back with us to Grandfather. The freed prisoners set off, and the Emissary offered us and our family transportation. He looked to sun, and called from it a flying chariot. My eyes widened as it neared and I could see it was pulled by flaming horses. 

It was a short journey to Nexus to collect Jia and Mi-Yung, our servants. I spent the first part leaning over the front, trying to reach the horses. When Kito mentioned the Realm's defense grid, which we knew as the 'Sword of Creation', I returned to my seat. The Emissary said it was actually the 'Panopticon Cataclysmic', the Imperial Manse, and he doubted the Empress would use it. My ears pricked up: the 'Panopticon Cataclysmic' was where the Fey had said Kito and I were from. Saying that aloud led to questions, and we filled Mum in with the highlights of what had happened since we'd left Derren's Ford. 

She held us close for a moment, then told us what she remembered from the night Derren's Ford was attacked. People bearing jade weapons had attacked. After she'd hidden Kito and I in the tree, she'd become worried that our father hadn't joined us, which is when she snuck back to town to find out what was going on. She hadn't expected to be seen, but was and was taken.

She recognised a few of the people involved, some from her House (none from Cathak, she confirmed to my worried question). It was our family they were after; she was interrogated for hours as they tried to find two more, Kito and I. They killed almost everyone else. Someone from the Empire was behind it, but she hadn't been able to find out who.

As she talked, it was as if walls fell in my mind, and I remembered everything about that night. Kito's reaction showed he was going through the same, and we sobbed in our mother's arms. Once we'd recovered, we saw the Emissary giving us a strange look. He recognised the spell we'd been under, a very old spell, and asked if we knew who could have cast it. Kito and I looked at each other: it must have been Hak, that night he rescued us from the wolf. Mum didn't know anyone of House Cathak called Hak, but the Emissary repeated this was a very old spell and added it was one he had devised: he thought he might know Hak.

The chariot landed in the conservatory of the White Tower. Kito and I ran across town to collect Jia and Mi-Yung, who were less worried about our absence than you might expect, and took our revelations about our potential Anathema status in their stride. The Emissary handed Kito his mask, explaining the magic was gone. 

Then on to the Cathak Estate. Hak greeted us as we landed on the lawn; as the Emissary stepped off the chariot, Hak punched him, "Zhou Yun, you idiot!"

"Hakuren" the Emissary nodded in response. Hak looked different to my memory of him; narrower, with short, cropped black hair and purple flecks in his eyes.

Our grandfather strode out then. There was a big family hug, as he met 2 more of his grandchildren for the first time, but his attention was on Hak and the Emissary. We learnt that, despite the relationship they'd shown us, Hak had in fact been Grandfather's teacher, and the Emissary's before that. Other Dynasts of the House took Yee and Han away to settle them in, while Grandfather and Hak joined Mum, Kito and I in the Emissary's chariot to visit the Empress.

Most of the Imperial Army were there to meet us, but the Empress let us in. She was flanked by an older man, whom Hak and the Emissary greeted ahead of the Empress. As she led us to her hall, she quietly pointed out to me and Kito that we'd done the one thing she'd asked us not to. My stomach twisted with an unusual feeling of guilt. I never wanted to let the Empress down.

Her hall was empty. Hak spoke first, to the old man, "Master, it wasn't supposed to turn out quite like this."

The Empress scowled at the old man, and greeted our mother. She knew where they'd been held but hadn't been able to act - I felt her guilt, then.

The Emissary confirmed her suggestion that his act of freeing everyone was no declaration of war, that Kito and I had talked him out of war, which is for the best. The two had a brief and cryptic exchange that seems to be about their past - even the old man looked intrigued. The conversation continued over my head, but included all the adults. The Empress and Emissary insisted there wouldn't be war, but the old man disagreed.

"Your fate's caught up with you, Emissary."

"It does to us all, Kejak."

The old man, Kejak (or a name like that), haughtily declared they would have to discuss how to deal with the Emissary but he'd leave for now, and did so in a flash of yellow that echoed somewhere in my mind. Hak explained the old man was the head Vizier and that he, Hak, was something of a renegade Vizier.

The Empress explains that she knew about the prison camp because it was created by her ministers with her consent, on the understanding the prisonsers would be well treated. She'd hoped to find out why our mother had been held there, but didn't know.

The Emissary called the Empress 'Catherine' with such tenderness we left easily when they wanted to talk alone. Hak summoned an azure chariot to take us back to the Cathak Estate, where we were to stay put for the next week.    


For an index of this story, a game of Exalted told from the point of view of my character, Cathak Taji, follow this link.